Friday, December 24, 2010

The War on (Merry) Christmas

Depending on the circles you travel in, you may be aware that some right-wing types believe that there is a concerted "War on Christmas" that has been going on for years. Just Google "War on Christmas" and you will find over 2 million hits. Or you could go to and buy Fox News personality John Gibson's screed "The War on Christmas: How The Liberal Plot To Ban The Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Think".

Many people are terrified that before (or after) Barack Hussein Obama comes to confiscate our guns, he will also take away Christmas.  In their perfervid imaginations they can probably already envision a Kwanzaa tree on the National Mall. Ultimately, I think no one has anything to worry about here.  The reason is that government wars just don't work. Don't forget that there was a liberal "war on poverty" that started 44 years ago, and poverty rates are worse now than they were then.

Liberals aren't the only ones who screw these things up.  Don't forget the conservative War on Drugs (40 years old) and War on Terror (9 years) that have been equally as unsuccessful.  In fact, I'm sure that there are a large number of poverty stricken Americans living in bad neigborhoods being terrorized by drug addicts right now.  They must be the independents we hear so much about.

But hey, it's Christmas, right?  Why don't I just lighten up and give in to the holiday spirit?  Well, believe me I'd like to.  But there is something holding me back.  The phrase "Merry Christmas".

I have been bothered by the expression "Merry Christmas" for decades.   My biggest gripe about it is that I have trouble quantifying just what people mean by "merry".  The dictionary definition of the word doesn't help that much:

merry |ˈmerē |  adjective ( merrier , merriest )
cheerful and lively : the narrow streets were dense with merry throngs of students | a merry grin.
• (of an occasion or season) characterized by festivity and rejoicing : he wished me a merry Christmas.
• [ predic. ] Brit., informal slightly and good-humoredly drunk : after the third bottle of beer he began to feel quite merry.

I mean, I know what it is to be cheerful and I'm usually fairly lively, but I don't think that people really wish others a "cheerful and lively Christmas".  And as a non-drinker, I don't really relate to wishing people a "slightly and good humoredly drunk Christmas".

Further, when one thinks of personages associated with Christmas, "merry" isn't the first word that comes to mind.  Santa Claus, for instance, is usually described as "jolly". Ebeneezer Scrooge required haunting by no less than three ectoplasmic spirits before he could bring himself to be a mensch.  George Bailey was basically suicidal. And don't get me started on the Grinch...

But there is an alternative that I think could work for everybody.  In coming up with this, I decided to look to England.  As the progenitors of our language the British have a gift of the pithy phrase.  Such as "French Leave" to describe someone who departs without permission, or a deserter.  On the other hand they call french fries "chips", which is confusing.  But English antipathy for their Gallic neighbors is a topic for another day.  The main point for right now is that in England, people greet each other in December with a hearty "Happy Christmas".  This phrase is simple, direct and to the point.  I believe that we should adapt this for ourselves. 

I've been happy, I know what happiness is, and I want everyone to be happy all the time.  Especially on such a special holiday.   So, from me to you, please accept my best wishes for a

Happy Christmas.

War is Over (if you want it...)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Desert Island Discs, #1--Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

Every year as an icebreaker exercise I ask students to name which record album they would want with them if they were trapped on a desert island (with an infinite supply of electricity).  Parenthetically, I've been doing this so long that I've had to change the question from "record album" to "CD" and now I come across lots of kids who say they don't listen to CD's.  The answers always vary, ranging from pop stars du jour to classic rock to some equivalent of "mixed tape" (the most creative students).  But I thought I would take some time here to delve into my choices.

I will write about other albums in the future, but for most of my life there has only been one true "desert island disc" for me: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos.  The album was released in the Fall of 1970 (40 years ago), just three months after I was born.  I picked up my first copy of the album on vinyl at the local Pathmark supermarket when I was 14.  The album cover has a bewitching image of a mysteriously beautiful woman on the front, and "Brownie" Eric Clapton's sunburst Fender Stratocaster on the back, surrounded by dominos.

"Derek and the Dominos" was a group fronted by English guitar legend Eric Clapton.  Clapton, who was born in 1945 (12 days before my mother) fell in love with American blues music in his early teens and became obsessed with learning how to play like his heroes (in due course during my early teens I fell in love with Clapton's music, and he became the gateway to my own blues obsession).  He played lead guitar in the Yardbirds (who later featured future superstars Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in the lead guitar chair), leaving them after they became, in his words, "too commercial".  Clapton went on to play for a year with British blues patriarch John Mayall in his Bluesbreakers.  During this time the 19 year old Clapton blazed his way to fame on the "Beano" album, which prompted London graffiti artists to scrawl "Clapton is God" on the walls of the metropolis.

Clapton left Mayall to start the first "supergroup", Cream, with former Graham Bond Organisation drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, who had played with the GBO and the Bluesbreakers, among other outfits.  Cream had a short, meteoric career, demarcated by thrilling live performances and vicious infighting between the rhythm section members.  Clapton had envisioned a true blues group, while the others preferred jazz oriented free-form explorations.  Clapton soon tired of this conflict, and began looking for new outlets for his creativity.

One example of this was enabled due to his close friendship with Beatle George Harrison. In the late 1960's, as the Beatles were also starting to grow apart following their withdrawal from the road, Harrison felt that his contributions were being denigrated by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  During the tracking of what became the double LP known as the White Album, Harrison brought Clapton in to play the leads on the stirring number "While My Guitar Gently Weeps".  Clapton also began listening to the first album by The Band, Music From Big Pink.  The rootsy, folksy music emanating from what critic Greil Marcus later called the "Old, Weird America" (recorded by a group made up of four Canadians and an American) inspired him almost as much as the concept of musicians living communally in an idyllic, country setting.  Once again, Clapton decided to leave the group which brought him fortune and fame to seek his muse.

By now, Clapton had met up with Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, who led a band that played with Joe Cocker on his "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour.  Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, featuring a crack rhythm section from Oklahoma (bassist Carl Radle, organist Bobby Whitlock and drummer Jim Gordon) had the authentic Americana vibe, and seemed to be a mix of communalism and professionalism that attracted Eric Clapton.  He hired them as the opening act on the only tour for his next band, Blind Faith.  The experiment with Blind Faith died out quickly due to Ginger Baker's drug addiction and the fact that Clapton preferred being a sideman for Delaney and Bonnie than the frontman of his own group.  After Blind Faith fell apart, Delaney produced Clapton's eponymous first solo record, which featured hits like "Let it Rain" and "After Midnight", songs that represented a departure from the blues pyrotechnics EC had made the basis of his renown.

During this time, as described in painful detail in his autobiography, Clapton, Eric Clapton's frustrations were not only musical in origin.  He had fallen deeply in love with Pattie Boyd Harrison, the wife of his best friend, the Beatle George Harrison.  The Harrison marriage was not very strong, but Clapton was conflicted with worries of being disloyal, and Patti was not ready to leave her husband despite his infidelities.  As a way of hiding from the stresses of his passions, Clapton hid in a haze of heroin with his teenage girlfriend Alice Ormsby-Gore and obsessed over Patti.

One source of this obsession was reading the classic Arabic story of the doomed love of Layla and Majnun, making the rounds of swinging London's newly multi-culturally aware youth.  Soon Clapton had written several songs based on the idea of hopeless, forbidden love and put together a group with Radle, Whitlock and Gordon to record them.  Hoping to remain incognito, the group was billed as "Derek and The Dominos" (though the concept was ruined when a nervous record company released posters proclaiming "Derek is Eric").  After a week of recording at Criterion Studios in Miami, the Dominos were joined by Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band.  The 24 year-old slide guitar wizard pushed Clapton to new heights of songwriting, arranging and soloing in their ensuing collaboration.  After weeks of marathon sessions combined with ingestion of massive quantities of drugs, one of the greatest albums ever made was finished.  The following is my summary and description of the tracks on the record.

Side One
"I Looked Away": This song begins with a simple melody in the key of C played on a Stratocaster, with counterpoint lines overdubbed.  Eric Clapton played all of the guitar on the first three songs of the album, even though the music does bear some resemblance to Allman Brothers-style twin lead guitar work.  This is likely due to the influence of producer Tom Dowd.   Clapton sings the bulk of the song, until Bobby Whitlock bursts in with a soulful change of tone:

Seems a sin
To love another man's woman
I guess I'll keep on sinning and loving you Lord
'til my very last day

This is one of the first of many hints that the theme of unrequited (or at least, unanswerable) love would permeate the album.


"Bell Bottom Blues": This song was reputedly written for Patti by Eric (see more about this at "Layla" below).  The lyrics of this song never fail to pull at my heart.  When Clapton sings "if I could choose a place to die, it would be in your arms", or "it's all wrong, but it's all right" I choke up.  He is so passionately in love with her, but he doesn't know what it will take to have her.  In the chorus of the song he cries:

Do you want to see me crawl across the floor to you?
Do you want to hear me beg you to take me back?
I'd gladly do it
Because I don't want to fade away 
Give me one more day please
I don't want to fade away
In your heart I want to stay

The solo in this song is deceptively simple, switching from C major to A minor and featuring emotional, plucked harmonics (influenced by Robbie Robertson of the Band) that sound like angels.  The song features a long fade out which repeats the chorus.  After listening to this song I am drained emotionally.
"Keep on Growing": This mid-tempo rocker has a groove more like the work Clapton did with Delaney and Bonnie. Clapton shares the vocals with Whitlock again, and in this song he seems to describe how he needed to move on from Alice and be fully available to Patti. Clapton sings:

I was standing
Looking in the face of one who loved me
Feeling so ashamed.
Hoping, and praying Lord that she could understand me
But I didn't know her name

then Whitlock comes in with:

She took my hand in hers and 
Told me I was wrong.
Said, you're gonna be alright boy
Just as long
As you keep on growing

Many have argued that the duelling guitars solo on this number must be Clapton and Allman, but studio logs seem to indicate that Clapton did all of this work himself, though he consciously played in an Allmanesque vein.  Either way, this song is a major burst of hi-energy to pick the listener up.


"Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out": Clapton put classic blues numbers at the end of sides 1-3, and this was the first.  "Nobody Knows You When Your're Down and Out" was originally recorded by Bessie Smith in the Depression, and it's world weary acknowledgement that popularity follows fame and fortune, but without it one has nothing is another drop back into the abyss of sorrow that Clapton seemed to be feeling.  Interestingly, just a short while after singing "I began to fall so low / Lost all my good friends, I did not have nowhere to go" Clapton descended into near hermit like existence with nothing but Alice and heroin to get by (when Patti rejected him even after listening to this album). There is slide guitar on this song played by Duane Allman, making his first appearance on the record.


 Side Two
"I Am Yours": The beautiful lyrics of this song, which are repeated twice, come straight from Layla and Majnun:

I am yours
However distant you may be
There blows no wind but wafts your scent to me
There sings no bird but calls your name to me
Each memory that has left its trace with me
Lingers forever as a part of me.

The musical accompaniment includes Indian style percussion and Duane's slide guitar, both repeating the melody line and embellishing it.  This song is lovely, and it always makes me think of my wife.  It is one of the most gorgeous love songs I've ever heard.


 "Anyday" : Beginning with an emphatic combo of Hammond organ and slide guitar, this song rises to crescendo after crescendo.  Clapton seems to be feeling optimistic about his chances in this song, as he sings:

If you believe in me
Like I believe in you
We could have a love so true
It would go on endlessly
And I know, anyday, anyday
I will see you smile
Anyway, anyway
If only for a little while

This is followed by Whitlock's gruff, soul-inflected voice trying to supplement the optimism with bravado:

I know someday baby you're gonna need me
When this old world has got you down
I'll be right here so woman call me
And I'll never, ever
Let you down

The instrumental highlight of the song is the intertwining of Duane's slide with Clapton's standard guitar playing.  They seem to raise each other to new heights of expressiveness and joy in each chorus. Clapton takes the first solo, sounding similar to that which he played in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", and then Duane takes over with screaming slide action.  


"Key to the Highway": This blues in A was recorded live, and in fact it fades in during a solo chorus.  The song was originally recorded by one of Clapton's early heroes, Big Bill Broonzy, but the guitar duel between EC and Duane lift this into one of the epic blues rock songs ever.  Clapton plays standard guitar while Duane plays slide, and each man's solos wring the last drops of emotion from the common blues structure (though this is an 8-bar blues, not a 12-bar song).  The song describes a man having to hit the "highway" after having been "driven from home".  In general the lyrics are in keeping with the themes of the album, but the passionate playing is even more evidence of just how strongly Clapton was feeling the need for "one more kiss mama, before I go". 

This is the most played song on my iTunes playlist, as I often put it on and play along on my guitar. 


Side Three
"Tell the Truth": This song also brings some funky, countrified Oklahoma sound to the album.  Bobby Whitlock has described the writing of this song as coming out of the creative, drug fuelled ferment of the apartment the band all shared.  The song was the single for the album, and it seems like a single.  Frankly I've never felt that this song really fits with the rest of the record, and as a youngster I would often skip over this song (the old fashioned way, by lifting the tone arm) to get to the next one.  As a result my vinyl copy was scratched a lot at this point.


"Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?": This is one of my favorite songs on the album, and one of the all-time great "twin lead guitar" songs.  My theory is that Duane Allman plays most of the lead on this song, though many people disagree.  To me the expressive soloing sounds so much like Duane, and so not like Eric that it is plain.  But either way, the song is a rollicking treat of guitar soloing.

Starting with jet speed guitars responding to every lyrical line, along with a swinging bass and pumping Hammond organ, Clapton plaintively demands "why does love got to be sad?"

Like a moth to a flame
Like a song without a name
I've never been the same since I met you
Like a bird on the wing
I've got a brand new song to sing
I can't keep on singing about you

The main solo that starts at 1:16 into the song blazes with passion. It is clearly Duane (without slide) who takes the first solo on his Gibson, with Clapton answering later on the Strat. The solos on this song (and on the next one) sound like the melodies to new songs.  They are so vocal that I often imagine new words in my head while they play circles around each other.  The fade out of this song is sort of a nice foreshadowing for the extended coda of "Layla" on the flip side of the record.


"Have You Ever Loved A Woman": the third blues standard on the album (also in the key of C), this song by Billy Myles had been famously covered by Freddie King, a Texas bluesman who had long been one of Clapton's heroes.  The words to the song describe a terrible situation, but one that I felt very deeply as a young man.  In college, I was secretly in love with the girlfriend of one of my best friends.  Eventually it worked out, and she and I have been married since 1994, but whenever I heard this song I felt deep down the pain and confusion of the singer:

Have you ever loved a woman
So much, you tremble in pain?
Have you ever loved a woman
So much, you tremble in pain?
But all the time you know
She bears another man's name

But you just love that woman
So much, it's a shame and a sin
You just love that woman
So much, it's a shame and a sin
But all the time you know
But all the time you know
She belongs to your very best friend

Have you ever loved a woman
And you know you can't leave her alone?
Have you ever loved a woman
And you know you can't leave her alone?
But something deep inside of you
Won't let you wreck your best friend's home

The song follows a typical blues "call and response" pattern, and Clapton's fills after each line sting and burn.  Duane Allman plays the first solo on slide guitar, taking two choruses to play a slow, stately lead.  Meanwhile, Clapton's rhythm work behind him is getting more pungent and insistent.  Finally Clapton screams into action, ripping off the most emotionally charged guitar solo I've ever heard.  To me, he is singing the words "I just love you woman, and it's a shame and a sin, but I have to have you.  I won't stop til I do.  I love you and I will tell you all my life"--I can hear how these words fit with the melody and rhythm he is playing.  At one point Clapton speeds up so fast he almost overtakes the beat, and he slows down while still milking each bended note for all the emotional content he can.  This is a solo for the ages.

Side Four
 "Little Wing"  Clapton was a great friend of Jimi Hendrix, who wrote this song.  The Dominoes recorded this song in the summer of 1970, only a few weeks before Hendrix died.  While in America Clapton had bought a left-handed Stratocaster for Jimi, and he hoped to give it as a gift at a nightclub that September night when Hendrix died at the age of 27.  This version of "Little Wing" is more of a rocking version than the Curtis Mayfield, soul inspired version that Hendrix had recorded.  This version is to "Little Wing", in some ways, as Hendrix' version of "All Along the Watchtower" was to Bob Dylan's original version (except that unlike AATW, the Dominos version of "Little Wing" has not become the canonical form of the song.  Originally meant as a tribute to a fellow guitar hero, by the time the album came out Hendrix had passed and this came to be seen as a memorial to a fallen legend.  Personally I've always preferred this version of the song, but I am definitely in the minority in that respect.


"It's Too Late": Written by early rock and roll songsmith Chuck Willis, this slow, 1950's -sh rocker is like the sorbet one eats to cleanse the palate before the next course, which is one of the greatest rock songs ever.  Over a simple chord pattern, Clapton sings with a bluesy voice:

It's too late, she's gone
It's too late, my baby's gone
Wish I had told her she was my only one
It's too late
She's gone.
I wonder does she know
When she left me
It hurt me so
I need your love babe
Please don't make me wait
Tell me
It's not too late.

The song features good solos on standard (EC) and slide (DA) guitars over a rock and roll shuffle beat.  And while you can't hear this on digital versions of the song, on the original vinyl album, the last drum kick of this tune led without pause into the iconic opening lick of "Layla".


"Layla": The greatest rock song ever?  Rolling Stone magazine ranked it 27th, and it's hard to argue with many of the songs they list higher (except for "Smells Like Teen Spirit"), but I think it's the best.  Clapton's voice is blasted by booze, drugs, sleeplessness and longing.  I can't think of another song where the singer is so clearly opening his heart to the listener.  The words of the song come straight from his relationship with Patti, who becomes Layla for the course of the record.

Parenthetically, Patti Harrison Clapton was the inspiration for several great love songs.  George wrote "Something" for her (the second most-covered Beatles song), Eric wrote "Bell Bottom Blues", "Layla" and "Wonderful Tonight" in her honor.  That must feel amazing.  But Patti says that when she hears these songs they make her sad for the loves she lost.

The tough guitar, with soaring harmony leads introduces the song, which has poignant lyrics:

What'll you do when you get lonely
And no one's waiting by your side?
You've been running and hiding much too long
You know it's just your foolish pride.

Layla--you've got me on my knees
Layla--I'm begging darling please
Layla--darling won't you ease my worried mind.

Tried to give you consolation
When your old man had let you down.
Like a fool, I fell in love with you.
You've turned my whole world upside down.

Layla--you've got me on my knees
Layla--I'm begging darling please
Layla--darling won't you ease my worried mind.

Let's make the best of the situation
Before I finally go insane
Please don't say we'll never find a way
And tell me all my love's in vain.

Layla--you've got me on my knees
Layla--I'm begging darling please
Layla--darling won't you ease my worried mind.

 According to Patti, Eric invited her to his flat and played her the record. Patti says:

...he wanted me to listen to a new number he had written. He switched on the tape machine, turned up the volume and played me the most powerful, moving song I had ever heard. It was "Layla".  He played it to me two or three times, all the while watching my face intently for my reaction. My first thought was, "Oh God, everyone's going to know this is about me." I was married to Eric's close friend George Harrison, but Eric had been making his desire for me clear for months. But with the realisation that I had inspired such passion and creativity, the song got the better of me. I could resist no longer.

Though in reality she did resist, and in desperation Clapton threw himself headfirst into the pool of heroin that he wouldn't leave for years.

The beautiful coda to the song, played on piano with Duane's bird-like trills on slide guitar was written by drummer Jim Gordon as part of another, unnamed tune.  But Clapton encouraged him to donate it for this record.  To me it is a lovely melody that hints at hope, redemption and endless possibilities.  In a lot of ways, "Layla" is two records in one, the hard rocker and the contemplative coda, but together they are even greater than the sum of their parts.


"Thorn Tree In the Garden": If you look up "anti-climax" in the dictionary you see this song.  It is a pretty song, plaintively sung by Bobby Whitlock, but after "Layla" who needs it?  Listening to the words more carefully shows that it fits lyrically and conceptually with the album, but it is hard to listen to this song (which sounds better suited for Harry Nilsson or B.J. Thomas) at the end of the record. 


Eric Clapton: Clapton continues to record and tour.  After kicking heroin he married Patti, but the marriage was spoiled by both of their alcoholism.  While Eric marrying Patti seems like a dream come true, it was more of a nightmare.  Clapton has been sober since the late 1980's, and has founded a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Antigua.  He auctioned off nearly all of his guitars to pay for the center, including "Brownie", the guitar used on this album, which fetched over $450,000 in 1999.

George Harrison: George remarried after Patti left him, raising a family and enjoying a life in movie making and seclusion.  He released several albums, including one as part of the Travelling Willburys, a "supergroup" with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne.  He and Clapton remained friends, and EC coaxed George out for a co-headlining tour of Japan in 1991.  George died in 2001.

Patti Boyd Harrison Clapton: Patti is still alive, and recently wrote a memoir of her interesting life.  She is a well-regarded photographer.

Alice Ormsby-Gore: The daughter of the British ambassador to the US, who fell in love with Clapton at the age of 17 never recovered from what was ultimately unrequited passion for EC and an addiction to heroin.  She died in 1996 from an overdose, living in poverty in a bedsitter apartment outside of London.

Delaney and Bonnie: Their marriage broke up, but each stayed in entertainment.  Delaney died in 2008, and Bonnie is still alive, occasionally acting and singing.

Carl Radle: Radle died in 1980 as a result of years of drug and alcohol abuse.  His girlfriend (who found his body) later committed suicide.

Bobby Whitlock: Is still in the music business, and has a memoir coming out soon.  It should be a good read. 

Jim Gordon: Murdered his mother with a knife and hammer in 1983.  Diagnosed as a schizophrenic, he has been imprisoned ever since.

Duane Allman:Less than a year after recording "Layla", Allman died from injuries sustained during a motorcycle accident.  He was 25 years old.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

It's A Small World After All...

Sometimes I like to play the "What Do They Have In Common" game.  Like, it's cool to know that the members of Steely Dan and Larry Hagman all went to Bard College.  Or that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after they signed the Declaration of Independence.  Or that Carol Channing and Joe Namath were both on Richard Nixon's enemies list (and, presumably) both wore pantyhose.  But every so often, something new pops up that amuses and amazes in the same breath.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Living in a Golden Age

I am a teacher of history for a living.  And at times my focus has been the history of baseball.  I became a baseball fan at an early age, and growing up in Warminster, PA (a suburb of Philadelphia), I became a Phillies fan.  

In the mid 1970's through early 1980's, the Phillies had a remarkable run of success.  They won 101 games in 1976 and 1977, won the National League East title 1976,1977 and 1978, then won the World Series in 1980.  The were very competitive in the strike year of 1981, and won a final pennant in 1983, losing the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles in six games.  I turned six in 1976 and was 13 when I was one of 60,000 fans at game five of the '83 Series.  I naturally assumed that the Phillies had always been, and would always be, a great team.
And then the bottom fell out.  As the Phillies plunged into basically two decades of sub-mediocrity (except for the brilliant, blazing comet of the 1993 pennant winners) I learned a disturbing truth: the Phillies have basically ALWAYS been BAD.  The first team in professional sports to lose 10,000 games has, it turns out, enjoyed nearly all of its success during my lifetime.  In fact, it was learning the truth about the Phillies that led me to the study of history as a vocation.

I am still a passionate baseball fan, and the wonders of the internet have given a whole new thrill to my fandom.  During important Phillies games, friends of mine from as far back as first grade from all over America gather on Facebook to collectively expound about the game at hand.  In most cases I haven't seen these people since 1988, but we unite as one behind the team we grew up following.  

As I write this today, mere hours after the Phillies fell one run and one game short of being the first National League team to go to three straight World Series since the Cardinals of the 1940's I am conscious of something that was not aware of as a youth: I am living during the time of (and watching all the games of) the greatest Phillies team ever.  Since 2007 they have won four straight National League Eastern Division titles, they won the pennant in 2008 and 2009 and won the World Series in 2008.  They have had outstanding players and the talented, patient managership of Charlie Manuel has been inspiring (though it drives me crazy how rarely he has players bunt).  Basically, we are going through a Golden Age of Phillies baseball.

I often wonder if people have recognized that they are living in a special era.  I imagine, for instance, that many Americans were conscious of a "Golden Age" of sorts in the four years between the end of WWII and the detonation of the Soviet Union's first atomic bomb.  During that time, as the United States bestrode the world like a colossus, recovered its financial footing while the rest of the planet was in a shambles, and saw the rise of new arts and technologies, it must have been hard to imagine that there could be a better time or place to live (at least for middle-class, white Americans).  But on the other hand, after the turmoil of the Depression followed by the terror of the War, the time of peace might have been treated with more of a weary distrust, especially with a Cold War looming in the wings.  Similarly, did the people of Greece in the age of Pericles know that they would be known as the "Golden Age" for the rest of time?   All I know is that I want to savor every moment of the Phillies success.  Because if history  teaches us anything, it is that success it fleeting, Golden Ages turn into long epochs of, at best, tarnished brass, and that it is important to have memories of the fruitful harvest during fallow years.

So I salute the Phillies, applaud their success on the diamond in 2010, and look forward to the chance to watch them continue to succeed in the future.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Why A Dunking Booth Is A True Representation Of America

Last night I participated in Wyoming Seminary's "Cannonball For A Cure".  In this event students, faculty children, teachers and administrators did cannonballs into the swimming pool to raise money for breast cancer research.  Students made donations all week to see which of the adults in the community would have to get in the pool.  The natatorium was full of spectators, and the students cheered ardently as their coaches, teachers and dormheads had to walk the plank.  Because everyone loves to laugh at the expense of their betters.  As the seasons turn from summer to fall, it is likely that carnivals and county fairs are receding into your rear-view mirror.  Besides the chance to see award-winning livestock, ride the Ferris wheel and eat every variety of fried food under the sun, these events are often accompanied by the chance to use a dunking booth, which is sometimes the most popular attraction.

The dunking booth, sometimes known as a "dunk tank" is a contraption which places someone on a stool suspended over a tank of cold water.  The stool is connected to a spring-loaded mechanism, which when struck by a thrown baseball releases the occupant into the drink.  While many people find it fun to sit on the  stool and be dunked, especially on hot days, the ne plus ultra of dunking booths occurs when the person getting dunked is a person of some prestige and dignity.  Just Google "dunk tank" principal OR boss and if the 75,000 results don't convince you that the chance to force your employer, supervisor, local politician or pushy spouse is a popular American tradition, then I don't know what will.  

The reason why everyone loves the chance to dunk an authority figure is because it gives the dunker the chance to feel a sort of equality with the dunkee. What is more levelling than the chance to humiliate someone who is in a position to humiliate you every day?  What is more American than the ability to say to someone, "you're not better than me" and then prove it by soaking them in cold water (by throwing a baseball no less)?  Americans like to believe that our country is a meritocracy, where people are promoted due to their innate talents, skills and attributes, not on who they are related to, or how much money they have.  But sometimes this fantasy is shaken and when we see people who we don't respect in positions of leadership and responsibility we can lose faith.  What better way to restore our confidence in America than by showing one of these blowhards that we are "throwhards" and that our skills sufficient to get them wet and embarrassed?

But there is another way in which the dunking booth is like America.  At the end of the day, your boss/teacher/principal/police chief/local politician/pushy spouse will climb out of the tank, dry him or herself off, and go right back to being in charge.  And the person who paid $5 to throw the ball will be in exactly the same position as before, just poorer.  In other words, while we believe in the American Dream (that anyone can make it if they are talented and try hard enough), for most people this "dream" evaporates when they wake up.  Either they aren't actually talented, or their efforts are insufficiently zealous, or "the man" is just too strong.  Because while there is little in life as temporarily exciting as dunking someone in a booth, the thrill is ephemeral and once past is hard to recall.  And the next day the roles are once again reversed.

The world is a complicated place, and life isn't always what it seems.  That's why something as seemingly simple as a dunking booth is in many cases a meaningful symbol of how things really are.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sports Axioms

Any sports fan is sure to be aware of certain truisms, or axioms that announcers, coaches and athletes repeat over and over again.  These tend to make up sort of a "conventional wisdom" and to my knowledge they are rarely questioned.  But sometimes they don't make much sense.  Here are my thoughts on a few of these axioms. Maybe you can think of more?

1) "Don't Make The First or Third Out of an Inning at Third Base" (Baseball):  There isn't a single baseball announcer who doesn't excoriate somebody for violating this rule at least once per week.  Literally.  As I am writing this, watching the Phillies play the Mets, New York shortstop Jose Reyes just got thrown out stealing third for the first out of an inning.  The Phils announcers both called it a "dumb" play, the "kind of play this guy makes all the time that doesn't make any sense".  And in fact, in this case Reyes' blunder cost his team a run.  The current issue of Sports Illustrated notes that free agent to be Carl Crawford may have harmed his chances of signing with the Yankees by being thrown out on a steal of third to end a game recently. 

There are lots of reasons why you wouldn't want to violate this rule.  A player at second base is in scoring position on most hits to the outfield, so there is little practical advantage to being on third rather than second, and with only a limited number of outs in a game, one doesn't want to take too many risks.  But whenever I hear this rule, the following question comes to mind:

"Why is it OK to make the second out at third base?"

I mean, really.  The implicit statement here is that you are selfish, or stupid or both if you make the first or third out at third base.  But if you try to stretch a double or tag up on a deep fly or try to steal and get gunned down for the second out you are a hustling player trying to make something happen.  This seems contradictory at best and confusing at worst.  All I know is, when I am coaching third base for my softball team, I don't want anyone to make ANY outs at third base.

2) "You Can't Lose Your Job Due To Injury" (NFL):  All my life I've always heard this one.  Announcers and coaches always tell us that players who are injured will slide back into their starting role once they recover.  Despite the fact that there are obvious examples of violating this (such as when Tom Brady replaced a hurt Drew "Tempestt" Bledsoe for the 2001 Patriots in game 3, and led them all the way to victory in the Super Bowl).  Despite that shining example, we are always told that this is an "unwritten rule".

So it made it strange this week to see Eagles coach Andy Reid announce that ex-felon Michael Vick would move from backup to starter (for week 3 and the rest of the season) to replace Kevin Kolb, who suffered a concussion in game 1.  Kolb was annointed the Iggles QB of the future when they drafted him in the first round three years ago.  When Philadelphia traded future Hall of Fame QB Donovan McNabb to division rival Washington on Easter Sunday, the word was that the Kevin Kolb era had begun.  Kolb looked bad all preseason, and was terrible in game 1 before getting his head slammed to the ground. (Which makes me wonder if "turf toe" is a legitimate injury, did Kolb have "turf tongue"?)

Vick was outstanding in relief of Kolb in game 1, and played very well in game 2.  As a former All-Pro QB, he is more than ready to take the reins.  But Kolb was cleared by his doctor to return to the field.  Why should he lose his job?  Andy Reid says it is not Kolb's fault, but Vick is "playing out of his mind right now".  Does that mean that if he stops excelling Kolb will come back?  Does it mean that Kolb didn't lose his job to injury, but instead to a lack of skill?  Anyway this seems very confusing.

On a similar note, while many people have been angry at the Eagles for their efforts to rehabilitate Vick, Philly fans are mostly interested in a winning team.  When convicted felons (or serially accused, never tried abusers like Ben Roethlisberger) return to the field they are often booed--until they make their first big play.  Believe me: if Michael Vick wound up a Cleveland Brown, every member of the "Dawg Pound" would be wearing #7 jerseys.

Everything I Ever Needed To Know I Learned From Pro Wrestling (Pt. 1)

Even though people are usually quite surprised to hear me say this, I am a devoted fan of professional wrestling, and I have been for decades.  As a boy growing up in the Philadelphia area I used to watch WWWF (precursor to WWF/WWE) wrestling on the local channels.  When we got cable in 1981 I suddenly had access to occasional big shows at the Philadelphia Spectrum (no longer in existence) on PRISM cable (no longer in existence--boy am I old!) as well as NWA (precursor to WCW--both no longer in existence) wrestling from Georgia on WTBS.  When I was young the Philadelphia Bulletin (you guessed it--long gone) used to print summaries of WWF cards in the sports section by the baseball boxscores. 

One of my earliest memories is of the good guy (technical term: "babyface") tag team of Tony Garea and Rick Martel being robbed of the World Title by the bad guy ("heel") team of Mr. Fuji and Mr. Saito.  The Japanese heels began each match by doing a Shinto ritual with salt to sanctify the ring.  When Rick Martel went to the top rope to put the finisher on Mr. Saito, Mr. Fuji pulled the original Pearl Harbor job and threw salt in Martel's eyes. That match took place in October of 1981, and I can still see him falling to the mat in agony and getting pinned 1-2-3.  

I will confess that for a number of years (basically 1990-95) I tuned out pro wrestling.  I was one of those people who thought it was "fake".  But in the mid-1990's, around the time that WWE empressario Vince McMahon announced that wrestling was "sports entertainment" (to avoid having to have wrestlers be tested for steroids and other drugs by state boxing commissions) I realized that I have no problem with matches that have pre-determined endings.  I mean, the thing I love about sports is the drama inherent in a weak team being able to vanquish a strong one.  But I don't watch wrestling for the results, I watch it for the path the grapplers take to get there. 

I plan to write a recurring series of posts about what I like about wrestling and what it can teach us about life.  I look forward to your comments.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

How to Make The Major Leagues

For many years now I have known the secret to making it as a player in Major League Baseball.  In fact, this secret is so potent that I actually believe that it could be the key to creating the first woman big leaguer.  I've kept this under wraps for quite some time, hoping to use it myself, but in the spirit of sharing I've decided to go public.

Obviously there are certain things that will help a player achieve success in baseball.  You could be a genetic freak like Barry Bonds (son of former star Bobby Bonds and cousin of Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson) or Ken Griffey, Jr. (whose father was a key member of the 1970's "Big Red Machine" Cincinnati Reds).  You could work hard to overcome size and speed limitations, like Pete Rose, David Eckstein, or my boyhood hero Larry Bowa.  Regardless of which route you take, it is expected that a future pro will hit thousands of balls each year, practice fielding for hours every day and follow a detailed workout and diet regimen.

Or you could do it my way...

According to, there are 44,385 people named John Smith in America.  This is unquestionably a popular name.  Since 1876, three people with this name have played major league baseball.  According to the same source, there are 50 people named Ethan Lewis at this point in time (we are a rare breed), and nobody with my name has ever played in the bigs.  The website also reveals that there are only 17 people in America named "Steve Ontiveros".   With such a miniscule number of people, it would be natural to assume that no Steve Ontiveros ever made the Show.  But that would be wrong. From 1973-2000, TWO DIFFERENT MEN calling themselves "Steve Ontiveros" played in the majors.

The first Steve Ontiveros (SO1) played 8 seasons for the Giants and Cubs from 1973-1980.  This Steve Ontiveros was a third baseman and utility player with a weedy mustache and a thin build. He was born in 1951 in Bakersfield, California. I remember him from when I was young, but he didn't stand out in any particular way.  I mean, it's not like the 9 year old me had an epiphany about the significance of Steve Ontiveros.  No.  That came later...

The second Steve Ontiveros (SO2) to make the majors pitched 10 seasons for the A's, Phillies, Mariners and Red Sox between 1985 and 2000, earning approximately $2 million for a 34-31 record and an ERA of 3.67. This Steve Ontiveros was a right handed pitcher with a weedy mustace and a thin build. When he first showed up on the scene, I thought it was a miraculous late-career position switch for SO1.  Even when I saw him on tv, I thought it was the same guy (just with different facial hair).  But soon I learned that SO2 was born in 1961 in Tularosa, New Mexico.  That was when I realized the key:

If you are named "Steve Ontiveros" you will make the major leagues!

If my wife and I ever  have children, I wil change my last name to "Ontiveros" immediately. Clearly naming a son "Steven" or and this is key a girl "Stephanie" is a must (obviously her nickname of "Stevie" will be on her baseball card).  Or, you could scour the various state departments of youth services and try to find a foster child already named "Steve Ontiveros".  Then all you need to do is buy the kid a glove and a bat and call some scouts.  The rest will take care of itself.  Remember, SO2 became a millionaire despite a very hittable fastball.  In today's big money game, imagine what SO3 could earn.  It goes beyond the dreams of avarice.  So good luck, Mr. or Ms. Ontiveros.  I look forward to watching your career!

Friday, August 27, 2010


The late Stevie Ray Vaughan
Twenty years ago today, I woke up early to find the radio playing a song by Stevie Ray Vaughan.  "Pretty cool", I thought.  I really liked SRV, to the point of having sold two guitars to pay for a Fender Stratocaster that summer, mainly based on the fact that Stevie and Eric Clapton (two of my main influences on the instrument) played one.  The station followed that by playing another song by Stevie Ray.  "Awesome!  A double shot Monday" was my natural thought.  Then the DJ announced that there had been a helicopter crash early in the morning in Wisconsin, and that Stevie Ray Vaughan was dead at the age of 36.  The impact of his early, unexpected demise reverberated around the world, and I, for one, am still somewhat in shock.

Stevie Ray Vaughan grew up in Dallas, Texas and became a guitar player due to the influence of his brother, Jimmie Vaughan, a very successful musician who eventually went on to a great career with groups such as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and as a solo artist (the brothers occasionally played together, as well).  After playing for years in Texas blues bands, SRV's talents drew him greater attention.  His style was heavily influenced by guitar giants such as Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy and Kenny Burrell. Stevie's band, Double Trouble (named after a song by Chicago bluesman Otis Rush) began to play before larger audiences.  Around this time, Nile Rodgers, who was producing David Bowie's album Let's Dance recruited SRV to play lead guitar on the record.  Popular songs like the title track, or "China Girl" are typical Bowie numbers, but then these bluesy guitar solos drop in as if from outer space, and that's Stevie.  Around this time songwriter Jackson Browne invited Double Trouble to his studio to record their first LP, Texas Flood. Many consider that this record and the ensuing albums Couldn't Stand The Weather, Soul to Soul, and In Step (which won a Grammy) were rare lights in the darkness of 80's synth-pop.  It is unquestionable that Stevie Ray Vaughan's popularity helped bring some older bluesmen out of the wilderness and gave them greater exposure (especially to white people like me).  SRV often played in public with Albert King and Buddy Guy (who was on the bill at the final concert) and loudly proclaimed his debts to the older generation.

One of the biggest tragedies of SRV's death was not just that he left so much unrecorded music in his short life, but that he died just as he began to get his life together again after years of drug and alcohol abuse. Stevie disappeared from the scene in the late 80's when his addictions got the best of him, but he emerged from seclusion in 1989 with a triumphant tour with guitar legend Jeff Beck.  Friends of mine asked me if I wanted to go see the show in Foxboro, MA, but I was a poor college student and didn't want to spring for the ticket, feeling that I would have plenty of time to see them later.  It is one of my major regrets...

Stevie's last album, In Step (1989), was a brilliant album filled with rollicking blues, Buddy Guy songs, and beautifully soulful tunes.  I remember driving with a friend when the song "Crossfire" came on the radio, and I thought "is that Albert King?" before realizing that Stevie had returned.  On his final concert tour he would take time to rap with the audience during his song "Life Without You" about his recovery, and for the need of everyone to overcome the demons that hold us back.

Stevie Ray Vaughan played his last show as part of an all-star appearance at Eric Clapton's concert in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin.  He shared the stage with Clapton, his brother Jimmie, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray, finishing with a rousing "Sweet Home Chicago".  By all accounts Stevie played his best that night.  After the show the artists and crew boarded four helicopters to fly back to Chicaco; three made it back, but the one bearing SRV (as well as Clapton's tour manager and other associates) got lost in the fog and crashed into a ski slope, killing all aboard.

© Dane Tighlman
There are lots of Stevie Ray Vaughan videos on YouTube.  Do yourself a favor and check them out sometime.  His passion, virtuosity and joyfulness are evident to me in every note he plays.  I have a framed print of SRV hanging over my guitar collection and I look at it all the time when I play.  Though thankful for all that he left behind, twenty years on, I still miss him.  Rest in Peace, Stevie.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Who is Icarus P. Anybody?

When the Sassy Librarian suggested that I start a blog, I naturally planned to name it Ethan Lewis' Blog.  After all, my website is, the online forum for my history class is and I feel like it is a nice brand identity.  But then I was told that "Ethan Lewis is boring.  Think of something interesting."

So I began trying to brainstorm names of blogs.  "Blog Horn" and "My Librarian Is Sassier Than Yours" quickly went by the wayside.  "30 Minutes Or Your Pizza's Free" was an early favorite.  But then I thought that I'd like to have a reference to one of my favorite movies.  Unfortunately, I'm not blessed at remembering movie dialogue except for some rare cases.  Basically I have memorized just about every line from The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and This is Spinal Tap.  An eclectic mix!  Rather than picking a quote from a film, I decided that I'd like to veer a bit off the beaten path, and choose a song title by Spinal Tap.

Spinal Tap has been very influential to me.  Ever since my first year of college, when I was a member of a band (Bräinhämmer) that pretended to be German heavy metalists and whose main influences were TIST and The Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Story (a sensationalist bio of the mighty Zep by Stephen Davis).  Later another of my bands (The Trouser Helpers) derived their name from a throwaway line by David St. Hubbins on the Arsenio Hall show.  Since then I have gone so far as to decorate my office with a vintage TIST movie poster and action figures.  In choosing a name, I relied on one of the all-time greatest websites, the Spinal Tap Fan Site, by Chip Rowe.  Rowe is an interesting guy, who is an expert on Spinal Tap, as demonstrated in his book Spinal Tap A to Zed.  Rowe has combed the movie, subsequent articles, tv appearances and other sources to compile the everything anyone needs to know about Tap.  But when I started looking at the titles, I realized that many probably wouldn't work:

  • "The Sun Never Sweats"--too warm
  • "Saliva of the Fittest"--too wet, plus I am working on a song of that name
  • "Nice n' Stinky"--too smelly
  • "Young, Smug and Famous"--unfortunately I am none of those things.
 And then I found it.  My "Eureka" moment!  A deep track on Tap's psychedelic album "We Are All Flower People", the epic "The Incredible Flight Of Icarus P. Anybody".  I knew then, that I had found my muse.

 After graduating college I spent a year writing humorous sports columns for the now defunct Northampton, MA College Optimist under the nom de plume "The Crank In The Stands".  You can read highlights of the Crank's rants here.  But the Crank is too negative for the 21st century.  So now I am pleased to work with the alter ego of Icarus P. Anybody, who strikes me as an optimistic, adventurous Every-person.  I look forward to seeing what he has to say!

Seeking a refuge from Scrabble.

I needed a healthy outlet for my time and energy.  As a schoolteacher, I am blessed with long vacations and summers off, but unfortunately I have misspent my free time.  You see, I am a Scrabble addict.  Specifically, I get obsessed with playing games on the Internet Scrabble Club site.  You may have played Scrabble--it's the crossword game where you make words that link with other words. It is very fun, and I am pretty good at it.  But what I really like is the adrenaline rush, you see, I play games where each player only gets 3 minutes for the whole game.  As a result I can play LOTS of games in a short space of time.  During the period from June through late August 2010, I played over 1100 games.  Since 2003 I've played over 11,000 games.  I estimate that this adds up to about two full months of my life spent playing Scrabble.

I had some high points this summer--my fifth game of 500 or more points, a "bingo" (seven letter word) of 216 points ("quizzers"), and establishing a personal record rating of 1520.  But unfortunately the game kind of took over.  For weeks I dreamed of playing Scrabble.  Whenever I had a spare moment I ran to the computer to get the rush of playing a fast game.  Ultimately, I realized I had a problem.

That's when my wife suggested that as a substitute for Scrabble I could try blogging.  At first I thought "what do I have to write about, that anyone would be interested in?"  But then I figured it was worth a shot.  I am interested in some esoteric topics, and I'll write about all of them on this site.  Some examples include (in alphabetical order):

  • Baseball
  • Guitar
  • Media Criticism
  • Movies and TV  
  • Music
  • Politics
  • Professional Wrestling
I'll also review and link to articles and blogs that I find in my perambulations on the web, and hopefully spark discussions about topics of mutual interest.

I hope you find this interesting.  And now, on with the show!