Friday, November 20, 2009

Stefanie Spielman

People in Columbus, Ohio are crazy. They worship muscular young men between the ages of 18 and 22. If the young men keep their noses clean and do and say the right things, they are set for life. The muscular young men may or not end up playing in the NFL. But at some point the football career ends, and that's when the real community payback starts -- the business careers, the celebrity commercial endorsements for local establishments, the inspirational speaking engagements at high schools and churches. Once a Buckeye, always a Buckeye. You bleed scarlet and gray, you keep your name out there in front of the public, and the green can be rolling in for life.

But sometimes reality intrudes. Chris Spielman was an All-American linebacker at The Ohio State University. He was an All-Pro linebacker with the NFL's Detroit Lions. Now he's a sports commentator for a local all-sports station, and a football analyst for ESPN. He lives in Upper Arlington, a suburb just west of the Ohio State campus, where he is revered as a hero.

His wife Stefanie, and the mother of their four children, died yesterday of breast cancer at the age of 42. Stefanie was first diagnosed eleven years ago, and she kept beating the odds, and the cancer kept coming back. Five times it came back, and this time it got her. During those eleven years, she spoke all over the world, sharing her hopes and her fears, openly and candidly, and she raised almost 7 million dollars for research to combat the same fucking disease that is now threatening my sister. So I feel a bit of kinship with her. And with Chris. And maybe, in some small way, with the whole city of Columbus that is grieving today.

I don't know Chris Spielman. I've never met him, although, like many people in Columbus, I feel like I know him because he's omnipresent in the community, and he's not shy about expressing either his love for Ohio State or for his wife and family. When Stefanie was first diagnosed, Chris quit playing football to be by his wife's side. Stefanie went through chemotherapy treatments and lost her hair. Chris shaved his head. He has been with her every step of the way. I'm sure, like everyone else, he has bad days, irritating personality quirks that get on peoples' nerves. But the only Chris Spielman I've ever seen is someone I deeply admire, and not because of anything he ever did on a football field.

Columbus is crazy about football. And the irony is not lost on me that Stefanie died during Michigan week, and that the news of her death is filling Columbus papers the day before the big game with the hated Michigan Wolverines. Maybe some days you bleed scarlet and grey, and other days you just bleed red. Maybe some days you can't shake that blue feeling, even if blue is a big part of Michigan's identity. Maybe this is the day that a few people in Columbus wake up to realize that some things really are bigger than football.

I don't know. I can't sort all that out. I do know that I'm praying for Chris Spielman and his kids. I can't imagine what they're going through. Tomorrow I'll probably scream and yell and bleed scarlet and grey, and do my part to cheer the Buckeyes on to victory. Today I'm thinking it's okay for me to feel blue for some people I never knew, but whose lives mean something to me anyway. Let today be Stefanie's day.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Manly Pursuits

In a discussion about great books for boys and young men, someone recently recently referred me to a website called The Art of Manliness. It includes articles on How to Use a Handsaw, How to Exit a Room Like a Man (stride manfully? I'm just guessing here), Three Essential Campfires, The Best Guns for Self Defense, and An Introduction to the Art of Gambling. I have missed out on all these gender-defining moments, with the possible exception of walking. Hence the poor, snivelling shell of a man that some of you see fairly regularly.

I do know that I am surrounded by Men. They run power tools continually (the current favorite is the Leaf Blower, which, true to its name, blows leaves around; I prefer the more primitive rake, and I'm usually done in less than half the time. This is good, because leaves don't particularly excite me or generate feelings of enhanced virility). They build fires; big, roaring conflagrations in their back yards, as if they were trying to survive in the wilderness instead of gulping beer behind their tract homes. They may own guns and/or gamble. I don't want to find out. They occasionally corner me in conversation. "How 'bout dem Buckeyes?" they say, or "What's your handicap?"

I never know how to answer these questions. Weak chin? Propensity to exaggerate? There are several, actually. But that's not what they mean. I try to escape as gracefully as I can. "Oh aitch," I typically call out, and make hand signals. That usually gets them going, as they complete the "eye oh" cheer with their own hand signals. They can go on that way for a while, and I can usually return to reading, or learning how to bake, or whatever feminine wiles I'm pursuing at the time.

I don't think any of them read. They know that when the can turns blue, the beer is cold, and that's enough.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Rose Above the Sky

A new post on my Image Journal blog, right here.

Tristram Shandy

Lord have mercy.

Has anyone read this novel/satire/autobiography that never quite gets around to telling a life story? I'm halfway through, and I alternate between thinking it's some of the most brilliant prose I've ever read and wanting to throw the book across the room in utter frustration and disgust.

Here's the deal with Laurence Sterne's masterpiece: It presumes to tell the story of the titular hero, but wanders off at every turn because the narrator Tristram, who has a very interesting name (the subject of which can be compared with and contrasted to more normal Christian names), is loathe to complete a thought (thought being the essence of what makes us human, as opposed to dogs, who, although they bark, and barking can be loosely construed as a kind of thought, cannot be categorized (viz. Berkeley) as True Human Thought). Bark, however, is one of the constituent elements of the tree, with elms being particularly prevalent in the district of Yorkshire where our non-story is set, and setters being a particular type of dog, who cannot be properly said to think, as Tristram, our oddly-named hero, most certainly does. I'm sorry, where was I?

Sterne goes on like that, although in a considerably more erudite and roundabout fashion, for six hundred pages, tossing in the occasional quote in Greek, French, or Latin, cramming his non-linear prose full of classical allusions, inserting parenthetical asides and learned treatises on obstetric medicine, noses, and medieval warfare, and anything else that comes to mind. Our young hero is conceived (or is he?) on p. 1, but coitus interruptus postpones the happy event, as do Sterne's thoughts, and he doesn't return to the birth of our hero for another two hundred pages. In the meantime he wanders, throwing in dazzling wordplay, puns, and some of the funniest, lewdest humor imaginable. This from a mid-18th century clergyman.

I'm tempted to call it post-modern fiction, but of course that couldn't possibly apply to a stodgy English rector and his mid-18th-century literary filigree. Whatever it is, I'm determined to finish it. It's the most peculiar thing I've ever read.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Russian Circles -- Geneva

Chicago instrumental trio Russian Circles play music that is a rough triangulation of Sigur Ros, Mastodon, and Rush (but without Geddy Lee; yes, this is a good thing). Their latest album Geneva is their best yet, and finds the band seamlessly merging those disparate influences. The former metal wankery is dialed back here in favor of more textured music featuring cellos and ethereal guitar feedback. Still, this is a far more visceral and muscular band than Sigur Ros and many of the other post-rock acolytes, primarily because drummer Dave Turncrantz is a madman. I'm very impressed. Think of it as post-rock with balls, or pretty, soaring rock 'n roll, with the emphasis on rock. Bonus points, too, for avoiding the whole quiet-to-shriekingly-loud buildup that plagues most post-rock. There are pummeling songs here, but they drift by so effortlessly that one isn't aware of a formula.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Rock and Chauvinism

My thinking right now is that The Felice Brothers' Yonder Is The Clock is duking it out, bareknuckle style, with Joe Henry's Blood From Stars for my favorite album of 2009. The gospel comp Fire In My Bones is coming in a strong third, with the likes of Lucero, Dave Perkins, Aaron Strumpel, The Antlers, Darcy James Argue, The Clientele, and Leonard Cohen lurking in the shadows.

The common denominator? They're all guys. Well, Darcy James Argue has some women in his big jazz band, and a couple of the Bubbas have their token female backup singers, but still ...

It's not that I believe that none of the women have made good albums in 2009. They have. I'm particularly fond of the latest efforts from Imogen Heap, Florence and the Machine, Eleni Mandell, Gretel, Laura Gibson, Camera Obscura, Madeleine Peyroux, Trembling Bells, Marianne Faithfull, St. Vincent, and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It's just that I don't like any of them as well as I like the motley, testosterone-fueled group listed at the top. It's puzzling, possibly indicative of underlying psychological trauma.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Other Andy Whitman

Sometimes (okay, 2-3 times per day) I google my name. And it's a little startling when one encounters the following:

Boxing racketeers, loose-hipped blondes, chiselers - these were all part of Andy Whitman's life - and so were jim-crow hotels, cops, tenements, and hatred.

Not really, but I'd like to meet that guy. If you'd like to read more about him, you can do so here.

Revenge of the Mutant Spambots

Recently a spambot (I assume; God help any human being who writes this way) left a comment for me on another site stating:

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There are also two types of spambots: those which spam randomly, and those which appraise the chocolate of the feather boa near the taxable scholar. Steve-o!

Now, this is all fascinating stuff, but I'm not totally sure what Morgance from Montenegro is selling. And that's what's most puzzling. Usually, once one digs beneath the nonsense, one can discern some sort of motivation pertaining to the spending of hard-earned cash. Click on a link, embedded somewhere in the nonsense, for the solution to your employment woes, miraculous penile enlargement, etc. Or maybe that's just me. But here Morgance simply seems to be spewing random words. And I have noticed similar comments more and more frequently. Have the spambots run amok? Have they started generating their own comments without human interference or intervention? Are they threatening to take over the world, whereupon we will all grape the conflagration to the simpering platypus? It makes you wonder, doesn't it? What is happening?

Music and Romance

Back about, oh, 1981, I attended a Daniel Amos concert with Kate, later my wife, then a cute but unknown young woman. I was feeling the need to, uh, disciple her. Yeah, that was it. But I wasn't really sure who she was.

Midway through the concert Terry Taylor and the boys played "New Car," a song from their then new album Doppelganger. The chorus of the song goes:

I'm a King's Kid
I do deserve the best
I want ... a new car!

The kids in the row in front of us left en masse. They just picked up their Bibles (they were the kind of kids who brought Bibles to concerts) and bolted. I guess they were offended by the perceived mockery of the gospel. I looked over at Kate and noted that she was laughing. Ding, ding, ding! This was the correct response.

Over the next few months I figured out that Kate was kind, smart, beautiful, and wise. Well, one of the four was readily apparent. The other three took some time. But Daniel Amos really helped to seal the deal. That was 28 years ago. Terry Taylor, wherever you are, I owe you a car wash.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Favorite Albums of the '00s

Here's my current take. This could change, as early as tomorrow. I'll try to add some commentary in the days ahead.
It might be worth noting that "Favorites" does not translate to "Best." "Best" would imply some overarching knowledge of the music released in this decade, and I don't have that knowledge. It also would have to account for cultural impact, general popularity, musical innovation, and all those other factors that typically cause reviewers to agonize long into the night. I didn't agonize over this. I also didn't think about jazz, classical, or several other genres of music I like a great deal, but which seem out of place in a list like this. For better or worse, this is a pop/rock/indie list. It's what I focus on the most, although hardly exclusively.

Here's the methodology I've employed: I thought about the music I've played the most, and that has meant the most to me. Hence "favorites." Some of the albums are integrally bound up in personal events in my life, and therefore hold a special meaning that wouldn't apply to anybody else. I'm okay with that. Some of them were hurled out into the great void and barely caused a ripple, selling perhaps a few thousand copies. If you're looking for ripples, read about Britney and the still dead Michael Jackson. But this is the music, minus a few jazz combos and symphony orchestras, that has meant the most to me this decade:

1. Joe Henry -- Tiny Voices
2. Bob Dylan -- Love and Theft
3. The Hold Steady -- Boys and Girls in America
4. Arcade Fire -- Funeral
5. Sigur Ros -- ()
6. Sun Kil Moon -- Ghosts of the Great Highway
7. Beck -- Sea Change
8. Ezra Furman and the Harpoons -- Banging Down the Doors
9. Southeast Engine -- A Wheel Within a Wheel
10. Various Artists -- O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack
11. Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell -- Begonias
12. Eels -- Electro-Shock Blues
13. Sufjan Stevens -- Illinoise
14. Lupe Fiasco -- Food & Liquor
15. Jamey Johnson -- That Lonesome Song
16. Art Brut -- Bang Bang Rock 'n Roll
17. Frightened Rabbit -- The Midnight Organ Fight
18. Godspeed You! Black Emperor -- Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
19. Camera Obscura -- Let's Get Out of This Country
20. The Decemberists -- The Crane Wife

Honorable Mentions

Joe Henry -- Civilians
Joe Henry -- Blood from Stars
Son Lux -- At War With Walls and Mazes
Outkast -- Stankonia
Bettye Lavette -- I've Got My Own Hell to Raise
The Strokes -- Is This It?
Neko Case -- Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
The Thermals -- More Parts Per Million
Willard Grant Conspiracy -- Regard the End
Buddy Miller -- Universal United House of Prayer
Jolie Holland -- Springtime Can Kill You
Al Green -- Lay It Down
Nick Cave -- Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
Josh Garrels -- Jacaranda
The Clientele -- Strange Geometry
Patty Griffin -- 1000 Kisses
U2 -- All That You Can't Leave Behind
El-P -- Fantastic Damage
Kathleen Edwards -- Back To Me
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists -- Hearts of Oak
The New Pornographers -- Twin Cinema
Over the Rhine -- Ohio
The Black Keys -- Rubber Factory
Interpol -- Turn on the Bright Lights
The White Stripes -- White Blood Cells

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Only a Flesh Wound: Bob Dylan as Sadistic Boxer

Andrew Ferguson, music critic for The Weekly Standard, throws a haymaker at the fans of Bob Dylan:

If you needed more evidence, the release this month of Bob Dylan's Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart, should close the case. Dylan fans are like Baby Huey dolls, those inflatable figures with the big red nose and the rounded bottom, weighted so that when you punch them--punch hard, punch with all your might--they bounce right back, grinning the same frozen, unchangeable grin.

We can only make a guess how Bob Dylan truly feels about his fans. But it can be a good, strong guess. He's been punching those Baby Hueys for a long time, hard.

It's not too unusual for a performer to lack respect for his most worshipful admirers; he hears himself as they do not, knowing how far short of his hopes his performance invariably falls, despite their wild applause. Sometimes an artist will even hold his audience in contempt, though he's careful, for business reasons, to keep the contempt at least thinly concealed; Abstract Expressionist painters come to mind. But not since Don Rickles at the height of his powers--the second greatest artist of the past 50 years, some believe--has a performer taken delight in actively abusing the people who pay money to enjoy his act. And when Rickles did it, the people were supposed to laugh, and did. When Dylan does it, the fans pull their chins and think hard. Then they pop right back, Baby Huey-like, and start explaining.

Most Dylan fans I know -- even the hard-core supporters -- would admit that Dylan's career has been a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, that he's made some 5-star albums, some 1-star albums, and a bunch somewhere in between. He is the most maddeningly inconsistent genius in the musical world. And I use that word carefully, because he is a genius. Sure, there are people who think he can do no wrong. Some of them apparently reviewed that Christmas album. But Dylan has been defying expectations and doing whatever he wants to do forever, and long before the Self Portrait debacle of the early '70s that Ferguson sees as a defining moment. You think the people at his mid-'60s electric concerts were booing because they liked what was going on? In any case, he's been written off (yes, even by well-known music critics; a little more research would be helpful) so many times that I'm sure it doesn't faze him.

I know this. He can follow up a stinker of an album with a stone-cold masterpiece. And he's fully capable of chasing "It Must Be Santa Claus" with songs of great profundity and depth. He's done it again and again. I don't think that means we have to be automatons/Baby Hueys and uncritically laud whatever the man does, so in that sense I'm sympathetic with Mr. Ferguson. I do think it means we need to give him space and grace to fail. There have been several absolute nadirs in his career, and they've now spanned close to forty years: Self Portrait, Dylan and the Dead, Knocked Out Loaded, and now Christmas in the Heart. You know what? I wouldn't bet against him next time out.

He is, by the way, contrary to Ferguson's disavowal, the greatest songwriter of the 20th century, and that has nothing to do with a nostalgic yearning for the halcyon days of yore, as the author claims. I was five years old when he made his first album, and I don't particularly relish the memory of learning how to tie my shoes. The author mentions Virgil Thompson and Cole Porter. Nice songwriters. Maybe I missed the film footage of their roles in changing western civilization. I saw what Dylan did.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Problem With Lists

So, Paste has published their Top 50 Albums of the Decade list. And they got it so wrong. Where is Joe Henry? Bob Dylan? Nick Cave? Tom Waits? Andrew Bird? The Bad Plus? Neko Case? Buddy Miller? The New Pornographers? Bettye Lavette? Sun Kil Moon? Ezra Furman? Robert Glasper? Al Green? And the list goes on and on, probably well past 50.

I'm also scoffing at some of the "artists" who made it on to the list. Conor Oberst, the Singing Sheep, in the Top 10? Scandalous. Outrageous. Wrong. And baaaad. Evil, even.

But witness the power of music. I can just about guarantee that in the coming days Paste will be swamped with comments on this list, and that the outraged commenters will nominate, oh, probably five or six hundred albums that should have appeared on that Top 50 list. This is because music is powerful, there's a lot of it, much of it is good, and people respond quite viscerally to the albums/songs that have become intertwined with their lives.

It's totally baffling to me why Joe Henry doesn't have three albums in the Top 50 of the decade. I'm not kidding. He doesn't even merit a mention. And part of me really doesn't understand, because those Joe Henry albums are so wise, so beautiful, so far above, both musically and lyrically, some of the common pop pap that does show up, that I want to rend my nice, new business casual shirt and gnash my teeth and consign the lot of Paste critics who voted (minus myself; one has to have standards) to the outer darkness of Rolling Stone and/or Pitchfork. What the hell is wrong with these people?

The thing is, occasionally I remember that my exquisite tastes are not shared by everyone, and that some of those everyones actually appear to be astute, thinking human beings. Behold, I tell you a mystery: I do not run the universe. Damn. I hate that. I really do. So watch the comments roll in. Tally up the votes. Count how many albums actually get nominated for the Top 50. I'll chalk it up to the wonders of music, and that it remains a powerful force for beauty in the world, even as I shake my head in disbelief.

Paste's Top 50 Albums of the Decade

Paste has posted their Top 50 Albums of the Decade list. Guess who's #1?