Monthly Archives: April 2011

Carnival Barkers In America

It is time for Americans to stop letting “carnival barkers” set the political and social agenda In America. It is time for us to stop giving these liars and con artists the constant media spotlight they now command. Enough is enough. As the president said this week, there are far too many serious issues that need careful debate and consideration for us to be distracted by these fools and clowns. They have no substance; only a never ending need for attention.

It was Donald Trump, that clown with the curious coif, who was the target of President Obama’s scorn and who earned the characterization of “carnival barker” during the president’s unnecessary press conference this week. After weeks of badgering by Donald Trump, a strange looking individual who seems to wear a badger atop his head, the president was distracted from the serious issues of the day to announce the release of his birth certificate. And then, as if to reinforce his own hubris, Trump held a press conference during which he showed he has absolutely no shame, congratulating himself and saying “I’m very proud of myself,” for being the only one to get the president to release his birth certificate, which proved or disproved nothing. Nice work, Mr. Trump.

That’s right, said Trump. Step right up. Buy a ticket to the freak show. See the two headed man. See the woman with elastic skin. See a private document proving citizenship that no other president has had to produce. “What a great man I am.” Step right up.

Not a single reporter bothered to challenge this bully about his fruitless witch hunt. Not one journalist had the guts to ask Trump if he was embarrassed that he had been proved wrong. It was unbelievable. This big-mouthed, schoolyard bully stood there while reporters appeared to be paralyzed by fear that Trump might embarrass them on national television. What a gutless group. Was this the A-team or a bunch of journalistic lightweights. The press abdicated their responsibility and trust handed to them by the public and stood around while Trump congratulated himself and them proceeded to change the subject from the president’s citizenship to his abilities as a student. The carnival barking continued.

Why do we give these half-wits like Trump the same attention once reserved for serious discourse? Has the bar of public discourse been lowered that far? The fact is we now allow ourselves to be conned and confused by this kind of profane, insolent and contemptuous trash talk. Why? Because nobody really wants to think about legitimate problems like the hundreds of thousands of Americans without jobs, health care or much hope for tomorrow. Meanwhile the carnival barkers command better ratings than serious discourse. The tail wags the dog. The carnival is apparently in town to stay.

And don’t think for a minute that racism is not at play when these carnival barkers go after this African-American president. Can you imagine any previous, white president being subjected to this kind hyper-scrutiny? Can you imagine former President Reagan being forced to provide proof of his citizenship? It wouldn’t have happened. Not in a million years. But because President Obama is African-American every half-wit with a reality show or access to the public airwaves seems to be given the licence to attack any and all aspect of his life. This isn’t the first time the presidents background or integrity has been publicly questioned:

Perhaps we are all culpable for allowing the freak show to continue. What if we just said, “No more?” What if we refused to give people like Joe Wilson or Donald Trump or Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck our attention? What if we ignored the carnival barkers?

It’s time for Americans to stop listening to this nonsense. We all know in our hearts that the carnival barkers do nothing more than distract us from the job of making America a better, more fair and equitable place. Until we all make a concerted effort to ignore the carnival barkers, we’re all just a bunch of suckers.

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An Evening With Jackson Browne – A Review

Backed, quite literally, by 20 acoustic guitars, Jackson Browne performed a sold-out solo show at an intimate Michigan Theater in the college town of Ann Arbor last week delighting his adoring fans with an evening packed full of his resplendent and timeless songs. Walking out to center stage with a shy wave to the crowd, many of whom were still being seated, (why, oh why, can’t people get to events like this on time?), Browne alternated between acoustic guitar and a simple keyboard that, at times, sounded more like a grand piano. The singer/songwriter who continues to amaze audiences with his Dorian Gray-like good looks was in excellent spirit and and voice, charming his aging, well dressed disciples with songs both new and old. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening full of songs “for everyman (and woman).”

The Michigan Theater is located right in the middle of the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, but this was not a act that attracted many young people. They apparently have not inherited the same kind of affection for Jackson Browne as, say, Bob Dylan or The Beatles. Rather, it was a well-dressed, wine-drinking congregation who turned out; many of them baby boomers who may have been graduating from college when Jackson Browne first arrived on the music scene some four decades ago.

The California native still seemed spry and quick-witted, even if he struggled to remember the exact chords and lyrics to one of his older songs. But who can blame the man and the audience cheered even louder when he recovered from his momentary memory lapse. I mean, who of us can’t relate. The man has more than a dozen albums; a huge catalogue of music and prefers, unlike many of his peers, to avoid using the evil teleprompter. (And more power to him, I say.)

Jackson Browne began by saying how happy he was to be playing in Ann Arbor; specifically to be performing in a “theater” and not “a hockey rink.” Browne was apparently poking some fun at his recent shows in Canada. Indeed, the acoustics sounded pitch perfect. And though there may have been, what his sound engineer complained to me as “a cloudiness” to his voice at times, (apparently due to the fact that they were forced to stack, rather than hang the speakers) I doubt many in the audience noticed. Most were happy just to hear the old classic Jackson Browne songs, songs they might have played endlessly on their record players, like “Something Fine” and “Late For The Sky.” They were content to hear Jackson Browne’s stories of days long gone by. (That’s the funny thing about nostalgia. It never gets old.)

Browne balanced out the evening by also playing several newer songs. In fact, he opened the night with “The Barricades of Heaven” and played several songs from his most recent studio album, Time The Conqueror. Jackson laughed as he related a conversation he had recently with fellow singer/songwriter and troubadour James Taylor about performing new songs. Jackson said Taylor tells his audiences not to worry, that basically “the new songs are just like the old ones anyway.” And he had a point. Other than some unfamiliarity with lyrics, the newer songs blended in splendidly with his early material to form one solid and consistent sounding body of work. He even worked in one Mariachi-flavored song, written recently about , guess what, the old days. It seemed to be the night’s theme.

It was fun to watch the ease with which Browne selected a particular guitar from the rack of acoustic guitars behind him, sometimes picking one up only to put it back and select another. It was as if each guitar has a personality of its own and only certain guitars could be used to play certain songs. Browne performed the three-hour concert (including a half-hour intermission) without any kind of paper setlist, although he seemed to know in his head and intuitively what songs would work well next to one another. Browne was also quite flexible in song choices, happy to take requests/suggestions from the crowd as they shouted out many of his most familiar songs.

Perhaps the highlight of the evening came at the end of the first set when Jackson Browne played two of his greatest songs back-to-back on piano. First came the elegiac, “For A Dancer,” with Browne’s gorgeous voice reaching up to into the higher octave range quite comfortably. This was followed by a transcendent, gorgeous, anthemic rendition of the enviromentally apocalyptic, yet hopeful ballad, “Before The Deluge.”

Now let the music keep our spirits high
And let the buildings keep our children dry
Let creation reveal it’s secrets by and by
By and by–
When the light that’s lost within us reaches the sky

Lyrics like these sung so movingly are what has garnered Jackson Browne the devoted following he’s had for the last forty years. They were also what had the audience at the Michigan Theater on their feet at the end of the night cheering; fully satisfied and renewed.

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Another Borders Bites The Dust

It felt something like a wake, inside one of the four Michigan Borders Bookstores going out of business and selling everything but the kitchen sink (if they had one.)

A group of about 40 vulturous remaining customers picked through the near empty book racks and remains at the Borders Bookstore in Dearborn, Michigan yesterday, trying to take final advantage of a six-week long going out of business sale. That store, along with Borders bookstores in Utica, Grosse Pointe and the smaller Arborland Borders in Anne Arbor are being forced out of business as part of a bankruptcy protection plan. Borders Group Inc., which is the second biggest retailer in the entire state of Michigan, filed for bankruptcy reportedly because of an “inability to adapt to the changing habits of readers.”

Meanwhile, cashiers tried to maintain a professional countenance despite no longer having a job to go to and with few other options for work in the area. One cashier told me “they’re not hiring” at the remaining 28 Borders stores throughout the state that will remain open. And the unidentified cashier confided that a nearby Barnes & Noble store is barely staying open due to similar losses.

It’s hard not to feel bad for the employees, but I personally had mixed emotions as my fiance and I selected 25-plus titles and walked out with two heavy bags of former bestsellers – $425.00 dollars worth of books for just $30.00 and change.
While it is a crying shame to see another “brick and mortar” bookstore sell everything that wasn’t nailed down, I was also thinking about the countless wonderful Independent bookstores forced out of business by these monolithic bookstores.

In total, Borders is closing down 200 of its stores as part of this liquidation, which if successful will fetch between $131 and $148 million dollars. And the future for Borders is definitely not bright, with plans in the works to close another 75 in the not-so-distant future.

The one-time giant 40 year old retailer has no one to blame but itself for it’s losses and closings. According to an article in The Detroit News (http://detnews.com/article/20110216/BIZ/102160379/Borders-files-for-bankruptcy–closing-4-stores-in-Michigan) Borders Bookstores nationwide have lost more than $600 million dollars over the last four fiscal years. The bottom line is that Borders failed to “adapt to rapid changes in the book market,” most glaringly due to the huge number of consumers who are now buying their books online from companies like Amazon.com, now the world’s largest bookseller. The article sites the other cause as Borders “tardy entry last year into the growing electronic reader market dominated by Amazon’s Kindle and rival Barnes & Noble’s Nook.”

Still, call me old-fashioned but there is nothing like the pleasure of going to a bookstore simply to scout the shelves. Even though Amazon now allows consumers to look inside books for sale and, in many cases, even read the first chapter absolutely free, it simply doesn’t compare to how if feels to pick up a book, feel it’s weight in your hands, touch the cover and skim through it’s pages or even sit down with a cup of coffee or tea and get acquainted with a book and it’s author.

But money talks and you-know-what walks, so I bid a sad adieu to another bookstore and try and prepare myself for what author Aldous Huxley called the “Brave New World.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an actual old-fashioned book made from paper that I need to get back to reading.

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“Except The Music” – An E-Story From 40K

In a time when people have fewer hours each day to spend reading, short fiction and essays are becoming increasingly more popular. I recently happened upon an exciting and wonderful new electronic/digital e-platform for publishing outstanding short fiction and informative essays. It is called 40K, based in Milan, Italy and according to their web site (www.40Kbooks.com) it specializes in “novelettes and original essays, translated into many different languages.”

40K offers insightful essays and entertaining fiction, keeping in mind that the reader has a limited amount of time in any given day. Their e-books can be read in approximately an hour, depending on the speed of the reader.

The price is certainly right. For anywhere from .99 cents to a couple of dollars, readers can select stories that are then electronically downloaded to whichever computer or e-book they prefer. 40K’s site offers an assortment of genres, including essays on digital, as well as creative life. The short fiction is separated into thee categories: Fantasy, Literary, Sci-Fi and Steampunk.

In an interview on 40K’s web site (www.40kbooks.com) by author and MIT grad student Livia Blackburn with 40k’s editorial director Giuseppe Granieri, Giuseppe says:

“Our novelettes are the result of a need that the print market cannot satisfy: e-books create a new market for relatively short fiction. I’ve always liked this form of fiction because it’s more difficult than novels. It’s a great challenge for a writer. Novels can have pauses, faults: a long story wins by points. A novelette, as Julio Cortazar wrote, needs to win by knock-out.”

And as for the essays 40k publishes:

“Our essays, relatively short and strongly focused, are a solution for another functional limit of paper. With digital books you don’t need to fill hundreds of pages with the same concept, and you can better filter the information you give to your readers. It’s a matter of value: you can transmit a strong concept while requiring a lower investment from the readers in terms of reading time. Time is always valuable—in many cases, more valuable than the price. Nobody can read everything; we have to choose. So if you can explain a complex concept while requiring a manageable time investment, it’s a very good thing.”

I decided to sample a short fiction title offered by 40K, “Except The Music (A Sophisticated Story),” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. One of 40K’s techniques to entice readers is through some very edgy and colorful e-book design. In this case:

“Except The Music,” is an unusual story from the very first line: a strange and mysterious question posed by a woman who’s name we never find out who wonders aloud after a sexual tryst, “Where do musicians go to die?”

The honey-brown haired beauty posed the rhetorical question as she lay on her bed watching her lover, a world famous pianist named Max try to find his shoe and finish getting dressed. Max was attempting to somehow gracefully extract himself from the home of a women he’s just met and taken home after a post-performance mixer at the North County Music Festival, an annual classical music festival, located somewhere on the Oregon coast. The 45-year old Max fumbles his way out the door only to realize that he’s forgotten the name of the woman he’s just made love to, an embarrassment which will continue to haunt the well known classical piano virtuoso.

Backstage the next evening, Max’s spies his new lover, sitting in the fourth row. However, absolutely no one including Max’s long time friend, mentor and festival originator Otto, has any idea who she is or what her name is. In hushed tones, the 80-year-old world famous violinist Otto scolds Max, mostly in jest, for his obvious indiscretion the night before. This, despite the fact that we learn Otto was himself a legendary womanizer in younger days. It’s the old case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Soon tragedy strikes when Otto suffers a heart attack. Despite efforts to resuscitate the legendary performer, Otto passes away. Max struggles to announce the sad news and is then thrown into the job of running the remaining nights of the festival. Max and his paramour bump into each other late at night in a parking lot where the woman offers Max solace before disappearing in the fog.

On the final night of the festival, during a performance by the other musicians of Mozart’s Requiem Max finally learns the true identity of this strange and mysterious woman and learns a lesson that his mentor, Otto, could never have taught. It is a rewarding and redemptive end to our story, and the beginning of new life for Max. It was also a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.

As Otto was know to call out after a masterful performance, “Bravo,” to both this author and Bravo to 40KBooks, the medium for this tales telling and hopefully many more to come.

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Steve Forbert – “What Kinda Guy?”

On a deliciously crisp autumn day in September 1978, I crossed the Quad at Syracuse University and set my wondrous eyes on Steve Forbert for the first time. I was 17 years old, a freshman in college and plenty green around the ears. But as I paused between classes, I realized that up there on the newly-constructed stage something was happening! Or at least about to happen. Steve Forbert, a singer/songwriter who I was only vaguely familiar with at the time, was going through the ritual of an afternoon sound check. Steve looked young, a little skinny, a tad road-weary, but definitely “Alive On Arrival” to play his songs.

Steve had embarked on his first major tour in support of his first album, Alive On Arrival, but as I stopped and looked on with a handful of others and we watched him strum his acoustic guitar, blow his blues harp and check the microphones, all of us could feel a real sense of expectancy in the air.

Later that night, Steve and his backing band would thrill thousands of Syracuse students and townies with his wistful and introspective songs. I remember it as a thrilling, long set that featured a whole bunch of different kinds of music; folk, rock, blues, and more. At the end of the show, I remember watching an especially enthusiastic audience member up front climbing onto the stage to boogie with the band. The kid, who definitely knew the song was handed a tamborine and as he danced along to , “You Cannot Win, If You Do Not Play,” the entire quad cheered both him and, of course, the star of the show, Steve Forbert.

Earlier at the sound check Steve had appeared shy and a bit tentative to me but by the end of the night, this young singer was transformed into a confident and self-assured performer, smiling and playing to the rapturous crowd, urging them to sing along. Steve was completely caught up in his own music and it was contagious. The next day I tracked down my new college buddy Mike, who owned a copy of Alive On Arrival, to take another listen. Then I rushed down to the on-campus record store to buy my own copy and I swear I listened to that record until I wore the grooves out. My friends and I were hooked to a new sensation who had serenaded our campus. Little did we know then that this was an artist that many of us would be listening to for the next three decades.

Samuel Stephen Forbert was born in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1956 the same year Elvis Presley was all over the radio singing his classic, “Heartbreak Hotel.” After a typical southern upbringing, Steve started playing guitar when he was young and kept playing, formed or played in a bunch of teenage bands, recorded a bit without much notice and then set his sights on a bigger prize.

In the late ’70s, Steve grabbed his suitcase, guitar and blues harp and headed for the same destination that so many other singer/songwriters before him had sought out; The Big Apple, New York City. But it must have been much to Steve’s dismay to discover that it was the punk scene that was hot and not the kind of music he was playing. Born naturally gifted with a smooth and homespun raspiness in his voice with his own unique style on harmonica and the ability to write great songs, Steve was quickly stuck with the same label so many other musicians like him had been given, “the new Dylan,” a moniker and albatross that nobody particularly wanted. After all Dylan had already happened more than a decade ago. If you were going to be successful, you had to offer something new and different.

Now faced with clubs in New York City that were mostly interested in booking bands like Blondie, The Ramonies, and Television, Steve found himself forced to try to make a living playing small halls and churches, and eventually was busking on the streets and living through at least one very cold New York City winter.

Fortunately, he was eventually discovered before he starved to death and signed by Nemperer records to a binding contract he would live to regret. But for now, Steve Forbert was able to release the critically acclaimed, Alive On Arrival, featuring a whole host of catchy, somewhat autobiographical songs that are still favorites today. These songs had titles like, “Grand Central Station,” “Big City Cat” and “Tonight I Feel So Far Away From Home,” that told of his trials and tribulations in the NYC.

Steve Forbert quickly followed up on the success of his debut record with a slightly more rocking/pop-influenced, Jackrabbit Slim, complete with Memphis horns, and gorgeous background vocals and lots of electric guitar. That album’s lead track featured Steve’s biggest hit, the piano-driven, hook-laden, “Romeo’s Tune,” which bopped its way to No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1980. Suddenly, promoters were coming to Steve to get bookings at larger venues where often he’s headline or opening for acts like Bonnie Raitt. Steve seemed to be well on his way. All in all, it wasn’t a bad way to kick off the new decade.

Now a legitimate contender in the pop/rock world, Steve was garnering rave reviews in the press, traveling to England to appear on “The Old Grey Whistle Stop”. Steve was so popular he even showed somehow in a strange conga line, in the video for Cyndi Lauper’s, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” But in a number of interviews around the time, Steve seemed not to trust music writers or the things that had brought his such early success. Perhaps it was his own maturity and knowledge of other one-hit wonder acts that had come and go before they even had a chance to say goodbye. But he remained prolific, still churning out songs that appeared on his next album, Little Stevie Orbit, which was not well received, despite some great songs. It was called “uneven” and “disappointing,” unable to deliver a hit of the same calibre as “Romeo’s Tune.”

Soon Forbert found himself at odds with the powers that be at Nemperer Record, who refused to release his fourth album. The inevitable, litigious calamities and general series of unfortunate events followed and soon Steve was trapped into a record deal in which he couldn’t get his albums released. (Happily, many of the songs from Steve’s “missing albums” have been released by Steve on his own web site, including the most recent Down In Flames record) but for much of the ’80s, Steve seemed to many of his fans to have disappeared for a bit. He continued to tour, but there were no new albums or royalties to keep Steve afloat financially. As he sang onstage, these were “hard times, for sure.” In the end it was his continued touring that saved Steve Forbert.

Steve’s so-called “comeback album” came in 1988 and was a winning collaboration in the studio with co-producer Garry Tallent, bass player with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Streets Of This Town is a collection of gorgeous, reflective songs that played well at the time with audiences and critics alike. It is full of songs that speak to the hardships Steve had endured and about the time that had passed, with titles like “I Blinked Once,” and “Don’t Tell Me.” That release on Geffen Records appeared to breathe new life into Steve Forbert and the artist followed that success with another well-written, catchy collection of songs titled simply, The American In Me.

His albums still might not be getting the distribution and publicity they deserved, but Steve Forbert continued to tour relentlessly throughout America and even in Europe. His audience on both sides of the Atlantic adored both sides of the singer/songwriter; the hard strummin’, harp-blowing rocker and the sensitive guy in the spotlight singing slow ballads offering wisdom and warm comfort in the increasingly nihilistic, mean-spirited world. On stage, Steve never had trouble connecting with his fans, whether getting them to clap along or simply sing choruses back to him, like on tunes such as “The Oil Song” (an ever evolving commentary on the environmental impact of one oil barge disaster after another.) Meanwhile, Steve could shift gears and have hushed silence when he needed it for the quieter songs. Mid-tempo tunes like “You Cannot Win ‘Em All” and “New Working Day” reflected a “new kinda guy,” no longer saddled to his earlier restrictive labels and impossible expectations. Steve Forbert was now his own man, winning by the his own set of rules.

The ’90s and ‘Oughts found Steve recording in the studio and performing with new musicians and backing bands, while also playing solo shows. He even offered his songs to some big names in contemporary country music like Roseanne Cash, Keith Urban, Marty Stuart and others. At the shows, adoring fans could purchase rare or live CD’s that Steve would bring along. And once onstage, he seemed completely at home, playing requests, telling stories of those not-so-good old early days. After his shows Steve made it a habit to always come out and meet his fans, many of whom have been with him from the beginning. He’d sign old copies of Alive On Arrival and other early LP’s, pose for pictures or just say hello and shake some hands.

Thirty years after I first first saw Steve Forbert on the Syracuse Quad, he’s still doing what he loves the most and it definitely shows. His fans, now from all over the world, come out to see him every time he comes to town. He has a unique and lasting relationship with his audience fueled by longevity and what Steve might call, “real, live, love.” And the traveling troubadour is always rewarded at the end of the night with standing ovations. To his audience, Steve Forbert has taken on the role of an old friend.

Regardless of whatever bad experiences Steve might have had to put up with, every night he performs he does so with an easy manner and friendly smile; ready, willing and able to bring a smile to a face or even to elicit a tear or two of nostalgia. And when you come right down to it, that seems like all he ever wanted to do in the first place.

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Win Win – Wrestling With Life

Win Win is a victorious little film that wrestles with some of life’s unexpected twists and turns. It’s a humble but lovable little lesson of how we unknowingly entangled ourselves and the difficulty of finding a way to straighten things out.

At first glance at the promotional poster, one might think that this is just another cliche high school sports stories like the formulaic and overrated The Blind Side, and dozens of others just like it. And without fine acting performances by Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan (Holly from The Office), and nifty newcomer Alex Shaffer, this movie could easily have descended into that same mold. But instead, Director Thomas McCarthy (who also directed The Station Agent and The Visitor) has created a quirky and ultimately uplifting tale about a not-so-nuclear family simply trying to make it through the trials and tribulations of modern life. Win Win is a movie that refuses to run away from the betrayals and complications that every family must tackle. And the ultimate redemption that these characters find is won not with the typical bravura of most sports films, but with simple, straightforward solutions.

Paul Giamatti plays a middle-age attorney, husband and father of two daughters struggling to pay the bills and keep the wolf from the door. By day, he’s working various cases in court. At night, he moonlights on another kind of court as the coach a losing high school wrestling team. The problems begin when Giamatti’s character attempts a sly move. He’s presented with the opportunity to bring in some badly needed cash by caring for an elderly gentleman (played with gusto and by Burt Young of Rocky fame) who is clearly incapable of caring for himself. So the coach agrees to become his guardian, and eventually places him an assisted care home.

All seems to be fine until the appearance on his doorstep one day of a slightly strange, teen named Kyle complete with bleached white hair looking for his grandfather. The teen, played by newcomer Alex Shaffer, is adrift in the world, while his mother remains in rehab for substance abuse problems. Oh, what a tangled web the coach has weaved, especially when the mother appears, demanding her son along with custody of her father and the money that Giamatti’s character was pocketing. Meanwhile, Giamatti’s Coach Flaherty has discovered that Kyle is, among other things, an exceptionally talented wrestler, who could carry his entire team to victory.

More complications ensue when Kyle disappears, and Coach Flaherty’s elderly charge decides that there really is no place like home. Giamatti is pitch perfect as a guy who is just trying so darn hard to do the right thing and always ending up doing the wrong thing. But in the end, while Kyle leads his wresting team to victory, a solution is found and the film ends in an uplifting manner.

Win Win may not win any awards for greatness, but if you’re looking for a film that will warm and cheer you up while we wait for the long overdue Spring you could do a heck of a lot worse.

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