Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dude

Or Dudes, I should say, as in, "What is the cast of the Washington D.C. Shakespeare Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet made up of?" Dudes. All dudes. No women. An all-male cast, ala Elizabethan England. Now look, I understand that this is how they did it in Shakespeare's day - women weren't allowed on the stage. Elizabethan audiences were used to this, it was expected. But we've progressed a bit since then. Women have been playing Juliet, and the Nurse, and the rest of the female roles in Romeo and Juliet for hundreds of years now. And that's what we in the twenty-first century expect. So give it to me. Give me women. An all-male cast in this day and age is a little creepy. Especially when Juliet is played by some six-foot-something guy flapping his arms about like a chicken in order to convey deep emotion. Combine her (him?) with a manic Romeo, racing across the stage in a panic for nearly three hours, and a revisionist production that conveys the first half of the play as near slapstick, and what you've got on your hands is a failure, a flop, and a dud.

Look, there is natural comedy in Romeo and Juliet - the humor of the two over-wrought teenagers in love is written right there on the page and it's an integral part of the play. Romeo's friends, Juliet's nurse, and others make great fun of them. They may seem foolish to us when the play opens but they cannot seem like fools. The two are serious about their love and their love changes them - they find their better selves once they meet, they grow as people. We see it not only in the change in their personalities, but in their language. They begin the play meek, in Juliet's case, and in love with the idea of himself as a lover, in Romeo's case. They are still children and their language reflects that. After they meet, both their personalities and their language change. They grow up right before our eyes. They begin to talk in some of the deepest, most beautifully written language we know. And their love is real. That's part of the tragedy. But the producers of this version of Romeo and Juliet miss all that. They have the idea they can play the two lovers for fools the entire way through the play and still get the payoff of the tragedy at the end, which of course, they can't. They miss the growing up, they pay no attention to the change in the lover's language and personalities. They don't understand the play, or they do and decided that a straight reading of Shakespeare wasn't good enough for them.

More about the all-male cast in this day and age. When I see Juliet, I want her to be young, fresh, and beautiful. I want to fall in love with her. I want to feel about her the way Romeo does the first time her lays eyes on her - "O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night / Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear / Beauty too rich for use / For earth too dear!" I suspect most men feel that way and I suspect most women want to feel the same about Romeo as Juliet does, or want to feel as loved as Juliet is. That's part of the attraction of the play. Put a man in the role of Juliet and that disappears for a lot of us, men and women. The greatest love story ever penned just makes us uncomfortable.

The slappy-happy production also misses out on another vital aspect of the play, its sexual passion and its sheer eroticism. These two kids are hot for each other. The double-entendres and sexual innuendo abound in Romeo and Juliet and we need them to be understood for the play to have its full effect. This production misses it all, or turns eroticism into dirty jokes, like a TV sitcom. When Juliet, in anticipation of making love to Romeo for the first time, says "Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die / Take him and cut him out in little stars / And he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night / And pay no worship to the garish sun", it should be clear at once that she is not simply signalling Romeo's impending death, but also talking about their sexual coupling. The phrase "to die" in Elizabethan English, meant sexual orgasm. When Juliet says, as she is about to drive the dagger home, "O happy dagger! / This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die", again, she is talking a double language. She is killing herself in grief over Romeo's death, but she is also giving herself to Romeo sexually for eternity - she is the sheath for Romeo's dagger. These should be no need to spell this out in any production of Romeo and Juliet - it should be clear to all, even novices to the play. But in the Shakespeare Theatre's wrong-headed approach to the play, none of this comes through. When the two lovers lay dead on stage at the end, we feel nothing. This is inevitable in a production that plays the two for fools, but the real fools, of course, are the people who produced this travesty.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Weekday Postings!

I'm off work this week - hurray! I hadn't taken any time off at all this year so I have a bunch of vacation days left to use before the year is out: this week, a week in October, a week at Thanksgiving, and the two weeks surrounding Christmas. Plus I have four extra days to play with, which I plan to use in October during the major league baseball playoffs. I am normally up at 4:10 in the morning during the week and the playoff games start late and end very late, sometimes midnight or later. I can get away with four hours of sleep or less on occasion but doing it for many days in a row is simply too much. So I'll use those fours days in order to miss as little of the playoffs as possible.

And who do I root for? Well, I haven't mentioned it yet on this blog but I am a Red Sox fan and have been, like most people in New England, since birth. You grow up with the Red Sox in New England; they're part of the fabric of life. From the time you start to become aware of events around you, the Red Sox are there. It's a little hard to explain to people not from the region and who haven't gone through it. They're like a part of the family, or an old and beloved friend. Someone who is always around, always discussed, always cared for. The contrast between New England and here in the Washington D.C. area is dramatic. There, a day at work will never go by without a discussion of the Sox, how they did the night before, what's looking good for them, where they need improvement, etc. Here, I can go to work for months on end without anyone ever mentioning the Nationals or the Orioles. People around here are not baseball fans.

Anyhow, I am your normal passionate Red Sox fan. I watch them nearly every night via the major league baseball cable package. That said, I'm not a Yankee-hater. In fact, once the Sox are out of it I will normally root for the Yankees. This has to do with a few things. First, as anyone who has read this blog knows, I love New York City. I'm pro most things New York. Also, my dad was not a Yankee-hater either - he respected them. He was for the Red Sox first, then for whatever team represented the American League. When Rudy Giuliani, as rabid a Yankee fan as there is, said last year during his presidential campaign that he would root for the Red Sox once the Yankees were out of it because they were an American League East team, he was criticized and disbelieved but I knew exactly what he was talking about because I'd heard it from my dad growing up. He was an American League guy. That kind of thinking was pretty much a given back in the day when their was much more of a rivalry between the American and National Leagues than there is now, way back before this whole ESPN-fueled Yankee-Red Sox rivalry got out of control. Also, if you simply love the game of baseball, as I do, those Yankee teams of the late-1990s and early 2000s played the game the way it was meant to be played. It was hard not to admire them.

Anyhow, I haven't discussed the Sox on this blog yet but the playoffs are coming and they are now almost surely in so you'll probably be hearing more. The Sox may even overtake Tampa Bay for first place. As of this morning they are 1 1/2 behind the Rays, two in the loss column, and Tampa is in for a three game set at Fenway starting tonight. If they can take two out of three and pull within half a game I think they'll be in good shape to take the division. Winning the division means (I believe) they'll face either the White Sox or the Twins in the first round of the playoffs instead of the Angels. I want no part of the Angels. They've hammered the Sox all year long.

The dream World Series, of course, would be the Red Sox vs. the Cubs. A matchup of these two teams would electrify the nation for they are probably the two most beloved teams in baseball. The Sox had been history's most endearing losers until their recent success and the Cubs have now taken over that distinction. A seven game series, finishing up at Fenway (with, of course, the Sox winning it in the bottom of the ninth on a David Ortiz home run) is what I'm rooting for.

Anyhow, this was meant as an "I'm on vacation post" not a Red Sox post but there you go. There will be some postings during the week this week and certain weeks throughout the rest of the year. I just wanted to let you know since I know how much you all wait in eager anticipation for my next posting, clicking on refresh again and again throughout the day.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A McCain Reevalution

The Republican Party has to be happy about their convention. I think it was a success on a number of levels. Ms. Palin's extraordinary speech was, of course, the highlight. But Rudy Giuliani's speech was also wonderful. He (and Palin, who immediately followed him) skewered Obama and the Democrats, but with a wink and smile, the best way to go after your opponents in this type of platform.

Fred Thompson's speech was also wonderful and many people commented on it. It concentrated on John McCain's time as a POW in Vietnam. My wife, who knew McCain's story only at a superficial level, had never heard the details of his captivity. I expect relatively few Americans had. The Thompson speech moved her and she came away from it seeing McCain in a completely different light. She still wanted to know afterwards about my and most conservatives disagreements with McCain on policy but she views him now with a new level of respect. She knows now that John McCain is a man of tremendous personal courage, one who puts country first. Due to Fred Thompson's speech and the convention as a whole I think a lot of people came away knowing the same thing. This is good and it should help McCain when he presses his reform message.

Now if he would only change his mind on campaign-finance, immigration, and global warming...

A Step Back

It was quite a week, wasn't it? Ten days ago relatively few Americans had heard of Sarah Palin. Now she is one of the most famous people in the world. She is a phenomenon, a political natural like we haven't seen in a long, long time. A few times during the week I thought my Tiger Woods thought - I'm glad I'm alive to see it. And while I hadn't thought of it until just this moment, she has much in common with Tiger, don't you think? She is utterly fearless, totally in control of her emotions, eager for the challenge, supremely confident in her own abilities, a bit disdainful of her competitors. And her competitors right now must be a little shaken, like Tiger's are when he moves up the leaderboard.

Earlier in the week I was so excited about Ms. Palin that I was a little ashamed of myself. Anyone who has read this blog knows my opinion on politicians - and it's not good. The vast majority of them are ego-driven charlatans interested only in their own careers. And those are the good ones. Furthermore, I'm a conservative, which means I always attempt to evaluate anything new under the sun with a large does of skepticism. So while getting so enamored with Ms. Palin and the possibilities she represents, I knew I was ignoring experience and core convictions. That little uncomfortable voice in the back of my head telling me to hold back was awfully faint. I could ignore it for awhile but the voice is getting louder now and it's impossible to ignore. And the Palin euphoria is wearing off. That's a good thing.

When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it. The wild gas, the fixed air is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgments until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of the troubled and frothy surface. I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men on a blessing, that they have really received one. Flattery corrupts both the receiver and the giver; and adulation is not of more service to the people than to kings - Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

This quote from Burke is one of my favorites. It is also wise counsel in both life and political matters. I badly want Ms. Palin to succeed. But I will watch her actions and listen to her words with that air of skepticism I mentioned before. She has already demonstrated her character, talent and charm to the nation. Now I want to know some other things. Is she a true conservative? Or does she believe in an activist government like George W. Bush? What does she really think of limited government, low taxes, immigration reform, how to proceed against our enemies, the proper judicial philosophy, and a whole host of other other things. These questions need to be answered and, if the McCain-Palin ticket is elected, will be in time. To get too excited about her now is to proceed like the man about to embark upon his fourth marriage - he is relying on hope rather than experience.

Don't get me wrong. I admire her immensely, and I am convinced she can be a game-changer. But I want to know in which direction she takes the game.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Real and Present Danger

The savage treatment of Sarah Palin by the mainstream media is indicative of what a threat she is to the left. I told my own first babe last night the Ms. Palin has a chance to become the most influential politician in America since Ronald Reagan. My wife was skeptical, not because she doesn't see the magic that is Sarah Palin, but simply because it's her nature. A true conservative I married - conservative to the core.

But another great babe agrees with me. Peggy Noonan, in her column today, says:

Because she jumbles up so many cultural categories, because she is a feminist not in the Yale Gender Studies sense but the How Do I Reload This Thang way, because she is a woman who in style, history, moxie and femininity is exactly like a normal American feminist and not an Abstract Theory feminist; because she wears makeup and heels and eats mooseburgers and is Alaska Tough, as Time magazine put it; because she is conservative, and pro-2nd Amendment and pro-life; and because conservatives can smell this sort of thing — who is really one of them and who is not — and will fight to the death for one of their beleaguered own; because of all of this she is a real and present danger to the American left, and to a future Obama candidacy.

She could become a transformative political presence.

So they are going to have to kill her, and kill her quick.


"A transformative political presence." That's what I was trying to say to my wife last night but I don't have Peggy's vocabulary. If Sarah Palin gives a terrific speech tonight (as I expect), is a hit on the campaign trail (as I also expect), clearly beats the bumbler Biden in their debate (ditto), then it will be Sarah Palin's Republican Party for the foreseeable future. Even without a McCain win in November, she'll immediately become the face and the future of the party. Of course, if she's as big a hit as many of us hope, McCain will win in November and then Ms. Palin will be next in line for the presidency, in four years or eight. In the meantime she can begin the long, hard work of rebuilding the Republican Party as the party of normal Americans, most Americans. But she'll have lots of help - people love her. She has the ability to hold onto the conservatives while grabbing a huge chunk of the middle, and even many Democrats who may be looking at her as liking what they see, and who are as disgusted at the media's revolting behavior towards her as I am.

Not to put any pressure on you Sarah, but tonight is step one. Give 'em hell.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Anti-Palinites

In regards to the Palin pick, Krauthammer doesn't like it, Frum doesn't like it, the Powerline guys don't like it, Heather Mac Donald doesn't like it. They aren't the only conservatives to express concern over Palin but they represent some of the main arguments against her selection. They are also some of the smartest people on the planet so their concerns deserve to be taken seriously.

Let's take them in order. The Krauthammer and Frum concern has to do with the election. The Palin pick, according to Krauthammer, "undercut[s] the remarkably successful 'Is [Obama] ready to lead' line of attack" which has worked so well for McCain thus far. Frum believes it will allow the Obama campaign to push the theme "that it's John McCain for all his white hair who represents the risky choice, while it is Barack Obama who offers cautious, steady, predictable governance."

The Powerline argument against Palin has more to do with governance post-election. Over a series of posts they express concern that she is seriously lacking in experience. "I'm very disappointed that John McCain would put someone as inexperienced and lacking in foreign policy and national security background as Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the presidency," says Paul Mirengoff. There is a legitimate concern out there that if something happens to John McCain early on, the presidency would be turned over to someone with little to no foreign policy and national security experience. (UPDATE: Actually, rereading the Powerline posts now, while all three of them Powerline guys express concern over Palin, it seems that the post-governance argument is only made in Paul Mirengoff's original post. But I have read many arguments against her based on her lack of experience if something were to happen to McCain, so it's out there. Still, in the interest of accuracy, let's call it the post-election governance argument rather than the Powerline argument.)

Ms. Mac Donald's argument against Palin is that it brings identity politics, which conservatives normally loathe, to Republican presidential contests forevermore: "[F]rom now on, any presidential ticket that consists solely of white males—no matter their qualifications—will likely be dead in the water." She also states that, "Has...Sarah Palin...been named Stanley, she would have had exactly zero chance of ending up in the Oval Office in the next four years."

Others have dealt with the first two issues and both support and refutations to them are easily found if you're interested (scroll through the past few days of posts over at The Corner or check out The Weekly Standard site, including Bill Kristol's column, if you're interested). I think there are good arguments on both sides. But it is Heather Mac Donald's argument that I want to address this morning.

I need to state right off the bat that I love Heather Mac Donald. Her writing in City Journal has helped make it the finest magazine in America. She is right almost always and if I were president she'd be my Secretary of Homeland Defense (based on her qualifications, not her gender.)

That said, I don't think that Sarah Palin can be seen as a pure diversity pick. Yes, it is true that the hypothetical governor Stanley Palin, with the same qualifications as Sarah Palin, probably would not have been picked for the VP slot. But a governor Stanley Palin of Alaska who had been governor for, say, six years, following a House or Senate stint where he dealt effectively with some foreign policy and security issues. may have been. That Stanley Palin, with the same expertise on the drilling issue as Sarah Palin, who had fought corruption within his own party and won, as Sarah Palin has done, who was as strong a pro-lifer as Sarah Palin is, who was as genuine and refreshing as Sarah Palin is, would certainly have had a shot at the VP slot. I agree that given her lack of experience, her being a woman probably tipped the scales in her direction. But her gender was not the sole reason for her being picked. She has obvious advantages to the ticket in other areas and some clear expertise on critical issues of the day that made her eligible in the first place. If she did not have those advantages and expertise, the fact that she is a woman would have mattered not at all. She would never have been considered.

But perceptions mean a lot and it's true that many will see her as a pure diversity play, selected solely to grab the Hillary voters and other women. But there appears to be much more to Sarah Palin than the fact that she's a woman. It's now up to her to go perform and show America that her abilities are up to the job and her judgement can be trusted. If she performs the way we all hope, she can reinforce the conservative belief that people should be judged on their merits, regardless of race or gender. It could play out to have the opposite effect than the one Ms. Mac Donald worries about. A perfect scenario would emphasize to all that while she may be a woman, she'd better be good if she expects to play the game at this level.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Palin Effect

This is working out even better than I thought. The conservative base is energized by the Sarah Palin pick like it hasn't been in years. There are so many sides to her story: the woman who has lived both the second amendment and the abortion issues, the self-made woman who got to where she is via her own talent and drive, the hockey-mom, the reformer who took on her own party and won, the mom with a son headed to Iraq, the wife who's husband is a man's man, the (and this is only partially a joke) naughty librarian. Like Rush said yesterday, we're the ones with a babe on the ticket. She is truly a dream pick. Like my own very talented babe said to me this morning, even the McCain people must be surprised at the reaction.

The main concern among conservatives is that she is untested in national politics. They are afraid of a deer in the headlights moment, a stumble where she gets something completely wrong, anything that might expose her as unprepared for the office. Now it could happen and if it does the biased media will make all the hay they can out of it. But in my mind a more likely scenario is that she will expose Joe Biden to be the one out of touch, the one who is offering the same old liberal nonsense, the one who is locked into the inside-the-beltway mentality. She is so quick, articulate, confident, optimistic, bright-eyed (oh, those eyes) and genuine. If Joe Biden had any sense he'd be sweating bullets right now.

But the point is that for the first time in years the conservatives are revved-up. Palin also helps with the Hillary voters, the independents, the soccer-moms, the blue-collar swing voters. She rounds out McCain like no one else could and she has the ability to change the tone of the race. McCain-Palin is the reform ticket, the change agents. Obama-Biden is the ticket of Washington insiders offering the same old thing.

What a difference a day makes.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Sarah Palin

I'm glad John McCain is finally listening to me. If they need any other advice I'll be happy to help. I'll guide them along all the way through election day (and beyond if necessary.)

Seriously, I think she is an excellent pick. There are downsides for certain, but lots of upside. Having seen her in a couple of long interviews with Larry Kudlow, I find her tremedously articulate and appealing. I think America will too.

UPDATE: I just watched Sarah Palin speak after being introduced to the nation as McCain's running mate:
"When it came to that Bridge to Nowhere, I said 'thanks, but no thanks.' If we need a bridge, we'll build it ourselves."

Is it too late to put her at the top of the ticket? Well done Ms. Palin, and well done John McCain.

The Party's Over

And thank goodness for that. But give me credit. I watched a lot of the Democratic convention, including the entire speeches of Boss Clinton, Slow Joe Biden, and the Messiah himself - and my television is still in one piece.

I thought Obama's speech was lousy. He was polished, poised, and professional but the speech itself was dishonest and without substance. And that's no surprise for he must hide his record and his real opinions from the country or else he's doomed. While he can get away with a dishonest and substance-less speech in front of his adoring crowds - he's been doing that for over a year now - he did little to sway the people he must sway, the Hillary voters and the independents. He sounded like your typical liberal Democrat last night, with his list of grievances and give-aways and his promises to expand the nanny-state. Some of his rhetoric regarding all the things he thinks the federal government should be doing I found truly disturbing. Even more disturbing is the reaction from the crowd - they love hearing that the government is on its way to help. We live in an age that expects the government to take care of our every whim and concern. This attitude exists to some extent even on the right. I am utterly at odds with this corrosive mindset. At a certain point Obama told us that under the George Bush's policies we were "on our own." YES! I said. That's how it should be in America, and that's how I want it. I want to be on my own. I don't want the government's help. Go away and leave me alone. Whoever is elected president should return to being the head of the executive branch of government and tend to the executive's limited constitutional mandates, and DO NOTHING ELSE. Stop trying to be father, a priest, a social worker, and a psychiatrist. It's not your job.

Okay, enough ranting. My main impression of the convention as a whole is that speaker after speaker tried to make the case that Obama is ready to be president - including Obama himself - and none of them came close. Of course, they couldn't because they had nothing to work with for Obama has done next to nothing of significance in his life. Hillary Clinton's now famous line about what Obama has accomplished ("He gave a speech in 2002") was not an exaggeration. Whether it was his work as a community organizer (I still have no idea what that is), in the Illinois Senate, or the U.S. Senate, there are virtually no specifics anyone is willing to talk about. Apparently the little legislation he worked on in Illinois was so far-left it was wisely left out of the story this week. So the Democrats ended up with a whole bunch of people making bold statements about how ready Obama is to be president but nothing to back it up. You'd have to be totally under the Obama spell not to notice this. The whole week reinforced the notion that Obama is an empty suit.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Mad Men - Episode 4: Three Sundays

I have much to say about last Sunday's episode of "Mad Men" but, alas, little time to say it. I've been busy all day today and I'll be gone all day tomorrow. Suffice to say that the episode was brilliant, packed full of interesting things - I'd need all day to get in everything it brought to mind.

First, a few personal notes. Years ago we visited my Dad and he told us that a young lady of our acquaintance had gotten engaged. We asked about the guy. "Nice guy," my dad said. "A little weak." Well, we met the guy a few days later and my dad nailed him. My wife said "a little weak" was the perfect description for the guy, who was a nonentity with little to say and completely subservient to his future wife. When Roger Sterling is at dinner with his wife Mona, his daughter Margaret, and his daughter's future husband, I thought of the "little weak" statement. The future husband is "a little weak." If you've seen the episode you know what my dad meant.

Little Sally Draper's comment to Joan, "You've got big ones. My mommy has big ones too. When I grow up I'm going to have big ones," gave my wife and I a big kick. When my niece - whom I love, love, love, love, love, love, love - was about four years old she encountered my wife in a state of undress. After gazing at her for a moment she said, "You've got big ones. I've got little ones." We've told that story for years and Sally's comment made us laugh out loud because of its association with our niece.

Also, the scene of the priest with Peggy in the car in front of the pizza parlor reminded me of a scene that was cut from The Godfather II, the scene where they kill Fabrizio, who'd been Michael's bodyguard in Italy and was responsible for Appolonia's death. When they finally discover his whereabouts years later he's running a pizza parlor in Buffalo. The next scene has Fabrizio locking up the store with a pizza box in hand, presumably bringing it home to his family for dinner. He gets in the car, starts it, and the bomb goes off. The scene was cut from the original release but can be seen in uncut versions of the movie. It probably wasn't deliberate on the part of the producers but the Father Gill and Peggy scene sure reminded me of that.

I also note a recurring theme this year is that of parenting styles. When Sally steals a drink during her Sunday at the office and falls asleep, presumably drunk, no one says a word. Don simply picks her up and brings her home - no big deal. Nowadays they'd be rushing her to the hospital, and perhaps later taking her to a psychiatrist in order to get to the bottom of her behavior. Kids were not fretted over back then the way they are today. "Full-court press" parenting, to steal a phrase from Joseph Epstein, was still way off in the future, and any parent who acted then like most do now would have been thought to be smothering. So this is another thing the show gets right.

Roger Sterling loves the chase, whether its chasing new business like the American Airlines account, or a prostitute like Vicki, and played by the astonishingly beautiful Marguerite Moreau, who can blame him? "I want everything I want," he tells her, in one of my favorite lines of the show, and it sums Roger up perfectly. Will Vicki mean trouble for Roger? He's had plenty of women before but he seems completely smitten with Vicki. If he's going to fall, it would be entirely believable if it were for a girl like her.

I've read elsewhere in a few places that Peggy's interest in Father Gill was not sexual. I disagree. I think it was. Peggy's sister Anita might have sabotaged her budding relationship with the priest by telling him about her child during confession, but she was right about Peggy - she does what she wants without regard to what others think. The look on Peggy's face when Father Gill drops the Easter egg in her hand and says, "For the little one" was priceless. It was Father Gill's way of telling her she needs to take responsibility for her boy. But until this moment I thought Peggy was sexually interested in the priest. "Sexual predator" was my thought while watching the episode for the first time. I thought perhaps that was the direction they were taking the character. (I thought she was becoming a younger version of Bobbie Barrett, who again seduces Don Draper, this time in his office, and only a few short weeks after his rough treatment of her.) Now, with the priest clearly uninterested but also his subtle suggestion to her, perhaps their will be some internal struggle within Peggy between her son and her selfishness.

Speaking of internal struggles, we saw more clearly than ever the internal struggle between Don Draper and Dick Whitman. Betty Draper implores Don to discipline their son Bobby, whom Betty seems to dislike intensely. Don is reluctant and in the end we - and Betty - find out why. "My father used to beat the hell out of me. All it did was make me fantasize about the day I could murder him." But Don is not without violence. We saw it last week with his near assault of Bobbie Barrett, and we saw it again this week when he pushed Betty after she has pushed him. He pushes her hard. I immediately thought that January Jones, the actress who plays Betty, might not have had to act real hard to show her anger - he really nails her. Here we see Dick Whitman come out like we never have before. We see the man who's father used to beat the hell out of him, the man Don Draper is trying to escape.

I loved the Sunday scene in the Draper living room. Betty is reading F. Scott Fitzgerald, probably "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz", the story Arthur asked Betty if she had read last week at the stables. She hadn't but now she's reading it. So Arthur has had an influence. I'd mentioned in my "Mad Men" post before this season started how Don Draper reminded my of Jay Gatsby and the old American story of remaking yourself into who you want to be, regardless of the circumstances of your birth. The Fitzgerald influence is all over "Mad Men" - glitz, glamour, the promise of being young in America with the world on a string, the betrayal felt if those promises don't work out, "the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us."

I - and everyone else apparently, including the people who keep up the official Mad Men page - thought it was Bing Crosby singing Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart's "Blue Room" but now I'm hearing it was Perry Como. Well, Perry never sounded better - a beautiful song and the perfect choice for the scene.

I don't have time to get into the American Airlines account fiasco, except to note Don once again is at odds with Duck. Duck wants to put all three marketing ideas on the table when they meet with the AA execs, while Don wants a single one - and of course he comes up with the perfect one for an airline that's just had a plane end up in Jamaica Bay. "That crash happened to someone else. We've got nothing to apologize for. American Airlines is about the future. Let's pretend we know what 1963 looks like." Of course it's all for naught - Duck's contact at AA is fired the day of the presentation, killing Sterling-Cooper's shot at the account. "We hired him in to bring in new business, not lose old business" comments Don. I like it that the show makes Duck a very nice guy. Clearly we root for Don in these matters - he's the heart and show of the show - but they don't set Duck up as an unlikeable villain, making it easy for us. His gesture to the secretary, and his overall behaviour throughout this season, is that of a decent guy. He just has a different way of doing business than Don. But I think it will end badly for Duck.

Slow Joe

Prediction: come mid-November one of the reasons cited for Barack Obama's loss in the general election will be his selection of Joe Biden as his running mate. I don't mean because Biden is a gaffe machine, though he is. His comment about Obama being 'the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean' won't hurt the ticket, nor will his 'you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent' comment. It's been well-observed that Biden has about as much control over what comes out of his mouth as an infant has over what comes out of his rear-end. But unless Biden unleashes a real whopper during the campaign, none of this matters much.

What matters is that Joe Biden screams Washington establishment. When he flashes those teeth he's the epitome of the smarmy, insincere Washington politician. Obama's whole story was that he was something new, an alternative to Washington, post-racial, post-partisan, and all that other nonsense. That story has been falling apart for some time now, what with his associations with Reverend Wright, Tony Rezko, and Bill Ayers, his comments about the rubes who 'cling to guns and religion', his head-snapping turn to the center after gaining the nomination, his evasiveness and downright lying on issues such as his vote in the Illinois Senate on the Born-Alive act. He got down in the dirt with Hillary Clinton during the nominating campaign and now he is doing the same with John McCain. He's exposed himself as just another pandering politician who stands for nothing except his own success. And now he picks Biden as his running-mate, which pretty much drives a nail into the coffin of the Barack the reformer story. What you have left once that story is gone is a man who knows little and cares less about policy, an empty suit with a radical left-wing past, a pompous gasbag with almost no national experience

It's pretty clear that the Russian invasion of Georgia, and Obama's pathetically weak initial reaction to it, is the reason for the Biden choice. Slow Joe has been the head of the Senate Foreign Relations committee for sometime now and Obama badly needed to shore himself up on foreign policy, about which he appears to know nothing. But just think of this: Obama-Biden. It stinks of establishment in a way that Obama-Kaine, or Obama-Bayh do not.

I actually have a soft spot for Biden. His verbal gaffes have given me much glee over the years, and I actually think there is something decent about the man - he is not vicious in the manner of a lot of Democrats, like Leahy, or Reid, or Dodd. But I think in the end his selection to be Obama's running mate will be seen as a mistake.

McCain can capitalize on this moment. He shored himself up with conservatives last week at the Rick Warren Saddleback interview with his answer on when life begins (the question Obama refused to answer, saying it was 'above his pay grade'.) And with the drilling issue so prominent in the minds of voters right now, picking Alaskan governor Sarah Palin as his running mate would help in a number of ways. She's pro-life, which would firm McCain up with the conservative base. She is pro-drilling in ANWR (as almost everyone in Alaska is) and extremely articulate on the issue - she can swing McCain and a lot of others over to her opinion. Plus she's a woman which would help get the Hillary voters who are upset that their girl lost. Add to this that she's a reformer - something the state of Alaska is in dire need of - and it seems to me that she'd make a very nice fit for McCain and his pitch for Washington reform.

And finally, she is very easy on the eyes. That can't hurt.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Rock and Roll's Greatest Songs

Notice the title says Greatest Songs, plural. Not Greatest Song, singular. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that, for example, "Maggie Mae" is a better song than "One Way Out", or vice versa. It's not possible. They are both simply great songs. Whether one is better, or greater, than the other is a question that can't be answered.

But we can make distinctions between the good and the bad, the great and the good. As you know from my greatest albums posts you'll find no Doors or Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix here. These artists/bands were, by my lights, all overrated, some by a little, some by a lot. So we all make different distinctions. If you look at just the top ten songs on Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, one can immediately start to take exception. Is "Hey Jude" really the best Beatles' song ever? Not by a long shot. Is an unquestionably great song like "Satisfaction" nonetheless a better Rolling Stones' song than "Gimme Shelter" or "Tumblin' Dice" or even "Sympathy for the Devil"? Some would argue. Is "Good Vibrations" really a better Beach Boy song than "I Get Around" or "Don't Worry Baby"? I can name a dozen Aretha Franklin songs that I prefer to "Respect".

I know where Rolling Stone was coming from with their list. They took into consideration not only the song's pure musical value but also the cultural and musical importance the song had at the time of release. By these standards, yes, "Satisfaction" probably deserves the top spot among Stones songs. It was "Satisfaction" that put them on the map as the second greatest band of the time, the song that started the Beatles vs. Stones argument. It's still their best known song. You can also see the RS method in the selection of "Imagine" in the number three spot on their list. Though I love John Lennon, I despise "Imagine", which achieves its spot on RS's list clearly due to its socialist, atheist, world-government, utopian point-of-view. There is no way that it could land at number three based on musical values alone. John Lennon simply produced too much superior music with The Beatles. I mean, who wants to listen to "Imagine" when "Twist and Shout" is available?

Anyhow, to my own list. What are the rules? No rules, really. Just my own view of greatness. The song has to be big to begin with, big in the sense that the artist was clearly going after something more than they'd achieved before, big also in the musical sense of having a huge, enormous sound. Songs that were clearly landmarks at the time of release and still seem so. Songs that have lost nothing over the years, that when listened to today conjure up their period but still have something to say to us now. Or it could be none of those things but simply a song that blows you away, good and hard, because as I've suggested in this space before, that's the raison d'etre of rock and roll, to take you outside yourself, to take you further than other music can.

So with that said, here's my top ten:

10. "Twist and Shout" - The Beatles

9. "In The Still of The Night" - The Five Satins

8. "Maggie Mae" - Rod Stewart

7. "One Way Out" - The Allman Brothers

6. "Thunder Road" - Bruce Springsteen

5. "Let's Stay Together" - Al Green

4. "Be My Baby" - The Ronettes

I'll pause here before announcing my top three. Like my greatest albums post, these seven songs are in no particular order. They can be rearranged at will, depending on the day. In fact, depending on the day, all of these songs (except "Be My Baby") might actually fall out of my top ten and be replaced by something else. If I wrote this post tomorrow some of these songs might be replaced by Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On", or Smokey Robinson and The Miracles' "The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage", or CCR's "Green River", or "Since I Don't Have You", by the Skyliners, or "Only The Lonely" by Roy Orbison, or any one of a couple dozen other great songs. These lists vary from person to person and from day to day.

As I noted parenthetically above, "Be My Baby" will never drop out of my top ten. It is a solid number four on my list and I nearly included it in my final four. I adore that song. It's "our song", my wife's and mine, and it has been since we began dating over twenty-five years ago. Actually, our first 'our song' was "Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite", by the Spaniels, in the very early days of our love affair but it was soon replaced by "Be My Baby". The sound Phil Spector gets on this record is enormous, the epitome of his "wall of sound": the layered, buried, instrumentation pure assault; the vocals, all up front, pure seduction.

Okay, so what are my top three songs? The three songs competing for the title of greatest song of all time? Again, I won't choose among them because that's impossible. I can say that they seem to me the obvious high-points of recorded rock and roll music, undeniable in their greatness and grandeur. Here they are, in no particular order:

3. "Gimme Shelter" - The Rolling Stones
2. "Layla" - Derek and the Dominoes
1. "Like a Rolling Stone" - Bob Dylan

"Gimme Shelter" was given the 38th spot on RS's list, behind such songs as "Light My Fire", "Stairway to Heaven", "River Deep - Mountain High", and "Dock of the Bay", among other unworthies. Now, you already know my views on The Doors and Led Zeppelin so I won't elaborate here. But "River Deep - Mountain High" has always had an unduly high reputation among rock critics. Phil Spector was trying for the ultimate "wall of sound" and while he does achieve a deep, rich resonant sound here, the song itself is not that good. Years later it's clear that "Be My Baby", "Da Doo Ron Ron", "Baby I Love You", "He's a Rebel", and a dozen other Spector songs are much more satisfying records. And while I love Otis Redding, "Dock of the Bay" is way down on his list of great songs. It's only included on RS's list for its crossover value, the great soul artist making it big on the pop charts. In the liberal mentality of RS this fact elevates the song far above where it actually belongs on the list. Stripped of its cultural importance, "Dock of the Bay", judged purely as music, is overrated. Can anyone today listen to "Dock of the Bay" followed by "Gimme Shelter" and then truly maintain that the former is a better song than the latter? "Dock of the Bay", as lovely as it is, is a trifle, while "Gimme Shelter" is probably the toughest, most menacing song in rock and roll history - there's simply no getting out of its way. The long, slowly unfolding intro which culminates in Charlie Watts' rifle-shot drum beat, which in turn signals Keith Richard's rhythm guitar - the best rhythm guitar piece in rock and roll history - will never be topped.

"Layla" fares a bit better on RS's list, coming in at number 27. But it's a monumental song, rock and roll channeling Beethoven, and it makes most of the other songs ahead of it on the RS list seem somewhat slight. I mentioned Lester Bangs' marvelous description of Van Morrison's "Cyprus Avenue" in my Van post - "rapture, and despair." "Layla", turns this around in its two distinct sections - it's all despair in the first section, pure rapture in the second, a man wounded and then healed. The song would be deserving of the 27 spot if it consisted merely of the blazing, Eric Clapton and Duane Allman guitar-fueled first section. But it is in the sublime second section where it achieves a grandeur unlike any other rock and roll song. The stately piano is truly Beethovenesque and the transcendent guitar work is like heaven itself. Listen closely to the guitars behind that piano as the section culminates. It's like the angels singing. If I make it to heaven, I expect those guitars to be playing when St. Peter opens the gates.

Finally there is "Like a Rolling Stone" and here the RS list gets it right - it's number one on their list too. I talked about the song in my greatest album post and I suppose if you took a count, this song would be the one I've listened to most often in my life. I loved it when it was on the radio when I was a little boy and I rediscovered it when I was a young teen and began rediscovering rock and roll. It is clearly Dylan's best song, the moment when everything came together for him. He knew it, the band knew it, and they produced a song that will live for as long as music lives. It never fails, it never fades, it always delivers. I won't say it's a better song than "Gimme Shelter" or "Layla" or even "Be My Baby" but it is their equal and better than the rest.

So what have I left out? Where's Elvis, you may ask? Wasn't he the greatest rock and roller of them all? How can he not have a song in the top ten? Sorry, but no. "Hound Dog", his greatest single, doesn't make the cut. If Elvis ever made recorded music that deserved a spot on the list it was the bootlegs of his 1968 Christmas special, when he decided, the Beatles be damned, to prove to the world that he was still the greatest rocker of all time. The bootlegs of those sessions are some of the greatest music ever recorded - "Baby What You Want Me To Do", "Lawdy Miss Clawdy", "One Night With You", and "Trying To Get To You", can stand right alongside "Gimme Shelter" as some of the toughest, take-no-prisoners rock and roll ever. But few people have ever heard this music. You can get some of it here but not all the takes, and it's missing some of the best stuff. It's still great though. You want Elvis at his best, here it is.

What about The Beatles? They were the greatest band ever, so why aren't they represented right up top with Dylan and Clapton and the Stones? Well, they could be, very justifiably. It may be that their sheer voluminous output - so many great songs over so short a period - works against them in picking a single song for while they produced hundreds of great songs they produced no song that seems so much greater than all the rest. I've chosen "Twist and Shout" for my top ten list but I could just as easily have chosen "Money", or "What You're Doing", or "There's a Place" or "If I Fell" or "In My Life" or a dozen other songs. The Beatles' true value is in their prolific presence in our lives, the presence of their exuberant and joyful voices always there, never far away. During the 1960's you could not get away from them - they dominated the radio waves at the time - and they remain a presence to this day, no matter what song is playing. The Beatles were then, and remain, the greatest band in rock and roll history.

So there you have it ladies and gents, my guide to the greatest rock and roll. Discuss among yourselves.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Mad Men - Episode 3: The Benefactor

Last Sunday's episode of "Mad Men" was a one-shotter, an episode that existed entirely on its own, with little reference to what came before, and most likely, will occur in the future. "The Sopranos" used to do this often, and of course Matthew Weiner, "Mad Men"'s creator, was a writer/producer for "The Sopranos". He introduced this device on last week's "Mad Men" episode in which the serial nature of the show is interrupted - what happened with the American Airlines account? Where were Pete Campbell and Paul Kinsey? How were any of the conflicts introduced in the season's first two shows advanced? - in lieu of some other purpose. Since none of the show's existing plot lines were addressed the only other purpose for a show like this is to delve deeper into the particular characters the episode focuses on (in this case Don and Betty Draper), to learn something about them we didn't know before.

So what did we learn? For one, we learn that Don likes to skip out of work to see foreign films. That's where he's at when the comic Jimmy Barrett insults the wife of the owner of Utz potato chips, a client of Sterling-Cooper. This really can't be considered slacking. Keeping up with the trends of the day is part of Don's job and foreign films were in vogue during the early 1960's. I think this was another reference to the new cultural world order that was arriving on the scene during the era. The bohemian Greenwich Village society certainly included a foreign film aspect - you were cool if you rejected standard Hollywood movies and watched high-brow films instead. In episode one of season two, we saw Don buying, reading, and being affected by, a book of Frank O'Hara's poetry. In this momentary clip showing Don in the theatre, we can perhaps deduce he is continuing to be seduced by the bohemian culture, the one he utterly rejected in season one.

We also learn he can be ruthlessly cruel. When he grabs Bobbie Barrett by the hair, pulls her head back, and reaches up her skirt and tells her, "I will ruin him", we believe him, and so does she. I was going to describe the action as shocking, but it's not really. It's already been well established that Don Draper is a man who will do whatever is necessary to protect himself.

And we learn Betty Draper is "profoundly sad." Well, we knew this already. If the series producers wanted to drive home the point they could have done it a bit more subtly than in the stable scene when Arthur repeats the phrase to Betty twice. Who talks like that? The scene is a bit of a howler, redeemed slightly by Betty's explanation of her reserved demeanor: "my people are Nordic." I loved that. But they didn't need to establish that Arthur is unhappy with his fiance, or that he is hot for Betty. A short conversation followed by Arthur making a move on Betty - with her same reaction - would have established all that just fine. The vital scene was Betty walking away trembling, barely able to walk or light a cigarette. She was trembling with desire, perhaps not for Arthur in particular, but simply for the attention of another man, any other man.

Which makes the final scene slightly ambiguous. Don and Betty are driving home from the apology dinner, one in which Betty played an important role. Betty begins to cry, out of happiness she tells Don, because she has always wanted to play an important role in his life - "we make a good team." I don't think she cries out of happiness though - I think she is "profoundly sad" here, though I'm not sure she even recognizes it. There has always been an air of slight confusion about Betty - she's a woman who doesn't really know herself, though that may be beginning to change. Is she starting the process of changing from dutiful 1950's housewife to a self-aware woman? This would be in keeping with the whole change theme of season two.

So was the episode successful? Partially, due to the few things I've mentioned here. But the main story line of the episode - that of Jimmy Barrett, his insult of the Utz owner's wife, and the apology extracted at the dinner - was fairly lame. If you're going to do a one-shot episode, you need to have a fun or interesting story to hang it on. Jimmy Barrett was supposed to be an insult comic but there was nothing funny about him at all. His lines weren't funny, only cruel, so I never found him believable as a truly popular entertainer. I did like the wife, Bobbie, and her come-on to Don, and her line later to him, "I like being bad and then going home and being good." And there were a few other good lines. But it wasn't my favorite episode. I like one-shotters when they're well-done - think of "The Sopranos"' Pine Barrens episode in which we learned so much, and not much good, about Christopher and Paulie Walnuts - but I don't think this episode of "Mad Men" was an entirely successful one.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Old Photographs II


Here's my favorite picture of my Mom and Dad together. It was taken on July 1, 1956 at a Johnny Ray concert at the Frolics in Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts. Mom was 21, Dad was 23. They both look like movie stars. No one looked as cool with a cigarette in his hand as my father. And Mom was a stunner. Hell, she still is.

In later years my Dad and I used to go to the Frolics with my Uncle Fat (yes, that's what we called him - a subject for another post at another time) and my cousin Bobby on Friday nights to watch the amateur boxing. It was a load of fun, much of it spent laughing hilariously at the complete ineptitude of some of the so-called boxers - they'd stand in the middle of the ring swinging wildly at each other until one of them accidentally landed a blow. My Dad loved the fights, as did Fat (who was actually my Dad's uncle, my grandfather's younger brother) who would take my Dad into Boston regularly when he was young to see professional fights at the Boston Garden. My Dad loved Rocky Marciano and we had many an argument while standing at the shore at Salisbury Beach looking out at the ocean over who would win a fight between Rocky and Muhammad Ali. Aah, those were the days, never to be recovered.


Anyhow, the Friday night fights at the Frolics were lots of fun. Again, click on the image for a larger view.

Old Photographs


Considering my miserable cold, this made me feel a little better. I checked my email a moment ago and there was a message from my godmother. She was going through a box of old photographs and found this (click on the image for a larger view), which she graciously scanned and sent on to me and my brother. That's my Mom, my Dad, my brother, and me. That's me on my mother's lap. I look a few months old so the picture was taken fifty years ago. My brother would have been about 1 1/2, Mom was 23 and Dad was 25. It leave me thinking the same thing I always think when I see pictures of my parents when they were together: boy, they sure were good looking. Whatever happened to me?

Laid Low

We took my niece, whom I love, love, love, love, love, love, love, with us to NYC at the end of last week and we had a marvelous time - she is an absolutely delightful young lady and she proved to be wonderful company. We promised her a trip to Paris when she was a child, a promise she won't let us forget, so it's safe to say she'll be with us when we once again hop over to the Continent. I hope so.

She was just getting over a cold when we departed Thursday morning, one which she has now generously shared with both my wife and I. While I feel somewhat better today I spent yesterday on the couch, where I watched a movie (The Philadelphia Story, again), followed by the riveting final round of the PGA Championship (Padraig Harrington must now be considered the second best golfer on the planet), and finally a little bit of the Olympics. I tried to get up and at 'em a few times but was lying back down within minutes each time, defeated. Anyhow, now seems the appropriate time to quote a little Ogden Nash, who sums up perfectly the way I felt yesterday:

The Common Cold

Go hang yourself, you old M.D,!
You shall not sneer at me.
Pick up your hat and stethoscope,
Go wash your mouth with laundry soap;
I contemplate a joy exquisite
In not paying you for your visit.
I did not call you to be told
My malady is a common cold.

By pounding brow and swollen lip;
By fever's hot and scaly grip;
By those two red redundant eyes
That weep like woeful April skies;
By racking snuffle, snort, and sniff;
By handkerchief after handkerchief;
This cold you wave away as naught
Is the damnedest cold man ever caught!

Give ear, you scientific fossil!
Here is the genuine Cold Colossal;
The Cold of which researchers dream,
The Perfect Cold, the Cold Supreme.
This honored system humbly holds
The Super-cold to end all colds;
The Cold Crusading for Democracy;
The F├╝hrer of the Streptococcracy.

Bacilli swarm within my portals
Such as were ne'er conceived by mortals,
But bred by scientists wise and hoary
In some Olympic laboratory;
Bacteria as large as mice,
With feet of fire and heads of ice
Who never interrupt for slumber
Their stamping elephantine rumba.

A common cold, gadzooks, forsooth!
Ah, yes. And Lincoln was jostled by Booth;
Don Juan was a budding gallant,
And Shakespeare's plays show signs of talent;
The Arctic winter is fairly coolish,
And your diagnosis is fairly foolish.
Oh what a derision history holds
For the man who belittled the Cold of Colds!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The WSJ on Windfall Profits

The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial earlier this week asking the same question I've asked often in this space - what is a windfall profit?
The "windfall profits" tax is back, with Barack Obama stumping again to apply it to a handful of big oil companies. Which raises a few questions: What is a "windfall" profit anyway? How does it differ from your everyday, run of the mill profit? Is it some absolute number, a matter of return on equity or sales -- or does it merely depend on who earns it?

Read the whole thing - it's quite entertaining. The Journal concludes with an answer to the question, and they nail it:
The point is that what constitutes an abnormal profit is entirely arbitrary. It is in the eye of the political beholder, who is usually looking to soak some unpopular business. In other words, a windfall is nothing more than a profit earned by a business that some politician dislikes. And a tax on that profit is merely a form of politically motivated expropriation.

It's what politicians do in Venezuela, not in a free country.

Mad Men - Episode 2: Flight 1

If I was worried last week that "Mad Men" had slipped a little, I need be concerned no longer - season two's second episode was brilliant, and it set us up for a season possibly more interesting than the first. There are conflicts every which way you turn, between Don and Duck, Don and Pete, Don and Betty, even, perhaps, Don and Roger, between Peggy and Pete, Peggy and Joan, Peggy and her child, Joan and Paul. Beyond the personal conflicts are those cultural conflicts that serve as the show's backdrop - the 1950s vs. the 1960s, buttoned-down Madison Avenue vs. Greenwich Village, the rock and roll generation vs. the beats and the folkies. It's all a fascinating brew.

I've mentioned quite often about how "Mad Men" shows us the prevailing attitudes of the era and Pete Campbell's reaction to his father's death in an airplane crash tells us much about how times have changed. "Mad Men" is set during a period when men did not show emotion, at least not like they do today. They were expected to be strong and stoic in the face of personal tragedy. With Pete, we get the added aspect of his upper-crust, blue-blooded background, in which emotional distance was the norm, and so his reaction - or non-reaction - to his father's death seems perfectly reasonable. It barely registers with him emotionally. He never really knew his father and this is something else I don't think this was very unusual for the time. It may not have been pervasive throughout society but there were plenty of fathers who worked and provided but who spent little time with their children and never developed the type of personal relationship with them as they do today. Pete knows he's supposed to be feeling something but he doesn't. He wants to cry but he doesn't have it in him. Still, it is a bit shocking in its ghoulishness when Pete uses his father's death in a sales pitch to an American Airlines executive within days of the crash in order to steal their account and sign American up with Sterling-Cooper. Pete, not a sympathetic character to begin with, is monstrously ambitious, and we hate him for it.

This contrasts nicely with Don Draper's resistance to Sterling-Cooper decision to drop their current airline account, the small-time Mohawk, for a shot at the American Airline account. Don's sense of loyalty and propriety towards Mohawk shows him as a man of conscience, something we probably shouldn't have expected given some of his past actions. But, as I said about last week's episode, things are changing on "Mad Men" and Don Draper's heart and soul may be target number one. Of course, he may simply think it's bad business - SC has the Mohawk account in-hand and they're ready to give it up just for the possibility of signing American. Also, what does this move tell their other client's about SC? Don asks Roger, "What kind of company do we want to be?" and Roger, perfectly in character, answers, "The kind where everyone has a summer home?" The decision is made to drop Mohawk, backed by both Bert Cooper and Roger Sterling, and the comment made by the Mohawk executive to Don as he leaves - "I'm almost embarrassed to say this. You fooled me." - cuts to the quick.

This brings up another possible source of conflict. We've now had two second season episodes and both had story lines in which Duck and Don were at odds. Roger sided with Duck on both issues. Will trouble arise between Roger and Don?

The entire second episode is built around the true event of the crash of an American Airlines Boeing 707 airliner, flight 1 to LAX, on March 1, 1962. All 95 people on board were killed. The episode begins the previous evening at a party at Paul Kinsey home which is attended by many of SC's younger employees. Paul wields a pipe and sports a beatnik beard, and introduces his black girlfriend to the assembled guests. Joan, who once dated Paul, nails him the next day: “You’re out there in your poor-little-rich-boy apartment in Newark or wherever, walking around with your pipe and your beard, falling in love with that girl just to show everyone how interesting you are.” When he walks away she calls out "Tell me which part was wrong." This tells us a lot about Paul but even more so about Joan. She's the ultimate 1950's woman, a woman who revels in being a woman, who loves the attention of men. She'll use her looks to get what she wants without ever questioning whether to do so is wrong. She's comfortable in a man's world. This new beat generation is threatening to her. She's the keeper of the keys at Sterling-Cooper and the world SC thrives in and she doesn't want it disturbed. The show even uses her physical appearance to put her forth as the 1950's girl and the 1950's culture. When Paul, in revenge (it had to have been Paul), steals her purse from her locker and posts a copy of her driver's license on the bulletin board, complete with her birth date (we find she's over 30) and weight (140) it barely phases her. First of all, she's in her thirties which means she was in her prime during the 1950's. And a woman who weighed 140 nowadays would be considered downright overweight but during the 1950s she'd qualify as the office sex object; curves were in, Marilyn Monroe was in, busts were in, and a large backside, like Joan's, was a glorious thing. Joan herself is a glorious thing and she became all the more interesting last week when we realized that, along with her other obvious assets, she is the bulwark trying to hold back the 1960's flood.

But it is 1962 and the flood will eventually overwhelm them all. The AA airliner went down on March 1, 1962. A few weeks later Columbia records would release Bob Dylan, his first record, and the folk craze of the early 1960's would intensify. Dylan had already made a name for himself in the Greenwich Village clubs the year before and his name should have been well-known by this time among the younger people at SC - it's unthinkable that Paul Kinsey, the beatnik wannabe, would be unaware of him. "Mad Men" seems to be going down the road of pitting the incoming Dylan-led youth culture against the older, Sinatra-led culture, that of scruffy, earthy, realism vs. smooth elegance and reserve.

A few more observations. Betty Draper, who has always been vaguely discontented, is now aggressively unhappy. Her behaviour during the card game was that of a woman itching for an argument and Don recognizes it immediately. Later, when they're alone, he tells her he won't fight with her and she storms out to smoke a cigarette and stew in her anger. As I said last week, trouble is definitely brewing here. As for Peggy and her child, we are presented with a woman who has no feeling whatsoever for her child except a profound discomfort when forced to spend a moment holding him. The child's discomfort with her is clear also - he cries the entire time. I mentioned Pete's monstrous ambition earlier, but Peggy, who clearly is a more sympathetic character in the eyes of the show's producers, would have been considered even more of a monster than Pete for such attitudes back in 1962. No doubt it happened though - not every woman has the motherly instincts. Peggy obviously lacks them and while it doesn't endear her to us it certainly makes her a more interesting character.

Gypsy

We were up in NYC for a few days this week and we saw the current revival of Gypsy at the St. James Theatre. It was superbly well-done, so much better than the 2003 revival that starred Bernadette Peters. Patti LuPone plays Mama Rose this time around and while she is very good in the role I didn't think much of her singing. She was flat much of the time, missing notes all night long, reverting to histrionics during the big numbers, especially "Everything's Coming Up Roses," in order to mask her limitations. Either her voice is ravaged from singing this very difficult part night after night, or she simply doesn't have the chops to pull it off. The audience gave her a rousing standing ovation at the close, which didn't surprise me - we are, after all, living in the age of American Idol, in which histrionics and over-emoting are confused with actual feeling. But I'm being a bit harsh. Ms. Lupone was actually a quite fine Mama Rose, playing the part with great vivaciousness, full of fun, brimming with personality. She makes the role her own. But she simply doesn't sing very well - or at least didn't the night we saw her - so I wasn't completely satisfied and, while we stood cheering her, I wondered if anyone else in the theatre was mildly disappointed too. Turns out the lovely woman sitting next to me shared in my disappointment. But my baby also agreed that it was the only part of the show that was lacking. In every other aspect it was, as I said, superb. The orchestra, the sets, the direction, the pacing, the performances of everyone in the cast (particularly Laura Benanti as Louise), were all just right. And what songs! I've been humming them for the past two days. Gypsy, done right, is the epitome of Broadway musical theatre. This production, done with such verve, does the original justice, in spades. Had Ms. Lupone's singing matched the rest of her performance, and lived up to the standards set in the rest of the show, I might say this was the best thing we've ever seen on Broadway. Catch it if you can.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Adendum to The Greatest Album

I forgot The Beach Boys! Oops. I admit I compiled my list in a hurry so forgetting some deserving artist was bound to happen. So add Brian Wilson and Co. to the list, I suppose with "Pet Sounds," though another Greatest Hits package would suffice. You wouldn't even want to contemplate a trip to a desert island without "Don't Worry Baby" to keep you company.

I forgot Sam Cooke too, though since I referenced him in the post previous to the Greatest Album post it's not so egregious. But he belongs on the list; no doubt about that. I'll address him in some future "greatest vocalists in rock and roll history" post because he had a voice for the ages. As for which Sam Cooke album should go on the list, "A Change Is Gonna Come" would fit in fine, but again, his most popular songs were his best songs so another Greatest Hits package would do. Perhaps his best music, though, was made during his pre-rock and roll days with The Soul Stirrers - better gospel music you will never hear. Their version of "Peace In The Valley" is simply sublime - often after listening to it the song will resonate in my head for days at a time. I'll leave his Soul Stirrers work off the list though because we're dealing with rock and roll here.

I didn't forget Jimi Hendrix, whose music I can do without. Certainly a giant talent, but also a supremely undisciplined one. I much prefer Duane Allman's or Eric Clapton's guitar work to Hendrix's.

Nor did I forget The Doors, whom I loathe. The only list they belong on is The Most Overrated Band in Rock and Roll History list - number one with a bullet.

Nor did I forget The Grateful Dead, whose music bores me silly. Or, to be more accurate, it used to bore me silly. It's been about thirty years since I've listened.

Anyone who reads my list probably will have objections, which is fine - these lists all become matters of personal taste at a certain point and the whole idea behind compiling one is to get the conversation rolling. If you prefer The Stones to The Beatles you'll probably be outraged that I didn't include more of The Stones; I acknowledged yesterday that I was light on them. Or you might say U2 belongs on the list, and you might be right. But rock and roll faded away and died for me about the time U2 was appearing on the scene so I am unfamiliar with most of their work. Probably I should have titled my list The Greatest Rock and Roll Albums Pre-1980. Taking a quick perusal of my list it appears the latest record on there is Elvis Costello's "This Year's Model", which was originally released in 1977. I was nineteen years old at the time. This was at the height of my rock and roll fanaticism - I lived and breathed rock and roll at the time, gathering a record collection of nearly one thousand albums, seeing on average about thirty shows a year from the time I was seventeen until I was in my mid-twenties, spending endless hours in every record shop in the vicinity, driving hours to attend record conventions in the hope I might discover some rare gem that had always eluded me. I still remember finding Dusty Springfield's "Dusty in Memphis" which had been out of print for years, at a convention somewhere in West Virginia - what a thrill!. Anyhow, that music was rock and roll to me. If I'm accused of not giving proper respect for post-1980 rock and roll, I plead guilty. Go make your own list.

I should also acknowledge that I focused on the all-timers, the artists and bands that were around for years and now hold honored places in the collective rock and roll memory we all share. However there are hundreds, if not thousands, of great songs by lesser artists, artists who were only around for a few years, some who had only one thing to say and were never heard from again. Some of that stuff belongs so I'll allow a couple of personal compilation records onto the list, stuffed with songs I adore - "Goin' Out of My Head" by Little Anthony and the Imperials, "Party Lights" by Claudine Clarke, "Maybe" by The Chantels, "Since I Don't Have You" by the Skyliners, "Get It On (Bang A Gong)" by T. Rex, "Invitation to the Blues" by Tom Waits, "Boulder to Birmingham" by Emmylou Harris - I could go on for days. These songs belong on my personal list of greatest rock and roll music so I'll put them on a compilation record of my own making. Like I said yesterday, in compiling my list I was thinking of the music you'd need if exiled to a desert island. And I would need these. Or, if you looked at it with the other great question, the Martian question. A Martian appears on earth and asks you "what is this thing rock and roll?" How would you explain it? Well, the records in yesterday's and today's posts are my explanation. That's rock and roll to me.

Obama's "startling economic illiteracy"

Michael J. Boskin, a professor of economics at Stanford, had an excellent column in this week's Wall Street Journal regarding some of Barack Obama's economic proposals. Here's his lead:

What if I told you that a prominent global political figure in recent months has proposed: abrogating key features of his government's contracts with energy companies; unilaterally renegotiating his country's international economic treaties; dramatically raising marginal tax rates on the "rich" to levels not seen in his country in three decades (which would make them among the highest in the world); and changing his country's social insurance system into explicit welfare by severing the link between taxes and benefits?

The first name that came to mind would probably not be Barack Obama, possibly our nation's next president. Yet despite his obvious general intelligence, and uplifting and motivational eloquence, Sen. Obama reveals this startling economic illiteracy in his policy proposals and economic pronouncements. From the property rights and rule of (contract) law foundations of a successful market economy to the specifics of tax, spending, energy, regulatory and trade policy, if the proposals espoused by candidate Obama ever became law, the American economy would suffer a serious setback.

The italics are mine. Read the good professor's whole column but keep in mind the italicized section. These are the "changes" Obama keeps talking about.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Greatest Rock and Roll Album of All Time

Yahoo Music this week published a list of what they consider the top twenty albums of all time. The list is based on a formula that includes sales, plus critical acclaim, plus"staying power," plus Grammy awards (!!). Go read the whole thing to get the list and the reasoning behind the selections.

Back now? What'd ya think? Yeah, me too.

What garbage! Four Led Zeppelin records in the top twenty? Give me a break. No Elvis. No Stones. No Dylan. No Van Morrison. No Rod Stewart. No Clapton. The wrong Beatles. The wrong Bruce.

As they say in the IT field, garbage in, garbage out. The writer says he wants to approach the task as a science but his science is bad. The formula is complete nonsense. It uses sales as its initial criteria, which raises multiple problems. Besides the fact that sales often have nothing to do with a record's worth or importance, it also means different things in different eras. The record buying public in 1964 when The Beatles took America by storm was minuscule compared to the record buying public of ten, or twenty, or thirty years later. We were coming out of the age of radio; buying records was not a natural everyday part of people's lives. And we weren't as prosperous; their wasn't as much money to spend on luxuries, which record buying was certainly considered at the time. So, if you're going to use sales then those sales must be weighted by era or by year to take these facts into consideration. And if you do that the Yahoo list immediately becomes bogus. Give weight to the sales category and The Beatles probably take ten of the twenty spots. Without it, you get this list, heavily biased against the early days of rock and roll, i.e. the best days.

Next, they use a formula for "staying power" and while I agree that a record must last to be considered great I'm not sure this formula works either. They base staying power on the price one would pay in the secondary market for a record today but again, this would need to be tweaked based on supply and demand; not every record out there in available in the same supply. But this is a quibble - no big deal.

They then consider critical response to the record and here we have another problem - most critics are idiots. There have been many great rock and roll critics but the vast majority will be taken in by such leaden, pretentious tripe as Led Zeppelin, or barbershop rock like The Eagles, or worse. So it depends on who the critics are. If they're polling the guy from People magazine and your local daily, well, they're not likely to be fonts of critical wisdom.

Finally, they use total number of Grammy awards the record received. Grammy awards!! Who actually takes the Grammy awards seriously? To be fair, the Yahoo writer recognizes this and weights the Grammy criteria of such little importance to his total formula that it probably could have been thrown out all together, as it should.

That's the entire formula but it gets worse. They rule out best-of or greatest hits collections and here you have another bias against the early days of rock. Rock and roll in the 1950s and even up until the mid-sixties was a singles medium. 45s were what you bought, not LPs. Yes, albums were produced but there was little or no consideration given to recording an album as an entire cohesive entity, as a concept, as something that held together and made sense as a whole. That kind of thinking didn't evolve until the mid-60s and later. Albums released before this, for the most part, were simply collections of singles - another way for the record companies to make money once the 45s record sales had begun to wane. And they were expendable - no one gave a second thought to crafting an album as something made to last. So, over the years, the original albums that much of the great rock and roll initially appeared on faded away and were forgotten. But the singles remained. They were remembered and loved. And there was only one way for later generations to enjoy them: best-of or greatest hits collections. Ruling these formats out rules out Chuck Berry; Buddy Holly: Little Richard; Jerry Lee Lewis; The Drifters: The Coasters; The Five Satins and the rest of the great doowop music; Phil Spector's music; the music from The Brill Building; the girl groups. All of it gone. Combined with my previous point about not giving weight to sales, which leaves out much of the music from the 1960s, and the bulk of rock and roll history has been erased.

What you end up with is a list such as Yahoo's, with its Guns and Roses, its Van Halen, its Metallica, its Pink Floyd. If this is rock and roll then give me Benny Goodman. So, I say, fie on your formula. Take a stand, man.

You want the greatest records of all-time? Well, here they are. Of course, I have my own rules. To begin with I've actually listed over thirty records because you simply can't stop at twenty - you'd leave too much good stuff out. Also, because my list is weighted heavily towards the early days of rock and roll, there are lots of best-of collections. What I'm looking for here is the best rock and roll has to offer and that makes best-of collections vital, for reasons already stated. So if you're being exiled to a desert island, these are the records you need to have with you, loaded to an IPod with a battery that never runs out. The first twenty-eight records on the list can be ranked in any order you'd like. Saying that one of them is better than the other is impossible - it all depends on the day, your mood, etc. The final four records are a list of the contenders for THE GREATEST RECORD OF ALL TIME. In the end I'll make my choice. You may disagree with my final selection and that's okay but you must choose from among my final four. I shall allow no exceptions. So enjoy, be delighted, and be outraged.

1. The Rolling Stones - Let It Bleed
2. Phil Spector's Greatest Hits
3. Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run
4. The Beatles - Rubber Soul
5. Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde
6. Fleetwood Mac - Rumours/Fleetwood Mac
7. Rod Stewart - Every Picture Tells a Story
8. Aretha Franklin - I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You
9. Carole King - Tapestry
10. Graham Parker and The Rumour - Heat Treatment
11. Al Green - Greatest Hits
12. Van Morrison - Moondance
13. Chuck Berry's Greatest Hits
14. Buddy Holly's Greatest Hits
15. Doo Wop's Greatest Hits
16. Dion and the Belmont's Greatest Hits/Cigar, Acapella, Candy
17. Elvis Costello - This Year's Model
18. Creedence Clearwater Revival - Green River
19. Marvin Gaye- What's Going On
20. The Birth of Soul: The Complete Atlantic R&B - Ray Charles
21. Sly and the Family Stone's Greatest Hits
22. Motown's Greatest Hits - Smokey, the Temps, the 4 Tops, Gladys Knight, Jackson 5
23. Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-1974
24. Elton John's Greatest Hits
25. Bob Dylan - Blood on the Tracks
26. Roy Orbison's Greatest Hits
27. Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs - Derek & The Dominoes
28. The Drifters - Greatest Hits

Okay, a few comments. The Beatles made the Yahoo list with The White Album and Abbey Road. Now these are both terrific records but they are not their best. But I want to address The Beatles' record one normally sees in these greatest album lists - "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". Let's get something straight. Sgt. Pepper is not only not their best album it is among their worst. Now, it's still a fine record - The Beatles made little music that could be considered bad. But the record derives its reputation from the era in which it was recorded, the psychedelic era, and because of the battle of the bands that was going on at the time; Dylan, The Stones, The Beach Boys, The Who, and a few other bands were at the time consciously trying to top one another with each release. One of the ways they were doing so was with new recording techniques, the type of which are all over Sgt. Pepper, most noticeably on "A Day In the Life". Whether these techniques work for you I don't know. They don't for me. The bottom line is that the songs on Sgt. Pepper can't measure up to the songs from the very early days nor songs from a record such as "Rubber Soul", which I've included in my list above and which is the first record The Beatles went into the studio to record as a record rather than a collection of singles. Even post-Sgt. Pepper records like The White Album or Abbey Road have better songs than Sgt. Pepper. It's a good record but its reputation is inflated.

I'm a little light on The Stones in my list. I could have included "Sticky Fingers" or "Exile on Main Street" very easily. I decided on "Let It Bleed" because it includes what may be the best song ever recorded in rock and roll history - "Gimme Shelter". There are a few other contenders but I'll cover the best songs of rock and roll in another post at another time. Let's continue with the best albums.

There is no way that Bruce's "Born in the U.S.A", included on the Yahoo list, is a better record than "Born to Run", which I include on my own. Even "Darkness On the Edge of Town" and "The River" and possibly "Tunnel of Love" is better than "U.S.A".

I include two of Fleetwood Mac's records as a single entry because they are of a piece, and also because it's my list and I'll do what I want. You got a problem with that, make your own list. "Rumours" pushes further than "Fleetwood Mac" but the sound and the style are the same. I'd go with "Rumours" if forced to make a choice because it contains what is possibly the greatest pop-rock single of the 1970's, "Go Your Own Way". These records defined an era for many of us and to this day I still cannot hear a song from either of them without thinking of camping out at Virginia Beach in the late 1970s, tanned, clad only in cutoff jeans, beer in hand, burger on the grill, the van door open with these songs blasting out of it at full volume; sweet, drunken, happy times.

I've got lots more to say about all of these records but this post is getting long. This will happen when I address the subject of rock and roll because it's the subject I know best, along with the game of baseball. I'll come back to the above records in due time in other posts but for now I'll stop my comments on the initial list here so I can address the subject of THE GREATEST RECORD OF ALL TIME. Ready? Here are the contenders:

1. Van Morrison - Astral Weeks
2. The Beatles - With The Beatles
3. Elvis Presley - The Sun Sessions
4. Bob Dylan - Highway 61 Revisited

I've address "Astral Weeks" previously in my Van Morrison post back in April. I hope I did it justice there. I will concede that, while this record means the world to me, it is not everyone's cup of tea. As such, while it certainly may be the best record ever made, it can't be considered as the greatest due to its limited appeal. Rock and roll is, after all, a popular medium and accessibility must figure in somewhere. Furthermore, if it had influence it was only within the music world itself; it had no influence on the society at large as the other three records did. So as much as I hate to do it, I must drop "Astral Weeks" from my list.

So we're down to three. "Highway 61" is clearly Dylan at the height of his powers. The wit, the imagination, the force of his personality, the quality of the songs, combine here to create something brand new, something no one had ever heard before, something no one else could do. Plus it has "Like a Rolling Stone", his finest song, one of such brilliance that it still shines brightly to this day. I know every drum beat, bass line, organ riff, and vocal nuance in this song - I've listened to it many thousands of times and I will never tire of listening to it. "Highway 61" was hugely influential within the music world at the time and much of what came later would never have been made without it. Still, while it changed the music world, it didn't change the world at large, at least not as much as the final two records and not as directly. It's social implications simply don't match up to the final two contenders. So, again, this record which I adore, must be left behind.

So we're down to two: Elvis vs. The Beatles, which is appropriate for they are the two titans of rock. No one else comes close. They both changed the world of music and the world at large. Had they not existed things would be different than they are now, and not just musically. How it would be different I can't say - I'll leave that to the social scientists to speculate on - but that they both took the lead in what became significant social transformations is pretty undeniable. Whether the social disruptions caused by Elvis were more significant than those caused by The Beatles I won't get into. One could claim that The Beatles were just extending what Elvis started, but one could also claim it took The Beatles to complete the revolution; there was no going back after they were through. So I am agnostic on this point.

Which leaves the music. Which leaves me wondering why I've put myself in this position. To choose between these two records musically is foolish; one cannot say the one is better than the other. It depends. But like I told the Yahoo guy, take a stand. So here's my stand, based purely one which record I honestly can say I enjoy more than the other, at least most of the time.

This is THE GREATEST ROCK AND ROLL ALBUM OF ALL TIME.