Sunday, August 29, 2010

Metal Gods

I used to work in the transportation industry. More specifically, I worked for a couple of logistics providers, who were really just glorified trucking companies. Even though I never worked in passenger transportation, I've always had a fascination with that business as well. So, when I planned my first trip of the season to New York City for a Yankees game, I was intrigued by the idea of riding a BoltBus for the first time. But, I didn't make my plans far enough in advance, so I opted for the old standard—Greyhound.

Still, I was curious what effect BoltBus has had on Greyhound's business, considering so many of their early Saturday buses were sold out in advance. Greyhound, of course, affords you the "luxury" of being able to just show up at the terminal and get on the next available bus, but often that means you need to arrive as much as an hour in advance and stand in line.

I really wanted to get on the 6:30 bus last Saturday morning, but there was no way I was getting to Boston's South Station by 5:30, so closer to 6 would have to suffice. When I got in line at around 5:50 am, I was a little surprised that there were only about 10 people in front of me. I was even more surprised, after boarding the bus—which turned out to be a Peter Pan—when it pulled away from the gate with at least a dozen empty seats. Then, I remembered that we were stopping in Framingham on the way to NYC, so it ended up being a full bus after all.

So, considering this was an early AM departure, maybe BoltBus will settle into the niche of catering to the traveler able to make plans in advance and lock in a specific time, while Greyhound will serve those willing to sacrifice a little comfort for flexibility of travel. What do I know about the business of passenger transportation anyway?

Of course, the purpose of this trip was to go to a Yankees game with my pal Lee Mazzola. I began going to games with Lee back in 2001, after a conversation we had when I stayed with him the night before running the 2000 New York City Marathon. It was that weekend that a short-lived tradition began—he would host a Yankees-Red Sox game at Yankee Stadium, and I would host at Fenway. Although the games in Boston were more eventful, that end of the tradition lasted only two years, in part due to the excessive cost of obtaining tickets for those games. But, despite the fact we failed to keep up the intended tradition, another resulted, and this was the 10th consecutive year we've attended at least one game in the Bronx together.

There was a brief period when the Yankees-Red Sox affairs were frequently lopsided contests in favor of the visiting Red Sox. The frustration of such games led to the development of a system of side bets to help us pass the time when necessary, and this has come in handy when the Yankees opponent has been a less-than-exciting one, such as the 2010 Seattle Mariners. As is usually the case, I came out a few dollars ahead, primarily thanks to Russell Branyan's first-inning homer off of Javier Vázquez, and Robinson Canó's two-run single, also in the first.

Another unofficial tradition that was honored was that of baseball trivia and inane music discussion. While Lee did a pretty commendable job chipping away at the answers to my question about the eight active pitchers ranking in the top 100 all-time in strikeouts, it was the music discussion that ruled the day.

We were mostly in agreement with our picks for the eight most important heavy metal bands of all-time, a list that was difficult to compile due to the challenge of defining who fits into the genre. We may have broadened our definition of heavy metal a little more than most, but our consensus top five were Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, AC/DC and Nirvana, not necessarily in that order. We also agreed that Iron Maiden and Judas Priest deserved to be considered two of the remaining three, but I didn't really agree with his choice of Slayer for the remaining spot.

A couple of interesting online lists confirmed most of our picks. The Daily News' Top 11 had Motorhead at #8, Slayer at #5, and no Nirvana, while MTV's list had Pantera at #5, Slayer at #6 and Motorhead—once again—at #8. In addition to Nirvana, Led Zeppelin was absent from the latter list.

It appears the consensus is that Nirvana is not a heavy metal band, but since they satisfy perhaps the most important criteria for inclusion in the genre—the Beavis and Butthead test—I contend they should be part of the discussion. So, after taking into consideration the input of Lee and these other sources, I compile my final list as follows:
  1. Black Sabbath
  2. Metallica
  3. Led Zeppelin
  4. AC/DC
  5. Nirvana
  6. Judas Priest
  7. Iron Maiden
  8. Kiss
The Yankees won the game 9-5, by the way, with the highlights being Eduardo Núñez's first career hit and Chad Gaudin, Boone Logan and David Robertson combining for 4 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of the ineffective Vázquez.

For Lee's slightly different account of the game's festivities, particularly the outcome of the metal bands discussion, check out his blog post at Lee's Steez.

    Friday, August 20, 2010

    Double Eagles Revisited

    I've been way too busy to do much writing lately, so I thought I'd re-post a few of my old favorites. This one originally appeared here on March 1, 2009. I only edited it a little, I swear.

    A friend of mine, who writes the blog All of It, recently posted an entry on his top ten songs of all-time, and encouraged others to contribute theirs. Well, it was a nearly impossible undertaking, but after much laboring over my decisions, I finally narrowed my list down to a dozen. Of course, the nature of an all-time best songs list is that it could potentially change weekly. That said, I decided, as I'm sure most music lovers would, that a major criterion would be that these selections not only are great songs, but also have special meaning to me.

    In golf, a double eagle is three strokes below par. On a par four, that's a hole-in-one. In other words, virtually a perfect shot. In my opinion, these songs are as close to perfection as possible.

    "Brass Buttons" - Gram Parsons
    I recall reading somewhere that Parsons wrote this song as a memorial to his mother. I'm not sure where, though, as anything I've subsequently read about it assumes it's in reference to an ex-lover. Regardless, my first impression is what's stuck with me, and although my mom never wore brass buttons, green silks and silver shoes, the lyrics "And the sun comes up without her—It just doesn't know she's gone" will always make me think of her.

    "Cortez the Killer" - Neil Young & Crazy Horse
    I could easily do a similar list of all Neil Young songs, of course. What isn't easy is deciding which one I like the most, but Cortez has always been my unofficial favorite. It has that Neil Young guitar epic quality and covers the kind of lyrical territory that always drew me in with his songs. The entire song is written in the third person and seems to be about the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, who conquered Mexico in the 16th century. However, in the last verse, it becomes personal, as Young sings "And I know she's living there—and she loves me to this day—I still can't remember when or how I lost my way," the last line of which is a reminder of how quite often things don't turn out as we planned. Of course, that's not always a bad thing.

    "Fight Test" - The Flaming Lips
    The first track on the album that kicked off my love affair with The Flaming Lips—Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots—"Fight Test," to me, is about facing life's difficult decisions, and remaining strong in the face of adversity. "I don't know where the sunbeams end and the starlights begin, it's all a mystery. I don't know how a man decides what's right for his own life, it's all a mystery," pretty much sums up that sentiment for me.

    "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" - Bob Dylan
    Not only is this my all-time favorite Dylan song, and that's an almost impossible decision in and of itself, but it also reminds me of a pivotal time in my music listening history. While attending a party in Albany in 1995, I made some stupid joke about how when "...gravity fails, negativity can't pull you through" in response to a keg malfunction. It was later that evening that I engaged in a conversation about my new-found interest in Uncle Tupelo with some guy I'd just met. He raved about the song "Box Full of Letters" from Wilco's forthcoming debut album, which I hadn't heard yet. We talked about other bands as well, and he made a few recommendations, but that night sticks with me as a reminder of the time when I transformed from being a pretty big music fan to an obsessed consumer of music. The following year, the tradition of ranking my top 10 albums of the year was born.

    "My Life" - Iris Dement
    I once said that this is the one song that I can't listen to without shedding a tear. It's a very personal song on a personal album for her, and it also has significant meaning to me. Particularly what gets to me is the refrain, "But I gave joy to my mother—and I made my lover smile—and I can give comfort to my friends when they're hurting—And I can make it seem better for awhile." The song kind of sums up a certain "comfort in being sad" vibe that Kurt Cobain wrote about on that Frances Farmer song on In Utero. Other than that, it's also the title track on what is possibly the first album that I turned my Dad onto. Believe me, I had tried before, but My Life was my first successful attempt.

    "Northern Sky" - Nick Drake
    Nick Drake's short-lived existence is heartbreakingly sad, as he died from an overdose of a prescription antidepressant. To me, this song is the ultimate representation of just how tragic a figure he was. His stature as a cult icon rose to the level of documentary treatment with the release of A Skin Too Few in 2000. That film produced a moment of beautiful sadness as the closing credits ran to images of Drake as a toddler playing on a beach while "Northern Sky" provided the background music. One couldn't help but think that we were viewing a time when his thoughts weren't tormented as they were later in his life.

    "Ooh La La" - The Faces
    It was Golden Smog's cover of "Glad and Sorry" that introduced me to the songwriting brilliance of Ronnie Lane. Overshadowed in The Faces by Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, Lane nevertheless wrote many of their finest songs, and "Ooh La La," the last song on the band's final album, was their absolute best. Co-written by Lane and Wood, it's actually the shining moment of Wood's career as a vocalist. The song's lyrics may be a little trite, but who among us can't relate to the sentiment, "I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger—I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was stronger."

    "September Gurls" - Big Star
    The ultimate power pop song by the ultimate power pop band, this is the only song to make this list without the benefit of lyrics that really resonate with me. Packed with loads of pure rock energy, and possibly the catchiest opening guitar hook ever recorded, I can say with almost absolute certainty that this tune has made it on at least 90% of the party mixes I've made in the last ten years. It wouldn't be inaccurate to say I've got it bad for "September Gurls."

    "So Come Back, I Am Waiting" - Okkervil River
    This is actually the longest song on this list, even longer than "Cortez the Killer," believe it or not. Black Sheep Boy was such a surprisingly brilliant album for me, and this song just sums up its somewhat schizophrenic nature. It's a dirge-like ballad that also packs an unbelievably powerful emotional punch, one that really strikes a chord with me. In 2005, I developed a strong friendship with a part-time co-worker who also happened to be a full-time amateur philosopher. One of the subjects we talked about frequently was my romantic past, and at one point she aptly pointed out that this entire album reminded her of one particular story I had related. Nothing reminds me of that time in my life—the subject of the story and the subsequent telling of it—than the final two minutes of this song.

    "Still Be Around" - Uncle Tupelo
    About half of Uncle Tupelo's songs are about drinking, or at least are stories of life's desperations that lead some folks to hitting the bottle. In the time we lived together in Albany in the mid-90s, my good friend Skip and I fully embraced the ideology of escapism, and although we knew we didn't have it nearly as tough as the characters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were writing about, we could still relate. There was no song that better epitomized Farrar's knack for clever wordplay that elevated his material beyond the trappings of cliché than this one, particularly with lyrics like "Alcohol doesn't have much that matters to say—Can't imagine where you and time to kill will stay" and "When the bible is a bottle, and the hardwood floor is home—When morning comes twice day or not at all."

    "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" - Talking Heads
    I actually first heard this song on Shawn Colvin's Cover Girl. I love her version as well, and her femininity may better capture the romanticism of the song than the original, but when I heard the Talking Heads' version for the first time, I instantly knew it was superior. Its blissful, light dance groove adds to the beauty of some of the most moving lyrics that have ever been sung, particularly on lines such as "I can't tell one from another—Did I find you, or you find me?—There was a time before we were born—If someone asks, this is where I'll be."

    "Unsatisfied" - The Replacements
    Paul Westerberg's ode to frustration and bitter disillusionment is one of the most passionate expressions of angst ever put to music. It also is practically the antithesis of every other Replacements song. Instead of Westerberg's vocals stabilizing the loose and sometimes sloppy dynamic of the band, on "Unsatisfied" he's the one who's out of control while the band holds it together. There is no better exercise in blowing off a little steam for me than belting this one out in the solitude of my own home, and maybe shedding a few tears—usually of determination—in the process.

    Honorable mentions: "All the Wine" - The National; "Come Pick Me Up" - Ryan Adams; "Dry Your Eyes" - The Streets; "I Still Remember" - Bloc Party; "Romeo and Juliet" - Dire Straits; "Songbird" - Fleetwood Mac.

    Monday, August 16, 2010


    I recently started using an application on Facebook called BeerSeek. It's nothing earth shattering, but it's a fun and easy way to rate and keep track of the beers I've consumed recently. I decided not to try and rate beers retrospectively, but instead simply to rate each beer as I drink them.

    Since I haven't had a lot of time to blog lately, I thought I'd share my recent ratings.

    Name My Rating Style Brewer
    21st Amendment Brew Free or Die IPA 8/10 India Pale Ale (IPA) Cold Spring Brewery
    Very well-balanced as an IPA should be. Not as overwhelmingly citrusy as my faves, though.
    Jack D’Or 8/10Saison Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project
    Pretty Things calls this one a Saison Americain. I call it a sweet, but nicely balanced, semi-strong ale that goes down easy and leaves me wanting more.
    Southern Tier IPA 8/10 India Pale Ale (IPA) Southern Tier Brewing Company
    Full-bodied and only moderately hoppy (for an IPA), but really flavorful and well-balanced.
    Ballast Point Big Eye IPA 7/10India Pale Ale (IPA) Ballast Point Brewing Company
    I don't say this often, but this one's a little hoppier than I like 'em. Which isn't to say it's bad, just needs a little more maltiness.
    Heavy Seas Red Sky At Night 7/10 Saison Heavy Seas Brewing Company
    Nice and malty, only a little on the too sweet side of the scale.
    Ommegang Hennepin 7/10Saison Brewery Ommegang (Moortgat)
    Definitely not Ommegang's best, but it's a really drinkable saison-style ale.
    Sierra Nevada Torpedo Extra IPA 7/10 India Pale Ale (IPA) Sierra Nevada Brewing Company
    The only commercial beer brewed with the wonderfully citrusy Citra hops. Not as well-balanced as 21st Amendment, though, but still good.
    Southern Tier Farmer’s Tan Imperial Pale Lager 7/10Imperial Pils/Strong Pale Lager Southern Tier Brewing Company
    A really well-balanced strong lager, its high alcohol content is barely noticeable going down.
    HeBrew Bittersweet Lennys R.I.P.A 6/10 Imperial/Double IPA Olde Saratoga Brewing (Mendocino Brewing Co.)
    Rye malt is not as sweet as barley malt, so the extreme hoppyness of this one makes it exceedingly bitter. Still, I kinda like it.
    Long Trail India Pale Ale 6/10India Pale Ale (IPA) Long Trail Brewery
    A solid, but unspectacular, IPA. It will do in a pinch, but there are quite a few I rate higher.
    Samuel Adams Summer Ale 6/10 Wheat Ale Boston Beer Company
    Had on draft recently, and liked it better than I remembered from experiences past. It's a solidly refreshing wheat ale. Nothing more, nothing less.
    Southern Tier Hop Sun 6/10Wheat Ale Southern Tier Brewing Company
    A kind-of-hoppy wheat beer, as the name implies, but not as good as others from this brewery.
    Smithwicks Irish Red Ale 5/10 Bitter Dundalk (Diageo)
    Sometimes you have to settle when you live in a town filled with cookie cutter Irish pubs. When you find yourself in one of those places, and you're not in the mood for a Guinness, you're happy when you discover they have Smithwick's.
    Bud Light 2/10Pale Lager Anheuser-Busch InBev
    Goes down easy after a softball game, but that's definitely its only redeeming quality.

    Friday, August 06, 2010

    Down Main Street

    As I mentioned in my previous post, this year's Hall of Fame Weekend featured a first ever—to my knowledge—parade of Hall of Famers down Cooperstown's Main Street.

    Here are a few highlights:

    Hank Aaron is still the fans' home run king.

    Frank Robinson and his wife.

    Johnny Bench showing his true colors.

    Tom Seaver, with a Mets fan in the background.

    Robin Yount looking young enough to still be playing.

    Sparky Anderson gestures to the crowd.

    Eddie Murray riding solo.

    Wade Boggs overdoing it a bit.

    Rickey Henderson looking happy to be here.

    This year's inductee, Andre Dawson.

    Monday, August 02, 2010

    Notes from My 23rd Pilgrimage

    References to Cooperstown as the spiritual home of baseball are a bit overdone, but if any visit has the right to be considered the equivalent of a trip to Mecca, it's a Hall of Fame Weekend trek to the mythical birthplace of our national pastime.

    Since I came away from this Hall of Fame Weekend with so much that I wanted to write about here, I decided to break it into two separate posts. So, if you're interested in what I have to say about the induction ceremony, be sure to read my prior post, Hawk, The White Rat & God. This entry will focus on the remainder of the weekend.

    KJ and I had planned to spend three nights at a campground about five miles from the center of town, but Friday was a rough day. So, when we had a tough time getting out of Boston before 5pm, and fairly heavy rains added another factor we didn't feel like dealing with, we opted to spend a relaxing evening at home and get an early start on Saturday morning.

    That turned out to be a good idea, except for the fact it cut into our time spent with the friends who started this Cooperstown tradition with me during a drunken weekend in Albany the summer between our sophomore and junior years in college.

    We passed on checking out the Saturday afternoon New York-Penn League game at Doubleday Field, but our Hall of Fame Weekend experience began with what hopefully is a new tradition: a parade of Hall of Famers down Main Street. Despite the fact that they were a moving target, and there was only a brief window for photos, I got enough decent close-up shots that I'll be doing a separate post of just those pictures.

    Like I said previously, I wore my St. Louis Browns hat for the entire weekend, and I received a couple of positive comments. Most notably, a trio of Cardinals fans at our campground pointed out that they were impressed. We stopped at their site and talked to them Sunday night.

    One of them showed us a photo of the 1888 Browns he had bought in the Hall of Fame gift shop that afternoon. Those Browns, of course, are not the same franchise that is the predecessor of today's Orioles. In fact, they became the Perfectos and then the Cardinals. Our new friend told us the story of how the current name came to be.

    The franchise was called the Brown Stockings and Browns from the year of its founding in 1882 until 1899. For that season, the name was changed to the Perfectos and their uniform colors were changed to red. When a sportswriter overheard a lady fan remark, "What a lovely shade of cardinal," the nickname stuck, and the next year Cardinals became official.

    This was the first induction weekend for these Illinois residents, so I asked if they planned to make the trip for the next Cardinal to be honored. Of course, this led to the question of who that would be, with Tony LaRussa being the consensus, although we did briefly discuss the overlooked Ted Simmons.

    Boston Braves hat
    In keeping with the spirit of confusing people, I bought a Boston Braves cap at one of the many souvenir shops on Cooperstown's Main Street. It only slightly resembles a less common version of a Red Sox hat—blue cap and red bill, but with a completely different looking letter B and an image of a Native American with headdress on the side—so it will probably blend in around Boston, but also get a few double-takes. Despite the reputation of Red Sox fans as being highly knowledgeable, I doubt it will be the conversation piece that the Browns hat has been.

    While I'm at it, I do have one observation about the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony that I left out of my prior post. Bud Selig has always received a sour reception in Cooperstown, but this year was worse due to Expos fans taking out their frustrations. Unfortunately, it was probably all one hundred or so of their die-hard fans who showed up in Cooperstown. That lack of support is the reason the team lost their franchise, and no one can blame Selig for that, but these fans who drove 300 miles to honor the second player to go into the Hall of Fame as an Expo certainly aren't the reason either.