Monday, March 29, 2010

'John Wesley Harding' Dylan's most overlooked masterpiece

To understand the impact of Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding album, it is important to look at it within the context of its release. In 1965 and '66, Dylan released three of rock and rolls masterpieces: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Calling these three albums 'rock and roll' may not be accurate because the aura surrounding them has not been matched by anyone since then (including by Dylan).

The lyrics were influenced by French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and the combining of these lyrics with the new 'electric Dylan' revolutionized music. Dylan's writing challenged other musicians, such as The Beatles, to quick focusing so much on love songs. From this point, the musical landscape of rock and roll would be much broader and deeper.

However, Dylan would make another dramatic turn just as his contemporaries were beginning to catch up with him. In July or August of 1966, he suffered a motorcycle wreck, and the extent of his injuries has never been fully explained. Whatever his injuries were, this event gave him the ability to rest.

During his absence, the rock scene explored its outer limits. This culminated with The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. For the moment, it seemed like anything was possible in rock and roll.

While this was happening, Dylan quietly began crafting the next stage of his career. During this time, he worked with the musicians that would become The Band, and they recorded dozens of songs that steered Dylan down a completely new path. These new recordings were not officially released until 1975. Therefore, when word got out that Dylan's next album would appear in late 1967, the world was expecting the Dylan of his previous three albums. What would he do to answer The Beatles and the age of psychedelia?

His answer was the simple and understated John Wesley Harding. Featuring only Dylan and three other musicians, he stripped his approach to the core. The songs were acoustic with a little steel guitar on some of them.

The most famous song from this album is 'All Along the Watchtower' though most people probably got their introduction to it through Jimi Hendrix's cover of it. There were no singles released from the album. There were no psychedelic pretensions, and the album came as quite a jolt to those still tripping through Pepperland.

Lyrically, the songs told straightforward stories, so much so that none of the songs included choruses. Plus, there was a lot of Biblical imagery though pinpointing the exact passages being applied can be elusive. Critics often cite 'All Along the Watchtower' as being inspired by sections of Isaiah from the Old Testament. Other songs like 'I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,' 'Dear Landlord,' and 'The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest' also feature a Biblical feel.

The final two songs, 'Down Along the Cove' and 'I'll Be Your Baby Tonight' are straight country songs and definitely foreshadow his next album Nashville Skyline.

Songs from John Wesley Harding never appear on the radio. Sometimes when looking at an artist like Dylan who has such a vast catalogue of albums, digging deep into his work can be especially satisfying. This album is an example of that.

Well, two out of four isn’t bad...right?

Back on March 16, I made my picks for the Final Four. Depending on how someone looks at this, my glass is either half empty or half full.

My original picks were: Kansas, Kansas State, West Virginia, and Duke. So, I got two out of the four. Considering how wild the tournament has been, I feel fortunate to have gotten that many. Then again, getting only 50 percent of the teams is pretty mediocre.

Butler and Michigan State are the two other teams to make the Final Four, along with Duke and West Virginia.

Call me crazy, but I am going with West Virginia to win it all. Even though I dislike all things associated with the Big East conference, the Mountaineers have been impressive. The play good defense and really pound the boards.

That sounds like the recipe for a championship.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

An important week coming

In the coming week, March will end, and April will begin as 2010 continues to unfold at a breakneck pace. It is almost unbelievable that one quarter of the year is already finished, but that is the case.

While the changing of the months is important on one level, a person could make a pretty convincing case that we are about to begin the most important week of the year.

All religions have important observances, and for Christians, this coming week has a few that are the most important ones of that faith. No, I am not talking about Christmas. That holiday gets more publicity and hype than any other holiday and for the wrong reasons most of the time.

Beginning tomorrow, a series of observances unfold that literally describes the purpose of Christianity.

On Sunday, there will be commemorations worldwide that re-enact the return of Jesus to Jerusalem for the final time before His crucifixion and resurrection. Most calendars describe this day as 'Palm Sunday' though the holiday goes by some other names.

It is called that because as Jesus entered the city members of the large crowd laid down tree branches in front of Him. Palm leaves were likely among those branches. It makes sense that they were palm branches because in Jewish culture the laying down of these branches was a symbol used to honor somebody that was held in high regard.

In this case, Jesus was offering Himself as the long-awaited Messiah. The crowd had either personally seen him or heard of the many miracles He performed. It looked like a happy ending was about to happen. It did, but just not in the way the people expected.

Most in the crowd likely believed that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem to boot out the occupying Roman forces and take control. However, within a week, all but a handful of people abandoned Him.

Events unfolded that led to what Christians now observe as Good Friday. This is the day that commemorates the awful circumstances of Jesus' crucifixion and Him acting as a sacrifice for the world's sins. Deserted by those who claimed to follow Him and tortured until His flesh resembled hamburger, he was nailed to the tree.

Though crucifixion was a form of punishment meant to bring shame on the condemned, this time it actually was a moment of victory because Jesus was fulfilling His mission. Jesus was no victim. He went to the cross knowing that His sacrifice would act as an atonement for all sins.

Of course, the most important moment of all this was His resurrection. This will be observed on Sunday, April 4, as Christians worldwide unite in observing this special moment.

Some folks call this day Easter. Others call it Resurrection Sunday. People can call it what they want as long as they remember that Jesus' resurrection is what validates Christianity.

Without the resurrection, Christianity would not exist. With no resurrection, Jesus would have been just another false prophet who claimed many things but failed to deliver.

What I have just written is music to the ears of Christians. Hopefully, Christians can summon up the discipline and dedication to attend a sunrise service at a church near them.

However, for skeptics and non-believers, the coming week is really nothing. My challenge to them is to spend some time genuinely reflecting on themselves and their role within the universe.

When applying the 'common sense' test, I think we can all agree that all of creation was not a big, cosmic accident.

Open your hearts. You never know what might happen.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

U2's 'Rattle and Hum' has withstood the test of time

When U2 released Rattle and Hum in 1988, many people did not know what to make of it. The previous year the band enjoyed an enormous artistic and commercial breakthrough with The Joshua Tree. The band had made the leap from successful rock and roll band to bonafide cultural icon.

However, for people looking for a sequel to The Joshua Tree, they were likely disappointed by Rattle and Hum because the band wisely chose to stay away from that. It was part studio album and part live album. The perfect adjective for it may be 'sprawling' because it offers a little of everything.

The choice of live cuts puzzled some people back in '88. 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' and 'Bullet the Blue Sky' were both pivotal songs on The Joshua Tree. Some critics thought the band was being redundant by releasing live versions of those songs on their very next album. After all, it had only been a little over a year since their initial release.

However, more than 20 years down the road, those criticisms have lost their sting. Both are great songs, and I would rather have these versions than not have them. Additional live songs include covers of The Beatles' 'Helter Skelter' and Bob Dylan's 'All Along the Watchtower.' Both these versions rock with passion.

As for the studio cuts, there is a lot to enjoy. The Bo Diddley-style 'Desire' and 'All I Want Is You' were big hits. Plus, the band and B.B King delivered a powerhouse collaboration on 'When Love Comes to Town.' Sprinkle in the haunting ballad 'Love Rescue Me' and the vibrant 'God Part II,' and it is easy to see that Rattle and Hum is deep with choice cuts. 'Got Part II' handles the topic of man's spiritual/fleshly duality about as well as any rock and roll song ever has.

This album tends to get overlooked when discussing U2's great works. Do yourself a favor and don't overlook it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tennessee's unlikely run through the NCAA tourney continues

A little more than a week ago, I wrote a posting discussing the four Southeastern Conference teams that were selected for the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

I was especially upset at what Tennessee received from the tournament selection committee. A sixth-seeding that likely would result in a second-round meeting with Georgetown in its own backyard was frustrating. However, it did not work out that way. After slipping past San Diego State in the opener, the Volunteers got a gift when Ohio upset Georgetown. In the second round, Tennessee played well in thumping Ohio 83-68. Now, a trip to the Sweet 16 awaits.

Tennessee plays second-seeded Ohio State Friday night. The key to the game will be if Tennessee can slow down Buckeye's standout Evan Turner. The 6-7 guard/forward leads Ohio State in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals.

If the Vols get by the Buckeyes, things really start to get interesting. The Vols would then play either Michigan State or Northern Iowa for a trip to the Final Four. Of course, Northern Iowa is the team that upset top-seeded Kansas, but one has to wonder how long this small school can withstand the bright lights and the big stage of such a tournament. Michigan State has had a good season, but the Spartans are not as strong as they have been in recent years. They needed a buzzer beater against Maryland to advance, and they also lost to Florida earlier in the year.

Given Tennessee's poor track record in the tournament, cautious optimism is perhaps the best way to approach Friday's game. The Vols have never advanced passed the Sweet 16. Some will suggest that the Vols are due to break through, but it is not as easy as that.

Tennessee is always at its best when its back is against the wall, and nobody gives them a chance. All the well-earned kudos they have received recently might be the last thing the team needs to hear right now. Coach Bruce Pearl is a master motivator, and his hands will be full when preparing his team.

As a Tennessee graduate, I am very proud of what the team has accomplished. When all the off the court problems happened on January 1, I thought the season was over. However, Pearl handled the situation honorably, and the rest of the team banded together. I definitely did not think our record today would be 27-8 and be in the Sweet 16.

It just goes to show how unpredictable sports (and life) can be. Good luck to the Volunteers.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

It keeps happening again and again and again

In a couple of weeks, Christians worldwide will be observing the events surrounding the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are the most important events of the Christian faith.

Though a vast number will be taking part in these observances, that amount was reduced by about 500 following the slaughter of Christians in Nigeria recently. Three Christian villages close to the city of Jos were attacked by the mainly Muslim Fulani ethnic group, according to the Associated Press.

According to published reports, people were attacked with axes, machetes, daggers and other weapons during three terrifying hours. Nobody was spared. Among the dead were children, the elderly, and pregnant women.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged "all parties to exercise restraint" and called on the Nigerian government to "make sure the perpetrators are brought to justice."

In her position, I know it is important for Clinton to carefully choose her words, but does not an event like this call for a little more outrage? Like her, I hope the perpetrators are brought to justice, but I had hoped a few words like 'evil' and 'shameless' might have found their way into her statement.

I guess it sounds like I am picking on Clinton, and I guess I am. Politicians who carefully script their statements even in the face of an atrocity like this get under my skin. Why can't politicians just plainly state that this type of event is nauseating and that the people who did this should be run out of town on a rail?

This is not the first time there has been violence like this in that area. Some feel that the recent attacks were revenge for violence that took place in January in which mostly Muslims died. Unfortunately, religious violence of this sort never seems to change in some parts of the world.

It is handed down from day to day and from year to year. Then, it passes to the next generation and the bad blood continues for so long that it is difficult to remember why it began in the first place.

An important aspect of this recent attack is that the killers did not use sophisticated weapons while doing their work. When we think of violence of this magnitude, we think of high-tech weaponry.

However, this attack was about as basic as it gets. I guess this shows just how depraved mankind can be. If a person can't get a gun, then they will use sharp instruments to get the job done. If the axes and machetes get taken away, then he will move on to another type of weapon.

In the coming months, it will be interesting to see if the situation in Nigeria will remain inflamed or will things return to normal. I do not know how to define 'normal' in a situation like this. If 'normal' is defined as living somewhere where a person can be hacked to death without warning, then I guess things have already returned to normal there.

This situation is just a reflection of what is going on worldwide. While we get to enjoy and take for granted the religious freedoms we have here in America, people elsewhere literally take their lives into their own hands just to publicly worship.

This is a fact that we should ponder as we approach Easter. With the freedom we enjoy, it is easy for us to go on auto-pilot. 'Complacent' is a common adjective that can be used to describe America.

We better understand how precious the freedom we have is. If not, we may be the ones getting hacked to death with no protection.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Kinks' 'Lola versus Powerman...' a great example of a concept album

The idea of concept albums first emerged in the late 1960s. The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is often cited as the first concept album. However, it was The Who's rock opera Tommy that made this approach trendy. Scores of concept albums were released during that time, and The Kinks' Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One may be the best of them all.

The Kinks succeeded where The Who did not. Despite Tommy's success there can be no denying that the plot of the album was muddled and had huge gaps in its story line. Those problems were resolved when the album was turned into a film and then later a Broadway play.

However, guitarist and main songwriter Ray Davies wrote an album that was a simple story that The Kinks delivered expertly. In fact, the story did not break new ground. It was about a young man trying to make it in the music business. He makes it to the top then gets disillusioned and tries to escape it all. Along the way he meets 'Lola,' which provided the band its first top ten single in years. Songs about transvestites don't often serve as fodder for hit songs, but Davies made it work.

About half the album describes the singer's slow movement toward fame, but once it is achieved, the disillusionment is almost immediate. 'The Moneygoround' chronicles the money flow from when a song is released through all the people who get a chunk of it before it reaches the artist. The fact that Davies could sum that up in only 102 seconds says a lot about his songwriting prowess.

From that point, the album is about getting away from the dream that had become a nightmare. 'Apeman' humorously chronicles the singer's desire to tear off his clothes and go hide on an island to get away from Powerman. The album concludes with a final showdown with Powerman, and the escape of the artist from the machinery that had controlled him.

Concept albums, rock operas, or whatever a person wants to call them are not for everybody. They can be pretentious. However, The Kinks made this one work from both a storyline perspective and a musical one. This album is one of the best examples of this genre.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

'The Nightly Daily' offers its Final Four picks

We are only hours way from the start of the NCAA basketball tournament. Just for the record, here are the four teams The Nightly Daily has picked to reach the Final Four.

Midwest Regional: Kansas. No big surprise here. Top-seeded Kansas was the best team in the best conference this year. Don't drink the ESPN Kool-Aid. The Big 12 was superior to the Big East this year. The Jayhawks will beat third-seeded Georgetown in the regional final.

West Regional: Kansas State. Is a pattern developing here? The Nightly Daily has the second-seeded Wildcats beating Syracuse in the regional final. That is two brackets where a Big 12 school should beat a Big East school.

East Regional: West Virginia. Finally, some love for the Big East. This pick was a white knuckler. Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins has always had little success in the tourney, especially when he coached Cincinnati. Still, West Virginia should edge top-seeded Kentucky in the regional final.

South Regional: Duke. Somebody has to win this regional, and Duke looks like the best bet. They should beat second-seeded Villanova in the regional final. However, Villanova has lost six of their last 10, so having them make it this far could be a stretch.

So, there they are: Kansas, Kansas State, West Virginia, and Duke.

At this point, there will be no choice for the national title winner. When the Final Four teams are set in a few weeks, we will re-visit these picks and pick a national title winner then.

Good luck with your brackets everybody.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

SEC in the NCAA tournament: Some good, some very bad

Well, earlier this evening, the NCAA released its brackets for the men's basketball tournament, and four Southeastern Conference teams made the tourney. As with every year, some eyebrows were raised because of where some of the teams were seeded. Some teams have a beef, and some do not.

To the surprise of no one, Kentucky is the number one seed in the East regional. The Wildcats are 32-2 and won both the SEC regular season and tournament titles. They were ranked in the top five all year. Tournament resumes do not get much better than this. The Wildcats will not be seriously challenged until the Sweet 16 round.

Last week, I predicted Tennessee would be a fourth seed and that did not happen. Incredibly, the Volunteers are the sixth seed in the Midwest regional. The Volunteers bring a strong resume to the tourney. The team is 25-8 and was ranked in the top 15 for most of the year. Big wins against Kansas and Kentucky were the high points of the season. Unfortunately, the tournament selection committee did not think this was good enough for a higher seed. Tennessee plays a very good San Diego State team in the first round. If the Vols win, they will likely meet Georgetown. The game would be played in Rhode Island which, of course, is in the Hoyas own backyard and in the heart of Big East Conference territory. To put it simply, this is a complete crock.

Back in early February, Vanderbilt was cruising, and it looked possible that they might get as high as a third seed. Unfortunately, the Commodores stumbled a bit down the stretch and must be satisfied with a fourth seed. Still, they are 24-8, and if they can find their mojo, they could make it to the Sweet 16 round. They will face Murray State in the first round.

Most experts felt the conference would only get four teams into the tourney, and it came down to either Florida or Mississippi State for that slot. Florida looked to have an edge until the conference tournament where they lost to State. With the Bulldogs advancing to the tournament final, there was a thought they might get the edge. But they did not. Florida is the tenth seed in the West regional and will play Brigham Young.

After weeks of hype, the NCAA tournament is finally here. It should be a lot fun. Let's hope the SEC has a strong showing.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Please help me understand poetry

Though I truly try, I have a lot of problems with poetry, and I know for a fact that I cannot write it. I have read poetry that is both beautiful and profound.

However, I consistently have problems accepting what the experts say is great poetry. For example, I was recently reading The 100 Best Love Poems of All Time edited by Leslie Pockell. Some of the poems were familiar ones by William Shakespeare and others were more obscure.

One poem in the book is 'Valentine' by Donald Hall. Frankly, it reads like a poem that could have been written in any freshman English class. But like I wrote a moment ago, I sometimes have problems recognizing great poetry. The only poems I can recite from heart all begin with the line: 'There once was a man from Nantucket...'

So, here it is for you to consider. Once again, remember that this poem appears in a book as one of the 100 greatest love poems of all time.

'Valentine' by Donald Hall

Chipmunks jump, and
Greensnakes slither.
Rather burst than
Not be with her.

Bluebirds fight, but
Bears are stronger.
We've got fifty
Years or longer.

Hoptoads hop, but
Hogs are fatter.
Nothing else but
Us can matter.

That's it. Hogs are not animals I usually associate with love, but I'm not exactly an expert on love either. The use of greensnakes may be an attempt to add an erotic quality to the piece, but I'm guessing not.

I just don't get this poem.

Won't somebody tell me I am not crazy?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The beauty of aging

There is something wonderful about growing older. However, we may not always remember that.

Recently, I turned 45, and for whatever reason, this birthday has caused me to reflect on my mortality more than usual. I guess this happens to all of us at some point.

Usually, this happens to a person when he advances to another age plateau. For example, being 29 years old may not be a big deal to somebody, but when a person turns 30, it almost demands that time be set aside for personal reflection. The same goes when a person turns 40 and so forth.

As I have aged, it has not unfolded like that. The last time I experienced this was when I turned 36. I have no idea why turning 36 would impact my emotions, but maybe these bouts of reflection are more arbitrary than I realize.

As for this recent birthday, I literally am having trouble believing I am 45. Am I in denial? Am I just whining? I don't think so.

I think this is just a big part of the cycle of life. And the older a person gets, the faster the cycles go by.

When we are children, we believe we have all the time in the world. Time doesn't fly then, it crawls. Just watch any child waiting for Christmas to come and it is easy to see that time cannot pass fast enough for them.

Then, we become an adult. Life really fires up its engine here. Whether a person goes to college or begins a career, it is a time when most of us begin enjoying independence and freedom.

At this point, it is fun, but as we all know, time flies when we are having fun. We get to enjoy independence without a lot of the responsibilities of adulthood.

Of course, that soon changes. People get married and start a family. Careers of varying success start to unfold. Mortgages have to be paid and long-term financial planning is a must.

As these responsibilities pile up, we find ourselves literally sprinting through each day just to make sure we keep it all together. Time is still flying, but not like it was when we first became an adult. Many times, we find ourselves sitting on our couches on Friday night wondering where the last week went.

When we are sitting on that couch, we begin to realize that we really do not have all the time in the world. The dreams we always thought we would fulfill are not any closer than they were 20 years ago. The clock is ticking, and we wonder where all the time went.

However, there is a lot of beauty regarding growing older. Despite all the things I just described, there is no way I would want to go back and be young again. I enjoyed my youth and got to experience as much wild, animal luxury as the next person.

Still, I would not want to do it again. Even when I notice more gray hair appearing, I would not turn back the clock. I like my gray hair. I earned every one of them.

If I have been reminded of anything during all this personal reflection lately, it is that our physical lives will end. However, spiritually speaking, our time during our physical life is relatively brief within the context of eternity. Bodies fail but the soul lives on.

So, instead of focusing on what has already happened, maybe I should be looking forward to what is to come.

That sounds like a good idea.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

'All Things Must Pass' gave George Harrison the spotlight alone

In 1969, George Harrison had to have been one of the most frustrated musicians in the world. He had the good fortune of being in The Beatles. However, he had the misfortune of being a good songwriter in a band with two great ones (John Lennon and Paul McCartney). By the end of the 1960s, Harrison had a large stack of songs he had written but knew most would not see the light of day with The Beatles.

In April 1970, the band officially broke up (though the real break up happened late in '69). Despite being overshadowed by his former bandmates, Harrison had a distinct advantage over Lennon and McCartney as their solo careers began. He had a pile of songs ready to go, and he immediately went to work. Working with producer Phil Spector, Harrison created one of the first triple albums of the modern rock era. Though one of the records was just a jam session, the other discs were crammed with great music.

Titled All Things Must Pass, the album's name seemed to put The Beatles passing in a proper philosophical and spiritual perspective. It served well as the title song of the album, but it had actually been written while The Beatles were still together and was among the songs rehearsed for the Let It Be album.

Of course, the big hit from this set was 'My Sweet Lord.' It went to number one, meaning Harrison had a chart topping single before Lennon and McCartney did. A second single, the excellent 'What Is Life' also made the top ten.

The standout song of this set is likely 'Isn't It A Pity.' It's a seven-minute song, and its arrangement is reminiscent of 'Hey Jude.' The song begins softly, builds to a crescendo, and has a long, slow fade out. In the song, Harrison lamented how people break each others hearts and cause so much pain when it comes to love. That theme is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.

Unfortunately, this album was the high point of Harrison's solo career. Though he had other successful albums, All Things Must Pass was the top when it comes to creativity. Though he became uneven as an artist, he left a musical legacy that dwarfs most musicians.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Tennessee's men a lock for NCAA hoop tourney, but how high will they be seeded?

For anybody doubting that the Tennessee men's basketball team would reach the NCAA tournament, those doubts were put to rest Saturday with the Volunteers 74-65 win over No. 2-ranked Kentucky.

Their resume is strong. At this point, the Vols have 21 wins and have clinched a winning record in the SEC. Tennessee also beat then No. 1-ranked Kansas in January. How many teams have posted wins this year against the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the polls? I haven't researched it, but I'm betting Tennessee is the only one.

Tennessee has two regular season games remaining (Arkansas and Mississippi State), and then the SEC tournament. Historically, the Vols have been awful in the SEC tourney, so a win or two against the Razorbacks and Bulldogs would help when it comes to their seeding in the NCAA tourney.

As of today, I think the Vols will be seeded fourth in whichever regional they go to in the NCAAs. Of course, that could change a little based on the results of the next two weeks.

An exciting time of the year is beginning.