Sunday, January 31, 2010

Classic Reggae

Here's one of my favorite reggae songs, courtesy of John Holt. I believe this goes back to about 1970, but still sounds incredibly fresh today. The video's a bit goofy, but the song carries it:

Sunday Funnies

Gluyas Williams was another of those classic panel cartoonists who emerged in the 1920s, a contemporary of J. R. Williams, Clare Briggs, and H.T. Webster.

I don't know if his work ever made it to the newspaper Sunday color sections, but he did a daily for many years, and his work was often in magazines like the New Yorker.

Williams had such a beautiful crisp clean line, and was very effective in spotting his blacks. He also had a wry sense of humor that came across more visually than verbally...

... and tended to emphasize the everyday situations that his readers could easily identify with. I hope you enjoy these few samples of his classic work.

Sunday's Quotation

Severinus Boethius (c480-c524) was a Christian philosopher in the waning days of the Western Roman Empire. Here's something from his best-known work, The Consolation of Philosophy (that's Boethius on the left in the picture, conversing with his muse, Philosophy):

"The supreme good which men seek is happiness; at this
they aim in various ways. Some seek it through wealth.
Now, wealth cannot make its possessor independent and
free from all want; yet this is what it seems to promise.
Every day the stronger wrest it from the weaker without
his consent. So the wealth which a man thought would
make him independent, actually puts him in need
of further protection."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Howard Zinn, RIP

You may have heard or read elsewhere that the noted historian Howard Zinn passed away earlier this week. Zinn had a long career and often sparked controversy with his work, as he didn't shy away from offering critical appraisals of certain aspects of American history, especially in relation to the wars we've fought. This block, I assigned my class to read his recent People's History of American Empire and we've devoted considerable time to fact-checking his many assertions. So, far none of my students have found anything substantially wrong with Zinn's facts or interpretations, which speaks to his diligence as a scholar, regardless of what one might think of his politics. I frankly wish more of our so-called public intellectuals displayed even a fraction of Zinn's integrity, erudition, and compassion; but based on the evidence of most television and radio news programming, we'd rather listen to blowhards yell at each other. Here's a video (including words and artwork from the book mentioned above) with an outline of Zinn's perspective on the history of American foreign policy. It's well worth a look:

Saturday Morning Cartoon

I know that there were a whole bunch of these Schoolhouse Rock cartoons that aired in between the regular Saturday morning cartoons (sort of like Public Service Announcements), but this is the only one that I remember clearly enough to be able to still sing along. I think it's that swinging New Orleans rhythm. Anyone else have their own favorites?

Quote of the Day

Today's quotation is from the eminent Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778):

"The person who has lived the most
is not the one with the most years but
the one with the richest experiences."

Friday, January 29, 2010

Great Song

Here's a video of Laura Cantrell singing "When the Roses Bloom Again." I saw her live at the old Continental in Buffalo a few years back and she was so good, even the kids heading to the upstairs disco stopped to give a listen. Check it out:

Friday Family Blogging Quiz

Here's a nice shot of Helen taken in the summer of 2006 (that's a hint, sort of). But once again, it's a cropped photo, with the person holding her cut out. Tell me who that is, and you will win this week's Friday Family Blogging Quiz! Put you guesses in the comments section.

Last week, finally we had a real barnburner of a competition going when I asked you to identify the three faces in the doctored photo (which was, as Sally guessed, taken at the Powers family reunion a couple years ago). There were plenty of partially correct answers,but in the end, Ben nailed all three: Raechelle, Zoe, Sara B. (as you can see below in its original incarnation). Thanks to all who played, and let's see if we can't match the turnout this week!

Soup Diary 100129

I've eaten out several times this week, at different restaurants around town as we've been entertaining a visitor (an outside reviewer evaluating our program at the University). Only once though have I had soup, because I know the less-than-scintillating quality of what's available at the other two places. Now I can add the third place to the roll call of mediocrity. The soup I had there was a beef noodle, which, believe me, was not as robust as the stock picture above implies. It was salty and the noodles were over-cooked; and even though there were some big chunks of tender beef, it had no flavor to speak of at all. I'm really on a bit of losing streak, vis-a-vis soup, and starting to wonder when things will start to turn around. I'll be in Bozeman tomorrow; maybe I'll get lucky there.

More Friday Family Blogging

I think this must go back about as far as the previous picture-- and it too seems like just yesterday! That's Sara, Catie, Maria and Thomas. I never realized before how "blue" the decor was there...

Friday Family Blogging

I can't believe how long ago this was. It's Natalie, Ben and Tom in McKinley Circle, Downtown Buffalo. We walked up there from the Allentown Art Festival, and it seems like it was just a couple years ago though judging from the kids, it's probably closer to eight or nine. Man, time sure flies!

Friday Philosophy

Stuart Chase (1888-1985) was an American engineer and economist most famous for his commitment to the ideals of technocracy. Here's something he wrote back in 1932 that, I believe, remains a largely accurate summary of the motives of capitalists:

"It is assumed, in a left-handed way, that in accumulating
the power, or in playing the game, we contrive somehow to
grease the wheels of industry and serve a social purpose.
Occasionally such is indeed the case, but normally this
reasoning is pure rationalization. What man, starting in
business, asks himself with any care whether the work he
proposes to do will strengthen or weaken the economic
system; whether it will serve a social function; whether
it will increase or decrease the evil effects of the business
cycle; whether it will choke or expand the flow of
purchasing
power? Such questions are normally
undreamed of, and are
displaced by others:
is there money in the venture? or, is

there fun in it?"

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Does This Remind You of Someone?

The Merry-Go-Round were a California based band from the mid-sixties who had a couple of minor hits before disappearing. Their lead singer Emitt Rhodes had a brief but interesting solo career, with his work well-regarded by collectors of underrated pop gems. See if they don't make you think of another sixties band with this mini-medley and especially the full version of "Listen Listen"[bonus: Don Knotts introduces them]:

A Fun Little Diversion

Here's another one of those time-killers to distract you from more important matters. At least this one involves a level of logic or understanding of physics, so there's an intellectual dimension. Plus you get to blow stuff up.

Thursday's Thought

Edward R. Murrow was arguably the father of broadcast journalism in the United States. He established a code of professionalism and integrity that too often seems in short supply amongst our current crop of mass media figures. The following was a part of the broadcast when Murrow essentially called Senator Joe McCarthy on his blatant abuse of power back in the 1950s:

"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We will not
be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we remember
that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men
who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend
causes which were, for the moment, unpopular."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Video of the Day

Here's some classic old time radio starring Don Ameche and Frances Langford as The Bickersons. This was one of those series that consisted of endless variations on the same theme: the Bickersons did not get along. But Ameche and Langford were so good in the roles that you can listen to them fight over and over again (or at least I can), and it's always funny. Let me know what you think in the comments [warning: a couple of the images in the video montage are a little gross-- better to just close your eyes and listen]:

Thinking of Green

Things have been so wintry and gray the last couple weeks that it has really put me in the mood to see some nice lush greenery, and I've been digging through pictures for a little glimpse of Spring (or a reasonable facsimile). Here are a few that remind me that sunny days are ahead. The shot above, and the one below are from the park surrounding the Villa Borghese in Rome.

Here's one from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles (the elephant is a statue):

And last, a shot of the geese near the footbridge over Ellicott Creek.

Wednesday Philosophy

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was an American theologian who grappled with the meaning of modern life in the twentieth century. The following passage comes from his famous essay "Moral Man and Immoral Society" from 1932:

"Though human society has roots which lie deeper
in history than the beginning of human life, men
have made comparatively but little progress in
solving the problem of their aggregate existence.
Each century originates a new complexity and
each new generation faces a new vexation in it.
For all the centuries of experience, men have
not yet learned how to live together without
compounding their vices and covering each other
'with mud and with blood.' The society in which
each man lives is at once the basis for, and the
nemesis of, that fullness of life which each man
seeks. However much human ingenuity may
increase the treasures which nature provides
for the satisfaction of human needs, they can
never be sufficient to satisfy all human wants;
for man, unlike other creatures, is gifted and
cursed with an imagination which extends his
appetites beyond the requirements of subsistence.
Human society will never escape the problem of
the equitable distribution of the physical and
cultural goods which provide for the
preservation and fulfillment of human life."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

This Week's Top Five

Art Vandalay was back from his travels this week, so you can thrill (best word?) to his commentary on this week's Top Five list after missing out last time:

video

Hollywood's Greatest Year 2

Some years back one of my favorite film critics Jonathan Rosenbaum published a book entitled Essential Cinema (there's a link to Rosenbaum's blog over on the left of this page if you want to check him out). Most of the book was comprised of essays on those films he considered the cornerstones of film culture, and the book ended with his list of the 1000 movies that he considered the most important to the history of the medium. In his introduction to the list, he acknowledged the subjective nature of his selections, especially noting a bias towards releases from the 1950s-- the decade when he grew up and when his own critical faculties began to mature. I suppose everyone has a similar generational bias, if only because of the nostalgic tinge that lingers over the material one first encounters when youthful enthusiasm is evolving into full-fledged intellectual appreciation. In fact, such an explanation is about the only thing that makes sense to me in elevating product from the 1950s over almost any period of film history, as most of Rosenbaum's favorites from that era leave me rather cold. But then, that wasn't my period to discover the joys of cinephilia.

Strictly speaking, that came for me in the mid to late 1970s, and much like Rosenbaum, I harbor a great deal of affection for the movies of that period (possibly beyond any realistic or objective qualitative judgment of their actual worth). But here's a weird sort of anomaly: I probably saw as many, maybe more, films produced in the 1930s and 1940s during my high school and college years (1973-81) than I did contemporary films of that era. There were two major reasons for this. First, after seeing Richard Schickel's PBS series The Men Who Made the Movies in 1973, I became fascinated by the history of movies (Turner Classics sometimes replays episodes of that series, each of which was devoted to a different director from the golden age of Hollywood), and made a point of looking for old movies whenever they might air on TV. The second factor was that the University of Buffalo, which I started hanging around by my senior year in high school, had a vibrant film society which programmed a wide range of semester long series-- bi-weekly double features that focused on film's past. Particular favorites included a full run of Buster Keaton's silent features, a couple film noir series, a Jean Renoir retrospective, and, maybe my favorite of all, a comprehensive survey of screwball comedies.

All of this is a rather long-winded introduction to one of my favorite movies from the golden year of 1939: Mitchell Leisen's Midnight, which I first saw sometime around 1978 as part of that screwball comedy series. It's a typical, for the genre, story of romance trumping class, which takes place in Paris as a down-on-her-luck American showgirl (Claudette Colbert) infiltrates the hoity-toity aristocracy (abetted by John Barrymore) before giving in to true love for a lowly cabdriver (Don Ameche). There's a lot of imposture driving the plot, and a sophistication about sex and marriage that in heavier hands than Leisen's might've played out as decadence instead of the farcical earthiness on display here. One could almost imagine this as a companion piece to another classic from '39, Renoir's The Rules of the Game which unfolds in a similar setting, a wealthy family's country estate in rural France. Renoir, not surprisingly, had a more advanced sense of class and its implications than the American Leisen did. The latter's perspective was much more tied to the notions of opportunity and mobility, so much so that the Colbert and Ameche characters almost effortlessly pull off their infiltration of the world of aristocracy and privilege. Unrealistic, for sure, but Leisen maintains such a narrative pace that there's little time to consider how silly the premise is, and one is swept along by the performances and clever machinations of the plot. It's pure escapism, and somewhat timeless as a reflection of a certain persistent American characteristic of striving that was as relevant in 1979 as 1939-- though possibly a bit more open to question by 2009. Even so, it's still a delightful entertainment, and highly recommended if you've never seen it.

Thought for the Day

In the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision unleashing corporate control of elections, I wonder if any current politician will have the guts to stand up and say something as forceful in response as Robert LaFollette (1855-1925) did when similar issues threatened to undermine our democracy over eighty years ago:

"That tyrannical power which the American people denied
to a king, they will no longer endure from the monopoly
system. The people know they cannot yield to any group
the economic life of the nation and preserve their political
liberties. They know monopoly has its representatives in
the halls of Congress, on the Federal bench, and in the
executive departments; that these servile agents barter
away the nation's natural resources, nullify acts of
Congress by judicial veto and administrative favor,
invade the people's rights by unlawful arrests and
unconstitutional searches and seizures, direct our
foreign policy in the interests of predatory wealth,
and make wars and conscript the sons of the
common
people to fight them."

Monday, January 25, 2010

Classic Spoonful

Here's a clip of the Lovin' Spoonful performing on Hullabaloo back in the sixties. Some years back I saw John Sebastian at an in-store appearance at a Borders, and had the opportunity to tell him how much I've enjoyed his music over the years. He was as friendly and gracious as you might expect from his stage persona, where he always comes across as a really nice guy. That's one reason they've always been a favorite of mine:

Battle of the Bands Update

Three Dog Night

Round 2 of our Battle of the Bands continued on Dr. John's Record Shelf last night. You'll recall that this competition was set up to determine what American rock and roll band was the best between 1954 and 1974. The Lovin' Spoonful and Three Dog Night have now advanced and will meet each other in Round 3. The Spoonful (seeded no. 2 in the Northeast Bracket) dispatched Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show (No. 10) in a unanimous decision (thanks to my brother Nick who served as the third judge this week), while Three Dog Night (3) edged the Flying Burrito Brothers (11) by a two to one margin.

The Lovin' Spoonful

The songs that the winners rode to victory were "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice" by the Spoonful and "Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night. They proved to be just a little bit stronger (in the judges opinion) than "Cover of the Rolling Stone" by Dr. Hook and "Hot Burrito #2" by the Burrito Brothers. Next week will see Southwest Bracket contests between Spirit (11) and the Doors (3), and the Sir Douglas Quintet (10) and the Beach Boys (2). Check back here for the results, if you can't listen in (Sunday night 5-7 Mountain Time, 90.9 fm).

Monday's Quotation

Today's words of wisdom come from Robert F. Kennedy, who at the time of his death probably represented the greatest potential for positive leadership of any politician in my lifetime. It's truly a tragedy that we never learned if he could reach that potential. But he continues to be remembered for sentiments like this:

"All of us might wish at times that we lived in a
more tranquil world, but we don't. And if our
times are difficult and perplexing, so are they
challenging and filled with opportunity."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Video of the Day

Belly was a sadly underrated band from the nineties, led by Tanya Donelly. Here's one of their better songs performed live on the old MTV Jon Stewart Show (wish the video quality were a little better, but what the heck):

Sunday Funnies

This week, a couple samples of strips by the great Milt Gross, who was quite popular back in the 1920s and 1930s. Dave's Delicatessen and it's topper Count Screwloose display some of the same anarchic spirit evident in the stage and film work of Gross' contemporaries, the Marx Brothers. Click on the images to get a larger, more readable version.

Thought for a Sunday

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodomus (c1466-1536, born Gerrit Gerritszoon) was a Dutch clergyman of a humanist bent (though it may not appear so in the following quote). He was apparently an influential figure during teh period of the Reformation. Here's something from his classic work, In Praise of Folly:

"By the immortal gods, I solemnly swear to you that
the happiest men are those whom the world calls fools,
simpletons and blockheads. For they are entirely devoid
of the fear of death. They have no accusing consciences
to make them fear it. They are, happily, without the
experience of the thousands of cares that lacerate the
minds of other men. They feel no shame, no solicitude,
no ambition, no envy, no love. And, according to the
theologians, they are free from any imputation of guilt
of sin! Ah, ye besotted men of wisdom, you need no
further evidence that the ills you have gone through,
to convince you from what a mass of calamities I
have delivered my idiotic favorites."

Officially Old...

... or maybe just out-of-touch. I always thought that I was doing a pretty good job keeping up with new music, and that my tastes were eclectic enough that I was usually ready to give new styles and groups a listen. I read several publications regularly, hunting for reviews of new stuff that I would want to hear and combing through the record stores I visit for something different. This week, the Village Voice published their annual "Pazz and Jop Poll" issue, which I've looked forward to every Spring for over thirty years as both an affirmation that I still know what's going on (based on records from my collection making the list) and also as a guide to material I may have somehow missed. Obviously I didn't like everything that made the cut, but it was one of the most comprehensive surveys of the previous year available-- even more-so when it went on-line and included full reports from all the participating critics, so that I could focus on those who I trusted, based on previous recommendations.

But this year, for the first time, I feel really disconnected from the poll results. Only one of the top ten is in my collection (Neko Case) and only seven of the top thirty. Normally that would cause me to start compiling a shopping list of what I've missed, but in many cases, I've heard the other bands listed and just am not interested in adding them to my collection. There are a few exceptions, of course, but nothing like the good ol' days (yikes, did I just use the term "good ol' days"?).

I've actually been wondering about this for awhile: is it possible to reach a point of saturation, where one just doesn't have the same capacity to absorb new material, especially if one (like me) is still spending a lot of time listening to and exploring older favorites? I'd speculate that some of this is because new bands are often just recycling older styles, and so they don't sound as fresh, or necessary (if you know what I mean). But I suspect that's more of an excuse to avoid thinking about the possibility that, after you've reached a certain age, new music is no longer meant for your ears-- that is, it doesn't really speak to me in any meaningful way. When I look at the artists whose work from last year made the Pazz and Jop poll, and which I actually purchased around the time of their release, it's almost all veteran artists like Bob Dylan, Sonic Youth, Wilco, Bruce Springsteen, Yo La Tengo, even Leonard Cohen (who has got to be in his seventies)-- people whose work has, whatever other qualities, a strong degree of generational compatibility. It should go without saying that these artists are still making exciting, challenging music deep into their careers, but how much of their appeal to me is based on my love of their earlier work, and does my commitment to them in some way inhibit me from embracing newer, less familiar artists? I never thought that was true in the past, but now I wonder. I still get a kick out of hearing something brand new for the first time, and will still seek out such kicks, but I also can't help but think that I've perhaps developed a blind spot (tin ear?) that is going to make it a much rarer occurrence than in the past.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Saturday Morning Cartoon

This week, we present some Speedy Gonzales- the fastest mouse in Mexico! He was a decidedly secondary character in the Looney Tunes stable, but when I was little there wasn't a kid in the " neighborhood who didn't often shout out "Arriba arriba" during a foot race. Here Speedy takes on Sylvester, who never seems to catch a break in his cartoons:

Quotation for Saturday

I really like this line by Albert Einstein (1879-1955), better known as a physicist than a philosopher; but then, is there really a difference?

"Great spirits have always found violent
opposition from mediocrities. The latter
cannot understand it when a man does
not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary
prejudices but honestly and courageously
uses his intelligence."

Friday, January 22, 2010

The One and Only Bob Dylan

This song, "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," may be my favorite of Bob Dylan's early folks songs. Then again, that may be just because it was the last one I heard. The guy's output remains remarkable fifty years into his recording career, but this early stuff still sounds fresh to me. I hope you like it too:

Friday Family Blogging Quiz

Okay, no more Mr. Nice Guy. The last couple quizzes have apparently been no challenge at all, so this week, I'm raising the ante, so to speak. I think you can discern three faces in the above picture. All you have to do is tell me who they are. Put your answers in the comments section.

Last week, I apparently could not stump you on who Nicky was looking at in the cropped out portion of the photo posted (see below for the full version). Mom got Ben on the very first response, and I assume there was almost universal agreement, since only Lil Sis even offered another guess. Let's see if we can't get a little more participation this week!

The Last Movie I Saw

John Hillcoat's The Road is an incredibly well-made, well-acted exercise in dystopian angst. The story is set in some kind of post-apocalyptic world where the sun no longer cracks through the endless haze and the living have been reduced to a few scraggly trees and fewer, even more scraggly, people roaming about looking for food and other types of sustenance. Some scenes are immensely heart-wrenching, as it becomes apparent that survival may be possible only by relinquishing the last vestiges of human connection and compassion. When the character played by Viggo Mortenson (giving his usual excellent performance) takes the clothes of a man who earlier robbed him and his son, the feeling that he has finally resigned from the human race is so palpable as to induce shivers, and suddenly the man you've been pulling for is transformed into something truly pitiable. That feeling is made worse when it seems that his son (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) has come to the same conclusion. But even within this spiritual bleakness, Hillcoat finds some room to suggest at least a possibility of redemption, and that keeps the film from sliding into meaninglessness. If you can stand confronting the depths of what we are all likely capable of in the face of almost total dissolution of normal social bonds, this is worth a look, if only as a cautionary tale to cherish what we have now.

More Friday Family Blogging

Here's another shot from the summer of 2006, down by the Niagara River. That's my nephew Gerik, his sister Marenka and their friend Christine.

Friday Family Blogging

This picture of my nephews Ben, Thomas and Joseph was taken about four years ago at the Buffalo Naval Park. If I recall, the boys are standing on the deck of the USS Little Rock, or maybe the USS Sullivans-- anyone recognize the boat?

Friday Philosophy

One of the biggies in Greek philosophy was Aristotle of Stagira, who lived in the fourth century BC. Here's something from his work on ethics that signals the quality of his thought:

"The vulgar, like the beasts, identify happiness
with pleasure. Superior, refined, people tend to
identify it with honor and virtue. We can be certain,
though, that moneymaking is not the good, as
it is merely a means to gain other things."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cool Song

Here's a video of my favorite song off Liz Phair's great debut album Exile in Guyville. I remember hunting up the record after it was named album of the year in the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll for 1993-- hard to believe it came out 17 years ago! I've liked much of what Phair has done since, but she really set the bar high with Guyville (as the quotes in this clip suggest), so no big surprise that she's never quite matched it-- but then maybe her next classic is still on the way. I hope so.

Photoshop Fun (Italy Edition)

I've been playing around with black and white effects on some of the night pictures I took last year in Italy, and these are a few that I think turned out alright. These are all from Florence, starting with the above shot which was taken outside the Duomo.

This is a shot of the cafe across the square from the Uffizi Gallery. This is the area where Savonarola used to burn heretics at the stake, by the way.

Here's a side street with the sun poking through the clouds above the town.

And last, another street scene, late enough that it's mostly deserted. It was a lot of fun wandering around Florence after dark, and I'm hoping that Berlin and Prague (where I'll be going in a couple of months) will be just as camera friendly.

Soup Diary 100121

I had a pile of papers to grade a few days ago, so I went to the local diner for a little lunch while I plowed through them. This place offers chili and chicken noodle soup; I went with the latter. Their version, no doubt from a mix of some kind, is identical to the "homemade" chicken noodle soup available in I'm guessing 75-80% of the places that serve the stuff. Big chunks of chicken, fat wimpy noodles, and flavorless if it weren't for the overdose of salt. It was so disillusioning that the next day I made up a big batch of my own-- truly homemade-- version. Since I don't use a recipe, there is a kind of hit-or-miss element when I make chicken noodle soup, but things turned out really good this time (or maybe that impression was effected by the immediate comparison with the lame restaurant stuff that set me off). My secret ingredient is cilantro, but I only had some of the dried kind handy, so I know I can do even better. But at least my noodles (actually orzo) retained a bit of backbone. I anticipate enjoying the leftovers for the next several days.

Today's Quotation

Here's something a little lighter than what I typically post for the Quote of the Day, possibly prompted by my recent reading habits. The following line comes courtesy of one of the most underrated humorists of the past 60 years, Tommy Smothers:

"When you don't know what you're talking about,
it's hard to know when you're finished."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Video of the Day

Here's one of the many great but mostly forgotten bands of the 1960s: the Equals. The first song they perform here was their one hit in the states (#38 on the Billboard charts in 1968), but the rest is pretty good too. Some years later singer Eddy Grant would have a solo hit with "Electric Avenue" (remember that one?):

Recent Pictures

I haven't been getting out much with my camera recently, but took a short ride down I-15 to a local park on Monday and got these three shots, which turned out pretty well. Above is a shot of the Beaverhead River, about eight miles south of Dillon.

Some trees along the edge of Barrett's Park. My department, along with the Environmental Science folks, throws big graduation picnic every year near this spot.

Another view of the Beaverhead as it winds in front of the big rock that marks the edge of the valley where I live. The rock probably has a name, but I don't recall ever hearing what it is.

Another Way to Kill Some Time

I should probably thank my brother-in-law Dan for filling me in on a site called stumbleupon.com, because I've found lots of interesting and fun stuff since I first checked it out. However, there is a downside: I end up spending a lot more time playing the various games that I discover there, especially the most simplistic ones that I start out thinking I'll play for a couple minutes.... then, an hour or two later realize I actually had some real work to do. The latest has proven the most addictive so far, and can be found here. But take heed: if you click on that link you are in danger of being tied up for quite awhile. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Wednesday's Quotation

Moses Hess (1812-1875) was a German socialist who exercised considerable influence over karl Marx, among others. Here's something he wrote in 1843:

"Without revolution no new history can begin....
History has already broken through the closed circle
of slaver. The revolution is the break from captivity,
from the condition of bigotry and oppression in which
the spirit found itself before it became self-conscious."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

This Week's Top Five List

I pulled a solo on my radio show this week, so the Top Five List may not be quite as engaging as usual (or am I assuming too much?), lacking any immediate reaction from usual co-host Art Vandelay. But I think it was good topic, so you may enjoy it anyway. Feel free to comment if you agree, or not, as the case may be:

video

Late note: I don't know why the video does not play-- I've reloaded it three different times, and will probably try at least a couple more. Please check back again later.

Later note: Seems to be working okay now.

The Last Book I Read

In a weird coincidence, I've been reading William Knoedelseder's I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Standup Comedy's Golden Era as the big late-night battle involving Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and to a lesser extent David Letterman has been playing out all over the TV. As it happens, Leno and Letterman are key figures in Knoedelseder's narrative of the early days of Hollywood's Comedy Store, the showcase venue that was instrumental in launching each of their careers (along with many other now well-known comics). Even moreso than in I Killed (notice a common element in the titles?), this book conveys something of the esprit de corps that defined the standup scene in the late seventies, and how that community feeling fomented both material and career opportunities-- not all of which were enjoyed equally by the denizens of that scene. Knoedelseder tells the story of how the comics united to force club owners like the Comedy Store's Mitzi Shore to actually pay them for their performances. Prior to a comedians' strike to force the issue, Shore and others claimed their open stages allowed the comics to showcase their talent for bookers, producers, and others who would come through with paying gigs, if the comic's talent warranted-- in other words, while the owners cleaned up on cover charges and bar tabs, the actual performers were expected to work for free in return for the exposure. Meanwhile, some of them were living in their cars while waiting for their big break. The author was a journalist covering the entertainment beat at the time in LA, and draws on his acquaintance with many of the main players to flesh out the details of the battle as it unfolded, including a fair amount of the personal anguish it engendered as sides were taken and longstanding friendships were strained. It's a compelling, quick read, and in its attempt to pay some attention to the psychological dimension of the profession as well as reporting on the gritty reality of the struggling comic's lot in life, it bears comparison to Phil Berger's classic study The Last Laugh (which covers a much wider time frame). It's certainly more cohesive than I Killed, but then the books really set different goals for themselves. I should note that there is very little funny stuff in this book either, but that hardly detracts from the reportage. I suspect the next book in my pile (George Carlin's posthumous autobiography) will up the laugh quotient considerably as I continue on my current comedy reading kick.

Quote of the Day

I suppose it would've been slightly more appropriate to post this yesterday, but certainly the message is valid on any day of the year. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. said to explain his opposition to the Vietnam War, but it applies to many other situations as well:

"On some positions, cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it
safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity
asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the
question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when a true
follower of Jesus Christ must take a stand that’s neither
safe nor politic nor popular but he must take that stand
because it is right. Every now and then we sing about it,
‘If you are right, God will fight your battle.’ I’m going
to stick by the best during these evil times.”

Monday, January 18, 2010

Classic Chicago

I know a lot of people who don't care for brass in their rock and roll, but for awhile in the early seventies, I think these guys figured out how to pull it off. This is the song that took them to Round 3 in our Battle of the Bands (see previous post), and if you watch to the end, you'll hear the song that got them to Round 2 as well:

Battle of the Bands Update

The Crickets

This week on Dr. John's Record Shelf, we played off a couple pairs of Midwest Bracket groups in Round 2 of our ongoing Battle of the Bands to determine the greatest American Rock Band from the era between 1954 and 1974. No. 1 seeded Chicago easily moved on by trouncing The Outsiders (9) in a unanimous decision, and the Crickets (5) won a split victory over the Shadows of Knight (13). Guest judges this week were Tom and Natalie Rosiek (with Natalie casting the one dissenting vote in favor of the Shadows of Knight).

Chicago

We've still got a number of weeks to go in Round 2, but it's already obvious that upsets are going to be much less common than in Round 1, as 3 of the 4 groups to advance so far were favorites (and the fourth was the slightest of underdogs). Chicago moved up behind "Saturday in the Park" against "Respectable" by the Outsiders; and The Crickets won with "That'll Be the Day" over "I'm Gonna Make You Mine" by the Shadows. [Ironic coincidence: the Crickets tune got it's name and main lyric from a line uttered by John Wayne in the John Ford western The Searchers-- see my previous post.] So, in Round 3, Chicago will square off against the Crickets in what should be a very competitive matchup. Following last week's contests, Creedence Clearwater Revival will be up against Country Joe and the Fish.

You can find the complete set of Round Two matchups for the Battle of the Bands unfolding on my radio show at the following links: Northeast Bracket, Midwest Bracket, Southwest Bracket, Northwest Bracket.

Hollywood's Greatest Year 1

Who knows if 1939 really was Hollywood's greatest year, but as suggested in this post, many count it as such. Among my favorite movies released that year is John Ford's classic western Stagecoach, which pretty much made a star of John Wayne. To me, a large part of what makes Stagecoach great has little to do with the conventions of western movies (also true of that other 1939 classic, Destry Rides Again), though they are abundant in the film: the outlaw on the run, the Indian attack, the climactic shootout. What makes this film really good is the way that Ford handles the construction of community among the passengers on the coach. It's a wonderful microcosm of a common western theme, but pushed into the forefront of the story and personalized in a way that rarely occurs in more pedestrian fare of the genre. What becomes evident if you watch a lot of westerns is just how little we ever learn about those who aren't toting a gun or otherwise attracting trouble. While a big part of the mythology of the west claims to celebrate the "average" folk who settled the land, they're often consigned to the background of movies where they provide little more than a quick reference point or motivation for the hero's actions, or portrayed as distinctly un-heroic themselves and therefore dependent on the hero for salvation. Not so in Stagecoach. The various travelers almost all (the exception being the blowhard banker) rise to unexpected heights of moral or physical courage motivated not just by self-preservation, but also their bond to one another. As a consequence, the best scenes in the film-- those with some real emotional punch-- are not those laden with action, but rather the ones where the individual members of the ensemble (like Doc Boone, played by the great Thomas Mitchell, staring down the bad guys) reveal their true character by ignoring selfish impulses in order to look out for someone else. Watch John Wayne's Ringo Kid as he walks Dallas (Claire Trevor) through the red light district of Lordsburg, registering the slow realization of who she is and the resolve that none of that matters after what they had gone through together-- it's great stuff, and not exactly the kind of subtlety normally associated with the Duke. John Ford began his career as a western director and pretty much ended up doing mostly westerns too, but Stagecoach came at a time when he was much more eclectic in choosing his topics (his next movie was another highlight of 1939, Young Mr. Lincoln; it would be seven years befoire he returned to a western topic with My Darling Clementine). I suspect that partly explains why this plays more like a character study than a genre exercise, though there's no doubt that Ford knew how to deliver the goods for those who turned out to see the cowboy hats and gunplay too. This is one definitely of those classics that grows richer with each viewing.

Happy Birthday Scott!

Today is my brother-in-law Scott's birthday, so I want to join the chorus of well-wishers in congratulating him for making it through another year ;-) and I hope there are many more to come. By the way, credit where its due: the above picture was snapped by my nephew Joseph, who did a nice job of capturing his dad's likeness, don't you think?