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May 26, 2006

Summer Sumo Tournament Wrapup

The May Sumo tournament in Tokyo just concluded, and it may have seen the emergence of two of the stars of the future.

First, Yokozuna Asashoryu took a hard fall early on and had to drop out of the tournament with an elbow injury. (No word yet on whether he'll be healed in time for July's tournament.) This left the tournament wide open for anyone to win.

And that left brand new Ozeki Hakuho as the favorite. Living up to the new ranking, he proceeded to go 14-1 and then win the tournament in a tiebreaker. If Asashoryu doesn't make it back by July, look for Hakuho to be a strong favorite to win his 2nd in a row and gain a quick promotion to Yokozuna.
New Ozeki Hakuho won the Summer Sumo tournament

Hakuho's opponent in the tiebreaker was the man with the worst pec's in all of sports, Miyabiyama. He always hangs around with the top wrestlers, so it wasn't too surprising, but I don't look for him to do it again any time soon.

Baruto makes almost unfair use of his superhuman strength

The next biggest splash in the tournament was made by Estonian giant Baruto. After going 15-0 in the Juryo (Sumo's AAA minor league) last tournament, Baruto was promoted to the top level of Sumo. Despite being too young and having hair too short to make the traditional Sumo topknot, he was man enough to go 12-3 and stay in the race for the championship until the last couple days. Clearly too much for the low-ranked wrestlers, Baruto will be up in the top ranks before long. And not only does he have some skill, he seemed from interviews and candid shots to have a likable personality, too.

In other news, Tochiazuma choked again attempting to make Yokozuna and finally dropped out of the tournament with an injury, Chiyotaikai looked good but faded at the end, Kaio hung around for a little while, and Koto'oshu lost some more luster with an average tournament.

My personal favorites Kyokushuzan and Asasekiryu had great tournaments and everyone's favorite Takamisakari managed a winning record by winning on the last day, to stave off demotion to the minors.

Posted by JoshHornik at 10:02 PM | Comments (0)

May 24, 2006

Book Review & Josh's Songbook #3: Like A Rolling Stone

If any song deserves an entire book to be written about it, that song might be Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone". Certainly a great 3-chord rock song, it also happened to usher in an entirely new era in Pop/Rock music -- songs that actually mean something (and can make the charts, even at 6 minutes long).

Noted Dylanologist and music critic Greil Marcus' book Like a Rolling Stone: Dylan at the Crossroads examines the source material, musical content, and vast influence of this song. Unfortunately, Marcus does so with poeticism, impressionism, and even mysticism, rather than journalism. Marcus' purple prose and outright idolatry interfere with his mission.

Art criticism in general always walks a razor's edge, attempting to describe in words the effects of a visual or aural artform. But phrases like "this sound within the sound tells you the story can't end soon, and that it won't be rushed" (about an organ line - p. 115) and "The first sound is so stark and surprising, every time you hear it, that the empty split-second that follows calls up the image of a house tumbling over a cliff; it calls up a void" (p. 94-95) just leave me wondering if the critic could make up anything about any song.

And Marcus loses credibility with his over-adulation of Dylan and his oeuvre. Which is certainly saying something coming from a true fan like me. (Ask me the greatest songwriter ever, greatest lyricist ever, most important pop musician of all time, favorite concert of the last 10 years -- my answer will be Dylan.) But when the author spends pages seriously analyzing Dylan's spectacular disaster of a movie Masked and Anonymous, he is going too far. He finally loses all credibility for me when he states the only two songs since Rolling Stone to live up to it have been Dylan's musically monotonous Highlands from Time Out of Mind, and a Pet Shop Boys cover of a Village People (!!!) song (Go West).

Marcus' greatest successes come when he discusses the impact of the song, specifically offering reactions to the song by people like Jimi Hendrix and Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner. What I had hoped to read was a book that showed how Dylan made the leap from folk music to rock 'n roll, the turmoil of the actual recording process (the released version was the only decent take all day) and the impact on pop/rock music around the world. Marcus wrote about all of these, but deciphering his message through the diversions and imagery was a little too much for me.

Too bad, because without a doubt, Like A Rolling Stone is the greatest pop song of all time! Even with a 3-chord (C,F,G) structure straight out of Louie Louie or La Bamba (or a hundred others), the almost unprecedented 6-minute long song feels like 3, and leaves you wanting more.

The reason? An incredible lyric, both as music and as poetry. Musically, the lyrics flow so well, with an intricate, impossible rhyme scheme that was never even attempted again in pop music. Lines like:
Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people, they're drinking, thinking that they got it made.
You never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns when they all came down and did tricks for you.
Meanwhile, the 3-syllable ending to each line creates a surprise every time, as you wait to hear how Dylan will fit it in. (It still grabs attention in concerts today -- although Dylan has taken to rushing every word out so fast the overall musicality is lost.)

Poetically, the lyrics were meaningful, if only for carrying any meaning at all. In a time of Be-Bop-a-Lu-La's, Dylan made pop music smart -- an influence that has been acknowledged by almost every pop musician at the time and since. Although the meaning of the song is debatable -- is it an angry rant at a woman too ensconced in her own "scene" or is it a warning to that woman, carrying an optimistic tone in breaking out of the scene? Either way, Dylan displays his usual gift for writing brilliant epigrams like "When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose" and paints a detailed portrait of the subject.

As most of you will already know the song, maybe even own the standard radio version found on the album Highway 61 Revisited from 1965, I highly recommend checking out the live version from Dylan's tour with The Band, found on the double album Before The Flood (and also used to perfection in the highly-underrated Scorsese segment of the 1989 movie New York Stories).

Posted by JoshHornik at 12:39 PM | Comments (0)

May 18, 2006

Theo Epstein Genius Watch, 2006 Edition

With Nomar Garciaparra currently reigning as the NL Player of the Week, this seems like a good time to check in on the Theo Epstein Genius Watch.

Today's featured position: Shortstop.

Let's review:
Summer 2004 -- Traded franchise shortstop and former Rookie of the Year Nomar Garciaparra.
Winter 2004 -- Let Gold Glove winner / World Series champion Orlando Cabrera walk.
Winter 2005 -- Traded Gold Glove & Silver Slugger winner Edgar Renteria. Traded "shortstop of the future" Hanley Ramirez. Signed Alex Gonzalez.

Hmm. That's 4 shortstops gone, and Alex Gonzalez currently filling the position. Wondering how everyone's doing this year?

Garciaparra -- Currently batting .337 with 5HR and 25 RBI in just 23 games, riding an 11-game hit streak and current NL Player of the Week. OK, he's playing first base, not shortstop, but he's the only regular 1B in the NL without an error yet.

Cabrera -- Batting .275 and currently on pace for over 100 runs, almost 100 RBI, and almost 30 steals.

Renteria -- Batting .333 (leading NL for shortstops) and set a new Atlanta Braves team record for longest hitting streak to start a season (24 games).

Ramirez -- Living up to the hype, contending for Rookie of the Year honors, batting leadoff for the Marlins, hitting .331 and on pace for 40 steals and 140 runs.

Gonzalez -- Batting .206 and slugging .290 (just 7 extra-base hits). On pace for just 50 RBI and 35 runs. (Admittedly, great fielding with only 1 error so far this year, but is that going to make up for over 100 fewer runs produced?)

So, in the last season and a half, Theo has managed to get rid of four shortstops all leaps and bounds better than the one he ended up with. Genius?!?

Posted by JoshHornik at 11:57 PM | Comments (0)

May 03, 2006

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is a great book. I can say that, even though I think I maybe got about 50% of what was going on in it.

What I missed:
- It seems that the book is probably a hilarious, biting satire of Russian society and its people, especially the Russian literati. (I found myself wishing I knew a little more about early-20th century Russia, so I could have gotten more of the jokes.)
- I understand it is also a political commentary on the new Stalinist regime in power at the time it was written. (Had I known a bit more about Russian history, I might have understood why Bulgakov had to keep the book secret in his lifetime. The book wasn't published until 30 years after his death.)

- Much of the book takes its inspiration from the Faust story. Having never read Faust in any version, that went right over my head.
- Finally, there is quite a bit taken from and/or adding to the stories in the New Testament. (I tried to read the Bible -- I only made it as far as the endless censuses in the Old Testament's Judges...)

OK, are you getting the point that this is an incredibly rich novel, built on the timely (political/social commentary) and the timeless (theology/philosophy)?

Beneath all that I missed, there was the literary low-hanging fruit. The book boasts a wildly imaginative story, told at a breakneck pace. The core of the story regards the arrival in Moscow of Satan himself, accompanied by a retinue including mischievous, sometimes murderous, men and a large talking cat. The group immediately begins wreaking havoc on the entire town, performing feats of magic with hilarious consequences -- making one administrator disappear but leaving his suit to continue to perform his duties; turning an entire office into a glee club, singing in harmony against their wills; and even minor tricks like turning paper into 10-ruble notes, which then turn back to paper to all of Moscow's consternation.

But that is only the set up. In fact, the story regards the titular characters of The Master, a frustrated author of a book about Pontius Pilate, and Margarita, his devoted lover/apostle. And meanwhile, Bulgakov smoothly and ingeniously intertwines the book-within-a-book story of Jesus (Yeshua, in this telling) and Pilate -- a different take on the story, in which Pilate begrudgingly sentences a very human-seeming Christ, then has Judas murdered himself, and finally finds himself in Hell (or is it Purgatory), suffering from guilt and the desire to speak to Christ again.

What is most amazing, considering the literary references, theological inquiries, multiple plotlines, and typically confusing Russian patronymics, is how enjoyable this novel is. Its swift-moving story, amusingly detailed characters, and drive towards a tidy and truly satisfying conclusion, all make the book eminently readable.

My biggest question after reading The Master and Margarita was why haven't more people heard of this book?

Posted by JoshHornik at 03:59 PM | Comments (0)