Thursday, June 30, 2005

the dutchess of coolsville

duchessI fell in love with Rickie Lee Jones and her music in the late 1970's shortly after hearing her self-titled first album. She was in her mid-20's and was riding the wave of her popular opening song, "Chuck E's in Love."

But one could tell from that first album that she was not interested in shaping her music to fit pop tastes or "stoking the starmaker machinery behind the popular song," as Joni Mitchell wrote. Her later dozen or so albums sold unevenly as she explored her different musical interests. But she remained a favorite of the music critics and an inspiration to female singer/songwriters. I never stopped listening either.

A couple of years ago I saw her live for the first time at the Barrymore in Madison. She was wonderful, now a grown woman leading her band all over the musical spectrum.

Now she has an anthology, duchess of coolsville on Rhino. It arrived last week, ordered in advance of release through her web site. Spanning her career the three disk set has it all, songs that define a style all her own - jazz, swing, pop, bebop - with lyrics that would be at home at a poetry improv.

Like most artists exploring edges, Rickie Lee has her share of misses. But when she gets it right, it is chicken-skin time.

Those interested in learning more about her music may find this 3-disc set a bit too eclectic. Her initial album still sounds fresh after all these years. It might be a good place to start. She also has a variety of live performances from over the years available through her web site.

I hear something different every time I listen to Rickie Lee. You might too. As Emmylou Harris wote in the liner notes, "...Rickie Lee still rules."

Monday, June 27, 2005

20/20's Seven Deadly Sins

abc_20_20Occupying that fuzzy wasteland between news and entertainment, ABC's 20/20 began a summer series last Friday night featuring the "Seven Deadly Sins." They blew it.

Instead of beginning with the sins we've all come to know and love since the 6th century, John Stossel and crew decided to start by recasting "Pride" into "Vanity." If Saint Gregory the Great wanted to include Vanity he would have. John, he chose Pride.

Instead of exploring Proud to be an American (Google's top search hit for that phrase) so close to the 4th of July we have pieces on teen boob-jobs, cut-rate plastic surgery, and "Reshape Your Body, and Reshape Your Life?". Of course, as we move deeper into the bathing suit season, female body parts were featured, all the better to kept the viewers tuned in for the commercials.

Never mind that Pride and Vanity are not the same thing. At best Vanity is a small physical subset of Pride, historically associated with women.

Never mind that the desire for makeovers - extreme or not - likely springs from insecurity, not Pride. Those were not vain women we saw; they were women with low self-esteem - insecure at best, self-loathing at worst.

Never mind that by transforming Pride into physical Vanity 20/20 managed to avoid dealing with many larger and more important issues wrapped in Pride: consumerism, social and economic class, racism, political rhetoric, military adventures abroad. Maybe ABC did not want to upset anyone in Washington.

John, Give Me a Break. With Barbara Walters and Geraldo Rivera watching, was this the best you could do?

Every now and then I get reminded that both ABC News and Mickey Mouse share the same address. 20/20? It is not Frontline, not yet anyway.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Seven Deadly Sins, the Series

One of my favorite blogs, Locust Street, is currently posting from the baaaad section of town, the intersection of Music Avenue and Sin Street.slacker

Chris is beginning a series featuring the Seven Deadly Sins. Sloth just walked in and does not seem in a hurry to go anywhere.

I think I'll go take a nap.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Giving Us the Business

I don't know if it is just me getting older, but I am becoming increasing annoyed at the quality of writing I am finding in both print and electronic media these days. I am not talking about grammar, punctuation, or syntax. I am talking about the shallowness of the thinking that seems to underlie so many articles. It is bad enough that both Time and Newsweek have degenerated to the point where I am not sure whether I am reading a serious news magazine or a tabloid aimed at Wal-Mart checkout lanes. And if I have to turn past another "Special Advertising Section" I think I will puke. But it is what passes for business writing these days that make me wonder about the future of journalism. Please allow me to cite but two examples.

apple computerApple Computer, has been the subject of almost unbelieveably shortsighted and ultimately inaccurate business reporting by people who seem to have decided on their conclusion and then chose their facts accordingly. (sound familiar?) For at least ten years now business writers and computer industry observers have decided that the company must be going out of business, sustained only temporarily by cult-like zombies who don't have better sense than to just do what everybody else seemed to be doing, buying a generic Wintel PC. In fact a website has been keeping track of the Apple deathwatch for a number of years. The Mac Observer currently cites 46 "declared dead" articles since 1995.

Inconveniently, the company not only has survived, it is thriving. These articles seem humorous in hindsight until you think about how many people shied away from buying an Apple computer because of them.

Now with the obvious success of the iPod & the iTunes Store (Apple is no longer a computer company) and the pending switch to Intel processors (The mystique is gone and the cult will disappear) these same geniuses are predicting again the fall of Apple.

Yes, Apple has had its market failures. That sometimes seems to be the price of innovation and leadership. And as long as most PCs are bought for someone else to use - the enterprise market - price and not value will be all some of us choose to see. But one should remember it was only when Apple was run by suits - business types - and started to do what all the business analysts wanted them to do did they go in decline.

Happily for Apple and their customers Steve Jobs is back, that decline is over, and for those of us who simply want the best computer we can afford, we still have a choice; no thanks to Business Week, Money Magazine, PC Magazine, TheStreet.com, and just about every financial analyst on Wall Street.

Check out today's "Apple Courting Core Meltdown" at TheStreet. Core Meltdown? Why doesn't the author take one step further and write "The Possible End of Life on Earth" or "The Sky May Fall"? Yes, there are risks associated with the move to Intel chips. But this article is a great example of the usual glass always being - at best - half empty at Apple Computer.

If you want to really understand Apple, and the poor coverage they get in the business press, I suggest either of the MacJournals.

gmDid you know that General Motors vehicles have included in their sticker price between $1,500 and $2,000 of pension and medical costs while their (foreign) competitors generally have much less? Did you know that is one of the main reasons it lost $1.1 billion in the first quarter of 2005? Well if you did not know you certainly have not been paying attention to the business news recently. For the past couple of months we have been reading over and over this same story in the business press.

GM is now blaming their financial weakness on workers who accepted their generous compensation packages. In effect GM is seen as the victim of it's past labor agreements. Further, if the UAW does not rush back to the bargaining table and see to it that the workers give back some of this money there will be hell-to-pay. After all, what is good for General Motors.... Even George Will became an economist for a day with this message.

I suspect what we have here is a concerted effort by GM management and their PR flacks to put pressure on their union to negotiate money back into GM coffers. So business writers are fed all this pension and medical cost smoke and mirrors, the public believes it is getting expert inside analysis, the publishers their eyeballs, and hopefully - for GM - political pressure will mount on the union. Could George Will really be a shill? You betcha.

EconomistAt least one business magazine refused to play along. The Economist included in their June 9th issue an article titled "The Lost Years." It said in conclusion that,
The carmaker lost $1.1 billion during the first quarter and will not even make a forecast for the rest of the year. The reason for the collapse into loss was a slump in revenues caused by weak products.
The general thrust of the article is that GM has not been making cars good enough to succeed in the market place. That, coupled with other management induced failures, accounts for their current predictament. I suggest you read this article for a whiff a clean, non-Detroit, air.

I also suggest if you want to spend some time in the fountain of youth, drive a current GM car. I drove a recent Pontiac Grand Prix yesterday. It was like 1985 all over again.

GM is a classic example of the failure of success. Not even fawning writers can put this humpty dumpty back on that wall.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

the U.S. Open

VijayYesterday, my wife, sister, brother-in-law and I attended the first practice round of the U.S. Open, played this year on Pinehurst #2 just a short drive minutes from my home.

As it was a practice round, the mood was as relaxed as could be expected at the beginning of arguably the most important golf championship in the world. The clouds and light wind brought a measure of relief as the temperature hovered around 90. The $2.50 bottled water was worth every penny.Vijay2

This was my first time walking Pinehurst #2, always ranked among the finest tests of golf in the world. After a difficult spring the weather had cooperated over the past few weeks; the course was in great shape. I have putted on greens that looked worse than the fairways we walked. As for all Opens, the roughs were thick and punishing.

But the main feature of the course is the genius of its designer, Donald Ross. Number 2 is just jaw-dropping beautiful, but it ways that test one's golf, not imagination. I was lucky enough to play as a youth many times on a Ross course, although I did not know it at the time. Those holes - among the last he ever designed - always seemed special to me. Watching from outside the ropes yesterday was difficult. I wanted to pick up my clubs and play!

Finally I was again reminded of the considerable gap between my golfing skills and those of the players we saw yesterday. Vijay Singh, currently the world's number 2 player, hit a drive shortly after I took the photo above that was longer, higher, and straighter that any I ever hit in my prime. Then he took a three-wood and did it again. Sure, modern equipment accounts for some of the difference, but not all. I am sure I hit a 300-yard drive or two in my career. Vijay averages over 300 yards and hits the fairway over 60 percent of the time. Damn! These guys are really, really, good.

Pinehurst #2 is a player's course, not a spectator's course. Given that and the even larger crowds once the tournament starts, I will be happy to be watching on TV this weekend as the championship is decided. But then I will have a bit more understanding of what it takes to play #2.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Follow the Money

ATPM So, who gave us,"Follow the money"? Was it Deep Throat, a.k.a. Mark Felt? Apparently not. No, the most famous single line to come out of the Watergate scandel - other than that show stopper, "I am not a crook." - one that is welded deep in the American psyche, did not appear in reporter Woodward's notes, the pages of the Washington Post, nor Woodward and Bernstein's subsequent book. It was written for Hal Holbrook who played Deep Throat, in the movie version of the book, All the President's Men.

William Goldman, who also gave us Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man and The Princess Bride is the author.Deep Throat

That revelation leads off todays Frank Rich column in the NY Times. I recommend it strongly, especially for you who either have only a hazy idea about what Watergate was about, or who have been wondering about the current state of news reporting in this country; or both.

Unless you want to pay to read the column, please be advised that NY Times.com on-line articles are available for free for only seven days. After that date I will edit this post using the old cut and paste.

June 23rd - As promised here is the full text:

June 12, 2005
Don't Follow the Money
By FRANK RICH

THE morning the Deep Throat story broke, the voice on my answering machine was as raspy as Hal Holbrook's. "I just want you to remember that I wrote 'Follow the money,' " said my caller. "I want to know if anybody will give me credit. Watch for the accuracy of the media!"

The voice belonged to my friend William Goldman, who wrote the movie "All the President's Men." His words proved more than a little prescient. As if on cue, journalists everywhere - from The New York Times to The Economist to The Washington Post itself - would soon start attributing this classic line of dialogue to the newly unmasked Deep Throat, W. Mark Felt. But the line was not in Woodward and Bernstein's book or in The Post's Watergate reportage or in Bob Woodward's contemporaneous notes. It was the invention of the author of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Marathon Man" and "The Princess Bride."

This confusion of Hollywood's version of history with the genuine article would quickly prove symptomatic of the overall unreality of the Deep Throat coverage. Was Mr. Felt a hero or a villain? Should he "follow the money" into a book deal, and if so, how would a 91-year-old showing signs of dementia either write a book or schmooze about it with Larry King? How did Vanity Fair scoop The Post? How does Robert Redford feel about it all? Such were the questions that killed time for a nation awaiting the much-heralded feature mediathon, the Michael Jackson verdict.

Richard Nixon and Watergate itself, meanwhile, were often reduced to footnotes. Three years ago, on Watergate's 30th anniversary, an ABC News poll found that two-thirds of Americans couldn't explain what the scandal was, and no one was racing to enlighten them this time around. Vanity Fair may have taken the trouble to remind us that Watergate was a web of crime yielding the convictions and guilty pleas of more than 30 White House and Nixon campaign officials, but few others did. Watergate has gone back to being the "third-rate burglary" of Nixon administration spin. It is once again being covered up.

Not without reason. Had the scandal been vividly resuscitated as the long national nightmare it actually was, it would dampen all the Felt fun by casting harsh light on our own present nightmare. "The fundamental right of Americans, through our free press, to penetrate and criticize the workings of our government is under attack as never before" was how the former Nixon speech writer William Safire put it on this page almost nine months ago. The current administration, a second-term imperial presidency that outstrips Nixon's in hubris by the day, leads the attack, trying to intimidate and snuff out any Woodwards or Bernsteins that might challenge it, any media proprietor like Katharine Graham or editor like Ben Bradlee who might support them and any anonymous source like Deep Throat who might enable them to find what Carl Bernstein calls "the best obtainable version of the truth."

The attacks continue to be so successful that even now, long after many news organizations, including The Times, have been found guilty of failing to puncture the administration's prewar W.M.D. hype, new details on that same story are still being ignored or left uninvestigated. The July 2002 "Downing Street memo," the minutes of a meeting in which Tony Blair and his advisers learned of a White House effort to fix "the intelligence and facts" to justify the war in Iraq, was published by The London Sunday Times on May 1. Yet in the 19 daily Scott McClellan briefings that followed, the memo was the subject of only 2 out of the approximately 940 questions asked by the White House press corps, according to Eric Boehlert of Salon.

This is the kind of lapdog news media the Nixon White House cherished. To foster it, Nixon's special counsel, Charles W. Colson, embarked on a ruthless program of intimidation that included threatening antitrust action against the networks if they didn't run pro-Nixon stories. Watergate tapes and memos make Mr. Colson, who boasted of "destroying the old establishment," sound like the founding father of today's blogging lynch mobs. He exulted in bullying CBS to cut back its Watergate reports before the '72 election. He enlisted NBC in pro-administration propaganda by browbeating it to repackage 10-day-old coverage of Tricia Nixon's wedding as a prime-time special. It was the Colson office as well that compiled a White House enemies list that included journalists who had the audacity to question administration policies.

Such is the equivalently supine state of much of the news media today that Mr. Colson was repeatedly trotted out, without irony, to pass moral judgment on Mr. Felt - and not just on Fox News, the cable channel that is actually run by the former Nixon media maven, Roger Ailes. "I want kids to look up to heroes," Mr. Colson said, oh so sorrowfully, on NBC's "Today" show, condemning Mr. Felt for dishonoring "the confidence of the president of the United States." Never mind that Mr. Colson dishonored the law, proposed bombing the Brookings Institution and went to prison for his role in the break-in to steal the psychiatric records of The Times's Deep Throat on Vietnam, Daniel Ellsberg. The "Today" host, Matt Lauer, didn't mention any of this - or even that his guest had done jail time. None of the other TV anchors who interviewed Mr. Colson - and he was ubiquitous - ever specified his criminal actions in the Nixon years. Some identified him onscreen only as a "former White House counsel."

Had anyone been so rude (or professional) as to recount Mr. Colson's sordid past, or to raise the question of whether he was a hero or a traitor, the genealogical line between his Watergate-era machinations and those of his present-day successors would have been all too painfully clear. The main difference is that in the Nixon White House, the president's men plotted behind closed doors. The current administration is now so brazen it does its dirty work in plain sight.

In the most recent example, all the president's men slimed and intimidated Newsweek by accusing it of being an accessory to 17 deaths for its errant Koran story; led by Scott McClellan, they said it was unthinkable that any American guard could be disrespectful of Islam's holy book. These neo-Colsons easily drowned out Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, both of whom said that the riots that led to the 17 deaths were unrelated to Newsweek. Then came the pi├Ęce de r├ęsistance of Nixon mimicry: a Pentagon report certifying desecrations of the Koran by American guards was released two weeks after the Newsweek imbroglio, at 7:15 p.m. on a Friday, to assure it would miss the evening newscasts and be buried in the Memorial Day weekend's little-read papers.

At other times the new Colsons top the old one. Though Nixon aspired to punish public broadcasting by cutting its funding, he never imagined that his apparatchiks could seize the top executive positions at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Nor did he come up with the brilliant ideas of putting journalists covertly on the administration payroll and of hiring an outside P.R. firm (Ketchum) to codify an enemies list by ranking news organizations and individual reporters on the basis of how favorably they cover a specific administration policy (No Child Left Behind). President Bush has even succeeded in emasculating the post-Watergate reform that was supposed to help curb Nixonian secrecy, the Presidential Records Act of 1978.

THE journalists who do note the resonances of now with then rarely get to connect those dots on the news media's center stage of television. You are more likely to hear instead of how Watergate inspired too much "gotcha" journalism. That's a rather absurd premise given that no "gotcha" journalist got the goods on the biggest story of our time: the false intimations of incipient mushroom clouds peddled by American officials to sell a war that now threatens to match the unpopularity and marathon length of Vietnam.

Only once during the Deep Throat rollout did I see a palpable, if perhaps unconscious, effort to link the White House of 1972 with that of 2005. It occurred at the start, when ABC News, with the first comprehensive report on Vanity Fair's scoop, interrupted President Bush's post-Memorial Day Rose Garden news conference to break the story. Suddenly the image of the current president blathering on about how hunky-dory everything is in Iraq was usurped by repeated showings of the scene in which the newly resigned Nixon walked across the adjacent White House lawn to the helicopter that would carry him into exile.

But in the days that followed, Nixon and his history and the long shadows they cast largely vanished from the TV screen. In their place were constant nostalgic replays of young Redford and flinty Holbrook. Follow the bait-and-switch.

Friday, June 10, 2005

The Seven Deadly Sins

In my youth I spent a week in the city of San Francisco, just missing by a few months (!#&**!!!) the Summer of Love. I stayed with a friend on the campus of San Francisco State College, soon to become one of the most visible examples of 1960's college campus unrest. It was like going to the circus. I knew I didn't quite belong with the performers; but I knew that somewhere under that tent was a place for me.

Among the places I visited was the Haight-Ashbury district and nearby Golden Gate Park, where I attended an early spring "Human Be-in." I went to the Winterland and heard a band called Cream. My host suggested one afternoon that we drop by a house where some guys he knew lived. They had a band called the Grateful Dead. I opted instead to go to the famous San Francisco Zoo. My friends love this story.

newadventuresjesus_1969Somewhere on Ashbury street I bought a comic book called The New Adventures of Jesus, one of the first "underground comix," although I didn't know it at the time. I still have it, somewhere. The author, Frank Stack as Foolbert Sturgeon, has Jesus say at one point when confronting a mob of dim-bulb Galileans that, "The problem isn't sin, it's stupidity." For some reason that phrase has stuck with me since.

Given, IMHO, that there is only a very fine line between sin and stupidity, I have been thinking recently about the Seven Deadly Sins. For those of you who need reminding, they are (in ascending order of severity according to Dante): Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride. I am personally thankful to Dante for that order.

When I was younger I thought these small fish to fry; I was after bigger game. Besides, although not in much official favor today, at one time the Seven Deadly (aka Capital or Cardinal) Sins were closely associated with the medieval Catholic Church, an institution I did not admire. In addition, they seemed so.... familiar, so....American.

Recently I have come to reassess my position. Large things from small things grow. Maybe looking at our lives and the choices we make through the lens of these sins is not a bad idea. It would also be tempting to begin a critique of the last 60 years of American life - including our foreign policy - from within their framework. But this is a blog post, not a dissertation.

So I invite you gentle readers, who are likely as free from these sins as I, to consider along with me the many ways we all might benefit if others would just get grip on their seven deadly sinfulness.

Monday, June 06, 2005

the Oxford American

OxAmericancoverLike a good idea that just won't go away, the Oxford American is back.

The magazine, which bills itself as "The Southern Magazine of Good Writing," was founded in 1992 in Oxford, Mississippi by Marc Smirnoff. It lasted only two years, folding for the first time in 1994. Author John Grisham, who was living in Oxford, resurrected it. While the critics loved it, it was a money loser. Grisham support ended, and so did the magazine, in 2001. By that time I was subscriber.

Having moved editorial offices to Little Rock, Arkansas, the magazine reappeared in 2002, only to fold again a year later. Now operating as a non-profit (not much of a stretch) it is enjoyed its fourth trip to the plate courtesy of the University of Central Arkansas, which has made a three-year investment of nearly $500,000.

With an editorial mission to "explore the American South," it has published original writing by many fine writers, including Donna Tartt, Charles Portis, Barry Hannah, Roy Blount, Jr., Tony Earley, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Wendy Brenner, Steve Martin, and Susan Sontag, not to mention William Faulkner, Walker Percy, James Agee, and Zora Neale Hurston. Its Southern Music Issue, complete with a CD, has been featured on NPR three years in a row and has won two National Magazine Awards for Best Single Topic Issue, most recently in 2004.

Smirnoff loves the south as only a "come here" can. I have just finished reading the latest issue, the first food issue, cover to cover. I laughted; I cried; I got hungry. The music issue is next. I can't wait.

If you care for the south, not the Southern Living version but the real one, the one that matters, and enjoy good writing, the Oxford American is for you. Subscribe to help ensure the magazine survives, or pick up issues that look interesting from a well-stocked magazine stand. Better hurry, ya hear?