Monday, December 28, 1998

In Search of Chihuahuas

I spent one of the last days of 1998 with my friend on a mission. She wanted to find a Taco Bell that still had the little stuffed Chihuahua that says, "here lizard lizard..." The restaurant chain is selling four different speaking Chihuahuas and the lizard beckoning one is the most popular. We had limited time so I mapped out our trail in advance. We went to three Taco Bells and called two others before we found one that had a few left. Our little mission made me wonder if this is what my Dad used to go through when we were little kids and one of us wanted a hard to find toy from Santa.

My friend is the proud parent of Kurbie, the world's fiercest Rat Terrier (who sort of looks like a Chihuahua) and she wanted to get the Taco Bell mascot as a gift to Kurbie's doting grandparents. It was a nice moment to remember 1998 by- a year that has been very difficult for me personally and professionally. It was a gentle reminder that in times of trouble if you can keep your mind on a goal, a mission, you can accomplish just about anything. And to share those special moments with friends and family- that's what it ultimately is all about. Here are ten other moments I'll remember the year by:

10) Live Moment of the Year: Los Lobos at the Minnesota Zoo. We were seated four rows from the front of the stage. As the band ripped into One Time One Night in the cool summer air as the dancers swayed in front of the stage I looked into David Hidalgo's eyes and listened to his vocals which were so passionate and pristine. I swear he was singing the song for me.

9) Sporting Moment of the Year: Mark McGwire? Nope. Those incredible Yankees? Not even close. The Macalester women's soccer team winning the national championship? Mighty impressive indeed. But the ultimate sports story was Joan's Jetts, a hapless softball team just a few years back, playing its heart out (with an aging right fielder) and winning the state's softball tournament.

8) Best Song of the Year (Male Vocalist): Imagination by Brian Wilson. Wilson has written better songs that capture his manic genius more impressively but I don't know if he has ever written a song that has touched me more deeply. "To look in your eyes and know how you feel and then realize that nothing's for real." Brian's is a sad story but his music overcomes that. Quite the gift.

7) Best Song of the Year (Female Vocalist): Liz Phair's Polyester Bride. Yes it was great having a new CD from Phair after a lengthy absence. The CD has grown on me with repeated listenings and I always have to smile when this song comes on. "I'm a sucker for your lucky pretty eyes."

6) Best Song of the Year (Group): Fastball's The Way. I heard them perform it on David Letterman and couldn't get the tune out of my head. A few weeks later my friend asked me to pick up the disc because she loved the song. It was then I realized her taste in music was nearly as impeccable as mine. The Latin like rhythm is as irresistible as the McCartneyesque melody.

5) Saddest Farewell of the Year: Frumpy The Clown. He came unexpectedly to the cartoon pages of the Pioneer Press. At first I didn't know what to make of him- an abrasive and caustic clown hired to be the live in nanny for two children. Underneath his squinty weary scowl was a heart of gold. And just as sudden as his appearance he rode of f on an elephant into the sunset never to be seen again. I miss Frumpy.

4) Soundtrack of the Year: Mr. Sinatra's What is This Thing Called Love. I heard the song on one of the many tribute shows after he died. When he gets to the climax line, "So I ask the Lord above, what is this thing called love?" his voice is pure emotion and just smothers your heart. Now I can't stop listening to the song. So long Mr. Frank.

3) John Hiatt Moment of the Year: (Tie) The release of Hiatt's version of The Way We Make a Broken Heart on his Best Of CD. The song was left off his best CD, Riding With the King and was later covered by Rosanne Cash. It was a treat to be able to finally hear John's version. Just as special was his abbreviated performance at the Cities '97 Sampler concert. A stunningly fun show.

2) Bob Dylan Moment of the Year: (Tie): First off his wonderful performance of Love Sick (Soy Bomb) at the Grammy's and subsequent winning of the Best Album of the Year for Time Out of Mind. Second his homecoming concert in Duluth. Third his energetic performance the next night at the Target Center. But most of all it was at that show when my friend who I was worried wouldn't like Dylan, turned to me and said, "I LOVE his voice."

1) Most Looked Forward To Moment of the Year: Every Sunday night for the past few years I have had dinner with Mom and Dad. The food is great but the company and conversation is even better. Just another reminder of how blessed I am.

Monday, December 21, 1998

They're Mossome

Football is to baseball as Cheez Whiz is to Gouda. Baseball is a game of subtle nuances. To fully appreciate it, you have to understand how with every pitch the strategy is different; how depending on the situation (how many runners are on base? what is the weather? what are the stadium factors involved?) the players must react in various ways to succeed. Football despite all its fancy plays ultimately comes down to which of the oversized men can hit each other harder. Baseball isn't over until the last batter is out; football relies on a clock and a coin toss to determine its outcome.

Baseball has always been, and no matter how hard they try to ruin it (extra playoff rounds, growing disparity between large market and small market teams) will always be my favorite game. There is no more exhilarating thing to watch in sports than to see Greg Maddux pitch. There is no more explosive sight than a Mark McGwire home run. But in this time of Presidential sized scandals I have to cleanse my soul and admit that the first time I had my heart broken was in 1973 when the Vikings lost to the Miami Dolphins.

My mother had given me a Vikings yearbook at the beginning of the year. Having just become a Twins fan the previous summer I now switched my attention to this other sport. This was Fran Tarkenton's second year back during his second stint with the team. It was Chuck Foreman's rookie season. The Vikings had gone 10-4 that year and despite having to play the defending champion Dolphins, I was absolutely sure the local team would become the Super Bowl champs. But they played their worse game of the year. My only memories of the game are of the many times it was up to Paul Krause to try and tackle Larry Csonka. The Dolphins ran at will. The Vikings offense went nowhere and it was a painful loss to endure.

The next year my love of the Vikings became even greater. Once again I lived and died with them all season long only to watch another awful Super Bowl performance, this time a 16-6 loss to the underdog Pittsburgh Steelers. (My lone memories from that game are of Mr. Tarkenton having a heck of a time trying to pass over the hands of Steeler lineman L.C. Greenwood. Seems like there were twenty blocked passes that game.)

The biggest heartbreak of all came however in 1975 (the best Vikings team ever until this season) when the team went 12-2 only to lose in that controversial playoff game to Dallas (the Drew Pearson game). It was after this season (with the image of the referee getting hit in the noggin by a liquor bottle) when I decided my heart couldn't take such regular disappointment. The highs of the season were equaled by the lows of the post- season. The Twins who were going through a mediocre stretch in the mid-70's were much easier to take with their .500 seasons and absence from the big game pressures of the playoffs and World Series.

I followed football for a couple more years (and another Viking Super Bowl loss) until my hero, the ever cool Bud Grant announced his retirement. It was to be the last time the Vikings broke my heart. I remember lying in bed on a Saturday morning when my mother came in to tell me of Mr. Bud's decision. I cried.

The Les Steckel year was comical. The Jerry Burns years were mind numbingly tedious. Football was a game to me that increasingly seemed lacking in any personality. Seemed like every game ended up 24-17 or something similar and the players were fast becoming interchangeable (Alfred Anderson or Scottie Graham? Rich Gannon or Gino Torretta? Who the hell cared?)

Before this season I went out on the limb and optimistically told anyone within ear range the Vikings would end up 12-4. I figured their passing attack, impressive as it has been the past few seasons, would be even better with Randy Moss and that the defense with ten returning starters would be much better (especially with the development of Duane Ruud). But being the casual football fan that I was, and despite my high expectations, I couldn't possibly imagine the dominance this team would have. I figured twelve wins was stretching the limits. Now anything less than a Super Bowl appearance would be down right disheartening.

Of course the question for me is can I watch another Vikings' Super Bowl appearance? I have finally after twenty years let the team back inside my heart to the extent I actually have watched most of their games this season (except their appearance in Chicago which I couldn't watch for personal reasons). If they don't make it to the Super Bowl it will be disappointing (just watch them lose to Green Bay). But if they make it to the Super Bowl and lose... someone may have to come and take me away.

Monday, December 14, 1998

Dammit Jim, I'm a Dork

In a fit of indiscretion I once admitted to the World's Greatest Helmetless Soccer Player that as a child I enjoyed watching Star Trek. She thus lumped me in with all those Spock eared wearing techies so associated with the show who have developed a near religious like following (which is a tad bit scary in its devotion ) to all things Star Trek. I even admitted to watching The Next Generation because it was the only way I could talk to my nephew who was the show's number one fan (and as you all know, it's very important for me to be able to talk to the kids as part of my ongoing tough love program).

Once she had that bit of dirt on me however, the World's Greatest Helmetless Soccer Player couldn't resist giving me the business. Though she had seen every other movie ever made she insisted she had never stooped to watching any of the Star Trek movies. On the day that the Hale Bop news hit the airwaves she made it a point to call me up to check to see if I had gotten my purple shroud and Nikes out of the closet (I think she was relieved to know I hadn't). I don't think I was ever a "Trekkie" or a "Trekker." My tolerance level of the show is it is OK to watch but I needn't study any of its pseudo philosophies. If I have to watch a TV science fiction show I much prefer Red Dwarf.

Thus as I was standing in line to see the latest movie in the series, Star Trek Insurrection, I must admit I really gave my harshest pair of skunk eyes to the gentleman standing in the lobby dressed in a Starfleet uniform. I may have sunk quite low these days but as this sighting so accurately proved, there is a whole social strata below me. So I'm a bit sheepish to report that I actually quite enjoyed the movie. The energy crackles from the screen and there are bits of humor that work- which is in distinct difference to much of the series' writing.

Insurrection is sort of an update of the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan. In that movie the crew was battling a madman who was after the scientific equivalent of Genesis. In Insurrection the crew is battling a madman who is after the scientific equivalent of the fountain of youth. Early on I thought I was really in for something special as they hinted at an anti-technology theme underneath the main story line questioning when the good of the many is worth sacrificing the good of the minority. By the end of the movie of course, that anti-technology sentiment is watered down as we see what the series always teaches us: to live a more spiritually pure life requires the rescue of conventional heroes with their computers and weapons (sort of an update of Witness). Like all good Star Trek films, Insurrection gives us a little sermon to ponder: about the benefits of living in the moment; of somehow stopping time to appreciate what's in front of us. Stopping time is what the greatest movies magically do for us, and that this movie doesn't quite manage to do it without openly stating the notion is one of the film's few flaws.

Things I learned and was amused by? That Dr. Bev (still looking fab) is quite the sharp shooter. That in an emergency, Data can be used as a floatation device. Seeing Worf go through Klingon puberty. Things I wasn't so amused by and didn't really need to see or know? Commander Riker in a frisky mood; Deanna Troi talk about her boobs; Jean-Luc get all googly eyed over an older woman (We expect that from Cap'n Kirk and expect better from Cap'n Picard).

Insurrection is one of the better efforts of the entire series. The movie moves at a brisk pace and the villain (played by F. Murray Abraham) isn't merely evil incarnate, but rather a fleshed out (with stretchy skin) character (we're even allowed to understand what is at the root of his madness). I doubt the World's Greatest Helmetless Soccer Player will stand in line to see the film, but if she should happen to think of me while seeing an ad or a preview, I hope she understands just how much she is missing.

Monday, December 7, 1998

Just What Else Rhymes with Amoeba?

John Hiatt is one of the few artists whose songs so vividly open up my memory floodgates. When I hear Drive South I am still with the one I was with when I first heard the song and it seemed so appropriate to our situation at the time. When I hear She Loves the Jerk I revisit the relationship that made me feel the exact same feelings conveyed in the song. Am I saying his songs are universal and timeless? I don't know if I'd go that far, but I will say his songwriting for me is nearly without peer. He can be clever, sarcastic, funny, poignant, spirit moving and a thousand other feelings all at the same time.

Hiatt was the concluding act in the Cities 97 Sampler Concert following the Honeydogs, Duncan Sheik and the Cowboy Junkies on to the stage of the stately State Theater. (My favorite of the three preceding acts was Duncan Sheik who sang a moving Alibi and demonstrated a most impressive speaking voice of all things (not so much mellow as thoughtful). The Cowboy Junkies were OK, but after their opening version of Sweet Jane (a fine performance of a most fabulous song) it was more of the same and the lack of variety made their set a little monotonous.

Between acts (as we listened to our all time favorite weather gal, Belinda tell us why we were there), my friend helped me take my pulse. Could she blame me that it was a little fast for just sitting there (seeing who was next to me and who was soon going to be in front of us?)

Hiatt opened with the aforementioned Drive South. This song always gets to me: "I didn't say we wouldn't hurt anymore. That's how you learn, you just get burned. But we don't have to feel like dirt anymore. Though love's not earned, baby, it's our turn..." He was clearly in a playful mood hamming it up with his bandmates. He acknowledged his setting with some kind words for our former wrestling governor elect. The second song was a surprise, a bluesy, metallic Riding With The King where John played the part of guitar king with some really fine playing and posing. The song has always been somewhat of a mystery to me but I loved the way he sang the verse, "Well I stepped out of a mirror at ten years old with a suit cut sharp as a razor and a heart of gold. I had a guitar hanging just about waist high. I'm gonna play that thing until the day I die..." And with his guitar performance he backed up his words most effectively.

On the drive in I had given my sauntering Quien Mas Sabe (who later stylishly modeled her headband and hat look) a copy of Bring The Family which we listened to as we stressfully maneuvered our way through the Holidazzle traffic. She, not being a country music fan, didn't especially like the opening cut, Memphis in the Meantime, but the version performed live was much different. The style changes within the song were most impressive: from country to blues, from punk to heavy metal, Hiatt was at his witty best (he updated the lyrics from "I don't think Ronnie Milsap is ever going to record this song..." to "I don't think Tim McGraw is ever going to record this song."). For the first time I appreciated the song for what it cleverly is- a tribute to country music that rips up the now standard format.

The next two songs were cuts from the recently released Best Of CD, and are two songs I admit I haven't much gotten in to (yet). Love In Flames was much better than the recorded version. It is a song that clearly means a lot to John and it was his most passionate performance of the evening. "Tonight I lay me down to sleep on your side of the bed. I pray so hard for somebody to keep you out of my head. But it's no use the sheets take your form into the dawn the ashes still warm..." The following Take Off Your Uniform from Slug Line nearly brought things to a screeching halt as Hiatt tried to find the core to the song that he said he hadn't performed live since 1978.

Things definitely got back on track with crowd pleasing versions of Perfectly Good Guitar, Tennessee Plates, and Cry Love. It was fun to see that the person having the most fun in the entire place was none other than Mr. Hiatt himself.

The first encore was Have a Little Faith in Me with Hiatt alone on stage on the keyboard. Halfway through the first verse his microphone exploded forcing him to stop as a techie tried to fix the problem. Hiatt recovered nicely by saying, "As I was just saying..." and proceeded to give a nice reading of one of his most moving (and famous) songs. (Dear John- it is interesting to see how you can move people with your solo reading of this song as opposed to the gospel choired enhanced version you included on the Best Of CD...) The night concluded with a definitive version of Thing Called Love which proved (to paraphrase an old saying) that nobody sings Hiatt like Hiatt.

Before the show I had told my friend that if he did The Way We Make a Broken Heart I might have an accident of sorts. It's one of those songs that touched me before I realized who wrote it (I love Rosanne Cash's version) and it tears me up every time I hear it. Even though he didn't perform the song I wasn't disappointed because just being able to share the moment with my friend and enjoying the evening of music gave me a special new memory and corresponding soundtrack that will stay with me stronger than all the others. It's quite the feeling to have music, memories and friendships close to your heart and not even be able to discern the separation between them all. It's a feeling captured often in John Hiatt's songs.

Eternity is a Hell of a Long Time

I'm not quite sure if I would have survived high school had I not discovered the Beatles' music in ninth grade. The group showed me there was a world outside of prom and homecomings, and that it was OK to express one's self to a broader audience.

I have always been more of a Paul fan over the years. His cheerful, ever present optimism and melodicism are to me more foreign and thus more admirable than John's more introspective and cynical view of life. When Paul sang "It's getting better all the time," John just had to chime in "Can't get much worse..." Still there are times when I just have to listen to one of John's songs- he speaks to me like no other artist. Thus it was a real treat when I added a welcome addition to my CD collection- the new John Lennon box anthology. The set includes demo, alternative and live versions of his solo work and it just is a reminder how sad it is that we lost such a vital and inspired artist at the return of his creative peak.

I began collecting the Beatles' LPs along with solo work from each member (this was also the time when I discovered the cost saving wonders of used records via Cheapo) when I was in ninth grade. The first new album from an ex-Beatle that I bought upon its first day of release was John and Yoko's Double Fantasy. My initial reaction was that it was great to have new Beatlelike music and I especially loved Just Like Starting Over, but still I was much more fond of Paul's work even at that early point and I was anxious for him to release some new music.

I played the LP constantly and must admit although Yoko's stuff seemed "weird", I enjoyed the interchange and obvious love husband and wife shared. I religiously read all the corresponding press the couple's return to music making caused, and it was comforting to know that Lennon's legendary demons seemed to be lessening their hold on him. He seemed happy as his words and music clearly demonstrated. A few nights later, my Mom and I were watching Johnny Carson when NBC News interrupted with a report that Lennon had been gunned down outside his home in New York City. I remember sitting stunned, and looking at my Mom who knew that the news would sadden me.

I had already established a reputation as being a tad eccentric in my high school. The one thing my classmates really knew about me was my fondness for the Beatles (and how could they not know? I would often belt out a Beatle song at the top of my lungs at the most quiet moments...) So the next day at school was a bit tough. It seemed everyone wanted to know my thoughts on John's murder. I had brought my copy of Double Fantasy with me and I was actually more publicly shaken than I ever remember being before or since.

The Lennon anthology is a thankful reminder of what made me love the Beatles music in the first place: wit, melodicism, inspiration, poetry, anger, love. The best thing about the box set however is its demonstration of John's wicked sense of humor. (My favorite moment is a little snippet were John begins singing Yesterday and improvises the lyrics "I'm not half the man I used to be... because I'm an amputee...") Lennon was full of anger, cynicism and bravado, but I can't think of another musician who has the sensitivity and a sense of humor that can even come close to John's.

There has been no more devastatingly depressing rock album than John's first post-Beatle LP. The brutal honesty, the straightforward confessional is art at its most painful. The irony is that the myth that John admirably attempts to puncture is the very myth that makes the listener want to listen in the first place. The outtakes captured on the first disc of the anthology are therefore the most revealing. In particular the alternate version of God the 1970 LP's defining moment, shows that above it all John was a great singer. In the official released take the drama John creates in his delicate soft spoken singing contrasts with the intensity of his primal screams which makes the silence in the song even more effective. On the up to now unreleased take, John is still trying to find the right voice for such a painful song. It is fascinating to finally be able to hear him try and find his way through this intensely personal song.

There are many great moments on the box set. Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out is pure Lennon. The demos for I'm Am the Greatest and Life Begins at 40 recorded for Ringo Starr are John at his wittiest. We hear an early take of John's most famous song Imagine done as a hymn and it is spine tingling. The same is true with two ballads from the same period, Oh My Love (my all time favorite Lennon song), and Jealous Guy. One Day at a Time sounds downright Leonard Cohenesque in this alternate version.

The anthology had to be difficult for Yoko to ensemble, giving a glimpse of a three dimensional John brought to life, full of pain and passion and brilliant as hell. His is a much missed voice we're lucky enough to hear once again.