Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Day 4: August 29, 1786

What Happened:
Daniel Shays was like many Revolutionary War veterans, struggling to make a living in the Western part of his state, Massachusetts. Times were tough after the euphoria of defeating the world's greatest superpower wore off. Now we need to govern this sonofabitch. A depression hit hard, credit was tight and states were instituting what common people saw as draconian taxes and debt collection policies. The image of greedy businessmen from the East Coast foreclosing on struggling farmers in the West, many of whom were veterans like Shays, was hard to swallow for many Americans. Shays and several other men started to speak out and instigate unrest in the Massachusetts interior in the great incubators of revolt, the local pubs. They eventually semi-organized a rebel ragtag army and began their revolt on August 29, 1786. One of their first actions was to shut down several courthouses (by threatening to hang the judges if they held court proceedings) to prevent further debt collection and foreclosures. The new federal government was powerless under the terms of the Articles of Confederation to respond. It was up to the governor of Massachusetts and several wealthy businessmen to organize their own private army to stand up to the perceived anarchy threatened by what was to be called Shay's Rebellion. The state militia defeated the rebels when the rebels tried to take the federal armory at Springfield. They never really recovered from the defeat, scattered, and most either returned to their farms or were arrested. Shay's Rebellion was over.

ABOVE: Daniel Shays. He was eventually captured, sentenced to death, pardoned, and retired in poverty in Conesus, New York, where he died in obscurity years later.

Why It Is Important:
As usual, some background is necessary. After our stunning victory in the Revolutionary War, there was the equally daunting task of creating a new country. The states took the first crack at writing constitutions for themselves, but eventually the Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781 and agreed upon as the new structure for our loose, very loose, union. Remember, the Revolution had been fought upon principles of natural and individual rights with a strong suspicion of any sort of central authority. The Articles reflected that, they were a loose confederation of states. Each of the thirteen states was essentially their own sovereign nation, with their own money, army and tariffs. It was chaos. There was one branch of government, Congress. And Congress basically only had power to make treaties and run a post office. There was no power to regulate commerce between states (so each state raised tariffs against the others, making fluid trade impossible) and no power to tax or raise revenue. The best they could do was ask the states for "voluntary contributions." You can guess how successful that was. Congress had no power over the states in anything, and they could not act against any citizen of individual states. It wasn't all bad, the Articles did settle the sticky question of how to handle the Western lands with the Northwest Ordinance, which probably avoided an early East vs. West civil war.

But by the mid-1780's, things had really deteriorated. There was a depression, states refused to fund the federal government, U.S. credit abroad was a joke because there was no unified economy. Each state continued to issue their own worthless money, making the economy worse. There were sometimes violent border disputes between states. Britain refused to even send an ambassador, with one British official joking that they would not know where to send him, they would have to send 13 of them. It was becoming apparent that the Articles were not sufficient as written, and a movement arose amongst many of the elites to tweek and amend the Articles. (Problem: the Articles could not be amended unless there was unanimous consent amongst the states, and these thirteen states never all agreed on anything).

It was in this environment that Shay's Rebellion erupted. Many historians believe, as do I, that Shay's Rebellion was the final push that was needed to do more than merely tweek the Articles. Shay's Rebellion shook the elites of this country to the core, there was a real fear of anarchy and mob rule. We had too much of a good thing, too much freedom, too much republicanism. It was less democracy and more mobocracy. Alexander Hamilton had already proposed a meeting in Philadelphia to revisit the Articles, but the experience of Shay's Rebellion and the spector of more unrest, and the image of an impotent federal government powerless to deal with it, pushed many of these important men going to Philadelphia to go further than merely making a few changes to the Articles. In reacting to the oppressive British government, we had gone too far in the other direction in making an exceedingly weak federal government for ourselves. Shay's Rebellion, in large part, showed us that we needed more of a balance between state and federal power. These remarkable men met in secret and agreed immediately to scrap the Articles altogether and start over. This was beyond their mandate from the states, but no matter, the Constitutional Convention was underway.

ABOVE: As if to prove that the new Constitution made up for the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 had a very different resolution than Shay's. The state militia of Pennsylvania was not needed. New president George Washington, taking his Constitutional role of commander in chief literally, personally led U.S. forces into Western Pennsylvania to put down the tax revolt. Once the rebels saw George himself riding up on his white horse Nelson, leading his troops, they gave up without firing a shot.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

RIP J.J. Cale, 1938-2013

"Laid back." If an artist's sound is described as "laid back," more often than not, they will also be compared or contrasted with JJ Cale. The Oklahoma singer/guitarist/songwriter practically invented what it means to be "laid back" in rock and roll. But that can be deceptive, because at least in Cale's case, that rarely meant being boring. His artistry was never in your face, but as Neil Young said eariler this year, the two greatest guitarists he ever heard were Jimi Hendrix and JJ Cale. Pretty high praise, but if you listen closely to Cale's work, his fretwork will indeed impress, and you can hear his influence in players like Mark Knopfler and post-Cream Clapton.

Speaking of Clapton, Cale has Eric Clapton to thank for a career. JJ Cale was born, raised and breathed Oklahoma. He is given credit for being the prime originator of the "Oklahoma Sound," a loose and, uh, laid back mix of blues, jazz, folk and rock. He moved to L.A. in the 60's (didn't everybody?) and worked primarily as a sound engineer in a studio. That engineering experience was crucial, as one of the most distinctive qualities of his most celebrated work is also the production and recording. He failed to break through as a performer and returned to Oklahoma intending to move on to a different line of work, when Eric Clapton had a hit with Cale's "After Midnight." Cale the songwriter is much more commercially successful than Cale the performer, his songs have been recorded by Clapton (several times over, "Cocaine" was also penned by Cale), Lynyrd Skynyrd, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and the Allman Brothers.

But you really should check out his work, especially from the 1970's. I think the purest representative of the Cale sound is his debut, 1972's Naturally. I'd recommend starting there, then checking out Troubador from '76. Critic Richard Cromelin really nailed it when discussing Naturally, he said Cale's music is a "unique hybrid of blues, folk and jazz, marked by relaxed grooves and Cale's fluid guitar and laconic vocals. His early use of drum machines and unconventional mixes lend a distinctive and timeless quality to his work and set him apart from the pack of Americana roots-music purists." As Cale said himself, "I think it goes back to me being a recording mixer and engineer...I came up with a unique sound." He was never bothered by the fact that most casual music listeners have never heard of him, saying "What's really nice is when you get a check in the mail. (Fame) elevates your ego to the point where you start believing your own sh*t."

RIP JJ Cale.

ABOVE: Cale and band performing "After Midnight" sometime in the early 70's. As entertaining as the music are two things: notice how Cale keeps his cigarette going throughout the song, and then the band's fashion sense, especially the two keyboard players.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Dez Record Guides: peter gabriel

Peter Gabriel has long been a favorite of mine, from his prog work with Genesis to his varied and often thrilling solo career. His recent work has been a huge disappointment when compared to what came before, but that seems to be the case with almost every great artist. They can only be great and groundbreaking for so long. But his decline has been particularly steep. That still does not take away from what he accomplished from 1977 to '92, though. Quite a run. He definitely doesn't have an American Idol voice, but it is one of my favorite singing voices in the textures and range of character (quite literally in his Genesis days) it conveys. His innovation in production and use of world music is also quite impressive. This Guide only addresses his solo work, not Genesis.

ABOVE: The album cover for Gabriel's debut, Peter Gabriel. His first three records are all titled Peter Gabriel (and the fourth is as well internationally, but it is called Security in the U.S.) He wanted all of his records to be called Peter Gabriel, they could be viewed like "issues of the same magazine." He figured they could be differentiated by their cover art. The record company pushed back, and eventually he capitulated. But, he kept it as minimal as possible moving forward...So, Us, Up, etc.

Peter Gabriel (aka 'car,' I) (1977) *****
Gabriel's solo debut sounds like a man released from creative restraints. Not that he wasn't able to express himself in Genesis, but Genesis was a true democracy of a band, and now Peter is able to call all of the shots. And he makes the most of the newfound freedom and authority. Opening with a look back at his prog sound ("Moribund the Burgermeister") he then dives into the future, with what may be his signature song, ode to madness/declaration of independence from Genesis "Solsbury Hill." Some have criticized this record for jumping around to different styles, but Gabriel's genre-jumping creative joy and freedom shines through and unifies it all.

Peter Gabriel (aka 'scratch,' II) (1978) ***
Gabriel working with Robert Fripp sounds like a no brainer, but Peter's sophomore effort is lacking for some reason. The opening salvo of "On the Air," "DIY" and the gorgeous, fragile "Mother of Violence" is incredibly strong, but then the record flounders a bit. Some good stuff here, but lacks the punch of the debut and the masterpiece to come.

Peter Gabriel (aka 'melt,' III) (1980) *****
Overall, this is Gabriel's crowning achievement as a solo artist. While ANCIANT and I can debate about the origin of the gated drum sound, there is no question that Peter's third solo record has been far reaching in its impact. Listening today, it still impresses with both innovation and quality of songs, that most elusive combination that can make truly great records. Innovations in production, recording and instrumentation are combined with great songs and a daring spirit, including Gabriel's first real forays into his use of world music elements in Western pop music. So is his perfect pop/rock record, but this is his perfect record as a real artist.

Security (1982) ***
I go back and forth between really liking and being left a bit cold by Gabriel's atmospheric 4th album. It includes his first big radio and MTV hit, "Shock the Monkey," but the rest is decidedly un-radio friendly.

Plays Live (live) (1983) ****
‘Birdy’(motion picture soundtrack) (1985) ***

Plays Live is a near perfect (where's "Games Without Frontiers," though?) live summary of Gabriel's pre-So music. Birdy is his first tentative soundtrack attempt, and it is a nice, moody record in its own right, although he does not venture too far from what he had already done, even using some themes from previous songs as instrumentals.

So (1986) *****
Live in Athens (live) (1987/2012) ****

Peter's commercial breakthrough, where he brings his pop sensibilities more in balance with his artistic ambitions. One of the great pop records of the 80's for smart people, it was also helped by other mediums. The groundbreaking videos on MTV drew many new fans in, and the iconic use of "In Your Eyes" in 'Say Anything' certainly helped as well. The live set from the So tour was released recently with the deluxe reissue of So, and it is a fantastic show from the era.

Passion ('Last Temptation of Christ' motion picture soundtrack) (1989) *****
I have long been a booster for this record, I think it is the finest melding of African and Middle Eastern traditional music with Western melodies and technology. Whereas other important records that use world music (Paul Simon's Graceland) are rooted more in the West but use world influence and textures, this is great because it is really rooted in Africa but with some Western influence and textures. It is mostly instrumental, but I find it captivating throughout.

Shaking the Tree – 16 Golden Greats (compilation) (1990) ***
Gabriel's first hits collection is a bit odd, and cannot be taken too seriously since it omits "In Your Eyes."

Us (1992) ****
Secret World Live (live) (1994) ***

Gabriel took awhile for a real proper mainstream follow-up to So (a pattern that he continues, as you will see), but at least this time, it was worth the wait. Us lacks the sense of discovery of So and also does not include a mercenary hit single like "Sledgehammer" or even "Big Time," but otherwise it picks up where So left off, and also offers a more personal set of songs. It is a nice combination of So's pop sensibilities but with some of Security's atmospherics.

OVO (soundtrack) (2000) *
Long Walk Home ('Rabbit Proof Fence' motion picture soundtrack) (2002) ***
Up (2002) **
Hit (compilation) (2003) ****

Things really do go off the rails, musically speaking, post-Us. Gabriel's music always was in danger of being too ponderous, but he used to be able to temper that with some wit and fun and a saving pop hook here or there. Those saving graces seem to have left him after the early 90's. After almost a decade of distracting multimedia projects, Gabriel finally returned to music, sort of, with OVO, a soundtrack to the Millennium Dome Show in London. It is a dull mess, featuring so many guests that Gabriel's presence is hard to even discern. Funny, his most compelling music since '92 has been his moody soundtrack to 'Rabbit Proof Fence.' Up was his proper follow-up to Us, and you can hear all ten years in the making. Every moment is so densely recorded and worked over that all life is squeezed out of these tracks. Hit is the best compilation available, but I don't like the random sequencing over two discs.

Scratch My Back (2010) **
New Blood (2011) ***
Live Blood (live) (2012) *

Eight years later he returns with a record of...covers. The concept is cool, he works with an orchestra with no electric instruments. Also, he wanted to release two records simultaneously, one of his covering others (Scratch My Back), and then a second record of the artists that he covers each covering one his songs (to be called, you guessed it, I'll Scratch Yours). ISY has yet to be released, though, because many of the artists have yet to deliver their end of the bargain (although some did, like Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Bon Iver) or flat out said they were not interested (Bowie, Neil Young, Arcade Fire). Radiohead supposedly was so disenchanted with his handling of their "Street Spirit" that they backed out after hearing it. These songs are all very subdued, some to the point of being comatose (although Gabriel's glacial take on Bowie's "Heroes" is fantastic, I think). He enjoyed the subsequent tour so much that he inevitably decided to give the same treatment to his own back catalogue on New Blood. Perhaps with his own songs he felt freer to take more risks, as some of these renditions are quite good and interesting. Then a pointless live record from the tour with note for note copies of what already appeared on Scratch My Back and New Blood.

Bottom Line: Peter Gabriel 1, Peter Gabriel III and So are the essentials. Hit is a workable compilation. Passion is one of my favorite pieces of music, but be warned it is not really a rock or pop record.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Day 3: February 10, 1763

What Happened:

When I teach this period of American history, I always tell my students that the American Revolutionary period started in the key year of 1763. Not 1776, not the Boston Massacre in 1770 or Tea Party of 1773, not Lexington and Concord. It was the end of an earlier war that accelerated us down our path towards our own war for independence. Between 1688 and 1763, there were four "world" wars between Britain, France and Spain that dealt, in part, with jockeying for Empire around the world. While Britain had control over what we refer to as The Thirteen Colonies along the East Coast, France and Spain technically controlled the majority of territory in North America. With Spain, by the mid-1700s it was mostly in name only, but France had a real foothold in Canada and the interior of what would become the United States. The worldwide British vs. French struggle often spilled over into the New World as well, mainly through guerilla skirmishes between the British colonists and French fur trappers and their Indian allies.

The Seven Years War (it was longer than seven years, and in the colonies it was called the French and Indian War because that is who we were fighting here) was the latest of these "world" (the world consisting of the important countries at this point) wars.

ABOVE: This guy is George Washington. In the New World, British colonists were forever pushing West and expanding into French territory. Pesky Virginians pushed into an area where the French Fort Duquesne was located. George Washington was a young Virginia militia commander who decided to attack the fort. He caught the French off guard and took it. This was the first military action of the French and Indian War and started the real hostilities. As was often the case with Washington, he then promptly got his butt handed to him. The French regrouped, took the fort back, and inexplicably allowed Washington to withdraw instead of killing him.

We focus on what we call the French and Indian War, but it was part of a much larger global war (the largest in history up to that point) being fought in America, Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. It involved Britain and Prussia vs. France, Spain, Austria and Russia. The French were spread too thin, and concentrating more on the European theater, so they did not adequately defend North America. The British Army, along with colonial militias, defeated the French in North America and the Treaty of Paris was signed on 2/10/1763. French aspirations in North America are really over at this point, and Britain is the dominant power in North America and the most powerful navy in the world. Everything is hunky dory for the Brits now, right? Well, no. This is a case of winning the war, but losing the long term struggle for North American empire. Things will now be different between the British colonists here and their cousins back "home."

Why it matters to us:

There are many roots to the Revolution, so some background is necessary. It is important to remember that even far along into our Revolutionary War, there was no "us and them." The colonists still saw themselves as British, it was a family struggle for rights until Thomas Paine and other radicals argue that maybe we should fight for more. Britain established these overseas colonies in large part to practice Mercantilism, where wealth = power. At that time, wealth was often measured by the gold and silver in the treasury, so you need to export more than you import. Colonies are key, because they provide raw materials. You can then manufacture goods and sell them, in large part, back to your colonies as a captive market. The colonies exist primarily to make the Mother Country rich. Sure, the colonies benefited from protection and being part of a thriving Empire and market, but the colonies were clearly second class. The mercantile system prior to 1763 was acceptable to the colonists in part because it was not really enforced. Through "salutary neglect," the British government allowed the colonists to do their own thing, didn't really collect many of the taxes supposedly owed, and tolerated a thriving black market where the colonists regularly traded with the French and Spanish "outside" the Empire. Plus, the great distance across the Atlantic made many rules and regulations virtually impossible to enforce effectively anyhow.

It was revolutionary in the first place to even come over here and settle. In Europe, things were accepted as they were. Here, everything was possible and new. So new ideas that might have been seen as radical and fringe in Europe were more easily accepted here, because the people here were more radical and fringe to begin with. There was no aristocratic class here, there was already widespread political involvement on local levels. Republicanism was becoming a popular political ideology. With its roots in Greece and Rome, Republicanism depends on the virtue of the citizens to put the good of society above selfish interests. It is anti-authoritarian, because it depends on citizen involvement in public life. Also back home in England, the Whigs were fighting to check the power of the King and his ministers, and would be a sympathetic power base for colonial complaints throughout the Revolution.

The French and Indian War gave the colonists confidence and crucial military experience. They fought side by side with the British Army, learned their tactics, and crucially learned that the British military was not invincible after all (Braddock's blunders, etc.) Fighting alongside each other, the British and their colonists had clashed. The British commanders showed open contempt for the colonial militia leaders (like Washington). In fact, the British leadership showed open contempt for their colonial cousins generally, as these were people who had "failed" back home and had to come here to start over and make something of themselves. The colonists, of course, saw themselves differently. They saw themselves as entrepreneurs and business leaders willing to take bolder risks. While the colonists wanted accolades for helping to defeat the French, the British authorities started to get pissed off about the thriving Black Market (trading with the enemy). Many colonists refused to fight unless bribed. The French threat was gone, and so the colonists had even less incentive to cling so tightly to Mother Britain for protection. The French, resenting the loss of a big chunk of Empire, stoked colonial resentments against the Mother Country as well.

After The French and Indian War (and the subsequent Indian war, Pontiac's War), the British were convinced that more troops were needed in the colonies to keep order and to stabilize Indian relations. The colonists, on the other hand, felt that fewer troops were needed now that the French were no longer a threat. The British government also, reasonably, felt that since the British military did and continued to protect the colonists, that maybe the colonists should help to foot the bill through taxes. The British had won the war, but were now hemorrhaging with debt. This had been acquired in part to protect the colonies, so the colonists should help to pay it off. (To be fair, even into the Revolution, people back home always paid more in taxes than the colonists did). Also, to avoid further clashes with Indians, the British government issued the Proclamation of 1763, establishing the Appalachian mountains as a natural border between colonial and Indian country. Colonists were not to settle West of the Appalachians. The colonists promptly ignored the Proclamation and continued to flood West. Why the hell did we just defeat the French in the interior if we couldn't take the territory? Did we fight a war just to give the land to Indians?

ABOVE: The Proclamation line of 1763. The colonists were not to settle West of this line. It was an attempt by the British to keep peace between their colonists and the inconvenient Indian tribes who lived in North America. The colonists treated the Proclamation as they treated most laws imposed from across the Atlantic, they ignored it and continued to settle and clash with the Indian tribes in the interior.

I picked this date because the end of the French and Indian War is where the colonial relationship with Mother Britain fundamentally changes, and things quickly unravel and escalate from that point forward, culminating in our war for independence. This is when the Mother Country decided to instill some discipline and obedience in their unruly teenager. But this teenager has grown up used to being able to do as it wishes, and is going to rebel against the sudden imposition of rules and constraints. I believe our Revolutionary period starts here. In order to clamp down, pay debt, protect interests and actually collect taxes owed (want to know where the deep American resentment against taxation comes from?), The King and Parliament impose a series of new laws, The Sugar Act of 1764, Quartering Act of 1765 and Stamp Act of the same year. Colonists push back, Britain clamps down even harder. Colonists start to question why these taxes are needed and why British troops are necessary at all in the New World. This feeling of "we can take care of ourselves" grows. Radicals start to popularize ideas such as "no taxation without representation," why should we pay these taxes when we do not have the same representation in Parliament as do the citizens of London? (British authorities respond with the dubious theory of "virtual representation").

It escalates and escalates, haughty British troops and colonial mob violence result in the Boston "Massacre." Tea Parties are organized in revolt against monopolies granted to the British East India Company, and the British respond to the destruction of property with the Intolerable Acts and closing of Boston Harbor, resulting in colonial unity in solidarity with that radical wasp nest of Boston (if it can happen to Boston, then it can happen to the rest of us too). Colonists from different colonies start to meet and discuss common ground and common complaints and make some reasonable requests of an angry and resentful King, George III, who ignores them. Local militias form in response to actions by British troops...then Lexington and Concord. It all unravels as a result of the state of the colonial world at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, when Mother Britain was forced to finally pay attention to their unruly colonial teenager. And that teenager had gotten quite used to doing things his own way.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Texas Safari

Yesterday I took my family into the wilds of the Texas hill country. Near New Braunfels is Natural Bridge Caverns and its accompanying Wildlife Park. They try and set it up like a safari, where you stay in your car and drive around and view various animals in their habitat. I guess a little more humane than a zoo, since they are free roaming and have a lot more space. They have giraffes, and giraffes are my daughter's favorite animal (although her favorite ocean animal, she is quick to point out, are whales). Since our local zoo currently has no giraffe (the one they had died a year ago, and they still have not replaced it), I thought we could go out to the Wildife Park to see some giraffes. This place turned out to be much more than I thought it would be. My wife, oldest daughter, infant daughter, my niece and I packed into the car to go on safari. All pictures are ones I took from our car.

You can buy food to feed the creatures from your car window. The only rule, really, is don't get out of the car.

The giraffes are kept at the entrance, and the look of absolute wonder and excitement on my daughter's face at seeing a giraffe up close and in person was worth the drive and cost of admission. The rest would be gravy. But it turned out to be a hell of a lot of gravy.

These animals are obviously used to being fed from car windows, as they are not afraid at all. I got some pretty remarkable photos...

ABOVE: Here I am posing with a rather creepy looking ram-like creature. He was cool, though. I gave him some snacks for posing.

ABOVE: This emu had no fear. As you can see, his head is in my car. I was feeding it, and it grabbed the food and then a few fingers. Fortunately, there are no sharp things in its beak. They have long necks, so he reached quite far into the car looking for more food. My wife was screaming as if we were in a slasher film, although my daughter and my niece were thrilled beyond belief.

ABOVE: You can see my hand outstretched offering this large horned something-or-other some food. He was actually quite relaxed and calm. I guess when you look like that, you don't have to put on a show to gain respect. He ate out of my hand. Cue more wife hysterics and accusations that I am putting my infant daughter's life in danger.

ABOVE: When we got to the area for the zebras, there was a sign that stated that zebras are aggressive and can bite. As you can see, this guy means business. He walked up and stared at me for a long time. I admit, here I was a bit nervous and I did roll up the window. My daughter wanted to get out and pet them, so my niece's job was to keep her in the car and make sure she did not touch anything that was alive.

ABOVE: The ostriches were probably the most aggressive of all. I love that top picture of the gang of ostriches charging us. They are the largest bird in the world, and are several feet taller than our car. For some reason it reminds me of some Mad Max postapocalyptic wasteland where the humans have lost dominance over the planet. We also had the windows rolled up for the ostriches. The one you see in close-up started to peck at the car. My daughter also loved the ostriches. My wife asked me to drive faster.

This place was awesome. As a former lawyer, I cannot imagine the liability, but that's Texas for you. And so what, that is what makes life fun. I cannot recommend the place enough. Go if you are ever in the area, here is their website: Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch.

Friday, July 12, 2013


I recently turned 40. Since that is generally considered the approximate halfway point until oblivion, I guess it is a big deal. People treat it that way, anyway. At least it is a time to reflect both on what has transpired and on what may come.

First of all, I am so glad that my teen years were the 80's and early 90's. I know that people who experienced the 60's feel privileged, but I feel that way about the 80's. Great music, wonderful excess, Reagan optimism, Atari 2600. My students get jealous. The 80's have a certain cool factor these days, again, akin to when I was growing up in the 80's and everyone loved the 60's. So many of my students tell me that they wished they could have grown up in that decade, perhaps I've got an extra spring in my step when I cover it in class, I don't know. I'm surprised at how much my students know about the 80's. I've got a fun activity I do one day in class where, after they have read the chapter but before I cover it, I give each student ten blank notecards. I tell them they have to capture the "essence" of the 80's by making ten flashcards. They can include politics, pop culture, economics, world events, technology...just capture the decade picking ten things to discuss. As they are making them, I play my 80's mix on the ipod, just to get them in the mood. These kids love Tears For Fears, 80's Michael Jackson, The Cars. All of it. (For me, Tears For Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule the World" captures the decade more than any other song...it should be the 1980's anthem). Year after year it is a favorite activity, and I am always so impressed with their knowledge of a decade that passed before they were born. I get a lot of John Hughes movies, video games, Reaganomics, SDI, when MTV was cool, etc. When I want to go to my happy place, I think about summers in the mid-80's.

I have been blessed with wonderful family, both the one I was born into and the one that I have made for myself. To start with the former. Being someone a bit obsessed with the past (it is my profession, afterall), I regret not having the chance to speak with my grandparents and ask them about their experiences. I never really knew my Dad's parents, they died when I was small. I do remember my Mom's parents, especially her father. Wonderful memories, but I was too young (elementary and middle school) when they died to have really gotten to know them on adult terms. It's a shame. Something that I would highly recommend doing is preserving the memories of your loved ones. A few years back, I conducted, recorded and transcribed detailed interviews with my father, mother and uncle. Fantastic, and 30 years from now I am sure my kids will love reading them if they are anything like I am about the past.

My three brothers (one is deceased) and sister have been my favorite people. They are all about ten years older than me (they're all half, both of my parents were married before), so growing up they were really the people I looked up to the most. My brothers, well two of the three anyway, were models that I used to try to emulate, impress and just be around as much as I could. (I also have fond memories of my other brother too, as many troubles as he had, I remember him playing with me a lot and taking me places. He had serious problems, but underneath it all, he was great and I had a lot of fun with him). But honestly, my closest relationship through most of my life has always been my sister. She was a big part of my growing up (she had a lot of time to spend with me, because she was always getting in trouble and was always grounded). She is still the person I can talk the most openly with, I think. One of my biggest consistent regrets is that I see them once or twice a year instead of once or twice a week. (I get annoyed sometimes with how my wife talks to her mother and brother 500 times a day on the phone, but part of that too, I suspect, is jealousy. I am close with my siblings and parents, but we don't talk nearly as much nowadays as I would like, and in my more reasonable moments, I see that is a special thing that my wife can communicate daily with her mom and brother). I have also been blessed with wonderful parents. Being one now, I know how tough it is sometimes, and I've only just begun. They made mistakes, as I have and will continue to do, but not many. What impressed me the most was that even though they had their own stresses in life and possibly rough patches in the marriage, they never let that bleed over into my experience growing up with them. That is a skill I am more and more impressed with as time goes on.

Marriage is tough sometimes. I think that many of my natural tendencies lend themselves more to bachelorhood, sometimes. I can be a solitary creature at times. But there is no person on the planet I would rather go through life with than my wife. She is beautiful and still amazes me consistently. But I've got to say, and she would agree because we have talked about it, my true love in life is my daughter, DDI. I feel like I have failed at certain things in life (like a law career), but I know I am an excellent father and I work hard at that every day of my life. That sounds so cliche, I know, but she is the world to me (and she knows it and like most kids do, takes advantage of that when she can). I am excited about my new daughter, DDII, and I anticipate developing a unique and special relationship with her as well. Right now she is just a really cute thing that makes sounds and sleeps, but I can't wait to see her develop her personality and to be a part of that.

They say you can't pick your family, but you do pick your friends. Friends are a second family that we create for ourselves. One of my best friends, a wise Greek, who often regales me with life truths because that is what those Mediterranean types do, once told me that as time goes by and you get older, you only take a handful of friends along with you into old age. And those are the ones who are your true friends. You pick up friends through each stage of life (youth, high school, college, grad school, working life). You develop bonds and meet great people at each stage, but the Greek, as usual, is right. Look at who you still talk to, say, a decade removed from that time. Those are the ones that matter. Then two decades removed. Those are the ones that really matter. Two of my closest friends are coming in from out of town to celebrate my recent birthday with me, I cannot wait to see them and I can say that I have chosen wisely the ones I want to take with me to the end.

We've all got our interests. When I said that some of my tendencies might be more suited to bachelorhood, it is probably because I get more obsessive than most about my interests. Sh*t, look at these ridiculous Record Guides that I write for a blog that three people read. I mean, who does that? I do. It is a source of exasperation for my long suffering wife that I can sit down for hours on end and analyze the works of Men At Work and be completely content. Music, movies and history...obsessions I have always had. It is just something I've always done, I can remember days of my youth where I would be perfectly content to lie down in front of the speaker of the stereo and listen to record after record after record. By myself for hours and it was heaven. I remember when going to rock concerts was a life event. Nowadays it is not as big of a deal, but I'd be lying if I said that I didn't miss that feeling sometimes, that going to see Springsteen was the most significant thing in the world. I can still watch "Jaws" for the 1,039th time and get a thrill. And I am a collector. If there is a band that I get into, it becomes imperative that I track down every record they made. I can become very agitated and stressed if I do not own the complete works of whomever. As frustrated as she gets, I will be forever grateful to my wife for her patience and indulgence. I know that it/I can often verge on the ridiculous.

Finally, a word or two for those who have passed. Longtime readers here know that I enjoy writing obituaries. It is not really a morbid thing, I just find it fascinating to try and capture a life in a few paragraphs. It's funny, my father, who reads GNABB regularly but only occasionally comments, recently told me that he wants me to compose his obituary when the time comes. It'll be an honor, but I found that funny, because he especially enjoys my obits here for some reason. Hopefully I won't have to write that one for awhile yet. I view it as a way to honor the person, honor the accomplishments and to say how they have enriched my life. Be it an artist or famous person whom I never knew personally yet still had a connection with through their work, or someone whom I did know on a personal level. Even pets. So goodbye once a again to Cliff, Maurice, Bunny, Toby, and the many others, both personal and artistic, who have enriched my 40 years.

Thanks for reading and letting me remember the last 40 years. In a recent post on his blog, ANCIANT made a comment about blogs being self indulgent and tools for forcing your silly opinions on others (I'm paraphrasing, as usual he writes it better, as that is his profession). I agree with him, I often feel somewhat ridiculous that I think my opinion matters so much that I can write six years and counting worth of posts and anyone would care. And perhaps this post is the ultimate self-indulgence. But I have loved having this forum over the last six years. Honestly, other than allowing me to write about sh*t that I find interesting, which is a true joy, the main blessing of this blog has been allowing me to keep in touch with friends. I appreciate everyone who still comes around, either regularly or occasionally. ANCIANT and JMW (who talked me into starting GNABB, I wonder if he regrets?) especially have been regular and loyal readers and commenters. I do love the comments, my hope with every post is to start a conversation. I am like a little kid, I check back all the time to see if someone has commented or tried to continue the conversation, either agreeing or disagreeing with me. It's like a child who doesn't get what he wanted for Christmas when I check and it says "no comments." What the f*ck! This is important stuff!! All of it!!! That is what I really see this place as, a place for conversation, debate and exchange of ideas. So I am puzzled when a Grateful Dead record guide is met by the sound of crickets. (I'm joking. I am self-aware. I know my record guides are absurd, but I can't help myself). But I do value and love the comments and conversations we have here occasionally. It is one of the main reasons I keep doing it, I can have regular conversations with dear friends on the East and West Coast, as well as everyone else who drops in here and there. Plus the self indulgence. There is always that.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Dez Record Guides: The Grateful Dead

Much like the Van Morrison Guide, I think that this Dead Guide may actually be useful to some of you, but for different reasons. In the Van Morrison case, it was more due to going through a mountain of material. With the Dead, though, I think it is more of an issue of misconceptions. I know some readers here, for a fact, would really enjoy some of the Dead's material but haven't really given it a shot. The image many people have of The Dead is due to their loyal army of Deadheads. Dope smoking hippies swaying to 45 minute versions of "Dark Star." And while that description can be accurate in a sense, there is so, so much more. I've been on a serious Dead kick for the past several weeks, so I've been itching to write a Guide for them. First, some caveats: I am not a Deadhead. I do not own a wall of Dead bootlegs. There are certain Dead fans out there who have disdain for much of the studio and commercially successful music, and swear by the bootlegs. I shouldn't even call them bootlegs, because The Dead were one of the first bands to encourage the recording and trading tapes of their shows. They even set up a section in the audience for the tapers for optimal sound quality.

The thing with the Dead is that while some of them were great musicians (Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh), they all played and improvised together with a telepathy that was otherworldly. I guess that is why hardcore fans can listen to 10 versions of "The Other One" and savor the differences between this 18 minute version vs. that 30 minute version. Jerry Garcia does not get the credit he deserves as one of the great guitarists. It was Garcia who was both the spiritual, in a sense, and musical leader of this circus. But his guitar playing was so fluid and adventurous and deeply rooted in American music traditions. Also, his brief fascination with the pedal steel in the early 70's resulted in some spectacular music as well. Their work from '68 through about '72 was really groundbreaking in a certain sense, yet also quite traditional in another. They were one of the finest practitioners of American roots music, with the two records from 1970 being the high point.

Finally, the common wisdom on The Dead was that they never captured the magic in the studio that was present in their live shows. Certainly it was a different magic, but I'd argue, at least from '68 through about '72, they released some fine, some excellent, records. And they had some great isolated moments on record after that.

NOTE: As I stated above, I'm no Deadhead. So this guide addresses studio and mainstream live releases. I will briefly address the Dick's Picks series, though.

The Grateful Dead (1967) ***
Those music listeners who bought the debut and then showed up to a show expecting something similar were in store for either a rude awakening or a mindblowing experience, depending on their preferences (and pharmaceutical state). The Dead were clearly not comfortable in the studio at this stage, playing concise, tentative versions of songs that they would expand to unfamiliarity onstage. Yet these qualities were also its modest charms.

Anthem of the Sun (part live) (1968) ****
A unique studio/live experiment that really works. All parties were disappointed that the debut failed to capture the true nature of the band, but the sophomore effort definitely did, at least at this stage. They recorded several versions of each song both in the studio and live, sometimes drastically different versions in different keys and tempos, and then freely spliced them together, constructing a sonic mosaic from these disparate pieces. It is experimental art, one of the greatest psychedelic records ever made and while a challenging listen, well worth the effort.

Aoxomoxoa (1969) ***
Docked a star for "What's Become of the Baby" alone, which is one of my least favorite songs by any band that I really like. And being over eight minutes in length, it dominates the second half of this record. That is unfortunate, because much of the rest of this is really great, with Dead standards like "St. Stephen," "China Cat Sunflower," "Cosmic Charlie" and the acoustic/psychedelic gem "Rosemary."

Live/Dead (live) (1969) ****
I'm not a huge fan of this first of many live records, but I must agree that it best captures what The Dead were all about in this crucial early period, opening with a 23-minute signature version of "Dark Star." This is trippy long jams and psychedelic Americana. There are other Dead live records that I prefer, but none are as important as this one.

Workingman’s Dead (1970) ****
American Beauty (1970) *****

I really view these two high points as a double record, as they were released within the same year and are so sonically connected. I give the edge to AB because it is slightly richer, but both are (near) perfect records that use deep American roots music as templates, yet create something unique and of the day. The Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter songwriting team comes into its own here. These records were such a break from what had come before too, there is no psychedelia, no long jams. Just tight, concise songwriting using American music idioms of folk, country and blues wonderfully. Look at most Dead "hits" collections, and about half of the songs come from these two records. I can't recommend them highly enough.

Grateful Dead (aka Skull and Roses) (live) (1971) ****
Europe ’72 (live) (1972) ****
Garcia (Jerry Garcia solo album) (1972) ****
Ace (Bob Weir solo album) (1972) ****
Rolling Thunder (Mickey Hart solo album) (1972) NR
History of the Grateful Dead, vol. 1 (Bear’s Choice) (live) (1973) NR

In 1972, in order to entice the Dead to re-sign, Warner Brothers offered them a unique deal. Each member could record and release a solo record. Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Mickey Hart took them up on the offer. While all three have since released records that really do stand apart as solo careers, these three were essentially Dead records. On Garcia, Jerry played all the instruments save the drums, and on Ace, Weir used The Dead as his band. Songs from these records ended up as Dead concert standards in decades to come. Many fans view Garcia and Ace as the follow-ups to Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, and I agree (put them together and they are a killer, ***** double record). The Dead started using live records to also introduce new material, and both Grateful Dead (not to be confused with debut The Grateful Dead) and Europe '72 are awesome, a mix of classics, great covers, thrilling jams and top notch new material. This was the end of their most accomplished period.

ABOVE: While Jerry Garcia was the heart and soul as well as musical leader of The Grateful Dead and there from the beginning to end, it was a bit dangerous to play keyboards for them. In a Spinal Tapesque twist, four Dead keyboardists have met their demise.

Wake of the Flood (1973) **
From the Mars Hotel (1974) ***
Skeletons From the Closet: Best of the Grateful Dead (compilation) (1974) ***
Blues For Allah (1975) ***
Steal Your Face (live) (1976) NR
Terrapin Station (1977) ***
What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been (compilation) (1977) ***
Shakedown Street (1978) *
Go To Heaven (1980) *
Reckoning (live) (1981) ***
Dead Set (live) (1981) NR
In the Dark (1987) ***1/2
Dylan & the Dead (live) (with Bob Dylan) (1989) *
Built To Last (1989) **
Without a Net (live) (1990) NR
The Very Best of the Grateful Dead (compilation) (2003) ****

From 1973 forward, the Dead do earn their reputation for being relatively disappointing in the studio and saving their best for the road. That is not to say that there are not some great songs on most of these records, because there are. But most of the records are not that consistent, and some are really bad (particularly from the late 70's and early 80's). In the Dark is notable for being one of the more surprising commercial comebacks, including their biggest hit, "Touch of Grey." It was rightfully a big record, after a seven year hiatus from the studio they had some time to hone a solid set of new tunes on the road (Weir's "Hell in a Bucket" and Garcia's lovely "Black Muddy River" are also highlights). The live record with Bob Dylan is often cited as a nadir for both parties. As for compilations, as you might imagine, The Dead are particularly difficult to succinctly anthologize, because so much of what they are about is found in live and sprawling, extended form. But The Very Best serves as a fine single disc intro to the more approachable material.

The Official Unofficial Live Material:
By my count, using Wikipedia's assistance, I found 118 Dead sanctioned live albums or collections, covering the late 60's shows through the early 90's, in addition to the live records released during their career (pre-death of Garcia) that are listed above. They also encouraged bootleggers, and so there is a still thriving market beyond these. I only have a small handful of these 118, and this is where Deadheads feel that the "real" Grateful Dead is represented. The Dick's Picks series was particularly successful, featuring 36 volumes. I went online to find the consensus "best" Dick's Picks, and those seem to be Volume 4 and Volume 8 (both from shows from 1970). I grabbed both, and I'd give Volume 8 a solid **** (haven't listened closely enough to Volume 4 yet to rate it). I would also highly recommend the marathon four disc show, The Closing of Winterland (live) (1978/2003) ****, an all-night New Year's Eve party they played as the last concert at the legendary Winterland Arena in hometown San Francisco before the storied venue shut down. The show went on so long that The Dead served breakfast to the fans the next morning.

Bottom Line: 1968-72 is where to focus as far as studio work goes, with Workingman's Dead and American Beauty being their best. Grateful Dead (1971), Europe '72, Dick's Picks vol. 4 and vol. 8 and The Closing of Winterland are what I would recommend for official live recordings, but I am far from an expert in that arena. Grateful Dead (1971) in particular is manageable and very good, as it is "only" a double album. Deadheads would banish me for recommending a compilation, but The Very Best of The Grateful Dead is an outstanding single disc intro to the best of the studio material.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Damn Cute, I Say

Dead Pool Results

I doubt you recall, but last July I posted about a Dead Pool that I was involved in with a good friend, KE. Original post is here. Briefly, a Dead Pool is a betting pool on celebrity deaths. We set it up with one point per death on our roster, and 2 points if the person was under 50. We had a draft, with 20 slots each. You could drop and add, but no more than 20 people on each roster at any given time and you had to have at least two people under 50.

Things started with a bang, so to speak, the day after the draft I knocked off Andy Griffith. But within the week, KE hit back hard with a little Ernest Borgnine. Things settled down a bit after that, though. The results...

Dez was victorious with a 5-2 score for the year.

Dez: RIP Andy Griffith, Hugo Chavez, Michael C. Duncan, Arlen Spector and George McGovern.

KE: RIP Ernest Borgnine and Margaret Thatcher.

It was fun, but I don't think we are going for a year two. JMW, you mentioned that you are involved in one of these things. How have you done?

ABOVE: I know that Fidel Castro has been dying for about two decades, but I thought 2012-13 might be the season, so I drafted him in the fifth round. Nope. He's still around, allegedly.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Day 2: March 4, 1628

ABOVE: The early area of Massachusetts Bay colony and Plymouth colony. The other names around there are the inconvenient Indian tribes who happened to be there first. Right after the Revolution and when the colonies became states, Massachusetts boldly claimed that their state border went west all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The rest of the country did not agree.

What Happened:
On March 4, 1628, King Charles I granted a charter to the New England Company for a "plantation in Massachusetts Bay." Although some settlers had gone to what was to become Massachusetts in the years prior, there were conflicting grants and claims. (Plymouth had been established in 1620). This charter established legal authority for Massachusetts to exist as an English colony. In April of 1630, settlement began in earnest.

The Puritans were a tough nut to crack. The Church of England was a bold institution as it was to stand as an alternative to the all powerful Catholic Church. But for these Puritan fellows, that was not enough. Oh no. Puritans felt that the Church of England had not gone far enough to purify itself from all remnants of Catholic corruption (hence their name). The Puritans became a nuisance, because the monarchs of England rightly saw that the religious boldness of the Puritans could easily lead to political boldness, and that certainly would not do. So the Puritans were harassed, so much so that many of them left England for places like Holland. But many Puritans (whose religious roots were in the ideas of John Calvin and such happy doctrines as predestination) wanted a place of their own to worship and live as they pleased. It was the extreme separatist Puritans who sailed off course and ended up settling at Plymouth. A more "moderate" (only moderate when compared to other Puritans) bunch got the Massachusetts charter.

Why This Is Important:
While the establishment of any of the original colonies is a milestone, Massachusetts is most significant, I think, for several reasons. You could make an argument for Jamestown or Virginia, which were earlier and primarily commercial ventures, as the most significant early colonial settlements, but it is from the traditions established in Massachusetts that we get so much of our own political roots.

The "pilgrims" who settled in Plymouth made the famous Mayflower Compact, a written agreement to form a representative local government. Written being the key word, so from the very beginning a break from English tradition of an unwritten constitution. We Americans like it all down in writing. Charles I didn't realize it at the time, but it was very significant that the Massachusetts charter was a written document as well, and that the Puritans brought the original with them to the New World. Later they would insist on holding Britain to its terms, the idea that a charter (or later a Constitution) is a written contract between a government and its people.

On the 1630 trip over, leader/preacher John Winthrop gave a sermon that has to be one of the most important sermons in American history, "A Model of Christian Charity." In it, Winthrop expressed his vision of what Massachusetts would be, using the famous Biblical image of "a city upon a hill." From the beginning, Winthrop and others saw the new societies being established in the New World as different from the Old World of Europe. Massachusetts (and later America) would be the city upon a hill, the ideal for the rest of the world to look up to and emulate. Thus the belief of American Exceptionalism was born, right on one of the earliest boat trips over. Did this ideal ever die out? The "shining city on a hill" was a central image in several of Ronald Reagan's most celebrated speeches. Kennedy used it as well. It is something either cherished or reviled about America, this idea that we see ourselves as exceptional in human history.

ABOVE: John Winthrop. From the earliest days, we knew that we were better than everyone else. Because we're 'Merica. That is my general response when a student in my class questions American actions throughout history. I look at them and say, "but we're 'Merica."

Also crucial early on in Massachusetts, what some historians refer to as the "incubator of American democracy," were the townhalls established in Massachusetts towns. This was the closest the civilized world of this time came to that Athenian democratic ideal of local decisionmaking. All male Church members could vote and discuss local issues at these townhalls. That doesn't sound too democratic by our standards today (it was roughly about half of the white male population of any given locality), but for that time that was a higher percentage of eligible voters than anywhere in Europe.

While the Congregational (Puritan) Church dominated society in much of New England, Massachusetts also established early on a separation between political leadership and religion. There would be no Church of America officially sanctioned by the government. Education was also stressed early on, in large part due to the protestant belief that each individual should have a personal relationship with God without the need for a church to intercede. How do you do that? Read the Bible. So you've got to know how to read. Harvard was established in 1636.

ABOVE: Witches! In 1692 young girls in Salem, Mass. claimed to have been bewitched by older women in town. In all, 20 women were executed for witchcraft during the hysteria. What was really interesting, though, is that the accusers were poor inland girls, while the accused were usually from wealthier merchant families. It was really indicative of a growing class conflict as it was religious.

The "Protestant Work Ethic" that was such a root of early American enterprise was really born here as well. Once cash crops and farming were established in the Southern and Middle colonies (tobacco, rice, later cotton), life became easier there. But New England was not blessed with fertile soil. The Pilgrims really couldn't have picked a worse area along the East Coast to land for farming. In New England, people simply had to work harder to be successful, and farming was not the end all in the region because it couldn't be (notable later because slavery never took hold in New England, there were no plantations). So by necessity, New England became the commercial and business hub of the Colonies. Shipbuilding, commerce and trade, fishing, fur trapping in the interior...the most diverse economy in the Colonies was here. Most people had to work hard to succeed, and comparably to Europe, that was a great equalizer socially. No nobility (or huge underclass) took hold in New England. Why would it? If you were aristocracy, life was good in Europe, so why bother with the hassle. The people who came here, especially to New England it seemed, were ambitious people who wanted to move up the ladder of success. It takes a risk-taker and entrepreneur to simply take that step, make the trip over and start over.

While such free thinkers like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were banished or worse in the early days, it is no coincidence that the center for rebellion against the Empire once the Revolutionary Period began was New England, and especially Boston. A unique way of life had been developed in New England, and men like Sam and John Adams, John Hancock and Paul Revere fiercely wanted to protect it once the British authorities belatedly decided to get a firm hold on these colonial ruffians. But that is for a future post.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Dez Record Guides: Dire Straits and Mark Knopfler

First off, Mark Knopfler is my favorite guitar player. I don't think he's the best, but his playing style appeals more to me than anyone else. He has a crisp, fluid fingerpicking style played on a very clean stratocaster (up until 1985, when he starts to add some distortion, starts playing on a Gibson sometimes and loses some uniqueness). He can also play wonderful acoustically, and on a track or two per record will pull out the resonator guitar (pictured on the album cover of Brothers in Arms). I also love his songwriting with Dire Straits, and even his gruff, pedestrian vocals have a certain charm. Pretty much everything about Dire Straits appeals to me, and they have long been a favorite. I have discussed before how my first concert experience was seeing the Brothers in Arms tour, and it remains one of the best shows I've ever seen. And I don't just say that out of fuzzy happy memories, I have a bootleg copy of that show. It actually does kick serious ass. Mark Knopfler was Dire Straits, so I had every reason to hope that his solo work would be as great. I was wrong.

Dire Straits (1978) *****
One of the more remarkable things about Dire Straits's debut is that it is so out of place for its time. The storytelling with pub rock backing and featuring Mark Knopfler's already distinct fingerpicked guitar playing is completely and blissfully out of step with the disco, punk rock or New Wave of the time.

Live at the BBC (live) (1978/1981/1995) ****
An early club show in support of the debut, it is primarily for the DS enthusiast, but it features some more muscular versions of the debut's songs, especially a superior "Six Blade Knife."

Communique (1979) ***
Definitely treading water, even Knopfler is quick to dismiss the rushed sophomore effort. It should not be completely dismissed, "Once Upon A Time in the West," "Lady Writer," "Portobello Belle" and "Where Do You Think You're Going?" all stand up to the debut's standards, but the rest ranks as the most forgettable DS material. Knopfler knew it too, he made some major line-up changes in preparation for the third record.

Making Movies (1980) *****
Knopfler's personnel moves proved to be perfectly timed, as the more flexible and muscular line-up was able to match his growing ambitions. MM is one of the most beloved records in British rock history (it would take until 1985 for the Americans to figure this band out). Side One is one of the strongest sides on any record: the epic "Tunnel of Love" remains Knopfler's greatest achievement as a songwriter and as a musician, "Romeo and Juliet" is a love song with few equals, and the catchy single "Skateaway" closes the side. The second half only flags slightly. This remains DS's greatest record.

Love Over Gold (1982) ***1/2
Knopfler's ambitions continue to grow, and here they exceed his reach. This is their almost prog effort, with the laborious 14 minute opener "Telegraph Road," which stops and starts so many times that the song can never build the momentum that it should have to actually be compelling. "Private Investigations" is one of Knopfler's most interesting character studies, following a noir bottom feeder P.I. through his shady work.

Twisting By the Pool (aka ExtendedDancEPlay) (EP) (1983) ***
Knopfler seemed to immediately realize that LOG was a bit too labored and unecessarily dense, and the group tossed off this purposely loose and nostalgic four song EP, almost as a way to shake off the weight of the previous record. It is minor, but also pretty fun (which LOG definitely was not), and two of the four songs made it into their regular setlists in the years to come ("Twisting By the Pool" and "Two Young Lovers.") It is a bit hard to find these days, making it somewhat of a collector's item.

Alchemy (live) (1984) *****
Depending on how you like your Straits, you either adore this live effort or it leaves you cold. DS often drastically reworked and expanded their songs in concert. For instance, the five minute studio track "Once Upon a Time in the West" becomes a dynamic 14 minute opener here. ("Tunnel of Love" and "Sultans of Swing" recieve similar expansions, funny that "Telegraph Road," though, is actually shortened). I love it when Knopfler stretches out and builds the tension in his songs through use of dynamics largely missing from the studio versions, and Alchemy remains one of my all time favorite records. It is Dire Straits 101 for me, but it is not for everyone.

Brothers in Arms (1985) ****
Here is where the rest of the world figured out what England already knew. The unlikely blockbuster that was BIA surprised everyone, probably especially Knopfler. The indellible guitar riff of "Money For Nothin'" and the ridiculously catchy "Walk of Life" certainly helped (as did the popular music videos that accompanied them). But it is the album tracks that keep me coming back, like the spooky mercenary tale of "Ride Across the River," the war criminal confessional "The Man's Too Strong," or the gorgeous slowburning title track evoking haunting images of the holocaust. Unusual topics for rock and roll, but Knopfler through superior songwriting and always great musical composition makes them work.

Money For Nothin’ (compilation) (1988) ****
Flawed but still workable compilation, and to be honest, what came after this is not very necessary, so it can be seen as covering the essentials. Some songs had to be severely edited for space conerns, though, lessening their impact.

On Every Street (1991) **
On the Night (live) (1993) **
Encores (live EP) (1993) NR

Knopfler took six years to follow up the blockbuster BIA, and he simply choked. I think he was already looking beyond Dire Straits at this point. Some good songs here (title track, the too long "Calling Elvis," "My Parties"), but most of this is forgettable and bland, and the unforgiveble "Heavy Fuel" is nothing less than embarassing, a blatant attempt at another "Money For Nothin'" but failing in every way that the latter was successful. The live record from the tour brings some more life to some of these songs (especially the great "On Every Street"), but not enough.

Sultans of Swing: The Best of Dire Straits (compilation) (1998) ****
The Best of Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler: Private Investigations (compilation) (2005) ***

SOS is probably the most comprehensive DS compilation, but is weighed down by an emphasis on later material. The single disc version of PI is too short to do either DS or Knopfler justice, while the two disc version is passable, but the haphazard track order makes for a messy listen. Honestly, no compilation has really gotten Dire Straits completely right.


Covering Knopfler's solo career is more challenging, due to the volume of his work. He performed as a guest musician on well over 100 recordings (for Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Randy Newman and many other impressive names). He has produced records, and has recorded eight soundtracks for films. I won't list all of this, but his most notable soundtrack was his first, for 1983's 'Local Hero' (****). The music is just gorgeous, and a couple of tracks became part of Dire Straits's setlists. Screenplaying (compilation) (1993) **** is a nice collection of some of his soundtrack work, covering selections from 'Cal,' 'Last Exit to Brooklyn,' 'The Princess Bride' and 'Local Hero.' As for his "regular" solo work...

Missing...Presumed Having a Good Time (as a member of the Notting Hillbillies) (1990) ***
Neck and Neck (with Chet Atkins) (1990) NR
Golden Heart (1996) **
Sailing to Philadelphia (2000) ***
The Ragpicker's Dream (2002) **
Shangri-La (2004) **
The Trawlerman's Song (EP) (2005) NR
One Take Radio Sessions (live EP) (2005) **
All the Roadrunning (with Emmylou Harris) (2006) **
Real Live Roadrunning (live) (with Emmylou Harris) (2006) ***
Kill To Get Crimson (2007) **
Get Lucky (2009) **
Privateering (2012) NR

As you can see, my view of Knopfler's solo work is low (akin to how I feel about Sting's post-1991 work when compared to The Police). I have to admit that it is critically well regarded (more respected critically than Dire Straits, actually). I don't understand why. By and large, it is subdued to the point of dull, he has reigned in his signature guitar playing in exchange for focusing on being a bluesy singer-songwriter. Some of his lyrics are interesting, but not enough to make up for the overall blandness of the sound. Believe me, the fan I am of Dire Straits, I was very ready to love his solo work as well. Didn't happen. Sailing To Philadelphia is the best of the lot, with a couple of tunes that sound like they could have been excellent latterday Dire Straits (opener "What It Is," "Speedway at Nazareth," the great title track that is a dialogue between explorers Lewis & Clark in the form of a duet with James Taylor). But I just cannot get into the rest of his solo work.

Bottom Line: As far as Dire Straits goes, I would send anyone to Making Movies first, then to Dire Straits and Brothers in Arms. I am a staunch supporter of Alchemy as their peak, but it is not for everyone. I cannot recommend anything from Knopfler's solo work other than the soundtracks to 'Local Hero' and 'Princess Bride.' Screenplaying is a nice collection of Knopfler's early soundtrack work. Knopfler's best solo album is Sailing to Philadelphia, but even than one is just OK. I will admit, however, that critics tend to like his solo work.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Day 1: July 28, 1588

What Happened:

Now hold on there, Dez (you are saying). This list is supposed to be events in American History, and we are not even a country for another 188 years! While that may be true, there are some events leading up to 1776 without which 1776 may not have happened, or at least may not have happened when and how it did. This is one of them.

It was a time when the Protestant Reformation was still sweeping Europe, and the Catholic vs. Protestant choice was often determined through force. Mary I had been catholic, and had forged strong relations with her cousin and husband, Phillip II of Spain. Phillip II had an eye to rule England, but things went south for him once Mary I died and her half sister Elizabeth I, an ardent protestant, gained the crown of England. Finally Phillip II decided to that he had to take England by force, with the excuse to stop the spread of protestantism there, and amassed what was the largest naval fleet in history up to that point, the Spanish Armada.

It was under Elizabeth I that England first became a sea power. There was the search for the mythical "Northwest Passage," but England mainly prospered through robbing the Spanish. Pirates such as Francis Drake and John Hawkins became extremely wealthy harassing and robbing the Spanish of their gold around the world. What was worse, Elizabeth I was knighting them for their efforts.

ABOVE: Sir Francis Drake. Pirate. Knight. Criminal. English hero. Entrepreneur. As he said regarding Calais (below), he "singed the Spanish beard."

The Armada was a massive failure for the Spanish. Nothing went right. The Spanish commander died, so once they set sail Phillip II put Sidonia in charge, a man who had no experience at sea whatsoever and often got seasick. Drake caught the Armada by surprise when they were docked at Cadiz and burned a bunch of ships, putting the invasion off for a year, so it was hardly a surprise and the English had plenty of time to prepare. The English successfully prevented a landing in England the next year, and so the Armada was forced to dock at Calais, preventing them from picking up the Spanish army in the Netherlands. On July 28, 1588, pirate/knight Drake sent burning ships into the harbor at Calais, terrifying the Spanish. Crucially, the Armada broke up its tight formation and the Spanish ships scattered. Although the Spanish ships were massive hulks and looked impressive, they were slow moving and not very maneuverable. The English had smaller and faster ships. With the Spanish fleet out of formation, the English ships were able to pick them off, zig zagging in and out of Spanish cannon range. Then storms hit (The "Protestant Wind," as Englishmen called it), forcing the Spanish ships north around Ireland and Scotland, where half of the fleet sank to the bottom of the ocean. The rest of the mighty Armada crawled back to Spain in utter defeat. The Spanish navy lost over 20,000 men, while the English casualties were about 100 and zero ships lost.

Why is it important to 'Merica?:

First of all, it is difficult to attribute great swings in history to just one event (impossible and foolish, really). BUT, what if Phillip II had been successful in conquering England with his Armada and Army and taken the English throne for himself? Would we all be speaking Spanish today? I wouldn't go that far, but British colonization (leading to 'Merica) would not have unfolded as it did, if at all.

Spain itself still had the largest overseas Empire (Latin America), but it was broke, cocky, overreaching, and had way too much of a good thing. Spain was flush with gold and especially silver from its empire, but as you remember from Economics class, value is based on the combination of supply and demand, and with plentiful supply, Spain had runaway inflation. Had Phillip II conquered England, would it have been a shortlived Spanish rule, or would it have lasted? Would Spain still have crumbled economically the way it did, or would British resources and wealth have saved it? Even if Spanish rule lasted only 50 or 100 years, that would have greatly altered early British colonization. Jamestown was founded in 1607. It was under Elizabeth I that the first English colonial attempts were made in The New World, starting with Sir Walter Raleigh's doomed Roanoke five years prior to the Armada.

Here's what we do know. Spain's fighting spirit was forever dampened by the loss of the Armada. England crucially becomes the most dominant naval power in the North Atlantic. Spain's colonial aspirations in North America dwindle as well, as the Armada is the beginning of the end of Spain as a world power. The subsequent peace with Spain provided opportunity to colonize with only really the French to worry about. And who really worries about the French?

The factors were now in place for a British Empire. A strong and unified nation, religious unity, growing nationalism, a desire for exploration and an entrepreneurial spirit. England's population was booming, and while wealthy landowners fenced off prime land for sheep, a restless and landless class was growing. These people needed a place to go, both for themselves and for peace at home, and colonies were the answer to provide a safety valve. Primogeniture (eldest son in a family inherits everything, leaving other children to fend for themselves) ensured that younger, ambitious sons had to make their way entrepreneurially and could not count on inheritance. Drake, Raleigh, and other important names during this period were not eldest sons. The creation of the joint-stock company (a forerunner to the corporation) allowed the spread of risk in funding these costly, dangerous overseas adventures. So, peace with Spain offers opportunity, population growth provides need and manpower, unemployment and thirst for adventure, profit and religious freedom provides motive, and the joint-stock company offers the means. It was time to colonize! How would a successful Armada and Phillip II's conquering of England in 1588 changed this picture?