Friday, December 16, 2011

"How I use my useless degree" or "English major? What're you gonna do with THAT?"

The Occupy Wall Street protests have inspired a whole heap of emotions, arguments and odd conjectures in my little corner of the internet. I’m not here to add to the ruckus by offering yet another inconsequential opinion piece on Occupy – I’ll just say I’m for it and leave it at that – but I would like to address one recurring complaint that hits close to home for me.

I’ve seen a number of people dismiss the Occupy protestors as kids who chose their college majors poorly. Depending on who you listen to, young students of the Liberal Arts are anything from pitiable suckers who’ve been duped by a cash-hungry university system to whiny morons who should’ve known better than to think a History degree would get them anything but a very expensive wall-hanging. In between lies a huge range of criticisms and even a few cogent points (the notion that many colleges have become tuition-gobbling diploma mills has much credence), but the underlying message is the same: in terms of employability, a Liberal Arts degree is useless.

I am the holder of not only a B.A. in English from a Big 10 university, but also an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from a big-city art school. Conventional wisdom suggests that my tuition fees were a poor investment, as getting “DO NOT HIRE ME” tattooed across my face would have gotten me the same results for a fraction of the cost. Back in my undergrad years I grew accustomed to witty wisecracks along the lines of, “English major, eh? Hope you like making lattes!” (I rather do, but that’s beside the point.) And yet here I sit in late 2011, a productive, tax-paying homeowner gainfully employed in an occupation directly related to my course of study. Either I’m some kind of paragon of hard work and overachievement or my education isn’t quite as worthless as you might think. (Hint: it isn’t the former.)

Contrary to popular belief, my liberal arts education has been instrumental in landing me jobs. My first genuine, cubicle-and-benefits job was writing copy for an apartment location service in Chicago. I’d been futilely sending out applications to all manner of companies for many months when a company I’d never even applied to contacted me out of the blue. The company’s human resources manager reached out to me because my CareerBuilder profile noted my creative writing background. During the interview she explained to me that they were specifically looking for someone with a creative flair, someone who could bring more to the table than the dry, lifeless copy one usually got from business majors.

That’s been a common theme throughout my career. Since leaving the apartment finders, my day jobs have included writing copy for a women’s activewear catalog and editing an online magazine for the mobile phone division of Best Buy. In each case, I started the job with no practical knowledge of, qualifications for or particular interest in the subject at hand. I was hired for all of those positions because the employers were looking for someone creative, talented and adaptable. Coincidentally, those were all skill sets I honed while pursuing my Liberal Arts degrees.

I can’t really blame folks for thinking artistic studies are impractical. Most of them are to some extent. (But what isn’t?) I certainly can’t claim that being able to write a 20-page essay on unconscious colonialist themes in Thoreau’s Walden has served me directly in the workplace. But I also think many people simply don’t know how wide the tentacles of the creative arts truly spread. When I tell people what I do for a living, I’m consistently amazed at how many of them give me a confused look and say, “So wait, you write for Best Buy? What is there to write? Like, the flyers they give out in the stores?” It has apparently never occurred to them that every word they have ever read, be it in a newspaper, on a billboard or down the side of a can of spray cheese, was written by an actual human being.

I’m looking out my dining room window right now at the Wendy’s parking lot two doors down. As an example, let’s look at the Wendy’s drive-thru order box. The name of every item on that menu was carefully chosen by a copywriter in the marketing department. Every word of text was diligently proofread by someone with editorial training. The incandescent portraits of burgers, shakes and salads were all snapped by a professional photographer. The font, the color scheme, the layout of items in a readable, customer-friendly tableau? These are all the domain of college-educated graphic designers. Hell, even the physical design of the order box itself is likely the work of a well-compensated liberal arts major. None of that crosses the mind of the average Wendy’s customer, but those arts students’ contributions have an undeniable daily impact on America’s lunch hours.

Even setting all that aside, I’ve never really understood what the alternative is supposed to be for us artsy types. It’s easy enough to say, “Study something useful and go get a real job,” but I can’t imagine that working out in practice. Sure, I could have relegated reading and writing to hobby status and pursued, say, an Engineering degree. The only trouble is that I would make an awful engineer. Not only would I find it dreadfully boring, I don’t believe I could ever be mentally capable of doing that kind of work. I often tell people that I’m good at exactly two things in life: writing and making coffee. It’s a joke, but one that’s not far from the truth. Certain people are good at certain things and it’s futile to pretend otherwise.

No one would toss a business executive on a stage and expect her to dance a palatable Swan Lake, but plenty of people would say a Dance major would be better off shoehorning herself into an unfulfilling office job. I don’t mean to suggest that every Dance major needs to stick it out and dance for a living or die trying. There are plenty of careers that incorporate physical grace and movement in much the same way that my office jobs employ my talent for creative writing. Sure, given the choice, I’d rather be writing short stories as my sole source of income, but that’s just not realistic. This is a way for me to both stay financially solvent and apply the invaluable career skills I learned while pursuing that Fiction Writing M.F.A. (Thanks again, Columbia College Chicago!)

Look, I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t a lot of pipe-dreamers in the liberal arts. Heck, when I was 18, it never even crossed my mind that I wasn’t going to be revered worldwide for my art by the time I was 23. I didn’t have a master plan or even a vague career path. I simply took for granted that the world would be gobsmacked by my creative genius and toss me right up the ladder of success. That’s just part of being a young kid with big dreams, and I don’t think I’d care to inhabit a world where it isn’t. For better or for worse, though, those dreams usually give way to a harsher reality. When that happens, those useless degrees may come in far more useful than a lot of folks would have you believe.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

An open letter to the NBA regarding my son's relationship with a man in a wolf suit

I’m a big fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves. I know I don’t have to tell you that this is not the easiest thing to be. At its very pinnacle, Timberwolves fandom meant rooting for Latrell Spreewell and Rasho Nesterovic, and nobody really wants to do that. Yet there I am every November, huddled in front of my TV, feverishly deluding myself that maybe this will be the year that the Wolves climb back to the NBA’s lower-middle echelons.

I’ve been especially excited about the 2011-12 season, which looked to be Minnesota’s strongest shot in nearly a decade. They were all lined up with a Hall of Fame coach, an insanely talented lineup of young ballers and even a grizzled old center who might teach the kids a thing or two. Needless to say, the increasing likelihood that there will be no NBA season this year has me crestfallen.

But I’m not writing this letter on behalf of myself. I’m writing it on behalf of my son Selby. Selby will be turning two this December. He’s at a stage in life where he is soaking up knowledge at an alarming rate and developing the earliest vestiges of personal taste. He already has favorite toys, favorite foods and even a favorite album (Paul McCartney’s McCartney, oddly enough). He hasn’t chosen a favorite team or sport yet, but that’s not for a lack of effort on my part. The very first item of clothing he owned was a Minnesota Timberwolves sleeper that my wife and I purchased months before he was even conceived. He’s been attending games at Target Center in his tiny little Kevin Love jersey since he could just barely hold his head up (not to mention all of his in utero visits). And, of course, he loves Crunch.

Crunch, if you don’t know, is the longtime mascot of the Minnesota Timberwolves, an energetic, man-sized wolf who engages in all the capering and crowd-pumping one expects from a professional-grade mascot. I’m a big fan. I’ve sat through many a dreary fourth quarter where Crunch is the only thing in the arena worth watching.

Selby has had a Crunch hand puppet and bobblehead among his playthings since he was very small. He’s even met the wolf himself on a couple of occasions. He was too young at the time to remember those encounters, but he recently unearthed an autographed poster from last year’s big “Crunch’s Birthday” celebration (always my favorite game of the year). His fascination with the array of mascots pictured on the poster led to me showing him some YouTube clips of Crunch in action, which in turn led to a number of crying fits when I wouldn’t let him watch Crunch videos for hours on end.

This was to be the season when Selby really got to know Crunch. I couldn’t wait to take him to his first game of the year and watch his face during the first break in play when he realized, “Hey! That’s the guy from the poster!” I was going to take him to team events, let him swap high-fives with a giant wolf, snap another picture for his ongoing Crunch yearbook. Heck, that’s half the reason teams even have mascots these days, right? As a way to bond with/market to a demographic too young to maintain focus on a full four quarters of basketball? And Crunch was just the first step. I wanted to have the boy saying “Lazar Hayward” by mid-March. I hoped the sight of Nikola Pekovic on the TV screen would produce near-Big Bird levels of enthusiasm.

I mean, come on, NBA – I’ve been doing your job for you! This was a potential lifelong customer who would have required no additional indoctrination on your part. But you went and squandered that on a multi-billion dollar game of chicken. Look, I can’t claim to know all the specifics of the lockout. My gut (and virtually everything I’ve read about the situation) tells me the blame lies primarily with the owners, but the result is the same either way. If this season doesn’t happen, as it looks like it won’t, that’s a huge year of bonding over basketball that my son and I will never have. As much as I was looking forward to that, it’s not like Selby and I are hurting for things over which to bond. We’ll be just fine. I’m not sure, however, what this will do to Selby’s relationship with you.

The general mindset amongst NBA higher-ups seems to be, “There’s always next year.” True enough, but there's still this year. And this year matters. Even if this season disappears into the ether, I’m sure I’ll be back as a Timberwolves fan before too long. But I don’t know if I’ll be back with the same passion I’ve maintained up until now, or how eager I’ll be to pass that passion on to my son.

Look, I know that this whole situation is overblown in the grand scheme of things. A few dozen billionaires fighting a few hundred millionaires over a ball game is downright frivolous in contrast to most of what’s going on in the world at any given time. But on a personal level, this hurts, probably a lot more than it should. If you shut down the NBA now, you’re denying my son entry to a world I dreamed of sharing with him long before he physically existed. You’re denying him the pitiful passion of Minnesota Timberwolves fandom. You’re denying him Crunch.

I mean, who are we supposed to bond over now? Goldy friggin' Gopher?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hey, I kinda like the Lou Reed and Metallica album, because of course I do.

Let us now praise famous men who should probably know better but go ahead with their follies nonetheless. I speak, of course, of Lou Reed and Metallica, whose new collaboration Lulu has already attained legendary debacle status on its first official day of release. The AV Club’s Jason Heller gave Lulu one of its kinder reviews when he called it “not merely a failure, but one of the bravest, most fascinating failures in rock history.”

If you’re familiar with my well-documented Lou Reed fanboyism, you’re probably expecting me to declare Lulu a misunderstood masterpiece. I’m not going to do that. I actually do like the album a lot more than, well, everyone else in the world, apparently. But even I have to admit that it’s a maddening mess in constant danger of drowning in its own pretension. If I wasn’t so tuned into Lou Reed’s particular brand of artistic auto-eroticism, I might be just as scornful of this venture as everybody else is.

In the reviews I’ve read, Lou’s lyrics rank second only to his deadpan delivery as Lulu’s most derided aspect. I can absolutely see how verses like “To be dead / have no feeling / Be dry and spermless like a girl / I want so much to hurt you” could be off-putting to the uninitiated, and that doesn’t even get into the album’s astonishing amount of dog-sex imagery.

I think, however, that it helps to keep Lou’s inspirations and aspirations in mind. In recent years, Lou has seemed increasingly determined to be remembered as the musical equivalent of envelope-pushing fiction writers like William S. Burroughs and Hubert Selby. He goes so far as to compare himself directly to both men in his preamble to “Street Hassle” on 2004’s live Animal Serenade album. Viewed from that angle, the scatology and surreal sexuality of Lulu make a lot of sense. This may not be Lou’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, but it’s at least an ambitious attempt.

Of course, you could also say that of The Raven, Lou’s notorious, two-disc Edgar Allen Poe tribute album. I’ve been plenty vocal about my disdain for The Raven in the past. In the light of Lulu, though, I wonder if I haven’t judged it too harshly. Yes, a lot of the album consists of wildly overwrought melodrama and ill-conceived rewrites of Poe’s classic verses. But there are also plenty of strong, even excellent songs, all revolving around Lou Reed’s genuine adoration of an artist who shaped his world. It’s hard for me to hate too hard on that, even if I do find Lou collaborating with Fisher Stevens at least as off-putting as him teaming up with Metallica.

Speaking of those guys, I must admit that the duration of Lulu is as much time as I’ve ever spent in their company. I have nothing against Metallica specifically; it’s just that metal is one of the few genres that’s never really done anything for me. So it’s hard for me to join in the chorus of head-bangers who are either bemoaning the latest in a long string of Metallica disillusionments or complaining that the music on Lulu would be solid if not for that gibbering old man talking over it. From where I sit, the music sounds quite good, if a little overbearing at times. The hard rock grind makes a fine compliment to Lou’s ugly, pointed monologues and gives the whole proceeding the kind of dark edge that often hems his finest work. I probably prefer Lou’s usual late-period band – Fernando Saunders and Mike Rathke do well by him – but the only times I’m really turned off by the Metallica mash-up are when that dude (Lars, maybe? Is Lars the vocalist?) starts singing. He has a fine voice for metal, but his occasional verses change the vibe so much that I’m yanked right out of the moment.

Look, I’m not going to try convincing anyone to like or even tolerate Lulu. You’re well within your rights to dismiss this as the wrong-headed, overblown fiasco that it probably is. For my part, I’m choosing to embrace it. It’s like “Like a Possum” – another widely despised Lou Reed effort that I happen to adore – writ large and made even grosser. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, it probably isn’t. Heck, after a decade of watching Lou dabble in photo galleries, overstuffed stage shows, iPhone apps, t'ai chi and dog concerts, I'm happy just to see the man making music again. And hey, if nothing else, I hope that we can all agree that this is at least a step up from Hudson River Wind Meditations.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Adventures in Liner Notes: Dino, Desi and Billy’s 'I’m a Fool'

I don’t relish bad music quite the way I do bad movies. A bad movie can be an exhilarating, uplifting experience for me. A bad album is usually just depressing. Every now and then, though, I manage to unearth a record that fascinates me for all the wrong reasons. Case in point: Dino, Desi and Billy’s I’m a Fool, probably the worst album I’ve ever listened to a dozen times in a week.

I’m a Fool is what happens when you hand a bunch of rich kids with famous dads (Dean Martin, Desi Arnaz and their realtor – OK, so Billy’s dad was only fame adjacent) a wad of cash and a recording contract. From the dorkescent cover photo to the name-dropping moniker to the soulless blanditude of the songs within, this is musical equivalent of a cut-rate, early ‘60s greaser flick. But don’t take my word for it –I’m a Fool’s gloriously purple liner notes speak for themselves.

Be Turned on By
Hollywood’s Hip Hit Teens Sing
And Other Large Songs
That’s the indifferently capitalized headline topping the back cover. I’m intrigued by the wording of this little blurb. It’s clearly an attempt at teenspeak, but it doesn’t sound especially authentic to me. I wasn’t around in 1965. For all I know, kids of that era tossed around slang like “Hip Hit Teens” and “Large Songs” all the time. But I wouldn’t wager on it.
It’s easy to be born. It’s after that that it gets tougher. Giving birth, for instance, to a hit single… ‘taint simple.
I would suggest that being born is no picnic, but even beyond that this opener baffles me. The only possible excuse for employing this strained birthing metaphor is to remind us right up top that these kids are the scions of American royalty (and American royalty’s realtor). If that’s your hook, fine. Own your blatant nepotism. Just don’t go backpedaling in the very next sentence.
Dino, Desi and Billy were born into show business, but then, so were a lot of young people. A lot of illustrious Jrs. have tried to follow their forefathers’ star footsteps, and bombed out. Dino, Desi and Billy have removed themselves forever from the $600 deduction class. They’re now in a class by themselves.

That’s some pretty decent spinning designed to convince us that these kids are more than coattail-riders. I did have to look up that “$600 deduction class” business – apparently it’s a slangy way of saying the boys are no longer dependents in the strictest sense of the word. That seems like a bit much pressure to saddle a 14-year-old with, but whatever. When this album came out, it looked like it might be the truth.
“I’m a Fool” is the first step into this new class. “Not the Lovin’ Kind” is a second. And this album wraps them both up.
The two songs called out by name, “I’m a Fool” and “Not the Lovin’ Kind,” are indeed standouts. Each made a minor splash on the Billboard charts, peaking at #17 and #25 respectively. They’re both pretty generic ‘60s pop tunes, but they have decent hooks and inoffensive presences.

What the liner notes don’t mention is that more than half the songs on the album are covers, and poorly chosen covers at that. If you absolutely must hand off a few Bob Dylan tunes to the blandest bunch of privileged pubescents in town, I suppose “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” are reasonable picks. The boys’ rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone,” on the other hand, is worthwhile only as a illustration of what’s left of an icon when all that is iconic about it has been stripped away. At least the DDB version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is good for a laugh, what with its references to driving, smoking, womanizing and other pursuits generally reserved for the above-14 crowd. (For what it’s worth, my personal favorite track on the album is the grungy “The Rebel Kind.” That one is actually pretty rocking, despite the laughable notion of anyone being threatened by the rebellious nature of Desi Arnaz, Jr.)

Dino, Desi and Billy had one of the best introductions to the entertainment world that any neophyte trio could hope for. Two of the three members come from highly successful show business backgrounds. Dino’s the son of Dean Martin. Desi’s the son of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. Billy Hinsche’s father became rich selling real estate to the other two lads’ fathers.
I don’t mean to rip on Billy too badly. For all I know, Billy might be a cool guy and the most talented member of the band. But damn if that last line doesn’t smack of “Hey, what can we say about this other kid? His dad’s not even on TV!” You can’t help but feel a little bad for the boy.

The three boys, all in their earliest teens and students at Beverly Hills Catholic School, met on a Little League diamond. Dino was in the process of pitching a no-hitter against Desi’s team. The three ball players soon discovered mutual musical interest too. They formed a trio.
See? These aren’t just a bunch of spoiled rich kids who nepotised their way into a record deal. They’re all-American, baseball-loving Catholic schoolboys who just happen to rock. They could easily be the boys next door, provided your door is in one of the more exclusive corners of Beverly Hills. Also note that the author clearly reinforces the hierarchy established in the band’s name: Dino is the alpha male tossing the no-hitter, Desi is the beta on the losing end, and Billy is also present.
Frank Sinatra heard the three rehearsing in an upstairs bedroom during a visit to Dean Martin’s house, and brought them to the attention of Reprise.
I have my doubts that this ever happened.

Producer Lee Hazlewood took over from there, working with the trio and some of the best background musicians in Hollywood, including Al Casey, Billy Strange, James Burton, Jim Gordon, Jim Troxcel, Dr. Jim Simmons, Jimmy Grey, Donald L. Owens and others. The results: this album. And the results have added a new generation of music to Hollywood and to America.
Notice that those last couple of sentences are suspiciously lacking in qualitative assessments. The first sentence, though, speaks to the true strength of the album, such as it is. I’m a Fool isn’t a good record by any means, but it’s much more listenable than it ought to be. I’m going to give credit to the background genius of songwriter Lee Hazlewood and that cast of ringers he brought on board.

‘60s music buffs will recognize most of those names – along with the album's co-arranger Jack Nitzsche – as members of The Wrecking Crew, the uncredited session men who did the legwork on a staggering number of hits released by superstars from Nat King Cole to The Beach Boys to the Partridge Family. These guys were renowned in the industry for cranking out incredibly tight, indelible arrangements at the drop of a hat. Reading up on them can prove seriously disillusioning to fans of '60s pop (Seriously, check out that link above), but for a bright-eyed boy band they were just the ticket. They couldn’t quite work their magic for Dino, Desi and Billy, but they made a game go of crafting some genuinely Large Songs for this trio of Hip Hit Teens.

Postscript: I don’t want to come off too harsh on the actual Dino, Desi and Billy. From what I’ve seen online, they seem to be decent chaps with some genuine talent and a love for music. Heck, they even got the band back together in the ‘90s and toured as Ricci, Desi and Billy until a few years ago. (Dino, a Captain in the California Air National Guard, died in a jet crash in 1987. His younger brother Ricci joined the group in his place.) I have nothing but fond wishes for Dino, Desi and Billy as people. As a concept, though, I find the band deeply fascinating and highly amusing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My four biggest beefs with Dr. Seuss

Sure, I dig Dr. Seuss. What good-hearted American doesn’t? The contributions the man made to children’s literature and American culture are unimpeachable. Heck, the thrill of reading Fox in Socks out loud would earn him a place on my eternal respect list by itself, and I rather adore his lesser-known early work. But as I’ve moved farther along in this fatherhood gig, I’ve had occasion to revisit a fair bit of Seussiana, and I have to admit I have a few beefs. Here are half a dozen bones I’d like to pick with the good doctor.

Lazy rhyming

There’s no question that Dr. Seuss was a master wordsmith. The bulk of his rhymes were inventive, original and memorable as hell. Nevertheless, I’ve been irked to realize how frequently he fell back on the borderline cheating of making up rhyming words from whole cloth and assigning the new “name” to some fantastical creature. There’s a Wocket in My Pocket is probably the worst offender here. It's as if a writer's blocked Seuss wandered around his house and swapped out the first letters of whatever household objects his glance settled on. I can maybe buy a “bofa on the sofa,” but the “nooth grush on my tooth brush” is just plain overreaching.

Confusing politics

I think popular opinion holds Dr. Seuss as a raging liberal, owing mainly to the overt environmentalism of The Lorax and, to a lesser extent, the Cold War tut-tutting of The Butter Battle Book. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose is a none-too-subtle takedown of socialism suited for any Tea Party reading room. And then of course there are the infamous anti-Japanese propaganda cartoons, typical products of their era but quite upsetting regardless.

My biggest issue, though, is with the possibly the biggest sacred cow in the Seuss catalog. Green Eggs and Ham is generally accepted as a lighthearted lesson in not being afraid to try new things. That’s part of the picture, certainly, but when you look at the story from Sam I Am’s angle, it’s also a testament to the power of harassment. Badger someone incessantly and inflexibly enough, Seuss suggests, and eventually they’ll bend to your will. Sam I Am traffics in the same style of non-violent bullying favored by generations of door-to-door salesmen and hard-line politicians. That he’s the ostensible hero of the story – by the end his victim is even thanking him for his brutal mind games – chills me to the core.

The Cat in the Hat

The Cat in the Hat is creepy. Anarchic fun aside, there is no way on earth I would ever have guessed that grotesque, disturbing man-beast was a cat in a hat if Seuss hadn’t spelled it out in the title. Needless to say I’m not too keen on the Cat’s original incarnation, but that revulsion is mild compared to what I feel toward more recent takes on the character.

Being a grown adult possessed of decent taste and free will, I have never seen the 2003 adaptation of The Cat in the Hat. I have, however, seen its ads. If there’s a Hell below, I firmly believe the walls are plastered with posters of Mike Myers smirking soullessly behind unholy layers of cat-man makeup.

As the father of a toddler, I have seen a fair bit of the PBS cartoon The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That. One might think that relegating Martin Short to a voice-only role would temper the horror somewhat, but one would be grossly underestimating Mr. Short’s capacity for horror. I once caught an episode of Law & Order: SVU where Short played a phony psychic with a penchant for sexual assault. That wasn’t half as creepy as his work on The Cat in the Hat. In his hands, the Cat is a giggling, spastic tornado of directionless energy. In cartoon terms, he falls somewhere between early Daffy Duck and the Batman: The Animated Series edition of The Joker. Even if he didn’t sing constantly, Short’s skin-crawling intonation of “Your mother will not mind at all if we do!” (delivered at least once an episode) would almost be enough to make me forget all the fine work he did in his younger days.

I suppose this is outside the realm of Dr. Seuss’ command, what with him being conveniently dead and all. Still, I’m going to argue that he could have had the foresight to forbid his estate from licensing his work to any endeavor fronted by any aging, manic Canadian sketch comedy legend.


This one isn’t really Dr. Seuss’ fault either, but I have no one else to blame so he’ll have to do. Ever since I learned of the existence of a fetish group that gets sexual gratification from dressing up as furry, costumed characters, Seuss’ fuzzy animal-human hybrids have made me vaguely uneasy. To each his or her own, but the idea that someone out there finds whatever manner of being Sam I Am or the hopped-on Pop are meant to be primally arousing squicks me out to no end.

[Yeah, there are videos out there to illustrate this, but I’m not going to subject you to them. Instead, here are some youthful Canadian sketch comedy legends.]

Thursday, July 21, 2011

My five-step Google+ strategy

1) Sign up.
2) Poke around for a few minutes.
3) Get annoyed.
4) Decide I have neither the time nor the energy to throw into navigating yet another social media outlet.
5) Wait for Google+ to either burn out or become ubiquitous enough that I have no choice but to get addicted.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Perception of The Doors" or "Light My Fire Under a Bushel"

I’ve never been a big fan of The Doors. That’s hardly a controversial statement within my circle of music nerds. The hipster line on The Doors for years has been, “Pretty cool musically, and obviously important historically, but way overburdened by Jim Morrison’s ego, vocal dramatics and insanely bad songwriting.” I’ve never been an outright Doors hater either – I own a few of their albums and listen to them on occasion – but I’ll admit my gut reaction when I spot someone in a "Jim Morrison: American Poet" t-shirt is to avoid discussing music with him or her if at all possible.

No, as ‘60s music goes, I’m into more obscure stuff. I love poking around the weird little side alleys of hip record stores in search of long-forgotten psychedelic acts. Show me a band that pressed two or three LPs for some fly-by-night California-based label in 1966-71 then disbanded and faded into the ether and I’ll be slapping my Visa card on the counter before I’m finished reading the liner notes. The albums don’t even have to be uniformly good, so long as they’re reasonably interesting and have a standout track or two. I’ve unearthed a lot of good stuff over the years, but true lost classics are hard to come by. My dream find is an album that’s deeply trippy, slightly hooky and as dark as ‘60s rock standards allowed. Sort of like, oh, I don’t know… The Doors?

I was recently listening to a Nico album, and that got me thinking about her cover of “The End,” and that got me thinking about the original Doors version of “The End,” and before I knew it I was listening to L.A. Woman beginning to end. About halfway through “L’America,” it struck me: if The Doors weren’t THE DOORS and instead some forgotten psych rockers I’d discovered in the Oldies section of Rolling Stones Records, this would almost certainly be one of my favorite albums. Everything about it fits my template. It’s grim and grotesque and grimy as hell. It seethes with the kind of menacing organ riffs I adore. Sure, the lyrics are rather cringeworthy, but you could say the same for a whole lot of albums I love (Bullshit philosophizing was just a natural byproduct of the 1960s).

And yet here I sit, still not a huge fan of The Doors. This has made me question a lot of things about my taste in art, my public persona and the very core of my existence. If I read myself correctly, I’m guilty of the worst kind of hipsterism. The Doors’ mainstream success and rabid fan base has led me to hold them accountable for musical offenses that I’d ignore if they were committed by, say, The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. If L.A. Woman was an unknown commodity, I would take immense personal pride in having “discovered” it, just like I do with Trader Horne and Joe Byrd and The Field Hippies. I’d be sending my buddy Zachary links to barely read internet articles on the band’s history, just like I did after I first heard Yahowa 13.

That last paragraph gets to the heart of my problem. I didn’t need to name-check all of those artists to make my point, but I did it anyway, because I want you to click on those links and hear those bands. That’s partially because they’re all wonderful artists who deserve a wider audience, but it’s just as much because I want you to check out these bands specifically on my recommendation. I want to bask in their reflected glory and revel in the narcissistic pleasures of my own obscure, impeccable taste.

Are The Doors a better or a worse band than any of those groups? That’s a matter of opinion, obviously. What’s a matter of fact is that Oliver Stone never felt compelled to make an awful movie about Joe Byrd and The Field Hippies. See, quality is only one factor among many in my complex recipe for musical adulation. The truth is that part of the reason I’ve never cultivated a real passion for The Doors is that they’re already well-traveled territory. There’s nothing exceptional about being into The Doors, and I don’t find the band itself exceptional enough to make much of a deal about them. I’m a big fan of plenty of near-universally adored artists – The Beatles, Bob Dylan, David Bowie – but I think all of those performers are remarkable enough to supersede their mainstream acceptance.

On another hand is a band like The Grateful Dead, a group deeply beloved by a huge swath of music fans and intensely hated by just as many. I’ve started digging the Dead more in recent years. It’s because of that very hatred that I feel OK about stating that publicly. A chance to play the contrarian trumps most things for me. In the case of The Doors, though, the contempt isn’t quite feverish enough and the natural talent isn’t quite mind-blowing enough for me to get past their popularity with Budweiser-swilling undergrads.

So I guess it boils down to this: I like The Doors, but not as much as I would if they were more obscure, more talented or more hated. Of those three, only the talent requirement makes any logical sense, and it’s probably the least important to my public embracing of a band. I realize that this is a ridiculous, possibly contemptible attitude. It’s self-absorbed hipster elitism in the first degree, and it does a disservice both to blameless musicians and to me as a music lover. Still, I can’t see myself fully turning away from it anytime soon. My musical neuroses are too closely tied to my fragile self-image and the theoretical scorn of an imaginary peer group.

At least I recognize the problem. Give me time and I might even reach the point where I feel comfortable including a Doors track on my annual summer party mix. I’m thinking maybe “Hyacinth House.” Sure, “L.A. Woman” or “Love Her Madly” would probably be better party-rockers, but that shit’s way too mainstream, man.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The seven most embarrassing artists I've seen perform live

Attending a concert is always a crapshoot. Even if you’re seeing an artist whose work you love deeply and who you’ve seen kill on stage a dozen times, there’s still a chance you’re going to catch a rare off-night. There are some performers, however, who can sully your reputation by their very proximity. I’ve been to a lot of shows in my day. These few stand out as the ones I least like admitting to. In my defense, there were extenuating circumstances involved in most (but not all) of these experiences. Please don’t think less of me for having shared their airspace.

Better Than Ezra
This would be mildly embarrassing if I’d seen them in the mid-1990s, when their hit single “Good” was riding the top of the pop charts. But no, I saw them in 2002, when most of the nation had long since moved on. In my defense, I only went as a friend’s guest. Also, I saw them in New Orleans, the band’s hometown and the one spot in the nation that never stopped carrying the BTE torch. Seriously, Better Than Ezra was still huge in New Orleans in 2002, maybe because they’re still pretty much the only local alt-rock band ever to break through on the national stage.

They played under a gigantic tent in a parking lot near Lee Circle. The music was tolerable, but an obnoxious, fratty crowd that screamed along with every lyric more than compensated. There are people out there who can recite the entire Better Than Ezra songbook. Think about that.

Goo Goo Dolls and Dishwalla
I know that Goo Goo Dolls had a big hit song. I know that it was called “Iris.” I know that it’s a song I would recognize. But if you played “Iris” for me right now, I would not be able to identify it as a Goo Goo Dolls song. They’re a band that has simply never held my attention long enough for me to form any kind of lasting impression. I am quite certain that I sat through their opening set while waiting for Violent Femmes at the 1997 Milwaukee Summerfest, but the only thing I remember clearly from that performance was the portly man in front of me, who spent the whole show gyrating suggestively in ludicrously short jean shorts. Oh, and Dishwalla was there too. Everything I said about Goo Goo Dolls goes double for them.

Michael W. Smith
When I tell people I used to be a regular on the Christian rock festival circuit, the first thing they ask is usually, “Did you ever see Amy Grant?” (No.) The second thing they ask is usually, “Did you ever see Michael W. Smith?” (Yes. Twice.) I make no apologies for my youthful experimentation with Contemporary Christian music. It was what was available to me, and some of it was actually pretty decent stuff. I take no shame in having seeing acts like Randy Stonehill, Bride or SFC do their thing on stage. But Michael W. Smith is in a different league. For much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was the male face of cheesy, overproduced Christian pop, one of the only God Rock performers identifiable even to secular audiences.

His live shows were pretty much exactly what you’d think: bland and affable and laden with synthesizers and saxophones. I first saw him play at the Agape Festival in Greenville, IL (actually a very important formative experience for me as a young music fan), but the real standout was a Target Center gig in 1993. I recall a lot of glittery outfits, at least one keytar solo (though that might have been part of Petra’s opening set) and a moving walkway extending off the front of the stage. MWS used the latter as an ingenious prop, strenuously walking against the grain as an illustration of his struggle to keep within reach of Jesus. Or something like that. I was never too clear on the metaphor.

No Doubt
I saw maybe two minutes of No Doubt while wandering the grounds at the 2002 New Orleans Voodoo Music Experience. That was long enough for me to hear Gwen Stefani shrilling about how “fucking awesome” it was to be in “New fucking Orleans,” or something to that effect. Her ostentatious street-smart pose was so obviously forced and artificial that I immediately moved on to another stage to catch a few minutes of the only slightly less embarrassing Macy Gray. Or maybe it was Counting Crows. Damn, that was a lame Voodoo Fest lineup.

Sum 41 or maybe Good Charlotte

In 2002, The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn taped a week of programs in New Orleans. I got tickets for the Wednesday episode, which turned out to be the weakest of the run. Not only was Craig’s guest played-out prankster Tom Green, the musical guest was one of the abovementioned weenie punk acts. I honestly can’t remember which one. I suppose I could find out pretty easily online, but hell, why bother?

If you’ve never heard of Carman, and I have no reason to assume you have, imagine a Christian version of Neil Diamond, except about 75% tackier and more theatrical. He specializes in elaborate story songs like “The Champion,” a hammy, histrionic, eight-minute account of a boxing match between Jesus and Satan.

It’s baffling to me to think that I – or anyone else, really – was ever capable of appreciating Carman unironically, but at 13, I was a hardcore, fist-pumping fan shouting along from the upper decks of the La Crosse Center.

Vanilla Ice
By the time I saw Vanilla Ice in 1999, he was already a walking punchline. This was during the grotesque period when he was trying to reinvent himself as a Limp Bizkit-style thrash rapper. I purchased my $10 ticket ironically, as did virtually every other smirking scenester who filled the Hollywood Theater in La Crosse, WI (he was originally scheduled to play the smaller, hipper Warehouse, but the demand proved too great). That show went a long way toward convincing me not to spend money ironically anymore. Simply put, it was an embarrassing experience for me, for Vanilla Ice and for pretty much everyone involved.

Vanilla spent much of the set stomping around the stage declaring himself free from the mental slavery of celebrity and music labels. “No more puppet!” was the refrain of the evening. The crowd was openly hostile throughout. Several onstage security guards were kept busy fending off an endless stream of aspiring bum-rushers. When Vanilla Ice’s hype man (yep, that was an existent career in 1999) was foolhardy enough to try crowd-surfing, he was instantly dragged down and enveloped. The security guards had to physically pull him back on stage to spare him a beating from the drunken front-row hooligans.

The band played “Too Cold,” their hard rock revamp of “Ice Ice Baby,” halfway through the set, after which at least 3/4 of the crowd immediately filed out. By this point I was feeling pretty sorry for poor Vanilla, so I stuck it out. I’m glad I did. The folks that left missed out on a live performance of “Havin’ a Roni,” and that’s just not something you see every day.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The five worst Lou Reed album covers of all time

When people discuss great album cover art of the rock era, Lou Reed’s name doesn’t exactly fly to the forefront. Except for maybe the knock-off Warhol portrait on Transformer, Lou’s album visuals have never achieved anything like iconic status. As a tireless Lou apologist, I’m personally fond of quite a few of his covers. The contemptuous bad-assery of Street Hassle and the trippy interactivity of Set the Twilight Reeling are particular favorites, though I might like the back cover of Sally Can’t Dance best of all. I can’t deny, however, that flipping through the Lou Reed section at your local record store will likely produce more groans than grins. In honor of Lou’s 69th birthday, I’ve compiled my choices for the five worst covers in his extensive oeuvre.

Ecstasy (2000)
I actually rather like the design of this one. It’s stark and simple, the fonts are well chosen and the red-and-black color scheme is quite striking. None of that offsets the fact that the combination of photo and title gives the distinct impression that we’re looking at Lou Reed’s O-face. As big a fan as I am, that’s something I never needed to see.

New York (1989)
He’s hip, he’s cool, he’s 46! And there are five of him for some reason.

New Sensations (1984)
I suppose there are ways Lou could have made this cover more instantly dated. Maybe throw in a gigantic jambox, some Wacky Wallwalkers, a couple of Smurfs… But why mess with a good thing? If nothing else, this artwork allows us to ponder the awesome possibilities of Lou Reed: The Game. I’m sure it would’ve been at least as much fun as the Atari E.T. game.

Growing Up in Public (1980)
“OK, Lou, if you want to go get changed, we’ll get this cover shoot in the bag.”
“I don’t need to change.”
“Oh... So you wanted to take the picture wearing that, um, olive green v-neck sweatshirt?”
“That’s right.”
“Huh. You sure? I mean, it kind of looks like you just got in from raking the leaves or something.”
[Grim silence.]
“Yeah… OK… I can work with that. Just let me change out this cheesy red backdrop. We had a high school yearbook shoot in here this morning.”
“Just take the fucking picture.”

Mistrial (1986)
For a man who’s spent the better part of two decades wearing leather jackets and sunglasses, Lou sure looks awkward wearing that leather jacket and those sunglasses. If you didn’t know who Lou Reed was, this could easily be mistaken for a publicity still for that weird guy who works the night shift at the supermarket and responds to every “Guitarist wanted” ad in the back of the local alt-weekly. This photo is so hokey that it almost seems defensive, as if Lou is announcing to the world, “I don’t give two shits what anybody says – I still fucking rock!”

(Note: If I were to compile the Five Greatest Lou Reed Album Covers of All-Time, Mistrial would occupy the number one slot on that list as well, for exactly the same reasons.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Remembering Ric Hess, the Hilly Kristal of Chicago literature

I can’t claim to have been close friends with Ric Hess, the Chicago writer and restaurateur who died unexpectedly on Monday. We chatted from time to time and knew each other by name, but our relationship was more that of colleagues than friends. That didn’t keep Ric from playing a major role in my writing career.

People from outside of Chicago are often puzzled when I explain that city’s culture of readings in bars. I can understand that. In many people’s minds, literary readings are supposed to be mild-mannered affairs relegated to bookstores, coffee shops and maybe the occasional wine bar. Conversely, the accompanying entertainment to a night of drinking is supposed to be a karaoke machine, a raucous bar band or, if you’re feeling intellectual, a pub quiz. The Chicago scene is different, as I learned in my four years in the Fiction Writing Master’s program at Columbia College. Chicago, much to my delight, is peppered with writers unpretentious enough to debut their new stories in front of a hooting crowd of barflies, and bars open-minded enough to host them.

As the owner of Sheffield’s, Ric Hess was instrumental in shaping what I believe to be a genuine literary movement. In a neighborhood renowned for drunken hooliganism, he built up a classy yet welcoming bar and grill beloved by beer connoisseurs and gourmands. By opening his doors to Reading Under the Influence, Sexy Bald Men and other local reading events, he nurtured a vibrant, enthusiastic artistic community the likes of which I’ve never seen anywhere else. When I think of the key landmarks from my time on Chicago’s fiction writing scene, Sheffield’s is second only to Columbia College itself.

When you attended a reading at Sheffield’s, you weren’t just going out to hear some gasbag writers over-enunciating their meticulously groomed manuscripts. No, you were throwing yourself into the midst of a twisted, talented family of artists whose primary objective was to support, inspire and appreciate the hell out of one another. Any given Reading Under the Influence (RUI) installation could run the gamut from Julia Borcherts spinning a tale of an illicit romance with a Harry Caray impersonator to Rob Duffer reading a breathlessly detailed passage from Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage to Kathy Bergquist blessing the room with the most hilariously gruesome fisting scene ever committed to paper.

Ric presided over all this writerly rabble as both patriarch and participant. A damn fine writer himself, he sometimes graced the RUI stage with his tough, muscular prose and confident delivery. Most nights, though, he was behind the scenes. I’m sure many of the attendees had no idea who he was, or how instrumental he was in fueling the boisterous, breathtaking literary scene they were all a part of. If Sheffield’s was our CBGB, Ric was our Hilly Kristal, a courageous, innovative entrepreneur who wasn’t afraid to put himself on the line for the art he believed in. Whether I was there to read or just listen, stepping into the back room always gave me a warm, welcome feeling, even before I got a pint of Red Hook in me. That’s not an easy effect to pull off, especially when you’re dealing with a group as mercurial as up-and-coming authors. As a reader, a writer, a drinker and a lover of the arts, I appreciate the hell out of Ric and all he did to facilitate that feeling.

Godspeed, Ric Hess. I wish I'd thanked you when I had the chance. For what it's worth, you damn sure made the world a better place than it was when you showed up.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The five most misleading album covers in my record collection

One thing I really like about buying vinyl records – they’re often cheap enough that I can afford to take a gamble on a band I’ve never heard of just because I like their cover art. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is often possible to judge an album by its cover, especially when you’re dealing with psych-rock, prog or funk. Sometimes, though, I fall victim to the old bait-and-switch. It’s uniquely disheartening to discover that the insane record sleeve I’ve so graciously invited into my home is nothing but a fa├žade for garden-variety garbage. After thumbing through my collection, I’ve called a few of the worst offenders on the carpet.

Brick – Good High
Is that not one of the greatest album covers of the 1970s? Just looking at that beaming dude and his illicit candy bar is enough to get your toes tapping. You have to assume that this is going to be one tripped-out funk record, or at least something with a cool reggae influence. Instead, it’s a fairly standard proto-disco funk disc, boasting a few nice breaks and a lot of filler. It’s not an awful album by any means – the much-sampled “Dazz” is pretty hot – but the chasm between my expectations and reality has seldom been deeper.

Dreams – Imagine My Surprise
You have to figure a band cool enough to commission cover art by Gahan Wilson – the macabre cartooning icon who’s like a bridge between Charles Addams and Gary Larson – is going to bring something to the table, right? Especially since they were apparently fine with Wilson drawing them pajama-clad and on the verge of being swallowed by a giant vagina monster? Sadly, what’s inside is undistinguished horn rock that could charitably be called “a poor man’s Chicago.” Dreams bassist Will Lee did go on to a lifelong gig with David Letterman’s house band. I guess that’s something.

Don Ralke – Bongo Madness
Look at that cover. Look at how much fun those folks are having. Maybe their little bongo party hasn’t spilled over into full-scale madness yet, but it’s in the mail, that’s for sure. It’s just too bad that the accompanying record inspires exactly none of the emotions on display in that image. Oh, there’s bongo, to be sure, but the madness is regrettably hard to come by. These tepid easy-listening grooves are more like Bongo Mildness.

Casiopea – Eyes of the Mind
OK, you’ve got your astrological band name, your eyeball-and-spacescape cover art and your pretentious album title. Then you flip the jacket over and find that not only was the album released in 1981, but the band is also entirely Japanese. Is there any conceivable way that this is not some bizarre lost classic of prog rock? Well, yeah. Apparently the other option is that Casiopea is an elevator jazz combo that churned out the blandest Muzak knock-offs this side of my neighborhood Pamida store.

Barrabas – Watch Out
I have no recollection of buying this record. I assume it was a trophy from one of my psychedelic shopping sprees at Reckless Records in Chicago that got filed away before I got around to putting it on the turntable. Whatever the case, I was hyped when I pulled Watch Out out of my stacks a few months back. The Biblically inspired band name coupled with a nude snake-woman teasing her hair in an oppressively purple dressing room carried the promise of something dark, trippy and deeply psychedelic. But no worries, Barrabas – you guys go on ahead with your watered-down Euro-disco. Oh heavens no, your undeniably killer album cover is in no way tainted by the sub-roller-rink jams you’ve seen fit to preserve in vinyl. Whatever gave you that idea? Say, what’s Spanish for “infinitely forgettable”?