Album #22: Aretha Franklin, ‘Amazing Grace’

Aretha Franklin represents something of a quandary for me. She was, without question, one of the greatest singers of the 20th century — never mind calling her the “Queen of Soul,” which diminishes her universality. Her 2016 show at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion was among the great concerts I’ve ever had the honor of attending.

But albums? For me, Aretha wasn’t about albums so much as a string of incredible singles that she recorded in the late 1960s and early ’70s. I could have chosen “Aretha’s Gold,” her 1969 compilation that includes hits like “Chain of Fools,” “Think” and, of course, “Respect.” (Has a cover ever surpassed the original as thoroughly as Aretha’s “Respect” exceeds Otis Redding’s?)

A few years ago, though, I heard “Amazing Grace” for the first time. Released in 1972, it became Franklin’s biggest hit as well as the top-selling gospel album of all time. Listening is a challenge for someone like me, a mostly secular aging white guy who likes a strong beat. “Amazing Grace” consists mainly of Aretha’s voice soaring above the Southern California Community Choir, with a band led by the Rev. James Cleveland on piano.

My appreciation of “Amazing Grace” deepened after we saw the 2019 documentary of the same name. It mostly tracks with the album, but to see her perform takes it to an entirely different level and offers a deeper perspective on the material. There’s more of her father, the Rev. C.L. Cleveland, than there is on the album as well. And look! There’s Mick Jagger!

“Amazing Grace” is one of those aspirational albums that I keep going back to. I hear something new every time I play it. And if I keep at it long enough, I might finally get it.

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Album #23: Lucinda Williams, ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’

I had just started this exercise when we were all sickened by the police killing of George Floyd and then turned our attention to the Black Lives Matter protest movement that quickly grew out of it. For a while, writing about my favorite albums seemed beside the point. But music is important, and it’s also important that we not keep ourselves in a continual state of rage over events that we have a limited ability to control. So — back to the list.

Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” released in 1998, is a near-perfect album that combines rock, country and, yes, suicide. It sounds as fresh today as it did 22 years ago. From the upbeat, sexy opener, “Right in Time,” to the evocative closer, “Jackson,” “Car Wheels” is one of those proverbial take-it-to-the-island albums.

After “Car Wheels,” I started anticipating Williams’ new albums, and listened to “Essence” (2001) and “World without Tears” (2003) as soon as they came out. There are some good tracks on both, but she wasn’t quite able to recapture the magic. Her singing became increasingly mannered, too.

But “Car Wheels” is one for the ages. I do want to listen to her latest, “Good Souls Better Angels.” And she’s on my bucket list of musicians I want to see — if we can ever get back to going to concerts.

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Album #24: Christopher Parkening, ‘Parkening Plays Bach’

During the summer and fall of 1975, I was working as a Northeastern co-op student at the United Way, then located on Beacon Hill in a building that is now a Suffolk dorm. That much I remember. What I don’t remember is why I came back from my lunch break one day with a copy of the classical guitarist Christopher Parkening‘s 1971 album “Parkening Plays Bach.” But I’m glad I did.

When it came to my own guitar-playing skills, I was at the peak of what proved to be a very tiny hill, so that might have had something to do with it. I mainly liked rock and blues, and I played bass in a band. But I also had acquired a book on how to play classical guitar, and I did some messing around with that.

I can’t say I made much progress. But I loved listening to Parkening play Bach. The great composer wrote for the harpsichord and ensembles, but Parkening made those pieces sound like they were always meant for the guitar. And he made them sound effortless. For an example, listen to “Sheep May Safely Graze.”

Even today, I don’t listen to a lot of classical music, and my tastes tend to be on the lite side — Bach, Vivaldi (my apologies), a little Mozart. I love Rudolf Serkin’s recording of the Andante in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 so much that I almost chose that for this list instead of Parkening. We’ve seen live performances of Handel’s “Messiah” and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. But, at home, when we choose classical music it’s mainly for background.

Still, I have Parkening to thank for opening up my musical vistas a bit.

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Album #25: Mavis Staples, ‘We Get By’

Like many people, I recently took the 10-album challenge on Facebook. It was fun, but I found it too limiting. Only 10? Plus you’re discouraged from offering any commentary, and the albums are supposed to be those that influenced your musical tastes, not necessarily the ones you think are the best.

Given all that, I thought I would write about my top 25. It’s a fluid list — ask me six months from now and it might be different. But these are 25 albums that mean a lot to me, and I’m going to try to rank them in some kind of order. My only self-imposed rule is that I won’t choose more than one album by any particular musician or band.

I’ll start with Mavis Staples’ 2019 album “We Get By,” which will certainly be the most recent entry on the list. A few years ago WUMB Radio (91.9 FM) reintroduced me to Staples. I’m in my 60s, so the Staple Singers were a radio, ah, staple when I was a teenager in the 1970s. Back then, though, I didn’t pay much attention. It turns out that they were great, and that Mavis, at 80, is still going strong. Indeed, we saw her in 2017 at UMass Boston and in 2019 at the Cabot in Beverly, and I swear she had more stamina at the second show.

I like all of Staples’ albums from recent years, but “We Get By” is the strongest. Written and produced by Ben Harper, it features a crack hard-rock trio, as does her terrific live album, also released in 2019, called “Live in London.” The standout track on “We Get By” is “Sometime,” which would have been a Staple Singers hit in 1971.

The Mavis Staples revival has sent me back into the Staple Singers catalog. And there are days when I think “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)” is the last song I want to hear before they turn off the lights once and for all.

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What the great songwriter John Prine meant to me — and to all of us

Two of my favorite musicians have died in the past month — first McCoy Tyner and now John Prine. I wrote about Tyner here. Now let me tell you a little bit about Prine, who’d been in poor health for years and who did not survive COVID-19.

I came to Prine fairly late. I knew who he was and had heard a few of his early classics. But it wasn’t until his 1991 comeback album, “The Missing Years,” started getting some airplay that I really tuned in. It’s still my favorite Prine album. His songwriting had matured and his thin, reedy voice had given way to something deeper and more expressive. (You can learn about all of his music at his website.)

Prine only recorded three more albums of original material after that, the most recent being “The Tree of Forgiveness” (2018) — as warm and funny and heartfelt as anything he’d recorded. But he also recorded two terrific albums of country classics on which he sang duets with female singers.

“In Spite of Ourselves” (1999), the first and better of the two, featured the old George Jones classic “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds.” Not only was it audacious for Prine to take on perhaps the greatest country singer ever, but his singing partner, Melba Montgomery (who also wrote the song), had recorded the original with Jones some 35 years earlier. It was a magical moment.

Another magical moment was in June 2018, when we finally got to see Prine in Boston. I’d been warned that his voice was shot from cancer treatments, but in fact he sounded fine that night. He told some great stories and seemed genuinely glad to be there. So were we.

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Bad television for bad times: Why ‘Tiger King’ resonates in the age of pandemic

Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as the Joe Exotic, the Tiger King

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Note: Spoilers ahead.

To flip an old cliché on its head, “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” may not be the television series we need, but it’s proving to be the one we want.

There isn’t a single sympathetic major character in this seven-part Netflix extravaganza; every last one is involved in the abuse of animals, of humans or of both. The conscience of the series, if you can call her that, may have killed her second husband and fed him to the tigers. Or stuffed him down a septic tank. Or something.

Call it television for the pandemic. We’re home, surrounded by death and disease in the news and, perhaps, in our own lives. We’re scared of getting sick, scared of losing our jobs, scared because we’ve lost our jobs. Our cruel, incompetent president has been botching matters since early January and is yelling at us every evening about governors who have dissed him, journalists who have angered him and unproven elixirs he wants us to take because, as he likes to say, “What do you have to lose?”

Emerging from this vortex of insanity is the Tiger King, a.k.a. Joe Exotic, a.k.a. Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a.k.a. Joseph Schreibvogel, the gay, wildly extroverted, garishly adorned, country music-singing, political office-seeking, assault weapon-toting proprietor of the G.W. Zoo in Oklahoma — a private reservation where adults and children can play with adorable tiger cubs, where underpaid, overworked employees are fed discarded cold cuts from Walmart, and where, as we learn, big cats that are no longer useful are shot and buried out back.

Maldonado-Passage is both paranoid and out of control — and he is obsessed with a woman named Carole Baskin, who, along with her worshipful third husband, runs a sanctuary for big cats in Florida and who crusades to put Maldonado-Passage and others like him out of business. Preening before the cameras, Baskin is as self-obsessed as her nemesis, though lacking his talent for self-destruction. As for the destruction of others — well, there is the matter of her second husband, whose 1997 disappearance has yet to be solved.

The filmmakers, Eric Goode and Rebecca Chailkin, present a veritable bestiary of other odd characters as well, including Maldonado-Passage’s three husbands (one of whom blows his brains out while on meth), an employee who returned to work just a week after a tiger bit her arm off and the owners of other big-cat exhibits — all of whom come off as far more sinister and calculating than the star of the show.

The end game comes into view during the last three episodes, when a career criminal who’d taken over the zoo, a would-be hitman and a government informant tell federal authorities that Maldonado-Passage had paid $3,000 to have Baskin killed. (One is reminded of Dr. Evil in “Austin Powers” threatening to destroy the world unless he is paid one … million … dollars!) Maldonado-Passage is convicted of attempted murder and animal abuse.

Did he do it? There’s no question that he often bragged on camera about wanting to kill Baskin, and he dramatized his wishes, as one does, by shooting mannequins and holding up a jar that appeared to contain her severed head. It seems likely that he was enticed into going further than he would have on his own at the instigation of his erstwhile business partner, who wanted him out of the way. But that certainly doesn’t mean he was framed, as he claims.

Needless to say, the appeal of “Tiger King” is entirely voyeuristic. My wife and I watched the first part on our son’s recommendation. She dropped out because she couldn’t stand the animal cruelty (not really shown but ever-present as a background theme) and then came back for the last part because she wanted to see Maldonado-Passage behind bars. I stuck with it against my better judgment because it was like the proverbial car crash — I couldn’t look away.

“Human suffering is dangled before the viewer like raw meat,” writes the critic Doreen St. Félix in The New Yorker, adding later on: “The documentary is a kaleidoscope of terrible taste.”

Why do we watch stuff like this? Human nature being what it is, we want people we can feel superior to, who get what’s coming to them, whose success is built on evil until, one day, it all comes crashing down. And I think we need even more of that sort of thing during a terrifying time like the one we’re living in.

We are now hearing that, because of “Tiger King,” the authorities are pursuing new leads in the disappearance of Carole Baskin’s second husband, and that, with Maldonado-Passage’s help, other big-cat exhibits around the country are being shut down. See? Some good is coming out of this freak show.

Perhaps. But I am reminded of a book that New York’s Daily News published upon its 50th anniversary some years ago that included the famous 1928 front-page photo of Ruth Snyder being killed in the electric chair for the murder of her husband. The book piously claimed that publication of the picture led to the abolition of the death penalty in New York.

Maybe it did. But it also sold a hell of a lot of papers.

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McCoy Tyner was one of the towering musicians of the 20th century

We lost a great one Friday — McCoy Tyner, one of the towering musicians of the 20th century. Tyner was the pianist on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and his own “Enlightenment,” two extended works that are among the most spiritual in jazz. “Enlightenment” is one of my favorite albums.

I had the privilege of seeing Tyner in concert twice, once at the Jazz Workshop in the early ’70s, and then again about four years later at the Paradise.

A few years ago someone shared with me a video of Tyner’s quartet performing the full “Enlightenment” suite at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival — the concert that the album documents. I can’t seem to find it, but above is an extended highlight. God Almighty. And I mean that in several different ways.

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When Clayton Christensen and Jill Lepore tangled over ‘disruption theory’

Clayton Christensen. Photo (cc) 2011 by Betsy Weber.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s ideas about why some businesses adjust to competition and some don’t were so controversial that a battle broke out on Twitter within hours of his death last Friday at the age of 67.

“It’s easy for journalists to mock someone known for ‘disruption theory,’” said Nieman Lab editor Joshua Benton, “but Clay was a brilliant mind and one of the very nicest people I’ve ever sat across a desk from.”

That brought the first of several blistering retorts from Siva Vaidhyanathan, a prominent media-studies scholar at the University of Virginia: “He was not brilliant. He wrote simplistic, theological analyses of things he never understood.” Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review defended Christensen, telling Vaidhyanathan, “I think he had some insights about disruption that were worthwhile.” I jumped in on Christensen’s side as well.

Christensen’s best-known critic by far, though, is Harvard historian Jill Lepore. Nearly six years ago, in a long essay for The New Yorker, Lepore lambasted Christensen’s theories as flights of fancy with little evidence to back them up.

I had read Christensen’s first book about disruption theory, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” and thought he had some provocative things to say about the struggling news business. So not long after Lepore’s piece appeared, I wrote a self-published essay for Medium about Lepore and Christensen’s battle of ideas, which I’m republishing here this week.

Obviously the world doesn’t look exactly the same in 2020 as it did in 2014. But if you’re wondering who Clay Christensen was and what disruption theory is all about, I hope you’ll find that this is a useful introduction. Continue reading “When Clayton Christensen and Jill Lepore tangled over ‘disruption theory’”

David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass

Photo from the Library of Congress Brady-Handy Collection

I just finished David Blight’s monumental (750 pages) biography “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” Perhaps a controversial view: It would have been better at half the length, supplemented with 100 to 150 well-curated pages of Douglass’ lectures and writings.

Still, it’s a great work of scholarship, well deserving of the Pulitzer that it won, with deep dives into Abolitionism, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and emergence of Jim Crow and lynchings. And, of course, Douglass, perhaps the most remarkable public person of the 19th century, and his family.

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A somber Springsteen tells the story of his life

Those of us who were with Bruce Springsteen from the beginning (or, in my case, almost from the beginning) have certain expectations for how he should behave. One of those expectations is that he should not charge $850 so that well-heeled fans can see him on Broadway. That said, I was looking forward to watching “Springsteen on Broadway” on Netflix, which I finally had a chance to do Sunday night.

It’s very good, and moving in parts. Springsteen is a master storyteller, and he expertly wove the story of his life around his music. The flashes of ego won’t be surprising to anyone who’s read or listened to his excellent autobiography, “Born to Run.” And, after all, he can back it up.

Since I had already heard him read his autobiography for many, many hours, “Springsteen on Broadway” was somewhat superfluous. Most of the rearrangements of his songs were second-rate, although “My Hometown” (on solo piano) and “Land of Hope and Dreams” (on acoustic guitar) were far better than the originals.

My only quibble is that he struck the same somber, elegiac tone for two and a half hours, with no variation in the pacing — not even when his wife, Patti Scailfa, joined him on stage. (And how weird is it that they sang “Brilliant Disguise,” which is about his troubled first marriage?) About two hours in, I was more than ready for the E Street Band to come out and launch into the Detroit Medley.

I’d give “Springsteen on Broadway” four out of five stars, of interest mainly to Springsteen obsessives.

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