Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Bye Bye Johnnie

On September 2, 1995, I went with Lori and my friend Paul to the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We'd bought the "special" tickets that allowed us to tour the museum during the afternoon a few hours before the show. Well, ok, Lori and I had the tickets, and in true rock and roll form we managed to slip Paul in with us. We went downstairs to the museum, stopping first at the Chuck Berry exhibit. That was mandatory.

We eventually found our way to the Springsteen exhibit. I was looking up at Garry Tallent's bass guitar when Paul blurted out, "That's Garry Fucking Tallent!" Yes, it was a nice guitar! "That's Garry Fucking Tallent, right there!" At which point I realized I was, in fact, standing next to Garry Fucking Tallent, under Garry Fucking Tallent's bass guitar.

By this point, I knew that Garry, along with Bruce Springsteen and the rest of the E Street Band would be opening up the concert that evening by backing up Chuck Berry for "Johnny B. Goode." Springsteen had told a story in the film, Hail! Hail! Rock 'N' Roll about a 1973 gig in which the E Street Band had backed Berry. Bruce recalled, "about five minutes before the show was about to start, the door opens, he comes in, he's by himself... and I said, 'Chuck, what songs are we gonna do?' and he said, 'We're gonna do some Chuck Berry songs.'" Bruce went on to describe the show, and how the band was in a panic throughout the show: "What song is it? What key?," and that they were running to Garry, because only Garry knew all the keys that Chuck used.

So here I am, standing with Garry Tallent by Garry Tallent's guitar, and I couldn't resist: "Is it true you're opening the show tonight?" "Yes, me and Chuck!" He was smiling. Then I asked, approximately, "do you have all the keys?," and he gave me a look, like, "that never happened."

Later that night, the opening of "Johnny B. Goode" was fine.
But Garry couldn't save the closer of "Rock and Roll Music," and you're not likely to find a youtube for it. As Nils Lofgren recalled in an interview for the Hall of Fame, "Somehow, a minute or two in, he... shifts the song in gears and a key without talking to us... So, we're all like… trying not to make a train wreck, and it's tricky. Okay, what key is he in? Let's start playing there... We’re all looking around at each other, the cast of characters and the backup band; these are pros, decades in. We are making these horrible sounds, collectively, in front of a stadium, sold out. We’re looking at each other like, ‘This can’t be happening, right? We’re not creating this thing we’re listening to. Yes, we are.’ At the height of it, when no one has any idea how to fix this... he leaves the stage, leaves us all out there playing in six different keys with no band leader, gets in the car and drives away... I don’t think the two of us [Bruce and Nils] have ever participated in something that godawful musically since we were probably 13 or 14. I didn’t even start playing until I was 14."

I can't find a youtube of that one, and while I'm not sure I can name the best thing I've ever seen from a major act on a rock and roll stage, I'm pretty sure that's the most memorably wretched. Maybe not the worst, definitely the most memorable.

On October 27, 2012, I took my then 15-year old son to the American Music Masters concert in Cleveland, honoring Chuck Berry. Aaron was just learning guitar himself, and this would be an evening with the stars paying tribute to the pioneer. My friend Lauren produced the show, and I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase seats in the front row of the balcony.

This was a great night all the way around. I took only short videos, snippets. Chuck himself came out for a couple songs at the end. His comment that stayed with me was, "I'm 86 years old and I'm happy to be anywhere!"


These late career shows, long after the days of his major hits, almost seem to leave Berry as icon.

But really, Chuck was the father of the music that I know as rock and roll. John Lennon and Keith Richards worshipped Chuck Berry. When I went back to learn the roots, it was in substantial measure by buying -- and more or less memorizing -- The Great Twenty-Eight, hearing the interplay between Berry's guitar and Johnnie Johnson's piano, and trying to learn at least a little of the story.

Berry is remembered for the duck walk, and for the cheesy novelty song that was his only #1 hit. But I don't know that there is a rock song, anywhere, that's better than "Promised Land." Lyrically, musically, and performance. Though there might be some Chuck Berry songs out there that'll qualify.

There will be one last Chuck Berry album, titled simply Chuck. The first single was released for preview today.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Like a Heatwave

Our Maple Tree -- what's left of it after an ice storm -- bloomed.
Michigan, February 22.
The old saying is that, if a frog is put in to a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out. But if the frog is put in to a pot of cold water, and the water is heated only gradually, the frog will sit there, unaware of the danger until it is too late. The metaphor is so obvious that Al Gore used it in An Inconvenient Truth, more than a decade ago.

So here we are. Te GISS data shows that, for the 3rd consecutive year, we had the warmest year since the start of record-keeping in 1880. In January, I wrote, "It took a little longer than I expected, but the final numbers for 2016 were finally posted today. As expected, 2015 is the warmest year on record. As expected, December was warm. Very warm. December is now the warmest month ever, compared to average."

By the end of March, December 2015 was only the 4th warmest month ever. But I also wrote, in that piece: "El Niño returned in 2015, and the temperature records were shattered. Of course, once El Niño ends, we'll likely see a drop in global temperatures for a year or two -- just long enough for the deniers to come out of their foxholes again."

El Niño faded, though 7 of the first 8 months of 2016 still had record-setting heat. January 2017 was only the third warmest January ever.

So the deniers will be back, led by a new EPA Administrator whose mission appears to be to dismantle environmental protections.

Last Friday, a CBS News report included interviews with beach-goers at New York's Jones Beach. As I drove home, I heard someone say, "it's really nice. I'll take it." I just shook my head. "Really nice." The printed article has people saying, "terrific," "great," and "loving it."

Bring on the dipping sauce.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Great Disturbance in the Force

Ten days ago we went to see "Rogue One." Ten days ago.

Like way too few films in the Star Wars canon, this one had real emotion. It was imperfect, to be sure, but it seemed worth a "review" of sorts.

I had stayed away from all of the formal reviews. Didn't even want to know what this movie was, let alone anyone's particular take on it. Star Wars, after all, was the adventure film of my adolescence, the ultimate coming of age movie as I was coming of age. I didn't know a thing about Seven Samurai, nor anything about THX 1138, nor Lawrence Of Arabia. I had no context, and I didn't care. When that death star exploded, so did the theater. At least, the first 3 times I saw the movie.

The depth of the plot wasn't such a big deal to me at age, nor the quality of the acting. Even at 15, I understood that there was a gap between Mark Hamill whining about power converters, and Oscars. But I didn't care.


So when my 15-year old demanded to see this latest escapist adventure for the 2nd time in 3 days, I was on board. A bit of a mystery, this one, not really part of the 9-movie canon. Just sort of a side story wedged in, just before the move that is now referenced as "Episode IV." Even that much I didn't know walking in, though it was obvious soon enough.

Peter Cushing... still dead, and still badass 
The first shocker to me was the sight of Peter Cushing, looking exactly as menacing as he did as Grand Moff Tarkin in that first movie. Not having paid any attention whatsoever to any of the advance press, this was a bit of a jolt, even with CGI. Hasn't he been dead, for like, a long time? Oh, never mind, just roll with it. Had to be one of the best zombie performances... ever.

For a change in this series, there was also a story worth following, even thought the "big" part of the ending was clear from the start. Yhe inclusion of moral ambiguities. Sure the Empire was one-dimensionally evil, but the Rebel Alliance wasn't necessarily all light and good and guided by the Force. The near total absence of the Force worked in the film's favor, for the most part.

There is a scene, relatively early in the movie, in which the new heroine Jyn rescues a child during a fire fight in Jedha City. It's a small scene, not even a plot point really, until the Death Star gets its test run.

Not that the plot is all that. I mean, I understand that this was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but... data towers to the sky? Really? With data slots that look like rejects from HAL's memory banks? All we needed there was a verse of Daisy. 



And, excuse me, but if Galen Erso could smuggle out a hologram of himself, and an Imperial pilot and a ship, couldn't he just, you know, find a way to smuggle out the plans? Rebels blast out the Death Star plans to the entire known universe, and it's all wrapped up in a single disc with no other copies?? Where are the Russian hackers when we really need them?

Characters from the main stories made small appearances, just in case we forgot this really was a Star Wars film. Darth Vader had a few lines, mostly as a caricature with a cool light saber... but James Earl Jones was still doing the speaking, so it was all good.

As the movie wound towards the climactic battle scene, it became the destiny of Jyn and crew was along a different path than that of Luke. The disc survived, at least, so that Leia could stuff its contents in to R2-D2.

That was 10 days ago. Ten days ago, when that final scene played out, there was an audible gasp in the room. CGI or not, how did they do this? Even more than the appearances of Cushing and the red and gold leaders, that was like seeing a ghost. And I didn't care.

Ten days later, it just doesn't feel the same.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Damn You, Shawn Mendes! Tuesday in Cincinnati (November 29, 2016)


Someday we'll look back at this and it will all seem funny.
Yesterday we woke up just after 4am, piled in to the car at 5:45am, and drove more than 4 hours to Cincinnati. We stopped at a shopping mall and went in to a nice book store. I had my most important business meetings of the year, but at the most crucial moment my phone was on mute -- it would be hard to participate while Bruce Springsteen was standing atop the bookstore's staircase, surveying the hundreds of people cramming every aisle of the store.
Meet me in Cincinnati! Bruce preparing to meet and greet.
I thought I had missed the book signings. Last month's event in Toronto was supposed to be the end of it, and I hadn't managed to get myself a ticket. Of course, I could rationalize it: After all, who would really want to drive 4 hours each way for a firm handshake and a snapshot? < raising my hand /> And who would really want that full day excursion for a ridiculously below-market rate for a personalized copy of the book? < raising my hand, again />

So the first thing to realize, before any existential questions, is: don't bother rationalizing this. It is what it is. And I'm thinking, yes, it was worth every minute. But I won't do it again... this month.

The book-signing event at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati was only arranged last week. The store opened at 8am; some confused holiday shoppers wondered why it seemed so crowded. The meeting itself, of course was very brief. I didn't time it, but my thinking is that for every hour of the day's total trip, one second was spent with Bruce.
Bruce greets fan Brian Resnik. Photo by Ron Valle
Just like Luca Brasi, I practiced my "speech": I figured I'd get about four seconds, so I shortened it to the bare essentials: It would be an introduction for my daughter, whom Bruce recognized in 2012 when she was 11: "Toronto. 'Thunder Crack.' Striped Hat. That's her!" The former girl has grown up; there's no more hat and the long black hair is short and blue. The person is the same.
Toronto! "Trhunder Crack!" Striped Hat! That's her!" August 24, 2012: Elianna singing "Thunder Crack" with Bruce.
I took this picture.
I practiced test shots on my good camera. Bad lighting; use the flash. The staff was going around reminding people to have their batteries charged and their cameras turned on. One friend came down the staircase, shaking: "We got a family picture!!!" New goal: Family picture!

At the bottom of the stairs, I asked a store employee about their events. She said, "This is pretty big!" I asked her if this was the biggest. "You mean, this year?" You mean, that's not automatic??? Okay, this year. "Shawn Mendes was bigger." I had to ask Elianna. Twice.

Attendees were divided in to about 20 groups of 50 each, based on arrival time. We were in the eighth group. From the top of the staircase, before winding around the last aisle, we could see Bruce with some fans a few spots ahead of us. At this store a backdrop had been created from enlarged copies of the book cover (a good choice) and the bookshelf behind Bruce had history books: on one side, The Fall of the Ottomans; on the other, Target Tokyo.

Elianna with Bruce in Cincinnati.
The meeting moment was as brief as advertised. I said my lines. Bruce said, "Toronto!" I could feel the thought forming... "Toronto... Toronto... what's a Toronto?" The staffer took two quick -- and very nice -- snap shots, and... too late to ask for the family picture! The next staffer already had Elianna's cell phone in position, and that was that, though not before Bruce whispered a final, "thank you." When we returned downstairs, we traded in our wristbands for signed copies of the book.

I have wondered what Bruce gets out of these sessions. The line has to move super-quickly, and an egalitarian approach pretty much requires treating everyone more or less the same. Hand shake, snap pictures, say thank you, next in line! Imagine if Bruce had done something like Comic-Con circuit, where snap shots and signatures of lesser stars routinely go for much more than $35. But here Bruce is supporting booksellers (I'm sure there were substantial sales to many of us who came for the signing and browsed while waiting), and also affording to his fans a rare -- if necessarily short -- opportunity to a fairly priced meet and greet. I'll take it!

note - this review originally appeared in www.backstreets.com

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

A Really Long Walk Home

The bikepath on the way to the vote. Peaceful and free.
At 11am yesterday, I decided it was time to vote. The polling place is less than a mile from my home, and I thought it might be a good idea to walk it. The day was warm, as pretty much the entire fall has been warm. My fitbit said I'd been pathetic lately with the steps. Most of the leaves were down, and it was colorful and beautiful outside. I took some snapshots. "This is what my America looks like today." Regardless of who would win this thing -- and I had severe doubts -- this place, at this time, seemed a good place to be and good time to be here.

I walked around the corner, and up the next street. It started to rain, just a little rain. I didn't have an umbrella, and I was too far to come back home, so I kept going. I thought of walking songs, and the first one that came to mind was "This Land is Your Land." One of the most openly -- and great -- political songs of the last century, and I thought of that 5th verse, one that was cut out of the original recordings and discovered only in the 1990's:

There was a big high wall there
That tried to stop me
The sign was painted
It said "Private Property"
But on the back side
It didn't say nothin'
This land was made for you and me


I looked around, and noticed I didn't really see any signs at all. Typically when the elections roll around, there are lots of signs. I live in a reasonably diverse neighborhood: politically, nationally, religiously, racially. For the township primaries a few months ago, there were signs all over the place. And that was just for township clerk and treasurer. Yesterday, the 3 little signs that Lori put up at the corner of our lot seemed... lonely. There was just nothing to see. No Clinton signs. No Trump signs. Whatever excitement there might have been about this election, it had bypassed my little part of West Bloomfield.

I made it to the bike trail leading to the primary school hosting the 7th precinct. A neighbor was walking his dog. He was going to vote, too... but first he had to walk the dog. The walk was quiet, and free, and peaceful. The bike trail passed over a little branch of the Rouge River just before I reached the school; the same branch that passes under my house. We've had rain lately, so the river was a bit swelled.

Ever since Brexit I felt that Donald Trump was likely to win the election. There were too many single-issue (or nearly single-issue) voters: The voters who would vote Pro-Life. The voters who would vote Gun Rights. The voters who would vote Supreme Court (often in support of Pro-Life or Gun Rights or "Religious Rights"). Too many disaffected, who wanted to hear that magic word: "change." They were going to vote for him so long as he seemed to speak for them, even if he was personally a scoundrel or worse, even if he lost every debate. Then there were the scary ones, the ones who spoke in dog whistles, of dark things to come for immigrants and minorities and people like me. Running against this, we had a lifer establishment candidate who excited... nobody, it seemed, running with a Vice Presidential candidate who somehow excited even few people than her.

The campaign was ugly and stupid. Instead of issues, we got a diet of hacked emails and leaked videos, fake investigations and unreleased tax returns. Some people I knew were totally passionate in their positions; probably more just tuned the whole thing out. To them, one candidate was simply "corrupt," facts be damned, and that was the end of the story. Along the way, I'd lost a bunch of facebook friends. The further they tilted to the right, the more likely they were to slip away from me... or for me just to unfollow them. Some people I thought I knew revealed themselves to be racists or conspiracy theorists; others just didn't want to read about the election on social media. Oddly, I didn't lose any left-leaning friends.

The school was busy but orderly. The whole thing took maybe 10 minutes. There were no poll watchers. I'd read the League of Women Voters guide to the candidates. One Republican candidate for Township Supervisor started off his "top priorities" by writing, "The voices of the people were being ignored or overturned by the courts or shut out by minority special interest groups." He wasn't getting my vote anyway, but to see someone in town leading off with such openly paranoid racism was disturbing enough.

Where do we go from here? Where is there to be?
Trump will likely be a disaster for the environment, for international relations, for civil rights, for the economy, and more. There is talk that he might put Sarah Palin in his cabinet, and there is just no suitable joke to respond to that. I always felt that a Clinton election might only have delayed the sort of hostile takeover that began last night, but I wanted that delay.

Bruce Springsteen performed at Hillary Clinton's campaign event in Philadelphia the night before the election. He performed "Long Walk Home." On the surface, it may seem a song of healing: "everybody has a neighbor, everybody has a friend, Everybody has a reason to begin again." He introduced it as "a prayer for post-election."


But when Bruce first performed that song, almost exactly 10 years ago tonight, it had one extra final verse:

Now the water's rising 'round the corner, 
there's a fire burning out of control 
There's a hurricane on Main Street 
and I've got murder in my soul 
Yeah well when the party's over, 
when the cheering is all gone 
Will you know me, will I know you, 
will I know you

We might need to re-learn that one.

Monday, September 12, 2016

May Your Strength Give Us Strength - Pittsburgh, 9/11/16

I pray for the strength, Lord.
Of all the things that Bruce Springsteen has done in the 15 years since 9/11, there was one thing he hadn't done: Perform in public with the E Street Band, on 9/11. Last night's show... would be different. It would have to be different, somehow.

Springsteen's recent shows have turned in to early career retrospectives, going album by (rock) album through the first dozen years of his career, and stretching the whole thing out over 4 hours. Sure, the songs feel like old friends now, mostly. But last night felt different.

Last night there was a wound to check on, and it was still bleeding. In an arena that seemed to have more people than it could hold, and that was several degrees warmer than comfortable, Bruce led a service. It was raw, emotional, intense, with mourning for the dead and prayers for the living. When it was all over, after a typically goofy suite of party songs, we were collectively drained.

I had no particular expectations for this show: For me, it was just "the one show I could get to," after a summer of mostly ignoring Bruce's summer tour in Europe. Only after seeing the periscope feeds from New Jersey, with new features such as the shocking version of "American Skin" with Jake holding up his hands, did the feeling return: That feeling of needing to see this, while I could.
American Skin
The lights went down early. At 7:45 the string section walked on stage, meaning the show would open with "New York City Serenade." But where recent shows have seen explorations of Bruce's first album immediately following, last night it was The Rising on display, starting with the most direct tribute to the fallen, "Into the Fire," then "Lonesome Day," a stark and still raw version of "You're Missing" (with a harmonica play-out), and finally the wake song, "Mary's Place." A 4-song sequence through the process of loss and attempts to heal. But the realization, 15 years on, is that the wounds don't heal, not really.

From there, yes, the show mostly resumed the career retrospective presentation. Though not exactly anything new for long-time fans, it's still nice to see the guitar duel of "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City" and to have "Incident on 57th Street" lead in to "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)." The shtick is good and even funny ("Don't Bruce me!"... "ok, Bruce me!"). And, of course, Grushecky per et fils for "Light of Day."

While the show did eventually land on the party songs -- noting that it was twenty-nine songs in to the set before he played the only song that had been a top 20 hit for him ("Dancing in the Dark") -- there were two more stunning moments:

First, a detour to "My City of Ruins," the song originally written for Asbury Park that Bruce re-imagined after 9/11. First with three people holding up cell phone lights behind the stage. Then 7. Then the section. And finally the entire arena, it seemed. And here the words seemed to cut through: "With these hands... I pray for the strength, Lord... Rise up!"

Then, at encore time, Bruce came out with an acoustic guitar; the chords weren't familiar. "Somebody gave me a copy of the Constitution of the United States... It does say 'Fuck Trump' on the front of it... and this was his request."

What followed was a devastating solo performance of "Long Walk Home": Last night I stood at your doorstep, trying to figure out what went wrong. You just slipped something in to my palm and you were gone.

As if to issue the challenges: "what have we learned?" and "where do we go now?"

You know the flag flyin' over the courthouse, means certain things are set in stone; Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't."

Monday, September 05, 2016

Some beats and eats in Royal Oak

Friends of mine have been posting links to articles claiming that going to concerts makes people healthier and happier. Apparently, many studies have proved this effect. The studies don't even claim that this is restricted to good concerts, though I'm supposing that helps.

So on Friday evening we went in to Royal Oak for part of the 19th annual Arts, Beats and Eats festival. The "healthier" aspect was clear enough immediately: My fitbit says it took 1871 steps to get from our parking space - at a Middle School on Glenn Frey Drive - to the Michigan Lottery Stage. A few of those on a daily basis would help, no doubt!

We went to see Stewart Francke and then Joan Jett. Stew had played the event every one of its 19 years; it's nice to see him get a huge audience. Stew's band had 11 members of Friday, including a horn section and multiple singers. Beginning with a tribute to David Bowie of "Rebel, Rebel," Stew then took the show crisply through several of his career highlights, interrupted only occasionally by the freight trains passing by just behind the concert area. My favorite -- and I think much of the crowd's as well -- was when Greg C. Brown took over "Sam Cook's On the Radio." 

By 8, it was time to make way to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. At 58, Jett looks great, and she's maybe the first person I've seen who can wink while soloing. Starting, as she typically does, with "Bad Reputation," she ripped through a set lasting barely an hour, leaving the audience both breathless and wanting more (not possible, really, as Buckcherry was to take the stage after her). She went through career highlights and also mixed in a few songs off her latest CD. The band collectively saluted a passing train during "Hard to Grow Up." My favorite sequence was the back-to-back of "I Love Rock and Roll" in to her cover of "Crimson and Clover."


A few eats and another 1541 steps back to the car (is the walk back always shorter?), and I'm thinking, we needed a study for that?