My Favorite Year

Today is “Leap Day,” that day in which we celebrate the failure of the earth to adequately synchronize its rotation and revolution cycles. Because if this, it takes us just a little more than a five hours more than exactly 365 days to get around the sun. This schedule sloppiness means that we have an extra day on the calendar every four years.

Cause for celebration, right? Think again. If you’re like me, you’re working today. And technically, since today would be a Wednesday whether it was February 29 or March 1, the extra day we have in 2012 is really the last day of the year—our December 31 this year would have been January 1 of next year, if it weren’t for the above-mentioned rotation/revolution snafu. And December 31, 2012? It’s a Monday. We get an extra Monday for our troubles this year.

But I do always look forward to Leap Years, for two reasons, which won’t surprise anyone who knows me: the Summer Olympics and the presidential election. Both quadrennial events are eminently fascinating, full of drama, and they’ll dominate the “News” and “Sports” sections of the newspaper. (OK, the Olympics become almost invisible outside of their three-week window, but oh, what a great three weeks that is.)

Both, of course, bring their share of angst. The Olympics have become commercialized almost beyond recognition, and network-television hype can be pukeworthy at times. But still, you know that over the course of that three weeks, you’re going to see some unforgettable moments of sheer beauty: a breathtaking 200m dash; an intense back-and-forth duel in a 1,500-meter run; a gritty nothing-held-back decathlon … and that’s just in the track and field events.

Likewise, there will be some dark days when the political negativity will be overwhelming between now and election day in November. Still, it’s fascinating, and there’s no denying that this stuff is important. Even though, at this point, it looks like this won’t be a particularly close election, you just know that the results will be at least somewhat in doubt until the polls close and the votes are counted.

So fasten your seatbelts; it may or may not be a great year, but we know it will be an interesting one.

About That Statue…

Note: This statue has been moved. You can read a June 2016 update to this post  here.

Just downriver from Eads Bridge in St. Louis, on the St. Louis riverfront, is a statue called The Captains’ Return. It depicts the return of William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, along with their dog, Scout, from their famous trip to explore the Missouri River. It was sculpted by Harry Weber.

I said it was “on the riverfront,” but it is sometimes more accurately described as “in the river.” In what I consider a brilliant placement, the statue was set in the cobblestones on the St. Louis wharf. The river level is subject to notoriously large swings; in the last 20 years, it has been as low as 0 feet and as high as 50 feet on the St. Louis gauge. This picture was taken when the stage was about 29 feet, which is one foot below the flood stage. (Don’t confuse “stage” with “depth.” Even at zero feet on the St. Louis gauge, there is still more than nine feet of water in the main channel of the river. Zero on the gauge refers to the “low water reference plane,” which I wouldn’t try to explain, even if I understood it.)

That’s Clark, in the picture, who appears to be waving at us for help. Less fortunate are Lewis and Scout; they’re below the surface in this photo, although you can see them in some of the pictures below.

This statue is one of my favorite things about St. Louis. I’m sure I’ve taken hundreds of photos of it over the last six years. It’s just a few feet south of Eads Bridge, another of my favorite things about St. Louis. And about half a mile away is yet another favorite, the Gateway Arch.

The statue was dedicated in September 2006, the 200th anniversary of the end of the Voyage of Discovery. There’s a plaque on the statue that reads: “At noon on September 23, 1806, the Lewis and Clark expedition ended on the St. Louis riverfront after a journey along the Missouri River to its headwaters, a passage of the Rocky Mountains, and a descent to the Pacific Coast via the Columbia River. Returning by roughly the same route, they arrived at St. Louis after two years, four months and nine days of exploring the lands and encountering the peoples of the American West.”

Here are a few more pictures of the statue (clicking on any of the thumbnails below will bring up a gallery you can scroll through). The last one, the only one in which you can also see the Arch, was taken this morning (February 27, 2012), when the river stage was about 4.25 feet.

Shoulblog Turns Two!

Mardi Gras King Cake, from barbarabakes.com

It’s Shoulblog’s birthday! Two years ago today (OK, not exactly two years, but it was two Fat Tuesdays ago), this thing launched. This was the first post; you can judge for yourself if I’ve made any progress in that time.

With the anniversary, the blog has a new look. I adopted a new WordPress “theme” (it’s called Twenty Eleven, if you’re into that kind of thing—the old theme was called Contempt), which allows a little more flexibility. One reason I like the new one is the typography; the font seems a little larger, cleaner. The headlines are bigger and better-distinguished from the text. Ditto for the content in the sidebar (which, it seems, you don’t see on individual post pages, but if you click on “Home” or on the header, it’ll be back).

The biggest change is in the header, which now includes a photograph; it’s actually several different photographs, which will rotate in random order with each new page you open. I’ll be adding some smaller tweaks as time goes on.

The Year, In One Paragraph

Looking back over the last year of blogging, the longest (and most important, to me, anyway) thing I’ve written was “You Are Welcome Here,” which traced my return to the church I grew up in, if not necessarily all of its teachings. That post also took the longest to write; I probably worked on it for about three months, although I knew fairly early on that it was probably going to be the Christmas post, so I didn’t have to hurry it. Otherwise, the posts ebbed and flowed through the year. Last February, I didn’t post at all, nor was there much in March or April; partly because I was preoccupied with a speaking engagement, detailed here. (I found that one kind of funny; my son thought it was sad.) It was a lousy year for running—reflected in the fact that I only wrote a handful of times about it—but a pretty good year for list-making; there were several lists about music, about sports, even a list about lists. And I’ve started keeping track of the books I’ve read, both as a way of sharing recommendations and to spur myself to read more; the first two posts in this series are here and here. I did a little bit of traveling in 2011, and managed to write about trips to Northern Illinois and New Mexico, which is my new home, although I don’t live there just yet. December was something of a somber month, with remembrances of my brother Jim and of my mother, along with a plea for quieter and simpler Christmas music. January brought only two posts, including my annual “Pictures Of…” gallery, which seems to be pretty popular. Also along the way in the last year, there were posts about my family history, about the greatest album ever recorded, and other assorted silliness.

Other than the ongoing lists, I have no idea what the next year will bring. OK, well I do have some ideas…

Thanks For Reading!

Thanks to everyone who has commented, or “liked” a post, or shared a post on Facebook. I love the feedback, positive or negative.

By the way, I will usually put something on Facebook when I post here, but not always. Same for Twitter, when I remember to go there (which isn’t often, honestly). And occasionally I’ll e-mail a post to friends who might not see it otherwise. If you want to make sure you don’t miss any posts, you can “subscribe” to the blog by entering your e-mail address in the box at the right—that will get you an automatic e-mail every time I post something, if you’re so inclined. Or you can subscribe via RSS, which allows you to follow one or many blogs from one convenient page. There are lots of RSS readers out there; I use Google Reader and follow about a hundred blogs that way.

As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll come back often!

List: Top Five Musical Crimes Against Humanity

Perhaps I’m still a little cranky about the state of music these days. (That always seems to happen after one of those Super Bowl halftime shows.) But as great as rock music can be, the extraordinary heights it can deliver us to, there are also plenty of “what were they thinking” moments. Here are my top five … or perhaps “bottom five” might be a better title.

(Oh, and, starting today, I have a set of standard disclaimers regarding these Shoulblog lists. You can read it here.)

5) Thorn Tree In The Garden. The band was Derek and the Dominoes. The album was Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The star was Eric Clapton, but the band also included Duane Allman, Bobby Whitlock and other rock giants. The double album was loaded with blues-rock classics: I Looked Away, Bell Bottom Blues, Key to the Highway, Little Wing and of course, the title track, Layla, which is one of the all-time classic songs. If I ever had the gall to make one of these “top five” lists for best songs ever, Layla would probably come in at No. 2. Go see Eric Clapton in concert, and Layla is the last song he will play. It’s the perfect “last song,” the ultimate ultimate. But on this album of classic, someone had the idea of making Layla the penultimate song, following it with a soporific acoustic song called Thorn Tree In The Garden. Mind you, it’s no “Her Majesty”-like ditty thrown in for a laugh at the end.; it’s ostensibly a full-fledged song, at nearly three minutes. You spend that entire three minutes thinking, wow, what a letdown.

4) Sweet Home Alabama, with lyrics. It would have made a great instrumental, wouldn’t it?

3) I Want You To Want Me Live At Budokan. It’s a truly awful song in the first place. It’s the soundtrack for the word “insipid.” But then Cheap Trick performed it live in front of what sounds like a million screaming kids, and the wretchedness is magnified. It gets my vote for the worst song ever.

2) Spanish Moon, transferred to CD. The Little Feat double-live album Waiting For Columbus is one of the best live albums ever, with absolutely brilliant performances of all of their best songs. The song Spanish Moon  never really thrilled me in the studio version, but the live version really, well, came to life.

Musically, it’s like a bell curve: it starts small, with just the percussionist; then the drummer joins in. A few bars later, the bass player is added to the mix, then an organ and a guitar, the Tower of Power horn section, and finally the vocals. Soon the full band is grooving through the song, following the same driving rhythm established at the very beginning by the percussionist. It peaks … and then one by one, the instruments drop back out, until its just the guitar, bass and drums. The guitarist takes an extended solo, and then exits with a flourish. Same for the bass player. When he is done, it’s just the drummer—and the crowd, which is clapping along ecstatically. The drummer finishes the last few beats, and the crowd keeps clapping, in time, until it finally erupts in an enormous ovation. I can’t think of any recording that better captures the potential exuberance of a rock concert . I must have listened to it a million times on vinyl, and when CDs came about I eagerly bought a copy and put it on to play.

Except when the CD was created, I guess they had to make some compromises to go from a double album on vinyl to a single compact disc. They cut out a song or two, OK fine. But as I listened to Spanish Moon for the first time—it was the end of Side 2 on vinyl, and it’s track 9 on the CD—they faded out the ending! Of all the songs that made it onto the disc, they had to pick that one to truncate. Unbelievable. Of all of the musical crimes against humanity, that would be the most egregious, except for…

1) Let It Be, the wimpy organ version. Let it Be is indisputably one of the greatest songs in rock, a brilliant moment of clarity amid the disastrous breakup of the Beatles. Even today, hearing those first piano chords can instantly change your day and compel you to stop what you’re doing and listen. But when I hear it on the radio, my attention is always on alert, waiting for the veritable fork in the road. It’s that point when the radio station will reveal itself as either a voice of responsible programing, or just a money-grubbing embarrassment. It’s at exactly 1:58 into the song, after the second chorus has ended, and the music breaks into a solo.

But which solo?

The album version has George Harrison taking control with a brilliant, soulful guitar solo, one of the greatest guitar solos in music history. At that exact moment, the experience is transformed from a hymn sung up by the congregation, to an anthem bestowed down upon us from the heavens. “Hark, the Angels Come,” indeed.

But on the single version, the one that was anthologized on the “Blue” (1967-1970) album, the guitar solo is mixed out and replaced by an organ solo. True, it’s a Billy Preston organ solo, and on any other song it would probably be cool. But once you’ve heard the album version, hearing the organ version can be nothing but abject disappointment. What is probably a top-five song from the album becomes a song that struggles to make it into the top 101.

So there you have it. Agree? Disagree? Did I miss any? Make use of that comment box below!

List: Top Five Caveats For Shoulblog Lists

From time to time, Shoulblog does a “Top Five” list. The list is just what it says: the top five of whatever. But the “top” part is, of course, subjective. For various reasons—about five of them, actually—these lists may not be the definitive, all-time superlatives. Therefore, I offer these caveats:

5)  In a list of the top five of anything, I’ll generally try to restrict it to one song, record, whatever, per artist, per list. Yes, I know that sometimes a case can be made for more than one—for instance, how would one choose between Gimme Shelter and Sympathy for the Devil in a list of great songs?—but for the sake of variety and letting more groups have the glory of Shoulblog recognition, we’ll limit it to one per list.

4)  Of all of the numbers between one and five, four is the only one that’s not a prime number. Please adjust your expectations accordingly.

3)  The rule about writing is, “write about what you know.” That applies here, particularly in lists relating to music. There may be better or more representative songs/albums/artists out there, but if they’re not in my collection or I don’t know them, sorry, they’re not going to make the list. While I like to think of my music collection as pretty eclectic, I’m daily offered reminders of artists I wasn’t previously aware of, Plus, I’ve almost given up on any music recorded since the turn of the century. Not completely, but most of the stuff out there, I just don’t even bother to listen too. This is probably more a function of my age-induced crankiness than of a decline in quality, but don’t discount the latter possibility.

2)  Times can change; moods can change. What may seem like the best song in history one day might seem like a middle-of-the-packer the next day. Each of these lists is a snapshot in time. For instance, next week I might wish I’d made this caveat No. 4.

1) Hey, I ain’t perfect. Once in a very great while, I may actually be wrong about something. However, this is my blog, and just maybe what’s happening is that I’m correct and everybody else is wrong. (For instance, many people claim that 1 is also not a prime number. As far as I’m concerned, they have every right to be mistaken.) If you feel you’ve identified one such error—of commission or omission—feel free to let me know in the comments. Or, you can GYODB. Point is, as you well know from reading this blog for the last two years, I’m not perfect. Hopefully, though, it’s close enough for rock n roll.

The Grammys

The Grammy Awards are tonight. I may or may not be watching; it sort of depends if there’s anything else on.

There have been some great Grammy shows in the past; the one in particular that stands out for me is 2003, the year after the Clash’s Joe Strummer died, and Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, et al,  tore through a fabulous version of the song London Calling.

In general, though, I’m not a big fan of the Grammys. Even if I know the artists, there are way too many categories, and the wrong …Keep reading