Saturday, January 21, 2012

"That's Entertainment," by The Jam

I’ve been listening to a lot of the British band The Jam lately. The Jam were a great band, mixing punk and new wave in their brief career. Paul Weller was the lead singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter in the band, with Bruce Foxton on bass and Rick Buckler on drums. Foxton’s bass playing was amazing, and it frequently provided the main melody for The Jam’s songs. The Jam never made much of a commercial impression in the United States, but in England they were very successful, with many top ten singles to their credit.

One of The Jam’s greatest songs is “That’s Entertainment,” from their 1980 album “Sound Affects.” It’s not to be confused with the song of the same name by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz from the 1953 Fred Astaire musical “The Band Wagon.” The Jam’s “That’s Entertainment” was written by Paul Weller in 10 minutes after coming home from the pub drunk. (That’s according to Weller, at least.) “That’s Entertainment” was never released as a single in the U.K., but amazingly enough, it charted as an import single, making #21 in the charts in early 1981.

“That’s Entertainment” is a great example of the power of music to communicate emotion. The melody, chords, and progression contain such emotion that you would know the feeling of the song even if you didn’t understand the words that Weller was singing. The song builds tension all through the verses before releasing some of that tension in the chorus. “That’s Entertainment” begins with a catchy guitar riff before Foxton’s bass line enters and provides a neat compliment to the main melody of the guitar. Then the guitar riff gets doubled and gets louder. Then Weller’s vocal enters and he sings the first verse:

“A police car and a screaming siren

A pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete

A baby wailing and stray dog howling

The screech of brakes and lamp light blinking”

Then the chorus, which is simply:

“That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment”

The verses all follow this pattern, seemingly disconnected images of everyday life. The only thread that connects the lyrics is their stark bleakness. In Weller’s lyrics here there is little happiness or pleasure, only bad things and images of urban decay. Weller’s voice is forceful and angry as he sings the verses, and it lightens somewhat as he sings the chorus. The words in the first verse tell us that this is not a happy landscape, the siren is “screaming,” the baby is “wailing,” the stray dog is “howling,” all images that set us on edge right from the beginning.

The second verse isn’t any happier, and it ends with:

“Lights going out and a kick in the balls”

Again, not a very happy image. But the second time through the chorus, after the second “That’s Entertainment,” Weller reaches up for a high “Ah, la la la la la,” giving the music a tremendous lift. The “la la la la la” melody then becomes a backing vocal behind the third verse, providing a kind of ironic counterpoint to Weller’s lyrics about “slow time Mondays” and “boring Wednesdays.” (I’m not sure if the backing vocal is sung by Weller or by Bruce Foxton.) The fourth verse provides a really terrible image:

“Waking up at 6AM on a cool warm morning

Opening the windows and breathing in petrol”

Ugh, what a terrible way to start the day. The beauty and tranquility of an early morning is shattered by the intrusive smell of gasoline. Nature is spoiled by man’s inventions. I’m not quite sure what a “cool warm morning” is, but it’s a nice turn of phrase. At the end of the verse Weller gives us the only escape so far from this stagnation and decay:

“Watching the telly and thinking ‘bout your holidays”

Which isn’t too uplifting. As the fifth verse begins, the only new sound in the record is introduced, a brief backwards guitar part that plays as Weller sings the verse. It’s unobtrusive enough that I didn’t even notice it the first few times I listened to the song. The fifth verse has one of my favorite lines:

“A hot summer’s day and sticky black tarmac”

Which isn’t that deep or anything, but I love the way it sounds. Everyone knows what a day is like when it’s so hot that the fresh tar on the roads bubbles up. And I love all the c’s and k’s in “sticky black tarmac.” It just wouldn’t be the same if Weller had written “sticky black asphalt.”

The sixth, and final, verse starts with the lines:

“Two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight

Two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude”

This is simply great writing. In the first line Weller has subverted the usual romantic notions of kissing at midnight, which is usually thought to be the height of romance. But here midnight is not romantic at all, it screams. The next line further explodes the romantic notion of lovers being together. In Weller’s song the lovers aren’t happy that they are together, they are wishing for the other person to leave so they could be alone. In this song there is truly no escape from the harsh brutality of the world. So why do I keep listening to this song? Why does it draw me in? It’s the music that pushes the song forward and makes that chorus so powerful. The chorus is a release from the brutality of the verses, in the same way that entertainment is a release from the brutality of everyday life. Which may be Weller’s point. But maybe not, maybe the point is that we think entertainment is an escape, but it’s only a temporary forgetting of our problems, it doesn’t make our problems go away. “That’s Entertainment” is a truly great song that intrigues me a lot and keeps me listening to it over and over. It’s a great mix of a terrific melody and interesting lyrics. After the sixth verse and chorus, the song slowly fades out as the “la la la la la” section repeats again and again. And then I have to listen to this song again.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Extremely Belated Concert Reviews from 2011

I went to some great concerts during 2011 that I never got around to writing about in detail, for whatever reason. So here are some reflections about those concerts.

Allen Toussaint, solo at the Dakota. An amazing show. I saw Allen with his band at the Dakota in 2009, but seeing him perform solo was just as awesome. He performed a lot of the hit songs he’s written over the years, including “Mother-In-Law” and “Java.” The highlight of the show was a 10 or 15 minute version of “Southern Nights” with Toussaint playing the melody of the song as he told stories about his childhood. It was beautiful and just mesmerizing.

Elvis Costello, the Spectacular Spinning Songbook Tour at the State Theater. So amazing! Elvis sang about 30 songs over almost 3 hours. I had high expectations for my first time seeing EC in concert, and this show definitely exceeded them. I can’t believe how much energy Elvis has. Elvis did some medleys where he mixed all kinds of songs together, both his own and other people’s, and I thought to myself that these medleys kind of explained his vision of music. Costello probably sees all kinds of music as being linked together, since his own music is so diverse. He gets the links between Broadway, jazz, rock, blues, country, folk, and just about any other genre you could name. Costello is a great showman, as he showed when he talked to the audience members who came up to spin the songbook wheel. He ended up performing just about every song listed on the wheel! Highlights included a gorgeous version of “Shipbuilding,” “Beyond Belief,” “Everyday I Write the Book,” which segued into Prince’s “Purple Rain,” and lovely solo versions of “A Slow Drag with Josephine,” and “Jimmie Standing in the Rain.” For the first time on this blog, the photo is one that I took from my seat.

U2, in the rain at TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota. It was worth the year wait. (The concert was postponed for a year because of Bono’s back injury.) The weather was fine during Interpol’s opening set, but once U2 took the stage it began to drizzle, and finally the skies just opened up. It was an exhilarating feeling, singing along with 60,000 other people to these beautiful, moving songs as rain poured down on us. When you can’t get out of the rain, eventually you get to a point where you’re as wet as you can possibly be, and you don’t seem to get wetter. The rain gave the show an amazing energy that makes this one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever been to. This is what music is all about, the connections between 60,000 strangers who all know the words to the same song. The highlight for me was probably “Beautiful Day,” as it rained. Like Elvis, Bono also did an impromptu version of Prince’s “Purple Rain” during the encores.

Tony Bennett, Mystic Lake Casino. I’ve seen Tony twice before in concert, and this show was in late August shortly after he had turned 85. I can’t believe how good his voice still is. His voice is still so powerful, he hardly needs a microphone. Tony’s voice is a little ragged around the edges now, but I think that just gives his voice more emotion. Bennett obviously still gets such joy from performing, it’s really fun to see him. He still performs with just a quartet, giving the music a real jazz feel. Highlights included a beautiful version of “Cold, Cold Heart,” and of course, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Concert Review: Peter Asher at the Dakota

On Monday night I attended a really fun show at the Dakota. Peter Asher, of Peter and Gordon fame, brought his show to the Dakota. Asher sings Peter and Gordon songs, and tells stories about his life. It was a great night, and truly amazing to hear stories about the Beatles from someone who was actually there during the swinging 60’s. Asher is a great storyteller, and you can tell he’s a very smart and very nice guy. Here’s the background story on Peter Asher-his sister is the actress Jane Asher, who dated Paul McCartney during most of the 1960’s. Soon after Jane started dating Paul, Peter’s singing career with his school friend Gordon Waller was starting to take off. Peter asked Paul if there were any songs he’d written that he and Gordon could record. Paul gave “A World Without Love” to Peter and Gordon, and it became a number one single on both sides of the Atlantic in early 1964. In the US, it was the first number one single of the British Invasion by an artist other than the Beatles. Peter and Gordon went on to have 9 more Top 40 hits in the US, and after they split up, Peter went into producing. Asher was the A&R man at Apple Records, and it was while he was at Apple that he discovered a signed a young American singer/songwriter named James Taylor. Taylor’s first album was released on the Apple label, and when Allen Klein took over the Beatles’ business dealings Asher left and took Taylor with him. Asher became Taylor’s manager and produced several albums for him as Taylor went from unknown to superstar. Asher also managed and produced Linda Ronstadt during the 1970’s. Asher has produced lots of albums by big stars since the 1970’s, including several for Diana Ross and Neil Diamond.

Asher’s show consists of him singing several Peter and Gordon songs and telling stories about his life and music. The second half was a bit heavy on the talking, but all of Asher’s stories are still really interesting. Asher has assembled a very good band, so the songs sound very good. And Asher’s voice still sounds wonderful, so he can still hit those high notes that he did in the 1960’s. Unfortunately, Gordon Waller passed away in 2009, so we have to make do with Asher’s band harmonizing. Although Asher did harmonize with Gordon through the magic of video clips of Peter and Gordon performing in the 2000’s. Asher sang all of Peter and Gordon’s big hits, “I Go to Pieces,” “Nobody I Know,” “Lady Godiva,” “True Love Ways,” “Woman,” and of course, “A World Without Love.” Asher also told great stories about the Beatles, like how he was the first person other than John and Paul to hear the finished “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” John and Paul finished the song at the Asher’s house, and played it for Peter in the basement music room. Asher said it was an amazing moment, being present at the creation of a great work of art, even if it was just a pop song. Interestingly enough, Jane and Peter’s parents liked Paul enough to let him live in their house when he was in London! Paul and Peter shared the top floor, and Paul lived with the Asher’s until he bought his own house in St. John’s Wood around 1967. Peter Asher was also part owner of the Indica book shop and art gallery, which Paul was also involved in. The Indica hosted a show of Yoko Ono’s in late 1966, and it was at the opening of this show where John Lennon met Yoko for the first time.

I got to meet Peter Asher after the show, and he was a super nice guy. He seemed really down to earth, and not at all stuck up on his own importance. It was pretty cool to meet living rock and roll history, and a man who played an integral part in the story of the Beatles.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Vada Pinson-A Great Baseball Player

While I was thrilled that Ron Santo was finally elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame last month, I was also annoyed that Vada Pinson was not on the ballot. The Veteran’s Committee that voted Santo in examined the careers of players active during the “Golden Age,” defined by the Committee as 1947-72. Pinson’s major league career started in 1958 and ended in 1975, putting the bulk of his career within that time span. Apparently, the ballot went through a screening committee, and the committee felt that Pinson wasn’t good enough to be on the ballot. I strongly disagree with the decision of the screening committee, and I feel that Pinson should have been on the ballot. The extremely overdue election of Ron Santo proves that the writers and the Veteran’s Committee sometimes get it wrong, and it can take a long time to correct that wrong.

I don’t know if Vada Pinson should be a Hall of Famer, but he was a great player who should at least still be considered for the Hall of Fame. I’m too young to have ever seen Vada Pinson play, so I can’t sprinkle this post with anecdotes about the time I saw him make a game-winning catch in center field or hit a game-winning home run. I’ve never even seen film footage of Pinson playing. All I have are Pinson’s numbers, and they’re pretty darn good. I’m not quite sure why Pinson became a favorite player of mine. I got to know of him through his baseball cards, which I collected when I was a little kid. I always liked players with unique names, and Vada Pinson’s name was certainly unique. I also remember looking at his stats and seeing how high Pinson ranked among the all-time leaders in various categories. I thought, “Wow, he seems pretty good. Why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame?” (Pinson still ranks among the top 100 players in Games, At Bats, Runs, Hits, Total Bases, Doubles, and Triples.) I remember being saddened to read of his death in 1995, at the age of just 57. The notice of his passing that I read in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune was just a line or two. I want to shine more light on Vada Pinson and his career-he deserved much more than just a line or two.

As an adult baseball fan I look back at Pinson’s stats and I’m still very impressed. Pinson was a truly great player for the first half of his career, and an above-average player for the second half of his career. Pinson finished his career with 2,757 hits. If he could have remained a great player for just two or three more seasons he would have reached the 3,000 hit milestone and he would be a Hall of Famer for sure. (Although he would probably be the most obscure member of the 3,000 hit club.) Pinson’s career breaks almost exactly in half-from 1959 to 1967 he was a terrific player, and from 1968 to 1975 he was merely pretty good. After appearing in more than 150 games in every season from 1959-67, from 1968-75 Pinson never again appeared in 150 games in a season. Were nagging injuries the cause of his decline as a player? I’ve read online that he played with a broken leg for most of the 1969 season. I’m not quite sure how that’s possible, but that’s what I read.

Vada Pinson made his major league debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 1958, at the age of 19. Pinson began the 1958 season as the Reds’ starting right fielder. However, he quickly slumped and was sent down to the minors in May. After hitting .343 in the minors, he returned to the major leagues to stay in September of 1958. In 1959 Pinson shifted to center field, and he would go on to play 1,681 games in center field during his career. Pinson had a huge year in 1959, hitting .316, good for 4th in the National League. Pinson also cracked 20 home runs, collected 205 hits, and lead the league with 47 doubles and 131 runs scored. He might have easily been Rookie of the Year, but he had slightly too many at bats in 1958 to be considered a rookie in 1959. Pinson quickly became friends with the Reds’ other African-American superstar, Frank Robinson. Ironically, Pinson and Robinson had attended the same high school, Oakland’s McClymonds High. McClymonds also boasted Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood and NBA great Bill Russell among its alumni.

Pinson and Robinson tore up National League pitching during the early 1960’s. The Reds went to the World Series in 1961, and Pinson and Robinson both played key roles in getting the Reds to the Series. Pinson hit a career-best .343 and led the league in hits. Robinson led the league in slugging, hit 37 home runs, and was voted the MVP. Pinson floundered in the World Series against the Yankees, getting just 2 hits as the Reds lost in 5 games. His batting average for the Series was an anemic .091. This would prove to be Pinson’s only post-season experience. Robinson was traded to the Orioles after the 1965 season, just after he turned 30. The Reds’ General Manager famously pronounced Robinson to be “an old 30.” (Robinson went on to win the Triple Crown and lead the Orioles to the World Series, where they swept the Dodgers.) Pinson was traded just after he turned 30 as well, after the 1968 season. Pinson had suffered through a lackluster 1968 season, hitting just 5 home runs. He was dealt to the Cardinals, where he teamed with Lou Brock and Curt Flood to make up an awesome outfield. (The second photo posted above is of Brock, Flood, and Pinson, from left to right.) However, 1969 would prove to be another disappointing season for Pinson, as he broke his leg and slumped to a .255 batting average, the lowest he had ever hit in the majors. Pinson was sort of a victim of bad timing in his trade to the Cardinals. Had the Reds traded Pinson after the 1966 season, Pinson could have played for the pennant-winning Cardinal teams of 1967 and 1968. On the other hand, if the Reds would have kept him for his entire career, Pinson would have played for the Big Red Machine team that won pennants in 1970, ’72, and ’75. After the 1969 season, Pinson was traded to the Cleveland Indians, and he rebounded, hitting 24 home runs-the most he ever hit in a season-and hitting .286. 1970 was Pinson’s last really good year. He spent the rest of his career in the American League, playing for the Indians in 1971, the Angels in 1972 and ’73, and finishing with the Royals in 1974 and ’75. He was reunited with Frank Robinson in 1973 when they both played for the Angels. (Robinson had a better year that Pinson, as he slugged 30 home runs.) After being released by the Royals after the 1975 season, Pinson was signed by the Brewers in early 1976. However, he was released by the Brewers on April 4, 1976, just 4 days before the season began. No other teams were interested in signing Pinson, and he retired.

That’s a short summary of Pinson’s major league career. He was a good hitter who usually hit for a pretty high average and he had good power, putting up solid totals of doubles, triples, and home runs. He was fast on the base paths, stealing 305 bases. He played most of his career in center field, a very demanding defensive position. From everything I’ve read about Pinson, he was a good defender who was quick and graceful in the outfield. So why isn’t Pinson a Hall of Famer? I think there are several reasons why Pinson has been so overlooked by the baseball writers and the Veteran’s Committee. (Of course, you could simply say that Pinson clearly isn’t a Hall of Famer, but I think it’s more complicated than that.) Pinson seems to have been underrated for just about his whole life. During the best years of his career, he was overshadowed by his teammate Frank Robinson. Pinson was also overshadowed by his fellow National League outfielders. Pinson played in the All-Star games in only two seasons, 1959 and 1960. However, from 1959 to 1962 2 All-Star games were played, so Pinson is either a 2-time or 4-time All-Star, depending on how you look at it. The outfielders that Pinson was competing against for the All-Star selection were Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and Billy Williams, among others. Robinson, Mays, Aaron, and Clemente were some of the very best players to ever play the game, and Pinson simply wasn’t as good as they were. Pinson was also up against the same competition when it came to winning Gold Gloves for fielding excellence. Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Curt Flood, and Roberto Clemente had virtual locks on the Gold Gloves while Pinson played. Pinson won one Gold Glove, in 1961.

Pinson is also a player without a “signature stat.” He fell short of 3,000 hits, which so far has ensured Hall of Fame election to everyone who surpassed it. Pinson had good power for his era, and he hit more than 20 home runs in a season 7 times. But his career high in a season was just 24, and he finished his career with 256 home runs, which is certainly a respectable total, but that alone won’t get you into the Hall of Fame. Pinson was also a gifted base stealer, swiping 305 bases during his career. But, like his home runs, this stat alone is not enough to get him in the Hall. In short, Pinson’s career numbers are very, very good, but he doesn’t have any stat that really stands out. And his totals have since been dwarfed by the numbers put up by players during the offense-heavy 1990’s and 2000’s.

After he retired, Pinson stayed in the game as a coach, and he coached nearly every season from 1977 until 1994. So he was at the major league level as either a player or coach for about 35 years. Oddly enough, Pinson’s visibility after his retirement did not help his Hall of Fame vote totals. Pinson got less than 5% of the vote his first 4 times on the HOF ballot, which now would get him kicked off the ballot. However, the rules were different at that time, and Pinson stayed on the ballot. After those first 4 votes, he was always above 5% of the vote, but seldom above 10%. His highest total was 15.7% in 1988, which is a long ways from the 75% of the votes required for election. I’m not sure what Pinson’s relationship with most of the press was, but he once punched Cincinnati beat writer Earl Lawson. Lawson had been riding Pinson in his columns, and they got into an argument in the locker room. Lawson said to Pinson, “If you want a piece of me Vada, come and get it.” And Vada did. Which begs the question: Why would you say something that dumb to a pro athlete? If I were a betting man, I would always put my money on the athlete to win the fight rather than the sportswriter. Judging from his baseball cards and just about every picture I’ve ever seen of him, Pinson looks like a really nice, happy guy. But if he were mad at me, I wouldn’t provoke him. Anyway, I wonder if the incident with Lawson hurt Pinson’s reputation with the press. Pinson seems to have had a quiet personality, which could be another factor in why he didn’t get much support for the Hall of Fame. He never seemed to get much attention from the press, and he never wrote an autobiography. I haven’t been able to find out much about Pinson’s life, and just about everything I know about him I’ve repeated in this post. Pinson was so quiet during his first spring training with the Reds that coach Jimmy Dykes thought Vada didn’t speak English. (Pinson was not foreign and was raised in Oakland.) Dykes attempted to communicate with Pinson using gestures and broken English until Vada said, “Mr. Dykes, if there is something you want me to do with my stance, please tell me.” Dykes was shocked.

Another reason why the baseball world is not clamoring for Vada Pinson to get into the Hall of Fame is that the new sabermetric stats don’t really help Pinson’s case very much. Sabermetric stats tend to place a great importance on drawing a walk, and that wasn’t one of Pinson’s strong points. His career OBP is .327, which is really low for someone with a lifetime batting average of .286. Pinson’s selling points for the Hall of Fame are not found in the “new stats,” they’re found in the old stats like batting average and hits. Pinson’s stats don’t get any better when you view them through the sabermetric lens. In this way, Pinson is very similar to Al Oliver, another player with over 2,700 hits who didn’t walk very much and also didn’t get much support for the Hall of Fame.

So, what’s the conclusion? Like I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not really sure if Vada Pinson is a Hall of Famer or not. I’d like to see him elected to the Hall of Fame partly because he’s one of my favorite players. I think he was a really great player who deserves to still be considered by the Veteran’s Committee. Pinson was not an “inner-ring” Hall of Fame player like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and his friend Frank Robinson were. However, Vada Pinson was a better player than many players who are in the Hall of Fame. Sure, some of the players I’m thinking of are widely regarded as terrible choices for the Hall of Fame, but putting Vada Pinson in the Hall of Fame would not blemish the reputation of the Hall of Fame one bit. Hopefully Vada Pinson will be on the ballot the next time the Veteran’s Committee votes on players from the Golden Age of baseball.