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karma 2000

I got some very nice gifts for my birthday, including several CDs, one of which, in the process of being transferred to my Rio Karma, pushed the grand total of songs on the player to 2000!

The historic tune was John Denver, "Take Me Home, Country Roads." I've always despised John Denver, so perhaps a description of the gift CD from which it came is in order. Doug Last-Name-Blank (to preserve anonymity) burned me a mix disc, Happy Fun Karaoke CD: Lost in Doug, that is, as his liner notes explain, "a collection of the songs Doug was coerced into singing at drunken karaoke parties in Japan over and over again." A highlight of the disc is the cover, featuring Doug replicating the cover of the Lost in Translation CD.

The thing about this disc is, almost every song is horrible! Not just horrible, but songs by artists I have a long-lasting, bitter hatred of. So there's the Carpenters, and Celine Dion, and John Denver, and (gulp) Journey, all on one CD. As a piece of conceptual art it's brilliant, as focused in its awfulness as is Elvis' Greatest Shit. It's also a sign of how easy it is to download music in the 21st century ... I doubt it took Doug very long to get copies of these tunes. (I am assuming, of course, that Doug did not actually OWN a copy of "Open Arms" until he created this disc.)

The problem with big hard-drive MP3s players like the Karma and the iPod is that they encourage unthinking random playing of thousands of tunes. You never know what order things will come at you, and the juxtapositions will often be startling in a bad way. What Doug's CD (and Jillian's, for she too made me a mix disc) demonstrates is that the creation of a coherent playlist for a proper mix disc is an art, one that is likely to be lost as people quit making mix albums and just get lost in their hard drive MP3 players. I know that listening to these awful songs is appropriately enjoyable in the context of Happy Fun Karaoke CD, but what will I think when I'm walking down the Embarcadero on my way to a Giants game, listening to "Songs from 1972," and "Mama Weer All Crazee Now" by Slade is followed by "Top of the World" by the Carpenters?

the king

We attended the special showing of the Elvis '68 teevee special last night in Emeryville.

First, thanks to Robin and Jillian for putting together dinner ... it made for a lovely extended birthday. And thanks to everyone who came, both to dinner and to Elvis!

There's not much to say about the actual "movie" we saw ... well, there's plenty to say, but we didn't see a lot of new material, it was just a very effective 100-minute commercial for the DVD that comes out today. Most of the footage was same-old-stuff, although the audio/video quality was mostly excellent. They showed the original "Trouble/Guitar Man" opening, then the entire first "sit-down" concert (which has been shown many times over the years on television and DVD), then a couple of brief new-to-us clips from the second sit-down show, stuff from the "stand-up" concerts (this is where you get the feeling Elvis was nervous about performing live again), a blooper reel, and finally a new version of "If I Can Dream" (the song was the same, the video combined the original "white-suit" version with a black-leather version, it was well done). There were a couple of different camera angles in the sit-down stuff, but basically there wasn't much new here ... just hints of new stuff, which you can find (of course) on the DVD. (They also showed brief clips from Aloha From Hawaii, which is also out of DVD today.)

So, having said the above, what was it like at the theater last night? It was cool seeing it on the big screen ... Elvis's charisma was more apparent than ever ... although as always, it was the performances that made the show, and "One Night" which made the earth stand still. The place was almost full ... I'd say about 250 people in a 300-seat theater. Wide range of ages and types ... right behind us sat a family where the big fan, the person who, like myself, had corralled everyone else into going, was the young daughter, couldn't have been more than 8 or 9, who made her parents bring her (her favorite song was "Hound Dog," favorite movie was Blue Hawaii). People made plenty of noise during the show, clapping for favorite songs (the "Trying to Get to You/One Night" combo got lots of applause, as did most of the ballads, and the Aloha "American Trilogy" clip). People seemed to respond in a very immediate sense to the sex appeal of the gorgeous 1968 Elvis ... lots of squeals from the audience, esp. for butt shots during the stand-up shows. Of the people I brought, response was mixed. Robin has seen it all before, but it was fun sitting next to her as we shook our legs in unison (and there was one moment, when Elvis starts the verbal "no strap" riff that leads to the reprise of "One Night," where she got a little giddy, saying "I want to sing along already!" and I realized I'd made her listen to that so many times over the years she had it memorized). Not sure what Geoff thought, as he had to dash off afterwards (to watch a Euro 2004 match ... hey Geoff, who won?). Jillian didn't have much to say, Doug's enjoyment was seriously derailed by one of the odder aspects of the low-fi nature of the sit-down stuff ... perhaps this needs a bit of explanation for those who have never seen this. Elvis sits on a small stage "in the round," with a few of his old musician buddies. There's the immortal Scotty Moore, who was there in the Sun Studio when Elvis first recorded "That's All Right," and long-time Elvis drummer D.J. Fontana, banging his drumsticks on the back of a guitar case. Charlie Hodge jokes with E, plays some rhythm guitar, and sings harmonies. Lance LeGault, who later played Col. Decker on A-Team, sits on the floor at Elvis's feet, playing tambourine. And (here is where Doug got thrown off), Alan Fortas, "famous" mostly as an Elvis flunkie, "plays" an unusual instrument: he turns an acoustic guitar upside down and pounds on the back like a conga drum. Since he does this pretty much constantly, and since he's not really a musician and doesn't really have great rhythm, he can be annoying if you pay attention to him. I confess I don't even hear him, but Doug heard Fortas more than anyone else, which I can imagine would have been disconcerting. (It's worth noting that the presence of Fortas, LeGault, and esp. Charlie Hodge was crucial to the astonishing power of Elvis's performance, since this part of the show was intended to reproduce the casual backstage jam sessions Elvis loved to indulge in, and it must have helped the King to be able to look around and see his buddies on stage with him.)

Eddie seemed to enjoy the show OK, but Linda was the best ... she got kinda gushy, talking about how pretty Elvis was and what a great singer he was. She was pretty darned cute herself when she was in gush mode.

So it was very definitely an event I was glad to attend, even given the crass commercial nature of the entire thing (as if you'd expect anything else from Elvis Presley at this point). If any of this sounds good, the DVD is out today, three discs of '68 Specialness. The sit-down concerts can be found on the CDs Memories and Tiger Man. Most of the time, people argue over whether they prefer 50s Elvis or 70s Elvis, but as last night reminded us, 1968 Elvis is the greatest Elvis of all.

how i spent my birthday

And Father's Day, since they were both on the same day this year.

Very early this morning, our time, we get a call from Katie in Italy. She's my sister-in-law ... lives in Italy because her husband is in the Navy. I've known her since she was three years old. I always think of her as Robin's little sister, but our relationship goes beyond that. When she had troubles at home, she came to live with us, and I was a bit of a surrogate father for that time (although I was more a spectator to Robin's surrogate mothering). Katie usually remembers to wish me a happy Father's Day for that reason, and I very much appreciate it. She married John on my birthday in 1998 ... I am not very good at remembering the details of other people's lives, but I remember their anniversary because I turned 45 that day. Happy Anniversary, guys!

Next, Neal and I went to the Giants game, where Jason Schmidt pitched a one-hitter and Edgardo Alfonzo hit a grand slam homer, giving the Giants a 4-0 victory. I usually try to get to a game on my birthday if the Giants are in town, and was esp. happy to have my son with me on Father's Day. He's a great son!

When we got home, we went to Juan's for dinner, accompanied by Neal's wife Sonia, her brother Alex, and our daughter Sara. It was the usual Juan's meal, which means it was just fine and everyone was so nice. It was such an ordinary choice for a birthday dinner ... Robin and I eat there once or twice a week, so you'd think there was nothing special about it. But there WAS something special, something even a hermit like me could appreciate. I was with my family, but I was also with my friends at Juan's. They were so kind, stopping by to wish me happy birthday, and it's just a good feeling to go to the same place for 25 years, they know you, they take care of you. It was the right place to be tonight.

After that, we went back home and had a selection of delicious dessert treats. After watching "Baseball Bugs," Neal, Sonia and Alex left ... after that, Robin, Sara and I watched an episode from Season Five of Buffy, during which Sarie gave me a foot massage. She's a great daughter!

Then she left, and Robin and I watched Queer As Folk. It's one of the most unfair plot threads of all time: Brian Kinney, all-time gay stud, gets testicular cancer and has to have one of his balls removed. Then the chemo cures him, but he can't get it up. Brian Kinney, impotent ... Job never suffered more. So, what happens to finally allow Brian Kinney to rise to the occasion, as it were? His revolting mother comes by to explain to her son that God gave him cancer as a warning ... God wants Brian to quit fucking men. Brian chews his mother out ... and, voilà, a boner! (My favorite part in all of this is when Sharon Gless's character, the mother of Brian's best friend, goes to church to pray for Brian and begins by saying "Brian Kinney ... I imagine you've heard of him.")

So I try to digest my day ... spending time with my kids and some extended family members, watching a ball game, enjoying a dinner, watching teevee ... it's been a very simple day, a good day because while I want everyone to pay attention to me 24/7, I actually don't like my birthday because 1) people pay attention to me, and 2) I hate getting old. Yet this day, with its low-key energy, felt right. And while it seemed a bit odd that the closest thing I had to a friend was the workers at the local Mexican restaurant, I know some of my truest friends will be over tomorrow for the Elvis thingie. Still, you wonder if you're having an impact on anything.

And it was then that I checked out my blog, and saw the many lovely birthday greetings, and saw my sister Chris remembering our father ... and then there was that amazing piece from David Shapiro, who grew up down the street from me on Biglow Drive in Antioch, who I hadn't thought about much if at all until very recently when he posted a comment to the blog, and here he is on Father's Day, writing such a fine comment about his own father, a man I still remember, and it was so right, and I understood that even something as solipsistic as a blog can reach out to people, can force us to confront each other in a good way. So thank you David for sharing, and thanks to everyone who made this a fine birthday.

P.S. And I suppose I should mention in passing that this is the 20th anniversary of perhaps the best birthday I ever had. It was during our first-ever trip to Europe. We spent my birthday driving across France, "we" being Robin and I, along with Robin's sister Tami and her then-fiancé Peter. I turned 31 that day, and I tried to play up the "oh, don't worry about me, I don't care about birthdays" angle as we drove and drove and drove ... we'd started in the south, perhaps we even started in Andorra, I can't remember anymore, but we drove and drove and drove, and at one point in the late afternoon we stopped at a road station and had, I don't know, bread and water or something like that, and back in the car we drove, and I thought to myself "oh, this is such a crappy birthday, all day in the car and my dinner was bread and water."

And finally we got to some small French town, we were getting closer to Paris by this point, and we found a campground (yes, Steven camped in France), and off we went to find some dinner. We ended up at this restaurant, it was next to a creek or something, we ate outside and the ground was soft from the water and at one point my chair just sunk into the ground and there I was, staring up at the world. Peter spoke French like a native, which helped a lot. We ordered food ... I asked for an appetizer plate of meats, and out came an enormous basket of sausages and other meats ... and it was all for me, I was told to eat what I wanted out of the basket. Meanwhile, we're drinking lots of wine, and every time a new bottle would come out, Peter would ask our waiter to join us, and he's pour himself a glass and drink it, and after awhile, he seemed as drunk as we were, and he'd sit down at our table to drink with us, and eventually I couldn't take it anymore and I stumbled into the awful French bathroom to take a leak, and I had to wait while some guy finished ahead of me, and when he was done, he turned around to leave, and it was our waiter!

And by that point, I'd forgotten all about the bread and water, and I knew this was probably the best birthday I would ever have. We finished our repast and wandered back to our campground. I slept fitfully ... I don't get along very well with nature, after all ... and when I awoke the next morning ...

And at this point I should note that the French had this odd habit of using the occasional English word with an accompanying French word, like "le coca cola." It was funny to us, and we'd gotten to referring to everything as "le this" and "le that."

And so I awoke in our tent, and rolled onto something that felt kinda ominous, and it was a BEE!!! A dead bee, I suppose I'd squashed it in the night, but a BEE! Nature had invaded my sleeping quarters! And I freaked out, and started screaming at the top of my lungs, "LE BEE! LE BEE!" in complete terror.

As we escaped our tent and looked into the morning light, we discovered that we'd pitched our tent underneath a beehive. Le bee, indeed.

And so ended the best birthday of my life. And now you know why I don't like to go camping.


OK, I have a Gmail account now. I think I'll hold off on posting the exact address here ... suffice to say that if you've ever sent me email to, or, or ... anyone of those ... well, take the same username and attach it to and you've got my new address. It isn't yet my primary address ... that'll take awhile, I imagine ... but here goes nothing, anyway.

Father's Day Thread

You know, when writing on your blog becomes a chore, it's time to find something else to do with your life.

Having said that, this isn't a chore, at least not yet. But I don't post every day.

Tomorrow is Father's Day. I've said a few things about my own father on this blog ... there's this one from Father's Day two years ago, and this one from the 13th anniversary of his death. The latter inspired posts by my sisters, Anonymous and Chris. The thing is, I don't have many memories, good or bad, about my dad, and I've mentioned this on occasion, and I've also mentioned on occasion that he went to jail once for embezzling. I have two brothers, and neither of them have ever commented on my comments. But my sisters both always rise to our dad's defense whenever I say anything less than complimentary about him. That's the kind of dad he was, I think ... his daughters think more highly of him than do his sons.

So, here's a Father's Day Thread, where anyone who wants can leave a comment about their own fathers.

Testing BlogJet

Testing, testing ... I've picked up a couple of interesting computer tools today. Am still evaluating, but have to try all the parts. And so, I give you the following, which was automatically generated by one of those tools:

I have installed an interesting application - BlogJet. It's a cool Windows client for my blog tool (as well as for other tools). Get your copy here:

"Computers are useless. They can only give you answers." -- Pablo Picasso

he's always sucked

This one's for all you morons who liked John McCain because he was funny on The Daily Show, or whatever other stupid reason you had for liking him. "McCain gives Bush a strong endorsement"

"He has led this country with moral clarity," McCain said of Bush in praising his stewardship of the war on terror as commander-in-chief.
"There have been ups and downs as there have been in any war, but like you, he has not wavered in his determination to protect this country, and to make the world a better, safer and freer place. You will not yield, nor will he,” the Arizona senator said.
John McCain: dickhead.

P.S. I told you there wasn't a chance in hell of McCain being Kerry's running mate.

elvis trouble

Monday night, selected movie theaters will be hosting a one-night event, what my ticket calls "Elvis Concert." This is mostly a glorified promo for a couple of new DVDs coming out on Tuesday, "deluxe" editions of two Elvis teevee shows, the immortal '68 special, and the not-so-immortal Aloha From Hawaii. It's not entirely clear what we'll see in the movie theater ... the best I can tell, it'll be a new version of the '68 show, along with a short preview of Aloha. The DVDs are apparently three discs each. Somehow I've corralled a few friends to join me at the theater ... not knowing how familiar they are with the legend of the '68 special, I thought I'd post something here. Think of it as liner notes, keeping in mind I haven't seen the version we'll watch on Monday. So, Doug, Ed, Geoff, Jillian, and Linda, this blog's for you. (I didn't include Robin on the list, because, being married to me, she's heard this story a trillion times.)

Note that some/most/all of what follows is of questionable truth. The facts are simple: in 1968, Elvis did a Christmas special for NBC television, part of which was culled from two sessions we'd now call "unplugged" that took place on June 27, 1968. Elvis's career was in a troublesome spot, due to the endless string of crap movies (and mostly crap music) that he'd released during the 60s.

OK, those are the "facts." Here's the rest of the story/legend. When Elvis recorded the live segments for the special, he hadn't played before a live audience in many years. Some have suggested the King was very nervous, not just about performing live, but about retaking his place in the hearts of rock and roll fans. His career for many years had been orchestrated by Col. Parker to remove all uncertainty; the result was increasingly bland fare. Legend has it that the Colonel wanted this Xmas special to be a placid affair with Elvis singing vanilla holiday tunes. Someone put their foot down ... perhaps Elvis, perhaps Steve Binder, the director of the program. Whoever put their foot down, they won. This special would present Elvis in a new/old light: new compared to the junk of the Elvis movies, old for fans who remembered the classic early Elvis. This meant the show would feature live segments, and production numbers, which reflected a more raw Presley than folks had been seeing of late.

As to those live segments. They were in the round ... one was Elvis alone on the stage, accompanied by an orchestra (Elvis sang well, but the musical backing was stupid), the other was the "unplugged" segment, Elvis sitting with some of his old musical friends, talking about his music and singing some of the old songs. For some of us, Elvis Presley has never been better than he was in that "unplugged" segment. And, for some of us, the best of Elvis is by definition the best rock and roll music of all time. Which is why I'll be in that movie theater on Monday.

So, imagine sitting in front of your teevee during the holiday season in 1968. Elvis Presley has spent the last several years making movies like Paradise, Hawaiian Style and recording music like "Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce." (For more on the music of this period, check out this old blog post.) Since the glory days of the King, the Beatles have happened, not to mention this is 1968 we're talking about ... it's hard to picture a more out-of-touch image than Elvis the Pelvis at this point in time. No one really knew what to expect, and I would have to think whatever expectations people had were pretty low.

And then the show begins, and there is Elvis, dressed head to toe in black leather, singing:

If you’re looking for trouble
You came to the right place
If you’re looking for trouble
Just look right in my face
I was born standing up
And talking back
My daddy was a green-eyed mountain jack
Because I’m evil, my middle name is misery
Well I’m evil, so don’t you mess around with me
Much of what followed was good compared to a bad Elvis movie, although not great taken out of that context. But it was always startling. And when Elvis sat around with his friends and sang the old songs, well, the sound was casual (casual? the drummer played on the back of a guitar case!), at one crucial moment the plug comes out of Elvis's electric guitar (truly, this was the genesis of the "unplugged" concept), but none of it mattered. The greatest singer in the history of rock and roll was at his best the night he recorded those "unplugged" segments. He was inspired, he had something to prove, he did prove it. In the process, he resuscitated his career ... long live the King.

Since the original broadcast, the material from the '68 special has been available in various forms. First came the official LP release, a hodgepodge soundtrack that featured only brief moments from the casual sit-down session. That served for many years as pretty much the only place to hear any of this music, although once in awhile a song or two would show up on various Elvis compilation albums. The initial appearance of the Holy Grail of the '68 Special came ... I forget, late-70s/early-80s ... with the appearance of the bootleg album The Burbank Sessions, Vol. 1. These were pristine-quality, full-concert versions of the two "unplugged" segments Elvis had recorded on June 27, 1968 ... the complete archive of the best parts of the best Elvis ever. Of this album and the music on it, Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train:

He attacks the tunes, struggles with them, backs off, roars ahead, grabs hold, then shakes a number until he's taken every bit of it for himself. The music is full of humor, delight, and blood -- with Elvis's buddies shouting for another chorus or Elvis forcing one. Compared to this -- very likely the greatest rock 'n' roll ever recorded ... the Million Dollar Quartet session is nothing. Even scattered, it makes up a body of work that is clearly the equal of the Sun sides and, in some ways, much superior: the feeling is more raw, desperate, and alive. The Sun sides leave you satisfied; this leaves you in a state of disbelief, satisfied and nervous.

Meanwhile, RCA kept fiddling with the various audio versions of the material. Video became the next step forward: One Night With You presents one of the two originally-recorded "unplugged" sessions, complete and unedited. Finally, in 1998, thirty years after the fact, RCA released official versions of those two shows, although typically, they fudged the packaging to force fans to purchase two different CDs. The first was Tiger Man, which contained the complete second show from June 27. For the first show, you had to go to Memories: The '68 Comeback Special, released a month later. This was a two-disc set, the first of which was basically yet another expanded version of the original soundtrack album. Disc two was the complete first show from June 27. So it is now possible to purchase official versions of The Burbank Sessions, Vol. 1 ... it just takes a bit of reconstructive work.

How much of this will we get in the movie theater on Monday? Not a lot, is my guess ... I'm betting we'll get an expanded version of the original show, which means lots of production numbers and big-orchestra backing, not much of the great small-band stuff. Hopefully, the 3-disc DVD will include everything Steven wants.