Thursday, April 30, 2009

Great Chewouts (2003)

FROM THE ARCHIVES / OOPS DEPT. APRIL 30 - This originally posted on, 2/3/03. I thought about this piece yesterday, at Disneyland, after passing several clusters of singing pirates that - in 2009 - no longer seemed quite so adorable. Suspiciously, the "Pirates Of The Caribbean" ride was closed. Perhaps several hastily constructed robots of Somali kids with baggy pants and battered AK-47s are quickly being imagineered into the mix. Or maybe that will have to wait until 2040's "Pirates Of The Gulf Of Aden" ride...


The dressing down given to failed Shoe Bomber Richard Reed in a Boston courthouse this last week was a rare treat, perhaps the only time I will feel admiration for a U.S. district judge. Once sentenced, Reid delivered a rambling freakout that produced this exchange:

REID: Your government has sponsored the torture of Muslims in Iraq, and Turkey, and Jordan and Syria with their money and weapons!

JUDGE YOUNG: …You see that flag, Mr. Reid? That's the flag of the United States of America. That flag will fly there long after this is long forgotten.

As patriotic rebuke, Young’s remarks were about as relevant as Reid’s. But as a declaration of Al-Qaeda's futility it was a home run. Pirates were the terrorists of the 18th century, and these days pirates are exactly as scary as their ride at Disneyworld. America, the good bits as well as the bad, will outlast the wrongdoers. I am a loyal customer of Pizza Pirates the same way that people who live in 23rd century Pomona will probably be loyal customers of Taco Terrorist.

Reed is, paradoxically, an American kind of jerk loser. His is the face of the Kinkos employee who mangles your originals, the postal worker who denies the existence of media rate, the Pomona City Clerk office lady who blankly told me, last fall, that the Xeroxed forms I needed would cost an extra “fitty eight cents” she knew I didn't have on me. Nazi skinheads admire Al-Qaeda because they delivered the goods. But I suspect there may also be a deeper level of the skinhead psych makeup that equally identifies with the hapless loser who couldn’t light his shoes afire because his feet were too sweaty.

Young’s dismissal was also a nice parallel of the chewout delivered to press secretary Ari Fleischer a month earlier by revered AP reporter Helen Thomas:

THOMAS: My follow-up is, why does he [the president] want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?

FLEISCHER: Helen, the question is how to protect Americans, and our allies and friends --

THOMAS: They're not attacking you.

MR. FLEISCHER: -- from a country --

THOMAS: Have they laid the glove on you or on the United States, the Iraqis, in 11 years?

If Reid is the pathetic employee, Fleischer is the petty middle manager. His is the face of the friend’s uptight dad, the Kinko’s manager who asks to count all the copies in your bag, the bank branch head who refuses to accept his own clerical mistake. They are two subsets of the same jerk attack.

Last year I managed to visit DisneyWorld’s Hall of Presidents in Orlando, FL. After some strange narration and the introduction of all preceding presidents, the GW Bush robot bungled a zero-content speech that was a most unwelcome infusion of reality into the theme park experience. In the background, the Kennedy and Lincoln robots could be seen shaking their heads in disbelief. If Fleischer is the petty middle manager, Bush is the drunken asshole whose family connections managed to get him installed as the most powerful man on Earth. Whatever scoldings this one-man brand of jerk receives are hush-hush, delivered only in the wee hours by the ghosts of his predecessors or the terrified face that greets him every morning in the Presidential mirror.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Notes On Turning 40

THE ZONE OF UNEASE, APRIL 29 - Search online for "April 29, 1969" births and you'll get Muscles McGee here;

You'll also get actor Paul Adelstein, whose lack of granite-hard physical abs is more than compensated for by his presumable fiscal abs from appearances on TV's "Prison Break" and "Private Practice".

Then there's rapper Master P, who also may or may not have been born on this day four decades ago (his birth year changes a lot; Wikipedia recently aged him to 42). In 2005, I wrote a blurb for a P gig in the OC Weekly, using our assumed mutual birthdays as a vehicle to compare lives. Not many people, after all, have such a perfect controlled scientific experiment with which to judge their progress; me and Master, thrust screaming into this Earth on the same day, have both had to make our way using only our wits and the tools supplied us. But only one of us came away with $300 million in the bank, a dozen or so spin-off companies, and the choice of a professional career in rap, basketball, and/or motion pictures.

For some reason, my editor at the OC Weekly hired me to write a longer, full-length preview for a different Master P concert just a few months later. Yesterday I searched my hard drive for any remnants of this second, unpublished, preview, and found these half-formed notes;


Everyone needs to take a deep breath. There are still lots of things Master P hasn’t done yet. He has not piloted a space shuttle. He has served no terms in congress. He has not yet won a Pulitzer for either his insightful op-ed columns or his investigative journalism. If he has discovered a cure for AIDS or Lou Gehrig's disease or Avian Influenza, he has done a good job of keeping it under his hat.

Perhaps you were born on the very same day as P

Perhaps, like P, you even came into some money, quit college in the late 1980’s and started a record label.

Possessions he has boasted of

* A toilet made of pure gold.
* A gold plated tank.
* Custom made Bently
* 250 g's in his mouth.
* Gucci Ferrari.
* Mink Sheets.
* Custom made Bentleys with TV's and Mink Seats.
* "Got a jet and I don't even use it."
* Boats with chandeliers.
* Ceilings made of gold.
* Gucci Helicopeter. [sic]

The asterisks meant, I think, that I cut and pasted the list from somewhere online, with the intention of paraphrasing in my final draft. Or maybe this was all my own original research as well; the floppy spelling of 'helicopter' at the end suggests I got too demoralized to continue. His concert was cancelled a week before my deadline - I think one of his entourage killed a cop or something - and I saved my notes and forgot about it.

Either way, happy birthday to all four of us. I may run into one of these guys at Disneyland this afternoon, but I'm pretty sure none will arrive as unburdened by the stresses of fame, fortune, and/or cumbersome abs as I. Not to gloat, but it looks like I won this round.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Futility On The Mud Planet (2005)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, APRIL 15 - This originally posted on, 1/17/05


News came from outer space on Friday that the Huygens probe (pronounced either “hoy-genz” or “har-kens” or “how-kenz” or the breezy “Hi, Guns!”) had successfully landed on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Seen as the climax of a mission that has produced some stunning visuals - the 331/3 RPM grooves of ice and grit, the sad golf ball of Mimas, something resembling a giant potato twirling through something called the “F ring” - the view from Titan is an anticlimax. The first grainy photo seemed to show an unused parcel of property in Arizona. On Saturday came the color pictures. What appeared to be a gray southwestern desert was revealed as an orange southwestern desert, with a surface texture "like creme brule”. The craft had apparently landed in something called "mud". Worst of all, Hi Gun's pictures lacked that one iconic vista from thousands of classic science fiction paperbacks; a lopsided Saturn hanging far beyond a craggy extraterrestrial skyline. In real estate terms (and what is planetary exploration but a series of vast, slow-motion real estate transactions?) this would be like purchasing a Central Park duplex and finding the windows bricked over.

Huygens was a passenger on the much larger, slower and politically unsavory Cassini mission, the last of the old-timey space probes. Saturn is too far, and the spaceship too fat, for conventional propulsion. NASA solved both technical problems with gorgeous recklessness; Cassini shipped out with 72 pounds of plutonium, then rambled through a series of “flybys”, propelling itself to the outer planets by slingshotting around the inner planets. Perhaps the good citizens of Venus (two drive-bys, April ’98 and June ‘99) staged their own anti-Cassini rallies. Hopefully their media outlets were a bit more vigilant than ours. When the death ship came hurtling back towards Earth at 43,000 miles per hour in 1999 for the third and potentially deadly flyby, none of the major news outlets addressed the danger. I remember watching CNN that night with a strange feeling of helplessness. Such news-related frustration has since become a staple of life in the 00’s, but then lots of changes have taken place since Cassini and Huygens slipped the surly bonds of Earth. The project’s $3.3 billion price tag, a liability in the pre-W universe, now carries the seeds of its own defense. If America can spend that much in 19 days of chaos and horror in Iraq, why not explore the outer planets?

Huygens seems a bit of an innocent in all this, a European project with no Plutonium Pu-238. Like an abducted child, its saga is a sad one. The craft escaped on Christmas Eve only to fall to a lonely death on a methane-stinking mud world far below. A specially commissioned "Portrait Of Humanity" was to have accompanied the small probe on this final mission. This attempt to distill all of humankind into a single, symbol-rich photograph had its creepy parts. What would aliens have made of the awkward strangers in this awkward photo, the breastfeeding mother, the sullen black adolescent, the man with a mullet? The deed of permanence, however, was inspiring; engraved onto a diamond, the image could easily have outlasted the human race. When the sun goes supernova in several billion years, Titan's frozen gloop will thaw. Another Earth may bloom long after ours has perished. It is sad to think that these Titanians may never know of the mullet. Bureaucratic infighting nixed the idea after the image was engraved.

Grand statements were left for the mother ship. In the spirit of Voyager’s Interstellar LPs, Cassini carries with it a DVD of 616,403 random signatures. The DVD has no scientific value and does not come with a DVD player. As with all compact discs, in a thousand years it will be unplayable. Common folks, celebrities and politicians all took part in this cosmic bit of littering. The encoded autograph of “Delta Force” star Chuck Norris, for example, is now locked in orbit around the sixth planet. Futility triumphs.

And yet there is that strange lump in the throat. Sitting at the intersection of Holt and Geary in Pomona, waiting for the light to turn, I found myself suddenly teary. Huygens’ small victory was still a victory, one sandwiched between Ariel Sharon’s latest offensive and the first guilty verdict in the Iraq prison abuse scandal. What can it mean but something Good, or at least Not Bad, that humans are not all internet perverts, abusive parents or mosque-bombing fuckups? That some of us can design something that will hit a moving target 900 million miles away and do so gracefully, like an angelic act of parallel parking? That some tiny kernel of ingenuity is there in the DNA for the taking? If only there was some way to decode it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Aladdin (2006)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, April 13 - This originally posted on, 4/10/06.


The destruction of the Aladdin Casino in Las Vegas poses a confusing sort of post-9/11 memory. In April 1998 most Americans had no idea what a building's implosion would look like. Even the word "implosion" conveyed mystery, involving some act of physics that may or may not produce flames and hurtling debris. From my vantage point just behind the barricades on Las Vegas Boulevard and Bellagio Drive, the 1,100-room structure loomed dangerously close. Late 1990's Vegas was in the grip of an implosion spree that would also claim the original Dunes, Bellagio, Landmark and Sands casinos; the nonchalance of my fellow tourists and dust-mask vendors seemed a good omen. At some point, the crowd merrily chanted a countdown and 600 pounds of gelatin-based dynamite detonated on the casino floor. The building sighed and finally relaxed, descending in a graceful north-south swoop. No one was hit by flying glass or roulette tables. It took less than 20 seconds.

In this innocent, pre-attack America, however, none of us had considered how much dust and smoke a downed building could produce. Within a minute, a thirty-story plume of ash rose over the city. The headless mushroom cloud seemed to look down upon us, then started down The Strip in our direction. This memory also seems suspiciously confusing; thousands of people fleeing a wall of ash in the heart of Las Vegas, but laughing, power-walking, rolling their eyes at the sudden, steep jump in dust-mask prices. In the late twentieth century, the sight of an entire structure suddenly going freestyle wasn’t yet a cause for terror.

Two years later, I saw the Aladdin again. Crossing The Strip at Bellagio Drive, I paused to take in a conspicuous blank spot in the immediate skyline and understood I was looking at the silhouette of an unborn casino. In just twenty four months, the Aladdin had been blown up, hauled to a landfill, and rebuilt as a $1.3 billion, 2,600 room behemoth. But it wouldn’t reopen for another three months; past the imposing cartooony Arabian facade, a dark specter hotel towered into darkness. It was hard to not stand hypnotized on the sidewalk, staring up at those gaping windows, imagining thousands of unlit rooms.

In 2003, I arrived at the Aladdin during a bad birthday overshadowed by death and depression. Friends brought me drinks and I found myself laughing hard at unfunny jokes, tipsy for the first of only two times in my life. We made a few losing bets and laughed at some of the bad decorations and moved on.

So I didn’t get the chance to actually explore the new Aladdin until last week, finding the casino’s adherence to Arabian decor spotty. Diners can eat at CafĂ© Zanzibar or the Spice Market Buffet, but there is also PF Chang’s Chinese Bistro, which is confusingly advertised by a fake Qin Dynasty statue. Hunt long enough in an Indian casino, and you'll always be able to find a sad plaque honoring tribal history in a back corner by one of the bathrooms. At the new Aladdin, the south tower restroom hallway displays just two color plates from Racinet's Historical Encyclopedia of Costumes that look like they'd been enlarged at Kinkos. The old Aladdin had been an Oasis of classic Vegas cool; Elvis and Priscilla married here in 1967, and Wayne Newton and Johnny Carson vied for ownership in the early 80’s. The new Aladdin reminded me of an airport. A sign in the lobby notified passers-by that Chris Angel’s “Mindfreak” was shot on the premises. Nine Inch Nails had wrapped up their set elsewhere in the casino earlier that night.

Then I stumbled into the Desert Passage. Anyone still in the grip of the “why do they hate us” spasm of late ’01 needs to do some shopping here. This is the casino’s shopping arcade, made up as a 475,000 square foot parody of a covered bazaar. Below faint arabesques, one can browse art galleries, eat Hawaiian Luau or ride a pedicab to grab a slice of NY Pizza. A lone hookah store seemed untroubled by customers. Lost, I found myself at one point in a long corridor topped with overhead panels of a nondenominational Holy Land.

Is it a parody? The interior decorators may have thought they were playing footsie with controversy, but I began to feel that Middle Eastern civilization had gotten off lightly. After the Koran flushing excesses of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, it’s easy to imagine a lot worse. The cocktail waitresses didn’t dress in burquas, and no fez-wearing organ grinders or fiendish slave traders greeted guests as Roman Centurions do at Caesar’s Palace. If anything, Desert Passages posed an alternate universe Middle East that had not suffered centuries of autocratic rulers and religious fascists, or decades of American and Israeli subjugation. If pluralistic democracy had flourished in eighteenth century Syria, perhaps their street bazaars could have a Metropolitan Museum Of Art outlet as well.

Back at the slots, I found an employee under an unnoticed mural that seemed to mix scenes from Indian mythology, Gilgamesh, Ali Baba, and some of the more menacing inmates from “Midnight Express”. I asked about a nearby poster displaying a massive glass tower in the Dubai style of architecture. This was the next phase, he explained. A Middle East themed casino “didn’t play well after 9/11”, and the entire complex was being remade as a Planet Hollywood. The computer-generated leviathan from the poster will be the new hotel’s third wing; construction had already started in the dark lot behind the casino. “They didn’t like my idea,” he added. “I suggested blowing a few holes in the walls and calling it ‘Baghdad Town’.”

I stepped outside into the cool desert night. From this angle, the half-sized Eiffel Tower next door soared overhead. Beyond that, block-sized ads implored the throng to reconsider Elton John and Carrot Top. For the last four years, Vegas has surged on under the threat of Al-Qaeda; conventional wisdom has the city somewhere on AQ’s top ten list of American cities to implode. It probably ranks high on the worldwide list as well. Following any one of a dozen plausible doomsday scenarios, this could be as impressive as western civilization gets. Nearby, a group of ruddy faced white dudes in baseball hats struggled to make it up the stairs, accidentally smashing a beer bottle.

“My bad,” one explained to the world. “My bad.”

Friday, April 10, 2009

Norwalk, OH (2006)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, April 10 - This originally posted on, 4/3/06.


The city of Norwalk is located in the seat of north Ohio's Huron County, a region seeped in small town Midwest fiber but still only an hour from the bright lights of Cleveland. Although the town took some lumps in the 1970’s for spawning the Norwalk virus – a nasty infection transmitted by fecal-oral contact – it is also home to the International Hot Rod Association, and is renowned for the stately maples planted along its Main Street in 1830. Neighboring Milan is the birthplace of Thomas Edison. It is not hard to imagine that, after electricity, the area has changed little in the last century. As of the 2000 census, Norwalk’s population stood at 16,238, enough people to fit comfortably in L.A.’s Staples Center.

In July 2000, I found myself in Norwalk after the summer tour of Men’s Recovery Project had gone terribly wrong. In San Francisco, our bassist quit three shows into a three week journey. The surviving members – guitarist Neil Burke, drummer Grant Mudge and myself –managed to recruit a replacement (Towel’s John Michaels), teach him the set, enlist his van, build a loft and retaining wall and arrange for insurance and new tires, but there was still the matter of driving from California to Indiana to salvage as many dates as possible. John had been planning to move to the east coast anyway, so in addition to holding our merchandise, luggage, sleeping bags, and equipment, his van – a 1979 Ford E-150 Econoline affectionately dubbed "Angel Eyes" and "Angie" – would need to haul all of John’s worldly possessions, including several hundred pounds of science fiction paperbacks and physics texts. Under the cramped back bench we established a reference section and raced east.

This meant a fantastic amount of weight on an engine and suspension running for three days at full speed for over two thousand miles. Approaching Cleveland, Angie whimpered and died at a rest stop just north of Norwalk. Some helpful locals gave the band a ride to the club, where I promptly split the cartilage in one knee, ending any hope of walking for the rest of tour. The locals donated a pair of mismatched crutches and allowed Mudge and I to sleep on the floor of the club. A drunk Burke and Michaels were returned to Norwalk by a 19-year old. When we reunited in the morning, our prognosis was grim. A mechanic had pronounced the carburetor cracked, and all we could do was wait for another. The band was hemorrhaging cash.

We retreated by cab to Milan, a town whose name is pronounced less like the European fashion capital than the layer of insulating fat that surrounds the brain’s neural sheath. Milan did not have the cosmopolitan glamour of Norwalk. I withdrew my last $40 from an ATM, and further withdrew into the depression of an Econolodge room. My notes on this day are sparse. At some point I watched a VH1 documentary on U2. The following morning, we moved to a cheaper room at the nearby Royal Motel. At some point I watched all of VH1’s “Bad Boys Of Rock” special.

Since I was effectively confined to bed, my understanding of that Tuesday’s events have a "Rashomon" feel. Mudge tells me he swam in a neighboring motel’s pool and “had a really nice evening” at the local Glass House Bar. Michaels and Burke bought a six pack and took a long walk through what John calls the "netherworld of pavement" linking the little stretch of motels, fast food joints and convenience stores that seemed a poor homage to a world class inventor. All agreed that Neil’s attitude was quickly deteriorating.

Sometime after 9pm, Burke and Michaels realized they had come full circle, arriving back at the Wendy’s opposite our motel’s parking lot. Although the restaurant had closed for the night, a live human still manned the drive-through. The men politely requested provisions, and were just as politely rebuffed. Here was our predicament laid bare. One needs a vehicle to eat. At this point, John recounts, Neil got “all agro.” Words were exchanged. A beer was smashed to the ground in anger.

At that moment, Mudge was being interrogated by a Milan police officer at a nearby phone booth. "We don't have many people use this pay phone,” the cop explained, reading Grant’s ID into his radio. A curious reply came from Milan Dispatch. “Drunk long haired suspect,” a voice crackled. “He's opening another beer and running now.” From his vantage point, Grant realized he could just make out two figures running from the Wendy’s window to our motel room. The revived policeman hurriedly thrust back the drivers license. “Today’s your lucky day.”

Milan takes civil unrest seriously. Five police cars materialized to subdue Burke, who had descended through the Three Stages Of Crapulence from pissy to pissed to pissing. As Mudge later recounted in a private email, there was “no resistance of arrest, just a broken man in a bad way who didn't have an actual automobile to get a potato at the strictly enforced drive-thru-only and couldn't take another ‘no’ on a tour riddled with negation.” An MPD cruiser tailed M.R.P.'s unemployed rhythm section on the four mile walk to the city jail. $65 of the band's remaining $180 paid for bail, and the desk officer kindly returned the remaining half of the six pack. Burke remained defiant. “The least they could have done was refrigerate it.”

The next morning we caught a taxi back into Norwalk. The van still wasn't ready. At the library, Mudge asked if the town needed any more drummers. "We have our fill," the librarian responded coldly, perhaps making a pun at our expense. I searched the web for signs of hope. The day before, a Concorde had crashed in flames just outside Paris, killing 113 people and providing our downtime with appropriate visuals. Only after an hour of aimless browsing did I realize that Neil had loaded the adjacent public computer with explicit porn. Norwalk would feel his wrath.

I hobbled to The Invention, Norwalk’s Thomas Edison themed diner. To kill time, I asked about Lorain, Cleveland suburb and my and Angie’s birthplace. “They’ve got a lot of Ukrainians,” one waitress offered. “A good place to go if you want to get shot,” said another, having none of our big town ways. All we could do was wait, and ignore an obvious mathematical truth: the band might not have enough cash for another motel. “If the movie theatre weren't deadbolted and for sale,” Mudge confided in another email, “the marquee says I could go see ‘The Patriot.’”

Mild misfortune requires a punch line. The afternoon's triumph of a working van was neatly mirrored by the evening's failure, when Angie conked out in Philadelphia, four blocks from the club. The next morning, Greyhound delivered me to Albany, New York. The city I had left as an idealistic teenager greeted a bitter 30-year old man - broke, sleepless and unwashed, on mismatched crutches, badly disguised by a ripped cowboy shirt and old-timey mustache.

The van was eventually revived and broke down again in front of the Smiles II Go Go Bar in Ledgewood, New Jersey. Over beers, Michaels met a helpful stranger who suggested he check the spark plugs. Sure enough, one was loose. John screwed it back in and "nothing ever happened again".

This story has more than one possible villain: the disloyal first bassist, the deceitful mechanic, the wanton spark plug. But all along Neil has assumed primary role as Not The Hero Of Norwalk. Would he, I recently asked, acknowledge this role? “I wasn’t looking for trouble,” Neil said evasively, seeing himself as the Rambo of Norwalk, a long haired but innocent stranger harassed in a small town. I pressed the matter, reassuring him that I dredged old memories in the service of truth.

“That’s the truth?" he exploded. It was as if the last six years of healing had been a hazy dream.
“That’s the truth? Dragging a man down into the sewer and calling it truth?”

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Assisness Denied (2000)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, April 7 - This originally ran in MRR, December 2000.


This being the autumn of national litigation warfare and other assish behavior, I note with interest a parallel legal development brimming with the potential for injustice of cosmic depths. A suit was filed this week against founding father of rock Chuck Berry by his longtime sideman of 30 years, Johnny Johnson. Johnson started the band that Chuck Berry joined and hijacked by talent in 1954, and it was Johnson who played on most of Berry's ancient hits. Depending on who you believe, Johnson was either the inspiration behind, or at least a collaborator on, Berry's magic "Johnny B. Goode", the 1958 hit that earned him a place alongside Betsy Ross, Neil Armstrong and The Whopper in the annals Of American Greatness. Johnson's suit says he's been denied 40 + years of royalties and credits for helping pen these hits. Since this was also the week that Chuck Berry received official recognition at a State Department dinner, alongside Alan Greenspan and Don Rickles, the case made an amusing human interest counterpoint to the glad handing and plates of red snapper this icon was forced to endure.

The lawsuit raises an interesting problem. "Johnny B. Goode" is included on two separate gold plated albums strapped to the Voyager 1 & 2 spacecraft, currently hurtling away from our solar system at 39,000 miles an hour. Berry's the only artist credited for the song. If Johnson was denied his rightful cosmic credit, how could the injustice ever be corrected or compensated for? There's certainly not much cash to be split - Chuck Berry was paid one penny in NASA royalties. I've long wondered if this was the world's best or worst distribution rate. The Beatles missed their slot on the Voyager record over this very issue - the band, asked by NASA for "Here Comes The Sun", was ecstatic... it was their own publisher who vetoed approval after the space agency failed to ante up some mysterious and "hefty" royalties. Can you blame them for protecting their clients? No matter how you cut it, a cent a song ain't much. Should the stinginess of Uncle Sam's record label be credited against cost of production ($865 million)? Distance of distribution (thousands of light years)? I think durability of product should stand for something in the equation - any old independent label can offer its artists interplanetary exposure by way of standard college radio. Not many can offer a recording that comes with its own stylus and cartridge and will still be playable one billion years later. (It is durability, after all, that gets ex-UN secretariat & SS lieutenant Kurt Waldheim's opening remarks on the Voyager LPs to the next galaxy and leaves Skrewdriver's cover of "Johnny B. Goode" - perhaps never played on any radio station - earthbound and obsolete.)

Chuck is the only living celebrity artist on this rare, first pressing compilation LP. Of the 27 musical tracks, four (including a Navajo chant) are by Americans... disproportionate representation that's fair only if you consider that we financed the whole thing and could've stacked it with the 1977 top 20 if we'd so wished. Jazz representative Louie Armstrong died 6 years before launch, and blues representative Blind Willie Johnson died 30 years earlier, after catching pneumonia from sleeping in the smoking ruins of his burned down house. But Chuck's not the only living American on the disc - Jimmy Carter contributed a spoken word piece- and he's also not the only living solo artist. There's an unfortunate and uncredited performance by NASA's Ann Druyan, best known for co-authoring "Cosmos" with Carl Sagan, her late husband and the head of the Voyager LP track selection committee. Three months before launch, Druyan hooked into an electroencephalogram in NY's Bellview hospital (known to my generation as the loony bin from TV's "Barney Miller") and meditated for an hour. A computer translated her body's electrical signal data into a sound montage “to be decrypted by extraterrestrials”. Her musings “followed a mental itinerary" which included a "version of the history of the world and the history of life on Earth, a little compressed... thoughts on war and poverty followed by thoughts on love." Essentially a performance art piece, the only thing more mortifying than having this bit represent us for the next billion years is the idea that someone will actually find it. And, all things being equal, the odds are 50/50 that any "someone" who sits down to enjoy this record would be more likely to comprehend converted electrical signals than human music, and that they would mistake the new age noodlings of one lone me-decade confusnik as some built-in genetic flakiness of humankind as a whole.

Although "Johnny B. Goode" probably seems, to most readers of the 21st century, about as relevant as the pips and dings of Druyan's nervous system, it's important to remember that Berry was once very important indeed. These songs of his, now compressed and distended through car commercial and elevator misuse, were at one time as psychically significant as submarine warfare. Chuck Berry was, briefly, the Johnny Rotten of 1958 - a looming (if always grinning and enunciating) menace to white American parents. His crossing that double yellow line between "race records" and "crossover" was paid for with a mid-career, nearly 2 year person term on trumped up "White Slavery" charges brought by midwestern anti-race-mixers. Berry's cosmic redemption is just as weird as Dick Nixon & Jefferson Davis getting their commemorative postage stamps within a few weeks of each other, but certainly more uplifting.

Before you jump to the logical conclusion, however, and start calculating which Dead Kennedys, Crucifucks or Artless songs might make some redemptive interstellar cut in 50 years time, keep in mind that this was almost definitely a once-in-a-civilization opportunity. Chuck was the right man in the right place at the right time. Space travel is currently easing into a "leaner and meaner" commercial phase that has no use for grand statements. The plutonium laden Cassini probe may have been famous for endangering all life on Earth (both during its '97 launch and again on its gravitational drive-by two years later), but Cassini was also the intended carrier of a failed sequel to the Voyager LP. A similar "Sounds Of Earth" type disc, complete with a creepy multicultural photo dubbed "portrait of humanity" (naked children on a beach beaming up at a Raymond Pettibonish-grandma in a rocking chair), was to be deposited by probe on Saturn's largest moon. Word leaked to the taxpayers, and the disc was squashed before takeoff by outraged politicians, leaving but a blank mounting area to prove to future beings that we weren't sure what to say after all.

I had a scheme a while back to register as a bone marrow donor. I think my original intentions were pure (they've some strict travel restrictions, so I had second thoughts). A bonus motivational theory, however, soon exerted its tug. Namely; anyone who so selflessly saves a human life would not only incur good karma points or whatever counts in the grand scheme of things, but would also be granted a free pass to make an utter ass, buffoon, ruffian and nincompoop of themselves for their rest of their life (or in my case, like a bad O. Henry tale, until my own recklessly boorish behavior ironically caused someone's accidental death, sending me back to square one). My theory now is that Mr. Berry is on this regimen. Astronauts, the guys with more right than anyone to use their laurels as the healthy foundations for a lifetime of obnoxious behavior, are probably screened for such assish tendencies in their very first NASA interview. The same qualities that allowed John Glenn to sit cool as a cucumber during flaming reentry most likely also prevented him from barging to the front of long supermarket lines yelling "important astronaut coming through!", or striding through shopping malls in his underwear, or other general Keith Moon type behavior.

Thorough decentness was a trait specifically NOT accounted for in the selection of world's best rock performer. And regarding the lack thereof, Mr. Berry has performed with flying colors. In 1990, the man was charged in a class-action lawsuit with secretly videotaping the women's room stalls in his St. Louis restaurant. He was hit with the same charge a few years later at his "Berry Park" estate. Some time in the mid-90's a videotape made the rounds of Berry urinating on a (presumably consenting) woman's face. If not the actions of a man who no longer has to care about mere Earthbound niceties, who has been magically freed from the burden of history, then what? I've seen a nice publicity photo of Chuck standing outside the old Chess Records studio, arms linked with Hillary Clinton, wearing a sailor's cap tilted roguishly to one side. His grin is that of a man who knows some of his work will survive in pristine, playable form long after the fossilized bones of everyone else in the photo are ground into motor oil by the glacial smoosh of continental drift. I can only think of poor Johnny B. Goode, perhaps denied his similar life of boorish, rude behavior, and shudder.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Natalie Merchant (2006)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, APR. 1 - This originally posted on, 4/24/06


Prejudices should be flexible; the mental hardening that first exerts itself in one's thirties can be offset with a little mind yoga. Last year, when I finally sat down and drafted my list of Top Ten Hated Musicians, I had the foresight to leave half the slots open. This flexibility has served me well. When I glimpse yet another indistinguishable "emo" band while flipping TV channels, there is the smug thought that
they just made the list. It doesn't matter that I don't know the band name, or that the genres, haircuts and fashions of this decade seem like part of an elaborate hoax. What matters is the illusion of control.

My top five Hated Bands are anchor slots, blue chip positions, and have remain unchanged for the last decade;

1) REM
2) Dave Matthews Band
3) Lou Reed
4) Nick Cave
5) Natalie Merchant

REM and Dave Matthews Band are symptoms of the same problem, my problem. I may not care for their particular brand of simpering, fussy preciousness, but I have no problem with anyone who does. My beef is entirely aesthetic. If someone can squeeze some emotional state stronger than 'pooped' out of either band, more power to them. It's a free country.

Nick Cave and Lou Reed are something different. My dislike for both musicians lies outside art, in the realm of politics. Both are disciples of a fatal self-seriousness, and I find it hard to trust anyone who likes either artist. I hate their music the exact same way Republicans hated Bill Clinton; as a substitute for something larger, something generational.

Both groups are subsets of Adult Contemporary That Doesn't Know It Is Adult Contemporary. I understand that this is a made-up category. Personal taste leaves a lot of room for small hypocrisies. David Byrne, Henry Rollins, and Miranda July have all dabbled in the studied or the self-important, and yet, inexplicably, I continue to grant all three a free pass. At its root, style is random. I don't enjoy the music of Sonic Youth and I don't know them as people, but my strong impression of the band is that they are fundamentally decent human beings. The source of my judgments is outside my perception.

So why is Natalie Merchant on my list? I don't have an easy answer for this, either. There is that dopey, long-ago disappointment that her first band, 10,000 Maniacs, did not, literally, sound like ten thousand rampaging maniacs. And yet the same letdown from my first exposure to Suicide and Television (I know now that I'd expected both bands to sound like James Chance;
bonkers) never led to a grudge against Tom Verlaine or Alan Vega. Merchant's tender, mannered delivery also would be a reasonable culprit if I didn't overlook the same sin in so many other artists (Blonde Redhead, Cat Power, occasionally Nico). Nothing explains why my brain has singled her out for persecution. 10,000 Maniacs' career didn't intersect with my listening history, so her music holds no particular bad associations. By the time the band cracked the Top 40, in the summer of 1987, I was already on my way to college in Manhattan, no longer at the mercy of classmates' bad tastes in music (James Taylor in specific, the only artist to simultaneously hold two slots on my list).

The specter of misogyny hangs overhead. Is Merchant, with her wide-hipped, slightly horsy femininity, too much woman for me? I want to say no, although the notion has a certain disturbing plausibility. Indigo Girls and Patti Smith don't threaten or engage me, but there is something about Natalie's persona that rings strange bells. When I hear her gossamer recital voice it cues old triggers of insufferable college girls I have had to share classes with, episodes of "Dr. Quinn. Medicine Woman" I have mistakenly watched. There could be something here.

If only she'd chosen a stage name! Technically, I can't "hate" Natalie Merchant any more than I can "hate" someone I pass on the freeway. We don't know each other; "hate" sounds as if she'd keyed my car, or groin, or placed a lien on my house. "I hate everything Natalie Merchant stands for" isn't accurate either. The woman has foolproofed herself by embracing most of the world's noble causes. The most precise thing I can say is that I hate having her music forced on me in public spaces, which is a diluted, wussy sort of statement, a mincing of words as bad as the worst Michael Stipe lyric.

That, however, is exactly what I hate. It's bad enough to have to hear her voice while on hold, or over a supermarket intercom, or in the background of TV shows. But it is somehow worse knowing that there is an anonymous human intelligence behind this imposition (the studio mixer, the cable radio programmer, the network TV music director) that felt that Natalie Merchant would be a safe bet for the entire population. This is the same imposition that happens every time a decent citizen has window-rattling gangsta rap imposed on them from the next car over. Except that gangsta rap is meant to be oppressive, minor revenge on the white race for 400 years of slavery and, by extension, vengeance upon all squares. Merchant's music seems designed for a consensus that was reached while I was asleep.

Since I'd never actually listened to one of her songs head on, I downloaded a live version of “These Are Days” in the spirit of scientific empiricism. I was familiar with at least the chorus, so the exercise didn't seem entirely masochistic. In fairness, I came to understand that Merchant is only a vocalist, so the song's inhuman melody couldn't be blamed on her. But the essential quality of my discomfort remained elusive, perhaps something physiological in my own brain. At times, she can
sound as if she is smiling (former Power 106 DJ Lisa “Kool Aid” Seltzer shares this ability) which is as much as I could glean before my breathing grew labored.

Then there is the Angry Young Man theory. This is the lingering feeling that Ms. Merchant's art is inauthentic because the bulk of it has nothing to do with
reality, that her work barely hints at avian bird flu, or child soldier armies, or nuclear annihilation. The 17-year old Discharge fan in me still wants to believe this. The 36-year old me understands the trap; this is the same thinking behind gangsta rap. Without lifting a finger, without ever knowing a thing about me or my strong value system, Natalie Merchant has ensnared me with logic. The best I can hope for is that someday, out of sheer boredom, she will Google her own name far enough to reach this page. But what am I hoping to say to her?

News comes this week of a 33-year old Oregon man who, fed up with life and high on methamphetamines, fired twelve shots into his skull with a nail gun. He eventually made his way to a hospital complaining of a headache; after careful surgery with needle-nosed pliers, and some psychiatric counseling, he was sent on his way. State privacy laws hide his name, or his exact motives. This too, rings strange bells. I want to say that this is what Ms. Merchant's music makes me feel like. But perhaps more scientific inquiry is in order here as well.