The Radical Center

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Jerry and Bob onstage at Veneta: “Well, OK, I can work with it.”

Last night, I settled into one of the Dead’s great performances, the Veneta show from 8/27/72, aka the “Field Trip” or what Nick Meriwether called “The Last Acid Test.” The sonic quality of the recording, as well as the event itself, put you right in the middle of the show. You can feel the heat of that late summer day as well as the buzz of the faithful in attendance. Despite everything – the heat, the dust, the usual problems with the equipment – the Dead reached one of their peaks with this performance. They did that a lot in their career, of course, but this is one of the best.

The banter between songs is superbly entertaining, especially Ken Babbs trying to speak through his hallucinations. No one thought better on his feet than Babbs. The band too was quite loquacious, especially Bob. But it was a comment by Jerry as they come out of “He’s Gone” that made me remember you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.

They were, of course, complaining about the sound and the equipment. Bob said it was hard to keep the guitars in tune with the 100-degree Oregon heat beating down on them. “Turn up my voice on the monitors, God love ya,” he says. Then Jerry chimes in, “Say what? Not so good . . . well, OK, I can work with it.” And then they slide into a sublime “Jack Straw.”

“Not so good . . . well, OK, I can work with it.”

There was the epiphany. In an off-hand comment, Garcia seemed to sum up one of the core organizing and operating principles of the Dead. Take what you have and make the best of it. Throughout their career, they did that over and over – with each other, with their musical abilities, and most spectacularly, with their performances. While they frequently reached an apex of perfection, just as often they fell short. What distinguished the Dead, however, was their perseverance when things weren’t “just exactly perfect.” Whether it was a song, a performance, or the long arc of their career, they played the hand they were dealt, working through it with each other, always striving for perfection even while falling short. But they never let perfection be the enemy of the good.

Since the music had my synapses firing, it got me thinking. We are living in a time of profound polarization. You see it everywhere – incomes, culture, politics. Let’s get rid of Obamacare! Let’s build a wall! Let’s make college free to everyone! We attach ourselves to extreme ideas and then become unwilling to countenance any compromise. Let’s lock and load and march into battle! Anything less than our stated ideal of perfection is designated as weakness, loss; it becomes a badge of honor not to compromise and meet in the middle.

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The eye of the hurricane: that calm, strong balance among opposing forces.

The Dead argued all the time musically. About which song to play, how long it should go, which turn they should take deep into a jam. But more often than not, when they reached an impasse – when they got lost in deep space for instance, in the 21st minute of “Dark Star” – they would talk to each other through musical thought, try a few alternatives until a small path opened up to take them to the other side, where things fit together again. In those moments, it can be easier to walk away and just give up, move on to another song, another performance, or in the extreme, another band. The Dead didn’t do that. They stuck it out, searching for the center where all voices are heard and, thus, real solutions found. In the process, they learned how to respect each other and when necessary lift each other up. They did this by finding the space in the middle, the radical center – that calm, strong balance among opposing forces.

The radical center has its own demands. It requires us to be respectful, aware and ingenious. It requires the courage to step away from our “position” (or belief, conviction, ideal or whatever else you’d like to call it) to see things in a different light. It requires us to think in terms of “us,” not “me.” To let go of “I” and approach “thou,” as the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber famously realized.

Today, we need a way to reclaim that radical center, to listen to each other and be willing to admit there may be no perfect solution, but there could be a very good one. To be willing to say “Not so good . . . well, OK, I can work with it.” To find that path, like the Dead did so many evenings, that leads us to a place of collaboration, compromise and creativity.

Now back to Veneta. I can’t wait to hear how they resolve the conflict in “Dark Star.”

Best of 2016

 

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What a strange, intense year it was. There was a lot of transition and a little heartache in the Yarrow household this year, so we gravitated quickly to things that lifted us up. Fortunately, there was a lot to choose from, so this year’s installment is a little on the long side. Enjoy.

 

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Patti Smith, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Nobel Prize Ceremony, Stockholm     Once we got over the shock of Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in literature, the questions came: is Dylan “literature” . . . does that mean The Beatles could get a Nobel too . . . did the Nobel Committee actually listen to that dumb song about Ruben Carter? Then we had to process Dylan’s reaction (or lack thereof): is he trying to piss off the Nobel Committee . . . does he even care . . . is he doing his Zen/rabbi bullshit again? But finally, in December, performing in Stockholm at the Nobel ceremony, Patti Smith answered all the questions. She reminded us that, in the end, it’s all about the art. She illuminated Dylan’s powerful genius. She broke through the artifice of performer when she stopped and apologized to the audience for flubbing the lyrics (“I’m so nervous”). She resumed the song, then broadened and deepened her interpretation (by now, she totally owned the moment). The audience was stunned. There were tears. It became emphatically clear that the music amplified the power of the words. It produced a different kind of engagement than words alone. It was also clear that this is indeed literature – Patti’s reading of the song had the ability to make one stop for a moment and see one’s environment in a new light, with a deeper and more personal meaning. Two codas: Patti wrote a great piece for the New Yorker on her experience. And, oh yes, Dylan completed the circle by sending the Nobel Committee a short acceptance speech that was profound and home-spun at the same time.

 

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Grateful Dead, “July 1978” Box Set    The resurrection of the Betty Boards continues. Betty Cantor-Jackson produced some of the best live recordings of the Dead at the peak of their career while she was running the soundboard. Her sonics are impeccable. Betty once famously said that she wanted to put the listener “inside” the music. She does that here, creating a huge soundstage with crisp articulation, rounded tones, bright highs anchored by a deep, rolling bottom. And the music – from the incendiary “Music Never Stopped” to the big, rocking “Not Fade Away” and the Miles-ish jazz undertones of “Scarfire” – is some of the best of the Dead’s vast catalog. This is what a box set should be – conceptual, well-defined, limited quantities.

 

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Bob Weir, “Blue Mountain”     The buzz was this would be Bobby’s “cowboy record,” prompting fears of 10 different versions of “El Paso.” Not so. This is a suite of sorts, homage to a brighter, warmer America. He brought together a seasoned, seamless band, harkening back to country, blues, and psychedelia, with Bobby playing the role of rabbi, or witness. It has a biblical feel to it – songs of redemption, resurrection, reverence. Bobby once said one of his passions is singing, and it comes through here, in a shining, shimmering way.

 

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U.S. Presidential Election   C’mon, we never saw anything like it! How many times did we all say you can’t make this up? Slack-jawed, we witnessed new political paradigms created and old ones mutate or die. There was a dark energy that was different, disconcerting, and a general visceral shock at the end. Whatever your political proclivities, there is a little thrill being at the center of a new historical narrative. God only knows where we go from here.

 

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Twenty One Pilots, “Stressed Out”     Super cool song, and a good soundtrack for the election.

 

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David Bowie, “Blackstar”     Bowie processes his own death (“Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen”) and creates a moving, subterranean, brooding soundtrack for it. What a gift he left us. It’s the sonic equivalent of Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air” or the documentary “Dying to Know,” in which Ram Dass and Tim Leary explore the meaning of the ultimate and final passage. Brothers and sisters, we are all walking toward the same home! Here’s to the great ones who made the passage this year, including Prince, Leonard Cohen, Glenn Frey, Leon Russell, Merle Haggard, Sharon Jones (“They said I was too fat, too black, too short, and too old. Look at me now”), Maurice White, Paul Bley, Paul Kantner, Dan Hicks, Keith Emerson, Bernie Worrell, Thunderclap Newman, Scotty Moore, Harper Lee, Gary Shandling (“I once made love for an hour but it was the night the clocks were set ahead”), Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, and Muhammad Ali, one of the great rock and rollers of all time.

 

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Various Artists, “Day of the Dead” Box Set     Despite the title, this enormous collection of music (10 LPs) is brimming with life, joy and passion. The Dead’s body of work was a diamond sutra of sorts and admirers ranging from The National to Vijay Iyer interpret the many facets of the Dead songbook, some reverent, some shockingly new. A true labor of love.

 

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Rolling Stones, “Blue and Lonesome”     Welcome back home guys.

 

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Frank Ocean, “Siegfried”     I’m late to “Blond,” Ocean’s new LP from which this song is taken, but first listen is exciting. “Siegfried” is pure creation, genuine, sui generis. The strings rising up in the middle of the song are like a sunrise. And he closes out by channeling Eno.

 

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Solange, “Cranes In the Sky”     We have little patience in our household for the Beyonce music-industrial complex (sorry!). But her kid sister can kick it. She sets the mood of “Cranes” in the first three seconds and then stretches it out for the next three minutes. A little old school, a little new, all fresh.

 

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Donald Glover, “Atlanta,” FX     Glover created a gem, an Atlanta-based, hip-hop version of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Brilliant.

 

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Radiohead, “A Moon Shaped Pool”    I’ve often thought of Radiohead as the 21st Century Beatles. They grow by leaps and bounds, and their art seems effortless and limitless. This is dark, insistent chamber music, propelled by acoustic guitars, strings, and Thom Yorke’s perpetually cynical and haunting voice.

 

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Chicago Cubs     After decades of hand-wringing and heartbreak, they finally did it and even if it was at the expense of my Cleveland Indians, it was a sight to behold.

 

The Perfect Christmas Watch

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The Laurel, Seiko’s first wristwatch introduced in 1912

Here’s an impressive little watch that effortlessly delivers all kinds of value – history, design, performance and value. The Seiko Presage (SPB039J1) is an homage to Seiko’s first wristwatch, the “Laurel” from 1912. The Laurel was designed by Seiko founder Kintaro Hattori and produced almost entirely from in-house components. The new Presage incorporates the Laurel’s DNA very nicely and it’s really cool to see this style still looking good after more than a century (I promise not to use the word “timeless” here).

Like a lot of Seiko models, the Presage is a very affordable entry point into mechanical watches. Not quite as affordable as a 007, but it’s a slightly different value proposition. I found this model online for less than $500, which I think is an incredible value for everything that it offers. Let’s take a look.

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The Seiko Presage SPB039J1 — at the top of the range in Bang for Buck

The Dial   Lots of cool elements here, all in perfect balance. The face is a faded white color, almost pearly in certain light, with a herringbone guilloche that gives it a fine texture and a kinetic quality. The “Breguet” numbers are gorgeous – sarif style with beautiful detail, capped by a red “12.” The hour and minute hands are long and extremely tapered with points that seem to vanish. Very elegant. The second hand is also long and tapered, anchored with a “new moon” filigree. All the hands are a deep blue color that changes shades depending on how the light is falling. The date window is nicely finished with a steel frame and raised steel letters are used for the Seiko mark. I’m not a fan of “Automatic” lines in general on the face of a watch, but the script style here adds to the vintage feel – and in a brand generally considered as a quartz watch, I understand if they want to make the point here.

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The Case   It’s classic and understated. Like the 007, it has a liquid metal feel to it. At 40.5MM, it has a nice heft to it, but the curved lugs help it to sit comfortably on the wrist. It’s got a simple finish – polished on the sides, with a brush finish on the top of the lugs. The onion crown is aggressive for a watch this size, but easy to grab and wind. It’s finished with an “S” – again, a nice detail for a watch at this price point. The strap deserves to be called out. It’s a soft, brown croc with a sturdy, brushed deployant clasp that wouldn’t be out of place on a watch that cost 5 times as much.

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The Movement   I think this is where Seiko shines. Across the company’s portfolio are a variety of in-house movements that range from the simple 7s26 to the much more finished movements of the Grand Seiko line. In between, they have some highly affordable work horses, like the 6r15 that powers the Presage. With hacking and winding capabilities, it also features Seiko’s Trimatic technology – the “Magic Lever” for efficient winding; use of a Spron alloy for stronger and more durable springs, and Dia-Shock, a proprietary shock resistance technology. The exhibition back shows off a straightforward, industrial finish. It’s got a 50-hour power reserve, but it feels like it runs longer.

The only complaint with this piece is the crystal. I would have liked more of a dome to give more movement to the face, especially considering all the detail it has. But I’m quibbling. For its price point, this is a near-perfect example of watchmaking, combining history, elegant design and solid craftsmanship. Anyone who like watches would be thrilled to see this under the tree.

 

 

First Day On the Job

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Setting: Hip editor (NYT, RS, VF) unfortunately but predictably (given even a cursory glance of the standard literature on pathological disorders) falls from grace. His rebound job is Editor/Publisher of “The Costco Connection (A Magazine For Costco Members.”) Here are his notes on the first monthly editorial budget sent up for his review.

“Really busy, I just have 9 points:

  1. Re: the cover story on Sullenberger – OK, Sully, the Hero of the Hudson, US Airways pilot extraordinaire, Eastwood tie-in, etc. Just want to make sure this piece isn’t going in some mawkish direction – you know, Sully/Superman-type stuff. So can we make Sully a silicone doll figure? That way, people can do selfies like “Look who just flew in.” We would blow up Instagram!
  1. That thumb-sucker on the benefits of hiring special needs employees was an awesome display of well-informed advocacy journalism. I get it! But could we spice it up a little? Maybe a Go-Pro on one of the “special needs?” Might be something Fallon would highlight in his monologue.
  1. “Celebrating Chocolate” – Hell yeah! Well done!
  1. The review on Paulo Coelho’s book, “The Spy” – remind me, he’s the guy that wrote “The Alchemist,” right? I like this – how many do we sell off the review? Do we pay for these reviews?
  1. When I read this review of Meryl Streep’s new movie, “Florence,” I thought it was her last movie where she sang rock and roll! But what am I saying, Meryl can play anyone. This will open strong, don’t you think? Would Meryl be a better cover than Sully?
  1. Matt Damon’s return as Jason Bourne? Drop the mic! Let’s put Matt on the cover!
  1. The food feature on sheet pan meals was cute, but a little quaint. Have you heard about that guy in the Valley who’s synthesized the perfect food – you only need 3 glasses a day, nothing else. Let’s check him out!
  1. King Crab legs for breakfast? I don’t think so! Spiked.
  1. Feature on how to survive the “Holiday Roller Coaster” was awesome! Do you think we could tie cannabis into this piece? Legal pot just passed by a landslide in Cali, this is an emerging market and we need to get serious about capturing it!

Otherwise the book is looking awesome!

Well done!

Cheers,

B”

The Day(s) After: 7 Takeaways

 

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Red Is the New Blue

Look at this map. It’s wearing more red than Fox News anchors. It has multiple shades of red, including deep, blood red across the Rust Belt. The deepest blues, of course, are in my old home state of California (fifth-largest economy in the world, which also legalized pot, by the way). But blue is not in evidence many other places. Red, from sea to shining sea.

 

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Big Data Crashed

All of the computers, all of the whiz kid analysts, and all (or most) of the pundits got it wrong. As they did on Brexit. It was the “overselling of precision,” said Pradeep Mutalik of Yale. Nate Silver, the darling of Big Data (above in blue), predicted a 71 percent chance of a Clinton win at FiveThirtyEight. That’s not a margin-of-error miss, but a three-pitch strikeout. No matter how big data gets, it can’t capture human nature and nuance. “I was having dinner last week with a high-profile venture capitalist and he said, ‘I’m voting for Trump but I have to lie and tell everyone I’m voting for Gary Johnson,” said Peter Thiel. That kind of thinking never showed up in the data.

 

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Big Media Crashed Too

The media hierarchy was toppled. The big guns – NYT, WashPo, all of the networks and leading cable shows – got it wrong. They not only got it wrong, they dropped the pretense of objectivity (especially in the newsroom at 628 Eighth Ave. in Manhattan) and waged an unrelenting campaign against a Trump presidency. WikiLeaks had more influence in this election than every single newspaper endorsement combined.

 

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The Obama Coalition Failed HRC

A lot of them stayed home. Trump won, but to a great extent because Clinton was a failed candidate. The so-called permanent voting bloc of minorities, youth, women and college grads that the Democrats were counting on didn’t rise to the occasion. “The idea that you can get to a presidential campaign and just press a button and they’ll vote, it’s not there yet,” said a Democratic strategist the morning after.

 

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The Blue Wall Crumbled, but the Testosterone Wall Held

The “permanent” Democratic voting bloc was sometimes called the Blue Wall and it fell like the Berlin Wall (see above). But I’m just gonna say it – as advanced as we are as a democracy, gender still plays a role in politics and this time to HRC’s detriment. When HRC ran for class president in high school against several boys, one of them told her she was “really stupid if I thought a girl could be elected president.” She lost, and as the Talking Heads once said, “Same as it ever was.”

 

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The Old Economy Isn’t Dead Yet

Go back and look at the map above. Look at all the deep red from Ohio through Pennsylvania and into Michigan and Wisconsin. That’s were industries have been shuttered, jobs have been lost, wages have been declining and where the voices of the “forgotten people” roared. The day after, presented with reality, the NYT got it right. “Donald Trump’s America flowed (sic) through the old union strongholds of the Midwest, along rivers and rail lines that once moved coal from southern Ohio and the hollows of West Virginia to the smelters of Pennsylvania.”

 

The Last Word

Actually, it’s a video produced by Bloomberg. Just Exactly Perfect . . .