Book Review: Deal

May 27, 2015 Leave a comment

IMG_20150527_072144While the Grateful Dead last appeared on stage twenty years ago this summer, capping a thirty-year run that began in 1965, they remain popular and influential today. That remaining band members continue to perform and, to a lesser extent, record music certainly helps them remain relevant, as does their reverently cited influence by many other performers and music fans and their iconic merchandising. They are one of only five groups or individuals– along with Elvis, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Diamond, and Pearl Jam– to have a dedicated satellite radio channel.  All of the living core members– Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir– will, along with part-time member Bruce Hornsby and other subsequently affiliated and related friends, acknowledge their fiftieth anniversary by reuniting this summer for three performances at Soldier Field, the site of the band’s final concert.

Based on the sheer volume of the band’s output and the size of its audience across a three-decade lifespan, the Grateful Dead certainly is among the most important musical outfits of the twentieth century. Without a conscious effort to do so (and without any real hit songs), but instead through the sheer force that accords and abides massive bodies, they permeated the broader culture, whether as a talisman of psychedelia or through their members’ appearances in educational videos screened in public middle schools, which was the vehicle for my first direct encounter with a Dead band member, drummer Hart, who was talking about the importance of caring for and preserving musical recordings and archives (I think).

Beyond Hart, I certainly was aware of Jerry Garcia at that time, having inherited from my father some of Garcia’s neckties, which confirmed that he (Garcia) had recently died by reading a tag attached to one of them. Later, Lesh and Weir came into view as I discovered record albums in the basement– first Dead Set and later Europe ’72— with centerfolds, sleeves, and inserts covered in photographs. The two-drummer lineup caught my eye, but it would be a while longer before I really got a read on Kreutzmann, perhaps because I already knew about his percussive counterpart Hart, perhaps because Kreutzmann’s appearance allowed him to fade into the background behind his more dynamically featured bandmates, and perhaps because I simply did not know much about drumming.

I eventually gained an appreciation for Kreutzmann’s playing when I heard him backing Garcia on Garcia’s 1972 solo album. The first track, “Deal,” has remained one of my favorite entries in the Garcia/Dead songbook largely because of Kreutzmann’s playing. (See, e.g., this stripped-down session outtake.) No one ever will confuse Kreutzmann for power drummers like Keith Moon or John Bonham or more dynamic drummers like Mitch Mitchell or Jon Fishman, but I enjoyed his ability to create complimentary feels that contributed to the grit and depth of the songs.

In light of the breadth and depth of interest in the Dead, it makes sense that people would want a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the band’s inner happenings in backstage dressing rooms, recording studios, tour buses, and hotels. A fly in that environment would be subject to the sounds, sights, and smells– or, say, vapors– of the psychedelic juggernaut. The fly would become intoxicated, is the suggestion, and while it might have fun as an immediate result, it might not be the best reporter of what it observed from its on-the-wall vantage point after the fact.

Of course, musical autobiographies come in various styles. Some, like Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume I, trade precision, accuracy, and transparency for feeling, atmosphere, and emotion. Others, like Keith Richards’ Life, offer detailed clarity and genuine reflection seemingly in spite of hard living throughout most of the relevant periods.

I found myself revisiting my thoughts on and memories of Richards’ book as I finished reading Kreutzmann’s autobiography, which was published earlier this month. The drummer, it seems, combined the lifestyle of Richards with the shrouded delivery and reserved personality of Dylan. Kreutzmann is our fly on the wall, and the wall was papered with blotter paper.

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The Rhythm Devils

In at least one respect, Kreutzmann is not shy: he likes acid and marijuana, and he combined plenty of both with intense periods of cocaine, alcohol, and heroin use during the life of the Dead. He generally demarcates the period from 1965-1995 by band album or tour; wife or girlfriend; residence occupied; and predominant narcotic of use or abuse. On the surface, Kreutzmann is not unlike anyone else in this regard– most people are likely to organize their memories and events in some way according to their professional, personal, and geographic relationships. The trouble for Kreutzmann, and for his book, though, is that his drug use either wiped out his memories of happenings in his life or rendered him unable to form them by participating in the moment. While coauthor Benjy Eisen promises to deliver something other than a mere band retrospective (“Lots of people can tell you about the Grateful Dead, and all of them will allow that there are many sides to that tale. This is Bill Kreutzmann’s side. This is Bill Kreutzmann’s story.”), the final product reads like a loose history of the Dead as told by someone who was there and not there. Bill Kreutzmann & Benjy Eisen, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead 4 (St. Martin’s Press 2015).

While Kreutzmann– who has lead a variety of bands since the demise of the Grateful Dead and has both criticized and performed with his former bandmates during the last twenty years– has his wits about him today, he admits both that he does not remember a number of events significant enough to bear mention in a book like this or withdrew from them at the time due to some combination of drug use and what appears to be a generally reserved personality. While Eisen fills in the historical blanks with facts and statistics, readers are here for Kreutzmann’s observations and opinions. Too often, unfortunately, the inside scoop dips shallow.

The book does check some basic boxes. We learn which short-lived associates Kreutzmann considers true members of the band (yes for Hornsby, no for Vince Welnick and Tom Constanten); that he was mad when Hart made his initial return to the band after a personal leave of absence following Hart’s father’s theft from the band in his capacity as manager; which songwriting duo he preferred (Garcia-Hunter to Weir-Barlow, like most, possibly including Weir and John Perry Barlow); and that he often found better social company with the band’s roadies and staff than with his fellow musicians. Interesting trivia disclosed, though not here for the first time, includes that Kreutzmann’s grandfather was Clark Shaughnessy, who successfully coached various football teams at the collegiate and professional levels during a five-decade career, and that the Dead’s most commercially successful album, In the Dark, derived its title from a recording session conducted with the lights off in order to facilitate musical collaboration. One episode Kreutzmann did delve into at some length was the band’s 1978 performance in front of the Great Pyramids in Egypt, a visit that included Bedouins observing the concert happenings from afar and a midnight horse ride to a mysterious desert drum site.

What is missing, however, is any palatable expression of emotion with respect to Kreutzmann’s relationships with the people in his life. I have no reason to doubt that Kreutzmann loves his family members and friends, but that love largely does not translate to the pages of his book. His wives, partners, and children, like his bandmates and friends, appear as sometimes indiscriminate placeholders, simple trail markers along the book’s historical path, which is occasionally littered with throwaway quotations of song lyrics and the non-contextual talking points of a social liberal (e.g., marijuana good, genetically modified food bad).

Dead in Egypt

Dead in Egypt

Whether that is a reflection of a shy personality, Eisen’s failure to draw him out, or memories forgotten or never made, is impossible to say. But when he says a death saddened him (“darn it,” he almost always writes), the reader sometimes feels moved to ask, “really?”, not out of any doubt that the emotion is or was real, but because the expressed development of the relationship that naturally would precede a sensation and expression of sadness upon death is missing. Authors can tell or they can show, and, many times, there seems to be too little of the latter in this book. (On the other hand, perhaps I should have better appreciated these simple expressions of feelings, as other reviewers have, particularly in the case of Garcia, as telling contrasts to the bands well-noted excesses.)

Deal was an easy and enjoyable read. Although I have been listening to the Grateful Dead’s music, watching their movies an video footage, and reading magazine and internet articles about them for years, this was the first full-length book I have read by or about them. That it left me wanting more, in a sense, probably puts me in good company with the still-insatiable legion of Dead fans from Golden Gate Park to Giza.

Categories: Books, Music

“The prettiest place on Earth was Baltimore at night”

April 30, 2015 1 comment

Eight months later, another American city is undertaking physical confrontation of questions sometimes forcefully presented that, distilled, are fundamentally straightforward. Answering them has proven challenging, however.

The binary nature of many of the relationships and interactions at issue can lead to both clarity and confusion. This remains a time for asking questions (and seeking answers to those questions), rather than drawing conclusions:

It is an open American wound in one of our great American cities, and any attempt to conscribe some “lesson” to be learned, some overarching A-to-B “The More You Know” takeaway is an insult to the density of the situation both in Baltimore and the rest of the country. (The president’s response Tuesday on this was telling; he actually apologized for giving such a long answer.) Life is impossibly confounding, from every angle — the best you can do is just try to have empathy for every individual human being and admit that none of us can truly know anything. I can’t boil it down to any conceivable essence without losing its bottomless complexity, and neither can you. Distrust those who try. They are attempting to sell you something.

At the risk of losing this site’s sponsoring advertisers, I will press on just a little further in order to note the following:

Justice demands that participants in the riots are identified, arrested, and charged with whatever crimes they committed. Their unjustifiable violence endangered innocents, destroyed businesses, and harmed the economic future of largely black neighborhoods; they earned the frustrated contempt of Baltimore’s mayor and members of its clergy and strengthened the hand of the public-safety unions that are the biggest obstacles to vital policing reforms.

But a subset of Baltimore police officers has spent years engaged in lawbreaking every bit as flagrant as any teen jumping up and down on a squad car, however invisible it is to CNN. And their unpunished crimes have done more damage to Baltimore than Monday’s riots. Justice also requires that those cops be identified and charged, but few are demanding as much because their brutality mostly goes un-televised. Powerless folks are typically the only witnesses to their thuggery. For too long, the police have gotten away with assaults and even worse. The benefit of the doubt conferred by their uniforms is no longer defensible.

(Hyperlink added.)

There exists a binary relationship between the law and the citizenry as well. In practice, the making of the former ought to reflect the– perhaps aspirational– values of the latter. The enactment of laws enshrining principles of equality is no small feat, a fact to which older generations can attest. Yet, as the exceeding of boiling points in Ferguson and Baltimore within the past year reveal, the still greater challenge remains the actual living under and abiding by those governing principles of equality.

For some, recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore come as revelations that fundamental power, class, and race conflicts persist in this country. (For many others, of course, knowledge of the reality of these conflicts did not come recently.) These protests and related events do not represent a step backward, though, because their underlying drivers are not new, and because the effort to carry out enacted policies of equality and justice comes as a natural and subsequent step following the enactment of those policies.

At this time, however, many questions remain.

Are the “Best” Airlines Environmentally Friendly?

March 31, 2015 1 comment

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal recently released its 2014 rankings of major airlines, as determined by evaluating the carriers according to seven different factors, including on-time arrivals, cancelled flights, mishandled baggage, and complaints. Environmental-impact factors were not included in the Journal’s analysis. Here are the Journal’s results:

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FiveThirtyEight also recently released a ranking of major airlines, but their analysis focused exclusively on environmental impact. More specifically, FiveThirtyEight ranked carriers based on fuel efficiency:

The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), an independent nonprofit funded by private foundations and entities such as the UE and World Bank, has been tracking airline fuel efficiency since 2010. Its latest report found no overall net gain in fuel efficiency from 2012 to 2013, and a 27 percent gap between the three most efficient carriers — Alaska, Spirit and Frontier Airlines— and the least efficient one, American Airlines.

The report’s “fuel efficiency score” is a unitless measure calculated using an airline’s revenue passenger miles, the number of airports it serves and its flight frequency per unit of fuel burned. A score of 1.00 is the industry average. The greater the number, the better the efficiency.

Here are their results:

538fuel

As the following crude chart indicates, setting aside outliers like Alaska and American, there generally appears to be an inverse relationship between consumer satisfaction and fuel efficiency:

airlinesatisfaction

This chart plots the eight airlines appearing in both reports according to their ranks for consumer satisfaction (WSJ) and fuel efficiency (FiveThirtyEight), a larger number being “better” (i.e., greater consumer satisfaction or greater fuel efficiency). As plotted, Frontier, Southwest, JetBlue, Delta, and Virgin American illustrate an unmistakable inverse relationship between consumer satisfaction and fuel efficiency: as the former increases, the latter decreases. The two extreme outliers are Alaska, which earned top marks for both consumer satisfaction and fuel efficiency, and American, which was ranked second-worst in consumer satisfaction and worst in fuel efficiency.   Read more…

Getting a Better Grip on Guns in Airports

February 27, 2015 1 comment

Last month, the digitally minded folks at FiveThirtyEight set out to answer a simple question: How many guns has the United States Transportation Administration confiscated at each U.S. airport? The TSA gave them the answer, in terms of both loaded and unloaded guns confiscated per airport. FiveThirtyEight presented this data as a list of airports, ranked in descending order by total guns confiscated. They then drew some general conclusions from the data, as presented (e.g., “Airports in Texas and Florida dominate the list” and “Do a quick gun-check the next time you’re about to head to the airport, it’ll save us all a lot of time”).

The brief critique of FiveThirtyEight’s post is that the site has added nothing to the understanding of this subject, beyond doing what, presumably, anyone else could do– request the data from TSA and list it in a simple chart– and no more. (Indeed, numerous news sites posted similar reports around the same time.)

Upon almost immediate reflection, it should be of negligible surprise that the airports that appear atop the list– Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth, Phoenix, both Houston airports, and Denver– are among the most heavily utilized airports in the country. Keeping in mind that, in general, the passengers from whom TSA is confiscating guns at a given airport are on flights originating from that airport, the painfully obvious question of actual value to this conversation is, at which airports did TSA confiscate a disproportionate number of guns relative to the number of passengers at that particular airport? With more than a little help from some friends, including readers Mitch and Rusty, the answer to that question follows.   Read more…

Categories: Discourse, Information

The Wall Street Journal Journal for January 16, 2015

January 16, 2015 Leave a comment

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Stock spiked up out of the gate this morning, reacting to overnight news of a legal détente between two liquidity trading firms. The sharp upswing stalled and eventually vanished as the market digested new uncertainty in the mammalian employment and licensure sectors. Traders soon erased the losses of the morning, and nearly the week, however, mounting a breathless climb in fitting tribute to a fallen brand, ending the day up over two-hundred points.

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Stocks end 5-day losing streak: Dow gains about 200

Categories: Current, Discourse, Information

The Wall Street Journal Journal for January 15, 2015

January 15, 2015 Leave a comment

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Morning trading reflected the market’s equivocation over reports of a global currency crash. By midday, stocks had fallen and remained down through the closing bell in response to increased racial tensions on the West Coast.

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S&P 500 under 2000 for first time since Dec. 16

Categories: Current, Discourse, Information

The Wall Street Journal Journal for January 14, 2015

January 14, 2015 3 comments

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Stocks fell precipitously today as a result of sweeping fears that the planet is growing larger. Already four-hundred points off yesterday‘s low, the market ticked up slightly in midmorning trading as it attempted to interpret mixed news from the Italian commodities market. However, the announcement of a widespread pork shortage crushed any hope for a sustainable gain, and the market continued to tumble closed.

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 Stock plunge deepens: Dow closes down fourth-straight session

Categories: Current, Discourse, Information
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