Monday, February 27, 2006

Celebrity R.I.P. X3

My mother said that celebrities always die in groups of three. I remember this vividly from my childhood years, probably from the first time I heard her say it. It's a frightening thought for a small child when you think about it. When Don Knotts died a few days ago, I thought "Who's next?" Sure enough, no sooner than we lose Deputy Barney Fife, than we also lose McCloud and Detective Kolchak.

Don Knotts created such a memorable character in Barney Fife that it's hard to picture him as anything else. I also fondly remember his roles as the Reluctant Astronaut and Mr. Limpet. Oh, and he was Jack Tripper's landlord after the Ropers moved out, but he was a little creepy in that role.

I never liked McCloud. The role that defines Dennis Weaver for me is the classic Spielberg TV movie Duel. A man, a Dodge Dart and a truck from hell. If you haven't seen this movie, go immediately to your local rental shop or Netflix queue and check it out. Made in 1971, for years it was a late night TV staple. Today the movie has developed a real cult following. It's probably in my top 25 favorite films.

Darren McGavin had an amazingly prolific acting career; go to Credits, it's unbelievable. I liked him as Sinatra's drug supplier in The Man with the Golden Arm and the gambler in The Natural. The Night Stalker scared the hell out of me. I prefer to remember him as the "Old Man" in A Christmas Story. "It's a leg!!"

Ok that's three. I guess Hollywood is safe for a little while.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Forgotten Records - #1

Little Village was a supergroup of sorts, combining the talents of four great musicians on the periphery of the rock mainstream. Released in 1992, the self-titled album put John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner together again after they worked together on Hiatt's 1987 album Bring The Family. Although at times the record sounds like a John Hiatt solo effort, solid songwriting and tight playing are evident throughout. In Chicago, the song Solar Sex Panel got a lot of airplay, but there were several other standout tracks. I liked She Runs Hot because it featured some shared vocals a la the Traveling Wilburys. Definitely intended to be a one-off effort, Little Village was razed after a brief tour.

The song: She Runs Hot

Buy it: Little Village


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Millennium Park circa 1950

One of my favorite web sites is Found Magazine, a site that collects random objects found by people; photographs, grocery lists, handwritten notes, whatever. It really gets your imagination working to think about the people in the photos, or what on earth was going through a person’s mind when they wrote that cryptic note (some of the items are downright bizarre). I don’t have a collection of such objects of my own (yet), but I do have a few items I've found that are worth sharing:

This photograph comes from a handful of slides found in my mother-in-law’s personal belongings and was probably taken in the early 1950’s, judging from the railroad cars in the photo. The view is looking south towards Michigan Avenue in Chicago at what is now Millennium Park. My guess is the shot was taken from the Randolph Street Bridge near the old Prudential Building. The Art Institute is in the background. As a kid, I remember looking at the trains from my father's office in the tall building in the photo (with the pyramid and beehive beacon on top). This is the equivalent of looking at Central Park from a high rise in New York and seeing locomotive and cattle cars.

It’s hard to believe that for many years Chicago’s “front yard” was a tangled web of freight cars and railroad lines. Visitors and new residents are probably unaware of the industrial history of this site. The railroads were a huge contributor to the growth of Chicago, but this is a case where obscuring our history is probably a good thing. Today, the site contains the newly completed Millennium Park, complete with a Frank Gehry designed bandshell, landscaped promenades, ice rinks and a giant mirror polished kidney bean (see the Cloud Gate photo below). A few rails lines still run below, and a huge parking garage is constructed below the park, but the up on top, the transformation is remarkable. Millennium Park is directly responsible for the recent boom in residential property in the Loop. Here's what the site looks like today:

Polishing the Cloud Gate, 2-21-06. What a difference half a century makes. By the way, my father's office building went condo last year.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Chicago Auto Show in review

Last weekend I took in the Chicago Auto Show with my 11-year-old son. The show is always a spectacle, where the common folk can come within a few feet of unattainable luxury automobiles and wow over the concept vehicles. I suppose a few people are actually there to shop for a new car, but mostly it’s a day in fantasyland for a bunch of car nuts. Any growing public interest in hybrid vehicles and energy efficiency is not in evidence here; this show is all about Detroit muscle and conspicuous consumption. Here are some highlights:

The buzz in the concept car category was the Nissan Urge, a nifty little sportster with the ability to transform into an Xbox 360 life size controller. With the push of a button the steering wheel and pedals become controllers, and a drop down screen provides the graphics. Presumably, you have to park the car to play. The Urge was one of the only concept cars that you could really get close to; the others were on roped off elevated pedestals. As you might guess, this was my son’s favorite. I thought it was humorous that the Urge had no slinky babe touting its features like the other concept cars. Instead, they ran a video with an engineer describing the design (the Urge must be targeted to the techno-geek).

The Urge interior. Not sure about the name..... This was not the only concept car with a steering wheel reminiscent of a airplane.

Dodge had the biggest presence of the major automakers at the show, highlighted by the concept Challenger, a throwback (almost a mimic) of the early 70’s styling the way Ford did with the Mustang last year. Shown in Competition Orange, this was a favorite. There’s also a bright yellow Charger with the vintage ‘Super Bee” graphics. With the demand for 1970’s muscle cars off the charts, it is no surprise Detroit is going retro. A local auto museum displayed a 1970 Plymouth Hemi Convertible, valued at $2.2 million. One of six known to exist, they turned down an offer of $4.6M. Chevy had a nice Camaro concept on display too.

The Challenger interior. I liked the two tone cockpit with the high tech blue colors emanating from the dash.

Too bad Pontiac blew it on the recently redesigned GTO last year. However, Pontiac has the best new production car in my opinion. Check out this bright red Solstice sportster, due for 2007.

The Hyundai Miev concept car reminded me of a life size Hot Wheel. I think that's a good thing.

The Ford Super Chief is an enormous "chopped" pick-up with tank like styling and small, sinister windows. The Super Chief and a concept van included adjustable seats that transform the rear into family room type seating (the van had a sectional sofa) with the obligatory drop down flat screen. To Ford's credit, this behemoth did feature a hybrid fuel system.

The crowd at the Ferrari/Maserati booth was impenetrable. People will still trample each other for a glimpse of Italian engineering. Interestingly, no Ferraris in red; only gunmetal and blue metallic. There was a two-tone model that had the purists muttering under their breath.

All in all a fun time. Where else can you see the cutting edge automotive engineering, a $2 million muscle car and the Ghostbusters 1959 Cadillac ambulance? For my money though, I’ll still take a 1967 Pontiac GTO over just about anything.

For a virtual tour: Chicago Auto Show


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

2-14-70 - When dinosaurs ruled the Earth

When February 14th rolls around, my first thoughts are not the hearts, cupids and overpriced flowers that signify the Hallmark Holiday. Instead, I think of February 14, 1970, in an era when the dinosaurs ruled the earth.

At the Fillmore East in New York City, the Grateful Dead were in the midst of conquering the tough east coast crowd with mammoth shows, marathons ranging from sweet acoustic music to the depths of sonic deep space and improvisational brilliance. The 2-13 and 2-14 shows rank very highly in the deadheads voting for all time best Grateful Dead performances. 2-13 contains a particularly great Dark Star, the vehicle which transported the band and the audience into the far reaches of euphoria (OK, there may have been other vehicles at work too). It was performed in the wee hours of February 14th, as the Dead played long sets (after the Allman Brothers and Love). The highlights are immortalized in Dick’s Picks Volume 4.

Meanwhile, across the pond, the Who was in Leeds, performing one of their best shows, and recording arguably the best live rock album of all time. Live at Leeds still gives me goosebumps every time I listen to it. It’s the only album I’ve purchased 4 times (a vinyl copy in the early 80’s, the first CD, the second remastered and extended copy, and finally the Deluxe version including the entire concert and full performance of Tommy). The power of this recording is undeniable, and thank God we have it (legend has it that most tapes of the 1969 US tour were destroyed to discourage bootlegging. Pete, say it ain’t so!). 1970 marks the end of the early of the Who, one that predates the ambitious music of Who's Next and Quadrophenia. In this performance you can hear the lethal stage presence and frenzied energy of this band (some have even suggested that the Who might be the first punks). What ever they were, this album will get your heart pumping.

Go buy your loved one some candy or flowers. Then go buy yourself these discs if you don’t already have them.

Is there anybody out there lucky enough to have been in attendance at these shows? I’d love to hear about it.

Listen: Casey Jones

Shakin' All Over

Buy: Dick's Pick's Volume 4

Live at Leeds

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Mona Lisa smiles, but she's slightly pissed

“But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles.”

- Bob Dylan, Visions of Johanna, Blonde on Blonde, 1966

Bob’s theory, although compelling, was wrong. It wasn’t the highway blues at the source of the famous sitter’s legendary mirth. It was 83 percent happiness. And, 9 percent disgust, 6 percent fear, and 2 percent anger. No sadness at all.

It seems scientists in Amsterdam have developed a sophisticated computer algorithm for human emotion that analyzes facial expressions, specifically, the lines that occur between the eyes, nose and mouth. Working in conjunction with scientists at the University of Illinois, Dr. Nico Sebe of the University of Amsterdam has developed the theory by breaking down human emotions into six basic feelings: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust. I read this brief article waiting for the punch line, thinking it was a gag in The Onion. Apparently the report is legitimate, and was covered by various news sources last December.

Now I’m not a scientist, psychologist, or even a good judge of character, but I find this algorithm idea to be ridiculous. To reduce the human condition to six neat categories is tough enough, but can we ever hope to discern a person’s true feelings simply by reading the lines on their face? And then to apply this to an oil painting, which every person sees in a different light? I don’t think it’s quite this simple.

To me, La Giaconda always looked a little mischievous and bemused; probably because of the fake moustache and goatee she wore to the sitting. “Would Leo notice?” she wondered. And what could she be 9 percent disgusted about? I’m not sure you can even really see those facial lines under that moustache. Now DaVinci, upon seeing that moustache, was probably 80 percent disgusted and 20 percent fearful.

I wonder if we can apply this idea to other famous portraits. Let’s give it a try!

Van Gogh
57% surprise (damn, where’s my ear?)
33% disgust
10% anger

77% happiness (this was a good day for Andy)
20% fear
3% unknown content

50% anger
45% sadness
5% fear

Who would have guessed? You’ve got to learn to read between the lines.


Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Freewheelin' mp3

Recently I posted a mp3 music file. Let me take this moment to state my position. I sincerely believe that sharing music files in this medium is no different than the good old days when we swapped vinyl and made tapes on our trusty Maxell cassettes. It's all about broadening our musical horizons, not taking money out of the artist's pockets. If I can share a song with 25 people that may have never it before, and perhaps prompt those people to legitimately seek further music by that artist, than I see no harm. Nevertheless, the wild mercury legal department has suggested I add a disclaimer to the sidebar (see below). Songs will be posted for a short time with a limited number of downloads.

Now to today's post. Bob Dylan's official recorded catalog is prodigious, but the number of unreleased recordings is equally impressive (and historically important, I might add). For years Dylanphiles have collected the unreleased stuff, and we all squealed with delight when the Official Bootleg Series was introduced by Columbia in the early 90's. However, there is plenty of truly wonderful music that remains unreleased and has escaped the casual listener. Here's a version of That's All Right from the sessions recorded in 1963 for Bob's second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. This song, among others, ended up on the cutting room floor, and remains officially unreleased. All of the outtakes are revered by the Dylanphiles. I love this track because it foreshadows by 2-3 years the sound Bob would attain on his landmark albums in 1965-66.

This image is an outake from the photo session for the album.

Here's the track:
That's All Right #1


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Buy me some peanuts and baseball stats

It has come to my attention recently that the brain trust at Major League Baseball is pursuing a plan that restricts the use of game statistics without licensing fees. This is a ploy to capitalize on the growing popularity of fantasy baseball leagues. This whole flak has been around for over a year but I don’t play fantasy baseball, so I’m a bit behind.

It seems to me that the action of a few dozen players on a ball field is essentially public information. You have 30 to 40 thousand live spectators, countless tens of thousands of television viewers, and who knows how many listeners on radio. At the end of the games, I see the numbers as historical data. How MLB could control the use of this data eludes me. Does this mean that web sites like Baseball Reference become subscription sites? Will my scorecard be confiscated as I leave the ballpark so as to prevent me from “disseminating the written accounts of the game without the express written consent of Major League Baseball?” And I guess that’s the end of box scores in the newspaper, lest some enterprising individual try to compile the data. MLB says that they don’t have problem with the stats themselves, it’s the use of player’s names that is the issue. Well the stats aren’t very useful without the player’s names now, are they?

With the popularity of baseball surging in recent years and the league mostly forgiven for the 1994 strike, this seems to be a bad PR move. Let the fantasy leagues have their fun. Restricting the use of stats will ultimately have an impact on all baseball fans, and besides, the Rotisserie geeks will find some other way to collect the data anyway. If the inability of MLB to collect fees from the fantasy leagues leads to the restricted use of the stats, then all baseball fans will stand up and voice their disapproval. The legal issues are tricky, but for baseball (the national pastime, not the computer fantasy obsession) is it worth the fight?

Here's a good summary of the issue: Fantasy Firefight


Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Bump in the Golden Road (to unlimited devotion)

There was a time not so long ago that I was obsessed with the Grateful Dead. Relatively speaking, I got on the bus pretty late in the game, in the late 80’s. By most deadhead’s accounts the band peaked in 1974. What drew me to the music was the combination of rock, blues, folk, country, and jazz with a dash of psychedelia; a rich Mulligan’s stew of American music. I was also attracted by the fanatical devotion of band’s followers, particularly the taping community. The Dead embraced the notion of allowing fans to tape their shows and collect the recordings, wisely understanding that this would only increase their fan base. The Dead could have never foreseen in 1966 that one day in the 21st century all of their concerts would be available at the touch of a button on the Internet. What?

Yes, up until very recently nearly every show the Dead played was available for free download at, including many high quality soundboard recordings and countless audience recordings. The surviving band members recently chose to pull the soundboard recordings from the site, because the downloads were eating into their profits generated by the sale of official live recordings. (The band recently backed off, allowing streaming of the soundboards on computers so the Heads can relive those high times at work. The audience recordings are still available for download).

Now let me put this in perspective. The free exchange of concert recordings really built this fan base. I first heard the wonders of their live performances through the Grateful Dead Hour, a syndicated radio show that broadcast live recordings, among other things. I faithfully recorded these broadcasts weekly until I managed to find other collectors and build a collection of full recordings of shows. Sometimes the quality sucked (5th of 6th generation copies of copies on analog tape) but other times they were pristine. I managed to collect hundreds of shows, many seemingly identical to the uninitiated. Did this stop me from buying official CDs, concert tickets and dancing bear merchandise? Of course not. Pulling the soundboards is a bit like biting the hand that feeds. The people downloading from probably have many of the shows already, and the technology to transfer their own tapes to digital format, so what’s the point?

The band certainly has the right to do whatever they want with their own material. I have no problem with them pulling shows from the web site that they have officially released, and maybe some that are scheduled for release in the near future. But all of the soundboards? The band has said they will never officially release 5-9-77 because “everyone already has it.” (5-9-77 is widely regarded as one of the best GD shows of all time). Yes, we all have it, and if the band officially released it in a deluxe high quality package we’ll all happily shell out for a new copy.

Explaining the decision to pull the soundboards, Bob Weir said, “People see what we put out then go download it. That’s not going to get my kids through college.” Bob, aren’t the Grateful Dead mouse pads, coffee mugs and the rest of your merchandising juggernaut already covering that? Come on, Bob. Don’t you realize that for the most part this hopelessly devoted fanbase is essentially buying the same songs over and over again? What other band that hasn’t toured in 10 years or released new music in 16 years can say that?

Now, in the spirit of the moment, a favorite from a great show at the Alpine Valley Music Theater, East Troy, WI, 8-7-82:

On The Road Again

Like what you hear? Buy the official download of this show from the The Grateful Dead Store

Dick's Picks 32

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