Friday, November 21, 2014

The Lie

My four and a half year old was being saucy the other day. I told her that she needed to be careful because Santa Claus is watching and he won’t bring her toys if she misbehaves too much. She thought for a second, and then asked: “How does he actually know?” Really? You are already going to doubt this elaborate fiction of childhood? No, I must dig in deeper. I must lie to further the lie. I responded, “well, we have regular conferences with Santa. We speak weekly over the phone and I tell him how you have been.” She just stared at me skeptically.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dez Reviews Pink Floyd's 'The Endless River,' 2014/1993

When word came several months ago that Pink Floyd was releasing a new record, there was quite a bit of excitement. I believe that it set a record on Amazon for pre-orders. Even if it is the David Gilmour-led era Floyd, it is still Pink Floyd. And the years have actually been kind to the Gilmour-led era, especially 1994’s Division Bell (the last record of new material they released).

The Endless River is interesting. During the Division Bell sessions, they recorded a lot more music than was released in ‘94. Much of it was instrumental ambient music. They seriously considered releasing Division Bell as a double with the second album being more ambient and instrumental. Keyboardist Richard Wright was especially enthused about the material left in the vaults.

Fast forward and Wright dies in 2008. Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason recently revisited this material and decided to put it out. They fleshed it out a bit and added some more parts, and so here we have The Endless River, which David Gilmour has stated that in no uncertain terms will be the final Pink Floyd record. Unlike statements like that made by other musicians who have embarked on three or four “Farewell Tours,” you can usually take Gilmour at his word. They decided to release it as a tribute to Wright. (Roger Waters, of course, was not involved with this material.)

As to the music itself. In one sense, you would expect this to be quite good. The weakness of the Gilmour-led years was always lyrical. Without Rogers Waters’ dark, dystopian visions, Pink Floyd’s lyrics were pretty banal during the 80’s and 90’s, but the music was always good. So an all instrumental record should be great if you are ejecting the weakest factor.

It is organized into four approximate 15 minute suites. But the weakness here is pretty obvious when you look back at the source material. In many cases, this sounds like what it really is. Unfinished pieces of music strung together. Many of the “songs” are two minutes or less, and sound like promising intros to a full song that never then develops. Quite a few of these pieces are frustrating because right when you feel like it should take off or Gilmour could really stretch out for several more minutes on one of his majestic guitar solos, the song fades into the next one. Also, it is not like this is leftover material from Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here, it is leftovers from a decent record from the early 90's.

Something else of note is that there are echoes all over this of Floyd classics. The opening suite is a shadow of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” there are reverb references to Gilmour’s “Run Like Hell” guitar, another track has echoes of “Time,” while another is a variation on “Us and Them.”

Only one song has vocals and lyrics, the closer “Louder Than Words.” Clearly intended as a big statement and comment on Pink Floyd as a whole, the message being that even though we have fought, our music is more important than the personal differences that have plagued the band. But again, the lyrics are without that Waters edge (here written by Gilmour’s wife, Polly Sampson). The song is unremarkable really, although it has a nice guitar intro that sounds a lot like “Hey You.”

With lowered expectations, this record is enjoyable enough. But as much as you might like certain moments here and there, when you finish listening it is difficult to remember any particular song that stands out. Perhaps that’s the point. This is more a quiet, minor coda to Pink Floyd’s legacy than a major final statement. And I guess that’s OK.

** out of *****

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Dez Reviews The Book 'Who I Am' by Pete Townshend, 2012

Pete Townshend, guitarist, songwriter, leader of The Who, has been threatening to write his autobiography since the late 1960's. Out of all of the classic rock giants, one would expect that Townshend would write one of the better rock memoirs. He is one of the brightest and most interesting of that generation. He was even a book publisher during the 90's in London, so the guy knows writing.

Considering his complex ideas about music and art and most everything else, and his well deserved reputation for pretention, his book is actually quite down to earth and brutally honest, if not always completely self aware. For instance, I love how he spends much of the book detailing the decades long deterioration and final dissolution of his marriage. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Townshend knows he is one of the most self-absorbed, insular, obsessive compulsive workaholics in the history of the music. That is one reason The Who's music was so great. Even when at home, he talks of how he would disappear for weeks at a time in his home studio, never coming out or speaking to his family. He talks of his battle with alcohol and drugs. His many affairs that he had. Yet he seems genuinely perplexed as to why his marriage didn't last. I had to chuckle at times. Gee Pete, I don't know...His attitude was kind of, "well, she knew what she was signing up for." He does seem to be on good terms with his three children, though.

Again, his assessments of others and of himself can be brutally honest. He despises his grandmother who raised him for a time, accusing her of allowing perverted boyfriends to molest him and worse as a child. (All of this makes the Uncle Ernie and Cousin Kevin parts of Tommy resonate much deeper, I think). Of Mick Jagger he is unabashedly smitten ("the only man I ever really wanted to f***"), describing in quite erotic language hanging out with Jagger one evening while Jagger was wearing loose pajama pants. He of course turns his sharp critical eye on himself, being quite open about his shortcomings and issues. This should not be surprising to Who fans or fans of his solo work. "However Much I Booze" or "How Many Friends" from The Who's The Who By Numbers or all of his All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes revealed a painfully honest and open songwriter.

ABOVE: Townshend obviously has much affection for Mick Jagger

The heart of the book of course deals with the rise, flight and descent of The Who. He's generous with the stories and details, although as a Who fanatic who has read much about the band, there were not too many revelations for me there. It was great to hear it all from Pete's perspective, though.

No new stories of (Keith) Moon the Loon's antics that haven't been told before, except one really funny evening that showed how nuts he really was. Moon called the band and management together for a luxury dinner in a hotel ballroom. He enters wearing a fur coat and top hat and gives formal toasts, has the guests served steaks, lobster, caviar, expensive wines. He then announces his departure from The Who because he has accepted a role in the new Scorsese film. Townshend describes how he and the others are devastated and then very angry words are exchanged. It was all BS. Keith just had a hot Hollywood starlet wannabe with him that evening that he wanted to impress, and Scorsese was more impressive to her than rock stardom, so he concocted the whole evening to get laid.

It is clear he has affection for Moon (and his other bandmates as well, calling Roger Daltrey "the most important man in my life" and reproducing an intimate "letter" that he wrote to John Entwistle after Entwistle's death). But he also makes clear what I have always suspected. As legendary as Moon's antics are in rock lore and as brilliant as he was as a drummer, he had to have been incredibly frustrating to have to work with:

"While I made progress with my search for meaning, Keith was causing havoc with a birthday cake, a car, a swimming pool, a lamp and a young fan's bloody head. How amusing it has been to spend my life pretending it was amusing. In truth, this day was unpleasant for me, though it has been turned into something of an apocryphal joke by everyone involved.

Keith was determined to have a great birthday party, egged on by the Holiday Inn banner outside the hotel: 'Happy Twenty-First Keith Moon'. He was actually only twenty. By the time I reached the party room the cake was all over the floor, the walls and Keith's face. In the swimming pool a Lincoln Continental balanced precariously, half in and half out. Later I heard Keith had released its brake and it had rolled in. I was trying to get Keith back to his room (he was raging by that time) when a young man approached, asking for his autograph; Keith threw a lamp at him, hitting him on the head. Keith then managed to knock out his own teeth, and it was only because he was hidden away at the dentist that he wasn't arrested.

The Who were banned from Holiday Inns for life."

Although he talks a lot about his devotion to the teachings of Meher Baba, I still have no idea what Baba actually taught. Perhaps it is too complicated to capture in a rock memoir.

One other area that he addresses with candor is the child pornography charges from the early 2000s. His excuse at the time was that he was doing research to help stop its proliferation on the internet and to face his own past of being molested as a child. Coming from most anyone else that sounds like a load of horsesh*t. But from Pete, I buy it. He goes into a lot of detail on the case, presents a convincing sequence of events, and the charges were eventually dropped. I believe him.

Not surprisingly, once The Who peters out and after the first great years of his solo career are covered, it does drag a bit near the end. Lots of time is spent discussing Iron Man and Psychoderelict, his two least inspiring works. Perhaps he wants us to reassess them, but they are still terrible. I do like how he looks on his sobriety, "The secret to being a successful hellraiser, it seems, is to stop raising hell before hell razes you."

Bottom line is that this is a great read if you are a Who fan or fan of Townshend himself, but may not offer much to people who are not.

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

Friday, November 7, 2014

Political Demographics

I have largely avoided politics lately here at GNABB. For years, actually. I follow it closely, of course, and as a teacher of history deal with it, analyze it and break it down daily in my work life with my students. Maybe that’s why I haven’t felt that I needed the further outlet of GNABB to talk politics.

But I read a fantastic editorial today on CNN’s website by LZ Granderson, a frequent contributor to CNN’s Opinion section. Granderson is gay and African-American, so it is not so surprising that his articles generally lean left. Even so, I often find him to be thoughtful and reasonable. In today's piece he talks about the remarkable story of Mia Love, the first ever Republican African-American woman elected to Congress, swept to victory in the Republican electoral tidal wave of last Tuesday. She was elected in Utah, where less than 1% of the population is black.

Granderson says “For if the sexist/racist/anti-immigrant narrative that has long dogged the GOP can, at the very least, be challenged by her presence at a campaign, what will democrats use to fire up low-information liberals? The liberals’ yin to the red’s ‘Obama is the worst president ever’ yang.” He goes on to make an argument that in this last year has become louder and louder from many on the right: “For more than 40 years democratic presidential candidates have enjoyed the support of more than 80% of black voters, and yet the community’s unemployment rate remains twice that of its white counterpart. The wealth gap between whites and blacks has grown…” People on the right who have been pointing this out lately go on to ask, what has this loyalty to the democratic party gotten the black community? Do you like being taken for granted as an automatic vote? Granderson says something that should scare the left quite a bit: “[Rand] Paul has spoken about these concerns with compassion, albeit clumsily at times.”

What Granderson almost gets to but doesn’t quite say, but what Paul, Chris Christie and other leading, thoughtful Republicans have been saying this past year, is that perhaps after 40 years, why not try voting a different way and see whether different policies, a different political philosophy, would make things better for this community and open more opportunities. And if you have noticed, where Republican candidates and strategists had simply written off the black community before as a lost cause for support, that is no longer the case. Especially in some of these governor races, Republican candidates went to the black community and made their pitch, and were received respectfully and listened to. Granderson talks of newly elected Republican governor of Illinois Bruce Rauner, who aggressively went after the black vote, where Rauner pointed out that his democratic opponent takes the black vote for granted. This seemed to resonate a bit within the black community in Chicago.

Granderson notes that soon after Love gave a well received speech at the 2012 Republican Convention, her Wikipedia page was “vandalized,” calling her a “whore,” “sellout” and “house ni****.” Which side has a race problem again?

As Granderson also points out, the tide may be ever so slowly changing. He cheekily notes that “I spoke with membership services and blacks are no longer revoked for voting Republican.” I haven’t seen vitriol that much rivals leftist reactions to certain minorities who choose to go Republican. It is seen as a betrayal. Remember how Condoleeza Rice was treated by liberals? Even Colin Powell years before? The left has more of a problem accepting people as individuals than the right does, as steeped as the left is in identity politics, which thrives on an “us vs. them” mentality. In fact, identity politics cannot exist without drawing those hostile lines, can it? What would people like Al Sharpton do if they couldn’t rush to the next incident that happens to involve protagonists who are of different races and stir up passions? It is an industry. The likes of Sharpton are always desperately searching for the next Ferguson to remain relevant. Again, who really has the race problem here? Think about this: one of the most powerful tools the left has to fire up its base is to keep the racial divide alive. If that divide starts to fade, they have a real problem on their hands.

Demographic trends demand that if the Republican Party is to remain viable, then it must connect better with minority groups. Republican strategists have been saying this for years. Even more important, as far as numbers go, than the black community are Hispanics. I think for the right the message is good, but the messengers and strategies have been terrible. But again, this may be slowly changing. Look at the current national stage. Who are two of the most prominent Hispanics in politics today? Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Both Republicans. The “Hispanic” community is not a monolith, of course. Cuban-Americans, for instance, often vote very differently than Mexican-Americans. But some of the core values within the Hispanic community, I think, line up more with Republican values than Democratic ones. Especially on some of the social issues. Making serious inroads into the Hispanic vote should not be a mission impossible for the Republican Party.

Return to Mia Love, though, and her simple message which must be the message from the right. In that 2012 speech she said “my parents immigrated to the U.S. [from Haiti] with $10 in their pocket…when times got tough, they didn’t look to Washington, they looked within.” Her father worked as a janitor and other jobs to put her through college. Now she is in Congress. This is one of the core messages that the right clings to with almost religious fervor (and to an often admittedly hoaky degree sometimes). But it is real, the American rugged individualism that was born on the American frontier where the ever valuable commodity of land was available to anyone willing to go out there and take and work it. Conservatives, for whatever reason, have held on to that crucial American Individualism much stronger than liberals have. It is one of the primary things that makes this country great and unique, as well as an economic and innovation powerhouse. But simply for sharing this message Mia Love was excoriated as a traitor by many on the left. Or, was it the fact that she dared to deliver this message at the Republican Convention? Who has a race problem again? Which side seems to make assumptions based more on skin color than individual character? Which side takes votes for granted, as a given just based on identity politics? On the other hand, which side will respect you more as an individual? That has got to be the message.

Anyway, for the whole Granderson article, go here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Dez Reviews Neil Young's 'Storytone,' 2014

I guess at this point Neil Young can do whatever the hell he wants. He's made a career out of strange left turns, but by all accounts, 2014 has been very active and one of his strangest years. Earlier this year was the covers album recorded in a vintage Voice-O-Gram, A Letter Home. He's also got his (second) autobiography coming out later this month. And now this record of...whatever this is. Some songs here are recorded with a 92-piece orchestra with lush (often maudlin) arrangements. Then he's got some tunes with a big band with horns a-blarin'. There are also a couple of bluesy songs played with a more traditional rock band. In the grand scheme of Neil things, this will be looked back on as a curio, kind of like Everybody's Rockin' or Old Ways. In fact, this record best fits with his perverse genre jumping during the 80's.

And some of these lyrics don't really fit the setting. "Who's Gonna Stand Up?", another one of his environmental diatribes, sounds strange with a lovely 92-piece orchestra backing lyrics like "end fossil fuel/draw the line/before we build one more pipeline" and "end fracking now/let's save the water." (Then, in typical Neil fashion, he follows this anti-fossil fuel anthem with a tune called "I Want To Drive My Car," which includes the refrain "I gotta find some fuel/I gotta find some fuel"). He sings of environmental concerns, he sings of lost love, he sings of new love, he sings of cars, he sings of playing music in Chicago ("Say Hello To Chicago"). It comes across that these songs were written on the spot about whatever happened to cross Neil's mind that day. There is no rhyme or reason to this record, really.

There are a few keepers. "Plastic Flowers" is nice, and a more subtle and more effective environmental song than the aforementioned "Who's Gonna Stand Up?" I kind of like the simple, bluesy groove of "I Want To Drive My Car." The orchestra actually is quite effective on the lovely, lush "When I Watch You Sleeping," easily the best song on the record. In fact, it is one of the prettiest songs he has ever recorded.

Storytone is available as a double disc deluxe set where the second disc features all of these overblown songs in basic, acoustic demo form. It's quite a contrast. "When I Watch You Sleeping" remains the best of the lot in demo form too.

** out of *****

ABOVE: One of the things that keeps me coming back to Neil's music is that even in failure, he's still interesting