Sunday, December 30, 2007

Random Musings at Year's End

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto comes as no surprise. Indeed her murder serves as a reminder of the seething socio-political-sectarian struggles within the Islamic world as a whole. Even if the United States or Israel did not exist, the tensions we behold now on our TV screens would still be taking place.

How her death affects our involvement in the internecine struggles for power in Pakistan, people forget that America has long had an involved relationship with Pakistan. Ever since its creation in 1948, America has been a sponsor of Pakistan’s successive dictatorships. This came about when India maintained a policy on non-alignment during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union and Communist China under Mao Zedong. Presidents from Truman to Nixon viewed India’s neutrality with suspicion and courted Pakistan as an ally in the ideological struggle. Indeed, when India and Pakistan fought one another in 1971 over the independence of Bangladesh, America supplied arms and military advisers to Pakistan.

The problem is: the fact that America is so heavily involved in Pakistani affairs merely serves as fodder for the rise in Islamic extremism. Just as America’s support for the late Shah of Iran fueled the rise of the Iran’s fundamentalist revolution in 1979, so too does our involvement in Pakistan adds seasoning to the boiling pot of revolution. In many ways, we are trapped. Increasing our presence in Pakistan merely fans the flames. Total withdrawal from Pakistan would hasten the takeover of Pakistan by the same Talibanic elements that launched 9/11 on America.

* * *

I watched the New England Patriots finish the 2007 regular season undefeated at 16-0. Seeing the Patriots come back from a 28-16 margin to defeat the Giants 38-35 brings back memories of the 1972 Miami Dolphins. The 1972 NFL season was the first season where I became aware of NFL football. I was nine years old then and remember falling in love with the Miami Dolphins team. I remember fondly, Bob Griese, Earl Morrall, Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Garo Yepremian (the first soccer-style kicker in NFL history). But having seen the Patriots become the first NFL team to go undefeated in a sixteen game season, I have to believe that they are the greatest NFL team of all time. I may be premature with my forecast but if the Patriots win the Super Bowl then they will go a long way in cementing that claim of being the greatest team that ever lived.

You cannot compare NFL eras. The game has changed so much since 1972. (Indeed it was the last season where the goalposts were located on the goal-line and kickers kicked off from the forty-yard line). In terms of overall size and speed you cannot compare the 1972 Dolphins with the 2007 Patriots. But the 2007 Patriots possess talents, styles, and tactics that not even the 1972 Dolphins could have counter-acted even if their players were the same size as today’s Patriots are.

The 1972 Dolphins beat their opponents through attrition, combining a devastating running game with a phalanx-like defense. (The 1972 Dolphins were the first NFL team ever to have two 1,000 yard rushers in their backfield: Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris, with Jim Kiick gaining over 500 yards rushing as well). The Dolphins were so ball-control minded that there were several games where quarterback Bob Griese would make less than ten pass attempts. (Unheard of in today’s game).

I don’t see how such an offensive style could work against the 2007 Patriots.

Bob Griese was a splendid quarterback and a magnificent leader but he lacked the same superstar quality that a Tom Brady has. Griese never generated the numbers that a Joe Namath or Sonny Jurgensen or even Johnny Unitas generated during that era. Brady has proven since 2001 that he can generate the same numbers and even more.

Also the 1972 Dolphins No-Name defense didn’t possess the aggressive turnover abilities that the 2007 Patriots possess. In terms of ball-hawking, the Patriots get the nod in my opinion.

Simply put, the 2007 Patriots have too much offense and too much defense. They are the total package and should be revered as such by true football purists.

Fans may complain that the Patriots are boring but guess what the 1972 Dolphins were just as boring in their style of winning as the 2007 Patriots are. Actually watching both teams in action reminds me of what the late President Kennedy once said on the subject of success, “The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence”.

The 2007 Patriots are the living embodiment of what President Kennedy was alluding to that day in 1963.

* * *

I’ve always hated New Year’s Eve. I can only recall one, maybe two New Year’s Eves where I have truly enjoyed myself. Mostly what New Year’s Eve reminds me of is how lonely and isolated my life has truly been. Recently, I’ve taken to going to the movies on New Year’s Eve but this year no movie tickles my fancy.

And so……

I will usher in 2008 in a more banal fashion.

I will work a normal work day and do absolutely nothing.

Hubba, Hubba, Hubba.

* * *

Oh yes: my predictions for 2008.

1) The insurgents in Iraq will launch a major offensive on or near the same day President Bush will give his State of the Union address where he will say that the surge worked and that real progress is being made in Iraq and that we cannot pull out now. Not only will it embarrass President Bush it may also throw a monkey wrench in Republican candidate John McCain’s Presidential campaign since he is basing his candidacy on a more vigorous application of America’s military strength in Iraq. McCain has made political capital on the success of the surge. A major (and successful) insurgent offensive could damage McCain’s credibility.

2) The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary will not decide the nominations for either party. The contests in South Carolina, Florida, and Super Tuesday will be the real deciding contests in the 2008 Presidential races for both parties.

3) Do not discount the G.O.P. in the 2008 Presidential race. Despite the setbacks in Iraq and the rises in energy and food prices, and the collapse in the housing market, 2008 will not be a banner year for the Democrats. There is ample room for failure on their parts as well.

4) Like the actor Val Kilmer once said in the movie The Doors, “hatred is a very underestimated emotion” you will see more hatred than you will ever see in 2008—in all aspects of life—and we as a people living on this planet Earth will suffer enormously for it.

Let us pray.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

College Football: How to Remove the B.S. from the BCS

It is college bowl time again football fans and once again I am renewing my losing battle against the current BCS system that decides (rightly or wrongly) which college football team is the best in the nation.

My major complaint against the present BCS (which, year-by-year, requires constant tinkering, which merely confirms its fundamentally flaws and biases) is that it relies on a suspiciously convoluted computer ranking system that factors in strength-of-scheduling along with other factors. The BCS has done a great deal to perpetuate the stranglehold of the major college football powers while denying smaller colleges like Rutgers University (last year), Boise State, etc. from competing in the BCS championship even though those teams compiled undefeated records.

I would like to propose a new system (which would never see the light of day simply because it is much fairer than the present system) for determining which college football team is the best in the nation. The system I propose is inspired by the present British soccer league. In 1992 the major British soccer teams created the Premier League whereby the best 20 teams in the country would play one another for the soccer championship. The other teams would be divided into lesser divisions whereby they would vie with one another for promotion or relegation status. Any team in the Premier League that did poorly would be relegated to a lower level whereas the top teams in the lower divisions would move upward with the potential for playing for the championship.

My proposed system for NCAA football would do the same. My proposal would eliminate the traditional conferences like the Big Ten or Big Eight or PAC-10 and replace them with four super conferences composed of twelve teams a piece. The conferences could be composed either regionally or (more interestingly) a mix of teams from all four regions of the U.S. If the latter model was selected then one could see a super conference composed of Boston College vying with USC, Alabama, Notre Dame, and Michigan for a shot at the BCS title. The twelve teams in each conference would play a twelve game schedule where each team plays its conference rivals once. The conference team with the best record would earn a shot at the BCS championship. If there was a tie between two teams for a super-conference title then whoever won the head-to-head competition would get the nod for the title. Four super conferences mean four super conference champions. The four super conference champions would play one another on Christmas Day in order to decide which two teams would compete on New Year’s Day for the BCS championship. The losing teams on Christmas would also play on New Year’s Day to decide third and fourth place rankings and/or money.

And what about those teams which have losing records in the four super conferences? Those teams with losing records would be relegated to the next lower division whereby they would serve for a year in the hopes of improving their record and gain promotion back to BCS status meanwhile the top teams in the next lower division would be promoted to BCS status and have the honor of competing for the BCS title the following season.

The advantages to my proposed system are as follows: it would eliminate the built-in biases and vagaries perpetuated by the present BCS system that reward the major colleges while discriminating against the smaller colleges. Those teams competing in my proposed super conference system would be required to face top-notch competition every week whereas in the present college system, a powerhouse like the University of Miami could fatten its record by beating small colleges like Temple or East Carolina by ridiculous scores like 85-0. My system would eliminate such mismatches. Powerhouses like Michigan and USC would be forced to play for high stakes every single weekend. The challenge of winning the BCS title would be greater but would also eliminate the unfairness of the present system. The championship would be determined not by a computer or in corporate board rooms but on the football field where it belongs. My proposed system would also provide smaller colleges that prove themselves on the football field to vie for the BCS title. It would bring new excitement, new competition to college football. It would vastly improve the quality of TV coverage of college football. Every Saturday would be fraught with BCS title ramifications as the four super-conference teams played against one another.

My present system also eliminates a bulky unwieldy college football playoff system. Weeks ago I saw a proposal for an eight team college football playoff system. Mine simplifies the system. It also would go a long way towards restoring the status of the traditional college bowl games. I would eliminate the present BCS title game and have a round robin system whereby the Rose, Orange, Sugar, Cotton, and Fiesta Bowls would take turns hosting the BCS title game on New Year’s Day. The other lesser bowl games could be used by the lower division teams in my proposed system to decide which teams would earn promotion or relegation which would make those games more important to watch.

My proposed system would not interfere with student-athletes taking their exams in early December. Under my proposed system the regular season would be over by Thanksgiving. The BCS competitors could rest and lick their wounds, complete their exams before playing one another on Christmas and New Year’s for the title.

My proposed system is not inconceivable. Actually one university has been playing under my proposed system for decades. Every year Notre Dame University has a schedule where they challenge the best teams from all over the country with mixed results. My system would require all the major football powers to do the same. One interesting by-product of my proposed system would probably make the possibility of a team going totally undefeated much harder but if a super-conference team did go undefeated then it would show the true strength of that university.

The main point of my proposed system is that college football champions need to be decided on the grass, mud, dirt, snow, and freezing rain by student-athletes and not inside some computer bank or in some smoke-filled conference room filled with men-in-suits carrying brief cases.

On any given Saturday….

Monday, December 10, 2007

Oprah: Power Behind the Throne?

I must confess that I’ve never been a starry-eyed worshipper of Oprah Winfrey. Why? I do not know. But for some reason I’ve never been seduced by the image she shows to the public.

Her foray into Presidential politics on behalf of Democratic candidate Barack Obama comes as no surprise to me. It merely confirms what I’ve always suspected about Oprah: that she’s never been content with being the maven of afternoon TV or the ultimate hostess of American culture. Nay, Oprah has always aspired to being a mass media power broker, a 21st century Walter Winchell with the power to make or break celebrities (and now politicians) with a casual word of endorsement.

The footage of Oprah on the hustings fascinates me. Is she really banging the drums for Barack Obama? Or is she really campaigning for herself? In other words does she truly want to help Obama enter the White House or is she more concerned about making herself the ultimate determinant of whom, we, the People, should vote for in every election? Is she really concerned with the future of our country or is this the latest in a series of arrogations of power she has performed on the American consciousness in the past several years? Is she no longer content to become the maven of what books we should (or should not) read? Now it’s politics?

These are legitimate questions voters must ask themselves when they see Oprah strutting her political stuff. Is Oprah truly qualified to decide who is worthy of the White House? (Indeed is any talk show truly qualified or entitled to dictate to the American people whom they should vote for?)

Advocacy is one thing but blatant partisanship alters the equation with regards to her role in American mass culture.

Another question nags at me, does Oprah really want Obama to enter the White House or is she testing the waters for the day when she will campaign for the nomination for the office of President of the United States? Such an idea cannot be discounted. She has all the ingredients for her own future Presidential run. She’s a popular household name accessible to billions of people every week day. She commands a devoted fan base and she is rich enough to finance her own Presidential campaign without breaking a sweat. Does Oprah really only want to be the kingmaker (or in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s case, Queenmaker) of American politics or does she want to be the Queen herself? For those who scoff at the notion just remember in 1980, Ronald Reagan, an elderly former B-movie actor and former Governor of California won the Presidency and went on to achieve apotheosis in American politics. If Reagan could achieve that much what’s to stop Oprah?

But the question remains: is what Oprah’s doing truly a good thing for America, now and in the future?

The jury is out on that question and, personally, I have my doubts. Voters beware.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Evel Knievel: R.I.P.

You know you're getting old when the icons of your youth start dying on you. Take the death of Evel Knievel for instance. For a man who broke every bone in his body and courted death with every stunt jump he performed, the fact that he lived to be sixty-nine and died of natural causes speaks volumes about the man.

Even though by today's standards sixty-nine doesn't seem so long, Knievel packed more living into those sixty-nine years than most centenarians.

If you are forty-something and were a regular watcher of ABC's Wide World of Sports then the endless replays of Knievel's thrills and spills are branded permanently in your brain. If you were a fan of Evel then you probably had a favorite spill. My two were the famous Caesar's Palace jump and another jump where Evel landed almost sideways.

I didn't see the Snake Canyon jump live (one of the greatest anti-climaxes in media history).

But still....

Evel Knievel entertained. How many kids bought the Evel Knievel action doll figure with the motorcycle? (One of my neighbors did and he and I used to play with it all the time).

How many kids rigged wooden ramps and rode their bicycles like daredevils?

I did with a bunch of other neighborhood kids at a wooden ramp rigged up at the local creek. After several successful jumps, my last jump culminated in me skinning my elbows and kneecaps.

No more stunt jumps for me after that.

In the 1990s when there was a 1970s revival, nostalgic documentaries on Knievel's career recaptured the magic of those heady days.

His son Robbie's daredevil career also helped revive the memory of his illustrious father.

Even in his elder years, Evel never lost his sense of dash and elan.

He was an American original--never to be duplicated or surpassed.

Rest in Peace.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Travels with Matt: Meeting a Man of God

Two years ago, I was in El Paso, Texas, spending what was to be my last night in Texas before going home after spending ten days in the Lone Star State visiting Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park (and climbing Guadalupe Peak--the highest mountain in Texas). It had been a long but very worthwhile vacation. Now, in El Paso, I was contemplating the journey's end and struggling with feelings of emptiness and depression which had always accompanied the end of my vacations.

I was struggling with a lot of personal demons. I had had one romantic relationship end months before and I was dealing with the emotional turmoil generated by my family. (I realize now that the reason why I was experiencing post vacation depression was the fact that I had to return to the hatred and contempt directed at me by my parents and brothers. There was no escaping it. Ever since I've divorced my parents and brothers, I haven't had these depressive spells--which should suggest something there).

I wanted to attend Mass before I left for home the next day so I made my way to the Catholic Church nearest my hotel--St. Pius X located at 1050 North Clark St.

I went early because I also wanted to do confession (which I don't do at home. I only do confession when I'm on the road. I open up better that way).

I remember speaking to one of the priests at the parish. I told him my feelings of anger and resentment about my brothers and my in-laws. I remember the priest was very kind and understanding. I knew my anger was wrong but at the same time I couldn't tolerate the hatred that was directed at me by my brothers and in-laws.

I received absolution and said the prayers the priest directed me to say. Soon afterwards it was time for Mass to begin and the rest of the night would never be the same.

Little did I know that I would soon encounter an extraordinary man--Monsignor Arturo Banuelas who ran this parish. The Mass he celebrated that evening will live forever in my memory. It was the vigil of Christ the King and Advent was right around the corner. The church was packed with people and the church itself was quite vast in size. There was a festive joy in the congregation and that joy was fueled by the passion of the lectors, the members of the choir, and by Monsignor Arturo himself. Little did I know that St. Pius X was listed by the Vatican as being one of the finest parishes in America in terms of serving it parishioners and helping the poor and disadvantaged in the community.

When Monsignor Arturo spoke I knew then I was in the presence of a man of God. He spoke with fire, passion, duty, devotion, committment, and most supreme of all: love; lots of love; enormous amounts of love. It was cold outside the church but everyone inside was warmed by the expressions of love pouring forth from Monsignor Arturo.

He reminded us of our Christian duty not only to love one another but to help the poor. He spoke about building hope, promoting literacy, feeding and clothing the poor, and cried out for peace and an end to war. It was liberation theology and it lit a fire in me.

Before I had felt cold and sorry for myself but listening to Monsignor Arturo woke me up. He lit a fire inside of me. I felt healed, purged, and renewed. When it was over, I shook Monsignor Arturo' hand vigorously and praised his homily. I had a lovely dinner and relaxed in my hotel but couldn't sleep because Monsignor Arturo's sermon was echoing inside of my head. I remember waking up at 3:00AM to write a song based on what he had preached that night.

I went home later that morning and the first thing I did was to donate all the excess clothing in my wardrobe to charity and then I mailed a $100 donation (along with a letter of thanks to Monsignore Banuelas) to St. Pius X in order to help that parish continue the good work it does for the people of El Paso, Texas.

This coming Christmas will mark my third annual donation to the Colonia and Parral missions of St. Pius X. These two missions are devoted to ending illiteracy among children and helping the poor in the city of El Paso.

If anyone reading this wants to help further, you can contact the parish at the following address:

St. Pius X
1050 North Clark
El Paso, TX, 79905

You can make a difference like Monsignor Arturo Banuelas does.

Amen and thank you.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Dog Chapman: Does the Punishment fit the Crime?

"Where Mercy is Shown, Mercy is Given."--Duane "Dog" Chapman

A & E suspended my favorite TV show Dog the Bounty Hunter because of an audiotape of a private conversation where Duane "Dog" Chapman uses the n-word in describing the lady friend of one his sons.

My question is this: does the punishment fit the crime?

I'm no respecter of the n-word. It's a bloody foul, disgusting word to begin with and its good that there is opprobrium whenever someone uses it in public.

The question is though the tape of Duane "Dog" Chapman wasn't a public speech or broadcast but a clandestine tape of a private conversation,

Does the punishment fit the crime?

The suspension of Dog the Bounty Hunter leaves a vacancy for me in my TV watching. Before, nothing on TV interested me (except for The Sopranos). Somehow Dog the Bounty Hunter made for fascinating TV viewing. Here was a modern bounty hunter (backed by an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court ruling) going after fugitives who jumped bail. Most of the time Duane "Dog" Chapman operated out of Hawaii but he and his family work in the continental U.S. as well (mostly in Colorado).

During the past three years we have seen the Chapman family operation (Not only does Duane and his wife Beth work as bounty hunters but also Duane's sons: Leland, Duane Lee, and his daughter Lisa). During those three years the Chapman family has made the reality show Dog the Bounty Hunter one of A & E's flagship series.

One of the show's many fascinating aspects is how it shows the reality of a life of crime. You see the faces of real drug addicts, wife-beaters, petty thieves, hustlers, prostitutes, and drug dealers. You see the effects of crime on the families of the perpetrators who risked their money and property in putting up bail for their loved ones who got arrested. Like Dog the Bounty Hunter says, "there is no pot of gold when you live a life of crime. Just an 8 X 10 foot cage." He ought to know because he himself had done a stint in prison, emerged reformed, and dedicated himself to bounty hunting like the old Western adage: it takes a crook to catch a crook.

There are no nice edges in Duane "Dog" Chapman. He uses mule skinner language often, smokes like a chimney (and has a bad smoker's hack to show for it), and has been forced to endure his share of heartbreaks and tragedies (at least of two of his twelve children have gone to jail and another was killed in a car crash the day he married his wife Beth).

And now his show is suspended because he used the n-word in a private conversation.

Does the punishment fit the crime?

It's deeply ironic (to me at least) that the person who sold the audiotape of Dog Chapman's rant was his son Tucker. My favorite Dog the Bounty Hunter episode of all time is the one titled Dog Meets the Godfather. It involves Chapman having to pick up one of Hawaii's leading criminals: a a Samoan gangster named Lilo. For once Chapman is reluctant to haul in the the gangster because something the gangster did for him in the past. Chapman's son Tucker had become an ice addict (ice is a form of amphetamine that is instantly addictive when ingested) and was arrested and convicted for committing armed robbery. Chapman wanted vengeance on the drug dealer who sold the ice to his son and went looking for him. Before he could find the dope dealer, Chapman ran into Lilo. Lilo, although a hardened criminal himself, counseled Chapman not to seek vengeance on the dealer (and possibly risk going to jail himself). Chapman, telling the story, said that Lilo told him, "let God handle it." And Chapman did. (The drug dealer was later arrested and jailed for thirty years for dope dealing).

Chapman later did arrest Lilo but he did it tactfully and was retain Lilo's friendship.

If such a plot line was used on the usual police shows you see on TV a lot of people would scoff at it (I know I would) but in the case of Dog the Bounty Hunter it's completely true.

What's even more ironic is that his son Tucker was released from prison a year ago and the reason why he was released was because of his father's TV show was such a smash hit. His father's celebrity certainly had to have been a factor in him getting an early parole.

(In another episode, on Tucker's first birthday after his release from jail, Dog took Tucker back to his prison cell to have a heart-to-heart talk with him about not returning to a life of crime. It was a powerful heartfelt moment and a humbling reminder of what crime can do to a person. Both father and son have first-hand knowledge of what crime can do).

And now the show has been suspended because his son Tucker sold the audio tape to the news media.

Does the punishment fit the crime?

As Dog Chapman always like to say 'where mercy is shown, mercy is given."

I'd like to see some mercy shown to the Dog.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

California: The Hellfire This Time

“The world is getting old and I will have to make it new again.”
--what the Great Spirit said to the Paiute medicine man Wovoka during his Ghost Dance vision on New Years Day 1889.

The most disturbing aspect of the California wildfires is not so much the awful devastation and material loss caused by the fires but the fact that these fires have become an all too common occurrence in the Golden State as well as other western states in the continental U.S.

The decrease in rainfall caused by global warming; the over-development of the West as a whole has depleted the natural resources of the West far past the tipping point in terms of spawning environmental and meteorological disasters. Each year wildfires keep getting more and destructive and the lack of water in the region threatens the ecological existence of the entire region.

It’s sad to see people complaining about the lack of fuel for their cars when they should be more worried about water to drink and water to replenish the parched earth. Humanity lived for millennia without using gasoline and we can live for millennia still if we have the moral courage to resort to alternative energy sources which will not compound the global warming trend. Alternative energy sources are out there but corporate greed roadblocks all attempts to provide the general public with those alternatives.

Meanwhile the world’s supply of drinking water grows more and more scarce. As I said before humanity can live without gasoline but it cannot live without water. Water is life and when there is no water then life ends. The droughts in the West have destroyed forests, vegetation, and rivers. When fires erupt either through natural or human means then the devastation is made even worse. If anything it should be the mission of state and the Federal government to practice new policies which protect existing aquifers in America and seeks to find new sources of drinking water for the American people—and the world.

We sowed the seeds of this catastrophe and now we are reaping the whirlwind—the hellfire this time.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Joe Torre: The End of an Era

The departure (or should I say the ouster?) of Joe Torre as manager of the New York Yankees has a sad aura of inevitability to it. No Yankee manager has ever been allowed to exit gracefully while George Steinbrenner owns the team. The fact that Joe Torre led the Yankees to twelve post-season appearances, six American League pennants, and four World Series titles (with the four titles coming in an amazing five year span) in twelve seasons meant nothing to Steinbrenner. Actually Steinbrenner, obviously, had been burning to fire Torre long before and was simply waiting for the right time to wield the axe he had wielded against so many other managers he had hired to manage the team. Torre’s ouster was nothing more than a long awaited reassertion of George Steinbrenner’s megalomania.

And so once again Steinbrenner has taken (as he had in 1982) the first step in dismantling a proud baseball dynasty. How the Yankees will fare without Torre makes for fascinating speculation. I would even be so bold as to predict that the Yankees will not reach the post-season next year.

Where Joe Torre will go will also make for fascinating speculation. Will he go to St. Louis (especially if Tony LaRussa leaves as has been rumored)? One thing is for certain Joe Torre has earned himself a place in the baseball hall-of-fame with his twelve year reign as Yankee manager. Baseball historians should note that what Joe Torre did between 1996 and 2003 is one of the most remarkable managerial feats in baseball history. Torre assumed the managerial reins of a team owned by the most destructive, capricious owner in the history of the game (Charlie O. Finley was a piker compared to Steinbrenner) and in an eight year period won six pennants and four World Series titles including an amazing three consecutive years of World Series championships and in the process won fourteen consecutive World Series games. Torre did this while managing in the free agency era and coping with a three-tiered playoff system that Casey Stengel, Joe McCarthy, and John McGraw (three other great New York managers) never had to deal with.

If the advent of free agency did anything to alter Major League Baseball it leveled the playing field and ended the era of dynastic franchises—that is until Joe Torre took over as Yankee manager in 1996. The fact that Torre was able to keep his core group of players together for so long during that eight year span is nothing short of amazing and it speaks volumes about Torre’s managerial genius. The fact that, for twelve years, Torre held George Steinbrenner at bay is even more fantastic. The only other manager who stayed that long under Steinbrenner was the late Billy Martin and not even Martin could keep Steinbrenner from grossly interfering with the running of the team.

Simply put Joe Torre was the best baseball manager from the mid-1990’s to the present time. Yes, Bobby Cox has won more games and has lasted longer than Torre but he has only won one World Series title (twice losing to Torre in 1996 and 1999). Not even Tony LaRussa achieved the same success as Torre did (and if LaRussa does accept the Yankee job I don’t think he will be able to achieve the same results as Torre did).

If I have to choose my favorite Joe Torre moment it has to be when the Yankees won the 2001 A.L.C.S. against Seattle following the catastrophe that was 9/11. The Yankees won the pennant at home and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was in the stands. When the game was over Giuliani was invited on the field to help celebrate the pennant victory with the team. When Giuliani congratulated Joe Torre it was a truly emotional and tender moment in the history of New York City athletics. It was a signal moment for both men, both of whom as New Yorkers were affected by the tragedy of that horrible day six years ago. What was sadder still was when the Yankees didn’t win the 2001 Series even though they came within an ace of winning. (They came close in 2003 too though a lot of people don’t realize that).

Thanks, Joe Torre. You brought the pride back to Yankee fans everywhere. God be with you.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Trip Report on the Bagging of my 21st State High Point

OCTOBER 6, 2007

The bagging of my 21st high point was a curious exercise for me in certain ways. I had planned on climbing Mount Marcy during the Columbus Day weekend for quite some time. My original intent had been to fly into Burlington, Vermont, take the Lake Champlain Ferry to New York State and then drive to Lake Placid but airline fares had risen sharply last month and I, instead, chose to drive to Lake Placid from my home in Southern New Jersey, a six hour drive. I got into Lake Placid on Friday and now began the great internal debate as to when I should climb Mount Marcy. Again, my original intent had been to drive up to Lake Placid on Friday, rest up on Saturday and do the climb on Sunday. Sounds simple, right?


In the days preceding my trip the weather predictions I was getting for the weekend were conflicting. The day I drove north it seemed that Sunday would be bad and I would have to make the climb on Saturday. When I got to Lake Placid, I checked the Weather Channel and, interestingly, the report said that Saturday morning’s weather would be good with a thirty percent chance of showers coming in the late afternoon/early evening and that Sunday would have sun dotted with clouds with rain following on Monday. So what did I decide? I opted to climb Mount Marcy on Saturday despite the risk of rain in the afternoon. Why did I do this? Looking back it now all I can think is that I was skeptical as to the accuracy of Sunday’s forecast of sun and clouds; especially considering that Monday’s forecast about rain and fog. My thinking was that if I held off on Saturday and tried for Sunday only to find that the weather was bad then my whole trip would have been wasted whereas if I took the calculated risk of climbing Saturday (and reaching the summit) and be off the mountain (or way down the mountain) before the small chance of showers began then I wouldn’t have to worry about Sunday. Also if the weather proved bad before I even started up the mountain on Saturday then I could use Sunday as a fallback.

This was new to me. I had never taken such a calculated risk before when climbing a highpoint. Looking back the fact that I was climbing solo influenced my decision. If I had been climbing with someone special or with children I would never haven taken such a risk. Also if I had been climbing a mountain higher than 10,000 feet I wouldn’t have taken the risk as well.

I spent Friday evening doing my preparations (buying water and candy bars) to go into my backpack for the hike. I didn’t sleep well that night despite the fact that my hotel room was quite comfortable. I was awake before the anticipated 6:00AM wake up call. I didn’t waste time. I breakfasted at the Howard Johnson’s on Saranac Avenue. (Interestingly I didn’t have much of an appetite. I didn’t finish my eggs, bacon, sausage, and pancakes. The food was good but I was too anxious to eat it properly. I didn’t have the same problem in the days that followed). I was back at the hotel to suit up and get my equipment into the car.

Dawn had just broken but there were pockets of darkness and low fog in the surrounding mountains. The roads were wet with dew. I left the hotel a little after 7:00AM. Traffic was non-existent. I was listening to Casey Kasem on 92.9 FM playing Jimmy Buffet and Neil Sedaka songs. The drive to Adirondack Loj went swiftly and uneventfully. I was hoping to find a parking spot inside the Loj parking lot and, thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed. Although there were a lot of vehicles in the lot there were still spaces for me to park. (It was a good thing I came when I did because I later found out from a Park Ranger that an hour later the whole parking lot was full). It was about 7:20AM when I parked the car, trotted back to the ticket booth to get an envelope to pay the parking fee (the booth isn’t manned until 8:00AM. You have to use the honor system to pay for your parking tag). I deposited $9.00 in an envelope, placed the orange tag on the rear-view mirror and began to put on my brand new hiking L.L. Bean hiking boots. (Anyone who read my last trip report will remember that I split the sole of one of my hiking boots while descending Mount Elbert in Colorado).

I was still feeling anxious while completing my preparations. Knowing how long the hike was going to be and the risks of poor weather in the afternoon, I was eager to get going as quickly as possible. This, unfortunately, would cause me to make a tiny little error which would not become evident until much later in the hike.

It was 7:45AM when I signed in at the register at the trailhead. Despite the fact that I was taking a calculated risk in climbing Mount Marcy in potentially spotty weather I would not be alone in taking that risk. I would be one of many hikers engaging in the same gamble. It had been a very long time since I had done a high point accompanied by so many people. The vast majority of hikers were Canadian (almost all were Quebecers).

The first two miles to Marcy Dam provided a splendid warm-up for the workout to come. The trail undulated through spruce and other trees painted boldly in bright yellow and red leaves. Although there were leaves carpeting the trail the dense stands of trees still retained their leafy canopy which kept me in a dark shadow even though the early morning sun was peeking through the clouds. It was 8:35AM when I reached the Marcy Dam. The trail (as expected) was well marked and signed. The Marcy Dam is a natural way-station on the journey. Whether you are going up or down, you find yourself stopping at the Dam to rest, quench your thirst or eat or just to chat with the hikers who seem to come from all over North America. I was using my usual policy of hiking for fifty minutes while taking ten-minute breaks. I had packed six liters of water along with six Nestle crunch bars.

When I finished my break, there was a funny moment. A Canadian foursome and I had trouble finding the trail once you crossed the dam. We went straight ahead and blundered into a row of tents. We retreated and found the correct path which turns sharply right after you crossed the dam; hugs the bank of the lake and then makes a sharp left turn. Once we were properly oriented then began the true test that is Mount Marcy. After the Marcy Dam, the trail to the summit of Mount Marcy is lined with boulders which vary greatly in size. Also the trail becomes steep as you ascend. I expected this of course but it is still a stiff realization that you are in for a major workout.

As I went up the trail, I encountered various groups of people. There was David and Lisa, two young lovers from Brooklyn who both worked in the legal profession. There was the Canadian foursome I told you about at Marcy Dam. There were three forty-something ladies who displayed splendid hiking form while climbing the mountain. They navigated the boulders with such speed and skill that they left me in the dust. They were so fast that they took a side trip to Indian Falls before reaching the summit of Marcy. (I later complimented them on their good form). There was also a family of four (mother, father, older son and younger daughter who was obviously on her first major hike since she asked her father repeatedly whether they were close to the top).

My second rest break was at 9:35AM and it was between the Phelps Mountain turnoff and the right turn you make to go to Mount Marcy after you’ve crossed the wooden bridge over Phelps Brook. My third rest break was at 10:35AM and that took place on a large boulder alongside the trail about 20-25 minutes down from the spot where you leave the tree-line to make the final approach to Mount Marcy.

After the third rest break I was really hoping that I was near the final approach to the summit. But when the family of four reached me again, I was disabused of that notion. The father had climbed Marcy before and told me that there was still a lot more trail to come. I was a tad disappointed but realized that he was correct.

Rest break completed I resumed the ascent. The trail got steeper and the boulders became bigger. As I climbed I realized that descending would be a lot tougher than climbing. Still, I soldiered on. All the while the weather had been quite decent. From time to time you could see rays of sunlight filtering through the forest. You feel layers of warm air periodically and then the sun would hide behind the clouds and the air would cool again. I had worn my L.L. Bean jacket earlier in the hike but now had stowed it into my backpack. I was wearing the psychedelic t-shirt I had worn ten years earlier when I had bagged Mount Greylock in Massachusetts.

I was soaked in sweat but otherwise feeling quite good. I kept myself hydrated by having a water bottle in my hand all the time. It took nearly half-an hour to leave the timberline. When I left the cover of the trees and saw the winding, boulder-laden approach to the Marcy Summit, I started making whimpering noises. It was going to be a stiff workout to the very end. Even though I was due for a rest break, I had summit fever. Like I did last year in Colorado I eschewed the rest break and started striding up the boulders. To the eyes it seemed interminable but in retrospect it didn’t take long at all. Exhaustion was playing tricks with my perceptions. After you gone around two bends you find yourself on the final ridge leading to the summit. You see the cairns and the other summiteers ahead of you and you propel yourself forward. I placed one foot in front of the other and at 11:45AM I stood on the rooftop of the State of New York.

Ecstasy gave way to contemplation. I knelt and did the now familiar summit rituals for those of you who have been following my high-pointing career: my trinity of prayers, a photograph of me standing on the summit and pictures of the surrounding country-side. It was then that I discovered the little mistake I mentioned earlier in this report.

I forgot to bring extra film for my camera! I have been high-pointing for ten years now and this was the first time I ever forgot to bring extra film for the camera. (I had taken lots of shots while ascending the trail, figuring I would reload on the summit, not realizing that I had left the extra film in the car whilst in my haste to get going on the trail). I stood there sheepishly, alternately laughing at myself and shaking my head in disgust. Instead of a photographic record of the summit, all I could do was memorize what I saw.

The summit was windy and I quickly removed my medicine hat and put on my trail jacket and balaclava. I got off the summit proper and found a spot underneath the plaque commemorating the first ascent of Marcy in 1837 and which made for a nice barrier against the wind gusts. I finished off a water bottle, munched on a candy bar and rested my legs. There was a park ranger on the summit who kept an eye on everyone and reminded people not to walk on the tundra grass that dotted the summit region. The summit was rapidly filling with gobs of people. Individuals were setting up stoves, taking pictures, making cell-phone calls to loved ones or just chilling out like me. I spent an hour on the summit and around the thirty-minute mark I walked around and admired the view. I remember being most taken by Mount Haystack and its exposed rock formations along its flanks. I remember watching the sunlight glistening off Colden Lake. It didn’t seem real to me at the time. I was still in the adrenaline rush of reaching the summit and also I was disgusted by my failure to bring extra film. When I highpoint, I love taking tons of pictures from the summit to show to people what it looks like being thousands of feet above sea-level. Now I wouldn’t have much proof of my accomplishment.

One summit ritual I couldn’t do was the photo of me holding the U.S. and New York State flags but then I saw two young ladies with a camera-phone and I took a chance and asked them if they could take a picture of me with the flags and then email it to my email address. One of them, a young lady named Jennifer from Buffalo, New York agreed to do so. I got out my flags and posed and she “took” the picture…or so I assumed. I gave her my email address and was led to believe that she had sent it (but so far I haven’t received it yet. Either she was faking or else something got lost and garbled in the process). Anyway, I thanked her profusely and felt better about the situation. Soon it was going to be 12:45PM and I would have to descend if I wanted to beat the potential rains in time. I knew it would be a long trip. I estimated that it would be 5:00PM when I would reach the Loj parking lot and sunset was going to be at 6:26PM that day.

When it was 12:45PM I began the long decent back. I kept my hands free during the first hour because I wanted to use all my limbs while descending those large boulders (some of which were already wet from previous rains). I proceeded slowly and there were times when I had to stop to let much faster hiker go past me. I was struck by how casually some hikers would go down those wet boulders. They went down like kids jumping down stairwells two or three steps at a time. I was convinced that if I had tried it like they did I would have slipped, fallen, broken my hip or tailbone or cracked my skull on those rocks. I chose to be cautious and was fortunate enough to live to tell this tale.

The rains started at 2:00PM, much earlier than I had anticipated. This was a first for me. I had never undertaken a major hike in rainy conditions before; at least not a descent. What struck me was how calmly I dealt with the situation. I realized that standing still would be unacceptable. I needed to keep going lest I complete the descent in darkness like I did last year in Colorado. Looking back on it now I see my composure during the storm as being a sign of maturity. If I had this hike ten years ago then I would have been more upset about being in the rain. (I remember vividly how miserable I was when I tried to access the Rhode Island high point by hiking in the woods during a downpour—my trip report for that high point makes for amusing reading if you’re ever curious about it?). But I felt that I had grown in handling the situation.

Not only was there rain I also heard thunderheads. That quickened my pace. Still, I did not panic. It would have done me little good. Soon I was under the cover of the trees. At the higher elevations where the timberline was thin, I was soaked by the rain. At the lower elevations where the canopy was thicker I had more protection from the showers. The trail quickly became a quagmire and my brand new boots received a thorough soaking of water and coating of mud.

I became a foot soldier squishing through the mud and rocks that lined the trail. I was grateful for those portions of the trail that were corduroyed with tree limbs or planks. I made swifter progress in those areas. As time passed I mentally ticked off the benchmarks on the trail: the turn-off to Marcy, the wooden bridge across the Phelps Brook, the Phelps turn-off. I had two rest breaks at 1:45PM and 2:45PM. I was soaked through and through but didn’t care. Luckily the rains were warm. If they hadn’t been I would have put on my trail jacket.

Time seemed to stand still during the descent. I told myself that if I reached the Marcy Dam at 4:00PM then I would be on schedule. Amazingly I did reach the Marcy Dam at 4:00PM. Even more amazingly between 3:15PM and 4:00PM the rains had stopped the sun was peaking out and I was sort of drying out a bit. I was hoping that the rest of the hike would be done under dry conditions. I rested a good ten minutes at Marcy Dam. But when I began the final stretch to the Adirondack Loj, the skies opened up and it really began to rain. This time the showers were coming down in torrents and I quickly became soaked to the bone again. Those last two miles took forever and I had to stop at one point to make a call to nature. What was funny was that as I (and the rest of the horde) was descending there were some hardy souls (or maybe fools) who were going up the trail!

The skies became really dark and underneath the dense canopy of trees it felt like evening and for a time I debated whether I should use my Petzl headlamp. I didn’t but still….

It was 5:05PM when I saw the Loj parking lot. I was punch-drunk with fatigue but grateful that the hike was over. I went into the Loj. Used the rest room and changed my shoes. As usual I had three toenails that I knew I was going to lose because of the hike but I also developed a blister on the back of my right foot. I had never developed a blister before. I knew I would have to treat it when I got back to the hotel—which I did. The rain had affected my watch so I wasn’t sure when I left the Loj.
It was probably around 5:40PM. I got back to the hotel a little after 6:00PM after stopping off at a Rite-Aid to get bandages and bacitricin to sterilize the blister.

And now to say thank you:

First and foremost to: God in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen; to my cousin Ruth Anne for praying for me on the journey; to the Comfort Inn in Lake Placid. I recommend it heartily to anyone who wants to stay in Lake Placid. It’s perfectly situated to all the key areas of the town. You can’t choose a better place than the Comfort Inn; to the Charcoal Pit restaurant on Saranac Avenue for the lovely meal they served me. Great place to eat! To St. Agnes church in Lake Placid and Father Joseph who celebrated a lovely mass the day after; to David and Lisa for being such great companions on the hike up and for attending Mass with me the day after. Happy trails! Lastly to the fourteen year old kid named Nick who (along with his pal and older friend) works at the Mobil Station on Route 86 in downtown Lake Placid for fixing my flat tire the day after my hike. That kid showed a lot of moxie, character, and good old-fashioned elbow-grease in fixing that tire. Cost me only $11.00. If you’re staying in Lake Placid and have tire troubles go to the Mobil Station! Oh yes, a major thumbs down to Stephano’s restaurant on Saranac Avenue in Lake Placid. Talk about lousy service at black market prices? Stephano’s does it the worst! Don’t eat there. Now that I’m halfway to my goal of forty-two highpoints, I will now set my sights on Nevada which I hope to bag in September 2008. Until then, see you at the high points!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Song: Heloise


Heloise sinks gently to her knees
Hands folded carefully, prayerfully
Eyes reflecting life’s disguise

Heloise fills with the breeze
In her ears
Her veil unfurls boldly

We make love in the mind’s eye
Nothing asked; no reasons why
We will never pretend or deny
We leave with tears of our own devise

Heloise lost amongst the trees
Leaves crumbling colorfully, artfully
Eyes projecting love’s surprise

Heloise falls gently asleep
In her keep
Her breasts rising calmly

We make love in the mind’s eye
Nothing asked, no reasons why
We will never pretend or deny
We leave with tears of our own devise

Heloise rides her steeds
Legs wrapped womanly, saintly
Eyes protesting my demise

Heloise feels so lonely
In her pleas
There is an unmet need

We make love in the mind’s eye
Nothing asked, no reasons why
We will never pretend or deny
We leave with tears of our own devise

© 09/18/2007 by Matthew DiBiase

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The War in Iraq: The Politics of Delay

The political machinations emanating from General David Petraeus’ progress report on the U.S. troop surge are blatantly obvious if you read between the lines of his testimony. Despite the promises that certain U.S. military units will be sent home in March and July of next year the real thrust of Petraeus’ testimony was his urgent statement that a substantive U.S. military presence be maintained in Iraq indefinitely.

For all the bluster of the “success” of the troop surge the real intent of the surge has been to delay and hamstring those opposing the war in Iraq. For quite some time now the Bush Administration has been fighting a delaying action against its political opponents; trying to buy enough time in order to perpetuate a substantive U.S. military involvement in Iraq and its domestic war on civil liberties in America.

Indeed for all the Bush Administration’s talk that certain U.S. military units will return home in March and July of 2008 there is a pungent smell of politics in the timing of those troop withdrawals. Unless I’m mistaken March is the time for Super Tuesday (the Southern Regional Primary) and don’t forget that George W. Bush’s victory in Super Tuesday in 2000 helped him win the G.O.P. Presidential nomination. What of the troop withdrawal in July? Just in time for the Republican convention.

But is the Bush Administration doing this to benefit those already declared Republican presidential candidates? I don’t think so. Instead I feel these moves are building the ground for an impending Presidential run of President Bush’s brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. During the past several weeks the Bush Administration has been clearing its political impedimenta: the departures of Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales are prime examples of this. (In the case of Rove, I don’t believe his resignation was sincere at all. I feel that the President is simply granting Rove a two month rest period before he returns for a potential Jeb Bush presidential campaign).

If my instincts are correct I feel that Jeb Bush will declare his candidacy sometime between Columbus Day and Veterans Day this year. I also feel that President George W. Bush wants to maintain a heavy U.S. troop presence because he wants everything to be in place for what will probably be the real policy of a Jeb Bush Administration: a drastic escalation in the fighting in Iraq with the great potential that it will spill over into neighboring Iran.

During the past several months the Bush Administration has been busy coupling Iran to the insurgency in Iraq with the implied threat of a U.S. strike against Iran. It is my belief that the Bush Administration and a succeeding Jeb Bush Administration wants to up the ante in response to its failing policies in Iraq by escalating the fighting in the hopes of salvaging the Bush Family’s political and historical standing.

Just as George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 to make up for his father’s failure to oust Saddam Hussein in 1991 there exists the enormous potential of Jeb Bush escalating the war in Iraq to carry over into Iran solely to salve the wounded pride of his brother George. Such a possibility cannot be discounted. Despite the Bush Administration’s propaganda to the contrary the perpetuation of the Iraq war has been mostly based on image-considerations rather than security considerations.

The surge taking place right now will simply be one of many surges which will make for great political theater but to those brave troops doing the actual fighting will result only in more innocent blood being shed for worthless, ephemeral, selfish objectives.

The worst is yet to come.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Troop Surge: A Question of Limitations

Regardless of what General Petraeus or the Bush Administration says in its progress report on the results of the American troop surge in the Green Zone in Iraq the central question which needs to be addressed is what will happen when the troop surge comes to an end—which it must do—sooner or later.

Despite the political rhetoric among war-hawks that the surge needs to be maintained in order to continue the “progress” practical military necessity demands that the surge will have to stop so as to allow the forces engaged to rest, re-arm, re-equip, receive new personnel, and adopt new tactics for future battles. It’s an inescapable aspect of warfare. A cursory examination of military history shows this to be true.

When the inevitable lull does take place will violence flare anew thus canceling whatever “progress” had been made before? If so, what will we do then? Mount another surge? And another?

War, by its very nature, imposes an unnatural and harmful strain on those who engage in it and the material the combatants use to wage war. Even victorious armies can be undermined by the successes they achieve on the battlefield. Here are two examples: In 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Germans in the early months of the invasion achieved astonishing success in seizing vast amounts of territory in Russia against negligible or ineffective resistance but much to their astonishment the German columns were suffering rapid depletion of men and material. The German Army Group South was down to 60% effectiveness in men and material even though their sector had the lightest resistance of all. German leaders were confused by this and finally one of their commanders, who flew over the battlefields, came to this inspired conclusion. He realized that attacking armies were only effective for a certain distance and depth. The Germans armies invading Russia had nowhere near the amount of men and material needed to achieve truly effective control of the endless Russian Steppes. The enormity of their task in subjugating such a huge area of land was the root of the physical and mechanical breakdowns being felt by the German armies.

The same thing happened in 1944 when the Anglo-American-Franco armies were liberating Western Europe from Nazi occupation. Despite fantastic successes on the battlefield, the Allied forces experienced significant slowdowns in autumn and early winter because supplies and new personnel weren’t getting to the front fast enough to sustain the offensives by the armies engaged. There are innumerable books on the subject. The late Stephen Ambrose dealt with the issue in-depth in his best-selling book Citizen Soldiers. Indeed, Ambrose wrote that by December 1944 even though the Allied forces were on the German border ready to invade the Allied combat divisions were only at 50% effectiveness in terms of manpower and that the Allied forces had no reserves at all save for the three Airborne divisions. (This explains why General Eisenhower sent the 82nd Airborne division to St. Vith and the 101st Airborne Division to Bastogne to foil the German counter-offensive during the Battle of the Bulge. They were the only reserves he had available to meet the threat). What’s more significant about this is that the Allies were liberating friendly countries.

The American forces in Iraq do not possess that advantage. They are fighting in hostile territory amidst a populace that does not welcome its presence. There is no conscription to ensure a steady stream of fresh personnel and American industry is not being geared to supply new material to the forces in the field as it was in World War Two. The fact that the troop surge was confined to only one sector of Iraq merely confirms that America lacks the logistical strength to achieve overall success in Iraq and, probably, never had enough personnel to achieve a truly decisive victory in the first place.

When the sad history of the Second Iraq war is written there will probably be considerable documented evidence that mid-level Pentagon officials warned the Bush Administration that ousting Saddam Hussein was a shoestring gamble (since American forces were decisively engaged in Afghanistan at the time) and that the invasion would only work if there was no significant resistance. As it turned out the gamble failed. What’s more insulting to our armed forces is that the President has been trying to shift the blame to his commanders, saying, in essence, that he was only following the recommendations of his military advisers when he invaded Iraq—which I don’t buy for a moment. Time will show that it probably was the other way around: that the Bush Administration overrode the Pentagon’s caveats and blundered into Iraq in a desperate quest for vainglory. (I don't see how any sane military commander could ever have recommended such a strategic monstrosity).

And meanwhile more and more innocent, brave Americans die every day.

And this is progress?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Iraq War: the fear of Victory

I would like to propose a daring thesis: the Bush Administration does not want a truly decisive and comprehensive victory in the war in Iraq. I base this thesis in view of the facts that, despite the localized successes of the U.S. troop surge in the Baghdad area, there have been no attempts by the Bush Administration to alleviate the enormous strains placed on U.S. forces committed to Iraq brought on by the desperate need for more U.S. forces to serve in Iraq if the Bush Administrations goals of creating a democratic regime and crushing the insurgency are to succeed.

Even though the troop surge has achieved certain tactical successes, the American military has been stretched to the breaking point and is fast approaching a crisis point which could potentially break our forces ability to fight effectively in Iraq. The question is why hasn’t the Bush Administration (in light of its fantastic statements that any pullback in Iraq would bring on more 9/11’s and that Iraq is the front line in the War on Terror) hasn’t insisted on restoring conscription which would automatically alleviate the manpower shortages in the military and greatly reduce the ungodly strains (and that is the proper word for it folks) placed on U.S. Army reserve units which have been forced to endure multiple deployments to Iraq and crippling physical and emotional losses?

If the Bush Administration really is telling the truth about the potential dangers that a withdrawal would bring then why hasn’t it petitioned the Congress and the American people on the necessity of re-instituting the draft in order to insure that there are enough troops in Iraq to crush Al-Qaeda and the insurgency while standing ready to combat terrorism in other parts of the world?

If the crisis facing our country is so potentially horrific then the Bush Administration’s refusal to provide the military with the necessary manpower to meet its impossible objectives is tantamount to a dereliction of duty by the Commander-in-Chief. If a defeat in Iraq truly means mortal danger for America then the Bush Administration must do what was done during the Civil War, World Wars One and Two: restore the draft. If the Bush Administration truly wants victory then it must be prepared to take the political risks involved in achieving that victory. Restoring the draft would be an honest step in achieving that victory. The fact that the Bush Administration has failed to do so can only mean that there is no substance to its repeated cries of “wolf” during the past four years of bloody war in Iraq. It can only mean that the perpetuation of our military involvement is based on more darker, cynical, and ignoble motives rather than defense of our country and defense of freedom. It can only mean that our armed forces, if pushed to the breaking point by our present strategy, will be defeated not by the insurgency but by the political cowardice of its Commander-in-Chief.

Personally, I hope the draft is never restored. I have two nephews: one who is draft age right now and another who will be in six years. I do not want them or any young person to be conscripted to fight in a needless, senseless war fought in the wrong place, against the wrong enemy, and for the worst reasons known to humanity.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Elton John: Sixty Years On

I should have written this blog entry five months ago but, as John Lennon once wrote, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

Elton John was my first pop idol. The Beatles had broken up long before I became aware of rock and roll and so it was Elton John who became my beau ideal. The music business has changed enormously (and in many ways not for the better) in the past forty years but Elton in his heyday (1970 to 1977) achieved a stardom that will never be equaled. He (along with his fellow songwriting partner Bernie Taupin) has given the world a collection of music that is ageless, relevant, entertaining, emotive, and inspirational. In the movie of history, Elton John wrote the soundtrack for the 1970s.

I ask myself what it was about Elton that turned me into a devoted fan. Obviously it was the music but what was it about the music? Looking back at it all it was several small but vital factors which, when put together, combined to tip the scales of the human heart in adoration of his work.

First of all, he was (and remains) a magnificent keyboard player. Before Elton John, rock and roll’s best keyboardists were Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Elton brought the piano back to prominence in rock and roll. The melodies he unleashed upon the world were unprecedented and have never been surpassed since. If you listen to Burn down the Mission, Funeral for a Friend/Loves Lies Bleeding, and Don’t Let the Sun Go Down you are listening to a grandmaster piano player playing with vim, vigor, and a natural sense for going for the jugular vein of the soul.

Next was his voice. Elton’s vocal abilities have always been astounding. No other artist could offer so many personas with his singing voice. Elton’s vocal talents run the gamut of emotions: melancholy, wistful, humorous, bitter, intense, insanely humorous, and incurably romantic. He could sing gospel, country and western, rock and roll, pop, and classical music. He could sing like a southern redneck or like the English gentleman he is today.

And then there was the way he interpreted Bernie Taupin’s inimical lyrics. It’s ironic that Elton had the courage to allow someone else write his words for him. His partnership with Bernie Taupin could have easily foundered on the rocks but he believed in Taupin’s lyrical genius when others didn’t; still, it was tough going. Elton and Bernie Taupin met in 1967 but it took them three years before they achieved stardom. Please name another artist willing to sing songs titled No Shoestrings for Louise, First Episode at Hienton, Madman across the Water, Texas Love Song (with the immortal chorus which goes “God damn it, you’re all gonna die/Oh God damn it! You’re all gonna die”). And yet Elton John did…and quite wonderfully too.

And let us not forget Elton John the performer. Even when his albums (remember those things?) were no longer selling for a time (1977 to 1982), Elton never let the side down when it came to performing in concert. He could perform with a band or by himself and always his presence filled the halls, arenas, stadiums, and studios with something the world had never seen before or since. What other performer before or since could sport such outlandish costumes or garish eye-glasses or gaudy platform shoes or wigs or hats? Elton symbolized the conspicuous excesses that defined the Seventies and yet was not trapped in them. When Elton appeared onstage with some over-the-top outfit you couldn’t help but smile and enjoy the spectacle (my favorite Elton John costume were the gargantuan boots he wore in the film Tommy where he played the Pinball Wizard—Elton agreed to play the part only if he could keep the boots). He made you want to dress up the same way as well. (I speak from personal experience. When I was kid I would have given anything to have worn Elton John’s insane costumes. I still have the same dreams). Whereas some of today’s stars use excess as a means of separating themselves from the public…with the predictable results and ensuing bad publicity Elton somehow evaded the snares and traps such gaudy imagery could have caused him. Even better was the fact that when you saw Elton on the stage, you were seeing and hearing the real thing. No lip-synching for him. A couple years ago Elton made some waspish remarks about Madonna (and others of her ilk) lip-synching in concert—which drew a harsh response from Madonna) but Elton was right on the mark. Elton never let packaging overcome his professionalism. He always delivers the goods.

But, most important of all, is Elton John the man. Fame and stardom brought Elton John enormous riches and adulation but it also brought those special problems and temptations that devil celebrities. Elton has had his demons: drug, spending, sexual, and eating addictions; moments of insane rage—which biographer Philip Norman called “Elton’s Little Moments” and yet Elton never allowed his weaknesses to ultimately destroy him as it destroyed so many others (Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, etc.) Elton survives, endures, and thrives because he still has that inner celestial fire called conscience. He has always striven to do the right thing. His appearance at Live Aid and other charitable concerts; his tireless work to overcome A.I.D.S. all speak of that character. I remember seeing him in 1987 performing at an A.I.D.S. benefit concert in London. Elton couldn’t sing because he had throat surgery but he could still play the piano. What he did was provide background music while British pop star Kim Wilde (and her brother Marty) performed a heart-wrenching interpretation of Elton’s hit Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word. (That performance was, in my opinion, one of the finest cover versions of an Elton John song I would give anything if I could find an MP3 file of that performance). His performance at Princess Diana’s funeral in Westminster Abbey is another example of this.

Elton John is now sixty years old yet his star has not faded nor will it ever fade. He remains revered by fans of all ages. His life and career are what he makes of it. He remains one of my favorite rock idols and, for that, I am very glad.

Take care! Captain Fantastic (and the Brown Dirt Cowboy too!)

Friday, August 10, 2007

Barry Bonds: The Pursuer becomes the Pursued

For the fourth time in the last twenty-two years the breaking of a famous Major League hitting record has been sullied by the tarnished image of the player who broke the record. The breaking of Ty Cobb’s record of most lifetime hits by Pete Rose, the breaking of Roger Maris’ single season home run mark by Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, and, now, the breaking of Henry Aaron’s lifetime home run record by Barry Bonds, are obscured by the dark shadows cast by the above-mentioned players.

It’s moot to argue whether Bonds’ record should be allowed or not. Considering the disgraceful silence Major League Baseball has displayed regarding the steroid question it’s unlikely they will disavow the record since it would almost certainly mean an admission that Major League Baseball has deliberately turned a blind eye to the blatant use of steroids by players. (Another key point baseball fans should remember was that another major factor in Bond’s surpassing of Aaron’s home run mark was the deliberate policy decision made by Major League Baseball to allow the ball itself to be loaded up from 1995 to 2002. The fact that the ball was juiced, coupled with the use of steroids are the vital underpinnings for the obscene surge in home runs during that time period. If the ball hadn’t been juiced then Bonds might hypothetically be still pursuing Aaron’s record. It was also the reason why Maris’ home run record was eclipsed as well).

Indeed when contemplating Bonds’ milestone I am reminded by something I had when I was a little boy. I used to have a book titled Great Receivers in Football History. In that book there was a chapter on NFL receiver Billy Howton (who played for the Packers, Browns, and the Dallas Cowboys in the 1950’s and 1960’s). Howton broke the record of Green Bay Packer legend Don Hutson for most receiving yards in a career. Hutson was there to witness Howton breaking the record and after the game he went into the locker room to congratulate him. Howton was basking in the glow of breaking the record and he told Hutson, “I did it. I broke your record!” And Hutson said, “That’s right and, one day, someone will come along and break your record.” To which Howton gave Hutson a look of understanding and comprehension—and as it turned out, Huston was right. Howton’s mark has been surpassed many times and, if memory serves me correctly, Jerry Rice now holds the record for most receiving yards.

But the point is this: Bonds may reign now as the all-time home run king but there are other players who are primed and ready to stalk his steroided carcass. While all eyes were on Barry Bonds, it should be noted at Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez has become the youngest player ever to hit five hundred home runs. A-Rod has been having a splendid season in what has been a superlative major league career. Although there are other active players with more career home runs than A-Rod they are all in the twilight of their careers and will not pass Barry Bonds. A-Rod still has many years to go and, barring an unforeseen injury or scandal that could derail his career, A-Rod—if he’s willing—has the potential to break Bond’s lifetime mark and remove the stain cast upon the record by Barry Bonds.

And if A-Rod is unwilling or unable to surpass the mark then there is another player in whom I possess the highest confidence in his capability to become the all-time baseball home-run king: Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies. A-Rod may be the youngest player ever to reach five hundred home-runs but Ryan Howard just broke A-Rod’s mark of becoming the youngest player ever to reach one hundred home-runs and if Howard continues his magnificent slugging (despite missing a month due to injury, Howard is close to hitting forty home runs this season) it is quite possible that Ryan Howard will break A-Rod’s mark of becoming the youngest player ever to reach five hundred home runs and if he reaches five hundred home runs then the next obvious step is to go after Barry Bonds or A-Rod if the latter surpasses Bonds’ mark.

I refuse to give in to despair. Instead I seek comfort in observing baseball’s future and their names are Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Howard.

Play Ball!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Song: Not For Real

Editor's note: I wrote this song two weeks ago in my hotel room in the Greater Detroit area. I've written my fair share of songs in hotel rooms. Sometimes I come up with a great one and sometimes I don't. I'll let you decide whether or not this song is up to snuff. Enjoy.

"Not For Real"

I. First verse

All you see
All you hear
All you have is so cheating
All you own
All you earn
All you make is so fleeting

A castle of sand
A cup of ashes
A one night stand
A thousand lashes


Not for real
Not for real

Not for real
Ghosts of fevered imaginations
Not for real
Phantoms of severed relations
Not for real
Shades of flaccid machinations
Not for real

...this time

II. Second verse

All you build
All you grow
All you sow is so craven
All you take
All you steal
All you blow is so graven

A castle of sand
A chalice of ashes
A one night stand
A thousand lashes


Not for real
Not for real

Not for real
Ghosts of fevered imaginations
Not for real
Phantoms of severed relations
Not for real
Shades of flaccid machinations
Not for real

...this time


No beach to walk on
No eyes filled with love
No sense for sensation
How does it feel to survive the storm?


Not for real
Not for real

Not for real
Ghosts of fevered imaginations
Not for real
Phantoms of severed relations
Not for real
Shades of flaccid machinations
Not for real

...this time

(c) 07/30/2007 by Matthew DiBiase

Friday, July 20, 2007

Travels with Matt: Take One, Studio A

Some of my favorite moments in my travels have been when I was allowed to participate in some act that helped convey the sense of the historical place I was visiting. One beautiful example was when I visited Colonial Williamsburg in 1995. Another happened yesterday when I visited the site of the original Motown Record recording studio on 2648 West Grand Boulevard in downtown Detroit.

I had just finished a morning visit at the Edsel and Clara Ford mansion located at Grosse Point Shores (Michigan’s equivalent of the Hamptons for New Yorkers). Now I was venturing into downtown Detroit, into a world diametrically opposite of that Grosse Pointe.

The Motown Museum (it has been converted into such) is situated next to a funeral parlor. The house itself is quite small and yet from that small house containing one recording studio, Berry Gordy, Jr. and the rest of the Gordy family altered not only the face of music but also the entire world as well. How much of the world’s culture since 1958 has been influenced or changed by Motown music? The Motown sound is a cultural icon on par with Elvis, the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones; the Motown forming at least a healthy portion of the carapace of world music.

I was part of a tour group as we were ushered into the various rooms containing artifacts from the various artists who were discovered by Motown: Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, etc. Our tour guide gave us a lovely demonstration. She told us that Berry Gordy used a hole in the ceiling that exposed the attic as an echo chamber. The tour guide stood underneath the hole and clapped her hands loudly and what we heard was the same echoing handclaps that start the Supreme’s classic Baby Love.

But the best was saved for last. The final stop was inside Studio A proper. For me this was a first for me. I have never set foot inside an actual recording studio. I came close twice. Once in New Orleans in 1993 when I visited the late Allen Toussaint’s Sea Saint Studios and the other time was a few years ago when I visited RCA Studios where Elvis and many other Country and Western legends recorded their music. I saw the outside of the studio but never got to go into the studio. Now, at Motown, I (along with the others in the tour group) was going to do just that.

For starters, the studio was very small and cramped. The mikes hung from the ceiling and when you added the studio musicians along with the recording artists proper it makes for a very tight squeeze. (The tour guide also mentioned that there was no air conditioning when they were recording there from 1958 to 1972 so add intense heat and cigarette smoke to the atmospherics of the place and what you got—as the tour guide put it—was what the Motown artists called the “Snake Pit”).

We stood inside the studio and what followed took us all by surprise. The tour guide asked all the men to stand on one side of the studio and the women on the other side. There were six or seven guys in the group—counting myself. The tour guide then asked us to watch her every move. The tour guide proceeded to teach us the famous dance steps used by the Temptations and asked us to sing the chorus to their classic hit My Girl. And so picture yours truly who cannot dance a bloody dance step at all, moving his hips and hands and singing that famed chorus, “My Girl, My Girl, My Girl, talking about My Girl. My Girl!”

Luckily I survived and drew a round of hysterical laughter from the ladies in the group but then the joke was on them. Now the tour guide asked all the women to switch sides with the men and they were then taught the famous dance steps of the Supremes and had them do Stop! In the name of Love.

And the ladies did it. Quite lovely, I must say.

And with that the tour guide proudly told us that now each of us could truthfully proclaim that we had performed live in Motown Studios!

And with that the tour was over.

I will treasure (and savor) that moment for the rest of my life. I still have one question though. I wonder if they let you do that the famed Abbey Road studios in London, England?????

Forlorn Hope!

It’s nice to see a fantasy come true.

If you ever visit Detroit, please visit the Motown Museum. It’s a true American Experience.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Libby Commutation: Presidential Lese Majeste

President Bush’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s prison sentence was not so much an act of beneficence to a loyal member of his Administration than it was a rare opportunity for an increasingly beleaguered President to strike back against his political and personal enemies. The commutation must be seen in that context; with the War in Iraq increasingly becoming America’s greatest foreign policy fiasco since Vietnam; with the defection of a handful of Republican Senators (with more to follow) who now denounce the President’s policies on Iraq; with the potential legal challenges in the Federal Courts towards the Bush’s Administration’s domestic spying policies and the holding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay the commutation (and future pardoning) of Libby was the only way for President Bush to strike back without having to be held accountable for his actions.

The Constitutionally mandated presidential power to grant pardons and reprieves is one of the few aspects of absolute monarchy present in American jurisprudence. Bush’s commutation of Libby is the third notable Presidential commutation in American history. (The others were Richard Nixon’s commutation of Lieutenant Calley’s prison sentence for committing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1971 and President Harry Truman’s commutation of the death sentences to life imprisonment for two Puerto Rican nationalists who tried to assassinate him in 1950). The President’s power to grant pardons or reprieves is limitless. (The late President Ford provided an excellent explication on this issue in his memoirs A Time to Heal when he was explaining his motives for pardoning Richard Nixon in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal).

Despite the President’s actions those who argue for limitations on the Presidential power to grant pardons or reprieves err. The problem lies not with the power to pardon but with the individual misusing that power—which, of course, was what happened here. Such misuse is not new but has emerged only recently in American history. Actually President George W. Bush had ample precedent to draw from when he commuted Libby’s sentence. His father George H.W. Bush (in 1993, during the waning days of his Presidency) pardoned all Reagan-Bush Administration officials who had been convicted for crimes committed during the Iran Contra scandal. Bill Clinton pardoned a convicted fugitive millionaire who contributed money to his political campaigns in the waning hours of his Presidency. No, what President George W. Bush did was not the last time we will see this pathetic display of Presidential lese majeste.

No other Presidential action demonstrates Bush’s contempt for the Constitution he swore twice to uphold than this. Indeed the commutation of Libby was the penultimate blow the Bush Administration has thrown against Valerie Plame (the coup de grace will come when President pardons Libby after the 2008 Presidential Election) and it came from the person who orchestrated the illegal outing of her status as an active CIA operative—George W. Bush.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Remembering the Monterey Pop Festival

“Your mother is high and she doesn’t even know it!”

--David Crosby, Monterey Pop Festival

“I’m going to sacrifice something I really love…for all you beautiful people”

--Jimi Hendrix, Monterey Pop Festival

“This is where it all ends.”

--Pete Townshend, Monterey Pop Festival

Forty years ago the Monterey Pop Festival took place outside San Francisco. It was a three day music festival featuring an unprecedented eclectic congregation of musical performers representing much of the musical spectrum at the time. Never before had any promoter put together such a widely diverse collection of musicians playing such deeply contrasting styles of music. The Monterey Pop festival combined acts like Lou Rawls with the Jimi Hendrix Experience; Laura Nyro with Janis Joplin; Simon and Garfunkel with Country Joe and the Fish; the Who with Ravi Shankar. The list goes on and on.

When it comes to commemorating the great rock festivals of the past, Monterey tends to be ignored in favor of Woodstock, Altamont, Live Aid, or, just recently, Live8, but without Monterey the latter named festivals would not have been possible. Monterey set the precedent for all the festivals that followed in its wake. Indeed, Monterey was, in many ways, a superior production to Woodstock or Altamont. Unlike Woodstock, Monterey was not declared a disaster area. Unlike Woodstock, the organizers of the festival did not lose control of the 50,000 people who attended the three-day festival. (One of the reasons why Woodstock became a free concert was because the organizers did not provide proper crowd control and tens of thousands of gate-crashers overwhelmed the area thus forcing the organizers to declare the show a free show—lest they risk a major riot).

Monterey was different. The audiences were well behaved (if you turned a blind eye towards the drugs that circulated freely around—LSD, STP, and Mexican marijuana were the drugs of choice at the festival for performers and fans alike).

And there was, of course, the music itself. Monterey was the breakout show for Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Who. It was also one of the few times that the Mamas and the Papas (the late John Phillips was one of the key organizers of the festival) performed live in public. Decades later Michelle Phillips later told an interviewer that during their glory years they only performed roughly forty-some shows in a three year period; adding that if you saw the Mamas and the Papas live in concert then you were in for a rare treat. Indeed the Mamas and the Papas were the very last show of the festival. Monterey also marked the end of an era for certain bands. David Crosby performed his last gig with the Byrds at Monterey (indeed when you listen to the Byrds set on the CD box set of the Monterey Festival you can sense the tension in the band because Crosby is the only person doing any talking on the stage and you can sense his disenchantment in having to maintain the Byrds folk-rock image. Furthermore you also can catch a bizarre glimpse of what David Crosby was like when he was stoned out of his mind—which he was all throughout the festival. After each song, Crosby would regale the audience with some stoned dementia. As he later writes in his memoir Long Time Gone, “I did it all stoned.”

Neil Young, a member of Buffalo Springfield, would refuse to perform onstage at Monterey because he wanted to leave the band. Interestingly, David Crosby filled in for Neil Young, performing alongside Stephen Stills in a wicked prelude to the eventual formation of Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

Even more interesting is the presence of musicians performing what we now call world music. Hugh Masekela from South Africa and Ravi Shankar of India both performed sterling sets—especially the latter. Shankar was given the whole afternoon of the first day of the Festival to perform his music—which he did with wonderful verve and spirituality—his set is the last performance featured in D.A. Pennebaker’s magnificent documentary film of the Monterey Pop Festival.

And then there are the iconic moments, permanently etched in the consciousness of our kaleidoscopic memories of the Summer of Love: the Who annihilating the laid-back California crowd with My Generation while smashing their instruments with desperate abandon. (Pete Townshend smashed his guitar so violently he wrenched his back in the process); and the most famous snapshot memory of them all: Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire after he had humped his amplifiers during a raucous version of Wild Thing. How many different versions and from how many different camera angles have we seen that moment of Jimi ushering forth a strange fire from his guitar as the instrument issues anguished fuzz tones while it burns helplessly and then Hendrix smashing it to bits while the young ladies of the audience gasp and gape in horror at the spectacle?

At that moment Jimi Hendrix was launched as a superstar in America….

And three years later he would be dead, along with Janis Joplin, and the late Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones who crossed eight time zones by plane solely to introduce Jimi Hendrix to America. If you look at the Pennebaker film of Monterey, you will see a roll call of the dead: Jimi, Janis, Keith Moon, John Phillips, Michael Bloomfield of the Electric Flag, Bob Hite of Canned Heat, Brian Jones, Mama Cass Elliott, Nico of the Velvet Underground (Brian Jones’ date at the Festival), Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, and the list goes on….

If I had a time machine, I would have loved to have been there because when you look at the film of the event you see a lot of people having a very wonderful time. After all it was the Summer of Love but all too soon it was going to get ugly and death would claim a lot of beautiful people.

Rest in Peace.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

And I'm never going back to my old school

We like to look at our K-12 years with nostalgia but how do those who suffered through their K-12 years cope with their memories? Twenty five years ago this week I graduated from Delran High School. I remember suffocating inside an un-air-conditioned gymnasium while a vicious thunderstorm rumbled outside. I remember the anger, emptiness, and sadness I felt while listening to the insincere blessings for the future being offered by my peers and school faculty members.

Looking back at my years in the Delran school system, I’ve come to the conclusion that it resembled an abattoir where the students were treated like beef cattle; herded indiscriminately from room to room; zapped in the head periodically until we were dismembered into digestible pieces to be processed, sold, and consumed by the giant machine called Society. During those years I saw Social Darwinism at its worst: a philosophy of poison the weak and pity the strong; of bullying run rampant while most teachers deliberately turned a blind eye towards it and, a few evil ones, who would deliberately set up situations where weak students were terrorized.

There were only a handful of excellent teachers during my school years: Mrs. Scanlon, my third grade teacher; in middle school: Mr. Dodd, who taught science, and Mr. MacKiernan, who taught math; in high school: Mr. Reiss who taught cosmology, Miss May who taught Spanish, and Miss Weiss who taught me how to type. They were very, very good and to them I offer a heartfelt ‘thank you’.

Most of the teachers I had were either: harmless, anonymous, or (on certain occasions) clueless.

And then were the amoral charlatans masquerading as educators. I remember them especially because they did a lot of damage not only to me but to a lot of other innocent students as well.

I remember a fourth grade teacher who brutally spanked a male student in front of the entire class on the last day of school all the while proudly proclaiming, “I’ve wanted to do this to you for a long time!” (After the spanking, the kid fled in terror). I remember a middle school teacher who thought it funny to open the door to the bathroom in the back of the classroom while a student was relieving himself. (I wonder if the student in question thought it was funny).

I remember another middle school teacher who spent more time verbally browbeating his students instead of teaching English. One time he gave a seventh-grade female student such a vicious, savage tongue-lashing that she was shaking and sobbing hysterically. What was her heinous crime? She was chewing gum in class.

I remember a high school math teacher who had a student’s personal diary stolen just for the fun of it. I remember when he “returned” the diary to the student in question he had this enormous grin on his face because he had obviously read what was written inside the diary. And then there was the gym teacher (and coach of one of the athletic teams) who ordered a larger student to physically abuse a small, weaker student in front of a class because the smaller kid had quit one of the athletic teams. This same teacher also liked to wrestle his female students in front of the class too.

That is why I felt so angry, empty, and sad when it came time for me to graduate. I wonder if others have felt the same anger, the same despair, and the same emptiness when they were cast into the outside world under similar circumstances? How did they cope with the horrors of their scholastic experience? Did it make them stronger or wiser? Or did it leave them to wander forlornly as survivors, as swimmers searching for a lifeline in an ocean of despair?

Sometimes schools can destroy as well as build.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Sgt. Pepper: Forty Years On

June 1 will mark the 40th anniversary of the release of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. If ever there was a landmark moment in the history of rock music or should I say the history of music as a whole, the release of Sgt. Pepper definitely fits the bill. No album before had contained such radical sounds, exotic arrangements in instrumentation, ground-breaking lyricism, alternative forms of musical production, and new revolutionary concepts in album cover design. Sgt. Pepper did all that and more.

When the album debuted on radio stations throughout the world on June 1 it became a signature moment in the 1960s. I have read several literary and periodical accounts about where people were and what were they were doing when they first heard Sgt. Pepper being played. Although some critics today feel that Sgt. Pepper has become dated and that the Beatles Abbey Road album surpasses Sgt. Pepper I beg to differ. The musical content of Sgt. Pepper has not lost its vitality despite the critics need for revisionism. Even if the album reflected the Beatles interpretation of the psychedelic movement in music it still, unlike other classic psychedelic albums, endures mightily as a paradigm of that hallucinogenic era.

The album was a result of seven hundred hours of recording sessions spanning from late November 1966 to early April 1967. The Beatles, freed from the vicissitudes of live performing; secure in their status as the greatest rock and roll band in the world; and able to demand total control of their musical work and unlimited time in the recording studio, harnessed their collective musical energies and produced this magnum opus. What other rock band at the time would have the courage to hire a 41-piece orchestra to perform in full costume dress without a score, merely asking them to go from their lowest to their highest notes on their respective instruments in only 24 bars as the Beatles did in the song A Day in the Life? What other rock band could write a song based solely on the written content of a 19th-century poster as the Beatles did in Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite? What other rock band could keep studio personnel waiting for interminable hours as they argued and scratched their heads about what exotic instruments to use in each song they recorded for Sgt. Pepper?

Before Sgt. Pepper recording sessions were done discreetly and seldom attracted notice (after all the audience didn’t want to know about the labor pains, all it wanted to see was the baby). The Beatles changed that. Sgt. Pepper was the first rock and roll album where the recording session was the event, drawing celebrity audiences and involving various and sundry personalities to add color, humor, and inspiration to the proceedings. Now such events are commonplace but the Beatles set the precedent. Not only that recording artists were never allowed to record at their leisure. The Beatles altered the equation. They could record whenever they so desired and it was up to the recording company to accommodate their schedule.

Before Sgt. Pepper albums were compendiums of twelve to fourteen songs hastily thrown together and put forth as mere product. The Beatles changed that. Now albums could be coherent, singular statements issued as manifestos to a public dying for The Word.

Before Sgt. Pepper album covers were mundane forms of packaging. The Beatles changed that. Even to this day the Sgt. Pepper album cover remains the most daring and memorable of its kind in musical history, spawning several imitations, parodies, and the like in the forty years since its release. (EMI, the Beatles recording company, was afraid of lawsuits because of the album cover content and briefly considered releasing the album in brown paper bags as if it were pornography).

All four Beatles shined brightly in Sgt. Pepper. John Lennon’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is a masterpiece which combines a lush sound with shimmering lyrics and an astonishing economy of instrumentation. Paul McCartney’s bass guitar playing in Lucy, It’s Getting Better, Fixing a Hole, and Lovely Rita is audaciously magnificent and represents some of the greatest bass lines in rock and roll history. George Harrison’s lead guitar solos in Fixing a Hole and Good Morning, Good Morning are tight and expressive and his sole composition, the raga-like Within You, Without You, is one of his finest lyrical efforts. Ringo Starr’s lead vocal in With a Little Help from my Friends is the finest one in all his Beatles work. His drumming in A Day in the Life provides a dark punctuation to John and Paul’s lyrics and his subtle, delicately innovative use of hi-hat kicks in Fixing a Hole reveals Ringo at his very best.

Today, with the advent of compact discs and downloading of music on the internet, albums no longer possess their singular appeal and have lost all meaning as coherent artistic statements. The musical world will never experience a moment like it did when Sgt. Pepper graced the airwaves and filled musical stores worldwide. No other album has sparked such a revolution in how music is recorded, produced, and presented to the public. So let us remember a time when the world was still young (relatively speaking) and there was still hope for the future and there was even a hope that the world could be changed for the better where everyone could live as one under tangerine trees and marmalade skies while riding inside newspaper taxis appearing on the shore waiting to take us away, all the while looking for the girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

Like John Lennon wrote forty years ago, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.