MUSIC JOURNAL: GRATEFUL DEAD LIVE AT MIAMI ARENA 10/26/1989

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I’ve been really diving head first into the Grateful Dead lately. This is quite an undertaking; one could argue that each major era of the Dead is practically a different band altogether, in their approach to the music and the jams.

The Dead are best experienced by their live shows; free from the length and production related limitations of their studio record, the Dead were truly able to explore and expand their sound with their endless yet never tedious jamming, stretching two minute songs into half hour (or longer) brain movies meant to inspire, terrify, delight, and anger. The Dead ran the gamut.

One of my favorite live periods for the band was 1989. At this point, this particular incarnation of the Dead (the surviving core members plus Brent Mydland, who joined the band as keyboardist in 1979) had been a unit for 10 years, and had grown into an inconceivably tight unit, putting on some of their absolute best shows throughout the year.

There are a few shows that can contend for best of this year – the two RFK shows as well as all three Alpine Valley shows in July, the legendary two nights at the Hampton Coliseum on October 8th and 9th, and the focal point of this entry, their second show at the Miami Arena.

What start off as merely a typically strong 1989 show suddenly veers into maybe the spookiest hour or so of music the Dead have ever played. The first set starts off rather innocuous, with particularly solid renditions of the opening “Foolish Heart” and “Little Red Rooster combo, as well as a mournful “Brown Eyed Women” that gets an extra dose of world-weariness from Jerry’s death stained vocals. The first sign that things are going to get interesting come with “Victim or the Crime,” a sharp, lurching meditation on the dark side human nature sung by Bob with taut vocals, its edgy lyrics punctuated only by the instrumentations: Brent’s piano spikes are something out of a haunted house and Jerry’s guitar circles around the music like an angry mob at a witch burning. Heady, heady stuff, dark stuff, but some of the finest music they ever played. The last two minutes of the song is some of the creepiest, nastiest soundscapes the Dead have ever created, relief coming only in the form of a jaunty “Don’t Ease Me In.”

Set 2 is where things get interesting; while “Estimated Prophet” is not necessarily a dark song, its slow, lurching pace and references to death and fire and all that good stuff always gave it a rather ominous aura. It was a song that the band often took it into some crazy, creative areas during the jams, this version certainly no exception. Brent Mydland’s angry “Blow Away” was always one of his stronger contributions, and this version features some of Jerry’s best ‘late in the game’ wailing on the coda, leading beautifully into…well, let me set this one up first.

Up until now, there were hints the Dead were going to take the show in a bit of an edgier direction, perhaps because of Halloween approaching and them not having a show on or closer to the the 31st (it was the last show of the Fall tour). “Victim Or The Crime” kind of set the wheels in motion, but other than that the Dead kept things on a relatively easy going – if not entirely light hearted – keel.

Then comes “Dark Star.”

It’s often hard for me to write about different versions of “Dark Star”; while almost every version of “Dark Star” (at least up until 1991 or so) is immense in its own way, it’s lumbering lengths and different styles, jams and textures become hard to keep track of, so much that they often blend together in memory (at least for me). Hoo boy, not his one. About two and a half weeks earlier, “Dark Star” had been busted out for the first time in five years at the band’s second of two nights at the Hampton Coliseum (both shows beautifully captured on the Formerly The Warlocks boxed set), so it was a pretty big deal when this version washed over the crowd. Miami was not only blessed with only the second version of the tour, but arguably the best post-1978 version ever. The song begins normally (or at least as normally as a “Dark Star” can be described), with the band riffing on the main theme, and Jerry singing the first few couples of verses (though his previously mentioned ragged vocals make the song creepier than usual). At around 8:29, Brent punches in with piercing chime effects, an ominous preview of what’s to come. The true eeriness comes around the 16-minute mark, when the second verse comes into play. After this, “Dark Star” truly becomes ‘dark.’ This is ‘River Styx soundtrack’ shit right here, not to be handled lightly. It’s not a polished version. It isn’t as thought out or as tight as 8/27/1972 or 9/21/72 or 10/18/74. It never coalesces into a truly tuneful rendition at any point. And yet, this “Dark Star” totally succeeds as a mood piece, conjuring an almost demonic soundscape, with each member playing their part in its construction. If you’ve ever seen the movie Event Horizon – about a rip into the space continuum that allows for a rescue ship to be possessed by a demonic force, killing its crew – this version could easily be its soundtrack. (To make matters all the more creepy, that movie has a character named Weir for its leader, a position Bob had acclimated to once Jerry’s health really plateaued.)

I have to admit, I would’ve loved if somehow, by some odd turn of events, this “Dark Star” segued into something like “Sugar Magnolia” or (as on Sunshine Daydream), “El Paso,” just for the sheer mind-fuckery of it all in terms of mood and atmosphere. That said, the band was probably just as overwhelmed as the audience was, leading Bill and Mickey to hold down the fort with the usual “Drums” piece. Things aren’t getting done getting really, really fucking weird, though, with “Space” retaining the most frightening elements of “Dark Star.” The reviews on the Internet Archive (a.k.a. The Mecca for Dead Collectors) mention how large swaths of the audience – no doubt on some form of a hallucinogen or another) – departed the arena, looks of sheer terror plastered on their faces. It was a dark ride, and some Deadheads just wanted off. The tempo, if not the mood, brightens significantly as “Space” fades into “The Wheel,” which is a solid if not top shelf rendition. The typically gorgeous “Stella Blue” follows, Jerry singing and playing with all the sensitivity in the world, leading into a raucous “Not Fade Away” that finally gives the crowd much needed relief from the ‘arsenic and hellfire’ trip they’ve been on.

The show ends with a touching “We Bid You Goodnight,” a song that serves two masters: on the one hand, it’s a celebratory farewell as a brother bids his kin a safe journey into the arms of the Lord, complete with close harmonies and handclaps. However, with all the ensuing chaos established by the second half of the show, I often envision “We Bid You Goodnight” sung by those unaware of what had occurred previously, with the rest of the show being some freakish deathbed fever dream by the departing brother.

It is not every day I am this bowled over by the atmosphere of a live concert. With live recordings, I close my eyes and imagine myself in the communal glow of the crowd, which adds warmth, comfort and excitement no matter what I’m listening to. Not this show, by any means. I listen to this show and see myself running for the exits. I’ve not even been high listening to this show, nor did I need to be: it’s a trip without actually having to take one.

This show is available in pristine sound on the 80-cd 30 Trips Around The Sun boxed set.

A CELEBRATION OF WOMEN IN MUSIC.

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Yesterday, March 8, was international Women’s Day. First off, I’m sorry for being a day late on this. Secondly, what an important day; there have been few times in history where the presence and power of women need to be lifted up and celebrated, as well as encouraged.

Women have long held a crucial spot in the arts; they are painters, actresses, directors and producers. Perhaps most significantly, they are musicians. Music is the universal language, and while I don’t want to speak for women definitively, I think it can be argued that it’s the medium where so many inspiring women have most vividly expressed their independence, power and determination to a mass audience.

This is by no means a complete list, but as a music nerd and supporter of women’s rights, I wanted to highlight some of my absolute favorite female music superstars who continue to inspire both women and men around the world to pick up a guitar, put pen to paper, and sing subtle or blunt ‘fuck you’s’ to anyone who stands in their way.

Without further ado…

BILLIE HOLIDAY

The First Lady of Jazz was one of music’s most influential figures and one of its most unique: Holiday did not have a technically sound method of singing nor a conventionally pretty voice, but she defied the odds and became a legend thanks to her emotional deliveries and unique sound. More importantly, perhaps, she sang arguably the first politically charged song to break into the mainstream: her bone chilling version of “Strange Fruit,” a sinister look at the lynchings in the South that were all too common back then.

MOST BADASS SONG: “T’aint Nobody’s Business if I Do”

ELLA FITZGERALD

Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald’s soft, breathy soprano and scatting skills are second to no one, and she was also one of the first African American performers to ever do shows in Las Vegas (due to a protest by their biggest draw at the time, Frank Sinatra). While Ella’s skill set isn’t as varied as the others on this list, nor did she really have moments in her music that were aggressive or challenging, her influence and talent alone is enough to warrant her a spot on this list.

MOST BADASS SONG: “The Lady Is A Tramp”

CAROLE KING

Carole King truly needs no introduction when it comes to groundbreaking women in music. King was hired as a writer in the famous Brill Building when she was just sixteen, met husband and writing partner Gerry Goffin soon after, and the rest is history. As a songwriter, she’s literally written hundreds of music’s most popular songs, including “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and “The Locomotion.” As a performer herself, she has one of the most successful albums of all time (Tapestry) and her own string of hits, including “I Feel the Earth Move,” “It’s Too Late,” and “Jazzman.” King was hired as a writer in the famous Brill Building when she was just sixteen, met husband and writing partner Gerry Goffin soon after, and the rest is history. It is not a stretch to say every female musician and songwriter who followed King were directly influenced by both her work and her spirit, as she is a truly towering figure in her field, regardless of gender.

MOST BADASS SONG: “I Feel The Earth Move”

TINA TURNER

Every artist on this list has faced adversity, be it physical, artistic, or emotional. Perhaps no one’s story is more well known, harrowing, or ultimately triumphant as Tina Turner’s. You can’t talk about Tina’s legacy without her marriage to Ike Turner, who left behind a legacy of addiction and abuse that nearly cost Tina her life more than once. It is her tumultuous relationship, with him, however, that planted the seed from which Tina grew into one of the most dynamic, ‘no holds barred’ performers of any era, one fully in control and focused on every aspect. Already considered a ‘has-been’ by the time she left Ike in 1976, Tina used every ounce of her strength to regain and eclipse her previous success. It took nearly ten years, but 1984’s Private Dancer was a mammoth success, spawning major hits such as “You Better Be Good To Me,” the title song, and her signature hit, “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Tina continued to have hits throughout the 1980s’, as well as growing into an absolutely intense live performer whose shows were often more exhausting for us to watch then her to perform. Tina remained an active force well into her 60s’, and while she’s firmly cemented her retirement as she nears 80, her influence has not withered at all.

MOST BADASS SONG: “Proud Mary”

CHER

My girlfriend would kill me if I left Cher off this list. That aside, there’s no argument she belongs here. In terms of both commercial success and general longevity, Cher needs no introduction. She had a Top 10 single in every decade from the 1960s’ to the 2000s’. She’s performed sell-out shows all over the world. She has an Oscar. It would honestly be easier to list what Cher hasn’t accomplished at this point. In her 70s’, she performs with the same energy as she did at 25.

MOST BADASS SONG: “Believe”

ARETHA FRANKLIN

The Queen of Soul needs no induction. Mariah, Whitney and numerous others owe a debt to her. She changed the game in how a song could be delivered, what styles and genres could be blended, and the expectation for what topics female singers could handle in songs. During both the race riots of the 1960s’ and the peak of the feminist movement, Aretha was recordings songs like “Respect,” “Think,” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” that asserted her power as both a female and an African American. Her career really never slowed down, scoring Top 40 Hits well into the 1980s’, and being regularly awarded laundry lists of awards and accolades to this day. Long Live the Queen.

MOST BADASS SONG: “Respect” / “Think”

JOAN BAEZ

Joan Baez is unfortunately best remembered today as the woman whom Bob Dylan had a rather tumultuous relationship with, and indeed, Dylan naturally casts a huge shadow on anyone who associates with him. Still Baez definitely had her own niche, writing incredible songs such as “Diamonds and Rust.” What Baez’s legacy is really defined by is her activism: she’s been at the forefront of everything from racial justice to LGBTQ rights to environmental protection, and she’s been arrested, outcast, banned, investigated and ultimately rewarded for her efforts.

MOST BADASS SONG: “Diamonds And Rust”

JANIS JOPLIN

In her short life and career, Janis Joplin left a career kill for. As one of, if not the first, major female front women for a rock band (Big Brother and the Holding Company), she immediately became a sensation with her distinct booze and cigarettes-enhanced rasp and powerful, emotional vocals. Once she embarked on a solo career (which included a legendary stint at Woodstock), Joplin cemented her legacy and influence, even though her demons cut her life short at the infamous age of 27.

MOST BADASS SONG: “Piece Of My Heart”

JONI MITCHELL

When one thinks of the singer-songwriter movement of the 1960s’, one’s mind jumps to names such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen. The Canadian songbird Joni Mitchell proved to the world that female songwriters could be just as thoughtful, provocative and versatile as their male counterparts, penning classic songs such as “A Case of U,” “River,” and “Help Me” as well as dozens of other incredible classics still covered to this day. Beyond her influence on everyone from Madonna to Prince, Joni played by her own rules, defying commercial expectations by dabbling in everything from jazz to R&B to New Wave; while not every experiment produced top shelf albums (her 1980s’ period is quite fallow), it is impossible to not admire Joni’s ambition.

MOST BADASS SONG: “Free Man In Paris”

CARLY SIMON

The 1970s’ were a watershed period for the female songwriter, and it was Carly Simon who led the charge. Her first hit, “That’s The Way I’ve Heard It Should Be,” questioned the idea of traditional female relationship roles, including the idea of settling into marriage and motherhood; the record company was decidedly against initially, but Carly had her way and it became a Top 10 hit. It was her signature song, “You’re So Vain,” that put Carly on the map as the premiere songwriter of her day: a stinging, intelligent and thrilling put-down to a still unnamed Lothario who got his kicks out of being self-absorbed and cold. (It’s been rumored to be about everyone from Warren Beatty to Mick Jagger, the latter of whom provides backing vocals). It shot to the top of the charts, and became one of the most iconic songs of the 20th century. Carly continued to have major hits throughout the 1970s’ and even into the 1980s’, winning an Oscar in 1988 for “Let the River Run.” She’s slowed down her output since the early 1990s’, but her legacy is one of great importance and continued influence.

MOST BADASS SONG: “You’re So Vain.”

ANN & NANCY WILSON

The roles of ‘lead singer’ and ‘lead guitarist’ were almost exclusively male-occupied in the ‘classic rock’ era – Page & Plant, Jagger & Richards, Daltrey & Townshend, Tyler & Perry, and a host of others. The Seattle bred sister due of Ann & Nancy Wilson stormed the gates and changed that perception forever: with Ann’s seismic voice and Nancy’s signature guitar riffs (“Barracuda”), they propelled Heart into a massive success and influenced a generation of females to not only join a band, but know that no role in one was strictly ‘boys only.’

MOST BADASS SONG: “Barracuda”

DEBBIE HARRY

The lead singer of Blondie looked like the girl next door but sang like she could kick your ass. Using her aggressive sex appeal to her advantage, songs like “One Way or Another,” “Call Me,” and “Rapture” flipped the accepted sexual dynamics of ‘submissive vs. dominant,’ something even few female singers had ever attempted. Debbie’s visual style, which combined 1950s’ glam with punk, was equally influential, inspiring the aesthetic of many female rockers afterward.

MOST BADASS SONG: “One Way Or Another”

KATE BUSH

If you don’t know who Kate Bush is, you should. The English born singer-songwriter was and is a true original. Bush began regularly writing and recording music when she was 13, and before she was 20 she had already been discovered by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. At age 19, she scored the biggest hit of her career, the majestic and mysterious ballad “Wuthering Heights.” Throughout her career, Bush released a series of masterpiece albums and songs, but struggled to find success in America. Even so, her avant-garde visual style and unique sonic palette – spanning everything from Celtic to New Wave to cabaret – paved away for Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos, Lady Gaga, and numerous other strong female entertainers of a similar vein.

MOST BADASS SONG: “Wuthering Heights”

WENDY & LISA

Prince intentionally formed his groundbreaking backing band, The Revolution, as an extension of the image he presented in his music: a world full of people not bound by religion, race, or gender, only by compassion, talent, and sexual freedom. Wendy & Lisa embodied that goal better than anyone else in the band: they were accomplished musicians, they were prominent women in a band otherwise filled with men, and they were a lesbian couple (they split up in 2001). Well aware of his controlling tendencies and social aloofness, Wendy & Lisa also had no problem putting Prince in his place, both professionally and personally. The film Purple Rain even makes direct acknowledgement of their dynamic, as Prince is constantly at odds with them and their desire to have a more direct contribution to his music, before finally giving in and recording the song they wrote for him (that song was “Purple Rain”). After splitting with Prince in 1986, Wendy & Lisa had a nominally successful solo career before turning to composing, winning Emmys for their score for the show Heroes. Currently, they’re keeping Prince’s legacy alive on tour with the newly reunited Revolution.

MOST BADASS SONG: “Computer Blue” (a Prince song, but it’s Wendy and Lisa’s sapphic  intro that gives it its identity).

SHEILA E.

Sheila E. quite literally has followed the beat of her own drum, and remains an inspiring and active figure in the music world. Her instrument of choice seemed to predetermined by her family background (her father Pete Escovedo is a percussionist himself, and the godson of freaking Tito Puente), but her talent and resilience were and are her own. Her initial meeting with Prince in 1978 led her to become arguably his most well-known protégé; while Prince wrote her biggest hits, it’s Sheila’s charismatic vocals and incredible musicianship that gave them their appeal. In addition to influencing many women to take up what is arguably the most male-oriented musical family of them all, she helped spearheaded the Latino pop movement that came about in the 1990s’, inspiring names such as Gloria Estefan and Jennifer Lopez.

MOST BADASS SONG: “The Glamorous Life’

MADONNA

It’s impossible to do this list without mentioning Madonna. Her impact can’t be overstated: she burst onto the scene with an overt blend of mainstream pop music and dance, a visual component that made people take notice instantly, and a controversial hybrid of the sacred and profane highlighting much of her music. Her biggest songs (“Like a Virgin,” “Vogue, “Like a Prayer” and about 40 or so others) would’ve been hits without their iconic videos, but it was her chameleonic visual persona that made her a pioneer and a living legend. Beyond that, she’s a shrewd businesswoman like few have seen, with an incredible ability to market and reinvent herself hundreds of times over.

MOST BADASS SONG: “Vogue” / “Express Yourself”

CYNDI LAUPER

Pop music didn’t know what to make of Cyndi Lauper initially, because Lauper was truly an original. Her distinct high voice (one of the most versatile and powerful of any singer), songwriting abilities and colorful, eccentric image made her a worthy opponent to Madonna, as both encouraged a generation of women to express themselves via styles and attitudes they were previously taught to suppress. Her debut album, She’s So Unusual, yielded five Top 10 hits, and bought her instant notoriety. (Among the album’s biggest hits was “She Bop,” a defiant ode to female masturbation that was both controversial and empowering). She had massive hits throughout the 1980s’, and while she sort of fell off the musical A-list by 1990, Cyndi has kept busy: she is a songwriter, actress, producer and forceful advocate of LGBTQ rights. She wrote the music for one of Broadway’s biggest shows, Kinky Boots, and is a member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, all while still performing fairly regularly.

MOST BADASS SONG: “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”

TORI AMOS

Amos is America’s version of Kate Bush: a sort of spritely figure whose music and image are impossible to categorize. A grippingly honest songwriter with tremendous piano skills, Amos released a series of incredible albums throughout the 1990s’, the best being Little Earthquakes, which features classics such as “Winter” and “Me and a Gun,” the latter a devastating account of Amos’ very real life rape. Amos’ music isn’t always accessible or catchy, but it’s also some of the best you’ll ever hear in terms of originality and depth.

MOST BADASS SONG: “Crucify”

ALANIS MORRISETTE

Also known as the woman who tainted Uncle Joey from Full House forever, Alanis was probably the most memorable and vital female singer of the 1990s’. Her ass kicking debut album, Jagged Little Pill, is a benchmark for any artist’s inaugural release, a strikingly strong collection of aggressive anthems of female independence mixed with sensitivity and vulnerability. She continued to have hits throughout the 1990s’, and even played God in Kevin Smith’s classic religious satire, Dogma. While her commercial prospects dried up by the mid-2000s’, Alanis’s status as both a musical force to be reckoned with as well as a feminist icon are both quite secure.

MOST BADASS SONG: “You Oughtta Know”

BEYONCE

Beyonce has solidified herself as a living legend. There is no denying that. Whether it’s her stream of hits, her ever changing visual style, explosive live performances, or controversial political activism, she has already entered an impenetrable realm as an artist, once that not even some of the other women on this list occupy. Like Madonna, Beyonce isn’t just an artist, she’s a cultural phenomenon: women (and men) don’t just aspire to her sing or dance like her, they want to be like her. They want the confidence and power she has, and it’s led to a new wave of artists as well as women of all stripes and colors to empower themselves and take charge.

MOST BADASS SONG: “Sorry”

P!NK

No one defines word ‘attitude’ like P!nk: you’d be hard pressed to find a song of hers that isn’t built around a ‘spit in your face’ defiance of the barriers put around her, whether it be my the government or an unfaithful lover. Listening to P!nk is like getting hit by a bulldozer in the best way: she sings with more conviction than a court house. Her songs are venomous, humorous and loaded with muscle that men wish they could conjure. Even when she reveals her more vulnerable side, P!nk never loses sight of the ‘blood and guts’ passion and defiance that has won her an extraordinary career.

MOST BADASS SONG: “So What”

LADY GAGA

It’s hard to believe it hasn’t even been ten years since Lady Gaga released her debut album; she’s engrained herself into the cultural zeitgeist so solidly, you’d think she’s been around for 30 years. That Gaga has cultivated such a legacy in a relatively short period of time is a testament to both her talent and her attitude: Gaga is a ‘take no prisoners’ artist’s artist in the same vein as Madonna, unwilling to compromise or care what the ‘powers that be’ think about her or her image. Barely in her 30s’, Gaga unquestionably will only grow and mature as the years go by, doing what all great icons do and keep us guessing and admiring her staying power.

MOST BADASS SONG: “Born This Way”

This is by no means meant to be the definitive list; there were tons of artists I left off that I wish I could write about more thoroughly and thoughtfully. This is merely a primer guide to show appreciation for the indelible mark these artists have made on pop culture. Not only have they empower women to take charge and be their own boss, they have challenged men to to look deep within, take a step back and reassess our  behavior and our place in society.

ARTISTS I WANTED TO INCLUDE BUT HAVEN’T THE KNOWLEDGE OF THEIR OUTPUT TO DO THEM FULL JUSTICE: Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Joan Jett, K.D. Lang, Adele, Alicia Keys, Amy Winehouse, Nina Simone, Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, Sarah MacLachlan, Liz Phair, Indigo Girls, and tons more.

ED SHEERAN BEATING FOUR FEMALE VOCALISTS LAST NIGHT SHONE A LIGHT ON THE TRUE NATURE OF THESE AWARD SHOWS.

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I really still can’t get over the fact that Ed Sheeran beat Kesha and three other incredibly talented female musicians last night at the Grammys.
I have nothing against Ed Sheeran – in fact, quite the opposite: I think he’s probably the best male pop artist in the mainstream today. He writes his own songs (and some of his lyrics are damn good), he sings reasonably well, plays his own instruments, and he seems like a down to earth guy to boot.
That said, “Shape of You” isn’t one of his better songs, and it’s a pretty lightweight, slightly juvenile and simplistic song about a man primarily attracted to a woman physically (the throwaway line ‘although my heart is falling too’ notwithstanding), which is kind of a slap in the face considering this was a year where women stepped up against sexism in the industry in their sadly ongoing fight to be treated as equally substantial to men. Hell, “Shape of You” wasn’t even the best MALE pop vocal last year (Harry Styles’ “Sign O’ the Times” deserved some recognition).
It’s not just that “Praying” is about a deeply personal and relevant topic, it’s that it’s clearly audible that Kesha put a lot more into her song on both a technical and emotive level than Sheeran did. The lyrics, the singing, and the production all carry far more depth than what Sheeran clearly intended to be just another Top 40 single you could play in clubs.
The same can be said for the other contenders. “A Million Reasons” is a defining example of how far Gaga’s palette has expanded as a vocalist, songwriter and performer since her first record. I was not as impressed by P!nk or Clarkson’s works (I think P!nk returns to the well of melodramatic relationship ballads a bit too much), but each of them showed quite a bit more to their talents than I feel Sheeran did.
I don’t believe a song’s subject matter nor the performer’s personal life should be the deciding factor in what constitutes an award show in – there are probably some objectively terrible songs written about rape and sexual assault out there, too. But Kesha’s song was powerful, well written sung, and perfectly executed all around.
The same thing happened at the Oscars two years ago – when Gaga gave a powerful performance of “Till It Happens to You,” which is a great song and objectively far superior to the song that beat it for Best Original Song (Sam Smith’s vanilla 007 theme “Skyfall”). It seems that these awards committees are perfectly content with giving lip service to these causes, but don’t want to – for whatever reason – give actual credit to the voices making a statement.
This point was driven home by (male) president Neil Portnow’s statement that women need to ‘step up’ to win Grammys.
They’v been, Mr. Portnow. They’ve been. For a LONG time.

2017: A YEAR IN REVIEW

2017 is coming to an end. What does that mean? It’s tough to say in the grand scheme of things, but at the end of every year, I take into account the events of my life and prepare for next year with the lessons I’ve learned.

2017 wasn’t perfect, but all things considered, it was a damn good year. I got to travel, see some incredible Broadway shows, met new people, and made some incredible memories.

My girlfriend Amanda and I, over the course of the year, grew closer and closer with each month, and our love for each other has grown deeper through both good and not so good experiences. The memories we made this year, from our anniversary in Hershey Park to Broadway shows to just sitting down and watching a movie, are ones to cherish, and undoubtedly more are to come.

After years of barely getting by with finances, I finally achieved some success in sales; not big money, but enough to buy my family gifts for Christmas and take my girlfriend on some unforgettable excursions, including a gorgeous trip to Hershey Park for our one-year anniversary. I felt proud and accomplished and expect more good fortune going into 2018.

I reconnected with old friends and made new ones; some of my most memorable times with my Kappas came this year, and I got to meet many of Amanda’s wonderful friends as well. A lot of new and exciting people entered my life this year.

It wasn’t all good. This was the first year of the Trump Presidency, which as expected has been an unmitigated source of stress and fear in regards to civil rights and nuclear war. We lost more notable artists unexpectedly and at a rapid pace; two in particular being among my favorite musicians and thus hitting me hard: Chris Cornell in May and Tom Petty in October. And on a personal level, my uncle Rollie passed away in October, leaving a giant hole in my family; uncle Rollie had been a constant since the day I was born, at every holiday and family gathering imaginable. Losing him was understandably hard.

All that said, 2017 was by and large one of the best years in recent memory. I look forward to many blessings in 2018, and am willing to accept the challenges that will get me there.

Love to all.

MOVIE REVIEW: THE LAST JEDI

DIRECTOR: Rian Johnson

RATING: PG-13

CAST: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro, Kelly Marie Tran, Frank Oz

Genre: Sci-FI

The Last Jedi is obviously the film to see this season, and with the statute of limitations on spoilers about to expire, I finally saw it tonight with my girlfriend.

I was a big fan of The Force Awakens and was greatly looking forward to this film; The Force Awakens brought back the sense of wonder and excitement I experienced when I saw the original trilogy, and I had high hopes for the eight entry (nine counting the outlier Rogue One).

I was a bit nervous, however, over the last few months: rumors circulating about Luke Skywalker’s return had many accusing the film of blasphemy before it even hit theatres, with Mark Hamill himself recently offering criticism. There was the reveal of the Porgs, miniature sea otter from space that many feared would be the modern day Ewoks (or worse, Jar Jar Binks) and detract from the serious tone of the series. And then there was Carrie Fisher’s death and how it would be handled.

Having seen it, I can say this: The Last Jedi makes some bold choices, and not all of them pay off.

The Last Jedi starts right where we left off: with Rey presenting a bearded, isolated Luke Skywalker with his lightsaber in hopes of leading the new Rebellion. Luke is initially recalcitrant and dismissive, often out of character in his anger, but eventually agrees to help train Rey, discovering before long that her power is beyond what he ever imagined. Meanwhile, emo space cadet / potential Sith lord Kylo Ren is desparately trying to score points with Supreme Leader Snoke, but has far too much guilt in him over killing his father to actually embody the full spectrum of coldness needed to become a Sith lord. Meanwhile, the Resistance itself is in shambles, relying on a rapidly decreasing army and a limited artillery in the face of intimidating enemy forces. It all leads to a satisfying, if slightly messy conclusion.

With Disney’s involvement, director Rian Johnson has to essentially cater to two audiences, which leads to some rather messy pacing and plotting; The Last Jedi doesn’t figure out until the last hour or so what kind of film it wants to be. It alternates so clumsily between a more light-hearted, Marvel-esque romp akin to Guardians of the Galaxy or the most recent Thor entry, before suddenly reverting to a darker, Empire-esque film. In fact, even the film’s serious moments are undercut with jarring and out of place humour, particularly much of Luke and Rey’s interactions up until he starts training her. Scenes like Finn and Rose riding space camels destroying a casino sounds like something straight out of Spaceballs, and yet, here it is. We also get a scene with a shirtless Kylo Ren and Rey sheepishly asking him to put a shirt on, like something out of a Julia Roberts rom-com. While the film’s overall plot is fine and builds off The Force Awakens logically, its lack of tonal control hurts it a bit.

Characterization is hit or miss as well; Daisy Ridley is great as Rey and really makes the character’s conflict with her identity and purpose within the Force resonate beautifully. John Boyega’s Finn doesn’t get quite as much development but he remains charismatic and likeable. And Oscar Isaacs as Poe Dameron has clearly received his master’s in the Harrison Ford School of Heroic Smartasses, filling the void left by the dearly departed Han Solo splendidly.

However, there’s still Adam Driver, who plays his scenes as Kylo Ren with all the nuances, dynamics and emotional investment of Keanu Reeves ordering a cheeseburger. His facial expressions, his delivery, his mannerisms don’t modulate or shift in any way that makes the character seem like he’s developing, which is a serious issue for a supposedly conflicted villain. The great Benicio Del Toro is truly wasted in a glorified cameo as a shady grifter offering to help Finn and Rose. Del Toro’s presence is only there justify a rather gratuitous and unneeded plot twist, and leaves no lasting impact.

The new characters – Del Toro’s aside – are welcome additions; Laura Dern’s Holdo fills the void left by a largely absent Carrie Fisher nicely, playing the role with zest and spunk and totally making the most of her time onscreen. Domhnall Gleason’s General Hux is a worthy submissive Sith lackey, and Kelly Marie Tran is an absolute delight as the sprightly Rose, imbuing every scene she’s in with warmth and enthusiasm.

As for the older characters, they are largely (and perhaps rightfully) pushed aside in favor of the new blood; C-3PO and R2-D2 go through long swaths of the film where you forget they are even in it (though R2 has a rather touching scene with Luke in the beginning). Admiral Akbar is killed off with no fanfare, and Carrie Fisher sadly spends much of her time as Leia in a comatose state, though the film ultimately does right by her.

Much has been made, of course, about Luke’s portrayal, from his ominous presence on the poster to Mark Hamill’s own criticisms of the character’s demeanor, but you know what? I loved Luke in this film more than any time in the original trilogy. He’s flawed, angry and keeps you guessing much of the way as to what his intentions are, leading to an ultimately satisfying conclusion for the character. And while he may not have liked it, Hamill gives a hell of a performance.

And finally, there’s the massive elephant in the room: the presence of Carrie Fisher. When the film was made, no one knew that she too would fall victim to 2016’s slaughtering of beloved figures. It’s still difficult to process that someone with so seismic a presence, both in Star Wars lore as well as the culture at large, is gone from this earthly coil. As such, it’s hard not be disappointing that Fisher isn’t in the film as much as any of us would want. With that said, the film ultimately does right by the character: each scene Fisher is in is dripping with pathos, giving us one last chance to admire and cheer for one of cinema’s strongest, inspiring and brilliantly acted female leads. Her scenes with Hamill and Dern are particularly effective. Fisher doesn’t go gently, keeping the spunk of the original trilogy while adding a reserved maturity to the new General Leia Organa.

Johnson also throws in some very cool, even touching nods to the original trilogy, including a cameo by Frank Oz as a certain green creature with a connection to Luke Skywalker, and a reprisal of one of the original series’ most iconic scenes. It’s clear he’s a fan and wanted the film to succeed, which it ultimately does despite its flaws.

By and large, The Last Jedi is on the finer end of the nine films, with enough to appreciate and respect in its choices.

GRADE: B

 

 

HOW TO DEBATE YOUR RELATIVES ON THE SUBJECT OF DIE HARD BEING A CHRISTMAS MOVIE.

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Holidays can be tense these days; there are certain subjects that dredge unwanted tensions, dark secrets, and myriad of other unpleasant situations.

Few subjects, however, draw as much ire to the age-old debate that has been tearing us apart for over 30 years: is the 1988 Bruce Willis movie Die Hard a Christmas movie?

Obviously, the answer is yes, but like flat-earthers, creationists, and people who say The Beatles suck, some people are unwilling to embrace reality and accept this proven truth.

Thankfully, I, the Neil Degrasse Tyson of this argument, is here to provide you with the tools to shut down the myths the uneducated use to further their ridiculous point of view.

Listed below are the three myths people on the wrong side of this debate throw in your face, along with a series of quick, easy and most importantly fact based refutations that will leave your opponents feeling like Ellis when his plan to get McClane to give Hans the detonators by pretending to be his friend backfired spectacularly. 

MYTH 1: ‘Die Hard would be the exact same movie if you set it on any other day of the year.

Congratulations, you payed absolutely no attention the plot of the movie whatsoever. For Hans’s plan to be successful, two things needed to happen:

  1. Nakatomi Plaza had to be almost completely empty.
  2. Police response had to be incredibly slow because most people would’ve taken the day off and weren’t expecting any sort of emergency call-in.

Remember, Hans and his men weren’t really terrorists; their ultimate goal was to break into the vault and steal the building’s money. They needed just enough hostages to cause a distraction, and the 30 or so people at the Nakatomi Corporation’s Christmas party was perfect. By only taking the 30th floor hostage as opposed to multiple floors, it gave them ample opportunity for them to move freely throughout the rest of the building and cut the computer systems for the vault while Hans dicked the cops and the FBI around.

Of course, Hans didn’t account for John McClane, ‘the fly in the ointment, monkey in the wrench, pain in the ass,’ to completely fuck his plan to all hell.

MYTH # 2: The spirit of Christmas is completely absent.

While this argument might work when discussing the visuals of the film, it doesn’t really apply to the film in regards to plot (which we’ve discussed), the events, or the character development.

The general archetype of any the more ‘traditional’ Christmas movies are usually amalgam of the following tropes:

  1. A man trying to get home to his family and encountering a series of obstacles.
  2. Achieving some sort of redemption that renews their faith in love, the holiday, and / or humanity in general.

Die Hard fits the bill just fine in these regards: John McClane is estranged from his family due to his own arrogance and rigid adherence to his job. He’s cynical, angry and edgy when we first meet him, albeit with a likable wit and nonchalant demeanor.

The onus of this rift isn’t entirely on John: Holly doesn’t seem to sympathize with the fact that John really doesn’t a ‘pick up and go’ sort of job, and that his reasons for not coming to Los Angeles with her had little to do with jealousy or lack of support. Both characters need a sort of Christmas Carol-esque ‘dark night of the soul,’ and boy do they get it.

Beyond that, the general sense of family, love and togetherness we associate with Christmas adds both emotional heft and tension to a lot of the movie’s most nail biting moments. When Hans Gruber mentions that George Takagi is a father of five and kills him minutes later, we can’t help but think of his family waiting for him to come home for Christmas, unaware of his fate.

There’s also Al Powell, the hapless cop who becomes McClane’s best friend; he’s got a kid on the way, and is missing Christmas and possibly the birth of his kid just because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As John and Al grow closer throughout the film, we bite our nails in anticipation if they ever get to meet face to face. The development of their friendship throughout the film is one of its most powerful and moving attributes, and is a major step in McClane’s own journey to make things right with his family. (Powell achieves his own redemption when he gets over his guilt for shooting a kid by accident, drawing his gun and killing the last remaining terrorist).

Even seemingly less important moments like the FBI cutting the power on thousands of families, or Argyle the limo driver helplessly waiting in the parking garage, become empathetic moments for the audience simply because of the vibe we associate with Christmas.

I hope this article is informative and helpful, and convinces at least one poor soul out there to embrace what we’ve all known for years: Die Hard is the best Christmas movie of all time.

REMEMBERING TOM PETTY

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Where does one begin in writing about Tom Petty’s death? Do you talk about the shock of it, how he had just finished a tour two weeks ago and seemed to be still very much at the top of his game as a writer and performer? Do you jump straight to his incredible body of work, one of the strongest and most consistent in all of rock and roll? Or do you talk about the man himself, who by all accounts was a down to earth, straightforward and caring man to his family, friends and fans?

Losing someone as omnipresent in the cultural landscape as Petty is never easy to grasp; there are gonna be a day or a month or a year from now when you’re singing along with “American Girl” on the radio and you say to yourself, ‘Is he really gone?’ It happened with Prince, with Bowie, with Chris Cornell, all of whom were active literally until the day they died. Musicians, more than perhaps anyone on the planet, have a way of becoming our friends without ever actually knowing us, because their ability to communicate basic emotions and relatable situations resonate with us is so unqiuely visceral. I know the characters in “American Girl,” in “Free Fallin’,” in “Refugee”: they’re desperate, rebellious and incredibly complex, dealing with the harsh light of reality as only they know how. I’ve been there. Currently, and for the foreseeable future, I’m the love struck guy in “The Waiting,” in “Here Comes My Girl,” in “Angel Dream.” My girlfriend is a huge Tom Petty fan and we’ve bonded over this shared quality as much as any of our other commonalities.

Petty’s career began in 1977, when he and the Heartbreakers released their self-titled debut album, which yielded classics like “Breakdown” and the immortal “American Girl,” which has been the soundtrack to everything from super bowls to The Silence of the Lambs. It wasn’t until 1979’s Damn the Torpedoes that Petty cemented his success, perfecting the laid back image and breezy sound that would define the rest of his career. As a writer, Petty combined Springsteen-esque cinematic detail with a pop sensibility similar to the great Brill Building writers; it was this combo that made Petty both a critic’s darling and a commercial juggernaut, a tightrope very few artists have managed to walk as easily. “Free Fallin,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” aren’t just catchy hits, they’re excellent songs with memorable characters and meaning that resonates with all of us.

The song of Petty’s that resonates most with me is “Learning to Fly,” a song all about getting up and keeping on despite the hardships life throws at you:

“Well some say life will beat you down

Break your heart, steal your crown

So I’ve started out, for God knows where

I guess I’ll know when I get there.

I’m learning to fly

But I ain’t got wings

And coming down

Is the hardest thing.”

I know you got there, Tom.

MUSIC IN THE AGE OF DRUMPF, PT. 3: SOUNDGARDEN’S “JESUS CHRIST POSE.”

Exploitation of religion for personal gain did not begin with Donald Trump or the current Republican party. It goes back to the time of Christ himself. But it’s become an American pastime as rich and widespread as baseball or systemic racism, thanks to the likes of such charlatans as Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, and Joel ‘my teeth are so bright they’re a road hazard’ Osteen.

Over the last year and a half, Donald Trump has been suckling at the teat of the religious right with aplomb, from appearances at anti-LGBTQ organizations to constantly reminding people that The Bible is his favorite book (and that he doesn’t know a single passage by heart) to choosing a man who caused an AIDS epidemic in his own state when he was governor as vice president. Trump played the religious right like a harp from hell (to borrow a rather biting quote from Danny DeVito in Batman Returns), convincing them that a conniving, vagina-grabbing, misogynist adulterer was somehow the better choice for president than the woman who’s currently becoming a pastor. Trump may not know how to quote The Bible, but he sure knows how to exploit it.

Soundgarden recorded “Jesus Christ Pose” in 1991 for their breakthrough album, Badmotorfinger. Only a few years had passed since incidents such as the Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals were top stories, convincing the public that televangelists were hypocritical and disingenuous in their faith, concerned primarily with bilking their viewers, which consistently largely of the Midwest working class and little old ladies who wanted something to do with their retirement funds. Whether it was their devastating hateful homophobic rants about AIDS or their numerous extramarital affairs, t.v. preachers were rightfully considered a stain on the moral fabric of America. And yet, they still found and are finding audiences.

“Jesus Christ Pose” is one of the angriest songs I’ve ever heard; the guitars and drums are fast and furious, like the musical equivalent of a stampede. And then, after a minute or so, comes the voice from on high, like a freight train running through your senses:

“Aaand you staaare at me in your Jesus Christ Pose…”*

Chris Cornell was renowned for the authority and intensity he could conjure in his vocals, his well-honed distortion and grit skills adding power and weight to his already commanding voice. On “Jesus Christ Pose,” he sounds like he’s trying to level a small town with his voice. The anger is palpable. I don’t know if Cornell was necessarily a Christian, but he did speak highly of Jesus Christ, and is certainly incensed at what’s going in his name.

Most of all, “Jesus Christ Pose” is about calling out the martyr complex used to gain sympathy with the gullible, who beg for money in the name of God so they can fuel their hedonistic lifestyle under the guise of piety. Chris is having none of that shit.

The most biting passage in the song’s five minutes comes in its final verse, where Cornell asks pointedly whether these heretics are willing to make any real sacrifice:

“Arms held out

In your Jesus Christ pose

Thorns and shroud

Like it’s the coming of the Lord

Would it pain you more to walk on water

Than to wear a crown of thorns?

It wouldn’t pain me more to bury you rich

Than to bury you poor.”*

The song ends with one of Cornell’s most insane screams, a culmination of the anger and rage he’s been conveying throughout the song.

“Jesus Christ Pose” became an instant classic, perhaps second to “Black Hole Sun” as the band’s most recognizable song. The controversial video, which featured the band performing in a desert amidst flashes of subliminal religious imagery, was banned from MTV, giving the song even more notoriety.

“Jesus Christ Pose” is a song the band performed regularly right up to Cornell’s tragic passing in May; he never did a version where he didn’t sing the lyrics with conviction and venom, probably because the song has never stopped being relevant. Thanks to the current political climate, it will likely be for another 25 years.

*All credit goes to Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron, and Ben Shepherd, Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, BMG Rights Management US, LLC

REVIEW: Netflix’s ATYPICAL.

CAST: Keir Gilchrist, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Amy Okuda, Michael Rapaport

Me and my girlfriend both have Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. We also love watching t.v. and movies. These two commonalities combined when I first saw the trailer for Atypical, a Netflix original series about a young teen with autism who starts dating for the first time in his life.

Autism has been portrayed fairly often in recent years in pop culture; from the obvious entries such as Rain Man to the unconfirmed theories that Sheldon Cooper is an aspie, the spectrum has become a common motif. It has been tackled with various degrees of success in terms of accurately portraying it, but also as being sympathetic to those in real life with the condition. The latter was my big worry with Atypical.

Atypical is the story of the Gardner family, and how their dynamic often hinges on the progression and regression of Sam (Keir Gilchrist), a teenager with high functioning autism who needs constant attention. His mother, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in an Emmy worthy performance) has spent her whole life monitoring Sam’s behaviors and quirks, to the point where she almost lost almost any sense of freedom or identity of her own. By contrast, his father, Doug (Michael Rapaport, equally affective and moving), has never been able to forge a relationship with him, due to his inability to grasp the complexities of his condition and never being able to do typical ‘dad’ stuff with his son. Finally, Sam’s younger sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), is Sam’s caregiver, providing him with lunch money at school and defending him against bullies; it’s not a role she necessarily relishes, as it interferes with her relationship, her social life, and her promising career as a track star.

When Sam’s therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda), suggests that Sam start dating and form a relationship, the Gardners’ lives are thrown into a tailspin. As Sam begins to become more comfortable with being on his own and developing his independence, Elsa is forced to confront her own lack of independence, as she has attached her entire purpose in life on her vigilance for Sam. This leads her down a path that threatens to shatter her family irreparably. By contrast, Doug begins to finally bond with his son, as Sam’s constant questions about girls and relationships allow him to finally find a subject to relate and help him with. Casey is finally given breathing room to not have to worry about Sam, although her mom’s attempts to replace Sam’s issues with hers drives a wedge between them and occasionally leads to rebellious and poorly thought out retaliations.

The most crucial and impressive element of Atypical is how much it gets right; while my own position on the autism spectrum is higher than Sam’s in terms of overall functionality and social skills, I still find myself relating to the struggles he faces early on the series: I found it impossible to smile properly at girls without looking deranged, I made grand and often inappropriate statements of affection to women who either didn’t like me back or could never be with me for practical reasons (age, etc.), I bragged about sexual misadventures at inappropriate moments. Furthermore, Sam’s relationship with my parents mirrors my own. My mother was very hands-on until I finally had to assert myself that I was capable of being independent and handling the difficulties of life and relationships, as well as basic tasks I struggled with when I was younger. My dad, like Doug, struggled for years to find common ground with me, but eventually we developed a healthy, loving and thriving relationship. And my younger sister has always looked out for me, often to chagrin of my ego and the idea that a little sister shouldn’t have to look out for her older brother.

Special credit must go to Gilchrist, who portrays Sam with a genuine sense of understanding and sympathy. It is very obvious he did the homework for the role, so to speak. His performance is up there with Hoffman in Rain Man as one of the most accurate and touching portrayals of those on the spectrum. The show’s creator, Robia Rashid, also gets huge plaudits from me, as she is largely responsible for the show’s success in handling its subject matter.

Atypical is essential viewing for families who have relatives on the autism spectrum, or just for people looking to understand the complexities of it with a better understanding.

GRADE: A