Saturday, January 29, 2011

JFK's words still inspire 50 years later

A memorable quote from a politician can be the driving force that results in a lot of good. Not many political quotes endure, but the ones that do last for generations.

Last week was the fiftieth anniversary of President John Kennedy's inaugural address in which he delivered one of the best quotes in recent political history.

Kennedy said: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."

It is a simple statement, but it is profound. It can be interpreted in many ways, but a primary way is that it is a call to public service.

Opinions about the political ideology of the Kennedy family vary, but there can be no doubt that they believed in public service very much. Both President Kennedy and his brother Robert were murdered while trying to contribute to our nation's political arena. In the non-political arena, they had a brother killed during World War II.

When thinking about public service, the first group of people I think about are the men and women who serve in the armed forces. In the last 10 years, we have gotten a renewed education regarding the sacrifices these men and women must make.

Each week (or each day sometimes) we hear about soldiers killed or wounded in Afghanistan. This is the ultimate act of public service. It takes special people to be willing to lay down their lives to serve our country.

Of course, it is not just the soldiers who sacrifice in these situations. Their families go through a lot as well. A long-term separation must be nerve rattling for the spouses of soldiers as they have to live with the uncertainty of when they will see their loved ones again.

When considering Kennedy's statement, he understood that it would require effort from all of us if our nation was going to continue to grow. However, I wonder just how many of us are willing to embrace this responsibility.

Complacency and apathy have done a lot of damage to America in recent years. People seem more interested in the latest episode of American Idol than what is going on with our nation.

Our government would seem to be an obvious example of this. Politics has become a blood sport, and both Democrats and Republicans have had their hands stained by this.

When reading and watching the news, it is understandable why so many people get turned off. These days, political debate takes place with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the head.

While it is easy to get discouraged, we have to remember that we all have to contribute. When the circumstances of our lives appear overwhelming, all we can really do is roll up our sleeves and get to work.

And I'm not talking about politics here. We all have opportunities where we can make a significant difference if we will open our eyes and change our priorities.

We can volunteer in schools or churches or just about anywhere. Public service can be done in lots of ways, and it is up to each of us to discover what our contribution should be.

I guess it comes down to what kind of legacy we want to leave. People say that it is important to leave our country in better shape for the generation that follows us.

Well, that does not take place by closing our eyes and wishing for it to happen.

It takes sacrifice. It takes commitment. It takes a willingness to not settle for the status quo.

So, what can we do for our country?

My guess is that we can do a lot if we will only try.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

'Night Moves' made Bob Seger a bonafide star

It had been a long road for Bob Seger. Making music since the mid-1960s, mass market success had always been just out of reach. Despite a hit single in the late sixties ('Ramblin' Gamblin' Man'), he had never quite gotten over the hump.
By 1976, this was changing. The live album Live Bullet made a significant dent on the Billboard album chart that year. The album's sales would eventually reach the multi-million level, and at this point, Seger needed a strong follow-up album to consolidate his success.
He found this with Night Moves. The album was both a critical and commercial success. The Rolling Stone Album Guide has referred to it as 'remarkable,' and it reached number eight on the Billboard 200 album chart.
The title song was a big hit single and remains his best known song. Reaching number four on the singles chart, it is a memorable acoustic ballad about the coming of age of youth. Pulsing acoustic ballads would serve Seger well in the future, and it was an approach he had developed over many years. An early example of this style was the song 'Big River' that appeared on 1970's Mongrel.
Despite the success of this approach, Seger is first and foremost a rocker. Night Moves opens with 'Rock and Roll Never Forgets.' It is infectious and thunderous. It continued Seger's tradition of beginning albums with breathtaking rock and roll (future examples include 'Hollywood Nights' from 1978's Stranger in Town and 'Even Now' from 1982's The Distance). It is a song about the healing and redeeming qualities of rock and roll, and it is a timeless theme.
'Mainstreet' was another top 40 hit from the album, but the record's strength is the depth of its album cuts. 'The Fire Down Below,' 'Sunspot Baby,' and the hypnotic 'Come to Poppa' made the album much more than a record with a couple of big hits.
If a person were looking for an album that represented the best of rock and roll in the mid-1970s this would be a good place to begin. It has heart, grit, and a singer who can tell a great story.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Trigger-happy democracy

Freedom and access to public officials has its ups and downs. While it is a tremendous privilege to be able to approach those who represent us, terror can be the result when a person exploits that.

Democracy at its worst was on display recently when a gunman attempted to assassinate an Arizona congresswoman. Though she survived, six others died including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl.

What began as a casual meet-and-greet ended terribly because one person gave into evil and decided to be an executioner.

For some, putting a seemingly senseless act like this into perspective can be difficult. However, if we all remember that evil exists, then terrible events like this can make sense.

Our society tries to water down what evil is. As our society continues to fragment, evil will be one of the guiding forces in how America proceeds. That may sound like a downer, but it is the truth.

Since the shooting, law enforcement personnel and the media have been digging into the life of the assassin. At the very least, he appears to be a very troubled person, and there were warning signs that he might have an outburst at some point.

With any major political incident, there will always be a lot of finger pointing regarding who or what was responsible for this.

Unfortunately, some have tried to exploit this tragedy by blaming conservatives and the rhetoric they use.

For example, criticism of one Republican group was that they used gun "crosshairs" on web sites during last year’s mid-term elections. The symbols were meant to highlight Democrats that were thought to be vulnerable in the election and were being "targeted" for possible defeat.

The critics stated the use of such symbols might have inspired the shooter to interpret the Republican message literally and take up arms.

Of course, this type of symbolism has been used repeatedly through the years by both Democrats and Republicans during campaigns.

The criticism of the Republicans in this case was a really low blow. However, it should not surprise us.

The bottom line is both the Democratic and Republican parties have fringe elements who will exploit any situation to advance their point of view.

It would be laughable if either party tried to deny that. As important as our political process is, there will always be a very small minority of people that will use slime as a weapon to achieve their agenda.

Whether it is claiming President Obama is not really an American citizen or making a movie depicting the assassination of former President Bush, there will always be people wanting to push the envelope.

However, there is one important point we must keep in mind.

Though the attack in Arizona is a tragedy, we must all understand that it should not keep us from being critical of our government. And sometimes we have to use strong words or actions to criticize our representatives.

As we have recently seen, there are good and bad ways to do that. We must remain committed to being politically involved, but we must do so in the most dignified way possible.

The primary reason we find ourselves in the mess we are in now is because of the apathy of the public.

After all, a large portion of those who are eligible to vote fail to do so. Their reasons vary. Some just do not care while others have grown so discouraged that they do not believe they can have an impact on what our government is doing.

However, we must continue to speak out. Harsh words can be delivered in a dignified way.

Our political process depends on us.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hairstyle Hall of Fame: Phil Spector

Phil Spector is a legendary music producer and a convicted felon. However, his most enduring image may be this photo taken of him during a courtroom appearance. A truly original hairstyle. Please remember that "original" is not always good.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Job market still miserable

When a new year begins, it is supposed to bring in a wave of optimism. After all, if people can not be optimistic at the beginning of a process, when can they be upbeat?

Well, last week's unemployment numbers dropped a big wet blanket on the early optimism of 2011. Although the national unemployment rate did drop to 9.4 percent, job gains in the private sector were less than anticipated.

In December, only 103,000 jobs were added nationwide, according to the Labor Department. It had been hoped that up to 150,000 jobs would be added, but it did not happen.

President Obama did try to spin this news in an optimistic way. He emphasized that December was the twelfth consecutive month in which the private sector added jobs. He said this was the first time this had happened since 2006.

I guess that is the silver lining in this very dark cloud.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke probably gave the most honest assessment of the situation when he said “it could take four to five more years for the job market to normalize fully.”

The reason is that the economy lost a whole lot of jobs in 2008 and 2009. It lost 8.5 million during that time, according to The Los Angeles Times. Since then, the economy has only recovered 1.1 million of them.

It does not take a math scholar to realize that it is going to take a long time to get back to where we were a few years ago. For example, to get the unemployment rate back down near five percent again, the economy would need to create approximately 335,000 jobs a month for the next four years, according to The Times.

As December's pathetic numbers show us, we are not even close to that.

So, what does this mean? It means our nation continues to face tough times, and our elected officials have to go on the offensive when it comes to creating jobs.

However, I am not sure our officials are totally in tune with this reality. For instance, when the new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives took over earlier this month, one of its first items of business was to debate about what to do with the Obamacare healthcare package that passed last year.

Now, I have a lot of concerns about that reform package. The cost associated with the package will create financial challenges for businesses and could impact their ability to hire people.

However, should this have been at the top of the agenda for the Republicans given all the other challenges our nation faces?

Anything passed in the House on this matter will certainly be vetoed by the Democratically-controlled Senate. Attacking Obamacare right now is a waste of time. All the posturing that took place appeared insensitive to the millions of Americans looking for work and needing a little assistance from our elected officials.

Put yourself in the shoes of somebody who has been unemployed for a long time. Your life is already on edge. A weekly unemployment check is not nearly enough to meet your bills. Then, you come home in the evening, turn on the television, and get greeted by the spectacle of our leaders ignoring the most important domestic issue we have.

Yes, I know discussions on the economy have picked up in the last week. However, it all seemed so dreadfully symbolic of the disconnect between Washington and the rest of the nation.

The bottom line is people reading this who have a good job should be grateful for it.

Even if a person dislikes his job they should feel gratitude. There are a lot of people who would gladly take it if given the opportunity.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Walker murder attempt strongest evidence Oswald alone assassinated President Kennedy

Almost from the moment President John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, conspiracy theories have abounded regarding his death. The Mafia, the Cubans, the CIA, and others have been fingered in various theories. Oliver Stone's film JFK took the rhetoric to new heights with a conspiracy that went up to the highest levels of government and included Kennedy's successor President Lyndon Johnson.

Many people seem incapable of accepting that a nobody like Lee Harvey Oswald could have been the sole person responsible for the president's death. However, I believe he was. The most compelling piece of evidence that convinces me is that Kennedy was not the first person Oswald attempted to assassinate.

In early 1963, he had attempted to murder General Edwin Walker at Walker's home in Dallas but failed. From Gerald Posner's book Case Closed -- Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK: "Walker disturbed Oswald. (Walker) had been the commanding officer of the 24th Army Division under NATO, but President Kennedy relieved him of his post in 1961 for distributing right-wing literature to his troops. Walker resigned from the Army and returned to his native Texas. He was a virulent anti-Communist and strict segregationist who quickly became a prominent voice in the right-wing John Birch Society."

Oswald failed in his attempt to kill him when the bullet he shot struck a wooden frame that crossed the window in Walker's dining room. The frame caused the bullet to break into fragments, some of which struck Walker's forearm. Additionally, there is no evidence whatsoever that anybody helped Oswald in this attempt. It was not known that he did this until after Kennedy's death.

Doesn't it seem reasonable to conclude that if Oswald was willing to kill once that he would have been willing to kill again? How might history have changed if he had succeeded in killing Walker? Would that have satisfied his thirst for blood? Would that have spared Kennedy?

Of course, the answers to those questions are subjective. However, it has puzzled me that the Walker incident is almost never discussed when analyzing the Kennedy assassination. It would seem to be an important piece of the puzzle when trying to understand who Oswald was. Then again, it might punch a hole in the conspiracy theories that have made so many people so much money. Oliver Stone sure ignored this when he made his film.

Still, everybody is entitled to their own opinion. However, I believe this is a case where the simplest answer is the correct one.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Looking forward: Tennessee's football schedule in 2011

The sting of the Music City Bowl still remains, which means we should probably start looking forward to the Tennessee Volunteer's 2011 football schedule. Despite the bowl loss, the team appears to be on the upswing. Here is the schedule:

Sept. 3 vs. Montana
Sept. 10 vs. Cincinnati
Sept. 17 at Florida
Oct. 1 vs. Buffalo
Oct. 8 vs. Georgia
Oct. 15 vs. LSU
Oct. 22 at Alabama
Oct. 29 vs. South Carolina
Nov. 5 vs. Middle Tennessee
Nov. 12 at Arkansas
Nov. 19 vs. Vanderbilt
Nov. 26 at Kentucky

The Volunteers play eight of its 12 games at Neyland Stadium, including five of the first six. The non-conference schedule is weaker than most years with the most challenging game coming against either Cincinnati or Middle Tennessee. Once again, October is the make or break month for the team as it faces several tough opponents, such as Alabama and LSU.

Of course, between now and then, several important questions must be answered. Will the team be able to develop a consistent running game? Who will fill the shoes of Nick Reveiz at middle linebacker? Will a consistent kicker emerge?

There will be time to debate all this and more in the coming months. The schedule practically guarantees a return to a bowl game. But Tennessee fans will be hungry for more this year.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Will high gas prices equal trouble for President Obama in 2012?

Listen up all you drivers who consume gasoline like Coca-Cola because some really bad news may be heading your way in the next year or so.

In a recent interview with Platt's Energy Week television, the former president of Shell Oil, John Hofmeister, said Americans could be paying as much as $5 for a gallon of gasoline by 2012.

Though other experts in the industry disagree with this prediction, Hofmeister's comments should be a wake-up call for us all. Recently, oil prices exceeded $90 a barrel, and anybody who traveled during the Christmas holiday can attest that gas prices have crept higher.

While gas prices remained slightly below the $3 a gallon mark in our area, many places in the country were not so lucky. Especially in the Northeast, gas prices jumped above $3.10 a gallon.

It appears that we may go through a sequel of a really bad nightmare. Only a couple of years ago, prices surged above $4 a gallon, and the complaining from drivers was shrill and annoying.

Back then, many of us paid a dear price for having developed bad driving habits that included purchasing SUVs the size of tanks that got really bad gas mileage. Have we learned from that? I guess we will find out if Hofmeister’s prediction comes true.

If nothing else, we learned in 2008 that people will say anything to avoid taking responsibility for their own decisions when it comes to driving habits. Among the more humorous complaints during that period was that President George W. Bush was involved in some sort of conspiracy with the big oil companies to keep prices high.

Of course, from a political standpoint, this point of view made no sense whatsoever. It would have been political suicide to do anything of this nature. The bottom line is people had developed excessive driving habits and the cost cut deep into our wallets when we filled up at the pumps.

If Hofmeister's prediction comes true, I wonder if similar conspiracy theories will be hurled at President Barack Obama. Given how volatile our national political landscape is, I'm sure some crackpot will.

However, consider this: Unemployment remains unacceptably high, and in 2012, Obama runs for re-election.

If he has to run for re-election with both unemployment and gas prices high, it could be a nasty campaign. I will go on record now and predict that Obama will be re-elected in 2012. Still, if he has to battle those two issues, it will be a rough grind for him.

Last year's mid-term elections showed us all that voters are already impatient with Washington. Extremely high gas prices could become another issue that make folks rage against the machine in Washington.

To a large degree, this would be a repeat of what happened a couple years ago. People would not take responsibility for their decisions back then, and I do not believe they will in 2012 if prices do reach $5 a gallon.

It is always convenient to blame somebody else, and politicians make especially easy targets these days. I understand that my point of view on this is pretty cynical, but human nature being what it is, I can't imagine this unfolding any other way.

Still, 2012 is almost a full 12 months away, and there is still time to re-shape our driving habits. This could ease the demand for gasoline, causing Hofmeister's prediction to become just another comment that will not come true.

After all, people make predictions every day that come and go like the wind.

In this case, let us hope that Hofmeister's prediction gets blown away with the force a tornado brings.

If it does not, it will be us that will get blown away at the gas pump.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Let's not hand the World Series title to the Red Sox or Phillies just yet

There have been some monumental player transactions during the off-season, and the biggest so far have been pulled off by the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox.

The Phillies added pitching ace Cliff Lee to its already loaded starting rotation that includes Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels. That four-man rotation is easily the best in Major League Baseball. Their fifth starter will almost be inconsequential.

The Red Sox have added slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez who played for San Diego last year and left fielder Carl Crawford who played for Tampa Bay.

Because of these transactions, most 'experts' have made the teams the favorites to meet in the 2011 World Series. While I agree that both teams are formidable, let's not crown them just yet.

After all, baseball is a sport that is unpredictably predictable. Just when we believe we have it figured out, something totally unexpected occurs.

For example, how many people picked the San Francisco Giants to win the title last year? None outside of Northern California.

However, they got hot at the end of the season and sprinted to the title. And, what team did they play in the Series? Yes, it was those perennial championship challengers the Texas Rangers. Of course, I was being sarcastic there. The Rangers had never won a playoff series before last year much less gone to the World Series.

This just shows that anything is possible once they start playing the games. I agree the Red Sox and Phillies will be excellent teams in 2011.

But, let's make them prove their greatness before handing out the championship rings.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bob Dylan's 'Highway 61 Revisited' as timeless today as in 1965

Bob Dylan's career has been unconventional and wide ranging. Beginning in the early 1960s, Dylan began a journey that has taken him to a port in just about every genre of modern music. Folk, rock and roll, country, and spiritual music all make up significant portions of his album catalogue.

He began as a celebrated folk artist. On the strength of songs like "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and "Blowin' in the Wind," he built a large following among folk music fans. However, his fans soon learned that he followed his own heart and rarely cared about doing what was expected.

Dylan shocked folk purists by releasing an album in early 1965 that contained some rock and roll music on it. Side one of Bringing It All Back Home featured rockers like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Maggie's Farm," but he kept side two totally acoustic. Despite being booed at the Newport Folk Festival when he tried to play an electric set, Dylan was going electric and not looking back.

Within 18 months in 1965-66, Dylan released three of the most critically acclaimed rock albums of all time. Bringing It All Back Home was followed by Highway 61 Revisited and the double album Blonde on Blonde. Of the three, Highway 61 Revisited is the best.

The centerpiece of the album is "Like A Rolling Stone." It is undeniably one of the most influential songs in rock and roll history. Despite being released in 1965, it ranked at number one on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the top 500 songs of all time in 2004.

The magazine summed the song up this way: "To this day, the most stunning thing about "Like A Rolling Stone" is the abundance of precedent: the impressionist voltage of Dylan's language, the intensely personal accusation in his voice, the apocalyptic charge of (Al) Kooper's garage-gospel organ and Mike Bloomfield's stiletto-sharp spirals of Telecaster guitar, the defiant six-minute length of the June 16th master take. No other pop song has so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercial laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time."

That about says it all. Among the interesting inspirations for the song was Hank Williams' "Lost Highway." The first verse of that song is: "I'm a rolling stone, all alone and lost/For a life of sin I have paid the cost."

As the album's first track, "Like A Rolling Stone" begins the record with breathtaking intensity. The song's power increases with each passing verse. The song is the musical equivalent of a boulder rolling down a hill with nothing to stop it.

The song was also a commercial breakthrough for Dylan. Along with "Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35" (which is on Blonde on Blonde), it is his highest charting single. Both songs hit number two on the singles charts.

Another standout track is the 11-minute "Desolation Row." If somebody wanted to pick one song that best illustrated his surrealist approach during this period, this would be a good song to study. Containing imagery so strong that it rivals any Salvador Dali painting, the singer visits a melancholy place full of sad people. Cinderella, Cain and Abel, Albert Einstein, Robin Hood, Romeo and Juliet, T.S. Eliot, Noah, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame are some of the people who make guest appearances here.

Just as surrealistic but happier is "Tombstone Blues." It is the album's second track, and it is a seven-minute ramrod of energy that does not let the listener catch his breath after "Like A Rolling Stone." Containing examples of Dylan's wit, the song has verses such as: "Gypsy Davey with a blowtorch he burns down their camps/With his faithful slave Pedro behind him he tramps/With a fantastic collection of stamps/To win friends and influence his uncle."

Dylan is an artist that polarizes people. People who like his music tend to love it. Those who dislike it tend to hate it. For example, his singing voice. Those who like him generally have no problem with it. Those who dislike him often think his voice sounds like Curley Howard when he sits on a bear trap.

Regardless of how an individual views him, there is no denying his impact on popular music. In reading volume one of his autobiography a few years ago, it appears that being such an important artist has taken a toll on him. Many times, people want him to be all things to them. That is too much to ask of anybody. He is who he is.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Ringing in 2011 with some music...

The winter days can keep us cooped up in our homes, but a benefit of this situation is that it gives us the opportunity to listen to a lot of good music. Here are some tunes I'm listening to right now.

'Water' by The Who
'Too Much of Anything' by The Who
'Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You' by Bob Dylan
'Don't Fall Apart on Me Tonight' by Bob Dylan
'Let Love Rule' by Lenny Kravitz
'I Build This Garden for Us' by Lenny Kravitz
'Penthouse Pauper' by Creedence Clearwater Revival
'Wrote a Song for Everyone' by Creedence Clearwater Revival
'6 A.M. or Nearer' by The Guess Who
'A Wednesday in Your Garden' by The Guess Who
'Tribal Customs' by Chris Jones
'Stagger Lee' by Lloyd Price
'Workin' at the Car Wash Blues' by Jim Croce
'It Doesn't Matter Anymore' by Buddy Holly
'Cult of Personality' by Living Colour
'Little Miss Can't Be Wrong' by Spin Doctors
'Shine a Light' by The Rolling Stones
'Sowing the Seeds of Love' by Tears for Fears