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music friday: the rock and roll hall of fame

I find most awards irritating at best, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is certainly as irritating as any. There are so many problems with the Hall … even the idea makes me stop, because I don’t think I ever wanted the music to be canonized in this way. The selections are often terrible … it’s not so much that it’s biased, it’s that the biases are so narrow. I don’t want in this post to single out the artists who don’t seem to belong in this Hall of Fame. But in checking out some information about Patti Smith, I came across her acceptance speech when she was inducted, and I realized that for all its problems, there is a reason why something the like Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exists. Here are a few of the induction speeches that stand out for me.

First, there’s the Sex Pistols. They rejected the honor, and faxed a reply that pretty much expressed my own thoughts. I guess Jann Wenner thought he was being cool when he read that fax as a substitute for the absent band’s acceptance speech:

Sex Pistols (“Rock and roll and that Hall of Fame is a piss stain.”)

When The Clash was inducted, not long after Joe Strummer died, they took a more conciliatory tone. More importantly, they noted the value of artists with their background having their work recognized (“I accept this honor on behalf of all the garage bands.”)

The Clash

One of the biggest problems with the Hall is its general exclusion of entire groups of performers. Which is why it mattered when Public Enemy was inducted (“Some people thinking, there goes the musical neighborhood. Let us not forget, we all come from the damn blues.”):

Public Enemy

And why it mattered to Bonnie Raitt as well (“Let’s hope this marks the beginning of lots more women getting out of the kitchen and into the kick-ass fire.”):

Bonnie Raitt

But Patti Smith says it best, when she tells an anecdote from her years with Fred “Sonic” Smith:

And here she is performing after her induction:

i planned to go to s.f.

I posted this, which I had scanned, nine years ago. I’m doing a double-nostalgia move, one where I remember nine years ago, and one where I remember 1967:

golden arch bio

This comes from the program for the first play I participated in once I got into high school. It was called My Three Angels, which was made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart. My part (“Alfred”) was played by Darren McGavin in the original Broadway run, by Aldo Ray in the Bogart film version, and by George Grizzard in a later TV version. There was a Robert De Niro version in 1989, but my character wasn’t in that one, I guess.

I was a sophomore, and the way the Antioch school system was structured in those days, 7th-9th grades were “junior high” and 10th-12th grades were “high school”. There was no “intermediate”, or whatever they call 6th-8th grades now. Of the three junior high plays listed, I only remember The Wizard of Oz. I was the Scarecrow, and I was unable to hold my arms straight out when Dorothy discovered me guarding the corn field, so they gave me a pole I could use that enabled me to rest my arms using my shoulders as support. I should probably remember more about that, but hey, I was in 7th grade.

It says I was “majoring” in drama, but I don’t recall having “majors” in high school. While I was doing OK in school, I apparently had no thoughts of college. This was the end of the Summer of Love, all I wanted to be was a hippie, and thus my plans were limited to going to San Francisco and eating (no mention of a job, of course). I actually did spend about a month in S.F. after I graduated from high school, but with no money and no job, I was soon back at home with my parents.

Here’s a lo-fi picture of me in My Three Angels … that’s me in the back:


110 years is a long time

My maternal grandmother would be 110 years old today.

She gets the short end of the stick in many ways, because my Spanish grandmother is more obviously interesting. But the truth is, when I was growing up, it was “Nannie” who was the biggest influence on me, more so in many ways than my own parents.

She lived with us until I was two years old, and always lived in Antioch after I was born, so I spent many a night at her house. She could talk your ear off, but oftentimes, the topics were different from what I heard in other places. She loved Franklin Roosevelt, and had a box set of his “fireside chats” and speeches. We would sit and listen to the President talk about how the Republicans were being mean to his dog Fala, and my grandmother would tell me once again about the doggie and the president and those bad Republicans.

She also took an interest in the civil rights struggles of the day. I remember she had a couple of books by Dick Gregory that we read, over and over. Later in the sixties, she expressed dismay at the more radical elements … I’d give her a break on that, by then she was a white woman from the South, in her mid-60s. When my sister started digging into the family genealogy, we found that there were slave owners from the Harrison side of the family. I don’t know if my grandmother knew any of them, but surely she knew the family history, although I don’t remember her ever talking about it. Still, I wonder if that history had something to do with her own less-racist perspective, an attempt to distance herself.

Pictures of her when my mom was a kid suggest a fairly severe woman, yet there are rumors that after my grandfather died, she was thisclose to hooking up with Larry Blake, the famed Berkeley restaurateur. She must have had a more lively time in her 40s than I realized.

She always spoke to me like an adult, she exposed me to liberal ideas, and I don’t think I gave her enough respect when she was around. Of course, there was also the part where when we were bad, she’d make us pick a branch off of the rosebush in front of the house, which she called a “switch” that she would spank us with. I can’t say I have a lot of fond memories about that.

Here she is when my mom and her sister were teenagers (that’s a guess). This would have been early 1940s, so she would have been in her late-30s or so.

Nannie and Her Daughters

flaws: boardwalk empire and the newsroom

Boardwalk Empire is two episodes into its fourth season, while The Newsroom just had its Season Two finale. Other than the fact that they are both on HBO, there isn’t much connecting them, so this post is partly just me trying to squeeze two series into one blog post.

But …

Last week, Tim Goodman asked the question, “Why Isn’t ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Compelling Even When It’s Really Good?” It’s a question I’ve often asked myself. It’s not that the show gets no love … it has won a dozen Emmys and been nominated for many more. It ranks high on the Metacritic site, which collates critical opinion. There are big names attached to it, most notably Martin Scorsese. The large cast is both solid and varied, and the recreation of 1920s America is excellent. You might argue that it is a flawless show … there’s a flaw in the excess of riches category, since there are so many great characters and actors that not all of them get their due, but it’s hard to call something that positive a flaw. (My wife points out that with each season, fewer characters actually care about anything real outside of their gangland lives, and she’s right. Whether that is a flaw is another question.)

But compelling? For many people, it is. For me, its quality doesn’t necessarily translate into a compelling series. Interesting things happen, there are more actors I love than practically any other show, I’m always glad to watch it … yet it’s not always the first thing I watch when the DVR begins to back up, and sometimes that backup includes an episode of Boardwalk Empire that I haven’t gotten to yet.

Meanwhile, there’s The Newsroom, which is defined by the flaws of its creator, Aaron Sorkin. I consider myself a fan of Sorkin, since the days of Sports Night. I eventually gave up on West Wing, but that was after he’d left the show. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip did little for me, but I liked The Social Network. What I don’t like in Sorkin’s work is the heavy-handed soapbox pontificating, which seems to me to have gotten worse over the years. (Perhaps since Sports Night was set in a studio that produced a sports show, while West Wing and The Newsroom have politics at their core, my memories of Sports Night are that it mostly lacked the soapbox.)

In the season finale, which itself was the latter half of a two-part set of episodes, things were going along fine, until suddenly, dropped like an anvil into the middle of the episode, we got Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy pontificating about why he is a Republican. As character development, this might be interesting if we didn’t already know everything he said, but it didn’t come across as character development, it came across like Aaron Sorkin offering his opinion on the Tea Party. And this kind of scene pops up on a regular basis.

It’s odd, because Sorkin is rightfully lauded for his dialogue … he has both an Oscar and an Emmy for his writing … but he can’t help himself when it comes time to deliver a pompous editorial in the middle of one of his shows.

So The Newsroom is flawed, which even its biggest fans probably accept (I haven’t even mentioned the way he creates interesting, smart, capable women characters, only to turn them into babbling goofballs, or the way his cluelessness about the Internet is only matched by his hatred of the culture he thinks it propagates). Yet it also has a lot of great acting … I like how Olivia Munn, not “really” an actress, often outshines her more experienced counterparts, and Jane Fonda is fun in the Maggie Smith “old codger who pops up once in a while and gets the best lines” role. In fact, when Fonda, one of our greatest actresses, gets wrapped around Sorkin dialogue, it’s quite a treat. (Although when Fonda’s Leona Lansing proclaimed, under the influence of marijuana, that she wanted to get the Allman Brothers back together, it rang false in that particular Sorkin way. You see, the Allmans reunited in 1989. If this was meant to show how Leona Lansing was out of touch, I tip my cap, but my guess is, Sorkin doesn’t know anything about the Allman Brothers work over the past 20+ years.)

I probably enjoy watching The Newsroom more than I enjoy watching Boardwalk Empire, and I’m not talking about hate-watching, no matter how much I complain. The flawed messiness of The Newsroom appeals to me more than the more perfect excellence of Boardwalk. But I never seem to be able to get past those flaws. The Newsroom doesn’t make me want to go back and watch old Sports Night episodes … rather, it makes me wonder if I’ve been overrating Sports Night all these years.

Boardwalk Empire, first two episodes of Season Four: A-. Grade for Season Two of The Newsroom: B+ (up from last season’s B-).

by request: the empire strikes back (irvin kershner, 1980)

(This request comes from Tomás.)

Perhaps my cranky attitude is already apparent in the way I refuse to call this movie by that long mess of a Part Five it is now known as. It was The Empire Strikes Back when I first saw it, and that’s how it remains in my mind.

I’ve long claimed that this was the best of the Star Wars movies, but having watched it again, I’m not sure why. Not that it’s bad, but it feels a part of the first three movies in a way that I can’t see why I bother separating this one from the other two. The truth is, I’m not sure I’d even seen The Empire Strikes Back since 1980. I saw the original some years ago, dutifully watched the three prequels when they came out, and I saw Return of the Jedi, which at the time I found more annoying than the others. But you aren’t talking to a hardcore fan … if memory serves, I’ve now seen the six Star Wars movies a total of eight times, all of them included.

I remember when Star Wars came out. I liked it … who wouldn’t? … but I felt it lacked anything beyond its cheesy roots. Fun, but not transcendent. When Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out later in the year, I told anyone who would listen that this was what I wanted from science fiction … a sense of awe. (It’s not entirely fair for me to compare a movie to Close Encounters, which made #25 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list.)

And it’s been more than 30 years, so I can’t really remember why I liked Empire more than Star Wars. I liked the big mechanical attacking horse thingies in the snow battle (see, if I was a good fan, I’d know what those were called … now I have to look it up … Walkers!). I’d say the whole thing about The Force had more impact, which might add the transcendence I wanted, except Yoda bugged the shit out of me.

I’m happy to say that Yoda wasn’t nearly as awful as I’d remembered. (Does he have a bigger part in Return of the Jedi?) He’s not on that much, and his way of speaking, which is really what annoys me, didn’t seem all that bad. On the other hand, C-3PO is still the Jar Jar Binks of his day. I still don’t get why people like the character. I know he is meant to be annoying, but that doesn’t make me glad when he chatters away. Darth Vader is still impressively scary, even with the hindsight of knowing his full story. There are a few special effects that reach that place of awe I want … the Walkers, the Cloud City sitting on the impossibly slender stand. The acting of the humans doesn’t seem as purposely bad as it did in Star Wars.

But it’s time to admit that I am not the audience for these films. That was clear when the new trilogy came along … only Revenge of the Sith was even tolerable to me. But the fact that I don’t have any real desire to watch Star Wars movies over and over, even as I’m always ready to sit through Attack of the Crab Monsters one more time, says it all. I suppose when I’m asked, I’ll still list The Empire Strikes Back as my favorite. But that’s mostly because it’s the kind of thing one should have an opinion about. #330 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

music friday, 1971 edition

Let’s turn this over to the women.

1. The Staple Singers, “Heavy Makes You Happy (Sha-Na-Boom-Boom)”. It's more than just a feeling - it's a philosophy.

2. Joni Mitchell, “All I Want”. I want to shampoo you.

3. Dolly Parton, “Coat of Many Colors”. Although we had no money, I was rich as I could be.

4. Loretta Lynn, “One’s on the Way”. The White House social season should be glittering and gay.

5. Jean Knight, “Mr. Big Stuff”. Who do you think you are?

6. Aretha Franklin, “Rock Steady”. Let's call this song exactly what it is.

7. Fleetwood Mac, “Show Me a Smile”. It doesn’t take much to please me.

8. Betty Wright, “Clean Up Woman”. She's tough, I mean she really cleans up.

9. Carole King, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”. Tell me now, and I won’t ask again.

10. Janis Joplin, “Get It While You Can”. We may not be here tomorrow.

And a 1971 bonus:

sons of anarchy, season six premiere

I clearly find Sons of Anarchy not only entertaining, but interesting, as I have written about it for several seasons now:

Season One: B for pilot, B for season.

Season Two: A for season.

Season Three: B+ for season.

Season Four: A- for season, B- for finale.

Season Five: A- for season and finale.

It is just as clear that I think it has settled in at a pretty high level, after a slow start and a terrific second season. So perhaps it is a good thing that the Season Six premiere felt like more of the same. There are the gang shenanigans, the extreme violence, the Shakespearean family drama, and Otto (played by creator Kurt Sutter) suffering from still more degradation.

But, as I have argued before, once a series gets our hopes up, it has to work to keep us around. There are “Grade: B” series that I stuck with for season after season, partly because my expectations were low. I don’t cut Sons of Anarchy much slack, because it’s too good to simply rest on its laurels.

And after one episode, I can’t tell if it’s more of the same in a good way, or more of the same in a resting on its laurels way.

One thing is certain: not many great shows are still great, six seasons down the line. So far, Sutter deserves credit for keeping our attention while still giving us a solid show. I won’t be giving the season premiere a grade, because what I think of it will be changed based on how the season plays out. But it was pretty good.

dos a cero revisited

Not sure how much context needs to be included here, so I’ll go with the basics, as I posted them on Google+. Non-soccer fans, don’t worry, this is about more than that sport you hate:

2001 in Columbus, World Cup Qualifier: USA 2-0 Mexico
2005 in Columbus, World Cup Qualifier: USA 2-0 Mexico
2009 in Columbus, World Cup Qualifier: USA 2-0 Mexico
2013 in Columbus, World Cup Qualifier: USA 2-0 Mexico
(oh yeah, 2002 World Cup match in South Korea: USA 2-0 Mexico)

As you can imagine, this remarkably coincidental set of results has resulted in a long-lasting meme for fans of the U.S. men’s team: “Dos a Cero”.

More context: CONCACAF is the region that includes the U.S. and Mexico, among others. Those two nations have been top of the CONCACAF heap for a long time. Costa Rica isn’t bad, Honduras is on the rise, and Panama can surprise. But the #1 battle in the region is USA-Mexico. In the early years of the rivalry, Mexico had their way … between 1937 and early November 1980, they played each other 24 times, with Mexico winning 21 and the U.S. winning none, with 3 draws. In the 21st century, things have evened out, with the U.S. winning 12 and Mexico winning 5, with 4 draws.

As is usual in serious rivalries (and USA-Mexico is the top soccer rivalry for both countries), the fans of the better team enjoy their position, gloating whenever possible. There is also a “real world” connection. When Mexico was on top, it was irresistible to see the Mexican fans’  joy being part of the overall experience for Mexico and the United States. At least on the soccer field, the Mexicans could defeat the imperialists with glee. (This is obviously not the only time world affairs lent an extra angle to a match … think of the 1998 World Cup, when Iran defeated the USA, 2-1, eliminating the States from the tournament. One writer called it “probably the most politically charged match in the history of the World Cup.”)

But when the imperialist nation starts winning on the field as well, things get ugly in a different way. When the underdog was doing the preening and sniping, it meant something different than when the Kings of the World did the same. While they are in the minority (a point that deserves making again and again), some U.S. fans now have yet another way to release their racist feelings towards their Mexican neighbors. (And for those who would point out that the reverse is also true, I again mention that the dynamic is different when the powerful are doing the gloating.)

USA fans love to chant “DOS A CERO!” during matches with Mexico played on U.S. soil. I don’t think it’s inherently racist, or imperialist. I let out a few myself during yesterday’s match (which ended, ironically, when the U.S. missed a penalty that would have made the score 3-0).

My nephew, who is the biggest soccer fan I know (he works for a professional soccer club) roots for the United States. But he likes the Mexican team, as well (as do I … there was a time when Mexican league matches were pretty much all I could watch on TV). He doesn't care much for the rivalry angle when the two teams meet. And he isn't a big fan of the victories of the imperialists. He struggles to separate the USMNT from the American presence in the world.

I don’t have any disagreement in the abstract. Best I could do was point to something I wrote back in 1997:

I am not exactly a fan of the United States of America. You could say I am a fan of things American, but that's not really the same thing. I believe that many bad things have been done in the name of the United States of America. I believe that nationalistic fervor, enlivened by the Powers That Be, can be used to support the most nefarious of governmental deeds.

When I attend soccer matches of the national team, I bring an American flag with me and wave it gleefully.

More than one player has stated that when they play for the national team, they love to see a crowd full of fans waving their flags, the fans make the players feel special, make them ready to give their all for their fans. And once you've seen the outlandish brilliance of Mia Hamm, America's greatest soccer player (and coincidentally a woman), you're ready to do pretty much whatever she tells you if it will make her happy.

Does this make me … a bad revolutionary? Have I been co-opted? When I wave my flag, have I given naiveté the upper hand?

Of course, in this country, there is something appealingly non-mainstream about being a soccer fan. Americans don't like to watch soccer; I know, people tell me that all the time. When I wave my flag, I am not honoring the United States of America as much as I am honoring Americans like Hamm or Eric Wynalda. And, since soccer-as-spectator-sport seems to be the anti-America of team sports, perhaps I could claim that it is I who am co-opting them, rather than the reverse.

The San Jose Clash, our local professional team, features a Nigerian, a Hungarian, a Salvadoran, a Honduran, a Brazilian, and Eric Wynalda. When Ronald Cerritos of El Salvador, the team's best player last season, scores a goal, he races over to the group of fans carrying huge El Salvador flags and celebrates with them. Meanwhile, the club's front office works overtime trying to sign a good Mexican player, because, as one Chicano said on a gigantic banner he brought to the team's first-ever match, "Sign a Mexican, we'll be back!" Last year they succeeded in bringing Missael Espinoza to the club. The first time he scored a goal, he ran to the corner where Mexican fans were gathered and did a somersault of happiness. The fans poured out of the stands carrying a humungous Mexican flag, under which they buried their beloved Missael.

Who are we rooting for here? Are we naive? Co-opted? Is this merely contrived exploitation?

the return of arsenio hall

I’m glad to see Arsenio Hall is back. In many ways, what he brought to late-night TV has been merged into late-night as a whole. The Roots are one of the house bands, and even the whitest shows have to pay at least lip service to hip hop culture. But the most obvious thing hasn’t happened in Arsenio’s absence: there are no black hosts. Letterman and Leno, Conan and Kimmel and Fallon, Stewart and Colbert and Craig Ferguson … they all have something in common. George Lopez lasted a few years, but he’s gone now.

It matters that it’s Arsenio’s name in the title. He’s not the band, he’s not the guest, he’s the host of his own show.

Much has been made of how TV has changed since 1994. The thing I find most important is that many, many people “watch” the late-night shows the next day on the Internet. It’s so easy to skip to the highlights, it’s barely necessary to watch live any longer. I doubt I’ll watch Arsenio live after the first show. I rarely watch Craig Ferguson live, and he’s my favorite. So Arsenio, like everyone else, will need to have the kind of highlights that go viral.

The energy in the premiere was fevered. The fans had waited 19 years to pour out their affection. His monologue reminded me that he was never the best at the opening segments. He’s at his best with guests that he likes … some people hated what they saw as his fawning, but I always felt he just loved to give respect to his favorites.

But he has to confront the fact that he’s back from the virtual grave, has to prove that he can still be relevant. And that was a serious problem with the premiere. His monologue was filled with brief skits about what he did when he was off. After the first break, he trotted out a time capsule from 1994, and made jokes about how times have changed. This didn’t make him seem contemporary, it made him seem like he’s still in 1994.

And his guests weren’t any help. His first music guest was Snoop, who is still a big star, but he performed “What’s My Name”, a hit in 1993. During the time-capsule sketch, Paula Abdul made an appearance, and her music career peaked around 1990. His first regular guest was Chris Tucker, still a funny man, and that was a little better … Friday and the Rush Hour movies came after Arsenio went off the year, and recently there was Silver Linings Playbook, but even there, he introduced Tucker by showing a clip from the old Arsenio show. It was great to see Arsenio and Snoop and Tucker sitting together … it could have been 1994 all over again. But … well, that’s not going to get Arsenio anything but nostalgia.

I have no idea if he’ll be able to break through, to find his way into 2013. I think it’s an interesting try, and I tip my cap to him.