Sunday, October 23, 2016

Book Review: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

Book jacket of Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2015.

The journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates.
There is a racial crisis in America right now, as it becomes clearer and clearer that we are not actually living in a “post-racial” America, as some people had hoped after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. Incidents of police brutality against young African American men have become all too commonplace in the headlines over the last few years. Saint Paul, the city where I live, was thrust into these headlines this past summer with the tragic death of Philando Castile. Against the backdrop of this crisis, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote 2015’s Between the World and Me, a long letter to his 15 year old son, and a meditation about race in America.

Whether you agree with what Coates writes in the book or not, Between the World and Me is an extremely important book, one that deserves to be widely read by both black and white readers. Coates tells his story of growing up in Baltimore, and how race has defined and shaped his life. 

I know that as a white person, or as Coates would write, “A person who believes they are white,” I cannot fully understand what it’s like to be black in America. My understanding of Coates’ book is inevitably colored by my race. 

Coates paints a bleak and depressing picture of race in America, telling his son, “So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair.” (p.71) Well, it sounds pretty despairing to me. 

There is a sad truth when Coates writes, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body-it is heritage.” (p.103) I agree with Coates’ depiction of race relations throughout American history, but what I don’t agree with is Coates’ seeming insistence that we are prisoners of the past, playing out the same rituals of oppression time and time again. I saying seeming insistence because I don’t actually know if Coates thinks we can move beyond racism or not. I suppose I just want to have faith in the idea that we are making progress towards greater equality in this country. If we don’t have faith in that idea, then how do you avoid nihilism and despair?

Coates name-checks Malcolm X many times in the book, and it’s clear that Malcolm is an intellectual hero of his, but since all of the Malcolm X quotes are from the time he was involved with the Nation of Islam, I wondered what Coates would say about the Malcolm X of 1964 and 1965 who believed in integration, rather than black separatism? 

Coates does not give the reader any answers in Between the World and Me, he doesn’t prescribe any solutions. He offers the reader no succor, only a list of ever-growing offenses. I’m okay with that-not every book needs to have the answers for the difficult and complicated questions it raises. And the questions that Between the World and Me raises are essential ones for America in 2016.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Concert Review: Nick Lowe at the Dakota Jazz Club

Nick Lowe at the Dakota Jazz Club, October 11, 2016. (Photo taken by my wife.)
Nick Lowe with his trusty guitar.

Last night Nick Lowe performed at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. Lowe has appeared at the Dakota before-I reviewed his 2008 concert here. Last night’s concert was the 6th time I’ve seen Nick Lowe live, and he always puts on an excellent show. Lowe forgot a couple of lyrics last night, which he apologized for, and his British charm ensured that his fans quickly forgave him. Lowe was witty, as always, as he said after playing “Cruel to be Kind,” “That was a medley of my hit.” 

Lowe performed solo, which is my favorite way to hear him. Lowe is a performing who can keep the audience spellbound with just his voice and guitar. His guitar playing is very rhythmic, and it keeps the songs rolling along. Lowe’s voice is superbly expressive, and when he sings sad songs the ache is his voice is very moving. The set list was an excellent collection of Nick Lowe’s greatest songs, and as usual, focused mainly on his songs over the last twenty years, and not his early songs from the 1970’s and 1980’s-although some of those songs made appearances as well. 

Nick was in a good mood, and he shared some interesting stories about songwriter and guitarist Henry McCullough, an acquaintance of Lowe’s who recently passed away. (McCullough was in Wings, and played the great guitar solo on “My Love.”) Lowe sang a moving version of McCullough’s song “Failed Christian,” which appeared on Lowe’s 1998 album “Dig My Mood.” Other highlights of the evening included “What’s Shakin’ on the Hill,” “House for Sale,” which positively ached with loneliness, “People Change,” and the encores of “When I Write the Book” and “Alison.” 

Lowe said that there were some new songs mixed in with the other songs, he said he hoped they didn’t stick out too much. One is probably called “Crying Inside,” and it was a lovely song, hopefully Lowe will record it soon. Lowe’s songs might sound simple and straight forward, but you can tell that the words have been carefully chosen. His songs of the last twenty years don’t have any fat on them-there’s nothing extraneous there. Every word serves a purpose. 

Here’s the set list from last night:

People Change
Stoplight Roses
Long Limbed Girl
Raging Eyes
Has She Got a Friend?
What’s Shakin’ on the Hill
Crying Inside (new song)
Until the Real Thing Comes Along
The Shoes I Used to Wear (new song)
I Trained Her to Love Me
I Live on a Battlefield
Failed Christian
Cruel to be Kind
Sensitive Man
Somebody Cares for Me
House for Sale
Only Make You Lonely (new song)
Peace, Love, and Understanding
I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll

When I Write the Book
Rin Tin Tin

Monday, October 3, 2016

Book Review: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard (2011)

Cover of Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard, 2011.

Author Candice Millard.
James A. Garfield is one of the more obscure presidents in the history of the United States. He was president for slightly less than four months when he was shot in the back by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled office-seeker. Garfield still lived for two and a half months after Guiteau’s assassination attempt, before dying on September 19th, 1881. In her 2011 book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, author Candice Millard gives us a fuller picture of the life and death of James A. Garfield. Destiny of the Republic is not a full-scale biography of Garfield, but there is enough background material to get a sense of his personality, and Garfield emerges from the shadows of history as a noble, intelligent, hard-working man who might have gone down in history as a fine president were it not for Guiteau’s bullet-or, rather, the constant interference of Garfield’s doctors. 

Throughout the book, Millard switches between Garfield, Guiteau, and Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone who attempted to invent an “induction balance” that would help the doctors locate the bullet inside of Garfield. Like Erik Larson, Millard is able to convey a tension in the narrative, despite the fact that we know how the story will end. Millard thoroughly immerses the reader in the political battles of the 1870’s and 1880’s, at a time when the Republican Party was tearing itself apart over patronage and the “spoils system.” Men like James A. Garfield, who were against patronage, were nicknamed “Half-Breeds,” while “Stalwarts” like Chester A. Arthur supported the status quo. At the Republican National Convention in 1880, the fight was between former President Ulysses S. Grant, the favorite of the Stalwarts, and James G. Blaine, the leading Half-Breed candidate. Garfield was not a candidate for president, and he gave a nominating speech for John Sherman, the younger brother of Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman. However, Garfield’s speech proved to be such a hit that the deadlocked convention ended up turning to him as the party’s nominee. To placate the Stalwarts, Chester A. Arthur was chosen as the Vice-Presidential candidate. 

After Garfield won the 1880 election, Charles Guiteau thought that he should become the ambassador to France. Guiteau had a long history of erratic behavior, and absolutely no qualifications for holding an ambassadorship. After he was rebuffed numerous times by Garfield and Blaine, who was now Secretary of State, Guiteau decided that, as a committed Stalwart, he really needed Chester A. Arthur in office so he could take up his rightful position. Guiteau stalked Garfield for weeks, and since the president didn’t really have any security, it was not difficult for Guiteau to wait for Garfield at the Washington, D.C. train station and shoot him in the back. Interesting tidbit: the Baltimore and Potomac train station where Garfield was shot has been torn down, and the National Gallery of Art is now on that spot.

Unlike all of the other successful presidential assassins, who were all in their 20’s when they committed their crime; Guiteau was 39 years old when he shot Garfield. Guiteau was a longtime scam artist who traveled from town to town giving religious speeches and leaving town before his hotel bills were due. Guiteau was under the mistaken impression that Americans would thank him for shooting Garfield, and he also thought that he was being taken to jail for his own protection, and would eventually be released. Of course, that didn’t happen. After Garfield’s death, Guiteau went on trial for his murder, was found guilty, and was hanged on June 30, 1882.

So, how did Garfield die? Well, back on those days, American doctors didn’t believe in the germ theory, or Dr. Joseph Lister’s ideas about having a sterile operating room. Because of this, multiple doctors probed Garfield’s wound in his back with their unwashed hands in their futile search to find the bullet. This introduced an infection, and it was this infection that eventually killed Garfield. Not a pleasant way to go. The main culprit was Doctor D. Willard Bliss, who proclaimed himself in charge of Garfield’s care. (The D in his name actually stood for Doctor.) Bliss was, well, blissfully unaware of Dr. Lister’s ideas, and kept insisting that he knew what was best for Garfield, even as the president was dying. Millard does an excellent job of detailing all of the medical malpractice surrounding Garfield’s illness.

Millard paints a vivid picture throughout the book of James A. Garfield as a man of great principle. However, one of the surprises of Destiny of the Republic is that Garfield’s successor, Chester A. Arthur, who in the beginning of the book has all of the backbone of a chocolate ├ęclair, ends up coming into his own as president. Arthur became a strong supporter of civil service reform, leading to the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Act in 1883. 

Destiny of the Republic is an excellent book if you’re interested in an overlooked period of American history. Unfortunately, the book sheds no light on why Garfield loved lasagna so much, or his seemingly irrational hatred of Mondays.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Album Review: The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl (2016)

Album cover for The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl, 2016.

The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl, 1965.
The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl fills an important gap in the band’s discography. Remastered by Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, and released to coincide with Ron Howard’s new documentary, Eight Days a Week: the Touring Years, which I reviewed here, The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl was originally released in 1977, and has remained the group’s only official live album. And until now, it had never been released on CD. As a die-hard Beatles fan, I actually bought it on cassette around 1993, just to complete my Beatles collection. I idly wondered over the years if it would ever see the light of day on CD, and I’m glad that it finally has.

The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl is a time capsule, an artifact of that brief period when the group played countless concerts to stadiums full of screaming teenage girls. Recorded at the band’s three performances at the Bowl in 1964 and 1965, the album features good performances from the band, and a lot of screaming from the enthusiastic audience. Even with Giles Martin’s work, which allows us to hear the Beatles in greater clarity, the group is still overpowered by the audience. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy how good the Beatles were live. There’s a dynamic energy to their music that comes across strongly on these recordings. There’s a reason these girls were going nuts over the Beatles. 

As I mentioned in my review of Eight Days a Week, what’s so striking is how good the Beatles were live, despite the fact that they couldn’t actually hear themselves on stage. The album opens with the excitement of “Twist and Shout,” featuring John Lennon’s superb vocals. Unfortunately, the Beatles made this version shorter than their studio recording by omitting the guitar solo, meaning it’s only a minute and half long. Paul gets his turn to tear up a rocker next with “She’s a Woman,” followed by the group’s cover of Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” Lennon changes some of the lyrics, as he implores Lizzy to “love me till I’m satisfied,” and “love me till the end of time,” lyrics not found on either the studio version of the song or Williams’ original recording. 

“Ticket to Ride” is a challenging song to play live, but Ringo nails the song’s distinctive drum pattern. George plays a great solo on “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and Paul’s vocal is loose and almost jazzy. As described in the liner notes, the moment when the band moves into the bridge on “Things We Said Today” and the crowd unleashes their screams is electric. “Roll Over Beethoven” is taken at a much faster tempo than the studio version.

Lennon has a funny bit as he intros “A Hard Day’s Night,” adding a Scottish burr to the song’s title. George nails the distinctive guitar solo, yet more proof of his live prowess. John sings the wrong line on “Help!” instead of singing “I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before” during the second chorus, he sings “Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors.” As fans of the Beatles’ live performances know, “We’d like to carry on now with our next number” is the standard Beatle intro for a song, usually spoken by Paul, and here both George and Paul say it. The standard concert closer was Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” which also closed their last official concert at Candlestick Park in 1966. Fortunately we get four bonus tracks, John’s rocking “You Can’t Do That” and a rather ragged take of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” from 1964, George’s cover of Carl Perkins’ “Everybody’s Trying to be My Baby” and John and Paul duetting on “Baby’s in Black” from 1965. 

The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl gives those of us who weren’t around in the 1960’s a taste of what Beatlemania sounded like, and it’s a glorious jolt of adrenaline.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Movie Review: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week-The Touring Years, Directed by Ron Howard (2016)

Poster for Eight Days a Week, 2016.

The Beatles at their first American concert, Washington, DC, February 1964.
Ron Howard’s documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week-The Touring Years, is a fun look back at the Fab Four’s early days, focusing on the period from 1963 to 1966. Of course, this material has been recalled in other places, like the Beatles’ own Anthology TV special, but Eight Days a Week features quite a bit of previously unseen footage of the Beatles on stage. 

Eight Days a Week features new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, along with several other talking heads. The film doesn’t seek to argue for the importance of the Beatles’ impact on popular culture; it’s aim is to entertain us. But we do get a peek at the Beatles’ firm stance against segregation when there were rumors that a show in Jacksonville, Florida was to be segregated. (The band stood firm, and played to an integrated audience.) What comes across most strongly in the film is the fun the Beatles brought to the world. Here were four adorable young men playing fantastic music and just having a great time. Their collective wit is on display throughout the movie-from George Harrison casually dropping his cigarette ash in John Lennon’s hair to Lennon introducing himself to a clueless American interviewer as “Eric.” As George Harrison said, “The Beatles saved the world from boredom.” 

What comes across so strongly in the film is how different the Beatles were from anyone else. There simply wasn’t anyone or anything quite like them in 1963 and 1964. Their impact on popular music was similar to Elvis Presley-they became a dividing line of “before the Beatles” and “after the Beatles.” If you go back and listen to “She Loves You,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” there is still an amazing vitality to those records today. When you couple those thrilling sounds with the Beatles’ very revolutionary visual style, (that long hair!) you understand why everyone went crazy for them. 

Performing live for the Beatles became very difficult, as they had to play to huge crowds of screaming fans, and the inadequate sound systems of the time meant that they couldn’t hear themselves on stage. Given those limitations, as Elvis Costello reminds us in the film, it’s really remarkable how often they were in tune. I’m always amazed at George Harrison’s playing, how in concert he was able to replicate note for note the solos from the records. By 1966, the magic of touring had worn off for the Beatles, and what had been fab fun in 1964 now seemed like an onerous slog. Their music was also becoming more complicated-on their 1966 tour they never attempted to play any of the songs from their latest record, Revolver, live. And Lennon’s comments about the band being “more popular than Jesus” caused outrage in the United States, making for an uncomfortable atmosphere as they embarked on their last tour in August, 1966.

The live footage in Eight Days a Week is great fun to watch-my only quibble with the film is that it looks like some of the footage from their first American press conference and their first American concert has been colorized, which is too bad. Also, there’s no mention of Jimmy Nicol, the drummer who was briefly a Beatle when he sat in for Ringo for 8 shows in June of 1964 when Ringo recovered from a tonsillectomy. Sharp-eyed Beatle fans will notice Nicol appears briefly in some of the footage from Australia in Eight Days a Week. 

For a limited time, The Beatles at Shea Stadium will follow Eight Days a Week in theaters. Hopefully this will be an extra on the DVD. When the Beatles’ 1 DVD was released last year, we saw some footage from Shea for the “Eight Days a Week” clip, and it looked fantastic, which whetted my appetite for seeing the whole show. The Beatles at Shea Stadium is very high-quality color footage of an extremely important moment in rock and roll, as it captures the first big stadium rock concert, which would become a staple of the genre during the next decade. Before 55,000 fans, the Beatles played 12 songs, and the film captures their incredible charisma and talent. It’s amazing to watch John Lennon and Paul McCartney, two of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, or indeed any century, share a microphone and harmonize together on “Baby’s in Black” and “Ticket to Ride.” And listen to the band’s performance: they tackle complicated songs like “Ticket to Ride,” and “I Feel Fine,” and they sound magnificent. As I noted earlier, George Harrison’s solos are superb. 

Eight Days a Week is essential viewing for any Beatle fan, or anyone who enjoys great music.