Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Schlock It Up and Throw Away the Key

I stumbled across Celine Dion doing "It's All Coming Back to Me Now" on the radio this afternoon, and whaddaya know, it didn't sound half bad. Jim Steinman knows that if you're going to make something bombastic, then by gum, you might as well go all the way, knock down the walls of the castle, throw them in the moat, and set them on fire, and thus does this kind of thing way better than somebody like the egregious milquetoast Peter Cetera. Plus he's got a decent way with a melody. Steinman also was responsible for Air Supply's brightest moment, "Making Love Out of Nothing at All" (the boy does love the long song titles, doesn't he?), such as it is. Celine still sounds like she's sounding out the syllables phonetically, but no one can deny she's got a set of lungs on her.

Anyway, I mention all of that so that I can retell one of my favorite jokes: Celine Dion walks into a bar. The bartender asks, "Why the long face?"

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Yard Had Been Taken Over by BLANK

One of my favorite things about one of my most favorite Web sites, Findadeath.com, is that they dig up photos of celebrities' houses, and since it's all, by definition, dying celebrities, a lot of these homes are relatively down at the heels. Those of us in Middle America sometimes tend to assume that anyone who appears frequently on our television sets must somehow thereby become wealthy, but they don't.

Case in point: Charles Nelson Reilly's house, seen above. Pretty modest, isn't it? And apparently it's too remote to hire a good weeder to get up there. Or maybe he was just trying to hide out from Patti Deutsch.

Fire When Ready

The headline on the current edition of the Englewood (Colo.) Herald reads: "Teen Accidentally Shot in Face."

So now we know where Dick Cheney's undisclosed location is.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Devil's Haircut

A new franchise children's-haircutting place recently opened up near me, called Snip-its, which is a lot like the other kids' haircut places that offer movies and video games, except that at Snip-its, all the videos and games are proprietary, featuring the Snip-its characters, led by Snips, an anthropomorphic pair of scissors. I find this completely depressing, not just because it seems entirely useless and counterproductive to throw new cartoon characters at children who want nothing more than SpongeBob, but because the video games must get awfully predictable when Snips takes on his traditional rivals Rock and Paper.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Hits and Errors: The Annals of Substance Abuse in Baseball, pt. 1

With Barry Bonds closing in on Hank Aaron's home run record, steroids are a hot topic once again, but there's very little new in these latest scandal stories, for baseball has a long and rich history of substance abuse, dating back to the earliest days of the game. Everyone knows that Babe Ruth chug-a-lugged his way through Prohibition, but here are some other, lesser-known mind- and body-altering episodes:

* Toad Ramsey was the ace pitcher for the Louisville Cyclones in 1886 and 1887, but drank himself out of baseball by the time he was 26. Part of this may have been the result of his habit of drinking three Ramsey's Cocktails every day: each Ramsey's Cocktail consisted of a shot of whiskey plunged into a pitcher of beer.

* Future Hall of Famer and noted tippler Mike "King" Kelly (above) was asked around that same time whether or not he ever drank during games. He responded, with admirable candor and good sense, "That depends on how long the games are."

* Another future Hall of Famer, pitcher Pud Galvin, admitted in 1889 to using a performance enhancer called the elixir of Brown-Sequard, which consisted of the testosterone drained from a monkey's testicles. Hey, don't knock it: Galvin would go on to be baseball's first 30o-game winner.

* Louis Sockalexis, the original Cleveland Indian, was a heavy drinker from his college days at Notre Dame, but that didn't stop him from becoming a big star in Cleveland, where he hit .338 as a rookie in 1897. No, what stopped him was when he drunkenly jumped out of a second-story brothel window, destroying his leg and all but ending his career.

* During the 1930 pennant race, Cardinals ace pitcher Flint Rhem disappeared for three days, missing a start; when he returned, he told of being kidnapped by gamblers and forced to drink Prohibition whiskey the entire time. Subsequent investigations showed that there was no kidnapping, and the whiskey was ingested voluntarily.

* In 1935, Dodgers outfielder Len Koenecke was kicked off the team for chronic drunkenness. He hired a private plane to take him back home to Buffalo, then made what have been described as "improper advances" to the pilot and copilot -- Koenecke was, of course, drunk at the time. The co-pilot bashed Koenecke's head in with a fire extinguisher, killing him.

{To be continued...}

Friday, July 27, 2007

Regional Distresses

When I lived in Louisiana, every summer, when there would be thunderstorms, the power would go out. It go so you would expect the electricity to turn off every time it rained, although in reality it was probably more like once a week or two. It was a nuisance, but you got used to it. It's not like there was anything you could do about it.

Here in Denver, it's the traffic lights. Whenever there's a storm of any size, or even when there isn't, a light at a major intersection is bound to go on the fritz. I rarely drive during rush hour, but when I do, I almost always hear on the radio a traffic report warning of a light out somewhere important, or else run into one myself. And believe me, it makes traffic annoying in a whole new way.

I've lived in several other cities, and I don't remember ever being confronted with traffic lights conking out on major thoroughfares. I don't know what's wrong with Denver. But something surely is.

Number One With a Bullet Wound

A while back, we were discussing the fact that the 1990s saw a huge leap in the number of songs that spent weeks and weeks at Number One on the pop charts, and OPC commenter Joe suggested that the changeover to the SoundScan system of accounting may have been a prime driver of this. I have now found that this phenomenon is entirely due to SoundScan.

Consider: Billboard went to the SoundScan method on November 30, 1991. Prior to that date, 25 songs had hit Number One in 1991 (it had been 25 in 1990, as well). In 1992, only 12 songs went to Number One; in 1993 it was down to 10, and in 1994 it went down to nine.

In early 1975, there was a period of 13 weeks where there was a new Number One song every week, from "Mandy" to "Philadelphia Freedom." (Elton John broke the string by staying on top for a second week, on the April 19, 1975, chart.) Now it takes a whole year (or more) to have 13 different Number Ones.

I have to say, this seems to be a change for the worse, for both Billboard and for the music industry, which seems to have endured many such self-inflicted wounds over the years. If you have Number One hits changing on a regular basis, you create interest in the pop charts, and in Casey Kasem or Shadoe Stevens or whomever, and maybe even in listening to the radio. Having "Un-Break My Heart" stay at Number One for 11 straight weeks doesn't create much of anything. And it's not like this is some sort of highly technical operation with an exact correct number, like measuring the temperature on Venus. As I understand it, the charts used to be based on record sales and airplay, and Billboard was entitled to calibrate airplay any way it liked. It's not exactly going to foster a congressional investigation if Billboard fiddled with its rankings again to increase chart movement. At the present time, does anyone really care about the pop charts? I can't say that I do.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Rock Rule No. 51

No matter who did it first, Elvis sang it better.

This applies not just to songs like "Blue Suede Shoes" and "I Just Can't Help Believin'" but even to "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and as anyone who reads this site regularly (which should be everyone, at this point) knows, I adore Art Garfunkel. But he's not Elvis Presley.

The exception: I like Elvis' version of "Always on My Mind," but it does suffer from a certain lack of gravitas, which this, one of the saddest songs in the modern canon, deserves. And the background singers, which I assume are some incarnation of the Jordanaires but sound here like the Oak Ridge Boys on a coffee break, are a joke.

The definitive version of "Always on My Mind" is Willie Nelson's, from 1982, which went to Number Five on the pop charts and Number One on the country charts. Willie is rueful, ruminative, at the peak of his interpretive powers, and it doesn't hurt that he was already 48 when he cut it, at a time when one should be looking back on life and regretting treating your one and only as if she were second best.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Great Caesars' Ghost

Nobody ever brings you a Caesar salad with anchovies on it anymore. Nobody even expects you to want anchovies on it, so even if you ask for anchovies, they don't have any anchovies to put on it for you. Which means, of course, that as Caesar salads have become impossibly popular, no one can actually offer you a real Caesar salad.

Dog Days

If you're wondering what exactly Michael Vick was up to with all that dogfighting business, you might be interested in Harry Crews' 1976 Southern gothic novel A Feast of Snakes, which features a character who is deep into the depraved world of dogfighting. Among other things, Big Joe Mackey leashes his dogs to a treadmill and turns up the speed until they just can't take it no more. It's twisted stuff, though highly believable, and no less cruel than what Vick is accused of doing.

A Feast of Snakes is not the best animal-fighting novel I have read, though. That honor would go to 1962's Cockfighter by Charles Willeford, the author of Miami Blues and the other Hoke Moseley novels. If you didn't know he was a real novelist, you would think that Cockfighter had been written by someone who had spent his entire life in the world of cockfighting and was trying to get it all down on paper. There's a real ascetic quality to the book: It's wall-to-wall cockfighting, and there's nothing in there that isn't cockfighting. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Talkin' Blues, cont'd

In the comments section of my post on spoken-word hits, the ever-resourceful Mark Lerner - who, I have it on good authority, has spoken words himself ever since he was a wee tot - points out this post from a blog almost as good as OPC concerning patriotic spoken-word singles. For those of you who are too "busy" to read the other post, it describes how the same piece of recitative climbed up the charts twice in 1974.

Our story begins on June 5, 1973, when a Toronto broadcaster named Gordon Sinclair delivered a radio commentary talking about how the Americans had come to the aid of countries around the world, but no one ever thought to help the Americans:

When distant cities are hit by earthquakes, it is the United States that hurries into help... Managua Nicaragua is one of the most recent examples. So far this spring, 59 American communities have been flattened by tornadoes. Nobody has helped.

The Marshall Plan .. the Truman Policy .. all pumped billions upon billions of dollars into discouraged countries. Now, newspapers in those countries are writing about the decadent war-mongering Americans.

I'd like to see one of those countries that is gloating over the erosion of the United States dollar build its own airplanes.

The piece became well-known in this country even before it was released as a single, and burst into the Top Forty in January of 1974, making Sinclair, who was then 73, the oldest person to ever have a Top Forty hit. But simultaneous to Sinclair's take, a newscaster for a Detroit TV station recorded his own version of the same text, backed by a recording of "America the Beautiful," making "The Americans" the "One Tin Soldier" of spoken-word records. MacGregor's cover put the schwap to Old Man Sinclair's, going all the way to Number Four.

So was that the last spoklen-word hit? I think it was. I've seen reports that "The Americans" found new popularity after 9/11, but I don't think it actually charted. So unless you would count a novelty like Dickie Goodman's "Mr. Jaws," from 1975, which had spoken-word elements, I think the spoken-word hit breathed its last in 1974.

Four of Us

Check out this video of the Beatles, still acting like a real band as they lay down "Two of Us," which would later show up on Let It Be. There are many cool things about this clip, including the fact that you get to see how thick John Lennon's glasses were -- the dude must have been totally blind -- and that Paul McCartney evidently invented the air tie. Plus, I never knew that was Lennon whistling at the end. I always thought it was Paul. Maybe he had already died by that point.

Finally, when I went to see the Beastie Boys at Red Rocks in 2004, I was astonished to see MCA with gum in his mouth. But here, you can see Lennon blissfully chomping away. Maybe that's where Yauch got the idea.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Quart for the Flying Dutchman

If I ever decided to support a Republican for president, and I don't know why I would, that candidate would be Texas congressman Ron Paul. He's against the war, for one thing, but maybe even more importantly, when he was a teenager growing up in Green Tree, Pennsylvania, he worked at his father's dairy, and he delivered milk to none other than Honus Wagner.

Quote of the Day

"Cartooning is for people who can't quite draw and can't quite write." - Matt Groening

Friday, July 20, 2007

A 66-Year-Old Jewish Man From Minnesota Visits the Mountains

The bad news is, Dylan's voice is totally shot. He's got a range of about three notes, and he can't hit any of them. When he opened his show at Red Rocks last evening with a desultory version of "Rainy Day Women No. 12 and 35," mumbling out rushed lyrics to one of his lesser hits, it looked like we were in for a long night.

But there's always the songs. My goodness, the man has a catalog, and he was pulling out songs all night that seemed obvious in retrospect, classics even, but that I never would have predicted: "When I Paint My Masterpiece"! "Watching the River Flow"! "Every Grain of Sand"! "Friend of the Devil" - wait, that isn't even a Dylan song, but the jam-band-happy Red Rocks crowd sure greeted it with enthusiasm. I was a little surprised he never got around to "Groom's Still Waiting at the Altar."

And after a while, as Dylan found a usable voice, and the band locked in tastefully and elegantly, not so much steamrollering the audience as - to paraphrase Roger Angell on getting beat by the 1998 Yankees - running them over with a BMW, it all became kind of great. The turning point was a Band-like take on "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine," with Dylan playing every lyric for maximum comic effect - "You say you love and you're thinking of me, but you know you could be wrong," and you could almost hear the Nicholson-like raised eyebrow at the end of the line. From then on, it seemed as if every other line was a laugh line; I had never quite caught on to that one from "Cry a While," "Well, you bet on a horse and it ran the wrong way," but I LOLed at it last night. "Nettie Moore," somewhat trudging on Modern Times, almost brought the house down: "I think the rain has stopped" got an appreciative response following the ten-minute rainstorm that immediately preceded Dylan's set, but the biggest roar came for "They say whisky'll kill you, but I don't think it will."

But what to do about that voice? When he reached Dylan's age, Leonard Cohen started having a girl singer double his vocals, but Dylan may be too idiosyncratic on his phrasing (and his lyrics - there were whole new verses for "When I Paint My Masterpiece," which may or may not have been off the dome) for that to work. And the last time Dylan carried around background singers, he ended up marrying one, and look how well that turned out. Last night, no one on the stage other than Bob sang a note, and even for Bob, it's arguable.

He didn't say a word to the crowd, either, until the encore, when he introduced the band. I guess it was an encore; after "Masters of War," the stage went dark as it had done several times earlier, and only the minutes-long wait told us the first act had ended. He came back after a bit and tore through "Thunder on the Mountain," then played a jaunty "Blowin' in the Wind," with Dylan's carnival-barker voice backed by roller-rink organ and fiddle, and it occurred to me that that song is almost as old as Dylan himself. And if you're counting, that means he did two songs from Freewheelin'. Of his albums from the previous century, only Blonde on Blonde got a similar courtesy. Self-Portrait was shut out.

Man, was it good. I wish I was going back tonight.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The League That Put the "Funk" in "Defunct"

The best sports book I have ever read is Terry Pluto's Loose Balls, an oral history of the ABA, which features some of the grooviest dudes of the late 1960s and 1970s playing basketball in front of some of the smallest crowds in major sports history. Talk-show grotesque Morton Downey Jr. owned a team for a while; so did Pat Boone. The Afros were as high as an elephant's eye.

Bob Costas was a kiddie announcer for the Spirits of St. Louis, and tells a wonderful story about how Spirits star Marvin Barnes, the Human Eraser, refused to board a plane from Lousiville to St. Louis that was scheduled to take off at 8:00 Eastern time and land at 7:59 Central. "I ain't gettin' on no time machine," Barnes said, and it's hard to argue with that kind of logic.

Even the endpaper of this book is worthy of your perusal, consisting as it does of the logos of every misbegotten team that ever played in the ABA, including such worthy squads as the Baltimore Claws, who folded without ever playing a regular-season game.

Hey, is the NHL season over yet?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Talkin' Blues

Back in 1964, at the febrile peak of Beatlemania, Lorne Greene - yes, Lorne Greene from Bonanza, and Lorne Greene from Battlestar Galactica - managed to sneak in a Number One record with a spoken-word single. Greene's hit was called, of course, in some kind of great cosmic joke, "Ringo." As far as I can tell, "Ringo" and Jimmy Dean's "Big Bad John," from 1961, are the only spoken-word records to go all the way to the top of the Billboard charts, unless you count "I'm Too Sexy."

Actually, the early Sixties was kind of a golden age for spoken-word singles. Walter Brennan had three Top Forty hits between 1960 and 1962, including the greatest spoken-word song of all time, "Old Rivers," which went to Number Five in the spring of '62. Jimmy Dean, of pork sausage fame, had four spoken-word hits in 1962 alone, following "Big Bad John." One of those was called "Dear Ivan" and was recited to the background music of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and boy, would I love to hear that now. I bet he gave those Russkies whatfor. Wink Martindale even had a spoken-word hit with "Deck of Cards," which went Top Ten late in 1959.

Those spoken-word singles have pretty much completely disappeared - not just from the contemporary pop charts but from the oldies stations, who are all too happy to spin Pacific Gas & Electric's "Are You Ready" but never get around to Senator Everett Dirksen's "Gallant Men," which reached the Top Thirty in early 1967 (with lyrics, if you still call them that on a spoken-word record, by longtime CBS newsman Charles Osgood). As brilliant as it is, I had to discover "Old Rivers" on a 1993 compilation called Songs of the West. That hardly seems fair.

What was the last spoken-word hit? It was Senator Dirksen's, for all I know. Anyone got any better ideas?

Oh, Man, I'm Really Under the Gun

As much as I was impressed by Roman Polanski's 2002 movie The Pianist, I was distracted in the later scenes by how much Adrien Brody, with his shaggy, unwashed hair and scraggly, unkempt beard, resembled Adam Duritz of Counting Crows (right). By the end of the film, when Brody is finally able to play the piano once again, I expected him to break into a little "Round Here."

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Allnighter

You may have heard that Harry Reid plans to keep the Senate in session all night tonight in order to force the Republican members to acquiesce to an up-or-down vote on the War in Iraq. There has been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere over quorum calls and filibuster requirements, and I'll have to recuse myself from the technical details over what exactly Reid could accomplish with this, as it has been decades since I made use of Robert's Rules of Order. I do not know, for example, whether David Vitter will be permitted to supply his Republican comrades with those high-class ladies down in New Orleans, to help them get through the long night. I am pretty sure, though, that Vitter will be allowed to wear his diaper.

And I do know this: Nobody knows more about the Senate's parliamentary rules than Harry Reid does, except for Robert Byrd. And Byrd is on Reid's side.

Klaus Sez: "Gut!"

Klaus Kinski pushing Froot Loops? Mmmm, give me some more!

(Warning: Sitting through a Salon ad may be required.)

Monday, July 16, 2007

OPC Discusses the Merits of the New Fountains of Wayne Album

I wish I liked the new Fountains of Wayne album, Traffic and Weather, a little bit better than I do, but coming off its brilliant predecessor, Welcome Interstate Managers, I suppose we should have expected a little bit of a comedown. Whereas Welcome celebrated the American working life (note the title), T&W is more focused on the rootlessness of modern society (again, note the title), as well as on romance -- the title tune's chorus insists "We belong together like traffic and weather, like traffic and weather." It's still chockfull of those telling FOW details, but the Welcome details took us somewhere we hadn't been before, like the hapless protagonist of "Bright Future in Sales" "sleeping on a planter in the Port Authority, waiting for my bus to come." (Well, I've been in the Port Authority, many times, but you know what I mean.) Here the telling details exist on their own, like Beth McKenzie "tak[ing] the contacts out of her eyes" in "Someone to Love," which I love, but still doesn't really get us anywhere. I think this is largely because people (and especially artists) don't pay much attention to workin' joes, so there is still plenty to say about it, but rootlessness and squandered romance are almost cliches already.

The other thing about it is that maybe Jeff Lynne somehow got himself involved, but they seem to have crammed keyboards and synths and backing vocals and even a full horn section into every cranny of the music, so there's nothing as sheerly muscular as Welcome's "Bright Future in Sales" or as breezy as "Valley Winter Song." The songs are pretty enough to stand on their own, but some of them just get drowned.

That's not to say T&W is a bad record at all; it's quite good, although the best thing about "Revolving Dora" is the title, and it's not that great of a title. That unsurpassable FOW sense of place surfaces on several of the tracks, like in the hilarious breakup song "This Better Be Good," which rhymes "Sea Bright" with "seem right," or "I-95," where the narrator stops at a visitor's center on the eponymous highway and spots Barney DVDs and posters of girls washing cars. And as with all FOW albums, every day you'll have a new favorite song -- although nothing will ever top "Bright Future in Sales."

Sunday, July 15, 2007

We Live in a Time When Paintings Have No Color

Long before his 27-game-winning season with the Oakland A's in 1991, Bob Welch recorded "Sentimental Lady" twice, once as a member of Fleetwood Mac and once as a solo artist. It's the one he cut as a solo artist that features the unmistakable sound of Christine McVie on backing vocals; Mick Fleetwood also plays drums on that one, and Lindsey Buckingham plays guitar. It's the version of "Sentimental Lady" he did with Fleetwood Mac that sounds like Welch recorded it all alone.

I know it's confusing. That's what I'm here for.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The World of Paul Simon

Everybody knows "El Condor Pasa," the Top Twenty hit for Simon & Garfunkel from 1970, which is a Peruvian folk song dating back to the 18th century for which Simon wrote new folkie lyrics, but fewer know "Duncan," from Simon's first solo album, Paul Simon, which stalled at Number 58 on the charts in 1972, and which also appropriated those Andean pipes but basically just used them as accents for a more typical Simon song, this one with lyrics akin to "The Boxer," about a poor boy emigrating from the Atlantic coast of Canada to the coldhearted U.S. of A. The latter was more successful, it seems to me, because Simon was using those world-music elements to enhance his own work, meeting them halfway rather than just copying them, as he did with "El Condor Pasa."

That also seems to me to be why Graceland worked so well. Simon could have just covered some South African tunes for that record, but instead, it's full of great Paul Simon songs goosed to further life by those outstanding South African musicians and singers, the bodegas and the lights on Upper Broadway mingling with the Township Jive. That album's one lyrical bow to Africa, "Under African Skies," was also its yuckiest: "Joseph's face was black as the night, and the pale yellow moon shone in his eyes." No thanks.

Wouldn't you rather stick to metrically precise references to the cinematographer's party? It's not exactly African, but it sure does work.

Friday, July 13, 2007

People Get Ready

Does it seem odd to anyone else that the canonical rock & roll vehicle should be the good, old-fashioned locomotive? Look at all the kinds of trains we've got:

"Mystery Train"
"Night Train"
"Train of Love"
"Silver Train"
"Love Train"
"Peace Train"
"Crazy Train"
"Downbound Train"
"Runaway Train"

That's not counting such near misses as "Take the A Train" (not a rock song) and "Train in Vain" (not a type of train). What am I missing?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

What's Purple, Lives in the Ocean, and Is Totally Nuts?

Speaking of entertaining band flameouts, Moby Grape (whose first album, Moby Grape, has been described by no less than the great David Fricke, who knows tons more about this stuff than I do, as the best album recorded at any time by anybody), during the course of one of its periodic reunions, gathered for a disastrous gig at the Fillmore East in New York circa 1971 that derailed the band, again, until the next reunion.

At this particular concert, bassist Bob Mosley, who had departed the band to join the Marines in 1969, only to be kicked out a few months later as a paranoid schizophrenic, decided to simply snap his fingers rather than play his bass. This wasn't crazy enough for guitarist Skip Spence, though, who was at least as nutty as Mosley. Probably more; Spence was in and out of mental hospitals for much of his later life. During this doomed show, Spence just put his hands on his hips and stared off into space. The other three guys eventually just walked off the stage. I don't know what the audience did.

I shouldn't make light of the situation, because these guys would later run into serious difficulties in their lives, such as homelessness, instutionalization, and an early grave. But, what the heck.

Broken Pavement

Of all the great band breakup stories my favorite has to be Pavement's, although I'm still sad that they did actually break up. In his book Perfect Sound Forever, Rob Jovanovic talked to Pavement guitarist Scott Kannberg about how the whole thing went down. The band had finished a European tour in support of Terror Twilight at the end of 1999, then repaired back to their respective houses for a few months of decompression.

"A good eight months went by before Steve [Malkmus] called out of the blue and said, 'You need to change the Web site to say we aren't a band anymore,'" Kannberg said. "'People keep asking me if we're breaking up, and you know we're not a band anymore, right?'

"I was like, 'What?' I said, 'Have you talked to the others?,' because I had talked to them and we all thought it was a break and Steve said, 'They should know.' So I said, 'You need to talk to them and say you don't want to do it anymore, and then I'll put it on the Web site.' Then he threw this hissy fit, so I called up the other guys and said, 'Steve doesn't want to do it anymore....' I still didn't put it up on the Web site."

From that same book, we learn that Courtney Love called Stephen Malkmus "the Grace Kelly of rock." Glad we got that cleared up. Watch out for those twisty highways on the French Riviera, Steve.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Working Like a Dog

Man, did things ever happen fast in the old days: The Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. A Hard Day's Night premiered six months and two days later.

Charles Lane, 1905-2007

Charles Lane was already 41 when he appeared in a bit part as a rent collector in It's a Wonderful Life in 1946, but as LL Cool J would say, he was just gettin' warm. Lane's career still had 60 years to run at that point, and wasn't snuffed out for good until he passed away earlier this week at the age of 102. His last credit was narrating a new version of The Night Before Christmas in a short that came out last year; he was onscreen as late as the age of 90, opposite Kirk Cameron in a remake of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.

By that time he had already appeared in over 200 movies, and made at least as many television appearances. This tribute from TV Land (which I found on the invaluable newsfromme.com) recaps more than a few of them: How many other actors appeared both in Gold Diggers of 1993 and an episode of Mork and Mindy? Not many, I'd guess.

v. To Choogle

John Fogerty actually coined the word "chooglin'," you know. It's all over CCR's second album, Bayou Country, from January 1969, in both the song "Keep on Chooglin'" and the single "Born on the Bayou," which had Fogerty "chooglin' on down to New Orleans."

What does it mean? Well, you know, it's like to choogle along. Dean of all rock critics Robert Christgau, naturally, weighs in on the topic in his own oblique fashion:

Fogerty's compositions (two big exceptions: "Proud Mary" and "Lookin' Out My Back Door") fall into two approximate categories: choogling songs about rock and roll (forerunner: "Rip It Up") and songs of social and personal protest (forerunner, I insist: "Blue Suede Shoes"). Supposedly, there is no way to write an effective protest song; the genre is corny by definition. But Fogerty, the richest source closed to him, finds the way again and again, not just in famous successes like "Fortunate Son" and "Bad Moon Rising" but in minor pieces like "It Came Out of the Sky" and (a personal favorite) "Don't Look Now," which manages to encapsulate the class system in two minutes and eight seconds. The two categories come together in "Down on the Corner," which is about poor boys who choogle.

The energy implied by coinages like "choogle" and "ramble tamble" has more to do with vigor than with potency, more to do with simple activity than with sexuality.

Got that? Good. And incidentally, no one ever in the entire history of the world has ever pronounced it "choogling."

Monday, July 9, 2007

Royal Lineage

The Royal Teens were a novelty group that hit big in 1958 with "Short Shorts," which went to Number 3 in February of that year and would go on to annoy millions of Americans of later generations when it was used in a series of Nair commercials. One would think that the Royal Teens would have soon faded into obscurity and jobs in the backroom of Ace Hardware, but fate had something grander in store for two of them.

Bob Gaudio, who cowrote "Short Shorts" and played piano for the group, would meet Frankie Valli on one of the band's tours and eventually join the Four Seasons, for whom he would write "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Sherry," "December 1963," and "Walk Like a Man," a title Bruce Springsteen would shamelessly rip on his Tunnel of Love LP.

Gaudio wrote "Short Shorts" when he was only fifteen, but he was soon joined in the Royal Teens by someone who was even younger: Guitarist Al Kooper, who was just fourteen. Although he didn't play on "Short Shorts," Kooper toured with the Teens for a while before they imploded in 1960; the band never recorded an entire album.

Kooper would then go on to play organ on "Like a Rolling Stone" and French horn on "You Can't Always Get What You Want," which is pretty cool. Gaudio, on the other hand, co-owns the Four Seasons brand with Frankie Valli, and likely made a killing with the Broadway success of the bio-play Jersey Boys. At any rate, they're both certainly better off than anyone in the DeFranco Family.

The Dead Zone

And so we enter the three most boring days of the summer, the three days when there are no Major League Baseball games to be had anywhere, with the arguable exception of one out in San Francisco tomorrow night. I used to watch the All-Star Game every year, but I haven't seen very much of it lately, perhaps an inning or two if I wasn't busy with anything else and remembered it was on.

The All-Star Game used to be the forum in which you could see all the great players you rarely even glimpsed otherwise. Even after the advent of cable TV in the 1980s, we got mostly Cubs and Braves games, so if you wanted to see a star from one of the nonglamorous American League teams, like Lou Whitaker or Robin Yount, your choices were This Week in Baseball or the All-Star Game. Now, it's an odd night when we don't get at least two games on television, and although they still mostly skew NL, if you haven't caught at least a couple of outings of Vlad Guerrero or Joe Mauer, you haven't been trying very hard.

But that's not the real reason I've lost interest in the All-Star game. The biggest thing is that the teams aren't trying to win, which makes the game boring. Sure, the individual players are trying to hit the ball when they're at the plate, or catch the ball in the field, but the managers are so busy shuttling guys in and out that it's like a spring training game. The American League has Alex Rodriguez, who is great, starting at third base, but he'll be out of there by the sixth inning in favor of Mike Lowell, a decent player having a good year. By the eighth inning the game will be the battle of the also-rans. If the AL needs a run in the ninth, it won't be in the hands of Ichiro and Big Papi, but up to Alex Rios and Brian Roberts.

There's a name for having a bunch of baseball players playing the game but not trying to win. It's called practice. I generally don't watch practice.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Hey Dude

Ringo Starr turned 67 yesterday, amazingly enough. How many of us will always remember him from The Ed Sullivan Show as the lovable moptop with the cocked head and the lopsided smile? Not me, that's for sure.

Anyone who doubts that Ringo (the other Beatles actually called him "Ring," according to Geoff Emerick) was a great drummer is advised to go listen to "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey." In fact, even if you already think Ringo was a great drummer, it's always a good idea to go listen to "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey," which is totally hot.

Here, in contravention of all copyright laws known to man, I present David Letterman's Top Ten Revelations in Albert Goldman's Upcoming Biography of Ringo:

10. Only Beatle to portray himself in Beatlemania
9. Used to give John and Paul token songs to sing so they wouldn't feel left out
8. Had a secretary named Lincoln, while Lincoln had a secretary named Ringo
7. For a while, actually believed Paul was dead
6. Served in Indiana National Guard during Vietnam War
5. Suggested "Hey, Hey, We're the Monkees" as Beatles theme song
4. On their honeymoon, he and Barbara Bach held a "bed-in" to promote Seagram's wine coolers
3. Made a fortune selling cheesy Ginsu Knife sets on TV (I'm sorry-that's revelations about Ronco)
2. Advised Paul that "Hey Dude" just didn't sound right
1. Vocal on "Octopus's Garden" played backwards sounds like "Thank God these other guys are so talented"

Friday, July 6, 2007

Grace Joplin Kasper

Please join me in welcoming America's newest Mets fan, Grace Joplin Kasper, who arrived on this earth on Tuesday, July 3rd, in New York City. That's her above looking extremely dubious about the expectations her father has for her.

Grace is blessed with two of the most wonderful parents a child could wish for, Mary Peck and Greg Kasper, so I'm sure she'll do just fine.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Battle of the Living and the Dead

If you picked two all-star teams of guitarists, one in which everyone was still alive, and the other in which everyone was dead by the age of 40, which would be better? To choose up teams, we'll rely on the Rolling Stone list of the 100 greatest guitarists, selected by the redoubtable rock critic David Fricke, who knows way more about guitar players than I do. We'll start from the top, picking among the living and the dead until we get to a team of five guitarists.

First, the living:
B.B. King (No. 3 on David's list): 1925-
Eric Clapton (4): 1945-
Chuck Berry (6): 1926-
Ry Cooder (8): 1947-
Jimmy Page (9): 1944- Have I mentioned how much I hate Robert Plant's singing?

Now, the dead by 40:
Jimi Hendrix (1): 1942-1970. Choked on his own vomit.
Duane Allman (2): 1946-1971. Motorcycle, meet truck.
Robert Johnson (5): 1911-1938. The Devil made himself a good deal here.
Stevie Ray Vaughan (7): 1954-1990. Helicopter coming out of Alpine Valley theatre in Wisconsin, didn't make it past a skiing hill.
Kurt Cobain (12): 1967-1994. Sad, sad, sad.

You'd have to give the nod to the dead guys, wouldn't you? Cobain's a bit of a ringer, a better singer and songwriter than a guitarist, in my opinion, but Robert Johnson's third on his team, and it's easy to imagine him coming in at Number One overall. Plus I could have made it dead by 30 and everyone here still would have landed a slot, except for Stevie Ray, who would lose his spot to Eddie Cochran.

The amazing one to me is Duane Allman (seen above in his dentist's office), who had time in his brief life to head up his own band, play as a sideman in another great band (Derek and the Dominoes), and gain a rep as a great session guy playing with the likes of Wilson Pickett -- all before he turned 25. How much did you accomplish before you were 25?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

We're All Doomed

I have always thought that there's no better way to commemorate the liberty and prosperity provided to us by our founding fathers than with a little performance art. There was an article in The New Yorker about two months ago that discussed a fascinating piece performed by Chris Burden (right) in 1975, called "Doomed," which critic Peter Schjeldahl calls Burden's "most trenchantly significant work." In this piece, according to Schjeldahl, which was performed in Chicago, America's greatest city, Burden "set a clock on a wall at midnight, and lay down on the floor under a leaning sheet of glass." And he stayed there. And stayed there. Then, in the finest sentence I have ever seen in The New Yorker: "Inevitably, he soiled his pants."

At some point, it became apparent that Burden wasn't going anywhere, probably about the time of the poopy-pants incident, although Schjeldahl doesn't explain whether Burden had made that clear before he lay down on the floor. Burden lay on the floor for nearly two full days, immobile and entirely visible, until "a young museum employee named Dennis O’Shea took it upon himself to place a container of water within Burden’s reach. The artist got up, smashed the clock with a hammer, and left." Man, that's art.

I apologize for not attending to this New Yorker article earlier, but then again, art is eternal. Except for performance art. There's an artistic purity to stunts like this, which unlike painting or film or sculpture cannot be commoditized, cannot by mass-produced, indeed cannot be reproduced at all. Either you're there to see it, or it's like it never happened. Performance art exists for a brief moment, then it's gone forever, like the popularity of Rick Astley or the pitching career of Denny McLain.

Nobody gets into performance art for the money, or to be immortalized in a museum. They do it for the art, and maybe the poop. You've gotta respect that.

Birthday Wishes

Happy No. 231 to the greatest nation on earth.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

This Boots Was Made for Honkin'

Saxophone legend Boots Randolph, best known for the instrumental hit "Yakety Sax," has died in Nashville at the age of 80. "Yakety Sax" went to Number 35 in the spring of 1963, but later became best known as the theme to The Benny Hill Show, and was played incessantly as Benny Hill slapped that little old bald guy on his bald head.

According to his AP obituary, Homer Louis Randolph didn't really know how he acquired the nickname "Boots." Neither do I.

Monday, July 2, 2007

All the Makeup a Man Can Make

TLC's "No Scrubs" seems to be the keeper off their album FanMail for most people, but I think "Unpretty" is downright devastating. In addition to the fact that the strummed acoustic guitar style of R&B seems to anticipate "Hey Ya!," it just kills me every time T-Boz sings, "At the end of the day I have myself to blame."

No you don't, T...

The Twelve-Year-Old Genius

If he hadn't gone on to become Stevie Wonder, the musical genius that we all know and love, I would guess that "Fingertips Pt. 2" would rank as one of the most left-field hits of all time. How many other live harmonica instrumentals by blind twelve-year-olds have even made the Top Forty, let alone gone all the way to Number One?

I've never heard "Fingertips Pt. 1," so maybe it makes more sense with that included. But I just can't fathom what people were grooving on back in 1962, listening to Stevie playing more or less a cappella, interspersed with a big horn band playing a Vegas-revue style riff. The alternating tempos mean that it's not even danceable. The only really salient thing about is when the audience shrieks in recognition at Stevie playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

I'm not saying it's bad; I'm just saying I don't get it. I'm not just surprised that "Fingertips Pt. 2" went to Number One -- I'm surprised that anyone ever thought to release it as a single.