Baseball Crank
"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
January 31, 2011
BLOG: Open Thread 1/31/11

It's been a couple of days, and none of my long-brewing essays are done yet, so have at it.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 3:21 PM | Blog 2006-13 | Comments (18) | TrackBack (0)
January 24, 2011
POLITICS: Why 2012 Is Not 1996

A little history can be a dangerous thing, and in advance of Tuesday's State of the Union Address by President Obama, political commentary will be focusing on Obama's ability to replay 1995-96, when President Clinton rebounded from a similar rout in the midterm elections to more or less coast to re-election (while Clinton finished below 50% of the popular vote, it was only a "coming home" of Republicans in the campaign's closing weeks that averted a more lopsided result; the outcome was not seriously in doubt).

Undoubtedly, Obama will have the opportunity to take advantage of many of the same dynamics that favored Clinton's re-election, and he may succeed for those and other reasons. But history never repeats itself precisely. It is worthwhile to reflect on the many things that worked to Clinton's benefit that Obama can't count on:

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 1:00 PM | Politics 2011 • | Politics 2012 | Comments (41) | TrackBack (0)
January 20, 2011
POLITICS: Suckers

Patterico notes a meme being rapidly spread by left-wing bloggers: that Glenn Beck told his viewers to shoot Democratic Members of Congress in the head. This is, sadly, the kind of thing the left-blogs try to put over on their readers, hoping it will stick quickly before the facts can come out. But I would not advise doing that while the likes of Patterico are on the case.

Here's the actual transcript that Patterico links to, and as you can see, you'd need to be illiterate to fall for the spin being put on this. After a lengthy diatribe about the growing danger to Democrats posed by hard-core radicals and Communists in their own coalition, Beck concludes:

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 8:25 PM | Politics 2011 | Comments (15) | TrackBack (0)
January 19, 2011
POLITICS/LAW: The Winning Statistic in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

There are a welter of issues raised by the public policy debate over same-sex marriage and whether to treat it, for purposes of the law, as identical to traditional opposite-sex marriage. Among other things, there is the broader debate over the propriety of valuing tradition (i.e., the collected experience by trial and error of large numbers of people over time) and the respect we give to broad-based popular sovereignty in evaluating human relationships. But even treated purely as a matter of quantifiable empirical social science, the legal debate comes down to whether there exists any rational basis for distinguishing the two relationships. The burden of establishing the complete absence of such a rational basis is on the proponents of court-mandated "marriage equality." And new Census data makes that burden harder to carry.

While I'm in favor of granting civil-union status to consenting same-sex adults, I have made the point at great length previously (see here and here) that the most obvious legal argument for why opposite-sex relationships are different from same-sex relationships - and can be recognized as such in democratically-enacted laws - is that they are vastly more likely to produce children, for reasons so biologically obvious they should not have to be repeated. Now the New York Times has given us some statistics from the Census Bureau that confirm the relatively low number of same-sex couples that are raising children (even before we get to the issue of bearing biological children): "About a third of lesbians are parents, and a fifth of gay men are." The Times article breaks this out by region, but even its most optimistic spin shows an incidence of child-rearing that would be very low by the standards of opposite-sex couples:

About 32 percent of gay couples in Jacksonville are raising children, Mr. Gates said, citing the 2009 Census data, second only to San Antonio, where the rate is about 34 percent.

Consider, by contrast, the overall Census data for married couples. If you compare the "All Families" line to the "With own children, any age" line, you can quickly calculate that 60.2% of married couples have children in the household, and 74% of those include at least one child under age 18. If you break it out by the age of the heads of household, you see that a very large proportion of married couples in the prime child-bearing years have children at home - 24.6% for married teenagers, 37.7%, 22.8% and 26.1% for married couples 55-64, 65-74 and age 75+, respectively, but for the prime years 58.5% (age 20-24), 69.8% (25-29), 80.6% (30-34), 86.2% (35-39), 84.9% (40-44), 77.8% (45-49), and 62.1% (50-54). And the declining numbers after age 55 simply reflect people who have finished the job of parenthood. If that's not a statistically significant disparity, what would be? I defy anybody to come up with any significantly-sized sample of same-sex couples at any age that shows over 80-85% to be engaged in raising children.

At the end of the day, this is why the real action in the legal battle - other than simply judge-shopping - is in the proponents trying to change the legal standard by which their evidence should be judged. Because the data is against them.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:00 PM | Law 2009-13 • | Politics 2011 | Comments (27) | TrackBack (0)
January 17, 2011
POLITICS/HISTORY: Rev. King's Day

We celebrate today a national holiday in honor of an ordained minister of Jesus Christ.

There are three men in American history distinguished enough that they have been honored with a national holiday - George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King jr. - but only Dr. King has been honored solely for his time as a private citizen, having never held public office or military commission.

Unsurprisingly, to be so honored, all three men hold lessons for conservatives and liberals alike. All were in some sense revolutionary figures, unwilling to sit quietly on the status quo for the sake of comity and going along to get along, even at the sake of personal danger and the making of many enemies. Washington took up arms against his own government, and forged a new nation unlike any that had come before. Lincoln led a new, sometimes hard-edged political party that challenged a deeply embedded evil afoot in the nation, never backing down from his anti-slavery convictions even when accused of fomenting violence by anti-slavery radicals, nor when half the country took up arms in rebellion rather than accept his election. And Dr. King challenged, with stubborn persistence, the equally entrenched legacy of slavery in the form of Jim Crow laws. Yet by the same token, none of the three was a radical. Washington, like others of his generation, saw himself not as author of a new order but the protector of an Englishman's traditional liberties against novel encroachments such as new and unjust taxes. Lincoln, for all his hatred of slavery, was initially willing to accept the pragmatic half-measure of stopping its spread, and only came to the drastic step of emancipation in the midst of a horrible war. And Dr. King eschewed the call to arms of the African-American radicals of his day, pushing for reform through the system and calling on his fellow Americans not to reject their heritage but to live up to the promises of America's founding documents and answer to their Christian consciences.

America has never been an exclusively Christian country - Washington, for example, famously helped set the tone for religious pluralism with his 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation at Newport, Rhode Island - but we have relied again and again on the Christian faith of so many Americans to form an essential part of our national character. We cannot know where Dr. King's politics would have gone had he lived past 1968, and perhaps his legacy would be more complicated today if we did. Nor do we have any illusions that he was perfect; like many famous heroes of church and of state, and even prominent saints, he had his personal failings, such as plagiarism and adultery. But we know this much: it was no public office, no earthly wealth or power, but simply his faith in the redeeming power of Christ, for sinful men and sinful nations alike, that gave him the courage and the conviction to give moral leadership to a reluctant and at times bitterly hostile nation. Let us hope and pray we never run short of such inspiration.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:14 AM | History • | Politics 2011 | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)
January 14, 2011
BASEBALL: Perfect Fit

Rafael Soriano to the Yankees is a perfect marriage of player and team. Let us count the ways.

1) The 31 year old Soriano's an outstanding pitcher, with a career ERA+ of 156 (165 in his years in the AL), and last year's 0.6 HR/9, 2.0 BB/9, 8.2 K/9 line, while a little off his career mark in the strikeout department, is more than adequate to sustain continued pitching at a high level. Granted, Soriano benefitted from a bizarrely low .199 BABIP, which is unsustainable, but his career mark of .243 across three organizations (2009's .281 was his only even semi-full season above .260) suggests some degree of ability to influence that line. (This is not unheard-of with short relievers; Mariano has a career BABIP of .263 and has only been over .300 once - 2007, when he posted an uncharacteristic 3.15 ERA - despite being a groundball pitcher working in front of frequently subpar defensive infields).

2) Signing Soriano takes him away from the Rays.

3) Both sides get Mariano Rivera insurance; the Yankees sign a potential successor closer, but Soriano gets options to bail out of the deal after the first year or two if Mo looks like he's going to go on like this forever.

4) The Yankees, with their vast budget, are uniquely situated to absorb the inherent injury risks carried by a guy with Soriano's checkered (to put it mildly) injury history (Soriano missed most of the 2004, 2005 and 2008 seasons).

5) By bringing in a guy who's capable of being a top-tier setup man and emergency closer, the Yankees take the heat off Joba (and to a lesser extent Hughes, although Hughes is now fairly well-entrenched in the rotation); the Yankees can focus more on dealing Joba or putting him where he will thrive best, rather than being driven by team needs.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 1:47 PM | Baseball 2011 | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)
January 13, 2011
POLITICS: Opportunism

I've been tied up a bit and was too late to the party to really add anything new to the blogospheric reaction to the Arizona shootings, but looking over the comments to this thread, I am reminded that many of the left-wingers still trying to score political points on this one are seriously beyond parody.

Everything we know about the Arizona shootings points to the same conclusions: Jared Lee Loughner was not any sort of political conservative or Republican, paid no attention to political conservatives or Republicans, didn't even vote in 2010, was your basic unhinged lunatic and recognized as such by the people around him, and had been obsessed with Congresswoman Giffords since 2007. Thus, any effort to use the shootings as an excuse to attack Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Jan Brewer, the Tea Party movement, etc. in any connection with the shootings is dishonest political opportunism, plain and simple. And yet the ecstasy of folks on the left in their immediate reactions to the shootings was palpable from the instant the story hit Twitter, and nearly none of those folks have allowed their initial reactions to be affected even slightly by the facts.

I know why this is being done, but I don't know why anybody should be expected to believe it. We all saw coming clearly the pre-existing desire of the Left to replicate how Bill Clinton benefitted from Oklahoma City. We also saw the the instant efforts to blame all the same people for the Discovery Channel shootings, the Holocaust Museum shootings, the suicide of a government worker in Kentucky, the Times Square bombing, the DC Sniper, etc., none of which held up at all after the facts came out. But the lesson of Hurricane Katrina remains embedded for the Left: the first out of the chute to build a narrative can set it in stone before the facts are available. So we see the same people using the same "frame" over and over again until they can get it to stick. This week's Word Of The Week was "eliminationist," which got recycled endlessly by Kos, Paul Krugman, Peter Daou and other usual suspects (samples here). Which is ironic, of course, as it is the Left that has conducted the noisiest campaign over the past several years to delegitimize the Tea Party and the Republicans it supports through a barrage that has little or nothing to do with discussion of political ideas and everything to do with trying to make citizen activists sound crazy, dangerous, racist, etc.

The merits of the argument that people on the Right were using "dangerous" rhetoric that could have hypothetically contributed to the shootings - even in the complete absence of any sign that they did - are also lame, best symbolized by this rather pathetic effort to explain why it's dangerous to use a crosshairs on a map of political election targets, but perfectly OK to use a bullseye. These angels-on-heads-of-pins distinctions are, unsurprisingly, not that effective in persuading the public, but effective in giving the media a deniable rationalization to keep running stories drawing a connnection that's not there.

What's left is a sort of passive-agressive rabbit-punching strategy: attack Sarah Palin in particular in an effort to politically destroy her over the shootings, then complain that she's politicizing the issue when she fights back (one day we had Chris Matthews saying Palin was "on the lam" for not addressing the attacks, the next she was being faulted for responding; heads I win, tails you lose). This is emblematic of people who cannot bear to take a fraction of what they dish out, and are uncomfortable with robust debate rather than a one-sided media narrative in which all media voices proceed from the same premises.

And you know who really has no standing to complain about extremists? Supporters of Barack Obama, that's who, as we can recall from the extensive evidence of Obama's long, sorded background with hate-spewing and in some cases violent extremists. Sarah Palin condemned Jared Lee Loughner after the fact; that may seem like a ridiculously low bar to set for public discourse until you consider that our current president directed large sums of grant money to Bill Ayers, an unrepentant member of the terrorist group the Weather Underground, to direct a distinctly politicized school curriculum after Ayers' crimes.* Of course, typical of the rabbit-punching strategy, the same people who concoct incredibly baroque theories trying to tie Sarah Palin to violent extremists argue that it is illegitimate and racist to discuss Obama's direct association with an actual terrorist.

None of the criticisms leveled at Palin or the Right in general here have been made in good faith. None at all.

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 3:00 PM | Politics 2011 | Comments (51) | TrackBack (0)
BASEBALL: The New Cap

Let me tell you, spring training cannot come soon enough.

I'm actually talking myself into some measure of enthusiasm for the Mets' signing of Chris Capuano to be their, um, fourth third starter or third fourth starter, depending how you look at things.

It's hard to get too excited about Capuano; he has started just nine games in the past three seasons due to multiple Tommy John surgeries after going 5-12 with a 5.10 ERA (including a 6.08 ERA in his last 22 appearances, 18 of them starts, in which the Brewers went 0-22; they were 83-57 in their other games) in 2007. As with last season's acquisition of Kelvim Escobar, there's a decent chance that Capuano's health will prevent him from contributing anything at all (even if he comes to camp 100% healthy, guys with that kind of track record can unravel without warning).

That said, there is every reason to believe that Capuano can still pitch, if healthy. His per-9 averages of 1.2 HR, 2.9 BB and 7.4 K after his June return are consistent with a solid pitcher who can hold down a #3 spot in a decent rotation and are right in line with his career averages. And he has the best pickoff move in the NL, maybe in baseball, having allowed just 14 steals in 27 attempts in 777.2 career innings, while generating 62 double play balls; if the Mets can settle on a decent defensive second baseman, that could help him a lot. It's something of a concern that Capuano has had huge home-road splits; career at Miller Park he's allowed a homer every 35.7 plate appearances and opponents' batting average on balls in play is a very low .283, while on the road those numbers are a homer every 26.5 PA and a .322 BABIP. But while Miller Park may not be the best place for righthanded power hitters to hit, it's not a particularly severe pitchers' park, and the power alleys in Citi should help (then again, while NL Central pitchers spend a lot of their road games in tough hitters' parks, Capuano has pitched well over the years in Houston, Chicago and Cincinnati; where he's struggled has been New Busch and PNC. Capuano's never pitched at Citi Field).

Anyway, if healthy, Capuano seems a solid bet for a ERA below 4.50 (career xFIP, including pitching hurt in 2007: 4.27) and a respectable shot at an ERA in the mid to high threes, which is more than enough to hang around .500 with a decent offensive team and win a bunch of games with a good offense. For a scrap heap pickup with a base salary of $1.5 million, the Mets could do worse.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 1:31 PM | Baseball 2011 | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
January 10, 2011
POP CULTURE: Bruce Springsteen and the Right

When New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, was sworn into office, he chose to celebrate at his inauguration by joining a Bruce Springsteen cover band in singing the Boss' signature anthem, 'Born to Run'. Governor Christie hails from Bruce's home state of New Jersey, and his zealous Springsteen fandom is perhaps unusually dedicated for a politician. But it also symbolizes a paradox: while Springsteen has long been open about his left-wing political views and has hit the campaign trail for the last two Democratic presidential candidates, he remains enduringly popular with a broad segment of conservatives and Republicans. In part, that's for the obvious reason: Bruce is a rock legend with a ton of fans, so we should be unsurprised that he would have fans of every political persuasion. It's also partly demographic; Bruce's fans tend to be disproportionately white and, increasingly, older, and those are more conservative groups than the population at large. But my own anecdotal sense is that Bruce's fanbase is - if anything - more conservative-leaning than you would explain by those factors alone, and certainly not markedly more liberal. Speaking as a conservative and a longtime Springsteen diehard, let me offer some theories as to why that is. This is not an essay dedicated to claiming Springsteen for the Right, or arguing that he's unwittingly some sort of crypto-conservative, although I do note at a few points conservative themes in his writing and his life. Rather, my argument is that the things that appeal to fans of Bruce Springsteen and his music are, quite logically, most appealing to conservatives.

Generally, we conservatives have pretty low expectations, politically, for our pop-culture icons. We understand that most of them don't agree with us on politics or policy. So, what we look for are artists who have some tolerance and respect for us, some themes in common with our worldview, and sometimes being one of the good guys on something. Bruce delivers on all counts.

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 2:30 PM | Politics 2011 • | Pop Culture | Comments (37) | TrackBack (0)
January 6, 2011
POLITICS: "The Deficit" Is The Wrong Yardstick

Yesterday's swearing in of the new House and Senate, including the transition of power to Speaker Boehner and the new Republican majority in the House, inaugurates a new political season, in which "the deficit" promises to be front and center. President Obama is already sending up trial balloons about various proposals made by the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission. But Republicans should resist efforts to frame the debate as being about "the deficit," because that term itself focuses on the wrong measurement.

Democrats like to talk about the federal government's operating budget deficit as if it is a matter of balancing income against spending. It's not. The money taken in by the federal government is taxes, but taxes are not income; they are simply a subset of the income of the private sector, in the same way that the money you withdraw from your bank account is only a subset of your bank balance. If you want to know whether you can afford to buy something, you look to the size of that bank balance (and the sources of real income that go into your deposits), not simply into whether you withdrew enough money to pay the latest credit card bill.

The mistake made in talking about "the deficit," then, is in assuming that fiscal responsibility comes from matching public spending with the government revenues used to pay for that spending in the short term, rather than with the actual income produced by the private sector. It is the money thrown off by the private sector that is the ultimate source of all public spending, and therefore any sane measurement of real fiscal responsibility will measure the outflows (public spending) as a fraction of real income (private sector income) rather than the intermediate step of taxing real income. The larger that fraction is, the less the private sector has to work with to continue producing growth and a high standard of living; in short, the more of our private sector income we are spending today on government, the less we will have to leave to our children, regardless of how high or low we set our tax rates. Put another way, the problem isn't that the government is spending more than the government takes in, but that the government is spending too much of what we create. (Keynsian economics, which is based on trying to create short-term growth with public spending, is fatally flawed because it ignores all but the shortest term effects of public spending - a predictable failing in the work of a childless economist and a director of the British Eugenics Society). Anybody who tells you that the federal budget operating deficit is a better measure of fiscal responsibility than comparing public spending to private sector income is simply trying to mislead you and isn't serious about long-term fiscal responsibility.

Moreover, the broader question isn't just federal spending, but all public spending, federal, state and local, although a good start to keeping a restraining hand on state and local spending is to refuse to use the federal government's fiscal printing presses to bail out imprudent state and local governments, and in the long run stop using Washington as a tax collector for state and local governments, as happens in the myriad ways that revenues are raised nationally and then laundered back to the states.

As I have explained before, the federal budget deficit is only a symptom, and an imprecise one at that. Public spending of privately created resources, depleting the source of future growth, is the disease. If we restore the proper balance of robust private sector growth to a limited public sector, we'll have no problem in the long run handling any operating deficits; if we don't, the size of the operating deficit will be the least of our concerns. If the GOP is serious about setting our fiscal house in order, the new Republican majority must resist at every turn the urge to treat the symptom rather than the disease.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 9:12 AM | Politics 2011 | Comments (82) | TrackBack (0)
January 5, 2011
BASEBALL: Power and Speed

Joe Posnanski and Jim Caple, both of whom I respect, argue that steroid use is indistinguishable, for Hall of Fame purposes, from amphetamines, which we know to have been prevalent in years past and undoubtedly used by many players now enshrined in Cooperstown. I disagree.

I've explained previously here and as far back as 2002 why I didn't think steroid users should be held out of the Hall of Fame, and here why I tend to mistrust the agendas of a lot of people on both sides of the question who write on this issue. So, don't confuse this for an apologetic for sportswriters' preening and highly selective outrage on the topic. On the other hand, I remain utterly unconvinced by the claim that steroids do not aid performance in baseball.

But it's a vast oversimplification to argue that amphetamines and steroids are exactly the same, or that the distinction between the two is totally illogical. An amphetamine is, basically, a mind-altering drug, like alcohol or caffeine or marijuana - you take it, it has an effect, the effect wears off unless you take more. (Once upon a time, the military used to give it to pilots). Steroids, by contrast, alter the very structure of your body, enabling the growth of more muscle tissue. On some level, taking steroids changes you, not just your daily mood or perception or energy level.

Is this an oversimplified distinction? Sure. Both mind- and body-altering drugs basically screw with your body chemistry, and given the physiological connection between brain and body it would be silly to overstate the distinction or ignore how things like speed and booze affect your motor skills. And it's also true that while steroids have persistent effects, they're not indefinite - guys who go off the juice are rarely able to sustain the same level of muscle mass, and tend to either sort of deflate or get fat.

But distinctions of this nature are not at all unusual in the way we draw moral, ethical, legal and practical rules, which are often based on the way our moral intuition interacts with our practical experiences after considering a variety of factors, rather than making rules based solely on one-line logical syllogisms. There are reasons why we have laws against pot and not booze or cigarettes, and while you can disagree with the distinctions of degree involved, those distinctions are not meaningless. It's not irrational at all to see the alteration of the structure of the body by illegal and dangerous substances as a step too far, even compared to taking mind/mood altering drugs on game day. It's also not irrational to look at some of the really unusual career paths of some known steroid users and see no parallel to a similarly dramatic effect discernible among amphetamine users.

Should we ban steroid users from the Hall? No. But is it crazy to treat them as more problematic than guys who took speed? Not at all.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:54 PM | Baseball 2011 | Comments (15) | TrackBack (0)
POP CULTURE: The Lost Black Voice of Rock

Race is only skin deep, but so is voice; it's one attribute that is indelibly intertwined with racial identity. Let us consider the tragic loss of the black voice in rock n' roll.

Rise

Listen with me to the voice of Chester Arthur Burnett, a/k/a Howlin' Wolf*:

The birth of rock n' roll is usually traced back to the early African-American bluesmen, from Robert Johnson in the mid-1930s to Muddy Waters in the late 1940s and early 1950s. If you listen to those artists, you can see why; their vocal and guitar stylings are quite different from the prevailing Big Band, jazz and country/bluegrass sounds of their era, and you can hear echoes of the rock artists that have covered their songs and built on their foundation. But Johnson and Waters are not, themselves, rock; you would not confuse them with rock recordings. It's listening to the more raucous and powerful voice of Howlin' Wolf that you can hear, for the first time, the blues become something that would become rock. And Howlin' Wolf, even moreso than his predecessors, did so with a voice no white man could quite duplicate. It's why he was such a big influence on early rockers, especially the Rolling Stones, who - while they took their name almost by accident from a Muddy Waters song - not only imitated Howlin' Wolf but opened doors for him to perform with them on white television (which in the early 60s was the only kind of television there was):

Rock, from the time of its inception, was predominantly black music. Never solely so; for example, one of the genre's most important forefathers was electric guitar inventor Les Paul. Rock's early days included a lot of people like Jerry Lee Lewis who brought country influences into what became rockabilly (Carl Perkins, the King of Rockabilly, drew more obviously on both sources). And even Elvis, who famously got his big break because he was seen as a white man who could sing rock in the style of a black man, still drew a lot of his sound as a crooner from the Bing Crosby school of smooth singing. But many of the most dynamic, influential and oft-imitated early rockers - Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino - were African-American. As those early stars faded and the first generation of great rock bands arrived, the influences of the black pioneers were obvious - the Beatles covered songs by Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys just openly stole his riffs, and the Stones recorded standards by the bluesmen. Yet, as white bands built on what they'd started, the voice of black singers was still something distinctive and irreplaceable.

Peak

That voice had moved by the early 60s to early R&B and soul, personified first and foremost by Ray Charles and James Brown in the late 1950s, but followed over the next decade by a long series of artists on the Motown and Stax Records labels: Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Supremes, and many others. Ray Charles, James Brown and the Motown/Stax artists were commercially anchored in black radio and live performances to black audiences, but they crossed over repeatedly to white radio, and their work was frequently covered or influential on white artists. The instruments, the beats, the styles of production - both black and white artists of that era had a lot in common. And the relationship wasn't entirely one-way, either; the Motown/Stax sound was influenced by white writers and producers like Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and Phil Spector, and leading black artists would also cover songs by white artists. Consider Wilson Pickett's version of Hey Jude, written by Paul McCartney and featuring the guitar stylings of Duane Allman.

The point of the foregoing is to emphasize that the 1960s were a high watermark for the cross-pollination of the most popular genres white and black music, and that a major component of that was the mainstream white rock audience's acceptance of black artists and the unique sounds of black vocalists. True, African-American influences have always been a part of the American musical scene, from the influence of the old 'Negro' spirituals on American folk music to the influence of black jazz on the Big Band era; there's really no dispute that no other racial, ethnic or religious group has had as much influence on American music. And true, too, music's audiences were still basically segregated in the 60s - white listeners listened mainly to Top 40 and the newly-emerging FM rock radio, while black audiences generally listened to R&B and Soul stations. And true as well that while black artists influenced and were influenced by white artists, and white audiences embraced black artists, it seems that black audiences still mostly listened only to black artists. Musical integration was never truly symmetrical. But the musical ferment of that era was nonetheless the product of remarkable talents of both races feeding off one another's sounds.

Jimi

At the apex of this era, in 1967, rock got its first true black superstar. Jimi Hendrix wasn't an R&B musician crossing over to rock; he was straight-up rock n' roll, the archetypical guitar god. He was also his own lead vocalist, and while vocals were never Hendrix's forte, there was no confusing him with a white man.

Did Hendrix bring a lot of black fans into rock, or even into his own music? I can't answer that question, and I'm not sure the data is really out there to study the question in a systematic way, but it's hard to detect any real signs of a cultural shift among black audiences (check out the sea of white faces in the crowd shots at any Hendrix show). I do know that his career lasted only four short years after Monterey, and that he died at age 27, probably leaving more great music on the table than anybody in rock history (only Duane Allman and Otis Redding could really compete). Hendrix had his share of problems handling success and more than his share of drug issues, but unlike, say, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain, there's nothing in Hendrix's life that makes it that hard to imagine him surviving, as Clapton and Keith Richards did, and prospering to this day as a 68 year old creative genius carrying the blues not as a pursuing demon but as an old companion, his self-designed studio still attracting younger artists. If that had happened, I have to believe that somewhere along the line, Hendrix would eventually have attracted a following both of black fans and black imitators, and maybe helped keep a bridge open from the rock world to the African-American audience.

It was not to be. There were other black rockers (e.g. Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy), and eventually in the late 80s there were a few who tried to step into Hendrix's shoes (Lenny Kravitz, Living Colour, Slash - Slash's mother is African-American), but times had changed, and the moment could not be recaptured. There was never another time when you could find a black face among the handful of rock's biggest stars. Hendrix had come along at a moment in rock history when it was possible to imagine a genuine integration of black music and the rock world that owed so much to its black forbears. That possibility would evaporate within half a decade.

The Breakup

The world didn't change overnight when Jimi Hendrix died; it never does. But the trends started moving in different directions. Motown and Stax suffered a series of reversals between 1967 and 1972 - Otis Redding died, Sam & Dave broke up (as, later, would the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas, as well as Sly & the Family Stone, which wasn't a Motown or Stax act but shared a similar sound), the Holland/Dozier/Holland songwriting team left Motown, and eventually Motown left Detroit in 1972, around the time Stax went into irreversible decline. Many of the signature artists of that era - the Four Tops, the Temptations - never found the same success after the early 1970s, while others (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles) went into slower decline.

At first, the next generation of Motown artists, like Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, recorded in something like the old style, and by the early to mid 70s, Stevie's various experiments included funkier rock (Superstition, his best song, remains the high watermark of his rock influences). But by around 1976, tastes and trends were changing quickly. R&B and Soul moved more in the direction of crooners like Barry White and Teddy Pendergrass who had little in common with anything being done by the rock bands of the era, and then the disco craze hit, propelling stars like Diana Ross, Donna Summer and Gladys Knight to success that left the old Motown sound in the dustbin. Some mainstream rock acts (the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Rod Stewart) tried their hands at disco as well, but unlike the blues, disco had no lasting imprint on the rock world.

It's debatable, given the complex racial politics of the 70s, what drove white and black audiences in divergent musical directions from the mid-70s on, but the trends away from the Motown and blues sounds were evident on both sides. Led Zeppelin drew openly on the blues roots that traced back to Jimmy Page's Yardbirds days, but the success of Zeppelin ushered in a whole era of metal that would be almost entirely white, as were the glam rock of acts like David Bowie and Queen, the ethereal sounds of the likes of Yes, Styx, Supertramp and eventually Journey, the mellow California rock of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, and most of all punk, which rose and fell in parallel with disco (neither the prime years of Sex Pistols, the Clash, nor even the Ramones lasted much longer than those of the Bee Gees). (I'm simplifying here by skipping the rise of reggae, which had only a modest impact on the rock world.) The keepers of the flame of the integrated musical heritage of the mid-60s - Springsteen, Southside Johnny, even the Blues Brothers (backed by essentially the old Stax house band) - were audibly out of step with their times. And when the waters of disco and punk receded, the nascent genre of rap began to emerge.

The Aftermath

And that, for the most part, is where we stand today: despite its black roots, rock is made by and for white people, abandoned by African-American performers and audiences alike. Oh, every few years we get a black-fronted rock act - Living Colour, Lenny Kravitz, Hootie and the Blowfish, Ben Harper. But they don't represent a significant movement, anymore than Grant Fuhr represented a significant movement in the NHL. Michael Jackson's Beat It aside, the leading black performers popular with black audiences haven't set more than a toe in the rock world in the past 30 years; the lone exception would be Prince, who in his 80s heyday melded electric guitars with current funk. And Prince has been over the hill for almost 20 years. Black women have been even more absent in the ranks of rock vocalists - any list of the best straight-up rock acts of all time will get down in the hundreds before you locate a black female lead vocalist, even though the pool of talented black female singers is perennially deep, and their voices unique (as one can see by the number of major rock acts that have drawn on black women for backing vocals).

This doesn't mean that the music world is wholly segregated today - there's still crossover in other formats (like Elvis back in the day, arguably the biggest star in rap is a white man, Eminem), although surely the gulf between rock and other formats contributes to a more generally heightened level of segregation in radio and live entertainment. But the loss of black influence and interest in rock is surely a loss for rock, and a contributing cause in the fragmentation of the nation's musical culture. Some voices can never be entirely replaced.

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Posted by Baseball Crank at 8:54 AM | Pop Culture | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)