Friday, March 31, 2017

Thoughts on Chuck Berry, 1926-2017

Chuck Berry, 1926-2017.

Rock and roll lost one of its greatest musicians when Chuck Berry died on March 18th. Berry was one of the most influential artists from rock and roll’s first wave of popularity. One measure of how influential Berry was is the long list of artists who covered his songs: Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Rivers, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, and many, many more. 

I’ve enjoyed Berry’s music since I was a kid. I remember back at the beginning of 6th grade, in the fall of 1992, just before I discovered the Beatles, being asked for a science class project who my favorite musicians were. I said Antonio Vivaldi and Chuck Berry. I’m betting I was the only kid who mentioned those two artists. (I’m not sure why I didn’t say the Beach Boys, who were one of my favorite groups before I got into the Beatles.) My Dad and I went to see Chuck Berry at Grand Casino in Hinckley, Minnesota in 1996. (The internet told me the exact date was July 11, 1996.) We had really good seats, very close to the stage. I can’t remember a lot about that concert, but he played all of his hits and did the duck walk. It was fantastic to see a living legend of rock in person.

I can’t say that I’ve explored Berry’s music much beyond the hits-my memories of his music will always be tied to his 1982 compilation, “The Great Twenty-Eight,” which my Dad and I listened to on road trips, first on cassette, then on CD. But wherever I’ve been over the last twenty-five years, Chuck Berry’s music has always put a smile on my face. 

Chuck Berry really pointed the way forward for rock and roll. He was more typical of the direction that rock music would take than Elvis Presley. Elvis was a great singer, but he wasn’t much of a guitar player or a songwriter. Chuck Berry, on the other hand, wasn’t much of a singer, but he was a great guitar player and a great songwriter. The future of rock, for the most part, would be with people who wrote their own songs, and/or also played an instrument. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but I think there’s some truth to it-that Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly were more typical of what we now think of as rock and roll than Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson. I think that’s one of the reasons why Chuck Berry has remained so influential after all these years. He also wrote some damn fine songs.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Book Review: A Nation of Immigrants, by John F. Kennedy (1959, updated editions published in 1964 and 2008)

Cover of the 2008 edition of A Nation of Immigrants, by John F. Kennedy.

President John F. Kennedy in Ireland, June 1963.
When he was a young man, John F. Kennedy had dreams of being a writer. The second son of Joe and Rose Kennedy, he was not the golden boy his older brother, Joe Jr., was. Joe Jr. was hale and robust, while Jack, as John was known to his friends and family, was frail and sickly, plagued by a bad back and constant stomach problems. After Jack wrote his senior thesis, his father helped him get it published in 1940. Titled Why England Slept, it was an examination of the policy of appeasement under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s administration. Why England Slept became a surprise best-seller, and by the middle of 1941, sales totaled 80,000 copies. Not bad for a senior thesis.

After Joe Jr.’s death in a plane crash in 1944, Jack was thrust into the limelight. He picked up Joe Jr.’s nascent political career, running for the House of Representatives in 1946. But Jack still had literary ambitions. His second, and most famous book, Profiles in Courage, was released in 1956 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, which added to Kennedy’s prestige and his rising national profile. From the moment Profiles in Courage appeared there were allegations that Kennedy himself didn’t write the book, and it’s now widely accepted by most historians that the book was largely the work of Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen.

Kennedy’s book A Nation of Immigrants is quite obscure compared to Profiles in Courage. I consider myself to be a fairly well-informed Kennedy buff, and I didn’t know about A Nation of Immigrants until just recently. I decided that 2017 seemed like an opportune time to read the book, given the current political climate.

A Nation of Immigrants was originally published by the Anti-Defamation League in 1959, when Kennedy was still a Senator. During his Presidency, Kennedy pushed for immigration reform, wanting to change the outdated quota system, and he also planned to expand and revise A Nation of Immigrants. He was assassinated before the revisions were completed, and the book was republished in 1964, with an introduction by Bobby Kennedy. The immigration reform bill that Kennedy had proposed to Congress in 1963 was eventually passed in 1965.

A Nation of Immigrants is a slim volume; there are just 51 pages of text by Kennedy, plus a generous photo section and a chronology of American immigration bringing it up to 85 pages in the updated 2008 edition. However, the book still makes an impact, as it is very clear that immigration was an issue of great importance to John F. Kennedy.

This is one of my favorite passages in the book:

“Another way of indicating the importance of immigration to America is to point out that every American who ever lived, with the exception of one group, was either an immigrant himself or a descendant of immigrants.” (p.2) This simple truth bears repeating, especially at this time in our history.

In Kennedy’s proposal to liberalize immigration status, he said, “Our investments in new citizens has always been a valuable source of our strength.” (p.81) This is quite true, as new groups add richness to the texture of America.

Another of my favorite quotes came from a Chattanooga Times editorial, written just after Kennedy’s proposal was announced in 1963: “The time to worry about immigration is when people stop wanting to come to this country.” (p.85) My thoughts exactly.

A Nation of Immigrants is not often discussed by Kennedy scholars. Robert Dallek’s 2003 biography of Kennedy, An Unfinished Life, doesn’t even mention the book at all. However, Thurston Clarke, in his 2013 book JFK’s Last Hundred Days, writes of A Nation of Immigrants “it is possibly the most passionate, bitter, and controversial book ever written by a serious presidential candidate.” (p.156) That judgement might need to be revised in the age of Donald Trump. I don’t know enough about all of the books written by presidents, or presidential candidates, to pass perfect judgement on Clarke’s claim. But certainly A Nation of Immigrants took a bold stance on an issue that was not always popular in Kennedy’s time, and is still a volatile issue in politics today.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Concert Review: Sting with Joe Sumner and the Last Bandoleros at Myth in Maplewood

Ad for Sting's 57th and 9th tour, 2017.
Sting on stage at Myth in Maplewood, Minnesota, March 2, 2017. (Photo by the Star Tribune.)

Last night I had the special chance to see Sting, rock and roll superstar, at Myth, a small club in Maplewood, a suburb of Saint Paul. I went to the show with my Mom, and it was fantastic. I had seen Sting once before, on the Police reunion tour back in 2007, but to see him in a small venue was a very different experience. 

Sting opened the show solo by singing “Heading South on the Great North Road,” from his most recent album, “57th and 9th.” He then turned things over to his son, Joe Sumner, who sang a few songs. Joe sounds a lot like his dad-they have the same high, keening voice. Joe then turned things over to the Last Bandoleros, a San Antonio-based group that performed catchy, poppy songs. I enjoyed the Last Bandoleros, they bring a lot of energy on stage, and they were fun to watch. They’ve only released one EP, so it will be interesting to see where their career goes from here.

Sting performed a lot of songs from “57th and 9th,” but his lengthy back catalogue was also well represented, going all the way back to “Outlandos d’Amour,” the Police’s debut album from 1978. Sting’s voice sounded great, and he’s still able to use his falsetto to great effect on songs like “Roxanne,” and “So Lonely.” 

Sting was in an expansive mood last night, as he told several stories about the songs he was singing. After “Message in a Bottle,” which turned into an enthusiastic audience sing-along, Sting recalled playing the song to his cat after he wrote it, and the cat didn’t seem too impressed by it. He then said how amazing it is that everyone knows the words to that song, even though it’s almost forty years old. He said, “I don’t take that for granted, I really appreciate it.” 

For me the highlights of the show were the beautiful “Fields of Gold,” and the Police oldies at the end of the set, “Message in a Bottle,” “Walking on the Moon,” “So Lonely,” “Roxanne,” which merged into a cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Next to You,” and the inevitable “Every Breath You Take.” Sting’s solo catalogue has covered as many genres as Elvis Costello’s, but there’s something about the rush of energy of those Police songs that remains unique in Sting’s career. Maybe it was just the energy and passion of youth. But that isn’t to say that his later work isn’t good, because it is. “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” from “57th and 9th,” hearkens back to the sound of the Police. 

Another highlight was the closing song, “The Empty Chair,” which Sting just performed at the Oscars on Sunday night. It was a beautiful and moving ending to a very memorable night. 

Set list:
Heading South on the Great North Road
Synchronicity II
Spirits in the Material World
Englishman in New York
She’s Too Good for Me
I Can’t Stop Thinking About You
One Fine Day
I Hung My Head
Fields of Gold
Down, Down, Down
Petrol Head
Shape of My Heart
Pretty Young Solider
Message in a Bottle
Ashes to Ashes-sung by Joe Sumner
Walking on the Moon
So Lonely
Desert Rose
Roxanne/Ain’t No Sunshine
Next to You
Every Breath You Take
The Empty Chair