Friday, September 30, 2016

Rainy Night House

What a voice and melody!  Listen to the unexpected twist in the second verse. And the arrangement on this live 1974 version backed up by Tom Scott and the LA Express is far superior to the album version.  I thought the lyrics were ridiculous even back then, but the sound of the words and phrases is just right.   Joni Mitchell, Rainy Night House.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Life Of The Mind

Look upon me! I'll show you the life of the mind! I'll show you the life of the mind! - Barton Fink (1991).  An extremely weird film featuring memorable performances by Coen Brothers regulars John Goodman and John Turturro.  Here, have a lookWonder what's in the box?  "They say I'm a madman Bart, but I'm not mad at anyone."

gif from Tech Noir

‘I gotta tell you, the life of the mind… There’s no roadmap for that territory… And exploring it can be painful.’
Barton Fink (1991)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

You Haven't Seen This Before

There's always something you haven't seen before in baseball.

Sunday: Dustin Pedroia scores the winning run on a double by David Ortiz, giving the Red Sox their 11th straight victory.  Watch the play at the plate.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week mojo4music)

What was it like to be a Beatle during the height of Beatlemania?   For the answer, go see The Beatles: Eight Days A Week - The Touring Years (1963-66) directed by Ron Howard (aka Opie and Richie Cunningham).  Being about to turn 13 when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, and only 15 in 1966, when The Beatles stopped touring, I'd never really understood that decision.  Watching this film, I finally realized why it had to end.

Eight Days A Week captures the craziness of their lives from late 1963 through August 1966 and the hysteria and tumult that surrounded them.  The film footage includes a lot I'd never seen before as well as new interviews with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr (who looks pretty good for a 76 year old) along with reflections on those years by George and John taken from old interviews.

The primitive state of touring and concert technology and organization is staggering.  Even by the late 1960s it was immensely improved, but that was to be too late for the Fab Four.  The Beatles had only three roadies on their first U.S tours!  In one scene from a show in Washington DC, we watch Ringo, without assistance at first, trying to turn the platform on which his drum kit is sitting.

The sound equipment was miserable.  For their 1965 U.S. tour, Vox made special 100-watt(!) amps for the band, which were no match for the wall of sound emitted by their fans.  They had no special sound equipment for vocals. At Shea Stadium, with 56,000 screaming fans, their vocals were played through the public address system.  Amidst the din of the screams, their fans could not hear them and The Beatles could not hear themselves.  Ringo could only try to tell where the other three were in a song by watching their movements and the shaking of their heads.

One of the joys of the film is that Giles Martin, son of George Martin (1926-2016) reengineered and remastered the concert footage so we can hear what the band actually sounded like even with all the surrounding noise.  They sound like a very tight rock n roll band.  The irony is that the clarity of the movie soundtrack is not anything like what the audience and the band heard at the time.

The camaraderie of the four also comes through.  They looked out for, and relied upon, each other, knowing no one else could understand what they were going through.  In those days they shared rooms while touring; John and Paul wrote many of the one hundred songs they composed together between mid-1963 and the end of the recording for Revolver in June 1966, while on the road and in hotel rooms.  The petty resentments, conflicting visions and desires that broke the band up only came to the fore after the touring ended.

Watching them is also a reminder of just how witty and quick they could be, with humor and cheekiness that stands up fifty years later.  There are quite a few funny moments, along with stories even some of us who've been fans for many decades, had not heard.

So enjoy yourselves and look for the movie.  It's only in limited release (only three theaters in CT are showing it), but it's worth driving a bit.  It can also be found on Hulu, but you won't get the full impact of the sound track and visuals if you miss it on the big screen. And, if you see it in a theater, you might get lucky like we did - following the movie, they showed a remastered version of The Beatles concert at Shea Stadium (they only played for 30 minutes!).

Even if you are not old enough to remember them from the 60s, Eight Days A Week will give you a feel for why The Beatles were such a big deal at the time.  And stick around to watch the credits until the end.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Kid From Cubaville Gordon of the Miami Marlins, at the memorial for Jose Fernandez at Marlins Park, yesterday, from pbs)

Yesterday, Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident, only seven weeks after his 24th birthday.  A shocking and sad day for many people.  For his family; the mother and sister who defected from Cuba with him, the grandmother with whom he was reunited; his pregnant girlfriend about whom he'd been excited about becoming a father.  For his teammates (watch manager Don Mattingly at the Marlins press conference).  For long-suffering Marlins fans -though Giancarlo Stanton had the big contract, Jose was the most popular member of the team.  For the Cuban-American community for whom he was an icon (here's Dan Le Batard on Jose).  For anyone who appreciated the joy, enthusiasm and attitude, along with the brilliant set of skills, that he brought to the game.

For those of us who are fans of baseball, not just of a team, enjoying the here and now of the game, but also relishing its the lore and history, there is also a selfish aspect to our sadness.  When a young player enters the majors, showing great promise, we sit back and wonder. Will we be watching him for the next 15-20 years?  Will he create moments and memories for us that we will treasure?  Will he join the ranks of the greatest that ever played the game, creating his own unique legacy?  It is that sense of excitement, possibility and hope that fills us at the start of each season.  Jose Fernandez held out that possibility to us.
mlb animated GIF
The story of Jose Fernandez was already the stuff of legend.  Three unsuccessful attempts to escape from the prison-state of Cuba, finally succeeding on his fourth try at the age of 15, along with his sister and mother.  On that small boat crossing the Gulf of Mexico in the blackness of night, diving in after hearing someone go overboard, to discover he was saving his own mother.  Robbed on the bus by bandits as the family traveled through Mexico to a new life in the United States.  Not speaking a word of English upon arrival, becoming comfortably fluent in his new language.  Signed by the Marlins and leaping from Single A minor league ball to the majors, becoming Rookie of the Year in 2013.  The reunion with the grandmother he'd left behind in Cuba.

His career interrupted by Tommy John surgery in 2014, he rebounded, returning mid-way through the 2015 season, picking up where he left off, and was having an outstanding 2016 campaign, among the league leaders in most categories and #1 in strikeouts per nine innings.  A career record of 38-17, including an astonishing 29-2 on his home field (some thought his efforts to restrain his natural exuberance when on the road, reduced his effectiveness). 

Young Jose had duende.  Ben Lindbergh, the excellent baseball writer at The Ringer, put it this way:
Fernández belonged to that rare breed of athlete who gloried in being great without alienating anyone (well, anyone but Brian McCann). He seemed so delighted, so grateful for his gifts and his chance to use them, that no one could begrudge him his brilliance.
Most of those who show such promise at the start of their careers, don't fulfill it.  Injuries, lack of maturity, inability to adapt, deficiencies in temperament that become more evident over time; all these and a thousand other reasons can derail a career.  Who knows what the future would have held for Jose Fernandez?  Our sadness is accentuated by knowing we will never find out.  Our joy was in watching what he did in the time given him, and that will have to be enough.


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Zulu: The Washing Of The Spears

I first came across the tale of Rorke's Drift in a long-forgotten collection of stirring deeds written for children.  I could not have been more than ten years old at the time . . . 

- Donald R Morris from the Introduction to The Washing Of The Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation (1965)'s_Drift_1879_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg(The Defense of Rorke's Drift, Alphonse de Neuville, 1880, from wikpedia) 

Donald Morris (1924-2002) began research for The Washing of the Spears in 1956, completing the bulk of it between 1958 and 1962 when, according to the 1965 introduction to his book, he was "a naval officer stationed in Berlin".  Fascinated by the Battle of Rorke's Drift, which occurred on January 22-3, 1879, and the stunning defeat of the British Army by the Zulus at Isandhlwana, earlier that same day, he planned to write a magazine article on the battles, until persuaded by Ernest Hemingway to compose an account of the entire Zulu War of 1879, as none had ever been published in the United States., 1879, from lowres cabinet)

The mention of Hemingway, alerted me that Morris might be an interesting person in his own right.  I originally read the book in the mid-1970s on the recommendation of an acquaintance who had been enthralled by it.  At that time, there was very little information available on the author.  More recently I've read the 1998 edition (the book has gone through several printings over the years), as well as Morris' 2002 obituary and found that, indeed, he was quite an interesting character.

Educated at the Horace Mann School for Boys in New York City, he entered the navy in 1942 and then went on to the Naval Academy, graduating in 1948, remaining on active service until 1956, and retiring as a Lieutenant Commander.  It turns out that his assignment as a naval officer in Berlin was a cover; from 1956 through 1972 he was a CIA officer in Soviet counterespionage, serving in Berlin, Paris, the Congo and Vietnam.  From 1972 through 1989 he was foreign affairs columnist for the Houston Post.  Morris spoke German, French, Afrikaans, Russian and Chinese, held a commercial pilot's license and was a certified flight instructor.
Once Morris took up Hemingway's suggestion and began research on the Zulu War, he realized he needed to find out more about its origins.  It was a process that ended up taking him all the way back to the early 17th century, when both the Dutch and the Bantus (of whom the Zulu were a subgroup) first entered the lands that later became the Republic of South Africa, the Dutch in the southwest via the Capetown settlement and the cattle-herding Bantus migrating from the north.  The result is a 603 page epic (excluding footnotes), encompassing almost 300 years of history, and all of it accomplished without visiting South Africa.

Morris tells us of the fate of the Bushmen and Hottentots, most of whom were destroyed, caught between the advancing Dutch settlers (who came to call themselves Boers) and Bantus.  We learn of the coming of the English in the late 18th century, which accelerated the migration of Boer farmers, north, northeast and east of Capetown in order to escape British control.  We learn of the emergence of the Zulu nation in the 1820s under Shaka, and of his brilliant in leadership, tactics and strategy as well as his erratic behavior and brutality. impi) The innovative military system he developed and the incredible endurance and bravery of the Zulu warriors, made Shaka's kingdom feared across the land, among both natives, Boer (who had also come to consider themselves natives) and English. Under Shaka and his successors, the Zulu controlled most of the coastal strip of southern Africa, eventually coming up against the Boers, who began their Great Trek in the 1830s to escape the encroaching English; a journey which took them to what was to become the Orange Free State, the Transvaal and Natal.
(from british empire)

As the British consolidate their control we learn of the confinement of the Zulu Kingdom to a smaller area and then of the manipulations that led to the 1879 war.  It culminates in Morris' thrilling narrative of the events of January 1879.  First, at Isandlhwana, where a British and native force of 1,800 was overwhelmed by the Zulu impis (the equivalent of a division in a western army), resulting in the worst defeat Britain ever suffered in Africa at the hands of a native force.  Of 960 Europeans only 55 survived (every one of the 602 soldiers and officers of the British infantry perished), along with only 300 of the 850 native troops.  Then came Rorke's Drift, the mission station that had been converted into a supply station to support the British invasion of Zululand, where 140 soldiers (of whom more than 20 were incapacitated with sickness or wounds) faced 4,000 Zulus, who had crossed into Natal despite Zulu King Cetshwayo's order that they not enter British territory.  In fighting that was hand to hand at times, and went from 4 in the afternoon until after 2 the following morning, the Zulu were repulsed.  Seventeen of the British soldiers were killed, eight severely wounded and almost all of the remainder were injured in some manner.  Eleven Victoria Crosses, Britain's highest military honor, were awarded to participants. It was the most awarded to one regiment in a single action up to that time. Among the recipients was a cook, Private Henry Hook, who took up arms and enabled the evacuation of the patients from the mission hospital while he battled Zulu warriors from room to room as the building burned down around him. by Lt Chard, co-commander at Rorke's Drift)

Morris takes us through the conclusion of the war in which the British regrouped and reinvaded, finally conquering the Zulu, and of the sad decline of Zululand over the next decades.

The book is a rousing narrative and highly informative.  My only criticism is that it does become bogged down at one point in the minutiae of the formation of the Natal Colony and the very confusing religious disputes among its European settlers.  About 50 pages could have been edited out.

The author treats the Zulu, as well as the Boers and British, fairly, portraying both admirable behaviors and the foibles of all parties.  Given the times it was written in, my guess is it would not meet with the full approval of today's social justice crowd, despite its evenhanded approach.

I've read a bit about more recent historiography of the Zulu and this general period in South African history to get a sense of how the book is regarded today.  In the decades since its publication much new information about the Zulu kingdom has become available that provides a more complete explanation of their thinking in the run up to the 1879 war and their strategy in conducting it.  Some different takes on the campaign and battles have also become available.  Nonetheless, the book remains highly regarded.

The 1988 edition of the book contains an unusual introduction from Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Chief Minister of kwaZulu, and descendant of King Shaka.  In it, Buthelezi gives tribute to Morris' efforts,  placing it in the context of its time:
Forced to use the only sources available in the vast amount of research he undertook in order to write the book, he nevertheless could not entirely escape the clutches of a very biased recording of the past.  It is, however, not the extent to which some of his observations could be questioned that is important, for at the time of its publication in 1966, The Washing of the Spears was the least biased of all accounts ever published about kwaZulu.
He traces the process of colonial domination over the Zulu people and step by step shows how the British occupation of Natal led to the formation of what the world now knows as an apartheid society. He writes with indignant awareness of how today's apartheid society was made possible by brutal conquest and subjugation during British colonial times, and he had attributed historically important roles to the Zulu kings in his awareness of the Black man's struggle against oppression.

He undertook a mammoth task and acquitted himself brilliantly.  The Zulu people owe a debt of gratitude to Donald Morris.  He saw the world through our eyes and he was at his brilliant best in writing about the major White actors who shaped events in South Africa during the nineteenth century.  He stands with us as we revere the memory of people such as Bishop Colenso; he stands with us in the knowledge of what Sir Bartle Frere did; and he stands with us in an intense awareness of how people like Sir Theophilus Shepstone turned traitor to the people who had befriended him and about whom he talked as his friends. Buthelezi)

Of course no account of the Zulu War, or at least no account at THC, would be complete without mention of the 1964 film Zulu, about the fight at Rorke's Drift.  Starring as the two young officers in charge of the defense were Stanley Baker as Lt. John Chard and newcomer Michael Caine as Lt Gonville Bromhead.  King Cetshwayo was played by his great-grandson Chief Buthelezi!  I quite enjoyed the movie as a teenager.  Here's a nice piece on the film from an historical perspective.