Me and Bob Dylan at the Fox Oakland

As reported earlier, we went to see Bob Dylan play at the Fox Theatre in Oakland the other night. The No. 1 reason I wanted to go: our son Thom invited us. The theater, a landmark movie palace that has been refurbished after sitting empty for decades, was also a draw. And also: Bob Dylan–why not?

I had seen him just once, back in January 1974 at the start of his tour with The Band. Others with a better grasp of Dylan’s history might correct me, but I think that tour was his first since the late ’60s. Anyway, the big draw to me then was The Band, which I had seen several times and whose music I really loved. And to get to see them play with Bob Dylan, just coming back onto the road and whom they’d performed with when he went electric, seemed historic. What I remember about that show is going with a big group, including my brothers and several friends. I remember people lighting matches during the performance (at the old Chicago Stadium), the first time I saw that at a concert. And among the songs played that stuck in my memory were “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” How would I have rated that show? Ten out of a possible ten, like every other time I saw The Band.

Before Dylan played the other night–our group consisted of Kate, Thom, Thom’s squeeze Eleanor, her dad, Jef, their family friend Ellen, and me–we talked about some of our favorite songs and speculated whether we’d hear them. I’m not what I’d call a really avid Dylan listener, but my experience is that I tend to forget how much I like most of his music until I hear it again. I was thinking I’d like to hear “Memphis Blues Again” and was wondering whether “Just Like a Woman” was something Dylan still plays in concert. He did both songs, even letting the audience sing the chorus of the latter number (not sing along with, because Dylan remained silent as the audience did its thing). Also: “Visions of Johanna,” “A Simple Twist of Fate,” “Cold Irons Bound” (which Thom remarked sounded very similar to covers of Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole,” and I would easily have mistaken the song for that once he pointed that out).

A friend had warned me that Dylan’s voice wasn’t what it once was. I wasn’t worried about that; for one thing, I’d heard his band was great, and that turned out to be true; and for another, well, we’ve all heard the voice over the years and know how it’s changed. The only song on which I’d say his vocal performance was disappointing was “This Wheel’s on Fire.” Part of that is having Rick Danko’s vocal in mind when I hear the song, but partly is was because of the laughable understatement with which Dylan almost inaudibly intoned the climactic line of the chorus, “This wheel shall explode.” He infused it with all the drama of a Walgreen’s clerk saying, “This shampoo prevents dandruff.” Enough said. Any disappointment was more than outweighed by the fact the song was in the concert, and the band played it well.

Beyond any particular reaction to the songs Dylan chose or how they were sung was the constant strange time-shifting I experienced while listening to music that I first heard more than 40 years ago coming out of the mouth of the guy who performed it back then. Like I said, we’ve all heard that voice and how it has changed. Whenever I hear numbers from “Nashville Skyline,” I still ask myself how the guy you hear on “Lay Lady Lay” can be the same one you hear on “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” or “Positively 4th Street.” Before that, a big part of Dylan’s folk audience was wondering how the guy doing those songs could have been the same one they loved as the heir to the Woody Guthrie tradition. So listening the other night, I was constantly going back and hearing a little echo of Dylan’s used-to-be voices as he sang with today’s voice.

Set lists:
January 3, 1974, Dylan/The Band show at the Chicago Stadium
August 24, 2010, Dylan show at the Fox Oakland

Schlock Jock

To talk TV, if only for a night: Against my better judgment, as if that’s news, I’ve been watching this season’s new thrillfest from Fox: “Prison Break.” It starts out with the premise that a smart young engineer robs a bank so he can get into prison so that he can free his brother who’s about to be executed for killing the vice president’s brother except of course he (the condemned brother) was framed. Right there you have have at least three layers of scriptwriting magic, but that’s only enough to get you through the season’s opening credits.

It would be small-hearted and ridiculous to cry and cavil about implausibility in a prime-time dramatic TV script. Plausibility is an artifact of the “reality-based community.” It’s clearly not needed to run the country or start a war. So, yeah, it’s time to lay off the TV writers and their clumsy attempts at legerdemain.

What “Prison Break” has going for it: Lots of shots of Chicago and nearby locations. The prison depicted in the show, which is supposed to be new, is the old Joliet Correctional Center (which also got a cameo, I think, in “The Blues Brothers”). When a trio of clueless good guys escapes the city, they wind up in New Glarus, Wisconsin, where I had a bike riding adventure this past summer.

That’s on the plus side. On the minus side: Everything else (though I was informed today that the star, Wentworth Miller, is “hot.” Fine).

The season so far, 13 episodes, has been leading up to what the title promises, a prison break. Without going into the plot twists and character cartwheels, Fox built up Monday night’s show as the “fall finale”; I’m sure lots of viewers, especially gulls like me, thought the big breakout was going to happen.

Well, the network’s ploy worked. The show got its top ratings for the season. What the show actually delivered, though, was a feeble effort at an escape — one foiled by a quiet, conscientious and unusually quick-working janitor. The show ended with a “to be continued — in March” tag.

March? Hopefully, I’ll have found some other prime-time diversion to waste time on by then. Oh, yeah — “24,” which I’ve vowed never to watch again, is coming back.

’24’: Week in Review

Week after week, I’ve cursed “24” — like I don’t have anything better to do — for its insistence on portraying senior government officials, even the president — no, especially the president — as cartoonish dolts devoid of common sense and bent on making the wrong decision whenever the opportunity arises. (Tonight’s example: The president — actually the vice president who has taken the helm after the president was critically injured in the downing of Air Force One — orders the Secret Service to arrest a counterterrorist agent who’s in the midst of busting a bad guy who’s determined to set off a nuclear weapon. Because of the president’s idiocy, the bad guy gets away. Of course.)

At the same time, on the strength of seeing the first two or three seasons of “The West Wing” on DVD, I’ve been struck at what an idealistic, admiring portrait of the presidency that show presents. Among liberals, anyway, I think it’s been commonplace to think what a wonderful world this would be if only President Jed Bartlett were running the show (a few years ago, Martin Sheen came to talk at a church here in Berkeley, and the audience treated him with something like reverence that it was clear was due in part to his role as “West Wing” president).

Now I realize that I’ve been cursing and admiring the wrong TV presidents. Yes, the chief executives on “24” are pathetic morons who never let good counsel get in the way of a bad move. And Jed Bartlett’s White House really is too good to be the real nerve center of the free world. But: The “24” version of “reality” is great comic relief, and even the current president looks like a giant compared to the idiots who show up as president on its episodes. “The West Wing” just depresses me with the illusion that we could have leadership so much better than what we’ve settled for.

’24’: Week in Review

Earlier in the season, “24” was getting some heat for its depiction of Middle Eastern Muslims as remorseless though very clever killers. The show, and the Fox network, responded with some public-service announcements informing viewers that not every Muslim is bad. And one episode portrayed a pair of young Arab-American sporting-goods store owners fighting alongside the show’s hero against a team of bad guys deployed by a ruthless U.S. defense contractor.

Last night’s episode introduced a new group of cartoonish evil-abetters.

The terrorists hijack a nuclear weapon in an ambush described as happening variously “in Iowa,” “in mountainous terrain” and at latitude 37 degrees north and longitude 115 degrees west, a point that happens to be a scrubby patch of desert about 60 miles north of Las Vegas. The geographic niceties aside, the bad guys have a bomb and appear to be heading for a big city — Chicago? — to set it off. The U.S. counterterrorism force has one chance of finding the mastermind and stopping the attack, though — a bad guy they’ve captured at an L.A.-area marina. To get the information they need to avert the attack, it’s clear they’re going to torture the suspect.

But the terrorist leader is one step ahead of them. He actually has one of his henchmen call a liberal civil-liberties lawyer (working for a group called Amnesty Global). The lawyer manages to wake up a federal judge, present his case that the government is about to abuse an upstanding U.S. citizen, get an injunction, and hightail it down to counterterrorism HQ to stop the torture session — all in 10 minutes on the show’s real-time clock. Of course, none of that process happens on camera. All we know is that, just as the interrogators are about to do their stuff, they’re halted by an insufferably smug attorney spouting some Bill of Rights crap. Of course, no one, including the president of the United States, is willing to contravene the court order halting the interrogation, even though millions of lives are at stake; and though the civil-liberties lawyer managed to get a judge to turn handsprings in the middle of the night and get an order in a millisecond, the script explains the government is powerless to appeal the order until the following day.

Luckily, it turns out that there’s one man willing to defy the misguided application of constitutional protections: Jack Bauer, who gets hold of the suspect and, after an agonizing couple of minutes and several shattered suspect fingers, finds out everything he wants to know.

Like I said — the civil-liberties lawyer is just a cartoonish dupe. Just as the greedy, amoral defense-firm execs were earlier in the show. But you have to wonder how many people are watching this, saying, “Goddamn liberals!” and cheering for the torture. Lots and lots, I bet.

’24’: Arab Americans Are People, Too

The New York Times talked yesterday about all the challenges facing several series, including “24,” whose writers and producers are still trying to figure out how to wrap up their season-long plot lines. Over the last couple of weeks, “24” has fallen into one of those plot lulls that make you wish the bad guys would nuke Fox network HQ. Essentially, the show has slumped back into a soap-opera stew as viewers wait for the Islamic terrorists — who seem to be getting more and more non-Islamic help –to spring their next nasty scheme. Something awful is coming: The script, in combination with the preview for next week, is telegraphing a terror strike against the president, who is in his 13th consecutive hour flying somewhere in Air Force One. But the mold-growing-on-bread pace of the latest plot makes you wonder whether the writers had any idea themselves of what’s coming next. In last night’s episode, it took one of the terror operatives a full hour to put on a uniform he’s using as a disguise.

In the moments when action was allowed to occur last night:

–A team of mercenary commandos working for an Evil Defense Contractor implicated in the day’s terrorist attacks goes after Jack and Paul. The team was led by a guy who at first glance looked kind of like Prince. Jack killed him.

–The Evil Defense Contractor’s security chief is terminated, too; but not before playing dead and nearly succeeding in shooting Jack. Paul, who at one time looked like a terrorist mole, heroically takes the bullet meant for Jack. Not sure whether Fox’s patented miracle medical technology will be able to save him from the killed-in-action list.

–In an effort to show they know that Arab Americans are loyal citizens, the show’s writers have the gun battle between Jack, Paul and the Evil Defense Contractor commandos take place at a sporting goods store owned by two Arab American brothers. After Jack forces his way in to get guns and ammo for the upcoming fight — he appears to find a state-of-the-art assault rifle just waiting for him, and he didn’t even have to wait for a background check — he urges the brothers to leave. But they selflessly stay and fight — to defend the store their dad started and to make a stand against terrorism with Jack, the United States of America, and Fox TV.

The scene was so self-conciously uplifting I forgot to cry, though I did get a little weepy when Jack promised government help to repair damage to the sporting goods establishment. Rule One in the War on Terror: Torture when you must, but always take responsibility for property damage.

’24’: Week in Review

So, Jack Bauer, America’s rogue agent for life, appears to have foiled the terrorist mastermind Marwan and averted 99.some percent of the nuclear catastrophes facing the United States (104 nuclear plants could have melted down, but just one did). Earlier in the day, he easily solved the kidnapping of the secretary of defense and his daughter (Jack’s girlfriend) and wiped out the terrorist contingent that was going to try the secretary live on the Internet for war crimes. Plus, he rehabilitated his disgraced former partner, Cubs’ fan Tony Almeida, and staged a convenience store as a diversion, ran out of ammo during another shootout with bad guys, tortured his girlfriend’s soon-to-be-former husband, and captured the turncoat who gave the terrorists the “”override device” that made it possible to take over the nation’s nuclear plants. Jack did all that in eleven hours. Which means just one thing: His “day” has another 13 hours to run. So — despite the mopping up that still must be done — capturing Marwan; catching the Turkish terrorist dad, freeing his son, and delivering the mom to the responsible authorities; dealing with a few hundred thousand casualties from the Southern California nuclear plant meltdown — all of the proceedings so far are just an appetizer for some horrific main event.

Guesses, anyone? It looks like the nuclear meltdowns were a diversion themselves. Either that, or they’re not really over. I’m puzzled.

The other question is: What purpose is served by the absurd subplot involving the Counterterrorism Unit station chief, the stoic but bitchy Erin Driscoll, and her schizophrenic daughter, Maya? Last night, Maya committed suicide, thus sparing viewers her continued histrionics.

’24’ vs. Reality

The plot line on “24” has made it through its big early twist and is now dealing with the real business at hand. First, an Islamic terrorist group kidnapped the secretary of defense to subject him to a show trial for war crimes; the plan was to execute him live on the Internet. But once and future Counterterrorism Unit station chief Jack Bauer (CTU is like a combo of the FBI and CIA and NSA, except more fashion-conscious, futuristic, and failure-prone than all of the real-life agencies put together) figured out what was going on and terminated the bad Muslims’ plans with extreme prejudice. As the gunplay unfolded and Marine recon forces arrived to mop up, it was clear that everything had all gone a little too easily. Plus, the season still has about 18 episodes to run. So the whole secretary of defense thing was a diversion from the real terrorist scheme. Within minutes, the scriptwriters revealed the real plot: The bad Muslims had figured out a way to take over every nuclear power plant in the United States, more than 100 of them, and cause core meltdowns across the country. Scary!

OK: That’s “24.” Here’s “reality”: Security Focus, a good source on network security issues, ran a story the other day talking about a new initiative from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to implement new safeguards against computer intruders. Just an interesting coincidence. People are talking about it on Slashdot.


Now back to really important stuff: The season premiere of “24,” Fox’s suspense/thriller/action”extravaganza, starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack “Just Do It! Do It Now!” Bauer. (In case you didn’t know, it’s “the most critically acclaimed show on television.” Fox’s announcers kept saying that during the Green Bay-Minnesota playoff game, so it must be true.)

I admit ’24’ used to be a sort of guilty pleasure. The series’ central conceit, that you’re watching the story unfold over the course of a day, and that each episode represents real time, was an attraction at first. Yeah, it was kind of trashy in some ways. The characters’ personal side- and subplots were kind of dumb and not all the acting was great, but hey, it’s network TV and the original story line was engaging enough: a group of mysterious and really nasty people are trying to assassinate a leading presidential candidate on the day of the California primary.

We watched that season. And the second, when the presidential candidate Bauer saved has become president and is confronted by terrorists who try to detonate a nuclear weapon in Los Angeles. And the third, when the same president — by now notorious to regular viewers for letting his loose-cannon wife and other relatives wreak all sorts of outlandish havoc on the Constitution and other innocent bystanders — is confronted by terrorists who threaten to wipe out Los Angeles and probably most of the country by releasing a super-bad germ that makes Ebola look like the sniffles.

Now, you’d never mistake “24” for “Smiley’s People” or “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” Then again, it’s not aspiring to be complex and challenging. It’s a romp. But even on that level, it’s had its problems. The terrorist plots are never intelligible. Bad people are doing bad things, but their motives, aside from wanting to settle scores with Bauer and his pal, the president, are never explored. Meantime, the scriptwriters spend most of their time concocting more and more elaborate woman trouble and political backstabbing for both Jack and the president.

This formula — just enough exotic terrorists vs. good guys action to make you sit still for the parallel soap opera — has been in place since season one. But last season, it went too far. Whenever any of the so-called good guys had a straightforward choice between a sane, common sense action that might keep them out of trouble and one that would bring them one more step toward utter destruction, they always — not sometimes or most of the time, but always — chose the latter. It got to be too much, so manipulative and dumb that we gave up on the show halfway through the season (though we did pick up again in the final couple of episodes just to see how it all came out).

So, where were we tonight when “24,” the most critically acclaimed show on television, began its new season? Not in front of the TV, at first. We got a TiVo digital video recorder, and we started watching about 40 minutes into the two-hour broadcast so we could just jump through the commercials. And what did we see?

It’s disheartening to report that the show didn’t even make it to the first commercial break without introducing its first sappy, predictable romantic subplot or disclosing that CTU, the counterterrorism unit where Jack does his stuff, is supervised by jealous, politically-driven moron who cares more about marking her territory than, gee, stopping a terrorist strike. Another predictable character was present, too: The field agent brought in to replace Jack had “dispensable” written all over him, and sure enough, he was dead by the time the show was off the air.

After saying all that, yeah, I’ll give it another couple hours tomorrow to see how bad it gets.