Frank: The Voice – Book Review

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This biography of Frank Sinatra begins with the following quote from philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, from Either/Or:

What is a poet?  A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music… And men crowd around the poet and say to him: “Sing for us soon again”; that is as much as to say: “May new sufferings torment your soul.”

This is the third biography of Sinatra I’ve read, the others being Kitty Kelley’s solely unflattering “His Way” and Anthony Summers’ less imbalanced “Sinatra: The Life.”  Both were enjoyable reads, but both focused on the narrative of his often unflattering life, side-stepping that which endures (his music) unless it related to an a noteworthy occurrence of Sinatra’s inner or public demons.

That was then; this is now.  Frank: The Voice reads like a biography, rather than a vendetta.  And, having read this, I think I’m done on the subject. Of course, I would have said the same after having read either of the other two.  But to me, and many, Sinatra’s music and life attract to this day.  The former I took to initially as a balm for my frustrations sitting in rush hour traffic, and now I find that I enjoy his music at any time.  As regards the latter, perhaps it’s the allure of a life lived largely, or maybe it’s sheer escapism from the 8-5 careers of the masses.  It certainly helps that his life was documented, objectively or not, almost each step of the way.

An era not as well documented is Sinatra’s early years.  The author inserts a “one must suppose” narrative to tie together what, admittedly, seems to be a likely foundation for the virtues and vices that Sinatra would display the rest of his life.  But in a biography, the fiction was initially off-putting.

What follows, as details become more concrete, is a nicely summed and appropriately detailed recount of Sinatra’s career, relationships, and foibles (or worse).  What sets this book apart from the others is that, as the title Frank: The Voice'>Frank: The Voice'>Frank: The Voice suggests, it gives reflection on the development and quality of Sinatra’s music (both positive and negative) and Celebrity couple: Frank Sinatra and his bride Ava Gardner pose for their wedding picture in 1951 explores the relatively forgotten years during which Sinatra was not so popular, after all.  In its second half, the story winds around the highs and lows of his famous “marriage” to Ava Gardner, concluding (prematurely) with his early ‘50’s career rebirth as both an actor and a singer. 

It’s clear that I would not have “liked” Frank Sinatra if I were to imagine being in the position of knowing him.  What is likeable is almost exclusively available on CDs and digital downloads.  But the details… Kaplan does a fine job of researching and presents a fair view of Sinatra’s successes and failings, but without pronouncing personal judgment – a pointed failure of the other biographies (that are unkind but not necessarily untrue).  At the end, ample context is understood to see that the promise of Kierkegaard’s quote is sadly fulfilled.

So, when I say I’m done, I’m done.  However, if Kaplan finds a narrative to make sense of the remainder of Sinatra’s life, well...   Two minor complaints are that the book might have benefited from more photos, and secondly, that the photos might be placed closer to the pages where they would fit in context. 

4 of 5 STARS

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The Flaming Lips – Live at The Tabernacle 5/19/2011

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This was my third concert seeing The Flaming Lips, a band who have several CD’s that I like a lot… and others not as much.   Being a Lips' fan also means that when you tell someone you like them, you receive the pleasure of reading their face, from quizzical to startled to judgmental.  But, hey, “The Beatles” doesn’t make much sense for a music group’s name either.

Based on past experience, I had been looking forward to this show in two ways:  1) They were replaying in its entirety my favorite of their album's, 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, and 2) for a photo opportunity.  The Lips include a wide mixture of lighting colors and directional lights, not to mention videos.  My Canon G-11 is severely challenged for any concert due to lighting challenges, but particularly indoor shows.  Regrettably, most venues don’t allow professional cameras, and the G-11 is as robust a pocket camera as I’ve found. 

We arrived over an hour prior to the show time, expecting an early crowd and desirous of close floor proximity to the stage.   Standing in line on a beautiful Spring day in Atlanta was no big deal, even if the doors opened a half hour late.  After entering, I looked with some consideration at the empty balcony seats from which I enjoyed Fleet Foxes the week prior, but the floor experience at a Lips show can be special.

However, that show would have to wait.   The late entry and setup activity around the stage suggested that the band’s equipment may have arrived late.  For a concert, one shouldn’t expect a prompt start, but, it being a work night for me and a school night for my son, plus there being two opening acts, a 30 minute delay before the first act was a bit tiring.

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That act was Mariachi El Bronx, a band with several albums released under their other pseudonym, El Bronx.  A hardcore punk band from L.A.  Their name was true to their music as the 7 Amigos strolled onto the stage and presented a lively 30 minute or so set of, yes, Mariachi themed music.  IMG_4537aThose interested can watch a YouTube vid.  Regrettably, the aural mix wasn’t very settled – perhaps the supposed late arrival also abbreviated the sound check.

The next act, Ghost of a Sabre Tooth Tiger, fairly quickly got their gear in place but still would not take the stage for quite a while.  As a Beatles fan, it was with quite a bit of curiosity that I approached this band, as their leader is Sean Lennon, younger son of John.  As it turns out, there is a distinct fatherly resemblance.  He and his girlfriend bassist/singer/model Charlotte Kemp Muhl presented an unusual assortment of music.  On the one hand, their vocals are fairly thin and lean towards artsy-pop, but the acoustics made most of what they sang indecipherable.  Also, this was only their fourth appearance with a full band, including keyboards, drums, and trumpet.  They only played a handful of songs, but musically their songs took stronger rock tones, particularly the last, a charged psychedelic/progressive instrumental that spoke of, to my ears, better things to come.  Lennon certainly proved himself a more than capable guitarist.

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Finally, it was The Flaming Lips’ turn.  To set up their equipment, that is.  I haven’t seen a band that is more hands-on in setting their stage than this one, or, for that matter, one that uses more duct tape.  By this time, the Tabernacle was packed as were those of us standing in our 4 ft2 (or less) of contested floor space.

The Tabernacle dates to 1911, when it was used as a Baptist church.  It has assuredly been remodeled over the years, but that makes it no less unsettling when the Flaming Lips take the stage.  The wood joisted floor flexes with a jumping crowd, in a manner which invites speculation of stress loads and harmonic convergences.  Steady lads.  The party has started.

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Music.  Balloons.  Confetti.  And one of the best Master of Ceremonies of rock cult-dom, Wayne Coyne.

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Being no stranger to pre-performance appearances to wave to the audience, Coyne explained that the evening’s performance of The Soft Bulletin was more of an experiment.  They hadn’t performed the album since New Year’s Eve, plus they had added one new band member and one guest musician (a Mariachi man).  The clear inference was that, while they know their music, they hadn’t practiced this show as a set.

The sell-out crowd (another followed the next day) didn’t care.  The band played great, songs were as we wanted to hear them, and if smooth transitions between one song and the next were not to be had, that just left M.C. Coyne with more microphone time, never a bad thing.

What was lost in this particular translation were some of the comic aspects that Coyne typically uses in his shows.  Whether distracted or outgrown, the microphone-bound camera provided close-up shots that previously have been used very playfully, and his hilarious Nun hand puppet apparently was left in Vespers.  Coyne also isn’t as sparing with the confetti, used as bookends to this show.  No, it’s not a big deal, but Coyne had to work a little harder without a more prepared choreography, and he settled for raising the roof with crowd responses.  Who’s to complain?

Actually, my feet, from standing in place for most of the 6 hours.  I’ll concede the floor to the youth movement and head for a balcony next time.

After The Soft Bulletin (actually, they stopped short of the final two reprises on the album), the band took a short break before returning with a few songs, including a new one that leaned towards their current electronic direction (neither a hit nor a miss) and rousing renditions of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1” and “Do You Realize?”

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The show wrapped up ~12:30 a.m.  It was well worth the cash, and not just on an hourly basis.  For those considering attending a Flaming Lips show, do yourself a favor.  Avoid the festivals or outdoor shows, and find a venue where they can throw a party.  You won’t regret it.

For what I hope will be an entertaining photo journey of the evening, please click on the below.

 

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Thor (2011)

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I’m not a huge Natalie Portman fan.  First, I saw her in The Professional, which was just a weird flick that was uncomfortable to watch.  Then came her wretched performance (and everyone else’s… no one was blameless) in the Star Wars pre-trilogy that caused millions to shift in their seats uncomfortably from the piercing stabs of shattered expectations. 

Sure, I’m not without blame, as I made myself suffer through all three episodes.  But I didn’t make myself watch them again, and they should have been good enough to demand that.  And, for those seeking to relieve my ill will towards Ms. Portman, yes, I recognize that the pedestrian dialogue was ultimately George Lucas’ fault.  That said, it’s an actor’s job to take whatever material is provided and raise it to a higher level.  Damn you, Natalie Portman.

Seriously, this is the face that gave rise to the incarnation of evil throughout the known Empire?  Well, yes.  It is.

Skip ahead to Cold Mountain and V for Vendetta and, sure, my regard for her softened.  Some.  But Star Wars remains not just a simple blot against movies-held-dear, but a large purplish bruise.  And so what is she’s now an Oscar winner?

Well, welcome to Thor.  And here she goes again, changing the fate of worlds, this time by swaying the heart and psyche of a god.  Gracious.

First, let’s examine how the movie positions Natalie, this time not so cleverly disguised, to accomplish such a momentous feat.

Yep, dang.  She’s pretty. 

Well, per my wife, so is Thor (Australian newcomer Chris Hemsworth)…

… and it’s not like he caused her to change the course of nations.  So it must be something else.

So, let’s see what the movie offers regarding Ms. Portman…  Two minor vehicle/pedestrian god collisions. Possible head trauma there. 

… Acting the role of a scientist vs. a meat, beer and potatoes god.  Again, possible head trauma. 

… A lot of wondering around together in the desert.  Sure, it’s hot.  Christ maintained his wits, so God or god, Thor has no excuse there.

But, these don’t hold up.  Just like Star Wars (cursed) Episodes I-III, there simply isn’t enough dialogue to support any effective change in a humbled but testosterone laden god.  So few are her words that our Academy Award winner probably needed less than 15 minutes prior to the call for “Action!” to commit her dialogue to memory.

So, it’s worth a moment to fathom from whence Thor emerges from spoiled brat to hero.   A god (an immature, reckless and vain one, to be sure), runs off to do what’s right in his own eyes despite a parental “thou shalt not,” falls in his quest for the holy seal of approval and is dispensed to Earth (why us?) to learn, we would ultimately suppose, humility, personal sacrifice, and forethought.

Well enough.  That sounds like a decent “origins” story of a Marvel comics superhero, which is what this is.  But more so than any other Marvel adaptations, this screenplay “reads” as if we only have the comic panels from which to gleam understanding.  You can almost see the visual still from each scene in what is a very linear narrative.

Thor offers some really good things:  Some spiffy special effects, a few nuggets of humor, a likable portrayal of the hero, and, for once, a villain that is neither over nor under played.  What’s lacking is that I just can’t find the crucible of experience that transforms Thor the Insufferable into Thor the Bearer of all That is Honorable.  Yeah, I know.  It’s a just a comic book, not literature

Ah, but wait. 

There has to be something.

Writers aren’t idiots.  And Thor doesn’t attract two Oscar winning actors (Anthony Hopkins is the other) if there’s not some teeth in there somewhere, right?  Is it the wisdom of King Odin that molds our champion?  Sadly, no.  But then, we wouldn’t have a story.

Is there a dark side of the Force at work?  Well, not specifically, just a race of antagonists whose motivations we don’t have time to understand.

Use the Force, Luke!  Concentrate!  Where is it?

Well, not so far from Star Wars, as it turns out.  Look no further than The Power of Portman!

Is there a scene to suggest such terrible cause and consequence?  Why, yes.

A kiss!  This lightning strike on the God of Thunder concludes what must have been a slow gathering of vast electric potential, because what we have here is a changed god. 

That Natalie.  That’s not just celebrity power.  It’s her.

Why, you ask?

It’s a good reminder why history is important.

Remember the immortal (god-speak pun intended) words of George Santayana:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

You’d think a god, whether with a capital G or a little g, would know that.

Scroll down just a little bit further…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scroll up and scroll back down.  The prosecution rests.  Thor’s kiss was actually the second Natalightning strike.  That “more than a little peck” is being laid on one Anakin Skywalker.  Cause and effect. He’s more widely recognized shortly after this exchange, clad in black and distinguishable by a singular respiratory distress.

Suitors, beware.

2 of 5 STARS

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Fleet Foxes – Live at The Tabernacle 5/14/2011

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On the way to this show, my concert buddy and I speculated about the average age of the crowd.  Given the group’s focus on vocal harmonies laid on top of (largely) acoustical instruments, there was little doubt that we expected an older crowd – significantly older than the band members.

As this wouldn’t be a particularly demonstrative show, we opted for an early arrival to either lean against the rail up close or grab a balcony seat. Skipping a bar for a pre-concert beverage, we opted for the parking deck to swiftly enjoy an Allagash Dubbel (Belgian style) Ale, a beer worthy of more deliberate savoring.  In any case, on we go.

Arriving a few minutes before 7:00, we found a line of people waiting, and not a short one.  Down the street, around the corner and halfway down the block, we entered the line.  We knew it was sold out, but this was unexpected.

After grabbing the first row in the second balcony, another revelation was that Fleet Foxes 1) appeal to the college age 2) are suitable for a lively couples scene and 3) provide music suitable for getting stoned (as evidenced by a particular aroma).  I might have guessed that my son’s familiarity with the band (and one of his friends as well) that this music is not just liked by old folks.  Though, old folks who like Crosby, Stills, and Nash should like Fleet Foxes.

The opening act, The Cave Singers, was a trio with singer, a riff-laden guitarist, and drummer.  They were fairly energetic, but the singer’s raspy voice and uneven acoustics resulted in few understandable words.  Entertaining, to a degree, but they didn’t show anything that invited future interest.

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The acoustics, then, were then a bit worrisome for a Fleet Foxes performance.  Their songs are solid, but the vocal harmonies are really what sets them apart. Fleet Foxes includes Robin Pecknold (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), Skye Skjelset (acoustic and electric guitars), Joshua Tillman (vocals/drums), Christian Wargo (vocals, guitar, electric bass), Casey Wescott (vocals, keyboards, mandolin, flute), and new member Morgan Henderson (upright bass, flute, clarinet, Bari Sax(?)).  They occupy a lot of stage space, but other than assistants helping with guitar swaps, it would be a fairly static performance.  As might be expected for this type of band, there were no backdrops or video content.  It’s about the music.

After a 20 minute or so break, they took the stage.  The unexpected continued as the now-filled Tabernacle raised the roof with a raucous welcome, this for a group that doesn’t get much press locally, as evidenced by not being included in the weekend’s Best Bets in the local newspaper. 

The first song, “The Cascades,” was a bit worrisome, as the drums seemed to muddle both the guitars and the vocals, but when the group set the instruments aside for a cappella harmonies, the sound was excellent.  Shortly afterwards, it seemed the sound people made some adjustments for a good concert experience. 

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Lead man Pecknold interacted regularly with the crowd, amusingly assisted by Tillman at times, and gave tribute to the crowd for choosing them over the Bon Jovi show concurrently playing at nearby Philips Arena.  The band did their best to win over a crowd that was already theirs, supported with appreciative roars and frequent sing-alongs.  The Seattle band seemed rather mystified at the adoration present in this market, as the crowd ovations were overwhelming here and apparently the previous night in Nashville, TN.  But with great songs, great vocals, and perfectly executed harmonies, there’s much for a crowd to like.

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With only two CDs and an EP to their credit, a fine representative sampling was played from all.  The audience was surprisingly familiar with the band’s new songs from Helplessness Blues, released only 12 days earlier.

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Another unexpected experience was leaving the venue with my ears ringing.  From the rather precious mix of sounds on their recordings, I didn’t expect the tinnitus reminder.  Oh well!  I can’t help but wonder what this band would sound like in a a more acoustically evolved auditorium, such as at The Rialto.

In any venue, this is a highly recommended concert for those that like to hear live music.

Set List:

The Cascades Ragged Wood
Grown Ocean Lorelai
Drops in the River Montezuma
Battery Kinzie He Doesn’t Know Why
Bedouin Dress The Shrine/An Argument
Sim Sala Bim Blue Spotted Tail
Mykonos Blue Ridge Mountains
Your Protector Encore:
Tiger Mountain Peasant Song Oliver James
White Winter Hymnal Helplessness Blues

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National Firearms Museum

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Arriving in the D.C. area on a Sunday, a friend recommended a visit to the National Firearms Museum.  As it was 1) open on SundayIMG_4426 and 2) free, this seemed like a good opportunity to delay the hotel room blues. 

The museum principally features guns donated by the late Robert Petersen, who was said to have offered as many of his guns as desired on the sole condition that they be displayed.  There are 85 exhibits, featuring over 2,000 guns from Petersen and many other donors.

These include weapons from all eras, including a carbine that arrived in the U.S. on the Mayflower to weapons in use in the Gulf war.  Primarily, the featured guns are segregated by types (rifles, shotguns, pistols), by periods during which firearms innovation were frequent and fluid (wartime), or by manufacturers (Colt, Winchester, Berretta).

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As suggested by the skeleton arrangement above, there is precious little information offered within most of the exhibits.  Instead, each item is labeled with a number which can be referenced on a nearby computer screen.  Whether on paper or inIMG_4399 the computer, most entries generally say little beyond class, order, family, genus and species.

For those with an appreciative eye, there is beauty in many of these weapons.  Aside from general lines, exotic woods and finishes, artistic embellishments are ample, including various inlays, metal treatments, silver or gold encrustations, etchings, etc.  Otherwise, one has to be “in the know” to fully appreciate the history, the uniqueness, or the particular triumphs of the majority of what is presented here.

As I am not “in the know,” I had hoped for more immediately obvious and descriptive aid regarding technical IMG_4402innovations or other features that should draw the observer’s interest.  Going to a view screen and searching by item # wasn’t satisfactory in this regard (there were 1-3 “featured” items in each exhibit with lengthier information).

Such information wasn’t completely lacking, though, as evidenced by an explanation of the development of munitions from separate materials (powder charge, priming charge, ball) to a single paper-wrapped charge that halved the speed for loading musket.

But, the good folks at the NRA seem to understand that commoners like me may chance upon their exhibits.  That’s why they make a specific display of “really cool stuff.”  For instance, a submachine gun… just like in the movies.

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Sometimes, they’re sneaky.

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That’s a bunch of guns.  But what’s that at the bottom IMG_4410center?  You betcha, a light sabre (Regrettably, it’s a movie prop and not an actual working model…).  But as Luke’s fathers weapon would indicate, it’s not the murders-du-jour on the evening news that captures the imagination of America’s gun lovers, it’s our entertainment media.

So, they’ve devoted an entire section to people who think guns are pleasantly muffled when fired and who imagine any firearm to strike its target, no matter how far, by a simple matter of point and shoot. 

I mean, what’s cooler than The Outlaw Josie Wales’ Colt Walker 1847s?

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Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum S&W Model 29, perhaps?  Not a Clint fan?  Well, the Duke has his corner as well, but to my eye, the patch was iconic enough.

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There’s even a transition from westerns to a Sci-fi western (the sidearm of Capt. Malcom Reynolds, Castle’s Nathan Fillion).

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Like your Sci-fi without a bullet?  Well of course, that’s why there’s a blaster (One of only three observed to meet “point and shoot” requirements in the original Star Wars).

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More weapons, more guns.  Tom Selleck… yeah.  Mel Gibson… yeah.  Bruce Willis… yeah. Andrew Dice Clay?  Really? Really

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Other tidbits.  There were, at most, five other people touring the museum when I visited.  There was no welcoming host and no tour guide.  Pamphlets were available, though, and a security guard made his round after about 30 minutes in the displays, the first staffer observed.  I would surmise that a thief might hesitate before calling upon the NRA’s front door.

There is a gift shop at the end of the tour for all of one’s NRA gear, but I was surprised that, other than a sign at the exit, there was absolutely no active solicitation to join the NRA.  I took that to mean that they’re happy to display a wide array of firearms to anyone who has the interest, just because they take such pleasure in them.  Kinda cool.

In closing, here are a couple of other photographs that I couldn’t work into the narrative:

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Manassas National Battlefield Park

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I do not have a great interest in the Civil War or military history.  But, I’m also no stranger to it.  Having a father who taught college history did not cause an aversion to things of old; I just wasn’t interested.

However, he was the site historian at Star Fort while it was under archeological excavation (in Ninety Six, SC – that would be 96 mistakenly estimated miles along the Cherokee Path, as such things originate).  Two Revolutionary War battles were fought there, and while the location of a siege trench or a jail might be (and was) interesting to academics, I liked it because 1) there were visible remains of a fort (not nearly as visible as in the photo above) and 2) musket balls, arrowheads, and old chips of china plates could be found readily.  Cool stuff for a kid.

Civil War battles seem not to have allowed time for such grand fortifications, locally, at least, such as at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park – a nice mountain for hiking (with a view), a solid museum with era relics and depictions of the convergence of forces, and otherwise spacious areas for the imagination.  And the imagination both wanders and wonders…

In Virginia for a week, I found time to visit Manassas National Battlefield Park. No elaborate forts.  No cool “toys” to find lying on the ground.  Instead, imagine being virtually alone in a large open field, with the sun yet to set in a couple hours, and a warm breeze flowing over the grasses and around you.

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Not much happening here.  Looking in another direction, a similar scene, only with the addition of a fence, built similar to those used years ago.

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It’s a very pleasant place to be.  According to Park documents, tree lines, open land, and the general terrain have changed very little over the last 150 years, back to July 21, 1961 when the first major land battle of, to Southroners, the War of Northern Aggression began.

But it’s peaceful.  At least, until you put a cannon on it.

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Or plural.

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The Park provides a short 1.2 mile trail around the fiercest areas of battle during the first Manassas battle (a second battle would be fought a year later).  A larger 5.4 mile trail (nicely constructed) covers a wider area, and is apparently used regularly by locals for jogging or walking.

To walk around the short trail is to follow the trimmed grass through a field near the Visitor Center.  Sign posts tell of the home of Judith Henry, who, at 85, refused to leave her house and died during the battle when her house came between warring sides.   Various markers have been provided along the trail – the first soldier to die from a particular State, the first officer (Col. Francis Bartow, Georgia Volunteers), the first General (Bernard Bee, Army of the Shenandoah), and others, with names and regiments.

There are other markers as well, telling of the respective size of the armies, troop movements during the course of the engagement, their leaders, and the push and shove of the battle lines.   In a world trending towards remote controlled warfare, the battle in Manassas is clearly depicted not of firing over hills in “civil” volleys, but of fluid battle lines, the reversals of fortunes by timely reinforcements, the quick forward placement and faster withdrawal of cannon, and impact of leaders who command retreating soldiers to stand or standing soldiers to charge.  Within the 1.2 mile loop,there seems to have been a push and shove over every gentle rise – the same ones peacefully enjoyed in a warm breeze in the early evening sun.

Having walked past a marker where a house once stood during the battle, I ventured a few hundred yards further along the mowed path.  The next marker turns the view back to the path just walked, with a historically certain depiction of Union and Confederate soldiers converging on just those steps.

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Men died here, obviously.  Sure, there are ample references (or tributes) to Brig. General Johnston, Brig. General P.G.T. Beauregard, Brig. General McDowell, Maj. General Patterson, Capt. Ricketts, and Colonel Thomas J. Jackson (who was given his nickname “Stonewall” here).  And others of rank.  But 847 were killed, 2,706 wounded, and 1,325 captured or missing, mostly within view of this short walk.

But, having read the markers and observed the individual acres where men charged rifle lines, or, for that matter, cannon positions at less than 100 yards, it remains difficult to fully comprehend the courage, passion, obedience, fright, commitment, and insanity of charging an enemy line in close quarters.  The tactical appreciations for troop deployments, feints, cavalry charges, flanking maneuvers, et al, become lost.  It’s certainly not holy ground in a religious sense, but reflections on mortality and the human nature pervade.

Given the size of assembled armies, casualties, considering battles to come, might be regarded as fairly light.  But at this point in the war, the Union troops were, relatively speaking, on a quick jaunt to Richmond, VA to put a quick end to the Southern uprising. 

Interesting note: Union Armies frequently named battles after area rivers or creeks that played a role in the conflict, while Confederates tended to use the names of towns or farms.  Manassas National Battlefield, therefore, gives a nod to its Confederate name.  It’s also known as The Battle of Bull Run.

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The Barber Pole

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I visited the Watergate recently while in Washington, D.C., including a tour of the office building where certain improprieties were undertaken that resulted in, well, Gerald Ford’s asterisk notated presidency.  The complex carries on, with offices, condos, a hotel currently beginning a makeover, and various retail shops.

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Ho-hum, actually.

But, then, I’m always mindful that I need to visually distract my readers from what I’m saying by giving them, no insult intended, pretty pictures to look at.  So, I take pictures of all sorts of things never knowing if they’ll be useful, in part driven by my continuing fascination with the Hipstamatic iPhone app.  So, here, I offer the following:

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That’s a Barber Pole, one that appears to have been in use for quite a while.  I remember these as a kid when my dad took me to get haircuts, and while I see them occasionally, it’s certainly not frequent.  My indiscrete snapshot led to a discussion of one person who wasn’t familiar with them and another who said the red stripes were reminiscent of bloody bandages from the days when barbers provided medical services.

What?

Well, it’s true, at least according to Google references, and everything Google finds is true, yes?  So, flip back in your history book to 3500 B.C., from which bronze relics have been found.  Skip forward to Alexander the Great, who installed barbers (from the Latin word barba, meaning beard) amongst his army so that opposing soldiers would not be able to grab them.  If that wasn’t exactly a full time job, they also were the surgeons and dentists. 

There was an understanding that these weren’t trained surgeons necessarily, and the two were eventually separated in allowed practices in the 1700’s.

The barber’s pole, then, is attributed to the barber’s practice of bloodletting.  Poles were originally provided with a brass wash basin at the top to represent where leeches were kept and another at the bottom where blood was received.  The pole itself was a staff which the patient would grasp tightly to make veins bulge.  The red and white stripes represented the bandages used, bloodied and clean.  These would later be hung on a pole to dry after cleaning, at times twisting to form a spiral.  So it is said.

Interestingly, the red and white are the recognized colors of the barber’s pole, but blue was introduced, it is thought, due to American preference for the red, white and blue.  Interestingly,  England and France later reserved the red and white for the practice of (true) surgeons, with blue and white remaining for barbers.

There remains only one domestic manufacturer of barber poles, the William Marvy Company.  A 2007 CNN report indicates they sell 500 per year, as opposed to over 5,000 in the 1960’s.   Changing hair styles and competition from imports are the major factors, but as the Fedora generation passes, I suppose the barber shop will as well.

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Nils Lofgren – Live at Strathmore 5/5/2011

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Mixing business with pleasure can be a good thing.  In the Washington D.C. area for a week, I was looking for a hotel-room avoidance opportunity.  When you travel, why not see if there’s something interesting to do after hours? 

So I had a choice, Crosby/Nash on a Monday or Nils Lofgren on a Thursday?  I wasn’t familiar with anything Lofgren had done, other than having an awareness that he’s played with Bruce Springsteen since the 1980’s.  Prior, he contributed to several of Neil Young’s early solo albums, led a group named Grin of whom folks folks around me seemed to be particularly fond, and had released a number of solo albums prior to signing on with The Boss.) In any case, the unfamiliar won out over the too-familiar.

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The Music Center at Strathmore is 6 years old, and the auditorium has a capacity of 1976.  The Center is the Washington home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and I have to say I was impressed.  The theater itself is decorated with IMG_1459light color wood, has great sight-lines, and most importantly, awesome acoustics – clear enough not only for the music/lyrics, but audience responses wherever they originated.  Other plusses were a ticket ordering system that provides a very clear seat selection depiction, no “convenience” fees, air vents under each sent, and free parking. Throw in friendly staff (Bill Carey - Director of Donor Relations, in my experience), and the venue is a win.

The disadvantage?  Well, to hear coworkers tell of it, a frightening commute to get there from Northern Virginia.  I’m from Atlanta.  Traffic is no stranger.  Otherwise, as is common for “performing arts centers,” camera use was frowned upon (Happily, I’m including a couple pictures that someone else took from the balcony).

The concert began shortly after it's scheduled 8:00 p.m. start, and continued for 2 hours and 15 minutes without an intermission.  The performance was billed as Nils Lofgren & Friends Acoustic.  This began true enough, with Lofgren expertly picking a song on a harp, without any of the saccharine notions that may come to mind.  He was backed by his brother Tommy on rhythm guitar, Greg Varlotta on keyboards (and later, trumpet and guitar) and Mary Ann Redmond for occasional backing vocals. Next, he picked up his electric guitar for a rocking version of a song of which I knew the name.  He has a pleasing, well pronunciated 70’s Middle of the Road voice, similar to Al Stewart, perhaps, but without the distinctiveness.

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He followed this with 6-8 songs on solo acoustic guitar.  At age 60, and with 43 years “on the road,” Lofgren easily commands the stage.  Though a bit “vertically challenged,” he projects “larger than life” stage experience without invoking celebrity, not an easy thing. 

What emerged over the evening was that Lofgren is a very positive minded artist.  His lyrics are observational but lack biting commentary or political bents, at least to my limited listening.  Add frequent mentions of family, the occasional on-stage guitar contributions of two additional brothers, and a return to the area where he grew up, and there was a visible enjoyment in the performance that cast off any notions of “just another tour stop.”

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Memorable moments were Greg Verlotta’s percussive beats via a couple hammy tap dances (no drums or bass were included), an awesome guitar solo on “Girl in Motion” accompanied by an engaging rhythm guitar that Lofgren looped in, winning performances of (I think) “No Mercy,” “Goodbye Ray,” “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (made popular by Roberta Flack), an entertaining delivery about Dancing (which may be a completely revised version of “I Came to Dance”  or a new song), “Sun Hasn’t Set on This Boy Yet,” and (I think) “Shine Silently.” 

In part due to familiarity, his performance of Springsteen’s “Because the Night” was also a highlight.  He made no attempt to sound like Springsteen, but he owned the song, both vocally and with an excellent extended electric guitar solo.

Giving a quick listen to samples of these songs post-concert, many of them feel dated in their original versions – but they sound fresh in their delivery today.  While all of the songs spoke of an excellent singer/songwriter, they generally lack infectious hooks that probably contributed held him back from greater commercial success.  Ah, but the guitar work!  Special, indeed.

Lofgren also is doing what more artists ought to do and appear to be increasingly doing.  Without the support of major label promotions, Lofgren has his fan base covered – a Facebook page and a website that offers several free downloads as well as guitar instruction videos.  He also graciously makes it known that he’s available for photos and autographs following the concert.  Hmm. 

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