Thursday, December 31, 2009

100 Best Songs of the Decade


As with the 100 Best Albums of the Decade, the criteria for this list is pretty much non-existent. This is purely subjective. If anything, picking favorite songs is even more arbitrary and inexact than picking favorite albums. And if I were to make this list a week from now, it might look very different. But today is the day the year comes to a close. Here’s my take on the best songs of the decade:

1. The White Stripes – Seven Nation Army
2. The Hold Steady - Stuck Between Stations
3. Green Day – Jesus of Suburbia
4. The Flaming Lips - Do You Realize?
5. The Killers – Mr. Brightside
6. MGMT – Fated to Pretend
7. Eminem – Lose Yourself
8. The Strokes – Last Nite
9. Amy Winehouse - Rehab
10. Bruce Springsteen- My City of Ruins
11. Gnarls Barkley – Crazy
12. John Doe - The Golden State
13. U2 - Vertigo
14. Modest Mouse – Float On
15. Spoon - The Underdog
16. Rilo Kiley – Portion for Foxes
17. Johnny Cash - Hurt
18. Ryan Adams – New York, New York
19. Coldplay –Viva La Vida
20. Son Volt – The Picture
21. The Hold Steady – Constructive Summer
22. U2- Moment of Surrender
23. The Gaslight Anthem- The ’59 Sound
24. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Maps
25. Bruce Springsteen – The Rising
26. Franz Ferdinand – Take Me out
27. Arcade Fire – Rebellion (Lies)
28. Norah Jones – Don’t Know Why
29. Wilco – At Least that’s What You Said
30. Outkast – Hey Ya!
31. The Middle – Jimmy Eat World
32. Band of Horses – No One’s Gonna Love You
33. Arctic Monkeys - I’ll Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor
34. The Walkmen – The Rat
35. Kaiser Chiefs – I Predict A Riot
36. Camera Obscura - Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken
37. Beck- Lost Cause
38. Rilo Kiley- Does He Love You?
39. Ike Reilly – Last Time
40. Bob- Dylan- Mississippi
41. Kathleen Edwards – Back to Me
42. Green Day - Boulevard of Broken Dreams
43. The New Pornographers – My Rights Versus Yours
44. My Morning Jacket - Off the Record
45. Pete Yorn- Strange Condition
46. Sufjan Stevens – Chicago
47. The Libertines – Time for Heroes
48. Amy Winehouse – You Know I’m No Good
49. Bruce Springsteen – You’ll Be Coming Down
50. Shout Out Louds – Tonight I have to Leave it
51. Coldplay- Yellow
52. Corrine Bailey Rae- Put Your Records On
53. The Pernice Brothers – PCH One
54. The Fratellis- Chelsea Dagger
55. Bright Eyes – First Day of My Life
56. Matthew Ryan - I Hear a Symphony
57. Elliott Smith- Son of Sam
58. The National- Fake Empire
59. Alejandro Escovedo – Always a Friend
60. Ray Lamontagne – Trouble
61. Stars – Your Ex-Lover is Dead
62. Wilco – Heavy Metal Drummer
63. The Shins – New Slang
64. Bruce Springsteen – Long Walk Home
65. The Raveonettes – That Great Love Sound
66. Iron & Wine – Such Great Heights
67. The Hives – Hate to Say I Told you So
68. Ryan Adams – Come Pick Me Up
69. The White Stripes- Fell in Love with a Girl
70. Wilco – Impossible Germany
71. U2 - Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out of
72. Voxtrot- Raised by Wolves
73. Cracker – Turn On, Tune In , Drop Out With Me
74. Maximo Park – Girls Who Play Guitars
75. Bob Dylan – When the Deal Goes Down
76. Foo Fighters – Best of You
77. Wilco – Jesus, etc.
78. Phoenix - 1901
79. Okkervil River – Unless it Kicks
80. M83- Save us from the Flames
81. Lucinda Williams – Essence
82. M. Ward – To Go Home
83. British Sea Power – Waving Flags
84. Keane – Somewhere Only We Know
85. Silversun Pickups – Lazy Eye
86. Emmylou Harris – Red Dirt Girl
87. Cold War Kids – Hang Me Up to Dry
88. Grand Archives – Torn Blue Foam Coach
89. Beck- E-Pro
90. Neil Young – The Painter
91. Panic at the Disco – Nine in the Afternoon
92. Rufus Wainwright - Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk
93. Black Kids – I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You
94. Joseph Arthur – In the Sun
95. The Thrills – Santa Cruz
96. Queens of the Stone Age – Go With the Flow
97. Andrew Bird – Fake Palindromes
98. Tegan & Sara – Where does the Good Go
99. The Kooks – Always Where You Need to be
100. Ray Davies – After the Fall

Happy New Year!


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

100 Best Albums of the Decade


Technically, the decade isn’t over ‘til next year but don’t tell that to the list-makers. Since I’m a list-maker too, I needed to get in on this.

I took the liberty of sampling a few other “Best albums of the decade” lists assembled by critics and magazines and decided, quite naturally, that they were mostly terrible. Was the decade in music really THAT bad? I had trouble believing it. And that’s what inspired me to jog my memory, peruse my iTunes collection and make my own list. When you surrender to your own biases and preferences and compile your own list, suddenly the decade looks quite a bit better. I highly recommend the experience.

So here is my own purely subjective list. There is no attempt to be fashionable, hip, culturally diverse, well-rounded or representative of different musical genres. Without further apology, here are my favorite albums of the first decade of the 2000s:

1. Green Day – American Idiot
2. The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America
3. Bruce Springsteen – The Rising
4. U2 - How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
5. Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
6. Brian Wilson – Smile
7. Drive-By Truckers – Southern Rock Opera
8. Bob Dylan – Love and Theft
9. Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
10. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
11. Ryan Adams – Gold
12. Johnny Cash – American III: Solitary Man
13. Bruce Springsteen – Magic
14. The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
15. My Morning Jacket – Z
16. Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
17. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
18. The Strokes – Is This It
19. Elliott Smith – Figure 8
20. U2 – No Line on the Horizon
21. Arcade Fire – Funeral
22. The White Stripes – Elephant
23. Norah Jones – Come Away with Me
24. Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker
25. Pete Yorn – Music for the Morning After
26. Radiohead – In Rainbows
27. Drive-By Truckers – The Dirty South
28. The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday
29. U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind
30. The Jayhawks – Rainy Day Music
31. O Brother Where Art Thou – Soundtrack
32. Beck – Sea Change
33. Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown
34. Coldplay – Viva La Vida
35. Wilco – A Ghost is Born
36. Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning
37. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss - Raising Sand
38. The National – The Boxer
39. Band of Horses – Cease to Begin
40. The Gaslight Anthem – The '59 Sound
41. REM – Accelerate
42. The Felice Brothers
43. Old 97's - Satelite Rides
44. Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around
45. The Walkmen – Bows + Arrows
46. Marah - Kids in Philly
47. Sufjan Stevens – Illinois
48. Rilo Kiley – More Adventurous
49. My Chemical Romance- The Black Parade
50. Ike Reilly – Salesmen and Racists
51. Josh Ritter – The Animal Years
52. Belle and Sebastian – The Life Pursuit
53. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
54. Bob Dylan - Modern Times
55. Lucinda Williams – Essence
56. The Raconteurs – Consolers of the Lonely
57. Radiohead – Kid A
58. Alejandro Escovedo – Animal
59. Ryan Adams – Love is Hell
60. Bruce Springsteen – The Seger Sessions
61. Beck – Guero
62. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not
63. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
64. Elliott Smith – From a Basement on a Hill
65. The National – Alligator
66. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky
67. The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism
68. Corinne Bailey Rae
69. Bob Dylan – Together Through Life
70. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
71. Pearl Jam – Backspacer
72. My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges
73. A.A. Bondy – When the Devil’s Loose
74. Bruce Springsteen – Working on a Dream
75. Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out of This Country
76. Glasvegas
77. Lucero – 1372 Overton Park
78. Paul Westerberg – Stereo
79. Oasis – Don’t Believe the Truth
80. Vampire Weekend
81. Fountains of Wayne – Welcome Interstate Managers
82. Death Cab for Cutie - Transatlanticism
83. Ryan Adams – Rock N Roll
84. Okkervil River- Stage Names
85. Son Volt – The Search
86. Elvis Costello – Delivery Man
87. The Killers – Hot Fuss
88. Shelby Lynne – I am Shelby Lynne
89. Rancid – Indestructible
90. Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
91. Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris – All the Roadrunning
92. Ben Folds – Songs for Silverman
93. The Whigs – Mission Control
94. Peter Bjorn & John – Writer’s Block
95. Dinosaur Jr. – Beyond
96. Nada Surf – Lucky
97. Patty Griffin – 1,000 Kisses
98. Beck – The Information
99. Modern Skirts – Catalogue of Generous Men
100. Warren Zevon – The Wind


Thursday, December 24, 2009

The New Atheism

I have a confession. I’m a fan of the New Atheism.

Of course there’s nothing “new” about atheism. Atheism, agnosticism, skepticism and godlessness are as old as belief itself. The new atheism isn’t all that new either, or different from earlier varieties. But it is more confident. Within the past 5 years, there has been an observable trend in book publishing, and in cultural attitudes at large, challenging religious orthodoxy and conventions of faith. It is a trend most clearly reflected in three books: The End of Faith by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. These three writers, Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens comprise a sort of Unholy Trinity. (When joined with philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell, they become the Four Horsemen.)

I like all three books, partly because they appeal to my own skepticism concerning religion and faith-based assertions, but also, because they are well-written, incisive and appropriately provocative. In raising consciousness about the nature of dogma and of evidence, these books are sorely needed in a society plagued by an assault on reason, and in a world where religion and its depredations have truly run amok.

All three books are polemical, bold, engaging and lots of fun even as they are deadly serious. Yes, they skewer religions’ easy targets - Al-Qaeda, Jihad, the Spanish Inquisition, Jerry Falwell, anti-Semitism, homophobia - but they don’t stop there. They insist that religious “moderates” are also part of the problem. We often hear it said that religion itself isn’t bad – the trouble starts when extremists carry things too far. Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens are having none of that. They argue that well-intentioned moderates contribute to religion’s toxicity because they provide cover for extreme fundamentalists and Jihadists by making a virtue of faith itself – as if believing something for which there is insufficient evidence can ever be a good thing.

Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens have been accused by their critics (including fellow atheists) of going too far in their hostility toward religion. It’s a charge that Hitchens, at least, would happily embrace. Each takes careful aim at his target, but goes after it in a slightly different way and with different emphasis. Dawkins, the scientist, sets out to address why religion’s claims are not true. Harris emphasizes why such beliefs are so dangerous. And Hitchens argues for why they are wicked. All three books challenge the presumption that entitles a person to a heightened degree of respect when a particular view they hold is said to be rooted in religion. We see this all the time. When a person says “oh well, but that’s my faith,” that person’s view of reality is immunized from the give-and-take and criticism that comes with expression of any other opinion or idea. Our Unholy Trinity says “Enough!” Believing nonsense has consequences, and we should be brave enough to say so.

I enjoyed Dawkin’s The God Delusion the best, probably because my own interest in this subject stems from my study of evolutionary biology. Learning about evolution in school piqued my interest in science and enhanced my sense of wonder about the natural world. I’ve never understood the fear, expressed by some religious believers, that Darwinian evolution degrades life by reducing all things to the cold calculus of materialism. I always felt that the opposite was true. It always seemed to me that science, and evolution in particular, heightens our appreciation of life by enriching our understanding and by offering us glimpses into the majesty of nature and its workings.

I’ve enjoyed Dawkins writing for years, having first encountered his work in college when I read The Blind Watchmaker, which explains how evolution produces an illusion of design, but not evidence for a process guided by the supernatural. Dawkins is the rare scientist who can effectively reach a popular audience writing about evolutionary biology. So why write about atheism? One reason is because he see first-hand how fervently religious forces push for Creationism (cynically packaged as “Intelligent Design”) to be taught in public schools. For anyone who cares about science and academic integrity, that would be toxic enough, but there is more. For Dawkins, the evidence of evolution and the belief in a supernatural creator who designed the world are incompatible. He struggles to comprehend how a renowned biologist like Francis Collins can be really be a faithful Christians. Intellectual consistency, Dawkins argues, requires agnosticism at a minimum. He even wonders if such Christian biologists really do believe all they claim to believe. He figures that whereas they may believe in a Creator and embrace the cultural values of their religion, they are unlikely to believe in the suspension of the natural order, Miracles? Virgin births? Talking snakes? Personally, I have no idea what percentage of theist scientists (or non-scientists) believe in such things. But even if religious faith seems like cognitive dissonance to Dawkins, I am far more hesitant to question the sincerity of those who profess to believe.

But Dawkins is on solid ground when he takes on the famous position advanced by the late Stephen Jay Gould (who was an atheist) that science and religion occupy different spheres of human experience (“non-overlapping magisteria”) and are therefore perfectly reconcilable. Gould’s proposition sounds nice and cozy, but it doesn’t work. Religion does not simply describe some separate compartment of reality to be labeled “spiritual.” Rather, religion constitutes a system of belief that makes all kinds of claims about the physical world. For example, there is the claim that living forms were purposefully designed by a supernatural intelligence that has special regard for humans (to say nothing of virgin births and talking snakes). These are not metaphysical abstractions. They are statements of the natural order. When such claims are treated like any other hypothesis, they simply don’t hold up. Dawkins effectively takes on the various talking points advanced by religion’s apologists (“The Universe is too finely-tuned”, “It couldn’t all come from nothing,” “Evolution can’t account for morality,” etc). While a tone of annoyance and intellectual superiority does sometimes emerge in his writing, so does the force of his argument as well as his love of science and reverence for the natural world.

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris examines the nature of faith itself and the dangers of surrendering to it. A philosopher and neuroscientist at Stanford, Harris is a rising star in this milieu, a clear thinker and a strong writer. He details how religious doctrines, incompatible with reality and with each other, have Balkanized the world and now threaten us with destruction. He has no use for political correctness and isn’t afraid to single out Islam as the monotheism that is most likely to get us all killed. He easily dispenses with the canard that that secularism, and faith’s decline, were responsible for the crimes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. Were Auschwitz, the Gulag and the Killing Fields really the result of too much rational inquiry? Too much skepticism? Too much insistence on evidence? Hardly. These atrocities resulted from dogmartic ideologies which operated all too much like religion.

Harris is also interested in the possibility of transcendental experience and maintains that these are as available to the atheist as they are to any religious believer. But what seems to interest him most, is changing the nature of public discourse when we think and talk about things like faith and religion. As he observes in his follow-up work, Letters to a Christian Nation:

When considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn't. Religion is the one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.

Hitchens is the most scathing and mischievous of the three writers. Ever the iconoclast, his glee is palpable in God is Not Great as he pokes a stick in the eye of the faith-based establishment and calls on humanity to emancipate itself from the infantile crutch of religion. He insists that monotheism is inherently totalitarian since God is, by definition, a celestial dictator who supervises you around the clock and promises to punish you for your very thoughts. Hitchens is not above blasting the easy targets like child-molesting clergymen and you can almost discern his smirk while he suggests that the motto of the Church might well be “No Child’s Behind Left.” Too clever.

The more serious charge is also more forcefully argued – that religion’s fundamental teachings are not moral teachings. Like Harris, he observes that not all monotheisms are equal and indeed, the Al Qaeda attck on 9/11 was the impetus for his book. He reminds us that theocratic terror takes many forms. Hitchens is good friends with Salaman Rushdie, who dared blaspheme Islam’s Prophet more than 20 years ago in his novel, Satanic Verses. Rushdie still requires a security detail because of a Fatwa issued by Iran’s Ayatollah. Hitchens recalls the infamous Danish cartoon incident. The publication of a cartoon poking fun of Mohammed led to an international incident, a breach of diplomatic immunity and murderous riots by angry Muslims. Hitchens has no patience for those who make excuses for thugs and rioters or who call on cartoonists to be more “sensitive” about the offense that might be taken. He correctly calls it what it is: cowardice, capitulation and an erosion of freedom.

Judaism is not spared either. He blasts the zealotry of Israel’s Messianic settlers, the practice of circumcision (“genital mutilation”), the Old Testament’s warrant for sexism and genocide and the hideous lesson at the core of all Abrahamic monotheism - that a willingness to kill at God’s command should be seen as praiseworthy. (He does, however approve of the Jewish tradition of self-criticism, secularism and talent for atheism). But Hitchens is just getting warmed up as he moves to his next target: Christianity. Because as brutal as the Old Testament is, at least when you’re dead, your punishment is over. Only with the advent of Christianity and the teachings of the gentle Nazarene, are you threatened with eternal never-ending torture. Christianity also introduces the barbaric concept of vicarious redemption, the idea that you can be saved, absolved of your own wrongful conduct, by means of the brutal blood sacrifice of another, 2,000 years before you were born. Then there’s Original Sin, the Trinity and well…you get the picture.

Perhaps what offends Hitchens most is the notion that without some supervisory dictator calling the shots, humans would not know how to behave morally. Religion, he concludes, belongs to an earlier time when humanity lived in terror of nature, and understood little about disease, geology, astronomy, archaeology, physics, neuro-chemistry etc. We have far better explanations now. It is time to dispense with the superstitious wish-thinking, which insults our humanity and threatens our very survival.

Not surprisingly, given the success of these books, there has been something of a backlash. College campuses host debates on the existence of God, the blogosphere is alive with fury, and Christian Apologists have published screeds blasting the New Atheism for its militant tone, its unsparing naturalism and, predictably enough, for attempting to unhinge our moral underpinning as a nation. For Christian fundamentalists, the success of the New Atheists is simply the latest call to arms in the “Culture Wars.” For these right-wing holy warriors, this spate of atheism is part and parcel of the same godless secularism that seeks to separate church and state, supports gay marriage and teaches evil -ution. Of course this political effort to impose a fundamentalist Christian vision of America represents the very religious bullying that has given the New Atheism such traction and popularity.

More interesting are the objections posed by fellow secularists who insist that the New Atheists are too strident and aggressive for their own good. For these critics, many of whom are non-believers themselves, the New Atheism is like an unruly kid brother who speaks out of turn and must be instructed to tone it down in the presence of respectable company. Shhh! How can we expect to get public support for science if you are telling parents that science and religion are incompatible? And do you really think the Muslim world will be persuaded to curb its Jihadists and reform its society when you insist that the Koran is a fairy tale? These are valid points. But to the extent they are objections to the New Atheism, they are about tone and tactics – not propositions of truth.

Polls indicate that the percentage of Americans who are non-believers is on the rise in the U.S. To be sure, polls of this kind must always be taken with a grain of salt. So much is in the wording of the questions (asking “Do you identify yourself as an atheist” will produce a very different result than “Do you believe in the God of the bible?”). But the trend seems real enough. The New Atheist authors aren’t the cause of the trend, but it’s fair to say that their popularity is a reflection of it. Their arguments resonate with Americans who are tired of religious bullying at home and faith-based violence around the globe.

I don’t think that any of these books will actually persuade anyone, who isn’t already deeply skeptical of the divine, to suddenly become an atheist. But the books succeed on a more important level: They tear at the shroud of taboo that discourages people from thinking and speaking critically about articles of faith. They encourage a closer look at the consequences – intellectual, moral and geopolitical - of rejecting reason and evidence in favor of supernatural belief and religious authority. Finally, they invite us take part in the fullness of life’s experiences and celebrate the “awe of understanding” on human terms. On this point, I’ll leave the last word to Charles Darwin:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

And on that note, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!


Saturday, December 5, 2009

20 Best Albums of 2009

My favorite albums of 2009:

20. Hockey – Mind Chaos

Portland band combines elements of Brit pop, rock anthems, snarling vocals, and dance beats to create a fun, refreshing album.

19. The Raveonettes - In and Out of Control

Yeah, they’ve got a formula but it’s a pretty good one. Catchy hooks, rich Spectorish production and an 80s guitar sound reminiscent of the Jesus and Mary Chain. Even songs about rape and suicide are coated with sugar.

18. Cracker – Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey

One of America’s best bands of the past 15 years, Cracker is still going strong, with David Lowery’s wry observations and off-beat humor very much intact. Standout track: Turn On Tune In Drop Out With Me.

17. Willie Nile - House of a Thousand Guitars

There's no mistaking the Dylan and Springsteen influence, but never mind. Nile is a solid songwriter who has flown under the radar for years and he delivers wear-on-your-sleeve rock and roll.

16. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast

To be as wordy as Andrew Bird is, you have to be at least slightly pretentious. Who cares? Bird delivers some musically lush, eclectic and beautiful songs.

15. Monsters of Folk

An unlikely "super group" with Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes, Jim James from My Morning Jacket and the excellent, M. Ward. Forget the dopey title and enjoy the music.

14. Rosanne Cash – The List

Some excellent guest appearances (Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Tweedy) contribute to this album of country covers, but it is Cash’s intimate vocal delivery that gives this album its poignancy.

13. James Maddock – Sunrise on Avenue C

Maddock was the voice of Wood, a group that scored a hit with the lovely “Stay You” about 10 years ago. He's landed in New York City and has put together an impressive, well-crafted album. Maddock's ragged voice (which sounds a bit like Ian Hunter) is full of heart.

12. Bruce Springsteen - Working on a Dream

Not as good as his last album, Magic, but this is still a solid work. I’m a sucker for the opening track, "Outlaw Pete," a lush, sprawling, over-the top, western epic. I’m less impressed with Springsteen’s Grammy nominations. Grammys are dumb.

11. Lucero – 1372 Overton Park

Describing the voice of lead-singer Ben Nichols as “whiskey soaked” is so obvious that it makes more sense to pin-point what kind of whiskey. I’m thinking sour-mash bourbon. The horns on this excellent alt-country album are a nice touch.

10. A.A. Bondy – When the Devil’s Loose

The former lead singer of Verbena, one of the better Nirvana sound-alike grunge bands of the 1990s, Bondy is charting an impressive course as a singer and songwriter with this moving stripped-down recording.

9. Pearl Jam – Backspacer

Their best album in years.

8. Bob Dylan – Together Through Life

I never thought I’d get so much pleasure listening to someone who sounds like death, sing about death. But if anyone else had made this album, they’d be calling him the next Bob Dylan. His live performance at the United Palace Theatre in November was a revelation.

7. Brakes – Touchdown

The lads from Brighton, England (including Hamilton of British Sea Power) have put together a wonderful recording of alternative pop-rock.

6. Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi

A tasty helping of New Orleans jazz and blues. Allen Toussaint, pianist, singer and producer extraordinaire, is surely one of the most under-appreciated musical giants of the last half-century.

5. U2 – No Line on the Horizon

Some people like U2 best for their soaring anthems. Others prefer their willingness to experiment and play with dance beats. Here, they do both. This is an album that grows with repeated listening.

4. Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown

What could be more self-indulgent and audacious than following up a rock opera with yet another rock opera? Who do they think they are? The Who? Well, they just about pull it off. This soaring follow-up to American Idiot is masterful, including their faithful cover of the Who’s “A Quick One While She’s Away.”

3. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

Neko Case delivers well-crafted, soul-baring songs with a powerful voice and expressive phrasing. This is her best album yet.

2. Wilco – The Wilco Album

I had the pleasure of seeing them play at Keyspan Park in Coney Island on a perfect summer evening. Tweedy and company are in top form.

1. The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You

The North Carolina roots band has made an album of gorgeous songs with their usual harmonies and emotional resonance. There's less bluegrass than on their last album, but it's a catchier, more accessible album and an enriching experience. Terrific stuff.

Honorable Mention:

  • Joe Henry – Blood From Stars (deep, haunting songs from Madonna's brother-in-law)
  • Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels (lovely, mellow, well-crafted songs)
  • M. Ward – Hold Time (hypnotic voice and acoustic guitar playing - a very good year for Mr. Ward)
  • Cage the Elephant (guitar riff rock with a hip-hop influence and Brit-Pop swagger)
  • Atlas Sound – Logos (eclectic, dreamy, psychedelic pop)
  • The Felice Brothers – Yonder is the Clock (roots Americana as authentic as it gets)
  • White Rabbits - It's Frightening (up-and-coming Brooklyn-based Indie rock outfit)
  • Patterson Hood - Murdering Oscar (fine solo release from Drive-By Truckers front man)

For most list-mania check out largehearted boy


Cocky Draw

Fans of U.S. soccer are ecstatic about Friday’s World Cup draw, which has set the U.S. in a group where they will play against England, Algeria and Slovenia. Predictably, that joy has been accompanied by an overconfidence that is entirely unwarranted. On ESPN, Alexi Lalas was practially giddy over the prospect of a U.S. cakewalk into the second round. Only the England game is viewed as a challenge. According to ESPN Soccernet, “there should be few problems for the U.S. as they survey their group.” Few problems? Personally, I think these people are out of their minds.

To be sure, the draw went as well as could be expected. The U.S. was going to have to face one of the top seven teams in the world and drawing England is surely more favorable than drawing Brazil, Spain, Italy, Germany or Netherlands. (The only better draw would have seen them play the host, South Africa.) They were going to draw a team from either South America or Africa and Algeria, who struggled to qualify, is probably the weakest of that bunch. And from the final pot, drawing Slovenia is surely preferable to facing one of the European nations they might have drawn: France, Portugal, Serbia or Denmark.

Of course the goal for the U.S. has to be first or second place in the group, which means advancing to the knock-out round. They accomplished this in 2002 but disappointed in 2006, when they failed to advance in Germany. But the folks who think that the U.S. should be strongly favored to advance, or think that they will do so easily, have clearly swallowed the Kool-Aid.

For starters, anyone who thinks Algeria will be a push-over ought to consider the kind of adversity the Algerian team endured in order to qualify. And as the only Muslim nation to qualify for the World Cup, Algeria will be motivated and put all of their pride on display against the Americans. As for Slovenia, one need only look at what this tiny nation had to accomplish in order to qualify, finishing ahead of Poland and the Czech Republic (a team which beat the U.S. 3-0 at the 2006 World Cup) and then upsetting Russia in a qualifier. Here’s the deal: The U.S. has qualified for the last five World Cups and each time, it has lost to a team from Eastern Europe. It was the Czechs in 2006, Poland in 2002, Yugoslavia in 1998, Romania in 1994 and Czechoslovakia in 1990. You get the picture. They really play soccer in Eastern Europe. They usually play it better than we do.

But I’m looking forward to the June World Cup and as for as expectations for the U.S. team, there should be hope and humility. I’m especially looking forward to the game against England with all of the plots and sub-plots. (The 1950 U.S. upset win in Belo Horizonte, Beckham vs. Donovan, that whole American Revolution thing, etc.) And it should make for a fun scene at the pubs in New York City. Right now, I think the keys for the U.S. success in South Africa will be 1) the fitness of Oguchi Onyewu, 2) the emergence of Jozy Altidore (or another striker) as a true scoring threat, 3) avoiding that most fatal of conditions – overconfidence.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ecstasy for Slovenia

Lost amidst the Ireland-France handball controversy was a remarkable story - the surprising qualification of Slovenia for the World Cup in South Africa. With a population of just two million, Slovenia is the 2nd smallest of the Yugoslav Republics (after Montenegro) and the smallest nation to qualify for South Africa. The Slovenian soccer team will be playing on the world’s biggest soccer stage this summer while Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Croatia, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic and, alas, Ireland will all be watching from home.

One of the fascinating things about International soccer is observing how a nation’s history, character, passions and tensions are expressed in its soccer culture, observations recounted in compelling fashion by Simon Kuper in “Football Against the Enemy” and Franklin Foer in “How Soccer Explains the World.” In the case of war-torn former Yugoslavia, this phenomenon has been more than fascinating, it has been utterly horrifying. A 1991 riot at a soccer match in Zagreb offered a prelude to the savage war that would follow. Meanwhile, thousands of hooligans – fiercely nationalist, violent and unemployed – came from the terraces of Red Star Belgrade to serve as shock troops for Serbian paramilitary units charged with war crimes. Now, 15 years after Dayton and nearly 10 years after NATO bombs fell on Serbia, there is relative stability, though the political situation in parts of Bosnia and Kosovo remains tenuous. What was once Yugoslavia is now 6 separate nations: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Slovenia. Life goes on and of course, this means there is soccer.

Serbia and Croatia, the two largest of the Yugoslav republics have had the greatest success on the pitch. Croatia, playing in their famous red and white checked shirts, was a surprise semi-finalist at the 1998 World Cup tournament and though they failed to qualify this time, they are still ranked 10th in the world by FIFA. Serbia, with their strong defenders, qualified easily in 2006 and again this time around, finishing ahead of France in their group. Bosnia & Herzegovina very nearly qualified but had the bad luck to draw Portugal in the two-legged playoff. When Slovenia last qualified, in 2002, fans and commentators thought it was a fluke. Yet here they are again..

Slovenia is the most western of the Yugoslav Republics, both geographically and culturally. It is also the most prosperous. From Venice, Italy, the Slovenian border is less than 100 miles away. This mountainous region, extending down to the Mediterranean saw fierce fighting in World War I, when Slovenia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Slovenia was fortunately spared the violence of the last decade’s Yugoslav wars and, by 2004, became a member of both NATO and the European Union.

Amazingly, Slovenia can claim to be one of the world’s great sporting nations. The Julian Alps dominate the north of the country and so it’s not surprising that skiing is popular. Several Slovenian skiers have won Olympic medals. And there’s hockey. When you think about European hockey, you probably think of Scandinavia or the former Soviet Union – you don’t think Yugoslavia. Yet the Slovenian hockey team is ranked 17th in the world, impressive when consider there are more people living in the metropolitan area of Denver than there are in Slovenia. A Slovenian player, An┼że Kopitar, stars for the L.A. Kings and leads the NHL in scoring. The head coach of Slovenia national hockey team is an American named John Harrington. He knows something about being an underdog. He was a member of the miracle U.S. team that knocked off the Soviets and won the Gold Medal at Lake Placid in 1980.

In summer sports too, Slovenia can boast some impressive accomplishments. Like other Eastern European nations, gymnastics is a huge and the nation’s greatest sports hero, Miroslav Cerar, is one of the best gymnasts of all time. More recently, Slovenia won 5 medals in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and led all European nations in the medals-per-capita category.

And then there is soccer. On Wednesday, Slovenia secured its place in South Africa with a 1-0 win over Russia, who is no pushover. (Russia was a semi-finalist in the last major tournament, Euro 2008.) Slovenia's traveling fans, nicknamed the Green and White Army, is a small, but passionate lot. BBC showed a clip of their supporters who travelled to Belfast for an April qualifier against Northern Ireland. In spite of a disappointing loss before a tough crowd, the fans played accordion and sang cheerfully. A fan who was interviewed spoke well of his visit Belfast and complimented the nation’s beer. What more can you ask for?

So watch for Slovenia in their green and white jerseys. They will have their work cut out for them in June and most observers would probably conclude that just qualifying for South Africa is more than anyone could have hoped for. Soccer fans looking for a World Cup upset or a radical overturning of the International soccer order, would probably place their hopes with an African team, or maybe one from Asia or North America (the U.S. anyone?). But there is something appealing about the prospect of this small, Alpine nation finding success against the forces of history and the great soccer powers of the world.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Agony of the Irish

On Wednesday, the qualification matches for the 2010 World Cup were completed, settling the matter of which 32 national soccer teams will be heading to South Africa. The big story was the tragedy of Irish. Deadlocked at the end of their two-legged play-off match with mighty France, the match was in extra-time when it all came crashing down. France scored the winner when Thierry Henry’s blatant handball was missed by the referee. (The linesman also missed the two French players who were offside on the play.) The Irish are justifiably outraged.

If the Irish suffer from a persecution complex, it is more than understandable in light of their history, including their recent history in the world of soccer. Because the governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA (whose President is former French star, Michel Platini) changed the play-off rules midstream, the deck seemed stacked against Ireland from the start. But they kept it close and the inspiration of their coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, and the pluck of their players, notably Damien Duff, Keith Andrews, Robbie Keane & Liam Lawrence instilled the Irish fans with the deadliest of conditions – hope.

As a result of this infamous handball, we’ll probably see the introduction of video replay in International soccer but that won’t lessen the pain for the Irish. Everyone comes off looking terrible. It was shame for the sport and for the French team, whose presence in South Africa will now be widely regarded as illegitimate. And even Thierry Henry, one of the best and most graceful players of his generation, will be regarded as a cheat in much of the English-speaking world. It hardly matters that any player would have instinctively done what Henry did. Henry admitted to the handball and has even gone on record as saying that the game should be replayed (admittedly, he said this after FIFA ruled against this option). His legacy should survive this incident, but good luck to him if he ever tries to order a pint of Guinness.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Brotherly Love and Hate

No Met fan wanted to see this World Series match-up. The Philadelphia Phillies, formerly as mediocre and innocuous as their green pear-shaped mascot, have become our hated rival to the south. They stand poised to become the first National League team to repeat as World Series champions since Cincinnati’s legendary Big Red Machine won in 1975 and 1976. All that stands in their way is the New York Yankees – the Evil Empire. I was tempted to compare this match-up to Hitler vs. Stalin but decided that this kind of hyperbole would be tasteless and inappropriate. This is baseball, not soccer.

But let’s be honest: hating another team is almost as essential to being a sports fan as loving your own team. Certainly, it makes for a more enriching experience. Just ask any Yankee or Red Sox fan about that rivalry. Mention Bucky Dent or Aaron Boone to a Red Sox Fan. Or Pedro Martinez or Schilling’s bloody sock to a Yankee fan and watch carefully. Their body language changes and you can sometimes detect a slightly wild look in the eye, an exciting suggestion of the violent impulses lurking just beneath the surface.

One Yankee fan I know considered my predicament: “For you, it’s probably the same as I felt in 1986 when the Red Sox played the Mets. I wanted both teams to lose.” I appreciated the remark - empathy is the rarest of traits in Yankee fans. But the analogy only goes so far. Yankees vs. Red Sox is an ancient and eternal rivalry, the best and most bitter in all of baseball, if not all of American professional sports. By contrast, Mets vs. Phillies is a recent phenomenon.

As cities go, Philadelphia and New York are natural rivals and have been since colonial times. Yesterday’s New York Post ran one of those humorous “Tale of the Tape” pieces (26 championships vs. 2, etc.) which dismissed Philadelphia as a second-rate city, whose greatest culinary contribution is a cheap steak sandwich covered in Cheez-Whiz, whose greatest sports hero is a fictional boxer, and whose boorish fans suffer from an eternal case of New York envy. But it’s not just the New York Post. I came across a New York Times article from 1852 expressing a similar sentiment.

That, under the quiet and subdued jackets of Philadelphia hearts should beat, so tumultuous with envy, so swelling with ambition and fretted with indignation, as the last few years have exhibited, might seem incredible to one who had not seen their desires incarnated in outward acts. That city has evinced a feeling bordering on positive malignity toward her sister of New York.

Nice! Now, I am a proud New Yorker who has always liked the city of Philadelphia. I enjoy visiting, I’m fond of my family and friends from the area, I’m a fan of the first two Rocky films and I highly recommend a stroll along South Street, a visit to the Museum of Art and a drive along the Schuylkill on a clear fall day. I’ve never harbored any particular animosity for their sports teams. The notable exception is the Eagles. OK, come to think of it, there’s no love lost for the Flyers either. But the Phillies?

The Mets and Phillies have been divisional opponents since 1962 but despite efforts by the media to create one, no real rivalry took hold. When the Mets were bad, the Phillies were good and vice-versa. The Mets first real rival was the Cubs, competing with them first for the 1969 division title and then for futility. In the 1980s, it was the Cardinals. A decade later, it was the Braves. And now, all of the elements of a heated rivalry have taken shape with the Phillies. For now, it has it all: the regional element, two closely contested title races (2007 & 2008), bad blood between players (Billy Wagner & Pat Burrell), arrogant boasts (Jimmy Rollins & Carlos Beltran), obnoxious fans (theirs), historical collapses (ours) and most of all, the pain and bewilderment of blowing it and then watching the other team go on to win the World Series. (At least Yankee fans also know what that feels like).

But, the Yankees. The reasons for hating the Yankees are of course too numerous to cover adequately. Their brand of “moneyball” represents perhaps the worst aspect of professional sports. Their arrogance represents what is most obnoxious about New York. Then there is A-Rod, who represents what is worst AND what is best about New York. And it is this: It doesn’t matter how much of an asshole you are, if you can perform, you can play here. Well, let’s see how he does now.

If I sound bitter, well, I suppose I am. But it’s a bitterness that is part of a proud tradition. My father grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers and, as a kid, saw the Yankees win the World Series six times in seven seasons. His beloved Dodgers lost four of those series, usually in heart-breaking fashion. Heartbreak builds character. Only in 1955 did the Brooklyn Dodgers finally break the spell. I was raised in this tradition and inherited an appreciation for the underdog, a love of the Mets and a healthy dislike for the Yankees. The old saying that "rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for U. S. Steel,” always rang true for me. Imperious, bullying and soul crushing.

The Phillies manager, Charlie Manuel, also grew up as a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He talked about his memories of the 1952 World Series, when the Yankees beat the Dodgers in seven games. My Dad used to talk about the same series. "I thought I was going to die," Manuel said. "I couldn't believe Gil Hodges went [0-for-21]." For some reason, reading this made me smile. Maybe it’s the way that childhood memories of baseball wins and losses stay with you more than 50 years later. Maybe it’s because my father shared the exact same experience. Whatever the reason, I liked Manuel for saying it and I was reminded of something that I’ve known in my heart ever since these two teams advanced to the World Series.

I’ll be rooting for the Phillies.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Roman Holiday

Can someone, anyone explain why some of Hollywood’s best and coolest directors are defending Roman Polanski? Is it because he’s their buddy? Because he’s really talented? Because giving a narcotic to a minor and raping her is not a big deal (or at least it wasn’t in the 1970s?) Is it because it could have been any of them on Jack Nicholson's couch on top of a young girl? Because Polanski feels really bad about what happened? Is it because the victim is over it?

I’m listening, but I haven’t heard anything remotely sounding like a good reason. Correct me if any of this is wrong: In 1977, the 44-year-old director of celebrated films such as Chinatown and Rosemary's Baby, conducting a modeling shoot with a 13-year-old girl, gave the girl narcotics and alcohol, and had nonconsensual sex with her. He was arrested and charged with six felony counts, was allowed to plead to a lesser charge, and then, prior to sentencing, he fled to France, where he would not face extradition, and where he continued to make films. Last month, he was arrested in Switzerland on a fugitive warrant and now faces possible extradition and prosecution in the U.S. Did I miss anything?

I’m trying real hard to put myself in the shoes of Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Wes Anderson and Woody Allen (OK, maybe not Woody Allen), all of whom signed the Petition protesting the “unfair” arrest of Polanski, who is now 76. I’m trying to imagine how I’d react if Polanski happened to be my friend or colleague (or if a friend or colleague of mine tested my loyalty by turning out to be a sex offender). Maybe they know that he is remorseful. Maybe they know some wonderful qualities that this man, who has undoubtedly lived a fascinating life, possesses that the public just doesn’t get. Maybe friendship and loyalty sometimes transcends heinous moral transgression. (Or maybe it's about what's politically correct in Cannes.) Well sorry, but if it were me, I’d like to think I’d say: “Roman. Look man, I’d like to help and sure, I wouldn't turn down a part in one of your films, but I can’t absolve you of your responsibilities. You’ve got to face the music.” But that’s surely being too generous.

The Hollywood folks who signed the “Free Polanski” petition should be ashamed. Studio chief Harvey Weinstein offered this gem, “Whatever you think about the so-called crime, Polanski has served his time.” So-called crime? That one boggles the mind. Served his time? How? By living in the South of France and Swiss Alps, pursuing his trade, making films?

The victim, now a 44-year-old woman with children of her own, says she is “over it” and has come out in support of Polanski. Some defenders ask, “Why should she have to go through all of this again?” Well, first of all, she doesn’t – at least not in the manner that many rape victims do. There is no trial to be conducted or testimony to be given here. Polanski has already pleaded guilty. And if the lurid details have resurfaced and are being played out again so many years later, well whose fault is that?

But it’s not about the victim. It’s about all of the potential victims and future victims, it’s about our daughters and our friends and it’s also about the rest of us. It’s about the sort of moral order in which we choose to live. It may seem counterintuitive to say that our criminal laws are not principally about finding a remedy for the individual victim, but they are not. That is why criminal cases are always The People v. the Defendant, not the victim v. the Defendant.

Of course, it’s also about Main Street values vs. Hollywood values or at least that’s the way the story is sometimes covered. I don’t have much patience for that angle. That’s just red meat for the Culture Warriors. (and if THAT were the battle – religious social conservatives who preach "family" values vs. freewheeling, liberal, artistic & commercial Hollywood – I’d probably side with Hollywood every time.) And it’s a phony issue. The real issues are about women, privilege and justice.

The feminist issue is addressed head-on by Melissa Silverstein, writer and blogger at Women & Hollywood. Rape, she reminds us, is a feminist issue and getting away with rape is an outrage that ought to be condemned not encouraged – particularly by a community that supposedly prides itself in progressivism and social justice. But the old boy’s club is alive and well and so is the fear of not getting work. She correctly observed that Hollywood’s reluctance to condemn and criticize Polanski and his fan club was “deafening.”

That is not to say that Hollywood speaks with one voice. Clearly, not everyone sympathizes with Polanski. Jamie Foxx is nobody’s idea of feminist, but he stated it plainly, “If it had been my daughter who was barely a teenager — my daughter is 15 — Roman Polanski would be missing ... period.” Realizing that encouraging violence might not be the most responsible approach, Foxx backed down from a strict vigilante platform. "But, that's me and I wouldn't want anyone else to follow that because you should let the justice system work it out."

And that’s actually the point. Our criminal justice system is intended quell our most violent instincts, by taking revenge out of our angry hearts and placing the matter in the hands of the law and in our justice system. But why would anybody trust a justice system if all you need to get away with rape is artistic talent and low friends in high places?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

LIGHTS OUT TONIGHT: Springsteen live at Giants Stadium - October 2, 2009

“Outlaw Pete,” the opening track on Bruce Springsteen’s most recent album is my kind of song. Cinematic and musically ambitious, the song draws on themes familiar in Springsteen’s work: An outlaw on the run, part romance and part desperation, the haunting price to be paid, lush musical crescendos, a landscape that is both stark and sweeping and a lonesome harmonica. An epic western, the song is “Once Upon a Time in the West” (lifting the harmonica part from the Ennio Morricone movie score) meets “Rocky Raccoon” (the bounty hunter is even named “Dan”).

At Giants Stadium I watched on the giant screen as Springsteen belted out the chorus:

I’m Outlaw Pete
I’m Outlaw Pete
Can You Hear Me?

He repeated the line this time asking the crowd: “Can you HEAR me?” The crowd roared back dutifully, but I found myself answering, “Not very well.”

That’s the problem with these stadium shows. The sound sucks. It’s terribly frustrating because you just know the band is locked-in and you’re fairly sure something magical is happening on the stage but the full brilliance of it just doesn’t reach you. The music sounded muddy. It was as if a little kid was playing with the knobs as the volume and bass/treble levels fluctuated all night. The sound issues are particularly detrimental to a song like “Outlaw Pete, whose emotional power resides in subtle changes in dynamics.

But this wasn’t the night for subtlety, or the place. It was the second of five stadium shows, Springsteen’s farewell to Giants Stadium. For me, the real draw wasn’t the nostalgia of the wrecking ball, (Let’s face it. In New Jersey, the swamps reclaim everything eventually) but the announcement that came one week before the scheduled shows: Springsteen would be playing an entire album, start to finish, at each one of the shows. And the album for October 2nd would be “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” I was thrilled. This album, (along with “Born to Run”) made me a Springsteen fan. It was a landmark album for Springsteen, marking his development as an artist who would become more than a rock star – a songwriter who tells stories, who reaches intense emotional depth and who sings convincingly about the struggles of others. These are songs that have always been amazing when performed live. It’s not an accident that the 1978 tour following this album produced the most sought-after bootleg recordings. And it’s probably not too much to say that the E-Street band became the band that it is playing these songs.

About an hour into the show, he introduced the album. Some of the songs are concert staples that Springsteen plays all the time. But I was eager to hear the songs in order, within the context of the album, especially since few of us listen to albums anymore. Here are my sketch notes of the performances and the songs:

Badlands: A popular favorite for good reason, the song is has become such a fist-pumping crowd-pleaser that I’ve almost come to lament hearing it live simply because the ferocity of the song becomes lost in all of the sing-along stuff. Almost. There’s the breakdown part after the guitar and sax solo when the crowd sings along. It’s easy to sing (there are no words) and easy to project, so it really is a rousing communal moment and lots of fun. But, at the risk of clinging to glory days, it’s worth listening to a recording from the “Darkness” or “River” tour to hear how the band used to play it. Instead of a beery chorus from the crowd, Little Steven (or "Miami Steve" as he was then known) would hum the melody, then Bruce and other members of the band joined in with harmony, gradually building to the big delivery:

For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside,
that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,
I wanna find one face that ain’t lookin’ through me,
I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these Badlands

It captures the theme of the album perfectly. It’s the voice of someone who would take on the world - shitty stadium sound, or not.

Adam Raised a Cain: When you think about the songs Springsteen recorded prior to “Darkness” there is nothing that would suggest a song as angry and tormented as this one. Springsteen brought the song’s ferocity alive with forceful vocals and malevolent sounding guitar. I was struck by the way the themes of this album can be heard in more recent songs. In 1978, Springsteen was singing about his father and drawing on Catholic guilt and biblical lore to express the frustration of feeling trapped by circumstances – economic, familial and existential. He practically screams:

You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past.

Nearly 30 years later, on “Long Time Comin’” he sings to his own children:

If I had one wish in this god-forsaken world, kids,
It’d be that your mistakes would be your own,
Yeah, your sins would be your own.

Something in the Night: One of the real treats was hearing the deep album cuts, the tracks Springsteen rarely plays in concerts. And because the crowd wasn’t singing along, this was one of the songs you could hear the best. The defining element of this song is Springsteen’s moan (which is partly a growl). It’s one of those vocal things that isn’t quite singing, but delivers a raw physicality and emotional resonance that never fails to impress me. It’s the equivalent of a man howling at the moon. And who hasn’t been there?

Candy’s Room: Another song which, because it relies so much on crescendo and explosion, was undermined by the terrible sound. Still, the sheer propulsive energy of the song came through as did the bite in Springsteen’s guitar solo. Bruce looked drained at the song’s end. Nobody expected that to slow him down for a second. And it didn’t.

Racing in the Street: For my money, Roy Bittan, the keyboard player, is the one indispensible member of Springsteen’s band. His lovely phrasing and lyrical accents work perfectly on this hauntingly beautiful song. It was a rare moment when the intimacy of the album penetrated the massiveness of the stadium. Again, I’m struck by how the songs on “Darkness” differ from the romantic fables and colorful escapes that appear on the earlier albums. The songs on Darkness are never about just one thing – there is hope, anger, desire, despair, love and redemption. And of course, lots of driving.

The Promised Land: True story. When I was 12, I saw a clip on television of Springsteen playing “The Promised Land” at a No Nukes benefit concert. It inspired me to go out and learn to play the harmonica. And I did. I learned every Springsteen song, several Dylan songs and all sorts of blues riffs too. And had I gone on to become a famous harmonica player (instead of someone who merely annoyed his roommates), that story might even be interesting.

Factory: To the casual fan and to the non-fan, Springsteen’s identification with the working man might seem contrived. He is, after all, a multi-millionaire and has been for decades. But his blue collar upbringing in Freehold is real enough and, more importantly, so is his gift of empathy. I was always struck by the complexity and contradictions he describes, even within the factory walls: Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life. Springsteen’s social consciousness emerges on this album. But he’s not a class warrior. He’s a story teller. That’s key.

Streets of Fire: Another intense album cut that is rarely played live. Amazingly, the sound trouble seemed to go away during this song. There’s a certain irony in this because the recording of the album version is an anarchic mess of distortion and feedback. Live, Springsteen’s guitar work was again impressive, emotional and menacing. As always on this album, it is the suggestion of something simmering beneath the surface, ready to explode.

Prove it All Night: This song has always sounded better live and this night was no exception even though the sound problems returned. In the past, Springsteen has added a piano intro and extended guitar soloing. This time, we were treated to an extended guitar solo by Nils Lofgren at the end of the song. It marked the only time during the playing of the album when someone other than Bruce played lead guitar. Nils is the most technically gifted of the band’s three guitar players and he matches his skill and fretboard harmonics with emotion, always crafting the solo to fit the mood of the song (to fantastic effect on the live recording of “Youngstown”). Unfortunately, that emotional element was lost in the muddiness of the sound board and his solo, while surely impressive, came off as somewhat flat and robotic – at least from where I was sitting.

Darkness on the Edge of Town: There's something about this song. It’s the perfect bookend to the album because, as on Badlands, it goes right to the heart of things, the struggles and sheer intensity burning within his characters:

Everybody's got a secret, Sonny,
Something that they just can't face,
Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it,
They carry it with them every step that they take.
Till someday they just cut it loose,
Cut it loose or let it drag it drag ‘em down.

Bruce still changes up the lyrics on one line. On the album it’s:

I lost my money and I lost my wife, them things don’t seem to matter much to me now.

But in concert, he sings: I lost my faith when I lost my wife. He’s done it that way since his first marriage failed. In the final chorus, Bruce gives it everything and belts out the last note, reaching the higher octave, with power and abandon. His voice isn’t better than it used to be, but it’s probably more powerful. And his greatest vocal gift – the ability to convey emotion with conviction – was as strong as ever.

The rest of the set list was terrific. Springsteen’s additional offerings included “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” “No Surrender,” “Thunder Road,”“Be True,” and a surprise cover of “Jailhouse Rock.” I especially enjoyed his version of “Long Walk Home” which somehow sounded clearer than most of the songs. When he played his next song, “The Rising,” the skies above the Meadowlands opened and the rain came, but it was light and fleeting. Encores included “Cadillac Ranch,” “Bobby Jean and the obligatory “American Land.” I figured there was a 50% chance he’d play “Rosalita,” the ultimate concert closer. He did.

But for me, Darkness was the highlight. Shortly after the album was released in 1978, Pete Townshend famously had this to say about it: “That’s not ‘fun’, that’s fuckin’ triumph, man.” For those of us lucky enough to be at Giants Stadium that night, it was both.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Diver Down


One reason why Americans don’t care more for soccer is the prevalence of diving. We’ve all seen it – players who throw themselves to the ground at the slightest contact (or none at all) in the hope of fooling the referee to award a penalty. I love soccer, but the critics have a point. But what bothers me more than the diving itself is the hypocrisy and national chauvinism that often surrounds it. One of the great myths is that the English, with their tradition of sportsmanship and fair play, don’t dive or otherwise cheat. British television played on this stereotype in a very funny television commercial before Euro 2004. The commercial shows foreign players training for a big tournament by flopping to the ground and simulating injuries. But the reason the English find this funny is because they see themselves as different. Unlike those latins from South America and Italy, they play the game right. For proof that this is rubbish, one need only look at England’s best player, Wayne Rooney.

Wayne Rooney is a prodigious talent. He looks like a bulldog and battles like one, but he has world class skill, great instinct and wonderful touch with the ball. He’s also a cheat. In 2004, his first full season with Manchester United, this flop resulted in a penalty shot against Arsenal. And here is again diving against Tottenham (which did not fool the ref) and against Chelsea (which did). Here is a particularly bad bit of playacting against Blackburn. (And for another display of his famous “sportsmanship” watch the video at about 0:40).

This season, there’s been renewed attention to the problem of diving. The European soccer association (UEFA) even suspended an Arsenal player, Eduardo for this bit of simulation. But Rooney flops on. Here he is, last month, diving before the goalkeeper ever touches him. And here he is proudly representing his country in a match Slovenia, falling at some imaginary contact. But Rooney didn’t get suspended, just the opposite. In both instances, he was rewarded with a penalty kick. "Everyone who watches me play knows I am an honest player," Rooney told the The Manchester Evening News, presumably with a straight face. Anyway, it’s hardly HIS fault that he dives – that’s the fault of the officiating. "The decisions are down to the referee,” Rooney said. “It is a difficult job but they do the best they can. England has always had a good record of being honest," So there it is. He’s English.

Thanks largely to Rooney, England will be one of the favourites at the 2010 World Cup. I won’t be rooting for them.

Monday, August 17, 2009

On Liberty and the Ballpark

I am the sort of secular humanist who rolls his eyes at those public figures and politicians who feel they must constantly invoke God and proclaim, “God Bless America.” At best, it’s pandering. At worst, it hints at a disregard for separation of Church and State, a principle enshrined in our Constitution and the basis for our most cherished freedom, freedom of conscience. What’s more, it’s annoying.

But I must admit, I have always liked the song God Bless America. Musically, it is superior to both The Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. The former is derived from a popular British drinking song and the latter is almost dirge-like, a plodding number (except, of course, when Ray Charles sings it). It manages to soar in its final verse but it doesn’t succeed nearly as well as the crescendo and finale of God Bless America. Lyrically too, Irving Berlin’s composition enjoys poetic simplicity and a feel that is contemporary, even timeless. It can’t match The Star Spangled Banner for historical authenticity or patriotic expression. (Francis Scott Key did not work on Tin Pan Alley, he really did write his poem aboard a prison ship with live ordinance exploding around him). But it is superior to America the Beautiful, a song weighed down by piety and stodgy phrases. (“and crown they good with brotherhood”).

The singing of “God Bless America” has long been connected with sporting events. There is the great tradition of Kate Smith singing before the home games of the Philadelphia Flyers. In 1980, when the U.S. hockey team upset the Russians in the Miracle on Ice at the Lake Placid Olympics, the fans in the arena burst into a spontaneous singing of “God Bless America.” It was remarkable. When patriotism wells up in our hearts, when America wants reach for something extra, this is the song that we go to.

And then 9/11. On the day of the tragedy, members of Congress sang God Bless America on the Capitol steps. When professional baseball resumed play, the song was added to the between-innings repertoire. Take Me Out the Ball Game seemed insufficient by itself, and at the same time, frivolous. How could we sing about peanuts and Cracker Jacks when the smoke was still rising from the rubble at Ground Zero? No, we needed something solemn but also uplifting. Something to make us feel good, strong and together. God Bless America seemed the perfect expression of what needed to be expressed. Who can forget the first time they heard the “singing policeman,” tenor, Daniel Rodriguez called upon to sing at Yankee Stadium? Even the most cynical atheist could not hear his soaring rendition and fail to get goose bumps.

Over time, the spontaneous becomes routine and the routine becomes ritual. I was at Citi-Field last month for my first baseball game in some time. The announcement came in the Seventh Inning. “Please stand at attention and remove your hats for the singing of God Bless America.” I found myself wondering, why are we doing this? Of course we’re still at war. The enemies who would destroy America are as threatening as ever. And sure, a baseball audience provides an opportunity for the expressions of national unity. But we’ve already saluted our nation and our flag during the singing of the National Anthem. We already gave cheers of thanks and appreciation for our troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. But none of that is enough, it seems. We must also beseech God. It was the first time I ever heard the song that way and I found myself resenting, not so much the song, but the ritual that had been created for it.

Some will say I am overreacting. It’s just a song, not a prayer, right? It’s not as if Major League Baseball, much less the government, is establishing religion in the ballpark. Don’t we do this same thing, more or less, for the National Anthem? Well, not exactly. First of all, the song was indeed written as a prayer. Irving’s Berlin’s introductory lyrics make that clear (“as we raise our voices, in a solemn prayer.”) And when we remove our hats and stand at attention for the National Anthem, it is our nation’s flag, and its ideals, we are saluting. When we are asked to show the same reverence for God Bless America, who is it we are saluting? Clearly, it is not just a song. And if you happen to be one of the tens of millions of Americans who do not believe in God, (or even if you do, but don’t care to invoke his blessing to be bestowed on a single nation during the seventh inning stretch), the social pressure may be very real.

In John Stuart Mill’s famous essay On Liberty we are warned about the dangers of this form of social coercion:

Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.
No, I am not accusing Major League Baseball or the New York Mets of instituting tyranny at the ballpark. Nobody is forced to stand at attention, or salute or sing, but there is an expectation of conformity, an expectation that grates against individual conscience. Now we all face pressure to conform in various aspects of our lives, but this here is not the routine sort of pressure we face when society chooses the fashions and tastes it prefers. Here, we are pressured to publically acknowledge God and beseech Him to bless the nation. It is the exact kind of social coercion that J.S. Mill described. One can easily imagine the social cost you’d pay if you dissented, if you failed to conform or actually sought to “disestablish” the singing of God Bless America. At a minimum, your patriotism would be questioned, your motives impugned.

In most ballparks, the singing of God Bless America is now an occasional feature rather than an everyday one, But that isn’t because ballparks were persuaded to honor freedom of conscience. It’s because they’ve decided to roll out their sacred number on Sundays and special occasions. To be fair, you do have the choice. You are not obligated invoke the Deity in the seventh inning. You can stay home or you can ignore the announcement, remain seated, leave your hat on, fold your arms and hope nobody notices or, if they do, that they respect your principles and in no way regard your choice as one that reflects poorly on your patriotism, your character or your standing in the community. But why bother? It’s so much easier to simply conform. It’s only a song. Just sing along or, alternatively, mouth the words and convince yourself that they have no meaning. What’s the harm? Peanuts and cracker jacks are just around the corner.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Impressions of Citi Field


Just before the All-Star break, I finally made it out to Citi-Field. Twice. Nicole and I saw a Wednesday night game against the first-place Dodgers and then on Sunday afternoon, I joined my Dad, my brother and his six-year-old son for a game against the Reds. Amazingly, the Mets won both games. But what made the outings especially pleasurable was the experience of Citi-Field, which earned a big thumbs-up from this Mets fan.

Like other jaded Mets fans I was initially turned off by all of the new-stadium hype. Some of my ambivalence was simple nostalgia. Sure, Shea Stadium was nobody’s idea of a cathedral but it was the only baseball home I had ever known. To me, it was a place of magic and memories, the place where I saw my first baseball game, where the miracles of 1969 and 1986 were surrounded by years of frustration and futility though, on occasion, hope. Who needs a grand new ball park? The Mets were never a team of grandeur or glory. The dynastic tradition of pride and power belongs to that other club, the one in the Bronx. The Mets were born out of broken hearts – lovable losers, transplants & refugees landing almost accidentally in Queens. Shea Stadium, that blue & orange speckled coliseum of concrete, set on the faded fair grounds between the airport and parkway cloverleaf, was good enough for me. But it was not good enough for the moneyed interests that always seem to ruin sports. And let’s talk about timing. In 2008-09, America’s culture of excess hatched a credit crisis sending the U.S. economy into the dumpster. Did we really need more debt, more excess, just to build a stadium where the price of a ticket would require a second mortgage?

Another explanation for my bad attitude was the way the Mets closed things out at Shea. Two consecutive September collapses of historical proportion would leave even the most fervent Met fans sick to their core. When you’re young, you turn heartbreak into a badge of loyalty. Great defeat has a way of cementing your affection and you end up feeling even closer to your team. When you’re older, such disappointment turns to apathy. We all have our defense mechanisms. But this last September collapse was so total that it was difficult to imagine a recovery. The magic was gone and seemed to be replaced by some dreadful curse. I was forced to consider, maybe the wrecking ball really is the only way to move forward.

And so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel when I arrived at Citi Field but there were positive signs at the outset - the shorter-than-expected walk from the parking lot and the beautiful weather. A refreshing breeze rolled in off the marina. I was struck by the ease of entering the stadium and the friendliness of the ushers and other stadium personnel. “Welcome to Citi Field!” Even the workers serving hot dogs and beer at the refreshment stand smiled. “Are we still in Queens?” I wondered. I reminded myself that we’re still in a honeymoon period. Give it time.

As Nicole and I walked through the stadium, toward our seats along the right-field line, I felt like a kid – the enchantment of seeing that rich green field for the first time. The Dodgers were taking batting practice and I was reminded that the very first game I ever attended was also Mets-Dodgers. The Dodgers won that game – they were a first place team then, and the eventual National League Champions (1974). And once again, they are in first place, this time with the best record in baseball. The connection between the Mets and Dodgers is everywhere at Citi Field, most obviously in the Jackie Robinson rotunda, the spacious corner entrance that honors both Ebbets Field, the model for Citi Field and Robinson himself. It has been suggested that the Mets, by clinging so blatantly to the Brooklyn Dodger legacy are peddling in nostalgia. But the bond is real. My own father became a Met fan reluctantly, but inevitably, in the years after the Brooklyn Dodgers abandoned him. Back then, before ESPN or even national telecasts, it was nearly impossible to closely follow the fortunes of a baseball team that played 3,000 miles away. You couldn’t even get the box score in the morning paper. My father got married in 1963 and moved from Brooklyn to Queens just as the expansion Mets were leaving their temporary home in northern Manhattan’s Polo Grounds for the brand new Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadows. Countless first generation Met fans were born this way and we are their children. Celebrating our Dodger heritage helps to ground us as fans, and remind us who we are. It may not have made sense to do this in 1964, when the Mets were in their infancy, when Flushing-Corona buzzed with 150 Pavilions at the World’s Fair, when crowds poured in on newly constructed highways and bridges, when everything seemed new. Then, in the beginning, the fledgling club needed to establish its own identity. But baseball clubs have an organic element. Like individuals, and nations, they mature over time, gaining confidence and character. Brooklyn was once a place to escape from. Now, in adulthood, the Mets could comfortably give Brooklyn the embrace it deserves.

I watched the Dodgers take batting practice. Manny Ramirez was back with the team after serving a suspension for steroid use. He sauntered around the cage without a care in the world, his baggy pants flapping and he effortlessly jacked several shots over the center field wall. Nicole and I briefly ducked into the '47 shop where Mets nostaligia is sold (from caps to jeans to embroidered pillows). We settled into our seats in section 306 and looked out at the field with delight. There are fewer seats than in Shea, they’re well-angled and there’s more leg room. It was nice to see a drink holder affixed to the back of the seat in front of me. (“How long before some asshole snaps it off,” the New Yorker in me wondered) The outfield is jagged and irregular and the bullpens are behind the centerfield wall, instead of the right and left-field corners. You can see the game from anywhere which is nice if you’re on line at the refreshment counter. The brick-lined corridors running through the stadium feel open and airy, unlike the concrete tunnels of Shea. As we were walking through, I thought, “This really is beautiful.” It had never before occurred to me to associate that adjective with a baseball stadium, or at least with MY baseball stadium. I looked over at Nicole who was smiling beneath her Dodger cap. As a frequent visitor to Dodger stadium in Chavez Ravine she could, of course, imagine beautiful baseball parks.

Like all of the new ballparks, Citi Field is also part shopping experience and part theme park. There’s an international food court, a batting cage, a dunk tank, a whiffle-ball field for kids, video games and a booth where you can be photographed with the creepy Mr. Met. Not to mention, all of the usual shenanigans (racing trains etc.) on the Jumbotron video display. The purist in me scoffed at such extravagance but Andrew, my six-year-old nephew loved it. Maybe I'm a curmudgeon but I couldn’t help but wonder how a new generation of baseball fans could possibly be cultivated in the face of all of these circus-like distractions. How can they possibly learn the game? How can they grow to love it? But this is 2009. Without the extra engagement and constant stimulation, how do you even get kids out of the house? Just get them there. Some will become baseball fans, some won’t but if you get them to the game, there’s at least a chance. For kids, and also many adults, the experience is about much more than the game on the field. Maybe it always was. And who’s to say what memories these kids will have of their first baseball game at Citi-Field? The experience just might be magical. For the price of these tickets, it had better be.

But even as I prided myself in appreciating the game's purity, I too fell prey to the seduction of the carnival. It was between innings and I had just started walking up the stairs toward the refreshment counter when I noticed the people around me looking up at the sky. They all moved toward me and stretched their arms toward the air above my head. Clearly, some object was falling. Instinct took over. I reached up and the next thing I knew, a rolled-up T-shirt landed in my hands. In one motion I cradled it and turned my body, lest some would-be defensive back attempt to strip me of my possession. This was the Pepsi T-shirt launch – the interlude when Mr. Met and some young female assistants, wielding some air pump-gun apparatus, fire promotional T-shirts into the crowd. And they did it again a few innings later. This time I was paying attention. I followed the trajectory of one T-Shirt as it hurtled its way toward our seats. I was ready but so were most of the people setting in our section. I jumped to my feet and reached up, knowing that l would have to earn this one. As soon as I felt the soft cotton hit my hands, I squeezed and pulled, wrenching the shirt free from the hands of the man standing next to me. A modest prize for sure, but what a thrilling feeling it was. Triumph! The man standing next to me, who lost out, happened to be my father.

Still more good fortune. The Mets, who had not hit a home run in eight games, homered twice that afternoon. Andrew missed the first one. He was watching the Jumbotron or Mr. Met or perhaps his sneaker. But the noise and excitement of the crowd grabbed him. He stood on his seat, practically convulsing with joy as my brother pointed at the giant Home Run Apple flashing as it emerged from the giant magic hat behind the centerfield wall. This is how every Met homerun has been celebrated since the Apple was introduced to Shea Stadium in 1980. The Mets were a terrible team then and, as if to compensate, they rolled out a new slogan one offseason. “The Magic is Back!” and to demonstrate the “magic,” they installed the fiberglass Home Run Apple and Magic Hat. Suddenly I was kid again. I remembered how much I longed to see that apple light up in celebration of a home-run, as rare then as they are this season. (Did the purists then sneer at such carnival contrivances?) The Mets were anemic offensively but every once in a while, Dave Kingman would blast a shot into the back of the bullpen and, on occasion, across the parking lot. And there goes the Apple! This was before the wave and before giant video screens. Teams were experimenting with new and frivolous ways of celebrating home runs. The Milwaukee Brewers had Bernie Brewer, a mustachioed mascot who slid down a chute into a giant mug of beer. We got the Apple.

Two batters later, Fernando Tatis, hit a home run to leftfield. Such offensive fireworks! The crowd roared with delight. But wait. Even before Tatis touched home, there were murmurs and then boos. Beyond centerfield, the Magic Hat was quiet. There was no sign of the Home Run Apple. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough that the Mets enjoyed a 9 to 3 lead on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Where was the Apple? Was it rusted from lack of use? Was one appearance per game all that the Apple (or its operator) was capable of? The crowd grew indignant and a chant began. “A-PPLE…A–PPLE!” I started doing it too. I looked over at Andrew who wasn’t sure what was going on but he was alert and clearly understood that some real drama was unfolding. The next Met batter was retired and the chant grew, “A-PPLE…A–PPLE!” Then, the inning was over. The Reds in the field jogged to the dugout and the chant faded. And just then, the Apple! The flashing Red Apple rose above the center field wall as though it was taking a curtain call. The crowd exploded. Finally.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Tell Me Friend, Can You Ask For Anything More?


I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen in concert more than a dozen times, 14 times to be exact. That’s not very many shows if you happen to be a big Springsteen fan, which I am. But because it’s a manageable number, each performance marks an event, a sort of ritual that hasn’t lost the power to delight and surprise and even, I dare say, replenish the soul. Since my first concert in 1984 I have averaged just over one Springsteen show every two years. It has been like growing up with a trusted friend and there are standout moments from each show that hold a special place in my memory.

There were several such moments last Monday night at Nassau Coliseum. One was the encore performance of “Jungleland”, surely the most majestic nine-minute rock-n-roll fable ever recorded. There was no reason to expect it. It’s a song he’ll play on occasion, but not every night. But then the lights went down and it happened. The opening notes on the piano and violin accompaniment sent chills down my spine. The realization that this sensation is still possible, even when you’re tired, when you’ve had a bad day, when you’re sure you’ve heard it all, when you’re forced to park on the grass embankment abutting Hempstead Turnpike because the idiot parking lot attendants let in too many cars...this sensation is one of the wonders of live performance, and the joys of being a fan.

The crowd was transfixed from the start, but they were not so stupefied that they didn’t remember who they were. Or where they were. A humorous moment came when the opening line “The Rangers had a homecoming…” was met with a chorus of boos. (No, they were not cries of “Bruuuuce.” They really were boos). This shitty concrete slab of an arena is still sacred hockey ground. You are in Islander country. Rangers are not welcome.

But there was something different in this version of “Jungleland", something more forceful and pronounced in Bruce’s vocal delivery and the way the band was locked in, some quality of purpose that cut through the distance and the pot smoke all the way to the last rows of Section 315 where we sat in the nose-bleeds. “From the Churches to the jails…” And the organ soars. Two lines later: “Down in Jun…gull…laaaand” and the entire audience sings along full-throated with him. The drums kick in and the energy shifts into the next gear. Little Steven, ever scowling, plays a killer guitar solo. After the bridge, the tempo downshifts and Clarence's long soothing saxophone notes over a slow steady beat are an incantation - a prayer washing over the audience.

The concert was sort of homecoming for me too. I rarely get back to Long Island, except to see my family. Before the concert, I drove to TGIF’s on Merrick Avenue to meet up with my old High School friend, his wife and my brother. These are “Springsteen friends” with whom I’ve attended several shows. They speak a language that non-fans don't truly understand. Driving along Old Country Road and Merrick Avenue and seeing familiar retail landmarks and then the Islander jerseys in the parking lot, brought me back to my teens and early 20s. In those years I lived with an uneasy sense that the place where I grew up wasn’t really my home. The last time I had seen Bruce in Nassau Coliseum was in November of 1992. Bruce had released “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town” and was touring without the E-Street Band, choices that disappointed many Springsteen fans. The dumping of the band (with the exception of the essential Roy Bittan) seemed especially unforgiving. But as much as I loved the signature sound of the E-Street Band, I didn’t really mind. For one thing, I was at a place in my life where I understood that growth means change. Out with the old? Why not? Who was I to question? I was going through some changes myself at the time. I was a college graduate with a professional degree, but had no job. I had no girlfriend. I lived at home with parents and Long Island, this place where I grew up felt static and stultifying. I wanted out. Springsteen’s earliest songs are about romance and escape. His more recent work was about going home and finding fulfillment in family and community. Both themes pulled at me.

But that show delivered. Some fans dismiss the 1992-93 tour as an aberration. His albums were probably the weakest of his career and the whole period is regarded by some as some sort of musical mid-life crisis. But even without the E-Street Band, there was amazing energy and no shortage of treats. An acoustic “Thunder Road,” a rollicking “Light of Day” and a guest appearance by Billy Joel, who was introduced by Bruce as “a local hero.” Joel was warmly received but he didn’t do very much. He mostly danced with Roy Bittan at the back of stage during “Glory Days” occasionally vamping on a keyboard. It was fun but I sort of felt bad for him, especially given the song they were playing. Even then, it seemed that the best of his musical output was squarely behind him. And it’s just a cruel fact of life that a guitar gives you rock and roll street cred in a way that a piano never can (unless you’re Jerry Lee Lewis). Still, there’s always been a connection in my mind between Springsteen and Billy Joel. They are the same age. They were signed by Columbia Records at about the same time. Both were assumed to be Jewish (partially true in the case of Billy Joel). Both married uptown girls, models, ending in divorce. Bruce is New Jersey and Billy is Long Island, both places defined by the highway, the Turnpike and the L.I.E. Both artists claim the voice of the underdog and wear their bridge-and-tunnel outsider status as a badge.

Springsteen is keenly aware of a cultural bond between New Jersey and Long Island. At Monday night’s show, he quipped about the land mass that connected these places millions of years ago and he gave a shout out to his “long lost brothers” from Long Island. This connection may explain why Nassau Coliseum has been home to so many great Springsteen shows. None are more famous than the legendary show he played New Year’s Eve in 1980. Bruce and the band played 38 songs that night, possibly the longest set he’s ever played. That was slightly before my time but these earlier concerts loom large in my imagination and, judging by quality of some of the bootleg recordings, for good reason. Part of being a fan is lamenting the great shows that you’ve missed. You envy those older fans who say “Yeah, I was at the Agora in ’78.” And every time you go to another Springsteen show, you secretly hope to experience something that no other fan has experienced before.

Another memorable moment came when Springsteen took requests from the crowd. This ritual originated during the last tour. Banners and signs with written song requests are produced by the crowd and passed up to the stage where Bruce makes a campy show of sifting through them, deliberating which ones to play. He typically selects three songs – one cover song, one older gem and one of his more obscure tracks For his cover, he played a fantastic version of the Philly soul classic “Expressway to Your Heart” (a tribute to Long Island’s most enduring feature - the L.I.E.) followed by a passionate “For You” and a punchy “Rendezvous.” For good measure he played “Night” putting us back on the highway with some hope of escape. There’s always a catch though. You’re just a prisoner of your dreams.

Springsteen is a political artist. Ever since 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” he’s revealed a social consciousness in songs about the plight of the working man and more generally, the American Dream. Monday night was no exception. He kicked off the show with the “Badlands” the opening track on “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” The song is a fan favorite, a sing-along, fist-pumping anthem. It belongs in any Springsteen concert but he didn't let anyone forget the struggle at its core. About 20 minutes into the show, he played “Working on a Dream” the title track of his most recent album followed by three songs that grimly explore what happens when that dream goes south and the highway goes nowhere. In “Seeds” “Johnny 99” and “Ghost of Tom Joad” there is poverty, despair and darkness but no resignation, certainly not in the music. “Johnny 99” pulsed, almost joyfully in a full rockabilly arrangement. The ordinarily spare “Tom Joad” was also given the full band treatment highlighted by Nils Lofgren’s blazing guitar solo that seared with desperation and release.

The encores included a multi-part harmony version of “Hard Times” a Stephen Foster folk song about, well, you know. When it comes to politics and social justice, Springsteen is not above getting on the soap box and saying his piece. But other than delivering a short plug for a worthwhile charity, the Harry Chapin Food Bank, he let the music do the talking. I was glad for that. It’s not that Springsteen isn’t thoughtful on matters of politics, but like most serious artists, he’s at his best when he lets the songs tell the story. A few years back, on the “Devils and Dust” tour, he criticized the Bush administration and spoke to the audience about the need for a humane immigration policy. It felt out of place, not because I didn’t agree, but because it felt clumsy and forced. What can he possibly tell us about immigration that isn’t more powerfully expressed in “Matamoros Banks?” I’m quibbling now, but quibbling is also what fans like to do. Even as we get older and more jaded, we get impossibly demanding. This makes it all the more remarkable that Springsteen the performer so rarely disappoints.

One highlight for me was his performance of the “The Wrestler.” Not exactly a rocker – it’s one of his quieter and sadder songs, but it’s on just those songs, when the crowd isn’t shouting along, that Springsteen is at his most expressive. The same gift of empathy that permits him to sing credibly about factory workers and outlaws on the run, has allowed him to successfully pen songs for movies. Most notable of these is “Streets of Philadelphia,” which poignantly captures the plight of a man with AIDS, as well as the overall feel of the movie. For my money “The Wrestler” is even better. Hearing Springsteen sing it live, the song took on a different meaning. Suddenly, the song is no longer about a bloated Mickey Rourke playing a washed-up wrestler. Now it is about Springsteen himself, a prisoner of his trade - the lonely gladiator who leaves it all on the stage.

The ultimate pleasure of fan is this: Just when you think the performer has given everything, he gives you a little bit more. Springsteen closed the show with a raucous “Rosalita” just as he did the first time I saw him in concert, 25 years ago. My first glimpse of a Springsteen live performance was a video of “Rosalita” airing on MTV in 1984. (Back then, before YouTube and before the Internet, MTV was only three years old and it actually showed music videos). I had just turned 16 and though I was an enthusiastic listener of rock radio (1st choice, WNEW, 2nd choice, WBAB), I had never seen or heard anything quite like it – the sheer energy, the playful yet powerful expression of desire and the joyful abandon of the live performance. The video offered a window into a rock & roll experience that I never knew existed. And when I saw my first Springsteen concert a few months later, my fate was sealed.

In some ways, growing up is harder when you become a fan, when you realize that music, art and live performance can reach you and move you in ways that even the reality of your life does not. There are moments of doubt when you feel you are clinging to something self-indulgent, unreal or childish because stuff that isn’t supposed to matter really does matter just as much now as it did when you were 16. But try as you may, you can’t fake it. You really are a prisoner of your dreams. But you also realize – especially after seeing a show like the one I saw – that you wouldn’t have it any other way. The music you love isn’t some alternative to reality. It’s part of reality and part of you. This is what I was thinking about when my brother and I left the arena after the show. I felt lucky. We walked through puddles in the parking lot and found the car on the grass embankment. Then I merged into the chaos of traffic, each car jockeying for position, trying to escape the Coliseum parking lot and drive off into the night.