Friday, March 29, 2024

Hot springs offer a refreshing and unique experience in Glenwood Springs, Colorado

I belong to a pool in the summertime, but I wouldn’t say that lounging in a man-made body of water with a raft of other humans is exactly my idea of a thing to do all day. That said, the Spa of the Rockies at the Glenwood Springs Lodge in western Colorado is a pretty great experience to include at least once in your life.

Fresh off of five days skiing, the best features of the hot-springs park are the massage showers and chairs in the hottest end of the two-football-field-long pool, which rests alongside Interstate 70 (with the semis rumbling past not far away), a gondola taking people up to explore the area’s caves and amusement park, and a walkway over to the cute town of Glenwood Springs, where we ate a delicious Nepalese meal. 

We experienced some of the reasons that Glenwood Springs is considered one of the country’s most walkable cities, strolling across that pedestrian bridge above the waterway and interstate and witnessing the many roundabouts and innovative parking infrastructure that originated in the 1980s as the city decided to battle traffic congestion. 

What makes the town feel so nestled into the landscape is that it’s where the Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers meet down below the spa. Indigenous people have lived in the area for thousands of years and Glenwood Springs is a home-rule city of about 10,000 residents. It was established in 1883 with the name of Defiance and was made up almost entirely of gunslingers, gamblers, and prostitutes. Isaac Cooper is considered the founder of the town but his wife didn’t like its vibe, so she encouraged a name change. They built the main part of the spa’s building (seen above in the photo) in 1888. 

It’s always been a popular and convenient place for visitors passing through near the Colorado-Utah border. President Teddy Roosevelt spent one summer on vacation at the nearby Hotel Colorado (pictured), gunslinger Doc Holliday of O.K. Coral fame is buried in the cemetary, and serial-killer Ted Bundy escaped the county jail for 17 hours at the end of 1977.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

RIP Joe Lieberman

Back at the dawn of the modern election-conspiracy era, Al Gore and his running mate Joe Lieberman, despite winning a half-million more votes than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, suffered defeat at the hands of a clearly biased Supreme Court.

He told The New York Times in 2023, “It was a miscarriage of justice on two levels. One was that the Florida Supreme Court had already ruled in our favor to continue the recounts, and the other was that it was an extrajudicial political decision made in the crisis of a transition of power, and out of line with precedents of the Supreme Court.”

Lieberman passed away this week at age 82 after injuries from a fall at his Bronx home.

Instead of becoming vice president, Lieberman began a retreat from a long and impressive career of public service. He was about as centrist as a politician got and his style has not exactly translated to our era of maximum fringe and infighting. 

But Lieberman had a truly impressive record of work on social causes to better the world, starting with his earliest efforts in civil rights. He went on to be a major player in the introduction of the Department of Homeland Security after the September 11 terrorist attacks, led the fight against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and provided the tie-breaking vote to pass Obama’s Affordable Care Act. 

His descent was spurred by losing in the Democratic primaries for president in 2004 and losing his Senate seat for Connecticut in 2006. Even since leaving politics - when I hadn’t really thought about him for years beca,use I assumed he had retired from public life - Lieberman worked at a lawyer, as chair of No Labels and was even surprisingly considered for a short time by Trump to lead the F.B.I. 

The Times added:

At his political peak, on the threshold of the vice presidency, Mr. Lieberman — a national voice of morality as the first major Democrat to rebuke President Bill Clinton for his sexual relationship with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky — was named Mr. Gore’s running mate at the Democratic National Convention that August in Los Angeles. He became the nation’s first Jewish candidate on a major-party presidential ticket.

“It was a very hard thing for me to do because I liked him,” he told Bill Kristol, the neoconservative commentator. “But I really felt what he did was awful.”

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Yo La Tengo arose with indie rock but leader Ira Kaplan goes way deeper in music history

In 1973, Ira Kaplan (later of Yo La Tengo fame) drew up a plan with two friends to start a music magazine. It was called Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press for the Rock Consumer and the first issue, with The Who on the cover and costing 25 cents, would be completed in March 1974 and would go down in history known as simply Trouser Press. 

Zip It Up! The Best of Trouser Press Magazine 1974-1984 was just released and compiles, all these 40 years later, some of what Kaplan considers the best material, including Pete Townshend’s letter to the magazine after that first issue, which served as a major inspiration for the gang to keep the presses rolling. 

One of the early features from the magazine was an interview with The Rolling Stones’ red-headed manager Andrew Loog Oldham. He talked about his early days working with The Beatles but that he needed to leave to give their manager Brian Epstein enough space to do his thing, which led to him going to work with the Stones. He said he didn’t ever change the image of the band although he did suggest clothes for them from time to time. He had never produced a record until he joined the Stones’ entourage, really just becoming their producer by default. 

At the time of the interview, Oldham said he still got along with each of the Stones - who he had stopped working with in 1967 during the recording of Their Satanic Majesties Request - except for the already-deceased Brian Jones. He said it was “the first time I’d been in the studio when I didn’t understand what they were doing.” But luckily the split was “before the days when everybody had lawyers ... really very clean.” 

The story of Syd Barrett’s long road to oblivion is another early essay in the collection. It tells how younger Syd was a bit of a leader of the Cambridge “freak scene” where all the artist types hung out. He had two cats, Pink and Floyd, who still lived there long after Syd had gone, despite all the acid Syd and friends had given them. Later, in his cat-inspired band, Barrett was often unable to do anything on stage and would completely blank out in the later part of his stint as Pink Floyd’s leader. 

Once he was removed from the band, David Gilmour and Roger Waters produced Syd’s first solo album, then Waters couldn’t take it anymore so Gilmour and Rick Wright produced the second one. Gilmour, who had replaced Syd in the Floyd, was ironically really helpful on those solo records, often recording demos that would help better explain to the other musicians what they were supposed to be doing. Those two solo records may have never existed if not for Gilmour. Syd briefly formed a band called Stars, but bad press contributed to his near-complete disappearance from the world - certainly the world of music. 

A lot of what appears in the book was probably really eye-opening in the 1970s, but much of it is rock lore by now. As for Ira Kaplan-related material, I think the Yo La Tengo book Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock may be more up my alley. Here are some interesting tidbits from the opening:

  • Nowadays everything is spelled out on the internet, but when Yo La Tengo was starting out, their name was often misspelled as Mo La Tengo, even when they played shows at the nightclub in their hometown of Hoboken, N.J., Maxwell’s.
  • The band was originally named A Worrying Thing. 
  • "Yo La Tengo" came from a book about baseball, which explained how the phrase means “I’ve got it” in Spanish, which is important for baseball players communicating with each other about which one is going for the ball.

So far, I’m not that into the book because it has an overly lengthy section on the history of working-class Hoboken. That part seems inessential, although it's interesting that Maxwell’s was named for the nearby Maxwell House coffee plant that offered aromatic smells nearby.

  • Like everyone else who grew up old enough to experience the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Kaplan was influenced. Excessively.
  • He and his family grew up in Croton, up the Hudson from Manhattan and Hoboken, and assimilated with a typical secular Jewish life, going to baseball games with his brothers and seeing Country Joe, Fleetwood Mac, and a strip show as his first concert.

This is probably a book worth adding to my rock collection, but for now, this is all I learned from Amazon’s free sample. Good, but I’m not totally gripped yet.

Mountain powder makes skiing contagious

Skiing in powdery snow must be what flying feels like to a bird. Instead of each wing, it's each leg - left then right then left - swooshing, gliding really, through the show. 

It’s been many years (maybe in Park City, Utah or Lake Tahoe) when I last skied in such fluffy conditions as I have this week at Copper Mountain, which is about 50 miles west of Denver.

Each night, as we sit in the hot tub soaking our sore thigh muscles after a full day of skiing, there has been snowflakes falling into our hair. A light dusting of 2 to 5 inches of fresh snowfall each night has made the mountain our paradise.

If the people I’ve seen attempting to learn how to ski back East at some of our local-ish Pennsylvania places like Whitetail and Liberty were learning in this powder, they would not be dropping like flies and falling on their faces into the unforgiving snowcone mush and slush that is very difficult to navigate.

It’s so easy here. And I’m probably skiing the best I ever have in my life. Such ease and control. My old skis are still not very fast, but I’m now confident in much tricker spots and through the forests off the main runs that my daughter loves to take me into. The two of us took a wrong turn the other day down a steep, rocky, bumpy path. We eventually made it out, even agreeing it had been a fun if slightly foolhardy challenge. Years ago or maybe even just a year or two ago, that would have been a much trickier predicament.

I’m really glad the enthusiasm for skiing from my family has worn off on me. Even if it’s at Whitetail and Liberty. But when possible, the West is the best.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

The Holdovers is a classic comedy-drama indie

Director Alexander Payne cements himself as a modern great after Election, Sideways, and The Descendants. And then he returned in 2023 with a Dead Poet’s Society-like second showcase for the brilliant Paul Giamatti, with The Holdovers.

Much like Election, it’s a coming-of-age story, about kids that get left behind for the winter break at their boardings school and Giamatti’s disliked ancient-history teacher is left in charge of them. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is about the only other person left around on campus. She is the head of the cafeteria whose son attended the school and has recently died. The friendships those two and the kids, especially the one portrayed by Dominic Sessa, strike up over their couple of weeks together are unlikely, painful, and often hilarious. 

Randolph won the Academy Award for best supporting actress.

Not enough borderline-indie drama/comedies like this are made these days by Hollywood.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, March 22, 2024

Sherman Alexie brilliantly explores the lack of integration into U.S. society for Native Americans

Sherman Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and nearly all his characters are desperate alcoholics, ravaged by poverty and with little hope to escape it, but readers of any stripe can relate to them because so much of what happens in his short stories and novels is centered around the iconic pop-cultural landmark movies, TV shows, 7-Elevens, and popular advertising campaigns that connect us all. 

I fell in love with his writing back in college when I stumbled across a short story in a 1996 Granta collection called “Integration,” which was an excerpt from his second novel, Indian Killer.

Although he enjoyed reading books from the library from a young age and his father was an obsessive reader too, Alexie always thought he had to play basketball to get girls to notice him, but then he discovered poetry while taking his first literature class at Washington State University and when he started writing his own, he noticed that the girls were noticing. That marked the end of any of his hoop dreams.

Actually, even before he could read, he would look through his father’s books and he became fascinated with the concept of paragraphs and how “they had some specific reason for being within the same fence.” He loved Superman comics and realized each of those panels worked much like a paragraph. 

I revisited two short stories that I loved in my 20s:

“Integration:” This excerpt is actually the very beginning of Indian Killer, all about a man named John who is adopted as a baby into a white family but dreams of what his life might have been like growing up back in the reservation. He meets a girl named Marie when they are college age and she is a Native American but doesn’t know much about that culture. Meanwhile, ex-cop Jack is trying to write a book that will reveal what it’s like to be a Native American. This excerpt begins from John’s point of view as he is being born in the tribal hospital under the care of one of the white doctors who works there. He is immediately flown to Seattle where his new adopted parents await. We aren't informed why he is taken from his natural mother. The story shifts to his high-school years at the upscale St. Francis, where he integrates well with the white boys he would never talk to after high school and the white girls he made out with whose fathers would soon discourage them from dating an adopted Indian. John holds his anger in very well, but i's definitely lurking beneath. Re-reading this intro to Indian Killer definitely makes me want to re-read the full novel. 5 out of 5 stars.

“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven:” Film buffs might recall that this 1993 short story was turned into the acclaimed movie Smoke Signals in 1998. This is simply a beautiful and powerfully sad story about a young man who has left the reservation, gone to college, and begun life in Seattle. Two vignettes occur in the city: one of him visiting a 7-Eleven to buy a Creamsicle and one of him breaking up with his girlfriend who wants to “change the world.” He returns to Spokane and sits around doing nothing, but then he gets sober and plays basketball against a very good white kid who is the son of the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also talks to his old girlfriend again, and he has vivid and awful dreams about how Native Americans don’t fit in and aren’t welcome in any neighborhood in the entire country. 5 out of 5 stars.

Next on my list from Alexie is his young-adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s listed in 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, which notes its revered status as a favorite on banned-book lists by school boards. It’s “controversial in the way life itself is controversial: unsettled, uneasy … devastating one day and comic the next.” Alexie also won the 2009 Odyssey Award for his reading of it as the year’s best audiobook.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Becoming a cult leader led to Shoko Asahara's attack on the Tokyo subway 29 years ago today

I just finished Netflix's six-part series How to Become a Cult Leader fittingly today on the 29th anniversary of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult led by Shoko Asahara, the subject of part 5 of the fairly well-done series (I'll give it 3.5 out of 5 stars).

The series, narrated by Peter Dinklage, takes "at best a questionable approach to the material," noted the Chicago Sun-Times. Providing a "playbook" for how to start a cult, each episode focuses on one leader and the tools they used for success. 

  • Charles Manson has always been the Mt. Everest of cult leaders for me, and while I didn't learn anything from the episode about him, there is excellent footage from his story and each of the other ones highlighted. 
  • I've always been fascinated by crazy-eyed Marshall Applewhite of the Nike-shoes-wearing Heaven's Gate.
  • I learned a lot about the Jim Jones cult.
  • I didn't previously know anything about the failed-actor Jaimie Gomez's "army of servants."
  • I learned more about Sun Myung Moon and his sushi-pushing, Washington Times-owning, mass-wedding Unification Church.

On March 20, 1995, there were coordinated releases of sarin gas on five Tokyo subway trains near the Japanese parliament headquarters, which killed 13 people, severely injured about 50 more, and resulted in temporary vision problems for almost 1,000 others. 

The tragedy was found to be the work of Asahara, who was sent away as a child to a boarding school and felt he had been abandoned by his family. According to the TV series, this was the source of his pain and his desire to create a major PR plan around his life and image. That plan was to form Aum Shinrikyo in 1984 as a yoga and meditation group, all the way through its transformation into a killer cult that wanted to purify the world. His believers thought he was god and that he could levitate and read people’s minds. 

Aum gained 10,000 members in Japan and about 40,000 worldwide. Japan had become very materialistic in the 1980s and people there were vulnerable to questioning this consumerism. Asahara gave speeches at top universities about spiritual awakening, and he gained prominent professors into the cult. 

He began killing cult members if they somehow acquired bad karma. For his other followers, that was fine. He also ran for office to gain more attention and to spread his message. The mass media ended up making fun of him and his group and from then on, Asahara decided the world was corrupt and it would need to be punished. On a busy Monday morning, his canisters caused thousands of people to go into convulsions and have trouble breathing from the nerve gas. 

The subway attack was not the end of the cult's murderous rampage, as they tried to assassinate judges and government officials who opposed them, succeeded in murdering a lawyer investigating them as well as Asahara's own son, and developed bombs and biological weapons like anthrax. Asahara and other top members of the cult were eventually found guilty in what the Japanese press dubbed "the trial of the century" and he and others were executed by hanging in 2018. His ashes were given to one of his daughters in 2021.

I was still curious as to why Asahara became so murderous. The show didn't quite tackle that well enough, but it seems the combination of his obsession with Biblical prophecies of apocalypse, his immense control over his followers, and the possibility that he wanted to overthrow the Japanese government during a vulnerable time of economic turmoil may have been the perfect storm for Aum Shinrikyo.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Andre Agassi hit his lowest lows in the mid-1990s. Could he redeem himself?

This is part 3 of my series on Andre Agassi's Open: An Autobiography, a must-read for tennis fans. Part 1 covered his epic 5-setter at the 2006 U.S. Open against Marcos Baghdatis, his upbringing by a violent father, an incident in Washington D.C.'s Rock Creek Park, and his rise in the junior ranks. Part 2 covered his rise to sports greatness and falling in love with celebrity Brooke Shields.

The second half of tennis legend Andre Agassi’s brilliant bio Open begins with him finally ascending to number-1 in the world, taking the place of Pete Sampras, who has held the honor for the previous 82 weeks. That said, Agassi didn’t feel anything. He wanted to feel something, but he didn't. To have something to keep going for, he set a goal to win the French Open, which would give him championships at all four of the major tournaments. 

Agassi also read in the papers that Boris Becker was trash talking him to reporters, and 1995 became "the Summer of Revenge" as the two will inevitably play each other. Agassi won tournaments by beating Stefan Edberg in D.C., Sampras in Montreal, and Michael Chang in Cincinnati, but he wanted Becker. At that year’s U.S. Open, he finally got his chance - in the semis, with the winner to play Sampras in the final. Agassi told the security guard in the tunnel to keep him and Boris apart. Down by two sets, Becker wanted to rattle Andre and began blowing kisses to Andre's girlfriend, Brooke Shields, in the stands. Agassi ended up winning the match in three sets but would he be completely spent 18 hours later for the final? It turned out he wasn't spent. He had injured a rib, but played Pete anyway, losing in four sets.

The loss semeed to slowly destroy Agassi. As he failed to secure the number-1 spot above Sampras, Shields rocketed to further stardom and landed a plum supporting role on Friends - the number-1 TV show in the world. They went to L.A. together and Andre met the whole Friends crew but something irritated him while watching Brooke lick Joey’s hand in a scene. He walked out, drove all the way back to Vegas, and smashed all his tennis trophies and rackets. Brooke was incensed that he left, which she said destroyed her concentration for the rest of her scenes on set. They made up, but the writing already seemed to be on the wall for their eventual demise as a couple. Regardless, Agassi proposed to her on the beach one night and she accepted while he instantly had the thought that they were moving too fast. 

In 1996, Agassi appeared to be losing his mind to everyone watching him on the court. He knew it was happening as well. At one point, he gave a bunch of money for college to someone who worked at his favorite restaurant in New York City and it seemed to click that he felt much better about helping other people than he did about helping himself. This is underlined by how he won the gold medal for his country that year in the Olympics (and also had an unmatched record in Davis Cup team play) but then he returned immediately to the tennis tour in Cincinnati where he was “playing for myself again … smashing my racket in a fit of rage.” 

Back home in Vegas at his bachelor pad, one afternoon he was sitting around with his assistant Slim, who talked him into trying crystal meth. Andre continued to struggle on the court. Meanwhile, Brooke became obsessed with wedding planning and taped a photo onto the fridge of how she wanted her body to reach perfection for when the time came to put on the wedding dress. The photo: Steffi Graf.

Andre and Brooke two got married in a swelteringly hot - with sweat dripping down Andre’s forehead - church in Monterey in April 1997. He was stressed, miserable, and mortified about his sweat outbreak throughout the weekend’s festivities. The capper was when he hurt his wrist shooting bow and arrows and would have to pull out of the French Open, adding that clay is the toughest surface for a tender wrist

Andre continued being miserable, doing drugs in Vegas while Brooke was in L.A., helping friends who has child-medical emergencies, and then coach Brad Gilbert talked him into coming back for Cincinnati, where he was beaten by one of my favorite players ever, Gustavo Kuerten, in 46 minutes. Andre made it that fall into the round of 16 at the U.S. Open, losing to the red-hot Patrick Rafter. After yet another first-round loss, at Stuttgart, Gilbert had a heart-to-heart with Andre, telling him he needed to completely start over - get back in shape and then start playing lowly challenger matches. 

Then a doctor called to tell him he would be suspended for three months because the USTA found the crystal meth in his system. Andre lied in his letter that he didn’t intentionally take the drugs. Regardless, his trainer Gil, dealing with his daughter’s recent broken neck, jumped in with his usual gusto to get 27-year-old Andre back in shape for the first time in years. Gilbert got him ready for his first challenger tournament, which Andre lost in the final. The coach needed to start researching some technique for his fallen player. “Every shot is an educated guess. You need to retrain that muscle with which a tennis player decides in the heat of battle that this shot is the right one and this shot is the wrong one.” 

This comeback - if that’s what it was - was keeping Agassi busy. He hardly ever saw Shields, who was working 12-hour days on her new hit TV show Suddenly Susan. She didn’t watch his tennis and he didn’t ask about her show. He did however take the time to start a foundation for kids at risk, which included a 25,000 square-foot Boys and Girls Club. It started as tennis courts and a computer lab, but Andre wanted to do more and he caught wind of how forming a charter school could align with his vision. 

Fresh back from a visit in South Africa with Nelson Mandela, Andre woke up on New Year’s Day and decided 1998 would be his year. He made it to the fourth round of the Australian Open. Next he beat Sampras in the final of the San Jose Open. He won Scottsdale but not Indian Wells. The main thing was that he started to feel like he really wanted to win again, especially for his new team at the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. He also received a call that the USTA had accepted his explanation and would not suspend him for the crystal meth, but karma for that lie may have come in the form of a hurt shoulder at the French Open. He missed two weeks and actually, during that time, unusually missed tennis. After a loss at Wimbledon, he and Brooke finally took their honeymoon to a private island in the Caribbean. Brooke wanted to keep busy with things like scuba diving and Andre wanted to relax in the room; they headed back home three days early, never getting in synch. 

At Legg Mason in D.C., Andre started a process of waking up early and writing out his goals for the day. He won the final in 50 minutes 6-2, 6-0, for his fourth D.C. title. He kept winning and again beat Sampras, knocking him out of the number-1 ranking and placing himself all the way up to number 9. He failed to win the U.S. Open but got back to work building the Academy in the worst neighborhood of West Las Vegas. Andre didn’t even really notice when Brooke didn’t show up for the groundbreaking. They decide to separate for three weeks, but when Andre suggested they go to therapy together instead of separately, it became clear that Brooke didn’t want to try to help Andre with all his struggles. He sold his wedding band at a pawn shop and donated the money in Brooke’s name to his Academy. And he said he wanted the “fastest divorce in the history of divorce.”

This book has it all, and I'm looking forward to reading how much Andre can redeem himself in the end. Stay tuned for my final report.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Great Magazine Reads: Band on the Run was the album that helped Paul McCartney relocate his mojo

MOJO Magazine recently scored an exclusive interview with Paul McCartney, made even more meaningful because former Wings guitarist Denny Laine had literally died minutes before Sir Paul called the reporter from Brazil. 

Some highlights from the article:

  • Wings started because Paul saw Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins returning to the spotlight and “playing with some country musicians I had never heard of.” He turned to his wife Linda and they decided to start a band from scratch. 
  • The name Wings came to him after Linda had an emergency c-section and Paul imagined winged angels watching over his wife and baby Stella. 
  • By the time one of Wings’ masterpieces, Band on the Run, came around, John Lennon suggested Paul had been right about The Beatles’ business manager being a creep. Some suggested this ramped up Paul’s confidence, creating the ballfield for the 1973 album to be arguably so much greater than his other albums since the end of The Beatles. 
  • From the album, the glammy “Jet” was about Paul’s pet labrador. Paul wrote “Picasso’s Last Words” literally as actor Dustin Hoffman was telling him a story about Picasso, whose last words were allegedly “drink to me, drink to my health, you know I can’t drink anymore.” The title track’s words (“if we ever get out of here”) came from George Harrison’s comments during late-era Beatles’ business meetings.
  • With McCartney in a little bit of trouble for multiple pot arrests, Wings were literally a band on the run and decided to record the album in Lagos, Nigeria. Upon arrival, they found a flooded, half-built studio. They were also mugged while there and, although not hurt, their wallets, cameras, and demo tapes of Band on the Run were stolen. Paul also collapsed at one point from a combination of the heat, cigarette smoking, and stress. All the work and inspiration was worth it since the album hit number 1 in both the U.S. and UK, turned Wings into mega-arena stars, and Lennon even called it a great album. Further, John accepted an invitation to come record with Paul in New Orleans for the follow up to Band on the Run, Venus and Mars, but then he got back together with Yoko Ono - after his "lost weekend" - and domestic life got in the way.
  • Wings finally folded - after a longer lifespan than the Beatles - in 1981, at least partly due to Laine feeling he wasn’t compensated well enough for his contributions. 

A new lower-fi remaster of Band on the Run is set to be released this year that will include versions of the songs with the orchestra and overdubs taken out.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Were the 1980s truly the death of the rock star?

In the 1980s, rock stars were no longer coming from the world of music, according to Joe S. Harrington in his excellent 2002 musical and cultural history Sonic Cool: The Life and Death of Rock n’ Roll.

He argues that heroes like Mick Jagger were being replaced by the computer and tech creators like Bill Gates and that the regime change from Democrats to Republicans helped speed along the corporate takeover. Ronald Reagan had been working for years leading up to this environment, fighting in the 1960s to outlaw LSD and push along the Vietnam War and crying for family values in the 1970s to replace the morally decrepit hippy takeover. He finally took over the whole she-bang at age 69 - the second-oldest president elect ever behind Joe Biden - which actually helped him in the eyes of many who had begun to distrust the youth culture that had supposedly ruined the country over the past decade-plus. Religion came back strong in the 80s as well, partly branded as a way to restore moral fiber, which could obviously be seen hanging by a thread in the parking lot of any high school in the U.S., with dope and acid and other poisonous gases porously escaping into the atmosphere. 

Like with punk before it, certain segments of music started to happen completely outside of the mainstream. In the Bronx, DJs started talking over extended funk and disco jams, which was morphing into a new art form called rap. While it was Sugarhill Records that got the hip hop and rap balls rolling, it was Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin with Def Jam Records who “revolutionized the realm of recorded sound,” with the likes of the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, and Public Enemy, bands that all brought in dirty words to the genre as well. While criticized by Blacks and whites, the Beasties’ debut License to Ill was a major departure from their previous hardcore sound and turned rap into a money-making proposition for the first time. 

Rock music, and music in general, was becoming less of a focus for consumers because video games and VCRs were now entering the picture and taking up people’s time. In fact, it was inevitable that TV and music would merge. USA Today’s Night Flight and HBO’s Video Jukebox preceded MTV. It may have been the blandness of FM radio at this time that also helped MTV succeed.

Rock criticism was changing too. Whereas before, a good or bad album review in Rolling Stone could make a real difference, now people were seeing the music they wanted to listen to and could make choices based on that. Dave Marsh had helped break bands like the Who and Bruce Springsteen, but his decrees that MTV was killing rock got him fired from Rolling Stone by Jann Wenner, who appreciated anything that made money. Kurt Loder was an example of someone who could swallow his pride and his tastes to become a regular MTV presence. 

The consumerist mindset of the country took deeper root with the help of the first generation of MTV stars like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince, and the record companies loved that they could replace albums with CDs, were much cheaper to produce and distribute. While the Beatles, Stones, and Bob Dylan pumped out an album a year in the 1960s, by the 1980s, top artists were lucky to release one every four years, partly because they were all acting, doing TV shows, and making videos for optimal mass marketing. 

The only guitar-based music still having major mainstream success began to be “poodle-haired bands like Bon Jovi, Poison, and Def Leppard.” Female empowerment grew by leaps and bounds in the decade, with Madonna leading the charge of women emasculating men in her music videos. Exercise also became big as the yuppies needed to alter their decadent behavior of the past two decades and find a way to clean up their acts and their minds and bodies. Many men were baffled by the newfound control that women were using and retreated into the world of porn, which would explode with the later introduction of the Internet. All this set up the right climate for Tina Turner to finally write her autobiography and hang her wife-beating former husband Ike out to dry. 

Sonic Cool is a really fun book to read. In a way that's surprising because it's a fairly academic perspective on rock music's place in society, but nearly every paragraph offers a display of Harrington's cutting wit and discerning eye. He's strongly opinionated and I don't always agree with him. For instance, I still think rock is alive, but he has a point that it now occupies a far smaller percentage of the public's imagination than it did during its heyday of the 1960s through the 1980s.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Junot Diaz's stories - not just Oscar Wao - are well worth reading and cherishing

Ever since I read Junot Diaz’s 2007 masterpiece The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, which I named my 59th favorite novel of all time and which was given the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. Wao is about the experience of the Dominican community in Paterson, New Jersey, specifically Yunior and his friend Oscar, who is teased for looking like Oscar Wilde.

Diaz was born in 1968 and moved to New Jersey when he was seven. I’ve wanted to dig deeper into the Dominican American author’s work and now I have. This is what I learned:

He hit it big when his collection of 10 stories, Drown, was released in 1996. “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” is an acclaimed story from that book. It begins in eye-catching form as a boy in the projects pretends to be sick so he doesn’t have to go with his mom and brother to see his aunt “who likes to squeeze your nuts” and say “it’s gotten big.” Once alone in the apartment, the narrator runs off a litany of how to entertain any type of girl he has invited over during this calculated time. Nothing much happens in this story but it’s entertaining. 4 out of 5 stars.

Also from Drown are “Ysrael” and “Fiesta, 1980,” which were in The Best American Short Stories of 1996 and 1997 collections.

“Ysrael,” the title character, is a disfigured boy who wears a mask on his face. The other characters, a couple of young brothers named Rafa and Yunior (Yunior is a recurring character who appear in many of Diaz's stories and is Diaz's alter-ego) go about their days doing kid stuff in a barren and bullying landscape. They all talk of making it to New York, where their fathers are located, and Ysrael says he is going to go get his face fixed right before Rafa slams a bottle over his head for no apparent reason. The story ends with the reader not knowing if he’ll ever get that operation or if he’s even still alive. As often happens in Diaz tales, not a lot happens, but it’s a gritty and interesting look into what life is like for lots of kids. 3 out of 5 stars.

“Fiesta, 1980” continues the story of Yunior and Rafa, as they go to a party with their family. Yunior irritates his father by doing his usual vomiting in the car, his dad takes him to his mistress’s place, and then his dad doesn’t allow him to have dinner at the party because he doesn’t want to have to clean up too much puke in the car later. Like with most Diaz tales, this one is a series of everyday vignettes, but there is a vibrancy that adds a layer of entertainment and a glimpse into the Dominican American experience. 4 out of 5 stars.

His 2012 collection called This is How You Lose Her includes Yunior again and is nine interlocked stories, with the first two - “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” and “Nilda” - included in The Best American Short Stories of 1999 and 2000 collections. 

I love “The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.” It’s one of the best ultimate-breakup short stories I’ve ever read. Yunior cheats on Magda with Cassandra, who sends Magda a letter telling her. Y and M try to repair things with a trip to the Dominican Republic. Adventures ensue, as Yunior falls in with a couple of rich guys, but the journey doesn't repair the faded love. Those aren’t spoilers, just read it, you’ll be a Diaz fan for life. 5 out of 5 stars.

“Nilda” is equally as great. Told through Yunior’s eyes, it’s the story of the 15-year-old girlfriend of his older brother Rafa. Yunior sits and reads comic books with Nilda, who is often at their house and secretly sleeps there because she is homeless. Rafa is not a great dude but he treats her well. He breaks up with her after finding out he has cancer and he soon dies. Yunior runs into Nilda from time to time and the last time he sees her it’s at the laundromat before he heads off to college. 5 out of 5 stars.

But the most recent one I’ve read is “The Ghosts of Gloria Lara,” from The New Yorker’s November 6, 2023 issue. The narrator recalls growing up in New Jersey listening to the news, with his father’s love of Dominican Republic dictators Trujillo and Balaguer and his mother’s equal hatred of the two always punctuating the coverage. His mother’s brother Renaldo was the only communist in the family and got himself shot for trying to turn the D.R. into another Cuba. Then on D.R. Independence Day 1980, guerrillas attacked the D.R. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia and kidnapped ambassadors from a bunch of countries and held the embassy at siege for 61 days. Later, a man moves from Colombia to the narrator’s neighborhood and strikes up an odd friendship of sorts with the family. This is another good glimpse into the Dominican American experience, but really only just that, just good. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, March 15, 2024

RIP Karl "World Party" Wallinger

I've always loved the Beatles, but in college I was absolutely nutso for them. It was also a time I was deeply exploring anything in the post-psychedelic-Beatles genre, and World Party rose to the very upper echelon of that category. The band's classic is 1990's Goodbye Jumbo, and it was on constant rewind throughout the early 1990s for me.

Karl Wallinger was the leader and often sole member of World Party. He passed away March 20 at the age of 66. The band never truly hit it big, despite decent-sized alterna-hits in "Way Down Now" and "Put the Message in the Box," possibly because grunge came along to wipe out many of the era's more melodic pop groups. Wallinger remained relevant, serving as the musical director of Ben Stiller's 1994 Gen X classic movie Reality Bites.

Growing up, he attended the same school in Wales as all the members of Genesis and later collaborated with Peter Gabriel, who is perhaps World Party's most famous fan. After the success of Goodbye Jumbo, World Party's audience dwindled and Wallinger suffered a brain aneurysm in 2000 and had a long recovery. But he was working on his first song in more than two decades and planning a tour at the time of his death.

The rock-music world also recently lost Eric Carmen, who sang "Go All the Way" by the Raspberries, one of the top songs of the power-pop genre. He also scored big with solo ballads "All By Myself" and of course Dirty Dancing's "Hungry Eyes."

Thursday, March 14, 2024

After a lifetime of cheering for the Tarheels, I finally get to see them live

I've been a fan of the University of North Carolina's hoops team since I was a pre-teen, when Michael Jordan was pouring in buckets and wagging his tongue. Nobody has ever surpassed MJ as my favorite Heel (see this 2009 list of my 33 favorites), but this year's team is exciting and RJ Davis and Armando Bacot are already among Chapel Hill's long list of legends.

In all these years, I'd somehow never seen UNC live, but that streak ended today when the Tarheels visited Capital One Arena in Washington D.C.'s Chinatown. I've been attending Georgetown games at this arena for many years and have become disillusioned by the overall experience at the venue. The combination of years of abysmal play by the Hoyas and the lack of any good food and drink vendors bothering to show up during those low-rent basketball displays has tainted my opinion on CapOne, but the place was alive and hopping for the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament's quarterfinals.

Little Miner Taco was miles above the basic options at Georgetown games. The two tacos I had with a side of corn hit the spot for an early lunch, starting the event out right and avoiding any day-destroying, fried-food hangovers. 

My seat in the nosebleed upper deck was only $20 after fees and I enjoyed the perspective surprisingly quite a bit. The tourney’s #9 seed Florida State kept the game close for the first 10 minutes or so, then top-seed Carolina gradually built a bigger and bigger lead, winning 92-67, with Davis and Bacot dominating and the rest of the team turning in a really scrappy performance, including lots of time for the talented second- and third-team players. The Heels have already won the ACC regular season and look primed for further success in this tournament and then March Madness.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Mountain biking, hiking, and more await in Moab, Utah

I'll be soon headed to Copper Mountain, Colorado for what looks like the final ski trip of the season. We're very lucky to get to go there twice this winter of 2023-24. That part of the the trip is easy. No mapping out needed. Just ski every day and sleep every night. But I need to plan out the last five nights of the trip.

After skiing on the last day at Copper, a four-hour drive west on Interstate 70 to Moab, Utah sounds rough, so we'll break it up by staying an hour west of Copper at Glenwood Springs. Since we'll be travelling with kids, it's a toss up as to whether we'll head to the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort, which might be just what our bodies need after five days on the slopes, or Glenwood Springs Adventure Park, which includes a gondola ride, a cave tour, and several rollercoasters.

Then it's on to Moab, a place I've always wanted to visit. It's a small town surrounded by sandstone sculpted by wind, sand, and sun, much of which is in Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park. I've mainly heard about it because mountain biking is one of my hobbies. Even though I haven't been doing it as much as usual lately, I'm pumped for the family adventure and I think the kids are going to love it. We have four nights planned there and really 4.5 days before we fly back out of the Grand Junction, Colorado airport.

Among Moab's most notable pop-culture touchstones: parts of 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were filmed there and part of Edward Abbey's 1968 enviro classic novel Desert Solitaire was set there.

For our bike riding, since we'll have our 10-year-old with us, we'll be sure to mostly stay away from the daring and epic mountainous red-rock trails that I associate with Moab. That said, this blog has all kinds of great ideas to keep us busy for at least half of our stay. Here are some possibilities:

  • While our little one is pretty tough stuff, we'll probably want to check the barometer by starting with the Rowdy/Wrangler at Horsethief Campground, which is 1.5 miles and billed as "the best beginner bike trail in Moab for kids."
  • The Intrepid Loop Trail at Dead Horse Point State Park is a 1.1-mile mostly-flat trail with some rocky terrain and views of the Colorado River. After that initial stretch it gets tougher but turning back is an option.
  • Jurassic Trail looks like a cool 3-miler that "sits on the western side of the Klondike Bluffs" and includes "stunning views ... such as the nearby mountain ranges and overlooking various bluffs ... colorful clay that dates back to the Jurassic Era."
  • Mill Creek Parkway is a 2.5 miles out-and-back in town on a paved route. "There’s also a stunning stream that flows alongside the path that comes from the nearby La Sal Mountains."
  • Moab Canyon Pathway is another paved trail that runs for 8.8 miles "along the southernmost border of the Arches National Park." It offers "stunning and scenic sights that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else or along any other bike path." But we should be aware that the whole trail can somehow take about three hours.
  • If we succeed at some of these, we may proceed with some more intermediate-level trails.
  • If we don't, and the weather is nice enough, we might have to do some whitewater rafting at Red River Adventures.

Key hikes to do in Moab include:

  • The Corona Arch Trail, a 3-mile moderately strenuous hike above the Colorado River Canyon to Corona Arch, which is less busy than some other spots in nearby Arches National Park and some say it's the most beautiful. The detour to Pinto Arch is said to be worth doing as well.
  • Dead Horse Point is said to be most stunning at sundown and a lot like looking out over the Grand Canyon. It's also near where Thelma and Louise drove along back in 1991. Same for Double Arch and Delicate Arch (which is the one on Utah centennial license plates; it's a mile-and-a-half hike in Arches).
  • "The Fisher Towers Trail explores the Fisher Towers, one of the Utah canyon country’s most bizarre landscapes. The area is a maze of soaring fins, pinnacles, minarets, gargoyles, spires, and strangely shaped rock formations east of Moab," notes Visit Utah and several other people.
  • If we want to explore for dinosaurs, we should hit either the Dinosaur Tracks Trail or the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Bone Trail.

When it comes time to imbibe:
  • The New York Times recommendations are La Hacienda ("a tasty pair of fried fish tacos"), World Famous Woody's Tavern ("cold $2 drafts ... some say the floor is painted red to cover up bloodstains from brawls"), and Milt's Stop & Eat ("fresh chili, mouthwatering double bacon cheeseburger, creamy chocolate malt"). In general, Moab's downtown area is "pretty darn cute."
Before flying back home out of Grand Junction, Colorado, hopefully we'll have time for a quick hike or at least walk around the downtown. Lands End Road up to Grand Mesa and the short hike behind the visitor center at Colorado National Monument are both possibilities.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

A little “green” tennis wisdom

The Little Green Book of Tennis Wisdom, edited by Julie Ganz, is a breezy quick read of great quotes about tennis. Here are my the ones I found most interesting.

From the section on the history of the game:

  • The word “tenes” went through 24 transformations before it became the word “tennis.”
  • Henry VIII was a world-class player.
  • Before the Open Era in the U.S., tennis was “hidden away from the great unwashed behind Ivy-covered walls,” according to Bud Collins.
  • Rod Laver had no show of emotion. He was “like a good plumber.” He won all four majors in one year - an almost-impossible accomplishment.
  • Bjorn Borg was bigger than the game. He was like Elvis.
  • The optic yellow ball of the early 1970s “helped transform tennis from a country club pastime to a billion-dollar sports enterprise.”
  • Andre Agassi brought in the MTV generation and the Hollywood elite.
  • France dominated tennis from 1925-1935, Australia in the 1960s, the U.S. In the 1990s, and Spain around the early 2010s.
From the section on advice:
  • John McEnroe says the most important quality of a winner is desire and the ability to keep at it when not playing that well.
  • Martina Navratilova says she prefers creative players way more than cookie-cutter players.
  • Lleyton Hewitt said many matches are won and lost in the locker room.
  • Rod Laver said the best volley is a short stiff jab, with almost no backstroke. “You’re blocking the ball, not stroking it.”
  • Serena Williams said she had never met a tennis player who hates sushi.
  • Author Timothy Gallwey noted that tennis can help you learn to trust yourself, which is far more valuable than learning how to hit a forceful forehand.
  • Tennis can be a little dull unless there is some pizzazz, Nick Bollettieri said.
  • Author David Foster Wallace called the sport the most beautiful one and the most demanding.
From the section on the Grand Slams:
  • It’s not right to compare the four slams. That’s why you don’t see pundits doing it. They are all great and valuable in their own ways.
  • Roger Federer said he thought players were the most inspired at the Australian Open, perhaps because it’s the start of a new year.
  • Navratilova said winning Wimbledon is like a drug that you just want to do again. Andre Agassi also said something along those lines. 
  • Andy Roddick said his footwork on the French Open clay was awful.
  • Novak Djokovic rightly noted that the U.S. Open is about the night session with the rowdy crowds interacting with the players.
  • Roddick said the adrenaline rush of the first 30 seconds after winning a match is like no other he experienced before starting to play tennis or that he expects he’ll ever feel again. 
  • Nadal said he plays every point like his life depends upon it.
  • Jim Courier said the dumber you are on court, the better you’ll play. 
In the section on doubles:
  • The masters make others feel foolish or simply tempt them to beat themselves.
  • It’s a game of subtlety, touch, and deft hands at the net.
  • One doctor said that you can tell if a couple should stay together when you watch them play mixed doubles.
  • Mixed double and regular doubles can make you better because you learn to relax a little. It’s  also a great way to polish net skills.
A worthy ending inspiration comes from the ping pong section: Keanu Reeves is, of course, apparently really good at it.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Why E.T. always makes me cry

I would probably be considered an R.E.M. Relatively emotional male. I've known this since at least 1982, when I first saw E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. This movie - my fourth favorite of all time - has consistently made me heavily cry each of the 15 to 20 times I've seen it.

The stretch from when the "man on the moon" arrives at Elliot's house - in hazmat suits - through until the end of the film pretty much has me in a mess. And it did again this week, when I watched it with my kids.

Digging deep to try to understand myself, here are some of the spots in E.T. that seem to dig themselves into my heartstrings:

  • From the very start, E.T. is lost in a faraway land. He's scared and he's harmless. But people don't know that he's harmless, with even Elliot letting out a few good screams into the alien's face before becoming incredibly confortable with him. As we get to know E.T., we see his longing and pain to get reunited with his space buddies.
  • I could also relate to Elliot's world. He was the kid brother like myself who not only had to deal with his older brother but with his dad having run away to Mexico with his new girlfriend. My parents also got divorced when I was about the same age as Elliot. Director Steven Spielberg too says he created the movie based on the imaginary friend he had after his own parents' divorce.
  • The friendship between E.T. and Elliot is definitely heartwarming in and of itself, especially seeing how Elliot doesn't seem to have much of a network of friends for support like his older brother does.
  • E.T.'s growing ability to speak and communicate with Elliot and his brother and sister is part of it, and when the alien begins to rapidly blurt out phrases like "E.T. phone home," it's a mixture of hilarious and heartwarming.
  • It's odd that the government agents would contribute to my emotions, but they do add a layer of "bad guy" and some scariness to the story, as we have no idea what they might do to semi-defenseless little E.T.
  • Of course, in the scenes when we know Elliot must let go of his new friendship, it is probably the hardest to take, even if we know deep down that their relationship has to end somehow.
  • It can't be forgotten that all the bike riding by the kids harkens back to serious memories of childhood. Like the characters in the Valley outside Los Angeles, I rode everywhere around my town outside of St. Louis to get everywhere.
  • Finally, the music by John Williams is big, awesome symphonic stuff similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars, and I connected it a lot with the music in Alfred Hitchcock films, many of which are my very favorites in cinemal history.
There now, I've said it. Want to make me cry? E.T.'s got all the ingredients necessary.

Friday, March 8, 2024

Suits Season 1 offers a poor man's Mad Men, but an oh-so-good one

I don't remember the last time I watched a lawyer-procedural TV series, but a lot of people had been recommending Suits and then it recently exploded in popularity when it moved to Netflix. And of course, even though I'm not that intrigued by the British royal family, there's the added allure of Meghan Markle, the pseudo-princess. So I figured I would try an episode or two. But do you know what? I binged the entire first season.

It's a poor man's Mad Men, but that's not a bad thing (you may recall Mad Men was named my favorite show of all time). The suits. The questionable morals and ethics. The beauty of everything from the characters to the office space to the New York City settings. The writing is sharp and witty. One such example is everything out of the mouth of Rick Hoffman's Louis, with his constant Paul Lynde-like sneer. It all adds up to being a lot of compelling eye candy.

Season 1 goes like this: Mike (played with youthful enthusiasm, street smarts, and photographic memory by Patrick J. Adams) is a dropout who accidentally gets hired at a prestigious law firm in the middle of running away from a drug deal. Even though he never attended law school, Mike intrigues Harvey Specter (played in star-making fashion by the smooth and magnetic Gabriel Macht) and the two work all season to hide the fact that Mike never attended Harvard like he claims and like everyone else at the firm.

Each episode tackles a legal situation, but office politics, romantic liaisons, and personal struggles are the parts that had me riveted. Some of my favorite storylines include: 

  • Rachel (played very enticingly - very smart and very cute and very underappreciated by the firm - by Markle) is accused of leaking some of the firm's confidential documents.
  • The love triangle (or is it simply tension?) between Rachel, Mike, and Mike's girlfriend Jenny simmers throughout the season.
  • Harvey's internal battles about his past ethical lapses, such as putting several people in jail who were innocent, is written and played in a cool-guy and airy manner, and
  • Again, I find all of Louis' smarmy blackmail attempts against his own firm teammates one of the most compelling elements of the show.
I would guess I won't live long enough to watch all nine (??!!) seasons, but I plan to watch at least a few more. We'll see how it goes.

Season 1 (from 2011) is 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, March 7, 2024

In Expanded Universe, Robert A. Heinlein is at his best when focused on sci-fi

Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is my 10th favorite novel (as of 2014) and possibly my favorite sci-fi novel. I haven’t actually read much else by him, although his novels The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers are high on my list. In the sci-fi genre especially, short stories are a great way to go because the premise is often the best thing about them, and that premise can sometimes ware thin over the course of a novel. Heinlein’s stories are surprisingly not presented in a lot of different ways. The Past Through Tomorrow is supposed to be a good collection. The only one I could find readily available online is Expanded Universe, available for free on the Hoopla library app. It includes short stories, essays, and novelettes.

Here are my summaries and reviews of only the five short stories from the collection:

"Life-Line" (1939): One Dr. Hugo Pinero gets invited by an associated insurance salesman to present information at the Academy of Science. Amidst jeers, he announces that he has discovered how to tell exactly how long each person will live. He proposes to a disbelieving group that he can figure out which one in the room will die soonest. He is forcibly removed, but several journalists f9low him and he invites them to come see his apparatus. He gets all the birth dates correct for the reporters. Then one named Luke asks him to predict a death. The doctor does the experiment but doesn’t want to say the results. Once it’s finally coaxed out of him, he reports Luke will die before tomorrow! A sign falls on him on Broadway while he’s headed back to the office to file his story. The story gets big and before we know it, Dr. Pinero is appearing in court, standing accused of being a common fortune teller by a life-insurance company that doesn’t like what he might do to its business. He convinces the court to let h8m carry out his experiments on a group from the Academy and the judge accepts. Back at his office, Pinero accepts a young couple planning to start a family and hoping to make the right decision. After testing them, he says his machine appears to not be working properly and detains them when they say they need to hurry to their next appointment. Eventually he can’t detain them any longer and he witnesses them getting run over by a speeding police car out his window. The Academy prepares to open the envelopes when they get news that Pinero has been murdered in his home and his machine destroyed at his office. They remember Pinero’s own envelope in in the batch, they open it, and it tells the exact correct time of his death. The Academy members then throw all their envelopes into a burning wastebasket, with the last words spoken being a concern that the tabletop has burned a bit. This is a fascinating take on the battle between powerful corporate interests and the unwanted truths that the scientific method can offer. 5 out of 5 stars.

"Successful Operation" (1940): This is an odd, very short story about a leader of the Nazis needing an operation. Nobody could perform it successfully other than a Dr. Lans. He and his family are imprisoned in the leader’s concentration camp. The doctor barters a deal of freedom and payment for doing the procedure. The leader finally agrees. The transplant patient is a young man from the camp. He thinks he will be awarded freedom somehow but ends up be8ng sent back to the camp. The doctor and his family survive. So too does the Nazi. But one of the stipulations is that the operation take place outside of the country. The doctor’s family is placed in a luxury hotel. Then several people of the unnamed country enter and kill the Nazi. I like the sentiment, but it is a pretty minor story, albeit clever. 4 out of 5 stars.

"Searchlight" (1962): This is another minor and very short piece “Blind Betsy, child genius of the piano,” getting lost in her ship while doing a USO tour of the Moon. The lunar command will do anything to find her, knowing it doesn’t have much time, so it turns a laser beam into sounds so Betsy can pinpoint which note she hears as they scan it over her location. She is discovered and rescued at the end, in this story Heinlein wrote to appear alongside a Hoffman Electronics ad in Scientific American and other magazines of the time. 3 out of 5 stars.

"A Bathroom of Her Own" (1980): This is more politics than the regular Heinlein sci fi. The war has ended and there’s a significant housing shortage. A woman decides to run for the local council because she’s sick of sharing one bathroom with a large house of family. A man running against her discovers she’s a real threat - even though she’s a one-issue candidate - because she’s backed by the local machine. The man is losing but the woman has been disillusioned, realizing she really is backed by the corrupt machine. The man decides he’s going to drop out and help her run for office without the machine. She wins and he becomes her field secretary. She gets married and moves out of the full house into one with two bathrooms. They unavoidably are the new machine in town. It may be accurate as to how politics works, and it may be correctly cynical on the topic, but the story isn’t very exciting. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

"On the Slopes of Vesuvius" (1980): This is a tidy little tale about a few scientists who walk into a bar in Manhattan. It is somewhat predictable but still left my jaw dropped at the end. [Spoiler alert] The men start talking about the atom bomb and it's revealed that one of them works on the bomb. Even though many years have passed since the Cold War began in earnest, it's still an issue, and these men tell the bartender that the bomb is very easy for any number of actors to launch, if they so choose. He sort of nervously laughs them off, as they talk about how easy New York City is as a target, but then leaves the bar suddenly and takes a train out of the city. He begins to think about how his ill cat needs to be fed and other everyday tasks that he needs to perform back at home and exits the train to head back, thinking that he has acted irrationally. As he starts to head back, a mushroom cloud blasts upward from where NYC used to be. 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Journeying to the center of psychedelic rock, with author Jim DeRogatis

The genre of psychedelic rock began in 1966 with the release of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys and then Revolver by the Beatles, writes rock critic Jim DeRogatis in 1996’s Kaleidoscope Eyes: Psychedelic Rock from the '60s to the '90s. That said, it took a lot of cultural touchstones outside the world of music to get to that point.

Here are some of the more interesting moments from the early part of the book:

Albert Hoffman discovered LSD in 1943 in his lab in Switzerland. He took a bike ride home, which resulted in a really bad trip before he was calmed down by his physician and began to see unprecedented colors and shapes. In 1953, Aldous Huxley took LSD and wrote The Doors of Perception. Soon stars began to take the drug, including Jack Nicholson and Cary Grant. By 1957, New York City’s underground scene, including Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, had gotten ahold of LSD and further documenting of the drug's effects happened with Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo‘s Nest and Tom Wolfe‘s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. 

Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys claims to have only taken acid three times, but it coincided with a really bad time in his life, when bandmate and cousin Mike Love was allegedly having an affair with his wife. The acid combined with that trauma scared the living daylights out of him and caused him to go into hiding. The Beatles started taking acid especially around the time of what DeRogatis calls their psychedelic masterpiece, 1966’s Revolver. The Rolling Stones' absorption into the drug was relatively short lived, mainly observable on Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesty’s Request. But they went back pretty quickly into a bluesy rock feel that fit more closely with the rest of their catalog.

Legendary writer Lester Bangs notes that great musicianship could often be, counterintuitively, a hindrance to creating great rock n’ roll. In the 1960s, as kids started clearing out their garages to jam with friends, many hadn’t taken LSD, but they started buying the first guitar pedal, a Gibson fuzztone, and playing with other sounds. Many of the best of these bands were far from great musicians and were captured on the Nuggets compilations.

One hilarious story DeRogatis relates from the 1960s is how “Journey to the Center of the Mind” by the Amboy Dukes was one of the one-hit wonder (more or less) megahits. But future gun-toting conservative poster boy Ted Nugent, a member of the band, had no idea it was a reference to drugs and also didn’t know that a huge collection of pipes on their album art had anything to do with drugs. I guess once-illusional, always disillusioned.

Although California bands like the Grateful Dead and The Jefferson Airplane are the kinds perhaps most associated with the term psychedelic rock - and there's a section in the book about them and the other folk rockers transitioning to psychedelic rock - Lou Reed once called them “the most untalented bores that ever came up." Reed's motley Velvet Underground could certainly be placed - at least partly - in the same genre, with their playing throughout the late 60s in Andy Warhol’s trippy ballroom concert evenings.

Also, while those early psych bands were male dominated, DeRogatis argues that psychedelic rockers were much more in touch with their sexuality and femininity, with bands like the Feelies and My Bloody Valentine including female members not because they wanted token woman rockers but because they wanted rockers and that these women could rock. 

Many psych rockers would later go on to become entrepreneurs, farmers, hippies, and environmentalists because they could never go back to a 9-to-5 lifestyle. 

I've also written about one of DeRogatis's other books, Milk It: Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the '90s, and he is a co-host of Sound Opinions, my favorite music podcast. Even though I often disagree with his opinions, Kaleidoscope Eyes, like everything he is involved with, helps make a solid case that he is one of the finest living rock critics.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

What America looked like as a very uncivil Civil War wound down

As the Civil War wound down in the spring of 1865, it had mostly closed the book on what is still to this day the deadliest war in terms of U.S. casualties. More than 600,000 died, which was more than the total of U.S. soldiers who died in World War I and World War II combined. The introduction of rapid-fire guns, lots of booby traps, and outdated strategies such as frontal assaults were the main reasons for such horrific and frankly unnecessary death counts.

While the North settled into a law-making and forward-facing geography, the South remained for many years as a total wasteland, with rotting and vacant houses and widows in Charleston and ruined factories in Tennessee and the lawlessness in Missouri that helped people like Frank and Jesse James go on a warpath of bank robberies. The cotton and tobacco crops would not recover for well over a decade. The sugar crop in Louisiana would take three decades to recover and many other crops like rice and hemp basically never did. 

Slavery ended, but Black people were still slaves to society. They had no money or property and had to work hard to find friends and even family. Congress established a “Freedmen’s Bureau” to offer land - “40 acres and a mule” - to former slaves, but this was a difficult process to administer. While new constitutional and legal rights had importantly been granted to former slaves, these were really only temporary relief, with all kinds of problems still existing regarding land use, such as how medical care and schools would work and also how the limited amount of land would truly be divided up. 

As noted in the excellent history textbook called America: A Narrative History, by former University of North Carolina history professor George Brown Tindall abd David E. Ski, President Abraham Lincoln was soon, “in the hour of victory,” shot by “a crazed actor who thought he was doing something for the South.” In a quirk, Lincolns’s murder catapulted Andrew Johnson, an unaffiliated politician from Tennessee, into the presidency. He declared reconstruction unnecessary because he claimed basically that the North and South were still one and that the South hadn’t seceded in any way. 

Despite the blatant racism of many in Congress representing the Southern states, Blacks were now at least holding property and could sue and be sued in the court system. But major hurdles remained, such as in Mississippi, where the penal code leaned heavily towards tough punishment for ex-slaves who got in the way of the law there. Johnson did the cause of freedom for former slaves no favors by becoming a bit of a drunk (although the degrees to which that’s true are still debatable). He took to touring the country to get people onboard with reconstruction, which proved harder than he had imagined. He was fairly renowned as an interesting speaker on the stump, but he was also quite a bit like later president Donald Trump in that most of the things he said were completely idiotic and he was ridiculed and labeled as a “drunken imbecile.” 

As Johnson became more and more ineffective through 1867, Congress began a campaign to impeach him for, in their eyes, not working well with Congress. It was close, but the impeachment effort failed and it contributed to making impeachment a very difficult thing to accomplish going forward. It did however make Johnson even less effective throughout the rest of his term which, in turn, helped reconstruction move forward again in a productive direction. This included the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which gave former slaves the right to vote. For Black children, the opportunity to go to school under the new state school systems led to more than 600,000 attending schools in the South by 1877.

The Ku Klux Klan was established in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee by a group of men who started out pranking Blacks and Republicans who had invited Blacks into their political folds. But the group quickly became violent and other chapters rapidly sprung up throughout the South. When President Ulysses S. Grant was able to mass prosecute KKK members in nine counties throughout South Carolina, in 1871, it significantly halted the terrorist group’s more outrageous acts, although more subtle acts of racist terrorism obviously persisted.

Ulysses S. Grant
Grant was elected in 1868 and was wildly popular for his military record. He could have also run for any party since he had almost no political background but became a Republican mainly because he no longer liked President Johnson. The Radicals pushing to end slavery also admired him. While Grant dominated the electoral college vote, it was still surprisingly close in the popular vote, really taking the 500,000 newly ex-slave voters to push him to victory. A major reason his political record would never match his war one is because he made a series of bad cabinet appointments at the start of his run, failing to consult experts and picking wealthy men that he seemed to be in awe of and who happened to lack talent and integrity. 

Grant won a second term but it didn’t go well. Although he didn’t appear to be involved, his brother-in-law was part of a plan to falsely inflate the value of gold, which caused the market to burst and set back the economy. There were many other financial scandals happening, including one that took railroad funds away from shareholders to line the pockets of politicians, including future president James Garfield. Grant was not implicated in any of them, but his time in office was an exceptionally corrupt time for the country.

Thanks to the two-term limit being in place, Grant would not run for a third term. He probably could have won 10 terms based on his long-ago performance at Appomattox alone. But after a series of more scandals from potentially stronger candidates, Rutherford B. Hayes made it out as the next president. He was a three-time Ohio governor and strong on fiscal matters, despite being “a third-rate nonentity … obnoxious to no one.” Fittingly, he took the office by a measly one vote in the electoral college.