Saturday, May 14, 2011

Converting Mamet

A playwright’s progress

By Andrew Ferguson
The Weekly Standard
May 23, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 34

SANTA MONICA - Three decades ago David Mamet became known among the culture-consuming public for writing plays with lots of dirty words. “You’re f—ing f—ed” was a typically Mamet-like line, appearing without the prim dashes back in a day when playwrights were still struggling to get anything stronger than a damn on stage. Mamet’s profanity even became a popular joke: So there’s this panhandler who approaches a distinguished looking gentleman and asks for money. The man replies pompously: “ ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ —William Shakespeare.” The beggar looks at him. “ ‘F— you’ —David Mamet.”

Some critics said his plays were pointlessly brutal. As a consequence he became famous and wealthy. It didn’t hurt when it dawned on people that many of his plays, for all the profanity and brutality, were works of great power and beauty, and often very funny to boot. When people began to say, as they increasingly did by the middle 1980s, that the author of Speed-the-Plow and American Buffalo and Lakeboat had earned a place in the top rank of the century’s dramatists, no one thought that was a joke. He took to writing for the movies (The Verdict, The Untouchables, Wag the Dog), won a Pulitzer Prize for one of his masterpieces (Glengarry Glen Ross), and moved to Holly-wood, where he became a respected and active player in the showbiz hustle.

His fame was enough to fill the stalls of Memorial Hall at Stanford University when he came to give a talk one evening a couple of years ago. About half the audience were students. The rest were aging faculty out on a cheap date with their wives or husbands. You could identify the male profs by the wispy beards and sandals-’n’-socks footwear. The wives were in wraparound skirts and had hair shorter than their husbands’.

Mamet had been brought to campus by Hillel, and the subject of his talk was “Art, Politics, Judaism, and the Mind of David Mamet.” There wasn’t much talk of Judaism, however, at least not explicitly. He arrived late and took the stage looking vaguely lost. He withdrew from his jacket a sheaf of papers that quickly became disarranged. He lost his place often. He stumbled over his sentences. But the unease that began to ripple through the audience had less to do with the speaker’s delivery than with his speech’s content. Mamet was delivering a frontal assault on American higher education, the provider of the livelihood of nearly everyone in his audience.

Higher ed, he said, was an elaborate scheme to deprive young people of their freedom of thought. He compared four years of college to a lab experiment in which a rat is trained to pull a lever for a pellet of food. A student recites some bit of received and unexamined wisdom—“Thomas Jefferson: slave owner, adulterer, pull the lever”—and is rewarded with his pellet: a grade, a degree, and ultimately a lifelong membership in a tribe of people educated to see the world in the same way.

“If we identify every interaction as having a victim and an oppressor, and we get a pellet when we find the victims, we’re training ourselves not to see cause and effect,” he said. Wasn’t there, he went on, a “much more interesting .  .  . view of the world in which not everything can be reduced to victim and oppressor?”

This led to a full-throated defense of capitalism, a blast at high taxes and the redistribution of wealth, a denunciation of affirmative action, prolonged hymns to the greatness and wonder of the United States, and accusations of hypocrisy toward students and faculty who reviled business and capital even as they fed off the capital that the hard work and ingenuity of businessmen had made possible. The implicit conclusion was that the students in the audience should stop being lab rats and drop out at once, and the faculty should be ashamed of themselves for participating in a swindle—a “shuck,” as Mamet called it.

It was as nervy a speech as I’ve ever seen, and not quite rude—Mamet was too genial to be rude—but almost. The students in Memorial Hall seemed mostly unperturbed. The ripples of dissatisfaction issued from the older members of the crowd. Two couples in front of me shot looks to one another as Mamet went on—first the tight little smiles, then quick shakes of the head, after a few more minutes the eye-rolls, and finally a hitchhiking gesture that was the signal to walk out. Several others followed, with grim faces.

It was too much, really. It’s one thing to titillate progressive theatergoers with scenes of physical abuse and psychological torture and lines like “You’re f—ing f—ed.” But David Mamet had at last gone too far. He’d turned into a f—ing Republican.

Next month a much larger number of liberals and leftists will have the opportunity to be appalled by Mamet’s Stanford speech. Passages from it form the bulk of a chapter in his new book of brief, punchy essays, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture. The book marks the terminal point of a years-long conversion from left to right that Mamet-watchers (there are quite a few of these) have long suspected but hadn’t quite confirmed. It’s part conversion memoir, part anthropology, part rant, part steel-trap argument—the testimony of a highly intelligent man who has wrenched himself from one sphere and is now declaring his citizenship in another, very loudly.

Mamet himself has never been a political playwright or a dramatist of ideas, being concerned with earthier themes—how it is, for example, that everyday conflicts compound into catastrophe. His plays were heavy with a tragic view of human interaction. They depicted, as he put it, people doing despicable things to each other, moved by greed or power lust or some nameless craving. Still, politically minded critics were pleased to divine a political intent: American Buffalo, set in a junk shop, or Glengarry Glen Ross, set in a real estate office, were allegories of the heartlessness of a country (ours) ruled by markets and capital. Their invariably unhappy or unresolved endings drove the point home. And the critics had a point. The world Mamet created was one-half of the leftist view of life, anyway: the Hobbesian jungle that Utopians would rescue us from, liberal idealism with the sunny side down.

The Secret Knowledge begins with a parricide—a verbal throat-slitting of the leftwing playwright Bertolt Brecht, father to three generations of dramatists, especially those who, like Tony Kushner or Anna Deavere Smith or Christopher Durang, make agitprop the primary purpose of their art. For most of his career Mamet revered Brecht too: It was the thing to do. The reverence came to an end when he finally noticed an incongruity between Brecht’s politics and his life. Although a cold-blooded—indeed bloody-minded—advocate for public ownership of the means of production and state confiscation of private wealth, he always took care to copyright his plays. More, he made sure the royalties were deposited in a Swiss bank account far from the clutches of East Germany, where he was nominally a citizen.

“His protestations [against capitalism] were not borne out by his actions, nor could they be,” Mamet writes. “Why, then, did he profess Communism? Because it sold. .  .  . The public’s endorsement of his plays kept him alive; as Marx was kept alive by the fortune Engels’s family had made selling furniture; as universities, established and funded by the Free Enterprise system .  .  . support and coddle generations of the young in their dissertations on the evils of America.”

As the accelerating sequence of that last sentence suggests—from Brecht to Marx to the entire system of American higher education—one wispy aha! leads the convert to a larger revelation and then to one even broader and more comprehensive. That’s the way it is with conversion experiences: The scales fall in a cascade. One light bulb tends to set off another, until it’s pop-pop-pop like paparazzi on Oscar night.

And then Mamet thought some more, and looked in the mirror.

“I never questioned my tribal assumption that Capitalism was bad,” he writes now, “although I, simultaneously, never acted upon these feelings.” He was always happy to cash a royalty check and made sure to insist on a licensing fee. “I supported myself, as do all those not on the government dole, through the operation of the Free Market.”

He saw he was Talking Left and Living Right, a condition common among American liberals, particularly the wealthy among them, who can, for instance, want to impose diversity requirements on private companies while living in monochromatic neighborhoods, or vote against school vouchers while sending their kids to prep school, or shelter their income while advocating higher tax rates. The widening gap between liberal politics and liberal life became real to him when, paradoxically enough, he decided at last to write a political play, or rather a play about politics. It was the first time he thought about partisan politics for any sustained period.

“This was after the 2004 election,” he told me in an interview last month. “I’d never met a conservative. I didn’t know what a conservative was. I didn’t know much of anything.

“But I saw the liberals hated George Bush. It was vicious. And I thought about it, and I didn’t get it. He was no worse than the others, was he? And I’d ask my liberal friends, ‘Well, why do you hate him?’ They’d all say: ‘He lied about WMD.’ Okay. You love Kennedy. Kennedy didn’t write Profiles in Courage—he lied about that. ‘Bush is in bed with the Saudis!’ Okay, Kennedy was in bed with the mafia.”

His play about politics, a comedy called November, opened on Broadway in January 2008 to middling reviews and ran till mid-July. He called it a “love letter to America.” The last line, uttered by a preposterously corrupt but strangely endearing president, is “Jesus, I love this country”—and the irony was only meant to go so far. One of the themes of the play was that the country itself is much too good for politics, especially when politicians seek to govern it by serving their own selfish ends.

“I wondered, How did the system function so well? Because it does—the system functions beautifully.” How did the happiest, freest, and most prosperous country in history sprout from the Hobbesian jungle?

“I realized it was because of this thing, this miracle, this U.S. Constitution.” The separation of powers, the guarantee of property, the freedoms of speech and religion meant that self-interested citizens had a system in which they could hammer out their differences without killing each other. Everyone who wanted to could get ahead. The Founders had accepted the tragic view of life and, as it were, made it pay. It’s a happy paradox: The gloomier one’s view of human nature—and Mamet’s was gloomy—the deeper one’s appreciation of the American miracle.

“As an American, I don’t think that my politics are any better than anybody else’s politics,” Mamet told the TV interviewer Charlie Rose when November opened. “I’m a gag writer.” Even so, he agreed to write an essay on the play’s politics for the Village Voice. In the essay Mamet confessed that many of his previous political beliefs now struck him as reflexive and unthinking: The country that existed in his once-fevered liberal imagination—a dystopia crippled by crises that required the immediate deployment of the federal government—bore little resemblance to the country in which he actually lived, where people interacted smoothly in the marketplace to their mutual benefit. He had come to realize that corporations were good for providing the necessities of life. The “Big Bad Military” of his youthful fancy was, he discovered, an organization built on courage and honor.

For the moment, he told Voice readers, he was searching for “a human understanding of the political process .  .  . in which I believe I may be succeeding.”

Voice editors hyped Mamet’s piece with an attention getting headline, “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal.’ ” The essay was much milder than its title. It was the work of a man in mid-conversion. Mamet’s politics at the time were best expressed in a speech at the end of November’s second act, perhaps the most—maybe the only—innocent paragraph Mamet ever wrote. The speaker is the crooked president’s idealistic speechwriter (a lesbian who has unknowingly brought the avian flu virus from France and infected the Thanksgiving turkeys that the president is supposed to pardon, though he’ll only issue the pardon if he’s bribed by an Indian chief. .  .  . It’s a comedy).

“The fellow or the woman at the water cooler?” the speechwriter says. “We don’t know their politics. We judge their character by the simple things: Are they respectful, are they punctual, can they listen. .  .  . If you look at the polls it seems we are ‘a nation divided.’ But we aren’t a nation divided, sir. We’re a democracy. We hold different opinions. But we laugh at the same jokes, we clap each other on the back when we made that month’s quota, and, sir, I’m not at all sure that we don’t love each other.”

Given the inherent corruptions of partisanship, Mamet refused to believe that one side of our public disputes was truly superior to the other.

“The right is mooing about faith,” he wrote at the end of the Voice essay, “the left is mooing about change, and many are incensed about the fools on the other side—but, at the end of the day, they are the same folks we meet at the water cooler.”

It was a lovely sentiment, especially comforting to people who desperately don’t want to take politics seriously.

The belief that government is essentially a con job run by con artists comes naturally to Chicagoans. In Chicago, where Mamet was born not long after the Second World War, the natives simply assumed that politicians were in the game to enlarge their own power—which was fine, so long as everyone else got his piece too: a ham at Christmas, a fixed parking ticket, a job in the Department of Sanitation for a dipso brother-in-law. For Mamet this bit of innate Chicago wisdom has only been reinforced in Santa Monica, the leftwing, paradisiacal community where he has lived since 2003. It’s the same game in Santa Monica as in Chicago, except with an unappetizing lacquer of self-regarding piety from the pols. Not long after moving to the city, Mamet undertook his first foray into civic activism, when the City Council revived a 60-year-old ordinance and tried to force Mamet and his neighbors to cut the hedges around their homes, in accordance with a newly articulated “public right to the viewership of private property.”

“They just made it up,” he told me. We were having lunch at his usual noontime haunt a few blocks from his office and a mile from the beach. The Hedge Wars, as the local press called the controversy, were the first thing he mentioned when I asked about his move rightward. It prompted Mamet’s first and so far only recorded foray into civic activism. He joined protests, testified at hearings, and wrote an op-ed in the L.A. Times. His side eventually won. The ordinance was amended, but not before the city got to impose a raft of new foliage regulations and create a new hedge commission to enforce them.

“It made no sense,” he said. “But this is how government works—all government. I saw there’s no difference between the hedge commission and the U.S. government. It’s all the same principle.”

Mamet’s parents were divorced when he was young, and he spent most of his childhood after the breakup with his father, a highly successful labor lawyer. The faith in unions that his father instilled in him didn’t survive the screenwriters’ strike of 2007-08—one of the most heavily publicized events in Hollywood history and the most quickly forgotten, so abject was the ineptitude and ultimate failure of the writers’ union. For Mamet it was another turn of the ratchet away from the left.

“They were risking not only their own jobs but the jobs of everyone who had nothing to gain from the strike—the drivers and scene painters and people who are on set 14 hours a day working their asses off. These working people were driven out of work by the writers—10,000 people losing their jobs at Christmastime. It was the goddamnedest thing I ever saw in my life. And for what? They didn’t know what they were striking for—just another inchoate liberal dream.

“The question occurs to me quite a lot: What do liberals do when their plans have failed? What did the writers do when their plans led to unemployment, their own and other people’s? One thing they can’t do is admit they failed. Why? To admit failure would endanger their position in the herd.”

One of Mamet’s favorite books has been Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, published during the First World War by the British social psychologist Wilfred Trotter, inventor of the term “herd instinct.”

“Trotter says the herd instinct in an animal is stronger even than the preservation of life,” Mamet said. “So I was watching the [2008] debates. My liberal friends would spit at the mention of Sarah Palin’s name. Or they would literally mime the act of vomiting. We’re watching the debates and one of my friends pretends to vomit and says, ‘I have to leave the room.’ I thought, oh my god, this is Trotter! This is the reaction of the herd instinct. When a sheep discovers a wolf in the fold, it vomits to ward off the attacker. It’s a sign that their position in the herd is threatened.”

Mamet runs into the herd instinct every day.

“I’ve given galleys of The Secret Knowledge to some friends. They say, ‘I’m scared to read it.’ I say, ‘Why should you be afraid to read something?’

“What are they afraid of? They’re afraid of losing their ability to stay in the herd. That’s what I found in myself. It can be wrenching when you start to think away from the herd.”

Mamet’s disdain for consensus, for received wisdom of any kind, has been evident in nearly every aspect of his career. Celebrated by academics and critics as a major American artist, he despises talk of Art, especially when it comes from critics and academics. As a sought-after acting teacher, he wrings from his students the last drop of introspection and Stanislavskian pomposity. “You don’t need to dig into your character,” he tells them. “Just read the words.” As a respected movie director and screenwriter he is self-consciously conventional—his movies fit neatly into familiar genres: war movies, detective movies, adventure movies, and a heist movie called Heist—just when his admirers might have expected fireworks and experimentation. “All movies are genre movies,” he says. “If they talk about the ‘artiste,’ you know you’re hearing bulls—.” When he had become a highly paid fixture in Hollywood he produced for the stage the most merciless Hollywood satire ever written, Speed-the-Plow.

But thinking differently about politics was .  .  . different.

"Dave is a very thorough thinker,” Mordecai Finley told me, “but it never occurred to him that there might be another way to think about politics.”

Finley is rabbi at Ohr HaTorah in Los Angeles, where Mamet attends services with his wife, the actress Rebecca Pidgeon, who converted to Judaism after their marriage in 1991. Mamet’s religious practice, along with his sensitivity to Israel, has deepened since he moved to Southern California and joined Ohr HaTorah. In 2006, he published a scorching book of essays, The Wicked Son, rebuking secular Jews for their (alleged) self-loathing and reluctance to defend Israel.

The Wicked Son is dedicated to Finley. He is a creature who is not supposed to exist in nature: the Republican rabbi of a liberal congregation packed with show people.

“For most of my congregants,” he said, “I’m the only Republican they know.”

Finley recalls a conversation with Mamet and Pidgeon during the California Democratic presidential primary in 2004. They asked the rabbi and his wife which Democrat they were going to vote for.

“We said, ‘None of them.’

“Dave said, ‘Oh no—you’re not going to vote for Nader!’

“I said, ‘No.’

“And then you could see it hit him. ‘Not Bush!’

“ ‘Well, yes. Bush.’

“Dave was apologetic. He thought he’d embarrassed us! He said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to pry! I shouldn’t have asked!’

“I said, ‘No, no, it’s really not a problem. It’s not like we try to keep it secret.’ ”

Still safely with the herd, Mamet undertook to pry his rabbi away from his heretical politics. He began sending Finley books, potboilers of contemporary liberalism like What’s the Matter with Kansas?

“They were highly polemical, angry books,” Finley said. “They were very big on sympathy and compassion but really they weren’t”—he looked for the word—“they simply weren’t logically coherent. And Dave is very logical in his thinking. Dave thought What’s the Matter with Kansas? had the answer for why people could even think to vote for a Republican—it’s because they’re duped by capitalist fat cats. I tried to tell him that people really weren’t that stupid. They just have other interests, other values. They’re values voters.

“That’s one thing he began to see: The left flattens people, reduces people to financial interests. Dave’s an artist. He knew people are deeper than that.”

Before long, when Finley didn’t budge, the books from Mamet stopped arriving, and Finley asked if he could send Mamet some books too. One of the first was A Conflict of Visions, by Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution. In it Sowell expands on the difference between the “constrained vision” of human nature—close to the tragic view that infuses Mamet’s greatest plays—and the “unconstrained vision” of man’s endless improvement that suffused Mamet’s politics and the politics of his profession and social class.

“He came back to me stunned. He said, ‘This is incredible!’ He said, ‘Who thinks like this? Who are these people?’ I said, ‘Republicans think like this.’ He said, ‘Amazing.’ ”

Finley piled it on, from the histories of Paul Johnson to the economics of Milton Friedman to the meditations on race by Shelby Steele.

“He was haunted by what he discovered in those books, this new way of thinking,” Finley says. “It followed him around and wouldn’t let him go.”

For years Mamet and Finley talked by phone at least once, sometimes twice a day. He became friends with Sowell and Steele, another Hoover Institution fellow. Mamet dedicated his most popular recent play, Race, to Steele.

A former literature professor, Steele told me he’d been an admirer of Mamet’s work since the 1970s and thought he’d detected signs of incipient conservatism in the plays.

“I think he has the same values today that he did before,” Steele said. “He’s said to me he thinks he might have always been conservative without knowing it. All that happened was, he finally found a politics that suited his values.”

Listening to Mamet talk, swept along with his tidal fluency, you find it hard to imagine him groping toward a moment of intellectual catharsis. As a rule Mamet avoids soliloquies in his plays, and the blunt back-and-forth rhythms of his characters’ speech, bitten off with awkward hesitations, then rebooted in a headlong rush, became a trademark that unimaginative critics took to calling “Mametspeak.” It’s a heightened artistic effect that can, after two hours in a darkened theater, retune the ear, rearrange the way a person hears speech—just as a great painter can force you to take in color and light with a new attention and intensity.

Mamet doesn’t speak in Mametspeak himself. Ask him a question and he just barrels on through, often at length. He’s got the bluff self-confidence of the macho writer—there are a few of these hairy-chested scribblers in the American tradition, from Jack London and Ambrose Bierce through Hemingway to James Jones and Irwin Shaw. Of course he swears as freely as any Chicagoan, with special affection for the F-bomb and its many variants. When the battery of his hearing aid failed during our lunch, he yanked the earpiece from his ear, looked at it sternly, and said: “F— you.”

Then again, he’s still showfolk. He’s the only gruff, straight-talking Southsider I’ve ever met who wears eyeglasses with yellow translucent frames. At lunch we were interrupted often by supplicants wanting a word with him—a tribute to his kindliness and his professional pull: He reportedly fetches $2 million for a finished script, and is the only American playwright who can open a show on Broadway merely on the strength of his name. He listened to each visitor with patient solicitude. Not only have I never heard a cross word about him, after talking to colleagues and acquaintances; I’ve never talked to anyone who’s heard a cross word about him.

The two personal attributes that come through most notably in conversation, and in The Secret Knowledge, are gratitude and modesty, both regarded as conservative virtues. His modesty is of the epistemological kind, reinforced in politics and economics by his reading of Friedman and Hayek, the great critics of central planning. His gratitude is comprehensive. In our long afternoon talking about politics, he kept returning to how grateful he was for his general good fortune in life, but especially for being an American.

“My grandmother came to this country and she and her two boys were abandoned by her husband,” he said. “She couldn’t speak English. No education. And during the Great Depression she was able to work hard and save and she put them both through law school.” His voice had a tone of wonder to it, as though still awed by a fresh discovery. “I mean, what a country. That’s a hell of a country.”

After lunch we walked back to his office, and on the way he told me of new projects. I wondered how Mamet’s about-to-be-exposed rightwingery will affect his work—and, among critics and colleagues, the reaction to his work. Show business, like all of popular culture these days, is ostentatiously politicized. Actors, directors, producers, and the writers who write about them—all behave as though they received a packet of approved political views with their guild card. They’ll be alert for signs of ideological deviationism in Mamet’s stuff from now on. They may not have to look too far.

Mamet mentioned a screenplay that he hopes will soon be produced involving a young rich girl who applies to Harvard. When she’s rejected she suddenly declares herself an Aztec to qualify for affirmative action. Presumably high jinks ensue. A new two-character play opening in London this fall, The Anarchist, is a “verbal sword-fight” between two women of a certain age, one a veteran of 1960s radicalism, jailed for life on a bombing charge, and the other a reactionary prison governor from whom the aging radical hopes to receive parole. Regardless of the play’s true merits, we can expect the word didactic to get a workout from critics.

After reading The Secret Knowledge in galleys, the Fox News host and writer Greg Gutfeld invented the David Mamet Attack Countdown Clock, which “monitors the days until a once-glorified liberal artist is dismissed as an untalented buffoon.” Tick tock.

"All I do is write every day,” he said, as he unlocked the door to the townhouse that serves as his office. “I sit in here and write. I don’t see anybody. I don’t socialize. I read, and I write, and then I go home to my wife.”

And the essays in The Secret Knowledge do occasionally have the tone of a man locked alone in an office, talking to himself. “I was a monomaniac,” he said of the period he was writing the book. “Crazed.”

The prose moves very fast, and some of the arguments seem to be missing a few essential steps; premises rocket to conclusions on the strength of sheer outrage. The conversion is complete: This is not a book by the same man who told Charlie Rose he didn’t want to impose his political views on anybody. At some moments—as when he blithely announces that the earth is cooling not warming, QED—you wonder whether maybe he isn’t in danger of exchanging one herd for another. He told me he doesn’t read political blogs or magazines. “I drive around and listen to the talk show guys,” he said. “Beck, Prager, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved.”

Even so, for anyone who admires Mamet and his work—and who agrees with most of his newly discovered political views—there’s something thrilling about seeing a man so accomplished in an unforgiving art subject his ideas to pitiless examination and, as he put it, “take it all the way down to the paint.” When Mamet recognized himself as a conservative, Shelby Steele told me, “it made him happy.”

He doesn’t freely talk about what it cost him psychologically, however, and he says he hasn’t thought about what it might cost him professionally.

When I pushed him on the subject, he started talking about Jon Voight, another show business Republican.

One day Voight handed him Witness, the Cold War memoir by the Communist-turned-anti-Communist Whittaker Chambers.

“This book will change your life,” Voight told Mamet.

“And he was right,” Mamet said. “It had a huge effect on me. Forcing yourself into a new way of thinking about things is a wrenching experience. But first you have to look back and atone. You think, ‘Oh my god, what have I done? What was I thinking?’ You realize you’ve been a co-dependent with the herd. And then, when you decide to say what you’ve discovered, out loud, you take the risk that everyone you know will look on you as a fool.”

Sitting on an overstuffed sofa in his office, he threw up his hands.

“But what the hell,” he said. “I’m the troublemaker. That’s my role in life. I’m the class clown.”

Starting next month we’ll find out who’s laughing.

- Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

Today's Tune: Arthur Alexander - Soldier of Love

Harmon Killebrew's move to hospice saddens Twins Territory

Star Tribune
May 14, 2011

Mary Vaessen, left, and Jackie Anderson paused by the statue of Harmon Killebrew outside Target Field on their way to the game Friday night. "He's a legend, man," said Anderson. "I hate to see that he's going into hospice, but at least he'll be well taken care of," added Vaessen.(Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune)

Harmon Killebrew's bronze statue outside Target Field was a stopping point for countless Twins fans on their way into the game on Friday, after the Hall of Fame slugger announced earlier in the day that he was entering hospice care, with his five-month battle with esophageal cancer "coming to an end."

Bob Gerber, 74, and his son Steve, 43, paused for a few moments near the red roses at the statue's base.

"It brings a little tear to your eye," Gerber said. "I'm the same age as Harmon. I grew up with the guy. It's been on my mind today, so I stopped here to say a little prayer."

Killebrew became the Twins original superstar, arriving with the Washington Senators when they moved to Minnesota in 1961. He smashed 475 of his 573 career home runs as a Twin before leaving for Kansas City after the 1974 season.

"He's a true gentleman," said Dennis Berry, a 61-year-old Twins fan from Northfield. "That's a great statue because you can see the strength, and the way he got that full extension. That's how I remember him."

Diagnosed with esophageal cancer in December, Killebrew has been treated at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. He achieved one of his goals in mid-March when he attended spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., donning the uniform.

The 5-11 slugger had hoped to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the April 8 home opener but couldn't make it because he continued to receive chemotherapy. "It is with profound sadness that I share with you that my continued battle with esophageal cancer is coming to an end," Killebrew said in his statement. "With the continued love and support of my wife, Nita, I have exhausted all options with respect to controlling this awful disease. My illness has progressed beyond my doctors' expectation of cure."

Thousands of saddened fans from around the world tweeted warm sentiments after learning of Killebrew's condition. Many sent out prayers, memories of watching him play and remarks about how gracious he was when they met him. Among the tweets: "Hope his final days are as sweet as his career," and "Thanks for the memories."

Role model

Twins players, past and present, reacted to the news with sadness and an outpouring of fond memories. "This organization was built around Harmon Killebrew, going back to 1961, a guy that had class," Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven said.

Right fielder Michael Cuddyer called Killebrew the most influential person in his life, "next to my parents."

Cuddyer, 32, recalled a time early in his pro career when he and Killebrew signed autographs together on a Twins winter caravan stop. "My signature back then was terrible," Cuddyer said. "You could see the M somewhat and you could see the C. Everything else was just squiggly lines. It was like an EKG.

"And [Killebrew] said, 'Michael, if I see this signature one more time come through this line, I'm leaving. The only person they're going to be mad at is you.' From that point on, I feel like every time I write a signature I'm trying to do him justice."

Paying tribute

The Twins had Killebrew's No. 3 jersey hanging in their dugout Friday, and Cuddyer said they will take it with them everywhere they go.

The team did a video tribute before the game, with Blyleven, Tony Oliva and Justin Morneau telling fans to keep Killebrew in their thoughts and prayers.

Earlier in the day, Oliva said that the news was "hard because when I came here [from Cuba], in 1961, he was one of the first people I met. We became special friends. ... When I came here, I didn't speak English, but he talked to me. He called me 'Rookie,' and I called him 'Killer.'"

Oliva, 72, said, he hoped Killebrew had turned a corner when he saw him at spring training.

"You know Killer, you never know how he's feeling because he's always so positive," Oliva said. "But he gained about 22 pounds, and everything was going in the right direction."

Oliva and Paul Molitor are among the Twins employees heading to Arizona to see Killebrew in coming days. Team President Dave St. Peter visited with Killebrew and his family on Thursday. "[Killebrew] made a point of asking me how [manager Ron Gardenhire] was doing because he knows we're scuffling on the field," St. Peter said. "It was kind of classic Harmon. He was worried about everybody but himself."

St. Peter said Killebrew's spring training visit "meant the world to him. It was vitally important that he get there, and frankly, we questioned whether it was the right thing for him to do, but there was no talking him out of that. He was going to go to spring training.

"At the time, he had every intention of being here for Opening Day. Now, his focus is to get here for his 75th birthday celebration [June 29], and I told him we want him to blow out those birthday candles, so we'll see what happens. Hopefully, he'll make it."

An Ill Season

The Arab spring unleashes Islamists on Egyptian Christians.

By Andrew C. McCarthy
May 14, 2011 4:00 A.M.

A destroyed Egyptian Coptic Christian church in Imbaba, Cairo (Reuters)

Screaming “With our blood and soul, we will defend you, Islam,” jihadists stormed the Virgin Mary Church in northwest Cairo last weekend. They torched the Coptic Christian house of worship, burned the nearby homes of two Copt families to the ground, attacked a residential complex, killed a dozen people, and wounded more than 200: just another day in this spontaneous democratic uprising by Muslim hearts yearning for freedom.

In the delusional vocabulary of the “Arab Spring,” this particular episode is known as a sectarian “clash.” That was the Washington Post’s take.[1] Its headline reads “12 dead in Egypt as Christians and Muslims clash” — in the same way, one supposes, that a mugger’s fist can be said to “clash” with his victim’s face. The story goes on, in nauseating “cycle of violence” style, to describe “clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians” that “left” 12 dead, dozens more wounded, “and a church charred” — as if it were not crystal clear who were the clashers and who were the clashees, as if the church were somehow combusted into a flaming heap without some readily identifiable actors having done the charring.

The thugs in question were Egyptian Muslims. Were they representative of all Egyptian Muslims? No, but it would be more accurate to portray them as such than to suggest, as the Pollyanna narrative holds, that Egypt (and Tunisia, and Yemen, and Syria, and Lebanon, and Algeria, and …) is teeming with legions of Gamal al-Madisons.

This is the Egypt where the toppling of the pro-American, pro-peace Mubarak regime was celebrated by the rape of CBS correspondent Lara Logan amid the familiar chants of “Allahu Akbar!”[2] The same Egypt where, just a few weeks ago, Islamist factions wiped out the proponents of democracy by a whopping 78–22 margin in a referendum on the formation of a new government. The result ensures a Muslim Brotherhood hammerlock on the new parliament[3], and perhaps even the presidency — a Brotherhood leader having announced this week that he will run against the popular but weak Amr Mousa.[4]

The provocation that stirred Muslims this time, as if there had to be one, involved a rumor that Copts are preventing a Christian woman from converting to Islam — and who wouldn’t grab the blowtorch over that? The rumor is probably not true, but what difference does that make? A Christian woman about whom a similar claim was made a couple of years ago ultimately denied that she had ever attempted to become a Muslim. That didn’t stop enraged Muslims — rage being the default condition — from killing 51 people in a similar arson attack on a Syriac Catholic church in post-Saddam, “Made in the U.S.A.” Baghdad.

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, the Copts have been dealing with a rash of “clashes” ever since the early breakout of spring. The Wall Street Journal provides the rundown[5]: a church in Alexandria bombed on New Year’s Eve, killing 23; a Cairo church attacked by angry mobs in March; and last month, rioters in Qena demanding the ouster of the regime-appointed governor because he is a Christian and, under sharia standards, thus unfit to govern in a Muslim land.

Straining to preserve the storyline of a vibrant democracy movement that unites Egyptians across sectarian lines, the Post dispatch was quick to add that the “unrest” in Cairo broke out amid “demonstrations attended by Copts and Muslims to show unity and demand better protection from the government.” Of course, these demonstrations got steamrolled. Why? Because the “Arab Spring” is not the Arab Spring. It is the Islamist ascendancy. Like good democracy fetishists, though, the media is seeing the Egypt it wants to see. To the contrary, in the real Egypt, Islamist ideology is the mainstream, coursing from the beating heart of Al-Azhar University through every part of the country. Without the much-derided Mubarak around to clamp down on it, Islamists have Copts and secularists paralyzed by their habitual “unrest” and “clashes.”

The most ruefully amusing part of the coverage is the water the media dutifully carries for the Obama administration’s campaign to airbrush the Muslim Brotherhood — setting the stage to present the Brothers’ catastrophic accession as a success in the march toward the end of history.[6] In the Post story, the words “Muslim Brotherhood” are nowhere to be found. The “clash,” you are to understand, is the handiwork of the “Salafists.” These, according to the Post, are “a faction of ultraconservative Muslims [who] have become increasingly visible in recent months.” Really? And why would that be? The Post suggests it could be that the “Salafists” are “seeking to boost their standing ahead of elections, scheduled for this fall, by fomenting religious tension.”

Gee, they sound just like the Muslim Brotherhood. But no, couldn’t be. The Journal is even more adamant on that point. Not content to ignore the Brothers’ hands in all this, its news story is an explicit argument that the Brotherhood and the “Salafis” are two very different camps. The Salafis are depicted as the hardliners, emerging from the shadows since “spring” began, and now “implicated in a series of attacks against Christians.” The Brotherhood, by contrast, is the “more moderate” faction — a “discrete political and religious institution” that “condemned the violence.” Sure, they share “a few common political goals, such as the desire to see Sharia law incorporated into the Egyptian legal system,” but you must understand that “the Salafists’ fundamentalist outlook is distinct from the Brotherhood’s merely conservative ideology.” Got that? In fact, “strict Salafis consider more moderate Islamists, such as the Brotherhood, as ‘innovators’ whose practice of the faith includes new or foreign concepts that were introduced into the religion long after the Prophet’s death.”

Hooey. The Muslim Brothers are Salafists. As I detail in The Grand Jihad, the Brotherhood rigorously hews to the Salafist ideology of its founder, Hassan al-Banna. It is a retro-reformist movement that seeks to return to the Islam of Mohammed and the first generations of Muslims — the Salafiyyah (a term derived from al-Salaf al-Salih, the Righteous Companions: Mohammed and the first “rightly guided” caliphs). This is the Islam the Brotherhood seeks to impose on the world, through implementation of Islam’s legal and political system, sharia. The goal of the Salafists is “shared” with the Brotherhood precisely because the Brotherhood and the Salafists are one, as their just-announced electoral pact suggests. What is that goal? Contrary to the Journal’s claim, sharia already is incorporated in the Egyptian legal system: The goal is to make sharia the only law of Egypt, just as it is the only law of Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is the goal of the Brotherhood in all of the scores of countries in which it operates: gradually implement sharia, enclave by enclave, country by country, until a global caliphate is established.

The Brothers have been playing this game for decades: stoking violence but distancing themselves when the violence breaks out; condemning “terrorism” but glorifying “resistance”; feigning a commitment to regular politics but forming Hamas; decrying Osama bin Laden’s attacks on civilians but — when speaking to Arabic audiences — praising bin Laden as a heroic mujahid, a warrior in Allah’s jihad against the oppressors. Yet, when the Obama administration hears the Brothers’ motto — “Allah is our objective, the Prophet is our leader, the Koran is our law, jihad is our way, and dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope. Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” — it thinks: “largely secular”!

This spring, we’re having a clash with reality.

— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.








Killebrew's caring nature shows even when he needs sympathy

As Harmon Killebrew deals with cancer, the slugger has been quick to offer comfort to others. "It just speaks to the character of him,'' Justin Morneau said.

Star Tribune
May 13, 2011

They heard the news on Friday morning. Most of them cried.

Told that Harmon Killebrew would stop fighting esophageal cancer and choose hospice care for his last days, those who revered him remembered the slugger who swung for the fences and the man who refused to build them.

"He just cares about everybody he comes in contact with,'' Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said. "I think that's part of what makes this so tough for everybody, is he's so willing to help everybody else, and you feel so helpless, not being able to do anything to give back to him.

"All you can do is say 'Thank you' for all that he's taught us and let him know that everybody here is deeply saddened by this.

"If there's a better place, he's going to it, that's for sure.''

Killebrew visited Twins spring training this year, even though team President Dave St. Peter and others advised against it, given Killebrew's health. Killebrew and Morneau spoke, and there was sympathy.

"He said he felt so bad for me,'' said Morneau, who suffered a season-ending concussion last season. "For someone in his position, he's telling me he's worried about me. It's pretty amazing. It just speaks to the character of him.''

St. Peter visited Killebrew in Arizona on Thursday. Again, there was sympathy. "I was with Harmon last night, and he made a point of asking me how Gardy was doing because he knows we're scuffling on the field,'' St. Peter said. "It was kind of classic Harmon. He was worried about everybody but himself.''

Killebrew became an original Twin when the Washington Senators moved to the prairie in 1961. He became the greatest Twin, finishing his career with 573 home runs. He ranks 11th all-time in that category, and seventh among sluggers who never have been connected with steroids.

"Everybody knows him because he was the home-run king,'' former teammate Tony Oliva said. "I know him better, and I think he was a better person than ballplayer. Killer would always go out of his way to help somebody else.''

Killebrew insisted that young players learn to sign legible autographs, to connect with fans. He lent his time and name to charities. He made Friday's announcement in part to support hospices, when he could have, instead, maintained his privacy.

He killed baseballs with an uppercut and people with kindness.

"The first time I met him was TwinsFest my first year,'' Joe Mauer said. "I was 18 years old. I met him and it was just 'Harmon,' and I thought he was nice. I didn't really know too much of the history. I was just like, wow, he's a really nice guy.

"I don't know who, but someone told me, 'Yeah, that guy's a Hall of Famer right there.' That's one thing I've admired about him since I've met him, is he treats everybody the same. You wouldn't know he's a Hall of Famer when he walks in the room.''

Another St. Paul native, Jack Morris, grew up idolizing Killebrew.

"I just hope he doesn't go through too much pain and suffering,'' Morris said. "I've been informed almost daily for the last two months. I knew about this before he announced it. If he's finally accepting what he's ultimately accepting, I just don't want him to go through the pain he's gone through, and I know he's been in a lot of pain.

"I just hope they give him the right stuff.''

Morris called Killebrew's home runs "Monster flies,'' and Oliva remembers how they would fool him.

"He would hit them so high,'' Oliva said. "I would be yelling, 'Run, Killer, run!' and he would just watch the ball, and slowly drop the bat, and slowly start to jog, and the ball would just keep flying. He hit them so far.''

Bert Blyleven, who will join Killebrew in the Hall of Fame this July, called Killebrew "a father-like figure.''

Wouldn't it have been nice if Killebrew could have joined him at Cooperstown this summer? "He'll be there,'' Blyleven said. "One way or another.''

Several members of the Twins organization said privately they hope Killebrew can hold on until the team visits Arizona next weekend, to give Gardenhire, the players and broadcasters a chance to visit him.

Members of the organization able to travel, including Oliva and Paul Molitor, were making plans to visit Killebrew this weekend, and other members of the organization were staying in touch via e-mail or phone.

Twins General Manager Bill Smith received a note from a fan who wanted to thank Killebrew for a kindness. Smith forwarded the message.

"Everyone he's ever met has a Harmon Killebrew story,'' Smith said. "And they're all telling those stories today.''

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. •

Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Reviews - 'Stan Musial: An American Life'

Taking a Swing at Restoring a Legend

The Wall Street Journal
May 7, 2011

Over the past decade, Albert Pujols's hitting feats have earned him the admiration of St. Louis Cardinals fans. But what permanently endeared him to many in the city was his reaction a few years ago to a nickname that well-meaning supporters began applying to him: El Hombre. The first-baseman politely discouraged fans from calling him "the man" in Spanish. The message from Mr. Pujols went out: There is only one "man" in St. Louis, and that is Stan.

Stan Musial was dubbed Stan the Man by Brooklyn Dodgers fans, who couldn't help but marvel at the way he feasted on their team at Ebbets Field in the 1940s and '50s. As a transplanted St. Louisan living in New York, I can attest that even today the sight of a Cardinals cap will prompt old Dodgers fans to stop the wearer for a chat about Stan the Man. On one such occasion, a shopkeeper, wistfully recalling going to see a Dodgers-Cardinals double-header as a child with his father, came out from behind the counter to demonstrate Mr. Musial's unusual left-handed batting stance: body coiled, head peeking over his right shoulder, hips wiggling before the swing. "If he had played in New York, forget about it," the shopkeeper said, going back to the cash register. "He would have been a god."

Another son of Brooklyn who was watching those long-ago boys of summer went on to become a sportswriter—one who never lost his youthful affection for the Cardinals star. In "Stan Musial: An American Life," George Vecsey immediately addresses the he-would-have-been-a-god problem, namely: Why isn't Stan Musial regarded as every bit the equal—if not the better—of those kings of mid-century baseball, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams? Mr. Vecsey is right when he says that Cardinals fans have long felt that the East Coast sportswriting cartel unfairly lavished its mythmaking attention on DiMaggio in New York and Williams in Boston, neglecting the achievements of a Midwestern star who retired in 1963 after 22 seasons with a .331 lifetime batting average, 3,630 career hits (fourth all-time) and 475 home runs. In two complex formulas used by baseball stats-obsessives for measuring a hitter's prowess, Mr. Vecsey notes, Stan the Man ranked behind only Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb in one, and behind Cobb and Hank Aaron in the other. Not a DiMaggio or Williams in the bunch.

Mr. Vecsey, who started his career just as Mr. Musial's was winding down, cites a handful of complimentary articles published in New York in the 1940s and '50s as evidence that the Cardinals star received his due in the sports pages. "Don't blame us," the sportswriter pleads. But he is clearly appalled that Mr. Musial is not better known and better loved outside St. Louis. Mr. Vecsey recounts a commercial promotion for the 1999 World Series that asked fans to vote for the top 25 ballplayers of the 20th century. Pete Rose made the cut but not Mr. Musial. "Stan the Man, an also-ran," Mr. Vecsey laments. Luckily, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig had foreseen just such an egregious omission and insisted on establishing a committee charged with adding five players to the list. "The first thing we said was, 'We start here, we start with Musial,' " broadcaster Bob Costas, a panel member, tells Mr. Vecsey.

Does the faded luster of the Musial legend suggest some flaw on the player's part, the author asks, "or ours?" The trouble with Stan Musial is that he didn't make good copy. Joe DiMaggio married and divorced Marilyn Monroe and carried himself with an aloofness that added to his mystique. Ted Williams battled with Boston fans and press; as a Marine pilot in the Korean War he landed a flak-damaged jet at 200 mph and escaped before it exploded. The two men were marvelous ballplayers, but they also provided grade-A fodder for the press—and why wouldn't East Coast writers concentrate on their hometown stars?

Stan the Man, by contrast, played a thousand miles away in the American heartland, married his high-school sweetheart and went to church regularly. He served in World War II, but, like millions of other soldiers, didn't see action. As a player he didn't brood, and he didn't feud; he was a cheerful presence on the field and off, seeming to invite everyone around him to share his delight in having a gift for smacking the hell out of a baseball. He was born Stanislaus Musial in 1920—his father was a Polish immigrant, his mother of Czech origin—in Donora, Pa., a steel-mill town outside Pittsburgh. Musial's hardscrabble upbringing interested writers, but that story could be told only so many times.

These days the 90-year-old Mr. Musial is much diminished by Alzheimer's, Mr. Vecsey reports, but the Hall of Famer was able to make it to Washington in February to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony. DiMaggio was given the medal in 1977; Williams got his 20 years ago. Even though the late-arriving award for the old Cardinal outfielder came about only after a campaign by a coalition of fans, politicians and business owners in a political swing state, honoring Mr. Musial at the White House still seemed like a laudable corrective. So does Mr. Vecsey's book, which is part sportswriter's memoir and part oral history, in addition to simple biography.

Thus we have Mr. Vecsey covering a game in St. Louis in 1998 and happening on a scene outside the ballpark before the first inning: Stan Musial, standing near a statue of himself, spontaneously entertaining a gaggle of fans by playing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on the harmonica he always carried. No security guards, no police, just a great former Cardinal playing like a sidewalk busker, Mr. Vecsey says, "a merry twinkle in those gimlet eyes that had once launched a thousand doubles."

One of the book's many attractions is its evocation of baseball in an earlier era—not simpler, necessarily, but certainly more modest and affecting. In the 1940s, on days off or in the evening after day games, many Cardinals players and their families would gather at a lakeside cabin across the Mississippi River in Illinois, where they'd cook hot dogs and corn on the cob and frogs that the players caught by "gigging" them with a long, pronged stick. We also see Mr. Musial in 1946—by then he had already won the National League Most Valuable Player award and played on two World Series winners—being released from the Navy and, like countless other discharged vets, hitchhiking hundreds of miles home.

The postwar years were his best. He won the National League batting title five times between 1946 and 1952. In 1948, he led the league in batting average (.376), on-base and slugging percentage, hits, doubles, and triples—but a rain-out cost him a home run that would have left him tied (at 40) for the league lead. In 1954, he hit five home runs in one day, in a double-header at home against the New York Giants. With Mr. Musial, the Cardinals won the National League pennant four times and the World Series three times in the 1940s, before the team hit a trough in the 1950s.

Mr. Vecsey offers plenty of fascinating Musialiana: Stan the Man clipped his eyelashes in the belief that he would be better able to see pitches, and he began the time-saving habit of carrying autographed photos of himself to hand over to fans after getting the idea from actor John Wayne when the two had lunch.

The author also tries to weave elements of oral history into the story, but it's a struggle: Most of Mr. Musial's contemporaries are either dead or too old to be of much help, so Mr. Vecsey often ends up talking to the children of people who knew the player in his prime and dredging up quotes from articles and books. Or dragging in folks who have little to offer. Therein lies a cautionary tale about writers trying to fatten up books by venturing outside their areas of expertise. Mr. Vecsey introduces Reggie Walton, a federal judge, who happened to grow up in Mr. Musial's hometown but never met the man. The judge, who is black, talks about race relations in Donora—in an era long after the ballplayer left town. So far, so unenlightening. But Mr. Vecsey, a longtime New York Times employee, also mentions that Judge Walton presided at the trial of former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who "was convicted of leaking government secrets, including the identity of a covert agent of the Central Intelligence Agency." Mr. Libby leaked no secrets; he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice after having had the bad luck to cross paths with prosecutors desperate to charge somebody with something in the sorry Valerie Plame affair.

When Mr. Vecsey hews to the Musial story, there is much to savor. Oh, he tries, as biographers will, to find blemishes that will "humanize" his subject. It's a tough job. The best that Mr. Vecsey can come up with: "He was not without ego. He smoked for a long time. He drank a bit. He could shatter pomposity with a timely obscenity. Late in life, he broke off at least one long friendship over a business disagreement."

Much more plentiful are examples of Mr. Musial's kindness and generosity, like the time he stopped at a bank on his way to a Cardinals reunion and picked up a stack of hundred-dollar bills. A friend who was with him later estimated that Mr. Musial slipped a total of $10,000 to ex-players who needed a little help.

Mr. Vecsey sees his subject as having much in common with Dwight Eisenhower. The two-term president fell in the public's estimation soon after leaving office, he notes, and the Eisenhower era itself was derided "for its—what? Complacency? Stability? Normalcy?" In our fractious times, the author says, "normalcy is looking good." He finds encouraging signs nowadays of fresh respect for Eisenhower, adding: "Maybe Stan the Man's time would come around again."

But to this Cardinals fan, Stan Musial calls to mind another president, of more recent vintage, one who had a similarly sunny disposition and was also inordinately good at his job. A man who lived so long that he, too, drifted into the land of forgetting but left behind fond memories in countless others who smile just at the thought of him.

—Mr. Lasswell is the Journal's deputy books editor.

The Story of Stan the Man

The New York Times
May 6, 2011

Since the time I took my very first cuts with a baseball bat, my father has been telling me about Stan Musial. Not just about the corkscrew batting stance but also about the gentleman. You may not be able to imitate the stance, I think was the lesson, but you could always emulate the man. Somehow Musial slipped from the pantheon of baseball’s immortals among the general public; more fathers chose to tell their sons about DiMaggio and Mantle and Mays, and as their legends grew, Musial’s kind of faded into some kind of runner-up, a tragic slight that culminated with him being left off the all-century team voted on by fans in 1999.

Those are some of the themes that course through “Stan Musial: An American Life,” which will be released by Random House next week. It was written by the New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey, who just happens to also be my father and the same guy who introduced me to Musial’s legend some 35 years ago. He himself was about 7 when he discovered the greatness of Musial, who terrorized his Brooklyn Dodgers but also earned adoration, as well as the moniker Stan the Man, from the Brooklyn fans.

So this book is more than just a result of three years of research and writing; it is a result of more than 60 years of observation and fascination. And it shows. I just got through reading the published version (I had seen it in various stages of draft and redraft), and I can say without (O.K., with) prejudice that it is as fine a biography — sports or otherwise — as I have ever read. It not only captures the essence of a man and his life but also the essence of America and of baseball and the changes to each over time.

It is a proud day in the Vecsey house, to be sure, to see this book arrive. It was as much a labor of love as any project I have seen my father undertake — much more than just a paycheck that, as he jokes, came to about 30 cents an hour after all the time he put in on it. He spent countless hours combing the Western Pennsylvania countryside, just trying to sniff any remnants of zinc in the air around Musial’s hometown of Donora, and he dutifully tracked down dozens of people to gain even just a hint of insight into Musial’s upbringing.

Kudos to my colleague on the second floor on his new book. As one of the guys at my Sunday softball game said to me this week, “It’s probably the perfect match of author and subject.”

The legend of Stan the Man has always lived in my father, waiting to be told. A few years ago, long before this book came along, I caught him in the front yard teaching my 6-year-old daughter how to stand like Musial, all twisted up with a Wiffle bat in her hands, her chin poking out over her front shoulder. After he left, I straightened her hips, squared up her feet and pulled her arms back from her body. Told her to keep the grin.

Big hitter Vecsey scores with tribute to Stan Musial

Special to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Saturday, May 7, 2011

Back in 1985, sports number cruncher Bill James chose Stan Musial of the Cardinals as the best left-fielder ever. But James sighed that Musial seemed to be fading from memory — that Stan the Man deserved as much praise as the heaps dished out to his contemporaries, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. A year ago, in "Stan the Man," baseball writer Wayne Stewart repeated James' theme that Musial was underrated. Alas, Stewart's biography never caught fire, and neither did Musial's reputation.

But early this year, Musial made headlines by traveling to the White House to pick up a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Now, Musial's fans can pick up a new biography that has a shot at putting a new glow of the reputation of Musial, who is 90. The book, "Stan Musial: An American Life," has a big-name author — sports columnist George Vecsey of the powerful New York Times. Attention will be paid.

Vecsey's book contains little in the way of news, although way toward the end, the author notes, almost in passing, "In his mid-eighties, Musial was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease."

Like James and then Stewart, Vecsey insists that Musial deserves to stand alongside the likes of Williams and DiMaggio. Vecsey writes, "From 1946, when all three came back from the war, until 1951, when DiMaggio retired, Musial was every bit their equal — some would say maybe even better. They remained linked into old age, refugees from a time when baseball was king, but somehow DiMaggio and Williams excited the public with their air of mystery and inaccessibility, whereas Musial grew more familiar and somehow smaller."

Well, Musial poses a problem for biographers. Unlike the testy Williams and the haughty DiMaggio, Musial comes across as a plain-and-simple nice guy — and nice packs less pulling power than testiness or haughtiness. To paraphrase Leo Durocher, "Nice guys finish third."

Even so, Vecsey ranged far and wide, interviewing scores of people to pin down just how nice — and how generous and gentlemanly — Musial was, and is. Although the heart of this book rests in Musial's accomplishments as an athlete, a whole bunch of the book's body consists of anecdotes describing Musial's stature as a genuinely decent human being. And if Musial often comes off as less dazzling than some of the other personalities featured in the book — Branch Rickey, say, or Gussie Busch — Vecsey quotes current Cardinals owner William O. DeWitt Jr. as calling Musial "the great icon of perhaps the most visible institution of the city." Vecsey writes that when he was growing up in New York (as a Dodgers fan), Musial was "the most beloved man in his sport."

Oh sure, the book suffers from some shortcomings. Baseball buffs may complain that far too much of the action takes place far from the ballpark — in Europe in 1988, say, when the Polish-American Musial met two powerful Poles, Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II. And readers in general may sigh at Vecsey's insistence on quoting Musial in dialect — "kinda," "gotta," "outta," "wunnerful," "whaddayasay" and so on. A little of that goes a wearyingly long way.

But New Yorker Vecsey makes up for all that with his insights into St. Louis as a fitting showcase for Musial, the star, and with his respect for Musial, the civic hero. And after looking back at Musial's life, Vecsey ends his book by looking ahead to its end.

"Having covered the deaths of DiMaggio and Williams," he muses, "I know that Musial's funeral, whenever it happens, will be far more religious, far more civic, far more loving. St. Louis will get it right. Stan Musial might finally surpass the Clipper and the Kid. Posthumously."

Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.

George Vecsey on "Prince of New York" Stan Musial

By Aimee Levitt
May 3 2011

Veteran New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey will be at O'B Clark's in Brentwood next Thursday night, May 12, for a signing party of his new book Stan Musial: An American Life. (The event is sponsored by Left Bank Books.) Yesterday he took some time out from his tour to talk to Daily RFT about Stan the Man.

Daily RFT: What inspired a New Yorker like yourself to write about Stan Musial?

George Vecsey: He was a great hero in New York when I was growing up. Honest. It's a theme in the book. I saw him play when I was a kid against the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants. New York was where he got the nickname Stan the Man.


If you know anything at all about baseball, you'd know that.


People in St. Louis have worked over this myth that he didn't get his propers because of the era he played in, because there was this bias toward the East Coast.


Musial was beloved in New York. He'd come to town with the Cardinals and get 27 hits in three games at the Polo Grounds and then go terrorize 'em in Brooklyn. There was this day in Brooklyn when the fans were muttering "Here comes that man again." He was nicknamed by the Brooklyn fans. They loved how joyful he was. Musial would hit a ball into the corner and slide into second in a cloud of dust and come up smiling.

Believe me, Brooklyn fans could be rough, especially with the Cardinals, who were their main rivals. But the fans weren't vicious to him. He was a good citizen. You could tell that from the stands. He was one of those players who, when they came to New York, was treated like a god. He was a prince of this city.

Did you find out anything unexpected in your research?

No -- if I'd found anything newsworthy, I would've told my paper. He was exactly the person I got to cover when I broke into the business as a young reporter in the early '60s. He was a sweet, nice man. The book is structured with small chapters interspersed throughout called Musial Sightings. Those are acts of kindness.

Ruben Amaro, who's the father of the Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., came up with the Cardinals in the 50s. He was a dark-skinned Mexican, part Cuban. He wandered into the clubhouse on his first day to get his uniform, and the clubhouse manager, Butch, gave him a baggy pair of pants. Musial came by and introduced himself and told Ruben he'd known his father -- he'd played against him when he was barnstorming in Cuba. Musial not only made Ruben feel good by acknowledging his father, he turned to Butch and said, "Get this man a better pair of pants." Ruben said that made him feel like a major-leaguer.

Some of the Cardinals didn't want to play against Jackie Robinson when he first came up. Musial had played high school baseball on integrated teams. I can't find any quotes, but it's clear from his attitude and his willingness to play, that he didn't [go along with his teammates]. He was consistent about that.

Joe Black, who was a college-educated black pitcher for the Dodgers, told me how some of the Cardinals were making remarks about him. The next day, Musial was waiting for Black. He said, "I'm sorry about that." He knew how to act. Did he get mad once or twice? Did people feel they didn't get to know him? Sure. But he was 99 percent good.

Was it hard writing about someone that good?

​The problem is, he's not a reflective person and never was. He was never verbal, he didn't talk about money or race. He was a see-the-ball-hit-the-ball guy. He stuttered as a kid, and he was reserved about expressing himself in public.

As a writer, you want to deal in controversy. But writing this book, I was aware that so many people had nice things to say, there was a danger of him coming off as a goody-goody. He smoked. He had a drink or two. As a reporter, I wanted to let the evidence speak for itself.

It was a challenge that he was a nice person. The book is laced through with this theory about why he's not more remembered. Ted Williams didn't tip his hat to the fans, Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe. Musial was a guy who lived in a house that he decorated at Christmas. He took his kids to Ted Drewes.

Did you spend a lot of time in St. Louis?

There's quite a St. Louis feel to the book. Musial and his family were off-limits, but I talked to old players, people from the town, customers from his restaurant.

You know the book's subtitle is An American Life. Someone came up with that for me, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It's not only a St. Louis story. He came from a poor Pennsylvania mill town. He was someone who looked around and saw people who wore sports jackets and knew how to handle money, and he figured out how to be like them. It's a Horatio Alger story, about a guy who did everything right. He just hit the ball.

Who Will Restore Reality To Politics?

The Orange County Register
May 13, 2011

Unless things change, the man (or woman) elected in 2012 will be the last American president to preside over the world's leading economy. If things get really bad, he will find himself presiding over the early stages of American collapse. Not "decline" but "collapse." "Decline" is what happens when you're Britain in the 1940s, and you cede global dominance to a major ally that shares your language, legal system, cultural inheritance and broad geopolitical objectives. That deal isn't on offer this time round.

Nor was the United Kingdom circa 1948 in thrall to anything like the same levels of spendaholic insanity. The current debate on the "debt ceiling" testifies to how thoroughly public discourse has flown the coop of reality. Sure, Congress can vote to raise the debt ceiling – just as you and your spouse can reach a bipartisan agreement on raising your own debt ceiling. Go on, try it: Hold a vote in your rec room, come up with a number, and then let MasterCard know what you've decided on.

In the real world, debt ceilings are determined by the lenders, not the borrowers. In March, Pimco (which manages the world's largest mutual fund) calculated that 70 percent of U.S. Treasury debt is being bought by the Federal Reserve.

So under the 2011 budget, every hour of every day, the United States government spends $188 million it doesn't have, $130 million of which is "borrowed" from itself. There's nobody else out there.

In other words, however Congress votes, we're rubbing up against the real debt ceiling – the willingness of the world to continue bankrolling American debauchery.

Barack Obama is offering us a Latin American future – that's to say, a United States in which a corrupt governing class rules a dysfunctional morass. He's confident that, when the moat with alligators is put in, he'll be on the secure side. If you figure you'll be, too, you can afford to vote for him.

The rest of us would like a credible alternative. The Republicans have a habit of nominating the guy whose turn it is – Bob Dole, John McCain.

This time the guy whose turn it is is Mitt Romney. Unfortunately for him, his signature legislation in Massachusetts looks awfully like a pilot program for ObamaCare. So in recent days he's been out yet again defending his record: If I understand him correctly, his argument is that the salient point about RomneyCare and ObamaCare is not that they're both disasters, but that one's local, and the other's national, and that Obama has a one-disaster-fits-all approach to health care whereas Romney believes in letting a thousand disasters bloom. Celebrate diversity!

If Mitt can make this fly, he's some kind of genius. The problems with RomneyCare are well known: Mitt argued that Massachusetts needed to reform its health care system because the uninsured were placing huge strains on the state's emergency rooms, and the rest of the population had to pick up the tab for the free-riders, and that was driving up Massachusetts health costs. So, as a famous can-do technocrat, he looked at the problem and came up with a can-do technocratic solution. Three years later, everyone was insured, but emergency room use was higher than ever, and 70 percent of those newly insured were all but entirely subsidized by the state, and Massachusetts residents were paying 30 percent more for their health care than the U.S. average, and Boston had the longest wait time in the nation to see a new doctor. Last year, I gave a speech to the American Society for Cataract and Refractive Surgery at its annual conference in Boston, and I got a cheap laugh by telling the assembled ophthalmologists that just by flying in to the convention center they'd dramatically improved the city's doctor/patient ratio.

American conservatives' problem with RomneyCare is the same as with ObamaCare – that, if the government (whether state or federal) can compel you to make arrangements for the care of your body parts that meet the approval of state commissars, then the Constitution is dead.
And Americans might as well shred the thing and scatter it as confetti over Prince William and his lovely bride, along with an accompanying note saying, "Come back. It was all a ghastly mistake." For if conceding jurisdiction over your lungs and kidneys and bladder does not make you a subject rather than a citizen, what does?

I doubt Romney thought about it in such terms. In 2006, he was not a philosophical conservative. Like Donald Trump today, he sold himself as a successful business guy, a problem solver who knew how to make things happen. So he made things happen. And, as a result, he made things worse. How does that happen?

Because, to make things happen in a diseased polity such as Massachusetts, you have to get it past the lifetime legislative class and the ever more swollen regulatory bureaucracy. And, whatever theoretical merits it might have had when the can-do technocrats cooked it up, by the time it's been massaged through the legislature and pumped full of steroids by the backstage boys, it will just be the usual oozing pustuled behemoth of drearily foreseeable unforeseen consequences. The inflationary factor in Massachusetts health care was not caused by deadbeats using emergency rooms as their family doctor but by the metastasizing cost distortions of government intervention in health care: Mitt should have known that. As he should know that government intervention in college loans has absurdly inflated the cost of ludicrously overvalued credentials and, in a broader sense, helped debauch America's human capital. As he should know that government intervention in the mortgage market is why, every day, more and more American homeowners are drowning in negative equity.

So RomneyCare is not just an argument about health care. It exemplifies what's wrong with American political structures: It suggests that our institutions are incapable of course correction; it reminds us (as does John Boehner's joke budget "savings" of a couple of weeks back) that Republicans are either easily suckered or too eager to be bipartisan fig leaves in embarrassing kindergarten kabuki; it confirms that "technocracy" in politics is a synonym for "more" – more government, more spending, more laws, more bureaucrats, more regulations, more paperwork, more of what's killing this once-great republic every hour of every day. In defense of Romney, one might argue that politics is the art of the possible. But in Massachusetts what was possible made things worse. That's the situation the nation is in – and the message that America's lenders are beginning to get.

If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

RomneyCare is not part of the solution; it embodies the problem. If Mitt Romney cannot recognize that, it's unlikely that he's the guy to pull American politics back into a passing acquaintance with reality. To put it in Obama terms, America is a moat, and it's filled with government spendaholics. You could toss a poor alligator in there, but they'd pick him clean in seconds, and leave what was left for Nancy Pelosi's shoes.


Today's Tune: Jimmie Dale Gilmore - Just a Wave, Not the Water

The Mystery of the Second Helicopter

By R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. on 5.12.11 @ 6:09AM
The American Spectator

Osama bin Laden as seen in a still image from a video released Saturday by the US Defense Department. Videos of the late Al Qaeda leader were seized in the May 1 raid. (AFP/Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON -- It seems to me that our government had vastly more intelligence on what was going on in Obama bin Laden's ghastly hideout before sending SEAL Team 6 in last week than they are telling us. President Barack Obama told CBS that the odds in favor of Osama being in the compound were "at best" 55 percent. My guess is that they were closer to 100 percent. We know that from satellites overhead our intelligence officers thought they had bin Laden spotted in the complex. A man that they concluded was Osama was seen pacing regularly inside the compound grounds. Called "The Pacer," he was tall, and they figured he might very well be the 6" 4' terror leader. So the order was sent to our SEAL Team to go in.

Yet why did they need a second helicopter? They were only after one man. They could have popped him or snatched him, and been off. The answer is obvious. They wanted to take his entire entourage with him and they knew who composed it. Instead after one of the choppers suffered some sort of difficulty the SEAL Team was left with just one chopper to take some two dozen warriors and the body out. So they left bin Laden's family for the Pakistanis to debrief. Now we shall be squabbling with this insufferable ally interminably over our lost baggage. The mission was a great success, but it was not perfect.

Today our intelligence community is dribbling out just the information it wants the world to know, and I am all for it. The amateur show we saw last week orchestrated by the White House was what one would expect from the presidency of a community organizer with almost no executive background. It was embarrassing, but now the professionals are back in charge. The revelations over the weekend are eerie, but somehow satisfying.

The man who enlisted a team of terrorists agents to get on four commercial jets a decade ago and turn them into missiles cruelly killing 3,000 people lived his last days like a cult leader with a pretty mangy cult. He sat in robes and blankets peering at himself in an old television atop a broken-down piece of furniture. The audio was withheld by our intelligence people lest bin Laden get his message out to the outside world, but I do not think it would have raised his stature in the minds of most viewers, at least most civilized viewers.

It is said that he was a "hands on" leader even in the end. He sent his courier out -- we are led to believe he had only one -- periodically to deliver orders and home videos of himself groaning on. On the videos he dyed his beard for with time it had whitened. What do you suppose his agents hunkered down in various hideouts throughout some of the least inhabitable parts of this orb thought of him? If you were his number two in command you might be too busy hoofing it from one hideout to the other. His lieutenants have a way of being vaporized. Others might feel they had received a celestial order from a prophet, but are apparently not real quick to execute such orders. The fact of the matter is that al Qaeda is not doing too well these days. Kaboom, there goes another one.

Not much is known about the workings of bin Laden's mind except that he liked things to blow up, smash into things, and go up in flames. Presumably, he could have directed action films brilliantly in Hollywood had his life taken a different turn. Oddly he seems to have come to Al Gore's position on "climate change." This makes him the second dubious figure in two months to come to Al's side. Last month Charles Manson broke years of silence and from California's Corcoran State Prison -- no relation to Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art -- rumbled, "Everyone's God, and if we don't wake up to that there's going to be no weather because our polar caps are melting because we're doing bad things to the environment."

I do not know if bin Laden had any helpful hints lately on the environment because intelligence officials blocked out the audio, but I do know that in October he urged his followers to get active in the Pakistan flood relief for, "We are in need of a big change in the method of relief work because the number of victims is great due to climate changes in modern times." Mr. Gore could not put it better, but what al Qaeda might do to improve relief work I do not know. Maybe they could blow up a bridge.

Actually bin Laden sounds like just another American progressive in talking about Iraq and "big corporations." In 2007 he chided our Democratic Congress for not concluding the war in Iraq, which he attributed to the massive influence of "big corporations." In another bull he lauded Jimmy Carter for his book advancing Palestinian rights and commented knowledgeably on the works of Noam Chomsky, whose books I had not known are apparently available in Arabic. Congratulations Jimmy and Noam.

Yet in the end, Osama was a lonely has-been -- a leader of a cult with only three women and some goats, and the women he had to marry. Somehow even the Rev. Jim Jones of the People's Temple exited more gloriously.

- R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. His new book, After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery, was published on April 20 by Thomas Nelson. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: the Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn't Work: Social Democracy's Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; and The Clinton Crack-Up.

Today's Tune: The Decemberists - Down by the Water (Live)

The 10 Best Bob Dylan Bootlegs

The definitive tour recordings from every era of Dylan's career

By Andy Greene
May 10, 2011 8:55 PM ET

In the summer of 1969 a strange new Bob Dylan double LP hit record store shelves in a plain white sleeve. The words "GF 001/2/3/4" were stamped on the cover, though later editions were called Great White Wonder. One record consisted of the tracks from the long-rumored Basement Tapes, while the other one was largely folk covers taped live in 1961. Nobody realized it at the time, but it was the first commercially available bootleg.

Great White Wonder flew off shelves, kicking off the age of the rock & roll bootleg. In the four decades since, Dylan has been bootlegged more than any other artist. In 1991 he decided to beat the bootleggers at their own game by releasing the three-CD set, The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3. He’s since put out six more volumes (always with better sound quality than what’s previously circulated), but it’s done nothing to stop the flood of underground releases.

His refusal to release a single show from the Never Ending Tour, the complete unedited Basement Tapes or countless other legendary bootlegs has led to a very active underground Dylan recording community. To a newbie the sheer amount of material can be overwhelming, but here’s a guide to the best of every era of Dylan’s career. As the man himself sang in 2001, "Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff."

Carnegie Chapter Hall, 11/4/61

Dylan had been playing New York coffee houses for just 10 months when he got booked at the city's most prestigious venue, even if it was in the smallest theater in the Carnegie Hall complex and only 53 people showed up. A great recording of half the show has circulated for years, though the inclusion of the previously unreleased "This Land Is Your Land" on the No Direction Home soundtrack seems to confirm that Columbia has the entire set in their vaults.

Clearly nervous to be on a big stage 40 blocks uptown from the Village, Dylan doesn’t play a single original, instead opting for tried-and-true tracks like Woody Guthrie’s "1913 Massacre," which formed the basis for his own "Song To Woody" recorded just a few weeks later. The highlight is Bukka White’s "Fixin’ to Die," which also appeared on his debut. In less than two years he would hit the main stage at Carnegie Hall with an arsenal of original material.

Town Hall, 4/12/63

Near the height of his protest period Dylan played one of the biggest gigs of his career at New York’s Town Hall. Columbia taped it for an official release and many tracks leaked out over the years, but in 2008 the complete soundboard appeared online with 10 unheard tunes. Through the 24-song set Dylan focuses on finger-pointing social justice songs like "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues," "Who Killed Davey Moore" and "Masters Of War."

In the year and a half since his Carnegie Hall show, the 21-year-old had developed incredible confidence onstage, regularly causing the crowd to break into laughter or listen to his words in absolute silence. Writing in the New York Times, Robert Shelton gave the show a rapturous review. "Mr. Dylan’s mastery of mood built up an almost physically discomforting intensity in ‘Ballad Of Hollis Brown,’ a song about death on a South Dakota farm," he wrote. " 'A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall' about the pollution of the atmosphere with fallout, generated similar tensions through repetition and an inexorable guitar beat." The pristine bootleg is far and away the best recording from this period of Dylan’s career.

The Complete Basement Tapes

Of the many versions of the Basement Tapes to trickle out over the years, the official release by Columbia in 1975 may be the worst. Not only did the Band overdub new guitar and drum parts, eight of the tracks didn’t even stem from the legendary Basement sessions – and some of them didn’t even feature Bob Dylan. A source tells me there are 10 CDs worth of material floating around, but so far only enough material to fill four CDs has popped up. It’s still enough to make it the greatest of all Dylan bootlegs. Not only do you get to hear Dylan and the Band going on a journey through the history of American music on covers ranging from Hank Williams' "You Win Again" to Johnny Cash’s "Folsom Prison Blues," but you get to hear Dylan at his most relaxed and silly as he cracks himself up singing an impromptu song fans have labeled "See You Later, Allen Ginsberg."

In the second half of the set Dylan begins writing his first original sings since his motorcycle crash in the summer of 1966, and they are a far cry from the "thin, wild mercury" sound of Blonde on Blonde. "I Shall Be Released" and "You Ain’t Goin' Nowhere" have become campfire sing-alongs over the years, but it’s fascinating to hear them as little more than early sketches. The latter is particularly revelatory because an early take has surfaced with completely different lyrics, mostly nonsense like: "Look here you bunch of basement noise, you ain’t no punching bag… pick up your nose you canary, you ain't goin' nowhere." By take two they had it nailed. If the Dylan camp has any sense, a definitive, undoctored Basement Tapes box set will be their next release.

Rolling Thunder Revue

The Dylan camp has released two official live albums from the Rolling Thunder Revue. The first, Hard Rain, is an intense nine-track disc drawn from two May 1976 shows. The other, the Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue, cobbles together various songs from the fall 1975 leg. Both have absolutely pristine sound and show the band (led by David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson) in peak form.

The problem is that neither set represents a single show or includes tracks from the other artists on the tour. After all, the tour was conceived as a multi-artist gypsy caravan across America. For the best complete 1976 show, check out New Orleans 5/3/76. By this point in the tour Dylan’s marriage to his first wife Sara had been severed beyond repair, purging "Sara" from the setlist and replacing it with Blood On The Tracks songs like the snarling "Idiot Wind" and "You’re A Big Girl Now." You also get a sense of the complete show, with Joan Baez doing her hit cover of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," Kinky Friedman doing his signature song "Asshole From El Paso" and Roger McGuinn’s solo take on the Byrds classic "Eight Miles High." Just an unbelievable night of music that’s worthy of a box set release.

Charlotte, 12/10/78

Few eras of Bob Dylan’s live career have a worse reputation than the 1978 tour. Backed by an 11-piece band, the show featured radically rearranged versions of Dylan’s greatest hits – with lots of saxophone and back-up singers. Just weeks into the tour Columbia taped Bob Dylan At Budokan, which was originally only supposed to come out in Japan. Cringe-worthy, slick versions of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Blowin' In The Wind" sullied Dylan’s reputation as a live performer for years to come, but when the tour came to America many months later it finally hit a groove. By this point Dylan was playing songs from Street Legal, which was recorded with his touring band. Unlike most of his catalog, these tracks were actually enhanced by the big band. On this tape from Charlotte, Dylan is on fire as the band plays killer versions of Street Legal tracks "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)," "We Better Talk This Over" and "Changing of the Guards." With the exception of "Señor," he’d play virtually nothing from the drastically underrated Street Legal over the next three decades.

Toronto, 1980

Dylan may have faced some backlash when he toured with an electric band in 1965, but it was nothing compared to what he dealt with 15 years later. After converting to Christianity and cutting an album of born-again songs, Dylan hit the road singing only the new material. He also preached from the stage. "I told you 'The Times They Are A-Changin' and they did!" he told a crowd in New Mexico. "I said the answer was ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and it was! And I'm telling you now, Jesus is coming back, and he is! And there is no other way of salvation."

Often lost amidst all the craziness is the fact that the new songs were great, the band was amazing and he was singing with more gusto and conviction than he’d ever shown before. At this Toronto stop (which was also videotaped), he opens with "Gotta Serve Somebody" and rips into gospel classics like "Precious Angel" and "Slow Train." Guitarist Fred Tackett, drummer Jim Keltner and keyboardist Spooner Oldham form the core of one of Dylan’s all-time great backing bands, and the finale of "Pressing On" is positively chilling. Beginning alone at the piano, Dylan is slowly joined by the band and back-up singers into what erupts into what is perhaps the most emotionally raw performance of Dylan’s career. An absolute must-hear for Dylan aficionados.

Sydney, 2/24/86

With the exception of a six-week European stadium run in the summer of 1984, Dylan stayed off the road between 1981 and 1986. When he returned he was at the absolute nadir of his career, but with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers serving as his backing band he slowly began to revitalize himself. "I didn’t figure I had much of an audience," Dylan wrote in 2004's Chronicles. "As big as the crowds were, Petty was drawing most of the people."

That’s a bit of an understatement, and even if it were true the show was largely devoted to Dylan’s catalog. At this Sydney show – which is captured on an absolutely flawless soundboard recording– Dylan is in an unusually chatty mood, telling stories behind songs and lashing out at the rock critics who had been ravaging him. In a nice change of pace from his usual Sixties nostalgia shows, he plays a large amount of new songs – highlighted by "Lenny Bruce," "Seeing The Real You At Last," "I and I" and "In The Garden." The masterpiece here, though, is "When The Night Comes Falling From The Sky." On Empire Burlesque Arthur Baker buries the song underneath layers of horrendous Eighties production, but with the Heartbreakers the song is revealed to be one of the all-time great forgotten Dylan songs.

The Never Ending Tour:

In June of 1988 Bob Dylan kicked off a tour that has yet to stop. Nearly every show has been taped, leaving fans with hundreds upon hundreds of tapes to sort through. Here are some of the best.

Jones Beach, 6/30/88

This is the best soundboard from the early G.E. Smith era of the Never Ending Tour. The setlist isn’t very adventurous, but the guitarist adds an extra oomph to standards like "All Along The Watchtower" and "Maggie’s Farm." It opens with a fairly rare "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and has a gorgeous "Boots Of Spanish Leather."

Toad’s Place, 1/12/90

The single weirdest show in Dylan’s career. This four-and-a-half-hour marathon set was a warm-up before the 1990 leg of the NET kicked off. Extreme rarities like "Man Of Peace" and "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" are mixed with shocking covers like "Dancing In The Dark." By the end he’s taking requests, and playing whatever the crowd yells for. You have to hear it to believe it.

The Supper Club, 11/16/93

The most beloved gig of the Never Ending Tour. In this tiny New York club Dylan performed an acoustic gig that outshined the following year’s MTV Unplugged by a huge margin. Lost Eighties track "Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)" is transformed into a song of haunting beauty, while "Queen Jane Approximately" has never sounded so tender. Ironically 1993 was a lousy year of the NET, but on this November night Dylan played his most perfect show of the past quarter-century.

Woodstock, 8/14/94

He refused to play the original, but in 1994 the Woodstock payday proved too tempting. Playing to his biggest crowd in years, Dylan goes the extra mile delivers fiery versions of "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Jokerman." It was overshadowed by Nine Inch Nails, Green Day and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but he definitely didn’t phone this one in like many had predicted.

El Rey Theater, 12/19/97

Time Out Of Mind not only revitalized Bob Dylan’s recording career, it seemed to have revitalized his concerts as well. With an arsenal of great new songs and the addition of guitarist Larry Campbell, the winter 1997 theater shows are some of the most beloved shows of the NET. Sheryl Crow guests on "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door."

San Jose, 5/19/98

The band assembled here – with Bucky Baxter and Larry Campbell on guitar – ranks among the greatest backing groups Dylan has ever worked with. This soundboard captures them at their peak. "Love Sick" has never sounded so haunting, and "Tangled Up In Blue" soars like it hasn’t before or since. The sound is also better than most officially released live albums.

Tramps, 7/26/99

In the middle of a co-headlining tour with Paul Simon, Dylan booked a last-minute show at the miniscule Tramps in New York. Elvis Costello comes out for "I Shall Be Released," but the real highlights are "Visions of Johanna," "Seeing The Real You At Last" and "Every Grain Of Sand." Dylan’s always more adventurous in small halls, and this stunning show is the best example of that.

Seattle, 10/4/02

Fans were stunned at opening night of the Fall 2002 leg of the NET when Dylan began the show on piano, playing the born-again track "Solid Rock." Shock turned to outright disbelief when he covered the Rolling Stones’ "Brown Sugar" and three Warren Zevon songs. It persisted through the rest of the year – with tracks by Don Henley and Neil Young coming in later. These shows were the most bizarre and fun of the NET and must-hears.

London, 11/21/05

Opening with "Rumble" to honor the recently departed guitar great Link Wray, Dylan pulled out two of his most unexpected songs of his live career at this London show: the first (and to date only) performance of the Basement Tapes gem "Million Dollar Bash" and a cover of the Clash’s "London Calling." He sounds like he was having a blast, and the crowd goes absolutely batshit crazy. If only he did stuff like that more often.