Wednesday, June 25, 2014

RIP Eli Wallach, 1915-2014

Tuco has finally been silenced. He was hardly ever the headliner (at least in movies, it was a different story onstage), but the characters played by Eli Wallach, one of the ultimate character actors, almost always stood out in whatever movie he was in. Eli Wallach was Jewish, but onscreen he specialized in playing ethnic characters usually of latin origin (Mexican, Italian, Spanish). He grew up in an Italian neighborhood in New York City, and in interviews credited his success playing those characters to his youth experiences.

Wallach often played rough characters, but in real life he was urbane and sophisticated. A Method actor and graduate of the famed Actor's Studio, he earned many awards for acting onstage. Stage work was his preference. He once said that movies were a means to an end, "I go and get on a horse in Spain for 10 weeks, and I have enough cushion to come back and do a play." Appearing in over 150 film roles, he is perhaps most famous for his Westerns. He played the bandit in 'Magnificent Seven' opposite Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and others. He was the only good thing about 'Godfather III.' But he will be most remembered as Tuco, the "ugly" in Sergio Leone's classic 'The Good, The Bad & the Ugly.' It was Wallach who gave the film life and vitality and all of its much needed comic relief. Stoic Clint Eastwood and bad to the bone Lee Van Cleef were awesome too, but honestly the film would not be what it was without Wallach's immoral, immortal, fast talking, always scheming Tuco.

We recently lost possibly the greatest character actor of the last couple of decades, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I see a great connection between Hoffman and Wallach's work. Neither were interested in being "stars." They just wanted to perfect their craft and do their characters justice. They were both actors who served the material first, and made everyone else acting with them look better than they probably were.

RIP Eli Wallach

Check out these three scenes from 'The Good, The bad & The Ugly' to see Wallach's amazing work in that film. Lest you think Tuco was all clown, check out the last emotional clip between Tuco and his brother.

ABOVE: The famous three way duel scene from 'The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.' Sergio Leone's style is unmistakable, and three masters are at work with Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach. It is a ballet of tension and violence.

ABOVE: He plays this comedy perfectly with hardly any dialogue at all.

Dez Record Guides: Devo

Novelty act, one of the most innovative musical pioneers of the last 40 years, or barely listenable synth act? It depends on at what period you are looking at their work. Because they have been all of these things. Sometimes the strangest of artists come from the most bland of places. Devo was formed by several students at Kent State University in Ohio in the early 70’s (co-founder Jerry Casale witnessed the Kent State shootings on campus). The core of Devo was a set of brothers, Jerry and Bob Casale and Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh. Mark and Jerry have been the leading creative forces of the band.

Devo was an unusual group from the beginning in that they started with a philosophy and built their group from that. The name comes from their theory of De-Evolution, which is that “instead of continuing to evolve, mankind has actually begun to regress, as evidenced by the general dysfunction and herd mentality of American society.” At times used as a satire, but often the theory seems to be taken seriously by the group. It informed not only their early music, but also their visuals, which often evoked fascist conformity (and clearly borrowed heavily from Kraftwerk). The music was purposefully mechanical and soulless. Some didn’t get the joke or the irony, typically clueless Rolling Stone magazine disliked them from the beginning, calling them “fascist clowns.” Others were impressed. Early backers included Neil Young (who had them score one of his films before they released their debut and borrowed heavily from them on his own controversial Trans album), David Bowie (who helped secure them a record deal), Iggy Pop and Brian Eno (who produced their debut).

If you want to take the generous view, you could say the arc of their music has been an elaborate exposition of their de-evolution theories, because it has been a steady decline in quality and creativity. I’m not sure that is what they meant to do, though. Perhaps they just lost inspiration and ran out of ideas. Their early work is amongst the most important and creative of the New Wave era. The first four records are the only ones you need to hear, you can dismiss the rest of their discography altogether, although their most recent release was a nice return to, I would say, 1980-81 era form.

Hardcore Devo: Vol. 1 (compilation of demos) (1974-77/1990) ***
Hardcore Devo: Vol. 2 (compilation of demos) (1974-77/1991) ***

If we are going chronologically, we start here. Before their remarkable debut, Devo already had developed their unique musical philosophy. There are a handful of early versions of tunes that would appear on their first two records or as early singles, but the vast majority of this material is released here for the first time. It is primitive (all recorded on four track) but wonderfully weird. So weird at times it is a little spooky. Essential for fans who are curious as to the origins of the band, and quite a few of these songs, like “Mechanical Man,” “Auto Modown,” “I Been Refused” and the creepy misogynistic “Bamboo Bimbo” really do stand out.

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978) *****
This is why they are important, this is why they are great. Devo’s debut stands as one of the best and most innovative New Wave releases and from its own geeky perspective, it out-punks punk music because it really is subversive vs. being just empty attitude. “Uncontrollable Urge” and “Gut Feeling / (Slap Your Mammy)” rock really hard, something usually not associated with Devo. Their de-evolution theories are on full display – “Mongoloid,” “Too Much Paranoias” and manifesto “Jocko Homo.” But the greatest example of what they stand for is their transformative, shocking (at the time) cover of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” It is just remarkable. All soul and flesh is sheered off to make a tense, robotic song that somehow exhibits even more frustration than the original. The key to the song and to this whole record, really, is that with the off putting robotic rhythms and jerky singing (from primarily Mark Mothersbaugh) the tension is wound up to unbearable levels but, crucially, is never released. There is no resolution to the tension. I cannot recommend this record enough. Also, Devo are primarily a traditional rock band on this record, the electronics and synths are in the background. That will change soon and they will become almost completely mechanized, again a realization of their theories of societal de-evolution into a mechanized, small minds/big technology black hole.

Duty Now for the Future (1979) ****
I’ve got a soft spot for the sophomore effort. I spent many an hour in the early 80’s listening to DNFTF whilst playing my Atari 2600. It goes well with Atari games. Absolutely it is a letdown from the phenomenal debut, has some filler and starts to tread a little on novelty territory (“Pink Pussycat”), but it still manages to be disturbing in some ways, like with “Triumph of the Will,” which, as Allmusic states, “embraces fascism as a satirical target without bothering to make it sound as if they disapprove.” When it was released it was panned by critics, but its reputation has improved dramatically over the years. In fact, DNFTF is now regarded as a pioneering record it its own right as it is one of the earliest new wave records to feature heavy use of synthesizers, paving the way for the synth pop of much of the 80’s. Like it or not. The highlights are really strong, like the Devolved cover of “Secret Agent Man,” the great, creepy “The Day My Baby Gave Me a Surprize,” “Clockout,” the unnerving “SIB (Swelling Itching Brain),” and concert staple “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA.”

Freedom of Choice (1980) ***
DEV-O Live (live) (EP/Full Show) (1980/1981/1999) ***/****

The switch to synth pop band was completed with FOC, which was their biggest commercial success (thanks in large part to the popularity of “Whip It”). From here on out they are a much less interesting band. “Whip It” and “Girl U Want” stand as two of their most lasting songs, and a handful of others here are good. But there is a sameness that creeps in with the reliance on synths. The live EP was expanded to a full show in 1999, and it is fantastic. Surprisingly (due to their reliance on synthesizers and programming), Devo were a great live band. The sound is fuller than in the studio and they play with a lot of energy, and the FOC material is uniformly stronger live than in the studio.

ABOVE: The video for "Whip It" was a staple on MTV in the early 80's

New Traditionalists (1981) ***
New Traditionalists – Live in Seattle 1981 (live) (1981/2013) ****

The last remotely important or good Devo record (well, their latest is good), NT was a reaction to their popular success. Their reaction was not real positive. Disdainful of casual fans of “Whip It” who didn’t bother to understand their whole de-evolution message, the fantastically snide “Through Being Cool” serves as a new manifesto. Synthesizers are even more prominent, and while there is a sameness that falls over the entire record, it is a pretty cool sound. “Jerkin’ Back and Forth,” “Beautiful World” and “Super Thing” are also highlights. As with the previous record, NT now has a tour document available that is excellent.

ABOVE: For each of their records, they developed a unique visual concept. For the New Traditionalists era, they each wore a JFK-like plastic pompadour

ABOVE: Another look from the time

Oh No! It’s Devo! (1982) *1/2
Shout (1984) *
Total Devo (1988) *
Now It Can Be Told: DEVO live at the Palace (live) (1989) NR
Smooth Noodle Maps (1990) *

If they wanted to prove their de-evolution theory musically, they have done a superlative job. These are terrible and unlistenable. Lacking in inspiration, memorable songwriting or good playing. ON!ID! is of interest due to their controversial decision to turn one of John Hinckley, Jr.’s poems into a song (the would-be-assassin of Ronald Reagan), and Hinckley is given co-writing credit. The only track worth hearing from Shout is actually a fantastically Devolved version of Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced?” But that is it. Mark once said that he wanted Shout to prove that guitars were obsolete and everything in music could now be mechanized. Maybe so, but does that also have to mean good songwriting is also obsolete?

E-Z Listening Disc (1981/1984/1987) ***
In 1981 and 1984, Devo offered cassettes to members of their fan club of them doing some of their better known songs as Muzak. In ’87, they released a disc of these efforts. A gimmick, sure. But listening to the disc, much of it is quite creative and fits right in with later self-aware synth cool lounge acts. Obviously I don’t listen to this regularly, but when I do pop it in it always brings a smile. They were successful in what they were trying to do, and the instrumental, tongue-in-cheek smooth versions of their songs often do reveal a surprisingly strong sense of melody underlying their tunes that can be covered up by the synthetic, jarring, jerky sound of the originals. And there is more variety and interesting things going on here than in real elevator music. It would be a strange, quirky dentist indeed who would have this playing in his office.

Something For Everybody (2010) ***
Something Else For Everybody (2013) **1/2

Devo justly disbanded after 1990’s SNM, but their comeback record is good and has a lot of life in it. The guitars make a welcome return to help balance the still heavily used synths. There are some memorable pop songs here, and “No Place Like Home” is as beautiful as it is unexpected. They had a trove of songs, and so allowed their fans to pick the tracklist online. SEFE contained the leftovers. They also released some singles during this period that were good, especially the humorous “Don’t Roof Rack Me, Bro (Seamus Unleashed)” (a song from the perspective of Mitt Romney’s dog who was notoriously put in his kennel and tied to the roof of the car for a long family road trip).

Devo’s Greatest Hits (compilation) (1990) ***
Devo’s Greatest Misses (compilation) (1990) ***
Hot Potatoes: The Best of Devo (compilation) (1994) ****
Pioneers Who Got Scalped: The Anthology (compilation) (2000) ****

Testifying from personal experience, it is exceedingly hard to put together a good Devo compilation that hits the high points, gives an accurate view of the band at their best, and yet avoids the massive amount of bad material. Hot Potatoes is probably the best single disc collection if you can still find it. Hits and Misses should be both owned or neither. They are companion pieces. PWGS is a good double disc collection that is generous with rarities, but comparing the brilliant first disc with the crap on disc 2 does tell the story of their decline better than any words could.

ABOVE: In recent years, Mark Mothersbaugh has scored numerous films and appeared on the children's show 'Yo Gabba Gabba' showing kids how to draw. Whould you leave your kid alone with this guy?

In sum, Devo started out with the potential to be one of the most significant bands of the New Wave era and beyond. They were smart, subversive and just catchy enough. But the debut is the only truly brilliant record they made, and after the fourth record they were simply horrible. But having the debut and then cherry picking songs from the rest does provide a potent set of songs.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dez Record Guides: Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix’s discography is one of the most confusing of any major rock artist. During his lifetime, things were pretty simple. He released only three studio records with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, a compilation and a live album (of new material) with the shortlived Band of Gypsys. That’s it. The confusion enters the picture with the multitude of posthumous releases containing massive amounts of previously unreleased material. Hendrix was a prolific studio hound, and between 1967-70 he recorded many records worth of material that was not released during his lifetime, much of it intended for his next planned record, an ambitious double or triple album that he was going to call (according to most sources) "First Rays of the New Rising Sun." You have a lot of unreleased material in various stages of development and completion, and you have a legal labyrinth of different parties who claim possession of this unreleased material. A series of controversial heavily edited and posthumously dubbed records were released in the 70’s and 80’s, until Hendrix’s father, Al Hendrix, finally gained legal control of Jimi’s material during the 1990’s. Those controversial releases have been taken off the market, to be replaced by releases under the Experience Hendrix, LLC banner. These releases have been largely well done with little doctoring, and Al Hendrix wisely hired Eddie Kramer, Jimi’s producer during much of his lifetime, to oversee the compilation, remastering and re-release of all of this material. Since the 90’s, Hendrix’s legacy has been in good hands.

This Guide will first address the core discography that was released while Jimi was alive and is therefore the only material with Hendrix’s actual stamp of approval, and then the posthumous Experience Hendrix releases only, plus I will discuss the myriad live recordings available and give some suggestions there as well. I will also discuss compilations.

Why is Jimi Hendrix almost universally acknowledged as the greatest rock electric guitarist? Even if you (as I do) prefer some other players, it is ignorance to try and argue anyone else was “better” or more significant or more influential. Few things in music are absolute fact, but this is one of them. There is pre-Hendrix and post-Hendrix electric guitar. It is as significant for rock music as the dividing line of B.C. and A.D. to religious history. Sometimes lost in the guitar worship are the facts that he was also a great songwriter (with no formal training), an expressive singer, visionary arranger and a master (and perfectionist) in the studio. But I guess it does always come back to the guitar. He was technically dazzling, mastered the use of volume and distortion, the use of effects and studio magic (he got sounds that are still a mystery to people who try to recreate them.) As Guitar Magazine said in 2012, Hendrix “changed everything…monumental rebooting of guitar culture ‘standards of tone,’ technique, gear, signal processing, rhythm playing, soloing, stage presence, chord voicings, charisma, fashion and composition...He is guitar hero number one.”

Core Discography

Are You Experienced? (Jimi Hendrix Experience) (1967) *****
The greatest, most stunning, life changing debut record ever? I think so, at least if you are talking about the American version of AYE (SEE note below photo). Peoples’ reactions to this record when it came out were a mix of disbelief, excitement and fear. Pete Townshend supposedly got so depressed that he claims he contemplated giving up the instrument entirely. One of the keys for me, though, is that beneath all of the revolutionary sonic experimentation lie a set of just great songs. Hendrix never forgot that you still needed the song. Hendrix spurred everyone to up their game after AYE, they had no choice if they were going to stay relevant. One other thing I found impressive was that Hendrix was learning to write songs on the fly. The originals here are his first songs he ever tried to write. Not bad to have “Purple Haze” be the second or third tune you ever pen. Two other things make AYE what it is. Manager Chas Chandler (formerly of The Animals) reigns Hendrix in a bit here. Chandler still believed in the three minute single, so that tug of war between Hendrix’s more expansive and experimental tendencies and Chandler’s commercial savvy of forcing Hendrix to stay within pop forms is the perfect balance. And finally, the Experience was also bassist Noel Redding (who never got along with Hendrix, as Redding was a fine guitarist in his own right and always chaffed at being “just” Hendrix’s bass player) and drummer Mitch Mitchell. Mitchell and Hendrix especially had a special chemistry. Hendrix would not have been what he was without those two guys, who were essentially forced on Hendrix by Chandler.

ABOVE: The cover for the American version of Are You Experienced? The practice at the time was still to release different versions of a record in the UK and the U.S. The UK version left off singles “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Purple Haze” and “Hey Joe,” as they were released as standalone singles in the UK with no accompanying record. Instead, the UK AYE included “Red House,” “Can You See Me” and “Remember” in their place, songs which are not on the original American release. But no matter, the CD version that is now available has all tracks from both versions, plus single “Stone Free” and b-sides “51st Anniversary” and “Highway Chile,” making the record now a 17 track tour de force. I find this 17 track version acceptable and legitimate, because if you compared these sessions to how long people take nowadays to make records, all 17 tracks would by today’s standards be considered part of the sessions for a single record recorded over several months.

Axis: Bold As Love (Jimi Hendrix Experience) (1967) ****
The follow-up may not be quite as jawdropping, but it is every bit as influential and important. He also expanded his sound a bit, showing a delicate lyrical side with “Little Wing” and “Castles Made of Sand.” He continued to break new ground in use of feedback and phasing.

ABOVE: Axis: Bold As Love. Interesting story: With a looming release deadline, Hendrix supposedly left the tapes for the mixed version of Side One in the back seat of a taxi and they were never recovered (imagine how much those would be worth now! The cabbie probably tossed them in the trash after cleaning out the cab for the night). Hendrix, Chandler and Eddie Kramer had to remix the entire side in one overnight session. Not satisfied with the sound of “If 6 Was 9,” they resorted to a cassette version that Noel Redding had, smoothing the tape out with an iron as it had gotten wrinkled in Noel’s possession.

Electric Ladyland (Jimi Hendrix Experience) (1968) *****
A sprawling double record that, to me, is the pinnacle of what Hendrix accomplished. Kind of like with The Beatles’ White Album, what is usually the weakness of double albums (lack of focus, sprawl, rabbit holes) is a strength here. Chas Chandler got so frustrated with the sprawl, excess and constant stream of groupies and hangers-on that were in the studio that it was here where he and Hendrix parted ways. But as chaotic as it seemed on the surface, Hendrix knew what he wanted to accomplish and he did. You’ve got tight pop/rock with hooks galore (“Crosstown Traffic,” “Long Hot Summer Night,” Redding’s “Little Miss Strange”), smoldering blues workouts (the 15 minute slowburn “Voodoo Chile” or the more concise “Come On”), psychedelic soul (title track, “Burning of the Midnight Lamp”), sidelong proggish experimentation (“1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)”) and soul/funk jams (“Rainy Day, Dream Away”). And I haven’t even addressed the absolute perfection that is Side 4. It opens with the burning jam “Still Raining, Still Dreaming,” then moves into the intense commentary on the increasing violence of the civil rights movement in “House Burning Down,” followed by the greatest and most transformative cover in all of rock, Hendrix’s radical reinterpretation of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” What was an acoustic folk number for Dylan, Hendrix turns into an electric maelstrom with cascading guitar lines. Even Dylan started to perform Hendrix’s version of his own song after that. Side 4 wraps up with the wah extravaganza “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”, with Hendrix at his hardest rocking and most intense.

Smash Hits (Jimi Hendrix Experience) (compilation) (1968) ****
The only compilation released during Hendrix’s lifetime, it served the purpose of collecting his more concise radio hits, focusing most heavily on the debut record (in fact, there are only two tunes from Electric Ladyland here and none from the sophomore effort). Obviously the collection of songs is amazing, but judging it as a compilation trying to give an accurate picture of the artist up to this point, the picture is incomplete.

Band of Gypsys (Band of Gypsys) (live) (1970) ***
Due to the complex mess Hendrix got himself into due to his habit of signing any contract put in front of him, he found that he owed Capitol Records an album of new original material. But he had just disbanded The Experience, so he had no band. He put together a new trio to play a few gigs and record the shows to fulfill the contract obligation. It was an intriguing group that given more time, could have gelled into something special. Recruiting drummer/singer Buddy Miles and army buddy Billy Cox on bass, Hendrix formed an all-black power trio. Cox didn’t have the technical skills of Noel Redding, but his grooves were deeper and funkier. At these shows, Hendrix really gets down into some intense playing. Honestly, most of this material is still half baked and rough. But the one absolutely essential track is “Machine Gun,” a slowburn 10 minute raging rumination on Vietnam that is one of Hendrix’s finest moments. In hindsight, this record would have been a transitional record into a new and exciting phase of his career had he lived, but it stands as his final officially released statement.

Posthumous Experience Hendrix Studio Releases:

First Rays of the New Rising Sun (1968-70/1997) ****
South Saturn Delta (1967-70/1997) ***
Valleys of Neptune (1967-70/2010) ***
People, Hell & Angels (1968-70/2013) ***

As stated in the intro, Hendrix had been prolifically recording new material in the studio for several years, and he was planning on releasing either a double or even triple record announcing his new direction. What was that direction going to be? As best as we can tell from this material, it was a more soulful, funkier direction. One must be cautious with this music, because he was still working on it and perfecting it when he died, and noting that he was a perfectionist in the studio, I am sure that he would have further refined it before releasing it. But I think Hendrix would have continued to blaze new trails, and this hybrid of soul/funk/rock/blues/psychedelia would have been fascinating to hear in its final form. Producer Eddie Kramer was hired by Al Hendrix to sort through this stuff (after taking all of the inferior, doctored releases off the market) and release it with some sense while trying to stay as true as possible to Jimi’s vision. FROTNRS is Kramer’s attempt to assemble what we are most certain that Hendrix had slated for the new record (the most completed tracks and from what we know from Hendrix’s own notes). The others contain material that could have ended up on it as well, but they also have some looser jams and tunes that Hendrix most likely would have intended to remain in the vaults had he lived. (Being the music geek that I am, I have constructed my own “perfect” next Hendrix album from the material on all four of these albums that would fill the space of a double. You’ve got another ***** record here with the right choices.)

ABOVE: Hendrix and Miles Davis? One of the many “what if’s” had Hendrix lived longer was what would have come of some alleged discussions between Jimi and Miles to work together in the 70’s on some jazz/rock fusion projects. Wow.

Live Recordings
As of this writing, there have been at least 17 posthumous live collections released. More are on the way. I don’t own all of them (or even most of them), but I can give some recommendations and insight into the ones that I am familiar with. They can generally be divided into two categories, Experience recordings and post-Experience. After the transitional Band of Gypsys, it seems that Hendrix was about to settle on a new permanent Jimi Hendrix Experience line-up of Mitch Mitchell on drums and bassist Billy Cox. A lot of the latterday recordings feature that line-up. What I generally have found is that his live recordings are much less disciplined, as he was such a perfectionist in the studio. At the same time, the best of his live material has an intensity that the studio never captured.
Live at Monterrey (Jimi Hendrix Experience) (1967/2007) **** contains his entire legendary set at the Monterrey Pop Festival (including when he burned his guitar onstage), which broke him through in America. I think that the best live recording of the original Experience line-up is on the unfortunately out of print Live at Winterland (Jimi Hendrix Experience) (1968/1987) ****, although the entire sets from this series of shows are now available on the four disc box set Winterland, which I do not have. Four discs of this might be a bit much, but the original single disc sampler was amazing. The best example of latterday live Hendrix would be Hendrix in the West (1968-70/1972/2011) ****. Live at the Fillmore East (1970/1999) *** is a much more expansive look at the shows that produced Band of Gypsys. It is better than that record because while contractually Band of Gypsys could contain only new material, the group actually caught fire more on some of Jimi’s earlier tunes that they tackled those two nights. Hendrix could be off some nights, and they have put those out too. Blue Wild Angel: Live at the Isle of Wright (1970/2002) ** captures his last UK performance, only three weeks before his death. As legendary as his appearance at Woodstock was, it occurred during a transitional period in his career, and he is tentative and distracted on Live at Woodstock (1969/1999) **, not really clicking or comfortable with the ramshackle one off band that he assembled for the gig.

Many compilations have been released over the years. Out of print companion pieces The Essential Jimi Hendrix (1978) **** and The Essential Jimi Hendrix vol. 2 (1980) *** were crucial in exposing me to the artist. Experience Hendrix: The Best of Jimi Hendrix (1997) **** and Voodoo Child: The Jimi Hendrix Collection (2001) *** are both decent introductions to the artist, although both are missing some essentials.

Monday, June 16, 2014

#5 May Be the Sweetest of All

Congratulations to the San Antonio Spurs for winning their 5th NBA title in 15 years. Congratulations to The Spurs for setting the record for highest point differential in Finals history. After last year's devastating loss to Miami in a seven game series (where the Spurs were 28 seconds from victory in Game 6 with a five point lead), they wanted this probably more than any of the other championships. They also wanted this team, Miami. They not only won, they completely dismantled them. Congratulations to a team that understands, in the words of Miami's coach, "exquisite team basketball" vs. hero ball. Lebron James is clearly the best player on the planet right now, but this Finals showed that you still need a team. Not just a star. I think James understands that too, so it will be interesting to see what his next Decision will be as far as where he wants to go. Since Gregg Popovich's Spurs have beaten him in two of his three Finals losses, I bet he wouldn't mind playing for Pop. I know they admire each other greatly. We'd take him.

ABOVE: The "Big Three" of the Spurs. Why has this team been so successful for so long? Tim Duncan took a pay cut in order to free up some money to bring in quality role players (attention Kobe Bryant). Manu Ginobilli is a great player, but has agreed to come off the bench leading the second unit, helping to make the Spurs bench the most potent in the league. When the Spurs second five are in, there often is no drop in production vs. when the starting five are in. These and other reasons are why Duncan has five rings now, and Parker and Ginobilli have four.

ABOVE: I have to apologize to those basketball fans who are sick of The Spurs always being one of the best in the league. It won't change for awhile. Duncan, Parker and Ginobilli all may be on the verge of retirement, but emerging superstar Kawhi Leonard, along with dynamic point guard Patty Mills, Danny Green...this new young generation is the core of the Spurs future for the next decade or so. Kawhi Leonard shut down Lebron James at times, and was simply amazing offensively during those last three games. Popovich has called him "the future of the franchise." Winning the Finals MVP last night at the age of 22, the Spurs future looks bright indeed with Leonard.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Youth Politics

"If you're not a liberal when you're 25 you have no heart. If you are not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain." Attributed to Winston Churchill, but he probably never said it. Sounds good anyway. As a teacher of AP students in U.S. History, I naturally get into politically charged issues all of the time. If you teach history, you've got to get into the muck. One of the things that I do in the first week of class is give them an issues self-diagnostic survey that when scored they can place themselves along the right-left political continuum. I find that even at the end of the year, they still remember the activity and where they ended up.

Throughout the year, they often ask me what I think of various hot button political issues, or even generally where I fall along the spectrum. I pride myself in remaining as neutral as possible, giving fair treatment of all sides of the issues and allowing them to decide for themselves. I tell them I don't really care which side they pick on almost anything, as long as they can back it up with argument. I think I do a good job, because throughout the year they think they have me pegged, and they are all over the map: "you're a Republican," "you're a Democrat," "you're a commie," "you're a fascist." I usually get that last one after giving them a particularly difficult exam.

I do feel like I owe them an honest answer, since they are so open in class about their own beliefs throughout the year. So each year I always make them a deal. On the last day of class, I will answer almost any question they have about my own political ideology, such as it is. (I refuse to answer the abortion or gay marriage question, but I'm pretty open to discussing most anything else). I'm quite touched that that by the end of the year my political beliefs have become a parlor game of sorts for them. Touched because they actually are interested. This year I started the discussion by giving them my voting history in every presidential election since 1992. They can generally figure it out from that.

One of my favorite students is starting a Young Republicans group on campus and he asked me to be the faculty sponsor. I turned him down in order to maintain my veil of neutrality, but I did tell him I could be an unofficial, shadow advisor. I gave him a reading list of Charles Krauthammer, William F. Buckley Jr. (suggesting he make all members sign the Sharon Statement), Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, John Locke, Friedrich Hayek, etc. That should give them a solid foundation.

One of the questions I give them on their final exam is for them to tell me which political party that we studied this year most aligns with their own personal beliefs, and why. As in, they have to recall and explain that political party's ideology accurately in order to get the question completely right. Polling about 130 AP students, here were the results:

Democrat: 42%
Republican: 28%
Libertarian: 2%
Communist: 1%
Socialist: 1%
Green: 1%
Independent: 6%
Undecided: 17%

There were some interesting choices from the past:

Whig: 2%
Democratic-Republican: 1%
Populist: 4%
Nazi: 1%

NOTE: The Nazi student explained that he liked the party, minus Hitler, genocide and the racism. Kind of hard to separate, but he explained that he admired the strong nationalism and top down government control of every aspect of life. I guess more accurately he should have said "fascist," as it could be a less racist version, a la Italian fascism or Spanish fascism.

I know that doesn't add up to exactly 100%, but I rounded the numbers.

If you throw the Libertarians in with the Republicans, you get a surprisingly strong 30% conservative. I find that interesting as it bucks some stereotypes and assumptions, since this is a group of teenagers (generally considered to be heavily liberal) and my students are overwhelmingly minority, mainly Hispanic. Hispanics are also assumed to lean overwhelmingly liberal (unless you are Cuban, but I only had one Cuban student).

Monday, June 2, 2014


Rarely in life do you get a do-over of one of your most crushing disappointments. But one such opportunity is now in front of the San Antonio Spurs, as they prepare to face the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals (starting this Thursday) in a rematch of last year’s thrilling seven game Finals. A series in which the Spurs were 28 seconds away in game 6 from winning the championship (but for a miracle three from miracle three specialist, Ray Allen). This was the first Finals loss for the Spurs in franchise history, winning the other four times they got there in the Tim Duncan era. So it was a new experience for the team and its fans, and even worse to be so close.

Now we are back. What is the same? What is different? The Heat still have the best player on the planet in Lebron James. No dispute there. Basketball is such a team sport, but Lebron is one of those rare players who can singlehandedly win you some games in a series. They also have the second best player on either team in Dwayne Wade. And Wade is much healthier this year than last. “The Big Three” thing is a misnomer, Bosh was never that great. He was a star at one point, but is not now. So it is more the “Big 2 and ½.” The Heat this season, though, are not quite as deep beyond their starters.

And depth is where San Antonio is much better than they were last season. This is the deepest team I can remember in San Antonio. Their second unit, led by Manu Ginobili (the confidence of a guy that good who willingly comes off the bench is rare), can beat many other team’s starting five. And then there are solid guys even in the third unit. In Game 6 of the Spurs-Thunder series that just ended, the leading scorer was Boris Diaw with 26 off the bench. If you have followed San Antonio throughout the season, that has been the case. Any given night, it will either be Diaw, rising star Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli…someone else who shines alongside the three aging established stars (Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili). That has been the difference, the depth has allowed Coach Gregg Popovich to give crucial rest and limited minutes during the season to keep the team fresh. While still locking up the #1 spot. The Spurs have The Heat on depth, Popovich is widely regarded as the best coach in the NBA, and most importantly, San Antonio has “The System.”

Everyone from Duncan down to third string bench warmer buys into the Spurs System, which is why they have had the highest winning percentage of any team in the four major league American sports (basketball, football, baseball, hockey) over the last 15 years. If you do not buy into this system and you cannot obey the decrees of Popovich, you simply cannot be a Spur. Whoever you think you are. Just ask Stephen Jackson. Which is why if Tony Parker has to leave a game in the middle of the 2nd quarter, Cory Joseph and Mills can be plugged in and the Spurs can still win the Western Conference series in Oklahoma City. It is The System. But that buy-in is the real key. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are rare in that they are stars who keep their egos in check and give their head coach real authority. Popovich will tear into Duncan in front of the team if necessary, and he takes it. That attitude flows downhill. If Tim Duncan accepts that, then I better listen to Pop too, says the bench warmer. Which is why someone like Kobe Bryant could never play for Gregg Popovich.

Miami is a good organization too. There is buy-in there as well. They have looked absolutely dominant so far in the playoffs, but it is important to take into account the difference between the Western and Eastern conferences. I honestly think that any of the top eight Western teams could have run the gauntlet that Miami ran and made it to a Finals. The West is just that much better than the East outside of The Heat.

Prediction? I might copout like Shaq did the other night when he was asked on TNT after the Spurs victory, I really don’t know. I think the series will go seven again. And another crucial difference from last year, The Spurs have home court. Miami had it last year. For the Spurs, especially, home court has made a big difference for them during this playoffs. And the Spurs have more motivation. 28 seconds.

Since I do think it is a toss-up and I do think it will go seven, I might as well go with the home team. So I will say Spurs in seven.

What do you think?