2015 LA Marathon

Tomorrow morning I’ll be running the 2015 LA Marathon. It’ll be my fourth marathon overall, and my third LA.

I’m not a very athletic person, either now or in any stage of my youth. As a result, my first marathon was much more a mental exercise than a physical one. I mean, the physical part took lots of training and was hard at nearly every level, but it was nothing compared to getting my head around the fact that this was something I could do. Once I got through that first one, each one since has been easier–even when they’ve been terrible in terms of the physical challenge.

I haven’t run a marathon since 2011, but this year’s training has been real smooth. Unfortunately, it’s projected to be about 90 degrees tomorrow so that training isn’t going to spare me much of a struggle. What will get me through the exhaustion and the pain, and through the feeling that you just want to give up, is a set of things that makes me do this in the first place:

  • My kids. I will think of them a lot tomorrow.
  • My wife. I can’t do this without her support. Everything good and meaningful in my life comes through her support.
  • The understanding that I do this because I can. I have a choice where others do not, both to train to do this and to feel the pain of doing it. Tomorrow I will think of all the people in my family who had to suffer the physical pain of something in their life when they had no choice. I am here because of that sacrifice.

And so, it will hurt and I will wish I didn’t sign-up to do this. But it’s going to feel great, too. 



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Friday Five: 1976

I have lots of memories of things related to 1976 but I’m fairly sure the memories are not from that year. After all I was only 4. So the odds that I remember seeing a commercial for the movie “Rocky” is probably inaccurate. More likely it was a commercial from a re-release of the film sometime later.

That said, it’s was a sweet year for the things I’ve come to love since. It was the bicentennial (I love US history); Taxi Driver, Network, and All The President’s Men came out (I love 70s cinema); and “What’s Happening!”, “Laverne & Shirley”, and “Charlie’s Angels” all premiered on TV (all were big for me in syndicated repeats). One of my favorite movies ever–Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993)–takes place on May 28, 1976!

It’s a big year for the music I love, too. One of my all-time favorite songs came out in 1976. And, as disco continued to sneak into the charts, songs related to my future obsession with hard rock had a monumental year.

Here’s five worth listening to from 1976:

5. “Sir Duke” (Stevie Wonder)
From about 1969 to 1980, Stevie Wonder’s productivity and creativity set a new standard in popular music. His best work is probably a subset of those years, for me, 1970 to 1976. Beginning with the release of Signed, Sealed & Delivered album and ending with the release of Songs in the Key of Life he is just about untouchable. “Sir Duke” was one of the singles released from that last album. It remains one of my favorite Stevie songs–a list whose length rivals the full catalogs of other performers. I have memories of listening to this album in the 80s. For that matter, I have memeories of listening to it last week.

 

4. “Crazy on You” (Heart)
I have a deep and abiding love for 70s rock in all its diversity. Heart has a special place in that for me. The sound of their debut album fits with a collection of works that feel like they’re more stripped down and raw than some of the other stuff of the decade. In a way, Heart feels closer to what I love in Black Sabbath than what I love in early Journey or Led Zeppelin. They’re the real deal, without all the production tricks. Nothing says that more than their debut album Dreamboat Annie and the single that made them stars, “Crazy on You.” I still get chills from Nancy Wilson’s guitar and Ann’s voice. They’re style and power. Here’s a live performance from 1977 that I’ve grown fond of watching…

 

3. “The Boys Are Back in Town” (Thin Lizzy)
I’m a fan of Thin Lizzy and especially Phil Lynott, their lead singer. As you can probably tell, I like to analyze most things–hell, it’s what I do for a living. Musically speaking, I’ve thought about Thin Lizzy a lot. I acknowledge there’s little special about them on the surface. Each of their parts–lyrics, guitar, bass, or voice–are individually good but maybe not great. But the combination of what they were and what they sounded like… I often think about what it must have been like to see them live in some smokey dank basement club in Ireland in the 70s. This song has become a radio standard. There’s an un-self-conscious simplicity to it, maybe even kind of dumbness. But I do love it so.

For a little change, and for a better taste of how you can mock the song and still show deep love, here is Reggie Watts performing it when Conan O’Brien returned to New York for a week of shows.

 

2. “T.N.T. (AC/DC)
Again with the masculinist, stripped down, hard rock. AC/DC wasn’t pretending to be anything other than a testosterone-filled, abrasive rock army. Their first US-release, 1976’s High Voltage, is a fantastic sample of what they were before lead singer Bon Scott and the boys became the mega stars they would become. There is a hard to beat guitar in almost every song. There is humor and overt sexuality. There is rock. Bon Scott has a way of both terrifying and charming you. Sometimes he even makes you feel a little icky. There is an overt masculinity to their music that is so front and center and yet so seemingly unintentional it can’t be anything other than problematic. They present themselves like a bunch of drunk boys who want to beat you up with music. This live performance of the song captures it all, I think. Just check out the audience.

 

1. “Takin’ it to the Streets” (Doobie Brothers)
Phase two of the Doobie Brothers career–the post Tom Johnston, Michael McDonald, pre-Tom Johnston coming back years–is a mixed bag for me. There are a lot of tracks on their albums that are just so-so, but the ones that hit for me are some of my favorite songs ever, songs I can turn to almost anytime. McDonald’s voice and piano are always appealing to me, but I’m just not a big fan of most of his music. “Minute By Minute,” “What a Fool Believes,” and this song are three of the great exceptions. They’re three of my favorite Doobie Brother’s songs, with “Streets” in my eternal playlist. I’ve seen the Doobie Brothers in concert three times (all in the 1990s and early 2000s) and Michael McDonald once. Hearing him play this song made that as good a show as any of the other three. Here’s the album cut of the song, though there are multiple live versions online that I like. (The song grows with McDonald over the years as his voice matures and his bands evolve.)

In a pairing of two things I loved, The Doobie Brothers guest starred on a two-part episode of “What’s Happening!” where Rerun was paid to make an illegal recording of their concert. You can watch part one here and watch part two here. Sorry for the annoying banner.

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Friday Five: 1975

I can’t say for certain when my earliest memories are from, but I’m sure they are from no later than 1975.

It was a big year for my (nuclear) family. In ’75 we were a family of 4, my folks and my older sister, and we were living in a rental in Montebello, part of the sphere of LA’s Eastside. I remember that place, the broken TV, the area where the cat ate, the room I shared with my sister, which also housed the locker-style closets where my dad kept his clothes. We bought our first house that year, out in La Puente, which is about 12 miles or so east of East LA.

My folks chose to move eastward because they couldn’t afford a home in the East LA area, but our life still mostly revolved around LA. My folks both worked there, my grandparents lived there, and so did most of my uncles, aunts, and cousins. Not surprisingly, we spent a lot of our time there. But my family’s move to the San Gabriel Valley wasn’t a rare event. Tens of thousands of Chicano and Chicana baby boomers were doing the same, transforming these smaller suburban cities and towns into an extension of Chicana/o LA.

It was a great year in music, too. Fleetwood Mac released their (second) self-titled album, their first with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. It remains one of my favorite full albums of any band, and the song “Rhiannon” is untouchable. “Love Will Keep Us Together” by the Captain & Tennille topped the charts. As musical and TV celebrities who worked as a duo, they’d be influential for me and my sister, who liked (to force me) to perform as Donny & Marie, Captain & Tennille, or any other boy/girl pairing. Elvis entered recorded and released his last studio album, Today, on May 7th. Queen released Night at the Opera and the single “Bohemian Rhapsody” toward the end of the year.

These 5 songs are all from that most auspicious of years, although most are songs that would mean something more to me as the years passed.

5. “Lowrider” (War)
This is as close to a “Chicano anthem” as it gets. A southern California band (they’re largely from the South Bay area of Long Beach) that blended the multiethnic flavor of working-class communities, War was a slow, rhythmic, funky, rock, jazz, blues, Latin hybrid. “Lowrider” is quintessentially LA and Chicano, maybe even East LA and Chicano. And carries that load without much more than a fantastic beat and rhythm, and without a Chicano in the band! From the album Why Can’t We Be Friends

4. “Sara Smile” (Hall & Oates)
Wikipedia tells me this song wasn’t released as a single until 1976, so its a cheat (maybe) for this year. But it was part of the famed duo’s 1975 album, Daryl Hall & John Oates, and is the song that put the pair on the musical trajectory that made them “famed” to begin with. I love–LOVE–this song for so many reasons, the guitar intro, the strings on the melody, the harmonies, and that falsetto voice from Darryl Hall. Overall, I have a lot of respect for them as a group. Whether or not you cared for them, for somebody of my generation they were one of the heaviest influences on the sound of late-70s into early-80s pop music.

3. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (Paul Simon)
The historian in me can appreciate the historic significance of Paul Simon to the lives of millions of white Americans coming of age in the 60s. The music fan in me gets it, too. I’m a fan of most of the work of Simon and Garfunkel. I can also appreciate that this makes him a special cultural figure for a whole bunch of folks hitting their thirties in the 70s, and coming to terms with life as adults in post-industrial America. All that is to say I “get” the place of his solo, post-divorce 1975 album Still Crazy After All These Years. None of this has anything to do with me, though. It has a lot to do with how I remember learning about him. I remember watching SNL re-runs of his performances in those early years, I remember watching the video of his famous Central Park concerts, and I can remember hearing this song so many times in the decade I became aware. Something about the drum intro and guitar work still takes me back. I found it a fascinating song at some point, probably around the time I was 7 or 8, and I still do now.

2. “Love Rollercoaster” (Ohio Players)
Including this song is kind of a different sort of cheat for me. It’s the only song I really “love” from the album Honey, although I have to admit, I don’t remember it at all being associated with this album. I do remember the songs “Honey” and “Let’s Do It” and even “Ain’t Giving Up No Ground,” all from side A. The horns from “Let’s Do It” actually bring back the smell of vinyl and record cleaner to my mind. But that’s all irrelevant to why this album is really etched in my memory like no other. The album cover of Honey features a seemingly naked women pouring honey in her mouth. When you opened it up, she was completely naked with honey all over her body. Needless to say, I used to look at that album much more often than I used to listen to it. That said, it’s an excellent groove, the stand-out track on the album.

1. “Better Off Without a Wife” (Tom Waits)
I remember the first time I ever heard–I mean really heard–Tom Waits. It was the night before my 21st birthday, and I was coming down after a fun night/morning in my friend’s dorm room and he put on Nighthawks at the Diner, Waits’ 1975 live album. I knew the later Tom Waits, especially his 1992 album Bone Machine, which is still my favorite. But I don’t think I had ever heard his early stuff. I was immediately sucked in. His humor and his performance of this wasted beatnik kind of character that he kind of played then, it was surprising, and fascinating, and so entertaining. I’ve always been a sucker for live stuff, recordings that capture a moment or event are even better. The crowd here is very much a part of what I love the most. This song remains one of my favorites just because of the way Waits talks story leading into it. It’s still a funny performance, especially if one buys into the character he’s playing. It seems kind of grown-up, too, in a 20-30 year-old kind of post 1960s way. I’m not sure I have the words to say what it does for me, even though the song itself is, admittedly, kind of stupid. You can see the master in the making, though…

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The “Last Message” of Malcolm X

On February 14, 1965, Malcolm X spoke at the Ford Auditorium in Detroit, Michigan. It was a keynote address for an awards event sponsored by a group called the Afro-American Broadcasting Company. Sidney Potier, Marian Anderson, Jackie Gleason, Motown Records and a few other business honorees were given awards. So was civil right legend and Detroit resident Rosa Parks.

Malcolm’s speech is often called his “Last Message” because it is the last major public address he ever gave. He was assassinated one week later, on February 21, 1965.

There are so many easy ways to take quotes or excerpts of Malcolm’s speeches and make both powerful and meaningful statements about our past and present. He is highly quotable, yes, but he was also powerfully prescient, sensationalistic, and charismatic. But he was also a human being who, like all of us, changed, learned, grew, and evolved. For those reasons, I prefer listening to his speeches in as full a way as possible. I also find it important to put them into context–into the particular time and place of his own life–in order to understand them.

This “last message” is a different Malcolm, at least measuring against the two-dimensional, anti-MLK image we typically have of him. It is not so much that he is different that the earlier Malcolm, although he is. The most powerful difference, for me, is his wisdom and maturity. Malcolm is speaking as an established leader, as one voice in a larger movement, and as a man committed to an international vision of justice.

In anticipation of a weekend of media coverage of the 50th anniversary of Malcolm’s murder, here’s that address from a week before, a window into the change agent Malcolm had become in 1965. What a loss that his living influence was cut short.

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Friday Five: 1974

I turned two years old in 1974, too young to have any actual memories. But it was a big year in terms of the music that would form some of my earliest memories. For that matter, it was a killer year for albums.

Santana’s Lotus, Lou Reed’s Sally Can’t Dance, and Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale all came out. So did Phoebe Snow’s self-titled debut, Tom Wait’s The Heart of Saturday Night, and the critically-acclaimed Pretzel Logic by Steel Dan. ABBA, Queen, Elton John, Billy Preston, and the Grateful Dead all had albums that year, too.

And within each are songs I could have easily picked. Here are 5 of my favorite songs, first released in 1974:

5. “Rock Bottom” (UFO)
My goal here isn’t just to share some of the music that makes up the soundtrack of my life but also draw attention to music that I think is worth listening to and, yet, may not be well-known to a younger generation. I’m not sure how many people who lived through 1974 know about UFO. In a lot of ways, they’re the stereotype of a masculinist, glam, European hard rock (maybe metal) band. This song is proof of that, both lyrically and in its intent. But guitarist Michael Schenker is something more. This is from UFO’s third album and their first with the legendary German guitarist (who is the younger brother of Scorpions’ lead Rudy Schenker). I wouldn’t discover him until later, as the lead of MSG, but my favorites of his would always be with UFO. This live performance (from 1975) isn’t as powerful sounding as the album recording but, damn, it’s UFO live!

4. “Black Water” (Doobie Brothers)
I’ll put it simply–we were a Doobie Brothers household. I don’t know why, other than my dad and mom (and uncles) like their sound. In my mind, all LA Chicanos were, though I know better now to think that’s true. Still, the Doobie Brothers were a big deal in LA for most of the 70s. This song was the most enduring hit from their 1974 release What Were Once Vices Are Now Habit. It remains one of my favorites, even now. My first memories of it are listening to it on a record, thinking about acoustic versus electric guitar and enjoying the stereo melodies. I know its an overplayed song, one that probably annoys some. But there’s something to it. If you can turn off everything else other than the music, there’s something there…

3. “Distant Lover” (Marvin Gaye)
This is a cheat, but it’s my list so what can you do? “Distant Lover” was a song on Gaye’s 1973 album Let’s Get It On. This version, though, was recorded in January 1974 at a concert in Oakland, CA, a place that would be home to me throughout most of my 20s. It’s the best track on a killer live album he released in the summer of 1974. Not only is Marvin vocally captivating, almost oozing sexual prowess through his performance, but the crowd is all over the place under his spell. It’s one of those recordings that feel more like a historical document than a record.

2. “Let It Grow” (Eric Clapton)
It’s a funny thing. Eric Clapton is widely regarded as the greatest (or one of the greatest) guitarists of all time and, yet, he never really has ever put out a solo album that the critics instantly fell in love with. 461 Ocean Boulevard might be the closest he came. It was a huge hit for him–I remember seeing the album regularly in people’s personal collections and in stores well into the 80s–and it features his only chart-topping single, his remake of “I Shot the Sheriff.” It’s this song, though, that I fell in love with. I love the laid back, post heroin Clapton in this album and in this song, a kind of restatement of the summer of love in 1974.

1. “You’re No Good” (Linda Ronstadt)
This one is on the list more out of respect than anything else, but I like it (and the album its from) very much. Out of all the songs I picked this week, I suspect this one is the least well-known to folks who came of age after the 70s and 80s. I also suspect it’s the song those generations would be least likely to encounter. And that would be a loss.

Linda Ronstadt has always carried a lot of respect in my family’s house. She’s part Mexican, and that helps. She also made a big splash in the 80s and 90s playing the music of her people, and that’s not for nothing either. But for all those who lived through the 70s, she is best known as the chart-topping artist with the pop sound that just about dominated the airwaves for the decade.

This was a big hit for her, topping the charts by the following year. It’s a great sample of her voice as well as the pop/rock/country sound she came to be associated with. It’s also a great example of well-produced music that sounds best on vinyl. For Ronstadt, its proof she was more than a pretty face. I can remember riding in our family’s Ford Pinto and hearing this song on an FM station, warm LA breeze coming in through the rolled-down windows…

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Friday Five: 1973

I turned 1 in 1973. So, much like the music in last week’s post, my memories of these songs date from much later than the year in which they were released. And, like for most of the 70s, its hard for me to narrow down a year to only five songs. The early decade, in particular, seems to be the source of a lot of the music I continue to obsess over in my present.

So with the below list my goal is to offer an eclectic sample of five tunes that were first released in 1973.

5. “The Joker” (Steve Miller Band)
I’m not afraid to admit that if you had asked the 19-year-old me what my favorite song was I just might have said “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band. My connection to his music was painfully limited for most of my young life. I knew (and loved) his 1982 hit “Abracadabra” because of my age and young tolerance for mediocre pop. I also had a hand-me-down t-shirt of his rainbow pegasus emblem, a piece of clothing that made me pretend like he was one of my favorites even though the only other song I knew from him was his late-70s hit “Fly Like An Eagle.” Reflective of the cultural specificity of an LA-area, Chicano upbringing, I don’t recall hearing the bulk of his 70s hits until high school, when I started listening to KLOS radio. In the first week of attending a largely-white and affluent college, I quickly observed that he would become part of the soundtrack of the next four years of my life. I bought his ubiquitous “Greatest Hits, 1974-78″ album, saw him three times in concert, and relished his minor comeback in the early 90s. It wasn’t until a few years later that I had started to listen to his earlier (and much more amazing) work. Regardless, this song will always be near and dear to my heart.

4. “Show and Tell” (Al Wilson)
When I think of the 1970s and the music that means a lot to me, I think of a lot of music that played on the radio as I played with my cousins (and my folks and the other adults drank, danced, or just hung out). Maybe one way to think about these songs is as R&B tunes that had purchase over that African American cultural space shared by Chicanos, where groups like Bloodstone or Heatwave made newer contributions to 50s doo-wop and 60s soul. Al Wilson was part of that, at least for me. This song was his biggest hit, and an enduring part of my own musical soundtrack.

3. “Midnight Train to Georgia” (Gladys Knight & the Pips)
Already well-known and successful in the world of R&B, Gladys Knight and crew left Motown Records in the early 1970s. They started recording for Buddah Records, even though Motown still had music of their’s left to release. In 1973, two of their albums hit the charts, one from each label. This song–the opening track from the album Imagination (Buddah)–was released as a single a few months before the album dropped. It’s one of the group’s signature hits, and for all the right reasons. This has got just about every good thing in the world happening in it, from the horns, to the voices, to the lyrics. I even remember watching the choreographed dance routines that accompanied TV performances of it. I would easily count this in my top-50 songs I never get tired of listening to…

2. “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” (Stevie Wonder)
This song was released as a single in 1973, even though it was part of Stevie’s 1972 album Talking Book. It’s not my favorite song by him–and I have a handful that tie as favorites–but it’s a song I like very, very much and, more importantly, one I know very well. It’s one of those songs I feel like I know as long as I’ve known any song. It’s never not been a part of the soundtrack of my life, whether on LA radio, family get togethers, or my own CD collection. It comes from Stevie’s “golden period,” a span of about a decade where he’s putting out almost an album every year. He plays multiple instruments on most of those songs, and takes great care with lyrics as well as composition and production. This one is a lot lighter (for lack of a better word) than the rest, and maybe sticks out for that reason.

1. “Let’s Get It On” (Marvin Gaye)
I’m not surprised that Marvin Gaye’s 1973 hit has become part of mainstream pop culture. For those that didn’t live through the period of its initial success, I think it’s important to understand how his was not a predestined thing. Growing up, I don’t remember the song getting a lot mainstream circulation, even on LA oldies radio. I heard it on some stations late at night, and I knew it from family parties and that sort of thing, but it was always more of a well-known secret.  When I rediscovered the song in my late teens, I feel like that was in a period where other gen x’ers were doing the same. By the mis-1990s, the song reached the iconic status it holds today in part, I think, on that resurgence.  Today it’s status is not just a sultry R&B song that pushed the boundaries of sexually-expressive music, but its even a frequent feature in movies, TV shows, and commercials. His “too-dirty-for-the-mainstream” song has become, in fact, mainstream. However it happened, it’s a deserved status for one of our most underrated musical powerhouses. As with most of his best work from the 70s, time has not tempered its power.

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First Reviews

Though my book was released in summer of 2013, it’s only now starting to be reviewed in various scholarly journals. I’m happy to report that the reviews have been generally positive, too.

Here’s a list with links, although some can’t be accessed freely:

The Journal of American History, vol. 101, no. 3 (Dec. 2014): 892-893.
Western Historical Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 4 (Winter 2014): 481-81.
Regeneración Tlacuilolli: UCLA Raza Studies Journal, vol. 1, no. 1 (Dec. 2014): 167-69.
Utah Historical Review, vol. 4 (2014): 257-59.

This last review seems to have a formatting error. It’s not listed in the Table of Contents and doesn’t have an author listed. It shares specific analysis with the one published in the online journal from UCLA. My guess is it was reworked by the same author for republication.

As you might imagine, it’s pretty great feeling. You spend years of your life working on something, making it better and better until you finally just let it go. Then you start second guessing yourself. Is it any good? Is it useful? Will people like it?

These first reviews are helping to put all those feelings of inadequacy into perspective. I think the most rewarding part is that I can be sure there are at least a few people out there who have read my book. As more reviews come in, hopefully that group will continue to grow–and that’s a great feeling.

So thanks for the support!

BNitoOhCUAAflkN

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