paul-simon-graceland-warner-bros-2

There’s a Facebook challenge going around where people post photos of their ten favorite albums “without explanation.”  No one challenged me to do this, which is just as well because I definitely need to explain.  Because instead of selecting “favorite” albums, I’m more interested in the most meaningful — the ones that remind me of who I was.  These all create aural Proustian moments — except that it’s not the taste of a madeleine that sends me back in time, it’s a song.

Considering how rare it’s been to buy a CD, never mind an LP, for the last 15 year, it’s not surprising that these albums are front-loaded toward decades past.  But if truth be told, the real reason this music is weighted toward the old days is that music is more important and meaningful to you when you’re younger.  With that as an apologia, here are the ten albums that I just can’t forget.

1. Oklahoma!

I was about five years old when our family moved into our little ranch house in Brockton, Mass.  My parents were young and didn’t have a lot of money but they did buy a hi-fi and a handful of albums — almost all Broadway musicals or movie soundtracks.   I still love all those old albums (in fact my wife thinks I have an unnatural interest in show tunes) but the one that really brings me back is the first one they bought — Oklahoma.

Even now I know the lyrics to most of the songs — but now I actually understand them (I’m thinking of you, “I Cain’t Say No”).  But the most evocative song for me remains “People Will Say We’re In Love,” which is the best flirting song ever written.

2. Please Please Me

Other generations must get tired of hearing Boomers talk about the Beatles, but they loomed so large for so long that we just can’t get over it.  The Beatles burst upon the scene when I was ten years old and my mother took me down to the old Coats Field department store in Brockton to buy what would become my first record album.

The Capitol Records version of this is officially titled The Early Beatles, but the version I have was released by JayVee Records (multiple companies had rights to these songs because no major American label wanted to sign them and they originally ended up signing with the fly-by-night JayVee.  For more detail on the tangled history of this album click here.)

Beatles Cover

This is my battered LP, VeeJay version

This is hardly the best best Beatles album. There’s even a cover of a song from the Broadway musical “The Music Man” (“Til There Was You”).  Most of the original Beatles songs aren’t really top notch either, but “I Saw Her Standing There,” “There’s a Place,” and especially, “Please Please Me” still exemplify the energy and fun of being a young Beatles fan.

3. Jesus Christ Superstar

When I was in the 11th grade, Jesus Christ Superstar hit our school like a bomb.  Tommy might have been the first “rock opera,” but this was the second and no one had ever heard anything like it.  What I never expected then was that Andrew Lloyd Weber would abandon rock and go on to transform musical theater, but for at this moment he seemed like a very cutting edge composer.

Some kids in my English class wrote a short play based on the album called “J.C.” (the 20-minute performance involved us acting out some scenes with the music playing in the background).  Throughout the day, over multiple periods, we performed this little one-act to packed crowds in our “Little Theater.”  And then later that summer, a dozen of us drove into Boston to see a concert version of album performed in Boston Garden (yes, those were the days when parents would let six 17-year-olds cram into the family car and drive on the Southeast Expressway without seat belts.)  King Herod’s song brought down the house as it always does.

I’d like to think I imbued some religious feeling from the album but I can see now that very little Christianity is expressed in the album.  And when it was turned into a movie a couple of years later, it all seemed vaguely ridiculous.  That movie actually turned me against the album.  A couple of years ago I played the LP for the first time in decades and actively disliked it.  The songs themselves are fine but the way they’re performed, with screeching strings, vibrated differently with me as an adult than as a teen. Worse, several of the songs became ear worms and I couldn’t get them out of my head for weeks, so not only did I not like them, but I couldn’t forget them.   I didn’t even watch the John Legend version when it was on TV last Easter.  Sigh — it’s tough to get old.

One song I still do like, though, is “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”

4. All Things Must Pass

In contrast with “Jesus Christ Superstar,” I love George Harrison’s first solo album even more now than I did when it came out.  I received it as a gift from my high school girlfriend on Christmas 1970 and whenever I play it, I can smell her patchouli oil perfume, taste the food in our high school cafeteria, and remember what it was like to drive around in that old junker of mine.

More important, the songs are still fantastic.  What I can’t understand is how George wrote such deeply spiritual music at age 27 — the age my son is now!  I not only still have my original boxed set LP but also the CD, and whenever I drive by myself on a long trip, this is always in the mix of CDs I play.

5. No Secrets

To the extent I have a guilty pleasure it’s Carly Simon.  I know the music is not top quality, with simplistic lyrics and pretty cliched tunes, and yet I bought her first ten albums and still love them all.  No Secrets is the album that came out the year I was a freshman in college.  “You’re so Vain” was the biggest hit but the title song is the one that most recaptures the feeling of being away at school, even though I had barely any secrets to keep.

6. Court and Spark

My college-era girlfriend had been a serious Joni Mitchell fan and I thought she was as pretentious as they came (Joni, not the girlfriend).  My friend Jim was also a Joni fan, which I scoffed at, until he brought me into his dorm room and made me listen to her newest album Court and Spark, which was more musically accessible than the earlier work.  I still remember sitting there hearing “People’s Parties” and changing my mind on the spot.  But my favorite song from the album is “Help Me,” a plea from a woman who is sinking into love and can’t escape.  Man I still love that song.

This album turned me into a huge Joni Mitchell devotee.  I even went back and reconsidered her earlier albums, all of which I now love.  But Court and Spark was the turning point.

7. Stop Making Sense

I saw the Jonathan Demme movie “Stop Making Sense” before I even heard the album and couldn’t figure out what exactly was going on, with The Talking Heads’ David Byrne singing a series of increasingly frantic and despairing songs as his suit got bigger and bigger.   Eventually I bought the album and learned to love the existential dread of “Psycho Killer,” “Burning Down the House” and, especially, “Once in a Lifetime.”  What did I have to despair about?  I was 30, living an exciting life in Washington DC, and reasonably happy. It wasn’t exactly in despair I felt but the question at the core of the album did resonate: “And you may ask yourself/well, how did I get here?”  That’s a question that never goes away.  Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have put this album on the list but it’s been haunting me to long enough to warrant being rated one of albums I can’t forget.

8. Born in the USA

When I was working on Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984, there was a guy in the research department who was a Bruce Springsteen fanatic.  Born in the USA had just come out and he was such a proselytizer that he recorded it for me on a cassette tape.   I never actually listened to that tape but eventually bought my own LP — my real introduction to Springsteen.  And of course the song “Born in the USA” eventually became the unofficial anthem of the Reagan/Bush 84 campaign until Springsteen himself told us to stop playing it at rallies.

This album is a good example of how an artist can lose control of the narrative for his own art.  Most of the songs are supposed to be about the dissolution of the American dream, what with working class guys losing their jobs etc., and yet the album largely comes off as a celebration of America.  The song “Dancing in the Dark” has bleak, lonely, depressing lyrics but the tune is so upbeat that the effect is actually positive.  And the title tune, which is supposed to be a devastating indictment of American society ended up sounded patriotic because of that strong, repetitive chorus. “Born in the USA, I was Born in the USA.”

9. Graceland

Aside from being a great album with innovative music, Graceland is on this list for two reasons: 1) Soon after my wife and I were married and living in a thin-walled New York apartment, the tenant next door to us broke up with his boyfriend and played it until about 2:00 a.m. one night.  Consequently this album always reminds me of those early days in NYC when we were trying to figure out married life.

2) About four years later, when my son was a year and a half old, we moved to Connecticut.  Until we filled the living and dining rooms with furniture, I used to pick him up and dance with him from one end of the house to another to the tune of “You Can Call Me Al.”

And of course the music was unlike anything I’d ever heard before — all those South African musicians being introduced to American audiences.

10. Running With Scissors

My wife and I always agreed that humor provides you with emotional resilience, exercises your brain and helps you make sense of an increasingly absurd world.  To that end we exposed our son to a variety of comedians and comedy shows, including “The Simpsons,” “Seinfeld” “The Office”, “Letterman,” etc.  Eventually he started to introduce us to comedians he’d found on his own, including Weird Al Yankovic.  Soon the house was full of Weird Al CDs, the best of which, by far, was “Running With Scissors.”  In addition to the the usual parodies of hit songs, this album has two masterpieces.

The first is “The Saga Begins,” a spoof of the second round of Star Wars movies to the tune of “Bye Bye Miss American Pie.”  The lyrics summarize the intricate and, frankly, ridiculous plot of “A Phantom Menace.”  Sample: “We took a bongo from the scene/ And we went to Theed to see the Queen/ We all wound up on Tatooine/ That’s where we found this boy…” The juxtaposition of the nerdy “Star Wars” detail with the great “American Pie” tune is what makes this song achieve greatness.

The second masterpiece on this album is “Albuquerque.” Unlike most other Weird Al songs, this is not a song parody but a absurdist story about a guy whose wildest dream is to visit the city of Albuquerque.  This is a long meandering story — what is know in literature as a picaresque, in the manner of “Candide” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It’s just one damn thing after another for the narrator.

In any event, my wife, son and I all found the song both hilarious and a bonding experience.  I tried to share it with some people outside the family and they just didn’t get it.  Didn’t think it was funny and gave me a strange look after I played it.  Well, at least there’s three of us who appreciate it.

 

Special bonus song

I’ve leave you with one more meaningful song, as long as we’re discussing the idiosyncrasies of humor.  This one isn’t even on an album.  When my son was on the college tour, one place we looked was Middlebury, my own alma mater.  We learned that some students had just produced a music video parodying the students body.  The video spoofs the various “Midd Kidds” at the college: the Library Queen, the Lax Bro, the Quidditch nerds, the flannel-shirted granola guy.  The video is full of inside jokes, but even an outsider can enjoy the humor because the college stereotypes are universal.

The video itself is hardly an advertisement for Middlebury or any liberal arts college, but it actually achieves a level of art as it illustrates how college is about taking on new identities, posing with them for a while, and then trying on something else.  Colleges would have you think that the education revolves around the classroom but in reality, college is about figuring out who you are — even if that takes means appropriating some obnoxious personalities for a while.

My son ended up going to Middlebury but avoiding all the stereotypes in the video (thank God).  Still, of all the songs that came out when he was in college, this is the one that most reminds me of those four very emotional transitional years.

Advertisements

Qilliam Kate wedding

[This running diary appeared on another blog platform on April 29, 2011, recapping the Prince William/Kate Middleton wedding.  I’m reposting it here in advance of Prince Harry’s wedding]

4:08  Still a bit groggy and not fully awake.  Turn on TV and channel surf until we alight on PBS, which seems more British and reserved than the rest.   But then the host is interviewing Kate’s school headmaster and asks if she was ever “naughty.”

4:10 Two minutes in and already here’s first reference to Kate’s dress.  Also first reference to MI6.

4:13 Check twitter.  Only one follower awake.

4:15  Guests arriving at the Abbey. Here come the Beckhams.  He’s wearing a Ralph Lauren suit!  And she’d wearing black.  Hmm.  Not really the right color for a wedding.

4:24 Taped Interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Clearly he grew up before the Brits discovered orthodonture.

4:28  First sighting of Earl Spenser arriving at the Abbey.  I bet he won’t have a speaking part again.

4:29 The hats seem way out there.  This woman looks like she has a plate stuck to her forehead.   That one looks like she’s wearing a satellite dish.

4:37  Here’s an interview with  Prime Minister David Cameron, who’s just a bit player when the Royals are around.  He reveals that he is giving the couple a photo of some place called Anglesey as a wedding gift.  I guess they don’t need china or silver.

4:41 Decide to follow Sarah Lyall on Twitter.  Read her book about the crazy Brits and am amused by her tweets all morning.

4:43 The mayor of London is named Boris.

4:45 I still don’t think they should have named that hotel after Hitler’s top henchman.

4:46 Regarding the trees in the Abbey, Meg said last night that Westminster Abbey is not an event space, but she relents when she sees them in the nave.  Myself, I think they make the Abbey look like a Hyatt atrium.

4:49: John Major was the legal guardian to William and Harry?  Have to agree that it’s strange that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown weren’t invited just because they aren’t knights of the garter.  Gee, who decides who gets to be a garter?  I guess someone didn’t like the way Tony Blair took the credit for saving the monarchy in “The Queen.”

4:50 Speaking of “The Queen,” this is probably the time to confess that I never liked Diana.  I never thought she was pretty or glamorous and I really didn’t like how she used the media to attack the monarchy.  I do have to admit she was probably a good mother, though.

4:53  Meg made scones but where is the mottled cream?  Drinking Yorkshire tea in my lucky Charles and Diana mug.  The mug was a gift from my friend Marjory, who went to the UK to hang around for the Charles and Diana wedding in July 1981.  She later moved to the UK fulltime and worked for various Labour MPs and then for the anti-nuclear movement.  But as left-wing as she became she was always a sucker for royalty.

4:57 Here come the guests from foreign governments.  Is Joe Biden representing the US?   I never do learn this and am too lazy to Google it. Too bad the Syrian ambassador couldn’t make it. I gather he was too busy shooting down innocent protesters.

5:00 Too much discussion about the dress so I switch to CNN.  They are speculating about what William is wearing!  Apparently some kind of military uniform.  It’s kind of odd that all the men in this family will be wearing military uniforms.

5:03 David Cameron gets a rousing welcome from the crowd.  Piers Morgan: “We get to the time when the big guns get fired.”  Meaning this is when the big shots start arriving.

5:07 Back to PBS.  Feel smart listening to Simon Schama.

5:10 So they will be known as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.  I wonder if they ever run out of duchies and need to double up?

5:11 The anticipation is building for the departure of William and Harry from Clarence House.  The royal family has eight limos and the boys are to travel in a Bentley.  According to the nervous announcer they are a couple of minutes late.  Here they come.  Yes, he is in uniform as colonel as the Irish Guards, whatever that means.   Prince Harry has the ring.  Can’t help but remember how William and Harry had to walk behind their mother’s caisson along this same route.  That’s one bond they will always have.

5:19  William arrives at the Abbey and takes off his gloves and hat.  Boy, he really is balding but at least he doesn’t have a comb-over like his Dad.

5:21 Looking at the lay-out of the Abbey, I  just noticed that most of the guests won’t be seeing anything except the procession. Which is better than nothing.  This facility was not designed for its sightlines.

5:25 The Middletons are coming in a Jaguar (pronounced JAG-you-are).  First mention that Kate’s mother is descended from a coal miner.  Speculation about her dress.  A sky blue crepe thing supposedly.

5:28 The Grand Duke of Luxemburg – they get a grand duke?

5:32 Carole Middleton arrives.  Surprisingly youthful and very well put together.  Now that I see her in the flesh I am getting indignant about the snotty things the British press said about her being a social climber.

5:33 Princess Beatrice is fifth in line to the throne.  I’m sure she’s not holding her breath.

5:34 I promised Meg I wouldn’t say anything nasty about Fergie’s daughters.  Still, can’t help note that they are wearing too much makeup and have the most ridiculous hats.  The contrast between the York sisters and the Middleton girls is startling.  And yes, it is odd that Fergie wasn’t invited.

wedding fascinators

5:38 Charles and Camilla arrive at the Abbey.  And she is wearing?  A champagne silk dress by Anna Valentine.  Charles  looks old. The first time I ever heard of Prince Charles was in the summer of 1969 when he was invested as Prince of Wales – he was about 20 (basically my son’s age now).  I watched the ceremony on a black and white TV in my grandmother’s living room in Nantucket.   Now he’s practically doddering.

5:39  Dame Edna is trending on Twitter.  What’s that about?

5:42 The Queen and Prince Philip leave the Palace.  She’s got a blanket on her lap?  He’s the longest-serving consort in British history.  There were married in the Abbey in 1947.  It must be strange for them to come back 64 years later.

546 The commentator is overcome with emotion about the dresses. “Fan-blooming-tastic day for British fashion.”

5:49  Queen arrives at the Abbey.  Trumpets blaring.  Charles and Camilla waiting for her.  She kisses Charles but Camilla curtsies.

5:51 Kate Middleton gets in the car, a Rolls Royce Phantom 6.  She’s wearing a veil, tiara and long sleeves.  Her Dad has her dress on his lap.  She does have a plunging neckline.

556: Kate’s sister Philippa arrives with the flower girls.  She’s also stunning.

6:00 Huge excitement for Kate as she rides to the Abbey.  Crowds cheering.

6:01 Kate’s struggling to get out of the car and her sister comes out to carry the train. Finally the name of the dress designer is announced.  Sorry, didn’t catch it. (Thanks God we finally know this because the speculation was beginning to drive me stark raving mad.)  Meg is not crazy about the dress – doesn’t like the skirt. But it looks good to me. Commentators about to swoon.

6:04  Here’s the procession as Kate and her walks down the aisle.  Appreciate that there is no chatter by the PBS commentators.

6:08 William is standing at the altar and doesn’t look at her until she appears as his side.  Nice smiles.

6:09 First hymn: Guide me o Redeemer.  There’s Elton John singing.  We sing this at our church too.  She moved her veil back.  Camilla looks like she may be choked up and can’t get the words out.

6:12 “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to….. “  I like the archaic language, but what is a troth?

6:18  “With this ring I thee wed.”  They are already married?  That didn’t take long.  She’s getting a ring but he isn’t.  The Archbishop takes his miter off and I notice he has enormous flapping eyebrows.  Don’t they have clippers in England?

6:24 A shot of Philippa and Meg says: “She’s the most eligible girl in the nation.”  Yep, whoever marries her gets to pal around with the future king.  Plus she’s as gorgeous as her sister.

6:24 Kate’s brother is reading from Romans. This is a nice family. He’s doing a great job – maybe he should become a minister.   Those Middletons are much classier than the Windsors.

6:29  Love the boys choir.  Assume there are no castratos in the Men’s choir?

6:32  Here’s a sermon from the Archbishop of London.  “Every wedding is a royal wedding.”  Well, maybe.   Sadly the sermon is perfectly fine and the archbishop is nothing like a Rowan Atkinson parody.  Miss the lisping bishop from The Princess Bride:   “Mawwage is an honorable estate.”  William looks bored, but maybe he’s just hungover

6:40  Just switched to CBS for ten seconds and sure enough Katie Couric was yapping.  Back to PBS so we don’t need to hear any commentary.

6:46 Bishop says:  “Those whom God has joined together let no man put asunder.”  He doesn’t glance up at Camilla, but he could if he wanted to.

6:47 Showing Elton John again during the singing of Jerusalem.  This is very rousing.

6:50  Every Twitter post and Facebook status for the last hour has been about the wedding.

6:51 “God Save our Gracious Queen.”  Wow. Very powerful.  Only one person not singing. I wonder if she ever gets bored of this tune?

6:53 Off they go to the Chapel of St Edward the Confessor to sign the register.  The hosts are back briefly to explain what the heck is going on.   “The most sacred place in Westminster Abbey.”

7:02  The parents are back from the Chapel.  Just noticed that the Middletons are sitting directly across from the Queen.  They are facing each other instead of facing the front of the church.

7:03  Recession of clergy.  Very stately.  Trumpets.

7:04 Here are Kate and William back from the Chapel and they begin walking back up the aisle again.  The music reminds me of Superman score or John Ford western.  She’s really smiling a lot.  He’s careful not to step on the dress.

7:09 Bells and cheers.  Here’s the royal coach.  He’s putting his white gloves back on.

7:11  They hop in a carriage built for Edward VI’s coronation in 1902 and the host says: “The grand procession is underway.”  Assume the guards are packing heat under those braids and other livery.

7:19  Harry’s riding in carriage with bridesmaids and pageboys.  It’s like being stuck at the children’s table at Thanksgiving

7:21  There’s manure in the streets.  The cameras try to cut away from it but not fast enough.

7:24 Now that all the details are out about the dress, we are hearing about which regiment is escorting which carriage.  It’s kind of boring detail but exotic in that British accent.

7:28  Phew the queen, Prince Charles and William are all safely in Buckingham Palace.  I wonder how they coped with terrorism threat?  No one mentions it but I was a little nervous about them in the open carriages.

7:34 Now that everyone is inside Buckingham Palace the BBC is reduced to interviewing  kids in the crowd.  Zzzz.  Asking questions about the dress.  AAUURRRGGG.  The adults sound like they are off the set if Upstairs Downstairs.  Since nothing is going on, I help myself to a second cup of tea and a second scone.

735: Simon Schama endorses trees in the Abbey.  Something about how they complement the soaring arches in the nave and make it seem like a people’s cathedral.  Whatever.  He also says there were two weeding s today.  One between Kate and William and one between the Monarchy and the British People.   Interesting that there was no whiff of republicanism today.  No need to upset the viewers.

7:44 Interviewing American girls in Hyde Park. They seem freer and more exuberant than their English counterparts.

8:11 Amazing watching the crowd march down the boulevard to Buckingham Palace.

8:26  Kate and William step on the balcony.  Then the flower girls, page boys and queen.  The announcer says: “What an experience for Michael Middleton.  And his wife is clearly enjoying this,” which I think is a bit patronizing.  Brief kiss.  Blushing groom.   Then an unprecedented second kiss!  Be still my heart. They attribute this second kiss to Diana’s influence because she was so spontaneous and this spilled over to William.

8:27: Queen Elizabeth’s parents (the ones from “The King’s Speech”) were the first to step onto the Buckingham Palace balcony after their wedding in 1922.  I’m also reminded of that famous scene during the celebration for the end of WWII when the royal family (including Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret) stood on the balcony with Churchill as the crowd screamed itself hoarse.  This is not that emotional, but it’s still a sweet day.

8:40 PBS switches to Curious George cartoon.

Wild Wild Country

When I was growing up, the idea of voluntarily watching a documentary – the TV equivalent of eating your vegetables — was laughable and about as probable as me doing extra homework.

Oh sure, at the movies there was “Endless Summer,” a documentary about two surfer dudes going around the world in search of the perfect wave, which in retrospect was a pretty sneaky geography lesson.  And then there was “Woodstock,” which actually made me glad I never scored a ticket to that mud-fest.  But most theatrical documentaries back then were pretty grim – stories about mental hospitals, plucky unionizers, or Vietnam War criminals.

And television was worse than grim.  It was boring.  To the extent they were any documentaries on TV they were on PBS, which was known in my youth as the “educational channel.”

And yet here we are in 2018 and I find myself distracted from scripted television because I’m drawn instead to such TV documentaries as “Andre the Giant” on HBO and Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country” about the 1980’s Bagwan Rashneesh cult.  Last year I was captivated by the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary about the Vietnam War, and by “Five Came Back,” the story of five famous Hollywood directors who enlisted to produce propaganda films during World War II.

Maybe I like the format now because I’m older (after all it’s a cliché that dads like nothing better than to watch World War II documentaries on The History Channel).  Or maybe documentaries are just better now.   Either way, there’s no question that the number of high-quality documentaries offered on TV has grown exponentially.

For years PBS had the franchise on documentaries with regular series like Frontline, the American Experience and Cosmos. But the genre really came into its own with the 1990 broadcast of Ken Burns’ “Civil War,” which created a whole new generation of Civil War buffs. Four years later Burns’ series on baseball was another national sensation.

PBS lost its monopoly on documentaries with the expansion of cable TV, when networks like Discovery, National Geographic Channel, A&E and others jumped in with their own niche documentary programming. Without high-paid stars, documentaries became a cheaper source of programming than scripted programming and could be profitable even with basic cable’s smaller audiences.

In recent years, HBO, Netflix and even ESPN upped the game again.  HBO’s “The Jinx,” became a minor phenomenon with its exploration into the allegedly murderous past of Robert Durst. Netflix followed with its own murder mystery documentary series “The Making of a Murderer.” And ESPN launched the “30 for 30” series of sports documentaries that culminated in the award-winning “O.J. Made in America.”

The TV format is perfect for documentaries.  In a movie theater you can last maybe three hours before getting up and walking out but a TV documentary can be presented in multiple episodes over days or weeks (e.g., “The Vietnam War” was 18 hours long).  Documentaries are also a short-term commitment – you don’t need to worry that you’re signing on to years of viewing like you do when you start a scripted series.

Most important, because the scope of documentaries is so vast there’s a subject of interest for every occasion.  Documentaries can be fun, they can be searing, they can be thoughtful.  They can be long or short.  They can be esoteric.  I once watched a documentary about the Helvetica typeface and it was surprisingly absorbing.

It was a sign of danger for traditional TV when I, a notorious late adopter, recently settled into my hotel during a business trip and didn’t turn on the TV to channel surf.  Instead I logged onto my laptop and scanned Netflix for the documentary offerings.  I was looking for something interesting but not too intense.  I’m not proud to say that I landed on a history of the rock band Chicago.  I hadn’t thought about them for years and didn’t realize I even wanted to know anything about them, but it turned out to be the perfect blend of nostalgia, pop history, and oldies music for chilling out.

But if it hadn’t been Chicago, it could have been a documentary about Roger Stone, Amanda Knox, the feud between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, sushi or minor league baseball.  All those subjects sounded a lot more interesting than the reruns, cable news, reality shows, or home improvement programs you’re likely to find watching live TV.

In the end, the appeal of documentaries is that truth is stranger than fiction, and all a documentary has to do is unveil the truth.  That can be a lot more interesting than 80 percent of what else is on TV.

 

 

 

 

 

CNN Trump

It’s hard to believe there’s been any figure in American history who has so dominated the day-to-day American consciousness as Donald Trump.  It’s been almost three years since the fateful moment he descended that golden escalator in Trump Tower to launch his presidential campaign, and there’s been scarcely a day since when he hasn’t commanded our attention.

Trump can rightfully claim the title that Howard Stern once conferred on himself: The King of All Media.  In doing so he has been aided and abetted by the media themselves.   It’s no small irony that the same people who purport to loathe him are the very ones giving him all the airtime and ink.  (Or as Michelle Wolf framed it at the White House Correspondents Dinner: “He has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV.  You helped create this monster and now you are profiting from him.”)

I work in an open space office and the wall-mounted televisions give me a good idea about how dependent TV news is on Trump’s antics to keep the viewers enthralled.  How I long for the days when they would merely exploit a murdered teen or celebrity melt-down to keep the eyeballs tuned in!  Now it’s all Trump all the time.

Dick Cavett recently admitted that Watergate was one of the greatest times of his life because it was a thrilling day-to-day drama that resulted in the ejection of a president he despised.  We’re in the same mindset now.  All those who live in non-stop outrage, either pro- or anti-Trump, claim they’re fighting for the good of the country but they seem addicted to the same adrenaline rush that afflicts gamblers, thrill-seekers and bungee jumpers.

I have a Trump-voting friend who dreads coming home from work because his wife will inevitably meet him at the door outraged over Trump’s latest malfeasance.  She knows these non-stop rants aren’t good for their marriage but just can’t stop watching CNN while doing the laundry or checking Twitter in bed. If that’s not addiction, I don’t know what is.

It‘s now a commonplace to say that Trump has turned the presidency into a reality TV show, but in truth the presidency has been a reality show for decades.  I just listened to John Dickerson’s “Whistlestop” podcast on Slate.com about the increasing role that presidents play as symbolic participants in our national drama.  For example, in 1955, President Eisenhower could go on vacation, completely off the grid while a series of hurricanes slammed the Southeast.  And no one thought it was strange that the President was playing golf while millions of Americans suffered.

That all changed in 1965 when President Johnson decided to take advantage of the TV coverage of Hurricane Betsy to show he was a strong leader in charge of the federal response.  Alas, hurricanes aren’t always a president’s friend.  We all remember that President George W. Bush’s inadequate display of empathy during Hurricane Katrina seriously derailed his presidency.

But high-visibility hurricane response is only a tiny sliver of the vast portfolio of emotional responsibilities the president is expected to master.  He (and eventually she) is supposed to be the mourner-in-chief, America’s dad or grandpa, the exerciser-in-chief, the sports-fan-in-chief, the main arbiter of American cultural taste (at the Kennedy Center), the comedian-in-chief (at the White House Correspondence Dinner) and the overall embodiment of the American nation.

The State of the Union, for example, long ago devolved into a very special episode for the presidential reality show, with one side of the aisle cheering wildly at the president’s every utterance and everyone across the aisle one working hard to frown or jeer whenever they think they might be on TV.  It’s now “Wrestlemania” in suits and ties.

The point is that a lot of the president’s job has very little to do with his actual Constitutional responsibility, which is to manage the executive branch of the federal government.  But it’s the extra-Constitutional responsibilities that we’re most addicted to.  Who cares about housing policy when there’s Twitter?  The presidential behavior that most outrages the Trump addicts is the most inconsequential – the tweets, off the cuff remarks, and verbal flights of fancy at his rallies.  Not coincidentally, these are also the behaviors that draw the most opprobrium on TV and the highest ratings.

Is it possible to break the Trump addiction?  Lord knows I’m trying but there are so many enablers who keep pulling me back.  I’ve “hidden” my most fanatical Facebook friends and unfollowed most political and cultural reporters on Twitter.  I walk right past the TV if a cable news channel is on and I’ve stopped watching all the late night TV shows.

None of this is really helping.  Trump is still everywhere.  In a Wall Street Journal essay a few weeks ago, Joseph Epstein suggested that just as we had meatless Monday’s during World War II, maybe we should now have Trumpless Thursdays.  Oh how divine that would be.  Let’s get on that.

 

Joshua Tree overview

If, like me, you’re from the East Coast, the words “Joshua Tree” probably summon up the U2 album of the (almost) same name.  But it’s also the name of a hugely popular National Park about two and a half hours from Los Angeles.

My wife and I spent a week visiting the park in early April, happy to escape the cold and rainy Northeast.  We were looking for arid heat to renew and cheer us and we got that in spades.  We didn’t come back spiritually refreshed, or anything like that, but we did return with elevated moods.

Here’s an overview of the park, in case you ever want to visit:

The Park Itself

Joshua Tree National Park is a huge expanse of wilderness that includes both the Mojave and Colorado deserts.  It lacks many of the jaw-dropping features of the more famous parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, or Big Bend, but it has a unique grandeur of its own.

The landscape consists of flat deserts populated with cacti, the Seuss-like Joshua Trees that give the park its name and bizarre mounds of boulders.  It was my continual frustration not to be able to take really great photos.  The color palate in pretty monotonous, consisting of variations of brown (ranging from khaki tan to milk chocolate) leavened occasionally by tarragon green, which made it hard to capture the depth or height of the objects.

And it’s hot. Even in April the park can be hot.  Yes, it’s a “dry heat,” but the sun can be baking and by early afternoon we were always too hot to continue hiking.  And to be honest, you’d be crazy to be hiking all afternoon if you’re staying at a place with a swimming pool.

Joshua Tree is probably closer to a major metropolitan area than any other National Park, which makes it an easy day trip from Los Angeles or Palm Springs.  This means its vast expanses can sometimes get a little crowded.   It’s also surprisingly popular as a camping destination.  There were campgrounds everywhere, nestled in between dunes, pinion pines and rock heaps.

Joshua Tree Rocks

A typical rock heap

I’m a little surprised at the popularity of the campsites because the park itself is very unsparing.  No food or potable water is offered anywhere inside the park and there are no showers, ranger stations, lodges, or concession stands. The only sign of civilization are the frequent toilets scattered throughout the campgrounds and at each trail head.  These bathrooms don’t have running water, though, so don’t expect to wash your hands.    The bottom line if you’re camping is that you need to bring in every ounce of food, water or fuel you expect to consume.

A Word About The Joshua Tree

As noted, the park is named after the Joshua Tree, a tall yucca plant with a twisted trunk and three to six branches reaching straight up that are crowned with spiky leaves.  The tree (or “tree” depending on how you define a tree because this is not really a woody plant) was named by the Mormons after the prophet Joshua, who reached out his arms to God in prayer.

The park is aptly named after these trees because they are everywhere.  There are so many of them in the middle of the park that it begins to look like the vineyards in Napa Valley, or more sinister, like an army of zombies.

Joshua Trees

This always reminded me of “The Night Of The Living Dead”

I had always thought that the U2 album was named after the park, but in reality, the album is named “The Joshua Tree,” in other words, it’s dedicated to a specific tree, which is supposed to symbolize the hardiness of the American spirit or some such BS.  Further, the photo on the album cover was shot pretty far away from the park (and by the way, that particular tree has since fallen down, which hasn’t stopped fans from going to great lengths to track it down.)

U2

Attractions — Mostly Hiking

You could spend the better part of a day driving around the park looking at the sites from the car and you’d probably get a good sense of how remarkable the landscape is, but I’d certainly recommend getting out of the vehicle and walking around a little to get the full effect.  The park offers many different hiking trails of various levels of difficulty.  We took some pretty aggressive hikes, but didn’t kill ourselves.  Here are the highlights:

Hidden Valley

This probably the most popular spot in the park. It’s located about half an hour from each of the park’s northern gates so really accessible.  The parking lot to the entrance is slightly misnamed — the sign identifies it as the Hidden Valley picnic area.

hidden valley

The site is a huge ring of stone piles and rock walls with a relatively flat surface in the middle.  To get inside you squeeze through a narrow entrance and once there you feel like you’re in a Disney attraction.  Boulders are strewn everywhere , providing a foreground for the rocky cliffs in back of them.  There’s a one-mile trail around the inner circle of the bowl that takes about an hour to complete.  Perfect for kids and geezers.

The story they tell is that in the 1800’s cattle rustlers used to hide their contraband inside the hidden valley, which was once covered with grass. It might even be true, but the real attraction is the weird landscape and the awe it evokes.

Lost Horse Mine Loop

This is a six mile loop up and around a mountain that’s considered a “strenuous” hike. You can cut that in half if you just go up to the abandoned mine and back, which is what we did.  Total elevation is about 600 feet, which doesn’t sound like much but when you’re my ago you can climb a long way and huff and puff a lot only to discover that you’re only up 100 feet.

Lost Horse Mine

But the trek to the discarded mine is worth the effort.  The views are spectacular especially once you reach the mine itself and hike a little bit higher to the summit, which provides a full 360 degree view of Lost Horse Valley. (By the way, this is another trail with signage issues — there’s no sign on the spur path leading up to the mine.)

Skull Rock Trail

Easily accessible from the 29 Palms park entrance, this is a mile and a half loop trail that begins at skull rock itself — a giant bolder with hollows where the eyes and mouth would be on a human skull.   The skull is very photogenic, with people posing for photos all day long in the “eye holes.”  The trail itself is not too arduous and very scenic — again, if rocks and cacti are your idea of scenery.

The only downside is that the trail is bisected by the main road and for long stretches you can see or hear cars buzzing by, which undercuts the illusion that you are off on a solitary wilderness exploration.  Also, about halfway through the trail you enter the Skull Rock campsite and there are no signs to tell you that you need to walk down the road, among the campers before you pick up the trail again.

49 Palms Oasis

This hike is technically in the park but it’s not accessible through the main entrances.  You drive down a road in the town of 29 Palms to a parking lot where the trail head begins and just start hiking.  In other words, there is no entrance fee.  You walk up the side of a 300 foot hill and down the other side to reach a lovely oasis that may or may not have 49 Palms.  It’s a great place to rest before the walk back.  It’s about a mile and a half each way so a nice morning’s hike.

49 Palms

Two crazy stories about the hike.

First, as we were returning we came across a large tortoise in the middle of the path and an Asian woman who pleaded with us to move the animal far away from the path because if the “Chinese people” came across it, they would take it.  My wife forbade me to touch the thing and fortunately it crawled away on its own.  Later I mused on the improbability of anyone from any nationality carrying this very heavy tortoise out of the park in a backpack.  Was the woman looking for help herself Chinese?  Couldn’t tell.

Tortoise

Then, we walked about a quarter of a mile further and I spied a rattlesnake on a rock next to the path.  He didn’t look too happy and was curled up and ready to spring, which I’m sure he would have done if I’d continued another five feet.  I stepped back and we had a face-off until he eventually slithered off and settled into a completely camouflaged coil under a rock.  Never reach under a rock in the desert!!!

Rattlesnake

Cholla Cactus Garden

This is not really a hike — it’s more of a half-mile stroll through a mass of cholla cacti, which are short cute (but potentially painful) plants that seem to glow in the sun.  I wouldn’t make this a priority but if you are driving from the Park’s north entrance to the south entrance at Cottonwood, it’s definitely worth a stop.

Cholla

Lost Palms Oasis 

I am told this is a great hike.  It’s a “strenuous” seven miles down and back to a canyon with an oasis.  Unfortunately it’s over an hour drive from where we were staying at the southern exit of the park and we could only check it out on the day we left the park for good.  We walked about a half mile in and out and it’s a very nice hike — the geography is slightly different because this is part of the Colorado desert, so there are no Joshua Trees.  But still plenty of rocks.

Lost Palms

Keys Views

Also, not really a hike.  This is a scenic overlook about 45 minutes from the northern park entrances.  You can get out and walk along the overlook, which provides a pretty spectacular view of Palm Springs and the mountains behind them.  The quality of the view depends entirely on the quality of the air.  The day we went was windy so their air was dusty and opaque.

Key View

Hall of Horrors

About five minutes down the road from Hidden Valley is a parking lot for “Hidden Horrors,” which is rarely mentioned in the guidebooks as a destination, but it’s a nice little diversion.  It’s essentially an unmarked half-mile ramble between two ranges of rock heaps.  This place is apparently popular with amateur rock climbers who like to leap from rock to rock.  Better make sure your sneakers have a good grip because a slip could be painful.

Hall of Horrors

Accommodations and Eating

We stayed at the 29 Palms Inn, having learned about from this glowing piece in The New York Times.  This is not really an inn like we’d think of in New England, it’s actually a collection of adobe cottages clustered around an oasis.  It’s a pretty dreamy spot.  We never put on our air conditioning because the thick walls kept the room cool during the day and at night open windows would let in the desert breezes (we’d wake up to temperatures in the 40’s after having been in 90’s heat during the day).

29 Palms Inn

Crucially, the inn had a nice swimming pool, where we’d retire mid-afternoon to cool off in the water, read our books and sip free Arnold Palmers.   There were four or five families with small children staying at the hotel, many of them from the UK or Germany, and it was fun to watch the kids slowly get to know each other and play together in the water.  Eventually we’d learn all their names and reminisce about the days when our own house was full of a gaggle of exuberant toddlers or tweens.

The inn also has the best restaurant in town, featuring interesting California-American cuisine.  Every night we were there the restaurant had set aside a table for a dozen different senior Marine officers, who were either stationed at or visiting the neighboring Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.  Great guys — serious and respectful.  Other than that, it’s first come first serve for tables.  (And people eat early here.  It gets full at 5:00 p.m.)

We also ate at the famous Pappy and Harriet’s, which is a sprawling western theme park of a place up in the mountains.  The place is located in Pioneertown, a former movie set that is now mostly a backdrop for selfies. The restaurant is always packed (you should call for reservations weeks in advance) and the southwestern food is heaping.

Pappy and Harriets

Live music starts at 7: a few years ago some lucky patrons were surprised by a short set by Paul McCartney. But Lucinda Williams and other famous roots musicians have performed there.  The walls are covered with posters, photos, license plates, and stuffed animals and there’s definitely a happy friendly vibe.

Another great place to hangout is the Joshua Tree Saloon, which has many of the same elements as Pappy and Harriett’s, including cool decor, live music, and huge piles of food but is more relaxed because it’s not the destination that Pappy and Harriett’s is.

Final Thoughts

I loved spending four nights at the 29 Palms Inn, hiking in the morning, swimming in the afternoon, taking naps and generally chilling out.  If you live in Los Angeles and have never been to Joshua Tree you’re crazy.  This would be a fun day trip and a terrific weekend getaway.

If you’re from the East Coast and have never been to a national park, this would not be the place to start.  Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are must-sees before Joshua Tree.  Yet for really getting away from it all and slowing down, there’s nothing quite like the desert.  By all means put this park high on your list.

 

 

 

 

roseanne-trumpreboo1-640x480

Now that we are almost halfway through the new nine-episode season of “Roseanne,” can we do a quick check-in to see if it’s living up to its early promise as a reflection of white working class America in the age of Trump?

The show is just a few weeks distant from those shockingly high ratings for the premiere episode, which, for the first time ever, sympathetically depicted a family of Trump supporters on a scripted television show.  Which means we’re also just a few weeks distant from the critical meltdown that came with it.

I just finished listening to a podcast on Slate.com in which the participants debated whether continuing to watch the show would morally compromise them.  It is the position of Slate that all Trump voters are racist even if they don’t know it, and that by failing to show the Conners as motivated by animus to black, brown and other non-white populations, the producers are whitewashing the dark side of the Trump Base.

There was also pushback from the conservative side too.  The right-wing editor and commentator Ben Shapiro, on HIS podcast, claimed that the show misrepresented the conservative base by showing that the Conners’ support of Trump was based solely on economic dissatisfaction and not by a reaction to the identity politics and political correctness of the coastal elites.

It’s symptom of these over-politicized times that a relatively benign TV show can generate so much heat, and that its right even to exist can be called into question solely because some of the characters voted for the existing president.  It reminds me of the reaction in the 1970’s to “All in the Family,” an earlier generation’s exploration of working class values.  That show was also denounced for providing a platform for the bigoted Archie Bunker, even though Archie was clearly made to be the buffoon.

The difference between “Rosanne” and “All in the Family” is that the latter was all politics all the time, while “Rosanne” mostly hints at politics.  Since the premiere episode, in which Rosanne Conner and her liberal sister Jackie have a fight over their respective votes, overt politics has been mostly off the table.

Instead of arguments about Trump, what subsequent episodes have offered instead are depictions of social and cultural issues that bedevil most families, but especially working class families who are just getting by in a world that largely disrespects them: Rosanne’s an Uber driver now; one daughter is unemployed and living at home again; another daughter is so desperate to buy herself out of the rut she’s in that she accepts an offer to become a surrogate mother for a ditsy upper-class twit – by using her own eggs, no less. Meaning she’d be essentially selling her own biological daughter.

I think it’s fair to assume that the Conners represent that group of swing voters who voted twice for Obama but couldn’t abide Clinton and the globalism that she embodied.  (Of course the thanks they got for voting for Obama is to be labeled racist for not supporting his white putative successor.)  And contrary to Ben Shapiro’s claims that the Conners are not socially conservative, the fact remains that Dan Conner owns a gun, the family prays before dinner every night, Roseanne enacts a form of corporal punishment on her granddaughter when her daughter is too lenient, and their son DJ is a veteran of the Iraq war. They seem pretty culturally conservative to me.

Much has been made of the loving support that the Conners provide for their gender-fluid grandson and mixed-race granddaughter.  And both of those characters do seem to be on the show for the sole purpose of taking the hard edge off the Roseanne character.  But it’s also true that many families, including working class families, rally around their own kin when they perceive a threat from the outside, even if the threat is just from public opinion in general.

In the end, though, “Rosanne” is still just a sitcom, not a PBS documentary.  I didn’t really like the series when it was first on and I’m not crazy about it now either.  It’s occasionally funny, but represents a genre of TV that was already tired when the show first aired in the 1990s.  As a multi-camera show filmed in front of a life studio audience it’s plagued by a soundtrack of people laughing at jokes, quips and set-ups that just aren’t that hilarious. It’s also undone by the standard sitcom need to wrap up all problems and conflict within 22 minutes so the next episode can start fresh.

And yet the show, as old-fashioned as it is, remains immensely popular, especially in local markets that Trump carried in 2016.  It appears that conservative white voters, who still represent a very large segment of the population, like to see themselves depicted on TV, just as blacks like to watch themselves on “black-ish” or gays like to see themselves represented on “Will and Grace.”  Why it took TV a year-and-a-half to understand that there’s a huge underserved audience out there is another story, but in the meantime, someone is making a lot of money off the idea to bring back “Rosaeanne” and set it in Trumpland.

 

 

 

 

Facebook_Iowa_34

There are times when I wonder if I am really so out-of-step with the day-to-day zeitgeist of our wonderful country.  How did it come about that everyone collectively decided that Facebook was practically the worst company in the world and that Mark Zuckerberg needed to be frogmarched to Washington and keelhauled before a couple of Congressional committees?

Like Captain Renault in “Casablanca,” the our public thinkers are supposedly shocked! shocked! that Facebook leverages our personal data for its advertisers.  But anyone who didn’t know until last month that advertisers were using our Facebook data to promote their own products is, not to put too fine a point on it, a moron.  Did they not notice that Facebook is a free service and that the only way to support all those servers and graphic designers was through advertising?  Didn’t they think it was odd that when they clicked on an ad for a particular product they were subsequently barraged with more ads for the same product?

The truth is that I don’t really care who has my personal Facebook data.  I just downloaded my file to see what was there and it was pretty dull.  It includes my name, email, age, school, job history, political leanings, marital status and Facebook friends current and former.  That is already publicly available on my page.  It also includes the Facebook sites, ads, games, quizzes and other ephemera that I clicked on over the course of the last ten years.  The fact that this might become available to strangers does give me a slight pause because maybe I don’t want people to know I once played Farmville, but there’s nothing truly embarrassing in this data.

Here is what Facebook does NOT have on me that many other online sites do:  my social security number, my credit card number, my medical history, my drug prescriptions, my income, my online shopping history, or my criminal record (which is nonexistent, by the way).

And they don’t have my search history, thank God.  If Google had been the one that was  a little sloppy with my personal data I would be REALLY pissed.  Some of that could be truly embarrassing.

If anything, my gripe with Facebook is that they don’t do a good enough job of dispensing my data.  I almost never notice the ads in my feed because they are so irrelevant to me.  If there’s a true scandal at Facebook is that they are charging advertisers good money for spots that are ineffective.

But let’s be honest, people aren’t really mad at Facebook because of privacy.  Instead this tantrum is about making it into the latest scapegoat for the election of Donald Trump.  I think most of Facebook’s critics understand that the company didn’t really do anything to swing the election.  I mean seriously, have any of these people ever even been on Facebook?  If there is any voter who decided to vote for Donald Trump because of something he saw on Facebook, I would like to meet him and commit him to the home for the dangerously naive.

Those of you who lived through the 2016 election probably remember that Facebook was a toxic place that ruined friendships; if anything the nasty posts and counter-posts only served to reinforce voters’ existing leanings, doing little to convert potential voters from one side to the other.

Facebook first came under fire in the fall of 2016 with allegations that it had allowed Russian trolls to plant “Fake News” on users’ news feed (remember those innocent days when “fake news” meant stories that were literally made up and not just news pieces that the President doesn’t like?)  No one could seriously argue that these stories had any significant effect on voting and the early grudge against Facebook slowly died away.

Then came the big revelation about Campaign Analytica.  It transpired that a conservative data firm had tricked Facebook into giving them the personal data of 87 million users, deceitfully held onto it when Facebook demanded its return, and then tried to help the Trump campaign develop targeted Facebook ads.

The interesting thing is, the Obama campaign essentially did the same in 2012 (see more on that here.) No one screamed about Facebook being careless with our personal data when the news media’s favorite candidate was playing fast and loose with our privacy.  In fact, I distinctly remember stories about what digital geniuses the Obama campaign were (here’s one New York Times story where the digital team admits to grabbing data without Facebook’s permission and not being forced to give it back once Facebook figured out what was happening.)  The Obama team even bragged about how the pulled the wool over Facebook’s eyes.  As Investors Business Daily points out:  Obama’s campaign director, Carol Davidsen, even tweeted that “Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph, but they didn’t stop us once they realized that was what we were doing.”

I doubt that anyone really thinks that the Data Analytica breach swayed any votes.  Among other things, the Trump campaign claims they didn’t actually use their data for targeting because the Republican National Committee’s lists were better.

Look, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to get off Facebook: 1) It ends up draining your time and hurting your concentration; 2) it makes you dislike your friends who just won’t stop popping off about politics or posting pictures of their meals; 3) it makes your life seem inadequate when you see what your friends are up to.

But you’re just kidding yourself if you think you’re making a moral stand about the 2016 election or protecting your privacy.  There are plenty of worse actors to boycott than Facebook.