Left of the Dial*

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
– Socrates

What’s that saying “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”?

or is it “What the fluck”?

Either way, today I am launching my first digital magazine entitled wait(er). As the name suggests, it is a magazine devoted to stories about the front of the house workers of the restaurant industry. It would seem that television has gone to great lengths to make the back of the house employees, like chef’s, superstars. I might suggest those shows are disrespectful to the true culinary artisans, but that is another argument.

Somehow waiters, waitresses, bartenders, busboys, hosts, etc. have been left out of the small tube mix. It’s not that there isn’t any lack of dynamism among the workers, there is. Something tells me it has more to do with the fact that so many of the FOH workers are most certainly not ready for prime time.

I should know. I was one of them for over ten years.

If you read my post yesterday, you got a sample of what wait(er) is. “Losing the Gamble” is my article for the inaugural issue and available for free by clicking on that link.

The editorial objective of wait(er) Magazine is simple, to provide a home for good stories from, for or about those people in the service, or “serve us”, industry. Some of those will be first hand accounts, some will be profiles, I’m developing some profiles of organizations. There will be solid journalism and there will be loads of snark. As a result of my secondary objective, to provide a home for new and developing writers, there may be grammar hiccups to start, but we’ll get them ironed out.

I hope you will share in the excitement…by doling out the .99 cents a month!

About two weeks ago the idea came to me and I decided to test the water, as it were. I cast a net across craigslist placing ads in San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, New York, New Haven, Austin, Houston, Minneapolis/St.Paul, Chicago, St. Louis, and a few others, looking for writers. The response and feedback was overwhelming. I thought maybe, just maybe, I was onto something…I dunno, we’ll see.

I can tell you that I received emails from writers of all sorts. Bloggers, experienced journalists, high school kids, recent graduates, et al. and it seems that a lot of people have either worked or work in the “serve us” industry and were eager to share their stories. wait(er) Magazine will provide them an avenue to do that.

I recently sat down with myself to ask me a few questions that I thought people may be curious about.

Why wait(er)?  I dunno, the image popped into my head like that and seconds later I though, “Yea, that looks and sounds kind of cool.” Seriously. Oh sure, I could pontificate about some sort of significant meaning behind the parenthesis and lower case, but I would be making it all up. I’m too tired to go down that creative rabbit hole. I honestly just thought it looked cool.

Why not waitress(es)?  Truthfully, that was a concern but in the research I did (albeit, extremely limited) I realized that waiter is not defined as gender specific, we assigned it the masculine property.

So, just restaurant workers?  No, of course not. Barista’s, fast food employees, food truck employees (please I’d like anyone to explain that phenomenon to me), pretzel cart guys, I don’t care.

Why digital and not print?  My last name is Higgons, not Newhouse. I don’t have the kind of scratch, or access to it, to bankroll a print magazine. Besides, then I would have to move to an advertising based model and frankly, I see no need for that. Personally, I feel we are slammed with advertising everywhere we turn and it would be nice to escape from it now and again.

Trust me, you don’t really wanna open up the advertising business model discussion with me. I have thoughts.
Suffice it to say, digital made the most sense personally and economically.

Did you read everything that was sent to you?  I did. I still am actually. It’s just me right now. Well, the dogs and cats try to help, but they’re not literate beyond “sit”, “get off that” and “shut the fluck up” and they have enough trouble with those. So yea, I read everything and will continue to.

Did you edit as well?  I did and admittedly, that is not a strength of mine. So, you may see a few mistakes here and there. There is beauty in perfection and imperfection. If anyone knows someone willing to do some editing, pro bono or at a seriously reduced rate, contact me!

Did you pay the writers?  Yes. Well, not as of this writing, but I am going to. I think it’s important to pay people what you can for their creative efforts and time. I get doing stuff for free, but having done a lot of free work, especially writing, over the past five years, I wanted to be able to offer writers something, other than a venue, to recognize that I value their work.

I felt vindicated today when I read an exchange between journalist Nate Thayer and The Atlantic. They wanted to re-purpose a blog post of his…for free. They claimed to be out of money to spend on digital. They further went on to say they only pay 100 dollars. The Atlantic. COME ON! Thayer has been getting some flack about his stance, but I think he’s right. Free is fine if you are starting out but eventually you gotta get paid and you deserve to get paid.

Anywho, yes, I am paying the writers. It ain’t much but it is what I can afford, with the promise that as wait(er) grows, so will the rate.

Are you getting paid?  No. I’m bootstrapping everything so it’s unlikely I will see any personal returns for some time, if ever. For me, it’s about the experience and constructing a hive of like minded individuals.

How much did it cost to start?  None of your business. More than I have but not enough to stop me from doing it. That is one of the true joys about them Internets, you can go from concept to fully realized vision in two weeks and not break the bank. And look, I am a firm believer that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. This just feels right.

Where do you see yourself in five years?  Go to hell, this isn’t an HR interview.

Is there any type of story you are interested in?  Nope. Not at the moment. Pitch an idea. All I am looking for is honest stories that are told well. Leave the revenge piece about a shitty manager or owner for the blog.

Does everyone have a story to tell?  Oh yea! If you have worked in the food “serve us” industry in any capacity for longer than two weeks, you have at least ONE story. And if you don’t have ONE story, then you either weren’t paying attention or weren’t working hard enough. People are crazy and, eventually, they go out to eat.

Will you share all of your stories? All of them, no. I did that work for a long time and am thankful for the experiences and the living it provided me. Truth be told, it’s a job like anything else and it had its routine. BUT when it went bat shit crazy, hilarity ensued, especially in hindsight.

In a restaurant, it’s not just a Power Point slide malfunctioning, it was usually something far worse. It’s those bat shit crazy stories that still make me laugh and shake my head. Let’s be honest too, the story behind some manager who builds an epic PP deck only to have it malfunction is just never going to have the legs of a story about trying to explain to a customer why there was a spider in their salad or kicking someone out of the bar because they haven’t tipped you in four hours.

Will you tell a story in each issue?  That is not my plan. I didn’t create it so I could relay my own personal experiences. I have a blog for that. If I feel they fit, sure. If I feel the need for content, sure. Mostly, I am looking to build the hive.

wait(er) Magazine is for other people to share their stories and to give new writers some exposure. Front of the house staff are a unique group of people…and we’re everywhere. In the restaurant business, after a busy night (actually after any night) you would go drink and talk about your shift. I’d like wait(er) Magazine to be the bar you went to with your fellow workers to commiserate. Sometimes you’ll laugh, sometimes you may get angry, hopefully never cry; hell, sometimes you might learn something but above all else, I am simply hoping you’ll enjoy it.

How often will you publish wait(er) Magazine? A new issue will come out the first Tuesday of each month…to start.

What platforms is wait(er) available in?  Currently, just web subscription, Kindle, MOBI and EPUB. Apple iOS is forthcoming, but they require one issue to be published before submitting it to them for approval. I suspect iOS will be available soon. I’m reticent to give a time frame. Follow us on Twitter @writermag, Facebook, Google+ or on WordPress, for all the updates, etc.

Any last words? Never any last ones, but I will leave you with these:

“We learned more from a 3-minute record, baby
Than we ever learned in school
Tonight I hear the neighborhood drummer sound
I can feel my heart begin to pound
You say you’re tired and you just want to close your eyes
And follow your dreams down
– Never Surrender
Bruce Spingsteen

CLICK ON THE WAITER AND SUBSCRIBE!

Waiter Issue 1

* – The phrase used to mean something, sadly now it doesn’t. Nonetheless, this is a nod to a constant source of inspiration for me, The Replacements.

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Losing the Gamble

First published in wait(er) Magazine, July, 2013.

My first job when I moved back to New York City, ten years ago, was working in a subsection of the financial services industry. Getting a root canal, sans anesthetic, would be less uncomfortable then trying to describe the banality of that job and industry. Suffice it to say, I was miserable.

Against almost everyone’s opinion, I up and quit after about 18 months without a back up job. Well, I gave two weeks notice but in keeping with company protocol, they didn’t except it and terminated me immediately. Apparently, they were worried I would steal valuable industry secrets or their clients. Christ, I didn’t know any secrets (if I did, I certainly wasn’t aware of them) and the thought of stealing clients never crossed my mind (until they said it).

I was happy to be leaving with what was left of my pride.

Having about ten years of restaurant experience behind me, I figured that was my best bet to keep me relatively solvent. So the day after I quit, I suited up and armed with a lead from a friend of a friend, I made my way to Penn Station.

Specifically, One Penn Plaza, to a place called Tupelo Grill. Holding the managers names, Aaron, the General Manager and Ethan, the Manager, I popped in to try and speak with them around 3pm. The hostess gave me an application and went to get one of them. It was Ethan who came up and introduced himself to me. We shook hands and I handed him my resume and completed application. He looked it over and asked me, “Do you have any New York City experience?”

Now, this was not the first time in my life I had heard this question. And frankly, it pissed me off then and even now as I write this, it still irks me. So I shared with Ethan why that question annoys me, why it usually means nothing and is a pretty transparent intimidation tactic.

Sometime in the mid-90’s I moved to the Upper West Side and went out looking for restaurant work. At this point I only had a few years experience, but I had been part of a serving staff of a newly opened chain and had been part of a three man team that opened a very successful restaurant outside of Waterbury, CT. I had a fairly solid grasp on the business, especially front of the house operations.

Nonetheless, every single restaurant I went into asked me the same damn question, as they looked at my resume, “Hmm, do you have any New York City experience?” Initially, I was embarrassed that I didn’t and would trip over my rebuttal. With each rejection I grew more and more annoyed. After a week of rejections, I went into Lexington Bar and Books and sure as shit, the guy looked at my resume and asked me “Hmm, well do you have any New York City experience?”

I snapped and retorted, “What exactly does that mean? I mean you can clearly see that I have experience bartending at two restaurants that did between three and four million dollars annually. Volume is volume whether it is in New York City or Des Moines, right?” He was a tad taken aback and silently nodded in agreement. Long story short, I got that job. It lasted all of three hours, but I did get that job (that’s a story for another time).

Ethan took in my tale, smiled and said “Those guys at Bar and Books are assholes anyway.” I’m still not entirely sure if they were assholes for hiring me.

As this was just as the whole foodie craze and the “everyone must know everything about food” crap, he asked if I would be willing to take a test. I shrugged and said “Sure.” It’s not like I had anything else going on.

Looking back, it was maybe seven or eight questions but I distinctly remember one:

Name three kinds of mushrooms:

1.     Good
2.     Bad
3.     Psilocybin

I got the job.

After two lunch shifts training, I was thrown into the fray. I quickly realized that Tupelo Grill was easily the best restaurant job I had ever had. The managers Aaron and Ethan were great and totally supportive, the staff was a lot of fun and easy to work with and the owners were non-existent (for the most part).

Certainly, all those things made the job great, but what made it excellent? The two reasons that matter most, the hours and the money. You see Tupelo Grill was in One Penn Plaza (a big office building) and across from Madison Square Garden (the worlds most famous arena). Because of the law offices and financial companies located on the floors above the restaurant, the lunch shifts were amazing! The proximity to MSG meant the place was packed when there was a concert or event at the Garden and pretty empty otherwise. Oh yeah, and the place was only open M-F.

Working one lunch about nine months into my stay there, I got sat a four top. An older guy, whom I recognized and thought to be in his late 60’s, and three of his colleagues who were probably about 20 years his junior.  I knew the guy was in finance because I had seen his American Express Black Card and the name of the company. Nonetheless, their lunch, as near as I could tell, went along without a hitch. The older guy asked for the check, so I printed it and dropped it off.

The guy was a typical 20% guy, so I didn’t worry too much. I saw him place his card in the check presenter card slot and then excuse himself to go to the bathroom. I meandered over and picked it up and took a stroll around my section to check on my other tables before going back to swipe his card and close the check.

I timed it so that I was printing out his check just as he was exiting the bathroom and was on my way to his table. About ten paces before I got to his table I got smacked across the face with a horrendous smell. The smell only got stronger as I approached the table. I’ve no doubt I grimaced and shook my head, but maintained my composure as I presented the check to the table and said “Thank you”.

As I walked back to the computer, one of the other waiters was surveying the dining room when I said “Jesus, it smells like SHIT by table 44.” She looked over and then I looked over just as my four top was standing and we noticed at the same time, it was shit.

The old man had lost the gamble and shat himself.  The back of his finely tailored grey Brooks Brothers suit was dark, wet and no longer grey. OBVIOUSLY, I first fell into a fit of laughter that gave way to embarrassment for the guy and I finally settled on my go to, sadness. I mean there was NO way he didn’t know he shat himself and NO way his cohorts didn’t smell it. And since he walked out FIRST, there was no way they didn’t see it.

Just as I settled on sadness, one of my other tables called me over to inform me that the men’s room was a mess. I quickly put two and two together and grabbed a busboy to assess the damage. The restaurant hierarchy can be a little murky but one thing is almost universally true, busboys and dishwashers may be on the bottom rung but the best managers always slide on the continuum between dishwasher/busboy and front of the house politico. Both Aaron and Ethan were on this continuum.

So the busboy I grab goes in and immediately comes out laughing, shaking his head to the left and right, saying “No, no, not me. Not me.”

Given that reaction, there was no way I was going in, so I went to get the manager on duty, Ethan, to tell him that the men’s room was a mess. I told him what had happened and who did it.

He lowered his head and simply said, “Fuck, not again.”

I was floored, “Whadda ya mean not AGAIN?!”

“Oh, he’s done this before.”

As he and I walked through the server station over to the men’s room, I had transitioned from sadness back to a fit of laughter.

Aaron walked by and tapped one of huddled busboys and signaled for him to follow. The poor guy put his head down as though he were being led to the gallows pole. They both went in and seconds later Aaron burst out of the bathroom laughing, “Dude, you gotta go in there, it’s everywhere! It’s like a shit sprinkler went off!” The poor busboy immediately followed Aaron, laughing just as hard.

They tried pushing me in there, but to no avail. The three of us laughing like high school students or leads in some Farrelly Brothers movie. Once we regained our composure we began to assume our respective positions.

In the absence of Tupelo Grill branded HAZMAT suits, Aaron and the busboy geared up in trash bags and rubber gloves to clean up while I stood sentry, directing men to the handicapped bathroom around the corner.  Before going into the DMZ that was now the men’s room, he asked someone to take the chair the guy sat on and remove it. The remaining two busboys couldn’t get to table 44 fast enough.

I left Tupelo Grill shortly after this crappy incident (seriously, how could you not see a pun coming) to begin a career as a cube dwelling, media drone and while I worked a couple of parties and a few shifts after, eventually the calls to fill in shifts stopped coming.

The last I had heard of Ethan was that he had developed a rather bad cocaine habit and was waiting tables somewhere downtown and Aaron was managing a hotel in China. Tupelo Grill has been re-branded as some Italian Place.

As for the guy who lost the gamble? I don’t know but I’d like to think that with the advances in adult diaper technology, I hope he is out there…and he is wearing them.

The Wild One, Forever

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN AND POSTED MAY 2011.
_____________________________________________________________________________________

The hours that were yours, echo like empty rooms
The thoughts we used to share, I now keep alone
I woke last night and spoke to you,
not thinking you were gone
It felt so strange to lie awake, alone
No Regrets
Tom Rush

So, here I find myself banging on the keyboard with the one woman who won’t leave me (mother’s don’t count), my cat Lulu. I am not saying she may not split if I let her out the front door, but she’d probably just go far enough to chase birds. Lulu and I share that in common, we both chase birds and both seem to end up in the same chair, alone, listening to all kinds of sad bastard music. Currently spinning on the digital Wurlitzer is the master of romantic verisimilitude, Tom Petty and his appropriately named Heartbreakers.

The X is still gone. She said she would think about what she wanted. I foolishly believe she may actually be doing it. Those of you who think I am a cynic or negative, I defy you to find someone with my degree of optimism. What cynic would really get back together with the woman who pounded on his  heart once before?

Here the Lu and I sit, listening and thinking. Sure, I hope she is thinking about the relationship and just how foolish her reasoning was for leaving, but the reality is in what she said and not in the tears she held back. “You’ll never be what I want you to be” followed by “I love you.” Seems conflicting doesn’t it? It’s not. I know she loved me. And this time around I felt it. But, I do think she sold the whole relationship short. Sometimes when you short the market you win (see Goldman Sachs) and sometimes you lose (see everybody else).

The truth is I never will be what she wants. Not out of malice or stubbornness, it’s just that the ideal person for her, or for anyone, does not exist. You love the whole person or you don’t. Love is all encompassing and not selective. You can’t pick what you love about someone any more than you can pick who you love. She doesn’t understand that…yet. She will. Yes, there is behavior I could have modified and changed. Most of it I probably would have over time. Could she say the same thing?

“They call you the wild one, said stay ‘way from her
Said she could love no one if she tried”
The Wild One, Forever
-Tom Petty

I met her four years ago at a friends birthday party. The funny thing about the party is that I knew no one. They were all up and coming comedians and I wasn’t. I had been drinking…a lot, and had forgone dinner in exchange for one more pint of Guinness.

It was about midnight when we finally met. I had spent most of the night talking to one girl thinking I could sweet talk her into coming home with me, but she flatly told me she would never date a white guy. She looked pretty irritated when I said “Who said anything about dating?” Furthermore, who says six hours of drinking removes any charm?

Now, I recall talking to her, but I have no recollection of any formal introduction and certainly had no idea what the hell I said. After meeting her, I remember three things. The first was when I was talking to her, my buddy who’s birthday it was called me over and literally said “be careful with that one dude”. I had no idea what he meant. The second thing I recall was drinking scotch on his roof and smoking a cigarette. And the third was going to a bar and closing it out. I remember not having any idea where I was and her offering for me to stay with her. OK, so that’s four things.

We’re all adults here, I think we can surmise what happened next, even if no one can recall it. In the morning, I tried to sneak out because I had a writing workshop to get to, but she convinced me to stay…well into the afternoon. As I was leaving, I got her phone number, wrote in on my hand because I had not yet grasped the idea of putting someone’s phone number DIRECTLY into my cell phone. I was on the fence as to whether I would call her.

I knew we worked for the same company, so I checked her work stuff out. Did the requisite Google searching and the like. I did a little internet recon (myspace, etc) and decided to email her at her work because, in what will come as no shock, the phone number got all mucked up with sweat and grease and was illegible by the time I got home. I emailed, she replied and we agreed to have dinner. Although she would come to admit later she almost bailed on that date.

Blah blah blah, we fall in love, we move in together, we fight, it goes poorly, she asks me to leave (it was her place), I leave but stay in the neighborhood because I naively think she will come to her senses. All of that happened in the span of about 14-15 months.

We broke up and I began acting out, like ya do. Mostly just drinking too much and going into some very dark places emotionally. Fortunately, I have good friends who pulled me out when it looked too dark. I eventually righted myself and moved on. It’s the only option. Well, it’s the only option I considered.

About 14-15 months go by and she initiates contact with me again after seeing a photo of me on my web site with my then girlfriend. You see, while she may not have wanted me, God forbid someone else want me. I was with someone, it was a fine relationship and I just wasn’t terribly interested in moving backwards in my life. She doggedly pursued me. “Let’s get coffee.” “What time are you taking the train in the morning?” , etc. In no great surprise, the relationship I was in spiraled downwards and I ended it…poorly.

“Baby, time meant nothing, anything seemed real
Yeah, you could kiss like fire and you made me feel
Like every word you said was meant to be
No, it couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me.”
Even the Losers
-Tom Petty

For the longest time, I read that song that HE was the loser and today for the first time it dawned on me that SHE was the loser. “No, it couldn’t have been that easy to forget about me”, for years that line never registered. And you know what? Today it sounded clearer than it ever had in the past 30 years.

So the X and I reconvened and do you care to guess how long Act II lasted? If you guessed 14-15 months, you would be correct.

The X attacked this second round of the relationship with a ferocity I had never known she had. She wanted me, me. She wanted a future with me. I, because I am an optimist, bought it hook line and sinker and am a sap. I believe in the power of love (damn you Huey Lewis and your News). I made it a little difficult at first because I had never gotten back together with someone after that amount of time and there was some blood under the bridge. Wrong girl at the right time, I suppose that about sums it up. But I was dumb enough to think she was the right girl at the right time.

I had said the only way that it would work is if we were honest…and we were. We talked openly and honestly about everything. I don’t think she withheld too much from me. It was good and more often than not it was great. We talked about kids, we talked about places we would go, things we would do. We made love, we had sex, we fucked. We laughed, we cried, we sat in silence. We did things, we didn’t do things. We had a relationship. Apparently, we were having two different relationships.

I’d by lying if I said it was all great. It wasn’t. We fought, sometimes viciously, but we always righted the boat. It would take one of us (usually it was me) to clear the air by clearing the head and putting perspective on what the real problem was. Intelligent discourse is something I can get on board with, even when it comes to emotions. Yes, it may take a day or two to get there.

It’s funny to think about it. I have been in love a few times and I have loved some terrific women. And everyone has “the one that got away”. Well, all things being fair, there is a reason why everything ends and time taints your ability to see those reasons. So in some cases, what we see as “the one that got away” may, in fact, just be the one that ended before it got tragic and sad.

I’ll end up some story the X tells her kids. The one about the older guy she dated and who “got away”, how “he was maybe a little much too handle, but he was good and treated me well. He really loved me.” She’ll tell her girls to not make the same mistake. And they will, we all do. She’ll tell her sons to treat their girlfriends the way I treated her and they will…and then they won’t. The circle will never be broken, it’s the way of this sort of thing.

In a previous post I had mentioned that my parents represent a spirit of rock and roll because they have stuck it out for almost 50 fucking years now! And no, maybe their relationship is not perfect (whose really is though) but they made the commitment to one another and come hell or high water they have slogged through it. And THAT says more than a thing or two to someone like me.

Here we are, about 16 months after our reconciliation (is it just me or is this 14-16 month thing a trend) and it’s done…again. I love her. That will never change. I want her. I desire her. I want her to want that with me. But she feels there is someone else out there who is going to fulfill her in some way I don’t. And I suspect that is true. I also suspect it will last for less than two years. I’m not entirely convinced she will ever know the meaning and value of what it means to be in love.

Love is what it is, a word. It’s the emotion behind it that defines the word. And unless you can understand and wrap your head around that emotion, love is, and will always be, just a word. Love is also the easiest part of a relationship.

The government has the military industrial complex and those outside government have its romantic equivalent, a relationship. Both are expensive to maintain, contradictory, invariably involve some degree of deceit and covert activity and always end with people getting hurt.

“You better watch what you say
you better watch what you do to me
don’t get carried away
Girl if you can do better than me
go…yeah, go
But remember, good love is hard to find,
good love is hard to find,
you got lucky babe
you got lucky babe, when I found you.”
You Got Lucky
-Tom Petty

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, pop star for the broken hearted. I mean really, the songs are unending, “Stop Draggin My Heart Around”, “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, “Straight Into Darkness”, etc. Some broads really put their hearts through the ringer.

The Lu and I sit and write and listen to the sounds of the people who could put this sort of thing to music. The type of music that resonates with everyone. Rock and roll knows A LOT about a couple of things and one of them is love and lost love.

The X is still gone and I don’t anticipate her return. I anticipate a call when she sees me with another woman or in 14-16 months, whichever comes first. Life is about choices and you can’t always make the right one. And with love, you never know if it’s right. You only know when it’s wrong.

Maybe I am just wrong for her. I’m no saint and I sure as hell am not the easiest guy to get along with, but I am real. I am always me. I stopped trying to be someone I wasn’t in my early 30’s. I don’t want to hurt anyone and I don’t want to hurt and I find that the easiest way to do that is to be honest. Honest with myself and honest with those close to me.

She has an ideal in her head, don’t we all? The X owes it to herself to see if that person exists. I never said she was the right one for me, did I? No, I simply know I want her. Big, big, BIG difference. I never promised I’d spend the rest of my life with her, that would be a lie. I know I WANT to, but I can’t say for certain. If I made that promise, rest assured that is what I would strive for, but to make it now would be a lie.

Who knows, maybe that Hollywood ending of true love forever exists for her. But my experiences, my friends experiences, every artists experiences, every musicians experiences, every writers experiences, tells me that love has more to do with work, compromise, acceptance, understanding, hurt, empathy, respect, pain, tenderness, support, understanding, laughter and ultimately sacrifice and so much much more. And all of those can change on the drop of a dime.

When you fall in love, and I mean true love, you strap yourself in, put your helmet on and go for the ride.

Lulu and I both share a love/hate relationship with birds. Both are bipeds, but one has literal wings and the other has figurative wings. I pine for them out in the word while pines for them through the window. While our desires are similar, something tells me our motivations are different.

Nonetheless, I think perhaps I will join the Lu and just look at them through the window for awhile.

“Birds”
Neil Young

Lover, there will be another one
Who’ll hover over you beneath the sun
Tomorrow see the things that never come
Today

When you see me
Fly away without you
Shadow on the things you know
Feathers fall around you
And show you the way to go

It’s over, it’s over.

Nestled
in your wings my little one
This special
morning brings another sun
Tomorrow
see the things
that never come

Today

When you see me
Fly away without you
Shadow on the things you know
Feathers fall around you
And show you the way to go

It’s over, it’s over.

Brooklyn Film Festival Review #4

Dragon Girls

According to Inigo Westmeier’s bio, the director of Dragon Girls, he has some serious cinematic chops. He studied at the Film Academy in Moscow, did his graduate studies at Baden-Wuttemberg Film Academy and even had a scholarship to study at the UCLA Extension Entertainment Studies Department. That’s not too shabby of a background in film studies.

Dragon Girls is his first feature film. Here is the synopsis of Dragon Girls:

Dragon Girls’ tells the story of three Chinese Girls, training to become Kung Fu Fighters, far away from their families at the Shaolin Kung Fu School, located right next to the Shaolin Monastery in Central-China, place of origin of Kung Fu.Three girls in a crowd of 26.000 children, under pressure to conform to the norms and structures: they are turned into fighting robots and yet, if you look behind the curtain, you see children with dreams and aspirations.

OK, seems interesting enough. I mean, I like documentaries and the idea of 26,000 students studying Kung Fu was moderately interesting. Right?

Wrong. From a purely narrative point of view, the idea was the only interesting thing.

After 65 minutes of Dragon Girls, about 60 if you count the two times I nodded off, I had a critical decision to make. The Clash said it best, “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. I sat there for a good five minutes wrestling with that. Certainly, I have an obligation to acknowledge the work of Westmeier and be respectful of it. There’s a responsibility to readers to provide a fairly objective review of the film. What to do, what to do. I finally decided I had been respectful enough and had enough information and decided to walk out.

In full disclosure, I did not pay to see Dragon Girls, so I walked out of a free movie. However, I can assure if I had paid for it, the result would have been the same. And to put this into perspective, the last movie I walked out of was Yentl, in 1983.

Over the past 30 years, I have seen tens of thousands of films, some painfully horrible, but I’ve always managed to push through them to find something worth watching. Not so with Dragon Girls. Simply put, I just didn’t care about the girls or anything that was happening on screen.

Making a documentary about paint drying would have more narrative structure than Dragon Girls. Apply the paint, watch it dry, and see the results. BAM, three acts.

Now, I am not going to say everything is bad with this film because that is not true. Westmeier was both the director and cinematographer and there are some stunning images and some fantastic wide shots of the students practicing. There are some terrific choreographed shots of the students as well. And if I had to judge Dragon Girls solely on aesthetics, it is above average.

Unfortunately for Westmeier, I have to consider narrative and this movie doesn’t have one. I found none of the students that were interviewed engaging enough to stick around to find out what happened. In short, I didn’t care.

Documentaries, as a genre, are not supposed to provide a thrill a minute. But, by and large, there is always a structure and some sort of narrative. In documentaries, almost more than in a narrative film; you need to care about someone or something. The film maker has to engage the viewer somehow. Regrettably, Dragon Girls has a serious lack of engagement and nothing to care about.

Westmeier, and his crew, should be applauded for the accomplishment of Dragon Girls. I can’t begin to imagine the logistical and political headaches that accompanied the shoot. China’s reputation as a militantly insular country and extremely confrontational nature with foreigners could not have made this feat easy. In fact, I’d bet that story would be infinitely more interesting than what I saw in Dragon Girls.

Unlike most people, I hate being too critical of someone’s creative work. Aside from some nice shooting, I just couldn’t find anything interesting about the story. Well, I found no story.

Dragon Girls clocks in at 90 minutes and is about 75 minutes too long.

Dragon Girls completed its run at the Brooklyn Film Festival on Thursday.

Originally published 6.7 on The WG News+Arts site.

Brooklyn Film Festival Review #3

Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes

Movies are about suspension of reality, well the best ones are. I can’t say that Francesca Gregorini’s film Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is one of the best ones but it is pretty damn good.

Here’s the synopsis:
Emanuel, a troubled girl, becomes preoccupied with her mysterious new neighbor, who bears a striking resemblance to her dead mother. In offering to babysit her neighbor’s newborn, Emanuel unwittingly enters a fragile, fictional world and becomes its gatekeeper.

Yep, it is your standard indie fare. Writer/Director Francesca Gregorini and Cinematographer Polly Morgan have created a deft ambiance that embraces the viewers like a well worm blanket. From the beginning, despite what happens, we know it’s going to eventually be OK.

The film is almost devoid of all modern appliances like smart phones, computers, and televisions. The only real signs of modernity are mass transit and one lone car, an old Volvo 240. Without the modern distractions, it lets us now that Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is about characters and story, there’s a novel idea.

One Sunday three or four years ago I went on a Netflix binge of the British drama “Skins” and was floored by all of the performances. As I poked around to find out who the hell this Kaya Scodelario, who plays Emanuel, was. I quickly discovered she was one of the leads on the British “Skins”. Turns out, the show was a breeding ground for extraordinary young talent, Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies, the Mad Max reboot, the upcoming X-Men, and yes, the kid from About a Boy), Joe Dempsie (HBO’s Game of Thrones), Dev Patel (HBO’s The Newsroom, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) are some of that cast that have since made the transition to Hollywood. I suspect we will soon be adding Scoldelario to that list.

In Gregorini’s Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes, Kaya Scodelario delivers a simply stunning performance as the 17 year old Emanuel. Here the British actress dons an American accent to play the snarky teen who struggles with her life because her mother died during her birth. While we’re introduced to her in voice over and this is a little silly. However, once we get by that, we can’t help but immediately be taken in by Emanuel’s charm. The voice over simply lets us know that we’re about to encounter a brash and snarky lead character.

As Emanuel, Scodelario plays her with empathy well beyond the characters 17 years, but it works. Again, it’s a movie, so we must suspend reality. Some of her laser sharp one liners are unbelievable, but her delivery allows us to shrug that off. The fact that we can ignore some of Emanuel’s aplomb is a compliment to both the performance and direction. As the namesake of the movie, she is in almost every scene and carries the story flawlessly. A story driven movie like this demands an exceptional performance and Kaya Scodelario does just that.

Jessica Biel is in the throes of a Hollywood trajectory that, unless she manages it well, could very easily erase the talent she has. Earning her wings (pardon the pun), and tabloid star, on the extremely under appreciated WB series “7th Heaven” she has gone on to star in a number of big Hollywood movies; the types of which punch lines and car explosions are more important than dialog. Like Ulee’s Gold and Elizabethtown before, Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is the type of character driven movie where Jessica Biel shines. Her performance here as Linda, the neighbor with the secret, shows exactly why she is in that Hollywood trajectory (I just hope it doesn’t land her on “Dancing with the Stars”).

When Linda first shows up, before she even utters a line, you notice her wardrobe. Biel is attractive to begin with but here the loose, flowing, beautiful and bohemian (apparently, the one product placement is Free People clothing…that’s a joke) clothes add to her natural beauty and add an element of ethereal quality to the character of Linda. Biel plays Linda like she wears the clothes, loose, earthy, real and beautifully.

Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes also stars Alfred Molina as Dennis, Emanuel’s father. Alfred Molina is Alfred Molina, he could read YouTube comments and I would pay attention. He’s brilliant. Always.

Perpetual scene stealer and all around go to guy for any genre, Jimmi Simpson plays Arthur, Emanuel’s dorky friend at her medical supply/pharmacy job. Here Simpson has shed his Liam Mcpoyle robe (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and is wearing his big boy clothes and his drama cap, along with his Warby Parkers. As Arthur, it is his job to  play the lone “bad” guy in the movie. And he is anything but a “bad guy”.

Arthur eventually goes on a date with Linda. At the end of this date, with Emanuel downstairs listening to the baby monitor, it is Arthur who tasked with informing Linda of just how crazy she is.

It’s a scene that works so well you’ll get cranky about how it emotionally disrupts you. In just a short time, you’re emotions will be righted again. It’s that warm blanket that Gregorini sets up early in the film coming to cover you. That little emotional pinball game is not easy to pull off and is evidence that everyone involved in this film brought their A game.

So, what is the truth about fishes? I honestly do not know. I’m flummoxed as to the metaphorical significance of the title. I’ll leave that for the smarter folks.

So what makes Emanuel so protective over Linda’s craziness? I’m not telling.

I will tell you Emanuel refuses to bond with her stepmother but has such a longing for a mother figure that she embraces Linda, who resembles her own mother. I will tell you Linda’s crazy is revealed fairly early as Emanuel and she are developing their friendship. Emanuel first ignores the crazy and then teeters on embracing it, completely cognizant that she is jeopardizing her own sanity.

The ending is exceptionally beautiful as both Emanuel and Linda are able to bury their respective pain and crazy. Indeed, the scenes leading to that beautiful moment once again require that suspension of reality, but if you can do that, you will be rewarded.

There is a scene shortly after the “crazy” reveal, and before the ending, between Emanuel and Dennis where he firmly says to her “Emanuel, you don’t know what is in other people’s hearts!” She quickly replies “No I don’t but I know what is in mine.” I know it sounds cheesy and in lesser hands than Molina and Scodelario’s it wouldn’t work. But Emanuel’s simple retort is so truly moving. It makes you wonder if only more people stopped trying to think about what others may think and may do and were focused on, and motivated by, what is in their own hearts, how much better off we would be.

Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is one of those films that no major studio would make. And that is sad. It’s one of those movies that movie buffs and saps, like me, tend to enjoy. It’s also one of those movies the re-charges me and makes me realize that there are really talented film makers like Francesca Gregorini out there creating. It’s one of those movies that force you to forget the dreck that some of these performers have been in and reminds you that they are where they are because they are talented (and not necessarily who they are married to). It’s one of those movies that, if you can, you should see.

Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes concluded its Brooklyn Film Festival run last night.

Published 6.5 on The WG News + Arts site.

Brooklyn Film Festival Review #2

A Series of Shorts: A different lens through which to see the world.

Now more than ever, we must look to artists to see the world through their eyes because it is often the artists who hold the mirror up to society and provide us with a different lens through which to see the world. And for those artists who choose to work in the short film or video genre, their vision is crucial for us to gain a better understanding of the human condition.

The short film genre gives artists a truly unencumbered opportunity to tell their story and sometimes, they even do. It may make viewers bored or even angry, or in some cases, both.

Sitting through ninety minutes of short films last night, I got seven very different perspectives and I was seldom bored or angry. I’m not sure they all hit the mark but more did than didn’t. Nonetheless, whatever my opinion is, or anyone else’s for that matter, one must recognize the determination and efforts of the seven artists whose films I saw last night.

So here are the seven films I saw last night in the order they were shown:

Superf*ckers: Burger Brothers
Director: Fran Krause

I have to say this was a huge disappointment for a variety of reasons. One, this is part of a funded YouTube Channel series. Two, it is egregiously unfunny. Three, excessive use of coarse language; as anyone who knows me can attest, I actually enjoy that kind of language…when it serves the story or plays to a joke. Here it does not. At all. Four, I’m not even sure what the f*ck Superf*ckers was all about…other than sucking 240,000 milliseconds from my life.

Crappy content aside, I’m a little unclear why a short that already has a distribution channel in place (a funded YouTube Channel) would be part of the festival. I had it in my head that film festivals, especially short films, were about recognizing talent and not building brands.

PlayPals
Director: Yianni Warnock

With hardly any dialog at all, this Australian short pokes fun at the vacuous nature and emotional immaturity that is often attributed to men. In just 11 minutes, we get pretty much the story of what men like to do: walk around without pants, masturbate, be bored, ignore dishes and hygiene, fight, watch TV and have a singing fish on a wall. The only thing missing was a picture of Dogs Playing Poker, but perhaps that isn’t as popular in Australia.

Of course, the two guys watching TV devolves into a slap fight and wrestling match, not in any sort of homoerotic sense, just two guys who punch each other to see who can hit the hardest. It’s silly, fun and completely pointless.

Aesthetically, this short was spot on. The look, the characters, the setting, the feel and almost complete lack of dialog reminded me of a Wes Anderson film, in all the best ways. The two actors, Shane Gregory Gardiner and Peter Flaherty, resembled a chubby bearded Jason Lee and Zach Galifianakus respectively, played the roles perfectly and without their girth, I don’t think this short would have been as effective.

PlayPals captures the loneliness that often accompanies such infantile behavior and it’s that loneliness that adds a much needed depth and overall sadness to the short.

Eat
Director: Moritz Krämer

Annnnnd, this is the German art house short of the group. This is to say it was kind of funny, looked brilliant but was pretty odd overall. Less narrative driven than the other films in the group but that actually works in favor of the film.

Skinny model gets a break from a photo shoot, retreats to her dressing room to find that everything in the room is edible, from the lipstick to the wall. Skinny model then pulls her lower lip over her entire body and retreats into some sort of cocoon.

Eat just left me scratching my head wondering what the point was. Admittedly, this is not the first time I’ve been left befuddled by a German film so I can’t say for certain whether my reaction would have been different if it was shown with a group of like minded shorts. It could easily just be German films in general.

The Places Where We Lived
Director: Bernardo Britto

Opening on a Japanese man reciting some sort of diary entry and then leading into a montage of demolition footage was certainly interesting. Once the animation took over and the actual narrative began to take shape, The Places Where We Lived really began to shine.

I just re-read the synopsis “A man wakes up with a terrible feeling. His parents are selling his childhood home”. I have to say that point was lost on me. Nonetheless, there were some laugh out loud moments here because it was so often awkward and funny. In both style and substance, it reminded me of the animated series “Dr. Katz”, and that is a good thing.

Are We Not Cats
Director: Xander Robin

Imagine if David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch decided to collaborate on a short film. I think you’d find they would create something like Are We Not Cats. You don’t believe me? Read the synopsis “A welder discovers his eccentric girlfriend eating his hair subconsciously as they take a truck drive to an abandoned resort.

Only it’s not so subconscious when, post coital, she coughs up a giant hair ball.

In the hands of writer/director Xander Robin (seriously, if Lynch and Jarmusch had a kid, I’ve no doubt it would be named Xander) actors, Michael Patrick and Kelsea Dakota shine in this quirky little story.

The Amateurs
Director: Kai Gero Lenke

For me, this was both a missed opportunity and a messy short. I think the subject matter, two adolescent boys who know sex only through internet porn, is one ripe for satire, drama or comedy but unfortunately, The Amateurs is none of those.

Writer/Director Kai Gero Lenke clearly has something to say, and reminds me of Todd Solondz, and it could be interesting. Unfortunately, the performances are so bad here that whatever the point is it is completely lost. Lenke, and cinematographer Markus Englmair, certainly capture the barren look Solondz has mastered, but sadly, it’s the actors that dragged this piece down.

I don’t want to say this short is appropriately titled, but it is.

Having said that, something tells me we will hear more from Kai Gero Lenke and I look forward to that.

Chaser
Director: Sal Bardo

In high school I got sick and was out of school for a month. My mother would drive me to the video store every few days to pick up movies to watch. On one of these trips I picked up William Friedkin’s 1980 thriller Cruising with Al Pacino. I had no idea what that movie was about until I started to watch it. It’s a pretty tough film to watch in many ways.

Sal Bardo’s Chaser is equally as tough to watch, and in the wrong hands, the subject matter would seem just gratuitous. Thankfully, writer/director Bardo and actor Max Rhyser, as Zach, are so incredibly talented it is anything but gratuitous.

Look, I could easily write an entire article on this film alone, but I won’t.

I will say this is the film in this series that holds that mirror up to society.

The synopsis reads “Alienated from his conservative Jewish family and culture, a promising, young, gay schoolteacher seeks solace in the barebacking community.” Now, that sense of alienation from his family came across, in this context, as sort of self imposed. Does Zach have a sense of self loathing? It would seem so.

In one telling scene Zach is teaching his class and engaging one of his students to explain to him why the character in his homework is a “cutter”. The student’s explanation foreshadows what Zach subjects himself to in that “barebacking community.”

OK, on that note, it seems absolutely unfathomable to me that in this day and age there would actually be such a thing as a “barebacking community”. But it is portrayed so incredibly benignly and believably that I have no doubt it exists. In less adept hands this portrayal of that community would have overshadowed the more powerful component. And that is what Zach subjects himself to.

Despite the brutal depiction of Zach’s self hatred, this short ends on an optimistic note. Which seems counter intuitive to what you just witnessed, but both Bardo and Rhyser have the skills to really make it believable.

Chaser is the best of what short films should be; thought provoking, eye opening and reflective of the community we live in.

Watching short films is a hit or miss endeavor and, for the most part, this particular line up hits more than it misses.

This line up screens again tomorrow Wednesday June 5 at 10:30pm at indieScreen.

I would encourage you to go. All of these film makers have something to say and a couple of them, notably Sal Bardo, are actually keeping the short film genre relevant.

Published 6.5 on The WG News+Arts site.

Loyalty and honesty.

“We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson

After completing my evening chores last night I decided to watch a little television. Not in the mood for anything too thought provoking and not having a strong desire to sit through a marathon dramatizing the raping and pillaging of New York City via Dick Wolf, I scrolled through the bagillion stations. It was 9pm, so I knew I had to act quickly as shows were just beginning. Buried deep down, on the Palladia Network, I noticed a documentary about British metal gods Iron Maiden called Iron Maiden: Flight 666. I like music so I shrugged my shoulders and decided to give it a try.

Growing up Iron Maiden wasn’t really my kind of music. I tend to go for the more visceral rock and roll stuff. My heavy metal tastes were practically nonexistent. For me, Iron Maiden always seemed geared for the Dungeons & Dragons set and I didn’t run with that crowd. Come to think of it, that crowd didn’t run with that crowd, there was no running at all. They simply sat in their own suburban dungeons playing the game. Nonetheless, the lone rock station in town played a few songs and I grew to like those songs and there ended my interest in Iron Maiden. Until last night.

The premise of Iron Maiden: Flight 666 is pretty simple. A documentary crew follows the band over 45 days, 23 shows in 11 countries accounting for almost 50,000 flying miles, filming the first leg of their 2008 World Tour. Right away I thought that was a pretty aggressive itinerary but the absolutely fascinating part is that the band chartered a 757, dubbed Ed Force One, to carry all of their equipment and crew allowing them to tour more efficiently.

The logistics of a world tour are immediately streamlined when you are responsible for all of it. But to find out that the lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, was the pilot of the 757 made me giggle with glee. Its one thing to be the lead singer and responsible for 20,000 peoples enjoyment during a live show and then entirely another to be responsible for that and then responsible for 70+ peoples lives as they travel to the next date.

If ever there were a renaissance man for rock and roll, it would have to be Bruce Dickinson. In fact, in 2009 Intelligent Life Magazine named him a living example of a polymath (someone who’s an expert in a significant number of diverse subjects). Here in the states, we’d probably have someone like that medicated and label him ADHD. In addition to being the lead singer to one of the more successful metal bands in history, he holds an airline transport license, owns aircraft maintenance business Cardiff Aviation Ltd., served as Marketing Director for Astreus Airlines, for eight years was a DJ on BBC radio station 6 and for four years on BBC Radio 2, wrote two novels about a character he named Lord Iffy Boatrace, a semi-transvestite British land owner (yea, they were published and successful), is an avid fencer and owns Duellist, a fencing retailer. I’m sure I am leaving some stuff out, but clearly, Dickinson is more than just a rock singer.

Now, for the cynics out there who say that rock and roll is dead, after watching Iron Maiden: Flight 666, I don’t think that is the case. It may be in a deep coma and on life support, but dead it is not. Seeing how fans reacted to Iron Maiden in South America is truly overwhelming. Seriously, the scenes from Costa Rica, Chile, Argentina and Brazil are insane…and I don’t mean fans at the shows, I’m referring to the fans waiting outside the airports and hotels.

Iron Maiden has been together for well over 30 years! These guys are not 20 something hipsters, they’re all over 50 and they look it. Not in a bad way, they look like quite normal guys, aside from the hair and tattoos. In other words, no plastic surgery, no liposuction, no personal trainers, no bizarre rituals to maintain youth (unless you count drummer Nicko McBrain’s post concert ritual of eating pizza).

Rock and roll means something to the people in those countries.

In one particularly poignant scene from the Costa Rican concert (I think), they cut to a fan that had caught a drumstick from Nicko McBrain. This fan cradled that drumstick and was crying. The camera slowly moved in on him as he wiped away his tears. The shot stayed on him just long enough so that one could comprehend what that drumstick meant to him. Clearly, this was more than just a drumstick.

Of course, Iron Maiden’s music is the reason they still play arenas and stadiums around the world. However, to get that kind of reaction from fans means it has to go deeper than just the music.

From what I saw in the documentary, it is Iron Maiden’s commitment to honesty and loyalty that makes them one of the more relevant bands today. It’s that honesty and loyalty to their music and their fans that, 30 years on, still shines. That’s the reason that guy cried while he cradled the drumstick.

In the past 50 years, virtually every country in South America has witnessed a revolution or been bled dry by their leaders under the guise of the “free market” or culturally and economically screwed by multinational corporations or the IMF or The World Bank or drug lords or some combination of all of those.

As that guy cradles that one drumstick, isn’t it possible that one stick of wood represents a symbol of life, of hope?

There is no rhyme or reason why some things resonate with some people and not with others. For me, Iron Maiden songs are lyrically too verbose and reference things I have no interest in; and the music is undoubtedly amazing and technically flawless but strikes me as lacking emotion. I don’t have the visceral reaction to Iron Maiden that I get from, say, Pearl Jam. I certainly don’t think one is better than the other, it’s just my preference. And then it struck me why Maiden remains so popular. The integrity that Pearl Jam projects to me is the same for Iron Maiden fans.

Seeing the band behind the scenes made me realize how real they truly are. They appeared to be genuine guys who just really love life, their life. There were no shots of mansions, glitzy hotels, groupies or ridiculous parties. No in your face “we’re rich rock stars”, aside from the 757, but when the whole crew is on board and the lead singer is the pilot it sorta negates any envy. No temper tantrums. Oh, I’ve no doubt some of that stuff happens, they are rock stars after all. But you know what? It happens to everybody, regardless of job profession.

Iron Maiden: Flight 666 is really a documentary of the band as people. And you know what? They seem to be really nice people! It in no way appeared to be an act for the cameras either. All six members come across as really solid average blokes. In addition to the already covered Dickinson, bassist and Maiden founder, Steve Harris travels with his family, drummer Nicko McBrain and guitarist Dave Murray are avid golfers, guitarist Adrian Smith is a tennis player, guitarist Janick Gers is a bit of a wanderer. All in all, they appear to be pretty normal and well grounded guys.

But their honesty is just part of it; their commitment to each other is amazing. Of course, being in a band for 30 years, there is some strife. And while I am certain it still exists within the band, thankfully, this film left it out. What it showed was how loyal the band is to one another. It’s fairly obvious they are not all the best of friends, but they seem to have found a way to travel and work with one another without seemingly sacrificing too much in the process.

They’re loyal to their crew. I’m fairly certain I didn’t see a crew member under 40, which tells me they’ve probably been together awhile.

They are loyal to their music, bassist Harris is seemingly the keepsake. He, along with current producer Kevin Shirley, maintain the loyalty of the Iron Maiden sound, which has remained consistent throughout their career.

They are loyal to their fans. As guitarist Adrian Smith tells it, (I’m paraphrasing here) “If I am outside and you want an autograph or photo, fine, I get it, that’s part of my job. I’m happy to do it.”

More tellingly, they have had the same manager, Rod Smallwood, since 1979. Now THAT speaks volumes to the character of the band. How many bands have catapulted their managers once they achieve fame? How many have fired managers as a result of either their own greed or the managers greed? How many managers take on more than one client and then wait for one to hit and then give themselves totally to that artist?

Forget rock and roll, in ANY industry, to find that kind of allegiance from either side is rare. But BOTH sides? And to think that doesn’t get noticed by fans is foolish. Trust me, we notice and it resonates with us because that kind of loyalty manifests itself in the way the band operates, both professionally and artistically.

Honesty and loyalty, in the world outside Iron Maiden, has been trumped by deceit and self interest. Corporations prove time and time again they’ve no loyalty (forget about honesty) to their employees. Employees have no loyalty to the companies they work for because they know the companies have no loyalty to them. Employees have no loyalty to one another because they either want to keep their job or get ahead, not realizing the game is fixed against them. It’s pretty shitty all around.

It’s no wonder we continue to spiral down the rabbit hole toward a revolution.

Just imagine if corporations respected their workers enough to be loyal, to be honest, treat them accordingly and share in their riches? Imagine if employees felt valued? Imagine if employees cared enough for one another to help them achieve their goals?

After watching Iron Maiden: Flight 666, I can’t say I saw any evidence of the band being cognizant of their seeming dedication to honesty and loyalty. From what I saw, it appears to be just part of who they are, its part of each member’s genetic code. It also doesn’t appear to be part of an agenda or PR stunt.  They are just good guys. Sometimes it is that simple.

It’s these traits, and their artistry, that allow them to keep their long time fans and speak to new fans. It’s the reason Bruce Dickinson remarks “Our audience keeps getting younger, not older.” I might submit they keep getting younger because you can’t lie to kids because they haven’t ingested some of the cynicism that comes with age. If music is Iron Maiden’s spoken bond with their fans, their dedication to truth and honesty is the unspoken bond.

Now look, I’m no dummy. I’m aware this was a movie and it’s supposed to paint them in the best light possible. They’re also rock stars, so I suspect there is some dark shit hiding in each of their closets. Regardless, if you are not a good person there is no amount of editing or post production shimmery that can hide that. If you are an asshole, it eventually shows up.

As a band and as individuals, the Iron Maiden organization appears to be asshole free and built around five really good people. I suspect when they formed the band their intention was not to serve as some sort of beacon of light to truth and honesty, but 30+ years on, they are. Thankfully.

This is a sentence I never thought I would write, but here it is:

The world needs more Iron Maiden.

Hot Dogs and Hamburgers

“The secret of the man who is universally interesting is that he is universally interested.”
– William Dean Howells

I love John Mellencamp. In the mid 1980’s, after he had shaken the God awful Johnny Cougar moniker, he proved himself to be a brilliant, socially conscious American singer/songwriter on par with Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

To me, he was the definitive songwriter, more than Springsteen and Dylan. I worshiped the guy. During my senior year of high school, as I was facing an out of school suspension for a retaliatory orange throwing incident, I quoted Mellencamp’s “You’ve Got To Stand For Something” off Scarecrow. My father and I were negotiating some sort of equitable punishment for returning fire with said comestible and I was becoming more and more irritated with Vice Principal Durnbaugh’s firm footing that I admit complete guilt. I said “Fine, give me the out of school suspension. I didn’t DO anything and you’ve got to stand for something or you’re going to fall for anything.” In my head, it made complete sense and was pure genius. How could I possibly be punished after throwing that bit of genius down on the table? The two adults in the room just stared vacantly at me.*

While my musical tastes have certainly changed over the years, from an early 90’s dalliance in Brit Pop to a heavy grunge addiction to a deep exploration of the Americana movement of the mid to late 1990’s, I have always found Mellencamp a reliable home base when I needed to reconnect with what matters most to me, honesty. While he is not an overtly personal songwriter, Mellencamp writes extraordinarily well crafted honest social commentary, disguised as songs, about the trials and tribulations of what it is to be a working American.

Over the weekend, I read that on June 4th Ghost Brothers of Darkland County will be released. His first foray into musical theater, written with Stephen King and music production by T-Bone Burnett. I streamed a few songs and found them to be exceptional with an audio aesthetic on par with the more recent T-Bone Burnett productions. Now, while I suspect the content of the musical is probably too dark to ever make it to the Disneyfied Great White Way of Broadway, one can hope. In any event, in honor of the upcoming release, I’ve spent the past few days re-visiting my Mellencamp home base. While there, I noticed something. Something I knew all along but this time it clicked differently.

John Mellencamp has been in the “Serious Business” of music for well over 30 years now and it wasn’t until “Pink Houses” that people began to notice there was a more political side to him. He wasn’t just an ill tempered artist from Indiana, he was actually an insightful and intelligent wordsmith. With the release of  Scarecrow in 1985, he captured to tone of America and he got pissed. With Scarecrow John Mellencamp all but stood in the center of a mid-western wheat field and screamed “SHIT IS FUCKED UP!”

For most of my adult life through today, he continues to chronicle the plight of the average American. Mellencamp is still active in Farm Aid, an annual benefit for American farmers (to date they’ve raised over 40 million dollars used to pay the farmer’s expenses and provide food, legal and financial help, and psychological assistance). And he is still singing about how you and I are getting screwed. All these years on and he’s still standing in the wheat field screaming “SHIT IS STILL FUCKED UP!

Oh sure, he’s a rock star and probably has a fair amount of money. Although with three divorces and five children, I’m not entirely sure how that’s possible. Invariably, cynics and critics will grouse and grumble saying “Oh, he’s just another rich lefty rock singer”. Fuck ’em, let ’em bitch and moan.

He’s an artist and like any good artist he’s done what he’s supposed to do; hold a mirror up to society and provide social commentary. John Mellencamp just happens to be talented enough that he can place his observations into well crafted songs that people like. He worked hard to achieve his success, he continues to work hard. He’s extraordinarily gifted and undeniably in tune with what it is to be American and some of the inherent struggles that entails.

You’d think that over the course of his career that things would have changed, that they would have gotten better. You’d think that maybe John Mellencamp could stop doing Farm Aid, maybe write some ridiculously happy songs about harmony and equality and finally come in from the wheat field after screaming “SHIT’S OK NOW!“.

Well, you’d be wrong to think that.

All you need to do is look at the facts:

  • The Gini Index, or Gini Coefficient, used by economists to measure inequality within nations designates a score of zero as perfect economic equality and a score of one (1.0) being perfect economic inequality. The most recent Gini calculation (2005-2010) has the United States with a Gini index of .47, a 20% rise in income disparity over the past 40 years. A .47 Gini index is on par with both Mexico and the Philippines.(1)
  • The total business revenue of the top 200 corporations in the Unites States has risen from 21% in 1950 to 32% in 2009.
  • The six largest bank holding companies (JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley – some of which had different names) had assets equal to 64% of the U.S. gross domestic product (as of third quarter 2010).(1)
  • A confidential 2006 Citigroup memo claimed America had become a modern-day plutonomy where “economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few”.(1)
  • In 2011, Advertising Age concluded “Mass affluence is over” and the top 10% of Americans account for nearly half of all consumer spending.(1)
  • Economist Timothy Smeeding states “Americans have the highest income inequality in the rich world and over the past 20–30 years Americans have also experienced the greatest increase in income inequality among rich nations.”(2)
  • Data from tax returns show that the top 1 percent of households received 8.9 percent of all pre-tax income in 1976. In 2008, the top 1 percent share had more than doubled to 21.0 percent.(3)
  • Between 1947 and 1972, the average hourly wage, adjusted for inflation, rose 76 percent. Since 1972, by contrast, the average hourly wage has risen only 4 percent.(3)
  • Economist Jeffery Sachs developed a commercialism index to judge the advanced nations on how commercialized their media and cultures were and then compared that to overall public well-being and the common good. The United States topped the list as the most commercialized and most socially backward. (1)

If you are anything like me, you are acutely aware of how fucked up things are. Continuing to list facts about inequality becomes an exercise in futility. And it’s not just here in the states, you can see this growing influence around the world.

I’d like to believe that no one is naive enough to think that John Mellencamp, or any artist, has all or even some of, the answers. Hell, even Mellencamp admits as much “I’m using my art to comment on what I see. You don’t have to agree with it.”

For the majority of his career, he has been showing us time and time again how screwed up America is while still maintaining his pride in being an American. He’s been able to infiltrate our ears, our minds and our hearts with his observations. John Mellencamp is doing what artists do best, getting us to think.

For the majority of his career I’ve just enjoyed the music and agreed with the observations. But this week something changed, something clicked and the question I’m left thinking is, what are we prepared to do to change the course?

If you believe
Won’t you please raise your hands
Let’s hear your voices
Let us know where you stand
Don’t shout from the shadows
Cause it won’t mean a damn
“Now More Than Ever”

– John Mellencamp

Sources:
1 – http://tinyurl.com/cubm2e4
2 – http://tinyurl.com/2o3hb8
3 – http://tinyurl.com/7xmtqh5

* – I acquiesced to long term Saturday school punishment after my fathers argument that an out of school suspension would have damaged my college eligibility. With a 1.9 GPA, I’m not sure how much more damaging it could have been.

Digital Pet Rocks

“The challenge is to manage the Web in an open way-not too much bureaucracy, not subject to political or commercial pressures.
– Tim Berners Lee

The Internet was developed to communicate. It was not created to be a media tool. When we speak of “new media” that is not the Internet or the Web. That refers to the companies that populate the Web. And many of them seem superfluous. This  transmogrification from what the Web was in the beginning to what it is now, and the even more frightening thought of what it will be in the future, should be alarming to all of us.

I recently read an article comparing the Internet with the advent of the automobile. Both are revolutionary and  with them came the idea that they would free America. Cars were to be the thing that brought America together, made us one, yadda yadda yadda. The same pitch was given about the Internet.

One hundred years later, no one can deny the importance of the automobile but at what price? The automobile business, and its ancillary industries, has killed millions of people, oil has been the source of countless wars, both covert and overt, toppled democracies and propped up dictatorships and on and on. What will they say about the Internet in 100 years?

Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, the internet was created by hippies. Free thinking and idealistic individuals who didn’t, and still don’t, want the legacy of their creation to be in hands of soulless individuals, also known as corporations. Its original purpose, to serve as a free and open source communication tool, is being hacked away at by corporate monoliths who have no intention of keeping the Web free and open. They want to strangle and subjugate it. The corporations have but one goal, to capitalize on it and reap the most revenue to boost that line item on their quarterly reports. We’re not there yet and we can’t end up there.

We all know the internet is huge. How huge? Tough to say for sure but one could easily make the argument that it represents Moore’s Law…on steroids. For those of us that happen to believe in democracy AND capitalism (and yes, those things are, or should be, completely independent of one another but lately they seem to be one and the same), as big as the Web keeps getting, the smaller it seems to become. You see, corporations are beginning to realize how to strangle the Web and monetize it and we are letting them. For example, the top 10 web sites account for 75% of all pageviews in the United States(1) and of the top 10 web sites only one (Wikipedia) is not built off a profit driven model.(2)

Because of the Internets rapid expansion and the myopic pace of government and partisan politicking, lawmakers couldn’t figure out how to regulate it. Actually, they still can’t. So, in the words of famed free market economist Milton Friedman, the government chose to “Let the market decide.” Given more and more media consolidation and the corporate expansion into “new media” coupled with their powerful lobbying arm, who do you think benefits, at this point, from any potential regulation of the Internet?

I have nothing against making money. In fact, I quite like it. What I take umbrage with is the Internet turning into a place where the sole purpose of creating an Internet business is to be bought out by one of the bigger Internet companies (we all recall the Internet bubble bursting, so IPO’s are out and Acquisitions are in). In and of itself, I firmly believe access to that creative freedom of the Web is awesome. The one simple and great truth about the Internet is that it completely democratizes creativity and if you can make a buck at it, great. But I see so many start ups and think “Why is this necessary?” And, more often than not, they are not necessary. They’re nothing more than digital pet rocks.

In the latest issue of Wired Magazine, they highlight some of the start ups that are located around the Wired SF offices. Among them are Wcities (spent some time on the site and while I consider myself pretty Internet smart, I can not determine what they do but they have some blue chip partners/clients), Cloud Prime (A cloud messaging service, which marries big buzz “cloud” with instant messaging…yea, don’t see the relevance of that, but I do see an acquisition in their future – SalesForce anyone?), Grockit (online test preparation…um, how did the more established companies miss the boat on this one?). Frankly, it’s worrisome that some of the best minds today are creating these types of companies. Wouldn’t it be a lot cooler if some of these minds put some of that intelligence to helping keep the Internet open by building services and/or tools that benefit all of us? For free?

Franco Berardi writes “At a certain point in the development of the application of intelligence to production, the capitalist model becomes a paradigmatic cage, constraining intelligence in the form of wages, discipline and dependence.”(3) The creation of many of these digital pet rocks were to gain entry into the Internets “capitalistic paradigmatic cage”. More simply, the Internet is slowly turning into one giant free market Pac Man game where start ups are built for the sole purpose of being gobbled up by Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook or Microsoft.

Can the Internet be saved? Yes, but only if we want to save it. The Web is big enough that it can house both corporate concerns and serve as a model of democracy. That’s on us as users to make happen. Admittedly, saving the Internet requires work. Every last one of us is stretched so thin on time, energy and patience (thanks to being slaves to feed corporatism…and ourselves), it then becomes how to fit the necessary work into our schedules. Allow me to submit a few ideas:

  • Be more discreet with the tools you use.
  • Share less. Please.You are only hurting yourself and helping them.
  • Spend less time on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Don’t be so quick to hop on the latest digital trend or social media application.
  • Create your own web site using a free service (yes, like WordPress. Yes, they gather data on usage but are transparent.)
  • Read a book.

To the entrepreneurial minded, instead of looking to the short game for a quick pay day, why not play the long game and create to change? We’re right around the corner from a day when the monolithic corporations simply won’t let you create business’ as easily as you can now. Soon, very soon, unless we change direction, that low barrier to entry we all love about the Web won’t be there. It will be too costly for any Tom, Dick or Harriet to start a business. But also, wouldn’t it be a lot cooler to think about how to make things better for everyone and not just how can to create something Google will buy from me?

Stop making digital pet rocks.

In and of themselves, these simple tactics independently won’t crush or alter the growing corporatization of the Web. However, cumulatively, they will have an impact on the two things corporations are most concerned about with the Internet, data and revenue.

Look, I understand this is a gross over simplification of a very complex concern, but unless we change the direction of the Internet it will become just another media outlet for multinational corporations to repress and retard our thinking. From where I sit, there is already way too much of that.

A sledgehammer is to the totalitarian government as media is to a democracy.  The Internet is the last bastion of democracy. Let’s make sure it stays that way.

References:
1- http://tinyurl.com/cvemeg2
2- http://tinyurl.com/6c53k5b
3- http://tinyurl.com/cqbgbkf

The Lowdown on an Upright Citizen: Comedian Anthony Apruzzese

From the April 15, 2013 Williamsburg Greenpoint News + Arts:

Showtime3

The Lowdown on an Upright Citizen: Comedian Anthony Apruzzese

by
Keith R. Higgons

Comedy is as much a part of the DNA of Brooklyn as country music is of Nashville. The list of comedians who have called Brooklyn home reads like a history lesson of the hysterical: Mel Brooks, Larry David, Woody Allen, Jackie Gleason, and current late night warriors Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, among countless others. Hoping to one day count himself among those names is Williamsburg resident Anthony Apruzzese. He is currently blazing a trail in the super competitive world of comedy with his improvisation/theater/sketch late night talk show at the Upright Citizens Brigade East Theater called Showtime with Anthony Apruzzese.

READ MORE AT THE WG BY CLICKING BELOW:

WG logo

New Yorker Cartoons Debunked April 8, 2013

header_logo

” Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.”
– Noam Chomsky

I have lived in New York City for years now and I am still not sure whether reading The New Yorker makes me a snob, an egg head douche, an old fart, someone keenly interested in good, albeit somewhat snotty, writing by east coast blue bloods ivy league twats or just someone who wants to have a look at what is going on in the area. But one thing I DO know is that the cartoons they scatter throughout the mag are sometimes odd, sometimes interesting and sometimes so wildly esoteric that if you admit you don’t understand it, you feel dumb and if you admit you do understand it you are more than likely lying.

For years, I found the cartoons just plain silly, but over the past few years, for whatever reason,  I have begun to understand them. I think. At the very least I have been able to apply some semblance of my life view to them which has allowed me to enjoy them a little more. When all is said and done though, I think the cartoons represent, what I can only presume, is The New Yorker’s demographic. Which from what I can tell is somewhat educated (both traditional and non-traditionally educated), white, middle class and above, left leaning folks.

I selected a few cartoons from this weeks issue (April 8, 2013) and provide a couple of different interpretations.

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LOVE, Part 1

bed

 Interpretation #1 – Marriage and relationships are hard, regardless of gender preference. So anytime you through two people together in close quarters they are bound to fight and sometimes the distance manifests itself in the boudoir. My guess is the illustrator was trying to show that it has been 97 days since the last intimate contact took place in that bedroom. 

 Interpretation #2 – A less likely interpretation would be that the illustrator was making a statement about a serial sex offender in recovery. This interpretation carries less weight as it seems anathema to the New Yorker’s high brow humor approach.

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LOVE, Part 2

lifeTHE CAPTION: “Boy, I hope we never end up like this.”

 Interpretation #1 –The illustrator, without showing the contents of the plate, is indicating that all the food has flooded into each other, making a statement about gentrification by stripping each food of its plate independence. The joke being that the woman hopes she doesn’t loose her independence while being in this relationship.

 Interpretation #2 –The couple is dinning at a cannibal themed restaurant.

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 Cost Efficiency

spoon

THE CAPTION: “The hotel is full, but I’ll see if I can work out a spooning arrangement for you.” 

Interpretation #1 –In an effort to cut costs, big hotel chains are now randomly pairing up people to accommodate more travelers. As the “spooning” comment indicates, all the rooms with two double beds must be full leaving just the rooms with king size beds. Rather than turn the road weary traveler away, and loose the revenue, he offers the new “spoon” package.

 Interpretation #2 –The hotel clerk has placed secret cameras in one room and is in the process of filming an adult orientated “spoon” fetish series for Cinemax.


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Capitalism, Part 1

capital

THE CAPTION: “It may be the rood of all evil, but it’s also the root of all this.”

Interpretation #1 – A wealthy, guilt ridden, left leaning corporate 1%’er tries to rationalize his accomplishments to his cube dwelling 99%’er college buddy.

 Interpretation #2 –The guy is just a dick.

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Capitalism, Part 2

lackey

THE CAPTION: “This is Abramson, our new pinata.”

Interpretation #1 – Abramson is the new corporate HR executive or PR executive, either way, his future looks grim.

 Interpretation #2 – Abramson is the token new state university recruit at the all virtually all ivy league Goldman Sachs, in which case he may, in fact, literally end up a pinata. 

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Doctors

dr

THE CAPTION: “It’s either conjunctivitis or twin pools of desire .”

Interpretation #1 –A favorite source of humor for The New Yorker, doctors. This is an attempt at trying to find the lighter side of medical practitioners. Clearly, the doctor knows what it is.

 Interpretation #2 –The doctor is making a pass at the patient.

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Millenials

process

THE CAPTION: “Nobody asked me about my process.”

Interpretation #1 –Millennials are often keen to extol what they do and how they got there in order to receive as many accolades as possible. Completely oblivious to the fact that no one may even care.

 Interpretation #2 –Actually, I am pretty sure that is whats happening here, the only thing missing are the tattoos.

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Nostalgia

noogie

THE CAPTION: The Noogie Kings

Interpretation #1 –The offspring of the original Noogie Patrol.

 Interpretation #2 – What became of Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels.

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Racism

catTHE CAPTION: “Look who’s moved in next door.”

Interpretation #1 –A guarded, yet clever, approach to the undercurrent of racism that permeates New York, and most communities across the country. The two fish represent the ruling white class while the cat in the fishbowl represents every non-white. A bold statement New Yorker, well playedwell played.

 Interpretation #2 –The fish represent every non-white culture and the cat represents the pending gentrification of their communities.

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Esoteric

bearsInterpretation #1 – Bullying is the premise here. You’ll notice there is only one seat available for the bear to fish through the sun roof and with the neighborhood bear bully on his way over,  either the other bear is coming over to rob him of his catch and/or chase him away from his fishing spot. Either way, it looks like the sitting bear is going to have his paws full.

 Interpretation #2 – A sublime statement about global warming because bears are usually hibernating during winter, so the image infers, despite the snow, that it may not be winter. As the bears are ice fishing, this is presumably a pointed remark about climate change.

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2013 Goals

“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”
– Aristotle

Recently, I had my 2012 performance review with my supervisor and it went strikingly well. I mean I’m not shocked, they usually go pretty well. Despite the accolades and praise, the fact that my “merit increase” is less than any sort of applicable cost of living increase negates any sort of verbal praise (and I’d hate to see how lower ranked colleagues fared). Sure, it beats not having a job and it beats a sharp stick in the eye (most definitely) it was still pretty sad, not quite as sad as the reason I was given, but more on that next time.

Nonetheless, I thought some of my personal goals for 2013 were pretty awesome, increase departmental and interdepartmental communication, morale boosting and a redistribution of interdepartmental talent. It was brought to my attention in my review, and made clear that those goals are not necessarily part of my day to day job. This is odd because I communicate across no less than three different departments and I know there are a host of people in my own department who have the knowledge I need to help me function more efficiently, but alas, I was informed that my goals didn’t really fit my title. These were, in fact, potential changes that people of a different professional band would make and perhaps I needed to amend my goals (I declined to do so). Or in less official speak, “Shut up Keith, it’s not your job. We’ll tell you what to do to make your job easier, even if we don’t do it and don’t really know what you do.” The archaic top down management style knows best, I kneel before its all knowing power. However, conspicuously absent from the discussion was perhaps the most important of all my 2013 professional goals?
My spork analysis.

This is from my review:

To help offset any cost associated with my other goals, I have developed one cost saving measure that not only saves money but also lessens our departmental carbon footprint. We use both plastic spoons and plastic forks in our kitchen and by simply switching to plastic sporks (a combination of the spoon and fork for the unfamiliar) we can save over 500% monthly! Based on the most recent Staples catalog, the following information revealed:

spork2

We can no longer ignore the flagrant abuse of corporate finances by purchasing BOTH plastic spoons AND forks! ONE case of 1000 sporks results in over 500% in savings.
In this economy, we must, as a department, lead the charge on cost saving measures while maintaining our civic responsibility.

Sporks, save money, save time, save the planet!

I can freely admit this last proposal was about 30% tongue in cheek. The remaining 70% was in earnest. We’re always running out of things in the kitchen. Plates, spoons and forks are always the quickest to go whenever the sporadic allotment arrives. In fact, just yesterday it was brought to my attention that we are again out of necessary provisions. A colleague came over to this side of the office (a more arduous and security riddled task than it sounds) to pick up a paper plate that she just happened to know was in the conference room over here. There were no paper plates  in the kitchen so the next obvious place was the conference room…on the other side of the office…of course. And from personal experience, trying to eat Lucky Charms with a fork is both a physically and emotionally draining task.

In all fairness though, somewhere around the halfway mark of my review I started tuning out and began singing the lyrics to “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” in my head. For over 30 years now, this is my go to song in times of stress and I need to escape mentally. For equally as long, I STILL can not figure out how Johnny won that battle.

Songs for Slim

sfssigning1“And we’re standing in the shadows
forever on the brink”
Someone Take the Wheel
– The Replacements

If you’ve never heard of The Replacements then you’ve never felt alone, alienated or out of place. Gob less ya. But if you have heard of them and listened to them then you know they are one of those once in a lifetime bands. But don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with a historical piece about the band. I’ll leave that for some Ivy League editor from a music magazine that’s only worth reading for the articles about anything other than music or some bearded, irony riddled, skinny jean wearing trust fund music blogger putz in Brooklyn.

I just want to tell you about The Replacements new EP “Songs for Slim”. First things first, it is a benefit for former Replacement guitarist Slim Dunlap, who replaced original guitarist Bob Stinson.

On February 19 of last year Slim suffered a serious stroke and, as a result, needs long term medical care. Obviously, this being the American health care system and all, his insurance doesn’t cover all the long term care he needs. So former Replacements manager and Minneapolis music guru Peter Jasperson stepped up and rallied the troops and thus “Songs for Slim” was born.

But “Songs For Slim” is not just a Replacements reunion EP, the concept “was devised to raise money for Slim and his family by having various artists cover his songs, pressing them as a limited edition series of split 7” vinyl 45s in beautiful, numbered picture sleeves and putting them up for auctions.” Artists participating include Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Craig Finn, Tommy Keene among others as well as a host of local musicians, all covering some of Slim’s songs.

“Songs for Slim” is an auction based endeavour, so the fruits go to the highest bidder. On the block first was a limited edition run of 250 numbered copies of a brand new, deluxe 10” vinyl EP package by The Replacements, their first new release in over 20 years. Of course it only made sense that The Replacements had the first release. Turns out, ‘mats fans came a running, raising over 100K on that auction. The EP became available for digital download on Tuesday, so that 100K should continue to trend upwards.

Hearing brand new Replacements music gives me the same feeling I get every two weeks when I get my paycheck. It’s that feeling of the knots and anxiety leaving your stomach, that feeling that “OK, I’ll be able to get by for a little bit longer.” To be clear, my paycheck is not enough to fly to Fiji for the weekend (not even close) but it is enough to keep me alive (albeit, barely). In other words, hearing brand new Replacements music makes the intolerable more tolerable.

The bad news, Chris Mars participated fully, but did not play drums with Tommy and Paul. He contributed a song, did the artwork and was present. Mars has become a rather well established painter and visual artist and, by all accounts, has little interest in playing drums.

The good news, Tommy Stinson and Paul Westerberg reunited for a day last fall and cut some new songs…and it sounds pretty effing good. To be fair, they did reunite for some contractually obligated “best of” that came out awhile back but those songs were pretty mediocre*. These are not.

In typical ‘mats fashion, no one from the band has said much beyond the coy acknowledgement of the “Songs for Slim” existence. For the geeks and ‘matheads, Westerberg friend, touring guitarist and replacement Replacement Kevin Bowe talked a little about it here. (worth reading if you are a fan)

THE REPLACEMENTS
Songs for Slim
Song by song.

Side A
Busted Up (Slim Dunlap)
Having the EP open with a bluesy piano boogie seems about right for the first Replacements recording in 20 years. Sure I wanted some kick ass power chords that matched my excitement, but that would have been completely out of character. “Busted Up” is lyrically pretty simple, it’s about the shitty feeling after you loose someone. ’nuff said. You can almost picture the guys sitting around warming up with this track. It’s a great intro to what follows.

Radio Hook Word Hit (Slim Dunlap)
While Chris Mars didn’t record with Tommy and Paul, he did cover a Slim song. This is that song. The one thing that has always stood out about the Replacements is the same thing that stands out about any great band. The sum is greater than the parts. Which in no way means the parts are inferior, as this song proves. This is a catchy little number that fits nicely here. The title says what its about.

Side B
I’m Not Sayin (Gordon Lightfoot)
Now, THIS is The Replacements. The count in, the chords, the sound, the simplicity and the genius. While it’s not a Westerberg composition, it’s certainly a REPLACEMENTS song. The trademark brattiness, contradiction, irony, playfulness, honesty and soul are all signature markers of a Replacement track and they are present, loud and clear, here. In a perfect world, this would be a hit. We don’t live in a perfect world.

Lost Highway (Leon Payne)
The song was initially made famous by Hank Williams and is a tribute to Slim’s love of rootsy country music. Diehards know it is not the first Hank song the band has covered, “Hey Good Lookin” was a live staple and recorded around the “Let It Be” era. Obviously, the song is rooted in country & western and then put through the filter of The Replacements where it comes out something entirely different. Not better, not worse, just different. It’s fun and playful which brings us too…

Everything’s Coming Up Roses (Stephen Sondheim/Jule Styne)
According to the Kevin Bowe interview, this is the one song they spent the most time on and it begs the question, WTF? Look, hearing the band cover the leather lover Sondheim classic is great. Again, all the Replacement trademarks are there, the irony, the humor, the playfulness, etc. One of the reasons it works so well is because you don’t expect it to work, at all. The Replacements were masters of making shit work that has no business working. This song should be a disaster and it’s not. Quite the contrary and while I remain befuddled by the choice, they did what they always do, they made it their own.

So, is the first Replacements release in 20 years worth the time and money investment? Without a doubt. If you are a fan. If you’re not a fan, odds are this won’t convert you. That’s not to say it’s “only for the fans”, it’s certainly not. The band and it’s die hard fan base (the previously mentioned ‘matheads) share a common sensibility which is “Great, check it out, if you like it, awesome, welcome…if you don’t, bugger off.” But if this is your entry to the wonderful and whacky world of the Replacements, you’ll probably walk away scratching your head wondering what the fuss is about.

But don’t forget, this is about much much more than a Replacements reunion, it’s about helping an ailing musician and his family get the type of care they need and deserve. So, pony up the money regardless you cheap bastards.

Cheers!

LINKS
Songs for Slim
Paul Westerberg
Tommy Stinson
Chris Mars

* – even mediocre Replacements is better than most peoples best stuff.

And this too shall pass.

AKAlice H. Kanner
1931-2013

“I left in love, in laughter, and in truth.
Wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.”

– Bill Hicks

Much like every teenager, I was a rebellious and moody kid. Which provided a fair amount of tension in our household, especially in the conservative enclave of Centerville, Ohio. Suffice it to say, the ear piercings, underage drinking, pot smoking and overall recklessness did not go over well with anyone, but mostly, my parents. Accordingly, sometime in my last semester of high school my father entered into negotiations, as secretive as the 1971 Paris peace talks, with my aunt and uncle in Chappaqua, New York for me to spend a month with them after I finished high school. Presumably to get me out of the house and maybe slap some sense into the 18 year old.

It’s not that my family, immediate or extended, was, or is, particularly close, we’re not. There is plenty of love just not a lot of chatter. And my interactions with my aunt, uncle and cousins probably numbered under five at that point. Nonetheless, one month after I graduated high school, I went out to Chappaqua to attempt to figure out a future game plan for my life with the aid of my aunt and uncle. I’m not entirely sure I understood that was the objective then. Looking back, it most certainly was, but at the time I suspect my thinking was more of “I’m spending a month with the cool side of my family.”

Now my uncle was an advertising executive and seemed, to me, to be one of the most powerful men on the planet. Watching him enter their home when he came home from work, you’d think he was 6’11” and unafraid to snap you in half, and I suspect in his suit, he could have. But then he’d go upstairs to change and come back down in his blue cords and his red stripped Rugger polo, hop on the counter in the kitchen and have a vodka on the rocks in his juice glass and just be my uncle. Of course, I’d heard horror stories of how stern he could be, but, thankfully, I never saw any of that.

Now my aunt was just about the warmest and kindest person you could ever know. And easily one of the smartest and most intuitive people I have ever known. She was always quick to make anyone feel welcome in her home, your home, ANY home. My aunt was just one of those people that made any house she entered immediately a home. She had the most infectious smile and the most genuine laugh. When she laughed, she laughed with her whole body and her mind and it was real. There was no pretense or falseness in her or anything she did. Being on the receiving end of my aunt’s love was to know that, whatever it was was going to be OK.

Hindsight has taught me that the one-month visit after I graduated was a trial to see if I would drive my aunt and uncle as crazy as I drove my own parents and to find a post secondary school that fit for me…and I could get into. My aunt drove me to a number of interviews at colleges whose names have long since escaped me, but I am fairly certain Columbia University was not on the list. It was on these sojourns I got to know her better and learn a little about my family. More importantly, I learned why everyone called her “lead-foot” and quickly realized that she may have done extremely well as a New York City cab driver. But to no great surprise, all of the college interviews went poorly. It turns out a sullen 18 year old with a high school GPA of somewhere south of 2.0 does not make a strong collegiate candidate. Who knew?

It’s worth noting that I was a pretty rudderless 18 year old and my parents had the intelligence to ignore my high school guidance counselor’s advice of “Well, maybe he just shouldn’t go to college.” I can’t imagine their decision to send me off and live with my aunt and uncle was an easy one, but my parents are pretty good at seeing the bigger picture…or maybe they had just had enough. Probably a healthy combination of the two.

Apparently, I passed the “not driving my aunt and uncle too crazy” test because during one of the nightly kitchen talks during the CBS Evening News, with my uncle on the counter, my aunt cooking and me standing off to the side with a Rolling Rock in hand, I decided that it would be best to start at Westchester Community College and then transfer out. At the time, I was under the impression that this was mostly my decision. Hindsight and maturity have made me realize that my aunt and uncle pointed me in that direction and when I made the decision let me believe it was mine. Brilliant.

So after that month was up, I went back to dull and boring Ohio and waited out the six months until the second semester started in January. I recall those six months being a snapshot of what my life might have become had I stayed there.

January came and I moved out to live with my aunt and uncle and started classes at Westchester Community College. For the first time in my life, I had some educational success and it’s hard to put into words what good grades can actually do for ones self esteem and sense of worth. More importantly, I learned that I had a voice and an opinion and that it mattered. I learned I was capable of having intelligent discussions with adults. I learned that if you work, you will be rewarded. I learned that there is way too much truth to Woody Allen’s classic saying, “90% of success is just showing up.”

Despite the growth I was experiencing, the things I was learning and the positivity, I was still 18 and kind of a moody fella. While I am sure it drove both my aunt and uncle a little batty, my aunt’s positivity and good nature made it almost impossible to stay down for too long. She had a way of luring me into some sort of innocuous discussion that eventually led to me talking about whatever it was that was bugging me. She’d listen, really listen, and help me sort it out. And without fail, every single time, she would say to me “And this too shall pass.” It never really made sense to me then because the problems of an 18 year old are devastating. But now I can think of no phrase that rings 100% true 100% of the time.

The six months I spent with them had as much influence on me as almost anything else in my life. Certainly on par with the jolt I received when first listening to The Replacements “Let it Be” (coincidentally, discovered while living with my aunt and uncle).

I got to see my aunt and uncle in October of last year and was able to say some of these things to them both. I didn’t say all I wanted to, mostly out of my own cowardice, but enough that she seemed genuinely surprised that six months had such an impact on me. Over dinner I said, “I shudder to think what would have happened if I had never gone to live with you guys all those years ago.” My aunt looked at me and simply said, “You wouldn’t be sitting here now.”

Those six months shaped much of who I am today (even if I took one, two or three detours to get here) and my life was changed in ways I’m still figuring out.

My aunt passed away last weekend.

I’m sad and I hurt that my aunt has moved on. But I, along with so many others, am blessed to have known her. And even with this loss and all the sadness and emptiness, I can still hear her saying “And this too shall pass.” These feelings will pass to be sure. The love she showed me, the things she taught me, along with my memories of her, no, those will never pass.

To my father and my other aunt, your big sister was the worlds big sister.
To my uncle and cousins, your wife and mother was the worlds wife and mother.
I am thinking of you all and I love you all.

You need not be a world leader to lead a world. My Aunt Alice led her world and, as a result, changed our world.

Aunt Alice, thank you and I love you.
Keith

NYTimes Obituary

Zero Dark Thirty

ohb-lobby-cia-memorial-wall-219

Good art has the ability to transcend beliefs and capture emotions. Once in a lifetime a work of art comes along and is able to do just that as well as define a moment in time. Zero Dark Thirty is such a movie. Now, I won’t extol the virtues of this movie because this isn’t a movie review. But I will say:

  • This is the best movie of the year. Make no mistake. I don’t suspect it will be recognized as such because it is too politically charged.
  • How Jason Clark got overlooked for an Oscar nomination is a sin. I suspect this had more to do with the actions of the character more than the performance. Rest assured, this is a performance people will pick apart for years.
  • Anyone kicking up dirt about the torture scenes would be missing the point. It’s a dramatic device used to move the story forward and convey the screenwriter and directors personal philosophy. In other words, it’s art. Did those things take place? Yep. No one denies that. Are the scenes an accurate description? It’s not relevant, it’s a movie.
  • It tells the story we need to hear as Americans. Is it 100% factual? No, it’s a movie. Are there elements of truth? Yes.
  • If you don’t see this movie, you are missing a defining work of art with every artist involved operating at the top of their game.
  • Art should connect with you emotionally and personally and this movie does both.

There is a scene in the movie where the Jennifer Ehle character of Jessica goes to Camp Chapman, a key CIA facility in Afghanistan, to interview a high ranking Al-Qaeda operative in the hopes of getting him to flip and give up Osama Bin Laden.  The scene ends with an explosion. That happened.

On December 30, 2009 seven CIA operatives were killed at Camp Chapman in Afghanistan when a man, who was considered trusted enough by base security not to be searched on arrival at the gate, detonated a suicide bomb in the camp. Some of the names of those killed are:

Elizabeth Hanson
Harold Brown
Scott Roberson
Jeremy Wise
Dane Paresi

Harold Brown hired me in January of 2001 to work for a company called Shareholder.com. At the time I lived in San Francisco and the company was headquartered in Maynard, MA. After a couple of phone interviews and an interview with the San Francisco office Sales Manager, Harold made me a job offer. I accepted.

I flew into Providence, Rhode Island on a Sunday night to begin three weeks of training at the Maynard, MA headquarters.

Over the next three weeks in Maynard and one week in San Francisco, I got to know Harold Brown pretty well. Some of the things I remember about Harold were:

  • He loved country music.
  • His passionate explanation to me of the importance of Dale Earnhardt and why he mattered in NASCAR (and his ability to laugh at my “Isn’t NASCAR just rednecks turning left?” joke)
  • Harold was honest and a genuine God rearing republican.
  • He was a married father of three who loved his family as much as he loved his God and country.
  • Harold was fearless and a natural born leader.
  • He was a man who had faults and was neither ashamed to acknowledge them or embarrassed by them.
  • Harold was always willing to actively listen and engage in a dialog even if his mind was made up.
  • He had a terrific sense of humor and a laugh that was loud and infectious.
  • Harold loved structure.

Easily my favorite personal moment with Harold involved us driving to meet my San Francisco counterpart when she flew out to Maynard one week after I did. He picked me up at the hotel and we immediately got to talking about music. At the time there was a bunch of hubbub about Marilyn Manson being a devil worshiper or something inane like that. Before we got too involved, I had to stop this, so I said “Harold, you and everyone who talks about Marilyn Manson is missing the point. It’s bad music. Done. That is it, nothing more than that. It is musically, artistically and culturally insignificant. It simply doesn’t matter and the more you talk about it, the more credence you give it.”

He thought about it and started again and I interrupted him, “Stop it. It doesn’t matter. There is no value in discussing it. If you simply ignore him and the music, it will end up where it belongs. Nowhere.”

We sat in silence for a minute before he started again. And once again I interrupted him, “Harold, seriously, stop. Wait a minute, do you like the song?” The Harold Brown smile I had come to know over the  past week crept up on his face. I laughed and said “So like it, who cares? It’s a song not a belief system.” But we were apparently not done with our discussion.

Harold shuffled around looking for the song again (seriously, I have no idea what it was) so he could explain what he liked about that damn Marilyn Manson song. He eventually found it and we went back and forth. Harold had an uncanny ability to get me to see and appreciate his perspective, even if I disagreed. On that trip to the airport, I learned a lot about Harold. What resonated the most was his passion and just how genuine and real he was. Not one ounce of pretense. Harold and I were different, wildly different, but I know that didn’t lessen any of the respect or like he had for me or I for him.

About six months after I had started Harold left Shareholder.com to go do something with the National Guard and what it was escapes me but I do recall him wrestling with his decision. About six months after that, I left and moved to Los Angeles. Over the years, I would think of Harold and wonder what path he took, especially after 9/11. I found out in late December 2010 when I did a Google search and discovered he was killed the year before in the Camp Chapman attack. On that day, while I did not know the other six, I can say with complete certainty, we lost one of the good ones.

Did Harold Brown do or participate in things I may find questionable? More than likely. But I feel a little better knowing that he was one of the guys doing them.

I’m learning that if you live long enough, history begins to impact you. For me, the goal should be to impact history.
Harold Brown impacted history.

Duke, Part 1

Duke as Pup“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.”
– Milan Kundera

The first dog I ever got as an adult was a Rottweiler.  His name was Duke.

Duke was not my first dog. As a family we had dogs growing up, Barney the Malamute/Shepherd mix and Fifi the Toy Poodle so I had a good idea about what having a dog entailed. I knew that puppies are cute but puppies grow up to be dogs and dogs are a responsibility. I was a bartender back then, so I had a fair amount of free time and figured a dog would be a great companion as I had just ended a five year relationship. Dating was not of any interest to me and loving a dog seemed a safer way to give your heart and not have it get broken.

Now, as a bartender you actually get to know a lot of people. You get to know a great cross section of personalities and classes, so I tapped into this resource and let my customers know I was looking for a pup. Of course, everyone had opinions about what breed I should get, how the dog should be trained, yadda yadda yadda. I listened enthusiastically, not because I wanted the advice, I listened because I wanted the tips.

The next couple weeks went by with me kicking my breed selection around my bar, playing with names for the dog and throwing out feelers for a place I could get a Jack Russell Terrier. That was the breed I had selected for absolutely no discernible reason. In a bid to emphasize my rapier wit, I had determined it would be fun to juxtapose a big dog name like Duke with a little dog like a Jack Russell.

I was told that Jack Russell’s were high energy whirling dervishes and while I am a little more sedentary, I was undeterred by the horror stories I had heard. I wanted what I wanted. As luck would have it, one of the bouncers at the bar had a brother who was breeding Jack Russell’s and there was a litter due in a few weeks. I was sold…until he told me they were 400 dollars a pup. That was more than I could really afford, so I had to seriously rethink that. Which worked out for the better because I had, and still have, very mixed feelings about purchasing a dog. I wasn’t going to breed or show, so it seemed silly to pay that much, especially when I knew there were rescue groups and shelters. So I shelved the dog plan…for a couple weeks.

One Tuesday afternoon I was having lunch with a friend and we were looking at the local paper and I came across an ad for Rottweilers. I asked my friend if he wanted to take a trip up to Sandy Hook (yes, that Sandy Hook in Connecticut) and take a look. We had nothing else to do before our shift that night, so we decided to do it.

I had my tip money from the previous night on me but I was convinced I wasn’t going to buy a dog that afternoon. Besides, I had to work that night so getting and leaving a puppy alone in my apartment on the first day seemed unfair so I told myself I was just going “to look“. Ah, the naivete of youth, you can never go to “just look” at puppies.

My buddy and I drove up to Sandy Hook and found the shack where this guy was “breeding” the dogs. Following a dirt road for about 1/2 a mile we found a series of faded green shacks that were on cinder blocks and looked like they belonged to coal miners from Harlen County. We pulled over, parked and got out of my two door Honda Civic and were greeted by a barking German Shepherd behind a fence to our left. To our right were two free roaming, huge, mean looking Rottweilers. Yep, this was definitely the place. The owner came out and shouted from below “Don’t worry about them, they ain’t gonna do anything.” We started walking very slowly down the make shift 2×4 as stairs towards the shack as the two adult Rotties just sat and kept a close eye on our movements. If you have been stared down by a Rottweiler, you know that, regardless of the dogs disposition, it’s a tad intimidating.

Finally we got to the shanty on blocks, shook hands with the guy and made small talk. He asked if we wanted to see the puppies. I said “Sure”. As we walked in, I noticed all of the appliances were on cinder blocks so either the guy had a problem with vermin, was concerned about flooding or he was testing a blue collar post modern new aesthetic.

Just before the door closed the momma Rottie plodded, apparently to oversee the activity. The guy went to open a door and out flooded the six little puppies to see their mother. If you have ever seen bumper cars with a lot of people, you know there is a lot of bumping and directionless movement taking place. The puppies were sort of like a bumper puppies clamoring around their mother, bashing into one another like bumper puppies. They all were vying for her attention and oblivious to us. You could almost hear the puppies giggling as they bashed into one another and rolled around while the mother looked at us as if to say “So, you wanna adopt one of my pups huh?”

My buddy asked if she was gonna attack us and the guy laughed and said “Nah, she’s a softy. She just looks mean.” I noticed all the dogs still had their tails and I asked why they weren’t docked. He said he couldn’t get the vet to come out when they were born and doing it now would cost too much. He figured if someone wanted to dock the pups tails, they could pay for it. It made no difference to me whether the dog had a tail or not.

As I bent down to sift through the puppies, I noticed one off in the corner sniffing around. This one didn’t seem too interested in the puppy shenanigans taking place. So, I went over to that one and the puppy looked at me for a couple seconds, became quickly disinterested and went back to sniffing. Against my better judgement, I sat down on the floor of the shack to get a closer look. The puppy looked back towards me, seemed to sigh and then did the puppy waddle to check me out. After doing the 360 degree sniff around my perimeter, the pup came back and sat down in front of me, looking at me as if to say “Now what?”.

I took a look at my friend who was talking to the guy while they watched the bumper puppies. I called over, “How much for this one?”.
“250.00”.
I looked at my friend who just shrugged.
I said, “I only have 200 dollars.”
The guy looked around and simply nodded.

Paying for a dog was then, and still is, anathema to me. BUT, I knew the home I could provide for the dog would be better than his current surroundings. I also knew that with me, this puppy would have a pretty good life. As I sat there looking at this little Rottie I realized I had no choice. To me, it was a form of rescue.

So, I stood up, reached into my pocket and counted out my money. Borrowing a trick my grandmother had taught me, I had money in both front pockets just in case I had to haggle. I counted out the nine 20 dollar bills and just as I looked up at the guy to say that was all I had, my buddy chimed in “Oh here dude, I have twenty bucks.” I handed the guy the money and walked over, scooped up the puppy, who seemed rather nonplussed. The momma Rottie followed us out the front door and sat down on the porch as we walked back up the dilapidated stairs to the yammering of the German Shepherd and the ice cold stare of the daddy Rottie.

I put the puppy in the back seat and I got in to drive. We made it about 1/4 mile and then we heard whining so I pulled over and told my friend to drive and I got in the back. I tried to rationalize with the young dog what was gonna be happening. I’m not entirely convinced it registered, but the whining stopped.

We made a stop at the pet store to get a collar and toy. My friend took the photo at the top of this post as I was going into the store. I came back out and got back into the back seat. As we left, my friend said “Dude, you gotta work tonight right?”
“Yeah.”
“What are you gonna do?”
I didn’t think about it too long. I lived around the corner from my parents.
“I guess I’ll ask my parents.”
Mom and Dad to the rescue…again.

I dropped my friend off at his car and the pup and I went over to my parents house. It was late afternoon so my folks were still at work. I let myself in and their two dogs greeted me with their usual enthusiasm. I put the pup down and let the three of them get acquainted while I went to the garage and got their old dog crate. I set it up in the basement with some paper and the squeaky stuffed shark toy I had gotten at the pet store. I still had to go home, shower and get ready to go to work, so I went back upstairs picked up the pup and brought him downstairs. I put him in the crate and once again tried to explain what was going to be happening. He sat down and stared at me. As I stood up to leave, he quietly started to whine. And while it broke my heart, I knew I had to go to work . I also knew that he was in safe hands with my parents. Closing the basement door, I heard the squeaking of the stuffed shark. I told myself that the little bugger understood it was gonna be OK.

I walked upstairs and left a note for my parents:
“Hi Mom and Dad. Please go downstairs immediately. His name is Duke.
Love, Keith.”