Friday, September 20, 2019

Music Video Of the Week - September 20, 2019

"Badlands"by Bruce Springsteen  (Go to the link in the upper-right-hand corner.) 

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Oiled Again!

I thought it was finally coming to pass.  
This past weekend, there was a Houthi terrorist attack on two major Saudi Arabian oil refineries (one attack shown above), which may or may not have been spearheaded by Iran, which supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen.  (There were no casualties.)  After this, I assumed that people would realize that the age of cheap oil is over and that we'd get a huge spike in oil and gasoline prices that would make us more cognizant of carbon emissions, get us to drive smaller cars and use more mass transit, and - hopefully - get SUVs off the goddamned road.  Especially with the attack on the refinery showing what an unstable place the Middle East is.   And Trump, who started rattling his saber against Iran again, was likely to get sucked into a recession caused by an oil shortage not unlike those of the 1970s.
Never mind.  The Saudis said they could get their refinery - responsible for five percent of the world's oil production - up in running in a few weeks, and oil prices plummeted.  Gasoline is still cheap - too cheap.  And while Americans happily buy gas-guzzling monster wagons. Trump - who is issuing more sanctions on Iran, even though there's not much left to sanction - is also moving to kill the tougher fuel economy standards observed in California.
Which means that, until further notice, I won't be able to see anything up ahead on the road because of behemoths like this!         
This is a GMC Yukon.  As far as I'm concerned, Yukon have it!
Once again I thought we were finally getting away from these awful vehicles, and the Saudis screw me in the ear. Thanks a lot , guys. >:-(

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Israel Votes Again

I lamented the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel back in April, but his failure to form a new government means that he and his Likud party have to do a do-over in another election against Benny Gantz's Blue and White party.  The election is today.
Netanyahu's policies are more popular than he is, and he's been pushing another set of popular policy proposals - like annexing a third of the West Bank and taking more land away from a Palestinian state.  But he's also facing corruption charges that may end up exhausting Israeli voters - call it "Bibi fatigue" - and may finally lead to his long-overdue retirement . . . after doing more to undermine peace in the Middle East than any other Israeli leader I can imagine.
On the other hand, with the Blue and White party a new phenomenon, the Labor party a non-entity, and the right-wing minor parties in a good position to form a coalition with Likud, he'll probably squeak through.  Again.
And that's all I have to say about that.      

Monday, September 16, 2019

Why We Can't Have Nice Things (From Volkswagen)

Volkswagen's new ID.3 electric hatchback (below), which is about the same size as the Golf, is compact, technologically advanced, incredibly futuristic, and ergonomically friendly for driver and passenger alike.  It's a Tesla for the masses.
And we in North America aren't getting it. 
If you live in North America and you want an electric VW, it's either going to be a Microbus-styled minivan (fine) or a crossover (not fine, given that crossovers always look like station wagons designed by a committee).  Volkswagen of America's current president, Scott Keogh, says he regrets his decision not to offer it in the New World on emotional grounds - he says his company car is an e-Golf - but he's satisfied with his decision on business grounds.  He says the compact hatchback class is simply too insignificant in North America to offer a $33,000 electric car in the segment for sale at a profit or even as a loss leader.
The same, of course, goes for the Polo, a car Volkswagen has manufactured since 1975 and has never been sold in the United States or Canada.  VW came close to selling it in North America after the 2008 financial crisis and a spike in gas prices.  My fourth-generation Golf was beginning to wear out.  A new fifth-generation Polo was coming.  I was ready to buy it!  I wanted it!  But it didn't come.  Gas prices went down, and so did the demand for small cars, even though the small-car market hadn't evaporated completely.  After all, Ford had the Fiesta and General Motors had the Chevrolet Sonic.
When the sixth generation of the Polo (above) came out in late 2017, Juergen Stackmann, the guy in charge of global sales at Volkswagen, explained why the U.S. wouldn't get it. "It doesn't make too much sense for us to bring a car like this, which has the substance of a class higher, into a segment that is so price driven in America," he said, explaining that the Fiesta, the Sonic and other subcompacts of the Polo's ilk cost less, and that the Polo was simply to well-appointed and too expensive to compete against them.  Since then, the Fiesta - a nice little car but one that was notoriously unreliable - and the Sonic have been discontinued, as the U.S. market becomes more dominated daily by SUVs and light trucks.
Volkswagen itself is concentrating more on SUVs in the U.S. (and Canada) because, we are told, Americans like SUVs.  I don't.  I hate them with a cold passion.  And long-tome Volkswagen customers don't like them very much either.  The people buying Atlases and Tiguans - now comprising 54 percent of Volkswagen's American customers! - aren't VW enthusiasts.  They're flexible buyers with no brand loyalty who could just as easily have bought a Ford Explorer or a Honda Pilot.  Volkswagen is a brand for people who love to drive; SUV customers aren't engaged in driving any more than they have to be. For them, driving is just tuning a steering wheel and knowing when to stop for a light.  They buy SUVs because they want a family room on wheels. Complete with a TV screen for the kiddies. >:-(
Selling SUVs to suburban rubes was fine so long as Volkswagen of America pleased its loyal customers with small, nimble, economical driver's cars - the sort of cars that made Volkswagen so beloved in America in the first place - but Volkswagen of America seems to have walked away from all that.  The ID.3 may have more technology than I want, but its small size and its thoughtful layout would be a winner for Americans and Canadians who want that sort of vehicle.  The current Polo has the room and nimbleness of my mother's Honda Fit and the performance of my Golf - with a variety of engines to choose from, many of which have three cylinders.   A lot of us would be willing to pay more for a car like the ID.3 or the Polo because we find them that desirable.  But if Scott Keogh or anyone else doesn't think VW can sell enough of these cars in America and still offset its losses with all of those bug ugly wagons it's pushing, how can we convince anyone at the company to satisfy our preferences?
And then there's the base Mark 8 Golf (above).  You know the story; I won't repeat it.  Not being able to buy a Volkswagen you want, like a Polo or an ID.3 is bad enough.  But the idea of dropping from the U.S. lineup a car that has been available in the States for 45 years, the only car I ever bought new, once in 2000 and again in 2012 - that's too much.  I'm not asking for the Polo or the ID.3 (not anymore, or at least not for now), but I continue to lobby Volkswagen of America to keep the base Golf in the U.S. lineup (and you know already about Canada), and I've even written to Wolfsburg, urging the parent company to ensure that Volkswagen of America continues to make the base Golf available in the U.S.
Maybe we can't have the quirkier, smaller and more interesting Volkswagens not sold on this side of the pond, but we should still have the base Golf, because there are still those of us VW loyalists who prefer hatchbacks and can't afford either a Golf GTI or a Golf R.  We have to stir things up and make some damn noise.  Contact Volkswagen of America at 1-800-822-8987, 8 A.M. to 9 P.M. Eastern Time, from Monday to Friday, and let them know that we VW fans won't stand for the base Golf being dropped when the eighth generation arrives. 

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Because It's Good

That's why the Beatles recorded a song John Lennon wrote to a backward chord sequence for Abbey Road.
"Because" came out in a flash of inspiration and was written in a flash.  John was at home with Yoko while she was playing the piano.  And not show tunes or avant-garde pieces - classical music, specifically "Moonlight Sonata" by Ludwig van Beethoven (below).  Yoko, you understand, is a more talented musician than you think; she's actually a classically trained pianist.  (She just can't sing.)
John thought that the melody intriguing, and he thought he'd like to write a song with a melody like "Moonlight Sonata," but rather than just write lyric to a familiar classical tune, he asked Yoko to play the chords in reverse order to see how it sounded.  The moody melody that emerged led John to write simple, philosophical lyrics that, like "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", didn't waste time with verbosity.  The message of "Because" was clear - the world is amazing, love is old and new, and love is all.  (And love is you.)
The Web site Culture Sonar has also noted how the words of "Because" are typical Lennon wordplay.  The world turns, so John sings about how it turns him on, and the wind blows, so he sings about how it blows his mind.  The sky is blue, and being blue, John sings, makes him cry.  Even with his simplest lyrics, John knew how to come up with something clever and witty.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney recorded a basic rhythm track with John on guitar and Paul on bass, with George Martin playing the distinctive electric harpsichord that characterizes the song.  But George Harrison contributed the instrument that makes "Because" majestic - his Moog synthesizer, which you already know about.  He created some wonderfully monumental riffs in the bridge, and he accents the melody in the coda with a light-touch solo like a pastry chef delicately frosts a cake.  Ringo Starr also played on "Because," but his contribution was not recorded.  He tapped on a drum to keep the others in rhythm and on time.  "Ringo was our drum machine," Martin later said.
The fullness of "Because" comes through on the vocals, John, Paul and George harmonizing like in the old days and sounding much like how Crosby, Stills and Nash were sounding with their own three-part harmonies on their 1969 debut album.  But the three Beatles had their vocals triple-tracked, hence the harmonies on "Because" recorded in Abbey Road Studios' cavernous Studio One - were nine-part harmonies.  Hey, nine was John's lucky number! :-) 
Expecting "I Me Mine," which Paul, George and Ringo recorded in January 1970 to complete Let It Be, Because was the last song the Beatles began in Abbey Road Studios.  By the time they were done with it on August 5, 1969, all that was left to do was finish for Abbey Road other songs already begun.  It was a fine way to bring the album toward its conclusion, with such a stately and solid performance that was the closest to classical rock that anyone ever came. Even the art rock bands of the 1970s couldn't surpass it.
Beethoven would have been proud. :-)        

Friday, September 13, 2019

Updated Weather Report

As you have already gathered, Hurricane Dorian had no impact on New Jersey, but it did have an impact on Nova Scotia.  But nowhere did it have a greater impact than in the Bahamas, where it's created a humanitarian tragedy that is the worst crisis in the country's 46 years of independence.  And yet Donald Trump is all obsessed about trying to explain why he thought Dorian would hit Alabama - and used a Sharpie on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map to include the state in the cone of uncertainty.  But what was certain about Dorian is that Alabama wouldn't be affected. 
So while Trump's government denies asylum seekers staying in the Bahamas the opportunity to come here after Dorian made much of the Bahamas uninhabitable, Trump's Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, threatened to fire NOAA staffers in Alabama for contradicting a Trump statement that Trump can't admit was a mistake.
Well, he'd better stop obsessing over the last storm and start obsessing over the next one - a tropical depression that's expected to become Tropical Storm Humberto.  Not only will it go over the Bahamas, it will move over Florida and possible part of Georgia.
Alabama will be fine.

Music Video Of the Week - September 13, 2019

"Valerie" by Steve Winwood (Go to the link in the upper-right-hand corner.)

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Golf White North

The good news is that buyers in North America will be able to purchase the base version of the eighth-generation Golf (below).  The bad news that these buyers are Canadian customers.  
Volkswagen Canada was adamant about keeping the base Golf in its lineup when it heard that Volkswagen of America - to which the Canadian division is usually joined to the hip - was thinking of selling only the more expensive GTI and R variants in North America, and Volkswagen AG responded favorably.  As much as I hope that the confirmation of the base Mark 8 Golf for north of the border means we could still get it on this side of the 49th parallel, we might still miss out on the car.  This wouldn't actually be the first time Canada has gotten cars we Americans haven't.  They got a Mercedes hatchback we never got, and Hyundai started selling cars in Canada four years before the brand debuted in the United States; its debut Canadian model was never sold here.  Heck, I remember seeing four-door Honda Civic hatchbacks on a trip to Canada when I was fifteen, when the U.S. got only two-door Civic hatchbacks.
And this wouldn't be the first time that the Canadians get a Volkswagen model that we Americans don't.  They got the Type 3 Notchback in the sixties; we only got the Fastback and Squareback.
It's also noteworthy that nearly three out of every four Golfs sold in Canada is a base model instead of a sport model; the opposite is true here, and Golfs account for only one out of ten Volkswagens sold in the U.S. while they account for one out of four sold in Canada.  It seems like Canada is joining the rest of the world on the base Golf, while the U.S. can't be bothered.  So think of the base Golf as the Paris Agreement of automobiles.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen is expanding its line of SUVs in America, and they now account for 54 percent of all vehicles VW sells here.  I'm pissed off.  I wonder how many other VW purists are pouring out their dinner over this.
There's still hope that the base eighth-generation Golf will still be available in the U.S. for the die-hard VW fans like myself who want one, but it's a slim chance at best.  I doubt that there's anyone at Volkswagen of America who's willing to fight for loyal base-Golf customers as there is in Volkswagen Canada.  I guess I'll have to hold on to my Mark 6 Golf for as long as I can if the base Mark 8 Golf doesn't get here.  And when my car wears out, expect to see me at a VW dealer in the Detroit area.
Specifically, in Windsor, Ontario.        
Buy a car in Canada and bring it back to the States?  It can be done.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Talibonkers

Donald Trump made a smart decision this past week, but of course any smart decision Trump makes is more by accident than by design, and the accident that prompts it is usually a disaster of his own making.
Trump had allowed American diplomats to negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan in an attempt to get U.S. troops out of the country that has ended many an empire (we're next).  The Afghan government objected to Trump's gambit, fearing that it would be shortchanged.  But after the Taliban bombed an American installation, Trump said he was canceling not only talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan but also talks with Taliban leaders at Camp David that were to be secret . . . until Trump let the secret out.
Let me let you in on a secret: Trump gets no points for his smart decision because he should never have made the dumb decision of inviting the Taliban to Camp David in the first place.  Trump probably had delusions of grandeur by achieving the same sort of foreign-policy coup that Bill Clinton (Trump is obsessed with all things Clinton) had when he got PLO leader Yasser Arafat to come to America to negotiate peace with Israeli Prime Minister Yihtzak Rabin.  But the idea of having the guys who gave shelter to Osama bin Laden to plan his attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon - and for all this to come out around 9/11! - is so boneheaded that I needn't say any more.  Except to say that Arafat,m once deemed a terrorist, never perpetrated an attack on Americans - indeed, 9/11 sickened him.  On September 11, 2001, when I was stranded in a railway station in Wilmington, Delaware, someone said to me that Arafat was a good man who couldn't control the radical elements under his leadership.  Somehow, I couldn't imagine anyone saying that about the Taliban chieftains.
The only good thing that came out of this is that John Bolton has been fired as national security adviser.  Now there won't be a war with Iran.  Don't expect Trump to answer for his blundering; he'll find another shiny object to distract us. 

Monday, September 9, 2019

Why I Think A Recession Is Coming

The Dow is up again, there might be another rate cut from the Federal Reserve, and Donald Trump (below) assures us that there won't be a recession.
But I think that a recession, which is the only thing that could solidly sink Trump's re-election chances, is still coming.  I could write a six-thousand word explanation, but as it's been said that one picture is worth a thousand words, I am instead showing you six pictures, all of which I took myself this year.
This is a 2007 Volkswagen Jetta.
Here's another Volkswagen, a 2002 Passat.
And here's a 2003 Dodge Neon.
Here's a nice, though slightly banged up, 1999 Saturn SL2.
 And how about this sleek 1997 Lincoln Mark VIII?
And - wait for it! - a 1995 Ford Taurus - first-generation model! 
In case you haven't figured it out yet, here's what these six cars have in common.  All of them over over a decade old, a couple of them even more than two decades old.  One of them is even from a brand that no longer exists.
I've been seeing cars ten or more years old on the road almost daily, and many of them have license plates that were issued only recently.  Part of the reason for this may be that many people don't like any of the new sport utility vehicles and crossovers prefer to keep their old coupes, sedans and hatchbacks, but I suspect that a bigger reason may be that new cars are simply too damn expensive for the average buyer.  Many of the new jobs created in Trump's economy are the same old dead-end jobs that barely helps a beleaguered American middle class make ends meet.  Meanwhile,  automotive journalists have suggested a theory - which I happen to agree with - that the reason cars have become too expensive is because of all the high-tech gadgetry in them that most people don't want or need.  Even entry-level brands such as Chevrolet and Toyota are filling their cars with so many unnecessary high-tech features, you might as well buy a Cadillac or a Lexus.
This all means that people are either holding on to their cars longer or buying used cars that other people held on to for long.  I have a friend who owned a 2006 Volvo that he traded in for another car only recently.  He got a 2016 Volvo in its place, and as an owner of a late-model used car, he's one of the lucky ones!    
The health of the American auto market - not just domestic automakers but of all of them - has long been a barometer for the U.S. economy.  Car sales - sales of all cars, sedans and SUVs alike - are slowing, and the Web site Insider Car News reports that there are still plenty of 2018 models available as the 2019 model year comes to a close.  The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited is the 2018 model with the largest surplus of unsold units, followed by the base Wrangler.  Most of the other 2018 models available in surplus are SUVs as well, despite the fact SUVs account for more than half of new vehicles actually sold.  This news comes on the heels of factory closures and layoffs from General Motors back in late 2018.  You call this a robust economy?
I have been looking at the possibility of getting a new Golf before Volkswagen of America decides not to offer the standard Golf model here anymore, as my own 2012 Golf has stalled repeatedly over the past few months.  But I've also been looking at used Golfs for purchase, because I'm no better off financially than most people.   After yet another repair, I think I may have finally had my stalling problem licked, so I may yet be able to keep my Golf like I've wanted to.  And I have a feeling others will continue to buy or hold onto cars older than mine.  If you hang around a polling place on Election Day 2020, and you see a lot of cars from the 1990s and 2000s - some of which may be from Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and other since-shuttered brands - pull into the parking lot, count on Trump to lose his bid for a second term.  Even if some of those vehicles are Suburbans and Explorers of similar vintage.    

Sunday, September 8, 2019

You Got Change For a 500?

I sort of figured this was going to happen.  Fiat is discontinuing its small, cute 500 retro car in North America after nearly a decade.
You might expect that I, as a fan of extremely small cars, am saddened by this news.  Actually, not at all.  Because while it's easy to assume that the discontinuation of the 500 in America is the result of cheap gasoline and a preference for large wagons, that, while partially correct, is hardly the whole story.  The truth of the matter is that the 500, for all its charm, was an unreliable car that consistently rated at the bottom of consumer-satisfaction surveys.  It only reminded Americans old enough to remember when the Fiat brand, which returned to the U.S. in 2011 after a 27-year hiatus, was last available here what lousy pieces of crap Fiats really are.  Also, a new generation of consumers now know how bad they are.
And get this - the 500 was actually Fiat's bestseller in this country!
When Italy's Fiat and the U.S. firm Chrysler merged in 2009, I had such high hopes for the new company.  The Chrysler Group would get new, sophisticated cars much nicer that what was it its Chrysler and Dodge lineups.  Fiat would return to America and get the chance to show how it had learned from its mistakes and was able to produce a quality car.  Also, Fiat's premium Alfa Romeo brand was coming back.  The return of Alfa Romeo turned out to be the only positive thing that resulted from Fiat and Chrysler joining forces.  Fiat-based Dodge and Chrysler models, like the Dodge Dart, flopped in the ten-day sales reports.  The company focused more on Jeeps and the newly created Ram light-truck brand as gas prices dropped and gas-guzzler sales rose.  And Fiat itself, rather than bringing to the States a full lineup of affordable family cars like Volkswagen or Toyota, only gave us the 500, silly crossover derivatives of the 500 and a 124 roadster that's actually a Mazda Miata.  Mainstream Fiats like the Panda and the Tipo never made it to these shores.  Not that their reliability would have been all that much better.
Rather, Fiat centered its U.S. lineup around the 500 and its spinoffs in an attempt to be the Italian equivalent of Mini, whose Mini Cooper model has been a fantastic success in the United States and has spun off a whole slew of derivatives like the Clubman and the Countryman.  Mini thrives because, contrary to popular wisdom, Americans will buy a small car if it is unique, well-appointed, and fashionable.  But it also has to be good, and Fiat's 500 never caught on like the superior Mini Cooper, which, despite some early reliability issues, has been continuously improved and remains a desirable, sporty little car.  With the similarly small 500, Fiat had the chance to make Americans fall in love with its own idea of a little retro vehicle, but the firm blew it.
I can't see Fiat lasting in the United States much longer the second time around.  When your bestselling vehicle is too unpopular to continue offering, it doesn't make sense to go on.  Its cars are so bad that even if gas prices hadn't come down after the Great Recession was over, the 500 still would have ultimately flopped and Fiat still would have regained its reputation as a joke of a car brand.  And the joke is this: The name Fiat officially stands for "Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino," which means, "Italian Factory of Turin Automobiles."  What Fiat really stands for is, "Fix It Again, Tony!"

Friday, September 6, 2019

Music Video Of the Week - September 6, 2019

"Buddy Holly" by Weezer  (Go to the link in the upper-right-hand corner.)

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Boris On the Brink

Boris Johnson - he of the messy blond Beatle haircut - made an effort to get a no-deal Brexit plan through Parliament and got . . . no deal.  The House of Commons wouldn't go along with it.  Then when he tried to call for snap elections to get something resembling legitimacy for his prime ministership, Labour Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn blocked the effort.  Johnson's efforts were stymied by defections from his own Conservative, or Tory, party, and numerous Tories resigned their Member of Parliament (MP) seats.  Two of them were relatives of famous British prime ministers.  One was the grandson of Winston Churchill, and the other was the brother of . . . Boris Johnson. 
The United Kingdom may still leave the European Union, but Johnson's efforts to subvert Parliament - including an effort to dissolve it - are being met with resistance from a bipartisan group of MPs, the sort of national interest you do not see among Republicans in Congress when Donald Trump tries to buy Greenland or, I don;t know, occupy the Rhineland.  British lawmakers stand up to Johnson when he tries to pull a fast one to take theU.K. out of the European Union.  Here, Trump can force the United States to make pullouts of its own, like withdrawals form the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, and that's the end of it.  No one can figure out how to appeal a Trump decision.
Just remember, the British perfected democracy long before we did.          

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Abbott Is Costello

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (below) has overseen a recent loosening of gun restrictions in his state, allowing even teachers to pack a rod on the job.  And yet he had the gall to say this following the shootings on the I-20 corridor between Odessa and Midland:
"Too many Texans are in mourning.  Too many Texans have lost their lives.  The status quo is unacceptable in Texas, and action is needed."
And I can only think, "Gee . . ..  It's too bad he's not in a position to actually do anything about it."
But then, maybe this hapless fool of a governor isn't in a position to do anything about guns in his state.  Because even if he had any actual power - Texas has a weaker governorship than most states, with the legislature setting a good deal of the state's agenda - he'd find it hard to regulate guns when so many people in Texas cherish their constitutional right to bear arms.  And it's an attitude found in so-called liberal states like New Jersey, where I saw a pro-gun window decal in the rear window of a Chevrolet pickup truck.
Abbott won't even admit that the cheap, plentiful supply of high-power firearms is a problem.  Forget the Presidency, Beto O'Rourke should run for governor of Texas in 2022.  Texas ought to have a governor who's ready to use foul language to get things done when the situation calls for it.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Last Car Guy

Ferdinand Piëch, who died last week, was perhaps the greatest automotive engineer and automobile executive of the last fifty years. The grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, who designed the Volkswagen Beetle, and the nephew of Ferdinand Anton Ernst Porsche (known as "Ferry" Porsche), who spearheaded the postwar growth of the Porsche sports-car company, he was born for a career in designing and selling cars, and Piëch's taste in cars was quite simple - he only wanted to make the best cars.
Piëch literally began his career in the family business, engineering and designing Porsche race cars that won numerous runs of the 24-hour LeMans race.  He'd come to the company with valuable experience; as a college student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where he studied engineering, he had spent enormous amounts of time adding more power to his own Porsche; he actually took out the heater to make room for more power and drove five hundred kilometers from his family estate in Austria to Zurich, where he went to school, in the bitter cold. Always committed to making improvements on a car design, Piëch was a natural at his family's company, and when he went to Volkswagen's Audi division, he became primarily responsible for turning the marque from an dowdy upper-middle-class brand into a premium brand on the same scale as Mercedes-Benz.  He took that same drive and determination to the chairmanship of Volkswagen AG in 1993, where he increased the market share of Europe's largest automaker and cut costs to bring expenses more in line with the Japanese.  He also added Bentley and Lamborghini to VW's brand empire and brought back the French supercar marque Bugatti. 
Piëch's greatest achievement, though, was nursing VW back to health in North America, where the Japanese had all but decimated the European share of the U.S. and Canadian import market, leaving Volkswagen as the only affordable European car brand in both countries and with a pathetic 0.05 percent U.S. market share.  (Volkswagen sold 3.3 million cars worldwide in 1993 but only sold 49,000 cars in the United States that year - 0.01 percent of its global sales.)  Piëch responded in North America with great products like the Mark 5 Passat sedan and wagon and superb fourth-generation remakes of the Golf and the Jetta.  But it was his championing of the New Beetle, which turned out to be a core product for VW to organize itself around, that saved the day for Volkswagen in the New World.  Piëch, who left the chairmanship in 2002 but remained the head of the Volkswagen advisory board until 2015, proved his point that change comes from great product, not the other way around.  
Piëch's legacy isn't sterling, however.  He was an autocratic manger and a brutal, demanding boss who subscribed to no method other than his own and would not accept anyone who challenged his authority.  This put pressure on VW engineers to meet impossible demands, and many cite Piëch's inflexibility as a reason that the company resorted to cheating on diesel engine emissions.  Piëch had also hired GM-Europe executive José Ignacio López for his cost-cutting expertise, but López had arrived at Volkswagen with a cache full of GM secrets that resulted in a mess of lawsuits and charges against Volkswagen, much to Piëch's embarrassment.  And then there was the Phaeton, that gorgeous luxury sport sedan that had the finest craftsmanship an engineering an Audi could have . . . except that Piëch wanted to market it as a Volkswagen.  It suggested what would happen if General Motors made the finest car possible that could bear the Cadillac name and marketing it as a Chevrolet.  And to be honest, a lot of his cost-cutting measures and his efforts to improve quality haven't gone as well as he might have hoped.  
On balance, though, Piëch's triumphs outweigh his failures.  He was one of the last real automotive geniuses in the car business, most likely the last, a man who, as journalist David Kiley once wrote, had motor oil and axle grease in his veins.  Now that Piëch's veins have run cold, we'll never see another auto kingpin like him.  RIP.    

Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Picture of Dorian

This is it.
And it's a hell of a storm. It is expected to approach the eastern coast of Florida sometime after the Labor Day holiday as a Category 4 hurricane. While the likeliest scenario for Dorian is that it makes landfall somewhere on the Florida peninsula, there are computer projections suggesting that it might stop short of landfall and hug the coast as it turns north.  
Whatever happens in Florida, though, may only be the first chapter in this story.  If Dorian were to stay off shore as it moves north, it could have a serious impact on Georgia and the Carolinas.  And depending how the upper winds steer it, it could affect areas farther north than that.
I'll come out and say it - Dorian could strengthen over the ocean and possibly affect the greater New York area, where I live, this time next week!  Fortunately, the chances of that remain low . . . for now.
All that said, It's too early to tell where it ultimately goes until it makes landfall - or doesn't make landfall - in Florida.  And even though the storm may seem to stay the same, but its picture gets stronger!        

Friday, August 30, 2019

Music Video Of the Week - August 30, 2019

"The Star-Spangled Banner" by Jimi Hendrix  (Go to the link in the upper-right-hand corner.)

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Here Comes Something

Although fans regard George Harrison's White Album songs as his best work in the Beatles, his Abbey Road songs are undoubtedly his most popular work with the group.
The first of these songs, "Something, was actually written during the White Album sessions.  George did a run-through of "Something" while the studio was being set up to record his song "Piggies," and co-producer Chris Thomas liked "Something" so much that he suggested to George that the Beatles record that instead, ensuring him that it was worthy of release.  A nonchalant George said that maybe he'd give it to Jackie Lomax, the singer he'd discovered for Apple, for a single. 
Apple had even made a bigger discovery in the form of American singer-songwriter James Taylor, who was signed by Apple A&R man Peter Asher (brother of Jane, partner of Gordon) and George had a good reason not to want to give "Something" to him.  Because one of James Taylor's songs inspired it!
Taylor recorded a song for his Apple album called "Something In the Way She Moves," and George was moved to write a similar song.  Both songs start with the same lyric - the title of the Taylor song - but apart from the sentiment of having a woman by one's side, the resemblance between the two songs ends there.  "Something In the Way She Moves" has an entirely different set of verses and a different chorus, and as recorded in 1968, it's a brittle, sparse song that opens with a harpsichord.  (Most listeners are more familiar with the more relaxed, re-recorded version that appeared on Taylor's 1976 greatest-hits compilation, his first album having been out of print throughout the seventies for legal reasons.)  "Something," the George Harrison song, was recorded by the Beatles as a lush power ballad, anchored by Paul McCartney's bass and Ringo Starr's tumbling drums, with an understated guitar solo and a similar low-keyed piano line from John Lennon backed by a string arrangement from George Martin.  Despite taking a line from James Taylor - who left Apple with Peter Asher, his manager and producer, after Asher was fired by Allen Klein from the label - George said he was trying to write a soulful ballad in the style of Ray Charles, and the feel is indeed far more soulful than the more folkish leanings of Taylor's song.
Little did George know that the song would define his time with the Beatles forever.  The group hadn't planned a single to accompany Abbey Road, and so when Allen Klein decided that a concurrent single was needed, he instigated the release of "Something" as a 45.  It was released as a single in the United States on October 6, 1969, five days after the American release of Abbey Road, and it was released as a single in Great Britain on October 31 of that year - more than a month after Abbey Road's September 26 British release.  Thus, "Something" is the only Beatles single in either country issued from an already issued album.  But it was also the first and only Beatles single written by George, which was long overdue.  George was surprisingly as nonchalant about such a milestone as he'd been about the song itself.  "They blessed me with a couple of B-sides," he said at the time, "but this is the first time I've had an A-side.  Big deal!"
It was indeed.  It was a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and while it only made number four in Britain - understandable, since record buyers in Britain usually bought singles and albums, while Americans tended to buy either singles or albums - it hit number one in the U.S., meaning that even casual record buyers who didn't invest much in LPs wanted this song in their collections.  In fact, "Something" became the Beatles' third bestselling single in America, after "Hey Jude" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand." Frank Sinatra (below, in 1969) called "Something" "the greatest love song in fifty years, and he recorded it and performed it in concert.  He once told his audience that the song was indicative of Lennon and McCartney's songwriting genius . . . inadvertently yet perfectly summing up George's role in the Beatles. :-D
The crediting error notwithstanding, one must wonder what song from 1919 that Sinatra - who released an album of Rod McKuen songs in 1969 - must have been thinking of, and why Lennon and McCartney couldn't match it.  As for George's attitude toward John and Paul for being dismissive of his work, he told them, "Maybe now I just don't care whether you like 'em or not, I just do 'em."
And what he did was not just admired by Sinatra but by Joe Cocker, who was the first artiste to record "Something" - before the Beatles! - for his second album, though it came out after Abbey Road.  George in fact played guitar on Cocker's recording.  (For the record, Jackie Lomax never recorded "Something," as George once envisioned.)  Other cover versions came from James Brown (George's favorite cover of the song), Shirley Bassey, and, I kid you not, Ray Stevens.
But that wasn't all.
"Here Comes the Sun" was George's other contribution to Abbey Road, written in the spring of 1969 when he chose to spend the day in Eric Clapton's garden rather than go to a business meeting at Apple.  It was the first really warm day since the end of winter, and George found bright optimism in the change of seasons.  Clapton's garden inspired a song that felt as warm and inviting as the sun itself, with a light folk melody anchored by time signatures inspired by Indian music.  The Beatles' recording - for which John was absent - centered around George's inviting acoustic guitar line, augmented by the enveloping comfort of the sound his Moog synthesizer.  It's the sound of renewal, the sonic equivalent of a bright ray of light piercing the fading winter clouds.  The Moog, together with George Martin's score, is a potent symbol of spring having spring again.
Not too many songs encapsulate the mere pleasure of sitting in a garden, though Stephen Stills' Manassas song "Johnny's Garden" (inspired by a garden on an English estate he'd bought, Johnny being the gardener) is right up there with "Here Comes the Sun."  The Beatles' original recording of this song could have easily been released as a single in Britain and America as a follow-up to "Something."  It never was (though it appeared as the B-side to "Oh! Darling," another Abbey Road track, in Japan), but the song would find success on singles charts in the form of covers.  Steve Harley and his group Cockney Rebel released their version of "Here Comes the Sun" as a single in 1976, and that record went to number ten.  In America, though, Richie Havens' 1971 version of "Here Comes the Sun," which made it up to number sixteen on the Billboard singles chart, is the definitive cover.  Below is a clip of Havens performing the song on the German pop show "Beat-Club" in 1971.


As Beatles author Chris Ingham noted, George's song struck a chord with many black American performers who, having come out of the civil rights struggle, expected better times to come, which is why Nina Simone covered "Here Comes the Sun" a year after Havens did; they saw the song as a metaphor for their optimism.  As for this version,. Ingham wrote, "This elated, upbeat campfire arrangement for acoustic guitar, pedal steel and bongos captures the Woodstock vibe Havens was famous for."
Maybe if John Lennon and Paul McCartney had taken George as seriously as Frank Sinatra, Joe Cocker, Nina Simone, and Richie Havens all did, the Beatles might have stayed together into the 1970s and made some fine records matching if not exceeding Abbey Road.  But in the fall of 1969, it was already too late for that.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Bizarritz

The G-7 summit in Biarritz is so whacked up, and Donald Trump is the one whacking it out of kilter.  His positive comments on progress on trade with China and Japan have contradicted the state of trade negotiations with these countries, and yet the Dow is expected to go up.  Trump has positioned himself against every other G-7 leader - even Boris Johnson - on trade, as well as on the Iran nuclear deal (the Iranian foreign minister showed up at Biarritz), and he boycotted the climate-change discussion hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron as if it were a sporting event held in a Communist country. The United States is no officially on record as being on the wrong side of these key issues with no other country on its side.  Why isn't the G-7 the G-6?  Yes, I'll come out and say it - the United States should be kicked out of the Group of However Many as punishment for its many sins.  Don't make me pull out that James Kunstler quote again! >;-(
More from the world of the bizarre . . . Joe Walsh is running for President.  Not the guy from the James Gang and the Eagles, who once ran for President as a member of the "Let's" Party . . . Joe Walsh the former Illinois Tea Party congressman who sounded a lot like Trump when he was in office (for one term) before becoming a talk-radio host spewing out the same sort of racist rhetoric as Trump that he now says he's sorry for.   I know that incumbent Presidents challenged in a primary process and still win their party's nomination end up losing in November.  (No President has been denied renomination since Chester Arthur in 1884.)  But Joe Walsh?  Meanwhile, among Republicans, William Weld has announced his bid to oppose Trump.  Larry Hogan has announced that he won't run against Trump, and John Kasich hasn't decided on a run.
Bizarre. 

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Dull and Duller

Why is Bill de Blasio running for President?

The New York City mayor will tell you that it's because he stands out among the twenty-odd Democratic presidential candidates because he's a progressive who fights for working families.  And he is indeed the only progressive who fights for working  families.  Except for Bernie Sanders.  And Elizabeth Warren.  And Andrew Yang.  And others I could name but I won't.  Geez, Bill, even so-called moderates like Tim Ryan fight for working families - working families who can't afford to live in New York City.
But, unless you're a single guy looking to date a model, you may not want to.  In a devastating take-down of Hizzoner, the New York Daily News - no friend of Trump like its tabloid rival the New York Post - points out that the subways are falling apart, public housing is deteriorating, and cars are making the streets very dangerous for cyclists.  And the mayor can't even close the prison at Rikers Island.
The only interesting thing about de Blasio is his interracial family, mainly because you actually see more white male Republicans with non-white wives than Democrats, which is sort of peculiar, especially in the Age of Trump.  Seth Moulton (above), the Massachusetts congressman who just quit his presidential bid, didn't even have something like that going for him.  He's a Democrat from the Bay State (just like Elizabeth Warren), he takes a pragmatic, more moderate approach to governing (just like Joe Biden), he served in the Iraq War as Marine (just as Pete Buttgieg served in the Afghanistan War as a naval reservist), and he's in his early forties (just like Tim Ryan).  And he supports veterans.  Hey, bucko, who doesn't?  But I couldn't tell you what made Moulton different from the other presidential candidates. Maybe it he'd gotten into any of the debates, he would have told us.  In fact, his absence in the debates is the reason I always kept forgetting that he was a presidential candidate!
Yawn.
Moulton says he'll "campaign my ass off" for the Democratic presidential nominee, which means he's prone to throwing out mild expletives (just like Beto O'Rourke).
Okay, that's two more Democratic candidates out of the way. Who's next?     

Saturday, August 24, 2019

For Reel?

CNN's six-part documentary "The Movies," produced by Tom Hanks' and Gary Goetzman's studio Playtone, just concluded this past Sunday, and I'd like to say that I thought it was very good.  Instead, it was only okay.  And at times it almost wasn't even that.
So what was wrong with it?  Let me count the ways!
Lack of a discussion of foreign movies.  I must have missed the memo that said "The Movies" was to be a chronicle of only American cinema, and if the series had been called "American Movies," that would at least have been an honest description of what it documented.  But by simply promoting it as a documentary of movies in general - "the movies we love" - anyone whose cinematic loves include French New Wave movies, Italian neo-realism movies, or Japanese cinema having nothing to do with Godzilla was bound to be disappointed. Playtone's series covered none of those subjects.  The result was that some of the most groundbreaking movies from non-American directors - Truffaut's Jules and Jim, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, Fellini's La Strada and , Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, Kurosawa's Rashomon - were overlooked.  Many American directors have cited these titans of cinema as major influences, yet Playtone's Hanks and Goetzman felt no need to acknowledge them.
But then, maybe that's not their fault.  I am constantly reminded that a good chunk of metropolitan areas in Middle America don't have theaters devoted to showing foreign movies and never did, because complex movies with subtitles don't appeal to moviegoers there.  And not just in the heartland.  When I was in college, I couldn't help but notice how many foreign pictures that played in Manhattan seldom got runs in theaters in the northern New Jersey suburbs (although that situation has since improved).  The movies this documentary series did cover are primarily movies that average Americans are more familiar with, and CNN tried to appeal to a mass audience that has no patience with movies made in other countries and in other languages by directors they've never heard of.  Which beings me to my next compliant . . .
Lack of a discussion of foreign actors.  If Ingrid Bergman hadn't worked in Hollywood, she would have been as ignored in this series as Ingmar Bergman.  Any look at the great stars of cinema that doesn't acknowledge leading men like Alain Delon, Marcello Mastroianni, Oskar Werner, Klaus Kinski or Toshiro Mifune is woefully incomplete.  The great foreign movie actresses fared better, if only because Hollywood was a repository for women like Bergman, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, but there was no mention of Simone Signoret, Jeanne Moreau, or Sophia Loren - no mention of Sophia Loren, who has her own share of Hollywood credits to boast of?  And of course I need to mention Catherine Deneuve - the first and only movie star I've ever had a crush on - because Hanks' and Goetzman's documentary didn't mention her either.  But what do you expect when Americans know Deneuve better as a spokesmodel for Chanel perfume than for classics like Belle de Jour or The Last Metro?
Silly me - this was a documentary about movies. Foreign motion pictures are called "films."  Difference.
Where was the rock and roll?  Musicals were widely covered.  When the episode about the 1960s looked at the musicals of the period, I had no problem with looks at Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, or the Streisand vehicle Funny Girl, all musical movies that debuted in 1964 - and no, the French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which was released that same year and launched Catherine Deneuve's career, didn't get a nod.  But did you notice another missing title there?  A Hard Day's Night, the Beatles' first movie from 1964, which Roger Ebert credited as the wellspring of what became the counterculture that made movies like Easy Rider possible?  Don't get me wrong, I love Julie Andrews, but I am willing to bet that "A Spoonful of Sugar" didn't have as much impact on the culture as "Can't Buy Me Love."
Yes, yes, you say - A Hard Day's Night was made in Twickenham, not Hollywood, and so it wasn't going to get acknowledged, but then none of Elvis Presley's early movies like Jailhouse Rock and King Creole were, either, nor was The Girl Can't Help It, one of the earliest rock and roll movies made.  Grease, though not purely a rock musical, was thrown in to the 1970s episode as an afterthought - but Rock and Roll High School, which came out forty years ago today and featured a soundtrack from and an appearance by the Ramones?  Nah, no time for that.  The absence of rock movies was enough to make me want to be sedated.
Tom Hanks should had have an idea of how much rock and roll influenced the movies as much as it influenced everything else.  After all, there was that 1996 movie That Thing You Do!, a rock and roll movie about a fictional band in the sixties, written and directed by and starring . . . Tom Hanks.
Lack of chronological order.  The series started with an episode about the movies of the eighties, continued to the present, then followed with an episode about the seventies, and then one about the sixties, concluding with one about the golden age of Hollywood from 1927 to 1959.  Imagine a documentary series about the history of America that starts with Reconstruction, goes to the present, then has an episode about the antebellum period and concludes with an episode about the American Revolution, and you understand how asinine that is.
Lack of early history.  Now imagine a documentary series about the history of America that doesn't mention the colonial period.  Well, Playtone showed no interest how motion pictures were invented and developed in the first place by inventors like Eadweard Muybridge and Thomas Edison, and there was no look at silent films or pre-talkie stars like Rudolph Valentino.  The only way Edison could have been acknowledged here is if he'd been played in a movie by Jimmy Stewart.
Too much middlebrow fare.  When the first episode of "The Movies," about the 1980s, aired, one director that the actors and directors interviewed waxed rhapsodic about was John Hughes, who was sort of the Woody Allen of teenage movies at that time . . . even though his movies were mostly the same story - upper-middle-class white kids in the Chicago suburbs going through self-absorbed trauma.  I should have known from that moment that this series was going to look more at crowd-pleasing flicks like franchise movies, slight romantic comedies, frat-boy flicks, and other movies of that ilk - movies that weren't necessarily bad but wouldn't be remembered today if they hadn't been big box-office successes or been rediscovered on television. Oh, sure, "The Movies" looked at serious films like Citizen Kane and looked more closely at directors like John Ford and Billy Wilder as well as latter-day giants like Martin Scorsese, but the overall feel is like a greatest-hits compilation produced for a pedestrian cable-TV movie channel.  The illustration below used to promote the series pretty much sums up its approach toward the history of cinema in a nutshell, depicting characters from movies mostly absent from a college-film-course syllabus.  
 
I hate to agree with National Review on anything, but it's hard to argue with National Review film critic Armond White's observation in his column about this documentary series and how the list of movies celebrated in it included films like JawsPretty Woman and Jurassic Park: "Even if your personal favorites are among them, it is a moronic fanboy’s view of movie history . . .. CNN’s 'The Movies' is not designed to celebrate films that established the art form with moral power - Intolerance to Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia to Nashville - but to win ratings through quasi-populism."
And if commercial breaks hadn't taken up so much room that could have been used for a more comprehensive look at cinema, that wouldn't have been a problem. Although, White, a conservative, is probably against the idea, "The Movies" is probably the best argument in favor of a BBC-style national public network for the United States since PBS was forced to cancel "Mercy Street."
I'm sure White bristled at the extra attention given to female and non-white directors for what he thought was the sake of political correctness, though I had no problem with that.  I did, however, found it interesting that, while talking about the plight of female directors in Hollywood, the series, by ignoring foreign directors, overlooked European female filmmakers like France's Agnes Varda and Italy's Lina Wertmüller, who were directing films long before anyone heard of Kathryn Bigelow.
In summation, "The Movies" is a documentary series that means well but doesn't do well.  Playtone's style of fast-paced clips and interviews may have been appropriate for Hanks' and Goetzman's earlier CNN docu-series about previous decades of contemporary history, but not for a subject this sweeping.  I have a feeling that Sue Ann Estevez, whose film-history course I took at Drew University, saw "The Movies" and did not approve.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Week In Crazy

So much insanity has happened this week that I'm almost ready to give up blogging.
First, there was Trump's temper tantrum over trade with China, a legitimate issue, considering our trade deficit with the world's most populous country, that he has de-legitimatized with tariff threats and unilateral bullying of China's president. Trump said  he was "the chosen one" - at the same time that he also accused Jews of selfishness and disloyalty for voting Democratic and thus betraying Israel (therefore expressing solidarity with and making anti-Semitic tropes against Jews simultaneously).  Trump may have been chosen by 304 electors, but 54 percent of the American popular electorate chose someone else.
And then there's his sudden support for manifest destiny.  I don't know how this whole business started (to borrow an opening lyric from a late-seventies pop song), but someone suggested that Donald Trump might want to buy Greenland.  I used to joke, back in the late eighties when Trump was a real estate developer and climate change was called the greenhouse effect and not taken very seriously by anyone whose name wasn't Albert Gore, that if the planet warmed up, Trump would buy property up there to build condos.  Now he wants to buy the whole damn island!
Denmark, which owns Greenland, politely let Trump know that the island is not for sale, and Trump canceled a state visit to Copenhagen because Denmark's female prime minister was "nasty" to him.  There may be strategic reasons to own the world's largest island - Secretary of State William Seward tried to buy it when he bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, and President Harry Truman considered the idea in 1946 - and there are also commercial reasons to but it, which I'll explain in the next paragraph. But Trump made a hissy fit when he was old that Greenland was not for sale, not unlike in the book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," when Veruca Salt refused to take no for an answer when she wanted to buy one of Willy Wonka's trained nut-shelling squirrels.  ("I want the world . . .")
Despite being far up in the Arctic, Greenland is a viable island because of its vast mineral resources, which Americans are eager to get in on, and the Danes would be happy if we do, because they make money off mineral exploration, which is already being undertaken there by . . . China.  But then, mineral exploration in Greenland is only made possible by climate change, which is melting glaciers up north as well as exacerbating rain-forest fires in the Brazilian jungle, and rain forests there, which help blunt the effects climate change, have been cleared for farmland at an amazing clip already.  French President Emanuel Macron hopes to address the Brazilian wildfires at the Group of Seven economic summit in the French seaside resort town of Biarritz, except that Trump won't want to talk a bout it because he wants to keep Mr. Murray's coal trains running back home. 
At least one billionaire industrialist - not the coal magnate Bob Murray - won't live to see the worst effects of the climate change he's famous for denying.  It seems that David Koch died.
And on the day that Trump, whose protectionism the Kochs despised, made unflattering remarks about China and his own Federal Reserve director, sending the stock market down over six hundred points and threatening his own re-election hopes - so long as Marianne Williamson isn't the Democratic nominee.
Crazy.

Music Video Of the Week - August 23, 2019

"Volunteers" by Jefferson Airplane  (Go to the link in the upper-right-hand corner.) 

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Outslee

Jay Inslee, who was one of the first 2020 Democratic presidential candidates that I evaluated, has become the fourth 2020 Democratic presidential candidate (after Eric Swalwell, John Hickenlooper and Mike Gravel - yes Gravel was actually running!) to withdraw from the party's presidential nomination process. 
Inslee centered his campaign around climate change, citing his strong environmental record as governor of Washington State.  He wasn't the only presidential candidate talking about climate change, but he was the only one who made it the cornerstone of his campaign, arguing that all of the other issues the country faces revolve around the future of the planet.   Despite the fact that he earned credit for this, climate change proved to be as much his headstone as it was his cornerstone; not enough people cared about his message.  And besides, a lot of people dismissed him as just another boring white guy, apparently confusing him with Bill de Blasio.
See, this is why I'm disgusted with partisan presidential primary politics (though I'm not disgusted with alliterations).  Were I not so cynical, and were I interested in participating in the Democratic primaries, I likely would have considered supporting Inslee for his climate-change stance alone, but the fact that he was polling in the low single digits - the main reason he's withdrawing - meant that he was never going to get anywhere, and the same could have been said for Hickenlooper, Swalwell, and other dark-horse presidential candidates with spell-checker-unfriendly surnames.  I have no stomach to support anyone whom I think should be President as opposed to just falling in line with one of the front runners; after my Martin O'Malley experience, I have no desire to go through O'Malley Mark Two.
I'm even more disgusted that the presidential candidate who emphasized climate change more than his primary opponents couldn't get enough people to care about it and so had to drop out - on the same day tornadoes plowed through . . . Connecticut.
Inslee isn't going anywhere just yet.  He plans to run for a third term as governor of Washington State in 2020, and I wouldn't be surprised if, should the Democrats win the Presidency then, he becomes the winning nominee's EPA administrator.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Armageddon In New Jersey

On the surface, anyway, the weather in New Jersey this year has been like it always was before. We had cold and snow in the winter, a mild and fertile weather pattern in the spring, and heat and sun in the summer, and not too many brutal heat waves.
Except that we've had a severe-thunderstorm threat once a week for the past five or six weeks.  And a lot of those threats have proven true.
And it's even worse than that. The Washington Post recently reported that, as a result of climate change, New Jersey is warming faster than any other state in the contiguous forty-weight states except Rhode Island.  Insects that should die off in cold winters are surviving and causing problems with the ecosystem.  Winters are so much warmer that Lake Hopatcong, the state's largest lake, freezes less often and less solidly, making the ice too thin to stage winter carnivals like the ones that were popular there a hundred years ago. And toxic algae blooms in that same lake has forced the closing of beaches there and made the lake off limits to boaters.
Me, I'm beginning to see climate change in my lawn!  I'm seeing weeds I've never seen grow in grass before, and even worse, I'm seeing weeds that I've never seen before anywhere!   
My advice?  Deal with it.  Because if reversing or limiting the impact of climate change means Americans changing their behavior, it ain't gonna happen.  I don't need to see Jay Inslee's presidential poll numbers to figure that out.  You see, one of my neighbors has apparently just bought this humongous Ford pickup truck . . . 
Did I happen there's another severe-thunderstorm threat in New Jersey today?

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Weighing Heavy On His Mind

"I Want You (She's So Heavy)" was the first song on Abbey Road to be started and the last song to be completed.  The Beatles commenced it under peculiar circumstances; it was started on February 22, 1969, three weeks after the end of the Get Back / Let It Be sessions at Apple Studios in Savile Row. By that February, the Apple Studios facility was being rebuilt (it would close in 1975), and EMI Studios at Abbey Road were booked solid, so "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" was begun at Trident Studios (defunct since 1981).  The first session on this song was overseen by Glyn Johns and augmented by Billy Preston on keyboards, just as the Get Back / Let It Be sessions had been.  Though left off Let It Be, the Beatles would include "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" on Abbey Road.  It was one of a handful of songs recorded between February and May of 1969, before the group got serious about making one more album with George Martin, so it seems ironic that a recording that began somewhat haphazardly and at the start of a quite random period for the group (the Beatles stumbled through the late winter and spring of 1969 with little rhyme or reason) would become a cornerstone of an album known for its professionalism and polish.
"I Want You (She's So Heavy)" was such a complex recording, yet the song - the longest song the Beatles ever recorded (note to wiseacres - "Revolution 9" is a sound collage, not a song!) is actually quite simple.  After helping to re-invent songwriting with literary songs such as "Norwegian Wood," "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds," John Lennon was now offering a song comprised of lyrics with only fifteen words, with a pronoun-laden title that recalled songs from the Beatles' earlier career more than anything from their later years.  But after having married Yoko Ono, John was going in a different direction, writing words that were more direct and raw to express himself.  And "I Want You (She's So Heavy) was a perfect expression of his feelings for Yoko.

John, who would take this style to the extreme on his first solo album, would explain it this way to Rolling Stone. "When you're drowning," he said, "you don't say, 'I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me.' You just scream."  And here he was screaming how much and how badly he wanted Yoko, and how heavily she weighed on his life.  Unlike with John Hartford, nothing rested gentle on John Lennon's mind.
The gritty, metallic rock and roll music of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" was another move by John to get back to basics, as it's dominated by John's and George Harrison's biting guitars and Paul McCartney's elliptical bass, with a low-keyed by steamy guitar solo part of the way through, all carried by Ringo Starr's understated drums.  John lets the tension build through the song leading up to one of his most vivid, larynx-tearing vocal shouts - "Yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!"- in a fashion not heard since the old days of Please Please Me and With the Beatles and a couple of Larry Williams covers. 
But the song really gets cooking when the Beatles go into the instrumental coda.  We hear John sing, "She's so . . . " and we wait for him to finish his thought.  He never does.  Not only the music get heavier - one critic said that "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" "pre-dated Black Sabbath's creation of doom rock by several months" - but it gets dirtier and denser as what sounds like a gale-force wind comes in and envelops the repetitive riff, as if to suggest, like the rainbow murals of artist and hippie nun Corita Kent do, turbulent emotional complexity.  The sound is actually white noise, not unlike the sound from a radio tuned to a frequency unavailable in the immediate area.  White noise has long been a problem in recording sound, kept out as much as possible by recording engineers, yet here John Lennon, with the use of George's Moog synthesizer, generated white noise on purpose and turned it into music.  When Abbey Road was remastered for compact disc in the 1980s, though, that same white noise on "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" would be a problem because of the higher range of digital sound.
And so it goes on and on and on and on . . . lulling the listener into a hypnotic state . . . and suddenly, nothing, which likely caused many a Beatles fan to jerk forward in shock.  The abrupt volume slash at mid-bar was meant to do just that, as well as to give "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" an ending as powerful as the music itself.  According to tape operator Alan Parsons, who was present at the mix-and-running-order session for Abbey Road, John was listening to the master of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" during the session, deciding where and how to end the song, when in a burst of inspiration, he pointed to the tape and told Geoff Emerick, "There! Cut the tape there!"  And so Emerick did.  A simple act, but one that was revolutionary - there likely wasn't a song or an LP side before this in the history of recorded music that ended so definitively.  The element of surprise fades with repeated listenings and also when heard on the sideless compact disc version, as "Here Comes the Sun," which began side two on the original vinyl release, begins almost immediately. But it's still a powerful ending.
Emerick's simple act also underscored the gravity of the Abbey Road mix-and-running-order session that finalized the LP, which took place fifty years ago today.  Though there would be additional Beatles recording sessions in 1970 to finalize Let It Be, this session on August 20, 1969 marked the last time all four Beatles were present in the studio from which they began their careers and changed popular music forever.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Ryan's Hopeless?

Why doesn't Tim Ryan seem to be getting anywhere in his presidential run? Is is because he's just another boring white guy?
I'm a white guy myself, and because I still listen to classic rock bands that went out of style at about the same time the United States Football League went out of business, I'm also boring.  So I'm not going to make that mocking charge here.  I do, however, have some charges to make against Ryan.
Ryan is hoping to win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination to get back the Midwestern working class that either went for Donald Trump in 2016 or, faced with the choice of Trump and Hillary Clinton, went to the bar for a drink or two.  He is demanding economic justice for the working class of the American heartland - white, black, brown - and campaigning on a promise to help them as much as Trump has not.  He is attacking Trump with some spirited and righteous indignation over guns and immigrants while maintaining a polite yet forceful persona.
The only problem with that is that he doesn't seem to know what to do about anything.
We only know what he doesn't want to do.  He wants a Green New Deal, just not the one proposed earlier this year by the party's progressive wing, but he doesn't know what would be in his Green New Deal.  He doesn't want Medicare for all, but I haven't heard a twit about what he does want.  He doesn't even seem to understand what he's against.  At one debate, he went after Bernie Sanders for misunderstanding a universal health care bill that Sanders himself wrote.
And that's not all.  There's also the perception that Ryan only wants to be President because he couldn't be Speaker of the House, a position he'd be serving in today had he defeated Nancy Pelosi in the 2016 election for House Democratic leader.  Pelosi and her supporters have never forgiven Ryan for his effort to unseat her from the top job in the House Democratic caucus, and he's been mocked for even daring to oppose her and thinking he was entitled to be House Democratic leader just because he was younger. Also, as a Catholic (yes, I'm going there), Ryan once opposed abortion. but he has since become pro-choice.  But while Republicans readily embrace converts from the pro-choice stand (like the older George Bush), Democrats are not so eager to trust converts from the pro-life stand.  Not even Catholic Democrats like Ryan who, unlike Trump, believe that you have the right to life after you're born.
Ryan's a nice guy, but his overall politeness and his misguided efforts at career advancement only remind us that nice guys finish last.  In Ryan's case, he may finish dead last.  My guess is that he'll drop out of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination process in due time under the impression that he can still be someone's Secretary of Labor.
Because he isn't going to rise any higher in the House Democratic leadership under Pelosi.
Wait - I still have other candidates to assess?

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Half a Million Strong

Woodstock may not be an historic event on the level of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, Wellington's victory at Waterloo, Lincoln's second inaugural address, or the Versailles peace conference, but when you have nearly 500,000 kids assembling in a field in Bethel, New York for three days of peace and music and having just that with no trouble at all, you have to admit that it's quite an achievement.
Everything that could have gone wrong with having a massive outdoor festival being overrun by more people who came with than without tickets and having too little food and too many drugs did, in fact, go wrong, but the audience was in a peaceful, relaxed mood in a peaceful, relaxed field on Max Yasgur's dairy farm, and they got to listen to great music from bands such as the Who, Sly and the Family Stone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Band, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the Jefferson Airplane, as well as solo artists such as Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, and Jimi Hendrix.  They were so well-behaved that they turned lemons in to lemonade by sharing food, accepting food from the locals, and sliding through mud caused by a severe rainstorm (this was, after all, summer in upstate New York) and enjoying the moment, and when the festival was over, they picked up their trash and left Mr. Yasgur's field they way they found it.  When things did go terribly wrong, there was someone around to set things right, like when a young woman cut her foot on broken glass and a New York state trooper - this was when young people feared authority - helped her get into his car so he could bring her to the hospital and fourteen concertgoers helped him drive out of the mud by pushing his car for him.
Cynics look at Woodstock and lament the liberal use of recreational drugs, the torrential rains, the inadequate sound, and the lack of amenities, and there were other shortcomings.  One was the lack of diversity in the audience despite the inclusion of black performers and also Carlos Santana's band, and a black music festival in Harlem that same month was more orderly and more family-friendly than Woodstock could ever be.  The hard truth is that this was where the divergence of white music and black music accelerated, though it wasn't necessarily racially motivated.  Most of the performers at Woodstock were unattached to traditional show-business standards, while many mainstream black artists were more conventional.  I can't imagine any of the popular Motown acts of the time, like the Supremes or the Temptations, bringing their exquisitely choreographed moves and their immaculately polished looks to an audience that had rejected that sort of thing, and it should be noted that some Motown acts were big draws on the nightclub circuit.  In fact, the last Supremes show featuring Diana Ross, which took place five months after Woodstock, was at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.  I'm still perplexed as to why B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Odetta, or Muddy Waters - blues singers who were much more in sync with the Woodstock nation - weren't among the performers featured there.  (Though Otis Redding would certainly have been there if he were still alive.)
And if blacks didn't go to Woodstock in mass numbers, well, you can't help it if black people weren't so much into folk, straight rock and roll, or country-rock.  Conan O'Brien once joked that there are fewer blacks at concerts from English folk-rock bands like Mumford & Sons then there are in the U.S. Senate, so you have to make allowances.  But in 1969, when whites had as much trepidation about going to a soul revue - no matter how much they loved the music - as blacks had in going to Woodstock during a time of racial unease in the wake of Martin Luther King's death, integration was not going to magically happen.
The biggest criticism about Woodstock, though, was that the 500,000 kids who went thought that, by sheer will and through rock music, they could make a more peaceful world and a more just America magically happen.  Many of them would soon give up on that dream, particularly after Altamont and Kent State, but somehow the baby boomers managed to help end an unjust war by protesting against it, they popularized ecological awareness, and they were part of the movement that drove President Richard Nixon from office.  They didn't do all that by themselves, but they did move the world a couple of millimeters, and it's a shame that they didn't build on what successes they did have.  But then two oil crises and and runaway inflation, which we got in the seventies, can put a damper on a dream.  And it didn't help that rock music became a bigger business when record companies saw enough people to make a gold record out of one album in this massive field and realized they could turn rock into a commodity, which sowed the seeds of its still-in-progress decline.
Woodstock did allow its audience, though, to act more human and be more kind to each other, as David Crosby recently noted.  And that - the very idea that we can get along with perfect strangers through a shared bond - is probably Woodstock's greatest legacy ever.
I'll end with this quote from Max Yasgur (below) himself.

"I'm a farmer. I don't know how to speak to twenty people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world - not only to the Town of Bethel, or Sullivan County, or New York State; you've proven something to the world. This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place. We have had no idea that there would be this size group, and because of that, you've had quite a few inconveniences as far as water, food, and so forth. Your producers have done a mammoth job to see that you're taken care of . . . they'd enjoy a vote of thanks. But above that, the important thing that you've proven to the world is that a half a million kids - and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you - a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I God bless you for it!"