Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Review: Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, by Kostya Kennedy (2014)

Cover of Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, by Kostya Kennedy, 2014.

Pete Rose collecting hit number 4,192, breaking Ty Cobb's all-time record, September 11, 1985.

Special Topps cards from 1986 commemorating Rose passing Ty Cobb.

Pete Rose playing for the Phillies, illustrating why he was nicknamed "Charlie Hustle."

Rose during his brief stint with the Montreal Expos in 1984. He collected his 4,000th hit with the Expos.
Pete Rose is baseball’s all-time leader in hits, games, at-bats, and plate appearances. He’s 6th all-time in runs scored, 2nd in doubles, and 7th in total bases. Rose led the league in hits 7 times, doubles 5 times, runs scored 4 times, won 3 batting titles, was the 1963 NL Rookie of the Year, and the 1973 NL MVP. He was a 17-time All-Star, and made the All-Star team at 5 different positions, a record that will most likely never be broken.

Pete Rose played in his last major league game in 1986 and has been banned from major league baseball since 1989, yet he might still be baseball’s most divisive figure. Lots of ink has been spilled over Rose in the past 25 years, and Kostya Kennedy’s 2014 book Pete Rose: An American Dilemma, is the latest attempt to dissect the life and career of baseball’s all-time hit leader.  

Kennedy does a good job of analyzing the different parts of Rose’s life, with detours into the history of Cincinnati, and Pete’s relationship with his brother Dave. A highlight of the book was the section on the baseball career of Rose’s son Pete Rose Jr., who played professional baseball from 1989 until 2009, accumulating just 16 plate appearances and 2 hits in the major leagues in 1997. Like his father, Rose Jr. is a player with a tremendous work ethic. Pete Rose Jr. is now a manager in independent baseball, continuing his love affair with the game.
Pete Rose: An American Dilemma assumes a great deal of familiarity with Rose’s playing career, as it jumps around in chronology and doesn’t cover every year of Rose’s 24-year playing career. I was already quite familiar with Rose’s career, but I wish the book had provided more context for Rose’s remarkable accomplishments. 

Throughout the book, Kennedy never really comes down on one side or the other, for or against Rose. Does he think Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame? Does he think that Pete Rose should be reinstated? Kennedy never really says. Kennedy is harsh on Rose throughout the book, yet he clearly feels that the Hall of Fame’s treatment of Rose was unfair when it singled him out and changed the rules in 1991 so he wouldn’t appear on the ballot. The new rule stated that anyone on baseball’s ineligible list could not appear on the ballot for the Hall of Fame. Since Rose was the only player on the ineligible list, the rule change was obviously targeted at him. The Hall of Fame clearly didn’t want to deal with the possibility of Rose being voted into the Hall of Fame while at the same time being banned from baseball, which seems like the biggest oxymoron imaginable. 

Pete Rose’s behavior since 1989 is oftentimes incomprehensible to rational people. When it became clear during Major League Baseball’s investigation of his gambling habits that Rose would be banned, Rose and his lawyers fought for a paragraph in the document banning Rose that said he neither admitted nor denied having bet on baseball. This was a ridiculous assertion to make, and I don’t understand why then-Commissioner Bart Giamatti allowed such unclear language into the final document. If Rose wasn’t admitting that he bet on baseball, why was he being banned? If Rose hadn’t bet on baseball, why did he accept the ban? Major League Baseball should have forced Rose to admit in 1989 that he did bet on baseball. Instead, Rose lied for 15 years, not telling the truth and admitting that he bet on baseball until the release of his 2004 autobiography, My Prison Without Bars.
If Pete Rose were a smarter guy he might have been reinstated and be back in baseball by now. But I think he’s a dumb guy who really doesn’t get what he did wrong. He knows that he broke the rules, but he’s never seemed ashamed that he broke the rules. As Kennedy says, Rose isn’t sorry for what he did, he’s only sorry that he got caught. Rose’s half-hearted apologies have never seemed sincere. 

In my opinion, in order to have any chance of getting back into baseball, Rose needed to do three things:

1. Come clean and tell the whole truth about betting on baseball
      2. Apologize for betting on baseball
      3. Stay as far away from gambling as possible

Rose has failed miserably at those three tasks, as he didn’t tell the truth or apologize until 2004, and he spends most of his time in Las Vegas, signing autographs at memorabilia shops. But signing his name for money has proven to be most lucrative for Rose, as according to Kennedy, Rose pulls down a guaranteed income of $70,000 a month in Las Vegas. Rose also might not have told the whole truth in 2004, when he said he bet on baseball “four or five times a week.” He amended that to saying in 2007 that he bet on baseball “every night.” Is there anything else Rose is saving for his next book?

Pete Rose is a contradiction. On one hand, he seems guileless, unflinchingly honest, and yet he lied about betting on baseball for 15 years. During his playing career, Rose was extremely savvy about cultivating his image as “Charlie Hustle,” by always running to first base on a walk, and always sliding into bases headfirst, whether it was necessary or not. But since he was banned from baseball, Rose seems tone-deaf to how he comes off to the public. 

Part of me likes Pete Rose. He was a great baseball player, someone who gave it his all out there on the field every single day he played. I met Pete Rose at a baseball card show to get his autograph, and he seemed like a nice guy in the thirty seconds I talked to him. I even watched his terrible reality show on TLC, “Hits and Mrs.” But he’s also a jerk who bet on baseball and doesn’t really seem to get why that’s such a big deal. And that’s the contradiction of Pete Rose. I think that Rose deserves to be in the Hall of Fame as a player, but I don’t think Rose should be in the Hall of Fame as long as he’s banned from baseball. I know that the Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball are different organizations, but for me, personally, if you’re banned from one, why should you be in the other?

If you’re interested in Pete Rose’s baseball career, and his post-baseball life, you should read Pete Rose: An American Dilemma. It’s a great introduction to one of baseball’s most controversial figures.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Album Review: Bryan Ferry, "Avonmore" (2014)

Album cover of "Avonmore," showing a young Bryan Ferry from the 1970's.

This is the cover image that Amazon showed for Bryan Ferry's "Avonmore" before it was released.

Bryan Ferry, mid-1970's, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary.

Bryan Ferry in 2014, still as handsome and well-dressed as ever.
Bryan Ferry’s 15th solo studio album “Avonmore” was released last month, and it’s yet another excellent piece of smooth pop from the former Roxy Music frontman. Ferry’s music hasn’t changed a great deal since 1980 or so, when the rough edges got sanded off of Roxy Music, but he still puts out perfectly glossy, elegant records full of beautiful midnight ennui. Ferry’s solo albums since 1985’s “Boys and Girls” are usually as smooth as a pane of glass, and “Avonmore” is no exception to that. 

“Avonmore” features eight new Ferry originals and two covers. Ferry is in great voice throughout the record. His voice has been burnished by the years, and that brings a certain melancholic quality to it that fits his songs very well. Ferry’s voice now sounds as world-weary as his songs have always been. “Avonmore” was produced by Ferry and Rhett Davies, who has worked with him off and on since the Roxy Music days. There are a lot of layers of sound going on, but “Avonmore” never feels overproduced. Ferry is supported by an all-star cast of musicians, including Nile Rodgers, Johnny Marr, Mark Knopfler, and Flea. Ferry’s son Tara plays drums on all of the songs, except for “Johnny and Mary,” and Ferry himself plays keyboards throughout the album. 

The track listing for “Avonmore” is as follows:

“Loop De Li”: A catchy song, featuring some hallmarks of Roxy Music’s sound, like an oboe and a saxophone. Ferry’s lyrics tell the story of someone caught in a pattern or loop with no way out. Ferry sings, “Well I know you know/we’re killing time/we’re on an up down see-saw/loop de li.” A beautiful portrait of alienation.

“Midnight Train”: There are 9 guitarists on this song! But somehow it doesn’t sound overstuffed, just polished like a smooth river stone. “Midnight Train” is one of my favorite songs on the album. Ferry has a way of making lyrics that could sound like clich├ęs sound fresh. The song is full of romantic yearning, as Ferry sings, “I’ll never know/the meaning of your kiss/midnight train/must it end/like this?” I can just imagine Ferry standing forlornly at a train station, waiting for his girlfriend to come back, looking sad and handsome in a trench coat smoking a cigarette. 

“Soldier of Fortune”: Co-written with Johnny Marr, the guitarist from The Smiths. It has a laid-back insistence. Features some great guitar playing, this time from only 3 guitarists. As usual, Ferry is in pain in this song, as he sings, “I’m going out of my mind/and I won’t be back again.” 

“Driving Me Wild”: This song has something of an ominous feeling, as Bryan sings in the first verse, “My heart is pounding/I’m trembling with rage/I’m wrestling with my demons/on every page.” A woman is driving him wild, and Ferry sinks deeper into anguish: “No dream will ever be the same/everything around me calls your name.” This song has one of my favorite lyrics on the album: “I’m dealing with a feeling/that nobody knows/an unkindness of ravens/a murder of crows.” I knew that the proper term for a gathering of crows is a “murder” but I had no idea until I heard this song that the term for a gathering of ravens is an “unkindness.” Those very loaded terms just add to the unease of the song.

“A Special Kind of Guy”: Ferry is once again lovelorn, as he wishes that he could have the love of the girl in this song. Ferry sings that she needs “A special kind of guy/would take you by the hand/for all the world to see/wish it could be me.” This song is a good showcase for Ferry’s piano and keyboard work. It’s a beautiful song, melancholy, elegant, and yearning. 

“Avonmore”: This is one of my favorite songs on the album. There’s an intensity to the rhythm of the song that I really like, and that reminds me a little bit of the Roxy Music song “Both Ends Burning.” Once again, Ferry plays the yearning romantic, as he sings on this chorus: “I want a love that’s never ending/through all the thunder and the rain/but there’s no sense in pretending/I know I’ll never fall in love again.” Features a lovely saxophone solo from Richard White. 

“Lost”: A slow ballad that features Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits on guitar. Another romantic song for late at night.

“One Night Stand”: A funky song about the possibility of finding love with that stranger on the dance floor. Like “Midnight Train,” this song also features 9 guitarists, but again it doesn’t feel like too much. Ferry sings, “In the mood and in the dark/can you mend that broken heart?” We don’t know what the answer will be, but I’m guessing from the melancholy nature of this album it’s probably no. 

“Send in the Clowns”: Bryan Ferry singing Stephen Sondheim? Sure, why not. Ferry has always had success with unlikely cover versions, from the very beginning of his solo career. This is a lovely version of this standard from “A Little Night Music.” Ferry’s voice adds the necessary pathos, but he keeps it from going over the top. Nice trumpet solo from Enrico Tomasso. 

“Johnny and Mary”: Ferry’s cover of Robert Palmer’s 1980 hit single jettisons the nervous, New Wave energy of the original, drastically slows it down, and strips the song down to its basics. It’s brilliant and beautiful, and it starts with just a murmuring synth line and finger snaps. This version was originally recorded for Norwegian DJ Todd Terje's album “It’s Album Time,” released in April, 2014. I really love Robert Palmer’s version of “Johnny and Mary,” so I was excited to hear what Bryan Ferry would do with it. I love the lyrics to this song, as Palmer paints a vivid picture of this couple: “Johnny’s always running around/trying to find certainty/he needs all the world to confirm/that he ain’t lonely/Mary counts the walls/knows he tires easily.” Ferry’s version plays up the paranoia in the song, inherent in lyrics like “Scared that he’ll be caught/without a second thought.” “Johnny and Mary” moves at a languid pace, stretching out over nearly seven minutes, and I find it mesmerizing. A great ending to a marvelous album. 

My three favorite songs from “Avonmore” are “Midnight Train,” “Avonmore,” and “Johnny and Mary.” If you like Bryan Ferry or Roxy Music, go out and get “Avonmore,” pour yourself a drink, listen to it late at night and let the music wash over you.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book Review: Conversations with William F. Buckley, Jr. edited by William F. Meehan III (2009)

Conversations with William F. Buckley Jr., 2009.

William F. Buckley looking like a rock star riding his moped in New York City in the 1960's.

William F. Buckley at his desk.
I’ve written about William F. Buckley before on this blog, as I recently review his novel Saving the Queen and I wrote a very long piece about his fascinating book Overdrive, which chronicled a week in his fast-moving life. My political sympathies run to the opposite end of the spectrum from the late Mr. Buckley, but that does not preclude my enjoyment of his writings and his personal style. I’m also an admirer of his son Christopher, who has written many very funny satirical novels. 

Having thus established my Buckley bona fides, I turn to the subject at hand: the 2009 book Conversations with William F. Buckley, Jr. It’s from the long-running “Literary Conversations Series” published by the University Press of Mississippi, and these volumes have proven to be endlessly fascinating for fans of the authors profiled. The University Press of Mississippi has done readers an immeasurable service through this series by rounding up these interviews and collecting them in one volume. The volume on William F. Buckley is shorter than those on other writers, as it runs just 186 pages. 

The earliest interview in the book is from Playboy magazine in 1970, and it’s arguably the most interesting, as Buckley holds court on all manner of topics. The Playboy interview is also by far the longest included, as it runs for more than 40 pages. One of Buckley’s funniest quips from that interview is when he says that too many people are voting, and the interviewer asks him who he would exclude from voting. Buckley’s response is: “A while ago, George Gallup discovered that 25 percent or so of the American people had never heard of the United Nations. I think if we could find that 25 percent, they’d be reasonable candidates for temporary disenfranchisement.” (p.24) Buckley’s quote reminds me of Gore Vidal’s witty remark: “Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never vote for President. One hopes it is the same half.” 

Most of the later interviews in the book discuss Buckley’s novel writing, so there is some repetition as Buckley describes his working methods again and again. The interviews that delve into politics the most are the Playboy interview and an interesting 1978 interview with The American Civil Liberties Review. The focus on Buckley’s novels makes sense given the interests of William F. Meehan III, the editor of the book, as he wrote a dissertation on Buckley’s fiction.

Conversations with William F. Buckley sheds more light on the fascinating personality of one of the 20th century’s most prolific public intellectuals. Surprisingly enough, Buckley claimed that he didn’t enjoy writing, as he says in a 1978 interview, “I get pleasure out of having written. I like to paint. I don’t like writing, but there is a net satisfaction when it’s done.” (p.75) In another interview from 1978, Buckley shared the success of his famous productivity: “Deadlines. I have deadlines for everything. I find them liberating.” (p.69) Buckley expounded a little more in a 1983 interview: “I had three deadlines this weekend. And because they simply had to be done, they were done. And if you know that you’ve got to phone in six columns, they get phoned in. The people I pity are not the people who have deadlines, they’re the people who don’t have deadlines.” (p.84) That sounds easy enough, right? Just set some deadlines for yourself and you’ll soon be as productive as William F. Buckley. I think it helped that Buckley had a tremendous work ethic.

Throughout the book, Buckley comes across as smart, witty, funny, and someone who must have been a lot of fun to hang out with. I’d recommend Conversations with William F. Buckley to anyone with an interest in this fascinating, entertaining, sesquipedalian writer and thinker.