Friday, March 24, 2017

Music Video Of the Week - March 24, 2017

"Madman Across the Water" by Elton John (Go to the link in the upper-right-hand corner.)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Comey, Gorsuch, Whatever . . .

James Comey can't not tell the truth.  The FBI director publicly leveled with everyone about Hillary Clinton, and now he's doing the same about Donald Trump.  I love this guy.  
On Monday, he came right out and said there is no evidence whatsoever that Trump got wiretapped before taking office by President Obama, and yet Trump painted himself in an even deeper corner by refusing to admit he was wrong. He did tweet ecstatically when he said that Comey proved that the Russians had nothing to do with influencing the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.  Not so fast - what Comey meant by that was that there's no evidence that the Russians hacked voting machines to stuff the electronic ballot box.  But he does believe that the Russians may have been responsible for the leaks of Democratic National Committee (DNC) e-mails and fake-news Internet posts that may have swayed enough people to vote for Trump.
On the other hand, the recent revelation of the government legally recording Trump campaign staffers in 2016 in an effort to get more intelligence on the Russians - not wiretapping, but an action that might have snared more than a few Trump aides - has made the waters even murkier . . .
Be that as it may, even if the Russians did hack the DNC, what they uncovered wasn't fake news.  It was true - an uncovering of real efforts to tip the scales for Hillary and manipulate the voters with a flawed general-election candidate.  And by the way, now that he doesn't have to campaign for her anymore, Martin O'Malley says he's done with the DNC.
I may be done with the whole damn party.  Because, also this week, Senate hearings for the confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill a Supreme Court seat President Obama should have been allowed to fill began, and despite the fact that the Republicans are going to get him confirmed one way or another, even if it means suspending the filibuster rule, Democrats have no idea or strategy as to what the hell to do about it.  If they fight the nomination, they'll get steamrolled and look like fools.  If they acquiesce to it, the base will never forgive them, and party disunion will ensue.  
Delay it by trying to tie it to the Russia investigation? You're going to have to do better than that, Senator Schumer.
Those who say we'd be a whole lot better off if Hillary had won and picked Antonin Scalia's replacement on the High Court forget that Democratic hopes of retaking the Senate and controlling the confirmation process faded long before it became apparent that Hillary was actually gong to lose the election.  They also forget that the Republicans were ready to do to any Supreme Court nominee she would have put forward what they did to Merrick Garland - ignore said nominee. And her nominee would not have been another William Brennan or Thurgood Marshall - it would have been a centrist.  Merrick Garland, who's at least slightly left of center,  might be a Supreme Court justice today if the public had pressured Mitch McConnell into allow hearings, but no, the Democratic base was dissatisfied with the fact that he was just another white guy, and so couldn't get excited for him.  Yet another example of identity politics ruining America for everyone.  Now the hapless Democratic caucus in the Senate is trying to figure out how to avenge Garland without having it backfire on them.
But then, who cares when only 43 percent of Americans can name any Supreme Court justices and the other 57 percent are the ones who will be most affected by the rulings of a Justice Gorsuch?  Not that the Democrats did a lot to push the issue in the 206 elections.    
Face it, Democrats, you blew it.  While I'm glad to see Trump cratering, I'm also glad to see you doing the same.  Whig out and let a new party take your place.  It's over.   

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Review: "Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President" by Candice Millard

A forgotten U.S. President, a since-discredited physician, an insane assassin and a famous inventor whose work revolutionized the world all come together seamlessly in a tale of how unrelated people and events ultimately intersected and changed the course of American history.
Elected President of the United States in 1880, James A. Garfield was the most talented man to attain the office since Abraham Lincoln twenty years earlier, but his Presidency was sadly cut short when a deranged office seeker named Charles Guiteau shot him after having failed to secure a position in the government.  Garfield was born into poverty and worked his way up through getting himself a classical education and serving his country in the Civil War.  Between the war and his Presidency, he represented his congressional district in Ohio in the House of Representatives.  Highly intelligent and eminent qualified for the Presidency - a job he did not even want - Garfield accepted his election and sought to reform Washington.  When he was shot in July 1881, four months into his term, he survived the shooting but was infected by the unsanitary practices of his doctor, D. Willard Bliss.  Garfield died that September, two months short of his fiftieth birthday, leaving his promise unfulfilled.
Candice Millard brings that forgotten period of a American history to life and brilliantly shows how Garfield's assassination set the stage for making America a wiser and more united country in her 2011 book "Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President."  She brings us back to 1881 and introduces us to the major political players of the time and their battles over civil service reform and to the controversies in the medical field over the new and revolutionary practice of antisepsis in Europe that Americans rejected as being unnecessary and based on unfounded germophobia.  (This peculiarly American distrust of science would manifest itself in other ways later on, as with evolution and climate change.)  Though Millard's retelling of the events of 1881, heroes and villains emerge on cue as in a good historical novel.  Charles Guiteau emerges as a charlatan driven to madness by his own self-importance, whom no one took seriously enough to commit, and Vice President Chester Arthur, a political hack of the lowest order, is a character who exhibits growth and redemption in the months leading up to his assumption of the Presidency and surprises skeptics with his personal honesty as President.  The greatest hero of "Destiny Of the Republic," apart from Garfield (who maintained his dignity and grace through the seventy-nine days of suffering between his shooting and his death), is Alexander Graham Bell - the same man who invented the telephone.  Bell was spurred by the national tragedy of Garfield's shooting to invent a machine that could detect the bullet in Garfield's back, and his relentless drive for innovation and his devotion to improving people's lives with medical inventions such as an iron lung and with his efforts to help the deaf.  As a man devoted to science and innovation,and as a Scottish immigrant, Bell stands out as someone who strove for the common good in the face of public and private adversity (he lost a newborn son in 1881).
I couldn't help develop some anger, though, as I read this book.  Garfield's doctor rendered him to a premature death that common sense and openness to medical advancement could have prevented, and he cuaed the President's death by spreading germs in to his body looking for a bullet that, ultimately, didn't need to be removed.  (Bliss would only let Bell search the right side of Garfield's body with his machine; it was in the left side.)  Millard's greatest gift, aside from placing the reader back in time, is making the reader feel the same outrage that Americans must have felt then - toward Bliss, toward Guiteau - and feel the same sympathy Americans in 1881 had for Garfield's family.  The parallels between the shooting of Garfield in 1881 and the shooting of President Reagan in 1981 - Presidents getting shot by deranged men divorced from reality - leapt out at me, and I contemplated how much medical knowledge had evolved in a century.  Garfield could never have survived the more serious wound Reagan received, yet Reagan could have survived the less serious wound Garfield received - ironically, not because of advances in medical science but because of a greater appreciation of them by American doctors as a result of Garfield's own death.      
Millard's book reclaims Garfield, a forgotten President, as one of the great figures of American history.  She shows us a great man who, if not for misfortune, could have been great leader, yet his formidable character, remembered by his peers in the aftermath of his assassination, reinforced American aspirations to greatness (not like the current White House occupant).  Garfield would be memorialized by those who survived him - a 184-acre park in Chicago and a suburban town in New Jersey are named for him, for example - but this book demonstrates how the greatest memorial to Garfield is his own story of how he lived and died.   

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Martin O'Malley: Good News, Bad News

With the 2020 presidential election in Democrats' sights, Martin O'Malley, not having yet committed himself to another presidential run but clearly looking at pursuing one, had his political action committee (PAC) take a poll in Iowa, where his 2016 presidential campaign began . . . and ended.  He came out on top in a field of nine possible Democratic presidential candidates at 18 percent, a healthy number for any presidential contender in a group large enough to field a baseball team.     
That's the good news.  The bad news is that few political pundits paid attention to the results and those few that did dismissed O'Malley with their usual snark and sneer. Gabriel DeBenedetti of Politico noted that some Democrats, including Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, were left out of the poll, suggesting that the poll is not valid.  (The fact that Warren lost to Donald Trump in one other poll and that Sanders would be 79 if he ran again in 2020 didn't seem to cross his mind, and I haven't seen any indications of a Brown candidacy.)  Another Politico pundit, Edward Issac-Dovere, was more dismissive: "Martin O'Malley is willing to pay his own way to be taken seriously in a presidential poll, if that's the only way," he declared.
I've given up trying to figure out what pundits and leading Democrats don't like about O'Malley.  You'd think he'd gain more respect from both after warning Democratic Party leaders that they shouldn't "circle the wagons" around Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries - and look what happened when they did just that.  You'd think his progressive record as governor of Maryland would make him look like a more serious candidate than Oprah Winfrey.  You'd think his support for immigration reform and his rapport with Hispanics would count for something.  But no, the commentariat and the party continue to treat him like an alt-rock fan who accidentally walked into a hip-hop party.  But then, he does play the least hip instrument in twenty-first-century popular music.    
Even more baffling are most of the reasons given as to why Martin O'Malley can't win the White House.  They say he's too polished, unlike the "authentic" Bernie Sanders (but the polished Hillary Clinton, the eventual 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, won the popular vote in November), he comes from a politically unimportant state like Maryland (Sanders' adopted state of Vermont has three electoral votes to Maryland's ten, and Vermont's biggest city, Burlington, is less populated than the Baltimore suburb of Towson), and he's not as liberal as Sanders (which his record as governor of Maryland clearly disproves).  One reason, however, is a valid one - the police-based, criminal-justice policy he pursued as mayor of Baltimore to cut down on crime.  It cut down on crime all right, but it also produced a culture of over-the-top policing and left a festering distrust among many in the city's black-majority population toward the police, culminating in the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody in April 2015.  Although I believe that it's unfair to blame O'Malley, the most recent white mayor of Baltimore, for a police-brutality incident that happened eight years after he left City Hall, the timing of the incident - one month before he launched his presidential campaign - was certainly unfortunate.  
O'Malley actually had solid relations with the black population in Baltimore overall as mayor, and he did win a second term as mayor with 88 percent of the vote, but the criminal-justice issue persists.  It remains a sore spot not because of statements made against him by black commentators like Michael Eric Dyson but because of the characterization of O'Malley as an uncaring, cold-hearted technocrat by white TV producer David Simon, whose criminal-justice TV series "The Wire," set in Baltimore, featured an SOB mayor character based on O'Malley.  Someone I know suggested that O'Malley ought to try to bury the hatchet with Simon if he wants any decent shot at the Presidency in the future.  And he's right: O'Malley's mistakes as a presidential candidate in 2015 and 2016 suggested that he was his own enemy, but not his worst, as long as David Simon is against him. 
Still, this PAC poll news is encouraging, and as Graham Vyse's excellent analysis in the New Republic explains, O'Malley could benefit from Donald Trump's foibles and a desire for experienced political leadership.  His biggest obstacle, apart from David Simon, is running as a white guy in a party in love with the mushy idea of "diversity."  Right behind O'Malley in his own PAC's poll by a single point is Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, the Senate's only black Democrat, and it was his second-place showing in the poll, not O'Malley's first-place showing, that got attention from some news outlets.  Many in the party still want to get a woman in the White House - maybe even give Hillary another shot.  (She says she's ready to come "out of the woods," a reference to her walks in the woods outside her home in Westchester County, New York that only served to remind us how creepy forests can be.)    In fact, the desire for another female nominee is so strong that even Booker may be unacceptable.  The whole party's attitude was summed up at the 2016 Democratic convention, at which the theme music was largely comprised of girl-power pop tunes from Rachel Platten and Sara Bareilles, leaving classic rock for the Republicans to play at their convention over the objections of the classic rockers themselves.  
A columnist at HotAir.com has even said as much.  Jazz Shaw recently said that the Democrats are hell-bent on nominating another female presidential candidate next time, saying that any 2020 Democratic presidential candidate "with a Y chromosome is going to be at an additional disadvantage."  If the Democrats are so obsessed with identity politics that O'Malley has even less of a chance for the party's presidential nomination in 2020 than he had in 2016, then they deserve to go the way of the Whigs.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Bye Bye Johnny

Hail, hail, and farewell to one of the founding fathers of rock and roll.
Chuck Berry, who died this past weekend at the age of ninety, was the man who put the the rhythm and the blues into a new sound that was different from rhythm and blues.  He gave rock and roll the crisp, electric, intensely fun sound that defines it, and from three little chords he produced songs about everything from teen romance and cars to paternity issues and rock stardom.  Every rock and  roll star from the Beatles to the Black Keys could and can trace the origins of their sound to him.  As Robert Christgau once said, Berry taught a whole generation of rock and rollers how to play guitar before he ever met any of them.  Keith Richards gives Berry credit for everything he knows about rock and roll, and John Lennon once said that if rock and roll had another name, it would be Chuck Berry.
I  don't think I can say anything about Chuck Berry that hasn't already been said by everyone else . . . in fact, my review of his compilation album The Great Twenty-Eight says it all.  Needless to say, rock and roll, already in bad shape these days, has suffered its biggest loss in decades, the loss of one of its progenitors.  RIP. :-(      

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Willy and the Poor Boys (1969)

Creedence Clearwater Revival were the Beatles of American sixties rock bands, so it's appropriate that they would record an answer to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Willy and the Poor Boys is a concept album of a fictional skiffle-rock band of blue-collar guys playing on the streets for pennies and nickels, and the album takes on the form of a street-corner show.  But Creedence's LP could not be more different from the Beatles' masterpiece, with its proletarian, anti-elitist dig against the American class system, as evidenced by the cover.  Instead of dressing in fancy uniforms and playing to celebrities in a posh park, Willy and the Poor Boys appear performing in a rundown neighborhood in Oakland, California in front of a nondescript grocery store, their instruments including a washboard and a washtub bass, their show appreciated by only three black children - the forgotten people of America.  Band leader John Fogerty, as Willy, had no time playing to the cool kids or the "in" crowd. This is a record where the band members aren't asking themselves how it feels to be among the beautiful people. They're too busy speaking to and for the salt of the earth.  (Most of the music on this album isn't played on acoustic and homemade instruments, of course, so, as with Sgt. Pepper, a suspension of disbelief is required.)
Willy and the Poor Boys opens with an introduction to this fictional band with "Down On the Corner," a steady gritty rocker that celebrates the ease of making music from the most basic elements, with only a modest request for a nickel.  Then the group tears into a collection of straight rockers, blues numbers, a few traditional tunes, and some astute social commentary that made Fogerty and his bandmates (his brother Tom on rhythm guitar, bassist Stu Cook and Drummer Doug Clifford)  working-class heroes before John Lennon himself coined the phrase.  The emotional connection to Americana comes through in their spiritual, even soulful interpretations of Leadbelly's "Cotton Fields" and the traditional work ballad "The Midnight Special," simultaneously highlighting the dignity of work and disrespect for the worker.
John Fogerty's own laments more than capture the feel of these old standards; "Feelin' Blue" is a slow lament of a downtrodden soul, while "Don't Look Now" is a prayerful, muted paean to the working men who mine the coal and plow the land to support civilization.  But while their are many moments of levity here, such as the skiffle instrumental "Poorboy Shuffle" (in which Creedence play the instruments they are shown playing on the LP's cover), John Fogerty's best compositions on Willy and the Poor Boys cut and draw blood.  "It Came Out of the Sky," a tale of a farmer witnessing the landing of an unidentified flying object, bristles with growling guitars and heavy drums.  The song pointedly satirizes people's attempts to interpret the incident described and use it to their own advantage  and pitiless put-downs of the political and media elites.  (Then-Vice President Spiro Agnew and then-California governor Ronald Reagan are lampooned for their foolishness, and even Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid of CBS News don't escape ridicule.)
Fogerty's biggest slashes are what makes Willy and the Poor Boys a great album.  Thinly disguised as a standard anti-war song, "Fortunate Son" surges with metallic fury against a class system that sends the poorest young men to fight in Vietnam while the rich and powerful children stay home, including the San Francisco hippies in the Vietnam era that came from affluent families (the Fogerty brothers and their bandmates grew up in a blue-collar section of a Bay Area suburb).  Willy and the Poor Boys closes with "Effigy," a harrowing, terrifying guitar rocker that is the album's "A Day In the Life."  It chronicles a firestorm destroying everything in its path, representing the dissolution of America into a morass of violence, bigotry and revenge ("Silent majority weren't keepin' quiet anymore," Fogerty says, referring to the famous line Richard Nixon used to describe the disgruntled Middle America voters who supported him).  Both songs remain relevant today; Fogerty foresaw the common man lost in the ugliness of what America was becoming and railed like an Old Testament prophet as only a working-class rocker could.  "Effigy" doesn't end on a crashing chord like "A Day In the Life" does; long before it slowly fades out, the end has already come to pass.
I hope you have enjoyed the show.  

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Trump - The Budget

Stupefyingly lunkheaded.
That's all I can say about a proposed federal budget from Donald Trump that proposes to zero out public broadcasting,  the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Meals on Wheels, and cut spending on medical research, environmental research, education . . . just about every domestic spending program there is.  The State Department and foreign aid also get decimated, as does transportation funding for local projects (wait - isn't Trump supposed to be the infrastructure President?).  This budget proposed to stick it to the very people who voted for Trump - white working-class people who rely on government services.  It's a budget even Republicans are appalled with!  One could forgive anyone who thought that the U.S. Senator who proclaimed the Trump budget dead on arrival at Capitol Hill was Charles Schumer.  In fact, it was Lindsay Graham, a Republican that Schumer once described as "a nice guy."
In New Jersey and New York, the Gateway Project, the passenger rail tunnel under the Hudson River that replaced an earlier project canceled by New Jersey governor and Trump stooge Chris Christie for being too costly, would lose half of its federal funding.  Of course New Jersey's senior U.S. Senator, Robert Menendez, came out against the cut, but so did Chris Christie.
Too understand the logic behind Trump's proposed draconian cuts, one needs to remember that he's a businessman and looks at the budget like a corporate spreadsheet.  Anything that doesn't produce a profit or doesn't yield quantifiable results that can be explained with numbers, like mass transit or anti-poverty initiatives, gets dropped.  And there's also how Trump sees the world as being full of winners and losers.  Trump likes winners.  That's why he can't be bothered with funding the National Endowment for the Arts, which doles out money to aspiring painters, musicians, dancers, theater directors and the like (and isn't funded at anywhere near the level of funding for culture ministries in other industrialized countries).  Artists who don't appeal to large mass audiences don't make much of a living from their art, unlike, say, rappers and movie stars.  Trump doesn't like ballet, opera, or classical music because it doesn't make money and is not popular.  They're losers. Trump likes people who win.
Trump also likes people who can't be bothered with losers, and that's why he gets the support of people who don't like highbrow art and feel much more comfortable at a country music show or a NASCAR race - i.e., the working-class people who voted for him. Except that these are the same people who would be hurt most by Trump's cuts to domestic programs.   
Needless to say, no President gets the exact budget he wants, as the House of Representatives has the power of the purse, and Congress is likely to restore many of the cuts made - especially to the State Department budget. Trump's blueprint, by the way, is so lacking in detail that he and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney only put out a 53-page summation.  The budget's increases are for the military, making it clear that this is a budget based on armed strength and not compassion for the weak.  At least one infrastructural program, though is well-funded in the proposed budget - the wall on the border with Mexico.
No need for that.  We won't have too many problems with immigration.  Trump's budget priorities send a signal to the rest of the world that the United States is to be a country no one would want to come to.      

Friday, March 17, 2017

Music Video Of the Week - March 17, 2017

"Mull of Kintyre" by Paul McCartney and Wings (Go to the link in the upper-right-hand corner.)

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Trump Autotopia

Donald Trump swaggered into Michigan yesterday to talk about the American auto industry - one of many subjects in which he is no way familiar.
He announced that he was going to review and likely roll back corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards that sets a benchmark of 54.5 miles a gallon by 2025.  This means less incentive for automakers to develop hybrid vehicles, and electric and fuel-cell models, as well as cars like the Chevrolet Volt (ironically, one of the many cars Trump looked at while in Michigan), and, oh yes, less of an incentive to produce small cars.
My next car may have to be a gas guzzler, because that's all I'll be able to buy.
The domestic automakers are, of course, pleased that the CAFE standards are likely to be reversed, because that means they'll be able to avoid responsibility for making environmentally friendly products and be able to continue making cheap, crude SUVs and pickups and underdeveloped sedans rather than come up with more innovative cars that can compete in the market more effectively.
"There is no more beautiful sight than an American-made car," said Trump, who's obviously never seen a Porsche.  He promised that Detroit would "once again shine with industrial might" and decried the "massive shipments" of foreign cars dumped on American consumers.  Oh yeah, while in Michigan, he'd had a round-table discussion with car company executives that, in addition to General  Motors CEO Mary Barra and Ford CEO Mark Fields, also included Sergio Marchionne, the CEO of the Italian company that owns Chrysler (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles), as well as Nissan North America Chairman Jose Munoz (Nissan - a Japanese company owned by Renault of France) and Jerry Flannery of Hyundai (a South Korean company).  Trump said of the foreign automakers with plants in the United States, "We love them too."  Not too many of them have American facilities in Michigan, though. 
Trump was essentially promising to bring the auto industry in the U.S. back to 1950s levels, even though back then there had been little industrial competition from overseas and looser regulations that discouraged continuous improvement and encouraged flashy, superficial model changes - thus, Detroit ended up using rudimentary technology that persisted will into the 1980s.  He also said that the assault on the American auto industry is over, leading me to wonder what he was talking about.  Because as I recall, it was Barack Obama who saved GM and Chrysler by investing taxpayers' money in them (which got paid back to the government) and helping them through bankruptcy, preserving thousands of auto jobs and many other jobs connected to the auto industry. 
Trump also promised that, under his Presidency, Detroit would become "the car capital of the world again."  Umm, didn't he realize that, again, Chrysler is a subsidiary of an Italian company and that, umm, GM just sold all of its European assets to a car company based in France?  Is that how Detroit becomes the car capital of the world - with Ford being the only U.S.-based car company having something resembling a truly global presence?
One thing is for certain - given Trump's history in business, we should be glad that he never ran a car company.  And I'm sorry Tesla founder Elon Musk - a South African immigrant - can't run for President.  Because he's a CEO I'd vote for! 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Spy Tech Crazy

Donald Trump is still saying that he is certain that President Obama wiretapped his phones in Trump Tower in 2016 despite any lack of evidence that he did so, and FBI Director James Comey and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) are telling him to put up or shut up.
So Sean Spicer, the White House propaganda minister, tried to cover up for his boss.
"I think there's no question that the Obama administration, that there were actions about surveillance and other activities that occurred in the 2016 election," Spicer said. "The President used the word wiretaps in quotes to mean, broadly, surveillance and other activities."
Except that "wiretapping" is not a word that describes broad surveillance techniques any more that n"car" is a word broadly describing SUVs, campers, panel vans, and other vehicles.  As CNN's Jeremy Diamond reported, the word "wiretapping" is narrowly defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary the act of tapping "a telephone or telegram wire in order to get information."
Meanwhile, Wikileaks just unloaded information noting the presence of sensors, computers, and cameras in our smartphones and digital TV sets to spy on us.
Boy I'm glad I have an old-school flip phone.  And I think I'll be watching a lot more TV on my old analog set, and tape anything I would otherwise watch on On Demand.  (Yes, I use tape - still!)
But Kellyanne Conway, the White House's resident crazy chick,  made a suggestion of how the government could be watching us through the least likely of appliances, even as she trivialized the concern over Deep State security and surveillance: 
"There are many ways to surveil each other now, unfortunately,” she said. “There was an article this week that talked about how you can surveil someone through their phones, certainly through their television sets, any number of different ways. And microwaves that turn into cameras, et cetera. So we know that that is just a fact of modern life."
Microwaves, Gracie?
The feds must get sick and tired of seeing me cook a sweet potato every night.
Right, now you know why I prefer to talk about the weather on this blog . . ..   
Oh yeah, we got through the storm all right.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Wouldn't You Really Rather Have an Opel?

In my earlier commentary on GM's sale of Opel and Vauxhall to Peugeot, I noted that many of the rebadged Opels sold in America in the 1990s were seen as lackluster by consumers in the States.
But what of some of the more recent Opel cars rebadged for sale in the U.S.?  Specifically, what of all those interesting cars at your neighborhood Buick dealership?
Buick and Opel have a history dating back to 1958, when the porthole division began selling Opel cars in America as captive imports.  Cars like the Kadett, the Manta and two-seat Opel GT weren't exactly big hits, but they had cult followings in this country - especially the GT, the Corvette-style look of which more than compensated for its Karmann Ghia-like performance.  Indeed, the connection between the two brands is so great that when GM brought  a sedan over to the U.S. from its Japanese subsidiary Isuzu, it sold it as the Buick/Opel, even though it was neither.
Opel, in fact, has been instrumental in giving Buick a sense of credibility it hasn't had since the original Riviera coupe debuted in 1963.  The current Buick Regal, which debuted in 2010 to considerable acclaim, is a Canadian-built version of the Opel Insignia, while the Buick Cascada convertible (below), which has received mixed reviews, is an Opel made in Germany, the real thing.
And watch out for the all-new Regal debuting at the New York Auto Show in April - it will be based on the all-new Opel Insignia (below).  This car may also be built in Germany.
And this time, a version of the Opel Insignia Sports Tourer wagon (below) may also be included in the new Regal's lineup.
And by the way, the compact Buick Encore SUV is based on Opel's Mokka model.  Opel's engineering and technology have also made their way into other Buicks, including the Michigan-built entry-level Verano, now its in last year and based on the same platform used by the Opel Astra and the Chevrolet Cruze. 
How will Opel continue to supply Buick with cars and components when it will be under the ownership of Peugeot, which is still not back in the U.S. market?  That's covered - for now.  The GM/Peugeot deal in the Opel/Vauxhall sale continues existing supply arrangements for Buick, as well as for GM's Holden brand in Australia, at least for the next six years, which is approximately how long the current generations of Opels should be in production.  But as current Opel models are phased out, and as future Opels are developed on Peugeot platforms, the future for Buick looks problematic.  As Kyle Campbell noted in the New York Daily News, sales of Opel-based Buicks accounted for almost two-thirds of the brand's sales in February 2017, and losing the Opel influence in future products once the current generation of cars is gone might be hard for Buick to overcome.  And at least one option being considered - outsourcing engineering from GM affiliates in China -  isn't exactly an idea that will make the American road that belongs to Buick great again. 
These are classy cars, though, and they're responsible for jettisoning Buick's stodgy image while maintaining its reputation for understatement.  And even though Opel is seen as a middlebrow car back in Germany, its higher-end models have been more successful in America than its volume car, the Astra, which was briefly sold as a Saturn in America just before that brand bit the dust.  There was a bitter irony to the Astra's brief availability in America; though GM created Saturn to show that it could build a good small car for the masses in its home market, Saturn's homegrown Ion, a successor to the original Saturn sedan of the early 1990s, was replaced by a Belgian-built Opel that turned out not to have any mass appeal in the States.  The recent collaborations between Buick have borne better fruit of late for GM, giving Buick a good deal of respectability and, more importantly, good sales.  It's also made Opel more important to the American market as a product development partner for Buick than it could ever be as a stand-alone brand here.  But without Opel, how will Buick fare then?
A spokesman for Buick told the press that the division "will continue to deliver our product plans with excellence and precision," and that can mean a lot of things.  But, as Kyle Campbell wrote, it should mean that GM should look at the automotive trends in Europe and learn from them, even if GM itself will largely become absent from the European market, if it wants to continue Buick's  resurgence.  "Though General Motors will no longer have a foothold in Europe," Campbell says, "that doesn’t mean it can simply ignore the continent. Moving forward, it must keep a watchful eye on the trends that arise in Germany, France and the U.K., because, as history shows, it’s only a matter of time before they crop up here as well."
And outsourcing from China simply won't cut it.

Monday, March 13, 2017

STELLA! STELLA!

The snowfall that hit New Jersey this past Friday was named Reggie by The Weather Channel, leading me to suspect that one day we'd get a winter storm named Jughead.  But the next one that's coming tomorrow will be named after a character in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Whatever.  Anyway, this storm is expected to dump almost as much snow as the January 2016 nor'easter, if not exactly as much . . . or even more so.  The only weather computer model predicting less than a foot for my area was the GFS, until early this morning, when it joined all of the others.
The map above is from the latest Canadian model, showing the storm at 2 PM Eastern Time Tuesday.  It looks pretty bad. It could be worse.  No, really, it could.  And once again, despite the fact that I've only lost electricity once in a snowstorm that took place between December and March, I'm antsy about a possible blackout tomorrow - after 38 blackouts of varying duration since November 2009. 
I hope I and everyone else affected makes it through the storm all right.  But as far as I am concerned, every weather geek online who was wishing for a blizzard when this storm first became a possibility five days ago, are peeing in their pants in excitement over this storm, and are rooting for another snowfall next weekend (as some computer models are apparently pointing to) should be drawn and quartered, and anyone who happily yells "BLIZZAWD! BLIZZAWD!" in public has a special place in hell reserved for them. 
Stay tuned, I may be back . . ..     

Sunday, March 12, 2017

James Taylor - Sweet Baby James (1970)

It seems appropriate that James Taylor's second album, which was released in February 1970 on Warner Brothers Records after his debut on the Beatles' Apple label, came out at the time of the Beatles' own breakup and in a period of post-sixties, post-Altamont exhaustion.  Sweet Baby James is a lot of things, but it's not rock and roll.  It features tinges of folk, country and gospel with understated, laid-back introspective songs that gave rise a new singer-songwriter movement that sought to put the social unrest of the early seventies aside in favor of personal expression.  And no one in 1970 was better suited to the genre than Taylor, who had just come out of addiction to drugs and drink and was ready to exorcise his demons through soothing and re-assuring music.
The arrangements on Sweet Baby James emphasize the economy of Taylor's unassuming sound, from his own gentle guitar to the subtle playing of the backing musicians, who read like a who's who of West Coast light-pop sidemen - guitarist Danny Kortchmar, drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist (and future Eagle) Randy Meisner - and also, on piano, Carole King.  (King's own whose own piano-based tunes would become friendly counterpoints to Taylor's guitar-based songs.)  The title track sets the mood with its comforting slide guitar and the relaxed wanderlust of its lyrics (Taylor wrote it as a lullaby for his namesake newborn nephew), while the tightly executed "Country Road" and the sweet, mournful "Anywhere Like Heaven" imagines escape into a pastoral world where Taylor hopes to find peace.  He sounds particularly confident in his hope for spiritual fulfillment as he seeks guidance in Jesus, as his hopeful, direct singing in the gospel-based "Lo and Behold" proves.
Such songs would sound self-righteous in the hands of others, but Taylor's honesty in "Fire and Rain," his account of heroin addiction in the form of a letter to a ladyfriend who committed suicide, and his self-questioning of the pain he had to go through to make it as a musician in "Sunny Skies" show just how sincere and unassuming his music is.  And even with a sense of self-assurance, he still feels a need to ask for help from a lover, as he does in the lovely "Blossom."  Former pop singer Peter Asher, who produced this album and had become Taylor's manager, knew how to get the right balance of spirit and pathos in Taylor's music without making him sound sanctimonious; the light-hearted touch is evident in Taylor's parodies of white blues, "Steamroller" and "Oh Baby, Don't You Loose Your Lip on Me," as well as in a cover of "Oh, Susanna" and in the vibrant pop of the three-part "Suite for 20G."  Taylor was more or less homeless at the time he recorded Sweet Baby James, and the rootlessness and yearning for permanence in these songs come out vividly thanks to Asher's understated production.  Sweet Baby James, coincidentally recorded just after the Rolling Stones's Altamont festival, is a statement from an artist who had to get away from a freewheeling lifestyle that was hurtling him to self-destruction; the fact that this album spoke to so many people in 1970 was a sign that a large number of listeners needed to get away from such a lifestyle as well.  
No, Taylor's sound isn't rock and roll. But Sweet Baby James is a gratifying, warm LP that brought new possibilities to personal songwriting.
(James Taylor is 69 today.)

Saturday, March 11, 2017

From ACA to CACA

The Republican bill that would replace Affordable Care Act (ACA) wouldn't just repeal it, it would unravel it to the point where there would be even less of a health care system than there was in 2008, before the the ACA.
Among the things the legislation would do is replace income-based subsidies with age-based tax credits at its centerpiece. The GOP says that this would make health insurance more affordable for older people, but the smaller subsides for younger people would discourage the young to buy insurance and thus drive up premiums for whoever's left in the insurance pool - thus, the older people in the system would pay more than the tax credits could help them.
Meanwhile, although the Medicaid expansion program would continue until 2020, no one could enroll after the beginning of that year, and Medicaid itself would be funded with block grants - fixed amounts for each state in the name of the "flexibility" for the states to pay as they see fit.  So, New York would be generous, Mississippi would be stingy, and many states would be caught with less money to spend in the event of a recession.
Oh yeah, the Republican bill would eliminate taxes on upper-income earners, capital gains, insurance plans and medical device manufacturers, and it would delay implementing a tax on high-end insurance policies until 2025.  Tax breaks for people who don't need them would be doled out to the tune of $275 billion.
Watching the Republicans craft a health care reform bill is like watching Michael Scott on "The Office" hold his own diversity seminar after his bosses at Dunder Mifflin held one to hide the fact that he was the only one who needed it.  Paul Ryan wants to fix a problem that someone else took care of and that had been created by his own party, so he looks like the good guy.
He doesn't look like the good guy.  He isn't.  Democrats are up in arms over it, constituents have been flooding congressional town halls to protest changes to the current law (which is why GOP House members stopped having town halls until after this bill is passed at the end of the current session on April 7, just before the Easter recess), and it's even gotten opposition from Republican governors who expanded Medicaid and even Senate Republicans opposed to changes in Medicaid or to the tax credit.  Republican senators said the House bill couldn't make it through the Senate.
If this bill becomes law, it will be for the same reasons other Republican legislative initiatives have become law; because the GOP will have rammed it down or throats despite public opposition and because the Democrats in Congress will be too mealy-mouthed in their own opposition.  None of that, of course, is anything new in Washington.  

Friday, March 10, 2017

Music Video Of the Week - March 10, 2017

"Long Live Rock" by the Who (Go to the link in the upper-right-hand corner.)

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Opel Sale

If anyone ever asked me what my favorite General Motors car brand was, I'd never hesitate in saying, "Opel." 
This is the current Opel Corsa hatchback.  Can you think of any car as cool as this at your Chevrolet dealership?
But Opel, and its British cousin, Vauxhall (the Vauxhall brand, a separate entity within GM until the mid-1970s, is now basically Opel with a different name and with right-hand drive cars),  will be a part of the GM family no longer.  GM is selling its European operations to Peugeot for $1.4 billion.  The reason is simple - Opel isn't making any money for General Motors and hasn't been doing so for a long time.  Opel/Vauxhall sales for 2016 accounted for 5.7 percent of all new-car sales in the European market, and its biggest income came from Great Britain, which is leaving the European Union and has seen the pound sinking as a result.  Bearing all that in mind, GM CEO Mary Barra felt it was time to give up the ghost of Adam Opel himself (the company's founder began the business in 1862 making sewing machines, and later, bicycles before the car end of the business came along in 1899, after Adam Opel's death) and sell GM's European assets to Peugeot, a company that was at death's door after the 2008 financial crisis but has since bounced back handsomely.
This is ironic, because back in 2009, when GM was at that same mortal door, its then-CEO, Fritz Henderson, gave GM brass plans to sell Opel to a Russo-Canadian consortium in order to raise some badly needed cash.  The board of directors responded by giving Henderson the boot; surrendering its European operations was a bridge too far for them.  I could sympathize with that feeling.  After all, Opel has made some incredible cars in the 88 years that GM has owned it.  But it's made many lackluster cars as well, as any American who bought a Cadillac Catera (a rebadged Opel Omega) or a Saturn L-Series (a watered-down, American-made Opel Vectra) in the nineties would attest.  I, of course, still liked them, at least in comparison to other GM cars of the time.  But European consumers have found too many Opels of this century devoid of any meaningful pizzazz, and that lack of magic caught up with the brand. 
Will GM stop being a player in Europe completely?  Barra said that the company will still sell Chevrolets and Cadillacs in the Old Country. So, in other words, the answer is, yes, it will.  Chevrolets and Cadillacs have never been popular over there, and GM's sale of Opel and Vauxhall will diminish the already paltry presence of its American brands in Europe.
Call it "GMExit."  Anyway, GM will be concentrating on the Americas and China from here on, deciding that it doesn't need to keep a presence in Europe just for the prestige.
And what of Opel buyer Peugeot - whose volume car, the 308 (below) will likely be the basis for Opels to come?  What does Peugeot chairman Carlos Tavares get out of this?
Plenty.  He gets more capacity, a brand with a distinct identity thanks to its German heritage and its engineering history, a new crossover model, the Opel Crossland X, below (ironically, Opel's latest attempt to drum up sales in what is becoming Europe's most popular market segment) and the infrastructure that would be necessary for Peugeot to re-enter the United States, if it so chose.
Tavares does not so choose yet, but if he can get Opel and Vauxhall (assuming he even keeps the Vauxhall brand) to make a profit without closing any factories or laying off workers, as he says he can do - who knows?
It's going to be an exciting time for the global auto market coming up, and if Peugeot can pull this off,  it's going to be one of the most monumental feats in automotive history.
And Opel is still my favorite GM brand. :-)
Have a look back at nearly nine decades of GM's ownership of Opel here.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Many Years From Now

As June 1, 2017 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, I thought that, between now and June, I'd take a look at some of the songs on the album and how they were conceived and recorded. 
As noted earlier, two of the first three songs recorded for what became Sgt. Pepper, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," were released as a double A-side single instead of appearing on the album. The third song, "When I'm Sixty-Four," was thus the first song on the actual LP to be recorded.  
Sgt. Pepper was first heard in June 1967 as a giant leap forward for rock, with its new songs and innovative sounds and arrangements.  Ironically, "When I'm Sixty-Four" was unabashedly retrograde, its clarinets, bass and piano coming out of the early days of music-hall jazz.  Also, "When I'm Sixty-Four" itself was not a new song, having been written by Paul McCartney in 1958 when he was sixteen (64 is 16 quadrupled) and played by the Beatles in clubs during their stays in Hamburg whenever the electricity went out or their amplifiers broke down, so they could keep the show going. 
"When I'm Sixty-Four" wasn't rock and roll, which is why it went unrecorded for so long.  But at the beginning of the Sgt. Pepper sessions in late 1966, with little new material available, the Beatles took a stab at it.  One likely reason for Paul suggesting the song as a Beatles track at that point was the fact that his father, Jim McCartney, had turned 64 earlier that year.  (Hunter Davies, the Beatles' official biographer, mistakenly reported in his book that it was in fact written for Jim McCartney.)  John Lennon was not a fan of the song.  "I would never even dream of writing a song like that," he later admitted. 
The recording of "When I'm Sixty-Four" was begun on December 6, 1966, and recorded in four takes; it was not a hard song to get on tape.  (One piece of studio trickery was used - Paul's recorded vocals were mixed a semitone higher than his natural voice to make him sound like he was sixteen, when he wrote it, as opposed to sounding like he was 24, when he actually recorded it.)  Its lyrics about a teenager imagining himself and his girlfriend growing older together were actually quite revolutionary in a way, as no one in rock and roll - either the stars or the fans - had ever contemplated old age.  (Family, of course, would imagine life from the cradle to the grave in their 1969 masterpiece "The Weaver's Answer," even sharing an observation with "When I'm Sixty-Four" about grandchildren on one's knee.)
"When I'm Sixty-Four" fits well into Sgt. Pepper's song cycle of innocence and experience, and while few people would consider it one of their favorite Beatles songs, it did inspire the intriguing piece of artwork below.
In the late 1960s, illustrator Michael Leonard drew this sketch of what the Beatles might look like some time between 2004 and 2007, the period when they would all reach 64.  It's sort of sad to see John and George depicted in their sixties while knowing that they never made it that far.  But the depictions of them here seem quite inaccurate; John looks like he belongs in Sherlock Holmes movie, and George looks like a member of a late-period Jethro Tull lineup.  (George may have said that if you're going to be in a band it might as well be the Beatles, but he never said that if you're going to be in a band it might as well be Jethro Tull.)  Leonard got Ringo and Paul completely wrong; Ringo still looks young going toward 77 years of age, completely different from the crochety coot depicted above, while Paul, nearing 75, still looks like the rock star he is; here he looks like the banker who doesn't wear a raincoat.  Though, of course, he's much richer.  But even Paul's and Ringo's youthful looks in old age can't conceal the fact that they are, in fact, old.
Rock and roll, saddled by a thinning gerontocracy these days and in bad need of younger artists to take the torch (the few young rockers who have emerged in recent years don't seem to last long enough to carry it), seems to be on its last legs, but even the Beatles, at the height of their careers, could see that they weren't going to be young forever, and neither was the music.  Maybe that's why, even as Sgt. Pepper, with its psychedelic sounds and electronic effects, is thought to be the most dated Beatles album, "When I'm Sixty-Four" may now be its most relevant song.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Media Celebrity Presidential Candidates

"I'm running against an actor . . . you remember who shot Abraham Lincoln." - California Democratic governor Edmund G. "Pat" Brown, 1966, in his spirited - and unsuccessful - run for re-election against Republican opponent Ronald Reagan
I'm so glad that, back in the 1860s, John Wilkes Booth never ran for public office.
Ronald Reagan may have opened up opportunities for actors of both major parties to enter politics, but Donald Trump's election to the Presidency has opened up new opportunities for celebrity media personalities and businesspeople as well.  Like Trump, many of these have folks no experience in politics or the military to run for the land's highest office - people with even less of a political background than Reagan, whose rising star Lyndon Johnson saw coming. And no media star is more interested in testing the waters than Oprah Winfrey.
The cable television mogul, former talk show host, actress, magazine publisher, diet-plan pitchwoman and women's lifestyle guru - more of a Jill of all trades than a Renaissance woman - has been repeatedly urged to run for President, just has Trump had been for decades ("Everybody wants me to do it!" - Trump on running for President, 1988).  She said she's never considered herself qualified enough to do so, but last week she coyly opened the door to the possibility, suggesting that she'd been inspired by Trump's win.  That is, if a no-talent like Trump could get elected President, then a no-talent like she certainly can!
I've probably alienated my female readership with my obviously sarcastic tone, but I'm sorry - Winfrey (no, I won't call her Oprah, I don't know the woman, and it's not like she's one of the Beatles!) may be good at doling out pop-cultural apple sauce to women who need spiritual guidance that can be digested after it's been edited for television, and she may be talented enough to make a lot of money off it, but that doesn't qualify her to be President any more than building ugly skyscrapers qualified Trump to be President.  Winfrey's only saving grace is that she'd be a better leader than Trump, but heck, even Kanye West would be a better leader than Trump, even though he's alienated white people by claiming that rap is rock and roll.  President Winfrey - right, even Harpo Marx would have made a more plausible President!  (Harpo is Oprah spelled backwards.)  
Oh yeah, she's not the only famous mogul to be considering a 2020 presidential run.  Two media CEOs are also looking at a possible bid for the Presidency, one better known than the other.
Mark Cuban is best known as a media and sports entrepreneur, being the co-owner of a media consortium and the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.  A vocal critic of Trump, he finds the current President's approach to economic issues asinine (no argument here) and has no patience for pontificating on social issues. He's Trump with brains. But he's also a Barnumesque showman; he's one of the main "shark" investors on the ABC American Broadcasting Company (ABC) reality show "Shark Tank," a show on watch budding entrepreneurs compete for investments from wealthy benefactors.
Trotskyism is beginning to look so attractive.
Of course, if you want pure imagination of the sort Willy Wonka sang about, you have to go to Disney, whose CEO Bob Iger has expressed interest in becoming this great land's 46th President. 
Iger has been the chairman of the Walt Disney Company since 2005, and from all accounts has made the company a more formidable player in the entertainment business than at any other time since Mr. Disney himself was at the helm.  He came over from ABC when Disney bought ABC's owner, Capital Cities, in 1996.  Two of Iger's biggest accomplishments as Disney's CEO are his acquisition of the Pixar animation studio for the company in 2006 and his acquisition of George Lucas' studio and Star Wars franchise in 2012.  Of the three potential celebrity presidential candidates mentioned here, he's probably the most plausible of the three since, despite being in show business, he's not a showman himself.
Iger's best asset as a candidate may be his wife.  He's married to Willow Bay, who first rose to fame as the Estée Lauder company's exclusive spokesmodel in the late eighties before pursuing a career in television news, hosting a weekly show about basketball with the laughable Ahmad Rashad and then going on to anchor CNN's business-news program "Moneyline."  She went on to be a Huffington Post editor and interviewer.  But of course, her past as a model would certainly give Iger's hypothetical presidential campaign  a modicum of glamour.
Willow Bay as First Lady?  A former cosmetics model with no skeletons on her closet and no pornography in her portfolio?  The anti-Melania?  Yeah, I could go for that! :-D   And  the best part is, Willow Bay, whom I've featured on my beautiful-women picture blog, is so much more personable and recognizable than Iger that I consider him to be her trophy husband. 
(Pointless trivia I couldn't fit anywhere else: If Mark Cuban or Bob Iger were to be elected President in 2020, either one would become the first Jewish President of the United States.)   
Having said all that, I would prefer that all of these media celebrities hoping to out-Trump Trump just forget about it and realize that, now more than ever, politics is too serious not to be left to the politicians. And while the idea of Willow Bay, whose name does sound like a resort, as First Lady is a tempting notion, I'm hoping to see Maryland District Court Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley occupy the same position once held by Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy.  
Now we have to figure out how to get Her Honor's trophy husband elected President.
But if the Democrats nominate Oprah Winfrey, you can count on me voting Green again.  :-( 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Out of Sessions

Everyone who thought that Trump had gained his footing and put Democrats on the defensive with his well-received speech to Congress and who feared  a successful, focused administration from that moment on can now relax.  They're in trouble again thanks to the Attorney General, Mr. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.
At his Senate confirmation hearing to become Attorney General, Sessions was asked by Senator Al Franken (D-MN) if he ever had any contact during the 2016 presidential campaign with the Russians, given the troubling suspicion that the Russians helped to rig the general election in favor of Trump.  Sessions said he did not.  Now it turns out he spoke to the Russian ambassador not once, but twice in 2016.
Did Sessions perjure himself?  Maybe not.  He said he met with the Russian ambassador as a courtesy due to his service on the Senate Armed Services Committee and does not not remember any "political" conversations with the ambassador.  Be that as it may, he's had to recuse himself from any current and future investigations into Trump's Russian ties, as many Republicans wanted him to do, but Democrats are calling for his resignation.
Let's make something abundantly clear: Sessions isn't resigning.  Democrats routinely call for Republican appointees to resign - I remember Jesse Jackson in the 1980s calling for the resignation of Chester Crocker, President Reagan's Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, that was based more on policy differences toward South Africa and Namibian independence than on any charges of malfeasance - and Republicans also routinely call for Democratic appointees to resign, provided they'll even let them take office in the first place.  So the Democratic response is pure politics.  And the Sessions affair may turn out to be nothing.  But I don't think so.  I think there's something to this, and it won't be long before Sessions finds himself in even hotter water.  But in the meantime, it's fun to watch Trump and his neanderthal White House twist in the wind again.
As for the charge from Trump that Obama taps his phones at Trump Tower . . . apart from having mentioned it, I'm not even going to dignify that with a comment.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Al Jarreau - Breakin' Away (1981)

The late Al Jarreau is sometimes thought of as a jazz singer who went pop, but his commercial breakthrough LP, Breakin' Away, defines him as a jazz singer who brought elements of the revered form back to pop.  Breakin' Away, released in the relatively dormant early eighties, is a bright, energetic album that shows Jarreau's deft handling of heartfelt ballads, bebop-influenced stylings, and  some effervescent, breezy soul.  It more than makes the case for Jarreau's popularity and his place in jazz overall.
The worst thing that can be said about Breakin' Away is its clean, almost antiseptic sound.  Producer Jay Graydon delivered an overall polish to the music that not only typified MOR of the late seventies and early eighties but portended what would later be derived as "smooth jazz," and smooth is exactly how Breakin' Away goes down.  But this is Al Jarreau we're talking about; with anyone else at the mic, Graydon (who co-wrote many of the songs on Breakin' Away with Jarreau and Tom Canning) could have produced a pleasant but bland MOR album, but Jarreau was a singer who could enliven the most mannered and the most homogenized sound possible.  Thanks to his backing musicians on Breakin' Away - who included guitarist Dean Parks, bassist Abraham Laboriel, drummer Steve Gadd, and George Duke on Fender Rhodes organ - the music was much more engaging, whether on a pulsating song like "Closer To Your Love" or the LP's big hit pop ballad "We're In this Love Together."  These session men brought to this album as much dedication to jazz and fusion as the precision and virtuosity they also brought.
Jarreau revels in the center of it all here, delivering a strong, commanding voice on the funkier numbers on this record - from the aforementioned "Closer To Your Love" to the wonderful scat improvisations on "Easy" and the somewhat urbane but fun "Roof Garden," a masterpiece hybrid of traditional jazz and straight funk.  On this record, he makes the effort to find the romance and the warmth in even the slightest song, such as "Our Love," which would be forgettable if not for Jarreau's solid delivery, and his falsetto on the transcendent title track is breathtaking.
Jarreau's best moments on Breakin' Away are on the last two tracks.  He shows his obvious love for the possibilities of jazz on a sharp, funky take on Dave Brubeck's "(Round, Round, Round) Blue Rondo à la Turk" with a manic wave of scatting that, to quote critic Mikal Gilmore, swings "with the dexterity of a lumberjack" (part of Jarreau's charm, actually).  But it's his velvety, deeply intense vocal on the album's closer, a cover of the 1953 standard "Teach Me Tonight," that firmly settles the argument for Jarreau's jazz sensibilities.  He captures the essence and the feel of jazz balladeering associated with greats like Nat King Cole and Joe Williams, and it's the definitive version of the song, hands-down.  And that's precisely how the greatness of a singer like Jarreau is established - when he makes a familiar song his very own.  

Saturday, March 4, 2017

They Weren't Hungary Enough

The Hungarian capital city of Budapest (below), which was vying to be the first city from the old Warsaw Pact bloc since 1980 to host the Summer Olympics, is vying no more.  A combination of local politics and doubts about the costs involved caused the city to withdraw its bid for the 2024 Games. It looks like the athletes aren't going to be sampling authentic goulash after all.
To be fair, Budapest was a long shot, going against two cities that had the experience and the resources to pull off a summer Olympiad, Los Angeles and Paris.  Many people in Hungary didn't want the Games, being fearful that the costs would invite corruption.  Budapest's city fathers were reluctant about the whole idea, only having gone along with it because the Hungarian Olympic Committee was urging them to. Katinka Hosszú must really be bummed about the lost opportunity to shoot for swimming in the Olympics with a home-court (or home-pool) advantage.
This leaves only Los Angeles and Paris remaining in contention for the 2024 Games.  My money is on Paris.  See, French centrist presidential candidate Emanuel Macron is likely to finish behind right-wing extremist Marine Le Pen in France's presidential election this spring.  But because of François Fillon, the third candidate, no one will get a majority, and so there will be a runoff.  However, once Fillon - whose downfall is the most rapid one I've ever seen of a candidate for national office since Gary Hart in These States back in the late eighties - is out of the way, Macron should defeat Le Pen easily in the runoff.  Thus, France will have a respectable president, whereas we'll still have Donald Trump.  And as I wrote back in November, the International Olympic Committee is probably in no mood to award the Games to a country that elects a rhymes-with-glass-pole as its leader, like Trump . . . or Le Pen.  Also, Paris hasn't hosted the Games since 1924, and Los Angeles has hosted it twice since then.  And, Paris has lots of culture.  Los Angeles's culture is restricted to the yogurt section at the local Safeway.
In fact, I'm rooting for Paris.  Yes, I know that my Olympic heartthrob Janet Evans is Vice Chair of the Athletes Commission for the Los Angeles bid.  And believe me, it kills me to have to take a position against hers, but it's nothing personal. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Music Video Of the Week - March 3, 2017

"Share The Land" by the Guess Who (Go to the link in the upper-right-hand-corner.)

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Mr. Trump Goes To Capitol Hill

I listened to Donald Trump's speech to Congress for as long as I could take, and I heard a lot of conciliatory platitudes that had little in common with his mean-spirited inaugural address but had just as much substance.  He invoked Republican President Abraham Lincoln to defend his own isolationist economic views (forgetting that Lincoln had no multilateral or even bilateral relationships to deal with), invoked Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System to promote his infrastructure program (but offered no specifics about what he wanted to build, apart from his great wall along the Mexican border), and again repeated his goal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (again, with no concrete ideas on how to do it).     
He also praised NATO after having dissed it, but thanked NATO members for paying more into the alliance, showing that he still views NATO not as a multilateral union but as a transaction. He tried to strike a positive tone for the future, looking forward to America's quarter-millenial, or 250th, anniversary in 2026 and the wonderful innovations and inventions we could see then.  He cited the great inventions that were displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia (a fair from which blacks were mostly absent) and hinted that there could be a similar celebration in 2026 (forget our lousy track record this country has had of late with involvement in world's fairs, and forget also that the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations didn't work out so well).  His speech was easier to swallow than his inaugural address - but then, so is baby aspirin.  It was a kinder, gentler right-wing nationalist manifesto.  And his attempt to capitalize on the botch raid in Yemen by paying tribute to Ryan Owens, the Navy SEAL who died in that raid, was revolting.
And a President who's known for hissy tweets on issues of vital unimportance has a lot of damn gall to call for an end to obsession to trivial politics.  
And Steve Beshear delivering the Whig - oops, Democratic - opposition's response?  Well, it was a strong and solid argument for preserving the Affordable Care Act and standing up for working-class and middle-class values.  But there was just one thing wrong - Beshear is the former Democratic governor of Kentucky.  He defended his move to create a health-insurance exchange in the state, a point as moot as he is, given that his Republican successor has moved to dismantle it.  And if the Democrats need to get a former officeholder to defend the party, that should tell you how irrelevant current Democratic officeholders (not that there are that many of them) are.  

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

In With a Leonine Storm

I thought we'd been spared. Although a line of severe thunderstorms came through my area this past Saturday - the result of abnormally warm weather meeting seasonably cold air coming in from the west (producing summerlike storms in February for the second year in a row!), my immediate area didn't get the worst of it, and I thought that would be it for awhile.  But no, we've gotten more warm air pumped into our area, and another cold front is bearing down on us for today, the first day of March . . . and the threat for my immediate vicinity may be even greater this time. :-O
This is the map issued late yesterday showing the risk areas for severe thunderstorms in the lower forty-eight.  As you can see, New Jersey is in the "slight risk" zone, which means there's far more than a slight chance that we're going to get pummeled - especially when the forecast squall line is expected to push southeast rather than northeast like the one from Saturday.  The map issued the day before showed northern New Jersey in the "marginal" risk zone; the entire state, for all I know, could be in an "enhanced risk" zone by the time you read this.     
I have a feeling we're going to get an electrical blackout for an undetermined duration, or at least a cable blackout, so I may be out of commission for awhile.  Utility companies have bragged in recent years about how their infrastructural systems has been hardened to the point where they can withstand the sort of damaging winds and torrential downpours that this sort of severe weather can bring.  But trees are no stronger than they've always been, of course, and no electrical or cable wire strung from one pressure-treated utility pole to the other can withstand a tree brought down by a wind gust.
Neither can a living room window.
And if there is cloud-to-ground lightning, all bets are off.
I may be back later.  Suffice to say, we shouldn't be getting July-like storms in March.  We shouldn't even be getting the sort of storms we got last July; climate change has only made them more fierce.   

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sun Bright and the Seven Planets

A solar system with seven planets, all remarkably like Earth, has been found, anchored by a small star known as TRAPPIST-1, forty light years away.  The seven planets revolve around this small sun rather quickly - the nearest planet takes a couple of days to ground TRAPPIST-1 while the farthest one takes about three weeks -  and at least three of them are in a zone where temperatures and atmospheres are just perfect enough to have water.  
Needless to say, this is all very fascinating.  Inevitably, of course, scientists are wondering if there is any form of life on an of these planets,  possibly intelligent life. Some observers may have even envisioned the prospect of colonizing these other worlds.  Neither prospect is going to pan out, though. Why?  Perhaps you weren't paying attention - it's forty light years away!  It would take a over 440 million years to get to any of these planets, and even if any intelligent life out that far were dumb enough to contact us, the radio reception would be pretty terrible.
Don't get me wrong.  I think this is exciting news.  I hope we learn more about these planets.  I hope that any future pictures we might get back from observing the TRAPPIST-1 system expand our knowledge of the universe and inspire us to learn even more about it.  But we're not going to establish contact with aliens, and we're certainly not going to colonize other worlds.  Someday we may send astronauts into space under induced hibernation, and they may find life on a planet they don't recognize, but they may not like what they find. 
See what I mean?
We only have one planet of our own.  We'd best take care of it.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Come On, Get Razzie!

The Golden Raspberry Award Foundation blew its annual ironic kiss to Hollywood's worst this past Saturday, and the one of the biggest "winners" was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.  Neither superhero, obviously, won the battle, as the movie received four booby prizes.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice caused some controversy when it was announced that Ben Affleck would play Batman, with many Batman fans opposed to the casting.  This made "normal" people (i.e., people who don't care about comic-book movies) wonder why anyone would care about such a trivial issue.  Affleck was up for a Worst Actor award Saturday night; there's your answer.
Affleck didn't get the golden raspberry for Worst Actor, but he and Henry Cavill, who played Superman, did win for Worst Screen Combo.  Co-star Jesse Eisenberg got the Worst Supporting Actor award, while the movie itself got awards for Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-Off, or Sequel and Worst Screenplay.
The bigger "winner," however, was conservative activist Dinesh D'Souza, whose-anti-Hillary Clinton documentary, Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party, got Worst Picture, Worst Actor (for D'Souza's own narration), Worst Director for D'Souza himself and co-director Bruce Schooley, and Worst Actress for the actress who played Hillary in the movie.  The film was an attempt to de-legitimize Hillary and destroy the Democrats going into the 2016 election, but the Democrats obviously didn't need anyone to do that for them.  Be that as it may, the movie makes some fallacious arguments about how the New Deal was used to manipulate and suppress blacks and argues how the Republicans were the true champions of civil rights legislation (Hubert Humphrey?  Lyndon Johnson?  Robert Kennedy? Never heard of them, eh, Dinesh?).
D'Souza dismissed the award "wins" as "petty revenge" against Donald Trump's election to the Presidency.  Paradoxically, Mel Gibson, no liberal, won the Razzie Redeemer award, an award given to a past Razzie winner for making a good movie . . . as a director - the war film Hacksaw Ridge, which got six Oscar nominations for 2017, including Gibson for Best Director.  (It won two Oscars, for best film editing and best sound mixing.)  As for Becky Turner, the actress who played Hillary, well, maybe one day she'll win an Oscar for a lead role in a movie about an historical event that hasn't happened yet, look back at this documentary and just have a chuckle over it, saying it was just another job.   
Oh yeah, one other thing: Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party was the highest-grossing documentary movie of 2016, making it more successful than Michael Moore's Where To Invade Next.
Maybe there should be a Razzie category for Worst Mass Audience. 
You can find the full list of Razzie winners and nominees for 2017 here.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The New Democratic National Committee Chairman

It's Tom Perez.
Although Keith Ellison and several other candidates for the post of Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman fought the good fight, the 447 members of the committee, who voted yesterday (the vote was not scheduled for today, as I had stated earlier), chose a party insider who has been loyal to the establishment and is seen to be friendlier to wealthy donors and to the Clintons than to the millions of people who backed Bernie Sanders and the dozen or so of us who were for Martin O'Malley.  (O'Malley, who made Perez his Secretary of Labor, Licensing and Regulation when he became governor of Maryland, wouldn't back Perez for the DNC chairmanship.  That should tell you something.)
The Democrats could have gotten someone new and fresh  - alas, South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg withdrew at the last minute - but chose instead a political hack who is seen, according to journalist Glenn Greenwald, as "a reliable functionary and trustworthy loyalist by those who have controlled the party and run it into the ground."  Indeed - he blindly supported Hillary Clinton (that's the only way you could do it - blindly) in the 2016 presidential primaries (and O'Malley was clearly getting even by supporting Buttigieg, not that it mattered), and he's pretty much at Bill and Hillary's beck and call.  In fact, he advised Hillary Clinton during her 2016 primary campaign, and he suggested that she paint Sanders as the "white candidate" to build and shore up her support among minorities.  And isn't it weird that Hillary Clinton herself would put out a video message of resistance to Donald Trump on the eve of the DNC chairmanship vote to convince us that she's still relevant?  (She wants to run for President again.) 
Oh yeah, on a separate vote, a resolution that would have banned "registered, federal corporate lobbyists" from serving as at-large DNC members was rejected.  Money talks, and the people walk.
Although Perez made Ellison his deputy chairman to quell angry progressives and promised to go after the working-class and rural and exurban voters who backed Trump in 2016, most liberals realize that the Democratic Party no longer represents their interests (and hasn't since the Vietnam War ended) and are ready to bolt the party.  There have already been calls for a convention to found a new party . . . similar to the calls for meetings in Michigan and Wisconsin in 1854 that led to the Republican Party, which quickly supplanted the Whigs and recruited ex-Whigs Abraham Lincoln and William Seward, as well as the Frelinghuysen political dynasty in New Jersey, among others.  And the Huffington Post has been circulating a petition to make it happen.
I predict that Perez's elevation to the DNC chairmanship is going to accelerate a mass exodus from the Democratic Party and cause the first major change of the nation's two-party system in 160 years.  Any Democrat currently eyeing a White House run in 2020 will have to make a decision whether to stay with the old party or join the new one.  All Democrats now have to understand that they should either lead, follow, or get out of the way.  
We all know what the DNC chose to do. :-(
(Some good news: Stephanie Hansen won the state Senate special election in Delaware.)

Saturday, February 25, 2017

"Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" - Fifty Years

Fifty years ago this month, the Beatles released their first record of 1967, a record that made a complete break with everything they'd released before.  A double-A-side single, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were radical for the times, the former song using backward tapes, variable speeds and liberal editing, and the latter song lyrically inventive with unconventional (for rock and roll) arrangements.  (The single was released on February 13, 1967 in the U.S, and on February 17, 1967 in the U.K.) For those who missed it when I posted the promotional clips of both songs as my Music Videos Of the Week, here are my comments (slightly reworded here), with pictures.

(The front cover of the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" / "Penny Lane" picture sleeve.) 
Both songs had been intended for the LP that the Beatles were recording to follow up Revolver, but both their manager Brian Epstein and their American label Capitol wanted a new single out as soon as possible.  It had been since August 1966 when the Beatles last released any new product, and at the time their manager and Capitol were pressing the group for a new release, four months had passed since the release of Revolver.  In the late sixties, that was a long time to wait for a new record from a recording artiste.  So the first two songs the Beatles finished for their eighth album - they apparently had started it as a theme album about their childhoods, hence "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were both about growing up in Liverpool - were released as a single instead, at a time when British rock acts kept singles and albums apart.  So neither song ever appeared on a Beatles album that the foursome assembled themselves.
John Lennon wrote "Strawberry Fields Forever" while filming the movie How I Won the War in Spain, musing about the Strawberry Field Salvation Army orphanage in Liverpool, the wooded grounds of which he would play in as a boy, and how he found his identity in its haven.  When he presented the song to producer George Martin and the other Beatles, the group taped a magnificent first take in their first session for what became the Sgt. Pepper album (in November 1966).  But John wasn't satisfied with how it turned out, and six more takes were later recorded with an electric-folk arrangement, take 7 being the best of the lot.  John then decided he wanted "Strawberry Fields Forever" classically scored instead, and Martin delivered.  Nineteen takes of the classically scored version - using backward cymbals - were recorded, the last take, called take 26, being labeled "best."
John loved the orchestrated take 26, but he also liked part of the electric-folk take 7.  He then went to Martin and suggested that the first part of  the electric-folk version be joined with the second part of the classical version.  "There are two things wrong with that, John," Martin replied.  "First, they're in different keys, and second, they're in different tempos."
"Well, George,"  John replied, "certainly you can fix it!"
Martin then went over the two versions of "Strawberry Fields Forever" with recording engineer Geoff Emerick and realized that both versions could be joined by slightly speeding up take 7 and dramatically slowing down take 26, radically altering John's voice.  They pulled it off, creating a final master that John gave a hearty thumbs-up to, and song was finished.  (Later, after the Beatles broke up, John would express dissatisfaction with the final master.)  "We gradually decreased the the pitch of the first version at the join to make them weld together," Emerick later explained.
The edit is approximately a quarter of the way into the song and Martin and Emerick joined the two versions so well that, fifty years later, most people still don't know exactly where it is.  (It's exactly one minute into the song, if you want to seek it out; once you do, though, you'll most likely always hear it after that.)
As for the end . . . the reason it fades out and fades back in is because Ringo Starr made a drum mistake when someone was talking to him, and Martin wanted to cover it up.  The group would use the fade-out and fade-back ploy again in "Helter Skelter" on the White Album.  (During a session ten days before Christmas, John uttered the words "cranberry sauce," likely looking forward to his planned holiday dinner or maybe word-playing on "strawberry fields."  He did not, in fact, say "I buried Paul.")

(The back cover of the "Strawberry Fields Forever" / Penny Lane" single, showing the Beatles' childhood photos.)
"Penny Lane" was a much more direct recording, done in nine takes with a piano and wind-instrument arrangement.  Paul McCartney had been inspired to write a song by that title because he liked the poetry of it.  Penny Lane is, of course, the name of not just a Liverpool street but also the neighborhood around it. Paul's song introduces us to the colorful characters that populate the district - a barber who keeps his shop along the street, the local banker who doesn't wear a raincoat when it pours, and a patriotic fireman, along with a nurse selling poppies for Remembrance Day (Veterans Day in America) at a bus shelter in the middle of what the Brits call a "roundabout" and what folks in New Jersey call a "traffic circle."  The three men eventually end up together in the barbershop in the middle of yet another rainstorm.
"Penny Lane" was a stately, tasteful piece of pop lyricism, but Paul managed to work in a couple of naughty slang lyrics as well; he later admitted that he had more than fire engines in mind when he sang about the fireman keeping his "machine" clean, while the term "finger pie" is Liverpool slang for something you don't find at a local bakery next to the petit-four cakes.  (Think about it.)
There was also some clean slang in the lyrics.  A "four of fish" refers to four pence worth of fish and chips, while a raincoat is referred to as a "mac."
The song was recorded in nine takes, and Paul was pleased with how it turned out, but it still lacked a special touch.  Paul figured out what it was when he was at home one night and watched a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's second Brandenburg Concerto on BBC Television.  Paul, who'd taken up the trumpet as a boy, recognized a high-pitched trumpet sound.  The next day, Paul spoke to George Martin at EMI Studios at Abbey Road.
"Great sound I heard last night on the telly," he said to Martin, "a high-pitched trumpet."
Martin immediately knew what Paul meant.  "Yes," he said, "a piccolo trumpet."
"Well," Paul said, "do you think we could get the chap who played it in the Bach concerto last night to play it on 'Penny Lane'?"   
Martin thought that was a splendid idea, and so they got that chap, trumpeter David Mason (not to be confused with the guy who co-founded Traffic) to play on "Penny Lane."  Mason played solos in the middle eight and toward the end of the song; a coda solo got mixed out, but not before it was included in a mix for a promotional single sent to American radio stations.  It's one of the most collectible Beatles records ever.
Both songs were so good that the Beatles decided to release them as a double-A-side, which meant that either song could be recognized as an A-side; this was the third such single the group put out.  "Both songs are brilliant and brimful with confidence and high ability," Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn wrote in 1988.  "And each is a perfect counterpoint to the other even though they share a similar theme."
Martin later regretted not choosing one song as the A-side, leaving the other for what became Sgt. Pepper, and making "When I'm Sixty-Four," the only other song during the Sgt. Pepper sessions that the Beatles recorded up to that point in the sessions, the B-side.  Had he done so, Martin believed, the Beatles would have had another number-one hit in the United Kingdom.  Instead, the single only got up to number two there.  It had actually sold as many copies as their previous singles but simply could not outsell Englebert Humperdinck's "Release Me," which stubbornly held the top spot on the British singles chart (until Frank and Nancy Sinatra's appropriately titled "Somethin' Stupid" displaced it).  In America, though, "Penny Lane" topped the Billboard singles chart for the week ending March 18, 1967 while "Strawberry Fields Forever" made it to number five.
John Lennon took the single's relatively disappointing chart action in the U.K. in stride, saying there was room for all sorts of pop music on the charts.  "I don't mind Humperbert Engledinck," he said. ;-)

(A scene from the "Strawberry Fields Forever" promotional video.)
The Beatles made two videos for the record.  The video for "Strawberry Fields Forever," filmed in the English county of Kent outside London, is a surreal interpretation of the song, as cosmically edited and as laden with special effects as the song itself, while the video for "Penny Lane" shows the Beatles supposedly walking on that very street in Liverpool and having a formal picnic on the outskirts of the city.  In fact, the street scenes showing the Beatles were filmed in the Chelsea section of London, while the picnic scenes were filmed in Kent.  These scenes, along with clips of the Beatles on horseback, were then interspersed with footage of the real Penny Lane in Liverpool.  Both clips emphasize their facial hair (George Harrison has a goatee) to make it clear that they were no longer boys.  Now they were men.


(A scene from the "Penny Lane" promotional video.)
"Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," because of their reminiscences of childhood, were considered the first concept 45-rpm record.  The musical innovation and the lyrical inventiveness of both songs make this one of the greatest singles of all time and certainly the greatest double-A-side single ever.