Saturday, March 28, 2015

Track of the Week: Velocity Girl "Sorry Again"

I've had the 90s a lot on my brain this week, mostly due to Louis Menand's review article in the New Yorker about W. Joseph Campbell's new book 1995: The Year the Future Began.  I wrote something awhile back about the salience of 1994, I guess I was off by a year, or too slow to turn my idea into a book.

Musically the 90s were a strange decade because the underground music of the previous decade, hip-hop and independent rock music, hit the big time.  I remember being flabbergasted (in a good way) when I went to college in Omaha in 1994, and there were not one but two radio stations that played music that I liked.  One morning my alarm clock radio woke me with the sounds of Elvis Costello's "What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding" and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.  Growing up in the pre-internet 80s and earl 90s there was no way to hear good new music on the radio where I lived, and now I was surrounded by it.  MTV started putting rap in heavy rotation, and even had Alternative Nation on in prime time, rather than just 120 Minutes in the Sunday graveyard shift.  It aired from 1992 to 1997, roughly the period when underground rock was allowed to have a mainstream presence before the Creed-Nickelback-Blink 182 garbagefest of imitators fully took over.

But even in 1994 it was obvious that the lead-footed imitators pushed by a record industry desperate to cash in were crowding out the legitimate indie bands.  I remember much of my early college days hearing Weezer, but I also heard Bush's godawful "Everything Zen" blasting from dorm rooms across campus.  That same autumn I avoided all that with a healthy dose of Pavement and other bands still left of the dial, too esoteric to be gobbled up by the mainstream.  One of those groups was Velocity Girl, and my roommate (also a music lover with similar tastes) and I would play them a lot in the late afternoon as the day was winding down and I was too tired to keep studying.  "Sorry Again" was probably their catchiest song, one that in alternative universe would have been a number one hit.  The male-female vocals interweave nicely, the tonally interesting guitars drive things forwards at a brisk pace, and everything has a certain feeling of wistfulness about it.  The "woo hoo hoos" contrast that with some pure pop sugar.  I guess that feeling of wistfulness balanced with euphoria was perfect for a college freshman glad to escape his past but still searching for a niche, and this song will always take me back there.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Modest Proposal

(Editor's Note: tongue is planted firmly in cheek here.)

It has come to my attention that Congress has passed a bill drastically altering Medicare for those people 55 and under, who will not enjoy the generous benefits that their payroll taxes will continue to pay out to current retirees for years to come.  Even a strict fiscal conservative like myself can understand why Gen Xers and Millenials might feel as if they are getting a raw deal.  At the same time, however, we need to cut costs and end our nation's wasteful entitlement culture.

I have a modest proposal to do both, and to drastically reduce the 47% of "takers" in American society.  We can do this without raising the retirement age or providing new jobs.  For too long we have been beholden to the same old politics as usual, and solutions left over from bygone times.  We should break with the past with a bold, innovative, and disruptive plan.

For too long we have extended life expectancy without asking whether such a task is actually worthwhile.  People live to longer and longer ages, costing the government more and more money.  I am not sure that people are doing all that much in their twilight years, so we are massively subsidizing tired old people to sit around alone and feel miserably alone.  That does not sound like an efficient use of resources, does it?  All that tax money going for medical treatments to octogenerians could be added into the economy if our Job Creators could afford to buy more yachts and mansions!

So I propose this: at age 65 all Americans will henceforth be offered a deal.  If they so wish, they may terminate their life, and in return their families would receive a lump sum payment of $65,000, tax free.  With that money children and grandchildren could go to college, spouses would be able to keep their homes, and most importantly, the government could save a whole lot of money.  The Social Security trust fund would be stocked and Medicare costs would plummet!  Assisted terminations would take place at facilities managed by private contractors, so this plan adds no new jobs to the federal payroll.  In fact, by lowering the number of people in the two biggest programs, it would actually decrease the number of bureaucrats!

You might think that few would take the government up on their offer, but you underestimate how few people have any real money to live on in retirement.  With pensions being scrapped and wages stagnant, more Americans than ever will be facing a grim end to their lives.  Instead of making them suffer through those years, why not let them die, and do something to make their families happy and secure in the bargain?  "But this is morally repugnant!" you might say.  I ask you, is it not more morally wrong that we must mortgage our future because our elders refuse to spend our nation's tax money more efficiently?  Is it not a moral outrage that 47% of our country are "takers"?  What kind of moral example does that leave to future generations?

I ask you, why are we letting disruptive practices bring glorious progress to the rest of American society, but leaving death off limits?  Valuing life is such a 20th century way of thinking, it's time to think outside of the box in innovative, data-driven ways about the new normal we live in and how to best adjust to it.  It's also a lot more cost effective than the fanciful notion that every citizen deserves to live into old age.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Evidence That Baseball Uniforms Need Livening Up

I have been following baseball for a little over thirty years now (the '81 World Series is the first I can recall), but in all this time the game's uniforms have never been as dull as they are now.  Back in the 80s teams were still quite daring, but the retro impulses in the game that came in the wake of Camden Yards in the early 90s meant a return to the classic look.  Nowadays this has calcified into uniforms without flair worn by players who prefer a baggy fit and no stirrups showing.  A recent episode of the Sully Baseball Daily has inspired me to present some evidence for my thesis.

Just check out this photo of the 1986 Mets, their striking racing stripes, tight pants, and stirrups pulled high.  They look just like the magnificent bastards that they were.

Now check out the more recent vintage of Mets uniforms in action:

Their pantaloons are ridiculously baggy, very little sock is in evidence, and the uniforms are elegant but totally without distinction.  Sort of like the Mets in the recent years, actually.  Is there any doubt which set of uniforms looks cooler?

Some teams once had great daring in their uniforms, and were willing to really break the mold.  Take for instance the Houston Astros.  I always loved their "tequila sunrise" pullovers and the pants with the number on the pocket.  While this look got toned down a little later, it still looked futuristic.  Nowadays the Astros have kits that are as bland as bland can be.

Some of the uniforms of the 1970s and 80s have been accused of being ugly, but at least they had some style.  Take for instance the yellow and brown "Taco Bell" unis of the Padres, which incorporated a color palette rarely seen after 1981.

Dave Winfield just looks great here, and the racing stripe's swoosh is mirrored by his exquisite sideburns.  Baseball players have always had the flashiest facial hair of any sport, going all the way back to the wax moustaches sported by the likes of King Kelly in the 19th century.  Now compare this photo to a representative image below from last year's Padres.

The color palette is just blah.  These guys could be from any team, whereas in the old days only San Diego would dare combine brown and yellow.

While good taste would seem to dictate that leather belts are a better option than the sansabelt pants of the 70s and 80s, they actually gave players a more streamlined appearance.  Take a look-see here at Andre Dawson in 1987.

He looks sleek and powerful, every inch the MVP of that year.  The pullover shirt and elastic waistband actually add to the effect. Now look at this:

Here's a more "classic" take on the Cubs' classic look in their current unis.  However, the uniform just seems to hang there, like pajamas, and the pants are so long it looks like they will get caught in the cleats.

Enough of the comparisons, below are some examples of uniform styles of the past with a healthy dose of flair.

Road blues!

Cleveland Indians uniforms marginally less offensive without Chief Wahoo!

The Pittsburgh Pirates sporting the bumblebee look and pillbox hats!

The Expos using traditional colors in an interesting fashion!

The Seattle Pilots' captain caps!

The Phillies' unique maroon color scheme!
(or maybe not)

The Oakland A's' white shoes-gold jersey combo!

There you have it, but I could go on and on and on.  Baseball is a sport where the uniforms matter more than in any other.  In a crowded sports landscape I would prefer that the game go with some more visual flair, even at the risk of those uniforms being labelled "ugly."  It would certainly make things more interesting.

Monday, March 23, 2015

My Favorite Reality Show Is Officially Back

I'm not much of a fan of "reality" television, partially because it is anything but, and mostly because it features the kind of people that I normally try to avoid in real life.  However, there is one reality show I cherish and love, and as of today, it is officially back on the air: the Republican presidential primaries. Our political system has become so corrupt, idiotic, and ridiculous that I have made the decision to turn it into entertainment.  As Elvis Costello once trenchantly said, "I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused."  Or more depressingly, it's better to laugh than cry at the sorry state of our political process.

The ever hubristic Ted Cruz has predictably been the first to throw his hat in the ring, and time will tell if he will be like Rick Santorum in 2008 (one early victory followed by a pummeling ) Pat Buchanan in 1992 (losing with enough votes to shake things up at the convention) or Mike Huckabee in 2008 (not much, but good enough to get a show on Fox News).  I doubt he'll seriously challenge for the nomination, as hilarious as that might be.

I am already plenty entertained.  Cruz wants to be the leader of a diverse nation, but he started his campaign at Liberty University, an institution devoted to a radical interpretation of evangelical Christianity.  It's yet another sign that the Republican Party is less a center-right party with a broad membership (as you would expect in a functioning two party system), and more a vehicle for an extremist right-wing ideology funded by craven corporate interests.  The fun comes in when the true believers that form the party's base get so whackadoodle that they self-destruct a la Todd Aiken.  The moneymen in the party establishment know deep in their hearts that they need the Tea Party lumpen in order to win, but also that satisfying them will lead to a candidate wholly unpalatable to the rest of the nation.  The resulting jiu-jitsu leads to the likes of Mitt Romney disowning his own health care reform, or John McCain dumping his old critiques of American interventionism.  Both men trashed their true selves to get the nomination, then suddenly found themselves much too conservative for the general electorate.

This time it seems like the establishment is trying really, really hard to shut things down early and get the inevitable establishment victor (likely Jeb Bush) through the gauntlet with the fewest embarrassing moments possible.  I just read that Florida's primary got moved up to the earliest possible position, and that decision is transparently a play to get Jeb the nomination.  Of course, the Tea Party hordes are not pleased, they already staged a walkout of his speech at CPAC, chanting "USA! USA!"  Whether this was meant to be a comment about the fact that Jeb's spouse is a Mexican immigrant is up for speculation.  (Or the fact that Bush is a Catholic.  I always thought it would be a cold day in hell before the Republican party would nominate a Catholic, but I guess their voting demographics have changed since my youth.)

Here are my earliest predictions for the prospective candidates, which I will be updating as the crazy events unfold.

Ted Cruz: He'll be trying really, really hard to be this election's conservative choice.  So far in his political career he has shown a lot more interest in being noticed and talked about than in actually governing, and this run for presidency pretty much seems par for the course.  I predict third place in Iowa, with diminishing returns.

Jeb Bush: The establishment candidate getting all the money with an operation already in place, Jeb is the most likely to win the nomination.  His stances on immigration and Bush fatigue will hurt, but it looks like the party bosses are getting behind him, and he populist challengers will be splitting their votes too much to stop him.

Chris Christie: Now that the smart establishment money is behind Jeb, Christie is dead in the water.  There's still a chance he'll be indicted, his state's economic numbers are crap, and he is despised by the conservative base for his overtures to Barack Obama after Sandy.  The establishment hardly sees him as reliable after the way he treated his convention speech in 2012 as an opportunity to polish his own knob.  Christie hates losing, and won't enter the race if he thinks he won't win, which is why he denied the VP nomination last time around.  For that reason I doubt Christie will even run.

Scott Walker: He's the one guy capable of winning the establishment away from Jeb, mostly because of his attacks on organized labor, which make corporate plutocrats cream their Brooks Brothers slacks in delight.  However, he is much too obvious a Manchurian Candidate for the Koch Brothers, and seems about as a smart as a bag of hammers.  The establishment, desperate for a win, will want to avoid candidates without gravitas or brains.  Walker will do well in the Midwest, and maybe even finish second overall.

Mike Huckabee: The obligatory Christian conservative candidate.  Cruz might steal his thunder, but Huck will make some decent showings in Iowa and the South.

Rand Paul: Paul is an interesting case, in that he does not really fit into either the establishment or ultraconservative camps.  Considering that the national party is pushing aggressive foreign policy against Obama, his more isolationist stance will probably rub the base the wrong way.  Most ultraconservatives will view him as weak tea compared to the stronger stuff like Cruz.  If world events increase anxiety about American power, he will be lucky to finish in the top three anywhere.

Rick Santorum: Will lock down the gay-hating bigot end of the Christian conservatives, and that's about it.  Expect no repeat of his showings in 2012.

Marco Rubio: Comes across too callow and untested to get the establishment vote, and not nearly fiery enough for the true believers.  Not sure he will bother.

Ben Carson: He's the real wild card. As a political outsider he might appeal to many hardcore conservatives, and he helps provide cover against accusations of Republican racism.  Might just win South Carolina, but not come close to the nomination.

John Kasich: Yet another conservative governor, but not conservative enough.  Unless he privatizes Ohio State University or mandates vaginal inspections of all unmarried women to make up for it, he will be on the fringes.

Rick Perry: He probably has an even bigger embarrassment up his sleeve than his "oops" moment.  I cannot believe this man would seriously think he could get away with running again.  At times I wonder if Rick Perry is a real person, or a performance artist playing a helluva joke on the country.

Bobby Jindal: Yesterday's news.  His state is a basket case, the voters have turned against him, and he has been personally slammed by the conservative PM of Britain for his erroneous comments about Muslims in Birmingham.  If he runs it will be yet another example of his misplaced faith in himself.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Track of the Week: Dave Van Ronk "Green Green Rocky Road"

This week I've been on break, which has meant I get to have control of the TV during day hours when I do not have to worry about offending my toddlers with non-animated programming, or to subject my wife to my esoteric tastes.  I decided to rewatch Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that really put its hooks into me. I've never seen a better film about the experience of having your dream die.  It's something I am well acquainted with.  After watching the film I busted out the soundtrack, which was in heavy rotation last fall after I got it for my birthday, but had been recently neglected.

There's a lot of great stuff on it, but I appreciate the fact that it closes out with a Dave Van Ronk song.  Van Ronk was one of the inspirations for the character of Llewyn Davis, to the point where the cover of his album, Inside Llewyn Davis, is practically identical to Inside Dave Van Ronk.  That also happens to the title of his rather well-written and entertaining memoir.  It offers a much more realistic (and jaundiced) view of the Greenwich Village folk revival than one is normally used to hearing.  I've read way too many memoirs by aging musicians, but his is by far the best.

This might be due to the fact that no one is reading the book for juicy revelations and the like, because Van Ronk never really made it into the big time.  Others he rubbed shoulders with in New York, like Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary ended up taking a ride on the fame train.  Dylan, of course, was powered by his superlative songwriting, while others managed to take the folk sound and make it safe for the Top 40.  Some of it was good, like The Mamas and the Papas, and much of it was, well, dreck. (This side of the folk revival was parodied bitingly in A Mighty Wind.)

Van Ronk's music hewed closer to the blues side of folk music, which his gruff voice was well suited to.  Just listen to "Green, Green Rocky Road" and hear that great voice intersect with some lovely guitar picking.  It's great stuff, but it sure as heck isn't The New Christie Minstrels.  There's a great and sad moment in the film where Davis does a cold audition in Chicago for a folk music manager (based on Albert Grossman.)  He delivers a sublime performance, and the manger sniffs and says "I don't hear green."

A lot of people are doing artistically interesting things in the world today who will never be household names.  I can only hope that they, like Van Ronk, are able to leave behind evidence of their creativity for future generations.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Misplaced Media Obsession With Elite Universities

My parents both attended Kearney State College, now known as the University of Nebraska-Kearney.  Regional state universities like this rarely factor into our higher ed discourse.

Over the years I've noticed something very strange about our public discourse on higher education, namely that a massively inordinate amount of attention is paid to elite universities.  This is especially the case in high-brow publications like the New York Times, which once had a whole blog dedicated to the college application process.  That same paper will print articles about said process on a regular basis, including a Frank Bruni column last weekend.

Bruni writes as if the phenomenon of parents pushing to get their kids into the Ivy League is much more widespread than it actually is.  At one point he even acknowledges this, but doesn't think the schools that most students attend are worthy of comment.  The vast majority of American college students attend second and third tier state universities or community colleges, but their institutions and what's happening to them rarely make the news.  Those who attend private schools are more likely to matriculate at a small college little known outside of its region than at the likes of Harvard.

These small colleges and non-flagship state schools are currently experiencing a storm of epic proportions.  The recent closing of Sweet Briar, probably the most well known of the recent scores of small colleges that have died, has brought out at least some discussion of the problem.  In states like Wisconsin, Scott Walker has slashed the university budget in a way that is especially nasty for regional universities.  UW-Eau Claire is buying out hundreds of employees, and UW-Rock County is looking at professor layoffs.  The flagships have resources beyond state funding to draw from, and can more safely jack up their tuitions because they are so desirable.  Not so much for regional universities.

When I was a professor, both contingent and tenure track, I taught at regional state universities.  Although I never attended one, my parents did, and their degrees brought them out of the working and into the middle class.  About half of my students at both schools were, like my parents, the first people in their families to go to college.  Despite the presumptions about the supposedly meritocratic nature of our elite universities, my best students would have been the best practically anywhere else.  There is an insanely misbegotten belief that everyone who is capable of getting accepted to a top school applies to them.  Those that think this have no idea of how classism and regionalism work in this country.  When I was in high school the idea of applying to an Ivy never crossed my mind, it would have been as likely for me to go to the moon.  My intuition was that people in places like that would look down on a person like me, and time has not changed that assumption one iota.

I was luckier that others because my parents could financially support my college education.  Many students don't have that option, or have to stay near their parents or even financially support them themselves while still in school.  Others go back to school later in life to get an education.  They don't have the option of packing up and moving to a dorm on some leafy campus in another state.  These students depend upon regional state universities for the opportunity to have a better life.  These same universities are now being gutted and turned into the equivalent of glorified vocational schools. We are going back to the bad old days of higher education, when a true college education was open only to a privileged few.

Here's a challenge to all the pundits and publications out there: start writing about the kinds of schools that most college students attend.  Yes, I know these are the kinds of places you wouldn't dare let your own precious children even apply to less they sully your reputation, but these institutions matter a whole lot more than Harvard does for a person like me.  The parts of our university system that do the most to promote social mobility are under attack, but we spend the majority of our time fixated on those that maintain the elite under the guise of "meritocracy."  It's time to stop doing that.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Great Moments In Stuntman History

I was talking with a colleague of mine recently about all the Bible epics that get broadcast near Easter time.  We laughed a bit about their over-seriousness, but then I got to thinking about how much I love their pre-CGI grandiosity: the sets, the costumes, the "cast of thousands," the stuntmen being put in danger.  While it has become a cliche to rip on CGI and think sentimental thoughts about practical effects, there is a real insight there to be gleaned.  Watching older action movies part of the thrill one feels comes from the knowledge that actual people are putting themselves in real danger before our very eyes.  I still remember watching the second Matrix movie in the theater, and being impressed by what they could do with the computer effects, but mostly underwhelmed in the chase scenes, which lacked any sense of danger.  With that in mind, here's a list of some of my favorite stunt scenes.

Ben Hur Chariot Race

This is the king daddy of all stunt scenes.  I am still amazed that nobody died making this with all the horses flying around like crazy.

Raiders of the Lost Ark Truck Chase

This scene is all kinds of amazing, but nothing really tops the stuntman being dragged beneath the truck.

Smokey and the Bandit Bridge Jump

Back in the late 70s and early 80s our popular culture had an obsession with cars jumping stuff, which perfectly coincided with my childhood.  I reenacted this scene many times with my Matchbox cars and some plywood in the driveway.

The French Connection Car Chase

Only the chase scene in Bullitt rivals this one, but there is something about the elevated train supports whizzing by that gives it that extra feeling of danger.  I've heard that some of this footage was shot on streets that were not blocked off, and that some of the pedestrians were real people.  Both shocking and amazing.

Compilation of Hong Kong Action Stunts

Ok, this is cheating a bit, but this video is pretty freakin' amazing.  It doesn't take a lot of money to make an action movie worth watching, just people willing to do some insane stuff.  This video is so crazy I think I felt pain while watching it.  Most of the stunts come from Jackie Chan movies, which usually overcome their deficiencies with some inspiring feats of physical recklessness.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

HRC And The Senate GOP's Iran Letter

As I mentioned in a recent post, I've fallen off the wagon and started immersing myself again in the world of high politics.  Shit's just been too damn interesting.  This week was an especially action-packed one, as it has seen Hilary Clinton's presser about her emails and the "letter of the 47" wherein Senate Republicans have attempted to sabotage the president's negotiations with Iran.  While I can't connect the two without laboring to do it a little, I think it's fruitful to discuss them both.

As far as HRC is concerned, I'm hardly surprised that yet another Clintonian scandal has sprung almost a year before Iowa and New Hampshire.  The Clintons seem to revel in constantly having to defend themselves against accusations, it is their oxygen.  A lot of time has passed since 2008, and many Democrats seem to have forgotten why they didn't vote for Clinton back then.  This most recent scandal, which like most Clinton scandals involves barely legal skeeviness, has been quite the reminder of why so many Dems were willing to jump ship for Obama.  Hilary's supporters like to point out that she is vetted, as if no new scandals can hurt her.  The voters know exactly what they're going to get, so goes the argument.  However, that fact might be Clinton's biggest problem.  After Obama's eight years of relatively drama-free style, the Clinton way looks unnecessarily distracted.

It's been a few days since the revelations about the emails, and people are still talking about it in a way that makes me think it could have legs.  Much of this could perhaps be chalked up
to the public's increasing agitation at the lack of transparency in the national security state.  If Clinton is so quick to hide her official activities from scrutiny, that does not make a lot of people comfortable about her overseeing the NSA.  I find it strange that the major media outlets haven't really discussed this angle much, and have instead been treating it as Just Another Clinton Scandal, like Filegate or something.  Yes, this is driven in large part by the opportunism of her opponents, but at a time when there is a greater thirst for transparency, her actions strike a false note, even if they are not illegal or that rare.

And now on to Tom Cotton and his merry band of Republican meddlers.  There is a kind of crazy strain in conservative foreign policy that insists that onetime enemies be enemies for life.  If you don't believe me, go back and look at what George Will and his like said about Reagan after his overtures to Gorbachev.  They compared his actions to, you guessed it, Chamberlain's signing of the Munich Agreement appeasing Hitler.  If they had their way, the Cold War would have never ended.  More recently, conservatives have wailed and gnashed their teeth over normalized relations with Cuba, evidently hoping to continue our completely failed isolation position until the end of time.  This same mentality is behind the now infamous letter to Iran penned by freshman Senator Tom Cotton, who has shot to the top of the charts in the "Could there possibly be a Republican politician more insufferable than Ted Cruz?" sweepstakes.  The gang of 47 wants Iran to be America's bitter enemy no matter what, and will abet the policies of extreme Zionists like Netanyahu no matter how badly they hurt America's relations with the rest of the world.  They remind me of the stories of Japanese soldiers found decades after World War II ended, unaware that the war had ended and still ready to fight.  No reality can dim their ardor for perpetual war and conflict.

In this particular case there is also a strange kind of strategy by Republicans to shift the focus from domestic to foreign affairs, now that the economy is improving.  Cotton's letter is a pretty craven attempt to resurrect the neo-conservative world crusade, whose abject failures have yet to cure its adherents of their wrong-headedness.  I'm not sure Americans are exactly itching to repeat the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, but whatever.  Of course, instead of calling out conservatives for advocating a ridiculously belligerent stance that has shed much blood in the last decade and a half, liberals have instead screamed "treason!"  While the Senators' actions deserve condemnation, and are unprecedented in their lack of respect for a sitting president, they hardly qualify as treason.  By making those accusations the story then puts the burden of proof on the accuser, and the substance of the letter, which is quite frightening in its implications, gets totally forgotten.

If anything ties the Clinton email scandal and the letter of the 47 together, it's that they both demonstrate, yet again, the craven worthlessness of our political class.  It's enough to make me go back to stop caring about what they do again.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Track of the Week: The Yardbirds "I Ain't Done Wrong"

Today is my first day of spring break, and I have more free time stretched out before over the next two weeks than I have had in quite some time.  I won't be going anywhere, because my wife's break doesn't coincide with mine, but I'm ecstatic nonetheless in a middle-aged sorta way.  I'll be able to get spring cleaning done (both indoor and outdoor), catch up on my reading, and take some long walks.

As lame as that sounds, it's time to have a bit of a rave up tonight.  Spring break calls for some good time music, and in moments like this I love to crank up the hard rockin' side of the sixties British Invasion.  It is music of such youth and pure exuberance, of young musicians taking the forms of American blues and amping them up with teen hormones and dance rhythms.  Apart from the Stones and the Who, no group of that era did it better than The Yardbirds.

The Yardbirds are sadly known more as the launching for Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, and less as a great band in their own right.  Jeff Beck is the least acclaimed of that trio, but the Yardbirds were at their best during his tenure.  He hit the ground running in 1965 with his first session, which included the absolute barn burner "I Ain't Done Wrong."  Unlike most of the group's songs at the time, it was written by a band member (Keith Relf, the singer) rather than being a cover of a blues standard.  It starts with a screeching guitar figure that's a dead ringer for Elmore James, announcing Beck's presence with authority.  Underlying the song is an absolutely brutal, tight beat backed by harmonica leading to some truly inspiring breaks from Beck.  Just when you think it can't get any more intense, at the 2:25 the stabbing guitar and relentless beat practically explode the turntable.  It creates the kind of hard-edged ecstatic frenzy that metal bands have been chasing ever since this song crawled out of hard rock's primordial mid-1960s ooze.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Sports Fan Calls For An End To The Sports Industrial Complex

One of the facilities for the 2004 Athens Olympics, expensive but already in ruins in a broke nation

I am an unlikely sports fan, considering that I was not that good at sports, and got picked last in gym for everything except for basketball.  That was a sport I love to play (aided by my height and a decent outside shot), but when I went to basketball camp after the 8th grade and got yelled at constantly by the coach, I limited my play to pickup and intramural games.

I grew up in Nebraska in the 1980s, which meant I was a devoted Nebraska Cornhuskers fan.  I played band, not football, in high school, but never missed a pep band performance at football and basketball games.  I developed a love of baseball and its history, spending hours dissecting the information on the backs of baseball cards and reading books on baseball history.  When I went to college, not having a TV in my dorm room was most painful when I wanted to watch Sportscenter or a big game.  Even in grad school I lived and died by my school’s basketball team, and made many road trips to spend what little money I had on White Sox tickets.  Nowadays I don’t have the time to be a full on sports obsessive, but watch plenty of it, especially baseball.

All that being said, I think it is time to wage war on the sports industrial complex.  That doesn’t mean ridding ourselves of sports, just returning them to their proper sphere.  These days sports wield an insanely disproportionate amount of power, and nowhere is this more apparent than in higher education.  Universities that are slashing departments and majors left and right continue to field football teams.  At schools in the upper athletic echelon the “student athletes” have administrators make them fake classes and have students hired to do their work for them.  Schools looking to raise their profile build new, larger stadiums and practice facilities.  At colleges and high schools athletes are treated like gods, and given free reign to commit crimes and assault women with the protection of the school and local community.  Sports are perverting the mission of higher education and lowering its quality while endangering students.  

Sports at the professional level is still fetid with the stench of corruption.  Pro football players have their brains turned to mush for the entertainment of the masses while team owners refuse to compensate them for their injuries.  Professional basketball, football, and baseball teams have all built gleaming new arenas in the last quarter century financed by public money or at least given tax breaks that amount to public financing.  This has all occurred at a time when states and localities are slashing school budgets and the social safety net.  In Wisconsin Scott Walker proposed a $300 million cut to the state's university, and then turned around and recommended $220 million in tax breaks and incentives to build a new arena for the piss poor Milwaukee Bucks. Whenever teams want new stadiums they hold their city's hostage, threatening to leave and sometimes making good on the promise, as the Seattle Supersonics did.

It's perhaps even worse when it comes to the global showcase events.  The International Olympic Committee is a notorious morass of graft and shakedowns and Sepp Blatter's runs FIFA in ways that would make Boss Tweed proud.  The Olympics have become advertisements for authoritarian regimes flexing their muscles for the world, and tend to suck the cities that host them dry.  Brazil and South Africa have recently dumped their precious resources down the drain rather than improving their societies so that they could construct a bunch of World Cup stadiums. Even worse, Blatter awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar in a Bond-villain scenario where stadiums are being built in the desert by unfree laborers dying at a fearsome rate.

So there you have it.  The out of control sports industrial complex employs slave labor, undermines higher education, enables rapists, and impoverishes the public sector.  Isn't it about time we put a stop to this?  Again, there's no need to band sports, or abandon them, but put them back in their rightful place as a side amusement.  Cities threatened by teams who want new stadiums need to let them go.  Colleges in economic crises need to cut athletics first, and stop paying coaches top dollar.  Soccer federations should just abandon FIFA and start something new.  If UEFA leaves, FIFA will die.  Countries should stop competing to get the Olympics, and turn the tables so that the grafters at the IOC have to go begging others to host the Olympics for them.  If enough people stop cooperating with the insane demands of this system, it will be tamed.  All that's necessary is the will to do it.  It might take some time, but enough universities, cities, and sports federations get the ball rolling, real change is possible.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

An Underdog When You're Ahead: On Being A White Sox Fan

I grew up in central Nebraska during the 1980s, which meant that when I developed an interest in baseball, the Kansas City Royals were my team.  Sometime in the early 1990s, when I was in high school, that interest waned and I stopped caring all that much about the team.  This apathy coincided with their quarter century in the baseball wilderness, which was mostly likely connected.  When in college, however, I met friends who were big baseball heads, and they helped get me back into the game.  I went to see the Omaha Royals (before their name changes) at the sadly defunct Rosenblatt Stadium, and even road tripped to KC in 1997 to see the first interleague series between the Cardinals and Royals, and to gaze upon Mark McGwire.

Just as my baseball renaissance was beginning, I moved to Chicago to get a master's degree, and was thus living in a big league city for the first time in my life.  This prompted a tough decision: Sox or Cubs.  Most baseball fans in the Chicago area don't have a choice, since geography and family ties usually make that decision for them in their infancy.  I toyed with Cubs fandom at first.  After all, they played in the wonderfully anachronistic friendly confines of Wrigley, they made the playoffs right after I moved in (1998), and Sammy Sosa was setting the nation on fire with his home run prowess.  Despite these facts, I ended up opting for the Sox.  This was partly because I was living on the South Side, and partly because I felt more at home among their fans.  While this faction is a minority of Cub fandom writ large (which is quite broad and diverse), there is a very frat contingent that dominates the culture of Wrigley and the surrounding neighborhood on game days.  Sox fans, on the other hand, tend to be more blue collar, and when they show up to the ballpark are more interested in the game than in taking part in the world's largest open air singles bar.

I also tend to think that my decision reflected my instinctual need to not be on the side of popularity.  I am a bit of a contrarian, to be sure.  The Cubs were and are by far the higher profile Chicago team, and their attendance figures versus the Sox bear this out.  This is partly because there are many fewer Sox fans, that new transplants to Chicago almost always choose the Cubs, that Sox fans are less affluent, and that following from this, are not keen to spend money on a less than stellar team.  As the numbers I quoted show, the Cubs outdrew the Sox even in 2005 and 2006, the year the White Sox won the title, and the year after, when champions tend to get a big attendance boost.  Even when they won the first World Series by a Chicago team since 1917, they were still the second team in the Second City.

The team and its fans are also quite often the target of criticism and the butt of jokes, even among their own.  Fans and outsiders have long ripped on US Cellular Field for being a bland stadium built right before Camden Yards opened up the deluge of retro parks.  In actuality it is a fine place to watch a game (especially since the renovations) and has by far the best food of ballpark I've ever been to, along with great ballyhoo traditions like the Fan Shower and exploding scoreboard.  The horrible attack by two violent Sox "fans" on Royals first base coach Tom Gamboa also gave the team a bad name.  Cubs fans have their own history of hooliganism, but the image of the team as "lovable losers" has never been tarnished. On top of all of this, Ken "Hawk" Harrelson has got to be the most hated announcer in baseball, even though his much criticized homerism is just unveiled honesty, unlike the pretense of objectivity that so many other hometown announcers studiously maintain.

I have begun to relish second class status, however.  By being a Sox fan, I feel like I am not a member of a great mass, or "nation" as Cubs fans brand themselves, but of a tight-knit club.  Sox fans are actually much less obnoxious than those of other teams, in that we don't expect other people to get wrapped up in our drama.  The best example of this came in the team's championship run in 2005, when there was relatively little media attention paid to the fact that the White Sox had gone since 1917 without winning a title.  When the Red Sox won the year before the country was deluged with stories about the "Curse of the Bambino" and fans from Pawtucket to Bar Harbor visiting the graves of their parents and grandparents to tell them the news.  Conversely, when Ken Burns put together his sequel to his series on baseball, he gave the White Sox about two minutes of screen time while lavishing all kinds of Sturm und Drang on Boston's drama and requited agony.  Of course that was an important story, but the fact that White Sox fans had been through similar trials was barely acknowledged.

While that really bugged me at the time, I've come to realize that the lack of recognition for the White Sox' vindication actually says a lot of positive things about us fans of the South Siders.  We were smart enough to know that our team's problems were not down to some vague curse like the Red Sox or Cubs (the famous billy goat, the black cat on the field in 1969, etc.) but to bad management and mediocre play.  If Sox fans were ever angry at anyone, it was at owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who had 1. pushed for confrontation with the players' union, leading to the strike in 1994 while the Sox were in first place and 2. okayed the "white flag" trade of 1997, when he traded top players for prospects down the stretch even though the team was still in contention.  (Apart from Keith Foulke, those prospects didn't amount to much, either.)

This angry feeling towards the team's ownership is less the entitled carping one hears from Yankee fans and more reminiscent of the feelings that most working people have towards management.  It is a healthy distrust born out of the knowledge that the bosses do not have your interests at heart, and must always be resisted.  Other fans seem to interpret this attitude as disloyalty, and continue to show up to the park even when their team sucks.  White Sox fans have a sort of clear-eyed, no bullshit attitude that is ingrained in the South Side and the working class culture of the Midwest writ large.  Living here in the Northeast I pine for the midlands of my childhood and young adulthood, watching White Sox games and hearing the raw cheers of the team's faithful from my living room in New Jersey at least gives me something of that world to hold on to.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Explaining The Eagles' Seductive Mediocrity

The Big Lebowski is one of my favorite films, and one of my favorite moments is when The Dude is riding in the back of a cab with "Peaceful Easy Feeling" playing on the radio, and he blurts out with fatigued annoyance "It's been a long day and I hate the fucking Eagles."  The cabbie boots him out, part of the joke being that it would be possible for anyone to get that passionate about such a middle of the road band.

My sentiments about The Eagles have never been quite as vehement as The Dude's, but I've never really cared for them.  That doesn't mean, however, that I don't find them oddly interesting.  It seems almost inexplicable that their first greatest hits album has sold more than any other in American history.  How to explain such massive popularity?  Also, because I am a sucker for rock docs, I happened to recently check out a new film called A History of the Eagles that was rather well done and managed to have interviews with the relevant parties.  This gave me insight into the band that I never really had before.  For example, I thought Don Henley came off as a pretty warm, funny guy, when back in the eighties his image was of a dour scold with a yuppie ponytail.

Part of the reason that the Eagles' greatest hits record has sold so many copies is that it has been much more popular after the band's demise owing partially to the fact that their brand of mellow country rock has set the template for Garth Brooks and all he has wrought in Nashville.  It is music for fans of country, pop, and rock alike in ways that little else is.  Listening to the band's early work, it's also apparent that they benefited from the groundwork laid by country-folk-rock pioneers like the Gram Parsons era Byrds, his Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons' solo work, Dillard & Clark, Poco, and Buffalo Springfield.  (Appropriately enough, Bernie Leadon played with Dillard & Clark and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Randy Meisner and later Timothy B Schmitt played with Poco.)  The Eagles dropped most of the twang and added large dollops of radio-friendly pop touches on early tunes like "Tequila Sunrise," "Peaceful Easy Feeling," and "Take It Easy."  (It also didn't hurt that Jackson Browne co-wrote the latter song.)  They basically took a vibrant but marginal popular music trend and brought it to the masses.

If you compare Gram Parsons' work to The Eagles', Parsons just blows them out of the water.  There's more soul in "Hickory Wind" than in all of the songs Don Henley ever wrote put together.  That being said, The Eagles knew how to craft some catchy tunes, even if they aren't high art.  Watching the documentary I noticed something else too: the harmonies.  The footage of the band harmonizing backstage before the show blew me away a little.  Their harmonies were rich, deep, and seemingly effortless.  The ability for singers to hit the right harmonies is kind of inscrutable, it takes the right mix of voices, and the The Eagles had it.  The live footage also showed that the musicians in the band could actually play, something obscured by the relatively simple nature of their music.

I also noticed from the doc that Joe Walsh joined at the exact right moment, when it looked like the band was running out of inspiration.  The one Eagles song I'd ever liked in my teenage years listening to classic rock radio was "Hotel California," mostly for Joe Walsh's searing leads and the unintentionally hilarious lyrics.  That inspiration didn't last too long, since The Eagles didn't come up with a follow up album until three years later with 1979's The Long Run, when the group's seductively mellow mediocrity curdled into maladroit cocaine rock.  However, it must be said that "In the City" was a notable exception, and that was essentially a Joe Walsh solo track.  (His 1978 But Seriously Folks is a far superior album.)

In the aftermath of all of this in the 80s I grew up hearing lots of Glenn Frey and Don Henley songs on the radio, and I had no clue that they had ever been in another group until I started listening to classic rock in the early 90s.  I was surprised that the guys behind 80s-tastic, uber-poppy stuff like "The Heat Is On" and "All She Wants To Do Is Dance" could be responsible for something as winsome as "Desperado."  For a band that now has the best selling album in American history, they seemed to have left almost no tangible impact, unlike say the Beatles or Stones.  Their pleasing mediocrity, accompanied by pretty harmonies and able musicianship, somehow managed to overcome this lack of relevance.  Like Jay Leno, Two and a Half Men, and The Big Bang Theory, The Eagles managed to be the most popular thing going without achieving anything like excellence.  In late capitalist America, pleasing, capable mediocrity, not brilliance, seems to be the key to reaching the top of the cultural heap.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Bloomberg Democrats

I am a craven addict, and as hard as I try to stay on the wagon, I just can't help myself and fall off.  My addiction is following electoral politics, especially presidential elections.  I am fully aware that the monied interest really call the tune, and that most Democrats are just softer-edged purveyors of neoliberalism, and Republicans its 180 proof version.  Perhaps it's the real life drama that draws me in, or the knowledge that despite our system's limited options, elections do indeed have consequences.

The Republican party in recent years has found itself in a bit of a paradox.  By firing up their base and spending a free flow of corporate dollars, they can handily win midterm elections, which usually have low turnouts.  They lose in presidential elections with a more moderate electorate, and are harmed by their shriller appeals to white racial resentment.  Some have wondered whether it is possible for the Republican party in its current iteration to win a presidential election.

The key for GOP success can actually be found in New York City, supposedly a liberal bastion.  While the Big Apple has traditionally been a Democratic stronghold since the party's birth, between 1994 and 2014 no Democrat held the office of mayor.  Both Giuliani (1994-2001) and Bloomberg (2002-2013) won office by emphasizing "law and order" and economic growth.  Both sought support from the gay community, and Bloomberg also became a national voice on gun control. Essentially, Bloomberg embodies the "socially liberal but fiscally conservative" consensus that I discussed awhile back.  He also illustrates some deeper and more disturbing facts.  White "liberals" will vote for a man who vigorously supports "stop and frisk" and other aggressive modes of policing that rely on racial profiling.

There are a lot of affluent (or at least middle class) Democrats who fervently believe in meritocracy and are highly skeptical of any social solution that involves helping those below them on the social ladder.  At the same time, they are cool with gay rights, pro-choice, skeptical of religion, in favor of gun control, and against strict enforcement of drug laws.  They aren't vulgar Randians who want to privatize Social Security or destroy the state university system a la Paul Ryan or Scott Walker, but nonetheless prefer lower taxes over reducing inequality, which actually threatens their position.  At the same time, they find the likes of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul to be completely unpalatable.  In the olden days, pre-Reagan and Gingrich, these people would have been liberal Republicans.

In the current climate, the GOP needs a presidential candidate who can peel off some of these voters if it wants to win.  This is difficult, because in order to get the nomination, Republican candidates have to take positions on gay rights, abortion, immigration, and guns to the right of Attila the Hun.  This, of course, is why the big money donors are going wild for Jeb, despite America's lack of enthusiasm for another Bush presidency.  As seemingly moderate as he is, Jeb is still not going to attract enough of these voters, and if Hillary gets the nomination, he will have no chance.

The Clintons are the ultimate triangulators, constantly selling progressives out if it means making a claim to be the representative of "moderation."  Bill Clinton did more to achieve a balanced budget than any other president in decades, deregulated banking, signed NAFTA, and slashed welfare.  He occasionally threw a bone to progressives with signing the Brady Bill and his failed health care proposal, but his legacy looks an awful lot more like Eisenhower than LBJ.  You can expect more of the same from HRC, which means the Democrats could keep winning electoral battles at the national level while losing the war against conservative ideology.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Track of the Week: Leonard Nimoy "Highly Illogical"

Back when I was in college a friend had a compilation album of actors attempting to sing, including Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner.  For years I gravitated towards the Shatner stuff, mostly because his performances had a kind of crazed, irony-transcending quality to them.  Nimoy's just sounded comically bad, considering that his voice had a range even less expansive than my own.  Over the years, however, I've had a strange about face in regards to some of Nimoy's songs, mostly because of his own, less over the top commitment to the material.  Case in point is something like "Ruby Don't Take Your Love To Town," a grim tune sung from the perspective of a legless Vietnam vet threatening to kill his lady if she steps out on him.  Nimoy's voice strains, but there is a fascinating level of evocative emotion that can't be ignored.  I also enjoy his take on the great standard "Gentle on My Mind."  When he had more story-telling material like this his speak-singing style actually worked.

My favorite, coming before his folky, countrified albums has to be the novelty song "Highly Illogical."  Instead of singing in his earnest singing voice, Nimoy stays in character as Spock, his voice deep and stentorian.  Spock points out the illogical behavior of 1960s-era humanity, including the worship of the car and working hard to make money that will be irrelevant once death inevitably gets its due.  He's obviously having fun with the character, even if there are some serious messages about how out of whack most people's priorities are.  Nimoy crafted an unforgettable and unique character, but still obviously maintained a sense of humor, which can also be seen rather memorably in Star Trek IV, which he directed.  He used that non-human character to explore, in many ways, what it means to be human.  And for all of Spock's logical nature, Nimoy himself wasn't afraid to get emotional or silly in his music, and was seemingly fearless in exposing his lack of singing talent.  You might not like the songs, but I think they actually say something pretty profound about the man.