Friday, November 5, 2010

I'm Back

It's been almost six months since it happened and I knew at the time what it was, but I'm still absorbing it.
What happened was that in May I had nifty stretch where I did three pieces for the Wall Street Journal in less than a month. As a writer who was flat out proud to write for the publication six times a year, this was a big deal. And it didn't happen out of the blue; my editor called me a few weeks before the launch of the Journal's Greater New York section and told me to expect a lot more WSJ in my inbox.
It also meant that I was a music journalist again, and this is the thing that I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around. I didn't see that coming, really, I didn't.
Ten years ago, I not only made my entire living writing about music, I made so much I was beginning to consider early retirement. A year later I was scrambling; all the music journalism work I'd accumulated disappeared. It was shocking; I'd deluded myself into thinking that the workload was a reflection of my veteran savvy in the biz. That was only going to increase, so naturally, the workload would grow too, right.
Instead, I fell prey to market forces, and the dotcom crash eliminated close to 60K in annual work.
Bye bye early retirement, hello disconnect notices, harassing calls from credit card reps, and of course summonses to housing court.
Sometime in early 2003 I awoke to the notion that I couldn't stomach the pose as an underemployed music journalist anymore. I simply needed to devote myself 24/7--and 52 if necessary--to fixing my financial situation. That might mean calling on any talent I had and seeing how I could develop it. I knew a lot about gourmet food, cheese in particular, so off I went to find a job at a store and dumb luck enabled me to land a 3/4 gig at a shop near me. The shop gave me an entree back into the world of high end cheese. I began shopping some casual sports essays around to daily papers and in a coupla weeks that turned into a weekly column on the NBA for the NY Sun. I still wrote about music occasionally, i.e. six times a year for the Journal, weekly for Newsday (but I could see the writing on the wall that would soon end, and it did in October 2005). The same week that it did, I got a second sports column. By early '06 I began to think of music journalism as a small and declining part of my income. On the one hand, there was WSJ and there were a few pieces in New York magazine, but the Journal work amounted to about 10% of my income and NY mag didn't seem sustainable (and it wasn't).
It didn't really matter that much to me. The sportswriting was growing. I was good at translating the new math of sports to the general audience and it seemed like that would be a good niche going forward. Music J would be a nice little sidelight to the sportswriting and ultimately to this idea that a friend gave me to start a business built around holding cheese tastings.
With a something like a 50-35-15 structure between sports, cheese and music, my income stabilized and I retired all the debt that had made my life miserable in 2002 and '03. I was just starting to think of ways to diversify my sportswriting endeavors when the unthinkable happened. The site I wrote for decided in not so many words to stop covering sports regularly.
I definitely didn't see that coming.
Some people think I should write about book about cheese, and they're right. Some people think I should write about music, and they're right too. One very cool guy gave me a book idea about sports, and it would be a blast as well. But I think the book I should write first is about scrambling in the crappy post-millennial economy. I'm really good at it. I've spent 2010 in constant fear of 111 Centre St. and I haven't paid a utility bill that wasn't accompanied by a threat all year. Does it worry me, no, not really, I need the energy I'd spend worrying to research story ideas or some such.
So it was probably that I was in such a red alert scramble that I didn't appreciate what those three WSJ assignments in May meant. However, as I ponder the beauty of my recent piece on Bill Frisell, and that it's the first piece of four in five weeks for WSJ, it's starting to hit me--I'm a music journalist again.
Didn't see that coming.
I'm not a one basket kinda guy anymore though. I'm furiously at work rebuilding the sports work and growing the cheese thing. Still for the first time in eight years, the bulk of my income will come from music journalism.
It's nice to be back.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

At The Root on Regina Carter

A new article! This one is at The Root on the great violinist Regina Carter and her new disc, Reverse Thread.

Monday, April 26, 2010

More on the Playoffs

Like most NBA observers, I expected the first round playoff series between the L.A. Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder to be interesting but still I underestimated it. I figured this series would follow a well worn narrative of a young playoff novice putting a small scare into the sage and savvy defending champions. Yet if after these first four games any Thunder fan that doesn't think their team can win is a hardy cynic. The Thunder's performance in games 3 and 4 feel more sustainable than the Lakers in games 1 and 2.
Okay, I know, I know, that's easy to say after the Thunder's 110-89 win on Saturday night, but it was exactly the vehemence of that win that led me to question the narrative at work here. These two teams were thought to be close and upon further examination some trends should give Lakers fans reason to worry. First of all the two teams second half of the season performance actually favors the Thunder who went 22-13 after the All Star break to the Lakers 18-14. More importantly, the Thunder are a very poor matchup for the Lakers. Just as happened with Aaron Brooks of the Houston Rockets in Lakers second round series last year, the L.A. defense is struggling to contain a speedy point guard. In this case, it's the Thunder's Russell Westbrook who is blowing holes through the Lakers defense.
What's worse, the Thunder's defensive strength capitalizes on the Lakers biggest weakness. The Lakers are not a good 3 point shooting team. during the regular season they ranked 24th at .341; they simply cannot stretch the floor. That's damning flaw against the Thunder whose perimeter defenders are Westbrook (6'3"), Thabo Sefolosha (6'7") and Kevin Durant (6'9"), tall guys for their positions with active arms. The Thunder run off steals and they get more deflections than any team in the league. The Lakers offense has ground to a crawl. During the regular season the Lakers averaged 105.9 points per 100 possessions; through four games with the Thunder they are scoring only 98 points per 100 possessions.
The Lakers still have two solid points in their favor, home court advantage (and the Thunder have yet to win a road playoff game), and Kobe Bryant. Bryant was a nonfactor in Games 3 and 4. He will have to be Kobe Bryant, Superstar, in Game 5 for the Lakers to have any sort of chance. The Thunder are packing the middle and keeping the ball from the Lakers big men, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. In other words the games on Tuesday and Friday should come down to the Lakers offense versus the Oklahoma City defense. OKC is winning the battle so far and they have served notice that they will likely be an elite team really really soon, but winning in Staples is still a big step.
If I were a betting man, I'd take a pass. The numbers point to OKC but betting against the defending champs at home in a key game doesn't seem like a sound play either.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The First Round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs

The first round of the NBA playoffs is usually a formality, an opportunity for 55 win teams to show off how much better they are than 46 win ones. That probably won't be the case this year. I can readily see five of the eight series going deep into their second week.
The reason for this is fairly simple; the standings are unusually close. In the Western Conference, only seven games separate the #1 seed Los Angeles Lakers and the #8 seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In the 2-7 matchup between the Dallas Mavericks (2nd) and the San Antonio Spurs (7th), the lower seed has nearly twice the point differential of their higher seeded in state rival. The Western #4 vs. #5 matchup between the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz features two teams with identical records.
ESPN's John Hollinger, a writer I admire, noted this week that in the first round the higher seeded team with the better regular season record almost always wins these matchups, (41 of the last 41 times), but this season looks like its built for exceptions.
I think Cleveland, Orlando, and Phoenix will breeze into the second round, but the other five series will have the drama of a much later round.
The Utah Denver series will depend entirely on the health of Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin and Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko (Jazz power forward Carlos Boozer is also ailing but the team has a more than adequate backup in Paul Millsap); without knowledge on their availability, the series is too close to call.
The Lakers should find themselves in a tough series against the young, inexperienced Thunder. The Thunder's strength is their perimeter defense; they use their length to deflect passes and create turnovers. The Lakers weakness on offense is spreading the floor (they have no consistent three point shooters presently). I can't see an upset but I'd be surprised if this doesn't go six games.
In the latest edition of the battle of Texas, I can see the Mavericks overcoming the Spurs entirely due to the depth they picked up at the trade deadline when they added Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood from Washington. The Mavericks were one of the better teams after the break, though their opposition is somewhat underseeded due to a bad run of injuries.
The Atlanta Hawks won't breeze into the next round but they are significantly better than the Milwaukee Bucks, who are missing their starting center Andrew Bogut. With him, the Bucks could have taken this series seven games, instead it will probably be six.
The Boston Celtics of current vintage usually play a surprisingly dramatic first round series and this season should be no exception. Their matchup with the Miami Heat won't go several overtimes, but it should go seven games. The Celtics staggered to the finish, and the Heat who finished only three games behind Boston were one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch. Seeing how Boston defends Dwayne Wade will be the highlight of the first round. This series will only surprise if it doesn't go seven games.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Knicks Now

It’s hard for a New York sports team to become nearly invisible in the ubiquitous sports media and irrelevant to all but their most loyal fans, but that’s what the New York Knicks have accomplished this decade. They play on the grandest stage in basketball, Madison Square Garden, but via a remarkable sequence of horrible personnel moves first by Scott Layden then by Isiah Thomas the team has become so bad that mediocrity would merit a banner heading in the New York Times. However, the team’s current state of disarray, a roster littered with unproductive players on long-term contracts, probably suits Team President Donnie Walsh just fine. It gives him a chance to build a Knicks team that is squarely in the tradition of their past champions.
Recently, the team appeared to hit rock bottom. After starting the season with nine losses in ten games, it considered signing free agent guard Allen Iverson, a great player in his prime, but presently a cantankerous, ageing veteran that few other NBA teams regard as worth the trouble, then at the last minute, chose not to. The addition of Iverson would not have turned the Knicks into contenders, but he would have given them a pulse, something that seemed sadly lacking in the team’s efforts early this season as it suffered one double digit defeat after another.
The scenario of watching a lifeless team isn’t new to Knicks fans; during a four year stretch ‘04-’05 through ’07-’08, the team lost nearly two thirds of its games. Rudy Giuliani was still mayor and a rising star in the Republican Party when the team last had a winning season in ’00-‘01. But the Walsh era is supposed to be different. When he took over the team in April 2008, he announced that the team’s goals were to be competitive on the court and to get their payroll far enough under the league’s salary cap so that they could vie for players in the upcoming summer 2010 free agent market, when superstars like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will be available.
Selling the notoriously impatient New York City market on the concept of “wait till next year,” is considered a long shot, and Walsh’s concept was more like “wait till the year after next year.” Yet, it worked…for a while. New York basketball fans started dreaming of LeBron in a Knicks uniform like so many children hoping to find the latest cool toy under the Christmas tree. Fans shrugged off the fact that neither James nor Wade nor any other star players were likely to leave a championship contender to join the Knicks, a team that has not qualified for the postseason since 2004. In addition, as much as New Yorkers are proud of their bright lights, location matters less than it used to. NFL star quarterback Peyton Manning, one of the professional athletes with the most endorsement deals, plays in Indianapolis.
Last season those concerns seemed far away as the Knicks played solid basketball for much of the season. New coach Mike D’Antoni installed his uptempo system and the team played with urgency and passion, something not seen in a Knickerbocker jersey in many years. Meanwhile Walsh dramatically overhauled the roster. Almost weekly, players from the Thomas era were sent packing in favor of replacements whose contracts expired before the great summer of 2010. This led to a wellspring of optimism amongst the fan base. It seemed that the plan would work. The Knicks would be an improving team and with that plus the lure of New York City, a superstar would find Gotham irresistible. The giddiness led people to ignore that the final edition of the Knicks roster, wasn’t very good. Last season’s squad went 8-18 in their final 26 games, and it turns out that was merely a prelude to this season’s dreadful first month.
The slow start panicked fans as it effectively puts an end “the plan,” their dreams of a superstar in blue and orange, but it probably doesn’t faze Walsh at all. Although he certainly would like to have a superstar choose to come play for his team, Walsh’s reputation as a leading NBA team executive owes to two decades with the Indiana Pacers where he consistently put winning teams on the floor without following the superstar-and-supporting-cast model of roster construction. Instead, his teams were balanced units of solid contributors.
Walsh, who is 68, was born and raised in New York; he probably has vivid memories of the Knicks title era in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Those teams were also “ensemble” teams rather than superstar plus supporting players. Back in the early ‘70s, New Yorkers took great pride in that fact. Rival teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks had superstars, bur the Knicks won with a cohesive, ego-less unit.
Now, as what will probably be his final act in the workplace, Walsh is set to try and build a winner in New York that is squarely in the model of the teams that still cast a long shadow today. It would explain Walsh’s draft strategy, which has avoided high risk/high reward players like Brandon Jennings, a rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks who scored 55 points in only his seventh game in the league. And, it is why he would choose against signing Iverson. He understands that the Garden has had its fill of players who are superstars in their own minds like Stephon Marbury, Stevie Francis, and Zach Randolph. The Knicks of 2010-’11 are far from set, but what little we’ve seen indicates that Walsh is going to pursue players who are stars in the very best Knicks tradition. It’s an ambitious plan, but under these dire circumstances, it’s probably the only one that can work.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ben Ratliff on Nels Cline's new disc


If the guitarist Nels Cline had joined the revered and more than semi-popular rock band Wilco in his early 20s, rather than in his late 40s, he might never be making solo-guitar albums on the side like “Coward.” This record reflects a far-and-wide aesthetic imagination, one that’s been broadening for a long time.

Mr. Cline’s playing has seriously mixed blood, and when he records multiple versions of himself on electric and acoustic guitars and about a dozen other stringed instruments, he becomes exponentially more mongrelized. He does his version of John Cipollina’s wide runs and fast vibrato; he likes crying slide guitar glissandi, looped clumps of distortion and amplifier hum, the clashing overtone sounds of Sonic Youth and the slow, deliberate, almost monastic music of traditional Japanese koto players. But he doesn’t let anything rest in one place. Meditative and minimal as these pieces may be, they’re written with rigor. Hear them once, and you might only be lulled, but one more time and you’ll hear the purpose and symmetry.

“Rod Poole’s Gradual Ascent to Heaven” is the imposing accomplishment here. It begins and ends with long zither chords, and over the 18 minutes between, links together slowly evolving figures, building and ebbing. Mr. Poole, an experimental English guitarist who lived and worked in Los Angeles and who was a friend of Mr. Cline’s, was murdered in 2007; a piece like this seems the right kind of homage to someone who had the patience to fully absorb long-form music. But then much of this record strikes a similar tone: it sounds like both an advertisement and an elegy for deep listening. BEN RATLIFF

Point of Departure # 21 and Blue Note at 70 in NYT

Issue 21 of Point of Departure is out

NY Times on Blue Note at 70