Wednesday, January 28, 2015

More Baseball Ephemera For The Winter Blues

Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in 23 days, position players in 28.  We are one orbit of the moon away from baseball's partial return, and I am joyous.  The NFL has maintained its diva-esque insistence on two weeks between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, which this year has meant interminable discussions of ball inflation and Marshawn Lynch's recalcitrance in press conferences.  And people call baseball boring.

Anymore baseball is less a sport than a symbol of spring, summer, and early fall to me.  Baseball's return is the return life, of the sun, of days when I can wake up with something to look forward to.  The older I get, the more the winter wears on my body and saps my soul.  When spring returns I practically celebrate like a Russian peasant overjoyed when the ice cracks and the rasputitsa comes.  To tide me over, and for your consideration, are some pieces of baseball ephemera.

Jim Kaat's 1983 Fleer Baseball Card

I love the ramshackle nature of 1983 Fleer cards.  The background color is like the walls of a secretarial pool, and the Helvetica lettering makes it seem doubly institutional.  I imagine if they had baseball cards in Soviet Russia, this is what they would look like.  I love cards like this, when the photographer is snapping a photo of Jim Kaat while he's doing an interview, not even bothering to have him pose.

Reggie Jackson's Scrapbook

I was a weird kid, which meant that I learned an awful lot about sports events of the past by checking out recently outdated sports books from the library.  One of my favorite was Reggie Jackson's Scrapbook, published after his 1977 season, when he ended the World Series by hitting three homers on three straight pitches for the Yankees.  By the time I picked it up, he was a slightly over the hill slugger with the Angels.  It was full of great photos, including a breakdown of the famous game 6.

Gary Matthews' 1979 Topps Card
You can see why they called him "Sarge."

Ron Luciano's Books

Luciano was a colorful umpire in the American League in the 1970s who went on to be a broadcaster and author in the 1980s.  I devoured his books, fascinated by how the game looked from the ump's perspective.  For a little while in middle school, I seriously thought that becoming a major league umpire would be my life's calling.  I would get to see all the games I wanted, get paid for it, and have a lot of time off.  When I got the news that he had committed suicide, I was profoundly upset.

Tim Flannery's 1988 Fleer Baseball Card
Surf's up.

Seasons in Hell by Mike Shropshire

I just read this book, inspired by its inclusion on a top baseball books list by Dan Epstein, who's no slouch as a baseball writer himself.  In it a beat reporter for the Texas Rangers of the mid-1970s describes a particularly crummy team and what it was like when the anything goes culture of the 1960s finally hit the more staid world of baseball.  Shropshire has a great voice reminiscent of Hunter S Thompson, and would recommend the book to any fans of baseball or the good doctor.  It also happens to contain the definitive account of the Ten Cent Beer Night fiasco in Cleveland in 1974.

Wally Moon's 1959 Topps Baseball Cards
Great name, all-time great unibrow.

Ten Cent Beer Night

The "aw, fuck it" brand of rebellion in the 1970s was on display in Cleveland one fateful night, the same year that Nixon retired.  Part of me believes they're somehow connected.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Link Between Snowstorm Preparation and the "War on Terror"

Living here in New Jersey, I was prepared for the worst yesterday.  During my commute the snow was coming down really hard, and the train was so full that all the seats were filled and I stood in the aisle packed cheek to jowl with my fellow commuters.  The only other time I experienced this was in the aftermath of Sandy, when trains ran infrequently.  My wife didn't want to venture out with the kids in the snow, so I ended up walking about two miles home from the train station.  The snow wasn't fearsome, but I thought that if it was just the beginning, the night would be horrible.

It turns out that I had already experienced the worst of it.  It all ended up being a heavy snow, pretty nasty and inconvenient, but hardly the "historic blizzard" we'd been led to expect.  Despite that fact, all mass transit had been shut down and states of emergency declared.  You could say that this overreaction resulted from the storm changing its path, or a bad weather prediction, but I don't.  The stringent, top-down measures are also rooted in our country's mentality after 9/11.

When I was younger I can't remember snow storms getting this much pre-game hype, or extensive and drastic measures being taken BEFORE it was apparent what the storm was bringing.  Having grown up in Nebraska, I know from blizzards, but they usually didn't close the interstate down in the windswept western areas of the state until it was apparent that the roads were impassable.  Yesterday four states declared states of emergency before the storm even hit.  While I was on the train ride home yesterday I was told that trains would not running until Thursday, (they're already back now.)

Those actions reflect a tendency today by political leaders in this country to quickly take state action whenever there's a whiff of any kind of threat or crisis.  They do it because it enhances their power, and also because the public has been inured to accepting emergency measures.  Both come from the "War on Terror."  In the case of politicians, they can't fail to have noticed how 9/11 saved George W. Bush's presidency, which started off with questionable legitimacy and responded to an economic downturn with tax cuts for the rich.  (Of course, his poor handling of the Katrina disaster showed how not responding to a crisis well can kill a political career.)  Chris Christie was paying attention, and he parlayed Sandy into a positive public profile at a time when his popularity in New Jersey was slipping.  He used that event to create an image of a tough-talking leader in charge, and one able to reach across the partisan divide to cooperate with a Democratic president.  Disasters are great for executive leaders in that they get to look responsible, criticism of them becomes de facto bad, and they can wield much more power than in regular times.  When we hear news of drone strikes and NSA spying that should hardly surprise us.

As far as the people are concerned, they have been conditioned to accept greater authoritarian measures.  We take our shoes off at the airport, accept NSA spying despite Edward Snowden's revelations, and punish anyone at the polls who dares to challenge the PATRIOT Act for being "soft on terror."As I have written before, we are a society ruled by fear.  This fear now apparently extends to the weather, where a snowstorm or blizzard becomes "Snowmageddon" or somesuch thing.  Of course the media play a big role in this, mostly because they've realized that the public craves fear, from the bogus "knock out game" to hyping up weather events.

Others may see a bad weather forecast to blame for the overreaction to snow in the New York City area, I see the fear spiral at work once again.  At least this time it was fairly harmless, but I'm sure it will be used to gin up more wars, domestic and foreign, in the future.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Track of the Week: David Bowie "Always Crashing In The Same Car"

I was watching a documentary about David Bowie last night called Five Years, and I appreciated that it focused primarily on his music (rather than personae), and included a lot of conversation with his musical collaborators.  It helped me to realize that after he left his Ziggy identity and the Spiders from Mars band behind, Bowie succeeded because he had such great musicians and producers working with him.  Those collaborators came from different places, and the resulting friction really enabled a lot of interesting results.  My favorite moment was guitarist Carlos Alomar discussing his frustration with producer Brian Eno's methods, and Eno's admission that at that point in his life he simply hadn't worked with musicians as accomplished as Alomar, and thus was using methods better suited for rudimentary punk rockers than a session man like Alomar.

The results, on albums like Low and Heroes, were amazing.  Those two records, though they came out in 1977, still sound fresh and unique.  "Always Crashing In The Same Car" is one of my favorites of this era, and it seems especially suited to the bleakness of winter time.  It is a lament about making the same mistakes again and again in life, and not being able to break the pattern despite knowing that it exists.  Despite the poignant nature of the lyrics, I tend to focus on the shimmery, textured sound of the music.  You'd probably never guess that the thudding drums come from a soul/jazz session player like Dennis Davis, but the more I listen to it the more I can hear the subtle feel.  The guitars are layered and trade feeling for heroics, acting much the same as the synthesizers beneath them.

It's less a song than a peak in Bowie's damaged psyche at the time, making it all the more powerful.  Another thing I noticed in the documentary was that Bowie's practice of emodying a character took a hiatus in his Berlin period.  The reason that I like his work at that time above all others may very well be that he was not trying to play a different person, but to actually dig a little deeper within himself.  I don't think Bowie was ever more vulnerable and real than on this track.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Andrew Jackson Still Lives

America’s true Founding Father was not Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin or Hamilton, but Andrew Jackson.  The 18th century Founders were the product of a pre-modern America where politics was conducted by the “better sort,” not the masses.  Jackson was the first president to be a true mass politician, as have all the presidents who have followed him since.  Unlike the likes of Jefferson and Franklin, he was not a man of the Enlightenment, but a man of action who felt no need to find moral or intellectual justifications for slaughtering Native Americans, removing them from their lands, expanding the borders of slavery, and filling the government’s offices full of party flunkies.  This was not politics as virtue in action, but politics as bloodsport.

I see much of Andrew Jackson in conservative politics today.  Modern day Jacksonians laugh at the notions of global warming and sustainability, and champion a volatile, extractionary economy where entrepeneurs can “drill baby drill” and have access to as much cheap labor as they want.  In their minds, public expenditures on infrastructure are a waste.  I see much in the same in Jackson’s day, where he pushed to open up more land in the Southwest (as it was then) for the booming cotton economy, its fields worked by slave labor.  As Edward Baptist points out in his new book, the cotton frontier exploded during Jackson’s tenure, helped by his destruction of the Second Bank of the United States, and the reallocation of federal money in “pet banks” happy to speculate wildly on the sale of cotton and the sale of slaves.  That same hands off, freewheeling impulse is apparent today in the conservative push to lift regulations on Wall Street banking.  Jackson also famously rejected Henry Clay's so-called "American System" of roads and canals.  I see that spirit every day when I drive on pothole scarred roads in a nation that refuses to raise its gasoline tax, even when the price is rapidly dropping.

Of course, just as Jackson and modern day conservatives champion "small government" out of one side of their mouth, they just love using the military to expand territory and reward the vested interests backing them.  Jackson moved to remove Native Americans against the will of the Supreme Court, just as the "War on Terror" has relied on illegal and extralegal means.  Jackson's closest imitator, James K Polk, sparked war with Mexico with terms just as illegitimate as those formulated by George W Bush for his invasion of Iraq.  Jacksonians of all era scorn the notion that government can improve people's lives, but have little restraint when using it to further the goals of nationalist expansion.

While the effects of the supposed populism of present and past day Jacksonians on the lower classes tends not to be economically beneficial for them, they have wielded a powerful ideology of anti-elitism.  It was hardly a coincidence that Jackson, the first mass president, was by far the least educated of those to hold the office before him, and perhaps the least literate to ever hold the office.  He and his supporters denigrated the educated, much as conservatives today scorn climate scientists, academics, and teachers.  All three have committed the cardinal sin of having expertise and thinking that means they know more than the average yahoo.  One of Jackson's most toxic legacies has been the extremely anti-intellectual tenor of American public life, something routinely exploited by conservatives.

Last, but not least, don't forget white supremacy.  Andrew Jackson's America was more "democratic" in that the franchise was no longer limited to the affluent, but was now open to all white men.  Women and men of color were aggressively cast out, even in places where they had once been enfranchised.  While the poorest, most low-down white man could pass a ballot, African Americans were expected to toil in slavery, and Native Americans faced a fearsome onslaught of war and ethnic cleansing.  Modern day Jacksonians are a lot more careful with their rhetoric, but they still love unleashing the full force of the American military on brown people around the world.  These are also the same people wearing "I am Darren Wilson" shirts and are highly supportive of the police state that incarcerates people of color at a truly fearsome rate while reenforcing residential segregation.  When a black man took the office of the president, they responded by treating him with unprecedented disrespect and contempt.  (Just witness the behavior at the last State of the Union address.)  The Tea Party, that most Jacksonian of political movements, has been vowing from the beginning of Obama's term to "take our country back."  Gee, I wonder what that could mean.

The America of the Founders is a strange and faraway place.  The America of Andrew Jackson, the true Founder of our current dominant political mode, doesn't seem all that foreign, despite being almost 200 years ago, because its values so thoroughly permeate our political system today.  My only hope is that if there was ever an American president who was the anti-Jackson, it was Lincoln.  There are alternative traditions to draw from, and we need them badly.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Top Ten Albums of 1971, My Favorite Musical Year

Most fans of classic rock and soul music tend to think of the late sixties as the golden age of popular music, and there isn't much I can say to argue against that.  However, one's own personal sensibilities are not always completely tethered to objective, or at least accepted standards.  As much as I love the music of the late 1960s, I tend to think of 1971 as my favorite musical year.  It's the time that a lot artists who had begun in the sixties had enough experience under their belts to really put together some more mature, fully realized work before they ran out of gas.  I also tend to think of 1971 as the transitional point from the 1960s to the 1970s, when the social movements of the era lost their power and the Silent Majority triumphed.  The owl of Minerva flies at dusk, indeed.  Here are the ten albums from that year I would use to make my case that 1971 was the best year for popular music.  There were so many to choose from that the honorable mention list is quite long as well.  Is there any other year that can stack up to this?  (Please remind me of any omissions in the comments.)

1.  Marvin Gaye, What's Going On
An absolute masterpiece, and among the greatest albums ever made.  Gaye was finally set free from the Motown system to explore his more creative and artistic side, and the album allowed the Funk Brothers to really show their jazz chops.  Unlike the vast majority of political music, it is not heavy handed or didactic in any way.  I dare you to put this on and find anyone who doesn't like it.

2. Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers
The Stones had been on a high, but this album I think is their apex.  The ballads are heart-breaking and lush, and the rocking tracks, like "Can You Hear Me Knocking" and "Bitch" have some truly wicked grooves.  

3. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV
Zep's best record and one of the most influential ever recorded.  Even the less well-known tracks, like "Misty Mountain Hop," are absolutely stunning.  Even though it's maybe the most overplayed song of all time, "Stairway To Heaven" still packs a wallop when I listen to it.

4. The Who, Who's Next
The Who also reached their personal best in 1971.  Shuffling off the rock opera tendency between Tommy and Quadrophenia, The Who put together their best collection of songs ever.  "Getting In Tune," "Bargain," and "Behind Blue Eyes" still give me that teenage feeling when I listen to them.

5. Sly and the Family Stone, There's a Riot Goin' On
This might be the soundtrack to the death of the sixties.  The hopeful, inspirational Sly of the flower power years sounds depressed and doped up, but cooler than ever.  "Thank You For Talking To Me Africa" may very well be the funkiest song ever committed to wax.

6. Rod Stewart, Every Picture Tells A Story
Stewart betrayed his talent after the mid-70s and became a self-parody.  That's all that anyone these days seems to remember him for, but from 1968-1974 he cut a bunch of amazing records in The Faces, The Jeff Beck Group, and solo.  This is the best of his solo albums, full of some great songs that Stewart makes his own.

7.  The Allman Brothers, At Fillmore East
Perhaps the best live rock album ever, it features the band at the height of their powers before Duane Allman and Berry Oakley's tragic deaths.

8. Badfinger, Straight Up
This star-crossed band should have been one of the biggest ever.  The managed to channel the same spirit of The Beatles with songs to match, and this is the best that they ever managed to do.

9. Nilsson, Nilsson Schmilsson
Yet another personal best for yet another great artist in 1971.  Nilsson jumps from peak to peak, with barn burners like "Jump Into The Fire" rubbing shoulders with gorgeous ballads like "The Moonbeam Song."  All the potential he had to this point came into full flower, and yet never gelled the same way again.

10. Faces, A Nod Is As Good As A Wink To A Blind Horse
The Faces were too damn ragged and rough to ever put together a perfect album, but this is as close as they came.  "Debris" is a gorgeous ballad, and "Stay With Me" never fails to give me a shot of adrenalin.  

Honorable Mentions: Carole King Tapestry ("So Far Away" still makes me cry like a baby), David Bowie Hunky Dory (one of his absolute best), Traffic Low Spark of High Heeled Boys (best chill out rock album of the era), Paul McCartney Ram (Macca's best solo record), Black Sabbath Master of Reality (set the template for metal just as much as Paranoid), Can Tago Mago (amazing experimental record from Germany's best), John Lennon Imagine (his best solo record apart from The Plastic Ono Band), Faces Long Player (the point when they really came into their own), Flamin' Groovies Teenage Head (as if the Stones and Stooges had a baby), T Rex Electric Warrior (bang a gong, baby!), Pink Floyd Meddle (a truly beautiful album that I'll never stop returning to) Al Green Gets Next To You (does it get any smoother?).

Monday, January 19, 2015

Standing At The Crossroads On MLK Day

This MLK Day I see a nation standing at the crossroads.  The horrible deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and too many other people of color at the hands of the police have prompted the biggest protests against racism that I have seen in my lifetime.  Also for the first time in my life, the creeping hand of the prison-industrial complex is being challenged, and those challenges are beginning to get broader traction.  At the same time, hardline conservatives have taken over Congress and an unprecedented number of statehouses, benefitting from white backlash and racial resentment in the process.  The mayor of New York dares to discuss the reality of racist policing, and is met with unprecedented revolt and disrespect from his officers.  Something will have to give.

Lots of people are going to see reenactments of the Selma March in the theaters right now, but the present is just as crucial as the past.  There is a growing recognition, one pretty obvious for people of color, much less so for whites, that the efforts of Dr. King and others in the 1960s were not the end of the story, but the beginning.  Barack Obama's election was supposed to be proof of a "post-racial" society, when in reality the hateful reception he has received in many quarters has proven rather starkly that such claims of a post-racial nation were completely wrong.

Will that knowledge be acted upon?  Will new change come?  I honestly don't know, but what I do know is that I cannot remember a time in my life when the possibility for racism to be pushed back was this palpable.  I know plenty of young people who are getting conscious, getting active and taking to the streets, and they give me the hope that the legacy of Dr. King will not be one of greeting card sentiments, but as an inspiration for future generations to further the work he began.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Track of the Week: Wilco "Far Far Away"

Last week I was playing an old playlist I'd made of mellow songs for long winter nights, and my wife perked up when "Far Far Away" by Wilco came on.  I got to thinking about this humble little song has been a favorite of mine since I first heard way back in 1996.

It's the second track on Wilco's double album Being There, the record that began the band's transition from alt-country to something different and deeper.  It comes at the end of the intense, experimental "Misunderstood," and immediately turns down the mood, and perhaps was meant to keep the band's old fans from feeling too confused by transitioning back into more familiar territory.  Regardless of classification, it's a beautiful song of quiet beauty and longing.  Jeff Tweedy sings about being in the country, far from the city lights of Chicago (he alludes to the CTA) and from his love, backed by a pretty organ and understated steel guitar.  It's the sound of lonely rural isolation, perfectly distilled.

It's a song that's meant different things to me over the years.  I remember listening to a lot when I first moved from Chicago to Urbana, Illinois.  After two years in the big city I had developed a real love for urban living, but my academic aspirations took me back to the prairie landscape I had grown up with.  I remember having a hard time adjusting to quiet nights, the lonesome sound of a train horn blowing in the dark, and the vastness of the sky.  Before long I met the right people and learned to love the place, but for the first month or so, I felt like an exile, and this song was a comfort.

Nowadays I think about the song, but in reverse.  I work in the heart of New York City and live in the densely populated environs of northern New Jersey, and I feel like my rural Nebraska hometown is in another country, or on another planet.  So many of my close friends, flung far in the aftermath of grad school, live in small burgs from Murfreesboro to Nacogdoches.  When I listen to this song I think about them too, so far far away.