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music friday: alicia keys, “no one”

It’s amazing what a good beat can do. Robert Christgau was on target when he said Keys “envisions a hip-hop generation ready for its own Roberta Flack.” I was never a fan of Flack, and I can hear the comparisons Christgau evokes. But the insistent beat of “No One” makes me like it in spite of myself.

If you are like me, the top pop artists tend to blend together in your brain. When I was 12, I knew which British Invasion band I was hearing on the radio. At 57, it’s more the case that I hear a neo-soulish female vocal on the radio and mentally narrow down the possibilities to the artists I can remember at the moment. This holds true even for an artist as big as Keys, or for a song as big as “No One.” It came on the radio as I was driving, and I liked what I heard, and I knew I’d heard it before, but that was about it. I’m a bit ashamed to admit I used my Android phone running SoundHound to identify the song. When I got home, I went to search for it on Rhapsody, only to find it was already sitting on my hard drive. In fact, I had the entire As I Am album, and I rarely get albums anymore (perhaps because I forget I have them).

No matter how hard I try, I find myself losing track of the pop mainstream. This isn’t because I’m a snob who turns away from the popular … I’m losing track of the alternative, as well. And so I figure the whole world knows that Alicia Keys isn’t just some popular singer that got mentioned in a Bob Dylan song, but that Keys is in fact one of the biggest musical stars on the planet. And there I am, using my phone to ID her.

Here is the official video for “No One.” The purpose of the video, as far as I can tell, is to show us that Alicia Keys is beautiful, that she’s a fine singer, and that she plays keyboards. Oh, and Sony gets a nice product placement. (If you want to know just how popular Keys is, use the modern Internet method for ranking popularity … as of this moment, the following video on YouTube has been watched more than 99 million times. Keys is the McDonalds of music.)

Here’s a live version:


random hackers, rubio begonias

I trot this out every once in awhile. It’s from 1988:


It’s hard to read, I know. It’s a list of the “Champion of Champions” standings from fantasy baseball leagues running on CompuServe. The team with the highest percentage of their league’s possible points was the Champ of Champs. I came in second. More importantly, I won my league, the first time I’d done that.

I also bring this up because I’ve started reading Steven Levy’s fascinating new book about Google, In the Plex. And I was reminded that back in the day, Levy used to play fantasy baseball on CompuServe. That’s him near the bottom of the list of leaders … his team was called the Random Hackers (his invaluable book, Hackers, was written in 1984).

more memories

On today’s Giants telecast, Mike Krukow was talking about his major-league debut, which came back in 1976. You could tell by the sound of Kruk’s voice that he remembered that game as if it were yesterday. That’s not hard to understand … it’s the goal of every ballplayer to make the big leagues, and someone like Krukow, who thanks to a long career as a broadcaster has now been in the game for many decades, is sure to recall that initial performance.

The subject came up when talk turned to another pitcher-turned-broadcaster, Steve Stone. Krukow noted that his first appearance in the big leagues came in relief of Stone. Krukow had just joined the Cubs from the minors, and Stone, the starting pitcher for the Cubs that day, had nothing. As Krukow told it, Stone warned the bullpen that he wasn’t likely to last long, so they should be ready to go. Four outs later, he said, Stone was gone and Kruk was in. He retired the first nine men he faced, but then gave up three runs.

All credit to Kruk’s memory … do you remember what you were doing on September 6, 1976? But this is the Internet era, and it’s easy to check and see how that game actually turned out. gives the details.

Krukow was right, Stone only lasted 1 1/3 innings. But he was relieved by Buddy Schultz, who retired the side. In the bottom of the inning, manager Jim Marshall pinch-hit for Schultz, and then, in the top of the third, Krukow made his debut.

Coming into the game, Kruk was as good as he remembered. He got the Mets 1-2-3 in the third, and repeated the feat in the fourth, meaning he had retired the first six hitters he faced in the big leagues. But in the fifth, he gave up hits to four of five batters, allowing three runs, after which he was removed from the game.

Again, credit is due to Krukow for remembering that day so well, and you could end the story there and not be too far from the truth. But what actually happened differed from what Krukow remembered … not by much, only in a couple of details, but different nonetheless. And this happened 35 years ago, but it was also an event that Krukow likely counts among the biggest of his life. And his memory was less than flawless.

Does this matter? Probably not. But it’s worth a thought the next time you tell someone your memories about an important event in your life. You’ll remember that story as if it were yesterday. And you’ll get at least part of the story wrong.

poly styrene, r.i.p.

“The cultural force of 'Oh Bondage!' in 1977 was empowering; the stagnation of the mid-70s, economic, artistic, psychic and social, was confronted with a NO so emphatic it became an affirmation, an insistence that things did not have to remain as they were. … Only by using Poly Styrene's cry as a weapon against our current, ongoing, bondage, can we be true to the spirit of 1977.”

Steven Rubio, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!

“I was young and optimistic and you feel you can do anything.”

Poly Styrene, 2011

treme, season two premiere

I knew I liked this show a lot, but I don’t think I knew how much until about halfway through the Season Two opener. It was nothing in particular that set me off, more a feeling that I had missed these characters, that I was glad to have them back, and that I looked forward to their further adventures.

Of course, Treme’s detractors will take issue with my use of the word “adventures.” Treme is not particularly plot-driven. It’s a character study, it’s a picture of a specific time and (especially) place, and it’s a show with lots and lots of music. It is at its worst when characters get on soapboxes, but even that is tolerable because everything else works so well. Everyone will have their own favorite characters, but most of the other characters are interesting in their own right, so almost every scene is good, even though nothing “happens” most of the time.

I have never been to New Orleans, so I can only guess whether the show gets the city right. But it feels accurate. Dave Walker of the New Orleans Times-Picayune is once again doing his weekly “Treme explained” columns. He provides the kind of information you might get as an extra on a DVD … he’ll tell you what that restaurant was and who this musician is and why those chickens are wandering around.

Treme has great heart, and while post-Katrina New Orleans isn’t much better than Wire-era Baltimore, Treme offers a kind of hopefulness The Wire lacked. You get the feeling that these characters will mostly survive. And the music will always bring joy.

what i watched last week

Near Dark. #41 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list. Review is there. 9/10.

The Red Balloon. A short (34 minutes) that picked up an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (beating out La Strada, among others). There is something appealing about a film that wins a “non-short subject” Oscar while running about 1/3 the length of Booty Call (I wonder if this is the first time those two movies have been mentioned in the same review). The Red Balloon works on more than one level … kids can enjoy the fantasy of a boy and his pet balloon, while more symbol-minded critics can note the Christian parallels. (And I can compare The Red Balloon to Booty Call.) It’s a charming film with unexpected toughness that is defeated in favor of a happy ending. #471 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the Top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.

The Rapture. #40 on my Facebook list. 10/10.

The King’s Speech. I had expectations coming into this one: that I wouldn’t love it, but that it wouldn’t suck. And that turned out to be accurate, although in the end, I liked it more than I expected. It’s one of those movies seemingly designed to win Oscars … tony production about British royalty, focused on a hero with a disability. It delivers (it won 4 Oscars), and that’s the expected. But Colin Firth does wonders with his part, making me believe his prince/duke/king was a real person, and getting across his despair over stuttering without being overbearing in an Oscar-winning way. Which is to say he deserved the Oscar he eventually won. #162 on the TSPDT list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

Juno. I’m using this in the class I’m teaching this semester, so I gave it a second look, and liked it just as much this time around. Diablo Cody doesn’t surprise me anymore, since she isn’t coming out of nowhere like she was when the film was released. We’ve had the chance to see/hear Cody’s idea of cool teenagerdom on United States of Tara, and if her writing annoys you, there’s no way you’ll like Juno. But Cody does something interesting here. She loads up the first part of the movie with so many Codyisms it will make even a fan like me think “silencio.” But that style of witticism gradually grows into a deeper character study, where almost every character is treated with respect, and by the end, it’s clear Cody deserved her Oscar. Ellen Page’s work is Oscar-worthy as well, although her competition was too tough to beat (Marion Cotillard won for La Vie en Rose). And J.K. Simmons offers his usual excellence in a supporting role, although no matter how many times he does it, I can never get his Schillinger from Oz out of my head. 8/10.

band of misfits

When I was a kid, I loved to read sports books, mostly about baseball. There were three basic models. One was a biography directed towards a young audience (“And the lesson Mickey learned from his father when he was six helped make him the man he would become”). A second was more interested in general history, with lots of anecdotes … Joe Garagiola’s Baseball Is a Funny Game was like that. Finally, there were books that came out in the spring of each season, telling the story of the champions of the previous year.

The only real break from these traditions, prior to Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, came from Jim Brosnan, who wrote two books about life in the big leagues, The Long Season and Pennant Race, while working as a pitcher in the National League.

I don’t read many of those books these days. There is so much to read during a season, thanks to the great volume of material available online. And Bill James started a revolution not only in baseball analysis but in baseball writing when he started publishing his annual Abstracts. I even did a little writing myself, working a few years for fantasy guru John Benson and a few more with the Baseball Prospectus folks.

It makes sense, though, that I would return to the old-school books in this spring of 2011, because it’s the first time I had a Giants’ championship to relive. And so I just finished Andrew Baggarly’s A Band of Misfits. Baggarly is a Giants beat writer for the Mercury-News, so he knew the story of the 2010 Giants very well. He’s also a stylish writer, and he does a fine job of bringing together the various elements that led to the World Series. He blends stories about the individuals (the “band of misfits” … Baggarly is quite convincing in demonstrating the aptness of that cliché) with the narrative of the 2010 season, finding just the right moment to offer character studies while keeping the story moving. The result is the kind of book where you keep telling yourself “just one more chapter,” only to find that you’ve finished the book in record time.

And … I really can’t believe this is true, and at least I’ve gotten to the point where I control myself for the most part when I’m around others … but the one reason I couldn’t just blast through the book was because I kept having to stop and compose myself as the tears flowed once again. It’s been six months, and I still get choked up, still can’t believe it’s real. I opened up for a bit the other night and told my wife how confusing this all was, and she replied matter-of-factly that when you wait 52 years for something, it’s going to have a lasting impact.

So, I guess I’ll thank Baggarly for writing an enjoyable recap of that great season. But I’m going to have to do something about these darned allergies … my eyes water up every time I open his book.

music friday: mott

Perhaps every generation needs their own Mott the Hoople. More than a cult band but something less than popular, not as good as their fans thought but not as bad as their detractors might have believed, Mott the Hoople was the bridesmaid to the late-60s/early-70s rock scene. They bounced around for a few years, released 4 albums, decided to split up. But they had an influential fan in David Bowie, who wrote them a song that is probably their most famous and which reignited their career, “All the Young Dudes.” That pushed them into the world of Glam Rock, a genre in which they never quite fit. Singer/songwriter Ian Hunter favored vocals that bordered on a bad Dylan imitation, somehow making them his own in the process. They glammed up their stage presence somewhat … nice clothes, platform shoes … but they continued to make basic classic rock. Hunter, though, had grown as a lyricist, and he blossomed on Mott, the follow up to the All the Young Dudes album.

Hunter and Mott were very self-referential (Hunter even wrote a tour diary, Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star, that detailed the boredom of touring). Mott is full of such references, and it doesn’t often sound like a band enjoying their success. In fact, guitarist Mick Ralphs left the band soon afterwards, forming Bad Company.

The album kicks of with “All the Way from Memphis,” a tale of a lost guitar on a tiring tour:

It’s a mighty long way down rock’n’roll
As your name gets hot so your heart grows cold
And you gotta stay young, man, you can never be old

Side one closed with “Violence,” which apparently was the straw that broke the backs of Hunter and Ralphs (Hunter said “Try listening to that for three days, it’s murder”).

Side two included perhaps the most self-referential song of them all, “Ballad of Mott the Hoople (26th March 1972, Zürich).”

Rock’n’roll’s a loser’s game
It mesmerizes and I can’t explain
The reasons for the sights and for the sounds

They saved the most remarkable song for last. “I Wish I Was Your Mother” isn’t just a heartbreaking song about a love that has passed, it is lyrically stunning. When most hard rock bands want to get sensitive, they offer up a power ballad full of bombast and hot geetar solos. Hunter goes in another direction.

I wish I was your mother, I wish I'd been your father
And then I would have seen you, would have been you as a child
Played houses with your sisters and wrestled with all your brothers
And then who knows, I might have felt a family for a while

I wish I could give you the original, as I have done with the other songs, but I can’t find it anywhere on YouTube. So I’ll give you two other live performances, one with Hunter and Mick Ronson, the other a fine cover by Alejandro Escovedo.

i need to pick up a few more diseases

According to this article, of the top five classes of drugs prescribed in America, I get #1, #2, and #4.

I actually used to take three specific meds in that #1 class, statins. In more recent years, I’ve been placed on a combination drug that contains one statin and one other drug. These are all meant to combat high cholesterol … I take another drug besides the combo one, so I’m getting quite a handful in my quest to lower those cholesterol numbers.

This is written by a guy who just finished eating a bacon-and-cheese sandwich w/mayo for dinner.

At least I’m a member of Kaiser, so I don’t spend much on my meds. God help the person without health insurance.

game of thrones and a little borgias

Only just now catching up with two highly-promoted new series. Both of them do a good job of representing their respective channels … Game of Thrones is a complex character drama with action set in a detailed fantasy world that is nonetheless quite believable, The Borgias is history in the Cecil B. DeMille tradition of fucking, violence, and more fucking.

The Borgias is the new Tudors, which hopefully means it will be compulsively watchable in a trashy sort of way. Jeremy Irons plays Pope Alexander VI as if he were channeling Boris Karloff, Derek Jacobi gets killed off far too early, and lots of young ladies turn up in various states of nakedness. There will be intrigue, and fucking, politics, and fucking, religion, and fucking … well, you get the idea.

Game of Thrones, on the other hand, overflows with ambition. As others have noted, the series must accommodate two types of audiences, one comprised of people that love the books, and one comprised of people that had never heard of the books until the series commenced. I’m in the latter category, which means I expect to be confused about who did what to whom. But the first episode did a fine job of getting newbies started (I have no idea how it played to those already familiar with the story, although the reviews are generally positive at worst). This is not my genre … I don’t know if I’ve ever read a fantasy novel, not even Tolkien (but that didn’t stop me from loving Peter Jackson’s take on those books). But HBO has a track record of making superb genre studies: The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome, Treme, Sex and the City, Oz. They get the benefit of the doubt at the start. I found the premiere intriguing, and I look forward to future episodes. It has the potential to be one of the top series of its time. Having said that, at the moment, I’d probably only call it the second-best TV series on Sunday nights, after The Killing.