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music friday: neil young

Last Friday, my friend Tomás gave a shout out to my blog, and posted a Friday music post to his own blog. In it, he focused on “a list of five songs from one artist that I think people younger than me should know.” His choice of artists was Crosby, Stills, & Nash (and Young). I’d be stretching things a bit to say I had enough favorite CSN songs for a Music Friday, so I’m borrowing a bit of his idea, and combining it with a poll Phil Dellio invited me to participate in a little more than a year ago, “a list of your 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 favourite Neil songs (meaning anything he's written, regardless of performing artist).” I was pleased to be invited, and submitted a list, noting “I had a super extreme love for Neil Young since I was a teenager, and obsessed about his music for more than a decade. I won't say I've burned out on him since then, but I no longer pay close attention to his every move. Thus, my list will be all oldies.”

My list had 12(13) songs, and I was supposed to assign points to each, with the total being 180. Here is my list, from bottom to top.

12. "T-Bone" (5 points). “Got mashed potatoes. Ain't got no T-Bone.”

11. "Bite the Bullet" (7 points). “She's a walking love machine. I'd like to make her scream, when I bite the bullet.”

10. "Welfare Mothers" (8 points). “Welfare mothers make better lovers.”

9. "Danger Bird" (9 points). “Freedom's just a prison to me.”

7t. "Don't Be Denied" (10 points). “I'm a pauper in a naked disguise, a millionaire through a business man's eyes.”

7t. "Tired Eyes" (10 points). “He tried to do his best, but he could not.”

6. "Tonight's the Night"/"Tonight's the Night - Part II" (I couldn’t can't be bothered to choose one or the other) (14 points). “Bruce Berry was a working man, he used to load that Econoline van.”

4t. "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" (i.e. the electric version) (15 points). “It's better to burn out, 'cause rust never sleeps.”

4t. "Broken Arrow" (Buffalo Springfield) (15 points). “Eighteen years of American dream.”

3. "Cowgirl in the Sand" (28 points). “When so many love you, is it the same?”

2. "Like a Hurricane" (the Live Rust version, since I was at that specific concert) (29 points). “I want to love you but I'm getting blown away.”

1. "Cortez the Killer" (30 points). “He came dancing across the water with his galleons and guns.” (I once wrote, “Guess it figures that a rocking Canadian would be the one to best describe my personal relationship to my Spanish heritage.”)

how smart are cats?

They are seemingly untrainable … you can get a dog to do anything, which isn’t true with cats (although Robin taught Six to play fetch). Does that mean cats are dumber than dogs, or does that mean dogs are dumber because they do stupid shit for people?

Many nights, Robin and I watch TV on the big screen in the attic. We’ll usually watch two episodes, but sometimes only one, or even occasionally three. Sometimes we start watching at 6:00, sometimes 7:00, sometimes even later.

When we watch, Starbuck and Six usually join us. Six doesn’t much like to be alone, so she usually follows us … Starbuck likes to sit on Robin’s lap.

Boomer rarely joins us. She spends much of her day sleeping on our bed, which she seems to consider her turf.

Now, I haven’t done a study, but anecdotally, the following seems to be true. When we are done watching for the night, Robin and I will chat for a bit, and then she’ll go downstairs while I watch the end of a ballgame or something. Given that we watch varying numbers of episodes, and that we start watching at varying times, there is no fixed schedule for when Robin will head downstairs. Last night it was around 9:00 … other times it’s closer to 10:00 … rarely, we’ll start early, watch one show, and be done around 8:00 or even earlier.

Here’s the thing. Robin and I both agree that Boomer seems to know when we are done watching. She comes upstairs about when the last episode is done and we’re chatting for a bit, as if to say, “OK, time to come downstairs, Robin!” I can understand why she does this … often, Robin will go to the bedroom and read, after we’ve watched TV, and Boomer likes to join her there. But I’ll be damned if I can figure out how she seems to know when it’s time to get Robin.

starbuck on shelf

sisters licking

let us be dissatisfied

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The past few years, I have given an essay assignment in my classes:

Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech is one of the most famous speeches of all time. Almost four years later, King gave a speech often called "Where Do We Go from Here?", in which he stated, “One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.” Why is this speech less famous and less frequently anthologized than "I Have a Dream?"

The 1967 speech was given to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The most common thesis my students offer is that “I Have a Dream” was seen by an enormous number of people, thanks to television, and was associated with a famous event, the March, while “Where Do We Go from Here” had a smaller audience and was not televised. Far less often, students noted the latter speech was far more radical than “Dream”, which makes it less appealing to anthologists. It was rare for a student to further examine why the “radical King” would be unappealing.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the speech:

We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. … Now we realize that dislocations in the market operations of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. … I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth. …

[T]he Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Perhaps most telling, the repetitive catch phrase that King uses as he closes his speech, the equivalent of the earlier “I have a dream”, is “Let us be dissatisfied.”

So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a "divine dissatisfaction." Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity. Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together. and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. Let us be dissatisfied. And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout "White Power!" - when nobody will shout "Black Power!" - but everybody will talk about God's power and human power.

what i watched last week

Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011). There are enough things going on in Take Shelter that it is difficult to pin it down to one easy description (it’s like M. Night Shyamalan only good, it’s a horror story, it’s really about the poor state of the American economy, it’s a finely-detailed portrait of a schizophrenic). At times, I admit to being caught by surprise … whenever I thought I had the movie tagged, it moved in a slightly different direction. Everything improved once I gave myself over to Nichols’ vision, rather than trying to categorize the film from my own preconceptions. Take Shelter is not one of those insular, mysterious movies I usually dismiss; whatever fuzziness occurs is part of the representation of the life of the main character, who can’t always tell what is real and what is not. As is usually the case with movies about people struggling with psychological problems, I spent a lot of the film wavering between “been there, done that” and “I don’t like seeing myself on the screen”. My connection to this aspect of the movie means I paid less attention to the milieu of economic collapse than I should have. It is unfair to complain about Michael Shannon doing what he does so well, and he is very good here. Nonetheless, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that we’ve seen Shannon do this many times. More impressive is Jessica Chastain, who is excellent as the wife who wants to make things right for her husband but is fiercely frustrated that she can’t understand what he is going through. Chastain reminds us that the tortured individual causes collateral damage. #226 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

Hud (Martin Ritt, 1963). Sometimes it’s hard to figure out the logic of the Oscars. Hud was regarded highly enough to receive seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress. It won three Oscars, two for acting, one for James Wong Howe’s cinematography. But it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, although there was somehow room for the legendary Taylor-Burton Cleopatra. Hud is an interesting, if schizophrenic, movie. The message seems to be that Paul Newman’s title character is a pure bastard, and, if you want to dig deeper, Hud, who “doesn’t care about people”, represents the emptiness of modern life. But, as played by Newman, Hud is the liveliest thing in the movie. His father, played by the Oscar-winning Melvyn Douglas, is sanctimonious, his nephew, played by Shane’s Brandon de Wilde, is a literary construct more than a person, leaving only Patricia Neal (also an Oscar winner) as the only person besides Newman who manages to get our attention. It’s an amoral movie … not that that’s a bad thing. In fact, that’s what makes it fun to watch. 7/10.

La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962, 10/10), and 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995, 8/10).

mark leibovich, this town: two parties and a funeral - plus, plenty of valet parking! - in america's gilded capital

In This Town, Mark Leibovich explains by example. The institutions in our nation’s capital foster an incestuous, circular self-chosen elite. As Leibovich tells it, there is barely any difference between the actual members of Congress and the ex-members who become lobbyists or pundits or executives (or all of the above). This amoral mixture has no fundamental beliefs outside of itself … Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, everyone serves the corporate world. Our current president differs from the other people in the book primarily because he doesn’t like any of them. You never get the feeling that he approves of the revolving door between government and corporations, although his own people are just as guilty as anyone else. If we take This Town at its word, the United States is run by a bunch of insecure, self-absorbed people who attend each other’s social events and obsess about power and their place in the pecking order. The media lets them get away with this because they are hangers-on themselves.

Leibovich uses a breezy style that blends commentary with the kind of gossip he knows we want to hear. He isn’t afraid to step on toes, but he does so in an almost light-hearted way … at one point, he tips his cap to Matt Taibbi, “a wicked screed artist and one of the few legitimate heirs to Hunter S. Thompson in a blog-inspired generation of gonzo wannabes”, but Leibovich never indulges in the kind of excess that makes Taibbi so much fun to read. In the latter parts of the book, Leibovitz relies more on snark … maybe it was just that I hadn’t noticed it before, but it reads as if he is finally just tired of all the residents in This Town. But overall, he is rather gentle, considering the stories he is telling.

Does it help Leibovich’s case that he admits to being a participant observer? His portrait of Washington, D.C. (at least the part that revolves around political institutions) is cutting, depressing, seemingly trust-worthy. In the end, Leibovich at least partly convinces us that he has just enough distance to maintain an honest vision.

music friday: dale miller

Dale Miller died last Monday. Miller was a renowned fingerstyle guitarist, who recorded several albums for Kicking Mule Records in the 1970s, albums that have been re-released in more recent years. Among his other recordings was one that featured solo guitar versions of opera arias, and another that updated some of his most popular songs from the 70s.

The list of musicians Miller worked with over the years is impressive: U. Utah Phillips, Stefan Grossman, Elizabeth Cotton, John Renbourn, Tom Rush, Tracy Nelson, Mimi Fariña, Leon Redbone, Gatemouth Brown.

But it wasn’t just the music. Miller was a renaissance man. He worked with both the Peace Corps and Vista. He taught at Berlitz. He drove a cab. He co-owned a guitar store. He gave guitar lessons. He promoted concerts. He was online beginning in the mid-1980s. He wrote computer programs. He worked as a computer systems administrator. He served on the board of the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association.

And he was a Giants fan. I met Dale in 2000. The first ten years of the Giants’ new ballpark, he had season tickets directly behind my seat.

You can enjoy his music at his YouTube site.

This, from around 1980, is one of my favorites, because in it, Dale is on the legendary Al “Jazzbo” Collins’ radio show:

la jetée and 12 monkeys revisited

I’ve told the story more than once about the first time I saw 12 Monkeys, which is when it came out in 1995. I can no longer recall exactly when I started getting this feeling that I’d somehow seen the movie before, which was both silly (since it had just come out) and fitting (because Bruce Willis’ character, James Cole, spends a lot of time thinking about things that had happened before). Nor can I recall the exact moment when I made the connection with La Jetée, which I had seen twenty or so years earlier. It probably happened in the closing scene in the airport (I don’t recall seeing the line in the opening credits that read “Inspired by the film "La Jetée" written by Chris Marker”).

The closest I’ve come to that feeling in the years since 12 Monkeys was released is when “All Along the Watchtower” snuck into Battlestar Galactica. Apparently, some people weren’t very fond of that, but my experience as the scene unfolded was nothing short of psychedelic awe over the inexplicable presence of Dylan in the Battlestar world.

I watched these two movies as a double bill this time around. I had intended to just watch La Jetée as part of the “By Request” series, since it was #64 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list, and one of the first requests I got was to write about the movies that made it all the way to the final cut on that list. But since it’s just shy of half an hour long, I thought I’d just follow it up with 12 Monkeys.

La Jetée is a short film by the late Chris Marker, which was released in 1962 (four years after Vertigo, which inspired Marker greatly). It consists almost entirely of still photos, telling a story of the world after nuclear war. The story revolves around time travel experiments, and the circular nature of the story adds a haunting feeling to the conclusion. The absence of movement (for the most part … there is one brief moment of “action”, and the camera pans over some photos) means you can’t look away for a second. Although there is spoken narration, the photos are the key, and each one feels crucial, so you stare at the screen, absorbing every still. La Jetée is not a movie you can half-watch while doing something else.

12 Monkeys borrows much from La Jetée (although director Terry Gilliam may not have even seen the earlier movie … he was brought in after the script had been written). There is the post-apocalypse setting, the time travel, and the circular nature of the narrative. To be honest, it’s close enough to be considered a remake, albeit one that is four times longer than the original. Bruce Willis is excellent in the lead role (is it passé to call him “underrated”?). Brad Pitt does the kind of overacting, playing a madman, that wins awards (he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, losing to Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects). Madeleine Stowe has the tricky role of a psychiatrist, Doctor Railly, who gradually realizes James Cole is telling the truth. The audience knows Cole isn’t crazy, and Stowe has to project intelligence when her character is still a step or two behind the viewers.

Meanwhile, Terry Gilliam turns out to be just as obsessed with Vertigo as was Chris Marker. Late in 12 Monkeys, Cole and Railly hide from their pursuers by ducking into a movie theater which is showing Vertigo. Cole remembers seeing it on television when he was a kid. We see James Stewart and Kim Novak looking at a redwood, talking about how the rings denote events from the past. Shortly after this, as Cole and Railly talk, the music from Vertigo rises gently on the soundtrack. (This scene is reenacted in La Jetée, as well.)

And I’m watching these movies, back to back, in an attempt to re-create my experience watching 12 Monkeys in 1995. It can’t be done … the pleasure of 1995 derived from the gradual realization that, just like James Cole, I had seen this before, but in 2013, I already have that realization. It’s the reason I’m watching the two movies together.

12 Monkeys was generally well-received by critics, but La Jetée is considered a masterpiece, coming in at #95 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. Twelve Monkeys: 8/10. La Jetée: 10/10.

by request: mr. smith goes to washington (frank capra, 1939)

This was requested by Jeff Pike (hey, Jeff, I’m reading The Death of Rock and Roll).

I’m in the middle of Mark Leibovich’s book about Washington D.C., This Town, and it makes an interesting contrast to this film from more than 70 years ago. In the film, Congress is overrun by greed and the influence of machine bosses. In the book, Congress, and indeed all of D.C., is overrun with greed and almost completely lacking in ethics. At least Capra offers us Senator Jefferson Smith, a good guy who believes in the proper core American values … there is no such person in This Town.

As usual, Capra champions the dedicated individual up against the corrupt system, effectively tugging at the audience’s emotions. The cast is a treasure trove of stars and character actors: Jimmy Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Claude Rains, alongside Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Palette, Beulah Bondi, Harry Carey, and more. Arthur is very good, and Stewart is in his awkward-yet-appealing mode. He doesn’t fare as well as Arthur, though, because Capra too often goes beyond Smith’s innocence, to a point where Smith just seems a can short of a six-pack. The dumb Jeff Smith would never be able to perform the way the smart Smith does.

The film is also too long at 130 minutes. It’s not that you can identify scenes which are unnecessary, but the movie drags at times, and even if this isn’t a screwball comedy, it would benefit from a snappier pace.

Your feelings about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington will depend on your tolerance for Capra’s work. I’m in the middle, finding him annoying at times, but also liking many of his films. As Pauline Kael said about this movie, “No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way Capra can--but if anyone else should learn to, kill him.” #673 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. (For comparison purposes, I’d give It Happened One Night 8/10 and Arsenic and Old Lace 6/10.)

adventures in customer service

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I can be quite the procrastinator. I know, you’re thinking we’re all like that. But not as bad as we are. We went more than fifteen years without a porch light because it “didn’t work”, until one day a friend looked in the socket and found a part that wasn’t screwed in all the way.

At one point, we had three DVR boxes. I can’t even remember why at this point, although since we called one “Japan” I suspect it had something to do with the Slingbox. We quit using that box … well, when Katie and John moved from Japan, I’m guessing, which was about the time of the Fukushima thing, which was 2 1/2 years ago. We shut the box down and put it by the front door, so I could take it to the Comcast office and get it taken off of our monthly bill.

Well, today that box finally made it to Comcast, meaning we finally got it taken off our bill. Among other things, the monthly fee for those boxes had gone up … suffice to say, we likely spent $500+ on a DVR that sat by our front door.

While we were there, the service rep showed us how, if we signed up for Comcast phone service, our monthly bill would go down by $50 for the first year, and $30 after that. Even if we never used the phone. So we signed up.

Which means our next Comcast bill will be around $70 lower than the previous one.

They didn’t have any customer approval forms at the office, so I’ll say it here: Charlie from the Comcast office in Berkeley did right by us.