John Gorka: March 2018 Album of the Month

By John Gorka
Redhouse Records

It's almost impossible to imagine that in July, John Gorka will turn sixty. Wasn't it just yesterday that Gorka was touring his 1987 debut, I Know? The voice grabbed you right away: an expressive, smooth and powerful baritone, but he was so painfully shy  he had trouble looking at his audience and he lacked the polish for stage chat. Gorka got over it by working harder at his craft than just about anyone I ever knew—right down to forcing himself to write everyday. Try that if you think it's easy. For Gorka it has meant lots of throwaways, but also truly memorable lines and tunes.

Fourteen albums later there are few performers as respected and beloved as John Gorka. Time in Time is both old school and nostalgic, and he has earned the right to indulge in both. It also helps that it's a terrific record—the kind that, when reviewed, finds critics split over which is the best song and which the weakest. That's also a logical evolution of Gorka's music. You can call him a folk artist, but you might also be tempted to slap on labels such as blues, country, or acoustic café jazz, the last of these suitable for the dreamy "Fallen for You," or the title track, which was inspired by the nearly simultaneous deaths of Debbie Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher.

I confess great fondness for his autobiographical "Nazarene Guitar," which is filled with insider wordplays that are Gorka staples. I've known John since he first hit the road and this song takes on additional meaning when you know that his reference to becoming a "South Mountain star" is self-deprecating humor. Gorka hails from New Jersey, but honed his skills in the rounded hills of eastern Pennsylvania. For a time he was the adopted house act at Godfrey Daniels, a venerable Bethlehem, PA club and that Nazareth is a small town four miles away. It's a catchy tune that's enhanced by Joe Savage's pedal steel. One suspects his time in Pennsylvania also factored into the tongue-and-cheek "Mennonite Girl," rendered in an acoustic country/gospel mash. Plus I'll listen to anything that spotlights Lucy Kaplansky's backup vocals; she's a wonderful solo performer, but she's among my all-time favorites when it comes to texturing other people's songs. Another one with small jokes is "The Ballad of Iris and Pearl," in which Gorka imagines two women as the hidden muses of Bill Monroe, Elvis, and Dylan. It's also the case that Iris and Pearl are the names of friend Eliza Gilkyson's dogs! Gorka's humor is more broad in "The Body Part Medley," but it's a goofy send-up of what those of us getting on in years call the "organ recital," the litany of physical woes that foregrounds way too many conversations between old friends who are also old.

That same crowd and those with ancient souls will also enjoy "Arroyo Seco," Gorka's tribute to the glories of a time-warp New Mexico town: It was a place where the hippies won/In the land of the supermoon/Where the dream was never done/And there was still room for you. If you're wondering, it's real place near Taos and yes, there are still for-real hippie enclaves. (Madrid, NM is another.) "Cry For Help" is a sad and serious song about a man drinking to get over the one who got away, and you'd be right to think that doesn't work very well. There's also a cowboy song ("Red Eye and Roses"), the bluesy "Tattooed," and a spread-the-love-but-stuck-in-time "Crowded Heart." Want some good writing? In the last-mentioned song he sees himself looking at vintage photos: Pictures of what once was/Not what's come to be. It's only appropriate that I draw this review to a close by referencing "Blues with a Rising Sun," which is Gorka's letter to legendary bluesman Son House, who died in 1988—just as Gorka was starting out. A coincidence? Given the way John Gorka writes, probably not.

There are hints of rust in Gorka's voice, but his remains one of the most memorable set of pipes in the business. I also appreciated his clarity of enunciation and the way he syncopates rhythms to accent that voice. True in Time is a mature and superior endeavor.

Rob Weir


Cubs or Brewers? NL Central


Most analysts think the Cubs will win this division easily. I think they’ll take the NL Central crown, but they won’t feast like a grizzly at a salmon run.

Will Win:  The Chicago Cubs should prevail on the strength of a powerful lineup led by Happ, Bryant, Contreras, Schwarber, and Rizzo. (What idiot allowed him to get out of Boston?) But the Cubs are vulnerable; their pitching looks better on paper than on the field. I think they will regret allowing Arrieta to walk in the belief he’s in decline. That’s actually the case with the guy they signed, Darvish. Quintana so far hasn’t been worth what they surrendered to get him, Hendricks underwhelmed in 2017, and I’ve long thought Lester an under-performing slacker.

Watch Out: The Milwaukee Brewers have holes, but they added (read: stole) Yelich, and Shaw had a break out year. (What idiot allowed him to get out of Boston?) Cain will be dangerous atop the order and if Braun bounces back, the Brew Crew isn’t far behind the Cubs. Pitching is a question mark, though Davies may again out-duel anyone on the Cubs staff. Chacin and Anderson hold out promise.

Dark Horse: Everyone is writing off the St. Louis Cardinals and that’s foolish. Fowler, Carpenter, Pham, Orzuna, DeJong, and Gyoko are solid and under-appreciated. Like everyone else in the division, pitching is a question mark. In the Cards’ case, though, it starts with health, especially that of Adam Wainwright. Watch for a kid named Alex Reyes. I don’t think they’re good enough, but if others falter….

Predicted Finish:

1. Chicago Cubs: Should hang on by a claw.
2. Milwaukee Brewers: Slowly building a team that’s better than any beer brewed in Milwaukee.
3. St. Louis Cardinals: Matheny is a better manager than the Cubs’ Maddon and is smart enough to pilfer a few games. That’s only enough if luck smiles on Saint Lou.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates had a small window for winning. It has closed and they’ve settled back into mediocrity.
5. Cincinnati Reds: The ace of the staff is Homer Bailey. Yeah—Homer Bailey. Need more?


AL Central: The Twinkies Rise

American League Central 2018:
Upset Special

Because MLB perpetuates the myth of ‘small-market’ teams, every year a certain number of filthy rich owners don their hobo clothes and offload high-priced talent. In truth, it’s the size of the owner’s wallet that matters, not the size of the market. An inordinate number of these poor-in-their-own-minds-only owners operate in the middle of the country.

For this reason, I am not picking the Cleveland Indians to repeat; this is the year the Twinkies (Minnesota Twins) take advantage of Cleveland’s budget-cutting.

Will Win: The Minnesota Twins are the only team that added much to their budget. Mauer doesn’t have much left in the tank, but he’ll look rejuvenated given the addition of Logan Morrison to go with Dozier, Sáno, Kepler, and Escobar. I still think Buxton is a bust, but he at least flashes great leather. They also added Lynn and Odorizzi to the staff and Ervin Santana will soon come off the DL. Pineda also, but I know he’s a fraud.

Dark Horse: Cleveland Indians. It’s odd to call them that because they’re favored, but losing Carlos Santana, Bruce, Napoli, and Allen is a big toll. They added Alonso to go with Lindor, Kipnis, and Ramirez so we’ll have to see how that works out. Ditto catcher Mejia and whether Encarnacion can ward off decline. Kluber, Carrasco, and Bauer head a formidable staff, with Miller waiting to bail any pitcher out of trouble. They also have the best manager in MLB. So why pick them to falter? Chemistry and a hunch.

Predicted Finish:

1. Minnesota Twins: I might look foolish very early on this one, but the stars seem to be aligning.
2. Cleveland Indians: This is a playoff-bound team one way or another.
3. Chicago White Sox: Quietly rebuilding and have a nice core to go with Kopech, Moncada, and a few other kids in the wings. They won’t be a pushover this year. Or the next, or in the foreseeable future.
4. Kansas City Royals: They won the World Series in 2015 and made money. Then their owner decided he was too poor. Enough left to be decent, but not enough to get back to the playoffs.
5. Detroit Tigers: Held a fire sale and they’re probably not done yet. Like the city, things are looking grim for the tabby cats.

Alternate Side Well Written but Uninteresting

By Anna Quindlen
Random House, 304 pages

On a scale from zero to five, how should one rate a very well written novel populated with no one you find remotely interesting or likable? Anna Quindlen’s latest, Alternate Side, takes us inside a single cul-de-sac block. Residents sport surnames such as Nolan, Fenstermacher, Lessman, Fisk, and Rizzoli but the only diversity you find in this neighborhood is the imported help. How much do you care about rich, over-privileged, over-pampered Manhattanites? I couldn't care less.

Ostensibly Alternate Sides revolves around Nora and Charlie Nolan, who have been married for 25 years. They have twins, Rachel and Oliver, who still address their parents as “Mommy” and “Daddy,” though they are both about to enter elite colleges. But maybe infantilization should be expected within a family where the emotional and physical heavy lifting is done by Charity, the Nolans’ nanny/housekeeper. As everyone tells them, the Nolans have a golden marriage, which is of course, a version of Chekov’s gun that tells us they don’t. It’s also pretty obvious by the middle of the first chapter that Charlie is a jerk who wants to be a player, and a shallow and dull one to boot. He’s the sort that likes to speak in One. Word. Sentences. This annoys Nora no end and she’s grown bored with him. Not that Nora is the deep end of the pool herself. She abandoned her college idealism and now runs the Museum of Jewelry, a vanity enterprise whose owner used her own stash to build the permanent collection. Nora’s also being courted by a wealthy entrepreneur to head his private foundation, which would make Nora the player Charlie will never be.

Clearly Ms. Quindlen has other fish to fry in addition to autopsying a failing marriage. The novel’s title alludes to New York City’s infamous even side/odd side parking scheme. It also signifies class distinctions and a central who-did-what-and-why dispute that magnifies the class divide. Quindlen’s hidden objective is to deliver a mash note to New York. In this sense, the alternate sides are Manhattan’s seductive allure and mythos versus the reality of chaos, dodgy street characters, decaying infrastructure, and class-defiant rats. Among the many ways Quindlen highlights this is by abutting the street of the haute bourgeoisie with SRO apartments.  

In a sense, Quindlen offers a fictional update to Jacob Riis’s 1890 look at New York’s bifurcations in How the Other Half Lives, though the Nolans and their neighbors are pretty far north of the halfway marker on the SES pole. The novel’s central device underscores this. Charlie is ecstatic when he becomes eligible to rent one of six parking spaces in a lot near his home. Never mind that keeping a car in Manhattan is roughly as useful as owning a Zamboni in Ecuador, it bespeaks the Nolans’ wealth that Charlie thinks nothing of spending $325 a month to park a car he seldom uses. The space isn’t about being pragmatic; it’s a status-conferring form of conspicuous consumption. If the Nolans’ golden marriage is Checkov’s gun, that space is his rifle or, more properly speaking, a club through which class conflict erupts and neighbors must take sides.

Perhaps you see my dilemma. Quindlen’s novel is exceedingly well crafted and its prose flows far more smoothly than Midtown traffic. The novel falters, though, because Quindlen focuses on the wrong side of the class chasm. Although (for plot purposes) Nora visits the Bronx and abstractly sympathizes with a Latino handyman after an attack—something many of her neighbors can’t comprehend—when she ultimately must change her life, she simply slides from one version of privilege to another. Is she supposed to be our sympathetic character? From where I sit she is as unspeakably awful as everyone else in her neighborhood, simply in a quieter and more dignified fashion.

Throughout the novel characters used the phrase “first-world problem” when trying to put things into proper perspective. Alas, none of them actually has any genuine perspective. I’ll go on record and say that only Los Angeles celebrities are more smug and out-of-touch than wealthy New Yorkers. I didn’t feel anyone’s pain in Alternate Side. Do I care about people who worry about good plastic surgeons, pedicures, hold hen sessions at trendy restaurants, and bemoan how hard it is to get a good Cobb salad?  As much as I admire Anna Quindlen as an author, the experience of reading Alternate Side is like being trapped inside of one of Woody Allen’s particularly unctuous New York movies. Thus, when Nora reminds us of the many reasons she could never leave Manhattan, we can but shrug over her impoverished imagination. Give Quindlen three stars: five as a writer and one for characterization.  

Rob Weir

Alternate Side was released on March 18. I read an advance copy courtesy of Random House and NetGalley.


AL West: Astros Remain in Orbit



The Houston Astros are the defending World Series champs and few would be surprised if they went back-to-back in 2018. All of that is to say they will win the AL West—easily.

Will Win: The Astros. How would you like to have a staff so deep you could trade McHugh for another bat? The Astros added Gerritt Cole to a staff with Verlander, Keuchel. McCullers, and Morton. They have mini-mite Altuve who does it all, along with Gattis, Gurriel, Correa, Springer, and Reddick. Plus, as I said, they will probably use McHugh as bait to add to this. This is a 100+ win team unless three or four arms fall off.

Will Disappoint: The Los Angeles Angels. They won the Ohtani sweepstakes and already a bit of buyer's regret is seeping in. It would be good for MLB if he's really good and he might be—but I doubt it will be this year; his very presence will take at-bats from Pujols, who has slipped but has still has forgotten more about hitting than Ohtani currently knows. LA has Mike Trout, MLB's best talent, and some useful guys—Kinsler, Simmons, Cozart—but the pitching is mediocre at best and most of it is pretty awful.

Dark Horse:  I hesitate to say it since they are chronic underachievers, but I'll go with the Seattle Mariners. I like Cruz, Cano, and Seager in the middle of the lineup and a staff with King Felix, Paxton, and Pazos looks better than that of the Angels.

Predicted Finish:

1.  Houston Astros: I would be shocking if they didn't go deep into the postseason.
2.  Seattle Mariners: Normally I'd say Texas, but wait for it…
3. Texas Rangers: Love their lineup of Beltre, Gallo, Odor, and Profar. Decent staff as well. Texas will start strong, but management knows this team isn't good enough. I look for a makeover at trade deadline in which the disappointing Andrus will go, as will Fister, Hamels, and Moore.
4. Los Angeles Angels: They need pitching and that goes well beyond the hope that Ohtani turns into a hurling/slugging Babe Ruth.
5. Oakland A's: It's getting boring. Get a few retreads, hope, falter, and trade. Most likely to go by mid season: Piscotty, Lucroy, Khris Davis.


NL East: Nationals with Ease (to my dismay)


The team that should be favored!

How quickly things change. Once this was a really interesting division, but unless some young players mature really fast, this is MLB’s weakest division.

Will Win: It would take monumental ineptitude for the Washington Nationals not to win. That distresses me because I thoroughly dislike the Nationals and MLB executives for allowing this team to leave Montreal. They are Brooklyn-to-LA for me. Still, how can you lose with Scherzer, Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Roark on the mound? Harper is among MLB’s elite, Robels will dazzle as a rookie, and there’s Zimmerman, Murphy, Rendon in the same lineup. Talent-wise, no one else in the division is even close.

Dark Horse: Both the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies have been rebuilding for the past several years. As the Yankees proved last year, sometimes projects arrive earlier than expected. If there is a dark horse in this division—and I doubt if for 2018—it’s probably the Braves or the Phillies.

Predicted Finish:

1. Washington Nationals: An easy flag followed by my fervent hope they lose in the first round of the playoffs.
2. Atlanta Braves: I’m out of a limb here, but Acuna is seen as MLB’s top rookie prospect and they still have ageless wonder Freddie Freeman. The pitching is sketchy beyond Teheran, but maybe someone will catch fire.
3. New York Mets: Two years ago they had the best 1-5 staff in baseball; last year they all got hurt. I doubt they’ll get healthy all at once. They need to pitch exceptionally as the lineup has more holes than a teenager’s jeans.
4. Philadelphia Phillies: Other than free agents Carlos Santana and Arrieta, you won’t recognize many of these guys. You will soon, but ’18 is probably too early. It wouldn’t shock me, though, if the Phils vaulted to second.
5. Miami Marlins: A joke, a travesty, and a team not done dismantling. The Fish could easily stink their way to 100+ losses. Let’s hope they slink out of town to an actual MLB city.  

Dunkirk is Bold, if Not Entirely Successful

DUNKIRK  (2017)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Warner Brothers, 106 minutes, PG-13

There are a few things about Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk that should be said from the outset. First, it’s not a historically accurate account of the 1940 evacuation to Britain of more than 300,000 British and French soldiers after the Fall of France. Second, it doesn’t try to be: Nolan creates composite characters, invents others, the scale is wrong, he elides events, jumps in time, and adds small anachronisms for visual impact. He even filmed in sunlight when the actual conditions were overcast and rainy. Third, Dunkirk is not a guts-and-glory tale filled with latter-day John Wayne- or Sylvester Stallone-type heroes. Fourth, although there is plenty of harrowing action, there is almost no gore. Fifth, it’s not a traditional buddies-in-wartime film, either. Sixth, though there is dialogue, much of the film is wordless.

So what is Nolan’s Dunkirk? How about a Greek tragedy in khaki and life preservers? His is a bold attempt to use mythology to counter a legend. I’m not being metaphorical. Nolan’s Dunkirk is more akin to Aeschylus,
Sophocles, or Euripides than Malick, Bigelow, or Eastwood. Greek tragedies open with prologues; Dunkirk has title slides. We get brief looks at a few characters, but like a Greek tragedy we get three types of story arcs; in this case ones titled “land,” “sea,” and “air.” We even have a Greek commentary chorus: Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), and those interacting with them. Still another character, a boy named George (Barry Keoghan) serves as a silent choral figure whose changing roles and fates presage those of others. Even the film’s scale evokes the stripped down Greek stage. We see orderly queues of men waiting to be evacuated—those lines separated from each other with blank beach between them—but we are clearly looking at dozens of individuals, not the 400,000 who were actually at Dunkirk. Or we see ships bobbing in the vast English Channel, or insect-scaled airplanes swallowed by expansive blue skies. That is, it's more of an Olympian point of view than one bound by human perspective.  

In stark contrast to Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, Nolan’s Dunkirk is a decidedly non-triumphant look at war. One protagonist is named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), so chosen because it’s British slang for an ordinary soldier (akin to say, G.I.). Tommy is no hero; we see him running from gunfire, trying to fake his way onto an evacuation ship by posing as a corpsman, and holing up in a beached ship awaiting the tide. He’s not looking to collect medals; he just wants to go home. His is the bookend story to that of a shell-shocked officer from a torpedoed ship  (Cillian Murphy), plucked from the water by Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), who are part of the civilian armada bound for Dunkirk. In this film, heroism comes in the form of resignation, not sacrificial disregard for one’s own safety. A Spitfire pilot named Farrier (Tom Hardy) is another such accidental and reluctant protector.
I’m not always a fan of Hans Zimmer movie scores, but he hits the right notes in Dunkirk. He skirts atonality on occasion, but mostly his score is big and ominous—even surreal. It adds immeasurably to the pathos of what we see unfold and serves in ways dialogue might in a more conventional film. It’s unique also in that Zimmer goes big to contrast with understated acting. That is to say, Zimmer doesn’t need to window dress a big speech or pivotal moment because there aren’t any. Dunkirk is not a victory; it’s a salvage operation. Greek tragedies generally have some sort of concluding exodus, be it actual or metaphorical. No laurel wreaths here, unless you stretch to include the bottles of beer and applauding locals at British train stations.

Let’s give kudos to Nolan for a bold attempt to challenge the Dunkirk legend. As a film, though, Dunkirk has a stronger vibe as an austere play. I admire spare production, but Nolan’s film is like those spaced-out queues, vast ocean, and expansive sky; we notice the blankness. The script relies on visuals and viscerality. I get that Nolan wants us to see the men of Dunkirk as (mostly) nameless cogs in a war machine not of their choosing, but it also means that characters are often emotionally disconnected from audiences looking for reasons to care. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called Dunkirk the best war movie ever made. Sorry, but he’s wrong. It might, in fact, be the best war movie flop of all time! Put another way, a person unfamiliar with Greek tragedy might spend most of this film wondering what the hell is going on, as there is very little exegesis of any sort after the prologue. For a great war movie that’s both a well-tuned narrative and a morality play, Apocalypse Now remains at the top of the heap. But even if Dunkirk is ultimately more intriguing conceptually than cinematically, hats off to Nolan for an interesting attempt.

Rob Weir