Tuesday, April 27, 2010

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1970

In the most literal and bluntly obvious sense, 1970 was the year following 1969; from a cultural standpoint, it was the morning after. The apex of Woodstock preceded the anarchy of Altamont, basically shutting down the '60s "free love" counter-culture. President Nixon was making the tough decisions on Vietnam that the Johnson administration couldn't, including the controversial decision to invade Cambodia. Criticism of the war reached a crux on May 4th of that year, when the Ohio National Guard fired at protesters on the Kent State University quad, killing four students and wounding nine. The revolution was over before it ever began, yet the generation gap between the older "silent majority" and the younger, more liberal peaceniks raged on.

In some ways, the music reflected the uncertainty of the times. Motown, the most successful and influential record label of the previous decade, found itself in a unique state of flux; Diana Ross dumped the Supremes to go solo, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye fought for creative control of their music (and won), The Temptations were dabbling in Swahili, and their best-selling singing act was a led by an exceptionally gifted 12-year-old boy who needed no introduction. Outside of the R&B scene, paradigm shifts came a dime a dozen. The center of the music universe temporarily shifted to the Isle of Wight, where The Who, Miles Davis, and The Doors performed career-defining shows. Davis more or less invented jazz fusion, psychedelia was giving way to country-rock and folk-rock, Led Zeppelin was diversifying its sound, while a new act called Black Sabbath set the blueprint for heavy metal. Regardless, all those musical wayposts paled to the three big bombshells of 1970: the breakup of The Beatles and the deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. The '60s were dead, yet a new, uncertain, and exciting era was just beginning.

Once again, my monthly musical montage has been expanded to 20 albums and notable songs. That might seem excessive, but even with a cap that high I'm bound to be overlooking something. (Considering that my 1969 list also had 20 albums and my 1971 rundown had nearly that many, I think it's safe to assume what my favorite era of music might be.) That's the charm of these audiophile blogs; arguing the merits of old LPs is fun yet oddly futile at the same time.

1. Bitches' Brew, Miles Davis. By 1970, jazz and rock had already been mingling and sonically fornicating for a couple of years. It wasn't until Davis brainstormed Brew, however that these friends with benefits could create something profound and meaningful. This undisputed be-all end-all of jazz fusion marked a new chapter in Davis' long and prolific career, built on dark and funky tones that made his 1950s output seem antiquated, perhaps even prehistoric. A mere phrase like "paradigm shift" doesn't begin to describe the territory that Miles explores on Brew.
2. Moondance, Van Morrison. Few artists are as stubborn and idiosyncratic, but fewer can make a growly Irish brogue sound heartfelt and soulful like the Belfast Cowboy. Where Van's solo debut Astral Weeks stands an individual work of art divided into seven-minute chapters, Moondance is a collection of brilliant songs. "Into The Mystic" is one of my favorite ballads ever; it's haunting, poignant, and for lack of a better term, perfect.
3. Led Zeppelin III, Led Zeppelin. LZ's first two albums were heavy on acid blues and rockabilly riffs, a formula that was compelling and hard-charging but could've easily gotten tired in future efforts. Zeppelin had to grow musically at some point, and this album set the precedent for their '70s output; where Side A is a slow ween from their blues roots, Side B delves deep into English folk and American country music. Granted, III pales in comparison to the radio-friendly IV, but that album wouldn't exist without the other.
4. After The Gold Rush, Neil Young
5. All Things Must Pass, George Harrison
6. Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon & Garfunkel
7. Loaded, The Velvet Underground
8. Paranoid, Black Sabbath
9. Cosmo's Factory, Creedence Clearwater Revival
10. American Beauty, The Grateful Dead. If you were into rock music in the early '70s, it was hard to get past Jerry Garcia and his jamming minions. Released mere months after Workingman's Dead, Beauty builds upon the granola country and bluegrass stylings of their previous release. "Truckin'" and "Box of Rain" are amongst the standout tracks here.

11. Fun House, Iggy & The Stooges
12. Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon
13. Deja Vu, Crosby Stills Nash & Young
14. Abraxas, Santana
15. Weasels Ripped My Flesh, The Mothers of Invention. The next-to-last release from Frank Zappa's old band is the rarest of the rare: a B-sides and outtakes collection that's just as coherant and essential as a regular album. The Mothers had a brief yet very fruitful existence, and this collection proves that even the tracks that Zappa and company were least satisfied with have some artistic merit.
16. Let It Be, The Beatles
17. Workingman's Dead, The Grateful Dead
18. Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One, The Kinks
19. Chicago II, Chicago
20. American Woman, The Guess Who. The first Canadian rock band with any staying power south of the border, this Winnipeg-based quartet was better known for mid-tempo ballads like "These Eyes" and "Laughing" up to this point. Their natural gifts as boogie-rockers finally blossomed on Woman, carried by rollicking tunes like "No Time," "No Sugar Tonight," and the title track. Alas, success proved shorter and sweeter than planned; guitarist Randy Bachman left the band after "Woman" became a #1 hit, eventually founding Bachman-Turner Overdrive.


"A Song For You," Leon Russell
"We've Only Just Begun," The Carpenters
"Take Me To The Pilot," Elton John
"Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," Melanie
"Little Green Bag," The George Baker Selection
"Funk #49," The James Gang
"Mississippi Queen," Mountain
"All Right Now," Free
"Hey Tonight," Creedence Clearwater Revival
"Stage Fright," The Band

"War," Edwin Starr
"Indiana Wants Me," R. Dean Taylor
"Ball of Confusion," The Temptations
"(I Know) I'm Losing You," Rare Earth
"Love Me Or Let Me Be Lonely," The Friends of Distinction
"Patches," Clarence Carter
"Ride Captain Ride," Blues Image
"Hard Headed Woman," Cat Stevens
"Sweet Baby James," James Taylor
"The Rapper," Jaggerz

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Pieces of April

Two anniversaries this week, one somber and one weird:

My personal experience with the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City --15 years ago yesterday-- is relatively minor. I distinctly remember walking past the LRC in my elementary school and glimpsing at the breaking coverage on CNN. Stunned, I sprinted to my 4th grade classroom to blurt out the news before my principal could make an official annoucement via the PA system. I don't recall getting in trouble for what I did, though in retrospect I probably could've used more restraint; then again, when you're ten years old and you just saw terrorists blow up a building on American soil, you might feel panicky too.

In some odd way, the OKC bombing, its lingering aftermath and lengthy federal investigation was a prelude to the WTC attacks 6 1/2 years later. It was the most destructive act of terrorism on American soil up to that point, with 168 fatalities and nearly 700 people injured. It numbed the fear and panic that most Americans had on 9/11, but not by much. When you hear numbers like that, what immediately comes to mind is some hotspot in the Middle East, not the Great Plains. It was the first time in my life where I genuinely felt scared about my well-being and our nation's security. There was no filter, and no guidance from an wisened adult; I watched its aftermath on live television.

Where the Oklahoma City bombing has a permenant resonance in my mind, the other anniversary I'm acknowledging this week is a little more trivial. On April 22nd, 2005, TV Tome founder John Nestoriak announced that he had sold the site to CNet, who in turn decided to relocate the site and its intellectual property to the domain tv.com. (The sale was finalized in January 2005, but not announced to the public for another three months.) As an editor of several short-lived and half-forgotten TV shows --SNL and Letterman came later-- I was worried that all my hard work was for naught. The regulars at the site were in a panic, and nearly every show forum on "The Tome" went off-topic to debate the future of a site we loved. A fair percentage quit the site when it converted to TV.com six weeks later and never came back.

Luckily, this was a situation were patience and perseverence paid off. Nestoriak and his three-man staff was burned out from day-to-day operations of a web site that was growing if not mushrooming every day. CNet had the resources to enhance and polish the site in ways that Big John never could, and could potentially make it profitable. What was initially a very basic online episode guide-cum-discussion board would become the all-encompassing love letter to the television medium that we know today. TV.com has come a long, long way since the Spring of '05, but you have to give Nestoriak's crew credit for planting the seeds. It was an abrupt end of an era, but the dawn of a new chapter at the same time. Our everyday routines were shook up, there was an awkward period of transition, and we all walked out stronger and wiser.

Next week: the year in music, 1970.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Here Come De Judge, Here Come De Judge... Again

Justice John Paul Stevens' pending retirement is the end of an era for two major reasons. A Gerald Ford appointee, he is arguably the last liberal Republican with any semblance of power in Washington. Stevens was also the last World War II veteran with a major governmental position, so it's also a generational passing of the torch. His record may have titled to the left in recent years, but he was not an originalist, a pragmatist, or a partisan activist, unlike certain justices of the past and present. His scathing dissent in Bush v. Gore probably defined his 35 years on the highest court, though his majority opinions on Gregg v. Georgia, which reinstated the death penalty, and Texas v. Johnson, which upheld the ban on flag-burning, were equally crucial. Even his critics can't deny that he was a patriot, and his most outspoken decisions were made for the sake of his country, not for his stance on the political spectrum.

Regardless of whoever succeeds Stevens, the court will probably turn into another black hole of liberal vs. conservative bickering. Since the court still tilts 5-4 in favor of right-leaning judges, the general dynamic of the court won't change regardless of whoever President Obama appoints. The apparent front-runner is Sidney R. Thomas of Montana, a federal appeals judge in the 9th circuit with a moderate-left reputation, though the White House claims that ten candidates are in serious consideration. Though the stank of partisanship has now gassed all three branches of our government, it should be noted that sometimes a judge will evolve or shift views after being voted in. Stevens had a moderate-right voting record when President Ford appointed him in 1975; in return, 13 years earlier JFK cherry-picked Bryon White as a progressive liberal, though he would up being a conservative. All things considered, it's going to be another interesting summer of speculation.

Other notes:

+ Something about this Weekend Update commentary really underwhelmed me. The Catholic sex abuse that's been simmering in the US for the past eight years --and after all this time, finally went global-- finally gets satirized, and they soften the blow with pointless pop culture references. I was raised Catholic, and I don't deny that the majority of parishoners are good, God-fearing people, but the structure of the church is so rotted with lies and corruption that it can't be taken seriously anymore. You'd think there were new allegations every day. At this rate, I wouldn't be shocked if you told me that 70% of all priests were pedophiles and sex offenders. Why do they keep getting away with this, and why is nothing being done about it? At least Pope John Paul II came out of this mess relatively scot-free; his successor Benedict XVI couldn't have handled this any worse.

+ Another baseball season, another stab at roto. Once again, I have two teams with similar lineups, and I'm liking the results so far. I went 7-0-3 (seven wins, no losses, three ties) in one league and 13-1-1 in another, both good for first place. Here's hoping I keep the momentum.

+ How's Second City, you ask? Well, I had my Improv Level D show back on February 28th, and I'll have my Level E performance (my last with my current classmates) on Saturday, May 1st. I will genuinely miss working with these people. Most of us will be auditioning for the conservatory (SC's de facto masters program) later in the spring, so I doubt it's goodbye forever. In the meantime, I might be taking a course or two at IO, Chicago's "other" improv school.

+ Conan on TBS Superstation? Fine by me, I guess. Too bad if you don't have cable, though.

Monday, April 5, 2010

30 Teams, 30 Questions: My 2010 Baseball Preview

First I write a blog about the passing of health care reform a week after the fact, than I post my baseball preview the day after the first game of the season, than I nearly forget that this is my 250th WU. Boy, I need to get my priorities straight... ;)

Last year, I tweaked my usual forecast by explaining why I wasn't convinced any team could win the 2009 World Series (and as some of you will recall, I vastly overestimated the Rays and Indians). This year, to encourage a discussion about the new season, I've posed each prediction as a question. Some of them can be answered with a simple yes or no, while others are a bit more oblique.

NOTE: Division and wild card teams are denoted in bold.

1. Phillies: Were you expecting any other team to win this division?
2. Braves: Can Jair Jurrjens maintain a 2.60 ERA with a K/BB ratio just above 2?
3. Mets: How does a front office spend so much money in the offseason and do absolutely nothing to solve any of their issues?
4. Marlins: Why is such a gifted athlete like Hanley Ramirez wasted on such a middling team like Da Fish?
5. Nationals: Strasberg's not ready yet, everyone knows that, but is there anybody else worth watching in DC?

1. Cardinals: Which left fielder will give up more triples: Matt Holliday...
2. Cubs: ...or Alfonso Soriano?
3. Brewers: Is it just me, or is that 2008 Wild Card berth starting to look like a distant memory?
4. Reds: Are they the breakout team of 2010, or the most overrated?
5. Astros: Will clubhouse morale improve with new skipper Brad Mills?
6. Pirates: Can you believe there are high school seniors that weren't born yet the last time the Bucs made the playoffs?

1. Giants: Outside of Pablo Sandoval, does anybody on this team know how to use a glove?
2. Rockies: Todd Helton is past his prime, that's quite apparent, so who'll step up as Colorado's top power hitter?
3. Dodgers: Does Chad Billingsley have the mental toughness to be an ace?
4. D-Backs: Will Brandon Webb ever be the same pitcher again?
5. Padres: Is Mike Adams our generation's Goose Gossage, or is Heath Bell a lock at closer?

1. Red Sox: Whose stats will benefit more from their new digs, Adrian Beltre's SLG or John Lackey's ERA?
2. Yankees: With Mo Rivera's HOF career winding down, who is the Pinstripes' closer of the future?
3. Rays: They're in the same division as the Yanks and Bosox. Why bother trying?
4. Orioles: The kids (Matusz, Jones, Markakis, Wieters) can play, so when will the O's unload all their expensive veterans?
5. Blue Jays: Ricky Romero notwithstanding, could this youth movement be any uglier?

1. Twins: Can Minnesota really win the division without having an ace in their rotation?
2. White Sox: Their rotation (Buehrle, Peavy, Danks, Floyd) looks wicked, but where's the run support?
3. Tigers: Can Rick Porcello avoid a sophomore slump? Also, is their front office committed to winning?
4. Royals: Is KC's offensive outburst during Spring Training the real deal?
5. Indians: Can Pronk and Sizemore stay healthy long enough to keep Cleveland from losing 100 games?

1. Mariners: Will a defense-oriented ballclub compensate for a starting nine with one star hitter (Ichiro), an aging legend (Griffey), and seven wild cards?
2. Angels: Will the last remaining player from the '02 Champs (Scot Shields) turn off the lights?
3. Rangers: Is Scott Feldman the worst pitcher to ever win 17 games, and if so, can he keep relying on Texas' big bats?
4. Athletics: Does Ben Sheets have anything left in the tank?

And now, my postseason prognostications:

NL Rookie of the Year: Jason Heyward, Braves
AL Rookie of the Year: Austin Jackson, Tigers
NL Cy Young: Tim Lincecum, Giants
AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander, Tigers
NL MVP: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
AL MVP: Joe Mauer, Twins
First Manager Fired: Ron Washington, Rangers
NL Manager of the Year: Bruce Bochy, Giants
AL Manager of the Year: Terry Francona, Red Sox
2010 World Series: Red Sox over the Phillies, 4 games to 2
The ball is in play; tell me what you think.