The Rocket Must Dock in the Hall of Fame

I spy the neon glow of self-appointed sports writer "saints" like Jeff Passan.

In 1919, a jury acquitted “Shoeless” Joe Jackson of conspiring to throw the World Series. Nonetheless, the following year Major League Baseball’s first commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, banned Jackson from the game and he remains ineligible for the Hall of Fame. Both decisions rankle diehard baseball fans and the second is considered a travesty. Why bring up ancient history? Because we may see something akin to it next year when Roger Clemens becomes eligible for induction to Cooperstown.

On June 18, a criminal trial jury handed down not-guilty verdicts on six counts relating to Clemens’ alleged use of steroids. Already, sportswriters such as Lew Carpenter, Jeff Passan, Wally Matthews, and Tom Verducci have insinuated that they and their peers hold higher standards of innocence than the jury. In their minds, Clemens’ name in the discredited Mitchell report trumps the findings of the jury. In other words, they’re prepared to play the modern-day Landis role and deny Clemens election to the Hall of Fame. To this I reply, who died and made you guys Pharisees? By what objective standard can they deny him? To mangle a phrase form the O. J. Simpson trial, if the jury acquits you must elect.   

Is Clemens worthy? Well, if 354 wins, 7 Cy Youngs, a MVP award, an ERA of 3.12, election to the All-Century team, and 4,672 strikeouts aren’t enough, nothing is. No one will ever get the warm fuzzies when they think of Clemens, but the man’s practically a saint when compared to his chief accuser, Brian (“The Juice”) McNamee. Besides, if being a nice person was a criterion for the Hall of Fame, they could clear the joint and rent the space to U-Haul. There is far less reason to deny Clemens than Shoeless Joe, who actually admitted he took money from gamblers (though he didn’t throw the World Series). The goods on Clemens are even shoddier than those attached to Pete Rose (who should also be in the Hall of Fame).

It’s beyond risible that a group of sportswriters would set itself up as moralists and judges. I double-checked; there are no baseball writers–an aggregate known to contain quite a few substance abusers–who have attained sainthood. If there are any former Eagle Scouts among them, they outgrew those virtues long ago. Want to talk about being morally compromised? Every sportscaster attached to an affiliated network swallows truth on an everyday basis because he (or the occasional she) knows that being overly critical will result in dismissal. Beat writers covering teams also follow restraints, lest they be denied easy access to the players and other sources necessary for them to file stories. Are we to believe, for instance, that no New York sportswriter ever saw Mickey Mantle or Whitey Ford drunk? Would Jeff Passan, in his Kansas City days, have written a slam piece on George Brett? Do you expect the Boston press to spill the beans on how thoroughly unlikable Ted Williams or Carl Yaztremski were? What passes for “tough” reporting is a shadow of what is actually witnessed.

So spare me all that “integrity of the game” nonsense, and stuff that “Clemens is a cheater” mantra. No–he’s not; a jury has ruled on that. You may have your private suspicions, even your deep-seated certainties, but there is no objective basis upon which Clemens can be denied entry into the Hall of Fame. Maybe the dude did steroids; maybe he’s as pure as Snow White. All we know for certain is that a lot of guys did use steroids between the 1980s and 2002. Most of them were hitters. Only one pitcher, Clemens, won 354 games. Sounds like an even match to me. Like it or not, a jury says that though his name appeared among the 47 steroid users listed in the Mitchell Report, Roger Clemens is an innocent man. The Rocket must go to the Hall of Fame. To keep him out would be worse than Shoeless Joe’s ban; it would be ideological- and innuendo-based persecution analogous to McCarthyism.


Rob Sez: We Need a New Woody

David Lutken as Woody Guthrie 

I recently drove to Cambridge to an American Repertory Theater production of Woody Sez, a musical about the life of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (1912-67). This show has been kicking around since 2002 and is definitely one you should catch if it appears anywhere near you.

David Lutken plays Guthrie, and he has a fine sense of Woody’s wonderment and temperament. When Lutken twinkles his eyes, gazes upward, and puts on an Oklahoma draw, he transforms himself from actor to sage philosopher. (Guess it comes naturally. He’s not an Okie, but he grew up in Dallas; he’s also played Will Rogers on stage.) Frankly, Lutken sings and plays a whole lot better than Woody did.

The latter is one of many those looking to poke holes in Woody Sez can find. The play sanitizes Guthrie, starting with his physical appearance. Lutken appears in a clean work shirt and khaki pants; Guthrie–who was a Dust Bowl hobo for quite a few years–was known for being disheveled on a good day. In fact, his poor hygiene was legendary even among his closest friends. In like fashion, the show also glosses Guthrie’s irascibility and irresponsibility, viewing them as occasional bouts of crankiness lurking within a noble soul. There was indeed a principled core to Guthrie, but the man was also a lousy husband, an absentee father, stubborn as a mule, and as dependable as a Yugo.

A few other flaws: Darcie Deauville is a terrific musician, but an occasionally sour singer (unlike Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein, fine interpreters of old-time music). It would also help to review Guthrie’s bio before you go. There are only four actors on stage and the “play” is more of an operetta. There is minimal dialogue–often a “Woody Sez” spoken segue–to cement a biographical sketch that also includes snippets from 33 songs in just over 90 minutes. The actors, except Lutken, play multiple roles at the drop of a hat. (They also play a dozen different instruments.)

Yet the darn thing works. The telescoped life and repertoire acts as a sort of Whitman’s Sampler and makes one appreciate how much Guthrie crammed into a short life. No one knows how many songs Guthrie actually penned–we’re still unearthing them–but though it’s seldom realized, Guthrie’s active career spanned fewer than 20 years. He was struck by Huntington’s chorea in the late 1940s, and spent more time in the hospital than he did on the road. 

Here’s the other thing Woody Sez invokes: a sense that too many of today’s musicians wallow in narcissism and/or isolation. Name a prominent post-1975 protest song singer. Had to think about that one didn’t you? They exist, to be sure, but whose modern repertoire quakes with songs of moral outrage such as    “Jolly Banker,” “Do Re Mi,” “Pastures of Plenty,” “Vigilante Man,” or “The Ballad of Tom Joad?” Who even remembers that “This Land is Your Land” was a protest song written to blow the rose-colored glasses from the faces of kneejerk patriots crooning “God Bless America?” (Check out the lyrics no one sings: http://www.arlo.net/resources/lyrics/this-land.shtml ) And how many of today’s look-at-me singers would live among ordinary folk, crash in hobo camps, pick fruit with migrant workers, or walk the picket line? Many contemporary musicians proudly proclaim their apoliticism, a pronouncement that would have sickened Guthrie’s generation (Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Paul Robeson, Lee Hays…)

Guthrie did those things. He also emblazoned his guitar with the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists,” spoke truth to power, and reveled in making songs simple enough to sing. (He once said, “Anyone who is using more than two chords is just showing off.”) He warned us that some men rob us with six-guns and some “with a fountain pen.” His advice for the bellicose? “Plenty of rich folks wants to fight. Give them the guns.” The pious? “Love is the only God that I’ll ever believe in.” It’s as if he anticipated today’s music when he said, “I could hire out to the other side, the big money side, and get several dollars every week just to quit singing my songs and to sing the kind that knock you down farther and the ones that poke fun at you even more and the ones that make you think you've not got any sense at all. But I decided a long time ago that I'd starve to death before I'd sing any such songs as that.”

Rob sez, we sure could use a new Woody Guthrie. --Rob Weir


African Blues Lifts the Soul

African Blues
Putumayo 317-2
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Call this one the sequel to Mali to Memphis, the 1999 project spearheaded by Taj Mahal in which American blues artists traveled to Africa to discover their roots. African Blues largely migrates in the opposite direction; that is, African artists explore American styles. The ensemble Mali Latino opens the collection with “Ni Koh Bedy,” but don’t expect Malian guitar and Carib swing; the sexy, soulful organ licks on this are straight out of Booker T. and the MGs. Diabel Cissokho and Ramon Goose check in later with “Totoumo,” which sounds like the intersection of kora music and Ry Cooder. By contrast, Amar Sandy’s “Camel Shuffle” has the muscularity of electric Chicago blues, and the collaboration between Playing for Change and Tinariwen on “Groove in G” is a psychedelic/blues mash that ought to come with its own light show. You’ll also hear echoes of Delta blues, introspective jazz grooves, Memphis blues, and others. Make no mistake–this is not Africans playing American music. A quick listen to the chant/drone quality of the vocals of “Alam’i” dispel such thoughts. But everyone is clearly having a good time. Taj Mahal checks in with a guest turn with the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar. The song is called “Dhow Countries,” but it’s what Barry White might have done with a plane ticket to Africa.

Check out the world blues of “Groove in G: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LQhamwJcVY Very cool stuff indeed.