Lars Prefers to Smell of Durian to the Stench of Abba!

Some of my friends are headed to a sing-along screening of Momma Mia tonight. I’ll be at home; I’d rather volunteer to be a durian sniffer than listen to Abba.

To be fair, Abba probably wasn’t the worst pop band of the 1970s. The Partridge Family was arguably worse, and I’ll bet there are some acts I’ve not heard who couldn’t lick Abba’s white vinyl boots either. And lest I be accused of xenophobia, let me categorically state that I’ve nothing against leggy Scandinavian gals in hot pants. (Confession: The famed Abba PR shot with the two guys wrapped in tin foil did creep me out.)

I hate Abba because as one of the decade’s most successful pop acts they embody all that was wretched and awful about the mid and late ‘70s. Let’s start with the obvious—there is no zeitgeist or circumstance that justifies dressing in white polyester. Four people as rich as Abba could have afforded natural fibers. And a decent hairdresser. Those corkscrew curls worn by Anni-Frid made her look as if she’d just been busted for hooking at a trailer park. Bjorn’s shaggy doo suggests he escaped from a Prince Valiant deprogramming unit. Politeness prevents me from commenting on the platform shoes worn by all.

Mostly Abba reminds me of an awful time in Western culture—stagflation, the OPEC boycott, garish fashion, the Iranian hostage crisis, Three Mile Island, my own wasted youth…. These days my students occasionally tell me they’re throwing a 70s theme party and I always ask, “Why?” There are plenty of more worthy historical themes: Roman toga parties, the flapper era, reenacting the Black Death….

As for the “music,” Abba devotees try to wear me down by insisting that “they had great voices.” So what? That’s akin to asking me to have sympathy for bungling bank robbers because they have high IQs. There are some sins that talent cannot excuse; “Waterloo” and “Dancing Queen” are among them. As for singing along to such pap, I’d rather harmonize with Songs of the Humpback Whales.—Lars Vigo



Two Sets
Waterbug 84

Chuck Brodsky has been a folk circuit mainstay for nearly two decades, his work has inspired luminaries such as David Wilcox and Kathy Mattea, and some of his baseball songs are in the Hall of Fame. For those unfamiliar with his work, Two Sets, a live-set double CD, is a fine introduction. Brodsky is a story-teller extraordinaire who spins musical tales with the raspy nasality of Dylan, the down-to-earth feel of Greg Brown, the plebian sensibilities of Woody Guthrie, the humor of Steve Goodman, and the robust guitar picking of Doc Watson. He regales with poignant stories of Irish bartenders, mentally challenged folks, everyday heroism, and finding love where you least expect it, but he’ll also leave you laughing with a talking blues put-down of lawyers, a road rage parody, musings on being a Jew on Christmas, and the most-inspired first-set finale ever written.


Manny the Role Model?

At first I was inclined to dismiss the revelations in Joe Torre’s book that Alex Rodriquez has a Single-White-Female-like obsession with Derek Jeter. But every time the dude opens his mouth idiocy pours out. The latest was his remark that he wished that his Dominican Republic teammate Jose Reyes was leading off for the Yankees. Reyes just happens to be a shortstop, Jeter’s position, and the Yankees already have a pretty decent leadoff hitter, Johnny Damon.

A-Rod’s remarks were probably intended as praise for the talented (and young) Reyes, but when you’ve got as much controversy swelling around you as A-Rod you need the maturity to realize your every remark will be parsed and dissected. A-Rod wants to become MLB’s all-time homerun champion and he’d like to do it where it matters most: New York. He’d better grow up in a hurry, or the Yankees will eat his big contract and ship him where the lights shine dimmer. Lord knows that Manny Ramirez is seldom a role model for anybody, but Manny doesn’t talk to the media. A-Rod needs to do the same thing: shut up and be the best player in the game. --LV


In the mid-1980s I was driving through the British Midlands—the Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester postindustrial wasteland of public housing, social problems, and deferred dreams. I turned to my wife and said, “Behold, the future of the United States.” At the time most Americans were too busy wallowing in the self-congratulatory excesses of Reaganomics to allow sober reality to intrude. Reagan prosperity ended up being a myth constructed from reckless borrowing, selling American assets to foreign venture capitalists, and a temporary consumerist orgy from elites with windfall tax savings to spend.

I was reminded of this when I read that Massachusetts Treasurer Timothy Cahill is touting slot parlors as a way to generate $3 billion of yearly revenue for the Commonwealth. Gambling is always a form of regressive taxation in that it encourages those with the fewest resources to spend non-disposable income. That aside, Cahill’s plan is slotted for failure because it’s the same smoke-and-mirrors trick as Reaganomics—it’s a symptom of a wrecked economy, not the solution for it. Like Reaganomics, any benefit it brings will be temporary and illusory.

Slots and all other one-size solutions are the economic equivalent of diet pills—easy-fix frauds that delay taking the arduous steps necessary to repair damages resulting from long-term abuse. How many easy answer flops do we need to witness before we realize that diversified restructuring is needed? Or that service industries cannot be sustained unless the economy actually produces material goods to sustain it? Remember the 1970s when Quincy Market was touted as the template for rescuing inner cities? Or how 1980s high-tech corridors would be the engine of the “new economy?” Or the Clinton-era emphasis on tourism? Each was an all-eggs-in-one-basket plan that failed. And lest we forget, lotteries such as the one Massachusetts enacted in 1972 were supposed to make states solvent in perpetuity.

It took decades of bumbling to ruin the American economy. Correcting it will require patience, diligence, and the resolve to reject false hopes. We can either begin that task now or fly to the Midlands to see the future.--Lars Vigo


iPod sUcks

I was at the gym this morning, happily logging 20 miles on the elliptical machine after hoisting several thousand pounds of iron. Oh wait, I fantasized that part. I went to the gym and did what I usually do—listen to a lot of music and try not to think about exercising.

I’ve gotten pretty good at zoning out lately because I finally got rid of my iPod and replaced it with an el-cheapo Sony. No longer am I among those sweating gym rats you see with wrinkled brows staring bewilderedly at tiny non-functioning screens. My Sony actually plays the songs I download, shuts down when I want it to, has a hold button that can be operated with fingers thicker than a pipe cleaner, and a volume button that can’t be turned to the “make-my-ears-bleed” setting by accident. Best of all, it doesn’t break down, freeze, or decide that I only wanted the first 40 seconds of a song.

I entered the iPod world last year because my wife gave me one for my birthday. It was a thoughtful gesture and the machine was sexy—sleek, metallic, and red. And, like so many Apple products, it was a triumph of clever marketing over function. Now I’d be the first to admit that Apple’s computer operating system is superior to Microsoft Vista (and so is an abacus) but let’s face it, Apple sells toys instead of tools. (Did anyone but me notice that the one-hour rollout video for the new iPhone never actually showed how to make a phone call?) Apple loads up on the gadgets, most of which are engineers’ because-we-can features. And the more they add, the greater the likelihood that something will go wrong and bollix the one thing you bought the product for in the first place.

That’s what happened with my iPod. I spent more time trying to get iTunes to download tunes correctly than in listening to them. My screen froze more often than a river in Buffalo. A single wrong flick of the finger meant going through endless screens to reset my preferences. It broke down randomly in ways that never repeated when it was sent back for servicing. But every other day I got an email offering me some new groovy accessory or offering a software update. My favorites were those that would improve the video interface because who among us doesn’t want to watch “Gone with the Wind” on a two-inch screen?

When you spend more time at the gym fiddling with your tune box than working out, in Thomas Paine’s words, “T’is time to part.” My fifty buck Sony is far superior to the iPod, especially in the most important way: sound fidelity. Supposedly it has most of the same geek features as the iPod, but I’m not going there. Just give me the music and make me forget about my aching muscles.


MLB Preview American League West

Los Angeles Angels (who aren’t from Los Angeles):

This team won over a hundred games lat year, but they faltered badly (again!) in the playoffs and lost Mark Teixeira, Francisco Rodriquez, and Jon Garland in offseason. They won’t win a hundred this year, even in a weak division.

Strengths: Even without Garland, John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, Joe Saunders, and Ervin Santana give the Angels a deep rotation. The bullpen setup hurlers—Scot Shields, Justin Spier, Jose Arredondo, etc.—are talented and effective. Chone Figgins (3B) can fly; Vladimir Guerrero can’t, but he is one of the most fearsome hitters in the game.

Weaknesses: Until Santana becomes the ace he should be this is a staff full of 3-4 guys. It also includes Jered Weaver, well on his way to being as big a disappointment as brother Jeff. Kendry Morales must replace Teixeira, but he could use more seasoning. The Angels better hope that Tori Hunter can still track down balls because in an outfield with Guerrero and Bobby Abreu he’ll be chasing a lot of balls in the gaps. There isn’t much pop in this lineup either.

Oakland Athletics:

If the As young pitchers mature fast, they could steal this division. If they don’t the Athletics will be dead last and Matt Holiday will be trade bait.

Strengths: Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, Jack Cust, and Eric Chavez give the As a scary middle of the lineup. Look for Giambi to have a big year away from the New York boo birds. If Bobby Crosby (SS) can regain his form, Oakland should put up some numbers.

Weaknesses: After Justin Duchscherer, the pitching staff is four question marks. The closer is Brad Ziegler. Who? Other than Holliday, the outfield isn’t very strong.

Seattle Mariners:

How can a team with pitchers such as Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard, Brandon Morrow, Jarrod Washburn, and Carlos Silva have been so wretched in 2008? Oh yeah; look at the lineup.

Strengths: The starting pitching is simply too talented to falter two years in a row. Ichiro will get on base several hundred times during the season. When he’s on first you might as well concede second. Adrian Beltre (3B) is never going to justify his contract, but he’s serviceable.

Weaknesses: How do you feel about Roy Corcoran as a closer? Russell Branyan as a DH? This team needs to rebuild its lineup, so why waste resources on the injury-ravaged and aged Ken Griffey, Jr.? Neither infield nor outfield impresses, and the Mariners will again be scoring-challenged.

Texas Rangers:

What a screwy organization. They’ve got a five-time All Star at short in Michael Young and they want him to move to third to make way for a rookie? And where does that leave young Travis Metcalf, who had a good year at third?

Young, DH Hank Blalock, Josh Hamilton (OF), and Ian Kinsler (2B) anchor a lineup that can put up crooked numbers. The Rangers wisely kept both their young catchers (Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden); in the midsummer heat they’ll need both. Look also for pitcher Brandon McCarthy to fulfill his promise.

Weaknesses: As always, pitchers meltdown under the hot Texas sun. They’re looking at Kris Benson and that says a lot, but it wouldn’t be the worst idea to insert someone like him or Kason Gabbard and try a six-man rotation. The problem is that after Kevin Millwood there’s a big drop in talent. Frank Francisco is the designated closer. I doubt it.


1. Angels—Proven pitching should get them to the playoffs, where they'll go out in the first round once again.
2. Athletics—The dark horse if the Angels slip.
3. Mariners—The pitching is talented; the lineup is pitiful.
4. Rangers— They’ll win the 10-8 games, but lose when they don’t put up big numbers.

Second-Guessing Oscar: "Changeling"

There’s an Oscar-worthy performance in Changeling (***), but it’s not that of actual nominee Angelina Jolie.

As a single mother whose young son unexpectedly disappears one day when she’s at work, Jolie displays the requisite reactions of shock, anguish and despair competently. But she’s little more than a pretty women in a cloche hat (it’s 1928 Los Angeles ) and overly red lipstick. Her usual potent energy seems to have been hidden along with her voluptuous figure in those straight-arrow 20s sheath dresses.

[MILD SPOILER ALERT] The plot thickens when police find and return to her a boy they say is her son, although Christine (Jolie) knows instantly is not the same child. And it thickens still further as Christine must prove her own sanity and take on a corrupt city administration in hopes of finding the real boy.

The film wants to be a combination of The Return of Martin Guerre and Chinatown, but lacks the emotional pull of the former and the stellar writing of the latter. While director Clint Eastwood builds the film to a suspenseful and surprisingly grisly climactic encounter, it’s the bad guys, especially the bad guy (played with nightmare-inducing creepiness by Jason Butler Harner) who deserved the Oscar nods, not Jolie.