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Things That Piss Me Off at Restaurants: Baby Tables

Posted by on Aug 20, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Personal, Restaurant Reviews, Travel | 0 comments

 

 

Promptly at 4 pm yesterday, Marieta and I entered an Italian restaurant in Las Vegas.

“Do you have a reservation?” we were asked.

The restaurant was graveyard empty.

“Nope.”

Fortunately, the seating host was able to squeeze us in.  Lucky us.

Next, the host attempted to seat us — a party of two — at the table shown in the photo above.  A baby table.  The table had the surface area about the size of a checkerboard.  And that’s where the host wanted to seat us.  In an empty restaurant.

I should have walked out.

Listen, I get it.  Empathy is one of my greatest virtues.  I totally understand the need to maximize precious space in cramped areas and when it’s really busy.  Had we shown up for dinner at 7 pm when the restaurant is normally crowded, we’d have accepted the baby table — with no complaints.

But why the hell would someone attempt to place us at the smallest table in a completely vacant restaurant with a 98-seat capacity (according to the fire code notice hanging on the wall)?  Don’t these idiots have any common sense?  No, the reasoning couldn’t have been expectation business would pick up later.  We were finished with our meals within an hour and during the entire time only about a dozen people walked in.  Fortunately, the host didn’t try to seat anyone on my lap.

Like I said before — lucky us.

When I used to travel a lot around the country, I often dined out alone.  That happened all the time.  There’s a punchline in there somewhere, so be my guest.  I was almost always seated at a baby table, which was fine by me.  Baby tables, also known in the trade as “two-tops,” were ideal for a single customer.  I always had just enough room to eat my meal, drink my beverages, and have ample space to work on a laptop or tablet.  Baby tables are perfect for solo diners.  Or maybe two kids eating a happy meal.

But they’re too goddamned small for a normal-sized couple!  Especially in an empty restaurant!

Let’s do a detailed analysis, shall we?   The table surface looks to be about 2 x 3 feet.  There’s a big bread basket, a butter dish, two side plates, two glasses of water, and two cocktails.  Then, there are condiments — consisting of salt and pepper shakers, a cheese canister, plus a small candle.  That’s 12 items, not counting the silverware.  That’s before a single food item has been ordered.  Now, add an appetizer or two, perhaps a salad, and we’ve exceeded full capacity.  When two main entrees and side dishes arrive — forget it.  Dinner plates are even bigger.  It’s impossible!  That tabletop ends up looking like an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific during the evacuation of South Vietnam.  Instead of pushing helicopters off the side, we end up sacrificing the bread basket.

Annoyed, I told the host rudely that we weren’t sitting there.  Simple as that.  This was non-negotiable.  I wanted to make a very clear impression that we weren’t going to be shoehorned into some fucking closet.  In an Italian restaurant, the squeaky wheel gets the olive oil.  We also seemed to get served a lot faster.  Who knows, maybe they wanted to get rid of us.

So, we ended up seated where we should have been all along, at a square four-top with ample space.  That way, we could spread out a little.  Enjoy our drinks without sticking my elbow in the butter dish.  My wife could set her purse on an extra chair, instead of the fucking floor.  Imagine that.  This was what I call “customer service.”

Anyone in the restaurant business, be warned.  Don’t try to sit me at a baby table — ever!  I’m a grown man.  Not a fucking infant, even though I do act like a baby sometimes.

Bon apetit!

__________

 

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Emotional Rescue Redux: Short Takes on Parties, Christian Groups, Mission Impossible, the NFL Boycott, and More

Posted by on Aug 19, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Politics | 4 comments

 

 

Today is Sunday, August 19th, 2018.  The scattershooting continues….

 

I.

I don’t like parties.  I don’t enjoy faking meaningless small talk.  I don’t like pretending to care what someone says, especially when chances are I’m never going to see them again.

Parties suck.

So, of course, last night I went to a party.

About 60 guests were present.  I knew about 10-15 people who were there.  So, 75 percent of the partiers were strangers.

Most parties are the same.  People instantly congregate among those they know.  Small groups become life rafts in a sea of awkwardness and boredom.  Then, once those conversations go lame, and invariably they do, guests graze to the other herds seeking better company.

In between, there’s lots of bumping into each other, “excuse me’s,” “nice to meet you’s,” and worst of all — weather talk.  I looooooaaaaath weather talk.  I hate it.  Weather talk is worse than poker bad beat stories.  There’s nothing more of a meaningless time-waster than discussing the weather, especially here in Las Vegas during the summertime.  Yeah, it’s always 108 degrees.  It was 108 degrees yesterday.  It will be 108 degrees tomorrow.  We live in the fucking desert.  It’s August.  Get used to it.

One major problem with parties is, most people don’t know what to say to strangers.  I find that an easy conversation starter is to introduce yourself to someone new and seek common ground.

“So, how do you know the host?” 

“What kind of booze did you bring and is there enough to share?”

“Who the hell invited you?”

You have my permission to use any of those lines if you wish.  Feel free.  You’re welcome.

Fortunately, here in Las Vegas, most of the parties I attend are among serious gamblers and many of us already know each other.  So, mingling is much easier, unless you owe someone money.  When that turns sour, there’s always the emergency lifeline — the televsion, where a sporting event is usually being shown.  At last night’s party, for instance, half the room was watching the pre-season NFL game between the Bears and Broncos.  I guess everyone did the obligatory meet and greet and then gravitated to the living room to check out their action.  Most of them probably had money on the game.  Well, at least I did.

That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Or maybe, it was because it was 108 degrees outside.

 

II.

Many Christians and virtually all Christian Organizations remain complicit in a disgusting mass cover-up of epidemic proportions.

Last week, an investigation surfaced which revealed 300 Catholic priests had sexually assaulted more than 1,000 children — in just one state!  The state is Pennsylvania.  I noted previously that state boundaries don’t deter pedophiles.  So, we can make a reasonable assumption these terrible things are happening elsewhere, too.  This problem continues and is worse than anyone could have imagined.

So, what’s the church’s response?

Bill Donohue, president of the ultra-conservative Catholic League, made a bizarre statement over the weekend which downplayed the instances of widespread abuse and institutional denial on the part of the church.  “It’s not rape if a child isn’t penetrated,” Donohoe declared.  [LINK TO QUOTE HERE]

Just fucking wow.

Well, we can all breath a sigh of relief, can’t we?  At least the kids weren’t “raped,” according to some goofball Catholic leader.

Mass denial of criminality is hardly limited to the dark crevices of Catholicism.  The biggest Christian groups in the country have been deafeningly silent.  Top Christian leaders haven’t spoken out or uttered a peep.  One presumes they’re far too busy decrying the “decline of morality” in America to muster up enough courage to speak out against hundreds of holy men diddling kids.

Ironically, Christians claim there’s an attack on religion going on right now.  I call bullshit.  There’s no attack on religion, other than a few of us on the fringes who consistently seek self-enlightenment and see organized religion as a gauntlet to greater discovery.

Curious, I checked the twitter accounts for tweets from some of the most influential Christian leaders in America:  Franklin Graham (Billy’s boy), an enthusiastic Trump supporter-defender, despite the President’s myriad of moral and ethical failings….he’s got an opinion about everything — except Christians screwing kids.  No tweets on anything connected to the scandals.  Jerry Falwell, Jr., who recently called Trump “Churchillian,” has had nothing to say about priests doing a bit more than tending to the flock.  Others, too.  Silent.

Focus on the Family is one of the biggest Christian groups in the country.  Membership numbers are in the millions.  Years ago, Focus on the Family was one of the primary forces against legalized gambling (they still oppose it).  Focus on the Family riled up its members to impose draconian federal measures against online poker and other forms of gambling.  Visit their website sometime if you can stomach it, which is littered with inflammatory statements and outright falsehoods about marriage equality, abortion, school prayer, free speech, and other current issues.  Focus on the Family has opinions and articles on just about everything.

Everything, except for one thing.

You guessed it:   Not peep from one of the biggest Christian groups in the country about religious authorities abusing children.

 

III.

I recently saw the latest Mission Impossible remake.

Yawn.

Mission Impossible: Fallout sucked.

Yeah, there’s lots of action.  And, that’s the problem.  The action is non-stop.  Wow, look — Tom Cruise just jumped out of another helicopter going 200 miles an hour, pressed a tiny button on his wristwatch, and blew up two dozen bad guys!  It gets old.  Fast.

Action movies used to be really cool and fun because they were so carefully crafted by clever screenwriters.  All the old James Bond villains were mesmerizing.  Monster madmen with gold teeth.  White Persian cats hissing.  Subordinates dropped in vats of boiling acid and eaten alive by piranhas.  Evil became wildly funny.  The banter was crisp and witty.  Bond always had some clever quip ready to deliver during the tensest moment of life and death.

Tom Cruise has nothing whatsoever clever to say throughout the movie.  Not a single line that’s Bondesque.  He doesn’t even have anything resembling a Bond girl.

Of course, Million Impossible isn’t in any way connected to James Bond.  But the old early 1970’s television series of the same name always had an intellectual flair to it.  Watching Mr. Phelps and his crew was as close as we ever got to understanding what real spies did.

Now, the degradation of the movie franchise has become nothing more than theatrical acrobatics and special effects.  It’s stunt and stunt after stunt after stunt.  It’s explosion after explosion after explosion after explosion.  It’s dull.  That’s because he all know Tom Cruise isn’t going to get cut in half by the helicopter blade.  We all know he’ll be alive in the film’s final frame.  Unfortunately, he won’t have anything interesting to say because the scriptwriter gave him nothing to say that was interesting.

There’s nothing remotely unique about the latest Mission Impossible flick, other than marveling how a big studio budget of $150 million ended up making four times that in profit.  I suppose to the production companies that keep turning out this dreck, that’s all that really matters.

Stay tuned next year for Mission Impossible:  The Rehash.

 

IV.

I’m reading and hearing declarations from football fans that they intend to boycott the NFL this season.

Yeah, right.  Go ahead — boycott your balls off.

Surrender those precious season tickets.  As Nike would say, just do it.  There are thousands of fans on long waiting lists eager to pluck those tickets away from you.  So, please — sell them.  Trust me.  No one will miss you.

Bye.

Just to be clear — I’m outraged at the NFL, too.  I get it.  Some of it, anyway.  Incompetent commissioner.  Terrible rules that make playing defense impossible.  Inconsistent officiating.  Rubber grass.  Way too many television commercials.  Bombastic clueless announcers.  Greedy owners.  But that’s not why some of you are boycotting.  You’re pissed about (mostly Black) players not standing up for the National Anthem in their protest against mass injustice.

Let’s agree to disagree on the controversy, shall we?  However, here’s a fact:  The NFL will do just fine without the boycotters.

The Los Angeles Rams and Chargers are building a new multi-billion stadium and will sell out every single game.  The Oakland Raiders are moving to Las Vegas in a few years where they will sell out every game.  This season, Dallas will sell out every game.  Seattle will sell out every game.  Denver will sell out every game.  Minnesota will sell out every game.  Green Bay will sell out every game.  Kansas City will sell out every game.  Pittsburgh will sell out every game.  Washington will sell out every game.  Houston will sell out every game.  New Orleans will sell out every game.  New England will sell out every game.  Both New York teams will sell out every game.  Philadelphia will sell out every game.  Carolina will sell out every game.  Even Cleveland, 0-16 last season, WILL SELL OUT EVERY GAME.

But go ahead — boycott the games.  Great news for those of us who would like to see a game sometime and don’t want to pay $500 a ticket.  Maybe the seats will become a little more affordable.

As for television — last season, the NFL’s TV ratings declined slightly.  However, this has been a steady trend with all televised spectator sports over the past five years.  Many people, especially the younger crowd, have other things to do.  Certainly, the so-called boycott had some impact, as well.  But old market share figures were unsustainable in a culture of stratified sports and entertainment interests.

If anyone really believes the NFL is threatened by a boycott as America’s true national pastime, they are delusional.  Legalized gambling on NFL games is now legal in some states — and sure to expand.  Hooray!  The NFL finally realizes gambling is good for its future.  They’re right.  It is good for the game.  Every boycotter this coming season will be replaced by two gamblers with ten bucks riding on the outcome.

So long as there’s a Monday Night Football game and 20 million people are betting on the result, they’ll be watching.  It doesn’t matter if New England is playing Philadelphia, or Cleveland is playing Tampa Bay.  Gambling is gambling.  They’ll be watching.

So, face it — your boycott is bullshit.  We know you’ll probably sneak a peak anyway and watch when no one is looking.  No one cares about your faux patriotism.  The NFL will be just fine without you.

Take my advice, boycotters:  Don’t let the tailgate hit you in the ass on the way out.

 

V.

Finally, a few shorter more personal thoughts:

— My favorite television drama is Suits, which appears on Wednesday nights.  It’s been on for about six years but recently went through a significant adjustment when one of the cast members married some rich prince.  Two other leading actors also departed.  I wasn’t sure if Suits could keep things together after such a major turnover.  Now about midway into a new season, the show is every bit as good as before.  I marvel at the writing and performances on this show.  To be so consistently good for so long is rare in any medium.  Also, kudos to my pal, Gareth Edwards (a.k.a. “Gaz”) who knows the producers and got to hang out on the set during filming last season.

— If you’re not scared by now about the wildfires burning throughout California, you should be.  It’s frightening.  I can’t even conceive what people living near the fires must be going through.  Even when these fires are ultimately contained, California is likely to be in store for more misery.  Continued drought will create more fires in the future.  Overdevelopment and denial of man-made climate change will make the threat worse.

— Oh, and Puerto Rico.  Let’s not forget Puerto Rico, even though the Trump Administration has forgotten Puerto Rico.

— One of the highlights of last week was seeing some old friends for lunch.  They came up with an interesting concept some time ago.  The group, with about 6-7 regulars, meets at a local restaurant once a week.  The only stipulation is — the person who picks out the restaurant cannot have dined there before.  So, this forces each person to do a little homework and branch out from the normal routine.  I think this is a great way to expose oneself to new restaurant adventures and it’s even more fun when doing it with other people.  I post this story here because I think others reading this might want to consider a similar social activity in cities with lots of different places to eat out.  Sounds really fun and interesting, doesn’t it?

— Finally, I’m thinking of ramping up some video segments and even creating a podcast.  I’m eager to see if the esoteric topics I address regularly will translate to an audio-visual format.  A few years ago, I did this with mixed success.  One video rant I spent 8 minutes making attracted 140,000 views.  Another video I worked on for five hours got 120 views.  So, I’m undecided about this.  Kindly share your thoughts, if you wish.  Obviously, if there’s some way to monetize the video production, that might make for considerably better content.

 

Until next time.  Thanks for reading.

__________

 

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The Night Gary Busey Threatened to Break Steve McDonald’s Arm

Posted by on Aug 18, 2018 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Las Vegas, Personal | 4 comments

 

 

PREFACE

A few weeks ago, BARGE was held at Binion’s Casino in Downtown Las Vegas.  This marked my 22nd consecutive year to attend the annual poker and social gathering, which is a week-long festival of fun.  This year might have been the last such event at Binion’s.  We’ll see about that.  However, BARGE is certain to continue being held somewhere in Las Vegas.  Visit www.barge.org for more information.

One of the new faces this year at BARGE was Steve McDonald.  I called and invited Steve to play — and was thrilled when he accepted the invitation.  Steve isn’t that well known in poker, but he certainly should be.  Back in 2002-2004, Steve pretty much held the crumbling old Horseshoe together with a box of band-aids and was certainly responsible for keeping the World Series of Poker above ground while it was sinking.  Others — including me, tournament directors Matt Savage and Jim Miller got much of the credit.  But behind the scenes, Steve was everyone’s anchor.  He did everything, 16 hours a day, and never once complained.

Steve is a schoolteacher now.  He’s doing something really good by trying to help children learn.  I wasn’t surprised to hear that Steve had moved on from the casino business, which can be shallow and frankly, unfulfilling.  In fact, I’m glad Steve is doing what he can to make a difference in the lives of others.  I admire that.

After BARGE wrapped up, Rodney Chen, the event’s official photographer, posted several photos online of those who attended.  That’s when I happened to come across the photo above, showing Steve looking straight into the camera (credit Rodney Chen for the photo).  That’s a look I know all too well.  From the day I first met Steve back in 2002, he hasn’t changed a bit.

Upon reflection, I realized most of those who were at BARGE probably didn’t know who Steve was, nor did they know his whole story.  They unlikely were to know how important Steve was during a critical junction in poker history.  That’s not surprising, really.  Steve never calls attention to himself.

So, please allow me to do the honors.

Seeing the photo of Steve reminds me of one of his funniest stories.  It sure wasn’t funny at the time it happened.  But looking back now, we’ve all enjoyed a chuckle about the incident involving actor Gary Busey playing at a charity event years ago.  I wrote about the crazy episode back in 2013 and posted the story here.  Busey may have been the celebrity at our table, but Steve turned out to be the real star of the show.

Here’s the story of what happened.

__________

Playing Poker with Actor Gary Busey

 

gary_busey

 

I’ve met a few celebrities over the years.  Some of them I remember.  Most were forgettable.

But not Gary Busey.  He made an impression.  Quite a lasting impression.

A few years ago, the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas hosted a charity poker tournament.  I was invited to attend and play.  Typically, these lighthearted events consist of a mix of poker insiders and casino high rollers, with a few celebrities sprinkled into the field to keep things fun.  My poker table included none other than actor Gary Busey, who displayed one of the most bizarre episodes of erratic behavior that I’ve ever witnessed by someone famous.

Busey has spent much of his life in front of the cameras.  He’s probably best known for his Oscar-nominated portrayal of one of rock n’ roll’s icons — playing the title character in The Buddy Holly Story.  More recently, Busey has appeared in several big-budget action films, including Under Siege, Lethal Weapon, Point Break, as well as several recurring television roles.  But Busey is just as famous — make that infamous — for the drama in his personal life, which included a death-defying motorcycle crash and several public outbursts fueled by drug and alcohol abuse.  Supposedly, on the night Busey attended the charity poker tournament, he was both “sober” and “born again.”  If that’s true, it made his behavior all the more baffling.

When Busey took a seat next to me, I knew instantly that we’d all be in for quite a show.  Busey didn’t disappoint us.

The first thing we noticed was that Busey had never played No-Limit Texas Hold’em before.  He had no idea about the rules.  Fair enough.  Everyone at the table, especially dealers and staff, were eager to help out our VIP guest.  Fact is, no one wanted to see any of the celebrities eliminated early.  After all, this was intended to be a fun social event.

When Busey was dealt his two cards face down, he had utterly no understanding of the importance of concealing his hand.  So, he’d flash his cards to the rest of the table and talk openly about what he held.  When it became his turn to act, he’d ask, “Now what am I supposed to do?”

This was funny the first few times he did it.  Less so, as the action was incessantly delayed and Busey showed no inclination whatsoever to try and learn the rules.  It was like teaching and then playing poker with a two-year-old.

Totally oblivious to normal poker etiquette when players out the hand talk softly, if they talk at all, Busey behaved like he was the center of attention and total life of the party.  He ignored the other players and the betting action completely — even when someone moved all in, which is normally a tense time at the poker table.  Busey would laugh openly after players took a beat and asked completely irrelevant questions while others were pondering a critical decision.

But what was most peculiar of all was Busey’s seemingly duel personality.  As he became increasingly bored with a game that he neither understood nor had any desire to learn, Busey began exhibiting the characteristics of someone with multiple personality disorder.  Witnessing this human train wreck was like watching master of improvisation, launching into multiple characters in the midst of a showstopping comedy routine.  Only, Busey wasn’t joking.  This wasn’t an act.

At one point, the casual table chatter turned to Busey’s noble recovery from his terrible motorcycle accident years earlier.  That triggered a terribly overlong and out-of-place religious sermon about the power of Jesus at which time he started quoting Bible scripture.  From that moment on, he hollered “Hallelujah!” at the top of his voice every time something at the table pleased him.

Then, a few attractive women in the crowd who were watching the table action managed to catch the actor’s eye.

The hot girls made Busey’s head pinball back and forth between the game and the attraction along the rail.  He rotated between Bible-thumper and a bug-eyed slimeball on the prowl for tail.  Busey would belt out a loud “Praise Jesus!” to the table, then a stray female managed to catch his eye.  Then, he’d flash his pearly-white chompers, whirl around in his chair, and leer forward in order to get a better view of the physical package packed inside a short skirt, and holler out in his most convincing lounge lizard voice, “Hey, hot Mama!”

Hallelujuah!

The rest of the table shifted our eyes and glanced down towards the felt, awkwardly trying to figure out if what we were seeing was real, or not.  And so, between Busey’s awkward Bible study soliloquies on First Corinthians interspersed with shocking speculation about the physical talents of females in our immediate vicinity, the course of events somehow deteriorated from that point onward.

That’s right.  Deteriorated. 

Badly.

As previously noted, Busey had apparently never played Hold’em before, nor any other flop game which included posting blinds.  After several rounds of play and escalating blind levels, Busey became increasingly annoyed with the notion of posting a blind.  He called it a “stupid rule.”  At one point he became fed up and snapped that he refused to post a blind.  Had this been a comedy act, it might have brought a few laughs.  But Busey was dead serious.  Even angry.

Frustrated that he was getting low on chips and posting blinds was mandatory, Busey protested.  He failed to understand why he had to commit chips to the pot without even seeing his cards.  So, Busey stopped the action and instructed the dealer that he didn’t want to be dealt into the next hand.   The dealer looked at Busey with a blank stare.  The action froze.  The dealers did his best to explain to Busey that sitting out wasn’t an option in tournament poker.

“I don’t like that!” Busey said.  “I protest!

The dealer had no idea what to do.  After another minute or so of unprecedented back and forth arguing (this was a charity poker tournament, not usually a scene of conflict), a floor man was finally summoned over to the table.  The floor man politely explained to Busey that posting blinds was a standard tournament procedure.  Again, Busey refused and became even more stubborn.

“I refuse to do that!” he said.  “If I have to do that, then I don’t want to play!”

The dealer, a friend named Steve McDonald, finally got fed up with the nonsense.  By then, he’d had more than enough of Busey’s antics.  So, had everyone else at the table.  McDonald reached across the table and plucked chips from Busey stack in order to post the blind.  Well, that made the actor go ballistic.

Busey snapped his head down like he was possessed.  Next, he slammed his hand down on the dealer’s arm like a claw, locked a death grip on the invader’s wrist, and squeezed hard.

“Don’t touch my chips! Busey screamed.  “You can’t do that!  You can’t touch my chips!”

The entire table was flabbergasted.  No one knew how to react.  We didn’t know whether to roll onto the floor laughing or be horrified.

“Don’t touch my chips!  I’ll break your arm!”

Busey’s arm-wrestled back and forth with McDonald’s wrist for a few seconds before a few stray chips flung into the air and then sprayed all over the table.  It was complete bedlam.

Fortunately, at that very instant, another good-looking girl walked by and probably unknowingly saved the tournament from turning into a scene of total chaos.  Busey became distracted by the new eye candy just long enough to holler out another one of his patented can’t-miss pick-up lines, “Hey, Hot Mama!” while enough chips were dislodged from his stack for the blind.  Then, the cards were dealt.

Are we having fun yet?

Action revolved around the table to the big blind where Busey was so distracted and in such a piss-poor sour mood that he stood up from the table and announced he no longer wanted to play.  With that, Busey threw his remaining chips into the pot without looking at his cards and then stormed out of the room before the flop was dealt out.

Yes, at least Busey made a lasting impression.  That’s when someone at our table used Busey’s own line:

Hallelujah!

__________

 

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100 Essential Albums: #94 — Back to Black by Amy Winehouse (2006)

Posted by on Aug 17, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Music and Concert Reviews | 2 comments

 

 

I fall in love every day.  Not with people, but with situations.

 — Amy Winehouse

 

Amy Winehouse’s stratospheric talent as a singer-songwriter-performer was overshadowed by her often scandalous behavior and trainwreck of a personal life, which led to her untimely death at age 27.  Drug abuse had been an ongoing problem for Winehouse, but her official cause of death in 2011 was alcohol poisoning.  Some contend the constant 24/7 paparazzi harassment and tabloid-inflamed tensions really killed her.

The British soul singer was the proverbial candle lit at both ends, burning ever so brightly for too short a time, which extinguished abruptly but not unexpectedly before she achieved what might have been a lengthy and legendary career.

Winehouse had everything going for her, career-wise.  Natural talent.  Charisma.  A distinctive look.  Perhaps most impressive of all — she radiated instantaneous musical adaptability.  Winehouse could sing and perform virtually any style of song and yet make it seem all her own.  She was a master of her craft, melding an all-too-familiar retro-R&B sound combined with an ultramodern and eclectic vocal signature.  Her sense of timing and phrasing was impeccable.  She made singing look and seem easy, because for her — it was easy.  It was living and dealing with her overnight superstardom that turned out to be hard.

The London-born artist, so easily recognizable for her beehive hairdo and evocative eyeliner that spawned a fashion wave of copycats, was often at her best when singing live and even better with the simple strumming accompaniment of an acoustic guitar.  She could command an entire arena packed with 20,000 screaming fans with a whisper but appeared most comfortable when stripped bare of the bright lights with nothing more a poignant song and her lone voice to fill a room.  She personified an “I don’t give a fuck attitude,” a constant strain that’s pervasive throughout all her music, but also revealed inner sensitivity and deep vulnerability that made her someone with whom the audience could identify, and perhaps even see a bit of themselves.  Her best songs were about self-doubt and lost love.

Winehouse was a monstrous talent who, like so many before her, died way too young.  We can only dream what else she might have done had she been with us longer.

 

Winehouse recorded only two studio albums.  Both are worth a listen.  However, her second album, Back to Black, was a far more mature compilation.  It certainly contains a more diverse collection of styles than her debut.  Frank, released in 2003.  Frank had been a jazz-infused album paying homage to Sinatra, one of Winehouse’s strongest musical influences.  Her follow-up release intended to focus on the distinctive style and unique sound of the famous girl groups of the early 1960’s.  And, she pulled this off magnificently.

Yet, Winehouse never aims for sweet nostalgia on Back to Black.  There are no musty cover ballads in this unique compilation of songs.  Winehouse wrote virtually every note and lyric in the 11-song collection, which clocks in at 35 minutes in duration.  While she may have intended to honor the girl groups she revered, it’s Winehouse herself who ends up as rightful heir to the throne.

Predictably, several hit singles spawned from Back to Black, which instantly reignited her appeal as a popular live act.  Indeed, Winehouse spent most of her seven-year career trapped in the beam of a stage spotlight giving an unrelenting series of live performances, rather than dedicating much time to her craft in the studio.  Although her live act later hatched the release of I Told You I Was Trouble:  Live in London, which came out in 2007, one wishes that instead, she’d spent far more time writing and recording.

Consider this somewhat impromptu vocal demonstration on a British radio program, with only a simple guitar as accompaniment.  Performing “Valerie,” from the previous album, it’s a testament to Winehouse’s innate sense of timing:

 

Back to Black starts with “Rehab,” an autobiographical tease that’s become her signature song.  Written and performed uptempo as a mockery of her highly-publicized bouts with drug addiction and alcohol abuse, “Rehab” foreshadows the deeply personal angst to come throughout the remainder of the album.

“You Know I’m No Good,” is the album’s second track (listen above).  This 1-2 punch with “Rehab” as the opener works perfectly as Winehouse’s self-confessional.  She acknowledges needing help and expresses doubts about her own self-worth.  The bluesy brass accompaniment and riveting bass lines fit perfectly with Winehouse’s taunting lyric.

Put on a blindfold and listen to “Me and Mr. Jones,” the third track.  Winehouse sounds just like Aretha Franklin in her prime performing a song written as the female answer to Billy Paul’s 1972 classic, “Me and Mrs. Jones.”

Other highlights from Back to Black include the familiar title track and “Tears Dry on Their Own.”  But the highlight may be the self-professed fatalism expressed in “Love is a Losing Game.”

Winehouse made some excellent choices when it came to her music.  Unfortunately, she failed to exercise the same discretion in her personal relationships, which were riddled with negative influences upon her life and career.  Burned out and cynical by the time Back to Black was released to rave critical reviews and massive worldwide acclaim, here’s Winehouse’s video to her deeply introspective song “Love is a Losing Game.”

 

After her death, record companies were eager to find the “next Amy Winehouse.”  Adele and Duffy are two artists often compared to Winehouse for their distinctive vocal qualities and natural abilities to improve upon familiar sounds.  Numerous popular female singers today cite Winehouse as a profound influence on their music.  Spin magazine noted that Winehouse was the “Nirvana moment” for the next generation of female musicians.

No doubt, Winehouse always insisted on doing things her own way.  Here’s a song rarely covered by other artists, but performed beautifully live in-studio by Winehouse on a BBC broadcast.  She takes The Beatles’ classic “All My Loving,” not exactly the ideal tune for a solo female to cover, and manages to create quite a different interpretation of the familiar ballad.  Give Winehouse’s version of “All My Loving” a listen here:

 

Note:  This is the latest segment in a series of reviews and retrospectives of my “100 Essential Albums,” which will be posted here regularly on my website over the next year, or so.  Previous selections include:

#100:  Black Moses  — by Isaac Hayes (1971)

#99:  Soul of a Man — by Al Kooper (1995)

#98:  Jagged Little Pill — by Alanis Morissette (1995)

#97:  Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back — by Frank Sinatra (1973)

#96:  The Doors — by The Doors (1967)

#95:  Ellington at Newport — by Duke Ellington (1956)

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Emotional Rescue: Short Takes on Aretha, Catholicism, Casinos, Omarosa, and Other Topics

Posted by on Aug 16, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Personal, Politics, What's Left | 6 comments

 

 

Today is Thursday, August 16th, 2018.  The scattershooting begins….

 

I.

I woke up to the news Aretha Franklin has died.  All her tributes are well deserved and I won’t rehash the outpouring of adoration for this remarkable woman and her immense talent.  In my lifetime there have been only two artists who could take any song and their interpretation was certain to improve upon the original.  Ray Charles was the first.  Aretha Franklin was the second.  That’s it.  Either master of music could turn the most ordinary song into a rousing chorus of mass elation.  Either could take a gospel song, a patriotic anthem, a rock standard — the source didn’t matter — and make it their own sound.

I also can’t resist the temptation to emphasize how Aretha’s passing is yet another blow to real music and genuine talent, which as the years pass seems to be in shorter supply.  Elton John, who has been a vociferous critic of modern recording abominations like Autotune for years, hammered this point in his tweet this morning when he wrote:   “The loss of Aretha Franklin is a blow for everybody who loves real music: Music from the heart, the soul and the Church. Her voice was unique, her piano playing underrated – she was one of my favourite pianists.”

R.I.P. Queen of Soul.

 

II.

I can’t even fucking comprehend this.

Yesterday, we learned 300 Catholic priests sexually assaulted more than 1,000 children.  But here’s the real shocker — these terrible acts happened in just the state of Pennsylvania!

One state!  Hundreds of religious pedophiles.  A thousand victims.

We can presume that state borders don’t stop pedophilia.  If these horrors are happening in Pennsylvania, one can reasonably suspect there are probably just as many predators and their victims in the other 49 states, and many foreign countries.  In other words, this is likely just scratching the surface.

Something must be done.  Now.  Something should have been done decades ago, but a religious institution that’s been directly responsible for more misery in the world arguably than any other entity remains virtually untouchable.  Where is law enforcement?  Where’s the church’s morality?  Where’s our collective outrage?  These buildings should be shut down and sold off.

Indeed, the hundreds of billions in assets of the Catholic Church, so much of it attained by theft, fear, and deception should be stripped away and distributed to the victims of this awful mind-warping institution.

All organized religions are corals and smokescreens.  It’s time to stand up to our mass ignorance and collective denial.

 

III.

The casino industry is in trouble.  It’s no longer growing.  The numbers are stagnant, and demographic shifts in coming years will only make problems worse.

Casinos did this entirely to themselves.  Corporate greed.  Over-expansion.  Mass saturation.  Parking fees.  Retail shakedowns.  Absurd resort fees.  Less bang for the gambling buck.  Every gambler knows this.  Every tourist realizes this.

All the major casinos in Las Vegas saw their revenues drop in the first half of the year — this decline despite a so-called “boom economy.”  Earlier this week, Resorts World, the new $4 billion mega-casino that recently opened in New York’s Catskills, reported losing $58 million in its first five months of operation.  The future looks even bleaker since new casinos are scheduled to open and/or expand in nearby states Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

It’s madness.

I never thought I’d write these words but — we have enough casinos already.

Except in Texas, of course, where there should be casinos.  Smart policy would be to close about a third of the casinos in the saturated Northeast and shift them to Texas.  Of course, this won’t happen.  Stupidity is epidemic — in corporate casino culture, in politics, and certainly among fearful little minds.

 

IV.

I don’t have much good to say about the flash-in-the-political-fryer, Omarosa, Donald Trump‘s latest distraction-de-jour.  Yeah, she’s a gold-digging, attention-craving nobody.  She’s probably lied on many occasions.  She’s utterly worthless.

Trouble is, President Orange Idiot hired her.  Multiple times.  He plucked her from obscurity to be on his awful faux-reality show, “The Apprentice,” then after she proved utterly incapable of working with anyone else, next she was brought in personally by Trump to one of the highest-paying adviser positions in the White House.

Yeah, Trump created this beast.  The moron hired her.  The idiot made her relevant, again.  Now, she’s turning on the ringmaster and trying to create her own circus.

Yet another scandal.  The backstabbing couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.

Go Omarosa.

Please.  Go the fuck away!

 

V.

Finally, a few shorter more personal thoughts:

— A friend of mine, George Wattman, has become a beekeeper.  A few months ago, he bought some hives and now raises bees.  A big part of his motivation was doing something good for the environment.  Bees are essential to life and our survival.  This is such a good thing.  We need more bees.  We need more people like George.

— I wish more of my friends would run for public office.  Even if it’s just a small position.  I realize politics opens candidates up to scrutiny and criticism.  Many years ago, I ran for a city council seat, and it was one of the most interesting experiences of my life.  It’s probably too late to do anything this year in 2018, but I urge my friends and colleagues to get involved and consider doing more to improve our communities.

— In that vein, it was pleasing to have lunch with my pal Nick Christenson, a few days ago.  During our discussion, Nick informed me he’s volunteered as the chairman of a progressive organization intent on turning out a big vote in Nevada’s congressional district #3.  He’s adamant that this midterm election coming up in November is absolutely critical to our future.  If you are upset by what you’re witnessing on so many levels, be sure and register to vote.  Better yet, get involved.

— If someone were to ask me what’s the best evidence of an open mind and the most reliable indication of being a voice worth listening to, it’s philosophical and moral consistency.  Most social media interaction has become hopelessly siloed to an echo chamber of perpetual self-aggrandizement.  Want to know who to listen to and learn from?  Look for people who occasionally break away from conventional expectation and tribal instincts and defend ideas, people, and principles thought to be outliers.  An open mind is a gift.  A closed mind is a curse.

— Finally, I’m eternally grateful for all the kind thoughts and interactions my posts receive on Facebook.  I wish I could thank each one of you, even those who disagree with many of my ideas.  In fact, pressure testing of ideas is vitally important.  So, I owe many of those who ask questions a debt of gratitude.  All I can say is — thank you.  Please do keep posting comments.

 

Until next time.  Thanks for reading.

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