Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Dez Reviews 'Star Wars: The Adventures of Han and Chewie,' er, I mean, 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'


Well, here it is. So how good is it? Does it occupy the same rarified air that the original Trilogy does (or, let's face it, really just 'A New Hope' and "Empire Strikes Back')? Does it bring back the wonder once again? Does it start to heal the, in the words of a recent review I read, PTSD inflicted by George Lucas upon Star Wars fans with his infernal Prequels?

Yes. To all of the above. One thing that I quickly was reminded of as I watched this new chapter in the Star Wars saga, was just how bad the Prequels were. My God, how we wanted to love them. How we yearned to love them. But they are, quite simply, cold and unloveable. As cold as the overstuffed digital effects that George Lucas has made his religion. Side note: get a copy of the great documentary 'The People vs. George Lucas,' which chronicles the love/hate relationship Star Wars fanatics have with The Creator (Lucas). But the Prequels did provide a service, in a sense. They brought expectations back down to earth, they freed director J.J. Abrams and future directors of impossible standards to meet. Because whatever they do, even if it is just filming Han Solo sitting on the toilet reading a magazine for an hour, it would still be better than 'Phantom Menace.'

I will keep this review spoiler free until the end, at which point I will warn you, dear reader, with a SPOILER ALERT so you can stop reading there if you are one of the 5 people left in this country who have not seen this movie.

First the negatives. As many reviews have already pointed out, Abrams' reverence for the original Trilogy is a little too prevalent. He recreates, in a way, many of the key elements of 1977's 'A New Hope,' with his own cantina scene, a new Death Star, another trench run, a new Darth Vader-like character with his own new Tarkin-like foil, a new heroic trio of two boys and a girl. Then he stretches things with another Oedipal plot. Domnhall Gleeson's General Hux is not nearly as menacing or cool as Grand Moff Tarkin was (who he was clearly designed to model). Peter Cushing, who played Tarkin in 1977, was a unique and interesting actor, and Gleeson, at least here, is not. I do like how Hux and new generation Vader obsessive Kylo Ren are competing for power within the new First Order. That provides for some more interesting dynamic than the Tarkin/Vader-on-a-leash dynamic of 1977 did.

BELOW: Unfortunately, General Hux...
...is no Grand Moff Tarkin.

My only other criticism is something that has been present in every Star Wars film. For a movie that spans galaxies, it's a small universe after all. Many things in this film (as with the others) happen due to very fortuitous circumstances. The new Death Star is literally embedded in and is the size of an entire planet. Yet the characters seem to run into each other at the right times. Han Solo and Chewbacca have been searching for their Millenium Falcon for presumably years, and they happen to come across Rey and Finn in the Falcon when they need it. It seems pretty lucky that Rey happens to be in Maz Kanata's cantina, and Kanata just happens to have Luke Skywalker's lightsaber in her basement storage. But you know, go through any of the Star Wars films and they often depend on these coincidental meetings. You just sort of accept this and enjoy the film.

But the positives are huge. Let's just say that I did not really want to rush out and see any of the Prequels a second time after I saw them. When this was over, I was already thinking about watching it again. Abrams has brought back a light touch, humor, interesting characters, and good dialogue...all of which was missing from the Prequels. This movie, above anything else, was FUN. Gen. Hux aside, his new stable of characters are all interesting. I am looking forward to continuing the adventure with Poe Dameron, Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, etc. in the films to come. Abrams masterfully brought in the old characters and integrated these new ones. And it was natural. The new and the old never felt out of place in each others' company. That was a feat.

It would have been so easy to make Kylo Ren a Darth Vader clone (he certainly does physically). But while Kylo Ren may be obsessed with Vader, he is not Vader. The key scene for me, the one where I decided "oh, this guy is interesting in his own right," was when some underling delivered the usual "they got away" news to Ren. Vader would have Force-choked the poor bastard and then promoted someone else. Ren takes his lightsaber and throws a tantrum, destroying the console before him, then takes a breath and steadies himself, turns to the messenger and asks "anything else?" He is not in control of his emotions or powers, he is a live wire and unpredictable. That makes him more dangerous in some ways. It would have been so easy and lazy to make him some generic baddie that you see in so many superhero movies. Abrams doesn't do that.

ABOVE: Kylo Ren has an unhealthy Darth Vader obsession

Abrams is the ultimate Star Wars fanboy. That can be a negative, as is discussed above in that Abrams doesn't take more risks with the franchise than he could have. But, he also knows what every Star Wars fan wants. And that is more Han f*ckin' Solo and more Chew-f*ckin-bacca. And he delivers. Han and Chewie are major characters in this film. And anyone of my generation who doesn't get a lump in their throat, or at least get some goosebumps, when Han and Chewie step aboard the Millenium Falcon once again...I don't want to know you. You are not of my species. Harrison Ford is more grizzled, but his Han Solo is still the rogue he always was, albeit a bit more wise and weary. How Solo and Chewie work with the new Rey and especially Finn is just fantastic. About as smooth of a passing of the torch as I have ever seen on film. As a subset of this point, Abrams also makes more use of Chewie as his own character, not just as a sidekick of Han Solo. That was welcome as well.

ABOVE: HELL YEAH

The real favor Abrams has done for us is creating a new set of heroes to take us into the future. Daisy Ridley with her portrayal of the resourceful scavenger/orphan Rey who is strong with The Force makes her an instant star, and deservedly so. Oscar Isaac's cocky X-Wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron is great as well, and someone who I wish got more screen time. I am sure he will in future films. But the real secret weapon here is John Boyega's soulful stormtrooper with a conscience, Finn. It is through Finn where much of the humor comes. As he breaks Poe out of the First Order's prison ship...Finn: "just stay calm." Poe: "I am calm." Finn: "I'm talking to myself." These three characters are more than capable of taking this franchise into the next trilogy and beyond. And, as has often been commented upon, a more diverse future. The three major characters for the future: a white female strong with The Force, and a black man and a hispanic man.

ABOVE: John Boyega as Finn (seen here having a heart to heart with Han Solo) has more heart, spirit and character than all of the characters George Lucas created in the Prequel Trilogy combined.

Bottom line: while not a perfect film, it is as much as we could expect and hope for. A fun, rollicking ride that is reverential of Star Wars history but is also taking it into the future. A future that I can't wait to see.

**** out of *****

Just for funsies, where does 'The Force Awakens' fall within the franchise as far as greatness? I'd put them in this order:

The Empire Strikes Back *****
A New Hope *****
The Force Awakens ****
Return of the Jedi ***1/2
Revenge of the Sith ***
Attack of the Clones **
Phantom Menace *

SPOILER ALERT...read no further if you have not seen the film and wish to be surprised...SPOILER ALERT


I am giving you more space so you don't see the next sentence inadvertently.

OK? Are you ready?

Ready?

On the death of Han Solo. It was appropriate and gives the film necessary gravitas. The scene could have been done a little better, and the whole son of Solo/Solo dynamic mirrors too neatly Vader/Luke, but it completes the handing of the franchise over to a new generation. Interesting to note that Ford wanted Solo killed in 'Return of the Jedi,' but Lucas refused to do it. He gets his wish here. I love that Chewie, though, survives and joins the new characters seemingly permanently. It will be cool to see Chewie in future films. Hard to believe that Han had never shot Chewie's crossbow laser, though. All those years?

And I love what Abrams has done with Luke Skywalker. The MIA Luke in all the previews and promos...genius. Perfect marketing and build-up. And like Spielberg and holding back the shark in 'Jaws,' the fact that we don't even see Luke until the last minute of the film is great set-up for the next one. Yet like the shark, Luke is at the center of the plot and a presence throughout the film. And Abrams has built up enough questions about Luke that we really want to see what happens two years from now.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Dez Reviews 'Spectre' (2015)

With the release of the 24th James Bond film in what has become the longest running franchise in movie history, there is plenty of lore and tradition for fans to savor. In fact, so many aspects of the Bond films have become ingrained in our collective film consciousness (such as Roger Ebert's favorite, the Talking Villain, in which the egomanaical villain has Bond completely at his mercy and all he needs to do is kill him, but he instead reveals his entire plan of world domination, Bond escapes, and then foils the nefarious plot). Sam Mendes's second Bond feature gives true fans of the series plenty of subtle nostalgia. For the true Bond aficianados, references to previous Bond films are everywhere 'Spectre,' some clever and some not so much. Just going over it in my head right now, I saw specific references that I could identify to about a dozen earlier Bond films. The problem here is that the Craig era has successfully opened the Bond formula up a bit, so to see this slide back into formula is a little disappointing.

Daniel Craig's Bond era has (with the exception of 'Quantum of Solace') been a success. Part of that success has been a return to a grittier Bond with plenty of angst. What is interesting about 'Spectre' is how traditional it is. There is still grit and angst, but Mendes pays tribute to previous Bond films throughout, and even allows a little humor back into the franchise. (Just a little, we aren't talking Roger Moore slapstick here). Out of the four Craig Bond films, this one feels the most like Bond, with the familiar rhythms and plot. That is part of the charm and part of the problem.

They were going to have trouble regardless following up the hugely successful 'Skyfall'. Javier Bardem's Silva was so flamboyant and fresh, how do you top that? SPOILER ALERT: Go back to the villain of all Bond villains, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (complete with white cat). A Bond film is only as good as its villain. Christoph Waltz's Blofeld certainly oozes menace, although here (as in every Bond film featuring Blofeld), his motivations and ultimate endgame never really makes complete sense. But Blofeld here does not pop like Silva did. Another problem here is the lengths the plot goes to try and connect the previous three Craig films to this one, making it all one big foiled Blofeld plot. And then the somewhat ridiculous personal connection created between Bond and Blofeld. Hint to Bond filmmakers: the more mysterious and shadowy Blofeld is, usually the better. There was too much sharing here, turning Blofeld's obsession with Bond into a mere family squabble. Blofeld has died many times in Bond films, at least here they don't kill him off. They merely arrest him.

And I thought I would enjoy Ralph Fiennes as M more than I did. I kind of missed Judi Dench.

It is nice to see Craig loosening up a bit with the character. In the previous films he has been so serious that he was at times in danger of being one dimensional. In assessing the Craig era thus far (and I would guess he will do one more before hanging up is Walther PPK, since he has publicly expressed fatigue with the character and his contract has one more film on it), I still think 'Casino Royale' was his best one. This is definitely better than 'Quantum of Solace.' I did not think 'Skyfall' was as great as many others did, and I actually like this one more than many critics do. It has a melancholy to it that I like, where Bond's past is catching up with him. The title 'Spectre' of course refers to Blofeld's terrorist organization, but the title also can reference the spectors of Bond's past weighing heavily upon him. And it is beautiful to look at, really liked the filming of the opening Mexico City sequence. I would put it at the same level as 'Skyfall' for me personally, but I also see where most people prefer 'Skyfall' to it. Between 'Skyfall' and 'Spectre,' we are certainly learning more about Bond's background and life than we ever did before. Don't know if that is a good thing or not.

*** out of *****

Monday, November 16, 2015

Dez Reviews Neil Young's BLUENOTE CAFE (live) (1988/2015)


After a period of relative inactivity on his Archives front, Neil Young has finally put out another Performance Series release, and this is one that has garnered semi-legendary status amongst Neil collectors over the years. It is also one of particular personal interest to me. I’ve written several times of the life changing first Neil Young show I attended in 1988. He had just dumped his band The Bluenotes and reconvened Crazy Horse, and I caught the incendiary Crazy Horse show in Houston. That was a big part of making me the fan I am today. It was so sudden that the newspaper article in the paper discussing the upcoming show was still talking about The Bluenotes. With the release of Bluenote Café, I can now hear what I was actually supposed to hear on that tour. (By the way, not as life changing as what I was fortunate enough to hear, but I can say it still would have been a fantastic show.)

Young’s record This Note’s For You was the last of the wildly erratic, genre-jumping 80’s period before he did his career reset with Freedom in 1989. TNFY was actually one of the better 80’s records he put out, this one focused on horn-driven, big band city blues. There were some weaknesses on the record, though, including a really thin production sound and some relatively tepid performances. For many years after Neil talked about the shows sounding much better than the studio record, and in fact Bluenote Café was set for release as a live follow-up to TNFY until Neil shelved it and made one of his many sudden career turns.

Now I see what Neil was talking about. This is what this material was really meant to sound like. Typically, Neil is stubbornly in the present here, hardly ever looking back. Seven of TNFY’s ten tracks are here, all uniformly far superior to their studio counterparts, as well as a whopping ten then-unreleased tracks. He only digs deep into his back catalogue during the encore, with a joyous take of the Buffalo Springfield chestnut “On the Way Home” (which makes sense, since the original version also featured horns) and an epic, 20-minute “Tonight’s the Night.” The unreleased tracks were mostly written around the time of TNFY, so they are in the same style and vein.

The sound is thick and deep (making up for the thin sounding studio record), the horn section blazes and Neil generously gives time to horn solos throughout, as well as playing some outstanding guitar, a fantastic blues style that is still unquestionably Neil Young. The tones he gets on his guitars are especially great, a large bluesy sound that he rarely uses. As it is one of Neil’s genre exercises, the double live record is also very cohesive. A time capsule of this brief flirtation with horn-driven blues (just like every tour from the 80’s would likewise be its own enclosed world. I’d love to get a release from the Trans tour).

There are quite a few highlights. The unreleased “Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me” features a canyon deep bass groove and blaring horns, along with some top notch Neil guitar. The closest thing Neil had to a hit in the 80’s (and one of his better, underrated songs), “This Note’s For You” is lengthened and full of energy. “Twilight” (the other highlight from TNFY) is even more haunting here than on the studio record, with Neil’s guitar screeches sounding like howls in the night. “Ordinary People” (described by Neil himself as “’Cortez the Killer’ with horns”) is given a much better (and shorter) run through than the interminable version that later appeared on Chrome Dreams II. The aforementioned “On the Way Home” and “Tonight’s the Night” are also great, and a rewarding return to the familiar after a show of obscurities.

The key track, though, is “Crime in the City.” Neil fans know this tune as it appeared in a much more subdued version on Freedom, and was also played live throughout the 90’s, appearing on the live album Weld. But here, I think, is the definitive version. It is given a hard-driving beat, and Neil wails on the guitar breaks. I also think it may be the key to the transition between Bluenotes and Freedom. Crucially, this is the only tune not to feature any of the horns. It is a gritty drums-bass-guitar rocker featuring some of Neil’s best post-70’s lyrical imagery, and you can hear him getting off on this performance more than maybe anything else on the record. I think he was already starting to look ahead to Freedom.

That being said, this is still a fantastic live document that finally does justice to the Bluenotes period and band. (Interesting – Neil was sued by R&B legend Harold Melvin, since Melvin’s group had also been called The Bluenotes. This is why later pressings of TNFY is just credited to Neil Young vs. Neil Young & The Bluenotes, and this record is credited to “Neil Young & Bluenote Café,” although on the tracks he refers to “The Bluenotes” throughout).

Now we are just awaiting the long promised second Archives box set which Neil has been teasing for years. The one covering the mid to late 70’s, including the Neil Holy Grail that Neil swears will be included, Time Fades Away II. Let’s get on this, Neil.

**** out of *****

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees For the Class of 2016

Part of the fun of breaking down each year’s crop of nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is to bash the boneheaded decisions made by the Nominating Committee. I can’t really do that this year. I would not be upset if any of these fifteen nominees were inducted for the Class of 2016. I guess the shake-up/purge of the Committee earlier this year did some positive good.

Here are the nominees, and then I will tell you who I voted for on the fan poll and then predict who will actually be inducted…

The Cars
Finally! Those who know me well know that I have been a huge booster of The Cars since I started following the Hall. To me, they’ve got all of the criteria. One of the biggest New Wave bands of the late 70’s/early 80’s with a boatload of memorable hits, top charting records, and music that stands the test of time yet is also definitely of its time. Ric Ocasek’s sardonic, witty songs have influenced a generation of power pop songwriters.

Chic
Get it over with already! This is their 10th nomination. The voting body has spoken over and over again, but the Nominating Committee will not give up. They should just cook the books and get them in regardless of the vote tally. I’m with the Committee on this one, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards should be in the Hall of Fame, no question. Disco backlash? But Donna Summers, The Bee Gees and ABBA are all in. I don’t get it. Maybe just get Rodgers in for his production work with the Ahmet Ertugen award, bypassing the voting body altogether, since they clearly don’t get it?

Chicago
A big snub for a lot of people for years (not for me, not a big fan), this is their first nomination. I think their Peter Cetera dominated 80’s schmaltz have hurt them over the years. The jazz-rock of the 70’s was pretty pioneering, although never a critical favorite.

Cheap Trick
First time nomination for this power pop juggernaut as well. No complaint from me, although I was never a huge fan. To me, they have a Greatest Hits worth of power pop classics.

Deep Purple
Again, not a huge fan personally, but it is absurd that Purple is still not in the Hall of Fame. The Holy Trinity of 70’s hard rock is Black Sabbath (inducted after about 8 nominations), Led Zeppelin (inducted) and Deep Purple. Get them in there, and then start getting in all of the snubbed metal groups influenced by these three: Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Anthrax, Pantera, Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne (solo), Megadeath, etc.

Janet Jackson
There has been a grass roots effort for years to get Ms. Jackson on the ballot, and she finally gets her shot. I agree, with her track record, it is pretty ridiculous that she is not already in. The fact that she was able to step out of the shadow of her older brother and establish her own identity is impressive in and of itself.

The J.B.’s
I had to look this one up. A funk group that James Brown put together to back him at some point that then released some funk music of their own. I listened to some of it, fantastic stuff. Bootsy Collins, Bobby Byrd and Maceo Parker all went through their ranks. The Hall recently inducted some other backing bands through the backdoor (deservedly), I bet when the J.B.’s don’t get enough votes this year, they will get in that way too. Fine with me.

Chaka Khan
It is a little strange that she was previously nominated with/as Rufus and Chaka Khan but this time she is being nominated purely for her solo work. She is fantastic.

Los Lobos
What a pleasant surprise. I did not see this coming at all. Casual music fans probably just remember “La Bamba,” but they have a catalogue both rich and deep. They have fused Mexican styles of music seamlessly with American rock and roll, and also released some quite experimental albums (Kiko is one of my all time favorite records). They are a dark horse, but not as much of a longshot as you might think. First, they are very respected in the industry, and that is who votes. Secondly, they have worked with many other artists, many of whom are voters as well. (Paul Simon won’t be voting for them, I imagine. Los Lobos played on a song on Simon’s Graceland. When Simon did not give them a songwriting credit, that launched a decades long war of words, with Los Lobos claiming that Simon ripped them off).

Steve Miller
Another “finally,” shockingly this is his first nomination. Another case of casual listeners being familiar with a handful of radio hits, but an artist with a deep and rich catalogue. His late 60’s work was very interesting, and he was a hits machine in the 70’s. Like with last year’s initial nomination of Stevie Ray Vaughan without Double Trouble (they later amended it), it is odd that Miller is nominated alone and not as Steve Miller Band, which is how all but one of his albums is branded. Perhaps there was too much of a revolving door with Steve Miller Band personnel, I’m not sure.

Nine Inch Nails
Definitely not a fan, definitely deserves induction. Trent Reznor was influential on annoying trends in music during the 90’s and beyond. But the key word there is influential.

N.W.A.
The Hall (or voters) have an issue here. And it is not whether rap belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That decision has already been made with Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy already getting inducted. Do you recognize and honor a group that is so steeped in violence and misogyny, yet one of the most important groups of the last 25 years? (I guess they already decided misogyny was OK when they inducted The Rolling Stones). This is their best chance with the ‘Straight Outta Compton’ film doing so well this year. It would be a fun ceremony with them there, for sure.

The Smiths
Love to see them here again. The fact that they (and The Cure, Joy Divison/New Order, Depeche Mode, The Cars, Devo, The Replacements, Duran Duran, Sonic Youth, The Pixies, Morrissey as a solo artist, etc.) are still not in reveals a real problem with the structure of voting. Many of the voters are steeped in 50s, 60s and 70s rock and are dismissive or don’t really understand the 80s. Steven Van Zandt has said that “the 80s were a musical wasteland,” and he is one of the most influential members of the Nominating Committee. And Jerry Lee Lewis is a voter. How much Moz does Jerry Lee really listen to?

The Spinners
Great Philly Soul group from the 70s. Love to see them get in, but they don’t have much of a chance in this field. Their only hope is that there is not much competition to split votes with such a classic rock-heavy ballot.

Yes
And we come to the most egregious snub still on the outside. However you feel about their music or the progressive rock genre in general, the fact that you have the most important band of a major genre of rock still not in the Rockhall is by definition absurd. They should have gotten in on their first nomination two years ago (actually, they should have gotten in when became eligible in 1994), but hopefully this is the year we rectify this crime. Too bad Chris Squire is no longer alive to enjoy the induction.

Again, it would be hard to come up with a list of 15 nominees more deserving of induction. On the fan poll you can vote for five, but they have been inducting 6-7 in recent years. So…

My votes:
The Cars
Yes
The Smiths
Los Lobos
Steve Miller

My predictions:
The Cars
Chicago
Deep Purple
Janet Jackson
N.W.A.
Nine Inch Nails
If they induct seven: Steve Miller
And I predict they will backdoor the J.B.’s with the Musical Excellence category

Thoughts? Your favorites? Predictions?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Rockhall Matters

It is that time of year again in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame cycle, when the nominees for the Class of 2016 will be announced. Brief review of rules and criteria: an artist is eligible 25 years after the release of their first album or single. They have changed the wording slightly regarding the criteria, but as it stands here is what they say: The artist must “…have demonstrated unquestionable musical excellence. We shall consider factors such as an artist's musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction.” (emphasis added).

So, breaking that down, the only real qualification after the time limit is “musical excellence.” Therein, of course, lies the perpetual problem when you have a Nominating Committee that meets in secret once a year to put the nominees out there. Of late, there have been a list of approximately 15 nominees per year, where about 5-6 end up getting inducted. Once the nominees are determined, voting goes out to a larger group. Nobody knows the exact number, but about 500 artists, critics and industry insiders make up the voting body. Each current inductee gets a vote (therein lies another problem, what does Jerry Lee Lewis really know about The Smiths or The Replacements?) They have thrown the fans a bone, mostly symbolic but appreciated, with a poll that fans can participate in and then the results of that poll will be one ballot. Which is about how much they respect fan opinion in this whole process, 1 out of 500, although statistics show that whichever artist tops the fan ballot almost always is inducted. To make things more intriguing, there was a purge this year on the Nominating Committee where a decent number of members were booted, so the Committee is smaller now.

On the Committee, to try and make up for their alleged deficiencies in certain genres, they have created some sub-committees to specialize in those genres. The category that is most paid attention to is the “Performer” category, but there are some other categories that avoid the mass voting stage and people can be inducted directly by the Committee, like Early Influence, the Ahment Ertugen Award (formerly Non-Performer, meant to honor important non-musicians in the industry like producers, record execs, journalists, etc.) and Musical Excellence (which from what I can tell, is primarily used by the Committee to shoe in artists they know won’t be voted in by the voters, most notoriously used last year to inexplicably give Ringo Starr his second induction). Here is the most up to date list of who we know is on the Committee.

Jon Landau and Steve Van Zandt are considered two of the biggest power players, although Questlove and Tom Morello have been throwing their weight around too. Several of Questlove’s pet projects have gotten in during the past few cycles (like Hall & Oates, for instance), and Morello is credited for finally getting KISS nominated a second time (and then inducted, despite former Committee Member Dave Marsh’s famous pronouncement that as long as he was on the Committee, he would make sure that KISS never got in). Through Van Zandt, it is believed that Bruce Springsteen makes his opinions known, and for the conspiracy theorists out there, the shadowy puppet master orchestrator is believed to be former Committee member (and inductee) Jan Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone magazine.

Back to the problems of the process. “Musical Excellence” is fairly meaningless because it is almost entirely subjective. While all Halls of Fame have some if this problem, the RRHOF seems to have the worst. So I guess you can only really turn to the factors that they list for guidance, although we do not know how much Landau, et al. actually pay attention to them vs. just trying to get in their favorites. (When Ahmet Ertugen was alive and was the Chairman of the Committee, an unusually high number of artists who had recorded on Atlantic Records were getting in, which was the label Ertugen founded and ran).

Notice one factor missing is any mention of sales. They have rather proudly stated several times that record sales are not an important factor. Which I find odd. Granted, it should not be the major factor, but for a Hall of Fame that honors what is a “popular” music, perhaps what has been “popular” over time (measured by record sales) ought to be considered? But the more concrete factors that I can discern from their statement are: Influence, Length and Depth, Innovation and Technical/Stylistic Superiority. Influence I am absolutely on board with, as well as Innovation. Technical/Stylistic Superiority can be problematic. There are many obscure guitar players sitting around smoking a doobie in their suburban garage with great technique. Stylistic Superiority I take as leaders within genres, which I agree with, but you will see there are many genre leaders who have been snubbed thus far. Length and Depth are decent factors, but longevity alone does not necessarily make great rock and roll. And if you look at some inductees, they have had very short careers. Velvet Underground released four records, and the Sex Pistols really only released one of note. (Both are deserving, by the way).

Soon I will post my list/commentary on the most glaring snubs in my view, and then hopefully will be evaluating the actual nominees for 2016 soon thereafter. This post started as the snub post, but the intro became so lengthy that it became a post itself.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Thoughts On Trump (and the other candidates)

One of my last lectures/class discussions in my AP US History class last year was looking ahead to the 2016 election. I tried to fit pictures of all of the declared and likely Republican candidates on one PowerPoint slide, kind of pyramid style, with the "important" ones on top with bigger pictures and the less important ones at the bottom. As an afterthought I put a silly little picture of Donald Trump at the very bottom. My students and I had a quick laugh and we moved on to a more serious discussion. No Republican is laughing now. (By the way, I also had to explain who the hell Bernie Sanders was and the students had a laugh at his disheveled photo and then we discussed Hillary's democratic coronation. That conversation would go differently now as well).

For months now media types from all parts of the spectrum (MSNBC to right wing talk radio) have been predicting Trump's demise. This is a joke, right? People are supporting him because he's entertaining, but they wouldn't really vote for him, right? According to the media experts, every misstep is the end of Trump. Out of the gate with his illegal immigrants are rapists ("somebody's doing the raping, Don!") talk. John McCain isn't a hero because he got captured. Stupid statements like these should sink most candidates. Only his poll numbers actually go up after each of these supposed screw ups.

I believe a poll earlier in the week had Trump at 25% in a field of now 17 Republicans, the closest to him was Jeb, behind him by double digits.

Trump is not going away, and I'll tell you why. First, he has a limitless bankroll, and doesn't need to depend on begging for donations to keep his campaign afloat. It can all be self-financed, a la Ross Perot in '92. (In fact, I would not be surprised if Trump starts buying 30 minutes slots in prime time to present his case. Just wait. That is coming.) Secondly, he is a celebrity who knows media. He is the most media savvy candidate on either side. Third, he doesn't have to fight for headlines. He steps on the street and it is a CNN lead. The media is Trump-crazy (not fawning over him like they did Obama, but they can't get enough of him, and that is all he needs). And he is in command when dealing with the press. Did you see the interview he did with Anderson Cooper recently? He mandhandled Cooper. Totally controlled the interview, to the point to where Cooper was trying to point out to Trump where he (Cooper) had in fact been complimentary of Trump in the past. A leading newpaper in Iowa recently editorialized that he should drop from the race, he simply banished any journalist from the paper from any of his events. He doesn't need them like the other candidates do. It matters less that much of what Trump says makes no sense (a wall will be built on the border and Mexico will pay for it!) What matters is when he appears on television he is in command. He has sucked the air out of the Republican race. Rand Paul was reduced to taking a chainsaw to the tax code and Lindsey Graham had to make an SNL-like short getting rid of his cell phone just to get TV time.

Something a little less obvious. Even though I agree more with establishment Republicans, I know how the right wing thinks because I listen to a lot of talk radio. They despise the Boehner/McCain Republicans. They feel like the mainstream media is a Left Wing conspiracy. So the more the establishment Republican Party and the mainstream media tries to dismiss Trump or take him down, the more support he will garner from the right. His "straight talk" style is an aphrodisiac to the angry, politician hating Tea Party/right wing types. And they are loudest in the primaries. Something Trump and Sanders have in common, by the way, is that they have tapped into a Populist anger out there combined with a straight shooter persona when skepticism about politicians is high. Opposite ends of the spectrum, but the populist roots are close to the same. Trump has also mined that old nativist tradition in American politics that has popped up periodically, from the early 1800's, the 1920's, and other periods. The fear that new immigrants ain't like the older immigrants, they will ruin our great nation with their crime, strange beliefs and dangerous political ideologies.

But would Trump get support in the general election? He obviously would have trouble with the Hispanic vote. That is a real issue because it is a crucual demographic for the Republicans in the future. And as I have commented in the past, there are many segments of the Hispanic community that lines up very nicely with Republican values, both social and economic. It is an issue of messaging. Trump has done real damage in that crucual effort. But if Trump were to force his nomination on a cowering Republican establishment, what's their alternative? Vote for Hillary? The hatred for Hillary is so strong that it will bring out much of the Republican base, Tea Party and establishment. (Much like Reagan's 1980 victory was as much an anti-Carter vote as it was for Reagan). The real question is whether Trump could get independent votes, the ones that now determine general elections. His favorables are not strong with independents, but he has time and has exceeded expectations thus far.

This is a fascinating race even without Trump. There are 17 Republican candidates because Hillary is so beatable. I predict that in the end, Biden will jump in and give Hillary a real race on the Democratic side. People don't like Hillary. Polls indicate that over 50% of the American public sees her as untrustworthy. Benghazi and the email scandal are not going away and they shouldn't. She is a terrible campaigner. Her speeches are shrill and dripping with insincerity and poll tested lines. Are you willing to listen to four to eight years of that? Even most Democrats are just lukewarm on her. The alternative to Hillary, until Biden gets in? Socialist Bernie Sanders.

What about the other 16 Republicans? That is sort of the shame here. There are some very good candidates on the Republican side. There is a website with a questionnaire on issues, go here, and there are others out there as well. It matches you up by percentage with all of the candidates based on how your responses match up with their positions. Probably not an exact science, since candidates positions can slip all over the place, but it is fun. I had my students all do it. If you do it, make sure to adjust the priority meter, it makes a difference in the results. Anyway, my results were what I thought they would be. John Kasich was my highest match, followed by Chris Christie. Jeb was fairly high. Hillary was in the middle, by the way, and Ted Cruz was dead last. When I did it in the spring, Trump wasn't an option.

I don't see Kasich or Christie winning the nomination, though. Nor do I see Trump winning it, but the fact that he is in the serious conversation would have been laughable six months ago. Odds on favorites are still Jeb or Scott Walker in the end, and either one should pick Marco Rubio for VP candidate.

However things eventually turn out, the first Republican debate next week is now must see TV, with The Donald front and center.

And one other thing Trump has. He has the nuclear option of running as an independent if the Republican Party "doesn't treat him right". Like Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 and Ross Perot in 1992, that guarantees a Democrat president for the next four years. And the Republicans know it.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Dez Reviews the Book ‘Goldeneye, Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica,’ by Matthew Parker, 2015


Even the casual James Bond fan knows at least some things about Bond’s creator, author Ian Fleming. They at least know that some of Bond’s exotic and thrilling exploits have roots in Fleming’s own experiences. Goldeneye was Fleming’s home and property in Jamaica, where after he purchased the land and had his vacation home built in 1946, he religiously spent two months of the year (from about mid-January to mid-March) in Jamaica. Bond fans also know that every Fleming Bond story was written in Jamaica during those two months each year between 1952 (when ‘Casino Royale’ was written) until Fleming’s death in 1964.

So in a way this book makes a lot of sense. Jamaica and Goldeneye clearly are a big part of James Bond. It is safe to say that had Fleming not found Jamaica, James Bond would never have been. What Matthew Parker has accomplished here is impressive. Instead of a straightforward Fleming biography, his book is a biography of only two months a year of Fleming’s life in Jamaica. But it is much more. It is part biography. part Jamaican history, part travelogue, part rumination on the twilight of the British Empire, part salacious gossip, and part analysis of the creation and writing of the James Bond novels (although we don’t even get to the first Bond novel until about 125 pages in, that is fine because the other topics of this book are so well done).

None of this would work, of course, unless Ian Fleming himself weren’t so damn interesting. And fortunately, he was a pretty fascinating, if not likeable, character. He comes across here, and I have read this elsewhere as well, as an endlessly interesting friend and partner in having good times, but a horrible person to try to be closer to (say as a wife, son, etc.) He simply would not let people get too close, almost pathological about his solitude and need for freedom and space. He was also the perfect figure to use to look at the uncomfortable ending of an Empire, both as a figure clawing and scratching while being dragged into the sunset but also one who sees the reality of what is happening with a somewhat sardonic British humor. And that insecurity, of the once top dog on the block having to step aside for the Americans and Russians, permeates the Bond novels as well.

“All history is sex and violence.” – Ian Fleming

That is one reason the Bond novels resonated so much in Britain. In the wake of humiliations like the Suez Crisis, Bond was an escape for Brits to see themselves as still powerful. When in reality, they no longer were. More than anything else, the Bond novels are strong colonial/Imperial nostalgia, as well as a way to vent at the loss of strength and vitality (or Empire). Parker says “Even the thickest-skinned nostalgist could no longer deny [Britain’s] second-class status. But this would make the escapism of Fleming’s stories, in which, behind the scenes, Britain in the figure of super-agent 007 still bestrides the globe, more popular than ever. The world of Bond was rapidly becoming a place where the nation could congregate around a vision that denied Britain’s disappointing new reality.” And “ “Bond expresses [Britain’s] complicated relationship with [its] past, and [its] empire – at once a little bit proud, a little bit ashamed, and forever aware that [its] ‘greatest days’ are behind [it].”

Take the following remarkable passage from the Bond novel ‘You Only Live Twice,’ where in this dressing down of Bond by Japanese agent Tiger Tanaka, Fleming takes the opportunity to go through a cathartic dose of reality worthy of any monk’s self-flagellation:

Tanaka: “You have not only lost a great Empire, you have seemed almost anxious to throw it away with both hands…when you apparently sought to arrest this slide into impotence at Suez, you succeeded only in stage-managing one of the most pitiful bungles in the history of the world, if not the worst. Further, your governments have shown themselves successively incapable of ruling and have handed over effective control of the country to trade unions, who appear to be dedicated to the principle of doing less and less work for more and more money. The feather-bedding, this shirking of an honest day’s work, is sapping at ever-increasing speed the moral fiber of the British, a quality the world once so admired. In its place we now see a vacuous, aimless horde…whining at the weather and the declining fortunes of the country, and wallowing nostalgically in gossip about the doings of the Royal Family.”

Wow. Through Tanaka, Fleming is clearly venting and editorializing on the current state of Britain. He does that often through his books.

And who has taken Britain’s place? Fleming grudgingly admits it is the United States. While acknowledging the deep friendship between the U.S. and UK, there is still a startling anti-Americanism that shines through in the Bond books. It is interesting to look at Bond’s relationship with his CIA counterpart, Felix Leiter. Leiter is rather hilariously played by an array of actors throughout the Bond films (he was even black, along with most everyone else, in 'Live and Let Die'). “[Leiter’s] close and friendly relationship with Bond represents an optimistic, or even fantastic, model for Britain’s relationship with the United States. Leiter’s role is to supply Bond with technical support, hardware and muscle, as well as money. Bond – and by implication Britain – provides the leadership, intelligence and daring,” states Parker.

But Fleming is also often spiteful and jealous of America. In a private letter he discussed America’s “total unpreparedness to rule the world that is now theirs.” Other than Leiter, almost all of the Americans that Bond encounters in the novels are “surly, uncooperative and jealous of [Bond’s] success and panache.” In a travelogue book he wrote, ‘Thrilling Cities,’ Fleming describes beating the “syndicates” of Las Vegas, and having to “wash the filth of the United States currency off my hands.” Vegas is “ghastly,” New York is obsessed with the “hysterical pursuit of money,” and Chicago is “grim.”

ABOVE: Fleming's paradise, Goldeneye, where all of the Bond stories were written. Interesting fact: after Fleming's death Bob Marley seriously considered purchasing Goldeneye, but deciding that it was too "posh" and wouldn't jibe with his revolution image, he passed.

One of the more interesting aspects of Fleming that Parker discusses is his views on race, ethnicity and nationality. First of all, it is important to remember both the times in which he lived and the fact that he was a Brit from the upper middle crust living in a colonial possession. Or, context. But anyone who has read his Bond novel ‘Live and Let Die’ cannot escape the racist tone throughout. Through Bond’s eyes, Fleming describes blacks as “easy prey to sickness and fear” due to “weak nerves.” Their “organs of sight and hearing are keener than ours,” feeding into the racist clichés of making blacks closer to the animal kingdom than whites. The black henchmen of Mr. Big are “clumsy black apes.” While in Harlem, Bond reflects that the smell of “negro bodies” is “feral.” Harlem is a “jungle.” And so on.

But Parker makes an interesting point. “It is also important to note that Fleming – and Bond – looked down on pretty much everyone who was not British and perceived people of all colours in terms of negative stereotypes of race and nationality.” Parker quotes from several Bond books: in ‘Moonraker,’ Germans have “the usual German chip on the shoulder.” The Japanese in ‘You Only Live Twice’ have “an unquenchable thirst for the bizarre, the cruel and the terrible.” The Italians in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’: “bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meatballs and squirting scent over themselves.” The Afrikaners in DAF: “a bastard race, sly, stupid and ill-bred.” The Chinese in ‘Dr. No’ are “hysterical.” As Parker says, “No villain in the Bond novels is ever British. Even when they are British citizens…they turn out to be of foreign racial origin.” In a letter to his wife discussing America, Fleming once simply said “all foreigners are pestilential.”

That being said, for his time and station, Fleming did have a better view and relationship with the local Jamaicans than many of his compatriots. Like the Bond of the novels, Fleming “loves the spontaneity, the physicality and…sexy exoticism of it all. His affection is genuine, then, but based on what we would now see as racist clichés.” All of Fleming’s relationships with native Jamaicans were with tradespeople and servants of some sort, but the evidence shows that they genuinely liked Fleming, at least when compared to the other Brits on the island. Fleming’s relationship with most of the native Jamaicans he knew were of the “captain/first mate” sort. Where there is respect and even room for debate, but in the end the captain is in charge. Jamaicans who worked for Fleming called him “Commander” (from his rank in the navy), and he apparently relished the title.

A perfect model is the character of Quarrel, the Jamaican sidekick Bond has in several of the novels. “So here we have Fleming’s ideal colonial relationship. There is no challenge to Bond’s superiority – rank, as on a ship, is taken as read; Quarrel is unmistakably ‘staff.’ But with mutual respect established and power relations solidified by history and custom, there is no need for coercion. Quarrel will ‘follow Bond unquestioningly.’” Quarrel will even instruct Bond in certain skills, like spearfishing. But in the end, Bond sets the agenda and Quarrel will make every effort to help Bond succeed.

One question many people have with any sort of interest in Fleming or Bond, is how much of Bond is really also Fleming? Fleming did have some dashing adventures during World War II. One of the keys, argues Parker, lies in Bond’s birth at Goldeneye in Jamaica. Fleming was more at home in the tropics than back in England. He came alive there. The book wonderfully captures the decadent last days of partying by the British elites as the sun sets on the British Empire. There is a shocking lack of morality amongst these people. Marriage vows are not to be taken seriously. Fleming, like Bond, was a serial womanizer. When he got married, that changed very little. Fleming wrote of Bond in ‘Casino Royale’: “the lengthy approaches to a seduction bored him almost as much as the subsequent mess of disentanglement.” The same could have been said of Fleming.

ABOVE: Ian Fleming and Sean Connery in Jamaica during the filming of the first Bond film, 'Dr. No' (1962). Fleming was not impressed with Connery originally, thinking him too brutish. Fleming changed his mind after having dinner one evening with Connery and watching the female patrons watch Connery. Connery later said of Fleming: “I know he was not that happy with me as [Bond]. He called me, or told somebody, that I was an over-developed stuntman…But when I did eventually meet him he was very interesting, erudite and a snob – a real snob. But his company was very good for a limited time.”

ABOVE: Fleming has a drink with Ursula Andress, the gorgeous actress who portrayed Honeychile Ryder in 'Dr. No.' Not surprisingly, Fleming was reported to have been smitten.

In case you don't understand why Fleming was smitten, try this one:

Fleming was not your typical English stuffed shirt. He came alive in Jamaica, and loved physical danger. He was an obsessive snorkler off his private beach at Goldeneye, and thrilled in swimming with sharks and barracuda. He explored every inch of the island, the seedy parts as well as high society. He despised social gatherings of the British elite, preferring the saucier company of his good friend, playwright Noel Coward. As Parker says, “Jamaica seemed to Fleming the perfect mix of British old-fashioned imperial influence and law and the dangerous and sensual, of reassuring conservatism and the exciting exotic: in effect, the same curious combination that would make the Bond novels so appealing and successful.” When asked about his formula, Fleming once stated “What I endeavor to aim at is a certain disciplined exoticism.”

Writing of Bond, Fleming could also be talking about himself. Bond is often described as cold, cynical and ruthless, but also always trying to control emotions and passions boiling just under the surface. “Like all harsh men, cold men, he was easily tipped over into sentiment.” Bond is a hero for the new, “increasingly classless, jet-set age.”

Parker addresses Fleming’s uncomfortable self-awareness that he was producing what we would today call pop culture for the masses, as opposed to great literature. Fleming often gives a knowing wink within the novels themselves. There is a fascinating and often told anecdote of Fleming coming home one evening to one of his wife’s many high society dinner parties of English artistes, and as he was sneaking through the back so as not to have to socialize, he overhears the guests mockingly reading passages from one of his Bond novels. His wife often dismissed the books as “Ian’s pornography.” These books never were high art. Then again, today we probably don’t know the names of most of those dinner guests, do we?

Like his character Bond, Fleming lived fast and had sort of a death wish. He smoked heavily, drank even more heavily, and ignored years of doctor advice to slow down. Parker points out that in the last several Bond novels, Fleming has Bond suffer this deterioration as well. In the last few books, Bond struggles more physically to accomplish his daring feats. Bond is often winded and reflects that he didn’t used to feel this way. Bond also smokes all the time and drinks recklessly. In ‘Thunderball,’ Bond is even ordered by M to go detox at a clinic. (Although this is more a spa where he beds the attractive nurse). In fact, in the Bond universe, “abstinence is the sure sign of villainy.” When Bond is thought dead in ‘You Only Live Twice,’ his secretary suggests the epitaph “He didn’t waste his days trying to prolong them.” Appropriate for Ian Fleming as well, dead at the age of 56.

If you have an interest in Bond, British Imperialist twilight, Jamaica, or any combination thereof, then **** out of *****.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Very Late Review of 'Mad Max: Fury Road,' 2015


Due to the fact that I have a five and a two year old, I don't really set foot into movie theaters much these days other than to watch Minions or Elsa. But I was finally able to go catch the new (well, couple months old now) Mad Max film. We can get one thing out of the way right now: this movie kicks more ass than almost anything else you will go see. I do admit that I am a huge fan of the original 80's trilogy featuring a pre-crazy Mel Gibson, but as I told my friend last night who accompanied me, you don't really have to see the other movies to understand a Mad Max movie. That does not diminish the films, they are just primal and straightforward: they are about survival and suriviving while keeping your humanity. And I'm a big fan of post-apocalyptic cinema.

Did I mention that this movie kicks ass? I am sure most of you know by now from reviews, both professional and from friends, that it is one big adrenaline soaked chase. While that might be a slight oversimplification, it is only slight. What is remarkable about what George Miller has done is that he keeps it interesting throughout. 'Mad Max 2,' aka 'The Road Warrior' in the U.S., remains one of the greatest action films ever made. In part because the stunts are so kinetic and breathtaking. The same goes for this new film. In a day of ever increasing, mind numbing CGI-fests, Miller keeps the digital effects to a minimum. This stuff is the real thing, and it shows. Miller and his crew really did build these ridiculous three story bohemoth automobiles, tie a dude to the third story, drive insane speeds through the desert, and tell him to play guitar while flames shoot out of his axe...


The action and mayhem is difficult to top. Few modern movies do, and George Miller don't need no stinkin' CGI to do it. Just give him some vehicles and an open road, and he will top the action of any superhero snoozefest.

A word about Tom Hardy, who takes over the role of Max from Mel Gibson. Gibson is so linked to that role (it is what broke him through to an international audience and first made him a star), it might be difficult to accept another actor. Hardy is fantastic, and has a little of the crazy himself. Mel and Hardy supposedly met early in the filming and Mel gave him his blessing to take the Max Rokatansky character into the new century. Like Gibson's Max, Hardy's is a man of very few words. So much of what he conveys is both through brutal action but even more importantly, his face. The resignation, tension, then determination, fury, sympathy, humanity...it is all there with no wasted words.

But Max and Hardy are really beside the point here. Charleze Theron is absolutely stunning. Hands down her Imperator Furiosa is the greatest female action character I have ever seen. And I'll tell you why. I find it sad (and irritating) that so many films, when trying to portray a female action hero, simply make her masculine and think that is enough. It is always the same vibe of "oh look, she can do five flips in the air too and kick you unconscious or fire automatic weapons and make quips and stare you down." (Thank you 'Matrix' films for decreeing that all action heroes must also be CGI-enabled acrobats). Now make no mistake, her Furiosa can kick your or my ass. Easily. She and Max engage in a brutal fight that is more or less a draw when they first meet. And fighting Max is like fighting a caged animal in its cage. Miller could have simply stopped where almost every other director would. Just make her another bad-ass, but she happens to have breasts.


But Miller and Theron never stop there. Theron creates a character of strength and action, yet retains a vulnerability and uniquely female understanding of suffering in this world. Like with Hardy's performance, Theron does not need nor use profuse dialogue. It is mostly through her eyes and action that we come to understand who her character is and you cannot keep your eyes off of her. I will be furious if Theron does not recieve a Oscar nomination for her Furiosa. Max, as we all know from way back, is a "shell of a man" who is singularly focused on survival. He kind of has to be, as he starts the film a prisoner who is strapped to a car and connected to an IV and is being used as a blood bank for his cancer-ridden captor. In fact, that is his name for awhile, "Blood Bag." Below...


So the Theron character has to offer the heart and soul of the film and dare to hope for a future. It is Theron's Furiosa that provides the plot, or why everyone is racing across the desert and killing eachother. She has rescued a handful of other women who were being used as "breeders" for the evil Imperator Joe. That is a large factor in the strength of her character. She is running from and fighting against one of the most basic, ancient and horrible crimes, sexual slavery, that is based inherently upon the differences between the sexes. This wouldn't work if they just made a masculine hero who happens to be female. And of course it is through Furiosa that Max finds his own humanity once again.

So this movie works on this level, and it also works as a fantastic and intense action flick. And did I mention that it kicks ass?

**** out of *****

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Dez Reviews Neil Young + Promise of the Real's 'The Monsanto Years,' 2015

This isn't the first time that Neil Young has become obsessed with some issue and decided to toss off an entire record about it, something I called "record as blog post" when I reviewed his Fork in the Road back in 2009. Recall that I gave that record a **** review. Every song was about his electric car, but it was a brilliantly loose, humorous, passionate, fun ride. His 2006 tirade against the War in Iraq Living With War is the other side of that coin. One of his worst records, it was obvious, simplistic, and below his talents. That is not to say that Neil can't do intelligent political commentary. 1970's "Ohio" (written in the wake of the Kent State shootings) is one of the all time great protest songs. It is angry, but also has a memorable hook and fantastic, less-is-more lyrics that still have interesting turn of phrase. So where does his latest political screed stand in all of this? At the bottom. This sucks.

Neil has been a passionate environmentalist and supporter of farmers for decades, which is fine. He has decided to take on the Monsanto mega-corporation and their production of GMOs, and how they are tied to big money politics, other mega-corporations (he also frequently attacks Wal-Mart and Starbucks by name on this record) and how they screw the farmer. All noble causes, but his execution is piss poor. These are some of the worst lyrics I've ever heard. Monsanto has nothing to worry about from Neil, nobody will be able to get through these songs to hear their message and rise up against the corporate Man.

The shame is that, musically speaking, this is pretty good. It sounds like good, not great, Crazy Horse. The band is Promise of the Real, a group led by Lukas Nelson, son of Willie Nelson. They are joined by another Nelson boy, Micah. The band is very good, actually. Gritty in a Crazy Horse way but a little more polished, which is nice. This came together in typical Neil fashion, he had fun jamming with the Nelson boys at a Farm-Aid event, and so invited them to be his band on his next album. They sound great together, but I wish they had better material to work with. As good as the music is (featuring some great guitar fireworks between Neil and Lukas in spots), you just cannot get past these lyrics.

Cringe-worthy throughout. Check out this doozy from "A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop":

"When the people of Vermont voted to label food with GMOs / So they would know what was in it / Monsanto and Starbucks through the Grocery Manufacturers Alliance / Sued the state of Vermont to overturn the peoples' will"

Yeah! Rock and roll! Oh there's more where that came from. The whole f*cking record is like this. Try this Shakespearean turn of phrase from "Workin' Man":

"This life was good and steady / Clean seeds for cash / Next year farmers were ready / Times were changing fast / Supreme Court in session / Made a new law / GMO seeds and patents / Had a fatal flaw / Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas / Once worked for Monsanto"...woo!! (cigarette lighters in the air). That's a sure way to get the fans excited, talk about Clarence Thomas.

At least Neil is a little self-aware here. In one of the only moments of wit on this entire album, Neil sarcastically acknowledges that the fans might not want to hear his political tirades in "People Want To Hear About Love," instead they want simple pop love songs. He warbles "Don't talk about Citizens United has killed democtracy / People want to hear about love / Don't say pesticides cause autistic children / People want to hear about love." No Neil. I am fine with being challenged by politically charged music. Just do it well, that is all I ask. Give me more "Ohio," less "A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop."

These lyrics come across as less songs and more like blog posts or angry "get-off-my-lawn" tirades on Facebook. Which is why I hate Facebook. Like I said, this worked very well with Fork in the Road, which was whimsical and rocking while still addressing some serious issues, not so well on the grating Living With War, and it completely fails here. There is also a Yoko Ono element here. Neil left his decades long marriage a year or two ago and ran off with mediocre actress / annoying activist Daryl Hannah. (In fact, Neil is no longer on speaking terms with longtime musical compadre David Crosby because Crosby spoke up publicly and said some very unflattering things about Hannah). This is the second record he's put out since he started his relationship with her, and it is the second seriously sh*tty record he's put out in a row, after a fairly strong hitting streak. Dump the mermaid and get back to making great music again, Neil.


ABOVE: Yeah Neil. I have the same question as The Croz. What the hell are you doin', buddy?

* out of *****

RIP Chris Squire, 1948-2015

June 27th from henceforth shall be National Bass Player Memorial Day, a day to remember the fallen men (and women) who anchor rock bands. John Entwistle, the great bassist for The Who, died on June 27th in 2002. Thirteen years later to the day we lost Chris Squire, co-founder of progressive rock gods Yes. What are the odds? (Well, I guess 1 out of 365). Anyway, Squire was one of the true greats of the four string. One of the few rock bassists who turned his intrument into a lead instrument, soloing along with the guitar vs. just keeping the bottom. He also did that too, by the way. That is why musicians like Squire, Entwistle, Jack Bruce, Paul McCartney and even Sting in the Police days are so much more impressive to me that a flashy lead guitar player. They've got the flash and step out and solo, yet also perform the crucial duties of the traditional bass player. And they do it on thicker strings that are less forgiving and with fewer options to use on their musical canvas.

Any listener of Yes' music knows the importance of Squire to their sound. The obituaries have all rightly pointed out that Squire is the only member of that band to play on every single studio record, from their debut in 1968 to last year's release. Squire not only played bass, he also co-wrote many of their songs and sang the wonderful harmony vocals that were so important to the Yes sound (and not talked about enough). He was the lynchpin of the Yes universe.

But going back to that bass playing. Along with probably Entwistle and Bruce, Squire took bass playing further than anyone else in rock, post-McCartney. He would often play with a distorted, overdrive sound that made it more like a guitar at times, allowing it to stand out while soloing.

BELOW: This is one of Squire's signature tunes with Yes, "The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)." Other than the drums and some vocalizing near the end, every sound comes from Squire's basses. Turn it up and really listen, you can hear some great, overlapping bass tracks that create the whole piece.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Faith?

I recently became Lutheran. I mean officially, my family joined a Lutheran church. This is the first church that I have joined in my life, and I'm a little over 40. I wasn't raised very religious. I can't recall my father ever discussing religion in any way (unless directly asked by me), and my mother was Catholic in her younger days but left the Church after a divorce and has only recently returned to the faith. Like many people who join a church later in life (or in my mother's case, return to it), she has dived in wholeheartedly. Which is nice, it seems to make her happy. My mother tried to give me a little religion when I was growing up, she would take me to various Protestant churches at different times. We attended a Baptist church in Nashville for awhile. The main thing I remember is black and white women crying a lot. Crying with joy? I don't know. I remember feeling guilty that I had no desire to cry.

I've always been very interested in religion, though. I've had a strong desire to be religious, but something in my head just hasn't let it happen. Like I told the Lutheran pastor, religion has to get me in the head first, not the heart. Unless you convince my head, my heart really won't follow. I envy those people who can throw themselves into it heart and soul, making it an emotional experience. He was cool with that, seemed to understand my position. That is why I have been agnostic for much of my life. Not atheist, but agnostic leaning slightly more towards belief than non-belief. And honestly, that may be where I am intellectually still. In some ways, agnosticism seems the only logical choice. I find atheists to be as foolish in their certainty as some devout religious people seem to be foolish in theirs. I've got some friends that are atheist and they have that sneering, condescending attitude towards religious faith that I find to be ignorant. How can you presume to think that human understanding can eventually encompass/grasp the cosmos and all there is.

I guess as far as I have gotten is Deism, or the clockmaker theory. A belief in a creative, higher Power (call it God), but a distant force that is not involved in our day to day lives, one who does not care whether I score this next touchdown or not. And one who did not "let" the Holocaust happen. One who created the world and set it in motion with what we call natural laws (both scientific and political a la John Locke) and wound it up like a clock and lets it unwind as it will. We have the free will to determine our destiny. I'm in good company, Franklin and Jefferson were Deist. Deism was born of Enlightenment thinking, and I like that. But I'm open to more and open to Christianity if I can accept it logically.

By the way, one of the best books I have ever read is a religions survey book by Huston Smith called The World's Religions. First published in 1958 and revised several times since, it is the best overview I have ever come across of the five major world religions. The chapter on Judaism is especially strong, and I really gained an appreciation for the genius of the faith. Read it, all of you.

Why Lutheran? Why now? Because of my five year old daughter. She is a vibrant, sharp, stubborn, rebellious, curious little girl. I say that with pride and trepidation, because she has great potential to be a leader and successful, but could also go in other directions. Anyway, she was at a day care/Preschool that just was not working out. Getting into trouble, and the turnover of teachers was almost constant. And this was one of the more expensive ones in our city with a great reputation. I can't imagine how bad the crappy ones are. We finally had enough and decided she needed a new start somewhere else. (I could write a whole other post about this day care). This big Lutheran church close to us has a school with a stellar reputation (preschool through 8th grade) and so we enrolled her there. What an immediate difference. Hardly any reports of misbehavior at all and a huge change in her.

Part of it is the structure and staff. Unlike the revolving door of young girls teaching at the former day care, here her teachers have been there an average of 10 years or more. But honestly a big part of the difference for her was the Christ-centered curriculum. She has really bought into this whole Jesus thing. (Well, she is five, so believes mostly what people tell her. I could convince her that unicorns rule the solar system if I wanted to). But her behavior has changed in many ways. It just clicks with her that there is a deeper foundation to morality and right living than "we just need to be nice to our friends." Why? would be her next question. With a biblical foundation, the "why" is much easier to explain and she buys it.

So, we were impressed with the effect on our child. (Now our younger daughter is there as well). We decided to go ahead and see what this community was really like, so we started attending some services. I immediately connected with the head pastor and his sermons. He is fantastic. So we started talking about joining the church proper. My wife was raised with some moderate and inconsistent religion like I was. Although, I think she is more agnostic than I am at this point. We attended the class required to join the church. I am unbaptized (as are my children), and we were told that was necessary. We'll do that this summer. My wife has been baptized. At the class we were given a complimentary copy of Luther's Catechism, which I read cover to cover with its commentaries. I like it quite a bit and could come to believe its message, I think.

Honestly, as a family we have different motivations for joining the church. Part of it is cynical. The school is an expensive private school, and church members get a discount. To be honest, that may be my wife's primary motivation. It is a strong one for me too. But we also value the community aspect. It is a large church, and we have attended some of their functions and met some great people. So there is the social/community aspect as well. We also love the effect the place has on our daughter. She talks about God quite a bit, and will ask me great, probing questions. Like "Daddy, why did God make skunks?" Good question. What purpose do they really serve? I gave her some vague Circle of Life crap explanation. But really, why are they here? But I have also more genuine, spiritual motivation to do this. Or at least open curiosity. And that is where it often starts, right? We'll see.

Finally, I don't know if you saw this Pew Research Poll conducted that was in the news a couple of months ago about the changing (and declining) religious landscape of America. It is here. Fascinating. Being somewhat contrarian, the results of this remarkable study make me want to be more religious, not less.

Since I have more time over the summer, I have volunteered to work at the Church's Vacation Bible School this week. There are about 1500 kids of all ages attending this extravaganza, and it is not all Bible stuff. A lot of it is summer camp. I got assigned to help with Bible stories. At first I was disappointed. I would rather be outside playing soccer or something. But it has been a great week. One, I am working under a remarkable woman who is in her 60's and has a fantastic view on life. She has taught Bible stories for 30 years, and knows this stuff cold. We get kindergarteners primarily. I told her I can take the lead if she needs Alexander Hamilton's financial plans explained at the AP level, but she is in charge as far as Bible stories to 5 or 6 years olds go. Just tell me what to do. It's been great, though.

Today I will be playing a soldier (Namaan?) So I will get the 5 and 6 year olds to stand at attention and march around the room. Showing them soldiering, you see. I think I will be very strict and really show them what boot camp is like. Get in their face like Louis Gossett Jr. in "An Officer and a Gentleman" or something. Make them do 50 push-ups. Appropriate for 5 or 6 year olds? My daughter is in one of the groups who comes through, and it does warm my heart seeing her get excited and bursting with pride that her Daddy is leading class. Don't know how she will feel if she is in 11th grade and I happen to be her AP U.S. History teacher, though. But I can enjoy this while it lasts.

BELOW: This will be me showing the 5 year olds how to be a soldier

Friday, June 12, 2015

RIP Sir Christopher Lee, 1922-2015


Imposing figure, impossibly cool and cunning. Count Dracula. Count Dooku. Saruman. Francisco Scaramanga. Lord Summerisle. If I were a film producer between the 1950's and 2015, and I wanted to cast an unforgettable villain (and depending on the age requirements of the character), the first words out of my mouth would have been: "get me Christopher Lee." Along with partner in horror Peter Cushing, Lee helped to usher in a new generation of horror film with Hammer Horror films between the late 50's and mid-70's. He re-introduced classic horror characters to a new generation, playing both Count Dracula and Frankenstein's monster in exploitation color, sex and violence, more fitting for the times. He hardly has any lines and limited screen time in 1958's 'Dracula,' but he needed neither to make his impact.

Lee starred in hundreds of films, but he is on record stating that he thinks his best was the moody British horror film, 'The Wicker Man' (1973), playing cult leader Lord Summerisle. His presence could lift even the most B-movie level material, of which he appeared in many but always maintained a bemused attitude towards. He appeared in one of the worst Bond films ('The Man With the Golden Gun'), yet still played one of the few villains in the entire series that was Bond's true equal in deadly skill (as the million dollar assassin, Scaramanga). It is sad that such a great actor and character were wasted on that film, imagine what they could have done if it had been one of the better Bond films. Modern filmgoers recognize Lee for his performances in the 'Star Wars' prequels and the 'Lord of the Rings' films. As a true renaissance man, he even recorded some heavy metal albums in recent years, recieving a Hammer Metal Golden Gods award in 2010 for his album, Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross!

ABOVE: Christopher Lee, metal god?

He played villainous and atrocious characters, but you always assumed the man himself was anything but. And you would be correct. At 6'5", he literally towered over those around him. He did a lot of work for charity, and his World War II service is pretty fascinating as well. He served in Finland, then in the RAF, then conducted subtantial intelligence work throughout Africa. After that he served in Italy, and finally worked hunting down Nazi war criminals before retiring from the military and turning to an acting career.

Below is a rogue's gallery of Lee's most memorable roles...

ABOVE: Bringing Dracula to the sex, drugs and rock and roll generation

ABOVE: As assassin Francisco Scaramanga in the Bond film, 'The Man With the Golden Gun.' Is it really believable that Roger Moore kicked Christopher Lee's ass? No.

ABOVE: As the insane cult leader Lord Summerisle in the British cult horror classic, 'The Wicker Man.' Lee felt this was his best film from the hundreds that he starred in.

ABOVE: In the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy as Saruman, a role originally offered to Sean Connery

ABOVE: Lee as the evil Jedi Count Dooku in two of the 'Star Wars' prequels. As was often the case, Lee was above the material.

RIP Sir Christopher Lee.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dez Reviews Jeff Beck’s 'Live +', 2015

If you are including downloadable releases and discs you can get from his website, this marks Jeff Beck’s seventh live record in about 15 years. For someone who used to take years off at a time from playing any music at all, this last 15 years or so have been a bevy of riches. That being said, another live record is not essential at this point. Supposedly he is also releasing a studio record later this year, one that he has been working on for years, so this is probably a whimsical stopgap before the real prize comes. By the way, if you want some live Beck and are a little overwhelmed by the choices, Live at Ronnie Scott’s (2008) ***** is still the one to get. For the more hardcore Beckophiles, both volumes of Live in Tokyo ’99 (1999/2006) **** are also essential.

This one stands out from the other recent releases primarily because he has a vocalist band member with him (half of the tunes are still instrumental, though). Jimmy Hall (of Wet Willie semi-fame) handles the vocals, and while a competent classic rock screamer with a tinge of Southern soul (and frequent over-emoter), as with any Beck vocalist other than Rod Stewart, I find that the vocals get in the way of why we are really here…which is to hear Jeff Beck play the guitar. Also, Beck should have delved deeper into the original Jeff Beck Group and Yardbirds songbooks if he was going to have a vocalist. Why not pull out “Plynth,” “The Train Kept A-Rollin,’” “Up Under Sideways Down,” “Shapes of Things,” etc.? (It is cool to get “Superstition” and “Going Down,” though). Instead we get mostly well tred covers like “Little Wing” and “A Change Is Gonna Come,” or tunes that have already appeared on recent live records like “A Day in the Life,” “Big Block,” “Hammerhead” and “Where Were You” that aren’t really improved on to justify their reappearance.

Now this is not a bad listen at all. Beck is miraculously ageless and still sharp on the axe. It is just a bit redundant at this point. I’d say there are two highlights, one of which is a stomping version of Beck’s industrial take on Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” But the clear peak is a jawdropping run through of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra classic, “You Know You Know,” which is nearly worth the price of admission alone (and definitely worth the individual download). Beck is in top form firing off laser sharp lines. The song also allows jazz bassist (and longtime Prince collaborator) Rhonda Smith to play a stunning bass solo that matches Beck’s brilliance.

The “+” part of the title are two studio tracks tacked on at the end. Perhaps they foreshadow a harder edge on this next record. Beck’s playing in these tunes remains innovative and surprising, although again the presence of guest vocalists just get in the way.

Dez Rating: *** out of *****

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Dez Predicts the NBA Conference Finals

THE WEST

Golden State Warriors (1) vs. Houston Rockets (2)

I still don't know why The Houston Rockets are here. I was only able to watch the first several games in their series. The ones where the Los Angeles Clippers dominated. That was more about a collapse by the Clippers (and an exposed short bench) vs. The Rockets, I think. Anyway, glad they are there. My assertions remain: Dwight Howard will never win a championship and James Harden doesn't play defense. I think the Warriors' shooting prevails.
DEZ SAYS: Warriors in 6

THE EAST

Atlanta Hawks (1) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (2)

Still don't believe in Atlanta, and I think this is where their ride ends. Even without Kevin Love, even with Irving not at 100%, Lebron powers the Cavs through.
DEZ SAYS: Cavs in 7.