Timothy Malcolm

Writer I Editor I Young Adult

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Existing.

So I’m still here. Look, I work a lot, OK? Don’t get upset.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking long and hard, and that means two days. I’m writing two books right now, and yet I’ve decided something:

I will create a tumblr in which I review every episode of “Cheers.”

Go ahead, curse me. I’m creating it now.

Filed under Cheers Television Tumblr I'm important.

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MMM: Appreciating Katy Perry

This feature is called Melody of Max Martin. In this feature, I will write about a man (and his artists), and how his work has impacted pop music over the last 25 years.

See, I’ve always felt as if Martin was very under-appreciated. He’s a gifted songwriter and producer, responsible for a sound that has ruled radio (and other media) for some time. His music has affected and influenced me - and don’t deny, it has probably affected and influenced you, too. So there.

First up is Katy Perry.

***

Remember that song “I Kissed a Girl”? The one by Jill Sobule. She was this cute blonde, and she sang about experimentation above some basic blues riff, but it was shocking, and she sounded shocked through her enjoyment.

Later, after Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” hit the airwaves, Sobule remarked negatively about it, albeit sarcastically. When (of course) that wasn’t how the quote was printed, Sobule clarified:

“I may be a touch cynical about the business, but I have never really been angry or had ill feelings towards Katy herself. I was actually in a small way happy to not be the ‘Kissed a Girl’ girl anymore.”

In her original sarcastic comment, she mentioned that Perry sang lyrics written by a team of writers. And while Sobule might not have ill feelings toward Perry, the business made her say those things, sarcastic or not. There’s always truth in everything, right?

The business, of course, has turned Katy Perry into a megastar. She’s the face - and body - behind a handful of huge pop hits, some of the most notably catchy songs of this century thus far. And most of those cynical about the business, a majority being artists grasping for some notoriety and financial aid, dislike that Perry has what she has, that she is what she is. Creative people in general don’t like it. I didn’t like it.

“I Kissed a Girl” - the one by Perry - filled me with rage at first listen. Too basic, too throwaway. But worst of all, too pandering. Perry does pandering better than anyone. She’s forever twenty-one, just into the bar scene, flying out on the town, discovering little by little in a world flying fast. She plays provocative kitsch better than anyone, planting her hand over her mouth as if she uttered a dirty word, crossing her legs ever so slowly as if she just learned good manners. She’s a country girl, a church girl, gone terribly wrong, but oh so wonderfully right.

And it’s all so calculated, all so cold. Right?

But for legions of young people - girls and boys - plus the occasional adult seeking some sugar, Perry remains a necessary element of everyday life. People want to feel like they can party once a day. That they can distract themselves from life and kiss the same sex “just to try it,” or become somebody’s teenage dream, or randomly wake up in Vegas. The stories she presents are nuggets of achievable but slightly out-of-focus dreams. And since her background contains so much good-girl habit, her ability to relate is still somewhat high - this despite her marriage to British fiasco Russell Brand.

And all of that began with “I Kissed a Girl,” which stooped to a low degree. While Leona Lewis was singing about true feelings and Adele was chasing pavements or what have you, here’s a chick six days younger than me singing about acting on a dare by some classless muscle boys at a live-band bar. And America was eating it up. ‘It’s so controversial!,’ people said. Yeah, tell that to Jill Sobule.

To me, “I Kissed a Girl” couldn’t be anything more than a novelty. It would wear off just like “Mambo No. 5,” “Hottie Boombalottie” and, yes, the original “I Kissed a Girl.”

But then came “Hot n Cold.” Amazingly, Perry had followed up a novelty song with an opposite song. The opposite song is an old trick in pop music, an easy way for a songwriter to write some words against a basic melody. The Beatles did it with “Hello Goodbye,” one of the band’s most basic songs, if not the most basic, and probably its most forgettable No. 1 hit. “Hot n Cold” is ultimately forgettable, but set against a surefire dance rhythm it’s not half bad. In fact, it’s pretty fun. And I began thinking this while “Hot n Cold” ran its way to No. 3 - Perry’s second top-five hit in two chances - and I began to realize that there was more to this Katy Perry than novelty and opposite songs.

What was more was the writing team, led by the incomparable Max Martin. The Swedish hitmaker responsible for some of the biggest hits of the bubblegum pop era was helping Perry write her hits. Producer Dr. Luke was on board, too, and is very responsible for Perry’s dance-ready sound. And while “I Kissed a Girl” moved very little, “Hot n Cold” dipped and dived. As if on purpose, Martin and the team plotted Perry to have more dimensions with each new single. Build the pop star from the ground up, from novelty song to keynote address.

Perry’s next single was “Thinking of You,” a very forgettable ballad that scraped the top-30. Perry wrote it alone. It added the ballad to Perry’s arsenal, but imagine adding a kitchen knife to a Vietnam soldier - it wouldn’t do much good. If anything it proved that Perry wasn’t a strong-enough vocalist to carry a big ballad, and that the best way to proceed would be to increase the dance rhythms to eleven.

But on Jan. 17, just as “Thinking of You” hit the charts and proved Perry a dance-floor gal, the dance-floor world changed completely. “Just Dance” hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart. The world was completely ready for Lady Gaga, who would own 2009 with a string of huge dance tracks. When Gaga released “Poker Face,” her huge No. 1 hit, Perry came out with “Waking Up in Vegas,” an enjoyable pop song, but written by a new team altogether and absolutely lost in the thick of Gaga’s glare. While Perry was hungover at the Bellagio, Gaga was owning the poker table all night.

After “Waking Up in Vegas” the Perry hit machine jerked to a halt. Gaga was on fire, handing the world two better songs than her first two in “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance.” At that point, I felt - like many others - that Perry was all finished. One album and out. And we really wouldn’t have missed her.

By May 2010, Lady Gaga was still hot, releasing a second album “The Fame Monster” in a rush to put more material into the world. Second single “Telephone,” with Beyonce, continued Gaga’s journey of otherworldly dance music, defying the definitions of pop created and repeated regularly by Max Martin. As a writer and producer, Martin had written major hits for the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, N*Sync and Pink, just to name a few. The template he drew in the late 1990s became a monster in itself by the 2000s, and Perry was his second generation star, the one who could move the sound into the new century with a little more promiscuity and a glossier sheen. But Gaga threatened the entire monster, creating her own monster that was stomping everything in its path. With “Telephone,” Lady Gaga had scored her sixth top-10 hit in a little over a year. Her sound, image and disposition became pop music. Katy Perry was nothing more than a grain of salt. Her sex was not sexy. Her tunes were not tuneful. And Martin? His sound was about to die slow.

On May 11, 2010, Perry returned for her follow-up album “Teenage Dream,” and led with the single “California Gurls.” It sounded nothing like the pedestrian “I Kissed a Girl.” It sounded nothing like the Songwriter’s 101 of “Hot n Cold.” It surely wasn’t “Thinking of You” and sounded friendlier and glossier than “Waking Up in Vegas.” But it didn’t sound like Gaga. In fact, it sounded as if Gaga never happened.

Instead, “California Gurls” borrowed from the keyboard-driven pop hits of urban pop, which borrowed from the new romantics style of the 1980s. And it was bright and sunny, refreshing and even funky. Whereas Gaga’s dictatorial dance-pop left a listener cold as ice, this new Katy Perry sounded like a freakin’ rainbow. Grabbing Snoop Dogg for the bridge was a stroke of genius - no rapper has even been more California sunny than Snoop. In all “California Gurls” just sounded simple. The kind of song that should’ve been written years ago, and yet, it couldn’t have been written years ago. Too much was going on in the song. Complex yet simple, bright yet fulfilling (despite much melody or vocal thrills) - the new Katy Perry merely echoed the real Katy Perry.

And yet it was written by five people, including Martin and Dr. Luke.

“California Gurls” shot to No. 2 right away, then moved to No. 1 a few weeks later. And on May 18, a week after “California Gurls” debuted, Gaga released her newest single “Alejandro.” A Latin love song straight out of the Ace of Base catalog, it was Gaga’s weakest single yet. It reached No. 5, but it left a colder taste than ever. For a while, that was the end of Gaga’s single reign. She’d retreat into the studio to record her next album.

Perry’s second single from “Teenage Dream” was the title track, written by the same team that wrote “California Gurls.” Perry and her team felt that the song was written near perfectly, and they were correct. They nailed the concept of a “teenage dream,” with plenty of pay offs, including the “skin-tight jeans” line, the rush of emotions felt throughout the song and the soaring chorus that nevertheless feels somewhat incomplete - which is a good thing for a song like this, because teenage emotions are never fully realized. It was possibly Perry’s top vocal effort, and certainly her best melodic song to date. It easily reached No. 1 on the charts, justifying the album “Teenage Dream” and scoring Martin yet another huge hit. Like “I Want it That Way” before it, “Teenage Dream” was a hallmark song, the kind that can define an artist.

And yet “Teenage Dream” was another stepping stone. Perry was constructed, as a pop star, as a novelty turned enjoyable but flawed. By “Teenage Dream” she had become a star, a sex pinup and - gasp - a near role model. In a way she was the anti-Gaga: whereas Gaga claimed oodles of artistic merit but portrayed herself like a tortured and cold ringmaster, Perry downplayed the art in her pop confections, instead grabbing at cute sex appeal and bright songs that played to basic black-and-white emotions. “Teenage Dream” never broke ground in the songwriting world, but like “Party in the USA” a year before, it played perfectly to its audience, and in such a way that it didn’t feel fake or distant. By “Teenage Dream,” Perry seemed to be convincing in her songs. Again, she was her true self.

Which made Perry’s next move all the more outstanding.

The point of this piece is to appreciate Katy Perry because, in essence, she is her own artist. She’s lifted by a creative writing team that can write great pop songs. She’s lifted by image perfectionists who can make her look like the sexiest woman on the planet. And she’s lifted by public relations professionals who can direct her to the sun. Yet at the end of the day, she honestly sounds, well … honest.

“Firework,” the third single from “Teenage Dream,” elevated Perry from an artist singing about herself, or a version of herself, to an artist singing about other people, about society. Perry is now taking the role of role model. This is her message song, telling her fans - teens needing a lift, young adults needing a moment, minorities looking for a sign - that there’s something great out there. And why not believe it? Perry had delivered on her promises before, elevated herself past Lady Gaga’s glare and, again, always seemed honest in her songs. The same church gal who cheekily sang about kissing a girl and liking it was pretty much the same girl singing about being a teenage dream, and she was pretty much the same girl belting about letting what’s inside come out.

Itself, the song was a triumph. It was powerful and huge, backed by decisive strings, little bits of melody that fly in and out, solid vocal shifts and plenty of climax. Interestingly, it wasn’t written by Max Martin, nor was it produced by Dr. Luke. But in a way that makes sense - for the first time, Perry sounded incredibly assured and free, as if “Firework” was not merely a message song to her fans, but her coming-out party as a skilled pop artist.

Since “Firework,” Perry has released “E.T.” and her most recent single, “Last Friday Night.” The former reached No. 1 in the spring as a re-release featuring Kanye West (the original release was merely a promotional download), and sounded a lot more like earlier Lady Gaga (think “Bad Romance” but with a heavier lean toward urban pop). It also unseated Gaga’s “Born This Way” from the top of the charts. Easily the most forgettable of the “Teenage Dream” singles, it nevertheless was a huge hit for Perry, showing that the goodwill she gathered through her fight to the top had paid off in spades.

Now Perry has “Last Friday Night,” which was written by Martin and Co. and sits at its peak No. 4 position this week. It’s the fifth single from “Teenage Dream” and much more in step with the first two, “California Gurls” and the title track. Its sound hearkens to that odd, new romantics-influenced style - even including a saxophone solo - and its lyrics address the plight of a newly twenty-one-year-old girl after a legendary night at the bars. In a way, Perry has come full circle from “I Kissed a Girl,” only now she’s running naked in the park and having a ménage a trois. And even when Perry spews lyrics such as “that was such an epic fail,” citing a meme that has peaked in popularity, she actually sounds honest. And because of that, there’s something unbelievably refreshing about Perry’s pop hits. “Last Friday Night,” while not on par with “Teenage Dream” or “Firework,” continues to show that there’s some pop pabulum that feels really nice.

Then there’s Gaga. “Born This Way,” “Judas” and “The Edge of Glory” might sound like an honest Gaga, but we’re still trying to figure her out. Is she the vapid dance-floor chick from early on, the cold and calculated ruler of her best songs, the lover of throwaway Ace of Base or the one who kept dressing up as Madonna at Halloween parties? No matter what she’s doing, Gaga always sounds distant. And while her artistic merit might be higher than Katy Perry’s, it’s never completely fulfilling. And it doesn’t quite keep you coming back for more.

The strength of Katy Perry is that honesty, which drives her pop hits to another level. She also has Max Martin, who can hand me a pop hit that I can’t screw up. But he can hand you another, and you might. Perry has grown into a full-fledged pop artist, the kind that you want to hear again, even if her songs fall short of the glory her peers attempt to reach. Sure the songs may be about hangovers, kissing girls and being teenage dreams, but every once in a while there’s a song like “Firework,” and it’s all because Katy Perry is truly Katy Perry.

And that’s something Jill Sobule would probably respect.

Filed under katy perry lady gaga last friday night teenage dream firework max martin waking up in vegas hot n cold i kissed a girl jill sobule kanye west backstreet boys

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Baseball Teams as Ice Cream Flavors

The 2011 baseball season is in full swing, as is the 2011 summer season. With the 4th of July just about here, I was at an ice cream stand, enjoying some Chocolate Marshmallow ice cream when I realized, “I could compare every baseball team to an ice cream flavor!”

So I’ve spent an entire Sunday night writing this post. Enjoy:

Something completely different: Baseball Teams as Ice Cream Flavors …

American League East

New York Yankees : Vanilla
On the first day, God created Vanilla.
Okay, not exactly, but Vanilla is and has been America’s most popular ice cream flavor. The Yankees is and have been America’s most popular baseball team. It’s clean, it’s tradition, it’s even kind of predictable. But it’s always great, and always there at the end of the day. Damn Yankees.

Boston Red Sox : Chocolate
Around forever, the very popular Chocolate is a nice counterpoint to Vanilla. While the latter is much more silky smooth, the former has a sweet taste. In the same vein, the Red Sox provide a more cozy counterpoint to the Yankees. And people will fight to the teeth defending one or the other (ice creams and teams). However, too much Chocolate will turn your stomach and, well, you know what people think of the Red Sox after a couple great years …

Tampa Bay Rays : Birthday Cake
Thanks in part to the newest in ice cream amazingness, Cold Stone Creamery, this blue (sometimes white) flavor has become all the rage. It tastes … well … like a birthday cake. People gobble it up. And thanks in part to the newest in talent evaluation, the Tampa Bay Rays have become all the rage in baseball. Oh, and they wear blue and white. Weird, huh?

Toronto Blue Jays : Peanut Butter Chocolate
Of course, Peanut Butter Chocolate ice cream is much like the brand-name flavor Moose Tracks, which conjures visions of Canada, but at any rate, this flavor is what happens when you start combining things that sound great together, but may not work for some. Obviously peanut butter and chocolate works together, but as an ice cream? Same thing with the Blue Jays: Baseball and Canada? Or … those uniforms? Or … Jose Bautista and Toronto? At any rate, this flavor should be great, but it falls short. Same with the Jays, year after year.

Baltimore Orioles : French Vanilla
There was a time, I suppose, when French Vanilla was just as popular as its more traditional cousin. There was a time, when eggs were more popular as a regular dietary element, that people ate French Vanilla by the bucket loads. Just as I’m sure there was a time when the Baltimore Orioles were recognized the world over for their baseball prowess. Ah, but those days are long gone.

American League Central

Detroit Tigers : Chocolate Marshmallow
The Tigers have a long and storied history, and it deserves a base flavor that also recalls a long and storied history. But there’s something softer about the Tigers, something mushier. Chocolate marshmallow is the ice cream you get when you’re hankering chocolate but feel a little less bloodthirsty. It’s a delicious ice cream and one that’s pretty popular; the Tigers, despite years of off-and-on success, remain pretty popular and, yes, somewhat mushier.

Chicago White Sox : Chocolate Almond
If the Red Sox are chocolate, and the Tigers are the softer side of that off-and-on success, then the White Sox are definitely the harder side. Chocolate Almond is shockingly popular (though this has to be a regional thing) because it adds a nutty texture to the traditional cocoa bean. Obviously, there’s no team that does nutty better than the Sox, what with its manager and play-by-play announcer leading the charge. I stay away from Chocolate Almond. And I stay away from the White Sox. Well, there you go.

Cleveland Indians : Butter Pecan
Butter Pecan is a very soft, buttery and nutty vanilla ice cream. It’s one of the more storied ice creams, but always seems to play second, third or even fourth fiddle much of the time. And much like we’re still waiting for the Butter Pecan renaissance, we’re still waiting for the Cleveland Indians renaissance. Long in tradition but short in success, the Indians deserve better. Maybe it’s cause they’re so soft and cute!

Minnesota Twins : Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough
A terrific idea in practice, and a flavor that, yes, a lot of people do love, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough is, however, a flawed flavor. Too much dough will really make a person struggle finishing the flavor, and too much chocolate chip will just make it taste like … well, chocolate chip. I’d like to think of the Twins in the same vein: trying to balance itself as a small-market team with big-market aspirations. Some years it works, some years it doesn’t. But they keep pressing on.

Kansas City Royals: Banana
For most, a banana is a chore - something you probably should eat every day, but something that always seems hard to put down and is completely dependent on timing. But make it an ice cream flavor and, well, let’s say there’s a small contingent that absolutely loves Banana ice cream. The Royals are still trying to move up in the baseball world, stocked with hope and youth. And a small contingent really hopes for these kids. But it’s all dependent on timing, I suppose.

American League West

Texas Rangers : Coconut
Why doesn’t Coconut ice cream have a higher profile? It’s a fruit, it’s exotic (but not too exotic), and it’s a summer treat if there ever was. As an ice cream it’s a thrilling combination of sweet and smooth. I feel the same about the Rangers - they’re a solid combination of hitting and pitching and even had huge success lately … and yet …

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim : Peach
Peach ice cream is always popular. It’s rich and fruity, and can be complimented by nuts, honey or even chocolate chips. It’s a durable ice cream that always seems to find a place in every shoppe. It would’ve been cliché to go with an orange ice cream here, and anyways, I think that’s underplaying the impact of the Angels. This is a solid team that seems to stay in the conversation every year.

Seattle Mariners : Rainbow Sherbet
A while ago, you remember Rainbow Sherbet was a cool flavor that seemed to come out of left field. It was dynamic, thrilling and a little unappreciated. But time hasn’t been really kind to Rainbow Sherbet. And time hasn’t been kind to the Mariners, though the future may be brighter. Hopefully the future is brighter for Rainbow Sherbet, too.

Oakland Athletics : Dippin’ Dots
Veering away from the traditional flavors for a moment here. See, years ago, we were told Dippin’ Dots was “The Ice Cream of the Future!” And it certainly looked cool and different and crazy. And for a while, it seemed correct - this really was “The Ice Cream of the Future!” But the years wear on, and you find yourself wondering if a team led by Coco Crisp and Conor Jackson can really win a division. And Dippin’ Dots just kind of hangs out, stuck in some concrete mess of a mall that will never, ever be renovated or torn down. And you forget the rich history that ice cream had before Dippin’ Dots came along. Instead, you just sulk in that disgusting mess of a mall, rooting for “The Future!”

National League East

Philadelphia Phillies : Rocky Road
“Rocky Road?!” asked Sloth in “The Goonies.” I think this makes sense. Rocky Road is chocolate, sure, but it’s also marshmallows AND nuts, so it’s a crazy combination of tradition, softness and crazy. Go to a Phillies game - you’ll see it all on display. And Rocky Road is a popular flavor, but not overwhelmingly so. The Phillies had always been baseball’s doorstep, but they’re a well-known doorstep that now has lots of success. So we go with this complex, misunderstood and absolutely crucial flavor. Plus, as Sloth proved, deformed people love Rocky Road.

Atlanta Braves : Praline Pecan
This is somewhat of a regional pick. Praline Pecan is huge down South, with its buttery, brown sugary, slightly nutty taste. Up north? It really doesn’t get the kind of play that the traditional flavors receive. The Braves are very much a local phenomenon - the “America’s Team” thing was just Ted Turner’s way to expose his franchise to the country. We all kind of got into Praline Pecan a little, even appreciating it enough to respect it. But at the end of the day most of us will run to chocolate and its friends.

New York Mets : Chocolate Chip
Isn’t Chocolate Chip ice cream supposed to be bigger? Isn’t it supposed to be on the level of a Chocolate or Vanilla? Alas, it’s just sitting there, waiting for your spoon. See, the Mets are like Chocolate Chip in that they combine exciting characteristics from other places but never seem to be anything more than average. Old players, young players, big money, small money, Dodgers, Giants - the Mets are all about inclusion. Sadly, the one thing they forgot to include was an accountant (snare drum). Chocolate chip is OK, but there are so many more dynamic choices.

Florida Marlins : Mango
Every once in a while, Mango ice cream becomes a huge thing. People gobble it up. But its popularity lasts about one summer, then it falls back to the end of the counter. And it keeps letting its newest followers leave for other concoctions, like Lime and Pina Colada. Oh well.

Washington Nationals : Lime
And speaking of Lime … isn’t this flavor just about ready to blow up? Baskin-Robbins brought back its lime-flavored Daiquiri Ice because of public demand. Well, it seems everyone wants the Nationals to be the next great team in the game, thanks to its wealth of surefire stars. But does Lime have the juice to go all the way? Not when it pays Jayson Werth over $100 million for seven years.

National League Central

Milwaukee Brewers : Coffee
Constantly looked at as the next great ice cream flavor, Coffee certainly makes sense. It’s a staple of our everyday life, it pairs well with milk and the iced version is quite popular. As an ice cream it’s a rich and delicious treat that has a sophisticated side. The Brewers are putting all their cards on the table this year - this is do or die time. It’s rich, delicious and is quite sophisticated (I mean, look at that Bernie Brewer). A lot of people are liking Coffee ice cream right now, and a lot of people are liking the Crew.

St. Louis Cardinals : Strawberry
A lot of people love Vanilla. And a lot of people love Chocolate. But a lot of people also love Strawberry. Safely tucked in its own little fruit-filled world, Strawberry is a wonderful change of pace from the titans of ice cream. The Cardinals? They’re only the most decorated team outside of the Yankees, a great change of pace from those East Coast teams. And what a following!

Cincinnati Reds : Cherry
Did you know that Cherry ice cream has been around forever? Well, not forever, but it’s one of the more historic flavors, right up there with Strawberry. So it makes sense for the Reds to be Cherry. The Reds, as you know, are the oldest team in the game. Cherry is always somewhat popular, coming back to the top once in a while. The Reds, of course, had a nice run through the NL Central in 2010 and are in the thick yet again.

Pittsburgh Pirates : Black Raspberry
How is Black Raspberry not more popular? At any rate, this is a wicked flavor that isn’t for everyone but certainly has potential. The Pirates, of course, have plenty of potential and are making moves for the first time in years. Black Raspberry is never dull. Right now, the Pirates are pretty exciting themselves.

Chicago Cubs : Neapolitan
Combine the tradition of the Vanilla Yankees, the sweet failure of the Chocolate Red Sox and the perennially optimistic Midwest following of the Strawberry Cardinals, and you have this wonderful combination of baseball’s top tier. The problem, of course, is nobody ever buys Neapolitan. And thanks to the influx of new and odd flavors these days, Neapolitan is merely a last resort. Oh those sad, sad Cubbies, perennially the wasted flavor.

Houston Astros : Rum Raisin
People like this flavor? What is it - alcohol and raisins and Vanilla? How is that a good combination? And why is Ed Wade still running a team’s payroll?

National League West

San Francisco Giants : Mint Chocolate Chip
Okay, I don’t get Mint Chocolate Chip. It’s very popular, but why? Mint shouldn’t be the lead in any food creation - it’s a strong-spiced leaf. Would you want Oregano ice cream? Maybe Parsley ice cream? No. No you wouldn’t. Anyway, again, Mint Chocolate Chip is very popular, and it’s a little left of center. Plus traditionally it’s green (see what I did there)? I think this is a perfect fit.

Colorado Rockies : Phish Food
Maybe the most well known of Ben & Jerry’s creations, Phish Food seems out there. It’s just on another plane, out in Vermont, kind of sitting there, with its marshmallow and its little fishes and its caramel and whatever else. It’s kind of like the Rockies, who play in this huge park up in the sky with a humidor. Both have short lifespans thus far, and both have been big most of their lives. And I don’t get the Phish phenomenon as much as I get the offensive numbers of Ellis Burks, Preston Wilson and Dante Bichette. Oh, and Colorado is pretty much marijuana heaven. Not that it means anything for this comparison …

Los Angeles Dodgers : Cookies and Cream
See, there’s a way to combine Vanilla and Chocolate in amazing ways, and Cookies and Cream is a fine example. That’s because Cookies and Cream isn’t necessarily Vanilla and Chocolate. It’s more of its own concoction, a blend of flavors that has become distinct in itself. The Dodgers are the same - once Brooklyn’s team, the franchise is now synonymous with the West Coast lifestyle. Plus both Cookies and Cream and the Dodgers are pretty popular.

Arizona Diamondbacks : Orange Sherbet
Much like Rainbow Sherbet, Orange Sherbet is a more yogurt-like substance that nevertheless has the guilty properties of ice cream. But Orange is also sort of one-note - if you don’t like the tart of orange, you won’t like this. The Diamondbacks? Traditionally they’re a team dependent on power, so they’re not quite for everyone. But hey, they get theirs sometimes.

San Diego Padres : Pistachio
I’d like to think Pistachio had some brilliant history, with top-hat-wearing men and well-dressed ladies enjoying this cool version of the salty nut concoction in olden times. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, however. Though it has been around for a long time, Pistachio is just there. It seems interesting at first glance but, in reality, is just a niche flavor reserved for true believers. It’ll never be Chocolate or Vanilla. I guess not everyone can be those flavors.


Filed under baseball ice cream summer

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Album as a Snapshot

Imagine you’re in one of the world’s biggest bands - in fact, it probably is the world’s biggest band. But your band is about to break apart. Tensions grew too loud. Egos are too big.

You reflect your band’s last six years and you’re amazed: Tons of No. 1 albums and singles, amazing accolades, your life in full view the entire time. Just three years ago you pioneered an album that broke the expectations of what rock could be, and two years ago you wrote one of music’s modern greats - a song that dumbfounded critics and overjoyed fans. Last year you wrote a few of your finest songs, which will surely live as all-time classics, despite your band’s growing tensions.

Heck, your output in the last three years alone would solidify your legacy as one of music’s greatest songwriters. But alas, you’re a musician, and one who needs to keep playing, even if your great band is about to fold forever.

So you continue writing and recording.

You’ve written a couple tracks, and you record with your own instruments and equipment while your band’s last album is completed. You tell your bandmates you’re recording these songs, and while they don’t necessarily love the idea, they understand. “Just don’t release it before our last album is released,” they tell you.

But in your mind, you’ve been the only one trying to keep the band’s legacy alive. You denied a new manager while the others accepted him - he proved to be incompetent, but that’s neither here nor there. You didn’t like the other members’ habits of straying from the band, yet they’re the ones lambasting you for doing your own thing. Whatever, you say, you’ll release the album whenever you damn well please.

So you release it. Two weeks before your band’s final album is released. And you tell journalists in an advance copy that you’re leaving the band, though it wasn’t public knowledge. You’re jumping ship, screwing the world, taking independence. And making everyone mad in the process.

Yet your album, released without promotion, a tour or a single, debuts at No. 1 in America, and No. 2 in Great Britain. Clearly, you’re good. But the first reviews say you’re lazy, boring and unimaginable. Whatever, you say, you did what you wanted and it worked out.

If you haven’t guessed by now, your name is James Paul McCartney, and you’ve just released your album “McCartney.” That’s it. And it’s simply you, the music you’re making at the time, which is early 1970. You started recording in December 1969, and you released the album in April 1970. A snapshot of life during the most turbulent months of your life.

“McCartney” was re-released a few weeks ago, upgraded by 21st century technology and packaged with a few bonus pieces. When originally released, it was overlooked by a number of things - the Beatle breakup (thanks in part to Paul himself in the advance copy), the last Beatle album (“Let It Be”) and the first round of Beatle solo releases (“Plastic Ono Band” and “All Things Must Pass”). In time, the album has actually aged well, thanks mostly to its one sweep of grandeur, “Maybe I’m Amazed.” But it still hasn’t gained enough appreciation. McCartney fans will deservedly point to “Ram” as Paul’s earliest conquest, but “McCartney” remains a relic of the moment - the snapshot.

With “McCartney,” snapshot is also quite literal. A fascinating aspect of “McCartney” is the number of photos chronicling Paul’s bucolic lifestyle with his wife, Linda, and children. The photos - taken by Linda, a professional photographer of the Kodak-Eastman empire - show a foursome frolicking on the beach, tending to sheep and lounging about the countryside. Paul is wearing a number of outfits - a light cotton shirt and fleece pants, a heavy brown winter coat, a striped beach shirt and knee-length shorts, an Oxford shirt and clean black pinstripe pants, a hip-length tight pink summer shirt and a towel around the head. His face is clean shaven at times, but mostly with prominent stubble or a full beard. Lots of hair. It’s all as if Paul, Linda and the kids are sharing their life, like a Flickr album - all the little things they do, the funny faces they make and small foods they eat. The prominent food is cherries - the album cover is a Linda photograph of cherries spilled about a patio deck, remnants of a lazy Sunday afternoon in the country.

The music of “McCartney” echoes that feeling. The first track, “The Lovely Linda,” stumbles in starting. It gives way to a pleasant melody with lightweight lyrics. The whole thing lasts 46 seconds before Paul decides it’s enough and giggles profusely. The first proper track, “That Would Be Something,” is a blues musing not unlike his Beatles offering “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” Tension builds, but it’s never calamitous. It’s a brushstroke. A bluesy little brushstroke.

Paul plays all the instruments on “McCartney.” Linda contributes some background vocals, and just on “Man We Was Lonely” and “Teddy Boy.” They, with “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Every Night,” “Oo You,” “Junk” and “That Would Be Something,” are the only realized tracks on the album. And only “Maybe I’m Amazed” really sounds like a full effort, being the only song recorded entirely in a professional studio. It stacks up with Paul’s other mammoth efforts of the time, “Let It Be,” “Get Back” and “The Long and Winding Road.”

And because it’s that highly evolved and produced, “Maybe I’m Amazed” doesn’t belong on “McCartney.” To Paul’s credit, it lands toward the back of the album, with experimental closer “Kreen-Akrore” (which plays on a melody in “Maybe I’m Amazed”) the only thing remaining on the player. But “Maybe I’m Amazed” - so realized and lush - still sticks out terribly. It’s an incredible song, but it’s very overstated.

See, “McCartney” is understated by reason. It’s a snapshot. For a clear view of that, see “Man We Was Lonely,” which closes side one of the album. The ramshackle country song is a duet about wading uncontrollable waters:

“I used to ride on my fast city line, singing songs that I thought were mine alone. Now let me lie with my love for the time. I am home. Home. Home!”

It’s a complete acceptance of the quiet country life Paul had settled into during those few months. It wasn’t forever, and it wasn’t supposed to be forever, though he did try to extend those sentiments with “Ram” and “Wildlife.”

What amazes about “McCartney” is how effortless all those melodies seem. “Man We Was Lonely” might be slight in comparison with McCartney’s overall canon, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable country-folk jaunt. And it could certainly be played today.

Even the very slight songs - the instrumental pieces, have winning melodies. “Hot as Sun” is a buoyant mid-tempo Latin-flavored melody, giving way to “Glasses,” which … well, it was played with wine glasses. It wasn’t really supposed to do a lot but space a man out. “Momma Miss America” plays as a mid-tempo groove. “Valentine Day,” maybe the weakest song on the album, still finds itself a doable melody.

The true songs all have great melodies, and certainly stack up against most of McCartney’s other material. “Every Night” is enjoyable, “Junk” is heartbreaking and “Teddy Boy” is sweet - they all have purpose. Most of all, they all reflect a very loose, very spirited seasonal feeling. These are all light and breezy songs, reflective of the country life, reflective of lazy Sundays, of Eastman-Kodak snapshots and changes of clothes to trip to the beach.

It’s a shame “McCartney” was overlooked so much around its original release. It’s truly one of the few albums by a major musician that attempts to speak plainly and freely about life. Heck, it jibes with a lifestyle that continues today. Thousands of people leave their bustling city lives to raise families somewhere near or in the country, and along the way they begin to appreciate simple living, and some of them even document this life with photographs. “McCartney” is the soundtrack to that entire lifestyle - the songs, however slight one might think they are, are all small snapshots of a pretty popular lifestyle.

Not many musicians would have the guts to release an album that tells a couple small stories about life as it is at the moment. Paul McCartney did this in a couple months, still hot from writing “Let It Be,” “Get Back,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Oh Darling!,” “Hey Jude” and “Blackbird,” among a few others you might have heard. And he released “McCartney” without any promotion, and while his band was feuding and breaking up for good. There are very, very few albums like it, and considering the current state of affairs in music, it’s sad that’s the case.

Filed under Paul McCartney McCartney Maybe I'm Amazed Man We Was Lonely Beatles Junk Every Night Teddy Boy

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Spencer

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

From high atop a sea of people, glancing, with wide eyes and high desire, toward the center of the very political center of our nation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. voiced his iconic words regarding his vision of the future to a people hungry for change and hurt from discrimination. He voiced these words directly about the judgment of people by skin color, but King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, remembered on this day saluting his life, pertains to all people, for America isn’t merely a nation of black and white. It is a nation of entirely unique people, in size, in shape, in intellect, in drive, in culture and in value.

I think about a man named Spencer, a short, rotund and wrinkly Jewish man in his sixties, at least. His face lights like a beacon, his cheeks like bulging berries. His hands are small as softballs, at once rubbing vigorously at his near-bald head, then caressing generously on a friend’s hand in a tender show of appreciation. Spencer wears funky sweaters. He sports special sneakers with Velcro fasteners. His socks are high and white. His pants are brown and always ironed perfectly. Spencer is autistic, and so highly autistic that he speaks in generalized fits of habit:

“Where do you work?”

“How do you get to work?”

“What time to you go to work?”

“Do you take the train?”

“What are we doing Saturday?”

He directs many of these same questions to my brother, a 21-year-old boy lost in his newly discovered world of young adulthood. Like anyone in this situation, my brother is experimenting with habits, behaviors and friendships. He’s adamant in his claim that he’ll thrive in his chosen field of work, which is music performance and production, while he attempts to finish school and earn regular money. My brother navigates a sea of friends, some trustworthy, some present only for fun, and finds both pleasure and danger by the day. He’s 21. That’s what he does.

But my brother also aids people with special needs, visiting their apartments and houses and cooking dinner, playing games, watching television, taking trips. He visits a regular group of clients, which fill all of his required work time. Then he visits Spencer. Not a client. Just someone he wants to visit.

On Saturdays, my brother drives Spencer to a nearby diner, or maybe IHOP, and the two will eat breakfast together. Sometimes an autistic friend, Ray, will join them. At first, it was my brother and Spencer, and sometimes Ray. They would sit at a booth and peruse the menus.

“What are you having, Spencer?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you want ham?”

“Oh no, no ham, no ham. I can’t eat it.”

“How about eggs and bacon?”

“Okay, eggs and bacon.”

Sure it’s funny, the idea that a man doesn’t know that bacon is also ham, but this man is in his sixties, at least, and he’s autistic. So it’s not funny, right?

My brother laughs. Spencer doesn’t react. He may know my brother is laughing, and he may wonder why my brother is laughing, but he doesn’t react. Instead, my brother continues asking Spencer questions – about the rest of his day, about Ray or other friends, and of course, about the next time they’ll meet. And about SEPTA.

You see, Spencer loves SEPTA. Most Philadelphians cast a foul eye at the organization that runs the city’s mass-transit system, but Spencer, and most of his friends, adores SEPTA. They love SEPTA because, if they weren’t receiving transportation from my brother, or a friend, or a family member, they could count on SEPTA. They can dress themselves, step outside, walk to the corner and wait for a bus. And they’ll greet the driver, find their seat and begin their journey. Barring a work stoppage, SEPTA will always be there. A bus will always take them to where they need to go.

And those with special needs, like Spencer, adore SEPTA so much that they remember entire route schedules, and not simply for their personal buses or trains. They remember every route. So when Spencer asks, “Do you take the train?” he’s not simply making small talk.

Sometimes, though, Spencer says this:

“You have to protect me from them.”

Spencer says “them” are people on the bus who trigger a sense of paranoia.

Because Spencer adores SEPTA, he adores anybody affiliated with SEPTA. So when my brother informed Spencer that our uncle works as a train supervisor for SEPTA, Spencer tugged at my brother’s hands, pleading for a meeting. So not long after, Spencer was hugging and shaking hands with the train supervisor who handed him a shirt and a tour of an off-duty car. Since, they’ve met numerous times, including at my family Thanksgiving, where Spencer arrived as an invited guest. Stroking, and then kissing our uncle’s hand, Spencer informed him that he had to protect him.

“You’ll protect me?”

After the first few weeks of breakfast meetings, my brother, Spencer, and sometimes Ray, were joined by my older brother, my mother and even myself. Hearing about Spencer made us want to meet him, not to laugh at his misunderstanding of ham, but to laugh with his misunderstandings and, more importantly, gain greater understanding of a man in his sixties, at least, whose brain operated at the level of a nine-year-old, at most.

With a full group of us at breakfast, Spencer loudly asked the same questions to me that he had been asking others for years:

“Where do you work?”

“New York,” I told him, then glanced slightly outside of our table view, and noticed a handful of eyes fixated at us.

“How do you get to work?”

“I drive to work,” I said, leaving Spencer slightly baffled, since he just expects that people only take public transportation. I glanced over again, and even more eyes had landed on us. Curious eyes.

“What time do you go to work?”

“Nine o’ clock,” I told Spencer. He nodded vigorously side to side.

“Oh no, that’s too late for me,” he responded, now very loudly, and I could hear more heads turn, eyes glaring at us. We were interrupting their breakfasts. No, Spencer was interrupting their breakfasts.

I can’t imagine what goes through Spencer’s mind from day to day, dressing himself, walking to the bus stop and climbing up the high metal stairs. So there’s no way at all I can understand, even with years of training and experience, what goes through Spencer’s mind as he sits on the bus, as the eyes point at him. As fingers point at him. As somebody snickers. As somebody makes a quizzical face. And maybe someone asks him a question. Maybe someone mocks him. Maybe someone moves to him and grabs him, teasing him. I can’t imagine.

When Spencer is near, my brother says that it’s all in his head, and that nobody will get him. Spencer doubts those claims, but he always relaxes himself while grabbing my brother’s hand, caressing it and kissing it.

“You’ll protect me, right?”

“I’ll protect you, Spencer.”

Filed under martin luther king jr king martin luther king dr. martin luther king jr. autism autistic protection equality

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Two People

In the span of seven days, two people, galaxies apart, have taught us invaluable lessons about the importance of humanity.

The homeless, out of luck, grinning and crooning Ted Williams. Discovered by the very definition of mobile journalism. Captured in a video. Posted to YouTube. Viral within days. His only advertisement was a small rectangle of cardboard, filled with a scribbled plea dropping off the palette. With teeth the consequence of cocaine destruction, and hair the look of a lion on his last legs, Williams gladly recited his lines, securing cash and, unwittingly, securing instant legend.

Days later, the innocent Christina-Taylor Green. Discovered by the worst kind of journalism: the breaking-news tragedy. An interested bystander. An innocent victim. At first, she was nothing but a nine-year-old girl, trapped. Our only image of her is a facial profile, showing bright brown eyes and full smile, composed and graceful form and teeth still installing themselves. We only know she was there to see her local politician, but she, unwittingly, secured instant legend.

We rushed Williams through the carousel of instant legend. Plucked from his temporary workspace on a Columbus, Ohio, intersection, Williams shared his story on radio. Then on a morning news show. Then a late-night show. Further and further. Employers offered him jobs, sports franchises and comfort food providers. His voice grew louder and his story more prominent. Further and further.

Green, found in her Tucson, Arizona, home, didn’t meet radio hosts. She didn’t meet Matt Lauer. She didn’t encounter any of the wild highs of the legend’s carousel. She wasn’t rewarded that gift, however warped, but however warranted.

As the Ted Williams story expanded with reunions and commercials, we dug deep to uncover the true story of the man plucked from obscurity. His past presented on network entertainment news programs. And as the Christina-Taylor Green story expanded with memorials and political posturing, we also dug deep. The material presented on cable news. Our need for knowledge.

Through it all, most of us cheered Ted Williams. Within seconds, his discovery video felt like it was handed down from the heavens. How could this man project with such warm authority? And live such a tormented life? And we followed. We cheered his every television appearance. We cried with his calls to “Mommy.” We felt right. We felt good. Simply because we watched a man U-turn from societal dregs to celebrity glee, we felt good. This was our world at work, our society at work. The greatness of America at play. The dream. The fulfillment. All in full view, and instantly, and powerful and emotional. The greatness of Ted Williams was that we saw some speck of ourselves in him.

So when we started to see the cracks - his habit of addiction and abuse, his denial of fatherhood and husbandry, his history of mug shots - we not only questioned Ted Williams, but we began to loathe the world of Ted Williams. And we loathed the system for producing Spam from a homeless man, for saddling us on the shoulders of a painted horse and driving us through the cockeyed carousel. Now we question ourselves. We wonder how we can stand by a man paraded onto “Dr. Phil,” bloating our senses with lowly facts that, for any other human, would seem not only damning, but downright disgusting. And we despise ourselves for being duped, for even if Williams does change, does fix himself, does put down the bottle and the bag, he will forever remain a man handed chance after chance, from initial occupation all the way to viral sensation.

But Christina-Taylor Green didn’t have a history of drug abuse and emotional abuse. Her skin, hair, teeth and limbs weren’t worn from years of torture. Green was unharmed. We merely had a photograph. Then we learned about her hunger for civic service, her fascination of government, her softball skills - the things that define America only in movies. An unharmed nine-year-old all-American girl, a full life ahead, and one possibly without bottles and bags, changes and fixes. So we cried for Green. We cried for her family, for those who knew her, and even for a moment. We felt robbed. This was America robbed from our grasp. Because Christina Taylor-Green embodied everything we could have been, everything we once were.

In the aftermath of our recent discoveries of the tortured life of Ted Williams, our anger intensified because our notions of humanity twisted in our faces. But it was not Williams’ fault - it merely took a catalyst such as this man to show us everything wrong with our fascinations, with our delusions of the American dream. Whatever the American dream is all about. In truth, Williams is a man, a complex individual with highs and lows, hopes and downfalls, joys and pains. He is not the definition of what we are. He is not the definition of what is wrong.

No. What is wrong is the sheer idea that everything must have definition. The idea that everything must be embodiment. The idea that there is some high idea which we must achieve. Who says a crowd cannot applause during a night of remembrance and recover? Who says a country can not be uplifted while mourning? Who says a man must be down and embody all that is wrong?

And who says that what is wrong is wrong and what is right is right? There is no clear black, no clear white, neither true and false nor good and evil. Life, like Ted Williams, is complex, with its highs and lows, hopes and downfalls and joys and pains. There is celebration. There is tragedy. There cannot be definitions.

And yet there is Christina Taylor-Green. If what we know now is everything we will ever know of this child, she will remain that high impression, if only as a symbol of humanity. She is the only definition we will need. She represents the promise of our people - that everyone can live with tolerance, kindness, wonder and the hope to dream great. That legend is not secured neither at a moment of triumph nor in a moment of tragedy, but that it comes through our every great deed, however small. There is hope yet for humanity.

Filed under Christina Taylor-Green Christina Green Ted Williams Tucson Columbus

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Two Street

Resolutions aren’t just commonplace at New Year’s - they’re way of life. They’re what New Year’s is now about. It’s simply a day that turns the calendar, but to many, it’s a reason to change - a clean slate. A certain spiritual element resides on New Year’s Day. We’d all like to think the day brings rebirth, new opportunity.

To me, though, at least through experience, I looked at New Year’s as a time of straight-arrow tradition. This year, like every year, I was enjoying a pretty relaxing, if not bucolic, New Year’s Day in Philadelphia. While Mom cooked roast pork and mashed potatoes, Dad and I sat by the fireplace, munching periodically on popcorn while sleepily watching television. And on New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, there are literally two options for television: Penn State football and the Mummers parade.

Penn State is the consummate New Year’s Day team. In recent years the Nittany Lions have fallen short of championship contention but remain strong enough to warrant a high-profile game. Factor in tradition, a large national alumni base and a Mount Rushmore head coach, and Penn State seems perfect for a huge holiday audience. And wearing those simple, gorgeous navy and white uniforms, the Lions are almost a necessary royal visitor of the New Year’s Day celebration; in fact, four of their last five bowl games were played on the holiday.

I had no rooting interest watching Penn State play Florida in the Capital One Bowl; my older brother spent a few years in State College, and my younger brother is currently enrolled at State, but I’m pretty removed from college football. In fact, I’m so removed that I attended Boston University, a school that chopped its football program 15 years ago, and my only live college football experience was at Veterans Stadium, watching Miami pound Temple amidst a crowd that resembled a doctor’s waiting room.

So I had no problem flipping generously between Penn State and that other televised New Year’s tradition: the Philadelphia Mummers parade.

***

Some describe the Mummers parade as “Liberace with alcohol.” That’s nearly accurate - Mummers is an annual holiday tradition wherein thousands of blue-collar, Philadelphia-area residents parade down Broad Street while dressed in elaborate, colorful and sometimes feathered costumes. The parade is divided into four groups - comics, fancies, string bands and fancy brigades - that compete for prize money (though in recent years, city budgetary issues have suspended winnings). String bands and fancy brigades are stars of the show; the former features big, meaty New Orleans-style sounds with wondrous props, the latter holds its performances - most of the off-Broadway style - indoors for a ticketed audience.

Funny thing is, aesthetically and atmospherically, the Mummer’s parade is not much different than a Penn State bowl game. Both events feature somewhat larger individuals dancing in a clunky ballet, reveling loosely while competing seriously. And both events are held on large stages to where thousands of supporters descend and, promptly, drink their faces off. Most Mummers visitors arrive early in the morning, armed with multiple coolers of canned spirit. And they don’t leave for hours.

I watched as the string bands - the main attraction - gave their themed performances in front of judges behind Philadelphia’s imposing City Hall tower. Each year, the dichotomy between small and large clubs is clear and understood. Small clubs, who know they won’t sniff victory yet enjoy the day regardless, perform tidy sets of songs and concentrate on dancing and acting. The large clubs are fierce competitors, each trying to take down the reigning eight-time champion Fralinger, so they come in dozens, garish and loud, sliding in prop after prop as the band leader struts maniacally. (And oh that strut - the “Mummers strut” is a popular little slide-step dance that’s almost as much an insider victory as it is a token maneuver.)

When the string bands finished, Mom, Dad and I ate roast pork and mashed potatoes, and my oldest brother arrived at the house with his son, my precocious 7-year-old nephew Jake. They were at the parade and saw, according to Jake, “a guy fall down.” He was black-out drunk. My brother wanted more, though, and offered to return to the Mummers parade, and more importantly “Two Street.”

College bowl games end when the clock hits 0:00. Sure, visitors to those sun-drenched stadiums may hit some bars afterward, but the players pack up and board the planes. Bowl games are hangovers - quick vacations with Frommer’s maps and overpriced drinks. Bowl game travelers may find community at a nearby bar, but the setting is uncomfortable.

The Mummers parade’s main event may be the string band competition, but once the competition ends and the scores are tallied, the festivities only grow in intensity and community focus. That’s Two Street.

Officially, Two Street is a section of Second Street that houses the Mummers clubs’ headquarters. The narrow, one-direction roadway is surrounded by cozy but upscale row homes, fitted with black brass railings and well-decorated front windows. Doors are swung open and buffets with meatballs, ham and ziti are set in the living rooms. Every corner has a bar. Every corner. And on New Year’s Day, revelers spill in and out of the bars, each one drunker than the next, and each one happier than the next.

***

After driving Dad home, I planned to meet my brother and nephew on Two Street, but they already left. (Evidently, 7-year-old boys aren’t the target audience for Two Street.) I parked about a quarter mile away - though it seemed like merely two blocks - and as I arrived at Two Street, the voices were ringing:

“I’m saaaaaailing awaaaaay!”

Styx. Freakin’ Styx. Hundreds, maybe thousands of drunken Philadelphians singing Styx. Their faces tomato red. Thin jackets and baseball caps, Bud Lights in both hands. And Styx.

“Set an open course for the virgin sea …”

I glanced at everyone - pixie-like girls stumbling backwards and forwards, all at once, brutish men with cereal bowl faces pounding cans of beer - and everyone was smiling, eyes bright and arms waving in chorus, like an Evangelical pack. And my five-foot, seven-inch, one-hundred-sixty-pound frame weaved through this pack until I felt freedom.

“Free to face the life that’s ahead of me …”

On the road was a mammoth tractor trailer - one of the vehicles that transported the props from the headquarters to the parade route. The music blared from its sound system while, behind it, a herd of colorful Mummers wiggled and strutted.

“And I’ll try, oh Lord I’ll try, to carrrrrry on!”

The whole scene was marvelous. Young men and women raised their arms, toasting the day with reckless abandon. Like after the Phillies won the World Series. They pumped their fists and kissed their girlfriends. All of them shaking and leaping. The song grew loudest.

“Come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me!”

They continued, and I began my walk down Two Street. I saw grown men and women staggering about, police officers holding court and keeping activity composed, residents hang from their doors clutching homemade cups of cheer. Soon I found my cousin and a couple friends, celebrants at the parade for hours, long drunk and rowdy.

Every couple seconds, my cousin would run to another woman in hopes of securing a passing dance. And every few minutes, another Mummers club would pass down the street, stopping to perform a dance. The performers’ movements were much looser and flamboyant than ever - without the stress element, the party came out full force. These blue-collar, workaday Philadelphians, most fit with light stubble or the occasional beer gut, shed their beliefs, their politics, their wariness and simply strutted. And all of us - the idiot revelers surrounding them - whooped it with beer cans, arms pushing the sky farther up.

***

College bowls are getaways. They’re chance journeys to splendidly sunny venues. But the Mummers parade takes place in cold, gray Philadelphia (though on this day it was unseasonably warm). People normally shiver and shake, gulping beers not simply to feel weightless, but to feel warmer. There’s a survival instinct about Mummers, and about Two Street, and beyond that survival is a sense of true community - everyone is huddled together, everyone is singing together, everyone is washing away the year passed … together. And even more, everyone is doing this in Philadelphia, at home - the gray land that defines their lifestyles. Mummers is the one day that breaks Philadelphians from their normal habits, and yet it’s the day that bonds them tightest.

The one event that is best compared with Mummers is Mardi Gras, though that celebration is on a much larger scale. Mardi Gras is not simply a holiday blue-collar tradition, it’s an uplifting multi-day way-of-life party. Mummers, at its surface, honors spontaneous variety. Mardi Gras honors everything that defines New Orleans.

But I couldn’t help but understand, while watching the assembled drunks on Two Street, how a gathering like Mardi Gras can help a city recuperate. Philadelphia has never seen the type of insane tragedy that New Orleans experienced, but it’s certainly a city that weighs an emotional ton. It’s a place regularly reinforced as a crater of violence, East Coast idiocy and injustice. When thousands assemble to celebrate - whether through sports or spontaneous variety - the lights shine on Philadelphia, even if those lights are held up by its own citizens, away from the rest of the world.

There on Two Street, I witnessed the spiritual element of New Year’s. For one day, and for a few hours while consuming alcohol on a narrow city street, people were feeling a rebirth - the realization that possibility reigns. It may start with an erratic dance or a clunky strut, but it may lead to embracing somebody you wouldn’t have embraced before. Maybe you lift your reservations about somebody, or a group of people. I saw that no matter who I pushed past, he or she was singing the same song about sailing away, raising an arm with the rest - that people could simply be people.

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It’s Over … and other random songs about baseball

Listening to iTunes on random, thinking of the Phillies, when Badfinger’s “It’s Over” comes up on my playlist. This after tweeting Roy Orbison’s song of the same name when referencing the ol’ ball club.

So it’s over. I’m resigning to that fact.

Sure, it’s July 7. And sure, there’s a half season (minus one) of baseball remaining. But have you seen the Atlanta Braves? The team that just whisked through Philly winning the final two games of a statement series? Yeah, they used small ball, speed, timely hits, spotless fielding and clutch late-game pitching to dispose of the tired, lethargic, lackadaisical National League champions. And have you seen the New York Mets? Fielding a strong foundation with good, young role players, they’ve been handed a new outlook. They play to their strengths and never let up.

Now the song on my iTunes is Coldplay’s “Low.” This is serious.

The Phillies are pretty low. And why? Yes, there are injuries: Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Madson, JA Happ and Chad Durbin, and that’s merely in the past two days. But there’s a larger philosophical reasoning behind the Phillies season-long slide, and it starts with General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr.

Amaro followed beloved former baseball head Pat Gillick, who took risks on unwanted role players while stocking up on established veterans. Greg Dobbs, Jayson Werth, Chad Durbin and Shane Victorino were solid acquisitions that paid off most in 2007 and ‘08. Older players like Jamie Moyer and Pedro Feliz seemed to fit exactly with the team’s progress. Amaro has attempt to supplement his big guns with experienced role players, but most have either stumbled or have fallen to injury.

This is no joke: The next random song is “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia),” and I have 4,270 songs on my iTunes playlist.

Amaro’s team is a collection of older, worn out players experiencing the rigors of constant playing time while being exposed by pitching staffs who have undoubtedly scouted the Phillies incessantly. The target grows larger with each year on top. Look at Raul Ibanez try to catch up with a fastball. Look at Danys Baez try to bring heat and almost nail a guy in the cranium. There’s nothing solid, nothing consistent and nothing square about this team. They’re pushing, they’re panting.

I’m constantly reminded of the Boston Red Sox a few years back. The 2004 team spun a historic yarn, winning its first world championship in 86 years. The 2005 team, closely resembling the previous year’s brand, performed well and reached the postseason but never won a game in the extra frames. Then 2006 hit: An older, warier group started strong but slowly dissolved, becoming a third-place team with a pedestrian 86 wins. Mark Loretta and Trot Nixon weren’t enough anymore.

Next song: “The Last Stop” by the Dave Matthews Band. At this point nothing will surprise me.

For 2007 the Red Sox injected a little youth into the roster (Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon) and improved by 10 wins, coasting to a second world championship in four seasons.

Now, the Phillies don’t quite have that amount of ready youngsters in their farm system, but they have Domonic Brown, and it’s possible Scott Mathieson is more than meets the eye. And, yes, it’s even possible that Werth becomes a trading chip before July 31, allowing an opportunity to get younger overnight. Am I advocating trading Werth? Not necessarily. But would it really hurt?

No, because, and I say this again: it’s over. No reason to kid ourselves and no reason to prolong the inevitable. Injuries, age and weariness have plagued the 2010 Phillies, and we’d be better served looking ahead to a successful 2011.

Now we’re at “A Hard Day’s Night” by the Beatles. I’m not even hitting the fast-forward button - this is just happening.

Sometimes you have to know when to press reset, and the Phillies are closing in at that crossroads. Does Amaro decide to continue his assault of the farm system while praying the Phils can come together as a contender before September 30? Maybe, but hopefully not. Better to simply remember the lesson taught by Mr. Gillick when he rid the franchise of its former best player, Bobby Abreu: Let’s change the script and have some fun.

Now I’m listening to Ben Folds’ “The Bitch Went Nuts,” which could apply to the Amaro discussion.

Back in 2006, Gillick noted the Phils were two years from contending, then traded Abreu for a sack of pintos and Matt Smith. Neither worked out, but the team instantly changed complexion, oddly, to one that looked like a complete underdog. Without much pressure, the Phillies mounted some late-season excitement, partially fueled by Ryan Howard’s power surge, and closed in on an unthinkable playoff spot. They didn’t reach the postseason, of course, but they showed promise and energy, which carried over into a memorable 2007 and unforgettable ‘08.

Last season was more about fighting through pain and finding both redemption and respect. With that chapter closed, the great days of the late-Gillick era seem like distant historical subtext. The Phillies lack excitement. In spades.

And as Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ version of “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)” plays next, I realize there’s plenty of karma behind this team. They’ve exhausted all their parts for now. It’s time to refuel. Time to find some shiny new pieces and reengage for a fight in 2011. That’s when Roy Halladay can win 30, Cole Hamels can win 20 and Chase Utley can finally win that MVP. Maybe Brown will win Rookie of the Year … no, actually, I’d rather he becomes eligible this season.

The glory days aren’t over, but the first chapter of those glory days has closed. No need to toss the book out; instead, it’s time to reflect and consider that the best teams respond from large-scale change. This team is dying for change, much like a randomized iTunes playlist changes by the minutes.

And as my playlist turns to Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives,” I close this pseudo eulogy and watch with baited breath. Please, Mr. Amaro: Let’s start changing.

Filed under Phillies Elvis Costello Coldplay Dave Matthews Band Badfinger The Beatles Ben Folds Ruben Amaro Jr Pat Gillick Jayson Werth Domonic Brown Mets Braves