Archive for the 'Music' Category

Situational Essay: Of Broken Bats and Broken Bottles: Athletes, Musicians, and The Number 27 by Simon Broder

Simon Broder is a starving writer and Blue Jays fan living, working and ostensibly writing his first novel in Victoria, BC. He blogs about the Jays at .363.

My first favourite number wasn’t twenty-seven.

It was 3. Three, because three is the quintessential baseball number. Three outs, three strikes: three is baseball’s time-clock. From three I branched to the number nine. Three repeated three times, nine is just as fundamental to the baseball experience. Nine innings. Nine players. Besides, John Olerud wore the number nine, and I already had a numerical bond to the Jays’ first baseman given our birthdates (8/5/68 and 8/5/86). We looked like distant cousins (tall, thin, pasty). He was coming off of one of the best offensive seasons in Blue Jays history, but it was because of the numbers that I idolized Johnny O.

Twenty-seven is three outs times nine innings, and any baseball fan knows what the number means: perfection. In a way, the number 27 (three times three times three) contains within its mathematical parts the entirety of a baseball game. But the importance of the number twenty-seven extends beyond this abstract baseball sense: ever since Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix expired two weeks apart from each other in 1970, conspiracy theorists have expounded the merits of the number twenty-seven for an entirely different reason – because it’s the age at which musicians die.

Amy Winehouse was born in September of 1983, which made her, as of July 23, 2011, twenty-seven years old. And like Joplin, Hendrix, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison before her, she left in her wake a critically acclaimed catalogue and a well-documented history of substance abuse. Is 27 truly the expiry date for the excessive lifestyle or is it a self-fulfilling prophesy? The number itself has become almost as superstitious as Turk Wendell’s toothbrush or Nomar’s batting gloves. If Wade Boggs didn’t eat chicken one day and went 0-4, there’s no doubt that we would point to the dietary choice as the reason for his failure, when, if anything, it was probably his fixation on the dietary choice that distracted him at the plate (and he might well have gone 0-4 anyway if the pitcher had good stuff on the night). If Kurt Cobain found meaning in the 27 Club, well then maybe one night he shot up with a gun in his hand, testing his willpower to join the famous foursome. We won’t have any indication whether Winehouse chose to join the club or whether her body simply gave out until we know the official cause of death, and we’ll likely never know for sure.

Death is messy in all the ways that numbers aren’t, and maybe that’s reflected in the music of the six stars who died at the age of 27. I know that as an adolescent coming out of my shell, I discovered in music something essential that wasn’t represented in my linear, mathematical understanding of things like baseball; something dynamic, free, and chaotic. For all of its carefully calibrated chord structures and notations, music is spiritual expression. As I realized the world was actually a pretty fucked up place and not the suburban daydream waxed by paternalistic play-by-play announcers, music became the outlet for my angst. Negotiating from one-hit wonders to classics like Soundgarden and Nirvana, I embraced the nineties as my era. I became a fake-nostalgic GenXer, patterning myself an outdated grunge kid, some free-ranging dissociative individual out of a Linklater flick or an idealistic hip hop video. The bottom-line chutes of office work, or public school education – or, yes, baseball – gave way to the experience of life itself. Fair and foul boundaries were blurred. Life – real life, not Kantian philosophy or pep talks – was relative, a world as far from the baseball diamond as one could get.

Baseball rewards – in a way, expects – perfection. Nothing represents what baseball strives for better than the perfect cube of the number 27. Three to its own exponent – an impenetrable mathematical fortress. Take out all the threes, and 27 is a prime number. Baseball players are lauded for their reliability, their machinelike focus on each game at hand. Adam Dunn hit exactly 40 homers for four years in a row. The ideal baseball team would be composed of five Roy Halladays and nine Albert Pujols’; a complete game every night and a 1.000 OPS from every slot in the lineup. There would be no struggle, no personal demons to overcome, because demons affect performance and baseball is all about performance.

If baseball players are the pillars of one model of orderly society, art is littered with the corpses of social outcasts. Nietzsche and Van Gogh went crazy. Dostoyevsky was politically oppressed. Brian Wilson couldn’t get out of bed for a decade. But there’s a reason why A&E can get away with running low-budget shows like “Hoarders” and “Intervention” back-to-back for 24 hours at a time. Even in the baseball universe, we can’t escape the pull of human-interest stories. Roy Halladay didn’t become the best pitcher in baseball until he was forced to reinvent himself in low-A ball. Josh Hamilton recovered from hard drug addiction. Zack Greinke overcame anxiety. Of course, the oft-repeated stories are always about the successful recoveries – the Lenny Dykstras and Ken Caminitis who fall victim to their own excesses are relegated to occasional fine-print bulletins and lamentful obituaries. They become “True Hollywood Stories” or the subjects of sanguine television movies.

Jacoby Ellsbury was born three days before Amy Winehouse. Think about that for a second. Jacoby Ellsbury is older than Amy Winehouse. In a game in which an early middle-aged man is referred to as a “shell” or a “corpse” by cynical commentators and some men shift to the coaching ranks in their mid-thirties, Ellsbury is a paragon of youth. He’s 27 and he’s having the best year of his career – hitting .300, stealing a ton of bases and just now adding power to the mix. He’s emerging as one of the best young – emphasis on young – players in the game today. To say that he’s still very much alive would be understating the point.

For musicians, 27 is special. It’s the burnouts’ burnout, a descending blaze of shooting-star glory at a round and perfect age. But for Jacoby Ellsbury, and countless other baseball players, 27 is an age defined by success. It’s been one of the revelations of the Bill James statistical renaissance that 27 is actually the age at which most players peak. Most good players come up at 23 or 24 and begin their decline around 30, but the best year of a career will usually happen at the moment when experience intersects physical skills. Just run down the list of players in their age-27 years in 2011: Dustin Pedroia. Jose Reyes. Joey Votto. Ryan Braun. Adam Lind. Casey Kotchman. Most of them have been good for two or three years and should stay in their primes for a couple more, but at age twenty-seven any given player can really bust out of his previous mould. Take Kotchman: after half a decade in the failed-prospect wilderness shuttled between four different organizations, at 27 he’s finally found a regular job and is delivering with an OPS in the mid-.800s and plus defense.

We don’t yet know how Amy Winehouse died. It’s possible that it wasn’t directly drug-related, that it was the result of health problems brought about by a self-destructive lifestyle. Rumours now abound that it was due to delirium tremens, the toxic shock brought about by withdrawal from alcohol. That strikes a personal chord with me, as someone who underwent a much milder form of alcohol withdrawal six months ago – not nearly so serious, obviously, but frightening nonetheless. (There’s nothing like cold sweats and muscle aches at four in the morning to make you feel like a real man.) Either way, her death was not a function of a healthy human being in the prime of her life, but more like the expected conclusion to a train barrelling towards a broken bridge. This was someone who wrote 5 years ago: “I tread a troubled track/my odds are stacked/I’ll go back to black.” Predicting that Amy Winehouse’s lifestyle was unsustainable was a bit like saying the Dodgers’ financial situation was precarious.

After Kurt Cobain killed himself, William Burroughs reflected that “As far as I was concerned, he was dead already.” Burroughs hallucinated his way through inaccessible metaphors to the ripe old age of 83, while Cobain childishly languished in a self-imposed drug haze for a couple of years and overdosed seemingly at will, because he wanted to “join the club.” It’s as if only in death could his life take on some kind of meaning – or maybe, more likely, he saw it as the ultimate prank to play on the world. Still, 28 and 26 don’t carry the same weight as 27. And thirty is old, not in a life-expectancy sense, but old in the sense of what it is to be young and what it is to be a rock star. Twenty’s cool and anything over fifty has its place for a whole different set of reasons (I’d pay to see Keith Richards in concert) but 30-50 is an awkward place to exist as a rockstar. Have you ever been to an Offspring show? It’s a bunch of middle-aged surfers lip-syncing songs about revolution. They’re not punks, they’re rich men from Malibu. In her public appearance at the Grammys a few years back, when Winehouse slurred her way through awkward thank yous before staggering off the stage, there was something pathetic in the actions but there was something honest in them, too. This wasn’t an auto-tuned diva created by a publicity machine; this was a pure heroin addict singing about her problems. And even as the shrill condemnations and side-of-the-mouth Courtney Love references rained down, it was in that moment that Amy Winehouse came into focus for me. A famous person who was real – even real fucked up – was compelling.

Amy Winehouse’s public image redefined, or brought back, heroin chic(k). With that messy hairdo and those bleary eyes, she looked like a white Ella Fitzgerald coming off a binge after putting on too much makeup. In a way, it was a female reconception of the Cobain slacker look, a kind of stylized, “I don’t give a fuck, it’s all about my personal demons,” that ultimately becomes a stylized self-parody in the clutches of the handlers of such famous people. I’m not saying Cobain and Winehouse weren’t drug-ruined messes, just that their publicists did their best to weave that messiness into a public image and make it seem less…upsetting. Less what it really was.

And that’s where the worlds intersect. Celebrity culture is about keeping issues under wraps. The way that baseball dealt with the steroid era isn’t all that dissimilar to the way that the United States is dealing with the debt crisis – let’s fix the tilted painting on the wall instead of dealing with the fire in the basement. Even in the 21st century, we are a culture of suppression, a culture in which it seems better to hide the elephant in the room than putting him on the front lawn. Drug addiction is a serious problem in the world, and glorifying the 27 Club does gloss over the fact that many addicts die before 30, famous or not. In a way, saying that great musicians die at 27 is like saying Dominican Republican shortstops go to America to escape the poverty. Many people go to America to escape the poverty, it’s just that the major leaguers are the ones who succeed. Most find life only slightly more bearable on the other side. America, after all, is a country that publicized a domestic war on drugs in the 1980s while still doing business with cartel-supported regimes.

Stylistically, Ellsbury to Winehouse is night and day. Ellsbury is clean-cut ballplayer personified. His personality, his struggle, is entirely manifested in the game itself. He’s simply a left-handed swinging stolen-base machine, who shows up in the same crew-cut and dirty pants from March through October. In a way, what made Manny Ramirez such an enigma during his career was his refusal to do the same. He never seemed to buy into the organized baseball system. He dressed – and lived – like a rock star. But the world of baseball is no different than the world of rock, ultimately; within everything lies the struggle to survive. And while I don’t know if I’ll ever reconcile the perfect world that baseball once laid out for me in her numerical organization with the life I later discovered – that network of shortcuts, failures and, ultimately, the fallible thing that life is – I can do my best to live with a dual respect for the thrill of fair competition and rock’s ethos of struggle. After all, there’s no ambiguity in numbers, but as we’ve so recently discovered, even Ichiro! is human.

A Song and a Sabbatical

Hi all, a quick note: I (Eric, if you didn’t read the byline atop this post) will be outside the country as of tomorrow and until mid-August. That means there will be no baseball and hence no baseball blogging in my life. But P&P is far larger than me.

Ted will hold things down this summer (he always does, really) with some fine guest contributors helping him out. Principle among those is Patrick DuBuque, the talented writer of The Playful Utopia, who you may know from his two previous posts here, or his new-ish role at Fangraphs’ NotGraphs blog.

Now that that’s over with: a song. During 90s 1B Week, Corban Goble wrote about the theme song to Major League Baseball Featuring Ken Grffey Jr on Nintendo 64. I played that game a lot, mostly at my cousins’ house. One of those cousins, Travis, is an awesome musician. He sampled the theme song in creating this:

 

Actually, Cliff Lee Did Sign With the Yankees

Exactly one year ago today, I wrote about the trade that brought Roy Halladay to Philadelphia. I argued that trading a franchise player is difficult but sometimes necessary; for a franchise to remain healthy, it must at times redefine itself in catastrophic ways. For Toronto, the Halladay trade was like a forest fire. It caused harm, but also cleared the way for rebirth. It would allow the ecosystem that surrounds the Blue Jays to evolve and regenerate.

But I was focusing on the wrong ecosystem. History has recently proven that I should have been thinking about the team that acquired Halladay, not the one that traded him. It was the Phillies all along. Their place in the enclosed world order of baseball –itself a sort of ecosystem, defined as much by fan and media perception as by success on the field of play* – has changed as much as any team’s in the last five years.

Somehow, the Phillies have become the Yankees. And not the current Yankees whom they just bested in the Lee sweepstakes either, but the Yankees of a decade ago who were not only loaded with homegrown talent, but seemed to operate in their own fantastical marketplace – unencumbered by competing interests, financial limitations, karma, and gravity.

Ted observed that the Philadelphia starting rotation is the kind you achieve in video game franchise modes after seasons of simulating and savvy maneuvering. This seems accurate. But to me what they most resemble is a rock supergroup. Whether or not the music sucks, they are sure to sell a million records.

For the Phillies, this amounts to a luxury. Say all four have bad years. Even at their worst, they are still four relatively good pitchers. If one gets hurt, the rotation is still among the best in baseball. And if the offense struggles for an extended period like it did last year, then at least there are the Traveling Philburies (couldn’t help myself) to fall back on.  With the return of Cliff Lee, the departure of Jayson Werth has been rendered trivial. The Phillies can play below expectations and suffer a rash of injuries but still win. This is what it means to be the new Yankees.

Still one can’t help but wonder how the quality of their coworkers will affect these four pitchers. God knows Kris Kristofferson didn’t do his best work with the Highwaymen. And great pitchers, like great songwriters, are lonesome figures. They thrive on the pressure of our expectations. What happens to the psychology of an ace – say Lee – when that burden is considerably lightened? Will he still be able to muster the same easy brilliance? Or will complacency be his downfall?

*For instance, despite a World Series victory, nobody is putting the Giants at the top of any baseball franchise food chain.

The Promised Land

A box set reissue of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ came out this week. It is my belief that music box sets are perhaps the biggest rip off in modern society.  The ‘Darkness’ set, called ‘The Promise,’ features 21 unreleased tracks and a documentary on the making of the album — one of my favorite albums ever — but I won’t be buying it.

Nonetheless the event merits discussion. Or, at the very least, ‘Darkness’  merits discussion for being a great rock record. Like any great record, it hits me in the guts. The music is forceful and soulful and all that. The lyrics are tight and evocative and detailed.

But what really makes ‘Darkness’ appealing to me is that I dig it on an intellectual level. I dig the process behind it. I dig that more than any other Boss records (at least the ones I know, I’m not an expert) ‘Darkness’ is emotionally focused. As a somewhat creative person — or at the very least a person interested in the process of creating — I dig that if you look closely, you can see the wheels turning behind the songs.

‘Darkness’ reminds me a lot of a great novel or film. Not because it’s particularly cinematic — ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Nebraska’ have it beat in that category, but because of the way it establishes a consistent voice, consistent themes, and then works enthusiastically and and with confidence within that space.

It’s a hard balance to strike. On one hand, you want to be ambitious. You want to say something important and dramatic and powerful. You want your songs or poems or short stories to be, like all ten tracks on ‘Darkness,’ universal declarations of hope and despair. But on the other hand, you don’t want to lose yourself in the mess. Because that emotion, if it comes from somewhere, comes from you. This for me is the artistic Promised Land. It’s what I strive for when I write fiction; it’s what we strive for on this blgo when we are feeling ambitious.

Anyway, if you want to spend more time thinking about ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ I point you to this NPR interview of Springsteen by the actor Ed Norton.  He talks a lot about the album: about the songs he leaves off, the mood he wanted to set, etc. etc. Comes highly recommended.

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

I saw the guy who used to be Bob Dylan on Saturday. He wore a white hat with a wide flat brim and a mariachi’s outfit and he smiled like the riddling Cheshire troubadour of the myths. We smiled too, eventually.

The guy who used to be Bob Dylan is still Bob Dylan. Only he can no longer sing. He growls and coughs and grumbles. Perhaps he can speak, but I can’t be sure of that. The only speaking he did on stage was to introduce his band, and even that was an affectation, a mumbled southern drawl.

This is not breaking news. In anticipation of his set, headlining the first night of Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot Festival, a dozen people warned me that Dylan’s voice is shot. But what I’d heard of his newer material made me think that even crippled, Dylan’s voice would still be recognizable; even smothered in gravel, it would still carry the insouciance and the wheezy essence of the 1960s or 70s or even 80s version. Needless to say it did not.

It took me until the second verse of my favorite Bob Dylan song, ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,’ to realize that he was playing it. This was partly due to the fact that like everything else on the set list, the song was rearranged as fuzzy country rock. (I actually enjoyed the arrangements; his band really brought it). But mostly it was due to the incomprehensible nature of the vocals. The cascading choruses of ‘Just Like A Woman’ were sung properly in what could have been protest by the audience, only to be repeated under the singer’s breath two beats later.

Like this, but more electric and less dulcet.

“It kind of reminded me of watching Ken Griffey Jr. play this year,” said my girlfriend after the show. And she was right. My emotions were similar to the ones I felt watching Griffey slink away from baseball this spring.

Edit:  I misinterpreted Janelle’s comments. What she said was that she could understand why people still cheered wildly for Dylan because she did the same thing for Ken Griffey Jr. this past year. Sorry for that, Janelle. The similarities — to me, at least — still stand. ~eric

Early in the set, I was uncomfortably surprised by what I heard. Then I became angry. Who was Bob Dylan to be this absurdly, comically terrible? Who was Bob Dylan to unwind his own myth in such an unglamorous setting? We weren’t at Newport or the Isle of Wight or in the West Village. We were in Seattle in 2010 in a rundown stadium underneath the Space Needle. This was no place for massive betrayal.

Eventually I came to terms. This was indeed Seattle 2010. This was 40 years later. I had no right to expect any more of Bob Dylan than he was able to give. He clearly still enjoyed performing. His guitar and keyboard and harmonica abilities were undiminished. If people are still willing to go see Bob Dylan, why should Bob Dylan stop? I should appreciate the glimpse I was lucky enough to get.

Athletic greatness and artistic greatness don’t diminish in the same way. Athletes are slowly surpassed in ability by younger and fitter teammates and opponents until one day they become a liability. Like Ken Griffey Jr. in 2010, the former star must eventually face the indignity of his ineptitude. Either he is no longer able to contribute to a team or he is beaten in individual competition. The end may come at different times for different men, but it always comes.

Not so for musicians. A star musician can play on until performance is physically or mentally impossible. Sometimes this means death. A star musician whose teammates are disappointed in him can simply hire new ones. His fate is dictated by the market and the market for nostalgia is always steady.

Bob Dylan can play the same familiar songs every night – even incomprehensibly. Ken Griffey Jr. cannot hit the same home runs.

Related: One More Cup of Coffee, a Bob Dylan/old veteran themed term in the Rogue’s Baseball Index.

The Monitor; The Heartbeat

Tuesday night, Titus Andronicus rocked the Vera Project in Seattle so hard they made me want to write something. The Vera Project is an all-ages, non-profit, no-booze venue. The handful of high school kids and baby boomer parents in the crowd only added to the rec-center vibe. But with Titus Andronicus every guitar solo is a statement. Every song is a declaration. It doesn’t matter where they play as long as somebody – anybody – is listening.

Most of the material came from their new album The Monitor. I wouldn’t call it a concept album in the Pete Townshend sense, but The Monitor is thematically steeped in the Civil War. Between songs, guest stars read passages from 19th century figures like Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman. The songs themselves can only be called epic. Absolutely, fucking, epic. And they sound even better live than on record. Screams and handclaps and violin solos and guitar breakdowns into the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

What does any of this have to do with baseball? Well, not much. The first song on The Monitor, and the first song Titus Andronicus played Tuesday night “A More Perfect Union…” includes a Newark Bears shout out. But the point of this isn’t baseball. It’s writing. The artists that I love the most are the ones who constantly seem to remind me that I’m alive, and that even when it sucks, it’s still something to be excited about. I think a philosopher said something along those lines. Art is a declaration of our humanity.


A More Perfect Union

Titus Andronicus | MySpace Music Videos

Wrecked and drunken rock anthems are not the only way to declare humanity– though I am certainly partial to bands that can pull those off. One of those bands is The Hold Steady, patrons of the badass guitar solo, the crowded lyric stanza, and the reaffirming whoah-whoah-whoah. It fits that at one point on The Monitor, The Hold Steady’s frontman Craig Finn voices Walt Whitman (and not just because both men are/were huge baseball fans). Whitman is probably the greatest declarer of humanity in history:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

It’s easy to write Whitman off as a kook, which he certainly was, especially when we take passages like that out of context. But the thing about Whitman is that you can feel his heartbeat pulsing through every line of poetry. The same goes for the songs of Titus Andronicus. The same goes for the sentences of James Joyce. The same goes for all the art I find affecting, whether visual or musical or literary.

The whole Pitchers & Poets project might not be art in the classical sense. We try to have fun. We don’t pour out emotion like Whitman or Titus Andronicus or even Josh Wilker. But we also strive to go beyond just writing about baseball. It goes back to what a blog is – not a form or a genre but a channel. If a band can sing songs in a Civil War motif and still say something urgent about life, there’s no reason we can’t write writings in a baseball motif and say something equally urgent.

We’re now in year two of Pitchers & Poets. For Ted and I, this has become more than a passing hobby. We are fully, 100 percent, invested. And now we have practice, we have an audience; we have a sense of urgency. We’re going to push it this year, even if that means going beyond baseball. I hope this season you can feel the heartbeats when you visit this website. That means in the posts, in the comments, and even in the podcasts. Let’s make something special.

Weekend Reading: Brooklyn, Brooklyn Take Me In

It’s September 11th. Those words mean so much more in New York City today. Here’s an apt new song by the Avett Brothers and some New York baseball reading.

  • Few people, if anybody, can write about baseball like Roger Angell. His easy, lyrical prose captures the joyful meaninglessness of the game so perfectly. Notice how he refers to a certain Yankee shortstop by his first name in this pleasant little New Yorker essay. It’s as if he is writing about his friends — he respects the ballplayers as humans, not as greater beings on a pedestal.
  • Todd Drew’s Lasting Yankee Stadium Memory entry on the Bronx Banter Blog has been selected by Leigh Montville as part of the newest edition of Best American Sports Writing. It’s only the second blog entry to be selected for the series, edited by friend of PnP Glenn Stout. Todd isn’t around to see it, but if you read the piece you’ll understand how deserving he is. As Bronx Banter’s Alex Belth put it  “To be included in this series–one that he adored to no end–would have knocked him on his ass.”
  • Jeff Pearlman has had it with the 2009 edition of the New York Mets. He even makes an unfortunate comparison to the awful Bobby Bonilla Mets of 1992. Pearlman writes:   “Although these 2009 Mets are not nearly as bad, humanity-wise, as the edition from 17 years ago, the season has been an even greater disaster.
  • And because much of north Jersey is practically a borough, I include this great story from the New York Times about the Newark Bears and their litany of veteran major leaguers waiting for — and not getting — that big September call up.  Keith Foulke. Armando Benitez. Jacque Jones. Carl Everett. The list goes on. (via East Windup Chronicle)

Catfish and the Centennial

As of today Pitchers & Poets has enough posts for somebody (like  VH1 or Pitchfork or  Time Magazine or the Modern Library Association) to create a definitive and Important list of the  Top 100 Pitchers & Poets posts. Indeed this very collection of words that you are reading right now is the blog’s 100th post. It’s very cool to write that, to reach that A-ball milestone, as I had very tempered expectations in terms of not just audience, but the quality and consistency of the content when i started this blog. Thanks to Ted for coming out of nowhere to simultaneously challenge me, spell me, and reign me in with his writing.  And thanks to you guys for reading, or at the very least pretending to.

Some species of Catfish can live to be over 100 years old.
Fact #1: Some species of Catfish can live to be over 100 years old.

Your reward is an update to the Baseball Mixtape. This one’s a cover of Bob Dylan’s classic bootleg Catfish. This version, performed by a Miami blues artist named Albert Castiglia, has a kind of heavier, soul-oozing vibe. Ted, who dug this up somehow, says there is a Dr. John-ness too it. I’ll agree with that and mention my first reaction: it puts me in a swampy southern minor league ballpark on a hot summer night. Enjoy.

Albert Castiglia- Catfish

Fact #2: It takes longer to read the first 100 pages of a James Michener novel (like Centennial!) than it does to write 100 essays about baseball.
Fact #2: It takes longer to read the first 100 pages of a James Michener novel (like Centennial!) than it does to write 100 essays about baseball.
Some species of Catfish can live to be over 100 years old.
 

The Devil and David Eckstein: An Improbable Journey Through the Improbably Cool, Starting with Harry and the Potters

A simple request: I am starting in a random spot, but I will, I promise, bring it back around to pitchers. Consider the first few graphs the poet portion of the program.

A few weeks ago I watched “We Are Wizards” on Hulu. The featured slate of eccentric enthusiasts for J.K. Rowling’s work was, yes, at times a little unsettling. But tucked between the eccentrics was a band that I’ve become mildly obsessed with in the ensuing weeks: Harry and the Potters. If you’re already gearing up to make fun of me for listening to a band whose content is founded on and limited to the plotlines and emotional content of children’s literature, and plays libraries to hordes of eleven-year-olds, I assure you that my wife has already beat you to it. Social acceptance aside, though, you might find as I did with a listen that the spare punchy rock of Harry and the Potters is uncommonly sincere and raw. The hooks hook. You could play it at a party, and if you didn’t tell your guests that it was Wizard Rock, they’d like it.

Harry and the Potters, image from racketmag.com
Harry and the Potters, image from racketmag.com

I am, in my defense, as surprised about my new favorite band as you are. I’m not a massive Harry Potter enthusiast, though I like the movies. I’ve read one and a half of the books. I didn’t fire up the Hulu flick to find a new band. I expected, at best, to see a few goofballs in wizard costumes (mission accomplished). But watching Harry and the Potters–two brothers who wear striped Hogwarts ties and V-neck sweaters–I was taken by their energy, their enthusiasm. It’s rare I think to find a band with so little production and even musicianship that nonetheless just brings it, wailing and ripping for two and a half minutes. There’s even a subversive element to a punk band with such deeply uncool songs in the era of skinny jeans and hipsters and architectural hair and the ever aloof uber-cool. Paul and Joe DeGeorge are not cool. They both look like Harry Potter.

The question I asked myself while I was walking my dog yesterday was, why? Why do I like this band so much? Am I mentally unstable, hoping for an eternal childhood that can never be? Am I just another Peter Panish Michael Jackson, and should I cancel the portrait that I’ve custom-ordered, portraying myself playing volleyball with Professor Snape? Then it hit me. Harry and the Potters sound like and tremble with the same vibe of the mesmerizing folk-rock antihero, Daniel Johnston. I learned about Daniel Johnston via another documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. He’s got some mental health issues, and he began making music in his parents’ basement with a chord organ. In his early recordings, his warbling, at times tender and at times desperate, dances over the pumping air of the organ. If you’re hung up on juvenile lyrics, I’ll ask you to consider Johnston’s plaintive “Casper the Friendly Ghost.”

Johnston is rough around the edges, but his music is rooted in an undeniable earnestness, that shimmering relic of childhood. Pretense is a membrane of complication laid over the bare facts of life, the pursuit of happiness. Music without pretense recalls the dry, cool ground. Daniel Johnston plays the guitar not like a practiced virtuoso, but like a kid who just found a dusty guitar in the basement. Same goes for Harry and the Potters.

Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston

This is a roundabout exploration of why certain things appeal to me, however unlikely, and why anything appeals to anybody. Harry and the Potters are unlikely. Daniel Johnston is unlikely. But I listen to them both and feel the ground’s heart beat.

I am now going to do something about as annoying as recounting Harry Potter plot points: I will bring up David Eckstein. No baseball player in the last five years has been as equally anointed as he has been reviled, and I’ll assume that most of you PnP readers are up-to-scratch on that whole Fire Joe Morgan line. But I would like, for a moment, to request a momentary reprieve from that long debate, and ask that you think back to a time when a slight smile warmed your features when you first heard his story; before you learned to despise him, and if not him, then his unbidden acolytes.

Isn’t there, in the story of this walk-on, this undersized guy with a terrible arm, that echoes the improbability of Harry and the Potters and of Daniel Johnston? Eckstein’s style was built from necessity in the same way that Johnston developed his raggedy chord organ romping, engaging because it is as far as he can go, but he gets there. Doesn’t David’s very presence at the major league level remark on life’s unpredictability, on the grace of altered expectations? I think it does, but maybe that puts me in league with those who would value the story over the statistics, and those who claim that there is more value in a stirring tale than there is in the subject of that tale’s slugging percentage. Maybe I’m just that romantic, and should be slapped across the face with the latest Baseball Prospectus.

David Eckstein waves his magic wand

David Eckstein waves his magic wand

But being a fan is about being a romantic, after all. Winning–that most prized attribute, more important than any bard’s tale–is a romantic notion; it’s a hope for the future’s euphoria–the climactic soaring chords of a great song–when the last out goes into the books and the dark cloud of loss is lifted; winning is hero-making. A child reads a Harry Potter book straight through in a day with that same sort of hope, that same clammy grip on the binding with which the baseball fan holds the bar top or the nosebleed arm rest. So tread lightly, is all I’m saying, when counting and discounting. We all want to be cool, and some of us are (subscribing to Pitchers and Poets via RSS grants you an automatic five badass points, BTW). In my humble experience, the coolest breezes blow from the most improbable ducts.

Harry and the Potters on MySpace
Rolling Stone’s Rock & Roll Daily Pick of the Day, September 28, 2006: Save Ginny Weasley by Harry and the Potters
Daniel Johnston on MySpace
– For more raw tunes, Eric suggests The Black Lips and Titus Andronicus.

Baseball Mixtape: Kenesaw Mountain Landis

Words to win my heart: Kenesaw Mountain Landis was a bad motherfucker.

So begins this Dylan-esque tune by Jonathan Coulton, geek-folk troubadour. The lyrics weave their way from old Kenesaw himself, to Shoeless Joe Jackson, to the singer Joe Jackson — oft mistaken for Elvis Costello — of Is She Really Going Out With Him fame.

Thanks to Ted for the suggestion and the cool new Turntable logo.

Jonathan Coulton – Kenesaw Mountain Landis

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