Thursday, April 29, 2010

'All the way up with a red-hot poker....'

For reasons I cannot explain, the insult 'all the way up with a red-hot poker' remains one of my all-time favorite rebukes.

For example, if somebody does or says something you do not like, your reply might be: 'You can take that and shove it all the way up with a red-hot poker.'

I first heard the phrase in the Robby Benson film, One on One, in the 1970s.

I don't remember much else about the film, but that insult has stayed with me through the years.

Go figure.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Beach Boys 'Pet Sounds' is a classic...or is it?

When discussions take place about the greatest albums of the 1960s, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds is usually included in the discussion. As Brian Wilson's last great production before he plunged into mental illness (although the remarkable single 'Good Vibrations' came out in the months after Pet Sounds), it is one of the most unusual albums of that period. It was an album that presented the band in a brand new light.

Up until this point, most fans liked them for the surf-and-fun songs they released. It was a utopia most male fans could only dream about: life at the beach with nothing but girls and cars. However, for those paying close attention, Wilson was already edging the band from that formula.

As early as 1963 on the Surfer Girl album, Wilson was already unveiling songs like 'In My Room.' In this song, there were no fantasies about girls and the beach. It was melancholy and projected vulnerability, which would be major themes on Pet Sounds three years later. He was finding security in isolation, but that was lost in the image the band was projecting in its big hits.

Pet Sounds actually begins with another version of utopia. The marvelous 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' studies marital bliss, but from this point, the cute love songs are gone. 'God Only Knows' brings intimacy rarely heard in a pop or rock song. When the album was re-released in 1990, Brian had this to say about the song: "Carl (Wilson) and I were into prayer. We'd pray together, and we prayed for light and guidance through the album. We kind of made it a religious ceremony." So, is 'God Only Knows' a romantic song or a spiritual song? You make the call.

There are lighter moments on the album like the goofy 'Sloop John B.' However, Brian was saying goodbye to the old Beach Boys. 'I Just Wasn't Made for These Times' communicates the isolation of not fitting in. 'Caroline, No' said good-bye to the types of girls sung about on previous Beach Boys songs.

Unsurprisingly, because of the departure from their successful formula, the album sold modestly and briefly peaked at number ten on the album chart. From this point, Brian faded away, and the band started resembling a Las Vegas act content on flogging the old hits.

I had heard the hype about this album for years, and finally broke down and bought it. When I listened to it the first time, I was not impressed. I tossed it into my pile of CDs and ignored it for a couple of years. Then, on a sleepless summer night, I gave it a second chance, and the music that came through my head phones touched me in a way few albums have.

Maybe I had grown a little older and could better understand the issues Brian Wilson was battling. I don't know. However, I do know this is a great album. In fact, I cannot think of an album quite like it.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Spring brings joy

If somebody doubted that spring is a special time of year, then the last few weeks should have presented that person with compelling evidence that it is.

Fortunately, since we live in the South, we are spared the full wrath of winter. Even so, January and February were miserable months this year with long cold snaps that made the days and nights more unbearable than normal.

If winter is a season that can bring a person to his knees, then spring is the season that can help that person live again.

During springtime, we can savor all the parts of the day.

It starts before dawn. The sky is still black except for a golden streak that illuminates the eastern horizon. The sun is not up yet, but it is only minutes away. The older I get, the more I appreciate the beauty of a sunrise.

It is usually around this time that we all wake up. As we lay in our beds, we can hear the birds singing. Because it is so early, their singing is that much more noticeable because the noise of traffic and other aspects of life have not begun.

Is there any more beautiful alarm clock than to wake up and hear birds singing? I do not believe so. The early calm of the day combined with the bird’s songs create a perfect moment. It is not easy to get out of bed some days, but waking up to this scenario helps us get our mojo going.

However, like with most events that are perfect, it does not last for long. The noise of the day begins, but as this starts, spring fights back.

Spring is not a passive season. As the full brilliance of the sun takes hold, we see the unique beauty the season brings us. As the environment blooms, we see blues, reds, greens, and yellows. It is a vast departure from the charcoal gray of winter and the curse of kudzu that will be here before we know it.

Temperatures are blissful during this time. Even during the unseasonably warm temperatures we had earlier this month, the air still had a cool and humid-free feel to it as we approached mid-morning. Enjoy the lack of humidity now because it will be gone soon as we head toward the dog days of summer.

By this time of spring, most of us have mown our yards at least once or twice (or more). When cutting our lawns for the first time, we smelled the unusual blend of sweet grass and onions that we do not smell any other time. I like that smell, but if a person does not, do not worry because it is a one-time event.

As our day moves through the afternoon, nature’s kaleidoscope remains in full swing. As our work day ends, we are greeted by the start of a golden sunset. The temperature falls to that perfect level in which it is cool enough to wear a sweatshirt, but warm enough to wear shorts.

Then night comes, and the day ends almost as quickly as it began. We prepare for bed, and we have reached the point where we can sleep with our windows open. Instead of a central heating or cooling system to bring comfort, we use the night air that brings its mixture of chilliness and moisture into our homes.

I know what I have written is flowery, but sometimes we experience events so often that they lose their specialness. This is the case with spring.

And this could apply to other parts of life if we are not careful.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

John Fogerty hit post-CCR peak with 'Blue Moon Swamp'

John Fogerty's career after Creedence Clearwater Revival broke up may be the most fascinating of any artist who was in a big-name band. In only four years, he wrote more than a dozen bonafide rock and roll classics. CCR released all seven of its albums between 1968 and 1972, and more of the same was expected of him when the band broke up.

However, it did not work out that way. He released two albums and had a third withdrawn from release in the first few years of his solo career. The creative juices were not flowing for a variety of reasons, so it would not be until 1985 that he released his next album. Centerfield has been his most commercially successful solo album, hitting the top of the album chart and going platinum in '85. Still, after the release of the disappointing Eye of the Zombie the following year, he again disappeared for a decade.

As early as 1993, there was word of him working on an album but the years went by with no release. Finally, in 1997, he released Blue Moon Swamp, which is his most artistically satisfying solo album to date.

The song 'A Hundred and Ten in the Shade' may be the best song Fogerty has ever written. Delivered with a slow and swampy sound, its lyrics communicate the isolation and despair a poor person would feel when living in the hot and humid South. Accompanied by The Fairfield Four, it is one of the rare moments when excellent lyrics blend perfectly with its musical arrangement.

Other songs like 'Southern Streamline' and 'Rambunctious Boy' rock joyfully, while 'Swamp River Days' shows how fun reminiscing about the past can be. 'Joy of My Life' is the most straightforward love song Fogerty has ever written, and he plays some tasty dobro on it.

The album won Fogerty his first Grammy, which was for Best Rock Album. However, from a commercial standpoint, it barely made the top 40, but did go gold. Fogerty found himself in the same peculiar position other rockers of his generation face. While 'classic rock' radio stations happily play the old hits, they often will not play newer releases by the same artists. Plus, stations with a format that plays new releases often will not play the older rockers, preferring to play younger artists in the same age range as their listeners.

The bottom line is Blue Moon Swamp is the best solo album from one of the most important musicians of the rock and roll era. It is a 'must have' for any collection.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Smithereens pay tribute to The Who's 'Tommy' in excellent fashion

Last year, The Smithereens released its version of The Who's Tommy. Even novice rock and roll fans know the plot of the rock opera. It follows the journey of a deaf, dumb, and blind kid (Tommy) through his breakthrough as a pinball wizard and the regaining of his sight and hearing. He then becomes a messiah to his followers who eventually reject him when he takes them on a path they do not want to follow.

The Smithereens' performance crackles with fire, but they did make changes compared to The Who's original. In their version, the storyline has been streamlined. The Who's Pete Townshend was the primary writer of Tommy though others contributed material. The Smithereens basically stick to only Townshend's songs and toss out most of the other contributions. Most notably, Who bassist John Entwistle's songs ('Fiddle About' and 'Cousin Kevin') are gone. Additionally, a few of Townshend's songs have been removed. These include the lengthy instrumental 'Underture,' as well as 'You Didn't Hear It.'

Of the songs left out, 'You Didn't Hear It' is the most problematic. The song contains the events that led to Tommy becoming deaf, dumb, and blind. However, in The Who's original, this event took place in such a subtle way that the listener would have to closely listen to detect what happened. In other words, this is not that big a deal.

The Smithereens' drummer Dennis Diken deserves special mention for his performance. He faced the unenviable task of having to reproduce the work of Keith Moon. Moon did not write or sing songs for The Who, but his drumming was the key to the band's sound. He pushed the band forward in ways not possible without him. If anybody reading this does not agree, go listen to the two Who albums released soon after his death (Face Dances and It's Hard). On those two, The Who sounds like a different band (and not for the better).

The Smithereens and singer Pat Dinizio have done good work in the past covering other people's material. Dinizio's album dedicated to Buddy Holly's work is especially good. Anybody who enjoyed that will like this album as well.

Special thanks to Joltin' Django for turning me on to this record.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Oh, the hypocrisy...

The eyes of the world were fixed on the Masters golf tournament last weekend as Tiger Woods emerged from seclusion to resume his career.

It was a wild scene down in Georgia. Television ratings went through the roof. Hundreds of media members hounded Woods' every step. The public reacted in a polite and supportive way.

Then again, the public had no choice. The folks at Augusta National Country Club are known for the iron-fisted way they run their tournament. People knew if they tried to heckle Woods, they would be booted out of the tournament with ruthless efficiency.

Lots of people had commentary about Woods and his return. However, some of the most hypocritical words were spoken by Billy Payne, who is the chairman of Augusta National and the Masters. Augusta National and the Masters definitely qualify as a closed-gate community, so his decision to make public statements about Woods stunned many.

"It's not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here," Payne said in reference to Woods' womanizing. "It is the fact he disappointed all of us and more importantly our kids and grandkids.

"Our hero did not live up to the expectations as a role model that we sought for our children.

"As he ascended in our rankings of world's greatest golfers, he became an example to our kids...But, as he now says himself, he forgot in the process to remember that with fame and fortune comes responsibility not invisibility.

"But certainly his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but by the sincerity of his efforts to change."

Wow. Payne definitely said a mouthful. On the surface, there does not seem to be much we can disagree with here. However, if we look a little deeper, Payne's words do ring hollow when examining the actions of his organization.

For example, Augusta National still remains an all-male club. True, it is a private club and members have the right to run it in any way they choose. However, what kind of message does it send when an organization chooses to ignore half the world's population? What kind of message does it send to kids and grandkids (especially girls) to have this type of policy?

There is also hypocrisy in the Masters allowing Woods to play last weekend. I had no problem with Woods playing, but in Payne's own words, Woods did awful deeds. Yet, they welcomed him back with open arms. Compare this treatment to the treatment they gave golf analyst Gary McCord in 1995.

The Masters is known for its firm and fast greens. McCord, who is known for being an outspoken analyst, joked that the greens that year were so fast that they might have been treated with 'bikini wax.'

It was a funny joke, but Augusta National was offended. It pressured CBS to drop McCord from future Masters telecasts, and he has never returned despite his involvement with CBS covering other tournaments.

So, a comment about 'bikini wax' earned him a lifetime ban, but Woods' sexcapades barely made Augusta National twitch. Despite Payne's distaste for Woods' actions, he understands Woods brings television ratings. The all-mighty dollar wins again.

Finally, for years the Masters had an abysmal record when it came to race relations. The tournament began in the 1930s but an African-American player did not play there until 1975. Since then, progress has been made. Let's hope it continues.

Despite the contents of this column, I love watching the Masters. It is one of the greatest spectacles in sports. As for the people who host it, I get a little queasy when I watch them.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

John Mellencamp is a pretty good artist and 'The Lonesome Jubilee' is a pretty good album

If nothing else, the only request music fans can ask of artists is that they really try their hardest to make a good album. Effort is important even though effort does not always equal greatness. When I think of hard working artists, I think of John Mellencamp.

He works hard. While this has never translated into greatness when it comes to music, he has made some pretty strong albums. Sometimes a strong work ethic can trump the person who has a lot of talent but does not develop it.

Of Mellencamp's work, The Lonesome Jubilee stands out as one of his best. Coming on the heels of Scarecrow (another really good album), he blends diverse musical elements into hot rock and roll. A fiddle can sound really out of place in rock and roll when it is not used properly, but it works here. Released in 1987, the whole album feels like it could have been part of the Rolling Thunder Revue.

Broken dreams are a primary theme that drives this album. It is a theme that we all have to deal with at some point though we don't always like to talk about it. 'Paper in Fire' literally deals with the moments in life when the dreams we hold closest go up in smoke.

The title of 'Down and Out in Paradise' tells the listener all he needs to know about that song. Even though we are kinda, sorta still in a deep recession, America is a land where success is supposed to come true. However, along the way, we all seem to get sidetracked at some point, and we have to decide whether we are going to sit still or get up and try again.

'Check It Out,' 'The Real Life,' and 'Cherry Bomb' all deal with the issues of young people suddenly hitting middle age and not knowing exactly what to do.

While all these songs sound like they could be a real downer, they are not. Not in the slightest way. This is a mature album. I view this album now a lot differently than I did when I bought it 23 years ago. It is not for kids. This album says a lot about my generation if anybody would take the time to listen.

And these days, we need all the help we can get.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Quote of the day: Who loves ya Rush-babe?

"Well, that's how they make their money. I never considered Rush-babe to be anything more than an entertainer. He gets people all riled up all day long, get them filled up with gas, ulcers, heartburn, B.O., and fear. Hell, that's pretty good. You really are an entertainer if you can get all that done!" -- former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson reacting to criticism from conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh. Simpson, who is a Republican and represented Wyoming in the Senate from 1979 to 1997, is now serving on a presidential commission to find ways to bring down the federal debt.

Monday, April 12, 2010

'The Blind Side' is excellent; Nick Saban delivers a performance for the ages

I finally saw The Blind Side over the weekend and thought it was really good. Released last year, it is about a homeless black teenager taken in by a white family. While there, he gains the family structure he needs. Eventually, he emerges as a football star and the rest is history. It could have been maudlin, but it was not. Sandra Bullock won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

An interesting part of the film was when the teenager started getting recruited by several Southeastern Conference football programs. Several conference coaches played themselves during this part of the film. I thought former Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer did a good job. He seemed at ease and delivered his lines well. It was a little weird seeing him wear his University of Tennessee clothing despite being fired in 2008, but he did fine.

As for Alabama head coach Nick Saban, all I can say is that he delivered his lines like he had a wooden pole shoved up his rear end.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Bruce Springsteen finally found his sound on 'The River'

Few rock and rollers entered the musical marketplace with as much hype as Bruce Springsteen. Critic Jon Landau had famously proclaimed him the future of rock and roll, but after his first four albums, there was concern his recording career might be petering out.

His first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, did not crack the top fifty on the charts. The next two, Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, both broke through commercially, reaching the top ten. However, none of these albums had come close to harnessing the power of Springsteen's live shows.

In a sense, Springsteen was suffering the same problem as The Who when comparing their early albums. The early albums by both artists produced moments of greatness. However, both knew they would not be able to produce the albums they were capable of until they could transfer their live power to the studio.

With The River, Springsteen finally achieved this. From the first chords of 'The Ties That Bind,' it was clear that this album would have a richer and deeper sound than any of his other work. Drummer Max Weinberg's sound may have been the most impacted by this. From this point, his playing would produce the familiar 'thwack' that listeners came to expect on future albums. On this album, each time he pounded his drum skins it sounded like a fish was being slapped against cement.

The album's sound was changed in other ways, but I think we all get the point. Springsteen had found his sound, and it was remarkable.

'Hungry Heart' became his first top ten single, and it foreshadowed his approach to singles from this point forward. Musically, it was catchy, but the lyrics still explored working-class life. This approach worked well on future albums, most notably on Born in the U.S.A. To this day, it is amazing how many people still misinterpret that album's title song as a patriotic anthem instead of what it really was: an indictment of how America shafted our Vietnam veterans.

As for The River, since it was a double album, it gave Springsteen the opportunity to cover a wide-range of themes. There were simple straight-ahead rockers like 'You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),' 'I've Got A Crush on You,' 'I'm A Rocker,' and 'Ramrod.'

Conversely, there were songs that were more thoughtful. 'Stolen Car' clearly foreshadowed Springsteen's work on the Nebraska album. 'Point Blank,' 'Independence Day,' 'Wreck on the Highway,' and 'The Price You Pay' all have keen emotional insight.

Simply put, this is a great album, and probably, one of the five best double albums of all time. If a person were looking to buy his first Springsteen album, this would be a great place to start.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

'Shutter Island' should be on your list of movies to see

I finally got around to seeing the latest Martin Scorsese film Shutter Island. I have written before that I am a big fan of his films (click here for more on that). As has been the case in his last several films, he uses Leonardo DiCaprio as his leading actor, and the collaboration once again pays off.

DiCaprio plays a federal marshal assigned to investigate the disappearance of a woman at a prison/hospital that houses the most dangerous and disturbed people in the country. I won't reveal the ending, but it provided a nice twist to the story. As I have written in the past, I do not review films here, so if you want an in-depth review click here.

Scorsese and DiCaprio have quite a good thing going. Gangs of New York, The Aviator, and The Departed are all first-rate films in which they have worked together. Apparently, DiCaprio has replaced Robert DeNiro as his actor of choice (however, this comment may not be entirely fair because DeNiro was scheduled to be in The Departed but had to drop out. Martin Sheen took his place).

If you have a chance, go see this film.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Quote of the day: Good advice if you find yourself in a brawl

"The eyes are the groin of the head." -- spoken by the character 'Dwight Schrute' on the television program The Office.

Think about it.

Nobody likes brawls, but it is always good to be prepared just in case.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Happy Easter

On Sunday, millions of Christians worldwide will celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. For believers, the Resurrection is the pivotal event of Christianity. Other holidays get a lot more attention, but this is the event that defines the faith.

Without it, Christianity would crumble and could easily be classified as the biggest hoax of all time. Jesus would have been just another false prophet who did not deliver on what He promised if the Resurrection did not take place.

I know these are strong words, but it is impossible for me to over-emphasize the importance of this event. Simply put, deciding whether Jesus was crucified as an atonement for our sins and then was resurrected is the most important question a person will face.

When analyzing whether Jesus rose, one of the most compelling pieces of evidence supporting this is the behavior of those closest to Him. In this case, I am referring to his closest disciples.

When Jesus was arrested and crucified, they ran for their lives. They were terrified, and Peter went as far as to publicly deny Him three times.

Some are quick to criticize Peter, but we should all know better. All Christians at some point have denied Jesus in some way. We should be grateful that our denials were not documented in the best-selling book of all time. Jesus forgave Peter, and we can all learn from that act of forgiveness

The main point here is that the disciples were distraught. Their Master was dead, and the religious leaders, the Roman authorities, and the public were after their hide.

In contrast with that, compare their behavior then to their behavior only a few days later. Not only did they stop running, but they began to actively proclaim the Gospel.

What could have caused such a quick turnaround? They met the resurrected Jesus.

As previously stated, they fled with fear after Jesus was arrested and crucified. It would have taken a supernatural event to cause such a dramatic turnaround.

This is exactly what happened. They encountered Jesus again, and their perceptions of Him and what He was sending them to do fortified their hearts. Despite the torture and hardship that awaited them, they willingly took the Gospel into the world.

Consider what these men were undertaking. These men were basically poor peasants with no clout, and they were going to challenge the most powerful empire in the world.

The message they would carry would bring upheaval, and history shows us that the Romans were not patient when it came to those bringing instability to their empire.

Again, why would they do this? Because they were absolutely certain what they believed in was true. The reality of the Resurrection of Jesus cemented His teachings in their souls.

People don't suffer and die for something they know to be a lie or a hoax. A person would be nuts to willingly suffer in the ways these men suffered if they knew it was all a lie.

History is littered with people who committed to a cause but then jumped ship as soon as it got tough.

However, it did not work that way with the disciples. They did not compromise. And we are the people who benefited from this the most.