Monday, December 12, 2011

Big day for Elianna

The Frankel Jewish Academy put on "The Wizard of Oz" as its Fall show this year, and as part of the cast invited children ages 7-14 to try out for parts as Munchkins and Flying Monkeys. Elianna was all in, of course.

Saturday night, on the way to dropping her off to prepare for the 2nd of the 3 performances, we had the following dialogue:
Elianna: "Have you ever worn lipstick?"
Dad: "Yes"
Elianna: "When?!?"
Dad: "I was in plays once."
Elianna: "What parts were you?"
Dad: "I don't remember!!"
Elianna: "Then you didn't have any big parts."

All in.

Sunday was the final performance, a matinee.
But Elianna also had Martial Arts testing, scheduled at noon.
Made it through. She'll get her belt -- GREEN -- the next time she goes, but she passed.
Then, on to FJA, and the last go-round as a munchkin, member of the Lollypop Guild, and a Flying Monkey. She gets to keep the Munchkin and Flying Monkey hats.

It was, in short, a big day.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The dirtiness of the times

On Monday, I went to a lecture titled, "The Dirty Politics of Ancient Israel." The lecturer made various points, not least of which is that modern politics have nothing on the ancients. The key example: The greatest king of them all, King David. David rose to power by ruthlessly having all his political opponents -- real and imagined -- killed. At least, that was the thesis.

There is a story in 2 Samuel 21: "Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David enquired of the Lord. And the Lord answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites." Never mind who the Gibeonites might have been, or whether David was actually talking to God. But... There was a crisis!!! Do something!!

The story continues: "and David said unto the Gibeonites: 'What shall I do for you? and how shall I make atonement?"

The answer? "Let seven men of [Saul's] sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the Lord."

And with that, David gathered up seven sons and grandsons of Saul, all the ones who could potentially be threats to him as king, and turned them over to the Gibeonites. Now, maybe Saul killed Gibeonites. Perhaps, even, the seven sons and grandsons of Saul participated in, or at least, enabled such killings. The Bible doesn't say.

In any case, the Gibeonites promptly killed the seven sons and grandsons of Saul, thus ending the crisis (!!!) and, oh-by-the-way, consolidating David's power.

There is no mention as to when the famine ended. David probably credited the killings for the rain, when it finally happened.

It's just an observation. But I notice, sometimes, that some things don't really change all that much. Details change. But the themes come back in various forms, over and over again.

So tonight, in a very minor version of the story, Penn State Football Coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier played leading roles in the latest edition of "The Sons of Saul." Yes, there is a very real crime involved, and somewhere there are real stories about those real crimes. But the sons of Saul are deposed, and the people are happy.

Eventually, the crisis at Penn State will subside. After all, they did something.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Good Night, It's All Right (Pittsburgh, November 4, 2011)

Sometimes, you might just need a fix. That was the first of Bruce Springsteen's two shows with Joe Grushecky here in Pittsburgh.

Other times... other times, you might hope for something more than just a fix. You don't quite know what it is, just that you'll know it when it happens. And when it does, you just say, this is what I came for. That was the second of Bruce Springsteen's two shows with Joe Grushecky in Pittsburgh.

Last night, Bruce Springsteen went to a dark and mysterious place, and drew forth something truly stunning. That he was "on" for this performance was evident right from the start, when he guested with the opening act, The Composure, for a hard driving version of "Dancing in the Dark." Unlike the first night, this time the auditorium was mostly full for the guest show. And, as we soon found out, he was just barely warming up.

The show structure was nominally the same as the first night: Guest with the warmup act, short acoustic set, then Grushecky and the Houserockers for a couple of songs, and then Bruce with Grushecky & co. for a mix of Bruce and Grushecky songs, through to a finale after which Bruce would serenade the crowd solo. A solid formula, though at times a bit ragged on the first night. But there's a difference between "solid" and "coming from another planet." Last night was interstellar.

Bruce started the acoustic set with "Your Own Worst Enemy," the song which opened his 2nd show last year. His voice was superb. Then he followed with a request from Joe Grushecky. As Bruce strummed the opening notes of "Incident on 57th Street," a wave of recognition started to sweep the room. But it didn't really hit until the first words. How to describe? Sublime? Perfect? HFS? All of the above? Yeah. That.

The main set was strong all the way through, with more setlist variations than I would have expected. Bruce highlighted "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "Adam Raised a Cain," and Grushecky brought out "A Good Life" from his catalogue. The Houserockers were noticeably tighter this night on songs such as "Because the Night" and "Two Hearts," and provided solid backup throughout.

Bruce's guitar playing was stupendous again. I thoroughly enjoyed the jam on "Pumping Iron," though some friends thought it went on too long. But that led to an absolutely monstrous solo passage to open "Light of Day," one of those jaw-dropping "did I just see that?" moments.

At the end of the show, Grushecky's family was invited on stage for renditions of "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Twist and Shout," first Grushecky-style (deliberate, almost salsa) and then full-throttle rock and roll. The stage became very crowded, and as some fans infiltrated, Bruce -- only half-jokingly, I think -- called out for security.

After this, we prepared for the serenade of "Thunder Road" to close this most perfect evening. Except, except, except, Bruce wasn't done. Bruce and Joe were out of songs. But they weren't. Resurrected from last year's show, they dug out "Pink Cadillac," with Bruce putting in some hysterical lyrical changes -- e.g., approximately, "just won't last / over too fast" as the rhyme in the final verse.

And then, the serenade. Only it wasn't a serenade, it was another acoustic mini-set! Although it included "Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?," the highlight for me was "Surprise, Surprise," dedicated to a Grushecky family member whose birthday coincided with the show. Bruce opened up a bit, explaining how he wrote the song, and then, to the birthday girl, said, "live every day as if it's your last."

Finally, the show ended with Joe joining Bruce on stage for "Thunder Road." An astonishing evening, completed. Good night, it's all right.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Down the Road Apiece

After a year of no Springsteen concerts, coming to Pittsburgh to see him play with Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers was a bit akin to getting a fix. Everything seemed exciting coming in. The Pennsylvania hills were as beautiful as any landscape painting I've ever seen, and of course the Sailor and Soldiers Hall in Pittsburgh is a gem.

Having seen Bruce play with Grushecky 3 times previously over the past 16 years, I pretty much knew what to expect: Bruce taking lead on most songs, plenty of guitar work and good fun, a bunch of hits, mostly Bruce's, with occasional Grushecky favorites thrown in and perhaps a surprise or two. That, of course, was precisely what the show delivered.

The good news in the show was Bruce's form. His voice was clear and strong, and he shared it happily. I had to remind myself a couple of times that he has passed his 62nd birthday. His guitar work was even better. He took extended solos over and over again. And over again. And then some more. Not just on his own songs, but also on Grushecky numbers such as "Never Be Enough Time" and "Pumping Iron." As for Bruce's songs, when he really decided to rock it, the roof blew off. "Light of Day" was perhaps the biggest highlight, in which Bruce singlehandedly filled the room with his sound.

Bad news? For me, it was that the show offered nothing at all new, besides confirming that Bruce is still in performing shape. A first-time ever acoustic performance of "I'll Work For Your Love" was the closest we came to a surprise in the setlist. That, and a seeming ad lib by Houserockers drummer Joffo Simmons during the band intros portion of "Down the Road Apiece," in which he launched in to The Safaris' "Wipe Out," with Bruce and then the band quickly joining in.

Two other problems were that it was very hot in the hall, and that -- except for during the acoustic numbers -- the sound was pushed way too high, with nothing to deaden it. The effect was of distorted sound literally bouncing off the 110-year old walls back at the audience on the floor. Here's hoping they dial it down a notch or three tomorrow night.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dunn is Done, All hail Dan Johnson

One month ago, it appeared as if the most interesting thing likely to happen on the last day of the season might be Adam Dunn's pursuit of history. The pennant races were dull, with clear leaders in every race. Little did anyone know...

On September 9, the St. Louis hosted the Atlanta Braves in the first of a 3-game series. The Braves led in the wild card race by 7.5 games. Going in to the bottom of the ninth, the Braves were ahead in the game, 3-1. Their sensational rookie closer, Craig Kimbrel, took the mound. A win would improve the Braves record to 85-60 -- a .586 winning percentage -- and reduce the Braves magic number for a playoff spot to 10, with 17 games remaining. A .586 winning percentage equates to 9.97 wins per 17 games.

With two outs, the Cardinals had a runner on first base. Rafael Furcal, hitting .217, came to the plate. Kimbrel prepared to close out the game, but then something strange happened: He went wild. He walked Furcal on 4 pitches. Then he walked pinch-hitter Ryan Theriot on five pitches.

So now it was bases loaded. Season on the line for the Cardinals. Down two runs, and down to their last out. And now batting for the Cardinals: Prince Albert Pujols. It was a mismatch. Pujols laced Kimbrel's 2nd pitch in to right field to tie the game. The Cards won in the 10th, then swept the rest of the series. Race on.

That same night, the Tampa Bay Rays hosted the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox had been stumbling in September, but they held a 6.5 game lead over the Rays. A win would improve their record to 86-58 -- a .597 winning percentage -- and reduce their magic number to 12, with 18 games remaining. But the Rays won, 7-2, and went on to sweep the Red Sox, easily. Race on.

Cut forward to the greatest day of regular season baseball in major league history. Oh, there have been other great days, for sure. In 1990, there were two no-hitters on the same day. But nothing like this. Coming in to the day, both wild card races were tied, as the Cardinals had caught the Braves and the Rays caught the Red Sox.

But for a moment, I digress to Adam Dunn. Dunn didn't play yesterday. He did play on Tuesday, though, striking out in all 3 of his at bats. He finished the season with 496 plate appearances, falling 6 short of being a "qualifier." He ended up hitting .159, and even were he to have gotten hits in 6 consecutive plate appearances (thus getting to 502), he would have ended only at .171, easily worsting Rob Deer's .179 20 years ago. He also ended with another ghastly streak: In his last 8 plate appearances, he had 6 strikeouts and 2 walks; that is, not a single time during that span did Dunn put a ball in to play.

But, as they say, what's Dunn is done. As for last night, I think a book could be written.

In Atlanta, Kimbrel re-created his St. Louis meltdown. This time, with a 3-2 ninth inning lead against the Phillies, Kimbrel walked 3 batters and squandered the lead. The Braves ended up losing the game -- and their shot at the post-season -- in th 13th.

But that was the undercard.

In the American League, the Yankees led the Rays, 7-0, in the 8th inning. But the Yankees were using the game merely as a tune-up for the playoffs; they would end up using eleven pitchers. The Rays scored 6 runs in the 8th, but still were down to their last out in the 9th with the score 7-6. Manager Joe Maddon sent up Dan Johnson to pinch-hit.

Johnson was once a Moneyball player. Drafted in 2001 by the Oakland A's -- the year before the one highlighted by Michael Lewis, Johnson was once a player whose on-base percentage and slugging made up for a relatively poor batting average. In 2011, though, Johnson's stats would make Adam Dunn look good. Yes, Johnson started at first base for the Rays on opening day. He even got a hit that day. But he'd had just 8 more hits, all season. His last home run capped an improbable 5-run 9th inning rally to win a game against the White Sox... on April 8th. His last hit was on April 27th. Johnson's batting average was .108. His "OPS+," a measure of his on-base and slugging as compared to league averages -- where 100 is the average score -- was negative 3. And Joe Maddon was putting the entire season on Johnson's shoulders. Down to his last strike, and after having fouled off a pitched, Johnson hit a home run to tie the game.

And that wasn't the end of it, either. The two American League games would end within about 2 minutes of each other, first with Boston completing a spectacular implosion, and then with the Rays winning their game. For certainly the first -- and hopefully the last -- time, Yankees fans everywhere erupted in joy over their team blowing a 7-run lead. Seasoned members of the press appeared to be in shock; an hour after the game ESPN personality Tim Kurkjian still looked like he was about to cry. Still, to me, the night belonged to Dan Johnson. For all I know, he may never get another big league at bat. To me, what happened last night, this is why we watch the game. It will be very hard for the post-season to top it.

Associated Press, photo

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Worst Hitter in Modern Major League History

A record was set tonight in Major League Baseball. It's a bit of a big record, though I'm supposing that the record-holder would just as soon not have it. And you wouldn't know it from that picture, either (that was a home run).

In Chicago, the Designated Hitter -- and if ever there was a more ironic title, I'd like to know it -- Adam Dunn went 0-for-2 with a walk. For the year now, he has 66 hits and 75 walks. Not many players get more walks than hits in a season, though some of those players are very, very good. That list includes Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds. But this in not about Dunn's ability to draw walks.

Dunn has also amassed 174 strikeouts this season. That's 108 more strikeouts than hits; the record is 112, set just last year by Mark Reynolds, then of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The ratio of strikeouts to hits, 2.64, is a record for someone with as many hits as Dunn. But this is not about Dunn's impressive ability to miss the baseball.

Tonight in Chicago, Dunn collected two walks and two strikeouts. That is, in 4 plate appearances, he never once hit a fair ball. Overall this season, Dunn has put the ball in fair territory in less than half of his plate appearances -- 48.3%, to be exact. Only 46.0% of Dunn's plate appearances have ended with a ball in play (Dunn has hit 11 home runs). Barry Bonds nearly matched this in 2004... but then, Barry Bonds was the National League MVP that year, with 45 home runs and an astounding 232 walks, an on-base percentage of .609, and an OPS of 1.422. Those are also all-time major-league records. If you set those kinds of records, it's probably ok to have so many plate appearances end without the ball being touched by a fielder. I'd have liked to have seen a splash-down in McCovey Cove, too. But, though Dunn has hit at least 38 home runs in each of the past 7 seasons before this one, this isn't about Dunn's all-or-nothing batting approach.

Dunn, as every poor Chicago White Sox fan sure knows, is having an absolutely miserable season. With tonight's game, Dunn now has 412 at bats and a .160 batting average. That's less than the pitching staff of the Philadelphia Phillies, and though Dunn still has a chance to outhit them (they're at .161, overall), he's not about to outpitch former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee, who has a .200 batting average to go along with his 17 wins.

What Dunn did tonight might not be recognized for a little while... if at all.
Dunn's plate appearances this evening give him 493 for the season. As baseball statheads know, to officially "qualify" but batting titles involving averages, there is a requirement for 3.1 plate appearances per each game the player's team plays. Or, 502 plate appearances in 162 games. Just a few weeks ago, resigning manager Ozzie Guillen finally decided to bench Dunn. As an ESPN article from August 31st stated, "Dunn would need 502 total plate appearances to officially be anointed the worst of the worst when it comes to batting average over a full season, and the plan the White Sox have laid out figures to save him from being a historical footnote." But, after a couple weeks of having Dunn sit, Guillen re-inserted Dunn in to the line-up. He is now 0 for hist last 20, which, as unbelievable as it may seem, is his longest hitless streak of the year... unless I've missed one or two (there are a lot of long hitless streaks for Dunn this year).

Dunn set the record, tonight, for worst ever batting average in a season. Now, as noted about, Dunn has not yet officially qualified for this honor. And, with just 2 games left, he may very well not get the 9 plate appearances he needs to get to 502; he hasn't had more than 4 in any of his past 7 games, after all.

But it no longer matters, and here is why:
The modern record holder for worst batting average in a season was by Rob Deer of the Detroit Tigers, with a .179 average in 1991. Deer, much like Dunn, struck out a lot, walked a lot, and hit a lot of home runs.

ok, here's where I note that, officially, the record belongs to Bill Bergen, a catcher for the 1909 Brooklyn Superbas, who hit an astounding .139. Bergen "qualified" by the rules in use at the time, though he would not, by today's rules. The New York Times ran an article on Bergen's futility last month, calling it awesome.

Since 1967, according to, "a player could lead if they still led after the necessary number of hitless plate appearances were added to their at bat total."

I figure, then, that the converse must be true as well: "a player could be worst if they are still worst after the necessary number of plate appearances with hits (or HRs, walks, whatever) were added to their at bat total." In other words, for Mr. Dunn, I can get to 502 plate appearances by adding 9 hits! And, upon doing so, I could raise his batting average only to .178, thus ensuring that he will finish worse than Deer, even if we have to add hits to get Dunn to 502 plate appearances. Barring a long extra inning game or an unexpected surge from the Chicago offense, Dunn will not get more than that number of plate appearances. Therefore, he has clinched the new record for "worst modern major league batting average."

Not that Adam Dunn needs congratulating, but, at least so far as I'm concerned, he has the record now.
Photo by Brian Kersey/Getty Images of Dunn swinging... and not missing.

Elianna's latest gems

In recent years, I have used this blog less and less frequently... but sometimes there are things, little things, I just want to remember. And if I just put it on facebook, I may never find it again.

Tonight, I got home very late from work. Elianna was waiting for me. "Guess what?," she said. "Remember that spelling test I took??" "Did you get it back?" I knew she hadn't studied for it, because she lost the study sheet. The day of her test, I thought I had found it on her bed. There was a big yellow sheet of paper there, and in big letters, in her handwriting, it said, "SPELL WORDS." It had a lot of words on it, all scribbled down in her writing. So I had said, "Here are your spelling words! OK, now, accio??" and at that point I gave up trying to help her for her test. But I digress. "I get to re-take my test!!" That was a prelude to, "I was close, I only missed that one by one letter!"

Later, as I was putting her to sleep, I asked Elianna, "when is your make-up test?" At this, she jumped up on the bed, and exclaimed, "make-up test???" And, making exaggerated gestures with her hands and a bit of a pose as if holding up something small and pointing to it, "This is the red make-up!! This is the blue make-up!!"

This is going to be an interesting year for the munchkin.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Obama and the Queen of Soul in Detroit

I'm not much for attending major political events, or going to see big-name politicians. When I was at grad school at USC in 1984, I saw two campaign appearances.

At the first one, Walter Mondale had to answer some particularly obnoxious hecklers by bellowing, "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. This is the school that produced Donald Segretti!" No, they didn't throw tomatoes, as Susan Estrich has recalled, or if they did, their aim was bad enough so I didn't notice. Then again, they probably didn't know who Segretti was, anyway. It was a great put-down, but the jecklers just kept on shouting, "Reagan Country!"

Later that same fall, I saw a campaign appearance for the Republicans. Vice President Bush spoke. The USC mascot, Traveler, paraded around with its rider --presumably Richard Saukko -- in full regalia. The introduction was by Moses himself, Charlton Heston. It was all very... regal and distant.

Politicians -- good politicians, anyway -- tend to be very practiced at saying things they think their audiences want to hear. So, convinced I will end up hearing nothing of value at all, I have mostly tended to avoid them. I went to a couple of Obama campaign events in 2008, but as I recall, I had another reason to be there.

Barrack Obama, as President, has proved particularly disappointing to me. While I have found him to be a forceful, authoritative speaker, but his actions have only rarely seemed to match his rhetoric. Nonetheless, when I found out that he had chosen Detroit as the location for his Labor Day appearance -- not just Detroit, but a location in Detroit that is very familiar to me, on a surface lot by the Detroit Riverwalk just East of the Renaissance Center, I saw it as a family opportunity. So, on Friday I walked across most of downtown Detroit on a blazingly hot afternoon to the AFSCME 207 Local Office to pick up tickets. This would be a chance for both myself, Lori and the kids to see a current President of the United States.

The experience? Probably the hardest part was getting to my regular parking lot -- it took 3 approaches and several detours to get to a passage that was open. By the time we got to the lot, the pre-speech activities has started. Not that we cared. John Dingell spoke. Sander Levin spoke. Debbie Stabenow spoke. Several Union officials spoke. Then, we got the big highlight:

She looked good, and sounded better. And the band leader was just... cool.

Finally, Obama was introduced by a member of the AFL-CIO. Elianna climbed on my shoulders to get a better view. 65 pounds for half an hour is painful, but it'll be ok once my shoulders stop hurting. Obama said all the right things today. There were predictable chants in the audience -- "Four More Years," mostly. The Segretti minions were missing. The audience was decidedly mixed: Black, white, union, non-union, and nearly all festive. Elianna remembers he said something about building a new bridge, and that seems about right.

After the event, we went in to Greektown for pizza. In the meantime, Fox News created a new "scandal" by doctoring the warm-up remarks by Jimmy Hoffa. I can't wait to talk to the kids about that.

Picture from the Detroit Free Press

Monday, June 20, 2011

King of the Entire Known Universe

During concerts on the Darkness On The Edge of Town tour, during "Growin' Up" Bruce Springsteen would tell a story about being sent by his priest to talk to God. It would go something like this: "... so I walk home, and try to figure out where I’m gonna find this God, you know, it’s like I don’t go to church... you know, I can’t go back there, I don’t know... said 'I know what I’ll do, I’ll go over to Clarence’s house ‘cause Clarence, he knows everybody.' So I go over there, I knock on the door, I say ‘Clarence, I’m in this fix. I gotta see God right away, can’t wait.' He said ‘Listen, no problem, I know just where he is.'"

I remember how the story sometimes continued: "... so I figured I gotta go see God and all I have to go see Him in was my mother's Rambler, was all beat up, all smashed up, paint scraped off the side... He says, Well, you can't go in that car! 'So what do you mean I can't go in this, it's the only car I got.' He says, 'That thing is, thing's ugly as hell, it's like, you think He's gonna see you in that car?!? There's gonna be guys up there with Monte Carlos, Lincolns, Continentals, you think He's gonna notice you?"

Clarence Clemons passed away two days ago. Writing about Clarence in death I feel a bit like going to see God in that Rambler: small. But here's the thing: As the story played out, Bruce got the car painted, and Clarence got in to drive with him to see God. Only then did God deliver the word: LET IT ROCK!!!

That was Clarence in my vision of Bruce's world: The faithful friend who had the answer, who came along for the ride, and who made sure the mission was accomplished in style.

I was introduced to Clarence's sound in 1977. My summer camp bunkmate, Andy Bienstock, was a Springsteen fanatic, and I had a tape deck. It was a package deal. The listening was a package deal: I couldn't listen to "Jungleland" unless I heard out every last note of that solo. (Andy is now Program Director at WYPR in Baltimore, and I thank him for allowing me to be among the first teenage beneficiaries of his music expertise)

Clarence was not the best technical player around; the "Born to Run" solo, in particular, was a nightly adventure. But no one else had that sound. The raspy bellow that just announced, "The Big Man is in your ears." Whether on a solo for Bruce, or Aretha Franklin, or even Lady Gaga, he had a tone that was all his; and the emotion and feeling for his parts more than compensated for any technical flaws. My favorite solo is tucked away on the 4th side of The River, and turns the nearly mawkish song "Drive All Night" into an emotional masterpiece.

During the last 24 hours before Clarence's death, I looked through youtube, watching dozens of video highlights from his career. There he was, at the height of the Born in the U.S.A. frenzy, making an appearance on Late Show With David Letterman, first playing a version of Springsteen's From Small Things... and then sitting down for an interview. And then there's the majestic video promo for If I Should Fall Behind, in which Clarence sang a verse after playing a defining solo. A 1978 video of Paradise by the 'C', an instrumental named for Clarence. A 1984 version of Rosalita with Bruce and Clarence doing multiple sight and sound gags, culminating in the "Clarence" cheer and chant, and the announcement that he was, in fact, the king of the entire known universe (including Hoboken, New Jersey) and master of all things. But my favorite, from Landover in 1980, was a rendition of the "Detroit Medley." Clarence wasn't even in most of the video, but we can see that he was playing a baritone saxophone. Having played sax myself, I have an idea for the weight of that instrument, and how difficult it can be to get any sound out of it. Clarence was playing and strutting. And, then, just after 8 and a half minutes in, my jaw dropped: A mere mortal should have passed out from honking the bari while dancing that long. But there was Clarence, not only playing, but swinging the bari sax!! All the way, in rhythm, like a giant pendulum. Bruce was singing of hearing a train, and Clarence was operating the hand car. Both sides!!

In recent years, Clarence's health failed him badly. Though he was still an astonishing presence on the stage, he could barely move. The sight of Bruce assisting him to get on the stage was one of both love and pain. Yet, if anything his playing seemed to improve in the last years. On those occasions when I got to see a show from "the pit," there was no better place to be than 2 deep from Clarence; close enough to see the manufacturer's mark on his horns, close enough to feel the emotion and power of the show, and close enough to catch his eye when he wasn't playing.

I saw the E Street Band for the last time on November 22, 2009, in Buffalo. My friend Karen talked me in to going at the last minute, and a traffic jam made us almost an hour late for the show. But it was the last show of the tour, and who knew if there'd ever be another chance? Had to be there. We got there just in time for me to pick up a copy of Clarence's book, and to race to our seats as the band launched in to a song-by-song replay of the Greetings From Asbury Park NJ album. When it got to the break in "Growin' Up," Bruce came to the mic and said, "There I was..." I just smiled. The Rambler had reached its destination.

Clarence, at the time of his death, was in a position rarely attained in recent years by Bruce: In the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (Lady Gaga's The Edge Of Glory, featuring Clarence, currently sits at #6). With a bullet.

(photos by Lois Bernstein)

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Heart of a Heartless World

For much of the last month, my commute companion has been Stewart Francke's new album, Heartless World. "Heartless World" was funded in part by a kickstarter campaign, in which fans who ponied up small amounts of money were promised an advance copy of the CD, and those who ponied up especially large sums were promised, "name it, we'll do it." I don't have much history contributing to things that don't have "501 (c)" next to them, and this definitely wasn't one of those. But then, I've also heard Stew's past releases. As Stew wrote in his kickstarter announcement, "These are exciting times for independent artists, musicians, and music business entrepreneurs." It was a no-brainer. More than 200 people chipped in, and happily, the album was fully funded.

Happily, because this is the best album I have heard in a long, long time. Over repeated listening during my daily commute to downtown Detroit, I never once considered skipping a track. The weakest thing about this album must be the cover art, because there are no weak tracks here, and each listen seemed to reveal a part, a lyric, or even a lyricist I hadn't noticed before. On most days, I'd get through just more than half of the album getting to my parking spot at the Millender Center, and hear the rest on the way home. But if the Lodge was particularly backed up, I might be fortunate enough to make it through the entire album on the way in.

"Heartless World," to me, is an album defined by its sense of places. Physical places, in particular in and around Detroit. Seasonal places. Places in time. Places in our past and present lives. Places within ourselves, and places for ourselves. If, not so long ago, we could talk of surviving the good times while dreaming of better days, now we can talk about simply surviving... while dreaming of better days.

There are plenty of musical references here, from Motown to Stax to P-Funk to Jackson Browne to Van Morrison -- at least, those are some that I think I've heard -- and I'm sure, many more. The trick, of course, is to make them work as something new. "Sam Cooke's On the Radio," the third track on the album, seems to come right out of the Steely Dan songbook... the best part of the Steely Dan songbook. With a groove. With the backup singers kicking off the song, and then adding one of my favorite lines of the album, "singin' fa fa fa fa fa fa," a line so good it just made me smile all over. Times might be bad, but this is no sad song.

Stew has every reason to be down. He lives in metro Detroit, which has been especially hard hit by the recent economic downturn -- not that times were good here for many years before that. Since his last record, Stew's gone through the loss of both of his parents. Those scars mark several of the songs on the album, from the declaration in "Heart of a Heartless World" that "I've said farewell to my mama, and said goodbye to my dad," until the imperfect but necessary resolution of "Boo Yah / Take My Mother Home": "Ain't gonna grieve my mother no more, ain't gonna grieve my father no more." But from that sadness, comes a sense of joy and celebration. That last song features a searing vocal by Mitch Ryder, declaring, "feeling mighty joyful, feeling mighty high." It fits.

And that's just scratching the surface. I suppose I could go on about the use of the various instruments. Or the song "Givin' It Up," which features a melody that could make it in the Paul McCartney songbook, but with lyrical confessionals ("I was a fool, so smart and so smug") that seem to me beyond anything I can imagine from Sir Paul... Or of the horns. Are they out of tune at the end of "Snowin' in Detroit"? Well, yeah, maybe. But, goodness, I wouldn't change 'em if they are.

My two word summation for Heartless World is this: Buy it. (You can use the link, or get it from Stew's site. This is a record that deserves to get wide recognition, to be heard, and to be enjoyed.


Last night Lori and I went to the release concert for "Heartless World" at Callahan's, a local music cafe. When we got there, Stew was hanging out near the front door, ready to greet. Of course, though Stew had his beautiful wife and daughter in the room -- and, I'm sure, plenty of other friends and relatives there as well -- the first thing he asked me was how my children were doing. Somehow, that didn't surprise me. He also let on that "Heartless World" is about as good as he can do... to which I had no idea how to respond. Except to say that it's better than the best of many artists that I admire. I didn't think to say that last night, of course. but I get to fix that a bit now.

The concert was a blast, of course, featuring about half of the new album. During "You Want What You Don't Got," the dance floor filled... and it was all women. Stew did not look disappointed. Later, during "My Old School" (a Steely Dan song that's been a staple of Stew's live shows for some time), Lori got an extended private solo on the dance floor. She did not look disappointed.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

I Heard Old Neil (and someone else) Sing

Time was, seeing Neil Young was a very special event. Oh, I was never a Neil Young fanatic the way I am for Bruce, but I have many fond memories of seeing him live. He was one of the few major acts I saw while in college, back when he was touring behind Trans. That was nobody's idea of a great album, but it did yield a super-weird version of "Mr. Soul."

Since then, I have seen Neil in several incarnations. There was the show at the Fox, in Detroit, in support of the then still-unreleased Harvest Moon that was pure magic, with Neil going back and forth between instruments and themes all evening long. And the show at Pine Knob with Booker T. and the MGs. And even the Greendale show, even if I can no longer remember any of its songs or much about its supposed message -- except I think it had something to do with being green and having dancers on the stage and a grandpa. Since then, though, I haven't paid all that much attention.

Still, when my friend Judi came across a couple 10th row center tickets at a very right price and thought to offer me one, of course I jumped...

Every once in a while, the Woodward area in Detroit really hops. Last night was one of those nights. The Tigers were hosting the Yankees at 7pm, the Red Wings had a playoff game at 8pm, and we had the concert. The streets were alive, and the sun was out for the first time since last year.

Over dinner at the very loud Hockey Town Cafe, Judi and I joked about being "casual" Neil Young fans, and comparing it to how we'd view casual Springsteen fans at a solo show -- i.e., the ones who wouldn't recognize some song about paying a price. I joked that Neil could drag out Cortez The Killer, one of us might shrug, the other might not recognize it, and then there'd be some guy in spasms of ecstasy.

Inside the Fox, and having survived the ordeal of being seated (one is not seated at the Fox without an usher, no matter how long it takes) and the opening act, we got ready for Neil. I figured I should still know at least half the setlist, despite not having followed much the last decade or so. Then, just before the lights went down, it happened: a blood-curdling whoop, from right behind me. That's right: I was sitting directly in front of Mr. I-got-a-big-tattoo-and-a-bad-tanktop-and-a-worse-buzzcut-and-a-loud-voice-and-I'm-here-to-hear-myself Man. I just looked at Judi and muttered, "oh my God," I mean, what else is there to say in the face of the seemingly absolute certainty that a show is about to be ruined?

When Bruce Springsteen toured behind The Ghost of Tom Joad, he would announce, before the show, "If you feel like clapping or singing along, don't. If someone sitting next to you is talking, politely ask them to Shut The Fuck Up. Don't make me come down there and smack you around." We called it the "Shut the Fuck Up" tour, and, oh how I wished that Neil would have made that announcement last night.

Neil came out, dressed in his white suit, and played My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue). I heard Neil singing some of it, but Mr. I'm-Here-to-Hear-Myself Man (IHTHMM) was much louder. He got all those big words like "Hey" and "My" exactly right, too. Oh, Neil screwed IHTHMM when he sang, "Detroit City will never die" the last time through, but the damage was being done.

My My, Hey Hey, Detroit, May 4, 2011

Thankfully, it quickly became apparent that IHTHMM didn't actually know many of the words to the songs. Not that that really helped matters. He talked loudly to a companion during Tell Me Why, and then... his cell phone rang. He answered on the 4th ring.

As for the show, it was about half older songs that I recognized. Neil would appear indecisive between each song about what to do next, but it appeared to me a total put-on. As for the songs I didn't recognize, most were from Neil's latest album, Le Noise, and for the most part they did nothing at all for me. Mostly they seemed to me basic demonstrations of just how much bass sound he could get out of the Gretsch.

One exception with the new songs was a relatively simple sounding one called Love And War, which worked great until the end of the 2nd verse, when enthusiastic clapping broke out from the back of the hall. We quickly decided that the Red Wings must have scored. IHTHMM then obliterated the last line by screaming out, "Bring 'em home!!" (The youtube video below, shot from the balcony, documents just how loudly he screamed.) Fortunately for us, IHTHMM then announced to Southeastern Michigan that if he didn't hit the rest room that very moment he would be forced to piss his pants. The row cleared for him, immediately.

Love and War, Detroit, May 4, 2011

Neil brought a cottage piano, a grand, and the pump organ, but each was used only for a single song. After The Gold Rush was typically magical and mystical on pump organ, but it had a "been there, done that" feel to it next to my memories of when it was a show closer nearly 20 years ago, Then again, in 1992 "After the Goldrush" was not marred by IHTHMM bellowing out "CLEVELAND!!" at the end of the song (Yes, IHTHMM actually followed that up by screaming out, "OHIO!!," matching a song title that Neil had already played, and for all I know IHTHMM thinks that song is about Cleveland).

After the Goldrush in Cleveland, 1992

As the show wore on, IHTHMM started bellowing for Like A Hurricane, which made me wish, for nearly the first time ever, to not hear a song in concert. ok, ok, exception for Bobby Jean, but I digress.

Then it happened: The set was winding down, time to play a couple oldies and close it up. And Neil played, yes... "Cortez the Killer." IHTHMM was audibly distraught that it wasn't Hurricane (which would go unplayed, as it has this entire tour), but right in front of me, a gentleman there by himself looked skyward, shook his arms, and started thanking his God. As for me, I was just happy to recognize the song. Best dinner prediction I ever made.

Cortez the Killer, Detroit, May 4, 2011

After the show ended with one of Neil's new songs, Walk With Me, IHTHMM sat glumly in his seat. "THAT SUCKED!!" Me, I was pretty much ok with it.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Radio Broadway

Last week, we took a family trip in to New Jersey for the first time in more than a year. Being more of a last minute planner by the year, this time we did virtually no planning. But there we were, last Thursday, on a last minute power drive from West Bloomfield to Millburn.

This led, by no means inevitably, to a pair of trips in the Manhattan on a very nice Friday. First, to catch up with Dave Marsh at Sirius/XM, and later, to see the Broadway show, Baby It's You.

The Sirius/XM thing came together so suddenly that I'm still a bit surprised it happened at all. Dave has a live radio show on Friday mornings called "Live From E Street Nation" on E Street Radio and I had determined that if I was ever in town on a Friday, I'd at least call. The show started at 10:30, and somehow we made it up to the 36th floor of the McGraw HIll Building at about 10:29, going right past a room that I recognized from pictures as having hosted a Bruce Springsteen interview a few months ago. Introduced to producer Jim Rotolo and intern Sarah Wexler, put on the headphones, and there I was, on the air, introduced by Dave as a "co-host."

Most of the show was a contest, in which callers tried to answer some very trivial questions to win the new Record Store Day record. The callers were helpless. Even the "easy" questions, they couldn't get. I'm not sure if we're really "supposed" to know Bruce history, but evidently, most fans -- at least the ones calling in the E Street Radio -- don't.

That evening, we were back in, this time with the kids and my siblings and mother, for the show. "Baby It's You" focuses on the story of Florence Greenberg, a New Jersey housewife who became a major record industry mogul, and her first starring group, The Shirelles. As a first full family Broadway affair, it seemed a safe enough bet: There'd be lots of good songs, including some that Aaron knew, since he knew some of their songs from learning The Beatles catalogue. And Elianna loves all things theater.

The show? Kids loved it. Elianna danced, and Aaron said it was "pretty good," which I think is high praise from him. Audience, especially those a bit older, sang along often. Never mind that the plot was razor thin, or that the characters were not developed (especially not The Shirelles). The costumes were great, the band was tight, the voices were strong, and the audience ate it up.

But, upon review, I noticed a bit of a parallel between myself as audience, and the contest callers from earlier in the day. I hadn't bothered to brush up on The Shirelles prior to the trip, and other than identifying the title song of the play as one the Beatles had done, I probably couldn't even have remembered that in 1964 John had famously called them his favorite American group. So, when the show, among its many wide variances from literal history, omitted any mention of The Shirelles' biggest hit, I didn't even notice.

Missing that one is, perhaps, akin to not knowing in which song Bruce Springsteen mentioned the casino (yes, that was one of the contest questions), or accepting an Elvis history without "Heartbreak Hotel." Maybe that shared amnesia helps make the entertainment value of the shows, I don't know.

In a couple weeks, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will open a new exhibit titled, Women Who Rock. We're going to need to go. Preferably with the kids.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

A Decade Past

A few days ago, an front page headline caught my eye. Under a big photo of Dale Earnhardt, was a caption announcing that it had been 10 years since his death.

Ten years!!

I’ll note that I’m not much of a auto racing fan, and to the extent I watched it, it was typically Indy Car, not NASCAR. I didn’t watch the race that day. But I remember that weekend.

On February 16, 2001, we flew to California for a cousin’s bar mitzvah and an 8-day vacation. We, being me, Lori, and Aaron. Aaron was a few days shy of his 4th birthday, and Lori was becoming very large with our 2nd child. She needed a doctor’s clearance to fly. I have looked through my 16,000+ pictures and can find no evidence that she was ever that large, but it’s true. I remember it. But 10 years ago, I had no digital camera – I had tried out an HP prototype in 1998 but it would be another 2 years before we’d buy one – so I was still paying to develop pictures.

When we stepped off the airplane at SFO, we were greeted by Lori’s uncle. We were not expecting to be greeted by Lori’s uncle, so our first question was, “what are you doing here?” To which Jerry smiled at Lori and said, very simply, “your grandmother died.”

Ten years ago, we did not own a family cell phone. I had had one for my job a couple years earlier, but had hated it. It was bulky, the number had been hacked while I was on a trip, and the thief ran up $1300 in calls to Colombia. I had recently gotten a new one for work; if I made personal calls, I’d have to pay by the minute, with roaming charges. I used it as little as humanly possible, and didn’t travel with it.

Lori’s grandmother had been discovered by her daytime nurse, early that morning. The nurse tried to call us, as Lori’s parents had left for the bar mitzvah the previous day. We were the only family in town. But we left for the airport 10 minutes before the call, and we had no cell phone. We found out when we got off the plane, 2000 miles away.

The idea of turning Aaron right around to fly 2000 miles the other way seemed a mistake. The funeral was set for Sunday. So we decided that Lori could stay with us in California through the bar mitzvah, and we’d burn frequent flyer miles to get her back to Michigan for the funeral; she’d rejoin us in California after the first day of shiva. Ten years ago, it just cost 20,000 frequent flyer miles to come back, with no advance notice and no dollars being spent.

And so, for a couple days, I was a single dad of a nearly 4-year old child. For our first night together, that Sunday, I co-ordinated with my friend Steve to make an outing to a Golden State Warriors basketball game. I have no idea why. The Warriors were dreadful. (Some things never change). They had one good player, Antawn Jamison. (another thing that hasn’t changed: Jamison, 10 years later, is the “good player” on a similarly dreadful Cleveland team). They were playing the Atlanta Hawks, a bad team. We had cheap seats, and the Oakland Arena wasn’t exactly state-of-the-art. But we went.

Today, I have any number of nearly instant news feeds at my ready disposal. I have a computer with news gadgets, smart phones with facebook and espn apps. Ten years ago, unless I was sitting at the computer – and I wouldn’t be sitting at a computer 2000 miles away from home – my source might be TV or radio. Or, as happened the evening of the game, from the game announcers at the stadium. We walked in, and they were talking about the Daytona 500 and Dale Earnhardt, and on and on about Earnhardt, in the past tense. He had died in a crash, in the final turn of the race.

The Warriors blew a 4th quarter lead and lost that night, despite 37 points from Antawn Jamison. They would win just 4 more games out of their remaining 30, that season. Aaron fell asleep during the game. Lori came back to California the next evening, and we finished our vacation. A couple days after we came home, Aaron had his fourth birthday. Two months later, we welcomed Elianna in to the family.

And, as ESPN reminded me a few days ago, it was only a decade ago.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Elianna's First Foray in Texting

Last month, we (finally) upgraded our family cell phones to new feature phones that include keyboards, with plans that include texting. The following is Elianna's first text conversation, from the ski area we were at, back to Lori. She had asked to email, but I figured texts would be faster.