Monday, October 30, 2017

"That was an embarrassment of riches," Earl Weaver, somewhere

"Instant Classic!" is not always a value judgment. I'm sympathetic with those who feel that last night's Game Five slugfest was a parody of a baseball game. Where the hell was the pitching, Earl might've asked. Well, there was a lot of it, it just wasn't very good. 14 pitchers. 417 pitches. 22 home runs have been struck so far in the Series, a new record to be padded on Tuesday and possibly Wednesday. StatCast nearly burned out from the overtime. The game was a bit of a laugher—entertaining in that AstrosTrainGuy got to emote for the camera, home runs provide their own majesty and geometric hysterics, any see-saw game is fun to watch, and I love me some 5' 6" Altuve wacking the ball to the furthest part of the park. Jay Jaffe at Sports Illustrated summarized it succinctly: a "five hour and 17 minute rollercoaster ride abetted by an extra-wide strike zone, slick baseballs, gassed bullpens, and deep lineups that refused to roll over when faced with deficits of three or four runs." I'd still prefer a low-scoring pitchers' duel, or some blend of taut pitching and clutch, small-ball hitting. Alas, those days are waning. Last night's 13-12 marathon feels a whole lot like baseball's future. Hello, Launch Angle.

I'm fairly certain that in, say, February, I'll look back at Game Five fondly. As absurdly fun as it was, it kind of felt like a lo-fi version of baseball, a teaser to get you to pay more for the full game I'd pony up.

UPDATE: Grant Brisbee at SBNation has written my favorite description of Game Five:
In the middle of all that, though, there was Game 5, which was a delirious mess that was more like a tanker truck tipping over and spilling a baseball-like substance all over the highway. The cars behind it couldn’t slow down in time, and they spun off a cliff and into the abyss. We clapped when the cars spun into the abyss, and we impatiently waited for more cars, which kept coming. I get chills thinking about it days later.

It was unrepentantly awful baseball, of course. Filled with hitters succeeding, sure, but also filled with pitchers failing. And umpires failing. And fielders. It was the world’s largest bag of Cheetos, and after inhaling thousands of them, we were left with a pleasant taste in our mouth, stained fingers, and rickets.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Songs Marshall Gave Away

As many rock and roll fans know, Marshall Crenshaw played John Lennon in the musical Beatlemania, first as an understudy in New York City and on the West Coast, then in the national touring company. He left the production in February of 1980 to concentrate on songwriting and a recording career. He had, it appears, barrels full of songs, many of which he'd record on his fabulous self-titled debut in 1982. Several of his songs were also recorded by other artists keen to capitalize on Crenshaw's ear for sublime hooks and 1960s AM radio melodies and dynamics. Most notably, Bette Midler recorded "You're My Favorite Waste of Time" in 1983, and Robert Gordon issued a version of "Someday, Someway" in 1981 which made it into the 70s on the Billboard Singles Chart. (Crenshaw's own version reached number 36, a year later.) Gordon also recorded a version of Crenshaw's first single, "Something's Gonna Happen."

Some of the songs that Crenshaw gave to others he himself never got around to cutting. I recently pulled out Gordon's Are You Gonna Be The One, which featured "Someday, Someway," and was surprised that I'd forgotten that there are two other Crenshaw songs on the album, "She's Not Mine Anymore" and "But, But." A couple years later, Gordon cut Crenshaw's "Wasting My Time" for the soundtrack to the movie The Loveless, and a decade later "I Need You, Girl" for All For The Love Of Rock 'N' Roll. To my ears, each is a gem, perfect for the ageless voice of Gordon, characteristically Crenshawian in their timeless Buddy Holly/Beatles vibe, appealing chord changes, and ear-candy melodies.

Austin, Texas-based blues singer Lou Ann Barton recorded Crenshaw material on her 1982 debut Old Enough, a version of "Brand New Lover," which Crenshaw would record for his debut, and the R&B-flavored "Stop These Teardrops."

In 1989, Crenshaw gathered his brother Robert on drums, Graham Maby on bass, and producer Alan Betrock to cut a handful of demos with legendary singer Ronnie Spector. Among with some familiar tunes ("Someday, Someway," "For His Love" (aka, "For Her love"), "Whenever You're On My Mind," and "Favorite Waste of Time") Spector cut a version of Crenshaw's "Communication." These tracks weren't issued until 2003, a tease to an album-that-never-was.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Astros in Seven

The World Series begins tomorrow night, and the matchup features two 100+ win teams for the first time since 1970, when the Baltimore Orioles defeated the Cincinnati Reds. The Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers are evenly matched on paper; both teams sport fine starting pitching and relievers, stingy defenses, and offensive clout. The Dodgers would appear to have the edge given that they've secured home field advantage, but truthfully my Inner Predictor hasn't felt this gun shy in a long time. I'm pulling for the Astros for a host of reasons—growing up with the Orioles as my default home team and loving the Yankees, Red Sox, and Royals teams of the 1970s, my instinct is to yell "Go American League!"; my fifteen-year old nephew Matthew loves the Astros and has since he was a little kid; my DeKalb buddy Kevin is a scout for the 'Stros, and I'd like to see his contribution to the team be rewarded. Yet the Dodgers could easily take it. Either way, I'm looking forward to watching Yasiel Puig on the Big Stage, facing off against Justin Verlander and flashing leather in right; I'm psyched to watch the Astros' sluggers deal with the differential between Yu Darvish's fastball and change; I want to see Altuve be Altuve. And so on. I do predict close, generally low scoring games. And the Astros in seven.

Whatever transpires, here's to competitive baseball ball and a fun week!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Anyone can do it

A handful of musicians, ranging from Paul McCartney, David Bowie, and Johnny Lydon to Leif Garret, Meat Loaf, and Kate Bush, hold forth on "Punk Rock" in a documentary episode of Countdown that aired in December of 1979. Good, of-the-era stuff, equal parts earnest and reactive, inspired and defensive.

I like what Steve Harley, late of the glam band Cockney Rebel, has to say. Squarely facing a trend and movement, he reacts honestly and reminds us what it was all about:
I like the principal behind it all. I never really pretended to understand what was going on. I can't pretend that I understand. I'm 28. I can't pretend that I understand 18-year olds. Writing songs about being on the dole, and living in high-rise council blocks of flats, and being underprivileged and deprived. I can't pretend to understand that because it's not part of my lifestyle, so I won't lie and say, "Oh, I'm hip to that!" Because I'm not. I'm from another world. Well, what the Pistols did, and their ilk, was important in that they made it very obvious that anyone can do it.

Friday, October 20, 2017

"LOL I Hate My Life"

Had a fascinating conversation in my Writing Creative Nonfiction I workshop yesterday about Robert Benchley's essay "My Face," which appeared in his book After 1903 What? in 1938. Benchley writes Benchleyesquely about his struggles with the disconnect between his subjective impression of himself and how he actually looks, in surprising window reflections and in the odd photo. "Some mornings," he writes, "if I look in the mirror soon enough after getting out of bed, there is no resemblance to any character at all, either in or out of fiction, and I turn quickly to look behind me, convinced that a stranger has spent the night with me and is peering over my shoulders in a sinister fashion, merely to frighten me." Elsewhere, he admits that he "never can quite make it seem possible that this is really Poor Little Me, the Little Me I know so well and yet who frightens me so when face to face." His tone is self-mocking, wittily urbane in the mid-century New Yorker reserved-personal style. I routinely assign the essay so we can talk about the value and limitations of humor in the essay, and about the subjective nature of humor writing in general. When I asked the class if they found the essay humorous, they collectively blanched. On the contrary; they found it brutally sad and a cry for help.

This is a first. Usually my students describe the essay as quaintly funny, in an old-fashioned way. They enjoy it, and find it relevant to their lives. Who doesn't struggle with self-image? Some students have described it as "David Sedaris-like" (although Sedaris seems to have less cachet for twenty-somethings now than he did a decade or so ago.) The revulsion of this semester's class to Benchley threw me, and I had to regroup. They liked the essay—quite a bit, in fact—but it made them very uncomfortable, and they felt that what other generations of readers might've found droll or whimsical in Benchley's tone, they find somber and self-destructive. "This is a cry for help!" one student protested. "I feel like I want to do something for him," another offered. The majority of the class felt that Benchley was a really sad guy, beset with body-image woes, suffering in a crass, surface-dwelling society. One woman said she wanted to slide her therapist's card to him on the sly; another was pleased to see a man writing about vanity and vulnerability, traits stereotypically associated with women. Their responses, as always, varied with their experiences: one woman said that she grew up in a home without many mirrors ("it was a thing") and so felt Benchey's feelings especially keenly; another wondered on the effects of their generation carrying thousands of images of themselves on phones, and of the daily anxiety of unasked-for taggings in unflattering photos. This, times a thousand.

My students weren't being humorless about this, or overly earnest. Most of their comments were offered with half-grins, yet their reactions were authentic; no English Major posturing here. It's fascinating to me how different generations read and react. My students admittedly couldn't imagine how a literate, pre-Second War audience would respond to the essay. One particularly bright student suggested that since her generation of twenty-somethings is so attuned to trigger warnings and danger signs of depression, it's apt that they would read "My Face" with a diagnostic eye, open to signs of toxic self-deprecation or mental illness that might be helped with counseling (or medication). Another bright student suggested "LOL I Hate My Life" as a subtitle to the essay. Another said the essay reminded her of Louis C.K. in its darkness and relentless self-scrutiny. Benchley, dark! Fantastic. My students keep teaching me, and I'm grateful for that.

My dad owned three of four Benchley books, and I have fond memories of sitting with my family in the living room after dinner, and my older brother reading Benchley aloud, and all of us falling over ourselves laughing. I guess that in another fifty or so years a group of college students might respond very differently again to "My Face," perhaps on the pendulum swing back to identifying with Benchley's laid-back, witty tone. Who knows. I wonder what Benchley would make of all of this.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Let 'em Play

Major League Baseball should be ashamed of itself. The replay decision that overturned the on-field, rally-killing call of Cubs catcher Willson Contreras's pick off of the Nationals' Jose Lobaton was a disgrace. Among the pleasure of watching sports is seeing athletes hurl their bodies through air and control those bodies in elegant, often breathtaking ways. "Professional sports have a powerful hold on us because they display and glorify remarkable physical capacities," Roger Angell wrote, "and because the artificial demands of games played for very high rewards produce vivid responses,” Athletes are bigger, quicker, stronger, and more agile than I am or will ever be; watching them play at the elite level, I expect that they'll test their limits in entertaining ways. One of the remarkable aspects of baseball is how well-designed the game is: the dimensions on the field, notwithstanding the varying distances of the outfield fences and the recently (1969!) lowered pitching mound, have remained unchanged for decades. It's astounding that a player in 1923, after hitting a grounder to third, would hustle down the first base line and just beat—or not—the throw to first, and that his larger, faster, and stronger counterpart in 2017, hustling, in theory, still faster, would also face a split-second decision at the end of that same ninety feet. What a perfectly designed game!

When a player dives back to first in response to a lightning-quick pick-off move, he hurls his body through air, and occasionally his foot or leg will come up off the bag even after he's arrived safely. That's physics. That's poetry. It's not a mistake. It's a body moving through space. Instant Replay should be used to reverse bad calls and obvious mistakes made by the umpires and players—it should not be used to penalize a player for being six feet and an inch and weighing 205 pounds and, against gravity and with brutally-honed instincts, lurching to his left to touch a bag and—for an instant—lift off.

Simply because we have the ability to micro-zoom and freeze a chaotic moment of intensely competitive sport, must we apply it on every occasion? Baseball is played by humans and umpired by humans; must technology supplant the naked eye on the occasions where a leg lifts off of a bag for a slit-second of time after the runner clearly reached the bag, as observed by the first base umpire from a few feet away? Baseball is applying an unprecedented, hyper-realistic standard of physical play if it permits replay on such microcosmic instances of athletic competition. It does a disservice to the talented, hard-working players and umpires, to kids watching, to fans, to the game. I know it's unlikely that replay will be refined, but I hope that in this off-season someone in New York suggests a re-think. The game is too beautiful to be policed—reduced—by a high-definition camera. Let 'em play.

I was texting with my brother, who was at the game and didn't have access to the replays I was watching. I thought I'd cool off about this overnight, but nope.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

"Flash & Crash"

I've always loved the brutally raw sound of Rocky and the Riddlers' garage stomp "Flash & Crash," released on the Seattle-based, Jerden-affiliated Panorama label in 1966. Recently, Ric Ulsky, who played organ on the song, contacted me at my YouTube channel, 3 Chord Philosophy. I asked him for any memories of the session:
I remember it being very exciting. An actual recording studio! Wow! Plus I was the youngest member of the band so I was even more excited. It was 1966 technology. I believe we were in a 2 track studio downtown Seattle. Jerry Dennon was the Producer, I'm pretty sure. Carnie Barton was the engineer, I think. Hell, he was old then. He just sat there reading the paper and eating an orange. I was playing a Farfisa through a 147 Leslie and a Sears and Roebuck Silvertone amp. Hell of a rig for those days.
Hell of a sound. Turn it up, if you dare.

Photo of Rocky and the Riddlers via Pacific Northwest Bands

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

How it Feels

Mourning a musician you've never met is inevitable and complicated. I can't say that I'll miss Tom Petty, the man; I never knew him. His family, friends, band mates, and musicians who've played with down the years—one in the same, at the end of the day—will miss him, and I feel awful for their grieving that begins today, and will never really end. What I and millions more are grieving is the end of a generous and supremely gifted musical career, a career that gave deep pleasures to so many in so many different ways  during so many eras. Petty will never write or sing another song. That hits keenly today. I didn't pay close attention to his career from the late 1990s onward, but his songs will stay very close to me. It's always been my impression that Tom Petty was the Great Leveler. Put a handful of music fans of different stripes in a room—a Rockabilly obsessive; a garage rock hound; a Punk/New Waver; an MTV kid; an Indie Rock stalwart; a millennial streaming Classic Rock into Hip Hop back to 60s AM hits; college kids raiding their parents' music collections; drunks, stoners—and I'm pretty sure they'd agree on Tom Petty. His greatest songs were formalist gems that were so true and clear-eyed about what it meant to be alive that they cut across bias, taste, and generations, as all great popular art does. I hope that he knew this. I hope he knew how it feels.

The timing of one's fandom is crucial. I was a teenager by a few months when Damn The Torpedoes came out in the fall of 1979, and his songs—the hits, especially—scored that year and the next in graphic, indelible ways. The backing vocal on "Refugee" sounded exactly like a friend's voice, the same timbre and tone; Petty and his band were familiar already. And when I'd listen to the mumbling verses in "Here Comes My Girl"—so masculine in their bitter, shrugging defenses and talky inarticulation, on guard against powerful sentiment and emotional surprise—and then the lyrical melody bloom in the chorus, Petty, moved, singing at the top of his register, the room and the song lighting up with her and her presence, I had everything laid out before me, a lot of which I'd experienced but hadn't named: crushes; love; lust, the power of intimacy; looming adulthood; surrendering; all in one song. Thanks, Tom Petty, for this song and so many others.

My buddy Marty owns a cabin in West Virginia overlooking the Cacapon River. We'd fantasize about inviting Petty to hang with us for a weekend—jamming to tunes; drinking beer and smoking weed; laughing; busting on politicians and talking rock and roll; just hanging out. So many fans have adolescent fantasies like this, but with Petty we could actually picture it, see him in front of us hanging onto the deck, peering into the trees below, a half grin on his face, making some crack, the way we couldn't imagine Keef or Prince, or even Bruce. We knew, somehow, that we'd all get along, that he'd put his fame and fortune beside him and just chill. Ridiculous, I know. But his songs and low-key demeanor made the fantasy tantalizing, asked that we keep him close to us. We'll miss you, Tom. Rest in Peace.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Playoffs are Here

As are my fearless predictions. Making an educated case about the Wild Card games is akin to judging a four-course meal on one bite, but I'll go with momentum and, in the case of the Yanks, home-field advantage. Same with my picks for the Divisional and Championship Series.

I, again, have no horse in the race. I'd like to see the Nationals win it all for my Dad, brother, and longtime buddies back in Maryland. But the 'Stros and Dodgers feel right to me to play for it all. Not a controversial prediction, I know, and anything can, and will, happen. Here's to taut, well-played games and each Series going to a decoding game! Play October Ball!
Yankees > Twins

Rockies > Diamondbacks

Indians > Yankees
Astros > Red Sox

Dodgers > Rockies
Nationals > Cubs

Astros > Indians

Dodgers > Nationals

Astros > Dodgers in 7

Photo via Time: "University of Pittsburgh students cheer wildly from atop the Cathedral of Learning as they look down on Forbes Field, where the Pittsburgh Pirates are playing the Yankees in the 7th game of the 1960 World Series...". George Silk—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images