Previous month:
December 2009
Next month:
February 2010

conan’s last night (we’ll meet again)

That was a beautifully done conclusion. First, Conan gave a touching final speech … he wasn’t the only one with teary eyes:

To all the people watching, I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me and I'll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask of you is one thing: please don't be cynical. I hate cynicism- it's my least favorite quality and it doesn't lead anywhere.

Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen.

And then out came Will Farrell, dressed like Ronnie Van Zant, with Max’s band and a couple of ringers, including Billy Gibbons and Conan himself, on guitar. They played “Freebird,” and while Farrell properly played it for laughs, the musicians played the hell out of it, and I’m one of those fossils who can never get enough “Freebird.” And, as if that wasn’t enough, Farrell pulled out a cowbell!

A nice way to go out. And then I switched over to Craig Ferguson, who of course started his show with a fart joke. Life goes on …

i read the news today, oh boy

It’s always useful when someone you respect not only disagrees with you, but argues their position effectively and, at the least, forces you to consider the issue once again. I am far from an expert on the issues surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision in the “Citizens United” case, but my kneejerk reaction was that we’d been fucked again. I was thus surprised to see Glenn Greenwald making a case in favor of their decision … I quote him often enough that folks should know I think highly of him, and as an ex-lawyer, he knows more about the law than I do:

[O]n both pragmatic and Constitutional grounds, the issue of corporate influence -- like virtually all issues -- is not really solvable by restrictions on political speech.  Isn't it far more promising to have the Government try to equalize the playing field through serious public financing of campaigns than to try to slink around the First Amendment -- or, worse, amend it -- in order to limit political advocacy? 

There are few features that are still extremely healthy and vibrant in the American political system; the First Amendment is one of them, and the last thing we should want is Congress trying to limit it through amendments or otherwise circumvent it in the name of elevating our elections.  Meaningful public financing of campaigns would far more effectively achieve the ostensible objectives of campaign finance restrictions without any of the dangers or constitutional infirmities.  If yesterday's decision provides the impetus for that to be done, then it will have, on balance, achieved a very positive outcome, even though that was plainly not its intent.

Jonathan Bernstein also has some ideas about reforming public financing:

[M]y ideal reform would be somewhat different I think.  I'm in favor of floors, not ceilings.  That is, I'd like to see public financing for federal candidates that insures that every House district and every Senate district gets at least a minimally competitive alternative, but after that, I'm of the general opinion that raising money is a fair test of candidate appeal, and I don't mind at all if the candidates who are better at it have an electoral advantage.

I admit to being startled by the end of that passage … I’m idealistic/naive enough to think there are better ways to judge a candidate then by their ability to raise money … but, like Greenwald, he’s going in the right direction. What’s needed is more credible public financing. Both writers are looking past the knee I just jerked, and I admit, their points are convincing.

marriage, family, approval

We were watching the latest episode of Big Love … no big spoiler here, but one plot thread revolves around kids who want to do things outside the belief system of their parents, in this case specifically dealing with marriage. I won’t spoil how it turns out in this case, although it’s safe to say that most times, Big Love comes down on the side of family, even when it means compromise. There’s a bit more tolerance within the Henrickson family than you might expect.

For some reason, this time around, I was reminded of my mother. I know that often I’m too harsh on my mom, who was in the end just a woman of her time, trying to make do in a world that didn’t offer her as many opportunities as she deserved … Betty Draper, you might say. But she was also capable of the kind of bizarre intolerance that would make you scratch your head, or, if you were the recipient, blow a gasket.

You see, one time … can’t remember the context, but I remember the conversation … she told me that Robin and I weren’t really married because we didn’t get married in a church.

late night

Since I write a lot about teevee on this blog, I suppose I should offer up at least one post dedicated to the biggest TV event in a long time, the NBC late-night debacle.

The best thing about it from a viewer’s perspective (and by “viewers” I mean “me”) is that this mess has unleashed the mean-spirited underbelly of the hosts … and that’s a good thing. Letterman’s on fire with his pointed barbs in Leno’s direction … Conan is rising to the occasion while biting the hand that used to feed him … even Jay is pushing Mr. Nice Guy to the background. These guys are all being pricks, and what’s more fun than that? The notion that anyone watches late-night television to see congenial hosts chatting with congenial guests about congenial projects hasn’t been true at my house at least since Dave came to late night way back when. Nobody gives two shits about what anyone is promoting that night, nobody cares about stale “ripped from the headline” jokes. What the NBC mess has done has allowed Dave and Conan and Jay the freedom to be bitchy queens, which is a helluva lot more entertaining than most of what they do (Triumph the Insult Comic Dog excepted).

I’m a big fan of Conan, an even bigger fan of Dave, but really, the person who is reviving the art of late night isn’t these guys, it’s Craig Ferguson, who oddly is the least mean-spirited of the bunch. Hell, sometimes he’s even congenial, but in his case, it feels like he’s just being himself, unlike Leno, whose congeniality comes across as an act. Ferguson’s nightly monologue segments put everyone else’s to shame … once in awhile, he substitutes lip-syncing puppets for a monologue, which is funnier than it sounds. He has mastered the art of making everything look off-the-cuff, even if it’s prepared in advance (my guess is, it’s a combination of the two) … Ferguson trusts his ability to think on his feet. This also leads to interviews that are more like conversations than promotions.

When the dust has settled, Jay will still be Jay, Conan will end up somewhere, Dave will go back to being Slightly More Kindly Dave, Triumph will get screwed by NBC … and Craig Ferguson will still have the best show on late night TV. Here is arguably his silliest-ever moment … also the most annoyingly irresistible. Don’t click on this unless you want a certain song playing in your head the rest of the day:

random friday, 1962 edition: the jive five, “what time is it?”

I’ve long felt that doo-wop was the most innocent music of the rock and roll era. I know I’m being nostalgic and too romantic, but the simplicity of the music and lyrics, combined with the complex elegance of the vocals, sounds very close to the street corner … it sounds less processed, even if that sound was processed to sound natural. One film that got it right was American Hot Wax, a forgotten late-70s movie about Alan Freed (yes, that’s a young Jay Leno):

I hate to get sidetracked by trivia, but part of me suspects that’s many readers’ favorite parts. So I’ll note that the leader of the singing group here, “Lenny Capizzi” (the actor’s real name, he’s a fictionalized Dion DiMucci in the movie), was also in real life the co-author of “The Monster Mash.”

The Jive Five … I don’t really know what readers of this stuff are already aware of. I learned things about the group I never knew, but people of a different age might find this old news. They had their first and biggest hit in ‘61 with “My True Story,” and followed it up the next year with “What Time Is It”:

The story of the Jive Five would seem to be much like many other doo-wop groups. One hit, maybe two (“My True Story” was their only Top Ten single, and their last appearance on the charts was in 1965), then a fade into obscurity, revived on occasion when public television needs performers for a pledge-week Doo-Wop Revival show, where old groups with perhaps only one remaining original singer do the old hits (for the Jive Five, the constant was Eugene Pitt). But there was more to the tale of the Jive Five.

The Jive Five was never inactive. They changed their names (one was “Ebony, Ivory and the Jades”), they changed labels, they had minor hits, they kept recording. Then, in 1982, a new label called Ambient Sound released a series of newly-recorded doo-wop albums, one of which was by The Jive Five (by that time, Pitt and other “non-originals”). In the New York Times, Robert Palmer wrote of their cover of “Hey Nineteen,” “one can tell that he means every word. Yearning after the unattainable isn't just an adolescent emotion, it's something everyone goes through. It will always be around, and one suspects that doo-wop will, too.” Robert Christgau bestowed an “A-“ on the album. This particular resurgence was somewhat short-lived, but much welcomed by fans.

And that’s where the story would end, if I went only by what I knew before I started writing this. But there is more. In 1985, their Ambient Sound producer introduced them to the “branding” company Fred/Alan, Inc. They were trying to create a buzz for a cable network devoted to kids’ programming, Nickelodeon. For a decade, Pitt et al recorded all kinds of jingles for the network.

The music of the Jive Five continues to find its way into popular culture. “What Time Is It” even showed up on The Sopranos:

someone I respect says something nice about brian sabean

Shawn Hoffman at Baseball Prospectus has ranked the GMs of the 2000s, and Brian Sabean looks pretty darned good, coming in at #9 (his crossbay rival, Billy Beane, comes in first). This is unusual … BP isn’t the most hostile anti-Sabean web site around, but Sabean certainly runs his organization as if the kind of analysis done at the Prospectus didn’t exist.

But then comes the commentary, and I could dig up old blog posts, but why bother when I’m just going to repeat it here. I have always argued, in response to those who claimed Sabean must be doing a good job because the Giants had 8 straight winning seasons and 4 trips to the playoffs during those years, that far and away the primary reason for the Giants’ good times was the presence of Barry Bonds, who joined the team several years before Sabean became GM. He doesn’t get credit for keeping around the best player of his era … even an idiot knows enough to do that.

Well, a closer look at Hoffman’s piece gives us the following quote: “As for Sabean, if that doesn't get Barry Bonds into the Hall of Fame...” The implication matches my own opinion: Bonds made Sabean look better than he was.

In the comments section, someone asks the right question: “why this system is so kind to Sabean, who many Giants fans appear to believe is the worst GM on the planet?” Someone extends the query, asking how Sabean ranks in the post-Bonds era. Hoffman’s reply:

Pretty simple actually: he inherited the greatest player in the history of the planet. The Giants were first or second in the NL in runs and EqA in 2004 with one of the worst lineups you'll ever see, outside of Bonds. To his credit, he did trade for Jeff Kent and Jason Schmidt, and drafted Tim Lincecum, all of which helped make up for a lot of mistakes. But without Barry, he's a lot lower on this list.

Rather than praising Sabean for being in the Top Ten of general managers in the 2000s, perhaps we should be asking how a GM with the “greatest player in the history of the planet” only managed to make it to #9?

elvis costello and bruce

One afternoon, I was meeting with my dissertation group (which means we’re talking 15 years ago, more or less) when the subject of Elvis Costello came up. I was the only guy there that day. The others were praising Costello’s work, and I offered my opinion that This Year’s Model was the best thing he’d ever done, and that I found him kinda boring, even though I admired what he was up to. I was told that it was because I was a guy that I preferred This Year’s Model. I hadn’t ever thought about it before, and I wasn’t familiar enough with his more recent work to make much of a case for myself. But the conversation has stuck with me, although my opinion that This Year’s Model is his best album hasn’t changed.

This is irrelevant, but I mention it as a way of explaining why I haven’t ever watched Costello’s TV series, despite it getting rave reviews. I’m sure it’s a good show, just as I’m sure his albums are good. But I always found myself wanting to listen to someone else after just 2 or 3 songs off his albums (back when I still listened to albums), and I assumed his TV show would be more of the same.

Still, I can’t pass up a chance to watch Bruce Springsteen, and when Bruce turned up as Costello’s guest, I tuned in, to part one of two, as it turned out. It was pretty good … Bruce sang a few songs, mentioned liking The Buzzcocks, and he and Costello sang an energetic duet on a Sam and Dave song.

What I found most interesting was the questions Costello asked. It was clear that this was a songwriter talking to another songwriter. Costello had insights into the songwriting process, and he asked Bruce a lot of questions about the progression of his writing over the years, why he went from being wordy to concise, things like that. Sure, he also talked about the legendary live performances, but it was enjoyable to see Bruce interviewed by a peer. It worked much better than that Storytellers thing, where Bruce was alone onstage, jabbering about his songs, playing them in bits and pieces. Costello added a perspective that was simultaneously insider and outsider, and it worked. I look forward to Part Two.

robert b. parker, r.i.p.

The author of the Spenser series of detective novels is dead at the age of 77.

I met him once, for a minute at most, at a book signing. He looked then like what he was in real life: a former English professor turned detective story writer who also co-authored a book on bodybuilding.

My dissertation was on hard-boiled detectives, which gave me something in common with Parker, who also wrote his diss on that topic. One difference between us, though, was that among my chapters was one devoted to Parker himself.

I can’t say if he was groundbreaking in his work. As I suspect may be true for many people who spend years of their lives working on a manuscript, after my diss was finished I quit paying attention to detective books as a source of academic pleasure. I did argue in my diss that one thing Parker did was to give his hero a steady female companion. Spenser was something of a loner, like his predecessors, but the always-present Susan Silverman brought the hero out of the shell. In the earliest books of the series, Susan provided a useful counterargument to Spenser’s male notions … later, she became more of a rubberstamp, but at the beginning, she was an important character in the genre. In my diss, I wrote:

In the end, Parker is unable to extend the genre in any truly revolutionary ways, because his revolutionary move, the introduction of Susan Silverman into the life of his hard-boiled hero, is compromised by the simple fact that the male hero remains the center of attention. Susan is unique within the genre, but not unique enough. She is ultimately only a new version of the sidekick for the feminist age. It is left to other authors to introduce a truly contemporary multiculturalism to the genre.

Finally, it’s important to note the excellence of Parker’s descriptions of cooking (Spenser was a fine cook who made things up at the moment). The only person I know in real life who can pull this off is my friend Charlie, who is also good at detailing the cooking process. Parker managed to break a couple of aspects of the detective code: Spenser could cook, and he was a very discerning shopper. I’ll close with this quote, from the first Spenser novel:

In the kitchen I made coffee and put six homemade German sausages in the fry pan. They were big fat ones I had to go up to the North Shore to buy from a guy who made them in the back of the store. You should always start them on low in a cold fry pan. When they began to sizzle I cored a big green apple and peeled it. I sliced it thick, dipped the slices in flour, and fried them in the sausage fat.... When the apple rings were done, I drained them with the sausages and ate both with two big slices of coarse rye bread and wild strawberry jam in a crock that you can buy up at the Mass Ave. end of Newbury Street.

Hemingway with a dollop of gourmet shopping. That was Robert B. Parker.

i read the news today, oh boy

From the UK, word of “The 10:23 Event,” to take place on January 30:

At 10:23am on January 30th, more than three hundred homeopathy sceptics nationwide will be taking part in a mass homeopathic 'overdose' in protest at Boots' continued endorsement and sale of homeopathic remedies, and to raise public awareness about the fact that homeopathic remedies have nothing in them.

Sceptics and consumer rights activists will publicly swallow an entire bottle of homeopathic 'pillules' to demonstrate that these 'remedies', prepared according to a long-discredited 18th century ritual, are nothing but sugar pills.

The protest will raise public awareness about the reality of homeopathy, and put further pressure on Boots to live up to its responsibilites as the 'scientist on the high street' and stop selling treatments which do not work.