Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Let It Reign

WARNING: I'm a lifelong New England Patriots fan, so if you're not a fan of the team (or if you're from one of the other 44 1/2 states that are NOT in New England), you may not want to read this. You have been warned!

As Super Bowl LII gets closer, I thought it would be a fun time, at least for me and my fellow Pats fans, to reflect on how impressive it is what the Patriots have done since 2001.

Since 2001, they have:

- had a winning record every season
- won the AFC East division 15 times, including the last 9 in a row (in 2002 and 2008, when they didn't win the division, they finished tied for the best record in the division but lost out on tiebreakers)
- appeared in 12 AFC Championship games, including the last 7 in a row
- played in 8 Super Bowls (2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2011, 2014, 2016, and 2017)
- won 5 Super Bowls in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2014, and 2016 (and lost the other 2, in 2007 and 2011, on last minute fluke catches)
- won 3 Super Bowls in a 4 year span (including 2 in a row: 2001, 2003, 2004)
- appeared in 3 Super Bowls in a 4-year span (winning the first two in 2014 and 2016, with this Sunday's game as their second back-to-back appearance)

All the while, they've been led during the entire run by arguably the greatest coach in NFL history and the greatest quarterback in NFL history (Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, respectively...as if you didn't already know). That unprecedented run of success, especially in the salary cap era where the NFL strives for parity by pushing all teams toward the same level of mediocrity, has no modern-era counterpart. Historically, what the Patriots are doing is on the same level as what the Boston Celtics did from the late 1950s to the late 1980s and what the New York Yankees did from the 1920s to the early 1960s.

Putting it into an even wider perspective, in my nearly 40 years on this earth, the Patriots have been to a total of 10 Super Bowls, which leads all NFL teams. Their 5 championships put them at second most all time, tied with the Cowboys and 49ers, and a win this weekend will tie them with the Steelers for most titles at 6. As a Boston sports fan, I've been spoiled beyond belief in my lifetime, and especially so over the last 20 years. However, the Patriots had long been the black sheep of the four teams in Boston. Prior to the early 1990s, they were an NFL laughing stock and apart from the Cinderella run to the Super Bowl in 1985 in which they were promptly destroyed by the historically great Chicago Bears, a perennial loser on the field. The nadir was reached in the early 1990s when the team very nearly picked up sticks and moved to St. Louis before Robert Kraft stepped in and bought the team to keep them in New England. The hiring of Bill Parcells and drafting Drew Bledsoe, both in 1993, helped make the team relevant and competitive; they even made it to the Super Bowl again in 1996. But it wasn't until hiring Belichick and drafting Brady, both in 2000, that the seeds for the dynasty were sown. I won't bore you with any more of the details because if you're a Patriots fan you already know them and if you're not, you still know them and are probably sick of hearing about them!

In closing, whether you're a Patriots fan or not, whether you're rooting for them against the Eagles this weekend or rooting against them, I hope you'll join me in taking a moment to appreciate what they've been able to accomplish over the past two decades as this is a run we aren't likely to ever see again in professional sports in general and (especially) in the NFL specifically. Win or lose this weekend, they go down as the latest dynasty in American team sports...and with the way Brady is still playing at age 40, they may not even be done yet.

Friday, January 12, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs

Countless book have been written on the Beatles with just about every aspect of their lives and careers touched upon. While their music has obviously been most heavily covered, there have also been numerous books about their fashion, relationships, solo careers, and influence. Thus, any time a new Beatles book comes on the market, it has to be very interesting and look at the band from a completely different angle in order for me to be interested. The new book Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs checks both of those boxes. In this book, author Joe Goodden has decided to look at the Beatles story through the lens of their drug use. Before anyone thinks that this book in any way glorifies drug use, let me assure you that it does not. Goodden states as much in his introduction and having read it myself, I can confirm that this is the case. It instead takes a scholarly approach at describing the Beatles' drug usage and how it informed and influenced their music and the relationships in the band. By remaining impartial and not passing judgments in either direction, the author has managed to write a book that is both informative and fascinating.

The central premise of this book is that the Beatles story is inextricably linked to their drug use, from their beginnings in Liverpool through the band's career, split, solo careers, and beyond. Riding So High is written such that each chapter is its own section dealing with a specific drug. There are chapters dealing with tobacco, alcohol, amphetamines, marijuana, LSD, cocaine, and heroin. They're laid out in that order as well, from least harmful (relatively speaking) to most harmful, which also follows the general arc of when they entered the Beatles' orbit (which itself is no coincidence). While the chapters about tobacco and alcohol are somewhat innocuous, it's starting with the chapter on their amphetamine use where the book really starts to get interesting and begins to put their career into context through the lens of their substance use. Beat poet Royston Ellis first showed the band how to extract the Benzedrine from inhalers, but in a new revelation, it turns out Jane Asher's father, Dr. Richard Asher, also showed this trick to Paul after he moved into their house in 1963. From here, the Beatles fueled their grueling nights playing for hours on end in Hamburg and Liverpool with German amphetamine-based diet pills called Preludin. As they became famous and the demands of Beatlemania began to punish them mentally and physically, they remained indebted to speed in order to keep pace with their schedule. Eventually, pep pills gave way to strong amphetamines like Black Bombers and Purple Hearts, both of which became very popular with the Mod subculture in early 1960s London as well as with the hip crowd and rock cognoscenti of the era.

The infamous "Two Junkies" interview during which John & Yoko are stoned (& sick) on heroin

Another big revelation in perhaps the longest chapter, on marijuana, is that contrary to the legend that they first smoked it with Bob Dylan on their 1964 US tour, they had in fact tried it as far back as 1960. However, at that time they associated it more with jazz and folk musicians and didn't seem to care for it; there were also claims from the Beatles and those around them that they didn't really notice an effect from it. However, that all changed after the encounter with Dylan, and if one drug could be said to have influenced the Beatles' music more than any other, it would be marijuana. It was certainly the one substance all four of the band members used for the longest period of time. All of them grew to use it habitually, none more than Paul McCartney. His many brushes with the law (including the Japanese bust in January 1980) became infamous and it wasn't until the early 2000s that he finally announced he'd quit smoking it. LSD is the one other drug the Beatles are most commonly associated with, especially during their psychedelic period in the 1960s. While again, all four of them used it, it was George and most notably John who were regular users. Ringo was a less frequent tripper while Paul was the last one to use it and only a handful of times during the band's lifetime. While LSD opened up spiritual doors for George that lasted the rest of his life, for Lennon his daily usage of the drug for nearly two solid years led to ego death, reduced productivity, lessened aggression, a lack of confidence in his abilities, and some episodes that can be characterized as drug-induced psychosis. The return of his "normal" personality after he ceased regular use of the drug in late 1968 was anything but coincidence.

Even more interesting were the two chapters dedicated to substances the Beatles used (and are associated with) the least . Cocaine was only really used by Paul during the Beatles years of 1967 and 1968 and he stated quite clearly that he didn't much like it. In the post Beatle years, the other three indulged in it quite a bit. As for heroin, while Paul tried it once, John was the only one who used it regularly, and he and Yoko became full-blown junkies shortly after beginning their relationship in 1968. If one drug can be said to have actually had an impact on the end of the band, it would be heroin. While there were certainly numerous other contributing factors to the split, heroin did play a part as it sapped most, if not all of John's enthusiasm, energy, and productivity as a Beatle. While he somewhat spuriously blamed the UK press and the other three Beatles themselves for why he and Yoko started taking heroin, the book does shed light on the fact that it was a few years into the 1970s before he and Yoko finally got the monkey off their backs. After the chapters detailing individual drugs are additional chapters describing how substance use affected the four Beatles' solo careers and lives from the split to the present day.

One of best things about Riding So High is that the author maintains an objective and dispassionate voice throughout, never glorifying, condoning, or making light of the Beatles' drug use. Rather, Goodden only shows how their drug use influenced their behavior, relationships, and of course their music. The book has a lot of interesting new tidbits that kept even a longtime Beatles obsessive like me engaged and informed (and with as much minutiae on the Beatles as I know, that's no easy task!). One common thread that ran throughout the book was the cautiousness of Paul McCartney. Alone among the four Beatles, he routinely was the last to try something and, with the exception of marijuana, was the lightest user of said substance. The author also does a great job of following each Beatles' drug use and the consequences of their behavior into their solo careers, from Paul's multiple marijuana busts to Ringo's alcoholism, George's cocaine binges, and John's out of control behavior during his "Lost Weekend" of 1973-1975.  Unique among Beatles book in the angle it takes in telling their story, Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs is one of the most interesting and informative new Beatles books I've read in years. I highly recommend it to any Beatles fan, including seasoned Beatles fans and scholars. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I am confident any Beatles fan will, too.

MY RATING: 10/10