Sunday, December 23, 2007

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Price Is Right @ CBS Television City

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 13 - Game shows need no writers, and people attending game shows have no truck with striking writers. For those of us attending a recent taping of "The Price Is Right", the illusion of crossing the picket line at the Fairfax entrance to CBS's Television City complex was just that, an illusion, and any feelings of guilt or weirdness incurred were incidental. Sidestepping the noble protesters and showing my ID to a guard, I took one hard look back to the strikers and realized they appeared much happier than I did. I signed in with the head page. The page said, "You are aware that taping starts at four?" Their website listed taping at noon. I nodded in resignation.

That's how quickly the agents of Bottom Feeder Hollywood snare you. I've never won a battle with these people. Years ago, working as an extra on a nightmarish Australian pop music video, an enraged assistant gaffer ripped my shirt because he didn't like where I was standing. I stayed on the set because I'd already invested seven hours of my life there. Last month, registering with a casting agency for more extra work, I filled out the questionnaire provided in the waiting room, only to be told by the frosty receptionist, no, that's the wrong form. I didn't dump her trash can onto her desk because I'd driven an hour to Sherman Oaks, and it would have been more humiliating to just drive home empty handed. Similarly, I now accepted that I would be spending the afternoon in a sunless CBS holding area, waiting on cold bleacher benches and metal stanchions, simply because I didn't want the drive there to have been in vain.

Two hours in, a suspicious CBS page came by my seat, frowned, and asked me if my glasses were prescription. This was another thing I hadn't planned for. Alone in a throng of homemade shirts, I had arrived wearing a nice button-down and tie and my black frame glasses; I looked like a Drew Carey impersonator. Carey, the new host of "The Price Is Right", along with Buddy Holly, the deceased musician, has complicated my adult life by providing strangers with an easy celebrity comparison (on the set of the nightmarish Australian pop music video several years ago, the director took great delight in screeching, "hey, Drew Carey!"). I had only dressed professionally this afternoon because I hadn't showered and needed something to distract from my dandruff, and now I was being repaid for my class by hard looks from all sides. I couldn't have been more conspicuous if I'd arrived in fishnets and a clown wig. I assured the page that the glasses were real, but still he frowned. I think it was right around here that I did not make the cut for contestant.Eventually we were all issued gift-tag-shaped name stickers and ushered into Bob Barker Studio. Except for four laser-cannon-sized HD TV cameras, the room looked pretty much like it must have in the early 1970's. The rounded, pastel decor and vintage CBS stage curtains had, by 2007, seen thousands upon thousands of hours of blubbering, hysterical, gift-crazed humanity. I took my seat and realized I might actually be called to come on down. This would be bad. I hadn't seen this game show in at least a quarter century, and couldn't quite remember which one it was. From the lack of Easter Bunny and Marie Antoinette suits, I'd deduced this wasn't the one where audience members dress up. Was it the show with the three curtains? The little animated lederhosen man? Would any sort of electronic pyramid be used?

Our host emerged. A caricaturist would define Drew Carey by his smile, glasses, and blond flattop. In person the smile is the key, being at once disarming and impenetrable. Carey makes frequent fat jokes about himself, but his girth is all waist-up, lending him the full authority of a top-heavy guy in a nice suit. The bottom half of his body is surprisingly slender, and he bounds about with the spring of a much more compact man. Carey seems to have inherited most of the good will once directed to Bob Barker, the show's host for almost 35 years, if not Barker's passions for the show's blonde models, or animal rights (one woman's shirt, imploring viewers to "Carrey" [sic] on Bob Barker's dream - Spay And Neuter Your Pets! was quickly laughed off by Carey, who has based stand-up routines on mocking animal-huggers). The new host's humor is far raunchier than that of the old host; it's hard to imagine Bob Barker ending a between-segment joke by calling an audience member a "bitch".

Halfway in, the announcer called on a man named Jesse, who haltingly made his way down an aisle with the help of two crutches. Carey asked what he did for a living and Jesse said he was a marine, and then Carey asked, rather bluntly, what had happened and Jesse said simply that he had been in "an accident". Drew Carey is himself an ex-marine, and through whatever sly machinations the producers have available to them, the two veterans were soon standing side by side on stage, contemplating a shiny 2008 PT Cruiser. Carey joshed that, being 'crippled', Jesse would be able to park wherever he wanted. Jesse did not win the Cruiser. Later, during a break, Carey returned to the wounded soldier, who had been seated just offstage, and seemed to want to smooth over what may have been an awkward exchange. Carey explained that he'd been at Walter Reed Army Medical Center visiting disfigured servicemen and that he'd joked with the men that if anyone should ask what happened, they should say, "masturbation accident." A few people gasped but everyone laughed, mostly because everyone else was laughing. Jesse laughed too, but after Carey had sprung off he sat slumped, with an angry look on his face.

Audience members pleaded with Carey to acknowledge their lives, much the same way that peasants must have beseeched powerful men 2,000 years ago. A young guy announced that he was "the prince of Hollywood" and "Tom Cruise's cousin". Carey never dropped his smile. At a certain point, it became obvious he wasn't listening. A realization came; Carey and I were both going through the motions. I couldn't leave the studio because I'd invested an afternoon waiting, and he couldn't leave the studio because others had invested cash in him. He was much farther away than any of us could imagine, propelled through this one compartment of his life by a colossal sum of money and nothing more. Even Carey's glasses are false, being prop substitutes worn, post-lasik, to maintain character. I had arrived impersonating an impersonator, and would win no PT Cruiser.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


Someone should make a fantastic sci-fi action movie showing legalized gay marriage actually destroying civilization. It would need a huge budget for all the special effects; car crashes, flames, toppling skyscrapers, the works. Liberals could have a nice chuckle at the wry sarcasm. And conservatives could be like PLEASE TELL EVERYONE IN YOUR CONGREGATION TO SEE THIS IMPORTANT FILM. Everyone's happy. The movie should be called "Gay Chaos" or "Ghaos" or "Ghaos: road to Armageddon".

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Abandoned Projects

REGRETS DEPT., Dec. 1 - Is it actually better to regret something done over something undone? In the spirit of control versus experiment, here's my list of undones:

K1C2 (1992)
This was a short-lived band with my friends Eric and Keith. K1C2 stood for Korea First, Communism Second, a disastrously bad band name, but one that should only be judged on the sliding scale of every other terrible early 90's indie band name. Technically this would have been a side project / vanity band, because we were all in other bands.

Specifically, Eric Wood was in Man Is The Bastard, which meant a lot to me and my pals; Wood was a mythical figure in all our lives, no different from having Paul Bunyon or the Wendigo monster on bass. I'd glued a large poster of him performing live to the wall of my basement office, which made for an awkward moment when he finally flew out from California to practice.

The next time Eric visited NYC it was to record with Bootsie Collins and Iggy Pop for a Buckethead LP, and we had little time to even meet for lunch. I've since read an interview with Eric where he'd cited eminent singer/songwriter Ted Leo as drummer in one of K1C2's two rehearsals, a detail I support - because it makes my own past a shade more interesting - but is almost definitely not true. REGRET FACTOR: Six.

This was my unrealized nautical-themed thrift and record store in Richmond, Virginia. A friend worked at a different thrift store - a future competitor - and every day for several months I would "buy" a trash bag full of nice clothes through her register and then stash my new merchandise in a storage space. Through the diligence of the criminal, I had a store's worth of crap in six weeks.

A guy named Buddy accepted my cash deposit of $250 for a colossal storefront on the corner of Broad and Goshen streets. Buddy dressed like Jim Varney and his face was good-natured but suspiciously shiny, and deeply pitted with adult-onset acne. I eventually learned that Buddy was not actually the landlord but just a guy who occasionally slept on the floor of the storefront, and when he absconded with my deposit I joined the ranks of Americans victimized by crack cocaine. That the cash I lost was roughly proportionate to the clothing I stole is, I still feel, immaterial to this tale, and not at all some kind of apt moral.

Having since visited the Mcsweeny's pirate supply store in San Francisco, I realize now how poorly executed my own space would have been. I am grateful that I was spared the agony of retail in urban Virginia. Buddy was a pleasant enough fellow, when he wasn't robbing me, but Buddy's buddies would have been my client base in that pre- gentrified neighborhood, and I and my wares would have been annihilated. Years later, NASA named a prominent Martian rock formation "Barnacle Bill", and I finally understood the rage, humiliation and sense of personal persecution that moon-landing conspiracy theorists grapple with on a daily basis. REGRET FACTOR: I miss my $250.

I'm not quite sure when I started clipping the very worst stories I could find in the newspaper, but once started down that path, I found it easier and easier to sniff out such stories. By 1996, I had compiled a very large folder of terrible, terrible articles: blindings, botched kidnappings, murdered pets. My intention was to compile everything into a fanzine called Bottomless Pit and then sell this fanzine to other people. Perhaps the idea was to remind everyone how awful we all are as a species, and how very little hope there is for any of us. In the end, the project became too depressing to work on. Also, I was probably concerned that the people at Kinkos would act strange around me afterwards. REGRET FACTOR: Negative ninety.

This was a fanzine Neil Burke and I thought up on tour, and some time and effort went into the logistics. The basic idea was to provide a comprehensive listing of every public restroom in the United States, ranked by a series of criteria (cleanliness, graffiti, lighting, menace, etc) for the use of touring bands. I do not recall that the staggering nature of the project was ever discussed. After all, how many public restrooms can there be in America? Like, two hundred? REGRET FACTOR: zero.

Horse Optne was conceived as the sequel to my well-received Horse Ockney fanzine, a collection of drawings I'd made using the Kid Pix program on my 1990 Macintosh SE. For some reason I never finished the second issue. Here are the surviving pages:

The Mac was too bulky and inefficient to bring with me to California, but trashing old computers is bad for the environment, and no thrift store wants ancient novelty electronics. My only ethical option was reverse shoplifting; I calmly walked into the Salvation Army on Clinton Ave in Albany, NY, calmly placed the computer on the counter and then calmly bolted out the door and down the street. Perhaps some lucky customer discovered these drawing on the 2MB hard drive and completed the zine. REGRET FACTOR: eight.

Exact details of this scheme have been lost to the ages. No emails or letters survive. I do remember someone contacting me to have my band, Men's Recovery Project, play a bar mitzvah in Madison, all expenses paid, and that the offer mutated into a jaunt through Milwaukee, Green Bay and perhaps La Crosse. There was talk of screening up some hilarious four-city tour shirts. The whole thing was basically an excuse for Neil and I to make a pilgrimage to that most mysterious of American mystery cities, Sault Ste. Marie, which is not even in Wisconsin. Maybe I dreamed this? REGRET FACTOR: J.

In spring 2006, Neil and I decided to start a t-shirt company that would only sell fake band merchandise. Here's my logo;

I logged significant man-hours coming up with plausible band names; Divorce, Plasmic Transfer, and Blöed, an Afrikaner heavy metal act whose graphic was just a skull ringed in barbed wire. The venture foundered on the rather simple shipping-weight-to-profit-margin-ratio of shirts, esp. for shirts for bands no one has ever heard of before. I must have been upset when this project deflated, because a quick search of my hard drive shows no traces of all the other great band names I thought of, several dozen in all, some of them deeply stupefying doozies which have now been lost for all time. REGRET FACTOR: always.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Monday, November 26, 2007

Van Halen @ Staples Center

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 26 - Van Halen's performance at the Staples Center this last Tuesday resolved several free floating bits of suspense. For one thing, the band declined to perform any Sammy Hagar songs. Although the stage had been laid out in a mighty "S" formation - one half a raised parapet, the other a curving catwalk - this was apparently done despite their second singer, not to honor his monogram. Reunited with David Lee Roth, Van Halen devoted two solid hours to their 1978-1984 material, 25 songs heavily weighted towards their first LP, plus one drum solo. A giant movie screen behind the band proved that yes, this was really happening, no celebrity look-alikes or tribute act could so closely mimic the motions of the performers below. It was hard to hear music this good and this loud and not be gunning a Porsche 911 down the Pacific Coast Highway or piloting a space shuttle into combat. The only polite response was to applaud at every possible opportunity.

There is a rule of male gerontology that has all men age into one of only two dozen predetermined celebrities. This rule holds for men who are already celebrities. The large movie screen confirmed for us that David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen are both assuming the face of actor Lance Henriksen, and that drummer Alex Van Halen has already completed his transformation into 1980's Leonard Nimoy. Still, all three original members seemed limber, energetic, and in very high spirits. Roth, 53, is unable to perform the flying splits of his youth, yet he frequently displayed that manic grin of rapture last worn by Liberace. Following the lead of The Rolling Stones, this reinvigorated Van Halen could have another 40 years of performing ahead of them.

This is where the other bit of suspense came in. New bassist Wolfgang Van Halen, son of Eddie and nephew of Alex, is only sixteen. He has yet to age into his own face. Wolfgang was born six years after David Lee Roth left the band. The man he replaced, Michael Anthony, was the bass player of Van Halen for twice as long as Wolfgang has been alive, and Anthony's squat, cartoony degeneracy and custom Jack Daniels bass were noticeably absent. The new bassist held his own within each song, even if it was a little distressing to hear a high school sophomore sing along with "Hot For Teacher". Only once, during the chorus of "Jamie's Cryin'", did Wolfgang's voice seem off, not so much cracking as simply flat and unripe.

Will Wolfgang himself crack? He'd only played with Van Halen two dozen times by this night. Stepping into the family business must seem not so much a thing he was born into as bred for. Audrey Hepburn was charged with similarly strenuous public appearances in 1953's "Roman Holiday", and she simply walked off into the night. Defection must have crossed young Wolfgang's mind. The pressures and expectations must be enormous. When Roth needled his young bandmate with the "you'll get some leg tonight for sure" line from "Unchained", the moment verged on hazing. Not all teenagers could cope.

Curiously, the camera crew stayed far away from the new member. For every one shot of a distant bassist, there were five lingering closeups on David and Eddie's creased, nut-colored abs. The camera pulled in close enough for us to read Eddie's "Wolfgang" tattoo, but never close enough to Wolfgang to read his t-shirt. It would be nice to think of this remote coverage as some manifestation of Eddie's fatherly overprotection. But it may have had as much to do with the young Van Halen's girth. On the far side of "husky", he simply does not look like anyone else in the band. The entire night was reminiscent of the soft-focus treatment an overweight Carnie Wilson received in Wilson Phillips videos. By the time the last encore rolled around ("Jump", the band's only #1 Billboard single), David Lee Roth retrieved a giant inflatable microphone from a stagehand and lugged this across the stage for a final victory lap; we saw more of this prop than we did the bassist.

This reminded me of the three-foot inflatable microphone I owned in high school. Every afternoon I'd come home to find it dangling limp from my bedroom ceiling, and every afternoon I'd mount my dresser and breathe new life back into the thing. I thought it looked cool. I also listened to punk records and sitar music, and burned a lot of incense, and had a large Pink Floyd poster on my wall. I didn't really know who I was at that point, or even what I liked. I was prone to frequent hormonal spikes that caused me to do and say things I couldn't explain. I was 16, the same age as Wolfgang. If I thought there was even the remotest possibility of David Lee Roth mocking my lack of sexual experience in front of twenty thousand people, I would have jumped in front of a bus. Then again, my last name isn't also the name of America's greatest rock band.