Friday, December 29, 2006

Saddam Hussein meets his maker

Apparently the Iraqi government intends to execute Saddam Hussein sometime tonight. That's one obit I don't care to bother with, though if I see something good I'll try to link it later.

All I ask is that we keep the Iraqi people in our thoughts as we strive in our own ways to make the world a better place. If you believe in prayer, say one for the victims of this brutal man's regime and their families. Then pray that one day the peoples of that troubled region will one day live in peace.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Gerald Ford

I really don't have a lot to say on former President Gerald Ford, who passed away yesterday at age 93, making him the longest-lived American President. He was a college football star at the University of Michigan. He had a long career as a Congressman, rising to become House Minority Leader. He survived two assassination attempts while President. He asked people to wear those silly "Whip Inflation Now" buttons. He played a lot of golf. His legacy was granting a full pardon to Richard M. Nixon.

Yanek Mieczkowski wrote a good study of Ford's career a couple of years ago for History News Network.

ADDENDUM: The question of whether or not Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon was agreed to in advance is by far the most intriguing aspect of his long career. In a lively comments thread at Corrente, Shystee points us to Bob Woodward's interesting article, "Closing The Chapter On Watergate Wasn't Done Lightly". On other subjects, Woodward should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. Woodward, though, knows virtually everybody who was part of Watergate, and on the subject that made his career, I believe he has been honest.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

James Brown

As nearly everybody knows by now, James Brown, the "Godfather of Soul" and more-or-less the inventor of rap and hip-hop, passed away Monday morning at age 73.

Brown's career story is well-known to most fans of 60's and 70's pop and soul music. There were the early R&B hits, many receiving little airplay outside of southern R&B stations, and the years on the soul circuit. That era climaxed with the incredible Live At The Apollo disc. This period led to his mid-60's pop breakthrough, when songs like "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag", "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and "Cold Sweat" sold millions while outlining new frontiers in R&B music. In the 70's, songs like "Get On The Good Foot" and "The Payback" wrote the vocabulary for a new type of music, and provided a wealth of material for the hip-hop and rap artists of the next generation to sample. He enjoyed a comeback in the mid-80's with "Living In America", and suffered embarrassment at the end of the decade when he was sentenced to two years in prison for domestic violence charges. He was the "Hardest Working Man In Show Business" to the end, concluding his last tour this past summer.

The revolution Brown headed is described well by Dave Marsh in his entry on "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" in Marsh's The Heart Of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made:

Skirting the edges of intelligibility, his voice quavering and shaking like a man with cosmic palsy, Brown declared a new order of rhythm and himself as its avatar. Or at least it's the only way that his expostulations about digging the new breed thing and his recital of every dance craze of the previous five years fit together with the percussive frenzy of drums, bass, razor-edge guitar, and blaring horns. The result is a beat chopped up into an infinity of bright, hard shards.

Each pierces the formula that was beginning to dominate soul music as it was pulled, like any other pop genre, toward more blandness than was good for it. Brown had helped perfect that formula, but with "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag", he declared his refusal to live within its restrictions.

With the possible exception of Little Richard, no one has ever made a rock or rhythm and blues record this extreme. At a time when Motown had made comparatively ornate records seem the wave of the future, Brown posited the most radical alternative: a record so totally immersed in rhythm that you barely noticed ornamentation at all. No record before "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" sounded anything like it. No record since - certainly no dance record - has been unmarked by it. James Brown is entitled to every bit of his vanity, because in 1965, he invented the rhythmic future in which we live today.

James Brown was always at least two steps ahead of his audience. He recorded 89 singles which made the Top 100, but only six made the pop Top 10, with "I Got You (I Feel Good)" placing the highest at #3. He had 15 singles top the R&B chart, but he far and away holds the record for most chart singles without a pop #1.

Nearly every soul, rap, and hip-hop artist to come along in Brown's wake owes a debt to him. Let the Godfather explain it to you himself:

Soul music is the music that with God's help I created. It never was before. See, soul music is not the blues. We may have some chords that might be used in the blues, but soul has a gospel overtone with jazz licks and no blues changes. Puttin' blues together has never been my thing, 'cause I thought blues was so limited, unless it was progressive blues, and progressive blues is jazz, see?

Also there are some things like "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World. That's something that could be done at the Metropolitan Opera. It's a classic, you know? Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Bach, Strauss, Mantovani, you know? And it's another type of music. Today, 80 percent of the music of the world has the licks of James Brown.


James Brown covered way too much ground to condense into one volume: his 20 All-Time Greatest Hits is a good starting point. His Live At The Apollo is also a must. Many critics consider it to be the greatest live rock and soul recording of all time.

BoingBoing (hat tip to Lambert) has links to several vintage Brown performances on video, including an interview recorded after he posted bail on the domestic assault charge in which he appears to be buzzed on something or other. It's either hilarious or pathetic, depending upon your perspective on such things. Unbelievably, his remarkable performance on The T.A.M.I. Show seems to be unavailable on DVD at this time. The T.A.M.I. Show was a 1965 concert film featuring many top acts of the day, from Chuck Berry to the Supremes to the Rolling Stones. If it's out there somewhere, or if you get a chance to see it, don't pass it up.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas from The Hill

"Away In A Manger", by Katherine Graham.

Happy Holidays. Joyous Kwanzaa. Festive Festivus. We'll claim "Christmas" for today, as December 25 has become traditionally accepted as the birth of Jesus, although the Orthodox churches mark the date as January 6. Nobody exactly knows for sure when the event happened, but most scholars are pretty sure it didn't happen in December.

The excellent Religious has a brief essay on how we got to December 25 for those who are interested.

James Brown passed away this morning. Sorry, I can't write that one today.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Hill's first Christmas gift

Lo and behold, Mixter has left us a gift on the front porch - a book meme tag! Opening the box to see what's inside, we find a set of rules:

1. Find the nearest book.
2. Name the book.
3. Name the author.
4. Turn to page 123.
5. Go to the fifth sentence on the page.
6. Copy the next three sentences and post to your blog.
7. Tag three more lucky souls.

It could have been a pony...

Anyway. Sitting here next to me on the desk is the book I'm reading now, Robert A. Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means Of Ascent. I haven't gotten to page 123 yet, but LBJ was one heckuva interesting dude, and I'm sure he won't disappoint us.

Here we are. Page 123. Fifth sentence. The next three sentences are as follows:

"I have contributed what I could in the way of counsel, but I don't know how much of it will be followed. Most of our old friends are bewildered... my own course in political affairs is yet to be charted. We are giving serious thought to going back to the hill country in Texas and making our contribution to a better world from that spot."

All the best gifts keep on giving, of course, and the three lucky recipients are Beth, who always has some interesting reading handy; Gina, who I've never thanked enough for that music meme; and IrishWalsh, who needs to stop playing with his Wii before he grows hair on his palms. Enjoy.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Stocking stuffer

Last night when I stopped at the Crackhead Market at the bottom of The Hill to get a soda for the ride into the big city, the featured item next to the cash register was Toby Keith's "Angry American Chopper", presumably destined to be a big hit this Christmas in the trailer courts surrounding the market and making up much of its clientele.

For the uninitiated, Toby Keith is a pedestrian country music singer whose greatest claim to fame comes from a song in which Mr. Keith threatens to shove his Tony Lama up the ass of any Arab who might get in the way of the mighty Yew Ess Ay. Word around town is that Keith is a mild-mannered fellow none too proud of the ass-kicker image which has netted him a small fortune, having suggested that his record label has taken the "angry American" thing too far in order to promote him. Yet the image of the chopper comes from his own website, where you too may get your own Angry American Chopper replica for $29.95.

On the interstate on the way to the big city, this got me to thinking about an article I read the other day on ZNet, written by Mark Harris:

The right-wing media trades on the grudges, resentments, and frustrations of a section of the popular culture defined by almost endless disgruntlement. It's a world of faux populism where an unjust war is painted in red, white, and blue hypocrisy, while issues such as unaffordable health care or a pension system under attack fade before the burning evils of gay marriage or stem cell research. In this media world, evolutionary biology is bad news, but political evolution toward a more just, compassionate, and progressive society is just some laughable Hollywood fairy tale.

The trouble is the media warriors exploit the public's various frustrations and fears and offers nothing in the way of real solutions. This is a milieu that thinks it's having a serious discussion when it solicits callers' comments on the topic of whether the minimum wage should ever be raised, or even exist! Their product is especially toxic when what's for sale is a belligerent brand of patriotism, the kind that equates “supporting the troops” with unquestioned support for an administration whose fogged vision has meant death for nearly 3000 troops.

Big business, stirring up anger for anger's sake. Instead of sitting down and working out answers to real problems, a big part of our media stirs up resentments against Arabs or Mexicans or gays or whoever might be a convienient target at the moment. We can't find a way out of the quagmire, but hey, we feel good. Some kid in a trailer has a new toy for Christmas. Toby Keith makes money. The media conglomerates make money. Another Iraqi gets Uncle Sam's boot up his ass. All this anger in the end strips us of our power to make real changes, doesn't make us a better people, and brings out some of America's worst instincts for all the world to see.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Another actor in the White House?

Seen on the news last night: George Clooney and Don Cheadle met with Kofi Annan to discuss the Darfur crisis. Good for them; Darfur is a dire situation for sure, and although some of you may be skeptical about actors getting involved in such things, I figure that their celebrity could bring more awareness of what's going on there to some people, and maybe Clooney has an extra million or two lying around from a movie deal he could use to feed some folks over there.

The crusty old fellow I work nights with asks me, "What's George Clooney think he's doing, running for President?"

"Hell," I reply, "he'd probably win..."

Maybe I'm in the wrong line of work

A nice religious post for Sunday morning...

Is staying home and watching church services on TV the same as actually going to church to participate in worship? I've had this conversation several times with people over the years, and the feeling is near unanimous - no, in order to feel the spirit of the Lord and fellowship with other believers, you need to attend church services. Staying home and watching church on TV doesn't quite cut it.

Business is good at The Crossing, a non-denominational megachurch in Quincy, Illinois. So good, as a matter of fact, that they're looking into expanding into the neighboring communities. They've found an abandoned grocery store in nearby Macomb where they intend to start holding services next year.

But is it really church, or are they going to just be watching TV?

(Rev. Jerry) Harris said while the Macomb church would be a separate entity in a physical sense, the two churches would be the same. "Only in different places," Harris said.

For example, Sunday worship services would be interactive events, linked by satellite. Both sites would be contributing to various services and church-related events, thanks to The Crossing's state of the art technology.

Now this is not an original idea (the last original idea anyone had in Quincy came from whoever decided to bring Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas to town for a debate):

Harris said The Crossing specifically studied the workings of a similar church in Oklahoma. Just like The Crossing, the church in Oklahoma began with a handful of people and contemporary approach and is now a church of 20,000 that is simultaneously linked together for services — not only in different cities, but different states.

So now I've got this idea. We're going to start by expanding the banquet room here at The Hill. We'll bring in a couple of big-screen TV's, and every Sunday morning they'll be tuned to Rev. Maury Davis. Interactive? We've got a telephone and an Internet connection, what more do you want? Then, I apply for my IRS exemption...

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ahmet Ertegun

Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records and perhaps the most important figure in the acceptance of soul and R&B music by the mass audience, passed away today at age 83. He slipped and fell while attending a Rolling Stones concert in New York on October 29, the injuries eventually causing him to fall into a coma from which he never awoke.

Ertegun, the son of a Turkish diplomat, along with his brother Nesuhi developed a love for jazz and blues while growing up traveling Europe and the US with their father. The Erteguns eventually settled in Washington when Turkey appointed his father ambassador to the US. By the time Ahmet was grown, the Ertegun family had amassed a collection of over 25,000 jazz and blues records.

In 1947, Ertegun borrowed $10,000 and set up Atlantic Records in partnership with his friend Herb Abramson. The duo made their mark in the music industry by signing, recording and promoting the R&B and blues artists that they loved and the major labels of the day were reluctant to sign. Within a few short years, Atlantic was America's premiere R&B label. Artists who recorded for Atlantic included Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, the Coasters, the Drifters, and Ray Charles. The label also attracted a top-notch stable of writers and producers, including the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jerry Wexler, and older brother Neshui Ertegun, who achieved success in his own right as a producer. Wexler and the elder Ertegun would eventually become partners in Atlantic as well.

In the 60's and 70's, Ahmet Ertegun would diversify Atlantic into the pop and rock fields. Ertegun attempted to sign Elvis Presley in 1956, but was outbid by RCA. The label continued to pursue rock acts, though, and by the early 70's would have under contract such titans as Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and Yes. Ertegun was also instrumental in acquiring Atlantic the distribution rights for the Rolling Stones' new label. While this was going on, Neshui helped solidify Atlantic's reputation as a jazz label by producing the likes of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. Ertegun never lost his interest in R&B, either. When Aretha Franklin came to Atlantic after Columbia Records didn't know what to do with her, Ertegun, with the help of producers Wexler and Tom Dowd, turned the dynamic singer from a case of unfulfilled potential into a superstar. Also, in partnership with Stax Records, he helped take a Southern R&B circuit veteran named Otis Redding to the height of international fame prior to Redding's untimely death.

Ertegun would keep up with trends in popular music almost to the end. He was elected to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1997, and his friends in later years included Kid Rock and Lil' Kim.

Ahmet Ertegun may well be best remembered for his ability to cross racial and cultural lines as well as musical ones. He was a Turkish Muslim in partnership with Jewish Americans who got his start recording black musicians. There is hardly a branch of popular music in which Ertegun failed to make a mark. Popular culture has lost one of its giants.

- An early history of Atlantic Records, prominently featuring Ertegun's role in the label's success.

- A Slate Magazine interview of Ertegun from 2005.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

God don't want no girly-men

The preacher stands before his congregation on Sunday morning, notes that the pews are more than half-empty again, and that the majority of those present are women. This scene repeats itself from coast to coast every Sabbath and has some wondering, "Is church too feminine for men?" Then, from out of the wilderness, a testosterone-drenched voice roars, "Let men be men!"

This is the cry of GodMen, "where faith gets dangerous". They say that traditional worship practices make men passive and challenge their members to return to "biblical patterns of masculinity". They remind us that Jesus could be rough and tough if the situation demanded it (as in the time he drove the moneychangers from the temple). Their main concern, though, seems to be that traditional Christian worship makes men too meek and mild, incapable of the aggressive Christianity they see God demanding:

The Bible describes and encourages a kind of rugged masculinity that is not the same kind of masculinity that is promoted in most church services and religious organizations. So when we tell Christian men that they are "fully authorized," it's our way of telling them that though the church doesn't necessarily want them to become more assertive, bold, and confrontational in order to become redemptive forces for good in a world at war with truth and goodness, the God of the Bible does.

They exhort Christian men to "Grow A Pair!"

We've been beaten down
Feminized by the culture crowd,
No more nice guy, timid and ashamed
We've had enough, cowboy up
In the power of Jesus name
Welcome to the battle
A million men have got your back
Jump up in the saddle
Grab a sword, don't be scared
Be a man, grow a pair!

Given the general impression that many church activities (at least in my experience) tend to be female-oriented, it's not necessarily a bad thing to seek more male involvement. Yet it seems to me that men get more than enough encouragement to pursue their aggressive side in the everyday world. The most valuable lessons we draw from Jesus are those of balance and of toleration, lessons that could be lost in the in-your-face blaring of the GodMen.

Then there are those who get the entirely wrong message, as did this GodMan follower:

But some men at the conference run into trouble when they debut their new attitudes at home. Eric Miller, a construction worker, admits his wife is none too pleased when he takes off, alone, on a weekend camping trip a few weeks after the GodMen conference this fall.

"She was a little bit leery of it, as we have an infant," he reports. "She said, 'I need your help around here.' "

Miller, 26, refuses to yield: "I am supposed to be the leader of the family."

Someone might remind Miller that running off to go camping with your buddies while your wife is left home to struggle with caring for an infant may not be the best example of family leadership.

"Boys will be boys", they say, and there's nothing wrong with standing up and being strong in order to defend who we love and what we believe. But church is one of the few places left that teaches the basic values of tolerance, civility, and decency we need if we are to live together as a society. Encouraging some of man's more aggressive characteristics in order to fill the pews doesn't seem like such a good idea. At the very least, it isn't cool to belch, fart, and scratch your balls in the middle of the minister's sermon.

(Via Talk To Action; their article contains links to additional images and video.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


The off-days were spent readying The Hill for the holidays. There's still some work to be done, but the tree is decorated and the lights are up. The tree is especially beautiful this year - we'd never done one all in white lights, tinsel and garland before, and it turned out great. We do it like we do the groundswork in the summer - Mrs. S. gets the ideas and points, and I do my best to put things where she wants them. This has worked well for us for over twenty years now.

I'm also trying to clear my bookshelves of the growing number of titles yet unread. I blame the internets (of course) - the number of books I pick up here and there keeps growing, while I spend entirely too much time reading the same stuff in the blogosphere that's been said a hundred times before. I've just finished reading The Wise Men, a biographical study of Dean Acheson, Averill Harriman, and the others instrumental in shaping the Cold War. It took a month to read 700 pages, something that I used to regularly do in a week or so before discovering the distractions of cyberspace.

Now there's a note when I sign in to Blogger saying that in a couple of months we're going to have to switch to the beta whether we like it or not. So if someday soon you come by the Hill and wonder where the hell the blog went...