Monday, August 31, 2009

The Heart of the Game

Let me know if this sounds familiar - the game isn't what it used to be. There's no connection between players and fans. Clubs are just interested in money. Superstars have both egos and compensation that defy logic. Back in the day, it didn't cost an arm and a leg to take your kid to a game. There's no more passion. Rivalries don't mean anything anymore. It just ain't like it used to be.

Well, insert [sport of your choice] here, I suppose. Slimbo's Shelf readers might assume I'm set to launch into my hobby of obsessing on baseball. But the sentiments above are the grievances of Jimmy Greaves in his football (soccer) book The Heart of the Game. I picked this up when I was travelling through England last summer and I got it specifically because it's not available in the US.

Greaves is considered a national treasure of England. So this book is sort of like listening to Ted Williams (if he were still alive) rattle off everything he doesn't like about the state of the game today. You nod, smile at the old man and accept. It is what it is.

So what is the heart of the game? Well, according to Greaves it's a lot of things that congeal into that intangible magic that exists on a cool damp Saturday afternoon. Two teams take to the pitch and a cracking good show is put on by the lads. Everyone behaves themselves and the two sets of chaps give it there all. It's a working man's paradise.
- OK. Well, that's me pushing it a bit. Greaves is very frank in what he sees as maligning the game - there is a definite lack of Britishness in the English Premier League today. But he longs for a time that no longer exists. I feel for him. When Fox Soccer Channel benevolently shows fourth division teams playing in FA qualifying rounds, games played in wintery mudbaths of backwoods Britain, I cling to each moment. I know what Greaves is talking about. Tea, pies, team scarves, songs, crappy grounds burgeoning with adoring fans.
- I suppose it's fun to remember.
- My biggest takeaway was an observation that certainly echoes the state of sports in America. Greaves provides the following caption on a photograph of a massive joyous crowd from some anonymous team in the 1960's: "When a camera positions itself before fans today what we invariably see are clenched fists and snarling faces. In the early sixties supporters responded to a camera with smiles, laughter and whirling rattles."

1969 Mets - World Series Champions

Recently I was lamenting the current state of the Mets to my brother. He put it best: "I'm not sure what kind of curse follows the Mets at this point, but its removal requires something involving a dead chicken, a frog and a cauldron. Strangely enough, I'll bet any one of those things can be found in Corona, Queens."

Rubbing salt into the wound of this season is the 40th anniversary of the 1969 World Championship team.

Last week I was listening to an interview with Tom Seaver on WFAN. He beautifully described that intangible essence that champions possess. During spring training, 1969, as Jerry Grote would work with each pitcher, he kept approaching manager, Gil Hodges. "You know...we're going to win this year."

Here we see Grote six years later, wiser, mustachioed, perhaps wondering how Shea's magic has so dramatically evaporated into the ether.

The Mets' 1969 season seemed to be one endless game of inches and all the inches fell their way. Unlike today's team of injured blundering megastars, the 1969 team seemed a youthful bunch of overachievers and budding names who simply made no mistakes. Unlike today's team ,who seem to restrain themselves physically and emotionally, the 1969 team held each other accountable and simply refused to lose.

I wasn't even born in 1969. I can remember as a child feeling as though, like everything exciting and miraculous, it happened before my time and nothing down the road could replicate the 1969 Crown. Fortunately, I didn't have to wait too long: the bruising, boozing, brawling 1986 Champion Mets were just around the corner. The sordid personality of that team seemed fitting with the immeasurably flawed city that we love and call home.

But perhaps I hold the 1969 team in endless comparison with the 1986 team and as a result, they'll always seem even more pure, magical and miraculous.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Book of Evidence

A strong undertow within John Banville's 1989 novel, The Book of Evidence brings us back to The Stranger, The Talented Mr. Ripley or Crime and Punishment.

Freddy Montgomery had been living a low-life heir's existence on the continent. When he runs up significant debts, the shady men to whom he owes money decide to take his wife and disabled son hostage, so to speak.

Half searching for a solution, half looking to escape, Freddy returns to his native Ireland. There, he descends into a spiralling madness which culminates in Freddy's murdering an innocent woman while he attempts to steal a painting that once belonged to his now bankrupt family. Start to finish, The Book of Evidence is Freddy's detailed jailhouse testimonial of this atrophied descent.

As I processed the fact that Banville is Irish and that much of this novel would take place in Ireland, my mind wanted to align itself with certain preconceived expectations of the type of characters Irish fiction traditionally delivers. Perhaps we too often expect protagonists to be toiling yet noble, lovable yet flawed, brawling yet benevolent, simple yet poetically lyrical. Freddy Montgomery is none of these things.

(Again, this comes from the perspective of Slimbo's relatively shallow encounters with Irish fiction).

There seems to be a formulaic trend in popular Irish fiction - to use the now trite milieu of toiling lyrical soulfully aching working class next-door poets who'll portray the enduring human spirit and the over-arching ability for love to conquer tragedy.

The Book of Evidence wants us to see an entirely different Ireland. The Montgomery's are upper middle class inhabitants of a nihilistic world which easily implodes upon the death of its patriarch. The surviving Montgomery's exist in a state of suspended reality, demonstrating none of the grit nor moral groundings exuded by the beloved characters of the traditional Irish paradigm of my expectations. And it appears this causal flaw is irreparably aligned with the concept of class - a struggle I feel no other Irish writer has ever yet challenged me to engage.

This was a haunting, beautifully written book.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Return to the Bad Old Days?

Tonight in London, events transpired that The Guardian would describe as football "plunging back into the dark ages." A game played between two London clubs, West Ham United and Millwall was marred by widespread fan violence, a stabbing and on-field mid-match pitch invasions.

Violence among English supporters seems to date back to the birth of the game itself. Gratefully, when a pair of horrifically fatal episodes transpired in the early 1990's, the British government declared that enough was enough. Their investigations concluded that more security was needed at games, that football grounds were largely outdated and that all-standing terraces should be banned.

But amid these studies, no one seemed to be able to conclude on what is going through the mind of the average English hooligan when the trouble starts. The tribal dissonance between West Ham and Millwalll goes back decades. But since this rivalry's zenith in the 1970's, the fortunes of these two clubs have differed dramatically: West Ham have enjoyed the fortunes of England's top-flight league, while Millwall has wallowed amid the lower leagues. They've met a handful of times in the recent past and no real trouble has transpired.

Over the years, the violence which had long marred the English footie scene has been generally attributed to an amorphous working class discontent. Just as in America, the 1970's brought the death to sustainable middle class manufacturing jobs, accentuated by the toxic relationship between labour unions, business leaders and the bewildering all-knowing Oz that was Margaret Thatcher. Amid the madness, hooliganism provided some sort of release. We could look at West London today, mindful of the putrid state of our shared economies and blame today's events on some sort of global malaise.

American Bill Buford attempted to dissect this mystery in his book, Among The Thugs. While living in England, Buford latched onto various platoons of Manchester United supporters. I think Buford went into this endeavor believing he could provide evidence of a link between football violence and The End of the British Empire. I think he too readily believed that football violence was an outlet for unemployment and other such economic discouragements.

The problem was that as Buford befriended many of these so-called hooligans, he found that many had good jobs and were enormously likable people. What might appear to be unimaginable and incomprehensibly violent acts were a sort of hobby for these folks. Perhaps what happened today is not a statement of labour discontent. I suppose it is more frightening to see it as a nihilistic outlet similar to the one that the combatants sought in the film Fight Club.

Insomniac Movie Reviews - Part 2

Just recently saw Bruce Weber’s film Let’s Get Lost on Sundance. It was created just before Baker’s death. Aesthetically shot in grainy black and white, the film intermittently interviews friends, family and former loves while also following Baker as he performs in Europe.

Baker was a junkie till death and his battered skeletal appearance contrasts harshly when juxtapositoned with images of the uncommonly good looks of his youth. Chet’s ravaged face resembles a sunburned dust-bowl Okie. Amazingly, Baker’s trumpet playing and pondering, melancholic vocals endure as we watch clips of his European performances.

The film also gives voices to the ex-wives and children who were left in the dust of Chet Baker’s wandering career. All involved are treated empathetically, even Baker himself despite what at times seems to be his senseless path of destruction wrought by his ego and addiction.

If anything, this film reunites me with Baker’s music which will always be everything I look for in music: enchantment, searching, soothing and haunting.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Turquoise Lament

I wish I could be like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. It’s 60’s / 70’s Fort Lauderdale and Travis beats up all the bad guys, beds all the beautiful women, sucks down the meaty boozy drinks - all while solving all the impossible cases. Ultimately, he makes his own way in this world. He doesn’t go out trying to solve problems or look for mysteries. Trouble just always finds him and when it does, you can be sure it will get its ass kicked.

There are dozens of Travis McGee mysteries – one of my earliest posts dealt with The Lonely Silver Rain. There’s no mistaking why mystery writers construct these leading characters as they do – because their target audience is men with marginal control over lives that contain little in the way of adventure and lusty mayhem. Let’s face it – James Bond never did paperwork and Travis McGee never has to punch a time card. (Slimbo learned the hard way that publishers aren’t fond of heroic protagonists who sit in cubicles.)

I brought The Turquoise Lament with me to Hawaii as part of the book takes place there. Any time I’m due to vacation anywhere involving palm trees, I take along some John D. MacDonald. This book has Travis trying to save an old flame, the daughter of a sunken-treasure aficionado. There’s psycho husbands, corrupt lawyers, complex business arrangements and (cue music) murder……

Anyway. Great stuff – totally captures 1970’s laid-back malaise. Also - I borrowed this righteous 1973 first edition from the library – awesome over-the-top illustration of McGee on the cover. Dig those threads!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

When an Era Refuses to End

I'm back from vacation and a few movie/book highlights for The Shelf.

I saw Grey Gardens while on the plane. Saw it a few times to be honest - that's what twelve hours on a plane will do for you.

This recent adaptation takes its name from a 1975 documentary of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Little Edie. In the film, Edith is portrayed by Jessica Lang while Drew Barrymore plays Little Edie.

The Beales were high society gentrified Yankee elites in the early part of the 20th century. Edith was a cousin of Jacquine Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Their estate, which is the setting for both the documentary and film adaptation was called Grey Gardens and was located in the heart of East Hampton's epicenter of privilege.

Early in their lives, secure in a world of affluence, Edith and Edie are charming, talented and adept at making the most of all their world affords them. Then things start to go wrong. Edie wishes to become an actress in Manhattan while Edith cannot comprehend why anyone would leave Grey Gardens. So begins a friction between mother and daughter that will continue for the remainder of their lives.

Edith finds herself alone after her marriage ends and the peripheral men in her life make their exits. Edie develops a case of alopecia shortly after her relationship with a married man comes to an abrupt end. After the death of Phelan Beale, the trust bequeathed to Edith and Edie runs dry.
Mother and daughter then fortify themselves against the outside world of modernity and change. They attempt to encapsulate their patrician world though all while their home, Grey Gardens, descends into a state of squalid isolation. East Hampton neighbors complain, tabloids take note, and Cousin Jackie herself must make a temporary rescue.

By the 1970’s the high society world of gentrified privilege that created the Beales has waned in influence and relevance. Just as the Beales are oblivious in their Quixote-like resistance, the viewer feels a tremendous admiration for their instinctive endurance.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


I think I was thirteen the first time I saw the film Woodstock. I’d just started high school in Armonk, New York at a well funded, progressive, high performing public school where many Woodstock attendees (or alleged attendees) taught. While fueled by their stories and my fixation on the music of that era, I over-idealized Woodstock as immeasurably important, while also feeling despondent that no such similar event in my lifetime could replicate it.

Now when I watch the film Woodstock and see those faces in the crowd, I don’t enviously watch pilgrims of peace and love, striving to create a utopian existence through music. I see a bunch of white kids who, at the mere jingling of Volvo car keys, would later abandon their love beads for lives of materialistic suburban conformity in Reagan’s America. Sure, sure – I know some continued that near-impossible task of taking social justice and idealism into adulthood. But for the most part, Woodstock was just a forum for the timeless holy trinity of youth: get high, get laid, have fun.

One of the most iconic and compelling moments in the film Woodstock is Jimi Hendrix’s 'Star Spangled Banner'. The anthem, distorted and interspersed with bomb-like sound effects, shocks and mesmerizes. Hendrix played in the morning on the last day of the festival. He was supposed to close the festival the night before but amid the shoddy administration of the event, he was delayed. As the camera pans behind Hendrix, we see that most everyone has gone home.

The camera then tightly zooms in on Hendrix’s hands. As he plays his not-so-subtle version of protest, you gravitate away from the anti-war statement being made and find yourself simply amazed that a human being could do what he did with an electric guitar.

After the 'Star Spangled Banner', Hendrix launches into a hasty version of 'Purple Haze' which then morphs into the pondering and beautifully melancholic instrumental, 'Villanova Junction'. As this somewhat somber song continues, the camera pans across what is left of Max Yasgur’s farm and it is a muddy, polluted expanse of garbage and debris. This epic-length film now concludes its kaleidoscopic images of music, youth and beauty with the harrowing sight of acres upon acres of garbage under a slate-grey sky. The image is a fitting bridge between the chaos of the sixties and the oncoming malaise of the seventies which sadly would begin with Hendrix’s overdose and death.

My generation would have its own Woodstock after all. We are a generation motivated and controlled almost exclusively by commercial possibilities and the commercial possibilities of a return to Woodstock were too strong to hold back. Despite a glint of youthful excitement, I elected not to go. After all, you don’t go to sit in the mud of Yasgur’s farm when you’re an accountant. Also, the thought of my generation’s toxic nihilistic brand of music felt inordinately out of place with what Woodstock was allegedly supposed to be. Unfortunately, the 1999 version event turned into a riotous meltdown once the masses of attendees came to the late realization that they’d been thoroughly fleeced by promoters and marketers under the banner of fabricated hippie nostalgia.

Now as we look back on this 40th anniversary of the original Woodstock festival, we could probably use some of that intangible magic that its attendees proclaim. Since the 1999 Woodstock fiasco, something noxious, divisive, apathetic and uncivil has poisoned America’s culture. Reactionary, anti-intellectual vitriol has replaced calm dialogue. I suppose that’s why I pine for this event even though it occurred before I was born. It was free and brimming with optimism. It rained and everyone danced. It was a pocket of peaceful coexistence where young people behaved themselves while old people and law enforcement complemented them for it.

Green Genes Part 2

This is one column from Ireland's 1911 census form. The columns preceding it asked inhabitants to list their names, ages, vital statistics, etc. And in this final column? This is where you were to indicate if you were an idiot, imbecile, dumb, deaf, lunatic or some certain combination thereof.

I don’t know. I’ve known a lot of Irish people in my time and I feel as though these descriptions could be generously applied while actual clinical diagnosis would really not be needed. Contemplating some of America's more vociferous Irish-Americans - Joseph McCarthy (lunatic), Sean Hannity (dumb idiot) and Bill O’Reilly (lunatic imbecile) most readily come to mind.

Chicago Fire

So here we are with The Chicago Fire’s badge. So what are we commemorating here? A Fire which decimated the City of Chicago or the brave men who fought it? Well…by the badge-like look of this badge, I assume the team is paying tribute to Chicago’s Bravest. (Again, like the San Jose Earthquakes, it seems weird to name a sports team after a life-taking disastrous event. Perhaps one could argue the name “Fire” is worse. Earthquakes are at least naturally occurring events, not spawned by the O’Leary’s cow).

The Fire is what Major League Soccer wants – a competitive team with feisty, moderately well-known players like Claudio Blanco and Brian McBride who play in a beautiful soccer-stadium that usually draws a good, raucous crowd.

But back to the O’Leary’s and their cow – it is alleged they fled Chicago post-fire. They are then said to have settled down south where apparently (if certain family folklore of one particular ex-girlfriend is to be believed), I dated one of their descendants. I’ve no clue of what became of the O’Leary cow. Now that I think about it, I would have put the cow on the badge. Just a thought.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sacred Island

In little over a week, I'm due to fly to Hawaii with the family to visit my in-laws. I suppose it's a budding island mentality that made me pull Sacred Island off The Shelf.

I'm not sure how to describe Taj Mahal (a/k/a Henry Saint Clare Fredericks). He is one of the more enigmatically enduring blues/rock artists of the past four decades. Perhaps his longevity is attributable to his failure to sell out and his constantly shifting identity.

In 1968, Taj was featured (among heavyweights like The Who, John Lennon and Eric Clapton) in "The Rolling Stones Rock-n-Roll Circus", a live performance that perhaps launched Taj's career. At the time his sound was a bluesy-rock mix. Into the 1970's, though Taj channelled more towards what is often ambiguously called 'world music' with Afro-Caribbean and reggae influences anchoring his sound.

Into the 1990's, as blues music began to make a major comeback, Taj refocused on traditional blues and I suppose if asked, he would refer to himself as a bluesman. I saw him perform live at Irving Plaza, NYC in 1998. The mood of that show as pure, raucous juke-joint fun.

But gratefully, in 1998, he took a break from that blues persona and made Sacred Island, absolutely one of my favorite albums.

Sacred Island blends Taj's folksy-blues with Caribbean and Hawaiian sounds. In the liner notes, he describes being captivated by Hawaiian music as a child within which he easily found parallels with the Caribbean traditions of his family upbringing.

The title track, "Sacred Island" is an instrumental. No matter where I am and no matter what I'm doing - when I hear that song, I'm lying in the sand on the beach of Kailua Bay at night, looking up at the sky, the stars and the dancing palms batting about in the nighttime wind.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Insomniac Movie Reviews

Last night I batted about with Herman Hesse, Philip Larkin and John Updike while I couldn't sleep. I've been an insomniac since I was fourteen years old. Fourteen is about the age of the narrator in Herman Heese's 1913 short story The Cyclone (I started last night's ritual of solitude with this particular story). The young man is walking about his hometown, revisiting the sites of his boyhood's imaginary jaunts. Suddenely, these places hold nothing for him:

"But I could discover nothing new. I saw only the strange impoverishment that threatened me from all sides. In some mysterious way trusted pleasures and thoughts that had become dear to mme were paling and fading. My profession count not make up for what I was reluctantly leaving behind, for all the lost joys of boyhood; it held no great appeal for me and I was to abandon it before long. It meant no more to me than a way into the world, which I felt sure would offer me new satisfactions. But what would they be?"

Is such dyspepsia the root of my insomnia? Maybe...hell, I don't know.

But to look on the brighter side - one of the few benefits of insomnia is the ability to catch up on independent films as presented on the Sundance Film Channel!

Two films I'd like The Shelf to highlight:

(1) La Fille Coupee en Deax (Girl Cut in Two) (French - directed by Claude Chabrol) - Gabrielle, a young budding television personality, falls in love with an older married man who happens to be a renowned author. Her obsession only brings heartbreak though, when he is unable to leave his wife.

All the while, she is pursued by an erratic young man, Paul. Paul is consumed by a borderline disturbing devotion to Gabrielle. He is also heir to a vast fortune while controlled by a cold calculating mother.

Although Gabrielle aligns herself with the younger Paul her heart still belongs to the older man, Charles. Paul's imbalance worsens as he is increasingly unable to contain his raging obsession with the ghost of Charles and Gabrielle's former affair.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know - a bit of a soap opera. Perfect case in point, though - you can make anything in French and I'll be drawn to it like a horny exchange student to a smarmy local.

(2) Garage - (Irish - directed by Lenny Abrahamson) Although the Irish speak English, I was grateful that this film came with subtitles. Garage is set in a rural isolated Ireland that the Celtic Tiger ignored and the rest of us over-romanticise.

Main character Josie leads a sparse life, tending a petrol-station set seemingly in the middle of nowhere. He has a harmless awkwardness about him and you ache as you watch him, time and time again, desperately seeking some sense of social connectivity with others.

His modestly romantic overtures towards a local girl are chillingly rebuffed. His mates at the pub are cruel to him and enormously unlikeable.

A brief spate of companionship comes from David, a fifteen year-old boy brought to work at the garage by Josie's boss. Josie briefly develops a big-brother relationship with David and the exchange between the two, however sparse, is immeasurably tender. But this soon falls to ruin when Josie, seeking some gesture of macho camaraderie, shows David a pornographic video.

David's parents complain and then Josie is in a heap of trouble. Despite the stupid, antisocial nature of what Josie had done, you can't help but to feel sorry for him. Josie is devastated by what transpires and his already marginalized existence seems to be headed towards an end even worse that the anonymous lonely world that greeted us at the start of the film.

Actor Pat Shortt brilliantly delivers Josie to us. I was slayed in the way Shortt could, wordlessly, bring you Josie's obliviousness and devastation.

This film's stark realism and its tangible humanity reminded me in a way of Slingblade.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

More from those times...

Today Bill Clinton flew into North-freggin-Korea and got those two girls freed from that whack-job dictator. Next I'm hoping he'll swing by my place (he lives only one town away, for cryin'-out-loud) and discharge me from the dungeon of the most severe case of writer's block I've ever experienced. [Seriously folks...I'm cooked... fried...I got nothin']

At any rate, as I toil with the enormous question of whether I should give it all up for good, I leave you with some more of my B- art work from the sludge of those times.

So...enjoy...I guess.