Sunday, February 27, 2011

B-Ball

Cheech and Chong--"Basketball Jones" (mp3)

In my role as a school administrator, there are a lot of events I have to attend, some that I show my face at, some that I am expected to ride out for the duration. As you might guess, I greet those opportunities with various levels of internal enthusiasm. Always, I do my duty, but not always do I want to be there.

The exception is basketball.

Basketball is the game I played, the game, to the extent that I understand the intricacies of any sport, that I know. It is the game where, while realizing the full limits of my abilities, I still knew that that I could contribute. In every game that you play, you are very likely to have a chance to shoot, to shoot free throws, to score, to rebound, to pass, to make a defensive stop, to foul (an action that shouldn't be underrated). Any player on the court can experience the complete game. Contrast that with the specialization of football. And, if you screw up, your chances for redemption come regularly and often. A turnover is not the end of the world. Same with a missed shot.

Perhaps more importantly for someone like me who was a marginal player, it's the sport where if you warm the bench, you don't feel out of the action. You aren't hidden in a dugout, you aren't lost on the sideline. You run and warm-up with the starters, you sit with them on the bench, you play against them in practice. If you hit a long shot in warm-ups, they have to pass the ball back out to you. Even though you might never get in, you're never more than a few players away from hope.

The essence of basketball is the same as the essence of most any other sport--break down the other team's defense and score. It's just that that on a basketball court, a casual fan like me has a much better chance of seeing it develop and happen. And all of the ways that it can happen are quite pleasurable--the player driving the lane, the open outside shot, or, my favorite, the team passing that eventually finds the open man for an easy lay-up. Or the steal that leads to a breakaway.

My own career was relatively brief. I played basketball through the 9th grade, when my role as a third-string forward who didn't have a whole lot of growing left in him made it clear that I wasn't going to be moving on the the JV the following year. But my official career ended well, our team winning the District, the farthest we could go. Or, my official career did not end well, our team winning the District with one game left to play, a game that we subs assumed would lead to substantial playing time. It didn't come.

After high school and college and graduate school careers of pick-up games and intramurals, I got to enjoy a basketball renaissance here at school. Colleagues of mine formed a Geriatric Basketball Association (GBA) upon the death of "Pistol" Pete Maravich at age 44. Every one of us had the same jersey with the number 44, though it was reversible to either blue or white. We met every Wednesday night for years with a revolving cast of characters, until the league eventually died because younger faculty players wanted to play, their overwhelming desire to win overwhelming their understanding of the game we were playing. It happens.

The beauty of basketball, though, is the shot toward a stationary target. If you ever played the game, you developed some proficiency with that shot, and you always carry with you the knowledge that you can walk onto a court anywhere, any time, at any age, and get that shot back. Maybe not at the speed of the game, maybe not in competition, but when it is just you and the basket, you can always remaster it to some extent, given enough repetitions.

It is no accident that John Updike's legendary character Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's final act is to step onto a playground court as an out-of-shape older man to challenge a youngster and to show him that his skills, his game are still there. Harry's heart, unfortunately, has other plans.

Every person, man or woman, who has ever played the game and is watching from the stands has an unquenchable desire to get out there and take a few shots. They just want to remind themselves that they can still hit from inside and outside.

Perhaps this is why the NBA became such a disappointment to me. I loved it in the early 70's, when Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West would face off against Walt Frazier and Dave DeBusschere. I loved it in the late 70's when I was in Philadelphia and Dr. J was on the Sixers. I tolerated it during the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird years (not being a Celtics or Lakers fan). I returned to it during Michael Jordan's glory years. It was easy to jump on that bandwagon. But at some point, the NBA became something different than the game that I had played. It wasn't that the players were so astronomically better; it was that they didn't have to play by the rules that I had come to accept.

Still, I love the game enough that when my father handed me The Book Of Basketball by Bill Simmons last week, an irreverent but reverent look at all things NBA, I knew I would pick it up and start reading it. And I did. And Simmons' book treats the game as a continuum, evaluating the new while keeping the talents of the legendary greats in perspective.

I like to watch basketball, and I do that sometimes, though I don't go out of my way to catch games on television. I prefer the feel of the live game where you can hear all of the sounds that you are supposed to hear at proper volume--the clang of the rim on a missed shot, the squeaking of what-used-to-be sneakers, the almost-automatic grunt that comes after overextending for a rebound, the yells of the coach that the players probably can't hear.

But what I really wish is that I was out there.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Woman Named Pat

You Better Run - Pat Benatar (mp3)
Take It Any Way You Want It - Pat Benatar (mp3)

Pat Benatar might not have owned the ‘80s, but she had a very nice lease with an option to buy.

Were I God, I would have created a serendipitous series of events that allowed Pat Benatar to marry Rick Springfield. By now, their son, Patrick Springatar, would be in his late 20s and burning up the charts with the kind of power pop we’re sorely missing. But I digress.

Because I was just a kid, I was relatively tardy to the Pat Benatar party. I’d seen a few of her videos and heard her on the local radio station. Trivia moment: Benatar’s video for “You Better Run” was the second video ever played by MTV. Proof nobody remembers second place.

I was given the 45 for “Shadows of the Night” as a Christmas gift in 1982. I was 10. It grew on me very slowly.

For some reason, the song “Anxiety (Get Nervous)” got more of my attention. Maybe the Billy Joel song “Pressure,” released the previous spring and in a similar pop pseudo-psychology vein, laid the groundwork for me being intrigued. Somehow I tie these songs and that time in my life as the first signs I would eventually seek out a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

First I got her Get Nervous album. Then I expanded my obsession when two other albums, Crimes of Passion and Precious Time, were offered at the “Nice Price” of $3.99 each. For a couple of months, these three albums comprised most of what occupied my orbital lobes.

Ironically, in a time when videos were the vehicle and measuring stick of success, one could easily argue that Pat Benatar succeeded in spite of the general suckiness of her videos. Her most popular and ambitious video, “Love is a Battlefield,” was born cheesy and only gets worse over the years.

The video for “Shadows of the Night” arguably gave Quentin Tarantino inspiration for Inglorious Basterds. It was still a bad video though.

Her first five studio albums (and one concert album) all went platinum. She released these albums over six years. Think about that. One platinum-selling LP every year for six straight years. While not unprecedented, and while certainly not Beatles-esque, I dare you to find anyone in the last 20 years capable of competing with that kind of release pace and unbroken popularity.

Eminem had four platinum albums in six years. Mariah Carey had 10 platinum albums in 15 years and nine in 12, which is about as close as I suspect you’ll get (and, arguably, more impressive).

It’s also worth noting that, in an era where female stars rose the ranks on sex appeal, Benatar didn’t -- perhaps couldn’t or wouldn’t -- win at that particular game. Nothing about her looks or her behavior worked the Madonna or Lita Ford angle, and even Heart, a legitimately respectable musical force, kicked up another level of fame on the exposed cleavage and leg kicks of Nancy Wilson.

Pat, bless her heart, has a small chest, big teeth, and as a longtime friend says, “breeder hips.” I always found her appealing, but she wasn’t someone you’d consider universally attractive, nor did her videos work too hard to sell her as such.

In fact, many of her videos seemed almost dead set on not calling too much attention to her in such a way. Her song "Sex as a Weapon" was not posing. She'd earned some of the right to take that stand... (even if she didn't write that song or anything else she sang).

The nature of our relationship to popular musicians over the course of time is to remember the 24 different greatest hits albums released rather than for their original LPs. With the possible exception of Led Zeppelin or the Beatles (or, I guess, Radiohead), we measure people by their hits. While Pat comes away looking plenty fine when measured by her hits, it seems a shame that a lot of quality pop rock gets neglected.

You can go buy Crimes of Passion as an mp3 download for only $5. It’s probably her best overall album.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My Best of Their Best

I did not post any "Best of" lists at the end of last year. Though there were a number of bands that I liked and kept up with, too much of my music spending went back into the past, buying up old things I used to have on album or that came into my head and suddenly sounded better to my ears than they did back then. Maybe I'm getting nostalgic.

What I did do, however, as the year was winding down, was to download two separate lists of "Top 100 Songs" from two blogs that I admire, one, in fact, that was the one that gave me the idea for this blog in the first place. There were some overlaps between the lists. There were songs that I already owned by people like The National, Sufjan Stevens, and Arcade Fire. But when all of that was filtered out, there were still 173 new songs for me to meet and to get acquainted with.

I have lived with these songs, off and on, for the better part of two months, trying to familiarize myself with their charms. All of them carry heavy baggage, since someone, sometimes two someones, have chosen them as their absolute favorite songs of the year. I don't know if that's baggage that they are able to carry; I don't know if we'll be listening to them in a year. And so a listen cannot provoke a response like, "Yeah, that was pretty good." Instead, a listen must culminate in the question, "What was it about this song that made it so revered?"

Below, I have posted some of my favorites among the two batches, not in order, maybe not my absolute favorites, but some that have stuck with me for one reason or another. I have no idea which batch a song comes from, nor do I think you care. What I offer is my best of their best, or perhaps better put, my abitrary favs among their arbitrary favs. We are marching through the Land of Subjectivity, after all.

Before we get to those songs, though, I'd like to offer a listening guide of sorts. If you are my age or even 25 years younger, there are some parameters that you will have to accept if you are going to "get" many of the current bands. I fought the three points I'm going to make, fought them hard, because they are counter to my preconceived notions about popular music. But then, as often happens when we take the time to listen, I accepted them and began to enjoy the songs a lot more.

BOB'S MINI-PRIMER ON THE MODERN SONG

1. Reverb is big, big, big. I did not realize when I wrote my post on reverb back in October that it would prove to be so prescient, that there was some kind of Reverb Festival going on all around me. It's like the bands of 2010 all got reverb machines for Christmas the year before and really spent the year wearing them out. The "signature" sound of so many bands is awash in the stuff. Where would Beach House, Tamaryn, or White Hinterland be without it? Personally, I find that too much of it gets in the way, but a good song can certainly overcome it. Maybe we should blame it on the success of Fleet Foxes.

2. Where is the rock? If you are looking for good riffing, bass thumping, power drum-driven rock these days, you have to look pretty darn hard. Your best chance is probably to look at the latest releases by bands or artists who have been around since the 60's or 70's. Neil Young on his record with nothing but an electric guitar is rocking harder than almost anything I heard. So much of today's non-hiphop music is tied up in a kind of mid-tempo angst, sometimes even kind of a retro-50's sound in terms of melody and lighter, poppier instrumentation. But a brain and an ear used to rocking can put a kind of beat to almost anything and get into it. Done.

3. Where is the bridge? In the heyday of songwriting, a song usually had a verse, chorus, and bridge (you know, that part in the middle that breaks away to a different melody and furthers the "plot" of the song in some way). Nowadays, you can be lucky to get different melody and chords for the verse and the chorus. Not necessarily a bad thing, if you are into repetition. Hey, if you've got something good and catchy going, why not repeat it?


1. Foster The People--"Pumped Up Kicks" (mp3)

2. Valley Maker--"The First" (mp3)

3. Deerhunter--"Helicopter" (mp3)

4. Gyptian--"Hold Yuh" (mp3)

5. Young Galaxy--"Peripheral Visionaries" (mp3)

6. Faded Paper Figures--"Invent It All Again" (mp3)

7. Hey, Marseilles--"Rio" (mp3)

8. Tapes 'n Tapes--"Freak Out" (mp3)

9. Yeasayer--"O.N.E." (mp3)

10. Kurt Vile--"I Know I Got Religion" (mp3)

11. Tindersticks--"Peanuts" (mp3)

I hope you enjoy the mix of songs. I think there are some interesting things going on.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fundies of a Different Stripe

I Don’t Believe You - The Thermals (mp3)
Sea Talk - Zola Jesus (mp3)

To be religious is, ultimately, to delight in the absurd. One cannot be sincerely and thoughtfully devout about any religion I know of without accepting the absurdity of certain beliefs.

One of my very best friends, who was raised a Christian and who continues to attend church, simply can’t bring himself to accept the virgin birth. From whence the fertilizing sperm? Thin air? A lascivious ghost? A burning bush with a penis? Why couldn’t an omnipotent God merely use Joseph’s or some other human’s sperm as the vessel for Holy Seed?

Personally, I’ve never wrestled with this one too heavily. I get his point, but there’s so much about the impregnation of Mary that I can’t possibly know that I merely accept the claim as “good enough.” The notion of a virgin birth exists in dozens if not hundreds of myths and religions, but in the case of Mary, I somehow ignore the coincidences and the absurdities and accept it. Call it blind faith, or call it stubborn ignorance; I don’t really care what you call it, ‘cuz it’s my religion, not yours.

My wrestling matches have always focused more on the seeming personality changes in God over the course of the Testaments, on the motives of key players, on the seeming contradictions in commands, edicts, and advice.

Example: The Ark of the Covenant is riding along and hits a pothole. It begins to tip over. A dude reaches out to steady the cart and thus prevent the Ark from falling. God kills him. Because dammit, rules are rules.

Example: Judas. My questions surrounding Judas are legion. Few are likely to be sufficiently answered for my conscience in this life.

Back to my original point: Religious belief is absurd. And as a card-carrying believer in a particularly absurd-sounding religion, I appreciate this, and it’s my appreciation that makes my goofy little faith in Jesus stuff all the more precious.

Acknowledging my own absurdity is important. It gives you, dear reader, proper opportunity to question my authority and opinions when I make my next claim:

Scientology is just about the goofiest, loopiest, scariest religious cult I’ve ever come across.

My latest reminder is the novella-sized expose on Scientology recently published in New Yorker magazine (Seriously. It’s, like, 26 pages long). The drama centers around longtime member and recent defector Paul Haggis, a highly-regarded Hollywood screenwriter. He claims to have always had problems with a few specifics of Scientology, but only recently had enough straws piled on his camel’s back to break him.

Most of us know very little about Scientology. If you’re one of those people, don’t feel too bad about this ignorance. You’re not missing much. (NOTE: I previously wrote about my first encounter with the religion back in November 2009. It was not a good first encounter.)

Here’s what feels pretty solid. They’re bullies. They’re insecure. They behave very much like pod people from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Their system of progression is a pyramid scheme where money helps you buy your way up the ladder of importance. They use child labor. They keep people imprisoned against their will. They insist that the only people entitled to know the details of their deepest religious truths are those who have bought in enough.

Not all of these qualities are exclusive or unique to Scientology. I know plenty of Christians who are bullies and insecure and often give an impression that they have medicated their brains so thoroughly with Holy Water that they’ve lost touch with all reality. But I don’t know of a Protestant faith where your rank is purchased. And I don’t know of any mainline Christian faith* where we keep secrets from non-believers, at least not since the time of Martin Luther.

Christianity puts itself out there for mockery, scorn, disbelief. It parades around its absurdities quite proudly.

I watched a YouTube clip where the BBC’s John Sweeney, a supposedly-respected journalist, gets broken by Tommy Davis, the Tom Cruise doppelganger and son of Anne Archer who has long served as one of its main ministers of information. I challenge anyone with a free and unbiased mind to watch this clip -- or any of the “related videos” cascading down the side of the page -- and not be completely freaked out by the militaristic mind-control feel of what’s going on.

In the link above, there’s some annoying editorializing. Someone’s trying to scream at me to think Scientology is screwed up. I don’t like being told what to think, so this took away from my wanting to find it all creepy. But eventually a reasonable person can’t help but be creeped out by all of it. In fact, I totally dare you to watch any clip of Tommy Davis and not be creeped out. The dude. Is. Scary.

And don’t get me started on the Sea Org. Or the “reactive mind.” Or Thetans.

I enjoy plenty of Beck's music, and I’ve watched and enjoyed 90% of everything Tom Cruise has ever done. Fortunately, I’m comfortable believing great artists need not be intelligent or wise. And none of the famous folks who follow L.Ron sway me from this opinion: Scientology is absurd on a galactic level.

* -- Mormonism, which keeps a plethora of secrets (and undergarments) buried and reserved only for believers, is clearly not included in my own definition of “mainline Christianity.”

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sick Thoughts

Broken Social Scene--"World Sick" (mp3)

One of the things that you hope will happen when you are really sick, either lying in bed or sitting in a chair, too lethargic to move unless you have to, unwilling to shift a blanket from its semi-covering of you unless you become pointedly cold or uncomfortable, fixed upon a single spot or window or, as Emily Dickinson might say, "slant of light," unable to conjure a coherent thought about the daily activities that must be going on around you out there beyond your control or concern, is that your brain, cleared of everything except continually checking in on the internal workings of your body, will center on some valuable contemplation of either the meaning of life or the state of the universe, if the two are to be separated.

Human contact does not call to you, except on your own terms. You appreciate the texts and the concern behind them, but that does not mean that you actually want to talk to someone, unless you want to talk to them right at that moment, at the moment of the phone call, and that would be a very, very lucky coincidence. You have already retreated too far for that.

Food does not call to you. To get up, to walk to the kitchen, perhaps even to open the refrigerator, seems like an insurmountable task, and then, even if that door is open, you know that you will have to prepare something and that, after all of that effort, you will have to half-force yourself to eat because taste buds get as sick as anything else, or perhaps it's the loss of smell, and whatever you put in your mouth will taste dull. Salt, you think, maybe salt. Maybe your mother will magically appear with a plate of two soft-boiled eggs on top of two pieces of toast, all sliced up so that toast gets soggy and topped with salt and pepper. An hallucination, at best.

Music does not call to you. A beat, a throb, a voice, a high-pitched anything that invades the silence of the house would be too much. Better to listen only to the mechanical rhythms of appliances in other rooms, on other floors.

And so you are left only with your mind. If your body has become the diving bell, your mind is still the butterfly and it can still flit freely about touching what it likes, landing where it wants to. Your hope is that it will make a discovery, open a new door, decide a forgotten dilemma, chart a new course, conjur up a pleasant memory, strengthen your resolve, drift toward an epiphany.

Sadly, it does not happen, this hoped-for insight.

You'd think that you would at least get current on current events, try to figure out Egypt or budget battles or unread issues of something, but those hold not interest. Nor do the books you are reading call to you.

And as you search the universe, or the universe of your mind, for the essential questions that you want answered, you can only come up with these:

1. The Moody Blues--yes or no?
2. When did reality TV move beyond an ironic joke?
3. How much does everything we have add up to?
4. Did I ever think of the year 2011 decades ago and, if so, what did I think it would be like?
5. Are my students reading? Why not?
6. How did Jello get invented?

****

There is an apocryphal story, told by Neil Young himself, that he wrote "Cinnamon Girl," "Cowgirl In The Sand," and "Down By The River" all in one day while lying in bed with a 103 degree fever. Because he has a habit of not telling the past the same way twice, I hope that this story is not true. "Love Is A Rose" dashed off while in the bathroom taking a crap I can handle. But the idea that these three classics could be crafted at a temperature where my brain doesn't even work right leaves no hope for the rest of us who seek to arrive at some meaning based on our contemplations while ill. It makes my being able to step away from the entire rat race for a couple of days and come up with absolutely nothing even more disheartening.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The BOTG Nightmare Come True

The Tourist - Radiohead (mp3)
Nut In Your Eye - Alcoholic Faith Mission (mp3)

A teacher in Pennsylvania has scared me shitless.

She wrote a semi-anonymous blog. She said some harsh things about her job and about her students. Sometimes using really inappropriate naughty words. Words even worse than “shitless.” She got found out. She got in big trouble. She made national news. Extra extra read all about it!

Considering that neither of BOTG’s authors have as our primary goal “fame sans fortune,” the story of Natalie Munroe is a pure horror story for us. With Natalie’s fate, you get all the notoriety and little if any of the financial reward.

Neither of us are quite as jaded about students as Mrs. Munroe seems to be. But I’m absolutely certain that someone could come in, take our writing out of context -- or, OK, maybe once in a while take it totally IN context -- link it to the two actual human beings hiding behind the curtain of Internet semi-anonymity, and start us down the slow road of ending our careers.

Because I take Mrs. Munroe’s fate so personally, I can write with even greater conviction that she seems like exactly the kind of teacher we don’t need more of.

Kids today are screwed up. I don’t debate that, and I don’t make that statement with any sense of superiority. I state it as a matter of fact. But anyone who has read this blog with any regularity -- yes, all three of you -- knows that Bob and I tend to look up the seniority chain when assessing blame for problems in education.

Lethargic or spoiled child? Look to the parents. Lethargic or indifferent classroom? Look to the teacher. Lethargic faculty? Look to the administration. Wherever common sense tells you to lay blame, go one step farther up the ladder whenever possible. (NOTE: Bob, I’m sure I’m unfairly lumping you in here, so please feel free to clarify where you think I’m a moron.)

The feeling I get from reading her cached entries is that her frustration is more condescending. Hers is the indignation of Principal Vernon from The Breakfast Club. Outward more than inward. Them more than us.

Yeah fine, we’ll throw stones at Alejandro Escovedo or someone once in a while, but I think we tend to be very careful when doing so about issues like education, teaching and learning. Bob is an utterly phenomenal teacher, and I’m not, but I’ve got the classroom experience necessary to appreciate the craft and know not to dismiss its degree of difficulty too lightly.

Mrs. Munroe is not unique. Our school, all schools, have teachers who are fed up. Many of them deal with a student body far more nightmarish and problematic than the one at our school. And I sympathize with them. Asking teachers to hold onto their ideals and hopes in their daily environments is like asking prison guards to keep thinking the best about human nature. (Granted, our school in this analogy is that country club prison where the inmates get pedicures, but the guards still get testy at times.)

Just because she deserves sympathy doesn’t excuse her, unfortunately. Hers is a job that offers few rewards, most of them long-term investments, and many horrors. But her attitude... well, it’s for shit. She’s lost her edge, as Top Gun might say. She needs to turn in her wings.

Kids didn’t just magically turn sour on education in 2008. Apathy isn’t some virus that just started infecting the teenage masses in the 21st Century. Every year, the educational experience these kids receive becomes farther removed from their present reality. To bastardize Matthew McConaughey’s quote from Dazed and Confused, “High school education, man. It gets older, and the kids stay the same age.”

The intellectual arsenal many teachers bring into the classroom is the equivalent of bringing a WWI biplane into a dogfight with an F-15. They bring out the educational equivalent of Howdy Doody and Gidget and then wonder why the kids don’t engage.

I’m not just talking techno-gadgetry here. One of our best and most captivating teachers, even in the spring of 2011, is a straight-up hardcore lecturer. He talks. And talks. And talks. You, the student, listen. And take notes. And steel yourself to have the right damn answer if and when he calls on you. And most of the students love him! Granted, his students are mostly high-pressure, Type A, study-obsessed ones. But so what? He’s got his niche, and he’s damn good at it.

My bet is that Mrs. Munroe thinks she’s entitled. Entitled to students who are enthralled with her wit, her intelligence, her talents. She shouldn’t have to earn their enthusiasm. Yeah well, tough tamales. If she entered the teaching profession unaware of the general disaffected nature of being a teenager, then she was either homeschooled on a small island in the Pacific or drank so much in college that she totally forgot what it was like to be a high school student.

Slam the students. They deserve it. But for every sentence you write slamming the smallest cogs in the machine, write a few paragraphs questioning the system, the administrators, the teachers, and the parents. It’s the adults who run the damn thing. If the problems with the asylum could be addressed merely by fixing the inmates... well, you wouldn’t much need the damned asylum in the first place.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Tawny Breast

Postcards from Paradise - Flesh for Lulu (mp3)

It was not my intention to write about anything awkward or sexual for a while, but Whitesnake has a new album out.

No, seriously. Yeah, that Whitesnake. They really have a new album.

David Coverdale, the flaxen-haired lead singer who was already approaching AARP age when “Here I Go Again” became the earworm of choice in 1987, has somehow found three musicians to travel through small casinos and venues to keep the dream of rock immortality on an iron lung just a little bit longer. When his dream isn't on the iron lung, it appears Mr. Coverdale himself is.

Today the part of David Coverdale will be played by Katey Segal in lots of agey makeup!

Or... Whitesnake, featuring lead singer Angela Lansbury!

Here’s the link to the video. I couldn’t in good conscience embed it here, because it’s just not very good. Further, looking at Coverdale in motion rather than in a single still capture just makes me very, very, very sad. And a little bit nauseated.

Coverdale emerged into popular consciousness with Deep Purple, but he was a replacement in that band. Whitesnake was his baby from the get-go.

Like most musical acts in the ‘80s to elevate themselves into platinum stardom, Whitesnake would never have hit the radar without a seriously memorable video. It’s unlikely that anyone filming the video could have predicted the influence of an attractive unknown redhead dancing on the hoods of a few Jaguars. Sure, the song was catchy enough on its own, but something about that woman, and that dancing, and those cars, that combined for an incredibly popular video.

My friend Scott and I were in on a little secret. We knew why the video was so damned popular. We were two of the teenagers who watched the request show on MTV each night to see it. We both recorded it on tape. Several times. Even if we hadn’t been naturally inclined to like the song, we fell in love with it because of what it stood for in its essence: a beautiful, perfect, inadvertently-exposed breast.

Wanna know where I fell on the social ladder? Wanna know how awkward and clueless I was around women? Here’s all you need to know: Scott and I could tell you every last detail about that video. You could blindfold us, and we could still have paused the VCR on the exact moment when Tawny’s breast pops onto the windshield of that Jag. Camera slides in front of band. Coverdale humps the mic as it hangs upside down. Tawny glides belly down the front of the black Jag, and STOP! Boob Time!

(If you must witness this rare moment for yourself, a moment that in the world of Skins is almost yawningly laughable, feel free to go directly to 2:19.)



Younger readers will need to appreciate a crucial difference in teenage life circa 1987. Boobs were precious and rare. Each boob sighting was a gift from the boob gods. It was easier in 1987 for a dorky boy to sight a bald eagle than to see the bare breast of an attractive woman. There was no Internet, no land of unlimited and free porn, no such thing as Google image searches where even an innocent entry can result in a few dozen unwanted nipples.

Boobs back in 1987 were confined to convenience store magazine racks -- most of which remained behind the counter with that grouchy-looking fat lady smoking a KOOL. I was fortunate enough to have located my father’s three Playboys a year or so prior, so I’d had the immeasurable pleasure of getting intimately acquainted with Vanna White’s upper torso. Our coveted swimsuit magazines and the Victoria’s Secret catalogues we snatched from our mothers’ wastebaskets were considered high-test. The occasional sheer nightie or wet bikini, items that permitted a glance beyond mere fabric, became memorized or dog-eared pages. They were the teen testosterone equivalent of highlighted Bible verses. I was perfectly capable of recreating, in my mind’s eye, every last (sometimes, admittedly, airbrushed) detail of a model’s curves.

In certain things, knowledge and information can indeed be counterproductive. I mourn for the current teenage boy who has seen more sexual positions enacted in digital film by the time he’s 16 than my grandfather could have possibly dreamt up. My grandfather surely mourned for me, being exposed to an assault of model-perfect naked breasts and thong-backed bikinis, thus building up an unfair expectation of what an awesome and miraculous spectacle any nude female should be. It's almost impossible for anyone of my generation -- and definitely so for anyone younger than 30 -- to imagine a time when the only way to see a naked woman was to actually have a naked woman physically present in front of your very eyes.

This is the crap that goes through my head when I see the withered and frightening visage of David Coverdale circa 2011.

Tawny Kitaen was at the peak of her attractiveness in 1987. A life of sleeping with overaged rock stars would gradually deteriorate her appearance in ways that mere age cannot.

This video was the pinnacle of their relationship, the band, her looks, his talent. Yet David Coverdale will get no Crazy Heart movie made about his life. No comeback awaits him. He will merely continue to slip into the sad and too-long denouement of an existence that was, for a couple of years here and there, the stuff of envy.

And Tawny... I guess I owe her either a heartfelt thank-you or a sincere apology. Probably both.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A DOZEN MUSICAL ROSES FOR VALENTINE'S DAY: Songs for the Lost and the Lovers

Happy Valentine's Day! Just a little collection of favorite songs that touch on all matters of love you. As you all well know, songs about lost love and broken hearts tend to have more poignancy and power, so even a song named "Valentine's Day," like the Steve Earle classic, is likely to contain more sadness than promise.

The sun is shining, the weather is warming, and I'm taking two of my three girls to dinner tonight, so though there are no cheesy cards or boxes of chocolate in the house right now, the day still feels kind of special.

As is typical for a Bob mix, some old favorites, some lesser-known tunes from well-known artists and a couple of covers. If you haven't heard "Hung The Moon" before and you want to believe in love, go there first.

1. Steve Earle--"Valentine's Day" (mp3)

2. Lucinda Williams--"Passionate Kisses" (mp3)

3. Bob Dylan--"I Want You" (mp3)

4. Gram Parsons (w/ Emmylou Harris)--"Hearts On Fire" (mp3)

5. Paul Westerberg--"Love Untold" (mp3)

6. Bill Morrissey--"Love Song, New York" (mp3)

7. Dixie Chicks--"Heartbreak Town" (mp3)

8. Greg Trooper--"Wouldn't That Be Love" (mp3)

9. David Johansen Group--"It's A Heartache (live)" (mp3)

10 Pete Townsend (w/ Eddie Vedder)--"Heart To Hang Onto (live) (mp3)

11. Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors--"Hung The Moon" (mp3)

12. Emmylou Harris--"Goodbye" (mp3)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Digital Hoarding

Faded Paper Figures--"Invent It All Again" (mp3)

Do you do it, too? Is it in your mind, this notion that you've got to have everything possible stored up on the latest digital device, in case of either the Apocalypse or terminal boredom?

In any event, it's happening again. This time with the IPhone 4. No sooner do I get the thing registered and up and running than I am scouring the Internet looking for things to load onto it. I've had it 3 days; I've already amassed over 40 Apps. Using them, I can do everything on the phone from tune my guitar and transfer money to my children (why don't they ever transfer it to me?) to find recipes for mixed drinks to locating and listening to any NPR station in the country live.

I have not listened to NPR for years. I am a digital hoarder.

I think it probably started way back with the Walkman, the one that played cassette tapes. Well, maybe before that. It might have started when we got our first VHS player. At that time, we started taping everything on a timer, to watch later or when we got home from work, things like Live Aid in its entirety, All My Children (we have never watched a soap opera before or since), movies off of HBO, and episodes of Miami Vice. You start out taping what you are going to watch later that day; you end up taping things you might watch some time, possibly. And the Walkman was the same way. Given this chance to make some portion of a massive record collection portable, I had to have mixtapes, explorations of individual artists for "deep listening," and stuff from friends that might make it into the personal canon. It always had to be some combination of what I loved (but not too much, cause I might get tired of it), what I had bought recently, and what I hadn't really listened to.

Years later, I threw out bags of both kinds of tapes. Heat and time had taken their toll, and even if they hadn't, there was no way left to watch or listen to them.

Portable CD players presented their own set of problems. More portable than records, but still an overlapping collection, the traveling version of CD pleasure involved

In recent years, it's gotten really bad. A good 60% of the music I own on CD is now located on one Ipod, which also carries a good portion of music from other sources--Itunes, eMusic, blogs, burns from friends, free downloads here and there, etc. As I've mentioned on these pages before, there is no way to even begin to listen to it, and I am thousands of songs beyond what I had then. It is impossible to even know what's on there. I only find out when I look for a song and it isn't. But I feel some weird kind of security knowing that I have it with me at all times, that at my fingertips is most anything I want to listen to, and that it will be there regardless of whether there is Internet access, Wifi, 3G, or even, for a good period of time, electrical power. Nope, it's stored and safe and always accessible (barring Ipod glitches, of course) like the supplies in a 1950's nuclear attack bomb shelter.

Of course, I've got a good bit of bit backed up on a portable hard drive.

And now, for some reason, even that record collection shrunk to a CD collection shrunk to a pocket-sized device feels obselete. Now, I'm allowing, nay wanting, other devices to compete for my attention. I've done everything I've already described to you with my Kindle, only this time in terms of books. I have classic books I'll never read, books I'm reading, books I want to read, books I've bought but probably won't read, books I've started and gotten distracted from (not a good sign) and even weird things like a cookbook I wrote a few years ago and have now converted to Kindle. Plus, though it has slow Internet, because it is 3G, I know I can access email almost anywhere, so I always feel connected.

And now, too, the Iphone, which, in my brief experience, has made the computer itself obselete for everything except word processing. Everything else can be accomplished with at least a decent level of convenience on the Iphone. Including the Ipod. Now, I'm looking at my old Ipod and my new Iphone and thinking, 'You know, Bob, all you really need is a trimmed down collection of songs that you can carry with you on your phone. Any thing else, if you need it, you can buy it with the push of a button.'

And so it goes. I may or may not be extreme, but I know I'm not alone. We want to have our worlds with us at all times, with access to everybody, every memory (at least through pictures), and everything we like to do. At least in some partial way, we want to be able to reach into our pockets and write, listen to, or display something that says, "This is my life. This is who I am."

Part of my hoarding comes from not ever wanting to be caught with nothing to do, but I have to admit that just sitting and thinking no longer seems to qualify as an acceptably pasttime, based on all of the preparations I've been making. What are those preparations for? Is it a day at the mall in a comfortable chair and any or all of my interests with me while my girls shop? Or is it a preparation for something more terrible, some awful event or some inevitable dance with loneliness? I don't really know, but I seem to want to be ready.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Life As A Dog

Cinder Bridge--"Everything Changes" (mp3)

There are those many, many things that I have not figured out, will never figure out, but here's one that I'm pretty comfortable with right now.

Each morning, when my little Chihuahua, Taco, wakes up (and crawls from underneath the blankets and comforter of the bed where he sleeps), he is ecstatically happy to see whomever he has been sleeping with. His tail wags instantly, he yawns and stretches pushes into people to rub his back and wake his muscles and wrestle a little bit and pretend to bite and enjoy present company until present company can drag out of bed and take him outside.

This, of course, is not unique to Taco. All well-treated dogs are happy to see the people that they live with at the start of the day or after any separation.

What I've discovered is that this works with students. To be the dog. To be the fresh, excited, affectionate companion every time I walk into the classroom. To every single day be "on," to be fascinated by their worlds and, even, withholding of judgements as much as possible. To what end, you ask? Is this a pathetic attempt to be the buddy of every high school senior in the school?

I don't think so. I hope not. Because the great discovery I've made, for me at least, is that it is not an act. I am not pandering to their musical tastes or tales of rebellion or critical remarks about other teachers. I am not tolerating their crude remarks about girls or misguided perspectives on Affirmative Action. I am not trying to be on their side. No, I've just reached a point, and, admittedly it has taken some time, where I am excited and am easily affectionate and am fascinated by them. I am fully enjoying their not-fully-developed-adults company.

And that means sorting with them through petty likes and dislikes, racial indiscretions (the kind that leave a student proclaiming, "I am not a racist!"), the trying-out of gender stereotypes, the meannesses, judgements, and cuts they make on their teachers and fellow students, Democrats and the alternatively-lifestyled. Yes, it's a kind of tolerance on my part, but not a passive tolerance. I don't agree, but I'm not trying to get them to agree with me, either. It means that, rather than ending up in verbal combat, I can swallow a cutting retort to a position that offends me. But, be clear, it does not mean allowing inappropriateness, narrowmindedness, foolishness to go unchallenged. Because that cutting retort that was swallowed is replaced with a question or a hypothetical or an allegory, but I am not trying to direct students to the answer, I'm not trying to make the obvious link to the other situations for them. Leave it out there; let one of them draw the conclusion. Because the relationship in the classroom is far, far more important than being right, being smarter, being verbally quicker.

Do you really think a dog wants to drag himself up every time he gets called? Does he want to "go for a ride" knowing full well, from experience, that he's going to end up locked in the car in a parking lot somewhere while everyone else is inside a building where all of the good smells come from? But he always does, he always rolls the dice, because being with his people is more important than the unpleasant parts of being the family dog.

I'm trying to be that dog. Regardless of grades, skipped classes, ADHD, sulking, forgotten books, unread assignments, sneaky cell phones, athletic egos, broken assurances, hormones, I want them to know that I'm am happy to spend time with them. My friendship is not conditional. It shouldn't be.

And, no, this is not about rigor. Let the material be hard, let the assignments be challenging, let the deadlines be firm. That does not mean that I or you or any of us needs to play the hardass for hardass' sake, though, does it? The world is full of Tiger Moms, Helicopter Moms, Drill Sergeant Dads, My Way Or The Highway Pops. And, I know some of my own colleagues revel in "tough love," certain that it is the only kind of love an adult can give to a child, perhaps the only kind of love they were given.

But that isn't me. I've found that you can fail a student and still have him come hang out in your office the following semester, can let him know, through that daily, dog-like joy every time he walks through your door, that, yes, in the narrow confines of the class, his work was inadequate, but that you recognize he has more to offer. Funny, it's easier to pull off with students. I'm pretty sure most other relationships don't quite work that way. Woof.

In an act of professional suicide, longtime reader CinderKeys took on uber-Rock Critic Dave Marsh to defend my Escovedo post. The least I can do is to post one of her songs!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Shoe Fits

You Can Leave Your Hat On - Joe Cocker (mp3)
Make Me Bad - Korn with Robert Smith (mp3)

Twenty percent of 18 & 19 year-old girls -- one out of every five “young women” -- have already had anal sex. Before they reach 30, that number more than doubles to 46 percent. These numbers have skyrocketed compared to a similar 1992 study. This is just one of the many titillating slash disturbing factoids available for your curious eyes in “Hard Core,” a painfully honest look at our modern culture and its connection to modern pornography in The Atlantic.

If you’re too prudish to go see for yourself, you should be ashamed, because this article is an unflinchingly honest perspective on the very real world in which we all live, whether we want to or not, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

It’s written by a woman, Natasha Vargas-Cooper, and her particular take on it is unflinching and unapologetic. I don’t go around reading lots of feminist screeds on men or pornography, so it’s possible nothing Ms. Vargas-Cooper writes here is original. Some of it is either regrettably obvious or difficult to deny, but she brings an argument to the table that is ultimately fatalistic. Here’s her basic premises as best I can tell:
  1. The notion of sexual equality is and has always been a ruse, because women and men rarely want the same thing from a sexual encounter.
  2. The sex of long-term relationships is not the kind of sex  craved for in fantasies. It is, however, the kind of sex a woman ultimately wants. Because fantasy sex takes the experience “outside the realm of ordinary human experiences and places it in the extreme, often beyond our control." Which is a nice place to visit, but a terrible place to live.
  3. Men cannot separate their aggression from their sexual appetite or fantasies.
  4. The omnipresence of pornography in the 21st Century has mainstreamed unhealthy attitudes that used to be in the margins.
  5. Almost all pornography is about what a woman will do, the lengths she will go, to please a man. The man is the simple, predictable piledriver; the woman is the Gumby doll bent a million ways.
The reason a man doesn’t write a blog about an article like this should be painfully obvious. I cannot possibly opine without the risk of revealing more of myself than anyone should care to know. Or, perhaps worse, the reader could misread or misinterpret, leaving me vulnerable to unfair judgment.

Suffice it to say that, when I personalize Ms. Vargas-Cooper’s observations, I strongly disagree with her. To be fair to me and her, she admits she’s generalizing. She's not talking ALL men, just most of 'em. And what I cannot deny is that her generalizations are accurate. Men, in general, are pigs. Men, in general, are aroused by their own aggression, their need to dominate, their need to debase another person to some degree. This was true in Medieval Times (the era, not necessarily the restaurant), and it’s true with the omnipresence of pornography.

Ultimately, we're all bigger pigs than we think we are. But guys like me can bask in our relative midget piglet status.

And then comes her kicker:
“Even the crudest of online porn captures only a slice of the less-than-uplifting aspects of the sexual experience, because porn not only eschews but actively conceals the singular truth: the most brutalizing aspects of sex are not physical.”
The often incomprehensible emotional stew underneath, a broth men seem much less interested in or willing to investigate, is where the real destruction boils and bubbles, toils and troubles.

Her concluding summary of Last Tango In Paris, a film I’ve only heard discussed but never got around to watching, left me grateful I’ve never watched it. But the metamorphosis of the Last Tango relationship as she describes it sounds powerfully similar to the relationship in 9 ½ Weeks, a movie I first watched when I was an utterly-clueless, virtually-unkissed 16-year-old.

That movie was my generation’s version of porn. It was the dirtiest naughtiest thing most of us could get our hands on with any regularity. I recorded it on on the back end of a VHS tape one night and titled the tape “A Clockwork Orange” because I knew neither of my parents would ever check that one out. I never made it to the end of that movie after the first viewing, because it got so dark, so uncomfortable, so wrong. It’s my memory of the last 20 minutes, seen only that one time, that keeps me from going back to rewatch it.

Even the Joe Cocker song "You Can Leave Your Hat On" -- a song I adored and still do -- is, ultimately, a song about a dude giving a gal lots of very specific orders and how to undress herself. Yeah, he's being fun and playful about it, but he's still giving the orders, and she's still taking them.


I suspect both movies ultimately get at the same point: men are pitiful pigs, clueless to the swill in which their heads swim, undeserving of any woman, much less the ones they somehow seduce.

Not all men, mind you. Just the ones who don’t read blogs.

[NOTE: I understand if no one wants to comment on this whole thing. God knows I'm sitting here wondering why I wrote any of this out in the first place. Or, if commenting under total anonymity makes things easier, then you have my blessing (although I'd like to know your gender).]

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Delay of Game

Bob is mourning the Steelers' loss and may not post until later on Monday. See you then.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Twitter & the Luddite

Change of Time - Josh Ritter (mp3)

When removed from its Christian context, an evangelist is anyone who trumpets the glories and power of an idea -- or object or belief -- with the confidence and stubborn insistence that anything short of full commitment is weakness.

The evolution and progression of civilization requires evangelists. Ideas cannot reach enough ears and eyes without the unwavering passionate commitment from these kinds of people.

I am not an evangelist.

A close relative of the evangelist is the early adopter. They’re the eager guinea pigs of the technology world. These are the goobers who camp out overnight so they can be the first to own an iPhone. They’re the ones who pay attention to when a new version of Photoshop is released. When the Zune debuted, early adopters actually purchased those goofy things. They’re the soldiers at the front of the group in the U-boats from Saving Private Ryan -- you know, the first ones to their brains blown out.

I am not an early adopter.

21st Century progress depends heavily on evangelists and early adopters.

In the world of education, you would be hard-pressed to find a larger collection of passionate evangelists and early adopters than collected in Philadelphia in January at a sold-out convention known affectionately as EduCon 2.3. These people drank so much of the Kool-Aid that the damn thing was sold out roughly eight years ago.

I wasn’t there, so everything I say now about EduCon is pure speculation based solely on reading the Tweets and follow-up blogs of many who did attend.

EduCon is the Jesus Camp of teachers who are early adopters and evangelists. They all pack into a finite space, work one another into a fervent lather, speak in techno-tongues, and then disperse with a fiery passion powerful enough to stay lit for days if not a whole week in the face of the pitiful skeptics and realists who were stuck in their classrooms back on the home front.

I mock them because I love them, these wild-eyed iPad-toting preachers who use words like “wiki” and “ning” and “hashtag” and “techno-pedagogy.” Watching them get all wide-eyed and teenage-girl-giddy when talking about something like Pixton is to see the embodiment of hope and conviction and optimism and urgency. Sure, it comes with a dose of negative scary cult vibe, but that’s the price of human nature.

My role in the process is equally essential. My type weighs costs and benefits. We consider risks and rewards. We observe the plights and trevails, the glories and successes of the early adopters. We talk to them. We challenge them. And, over time, we allow them the possibility of convincing us to get on the boat with them.

Our pushback hones an evangelist’s message. It shaves down the brainwashing and forces them to prove their claims. We don’t make the products and beliefs you buy; we make the products and beliefs you buy better.

You know who I don’t love? You know who I don’t understand? Luddites.

Luddites are the Amish. They are anyone who, at any point in time, drew a line and determined that all technology and modernization up to said point was acceptable while all of it beyond said point was evil, deplorable, of the devil, whatever. They are people who bury their head in the sand and wish new things would just go away.

Case in point. Our IT director sent out what was intended as an innocent email. Our school needs to figure out how to use text messaging to reach students, and she was curious as to how many teachers and coaches and dormitory advisors were already doing this. How, what software or program, et cetera.

Three of the emails she received back were sent solely to decry the horror of a school that would discuss using text messages. The level of cleverness and degree of indignation varied, but the theme was constant: “F**k Text Messages and the iPhone they rode in on!”

The goal of the Luddite is merely to freeze time, freeze assumptions, freeze change. And they seethe and growl at those who attempt to move things forward.

The Republicans I struggle most to like are those who seem not to argue for a cause so much as for a bygone era. They romanticize an earlier America and long for us to return to it. They refuse to discuss social change because if it wasn’t like grandma used to make, they want nothing of it. Period.

Ironically, in the world of education, the Luddites tend to be very liberal politically. They don’t mind social change, but they fear anything that threatens the 1955 nature of their authoritarian classroom. Like grandma used to teach it. Of course I’m being overly simplistic, but it feels far more accurate than not.

Text messages, Facebook and XBox are not the enemy. They’re not the devil anymore than automobiles or rotary-dial telephones or the Gutenberg press. They are merely vehicles, means by which and through which both good and evil can be accomplished... albeit usually at a much more efficient pace. Anyone paying sufficient attention to the revolution in Egypt should not so quickly dismiss Twitter as child’s play. It seems 140 characters can play an astonishing Best Supporting Actor role in history.

Educational evolution (or revolution) need not be lightning fast. It need not be dictated and forced through by evangelists. But the longer the Luddites are allowed to stay at the table and scream out their own edu-Palinisms, the sooner it feels an edu-Armageddon is inevitable.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Alejandro Escovedo can kiss my ass

Pete Yorn--"Rock Crowd" (mp3)

If you go to concerts enough, eventually you play every audience role there is--person who can barely see show from nosebleed or obstructed-view seat, gushing fan, disinterested observer, front row aficianado, drunken asshole shouting out lyrics, sign-carrying fanatic, earplug-wearing oldie, dancer, sitter, romancer. Certainly, I have been them all. Tuesday night, at the Alejandro Escovedo concert, I added another one. I was chastised audience member, the bad kid in school called out by the teacher.

Here's what happened: about 6 songs into the set, Escovedo strapped on an acoustic guitar and said they were going to do some acoustic songs, to which I yelled, "I Got Drunk." (sorry, factcheckers, yes, I typed "I Got Drunk" here, but yes I shouted at the time, "I Was Drunk"--was probably thinking, when typing, of that great song, "I Got Loaded") For those not familiar with Escovedo's music, this was not a statement about my condition, but the name of one of his quieter songs. I was about 10 feet away; there were about 60 people in the audience. Escovedo responded, made eye contact with me, "I'm glad that you know the names of my songs, but we have a setlist up here that we're going by, so yelling out songs probably isn't going to do any good." Or something like that. A hush settled over the crowd. Some looked at me. Clearly, I had done something wrong.

Now, I'm not even a big fan. I enjoy most of Mr. Escovedo's songs that I've heard, mostly through my friend Nick and a couple of CDs I've owned for many years. The only reason I named that particular one is because the Troutking had been following Escovedo's setlists for weeks and that was on it, so when he started his acoustic set, knowing the song, I figured that would be one of the songs he'd play.

Allow me to interpret Mr. Escovedo's words to me. Translation A: Kindly shut the fuck up from here on out. Translation B: I'd appreciate it if the rest of you here didn't request any songs either, since we won't be playing them.

I think both translations are accurate, the second one being the more troubling. And that's even though I get the whole artist thing, troubled or otherwise. I know that there are plenty of musicians whom I greatly admire that play pre-arranged setlists, sometimes night after night.

When I saw the Stills-Young Band back in 1977, during Neil Young's acoustic set, people were yelling and talking, and he stopped playing. "I'm sorry, folks," he said. "I love music too much." And he walked offstage. And maybe you're thinking, 'Right on, Neil, you're making a great artistic statement' and maybe I'm thinking, 'Neil, you're playing to 15,000 stoned people in a hockey arena. Do you really expect silence?' I remember Bruce Springsteen, during an acoustic tour, telling people not to clap along because it will mess him up, or, telling Madison Square Garden "We need some quiet in here" when he starts "41 Shots." I remember seeing Canadian folksinger Murray McLauchlan at the Main Point and my brother requesting "Child's Song" and McLauchlan snapping back, "My father died, I don't play that one anymore." It's unfortunate, but when a performer implies that his or her own self-importance holds sway or that the audience has done something wrong, collectively or individually, it destroys the mood.

How dare I call for a song that he's not going to play? My enjoyment of Escovedo's show ended right then and there. He shamed me. For no good reason. Because I requested a song. Frankly, he ruined my night. Because I asked for a song.

There are other ways of handling a situation like this. God knows, I'm aware that fans shouting out songs can be annoying. I've been that fan. But why not defuse it with a simple, "Yeah, we were playing that a few weeks back, but our setlist has morphed a bit." Or placate: "Yeah, we might be able to get to that later." Or collect all the requests like Springsteen does. You only have to play one of them to satisfy the crowd. And then move on. Because, otherwise, if you're going to state so unequivocally that you don't want any audience interaction in your show, then you end up in the land of Queen--we will rock you; you will not rock us.

And, by the way, Alejandro, it ain't like you were playin' Quadrophenia or The Wall start to finish. Or in Madison Square Garden. Nope, 60 people in a club. People who knew your music and the many phases of your career. In a very intimate setting. How many other artists, in that setting, might actually play to the crowd a little, bust out obscure numbers that only the faithful would appreciate?

SIDEBAR: From a review of an Escovedo show 9 years ago: "The evening's quieter, darker songs were equally effective and appreciated. A fan's shouted request for "Pissed Off 2 A.M." yielded a riveting mid-show highlight, as Escovedo somehow succeeded with the ballad (autobiographical?) of a failed rock star who realizes he's "too old to
wear leather pants." Another compelling original was Escovedo's
heart-ripping, liquored-up stumble through "I Was Drunk."


You know, I do arrange a few playlists of my own, Mr. Escovedo. And what's been deleted from the Ipod won't be making it onto any of them.

A couple of closing thoughts: Escovedo played about 1 1/2 hours, was done by about 10:45, so it's not like an extra song or two straying from the setlist for the fans would have caused his bus to be late to the next show or that, like the Dead or Springsteen with their marathon concerts, he had given everything he had. Ninety minutes. And, a woman later in the show put the name of a song, "Sad and Dreamy," on a piece of paper with a twenty dollar bill and got the song played, or so my friends tell me. I had moved way off to the side by then, unwilling waste any more of my hearing.

Alejandro Escovedo could learn a thing from Pete Yorn and his good little song.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Not. Gay. Chicken.

Alejandro Escovedo--"Faith" (mp3)
Alejandro Escovedo--"Street Songs" (mp3)

Et tu, Chick-Fil-A? Anti-gay? Are you really going to put me in a moral bind with your most tasty sandwich of lightly-fried moist and turgid chicken, buttered buns, and slices of assertive dill pickle hanging in the balance? Must I abandon your crisp on the outside, soft in the middle waffle fries that don't even need ketchup in favor of some limp, Burger King fries? Am I really going to have to choose between my beliefs and what is arguably the finest fast food chain out there on America's highways?

The New York Times is illuminating the story of your chain's support of an anti-gay, pro-marriage (are the two really in opposition?) rally in Pennsylvania.

That just is not fair. Not when your workers are so friendly and efficient, never having screwed up my order in all of the years of driving through. Not when you are the only chain with Polynesian sauce on those rare occasions when I stray from Combo #1 and go with a box of nuggets instead. Not when your lemonade tastes closer to the real thing than anyone else's. Not when your bathrooms are clean and there are sweet Christian toys in your kids' meals. That is simply not fair.

Why are the best things in life homophobic?

I already gave up Coors Light because of their right-wing travesties. Now I'm drinking beer of questionable (meaning: unknown) character, though its main brewery is located in the same state as the offending Chick-Fil-A outlet. How far must my sacrifice extend? Do you know how hard it is to find someone who actually knows how to fry food, let alone an entire chain that can do it?

I mean, why couldn't McDonald's be anti-gay? Who could possibly find himself in a conundrum over those sad little grey meat patties? Take 'em, I'd say, I repent. Just let me sneak an occasional Egg McMuffin when I'm feeling disgusted about myself. Or, better yet, why not Taco Bell? Those bottom-feeders could bash gays all they wanted to and that wouldn't impact me one single bit. I like a bit more actual beef in my taco than what Taco Bell is apparently offering these days, thank you very much.

That Taco Bell slogan is homophobic, anyway. "Think Outside The Buns?" Really? You think that's subtle? Not to me, sandwich lady. Why don't you just be men and come out and declare yourselves as opposed to alternative lifestyles instead of hiding behind cute little double-entendres?

Not that I like the laissez-faire, decline-of-civilization ethos of the Burger King slogan, either. "Have It Your Way?" That lets everybody out of the closet. That offers societal carte blanche for anyone to do anything with whomever they'd like, whenever and wherever. Geez. That puts the French in french fries.

Of course, if you really wanted to press the issue, Chick-Fil-A's own slogan, "Eat Mor Chikin" in the context of how Robert DeNiro refers to Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver could even be see, by some skewed person, not me, as coded language for a pro-marriage agenda.

Alas, first Target and now Chick-Fil-A. What is it with these well-run companies and their attractive stores and their tawdry political affiliations? They suck me in with their tidy outposts, quality products, national consistency, and great service and then sucker punch me with their restrictive political donations. (Hmmm, both have red-and-white logos....) You'd think that the great business minds and models of this country, outside of anything computer-related, were all a bunch of social and religious conservatives.

Well, you know what the pro-gay crowd is going to do (argue for boycott) and you know what the anti-gay chicken crowd (we support marriage between a man and wife) is going to do, so all of that is obvious. I guess you're wondering what I'm going to do? Will Bob stick to his morals and boycott Chick-Fil-A and all of its fine offerings or will he cave and eat anti-gay chicken?

Sorry to disappoint you moralists, but I'm going to eat the chicken. Here's why: for those of us who are consumers, with or without a heart, there are simply too many causes tied to what we do everyday without thinking that we can't keep up. I'm sorry. I'm pro-gay; I see nothing wrong with two men or two women getting married and, especially, adopting a child who would otherwise not have a home. I know that these couples would give give such a child a good home.

But, and this is a big but, not a trivial but, I'm also going to eat the chicken sandwich that I want to eat because it is by far the best thing out there, especially on a long drive between here and there. I am perfectly willing to support people and causes, but I can't, as ordinary average Joe American, be expected to keep up with every cause tied to every product that I buy. That is simply too much of a burden. I want things to be better in this country, but I also have to eat on the road. You've got to cut me some slack on that one.

Not sure whether or not the Escovedo songs above have anything at all to do with this post. I'm posting them in honor of having seen him in concert last night, even though he personally called me out for having requested one of his songs out loud. This issue will be explored in a future blog, Mr. Escovedo. If this post ties to you to either the anti-gay chicken sandwich or the pro-gay boycott of said chicken sandwich and impacts the number of people who listen to you, tough beans, buddy.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Franzen Probably Stuck Firecrackers Up His Star Wars Figures' Butts

Umbrellas - Sleeping at Last (mp3)
Stay Down - Smoking Popes (mp3)

“I guess my life hasn’t always been happy, or easy, or exactly what I wanted. At a certain point, I just have to try not to think too much about certain things, or else they’ll break my heart.”

Patty, the depressive and tortured wife at the heart of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, wants an apology from her mother for damages done. The quote above is all she gets. And, by the time she pulls it from her mother like some impacted wisdom tooth, it’s more than she ever expected and more than sufficient.

Unfortunately, some three decades pass between when Patty first needs the apology and when she finally receives it, and in that time she’s placed her faith in a domestic house of cards and watched as it crumbles under the weight of time and things unsaid. Her husband, Walter, was never a candidate for The Bachelor. He was more suited for Beauty & the Geek. Their daughter Jessica is so well-rounded and mentally balanced as to have rendered her parents prematurely insignificant. Their son Joey ends up serving as the vehicle for every demon and angel in Patty’s Pandora’s Box of needs and wants and fears.

Contemporary literature cannot have a family without dysfunction, so the challenge for the best writers is to fight to convince us that the dysfunction of their tale is somehow deserving of the magnifying glass.

Unfortunately for Jonathan Franzen, everything I read is filtered through the comparative lens of a fanatical Richard Russo fan, and everything is doomed to lack an ingredient that the demigod Russo offers.

In the case of Freedom -- and it was also true with Franzen’s maybe-slightly-better previous novel The Corrections -- what Franzen lacks is a true, deep, sincere sympathizing love of his characters. Franzen loves the family at the heart of Freedom, but he can’t help but detest them, too.

When Richard Russo (Straight Man, Nobody's Fool, Bridge of Sighs) creates a character, I get the feeling he’s let this person swim around in his brain for eons, as if he’s developed relations with these characters in Inception time, the dream-within-a-dream slowdown where, in the time we waking souls spend watching an episode of Modern Family, he has lived a lifetime with these creations of his. He loves his characters the way a sagely wise shaman loves all people, knows all people, knows their hearts, knows they’re all deserving of forgiveness and honesty.

Franzen, on the other hand, can’t help himself. He loves his characters like Romeo loves girlfriends. It’s a roller-coaster of nauseating emotional flux. One minute he would take a knife for them, and the next he would prefer shoving the knife into them. One minute his prose gushes with admiration for their nobility and the next you can feel his seething superiority, and you know he thinks they’re inexcusably pathetic creatures.

This difference is crucial for me as a reader. It speaks very specifically to what I seek in great books, to what I value, to my weaknesses and needs. I make this clear because this difference need not be proof that a Russo book is “better” than a Franzen novel. The American canon of great books is filled with authors whose attitudes toward their characters run these two lines and millions more. Some great authors create characters as vessels of hate, as reminders of evil. Some treat their characters like infants or like gods.

Franzen, Perotta at his best, and Russo all love humanity. But only with Russo do I never get the sense of condescension. It’s why I love him so completely as an author; because as much as I write, I can’t imagine how he can so easily avoid such an omnipresent emotion in the evaluation of hundreds upon hundreds of human beings.

But back to Freedom. Twice in the book I felt he took things down an inevitable path that bordered on the absurd, as if he started hydroplaning and couldn’t hit the brakes in time. But his odd narrative choices -- writing close to half the book as an autobiography written by Patty in the third person... (yeah, read that one again)... or opening and closing the book with a semi-omniscient take on the Berglunds as bit players in the complex organism of a neighborhood -- worked very well.

I loved ⅘ of this book, and it’s a great book for anyone who enjoys a beautifully-written book about royally screwed-up families. For some of us in the Land of Beautifully-Flawed Domesticity, books like this are like gladiator battles and 5-car accidents on the side of the Interstate, and we can’t help but buy a ticket and cheer on the hungry tigers or slow down as we pass to see if there’s any blood on the windshield.