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That Night a Mouth Roared and a Light Went Out

 

Like many others that fateful night 37 years ago, Dec. 8, 1980, I learned of John Lennon’s death from Howard Cosell. Yeah, that Howard Cosell. It was Monday night, the Patriots were in Miami, and, in 1980, Howard was still presiding — in his inimitably pedantic, overly dramatic fashion — over Monday Night Football, what in the pre-cable era was the week’s premier sports broadcasting event. Howard was respectful of the news, as respectful as his bombastic persona would allow: He treated it as he would a punt returner who has broken clear of the pack with only the kicker to beat. See that bizarre media moment, preserved for all time, here. ESPN would later weigh in with a meta-media doc, here.

My dad and I always watched MNF and we were stunned, naturally. It was legitimately stunning news delivered by a most unlikely source, in a peculiar context. The Pats’ left-footed, English place kicker — John Smith (from Leafield, Oxfordshire) — was lining up a field goal attempt when Cosell abruptly altered the narrative. The only thing that would’ve made it more bizarre? If Smith had hailed from Blackburn, Lancashire.

We called my mother into the room. She was the founding and still chief Beatles lover in our family, and John was clearly her favorite. She was 41 in 1980, essentially the same age as John Lennon. She had latched onto them from the start; indeed, my dad had teased her for digging a band whose enthusiasts were, at that stage, mainly 13- and 14-year-old girls. But my mom possesses a keen musical sensibility and her early support for their chops were more than justified in the years to come… She teared up listening to Cosell bloviate then left the room.

Not sure why, but the holiday period tends to include a lot of Beatles content on PBS. Just last week I saw that Ron Howard’s “Eight Days a Week” was featured, along with something called “Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution”, as part of a fundraiser. All these years later, the Beatles are considered subject matter for the whole family, apparently. If you should get the chance, make time this month to watch the superb documentary “LENNONYC”, about his post-Beatles years in New York City (I saw it on PBS, but today you can catch it online, here). It was an eventful decade that followed hard on the band’s break-up, in 1970. For Lennon it featured a gaggle of outsized characters and spanned a remarkable procession of music-making, protesting, drug-taking, deportation-resisting, legal wrangling, breaking up, getting back together, child-rearing and, ultimately, growing up. That was the message one took away at film’s close: Here was a guy who had finally shed the latent adolescence of rock stardom and become a man, in his own right, only to be killed by a psychopath at the exact moment that maturity was to be revealed — his gorgeous new album, “Double Fantasy”, was released on Nov. 17, 1980). I don’t know that it gets much sadder than that.

Right-Wing Media Mantra: I’m Not OK, You’re Not OK

Since the early 1990s, when Newt Gingrich and his para-parliamentary faction initiated its take-over of the Republican Party, I’ve struggled to describe (or identify a lucid framework to help me articulate) what sort of pathology had infected the GOP, its rhetoric, and its attitude toward the liberal left, the nation’s media, and our government itself.

With help from the Washington Post, I think I’ve finally stumbled upon the words to describe this larger framework: I’m Not OK — You’re Not OK.

Refugees from the 1970s will perhaps recognize this reference to Thomas Harris’ 1969 pop-psychology treatise, “I’m Ok — You’re Ok”, whose title refers to an optimal state of human relations, one that most of us do indeed strive day to day to achieve. “Treat they neighbor as thyself” predates Harris’ coinage, but they go together: One cannot treat his/her neighbor well if one doesn’t have a decent, ultimately edifying sense of self-worth.

There are two more middling, less healthy states that Harris used to describe people suffering from undue superiority (I’m OK — You’re Not OK), and undue inferiority (I’m Not OK — You’re OK).

It is the fourth state, I’m Not OK — You’re Not OK, that is generally reserved for inveterate grumps and outright sociopaths. Let me describe why this phrase so cogently describes today’s GOP and the media apparatus that support it.

You’ve probably heard tell of the recent failed frame-up of the Washington Post, whereby a right-wing “media watchdog” group called (ironically) Project Veritas was caught red-handed trying to feed the newspaper a false story re. Alabama candidate for U.S. Senate, Roy Moore. The intent of these dirty tricksters at Project Veritas (PV) seems pretty clear and undisputed: WaPo — which has led the reporting on Moore’s sordid, cradle-robbing past — knowingly publishes the fake story; Project Veritas calls out the paper for its lack of reporting acumen borne of liberal bias; WaPo is then discredited, in the narrow context of any further reporting on the Alabama U.S. Senate race, but also in the broader context of all its political reporting.

The whole thing backfired, of course; WaPo’s reporting process (a fact-based process) proved to be anything but the partisan exercise PV would like to have alleged.

But PV’s strategic thinking here is yet another example of a longstanding dynamic — one where right-wingers just assume left-wingers operate as mendaciously as they do, as utter movement soldiers. This attempt at equivalence doesn’t wash, has never washed, as the WaPo example and hundreds more would capably illustrate. But the underlying rationale behind this behavior and attitude from the right, this I’m Not OK — You’re Not OK sociopathy, has nevertheless informed right-wing charges of left-wing media bias for 30 years. It stems from this basic tenet, held on the right: Some right winger in a position to tilt media coverage (to favor or otherwise advance the right) surely will do so — in large part because he/she alleges counterpart, left-leaning media types are operating on the same mendacious level.

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The Most Productive Response to World Cup Failure? Choose and Support an MLS Club

Who is best equipped to cope with U.S. Soccer’s elimination from the 2018 World Cup? Seattle Sounders fans…

Instead of asking where U.S. Soccer goes from here, let’s take a bit of time to first understand where we are, and why.

Dropping the Oct. 10 match to Trinidad & Tobago and missing out on the Russian World Cup this summer do not change America’s standing in the soccer world.

In the grand scheme of things, we are still operating in the “modern” era of American soccer, thanks to a generation of now-50something players who, almost exactly 28 years earlier (on the same Caribbean island), qualified their country (one that had operated for 40 years as an irrelevant footballing nation) for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. From that moment forward, the U.S. graduated into the company of proper footballing nations, i.e. those that qualify for World Cup finals with regularity and harbor reasonable expectations of advancing out of the group stage. Here’s the proof of this evolution: 1990 marked the first of seven straight World Cup appearances for the U.S., four of which ended in the knockout stage.

To argue that missing the 2018 World Cup “shows everything is wrong with the United States doesn’t follow,” Stephan Szymanski told The New York Times this week. Symanski, co-author of the wondrous book, Soccernomics, is among the keenest soccer observers on the planet. “This doesn’t prove that. Stuff happens. It’s the nature of the game and not necessarily surprising to see the U.S. knocked out. This is what being a soccer fan is like. You’re prone to the extreme event all the time. There’s no royal road, unless you’re Brazil or Germany.”

We’ll unpack this more thoroughly below, but this understanding of world football viability is really important for U.S. fans to get their heads around in wake of this week’s admittedly gut-wrenching events. Not going to Russia truly sucks, on multiple levels, and while it may well prove a “teachable moment” for the U.S. soccer establishment, we are obliged to remain clear-eyed about how international football works and exactly why this failure to qualify (for the first time since 1986) truly IS such a pivotal moment. Because it’s not what you may think.

As I’ve written before, international football is hard. Failures like Tuesday’s happen each and every World Cup (and European Championship) cycle, to perfectly capable footballing nations. England missed the WC in 1974 (just 8 years after winning the whole ball of wax), then again in 1978 and 1994. The Netherlands just crashed out of Russia 2018 qualifying — the second straight major-tournament qualification failure for one of the world’s traditional powers. Chile, runners-up at last summer’s Confederations Cup and one of the game’s most entertaining sides, failed to qualify for Russia, too. So did mighty Italy, qualifiers for every WC finals since 1958.

Every four years, at least one really good European team and one strong South American side don’t qualify for the World Cup. In England, Holland and now Chile & Italy, these failures either have led to or will lead to real soul-searching re. team coaching, talent identification/development, and national team administration. This is the introspective process American soccer is wrestling with now.

But if history is any guide, this introspection will come to nothing.

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Professor Nat Greene: Come on Down!

The inimitable Bob Barker, flanked by “Price is Right” eye candy Janice Pennington (left) and Anitra Ford.

As yours probably does, my alma mater hits me all too frequently with some manner of e-newsletter cum fund-raising communiqué. One can hardly escape the memories stirred/jarred by all this WesContact, which is surely the way they want it. In any case, a recent MailChimp morsel revealed, among other things, that three Wesleyan faculty had received The Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. While this particular tidbit proved interesting enough to peruse, I’m only now addressing the nostalgia it prompted — immersed as I am, third party, in the college experience of both my kids.

The first thing to say is that my cohort and I attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., alongside an actual Binswanger — Benjamin Pennypacker Binswanger to be exact. Never knew him but my housemates and I made note of his titanically pretentious name the first week of school freshman year and never forgot it — never tired of mocking it, either. Always wondered if he was related to Princeton’s Jay Binswanger, winner of the first Heisman Trophy…

Wesleyan Professor Nat Greene

More to the point, Nat Greene was one of these recent Binswanger honorees. I took a couple classes with him at Wes, but the first was a survey of European history 1815-1945, and I remember it best because it was the only one I ever took with my housemate Dennis Carboni, an art history major whose course load never again overlapped with mine (classical history/modern American lit).

Greene didn’t necessarily tilt the material toward “social” history, an approach then sweeping uber-liberal bastions like Wesleyan. His hewed more to the traditional “Great Men, Great Events” approach. I remember the syllabus included a book of his own scholarship, “From Versailles to Vichy: The Third French Republic, 1919–1940”, which a) struck me at the time as being pretty awesome, that this guy was teaching from his own work; and b) still resides in a bookcase somewhere here in my house, for reasons completely bewildering to my wife. An entertaining lecturer and no-nonsense grader of essays (all testing was conducted via manic, long-hand scribbling in those little blue booklets), Greene was a fine professor — the sort I hope Silas and Clara will experience at some point in their academic careers.

But here’s what I remember most from my class with Nat Greene: It ran from 10 to 10:50 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings in the old PAC building (a few steps from the manhole where we plunged down into Wesleyan’s famous tunnel system, the subject of another remembrance perhaps). If Dennis and I didn’t dawdle after class, we could race home to my off-campus apartment and catch The Price Is Right at 11 a.m.

Yes, The Price Is Right. It became a sort of ironic obsession for me but something more than that for Dennis, as many things did. It gave me great pleasure to watch him obsessively game this once-seminal game show.

I’m not sure that college kids go in for this sort of thing today, awash as they are in video content and on-demand entertainment delivery choices. However, during the early 1980s, TV was a sort of novel diversion for college kids. We had grown up with it, of course, but had virtually no access to it at school. And so, great delight was taken in the ironic devotion to retrograde programming like soap operas in dorm lounges and late-night reruns of shows like the Rockford Files and Star Trek — things we would never bother watching when home with our families. My sophomore year, my housemate and I came by a tiny black-and-white TV that I’m pretty sure we carried with us the next three years, to three different houses, deploying along the way a staggering array of make-shift aerials including one that involved a pumpkin wrapped in tin foil.

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Published Letters and Iberian Slang

A bit of housecleaning here at halphillips.net: First, I coined a useful, new word a while back. See below and feel free to deploy as part of your common parlance going forward:

Smoor n. archaic, 13th century Iberian slang for a mixed-race resident of Andalusia during the Muslim occupation of what is now modern Spain; one of mixed parentage with chocolate-, graham cracker-, or, less frequently, golden marshmallow-colored skin; one who stands to be roasted over an open fire for this crime of miscegenation.

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Next, I had a couple letters to the editor printed this spring in the Portland Press-Herald, not technically my “local” paper (those have folded) but published only 20 miles south and still the largest daily in Maine. See below, and if you want to check out the comments, visit here (you’ll find a pretty typical right-left troll exchange therein).

To the editor:

In this day and age of reckless, willfully obtuse, anti-government bloviation, it’s important to be clear about how/why government functions as it does, why it’s rarely “perfect”, but why it is nevertheless worth defending and maintaining. Today’s case in point: Kevin Miller’s April 25 story re. L.D. 1379, which would allow the Dept. of Marine Resources to more actively police (via GPS) disputed fishing boundaries. I’m no lobsterman. I’ve no dog in this fight. But here we clearly have an industry that cannot or will not police itself in civil fashion. All parties agree that escalation, even violence will ensue if nothing is done. Like so many prickly deals in a country of 330 million people, responsibility for any potential solution falls to government.

This scenario is typical. Government action is by nature reactive. It works slowly. It can be unwieldy. But when there’s a problem — when human nature and/or the “unerring” profit motive fail to address (or utterly pervert) that problem — it is the authority of last resort. That’s the story with L.D. 1379, and it’s the story behind 90 percent of the regulatory measures on the books today. Right-wingers are convinced that bureaucrats sit in rooms all day wondering how they can extend their unelected influence over this business sector or that public domain. That’s just not how it works. Observe the gestation of L.D. 1379. That’s how it works.

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Bowie’s Impact, Departure Still Sinking In

Bowie’s Impact, Departure Still Sinking In

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As was the case with many artists of the 1970s, David Bowie was introduced to me via my older sister. Janet brought home Hunky Dory at some point late in the Nixon Administration and when she wasn’t playing it to death, I played it to death. In truth I hardly ever bothered with Side 2 because that’s how my primitive musical mind operated at the time. Side 1 had everything I thought I needed: the radio song, “Changes”; a screamer that Janet and I used to goof on together during car trips (“Oh, You Pretty Things”); and my favorite track, the always haunting and beautiful “Life on Mars”. Once I got to college and lived in close quarters with a more fully developed Bowie enthusiast/savant, Dennis Carboni, I would learn that Side 2 wasn’t just superb (“Song for Bob Dylan”, “Andy Warhol”) but indicative of Bowie’s new genre-busting album and persona to come.

[I wouldn’t dream of posting anything regarding Bowie without Dennis’ input. His annotative comments appear below, bolded and bracketed.]

It’s been more than a year since Dennis and I spoke of this and many other things the Tuesday following Bowie’s death, in January 2016. He confirmed what I remember us discussing all those years ago, in the wee hours, confined only by the sterile cinderblock walls of dorm life — namely, that Bowie wasn’t just consistently 2-3 years ahead of every other rock ‘n’ roll artist in terms of musical direction and fashion sense; he normally hinted at his next departure on the back end (Side 2) of his previous album.

[I like how you wrote, “Dennis and I spoke of this and many other things,” which recalls the lyric, We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when — from “The Man Who Sold The World.”]

On the generally ethereal Hunky Dory, that clue was the propulsive and utterly sublime “Queen Bitch”, which heralded the coming of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, one of the great, pure rock (and proto-punk) albums of the decade. To say that Ziggy himself was one of the great “roles” played by any rocker of the period is not necessary, for no one else even attempted this sort of serial shape-shifting back then. Bowie turned this trick 4-5 times throughout the decade (hippie folkster to Ziggy to glam rocker to blue-eyed soul man to Thin White Duke) and competed in this regard only with himself.

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Bowie’s career didn’t begin with Space Oddity in 1969. He’d been around since 1965, when this shot was taken. Pretty mainstream, for the time, and a reminder that these icons we associate with a particular decade didn’t arrive fully formed from the brow of Zeus.

[I’ve been reading the blog, “Pushing Ahead of the Dame.” You may know it, but check it out if you don’t. It’s fascinating. Yes, “Queen Bitch” is perfect because it starts with the acoustic guitar C-G-F progression à la Hunky Dory, then switches right to an electric C-G-F à la Ziggy.]

My sister didn’t own the Ziggy album; indeed, while I knew several cuts well (from FM radio play) I wouldn’t fully absorb it until the early 1980s. She did, however, possess one more Bowie LP: David Live, Bowie’s first official concert release where, once again, he shows us a transition in the making: from the hard-edged glam of Diamond Dogs to the Philly soul sound of Young Americans. I am not ashamed to admit that I love this particular Bowie period, this dalliance in what he later, somewhat ambivalently referred to as “plastic soul”. It does shame me to admit, however, that until I was 12-13 years old, I thought this dude’s name was David Live.

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Recapturing the ’75 World Series, via iPhone

Recapturing the ’75 World Series, via iPhone

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Nothing sums up the prevailing zeitgeist better than the online recap, whereby otherwise respectable writers, toiling for otherwise respectable media outlets, review individual episodes from the various series comprising our so-called Golden Age of Premium Television. It’s not that acolytes of Game of Thrones, The Good Wife, Homeland, Better Call Saul or House of Cards ever “miss” an episode. On-demand viewing makes that well nigh impossible. No, these morning-after recaps treat TV shows more like marquee sporting events; they exist so that we might wallow again in their drama, better drink in their plot twists, indulge anew in idle plot speculation, and ultimately rehash it all with likeminded folks in the comments section.

Quite by accident and irrespective of the retrospective TV trend, it occurred to me last week that YouTube might well harbor clips, if not entire game films, of the 1975 World Series — contested 42 years ago this month. As the 2017 Red Sox have quickly faded into irrelevance (and the once-proud pitching staffs of both the Astros and Dodgers continue to implode), my mind drifts back to Luis Tiant and the magnificent Game 4 he pitched in Cincinnati to level this epic Series.

The 21st century is a remarkable thing: Game 4 was indeed right there on YouTube, in its entirety (commercials completely excised). I watched it on my iPhone and, over the course of three days, allowed a veritable cloudburst of memories to wash over me like a warm, amniotic shower. This led to YouTube-aided consumption of Games 2 and 3, in that order, as these, I reasoned, were the chapters in this remarkable 7-game saga that I remembered least of all.

What follows is my recap of this 3-game series within a World Series, one of the greats, which I first watched 42 years ago as an 11-year-old, staying up later than I ever had before, in a suburban living room some 13 miles southwest of Fenway Park.

 

Game 4, Riverfront Stadium, Oct. 15, 1975: Red Sox 5, Reds 4

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El Tiante was already a Boston legend before he took the mound in Game 4. After doing his best to thwart Sox hopes in 1967, for Cleveland (one of four teams with legitimate pennant hopes that final weekend of the season), he had come over in 1971 and immediately won our hearts. No one knew how old this amiable Cuban really was; I suppose we still don’t know. He was a bit dumpy and could be clownish, though a lot of that was surely ESL-based. But he won and he did it with singular style — 18 games in 1975, despite some back issues. He shut the Reds out in Game 1 at Fenway and, after his virtuoso performance in Game 4 at Riverfront, his place in the Boston Sports Pantheon was utterly secure.

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Brits Abroad on Holiday: A Partying Force Most Willful

Brits Abroad on Holiday: A Partying Force Most Willful

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Having weighed in, soberly and professionally, on the “air rage” phenomenon — at the somewhat newly minted Mandarin Media blog — I couldn’t leave the subject without relating the more salacious story of my first trip to the French Alps. It wasn’t exactly an instance of “air rage”, but it well illustrates the peculiar holidaymaking mindset, among some Brits, that can and has led to many an airborne incident. In short (I love quoting myself), “There is something to the idea, born of armchair psychology, that Brits cut loose on holiday in reaction to leaving what remains a very buttoned-up, class-restrictive culture.”

It was March 1985. My girlfriend and I were studying abroad, in London, and we’d booked a chartered ski package to La Plagne, in France, for mid-semester break. Our flight from Gatwick to Geneva, almost entirely peopled by English holidaymakers, quickly degenerated into a sort of raucous booze cruise at 30,000 feet. Everyone, it seemed, had broken open the bottles just procured at duty free.

Normally, such characters scatter to the four winds upon landing, but this was a charter. We had all purchased the same ski package. Accordingly, the same rowdy group piled onto a single coach and set out for La Plagne — in a blizzard.

By this time, my girlfriend and I had traveled a great deal together. This much was clear: If she wasn’t seated directly behind the bus driver, she was dangerously prone to car sickness. So, from the very front of the coach, we could hear the party raging behind us, as we crept our way along ever more windy, mountainous roads. This was a non-smoking bus; the Brits defiantly smoked like chimneys and brandished their duty-free liquor bottles like groomsmen at a stag party. Then came the songs.

The unfortunate leader of this charter was a mild-mannered American 22-year-old named Chad. His attempts to tamp things down were met with open ridicule. He was a tad chubby, our Chad. Ultimately, he was regaled with a spirited rendition of “Who ate all the pies?”

From our perch behind the driver, we witnessed the trip’s dramatic turning point: An oncoming Citroen spun out in the snowy conditions and crossed into our lane. The bus driver tried evasive action but these were shoulder-less roads — and it was snowing like a bastard. The car bounced off the driver’s side of the bus, right below us, and we skidded to a stop — literally perched, precariously, at the edge of a steep, snowy hillside.

We sat there for half an hour, crowded onto the left side of the bus (to avoid tipping the bus and our still soused party into oblivion) until a replacement vehicle arrived. When it did, we all exited out the driver-side window.

This replacement bus was not big enough to accommodate all of our luggage, so the entire party was deposited at a nearby train station, which served some small French mountain town whose name I cannot recall. The station had a bar, however, and our new British friends set about drinking again, as if nothing had happened. To be fair, so did we. Having cheated death, we tucked into a couple bottles of wine with two more American friends who were traveling with us.

Two hours later, we piled onto the second replacement bus, where our moveable booze-fest was now completely out of hand. Chad just hunkered down beside us; this party could not be stopped — or could it…

The up-and-down, side-to-side nature of our alpine journey would result in two initial incidents of vomiting. Each time the bus ascended and descended, the resulting spew sloshed back and forth along the bus floor. The stench had just the wrong sort of effect on others who teetered at the edge of nausea.

Upon arrival in La Plagne, I don’t believe I’ve ever been quite so thankful to disembark from anything. Rule Brittania!

Silver Tribute Ends 23 Years of Jazz-Search Futility

Silver Tribute Ends 23 Years of Jazz-Search Futility

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Played the Peace Fair on Brunswick green Saturday. Our mando player Ben’s mother, a German war bride and longtime social justice activist, administers this event, which annually draws a healthy cross-section of southern Maine’s aged hippie population. This year, for these unreconstructed lefties, we performed a Pete Seeger tribute/sing-along. The crowd was big (for a peace fair, in August) and the weather held off. But the big deal came before I had played a note. Ben’s brother Matt, a gifted pianist, was up for the event and brought along a fellow Nutmegger  on sax. They started our set (we followed a five piece that featured two steel drums) with a four-piece tribute to the recently departed Horace Silver (above), a jazz name I sorta knew but not really. The song they chose, appropriately, was “Peace”, and it transported me.

In the early 1990s, I was news editor at a couple of daily newspapers in Massachusetts. The life was somewhat nocturnal: I’d arrive a 5 p.m., put the paper on the press at 2 a.m., and go home — unless the paper crowd had gathered for very late-night revelry. Even a ridiculous schedule like this can become routine: I’d arrive in the newsroom and flip on NPR out of WGBH in Boston. The first two hours of the work “day” were a mix of gay banter, serious story planning, photo assessment (from what had been shot that day), and assignment (to be shot that night) and front page/section layout. All this took place with All Things Considered as soundtrack.

At 7 p.m., things got more down to business. Reporters were headed off to meetings or coming back from accidents/crime scenes/sporting events to begin filing stories — stories that I would read/edit before sending the final layout to the paste-up/press operation a few towns over.

But nothing serious got done, not at my desk anyway, until 7:04. WGBH aired a jazz program starting each night at 7 called “Eric in the Evening”. The show theme was this beautiful piece of jazz that dripped from the radio each night, by itself, at exactly 7 p.m. The routine of its play provided the perfect respite and regathering moment before the radio got turned off and we all transitioned to the mania of another night on deadline.

I’m not a huge jazz guy. I like a massive cross-section of the genre, though when I pin myself down, I can see how the influence of Charlie Brown and Vince Guaraldi shaped this particular aspect of my musical taste. Dave Brubeck. Bill Evans. That’s the stuff I’m drawn to apparently: white guys from the late ‘50s and early 60s. Very uncool, I’m afraid. Just the way it is.

I left the Marlboro Enterprise and Hudson Daily Sun in 1992. I never did get the name of that theme music to “Eric in the Evening”. Every couple years it would jump into my brain — not because I’d heard it, but because I’d remember just how resonant and important it was to me, at one time. I googled “Eric in the Evening theme” one time, with no luck. Eric Jackson still does a jazz show on WGBH radio, but it seems he’s gone off the regular-theme thing and just excerpts bits from that night’s guest or spotlight artist.

Well, that Silver piece, “Peace”, is in fact Eric’s old theme. I knew it the moment I heard it on Saturday, by the start of the second bar.

Here’s is Silver’s original version, from 1959 (right in my wheelhouse; I should have been cast in the movie, “Diner”, as I dig that period couture, as well). Sadly, after scouring iTunes and youtube.com, I have determined this is not the arrangement Eric deployed back in the early ‘90s. That was a more saucy, piano-centric and sax-featuring recording. And so the search continues, but at least I know the name of the fucking song. Only took me 23 years.

 

Of Hillsborough, Heysel & Stamford Bridge: Backstories amplify documentary of tragedy

Of Hillsborough, Heysel & Stamford Bridge: Backstories amplify documentary of tragedy

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[This post was excerpted and adapted from the author’s current book project, “Generation Zero: The 1990 World Cup Team and the Making of Soccer in America”.]

In joining the wide chorus of praise for director Daniel Gordon’s superb “30 for 30” documentary on the Hillsborough soccer disaster, we should be reminded of two things: First, the state of British football fandom in the mid- to late-1980s was legitimately menacing and pervasive; and second, the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster (where 39 died in a similar crush of humanity) should hang over the Hillsborough proceedings with a pall all its own.

That Gordon never found space in his film for Heysel, nor Britain’s genuine cultural worry over hooliganism (and Liverpool’s connection thereto) is somewhat startling.

Gordon was clearly at pains to accentuate the unfair and, some would argue, criminal treatment that Liverpool fans received in the wake of Hillsborough. It’s a fair and important point, and the facts here have been too long obscured. However, the context Gordon seeks — namely, that Liverpool’s reputation for hooligan behavior contributed to the way the disaster was investigated — cannot be summoned without a discussion of Heysel, which colored everything that came afterward and certainly fixed uncomfortable attention on a club (and fan base) that played central roles in both tragedies.

Liverpool FC was indeed front and center on May 29, 1985, when the Reds met Juventus of Turin in the European Cup Final (forebear to today’s Champions League Final). Thirty-nine fans (predominantly Italian) perished that night in Brussels, where Liverpool fans stormed a purportedly neutral area inside the gates but outside the stadium itself. Juventus fans fled from the threat, into the stadium, toward a concrete retaining wall. Fans already seated there were crushed by the onslaught of humanity — then the wall collapsed.

Unlike the Hillsborough narrative, very little of the above account is disputed, by Liverpool supporters or anyone else. Six hundred more were injured at Heysel that night and, as a result, English clubs were banned from all European competitions for five years (Liverpool was banned for 10, but was allowed back after 7 years served).

Gordon makes the important point that, rightly or wrongly, the fear of untoward supporter behavior tragically influenced police actions before, during and after the tragic 1989 FA Cup semifinal. The presumption that drunken fan violence had played a role ultimately moved the English Football Association (FA) to an appalling continuum of cynical posturing. That same presumption influenced media coverage of the event for years to come.

As such, it’s vital to understand the climate in which that semifinal, and so many other matches were routinely played during this period.

The police, the FA and the media behaved abominably post-Hillsborough. Full stop.

However, they were not behaving in a vacuum. The mid- to late-1980s were rife with soccer hooliganism. Serious alcohol consumption routinely played a role.

And yet Gordon touches on this broader cultural phenomenon very little.

Hey, it’s a big subject — probably too big to address fully/fairly in a 120-minute documentary on Hillsborough. But again, methinks Gordon soft-pedaled it because undo context here would tend to explain, if not justify, the behavior/presumptions of police, the FA and media in relation to Hillsborough.

Gordon does make it clear that police, the FA and England’s tabloid culture took this fear of hooliganism — born of Heysel and myriad other incidents involving dozens of clubs — and manipulated it in disgraceful fashion. However, menacing fan behavior was no figment of the FA’s nor Rupert Murdoch’s imagination.

It was all too real and totally out of control in many cases, as I witnessed first hand.

•••

It can be argued that the spring of 1985 represented the nadir of British football hooliganism, as Heysel had not yet gone down and English supporters still traveled to away grounds, foreign and domestic, with impunity. As it happened, this low point coincided with the semester I spent at the University of London, on loan, as it were, from my American college. I traveled all over the city that winter and spring, taking in a dozen matches at three separate grounds.

My maiden voyage, however, would prove the ultimate eye-opener.

I had two English roommates at the Westfield College, University of London; both were rugby fans and sarcastically dismissed football as a meaningless diversion for working class oiks. Accordingly, when Barry — a fellow American and Sheffield Wednesday fan (thanks to several summers spent in South Yorkshire with his cousins) — suggested we and I take in the Chelsea-Wednesday match one early February night at Stamford Bridge, I didn’t even mention it to my roommates. Off Barry and I went.

The word “hooligan” has always been loaded with questionable motivation, but there is no doubt that English soccer in the mid-1980s was then developing, in earnest, its notorious reputation for what has since become known, in a blanket fashion, as “hooliganism”, whereby traveling supporters of certain clubs would clash with home-standing counterparts before, during and after matches in miniature manifestations of England’s particular brand of xenophobia. People always harp upon English hatred of the French, and they do hate them (who wouldn’t). But in truth, the English aren’t particularly fond of anyone in Europe. Indeed, people from the South of England belittle people from the North, and vice versa; residents of Shropshire deride their neighbors in Worcestershire, and vice versa; even neighboring towns have managed to work up healthy mutual hatreds over the course of centuries.

As a consequence, “support” for football clubs routinely takes on a tribal, fever pitch (to borrow a phrase) the likes of which we really cannot imagine here in the States. There is no cultural equivalent that even begins to fit.

The year before, after Liverpool had defeated Roma in the 1984 European Cup Final, bands of Italian toughs on scooters had apparently attacked celebrating British fans as they danced in the Eternal City’s many fountains. Hit and run, or hit and scoot, apparently. This sort of behavior didn’t sit well with the English, as it probably wouldn’t with anyone. A year later, at Heysel, it was payback time.

Yet fan violence wasn’t reserved for internationals. English fans — not all fans, but relatively small subgroups of young toughs — routinely practiced their sordid craft at domestic matches, where rivalries were arguably more heated. Familiarity and contempt, don’t you know. This was the backdrop, only a few months pre-Heysel, as Barry and I left Westfield College, in the north London borough of Hampstead, for south London.

The tableau in and around Stamford Bridge that night was truly surreal. We came up and out of the Fulham Broadway Tube station and immediately walked past a pub that had been thoroughly gutted, all its windows shattered following a punch-up late that afternoon apparently; police and angry masses milled about everywhere.

Picture the scene from Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen and the boys reach that bridge, the one a few clicks beyond which lies Cambodia and certain peril, the one eerily bejeweled with hanging lights and flairs, where a night-time firefight rages and chaos reigns. I love that scene, and that’s what it was like in and around Stamford Bridge that night, minus (ironically) the illuminated bridge. It was an atmosphere only enhanced by the fact that the river of supporters streaming toward the ground was continually fed by tributaries emanating from local pubs. Plus, I’d gotten well and duly stoned before leaving Hampstead. I was effectively channeling Timothy Bottom’s surfer dude character, Lance, who was transfixed but not effectively warned by the spectacle.

Following Barry’s lead we entered the stadium through a portal reserved for visiting fans alongside a gaggle of Wednesday supporters. The terrace (no seats) set aside for visitors at Stamford Bridge was located behind the North goal. To our left there was nothing — just a sunken access road, well below us, that led to the field. Indeed, 30 feet of open space separated us from the main stand along the touchline.

To our right was an unoccupied terrace guarded on either side by 15-foot, wrought-iron fencing punctuated at foot-long intervals by sharp spikes. Beyond that was the remainder of Stamford Bridge’s North Terrace, occupied by thousands of Chelsea fans, clearly hammered and beside themselves with venom, all of it aimed at — us.

I had been utterly naïve about this excursion. I would soon learn what I should have known beforehand — what my roommates would have readily told me — namely, that Chelsea supporters, back then anyway, were among the “hardest” and most hostile in London, rivaled only by Millwall’s and West Ham’s. Put the money of Russian oligarch ownership out of your mind. This was not the posh club it is today. Chelsea was a hardscrabble, working class club in 1985, with fans to match.

Today, as home to one of the world football’s richest clubs, Stamford Bridge is a jewel (I’ve heard some older fans deride it as a bleedin’ galleria). In 1985, it was no such thing. Picture a dingy, no-frills ground very much like the Hillsborough we see in Gordon’s documentary.

•••

Inside the ground, the Wednesday fans (along with at least one woefully underprepared, somewhat stoned Yank), occupied a pen current observers might also recognize from the “Hillsborough” documentary. No seats. Completely enclosed. But that February evening in 1985, we were but a few hundred traveling supporters from Sheffield. There was no crush of fans clamoring to enter all at once. There was plenty of room to move about freely, though we instead huddled together — to guard against the cold and various projectiles.

From the outset and this considerable distance — the full width of the open terrace, maybe 25 yards — the Chelsea faithful pelted us with AAA batteries and pound coins. However, to be honest, it wasn’t all that threatening. It was a bit of a laugh at that stage. What a good and practical idea, I remember thinking, to leave that section open, as a buffer.

The game? Well, at times it seemed almost secondary to our homestanding neighbors a section removed. Chelsea scored first, through Kerry Dixon, and Sheffield managed to equalize just before halftime.

About then, to our horror, the empty section that separated the home crowd from ours was opened up, practical caution apparently giving way to the reality of ticket sales.

What ensued was a jailbreak. There’s no other way to describe it, and it lends insight to the rush/crush of fans that took place at Heysel and Hillsborough. The Chelsea throng poured over (!) and around this huge, spear-tipped fence like a horde of rabid 11th century Danes, and made a beeline for the lone wrought-iron barrier now separating us. Soon they were pressed up against it, screaming obscenities and taunting us, their arms reaching through the fence like desperate, famished prisoners. We all instinctively moved away from the fence, gathering at the far edge of the terrace and pulling our jackets up around our heads so as not to take a AAA in the ear. Let me tell you: It was fucking scary. I remember turning to Barry and saying, “I should NOT have gotten stoned.”

This was not some frenzied spasm of menace that faded with time. The Chelsea fans were on us the whole time, the entire second half, bombarding us with all manner of pocket-sized ammo. Thank god no human could spit that far.

There was no police presence in the terrace, only a smattering along the access/egress concourse that ran along the back of all three sections, behind the north goal. While the Chelsea horde had scaled one wrought-iron fence, an identical fence continued to separate them from us. The only thing stopping them from invading our space was, well… I don’t know. The fact that police were watching from above and perhaps an obscure, deep-seated tenet of British restraint?

Fortunately Chelsea scored in the final 10 minutes to secure a 2-1 victory. I don’t want to think about how things might have played out if Wednesday leveled things, or managed to win the game. As a player myself (at the time), I remember considering the prospect later that night: Did the Wednesday players, for example, recognize what victory might mean for the 800 or so supporters who’ve traveled down from Sheffield? Can one try to win with all the same commitment, knowing that a goal or victory — or perhaps a goal celebration taken a bit too far — might well bring a battery down on someone’s head, to say nothing of what might happen afterwards, outside the stadium?

Today, in the more refined Premiership era, visiting players score and make beelines to visiting fan sections, where much fist pumping and bellowing is enjoyed by the merry bands of traveling supporters. English football comportment was generally far less exhibitionist during the 1980s (so few of the games were televised). But visiting goal celebrations were relatively muted, in part, so as not to put traveling supporters in unnecessary danger inside and outside the ground.

As it was, when the final whistle blew and the referee pointed to the spot, the home supporters spent a few minutes hugging each other and chanting before they turned back to us and emptied their pockets one last time.

The trip out of the stadium was more frightening still. We Wednesday supporters exited first — and now there were several dozen policemen to help us execute this delicate task. The entire stadium was sealed but for our Bobby-lined egress route, which, of course, passed right behind our neighboring terrace, where the horde reached out to us one last time through the fence. They let us have it again, but I didn’t see any of this spectacle. I had my coat up over my head.

Outside the stadium there were two long lines of police on horseback; we walked between them the three city blocks back to the Tube station, where a special train was waiting for us. We piled on, the doors closed, and, as we slowly pulled away, a group of Chelsea fans burst down onto the platform, half of them singing “We love you Chelsea/Oh yes we do-oo…”, while the other half reiterated the epithets to which we had become accustomed inside the Bridge.

The context is important: Wednesday was and remains no particular rival of Chelsea’s. This was a run-of-the-mill, February match between a pair of mid-table sides, with nothing special to play for. And yet the atmosphere between the two sets of supporters was dire — and routine. That everyday menace like this, and incidents like Heysel, did nothing to move the FA toward meaningful institutional reform and stadium renovation, is a bit mystifying 30 years on. That it took Hillsborough to make that happen, finally, is tragic.

Back at Westfield, just off the Finchley Road, I found my roommates at home and started to regale them with tales of my nerve-rattling introduction to top-flight English football. Yet I’d hardly begun when Trevor interrupted. “Hang on, mate. You sat with the away supporters?” As indicated, Trev was no football fan back then, but he knew enough to throw a disbelieving glance at Adrian, before turning back to me. “That was fucking stupid.”