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Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Dallas Musings on the 50th

By pure serendipity, a business meeting took me to the Dallas area for three nights, including the 22nd, which was the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in Dealey Plaza.  I didn't get to see anything since I had meetings all day and anyway, you had to be among 5,000 lottery winners to attend the ceremony there (in some pretty nasty, cold weather).  Still, I saw excerpts on the local news and clearly it was very tasteful and inspiring.  That the event had a traumatic impact on the baby boom generation, still evident today, is undeniable.  In the onslaught of Kennedy retrospectives that TV ran over the last few weeks, one couldn't help reflecting one more time on the life and death of the most charismatic President of the television age.

As a President, the first two Kennedy years were decidedly mediocre, or even a little worse.  In retrospect, he was very cautious, treading carefully on Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the economy.  When he did act forcefully, the results weren't particularly successful.  Bay of Pigs was an outright disaster, the imbroglio over steel prices seems almost an embarrassment in retrospect, and other than the supply side tax cut, all of the legislative initiatives were floundering.

But even in the moderate successes, and the buildup to future successes, his great quality of leadership was showing through, and that's what made his personal popularity soar despite the policy struggles.  The cut in the highest tax rates pulled the country out of an economic malaise, his leadership on space brought the US program back to parity and then past the Soviets, and his travels abroad, especially in Germany, were Cold War triumphs.  All the while, in press conferences and other public appearances, the Kennedy humor and energy shown through.  By the third year, the Kennedy administration was hitting stride, and the legislative victories of 1964 were a testament not only to LBJ's superior lobbying skills but to the groundwork the administration had done the previous year.  Not surprisingly, the Soviets underestimated the President in the lead up to the Cuban missile crisis, where Kennedy's level headed approach proved the winning strategy.  Having said that, the Soviets achieved their main goal of securing Castro against future attempts by the US to remove him.

Against this background, the assassination by a leftist, when everyone assumed the threats to Kennedy's life would only come from the right, seemed to take the air out of his martyrdom.  No wonder liberals have never been able to accept the lone gunman story, and conspiracy theories are still commonly believed.  These theories are abetted by gaping holes in the record, some still kept secret at the insistence of the family.  Probably the leading theory other than the lone gunman theory is the accidental mortal wound shot attributed to one of the Secret Service men in the car trailing the President.  For that theory to be true, it would have had to be the unluckiest shot in history.  And if it was true, it makes the President's death that much more meaningless.  I tend to think that the book "Case Closed" provided the proof the Warren Commission didn't that Oswald alone killed the President.

Contrast JFK's leadership skills and his rapid on-the-job learning with the current incumbent.  Well into his fifth year, Obama seems as much at sea as at the beginning.  Even when he seems to have hit on the right strategy he has a way of mucking it up.  So he passed health care but butchered the implementation.  His sanctions approach had Iran weakened and looking for an escape, but then he makes a deal with them wherein he relaxes the sanctions in exchange for virtually nothing (by the way, proving a Reagan maxim that in any negotiation, the side that wants the deal more will make a bad deal).  His tax policy is a jumbled mess, the debt is increasing to unmanageable amounts, and the Fed, with his encouragement, has pursued programs to keep the economy barely above water that will be very painful to unwind.  Where are we going?  Most agree, according to all the polls, that the country is headed down a dangerous path.       

My business meeting proved quite useful.  Two presentations really were outstanding.  First, an inspirational talk by Dick Hoyt, who has competed with his wheelchair bound son Rick in many dozens of marathons and triathalons around the world.  If you don't know the story of Team Hoyt, by all means look it up on the internet. They had planned to retire, but will run one more Boston marathon this spring to commemorate the return of that race after last year's tragic bombing at the finish line.

On getaway day, Simpson and Bowles, famed co-chairs of the Obama deficit cutting commission spoke.  This was another good idea, with potentially a good result that the President abandoned for reasons I will never understand.  Though Paul Ryan famously voted against the Commission report (saying it didn't go far enough to cut entitlements), it still represents the bravest and best effort to really solve our spending problem. 
The WSJ printed another memorable interview just over a year ago by Marc Myers about the Doors.  I will never forget putting their first album on the record player as a high school teenager and being absolutely transported, excited beyond words, by the initial  riff and then Morrison's voice on "Break on Through." "Crystal Ship," the bluesy and controversial "Backdoor Man," "20th Century Fox," the long version of "Light My Fire," and the extended musical poem, "The End" allowed for little or no let up for awestruck fans who knew they were hearing something really different and important.  Unlike many second albums, the Doors' People Are Strange was a brilliant follow up, its extended poem ("When The Music's Over") arguably much stronger than "The End."

I was lucky enough to see the Doors in person at least twice, once in a multi-group concert produced by the estimable DJ Murray (The K) Kaufman, and the second time at Forest Hills sharing the bill with Simon and Garfunkel, of all people.  Doors' concerts exceeded their records in excitement; the mood was a little like a NASCAR race in that everyone was waiting for the wreck, since Morrison's behavior was so unpredictable.

The interview was with keyboardist Ray Manzarek (now deceased) and guitarist Robby Krieger and focused on "Light My Fire."  Here are edited excerpts:

Myers: Originally lasting more than seven minutes, (the song) featured one of rock's first extended album solos.  When the shorter version was released in "67, it reached No. 1, and the following year, Jose Feliciano won a Grammy for his cover version.  The Doors' surviving members talked about the song's famed keyboard intro, the Fats Domino connection, and why the single was faster paced than the album version.
Manzarek: By March 1966, we were running out of songs.  At rehearsal, Jim said, "Everyone go home this weekend and write at least one song."  Only Robby did.  He called it "Light My Fire."
 Krieger: I came up with a melody inspired by the Leaves' "Hey Joe,"  I also liked the Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire," so I wrote lyrics that used the word fire.
Manzarek: When Robby played the song for us, it had a folk-rock sound.  But John Densmore cringed.  He wanted it so sound edgier.  He added a hard Latin rhythm to the rock beat, and it worked.
Krieger: As Jim sang, he changed the melody line to give it a bluesy feel.  Then he came up with a second verse right oft the top of his head: "The time to hesitate is through/No time to wallow in the mire..."
Manzarek: Once the lyrics and melody were set, we realized we could jam as long as we wanted on the song's middle two chords -A minor and B minor- the way Coltrane did on "My Favorite Things."  All of us dug Coltrane's long solos.  But we needed some way to start the song...I started playing a cycle of fifths on my organ.  Out came a motif from the Bach piano book I had used as a kid.  It was like a psychedelic minuet.  We didn't use a bass player - I played the bass notes on a Fender Rhodes keyboard bass while my right hand played the Vox which could be cranked up to a screaming loud volume.  My bass line grew out of Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill."
Krieger: Onstage, the song became this rock-jazz jam.  Audiences loved it.
Manzarek: In August "66, when we went into Sunset Sound to record our first album, producer Paul Rothchild wanted us to record "Light My Fire" just as we had been playing it live.  We recorded two takes - each one lasting over seven minutes.  No one was recording extended solo albums then.
Krieger: Because Paul loved what Ray had done with the minuet in the beginning, he said "Hell, let's put it at the end, too."  So he spliced  in a copy of Ray's minuet after Jim's vocal, as an outro.  A few months after the album came out in January "67, the label wanted a single for AM radio.  Dave Diamond, an FM disc jockey had been playing the album and was getting a ton of calls.
Manzarek: But a single meant our album version had to be cut down to 2 and a half minutes.  Everyone groaned, but Paul said he'd take a crack at it.  When we heard the result the next day, the organ and guitar solos were gone.  Robby and I said to Paul, "You cut out the improvisation!"  Paul said, "I know.  But imagine you're 17 years old in Minneapolis.  You've never heard of the Doors and this is the version you hear on the radio.  Would you have a problem with it?"  Jim said, "Actually, I kind of dig it."
Krieger: It was gut wrenching to hear my solo cut, but I actually liked the single better.  The album version had been mixed at a very low volume to capture everything.  On the radio, it wasn't very loud or exciting.  The single, though, snapped.  The secret was that Paul had wrapped Scotch tape around the spindle holding the pickup reel, so the tape would turn a fraction faster.  This made the pitch a little higher and brighter, and the song more urgent.
Manzarek: I first heard the AM single with my wife Dorothy in our VW Bug. Dorothy started bouncing up and down like a jumping jack.  I was pounding on the wheel.  What a feeling.
Krieger: At first I didn't like Feliciano's 1968 version.  But after a while, I came to love it.  He made our song his own, which got others to record it.  Thanks to Jose, the song is our biggest copyright by far.

Tell me that's not a great interview!  Congrats, Mr. Myers! 

On 11/1, we bought 25 shares of Deere (DE) at 81.84.  Some are concerned that the farm reform bill will hurt agricultural equipment sales, but this one is still on the buy/hold list and it finally came up for a zero buy.   On 11/4, we paid 21.65 for a hundred shares of Suntrust Preferred (STI.PR.A).  Then on 11/8, we bought 200 more shares of the new News Corp (NWSA) at 17.31, a value buy.  We also bought 300 shares of Boyd Gaming (BYD) at 9.89.  Finally, it was time to move to the sell side.  On 11/13, we sold 200 more shares of USA Trucking (USAK) at 12.72.  We bought these in mid 2012 for an average price of 5.84.  On 11/14, we sold 100 shares of Conrad (CNRD) for 36.75.  We paid 1.30 on 4/26/05, and that price is not a typo.  On 11/14, we sold 200 shares of Marine Max (HZO) for 16.49.  We paid 5.32 for 100 on 7/14/08 and 12.20 for 100 on 9/27/13.  On 11/15, we bought 100 shares of Sabra (SBRAP) for 24.35.  Then on 11/19, we sold 200 more shares of USAK for 15.95.  We paid 5.41 on 6/14/12.   On 11/20, we sold 200 shares of Genie (GNE) at 11.91 that were spun off to us on 10/31/11 with a value some place in the 9's.  We'll have to figure out the cost basis at tax time, a process that will be a little easier since we have sold this year all the shares of the company that it was spun from.  So one way or another, we'll take credit for exactly what we paid.  Meanwhile, Genie keeps going up.  Also on 11/20, we bought 600 shares of Alumina (AWC) at 3.57.  Then it was time for the Dallas trip, and we'll pick up the post Dallas transactions in the next edition of musings, including the sale transaction where we finally threw in the towel on Hauppauge Digital and took a significant tax loss on that dog.   Again, neither redwavemusings nor its author are an investment advisor, and the securities and transactions mentioned here are only a log, not recommendations.

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