Sunday, August 31, 2008

In the presence of a Legend

There are very few bands or performers around today who I would classify as "legendary." I define "legendary" as one of the best of all time. U2, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, George Strait ... and Tom Petty.

I've had a general liking of Tom Petty's music, although I didn't really know it was him, since grade school. I heard some of his stuff on the radio and thought it was okay. I liked the Traveling Wilburys songs that I heard. I thought his "Don't Come Around Here No More" video was really entertaining. But I wasn't a real fan. My first real "wow" moment regarding his music, when his name really was planted into my consciousness, was when I saw Silence of the Lambs. "American Girl" was featured for a breif moment in the film, and I really liked it. Then the "Into the Great Wide Open" CD cmae out. It was one of the first five CDs that I ever owned, and I like it as much today as I did back in high school when I used to play it over and over as I sat at my drawing table working on art projects late into the night. It's fair to say that "Into the Great Wide Open" and Rush's "Roll the Bones" became the soundtrack for my Junior year in high school.

I bought my first Tom Petty album in college. It was his Greatest Hits album. At the time, being a college student with little money, my policy for awhile was to ONLY buy Greatest Hits albums. And I played the heck out of it. There wasn't a song on it that I didn't like and only a couple that I didn't really, REALLY like. In 1994 I bought the Wildflowers album - breaking my non-greatest hits policy - and really liked it, too. And then a few years later in 1997 I saw a thing on VH1 about him (I think this was pre-Behind the Music). I determined that if I ever got the chance I would like to see him in concert, but still didn't really consider myself a fan. After all, what would Rush and U2 think?

Fast forward eleven years. Even though we now own several more Petty albums and his work on some soundtracks (Elizabethtown being our favorite), if you had asked me in April I still would have said that I liked his stuff, but that I wasn't really a fan. Then, driving back to Brenham from Houston late one night when Kristi's grandmother had been rushed to the hospital (it was about 3am and Kristi, Kayci and Noble were all sleeping), I was flipping through the radio stations trying to stay awake as I drove between Brenham and Bellville. I happened to land on some kind of news/entertainment show that was talking about new CDs that were coming out soon. They began talking about a CD coming out from a band called Mudcrutch and how good it was. "Cool name for a band," I thought.

Then they told the story about how Tom Petty's band before The Heartbreakers was called Mudcrutch and how on a whim he had decided to get the band back together after thirty years or so to play around (it wasn't hard to get them back together because most of the members of Mudcrutch ended up becoming Heartbreakers). They ended up cutting an album in his home studio and it was due to come out in the next few days. I was curious, but let it go at that.

A few days later I was at work listening to iTunes when a Petty song came on and it made me remember the radio show I had heard. So I did a search in the iTunes store for Mudcrutch and found it. I listened to all of the previews and really liked what I heard. It had a really cool sound, but it was a little more country and bluesy than his usual stuff. So I downloaded it and burned it to CD to listen to in the truck. I found Mudcrutch infectious. Every now and then a CD comes out that defines a certain season or period in my life. Mudcrutch defined spring 2008. I just couldn't stop listening to it. I highly recommend it.

I get iTunes new music updates every Tuesday in my e-mail. One day in July in my weekly e-mail there was a sidebar with artists who were on tour. Tom Petty was one of those, so I looked into it. He was playing at the Woodlands on August 29. I asked Kristi if she was interested and she said "no, check with Johnny." Johnny, my college roommate and best friend said he would love to go, so we got tickets. Then, the week of the show I mentioned to another friend, Misty, that I would be near her house on Friday for the show. She and her husband, Jason, went to the show as well and we all met up at on the lawn.

Johnny and I got to the Woodlands pavilion just as Steve Winwood was finishing up as the opening act. Neither Johnny nor wanted to give up out Man Card for seeing a Winwood show, so we went and had barbecue instead. Tom Petty came on shortly after and I must say it was one of the quickest concerts I've ever seen. By that, I mean that even though he played for a full two hours, it seemed like only thirty minutes. And he played all of his biggest hits. But he also played a couple of his lesser-known songs and some older stuff. And at one point he and the Heartbreakers launched into a ten-minute jam. I was a little disappointed that the newest song he played was "Honey Bee" from Wildflowers. He's released some really good stuff since then, including "Saving Grace" and "Jack" from his Highway Companion album in 2006. And he didn't do ANY Mudcrutch, which I was really hoping for. Instead of "Gloria," I wish he had done "Crystal River," which would make a really nice free-form jam. And "Scare Easy" is easily as powerful as "Won't Back Down."

I've seen Willie Nelson play live three times - twice from less than 30 feet away. As I was standing there watching the show it occurred to me that this show had a very similar feeling. There's something really COOL about being in the same space as a true legend. Even though I was about a hundred yards away from the stage, it still felt great to be there in the presence of greatness. Like his music or not, you have to admit that the man has produced a body of work that is as engrained in our culture and that he's a master at what he does. And that says nothing about the Heartbreakers. Now THAT is an under-appreciated band. Watching Mike Campbell play the guitar was just incredible. I was standing there watching a legend of rock do what he does best. Part of me wishes I had ponied up for the $150 tickets. But that's the part of me that also made me buy purple pants in Jr. High. I've found it's best not to listen to that part very often.

So that's what I did with my Friday night. I rolled back into Brenham about 12:30 and plopped into bed, dead tired but thoroughly satisfied that I had finally gotten to see a performer of whom I will finally admit to being a fan.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Gas prices!

[Note: sorry for some of the strong language in the e-mail version. I always write the first draft the way I intend it to come out and edit it later. I accidentally published the post before I redacted the curse words. Won't happen again.

Buckle up, because I'm fired up. This is going to be a bumpy post.

Did anyone else notice that gas jumped almost 20 cents over night?

Sure, there's TROPICAL STORM Gustav out in the gulf. Actually, strike that. It's not even IN the gulf yet. It's still over freaking Jamaica as I write this. They're not even projecting it to ENTER the gulf until Sunday afternoon which - let me do the carry the 2... - yeah, isn't even for TWO MORE DAYS! And then the National Hurricane Center isn't even expecting it to make landfall until Wednesday!

Why is it that we're told that drilling offshore in the gulf or in Alaska would be pointless because it would be ten years before we would see any of that oil and that it wouldn't affect prices now at all. Yet a storm that's not even in the gulf yet causes the price of gas to rise 20 cents over night? What kind of crap is that? Because it MIGHT disrupt offshore operation on some rigs, so the price goes up? How long does to take for oil drilled in the gulf to get to the refinery, be refined, then make its way to the gas station? I figure a couple of weeks, conservatively. I KNOW I'm over simplifying this. It's not like the oil they pump this week is the gas I'm using in two weeks. I realize they have HUGE storage facilities. I know that the process is much more complicated than I'm painting it here. I realize that any time there's a storm it shuts down all the tankers. My point is that shouldn't something actually HAPPEN before prices jump? This speculation business is out of control.

And then, once the storm passes, why then does it take MONTHS for the price to go back down, not the weeks that a logical supply chain should require? Prices should go back down to pre-hurricane levels (assuming, of course, that none of the pumping rigs were damaged, thereby reducing supply) once the rigs were staffed and pumping again.
[EDIT: Thanks for the education, Layne, on what they have to go through after they shut down a refinery. Interesting stuff. My larger point is that we should have more refining capacity so that a couple of refineries isn't so big a hit to the overall production.]

I was commuting between Brenham and Houston every day during the summer when Katrina and Rita hit the gulf coast. I watched gas prices rise from $2.00 a gallon to $2.80-ish (and over $3.00 in some places) when Katrina hit. Prices subsided to the $2.60 range before Rita hit and they went back up to Katrina levels. And they stayed there. Because they could. People continued to pay the high prices. Because prices have always gone down in the past, right? Why should we alter our driving habits for a short-term spike, right? Three years later, they're a dollar higher, and that's after an almost 50 cent slip since the height of the summer.

So I paid $2.55 this morning to fill up my truck. It cost $70. When I bought it three years ago it cost $40 to fill it. Earlier this summer it cost almost $90 when prices were hovering around $4.00 (for no good reason.) Anyone else notice that in the last month or so as gas prices slipped back a little that the economy started picking up? There's a link. We're finally at that tipping point where gas prices are affecting everyone's bottom lines. Frankly, I'm surprised that it took this long. And also, frankly, I'm embarrased that when prices dip down to freaking $3.45 a gallon that everyone rushes out and fills up because we've been conditioned to think that we're getting a good deal. Why is the American public acting like such a bunch of mind-numbed lemmings? We're told that there are more pressing issues. Crime... Iraq... The upcoming election... What's hot at the box office... What's Britney Spears doing today... So we accept high gas prices as inevitable and continue with our lives unchanged. We put up with - and accept - this stuff.

I don't fault the oil companies for making a profit. That's what they're in business for. And I hope to God that Obama isn't elected because his rhetoric about "windfall profit taxes" scares the heck out of me. Have we come so close to a Communist state that the government can talk about seizing private corporate profits ... and the public ACCEPTS it???? My friends, that's only one step away from the government stepping in and saying that you made too much last year and that your "excess profits" will be confiscated - in the form of taxes - to be redistributed to the less wealthy. That's the point where the government is deciding what its citizens are worth and what they earn. And that sounds a lot like the USSR, pal.

Of course, I come with a solution. It has four parts. First and foremost is for the government to allow more drilling by not tying the hands of the oil companies. Technology has made drilling much cleaner than in the past, which is the primary argument that environmentalists use when arguing against new drilling.

We also need more refining capacity. The US is still refining at the same capacity that it was in 1976, when the last oil refinery was completed. The population has increased 71% since then.

Third, stop the use of ethanol. It's sucking much-needed corn out of circulation in a year when droughts and floods have destroyed crops across the United States. That grain goes to feed livestock and to make things like corn syrup, which is in almost everything these days. The fact that so much corn is suddenly being used for fuel is a huge reason why grocery prices have risen so dramatically over the past year. It's also an inefficient fuel. It takes 26.1 lbs of corn to make a single gallon of ethanol. That's almost exactly the amount of corn a single person eats in a year. And there's still conflicting opinions on whether ethanol is even good for your car at all.

Fourth, continue to develop new and alternative energy sources. Anyone who says that wind power or solar power alone can give us all the power we need is living a pipe dream. From what I've read, nuclear energy is still the cleanest and most efficient fuel there is in any sizeable (read: usable to power large sections of the country) form. Develop new technologies that can be used twenty or thirty years down the road while we wean ourselves off of oil. It's a little scary that I actually agree with Paris Hilton's energy policy. But as I see it, the best approach is a two-pronged approach, not the either-or choices that McCain and Obama seem to hold.

For another great energy plan, read Congressman Michael McCaul's energy plan. I hope he runs for president in a few years.

So, now you know. That's what a 20 cent rise in gas prices does to me. I know, it's not pretty, but I'm tired of paying it and being quiet about it. I hope other people are as fed up with this continuous ridiculous madness as I am, especially when things can be done about it.