Sunday, January 27, 2013

Stewart Francke: Love Implied

Just before the New Year, Stewart Francke released his latest top-notch album, Love Implied. As with its superb predecessor, Heartless World, the album was funded by a kickstarter campaign; this one to be slightly more ambitious as it will eventually result in a DVD companion to the album.

Love Implied is a softer album than Francke's most recent prior releases. Listening to it, I needed more time to find my place in it; where Heartless World had me hooked by the 2nd song, it took until the 2nd spin this time. The first song that really grabbed me was one I saw by title first: Big Man. Being a longtime Springsteen fan, of course I immediately thought of Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011. But Big Man was also the nickname for Stew's dad; the former Saginaw mayor who passed away in 2010. The song is a goofy homage to the strain of big band music the elder Francke loved; presented almost as a throw-away, its joyous hook and shouted one-line lyric brought an instant smile to my face.

Big Man opened up the rest of the album for me: It's about the music. Music as a way of being alive. Music as life. Music as an expression of place, of love, of making a sort of peace with the world. The album works best for me in its connections of the music to the moment: In Leave A Light On, Francke sings, "I love you more than my favorite song." If that's not the ultimate expression of love, then what is?

Music as life comes in to sharper focus on the album's best song, Drive North. This song may be the most perfect expression I've yet heard in my 20 years in Michigan of the ethos of this state's natives. "Around here we drive North." It should be a state song. It's who we are. I've only been to St. Ignace a couple times, but when Francke sums up the connection of place, life and song with an exquisite final line, "By midday tomorrow I'll be in St. Ignace singing some new song," the resonance is perfect. In this song I also noticed how much Stew's voice reminds me of another of my favorite rock tenors, Nils Lofgren.

The album worked less well for me when diving in to the recent economic hardships. Not that those hardships aren't every bit as real as they were a couple years ago;, but their presence (and acceptance, as it were) is already in the remainder of the album. Or, perhaps it was just a gut-reaction to hearing "Merrill Lynch" being used as an adjective. But the song housing that line, Dancing On The Killing Floor, has the best groove on the record. The implied subtext is, "yeah, things suck. Let's dance."
Drive North. Stewart Francke with band members Christopher Plankster, Gia Warner, Pete Peltier and Beth Griffith at the Magic Bag, January 25, 2013.
On Friday evening Lori and I went to the CD release party show at The Magic Bag in Ferndale. The crowd size was held down somewhat by an unexpectedly large snowstom that hit during the evening, but that didn't seem to impact the performances. Francke's 17 song set included 7 from the new album, opening up with Dancing on the Killing Floor and going in to a somewhat extended version of Big Man. Stew appeared at ease on stage, and the joy of the performance overpowered whatever rough edges remained in the delivery of the new songs. Stew also tried out By Your Side, a love song that strays so close to Something that I swear I can hear George Harrison's guitar work while it plays. The main set closed, naturally, with Drive North.

Love Implied is available from amazon and from Stewart's web site.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Warming Up... Again

One month ago, I took a business trip to Austin, Texas. I turned on the radio in the rental car, and first thing I heard was a weather report. "Cover your plants, we may have Austin's first frost of the season tonight," came the warning. I laughed; after all, our first frost in Michigan this year was in September, and it was currently December 11.

After the weather report, the station's scheduled programming came on. It was Rush Limbaugh. Over the next 6 minutes, he managed to tie "global warming" in to a liberal agenda that included everything from taxing the wealthy to policies on illegal immigration to gun control to calls to ban NFL kickoffs. "That's how the left does it," he explained. "They guilt you in to accepting their global warming belief."

As I write, it is 57 degrees Fahrenheit here in West Bloomfield. The normal high temperature for January 12th is 32 degrees. It is the 7th day of our warm-up. Local ski areas are closed. Of course, that is just weather, and it's cold in California. Besides, it seems that many people who don't run businesses that depend on the cold, are happy about it. I sat in the hygienist's chair on Tuesday, as she said, "I hope it stays up in the 40s all winter. I remember when it used to get to 25 below at night. This is so much better." I can't cure that, not even by pointing out that there has never been a recorded temperature of 25 below in Detroit. I wrote about these trends 6 years ago, and nothing has changed... except that it is warmer now.

When I conceptualized this post, it was going to be for the purpose of documenting last year's apple pressing season. I haven't done that in 3 years, and if I don't write down the numbers somewhere I may eventually forget. So I use the blog. Here are the accumulated numbers:

Aaron setting the sprinkler,
March 26, 2012
August 19, 2012 Pressing: A community event. October 7, 2012

The past two seasons, I have supplemented my own apples by purchasing bushels from an orchard in southern Michigan. This accounted for about half of my yield these two years; before that I also gathered apples from a neighbor's yard.

Part of the crop, salvaged: October 11, 2012
What happened in 2012? It got hot, that's what. In March, we had 3 consecutive days of 80 degree heat, and 13 consecutive days of temperatures at least 20 degrees above normal. Trees bloomed a full month early. At the time, I wrote that it was a "looming disaster for our tree fruit," and it was. When temperatures inevitably fell to "normal" for that time of year, the impact on the trees was devastating. Our entire cherry crop was wiped out, as well as about 99% of the pear crop.

Aaron and I went to war with the elements, to try to save the cherries and apples. Every night we positioned the sprinklers, let them go all night, and prayed the the temperature would stay just warm enough to avoid catastrophe. For the apples, which bloomed a little later than the cherries, it worked enough to save part of the crop.

Michigan farmers, in general, weren't so fortunate. One headline called it a "natural disaster"; my only quibble with that would be on the word "natural." Prices were up; a bushel that cost $9 last year, cost $15 this year (and that was a bargain; most of the local orchards charged $28 or more, if they had bushels to offer at all). Cider mills scrambled for apples, and were routinely charging $10 or more per gallon. Still, a 50% price hike does little to erase a 90% supply drop. U-pick seasons were canceled altogether by many orchards.

I keep in mind that what I heard that December day on Rush Limbaugh's radio show was after our crop wipe-out in Michigan. It was after Hurricane Sandy demolished parts of my home state of New Jersey -- the second storm in just 60 weeks to have a devastating effect. I don't much have to wonder who is guilting whom with their "belief." For whatever reasons -- and it's not terribly hard to guess what they are -- "global warming" has become a partisan political football. There are some terrifying projections, but officially even "The Left" is silent on the matter.

During October, a man knocked on our door. He was holding two giant apples, which he had obtained by trespassing on to our property and taking from one of our trees (they were the only apples that that tree produced this year). He announced that he worked for one of the lawn care companies that tended to a house in the neighborhood, and that he was a hunter, and was going the apples for bait. He was really excited because nobody else around had apples, and wanted to know if he could take more. When I reflect on Rush's words, I think also of that little petty theft... maybe that's part of the guilting. But I don't think so. Kickoff is in an hour.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Baseball Travesty

Pud Galvin.
Cap Anson.
Ty Cobb.
Tris Speaker.

These are some of the most famous men ever to play major league baseball. All of them have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. All of them had superb career accomplishments:

Galvin won 365 major league baseball games. He was the first pitcher to win 300 games, and was the all-time leader in wins when he retired. He still ranks 5th on the all-time list. He also took steroids during the 1889 season.

Anson played an astounding 27 seasons -- the first 27 seasons of major league baseball. He was the first player to collect 3000 major league hits, and was the all-time leader in hits when he retired. He still ranks 6th on the all-time list. He was also a racist whose refusal to take the field against a team with black players in 1887 led to the establishment of baseball's notorious color barrier.

Cobb was baseball's greatest hitter. He was the first player to collect 4000 hits. He won 11 batting titles, was the all-time leader in hits and many other statistical categories when he retired. His career average of .366 remains the highest in major league history. He was also a notorious racist, and he also once beat up a man with no hands, who responded to spectator pleas to stop by responding, "I don't care if he's got no feet!"

Speaker was one of baseball's great hitters. His lifetime .345 average is 6th all-time, and he remains the career leader in doubles with 792. He also conspired, along with Cobb and two others, to fix a baseball game in 1919.

These 4 men are just a few of the many rogues who have been inducted in to the Hall of Fame. There are many others: Mickey Mantle used steroids in 1961, Hank Aaron used amphetamines, and Gaylord Perry practically flaunted his used of the banned spitball.

Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Today? Today baseball is pure. The voters of the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) elected nobody to the Hall of Fame. Rather than elect players caught or even suspected of using steroids, they elected themselves as guardians of the "integrity" of the game. Some even proved their piety by submitting blank ballots; I wonder how many of them voted for Gaylord Perry or have their own rap sheet.

So, the greatest overall hitter of the last half century (or, possibly, ever) is excluded. A pitcher with 7 Cy Young Awards is excluded. The greatest hitting catcher of all time -- someone who was never caught, never named in any report, but was "suspected" in large part because his offensive numbers were too good -- is excluded. A 3000 hit man who was suspected by exactly nobody... not in. Apparently, these men aren't good enough to join the saints already enshrined, and we are to pretend that the past quarter century simply... didn't happen.

I have written about Barry Bonds before, and I'm pretty sure he did happen. And there will be a ceremony this summer, and 3 men will be inducted then. One of them is the man who built the Yankees dynasty, Colonel Jacob Ruppert. During the prohibition era, Ruppert brilliantly used part of his fortune from brewing beer to buy the best white players from poorer teams, thus starting the Yankees on a 4 decade run as baseball's premiere team. His induction is long overdue.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Not Fade Away

Lori and I saw David Chase's new romanticized semi-autobiographical movie Not Fade Away last night. It's a new release with a spectacular soundtrack (Little Steven was its executive producer), but it was a private showing: we were the only ones in the theater at 9:30. That begs the question of whether something can fade away if it was never really there at all.

Not Fade Away is not the first "Beatles era coming of age in New Jersey" movie; I Wanna Hold Your Hand covered that ground way back in 1978. That movie was also more "down home" to me, as it started within walking distance of my childhood home. Not Fade Away's New Jersey feels more ersatz: It sure looks like New Jersey, and is full of the types of artifacts and references that one might have found there in the '60's. It doesn't take more than a minute in to the opening scene for the "We're in New Jersey!" announcement with a name check of Delbarton Academy (a private Catholic school in Morristown). But unlike in Chase's HBO series The Sopranos, it's not quite the New Jersey I remember, either for its artifacts or location: the movie was filmed just over the state line in Pearl River, New York.

The plot details are hardly worth recalling;  let's just say there are more contrived and sometimes ridiculous plot twists than any 3 movies should reasonably have, with too many obscure nods to people and things gone by (that I caught a few no doubt means I missed dozens more), and the movie drags on at least 15 minutes too long. There are too many cliches, too many caricatures, and too many set pieces to really get the "feel" of "the way it was." That included a scene near the beginning of the film when the protagonist Doug first heard The Beatles; it felt more borrowed from how Bob Dylan first heard them (according to the story, he heard them on the radio while driving, and immediately "knew they were pointing the direction where music had to go"), than from any accurate account of either how or when the Beatles were introduced to the suburban New Jersey masses. The movie had some great use of archival clips; I'd have given it bonus points for including this one. The would-be apocrypha continued through Not Fade Away, until a scene near the end of the movie when Doug spotted Charlie Watts leaving a party; it felt more borrowed from The Commitments than from anything that might have happened in "real" life.

Not Fade Away also suffers from its casting: John Magaro is beautiful to watch in his eventual transformation in to a dead ringer for mid-60s Dylan, but he's also 29 and he's not even the oldest actor in this "just out of high school" band. A key moment in the film shows the would-be band "The Twylight Zones" meeting in New York with songwriter and record producer Jerry Ragovoy; Ragovoy would have been in his 30s at the time. But Ragovoy is played by Brad Garrett; Garrett is 52, and looks every bit his age.

The music, however, is another story: It is solid, even wonderful, throughout. Music is presented as being somewhere between religion and salvation here; the characters live, breathe, and know their version of it. Had I been able to view the movie purely in those terms, I might even have loved it. I could almost even believe that there were lots of aspiring musicians who, but for an unlucky break here or there could have "made it" just like Bruce Springsteen and Little Steven. Chase got rights to put on songs by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and not just the singles, either: The Beatles cuts included album tracks such as their cover of Please Mr. Postman and also George Harrison's composition I Want to Tell You. The band's playing in the movie was strong; their covers were reverential, that point driven home by a sequence alternating their interpretation of Bo Diddley with an archival film clip of Bo Diddley performing the original. My musical highlight, though, was an original song called The St. Valentine's Day Massacre. It was obvious to me within a few seconds that this song was no '60's number, but a Steve Van Zandt composition; it may as well have had fingerprints in it. Presented with a 12-string and a '60's band set up, though, it fit perfectly. "McGuinnish," almost. Really, it's too good: I have a hard time believing that any band with material that good would have had to suffer fictional Ragovoy's lecture. Little Steven also contributed another composition, a wickedly wacky jingle for a surgical supply company.

For those of us who have followed New Jersey musicians, it might also be worth noting cameos by Jay Wienberg and by Bobby Bandiera. The soundtrack (though it is missing the Beatles songs used in the movie) may end up being the best real artifact from Not Fade Away.