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


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.