Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Another Pressing Season

Cider pressing, that is.

The season starts as the summer descends in to its 2nd half. The days are still hot, and tart juice explodes from the transparents on the early tree. Pressings must start late, else the wasps may make things impossible. In the heat, the juice cannot be allowed to sit too long. The kids help, sometimes friends or cousins or neighbors (that's Cousin Elise with Aaron and Elianna in the picture, from a pressing in early October).

At the 2nd half of summer extends, the evening pressing is punctuated by the song of thousands of crickets. The first of the crickets make their presence known at the beginning of August, and by September the evenings are full force concerts. That ends, finally, with the first frosts in October. The juice is light, sweet and crisp. It is safe now to let the juice drip for several hours, to maximize the yield.

Then, autumn. The leaves fall, and even when crushing apples a jacket is necessary. I start taking inventory of how many apples are stored, how many on the trees, and how many pressings we may yet have left.

Finally, winter. The fruit has been off the trees for a month or more, and no longer bears as much liquid, having been hurt by extended storage, or refrigeration, or frost exposure. The juice includes red delicious now (to be used in moderation, lest the juice have too much sediment and turn bitter), and is much thicker.

Finally, the last pressing. Most recent years, we were done in November, though a couple times we extended later -- one year going past Aaron's birthday (February 26). This year, the last pressing ended yesterday - at 39 degrees, I let it drip nearly a full day. It was just warm enough to do it in the garage, with a space heater. Only the 2nd time we've done it in the garage; while doing it there makes pressing possible on below freezing days, it makes clean-up much more of a challenge.

This was our 13th year making cider. We started with a typical small press that might be considered a toy press of sorts, out by the back door. That first pressing, we cut apples in quarters, filled a nylon bag, and considered it a minor miracle when juice started dripping. The yield from that first pressing was a quart. By our third year we graduated to a full-size press, and also got attachments such as wheels, an apple-eater (to end our dependence on the Cuisinart) and eventually a hopper. Over the years we have had to replace a couple parts from the press, but for the most part it just works. A typical pressing today yields around 3 gallons; more early in the season, less later on. We serve, we bring, we drink, we freeze.

I don't press as much as I once did; partly I just don't have as much time for it, but also the trees just don't yield what they once did. I think it's in large part due to the neighbor's maple trees causing too much shade now. The last two seasons, we supplemented with a healthy amount from our neighbors across the street; they don't spray but for the most part that's ok when it comes to cider-making. The two things we haven't done, are to try different fruits, and to make hard cider. Guess I'm just not that interested.

I measure out our yields, do it by the ounce (assuming our containers have accurate markings. This is our yield, year-by-year. The years of the late frosts are pretty obvious in there.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Across the Borders, It Feels Like Love (Buffalo, November 22, 2009)

As my friend Karen and I sat in the seemingly interminable delay on the Blue Water Bridge in to Canada yesterday, I realized that we'd miss the start of last night's concert. We still had 3 and a half hours to drive -- if there wasn't another delay crossing back in the United States to get to Buffalo. We hadn't been set on tickets until 3pm, so it was the best we could do. Karen and I went through the openings we'd like for last night's concert, so long as we wouldn't be there: "Glory Days!! Yes, he should open with Glory Days! And then, maybe something from Devils and Dust." My foot turned to lead as I imagined the horror of my mission to see the final show turning in to witnessing only the encores. We screamed through Niagara Falls at 90 (and I don't mean kph), and then a miracle happened: no line at the bridge.

As I walked in to HSBC Arena last night, Bruce was building a house. I could check the setlist later, but at least I hadn't missed the one and only playing of the entire Greetings From Asbury Park album. The aisleways were deserted. I snagged the pretty yellow t-shirt (the first nice one Bruce has had in at least 3 tours, I'm pretty sure) and sprinted to my seat for my main event.

I might be excused for expecting a bit of raggedness from the songs on Greetings; after all, these are Bruce's oldest Columbia songs, and most of them are performed rarely, if ever. I might also be excused for expecting little from songs such as Mary, Queen of Arkansas and The Angel, the least well-liked songs from that album.

In short, the playing of Greetings was a blast. Yes, Blinded was ragged. So what? Yes, the start of Mary, Queen of Arkansas touched off a major beer run in pretty much all areas of the arena with seats, but it was still a pretty rendition, with Nils providing a backing on harmonica.

But there was also Growin' Up. As soon as Bruce said, "and there I waaassssss," I smiled. Bruce, in story-telling mode, back on Kingsley Avenue, meeting Clarence for the first time. Only in this story, he somehow ended up in a dream, and woke up in Fucking Buffalo. The crowd ate it up.

The Angel featured what appeared to a viola player (at least, I think that was a viola; I'm not used to hearing a viola played that low). After the show, no one I spoke to knew who the viola player was, she was the mystery woman of the evening. Bruce seemed to smile as he sang the words, "Madison Avenue's claim to fame," as if he were particularly proud of that line.

The only downer for me in the Greetings set was, oddly, It's Hard to be a Saint in the City. I have seen the band perform this time several times before, some with fierce piano from Roy Bittan, and typically with Bruce and Stevie ending up in a prolonged guitar duel that would blow the roof off any building. Not yesterday, unfortunately.

After Greetings, the show turned almost in to an "anything goes" sort of affair, and a very long one at that. It was Stevie's birthday, and to help celebrate, not only was Stevie presented with a cake with many candles, but Bruce and the band accepted Stevie's request and launched in to the first-ever live performance of Restless Nights. During the fan request segment that followed shortly thereafter, the band played the Chuck Willis standard, Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes, pretty much nailing it despite Bruce's protests to the sign-makers that he didn't actually know the words.

The evening had less of a "we're done" feeling than that of a house party. The arena didn't completely co-operate; it's one of those multi-box level arenas that detaches the upper bowl from the lower bowl. Despite the sell-out of ticketed seats, the 2nd level of boxes were mostly empty; the upper bowl patrons just seemed too far away; they mostly sat the entire night. The party was downstairs, where the pit was packed beyond what seemed possible, with Bruce frequently going in for... support.

One touching moment came for me during Waiting on a Sunny Day, when a little girl named Emma came on stage for the child sing-along. Emma was confident, loud, on the beat, and... decidedly off pitch. Did Bruce wince? Noooo. Did he pretend even to notice? Noooo. He looked every bit the proud father, and then acted it: He asked Emma to take another chorus, and congratulated her on the best he'd ever heard. Later on, during Dancing in the Dark, Emma's brother Jacob held up a sign asking to dance with Stevie, during which Stevie demonstrated old go-go moves, and after which Jacob played air guitar with Bruce. Now, I'm a skeptic regarding the children on stage (not least to it more than occasionally being vehicles for the parents more than the kids), but I happened to exit the arena at the same time as the kids, and they were just flying. Jacob went on for probably 5 minutes as to how he came up with the idea to ask Stevie to dance, and I figured, if it was his idea, that's good enough for me.

After 34 songs, the show and tour finally ended with a rousing chorus of John Fogerty's Rockin All Over the World. (As long as he was getting out the Fogerty songbook, why not nod to Buffalo with Rock and Roll Girls? Oh, well). Highlights beyond those already mentioned? Too numerous to recall now without consulting the setlist. Quibbles? Sure: Nils was pretty invisible last night, and I wanted one last explosive solo from him. And, never finding out who that viola player was. At the end, Bruce announced that the band would be away for a "very litle while," and both he and Stevie held a large sign that fans in the lower bowl had brought reading, "It's Only Rock and Roll... but it feels like love," and it just felt right.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Where Am I?

It's national news, now.

And, yes, tonight Milwaukee got "Good evening, Ohio," too. Guess he needs to write a new song. Call it "In Ohio." I even have lyrics he can use. He wrote 'em in Kalamazoo, Ohio.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bruce Finds His Place (The Palace, November 13, 2009)

Bruce Springsteen at The Palace, November 13, 2009.
When I was growing up in New Jersey, the state had a bit of an identity crisis.  It was the suburb of New York and Philadelphia.  When the Giants and Cosmos moved in to Giants Stadium, they kept "New York" as part of their name.  Bruce Springsteen helped change things for us; from his very first album he proclaimed himself to be a New Jersey man.

Michigan, on the other hand, is a big state with no history of being someone else's suburb; Bruce has played here at least once every year since 2002. Imagine, then, Bruce coming onstage and greeting the crowd with a salute to Ohio! And then sticking Ohio in to the lyrics of "Wrecking Ball"; of course, a Michigan audience tends not to object too much to lines such as, "tonight Ohio is going down in flames." Finally, Bruce put Ohio in to the story for "Working on a Dream." This last actually managed to get a few boos, and prompted Stevie to inform Bruce that they were, in fact, in Michigan (Bruce took it well, and periodically shouted out, "Where Am I?" throughout the evening after that to get a rousing Detroit answer).

Fortunately, while Bruce was forgetting where he was, he wasn't forgetting how to put on a magnificent show.  By the conclusion of Nils's indendiary twirling solo at the end of the evening's second song, "Prove It All Night," it was already clear that Bruce and the band were intent on taking no prisoners.

Several notable things have changed on this latest tour, as compared to prior tours:
1) Bruce used a rear riser and crowd surfing during "Hungry Heart";
2) The set includes of a full album -- usually "Born to Run," early in the setlist
3) Audience members bringing signs, with some signs being accepted as song requests
4) De-emphass of the current album

All of these changes had the effect, tonight, of drawing the audience more in to the show.  The use of the read riser and the crowd surfing literally puts Bruce face to face -- or closer -- with several hundred fans.  And I confess that I had contact... with Bruce's right shoe.  Nice shoe, very sturdy.

Not that all of the changes are necessarily for the better.  I'd have preferred to hear more content from "Working On a Dream" than just the title song, for example.  That said, the crowd responded well to the show, and was as loud as any crowd I have ever heard at The Palace.

The performance of the "Born to Run" album was spot on.  The songs were crisp, impassioned, and uniformly attacked, hard.  Even "Meeting Across the River," which was enhanced by trumpeter Curt Ramm's playing.

The accepted requests had a distinctive Michigan flavor, first with Bob Seger's "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" (played one time previously, also at the Palace, back on August 18, 1992), and then with the Detroit Medley.  Bruce started "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" by playing the distinctive opening keyboard riff on guitar, and with that started a 3-pack dance party right in the middle of the set, with Bruce playing guitar slinger throughout.  By the end of Bruce's blistering solo in "Because the Night" -- during which Bruce proved he could blow a snot rocket and play a guitar solo at the same time --- my voice was gone, my hearing was shot, and my legs were jell-o.  He's a freaking force of nature, is all I can say... and that band is pretty damn good these days.

Show highlights including a roaring version of "Johnny 99" early on (perhaps a bit of a reference to the state of the auto industry), and also a thundering performance of "Born in the U.S.A." During "Rosalita," Bruce handed the mic to Steve at the beginning of the 2nd verse and Steve survived it, as Bruce went to check something side stage (maybe the woman who stole the spotlight during "Dancing in the Dark" by jumping on stage from the pit and dancing much too wildly).  Finally, the closer, "Higher and Higher," which finally allowed Cindy Mizelle to get a bit of the spotlight, closed the show on a high.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Rush Limbaugh and the Rams and Donovan McNabb

Six years ago, Rush Limbaugh went on national TV and said, regarding Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb:
Sorry to say this, I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team.
Much has been said about Limbaugh's now ended effort to be part of an ownership group for the St. Louis Rams. Outcries over things he supposedly said, or in some cases about things he never said.
But to me, whatever may be in discussion (including another remark comparing NFL football games to gang fights), that one remark about Donovan McNabb was the key. More than his "conservative" politics, more than his positions on race (and, let's be clear: Rush is too smart to say explicitly many of the things recently attributed to him), more than his talk show, or even the reaction to him among his many detractors. It's that statement about McNabb. Its meaning, its aftermath, and its lingering impact. In his one big test of how he would handle the NFL and its players, he flunked.

Let's break it down:
Limbaugh's statement was made during the pre-game show for "ESPN Sunday Night Football" on September 28, 2003. Here are the relevant statistics for Donovan McNabb, at the time of the statement:

Career record: 31-19 (the record of the Eagles in the 50 games prior to McNabb taking over: 15-34-1)
Playoff record: 4-3 (the Eagles had gone 2-7 in the playoffs over the prior 19 seasons)
Pro Bowls: 3 (2000, 2001, 2002)
Full seasons played: 3
NFL Passer Ranking, 2001: 7
NFL Passer Ranking, 2002: 7

Rank of the Eagles offense the year before McNabb took over: 30th
Rank of the Eagles offense in McNabb's first 3 seasons: 17th, 17th, 10th

The list of quarterbacks with similar accomplishments during that time period is rather small; Rich Gannon of the Oakland Raiders was the only other one who both won playoff games and was selected for the Pro Bowl in each of the 3 seasons prior to Limbaugh's comments. For those who may have forgotten, Gannon was also the NFL MVP in 2002... but Gannon was 37 and nearing the end of a long career. McNabb was 26.

Back to Limbaugh. Let's take it sentence by sentence:
I don't think he's been that good from the get-go.

I wonder what Rush must have been thinking to have said that. How much better did McNabb need to be? Well... I'll come back to that one.

I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL.

"Social Concern"??? As if that's a bad thing? Of course, in this context, it's merely a set-up, and here it comes:

The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.

Spoken as if a black quarterback had never done well before. Remarkably, many people actually agreed with Limbaugh on this point, including "Slate" columnist Allen Barra.

So, for the record, here is a partial list of the Pro Bowl quarterbacks for the years 2000, 2001 and 2002: Daunte Culpepper, Steve McNair, Kordell Stewart, Michael Vick. The Pro Bowl roster is not chosen by the media. Presumably, those other black quarterbacks did reasonably well, to be selected by players, coaches and fans for the Pro Bowl.

Prior to McNabb, the last Eagles quarterback to take the team to 3 consecutive playoff appearances was Randall Cunningham. Cunningham also appeared in the Pro Bowl in each of those 3 seasons, more than a decade prior to Limbaugh's statement. The next quarterback who led the Eagles to the playoffs after Cunningham? That was Rodney Peete. Somehow, I have the feeling that Philadelphia, at least, had seen black quarterbacks do well before.

There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve.

"A little hope"? Why? Was Rush's view really so clouded by skin color? Was that what he thought every season when Warren Moon went to Pro Bowl after Pro Bowl? Or when Cunningham took 6 different teams to the playoffs? Or when McNair came within a yard of sending a Super Bowl in to overtime? Or perhaps, did he see Doug Williams as the "exception to the rule"? I can't say. But I'm pretty sure I've never seen a quarterback who made the Pro Bowl and win playoff games in each of his first 3 seasons get slammed like that just 2 games in to his 4th season. Certainly I've never seen it happen to a white quarterback.

The defense carried this team.

Here, at last, Limbaugh strayed within some proximity of truth. As good as McNabb was those first 3 seasons, the Eagles defense under coach Andy Reid was better. Of course, I can also point to many teams with great defenses that went nowhere... because they didn't have an offense with a quarterback the caliber of Donovan McNabb.

What happened in 2003? What happened was that McNabb opened the season with two perfectly awful games. The first one, on a Monday night no less (when Monday night was still the big deal), ended with the Eagles being shut out for the first time with McNabb as a starter. His second game was another decisive defeat. The Eagles then had a by week. For the new season, McNabb had no touchdown passes, 3 interceptions, and a QB rating under 50. The Eagles offense was ranked 31st in the league, and the team was winless, having scored just 10 points in its first two games. The obvious question seemed to be, "what's wrong with Donovan"? And, stunningly, rather than acknowledge McNabb's importance to the Eagles' success (as evidence by what happened when McNabb played poorly in those first two games), Limbaugh went the other way. Even more surprising, his ESPN colleagues mostly rolled over and let him get away with it. Panelist Tom Jackson attempted to disagree by changing the subject back to McNabb's performance on the field the prior 3 seasons, but it took McNabb himself to object in public to the remarks about race (and, to be fair, a few columnists, such as "USA Today's" Rudy Martzke, also chimed in).

What happened next? In McNabb's next 28 regular season starts, he went 25-3. 25-3!! How many quarterbacks have gone 25-3 or better in any stretch? Joe Montana, Tom Brady, and who else? Not very many. McNabb made the Pro Bowl again in 2003, and in 2004. In the 2003 playoffs, he engineered one of the most famous playoff comebacks in league history, popularly referred to simply as "4th and 26." The next season, he led the Eagles to the Super Bowl. And "led" is the operative word; in 2003 and 2004, the offense carried the Eagles.

So, I asked above, how much better did McNabb need to be to make it obvious how ignorant Limbaugh's opening salvo against McNabb really was? Was 25-3 good enough? How about 13 games, out of those 28, with a rating above 100? How about 46 touchdown passes as compared to just 14 interceptions during that span? How about his 2004 season, for which his 104.7 rating still ranks among the top 20 seasons for any quarterback in league history?

Did Limbaugh ever retract any portion of his statement regarding McNabb? We know he would never retract anything about the media, but what about, "I don't think he's been that good from the get-go"? But after that 25-3 stretch, when McNabb's career record stood at 56-22, might he have at least admitted that quarterbacks who win nearly all of their starts, who go to 5 straight Pro Bowls, and who take their teams to 4 straight conference championship games, might really be "that good"?

No, he did not. 4 years after his original statement, he added this: "They just can't let go of this. Do you know this is five years ago now? I think it was 2002. I mean, it's been a long, long time and they just can't let go of it, and I'm going to tell you something, folks. The one thing about this incident that I really have noted and I'm not happy about -- and it's a very sad thing: This incident has made Donovan McNabb a perfect victim, and that is just very sad."

And that is why Rush Limbaugh will not become an NFL owner. So long as that original statement lingers, unretracted.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Loma Prieta

20 years ago today. Has it really been so long?

As I start this note, the clock reads 7:43pm EDT. In about 20 minutes it'll be the exact time.

Me? I was in Section 9, Row 10. The ticket stub says so.

Overlooking the Marina, Tuesday afternoon, October 17, 1989
During the summer of 1989, I began to realize that the best two teams in major league baseball were the two in the Bay Area, and that there was a good chance of a Bay Area World Series. When the Giants offered up guaranteed post-season tickets to anyone who committed to buy a 20-game season ticket plan for the following year, I took it. Sure enough, the Giants won the division, and then the National League playoffs -- though I had to miss the final two games as they were both played on Yom Kippur. The Oakland A's won the American League playoffs, so the Bay Area series was set. 

And I had tickets to the first home game.
Before the shaking.
October 17. The most perfect Bay Area day... ever. My college friend Andy flew in from San Diego to go to the game with me; I opted to take the day off from work and we bounced around San Francisco during the day. Went to the Marina district, drove through the Embarcadero, and finally on to Candlestick Park. We decided to get there very early, so as to catch warm-ups and pre-game activities. I wore my Giants cap, the one I had gotten when I had a similar 20-game plan 2 years earler; on my cap was my one "Croix de Candlestick" button -- the prize awarded to any attendee of an extra inning night game ("Veni Vidi Vixi," it read. to commemorate Candlestick's notoriously icy conditions). Andy and I wandered about a bit, I bought a commemorative post card that marked the date. I had my camera with me, and when we reached our seats I took a couple pictures, just to show the scoreboard flashing, "Welcome to Game 3 of the 1989 World Series." It was 3:25pm.

After the shaking. Note the hot dog vendor, lower right. The stadium was full: PLAY BALL!!
The sound started in right field. By now, just after 5pm, the stadium was beginning to fill in. On the field, they were setting up for pre-game festivities, the national broadcast was just beginning. It sounded like many people stomping their feet, as when there is a rally and the crowd is packed. I looked over to right field, and... nothing. No people stamping their feet. There weren't enough people there yet to make that loud a stomping noise, anyway. And then... then we were stomping too. I watched the press box windows down the left field line; as one window would bend in, the next would bend out. Other people said there were waves rolling along the outfield grass, and that the light standards bent down to an angle that didn't seem quite possible. After a few seconds, the lights went out.

Now, it would be easy to say I was scared for my life... but I wasn't. The thought did occur to me, however, that I was glad to be in the upper deck; after all, if the stadium collapsed, better to be on top. After a little while, maybe 20 seconds, the shaking stopped getting worse, and from that point it seemed the quake gained fans. As the shaking started to subside, a loud ovation began in the stands, and finally, after -- if my memory serves -- 51 seconds, the earthquake ended to a standing ovation. Someone near me said it couldn't be more than a 4... but I had been through a 6 when I lived in Orange County, and this was bigger. Someone else said that surely this was an omen for the home team, and pretty much everyone agreed. People with radios turned on to find out what was going on, but for a little while we couldn't pull in anything at all.

Players and officials gathered on the field.
After a few minutes, generators put back on some of the stadium lights, but the scoreboard showed only gibberish. Food vendors continued making their rounds. I got out my camera and snapped a few photos; in one of them a hot dog vendor is plainly visible. Players and officials from both teams stood around on the field, to be joined by emergency vehicles.
Emergency vehicles on the field, and an aftershock: Time to leave.
By game time, the stadium was full. The out-of-town press, one section over from me, was still in a panic, but not the home town fans. A chant rang out: "PLAY BALL!!!" But when the stadium lights went out again, it started to become apparent that that would not happen. Reports started coming in from the local radio news station, reports of fires and destruction outside the safe walls of the stadium. Then came the first big aftershock, and that, finally, started chasing people from the stadium.

Leaving the Candlestick parking lot as the sky darkened over unlit houses.
Next day at the office.
We waited in the parking lot as the sun descended over the unlit homes near Candlestick. Finally, we drove off toward my apartment in Palo Alto. 3 hours, driving about 10 miles per hour the entire way down route 101. Amazingly, not a thing in my apartment was damaged, nothing at all. We walked in, and the phone was ringing, my mother had gotten through.

Next morning, a trip to take Andy to the airport (it was open, with Red Cross stations all around), and a trip to the office to try clean it up (it was a disaster area; the picture only hints at the damage, and those that had been in the building at 5:04pm the previous afternoon wanted no part of it while the aftershocks were still coming). I learned that our glass elevators weren't so great in earth quakes, and that two of my co-workers had been trapped in one as it partially came off its tracks during the shaking. I also learned and that TI Explorers (the computers of some of my co-workers used at the time) had an unfortunate tendency to to become projectiles when bounced.

Damage to a stadium support. It was fixed prior to the game being played 10 days later.
Candlestick Park suffered some damage during the earthquake; how much became a bit of a political question, as the mayor tried to take credit for "fixing" Candlestick the prior year to make it safer in a quake. The game was not allowed to resume until the park was deemed safe; in the meantime the 49'ers played their next home game at Stanford Stadium. On October 27, Game 3 was finally played. Andy couldn't make it up for a 2nd trip. The Giants lost. By a lot.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Grand Imperial Emperor of New Jersey

September 25, 2009

10 years ago this weekend, I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play a pair of shows in Philadelphia to mark Bruce's 50th birthday. Tonight, Bruce joined Elvis Costello onstage for a taping of Elvis's show "Spectacle," at Harlem's Apollo Theater. Not so much to mark Bruce's 60th, but to have an evening of talk and music in an intimate setting.

First things first: The Apollo is as magnificent in person as its reputation. Beautiful theater in great shape, and with amazing acoustics. It felt like an honor just to be in the building -- a good thing, considering that my seats were in the last row all the way to the side.

"Spectacle" is Elvis Costello's talk/interview show. Apparently -- I don't have Sundance Channel so I have not seen it -- it is a one hour show, culled from a taping session that can last as long as 4 hours. Tonight's session came in just under 4 hours with a brief intermission, which I suppose would make it among Bruce's longest public appearances.

After some preliminary notes from a TV hostess about how to clap and behave for TV, Elvis Costello came on. He said some preliminary remarks, then brought on the Imposters and went in to an intense version of "Point Blank." A good start for the audience, though Elvis said that it wouldn't be airing. Then Elvis brought on the evening's first "surprise" guest, Nils Lofgren, and they played one of Nils's songs (alas, I no longer recall which one). Finally, as means of introducing Bruce, Elvis launched in to "She's the One" with a rap, but both Elvis and the band were sloppy with it, and it took probably 6 takes until they had it good enough. During the rap Elvis said many things about Bruce, including -- if I recall correctly -- the title for this note.

The interview... Well, let's face it, not many people were really there for the interview. Of all the talking, and probably close to 3 hours was talking, there was all of one question that produced a remotely interesting response, and that was when Bruce confessed that he had never been in the Apollo before, even as an audience member. Most of the interview covered ground that has been covered in many other interviews, often far more coherently. Elvis came across as stumbling -- despite huge TelePrompters that presumably were there to help him stay on point. When not merely rambling, he was often hopelessly gushing or begging. Not that it was a total loss; Bruce took a few openings to squeeze in one-liners, float a couple gentle rejoinders at Elvis for past things that Elvis said (but only what Elvis said about Bruce, and not, say, what Elvis once notoriously said about James Brown, not even when Brown's name came up in conversation). In one instance, Bruce worked in one of his hoary off-color variations of guy-meets-girl-in-bar jokes. Elvis did have an opportunity to say a few nice things about Patti.

The questions, such as they were, often focused on some concept of "social justice." Too often, Elvis would start a question topic and not really wait around for an answer -- on the obvious topic of literary influences, for example, the name Steinbeck wasn't uttered once (they did moderately better with movie influences). I'd like to report that Elvis asked Bruce penetrating questions about the creative processes of writing, rehearsing or performing music, or even about specific songs, but he didn't. On the rare occasion when such a topic appeared to be coming, Elvis often talked right through it without giving Bruce opportunity to respond (or worse, put in some gaffe that might end up being a 10-minute traverse so that Bruce could eventually give a gentle correction; this happened most humorously when Elvis goofed on the timing of the "Nebraska" album).

Case in point: In one sequence, Elvis talked about times he had played with Bruce, mentioning the Black & White Night with Roy Orbison, and the Grammy Award show performance honoring Joe Strummer. This meandered in to a recollection of another Grammy Award show in which The Weavers received a lifetime achievement award. From there it went to former Weaver Pete Seeger, a mention of The Seeger Sessions, and finally to Bruce playing with Pete before the inauguration. Though Bruce did manage to get in a word here and there (e.g., recollecting fan reaction to Black & White Night and even doing -- with Elvis -- a portion of "Oh Pretty Woman"), Elvis asked nothing about Strummer, nothing about The Seeger Sessions. The question ended up being, essentially, how old is Pete, and how awesome was it to play with him? It wasn't quite as cringe-inducing as the Jon Stewart debacle earlier this year, but it was definitely more yawn-inducing.

The music, on the other hand, more than made up for the interview's weakness. During the first set, when Elvis went on about how much a fan he'd been of the first two albums, Bruce played a spirited acoustic version of "Wild Billy's Circus Story," joined by Nils and also by Roy an accordion. Yes, I missed Danny. But it was still wonderful, with the stage bathed in green and orange lights as they played. Though Elvis's early interview seemed to trace through Bruce's early career and on to "Nebraska," the next song selection ended up being "American Skin (41 Shots)." This one took multiple takes, but Bruce was in fine voice and it ended up coming off great. "Galveston Bay" was a pleasant surprise, as well, and Bruce did an impomptu segment from "The River" that had the audience so wrapped up that there was an audible groan when he aborted. To close off the first half of the show -- and it was now 10:30, or nearly two and a half hours in -- Bruce and Elvis joined forces with the band to perform Sam & Dave's "I Can't Stand Up for Sitting Down," a song that Elvis had covered nearly 30 years ago on the "Get Happy" album. Bruce made a point of claiming Sam's part for the song, after also explaining why he thought Sam & Dave made such a good pair musically (maybe the highlight of Bruce's spoken bits; Bruce also made a point of rejecting hypotheticals when Elvis asked how big a star Sam Moore might have been solo).

During the show's 2nd half -- which didn't start until nearly 10:45 -- Elvis paid tribute to Patti. This led in to one of the better discussion segments, wherein Bruce spoke of family, children and music (the music part mostly coming later on in the show). But it also led to a georgeous version of Patti's "Black Ladder," with Elvis on lead vocal, accompanied by Bruce and Nils. Later in the 2nd half, Elvis took lead on "Brilliant Disguise," a song he covered several years ago. Bruce played a nice bit of backing guitar for it.

At the end, the band came out. With the 4 Imposters, and Bruce, Roy and Nils, it was a 7 piece band. They tore in to "The Rising," and absolutely smoked it. THis wasn't off-the-cuff; the arrangement was somewhat different than Bruce's standard for the ESB, and it was tight and fast. It was almost a shock, as in, "there is a rock song in there!" Then, "Seeds," and finally, a medley of "Radio Radio" and "Radio Nowhere" that had a few jaws dropping. It rocked. hard.

By then, it was pushing midnight, and I was almost thankful for the show to end; it was a race to make the last train back to New Jersey. Despite Elvis Costello's weaknesses as an interviewer, the show was great fun. And it was great fun without a single song from "Born to Run" or "Darkness on the Edge of Town"; of the songs played, only Bruce's first ("Wild Billy's Circus Song") was from the first portion of his Columbia career. Look for the performances when the show airs on Sundance.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Beatles for Sale

I was about to call this one, The Beatles are Coming!!, but considering the prices involved, "Sale" seemed so much more appropriate. The links below show some -- not all -- of the major releases of Beatles stuff today. (Yes, the links all work, please use 'em to buy your Beatles stuff from Amazon!!). There are also various combinations involving t-shirts and even "collector's crate" editions (I linked one of them, just for laughs).

Of course, with the depressed state of the current CD market, the Beatles releases are utterly dominating Amazon right now, occupying 10 out of the top 11 positions (only Susan Boyle at #6 spoils a clean sweep of the top 10). All 16 new music releases are in the top 21. And this may well be the first time ever that the top two positions at Amazon are both multi-hundred dollar box sets. And, of course, the Wii and Xbox versions of "Rock Band" have the top 2 positions in the Video Games chart.

So... yes, I broke down and ordered the mono box today. YES, IT IS OVERPRICED! And, yes, it means some other indulgences that won't be had this year. But it is also a bit of a holy grail of sorts. Mono was how The Beatles intended. Not that it was so apparent to me growing up, when it seemed so cool to have that German pressing of "With the Beatles" with the "true" stereo of "Money" to close it out. When the original CDs came out in 1987, and the first 4 were mono only, it was a big disappointment. So much so that when a bootleg called "Ultra Rare Trax" showed up not too long thereafter, I quickly snapped it up in substantial part just to get its sizzling stereo version (yes, with the voices on one side and the instruments on the other side) of "I Saw Her Standing There."

It wasn't until about 3 years ago, when reviewing notes for Dave Marsh's book The Beatles' Second Album (Rock of Ages) and listening to playbacks, that I fell for the mono versions. I listened to that same song, "Money." The stereo version was nice, but... not all that. The fakish stereo by then available from the Capitol record on The Capitol Albums Vol. 1 was a nice enough curiosity. But the mono... when John screams out "I WANT TO BE FREE!!!" and John and George trill away in response, it smacked right between the eyes. Even with the dead sound of the original "With the Beatles" CD. So I wanted to have it fresh. And I want -- finally -- to have "Revolver" and "Rubber Soul" as the band intended. As some old ad copy once said, a splendid time is guaranteed for all... but Mr. Kite isn't topping the bill.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Tour de Cure 2009

After the ride.

Tour de Cure 2009 is in the books. For the first time, all of us did the ride. This morning in Brighton, Aaron and I participated in the 25-mile bike ride out of Brighton, and Lori and Elianna participated in the 10-mile ride. I am incredibly proud of both kids. For Elianna, it has barely been two months since she learned to ride a bike. And for Aaron, what a ride: All the hills. No walking the bike. No stops at all between the rest area, except for a very brief moment when our path crossed with Lori and Elianna. Conditions were perfect, nearly erasing memories of last year's excruciating heat. Perfect, except for the one moment on the way home when my bikes decided they'd like to fly right off the car (fortunately, they stayed attached).

Business part first:
Now, then: Donations may still be made through the remainder of June, 2009, via the American Diabetes Association Tour de Cure website. Our pages:
Me: http://tinyurl.com/matthew-tdc
Aaron: http://tinyurl.com/aaron-tdc
Elianna: http://tinyurl.com/elianna-tdc
Lori: http://tinyurl.com/lori-tdc

Now, back to the ride:
The 25-mile route was changed up this year. Away from the dangerous intersection over I-96, and instead through Island Lake Park in to Kensington at the start. Fewer steep uphills made life a tad easier as well. Also, much better marked, so no getting confused. Whereas last year the 25 mile route was only 22 miles, this year it was 27. I guess it balances.
On the down side: at about 16 miles the course went right by the finish line... very weird. And there were only 2 rest areas, 12 miles apart. That's a little sparse for me. But enough of the nits! Here are some pictures.

Reading the blog from last year... what a difference! Last year, a quart of water, significant burning around the edges of the jersey, and peeling it off at the end of the ride. Nothing of the sort this year... but still heaven to come home to the cherries and the pool.

As of this evening, Team Orel slipped in to the top 20 in the local ride with $1921 raised. That's good, and we're proud to help out. With these tough economic times, I know that donations are way off; still, we appreciate any and all contributions! Thanks for reading (and hopefully participating)!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Star Trek: The Search for Logic

When Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released one fine late fall day in 1979, I went with 16 of my closest friends in Millburn High School to a screening at Essex Green. We had to be there when Admiral James T. Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise reunited on the bridge. And if the loving shots of the ship took too long, and if the movie itself was little more than a regurgitated TV episode (most obviously relying on a 2nd-season episode called The Changeling), so be it. Many of had seen all 79 episodes of the original TV show, many, many times. After all, Star Trek aired in re-runs every night on Channel 11, right at dinner time.

Three decades later, Star Trek has long since passed from being “must see.” The movies got better, for a while, including with the brilliant Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Then came the TV shows. Star Trek: The Next Generation was the first and best; besides making a catch-phrase of “sexy bald man,” it became compelling in its own right. The final episode of that show, All Good Tings… was, to me, as good as anything in the Star Trek canon.

The last 15 years, though, have not been so kind to Star Trek. First, they killed Kirk… and it wasn’t even good drama. Unlike with Spock, they couldn’t figure out a way to bring Kirk back, either. Then, they killed the Borg. Ok, that was cool. I could watch that again. Resistance is futile! Hell, that was worth watching just to see Data and the Borg, well… ok, not going there. But “Star Trek” was eventually diluted with mediocre TV spins (Deep Space Nine) dreary TV spins (Star Trek: Voyager) and finally TV spins that nobody watched (Enterprise). The most recent movie not only wasn’t “must see,” most people – myself included -- didn’t bother. Nemesis was the lowest grossing Star Trek film to date.

So, imagine my shock last fall when I started seeing the trailers last fall. At first I thought it must be some parody: here’s a young man claiming to be “James Kirk,” and the other guy is saying he’s “Leonard McCoy.” Can’t be!! But then, there’s the Federation symbol, so… ok, a prequel!

Certainly, it seems to have been well-received. Over at Rotten Tomatoes it is scoring 95%, including 91% among the professional critics. Few movies ever rate higher. In just two weeks, it has already grossed more than $150 million, easily surpassing Star Trek IV as the highest grossing film in the Star Trek series. The action is usually compelling enough (except for one totally ridiculous chase scene), the back stories of the familiar characters are engaging and sometimes even funny, and the special effects are great.

So, why didn’t I love it more?

I think, for me, it may come down to time travel. Not that I mind time travel. Star Trek IV works in large part because of the time travel; All Good Things… also involved a form of time travel. Then again, so did the dreadful Generations, as did First Contact. If anyone’s counting, and, well, I am counting, 4 of the last 8 Star Trek movies have used time travel. And I’m thinking that that’s probably 2 too many.

But it’s not so much the time travel itself that is problematic for me. It still has to pass the "kill your grandfather" test... or, I guess in this case, the "watch mommy die" test. That is, it's what the time travel does to the timeline and whatever remains of the underlying logic of everything that once was Star Trek. This movie is popularly being called a “prequel,” but it is not. The timeline populated by everything from the original TV series and at least the first 6 movies (ok, 7, counting Generations, so I guess count 'em all) is utterly obliterated by the events of this movie. Obliterated, as in, can’t be mended by a future TV show or movie; that timeline and everything in it is now reduced to being in an alternate reality, or, as Patrick Duffy might once have said, "a bad dream."

That’s not to say all is lost here. The characters are engaging. Chris Pine demonstrates Kirk’s wilder side, bringing back every memory of Kirk putting on his shoes by the bed of his latest space conquest. Zach Quinto is credible enough as a much younger – and much taller – Spock (though, let’s be frank, there was a bit of a quantum leap when Leonard Nimoy appeared on the screen). The script is sharp. We get a version of how Bones got his name, and finally we get a worthy part for Uhura (played by Zoe Saldana, in a role that must have made Nichelle Nichols jealous).

Some scenes of young Kirk are fun enough. First he trashes a vintage Corvette. Then, we see how Kirk passed the Kobayashi Maru test, made famous in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

This movie pays homage liberally to both the original TV show as well as the original cast movies. The references are far too many to count. The catch phrases are almost all there: Yes, Bones uses the “I’m a doctor, not a …“ line and yes, Scotty struggles with dilithium crystals to give the ship more power, and yes, we get Checkov’s attempts at saying words with v’s in them (never mind that Checkov probably shouldn't be there at all, it's still funny), and yes, we get Sulu displaying his fencing skills. There's a red shirt, a character with Yeoman Rand hair, and Sarek – Sarek!! – reusing a line from the original TV series. I missed hearing “He’s dead, Jim” and “Beam me up, Scotty,” but that might have been just my attention span flagging. When Nimoy first appears on screen, he starts out by quoting one of Spock's most famous lines – the very one that first appeared after Spock acknowledged trying his own version of the Kobayashi Maru test. We even get a scene in which Kirk goads Spock in to a fight in order to force Spock to become emotional, a scene that is pretty much straight out of the first season episode This Side of Paradise. On the other hand, perhaps that is part of the my struggles with the film: too much of it seems pat.

All of which brings me back to a question: If the nostalgia trip is so good, if the nods to the old TV episodes and the original movies so much fun, then why murder the timeline? Why, essentially, take an exacto knife and slash it up? It's not as if Trekkies were going to force literal remakes of all the old TV episodes, after all, but it might have been nice to retain some sense of the memory, in more than just the mind of Spock prime. And it’s not just that specific movie events render episodes such as Journey to Babel or Star Trek IV to be impossible without mending the timeline (and, really, there’s no credible way to mend the timeline even to make A Balance of Terror, Tomorrow is Yesterday or The Immunity Syndrome plausible, let alone the Jane Wyatt episodes), but it doesn’t even make sense either by existential logic or by plot. If, after all, the timeline is altered in the manner suggested, then “Spock Prime” can’t exist in the form given by Leonard Nimoy. And, further, if the timeline alteration is as presented in the movie (itself a bit of an homage to the “black star” effect of Tomorrow is Yesterday), then there is a far more obvious solution for the other time traveler than to be going all Darth about it (or is that more Khan?). After all, he has the red matter, he can make sure it is used to save his planet when the time comes. DUH!! And while I expect that Nero wouldn’t have thought of that, surely Spock would have.

And, that, finally, is where it falls apart for me. In Tomorrow is Yesterday, wherein time travel was first introduced (by “a black star of high gravitational attraction,” with the famous backward ticking clock at Sulu’s console), the characters went overtime to try to mend the timeline. In City on the Edge of Forever Joan Collins was allowed to die, rather than to alter the timeline. Other examples are plentiful.

The conundrum was explained from the start of Tomorrow is Yesterday:
Spock: Suppose an unscrupulous man were to gain certain knowledge of man's future? Such a man could manipulate key industries, stocks, and even nations. And, in so doing, change what must be. And if it is changed, Captain, you and I, and all that we know, might not even exist.

Kirk: Your logic can be most... annoying.
Clearly, it seems the intent of the filmmakers here to remake Star Trek entirely, to tell whatever stories they wish to tell, unencumbered by any details from the original TV show beyond the names and personalities of the main characters. I suppose that they can have a lot of fun with two Spocks in real time – sure beats the days when Spock was just a katra in McCoy’s brain, I guess. And, in a sense, that’s ok. It’s worked well enough for the comic-book prequels, and for the moment it has returned Star Trek in to the “must see” category. But it is at a cost. Logic might have dictated a different course. Annoying as it may sometimes be.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Super Super Bowl and a 50th Anniversary

I tried my best this year to avoid all of the Super Bowl hype. Sure, I've been watching them at least since Otis Taylor made mincemeat of Bud Grant's secondary, but I have long since grown tired of all the pre-game festivities. So, I tuned it out. Even with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band finally on the bill as half-time performers, I did my best to ignore the details, paying only glancing attention to the interviews and none at all to reports from people at the rehearsals. I could be surprised live, along with most of the rest of the country.

When I thought of writing something, of course my reason was to write of Bruce performing. After all, one of the famous apocryphal stories of Bruce was of his former manager, Mike Appel, attempting to get Bruce on the bill for a Super Bowl pregame show, in part by dangling an otherwise unknown song called "Balboa vs. the Earth Slayer." That was in 1973. Bruce was releasing a new album two days before the big game, which was broadcast by NBC... and there the parallels end.

As Bruce became a superstar, there came to be a list of "Things That Bruce Would Never Do." These things have the mark of Integrity with many of us diehards. Bruce would never do TV commercials. Bruce would never accept corporate sponsorships of his tours. Bruce would never release a Greatest Hits album. Of course, some of the list of Things That Bruce Would Never Do, he did. So, when Bruce agreed to play the Super Bowl -- one of the things that inevitably ended up on the TTBWND list -- it wasn't really such a surprise. Nor even a disappointment. Mostly, as a fan it seemed a "concern," as in, could Bruce bring the feel of a show in just 12 minutes, and could he do it at a time when he wasn't touring?

Those questions are now answered, and I want to write about that, but as Dov Pilkey might write, before I write about that, first I'm going to write about this:
That was one holy shit Super Bowl game, wasn't it? I'd not been paying too much attention to the NFL this year, but if there was one thing I knew, it was that the NFC West was the Worst Division In The History Of Major Sports. Which it probably was: The division, as a whole, went 9-31 against other teams in the NFL, including a putrid 3-7 by the Cardinals. And the Cards didn't lose cheap: They gave up 56 points to the Jets. Then, in the final 6 weeks of the regular season, they lost badly to the Giants at home, were mauled by the Eagles, steamrolled at home by the Vikings with a playoff seeding on the line, and then were completely annihilated by the Patriots. This was a bad team whose record was propped up 'cause it played in a historically bad division. It was wholly unworthy, yet somehow come playoff time the opposing quarterbacks all played like they had voodoo pins stuck in them. I'm still trying to decide who the impostor was who wore Jake Delhomme's uniform during the 2nd round playoff game was, surely Arizona had nothing to do with that.

So, I made it plain that, were I a betting man, I'd bet the house on Pittsburgh. The Steelers were a good team. This would redeem the rest of my "if I were a betting man" picks for the post-season, which, going in to the Super Bowl, were 1-10. Thank you, Steelers, for beating the Chargers, or I'd have been perfect.

We called over the in-laws and sat down to a game and a show. Missed all the pregame. No Bruce interview. Just sat down at 6 for the real deal. Saw Faith Hill, wearing way too much eye shadow, murder "America the Beautiful," and saw Jennifer Hudson do a splendid lip-synch to the national anthem. My father-in-law was convinced it was live. I assured him the halftime show would be live.

The first big commercial was for Bud Light, and it was fantastic. Guy gets thrown out window. Second big commercial was for Doritos. Boss gets turned in to a soprano. Hey, if ever there was going to be a release from the real world, tonight would be it. Ben Roethlisberger scored a touchdown that was overruled on replay, and somewhere in Seattle a TV set went through a window. The first quarter was played in less than a half hour of real time. But this was all warm-up, we had to eat and get back for Bruce.

James Harrison nearly wrecked the halftime show by a) making the greatest individual play in Super Bowl history on the final play before the half, and b) seemingly taking up the entire 12-minutes allotted to Bruce while doing it, with 10 minutes more to review the play and determine that yes, he really did score.


So, time to write about that now. Bruce took about, oh, 2.5 seconds to answer any doubts. Even from the initial silhouette of just Bruce and Clarence, it was clear the band was ready, willing, and definitely able to rock and roll all night... or 12 minutes, as the case may be (or 14, as my clock seemed to indicate). Players had pre-taped intros for the band, using paraphrases of Bruce's own intros dating back to the reunion tour. And now Bruce, with the horns, coming on the "10th Avenue FreezeOut," to start a microcosm of the party portion of a live show. Put down the nachos and chicken fingers! Slide into the camera! Ouch! And, hey, who said these songs really need second verses, anyway? "Born to Run" in the 2nd slot, and then... is that a huge choir for "Working on a Dream"? Is that the same choir he sang with at the holiday shows in Asbury Park? Wow, that was strange, weird and fast, but they sounded pretty good. Horns out front for "Glory Days," and I swear I saw Kingfish among them. Fireworks not just in the show, but as percussion instruments. Even the "delay of game" shtick worked, as did Bruce's changes to the "Glory Days" lyrics to substitute football for baseball and a Hail Mary, for that stupid speedball. The cameras mercifully spent little time on overzealous teenie-bopper fans -- and anyway, most of the fans they showed looked like the real deal. If I had one minor quibble, though, it's that I would have liked to have seen more of the full band. Steve sure seemed to have a great time. Bit from my one watching of it, I'd be hard pressed to say if Charlie Giordano was in attendance, and I'm not sure I actually spotted Nils Lofgren or Garry Tallent, either.

Bonus points, by the way, to anyone who can name another Springsteen song that references a "Hail Mary," without googling for it.

My father-in-law kept asking me to turn up the volume. That stereo system was the loudest I've had it in 15 years of owning this house. He still complained that he couldn't understand a single word. (and, yes, somehow I find myself thinking, "and maybe that's how it should be").

Bruce played THE guitar. So, as he was playing, I remarked, "that's THE guitar. I have touched that guitar." Which I did, in Toronto in 2002 when Bruce used it for "Thunder Road" and held it out to the pit near the end of the song.

Elianna, my 7-year old, looked at me with incredibly wide eyes. Obviously, she was impressed. She stammered a bit, seemingly searching for something to say. Finally, she found it:

"Dad, what's his middle name?"


The 2nd half of the game was a true rarity: A series of events so riveting that they completely overshadowed the halftime performance. The Cardinals might have sucked down the stretch of the regular season, but they were superbly coached in this game. Huge play after huge play after huge play, on both sides, with finally an astonishing catch by Santonio Holmes to give Pittsburgh the last lead. And then we almost got that final Hail Mary, too... but it was fumbled away. No Glory Days for Kurt Warner tonight.

Whatever the hype was, however big it was... that surely lived up to it. All of it. The game, the halftime.
Now, Bruce, about the other Things That Bruce Would Never Do... Bring 'em on!


This morning I took the kids to school, getting in the car just at 8am. I had the radio tuned to Little Steven's Underground Garage. Elianna wanted XM Kids, of course, but as with most modern radios I had to turn the radio on before I could change the channel. I tuned in just to the opening chords of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away." And though I knew it was coming, it hit all at once: Today was the 50th anniversary of the day the music died, out near Clear Lake. "Not Fade Away" is maybe my all-time favorite Buddy Holly track, maybe because of that Bo Diddley beat, maybe because Bruce Springsteen played it during the first show I ever heard him live, in an utterly incendiary version of it (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnUVfdpDXQ0 for that performance; I was stuck listening to it on the radio in my bedroom). The Rolling Stones had their first hit with their cover of "Not Fade Away". Bob Dylan played it. So did The Byrds. The Grateful Dead turned it into a 10-minute audience sing-along. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers performed it, as did Patti Smith. But no one can touch the original.

I kept it on Underground Garage. For two minutes, Daddy controlled the radio. The steering wheel doubled as a drum kit during the guitar solo. I told the kids about the day the music died, but I'm not sure they understood. When it was over, and the next song came on and it wasn't another Buddy Holly song, I turned it to XM Kids. Just in time for The Hampster Dance. The music really has died.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Working On a Dream

Bruce Springsteen's "Working On a Dream" is due to be released on January 27. It finally leaked all over the internet today, so I've spent an some time with it this evening.

Some of the early chatter I heard for this album was pretty bad. So... it's, it's, it's not as bad as that. How 'bout that? There are a few high points, and maybe at this point that should be enough.

From the beginning. ok, there's "Outlaw Pete." What is this thing? I listen, and for whatever reason I'm hearing "Funeral for a Friend" or some such. But while I suppose a song can repeat the same 5 notes over and over and over, and over and over and over again and again and again, and be interesting and good ("Born in the USA," for example), "Outlaw Pete," isn't. At least not yet. To me. On first listen I don't really take in the lyrics, but with a terrible clunker in the 2nd verse ("a mustang pony he did steal," ick!), I imagine I won't be thrilled when I see the full lyrics sheet. So it's fast here, slow there, violins one place and guitars another, here an echo and there the voice bared, and I gotta say I don't much care for the experiment.

But after 8 minutes of that, "My Lucky Day" came roaring in as a great relief, just 4 minutes of straight-forward rock. I was glad my iTunes was set to truncate the between-song time by two seconds, the effect was wonderful. This is maybe the most "E Street" track on the album. Here's Steve Van Zandt singing harmony on the 2nd verse. And now here comes Danny Federici's organ (I assume; I hadn't checked the album credits but that's him, it can't be otherwise), in the perfect place as an old friend should be. And Clarence Clemons, with his one brief shining moment on the album. I don't even have to hear the words, it's my lucky day.

"Working on a Dream" is, for me, the wrong song for the wrong time. It's working on a cliche, but in the context of the album I don't cringe quite so much. By now I'm starting to wonder why Bruce is singing in the upper register on every song. just seems so strained there.

The rest? "Queen of the Supermarket" is a wacky 4th cousin once removed of "I Wanna Marry You" and "Jersey Girl," not that Bruce impresses me as the Shop-Rite type. It's a seeming Dusty Springfield take-off, at least until it all strangely falls apart in the final minute, first with a gratuitous lyric and then a musical departure to parts unknown. Is that a scanner? Oh, well. "What Love Can Do" must be forgettable, because I have forgotten it. But now it rolls around again as I'm writing... what is that, Beau Brummels? Maybe he could play this one live.

The nods continue with "This Life," with "Pet Sounds"-era Beach Boys being the reference. "Good Eye" is a throw-away blues featuring the bullet mike. But Bruce pulls it off so seemingly effortlessly that I find myself wishing for an album of blues throwaways. The lead-in to "Tomorrow Never Knows" reminds me a bit of CCRs "Lookin' Out My Back Door," and is nearly as sweet. The solo in "Life Itself" is interesting enough, either backwards or at least made to sound that way. The 12-string seems a nod to "Eight Mile High" era Byrds, but the music reminds more of Bruce's own "Missing." "Kingdom of Days" and "Surprise, Surprise" sound more or less like "Magic" outtakes. Kingdom has Bruce's first "I love you I love you I love you I do" chorus while channeling a bit of "Girls in Their Summer Clothes." Beatlish flourishes accent "Surprise, Surprise"; I suppose it's nice to have Bruce sing his very own happy happy birthday song to sing, with Patti joining in at the end.

"The Last Carnival" is nearly worth the price of admission to the midway. An instant tear-jerker, with Danny Federici cast in to the role of darling Wild Billy. It's over too fast.

The bonus track, "The Wrestler," is the prize winner... literally now. Maybe the greatest song ever about people and animals missing various limbs.

It'd be a nice thought that Bruce could still come up with something new, rather than nods to this and references to that. Maybe he still can. In the meantime, this isn't so awful, is it?