Thursday, May 01, 2008

Qu'est-ce que c'est?

Dear IOZ,

Quel horreur! I cannot bear the thought of another day without your bracing negativity.

Ever thine,
Sexually backward patriarch.

Update: O frabjous day! The real IOZ is back.

Nine unearned runs?

I hoped that the ghost of the 1962 Mets had departed this vicinity when the Polo Grounds stadium was demolished. Sadly, no. The current version of the team seems compelled periodically to re-enact the follies of their predecessors of 46 years ago.

Breslin's book about the 1962 Mets is a joy to read. Where is Joan Whitney Payson now that we need her, again?

Update: Tim Marchman says they suck, acknowledges that it's largely the players' fault, but calls for the manager's head. Meanwhile, Marchman dubs this year's edition of the Cubs "a true winner." Could there be a hot time in the Old Town come October? With my Tampa homeboy Sweet Lou at the helm, and given my long-standing love of underdogs, that might be a result I could live with. OOF-WAH!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

FIAT Topolino

Cutest car ever? At least tough competition for the bug-eye Sprite. Brought to you by those wonderful folks at Fix It Again Tony. This one was caught parked on Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village, on the Ides of March.

Update: If the trend in oil prices continues, the car of the near future may look much like this little "mouse".

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ben Stein is a jackass.

And to think, I used to like the guy. Thanks to Archaeopteryx and Pharyngula for setting me straight.

Addendum: I don't agree with everything the commentator has to say on this clip. His response to Stein's silly assertion that "Darwinism" (i.e. natural selection) implies "social Darwinism" (i.e. the belief that altruism in social arrangements is counterproductive because it goes against the grain of "survival of the fittest"), and Stein's equally silly extension of that concept to include Nazi racism, is off target. In particular, the commentator's analogy between Nazi ideology and the notion of the covenant between God and the Jews is not only wrongheaded but offensive. He should instead have pointed out that evolutionary theory supports the notion that altruistic behavior can be beneficial not only for species but for individual survival.

Also, the commentator's apparent belief that economic globalization provides proof against war is wishful thinking. World War I is the most recent and perhaps strongest historical counterexample to the notion that extensive trading relationships between nations prevent them from going to war. Nevertheless, I think it is valid to say that, all other things being equal (which, admittedly, they seldom are), nations that trade with each other are less likely to fight each other than those that don't. In particular, I think that a nation like China that depends greatly on export markets is unlikely to risk military confrontations with its customers.

Update: Read about the dishonest content of Stein's movie Expelled, as well as the lengths to which its makers went to suppress intelligent criticism of it (ironic in light of their assertion that there is a scientific conspiracy to suppress criticism of evolution) here. (Again, a tip of the hat to Archaeopteryx.)

Monday, April 28, 2008

A treat for TS and Blue Texan.

My friends Ross and Kathryn Petras produce a desk calendar called The 365 Stupidest Things Ever Said. On this year's calendar, the quote for April 26 is by one of my friends' at Instaputz favorite putzen, Jonah Goldberg, from a speech he made at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

The Great Plains used to be a giant forest. The Indians burnt it to the ground to hunt buffalo.
R&K helpfully add this caption: "...[W]e hear they're also responsible for the depletion of the ozone layer."

Fouad is out of jail.

A friend who is traveling in the Middle East e-mailed me this item from Arab News, in which the wife of Saudi blogger Fouad Al-Farhan is quoted as saying he has been released from prison. I double-checked and found confirmation of this on Ahmed Al-Omran's blog Saudi Jeans. It's a great relief to know that Mr. Al-Farhan has been allowed to return to his wife and two young children.

But is he now truly free? The Arab News piece quotes Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Ahmed as saying

The issue (of Al-Farhan) was not that important as it represented the mistake committed by a person on himself. A man who commits a mistake should bear its result.
This cryptic (and evidently awkwardly translated) statement gives us no clue as to the nature of Al-Farhan's alleged "mistake". Moreover, the article also quotes "an official statement" as saying he "was detained on Dec. 10 for violating the Kingdom’s regulations,... but no charges were pressed against him." Again, there is no indication of what regulations he is said to have violated. Perhaps more importantly, he was held in prison for 137 days without being charged with any crime. (Yes, I know that my own government is not immune to criticism in this respect.) One can only wonder what chilling effect the prospect of being once again torn from his family and held indefinitely without charges for some unspecified "violation" will have on his writing.

Nevertheless, this is an occasion to celebrate. Thanks to Mark Crawford and all others who joined me in signing letters asking for Mr. Al-Farhan's release. I like to think that we at least hastened the course of justice.

Paul Simon, "American Tunes", at BAM.

Saturday night, my wife and I had the privilege (thanks to a neighbor who had two tickets she couldn't use) of attending Paul Simon's "American Tunes" concert (part of the "Love in Hard Times--The Music of Paul Simon" series) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

My credentials as a Simon fan are pretty solid. In 1965, I plucked a copy of Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., Simon and Garfunkel's first album, from the "Folk" bin of the record department of the University of South Florida bookstore. I knew nothing about them, but the cover looked intriguing and I was a folk fanatic. Someone told me he thought they were from Miami, which would have given them a Florida connection, to boot. (Wrong.) I took the vinyl album to my dorm room, played it, and experienced the opposite of buyer's remorse. During winter break, I was playing it on my parents' stereo when a neighbor, a devout Catholic lady, came in just in time to hear them harmonize on the Christmas spiritual "Go Tell It on the Mountain (that Jesus Christ is Born)." She smiled brightly and asked me who was singing. "Simon and Garfunkel", I answered. Her aspect immediately went from beatific to baleful, and she snapped, "So what does Simon Garfunkel know about Jesus Christ?" I weakly replied that I believed they shared a common ethnic heritage.

My S&G fandom continued through my college days, although to an extent eclipsed by my devotion to Dylan, who appealed to my wild-and-woolly Hermetic, as opposed to my snotty-intellectual Apollonian, side. My third year of law school, in the throes of hopeless love, I would sometimes annoy my dorm floormates by attempting "Bridge Over Troubled Water" during my morning shower. "Kodachrome" provided part of the soundtrack of a joyous summer excursion to the West Coast following my discharge from Army active duty. When I hear it today, I can envision myself driving south on California Highway One, waves splashing rocks below to my right, the trees and hills of Big Sur to my left. Paul welcomed me back to New York with "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard". And so on.

Despite all this, I'd never seen Simon and Garfunkel, or Simon alone, in live performance. I wasn't sure what to expect of this concert, which featured several other singers and groups--only two of which, the Roches and Olu Dara, I'd ever heard before--as well as Simon and his band. The Roches opened with the concert's title song, "American Tune", followed by "Another Galaxy". I've liked the Roches without being a great fan, and their performance of these two songs confirmed my estimation--excellent musicians, but a bit too cutesy. Then they finished their set with a "Cecilia" that rocked the rafters, and set me and my estimation back on our heels.

I had expected the format to be all of the supporting musicians up first, in turn, with Simon out for the last set, perhaps culminating in a final song in which everyone would be on stage, singing in turns. I even imagined the last song as being "America". But, no. The Roches exited, and there was Simon, chugging into "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover."

Few, if any, musicians will perform their old standards exactly as recorded, for understandable reasons having to do both with their own sanity and, in most instances, a laudable desire to expand their audiences' horizons. Sometimes, however, this is done in such an aggressive way that it seems to express contempt for the audience, as if the musician is thinking, "I know you want to listen to this old crap instead of the exciting new stuff I'm doing, so, here it is, with stresses on all the wrong notes and way slow (or fast) rhythm. Eat shit and die!" I'm a great fan of the Byrds, and will collect just about anything of theirs. The only "live" album in their mainstream Columbia collection is one disc of (Untitled), on which they did several oldies (including the oldie-est of them all, "Mr. Tambourine Man") in ways that reflected influences on the band (principally from country music) since the time the songs were recorded, but still treated the songs, and the audience's expectations, with respect. About a year ago, I picked up a recording of a concert the Byrds did at Winterland, in San Francisco, in which the songs were done in such an assertively awful style that I could only guess at the band's motivation. Perhaps it was as I speculated above--simple boredom with their material. Maybe it was the Angeleno Byrds' contempt for Bay Area pretensions. Whatever it was, I donated the CD to the Grace Church Fair and prayed that nobody I like wasted a buck on it.

The point of this digression is to get something off my chest, and to lead into my observation that Paul Simon does it right. In this concert, he sang his oldies in ways that allowed the audience to discover unsuspected nuances in favorite songs without alienating them. Sometimes it was by doing a pre-Graceland song in a way that incorporates African pop influences, as he did in "Fifty Ways"; in others it was just by bringing out some aspect of the song that hadn't previously been stressed, as in his blues tinted performance of "Mrs. Robinson".

A Brooklyn band, Grizzly Bear, opened with an idiosyncratic but compelling version of "Graceland", then followed with "Mother and Child Reunion". The latter was originally done on Paul Simon with a bouncy reggae rhythm that seemed at odds with the song's somber lyrics. Grizzly Bear turned it into a slow, chant-like piece that was very affecting. This is a band worth watching. According to the program, they will be opening for Radiohead on a forthcoming tour.

Olu Dara and his band followed with "Slip Slidin' Away" and "Still Crazy After All These Years", both done in his unique jazz-blues-dance band style. His vocals and cornet solos were superb. I saw Dara once before, some years ago, when he provided musical accompaniment and counterpoint to a reading by the late August Wilson from his works, at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights.

Josh Groban was the only one to seriously disappoint me. The program quoted New York Times critic Stephen Holden:

His intonation is nearly perfect. He always sings directly on the note... He respects the melodic line of a song and brings to everything he sings an intrinsic sense of balance and proportion.
I mostly agree with Holden. Groban has a gorgeous voice. I'd love to hear him sing Vaughan Williams's On Wenlock Edge, or something by Cole Porter. But on two of the songs in this performance, "America" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water", in my estimation he misjudged the material. "America" needs to start in an understated way, then build to a grand climax. Groban gave it the full-bore treatment from start to finish. On "Bridge", by contrast, he stayed too much in control at the end, failing to finish with the wild abandon that the song demands.

Amos Lee did competent versions of "Peace Like a River" and "Nobody", accompanied by multi-instrumentalist and Paul Simon band member Mark Stewart on cello, holding it like a guitar and playing it pizzicato on the latter song.

The real eye-opener of the concert for me was Gillian Welch, who, with her partner, David Rawlings, sent things to a whole new level with "Gone at Last", done in a style that combined elements of Bill Monroe, Tom Petty and Lucinda Williams, along with some original juice, to produce a sound that had many in the audience clapping and hooting along with the music. Welch then said Paul had asked her if there was a particular song she wanted to sing, and she told him there was one that she would cry if she couldn't do. I guessed "Duncan", and she proved me right, producing spine-tingling harmony with Rawlings on my favorite Simon song. After that, Simon joined Welch and Rawlings onstage to do "Boxer."

Simon's final set was all I could hope for. He reached way back for "Sounds of Silence", making it seem as pertinent now as it was in the 1960s, and leaped ahead to 2006's powerful "How Can You Live in the Northeast?" For his encore, I expected something upbeat, perhaps "Baby Driver", but he closed on a sweetly wistful note with "The Only Living Boy in New York".