Friday, January 31, 2014

It Don't Come Easy: I'll Be Seeing Another Beatle, Ringo, This Summer!

Last summer, I fulfilled a lifelong dream as a Beatle fanatic and saw Paul McCartney live in Boston. I was lucky to share the experience with my mother, who along with my father not only nurtured, encouraged, and supported my love of listening to and playing music from a young age, but shares my love for the Beatles and their music. It was really special to be able to share that with her and I know she enjoyed it as much as I did, being a first generation Beatles fan herself. This summer, we're going to see the other living Beatle, Ringo Starr! He will be playing in Providence, Rhode Island in June and as of this morning, mum and I have tickets to see Ringo. It should be a great time full of songs of his from both the Beatles and his solo career that we know by heart, as well as some songs by the other guys in his All-Starr Band that are radio staples. While the experience of seeing Paul in concert is to go see the greatest popular songwriter of our time who still puts out great new music (such as last year's "NEW" album), Ringo will be a pure nostalgia trip and just a lot of fun. But make no mistake, Ringo is one of the greatest drummers in rock history, certainly one of the most influential, and a talented musician in his own right...don't buy in to the conventional wisdom that he isn't. While he wasn't as talented a songwriter or singer as his three former bandmates, he was just as integral to the Beatles sound and image as the other three and this will be a concert that will be great not only because we'll be seeing Ringo in person but because it will have loads of great music.

Plus, if I'm being honest, it will be cool to be able to say I've seen both Beatles!

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 43

The next batch of "D" albums is in the rearview mirror...

Rory Gallagher - Defender
Oasis - Definitely Maybe
Gov't Mule - Deja Voodoo
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - Deja Vu
Gorillaz - Demon Days
Husker Du - Demos Vol. 1 & 2
Rory Gallagher - Deuce
David Bowie - Diamond Dogs

The first of two Rory albums is "Defender," which is one of his later's solid and in some spots very good, but you can hear that his health is slipping and it's affecting his playing ever so slightly. The other album of his in this batch, "Deuce," which is his second album, is one of the all-time great albums from the early 1970s and shows Rory firing on all cylinders and showcasing the numerous styles he's adept at. Gov't Mule's "Deja Voodoo" is a killer collection of songs although the album is quite long and tends to drag near the end, not because of the quality of the songs but more because of its length. CSNY's "Deja Vu" is a classic and one of the best collections of cohesive songs you'll ever find, from any era. It's easy to hear how each song is influenced by who in the band wrote it, but they manage to still make it sound like a band and not just a songwriter and his backing band. "Demon Days" is Damon Albarn's solo masterpiece and is just a staggering piece of work; the breadth of styles and sounds he achieves (along with help from his guest stars) is a testament to his talent. Sadly, in my mind this is to date the last great album he's made although the Gorillaz follow-up "Plastic Beach" is nearly as good. The Husker Du demo collection gathers all of their early demos, non-album B-sides, fanclub and magazine giveaway tracks, and radio promos in one place and is an essential collection for any fan to have.  Finally, "Diamond Dogs," which may just be my favorite Bowie album. It's a harrowing, dark, and pretty grim and seedy concept album but Bowie delivers some of the best songs of his career with a band that is more than up to the task of translating them to record.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Raisin' Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter

I remember the first time I heard Johnny Winter: I was a small boy, probably 7 or 8 years old, and my dad was playing some of his records, one of which was Johnny Winter's "Captured Live!" album. I couldn't believe the way he played guitar and sang, and I was even more shocked when I saw the album cover and discovered not only was he white but that he was albino. To my young ears he sounded like the quintessential black bluesman carrying on the electric blues guitar slinging torch from Hendrix. What I didn't realize until years later was not only did he lead a very interesting life and career, but that he was hugely popular in the 1960s and 70s; this was in contrast to the blank stares I got back from my friends when we started getting heavily into playing music and using the classic rock we were discovering as our touchstones after I mentioned Johnny Winter's name.  Needless to say, I was thrilled when I saw that Raisin' Cain: The Wild and Raucous Story of Johnny Winter was released recently, and even happier to learn that it is his authorized biography.

***special thanks to Wes at Backbeat Books for sending me a copy of this to review!***

Author Mary Lou Sullivan is a longtime music writer and Johnny Winter fan and friend. She began her quest to write this book in 1984 with Winter's cooperation, only to be stymied by his management multiple times. Finally, years later, management was out of the way and Johnny gave his full cooperation. The result is the only authorized biography of the great bluesman, done with his blessing and direct input. His ringing endorsement in the introduction prepares us for a story filled with incredible highs and some despicable lows, and it's clear from both Johnny and the author that their friendship and numerous sit-down interviews ensure that this will be as true a story as can be told.

No book on Johnny Winter's life can be told without first focusing on his albinism, which is something he refused to let define him. He and his brother Edgar, both albinos, were born to non-albino parents in Beaumont, Texas in the mid-1940s. While the brothers grew up in a very nurturing and stable upper-middle class upbringing, they did endure some hardship due to their condition, mainly in taunts and comments from their peers and other adults who were not used to seeing albinos. Growing up in the still-segregated south made it more pronounced. There were also health consequences from their condition, mainly poor eyesight and sensitivity to sunlight.  However, Johnny and Edgar were very musical from an early age, and the book follows their progression from playing ukulele and singing Everly Brothers songs as small kids to their forming their first bands as teenagers and playing concerts all over Texas and later on, nearby Mississippi and Louisiana. Just as no book about Johnny Winter can neglect to discuss his albinism, it's also true that no book can fail to also include his younger brother Edgar, himself a very talented and successful musician and the co-conspirator in so many of Johnny's musical endeavors, from boyhood to the present day. Contrary to many accounts of Johnny, he's a very intelligent and educated man who is an accomplished musician and singer beyond the blistering guitar solos and screaming bluesy vocals. He's also an accomplished pianist, drummer, arranger, producer, and singer (as is Edgar). Both brothers shared a love of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Hendrix but while Edgar's true passions were jazz and R&B, for Johnny it was, as the title of his 1977 album proclaims, "Nothin' But the Blues."

The book does a very job using new interviews with Johnny and several of his associates, as well as older articles and interviews, in detailing the trajectory of his career and fleshing out a lot of the events in his life. After recording numerous original and cover songs for local labels in the south in the early to mid-1960s, which would come back to haunt and dog him for his entire career, Johnny was determined to play blues and hooked up with "Uncle" John Turner and Tommy Shannon to form his first band. After recording their excellent "Progressive Blues Experiment" debut album, they attracted the attention of Rolling Stone magazine and subsequently, a bidding war broke out between record companies eager to sign him. Eventually signing with Columbia Records in 1968, the next decade was a whirlwind for Johnny. He gigged heavily, released several seminal blues/rock albums, the best of which are his self-titled debut, Second Winter, Still Alive and Well, and a pair of scorching live albums (Johnny Winter And...Live and Captured Live!). Loads of money coming in, late night jams in clubs with Jimi Hendrix, collaborations with Janis Joplin onstage and in bed, appearances at numerous festivals including Woodstock, changing band lineups, drug addictions, deaths, and women all happened to Johnny in a short span of time, and they came on hard. Everything is covered in the book and nothing is sugarcoated. However, I don't want it to sound like it's all salacious stories and negative incidents. In fact, just the opposite; the overwhelming feeling I got from reading this book was the joy Johnny gets from being a musician and playing his style of blues and rock, as well as the deep and genuine affection and love his family and friends have for him as a human being. Career-wise, despite his horrific management situation (which I'll get to in a bit), he's been very successful, both commercially and critically. Besides his own albums and tours, he revived Muddy Waters' career late in the blues master's life (for which they won multiple Grammy awards), has sat in with everyone from B.B. King and John Lee Hooker to the Allman Brothers Band and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and has been recognized as the premier blues guitarist of his generation, which is saying something given who his peers in that area are (for instance, Eric Clapton, anyone?). He was the first white person to be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, which is ironic if you consider that not only is Johnny white, he's as white as one can physically be as an albino! The humor was not lost on Johnny, but that's a towering achievement that's a testament to his talent, dedication, and personality and something he's rightfully proud of.

At this moment, I need to introduce the other main thread that runs through this book which I alluded to above: Johnny's shockingly shady and dishonest management. While this is nothing new in the history of the music industry, what is eye-opening in Johnny's case is justhow long it went on. Raisin' Cain is also the tale of nearly forty years of mismanagement and blown chances that cost people loads of money, opportunities, and in many cases, their lives. Without giving too much away to anyone who wants to read this book, the incredible revelation to me was that, as big a star as Johnny was, especially in the 1968-1984 period, he could've been ten times more successful and popular given different managers who actually cared about him as a person and musician and didn't view him simply as a freakshow and a meal ticket to exploit for their own gain. The feeling I got at the end of the book was that Johnny was a massive success despite Steve Paul, Teddy Slatus, and Betty Johnston (all of whom collaboratively managed his career in some capacity from 1968 until 2004 or so).  From lying to Johnny and Susan (his lifelong companion and wife), skimming money off the top of everything, exploiting Johnny with shoddy releases and gig cancellations that damaged his reputation, sabotaging his attempts to get off drugs, and later on purposely conspiring with shady doctors to keep Johnny drugged up and under their influence so that he could be easily manipulated, the behavior of his management is shocking, disgusting, and I won't lie that I was quite happy to read how they all died lonely and in disgrace. While it's acknowledged by Johnny and those close to him that he does share some of the blame for enabling and tolerating the behavior of Paul, Slatus, and Johnston for so long, it's also true that most of what went on behind the scenes wasn't discovered until much later and that those three cretins did a very good job covering their tracks for decades until they were finally discovered.  The happy ending is that Johnny's bandmates and friends helped him to get out from under management's thumb, overcome the medication he was forced to take, and to get him back to being healthy, happy, and playing the music he loves.

As far as biographies go, this is one of the better ones I've read. It's clear that while the author has affection for Winter and his music, she is also not afraid to document some of the more sordid and bizarre aspects of his life, from his inability to stay faithful to any one woman until he finally married longtime girlfriend Susan in 1992, to his various addictions, strange sleeping and eating habits, and clashes with certain bandmates and producers, it's all in the book.  There are some cases where the book begins to read as if it were just patched together from quote after quote from various sources, and this mainly occurs toward the end of the book which discusses the decline period of Johnny's career in the mid-1980s and 1990s. Overall, however, when the book relies more on firsthand accounts and new interviews (which is how the bulk of the book is presented), it's very enjoyable and interesting.  Something evident throughout the entire book is that Johnny has a great sense of humor about nearly everything and that, while he admits in the introduction that it's painful at times to read the "not-so-good bits" from his past, he has no regrets. In general, it seems that people really like him as a person, which as an albino and respected musician, was all he ever wanted and something he goes to great lengths to reiterate repeatedly in the book. Unequivocally, he states at the end of the book that he wouldn't do anything differently if he could go back and live his life over again. At the end of the day, his goal in life was to be a "pretty good blues player" and on that count, he succeeded in spades.

MY RATING: 8.5/10

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Grammys and the Sorry State of Modern Music

I watched the 56th Grammy Awards Show last night on TV, but not because I was interested in the show in any way, shape, or form. I never watch the Grammys or any of these award shows. They're simply a way for the film, music, and television industries to showcase their perpetual self-importance and self-righteousness to the rest of the country (and the world) and to congratulate themselves on their work, sales or critical reception be damned. The only reason I tuned in was to see Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney perform; Ringo performed "Photograph" with his backing band (which included Peter Frampton on this night!) and Paul performed "Queenie Eye" with his band, which included Ringo sitting in on a second drum kit. Beyond that, I just flipped channels back and forth to catch those performances...I wasn't interested in anything else. However, I did follow along on Twitter and read the news stories this next morning about who attended, who won what, and who performed. 

One thing I noticed right away is that I had very little, if any, idea of who the new artists who performed and won awards were. In some cases I'd heard the names but had never heard the songs. In other cases, I'd never even heard the names. Part of this can be attributed the generation gap, I guess, although I'm only 33 years old. I did recognize a lot of people there who I simply have no interest in (such as Jay-Z, Beyonce, Madonna, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Yoko Ono etc). The people I recognized were mainly the ones I myself am fans of, whether they performed, were up for awards, presented awards, or were simply in the audience: Paul and Ringo, Peter Frampton, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Willie Nelson, etc. What is the one thing all of them have in common?


I don't mean that to be pejorative; I mean it to point out something that shows just how lousy the modern music industry really is. Yes, I was happy to see Paul McCartney win all five awards he was nominated for, I was happy that Black Sabbath won an award, I was thrilled Paul and Ringo collected the Lifetime Achievement Award for the Beatles. Beyond being happy for who I liked, it struck me that there is a huge dichotomy in the current mainstream music scene: those that make music for the art of it, and those who are in it (or manipulated into it) for a fast profit. Not only that, there was very little middle ground there between the classic rockers of the 1960s and 70s and the current peddlers of pop garbage active today. Where were any bands or musicians from even my own generation of the 1980s and 90s, many of whom are rightfully held in as high esteem as their forebears from the 60s and 70s? Modern music celebrates the legends of the first wave of rock music for their monumental contributions, and then gladhands itself for churning out mindless pop pap to teenagers and college kids by "artists" who have little or no discernible talent and are in the business solely for the money and not the art. The Beatles, Black Sabbath, Willie Nelson, and others are still revered nearly fifty years after they began their careers; will anyone even care about Miley Cyrus or Macklemore in five years, let alone fifty?

Maybe it's because I'm a musician myself and am usually pretty critical and snobby about what I like to listen to, but when there are still a LOT of great bands and musicians from more recent generations, from the 80s and 90s up through the early part of this century who maybe aren't selling millions of records...oops, I mean downloads...but who are releasing high quality albums and touring everywhere, why are these artists ignored so that the Grammys can award someone with no talent whose autotuned vocals play over a pre-programmed computerized backing a trophy for peddling this soulless and uninteresting crap to the lowest common denominator of "music fans?" Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh and sounding a little too much like a crotchety old man, but today's pop music is to music what aspartame is to sugar: a poor substitute for the real thing. But aspartame at least approximates the taste of sugar (slightly) and can be enjoyable at times, so it's got that going for it. Today's popular "tunes" don't even come close to real music. If you plucked a musician or even just a music fan from the blues and jazz era of the 1930s and 1940s, or a rock or folk musician from the 1960s, and transported them instantly to 2014 with only the popular music charts and Grammy awards to go by, they'd look around and wonder what the hell happened.

Good music is still out there, performed by men and women ranging from their teens all the way to their golden'd just never know it going by the mainstream. It used to be the mainstream; now you've got to dig, and dig a lot, a lot to find it. But it's there. Think of it like the underground resistance in The Matrix films, pluckily fighting against the monolithic industry that has ruined everything.

Frank Zappa once said in the 1970s that "jazz isn't just smells funny." Well, in 2014, rock isn't just dead, it's dust in the wind at this point.

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatle Who Vanished

John, Paul, George, and...Jimmie? For two weeks in June 1964, that was the Beatles' line-up. Most hardcore fans of the band know the general reason why Jimmie Nicol became a deputy Beatle for those two weeks, but apart from that he's been relegated to an obscure footnote in Beatles history; a trivia question answer, if you will. That's pretty much how I'd always viewed the entire episode that I always thought was nothing more than a blip in the Beatles storied career. But Jim Berkenstadt's new book, The Beatle Who Vanished, challenges us to dig deeper into the story of Jimmie Nicol and to frame just how and why he ended up in the situation he did that lucky month of June all those years ago.

***special thanks to Jim Berkenstadt himself for sending me a copy of this book to's much appreciated!***

For anyone who is not clear on the scenario I referenced above, let me paint the picture for you: in early June 1964, the Beatles had gathered for a photo shoot and a quick recording session the day before they were due to leave on their first world tour, which would take them to Europe, Hong Kong, and Australia before they made their way back to the US and UK. However, during the photo shoot, Ringo fell ill and had to be rushed to the hospital, which turned out to be due tonsilitis. It required a two-week hospitalization with a minor operation and recovery, which threw the plans for the world tour into doubt. Scrambling, manager Brian Epstein declared that they'd need to find a stand-in drummer. He was met with resistance, most vocally from George Harrison, but eventually convinced the other three that it was preferable to letting all of the fans down, upsetting the various concert promoters, and ruining all of the intricate planning of the tour, not to mention the loss of revenue and the bad public relations it could bring upon the band. Thus, Jimmie Nicol, a respected session drummer, was drafted in to replace Ringo; he wore his suits, combed his hair down, and learned the songs in a crash course before setting off on the tour. After the gigs in Europe, Hong Kong, and a few in Australia, Ringo rejoined the tour in Melbourne and Jimmie went back to England and promptly vanished from the history books.

Or so we've always thought.

Berkenstadt is a well-known, respected researcher and writer about the Beatles and calls himself the "Rock and Roll Detective." With this book, he's certainly lived up to that billing! Going in, I thought this would be an interesting book looking at Nicol's two weeks in the Beatles and not much else, and I was wondering how it would be stretched into an entire book. Instead, what the author has given us is a full-blown biography of Nicol, tracing his life and musical evolution from his birth and childhood in London to his initially moderately successful career as a musician, and then from his stint with the Beatles to his subsequent wandering and enigmatic life and career. Right off the bat, I need to commend the research done by the author, who traveled all over the world, from the UK and Europe to Mexico and Australia and points between, in order to do his detective work. Writing a detailed biography on famous public figures is difficult enough, but to write one on basically a normal Everyman who vanished without a trace over thirty years ago is a challenge, yet Berkenstadt managed to accomplish the task through his thorough and dedicated research.

Briefly, Nicol's story does not simply begin and end with his two week tour of duty with the Beatles. A talented jazz and R&B drummer in London in the 1950s, he was a member of a couple of successful bands that recorded records and toured the world before settling into session work in London in the early 1960s. From here, his life took a real star turn when he got The Call in June 1964. The aforementioned photo shoot turned into an impromptu audition and rehearsal, and the next day, with his hair combed forward and squeezed into Ringo's suits (the pants were too short!), Jimmie was en route with the band to Europe to begin the tour. Berkenstadt details each gig and press conference to show what Jimmie's experience was, and reviews his performance at each show (most of which are available on bootleg recordings). Through it all, amazingly, it seems Nicol was torn between wanting to get back home and convincing himself that he would be made a permanent replacement for Ringo! Eventually, Ringo rejoined the band in Australia and Nicol was sent back to London and into obscurity. But, incredibly, the author has managed to tell the story of Nicol's life from this point on in vivid detail. From his ultimately failed attempts to establish another band in England to rival the success of the Beatles, to his stint in the relatively successful Swedish band The Spotnicks, to his resettling in Mexico (along with some bizarre musical endeavors!) and eventual abandonment of music, from his failed marriage and the wife and son who left him in London to his short-lived and tempestuous second marriage in Mexico, and his eventual disappearance and the rumors of his death after his final public appearance at a Beatles convention in the mid-1980s, the author has managed to use his exceptional research skills to show that Nicol did have a career and some success both before and after his two week stint as the most famous stand-in in rock history. Through it all, by interviewing countless friends and associates of Nicol's, Berkenstadt is able to paint the portrait of a man who played by his own rules his entire life, who was driven to succeed, sometimes to a fault, even in the face of multiple failures. He also shows Nicol at times to be downright delusional, both in his conviction that he would be Ringo's permanent replacement and his accompanying resentment, as well as being convinced that Epstein blacklisted him in England after he was through with the tour, despite no evidence to support him (think about it, why would Epstein do this? Nicol was not exactly a threat to the Beatles' success!).  Jimmie's bitterness at the entire experience, which he called "the worst thing that happened to me," and his reluctance later in life to cash-in on his association with the band contrasts greatly with his using his time in the band to try and jumpstart his career upon arriving back in London in the summer of 1964.  If I'm being honest, Nicol became quite unlikeable at times when reading this, but that's a testament to the author's writing and research since I'd never given him more than a second thought in Beatles history prior to reading this book.

The book itself has a lot of photos from throughout Nicol's life and career, as well as photos of numerous ticket stubs, autographs, and obscure singles and albums that the author has managed to collect over the years. In particular, the pictures from Nicol's time as a deputy Beatle are fascinating, especially one haunting picture that I will leave for the reader to discover on their own.  It also provides insight into the music scene in London during the 1950s and pre-Beatles 60s when most other books have us believe that the UK was a musical wasteland, sustained only by records and tours from American musicians until the Fab Four burst on to the scene in late 1962.  The author also shows how different the careers of the Beatles and Nicol were throughout the 1960s but how Nicol did have some small influence on the Beatles, mainly their 1967 song "Getting Better" and an offhand comment Paul made during the Get Back sessions in 1969. Finally, at the end of the book, Berkenstadt sets out to locate Jimmie Nicol, who had been believed dead since 1988 or so, mainly because of a rumor his own estranged son had started! Traveling from the US to England, Mexico, and Australia, the author eventually deduces that Nicol is still alive and well and living in the Netherlands and still working in the building trade, which is what he'd been doing since he gave up music in the mid 1970s. While Berkenstadt never does ultimately come face to face with Nicol for an interview, throughout the course of the book he manages to give us as much detail and insight as possible into this fascinating man and his part in a very curious and strange episode in the career of the biggest band in the world.

The Beatle Who Vanished is a real life detective story that I highly recommend to any serious Beatles fan. It doesn't shed any new insight on the Beatles themselves, but it sheds entirely new light onto this unique bit of their career. But more than that, it finally gives Jimmie Nicol his due as a musician and person and shows that he was not simply the answer to a trivia question but a man who tried to make it in the music business during the incredible period of 1960s London and for one brief, shining fortnight, was at the top of the pops.

MY RATING: 9.5/10

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 42

The next batch of "D" albums...

R.E.M. - Dead Letter Office
Pixies - Death to the Pixies
The Beatles - Decca Studios 1/1/62
The Rolling Stones - December's Children (And Everybody's)
Gov't Mule - The Deep End Vol. 1
Gov't Mule - The Deep End Vol. 2
Gov't Mule - The Deepest End: Live in Concert

Dead Letter Office is a B-sides compilation released by R.E.M.'s first record label on the cusp of their leaving for Warner Brothers and has some excellent songs on it, such as "Crazy," "Burning Down," "Windout," and "Ages of You." It's essential for any hardcore fan of the band. Death to the Pixies is a greatest hits compilation but is worth it more for the bonus disc, which is a live gig from 1990 that's quite good. The famous Beatles Decca audition, where they were turned down (before eventually being signed by Parlophone in summer '62) is fascinating and enjoyable listening. They rely heavily on covers and some originals that they never ended up recording. You can hear how nervous they were, and after listening to this it's easy to understand why they replaced Pete Best with Ringo! The Stones' album is a hodgepodge of non-album tracks, singles, and covers that is pretty enjoyable as far as early Stones goes. Finally, a trio of albums from Gov't Mule as they paid tribute to their original bassist, Allen Woody, who had passed away in 2000. Bass legends from Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, Bootsy Collines, Les Claypool, Victor Wooten, and others with a two-volume studio album and a mega-live concert. Great stuff.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Reflections On My Weight Loss and Fitness Journey Thus Far

As I've detailed in the past on this blog, by by 31st birthday in February 2011, I was REALLY overweight and not in a healthy place. I finally made the decision that year to do something about it, and from May 2011 to October 2011, I was able to lose 105 lbs by simply eating less (but still eating what I wanted) and running on a regular basis. My overall goal was to lose 125 lbs and get from my highest weight of 360 lbs to ~235 lbs. Frustratingly, when I hit 255 lbs in October 2011, I ended up being stuck there for the better part of eighteen months even though I continued to run regularly and track my eating using the excellent Lose It website and app.

***Lose It is a calorie tracking app. It is NOT a diet! Dieting and depriving yourself of calories never works. Instead, you need to make better choices but still eat enough calories so that your body can function properly. This is especially true with exercise; if you don't eat enough, all the exercise in the world will not help you lose weight! If you want a more in-depth discussion of this, please ask me in the comments section below and I'll be more than happy to talk to you about it based on what I know and my personal experience.***

Even though my weight was stuck, I was determined to get down to my goal weight one way or another. I liked how much better I felt physically, I had gotten healthy and pleased my doctor with how much better shape I was in. I'd gone from being pre-diabetic with chest pains, high blood pressure and high resting heart rate, constant headaches and migraines, knee and back pain, and large clothes (I am 6'5") such as XXL and XXXL, to flawless blood work, a resting heart rate in the 40s-50s, excellent blood pressure, no headaches, no back or knee pain, and down to wearing size L and XL clothes.  My waist went from a size 44 to 36 and I'm the slimmest I've been since high school nearly twenty years ago. I'm very happy with the progress I've made.

BUT (and you knew there had to be a BUT or else why would I be writing this article?), I'm still incredibly frustrated. You see, I remained stuck around 260 lbs for approximately eighteen months. I added some weight lifting into my routine, doing this on the days in between my runs, and was able to maintain my weight but I hadn't restarted my weight loss. However, over the past several months, I've only been running since time was at a premium (for a variety of reasons). I'll also admit that while I was still tracking my eating, I wasn't eating as well, but I was still keeping under my daily calorie budget. For whatever reason, I began to put the weight back on bit by bit. As of this writing, I've regained around 25 lbs. Strangely, though, my clothes still fit me just fine and I don't seem to have put any of the weight back in places where I'd notice it with ill-fitting clothes. I can see it in my face and stomach, though, and it's really bothering me.

Part of it is slight envy of my friends and family members who don't even exercise or watch what they eat yet seem to have no problem maintaining their weight! I have been extra vigilant with my eating and almost obsessive about my exercise (although I should add I love exercising and it's something I look forward to every day). Yet, if I cut back on my workouts even for one day or if I decide to eat a little extra just once, it seems to throw me all off. Can there really be that precarious a balance between my weight loss and my exercise that a little blip in my overall routine throws it off that much?

As I begin 2014, I've vowed to get back on track with my weight loss. I've continued my running, mainly indoors on the treadmill since it's too cold and slippery to go outside in this brutal winter we're having. However, once I can get back outside, I intend to continue extending the length of my runs. Right now, winter running on the treadmill is all about maintenance.  I've added weight lifting back into my routine. I'm focusing mainly on my upper body since my lower body/legs get plenty of work from my running (my legs are very muscular and defined from the 1500 and counting miles I've done since May 2011). My goal isn't to necessarily bulk up, but to tone up and lose more weight on my upper body, mainly my chest and stomach. From what I've been reading over the past couple of years, muscle burns calories and fat even when you're at rest, so adding new muscle and working out existing muscle helps burn calories and fat even when you're not exercising. The analogy I read that I really liked was that "an idling car still burns fuel, just not as much as it does when it's moving." I'll still burn more calories when I'm running or lifting, but working out my muscles with anaerobic exercise should help to jump start and maintain my metabolism during the times when I'm not running.

A common misconception, and one that I believed for many years before I got in shape, is that your metabolism speeds up as you lose weight. I've found through research and personal experience that the opposite is true. As I've lost weight and gotten to be good at running, my body has become more efficient at everything from breathing, pumping blood, burning calories, and this includes my metabolism (this is true for everyone; I'm just using myself as an example).  The trick for me and anyone else in the same predicament is to figure out a way to get the metabolism revved up again in order to resume its fat and calorie burning. That's what I'm hoping my renewed weight lifting routine will do.

Additionally, I'm trying to eat more lean protein (meat, cottage cheese, yogurt, etc) and cut back on processed sugars (you'd be amazed how much you can lose just from not drinking soda!). I've always had a good diet, especially since I started tracking with Lose It; I love just about every fruit and vegetable and eat them a lot. My problem is that I also have a sweet tooth. However, I don't miss soda that much and I still have the occasional Coke or Pepsi, but I prefer water, milk, or unsweetened iced tea as healthier alternatives. And as long as I stick to my portion control, I should be fine in this area.

Finally, I need to remember to keep this all in perspective. Yes, I've put on a bit of the weight I'd lost, and I'm still not happy with how I look physically (are any of us ever?).  However, I'm still in really good shape. I'm healthy, my vitals are all where they should be, and I feel great. I can run miles and miles easily. I have a much better understanding of my body and how to take care of it than I ever did in years past. And finally, I've done so much of the hard work already that, while challenging, doing the remainder to reach my goal is possible and should be pretty fun. I realize that I am who I am and I'll never be anyone's idea of a handsome guy or have an "ideal" body; I've just got to do the best I can and be happy with it. And that's as much a part of my end goal with this as is reaching my final weight.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Technorati Claim Code Test

To my readers, please disregard this post, this is so I can claim my blog on Technorati with the claim code QS34X3PRTFK4

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How to Write a Book: Part 4

Welcome to Part 4 of my series on how to write a book. If you've stuck with me this far, you'll have used the information in Part 1 to have developed a fully formed idea and approach for your book. You'll have drafted up a great outline which will be a dynamic blueprint for your book after reading Part 2. And finally, you'll have started the hard work of writing your actual book following Part 3. As I had stated in Part 3, the best way to go about the actual writing part of your book is to simply WRITE IT. Format it as you go, but worry about editing and correcting all of your mistakes at a later date. Well, once you've finally finished writing the first draft of your book, it's on to the next stage of the process. And even if you're not finished writing and won't be for a while, please continue reading so that you can start thinking about the next step, at least in the back of your mind. It's probably the least looked-forward-to part of the entire process but is definitely one of the most important. That's right, I'm talking about:


Just like your teachers always told you in high school, once you're done writing your first draft, you need to go through it and read it carefully to correct any spelling or grammatical mistakes. Beyond that, however, reading what you've written is a great way to tighten up, improve, remove, and change around passages and sections of your writing as you see fit. Many times, what seemed good while you were writing it reveals itself to be clunky or disruptive to the flow once you've re-read it. Additionally, there may be sections you'll want to flesh out, add to, or improve upon and a fresh read of your manuscript will help you notice this.

Don't leave any page of that manuscript unturned!

For me personally, when I go back and read over what I've written, I first look for spelling and grammar errors (helped along by built-in spellchecking, of course!). Be extra vigilant when you're doing your proofreading because oftentimes you'll have misspelled a word but that misspelled word is itself another word that is correct and thus won't be picked up by your spellchecker (ie "form" and "from," "no" and "on," etc.). The reason I suggest you do this extra carefully is because the same reasons your spellcheck won't pick these up also makes it easy for your eyes to miss these words.  As for whether you do this on your computer or not, it's entirely up to you. Personally, I like to print out my manuscripts and go through them with a pen to mark any errors, as well as circle clunky passages. (If you're worried about how many pages it is and how much ink you'll use, go to a printing center like Staples, for's usually pretty cheap and they've got loads of paper and ink so you won't have to worry about your own stock of them at home).  It's also a great way to leave yourself comments or reminders in the margins so that when you go back through and make your corrections, you'll remember what you were thinking about. Have fun with this and don't be afraid to mark up that manuscript draft! Think of it this way: the more you mark it up, the more stuff that needs fixing you've found, which is never a bad thing!

Once you think you've got all of the spelling and grammar errors ironed out in this first read-through, I recommend going through your manuscript again and reading it to see how it flows, how the sentences and paragraphs are constructed, and whether what you've written makes sense and conveys what you intended. Something you've written that seemed great while you were elbow-deep in the act of writing can come across as clunky and disjointed when you read it back afterward. Alternatively, some bits that seem unimportant during the writing process can end up being really impactful, especially with a little beefing up during the editing process. I often find that if I read particularly troublesome passages out loud, it helps me listen to how the words are put together, whether it flows well or not, and how I can change it so that what I'm trying to express comes across better. This is a little technique that I highly recommend if you find yourself stuck in one of these spots! Figuring out which parts of your book need tightening up, fixing them, and then reading how much better they are after is a great feeling and really helps to keep you positively motivated as you work through your book. And hopefully, as you mark up your manuscript, you'll notice that it's got much less ink on it with each successive editing session!

My last piece of advice for Part 4 is to do it more than once! It's very easy for your eyes and your brain to miss something, especially since you've been staring at it for so long during the writing process. It's usually good to read through your manuscript at least a few times to catch anything you may have missed in the previous read-throughs. So as to avoid mental fatigue and errors slipping through the cracks, I try to limit it to one read-through per day, although taking a little more time in between wouldn't hurt at all. If you try to read it over and over too close together, it will all begin to blend together and your mind's eye will almost certainly miss some very obvious errors that will make their way through this part of the process. Trust me, my first book was plagued with little nagging errors even after what must have been the TEN read-throughs I did because I tried to do them over and over in quick succession without giving my mind and eyes a chance to rest. I learned my lesson and altered the approach for my second book to the one I've laid about above and it ended up working out much better for me and my book! 

That being said, there will almost certainly be errors or clumsy passages in your book, but don't sweat it...we'll take care of those in a forthcoming part of the process, which I'll cover at a later date. For now, do the best you can, clean up as many errors as you can, and remember that until the very moment that you're holding your finished, published book in your hand, it will remain a work in progress, and a work that you will have the ultimate control over. If you keep that in mind and realize that, try as you might, you can't be perfect and catch every mistake, this should be a relatively painless and perhaps slightly enjoyable part of the process. 

(As always, I'd love to hear any experiences my fellow writers have had in the comments below.  Do you have any helpful editing tricks or techniques you'd like to share? I welcome any questions, discussions, or comments below!)


The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 41

Embarking upon my journey through the "D" albums...

Eels - Daisies of the Galaxy
George Harrison - Dark Horse
Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon
Dream Theater - Dark Side of the Moon (official bootleg)
David Bowie - David Bowie
David Bowie - David Live
Spock's Beard - Day For Night

Eels' album is a welcome, upbeat affair after the bleak beauty of their previous album (Electro-Shock Blues) with some truly beautiful songs, and is one of my favorite albums of theirs. George's third solo album was his first real stumble as a solo artist and the critical drubbing he took for it led to him scaling his career back and never touring again (apart from his Japanese jaunt in the early 1990s). It's not that bad and is actually quite insightful into his mindset in the midst of the insanity going on in his life with setting up a record label and splitting from his first wife. Following this, we've got a pair of Dark Side of the Moon albums...the original, legendary album that is a flawless piece of work, and a live cover version Dream Theater performed in concert and released as an official bootleg. DT's version is stunning...I won't say it's better than the original but it's nearly as good. A pair of Bowie albums follow: his first album which shows him in his 1960s mod-pop incarnation and is a bit bizarre but charming, and then David Live, which is a live album recorded during the end of his glam Ziggy phase and the beginning of his Thin White Duke/Plastic Soul phase on the Diamond Dogs tour in 1974. It's a bit clinical sounding, perhaps, but there are some great cuts and as always, because it's Bowie, it's endlessly fascinating. Finally, perhaps the most overlooked of the Neal Morse-era Spock's Beard albums, Day For Night. While the first half of the album is solid if not a touch uneven, the long suite that closes the album, titled "The Healing Colors of Sound," is spectacular.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody

The 1980s were a golden age for indie bands, both American and British, who started off in the underground and worked their way from the bottom, touring relentlessly out of van and building up a loyal fanbase town by town. Eventually through sheer hard work and incredible talent, these bands would explode into the mainstream and on to major success. In Britain, it was mainly The Smiths, while in the US the two biggest bands who followed this trajectory were R.E.M. and Husker Du. Bob Mould was, of course, the guitarist/vocalist/co-songwriter of Husker Du and it is his biography, "See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody," that is the subject of this review. (I intend, at a later date, to get into more depth on all three of the above-mentioned bands, all of whom are personal favorites of mine).

***special thanks to Kimberly at Cleis Publishing for sending me a review copy of this book!***

Bob Mould is a giant among the alternative rock scene in America, first for his work in Husker Du and then as a solo artist (with a brief detour as leader of another band, Sugar, in between). An elder statesman of alternative rock as both a songwriter and producer, he's led a very chameleon-like existence as an artist, from the loud and raging young man of early Husker Du to the more melodic, reflective, and introspective power pop of later Husker Du and Sugar, to his eclectic and emotionally powerful solo work. What sets this book apart from a typical musician memoir is the fact that Bob also has led a very chameleon-like personal life off the stage and out of the public eye, centered mainly around his troubled upbringing and his homosexuality. In the lead up to this book, he had promised that he wouldn't hold anything back and that's certainly the case. He's very candid and honest about his feelings on certain matters for better or worse and it makes for riveting reading, oftentimes to his detriment.

The book runs chronologically through Mould's life and thus begins with his birth in 1960 and his upbringing in rural Malone, New York. In a manner that seems simultaneously painful yet also cathartic (which is a device he returns to numerous times throughout the book), Bob describes the strange dysfunctional family dynamic he grew up in. While he grew up in a two-parent household, he was the youngest son born to parents who had already tragically lost two other sons. Growing up, Bob's father was emotionally and physically abusive to his mother, his older sister, and his brother. However, as the youngest child and a "survivor" in the sense that he didn't die like his two other brothers, he was also accorded a protected status in the house. Apart from being emotionally distant and occasionally verbally cruel, Bob's father seemed to spare him from the brunt of what his older siblings and mother had to endure. Mould also comes out and tells us that he knew from an early age that he was gay but felt like he had to be cautious about suppressing his sexual urges, especially in the less tolerant environs of his hometown. Because of this, by the time he arrived in Minneapolis to start college in the late 1970s, he had little to no experience in romantic relationships, nor in expressing his emotions. This was all let out in the aggressive and anarchistic music he began writing and performing with two young men he met there, Grant Hart and Greg Norton. Together, they formed Husker Du and began their long and hard slog to the top of the indie rock heap in the 1980s. Throughout all of this, Bob embarks upon his first romantic relationship, while also feeling never ending confusion over the fact that, as a grown man who plays this loud, fast, aggressive, and angry music, he doesn't fit the typical effeminate homosexual male stereotype at all. It's clear from the detail and pride with which he writes about these years that he's extremely proud of the Husker Du legacy, as well he should be. As a longtime massive Husker Du fan, this was the section of the book I was most looking forward to and it did not disappoint. We finally get to learn his perspective on his personal and working relationship with Grant Hart and how the three of them all brought something very different but equally vital to the band. It also detailed, once and for all, how the band dynamic became strained enough that it reached the breaking point in early 1988 and blew the band apart as they were scaling their greatest heights. Mould makes it clear that Hart's heroin addiction was not the sole reason for the split, although it was certainly a contributing factor. Unlike the Smiths, who broke up on the cusp of major label success, and R.E.M. who broke through to major label success and global stardom, Husker Du ended up in the space between, recording and releasing two albums on a major label before breaking up.

One thing I want to mention about the Husker Du section, since this was one of the main reasons I wanted to read the book, is that while he writes with obvious pride about everything they accomplished and the nearly flawless body of work they left behind, his kind words for Norton and Hart in this section give way to scathing and most-likely not wholly accurate portrayals of them when discussing them post-split. While none of us were there and thus we cannot claim to know what really happened, I find it hard to believe it was really reduced to "Bob Mould and his two sidekicks" as he tends to portray the band dynamic in the post-Husker Du part of the book. Given that all three members of the band were integral to their sound and image and they obviously created something magical that was greater than the sum of its parts, his treatment of them from 1988 onward left me cold. As Greg Norton recently said in 2013 when asked about this book, "it's a work of historical fiction...Bob got a lot of the facts right but a lot of the shit wrong." Still, this is probably the closest we'll ever get to an authorized biography on Husker Du and for that alone, it's worth it.

Concurrent with the demise of Husker Du is Mould's decision to finally quit drinking after having had a beer "every day since I was 13." He also is in the midst of his body image troubles, having been chubby in Husker Du's heyday, slimmed down by the time the band ends, and continuing to struggle with his weight off and on throughout his solo career until he begins to get into bodybuilding later on. The beginning of Mould's solo career coincides with the demise of his first relationship. From here on out, the book details his interesting and sometimes bizarre career path, giving up on his music in the late 1990s, fulfilling a lifelong dream by becoming a scriptwriter for professional wrestling, and dabbling in another passion of his, electronica. Eventually, he returns to his rock music career, which continues to the present day.

While there are many fascinating passages in the latter part of the book, the further I got into it, I became bored with Bob explaining in minute detail all of the nuances of gay culture, which he finally threw himself headlong into in his late 30s. As a straight man, I realize that I won't understand much of what he's talking about, and I am fine with that. I consider myself an open-minded and tolerant person. But when he got into the minutiae about "bear/cub relationships," he various clubs and magazines in each city that he frequents, and the social cues for gay men, I grew bored mainly because I have no need to know about these things given my own orientation. However, I realize that it was important for Bob to discuss this and that it's important for many of his gay fans to have him as a role model, so I was ultimately fine with it. The overarching complaint I have with it is that he took up most of the rest of the book with this stuff at the expense of discussing his music. He also only dedicated one short chapter to his experiences as a scriptwriter for WCW wrestling. While I'm not a fan of pro wrestling, it's such a unique left turn for his career to have taken that I wouldn't have minded to read a little bit more about it at the expense of his sexual conquests when he was single between his second and third long-term relationships.

Finally, while Mould's philosophy of simply walking away and never looking back on his past seems to have served him well in some aspects, his treatment of people that he's fallen out with or who have in some way crossed him often comes off as petty and cold-hearted. Whether that's purposeful or an unfortunate effect of his behavior, it's sad to read about how he's completely cut certain people out of his life, people who've had a big impact on his life (and vice versa) with no chance of any reconciliation. In particular, the way he's treated Hart and Norton when they've made overtures at reconciliation is downright mean. Some of it seems down to his own self-confessed inability to communicate and cope, but a lot of it comes across as the actions of a very self-important and egotistical person, which in a way takes him down a peg (slightly) in my book.

Overall, the subtitle of this books is a subtle but accurate descriptor of Bob Mould's life: a lot of rage and a lot of melody. However, he seems to have been able to overcome a lot of mental and emotional baggage and seems to be in a good place at the present. It is hard to not be inspired or at least admiring of what he's overcome over the course of his life, and at his core he seems to be a decent person. As far as rock star memoirs go, this is one of the better ones and well worth a read if you're a fan of Husker Du or any of his post-Husker Du work.


Monday, January 20, 2014

Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots (Official Video)

As you all know, I'm a massive fan of Blur. Well, lead singer/songwriter Damon Albarn's long-awaited first true solo album is due to be released in the coming weeks, and the first single from it, which is also the title track, is now available to listen to. It's called "Everyday Robots" and is below. What do you think? What are your expectations for this album?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

How to Write a Book: Part 3

Welcome to Part 3 of this series! As you obviously know from having read the previous two, Part 1 dealt with the first step of the process for writing a book, which is to develop and come up with the fully formed idea for your book. Part 2 discussed the importance of writing and constantly updating your dynamic outline. This now leads, naturally, to Part 3, which is probably the most obvious step of the entire process and also the core of any writing project:


See, I told you it was obvious! Clearly, if you're going to write a book, you eventually need to get down to the actual act of writing. There are many schools of thought here: one is that you should just dive headfirst into writing and take care of the rest of the details later. The thinking behind this is that as you write, the book will take shape and you'll be able to make it up as you go along. While I certainly think there is some value in this approach, and many an established and successful writer has done it this way, I also think that it can lead to a very disorganized and jumbled project later on down the road, especially for a new writer. Recovering from the confusion can be very difficult and stressful. I speak from personal experience on this. Another school of thought is the one I've been laying out in this series, which is that with a little organization and forethought, and only two simple and relatively quick steps before you get into the writing itself, you can save yourself a lot of hassle and confusion later in the process and make the writing (which, let's face it, is the most enjoyable part of the entire process) that much easier. Plus, as you'll see as we go through this part, I recommend formatting as you go along writing, so in that regard I'm in agreement with the first school of thought I mentioned above, albeit with the benefit of a little planning ahead of time. Thus, we could really say that Part 3 is:

WRITE, WRITE, WRITE SOME MORE (and format as you go)!

Now, I've intended this series from the very beginning to be geared to writers both beginner and advanced, neither of whom have written a book before (or who have, but are looking for a different and, I hope you'll agree with me, better approach to doing so). Writing, like anything in life, is a skill that requires practice to develop and get better at. Every bit of writing you do is a chance to improve and develop your skills to become better and better at your craft, just like playing an instrument or being an athlete. As someone who is both a musician and a runner, I try to apply the same practice ethic from those pursuits to my writing. However, the challenge is that while there are more tangible results to those (ie being able to better play more complicated music, being able to run faster or further, etc), the improvement in your writing won't be quite as tangible, at least at first. The results will be more obvious to you when it becomes easier for you to articulate what you're trying to get across in your writing, when the construction of your prose becomes more sophisticated, but chiefly when you're able to develop your own writing voice. Just like our speaking voices and personalities, we all have a distinct writing voice and personality, and you won't truly find yours and develop it into something that is uniquely yours until you're good at your craft. When it comes to the writing part, PRACTICE.

As far as embarking upon the writing of your book, remember to use your outline as your road map. Some people like to start from the beginning of their book and work their way forward, while some choose to start in a particular section and fill in the gaps before and after its place in their outline at a later date. It's up to you how to proceed. But as far as the writing itself, I think it's important to sit down and just write. Whether you're only able to set aside a half-hour for your session or you have an entire morning/afternoon/evening at your disposal, write whenever you can (within reason, of course. You obviously shouldn't do it to the detriment of your family, job, personal life, etc). Also, when you write, don't worry about your spelling, your grammar, your sentence construction, your flow, etc. You will take care of that later on. Right now, it's important to just write and get everything down. Clearly, it's good to try and do the best job you can as you go along, but remember that this is only your first of many drafts and you will have to go back and clean up all of the errors later on anyway.

As you go through the writing process, it's also a good idea to start formatting your book in parallel. What I mean by formatting is how you're going to put your book together: where are the chapter breaks? Will this interlude go between chapters or in its own section within a chapter? Will I even have chapters? And so on. Again, at first this will be rough and there will be a lot of moving and changing of sections, but as you get further along in the writing it will begin to take shape and make more sense to you, and believe me when I tell you there is nothing so thrilling to a writer during the creative process than to see your book come together the further along you go. Remember to use your outline as your "skeleton," while the words you write are the "flesh" of your book. Think of the formatting as how you're putting it all together; to continue with the anatomical analogy, how will you arrange the "limbs" of your "skeleton." And since your outline is dynamic, so is your formatting. In addition to your writing, your formatting is another chance to use your creativity in how you want to lay out your book.

Writing is, along with talking, probably the oldest form of personal expression known to humanity. Before there was music or art, there was speech and writing. Your ability to convey what you want to in a clear, engaging, grammatically correct way (regardless of your native language) will only get better the more you write. For me, even though I was told by my teachers in high school that I was an good writer,  I know that I'm a MUCH better writer now than I was even a few years ago, let alone twenty years ago. Like anything you do for a long time over many weeks, months, and years, the more you write, the more you learn about it, both what to do and what not to do. This is in addition to simply learning HOW to do it to the best of your abilities, and what works for me or you won't necessarily work for anyone else in the world, but the one thing that will work is to just sit down and start writing!


(The comments section is open for discussion, so don't forget to share your progress on your writing project here while you're in the midst of writing it!)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Why We Boston Sports Fans Are Spoiled...and Why We Don't Care!

I'm a lifelong New Englander, and one of the things that makes us unique here is that we're a self-contained region within the US with a distinct culture. Boston is the capital city of not only Massachusetts, but New England as a region and as such, those are the sports team we all root for. In keeping with New England being the oldest part of the country (the "cradle of liberty" and "birthplace of the nation," etc), we also have some of the oldest professional sports teams in all of American sports: the Red Sox have been around for over 100 years, the Bruins were an Original Six team dating back to the 1940s, the Celtics were a founding member of the NBA from the 1940s, and the Patriots a founding member of the AFL (which was later merged with the NFL in 1970) from 1960. Our teams are old, steeped in tradition, and accordingly we've had many great players and teams over the decades.

However, prior to 2001, we were in a bit of a dry spell as far as championships. While we can't claim the perpetual hopeless loser status of cities like Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, or Detroit (with a few exceptions for those and other cities over the years), things were getting a bit rough by 2001. The last championship the city had won was in 1986 (the Celtics) and apart from some championship game appearances by our teams in 1987 (Celtics), 1988 and 1990 (Bruins), Red Sox (1986), and Patriots (1996), we'd come up empty. Other than the Celtics, who are the winningest franchise in all of professional basketball (16 championships by 1986), our teams' winning days were far in the past, with the Bruins having last won in 1972, the Red Sox in 1918, and the Patriots never. By 2001, the closest we'd come to getting back to the title games were the Red Sox losing in the ALCS in 1995 and 1999 and the Celtics losing in the ECF in 2001. Things looked like they were going to be stuck in the same mediocre state for the foreseeable future.

Then, a young backup quarterback named Tom Brady took over for the Patriots a few games into the 2001 season, replacing the injured veteran Drew Bledsoe. After guiding the team to a winning season, he and the rest of the Patriots had a magical run through the playoffs and defeated the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams in the Super Bowl to win the first championship in franchise history and the first for Boston and New England since 1986. While most people inside and outside New England thought it would be a one-and-done title, it was still nice to have. However, what no one in the country knew was that it would in actuality open the floodgates to a deluge of championships for the region over the next fifteen years (and still counting).  Since 2001, here's a breakdown of what Boston sports has accomplished:

New England Patriots: fourteen consecutive winning seasons, eight AFC championship game appearances, five Super Bowl appearances, three Super Bowl titles. Tom Brady is now considered the greatest quarterback of this generation and one of the top three best quarterbacks ever to play the game (total titles won in franchise history: 3)

Boston Red Sox: after the heartbreak of losing the 2003 ALCS to the Yankees in seven games (which made us all think the Curse would never end), they've won the World Series in 2004, 2007, and 2013 (total titles won in franchise history: 8)

Boston Celtics: many lean years after Larry Bird retired in 1992, with the improbable 2001 Eastern Conference Championship series appearance the lone bright spot. Since then, we've won a championship in 2008, lost a championship series we really should have won to the hated Lakers in seven games in 2010, and made a further Eastern Conference Championship series appearance in 2012 (another series we lost in seven games that we should've won) (total titles won in franchise history: 17)

Boston Bruins: Many down years were following by a rejuvenation of the team in the mid-2000s, culminating with a Stanley Cup championship in 2011 and a heartbreaking loss in six games in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2013 (total titles won in franchise history: 6)

Apart from the Celtics, who are currently in rebuilding mode, our three other teams remain competitive and at the top of their sports. The Patriots will be playing in yet another AFC Championship Game this weekend, the Bruins have one of the top three records in the NHL this season, and the Red Sox are coming off their third World Series win in ten seasons and are poised to remain competitive for years to come.

With TWELVE championship game/series appearances between all four teams since 2001, and EIGHT championships, the national media has taken to fostering and perpetuating a hatred for New England sports teams and their fans. We're accused of being "entitled," "spoiled," and "arrogant," from both within and without the region. However, these are patently false and untrue claims that are brought on by jealousy. In fact, we New England fans are among the most rabid, knowledgeable, passionate, and supportive of all fanbases in the country. Unlike more fickle and fair-weathered fanbases*** like those in Florida, California, and other areas (predominantly any warm-weather cities, especially in Florida and Texas), we support our professional teams through the good times and the (sometimes long) bad stretches with equal fervor: one only has to look at the long-suffering Red Sox fans who waited EIGHTY-SIX YEARS between championships but never failed to show up to the ballpark every game, every season, to put lie to the myth that we're "entitled" fans. I personally went to countless Celtics and Red Sox games since 1996 when it seemed that none of the teams had any hope, and I've been fanatically following and rooting for all four teams since I was a young boy. Sure, this surge of titles in recent years has brought along A LOT of Pink Hat fair-weather fans who will disappear once the teams return to the middle-of-the-pack, but we diehards will always remain, and it's what makes New England one of the top sports markets and Boston one of the top five best sports cities in the entire country.

So go ahead, national media and jealous fans of other teams, call us "entitled," "arrogant," or "spoiled." WE DON'T CARE! You and we know we'll always root for our teams, long after this golden era has ended...not very many other places in this great country can claim that as truth. We can.

***(I'd like to mention that there certainly are other passionate fanbases: long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans, New York Yankees fans, Green Bay Packers fans, any fans of any Canadian hockey team, and Indiana Pacers fans are some of the best in the country as well).

Monday, January 13, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Ray Davies: Americana

As the lead singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist of one of the greatest bands of all time, The Kinks, Ray Davies' has always had a unique and interesting take when it comes to his observations on music, life, and people. Even though he'd released an "unauthorized autobiography" titled "X-Ray" back in the 1990s (a book I must dig out and read again as it's been too long!), he never really had a proper memoir. His new book, "Americana," is subtitled "The Kinks, The Riff, The Road: The Story" and seems to promise to fill that void.

***special thanks to Josh at Sterling Publishing for sending me a copy of this book for review!***

While there have been many books written on the Kinks, including the newest biography that I recently reviewed, the heart of the Kinks' story has always been the relationship between Ray and his brother Dave.  However, an equally important part of the Kinks' career story is their relationships with both their home country of the UK and the country of their greatest successes, the US. While they were huge in the UK in the 1960s and part of the original British Invasion of America, by 1965 after a chaotic American tour, they found themselves mysteriously banned from these shores for four years. While they continued to make brilliant albums and cultivated a dedicated cult following in the US, they were forbidden from playing American concerts until late 1969 when the ban was lifted. From that moment on, Ray and the Kinks spent all of their effort reclaiming the lost years of success in America and toured relentlessly in the US, to the detriment of their career back home. However, by the time they broke up in 1996, the Kinks were one of the biggest British bands of all time in America. Ray, like others of his generation (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, etc) grew up in post-War Britain enthralled by American culture and music from a young age (contrast this with the seething disdain 1990s British musicians like Damon Albarn, Brett Anderson, Noel Gallagher, Jarvis Cocker, etc slung at the US while, ironically, idolizing the 60s musicians at the same time). The heart of this book, Americana, is Ray's fascination with the country and the story of the Kinks as told through their experiences here.

Unlike other Kinks biographies, Americana almost completely ignores anything to do with Ray or the Kinks in the UK and instead jumps from the 1965 ban to their return to America in 1969 through the remainder of their career, which was spent touring from coast to coast and building up a huge and dedicated following that continues to this day. It also acts as a more "real" memoir for Ray than his prior book, X-Ray, did (that book taking the form of a young man interviewing a reclusive ex-rock star who is in fact Ray himself). The central theme of Ray's love/hate relationship with America and its role in his life, and indeed the entire book, is the 2004 shooting he suffered when living in New Orleans.

The core of the book is Ray's search for himself; in his own irrepressible and self-deprecating way, he paints a picture of himself as a lonely and lost soul who never really had any roots once he left home at 19 with the Kinks. Having a house, but nowhere to ever call home, is the struggle that he never really manages to overcome, along with his never-ending quest for music. It's quite interesting (and in some ways, personally relateable for me) how Ray literally lives his music, constantly writing lyrics and songs inspired by the everyday occurrences in his life. It's hard not to laugh at his typically British humor, but equally hard not to feel pangs of sadness when he describes his aching love for his children who he seldom gets to see due to his nomadic musician lifestyle.

The city of New Orleans is the pivot of the book in that it involved Ray's most recent quest for what he calls "The Riff," or the everlasting source of music. He claims to have picked New Orleans at random because of the party atmosphere and how music permeates every part of life down there. Through the years he spent living there, he introduces us to the cast of characters who he's lived with and loved there, and dramatically leads up to the night in 2004 when his life was changed forever. While walking home from dinner with his girlfriend, a mugger swiped his girlfriend's purse after shoving Ray to the ground. Ray gave chase and was shot in the leg before the mugger made his escape. He then goes into intensely personal detail about the immediate aftermath and his long road to recovery in and out of hospitals, as well as the amazing care he received from friends who took care of him in New Orleans. What was absolutely shocking and revelatory to me was that, similar to the home invasion attack of George Harrison in 1999, Ray's shooting was made out to be much less serious in the media than it actually was.  When George was attacked, the press made it sound like he was just stabbed superficially a few times when in fact he was butchered and came inches from dying. Likewise with Ray, while the media made it seem as though he simply suffered a flesh wound to the leg, in actuality the shot shattered his femur, requiring surgery and a metal rod inserted into his leg. Complications from his weakened heart and infection made his road to recovery rather long and he has a permanent limp as a reminder of that event. Even so, it did not dim his enthusiasm for New Orleans or America, and even though at the end of the book he leaves the city for the UK, it's hard not to get the sense that he'll always come back in his never-ending quest for "The Riff."

There's not too much for me to fault in this book.  The sections about his experiences in New Orleans are fascinating, and his telling of the Kinks' story is as bold and vital as that in any Kinks biography. Not only does he corroborate many stories and events that were detailed in other books, but there's a lot of new information that will be welcome to any Kinks fan. If I did have some complaints about the book, they would be that he rather abruptly ends the story around the time he went back to England from New Orleans once he'd recovered enough in 2004/2005. However, it's clear he's been back since there is a picture in the book from a festival appearance in the city in 2011. Since he ended the book saying he's not sure he'd ever go back after his ordeal, it seems incongruous as he clearly did based on the photo. My other complaint is that he didn't shed any new light or give his take on his fractured relationship with brother Dave. While I realize that the Davies brothers' relationship wasn't central to this book like it is in other Kinks biographies, I was still hoping Ray would offer some insight here.

Written in a dryly humorous, intensely emotional manner and peppered with lyrics both old, new, and unreleased, Americana is a strange and unique take on a memoir in a way only Ray Davies could do. Not only essential reading for any Kinks fan, this book would be worthwhile to anyone who is a fan of 1960s British rock. Even if you simply like to read about the lives of interesting people, you can't go wrong with Americana. As in his own words, it's all about Ray finding out who he really is and coming to terms with it, and through his songs he helps us find out the same about ourselves.

(This review also appeared on Head Stuff, which I contribute's a great site, check it out!)