Friday, May 31, 2024

RIP Bill Walton

Bill Walton was mostly before my time in the worlds of college and pro basketball, but he was so much bigger than life that it was impossible not to feel his presence long after his playing days.

Memories of Walton for me were mostly when I was obsessed with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s and his playing days were winding down and he was starting anew as an NBA color commentator. He would always do hilariously weird things in his tie-die shirts like rubbing dirt all over his body, making casual references to how much he liked doing drugs, being part of the Grateful Dead culture, eating birthday cakes and cupcakes with the candles still lit, and bringing fun-hearted spiritual-hippie presents to his colleagues.

Walton, who passed away this week from cancer at age 71, was a winner. He won 49 straight games and two high-school championships in California. He won 88 straight games at UCLA and national championships in 1972 and 1973. He was picked first in 1974 by the Portland Trail Blazers. He was league MVP in 1978 and won championships with the Blazers in 1977 and Boston Celtics in 1986.

Also passing away this week was Amy Winslow, who was once the manager of my second-favorite band Guided by Voices. She also worked with Yoko Ono, Surfer Blood, Kiwi Jr., and helped launch the Rachel Maddow Show. The cause was breast cancer at age 59.

And Tony Scott, who played for six years through the end of the 1970s into the 1980s for the St. Louis Cardinals, passed away at age 72. He stole 87 bases during that period as the Cards' centerfielder. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

AI will inevitably help us become more human than we used to be

Writer Kevin Kelly concludes that “the computer age didn’t really start until computers merged with the telephone” in the early 1980s. The Internet has of course grown since then to be central to the way our society operates and it will continue to grow. That is the baseline that begins his 2016 book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. A pretty intriguing title, and I wanted in on the secrets.

Things we can’t stop include massive copying, massive tracking and total surveillance, decentralized ownership, virtual reality that is actually real, and improved artificial intelligence and robots that will both take our jobs and create new businesses. Kelly writes that we need to embrace these changes. We don’t want to fight any one invention because the scientific process has made it so that we’ll take “solid things - an automobile, a shoe - and turn them into intangible verbs. Products will become services and processes. Embedded with high doses of technology, an automobile becomes a transportation service … rapidly adapting to customer usage, feedback, competition, innovation, and wear.”

Kelly has organized his book into 12 categories that are verbs like "accessing, tracking, and sharing" and posits that we look at technology this way instead of "iPhone, Uber, or shoe." Which products or companies will succeed or fail is unpredictable because those are determined by fads, fashion, and commerce. 

“Becoming” is the first area of focus. In the 1980s and 90s, young boys in chatrooms and Wall Street traders used the internet but leaders at ABC TV, WIRED, and many others scoffed at the thought of the internet going big. Many thought there would be 500 or so channels on TV that would be where the content would be created. “Instead, billions of users created the content for all the other users. There were 500 million channels.” The internet stuff the execs couldn’t imagine was that passive consumers would become active creators. We still fail to truly grasp how awesome the web has become, with its 60 trillion web pages (about 10,000 for every person alive). 

The corporations eventually realized the online world could be their distribution network, but they did not foresee that they wouldn’t be the ones making the content. YouTube, blogs, and social media were not created by big-media’s staff but by their users. We no longer even typically get customer service anymore from corporations because we can ask the global community congregating at places like Reddit subgroups. 

By now, the internet feels completely bloated, with “more than enough content to demand our attention for the next million years.” But Kelly claims, in reality, “nothing has happened yet! The internet is still at the beginning of its beginning.” For instance, by 2050, just about everything with have a little AI added to it. “The last 30 years has created a marvelous starting point, a solid platform to build truly great things.” We are just now “becoming” and the coolest inventions are yet to happen. 

“Cognifying” is the second inevitable and it’s all about AI. Granted, this book was released seven years ago so quite a bit has already happened, but perhaps not as much has happened as one would think. “At the rate AI is improving, a kid born today will rarely need to see a doctor to get a diagnosis by the time they are an adult.” AI will not look like HAL 9000 - “a discreet machine animated by a humanlike consciousness” - but rather like Amazon Web Services, “a cheap, reliable industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything and almost invisible except when it blinks off.” 

One example of being cognitive is photography. Years ago, it would have taken $100,000 and hefty bags of equipment to do everything cameras and iPhones do today to make photos treated, modified, and beautiful. Other examples could include music created in real-time as needed for soundtracks or video games, smart clothes that tell laundry machines how to wash them, advertising optimized for how many people follow and watch and what their level of influence is, matching buyers and sellers of real estate, real-time adjustments of medical care and treatments, dolls that will probably be the first really popular robots, and stats on every breath and movement of athletes to create highly advanced fantasy sports.

Google has been working on AI for decades and has always seen its search engine as a way to refine its AI rather than AI as a way to improve its search engine. Google has indeed been buying up lots of AI companies and, by its own predictions, AI should be its main product by 2026. This would be pure hyperbole, except three recent breakthroughs have made the ancient promise of AI possible: “parallel computation” has become so cheap that companies are able to use it in ways that Facebook can identify friends easily in photos and Netflix can make reliable recommendations, it’s taken a long time to get enough big data fed into the system for computers to get this smart, and the growing amount of users is helping to make it all even smarter. 

By 2100, Kelly predicts that 70 percent of the jobs people do will be replaced by automation. Assembly-line and factory workers will be the first to go. Pharmacists will be replaced by pill-dispensing machines. Office and school cleaners, truckers, and information-intensive white-collar jobs are in the AI path. But these aren’t things to worry about. No Victorian boy ever dreamed of one day becoming a professional video-game developer. Those who once farmed began working in factories and then later moved to other jobs. 

“Today, the vast majority of us are doing jobs that no farmer from the 1800s could have imagined.” AI’s greatest benefit is that it “will help us define humanity. We need AIs to tell us who we are.” It’s not a race against the machines. It’s a race with the machines. “Let the robots take our jobs, and let them help us dream up new work that matters” and helps us become “more human than we were.”

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

European colonization of the Americas greatly set back human progress

I’m often not great at staying focused while listening to audiobooks and was bored silly with the first hour of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. But I really wanted to know more about his challenge to the long-held notion that the Americas were a sparsely populated wilderness before Christopher Columbus landed ashore. 

Luckily the Hoopla library app has a 20-page Cliff notes-type summary. Here are my Cliff notes to the Cliff notes. Caution: it's interesting stuff:

  • As the last Ice Age receded, the New England region turned into an ecologically diverse landscape. Many people were hunter-nomads, but there were also settled villages with established agricultural practices.
  • As early as 1616, hepatitis began attacking the indigenous population in the region. It had been brought by European settlers and killed off most of the region’s native Americans. The same thing was happening in Peru. The sophisticated engineering and military capabilities of the Inca society were no match for the smallpox brought by Europeans. Hernando de Soto’s exploration left almost no population in its wake in the Mississippi Valley, thanks mainly to the diseases his pigs carried.
  • Europeans understood how diseases operated and spread, but there were not any attempts to halt or slow colonization. Transmission was often viewed simply as God’s will. Scholars have put the death totals in the millions, suggesting there had been a significant population in the Americas. 
  • The human die off truly set humanity back, as there was a ton of knowledge and advancement lost in the entire colonization process.
  • Peru’s mountainous landscape was shaped by continental drift that became an attractive locale for diverse groups of Indians around 10,000 B.C., with complex societies, governments, and urban centers common by 3200 B.C.
  • The cultivation of maze throughout Mesoamerica was truly one of humanity's greatest feats of genetic engineering. Native American ecological influence could have helped greatly advance society's progress, but Europeans wiped out the native people and, with them, almost all their knowledge of landscape architecture and the urban settlement of places like Cahokia, Illinois, near modern-day St. Louis. 
  • I grew up very close to Cahokia, where several mounds/hills still exist. It’s amazing to think back to how advanced this society was in 1250 B.C. before it collapsed around 1350 due to environmental mismanagement, social unrest, and a devastating earthquake. Likewise, the Mayan population collapsed between 800 and 830 B.C. because of overpopulation, resource overuse, and severe drought. 

Mann’s conclusion is that the Americas were not an untouched wilderness but rather a complex environment that worked because of the interplay between humans and natural forces. This suggests that people now and in the future should focus on building sustainable habitats rather than trying to simply reproduce what has been done in the past in terms of restoring ecosystems. 

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Challengers challenges

I watched quite a bit of Day 1 of the French Open. Then I went and hit around on the courts for a while.

I should have stopped with the tennis at that point.

Instead I went to see Challengers tonight, and struggled mightily to stay interested in the new hit film featuring Zendaya.

The acting is fine. But there's not enough of it. 

Zendaya and crew look impressive on the tennis courts, even if there's a chance their strokes are all CGI.

The bonkers soundtrack (and not in a good way) never fails to come ripping in and slow down the action, making the movie a good 20 minutes longer than it needs to be. 

The movie itself is a soft-porn vehicle to feature Zendaya basically in a 2-hour-plus music video.

It makes sense that the music - supplied by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails - is there to add suspense to who will win the challenge to gain Zendaya's love. But the story itself is as threadbare and vacant as Reznor's way-over-dramatic (and way in the foreground) music. And the three main characters are so unlikeable that it takes away the chance for investment in caring much about any of them.

It would make sense if I liked Challengers. Director Luca Guadagnino cites Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho as among his favorite directors and films, and I can see some of those attempts to emulate the master here. His work on 2017's Call Me By Your Name was much better than Challengers, which is closer in style to his remake of Suspiria (pro tip: see the original version, not Guadagnino's).

In the end (and especially with that lame ending), the whole thing somehow makes me a little embarassed that I love the sport of tennis so much. I need to schedule my next match to wipe the taste of Challengers out of my mouth.

1.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 25, 2024

RIP Morgan Spurlock (but not fast food)

Maybe it’s just a matter of getting older and wiser, but it seems like the movie Super Size Me was the point in my life when I went from regularly devouring Big Macs and Quarter Pounders with Cheese and Fish Filets to only very rarely (usually on long road trips) having a meal at McDonald’s. 

The small documentary (a $65,000 production) turned into a massive hit ($22 million at the box office) and seemed to be a bad sign for the restaurant chain and possibly all fast food. It was released in May 2004, but a month of eating McDonald’s (the plot), in the end, didn’t kill director and star Morgan Spurlock. Who’s to say it didn’t shorten his life, but he did live until passing away from cancer this week at the age of 53, exactly 20 years after the movie’s release.

I think my decision to cut back on fast food was even more influenced by reading the excellent Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser. The book was a slightly more intellectual indictment of fast food than the movie, but they did work powerfully in tandem. 

What seemed like the progress of the human species back then to taking steps for health improvement now only looks like a small blip on the radar, as parents allowing their children to regularly eat fast food continues to climb back to near universal numbers. 

The fast-food scare did, however, mostly end marketing directly to children, but now most of the publicity is done by celebrity spokespeople who draw kids into eating what used to be considered the adult food (only 2 percent of McDonald’s marketing budget is focused on Happy Meals).

During the month-long experiment that was Super Size Me, Spurlock gained a whopping 25 pounds as well as a slew of maladies including depression, fatigue, headaches, and liver and heart damage. He went on to have an impressive body of work in documentary filmmaking, including a follow up to Super Size Me about McDonald’s since-incorporated healthier food options, the pop band One Direction, male masculinity (in partnership with Jason Bateman and Will Arnett), and the only other one I’ve actually seen, Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? (which many critics said made too much light of a serious story).

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

It's no wonder "white trash" is so prominent in America. That's who founded it

Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election because, like so many politicians before him, such as Bill Clinton, he refused to be the usual scripted politician and embraced “the common man, the working stiff, the forgotten rural American,” according to Nancy Isenberg in White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

Turns out, sound deliberation and calm problem solving have never been the reality of the U.S. political landscape, which jibes with my master’s thesis, which concluded that personal foibles tend to help presidential candidates win office. 

The scumbag family that accuses a Black man of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird, disgraced chef Paula Deen, and the Duke boys of Dukes of Hazzard are all popular examples of white trash - “marginalized Americans stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children.” These examples of “human waste” were known as “waste people” as early as colonial times in the 1500s.

British colonizers saw the New World as the perfect place to ship its most unproductive and idle people. One reason we don’t see it this way any long, Isenberg writes, is that our elementary-school history lessons tend to become pretty much the extent of what we still know years later as adults, which, essentially equates to a series of vague myths about American exceptionalism, our uniqueness, and that there is an absence of class in our country. “Americans do not like to talk about class. It is not supposed to be important in our history. It is not who we are.”

We celebrate the Pilgrims only because Thanksgiving was invented to boost the struggling poultry (turkey) industry during the Civil War. And earlier, just because the country had won its independence from England, it doesn’t mean the British class system suddenly went away. “Long-entrenched beliefs about poverty and the willful exploitation of human labor … [meant that some humans have] remained disposable well into modern times.” 

In the time of Shakespeare, French and English intellectuals became fascinated with the idea of sending Sir Walter Raleigh and other like-minded “men of action endowed with larger-than-life egos, heroism, and ill-tempered public behavior” overseas to the “almost inconceivable” wilderness of America, which they imagined to be filled with cannibals that could be tamed and subordinated and helpful in gathering natural resources for "the greater good."

But it wasn’t just the wealthy and educated who thought the artisans, the poor, and the homeless should be the ones put to better use in America. "This view of poverty was widely shared." Most of the settlers of the early 1600s to Jamestown died off quickly and a good portion of the rest “dreamt of finding gold, which did little to inspire hard work.” Gold didn’t pan out but some success started to happen with the “filthy weed” tobacco. The land was still barren by the late 1600s but the process for distributing land ownership and the creation of a white slave class ensured an already deeply entrenched division of classes. 

The 700 or so who landed on the Mayflower and other ships in Massachusetts were considered slightly less scum-of-the-Earth. They were, like the Jamestown arrivals, big on land ownership, but unlike those in Jamestown they were religion crazy. When two Quaker women tried to escape the church community, they were charged with contempt and hung. Pretty standard stuff. Class rank was becoming even more embedded in Puritan America, with “age, reputation, marriage, estate, number of sons all properly calculated before a church seat was assigned.”

Bacon’s Rebellion is an example of a defining event of the era. Sir Francis Bacon originated from wealth but decided to fight for the lower class. Part of what he was rebelling against was the “the most promising land was never equally available for all.” The game was rigged against many people, something that should sound similar to all of us today - no matter whether we’re on the rich or poor side of the divide.

Monday, May 20, 2024

RIP Alice Munro, whose stories perhaps got better as she got older

Western Ontario may not have been the best place to grow up for a kid, but for Alice Munro, it provided a fertile ground of small-town characters to spread throughout her lifetime of writing. She is renowned as a master of the short story, compared often to William Faulkner and Anton Chekhov, and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013. Somehow I had never read any of her work, but when she passed away on May 13, it spurred me to delve into some of the stories regarded as her finest.

“Walker Brothers Cowboy,” from the collection Dance of the Happy Shades (1968): The young girl narrator describes a walk with her father through her small town anmed Tuppertown on Lake Huron. Then later, the mother isn’t feeling so well so the dad, daughter narrator, and younger brother go for a car ride and, oddly, stop at a woman’s house where there is whiskey and dancing - two things that definitely don’t happen at their own family’s home.

There really is not much that happens in this story, although Munro artfully describes what typical life must have been like for people in Depression Era-ravaged households where better times were still a memory and current times were very rough going. 3 out of 5 stars

“Age of Faith,” from the collection Lives of Girls and Women (1971): A 12-year-old girl with the family name of Jordan attends various churches in her rural community in order to get an understanding of whether God is real. She gets no help trying to understand from her younger brother, who has absolutely no need for religion. She gets no help from her mother, who yells at her that man created God, not the other way around. By the end, after their dad is looking for their dog because it has killed a sheep and the dad is now going to kill the dog, the previously ambivalent younger brother is attempting to pray to keep him from doing it. Meanwhile the protagonist girl still has lots of questions about God’s existence and how difficult it is to watch her brother show this display of faith.

Munro’s writing is all over the place, and despite an excellent concept or idea for a short story, I think she only half pulls it off. The story is profound, but it’s also not that interesting. 2.5 out of 5 stars

“How I Met My Husband,” from the collection Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974): A plane lands in the field across from the wealthy Peebles property, where the not-wealthy 15-year-old protagonist named Edie works, having dropped out of school because of bad grades and disinterest. She imagines that it must be harder for the rich people to picture what the poor people’s houses and lives were like than the other way around. The pilot has been camping out in the field and comes over for water then catches her wearing one of Ms. Peebles’ dresses, but the two spark a bit of a friendship or at least curiosity of each other. Then Alice, the fiancée of the pilot Chris arrives. But she leaves with Ms. Pebbles for a picnic and Edie takes a cake to Chris. They get intimate in his tent and he says he’s leaving and will write her a letter. Alice finds out and is furious but Edie is allowed to stay on working for Ms. Peebles. She waits for the letter for a long time, but it never comes. In the meantime, she builds up a relationship with the postman and they eventually get married. 

Now this is more like it. A great and entertaining story and a deep dive into the loneliness and sexual awakening many - all? - women face. 5 out of 5 stars

“Dimensions,” from the collection Too Much Happiness (2009): Doree is 23 and riding a bus to visit her husband in a home for the criminally insane. Then shifting back to when she was 16, her mother dies in the hospital from a botched operation and Doree moves in with a hospital orderly she has started a relationship with named Lloyd. They move across the country, get married, and have three kids named Sasha, Barbara Ann, and Dimitri. Doree and Lloyd homeschool the kids but increasingly he gets mad at her. One night she buys a dented can of pasta and he accuses her of wanting to poison him and the kids. She leaves and spends the night at the house of an another homeschooling mom. She comes back the next morning and he has murdered all three children because “how could they suffer the shame of knowing their mom had walked out on them?” She works at a job cleaning a motel and sometimes goes to visit Lloyd, who assures her the kids are happy and doing well. She continues to not find meaning in her life.

I found this one to be the most page-turning of these four Munro stories, but the ending is strange and a little unfulfilling. Doree was on her way to see Lloyd again when she witnesses a young man fly out of his pickup truck. Doree breathes life back into the man but it’s unclear if this is a sign to give up on Lloyd or continue to include him in her life. Perhaps Lloyd provides the only happy memory she can imagine about her kids. 4.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes: Are we humans really humans or are we monkeys?

I've written about all the Planet of the Apes movies and I even named the 1968 original number 6 on my list of all-time favorite films. What is it that draws me to these films? 

For one, they have virtually all been really well done, with the Mark Wahlberg/Tim Burton 2001 edition being the only non-essential addition. CGI dehumanizes most movies that use it, but the Apes never lose their heart and their ability to overwhelm our senses.

The other thing is that apes and monkeys are just awesome. They obviously aren't humans but their similarities to humans is always present. Just about any story that places monkeys on or around the same level as humans has a good shot at gripping me. The premise - which some think is goofy -remains quite probably my favorite one in all of movie and pop-culture history.

But it's not just the premise. The big-budget, action-adventure parts wouldn't work nearly so well if there weren't exceptional characters and big sociological issues being dealt with. All the latest in the remarkably long-running series are prequels to the 1968 original, so we know somehow that humans will find a way to survive, if only in small pockets where they can escape the potential wrath of the apes. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) set the scene: humans developed an Alzheimer's cure that leaked from the lab and made most humans dumber but somehow made apes smarter.

As for the new Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, I loved it and the suspense and questions it asks at the end are a monumental setup for the inevitable collision course with the original's Charleton Heston-led storyline. 

Taking place several generations after War, a Coastal-dwelling and fierce clan of apes have twisted the meanings of the former great leader Caesar, who had dictated peace among the apes ("ape not kill ape") and also between the apes and humans. Nearly all apes have forgotten or never known about Caesar by this point. So the evil and power-hungry apes are exploiting that lack of historical knowledge and are now on a rampage to enslave any apes and humans who don't bow to their commands. 

However, there is one bird-loving, talented-climbing community of chimpanzees that, along the way, discover the true teachings of Caesar, and provide a formidable foe to the bad guys. Humans don't even appear in the film's first half, and when they do, we see they are witless packs who roam to survive and run from the occasional ape encounter. Monkeys have no reason to believe any of them can think let alone talk. But then along comes Nova (different from the Nova of the 1968 film, but apes have taken to calling many or all humans by that name), played by Freya Allan, who teams with the peaceful, bird-loving monkeys to not only outwit the evil apes but (hopefully?) revive humanity. Raka, an orangutan, is also key in relocating this bridge between humans and Caesar's apes.

In many ways, the chronology of the Apes movies doesn't much matter. It feels like humans (and apes) will keep repeating the failures and mistakes of our past, into time immemorial. We will keep fighting other tribes. We will keep believing unfactual things. We will keep getting diseases that some make it difficult to remedy. I think humanity's own current foibles is why the Planet of the Apes continues to be so awe-inspiring.

5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Fondly recalling “the trade” from my early-career journalism days, with Calvin Trillin

Even though I was a daily newspaper journalist for several years way back at the start of my career, I still love it when journalists open up about their day-to-day life and what the trade means to them. Therefore, esteemed writer Calvin Trillin's new compiliation, The Lede: Dispatches from a Life in the Press, is set up to be a page-turner for me. 

The book includes “disparate pieces from various places in various styles” and amounts “to a picture from multiple angles of what the press has been like over the years.” It’s true: Trillin has written stories for many outlets, including The New Yorker, The Nation, and one of my old favorites Brill’s Content. Broken into sections on the trade, reporters and reporting, big shots, R.I.P., controversies, niches, and closings. 

His first topic in the book is “the lede,” a term I still use often in my strategic-communications work and often feel apologetic for using, having to explain that "no, I haven’t misspelled something." Trillin calls himself a “collector of ledes.” Like many old-time journalists, he appreciates a story told grippingly from the start. It can be a one-word crime article that begins (and ends) with the word “Dead” or it can an obituary in The New York Times that packs an entire life into a first sentence.

When I started my first newspaper writing job out of college, I was paid $17,000 a year and worked incredibly hard and very long hours. I was a known entity in the community yet the people I was covering - coaches, judges, lawyers, politicians - were all making way more money. I never really thought much about this. I loved to write. I loved to report. If that's what it paid, I would have to be happy with that, even if Trillin points out that news people are odd members of society. Is it a job befitting a college graduate? About all you might be truly guaranteed is a “decent obituary.” 

I also always wanted to work at a magazine and never truly did (I freelanced for National Geographic and other magazine-like publications), but Trillin’s essay on the downfall of magazines is interesting. Time Magazine invented the genre in 1923, with Newsweek coming along 10 years later. It was originally designed like The Week (which is my favorite magazine these days, essentially an upgrade from Time and Newsweek), presenting “the week’s news succinctly to ‘busy men’ who were too involved in their important endeavors to spend time wading through a lot of newspapers.” Time started as “a rewrite operation” before moving into enterprising original reporting. The magazine’s founders invented a fact-checking system that pitted the all-male reporting staff against the all-female research staff with the thought that it “would create a sexual dynamic that could lend energy to the process.” This was in the era of “group journalism,” before bylines were introduced at Newsweek then Time. Columnists followed. 

Trillin himself left Time so he could work for The New Yorker and then, realizing that “the civil-rights struggle had been covered mostly in terms of organizations and court cases and disruptions,” he wanted to write a book all by himself telling the stories of people who had been involved. He has continued to write for The New Yorker and the rest of this book promises interesting stories about it, even if, as Trillin jokes, there hasn't been a person who has worked at The New Yorker who hasn't written a book about working at The New Yorker.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The pieces come into place for the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed to become massively influential

I'm finally committing to a full-length Lou Reed biography. Alongside The Beatles, Reed is second on my list of musical performers I wish I could have seen perform live. So he's a big deal to me. I started PCLB's coverage of Lou Reed: The King of New York, by Will Hermes, with an article about what Lou Reed was like before he was The King of New York

Here's part 2.

A history of mental-health issues and hepatitis likely saved Lou Reed from getting drafted into the Vietnam War. It probably helped that he allegedly told the draft board to give him a gun and he “would shoot anyone or anything in front of me.” This fortunate turn allowed him to focus on music and he got a job as a songwriter for Pickwick Records.

John Cale, the Velvet Underground's other guitarist, was born in Wales one week after Reed and had his own early mental-health issues. Reed and John Cale’s first iteration of a music group was to busk on the streets of Manhattan, but soon they put together a band that included Sterling Morrison. They called themselves The Falling Spikes until they changed their name to the Warlocks, which was at the same time the name of a band that would soon change its own moniker to the Grateful Dead. Moe Tucker joined as the band’s drummer right after they were wisely renamed the Velvet Underground. Their first gig was at a Jersey high school with about 1,000 people in attendance. While some were mesmerized, many others ran out screaming from the drone noise.

Next, enter Andy Warhol, who grew up as Andy Warhola in Pittsburgh. Like Reed, he had also suffered mental breakdowns as a child. But that was also a time when he developed his strategy to mostly stay quiet rather than telling people what to do. It became his style and power. He offered to be VU’s manager as long as he got a 25 percent cut. 

Nico allegedly first witnessed the Velvets in action on the same night Warhol first saw them. She had been kicking around as a singer and had even previously hung out with Bob Dylan for a week or so. She called that night seeing VU “the most beautiful moment in my life.” Reed came around pretty quick to her joining the band, although he was still pretty insecure as the lead, saying “I was just this poor little rock and roller and here was this goddess.” 

As they worked on the many brilliant songs from the debut album, Reed and Nico entered a relationship. Years later, she called him “very soft and lovely. He always stayed that way. I used to make pancakes for him.” She also always kind of thought Lou held a grudge against her for what her German people did to his Jewish people. During the same short period that Reed and Nico dated, Cale and It Girl Edie Sedgwick also had a brief fling.

Things didn’t stay great with Nico and the band all that long. She wanted to play Dylan covers and the band mostly refused, knowing he was one of their top rock’n’roll poet competitors. She also asked to sing “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” to which Reed refused. 

But much more influential on Reed than Nico was Warhol. They were best friends and a lot alike. “But Reed’s biggest takeaway was Warhol’s work ethic, which would stick with him for life.” Reed also watched closely as Warhol transformed himself from an “uptown commercial artist” into a flamboyant and open gay man - “in the tentative pre-Stonewall era” - knowing that it was possible to remake himself anyway he liked. 

Billy Name was a kid from the New York suburbs and he became a right-hand man at Warhol’s Factory art spaces. While Warhol and Reed were “strictly comrades,” Name and Reed clicked and not only hung out but would sometimes hook up together afterwards. 

The band finally hit the road - with Nico driving scarily in the English style of occasionally drifting into the wrong lane while Warhol “couldn’t care less” - going to Rutgers and the University of Michigan. It’s safe to say people in the hinterlands didn’t really get it, but the Velvets were about to begin a residency throughout April 1966 in the East Village at a run-down, smelly place called the Dom that was going to truly start to put them on the map, much like The Beatles at the Cavern Club a few years earlier.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Guided by Voice highlights the Kilby Block Party on Sunday

Going to a rock festival is a pretty big commitment that takes stamina. After Saturday at the Kilby Block Party at the fairgrounds in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, we decided to skip afternoon acts Royel Otis, CSS, and Pond and save up for the evening lineup of Guided by Voices, Interpol, and LCD Soundsystem.

It was a fine decision as those three acts were well worth the price of admission. We danced away to festival closers LCD after a razor-cool performance by Interpol, and the weekend’s clear highlight, GBV as the sun set behind their stage.

Leader Robert Pollard was in fine form, with even a couple of his patented high leg kicks. “I Am a Scientist,” “Teenage FBI,” “The Best of Jill Hives,” “Glad Girls,” and many other staples dotted a tight set. Pollard promised 21 songs in an hour and he delivered.

  1. Everybody Thinks I'm a Raincloud (When I'm Not Looking)
  2. Meet the Star
  3. I Am A Scientist
  4. Dance of Gurus
  5. Motor Away
  6. Jack of Legs
  7. Tractor Rape Chain
  8. For the Home
  9. Boomerang
  10. Focus on the Flock
  11. I Am a Tree
  12. Haircut Sphinx
  13. The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory
  14. The Best of Jill Hives
  15. Alex Bell
  16. Your Name Is Wild
  17. Game of Pricks
  18. Glad Girls
  19. The Rally Boys
  20. Encore: Teenage FBI
  21. Encore: A Salty Salute

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Dinosaur Jr. highlights the Saturday lineup at Salt Lake’s Kilby Block Party

I’m excited and lucky to have travelled this lovely Mother’s Day Weekend to beautiful Salt Lake City, Utah to not only visit with some of my closest old high-school friends but to join them at the Kilby Block Party.

It’s a three-day festival. We didn’t attend on Friday, unfortunately missing Vampire Weekend, Courtney Barnett, Alvvays, Kara Jackson, and a few others I would have liked to have seen. But that’s ok because we now still had two full days of shows to see, which is plenty, seeing as I can’t remember the last full-on music festival I attended. Perhaps it was Lollapalooza in St. Louis and Chicago back in the 1990s. 

I had hoped to catch Beach Fossils at 2:35, but we were a little late for that so headed to see hot new band Slow Pulp at 3:25. They were a little drowned out by some Rage-like band from one of the other stages.

But the main action of the day had us getting a good spot early for Dinosaur Jr., which played at 5:10. It was a greatest-hits set, with highlights including “In a Jar,” “Out There,” “Feel the Pain,” “Just Like Heaven,” “The Wagon,” “Start Choppin’,”Freak Scene,” and closer “Gargoyle,” from their self-titled debut album. The sound was great and the moshing crowd and band kept the one-hour set energetic.

After a tasty plate of butter chicken from the Himalayan food truck, we headed over to see Belle & Sebastian, one of my favorite bands. This was my first time seeing them in concert and they entertained well from a distance, with many from the crowd invited to dance on stage for the last few songs. Highlights of the 10-song set included “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying,” “I Want the World to Stop,” “Piazza, New York Catcher,” and “The Boy With the Arab Strap.”

We hung out for a few cool songs from Santigold, then caught the end of Bombay Bicycle Club’s set before finishing the evening with Death Cab for Cutie playing all of its classic album Transatlanticism before morphing into Ben Gibbard’s other band Postal Service. I think this was the first time I had seen Death Cab, and while formerly being a favorite band (and it was cool that Jenny Lewis came out to play with them for a bit), I’m not sure if they stand the test of time all that well in my book.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Bad Summer People is the trash you’ve been searching for

Bad Summer People is a total trash beach read, and I loved every minute of it. 

Author Emma Rosenblum is the chief content officer for a women’s magazine named Bustle and this 2023 novel is her first, with her second, curiously titled Very Bad Business, apparently due for release this month.

She grew up in New York and lives in Manhattan, with a bio that sounds suspiciously similar to the characters in this book, which takes place on Fire Island and was inspired by the excellent TV shows The White Lotus and Succession.

The action begins when, near summer’s end, a boy finds a dead body along the boardwalk of a summer-vacation beach town. Then the action shifts back to the start of summer as we get to know some of the town’s seasonal visitors. Jason and Lauren are married and hang out with Sam and Jen. There’s also childhood friend Rachel, young bartender Micah, and tennis-pro Robert. These and others carry on with their unlikeable behavior through the season, with the tennis tournament at the club being the center of the action. Then one night a big storm hits and the murder occurs, which lead us down an Agatha Christy-like path towards figuring out how this happened and if anyone is responsible.

I can’t recommend this book enough. Read it now.

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 10, 2024

Yeah, Salt Lake City has lots of Mormons, but there are lots of other fun things to do there

I’m headed to Salt Lake City, Utah, so I wanted a good book to get me in the mood. Luckily, professor of American history Benjamin E. Park has just released American Zion: A New History of Zion.

Park is a life-long Mormon who says the stories he was raised on are quite different from what he’s discovered in the historical record, even that of the Mormon library at Brigham Young University. “At the founding meeting for what was then the Church of Christ on April 6, 1830, Joseph Smith, the faith’s ‘first elder,’ dictated the revelation that commanded the faith to keep ‘a record.’ [However,] the new faith’s historical record was primarily envisioned to reaffirm Smith’s role as a prophetic leader and encourage followers to obey his dictates.”

Smith’s first church was actually started way back near Fayette, New York. Even before that, when he was 15, he claimed God descended upon him in a pillar of light and assured him that even though the world was sinful, his own sins would be forgiven.

The controversies started from the beginning. Brigham Young claimed to be Smith’s successor and burned all the existing history at the time so nobody would question his authority. By now, some 400 sects have sprouted that verge from Smith’s original visions for what this American-grown religion would be about. The thesis of the book is to narrate “the long history of cultural wars waged over Mormonism’s purpose and mission.”

Park continues on with the religious or spiritual or whatever visions young Smith encountered along his way. At that point I lost interest in the fairly academically-written tome and decided to instead look at what things I might like to do in Salt Lake City, although with two days at the Kilby Block Party planned, there won’t be time for much else. 

According to “36 Hours in Salt Lake City” in The New York Times, some possible interests include:

  • “Celebrate the repeal of liquor laws that required bars to operate as private clubs and collect membership fees. The Red Door has dim lighting, a great martini list and kitschy revolution décor — yes, that’s a Che Guevara mural on the wall. Squatters Pub Brewery serves high-gravity beers from the award-winning brewmaster Jenny Talley.”
  • If we need to walk off the rock’n’roll, there’s The Red Butte Garden, “nestled in the foothills above the University of Utah campus. The Living Room is a lookout point named for the flat orange rocks that resemble couches. Sit back and absorb the expansive views of the valley, mountains and the Great Salt Lake.”
  • “Chart your own architecture tour. The city’s Main Library, a curving glass structure built in 2003 by the architect Moshe Safdie, has fireplaces on every floor and a rooftop garden with views of the city and the Wasatch Mountains. For older buildings, wander the Marmalade Historic District, home to many original pioneer homes from the 19th century.”
  • A growing non-white share of the population means there are great restaurants to be found, including Tibet, Bosnia, and Somalia ones. This includes Himalayan Kitchen, “a down-home dining room with turmeric-yellow walls and red tablecloth tables, where dishes include Nepali goat curry, Himalayan momos, and steamed chicken dumplings served with sesame seed sauce.”
  • “As the only sizable city between Denver and Northern California, Salt Lake City gets many touring bands passing through. Hear established and up-and-coming acts at places like the Urban Lounge and Kilby Court.” Ok, I will.
  • I kind of can’t believe, with the area STILL getting snow, that I’m not skiing “28 miles east at Park City’s Utah Olympic Park,” but alas it seems my ski season is over.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

RIP Steve Albini, Bob Avellini, and ELO guy

I know a lot of rock'n'roll hipsters like to proclaim the greatness of producer/musician Steve Albini, and while I can appreciate a certain rawness in music, his style bordered on overly abrasive - in both production and commentary - for me. Even when I was younger and way more snarky, Albini's snark was too much for me. For years, I thought he probably held back Nirvana's In Utero from being as great an album that I thought it could have been.

In hindsight, he probably made that band's farewell as great as it was supposed to be. But I’ll never be totally sure about that. Albini, who passed away at age 61 this week from a heart attack, worked with some of my favorite bands, including Pixies, the Breeders, Urge Overkill, Slint, King Kong, Superchunk, the Cribs, and even Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. But his work for all those outfits was oddly and consistently among my least favorite stuff by them all.

But come on, what kind of person do you have to be to turn on a band that made your name - Nirvana - by calling it "R.E.M. with a fuzzbox." I'm not sure if he meant that as an insult, but it actually sounds like the second-best thing to R.E.M., which to me would be a high compliment. I think I never forgave him for saying that one of my favorite album's, The Replacements’ Let It Be, was "a sad, pathetic end to a long downhill slide." If Albini's bands like Big Black and Rapeman could hold a candle to the innumerable great bands he loved to trash, then I might have taken him and his artistry a little more seriously. 

Also lost too soon at the age of 70 from cancer was Bob Avellini, who I profess to having been too young to see much at all on TV. But I still own many of his football cards. His biggest claim to fame may be that his 75-yard pass to Walter Payton was the legendary running back's longest career touchdown.

Another notable death this week was Richard Tandy, who was hardly Jeff Lynne in terms of importance to Electric Light Orchestra. However, notable about Tandy, who passed away at age 76, was that he rocked the protagonist's voice in perhaps my favorite ELO tune "Mr. Blue Sky." His wild keyboard playing helped anchor that song and many others with the band's signature Beatles-meets-disco brilliance.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Woody Allen still has the brilliant absurdist-essayist touch

When I was younger, I frequently turned to Woody Allen’s comedy collections Getting Even, Without Feathers, and Side Effects (I haven’t read 2007’s Mere Anarchy) for comedic and writing inspiration. These are admittedly more complicated to turn to since the film legend’s personal controversies, but I was interested to at least see if he still has the same sociologically insightful magic, so I dug into his latest collection - from 2022 - called Zero Gravity.

Daphne Merkin, a writer for The New Yorker, offers an introduction that takes us down the memory lane of some of the “cerebral jokester’s” best lines. She notes that the collection includes 19 pieces, one of which is a 50-page short story called “Growing Up in New York” that is appearing for the first time. To see if I want to read the entire collection, let’s start with a report on the first four stories.

“You Can’t Go Home Again - And Here’s Why:” The narrator, a big-time mineral trader, gets a letter that a movie company would like to film at his house. The housekeeper and wife are excited by this prospect but the trader doesn’t want to endanger any of his beloved things - first-edition books and Chinese vases and whatnot. He gives in when the director promises him a major part. Away the production goes and, although they have promised not to disturb his shrine, they indeed massively transform it into a Muslim brothel, with the couple's furniture “stacked haphazardly outside on the curb despite some rather heavy rain.” Sure enough, playing a character named Grimalkin, the trader appears in the movie, but as a dead body, then the crew quickly wraps up and assures the trader that he and the housekeeper can put the house back in order nicely. There are lots of improbable laughs in this one, but be sure to have a dictionary handy. Not far from classic Allen. 4 out of 5 stars

“Udder Madness:” This story leads off with an excerpt from the newspaper about how 20 people are killed each year by cows, with most of them happening when the cow purposely kills the person. The story is then told from a cow’s perspective. The lyricist of a Broadway musical comes to his New Jersey farm to relax. The narrator cow comes to despise the man and decides he will kill him. He’s just about to do so when his tail is caught in a closet door. The man looks up at the sound of "moo" and tries to spray the cow with his mace, but the mace sprays into his own face. The man does not die but he is taken away to be institutionalized, as he endlessly babbles “something about attempted homicide by a Hereford.” This one is not Earth-shaking, but it is creative and so darn ridiculous that it at least gets 4 out of 5 stars

“Park Avenue, High Floor, Must Sell - Or Jump:” This one I just don’t get. It seems to be an inside joke for rich people and their real-estate agents trying to sell properties. Not good at all. 1 out of 5 stars

“Buffalo Wings, Woncha Come Out Tonight:” This story brings Allen back to the animals. Actor Harvey Grossweiner gets a call from his agent about a job entertaining chickens at “a poultry farm a good three hours from Rodeo Drive. The owner, Al Capon, a small-time egg baron whose fortunes rose and fell with every new study on cholesterol” hires Harvey to entertain his chickens, who don’t produce enough eggs if they’re bored. Lots of fowl jokes ensue as Harvey just can’t get the chickens to care, but finally he has the idea to teach them to type. At first everything is gibberish, but soon they are writing award-winning scripts and Harvey quits acting to be the leader of the Broadway Hen House. I still haven’t found anything in new Woody Allen to match some of his master classes in essay writing deom the 1960s and 1970s, but this is an absurd blast. 4 out of 5 stars

Despite "Park Avenue," the verdict is in that this is a collection - when you're in need of total intellectual wackiness - worth reading in full.

Monday, May 6, 2024

Dashiell Hammett gets extra pulpy in his short stories

Ernest Hemingway is largely credited with moving popular U.S. fiction out of the flourishing Henry James/Victorian style of writing into a leaner, more conversational one. And that is certainly true, but Dashiell Hammett doesn't get enough credit in this department.

His pulpy detective stories began their string of popular publication in 1923, while Hemingway's first book In Our Time was published in Europe in 1924 and not in the U.S. until late 1925. Hemingway may not have ever admited it, but he was under the influence of Hammett. 

While The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man are well-known Hammett novels, I wanted to explore his lesser-known short stories a bit.

"The Creeping Siamese" (1926): In the Continental Detective Agency's San Francisco branch, a tall, leathery man named Rounds, in town from New York, walks in and collapses dead from a fresh knife wound. The employees can't find anything amiss in their hallway or the rest of their building. The wound has a sarong stuffed into it, which leads the detective on a hunt for the killer. He ends up at the apartment of a local movie-theater owner and a woman he claims to be his wife. Through a very sharp eye for detail, the detective determines the woman had actually been married to the dead man and had accidentally stabbed him after he had located her lover. The story gets its name because the guilty and racist couple had tried to blame everything on a mysterious "siamese" who had supposedly broken into their apartment and shot her beau's leg. A minor story but a good glimpse into Hammett's world of crime, and a nice semi-subtle dig against racism. 3.5 out of 5 stars

"Faith" (appeared for the first time in 2007's compilation The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps): This is the tale of a homeless encampment of people in Maryland, A nomad named Feach tells everyone there that everywhere he's gone, something has gone tremendously wrong. He is a religious fellow and thinks it's God's will for him. But when a block of houses burns nearby, it's discovered that Feach was the one who set the fire, leading the reader to believe it's not God but Feach that is the evil one. Interesting conceptually, and thankfully short, but far from essential.  And being overly wordy, it's not very Hemingway-like. 2 out of 5 stars

“The Girl with the Silver Eyes” (1924): This is a bit of a the sequel to another popular Hammett short story published earlier in that year called “The House in Turk Street,” which I would like to read as well. The author practically invented the feline-like, cold-bloody temptress that would be a feature of just about every pulp story by every pulp author to follow. A “fat little” P.I. from the Continental Detective Agency in San Francisco - a running enterprise of much Hammett fiction - is called upon to check on a poet who has given his girlfriend $20,000 right before she had left temporarily and suddenly for Baltimore, writes letters back and forth to him for several days, and then seems to vanish completely. Turns out the money had been stolen from the poet’s wealthy brother-in-law, who tells the detective to find the poet and the money discreetly, without his wife finding out. The poet soon also disappears and the detective tracks him and the girl to a bootlegging operation in Half Moon Bay. Bloodshed follows and, although the woman seems to nearly be working her attraction magic on him, in the end, he deposits her to the Redwood City jail. Before she is locked up for likely a very long time (she had a streak of other killings and also had been disguised as a dangerous redhead in the previous story), she whispers “the vilest epithet of which the English language is capable” into the detective’s ear. It's a very fun, and very pulpy, read. 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Great Magazine Reads: Lenny Kravitz examines his life and I name my 35 favorite LK songs

It’s no wonder that it seems Lenny Kravitz has always been around. His awesome debut album was released a whopping 35 years ago. MOJO Magazine's April issue featured him in "The MOJO Interview." 

Here are the highlights of that interview as well as my 35 favorite LK songs (overwhelmingly populated by tunes from his first two releases).

  • Lenny is now 59.
  • He grew up in Manhattan and Brooklyn until he was 10 then moved to L.A.
  • His dad was a Ukrainian Jew and TV producer while his mom was African-American-Bahamian and known the world over from her role as the neighbor on The Jeffersons.
  • Seeing The Jackson 5 at Madison Square Garden at the age of six was transformative.
  • When Lenny started his music career, he was known as Romeo Blue (he thought his name was “the most un-rock’n’roll name ever”) before releasing his debut Let Love Rule, an homage to his then-wife Lisa Bonet from The Cosby Show. Their daughter is actor Zoe.
  • Actor Cicely Tyson was his mom’s best friend and she was married to Miles Davis, so young Lenny had quite the musical mentor growing up, even though their friendship wasn’t necessarily all about music.
  • After Let Love Rule, he wrote “Justify My Love,” which he didn’t feel was quite right for him so he gave it to Madonna.
  • On his second album, the perfect Mama Said, Slash rocked the guitar solo on “Always on the Run” and Sean Lennon developed the structure of “All I Ever Wanted.”
  • His 12th album, Blue Electric Light, is releasing soon. From the one song I’ve heard, “Human,” it sounds like it could be a fun listen.
  • This one and his previous two albums were recorded in the Bahamas. He says he works when inspiration hits him rather than waking up, drinking a coffee, and getting to work. “I wait until I hear something, which can come in a dream, or sitting, or walking around and the Bahamas is great for that.”
  • He made what could someday turn into about four albums during the pandemic.
  • Kravitz has lots of other hobbies, including his design firm Kravitz Design, which has made the Architectural Digest Top 100 in each of the past three years.
For a solo artist to have 35 songs I like is pretty darn good. There isn't too much of Kravitz's genre-hopping rock that I dislike, although not a lot has drawn mean in over his past 7 or 8 releases. Here are 35 songs that would make a killer compilation in my book:

35. American Woman (5)
34. Johnny Cash (Raise Vibration)
33. I’ll Be Waiting (It’s Time for a Love Revolution)
32. Ride (Raise Vibration)
31. My Love (Are You Gonna Go My Way)
30. My Precious Love (Let Love Rule)
29. Fly Away (5)
28. Can’t Get You Off My Mind (Circus)
27. Sugar (Are You Gonna Go My Way)
26. Rosemary (Let Love Rule)
25. Stand (Black and White America)
24. Stop Draggin’ Around (Mama Said)
23. Butterfly (Mama Said)
22. More Than Anything in This World (Mama Said)
21. Spinning Around Over You (Reality Bites Soundtrack)
20. Blues for Sister Someone (Let Love Rule)
19. What the * Are We Saying (Mama Said)
18. Again (Again)
17. Be (Let Love Rule)
16. Does Anybody Out There Even Care (Let Love Rule)
15. Sittin’ on Top of the World (Let Love Rule)
14. All I Ever Wanted (Mama Said)
13. What Goes Around Comes Around (Mama Said)
12. Are You Gonna Go My Way (Are You Gonna Go My Way)
11. Black Girl (Are You Gonna Go My Way)
10. The Difference is Why (Mama Said)
09. Believe (Are You Gonna Go My Way)
08. Fields of Joy (Mama Said)
07. Flowers for Zoe (Mama Said) 
06. I Build This Garden for Us (Let Love Rule)
05. Always on the Run (Mama Said)
04. Stand by My Woman (Mama Said)
03. Let Love Rule (Let Love Rule)
02. Mr. Cab Driver (Let Love Rule)
01. It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over (Mama Said)

Friday, May 3, 2024

How Steve Martin became (and stayed) a titan of comedy

Steve Martin was around 10 when he realized that, even though he didn’t have a talent, he wanted to be on stage. His workaround was to learn magic tricks and say “welcome ladies and gentlemen.” Voila, that put him in show business, and the rest is history ... at least as told in Apple TV+'s new, three-hour documentary STEVE! (martin) a documentary in 2 pieces.

About that same time, young Steve started a job at Disneyland and his childhood from there was as happy as could be, at least outside his house. His dad was a jerk, and Martin came to the realization later in life that his dad had just not been that good of a person. 

Anyway, he eventually realized that magic was a bit of a dead end but comedy might not be. He met a girl who helped convince him to find the meaning of life and to find himself, and he started going to Long Beach State to study philosophy. 

He discovered he wanted to find “real laughter … like the kind you have with your friends.” Bob Hope and others built up the tension then released it with punchlines. but Martin thought real laughter could come more from building up the tension and not releasing it. The audience would have to pick their own places that made them laugh. 

He transferred to UCLA and took advanced logic then began having new experiences: travelling across the country and also dating a girl whose family was fun-loving in all the ways his own family wasn’t. 

As he aged a little more, he looked like someone from the Eagles then decided to shave his beard, lose his country outfits, and create a new look for a new future. He began opening for his friends in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, as well as lots of other bands, from The Carpenters to Black Oak Arkansas. 

He thought the 500-person venues were too hostile and started headlining his own shows in front of 40 people or so, and it worked. He was killing it with college audience but fell flat to older adults in a week-long run at the Playboy Club in San Francisco. He decided his comedy needed to appear in weird places. 

By 1975, Martin was in his early 30s and thought he was flying the flag for the new world of comedy. Then he saw something come onto TV called Saturday Night Live and worried. But fortunately he became a regular guest on SNL and by the time he retired what could be called his 1970s classic standup act, in 1980, he had become the biggest standup comedian in history.

There isn’t much about 1979’s The Jerk in the documentary, other than that his dad didn’t give it the time of day. I would’ve liked more focus on that (The Jerk is my 21st favorite comedy movie of all-time) and his other best films The Man With Two Brains and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (my 49th favorite)

Perhaps he doesn't include much about any one of his movies because he says his stand-up career had a beginning, middle, and end, but with movies, they are each like little anecdotes rather than full chapters of a book. In fact, one of his hobbies detailed in the doc is creating dialogue for comic strips that a friend then draws. Many of those are about the anecdotes from and of his films.

There are also stories about his other hobbies, which include having dogs and collecting paintings. And finally, the doc covers his relationship with comedy buddy Martin Short and his wife Anne Stringfield, whom he met when she was fact checking his writing for The New Yorker.

I especially enjoyed the stories in the documentary from his childhood and coming of age in the comedy scene. Listening to his records, reading his short-essay collections, and seeing Martin on SNL were among my fondest childhood memories. His life was long overdue for a telling in this format, although the documentary could have been tightened up just a little bit.

4 out of 5 stars

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Misinformation is a running theme when some non-Jews attempt to tell the Jewish story

While Austria and Serbia began fighting in World War I, and while many other countries began to join into the fighting, a series of frenzied negotiations and conflicting agreements took place. One was the Balfour Declaration in 1917 that “promised to reestablish an independent national home for the Jewish people in the backwater former Ottoman province of Palestine.” 

By the end of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Allies had divided the former Ottoman Empire, a broad, wide-open, and not divided landscape, “into new and invented states based on colonial interests rather than natural borders, tribal affiliation, family connections, or a desire for self-determination” and “to secure the establishment of the national Jewish home.”

A few years' later, in 1924, Noa Tishby’s grandmother was living in Russia and realized - or thought she realized - she was part of and in a good free society. But while seemingly good, a dark underbelly of that society was simultaneously “trying to break down the Jews. It occured to her grandmother that she wanted “a new movement to rebuild the old homeland based on communal ideas, shared living, shared ownership of all personal possessions, and self-sufficiency.” Luckily she escaped before being sent to Siberian work camps, but unluckily her family “left Russia penniless and embarked on a boat, infested with rodents and thieves, from Odessa to the promised land” - also known as the harsh and barren landscape of Jaffa (what is now part of Tel Aviv). Tishby’s grandmother was living at the very tipping point of “Zionism.”

As Tishby continues with fascinating story after fascinating story in 2021's Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth (and she has a new one as well called Uncomfortable Conversations with a Jew, which she wrote with ex-NFL player Emmanuel Acho and discussed with him recently on the CBS Morning Show - pictured), she notes, “After thousands of conversations with highly educated people, I have come to realize that most don’t know” what Zionism means.

Jews, a minuscule portion (less than 1 percent) of the global population, have long been discriminated against, with the Russian tsars being particularly heinous and continuous offenders. In 1903, the tsar’s secret police force created “one of the first pieces of viral fake news” called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which “claimed Jews were part of a global conspiracy to take over the world.” Henry Ford went on and on about it in his babblings for the paper he owned called the Dearborn Independent. Partly because of that, the book was a huge bestseller, contributing to the slaughter and banishment of millions of Jews the world over. “Cue the Zionist movement,” which was basically all about finding a safe harbor and being able to practice self determination like everyone else.

Theodore Herzl really coined the term Zionism in the 1890s when he realized Jews could never really “shake off the Jewishness” around other people and that a homeland to return to as needed was a pretty good idea. Jewish people were spread out all over the world, mostly persecuted in ghetto-ish areas, and the idea of going off to this far-off place was foreign and not seriously considered by the vast majority, but Herzl’s rallying began to slowly take affect. His writing, beginning with The Jewish State, was laughed at, not covered by the media, and called silly and desperate. The Russian Jewry were the ones who accepted it the most and that’s how it got to Tishby’a grandmother and her family. 

Herzl got Jews to meet in 1897 in Switzerland for the First Zionist Congress, and while the attendees had trouble agreeing on much of anything, they did end up agreeing that Israel should be the home base, "aliyah" or migration to Israel could connect the diaspora, the Hebrew language would be restored, and all Jews should join in solidarity against antisemitism. It would take about 50 years, and a little after Herzl’s death, but the newly formed United Nations established a Jewish state in Israel.

Herzl's subsequent writings about the topic as the 1900s began sounded like John Lennon and ahead of his time, with a slogan of “man, you are my brother!” Right on, Theo! He tried to get the support of leaders from around the world but it would take the Holocaust for there to be enough support for the Jews to finally have a little home, to have Israel. Those who stayed behind in Europe perished in World War II, but those who had made it to Israel survived. 

Tishby, the author, grew up in Israel and, well into her teens, didn’t realize there was such a thing as anti-Zionism until she was having a romantic moment with a hot guy from Germany who told her there possibly wasn’t really such a thing as the Holocaust. For someone whose grandmother had written so much of the her history down, it was clear that not only would this boy get no more of her time that night, but Tishby’s goal in life would be to start to undue the misinformation that dangerously exists around the Jewish story.

I'm really enjoying this book and it's as important as ever, as antisemitism puzzlingly marches on and seemingly progressive students at colleges all over the U.S. appear to be propagating the misinformation of those long-ago terror-mongering and evil Russian tsars.