Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Late Night Theme

When NBC started airing Late Night with David Letterman, I didn't get it. I thought the whole production, from intro theme to monologue to B-list guests to closing credits was a parody of a late night show rather than an actual show itself. I thought that Musical Director Paul Shaffer was this weird, little person whose weird, little jam music used chord progressions I couldn't understand and an alphabet I couldn't pronounce. The Johnny, Ed, and Doc format had needed an update, a fresh successor, but whatever this show was, it wasn't it.

Man, was I wrong -- especially about the music. What changed my mind? Familiarity over time, for one thing. Youthful sounds of new bands often seem like simplistic, trashy noise in the moment of their creation but later stand as era-specific anthems.

Take Paul Shaffer's composition, "Late Night Theme", which opened every Letterman show in the show's NBC era. Nominated for a Grammy Award, this lead-in fanfare initially struck me as overwrought bombast, a carnival barker's catcall that oversold the host's deadpan visage, comedic gestures, and camera mugging. That was the joke. Everything was amplified as a promise of extraordinary wonderfulness; everything thereafter was a letdown from the promise, and that letdown was played to humorous effect.

So much for pathos; but then...

I attended a Milwaukee Bucks NBA game sometime in the late 1990s. The house band entertaining the crowd during the pregame warm-ups was local jazz saxaphonist Warren Wiegratz and Streetlife, his feel-good party band. What did I hear cranking up slowly but the intro strains of "Late Night Theme". Its funky, slouching, cakewalk rhythms slowly took hold of the arena, and me with it. With its street-shuffling beat and ample set-up for instrumental solos, I heard the music on its own terms for the first time -- and this was the full 4-minute version, not the 90-second, TV-length intro. It astonished me how elated I felt; rarely do I grin when listening to what I previously would have called filler music, but Wiegratz and company absolutely nailed it.

I learned later that Paul Shaffer also served as Musical Director for The Blues Brothers movie, which between comedic passages presented an ecstatically devoted tribute to rhythm and blues music as a uniquely American art form. High-profile, brilliant musicians, from James Brown to Aretha Franklin to Ray Charles to John Lee Hooker, and many more, carried the movie alongside Belushi's and Ackroyd's stylized low-lifes on their "mission from God." The real mission was that they'd brought this wealth of All-Star talent together to play a Hall of Fame performance for a new audience -- and as Musical Director, Shaffer had everything to do with that, from recruitment to song selection to arrangements to control of diva eruptions. He's not just a weird little man, it seems; he only plays one on TV.

Three decades or so later, I look back with admiration on the musical guests Letterman and Shaffer have brought onstage to jam with the stage band, both at NBC and CBS. Some nights they strike out, but other times they have iconic players and acts -- the late Warren Zevon, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters, and David Sanborn are three that come to mind immediately.

I've learned not to judge the musical gifts that are placed before me on the screen; if Letterman, or Conan, or Austin City Limits puts on a strange new performer or band of indeterminate genre, I might well turn it down -- or I might also listen a bit more closely. What sounds like noise today could keep me bopping down the street, at the Motor Vehicle Bureau, or in the doctor's waiting room, in a very few years. Bring it on!

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CORRECTION (May 20, 2015): This blog's fact-checker (me) failed to depict Paul Shaffer's short tenure as Musical Director for The Blues Brothers movie accurately. Shaffer was let go from the film early on due to scheduling conflicts during production, reportedly at the behest of comedic star John Belushi. I've let this essay stand as originally written, but note the factual error for the benefit of this blog's several readers.

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Win for the Buccos, At Last

I have often, repeatedly, and ruefully lamented the lowly exploits of the Pittsburgh Pirates, The Team That Would Be My Other Team, in this space.

Yesterday, March 4, 2012, Pittsburgh's days as a perennially cellar-dwelling National League franchise unworthy of the Steel City's 1970s moniker "City of Champions" finally came to an end. Yesterday, the Pirates agreed to a high-value, six-year contract extension, with a club option for a seventh year, with its franchise player, All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen. Yesterday, the Pirates set themselves up to achieve a winning record in 2012 and win the N.L. Central Division within four years.

You could say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

It's impossible to overstate the break with the past that the McCutchen long-term signing represents. Here's the past: starting with Barry Bonds, the post-Willie Stargell Pirates had lost to free agency, or traded for budgetary reasons prior to free agency, the Killer B's -- Bonds and Bonilla -- along with most other letters of the alphabet. Ex-Bucs stars squeezed out of Pittsburgh's plans for having the temerity to move up the MLB salary scale have included Jason Bay, Jack Wilson, Freddie Sanchez, Aramis Ramirez, Adam LaRoche, Andy LaRoche, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, and Paul Maholm. Jose Bautista just smacked 54 and 43 home runs for the Blue Jays in consecutive seasons; how did your right fielder do?

Fast-forward to the present (Q: Do MP3 shuffles "fast-forward"? I need a new cliche!). The proof of concept, on the field and at the gate, was Pittsburgh's extraordinary first half of the 2011 season. Excitement was up, attendance was up, the buzz around baseball was up. Clint Hurdle's suddenly fearsome 25-some was, for once, the talk of the town in a city that also sports the Steelers and Penguins. The Bucs' epic second-half regression to the mean of their prior performance doesn't obscure the startling conclusion that if you win more, you attract more fans; if you attract more fans, you can sign more players and win more games -- sometimes, almost immediately.

Now, in preparation for the 2012 season, the Pirates are making their move. Atop the earlier Jose Tabata signing, the A. J. Burnett free agent acquisition, the return of veteran Nate McLouth, and the inexpensive trade for former 100 RBI man and comeback candidate Casey McGehee, the McCutchen deal sets in place a multiple-year core around which the Buccos' front office can attract talent and manager Hurdle can develop young players and win ballgames.

As with the Milwaukee Brewers during the past four years, when the youthful core of Fielder, Weeks, Hart, Braun and Gallardo remained intact, the Pirates can be seen as a choice destination for free agents and first-round picks for the first time in decades. Or at least an acceptable one. Upon his retirement, National Leaguer Jim Edmonds recommended Milwaukee as a free agent destination with a lot to offer veteran players; the Pirates have now put themselves in a comparable position to compete in the market for scarce talent, and maybe even avoid inclusion on some All-Stars' no-trade clauses.

Time will tell if Owner Bob Nutting, President Frank Coonelly, and General Manager Neal Huntington truly mean it; will they put forth a half line-up of stars with a limited supporting cast to try to overcome twenty years of losing, or will they now, finally, provide the resources to give the Steel City a full roster worthy of its long-ago winning history?

Of course, if the Pirates' notoriously stingy ownership reverts to its pattern of recent years, McCutchen might not play the full length of his contract in a black and gold uniform. He could be traded, as McLouth was at the peak of his value, to a savvy organization with deeper pockets. Perhaps Theo Epstein will covet an outfield asset for the Cubs, or the Steinbrenner family or the new Dodgers owners will make the Pirates an offer that they can't refuse -- which historically has been far less than what other teams couldn't refuse. Or, heaven forbid, McCutchen could be injured and follow another Pittsburgh sports legend, Sidney Crosby, onto the long-term disabled list.

But for now, the benefit of the doubt is in order. This shot in the arm for the Pirates is a shot across the bow of every team in the National League. The pregame pyrotechnics on the PNC Park scoreboard can finally be matched by its tally of Pirates' runs during the game. The polarity of free agent transactions can be reversed.

Once again, at long last, you can raise the Jolly Roger. It's shredded and tattered after years of neglect, but if you look closely, you can still see a hint of a wild skeleton grin. It's a Renaissance at Three Rivers, Yo Ho!

You in?


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