Sunday, November 10, 2013

Magic And Loss

"Fly me through this storm
and wake up in the calm ..."

I had been listening to a lot of Lou Reed since he died earlier in the week. And perhaps this didn't help much Monday morning when my 16-month-old son's eyes rolled back in his head and his body went stiff while my wife shrieked pleas at him to snap out of it.

He did. He's fine. But I didn't know this as the EMTs scooped him up, strapped him to a stretcher and drove off with him to the hospital, sirens blaring. I didn't know this as I followed in my car with my hazard lights flashing and my fists smacking the steering wheel with every terrifying vision invading my head.

At that point, I could not embrace the apparent grace and beauty of Lou's death as described in Rolling Stone by his wife, Laurie Anderson. All I could think of was something along the lines of: My life is perpetually fucked. I will never recover from this. Please, please don't...

Of course, I wasn't praying. Not to any diety that I'm pretty sure doesn't exist in any form that takes requests from the audience. But I often talk to myself. And then I thought of Lou.

I've always had an affinity for Lou Reed. His music, sure. But also the man. Not that I'd ever met him or even knew an awful lot about him. Just some articles, some interviews. The legend of his prickliness. And one time at an off-Broadway show I saw him sitting in the audience with Steve Martin and Salman Rushdie. At least I like to think they were there together.

Growing up a white, Jewish suburban teenager like me, Reed represented the elevation of the transgressive to true art. Drugs and prostitution and S&M and all manner of sexuality. I imagined he wrote songs in tattoo ink on slabs of New York sidewalk. He always seemed indestructible while at the same time inspiring amazement that he lived this long. And even now that his heart has finally stopped beating, I'm pretty sure he'd get a chuckle from the headline of this Nazi blog post.

Here's a guy who never appeared to give a fuck about anything. But clearly he gave many fucks about many things. He cared greatly about music, particularly the boundaries of what a rock song can explore in terms of subject matter and noise. How many rock stars at the pinnacle of their success could deliver a giant middle-fingered salute as audacious as "Metal Machine Music?"

And he thought big, deep thoughts about big, deep topics. On Elvis Costello's short-lived Sundance Channel show, the artist and director Julian Schnabel came onstage during an interview with Lou to talk about the time Schnabel's father died and he called Lou over to sit as they played all of "Magic and Loss," Reed's song cycle about cancer and death. Which is what the album was intended for in its most extreme sense.

An obsession with death can deny life. But a healthy respect for the one thing we can assure ourselves is coming to us all ... that's clarifying. Liberating. And the horror and beauty of it is that we don't know when. A life of planning and caution can end with a sudden disease or a wrong step.

Or so I couldn't even rationalize as I was speeding to the hospital, which never seemed so goddamned far away. And then behind that goddamned woman in that minivan taking such a goddamned long time to work her way up four goddamned levels of the parking garage, carefully gliding up and then down each speed bump and actually signaling turns while I contemplated abandoning my car in the middle of the thing and running to the ER.

The boy's screams were the most joyous I'd ever heard. At least he was breathing. And after tests ruled out all the really horrible possible problems, we were left with no true cause other than an uncontrollable breath-holding episode that could have triggered a seizure. Hopefully it won't happen again. Though if it does, we will be prepared.

And so we continue to plan. For a life well-lived, whatever that means. This morning, my son and I danced to video of James Brown's 1964 T.A.M.I Show performance. Start with the basics, If figure. He's got time before introducing him to Lou Reed.

Monday, October 01, 2012

A Work In Progress

An imagined conversation with my 3-month old son, some undetermined number of years in the future:

Him: Why did you become a reporter?

Me: Long story

Him: So...

Me: You want to hear a long story?

Him: Yes

Me: Well, I'll summarize. Basically, I wanted to write for a living.

Him: Why?

Me: Because I'm good at it. And it's fun to have people read what you've written.

Him: But why be a reporter?

Me: I wasn't sure at first. But it turns out that I like getting to learn for a living. The different subjects I can write about are basically unlimited. And I get to go places I'd have no other reason to go and talk to people I'd have no other reason to talk to. And tell their stories.

Him: Do you make a lot of money?

Me: No

Him: Isn't that important?

Me: Not to me

Him: Why?

Me: Because money can't buy you happiness. We need money to live. But money does not equal success.

Him: That's not what Todd's father says.

Me: Todd's father is an idiot.

His mother (listening from the other room): Um, hello!

Me: Sorry. What does Todd's father say?

Him: He says you can tell who is successful by the car they drive.

Me: Uh-huh

Him: Well, is he right?

Me: No

Him: Why?

Me: Well, I say you can tell who is successful in part by how they judge success. Some people treat life as a game where the winner accumulates the most stuff.

Him: What does...ak-yoo-moo-mates mean?

Me: Accumulate. It means to gather. Some people measure success by the size of their wallet. Other people measure it by how much they give to other people.

Him: How do you you measure it?

Me: I try not to.

Him: Dad!

Me: I'd like to think a successful person has given more of himself than he takes from others.

Him: Do you give more of yourself than you take from others?

Me: Not really.

Him: Does this mean you're not successful?

Me: Possibly. I like to think I'm a work in progress.

Him: What does that mean?

Me: It means I can still get better.

Him: (inaudible)

Me: I also think you can measure success by raising good, smart, responsible children. And creating a family that revolves around love and an appreciation for the little things in life.

Him: What things?

Me: Like the quiet of a rainy weekend morning, telling a funny joke, playing sports, eating a great meal, singing a song, reading a good book, making a strong argument, hugging someone you love. And you know what else?

Him: What?

Me: Conversations like this.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sam's World

So I'm a daddy and stuff. Not much has changed for me. Sure, there's a lot more crying in the house. A lot less sleeping on demand. And a little more farting. But only a little, collectively speaking.
Mostly, I'm finding myself marveling at the act of creation. Here is this little guy who was not here before. Eight weeks ago, he was a lumpy knot of knees and elbows jutting out of my wife. Ten months before that, he did not exist. Not even as a clump of cells. What was he then? Perhaps nothing. Or maybe he was then what we will all become at the end.
But I'm not looking to wax on about existence. I've got more practical concerns. Making sure the kid eats and sleeps and shits and doesn't float around in his shit. He's got so much to learn. How to use his hands, for one. But then talking and walking and how to ride a bike and why listening to AM talk radio will rot his brain.
I've always wanted children. It seems an important part of living a worthwhile life. Nurturing another generation, re-living your failures, hoping to ease a path toward something better. But I can't help thinking about the world he will inherit. So much good. But so much not-so-good.

Without even wandering into the current spate of violent revolutions and genocides across the globe, I've compiled an incomplete list of a few of the things wrong with America today:
  • Income inequality
  • The complexity and basic unfairness of the tax code to meet needs
  • Rich people who bitch about taxes
  • Wall Street gamblers 
  • The primacy of short-term corporate shareholder value over long-term value creation and all other societal goals of business
  • Short-term thinking in government
  • The revolving employment door between regulators and the industries they regulate
  • Corruption and criminality in government and business
  • Debt: national and personal
  • Filibuster abuse/Congressional obstructionism/failure to even consider compromise in cynical quest for power at expense of the country's best interests
  • The Electoral College
  • Equal representation in the U.S. Senate
  • Voter suppression to advance political interests under smokescreen of battling non-existent in-person voter impersonation fraud
  • The NRA and specious arguments against reasonable gun control regulations
  • The Republican Party
  • The Democratic Party
  • But mostly the Republican Party
  • Obesity, heart disease, diabetes and their cultural and corporate influences
  • Campaign finance anarchy and opacity
  • Billionaires and corporations taking advantage of campaign finance anarchy and opacity in an attempt to swing elections almost unilaterally
  • Candidates unwilling to share standard information about themselves with the public before elections
  • The slow death of newspapers
  • Political hacks and demagogues disguised as journalists and pundits
  • The consumption of media as choices to suit pre-existing narratives and ideologies
  • The inability to agree on established, verifiable, indisputable facts
  • The rejection of science, often to advance cynical, selfish ends
  • The general ignorance, stupidity and laziness of the public
  • Intolerance of minorities, often excused through false victimhood of privileged classes
  • The absurd, ignorant belief that the only racism today is reverse racism
  • The Defense Of Marriage Act
  • Fear mongering
  • Race baiting
  • Inadequate investment in infrastructure and tomorrow's industries
  • Inadequate regulations and proper oversight of food, drugs, finance, over-fishing, pollution
  • Likely dangerous chemicals everywhere and in everything
  • Government inaction on global warming
  • Lack of universal health care
  • Exploding health care costs/ reliance on private insurance companies that consider paying for health care a liability
  • The War On Drugs
  • Drug abuse, including excessive reliance on prescription drugs
  • Excessive and often for-profit imprisonment
  • The death penalty
  • Religion in politics
  • Pedophilia and its protectors
  • Casino gambling and lotteries employed to balance state budgets
  • Excessive energy and resource use
  • Excessive defense spending
  • Unnecessary wars
  • Failure to hold American war criminals accountable for their crimes
  • Failure to hold bankers and traders accountable for their criminal responsibility in the financial meltdown
  • Blatant lies in political ads, speeches and interviews with no consequences
  • Over-structured childhoods
  • Suburban sprawl
  • Social isolation
  • Addiction to technology
  • Lack of mandatory vacation time, despite proven benefits for employees and employers
  • The emphasis and outcomes of primary and secondary education
  • The cost of primary, secondary and higher education
  • Union overreach
  • Union busting
  • Inadequate preparation to divert a possible extinction-level meteor or comet strike
  • Inadequate preparation for all other, more easily detectible and just as inevitable natural disasters, including earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and pandemics
  • The Greater Israel lobby/ Inability to offer any criticism of current Israeli leadership's policy without being called an anti-Semite
  • Puppy mills, dog fighting, most non-meat animal abuse
  • Micro-managed, computer-aided partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts to cement victories
  • Oil and corn subsidies
  • Arbitrary limits on civil lawsuit awards to protect guilty corporations
  • Four or five Supreme Court justices
So there's that.

In any case, my little boy will have his work cut out for himself if he's going to navigate this new country we've created for him. There's plenty to embrace, of course. I hear the birds in Central Park are still quite nice to look at. Even though they are rapidly declining in numbers.

And maybe the Jets will be good this year...

Monday, April 23, 2012

And He Shall Be A Levon

There's a sorrow in the wind
Blowing down the road I've been
I can hear it cry while shadows steal the sun

But I cannot look back now
I've come too far to turn around
And there's still a race ahead that I must run

I'm only halfway home, I've gotta journey on
To where I'll find, find the things I have lost
I've come a long long road but still I've got some miles to go
I've got a wide, a wide river to cross

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

I Quit

Today is 1995 all over again. It's Leon Hess hiring Rich Kotite. It's desperate. It's clueless.

It's Brett Favre, without the Hall of Fame pedigree. It's about sizzle and money.

It's certainly not about football. The Jets traded for a passer who cannot throw. They invited a distraction of mega-church proportions. A quarterback controversy tailor-made for our self-doubting #6. A huge mess in the messiest of locker rooms.

Tell me this isn't about selling PSLs and jerseys. How will Tony Sparano resurrect the dead and dying wildcat offense? How long before poor play pressures the team to bench Sanchez? How will the team win games with a quarterback completing under six passes a game?

Tebow is a winner. He's a born leader, tough as nails and he can run. He can look as awful as any quarterback to play the game for 55 minutes and something always seems to happen to eek out miracle wins. But while prayer and miracles are great for the soul and TV ratings, they are not recipes for long-term success in the NFL. The Broncos knew this. They couldn't wait for an excuse to send him packing. No team in the league but the Jets thought he was worth more than a 5th round pick. Even if they did, they knew enough to avoid him and the circus he causes.

The Jets share a stadium with a classy organization that seems to make all the right moves. They are once again the idiot step-brother begging for attention they don't deserve. The Giants won a Super Bowl, and the Jets signed a dick-pic texting stallion that broke down and should have been euthanized like an extra from HBO's "Luck." They won again and the Jets now sign the Second Coming of Rick Mirer.

Tebow Help Us if the Giants win another ring this year. The Jets will probably hire Gregg Williams.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Hard Times Comes And Hard Times Go

I'm no optimist.

The economy has shown signs of life. We've got a baby due in June. The sun is shining today.


Another election year (seems like this has been going on for at least three years already, no?) has showcased the extreme disconnect between half of the country with the other half. Dictators fall and rise, while death and uncertainty reign in the parts of the world that more and more seem to determine our fate. Europe teeters on default. Americans face the prospect of joblessness turning into its own permanent occupation. My dog died. I'm pretty sure Khloe Kardashian is still a thing.

In steps Bruce Springsteen with his Wrecking Ball.

An album named after a song
he seemingly threw together to celebrate a stadium's demolition to enrich billionaires. But it's more than that. It's a song about impermanence, hard times and the things we take for granted. It played even better live in the shows after Giants Stadium, a raucous full-band, trumpet-blaring party of a song that also somehow plays as a subdued requiem for glory and anything we were told is supposed to matter when growing up.

The new album follows this lead, building hefty, angry songs lightened by levity. And not the dopey kind of levity like "Queen of the Supermarket" from the last album. But the kind of joy of playing that tempers bitter lyrics with hope and grace.

It's interesting that he's finally released an original album directly inspired by the songs and styles he embraced with the Seeger Sessions material. American folk/immigrant/gospel/Civil War/Civil Rights music filled with shouts and yelps and yips and hollers. This is good waiting-on-the-Apocalypse music.

With all the references to bankers and money changers, it's just a matter of time before ADL whiner Abe Foxman calls the album anti-Semitic. (You heard it here first)

I also like the use of trumpet, perhaps unavoidable with the loss of Clarence Clemmons. But also appropriate as a plaintive, mournful accompaniment.

Also interesting he'd include "Land of Hope and Dreams," now 11 years old. But I suppose we're still hoping and dreaming.

The new version of that song doesn't top the live versions (what Springsteen studio effort does?) but it offers its own catharsis, punctuated by a Clemons sax blast from beyond the grave. It flows perfectly from "Rocky Ground," a wondrous gospel meditation -- as singular a song as Springsteen has ever recorded, probably alone with "World's Apart" from "The Rising" in its uniqueness, and superior in its execution.

He could put "Land of Hope and Dreams" on every album from now on as far as I'm concerned. It's obvious he no longer has a notebook full of instant classic songs to choose from so that 15 or more don't make the cut but could easily supplant some that did. (I'm looking at you, "I'm a Rocker.")

"Jack of All Trades" might be the best new song on the album (not counting "Land of Hope and Dreams "and "Wrecking Ball"). Something about its simple sentiment matching its simple piano figure, slyly undercut by the discordant electronic drone that signals something ominous behind the singer's assurances that everything will be all right, leading into the righteous howl of a Tom Morello guitar solo. Quite excellent. There's also some Spanish guitar flourishes that foreshadow the uplifting message and "Ring of Fire" mariachi riff of "We Are Alive," which echoes the heavenly choir coda from "The Last Carnival," eulogizing Dan Federici on the last album.

"Shackled And Drawn" romps and blisters, though it's hard for me to avoid thinking about the melody from They Might Be Giants' "Particle Man." I also hear echoes of Johnny Cash's "Don't Take Your Guns To Town" and the piling-on-language of Bob Dylan's "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) on "Death To My Hometown."

Of course, while I appreciate the sentiments behind the lyrics -- and though they are far superior to anything on Working On A Dream -- none of these songs approach something like "Johnny 99." But then it's not fair I guess to set the bar that high.

Perhaps I'm pining for something that will never happen, but I always find myself wishing he and Roy Bittan would get together and record one more great piano-based rock song in the style of "Thunder Road," "Jungleland," "Backstreets," "Incident on 57th Street," "Racing In the Street," "Point Blank" and "Independence Day." Something with a real piano lead instead of a simple arpeggio like "You're Missing" or "Jack of All Trades." He hasn't really done this since the 70s. Arguably, the synth/organ riffs of "Born in The USA," "Glory Days," "Dancing In the Dark," etc. filled that void. But nothing since then. The intro to "I'll Work For Your Love" on Magic teased at something like this. Free Roy!

Anyway, I like this very much. Even starting to appreciate "We Take Care of Our Own" a little more. Like a lesser version of "Radio Nowhere" mixed with "Working On A Dream" and "Long Walk Home."

Though "We Take Care of Our Own" comes off a little preachy for my taste. It's like he takes that great verse from "Long Walk Home" about the flag over the courthouse and makes it too literal. His best writing reveals themes and a point of view through stories and images ("Long Walk" starts with a man spurned by his lover and wandering a town he no longer recognizes). This one is a lot like the song "Working on A Dream," a pleasant sentiment complicated by the reality of the times told in a too straightforward manner.

And maybe this goes without saying, but it's certainly better than much of that album, probably his most disappointing effort overall. (Even Human Touch, Lucky Town and Devils and Dust had two or three songs I count among his best. Nothing on WOAD meant anything to me at the time or now, except "The Wrestler," which was supposedly a bonus track and doesn't really count -- and also references a one-legged dog, which is not something that really exists).

Mixed-Metaphor Watch: "The road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone." Why was this road wet? And why would this be an advantage? Is it a canal? Has there been a flood? If there's been a flood, wouldn't dryness be a good thing? I wonder what the one-legged dog would think of this.)

I find it funny when people complain that a millionaire like Springsteen has no right to sing songs about the downtrodden. As though there is some hypocrisy in a man of any income level (who gives plenty to charity) making art that exposes society's inequities. The characters on Wrecking Ball aren't asking for a handout. They aren't demanding the rich give up their riches. All they want is a fair shake and an honest day's work. And if the game is rigged, I say fuck yeah, bring on your wrecking ball.

This is 2012. Springsteen is no longer 27 years old. The world shows so much promise and so much treachery. We don't take care of our own. Or maybe we only take care of our own small group of like-minded, like-skinned, like-moneyed brethren. But we are alive. And we must live as though everything will be all right. Even if it doesn't always feel that way.

Monday, June 27, 2011

That's So Gay!

Nice job, corrupt and egomaniacal New York legislators. You've done something right for a change. Now it's time for California to get its act together. And the federal government, while we're at it.

Not long from now, we'll look back on this time with a sense of absurdity. Gay people couldn't marry? It's like how a judge in 1960 send a woman home for wearing pants to court. Or black people drinking from special water fountains and not being able to do just about anything.

Most of my thoughts on the matter can be found in this post and the comment below it. We are at a turning point. Those who oppose gay marriage will get left behind just like always in a country founded on freedom and equality.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Do I Have To Say His Name? Do I Have To Speak His Name?

And Last But Not Least...

I hope you had a chance to see it. I hope you weren't one of those people who thought it wasn't for you or who never had the money or couldn't find the time. Because it's gone now. And it's never coming back.

The Big Man has left a big hole.

It's a big hole in the hearts of all who knew and loved him. Not a small group, it appears. But I never met the man. Only imagined I had. And loved him all the same.

No, I don't have memories of inspiring his tremendous smile, shaking his giant hands, jamming in the studio or hanging out in his den watching whatever it is he watched on TV (For some reason, I imagine it was lots of "CSI: Miami").

Instead, what I've got are permanent marks where blasts of saxophone scorched my soul.

Which is an odd thing for a white Jewish boy growing up in the suburbs. Because it's not like the good kind of saxophone music gets taught at school or played much on the radio. John Philip Sousa marches, Kenny G, and that guy from the Tina Turner band that looked like Fabio didn't exactly inspire much more in me than some kind of a brain rash.

And I didn't discover the likes of Coltrane and Sonny Rollins until much later.

But it was clear from the first time I heard a Springsteen record that Clarence Clemons provided something urgent and necessary to The E Street Band. A brassy bellow that called back to the Stax and Motown sounds Springsteen carried into the 70s even if his audience remained largely monochromatic.

Clarence meant everything. This was an integrated band. This was a brotherhood. It was no thoughtless happenstance that led Bruce to pose with Clarence on the cover of "Born to Run," beaming with giddy pleasure. It was a statement of purpose. As ballsy and unabashedly sentimental as the music on the album that finally answered every dare he ever made for himself.

The onstage clowning, iconic poses and smooches between these two men told the story of the world (both hardscrabble and mythical) Springsteen set out to describe and remake. His concerts have always been about building a community as much as escaping to fantasy. They were Han Solo and Chewbacca. Scorsese and Deniro. Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

As I watched a 1978 concert tonight, Clarence twirled in his white suit with a nimbleness he hasn't displayed in many years. Each note, strong and sustained, carried the band higher and higher. He blasted away at the foot of Roy's piano, as Bruce stood on top with his guitar aloft and wailing to the gods.

No, the world will not see such joy again. We're the lucky ones who got to see it even once.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Gladly Left Behind

Quick question: When Saturday passes without The Rapture, does that mean we can legally commit all these nutbags to a mental health facility until the end of their days?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

To Which It Stands

Call me unpatriotic, but how many time must I say the Pledge of Allegiance?

I recited it every day in kindergarten through high school. Give or take a few dozen sick days and excused family vacation days, that's something like 2,300 times.

Since I've been a reporter, I've attended a hundred or more public meetings, almost all of which start with a board of education member or some politician leading those assembled in the pledge.

I appreciate the sentiment. I love my country. I really do.

But let's break this down for a second here. Shouldn't once be enough? I mean, it's a pledge. Shouldn't the flag take me at my word? I don't recall ever recanting my pledge or pledging some other flag (though I've always been partial to the Nepalese flag).

And maybe I wasn't exactly aware enough at the age of 5, blinding reciting some words because Mrs. McPhillips said so. But somewhere along the line, I understood the point of the exercise. Does everyone else?

What value is a pledge if it needs to be restated ever day or every few weeks? If I pledge to take out the garbage, my wife can rest easy knowing the garbage will be taken out. And that pledge doesn't even involve a bunch of frilly clauses and the invocation of God. You'd think the flag would have the same faith in me. After all, I put my hand over my heart and everything.

I'm just saying. Is all.

Stupid needy flag.

Friday, May 06, 2011

On Ice

Funny how a jingle from the 80s appears in my head from out of nowhere. Thanks to Youtube, it'll be in yours as well. Thanks, Riunite!

And don't think you can't have it on ice with fried chicken. 'Cuz you can! Goes so nice!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

May The Fourth Be With You

Apparently today is Star Wars Day. Go figure.

Here's something to help celebrate the occasion.

Monday, May 02, 2011

The 10-Year War

It never occurred to me I might cry tears of joy at news someone was killed. I guess there's a first time for everything.

And yet, there's more here. There's relief tinged with the knowledge this likely changes little. There's admiration and deep gratitude for our military and intelligence personnel. There's sadness and anger and fear and confusion and everything else that bubbles up whenever I let myself return to 9/11.

This is a solemn and important moment. Thanks to Twitter, it's also been more than a little hilarious. Funny people bonding over their joy and remembered pain caused by one dead terrorist leader. The first people to assemble outside the White House gates sang "We Are the Champions" before diving into a rowdy rendition of the national anthem. This is a country worth fighting for.