Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Trick Tuesday: "Cheap Trick" (1977)

This was it: album zero.  It wasn’t my first popular music acquisition (relax, we’ll be discussing Rock ‘n’ Soul Part One soon enough), nor was it even in the first thirty or so (plenty of other classic rock/pop of the time in my cassette collection in 1988), but it was the one that turned me from a casual listener to an obsessive.  It is the album that made me both listen for and demand more than just a passing good time from my music.  It is the album that convinced me to grow out my hair (a good idea at the time, maybe) and wear more ripped jeans (ditto).  It is the album that I still use as a yardstick for anything else I listen to, and it is the one I’d save from my collection if I were only able to save one.  Most big music geeks claim they could never whittle down a desert island top ten.  Truth be told, neither could I, but I can name the number one without a moment’s hesitation.

It has been this way for me since the first week of September, 1988.  Before that, Cheap Trick was just another band I had a tape of; the preceding summer, they’d experienced a comeback with the album Lap of Luxury and its attendant prom theme of a number-one single, “The Flame”.  Then as now, power ballads weren’t really my thing; to be completely honest, I was gifted Lap of Luxury by my mother, who insisted that regardless of the hit single, I’d “probably like these guys.”  More prescient words were never spoken; to this day, I probably owe her for the copies of Heaven Tonight and At Budokan that I later purloined from her vinyl stacks.  As it turned out, I liked Lap of Luxury well enough at the time; hell, I even did a flip-flop on “The Flame” and kept half an eye on MTV throughout the summer for the video, which was usually found somewhere ‘twixt Bon Jovi and Debbie Gibson.  Those, as Lou Reed once opined, were different times; times in which, for me, my Lap of Luxury cassette was rewound and replayed more than once.

Flash to September: it was my first day of High School.  That sounds like a setup for a good story, but it really just isn’t; while it was as traumatic as anyone else’s, I’ve no good melodramatic tale to show for it.  Just a sense of dislocation and the uneasy feeling that these were going to be four long years.  Once my mom had taxied me home (“So, how was your first day of High School?”  “Okay.”  “What did you learn today?”  “Nothing.”), it dawned on me that I’d palmed enough lunch money to go buy a tape at Music Plus, the semi-sleazy local indie store in town that probably made a lot more cash on porn than records now that I think about it as an adult.  Off I went, with a vague thought of “maybe something else by Cheap Trick” in the back of my mind.

At the store, facing the rack of tapes, I was struck with a dilemma: in those days, my preferred method for checking out another tape by a particular band was to go backwards; that is, to grab the next-to-most-recent album to the one I already had.  There I stood, staring a copy of The Doctor right in the white-and-red of its spine.  Price tag: $8.99.  Cash in hand: $7.50.  Damn.  “Well, how ‘bout that Japanese live album everybody talks about?”, I thought to myself.  $7.99.  Not my day.  Then, I noticed the self-titled first album.  $4.99.  Sold, with enough left over for a greasy slice of pizza on the way home, and to hell with my usual work-backwards routine; time to be a high school rebel, damn it.
The tape in question.  Probably doesn't play very well anymore (besides which, it's a cassette in 2011), but some things you can never let go...

 [Allow me to pause here and get a bit ahead of myself for a sentence or two: often, it has occurred to me that my life might have been vastly different had The Doctor’s forty minutes of blather been reduced to a cheapo title a bit sooner than it was.  Perhaps there is a god; we’ll discuss this idea further, oh, about eight or nine weeks from now.]

Back home, pizza duly digested, I slapped my new tape in the trusty ol’ walkman.  The first two songs were good: heavier than Lap of Luxury had led me to expect, but that agreed with my newly high-schooled hormones just fine.  The third song*, though: first, there were the drums.


Then the guitar: same rhythm, loud as hell, equally and completely obnoxious and sexy all at once.  Then the vocals: sleazy and sarcastic and full of knowledge my hormones wanted to share in.  Have you seen her face?  She’s got a face that could stop a clock.  Given how many of those I’d seen earlier that day, I got the message loud and clear.  And with that face I surely won’t stop to look her in the eyes.  Huh?  What the hell was this song called, anyway?  I take a look at the case: “He’s a Whore.”  Didn’t know exactly what it meant, but I knew that it might be a bit on the, ahem, naughty side.  My face and my hormones smiled wide: I may not have completely understood it, but this was certainly my music.  I hit rewind, and let the drums start again.  Boom boom bang boom boom.  Thwack.

And so the story goes: every song was then played over and over at stun volume, until I began to think I might have a line on what it all added up to.  Bit by bit, the sordid lyrics began to unravel.  Slowly, it dawned on me that “Daddy Should Have Stayed in High School” was a character study of a pedophile; that “Oh, Candy” wasn’t exactly a love song, that school was indeed for fools, that the nearly inaudible rant buried at the end of “Hot Love” had something to do with Aerosmith.  Some of these discoveries came with a bit of a price: in the pre-Wikipedia days, it was somewhat difficult to be a fourteen year old who wanted to find out who Richard Speck was without raising a few unwanted eyebrows.  That was all in the weeks to come, though: that night, I went to bed with the most wonderful headache I’d ever earned in my entire life.

As I write this nearly twenty-three years later, I still can’t tell you that I’ve ever completely unpeeled the onion that is Cheap Trick.  Every now and then, something new will catch my ear: a sound buried in the brilliantly dense mix, or a turn of phrase in the lyrics that I’d never thought of in a certain way before.  Nor has its luster diminished a bit with familiarity: while I may know full well who the subject of “The Ballad of TV Violence” was and what he did without having to discuss it with the school psychiatrist, it doesn’t make the song any less mesmerizingly menacing.  What has become clearer with time is that there are few records of Cheap Trick’s era that anticipated the next couple of decades of rock music with more accuracy.  From punk and post-punk to power-pop and hair-metal, the seeds of all of it are buried in these grooves somewhere.  I doubt that Steve Albini and Nikki Sixx have a lot of records in common in their respective collections, but I’d guarantee that this is one of the few.  The fact that Cheap Trick anticipated all of those things without being itself catagorizable as any of them is both what makes it great art and what keeps it relevant to fresh ears all these years later.  For all we know, we may not yet have heard all of the music it will go on to have influenced; how many thirty-four year old records can that truly be said of?

And if influence means nothing to you, well, that’s okay, too: if you love loud, raucous rock and roll, boom boom bang boom boom THWACK will always be in style.

* Before the 1998 remaster presented the album in the band’s intended order, the “Hot Love” -> “Ballad of TV Violence” side always ran as side one, with the “ELO Kiddies -> Oh, Candy” side second.

Monday, May 30, 2011

New Series: Trick Tuesday

In brainstorming some ideas for the summer on this blog, two different but related thoughts crossed my mind: “I need a running music feature to replace the American Idol analysis”, and “you know, it might be fun to write about music I actually like for a change.”  The latter thought in particular led me to realize that if I’m going to do that, I had might as well head straight for the top and tackle the catalog that has meant the most to me since I discovered it at the ripe old age of fourteen: All right Tokyo, are you ready?  Will you welcome Epic recording artist Cheap Trick!

It’ll be a bit of a daunting task from two different perspectives: first off, it’s always tough to write about the music you love the most without sounding like a sycophant.  No one aside from the man himself really wants to sound like Dave Marsh talking about the Springsteen catalog as though it’s the cure for all that has ever ailed mankind.  That acknowledged, I think it’s important, particularly in these ironic times, to talk enthusiastically about music that excites you.  Let the likes of Pitchfork worry about how their barrel of smug is going to be perceived in years to come; we become music uber-fans because we love the stuff, and there is absolutely no shame in waving your favorite flags proudly.  I love more of the Trick catalog than I don’t, and I trust that will come through loud and clear in the weeks to come.  With that, I suppose a small caveat is in order: I only claim as much objectivity as a die-hard fan can possibly have.

Which leads us to the other difficulty in writing about your heroes: what do you say when they suck?  Once again, the Dave Marsh approach is useless: Springsteen has, contrary to Marsh’s published opinions, made lousy records from time to time, and so have Cheap Trick.  It’s one thing to have some fun at the expense of, say, a less than stellar U2 album; although they’ve made some fine records, they’ve never been on my personal A-list (more like a high B), and what’s more Bono’s ego makes for a prime pin-cushion.  Being honest about the lesser entries into the discography of your most-est favorite-est band is a bit more problematic: it is more difficult for me to take a cheap shot at Rick Nielsen as a songwriter than at a Bono-type.  Happily, the way the discography flows, I’ve got a few amazing records to wax spasmodic about before I need to figure out how to walk that line.

You’ll notice that I’ve completely neglected any biographical information about the band in this intro.  I’ve done this purposefully, for two reasons: first, it’s already readily available in multiple locations on and off the interwebs; although it’s out of print and expensive, Mike Hayes and Ken Sharp’s mid-90s bio, Reputation is a Fragile Thing, is damn near definitive.  Secondly, this journey is going to be as much about me as it is about Cheap Trick: their best records completely revolutionized the way I heard and related to music when I was at the most impressionable age for a young rocker, and the very best of them still represent the standard by which I rate all other rock that crosses my path.  Given that, I think it’s appropriate that the germane biographical details – both theirs and mine – be discussed as a part of reviewing the records to which they most apply.

So here’s how we’re going to do this: we’ll work chronologically through the band’s studio and official live output, one album per week.  In homage to the band’s seventies roots, we’ll call the series Trick Tuesday, which sounds to my ears like a promotion an awful ‘70s rock station would run: “Listen between 8 and 9 AM on the Doofus Dan show here on 98.8 The Headache for your cue to call!  Be our eleventh caller, and you’ll win your very own 8-track of Cheap Trick at Budokan, as well as be entered to win two tickets to see Cheap Trick at the Tulsa Enormadome next Friday!  Only from 98.8, The Headache!”

Once we’re through the catalog, there will also be a round-up post or two covering compilations, solo albums, and whatever else I can think of that I didn’t praise/mock elsewhere in the series.  It all begins tomorrow: are you ready to rock?

Tales from the Merch Table

I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog that my beloved Rhea is one of Westchester County’s most beloved children’s entertainers.  This is something she possesses a great talent for.   Anyone can be taught to sing or dance, but to have that pull, that pied-piper star quality, is something you’ve got to be born with.  Don’t let anybody fool you, either: children are far more discerning – and far less tolerant of things that seem fake or false to them – than they are often given due credit for.  My contributions to the business of being Miss Rhea are far more back-line; no one, child or adult, is about to go out of their way to see me sing or dance, so I mostly just help brainstorm ideas, lug equipment around, and help keep the e-mail list running smoothly when it threatens to go kerflooey.

This past Saturday, I had cause to step out from behind the curtain for the first time in a while.  Rhea was hired to play the opening day of the Pleasantville Farmers Market.  When the event organizers described the gig to her, they made it clear that she’d have her own tent to perform under with an adjacent table that she could use to distribute information about her services and/or sell merchandise.  So, for the first time in my life, I found myself spending Saturday morning on the non-wallet-emptying side of a merch table; irony writ large for the kind of dude whose wardrobe is half made up of concert t-shirts.

Truth be told, I always feel a bit weird hanging around while Miss Rhea is performing: I never want to look like the creepy dude who’s hanging around scoping out a kid’s event.  I’m sure I’m over-cautious about this; I’m sure it’s just the years of retail work and Code Adam training playing tricks and casting shadows in my mind, but I never want to inadvertently make a child or parent even the slightest bit uneasy.  Somehow, all of these disparate threads – merch table, t-shirts, discomfort level – made friends in my head and hatched a brainstorm: witness the first official Miss Rhea t-shirt.

If I were half the genius I'm claiming to be, I'd have photographed the actual shirt.  Imagine this image (in far higher quality) on a white ringer t-shirt instead, if you will.  Danke.

Now sharply outfitted, and cool as a cucumber as a result, I took my place behind the table with aplomb: flyers and business cards handed out, hands shook, e-mail addresses collected, babies complimented, potential customers schmoozed without smarm.  One or two even asked if they could buy a t-shirt like the one I was wearing.  Seriously, folks: if this writing and back-to-college thing doesn’t pan out for some reason, I’m thinking of becoming the next Sham-Wow guy…without the whole “punched-by-a-hooker” thing to deal with.  Alright, maybe not, but sometimes it really is a blast to do something completely outside your normal box for a few hours; proving successful at it is just the icing on the cake.

It had also been some time since I’ve had the opportunity to watch a Miss Rhea performance.  It’s truly amazing what can come out of the mouths of babes; as evidence, I offer this exchange between Westchester’s most beloved children’s entertainer and a red-haired child of three or four or so, wearing a hoodie:

Hoodie Boy: Sing a song about Indians!

Miss Rhea: What kind of Indians, sweetie?  There’s more than one kind.

Hoodie Boy, slightly exasperated: You know, Indians.  They used to be around here a long, long time ago.  [At this point, he actually puts his hand on his hip.]  Some of them like to be called Native Americans.

Miss Rhea: Well, okay, I might know a song like that.  [To the assembled parents:] I learn things all the time in this job!

Girl behind Hoodie Boy, obviously either relative or family friend: Shut up!  [She grabs him by the hood and yanks him further back into the crowd.]

Somehow, dear readers, I have a feeling that these two tykes will be reprising roles strikingly similar to the ones I’ve just described for years and years to come.  Call it a hunch.

While we’re busy schmoozing, if you’re in the Westchester County/Tri-State area and are interested in the best children’s entertainment available, you should like Miss Rhea on Facebook by following this link right here.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog, already in progress.

Friday, May 27, 2011

American Idol Grand Finale

In the years that we’ve known each other, Rhea has often told the story of how her father, who is not Jewish, taught himself Hebrew as a means of occupying himself while accompanying her mother, who is Jewish, and the children to temple.  Much the same theory is in play with all of the American idol commentary I’ve blogged in the last few months: Rhea’s Aerosmith fandom has made watching the silly contest a given, so I might as well try to be entertained.  Or, to put it in terms Randy Jackson would likely approve of, I might as well be in it to win it.  Since I’ve taken it this far, I suppose a big wrap-up post is in order.

Shortly after the results were announced Wednesday night, I threw a brief post up gloating that I’d predicted Scotty McCreery would win months ago.  In that original post, I’d also stated that Lauren Alaina would be the last female standing although, to be completely honest, I also said there was little chance of her ending up in the final two regardless of that fact.  As I suggested in the gloat post, if I had this kind of foresight into something worthwhile like, say, the lottery, I’d buy a seaside mansion, dock my boat next to Jimmy Buffett’s, and…well, probably continue to write this blog simply because I find it fun.  Anyway, re-reading my old predictions post, I was really happy with how much I got right. Still, for all my Kreskin-like accuracy, I did get one thing absolutely wrong in it.  To wit:

While McCreery may have won the contest, there is no doubt in my mind that the second James Durbin took the stage to sing with Judas Priest that he actually won American Idol in a way that might have some real legs.  Not necessarily in the music industry, but certainly in a scenario like this: thirty years from now, when McCreery is an investment banker in Austin, and Alaina is the main ambassador of cheer at a flagship Cracker Barrel, Durbin will still be able to tell all of his friends how he once sang for his idols…and then be able to go on whatever the equivalent of YouTube is at that time and prove it.  The quality of his performance was meaningless (although, to be completely honest, I thought the kid held his own marvelously); look at his face when he sings with Rob Halford.  That’s exactly the kind of feel-good moment that no cheese-ball-Hallmark-lyrics ballad on iTunes can even hope to simulate. 

Looking back on my predictions piece, I was far too hard on Durbin.  No, he’s not really a great singer (good, sure, definitely better than me, but not great), but I had no idea how much I’d miss his enthusiasm and performance flair once it was gone from the show.  Honestly, I’ll take Durbin’s contagious love for performing any day over a million calculated McCreery microphone-tilt sneers, regardless of who’s got the “better voice”.  I’m not sure he should have won, but I think Durbin vs. Alaina would have been a far more exciting finale than what we actually got.

The problem with McCreery vs. Alaina is that it was somewhat akin to deciding whether or not to have onions on your cheeseburger.  The end result either way is either going to appeal to you or not, and the difference between the two choices is slightly noticeable but hardly huge.  For a viewer like me who would rather listen to almost any type of music in the world ahead of modern pop-country, I found myself not caring in the least which of them I was going to ignore from Wednesday night forward.  For the record, I find Alaina’s teenager-done-good persona far more charming than McCreery’s post-Twitty smuggery, but I couldn’t imagine wanting to hear an album by either one of them in a million years.

They’re also both too green for prime time.  I wouldn’t even remotely suggest that you can blame teenagers simply for being teenagers, but you do have to look at the reality of it in a case like this.  Alaina reminds me a bit too much of Taylor Swift, who is still popular to the extent that I’m not sure the world is really looking for her to have a spiritual kid sister.  McCreery simply hasn’t spent enough time on stage to really be a credible, compelling performer.  He exhibits the occasional flash of showmanship, but just as often he’s content to simply move the microphone to the side, sneer, and stare at his cowboy boots.  I’m sympathetic to the notion that it’s probably got a lot to do with nerves, but I’m also doubtful of its utility as a performance style once the novelty of his being a teenage kid with a deep voice wears off.  I wish them both well, simply because it would be downright cold not to, provided I don’t really have to hear either of them again.

But honestly, two horns enthusiastically up for James Durbin: not only did you get to sing with Priest, but you made an entire country that was tuned in to watch the hick-off have to watch it as well.  Well played, good sir: while I can’t offer you a cash prize, I will refrain forevermore from making fun of your tail.  You’ve earned it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Four Words on American Idol

I told you so.

Do I have this kind of luck with, say, the lottery?  Not in a million years, but I will happily accept never having to hear McCreery smarm his way through another "not your daddy's Conway Twitty" performance as a runner-up prize.

And, with that, we can all get on with our lives.  Some of us, like the author of this piece, will take this opportunity to pause in this historic moment and give thanks...

...that my beloved doesn't also watch Dancing with the Stars.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rapture Redux? More like Re-didn't!

I'm breaking one of my own rules here, folks: when I started up this blog, I promised myself that any late-night writing would be saved and reviewed for coherence and topicality the next morning.  Tonight's a little different, though; honestly, how often does the fake rapture come around?  Too often, I know, so let's rephrase: how often does an aggressively promoted fake rapture come around?  Kind of like a comet or an eclipse, it's worth staying up for.

Allow me to channel my inner Richard Dawson: survey says!  It's quarter to three in the morning here in New York, which makes it forty-five minutes past 6 PM in New Zealand.  Out of one hundred people surveyed, none of them have felt an earthquake or ascended into the sky.  Sorry, Camping family, but you don't get to play Fast Money today.  We won't let you leave empty-handed, though: enjoy a year's supply of turtle wax and this video from Blondie:

Sweet dreams, fellow sinners.  More mockery tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

About This Saturday (Or: Why This Day is No Different From All Other Days)

This Saturday is going to be a big one, folks.  Rhea’s final graduate school project for this semester is due.  According to the weather report, it’ll be the first rain free day for us here in suburban New York in about a week.  Oh, and also, THE WORLD IS GOING TO END!  Seriously: hide your kids, hide your wife, ‘cause they’ll be rapturing everybody out here.  It must be true: some group who can afford to buy billboard space in metropolitan areas says so.  To wit:

I stole this image from a fundamentalist website, thus guaranteeing I’ll still be here come Sunday.
If you have absolutely no idea what I’m on about, congratulations: you would appear to live a life completely free of religious cult doomsday nonsense.  If you’d like to sully yourself, NPR has a well-written and pithy article on the whole mess available right here.  This entire kettle has been stirred courtesy of Family Radio, a fundamentalist Christian network headed by Harold Camping.  Camping is no stranger to the end of the world; in fact, he first predicted the rapture for September, 1994.  Obviously needing to backpedal, he now claims that he hadn’t yet adequately completed his study of the Bible at the time.  A decade and a half or so of solemn research (and time for the majority of the population to conveniently forget his botched first prediction) passes, et voila: no more Ned Flanders types to bail us heathens out after Saturday, fellow sinners!

Obviously, I think the whole thing is malarkey, just as I’d imagine any rational, thinking human being would.  If there is a god, and she suddenly decided she was bored with this fishbowl, I don’t think she’d really feel some great urge to make an appointment.  It’s also a perfect, all-purpose excuse: “Sorry, teach, but I didn’t do my book report because I thought the world was going to end and that Mommy and Daddy and me and Spot were going to ascend into the air to go and live with Jesus.  Can I hand it in tomorrow?”

For the most part, I think that sneering irreverence is exactly what Camping and his boogeyman-Jesus cult deserve.  There is but one fly in the cheap-yuks ointment, however, and it’s typified by the following quote from the NPR article linked above: “[Joel and Adrienne Martinez] decided they wanted to spend their remaining time on Earth with their infant daughter…’God just made it possible — he opened doors. He allowed us to quit our jobs, and we just moved, and here we are.’”  That right there is what makes Camping more a despicable charlatan than an amusing crackpot.  Come Sunday, when all of us are still right here, Camping can put his nose back in the Bible and, ahem, recalibrate his calculations and begin the entire charade anew, much as he did in 1994.  He will have no worries as a result of the world still being around with its entire population intact: his radio network will still likely be worth most of the $100 million it’s currently valued at.  The Martinez family, however, will wake up on Sunday to find themselves jobless, penniless, and far from home.  What answers will Camping offer them then?  Will he share with them a small piece of his fortune in order to get them back on their feet by way of reparation for misleading them?   Or will he retreat completely from public view, tail between his legs, essentially offering the Martinez family and others like them two fingers and a simple message: “Sorry ‘bout that.  Thanks for praying, thanks for playing.”

Generally, I like the idea of people like Camping operating in public: better to be an easily identifiable whack-a-loon than a wallflower holed up in a gun tower, waiting for who knows what to set him off.  I just wish there were some simple way to hold them accountable for their irresponsible messages.  Perhaps the Martinez family will sue when all is said and done.  Lord knows they’ll have a case.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Weekend in Review (and other random stuff): 5/16/11

Truth be told, I don’t really have my “writing head” on today, but I also don’t like to disappear from these virtual pages for too long a stretch, so here are a few odds and ends to tide us all over until a more substantial update comes in the next couple of days.  I’ll probably go into greater depth on a couple of these topics later in the week, so think of this as the written equivalent of a teaser trailer.  Or something.

Probably the biggest news of the last few days is that I’m seriously considering going back to school to finish off my long left-for-dead bachelor’s degree.  It’s a daunting concept in some ways: honestly, I have no idea how much I’d have left to do, or how many of my old credits would actually be worth something all these years later.  That said, I’m sick and tired of watching people who are neither smarter nor more able than myself have access to many more opportunities than I do simply because they finished college.  I’ll probably have a lot more to say about this in the days and weeks to come, but I’ve pretty much decided that I’m going to do it, if for no other reason than it will make my future a brighter place, and give me some assurance that my future visits to places like Borders will all take place on the customer’s side of the counter.

Went to Umberto’s Clam House on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx for a lovely dinner with Rhea on Thursday.  Best lasagna I’ve had, well, maybe ever; Rhea, for her part, was similarly enthusiastic about her seafood dish.  I’m always happy when she and I find a place to eat that we agree on.  Food is one area in which our tastes tend to be fairly different, so discovering more common ground is always a welcome thing.

I haven’t mentioned American Idol lately, but that’s mostly because there’s not all that much to talk about anymore.  With James Durbin’s surprise exit last week, the show lost its last remaining interesting stage performer.  Lest you think that I somehow joined Team James somewhere along the way, let me assure you otherwise.  While I think it was fun to watch him work a stage, the simple fact remains that he can’t really sing particularly well; to call his performance of “Don’t Stop Believin’” on key would be massively generous…and also complete fiction.  The three remaining contestants can all sing, but none of them have the first idea of how to own a stage or a crowd (hint: staring at the microphone and/or your shoes ain’t how it’s done).  Honestly, I don’t care who wins at this point; both Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina seem like nice kids, but pop country (or, as I insist on calling it much to Rhea’s chagrin, “cheese and crackers”) is just about my least favorite type of music on the planet.  I don’t quite understand how Haley Reinhart has made it this far; compared to the other contestants, she’s totally lacking in charisma and artistic direction.  If I’ve gotta choose, I’ll say I hope McCreery wins, simply because I predicted he would way back when, and who doesn’t like saying “I told you so”?

Last and most likely least, I am now on Facebook.  It’s as underwhelming an experience as I thought it would be so far, but if it helps me get the word out there about this writing, what the hell.  I’m under my real name: that’s “Will” with two “L”’s, and the last name is spelled Z-i-f-i-c-s-a-k.  If ever anyone deserved a few college credits just for being able to spell their own name, ‘tis me.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Art is Everywhere!

The above was spotted carved into a restroom stall door at Empire City Casino, Yonkers NY, last night.  Suck it, Picasso!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Keep them Cards and Letters Coming!

I figured I'd post this since I've had a couple of "friend of a friend" questions about how to drop me a line on this blog.  If you'd like to leave a comment on a particular post, just click underneath it where it says "0 comments" (or however many comments there are), and follow the on-screen instructions from there.  Still confused?  Check out this helpful illustration:
If you'd like to share your thoughts in private, you can send me an email by clicking my profile photo (the one of me sitting in a subway) that appears down towards the bottom-right of every page.  Looks like this:

From there, you'll be taken to a new page.  Click on "email" in the "contact" box, located on the middle-left side of the screen, and you're good to go.  More pretty pictures (gotta love the Windows 7 Snipping Tool!):
Feel free to comment, complain, congratulate, or just tell me a good joke if the mood strikes you.  Also, please feel free to contribute any better-name-for-this-blog suggestions you may have: Will Z's Blog Thing was always meant to be a placeholder, but if it sticks around any longer I may learn to love it, which would be counterproductive to my goal of replacing it.  Seriously: best name gets a free drink, even if I have to figure out how to air-mail it to Alaska.

As always, my sincerest gratitude to everyone who takes the time to read something here.

No Girls Allowed!

So, let me get this straight: one of the reasons we’re so concerned as a nation with bringing democracy to the great unwashed is to help guide these Middle Eastern countries out of the Middle Ages, to bring them into a world of freedom and tolerance like we enjoy here in the U.S. of A.  One of the constant images we’re shown is of women being nearly completely covered in public.  We marvel at this: how backwards!  How discriminatory!  How much better we have it here in America, where we’re at least working, for the most part, on treating women like equals!

Unfortunately for both the above claims and we as a nation, the newspaper that saw fit to airbrush Secretary of State Clinton out of history is published in…wait for it…Brooklyn.  Dig the explanation/backpedaling, too: “[The newspaper] explained that its readers ‘believe that women should be appreciated for who they are and what they do, not for what they look like, and the Jewish laws of modesty are an expression of respect for women, not the opposite.’”

Translated: In the interest of positive public relations, we can’t come right out and say we’d like it better if these uppity bitches kept their skin covered, their legs open, and their eye on the oven, but we can damn well edit them the hell out of our newspaper!

It is chilling to realize how close the dark ages really are to home.  Or, as one commenter on the Yahoo News page linked above bluntly but astutely sums it up, “welcome to the world of tribal retardation.”

About This Friday (Or: Livin' on the Astral Plane)

First things first: at no point did our car get towed, relocated, or even looked at funny.  Sorry, folks: not every Friday can – or should – turn into an epic saga.  This Friday did find us back in Manhattan, though, this time to see an Aerosmith tribute band with some other old friends.

Perhaps the music snob in me should back this train up a little bit at this juncture.  While it is very, very true that I grew up as a musiccus snobbus par excellence, I have learned to unclench in many big ways as I’ve gotten older.  This is a good thing; it’s amazing how much more you can enjoy when you’re not so concerned about the alleged integrity of a style of music (that being rock ‘n’ roll and all of its various bastard children) that is often at its very best when it has none.  As a result, my music collection now contains things I’d never have guessed that it ever would back when I was concerned with nonsense like indie credibility, etc, and my life is all the better and more enjoyable for it.  You’ll never convince me that Poison are anything but worthless, even a reformed snob still has to have some standards, but re-embracing my love for Iron Maiden has been nothing but a pleasure.  I mention all of this for a reason: there is no way in hell that a card-carrying music snob would ever be caught dead watching a tribute band.  Having torn up my card some time ago, I said “what the hell” and decided to give it a shot.

To be completely honest, the music is really not even the half of it.  I mentioned that we were going to see an Aerosmith tribute band, and I’ve also mentioned before that Aerosmith remains Rhea’s alpha-omega music crush.  In her many years of fandom, she’s made a lot of fantastic friends; they met each other through their mutual love of Boston’s finest, but they’ve all become much deeper friends than that.  When Rhea and I became an "us" all those years ago, I also inherited this crew, and I couldn’t be happier about it.  It’s just a guaranteed, no bullshit good time when all these folks congregate, and I’m always thrilled to be along for the ride.  Really, it hardly mattered if the band was any good or not.

I’m happy to report that Draw the Line, as they are known, were fantastic.  Obviously, it would be too much to say that they’re probably better than the real Aerosmith at this point, but I will tell you this: if ‘70s Aerosmith is your bag, you’ll like Draw the Line’s set list better than the genuine article’s.  In fact, they only hit on one post ‘70s tune: “What it Takes”, which is certainly one of the better ones at that.  The Steven Tyler doppelganger has both the voice and the moves down pat, and the musicians know the material inside out.  The end result was more fun than I’d possibly imagined; it should also be noted that the guys in the band were very cool themselves.  Having met some of our crew before, they invited us down to their backstage area and kindly shared their rider haul with us. Given a choice between $9 beers and generously shared free beers, I think we all know which wins.  Just a bunch of awesome, friendly folks who are very good at what they do.  Also, in hanging out downstairs, we got to miss most of the fake Journey that came on after them; not a bad deal at all, folks.

And also a convenient segue.  Here’s a fun fact for you all: the fake Journey contractually stipulated that the fake Aerosmith had to play before them; that they must be the “headliner”.  Musically, this made no sense at all: while fake Journey boasted a fairly impressive fake Steve Perry, they didn’t have nearly the stage presence of Draw the Line.  By any reasonable standard, the stage order should have been reversed, which begs the question: at what point do some of these fake rock bands begin to believe too much of the hype?  Is fake Steve Perry’s need to headline a tribute to the real Steve Perry’s well-documented egotism, or does this guy believe in some way that he is, in fact, the reclusive former Journey singer?

Likewise, the fans: fortunately, most of the people in the house were just like my crew, folks who just wanted to dance and party to songs they love for a lot less than the cost of a large-venue ticket to the real thing.  That’s a great way to spend a Friday night in the big city, actually.  Alongside them, however, moved the more disturbing minority.  A few seemed to simply be looking for a date of any sort; let us pause here to shout out one particular dude wearing an ill-fitting hoodie over various assorted failed-hipster mook-wear who looked as if he might shatter into powder if a woman actually approached him for real.  Likewise, let’s present a virtual medal to the guy standing next to me who seemed to think of Jersey Shore as instructions rather than entertainment; his red-faced puke-run to the bathroom was easily one of the evening’s laff-riot highlights.

Beyond the individual characters, there was a small contingent of what I came to think of as tribute groupies, pitching leering woo and thrusted breasts at the band members as though they were actually the men they were portraying.  It was a fascinating thing to watch, to try to internally decode.  Were these women coming on to the actual performers on the stage that night, or were they coming on to Steven Tyler or Steve Perry?  Were they actual groupies, or a tribute to groupies?  Would they have slept with the guys in the bands, or were they simply playing a part in a performance, just like the men on stage?  Does tribute Herpes actually infect, or does it vanish in the cruel daylight just like any other fantasy?

I don’t have the answers to any of these questions.  Nor did I ever figure out whether the most prominent tribute groupie was actually born a man or not, but that’s another issue altogether.  I’ll also caution you that thinking too long about any of the above might make your brain collapse into itself, so instead I’ll leave you with a recommendation.  Should you and your friends possess even the slightest fantasy/reality line in your minds, and enjoy the music of ‘70s Aerosmith, I can guarantee you that Draw the Line knows how to bring the rock.  If you’re the kind of person who enjoys having a beer or two and observing the wondrous range of humanity, then the amazing sideshow that comes with the great tunes is a hell of a free bonus.

Will's Defective Internal Jukebox

I’m left with one further souvenir of last Friday’s adventure, whether I really wanted it or not.  I mentioned our 4:30 AM breakfast at Big Daddy’s, a chain of diners in NYC that’s got a fun, non-decade-specific retro kitch thing going on.  To go with their d├ęcor, their overhead music favors oldies from the late ‘70s through the late ‘80s.  Midway through our meal, we were treated to REO Speedwagon’s deathless AOR favorite “Keep On Lovin’ You”, which has been wedged securely in my head ever since.  The situation is so bad, dear readers, that I ended up acquiring an REO compilation in an attempt at eviction that has not yet paid dividends.

That’s right, folks: I now have REO Speedwagon on my computer.  God bless or help me, I’m not sure which.

About Last Friday (Or: The Neverending Day, Book Three)

Back on 47th, a banshee wail broke through the serene silence of a day and night that had, until this very moment, been a perfect example of Manhattan’s magic in all its glory.  “WHERE THE HELL IS THE CAR?!”  Time slowed down for me in that way that it does when it begins to dawn on you that (a) there is a crisis at hand, and (b) the person screaming at the top of their lungs is, in fact, screaming at you.  Slowly, I turned: clearly, one of us needed to assess the situation.  Given that the banshee was Rhea just as surely as the walrus was Paul, it seemed that the role of he who was going to figure this out had fallen to me.  Looking down the street, I noticed two important things: (a) there were no cars at all on the block, and (b) there were now a flurry of photocopied NO PARKING SATURDAY signs (like the one pictured in the teaser post for this saga elsewhere on this blog) all up and down the block.  Add all of that up and whaddaya get?  The car done been towed, kids.  Shit.

Rhea is still hysterical at this point, but there’s work to be done.  We decide to split up: Rhea goes to chase down a cop, and I’m dispatched back to Walgreen’s to deliver the “Houston, we have a problem” speech to our friends, who will now likely not be departing for home as soon as previously planned, given that their train tickets are in the missing car.  As I approach Barbara and Madison, I find them already talking to a policeman.  I relate our tale of woe, and the cop confirms my suspicions: the car had been towed, and we needed to go to the Manhattan tow pound and retrieve it.  In his words: “It’ll cost ya a coupla bucks, but just consider it part of your night out, right?”  Indeed.  I call Rhea to tell her this.  She’s heavily winded on the phone, and I can’t quite understand what she’s yelling about; something about “command vehicle”.  I tell her to forget about all of that, to come back here since we are with a very nice police officer and he has told us what we need to do.  She runs back to where we are, and our patient new police friend tells her what he told us, that we need to hail a cab to the tow pound and bail our car out.  Rhea, still being a bit beside herself, decides to play a game of Frogger in trying to hail a cab that still makes me cringe and close my eyes to think back on it, even a week or so later.

We get to the tow pound without injury, only to find the line is out the door.  I leave Rhea to wait on line (and, maybe, use her emotionally charged state to cut a few places forward on it), and go outside to call Amtrak and ascertain when the next train Barbara and Madison could take is: 5:45 AM turns out to be the answer.  I walk back in to find Rhea literally in tears at the counter; she is upset because they have told her that they cannot find any paperwork on our car.  They suggest to her that the car may simply have been relocated to another block in Times Square; this is the concept that she was attempting to explain to me on the phone, but I just couldn’t understand what she was talking about.  The folks at the tow pound are friendly and helpful, and arrange for Rhea to be driven around the premises to see if our car is there somewhere.  While this is going on, I wait with Barbara and Madison, whom are taking the whole mess in stride like real troopers.  As a half-joke, I tell them that if our car turns out to have been relocated and it does not cost me $185 to get it out of the tow pound after all, that I will buy breakfast for all of us.  Rhea comes back; the car is definitely not at the Tow Pound.  Back to Times Square and our attempt to find the command vehicle after all.

Surprisingly, Manhattan’s magic was not quite done with us yet: as we were trying to hail a cab, a NYPD Traffic Supervisor’s car pulled up at a red light on the block we were on.  Rhea walks over, explains our situation to the gentleman, and within two minutes we are given the exact location of our prodigal vehicle.  Honestly, I thought it too good to be true until, about five minutes later, the cab we eventually hailed pulled up right next to our car: no boot, no ticket, nothing but a photocopied notice that this vehicle had been relocated and should not be ticketed pending owner notification.  Between the four of us, I think every emotion imaginable was had within the ensuing few minutes.  I look at the time: it’s a little under two hours until the 5:45 Amtrak.  Assessing the vibe in the car, I decide that making good on my offer of breakfast was the way to go.  So, for the last stop on our adventure, we ended up at the Big Daddy’s location just north of Union Square, where we watched a drunken idiot be handled by management, and ate a truly great breakfast.  For my part, I’ll just say that the bacon, egg and cheese on homemade bread sandwich was both delicious and duly noted for future re-consumption.  From there, we headed back to Penn Station: tickets were successfully swapped, and a sad goodbye was waved to our friends.  By the time I walked back through my door at home, it was 7 AM; literally twenty-four hours after my alarm had gone off to start this adventure the previous morning.  Needless to say, sleep was not long in arriving.

Prior to this adventure, I can’t remember the last time I’d spent a non-stop-go twenty-four hours in Manhattan.  I was also completely unaware how much I needed to reconnect with such an experience, how much I needed to be reminded that the most magical place on Earth is literally in my back yard.  My love and thanks go to everyone involved; our old friends, Les Nubians, the NYPD (who couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful in our quest for car), literally everybody we interacted with along the way for showing us a truly enchanted day and evening.  Hell, I’d even like to thank the parking gods, for making sure we had to stay in for the duration.

It is an amazing, truly blessed thing to be made re-aware that we live so close to an always-waiting escape from the mundane.

About Last Friday (Or: The Neverending Day, Book Two)

Having navigated a maze of subways back to the parking lot near Penn Station, we retrieved the car and headed uptown for some dinner.  The area around Bank Street College, where Rhea attends graduate school, is home to a stunning array of good (and mostly reasonably priced) food.  Before eating, however, there was resting: a good half hour of sitting in the car in a parking space with my sneakers off was just the thing to give my barking puppies a second wind.

In my mind, the ensuing “what shall we eat” crawl was merely a formality, because I knew before we even got out of the car where we were going to end up.  Right around the corner from Bank Street is a French place called Le Monde.  Rhea has been eying it for the last year and a half, and both Rhea and Barbara share a deep-seeded love for French culture.  Really, there was never going to be a better time for her to finally eat there; the only potential problem with it was me.  I’ve posted before about how I’m just not a foodie; while I’ve certainly striven to be more open to trying new things as of late (call it a New Year’s Resolution if you must), I’m just not into things that are heavy on sauces and/or exotic cheeses…which, right, rules out most French cuisine for this kid.  Rhea pulled me off to the side worriedly, assuring me that we could eat somewhere else; I told her I was having none of it, that there would never be a better time for her to have her Le Monde experience than right now, and that the neighborhood was rife with bites I could grab once they were done.

Best culinary decision I’ve ever made, as it turns out; while I’m not going to tell you that I particularly want to delve further into French cuisine, watching Rhea and Barbara share their love for the food and the culture was one of the most joyful things I have experienced in recent memory.  It also led me to a bit of a revelation: for whatever reason, I’ve always teased Rhea about her obsession with France.  Typical ugly American stuff – you know, nonsense about rudeness, eating snails, use of the phrase oui oui, poo poo, highly witty and clever stuff like that.  Lest you think me some kind of dopey nationalist, I will point out in my defense that the whole thing was always meant as a dual parody, to both poke at Rhea and the kind of Ameri-louts who would actually utter such things and mean it, man.  I do believe that it is the mark of a smart comedian to know when a particular shtick has run dry; suffice to say, over dinner that night, I watched the timer on my French material run out as decisively as a draining parking meter with a traffic cop hovering overhead.  Nothing wrong with replacing material that could be construed as (and, as red as it paints my face to admit it, might have unintentionally been) ignorant, folks, and nothing wrong with heeding the universe’s sign that it’s time.

Full as I was emotionally from being a part of the Le Monde experience and from the revelation that it spawned, I was still a bit light of stomach.  No matter: across the street we went to Tom’s Restaurant.  Even if you’ve never been there, you know it: it was the subject of Susanne Vega’s second-greatest hit, and the exterior shots of it used in Seinfeld are practically pop-culture gospel at this point.  It’s also the best cheap diner in Manhattan: for the princely sum of $7.75, the soup, chicken and fries combo made my stomach match my heart.  Back into the car and downtown, then, for the whole reason Barbara and Madison had ventured north: Les Nubians’ performance at B.B. King’s in Midtown.  The drive downtown was perfect: nothing like Manhattan on a gorgeous evening with a twelve year old snapping pictures in total wonder out the back window.  Finding parking took a little while and some white knuckles on Rhea’s part, but we ended up with an almost too good to be true parking spot on 47th, with plenty of time to get in line and into the club.  I can’t even begin to express to you, dear readers, how amazingly first rate Les Nubians are, both as exceptional performers and as human beings.  I’d never heard any of their music before, but it didn’t matter in the least; it was immediately appealing and inviting, with the sisters and their band giving everything they had.  I was blown away by their performance, and completely knocked off my feet by what followed.  We decided to stick around after the gig for a bit, as Madison had met some of the band members the last time they’d seen them, and wanted to say hello again.  The amount of time and genuine interest these fantastic musicians showed Madison after the show was just the kind of thing that would make anyone who witnessed it a fan forever.  They were super-nice to the rest of us as well, but the way they treated Madison was the absolute dictionary definition of class.  A week and a piece later, I still don’t feel like I have adequate words to convey how truly touching the whole experience was.

Standing on top of the world at the crossroads of the world, we left the venue and headed back towards the car.  Sadly, it was just about time to drop our friends back at Penn Station and all head back to our respective homes, so much fuller in every conceivable way than we’d been when we woke up that morning.  Toward that end, Rhea and I left Barbara and Madison to grab snacks at the Times Square Walgreen’s, while we traipsed back up to 47th to get the car.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

About Last Friday (Or: The Neverending Day, Book One)

Last Friday was like three days in one, fitting I suppose for a day that saw us in Manhattan for twenty-one hours.  We were meeting our old friend Barbara, whom Rhea and I worked with at Borders years ago, and her daughter Madison, whom was not nearly twelve years old the last time I saw her.  They had come up to see a concert, and were to turn around back to Greenbelt, Maryland after the show on a 3 AM Amtrak train.  So, come 9 AM, Rhea and I were city bound, looking for early bird parking somewhere around Penn Station.  Moving through the City was slower than planned, but the parking gods were on our side: we pulled into a self-park and took our ticket, the stamped time on which was 9:59.  A most excellent time to be stamped in at, given that the early bird flew the coop at 10.

Penn Station remains an interesting place.  No matter how many times it gets made over, it still manages to look grungy, poorly lit and unkempt.  I actually dig that about it; it’s one of the few things left in midtown that hasn’t been completely sanitized or Disney-tized.  Barbara and Madison’s train was only about fifteen minutes late.  By Amtrak standards, that’s practically early.  Having done the greeting thing, we decided to head down to the St. Marks Place area of Greenwich Village, our chariot of choice being the subway.  Uptown 1 to Times Square Shuttle to Downtown 4 to Union Square, watch both the gaps and the May 21st Rapture Cult representatives as you go.  Down Broadway by foot from there, with stops at street vendors (Madison had a true rite of passage, haggling a scarf seller down two bucks just like a native), Forbidden Planet, and the Strand, before lunch at Silver Spurs.  It’s funny: every time I eat there, I order heartily, thinking “it’s only a burger.”  Halfway through, it becomes inarguably clear to me that, although I’m a fairly big dude, I’m no Adam Richman.  I offered my unnecessary fries to our friends, and all was well.

While we were either in Forbidden Planet or the Strand, I forget which, I whispered into Rhea’s ear that it’s always cool to watch folks who don’t live here express a certain level of wonder at these amazing local stores that we take for granted.  My words turned prophetic once we reached St. Marks Place.  For the last few years I’ve been prone to bitching like a haggard old codger about how much better St. Marks was about a decade or so ago.  You know, back before they cleaned it up, back before the sky literally fell down on lower Manhattan.  Well, dear readers, I’m not a man who’s afraid to admit when he’s so wrong that there needs to be another, stronger word for it.  Watching Madison’s eyes bug out with wonder at the sights and sounds of the Village’s most colorful block brought me back in time to my first time down that hallowed street.  I was maybe a year or two older than Madison is now, and my obsession with the rock and roll the kids love so much was just really beginning to blossom.  In those days, St. Marks literally had a used record store about every third storefront; literally, I was the proverbial kid in a candy store.  As was Madison now, checking out every cool clothing and trinket shop along the way.  This, folks, is how an aging semi-hipster like me ends up spending half an hour in a store called Hottie and actually enjoys it.  Not quite as much as my nerdy retro-gaming side always enjoys a duck in to 8 Bit and Up (great staff, great stuff, great prices – by all means check it out if you have any interest at all in any era of video games), but we’re all kids in different ways, right?

Back down the other side of the street, then, for more of the wonderful same.  I’m trying really hard to like frozen yogurt these days, as part of my attempt to be a bit less of a fairly big dude, and part of me needs to call shenanigans on YogurtStation’s cookie dough flavor, which tasted way too much like real ice cream to actually be good for you.  At block’s end, the one sour note of the afternoon thus far was hit: for the first time in my nearly thirty-seven years, I was on the losing end of a bird poop drop.  Even that, however, was easily rectified with a bottle of water and some napkins from the pizza joint on the corner; such was the true magic of the afternoon, I suppose.  Amidst choruses of how lucky this incident is purported to be, I bought a lottery ticket immediately after fixing my hair.  (Hey, back off – if there is one place an aging semi-hipster is allowed to care about his hair, it’s St. Marks.)  Not a single number hit, but that’s okay: my luck was probably redeemed later in the evening, looking back on it.

As we headed back to the car, planning to head uptown for dinner before driving back to midtown for the concert and Barbara and Madison’s train home, I wondered what the rest of the evening could possibly hold as an encore: the Village had shown me more magic than it had in years (or maybe I was more receptive to it than I had been in years, argue amongst yourselves), so what could possibly be coming to top it?

Those are always famous last words.