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Posted by on Jun 18, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Music and Concert Reviews | 1 comment

Are Great Pop Musicians Washed Up by Age 30?

 

 

Recently, I read an intriguing retrospective of the dreadful Paul McCartney solo studio album, Ram — released 46 years ago today:

[COUNTERBALANCE:  PAUL MCCARTNEY’S ‘RAM’]

Recorded in the spring of 1971, Ram was McCartney’s second post-Beatles musical overture.  At the time, the lackluster album was universally eviscerated by critics.  In one of the kinder and gentler reviews, Rolling Stone described Ram as “incredibly inconsequential” and “monumentally irrelevant.”  Spoiled by a steady assembly line of Lennon-McCartney classics from the preceding decade, the public didn’t care much for the new music either.

Aside from the stellar Band on the Run, released a few years later in late 1973, most of McCartney’s other solo projects consisted of mostly patchwork collections of erratic inconsistency, while engaging on occasion, far more often mere trinkets of Paul’s much-celebrated earlier works.

By 1982, when McCartney crossed his 40th birthday, he’d all but retreated from the cutting-edge cliff of innovation de facto morphing into the world’s highest-paid nostalgia act (albeit, still a remarkable live performer filled with boundless energy, even today at 75).  If pressed to tell the truth, most hard-core Paul fans would probably have a difficult time naming a truly great McCartney-composed song released within the past 35 years.  For whatever reason, Rock’s Mozart has become Muzak.

To be fair, McCartney’s post-Beatles stuff has always been unfairly judged against the gold standard of pop music genius.  Expected to continue the greatest creative run in recorded musical history indefinitely, when Liverpool’s Fab Four plugged in their prehistoric instruments (by today’s standards) and changed everything within the eye blink of seven-year stretch, most fans and critics looked to McCartney as arguably the most talented of the group, and therefor best suited to transition as a solo artist and simply pick up where he left off right after the painful band break up in 1970.  Yet despite some valiant solo efforts along the way, McCartney has failed to deliver anything remotely close to the catalog of masterpieces when the far more youthful icon — still in his 20’s — wrote (or co-wrote) an astonishing collection of more than 300 songs, many the soundtrack to a generation.

How could the same creative source of ingenuity who penned “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” (by age 24), followed up by “Hey Jude” and “Let it Be” (by age 27) fade into a has-been, creatively speaking?  Indeed, how does the same musical sage who composed so many classics later record and release so many utterly forgettable songs?

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Do great pop musicians run into creative gauntlet by age 30, and if so — why? [Note:  For purposes of discussion, I made “30” the creative cutoff.  But it could be 29, or 31, or 32 — the point being that musical creative talent diminishes perhaps over time]

The evidence does seem pretty convincing.  In my introduction, I picked on Paul McCartney because he’s one of the best-known musicians in history and his career is easier for us to judge over a longer stretch.  However, I could have said pretty much the same thing about the Rolling Stones or The Who — the two other legendary bands of the 1960’s trifecta.  I could also have plucked several other rock icons — including David Bowie, Elton John, Queen, U2, or Bruce Springsteen and made a similar argument that most of their creativity reached a peak prior to their 30th birthday.  Then there’s Bob Dylan, arguably the greatest songwriter in our lifetime, who pretty much peaked by age 34 with Blood on the Tracks.

Let’s take a closer look at the Stones.  While Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have clearly stood the test of time (and then some), they haven’t written or recorded anything remotely close to the temblor of Beggar’s Banquet (1968) or Let it Bleed (1969), or Exile on Main Street (1972) in nearly four decades.  By the time the Rolling Stones had released their most memorable stuff, Jagger and Richards, the band’s primary songwriters, were both age 28.

The Who penned and recorded an astonishing burst of great music between 1965’s My Generation up through 1973’s Quadrophenia.  Then, Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend turned 30, and it’s been all downhill since, at least from a cutting edge creative standpoint (to be fair, Keith Moon, a seminal force, died in 1978 at age 32).

This discussion isn’t limited only to white males of a certain era.  It also applies to female songwriters and many soul and R&B artists, as well.

Consider Carole King, a monumental force of songwriting who — after spending years in the shadows penning hit songs for other artists — enjoyed her own personal breakthrough with Tapestry, released in 1971.  At the time, she was 29.  King remains a vibrant performer.  However, like McCartney and the Stones and the rest, she’s not written anything particularly memorable in the last 35 years.

Stevie Wonder was a child prodigy and a bombshell of musical creativity.  Wonder was one of the first R&B artists to seize full musical control of his material, intentionally choosing to write his own songs and experiment with new sounds when many Black artists remained under the thumb of record company executives.  The years between 1970 and 1977 for him were as fruitful any artist in history.  Wonder hit is creative peak in 1977 with the release of the epic album masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life.  At the time, Wonder was 27 years old.

_____

What explains such an apparent decline in musical creativity, at a relatively young age?

Other genres of popular expression don’t seem to suffer an age lapse at all.  Consider that over the years, many painters, writers, and comedians have produced their greatest works well into the 40’s and 50’s and beyond.

With writers, advancing age has been shown to be, not an inhibitor, but an elixir of creative inspiration.  Few writers make much of an impact while still in their 20’s.  But over time, as one masters the use of language and art of expression, (good) writers do tend to become better at their craft.  I’m not sure if it’s the same with architects or scientists, who must also call upon vast reservoirs of knowledge and experience.  However, it seems quite clear that virtually all artistic avenues crowded with older people doing better work now than yesterday, and destined to improve on their efforts tomorrow.

So, what makes music — or at least pop music — so much different?

Thoughts?

__________

Note 1:  Keep in mind, I’m strictly discussing musical creativity, not musical performance.  Many performers put on a great show well into their 50’s, and beyond.  However, very few write good music well into their 50’s, and beyond.

Note 2:  Consumers of pop music do tend to skew much younger than average.  This would explain why many of the most popular musical acts are teenagers and in their 20’s.  There’s simply more profit to be made catering to this younger audience.  Hence, younger and fresher artists get far more opportunities and perhaps even greater creative latitude than older more experienced artists.

Note 3:  Audiences could be as much to blame for the lapse in creativity as anything else.  Most audiences prefer to hear hit songs.  Most audiences don’t want to hear new (unfamiliar) music.  So, there’s pressure on older acts to deliver stale material and no longer push creative boundaries.

Note 4:  Finally, there’s obvious complacency which sets in once a musician is a multi-millionaire, earning royalties for the remainder of their lives.

 

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Posted by on May 29, 2017 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Politics, What's Left, World Series of Poker | 3 comments

Poker’s Shining Moment

 

Screenshot 2016-06-13 at 8.02.47 PM - Edited

 

A Personal Note:  The 2017 World Series of Poker begins this week.  This will be the first WSOP in 25 years which I don’t plan on writing about, or attending.  With poker becoming a faint glow in my rear view mirror, this seems like a suitable occasion to clear out some personal files and post a few (previously unpublished) articles that were written up last year, but never posted.  These next few days, I’ll post some behind-the-scenes leftovers of my final series.

 

There was a time not too long ago when Ryan Laplante might have faced ridicule, and even hostility inside a poker room.

Why?

Because he’s an openly gay man.

Years ago, before being who you are was acceptable to many, the shackles of unwavering expectation sired a strict conformity.  If being gay was widely viewed as unacceptable, then being out about it was downright scandalous within many social and business circles.

It took a while, far too long many would insist, but the poker community became an unlikely coadjutor in the broader at-large struggle for gay rights, and in some peculiarity even progressively far ahead of other arenas of society, especially male-dominated sectors, like sports.  This wasn’t at all expected, and was surprising even, given poker’s jaundiced past where one’s masculinity was once tethered to a cowboy hat, a smoky cigar, and a dirty joke.

But poker turned out to be a most welcoming scene for those considered a little different.  Just about anyone and everyone was permitted to sit down and play — male or female, black or white, gay or straight — so long as the minimum buy-in was posted and no one tried to impose themselves on the competition.  Sure, unrestrained prejudice still burgeoned systematically away from the tables outside the poker room, but was muted once the cards were dealt.  To its credit, poker has acquired a startling egalitarian quality.

This seemingly odd kinship between serious-minded poker players and disparate subcultures which have been the targets of varying degrees of discrimination, including the gay rights movement, came to pass by means of the shared common experiences of society’s outcasts.  Like gay people, poker players too, were once cultural castaways, often viewed with suspicion and mistrust.  Perhaps it’s the ability to identify with those who have historically been excluded from the traditional mainstream.  Perhaps this is what makes serious poker players of today generally more tolerant and accepting of others different from ourselves.  Poker players would be among the first to challenge the old adage that being normal is no virtue.

Indeed, we must accept our differences.  That is because so often, we play, we work, we socialize, and we engage is so many activities with others who are not like us.  Sometimes, they are even the opposite of us, and oppose the very things we believe in.  Welcoming those who are different from ourselves isn’t just good for poker — it’s the right thing to do.

_____

Getting here was a rocky road.

There was the time not long ago, July 2007 to be exact, when Rep. Barney Frank made an unlikely appearance at the World Series of Poker, held in Las Vegas.  At the time, Rep. Frank, who represented a congressional district in Massachusetts was the only openly gay member of Congress.  He was also a tireless advocate for legalizing online poker in the United States.  Although Rep. Frank didn’t play poker at all, and knew very little about the game, he viewed our cause as his own.  And so, Rep. Frank became arguably the most unlikely proponent for legalizing online poker.  He introduced pro-poker bills in Congress.  He appeared frequently in media and often went out of his way to bring up initiatives supported by the Poker Players Alliance (PPA).  His appearance at the biggest poker event of the year seemed to be an ideal setting in front of a friendly audience.

What could possibly go wrong?

I was there, that afternoon, when Rep. Frank — joined by other dignitaries at the Rio — took the microphone to say a few words to rally public support, just before giving everyone the customary tournament opening, “Shuffle Up and Deal.”  However, when Rep. Frank was introduced by name, the crowd’s reaction turned out to be an embarrassment.  About half the room containing a few thousand players, completely ignored the introduction.  Only a few clapped.  Others booed.  A few hecklers hurled shameful insults at Rep. Frank.

I was standing near one particularly boisterous section of the crowd, positioned next to Rep. Frank when I heard someone yell out — “faggot!”  Right there, I nearly lost it, and yelled something profane back into the crowd.  That didn’t help the matter, of course.  It was just my gut reaction.

I was so angry afterward that I had difficulty staying in the same room among so much indifference and hostility.  Desperate for an emotional sanctuary, I walked back to the main casino at the Rio with Rep. Frank.  Along the way, I made a feeble attempt to explain that this wasn’t truly representative of the way most of us felt about what he was doing for poker and the players.  “Don’t worry about it,” Rep. Frank replied.  “I’ve been hearing shit like that all my life.”

_____

Years later, a young poker player named Jason Somerville made his first appearance at a WSOP final table.  That’s a really big deal, especially to a player who has serious aspirations of making poker a career.

Before the finale began, it was customary to introduce each player to the crowd and the viewers watching on the live stream.  It was pretty simple, really.  We normally announced the player’s name, hometown, occupation, plus a tidbit or two provided by the finalist via something called a “Player Bio Sheet,” usually completed the night before.  Some players used this rare occasion of making a final table to call out their friends and supporters.  Others listed interesting things about themselves.  Pretty standard stuff.

Somerville decided to use this occasion to send an important message.  On his bio sheet, Somerville wrote that he was an openly gay man and was active in the fight for equal rights and protections.  He hoped that this public acknowledgement on a major stage would encourage others who were watching, particularly those who might still be comfortable about disclosing something still viewed as controversial at the time.

We customarily followed the wishes of each player, unless something written on the bio sheet was terribly inappropriate (which alone might make for another good column, someday).  After all, this was Somerville’s time to shine under the public spotlight.  If he wanted to acknowledge something personal about himself, then who were we to censor his wishes?

Unfortunately, the announcer didn’t honor Somerville’s request on the bio sheet.  It was simply ignored and the occasion was mostly forgotten.  Somerville never made an issue of it.  But the incident did stick with me, long afterward.  I thought we made the wrong judgement call that day by not following the player’s request.  Then again, at least we avoided a possible repeat of the Barney Frank episode from four years earlier.

One can never predict quite how a crowd will react — especially a poker crowd.

_____

[Reminder:  This previously unpublished article was written June 14, 2016]

Ryan Laplante won the largest non-Hold’em tournament of all time at the 2016 WSOP, defeating a field of 2,483 players in the $565 buy-in Pot-Limit Omaha event, good for a hefty payday of more than $180,000 — plus his very first gold bracelet.

Then, he woke up Sunday morning to the news of a terrible tragedy.

The worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 took 49 lives when a madman stormed into a popular Orlando nightclub and gunned down more than four dozen people, mostly young gay men.  Since the attack occurred very late on a Saturday night, most of us didn’t hear the news until the following day.

The scimitars for poker and the real world do not often cross.  It’s as if what goes on outside the highly-competitive, almost circus-like arena of the WSOP stands as some kind of island or desert mirage apart from the rigors and ritual of reality.  I recall that a major tournament was even played on the very afternoon of the morning right after the events of 9/11, a disgraceful decision by tournament organizers made considerably worse by the callousness shown by the dregs of humanity — those morally-bankrupt poker players who bothered to show up to play, all while the towers of our national identity were still smoldering in ashes.

The Orlando shooting was certainly shocking, as all terrorist acts are, but to most of us — it didn’t touch us personally.  The deranged gunman who targeted people just for being gay wasn’t personal for me (or others) in the same way it was so very personal to Laplante, and presumably many others.

On what should have been a day of celebration instead had become something far more surreal.  Laplante had been scheduled to receive his gold bracelet on that Sunday, barely 12 hours after the Orlando murders.  Moreover, as was the custom on occasion, I was to be the fill-in emcee privileged to award Laplante his poker amulet.  As horrific images of the Orlando nightclub shooting aftermath were being shown on televisions throughout the poker arena, we were about to award an openly gay man with poker’s supreme honor.

One of the perks of working in an executive position at the WSOP is the occasion to take something to a whole new level.  Indeed, this was a time for elevation and we owed it to ourselves to aim especially high.

That morning, during my drive from home to the Rio, I pondered the unprecedented quandary of just how to handle the upcoming daily gold bracelet ceremony.  This wasn’t just any day.  This wasn’t just any winner.  This wasn’t just a typical five-minute ceremony, with no lingering afterthought.  This was a celebration blunted by a terrible tragedy, fronted by a remarkable young man of courage and conviction fully prepared to use this occasion to educate us, heal us, and make us all better.  It was about making the event bigger than just himself, bigger than all of us.

When I met with Laplante just moments before he was to take the stage and receive his gold bracelet, it became instantly obvious he’d been thinking the same thing.  Gleefully standing upon a stage and going through the usual routine in light of terrible events just didn’t seem appropriate.  What did seem fitting however, was to have Laplante’s fiance, Chris Katona standing on the stage with him to present the bracelet in front of the poker world.  Typically, this honor is reserved only for poker legends and sometimes the relatives of players, mostly wives and parents.  Having two men in a committed relationship onstage together in celebration would be a poker first.  Stung by the tragedy, but also empowered by the occasion to do a pubic good, Laplante agreed with the alternative plan.

At about 2 pm during a tournament break, I took the microphone.  I introduced Laplante as the latest poker champion.  Then, the stage was all his.  No one knew what he would say, nor what to expect.  No one knew how the huge audience — comprised almost exclusively of poker players and tournament staff — might react.

 

Screenshot 2016-06-13 at 8.11.32 PM - Edited

 

Once Laplante took possession of his gold bracelet, next he stepped up to the podium.  Few players opt to speak at these events.  I think I understand why.  Public speaking can surely be scary.  Many players don’t really have much to say.  Besides, no one comes to the WSOP to hear a speech.  Everyone wants to play poker.

This time, the room fell silent.

 

Screenshot 2016-06-13 at 8.05.40 PM - Edited

 

Rather than post my recollections of the speech given my Laplante, instead I’ll let this short video clip (provided by Card Player) speak for itself:

 

 

After the speech ended, everyone in the audience rose to its feet and applauded simultaneously for what seemed to be the longest duration in anyone’s recent memory.  The memorable occasion didn’t make up for past sins, the ill treatment of Rep. Frank or the refusal to acknowledge people for who they are.  The cheers weren’t some false notion that everything now is okay.  But it was a big step in the right direction.

June 13th, 2016 was was very good day for poker.  It was a day to be proud, not because we are, or we aren’t gay.  It was a day to be proud because we’re human.

 

Screenshot 2016-06-13 at 8.07.27 PM - Edited

 

Note:  Special thanks to photographer Antonio Abrego for the photographs.

 

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Posted by on Mar 12, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Personal, Politics | 1 comment

Friendship is Non-Partisan

 

 

A close friend of mine was recently offered a political appointment in the Trump Administration.

This might be difficult to believe, but I do have many Republican friends.

I won’t identify him by name.  He can come forward and identify himself, if he wants to.

I heard this story firsthand from my friend a few weeks ago.  He even told me quite an amzing story of speaking personally with the President a few times — once during an informal interview, and second, a short follow-up telephone call at which time he was offered the job.

From the way things happened, I expect that he’ll take the job, if he hasn’t already done so.  No doubt, he’ll be very good in that position.  This person is a hard-working.  He’s highly experienced.  He’s someone that can be trusted at all times to do the right thing.  Our country needs that right now.  We will be lucky to have him involved in our government.

However, just before he shared this information with me, he prefaced our conversation by acknowledging my unabashed disgust with President Trump.  “I know you can’t stand Trump, but I have to share something with you….” he said.  That was the way our conversation started.

Actually, my personal opinions on political issues are totally irrelevant here.  We all want our friends to succeed.  We all want those closest to us to do well in life, and advance in their careers.  We all want key positions in our government to be staffed with qualified people.  That’s a non-partisan viewpoint most of us probably share.

After hearing about the details of his political appointment, presumably now pending, I was absolutely thrilled for my friend.  What amazing news.  How could I not be thrilled?  After all, the prestige of being personally picked for such a high position in the federal government by the leader of the executive branch really has no comparison.  It doesn’t matter what someone thinks about President Trump or President Obama before that, and so forth and so on — that’s one of the highest honors in public service, to be chosen from millions of people and then personally asked by the President to take a job in a new administration.

Indeed, my reaction would be the same for anyone who’s asked to serve — be it for a position in a Donald Trump Administration or a Bernie Sanders Administration.  Success is success.  Friendship is friendship.

This is something we should all pause and remember, moving on in the weeks and months ahead.  While I shall continue to do everything within my power to stop the Trump Administration from imposing what I consider to be a dangerous and destructive agenda for America, I shall also applaud those I know who are good people for now getting to experience one of the rarest of opportunities in anyone’s professional life — which is to work for the White House.

Before writing this, I’d never thought much about this before, and I certainly don’t have any poll data to back up the following claim.  However, my best guess is that I have roughly an equal number of friends and family members who are either liberal or conservative, or somewhere in the middle.  The people I run around with are all over the map, politically speaking.

If I’ve lost any friends from expressing my political views, or engaging in discussions that might have turned into arguments, then I’m not aware of it.  Perhaps some people who I mistakenly thought were friends no longer reach out anymore, or like to hang around.  But I can’t name a single person who was banished from my inner circle of trusted friends based on their political viewpoints.  To the contrary, I hope the best for all of them.

Hence, when one of those friends told me that he be might be working for President Trump, I write now what I said to him then:  Congratulations.  I believe the President made an excellent choice.

Go for it.  Do your best.  Make a difference.

 

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Posted by on Dec 25, 2016 in Blog, Essays | 1 comment

Home For the Holidays

 

frankies-holiday

 

I must have watched Apple’s holiday commercial 100 times, and it still brings a tear to my eye.

The brilliant actor-comedian Brad Garrett — so funny onstage, so incredibly talented and improvisational, yet so delightfully wicked in the occasional film and TV role — reveals a lesser-known much softer side as the town’s spooky outcast.

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Posted by on Mar 9, 2016 in Blog, Essays, Politics | 6 comments

Who Will Stand Up for Animals?

 

Animal-Rights-1024x643

 

On the scale of issues most important to voters, animal rights probably ranks somewhere near the bottom.

Animals don’t vote.  So why would our furry friends be a topic of political discussion?  Why would any candidate have a stated position on animals?  Answer:  Because it’s the right thing to do.

For me, one of the benchmarks of a person’s character is how they view and treat animals.  This viewpoint is non-negotiable.  I believe our treatment of animals represents the ultimate manifestation of human empathy.  There’s nothing tangible to gain from being kind to an animal, so kindness is truly an act of sincere compassion.  In fact, one could argue in a very primordial sense that animals fuel humankind’s most selfish needs and desires.  It’s even counter-intuitive to have affection for most animals.  After all, from our earliest times, animals have been used for transportation, strength, security, entertainment, and of course, food.  Many are a nuisance.  Some are even dangerous.  Advancing their rights generally requires severing that traditional relationship between man and beast and demands an adjustment of how we view other creatures.

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