Saturday, September 30, 2006

Give War a Chance?

The five year anniversary of 9/11 has come and passed and much has been said by columnists and pundits everywhere about how things have changed since then. I'm wondering if there will be any mention in a few weeks of the five year anniversary of the Concert for New York City (10-20-01). I think that event could have been a tremendously important cultural turning point. In hindsight, it didn't signify anything long lasting, and may not even warrant a mention when the annivesary comes around.

It featured a few contemporary stars, but read like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Reunion: The Who, Mick Jagger, Elton John, David Bowie, Springsteen, Clapton... the list went on and on. The headliner, the guy who went on last, was Paul McCartney. This was appropriate, considering the Beatles position as THE rock and roll band of all time, and with John and George no longer with us, Paul represents the Beatles.

What was amazing to me was that almost everyone came back on stage and joined in singing McCartney's then-new song "Freedom." The song was dismissed by critics at the time and is almost forgotten now, but I think people overlook some real surprises. It contains the lyrics: "This is my right/a right given by God" and "We will fight/for the right/to live in freedom" It is far from lyrically innovative, and musically it is basically a simple call and response. That night four years ago, the pantheon of rock stars joined in the call and response and sang these words over and over.

What other song comes to mind that fits these criteria: 1)By a Beatle 2)Simple lyrics (at least in the chorus)? 3) Call and response melody 4) Performed by a plethora of guest stars. How about "Give Peace a Chance"? Lennon, of course, was a pacifist who in his song "Imagine" envisioned a world without religion or war.

Along comes Paul McCartney years later and performs a song giving credit to God for the idea of freedom and encouraging people to fight for that freedom. In effect, "Give War a Chance." To add to the symbolism, Eric Clapton performed on "Give Peace a Chance" when it was recorded in Toronto during John and Yoko's "Bed in for Peace." Not only was Clapton performing "Freedom" with McCartney in NYC, but Macca even asked him to take a guitar solo.

This moment may have, for a brief time, represented the end of any relevance anti-Vietnam residual leftist thought had in America. However, a few months later we were in Iraq and McCartney noticeably does not perform the song anymore. Lennon's position of angry anti-war and leftist rhetoric has been picked up by contemporary artists such as Green Day and Kanye West. Neil Young, who spoke of "turning on evil when it's coming after you" in his post 9/11 song "Let's Roll," is now back to "Let's Impeach the President". People speak of the Iraq War as turning the world or the nation upside down, but in one strange sense, it's kind of turned things back to normal.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Response to "Where do Fastballs Come From"?


This is a subject that I really have no expertise on. Opinions, yes. I've always thought that good mechanics and reasonable arm strength was the answer, but Kerry Wood has terrible mechanics and he throws lights out, when he is not on the DL because of problems caused by his terrible mechanics.

Mike Marshall, the former pitcher who is an expert in this area, has some interesting theories, which appear in print from time to time.

Dick Beverage

Saturday, September 23, 2006

How Big is the World?

I find myself asking that question upon re-affirming something I realized several years ago, but find hard to believe. I ran across this article about Bob Dylan's "oldest friend." I first heard about this guy from someone I knew who worked with him at KFIZ radio. Astoundingly, this means I have a legitimate third degree separation from Bob Dylan. This also means that everyone I know has at least a fourth degree separation from Dylan. It also means that I have a fourth degree separation that everyone Dylan knows or knew, including the Beatles, Allen Ginsburg, Eric Clapton, Andy Warhol, and dozens of others. Through Dylan, I think it is safe to say that any famous or elite person in America fits snugly within my six degrees of separation. If not for the Dylan connection, it is quite likely that I still would be able to claim this, since one of my former bosses is the son of a guy who was a former CEO of CBS/Viacom, is the current head of Sirius satellite radio, and is a close friend of Howard Stern.

Bear in mind I'm not talking about celebrity encounters---I once touched someone who touched Krist Novaselic, but I wouldn't use that as evidence of a third-degree connection to Kurt Cobain. I'm using legitimate acquaintanceship as a standard for degree of separation.

This most recent re-affirmation of my connection to Dylan led me to Wikipedia's page on the Six Degrees of Separation. Apparently, the beginnings of this theory were pretty unscientific--someone in Hungary wrote a fictional short story in 1924 that suggested it. Since then, it has been both proven and disproven by scientific studies and mathematical models.

No matter what science tells us, it is indisputable that this theory holds some fascination in popular culture. From the Kevin Bacon game to the defunct social networking site to a movie by the name to an upcoming Fall TV series based on the concept, something about the proposed phenomena catches our fancy.

I suppose on one level it could be an attempt to impose order on chaos. Some people extend the six degrees theory beyond social networking and extend it to data sets in general. If that is the case, potentially overwhelming loads of information can be tamed, and at least in theory, made subject to patterns of organization.

On another level, the six degrees theory plays to a common desire for not independence, but interdependence. Although we've had a smattering of existential artists and philosophers in modern times who celebrate individual independence and make claims like "hell is other people," for the most part our societies are built on assumptions of collectivism and co-operation. The six degrees theory can also serve to minimize or elide class differences, which people from all classes are often eager to do in theory (though upper classes resist doing in practice).

In short, the six-degrees theory stries me as highly wishful thinking. However, this does not necessarily make it false, and my own experiences would seem to validate it. Given the recent prominence of facebook and myspace, we can now see that the six degrees social networking website was clearly ahead of its time. I think that if the six-degree theory is ever proven, it will be the result of a brave new world, perhaps not too far away, when technology will reveal humanity as a large web, and allow us to see the strand we occupy, and allow us to discern at an instant how near or how far any other strand may be.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Where do fastballs come from?

I recently wrote the head of the Society for American Baseball Research with the following question. If anyone knows of anyone else who can answer it, let me know. I'll keep you posted if I hear anything:

Hello Mr. Beverage,

I'm a long time baseball fan who has recently become troubled by a phenomena I can not explain. I'm not sure you will be able to help me, but I thought I'd try you first in the hopes that you could at least point me in the right direction.

It recently occurred to me that I have no explanation why some pitchers throw harder than others. The most obvious correlatives to velocity would be arm strength and mechanics, but both of these factors seem problematic to me. If being able to throw 99 mph were simply a matter of pure strength, why aren't bodybuilders major league pitchers? If it is a matter of mechanics, why haven't we discovered the maximum mechanical efficiency that would more or less make everyone top out equally? If it is a more complex biological situation, such as the position of certain muscles or tendons, why haven't we developed an accurate predictor for what people are most likely to develop a major league fastball?

What in the word enables a guy like Billy Wagner, in his prime, to be a flamethrower when everything about his physique predicts the opposite? What made a guy like Nolan Ryan keep his velocity when others lost it at similiar ages? (would he have necessarily bested all of his cohorts in an arm wrestling match?) What makes a guy like Jim Morris discover in his mid-30s that he has a major league fastball, when he hadn't done much of anything to develop one?

Thanks in advance for any help you can offer,
Azor Cigelske

Saturday, September 09, 2006

People and Folks

I've been thinking about gangs recently. This week I encountered this newspaper article about relocation of gang members. Meanwhile, on a political blog about my hometown that I often post comments to, somebody histrionically posted about the supposed infiltration of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin by Latin gangs.

I was in middle school in the early 1990s when gang chic hit. Some of my middle school brethren claimed affiliation with certain gangs, claims which I believed at the time with a credulity typical for somebody of that age. A few years later, our high school banned the wearing of hats in the building largely due to concerns about people wearing them in imitation of gangsters. While many of my classmates had a peculiar affinity for gangsta rap (which I suppose was a peculiarity only in theory, since it was a nationwide trend), I can say today that I have never knowingly met one of the hundreds of thousands of gang members in America. I suspect I am far from unusual. There are hundreds of millions of people (no pun intended) in this country who have never met a gang member. I find it somewhat interesting that we live in a society that on one hand allows for such a high degree of insularity for its relatively privileged, but at the same time constructs a vehicle (i.e. mass media) that perpetuates gang culture into nearly every neighborhood in the country. You would think the bourgeois would try to sweep under the rug reminders of how the other half lives, and in many respects it does. But I guess you could regard the baggy-clothed pimply-faced adolescents listening to Fiddy as agents in the return of their parents' repression.

Of course, there are many other sociological and anthropological explanations about why gang culture fascinates middle class children, most of them too obvious to mention here. What I will mention though, are three random thoughts about gangs and gang culture.

1) I think its interesting that there are number of urban legends about gang initiation rites. Of particular interest to me is the one about the headlight flashing. Of all the ways that people can and have died on the highway, what does it say that there is a persistent fear that one of the ways is through a gang initiation? How many people that have passed on such a cautionary e-mail also make sure to stress that passengers always buckle up?

2) How odd is it that our military is exporting gang graffiti to Iraq?

3) I think I can understand why incredibly intelligent people, such as Larry Hoover, would choose to put their brilliance to the use of constructing massive criminal organizations (intelligence doesn't automatically help one break free from imposed identity constructions). What puzzles me is why every gang that achieves notoriety automatically has a rival (Gangster Disciples vs. Vice Lords, Bloods vs. Crips, Latin Kings vs. Spanish Cobras, etc). The level of discipline and organization within some of those groups is staggering, so what prevents an across the board unity? Why is it necessary, regardless of ethnicity, for gangs to automatically have rivals from the same ethnic group? "Others" are thought to be created as a way to define oneself, but when you can already define oneself in relation to other race and class groups, why create "others" within your race and class? One possible answer-- strange as it may seem, gangs don't really want to succeed. Programmed to believe in their social and economic inferiority, gang members subconsciously create dueling organizations as checks against themselves.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Conformity and Subversion: The Doors and Pluarity of Meaning

A scientific discovery can be called "great" when it has philosophical implications far beyond its immediate application. I'm reasonably sure that the recent demotion of Pluto falls into this category, though that is a topic for another day. Instead, I wish to focus on Newton's Third Law of Motion.

In rock music, no band is a better emblematic of Newton's law than The Doors. To the rock intelligentsia (such as it exists today after the recent dismantling of Spin magazine) The Doors are an embarrassment. Of course, this can be directly attributed to Oliver Stone. By making Jim Morrison the focal point of the group, and by simplifying his persona to a bloated characticure of rock excess, his movie initially gave the band prominence; he made them important to what would become the last generation of young people to whom rock mattered. Unfortunately, by building such credibility upon the thin veneer of cult of personality and Dionysiun excess, it was inevitable that that the action would have a reaction. Basically, the kids grew up and realized that the Oliver Stone Morrison, and by extension the band as a whole, was a cypher. They felt embarrassed at ever having liked such a non-entity.

Let me be clear that I am not speaking only of professional rock critics, but of a large number of people born after Morrison's death who assign rock music a level of importance in their lives. I'm been disappointed on numerous occasions in which I've conversed with people who have a mostly similiar taste in music to myself. Often these people have turned up their noses when I mention The Doors. They inevitably comment on what an idiot Morrison was and how so many "dumb" (i.e. "Meatheaded") people like him. While the time has long since passed when "dumb" people celebrated the Stone Morrison, there is a strange collective memory our culture keeps passing along which continues to exert a heavy influence on The Doors critical reputation.

This is tremendously unfortunate, because far from being a cypher, The Doors have a pluarity of meaning. In the first place, the Doors are not just Morrison. Other than the Beatles, no other band offers such a diverse and distinctive set of personalities what are so fascinating to consider in tandem. A great starting point to consider the interplay is in these enthralling clips:


To some extent, all four exude the particular ethos that a rock band from L.A. would be expected to exude in 1968, particularly in personal appearance, but the differences are stunning.

Krieger and Densmore, who came to the band as a package deal, are generally conformists. They had jazz backgrounds, came from WASP families, and practiced transcendental meditation. While at one time jazz was subversive, by the 1960s it was certainly not so. TM may have been subversive to traditional religious beliefs, but as a political practice, at the risk of oversimplifying, it involved allowing for the continuance of the status quo. (The revolution was not only not televised, it was an entirely internal revolution, not unlike the kind of revolution Wordsworth was advocating after how he saw things went down in France).

Examined from one perspective, going through customs is a political act. One is acknowledging the power of the nation state, and allowing for the process to go through is a tacit endorsement of that power structure and its right to interpellate your subjectivity. Krieger and Densmore have no interest in fighting any revolutions on this day. Krieger is completely comfortable. Densmore exudes a bit of nervousness, as he always seemed unsure of his identity (something that comes out pretty clearly if you read his autobiography). Even his answer of "percussionist" instead of "drummer" when asked about his occupation seems to be a bit too much of an earnest attempt at identity construction.

In contrast to Krieger and Densmore, we have Manzarek and Morrison, the two highly educated members of the band. Manzarek, with his graduate education a rarity among rockers, and a blue-collar Chicago upbringing synthesized with SoCal cultural immersion, exudes a worldliness. While he loved jazz, he also had an intense interest in the blues, a more subversive art form in the 1960s. Even today he demonstrates a cocksure pretentiousness along with a naive optimism rooted in New Age religious beliefs. In short, he was and is a walking Modernist. He believes in Pound's edict to "make it new," but the revolution will come by working within the system. "You want my subjectivity?" he seems to ask at Customs. "Okay, take all of it. Full name, date of birth, social security number, library card number...I'll have you know that I am wearing dark glasses and you can not see into my soul. Take the rest; it is meaningless."

Then we have Jim. In his autobiography, Ray says he was trying to convince Jim to run for president in 1980. Poor Modernist Ray didn't realize that Postmodernists aren't interested in running for office. Like Ray, Jim wanted revolution, but he wanted it now. And the only way it could be accomplished was through complete deconstruction. Jim might not have exuded the same swagger as Ray going through customs, but he was certainly more impervious. He was playing by his own set of rules. The fact that his grin is both affecting and disaffecting, that he is simultaneously benevolent and malevolent, makes it altogether obvious that Val Kilmer or anybody else simply could never project a reasonable simulacra of such a persona.

Putting such four personas in the same band and having them create art led to predictably great results. And though I believe not enough people give the band their proper due, I take some solace in the Law of Conservation of Energy-- the Doors output may be converted, but it won't ever be destroyed.