World Series (again)

This blog isn’t much of a reflection of what’s going on in my life, or for that matter what’s important to me. These days it’s mostly a space to write about music once a week. And while music is important to me, there are other things that occupy most of my daily life——namely, my family and my job.

And then there’s baseball. From April to October I watch a lot of Dodger baseball. When I can’t watch, I listen on the radio or follow along on my phone. It’s a rare Dodgers’ game that goes by where I haven’t participated in at least an inning or two of it.

Baseball is one of those things that balances out the bad stuff in life. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about (read about, talk about, learn about, teach about) the current war against Latinx migrants and families. Not a day goes by that I’m not equally involved in the consequences of a racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic regime ruling this country.  Baseball is my relief from those horrid reminders of the shortcomings of the human species. It’s my escape and my positive connection to those same flawed humans, my community of fellow fans.

I know it’s “just” baseball. That said, it never fails to amaze me how much a bunch of grown men playing a kid’s game can affect me, both positively and negatively. It’s also an excuse for me to work on perspective. After all, if winning the World Series is the goal of every team every year, 29 of us are going to come up short.  It’s been 30 years since we’ve won a series.  We’re getting good at perspective.

So you learn to appreciate the steps along the way.  I love a good game.  I love it when the Dodgers win.  I love it when the players I like turn in amazing days at their jobs.  I enjoy talking about baseball with other Dodgers’ fans.   At the end of the day, it’s the little things.

Of course, I care about the big things, too.  I often say baseball is one of those sports where, at the end of the season, you get to see who the best teams are.  We play 162 games.  I think the teams sitting on top of each division and each league at the end of that road have something to be proud of.  They’re the best.  I’m fortunate that the team I love has won the Western Division for six years running.  It’s a great achievement, one that I can use to console myself since being the best is different than being successful during the playoffs.

Playoff baseball is a different beast than the regular season. The best team doesn’t always win. It’s not about being the best——it’s about being the best on the field that day.  Sure, better teams have an advantage.  But it’s way more complicated than that.

The Dodgers are about to play in their 20th World Series competition in their storied history. Our very first was in 1916 against the Boston Red Sox. (At that time we were the Brooklyn Robins.) We lost that one, as we did the next six we played in. The Brooklyn Dodgers would lose 7 World Series before winning their first and only title in 1955. The next year they’d get there again, but lose. That’s a 1-8 record.
(Six of those losses were against one team——the New York Yankees. So was their only victory.  Perspective.)

We’ve won five World Series since moving to Los Angeles. We’ve been in the Series another 5 times and lost. That’s a 5-5 record for us. Not bad. And I know I’m lucky to have a team that’s made it to the big show for two years running. We’re back-to-back National League Champions. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Of course, I still want the Dodgers to win it all.

Last year I was confident but also pretty realistic. Houston was playing at their best for much of the playoffs and they had momentum. The Dodgers were a better team, but even with their massive winning streak and killer winning percentage for a chunk of the season, they were still a tricky bunch. After all, this was a team that went on a 1-16 losing streak. Needless to say, I was hopeful they’d win game 7 last year but I was emotionally prepared if they did not. Perspective.

This year is different. The Dodgers are not as good a team as Boston. Boston is better by almost any measure that matters. And while the Dodgers have some degree of last year’s weaknesses, they are a much more seasoned group of guys. Perspective matters there, too. And then there’s our offense, which only matters when it does, and it often does.

Over the next week, I’m going to be really happy and really stressed and really sad, just not all at the same time or in the same measure. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the achievements——the sixth in a row Western Division title and the back-to-back National League titles. Whatever happens, I’m lucky to be a fan of one of the last two teams playing ball right now. And I’m prepared for whatever may come.

Especially if that’s a World Series title.

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Friday Five: Niles Rodgers

While I was driving around this week I stumbled upon a Sirius XM show spotlighting the life and career of Niles Rodgers. I’ve already got mad respect for the man. That respect, and my love of his music and musical sensibilities, only grew as I listened to him tell the story behind some of the songs that have made him a musical legend.

His body of work as the founder and leader of the band Chic is enough of a reason to love the man and his work. But he has been a producer on an amazing number of significant tracks in musical history, too. The diversity and depth of those songs was the standout piece of that show to me.

So here are my five favorite Niles Rogers productions (that are not songs by Chic).

5. “Material Girl” by Madonna (1984)
Rodgers produced this track from the legend-making album Like a Virgin. His synth pop skills define the song, a perfect harmony between the lyrics and music (for a song most people missed as being a critique of the materialism of the day). Of course, the video is as iconic as the Marilyn Monroe number is pays homage to.

4. “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross (1980)
Rodgers wrote and produced this song with his Chic partner Bernard Edwards. He got the idea for the song after seeing a series of drag queens dressed as Diana Ross. Ross had hired Rodgers and Edwards to help her reinvent herself for her first album after leaving Motown. As the story goes, she was mortified when she found out “coming out” was a phrase related to the queer community. I’m sure she’s fine with it now. The song became a gay/lesbian anthem and they gave her a new career. My favorite part of it is the definitive Niles Rodgers guitar riffing.

3. “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge (1979)
Another classic written and produced by Rodgers and Edwards. This was the first song they wrote together for a band other than Chic. What can you say about it? It never made it to #1 in the US (it peaked at #2) but it gained a significance over time that eclipses that shortcoming. It’s a classic, one that is such a rich example of the sounds of the era while also being, somehow, timeless.

2. “The Reflex” by Duran Duran (1983)
Niles Rodgers wasn’t a part of the original album recording of this Duran Duran song, featured on the new wave band’s 1983 album Seven and the Ragged Tiger. His remixed version was the one they released as a single, however. It was their last #1 in the UK and their first of many in the US. All I can say——as a 12 year-old person who lived through this song’s popularity——is that people liked it. A lot.

1. “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie (1983)
There’s that guitar riff again, and so, so much more. Bowie wrote the song but Niles Rodgers made it. From the way he talked about it, it’s still something he is proud of. He has every reason to be.

Friday Five: this and that

“Don’t Wake Me” by the Cinderellas (1964)

“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions (1978)

“Death or Glory” by The Clash (1979)

“Baby, I Love You” by The Ramones (1980)

“The Last Song” by Sleater-Kinney (1995)

Friday Five: Old Skool Rap 2

Here’s part two of my old skool memories, this time with a nod to the West Coast…

5. “The Humpty Dance” by Digital Underground (1990)
In the late 80s, MC Hammer and Digital Underground were probably the two biggest hip-hop acts out of Oakland. Both crossed over to the mainstream in 1990, Hammer with his massive hit “You Can’t Touch This” and Digital Underground with this humorous track that became their signature tune. Digital Underground had already had a hit with 1989’s “Doowutchyalike.” Their sound followed the sampling traditions of the West Coast but they added something of an alternative Bay Area kind of feel to everything, too. In 1990 one of my friends and I spent hours playing the song and memorizing the lyrics. To this day when we see each other we can get through the first half.

4. “It’s Funky Enough” by The D.O.C. (1989)
The members of N.W.A. were all a part of the debut album from The D.O.C., as both performers and producers. No One Can Do It Better, the debut album from The D.O.C.——a rapper from Texas who also contributed to N.W.A.’s recording career as well as Dre’s solo masterpiece The Chronic——was a West Coast game changer.

3. “Express Yourself” by N.W.A. (1988)
If you’re talking West Coast ra, you don’t get bigger 1988’s Straight Outta Compton, the debut album of this historic gangsta rap group. I could have chosen a host of tracks from the album (side one starts with “Straight Outta Compton” and the goes to “Fuck tha Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta”——perhaps the mightiest first three tracks on a rap album) but this one is close to my heart. Not only do they pick a rich funk song to sample (Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s song by the same name) but they use it to create a classic dance track that’s also hard-hitting lyrically. When I got to college I would try to request this song at every DJ dance. They never seemed to have the record. Figures.

2. “Posse on Broadway” by Sir Mix-a-Lot (1987)
Anthony Ray was from Seattle. The song, from his debut album, makes references to the Capitol Hill neighborhood he knew well. Since just about everybody comes from a place where there is a Broadway, I’m sure some of that specificity was lost on the listening public. Sir Mix-a-Lot became a big deal five years later with “Baby Got Back” but this, his first hit, was no slouch. While it never crossed over to the world of Top 40 pop, it was a hit in every sense of the word. I think just about everybody I knew could at least sing the chorus.

1. “The Gigolo Rapp” by Disco Daddy and Captain Rapp (1981)
Also known as “The Gigolo Groove,” this song is considered by many to be the first West Coast rap song. The song is by Larry “Captain Rapp” Glenn and DJ Michael “Disco Daddy” Khalfani, two well-known LA figures whose brief union made history but didn’t make much of a splash in the music world. History has been kinder to them than the charts. Glenn was inspired by the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” but their song goes further in lots of ways. The roots of West Coast rap——in particular its sampling of funkier and groovier sounds from the 70s——are all on display here.

Friday Five: Old Skool Rap 1

Let’s go back in time children, back to the early days of hip hop. Well, early relative to my life. Let’s keep it East Coast this week…

5. “Flavor of the Month” by Black Sheep (1991)
Black Sheep was a duo with roots in Queens, New York.  Dres and Mista Lawnge both relocated to North Carolina in their youth, which is where they met and got started.  I’m sure this had something to do with their sound.  This was their breakout single from their debut album, an irresistible hook with the jazz elements that were the calling card of the so-called “Native Tongues” hip hop collective. Black Sheep might not be remembered for much more than this song, but they were also the first hip hop group to appear on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

4. “Me, Myself, and I” by De La Soul (1989)
I can’t say enough about De La Soul.  It sounds like an exaggeration, but this trio of rappers from Long Island, New York changed the world in 1989.  They did.  Pioneers of the “Native Tongues” collective, their sound was so distinctive when it hit the airwaves that you couldn’t not listen. As a teenager who just started going to parties the year they came out, De La Soul was one of those sounds that took a garage dance to another level.  They were among a handful of music makers that were on everybody’s playlists.

3. “Mary, Mary” by Run-DMC (1988)
Run-DMC came from Queens, too. By 1988 they were at the top of their game and the top of the heap of the world of rap. Perhaps the most enduring hit from their underrated 1988 album Tougher Than Leather, this “cover” of Michael Nesmith’s (of the Monkees) song is a slice of everything that made Run-DMC so distinctive. The rock-tinged sound still felt new in 1988, even after they and producer Rick Rubin (not the last time he’s on this list) had made that historic combination two years earlier with their cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” Run-DMC’s lyricism had become something more by this time, and the skills of Jam Master J on the turntables is undeniable.

2. “I Ain’t No Joke” by Eric B. & Rakim (1987)
Eric B. & Rakim’s debut album Paid in Full was a “game changer in the world of hip hop. Most agree that the Long Island-based duo elevated lyricism and rhyming to a new level, and that made others up their game. That brilliance is all over the place in this, their second single release. Rakim is doing what nobody was doing and before you knew it, everybody was doing it. “I got a question, it’s serious as cancer / Who can keep the average dancer / Hyper as a heart attack nobody smiling / Cause you’re expressing the rhyme that I’m styling…”

1. “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” by LL Cool J (1985)
James Todd Smith from Queens became LL Cool J because the “Ladies Love Cool James.” Sounds about right. This track is from LL’s debut album Radio, which was also the first full-length album release by Def Jam records. Produced by Rick Rubin (who’s pretty influential in hip-hop history), this showcases LL’s talents while providing a stripped down sound with that defined so much of hip hop at the time. Easily one of the most influential rap songs ever.  If you can put it into its context (1985!) and hear it with fresh ears, you might understand what a phenom LL was.

I was on the radio

Ring of Red: A Barrio Story is a play I wrote, based on the hundreds of hours of oral history interviews I’ve conducted with Vietnam veterans and their families. It’s on the stage now at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles, with three more shows to go this weekend: Friday, September 28 at 7:00PM; Saturday, September 29 at 7:00PM; and Sunday, September 30 at 2:00PM, followed by an audience “talkback.”

Our efforts were spotlighted in a story on The Frame, and arts and entertainment program that airs on the NPR station in Los Angeles, KPCC radio.  It’s a really well put together story, one that hits all the right points when it comes to me project and the play I’ve helped produce, with the help of theater folks who know what they’re doing.

Check it out online.

Happy New (Academic) Year!

Today is the start of the 2018-19 academic year at Pomona College!

This year is the start of my 17th year as a full-time professor.  It’s the start of my 23rd year in the world of college teaching (I started teaching at the college level as a TA at UC Berkeley).  Overall, this is my 29th year in higher education.

The kid that began his undergraduate career back in 1990 would have been pretty pleased to know that someday he’d be writing the above paragraph.  Not many days go by that I don’t think and feel how lucky I am to be in my line of work.  I get to learn new things on a daily basis.  I get to write and read.  And I get to spend time connecting young people to their own journeys of discovery.

I’m a lucky guy.

I’m looking forward to this semester.  I’ll teach my “Intro to Chicanx/Latinx Studies” class, my greatest pleasure and the reason I do what I do.  I’ll also teach my “Latinx in the 20th Century” seminar, where we get to go more into depth.  As if that wasn’t enough, in a little more than two weeks, the play I wrote based on my oral histories with Chicano Vietnam vets will hit the stage.  It’ll be a busy start but I got nothing to complain about.

So happy new academic year from me to you!