Saturday, December 28, 2013

Bruce Springsteen: High Hopes

Earlier today, Bruce Springsteen's latest album, High Hopes leaked far and wide across the interwebs. The official release isn't due until January 14th of the new year. The album is a hodgepodge of "our best unreleased material from the past decade," as Springsteen explains in the liner notes (already published at brucespringsteen.net), where he adds, "I felt they all deserved a home and a hearing."

Bruce previously wrote liner notes for Devils & Dust, which perhaps not coincidentally was also an album mainly of older unreleased material. As with the notes to that album, there are some poignant notes here: The Wall, a song that Bruce premiered in concert in 2003, was inspired by Walter Cichon, a member of a '60s Jersey Shore band called "Motifs." This is the best part of the liner notes, and arguably the best of the previously unreleased songs on the album.

Much of the album has been heard before. Springsteen recorded High Hopes, written by Tim Scott McConnell of Havalinas, in 1995 for the Blood Brothers sessions; he released it on a "bonus" EP that accompanied the VHS release of Blood Brothers in late 1996. In a discussion of that release on the old LuckyTown Digest, Dave Marsh quipped, "If 'Without You' [another track on that EP] is the biggest pile of piffle BS has ever foisted on the world (IF...), then what in the world does that make 'High Hopes'? His best ever knock-off of a Disney theme?" I don't think he meant it as a compliment.

This new version of High Hopes adds more drum parts and horns, and it almost sounds like a marching band backing Bruce. It also features a fiery Tom Morello solo, but to me all the extra instrumentation is so much lipstick. Nice lipstick. Pretty lipstick. It sounds good, at least.

This album also features the seventh different version of The Ghost of Tom Joad to be put in to official release, going back to it being the title track of his 1995 acoustic album. It's the third version with Morello. This is his first studio version of it with Morello, but otherwise it's more or less the same as was released on the Magic Tour Highlights EP in 2008, with Bruce and Tom trading the vocals again.

American Skin was a centerpiece track of the Live In New York City album, and his version of Suicide's Dream Baby Dream was released on vinyl and as an iTunes download in 2008, after having been a show closer for Bruce during the Devils and Dust tour in 2005. Both tracks come dressed up with more drum parts, or maybe the same drum part. The opening chant of "41 Shots" sounds like it's bubbling up from under a lagoon. But both new arrangements will work live; Bruce has already performed the new version of Dream Baby Dream at this year's Stand Up For Heroes show, and it was the highlight of his performance.


But as I try to piece together this release as an album, I am struggling to identify anything that makes sense to me as an "arc." Anything beyond, "hey, I'm 64, and I can still put out new music!" That's something, I suppose, but up next to the song suite of Wrecking Ball, it just doesn't feel like very much.

I will listen more, as I always do. I've found songs that I like. Down in the Hole reminds me of Magic, and contains some nice vocals from Patti (and some children -- Bruce's? is it that old?). I liked Hunter of Invisible Game, a rare Springsteen track in waltz time; if the lyrics are a half step below his best it still works well enough for me. The Wall, punctuated by Curt Ramm's trumpet solo, stands with any of his acoustic tracks over the past couple decades.

The sound is modern enough and the music moves, but I don't hear any tracks that will be on my 12-year old daughter's radio station any time soon. Sound effects that added to songs on Wrecking Ball, do more to distract here; in my opinion the bullet mic should have been retired a few years ago, and the stereo effects of Heaven's Wall feel like they showed up from another decade. Of course, the "Raise Your Hands" chant from that song will surely become the next audience participation event in concert. The power major chords of Frankie Fell in Love are so bold I can imagine it as the theme song to some TV show I must have missed. This is Your Sword sounds vaguely Celtic, so long as the lyrics are ignored. But this album also shows that the best judge of Bruce Springsteen's music is... Bruce Springsteen. As with prior albums of unreleased songs (Tracks, Devils & Dust), there's good reason why so many of the songs weren't on those prior releases.

Of course, Bruce doesn't appear to be attempting any grand statement with this release. Anyway, it's quite a bit better than a Disney-theme knockoff, not that I necessarily mind Disney themes. A limited edition version of the official release will also include a live performance DVD from 2013 of the entire Born in the USA album. For fifteen dollars, I'm good with it.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Bruce Springsteen In Focus


The first thing I noticed, when launching in to the introduction for Debra Rothenberg's book Bruce Springsteen in Focus 1980-2012 was the instant potential for a good old game of Jewish geography. Ms. Rothenberg and I were born less than 10 weeks apart and grew up a few miles from each other in suburban Northern New Jersey. Her school friends were my camp friends. Her college acquaintances were my relatives. We each saw out first major concerts at the Garden States Arts Center in the mid-70s, were turned on to Bruce Springsteen's music by mentors who preached the Springsteen gospel and knew not to let up, and saw Southside Johnny at the same shows near our homes before finally seeing Bruce perform for the first time during The River tour.

Rothenberg's first published photo: September 1981
issue of New Jersey Monthly magazine
Rothenberg combined her love for Bruce Springsteen with her dream to become a great photographer, and over the course of 3 decades has chronicled both his career and her own. Rothenberg notes, "this is my journey, of having a dream to be a professional photographer. Being told, 'you stink, you're never going to make it,' and I really did stink, but I didn't quit. It was a long process to get where I'm at. There was nothing else I wanted to do; quitting was not an option." Her approach surely resonates with comments that Bruce and members of the E Street Band have made about their own careers, and it will resonate with fans around the world as well (In Focus has been in amazon.com's top 10 sellers for photojournalism since its release in September). Let's be clear, though: there are no pictures in this book that stink.

Photographing Springsteen has changed somewhat over the years, Rothenberg says. "Most times in the '80s it was easy to just walk in with a camera. Many times, it was around my neck. Sometimes, it was in a bag looking like a turkey sub and one time I did have to put it in... [a personal hygiene box]." Today, cell phones are more prevalent: "Being short, I find they are in my way a lot... People are paying A LOT of money to go to a concert and they don't want to see it through someone's electronic device."

Subscribers to the Springsteen fanzine Backstreets will recognize many of these images from the pages of that magazine (when I wrote my first Backstreets article in 2007, one of her photos graced the cover). They will also recognize the names of the writers who wrote personal recollections for each of the book's chapters. The effect is not unlike when new issues of the magazine would arrive: pick it up out of the mailbox, devour it end to end, and put it down only after completely consuming it. Some passages particularly resonated with me. For example, Chris Rotolo, as a photojournalist: "it was well worth it when you attained that perfect angle, where the amber fluorescence of the house lighting catches a collection of dust particles wafting through the ether, casting an angelic glow about the featured artists's celebrated profile." Wow. Having shot several shows for Backstreets as a charming neanderthal myself, I can testify to that experience. In Focus captures it, many times.

November 21, 1999: Albany, NY
To me, the book is at its best when capturing events that eluded most of us who moved away from New Jersey: appearances at Asbury Park's Stone Pony, a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, the scene on the beach when Springsteen made an appearance for The Today Show. As fans, we get to experience these moments vicariously through Rothenberg's lens. We get to see the joy that Springsteen brought to his performances, including several pictures in which he was obviously having fun with the camera. Rothenberg also treats us to pictures that help set the scene: the stage, the people in the audience, the other artists with whom Bruce shared a stage. "My style," she says, "is to incorporate the energy of the performer. If they're smiling, I want to capture that. Bruce has got that big grin, he's having such a great time!"

In Focus is also notable in that, unlike so many other books about Springsteen, it is accurate. It doesn't go overboard on the details, but when it lists a song or a date or a place, it is correct. Ms. Rothenberg told me, "I didn't want another book telling the history of Bruce, where he was born, etc. I wanted it to be more like a tribute and stories from the journals and notes I kept." I suspect the book's most notable error was confusing West Orange for South Orange in the introduction, and I'm going to guess that even the readers from West Orange won't care. Careful readers will also notice that 3 tours from the past 3 decades -- including 2 acoustic tours -- are not included in the book. "When I got to the 20 year mark (of shooting Bruce), I thought I was done but then a few magazines would call me to shoot him so then I said I will go to 25. It kept going."

In Focus is available from amazon.com and other retailers. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of In Focus will be donated to: Alzheimer's Association, Parkinson's Research, and Breast Cancer Research.

note -- this post originally appeared in New York Irish Arts

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Turkey and Latkes

Hanukkiah on the Thanksgiving table!
Right next to the... mashed potatoes!
Did we?

No.

I wanted to. What better than to replace yams -- I don't like yams, anyway -- with good old fashioned latkes?

But this was an over-the-river-and-through-the-snow year, and grandma was already making the yams and mashed potatoes. Who could argue? The mashed potatoes were really good.

Much has been written about the coincidence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah this year. It has been given the lame name Thanksgivukkah (what did they call it when Hanukkah coincided with Black Friday, just 11 years ago? Shopukah?). Some sites have proclaimed that it has never happened before won't happen again until the year 79811, due to how the two calendars work. That's not quite true, as an excellent recap by the calendar-heads at Chabad shows.

Mostly, it was cool to have a menorah on the Thanksgiving table, and to give out gelt after the pies.

As for the latkes, we stopped off at friends in Cleveland the night before Thanksgiving, to indulge.
Then we had some more the day after Thanksgiving. With leftover turkey.

The next time Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincide will be in 2070.
If I'm around, I'm having a latke.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Once Upon a Dream - The Rascals in Detroit, November 14, 2013

How many of the first tier rock bands from the '60's are still rocking around? With all members alive, and able to perform? And of those, how many actually are performing? And of those, how many are bringing it, in major halls with first rate production?

I'm pretty sure there's only one: The Rascals.
Felix Cavaliere Gene Cornish and Eddie Brigati
That's not the only reason to see their show, Once Upon a Dream, but it's a good place to start. The Rascals weren't simply any band, though; they were a substantial portion of my childhood soundtrack. Their hits played on the AM radio on my way to day camp, and can still be heard regularly on various radio outlets including XM/Sirius Radio's Underground Garage. Their biggest hit, Good Lovin', remains one of the most instantly identifiable -- and urgently danceable -- songs of the rock era. And, of course, they were from New Jersey. Not down the shore, where I never went, but in Garfield, a town I passed regularly on the Garden State Parkway on the way to my grandparents' house. Just before the toll plaza. Got lost there once.

Once Upon a Dream had a 3 week run on Broadway earlier this year, and is presented as a full concert performance interweaved with an autobiographical video presentation of the band. The videos -- snippets of band members' recollections as dramatizations of scenes from their heyday -- helped provide a small glimpse in to who these 4 men were. But we were there for the music.

The show started with a warning, in the recorded voice of Little Steven: If we had cellphones... leave them on! Take pictures! Tweet them! Post them to facebook! "Do whatever the fuck you want." If that didn't instantly convey my home-state attitude, the text of the introductory video -- with the Star Wars text scroll in full effect -- left no doubt: Finale: Once Upon a Dream played in the background: Once upon a dream, time stood still. Vincent Pastore narrated: "Once upon a dream there was a band of brothers who came from a galaxy, far, far away called... New Jersey!"

Dino Danelli
The curtain lifted to Dino Danelli launching the band in to an opening salvo of It's Wonderful , I've Been Lonely Too Long and What Is The Reason . Two things were immediately apparent: 1) This band can still play. 2) Marc Brickman's video creations, on top of a first rate audio system, would make for a very enjoyable evening.

Sure, these Rascals are no longer young. Eddie Brigati has lost the upper end of his range. Felix Cavaliere went flat... more than once. And maybe Gene Cornish missed a few notes. It really didn't matter. Oh, and did I mention Dino Danelli? What a treat! He drove the band, made it move, made it groove. And when Eddie sang the beautiful waltz How Can I Be Sure, it was no dream; time stood still.

The Rascals' songs are relentless in their nearly unbounded optimism. Whereas John Lennon sang a song about the morning starting off with a piercing cry from a rooster, followed by Nothing to do to save his life, call his wife in, The Rascals' morning song began with gentle wind chimes and bells, followed by I think I'll go outside a while and just smile. Even their "protest" song, People Got To Be Free , is presented as hope: What a lovely lovely world this would be If everyone would learn to live together.

There are other things I love about The Rascals' songs: The call and response, or sometimes the response and call. The harmonies. And their use of horns -- unfortunately synthesized on this tour. After the opening salvo, the show progressed more or less in chronological order. Eventually they played all of the big hits, most of the not-so-big hits, and a few that weren't hits at all.

The only false note of the presentation was a final video featuring the actors playing the "young" Rascals, explaining how "it all went dark" when The Rascals broke up. Overly whiny and mostly irrelevant, it came off to me more like Little Steven trying to write like David Chase... and not doing a very good job of it. But even that negative vibe was soon replaced by one last sunny song, A Ray Of Hope .

Last night's show was the 33rd Fall Fundraiser for JARC. JARC is a wonderful local charity, with whom I have previously worked (and will do so again) via my children's middle school. I was thrilled to see that they'd somehow gotten a separate Rascals show a day ahead of the "to the public" performance, but I was decidedly an exception in that regard. The audience was much smaller than it could have been, and they were there for the charity rather than for The Rascals.

If this show comes to your town, go see it. See it while you can.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Four Pitchers in an Inning

Gone too soon? Jim Leyland pulls Max Scherzer from ALCS Game 6
(photo: Matt Slocum / Associated Press)
Last Saturday night, the Boston Red Sox defeated the Detroit Tigers 5-2 in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series to advance to the 2013 World Series. In what seemed like an eerie bit of déjà vu from Game 2 of the same series, Tigers starter Max Scherzer left the game while the Tigers were ahead, only to see a parade of relievers struggle and ultimately give up a grand slam home run.

Scherzer went 21-3 during the regular season. He will win this year's AL Cy Young Award. In Game 2 he was dominating, and departed after throwing 108 pitches over 7 innings. In several other outings this year, Scherzer had often thrown more pitches; he had averaged over 120 pitches in his prior two starts. The Tigers led, 5-1. But when three relievers combined to get just 2 outs while loading the bases in the bottom of the 8th, manager Jim Leyland called on closer Joaquin Benoit to face David Ortiz. Ortiz hit Benoit's first pitch for a game-tying grand slam home run, and the Red Sox eventually won the game.

In game 6, Scherzer was removed after walking Xander Bogaerts on a borderline full count pitch; to many observers as well as television and radio announcers it appeared to have been strike three. No matter; Scherzer didn't get the call. The walk put two men on with one out. Scherzer had thrown 110 pitches. Jim Leyland came out, and the merry-go-round (for Boston) commenced. Leyland First called on Drew Smyly. Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury hit Smyly's second pitch on the ground for a potential inning-ending double play... but Tigers shortstop José Iglesias bobbled the ball, loading the bases. Never mind that Smyly had thrown only two pitches and done his job: Leyland went to the bullpen again. When Shane Victorino hit José Veras's 0-2 pitch out of the park, it was two grand slams in 6 days against pitchers who had neither started the inning nor been the first reliever. Phil Coke eventually came on to finish the inning for the Tigers.

Twice in 6 days, the Jim Leyland used 4 pitchers in a single inning that had started with the Tigers in front. Both times, the results were disastrous, both times the Tigers surrendered the lead, and both times, the damage occurred after the second pitching change -- in Game 2, the 4th pitcher gave up the grand slam, and in Game 6 the second reliever (the inning's third pitcher) gave it up.

What Red Sox fans will remember: Stan Grossfeld's iconic photograph of Detroit's Torii Hunter and Boston police officer Steve Horgan, in Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS.
I've always been somewhat biased to believe that on any given day, somebody among the relievers won't have their best stuff, and that many pitching changes increases the risk of finding that reliever at the worst possible time. I know that risk is not always totally avoidable; if the starter has run out of gas or the first reliever is getting hit hard, changes may be necessary. But that hadn't been the case in the two Tigers losses this year: Scherzer was still dominating when he was removed in Game 2, and both he and Smyly had pitched more than well enough before getting pulled in Game 6.

I also know that managers making rapid-fire pitching changes for the tiniest perceived advantage isn't exactly new: In the final inning of the 1979 World Series, Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver famously used 5 pitchers (no one has yet to use 6). It didn't help; the Pirates scored 2 runs to seal their series victory.

Still, there seems to me to be an emerging towards more pitching changes in very short order. So I decided to take a look at post-season games since 2000. And then I looked at all of major league post-season history:

TimespanSeasonsSeriesGamesInstancesPercentage
1903-1928252514600.0
1929-1966383833541.2
1967-19942781411112.7
1995-20071391418174.1
2008-2013646207199.2

The first time a manager called upon 4 pitchers in a single inning was in 1929, in the greatest comeback in World Series history. The Cubs' Charlie Root had a 3-hit shutout and an 8-0 lead in to the bottom of the 7th, but the Philadelphia A's scored 10 runs off of him and 3 relievers for an improbable 10-8 win. Over the first two thirds of the 20th century, multiple calls to the bullpen were very rare, and typically only for similar disasters, e.g., the Detroit Tigers during the 3rd inning of Game 7 in 1934, when the St. Louis Cardinals scored 7 runs.

I found 26 instances of managers using 4 or more pitchers in a single inning since 2000. In every case, the inning's first pitcher surrendered at least one baserunner, and 16 times the first pitcher allowed at least two baserunners. In all, 51 batters reached base off those innings' first pitchers, against just 23 outs. (Hardly a surprise; had the first pitcher done well, they'd have stayed in the game and the inning would likely have ended without much damage) All but 4 of the 51 led to runs being scored. But the vast majority of those runs -- more than 80% -- scored while the 2nd, 3rd or even 4th pitcher of the inning was on the mound.

The second pitchers of the carousel were the worst of the arsonists: recording just 9 total outs while allowing 41 baserunners. 11 of the 26 faced just one batter; in 9 of those 11 instances the batter reached safely.

The champion of the quick hook, no doubt, is Ron Gardenhire of the Minnesota Twins. In his first season as manager, the Twins reached the ALCS. In Game 3, Gardenhire used 4 pitchers to protect a 7th inning 2-1 lead against the eventual World Champion Anaheim Angels. Despite a hit and two walks, Eric Milton, LaTroy Hawkins, Johan Santana kept the Angels from scoring, and the Twins held on for the win. Unfortunately for Gardenhire and the Twins, it was all downhill from there. In Game 4, Gardenhire became the first manager in major league history to use 4 pitchers in an inning in consecutive post-season game: He used 5 pitchers in the 8th inning, including Santana and Hawkins again, but the Angels scored 5 runs to blow the game open. The main damage coming against the 4th pitcher, Michael Jackson. In Game 5, Gardenhire went back to the well for a third straight game. The relievers had nothing left: the 4 pitchers combined to surrender 10 runs in the 7th inning as a 5-3 Twins lead turned in to a 13-5 series-clinch for Anaheim.

Except for Gardenhire's 2002 adventures, I found only 4 other instances of managers using 4 or more pitchers in a single inning, between 2000 and 2007. The most notable among these was in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series, when Dusty Baker removed a dominant Russ Ortiz in the 7th inning, at just 98 pitches and with a 5-0 lead. Baker handed Ortiz the ball, as if Ortiz had just clinched the series; Ortiz never threw another pitch for the Giants. Meanwhile, the Angels came back to win the game against the Giants' bullpen, scoring 3 runs off 3 relievers that inning, and 3 more the next inning.

Since 2008, the tactic of using many relievers has become much more common. I counted 19 instances so far over these 6 seasons -- including 3 by Jim Leyland in games started by Max Scherzer.

Perhaps the catalyst for the recent uptick in the trend was Game 7 of the 2008 American League Championship Series. The Tampa Bay Rays led the defending World Champion Boston Red Sox in a tight game. Starting pitcher Matt Garza began the 8th, but after a leadoff error he was at 118 pitches. Manager Joe Maddon brought in three more pitchers who combined to get 2 outs and load the bases. Finally, rookie sensation David Price -- the fifth pitcher, who had just 16 career innings to his name -- struck out JD Drew to end the threat. The strategy worked, and Tampa Bay had its first World Series team. A week later, the Philadelphia Phillies used 4 pitchers in the 7th inning of the 4th game of the World Series, and they also won, by a 10-2 score.

More often, however, the results mirror what happened to Leyland's Tigers. For example, in Game 1 on the 2010 ALCS, CJ Wilson of the Texas Rangers started the 8th inning with a 5-1 lead against the New York Yankees. Wilson allowed 2 hits and had reached 104 pitches, so manager Ron Washington relieved him with Darren Oliver. Oliver and two more relievers combined to allow 4 more Yankees to reach without recording an out, and the Yankees scored 5 runs in the inning to win the game. The winning run scored with the Rangers' 5th pitcher on the mound.

On at least two occasions, managers plainly botched pitching changes. Don Mattingly has been ripped by baseball writers for his handling of Game 2 of the NLDS series against Atlanta this year, when he removed Zack Greinke after just 83 pitches for a pinch-hitter in a 2-1 game, even though Greinke hit .328 this season. Mattingly's handling of the Atlanta 7th inning, when he brought in Paco Rodriguez to issue an intentional walk to a pinch hitter; the Braves scored 2 runs against 4 pitchers and held on for a 4-3 win.

"Embarrassing." Tony LaRussa and Lance Lynn, 2011 Game 5.
Yet, in 2011, Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa -- with over 30 years of major league managerial experience -- made a similar error. Game 5 of the World Series was tied at 2, and LaRussa replaced starter Chris Carpenter for the 8th inning, after 101 pitches. Texas scored two runs against 4 Cardinals pitchers for a 4-2 victory; the most bizarre pitching change had LaRussa bringing in Lance Lynn after he had thrown 47 pitches the previous game, by mistake. LaRussa claims that when he saw Lynn at the mound, he said, "What are you doing here?" Lynn was allowed to issue an intentional walk, and was then replaced.

Of course, my sample size is too small for any conclusions. The overall record of teams using 4 or more pitchers in a single inning, since 2000, is 4-22. Several of the losses involved notable blown saves: Besides this year's Tigers, Craig Kimbrel came within a strike of closing out the Giants before he and the rest of the Atlanta bullpen imploded in Game 3 of a 2010 NLDS, and the Phillies bullpen conspired to blow Pedro Martinez's last great game in Game 2 of the 2009 NLCS. The three instances so far this season, one could make a case the excessive and/or early changes had a key role in the losing team's demise.

We'll never know how Max Scherzer might have fared, had he just stayed in the games for a few more batters. From a Detroit perspective, he couldn't have done any worse than what actually happened. Jim Leyland resigned as Detroit manager shortly after the end of this year's ALCS. For my part, I'm hoping the new manager is a little slower on the trigger.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Return to High School Football

I remember the first high school football game I attended. It was 1967. I was 5. My grandfather insisted to my parents, "you gotta see my boy play." My grandfather -- the kids called him Doc Keller but we called him "Boppy" -- was the team doctor at Rippowam High School in Stamford, Connecticut. He was a general practitioner and ENT man who made old-fashioned home visits and had an office in his house. His office wall was adorned with dozens of game balls and trophies, signed by players of many victorious contests. I never quite understood how the team doctor ended up with all those game balls, but there they were.
High School Football, Michigan-style.
Boppy was my mother's father, but he had a sports bond with my father. They were both originally from Boston, just 17 years apart. Boppy was old enough to remember the Red Sox winning World Series, and he'd tell stories of how the kids who couldn't afford to go to the games would gather in Kenmore Square and watch the ticker to see how the games were going; there being no radio at the time. In September of 1967, with the Red Sox shockingly in the pennant race, my parents took us on a trip to Stamford, from which Leo and Lou made a pilgrimage to Fenway Park... oops, Pahk, to see the Impossible Dream Sox play. I expect that, at some point during that trip Lou told Leo, "you gotta come back and see my boy play."

So, one Friday evening we made the trek from New Jersey up to Stamford, and saw Boppy's boy play. My mother pointed out my grandfather on the sideline, and she also pointed out the ambulance that he insisted be at the ready at every game in case a player was badly injured. And we watched Boppy's boy play. And boy, Boppy's boy could play -- he was fast and the other team couldn't catch him. As far as Boppy was concerned, Bobby Valentine was the son he'd never had, and I have no doubt Boppy would have stuck by him even after Valentine managed their beloved Red Sox to more than 90 losses in 2012.

I also remember the last high school football game I attended -- at least, before yesterday. It was 1979. I was in the high school band in Millburn, New Jersey. We'd won a grand total of 6 games during my 3 years there, and we were playing the annual Thanksgiving morning showdown game with our archrivals, Madison. Madison was on its way to yet another state championship, its 3rd in a row. According to the local papers, 10,000 people managed to cram their way in to our high school stadium, and if that might have been a small multiple of the actual attendance, it was still crammed. We scored first. The band played our fight song... whatever it was, no doubt lifted from some venerable college. Our quarterback even taunted the Madison team. Then Madison scored the next 20 points, and we consoled ourselves for having been respectable in defeat.

In Millburn, our games were on Saturday afternoons. The major band rehearsals were Saturday morning, and I could use my "go to services, get out of band rehearsal" card with total impunity. We had two shows a year, and we wore very silly hats. I have no pictures. The only show I can remember, we played "The Love Boat" and had a formation of a boat. Yes, really. (Ironically, we also played "The Love Boat" in college, though there it was more as a sing-along send-up to the more serious fight songs) One year, we had a band camp, but we were never much more sophisticated than marching 8 steps to 5 yards, and making sure our rhythm-challenged cymbal player actually played on the beat. We never played any competitions, just the games and local parades.

Aaron, during the halftime show.
Cut forward to last night. Aaron is named for his great grandfather, my Boppy, who passed away 4 years before Aaron was born. Having entered West Bloomfield High School for his junior year, Aaron has also joined its marching band. Before his first week in school, he spent a week in band camp, and they were serious. Their half-time show is an adaptation of Stravinsky's The Firebird. It would have been well beyond the capabilities of my high school band, for sure. Aaron played electric bass, in the "pit," so he's plugged in and doesn't march. The band has its own generator for the show. It took me some time to adjust to the idea of a marching band with a pit section and electric instruments.

We showed up for the game a few minutes before kick-off. Lori also attended West Bloomfield High, but wasn't sure if she'd actually seen a game there during her time in school. She finally decided she had, because she remembered that their helmets -- the team name is "Lakers" -- used to have a boat on them.

The band wore snappy green and black uniforms, and the marchers had stylish hats that I thought would look better without the feather. I noticed that they did not use lyres. The pit players did not play during the first half, and the band had a couple very basic bits -- one for a first down, and a fight song for a score. I didn't get any indication that the band was actually interested in the game; when West Bloomfield scored first, the only reaction I sensed from them was that it was time to play music. Sometimes, the band would play one thing while the cheerleaders were doing another thing. It didn't quite make sense to me.

Students showed up en masse at the start of the 2nd quarter. They stood the entire quarter, and through the halftime show, and did their best to make it noisy for a while. They nearly all wore black. As for the game, it was see-saw for a while. In the first 7 minutes we were treated to a fake punt, and on-side kick (both failed), and plenty of offense. It seemed the last team with the ball might win, until visiting Clarkston scored a pair of touchdowns late in the 2nd quarter. A well-executed 72-yard "hook and ladder" play with just half a minute to go in the half gave Clarkston a 10-point lead and broke the spirit of the West Bloomfield side; the final ended up at 41-18.
The West Bloomfield High School Band.
The band played at halftime, but not until after the dance squad and the cheerleaders had had their turns. It seemed to me that show went over well, and it sounded good to my ears. At Aaron's request, I videotaped it all. When the halftime show was over, the band proceeded to... leave the stadium. Today they had a band competition 50 miles away. But the cheerleaders kept going. At the end of the 3rd quarter, the students proceeded to leave the stadium en masse; with the students and the band gone, the north end of the home stands were pretty much empty. But the cheerleaders kept going.
The players knelt and a cart was brought out, but there was no ambulance for the injured.
On the field, as the score got out of hand, the West Bloomfield coach elected to sit the starting quarterback for a series, apparently for some discipline reason. The backup quarterback was also the team's best receiver, and on the 3rd play of his series he was badly injured. Players immediately signaled frantically to the sidelines for the medics. On both sidelines, the teams got down on a knee as the player as tended to on the field. Eventually he was lifted on to a motor cart and removed from the field, where there was no ambulance waiting.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

r - e - f - e - r - e - r and blog spam

I have a pretty quiet blog. I'm the only author, I don't maintain a subscriber list or have a large "following," and I don't blog on a single targeted subject. My blog carries a single banner ad for amazon.com, from which I use modest commissions to fund charitable donations. Google analytics says my pages have a combined value of $0.00, and while I see mine as worth a few multiples of that figure, I expect that my number is fairly typical of personal blog valuations.

That's not to say that nobody reads the blog. According to my blogger dashboard, nearly 24,000 "views" have been logged by my blog since I moved it to the blogger site in early 2010; during 2012 the blog logged about 35 views per day. Now, when we say "views," the inference would be that the page is actually... well... viewed. And, as many -- maybe even most -- of the reported views were generated by friends who clicked links I posted to facebook or google plus, the pages have been viewed a bit. Larger volumes came from sites such as backstreets.com and rockrap.com that backlinked one or more of my posts over the course of the year, and a few came from internet searches that just happened to match something I had.

As a blogger, I certainly prefer getting 3000 views, or even 300 views, to 30 views, and I usually enjoy the rare discussion on the blog (most comments end up going to facebook). And I confess, I like it when a post unexpectedly goes a bit "viral." That's happened a few times, such as the time three months after I had written a post about a 2 cent check I had received. When others started getting similar checks, they used search engines to figure out what was going on, and a couple thousand of them found my little blog post. But some of my favorites are posts that have a total of 50 views or less; half the fun is in coming up with something I'm willing to publish at all. After all, it's not a commercial venture.

I've had to do very little weeding at the blog. Occasionally, I get a spam comment. Last year, a post I wrote about Springsteen's Toronto concert generated nearly a thousand page views, and then I got multiple "comments" advertising an airport taxi service for Toronto. I deleted those comments, then got more comments from the same source, for the same service. I assumed those comments to be automated, and blocked the source. Problem solved.

But toward the end of 2012, I started noticing that a substantial portion of my traffic appeared to be originating from Russia, China, and from other non-English speaking places where I wouldn't expect to have many readers. When I looked at the "referring sites" entry in the blogger dsahboard, I saw weird commercial-sounding names like "blogsrating" and "vampirestat." One evening, I decided to check out some of these referrer links to see how they might have directed someone to my site. Sites that are legitimate, I can usually find the link somewhere in the page. On these "vampire" sites, of course, I did not find any links to my site; instead, I had landed on fake gaming sites, or advertising sites, or worse.

The referer links were simply bait, a trap designed to get the blogger -- me -- to go back to their websites. Such automated views are often referred to as "blog referer spam." These weren't even clever traps, just links to weird sites that left no trail. Obviously, they could do worse than trying to sell fake goods to gullible bloggers. So I committed never to click on a suspicious referer link again.

The blog referer spam kept coming, with seemingly increased volume. I wondered: to what extent was my published hit total bogus, having been inflated by blog referer spam? How many of my views were "real," and how many had no human eyes?

In January, I decided to start tracking with google analytics as well as with blogger. Google runs both services, but google analytics filters out spam referers. Over the past 30 days, my blogger dashboard says I've had 1202 views. Google analytics says I've had 580 page views. In other words, according to google analytics, more than half of the views to my blog are likely blog referrer spam. My blogger dashboard says I've also had 152 views in the past month from Latvia, and 76 more combined from China, Poland, and Russia; google analytics says I've had no page views from any of those countries during the same period.

The worst of the referrer spam sites is a relatively new entry called r-e-f-e-r-e-r. This one just showed up a few weeks ago, and in that short time its fake url has already "referred" more views to my site than any other legitimate site over the entirety of the 30 months since I started tracking views on blogger.

What is r-e-f-e-r-e-r? Damned if I know, and I'm not about to click the link. I wish it would stop sending "views" to my blog, at least. Unless, of course, the people behind it want to, you know, view the pages.

Here is a video I found, from google, explaining it phenomenon of blog referer spam.

As for this post, I expect it'll get a couple dozen page views and likely fade away. Maybe someone will find it in a google search. I'll just keep it around as a reference. Even if it only gets 30 views.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Camp Days

My first visiting day: 1973.
The nest is empty again: The kids are off at camp.

As it was last year, Elianna is off to Camp Ramah in Canada, and Aaron is off to Ramah Outdoor Adventure in Colorado. The house is quiet. The food goes more slowly. The days seem longer... and yet they go by too quickly.

Arriving at her 2nd home: Camp Ramah.
I was a Ramah camper too, at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. For me, Ramah was a transformative experience. "From what to what?," I might ask in a less cheerful moment; but there are still things from that first summer that I keep with me. A feeling of warmth and belonging that I'd never quite had before. The sound of birkhat hamazon -- the grace after meals -- being sung by 600 kids in unison at the first camp meal, giving me the impression of massive bells ringing. Getting ready for shabbat on Friday afternoon, when we'd wear all white. The singing at the Friday evening services, where I could sing and not feel self-conscious about it. The sense of awe when looking up on a clear night sky with billions of stars twinkling, and feeling that I was in the right place in the universe.

That was 40 years ago, and as I think of it, thanks to facebook I can reach out to several campers and a counselor who were with me in Bunk A-4 that summer. Ramah was where I first kissed a girl, and first had a crush on a girl -- in that order, because everyone kissed on shabbat. I counted kisses that first year. And it was also a place where summers could get too hot or too rainy, where lightning could strike the beit degel (flaghouse) while our counselors were inside it, where pink eye could spread at lightning speed, where I could kill over 100 mosquitos while trying to write one letter to a friend (I counted those, too, but not the ones I missed), and where kids in the pre "no bullying" days could -- and sometimes would -- just be mean.

But I loved being there. It was my 2nd home, in my mind. Wingdale, NY. 12594.

Ramah Canada is like my old Berkshires camp, in some respects. It has a lake that's the centerpiece of the camp. The kids are grouped in to single-age groups (edahs). They have some mix of activities, and also swimming and boating, to fill their days. And they bond with one another. Their session is much shorter -- just 23 full days, as compared to 53 when I went. But I am in awe of their commitment to one another. In February, one of Elianna's friends had a bat mitzvah. In Montreal. Elianna had to go, it was a mission. So we all went. She is inseparable from her best friends at camp. And she is growing up. Last year all the boys grossed her out. This year, she reported -- to her grandmother! -- that "dressing up all pretty for the boys is half the fun" of getting ready for shabbat. Then there's this:


It took me a while to figure out what "braw" meant. Then, "They're 12. That's what they do."

The outfits aren't all-white anymore, but the spirit is the same.Friends at camp.
Communications have changed: In the '70's, cameras were rarely used. We all had them, but our little 110 film cameras maybe came out on visiting day or for a field trip, and the day before going home, and that was it. We'd get the pictures developed after the summer. There'd be one official picture of the bunk, and one of the edah. While we were in camp, our parents got no pictures at all; they'd get only the letters we wrote on the designated mail days.

Today the digital pictures come pouring in by the hundreds from the camps multiple times per week; I don't even need to receive letters to tell me what they're wearing or who they're with or if they've got a good smile going. I have become expert at recognizing my children from a wristband or a shoe. I email letters to the kids and they get the printouts the next day. Aaron still has to use stamps and envelopes to respond, but Elianna's letters get turned in to emails that I receive within a day or two. She is the letter champion so far this year: 9 letters home, 3 to her grandmother, and another 6 to a best friend, all in the first week of camp. And, I almost hate to say it, her letters are all riotously funny.

With not even half the days we had, camp time seems more urgent now. Summer camps de facto compete with other programs for parents' attention, and so the activities are often much more targeted than the "field sports" that typically ended up on my schedule. Both of my children have taken first aid courses at camp this summer; Elianna in CPR and Aaron in Wilderness First Aid.

As for Aaron, the camp name may say "Ramah," but when they say "Adventure," they're not kidding! His session -- 3 days longer than his sister's -- includes a pair of 6-day wilderness trips, with significant physical challenges thrown in. Mountain biking, rock climbing -- real rocks, in the Colorado rockies, extensive hikes over passes, making camp and surviving real wilderness conditions. The kids have to co-operate, in order to make their trips successful. The pictures are breathtaking. There's another thing about his Ramah: the kids aren't all from one area or of one race. I am openly jealous of the experiences he is getting now, and happy for all the lifelong memories and bonds he and his friends are surely generating.
Aaron hiking a mountain pass, July 24, 2013
Things will inevitably change. By next year Aaron will be thinking of what he will want to do after high school; maybe he'll have had enough of the camp experience. And it won't be all that much longer for Elianna.

For the next 2 weeks, though, the nest stays empty. The kids are off at camp.

addendum (August 2): While Ramah is certainly not the only summer camp with a strong aspect of l'dor vador (generation to generation) to it, I have learned of some of the impact of generational continuity there, in our case. Aaron's edah last year included a daughter of one of my co-campers in bunk A-4 in 1973; Elianna's edah this year includes a son of a woman who was in my edah starting in 1976.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Springsteen and I

ok, forgiven. The fan-sourced movie project Springsteen and I had its one and... almost only showing this evening. Culled from several thousand fan submissions, the film intends to tell the story of what Bruce means to his fans, interspersed with rare concert footage that bring to the big screen the magic, mystery and ministry of his rock and roll.

Why "forgiven"? For mangling the grammar in the title? Nah, Bruce did the same thing in Streets Of Philadelphia, and if it was good enough for him then I'm ok with it.

Maybe for not using or even responding to my submission; which for at least 48 hours was the best video I'd ever done. The only emails I got from the Springsteen and I crew were instructions on how best to pay an inflated price -- $15 -- for a movie ticket. Sure, there were soundbytes, but I wasn't sure if a line like "I lost my virginity to Thunder Road" was worth a laugh or a groan... or both. As I sat through the first half hour of the film with its often cringe-inducing moments of deification from middle-age fans or slightly dysfunctional families, I even started to wonder, without the slightest hint of irony, "they chose this over my submission?"


Elianna with Bruce, at the 9 minute mark. Video by Jack Schwartz

This hat is making me happy! (photograph: Amber Sigman)
After all, I'd had a story to tell. At least, my daughter had a story to tell, and I let her tell it. In the space of several months last year, Elianna started as a Taylor Swift fan and was mocking Bruce; she accompanied us to the first show because her older brother wanted in. That night, Bruce saw her down front and tossed a guitar pick her way, but her dad dimly gave it away. She had an amazing time, and traded smiles with Cindy Mizelle and Michelle Moore during the show. The next afternoon -- my 50th birthday and 11 days short of her 11th, she made a last minute decision to accompany her parents to Buffalo; she made her way up front by herself, where another fan sheltered her. Bruce found her and locked in on her during the harmonica ending of The Promised Land. She had the bug. I had to get tickets to whatever shows we could get to. Toronto: General Admission tickets didn't open up until the day before the show; we had to go. She made it up front again to the same person who sheltered her in Buffalo, and this time Bruce found her for Thundercrack and again for Dancing in the Dark. In Hamilton, with the same friend yet again, Bruce found her and a sign she'd made, and when the show ended Little Steven raced over to hand her a guitar pick. Finally, in Louisville, she gave Bruce something: her hat. Bruce responded: "I feel good with this hat on! This hat is making me happy!" There was a story in there, and we tried to tell it, but those Ridley Scott people didn't take it and now I was stuck watching 3-word genuflecting, shaky recordings, and concert clips I'd already seen. Or so I was grumbling, as I set my expectations lower and lower.

Then there was the promise that this film was entirely fan-sourced, but the very first concert clip was a 1972 recording of Growin' Up that not only wasn't fan based, but that has been released officially before, on an obscure tribute to John Hammond.

As it turned out, they not only didn't use the clip I sent them, they didn't use clips from pretty much anyone else I knew, either. All of the participants, except one, were total strangers to me. Except, of course, that we form part of this larger community. And perhaps that is part of the point: With a few exceptions, exchange one set of clips for another, and you'd get more or less the same film.

And there were notable omissions. I never expected this film to be a career retrospective, and I did expect it to be heavily based on the most recent events and tour. Still, I was a bit surprised that Bruce's 1992-1993 band wasn't shown on the screen, and his Seeger Sessions project was never mentioned at all. Nor, for that matter, did any fan's story go beyond Bruce, musically, in any meaningful way. We sure got a significant dose of people who listen to Bruce 24/7, listen to him nonstop in the car or dance to him in the kitchen, but if these people listen to anything else, you won't find out who it is from Springsteen and I. Some of the more jaded hard core fans will take some comfort in noting that there are relatively few children in this film, and no renditions of the widely despised child part to Waitin' On a Sunny Day.


Bruce with a Copenhagen busker, 1988

The inclusions, however, improved as the film progressed. The 2nd concert video in the film was something I didn't recognize. As was the 3rd. And the 4th. And the 5th. The stories, at least some of them, started to entertain. Some, like the Copenhagen busker who played with Bruce in 1988, are well known to many long time fans, but here the busker himself presented it and made it fresh again. The Elvis impersonator Nick Ferraro, who got on stage with Bruce in Philadelphia in 2009 is probably less well known, but he and his wife were hilarious in their retelling of the event. And the poor soul who was dumped the evening before that aforementioned Hamilton show, was probably very obscure except to those of us who were there that evening. I wrote Notes From the Road for brucespringsteen.net for that show, and I tried to remember what I could of the exchange for the write-up. Now we have the official footage of it, and also homemade video of the fan's back story and of him making the sign. I even get to see some of the mistakes I made writing it up: Somehow I managed to downplay Bruce's taunts of the girls who'd dumped him! As Bruce might say, I'm regretting that now!

The film had a generous sense of humor, none more evident than in showing extensive pieces from a man who feigned curmudgeonly indifference or worse towards Bruce, but went along to various European cities to appease his hard core wife. At one point, he nearly turned in to the infamous character of the Emperor in Amadeus who complained to Mozart that there were "too many notes."


Too many notes.

The main body of the film ends with a near-obligatory round of "thank you Bruce" in various modes and languages, and had the film ended there it might have been more or less on par with offerings such as Wings for Wheels, the bonus DVD that was included in the Born To Run: 30th Anniversary package. Nice, maybe not quite worth a premium movie ticket price, but it had surpassed my expectations.

The add-ons changed that, for the better. Sure the 2012 Hyde Park performance has been easily available on the internet since it happened, but seeing 6 of its songs presented on the big screen was worth staying on. Highlights include Because the Night with a massive 10-twirl Nils solo, and two fully powered songs with Sir Paul McCartney.

There is also a bit of a surprise epilogue that ties together several of the stories. I think Bruce even made a fan of the curmudgeon.

This morning I sent Elianna off to summer camp. I needed to get her an mp3 player so she could study her bat mitzvah lessons, and before I left I added recordings of her new favorite band, Chameleon Circuit. They have created a canon of songs to themes from Dr. Who. But I added one track: A conversion I did of the Toronto performance of Thundercrack. Her and Bruce. Or, should I say, Springsteen and She.

Monday, July 08, 2013

It's All Ducky

We bought a house with a swimming pool. I don't think I'd do it again, but what's done is done, and the pool has water, and ducks like to swim in water, and every spring before we open the pool ducks come and try to swim in it. This sometimes prompts a most curious scene as Lori or Aaron try to chase them away... though they always come back, at least until the water warms up.

In some years ducks have started nests in spots near the pool. One time was a duck war, all the eggs were smashed, and a male duck with a very broken neck ended up in the pool. Another time, a duck abandoned its last egg. The children tried to hatch it, but nothing ever happened.
June 19: 9 ducklings, unable to make it over a bubble in the cover.
On June 19th, our history changed. Lori suspected we had another duck with a nest, and its nearby male partner, but on this chilly morning we found out. Ducks in the pool! Or, since we had covered the pool the previous night, it was ducks on the pool! Mama ducks like to teach the ducklings to swim right away, and don't seem much bothered by little details like... the water being covered. One mother duck and 9 ducklings stepping across the new pool cover.

Ducks and ducklings in home swimming pools can cause several problems, though. For one thing, they poop a lot, and no one wants duck poop in their pool. For another, ducklings just aren't very strong. The ducklings weren't even strong enough to navigate a small bubble in the pool cover to follow their mother's voice; a few found a gap between the cover and the wall and made a go for it. Four got trapped under the cover; only three made it out alive when I removed the cover. So then we had a mother duck and 8 ducklings in the pool, and one dead duckling.

June 19: Eight surviving ducklings follow mama's voice but are stuck in the pool.
But we had another problem beyond a dead duckling: the other ducklings couldn't get out of the pool. Oh, from time to time one or two made it out by managing to hop on each others' backs, but they couldn't all get out of the pool. In millions of years of evolution, the duck species accounted for lakes and places where the newborns could walk in and out of the water... but they never accounted for a step of even a few inches. Mama duck would hop out and the ducks would follow her quack, but inevitably they remained in the water, forcing mama duck to come back in. They wouldn't hop on a raft or a board to climb out, either.

Finally, Aaron came up with a solution. First, he got mama duck out of the pool. Two ducklings managed to hop out as well, but the other 6 huddled together. Aaron then used a net to scoop the 6 up and deliver them to mama duck, out of the pool. Mama duck and her 8 survivors quickly made off for the other side of the property, where we'd spotted a male duck waiting some time earlier. We haven't seen the ducklings since.

But that evening, Aaron saw a female duck and a male duck hanging out together at the pool... without any ducklings. Could the ducklings have perished that quickly? Or was this another pair?
July 8: Eleven ducklings! Mama duck also appears to have a bit of a wing injury.
This morning, we got our answer: A mama duck with eleven ducklings, in the pool! This crew was quieter than the first one... maybe because they could go straight in the pool without having to deal with a deadly pool cover. Of course, these ducklings had no more hope than the first of getting out of the pool on their own. Mama duck got out, and a couple tried to jump... typically smacking their beaks halfway up the wall from the top of the waterline. So Aaron got out the net. We got the mama duck out of the pool, and the net... held eight ducklings! So now we had eight out, three in, and a very confused and somewhat distressed mama duck. No matter what she did, she'd be abandoning some of her ducklings. Finally, we got her out of the pool and with her eight ducklings, while Elianna rescued the other three one at a time. One duckling tried to flee, and another tried to play dead, but Elianna got them all. Once Aaron released them, they'd follow mama duck's quack to reunite in the bushes. Mama duck then led them away, we don't know where.
July 8: Rescued ducklings, forced to wait for mama.
Where did the two duck families with their 19 surviving ducklings go? Did the ducklings all survive? Did they avoid predators and cars and other deadly hazards? Will we have a dozen ducks trying to nest here next year? We might need more nets.
July 8: Rescuing the last duckling