Tuesday, June 30, 2009

numbers 10-11

11. Derek and the Dominos, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. I'm not the hugest Eric Clapton fan in the world, either, though again I respect his musical ability and the fact that he's a rock 'n' roll giant. But back in high school, I methodically worked my way through some of the landmark albums that I'd read about in a Rolling Stone guide to the history of rock. And I just loved this album then and still do, from the classic title song to the anthemic cover of Jimi Hendrix' "Little Wing" to the covers of blues standards like "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" and "It's Too Late."

You can hear the exuberance and joy that went into the making of this album, the only one released by the Clapton-led supergroup. Somehow, they dug deep into the heart of the blues and found joy. Maybe playing with Eric Clapton when he was at his creative peak would do that to anybody, I dunno. But you can hear it in many of the songs here, especially "Anyday" and "Why Does Love Got to be So Sad?", which totally rips. (It rips, man!) "Bell Bottom Blues": also a fantastic song, inexplicably full of both heartache and joy.

Apparently, this album wasn't as well-received as it should have been when it was released, ultimately leading to some of Clapton's darker days of drug addiction and the break-up of the band. Interestingly, he ultimately ended up marrying Pattie Boyd, the object of Clapton's unrequited love and the inspiration for "Layla," as well as George Harrison's wife at the time this album was made. Their marriage lasted for 6 years. The album, on the other hand, is timeless.

10. Love, Forever Changes. This may be one of the greatest albums to come out of the 60's, and I didn't even hear it until just a few years ago, while I was studying one night at a coffee shop in Burlington, VT. (You rock, Muddy Waters!) From what I understand, Arthur Lee, Love's frontman and driving force, did not like touring/traveling outside of the West Coast, so they remained relatively unknown to the general public. And they never made another album that had any sort of an impact like Forever Changes (although Jimi Hendrix played guitar on a track of a later release), and the band broke up a few years after it was released in 1967.

Forever Changes
has an unmistakeable 60's vibe, but without sounding like any of the other major groups of the day. How can I describe it? I can't, really. I shouldn't. You should just listen to it for yourself. Let's just say that Arthur Lee had a great voice, was a great songwriter, and must have hit some incredible source of inspiration when he was writing these songs. There's some great horn on some songs, including a thrilling duet between a fanfare and Lee's voice on "Maybe the People Would Be the Times." And the final majestic number, "You Set the Scene," could easily have served as an anthem for the 60's itself.

What would've happened if I'd gone to Starbucks to study that night? I don't even want to think about it ...

number 12

***12. Michael Jackson, Thriller. Please note the series of asterisks next to this pick, which signify that it was made under duress. The man, and this album, just have a legacy, and the weight of it is crushing right now after last week's tragedy. I do respect Michael Jackson as an entertainer and a songwriter, and I felt sympathy for what he endured during his show-biz upbringing under an abusive father. Truly, for reasons probably no one completely understood, he was a messed-up guy; and it's a shame that he couldn't have enjoyed his fame and fortune a little more.

It's just that ... I was never really into Michael Jackson. I liked the video for "Billie Jean," but that was about as far as it went. Oh, and I guess I like "Wanna Be Startin' Something" and its great first verse:

Wanna be startin' something
Why don't you be startin' something
What's up with that startin' something
Get out of here with that startin' something

Great stuff. But I guess I also liked Weird Al Yankovic's "Eat It" more than the original. And me and the other cool kids in the school used to regularly taunt, harass, intimidate, and disparage any open Michael Jackson fans that we came across. But 100 million copies sold ... on that basis alone, I guess I've got to include MJ on the list. And his vast influence on pop culture and people around the world, which I suspect few people fully appreciated until last week. And the fact that he could sell out 50 shows in London more than 20 years after his prime. And finally, I miscalculated again about how many more albums I needed to complete my list, so this fit in rather nicely.

Friday, June 26, 2009

number 13

13. Fleetwood Mac, Rumors. Fleetwood Mac is another one of those bands that I liked well enough back in the day, but wasn't apeshit over or anything. Maybe I saw the video for "Hold Me" on MTV too many times back in high school. Christine McVie digging up guitars in the desert: Jesus H. Christ.

But then, something happened a few years ago. I can't even remember what it was. Maybe I heard one fof their songs on the radio again, and thought to myself, "You know, they really were the shit." Or more likely, I read some random story about them somewhere, or even just had a sandwich that reminded me of Stevie Nicks. Well, whatever it was, I finally got a copy of Rumors - and it was like falling in love with your high-school sweetheart all over again. Except not so much! Because I don't think Fleetwood Mac was that big at my high school.

You know, I think I know what it was now: I heard "Never Going Back Again" on the radio. One of the lesser hits from this album, simple and straightforward, and yet a really great song. And there's just something about the way all the Mackers harmonized on the back-up vocals of different songs, all these great voices blending together so beautifully; sometimes, it just fills me with this feeling that there are things in the world more majestic than can ever be fully realized. And there are, like, five all-time rock 'n' roll classics on this album! I'm not even counting "Don't Stop," which a lot of people like but not this guy. "Go Your Own Way," on the other hand - there aren't many better songs than that in the English language.

In their heyday, Fleetwood Mac lived hard and burned out fast. Lots of drugs (which is, FYI, what "Gold Dust Woman" is about, I think), and Stevie Nicks turned from a cute little pixie to a battle-hardened rocker mama almost overnight. They were the quintessential California band. And they accomplished a lot, but could have done even more. All part of their mystique. I'm just grateful they left us with this masterpiece, a reminder that not everything was crap back in the 70's.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


So, today is the anniversary of my mom's death last year. She died of myelofibrosis, a hematologic malignancy where the bone marrow is replaced with fibrous tissue. This sometimes causes the spleen to enlarge markedly, and in Mom's case I think that's what did her in. Her spleen became so large that it compressed her stomach, and she could eat very little, and she kind of withered away over the course of several years until her heart finally stopped. And unfortunately, there's not much that can be done medically to stop this.

It's also unfortunate that the last impression that we have of someone's life is often when they're not at their best. I would rather think about what my mother was like earlier in life, instead of the illness at the end. And the thing I remember most is how devoted she was to us kids, even to a fault. I continued to get motherly advice and care well into my 30's. And I remember how much I took this for granted when I was a kid. Like some other youngsters, I was kind of a little pig boy, who took it for granted that Mom would always have breakfast and dinner ready and my clothes cleaned and the house tidied and all the other things I thought mothers were for. I kind of wish that just once, when I was 10 years old or so, somebody had shaken me and said, "You punk! Show your mother more gratitude! None of this stuff is automatic."

And finally, I remember sensing my mother's sadness at times, and wondering what was behind it. She did not have the easiest childhood: she moved with her parents from Germany to the US when she was 2, just before World War II broke out. My grandfather spent part of the war in a detention camp, since he had recently moved from Germany, and during that time she lived with family friends. It was not a good time to be a newly-arrived German immigrant, even for a small child, and I've wondered if this had a lasting effect on her even years later.

The war years were pretty lean for most people, and Mom continued to hoard things for the rest of her life. I was home for a little over a week when she died, and spent at least half that time frantically cleaning out the house and our summer camp with my brothers and sister. We were almost too busy to mourn; and never having gone through something like that as a family, we seemed unsure of how to mourn together.

Once my week was up, I flew back to Wisconsin and work, and gradually resumed my normal life. And everyone else did too. And even a year later, when I'd planned to write all this on the anniversary day, other things came up and plans had to be modified. But I knew you'd understand, Mom. We always came first with you, and that's something I'll never forget. I miss you now, and I wish I could have done more for you. I hope you're at peace.

Friday, June 5, 2009

steve rider

Most of the people reading this blog will also know my good friend Brian, and maybe also Brian's wife Cindy. I'm not sure how many of you might have met Cindy's family, including her brother Steve. I met Steve when I was out in Seattle last June, just a few days after he'd been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). This is a hematologic illness which is quite uncommon in younger people (Steve was 34 at diagnosis), and often leads to acute leukemia.

If you had the opportunity to meet Steve, you would probably like him right away just like I did. Just spending a little time with him, you could sense that what you saw was what you got, and he really was as friendly and open and intelligent as he seemed. I think sometimes that the people in Seattle and the Northwest are different from people elsewhere. Not because they drink more coffee or get rained on more or stupid stuff like that; I think they tend to be more informed, more politically and technologically savvy, more independent, more open-minded, etc. And Steve always struck me as the perfect fit for Seattle. He worked for a tech firm, and could take better photos with his iPhone than I could with a digital camera, and seemed to have a real appreciation for the rare and wonderful things in life. He had many creative and interesting friends. He kept a well-written and very readable blog about his experiences with life and his treatment, including his allogeneic stem cell transplant a few months ago. I think I learned more about the cancer patient's perspective from Steve's blog than from my 2-year oncology fellowship. And I was looking forward to seeing him again along with other friends on my upcoming trip back to Seattle.

Steve seemed to recover well at first after his stem cell transplant, but his cell counts (including white blood cells) unexpectedly dropped about a week ago. His doctors were making plans for another stem cell infusion from the same donor when Steve became acutely ill just a couple days ago. When someone has an infection like pneumonia, and few white blood cells to fight off the infection, it can become a life-threatening situation quite rapidly. And tragically, Steve passed away this morning in the ICU at Swedish Hospital in Seattle.

I only saw Steve in person on a few occasions, including Brian and Cindy's wedding last fall, but he was so good-natured that he made an impression on you right away. The sadness I feel now is for his sister, and parents, and wife, and all his friends, and the grief they're feeling now. And I'm sad I won't be able to thank Steve for the things I learned from him, and the enjoyment of spending just a bit of time with him. Thanks, Steve - I'll miss you, too.