Thursday, August 16, 2018

Aretha Franklin (1942 - 2018)

Aretha Franklin, the great singer, songwriter, and pianist, has died of cancer at age 76.

When Rolling Stone ranked Aretha Franklin #1 on its list of the 100 greatest singers of all time in 2010, Mary J. Blige wrote this:

Aretha has everything — the power, the technique. She is honest with everything she says.… And she has total confidence; she does not waver at all. I think her gospel base brings that confidence, because in gospel they do not play around — they're all about chops, who has the vocal runs. This is no game to her. . . .

Even the way she pronounces words is amazing: In "Giving Him Something He Can Feel," when she sings, "Many say that I'm too young" — the way she says "I'm," you can almost see her saying it, like she's all in your face, but you're still right with her. You can really visualize her hands when she sings, "You're tying both of my hands," on "Ain't No Way" — it's the powerful way she hits the word "both."

When you watch her work, you can see why Aretha is who she is. When we did the song "Don't Waste Your Time" on my album Mary, she just went in there and ate that record like Pac-Man. She could be doing a church vocal run, and it would turn into some jazz-space thing, something I never encountered before. You'd say, "Where did that come from? Where did she find that note?"
Last year I posted this on Facebook:
50 years ago today, in 1967, Aretha Franklin released her 11th studio album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, when she was just 24. It's best known for "Respect," but I recommend the whole album — amazing intensity. . . .
In January I posted:
50 years ago today, in 1968, Aretha Franklin released her 14th album, Lady Soul. The first single from the album was "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." . . . Few recordings are as emotionally powerful as this one is in less than 3 minutes.

It's weird to think of Aretha Franklin as being underrated in any way since her singing has been so fully appreciated, but she doesn't get enough credit as a pianist. She played piano on many though not all of her recordings, including the iconic intro to "Think." Here she is playing piano and singing at age 22 in 1964:

She was still remarkably inventive as recently as 2016 with her improvisatory style of singing and piano playing in a version of the national anthem that stretched over 4 minutes:

A full concert from 1971, which starts with "Respect":

Here's her set at President Obama's White House in 2015:

Lastly, this 1986 concert includes great performances of "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You" (after 9:00) and "Natural Woman" (19:50):

Elton John has written a wonderful tribute (starting with this tweet):
The loss of @ArethaFranklin is a blow for everybody who loves real music: Music from the heart, the soul and the Church. Her voice was unique, her piano playing underrated – she was one of my favourite pianists.

I was fortunate enough to spend time with her and witness her last performance – a benefit for [the Elton John AIDS Foundation] at St John The Divine Cathedral. She was obviously unwell, and I wasn’t sure she could perform. But Aretha did and she raised the roof. She sang and played magnificently, and we all wept. We were witnessing the greatest soul artist of all time.

I adored her and worshipped her talent. . . . We shared the same birthday – and that meant so much to me. The whole world will miss her but will always rejoice in her remarkable legacy. The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.

"I sing to people about what matters. I sing to the realists — people who accept it like it is. I express problems. There are tears when it's sad and smiles when it's happy. It seems simple to me, but to some, feelings take courage." — Aretha Franklin

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Gov. Cuomo on America: "It was never that great"

The Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has caused an uproar by saying:

We’re not going to make America great again. It was never that great. We have not reached greatness.
Now, I can respect Americans who say that kind of thing. I thought it was fine when a Home Depot employee wore a cap that said “America was never great” in the store in 2016. If that’s how individual citizens want to express their conflicted feelings about America, more power to ‘em. Whether you agree or disagree with the sentiment, the fact that people feel so free to criticize America is one of the things that makes America great!

But most Americans don’t want to hear this kind of grim talk from their leaders. I already didn’t think Andrew Cuomo (my governor) had strong presidential prospects, and this won’t help.

UPDATE: Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo's Democratic primary challenger, responds:
I think this is just another example of Andrew Cuomo trying to figure out what a progressive sounds like . . .

Monday, June 18, 2018

Is Harvard doing to Asians what it used to do to Jews?

Glenn Reynolds says:

I wrote four years ago that it looked as if Asian applicants to Harvard were getting the "Jewish treatment" — that is, being subjected to quotas, and rated down on “soft” qualifications, so as to keep their numbers lower than their objective qualifications would warrant. This is what Ivy League schools did to Jewish applicants for much of the 20th century, because Jewish applicants were seen as boring grinds who studied too hard, and whose parents weren’t rich enough or connected enough to contribute to the schools’ flourishing.

The Ivy League eventually ended its quotas for Jews, suspiciously at about the time that there were enough rich and well-connected Jews to benefit the Ivy League. But now it’s doing the same thing to Asians. At least, that’s the charge made in a lawsuit charging Harvard with racial discrimination against Asian-American applicants. And I for one believe that Harvard is as guilty of anti-Asian discrimination now as it was of anti-Jewish discrimination back around the time I was born.

One of the things that highly selective schools like Harvard like to say is that their admission policy is “holistic,” based on personal characteristics that go beyond high school grades or SAT scores. This goes back to the early days of discrimination against Jews, when things such as “leadership” or “well-roundedness” were used to favor rich WASP applicants over Jews who just studied hard. And, often, there was a thumb on the scale.

Now that’s happening to Asians . . . .

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Tim Russert

Tim Russert of Meet the Press died 10 years ago today. I did this blog post.

Here are "lessons" from how Russert worked.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

What are your comments really doing?

People tend to overestimate their power to change others' views, and underestimate how much they're revealing about themselves through their comments. For instance, in a political discussion, telling me I don't have enough experience to understand [something] probably won't tell me anything new about myself; it's more likely to tell me that you leap to conclusions, because you think you know what I have and haven't experienced.

Saturday, May 5, 2018


Jokes often have serious meaning. I may take you especially seriously because I know you're joking — because not only do I understand your meaning, but I appreciate the extra effort you put into conveying it well.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Aerosmith's Get a Grip turns 25

25 years ago today, in 1993, Aerosmith released their 11th album, Get a Grip, with the band sounding more slick and commercial than ever. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)

Livin’ on the Edge” features a guitar solo (starting at 2:18) that’s slower and more melodic than Joe Perry’s usual solos; it almost sounds like it could have been played by George Harrison. You might think this is a fairly ordinary rock song until it becomes epic by virtue of an extended outro. It sounds like it must be winding down to the end around 4:20, but the drum fill at 4:30 decisively starts things back up.

The lyrics are Aerosmith in their socially conscious mode (probably fueled by the success of “Janie’s Got a Gun” from their previous album). In one line, Steven Tyler touches on racism in a paraphrase of the Yardbirds' “Mister, You're a Better Man than I.” Wikipedia says the line “There's something right with the world today, and everybody knows it's wrong” is a shot at conservatives (the “right”), but that seems unlikely — Steven Tyler and Joe Perry are both Republicans, and I have the impression that most if not all of the band members have conservative leanings. Instead, I view it as simply an ironic, jarring juxtaposition of opposites, akin to the Beatles’ “It’s getting better all the time/It can’t get no worse.”

Cryin’” uses a subtle trick in its song structure: it kicks off with an intense hard-rock riff at the beginning, which gives way to a country-rock tune with maudlin lyrics about lost love . . . but after the first chorus, the heavy riff returns as if it were a bridge, and the lyrics have turned from sentimental to sexual (starting at 1:13).

Below is a live performance, but if you want to hear the full country-like vocal harmonies then watch the official video.

Crazy” — This very popular video was one of 3 videos from the album featuring Alicia Silverstone, and it was also Liv Tyler's debut. There's a sweet moment (at 3:47) when the song suddenly slows down and Liv Tyler lip-syncs, “I need your love” . . . which is actually sung by her dad, Steven Tyler. His falsetto near the end (5:13) beautifully conjures up 1950s doo-wop. The video uses a longer version of the song than on the album; if you listen closely you can tell when they seem to have copied and pasted part of the chorus near the end.

Amazing” — In which Alicia Silverstone seems to have taken hitchhiking lessons from Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night . . .

The video is about virtual reality, and Steven Tyler said this song and others on the album were about drugs: “It can be fun in the beginning but then it comes time to pay your debt, and if you're not sharp enough to see that it's taking you down, then it really will get you.”

He alludes to the album title, Get a Grip, when he sings: “When I lost my grip, and I hit the floor/Yeah I thought I could leave, but couldn’t get out the door.” Then in the bridge, he alludes to a previous Aerosmith album, Permanent Vacation: “That one last shot’s permanent vacation…”

A relentlessly driving guitar solo by Joe Perry is worthy of the song title.

During the video’s final reveal, we hear the quaint sounds of a 1945 song by Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra: “Who Threw the Whiskey in the Well.”

Thursday, April 12, 2018

10 years of this blog

10 years ago today, on April 12, 2008, I was having brunch in Austin while writing down a plan in a Moleskine notebook, which I published later that day as my first blog post, on Google's Blogger ("Blogspot").

Over time, the blog evolved into frequent Facebook posts (for reasons I explained here). This blog isn't completely defunct yet, but I mostly like to keep it around as a repository for old content.

I kicked off the blog with a grandiose mission statement: "There's probably a greater excess of content in the world right now than at any previous point in history. We have a glut of content but a dearth of thought. I'll try to correct the balance." 

We easily take for granted how extraordinary our current time is; when I was growing up, if you wanted to express your opinion about something in the news, your main option was to talk to whoever happened to be physically near you. Of course there were other options, like writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper/magazine, or calling in to C-Span, but you'd be at the mercy of corporations' tastes and whims to an extent that makes any concerns about suppression of viewpoints by sites like Facebook seem petty by comparison. Now we have the power to convey our thoughts and feelings to anyone in the world, at any time. We should make the most of that opportunity.

And now, here are some of my favorite posts from 10 years of this blog, in roughly reverse-chronological order (most recent to oldest). I'm sure many of the links and videos within these posts have gone dead by now, but I hope the posts have otherwise held up:

Tori Amos's Little Earthquakes turns 25

Reactions to the 2016 election

Live-blogging presidential debates: 2016, 2012, 2008

Beatles albums — "It was 50 years ago today . . ."

What are we doing when we teach fiction to kids?

Revering the irreverent

Sam Cooke died 50 years ago.

The jazz guitarist Jim Hall has died at age 83.

If people are bad at deciding what's best for themselves, is government the solution?

The "acting alone" fallacy

Thoughts on playing sad songs and easy guitar parts

2 surprising pay gaps

How much of a problem is it that you don't have enough time in your whole life to become "reasonably well-read"?

The top 10 greatest classical composers of all time

Andrew Sullivan, The Crusader

Getting it wrong: language and more

The 12 books that influenced me the most (follow-up)

6 ways blogs are better than books

The 100 best songs of the first decade of the 2000s

Penelope Trunk's Twitter post about miscarriage and abortion

Is "loser" a male noun?

Kant's categorical imperative vs. the golden rule

The 2 most overused chord progressions in pop music

"What are the simple concepts that have most helped you understand the world?"

The problem of evil (continued)

Two kinds of careers

The 40 greatest grunge songs

"Do you see what's happening?"

Thank you, Tim Russert (1950 - 2008)

* * *

So now it's been exactly 10 years that I've been blogging regularly, on this blog or Facebook. Whether I'll do this consistently for another 10 years, I don't know. But I know that my guiding principles will still matter: that facts and reason are more important than ideological commitments or partisan allegiances, and that music is as important as anything.

Thanks for reading, listening, commenting, and thinking!

(Photo by me.)