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.