Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The 10 Most Painful Giants' Losses

Because being a real fan is about sharing in the pain...

10. Titans 24, Giants 21, (Nov. 26, 2006)

Prior to the Giants recent meltdown against the Eagles, when was the last time an NFL team blew a 21 point lead in the 4th quarter? Yup. The Giants took a 21-0 lead into the 4th quarter against the Titans. This time Vince Young did the damage.

9. 49ers 44, Giants 3, NFC Divisional Playoff (Jan. 15, 1994)

Some losses break your heart. Others are just humiliating. This was the worst playoff loss in Giants history. It was also the last game in the careers of both Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms.

8. Jets 27, Giants 21, (Dec. 18, 1988)

Last game of the season. Al Toon’s touchdown in the final seconds costs the Giants a playoff spot.

7. Ravens 34, Giants 7, Super Bowl XXXV, (Jan. 28, 2001)

The Ravens defense deserved it, but getting crushed on the biggest stage hurts.

6. Rams 19, Giants 13 (OT), NFC Divisional Playoff (Jan. 7, 1990)

Flipper Anderson beats the Giant secondary with a game-winning touchdown in overtime. He keeps running into the tunnel, leaving the Meadowlands stunned in silence.

5. Eagles 19, Giants 17, (Nov. 19, 1978)

One of my earliest (and worst) Giant memories. Quarterback Joe Pisarcik only needed to take a knee and the hapless Giants win. Instead he puts the ball on Larry Csonka’s hip, Herm Edwards recovers the fumble and the rest is history. The Eagles go on to make the playoffs for the first time in 18 seasons. Giant fans know it as “The Fumble.” In Philly, it’s the “Miracle at the Meadowlands.” This wasn’t the worst loss in Giants history – the Giants were terrible and going nowhere - but it had to be the stupidest.

4. Panthers 41, Giants 9, (Dec. 27, 2009)

The Giants final home game in the 34-year history of Giant stadium. The mediocre Carolina Panthers start a back-up quarterback, Matt Moore, and humiliate the Giants, eliminating them from playoff contention.

3. Vikings 23, Giants 22, NFC wild-card playoff (Dec. 27, 1997)

A nine-point lead with less than two minutes remaining. Then the wheels come off and Giant nemesis, Randall Cunningham, completes the comeback.

2. Eagles 38, Giants 31 (Dec. 19, 2010)

The most recent ones are always the most painful, but as things stand right now, the Giants can still make the playoffs. But whether they do or they don’t, this historic collapse against the hated Eagles won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

1. 49ers 39, Giants 38, NFC Wild-Card Playoff (Jan. 5, 2003)

Some fans blame Trey Junkin, whose bad snap blew the chance for a game-winning field goal. Others blame the officials for blowing the pass interference call on the game’s final play. I remember Michael Strahan pointing at the scoreboard when the Giants were celebrating a 24 point lead. Everything after that is a nightmarish blur.

Friday, December 24, 2010

25 Best Albums of 2010

There's a lot of retro in my choices this year.  That may say more about me than it does about the year in music. But in 2010, I heard great power pop, soul and bands that mined the best of the 1960s and 70s.  And why not?  Killer riffs, great hooks and soulful grooves are timeless.  Here are my favorite albums of 2010:

25. Spoon – Transference

Spoon is either one of the most overrated or one of the most underrated acts around. According to Metacritic, the band from Austin was the artist of the decade. That seems a bit much, but there’s something very convincing in their tight grooves and Britt Daniel’s snarl. This is an album that grew on me.

24. Delta Spirit – History From Below

Well-crafted rock anthems from an up-and-coming San Diego band. Keep an eye on them.  Standout Track:  "Bushwick Blues."

23. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Mojo

Universally regarded as one of rock’s elder statesmen, Petty’s more recent work tends to get overlooked. On Mojo, Petty and the Heartbreakers again find their stride with a big bluesy album featuring the ordinarily restrained Mike Campbell playing some ferocious guitar.

22. Some Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Let it Sway

An excellent and underrated power-pop outfit, SSLYBY sounds like the love child of Weezer and Fountains of Wayne.

21. The Mynabirds – What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood

Beautiful. Laura Burhenn sounds like the reincarnation of Dusty Springfield.

20. Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks

There’s a bit of U2 and Coldplay in the way this Scottish band creates lovely, layered and majestic anthems.

19. Free Energy – Stuck on Nothing

In a year that saw the passing of Alex Chilton, it was nice find Big Star's power pop legacy evident in up and coming bands like Free Energy and SSLYBY and also in fine releases from warhorses, Teenage Fanclub and the Posies.

18. Drive-By-Truckers - The Big To-Do

Solid album from one of the most solid bands around.

17. Peter Wolf – Midnight Souvenirs

The J. Geils Band front man sounds as good as ever. There are some gems on this album and guest appearances from Merle Haggard, Shelby Lynne and the ubiquitous Neko Case.

16. Two Cow Garage – Sweet Saint Me

It’s hard to stand out as an alt-country band, especially when your lead singer sounds just like Lucero’s Ben Nichols. But Two Cow Garage pulls it off here – an ambitious album from a band that has arrived.

15. The New Pornographers - Together

Another great offering from the New Pornos When was the last time Neko Case was involved in a musical project that wasn’t impressive?

14.  The Black Keys - Brothers

Like Jack White, these Midwestern guys make 70s guitar riffs and classic blues sound dirty and invigorating.

13.  Murder by Death - Good Morning, Magpie

True story.  For a while ITunes had them listed as a metal band.  And maybe it's their name that 's holding them back, but Murder by Death is one of the best and most interesting alt-country bands around.

12.  Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings - I Learned the Hard Way

Sure it's retro - 60s R&B, 70s funk and lots of soul.  But it's the real deal.

11.  The Like - Release Me

Whereas Sharon Jones (a former Ryker's Island prison guard) serves up authentic soul, The Like's take on retro is entirely contrived.  The band consists of the daughters of music industry big shots and with the help of Mark Ronson's production, they try to sound like a tough 1960s girl group.  And they really do. This album has some of the best and catchiest songs you'll hear this year.

10.  Surfer Blood - Astro Coast

Excellent debut from indie rockers who borrow surf-rock, pop and punk to create something that sounds both familiar and excitingly new.

9.  The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever

Not as great as their last couple of albums.  But there's more than enough on this album to affirm an earlier conclusion:  If any band can save rock 'n' roll, it is the Hold Steady.

8.  The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang

If the Hold Steady isn't rock 'n' roll's savior, The Gaslight Anthem just might be.

7.  Roky Erickson with Okkervil River - True Love Cast Out All Evil

A great album and a great comback story.  Erickson was a psychedelic rock hero of the 1960s (13th Floor Elevators) whose descent into drugs and mental illness made Syd Barrett seem like a model of sanity by comparison.  His pairing with fellow Texans, Okkervil River is nearly perfect.

6.  Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Yeah, it's big, bombastic and a bit pretentious.  It's also pretty awesome.

5.  Alejandro Escovedo - Street Songs of Love

Another great rocker from Austin, Escovedo is incapable of making a bad album.  This might be his best since Thirteen Years.

4.  Titus Andronicus - The Monitor

Now this is my kind of album.  Springsteen-inspired punks record an energetic, concept album about the American Civil War.  You know you're in for something different on the first track when Patrick Sickles screams, "Tramps like us, baby we were born to die!"  Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.

3.  The Indelicates - Songs for Swinging Lovers

Deliciously witty, dark and dystopian indie pop.  Brilliant stuff.

2.  Bruce Springsteen - The Promise

Well, sure. (see review below).

1.  The National - High Violet

I was reluctant to believe the hype but after one listen, I became a believer.  And after repeated listens, the richness of his album only grows.

Honorable Mention:
  • The Walkmen - Lisbon
  • Phosphorescent - Here's to Taking it Easy
  • Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone
  • Robert Plant - Band of Joy
  • Grinderman - Grinderman 2
  • The Soft Pack - The Soft Pack
  • Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Promise Fulfilled

If I were forced to choose just two Bruce Springsteen albums for a desert island stay (boxed sets don’t count), I wouldn’t hesitate to choose Born to Run (1975) and Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978). When I was a teenager, these albums captured my imagination in a way that few albums ever have. They still do.  More than that, they represent a key transition in Springsteen’s vision as a songwriter.  First there’s Born to Run – the colorful characters, the driving anthems and the lush wall-of-sound production. Then there’s Darkness on the Edge of Town – powerful and raw, a head-on collision between hope and desperation. But never surrender. As the street poets give way to factory workers and the romantic dreams of escape turn to a darker reality, Springsteen finds heroism in the everyday struggle. The appeal of The Promise, the two-disc collection of songs recorded in 1977 and released last month by Sony, is that it captures the moment of transition. It’s a glimpse into the making of an artist.

Professional athletes peak at the age of 27 or 28. For artists, there’s no such rule and no such limit. Still, for most of us, turning 30 represents something pivotal. As adults, we’re just finding our footing, still coming to understand the world, our community and our place within them. Our dreams and ideals aren’t necessarily abandoned, but they’re recalibrated and redefined in light of maturity and new understanding. These discoveries are expressed in the work of writers and artists. At the age of 28, Bruce Springsteen had recorded three albums, including the acclaimed Born to Run and had appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek. He was emerging as something of a rock star but was a long way from mega-star or celebrity status. He had also been involved in a nasty legal dispute with his former manager over the rights to his songs. And when he looked around, he saw a post-Watergate nation living in doubt and he saw working class people from the towns he knew struggling to make sense of their lives.

Like other serious fans, I was already familiar with some of the tracks on The Promise through the magic of bootlegging (“Rendezvous”, “Outside Looking In”, “The Promise”) and I was pretty sure the album was going to be something special. Still, I wondered if this was the sort of release that would appeal only to hardcore fans. Were the unreleased songs left off previous albums for good reason? Was The Promise just a desperate ploy on the part of a dying music industry to pry cash from fans on the strength of one of the label’s few profitable artists?

If it was a ploy, it was one of the better ones that Sony has come up with. The Promise offers alternate takes of songs that appear on Darkness (“Racing in the Street”), favorites better known from versions by other artists (“Because the Night”, “Fire”, “Talk to Me”) and a terrific collection of rockers, 60s-style pop and soul, and heart-felt ballads which span the mood and the musical distance between Born to Run and Darkness. There’s a wealth of tasty material here. The boxed set also includes DVDs of some riveting live performances with the E-Street Band and the special which aired on HBO on the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. In the sessions, the loose-limbed Springsteen is alternately light-hearted and intensely serious. But there’s no mistaking the drive, the restlessness and the creative energy.

The two-disc set can be seen as a sort of “lost” Springsteen album from, arguably, his most creative period. It’s not merely a collection of rejected outtakes and not-quite-good-enough songs. It more than holds its own as a cohesive work and it also offers fascinating insight into Springsteen’s creative process. The songs don’t simply come to him in fevered dreams or moments of inspiration. Instead, we see Springsteen the tinkerer, a craftsman at work. He tries different melodies with different lyrics, he mixes and matches verses, attempting different concoctions until he arrives at something that fits with the mood, the characters and theme of the story he wants to tell.

“Candy’s Boy” features most of the lyrics that would eventually make up “Candy’s Room” but a different melody and slower tempo give the song an entirely different feel. It’s a bittersweet lament rather than a desperate rocker. “Spanish Eyes” has a lyric that would appear on Born in the USA seven years later (“Hey little girl is your daddy home, did he go away and leave you all alone”). “Come on (Let’s Go Tonight) uses the melody and a few lines from “Factory” but it’s a completely different song. It also has the line that would emerge years later on the underrated B-Side, Johnny Bye-Bye: “The man on the radio says Elvis Presley died.” We’re reminded that a good writer is also a judicious self-editor. It’s as if Springsteen (perhaps with Jon Landau whispering in his ear) said “I LOVE this lyric but it doesn’t work for the story I’m trying to tell right here.” So he files it away for another day.

This fruitful recording session ultimately produced Darkness on the Edge of Town, a landmark album for Springsteen. It was the first album in which he explored in depth the subject that mattered most to him throughout his career – the American Dream. And as good as The Promise is, you don’t hear any song on it that causes you to say “He should have put THAT on Darkness." For one thing, Darkness isn’t wanting for much of anything. But most of the songs on The Promise are too sentimental by comparison. The one possible exception might be the song, “The Promise,” which was as unsentimental a song as Springsteen had ever written. Just two years after he was “pulling out of here to win” on “Thunder Road”, Springsteen recorded these lyrics:

      All my life I fought this fight
      The fight that no man can ever win
      Every day it just gets harder to live
      This dream I'm believing in
      Thunder Road, oh baby you were so right
      Thunder Road there's something dying down on the highway tonight

He's a long way from Born to Run.  In the Nick Hornby novel, High Fidelity, there’s a great passage in which the 30-something narrator muses:

In Bruce Springsteen songs, you can either stay and rot, or you can escape and burn. That’s OK; he’s a songwriter, after all, and he needs simple choices like that in his songs. But nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot – how escapes can go off at half-cock, how you can leave the suburbs for the city but end up living a limp suburban life anyway. That’s what happened to me; that’s what happens to most people.

Nick Hornby’s narrator probably hadn’t heard “The Promise.” The choices are NOT simple. The escapes don’t always work.  Springsteen’s character drives his Challenger down Route 9 through dead ends, chasing ghosts. Dreams can wither and die. And life goes on. The struggle continues. The beauty of Darkness is the way Springsteen tries to capture that struggle without flinching and without ever succumbing to resignation. When Pete Townshend first heard Darkness on the Edge of Town he summed it up this way: “When Bruce Springsteen sings on his new album, that's not 'fun', that's fucking triumph, man.”

What The Promise offers is that same triumph but with a bit more fun.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Let Them Drink Tea!

You know the Tea Party has arrived when even Bill Clinton and Barack Obama give props.

Maybe not the highest of praise but they were a lot more generous than they could have been. Here’s Bill Clinton last month: “There are a lot of real people in this tea party movement that are saying something everyone should hear — which is, ‘Seems like everyone but average Americans are doing all right here. The people that caused the financial crisis are all back in great shape."

And when President Obama was asked about the Tea Party, he also struck a positive note. "I think America has a noble tradition of being healthily skeptical about government. That's in our DNA," he said. "I think that's a good thing."

As characterizations of the Tea Party go, that’s awfully generous. Clinton and Obama both went on say why these folks are misguided, but the sugarcoating of criticism, and the expressions of empathy are surely a sign of something - the political insecurity of the democratic party. They can’t afford to dismiss the Tea Party phenomenon and they won't call it what it is: The cynical exploitation of anger.

Perhaps I’m also being generous. After all, the Tea Party is not simply for the disillusioned and discontent. At its worst, it’s a vehicle for racism, xenophobia, McCarthyite paranoia, reactionary radicalism and an assault on our Constitution. It also features candidates who are as dumb as rocks. (When creationist, masturbation foe and tea party darling Christine O’Donnell debated her Delaware opponent and was discovered to be unfamiliar with the 1st, 14th and 16th  Amendments to the Constitution, her excuse was: “I didn’t bring my Constitution with me. Fortunately, senators don’t have to memorize the Constitution.”)

President Obama is too cautious to comment on the incompetence or idiocy of the candidates or their followers. The Tea Party is seen as a populist movement and you don’t get far in politics by telling the people that they are stupid or wrong. In 2008, when John McCain’s economic advisor, Phil Gramm insisted that recession fears were exaggerated and said that we’ve become a nation of “whiners” he was pressured to resign from the campaign. Never mind that tea partiers have been whining at a fever pitch. Careful politicians like Obama know that Democrats are already susceptible to the charge of “elitism.” They believe they cannot afford to fall into this trap. That's too bad.

Whether the Tea Party really IS a genuinely popular movement or a well-financed vehicle for conservative political operatives or just an incoherent temper tantrum, has been the subject of considerable analysis and debate. To the extent that the Party represents more than a freak show, and is an actual force in American politics, it is one that plays on three themes:

1. Anti-Incumbency. This is the one constant in American politics today. It worked for Obama in 2008. It works against him now.

2. The Economy. It’s not all gloom and doom, but it’s not so rosy either. There’s never a good time to feel you pay too much in taxes. And in tough economic times, it's a resentment that grows.

3. Populism vs. Elitism. Us versus them. THEY are the “special interests” who go to Ivy League law schools, make backroom deals and export jobs overseas. WE are Joe six-pack, Joe the Plumber and the hockey Moms who love God and the flag. You know the drill. But too many liberals still DON’T know the drill. They cannot understand how someone as vapid as Sarah Palin can remain a celebrity and political force when surely her 15 minutes of fame should have expired by now. Perception of class and culture runs far deeper than many urban liberals realize.

Take these themes and mix in a dash of libertarianism, a helping of anti-immigrant hysteria and a spark of paranoia to re-ignite the culture wars, suggest complicity with Islamist terrorists and eulogize the decline of Western Civilization and there you have it – a potent brew of populist rage.

Just how potent remains to be seen. Tomorrow’s mid-term election results may tell us something. Or maybe not. The Democrats are expected to lose their majority the House and narrowly hold on to the Senate. Is the Tea Party responsible? Hard to say. It had been predicted that the Democrats would lose some quantity of Congressional seats anyway – partly because the economic recovery has been slow and partly because the Democrat gains in 2008 were so huge. Some recalibration had to be expected.

But it’s far from clear that the Tea Party movement has been of help to the Republican Party. While some Republicans credit the tea partiers with reigniting “the base” and putting the Democrats on the defensive, there are quite few races that were winnable for the GOP but will remain in Democrat hands simply because the Republicans are running a Tea Party candidate who is a train wreck. Delaware’s O’Donnell is one example.  New York’s GOP Gubernatorial Candidate, Carl Paladino is another. Mainstream Republicans are increasingly finding themselves running away from the bigotry and ugliness of the Tea Party. Independent libertarians have distanced themselves too, going to so far as to form a separate movement, the Coffee Party. Even Big Business has reasons to fear the reactionary tendencies of the Tea Party. Anger is a poor substitute for vision, judgment and sound policy.

But you know what else is not substitute for sound policy? Humor.  I hate to say so since humor is a tonic that we can't do without in these absurd times. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert lampoon the Tea Party brilliantly and this past weekend they held their much anticipated joint rally in Washington D.C. – Colbert’s rally to “Keep Fear Alive” and Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity.” They are very good at skewering the hypocrisy, the ignorance and the fear-mongering of the tea partiers (and their champion in the media, the clownish Glenn Beck). But as fond as I am of their brand of comedy, there are limits to what irony and satire can accomplish, a point made eloquently in Michael Kazin's recent article in The New Republic.

On the subjects of fear and demagoguery, the core specialties of the Tea Party, I am instead reminded of a statement made 40 years ago by Ed Muskie:

“There are only two kinds of politics. They’re not radical and reactionary or conservative and liberal or even Democratic and Republican. There are only the politics of fear and the politics of trust. One says you are encircled by monstrous dangers. Give us power over your freedom so we may protect you. The other says the world is a baffling and hazardous place, but it can be shaped to the will of men.”

Coffee anyone?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bonfires and Bloomberg

“Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings."

                               -- Heinrich Heine

I  first encountered this quote by Heinrich Heine when I was in elementary school learning about the Holocaust. I recall a black and white photograph of uniformed men wearing caps and swastika armbands, their faces glowing in the light of the flames as they tossed stacks of books onto a bonfire. The most grotesque thing about the picture wasn’t the fire or the physical destruction of books, our treasured symbols of civilization. It was the joyful carnival-like atmosphere of the scene. Alongside the photograph appeared Heine’s famous quotation.
As a humanist writing in the 19th century, Heine understood something of the dark potential lurking within the rise of German nationalism. It’s easy enough to read his quote as a foretelling of the Nazi Holocaust. It may also be understood as a more general comment about liberty and free expression and how the path to barbarism is paved by a willingness to combat ideas with flames. What is less appreciated is the actual context of Heine’s words. The excerpt comes from a play, Almansor, written in 1821 about the cruelty and ignorance of the Spanish Inquisition. The book that is being burned is the Koran.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to link the poetry and prescience of Heine with the nonsensical story that dominated last week’s news, the threat of a Koran Burning Day promoted by an idiot pastor in Gainesville, Florida. After all, the pastor may be a hateful moron but he's not acting under the authority of the State. He’s a lone extremist with a congregation of about 50 people. He does not represent Christianity or the United States of America or the people of Gainesville.  Clearly the whole thing was a sordid bit of sensationalism.  And yet, look how easy it is for a single actor, threatening to commit a single act of desecration, to dominate the headlines and create an international incident requiring a response from the President and Commander in Chief, the Secretary of Defense and General David Petraeus, the Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan. I'm guessing that they have better things to do.

I’m not sure which is worse, the moral sickness of the pastor or the fact that such idiocy really is capable of provoking actual violence in the world. Perhaps the sorriest commentary of all is the role our media plays in creating and giving attention to such a nonsensical story. Rather than informing citizens or stimulating meaningful discourse, the media essentially supplies the fuel for the bonfire. Conflagration sells.

Strangely, some have accused New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg of also stoking the flames of controversy but, actually, he’s been a refreshing voice of reason. "I happen to think that it is distasteful,” Bloomberg said last week, “But the First Amendment protects everybody, and you can't say that we're going to apply the First Amendment to only those cases where we are in agreement."

Exactly right. Some might have preferred a stronger condemnation of the burning act itself but that’s our job as citizens. His is to uphold laws and protect rights. New York’s billionaire mayor is nobody’s idea of a great orator and he's surely an unlikely candidate for praise as a defender of individual freedom, but on the all-important issues of rights and freedom, he’s been nearly pitch perfect just as he was when defending the right to build the Park51 Islamic Cultural Center.

“We may not always agree with every one of our neighbors,” Bloomberg stated then in his gruff tone, looking bored as usual at the podium. “That’s life. And it’s part of living in such a diverse and dense city. But we also recognize that part of being a New Yorker is living with your neighbors in mutual respect and tolerance. It was exactly that spirit of openness and acceptance that was attacked on 9/11.”

Not bad for a Bostonian. His statement was perfect because it went beyond the necessary affirmation of rights (there is no right to be respected by your neighbors) and eloquently captured the ethos of New York City and civil society itself. That should have been the end of things. Instead, we saw an absurd controversy  descend into an insulting display of emotional incoherence, civic ignorance and political demagoguery Regarding the furor over the Islamic Center, Bloomberg observed, "This is a political thing. It all came up in two months, and it's going to go away on November 4th."

Or even sooner if the media can find something else that’s flammable.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mosque on the Hudson

What about the proposed mosque near Ground Zero?

On one hand, that roguish enemy of religion, Christopher Hitchens, is perfectly correct – what we are witnessing here is an alarmingly stupid debate, driven almost entirely by emotional incoherence and the lowest form of political demagoguery. But if the controversy is really so stupid, then why did Hitchens see fit to comment? Why did President Obama? Why are so many of us drawn to it? There’s something truly fascinating about the ferocity of emotion unleashed by this issue.

So why all the fuss? As a matter of rights and Constitutional Law, there’s no issue at all. In the United States of America, folks have the right to practice their religion even if you and I don’t like that religion or are offended by the beliefs that particular religion propagates. Freedom of religion includes the freedom to purchase land and operate a house of worship. To not know that is to not know the essentials of America’s history, the Constitution, or our founding principles. But enough Civics 101. Even Sarah Palin acknowledges that the Muslims behind the Park 51 Cordoba Initiative have the right to build a mosque (or more accurately here, an Islamic community center which includes a mosque). The question, Palin insists, is whether they should build it. That at least settles the practical aspect of the debate. If the organizers have a right to build it, what legitimate grounds are there for asking New York City (much less President Obama) to deny them that right? I’ve never heard a straight answer from Palin or anyone else.

But why do they have to build it there? This seems to be the question most often asked, though I’m never quite certain to whom this question is really being directed. The President? Mayor Bloomberg? NYC’s Landmark Preservation Committee? Feisal Abdul Rauf?

If you were to sort out the various comments made by those in opposition to the mosque – Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, Sunday morning talking heads and any number of bloggers and Facebook posters, you might have heard (or imagined) an exchange along the following lines:

A: Look, I’m not saying they shouldn’t build a mosque, I’m just saying they shouldn’t build it there, at Ground Zero

B: But it’s not at Ground Zero. It’s on Park Place about half a mile away.

A: That’s still very close.

B: Is proximity the issue? There’s already a mosque roughly the same distance from Ground Zero (Masjid Manhattan on Warren Street). That mosque and another one in lower Manhattan (Masjid al-Farah on West Broadway), routinely turn away worshippers because they are overcrowded. Should we object to those mosques too?

A: Those mosques aren’t 13 stories high.

B: True. But what’s been proposed by the Cordoba Initiative is a multi-activity Islamic community center. Is it really the height that’s the problem?

A: Not just the height. But at that location, such a prominent Islamic building is an insult to the victims of 9/11.

B. Would a more modest architecture be less insulting? Should the President get involved and insist on some different building size or design in order to minimize insult?

What are we really talking about here?

Among civil people, the usual answer is: Sensitivity toward the victims of 9/11 and their families. That’s what we’re talking about. OK. At least we know what we’re dealing with. Sensitivity. But it’s amazing how many people suddenly feel qualified to speak for the 9/11 victims and the feelings of their families.

I don’t claim that right. I am not qualified to speak on behalf of the victims or their families, but I am fairly certain of this:  Neither are Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich.  Unlike many of those claiming outrage, I do call myself a New Yorker. I lost a childhood friend on 9/11 and I lived close enough to Ground Zero that the sickening smell of burning flesh and rubble pervaded my nostrils for weeks and will remain in my memory forever. I don’t know what percentage of 9/11 family members really are offended by the Cordoba Initiative. I also don’t know what percentage is just as offended by the cynical exploitation of 9/11 by opportunistic politicians, especially those who don’t otherwise care much for New York City. But we do have some sense of how the community feels about the issue. The Local Community board for the actual neighborhood involved, including Ground Zero, voted 29 to 1 in favor of allowing the proposal.

But clearly some number of 9/11 family members are deeply hurt and offended - fairly, or not. Reasons are beside the point. This is raw stuff here. It’s not my place to tell any of them that they shouldn’t feel offended. But I will tell anyone that in a free society, offense is never sufficient grounds for denying others the right to practice their religion. But take heart, this freedom has a flip side. We should never allow offense to serve as a basis for stifling criticism either. That includes criticism of religion (a favorite point of Christopher Hitchens). Because if we are so willing to constrain our Constitutional freedoms, to kowtow to those who cry about hurt feelings, even in the name of “tolerance” or “hallowed ground,” we are practicing a corrosive form of capitulation that any free and decent society ought to resist.

We can at least acknowledge that an emotional response on the part of 9/11 family members is sincere and not calculated or ill-intentioned. Not so for the politicians. Florida’s gubernatorial candidate, Rick Scott provided a particularly disgusting example of how emotion and fear can be put in the service of demagoguery. And it’s not just the GOP.  Harry Reid was equally cowardly and opportunistic. But probably the least coherent “rationale” for opposing the Cordoba Initiative came from Newt Gingrich. “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia,” said Gingrich. Really? So our commitment to First Amendment freedom should be placed in the hands of Saudi Mullahs? In order to prove a point to those Muslims, we ought to debase our own society to the oppressive level of a theocratic dictatorship? Brilliant. Surely, THAT will show them. THAT will make us safe.

Gingrich may not be interested to know it, but the Imam behind the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is a Sufi Muslim. In Saudi Arabia, Sufis have traditionally been targets of discrimination and abuse. Their shrines have been destroyed, their literature banned and their leaders excommunicated. While we don’t know what shape the completed Cordoba Initiative on Park Place will ultimately take, it’s a safe bet that it won’t be the sort of establishment that would ever be allowed to exist in Saudi Arabia.

I don’t suggest that Feisal Abdul Rauf, simply by virtue of being a Sufi, is admirably moderate or a good candidate for a more liberal, pro-western brand of Islam. Hitchens, for one, is skeptical, noting several controversial and disappointing statements made by the Imam following 9/11. (Nothing terribly shocking - just the ordinary bit about how 9/11 was the result of American foreign policy, Bin Laden was made in the USA, etc. etc.) Former President George W. Bush, on the other hand, held a more favorable view of Rauf, deciding that the Imam was exactly the right kind of Muslim. He even asked Rauf to represent the administration as a diplomat to help build a bridge between the United States and the Islamic World. The foreign policy views, intentions, and associations of Rauf are indeed fair questions for the public. But they are not the point of the current debate. We don’t get to say that only those clerics whose views and friends meet with our approval are entitled to build houses of worship.

When I listen to the public mosque debate (if we can be generous and call it that) it seems to me that many defenders of the mosque don’t quite have it right either. Some champion the Mosque proposal on the grounds of “tolerance.”  They like to remind us that Islam didn’t attack New York City on 9/11. Al-Qaeda did, and Al-Qaeda doesn’t represent all, or even most, of Islam. That’s true enough but it’s not very satisfying, probably because it’s not complete. It is superficial to frame this as a battle of manners between those urging “sensitivity” on one hand, and “tolerance” on the other. For one thing, tolerance is an overrated virtue. To “tolerate” something is to put up with something we don’t like. We do it only when we have to. The value that matters most here isn’t “tolerance” but freedom.

And what of the victims of 9/11?  Do we really dishonor them by building an Islamic center within a few blocks of this hallowed ground?  Well, we certainly don’t honor them by exploiting fear and division, by straining and shouting just to prevent that building. And let’s remember what actually happened on 9/11. The U.S. wasn’t merely attacked. We were violently joined in a war that has been raging for decades. A large portion of the world, from Northern Africa to Southeast Asia, has been ravaged by a war within Islamic world. It’s a conflict that exists irrespective of any particular U.S. foreign policy decision (and would certainly be taking place regardless of whether Israel existed or not). What we learned on 9/11 - or what we should have learned - is that we have a great stake in the outcome that war. Let’s remember that the primary victims of Al-Qaida’s Jihad are Muslims. And it is Muslims, who pray in mosques, who have been doing most of the suffering and dying at the hands of murderous Islamist extremists. If we lose sight of that, we also lose sight of what we are fighting when we say we are fighting terrorism.

I am not arguing that Islam is a peaceful religion (a statement we hear often – it’s more meaningless than false). But today, the questions of how Islam should express itself and who gets to define it are hotly contested and have enormous consequences for us. Consider Iran, a nation of 70 million Muslims. Here is a theocratic regime and regional power. Yet bristling beneath the harsh clerical rule is a significant reform movement, sympathetic to the west, and hungry for civil rights. Millions of Muslims seek to redefine their society, their laws and the role of Islam in their lives. Yet they are believers in Islam. Shall we conclude that only Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Shi’a clerics are entitled to decide what it means to be Muslim in Iran? Similarly, shall we declare that Al-Qaida is the legitimate and authoritative voice of Islam globally? Isn’t that what we are essentially doing when we associate all things Islamic with the murderous vision and deeds of Al-Qaeda – and worse, when we use this as an excuse for curbing religious freedom at home?

Like most Americans, I too would like to see ordinary Muslims as well as Islamic leaders do more to distance themselves from the barbaric conduct and totalitarian views of the Jihadists. But shouldn’t we be encouraging them? Instead, with these mosque protests, we seem to be sending the message that their rights don’t matter and that we don’t care about their views – except for the ones that offend us. They need not bother with reform, with assimilation, with civic virtues or with resisting the likes of Bin Laden - we’ve already decided that Bin Laden speaks for them. When we do this, we show how unserious we are about fighting terrorism. We are essentially handing Bin Laden a crucial victory.

By indulging in the ugliness of this Ground Zero mosque controversy, we are missing a key point. It’s not that we need to make nice with Muslims for the sake of tolerance. It’s that we need to be true to our own values and principles of freedom for our own sake.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Morbo and the Mollusk

Only seven nations (four from Europe) have ever won the World Cup. Today, either Holland or Spain will join that list. I like both Holland and Spain. Both nations have rich soccer traditions that capture the imagination and both teams play a positive and attractive (usually) brand of possession, attack-oriented soccer. In a way this is unfortunate. It’s all well and good to appreciate the sport and to say “well, I’d just like to see an exciting game.” But something is missing in this. The tasty juice, the mojo, the real passion of soccer is only truly experienced when you feel strongly for one team and, preferably, despise the other.

One of my favorite soccer books is Phi Ball’s Morbo, the story of Spanish Football. And Morbo might be the very thing I’m talking about. Ball explains the difficulty of the word:

It’s one of those awkward ones that defies easy translation. No matter how you try, you can’t quite nail the word down. It entails a lot of slippery little notions that just won’t rub shoulders with a convenient English synonym. Don’t bother with a dictionary, for it will only confuse you further, the word having other meanings that are not applicable to football. Most treat it as a noun and translate it as something ‘disease’, which is hardly appropriate to this context.

Fever. Spirit. Rivalry. Passion. Morbo is an intangible something rooted in the heart and in history and culture. It can be quite ugly – the heart being a big dumb muscle linked to oversized adrenal glands. But it can also be life-sustaining, loving and inseparable from our humanity. I’ve been to Spain and have visited the two great cathedrals of football, Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid (home of Real Madrid) and Camp Nou in Barcelona (home of FC Barcelona). As an American visitor, I could experience only the slightest taste of the Morbo that infects Spanish culture, but its potency is unforgettable.

I’ve never been to Holland but the Dutch too hold a special place for me. As a history-obsessed New Yorker who lives a stone’s throw from the Hudson River (and short drive from Sleepy Hollow’s Old Dutch Church and the Tappan Zee) I often think about the Dutch influence on New York. And as a soccer player and fan, I became enamored with the Dutch legacy of “Total Football” and the genius of “Clockwork Orange.” I never saw Johan Cruyff play but I do remember the brilliance of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and more recently, the likes of Dennis Bergkamp.

The Dutch ideal is one that emphasizes attacking over defending, creativity over results and artistry over efficiency. The history and culture of Dutch soccer is captured by David Winner in the brilliant Brilliant Orange. The Dutch legacy plays on myth but also embodies a certain paradox - individual brilliance, and even a touch of anarchy within a communitarian team sport. This aspect of Dutch football culture is, it has been argued, one of the reasons Holland has never won the World Cup despite coming tantalizingly close, reaching the finals in 1974 and 1978. This is part of the Dutch legacy. As Red Sox fans used to know, once you get past the disappointment, there’s a certain romanticism in coming close and losing gloriously.

The Dutchman, Johan Cruyff, is perhaps the greatest European player the game has ever seen. (I would entertain arguments for Beckenbauer before Platini or Zidane). Cruyff also represents a crucial link between Spain and Holland. The word “genius” is overused in sports but it’s surely an accurate description of Cruyff, whose technique and brand of “total football” with the Amsterdam club, Ajax, revolutionized football in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then, in 1973, he took Spanish football by storm when he joined FC Barcelona. He embraced Barcelona’s own football culture entirely, learning the language and settling in the Catalonian capital. He went on to manage Barcelona and won the European Championship in 1992 with a squad that played gloriously, something like “total football” in the Ajax tradition.

Even today, FC Barcelona plays a very stylish, creative, attack-oriented brand of soccer. Cruyff’s influence will be seen on both sides in today’s World Cup final. At least 5 of Spain’s starting 11 today play for FC Barcelona. And several of Holland’s players, including their most creative attacker, Wesley Sneijder, came up through the Ajax system in Amsterdam. But according to Cruyff himself, the team that plays closer to the Dutch ideal he prefers is not Holland, but Spain.

Paul the Octopus agrees. The most famous mollusk in all of Germany, Paul, has a perfect record in World Cup prognostications. He picked Spain to win the final. I’m with Paul. I think Spain will take it 2-1. But what I’m hoping for most is a great game with moments of great individual brilliance and hopefully a spectacular goal or two. True, I may be lacking the passion the occasion seems to demand, but I have a feeling that there will be plenty of Morbo to go around.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Not So Much English

I suppose we are all susceptible to cultural and historical biases. Here’s one of mine: I have always found it difficult to root for Germany in international competition. I’m fine with their individual athletes. Boris Becker? Terrific. Detlef Schrempf? Dirk Nowitzki? No problem. It's when they assemble as team that I begin to feel uncomfortable.  This is especially true in soccer. Tall and blonde, steely blue eyes, the imperial black eagle on the crest of the pristine white uniform, the full throated singing of the national anthem (Für das deutsche Vaterland!) And once the game begins, there’s that organized defense and tireless discipline, the joyless Teutonic efficiency with which they dismantle their opponents. How do you root for that?

That all changed this past weekend. I was absolutely delighted to watch Germany’s 4-1 thrashing of England in the World Cup Round of 16. Clearly I have some biases against England too.  These stem in large part from the arrogance that one encounters in English commentators and fans who seem to think that inventing the game over a century ago entitles their nation to privileged status today. After England was eliminated from the World Cup in 1958, England’s great passer Johnny Haynes observed, “Everyone in England thinks we have a God-given right to win the World Cup.” It’s an attitude that still resonates in the English-speaking world.

As someone who follows English football, I’m also struck by the less admirable qualities of some of the leading lights of the English team. Wayne Rooney, for all of his talent and effort, is a shameless diver. Captain horndog, John Terry, is, to put it mildly, not the most trustworthy of teammates. The names of Steven Gerard and Ashley Cole have graced the headlines for the usual nightclub shenanigans.  It's one thing to accept that athletes are not role models. It's quite another to have your nation represented on the world's biggest stage by a squad whose peccadillos would rival the Florida State Seminoles or Cincinnati Bengals.

For all of my earlier criticisms of Soccernomics I must give credit where credit is due. The diagnosis of England’s predicament was spot on. In the chapter entitled “Why England Loses and Others Win,” the authors detail an 8 phase pattern that repeats itself every four years:

1. Pretournament - Certainty that England Will Win the World Cup. Check.

2. During the Tournament England Meets a Former Wartime Enemy. Check.  

3. The English Conclude That the Game Turned on One Freakish Piece of Bad Luck That Could Happen Only to Them. Check.

4. Moreover, Everyone Else Cheated. Check.

5. England is Knocked Out Without Getting Anywhere Near Lifting the Cup. Check.

6. The Day After Elimination, Normal Life Resumes. Check.

7. A Scapegoat is Found. Check. Check and Check.

8. England Enters the Next World Cup Thinking it Will Win it. Well...stay tuned.

Rooting for Germany was easy for another reason. They played a positive, team-oriented brand of soccer that was fun to watch. England didn’t. “Germany” and “fun” are two words that don’t usually go together but they did last Sunday. The Germans also seemed to avoid the mistake made by other nations by choosing a young and energetic squad (among the regulars, only Miroslav Klose and Arne Friedrich are over 30). Other European nations, England, France, Italy, and Denmark among them, were more committed to big-name players regardless of their age, current form, or ability to mesh as a team.

And so the English team, like the U.S., will watch the remainder of the tournament from home. Commentators have observed what a great tournament this has been for South America (4 of the final 8 teams) and how this marks the 3rd time that an African nation (Ghana) has reached the Quarterfinals. Of the final eight nations remaining, four are Spanish-speaking. There is only one nation remaining whose official language is English. That nation is Ghana.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Round of 16

Just one goal makes all the difference.  Had Landon Donovan's missed his strike in the 91st minute, had he sent it over the bar (as U.S. players did throughout the game), had the Algerian goalkeeper held on to the initial shot by Dempsey - denying Donovan the rebound, had U.S. keeper Tim Howard failed to make a perfect throw half the length of the pitch to set up the play - had any of those happened, the game would have ended in a 0-0 draw.  The U.S. team would already be home, their winless World Cup adventure considered a failure.  Coach, Bob Bradley would be out of a job and Landon Donovan would be regarded as the underachieving disappointing face of U.S. soccer.

Instead, the U.S. team beats Algeria advances to the knockout round of 16, winning their group ahead of England.  Donovan is a national hero and America's soccer haters have no choice but to put up with all of this for at least a little while longer.

Commentators and fans will be talking about this goal for a long time, and arguing about where it belongs in within the history of U.S. soccer and in rankings of the most dramatic moments in U.S. sports.  It's the biggest U.S. soccer goal since at least, well... the one scored by Brandi Chastain in 1999.  (It's worth remembering that the Women's Team actually won the World Cup)  For now, let's focus on what it means for the U.S. team in the short term.  Tomorrow the U.S. plays Ghana in the round of 16.  It will be another tough match.  Ghana beat the U.S. last time around and was the only African team to advance this year.  We've made it this far before.  In 2002, the U.S. won a round-of-16  match against Mexico before bowing out to Germany in the quarterfinals.  But there's been much greater drama this time and a much larger U.S. audience watching.  Americans who saw the white-knuckled win over Algeria finally tasted some of the tension, passion and pride, familiar to other nations.  No, it's not going to make soccer a bigger sport than American football.  But kids were watching.  Plenty of new fans were born.

For a real treat, make sure you listen to the orgasmic call of Landon Donovan's goal by Andres Cantor.  

And if all of that is too insane, there's always the classic parody from the Simpsons.     .

Soccernomics Again

In my last entry, I noted the observation made in "Soccernomics" about the recent dominance of Western Europe.  In the 2006 World Cup.  No team from Western Europe lost a match to any team not from Western Europe until the knockout round when there was only a single loss - Switzerland lost to Ukraine on penalty kicks.  Well, in 2010, in the First round alone, teams from Western Europe have lost six matches when playing teams from elsewhere.  In 2006, there were 9 Western European nations in the tournament and all of them advanced to the knockout stage.  In 2010, there were 8 teams and only 4 have advanced.  France, Italy, Denmark and Switzerland have already been eliminated.  And the South American teams (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay) have yet to lose a single match.  


Uruguay 1, South Korea 0
U.S.A. 2, Ghana 1
Germany 1, England 1 (Germany wins on penalty kicks)
Argentina 3, Mexico 2
Netherlands 3, Slovakia 1
Brazil 2, Chile 0
Japan 2, Paraguay 1
Spain 3, Portugal 1

Monday, June 21, 2010

World Cup Notes

World Cup 2010 is into its second week.  Each team has played twice - 32 games have been played in all.  Here are some random thoughts and reactions.

The Nick Hornby Scale:  USA vs. Slovenia

USA vs. Slovenia had a little bit of everything.  According to Nick Hornby, a truly memorable match has the following features.

1.  Goals (as many as possible)
2.  Outrageously bad refereeing Decisions
3.  A noisy crowd
4.  Rain, a greasy surface, etc.

The pitch in Johannesburg seemed fine, but otherwise, the conditions were met.  The game saw 4 goals - quite a lot by the standards of this tournament.  The average goals-per-game in this World Cup is 2.09.  (The average was well below 2 before  Portugal's 7-0 drubbing of North Korea).  It had an outrageously bad refereeing deicsion.  The U.S. dramatically came back from a 2-0 halftime deficit to tie the game and only a horrible refereeing decision, a phantom foul disallowing Edu's goal, prevented them from winning it.  But doesn't this kind of terrible officiating ruin the game?  Not according to Hornby:

"Indignation is a crucial ingredient of the perfect footballing experience; I cannot therefore agree with match commentators who argue that a referee has had a good game if he isn't noticed...I prefer to notice them, and howl at them, and feel cheated by them."

Mission accomplished.  The third element - a noisy crowd - was also satisfied.  Between the lunatics of Uncle Sam's Army and those damn plastic vuvuzela horns, there was no shortage of noise.  That's 3 out of 4 on the Hornby scale.  Not bad.

I was correct in predicting a draw between the U.S. and the impressive Slovenians but I can feel only the slightest degree of satisfaction.  The good news is that the U.S. has broken a trend - it played a team from Eastern Europe in the World Cup and for the first time, it did not lose.  The better news is that the U.S. still controls its destiny.  A win against Algeria and they advance to the knock-out stage.

What Sucks About Soccer

For my money, what sucks about soccer isn't the money, or the politics, or the draws, or the penalty kicks, or the low scoring.  It's this stuff.  A player from the Ivory Coast runs into Brazil's best player, Kaká, and then pretends he was elbowed in the face.  The referee is fooled by the act, and issues a yellow card which means that Kaká will miss Brazil's next game against Portugal.  Ivory Coast was considered the strongest of the African teams and I was pulling for them at the start of the tournament.  Not anymore.  This was a disgrace.

Soccernomics Refuted

I picked up "Soccernomics" by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski.  I enjoyed Kuper's earlier book, "Football Against the Enemy," a fascinating study of the way that cultural identity, politics and even ethnic hatred is expressed through the international game of soccer.  Soccernomics is a bit different.  It's a cross between Bill James and Steve Levitt.  A dispassionate statistics/economics approach to the game that promises to shatter conventional wisdom about the game and the business behind it.  I don't think it works all that well, largely, because soccer is not like baseball.  It is less susceptible to the kind of number-crunching and meaningful statistical analyses that Bill James brought to baseball through his pioneering of sabermetrics

One of the trends observed by the authors is the dominance of Contintental Western European nations when it comes to International play.  (Follow the GDP!)  For example, in the 2006 World Cup, not only did Italy meet France in the final, but no Western European nation lost to a team from any other part of the world.  The only exception was when Ukraine beat Switzerland in penalty kicks after a 0-0 tie.  Well, we're only halfway through this year's edition but we've already seen Mexico beat France, Serbia beat Germany and Chile beat Switzerland.  The story for this World Cup might be the fact that no South American team has lost yet.  In fact, the only team from the Western Hemisphere that has lost a match is Honduras. 

The Run of Play

Judging by present form, the two teams that look the best are probably Argentina and Netherlands.  Netherlands was impressive against Denmark and Japan and have already advanced.  Argentina, which features the world's best player, Lionel Messi and the world's maddest coach, Diego Maradona, looks to be the most dangerous side.  But it's too early to read much into it.  In 2006, Argentina also looked dominant in group play before stumbling in the Quaterfinals.  And Netherlands, for all of their orange brilliance, tends to find a way to self-destruct.  But if there is one lesson of economics that can be applied to soccer, it is this:  Past results are no guarantee of future reults.  You have to play the game.

Friday, June 18, 2010

World Cup Diary: Week One

Opening Game

I was planning to catch the opening match between South Africa and Mexico but since I’m in California that means a 7:00am start time. But I figured, why not? And if you’re going to watch the Mexican national team play soccer while in Los Angeles, you may as well head down to Olvera Street. To a New Yorker, Los Angeles doesn’t feel much like a city because it’s all sprawl and there’s no real center. No heart. But if any place can lay claim to being the heart of L.A., it is Olvera Street, the oldest street in Los Angeles and the historic home of LA’s latino heritage. Shortly after dawn, we drove to downtown Los Angeles. There was no traffic.

Olvera Street is pedestrian thoroughfare of smooth red tile, lined with kiosks and vendors selling crafts, clothing, candy and souvenirs and where you find historic adobe buildings and authentic Mexican restaurants. It’s a nice mix of charm and kitsch, but it’s a gem within an otherwise blighted downtown and its historic roots and quality food are real enough. At 7:00 in the morning the kiosks aren’t yet open but some of the restaurants are. Of course they are showing the game. We go to Café de Camacho at the south end of the street. It’s a newer place that serves flavored coffees and has brightly colored walls displaying paintings for sale. We had no problem getting a table. It wasn’t very crowded but nearly everyone there was wearing the green Mexico shirt and cheering for El Tri. Spirited but civilized. Instead of beer and meat pies, it was coffee, muffins and breakfast burritos. Much more my speed.

Mexico dominated the play, but it was South Africa, the host nation, who drew first blood. Siphiwe Tshabalala sprang free on the left wing and blasted a perfect shot past the Mexican keeper. The stadium erupted. Cafe de Camacho groaned. Unluckily for Mexico, an apparent Mexican goal was ruled off on what appeared to be an incorrect offsides call. Retribution came late. Mexico kept up the pressure and in the 80th minute, Rafa Marquez, the veteran defender for Barcelona equalized. Café de Camacho roared with excitement. The 1-1 tie was a fair result but one that frustrated Mexican hopes. Mexico is a soccer-mad nation with a talented squad but they are also cautious in their hope. They routinely qualify for the World Cup and advance to the round of 16 but they have never made it past the quarter-finals. The next two games – against France and Uruguay are expected to be tougher. But with some better finishing, Olvera Street might yet see some festive partying.

The U.S. Team

The much-anticipated game between U.S. and England did not produce the dramatic upset Americans were hoping for, but it was hardly a let-down either. As a practical matter, a 1-1 tie with England is an excellent and extremely fortunate result. The U.S. goal was a gift from England’s Keeper, Robert Green, whose mishandling of an innocuous shot from Clint Dempsey produced a howler for the ages. The best news for the U.S. was that its defense, a real question mark going into the game, performed solidly. Tim Howard and Steve Cherundolo, at right-back, were the best U.S. performers of the match. Jozey Altidore showed some signs of danger but needs to be more involved.

I was reading some of the reader comments on ESPN Soccernet last week. One comment read “The England game doesn’t matter that much – the key game is the 2nd game against Slovakia.” Exactly right, save for one detail. The U.S. opponent isn’t Slovakia – it’s Slovenia. What concerns me isn’t the fact that Americans are bad at geography. It’s that they don’t appreciate how tough their opponent is. I don’t mean to be pessimistic but I think it’s nuts to suppose that the U.S. should be heavily favored in this game, but that’s exactly what is being reported. I’ve already noted what’s impressive about Slovenia. The U.S. has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. That’s five tournaments. And each time, the U.S. has played a team from Eastern Europe and each time it has lost. I’m predicting another 1-1 tie. (Soccer haters love those). If it happens, the American sports media will howl, but we shouldn't be at all surprised.

Santa Barbara

My vacation took me to Santa Barbara on California’s beautiful central coast. It’s not an obvious place for watching soccer, but Santa Barbara has a richer soccer heritage than you might expect. The local college, University of California at Santa Barbara, was the NCAA men’s soccer national champions of 2006. The main drag, State Street, is full of stores, galleries, restaurants and bars – and these cater to upscale shoppers as well as college kids and beach bums.  The restaurants, sports bars, English taverns, Irish pubs and coffee houses are all televising the World Cup matches. In the evenings, it’s all about the NBA finals – Lakers vs. Celtics. But by day, soccer rules.

On Thursday morning, we’re watching Mexico again. This time, they’re playing France, who drew nil-nil in an uninspiring opening match against Uruguay. We’re at Moby Dick, a sea food restaurant on Stearn’s Wharf. It’s an unusual soccer-viewing environment. Outside our window pelicans are hovering over the Pacific and we’re having grilled salmon and a crab-melt sandwich. Nearly all of the patrons watching are rooting for Mexico, surprising only because we encountered so many French tourists in Santa Barbara. Mexico’s 2-0 win is well-deserved. Defender Carlos Salcidos is an intense-looking guy and he put on a master class at left fullback. It’s hard to feel sorry for France. Not only because of the controversial way they qualified, but because they’re playing a dull and listless brand of soccer. Franck Ribery is a nice player but he’s no Zidane. Only Florent Malouda was lively. Mexico beating a Western European power in a World Cup match is a very big deal. As beautiful as Santa Barbara is, I wonder what it’s like right now on Olvera Street.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

World Cup Diary

We’re minutes away from the biggest soccer game in U.S. history. I’m thinking not only about the excitement of the World Cup but about the game of soccer and its place in U.S. Culture. Soccer’s no longer just for immigrants and suburban kids who are driven around by Moms in mini-vans. Americans are getting increasingly interested in the International game. Last month the European Champions League final between Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, was aired on a Saturday afternoon on Fox. Not Fox Soccer Channel. Fox. New York’s Channel 5. This is new. And it could be the start of something big.

But admittedly, I’m more enthused about soccer than is your average American sports fan. I grew up in the New York area and started kicking a ball around the same time Pele joined the New York Cosmos, who played before bigger crowds than even the Yankees could draw. I played varsity soccer at my Long Island high school in the 1980s. I’ve tuned into every World Cup since 1986, when a squat player from Argentina named Diego Armando Maradona put on one of the greatest performances that any sports fan has ever seen. I consider Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch to be the best sports-fan memoir ever written. I visited London and Madrid in the late 1990s, and saw professional matches at Highbury (Arsenal) and the Bernebeu (Real Madrid). An American sitting in those legendary venues, watching the game being played at its highest level among impassioned supporters, can only begin to understand the degree to which soccer is in Europe’s blood. To say nothing of Latin America. And anyone looking to experience how Asians feel about soccer ought to visit’s 32nd and Broadway, New York City’s Koreatown, when South Korea plays in the World Cup. To see what soccer means to Africa, just watch this year’s edition of the World Cup.

For the mainstream American sports fan, the game of soccer tends to invoke one of two reactions. The first is contempt. And as soccer grows in popularity, so does the intensity of the American backlash against it. Some of that is simply an expression of nationalism. Since soccer is the biggest game in the world by far, the red-blooded patriotic American is inclined to be to be suspicious of this foreign activity. The second and more common reaction is ambivalence. Here are the American sports fans who have nothing against soccer on a cultural level, but who just can’t get all that excited about it. The sport isn’t really foreign to them – they’ve played it, or their kids have. And they’ll enjoy watching a great goal or show of individual skill on ESPN Plays of the Week. But the game itself doesn’t capture them and the lack of success by the U.S. at the International level frustrates them.

Here’s what bothers lots of American fans about soccer:

• Low scoring.

• Tie games.

• Whining, dramatics and simulation of injuries.

• Outcome of games decided by penalty kicks

But what the U.S. likes most about sports – more than lots of goals or tough play – is winning. If the U.S. can do well in this World Cup, plenty of Americans will look past what they see as the negatives of the sport and come to embrace the Beautiful Game. That’s one reason why today’s game between the U.S. and England is so huge. The media has hyped the game a lot but there’s no question that the U.S. is a decided underdog. There are a lot of eyes on this game but in the U.S., there’s also a notoriously short attention span. A U.S. win would be historic. And if you think there’s a lot of hype and sports media attention now…just wait. But if we see a disappointing showing by the U.S. or a dull game, a nil-nil draw, or a questionable call by a referee resulting in a penalty kick giving England a 1-0 win, the soccer haters will say “See? I told you so.”

But that’s Ok. Some of us will keep on watching.  That's what fans do.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Life in the Party Pit: The Hold Steady in Ardsley, NY, April 2, 2010


When you listen to The Hold Steady, the word “beautiful” is not a word that springs immediately to mind. The songs take you to some scary and desperate places – High School, Penetration Park, barroom bathrooms, party pits and the seedy camps on banks of the Mississippi River. The characters that inhabit the songs include skaters, drug dealers, hustlers and hoodrats. They have names like Holly, Gideon and Charlemagne. They are shady, quirky and vulnerable. They are often battered, sometimes bloody and usually wasted. Sure, there’s fun to be had, humor, irony and a massive party, but there’s little glamour in it. We see a youth culture that wants what every generation has wanted over the last half century – its own celebration of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. But the sex is desperate and the drugs turn ugly. When the smoke clears, we bear witness to the casualties, the bruised flesh and lost souls. But what we are left with is pure rock n’ roll.

Craig Finn is the voice of the Hold Steady. It might be a stretch to call him a “singer” in any traditional sense but he has a unique way of non-singing that makes him a captivating, if unlikely, front-man for a rock band. When you see The Hold Steady live, you are struck by the odd figure that he cuts. With his receding hairline, dark-rimmed glasses, and plain-looking collared button-down shirt, he hardly looks the part of a rock star. He looks like a Dad, or a computer programmer or a guy who runs the copy machine in an accounting office. And when he dances on stage with the spastic exuberance of a child, you realize that this is no poseur. Nobody would fake this. He gesticulates wildly, punctuating the vocal rhythms with his hands. It’s quirky and odd, but his energy is infectious and his geeky lack of self-consciousness is refreshing. There’s an earnestness and innocence in his delivery even as the characters he sings about have lost their own. It’s a paradox that works.

Success has come but it has been modest. Forming in Brooklyn, by way of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, in 2003, The Hold Steady became a critically acclaimed bar band and, following their first two albums, Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday, they had a solid cult following. In 2005, they appeared on the cover of The Village Voice. Their next album, Boys and Girls in America even got some radio play (notably, the anthem, “Stuck Between Stations”). But in 2006, Finn was still working in an office. Then in 2008, they released Stay Positive, their most successful album to date.

But if they had really made it big, I probably would not have been fortunate enough to see them play last Friday in Ardsley, New York before just a few hundred enthusiastic fans. That night, the band kicked off their summer tour at an unlikely venue. LIFE the Place to Be is a family event space, complete with arcade games, bowling alley and rock-climbing wall (kosher catering is available). It's more of a venue for corporate outings and Chappaqua Bar-Mitzvah parties than for sweaty, beer-soaked, bar-band rock, but I enjoyed the incongruity of the scene. The concert was part of the 6th birthday party celebration of 107.1, The Peak, the only decent radio station in Westchester County and the one that introduced me to The Hold Steady. There’s a new album coming out in May (Heaven is Whenever) and a new line-up. Their wonderfully flamboyant keyboardist, Franz Nicolay has been replaced and they’ve added an extra guitarist to lend some muscle to Tad Kubler’s killer riffs.

The show was fantastic. This band could get really big. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I wouldn’t predict it either. Finn’s vocal delivery– part nasally snarl, part rapid-fire chant - isn’t for everyone. He’s enamored with words, with literature and storytelling. Poets, John Berryman, William Butler Yeats and William Blake appear in the songs. So does Jack Kerouac. With Finn, words come flying forth rapidly without restraint or moderation as he creates captivating tales of celebration, desperation and the places in between. One of the drawbacks of the live performance is that the words get lost in the sound system, the haze of amplification and layers of guitar. It’s a common problem at rock concerts. But Finn makes up for this loss with the sheer energy and exuberance of the live performance. He has a way of making you wait on every word even when you can’t quite make them out. There's a boundless joy that seems to contradict the crises that underlie at least some of the storytelling. But within this contradiction is the very heart of rock ‘n roll. Three chords and the truth but don’t ever stop dancing.

There was something appropriate about seeing this band on Good Friday. Catholic imagery runs rampant in The Hold Steady’s songs, most notably on the Separation Sunday. At every turn, there’s sin, sacrifice, the hope of salvation and the fear of its loss. The Village Voice called Separation Sunday “the most egregiously American Catholic album since X's Under the Big Black Sun, Springsteen's Tunnel of Love, or that Jewish new waver Billy Joel's The Stranger.” After the band played “Multitude of Casualties,” a song of drugs and redemption, Finn smiled (he smiles a lot) and wished the audience “Happy Easter.” Finn may be haunted and he may be lapsed but there’s no denying that it’s in him.

There is an obvious Springsteen influence: the recurring characters, the big-sounding anthems, the Bittanesque keyboard and the energy of the live show. But Finn and his crew are also of a different generation. There’s a "Dazed and Confused" slacker sensibility which, because of the Minneapolis connection, brings to mind Paul Westerberg and the Replacements. (But also that other bard of Minnesota, Bob Dylan). In the crunching guitar riffs and power pop chords, you can hear the influence of AC/DC, Thin Lizzy and Cheap Trick. And there’s more than a touch of Punk in these guys as well. In “Constructive Summer,” the driving anthem that kicks off Stay Positive there’s a nod to Iggy Pop, Dillinger Four and the Clash. Finn considers the idealism of youth and what it all means now that he's facing the realities of getting older:

Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer
I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher
Getting older makes it harder to remember…we are our only saviors
We’re gonna build something, this summer

This isn’t the voice of a slacker or wasted youth stumbling around the party pit. The stakes couldn’t be higher. What Finn and The Hold Steady represent is nothing less than the redemptive power of rock n’ roll. Every concert is an affirmation of that faith. See them if you can. It truly is a beautiful thing.


Sunday, February 28, 2010

Do You Believe in Miracles?

I’m watching Team USA play Canada for the Olympic Hockey Men’s Gold Medal and I’m struck by a realization: It’s been 30 years since the “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid, when Team USA beat the Soviets and went on to win the Olympic Gold Medal. 30 years!

The game I’m watching now is a pretty big deal - especially for Canada. Hockey is their national religion. They expect to win and there is even greater pressure for these 2010 Olympic Games as they are on home ice in Vancouver. It’s a fairly big deal for U.S. hockey too. It's also a terrific game. But I’m watching a team of 23 NHL players skate against another team of 23 NHL players. Almost all of them are millionaires and they are all familiar to fans of hockey. When the U.S. met the Soviets in Lake Placid in 1980, there were no NHL players and no millionaires. The world wasn’t so small then. There was real mystery when your nation competed against a foreign team.

It’s difficult to fully appreciate how different things were in 1980. First, there was the sheer magnitude of the upset. Team USA featured a collection of college players (mostly from Minnesota or Massachusetts) while the Soviet team was an experienced machine, universally regarded as the best in the world. The previous winter, the same Soviet team had badly beaten an NHL All Star Team (featuring 15 eventual hall-of-famers) in the Challenge Cup at Madison Square Garden. And only three days before the Olympics opened, the U.S. team played the Soviets in an exhibition game also in the Garden. The Soviets won 10 – 3. Then there was the geopolitical climate in 1980. Jimmy Carter was President. We had an energy crisis, a Cold War and what seemed to be an increasingly more dangerous world. Four months prior to the Olympics, 53 Americans were taken hostage by Iranian revolutionaries. And just three months before the Olympics, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan.

But I was only 11-years-old and the Olympics had completely captured my imagination. I had a vague recollection of the 1976 Winter Games – Franz Klammer, in his banana-yellow ski suit, winning the downhill in Innsbruck. But this time, the Olympics would be in the United States, in New York State even. Practically in my own backyard. In the summer of 1978, I went to a sleep-away camp near the Adirondacks and had visited Lake Placid on a day trip. I remember getting ice cream on Main Street, swatting mosquitoes and walking down to the lake to watch water skiing. Olympic preparations were well underway in town and Olympic posters, decals and flags could be seen everywhere. It was thrilling to consider that this small mountain village, would be blanketed with snow and play host to the world.

I was also just beginning to follow hockey. Those were heady times for hockey in New York. The Ranger team, more famous then for their designer jeans and swimsuit model wives than for their on-ice accomplishments, had just played in the Stanley Cup Finals. My beloved New York Islanders were on the assent to greatness. But these were the days when only amateurs played in the Olympics. There would be no Phil Esposito, no Bobby Clarke, no Guy Lafleur and no Brian Trottier, Mike Bossy, Clark Gilles or Denis Potvin. But these guys were all Canadians anyway. I couldn’t name a single American player and I knew nothing of College hockey. And so I read my Sports Illustrated Winter Olympics Preview issue in order to educate myself. Most of the Olympic hype concerned an American speed skater named Eric Heiden who was expected to compete for the Gold Medal in 5 events. But there was also a short article previewing the hockey. Of course the Soviets were expected to win Gold. Czechoslovakia was picked to win Silver. But, according to Sports Illustrated, the plucky U.S. team, coached by Herb Brooks, had a legitimate shot at the Bronze! I was thrilled. This would be a team worth watching.

The rest, of course, is history. In their opening game, the U.S. tied Sweden, 2-2. The Americans then rolled off consecutive wins against Czechoslovakia, Norway, Romania and West Germany. The leading scorer for the U.S. was Mark Johnson (now coach of the U.S. Women’s hockey team) but their best player was probably goaltender, Jim Craig. ABC, the network covering the Olympics, only showed highlights from these games until the medal round, which pitted the USA against the mighty Soviets. The game was aired on a Friday evening on tape delay.

The greatest thing about sports is that the drama is real. The unexpected sometimes does happen and when it does, it can shock, inspire, fulfill dreams and break hearts. When Mike Eruzione scored the go-ahead goal in the third period and Team USA held on to win 4-3, I was jumping up and down in front of the television. The U.S. would go on to defeat Finland to win the Gold Medal but it was the win against the Soviets that was the one for the ages. Lacking any real political awareness, I had no temptation to attach any political significance or propaganda angle to the win. I only knew the joy of victory. I knew that my team, my country, had beaten the best. I knew that it wasn’t supposed to happen, but it happened. I knew it was a miracle. It remains the greatest thing I’ve witnessed in sports.

But now, I’m again jumping excitedly in front of my television. With the U.S. trailing Canada 2-1, Zach Parise scored for the U.S. with just 24 seconds left in regulation. Awesome! The Gold Medal winner will be determined in sudden death overtime. It’s thrilling -but it’s not like 1980. I shouldn’t compare, but I can’t help it. Don’t get me wrong, in some ways this is better. Certainly the players are better – bigger, stronger, faster, professional. And so is the overall quality of play. But Team USA is only a slight underdog this time, if even that. They’ve already beaten Canada in the preliminary round and going into the playoff round, they had the best record, the best goal differential and the hottest goalie, Ryan Miller. But Canada is still Canada and beating them a second time will take some doing.

Sudden death is tense stuff. Next goal wins. This thing could end with an errant pass, a fluke goal, a deflection. Hockey is like that. But somebody is going to win this thing. And then, somebody does. 7:40 into overtime, Sidney Crosby wins it for Canada. A nation celebrates. I’m happy for Canada. This means more to their nation than it would have meant for ours. And that’s not sour grapes – I'd have loved to see the U.S. win - it’s just how things work in the world of hockey. Canadians will be comparing Crosby’s goal to Paul Henderson’s legendary game winning goal in the Summit Series against the Soviets in 1972. North of the border, there’s both jubilation and relief.

But I find myself wondering, what if the U.S. had won? Would the commentators be comparing it with 1980? You bet they would. So maybe we were spared at least that. To be sure, there are plenty of 11-year-old kids, in both the U.S and Canada, who saw something special and unforgettable. Countless American kids will become fans and even learn to play hockey because of what happened today. Countless Canadian kids have a memory that will last a lifetime. They saw great hockey – better hockey than we saw in 1980. And they saw something dramatic and inspiring. It fulfilled dreams and it broke hearts.

But they didn’t see a miracle.