Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Best Music of 2007

The best new albums I bought in 2007 were:

Paul McCartney, "Memory Almost Full," a brilliant collection showing that McCartney is still at the top of his game. His solo work since 1993's "Off the Ground" has been very high quality, even when measured against his impressive back catalogue. I really believe that Paul McCartney is one of the greatest composers ever. Hundreds of years from now, he and John Lennon will be remembered as two of the great musical geniuses of the 20th century.

Nick Lowe, "At My Age," a super album with not a bit of filler among the 12 tracks, more people need to know about this vastly underrated singer/songwriter! Lowe is a bit similar to Paul McCartney and Ray Davies of the Kinks, he crafts gorgeous melodies and little vignettes, like short stories in miniature. (Note: I think part of the reason the Beatles worked so well is because John and Paul were such different writers. This is an oversimplification, but it's generally true, that Paul writes little story-songs with a cast of characters, and John wrote painfully lacerating autobiographical songs. Taken together, these two gifts complimented each other perfectly in the group.) Anyway, if you like Paul and the Kinks, you would definitely like Nick Lowe.

Dave Brubeck, "Indian Summer," recorded in January, 2007, an 86-year-old Brubeck shows that he still has the chops on this solo piano album. It's simply astonishing that Brubeck is this good at this age. His playing hasn't lost anything over the years. The disc is a mixture of standards and originals, and even includes a version of his alma mater's anthem, "Pacific Hail." (Brubeck's alma mater is the College of the Pacific.) My favorite song on the album is probably "Thank You," a song he wrote in 1958 for his Quartet. I'm a huge fan of Dave Brubeck, he's a great player and composer and also a great man.

Harry Connick Jr., "Oh, My Nola," buy this album! Connick is one of the most talented musicians around, he really is the heir to Bobby Darin's musical legacy. Like Darin, Connick writes songs, can sing just about any song in any genre, can act, is a dynamite showman, and is also a gifted instrumentalist. (Connick is a much better piano player than Darin was, but Bobby was still pretty good. And not many people are better at playing piano than Harry!) Connick also writes the arrangements for most of his albums. Yeah, he's a little bit impressive. Why is Michael Buble such a big deal??? I like Buble, but he has a very narrow range of talent. Connick simply blows him out of the water, there's no comparison. Yet when the New York Times reviewed a Buble concert this year, they favorably compared Buble to Connick! I think the reason is that people with a very narrow talent range can be very successful because people know what they are getting. Buble picks songs that are overly familiar, to the point where he really can't compete with the original version. But I think people pick up the Buble CD and say, "Oh, I know those songs, I'll buy this." They pick up a Harry Connick CD and say, "Oh, I don't know those songs, I'll put this back." People like Connick and Darin have a difficult time in the marketplace sometimes because they are so talented and so versatile, people can't just put them in one box. And we like to be able to put entertainers in a certain box. Singers get "typecast," much the same way that actors do.

Anyway, back to the album! Harry's album is a love song to New Orleans, the city where he was born and bred. It's a mixture of all kinds of different musical styles, just like a Jambalaya of great tunes! Sorry, that was cheesy...from the opening of Working in the Coal Mine to the closing Do Dat Thing, you will be vastly entertained by one of the very best. This CD is a great showcase for all of Harry's talent, his singing, piano playing, songwriting, and arranging. If you already like Harry Connick, you need to pick this CD up. If you don't know if you like Harry Connick, give this a listen. I think you'll dig it.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


The 1968 sex farce "Candy" is one of those movies that must have seemed dated about six months after it came out. Based on the scandalous novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, it starred the unknown Swedish teenager Ewa Aulin, in her Hollywood debut. (Given the content, it's a bit disturbing that she was just 18 when this was made.) Candy is basically a version of Candide, but with a female protagonist, and updated for the swinging 60's, baby. The film follows Candy on a picaresque series of adventures with a number of men, who all want to sleep with her. John Astin, most famous of course as Gomez Addams on the Addams Family, gives a good dual supporting performance as Candy's father and uncle.

The first man in question is Richard Burton as the drunk poet McPhisto, who has a wind machine constantly blowing his hair, even indoors. Burton's performance is the best in the film, as he effortlessly sends up his own reputation as a boozy ladies' man with a penchant for poetry. It's one of the few times Burton actually got to be funny on screen.

Then Ringo Starr shows up as, yes, you guessed it, a Mexican gardener! Oh about total miscasting! It's just painful to think that Ringo actually took time away from the Beatles to do this! But he quickly disappears, and next up is...Walter Matthau as a gung ho Army leader, very similar to Keenan Wynn's Col. Bat Guano in Dr. Strangelove, also by Terry Southern. Matthau's performance is another highlight, as he nails the blustery demeanor of the John Wayne-like military commander. But the story starts to lose steam, and it's all downhill from we see James Coburn as a doctor with a bit of a God complex...and how can you not like James Coburn? But the sequence is overly long, although Rolling Stones fans should be on the lookout for Anita Pallenberg as Coburn's nurse. She was Brian Jones's girlfriend, and then Keith stole her from Brian. Keith and Anita had a son together, Dandelion, aka Marlon. Apparently some people in the Stones' camp thought that Anita was a witch...anyway...back to the film...

Charles Aznavour has a pointless role as a hunchback...and then, finally, as our reward for making it this far into the film, we get...wait for it...Marlon Brando as a fake guru! Brando's performance caps off the film. His performance is indulgent, eccentric, and knowingly self-aware, which of course means that it's a perfect late-Brando performance. Using these qualifications, late Brando is just about anything after Guys and Dolls. Seriously, Brando is great, and you'll be amazed at how thin he was! He's tiny! How did he ever get so big??? Brando had such a reservoir of goodwill stored up from his early roles that he never quite extinguished it in his lifetime, try as he might to do so. It was always enjoyable to see him, no matter what he did or how weird he was.

The ending of Candy makes no sense, of course, and why should it? Candy is led to an underground temple, and the man who led her there, who is obscured by white body paint, starts to caress her. In the creepiest moment of the film, the man is revealed to be none other than Candy's father. Ick! What that's supposed to mean, I have no idea, other than ick! Gross! Anyway, after that, Candy frolics on a grassy hill with all the members of the cast, whilst some "groovy" music plays in the background...all of which bears an uncanny resemblance to the ending of the 40-Year-Old Virgin! I'm not kidding, see for yourself! Also, watch for Brando's crucifixion pose at the end, which was something of a trademark for him, (see One-Eyed Jacks, when he gets whipped, and the Young Lions, when he's shot) it's typical Brando self-indulgence, and probably a small clue as to how he saw himself.

Aulin is actually pretty good as Candy, although the role really calls for more reacting than actual acting...she doesn't have even a trace of a Swedish accent, so casting her as an American teenager was not a stretch. Aulin was certainly attractive enough to play the part, she wears her miniskirts well.

So what is the point of Candy? I suppose the message is, don't trust authority, man, cause it will use you for your hot Swedish body, man. Authority will always try to screw you, haha? Don't trust drunken poets, Mexican gardeners, the military, doctors, hunchbacks, avant-grade filmmakers, and gurus, I guess. Hey, wise words. Oh, another of the hideously dated aspects of Candy is the intro and outro, which are outer-space shots, as we slowly pan into and back from the Earth. Which might be cool if it weren't a total rip-off of 2001: A Space Odyssey, released earlier in 1968.

Alexander the Not-So-Great

I finally watched my copy of "Alexander the Great," from 1956, starring Richard Burton this week. And I was disappointed. Robert Rossen, the man who directed "The Hustler," wrote, produced, and directed Alexander, and he has a lot to answer for. How did he turn Alexander the Great's life story into a boring hodge-podge? Why are there so many ludicrously short scenes? Why did he make Burton wear a ridiculous blond wig? (It's seriously bad, it's in kind of a pompadour-looking style, it looks like a squirrel crawled on his head and died.) Why are the battle scenes so amazingly unimpressive? Okay, the last battle scene was decent for a 50's spectacle, but the two others are so bad! All we see are about 50 guys on one side of a river charging towards 50 guys on the other side...boring!

The story makes the mistake of following Alexander literally from the cradle to the grave, all in 2 hours and 15 minutes. (Which will feel like 3 hours plus, trust me.) Alexander doesn't even gain power until halfway through the movie. And then in the last half hour, the pace picks up and we zoom through the rest of his life. (Some of this speeding up is achieved through a graceless voiceover and montage, kind of a like a Movie-Tone News for the B.C. era. "And then he conquered all of the known world!") So the beginning of the film is too slow, and the end is too fast. What Rossen really should have done was pick a key time in Alexander's life and focus on that, instead of trying to cram everything in. It feels like Rossen ran out of time and money and suddenly realized he still had 10 years of Alexander's life to cover.

Burton, one of my all-time favorite actors, gives a good performance, but he's not given much to work with. Alexander seems curiously friendless, no character follows him through the whole movie, which doesn't help the disjointed feeling. But Burton was a kind of loner on screen, an existentialist, if you will. In all of his films, Burton's characters are almost always on their own. They have very few male friends, and almost never have any family that appear on screen. (An exception is "The Robe," where Burton actually has a father.) He was always somewhat aloof, remote, in his own world, just as Claire Bloom tells Alexander in the movie. Burton is commanding as Alexander, and towards the end, when Alexander is convinced of his own Godliness, quite compelling.

Burton and Rossen seem to have gotten along well, Burton did tons of research for the role, and they spent many hours discussing the age of Alexander. (You'd think Burton would have talked him out of the wig...) Burton loved The Hustler, and apparently quoted liberally from it whilst playing pool. Now that would have been something to see! Another Burton moment I wish I could have witnessed was Burton regaling Ringo Starr with a dramatic delivery of "I Am the Walrus," when Starr visited Burton's yacht. Another good one was the poetry contest he got into with Bobby Kennedy. They started quoting Shakespeare at a party, and challenging the other with various soliloquies and sonnets. Kennedy matched Burton line for line, but Burton finally "won" by reciting a sonnet backwards! Can you imagine any politician now being able to quote Shakespeare line for line? Somehow I think that George W. Bush might lack this ability...

I forget how striking Burton's eyes were until I see him in a color film. Alexander was filmed in Spain, and as Burton stands against the brilliantly blue Spanish sky, I noticed that his eyes actually match the color of the sky! Wow.

Anyway, unless you're a Burton fanatic, like myself, Alexander the Great is really nothing special, unfortunately.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Bye Bye, Torii

Well, with Torii Hunter signing with the Angels for $90 million, the Twins have surely saved enough money to continue their pursuit of A-Rod! They can probably offer A-Rod as much as $7 million a year! Haha...kidding aside, it's sad to see Torii go, but I can't really blame him. $90 million dollars for playing a game is ridiculous money. That's setting up every single one of your relatives and offspring for many, many generations. That's starting a kajillion foundations to do charitable work. That's more than the GNP of some countries. My prediction is that Torii will have two or three really good years with the Angels, and then taper off. He's a little old to be offering a 5-year deal to. The scuttlebutt is that the Twins offered him $45 million for 3 years, but he wanted a longer deal.

Anyway, as the Twins prepare to deal Johan Santana, all I can say is, let the rebuilding begin! It'll be fun opening the new stadium in 2010 with Joe Mauer and...all those other guys who will be, um...Nick Punto? I just hope the Twins get some good players for Santana. I'm glad the Twins traded Matt Garza, simply for the fact that I can't stand watching him pitch on TV! He always looks like he just tasted something really gross, or he has peanut butter on the roof of his mouth, so he's always flicking his tongue, it's very strange. And he does this literally all the time, like he has OCD or something. Take your tongue flicking to Tampa Bay, Matt Garza!

House of the Prisoner?

Is Hugh Laurie the new Patrick McGoohan? The more I watch "House," the more similarities I see between Laurie's Dr. House and McGoohan's Number 6 from the classic 60's TV show "The Prisoner." Laurie and McGoohan bear more than a passing resemblance to each other, which is what started my thinking about this. McGoohan was roughly the same age as Laurie was when "House" started, and an essential part of both characters is their age. They are not young men, they have seen the ups and downs of life. The physical resemblance that strikes me the most is their brilliantly blue eyes. Laurie does this thing where he puts his head slightly down, and just stares intensely with those eyes, it reminds me of so many moments in "The Prisoner" where McGoohan has exactly the same look on his face.

The characters share a completely anti-authoritarian philosophy, Number 6 for a clearer reason than House. They both use their sardonic humor to put down those in power. As House has Dr. Cuddy to constantly annoy him, so Number 6 is always matching wits and doing battle with Number 2. (How about a different Dr. Cuddy each week?) And although House ostensibly has his freedom, unlike Number 6, who is forced to remain in the Village, House is just as much a prisoner of his own narcissistic, poisoned worldview as Number 6 is. House has built his own prison, and however miserable he claims to be, he makes no attempt to escape it, unlike Number 6, who is always seeking a way out of the Village. One of the themes articulated by the last episode of "The Prisoner" is that we all are in a prison of our own making, no matter how comfortable it might seem to be. (That's all I'll say without giving too much of the last episode away.)

Those are all the similarities that spring immediately to mind, I know this isn't totally fleshed out, but I wanted to get this down before I forget it all.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A-Rod to Twins???

So A-Rod won his 3rd AL MVP yesterday, and deservedly so. He had an amazing year, and the Yankees surely would not have made the playoffs without him. And what a pity that would have been...that's a little sarcasm creeping in there, folks. But despite A-Rod seeming to kiss the Yankees goodbye by opting out of his contract, it sounds as though he will sign a ten-year deal with them, for somewhere in the neighborhood of, oh, $275 million. But this deal is by no means finalized yet. In fact, there's still a team that could be in the hunt. Yes, I'm talking about my hometown team, the Minnesota Twins. I don't think they've formally made A-Rod an offer yet, but I'm pretty sure that he would be willing to take a massive pay cut and sign with the Twins. It's a natural fit, we need a third baseman, who's the best hot corner man on the market? A-Rod could totally go to the Twins for like, $6.5 million a year, plus all the Dome Dogs he can eat. After all the pressure of New York City, he could relax in a smaller market, where the owners don't expect to win a World Series every year. But even with all that A-Rod has to offer the Twins, I'm still not sold...we do have Nick Punto playing third base. And in 2007 Punto hit a blazing .210, only 104 points lower than A-Rod, not to mention Punto's one home run, just 53 behind A-Rod. So, yeah, I really don't know how much better A-Rod would make the team. But I suppose it would be okay if the Twins signed him, I guess I'd just deal with it.

Halloween, Colbert Style

Okay, so I realize that Halloween was a while ago. It may even have occured last month, but don't quote me on that. Anyway, Stephen Colbert had a funny rant on that holiday, and I felt obliged to share it with my reading public. Stephen doesn't like Halloween, as he feels that it encourages panhandling in kids. "In the real world, every other day is like a holiday I call Unhalloween. That's where you dress up in normal clothes, like everyone else, hold down a steady job, bring home a paycheck and buy your own damn candy!"

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Norman Mailer, 1923-2007

Norman Mailer died last Saturday, at the age of 84. He had a good run, nearly sixty years as a published author, which is amazing. He was one of my favorite writers, and I will miss him. We need writers like Mailer, fearless men and women who aren't afraid of looking foolish. Okay, so Mailer did some crazy things in his life. He made experimental films, he bit off part of Rip Torn's ear, he stabbed his wife with a pen-knife, he argued for the release of convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott, who killed again once he was released, he took on feminists, he ran for Mayor of New York City, he smoked pot when only jazz musicians did, he had an ego the size of all outdoors. Still, he was never boring. Mailer thought of himself as the greatest writer of his generation, and even if he his reach exceeded his grasp, he was still trying to be the best, to write the Great American Novel. He once said that his goal for his writing was to achieve "Nothing less than a total revolution in the consciousness of our times." That's a pretty big goal to set for yourself. I admire a man who would make such a bold statement. I don't think many writers would admit, even to themselves, a goal so lofty. And Mailer wasn't afraid that people would mock him for his ambitions.

Unlike Hemingway, Mailer actually had a sense of humor about himself, he could poke fun at himself and his image. He was also a much better writer than Hemingway, and much less of an ass. There's a story that Hemingway and Mailer were going to meet at some bar in New York City, and Mailer was there waiting for his idol to show up, and he kept waiting and waiting and waiting. Hemingway never showed up, apparently he got cold feet. I think he was scared to meet someone who might possibly be as good a writer as he was. It's too bad, imagine the conversation that would have taken place!

Mailer was an extremely lucid commentator on America. It will probably be the case, if it isn't already, that his non-fiction is held in more esteem than his fiction. Two of my favorite Mailer books are "The Armies of the Night" and "Why Are We At War?" Published in 1968 and 2003, respectively, they show a writer who had a real grasp of his country, a brilliant incisiveness that he brought to his best writing. In interviews he was always entertaining, and a skilled conversationalist. Every interview I've read or seen of Mailer's always impressed me with his intelligence. On camera he was fascinating to watch, his bright blue eyes flashing with every new point he made.

I doubt very much that we will see his like again, the serious writer who becomes a celebrity and goes on talk shows. Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Truman Capote were the three post-war writers who held the attention of the media in a way that few other authors have since. Can you imagine John Updike on the Tonight Show?

1948 was the year that Mailer burst onto the literary scene with the publication of his first book, "The Naked and the Dead." He was just 25 years old. The book still stands up as brilliant today, especially considering his age. Mailer was thrust into the limelight, and for a long time had to deal with only being known as the boy who had written this book. His subsequent books failed to find an audience. His 1955 novel "The Deer Park," though a favorite of Mailer's, was rejected as obscene by just about every publisher. When it finally appeared, the reviews were atrocious. Mailer even took the step of running an ad highlighting the book's many negative reviews! (He would later repeat this trick with 1983's "Ancient Evenings.") People always said to Mailer, "I loved the Naked and the Dead...(long pause)...and the others...(voice trailing off)..." When Mailer met JFK in 1960, Kennedy said to him, "I loved the Deer Park...and the others..." And in so doing, astutely stroked the Mailer ego and won his ever-lasting affection.

One could argue that Mailer didn't hit his stride again until the 1960's, when he found a decade more suited to his quicksilver talents. Mailer didn't seem to fit in the 1950's. He was no man in the grey flannel suit, he needed the times to catch up to him, and in the 1960's they caught up in a hurry. Mailer was at his most prolific during this decade, publishing some 8 books during the 60's. He also was at the forefront of what came to be called New Journalism, inserting himself as a character into his pieces, notably in "The Armies of the Night," about a 1967 march on the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War. I would say that by writing about Norman Mailer the character, he found his ideal subject, and perhaps his greatest creation. Mailer was larger than life anyway, why not simply make himself a character in his own works? He was more complicated and interesting than any fictional character he could invent. And maybe he did invent some of that character, that public persona that he put on.

By the late 70's Mailer had seemingly worn out his "Norman Mailer" persona. People seemed tired of him constantly inserting himself into the narrative, even though his 1975 book "The Fight," about the Rumble in the Jungle between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, is one of my favorites. But that was one of the last times Mailer used himself as a character. He kept himself out of 1979's "The Executioner's Song" entirely, a won a second Pulitzer Prize. (His first was for "Armies of the Night.") Even though people love it, I couldn't get into it, and gave up about halfway through. Part of my problem was that Norman Mailer wasn't in it, and for that reason, it was much less interesting.

Mailer mellowed, at least a little bit, in his old age, although there was no way he would go gently into the night. His 2003 book "Why Are We At War?" issued just after the invasion of Iraq, showed that the old man had plenty of fight left in him. It was a brilliant attack on the Bush administration, full of all the vigor associated with Mailer at his best. And he still had one more big novel left in him, this year's "The Castle in the Forest." Good for him. Good for Norman to have one more big one, one more to go out on. He was a great man, despite his many failings. As usual, Gore Vidal summed up Mailer perfectly when he said, "He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievements." Thank you, Norman Mailer, for all the wonderful work you left us. You will be missed.

Happy Thanksgiving, Barry Bonds!

As Barry Bonds faces charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, those of us who have longed for a moment like this can only gloat. Happy Thanksgiving, Barry! Regardless of the ultimate outcome of these charges, it seems to be a safe bet that his playing days are over. And even if that’s all the punishment he gets, that’s enough. It’s enough for him to be forced out of the game under these circumstances. Come on, everyone who doesn’t live in San Francisco knows that the guy was on steroids! I don’t know if there’s something in the water in McCovey Cove or what…The tragedy of Barry Bonds is that he was a truly great player who sacrificed his entire reputation for the sake of personal records. His records will no longer mean anything, as all that people will remember is that he was a great player who sadly felt the need to cheat. And he was a great player before the steroids. If we assume that he did start taking steroids in 1998, he still put together a Hall of Fame career. It’s great that Barry will finish his career at 2,935 hits, just short of the magical 3,000 mark. Hah!

Anyway, it looks like Barry will get at least some of his just desserts. And in the not-too-distant future I’ll be cheering when future home run king A-Rod hits number 763.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Moon Rocks

So, I was listening to NPR's "Science Friday" show yesterday, and they were talking about NASA memoribilia. Apparently, astronauts take a huge duffel bag full of random crap with them every time they go into space. Then when they come back down, they give the stuff to schools, universities, stupid collectors, etc. I guess it's supposed to be like, "Here's your chalkboard eraser back, Mrs. Johnson's 4th grade class! It's been to space!" Which I'm sure kids would find really cool. Just make sure you keep it in a safe place and that Jimmy doesn't try to eat it. But I know that if I ever got something that had been in space, I would probably lose it. "Honey, where's the pen that's been in space?" "You mean the Space Pen that writes upside down?" "No, I mean the normal pen that I sent to NASA." "Have you seen the crockpot that's been in zero gravity?" And how do I know that NASA didn't just keep my stuff for like a year, do nothing with it, and then send it back to me? I have no way of knowing that something was in space. Also, how do I get NASA to send something into space? Is there a waiting list? Does Buzz Aldrin's stuff get priority over my stuff?

The expert NPR was talking to also mentioned that back in the day, people used to write NASA asking NASA to send them moon rocks. Um, you can't ask NASA for a moon rock! Sending a man to the moon was the largest peacetime project in the history of Western civilization! Do you think they're going to send the only thing they brought back from the moon to yahoos who write in? Do you think they brought back enough moon rock for everyone? I realize that a lot of the people who wrote to NASA were probably just curious kids, and I don't mean to make fun of them. Because it would be really cool to have a moon rock. But I'm pretty sure NASA isn't handing them out like candy. I would love to see the form letter they wrote to those people.

"Dear Joe Blow, Thanks for your interest in NASA and in the space program. Unfortunately, we need to study all the moon rocks to see what kind of monsters live there. I mean, to learn more about the moon. Also, Neil and Buzz took a lot of moon rocks home with them. And we felt really bad that Michael Collins had to stay up in the ship while he planned his Irish revolution, and couldn't walk on the surface of the moon, so we felt like we had to give him the biggest moon rock. It's only fair."

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs was one of the most gifted folksingers and songwriters of the 1960’s. Ochs wrote some of the best protest songs of that era. His most famous songs are probably “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” “There But for Fortune,” which was a hit for Joan Baez, and “Crucifixion.” Despite Ochs’s talent, he never achieved the widespread popular acclaim of his contemporary, Bob Dylan.

The War Is Over: The Best of Phil Ochs, is a best-of compilation covering Phil Ochs’s years with A&M Records from 1967-70. It serves as a fine introduction to this period of Ochs’s career. It’s now out of print and has been replaced by Ochs’s entry in the 20th Century Masters series. These two CDs share eight songs, however, The War Is Over does feature three songs from Ochs’s impossible to find 1970 album, Greatest Hits, which are not on 20th Century Masters. The only other rarity on The War Is Over is “Kansas City Bomber,” which was Ochs’s attempt to write a title song for the 1973 Raquel Welch movie. His song was not used in the movie, and was only issued as a single.

Ochs’s art was changing during this time, as he left behind the all-acoustic folk sound of his first three albums, on the Elektra label. His A&M albums showed him embracing more ornate, baroque accompaniments. The flowery baroque-pop of 1967’s Pleasures of the Harbor was directly influenced by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, issued earlier that same year. Ochs’s subject matter strayed from the left-wing topical protest songs he was most closely identified with, and the album showed the full range of his songwriting. With Pleasures of the Harbor, Ochs made the switch from “singing journalist,” as he described himself, to poet.

The songs on Pleasures of the Harbor ranged from the stateliness of the title track, a tale of sailors on shore leave, to the neo-ragtime boogie of “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” which would be the closest Ochs would ever come to having a hit single. Despite becoming a hit in various markets, nationwide it stalled outside of the Top 100. The song was Ochs’s satire on apathy, as he mocks those with good intentions who do not follow up on their words. It’s one of Ochs’s best songs, as he mixes the funny and witty with a strong social commentary.

Tape From California, recorded in the spring of 1968, showed some signs of a cautious optimism about the state of the world, as found in “The War is Over.” Ochs perhaps thought by writing a song declaring the Vietnam War over, he might make his own private fantasy a public reality. The hope of ending the war in 1968 was a real possibility, especially with the anti-war presidential candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Sadly, it was not to be. Another of Ochs’s finest anti-war songs is also from Tape From California, “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land,” which is sadly very applicable to our current war in Iraq. (“We’re fighting in a war we lost before the war began.”)

America underwent tremendous upheavals during the late 1960’s, and so did Ochs’s music and mental state. In a way his troubles mirrored the fate of the country as a whole. His songs grew darker and more pessimistic, especially after he witnessed the riots at the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago. Ochs’s next album after the 1968 election was 1969’s Rehearsals for Retirement. Ending with the bleak hopelessness of the title track, it showed an artist unsure of where to go, despondent at the failure of the 1968 election to change the world for the better. The optimism behind “The War is Over” was gone, replaced by a bitter fatalism. The album cover told much of the story, as it showed Ochs’s own gravestone, with the inscription saying that he had died in Chicago in 1968. As Ochs said in a 1969 concert, “Chicago was exhilarating at the time, and then very sad afterwards. Because something very extraordinary died there, which was America.”

But instead of actually retiring, Ochs transformed himself for his next album, 1970’s Greatest Hits. The title was meant ironically, as Ochs had never had any “hits” in the commercial, Top 40 sense, and just to confuse people, it was an album of all-new material. The cover of the album showed Ochs, electric guitar in hand, dressed in a gold suit, an obvious homage to Elvis. The songs were a mixture of rockabilly and country, and the sound harkened back to the 1950’s. Ochs seemed to be seeking an escape, a return to the past, to a simpler time in his life, hence the return to a 1950’s sound and subject matter. “Jim Dean of Indiana” was a tribute to James Dean, an immensely important icon to the teenage youth of the 1950’s. The lyrics of “One Way Ticket Home” talk of Elvis being the king, and Ochs being there for his crowning. The lyrics can also be seen as a metaphor for death-the one way ticket from which no one returns. “Gas Station Women” is about cars and girls, classic 1950’s song material. Cars and girls were simpler topics to write about than the current political situation, and more uplifting, too. The final song on Greatest Hits was “No More Songs”, a beautiful but heart-wrenching song about Ochs’s writer’s block. Ochs released just a handful of singles after Greatest Hits, but no more albums. For him, there truly were no more songs. After a long struggle with depression, Ochs committed suicide in April, 1976. He was just 35 years old. But his music lives on.

Intro to Blog

Hi, my name is Mark, and this is my blog. The purpose of this blog is simply so that I have an outlet for my writing. This blog will focus on my many different interests, from music, movies, and baseball, to politics and current events.