My Muhammad Ali Moment

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The Greatest

Muhammad Ali, the three-time heavyweight champion and self-proclaimed “Greatest of All Time,” died on Friday at the age of 74. The moment shouldn’t have been much of a shock—Ali had suffered from the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease for more than 20 years—but when I saw the news, it stopped me in my tracks. People across the world reacted in a similar fashion, and over the weekend came an outpouring of tributes and remembrances. I don’t have the personal connection with Ali that many do. I never met him, after all, and the actions both in the ring and out that made him famous nearly all happened long before I was born. But I do have one brief Ali story that I think illustrates, in a small way, Ali’s enduring legacy.

Seven or eight years ago, I lived in the Grand Lake neighborhood of Oakland. The Town’s gentrification process had begun, but this was before the tech boom truly took off, and Grand Lake was a sort of Bay Area crossroads—you could make an argument that between the diversity, Oakland’s nice weather, and the proximity to nice restaurants, the farmers market, parks, and Lake Merritt, Grand Lake was the best neighborhood in the Bay Area. At any rate, Grand Avenue had a few old dive bars that I used to like to hit up. The best one of these for watching sports was a place called Smitty’s. Smitty’s was a dark, dank dive, a place populated by old-school Oakland Raiders fans, where you drank Budweiser and well liquor and where smoking was still tacitly permitted long after it had been made illegal in California. In other words, a real dive bar.

Anyway, one random weeknight (I seem to remember it being a Thursday, but I was in grad school, and the nights kinda blend together) I was barhopping my way around Grand Avenue with a friend and we stopped into Smitty’s. The bar was pretty lively, a good crowd of old-school Oakland (i.e., black) dudes drinking cheap booze, smoking, talking shit. I guess there wasn’t any live sports going on that night, so the TV above the bar was tuned to ESPN Classic, which was showing the Rumble in the Jungle, the famous 1974 Ali–George Foreman championship fight in Zaire that was later the subject of the fantastic documentary When We Were Kings. This bout was Ali’s greatest triumph: He was attempting to become the first three-time heavyweight champion after having been stripped of his title and sent to jail for refusing to serve in Vietnam. His opponent was the towering Foreman, who had recently destroyed Joe Frazier and who seemed invincible. (People from my generation mostly associate Foreman with his eponymous grilling machine and with the goofy-uncle persona he took on in TV commercials, but in the 1970s Foreman was the scariest man on Earth. He was basically Godzilla in boxing trunks.)

During the early rounds of the match, the crowd at the bar didn’t seem too interested in the fight. After all, the early part of the fight wasn’t that interesting. Ali threw the occasional jab and hook that caused Foreman’s face to puff up, but he was mostly content to pull his arms in and allow Foreman to throw huge punches at his sides and elbows. These punches looked daunting, but they were mostly harmless, and Foreman grew tired from carrying the action. Ali later called this his “rope-a-dope” strategy. Then, late in the fifth round, Ali fired back at Foreman, landing a series of blows to the head, and all the eyes in the bar shifted upward. My fellow patrons started pointing at the screen, talking about the fight. Then Ali went back to leaning against the ropes, taking more harmless shots, and sprinkling in pinpoint accurate jabs—while talking shit to Foreman the entire time. By the end of the seventh round, Foreman was listing and stumbling as he threw his punches.

Then, the eighth round, which all students of boxing know was the last. From the bell, the whole bar was rapt. For most of the eighth, Ali kept rope-a-doping, and then, with 30 seconds left, he finally attacked.

That roar you hear from the crowd in Kinshasa? I swear that it was just as loud that night in Smitty’s. As Ali launched that vicious four-punch combo, the men around me flew out of their seats and screamed at the screen, jumping up and down and slapping hands like the fight was happening, live, in that very moment.

At the time, I thought this was a quirky, only-in-Oakland moment. But over the years I’ve changed my mind. Yes, it probably matters that it was in Oakland, the home of the Black Panthers, a city that, perhaps more than any other, can identify with a fighter who stood for Black Power. But I also think that it transcends Oakland, and shows how iconic Ali was. Could any other boxer, any other athlete, captivate a crowd like that—in any city—more than 30 years later?

Ali was not a perfect man. He was vindictive, and unforgivably cruel to his great rival, Frazier. But he was also a hero, a man who stood for his principles, who reached the greatest heights of his sport only to be cut down early and publicly by disease. He was larger than life. And yet, he was human.

On Friday night, I was at a friend’s apartment playing music. I took a break to look at my phone, and saw the news of Ali’s death. I turned to the room and said, “Holy shit. Muhammad Ali died.” We all grew quiet for a moment. And then we played this song, our own small, folky tribute to the Greatest of All Time. Ali may be leaving, but the fighter still remains.

 

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2016 NBA Playoff Preview

My faithful readers (both of them) may have noticed that I haven’t written an NBA column this season. There are two reasons for this. First, lack of time (once again, adulthood sucks); second, and more importantly, the record-breaking season that my beloved Golden State Warriors just played has been so unbelievably full of joy and amazement that I didn’t want to risk jinxing it by making any predictions or proclamations. My anti-jinx efforts are all well and good, but I’ve been writing this particular column too long for me to quit now. I know my attorney will probably cease to represent me if I don’t write this (although he’s stopped taking my calls anyway, for some reason, ahem). Plus, just in case I’m right, there’s no way I can let the playoffs go by without getting some picks on record. So, here goes. We’ll start with the JV conference—which actually isn’t all that JV anymore.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

First Round

Cleveland over Detroit 4-1: Most analysts think that the Pistons can actually push the Cavs in this series, and I’m inclined to agree that the games will be close. This sort of series happens all the time: a young squad makes the postseason for the first time and gos up against a veteran championship contender. Anecdotally, it seems like the young squad always wins one home game, blows a winnable home game, and then can’t quite figure out how to win a road elimination game. I see that formula coming through here. The only real question: will LeBron ask Andre Drummond to donate some of his shoulder hair for LeBron’s hairplugs.

Toronto over Indiana 4-2: I see Paul George winning at least one game by himself, and the Pacers will probably grit at one more win at home, but I really like this Toronto team—I know they’ve choked in the playoffs the last couple of years, but they played the Dubs very tightly in two different games, and Kyle Lowry is a true badass Philly point guard. He’s not letting them go out like that this team.

Atlanta over Boston 4-3: The Celtics were a great story this season, and they looked great in both their games against the Dubs, but I think Atlanta has a little more high-end talent,  Coach Buds neutralizes the edge that Brad Stevens would have over most opposing coaches, and the homecourt in Game 7 will ultimately matter.

Charlotte over Miami 4-2: I don’t really believe in this pick, honestly. But every other pick of mine went chalk, and I wanted one first round upset, so I picked the team that has a star point guard from my home borough, the Boogie Down Bronx. I will say that Charlotte has played really well in the second half, and they have a great home record, and if they do get to Game 6 with a chance to close at home, I think they’ll do it.

Second Round

Cleveland over Charlotte  4-1: I’m just really bummed we’re not gonna get a Cavs-Heat series.

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This would have been fun

Toronto over Atlanta 4-3: I could definitely see Atlanta taking it from Toronto, especially given that I think that having Coach Buds gives them a late-game tactical advantage. But I think those Toronto fans will show-up big for a Game 7 in the T-Dot, and the Raptors will pull it out.

Conference Finals

Cleveland over Toronto 4-2: God, I want to pick a Raptors upset soooooooo bad. I really think this Cleveland team is overrated and that, given the drama they’ve had this year courtesy of LeBron’s Twitter account, the locker room will fracture when they face real adversity. But while I like the Raptors, I just can’t quite see them pulling it off. (If Toronto does make the Finals, I’ll hate myself for not having the guts to pick it.) So LeBron will make a remarkable sixth straight trip to the Finals.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

First Round

Golden State over Houston 4-0: The truth is, I was hoping the Dubs would avoid the Rockets, only because of this scenario: Patrick Beverley dives at Steph Curry’s legs, knocking Ghost Pepper out for the playoffs (like Beverley did to Russell Westbrook a few years ago)…

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And then Draymond Green murders Beverley (in the NBA’s first ever on-court homicide) and gets banned for life. Dynasty over. There’s like a 10 percent chance of this happening. But otherwise, even though Houston played the Dubs better than people remember in last year’s Conference Finals, I just don’t see this Dubs team fucking around and losing focus and dropping even one game in this series. Think Rockets fans will be doing MVP chants for the Beard when they’re down by 25 in the fourth quarter and about to get swept? Um, no.

San Antonio over Memphis 4-0: The Grit-n-Grind Grizz deserve so much credit for overcoming an Iwo Jima of a season to make the playoffs. But the Spurs are gonna wipe the floor with them.

Oklahoma City over Dallas 4-1: I referred to the East as the JV Conference earlier, even though that side of the bracket is actually much more balanced and competitive. The reason, of course, is that the top two teams in the league are in the West, and three-seed OKC is probably dead even with the East favorites. I have a ton of respect for Dirk and Rick Carlisle and what Dallas managed to do with a patchwork roster this year—and that’s the only reason I’m not predicting a sweep, because the Thunder are going to run the Mavs off the floor.

LA Clippers over Portland 4-2: The Clippers, despite being the biggest head-case franchise west of Cleveland, are probably the fifth best team in the league. They’re really good, even if no one’s sure how they’re going to react to reintegrating Blake Griffin. I’m probably a little biased toward the Blazers because of my love of both PDX and Oakland’s own Damian Lillard, but I think Portland will push th Clippers and send this to six before CP3 puts his foot down. Keep representing the O, Dame.

Second Round

Golden State over LA Clippers 4-0: I’m probably being too cocky here. The Clippers really shouldn’t get swept in this series. But there are a couple reasons I think it will happen: 1) The Dubs mind-fucked the Clips early this year with that big comeback in LA; and 2) This Dubs team fucking HATES this Clippers team because of the 2014 playoff loss, the shit Doc Rivers talked this offseason, and the years of chippy play. I think the Dubs are going to come out and do their best to embarrass the Clippers.

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San Antonio over Oklahoma City 4-2: I reallllllly want to pick an OKC upset. But I can’t. This would be a fantastic series, but the discipline and coaching of the Spurs trumps the athleticism of Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who will walk off the floor in Oklahoma City for the final time (yeah, I’m calling it) with a loss.

Conference Finals

Golden State over San Antonio 4-3: It’s the series we’re all waiting for—the series that is most likely going to end my life. By far the two best teams in basketball, the offensive juggernaut that just finished the greatest regular season of all time against the impenetrable defensive machine. Having watched these teams play this season, though, I think Steph, Klay, and Draymond have enough magic in them to get the buckets when they need them—and the Spurs never had a good offensive game against the Dubs, even in the one they won. I would pick Dubs in six, but I can’t see San Antonio losing an elimination game at home, considering they went 40-1 there this year, so the ultimate trump card—homecourt in Game 7—pushes the Dubs to the Finals.

NBA FINALS

Golden State over Cleveland 4-1: Part of me even thinks it’s generous to give this stupid Cavs team even one win—I’m only chalking up the one out of respect for what LeBron is capable of. But the Dubs figured the Cavs out in the Finals last year, and I have seen nothing to convince me that Cleveland has an answer for Golden State’s Lineup of Death. Also, I just want to see this go 5 games so that the Dubs can finish off the greatest season of all time with a championship victory in front of the fans in Oakland.

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God, I hope I didn’t jinx this.

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My Off the Cuff, Completely Uninformed MLB 2016 Season Preview

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I’m not gonna bother with too much of a preamble here. Y’all know the drill. Baseball is more than just my favorite sport: It’s basically my first true love. But I’m far too busy—thanks, adulthood—to follow the offseason transaction wire or read season previews like I did when I was a bookstore clerk killing time for eight hours a day. Still, I have to get my picks on record, so here’s my annual MLB Season Preview. I know this didn’t go up until a week after the season started, but I promise it was mostly written before then—as you’ll surmise from my Word Series pick, who suffered a key first-week injury. (Note: I didn’t change the pick out of any sense of honesty or morality. Just sheer laziness.) Anyway, as always, the best strategy with this column is to print it out, take it to Vegas, and bet the other way. Because I know nothing.

REGULAR SEASON

AL EAST

Toronto 89-73 – For years, I would always pick the Jays to win the AL East, and they always let me down. Last year, I finally jumped off the bandwagon, saying, “I’m not falling for the Blue Jays’ act anymore”—so of course they finally got it together and won the division. They lost David Price to the division rival Sawx in the offseason, but they’ve still got the best lineup in baseball, with reigning MVP Josh Donaldson and Bat-Flip King Jose Bautista, so I think they’ll repeat. I may just be saying this because I want to see Joey Bats in the playoffs again.

Baltimore 86-76 (Wild Card) – I think the O’s will get a good bounceback this year—they’ve got a lot of “solid vet” type guys on the team. And while he may behave like a punk little kid on the field sometimes, Manny Machado is probably gonne be a legit MVP candidate for the forseeable future. In fact, I’ll go so far as to predict that he goes nuts this year, and wins the MVP, and carries Baltimore into the playoffs.

New York Yankees 81-81 – The Yanks kinda had everything go right for them last year. Would you bet on A-Rod and Teixeira repeating their renaissance seasons from last year? I wouldn’t.

Boston 78-84 – Do I even need to say it?.

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Tampa Bay 76-86 – The Rays have a chance to have a decent young rotation, but their lineup? Yuck.

AL CENTRAL

Cleveland 90-72 – I asked my buddy Sean, a native Ohioan, about his Indians the other day. His response was, “We’ve got pitching. But we’ve had pitching. We still can’t hit.” Well, I think having Francisco Lindor for the whole year will help, and they’ll get a nice year from Jason Kipnis and some power (if not a lot of average) out of the Carlos Santana/Mike Napoli combo. And that pitching staff? It’s dirrrrrrty.

Kansas City 88-74 (Wild Card) – KC brought back pretty much everyone from their World Series–winning squad, save for deadline acquisition Johnny Cueto, who was pretty up-and-down in his time with the Royals. The sabermetric projection systems (yeah, I took a peek, sue me) once again don’t like this team, but Baseball Prospectus thought they’d be under .500 last year, and you see how that worked out. I think they’ll have a bit of a playoff hangover, but rally late to make the playoffs.

Detroit 85-77 – The Tigers once again threw a bunch of money at the free agent market in an attempt to be a sort of Midwest Yankees. As with the Yankees of most of the last decade, the names look good on paper, but a lot of them are old; flashy names don’t flash nearly as bright when they’re on the disabled list. I think the Tigers will be pretty good, but I see them just on the outside of the playoffs.

Minnesota 81-81 – Byron Buxton has arrived. Miguel Angel Sano is big and hits baseballs really far. There’s a lot to be excited about with the Twinkies. But I feel like they were a little ahead of schedule last year, and they might need a consolidation year before they become a true contender.

Chicago White Sox 70-92 – I know people don’t believe in chemistry anymore, but shit, I can’t believe everything that went on this preseason is setting the Pale Hose up for success.

AL WEST

Houston 94-68 – A full year of Carlos Correa and continued improvement from their young players spells great promise for Houston. Don’t forget that this team was just a few outs from knocking off the Royals last year.

Texas 85-77 – This team has got some nice talent, but I don’t believe Yu Darvish will be fully operational until next year. Another team that just misses out on the playoffs. Also, I’m always obligated to note that George W. Bush once owned this team, so fuck them.

Seattle 81-81 – Another team with a nice rotation and a very questionable lineup. Free King Felix!

Orange County 77-85 – Mike Trout is so great that the only reason to pick someone else as MVP is because it’s boring to pick Mike Trout (guilty!). It’s a shame he’s wasting his prime with this Mickey Mouse (see what I did there?) team.

Oakland 71-91 – Man, what a mess. Free Sonny Gray! Also, build a goddamn stadium at the Howard Terminal, already.

NL EAST

New York Mets 92-70 – The Mets caught lightning in a bottle last year, and that may be hard to replicate—but there was no luck involved in the pitching staff. Harvey and DeGrom and Syndergaard are for real, yo.

Washington 90-72 (Wild Card) – The Nats disappointed some last year, and this is another club that has um, issues with the personalities in its clubhouse. But there’s still so much talent here, with a pitching staff fronted by a true ace, Max Scherzer, and a lineup led by Bryce Harper, who’s the closest thing we’ve had to Barry Bonds since Barry Bonds. I’d be very surprised if they don’t make it back to the postseason this year.

Miami 84-78 – Jose Fernandez is always fun. And the whole “Barry Bonds is the hitting coach and he’s 51 years old and he can still beat the entire team, including the Mighty Giancarlo Stanton, in home run derby” thing is pretty fun. And Dee Gordon is pretty fun. But this is still one of the grossest organizations in baseball.

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Philadelphia 66-96 – Just a tiny bit less shitty than the Braves.

Atlanta 64-98 – That Shelby Miller trade is gonna reap serious rewards down the road. But right now, the Major League roster is a tire fire.

NL CENTRAL

Chicago Cubs 96-66 – The prohibitive World Series favorite. Which should make everyone on the North Side of Chicago verrrrrrry nervous. (Note: The Billy Goat has already gone to work, taking a bite out of Kyle Schwarber’s leg. Sorry, Cubs fans.)

Pittsburgh  91-71 (Wild Card) – I know a lot of people are predicting that this team will take a step back, but I still like them. That outfield is gonna produce big-time.

St. Louis 86-76 – The Cards can’t be good every year for the rest of time, can they? Missing out on all their free agency targets has to hurt them, right? I can keep picking against them forever, even if I’m always wrong and they always make the playoffs, right? Right.

Milwaukee 74-88 – I never have much of an opinion on the Brewers, so I was ready to just pencil in 81-81. Then I took a look at their projected lineup. Yikes.

Cincinnati 69-93 – Yuck.

NL WEST

San Francisco 93-69 – EVEN YEAR BITCHES!!! But seriously, the Giants look solid. The lineup was really great last year, and Denard Span should be a nice addition, if he can stay healthy. And while the additions of Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzijaziajaiza are hardly guaranteed to succeed, I’ve talked myself into them. I mean, what choice do I have?

(NOTE: Okay, we’re a week into this season now, and I’m already head-over-heels in love with this team following an Opening Day blowout win, an excellent first start from Cueto, and two fantastic comeback wins over the Dodgers. God, I love baseball.)

Arizona 87-75 – I don’t know that Zack Greinke’s contract is gonna look great long-term, and I’m pretty sure that the Snakes will regret the Shelby Miller deal down the road, but there’s no doubt they made themselves better this year. I think in the AL they’d be a playoff team, but they’re not gonna quite got there in the stronger NL.

Los Angeles 84-78 – Don’t even need to say this, either.

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San Diego 73-89 – Oof.

Colorado 68-94 – Double oof.

(Note: As always, I did not try to make these records come out to .500. I’m not even going to add them up. They’re just rough benchmarks for where I see these teams ending up.)

On to the PLAYOFFS

AL Wild Card Game

Kansas City over Baltimore – We’ve seen this movie before.

ALDS

-Houston over KC in 5 – The Astros get revenge for last year’s ALDS.

-Cleveland over Toronto in 4 – I continue to believe that Cleveland’s pitching will be devastating in the playoffs.

ALCS

Cleveland over Houston in 6 – I continue to believe that Cleveland’s pitching will be devastating in the playoffs.

NL Wild Card Game

Washington over Pittsburgh – The poor Pirates keep running into nasty aces in the Wild Card game. Bumgarner, Arrieta, and now Scherzer.

NLDS

-Chicago over Washington in 4 – An upset wouldn’t shock me … but I don’t have the stones to actually predict it.

-San Francisco over New York in 5 – This would be a great series. The Mets would actually likely be a slight favorite … but I will never pick against Madison Bumgarner in an elimination game..

NLCS

Chicago over San Francisco in 6 – God, I want to make the Even Year pick so bad … but I also don’t want to jinx the Giants. (Turns out I jinxed the Cubs! Well, me and everyone else for the last 100-plus years.) And besides, this pick sets up…

World Series

Chicago over Cleveland in 5: Are you kidding me? A Cubs-Indians World Series? The two most cursed franchises in baseball, if not all of pro sports? This would be insane. And the Cubs would win. And then the Earth will implode on itself. It’s been nice knowing y’all.

And, for just a little more fun, here are my Regular Season Awards

AL MVP: Manny Machado (As stated above.)

AL Cy Young: Corey Kluber (Might as well go all-in on the Tribe.)

AL ROY: Byron Buxton (Just gonna go with the obvious choice.)

NL MVP: Bryce Harper (I’m just gonna pick him every year for the next decade.)

NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw (Probably should have won last year.)

NL ROY: Steven Matz (Lefty looked pretty good for the Mets last year.)

There you have it. My only guarantee is that today is my favorite day of the year. Happy Opening Day, everyone!

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My Top 10 Eric Clapton Songs

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Slowhand playing his psychedelically painted Gibson SG in the ’60s

My day job as a magazine editor has some pretty neat perks, one of the biggest being that sometimes I get to interview my heroes. I’ve gotten to talk to Robert De Niro, Anthony Bourdain, and Ice Cube, among others, and a couple of weeks ago, I had maybe the coolest one yet: Eric Clapton. (It’ll be in the May issue of Hemispheres.) I’ve actually never considered Clapton to be my favorite of the guitar gods—Hendrix will always be number one for me, and my devotion to Jimmy Page borders on the religious—but I’ve had people tell me that they hear Clapton’s influence in my own playing. This is completely absurd—but I’ll take it!—and after having a nice conversation with Slowhand himself, and listening to a ton of his music while prepping for the interview, I figured I should give him his due on this blog, with one of my Top 10 lists.

Honorable mentions: Crossroads probably has Clapton’s greatest solo, but I’ve just listened to it too many times; Tears in Heaven is beautiful and perfect and just waaaaaaay too painful to listen to; Wonderful Tonight is a beautiful love song and also an anthem for every dude who’s gotten annoyed sitting around waiting for his girlfriend to get ready; Let It Rain has some seriously sick lead licks on it; the entire John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers album; and I can’t really explain why, but I’ve always really liked Anyone For Tennis—though it’s obviously not Top 10 material. On to the list.

10. Key to the Highway

The list starts with a bit of a deep cut, one that I didn’t even start listening to until fairly recently. The truth is that for a long time I actually wasn’t much of a fan of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the classic Derek & The Dominos album. But in prepping for the interview, I went back and gave it a good listen. I don’t know if it’s the wisdom of age or whatever, but I did a total 180 on that album. It is AWESOME, and my favorite track on it (except for the obvious title track) is this rendition of a blues standard that was first recorded by Charlie Segar in 1940. The song begins with the track fading in and the band already playing, as if you’ve just opened the door to a room where a jam is going on. And that’s what this track really is, an epic, epic blues jam that sees Clapton trading bars with the great Duane Allman, the former’s lightning licks versus the latter’s howling slide phrases. It’s a clinic in electric blues guitar.

9. Sunshine of Your Love

Clapton’s second-most famous riff was actually written by Cream bassist Jack Bruce, but Eric makes it his own by employing his unique “woman tone,” which he conjured on The Fool, his psychedelically painted Gibson SG, by playing over the bridge pickup but turning the treble all the way down. He explains in this BBC interview:

It’s actually a simple riff, one of the first that most aspiring rock guitarists learn to pluck. But it’s also so iconic that it’s gotta be on the list. I also enjoy this song just because the lyrics are very unsubtly about fucking.

8. Layla

I try to leave the most obvious songs off these lists: my Hendrix list had no Purple Haze, and my Zeppelin list had no Stairway. But it’s pretty impossible not to include Layla, Clapton’s declaration of love for Pattie Boyd (who was married to George Harrison at the time, and later left the Beatle for Clapton), given that the song gave Clapton two hits: first, the original Derek & The Dominos version, with the famous electric riff E.C. played on his vintage sunburst Strat, Allman’s wailing slide-guitar solo, and the extended piano outro written by Dominos drummer Jim Gordon.

And then the Grammy-winning Unplugged version, which Clapton sang a full octave lower than the original and which features both a fantastic acoustic solo played on a 1939 Martin 000-42 and some sweet piano work from former Allman Brother Chuck Leavell. See if you can spot this one.

7. Running on Faith

This somber song first appeared on Journeyman, but I’m referring to the version from Unplugged. What really does it for me on this is the extended coda, when Clapton sings “Love comes over you” before launching into a wonderful slide solo on what I’m sure is a very old and very expensive resonator, with the background singers echoing the lyrics throughout. It’s just lovely. Also, I’m not sure exactly why, but my college roommate and good friend Rob used to listen to this song all the time, and so every time I hear it, it makes me think of him.

6. White Room

From the first heavily vibratoed notes of this song you know you’re in for something awesome, and it just keeps building and building. Through the first verse, Clapton’s mostly in the background, but in the second verse he starts throwing in these fills with heavy wah and bent strings, and the licks just get nastier in the third verse. (My favorite fill is what he plays along with the “yellow tigers crouched in jungles in her dark eyes” line; as with Hendrix’s solo on Hey Joe, it’s an example of emotive playing—his notes sound like a tiger leaping for its prey.) And one of the most awesome minutes of music ever recorded is White Room’s outro, which features a nutty guitar solo over drumming that gets progressively heavier and more complex. Ginger Baker is fucking awesome.

5. Lonely Stranger

It’s back to Unplugged one more time. I can be pretty depressive, and as I’ve often said, there’s nothing I like more than a “miserable suffering bastard” song (my ex-girlfriend, who was a Clapton fan, hated that I loved this song). Few songs cut to the core of the way loneliness feels than this one, which Clapton plucks out on a lovely nylon-string classical guitar. I don’t know what’s going on, and I’ll be on my way.

4. Can’t Find My Way Home

Speaking of songs about loneliness: It’s not on Unplugged, but there’s one more acoustic number on this list. Steve Winwood wrote this song for Blind Faith, the short-lived supergroup he and Clapton formed with Baker. Winwood fingerpicks a lovely rhythm track, while Clapton fires acoustic licks, and Winwood’s high voice floats sadly over the top of it all. A beautiful, sad, perfect song. If you happen to get your hands on a copy of the duluxe version of Blind Faith, there’s a particularly awesome extended version of this one that’s worth checking out.

3. Spoonful

All right, enough with the acoustic shit, let’s get back to business with some righteous electric blues. Written by Willie Dixon and recorded by Howlin’ Wolf and Etta James, Spoonful is a junkie’s lament of the highest order, and no one ever brought out the raw scream of veins-being-ripped-out-of-your-arms heroin angst the way Cream did on their first album. And then on Wheels of Fire, there’s an incredible 16-minute live version. The jam goes on forever and ever, and the interplay between the bass, drums, and guitar is just amazing. This isn’t the same version, but just watch it and appreciate how fucking nuts these guys were.

 

2. Tales of Brave Ulysses

One of my favorite Cream songs—and my father’s absolute number one—is this psychedelic acid trip of a tune. The Odyssean lyrics were written by an artist and poet friend of Clapton’s named Martin Sharp, and Clapton set them to a descending D-riff, which he plays with a heavy wah (the song is historically most notable for being the first one on which Clapton employed the wah). If you Google “psychedelic rock,” Tales of Brave Ulysses should be the first entry.

1. Badge

This isn’t Clapton’s or Cream’s biggest hit, but it’s been my favorite pretty much from the first time I heard it. Clapton co-wrote the song with George Harrison for Cream’s Goodbye album, and its title comes from a cute misunderstanding: When Clapton picked up the sheet it was written on, he misread the word Harrison had written on the top—”Bridge,” for the signature arpeggiated bridge—as “Badge.” Ta da! The song is best known for that bridge, and also for its beautiful, soaring, bent-string solo, which Clapton played on a Cherry Red Gibson ES-335. And it’s also just a nice song for the end of a great band’s run, with the way the music all comes to a stop at the final lyric: “She cried away her life since she fell out the cradle.”

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2016 Super Bowl Pick

Two weeks ago, when I made my picks in the conference championship games, I was wrong about pretty much everything. I thought the Patriots would walk all over the Broncos. Instead, Denver’s defense, led by an otherworldly Von Miller, decimated Tom Brady, thereby allowing Grampa Simpson Peyton Manning to play in his fourth, and surely final, Super Bowl. Meanwhile, I thought Carolina-Arizona would be the game of the year, with the Panthers only surviving because Carson Palmer would turn back into Carson Palmer at exactly the wrong time. Well, it sure wasn’t the game of the year, but I WAS right about Palmer. Man oh man, did he pick a bad time to remember that he’s a shitty quarterback.

Anyway, I don’t have a lot to say about Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco the very expensive Silicon Valley strip mall the Niners call home. I may not even watch it, just because I’ll be at risk of having a rage-seizure every time they show an overhead of beautiful San Francisco without mentioning that the stadium is 50 (hey, that’s appropriate!) miles from the City by the Bay. About the only thing that makes me happy about this whole situation is that someone tagged “evict ed lee” on the statue at Alamo Square (my old hood).

Defaced

Now THAT’s my San Francisco

So let’s just get to the pick, which I think is a pretty simple one. Denver’s defense is great, but the Broncos are going to have a tougher time with the Panthers than they did with the Pats. Carolina’s solid run game—from both Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton—will keep Miller and DeMarcus Ware from pinning their ears back and launching themselves at the quarterback on every single play. And Newton has a much better shot of evading those guys than cement-footed Tom Brady did.

Meanwhile, does anyone believe that Denver will be able to move the ball against the hyper-physical Carolina defense? If Thomas Davis is limited—and you have to think he will be, given that he broke his arm two weeks ago—it hurts the Panthers a little bit, but the Broncos had one of the worst offenses in the league this year, and Manning, again is basically Grampa Simpson out there at this point.

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I laughed when I found this. Bless you, Internet

The Panthers’ ball-hawking defense had five pick-sixes in the regular season, and Luke Kuechly already has two in the playoffs. I’d be shocked if they don’t get one off Peyton in this game. Frankly, I’d be shocked if Peyton survived this game. (Which raises a question: If the NFL’s favorite son died on the field during the Super Bowl, would the league immediately disband?)

Anyway, I just don’t believe that Denver can score against Carolina. And with the way Carolina has come out guns blazing in the first halfs of the last couple of games, I could see this getting out of hand early. And honestly, I don’t think I can live in a world where Peyton Manning gets to walk off the field a champion after his final game. I mean, doesn’t this just feel like the year when we pass the torch from the old white guy quarterback to the hip-hop generation quarterback?

The pick is Carolina 32, Denver 16. Dab it, Super Bowl Champion Cam Newton.

kmEmrr

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2016 Conference Championship Picks

And in this season that I have not enjoyed at all (I even missed the epic Cards-Packers game on Saturday), we’re down to the final four. Last week I once again went 3-for-4 in my picks (although I was just 2-for-4 against the spread). How do I feel about this weekend? Well, I’m about 99 percent sure of how one of these games will go … and I have no idea what’s going to happen in the other one. Let’s go with the sure thing—which just happens to be Sunday’s early game—first.

New England at Denver

I’ve written this a million times, and I will never, ever stop believing it: Tom Brady is this generation’s equivalent of Joe Montana, and Peyton Manning is this generation’s Dan Marino. One is a consummate winner; the other puts up gaudy stats but comes up short in the playoffs. (Note: I am not saying that Brady is as good as Montana, and frankly, I am very much NOT looking forward to the two weeks of Brady/Montana stories we’re going to get with the Super Bowl being in San Francisco the Niners’ home stadium.) I will always, always, always pick Brady over Manning—especially this version of Manning, who is physically shot. It just feels right that Peyton should lose his final playoff game, at home, to his longtime rival, doesn’t it? I’m calling this one Patriots 26, Broncos 13.

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I am already sick of this photo

Arizona at Carolina

In this game, on the other hand, I have no idea what’s going to happen. I think these are pretty clearly the two best teams in the NFL, and I’ve been stoked about the prospect of this matchup for weeks. Both teams have hard-hitting, aggressive defenses, and both have big-play capabilities on offense (the Cards through their passing game, the Panthers through their running game). Before the Division round, I felt pretty confident that Arizona was the better of these teams, thanks to all of their downfield weapons, but the Green Bay game shook me. Specifically, it reminded me that Carson Palmer has never gone this deep in the playoffs. Of course, neither has Cam Newton, but Newton played with confidence in the Panthers’ win over the Seabitches, while Palmer looked like the shaky, turnover-prone QB he was during his Raiders days, not the MVP candidate we saw this year. I still think Arizona is a better team from top to bottom, but I just have a feeling that Palmer is going to kill them with a big turnover at exactly the worst time. So, in what I’m pretty sure will be the game of the year, I’m taking the Panthers, in overtime, 33-27. Dab it, Cam.

kmEmrr

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2016 Divisional Round Picks

As usual, my Wild Card picks last week illustrated just how little I know about football. I thought Chiefs-Texans would be a tight game; instead, it was a blowout. I thought Pittsburgh and Seattle would beat Cincy and Minnesota easily; instead, the Steelers and Seabitches both needed epic chokes from their opponents in order to advance. I thought Green Bay was toast; instead, the Pakers beat the Racial Slurs by 17. So, even though I was actually 3-for-4 last week (albeit just 1-for-4 against the spread), I don’t feel any more knowledgeable about this week’s games. But not knowing what I’m talking about has never stopped me before, so here are this weekend’s picks.

Kansas City at New England

The Chiefs are the hottest team in football, having won 11 in a row. The Pats looked pretty beat up and pretty bad the last few weeks of the season. But still, it’s Belichick and Brady vs. Andy Reid and Alex Smith. Gotta go with the Pats, right? Maybe not. Granted, this was a million years ago in football time, but the Chiefs crushed the eventual Super Bowl champ Pats early last season, and they’ve retained the formula to do it: ball-control offense, a murderous pass rush, and an opportunistic secondary. Maybe I’m over-thinking things, but I feel like there’s some bad energy around the Pats … and there’s usually one upset in the second round … and come on, y’all know how I feel about Boston sports.

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I’ll never get tired of running this image

So I’m calling the upset: Chiefs in a 22-20 nail-biter.

Green Bay at Arizona

When these teams played three weeks ago, the Cards slaughtered the Pack 38-8. Has anything changed since then? Sure, Green Bay won on the road last week, but I remain unimpressed with them, and I think Arizona is probably the most complete team in the NFL this year. I think Rodgers will do more to keep his team in it this time around, but I just don’t see anyway the Pack pulls this one out. I’ll say 35-24 Cards. My only regret is I won’t get to see Rodgers and Alex Smith play against each other in the Super Bowl on the Niners’ homefield.

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I wish I could stop running this image

Seattle at Carolina

Most people think this is the game of the weekend, and I admit it’s the one I’m most likely to clear my schedule to watch. On the other hand, I think people are being a little too quick to jump on the Seabitches bandwagon. I mean, Seattle would have lost to a pretty mediocre Vikings team if Blair Walsh had made a 27-yard field goal. Finkle?

Also, I think people are forgetting that Carolina went 15-1 and that they have Cam Newton, an awesome defense, and an extra week of rest. I’m pretty sure Steph Curry’s boys have got this. Let’s say Panthers 24-16.

Pittsburgh at Denver

Goddammit, I was so excited to pick one final Peyton Manning home playoff chokejob. And then they drew the Steelers, who are coming off a brutal Wild Card game in which all of their best players got injured. I would literally run across the Jersey swamp to bet on Pittsburgh Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown were healthy, but the Steelers are just too banged up. So I’m saying 20-13 Broncos. Peyton’s final playoff choke will have to wait until next week.

peyton.manning.meme.choke

hehehe

 

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