Monday, July 28, 2008

Book Wrap-Up (Bargain Bin Edition)

All of these books were either purchased for a buck at a used book store or found on a SWAG table at my office at Tower Records. They're all old and out of date, but some touch on topics that are still of interest and many haven't changed a bit.

"Scribble Scribble" by Nora Ephron
This one is so inconsequential it’s really not worth writing about. It’s noteworthy for two reasons, 1) Ephron is now a famous screenwriter ("When Harry Met Sally", "Sleepless in Seattle"), and 2) The book is so old that the first entry is on a brand new magazine she thinks might have a future called “People”. Otherwise, it’s largely first person musings on New York luminaries that I’ve never heard of or topics that aren’t really relevant anymore. In fact, it reads, largely, like my blog. Yet, she’s famous and rich and I’m a frustrated nobody. Maybe I should have married Carl Bernstein too. Is Bob Woodward single?

"The Gross" by Peter Bart
Over the years, I have become obsessed with the box office. There is an excellent site called that posts the receipts every week and in the 8 years since I discovered the site, I have yet to miss a week. Bart’s book chronicles the summer of 1998 and tells the back stories and aftershocks of one of the biggest summers in history.

He starts out by running through all the studios and what films they had on the docket and why. The biggest tent pole of the bunch was "Armageddon", with the secondary films being "Deep Impact" (a veritable carbon copy of "Armageddon", a fact that sends serious stress through the industry), "Saving Private Ryan", "Godzilla", "Bullworth" and "The Truman Show" with scores of others also on the list. It also digs into the personalities behind the films and what’s on the line for each individual. For instance, Bruce Willis agreed to do "Armageddon" if the studio could get him out of a film he was in the middle of shooting that wasn’t going very well. Also, given what Bart says about the fiery personality of studio head Peter Guber, it’s interesting to know now that the two would go on to host their own show on AMC, “Shootout”.

The book is dated, obviously, and the same book could have been written about any summer since the business model hasn’t changed. But it was fascinating, if you care about this sort of thing, to hear all the behind the scenes stuff. Plus, the summer of ’98 was one I remember well. I saw virtually all of these movies with my good friend Sally. We practically lived in the theater that summer. Either Sally or Ben Sauter or sometimes both. Good friends, good movies, a hot and fun college summer. Those were the days.

"Fair Ball" by Bob Costas
Baseball’s broken and Costas explains why. He breaks down how the pursuit of profits under the guise of making the game more compelling, is actually not addressing the real issues. What is broken is that the big teams keep getting bigger and the mid to small market teams have no chance to compete because of small payrolls.

His solution is revenue sharing. It evens the playing field and will stimulate fan interest, which would then improve revenue. The teams that win are the teams with money (New York, Boston, Atlanta), so where does that leave the fans in Pittsburgh or Minnesota or Kansas City who can only hope to improve via the farm system rather than free agency. What has contributed to this problem is breaking the standings into three divisions, which may expand the playoff race, but waters down divisional playoffs because teams always have the wild care to fall back on and don’t care anymore about fighting for a division crown. Additionally, gigantic contracts, which is the universal problem in sports today, throws everything out of whack. We see similar problems in the NBA where the first round of the playoffs is now a best of seven series. Does that make the game better or does it just increase profits? The answer is the latter.

The book is a quick read and Costas knows his stuff. Again, the book is out of date, written about seven years ago, it was sad to know that baseball has just gotten worse since the book was published. Costas is a passionately outspoken critic of the steroid era, which wasn’t even an issue when he wrote the book. You just know he’d love to write a sequel with all that’s on his mind now.

"Brave Nu World" by Tommy Udo
Not sure why I even bothered with this one, since I couldn’t care less about every band mentioned. It’s basically an argument for and a criticism of rap metal, the boom that came and went six years ago leaving hundreds of nobodies in its wake.

The book devotes a chapter to each of the major players of the genre, such as Korn, Limp Biskit, and Linkin Park and explains how they got their start and where they stand in the rock hierarchy. Pretty much every band he spotlights no longer has a career worth mentioning, which is funny since he breaks down who he believes has the chops to be in it for the long haul. Anyone heard from Slipknot or Staind or Crazy Town lately? Nope. And we aren’t likely to either.

Udo is careful not to be too effusive. He knows it could have a short shelf life. Thankfully, Fred Durst is called out as the moron he is and Linkin Park are accused of being a manufactured band in the same mold as a Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears. The Deftones, a band I’ve never cared much about even though I knew a couple of the members briefly, are handled with hushed reverence for some reason.

Anyway, does anyone care? Probably not. If you like these bands, check it out. Or, if you are in the mood for a good chuckle reading a six year old book about bands that have already come and gone, go for it. This was a freebie from back in my Tower days, so I figured I’d knock it down real quick.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Prayer of Gratitude

A question was posed at church recently, “have you ever offered a prayer of gratitude?” No “please bless so and so” or “please help me to do x”. Just thanks from beginning to end. Here’s what first popped into my mind.

In early 2000, I was working in the BYU newsroom as the Associate Sports Editor for the Daily Universe, but my heart was, and still is, on the Lifestyles page. That’s where the real action was. The action I cared about anyway. So, I would occasionally moonlight for the other section if I had a good enough idea. This one seemed worthy.

The Smashing Pumpkins were about to release their last album (until their recent regrouping) and were making public appearances in more out of the way places to drum up pub for the record. By this point, they had passed their prime and needed to do something drastic to reconnect to their audience. The plan included a stop and performance at a small cd store in Sandy, UT called Tom Tom CD Exchange, which I’m sure is out of business by now (like every other music store). I had shopped there in my youth as it stood in the parking lot of Sandy Starship where you could see a double feature for a buck. Though I’ve never cared for the band, this was right up my alley. This is what I was born to do.

I’m sitting in the newsroom telling this to my friend Ryan Rauzon and saying how I wish I could go. Within about 5 minutes, he swindled two press passes, one for each of us. The show was the next day. He’s the man at that kind of stuff.

Ryan eventually bailed so I hit it alone. To this day, it was probably the most exciting moment of my journalism career. When I arrived, scores of other press types were there, collected by the back door to avoid the crowd at the front, which was nearing 1000. The store could only hold about 100. I stood in the parking lot, hob-knobbing with Keith McCord of KSL, Bill Allred of 96.3 (my fave station) among others. I still remember hounding Bill about why radio never plays the hot new underground stuff (I remember using Underworld as an example). This was me hanging out with my peers covering a story we all cared about. I was fairly new to the journalism gig, so I felt like the biggest poser, but no one knew. In fact, I got the phone number of a cute Salt Lake Tribune writer named Debbie before the night was over. You know, just a couple of professionals finding common ground. My posing was fooling everyone.

Finally, the band came out and played about 7 songs. I remember thinking that I didn’t normally like them, but what they were playing wasn’t bad, including “1979”, a song I absolutely can’t stand normally. Some of the press had left before it even began, as they were just there to get the shot of them reporting live from the venue before heading back to the station. So, I sat in the designated press area watching an important band performing to hundreds of wide-eyed kids, some of whom had driven thousands of miles just to catch a glimpse. After the show I briefly interviewed Billy Corgan (Me: “So, Billy, how do you think the show went?” Him: “We SUCKED!”), flirted with Debbie, interviewed some of the audience and headed out. I think the Pumpkins’ next stop was Boise.

I unlocked the car, climbed in, and instinctively sat forward, craning my neck upwards out the windshield and said “Thank you”. It was a natural as breathing, completely reflexive. This was the moment in my life, and there have only been a few, where my dreams and reality intersected and allowed me to feel what it was like to do exactly what I had always wanted to do. I know “Thank You” is a mighty small prayer, but it said it all. This was around the same time as the movie “Almost Famous” (which made my insides ache in envy), so the messages I felt like I was getting were that if I wanted to pursue this for my life, that I just might make it. I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier.

Of course, I strayed from that path for reasons that have been really haunting me lately, so there weren’t too many other moments like that. Some really torturous thoughts have been creeping in about following my heart vs. being practical and “what if’s” etc. That's a whole other story. But, it makes this moment especially meaningful. Can you think about a time in your life when you got exactly what you’d always wanted? I'm not talking about for Christmas. I'm talking about a soul wish. It’s rare and I got to taste it once.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Lost Gem of the 80s #10: Jimmy Barnes - "Freight Train Heart" (1987)

Americans don’t know much about Jimmy. He’s an Aussie and really had most of his success down there. You may know one song which was a collaboration with INXS on the song “Good Times” from the Lost Boys Soundtrack. One of the best songs INXS ever did, actually. They did two songs together for that movie, both were great and the two sounded perfectly together. But, that’s probably all you know.

Jimmy has one of those voices where you can see the veins shooting out in his neck and hear the nicotine and whisky caked all over his vocal chords. It’s passion to the furthest degree. In the 80s, his voice was perfect for the Heartland, countrified rock that was popular at the time. Maybe it was Reaganomics, maybe it was the 20th anniversary of the summer of love and Rolling Stone magazine, maybe it was the reforming and unique commercial success of hippie bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, or maybe it was the Cold War. Whatever was going on, a sense of politics and purpose infused most mainstream rock, especially in 1987. Yes, most of the music sounds 80s today, but it was sure earnest and sincere.

Jimmy isn’t being overtly political, but when your sound is so steeped in the heartland of America, you’re sending a message whether you mean to be or not. The message is save the farmers, preserve the terrain, and respect the working class. Those ideals were on the verge of extinction then. They’re all but gone now.

Freight Train Heart is Barnes’ best album and probably the only one you’d ever need. It kicks off with “Driving Wheels”, which sounds just like what a song about being a truck driver should sound like. Turning the key at the crack of dawn, mug of coffee in the cup holder, ready for another long day on the interstates of America (or maybe Australia in his case), building as you go from 1st to 4th gear, with the chorus chiming in just as you hit 5th. Most of the album is like that. Pianos, harmonica, Stevie Ray Vaughn-like guitar, black women singing back up, drummers working the cymbals in time. Blues mixed with rock mixed with country mixed with soul. They call it “pub-rock”, but, to me, that implies a sound only large enough for the local bar. This is bigger.

On the softer side, there are some really effective ballads like “Waiting For The Heartache To Come”, and, especially, “Too Much Ain’t Enough Love”. In fact, “Too Much” might be one of the most restless, yearning ballads of the decade. At the 2:58 mark his voice goes up one more octave on the chorus and the sweat has to be dripping down his nose by then. Weird thing, the first 4 seconds of “Too Much” are pretty much sampled from “Human” by the Human League. You’d know that first “BOWM” noise anywhere. Man, I still love that song!

Jimmy did a song for one of my favorite movies of the 80s called Gung Ho called “Working Class Man”. That’s the perfect fit for these songs, as the background in a movie about disgruntled American auto workers and their patriotic fight against Japanese superiority in the auto world. Imagine that and you’ve nailed Freight Train Heart. He didn't have the same success as the Mellencamps and Hornsbys and Springsteens, but he deserved to.

The Nugget - "Too Much Ain't Enough Love". It has to be. The desire is almost unnerving in its rawness.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Live In Concert: Stevie Wonder 7/1/08

Seeing Stevie Wonder is a dream come true. No doubt. The show could have been better though. As it was, it was only as good as I was afraid it would be.

I’m big on momentum at shows. It needs to build and keep pace. Prince is the unsurpassed master of this. The Shins are the all-time worst. You can banter with the crowd, you can play new stuff, you can even skip some songs you should have played, as long as you’re taking the audience on a ride. I saw Depeche Mode once and they had none. Weird song selection and at weird times. The show had no flow. I left wanting to be their road manager. Stevie was sort of like that, unfortunately. That’s what I mean by as good as I was afraid it would be. Some artists, you know going in, have a penchant for long solos, meandering pace, and large chunks of songs that mean nothing all in a row. The worst I ever saw like this was Lou Reed. I heard he performed mostly with his back to the audience and never talked. He delivered as promised. One of the bands I saw that I was most afraid would do sort of what Stevie did was Hall & Oates and they actually killed it. Great show. Great relief.

Stevie is such a lovable, almost divine creature, you’re willing to forgive him anything. You know from the Grammy speeches and Eddie Murphy jokes that he’s going to talk a lot and not all of it is going to hit, but that’s part of the persona. My problem is that when classic songs are buried in between the long interludes and vocal histrionics, they lose some of their impact. Stevie is one of music’s greatest geniuses. Let that fly! It also takes the crowd out of the show, which can be deadly and hard to recapture.

His MO seemed at first to do new song, old song, back and forth. Some classics he played in slightly trimmed down versions, which was a pretty good idea. Allowed him to pack more in without leaving much out. We got “Higher Ground” in fairly early on, as well as “Living For The City”. In fact, we got most of the Innervisions album.

A highlight was when he sang “Isn’t She Lovely”. His daughter is one of his backup singers and she was standing next too him while he was singing and he was getting choked up. I can relate because that was the song I had playing when Georgia was born. After the song was over, he said “Let me tell you something. Any problems you have with any of your family members, you gotta let that sh*t go.” Sounds crass, but it was actually really sweet.

The last half hour is when it finally kicked into gear fully. It started with “Superstition”, then “My Cherie Amour”, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered", “Sir Duke”, “I Wish”, and “You Are The Sunshine of My Life”. That’s when everyone was finally able to release what had been building up all night. So, it finally became the show you wanted it to be all along. Chance of a lifetime.

Funny story. I went to the show with my good friend Chuck and his parents. I used to refer to Chuck jokingly as my token black friend, but he’s one of my best friends and token sounds too small now. Anyway, his folks are so sweet and funny, it made the night even better. However, they are both very short. So, we’re sitting on the grass in the back of the amphitheater just at the edge of a path that cuts through the whole grassy area. Chuck and I are concerned that his mom won’t be able to see since people on the other side of the path will be at our same eye level and standing too, plus traffic will be walking along that path all night. So, the show starts and all these people stop on the path right in front of us and set up shop for the night after we’ve been sitting there for hours. I thought security would put a stop to that, but they didn't. Chuck and I are upset. So, I go over and stand directly in front of them. They start complaining that I’m blocking their view, but I say they’ve been blocking ours and we’ve been there for hours while they just show up and stand where there aren’t even seats. Some of the people get upset and we’re yelling at each other, and then I look down and I see Chuck going nose to nipple (he’s short, the guy was tall) with one of the guys ready to brawl! So, who comes over and pulls Chuck away from the guy? HIS MOM! Little 4’11 Dorothy Piper pulls her son away from the guy before anything goes down. Classic beyond classic! And, in true Swingers fashion, we ended up hanging out with the guys the rest of the night. A couple of them were pretty cool.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Movie Wrap Up

Definitely, Maybe
The one and only reason I saw this movie was because Kevin Kline was in it, which the ads and reviews never mention so it’s a good thing I record Ebert & Roeper every week. I have remained steadfastly dedicated to KK since A Fish Called Wanda. We don’t see near enough of him anymore.

Thankfully, this film had a lot more going for it than just KK. It’s a lot smarter than I thought it would be. If you don’t know the gimmick already, a soon-to-be-divorced dad tells his young daughter the story of how he met her mom, but includes the story of two other former girlfriends leaving it all a big mystery until the end. The thing the movie does right is make all three women smart, interesting and beautiful. Any one could be a winner, which helps sustain the interest. Isla Fisher is especially compelling and wonderful. She might be the second coming of Judy Holliday. I’m sort of in love with her. Rachel Weisz and Elizabeth Banks are great too. This guy (Ryan Reynolds) is entirely too lucky having all three of them loving him, and for like 7 years. I wish.

Another nice trick is having this story mirror the Clinton presidency. Reynolds’ character is a small fish politico from Wisconsin who moves to New York with aspirations of speechwriting for Clinton, while blazing his own political aspirations. So, as he’s employed by the Clinton machine, you see how Clinton's actions and behavior affected the lives of his staffers. Interesting idea. It’s also nice to see Derek Luke as a coworker. I like him a lot and didn’t know he was even in it.

The end, after the big reveal, tries to pack in a few more storylines and situations than is necessary. Also, try not to think about the fact that he’s telling his daughter stories that involve sex with these women, drinking, etc. Still, as far as RomCom’s go, this is one of the better ones for sure.

Sidenote: The film has a great soundtrack, all 90s alternative. The best part was hearing "In Spite of Me" by Morphine at one point. That's my #6 all-time favorite song and I'd never heard it in a movie before, or anywhere, for that matter.

Score: 7

The Love Guru
Another confession: I’m often WAY more intrigued to see a movie (hear a band, read a book, etc) when it gets bad reviews. Something being good seems so ordinary. If something is bad enough for people to complain vehemently, I want to know why.

So, I went in expecting a downright embarrassment for Mike Myers. He’s been away for almost 5 years and a stench seemed to precede this film by months. Well, it isn’t embarrassing, it just isn’t funny. Not enough anyway. It’s directed like one of the Austin Powers movies with about 5 jokes a minute flying at you. The ratio of success is like 8:1, not good. Plus, the story is lame and doesn’t make any sense. A love guru is hired to repair a hockey player’s relationship with his wife so they can win the Stanley Cup? That’s just dumb.

Here’s my theory on Myers. The guy is, apparently, a notorious prick. Demanding, mean, tragically insecure, etc. His abilities on SNL garnered him some well-deserved respect and the Austin movies gave him validation and power. But, with the horrible Cat In The Hat, his last film other than doing the voice for the Shrek movies, it killed all his confidence and momentum. In his own head, that is. So, he went into major writer’s block. He also got divorced, and forged a friendship, so he says, with Deepak Chopra. Obviously, signs of a man coming apart and looking for answers. And, his dad died in ’91 and, allegedly, he’s never gotten over it. So, to get back on the horse, he brushes off an idea he had shortly after his dad’s death (since nothing new is coming to him) and runs with that. The film is bombing and, mark my words, we won’t see him again for a while.

I think there’s still a place for Myer’s brand of comedy. In fact, he’s great some of the time. But, these days, the trends have passed him by and I’m not sure he has the strength to try again for a while.

Incidentally, I’ve seen him on about 4 media stops promoting the film and he’s told the same story each time. The film is about him dealing with his dad, he considers the audience his boss (this is always said in a very humble, respectful tone that you know he’s practiced in the mirror), Deepak’s his friend, friends of his would call when they were down to hear him do his Guru voice, etc. This movie might be his Oprah's Couch. The moment the masses figured out something wasn't quite right with a star they had liked.

Score: 3

You Don't Mess With The Zohan
Snuck into this right after Guru and thought it was de ja vu. Again, former SNL funnyman doing a weird Indian-like voice and basing an entire film on a premise that just isn’t funny.

I’m fine with Adam Sandler. His movies are just dumb comfort food. The problem here is that Israeli/Palastinian conflicts aren’t humorous. Sure, the movie is about him being a trained killer, but really wanting to go to America to be a hairdresser, and those scenes are pretty good. But, in reality, most of the movie is about the conflicts and that won’t do. In fact, I had a hard time understanding what a lot of the actors were saying, their accents were so thick, Sandler especially.

The vibe of the film is nowhere near as doomed as Guru. You don’t get the feeling anyone’s career hangs in the balance. But, it isn’t much better. Guru may have an 8:1 miss/hit ratio, but you’re more likely to laugh out loud in that film. It fails miserably, but the bulls-eye is higher. Zohan, you may smile for longer stretches, but probably won’t laugh out loud very often. At least the Guru crowd seemed to be more into their film than the Zohan one was.

However, as is often the case with movies like these, they get better and funnier on repeat viewings. Can’t say I’ll give them that second chance, but I may stay on them when channel surfing one day.

Speaking of soundtracks, this is the second of the three movies to feature "Connected" By Stereo MCs. DefMay being the other. A sign of some good taste.

Score: 3