The Ultimate Super Bowl Book

If Bob McGinn hadn’t titled his book The Ultimate Super Bowl Book, everyone would have called it that anyway.

This fantastic book is not only a great resource full of facts and stats, it’s also very well written. It isn’t just a bunch of dates and results: it goes beyond those basics we all know and delves deep into each game and how and why it was actually won on the field.

There aren’t any glossy photos or filler in The Ultimate Super Bowl Book. McGinn doesn’t just rehash the most famous moments of only the best games. He retells the story of each and every Super Bowl through his own reviews of the game films and fascinating interviews with the players, coaches, and assistant coaches involved in the game.

Throughout the book, McGinn also mixes in several interesting Top 10 lists as sidebars. Another great aspect of the book is the fact that he lists the entire coaching staff for each team. We all know and remember the head coaches, but seeing and recognizing countless names among the coordinators and assistants is a useful football history lesson beyond the considerable information found in the text.

It’s incredible to hear the key players and coaches recount not only the big memorable moments but also the underlying strategies and perhaps unseen plays that swung the game one way or the other. Oftentimes they sound as if the game had just been won (or lost) last week and not years or decades ago.

McGinn, a longtime sportswriter for the Green Bay Press-Gazett and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has been a finalist for the McCann Award for excellence in pro football writing and was selected as one of America’s Top 20 Sportswriters by Men’s Journal. His expert storytelling and game recaps make this even better than just an exhaustive Super Bowl reference book, though it serves as that too.

I can’t recommend The Ultimate Super Bowl Book highly enough, especially at just under $15 at Amazon. Also available direct from the publisher, MVP Books.

In-Depth Political Analysis of the New Bruce Springsteen Song

In a world where, on the day when parts of the internet went dark to protest potential government censorship, Rob Lowe of all people tweeted the “scoop” that Peyton Manning is retiring (he’s not) and Mark Wahlberg claimed he would have prevented 9/11 (he didn’t), it’s not too silly for me to look way too far into the new Bruce Springsteen song that suddenly dropped at midnight.

In the music community, Bruce Springsteen is the stuff of rock legend: he’s certainly one of the greatest live acts of all time and among the most respected American songwriters south of Bob Dylan. But culturally, like his hero Dylan, Bruce has essentially become a political football.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps tiring of being punted back and forth, Bruce jumped off the sidelines (where he’d watched his song “Born in the USA” get co-opted as a patriotic anthem by Ronald Reagan and others) and jumped into the game by campaigning for John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008.

By early 2009, the guy who once used to shun any specific political affiliation and refuse TV appearances was now at the Presidential Inauguration and then the Super Bowl singing his latest jingle/anthem, “Working on a Dream.” That was an optimistic time, and the song was a hollow attempt to bring us all together for some kumba-ya call to roll up our sleeves and fix all that had broken in the Bush years. There was even some whistling in the song. Whistling.

Anyway, I didn’t like the song and thought the album was one of Springsteen’s worst ever. I’m a Bruce fanatic, but I’m not a total homer.

So now  Bruce is coming back with what’s being described as his “angriest” album in a long time. Guess he woke up from that dream. The new single “We Take Care of Our Own,” is from the forthcoming March release Wrecking Ball. The title track was originally written to mark the closing of the old Giants Stadium in New Jersey, but the title fits as a symbol of destruction for an album that we’re told addresses the current economic strife. The cover art, with Bruce and his signature Fender guitar behind the scrawled lettering of the title, evokes a “This Machine Kills Fascists” vibe, perhaps a nod to his other hero Woody Guthrie.

On first listen, “We Take Care of Our Own” chugs its way down E Street like most catchy Bruce songs. On the surface, it sounds like just a trite anthem: “Wherever this flag is flown,” he dares to sing as an echo to the “We take care of our own” refrain. The guy has been misunderstood as a jingoistic flag-waver for the last 25 years and now he’s gonna literally fly a flag right there in the hook of his new hit single? Really?

Ah, we forget (and some don’t realize) how sly Bruce can be. He knows his songs will be scrutinized and examined through a sociopolitical lens, and possibly co-opted yet again in an election year. So while the title and the flag imagery sound like a rah-rah yay America platitudes about how awesome we are…. Listen closely and you’ll hear the everyman rocker bearing witness to every man for himself; really wondering why we don’t actually take care of our own. And the only ones doing so are the politicians and the corporations that own them. They’re certainly taking care of their own (each other) while the rest of us are left to whistle while we work on a dream.

On 1980’s The River, Bruce asked “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?” Well 2012 Bruce isn’t quite ready to overtly call out President Obama as a liar (at least on this track), but he does sing “I’ve been stumbling on good hearts turned to stone, those good intentions have gone dry as a bone” in the first verse.

The track starts with pounding drums and high-pitched guitar noise. Compared to the safe pop/schlock of “Working on a Dream,” this sounds like battle drums and sirens. As it settles into that first verse, there’s a subtle percussion shuffling akin to a Simon & Garfunkel track almost buried in the mix. Once the song kicks in and the guitars get a little heavier, Bruce knifes through America, not the right or left, but slicing right down the center: “From Chicago to New Orleans/From the muscle to the bone.”

The very next lines get specific, as he reminds us “From the shotgun shack to the Superdome, we needed help but the cavalry stayed home.” He’s invoking Katrina, 2005, but the next line updates the message and generalizes it to apply to our tone-deaf politicians who only take care of themselves and the special interests who pay their way into office while the economic storm floods us all out of our homes: “There aint no one hearing the bugle blowin’.”

A generation ago, Springsteen followed the optimism of “pulling out of here to win” in “Thunder Road” by writing a gloomy response called “The Promise” (and what happens when it’s broken). This time he follows the hope of “Working on a Dream” with a line that repeats “Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” The everyman rocker winces at every man for himself. Again he toys with patriotic language to essentially ask “What the fuck happened to the American dream? Where’s the promise?” Just like he used the pride of chanting “Born in the USA” to wonder why people who were born here and fought in Vietnam were abandoned upon their return.

That’s what I mean about Bruce being sly. He’s dressing up this new song with lines like “wherever this flag is flown” and “sea to shining sea,” this time knowing and expecting that it will be misunderstood. And if/when some politician tries to play this at a rally or make this anthem their own, they’ll end up admitting the obvious: “We Take Care of Our Own.”

Musically, this is classic (even if somewhat generic) Springsteen from the standpoint of the piano/glockenspiel sound tinkling atop the pulsing guitars and drums. It’s got a bounce not unlike “Badlands” and “The Rising,” but with the late Clarence Clemons’ saxophone noticeably absent.

If you don’t like Bruce Springsteen, there’s plenty here not to like: the usual Bruce-isms like the la-la’s in the outro tailor-made to be echoed in concert arenas, the aforementioned flag imagery and faux patriotism, and that rich-man-in-a-poor-mans-shirt shtick he’s been riding for most of his career. But for Bruce fans from the fanatic to the casual, it’s a welcome return to respectability and perhaps a sign that he might have one more great album left in him.

The Boy Who Cried Roots

The Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter. Photo by Chago Akii-bua.

At some point, “The new Roots album is really good” became a cliché we’ve been taking for granted since the release of their fourth album, things fall apart, in 1999. They’ve since dropped six more gems, some better than others, but all so consistent and at times stunning in their quality that we’ve just become immune, desensitized, and unappreciative. Oh, yea… The Roots have a new album. I heard it’s really good.

Every other year I find myself telling this friend or that about how great the new Roots album is, stressing its brilliance and begging to be taken seriously… feeling like the boy who cried wolf, except I’ve never lied.

Their legendary live shows, their solid canon of classic studio albums, their recent high-profile gig as house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon… the bar has been set pretty high. And yet with each new release, as they continue to sail over that bar and raise it higher and higher, we shrug our shoulders and nod our heads and put The Roots on our year-end best-of lists and that’s that.

Since 1999’s things fall apart spawned the hit “You Got Me,” the Roots have quietly blessed us with a run of albums that could rival others entire careers, starting with the wildly eclectic Phrenology (what I call their White Album in how experimental and psychedelic it is) and continuing through The Tipping Point, Game Theory and Rising Down. These four albums over six years seemed to come and go, pure genius being ignored right out in the open.

Then in 2010 came How I Got Over, a late-career classic. A “mature” hip-hop album that was still a banger, it was universally hailed as a masterpiece (and yet still probably shrugged off as “another great Roots album”). With their killer collab album with John Legend, Wake Up!, released on its heels that same year, I assumed How I Got Over might be their last album for a quite a while…  And then at the end of 2011, bam!, they hit us with undun. And once again, they’ve outdone even themselves.

As the press releases and subsequent reviews have said, undun is “an existential re-telling of the short life of one Redford Stephens (1974-1999),” a loose-narrative concept album told in reverse about the death of the fictional struggling everyman from the hood. It starts with the flat-line beep sound of his death and then goes back to tell the story of ghetto inevitability.

After countless listens on repeat, I don’t see (or hear) it as “told in reverse,” as much as it seems circular. You can come in at any point and pick it up. It’s like a classic movie on cable, like Goodfellas, where no matter what part is on when you find it, you feel compelled to watch the rest even though you know how it ends. And when the instrumental suite that closes the CD ends…. it starts again with the flat-line beep, and before you know it you’re circling around for another turn with this all-too-familiar American tale of desperation and destiny… like the endless cycle of lives trapped along the poverty line.

To catch a thief, who stole the soul I prayed to keep
Insomniac, bad dreams got me losing sleep
I’m dead tired, my mind playing tricks, deceit
A face in the glass, unable to admit defeat
All that I am, all that I was is history
The past unraveled, adding insult to this injury
I’m fighting the battle for the soul of the century
Destiny is everything that I pretend to be
Look, and what I did came back to me eventually
The music played on, and told me I was meant to be awake
It’s unresolved like everything I had at stake
Illegal activity controls my black symphony
Orchestrated like it happened incidentally
Oh, there I go, from a man to a memory
Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me

That’s the very first verse we hear from Black Thought. If I decided to quote any more of his brilliant one liners and verse-long portraits, it would fill this whole post. Just go read them, or better yet, submerge yourself in this record and hear a lyrical master at work, in both writing and delivery. His basic style/flow may have been birthed by the legendary Rakim a generation ago, but Black Thought absolutely belongs in any type of “Top 5 MC’s of All Time,” list/argument you want to make. He might not have the cultural impact of Tupac or Biggie; He’s been around for close to 20 years on record, but he’s not quite a pioneering legend like Chuck D or KRS-One; he’s not as flashy as Nas, Eminem, or Andre 3000. And while he’s undoubtedly benefited from the beats, production and leadership of ?uestlove, it’s also possible that Black Thought’s “legacy” is diminished cuz we just hail them as The Best Hip-Hop Group (by a mile) and we never quite give BT his due. Taken for granted once again.

On this latest album, Black Thought is so concise, as plain spoken yet creative with his wordplay and metaphors as ever. Anchored by a revolving door of guest MC’s led by veteran Roots role player on the mic Dice Raw, Black Thought gets the most out of every line, no words are wasted, every rhythmic turn and lyrical phrasing complementing the beat as if it was actually part of ?uestlove’s drum kit.

One of the most interesting recent quotes I read from Black Thought was about his serious approach to the writing:  “Everything you hear me saying on this record is at least the fourth or fifth draft. I would write a verse and then rewrite it and rewrite it. I don’t sit down and write a song, and then slam down the phone like, ‘We got another one!’ and pop some champagne. It’s like if someone’s writing a novel: You write a series of drafts.”

Like a great American novel, I hope that after all the accolades and Grammy nominations and glowing blog reviews, we all remember this incredible album, this snapshot of a society crumbling… with too many people “face down in the ocean, and no one’s in the lighthouse,” and too many others too busy watching the throne.

Compared to it’s predecessor, undun is sonically stark, but still extremely effective. Musical storytelling that paints pictures behind the stunning verses. If they’d never sent out the blurbs about this being a “concept album,” we still would have picked up on the cinematic vibe. It’s like the kind of movie that makes you fall in love with movie making again. And while this particular one has sadly played out in American streets over and over again, undun will still be worth revisiting and repeating for years to come.

Undun is not just “another great Roots album,” (though it is that). It reminds you that albums are an art form and luckily artists like the Roots are still making them.

The Return of Van Halen, and Why Alex Was Their MVP

This legendarily bad-ass band logo was etched into school notebooks more often than schoolwork was.

If the Mike Damone character from Fast Times at Ridgemont High were a real person, I bet he’d be pretty psyched about Van Halen coming back with a new album with David Lee Roth.

I can’t say that I have terribly high expectations for the new album, nor do I plan to see the upcoming tour. Actually, I’m just using the occasion of Van Halen’s “reunion” to examine my love for the band’s first six albums and try to pinpoint the unique appeal of Van Halen.

The word reunion was in quotes in the previous paragraph because VH actually “reunited” with Sammy Hagar for a tour in 2004, and they did a full tour with Diamond Dave himself in 2007. People act like these guys haven’t been in the same room since 1984. Of course the difference this time is that they are actually putting out a new album. With Dave.

If the opening Fast Times movie reference didn’t resonate with you, you might just not be that into Van Halen, or remember how big and truly great this band once was. I saw them on the Diver Down tour in 1982, when I was just 12 years old experiencing my first real arena rock concert. Amazing and unforgettable. (I saw them again in 1986 on their first tour with Sammy.) Growing up in a musical family and having our dad take us to see Van Halen seemed like he was giving it his stamp of approval. And seeing those two Van Halen brothers up there probably launched rock star ambitions in my brother in me.

Sure, the face of the band is the other-worldly technical prowess of guitarist, band leader, and namesake Eddie Van Halen. Or is he insisting on EDWARD Van Halen this week? Anyway, he of “Eruption” immortality, with that red and white-striped guitar and that sly grin that always found the camera… he is “Van Halen.”

But my real motivation to put pen to paper and click post to blog, and my conclusion to why Van Halen was so great, and why we love them: Alex Van Halen.

That’s right, Eddie’s brother, the drummer, Alex Van Halen. This ain’t no Billy Ripken or Frank Stallone. When we think of “Van Halen,” we think of guitar virtuosity, the band of the same name, and the grinning guitarist who married the chick from One Day at a Time. We rarely think of Alex, also a band namesake, but when you listen to their old albums you realize that his drumming was a huge part of why Van Halen records were so fucking fun to listen to. Hey, Eddie did amazing things on the guitar and made sounds no one had ever heard before, and millions have emulated since. But so did Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Yngwie Malmsteen. But people never listened to their records. They listened to Van Halen. Alex’s beats and fills kept Eddie’s wankery palatable to the ear.

Drummers growing up in the 80’s might have obsessed over “Tom Sawyer” and held Neil Peart up just a little to high for our own good… but Alex Van Halen showed us how awesome the job of Rock Drummer really was. (And his “Hot for Teacher” intro kept plenty of kids busy too.)

It was Alex’s drums that gave Eddie and the band a soul, a real groove for Diamond Dave to dance to, a primal and expressive rhythm to match the party vibe and sexuality of the lyrics. When you go back and really listen to the deep tracks off the old albums, get beyond “Jump” and “Jamie’s Crying,” you’ll hear a guy hammering with the precision of a Stewart Copeland, but with a hammer borrowed from John Bonham.

Producer Ted Templeman also got a such a great sound out of Alex’s drums. This is another underrated factor about why those old Van Halen albums were so great, but mostly it’s Alex’s execution and performance. I’m not gonna say he was as good as Bonham or Keith Moon (or even Copeland or Peart or whoever). It’s all subjective and “better than” and rankings are a bit pointless among such greats. But Alex Van Halen might be one of the most unappreciated or unsung great drummers of all time. Throughout the years and lineup changes, it was Alex as much as Eddie who put the muscle behind The Mighty Van Halen.

"I heard ya missed us... we're back!"

Despite all the back and forth, and the fact that Van Halen had several hits and plenty of success with Sammy Hagar those first few years, the other face (and head, heart, ego, id, and crotch) of this band is undeniably David Lee Roth. I’m not sure he doesn’t belong on the Mount Rushmore of Frontmen, but that’s another discussion. While his pure vocal gifts are certainly limited, and his lyrics are sophomoric and forgettable, Dave had delivery. Not just phrasing and screaming, though he excelled there. His love of old soul and R&B music infused his performance and gave him a pulse underneath those vocal gymnastic tricks (the “screaming”) that could have held their own on records by Iron Maiden or Judas Priest.

We forget that about Diamond Dave. He’s such a boiling pot of carnival barker, Vegas-style lounge act, and pure rock front man that seemed equal parts Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, and Stephen Tyler. The ultimate rock star. He seemed like a guy willing to shine your shoes and able to sell you a car. Oddly, he dressed and pranced around like the hot platinum blonde bimbos that littered the bands lyrics. Every other song is about a girl in a magazine, a chick from an adult cinematic feature, a stripper, prostitute, or groupie. Song titles included “Hot For Teacher,” “Beautiful Girls,” “Dirty Movies,” “Sinners Swing,” “Women In Love,” “Girl Gone Bad,” “Everybody Wants Some.” You get the idea.

And that was part of the appeal of Van Halen. It was un-apologetically hedonistic. Its misogyny softened by the excuse that they were portraying the role of cliché rock starts and this is just what they did. If Free Love allegedly died at the end of the 60’s, and the post-Beatles/Vietnam era of the 70’s was a bummer about to be capped off by disco (and then the impending cheese of the 80’s/MTV era), Van Halen sat on that cusp, from their debut in 1978 to their smash-hit breakthrough (and last album with Dave, itself a cornerstone of that 80’s/MTV era) in 1984, and they said let’s throw one more huge party.

The old stuff holds up.

They served as a bridge from Sabbath/Zeppelin to hair metal and Guns’n’Roses, for better or worse. They managed to be both heavy hard rockers and video pop stars. They spent their allotted time as “The Biggest Band in the World,” as many have, but they had the musical chops to stand the test of time, as evidenced by those first six albums.

I’m not going to attempt to retell or summarize what happened between Eddie and Dave, between Eddie and Sammy, between Eddie and bass player Mike Anthony, between 1984 and the 2012 album/tour announcement. Because not only do the particulars not matter, there’s too much he-said/he-said about who quit and who was fired. I think it’s possible to conclude that Eddie Van Halen might be a little bit of an asshole.

It’s one thing to fight with and replace singers and all that, but in the case of bassist Michael Anthony, a serviceable bassist and very good high-harmony singer that was an integral part of the band’s sound, Eddie actually fathered and raised a human replacement for him! That might be one of the greatest band feud/personnel stories ever. “Oh yea? I will fire you and make a new person to take your place!” OK, I realize Eddie (and Valerie Bertinelli) didn’t have little Wolfgang knowing he too would end up in the band. But ya never know…

Anyway, having “the old Van Halen coming back,” has at least been a great reminder and excuse to rekindle one of my first flames. Upon further review, I think Fair Warning is their best album with Van Halen II appropriately second.

So when Van Halen drops A Different Kind of Truth in February, I’ll check it out. I won’t fret if it sucks. I imagine Eddie will likely have a few cool tricks up his sleeve… Diamond Dave will probably be a creepy shell of his former self, and hopefully he’ll keep his hat and shirt on. But my eyes and ears will be on Alex the Great.