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friday random ten, 1975 edition

Mixing it up by revisiting the old Friday music tradition. My son had his 38th birthday yesterday, so I’ll choose 1975 for this week’s Random Ten. The links go to YouTube … times have changed some since I used to do these Random Tens, lots of people use YouTube as a jukebox nowadays. (For reference, here’s a link to the last time I did a 1975 Random Ten.)

1. Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. Of course, despite the billing, it was Teddy Pendergrass who people remember from this group. And while this track went to #3 on the disco charts in 1975, I’ve linked to a video from Thelma Houston, later made the song her own, forever, hitting #1 in the process. Her version is probably my favorite disco record of all time, so, with respect to the Blue Notes and with the understanding that this is supposed to be 1975, Thelma gets the video.

2. Emmylou Harris, “If I Could Only Win Your Love”. It seemed like she’d been around forever, but this is from her major-label debut. It was her first single to make the Billboard charts. It’s a cover of a Louvin Brothers song; the album, Pieces of the Sky, also included covers of artists ranging from The Beatles to Dolly Parton to Merle Haggard. The link is to Emmylou singing with Charlie Louvin.

3. Bonnie Raitt, “Your Sweet and Shiny Eyes”. My favorite Bonnie Raitt song, from my favorite Bonnie Raitt album, Home Plate.

4. Eric Carmen, “All by Myself”. The Raspberries made the Top Five with one of their first singles, “Go All the Way”, but never returned to those heights, at least on the charts. In 1974, they gave us “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)”, a track that very much deserved what the title asked for. It only made #18. The band broke up in 1975; by the end of the year, Carmen had released his first solo album. The aptly-named “All by Myself” was as good as any of his Raspberries hits. I hope I’m forgiven for the video link, which features Jamie O’Neal rather than Carmen. Halle Berry was great and her win was historic, but I woulda voted for Renée Zellweger, anyway.

5. Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir”. Back when Physical Graffiti came out, I don’t remember that “Kashmir” was considered the album’s peak, although as always, my memory is suspect. I know I always loved “Trampled Under Foot”, and basically what was at the time the first two sides (the first record of the two-LP set) was my favorite in general. Whatever … over the years, it seems like “Kashmir” has become one of the most standard of Zep songs, perhaps best exemplified by Puffy’s “Come with Me” for the Godzilla soundtrack. And I know that it has always ranked among my top two or three Led Zep songs. (When I saw them in 1977, “Kashmir” kicked off the final, overpowering part of the show: “Kashmir,” “Trampled Under Foot,” “Achilles Last Stand,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and “Rock and Roll”.) No, I don’t know what Robert Plant is babbling about in this song, but that’s true for most of their songs.

6. War, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”. War was a top act throughout the first half of the 70s, and the Why Can’t We Be Friends? album marked the peak of their work. The next year, they released their first greatest hits album (and they weren’t kidding, they were hits and they were great), and while they released several hits packages in later years, all of the vital stuff was on that first hits album.

7. Earth, Wind & Fire, “Shining Star”. George Clinton reportedly said they were earth, hot air, and no fire. He was unfair, but I’ve never been able to get that quote out of my head. This is one song that shows he wasn’t entirely correct.

8. Fleetwood Mac, “Say You Love Me”. I saw Fleetwood Mac at my second-ever rock concert, at the Fillmore West, on a bill that also included Ten Years After and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. That was the Peter Green version of the band, and I can still remember how nastily lecherous Jeremy Spencer was as he sang “Shake Your Moneymaker”. Those days were long gone by 1975 … there was the Bob Welch era, and Christine McVie had been around for awhile. But when Buckingham Nicks joined the band, the result was the Fleetwood Mac everyone remembers now. “Say You Love Me” is one of McVie’s best. (There are higher-quality, more recent videos of this one performed live, but I like this because it’s from 1977, and McVie still plays keyboards.)

9. Bob Dylan, “Shelter from the Storm”. I made a short film when our son was still a little tyke, carrying him around to various locations where his mom and I had done stuff in high school and beyond. I used this song as the soundtrack, taking the title as a message about how I felt about Robin: she gave me shelter. Of course, the song looks back after the end of a relationship; maybe I should have listened more closely.

10. Bruce Springsteen, “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”. We saw Bruce for the first time in 1975.


the new google music needs a new name

I mean, Google Play Music All Access doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it? (Not to mention the “Listen Now” angle.)

Longtime readers know that I lust after streaming music services, and am willing to pay if they do what I want. I don’t mean Pandora, although that has its uses. I mean services that give you access to enormous catalogs, while also allowing you to integrate your own music into the mix. (This is still the only way to get the Beatles or Led Zeppelin whenever you want them.) I want to be able to pick a song and here it, right now. I want to make playlists that mix the online catalog with my tunes.

I’ve gone with Rhapsody more than once, and in terms of total time being subscribed, they are probably still #1. But their desktop software always sucked, and (perhaps correctly) they gradually lost interest, moving to improving their web version. I tried Microsoft’s Zune for awhile … it wasn’t bad. I loved MOG, still do, but the absence of integration with my own music files is a dealbreaker. Like many people, I’m now on Spotify. I pay the extra to avoid ads, and so I can take advantage of all mobile functions.

And now, here comes Google. The new Google Music (I’ll call it that until they come up with something better) has a large catalog good for streaming. It allows you to put your own files in the mix. It has playlist-creation capabilities, and the kind of “smart radio” stuff that’s pretty standard now. The main difference, at the moment (and I’ve only been messing with it for a few hours), is that there is no desktop software. You access the music via a web browser. OK, it’s 2013, I can handle that. But it means something particular for the part where they integrate your music with theirs. Spotify just plays tracks off of my hard drive. Google Music uploads my music to their servers, and plays it from there. They seem to have a matching service (if they have the track in question, they won’t upload yours but just play theirs), but whatever … it’s a long process to get thousands of MP3s to the cloud.

I can’t tell yet if I like the interface, and it’s too soon for me to say how solid their catalog is. So this is a very preliminary post. Some of the other Google changes today have made a more instant impact on my regular computing … Google+ looks entirely different, now, for instance. If nothing else, Google Music will hopefully goose their competitors to do better, as well. Meanwhile, the price for all the good stuff is $9.99/month, like most of the services, but if you get in now, it’ll be $7.99.


my dad’s birthday

If my dad were alive today, he’d be celebrating his 89th birthday.

Let’s see … he was 8 days older than Charles Aznavour, who is still alive. He was born the same year as Marlon Brando, Carroll O’Connor, Lauren Bacall, Truman Capote, Ed Wood, Ruby Dee, Wally Cox, Ed Koch, Mohammed Rafi, and the Professor from Gilligan’s Island. He was born several months before Jerome Waldie … they grew up together in Antioch, and I suppose if I try to imagine a different history for my father, I could put him in his friend Jerry’s shoes (Waldie was a Congressman who voted to impeach Nixon).

I know there are people who have lots of knowledge about their father. I’m not really one of them. But I’ll try.

I don’t think he spoke English until he went to school, although, like most of what follows, that could be wrong. His parents were from Andalucía, moving to Antioch, California in the late-1910s/early-1920s. His parents worked in local factories … his dad died at an early age, from pneumonia I believe … I never knew him. His mom lived into her nineties, and we all knew her very well.

He was apparently a bit of a scamp in his high-school years, but he escaped and enrolled at Cal. He was only there for a year … heck, I think it was only a semester … and then he entered the army for World War II. He never talked about the war. Most of the second-hand stories I heard involved scampish shenanigans. In 1945, he married my mom, who was a Berkeley girl. She’d been his waitress when he was a Cal student.

I don’t know what he did for the next fifteen years, outside of fathering half-a-dozen kids, five of whom survived. By the time I have memories, he was a realtor, but I’m pretty sure he had other jobs before that. My mom worked outside of the home in the early years of their marriage; her mom lived with the family until I was two years old.

In the early 60s, my parents were much admired, or so I’ve been told. The last of us kids was born in 1960 … my mom and dad were in their 30s, and doing quite well. We figured our dad was a good salesman, because my parents often went for a weekend in San Francisco, staying in fancy hotels and playing tournament bridge. One woman, who lived across the street from us for a brief time and later became my stepmother-in-law, said she was always jealous of my mom, who dressed nice and went out on the town.

Then the shenanigans returned. It’s never been clearly stated to me what happened, how much blame should be assigned, who knew what, but whatever, my dad was involved in an embezzlement scheme that resulted in his spending 37 Saturdays in jail. (He would drive himself each weekend, spend 24 hours, and drive himself home.)

It was a sign of his greatness as a salesman that he made a new career for himself as a car salesman, selling to the same people who knew he'd gone to jail as a scam artist. He was quite successful, and stayed at that job until he retired. He seemed like a man who liked to work, but it’s not as if he talked about that, or much of anything. He was gregarious, without giving too much away about himself. He got a huge dose of cancer, and died at 65. My parents smoked like the proverbial chimney (she died of cancer, as well). They also drank like the proverbial fish … Mad Men seems quite realistic to me.

My dad was a nice guy. He took me to the occasional ballgame, he’d come to see me when I was acting in a play … he even came to see our garage band once. Both of my parents loved music, and it wore off on the kids. He stayed married to my mother for 44 years, which set a good example. But when I think of the things he passed along to me, I’m already running out of material. He didn’t talk about himself. He wasn’t the kind of guy who had a lot of “guy” skills, so he never taught me how to make stuff, or shoot stuff, or fix cars. I don’t really remember him sitting me down at any time and saying, “let me teach you this”.  And while I’d like to say that I learned how to be a good, ethical person from him, there’s that part where he was an embezzler.

This all sounds downbeat, and I don’t mean it to be that way. I don’t have many bad memories of my dad … he was grumpy a lot, and look out when he had a headache, but he never abused his kids, or ever made us feel we weren’t wanted.

brothers grandma dad neal (gabe remix)


what i watched last week

The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004). I never feel further behind the times then when I watch an animated feature that grossed $630 million worldwide and won two Oscars, and I’m just getting around to it nine years later. Especially since I tend to like Pixar movies. Bygones. This one is indeed good. I am usually hesitant about any animated feature not made by Miyazaki, because so many of them stink, no matter how popular they might be. But Pixar often manages to overcome my hesitancy. There’s the usual shout out to Emeryville, as real streets pop up during the opening chase scene (this is more exciting to those of us who often eat at Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café, which is kitty-corner to Pixar in Emeryville). Everything else I enjoyed is old news to all the people who spent that $630 million. I liked the regular allusions (and more) to James Bond. It occurred to me that turning Bond into an animated Mr. Incredible was rather fitting, considered how often Bond is treated like a superhero in his movies. (This came out two years before Casino Royale changed the formula a bit.) I was also reminded of Spy Kids, another obvious point I am making long after the fact. Get to the point: I liked it. #80 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. (Letterboxd list of my favorite movies of 2004.)

Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005). 7/10. (Favorite movies of 2005, in alphabetical order: Good Night and Good Luck, A History of Violence, Murderball.)


in my life: baseball, 1953-present

I’ll be 60 in a little more than a month, and today I found myself thinking about how life has changed during my life. When my father was 60, he had lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He had lived through Coolidge and Hoover and Roosevelt and Truman and Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon and Ford and Carter and Reagan. He lived through the prominence of radio entertainment in the home and its replacement by television. Big band music, rock and roll, disco, and the beginnings of hip hop.

Just to take one example of change during my lifetime, here are some of the ways baseball has changed.

When I was born, there were 16 major-league teams, split into two leagues of eight teams each. The champions of each league met in the World Series; that was the extent of the “post-season”. Now, there are 30 teams, fifteen in each league, and a post-season including division winners and wild cards.

  • In 1953, the Boston Braves had just moved to Milwaukee. They later moved to Atlanta. Milwaukee eventually got an expansion team, which had spent one year in Seattle.
  • 1953 was the last year of the St. Louis Browns. They moved to Baltimore the next year and became the Orioles.
  • The Cincinnati Reds spent several years in the 1950s calling themselves the Redlegs to avoid and tint of Commie Menace.
  • In 1953, the Dodgers and Giants played in Brooklyn and New York respectively. They moved west in 1958. In the 1953, the big team in San Francisco was the Seals of the Pacific Coast League.
  • In 1953, the Athletics played in Philadelphia. Two years later, they moved to Kansas City. In 1968, they moved to Oakland. In 1969, Kansas City got an expansion team.
  • In 1953, the team in Washington was called the Senators. In 1961, they moved to Minnesota. That same year, Washington got an expansion team. In 1972, that team moved to Texas. Meanwhile, in 1969, Montreal got a major-league team. They moved to Washington in 2005.

In 1953, the average team stole 42 bases for the entire season. In 2012, the average was 108. (League average caught stealing totals were 33 in 1953, 38 last year … teams are a lot more efficient at steals than they used to be. The caught stealings are roughly the same, while the successes have increased 2 1/2 times.) Saves were only tracked by a few teams; they wouldn’t become an official stat until 1969. The leader in saves in 1969 was Ron Perranoski of the Twins, with 31. In 2012, 15 different pitchers had 31 or more saves, led by Jim Johnson with 51.

In 2012, the minimum salary for a full season in the majors was $480,000. In 1954, on his return from military service, Willie Mays made $12,500.

At the beginning of the 2013 season, Forbes valued the Giants as being worth $786,000,000. In case you thought all the money these days was going to the players.

In 1953, and for a few decades thereafter, the “basic” stats like batting average, runs batted in, and wins were considered the final word on performance measurements. I can recall my father telling me Juan Marichal was a great pitcher because he got lots of wins. In 1973, Tito Fuentes played in 160 games at second base for the Giants, leading the league in assists and fielding percentage. He hit .277. He received votes for league MVP. Seven NL second basemen played enough in 1973 to qualify for the batting title. Wins Above Replacement hadn’t been invented yet. With hindsight, we know that Fuentes finished 6th out of those seven in WAR for 1973. He didn’t walk, he didn’t hit for power, and he didn’t have great range at second. But he hit for a decent average, he didn’t make errors, and he played every day. Not MVP quality, but by what we knew at the time, he was considered in the general vicinity of awards.


by request: broken flowers (jim jarmusch, 2005)

This is on my list of requests … says Robert Gable requested it … but I can’t find the request anywhere. Well, I watched it anyway, so here goes.

Jim Jarmusch has made more than a dozen movies, but this is the first one I’ve ever seen. I remember when Stranger Than Paradise came out, the trailer showed up seemingly every time I went to the movies. I’ll never get the sound of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins out of my mind … whenever I hear “I Put a Spell on You”, I think of that damn trailer. And I think that’s why I never saw any of Jarmusch’s movies … the trailer irritated me.

Now I’ve seen one, but I have no idea how typical it is, how cleanly it fits into the Jarmusch oeuvre. I have to take it on its own.

Bill Murray has had an interesting career. In his early comedic roles, he was wild, even anarchic, a smart-ass even when he was playing dumb. As he has grown into dramatic roles, his style has done a complete flip. He is known for his silent, deadpan approach, and somehow, he manages to make us see emotion in his mostly unchanging face. (He once said, “I hate to give away my secrets but I do almost nothing. Being slightly lazy works for me.”) It definitely works in Broken Flowers, where he conveys an inner dissatisfaction without seeming to try. The structure of the film helps, as Murray is given the chance to work with various women who present wonderful contrasts to his blankness. Sharon Stone is charmingly hot, Frances Conroy allows an inward impishness to peek out from her serious demeanor (much like Murray does throughout), Jessica Lange makes us believe she is an “animal communicator”, and Tilda Swinton stuns in her brief scene … this most recognizable of actresses here wears makeup to darken her skin, adds a long-haired dark wig, and looks almost unrecognizable as what appears to be a biker chick. Toss in Julie Delpy, who I always love even when she is basically making a cameo, and Jeffrey Wright, solid as always, and you have acting that is a joy to watch.

Jarmusch’s style matches Murray’s underplaying. From what I understand of Jarmusch’s work, this is standard for him. Many noted that Murray was in fact a perfect match for Jarmusch. I felt that it was a bit much … it was never boring, and the basic narrative (Murray searching out old girlfriends) added a bit of propulsion, but too often, Broken Flowers just sits there. Charmingly, but uneventful. And the plot is something of a shaggy dog story, which throws attention back on the characters, and the actors are worthy of that attention, but ultimately, I found the film to be more an actor’s showcase than a movie I might love some day. 7/10.


music friday: carla thomas

Carla Thomas was singing in public by the time she was 10 years old, thanks in part to the fact that her father was Rufus Thomas, who had been recording since at least the 1940s.

“Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)” was written by Carla, and made the top ten in 1961. It brought Stax Records to the nation’s attention.

“I’ll Never Stop Loving You” was recorded in 1963, and resurrected three decades later as a Northern Soul classic:

This video is a mashup of “B-A-B-Y” with Cyd Charisse dancing in Party Girl. Charisse deserves a post of her own; the mashup works surprisingly well.

In 1967, Thomas and Otis Redding recorded a duets album, King & Queen, that hit #5 on the R&B charts, and spawned Carla’s biggest hit, the irresistible “Tramp”:

“Tramp” has inspired many songs over the years, some covers, some a bit more than that. Salt-n-Pepa kept the title in 1985:

Prince even got into the act, sampling “Tramp” for “7”. He has someone scouring YouTube, deleting all the Prince videos, so I can’t link to anything, but since I can barely hear the sample, perhaps it doesn’t matter.


adventures in customer service

To cut to the chase: sometimes you really do just have to update the drivers.

I’ve had my Dell XPS One 27 Touch for about six months now, and in general, I’ve been happy with it. Windows 8 is having growing pains, at least for desktops (yes, I’m showing my age, I still use desktop computers), but the machine itself is very nice, with the most stunning graphics I’ve ever had. Still, not long after I got it, I started having an occasional sound glitch. It’s a bit hard to describe … kind of like when your speaker wires aren’t connected properly. It happened often enough to bug me, not often enough to convince me to fix it. But I knew that sometime before the one-year warranty ran out, I’d have to deal with it.

In the last month or so, though, the entire machine has become sluggish. Things take forever to load, to process, to, well, anything. It got to the point where I was getting crashes (which haven’t been a regular part of Windows in years). On one of those crashes, the computer did an “Automatic Repair”. On another, it restored an earlier version of Windows. It was time to get it fixed. So I went to the Dell support site, and, being a good customer, I did whatever do-it-yourself stuff they had before I started bugging someone.

I ran a bunch of tests, and passed all … all but one. That was the SMART short self test, which failed. So I began a lengthy session in chat with customer support.

I got someone named Samarjeet, who was very helpful and very patient. OK, I was patient, too … this took awhile … but it was clear early on that Samarjeet knew what they were doing, which sadly isn’t always the case. I explained about the failed SMART test and the sluggish performance, Samarjeet asked a few questions, and then said I’d have to replace the hard drive, which I expected. They were going to send someone out to do this (part of the one-year warranty service). In my mind, these weren’t connected, but for some reason I decided to bring something up:

Steven: "there is one other problem, not as serious, that may even be connected to the hard drive problems ... should I wait and talk to the technician about that when he comes, or do you need to write it down for him to know in advance"

Agent: "Please let me know all the problems you are facing with the system."

Steven: "occasionally, there is a sound glitch ... a slight pause in the music or whatever, accompanied by a bit of a buzz (sorry, I know this isn't much of a description!) ... doesn't seem to be attached to any particular piece of software, can happen with Spotify or YouTube in a browser or whatever”

Agent: "Thank you for confirming that."

Samarjeet then informed me that the problems might be connected, and that they would have to solve the sound problem before they dealt with the hard drive. I loaded one of those “let the other person control your computer” programs, they fiddled around, downloaded some drivers, then gave me links to four other drivers that needed to be installed. Finally, I got an appointment for a phone checkup on Wednesday to discuss the changes we’d make, and to make the appointment to fix the hard drive.

You know where this is heading. The computer has run just fine all day long. No sound glitches, no sluggish performance, no crashes. I ran the SMART self test again, and this time the computer passed. I’m wary of saying it’s all fixed, but I suspect that’s the case.

I get frustrated when a problem arises and “experts” say “check your drivers”. It’s such an easy answer, and it assumes we’re dunces who don’t know anything. I always set my computers up so I am notified when updates are available (Windows, drivers, software, etc.), although I don’t use automatic updates … I like to know what’s being “updated” before it happens. I don’t know why my computer had some outdated drivers, and it seems to me I should have gotten notification at some point.

But that’s not really what matters in this case. What matters is that it may well have been a simple case of updating drivers, which is why that’s often the first thing you are asked about. I know just enough about computers to get myself into trouble. I think I know more than I do. Samarjeet had me update the BIOS … was that especially important? I have no idea. I just know that at this moment, the computer is working.


what i watched last week

Sleep Dealer (Alex Rivera, 2008). I’m using this in a class I’m teaching, and so I watched it for the first time. It’s a low-budget sci-fi film set in Mexico that doesn’t worry about the money it doesn’t have. Rivera doesn’t offer anything lyrical in his cheapo special effects (compare it to Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, also set in Mexico with a budget 1/3 the size of Sleep Dealer, that manages a lovely finishing CGI touch). Sleep Dealer is more overt with its socio-political subtext, which makes it a good film for a college course essay assignment, and Rivera gets the job done efficiently. There aren’t many movies like this (that I know of), and I’m guessing in another decade or two, it will have the same relationship to its era as sci-fi monster movies of the 1950s did to theirs. The subtext will be foregrounded, the film’s flaws will be overlooked, and Sleep Dealer will be lauded for presenting issues of immigrant labor and Mexico-U.S. relations in a creative manner. (To be honest, it already gets these kinds of compliments.) I just wish it was a better movie. 6/10.