An electrifying tribute to Prince

I write my blog for many reasons, but at the bottom of it all I like having a place to go with a story like this one. It will be gone in the morning unless I capture it now, so here goes.

Chicago, very early Sunday Morning

I had picked up my teenager from a visit to a friend’s house, and while she stayed awake long enough to marvel at Chicago’s skyline lit up for the evening, she soon conked out. At least I would be able to pick the music I wanted to listen to for the rest of the ride home.

Changing the stations on the satellite radio wasn’t easy, with her leaning against my right arm and the steering wheel in my left hand, but I found a way. When I turned to the Bruce Springsteen channel, and his tribute to Prince from earlier this year, I knew I had found my place to be.

I wrote about Prince’s death a few times here, because it was a sad an unexpected moment for anyone who loved his music. I never considered Prince as being mortal, as crazy as that sounds. Bruce is like that, too, and perhaps a few others also fit this description. They make music, and we expect that they’ll always be there to make more of it. And then we get a reminder that musicians are mortal like the rest of us.

When the song came to the Nils Lofgren guitar solo, it found a level that I hadn’t known about before. The combination of the song and what it has meant to me through the only parts of my life that I care to remember, and the haunting way that Nils was playing the notes, and the fact that although I had watched the video a dozen times online but had never heard it on the radio before, and the realization that my daughter would be getting into it as much as I was if she had only stayed awake, and the understanding that Prince wasn’t around to play the song himself anymore, hit me in a way that I wasn’t ready for.

All the hairs on my left arm were standing straight up as the solo came to a conclusion. Music is the only thing that ever has (and probably ever could) give me goose bumps like that, and the music of one great musician, played as a loving and respectful tribute by another great musician, is the kind of moment that doesn’t come along often enough in life. When a moment like that happens it must be savored and–if possible–remembered or described in some way.

For anyone who loves Prince’s music and hasn’t yet seen the tribute, check out the link above and prepare to experience some goosebumps of your own.

Rockers are mortal, after all


It wasn’t always this way for me, but within the past couple of years the deaths of people I don’t know have taken on a whole new dimension. Whether I knew the person or not–and particularly if they were somebody famous for one reason or another– the first thing I want to know is how old the person was when they passed on.

Age is only a number, in death as in life, but it can serve as a measuring stick against our own mortality.  The wide majority of deaths in the news are still thankfully older than my age, as was the case with Glenn Frey’s passing today at 67. I’m still literally decades away from that number, so I can’t feel too bad for somebody who lived that long. And, to put a different spin on it, living one day as Glenn Frey must have been better than anything I could imagine, so spending a few decades in his shoes must have been out of this world.

But Frey’s death comes on the heels of David Bowie’s passing just a few days after his 69th birthday. Having been inspired by an article written by Neil McCormick about the inevitable passing of rock’s gods in the days and years to come, I looked at three groups of rock musicians:

  • Those who were born in the 1940s and were older than Bowie was when he passed away,
  • Those who were younger than Bowie but older than Frey when he passed away, and
  • Those who were younger than Frey but were still born in the 1940s, and are thus at least 65 years of age.

The findings were quite interesting. I’ve never inserted an excel spreadsheet into a post before, and I hope it works out. I’m going to insert the link to my findings after every paragraph, to make it easy for anyone who wants to see the full listing of musicians and their birthdays. The source of all birthdays is The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock, Third Edition, published in 2005. The list is not intended to be exhaustive, and in the event that I left out someone who belongs on the list, well, that’s what google is for. Birthdays before 1940 and after 1949 were not considered for this piece, so Tina Turner (born in 1939) and Peter Gabriel (born in 1950) are excluded.

First, the group that was older than Bowie has to be hearing the footsteps of Father Time, if they weren’t already. Living the life of a rock star probably has some multiplying effect that is impossible to quantify, but I can’t imagine that a year in the life of music legend is anywhere near the equivalent of 12 months for anyone else. It might seem to have a shortening effect on a someone’s life span, but Keith Richards is still going strong, so who knows what the story really is? And Mick Jagger’s onstage dancing have probably added years onto his life in exercise value, alone.

Rock Birthdays

But everyone who was 69 years or older when David Bowie passed away last week had to wonder how much longer they have left. For instance, Jimmy Buffet just turned 69 last Christmas, making him a couple of weeks older than David Bowie. The same can be said for Robby Krieger of the Doors, Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, all of whom reached age 69 in December of last year. David Bowie’s death has no direct bearing on any of their mortality, but I’m certain that each of these soon-to-be septuagenarians sat up and took notice, anyway.

Rock Birthdays

Others in the rock world who have reached 70 already include Bob Dylan (who will turn 75 in May), Paul McCartney (who will be 64 plus another ten years in June), Jagger and Richards (who are both 72), and Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, Pete Townshend, and John Fogerty. The rock pantheon is aging at the same pace as the rest of us, but their numbers will inevitably thin out over the coming few years.

Rock Birthdays

But those who are approaching age 69 later this year must have been thinking of their own mortality when Bowie’s death was announced. And now, the realization that Glenn Frey was even younger than they were must feel like a 1-2 punch. Many of them knew Bowie and/or Frey already, but they’ve now entered into what I call the Bowie-Frey Zone, which as of ten days ago didn’t even exist. They’re approaching their 69th birthdays–which is all the time that David Bowie got on this earth–with the realization that they’ve already outlived Glenn Frey by as much as a year and ten months.

Rock Birthdays

The names on the list of these rock stars is quite impressive:  Elton John, Queen’s Brian May, no less than three members of the Eagles (Don Henley, Don Felder, and Joe Walsh), Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, Brian Johnson of AC/DC, Sammy Hagar, Meatloaf, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Robert Plant, and Jackson Browne. If David Bowie’s death didn’t rattle them–from a sheer numerical standpoint–it’s likely that Glenn Frey’s did.

Rock Birthdays

And the final group of musicians I looked at can take some comfort from the fact that Glenn Frey was older than them: Ozzy Osbourne, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Gene Simmons, Paul Rodgers, and both Hall and Oates. A majority of ZZ Top is on this list, as well.

Rock Birthdays

So what does all this mean? I’m not sure, exactly, but I can give one short story that seems a bit relevant here. Last summer, I was having some work done on my teeth, and as I was laying there with my mouth wide open, and nothing else to do, my mind started wandering to death and rock stars. I began with the Rolling Stones, and the death of Bobby Keys at the age of 70. He wasn’t officially in the band, but he played on some of their most well-known songs, and that’s a pretty significant thing.

I then started to mentally go through different bands, as bits of my tooth were flying through the air, thinking of who had passed on from each of them. I came to the realization that most bands have experienced death in one way or another, and that rock and roll does appear to extract a toll from those who live the life, whether onstage or out in the audience.

Neil Young once sang that it’s better to burn out than fade away, and after seeing him tear up the stage at Farm Aid 30 last summer, I can confidently state that he’s not fading away anytime soon. So maybe age is just a number, in some sense. It’s true that rock and roll can never die, but its principal practitioners aren’t getting any younger, either. I’m afraid that none of us are.


What else can we do now?


An old song on the radio can recall memories of an earlier time in life. I was a far different person in the 80s than I am today, but I always like to hear music from that period. Makes me realize how different things can become, I suppose.

But this is not about a piece of music from the 80s. When Bruce Springsteen–one of the more frequent muses found on this site–released the album containing “Thunder Road,” I was too young to understand anything about the song. The old tourist t-shirt slogan “I wasn’t born here, but I got here as quick as I could” certainly applies to me and the music of the Boss. Most of us are probably that way, I imagine.

Today I heard a live performance of “Thunder Road” from a concert in 1978. Having satellite radio in the car is the only way that could happen, and it makes it worth the subscription fee for precisely that reason.

When the song came on, I hearkened back to the fall of 2002, and a time when I was out in Seattle, driving a rental car with a guy named Karl. Last names and where he was from aren’t that important. He’s either running the town by now or he’s moved on to someplace else. Neither possibility would surprise me very much.

I was working with Karl, and a dozen or so other Washington teachers, to build their state testing program assessments. The school kids who had to wrestle with our work product back then are all out living their adult lives now, or at the very least they’re nearing the end of their college careers. Time marches on, as always.

Me and Karl–that’s grammatically incorrect, but it feels right to put it that way–both appreciated Springsteen’s music, and so we sang Thunder Road together, as loudly as we could, thanks to a bunch of CDs I used to take with me when I traveled.

Today I sang the song again, as loudly as any middle-aged man should ever do, and I thought about Karl, and music, and the power it has to alter the passage of time, at least temporarily. May everyone have a song or experience that can take them back to another place or another time. And may they also have a few minutes to reflect on it, as I’m doing on a Chicago subway train right now. Because if it doesn’t make it onto the Internet anymore, did it ever really happen?

Well the night’s busted open, these two lanes will take us anywhere.

Two baseball pieces as the offseason winds down


I’ve been doing some thinking about why baseball matters so much to me. It’s one of the few constants in my life, dating all the way back to when I saw my first live baseball game in 1975. Things change–for better and for worse–but baseball is always there. The game changes, too, but it’s always going to be so much more interesting than anything else I’ve come into contact with.

With this in mind, I wrote one piece for Wrigleyville Nation about a Pie-in-the-sky reason why the Cubs will win this year (a lifetime of deprivation will do funny things to the mind) , and another for ThroughTheFenceBaseball based on a picture I took outside of Wrigley Field.

It’s almost time to strap in for another season, and I can’t wait for it to arrive.

A bittersweet day

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There are some things in life that I truly enjoy, and writing is at or near the top of the list. While I’ve written things all my life, putting them into a form where they can be read by other people has been a relatively new development for me. And today offered some reminders of what this action means.

This morning I was paging through a Baseball preview magazine for 2014. It was the type of a publication that I would have devoured from cover to cover at one point in my life, before life and work and family came along. Baseball matters a great deal to me, but not at the expense of everyday life.

As I was flipping through the first few articles, I came upon a “storylines for 2014” article. All of the team-specific and fantasy baseball stories were still ahead, but this was a general type of a story, written in the form of a list. If it were a webpage–and for all I know, it does exist as a list somewhere on line–it would have been a click-through type of story, with a few ads interspersed along with the content. But this was a print story, and no clicking was required.

One of the points that the story identified as a storyline for this season was the progress of Chicago’s two baseball teams, from the wretched season that they both had in 2013. The story asserted that the 195 combined losses of the two teams was more than any season in the history of Chicago baseball. And I smiled at this, because it came from an idea I had, and some research that I had done last summer. Grouping the Cubs and the White Sox together goes against all Chicago urges and yet I did it, and wrote a story that ChicagoSideSports published in early August of last year.

I enjoy writing for different websites, or else I wouldn’t do it, but ChicagoSide holds a special place in my heart. I enjoy the books written by Jon Eig, the founder of the site, and I liked the print possibilities that writing for the site had offered. A piece I wrote for ChicagoSide last year occupied a two page spread in Roger Ebert’s newspaper on the day that he passed away. For the rest of my days I’ll be proud to say that.

Putting a nugget of an idea out into the online or print world is a very gratifying feeling, but unless outlets for these thoughts and ideas exist, there’s no reason to produce them in the first place.

When I read, in either late 2011 or early 2012, that Jon Eig and a friend of his were putting together a sports website, I wondered if I would be able to contribute to it in some way. My blog had been going for a few months by then, and I wanted to see if the stuff that I write might be of interest to anyone else. There was a great chance of hearing “no,” but I soldiered on anyway.

My initial idea for a ChicagoSide story was a recap of the first game that the Cubs and White Sox played against each other, back in 1997. I was at that game, and I had a particular idea about how to go about describing it. I planned to give a description of the game’s events, using only African American players’ names. At the end of the retelling, I would point out that such a story could not appear in 2012, because neither the Cubs nor the White Sox had a single African American player on their rosters. This was a disturbing development to me, as a kid who was raised on Lou Brock and Reggie Jackson and George Foster and many others in the 1970s and 1980s. Jon liked the piece, and said he would run with it in a multi-part series about African Americans and their dwindling numbers in the game that I love.

The series ran on ChicagoSide, but my piece was not included. I could have taken this as a sign that what I wrote wasn’t up to snuff, because after all what have I ever done? I’m well aware of my limitations when it comes to producing anything of note. But I sucked it up and pitched another idea at him, instead.

I was very clear that I felt like I could make a contribution, and would do whatever I could to make it happen. The piece was about an upcoming Bruce Springsteen concert at Wrigley Field in September of 2012, and I learned that it would run on the site at the end of August.

On the day that the piece was scheduled to go live on the website, I was at Universal Studios with my family. My girls were excited about going into the park as it opened for the day, while I was anxiously checking my phone to see if the piece was published yet. Seeing the piece go live, along with some Chicago-inspired art of Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album cover, made a fun day at the theme park that much more enjoyable. I hope I never forget the feeling that I had that day, not only because I was proud of the piece I had written, but also because of the perseverance that it took to get to that point.

In the year and a half that followed, I had several more pieces  that  ran  on  ChicagoSide. I wrote stories that I thought were worth telling, and Jon made it possible for them to be told. His rewrites invariably made my work better, and I am grateful for the time and attention he put in on my behalf.

Earlier today, a few hours after reading one of my ChicagoSide ideas in print, I learned that Jon had sold ChicagoSide to someone else. I was saddened at the idea that I wouldn’t be able to send him any more of my story ideas. I have been told that I can continue to pitch ideas to the new editorial staff, and I’m sure that it won’t be long before I do exactly that. The well of ideas is forever replenishing itself, and I’m truly grateful for that.

I’m also grateful that ChicagoSide gave me an opportunity to share some of these ideas with its readers. I’ve started writing for other websites, as well, and my friends and followers on social media platforms are probably tired of all the ideas that I’ve set free over the past few years. But I’m glad to have done it, and I plan to keep doing it in the months and years to come.

The internet is a brave new world for writers and anyone else who wants to share their creations with the outside world. And as a wise lady once said, there ain’t nothin’ to it, but to do it. I’m very glad that ChicagoSide has given me someplace to do it.

Jersey Shore 2013 (Sandy)

One year ago today, Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and New York with a force that I never thought possible. I hope that the people who were impacted have found a way to move on with their lives, because there isn’t another choice for any of us.

On my honeymoon, many years ago, I took a cruise through some of the islands of the Caribbean. It seemed like every island had one storm or another come through over the years, and the locals all remember the name of that storm. And so I imagine it must be along the New Jersey shore. They’ll remember the name Sandy for a very long time to come.

What are the odds that the 18th named storm (and the order of the names is determined many years in advance) in 2012 would visit such destruction on New Jersey? It couldn’t have been Oscar, or Rafael, or Valerie, or William, which were all names that were scheduled to be assigned to storms in 2012. No, it had to be Sandy, which is the name of a Bruce Springsteen song about wanting to leave the Jersey shore. The irony is just too much to be believed, and yet there it is.

All the best to the people who were affected by this storm, and every other storm, past and future. It’s nature’s world, and we just happen to live in it temporarily.

Capturing the magic

I’ve written about Bruce Springsteen here many times. And I’ve said, and firmly believe, that Springsteen takes on a whole new meaning if you’ve seen him play live. I, for one, listened to the albums, but I didn’t really get it until I saw him play at the United Center in 2007. And then it made sense.

The Wrecking Ball tour, which I saw at Wrigley Field over a year ago, just wrapped up, and Bruce thanked his fans–which includes me, too–with a letter on his website, and a video. The video is better than anything I’ve seen at explaining why Springsteen and his music are so well-loved. It’s hard to describe, and I’ve certainly tried to do it, but it’s easy to see.

Anyone reading this who has seen a Springsteen concert will understand. And anyone who hasn’t, I offer this free piece of advice: Go. Whenever you can, make the effort and spend the money. You’ll be very glad you did.

Waist deep in the Big Muddy


I’ve been on a Springsteen bender for the last 48 hours, after I grabbed his Lucky Town CD on my way out the door yesterday morning. I bought it when it was released more than 20 years ago, but haven’t listened to it very much until yesterday morning.

The songs on this CD didn’t speak to me in my early 20s, probably because they didn’t get played on the radio back then. But now that I’m older, and I realize what a racket the radio can be, especially when it comes to something new and unknown, I’m glad that I finally gave this one a chance.

Start to finish, this is a great bundle of music. And the twang that I have to add to my voice when I sing the title track is pretty cool, all by itself. As Roger Ebert once said, it’s better to discover something late than not discover it at all, and this CD definitely fits that category.


Those were the days


Some people are of the opinion that a penny on the sidewalk can only be picked up when it’s facing heads up. I, however, will take them any way I can find them.

This morning I found a heads-down penny in a parking lot. I nearly passed it by, but then I stopped, picked it up, and turned it over. And I found the year 1985, which was an interesting year in my life for many reasons. But I don’t want to write about any of that here. For some reason, I want to write about Rambo, instead.

Well, maybe not actually Rambo, per se. In 1985, Stallone had brought Rambo back, in the sequel to First Blood, and sent him back into Vietnam. Rambo: First Blood Part II was a big, shoot-the-bad-guys type of film that defined movies in the 1980s for me like nothing else did. And it led to something that I remember to this day.

A friend of mine from the earliest days I can remember wrote a “Best of 1985” piece for our high school paper. We were both editors of the paper, applying the brand of smart-ass sarcasm that David Letterman seemed to embody in those days. We even created a column that turned the traditional “Senior Spotlight” on its head by roasting students in whatever terrible ways we could think of. It wasn’t any of our finest moments, but there it was, anyway.

So my friend’s 1985 piece appeared in early 1986, and I took exception with his choices in the next issue that came out. In hindsight, I wish that I had come up with the year-in-review idea myself, and I was really trying to cover that up with a “well here’s what I think rebuttal.” I responded to a swipe he had taken at Bruce Springsteen , since I was into Born in the U.S.A. at the time, even though Springsteen’s more meaningful earlier works were still a mystery to me.

But the main focus of my uncalled-for rebuttal had to do with the fact that the year’s ten best movies didn’t include Rambo. Only in the narrow mind of the 17 year-old that I was back then could Rambo have been on a best movies of the year type of a list. But I made that case, anyway.

For the rest of 1986, until we graduated and went our separate ways in life, my old friend and I traded shots at each other in the high school paper. He returned his fire on me, and I returned my fire on his reply to my reply to his original list, and so it went. I thought that people somehow wanted to buy the paper to read my reply to his reply and so on, but in reality we were just marking the time of our final high school days. I remember, in my final words on the matter, extending the hope that if we went to college together, we could drag everything out for another four years. Of course, it didn’t happen that way, and that’s for the best.

I saw my old friend in New York a couple of years ago, and we got together to relive the old days at a bar. I can’t remember whether we brought this particular exchange up or not, but it was clear to me that both us had traveled far in life since those days. Whatever things were written back then were born out of youth and the stupidity that attends to it. And writing this now, with the benefits of all the living that has happened since then, I realize that.

So if this piece had a Sam Elliott moment, this would be it. Sam would say something about how we learn life’s lessons best when we learn them the hard way, and hopefully these lessons reveal themselves to us and make us into better people. Or something like that. I’ll catch everyone on down the trail.

Submitted for the Cubs’ consideration


Dear Chicago Cubs,

I welcome the news that you will be turning away from random celebrities, in favor of giving the seventh-inning stretch more of a Chicago feel. To honor your decision, I want to kick off a campaign to secure myself an invite for one of the celebrity-vacated spots, for the 2013 season or whenever you see your way clear to inviting me.

To set forth some credentials, I offer the following: I’ve been a Cubs fan since I was seven years old. I wrote about my Cubs conversion, and have chronicled many other Cubs-related memories in this space, as well.

In addition, I also write about the Cubs for ThroughTheFenceBaseball, and would be happy to relate my experiences to that site and its readers. I also write for ChicagoSideSports, and what a story that would be for them, as well. I have several ideas to write about for them, but I promise that no other piece would matter until that story is told.

I feel, on some level, that I’ve helped to diagnose one of the problems plaguing the Cubs in the quest to win at Wrigley Field. Last year,  I wrote a piece about how Bruce Springsteen has brought success to the Bears, Blackhawks, and White Sox, after he played a concert in their home stadium. That piece ran in TimeOutChicago, and I was very glad to see it. But I also took it one step further on my blog.

I pointed out that Bruce Springsteen’s 2003 concerts at Fenway Park seemed to clear the way for the Red Sox to finally break their curse/drought/whatever in 2004. I looked at the playlists for those shows, and identified The Promised Land as a song that speaks of faith in someplace that hasn’t yet been seen. I theorized that if Bruce could play The Promised Land at Wrigley Field last summer, perhaps that would be enough to break whatever’s been afflicting the Cubs for so long. Nobody can say that Boston won for that reason in 2004, but nobody can say that they didn’t, either.

I went to the first Springsteen show at Wrigley last year, and even though I didn’t hear the Promised Land, it was a phenomenal show. I also picked up on a hidden Ron Santo tribute during the show, wrote about it, and sent it off to Jon Eig, the editor at ChicagoSideSports. He got the piece up on the site in time for others to read about it before the second Springsteen show, and this time, when My City of Ruins was played, I have to believe at least some at the show knew what was going on. Bruce even called the fans’ attention to it, in a way that he didn’t do at the first show. I can’t say I had a role in any of that, but again, I put the story out there and events played out as they did.

The second Springsteen show led off with The Promised Land, and I took to my blog the next morning and declared victory. I’m not foolish enough to take credit for the song actually being played. But I did lay down a marker that if anything good comes from it, I want it known that I pointed this out before the fact.

In the wake of the Ron Santo piece, I also wrote a Kerry Wood piece for ChicagoSide, and a Ryan Freel piece, and the Pete Rose piece that took off in ways I never imagined, and has helped lead to an evaluation of whether Rose has suffered enough for what he did. All of which has been very gratifying, and has put my words and ideas into the minds and on the tongues of many people.

I’m no celebrity, and I never will be, either. I’m just a dedicated Chicagoan who loves the Cubs like nothing else, short of my own family. My Twitter page, my blog site, my Tumblr page, and my Pinterest account all verify my devotion to the team, and my Facebook banner leaves no doubt as to my thoughts about baseball itself. And if that doesn’t merit even a bit of consideration for a singing gig at Wrigley Field, so be it. Just having the chance to type all of this up was interesting enough.

Thanks for the consideration.

Rob Harris

How about it, Sandy?

If you want to know what “irony” is, you can’t do any better than realizing the hurricane that devastated New Jersey and its boardwalk bore the same name as a Bruce Springsteen song about leaving the boardwalk behind.

The storm’s name was chosen well before it ever formed, and it could have gone anywhere at all. But instead, it came to New Jersey and wiped the boardwalk away. It’s equal parts unbelievable and heartbreaking.

One of my very good friends lives in New Jersey, and I hope he’s doing all right. I hope New York gets back on its feet soon, too. And I hope that we finally understand how the planet we all call home is trying to tell us something. The oil companies and their paid mouthpieces in the media don’t want us to hear it, but we ignore it at our own peril. And if this storm doesn’t break through the noise of denial on the issue, then I suppose nothing ever will.

It starts with an idea

Earlier in the week, I met with some of the senior leadership in the company that I work for. You would probably know the company’s name, and be familiar with our products, but I’m going to leave all of that out here. That information is beside the larger point that I want to make.

The reason I met with them was to discuss the progress of an initiative that they are promoting within the company. And as the people gathered around the lunch table said their piece about the initiative and its implementation, I had a thought that I wanted to share with the group. However, I decided to write out what I was thinking, instead of vocalizing it on the spot. So after letting the matter sit inside my brain for a few days, here it is:

I work for a company in a creative industry. What we sell are the tangible results of the labors of many different people, but these products all began in the same place: as an idea inside someone’s head. It takes much time and effort to turn these ideas into something more than just flights of fancy.  We sometimes have new ideas but, for one reason or another, most of them never become anything more than that.

Nurturing an idea is a difficult process. There’s the internal struggle of translating an idea into something more tangible, together with the external resistance that other people have to anything that’s new and unproven. People typically don’t want to step outside of their comfort levels in order to embrace new ideas. Our survival instinct tells us to go with what we know, and turn away from what we don’t.

And yet ideas still have a knack for getting out. Once they do, these ideas will either rise or fall, on the basis of own their merits and the willingness of others to accept them. This was the process that was being hashed out around a lunch table the other day. But like the sunrise that starts off a new day, that necessary first step had already been taken.

I’d love to give a prognosis for success down the road, but my crystal ball isn’t always accurate. I picked the Washington Nationals to win this year’s World Series, after all.  I’m at least helping to make the idea work, together with many talented and dedicated people.

As Bruce Springsteen advises, small things can lead to bigger things someday. And there’s nothing physically smaller–or metaphorically greater–than a good idea.

99 Cubsballoons go by

There’s something about the number 99. Maybe it was because I grew up watching reruns of Get Smart, and Barbara Feldon’s Agent 99 was always so much easier on the eyes—and the ears—than Don Adams’ abrasive 86. The Cubs, for their part, are closing in on 99 losses for a season, which is something they haven’t done in my lifetime.

In almost 40 years of following the Cubs, there are only three things that I haven’t yet seen: The World Series (of course), 100 wins or losses in a season, and for the Cubs to be on the wrong end of a no-hitter. Since Carlos Zambrano threw his no-hitter in Milwaukee, you could put seeing a no-hitter in Wrigley Field on that list, too. But otherwise, there’s nothing that I haven’t seen the Cubs do to an opponent, or seen someone else do to the Cubs.

But what’s so interesting about the number 99 is the amount of music it has inspired. When all of us were kids, once of the first songs that we all learned was “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” Never mind whether it’s inappropriate to be singing to kids about beer drinking when they don’t know what beer is, anyway. Maybe it’s just teaching them how to run up a tab, which isn’t such a bad skill to have if you plan to follow the Cubs one day.

Back in 1979, a band called Toto had a hit song called “99.” I always assumed it had something to do with the aforementioned Agent 99, but apparently it was written to honor George Lucas’ film THX-1138. You learn something new every day.

Three years later, Bruce Springsteen released “Nebraska.” If you’ve ever seen Springsteen perform live, you may have been lucky enough to see “Johnny 99,” which is much more fun live than the studio version is. And Johnny Cash even did a pretty swingin’ version of the song, but then again, Johnny Cash could turn any song into something great.

The following year, Prince came along and hit it big with “1999.” Even though the song was recorded sixteen years before the actual year, it was eminently danceable, and was the title track to what was his biggest hit to that time. Many musicians would love to have a song that well-known, but Prince then went on to even bigger and better things the following year with “Purple Rain.”

At about the same time as Prince’s song, there was an unknown German band called Nena scored a huge international hit with “99 Luftballoons.” The video got played on MTV, even though nobody knew what she was singing. It had the “we’re all gonna die in an accidental nuclear war” theme that briefly permeated the culture (see also Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” and the movie “WarGames,” among other examples). The song was recut into English, and it became a hit all over again. That synth line just couldn’t be denied, I guess.

And to bring the number up to a more current sound, Jay-Z gave us “99 Problems” back in 2006. The Cubs themselves were awful back in 2006, as it was the final year of the Dusty Baker era in Chicago. They fell out of contention in May, but stabilized a bit and wound up with 96 losses that year. Or to put it another way, the Cubs had 96 problems but, once the season was over, a manager wasn’t one.

So, barring an unexpected turn toward respectability in the desert this weekend, the Cubs will hit 99 losses for the first time that many of us have ever seen. And from there, there’s only one place left to go.

And here is a souvenir, Just to prove the Cubs were here….      

Gave proof through the night

The piece I wrote yesterday about Jimi Hendrix and the anniversary of his death set me on a mission to find my Hendrix CD. It was purchased sometime in the 1990s, back when CDs still needed to be purchased in order to acquire music. I still have lots of old CDs, and fortunately I was able to find the Hendrix one without any trouble.

Probably my favorite song on the CD is his version of the Star Spangled Banner from his performance at Woodstock. It’s recognizable, but also twisted and contorted, just like I gather America itself was back then. When it’s understood for what it is, it’s beautiful, at least to me.

I had a “Francis Scott Key moment” of my own a couple of days ago. It started with the piece that I wrote about Bruce Springsteen’s tribute to Ron Santo in his first show at Wrigley Field. The piece ran on, and within a day it had made it to the top of that website’s “Most popular” list. It felt like having a #1 record must have felt for Dexy’s Midnight Runners with “Come on Eileen.” I had to get an 80s reference in there, somehow.

The piece showed some staying power, hanging on for more than a week in the top spot. I have to admit that I checked in on it, from time to time, and it always felt good to see something I had done sitting at number one. It’s not a feeling that I’m familiar with, to be completely honest.

And then, in the wake of a disappointing Bears loss to Green Bay, ChicagoSide ran a piece by longtime Chicago sports columnist Jay Mariotti about Jay Cutler and how much the Chicago Bears suck this year. Mariotti had a long run in Chicago as the daily opinion maker for sports in this town. While he’s not in Chicago anymore, his name recognition alone, to say nothing of his considerable writing skills, virtually guaranteed a wide readership for what he had written.

And soon enough, his piece appeared on the site’s most popular list. It quickly made it up to number 2 on the list, and that’s where it was when I went to bed on Monday night. I saw my Springsteen/Santo/Tribute piece still on top, and his Cutler/Bears/Suck piece gaining ground quickly. I went to bed, convinced that the pieces would be changing positions with each other that night.

On Tuesday morning I was pleasantly surprised, like Francis Scott Key, when I awoke to find that the Springsteen piece was still there, on top of the list. I thought to myself that Springsteen had trumped Cutler, and the Santo tribute had trumped the Bears’ suck. I was probably over-analyzing it, but when your own stuff is involved, I think that’s allowed.

It wasn’t, in my mind, a personal vindication of any sort. I just told the story of a well-loved rock star paying tribute to a well-loved ballplayer on a Friday night in Wrigley Field. Nobody sucked, nobody had disappointed anyone, and it was all about something good and uplifting. The other piece was about kicking someone who was down. He might even deserve to be kicked, because I’ve never really been a fan of Jay Cutler. But be that as it may, the catharsis that comes from releasing frustrations was evident throughout the piece.

Chicago loves the Bears, much more than I do. And so when things go badly, especially when the Packers are involved, people can go a long way by riling up the team’s fans. The truth is that the Bears have invested so heavily in Cutler that he’s not going anywhere. Chicago is basically stuck with this guy. Railing against Jay Cutler is like a wolf howling at the moon: it might feel good to do it, but in the end it changes nothing.

So the inevitable finally happened, at some point on Tuesday. The Springsteen piece is something I’ll always be very proud of, and the attention that it received was well-deserved. It was a classy thing that Bruce Springsteen did, and Ron Santo very much deserved a tribute, for the Hall of Fame, for what he did for Diabetes research, and for how much of himself he put into baseball and the Cubs. What does Jay Cutler deserve? Not very much, unless he can somehow find a way to win the Super Bowl. And even if he does, it’s unlikely that fans would think very much of him, anyway.

So the torch has been passed, and the Jay/Jay pairing now reigns. I’m hoping to have another piece up on the website soon, but for now it’s gone far better than I could have imagined. And it’s certainly worth writing about here, too.

Wrigley, Ronny and the Boss

ChicagoSideSports is a new website in town, and it focuses on topics that mean a lot to me. Chicago is a great sports town, and ChicagoSide presents angles on it that national outlets like ESPN never could. I was thrilled when my first piece for them was published a couple of weeks ago, and even more thrilled when they ran another piece that I wrote the morning after Friday night’s Springsteen concert at Wrigley Field.

The piece came together quickly, between my writing it and the efforts of Jonathan Eig, the Editor-in-Chief of ChicagoSideSports, to get it up on the site. As a result, a hidden tribute to Ron Santo from Friday night’s show was more visible to fans at Saturday’s show. The piece has received a good deal of traffic in the three days that it’s been up, and I’m quite pleased that it’s worked out as it has.

I’ve written about Ron Santo before here and here. Chicago has a spot in its heart for Ron Santo, and as a result, the piece had an inherent interest the moment it was published. But add that to the historic nature of Springsteen’s shows at Wrigley, and the large community of people who follow his music, and it was a unique opportunity to write a piece that appealed to many different people. I’m very proud that I was able to weave these threads together, and I’m grateful that it has found an audience that’s much larger than my humble blog’s will ever be.

Additional pieces, whatever they should be about and wherever they may be published, will be cross-posted here, as well. Stay tuned.

Mission Accomplished

If there’s a piece of advice I would give to someone going to a Bruce Springsteen concert (other than to go in the first place), it would be don’t be disappointed if he doesn’t play a particular song, unless it’s “Born to Run.” With hundreds of songs on his albums, and fans who bring signs asking for nearly every song under the sun, it’s possible that your song will get left out of the evening’s setlist. It doesn’t mean it’s not a great song, or that others won’t hear it in another city or at a different show.

Earlier this year, when news that Springsteen was bringing the Wrecking Ball tour to Wrigley Field was first reported, I wrote a piece in this space about “The Promised Land.” I love the song, and would suggest that it’s probably my favorite one of all his songs. The meaning of the lyrics is what gets me: not so much the guy who works in his Daddy’s garage in the Utah desert, but the underlying idea that faith in something that hasn’t yet been seen is an essential part of who we are as people.

My lack of a religious faith does not mean that I don’t believe in things. I believe in people’s ability and desire to do good things. I believe that cooperation is not always easy, but it’s always better than conflict. And I believe, most irrationally of all, that the Cubs will win the World Series one day. I just hope that it happens in my lifetime.

The piece I wrote back in March suggested that since Bruce had played “The Promised Land” at the first of his Fenway park shows back in 2003, it may have had something to do with breaking Boston’s supposed “Curse of the Bambino.” They did, after all, win their first World Series in many decades the following year. I’m not sure if it would have happened without that song appearing on the setlist for one of the shows, but nobody can deny that he played that song in that place, and then the baseball team that plays there finally won a championship.

So, before the second show at Wrigley Field had even been announced, I suggested that, if there would only be a single show at Wrigley Field, perhaps playing the song would help the Cubs, too. I went to the show on Friday night hoping to hear that song, but after 28 great songs–“The Promised Land” not being one of them–I left happier than I had ever been at the end of a concert. And there was still a second show at Wrigley, so perhaps that would be when the song was played.

And sure enough, not only was it played at Wrigley Field last night, but it was the opening song of the entire show. So my admittedly strange theory that one song, played by one performer, can break curses and lead to better times for the sports team that plays there, has now been put into play.

The Cubs clearly won’t win anything this year, but the “billy goat curse,” and any other hexes or spells which may have been hanging in the air at the old ballpark, may have just met its match. And if I live long enough to see it, I’ll be sure to dig this piece out, present it to the world, and then go looking for Bruce at Mary’s place, wherever that might be, because we’re definitely gonna have a party.

Bruce Springsteen and the power of rock and roll

For several years, I waited for a chance to see my next Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert. Then it was announced he would play at Wrigley Field, and I bought tickets to the show .

For many months, I lived my life knowing that the Springsteen show was off in the distance, like a proverbial pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. When the day finally arrived, I drove down to the ballpark with friends, one of whom had never seen the Boss play live before.

For three hours (and a good chunk of a fourth one), we all clapped and yelled, danced and sang, and gave witness to the power that music has. Bruce shared the stage with some of the biggest names in rock and roll (Eddie Vedder and Tom Morello) and with a starstruck young girl with a flower in her hair. He called out to the ghosts that follow us through our lives, and he honored his friend Clarence Clemons He played songs that everybody came to hear (Born to Run, Thunder Road, Jungleland, and many others) and some that nobody expected to (I had been singing the rather obscure Darlington County around the house all day, and sure enough, he played that one too).

I don’t consider myself religious at all, but last night I was part of the loudest, strongest, and most passionate service that I’ll ever be a party to. I knew it had to end, but I enjoyed it to the limit while it was going on. In that sense, it was just like life: it can’t last forever, but it can be such a blast while it’s going on. That only happens when you give yourself over to it and I, along with 40,000 other pilgrims in a baseball cathedral named Wrigley Field, did exactly that.

“Land of Hope and Dreams” closed out the first set, and there’s a line in the song that claims “faith will be rewarded.” That’s what transpired in that place last night. Rock and roll, as channeled through the guitar of Bruce Springsteen, the drums of Max Weinberg, the saxophone of the remarkable Jake Clemons, and the rest of a very large and talented musical contingent, touched our lives and gave us hope. I couldn’t ask for anything better than that.

Out on the edge

In just about 48 hours from when I’m writing this, the Bruce Springsteen show at Wrigley Field will be wrapping up. When the tickets went on sale, it seemed like a long time away. And now it’s almost here. The passage of time isn’t always something I like, but in this case I’ll take it.

I was driving my daughter to ice skating practice tonight, and she was flipping through the hits stations as she usually does. At one point, I heard a small bit of Lady Gaga’s Edge of Glory. The station was quickly changed, and I almost demanded that she go back to the Lady Gaga song.

“But Dad, this song’s so old,” she protested.

“I want to hear the Big Man,” I told her. So we listened until the saxophone part near the end of the song. It was a nice bit of posthumous music from Clarence Clemons, who will be greatly missed on the stage at Wrigley Field on Friday night. As I listened to the notes, a big smile came across my face. He couldn’t live forever, but his music still can.

I’ve heard about the tribute that seems to accompany the playing of “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” on stage. I’ll join in the hollering and the yelling and the cheering, as if I’ve been to dozens of Springsteen shows in the past. I haven’t, of course, but that’s not really the point.

Clarence was a big part of the band, but he’s gone now. There’s no reason to get sad or upset about it, either. The show goes on, and life goes on along with it. For an untold number of the fans in the stands, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience something special. It would have been nice if they could see Clarence, too, but the show will still be something worth remembering. And there’s always Lady Gaga’s song on the radio, too. Did I really just type that?

One week to go

It’s Friday night, and at this time next week Bruce Springsteen will be onstage at Wrigley Field. September once seemed far away, and now it’s almost here. It promises to be a rockin’ good time.

Earlier this week I had a piece published on ChicagoSideSports about how Springsteen will be the first artist to play at all four Chicago sports arenas: Soldier Field in 1985, the United Center beginning in 1999, U.S. Cellular Field in 2003, and now Wrigley Field in 2012. It’s worth pointing out that championship banners have since come to each of those first three venues, so that bodes well for Wrigley and the Cubs. As I wrote back in March, I believe in the Promised Land.

Come on up for the risin’

Bruce Springsteen played Fenway Park the last two nights, and by all accounts they were blockbuster shows: three and a half hours, new music, old favorites, cover songs, and a Johnny Pesky tribute. What more can anybody ask for?

My iPod is going to be shuffling Springsteen songs–and probably nothing else–between now and September 7.

Rich man wanna be king

Bruce Springsteen and his music have been recurring themes since I started this blog last summer. Clarence Clemons was the impetus for one of my first pieces, and I’ve written about Springsteen here and here and here (and in other posts too, if you care to find them). But tonight I realized how prescient one of his songs really is, when it comes to the upcoming presidential election.

When I saw Springsteen play live for the first time in 2007, I would have to suggest that “Badlands” was a particular highlight. Singing–no, screaming–the chorus of that song, in the company of 20,000 people doing the same thing, opened my eyes to what a communal thing a concert can be. Springsteen and his band play the music, but everyone in the stadium or the arena sings the words, in a kind of group affirmation of how important these songs are to us. It’s really a remarkable thing to experience, once you realize what it is and then give yourself over to it.

A Facebook friend this evening brought up the Mitt Romney tax returns situation, and it presented an opportunity to add something I wrote on the topic in the comments thread. Nobody will pay attention to hundreds of words in a Facebook comment, but its possible that someone might click on a link and consider a more expansive take on something when it’s presented in that form. It’s not the reason I write this blog, but it is a side benefit, I suppose.

One of my Republican friends took exception to the idea that Romney’s tax returns were fair game in an election cycle, and I quoted the following lines from Springsteen’s “Badlands”

Poor man wanna be rich, Rich man wanna be king

There’s no doubt that this applies to Mitt Romney, who has the kind of personal wealth that few of us can imagine. The way he is acting, by refusing to follow the precedent that his own father established many years ago, is the type of an imperious move that will continue to cost him, whichever way he decides to play it. He either releases the returns and tries to explain away the ridiculously low tax rates that he’s paid in the past, or he refuses to release the returns, and people fill in the gaps about his money in whichever way they decide to. And this won’t help him any, in case you’re wondering.

So the discussion turned to whether or not President Obama is “rich.” There’s no question that he is, by many people’s standards, but he’s at least released his tax returns so that we can tell what he makes, and what kind of taxes he actually pays. Obama has met the standard that is now expected of presidential candidates, while Romney has not. It really is just as simple as that.

I’ve said, many times before, that Romney is not getting my vote, under any circumstances. Nevertheless, I continue to write about Romney because I think his election as president would be an unqualified disaster for this country. Wars would be started, services would be slashed, and America as I have known it would rapidly wither away.

With stakes like these, I can’t sit by and allow the news media to frame the debate, without throwing a few ideas of my own into the discussion. And if quoting from one of Springsteen’s songs helps to make a point somehow, I’m more than happy to do that. I think of it as serving my country, in some small way.

A sort-of homecoming on Chicago’s North side

The upcoming Bruce Springsteen concerts in Wrigley Field in September promise to be a good time. But it’s not widely-known that Springsteen’s first show that wasn’t on the East coast came way, way back in early 1973, at a Chicago club known as the Quiet Knight. I wasn’t in Chicago back then, but if I had been, the Quiet Knight seems like it would have been the place to be.

Bob Marley once played there, as did an unknown Jimmy Buffett. Muddy Waters played there in 1978 (with some group called the Rolling Stones). While the club shut down in 1979, the building still stands today, housing a clothing store named NeverMind. It’s located just steps away from the Belmont el stop, and a few hundred steps away from the venue where Springsteen and his band will be playing two shows in one of the best-known concert venues in the city, if not all of America.

I’m sure Wrigleyville will enjoy the party when these shows take place next month. The music will fill the air for blocks and blocks around the intersection of Clark and Addison Streets.  And it might even be heard on the same spot where, nearly forty years ago, an unknown kid from New Jersey arrived, with only his music and his dreams to offer to the world. And, fortunately, the world has now heard and appreciated them.


Tonight, to celebrate my daughter’s birthday, my family and I went out to a supper club-type of a restaurant. It’s the kind of a place where, leaving the servers and waitstaff aside, my presence in the place brought the average age down considerably. But they wouldn’t still be in business if the food wasn’t good, and I’m happy to help keep them going on occasion.

There was some background music playing, but the conversational tones of the restaurant’s patrons drowned it out unless someone was really listening for it. After a couple of songs, the opening bars of Freebird by Lynrd Skynrd came on. I love the song, but it seemed strangely out of place with the restaurant’s octogenarian clientele. But nobody said anything, and I was thus treated to several minutes of tasty guitar jams. How could anyone complain about that?

Any live band, whenever they go on stage, has to be ready for somebody to call for Freebird! to be played. I once called out for it to a two-man folk duo playing in East Lansing, Michigan and, to my great delight, they played the song as I had requested. Everybody probably wants to hear Freebird at some point, and bands should prepare themselves for that.

The band that originally wrote the song played a show in Chicago last Friday night. I can’t know this for sure, but I’ll guess that they’ve rarely played a concert without “Freebird!” being called out from the audience. The song was written almost 40 years ago, and that’s a lot of times that the song has been played. If the band were to walk out on stage, play Freebird for a half an hour (and I’m sure that’s been done, at some point) and then walk offstage, I can’t imagine too many people would object. The song is that powerful, all these years later.

I didn’t make it to the Skynrd show last weekend, since the chance to see Bruce Springsteen at Wrigley Field was too much to pass up, and my concert budget only goes so far. I have no doubt it was a great experience for those who were in attendance, and I wanted to take a moment and comment on the song and its well-established place in the canon of rock and roll. And if tonight’s crowd at the supper club didn’t firmly agree, at least they went along with it.

Lord help me, I can’t chay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-aynge…..


It’s now two months away from the Bruce Springsteen show at Wrigley Field. Now that my much-anticipated trip to Cape Cod is over, that’s the next big thing I have to look forward to.

The Cubs are usually how I mark my time in the summer, and that won’t work this year. The heat wave that we’re in the middle of makes all outdoor things seem unpleasant. And we’re without another holiday for the rest of July and all of August. Welcome to the dog days of Summer.

But when September rolls around, things will look up. My kids could be back in school (unless there’s a teachers’ strike, as I’m nearly certain there will be). Springsteen’s playing at Wrigley, and my Dad and brother and I are going to a Cubs game in Wrigley the week after that. So I’ll just use these things as the lights at the end of the tunnel.

Two of the very first posts I wrote in this space a year ago had to do with Clarence Clemons. The day I heard about his stroke, I put together a piece about how he might never again play with the E Street Band onstage. It was then that I realized I didn’t have to wait to be told about what events mean, but I could use my blog as a tool to get my own thoughts about the news out, in real time.

I’ve done a few other posts like that in the mean time, where I commented on something that had happened without first waiting for the media to tell me what had happened. I will say that’s an extraordinarily empowering feeling.

The media in this country wants to fill up our minds with their take on the events that happen. The “news” always comes from the same place, with the same perspective, and we’re just expected to wait for it, internalize it, and then consider ourselves to be “informed citizens” as a result. But I’d rather think for myself, especially when it comes to things that I care about.

Which is why I’m writing about Jake Clemons with this post. After Clarence Clemons passed away, just over a year ago, I wondered whether Springsteen and his band would ever play live again, and if they did it would never again be the same, for the band and its fans. But what I didn’t know at the time was that another Clemons–Clarence’s nephew, Jake Clemons–was waiting in the wings, ready to do what needed to be done. And I’m very excited to see what it’s like with him onstage in two months’ time.

Nobody is going to say that he has replaced “the Big Man.” That couldn’t be done. But the fact that he is related to Clarence, and is apparently a very fine musician in his own right, is a welcome development. He seems to fit in well with Bruce and the others, if the picture above is any indication. I’m sure that I’ll yell and holler when the Clarence tribute comes during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” but for the rest of the show I’ll listen to Jake–and the other additions to the E Street Band–and remind myself that life does go on, just as it always has.

Jake Clemons hasn’t been profiled, that I’ve seen, in Rolling Stone or Newsweek or any of the other media outlets that are going to someday “announce” his presence to the rest of us. But, again, I’m going to get a jump on that process. When these stories finally are written, it won’t be news to me.

I’ve been reading online descriptions of Springsteen’s shows in Europe this summer, and it sounds like Jake has come into his own already, which is just remarkable, considering how everyone probably wants him to be the next Clarence Clemons. But he’s doing just fine, it appears, with becoming the first Jake Clemons. And that’s going to bring an added dimension to Springsteen’s stateside shows, beginning in Fenway Park next month.

September 7 can’t get here soon enough for me.

Appreciating American music

As I was returning home from a long and most enjoyable vacation today, I commenced the battle of finding something on the radio. I wrote about this once before, and it makes me appreciate the concept of satellite radio. You pick a station you like, and never have to worry about whether it comes in or not. I would never pay for this service, but I can at least understand it now.

I was thinking about the upcoming 4th of July holiday, and how it will chop up my first week back in the office into two smaller chunks. Or, as I heard someone put it, two Mondays and two Fridays, with a holiday wedged in between. I suppose that can be called a soft landing.

I was turning the radio dial when I heard the opening strains of “Stray Cat Strut.” I sang along a little bit, and thought about how the Stray Cats were an American band, from Long Island. I thus decided to try an experiment: I would listen to the next few songs and see which were from American artists. The songs that followed were: “Babe” by Styx (from Chicago), “The Long Run” by the Eagles (from California), “Hold on Loosely” by 38 Special (from Florida), and  “Do Ya Know What I Mean” by Lee Michaels (from Los Angeles). That was five songs in a row, all by American artists.

The radio station, 93.5 FM in Toledo, apparently wasn’t doing anything intentional with American Artists, though, because the next song they played was U2’s “With or Without You.” U2’s an Irish band, from Dublin city (that’s how they introduced themselves at Live Aid, anyway). As I continued listening, I heard songs by Cyndi Lauper (from Queens, New York), Chicago, and War (from California). I started to think of  other American artists that I didn’t hear played, from Bruce Springsteen to Van Halen to Aerosmith to Jimmy Buffett (who admittedly doesn’t get very much airplay, other than “Margaritaville” but has had a very long and distinguished career, just the same). The experiment ended when the station’s signal began breaking up, during Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care Of Business” (and they’re a Canadian band, so it could have ended in a more American fashion, but the point had already been made.)

It’s no big shock that an American radio station plays more songs by American artists than anyone else. But it’s a reminder that America always has, at least since the invention of recorded music (which was done by an American, I might point out), been the driving force in the music industry.  It’s easy to take this type of cultural heritage for granted sometimes, since I’m immersed in it, all day long. But a long drive through Ohio can sometimes be more significant than it may otherwise appear.