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Wednesday, September 23, 2020


Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87

[An edited version of this post was originally written for my library's blog.]

Hero. Icon. Dissenter.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the US Supreme Court Justice whose pioneering advocacy for women’s rights and championing of liberal causes (from abortion rights to same-sex marriage) elevated her to late-life “rock-star” status as a cultural icon known to her admirers as “Notorious R.B.G.,” died at her Washington, DC home on September 18, age 87. Though the cause of death was complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, Ginsburg had long suffered from health problems, having previously beaten colon cancer in 1999, early-stage pancreatic cancer in 2009, and early-stage lung cancer in December 2019. 

When a cultural icon’s life spans nine decades, it’s hard to do it “Justice” (sorry!) in a mere blog posting. So to learn more about Ginsburg’s extraordinary life, be sure to check out the many print and media resources about her available from Pratt at the end of this article.

When President Bill Clinton chose her to replace Justice Byron R. White in 1993 (Joe Biden was Chairman of the Senate Committee that confirmed her by a vote of 96-3), Ginsburg became only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court (after Sandra Day O’Connor) and the first Democratic appointee since Thurgood Marshall in 1967. New York Times writer Linda Greenhouse found that succession telling: 

“There was something fitting about that sequence, because Ginsburg was occasionally described as the Thurgood Marshall of the women’s rights movement...The analogy was based on her sense of strategy and careful selection of cases as she persuaded the all-male Supreme Court, one case at a time, to start recognizing the constitutional barrier against discrimination on the basis of sex. The young Thurgood Marshall had done much the same as the civil rights movement’s chief legal strategist in building the case against racial segregation.”

Her “Notorious RBG” handle was a play on the name of rapper The Notorious B.I.G (Christopher Wallace, aka “Biggie Smalls”) who, like her, was a native of Brooklyn, New York. It was NYU law student Shana Knizhhik who first coined the “Notorious RBG” moniker with the launch of her Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr page in 2013. And, just as unlikely as it was for a frail 5-foot-tall, 100-pound white woman to be compared to an imposing 6-foot-2, 395-pound Black rapper, if only by name, also improbable was Ginsburg’s surprisingly close friendship with the late arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. They frequently argued on opposite sides of the law, but both shared an abiding love of opera and Scalia admired his colleague’s tenacity in the courtroom, calling her a “tigress on civil procedure...She will take a lawyer who is making a ridiculous argument and just shake him like a dog with a bone."

RBG: A small frame but a firm backbone

She may have been small, but her diminutive frame contained a firm backbone. Ginsburg won five of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court as a young lawyer, and though she had a number of landmark wins during her subsequent 27-years sitting on the Bench - her majority opinion challenging the all-male admissions policy of the state-funded Virginia Military Academy helped open the doors to women everywhere in 1996 - she was equally renowned for her powerful dissenting opinions, from 2000’s Bush v. Gore recount to the Court’s July 2020 decision (based on the 2014 Hobby Lobby case) to strike down the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate on religious and moral grounds. Of the latter she wrote, “Today, for the first time, the Court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree. This court leaves women workers to fend for themselves, to seek contraceptive coverage from sources other than their employer's insurer, and, absent another available source of funding, to pay for contraceptive services out of their own pockets.” Other noteworthy dissents energized liberal activists by calling out gender and race-based voting discrimination. Her dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007) eventually led Congress to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which was the first bill signed by President Barack Obama upon taking office in January 2009. And in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), she decried the Court’s invalidation of a key provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, writing, “Race-based voting discrimination still exists. This court’s decision is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” 

But while her reputation as a legal scholar was hardly surprising, her late-career transformation into a pop cultural phenomenon was totally unexpected. What other Supreme Court Justice could inspire parents to dress their daughters up as her for Halloween? Or have their fitness workout videos go viral? And, other than Thurgood Marshall, how many other justices have not only had a critically acclaimed documentary (Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s Oscar-nominated RBG, 2018) but a Hollywood biopic (Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex, also from 2018 and starring Felicity Jones as the young Ginsburg) dedicated to them, not to mention shout-outs in popular entertainments ranging from Saturday Night Live to The LEGO Movie 2

While the 2013 launch of the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr page made her an internet sensation, many trace the “cult of RBG” to the memes and merchandise that proliferated following Justice Ginsburg’s passionate dissenting opinion in the 2014 Hobby Lobby case. Her iconic status was only further strengthened by Donald J. Trump’s election in 2016 when, as Entertainment Weekly’s Tyler Aquilina observed, “As the oldest justice on the bench and the de facto leader of the Court's left-leaning faction, Ginsburg became a champion for liberals who dreaded Trump's potential to shape the future of the Court. She was no longer merely a judicial hero; she was a symbolic barrier against a decades-long conservative Supreme Court majority.”

Speaking at the Sundance premiere of RBG in 2018, Ginsburg said, “The more women who are out there doing things, the better off all of us will be for it.” She also cited Martin Luther King, Jr., adding, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But her favorite inspirational quote was by 19th century abolitionist Sarah Gremke, who said, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” RBG lived her life as a testament to all those beliefs and we are the better for it. Her passing creates a void not only in the Supreme Court, but in the hearts and minds of all of her devoted admirers.

Want To Learn More About RBG? Pratt Can Help!

If you’d like to learn more about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s amazing life and career, Pratt has many great resources - from books and ebooks to movies and musicals - to choose from, as listed below.

  • Download or stream (mobile devices only) 14 ebooks about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg available from Hoopla.

  • Read any of the 33 print books about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

  • Watch Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s surprise box-office hit documentary RBG (2018). You can stream RBG on Kanopy or Hoopla or check out it out on DVD using Pratt’s Sidewalk Service or Books-by-Mail services.

  • Watch the DVD of Mimi Leder’s biopic On the Basis of Sex (2018), which covers Ginsburg’s first sex discrimation court case. Like Ginsburg, director Leder was also a pioneer in her field, being the first woman to graduate from the AFI Conservatory in 1973.

  • Read Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Ms. Knizhnik, which reached the best-seller list the day after its publication in 2015. Notorious RBG is also available as a Hoopla ebook and as an audiobook you can listen to on CD. Younger audiences can listen to the Notorious RBG Young Readers Edition available through Overdrive.

  • Read Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s In My Own Words (2016), a collection of her writings and speeches that focuses on her efforts as a women's rights crusader.

  • Read Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life (2018) by Jane Sherron De Hart. Based on 15 years' worth of interviews and research, this comprehensive biography by feminist historian De Hart explores the experiences that shaped Ginsburg's enduring passion for justice and gender equality.

  • Read I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark (2016), a children’s biography of Ginsburg by Debbie Levy with illustrations by Elizabeth Baddeley.

  • Read Bryant Johnson’s The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong...and You Can Too! (2017), an illustrated exercise book that shares the routines that kept RBG fit into her 80s. The RBG Workout is also available as an ebook.

  • Listen to the Notorious RBG in Song (2018), a CD album of recordings saluting the life and work of Ginsburg that features soprano Patrice Michaels and pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, as well as compositions by composers Lori Laitman, Stacy Garrup, Vivian Fung and an aria from Derrick Wang’s new comic opera, Scalia/Ginsburg.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Post-Punk Pop Poetry Is Alive and Well on Hoopla!

 [This post was originally written for my library's blog, Pratt Chat.]

Dubliners Fontaines D.C.

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, it cemented his legacy not only as a celebrated rock & roll lyricist but as a legitimate poet, period. Lauded for having created “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” Dylan’s achievement no doubt inspired many other pop musicians who aspired to have their words taken just as seriously as their music. One of those bands is Fontaines D.C., who hail from across the pond in Ireland, “the land of poets and legends, of dreamers and rebels,” as author Nora Roberts famously described the Emerald Isle. “All of these have music woven through and around them. Tunes for dancing and for weeping, for battle or for love.”

Roberts’ description aptly describes Fontaines D.C., so if post-punk pop from the land of poetry and legend appeals to you, you’re in luck because you can use your library card to stream or download (mobile device only) both of Fontaines D.C.’s albums to-date, Dogrel (2019) and A Hero’s Death (2020), through Hoopla! (All of Fontaines D.C.’s recorded output, including singles and EPs, is also available on Spotify.)

Fontaines D.C. are a young post-punk band from Dublin (the D.C. is for Dublin City, a suffix the group added to their name when it turned out there was a band from Los Angeles also named The Fontaines) that formed in 2017 while the lads were attending music college at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMMI). Taking their name from a fictional character portrayed by Al Martino in the movie The Godfather (Vito Corleone’s godson, the Sinatra-styled singer “Johnny Fontaine”), the musicians - singer Grian Chatten, guitarists Carlos O'Connell and Conor Curley, bassist Conor Deegan III and drummer Tom Coll - first bonded over a shared love of poetry. In fact, they collectively released two collections of poetry - Vroom (inspired by American Beat poets) and Wingding (inspired by Irish poets) - before recording their critically acclaimed debut album, Dogrel in 2019. 

Poets who knows it: Fontaine D.C.’s “Vroom!"


“Dublin in the rain is mine, a pregnant city with a Catholic mind." - Fontaines D.C., “Big”

The title of the band’s debut is a self-deprecating homage to “Doggerel,” the working-class “poetry of the people” popularized by so-called “bad” poets like William McGonagall and later by the playful light verse of Baltimore’s own Ogden Nash that made a virtue of the trivial. Dogrel was released to critical acclaim in April 2019: it was voted Album of the Year by record label Rough Trade and BBC Radio 6 Music, and was nominated for both the Mercury Prize and the Choice Music Prize. 

“Shouty post-punk bands are making a surprise comeback in 2019,” hailed The Irish Times, crediting “this brutal but articulate Irish bunch” with capturing “the feeling of living in Dublin as it balances historical weight with financial upheaval.” The opening rant “Big” sets the template for the band’s sound - equal parts Mark E. Smith and The Fall vitriol, pounding beats and driving Gang of Four guitars - with lyrics reflecting the group’s upbringing in Dublin’s historically working-class southwest neighborhood, “The Liberties”: “Dublin in the rain is mine, a pregnant city with a Catholic mind." “Chequeless Reckless” and “Liberty Belle” (their first single) continue the overcast mood, but sunny pop shines through to save the day on tunes like the Smiths-friendly “Television Screen” and the album’s best song, the breakthrough single “Boys In the Better Land,” a tour-de-force of melodic pop and verbal assault that even gives a shout-out to a famous Dubliner muse: “The radio is all about a runway model, with a face like sin and a heart like a James Joyce novel.” But be forewarned: singer Grian Chatte’s brogue is as thick and heavy as a bowl of split-pea soup and at times as hard to decipher as a James Joyce novel!

Intrigued? Then give a listen to “Boys in the Better Land” (Official Audio, YouTube). There are several more versions of this song, including the "Darklands Version" and two recorded live: Live on KEPX radio and Live at the Hyundai Mercury Prize Awards, as shown below:

A Hero’s Death (2020)

The band's second studio album, A Hero's Death, was written and recorded in the midst of extensive touring for their debut, and was only released last month - yet here it is on Hoopla already (hooray!). Despite titles such as “Sunny,” “Oh Such a Spring,” and “Love Is the Thing,” the mood is mostly brooding and reserved, as if the band didn’t want to be pigeon-holed by the blunt punk format of their initial offering. In fact, Grian Chatten went so far as to call the songs “a dismissal of expectations.” Thus, the quietly hypnotic “You Said” - sounding like a slow-tempo Smiths song, with Grian Chatten playing Morrissey to a beautiful, lilting guitar solo lifted from Johnny Marr’s playbook - gives way to “Living In America,” wherein Chatten channels the spirit of Ian Curtis in a Joy Division dirge. Clearly, this a sophomore effort that shows growth and maturity, trading the driving punk assault of their debut for what one critic called “a series of existential mantras set to broody post-punk anthems.” So feel free to dismiss your expectations but don’t dismiss Fontaines D.C. just yet; you may find yourself embracing some unpredictably exciting new sounds worth exploring.

The debut single from the album is the titular “A Hero’s Death.” To watch the official video, starring Aiden Gillen (“Littlefinger” on HBO’s Game of Thrones, Tommy Carcetti on The Wire) as a talk show host, click here.


Signposts: Listen to Fontaines D.C. if you like John Cooper Clarke, Morrissey, The Smiths, The Fall, The Pogues, Stiff Little Fingers or early Joy Division.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Facebook "An Album a Day" Challenge

God knows how many times these Facebook (or Fakebook, as I cynically call it)  "list" challenges have been issued over the years, with variations for movies, albums, TV shows, etc. This one was chain-lettered onto me by my music-loving wife, Amy Warner (who herself was tagged by another Fakebook friend). I find that each time I answer them, my choices tend to vary, if only slightly. Guess it shows how our tastes vary as we age and continue to experience new things. But my core favorite albums, the ones that have formed who I am or were important for me at critical times in my life remain pretty much the same. There will always be a Beatles album on any list, and a Buzzcocks, and a Sinatra, and a Kinks. We hold these truths to be self-evident. The original challenge was to post a picture of an album cover with no commentary, but I'm a slave to blather, so I could not resist some verbiage. And a representative video sampling of an outstanding song from each listed album. Here 'tis:


Amy Warner's "An Album a Day" Fakebook Challenge #14:

My favorite Beatle, George Harrison, said that RUBBER SOUL was his favorite Beatles album, and that's good enough for me. Paul switched to a Rickenbacker and George to a Fender Strat as the group started to hear and produce new sounds (like George's sitar, Paul's fuzz bass, plus harmoniums, pianos mixed to sound like harpischords, etc.) on this record. Along with next year's REVOLVER, the Beatles entered their psychedelic phase, if only spiritually. Hard to choose which version - US or UK - is best. I tend towards EMI's UK version. We Yanks originally got the Capitol version which removed four songs from the EMI release - "Drive My Car", "Nowhere Man", "What Goes On" and "If I Needed Someone" (later issued on the Beatles' next North American album, YESTERDAY AND TODAY) and replaced them with the HARD DAY'S NIGHT leftovers "I've Just Seen a Face" and "It's Only Love" - and had those two false starts at the beginning of "I'm Looking Through You" on the stereo mix that I love. The false starts are ingrained in me brain and the clean intro sounds false to me now! (For best value, the compromise is the 2014 CAPITOL ALBUMS VOLUME 2 box set version with both mono and stereo versions on one CD).

Amy Warner's "An Album a Day" Fakebook Challenge # Triskaidekaphobia

I doubt it clocked in at more than a half-hour, like a Ramones record - maybe that's what they meant by calling it an "Instant Record" - but it said more in that blitzkreig bop-paced duration than any bloated double-LP set. Boasting Hell's surreal words and like-I-give-a-shit vocal style, Marky Ramone's rock-steady beat and a two-guitar attack straight outta The Yardbirds Playbook - highlighted by Robert Quine's screeching avant-jazz leads - this one never gets old. "Blank Generation," "Love Comes In Spurts," "The Plan," "New Pleasure," fly by in the blink of an eye, short and sweet, ending with the lone jam at the end, "Another World"," wherein Hell sounds like he's coughing up a lung as he declares "I could live with you in another world...not this one!" Listeners will live in this one for a long time.

Popsike.com sez it bestest:
"By the summer of 1976, Richard Hell had formed then quit arguably the two most exciting bands of the original CBGBs scene – Television and The Heartbreakers. If those bands personified first-wave punk’s extremes of brains and balls, Hell’s next unit neatly synthsised the two. The key was Robert Quine, a friend since they’d worked in a bookstore together, who “looked like a deranged insurance salesman”. Teaming Quine with Ivan Julian, a dread-locked kid recently arrived from touring Europe with The Foundations (of “Build Me Up Buttercup” fame), The Voidoids’ wired two-guitar attack was as sophisticated as Television’s, but more driving and angular."

Amy Warner's "An Album a Day" Fakebook Challenge #12:

Arguably the most quintessentially British (tea, crumpet, steam trains, roast beef on Sunday, all right!) pop record by the most quintessentially British pop band in history. Ray Davies wanted to put out a record that would define "who we are and where we come from," and this loosely-conceptual album about the memories, ideals and allegiances symbolized by the village green - yes, the church, the clock, the steeple and "all the simple people" - is the result. God save Tudor houses, antique tables, and billiards - and strawberry jam and all its different varieties!

"Album a Day" Fakebook Challenge #11:

Really the only Todd Rundgren album you'll ever need, this double Elpee'ss worth of tunes finds a wizard and a true star (and a megalomaniac, but that's irrelevant to the end product, right?) playing every instrument and handling all vocal duties on the first three sides while a band featuring Soupy's kids - Tony and Hunt Sales - accompanies him on the fourth. Filled with ballads, power-pop, blue-eyed soul, goofball humor ("Piss Aaron," "You Left me Sore"), studio knob-doodling and "everything in between" and obvious hits ("I Saw the Light," "Hello It's Me," "Couldn't You Just Tell Me") sharing the grooves with even better misses ("Marlene," "Cold Morning Light," "It Takes Two To Tango," "It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference," "Sweeter Memories," "Slut" - the latter an Alex Chilton setlist fave). Plus "Torch Song," a heartbreak ballad that gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

Amy Warner's "Album a Day" Fakebook Challenge #10:

It's hard to pick just one Sinatra album from his half century of recorded output and from all his stylistic incarnations - the croon 'n' swoon Frankie of the '40s, the apogee of artistry Capitol-ist of the '50s, the Rat Pack wannabe swinger of the Reprise Records '60s, but all agree his '50s period was his musical zenith. And the apotheosis of the Sinatra godhead: 1957's CLOSE TO ME.

It was almost 65 years ago, in the spring of 1956, that Sinatra started recording the tracks that would appear on his groundbreaking album CLOSE TO YOU, an LP of love songs arranged by Nelson Riddle working the Hollywood String Quarter (featuring Sinatra favorites Felix and Eleanor Slatkin on violin and cello) to reflect Frank's admiration for classical music. I had always thought Sinatra reached his peak with 1955's IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS, but when the 1998 CD of CLOSE TO ME came out (retitled CLOSE TO ME AND MORE, with the previously unreleased session tracks "If It's the Last Thing I Do," "There's a Flaw in My Flue" and the majestic "Wait till You See Her"), I realized it don't mean a thing without those strings. And the original album closer, "The End of a Love Affair," is one of the greatest songs ever in his discography.

Though one of the most obscure and overlooked in his career, it's easily his most intimate album ("real bedroom kind of stuff," in Frank's words) and he worked on it longer than any previous recording project (five sessions over eight months), carefully crafting each song as he followed his musical muse. As critic Richard Havers concluded, "While IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS has a personal intimacy, it is Frank’s voice and the delicacy of the quartet that imbues this album with qualities unique amongst the Sinatra canon." Like Elvis's sit-down set on his '68 COMEBACK SPECIAL, it offers fans a glimpse of the true artist beneath the public image. The man behind the myth. Sinatra truly gets close to...YOU.

Amy Warner's "Album a Day" Fakebook Challenge #9:

You can pick any Gram Parsons record and, like him, I'll love it to death, but this one - released posthumously just 4 months after his death, was on constant play on my turntable back in the day, and features him with his best duet partner, the lovely Emmylou Harris. (If ya wanna cheat, pick up the 1990 Reprise reissue twofer that added the GP album with it.) In college, I was obsessed with the Flying Burrito Brothers compilation CLOSE UP THE HONKY TONKS (1973) that came out in the wake of Gram Parson's untimely death, and it led me to "GP" (featuring Emmalou Harris and Elvis's smokin' TCB band) and "Live 1973" and his International Submarine Band recordings, but it was GRIEVOUS ANGEL where Gram best expressed his "Cosmic American Music" repertoire while hanging "out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels." Some say he didn't even write the title song, but who cares - he sang it, and Gram's voice, that bottomless pit of a Georgia Peach, always makes me feel better each time it begins, callin' me home like hickory wind. God damn, Gram, you are legend!

Amy Warner's "Album a Day" Fakebook Challenge #8:
10CC - SHEET MUSIC (1974)

Though I didn't get them at first, I think it's significant that the two women whose musical tastes I most respect and whose tastes have most influenced me, are fanatical devotees. Kathleen Glancy Milstein first turned me onto them in 1978 via a greatest hits package that had led off with the Dr. Demento-worthy "Rubber Bullets." At the time we were under the sway of punque and New Wave, so its overt, over-produced slickness didn't stick with me until much later. Then Amy Warner turned out to be their North American press agent, proselytizing to all who would listen that the Mancunian Fab Four's First Four (10cc, Sheet Music, The Original Soundtrack and How Dare You!) were sacred texts, sonic screeds handed down from Strawberry Studios in Stockport like the tablets of stone to Moses - but whereas Moses' tablets were smashed to bits, these were smashed with hits. And of this Gang of (Fab) Four, none was so sacrosanct as...SHEET MUSIC. 10 tracks, not a throwaway among them - Wall Street Shuffle, The Worst Band in the World, Hotel, Old Wild Men, Clockwork Creep, Silly Love, Somewhere In Hollywood, Baron Samedi, The Sacro-Iliac and Oh Effendi. Individually, the songs ranged from funny, rockin,' and poignant to offensive, sarcastic, and silly. And the Elpee in toto: perfect!

Amy Warner's "Album a Day" Challenge #7 (OK, I'm cheating and skipping ahead a day):

His first, his best, a platter that mattered most to me. The coolest "Tommy" since Tom Lehr (who turned me on to Mr Keene), a local hero who passed before his time, but represented everything I know and love about rock and roll - no hype, no ego, just tunes that spoke for themselves. A craftsman who loved his craft, a journeyman who logged the miles, a guitar maestro respected by his peers, an underrated lyricist of effortless (yet meaningful) rhymes, one whose legacy remains an enviable back catalog of memorable hooks and masterful songwriting...

Amy Warner's "Album a Day" Fakebook Challenge, #6:

The one, the only. Toe-tappers, mirth-makers and lyrical lunacy by our local heroes: Dave Cawley, Skizz Cyzyk and Brent Malkus. Pop-punk from Japan (Cawley-san's beloved land which "looks so pretty, land of Ultraman and Hello Kitty") by way of Charm City, with shout-outs to Kamen Rider, Giant Robots and Lucifer's Chin along the way. 

Amy Warner's "An Album a Day" Challenge #5:

Ah, the Ice Cream Kid LP, aka Europe '72! I truly hate tie-dye, but before I discovered punque, I was totally into the Dreadful Grate during my high school & college daze and this was my go-to fave, a triple platter overview of their repetoire up to that time. For some reason "Jack Straw From Witchita" and "Brown-Eyed Women and Red Grenadine" stand out in my memory banks above all others. Someone pointed out that the squares on the Ice Cream Kid's shirt (cover art as usual by Mouse/Kelly) are exactly 1/4" x 1/4," which happens to be the size of a standard tab of acid. It wouldn't surprise me if this was intentional.

Amy Warner's "An Album a Day" Challenge #4:

For Amy Warner's "Album a Day" Fakebook Challenge #4, I say, c'mon GET HAPPY! 20 hits crammed into its tight grooves. I remember when you could get this LP at Burger King as part of some promo they were running. The grooves on this platter and getting mighty crowded, resulting in the lo-fi sound Elvis was going for, a throwback to the old "real audio" heard on long-players like this. Amy the Elvis fanatic always says, "I wish Elvis would go back to making records like this." His best and a best value for fans alike.

Amy Warner's "An Album a Day" Challenge  #3:

OK, it's a sneaky li'l cheat, because it's a reissue of two LPs on one CD, but I always say, the more the merrier. Essential melancholy-tinged rock and roll by Messrs Bell & Chilton that never gets old or dated.

Amy Warner's "An Album a Day" Challenge #2:

Here's one I got when it came out as a double-LP in 1976 and that I played the grooves off of in college (back when I still smoked pot and thought psychedelically). Sonically, all my inspirations were records from College Daze, though I dug the Byrds from the minute I saw them lip-synching "Mr. Tambourine Man" on the old Kirby Scott Show. The Byrds would later foster an obsession with cosmic country-rock of The Flying Burrito Brothers thanks to erstwhile Byrd/Sweetheart of the Rodeo Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman...

Amy Warner's "An Album a Day" Challenge #1:

This album changed my life. Always dug Buzzcocks pop-punk music, but Steve Diggle upped his songwriting game on Side 1, while Pete Shelley's Abbey Road-style tour-de-force segues on side 2 made me fully appreciate the intellectual side of  the band.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Unheralded Heroes In a League of Their Own

(This post was originally submitted to my Baltimore library work blog.)

Major League Baseball finally began its long-delayed, shortened season on July 23, when Dr. Anthony Fauci threw out the first pitch at Nationals Park for the opening day game between the defending champion Washington Nationals and the New York Yankees. Fauci’s wild pitch may not have “flattened the curve,” but it got the ball rolling again for America’s much-missed great national pastime. As the “Boys of Summer” once again take to the field to play ball, there are innumerable books available from the library to read about them and the game they play. But while we all know the celebrated legends of baseball lore from Babe Ruth to Mike Trout, there were countless unheralded heroes of the game, including stars of the Negro Leagues, barnstorming teams, semipro clubs and foreign teams. Thankfully, acclaimed artist Gary Cieradkowski (whose resume includes creating the graphics for Oriole Park at Camden Yards!) tells the story of these colorful characters in The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes (2015), which can be checked out from Pratt using our Sidewalk Service or Books By Mail services.

Alongside his trademark vintage baseball card-style illustrations, Cieradkowski sheds light on the lesser known stories of the unsung heroes and ordinary lovers of the game in chapters devoted to  “Bush Leaguers” (everyone starts somewhere: George Herman “Babe” Ruth for the St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys and minor league Baltimore Orioles; Walter Johnson for the semipro Anaheim Oil Wells; Willie Mays for the Trenton, NJ Giants, and so on); “Could-Have-Beens” (like the Brooklyn Dodgers’ injury-prone wall-crashing outfielder “Pistol Pete” Reiser, or the Orioles’ legendary minor league pitching prospect Steve Dalkowski, the original “Wild Thing” model for Bull Durham’s Nuke LaLoosh; he could throw 110-mph but walked as many as he struck out and never stepped foot on a major league mound); “International Game” (highlighting foreign stars like Japan’s Eija Sawamura, who once struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx in succession in a 1934 All-Star exhibition game, only to die in naval action during WWII); “Bad Guys” (so many! Like St. Louis Browns pitcher Ralph “Blackie” Schwamb, who became an enforcer for gangster Mickey Cohen and later served time for murder at San Quentin; and Martinsville Athletics shortstop John “Jackrabbit” Dillinger, who went from stealing bases to robbing banks and risked capture to attend home games of his beloved Chicago Cubs; and 1920s Baltimore Black Sox stars Frank “The Weasel” Warfield and Oliver “The Ghost” Marcelle, whose fight over a crap game ended with Weasel biting off The Ghost’s nose - long before anyone had ever heard the name Mike Tyson!); “People’s Game” (featuring famous people that most never knew played the game, like Pittsbugh Plymouths manager Jack Kerouac; Frank "Swoonatra" Sinatra, who played second base for his 1940s Hollywood team, The Swooners; future US Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and George H.R. Bush; and, Fidel Castro, who in 1959 pitched a mere two innings in an exhibition game pitting his Los Barbudos against a military police squad); and “Race Game,” the longest (and arguably best) chapter, which highlights the many stars of the Negro Leagues.

Here one finds the “Black Babe Ruth” Josh Gibson; Baltimore native Leon Day; Cyclone Joe Williams (considered, along with Satchel Paige, the finest blackball pitcher of all time); fleet-footed Pittsburgh Crawfords outfielder “Cool Papa” Bell (whom Jesse Owens refused to race against); Baltimore Black Sox star “Jud” Wilson; Oakland Oaks pitcher Jimmie Claxton (the first Black player to appear on a baseball card!); Charlie Hippo (a two-sport Canadian athlete who was the first Black to play pro hockey and the last to play organized baseball before Jackie Robinson in 1946); and second baseman Charlie Grant, whom manager John McGraw attempted to get onto his major league Baltimore Orioles team by disguising him as a Native American called “Chief Tokohama”! (As Cieradkowski comments, “Native Americans were reluctantly allowed to play professional baseball alongside whites, though virtually every one who did was saddled with the nickname of “Chief.”)

In a League of Her Own: Nightclub singer Kitty Burke faced Cardinals pitcher Daffy Dean in 1935
A final chapter is called “Odd Balls” and there is no shortage of them in baseball. There’s the “small ball” story of Eddie Gaedel, who at 3 ½ feet-tall was  the smallest player in Major League history; Gaedel made one pinch-hitting appearance in a 1951 game as a publicity stunt for Bill Veeck’s St. Louis Browns (he walked!). Another Browns player, outfielder Pete Gray, played 77 games for St. Louis in 1945 despite having only one arm. Then there’s the Stanzaks: an entire team made up of brothers! Polish immigrant Martin Stanczak fielded 10 of his boys, aged 15 to 33, on a Midwest semipro team that in 1929 was crowned “World Brothers Champions” after defeating all comers in an all-siblings team competition! And finally, there’s the oddball story of Kitty Burke, a nightclub singer who was the only woman to appear in a major league game. On July 31, 1935, during a game between her hometown Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals, Burke came out of the stands to approach Reds outfielder Babe Herman and asked to borrow his bat.  Standing in against star Cardinals pitcher Paul “Daffy” Dean, she tried to rattle him by shouting, “Hey you big hick, why don’t you go home and milk the cows!” But Daffy Dean just grinned and lobbed an underhanded ball to the plate, which Burke hit back to him before she was tossed out at first base.

You can’t make stuff like this up because it’s the lore of which baseball is made. And baseball continues to provide “oddball” stories, like today’s stars playing their games in empty stadiums in a virus-shortened season. But that’s a tale for a future accounting; there’s more than enough great and unusual stories between the pages of The League of Outsider Baseball to fill readers with delight this summer!

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Get Nicked by The Sweeney!

"Get your trousers on, you're nicked!" The Sweeney's John Thaw and Dennis Waterman

My wife and I just finished binge-watching all 53 episodes of The Sweeney on Britbox and loved its dated, politically incorrect (but clearly reflective of its time) vibe and colorful Cockney rhyming slang. In fact, the program title itself derives from Cockney rhyming slang, in which the expression “Sweeney Todd” rhymes with (and stands for) “Flying Squad” - the elite branch of the Metropolitan Police Service specializing in combating armed robbery and violent crime within metropolitan London. The Sweeney originally aired on ITV between 1975 and 1978 and starred future Inspector Morse icon John Thaw as Detective Inspector Jack Regan and Dennis Waterman (Up the Junction, New Tricks) as Detective Sergeant George Carter (hmm...Regan and Carter: a wink at our future Presidents?). Such was its popularity in the UK that it got name-checked by a number of UK pop stars of the time, most notably by Squeeze in "Cool For Cats" ("The Sweeney's doing 90/'Cos they've got the word to go/They get a gang of villains/In a shed up at Heathrow"). It also spawned two theatrically-released feature film spin-offs, Sweeney! (1977) and Sweeney 2 (1978), both of which are available for insatiable Sweeney fans  - and newbie converts alike - to stream through Kanopy using their Pratt library card. (In 2012, a movie reboot of The Sweeney starring Ray Winstone as Regan and rapper Plan B (Ben Drew) as Carter was released; the less said about that iteration, the better.)

In Sweeney! (1977), Detective Inspector Regan and Detective Sergeant Carter accidentally get involved in a gigantic top-level plot against the British government when the mistress of a cabinet minister is found dead of an apparent overdose. As the bodies start to pile up in London’s streets, Regan and Carter find themselves embroiled in a murderous international conspiracy involving call girls, multinational oil companies and cold-blooded bureaucrats. Barry Foster (famous for his role as grim killer Roger Rusk in Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy) and Ian Banne (The Offense) co-star in this hard-hitting big screen adaptation of the television series. Watch the Sweeney! trailer here.

In Sweeney 2, Regan and Carter are back on the trail of a particularly tough and ruthless gang of bank robbers who always use a gold-plated sawn-off shotgun during their raids. Following a trail of dead bodies, wrecked cars, a mad bomber and bundles of banknotes all the way from London to the isle of Malta, the two detectives ruthlessly pursue their quarry, culminating in a final raid that becomes a desperate shotgun massacre. Veteran character actor Denholm Elliott (A Room With a View, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Ken Hutchison (Ladyhawke) co-star. Watch the Sweeney 2 trailer here.

Influenced by the action-packed American TV programs of the time, The Sweeney represented a cultural shift in British crime series. Just as the hard-boiled pulp fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett liberated the classic “cozy mystery” from well-groomed detectives solving locked-room murders over tea and biscuits, The Sweeney gave crime back to its rightful owners: nasty villains hard enough to roller-skate on and the equally rough-and-tough coppers out to nick them. It was everything Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot weren’t: rude, crude and brutally realistic. And its protagonists weren’t the heroic good guys in white hats; they were flawed human beings, with the same insecurities and problems we all have. Indeed, Regan and Carter are shown inhabiting the same sleazy world as the criminals they chase, mixing with low-life “snouts” to obtain their leads, and speaking the same vernacular. In that sense, it laid the groundwork for future crime series like Prime Suspect and Luther, with a direct line from John Thaw’s inspector Regan to Philip Glenister’s DCI Gene Hunt on Life On Mars. And the action - car chases with screaming tires, explosive crashes and bare-fisted hand-to-hand fighting - only added to the sense that this wasn’t your dad’s quaint police procedural.

On a sociological level, it’s fun to observe the hideous clothes (wide collars and ties, bell-bottom flared trousers) and dated hairstyles of the series, not to mention the American-styled muscle cars of the “Flying Squad.” Star John Thaw looks like he's 50, even though he's only in his early 30s, and his violent, boozing Regan is as far from the opera-loving Inspector Morse (not to mention sensitive young Endeavor Morse) as conceivable; and Dennis Waterman’s sideburns make him look like a Slade glam music fan, while his Cockney-accented repartee with Thaw (“If Freud had met her, he’d a ditched his couch and become a tattoo artist!”) was a highlight of the series. Indeed, dialogue was as important to The Sweeney as action and many of Regan's best lines have become famous, none more so than “Get your trousers on, you’re nicked!”

Looked at today, with widespread law enforcement abuses headlining the daily news, the insensitive language and extreme violence depicted in The Sweeney clearly dates it. But though Regan and Carter sometimes bent the rules in their pursuit of justice, they were basically honest cops who abhorred corruption and hypocrisy. And The Sweeney’s historical significance as a catalyst for change across the entire police drama genre (an effect we take for granted in virtually every contemporary crime series) makes these films, taken in perspective, well worth a look. 

As a DVD Savant critic described the series: "Some points of reference for those who still haven't a clue what the series was about? If you could imagine teaming Bobby Crocker [Kojak detective] with Ken 'Hutch' Hutchinson [the rough-hewn Scots character actor of The Bill and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs fame], giving them both a couple of extra lessons in Harry Callahan-style insubordination/attitude and a spoonful of the kind of political incorrectness that featured in most ‘70s cop/action features, before flying them out to investigate the events that unfolded in Mike Hodges's Get Carter....you'd be almost on the right track."

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Agatha Raisin

Nosey Cozies in the Cotswolds

[This review originally appeared in the Enoch Pratt Free Library's "Pratt Chat" blog.]

Emmy-nominated actress Ashley Jensen stars as the titular snarky publicist-turned-amateur detective in what Acorn TV calls a “quintessentially British village mystery” series based on the bestselling books by M.C. Beaton, and the pilot episode movie and all three seasons of Agatha Raisin are now available to download or stream through Hoopla using your library card. Author M.C. Beaton (the pseudonym of Marion Chesney Gibbons) died in January 2020, so it seems fitting to take a look back at the adventures of her most popular fictional sleuth in the picturesque Cotswolds village of Carsely during these glorious summer days.

Now “Quintessentially British village mystery” means that this is your textbook “Cozy Mystery,” a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence occur offstage, the detective is an amateur sleuth, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. Agatha Raisin is guilty as charged on all these counts, but while M.C. Beaton’s mystery book “cozies” strike me as forgettable, cookie-cutter trifles, the television adaptations of her creations breath new life into timeworn cozy conventions. (Beaton’s other long-running mystery series, featuring Scottish constable Hamish Macbeth, was also turned into a BBC television series, starring Robert Carlyle, in 1995.)  That’s due both to the screenwriters who adapted Ms. Beaton’s original stories (Stuart Harcourt, Chris Murray, Chris Neil and Julia Gilbert) as well as the impeccable ensemble cast, whose ranks include not only Ashley Jensen (whose previous credits include Extras, Catastrophe, Ugly Betty and Love, Lies & Records), but: Mathew Horne (Gavin  & Stacey) as Agatha’s flamboyant personal assistant Roy Silver; Matt McCooey as easy-going DC Bill Wong;  Jason Barnett as Agatha’s bumbling nemesis DCI Wilkes; Jamie Glover as Agatha’s handsome neighbor and love-interest James Lacey;  Jason Merrells as womanizing aristocrat Sir Charles Fraith; Rhashan Stone as village vicar Jez Bloxby (a reimagining of Alf Bloxby in the books, here played by a black actor);  Lucy Liemen as the vicar’s wife Sarah Bloxby; Katy Wix as Agatha’s housekeeper and sleuthing pal Gemma Simpson  (called Doris Simpson in the novels) ; and Jodi Tyack as Toni Gilmour, who takes over from Gemma as Agatha’s housekeeper-sleuthing assistant in Season 3.

Agatha Raisin's first case was "The Quiche of Death"
The 2014 pilot episode of Agatha Raisin was an adaptation of the first book in M.C. Beaton’s series, Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (1992). Having just retired from a high-powered career in London, Agatha decides to settle down in Carsely after hearing about a quiche competition. Used to the competitive business world of the big city, she of course cheats - buying a spinach quiche from a famous London quiche shop and entering it as her own. But when the judge dies from poisoning after tasting her quiche, Agatha sets out to find the poisoner and clear her own name; in the process, she decides she likes her newfound job of sleuthing. Agatha's character in the TV series is notably different from her depiction in the novels, and that’s a testament to Ashley Jensen’s innate charm and comic timing. Jensen’s Agatha is more complex than Beaton’s print version, with the actress adding a depth and vulnerability to the character. And while she’s from Birmingham in Beaton’s books, here she is from Scotland because, well, there’s no explaining away Jensen’s native Scottish accent. Other characters from the novels and some of the relationships between them are also notably different (Alf and Sarah are a much older white couple in the novels) in the TV series, as the actors enrich these characters with their own unique personalities, especially DCI Wilkes. Wilkes is not black in the books, but after seeing Jason Barnett’s charming portrayal it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing him.

And then, of course, there’s the real star of the series: its setting. Like Doc Martin and Downtown Abbey, it’s the beautiful landscape that is just as important as the characters moving through it. Carsely may be a fictional town, but it is set in and filmed around the Cotswolds; this rural area of rolling hills, grassy meadows, thatched medieval houses, churches and stately homes built of local yellow limestone covers six counties in south central England and is considered the “honey-tinged heart of England.” And it’s just the kind of place a well-heeled (and Agatha is always well-heeled, no matter how inappropriately!) London publicist would retire to, though it takes some time for the brash big city outlier and the snooty, conservative villagers to get used to one another. And that’s part of the fun!

Agatha Raisin is also available on DVD

Murder, mayhem and mystery may abound around Carsely, but it’s always light-hearted and is never as dark or as bountiful as in the equally quaint neighboring villages of Oxfordshire, home to all those Midsomer Murders. If streaming is not your cup of tea, you can also check out Seasons 1 and 2 of Agatha Raisin on DVD and pick up them up via Sidewalk Service or Books-by-Mail.  

Watch Season 1 of "Love, Lies & Records"

And if (like me) you fall in love with Ashley Jensen, be sure to check out the savvy Scot in her series Love, Lies & Records, which is also available to download or stream on Hoopla or check out in DVD format from Pratt.

See You 'Round Downtown!

Kembrew McLeod's "The Downtown Pop Underground"

[The following review originally appeared in the Enoch Pratt Free Library's "Pratt Chat" blog.]

“When you're alone and life is making you lonely/You can always go downtown
When you've got worries, all the noise and the hurry/Seems to help, I know, downtown
Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city
Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty
How can you lose?” - Petula Clark, “Downtown” (1965)

Until the recent Black Lives Matter protests brought the masses to the streets, followed by the phased reopening of businesses and institutions as states eased up on lockdown restrictions, the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying home-quarantine pretty much turned most American cities’ downtowns into ghost towns. Not so in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s, when downtown Manhattan was the hub for revolutionary cultural shifts in music, theater, art and filmmaking. In Kembrew McLeod’s The Downtown Pop Underground (2018) - now available for you to read in Hoopla ebook format or reserve for curbside pickup using your library card -  the author takes readers on a detailed tour of Manhattan during this era and shows “how deeply interconnected all the alternative worlds and personalities were that flourished in the basement theaters, dive bars, concert halls, and dingy tenements within one square mile of each other.”

The Downtown Pop Underground focuses on eight people who were central to the “downtown arts scene” between 1958 and 1976. While now-familiar names like Andy Warhol, Patti Smith and Debbie Harry went on to become icons,  there were others - like Caffe Cino/La MaMa experimental theatre director-playwright Harry Koutoukas; poet-author-activist-publisher Ed Sanders (founder of The Fugs musical group); Off-Off-Off Broadway theatre impressario Ellen Stewart; experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke (The Connection, The Cool World); and psychedelic flower-power performance artist Hibiscus (founder of San Francisco’s gender-bending musical theater troupe The Cockettes, whose ranks once included our own John Waters movie star Divine and who are the subject of Bill Weber and David Weissman’s acclaimed documentary The Cockettes, which you can stream for free through Kanopy using your library card) - who also helped to reshape popular culture in significant ways.

Yes, those were the artistic Eight of Weight, but McLeod’s broad scope covers many more personalities whose lives thrived along the fringes of the downtown scene, if only tangentially. People like Fluxus art movement pioneers Yoko Ono and Al Hansen (pop musician Beck’s avante-garde artist dad); underground filmmaker Jack Smith and Jonas Mekas; experimental filmmaker and American folk music archivist Harry Smith; urban activist Jane Jacobs (The Life and Death of Great American Cities); poets Allen Ginsburg and Andrei Codrescu (the Romanian immigrant who later became a fixture of Baltimore’s 1990s poetry scene as a staff writer at the City Paper before moving to the West Coast, where he lived in a commune with Cockettes founder Hibiscus); underground diva Divine and Warhol protege Edie Sedgwick; performance artist Carolee Schneemann (Meatjoy); avant-garde composer John Cage; fashion designer Betsey Johnson (she made the Velvet Underground’s stage outfits and later married John Cage); television and music personality Lance Loud (An American Family); off-off-off Broadway playwright Tom Eyen (Women Behind Bars, Dreamgirls), avant-garde jazz musician Ornette Coleman; influential music mag publishers John Homstrom (Punk magazine) and Alan Betrock (New York Rocker); and, of course, all the punk rockers - Iggy Pop, David Johanson, Johnny Thunders, DeeDee Ramone, Jayne County, Blondie and Alan Vega. Even Jackson Browne gets a mention. Yes, before this laidback Southern California singer-songwriter rode a wave of popularity in the 1970s, he passed through Max’s Kansas City, where he hooked up with the Velvet Underground’s Nico, who recorded three of his songs on her solo debut.

It’s a lot of ground to cover, not only of people but of landmarks (the Caffe Cino, Cafè La MaMa, the Chelsea Hotel, Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, Warhol’s Factory ) and cultural shifts (the birth of punk and its spiritual cousin hip-hop, the avant-garde film movement, off-off-Broadway, and the rise of indie publishing that would eventually lead to the Zine revolution of the 1990s).

The great achievement of The Downtown Pop Underground is the way McLeod weaves all these disparate personalities and institutions together and shows how they not only created a collective “scene” but spawned future ones, if only in spirit. Baby Boomers like myself can enjoy the book for its nostalgia, while today’s generation can hopefully have their interest sparked enough to be a part of something similar. After all, the whole is equal to the sum of its parts, and everyone involved in the downtown pop underground played an important part. As Petula Clark in her 1965 hit, “Things’ll be great when you’re downtown, no finer place for sure. Downtown, everything’s waiting for you.” Hopefully, the wait will soon be over and we can get back to enjoying our vibrant downtown scenes.

"Love Goes To Buildings On Fire" by Will Hermes

If you find your interest piqued by the subject of McLeod’s book, you might also want to check out Will Hermes’ Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, which looks at New York City in the 1970s, when cheap rents and a burgeoning artistic community spawned a music revolution that created thriving punk, experimental, hip-hop, disco and salsa scenes.