Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Stray Bullet: The River Outtakes

A slow ballad plays. A soft soprano sax solo plays over the music. Then Bruce Springsteen sings: "River blood red with the years. You can flood this valley with a thousand tears. Wash away all that's been found. But you'll never wash away the sound of the stray bullet that shot my baby down." What is it really about? Hell if I know. Was his baby shot point blank? Is the singer certain what's going on in his life? Or does he just ride by night and travel in fear?
On Friday Bruce's latest box set album retrospective, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection will be released officially. The collections have grown ever more expansive:
  • A decade ago, for the 30th anniversary collection for Born To Run: 30th Anniversary Edition it seemed a miracle to include a full video concert from England. But there were no outtakes included.
  • Five years ago, the box set for Darkness On The Edge Of Town included a 2 disc collection of outtakes in addition to various video gems. But the songs that had appeared on "Tracks" or other collections were left behind.
  • This time, it seems that nearly everything has been thrown in. The original "The Ties That Bind" disc. A new disc of outtakes. The b-sides. The songs that were on Tracks. And another suite of video gems.
My official copy won't arrive until Friday, or maybe later. But the "new" audio contents are circulating now, and that basically means the 11 songs that make up the outtakes collection. As with "The Promise" outtakes collection, some of the recordings are completely new, and several others blend original recording elements with new vocals or other parts. It's tempting enough to investigate exactly what's old and what's new -- I did that exercise when writing about We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions for Backstreets magazine -- but ultimately more pleasing just to listen to this as a new, slightly disjointed album.

Unlike with The Promise, the outtakes disc here doesn't have any songs that became hits for other artists, nor any songs that were particularly well known at all. It doesn't really hold together all that well as a single album, starting with an obviously new recording of Meet Me In The City in which the singer "was busted for feeling no pain," and ending with a somewhat cleaned up version of the well-known acoustics outtake Mr. Outside with its embarrassing catch-line of "he's just looking out for number 1." But "Meet Me in the City" is fun, and the call and response "if you can holler than say all right" sounds like it could be heard during a concert opener soon. And this version of "Mr. Outside" is at least listenable to my ears, at least as compared to the outtake.

Other songs on the disc see Bruce exploring New Wave sounds, '60's styles, 12-string guitars, words spit out in rapid fire, and major quantities of organ and saxophone. What could be wrong with that? This isn't 1977, when Bruce was still a young man determined to prove himself with "Darkness on the Edge of Town." Bruce has explained that for "The River" he was consciously writing songs examining what it meant to him to be grown up and reckon with his fears. The outtakes disc has songs examining many of these themes, often including lyrics that ultimately found permanent homes elsewhere. Some of it works pretty well, too: Little White Lies uses lyrics that ultimately found their way to Loose End but are spit out more venomously here. The ones that don't work as well? They're still more than interesting enough, and songs like Chain Lightning rock well enough to be featured in concert in 2015.

"Ramrod," included in the box set

And this disc is basically the gravy, after the 41 previously released tracks (which includes, for us completist collectors, the studio version of Held Up Without a Gun finally being released digitally)... and that doesn't even include the video material. The video documentary, first aired on HBO last week, includes Bruce talking about his thoughts making the album, along with new acoustic renditions of several songs. Watching it, I was struck by the sense of the album's Old Soul, and how seamless it seemed to me to see Bruce, now past 65, examining the themes in present tense. The new version of "Wreck on the Highway," in which the singer imagines witnessing his own demise, is especially powerful.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Where They're Going

A few weeks ago, The Detroit Jewish News published its annual "Cap and Gown" issue. This issue has a section with the names and faces of all area students who sent their information to the newspaper; generally, this consisted of the high school name, some information about their activities in high school, and what they're doing next. Although the list is by no means comprehensive -- many families may not subscribe to the paper or, like us, may simply have forgotten -- it seemed to me to provide an interesting slice of the local community. Between the listings in The Jewish News and a handful whose information I have because we know the families, I found I had records for 283 students. Of these, 20 have not listed a college, either because they listed only a gap year in Israel, or because they listed themselves as "undecided." I decided to take a look at the other 263.

Of the 263 students with a listed decision, 99% are headed off to a 4-year (or more) college in the fall or after their gap year, all but one in the United States. This high percentage comes pretty much as no surprise; the cap & gown section, after all, is a place for parents to kvell about their kids, and if their child isn't doing something worth bragging about, then maybe their information won't be submitted.

When Aaron first started high school at Frankel Jewish Academy, the guidance people there bragged that "100%" of their students get in to either their first or second choice for college; they said it as a virtual guarantee. I wondered a bit about this. When I was in high school in New Jersey, someone at the top of a class would typically have their top 2 choices in the Ivy League or at an elite private liberal arts college; even then admissions rates at those places were too low for that kind of guarantee.
Where the Class of 2015 are going, by state / province. 20 states are represented; none heavily outside Michigan.
When I graduated high school in New Jersey in 1980, staying in-state was definitely not a priority; maybe we weren't all born to run, but most of us got out while we were still young.

But as the numbers show here, in 2015 our children are mostly staying in Michigan. No matter how I diced and spliced the underlying data, whether by gender, by high school, by type of high school even, the numbers came out more or less the same: They're going to the University of Michigan or to Michigan State, with UofM being the clear first choice. If not to one of those two then to one of Michigan's other public universities (Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Oakland University showing up most frequently). More than half of the Frankel graduating class is going to UofM, and in every grouping of students I could think to run, more than a third will be wearing maize and blue in the fall.

Only among the students graduating from private high schools are a significant percentage leaving the state, and even there it trails the number going to UofM. Overall, of the 263 students represented, 209 are staying in Michigan. Maybe this speaks well of the perception of Michigan's colleges, or maybe it's a combination of both economic and academic factors keeping kids close home.

Aaron graduated from West Bloomfield High School, and will be attending Central Michigan University in the fall.

No matter how I looked at it, Michigan is #1 and Michigan State is #2.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dylan and then McGuinn in Michigan - May 15 and May 16, 2015

Roger McGuinn at the Michigan Theater, May 16, 2015
How often do we get to see the master and arguably his greatest interpreter back-to-back? Not too often, I don't think. So off we were Friday to see Bob Dylan at the Fox Theater in Detroit, and Roger McGuinn at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor the next evening.

Dylan, of course, has been charting his own path as a performer for... well, forever. These days, he's not altering his setlists, so a quick look at his most recent performances on his official website -- even though it was two weeks out of date -- gave a fairly precise idea of what he was going to play.

I was "busted" for taking this snapshot of Bob and the band.
As with the last time I saw Dylan at the Fox in 2012, the stage was dark, dark, dark. "Photography is Strictly Prohibited" signs were posted approximately every 3 feet, and the staff were instructed to enforce just as strictly (I was "busted" after taking a picture of the bow after the last song, much to the amusement of myself and all around me).

Dylan has accentuated his piano playing more and more in recent years, to the point where it now has a leading role in several songs. The setlist, though, was pretty much impenetrable for anyone who didn't already have the songs memorized. In 2012, Bob surprised me by playing nearly an entire set of "familiar to the casual fans" songs. No such "luck" Friday night. "Blowin' In the Wind" in the encores was sublime, and included Dylan's most forceful piano playing of the evening. "Tangled Up in Blue" was also in the set. Beyond that, many fans had to be wondering just what they were hearing. Even "She Belongs to Me" wasn't easy to recognize, and anyway, when was the last time most of them listened to it? Not that I have an issue with songs like "Pay In Blood" (a world premiere at the 2012 show that was also played Friday evening) or "Early Roman Kings," it's just that without a libretto they're not easy to follow. I spent so much effort trying to figure out what he was playing, that I didn't ever get to why he was playing it.

Dylan at the piano for "Blowin' In the Wind."
Dylan's most recent album, Shadows In The Night was a collection of covers of Frank Sinatra tunes. Late in the set, he played "Autumn Leaves," one of the tracks on the album. This, apparently, was the life dream of one particularly loud (and possibly not quite sober) fan behind us, who screamed deliriously as the song began. The encores ended with another of the new songs, the almost ironic "Stay With Me."

Roger McGuinn opened with a Bob Dylan song ("My Back Pages"), wore a big hat, and played many other Dylan songs over the course of his two hour concert, but that's where any similarities between these two shows ended. McGuinn's roots are in folk and he has substantially gone back to those roots with his Folk Den Project. Yesterday's show combined songs from The Byrds, McGuinn's solo career, and his more recent folk recordings. Where Dylan seemed to issue a dare to his audience to figure out his meaning, McGuinn explained his history and his song's meanings at length.

So we got the story of how McGuinn once played for the Chad Mitchell Trio. We got the story of his time in the Brill Building with Bobby Darin, and of one of his first songwriting attempts there. We got the story of how The Byrds came together, of how they got access to "Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man," and how he ended up singling lead. We got his story of the Rolling Thunder Revue, and of another tour years later with Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. Time after time the stories were presented as opportunities, of McGuinn just happening to be in the right place at the right time, and being just smart enough -- usually after a delay -- to smile and say "ok." McGuinn, like Dylan, doesn't vary his setlist. Yet it all felt fresh.

These stories might be wearying in the hands of someone else, but McGuinn so clearly enjoyed the moment, enjoyed the telling, and most of all enjoyed the music that he easily brought the audience along with him. That included frequent sing-alongs, even on some of those old Bob Dylan chestnuts. Oh, and he did "Chestnut Mare," too. McGuinn showed how talented he is, both as instrumentalist (he played his Rickenbacker as well as 3 other instruments) and as singer. He closed with "Turn! Turn! Turn!," the Pete Seeger adaptation of Ecclesiastes that became a #1 hit for The Byrds, and "May the Road Rise Up To Meet You," an original song based on a traditional Irish blessing.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, April 18, 2015

Getting high with a little help from a friend.
Last things first:
Paul McCartney played with Ringo Starr last night, and there was an echo of magic in the air. Just before that, Stevie Wonder and John Legend combined to create unforgettable performances of Bill Withers's most famous songs. The induction ceremony lasted 5 hours, this was the first I've attended. These high points in the wee hours will stay with me for a long time.

Beck arrives and greets fans. 
Beck performed "Satellite of Love" in tribute to Lou Reed.
Cleveland Public Hall hosted the ceremony; as several speakers noted, the venerable hall hosted The Beatles in 1964. From the windows of the narrow hallway outside our seating area, we could watch the stars coming in. Steve Van Zandt... Green Day... Ringo Starr... Beck... Stevie Wonder. Several fans unfurled a huge "Ringo We Love You!" banner (which he acknowledged later from the stage), and produced some vintage screams when he arrived. The biggest group of fans was there for Green Day.

Joan Jett launched the show with a bang... literally. First she ripped in to "Bad Reputation," a rock and roll anthem if ever there was one, and a song most of the audience probably hadn't heard since the last time they saw "Shrek." Then, "Cherry Bomb" with Dave Grohl guesting, complete with cheesy bomb effects at the end. Want a badass opening to a Rock and Roll show? Here you go, and thank you, Joan. For the bonus round, she brought out Tommy James to join on "Crimson and Clover," with Miley Cyrus also coming on stage. Sure, we noticed that the sound sucked, the room was pretty dark, and the video screens were in bizarre locations (the center screen above the stage was so far back it was occluded by stage props, and the live "screens" for the sides were actually the walls of the hall).

Those songs were so hot, we didn't much care about the technical details.

Joan Jett and Tommy James
Still. this was an induction ceremony, and there were induction speeches, and acceptance speeches. Miley Cyrus was first up, with a reverent induction for Jett, including anything from sexual attraction to an apocryphal story of Joan Jett at the men's side of the Western Wall (hell, it might even be true). It was funny, it was articulate, it was even pretty succinct.

But then, everyone gets to speak; if the inductee has passed away, the honor goes to a spouse or a sibling or a child or to multiple children. And many of them go beyond their allotted time.

Visible to most of the arena.
Ignored by most of the speakers.
Jett performed before her induction (a good move, I thought), but the remaining acts were inducted before performing. So, in the hour and a half following Jett's set, just two songs were performed. Maybe that pacing worked back when the ceremony was a dinner at the Waldorf Astoria, but with a paying audience of several thousand people, perhaps there are approaches to focus the live show more on the musical performances. For example, could they give out (yes, I said "give out") a DVD compiling the video tributes and the comments of the spouses and siblings and children of the deceased? Could they use the recaptured time to give the living inductees a chance to perform more than 3 songs?

Green Day was up 4th. More fans, more vocal fans, were there for Green Day than for any other inductee. Green Day are very popular, still at or near the height of their popularity. For me, this was the first time seeing them live, so it was a pretty big deal. They were good, they were exciting, they were fun. Billie Joe had fun with his fancy outfit while finishing "American Idiot." They played 3 short songs, and...then they were gone. And so were their fans. Some never came back.
Green Day.
Show over? No, just Green Day.
Fans leaving the seating area halfway through the show.
For 10 minutes after Green Day finished, the show stopped as fans departed, and then the show resumed with the induction for The "5" Royales.. Who thought it would be a good idea to follow Green Day with The "5" Royales? It wasn't a good idea, for anyone. The "5" Royales were inducted to many empty seats.

Bill Withers provided the unexpected comedy of the evening. After Stevie Wonder gave the induction speech, Withers noted that being inducted by Stevie was "like a lion opening the door for a kitty cat." Better even than Withers's acceptance speech, were the performances that followed. First, Stevie Wonder with "Ain't No Sunshine," and then John Legend with Stevie for "Use Me," and a riveting "Lean On Me."

The video before the induction speech for Ringo provided an excellent explanation by several top drummers as to why Ringo was so influential as a drummer. After seeing several of them demonstrate the beats to "Come Together" and "The End," I half hoped we'd see something other than songs on which Ringo sang; after all, he wasn't being inducted for his singing.

Paul McCartney inducted Ringo (or "induced," as he said). Paul was generous and charming, and, well... he was Paul. Then Ringo spoke, and it was like peeling away the years. As Ringo was spinning a yarn, Paul playfully tapped on his watch; Ringo responded, "After the things I've sat through tonight! Blah blah blah. I got some stories." He told stories, he was funny, and he gave his best advice for aspiring bands: "When you're in a van, and you fart, own up... Make a pact that you'll own up to it. We did and that's how we got on so well."

They played Ringo songs. "Boys," fronted with Green Day (too bad for any so-called fans who didn't come back). Then, after an inordinately long set change, "It Don't Come Easy" and finally the big ensemble, including the two Beatles, closed the night with "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "I Wanna Be Your Man," and Paul and Ringo holding hands center stage.
Billie Joe Armstrong, Joan Jett, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Joe Walsh.
Others on stage at this moment included Stevie Wonder, Patti Smith, Tom Morello, Beck, Bill Withers, and Miley Cyrus.
Friends for life.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Live Long and Prosper

Live Long and Prosper. What does that even mean?

Living long is not living forever, and prosperity -- however it is defined -- is reserved for the living.

As a benediction, it seems entirely illogical. Yet there it is, the single most recognizable line from the most iconic character in television history.

I have considered that line a bit since Leonard Nimoy passed away before the weekend.

I also considered, as I often do, my own attachment to that show and that character. As a child, I was small, shy, emotional, and a math nerd. Sometimes I was on the wrong end of a playground bully, and sometimes I watched my tears fall. I felt myself to be an "other."

At age 9, I made a vow to myself to show no emotion -- at least not in school -- no matter what. I would contemplate everything, and stay calm no matter what. For two years, maybe more, my school life included not so much as a single smile.

During this period, I discovered Star Trek. It was in syndication by then, broadcast at dinner hour every evening on Channel 11. And there... was Spock. A TV character embodying the otherness I felt, literally a lone alien. Spock had complete discipline in behaving logically, showing no emotion (except, of course, when it served a plot point or three), and even being a walking half-human calculator.

But Spock really wasn't an "other." He was the science officer, the 2nd in command, the reasoned foil for Kirk's bravado and McCoy's appeals to sentiment. And he got to wear a blue shirt! Kirk was the Captain, but Spock was my guy.

Spock was the most human character on that show, or any other. Spock could live and prosper in that fantasy world. That was an inspiration to me, and to millions of others. I watched every night, often with a TV dinner in front of the screen. Within just a few seconds of dialogue I could recognize any episode, even from the dreadful 3rd season. I watched anyway.

Leonard Nimoy infused the character of Spock. The Vulcan salute and the benediction were, I believe, his inputs (both originating in the same 2nd season episode, Amok Time). Spock was the one major character who died during the original cast Star Trek movies, a temporary horror more than repaid when Nimoy subsequently directed the two best movies in the series. And even then, as Spock completes his full return to form, we see the question: "How do you feel?"

In the final original cast movie, Spock uttered the line, "I've been dead before." In the movies, characters could come back. Spock could even be rebooted, with neither parents nor a planet nor much of any real trace of the resonating otherness that mattered most to me.

I don't know what "Live Long and Prosper" means. First spoken in the immediate aftermath of having killed his Captain (or so he thought), it is illogical. And fascinating. Somehow, it makes sense to me tonight. The answer to the question was, "I feel fine."

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Just a little bit warmer

Graph 1: Ascending: The global temperatures of my life. (data source: GISS)
Last Friday, NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) released the final piece of data for 2014 global temperatures. The numbers are published in several places, and the newspapers pick them up almost instantly, but the page I've always used is It's a simple text page, and NASA's been using the same address for it since at least the 1990s. Sometime around the middle of each month, they just add another number, showing the final data for the prior month. And then I can look for myself, as is my preference.

I follow the data pretty closely, so I already knew that May had been the warmest May since the beginning of record keeping in 1880. I also knew that 2014 set new records in August and September, too. I knew that, when looking at records, even monthly records, it's pointless to look further back than 1998. And I knew with near certainty that the December numbers would confirm 2014 as the warmest year since record keeping began. Graph 1 is a graph I put together in excel showing the GISS annual temperature index, with a linear trend line.

Globally, warming has been consistent over the half century of my life. But warming is measured in increments we might consider "small." The GISS numbers are presented in hundredths of degrees celsius; the average yearly increment over the course of my life is barely one one hundredth of a degree. 20 times during my lifetime one year has been cooler than the one that preceded it. 1963 was warmer than 1976, by a substantial margin. Truncating the graph to 1976, I'd end up with this:

Graph 2: Look at this, it's flat! (data source: GISS)
I could use this graph and make a case -- admittedly not a particularly strong one, mathematically -- that there was no warming during my youth. I'd just have to cherry pick my end points, and conveniently ignore the outliers at each end of the graph: 1963 was the warmest year in that decade, and 1976 was the coldest year of the past half century (and remains the most recent year to end up colder than average).

By cherry picking data points, it's easy enough to make the data lie. More recently, the period of September 1997 through August 1998 shattered all previous records. 11 months during that 12 month period set monthly records, mostly by large margins. In just 2 years, global temperatures rose by 3 tenths of a degree; from 1985 through 1998 the difference was more than a half degree. That the winter of 1997-1998, fueled by a historic El Niño, was anomalous in absolute temperature terms isn't relevant to some; just that it can be used as a startpoint, as if it was a new normal. This leads to the inevitable new argument: It's not getting warmer anymore!

In some respects, that was briefly true: 2013, after all, was colder than 1998. Not by much, and not everywhere. But it was a touch colder. Never mind that 9 of the 10 warmest years on record have happened since 1998, the absolute number of the one data point was less, and the climate change deniers have been out in some force. Their links are easy enough to find.

But 2014's record warmth -- with no El Niño this time -- was as predictable as the sun rising in the East, and even cherry picked data points won't flatten the trend line anymore (note: with small data sets -- and 17 points is a relatively small set, one anomaly can throw the trend; just as having the start point in 1998 flattens things, so too would a single new "cold" year).

Graph 3: Even starting with El Niño, it's still getting warmer. (data source: GISS)
Then there's the local weather: How can there be global warming when it's 10 below outside? Indeed, where I live in Michigan, if I start with 1998 I can draw a trend line that's down rather than up.

Graph 4: That local trend line is down! (data source: Weather Underground)
I have written about local weather patterns before; after the brutal early spring of 2012 when the month of March averaged 16 degrees Farenheit above normal, and the subsequent return to normal temperatures that wiped out our tree fruit. The 3-month "Polar Vortex," itself caused by Global Warming, not only wiped out our crop for the 2nd time in 3 years, it also drove the temperatures as measured at Detroit's Metro Airport to their lowest annual levels in decades.

It's tempting to overread, more so when I look out my window. Living off the grid isn't an option. This isn't presented as a proof of anything, or even as "science," necessarily. That said, I hope that some recent trends toward science denial end sooner, rather than later. Seems to me the time for "debate" has passed.