Monthly Archives: August 2010

“Caravan” – Van Morrison


Since it’s Friday, here’s a treat. It’s the Belfast Cowboy singing “Caravan” from The Band’s “The Last Waltz.”

Sit back and get into the music!

Love ya,
John

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Johnny Comes Marching Home

Dateline: August 19, 2010
By REBECCA SANTANA, Associated Press Writer
KHABARI CROSSING, Kuwait – A line of heavily armored American military vehicles, their headlights twinkling in the pre-dawn desert, lumbered past the barbed wire and metal gates marking the border between Iraq and Kuwait early Thursday and rolled into history.

For the troops of the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, it was a moment of relief fraught with symbolism but lightened by the whoops and cheers of soldiers one step closer to going home. Seven years and five months after the U.S.-led invasion, the last American combat brigade was leaving Iraq, well ahead of President Barack Obama’s Aug. 31 deadline for ending U.S. combat operations there.

It took longer than anybody could have imagined. But this morning while you and I slept, the last combat troops officially left Iraq, bringing an end to more than seven years of needless killing and destruction, an endless waste of U.S. defence dollars and most tragically, the overwhelming murder and maiming of tens of thousands of young American men and women. Not to mention the untold hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded Iraqis. That toll will never really be known and their lives will be destroyed forever.

After all the yellow ribbons calling for the U.S. government to “bring ’em home” and desperate pleas of the parents of soldiers killed in Iraq and the millions of plain old U.S. citizens who saw the writing on the wall many years ago, Americans finally elected a new president with the sense and sensibility to know when to “bring ’em home.” President Barrack Obama has now delivered on his promise to end the combat mission in Iraq; a mission fraught by graft, greed and corruption, a crusade to locate weapons of mass destruction that were never found and most likely never existed, an exercise in American shock and awe that has left an estimated 4,415 U.S. soldiers dead and many more thousands wounded . Never to see another sunrise. Never to feel the promise of a new morning. But at least this marks the beginning of the end of U.S. presence in Iraq. At last they are coming home.

There will still be a strong American presence in Iraq, some 50,000 troops left behind for one final year in what is termed a “non-combat role.” (Although they are called non-combat troops they will still carry weapons and accompany Iraqi troops on certain missions when requested to do so, so take that with a giant grain of salt.)

There will still be additional U.S. and Iraqi deaths and danger still lies ahead for these remaining troops. But officials tell the Associated Press that for the most part those soldiers left behind will be cleaning up the final remnants of the American presence and doing their best to prepare the Iraqi government, military and police force, such that it is, for life without U.S. troop involvement.

But make no mistake. This morning’s final combat troop departure is historic and justified. It’s been a long time coming, but now it’s here.

So please allow me, as one of the millions who has been part of the effort to “Bring “Em Home” from Iraq to enjoy today’s news with pride and relief. And thank you to President Obama, to members of the U.S. Congress who have been in the trenches trying to end this senseless occupation, to other leaders around the world who have called on the United States to do the right thing, and to artists and entertainers – all of them citizens entitled just like you and me to speak out, who have used their power and celebrity to call for an end to the war in Iraq.

As singer/songwriter Little Steven once wrote, “Undefeated…everybody comes home.” Well, maybe not everybody is coming home today, but this is a damn good start. To my friends and fellow Americans who have played such an important role, simply by speaking out, I say congratulations and urge you to keep up the fight. We all made an impact. Seven years is too long, but it’s better than seventeen. Those yellow flags were heeded and made a difference.

Now, finally, fathers and mothers deployed in Iraq for too long will be reunited with their families. For these men and woman who have so courageously served, this day must be incredibly sweet.

Again, to those who believe in peace, let’s not stop putting pressure on Washington. Let us not stop the clarion call to “bring ’em home” just yet. Because now we must concentrate on ending the conflict, and U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

In the never ending battle for peace, the work is never truly over.

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A Rock As Big As A House – Early Memories

There it stood at the end of the road. House Rock Road. What else would you call a street that featured such a geological rarity. People came from far and wide to see this gigantic boulder balanced in such a way as to defy gravity. For us, the families who lived in that Weymouth, Massachusetts neighborhood and who grew up in the shadow of House Rock it was just another place, a landmark, a park.

But if you were a kid, House Rock was a kind of local Himalaya. It was climbable, and many foolish teen made it to the top. The problem was getting down. I never made the ascension, but apparently once at the top, it looked a heck of a lot more daunting getting down. The possibility of a fatal slippage became more real and before we knew it we’d hear the familiar sound of fire engines, coming to the rescue of some poor fools. And down they would come hiding their faces from the giggling crowds.

So once we were old enough to know better about House Rock, we knew better indeed and pretty much left it alone. Except for the frightening and small crevices underneath where sometimes kids would slither. But there was always talk of snakes, so my friends and I steered clear of the underside of House Rock. And broken glass was always the other danger. I remember one time a young kid from another neighborhood went barefoot and stepped on some sharp glass. Fortunately there was a doctor, actually a dentist – yes, a dentist, Mr. Weeman, who bandaged the boy up pronto and sent him on his way back home. We never saw that young man nor his bleeding foot again.

There was a small park next to House Rock, called appropriately enough, House Rock Park. It had huge swings, a slide and other fun things for a kid to break his or her head upon if they weren’t careful. When I was really young my father would take me up the street after dinner to the park, and hide quarters and fifty cent pieces in the sand under that big old slide. I believe he was trying to teach me a lesson, as I dug my way into the sand and came up with the flashy coins, though I’m still not sure what the point was. Perhaps he just wanted to give me money and teach me that sometimes you have to work for it.

I wish I had photographs to convey to you the look and feel of House Rock Park, but I lived and breathed it’s air long before people were posting photos on the Internet. So the images are only ingrained in my mind. Images of camp counselors who would teach us games and how to make a strange string of plastic that we called “gimp.” Images of my sisters or my father pushing me on the swings.

And most vividly images of the Haunted Woods that would be constructed every year around Halloween, complete with dead man dummies that scared the wits out of you and music playing from tape recorder hidden in the woods….

“They’re coming to take you away, ha ha, he he
To the funny farm where life is wonderful all the time….”

So many memories, each detail fading just a little bit more with every passing day. I try to reach back into my memory to catch a few before they fade forever. Yes, they fade, only into a new day and newer generations who now live in the shadow of House Rock.

I just hope they’re not still climbing it.

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John Mellencamp’s “No Better Than This” – Way Down The Road

John Mellencamp continues to age like good whiskey with a satisfying swig of rootsy folk and blues on his latest release, “No Better Than This.” If you’ve enjoyed the direction Mellancamp has been traveling, deeper and deeper into the heart of yesteryear with producer T-Bone Burnett, you’ll get a strong kick from what the two have brewed this time around. Mellencamp follows the stripped down feel of 2008’s Life Death Love and Freedom with 13 more new songs that sound and feel like they were written and recorded a long, long time ago in the heart of Americana.

Mellencamp and Burnett accomplish this feat of sounding both old and new at the same time by literally travelling back to a much earlier place and time. These songs were recorded completely in mono in studio’s crowded with ghosts of music’s past; places like Sun Studio in Memphis, a hotel room in Texas where Robert Johnson laid down his version of the blues and the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia. The songs are mostly dry as a bone, with only a minimum of help from a few musicians who have already lived the blues; people like stand-up bass player David Roe, who played with Johnny Cash on the Man-In-Black’s last couple of albums and former Tom Waits’ guitarist Mark Ribot. Crammed into Sun Studios or that San Antonio hotel room with barely room to play, this group lays down a slow and bluesy sound over which Mellencamp can growl a little.

The record opens with the introspective dirge “Save Some Time To Dream,” a cautionary tune in which the narrator wonders:

“Could it be that this is all there is, could it be there’s nothing more at all,
Save some time to dream, cause your dream might save us all.”

Over the last several albums Mellencamp’s songs have matured to reveal an artist, far from his former pop stardom, who’s both hardened by the years and still optimistic, encouraged by the honesty and goodness he sees around him. The title track reflects that optimism as Mellencamp and his band jumps up and jams, as John Mellencamp calls out for salvation in the here and now. Mono has never sounded “no better than this.”

And even though Mellencamp sings on the following track, “Thinking About You” that “it’s not in my nature to be nostalgic at all,” this album like the one before it is thick in the comfort that memories bring. Mellencamp seems to finally be finding a comfortable place where he can stay for awhile. It’s been a long and often bumpy road for the Indiana native, but the past is the place he’s gone looking for on “No Better Than This” and, by God, I do believe he’s stumbled upon a home there.

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Backgammon, Bootlegs and Best Friends

In 1978, I was 17 and newly arrived at Syracuse University. SI can still remember how nervous I was that first day, as my Dad and I drove up the long driveway to Mount Olympus. That’s where my dorm was – Flint Hall. I didn’t know a soul in Syracuse. But I was fortunate to meet a guy in those first days who became my best friend in the world. His name was Kevin and from the time we first met, we were inseparable.

Kevin had it all and was everything a guy could ever hope for in a friend. He was incredibly kind and polite; he was deeply considerate, sensitive and sometimes shy. But what was most important was that we loved the same things. Kevin and I loved the same music, the same books, the same movies. And Kevin was from New Jersey, that mystical place in my mind from whence hailed my rock and roll idol Bruce Springsteen. Kevin also shared the same passion for Springsteen and he taught me all I needed to know. From then on it was Kev and Kel (me) and we made quite a team.

Except for when we were in classes, or on certain weekends when Kev would drive to visit a girl he liked who was going to school in Springfield, Massachusetts, we were always together. Whether we were going to see a film on campus, or spending some time being recruited by the fraternities that we secretly swore to never join, Kevin and Kel were pretty much one. We go to all the frats and drink their beer and eat their pizza while we secretely vowed to never join one. We’d go to “floor parties” in the dorms, where we met other great friends. Guys who lived on my floor like Mike and Eric, not to mention the girls who lived on the upper floors of Flint and all over Day Hall.

And the one thing that we both loved to do in those quieter hours after finishing with studies was to play backgammon.

I remember we played mostly in Kevin’s room (his room being “cooler” than mine that freshman year) and we played all the time! We were both about equally good (or perhaps equally bad) but we just loved to play. We played to beat the band and the band of course was Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band.

Of course we had to have a soundtrack on those halcyon evenings, and Bruce and the boys delivered on that. We had all of Springsteen’s regular releases and his bootlegs too. We’d listen to them over and over wearing out the grooves in the vinyl. He had an old fashioned turntable and stereo that he and his Dad had rigged up and it always sounded great. And when it came to bootlegs he had his favorite and I had mine.
His was a show from the Paramount Theater in Passaic:

Many Springsteen fanatics, like myself believe this to be his greatest recorded show of all time. But for me, well, I had another favorite that I found down on Marshall Street in the grimy, dusty used record store. It was know by just one word, but it was a thing of beauty and joy forever. It was “Winterland.”

And so there we were. The world could be coming to an end but it wouldn’t bother us. Kevin and I had our backgammon, our Bruce and our friendship. We’d sit and play game after game and talk. We’d talk about the girls we liked and some who liked us. We’d talk about our classes and goofy professors. We’d talk about our pasts, presents and we’d talk about our futures. Kevin swore that one day he would own his own Taco stand in San Diego (while he hardly owns a Taco stand, he currently lives just outside San Diego…how prophetic!).

Life was good. The wicked ways of the world hadn’t had their chance to turn us back. We were young, and free and having a hell of a time.

And the first snowflake hadn’t even fallen.

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James Taylor – “Still Crazy After All These Years”

On this Sunday I thought you might enjoy being serenaded by good old sweet baby James Taylor covering a song by Paul Simon.

Enjoy and Love y’all,

John

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“Restrepo” – This Is A Dark Ride

After weeks of anticipation, I finally saw the film, “Restrepo,” yesterday. I walked out of the theater a different person than when I walked in, with a deeper appreciation of the sacrifices being made by U.S. soldiers on the front lines in Afghanistan. I also emerged with an even greater disgust over the futility of meaningless missions where death is around every corner and victory a seeming impossibility. For these men, it is just about getting through the next day. And the next. Alive.

“Restrepo,” is a bold, unique documentary without commentary other than the interviews with the soldiers. It takes us into the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, dubbed “the most dangerous place of Earth.”

As the film opens, we see the men being transported into the deep, mountainous, rocky valley of death. Many of the men choose not to even look out the windows on the flight in. They know where they’re headed. They don’t need to see the danger that lies below.

We begin with a platoon, but after one soldier named Juan Restrepo is killed, we find ourselves with just 15 men in a ramshackle outpost built during the night in the heart of the Korengal and named by the men for their fallen comrade.

The men build this dangerous base high in the mountains, as one of Restrepo’s friends calls “a giant middle finger to the Afghans who populated the Korengal,” whose motives and real priorities are always in doubt and who are paid a few dollars a day to rain bullets and shells on the Americans. This is the enemy they face, whom they seldom see, but frequently hear in the near-constant barrage for which they are always on guard.

Like no other fictional war film I’ve seen, “Restrepo,” made me feel like I was right there beside these men; while they wrestle each other to ease to tedium, while they worry about the next attack and, in the film’s most terrifying section, when they go on patrol. It’s on one such patrol that this company of men is ambushed. One soldier is killed instantly and a number of others are wounded. And here we see the grunts eye level of complete fury and despair. It’s a deeply wrenching scene that I expect to stay with me for many weeks. It will surely stay with the men for the rest of their lives.

In the end the men finally leave the Korengal Valley, not in victory but in a kind of joyous relief that they have survived their descent into this real life inferno. Many of the men who are interviewed at the films end wonder aloud how they will ever truly leave this hell behind.

“Restrepo,” is a remarkable, personal film that leaves you asking hard questions like what are we really fighting for, and perhaps more importantly, how long it will be before we, as a nation, abandons this senseless, deadly conflict?

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