Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Why irrational hatred of technology is only going to bite you in the ass someday

Because when your co-blogger is walking through Union Square, and he sees a dozen or so *actual, real-undead, brains-jonesing, HOLY SHIT! ZOMBIES shuffling along on a warm and pleasant Halloween afternoon, he can take photos of them with his cameraphone and immediately send them along to all his friends who do not get off on denouncing technology. (Which basically means, all my friends but Crimenotes, who wears his Luddite pride like a Welshman wears a leek in his hat.)

Sorry, CN. I wish I could have sent the photos to you.

Everyone in the park was laughing their asses off. I just wish my phone could have recorded the anguished groans of the undead.

*OK, just people in excellent costumes looking like extras from a George Romero movie. One woman had a lifelike gnawed foot hanging from the pocked of her tattered rags. Another dude was in a nautical get-up, complete with a life ring around his head, kind of an undead Judge Smails back from the wreck of the Flying Wasp. I can't emphasize how entertaining this one.

It's what's for dinner

I am going to eat some fucking cereal.

You know what Vanilla Special K tastes like? Like ice cream. I am going to pour the goddamn cereal into a motherfucking bowl, and then get out the milk, and then I'm going to eat it.

What I'm saying, assholes, is that I'm going to eat that goddamn cereal.

I'm not going to eat it with any pussy skim milk. Whole milk, bitches. I took my ass to the bodega to buy some milk and some goddamn Vanilla Special K. Skim milk? Out. Whole milk? Hell yes. "Ring me up that whole milk, motherfucker, and hurry," I told the cashier. "I'm going to buy my ass a pack of Trident, too."

So I did. Exact change, motherfuckers, because there's nothing that fucks up my shit like getting nickels and pennies back from the cashier.

The whole goddamn commercial transaction got me so excited that I chewed some motherfucking Trident as soon as I left that bodega. Now I'm going to eat that fucking cereal. If you don't like that I'll have no recourse other than to regulate your skim milk-drinking ass, asshole.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The shitty-TV-show equivalent of found money

... is pretty much defined by this. You're flipping channels, and an episode of "Just Shoot Me" comes on, but David Cross is guest-starring. Or maybe just getting a break. I don't know what part of his career this is, just that it was before he was Dr. Tobias F√ľnke.

Regardless, it's pretty much the only reason I can conceive of for watching this show, outside of "the prison guard wouldn't change the channel." Although usually when I come across it, I'll stick around until I see what Laura San Giacomo's wearing.

But man, David Cross on "Just Shoot Me" ... where do you think he puts that on his resume?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Trick or treat

Almost every day or night, I stop off at my corner bodega for something. A coffee, sweet with milk and sugar and the promise of wakefulness in the morning. A beer from the tubs of ice in front after a long day at work. A bottle of water before I go play hockey on Sundays. I'm a familar face.

At night, a wizened and round Korean man sits behind the counter. I always nod hello to him when I walk in and wish him a good night when I complete my purchases. He always gruffly nods and ignores me and I wonder it's just that he's embarrassed by his English, or that he's unhappy with his lot in life. It always troubles me just a little bit as I take those seven steps out the front door from the counter to the sidewalk.

On my way home on a cold and blustery Saturday night, I stopped in before retiring. As I made my selection from the cooler, I noticed three people in Halloween costumes walk in. All were dressed festively, but I couldn't discern what their costumes represented. I watched them go off to buy beer and decided it wasn't worth further effort to figure out. I turned back to the counter where a fourth reveler stood, completing her purchase.

Considering the weather, I was impressed with her commitment: She wore a minskirt and some sort of top that covered her barely more than a sports bra. As I was noting the gooseflesh on her exposed abdomen, I realized I probably shouldn't stare, even though she was dressed up as a hooker. I flicked my eyes upward to look at her hair, which seemed oddly messy and stringy. As I did this, she turned around and asked if I would like a blowjob.

I politely demurred.

"Everyone wants a blowjob"

She addressed the man behind the counter: "Am I right?"

He ignored her and she collected her purchase (two packs of condoms, ribbed) and change, and bounced out the side door, where a black BMW sat at the curb.

I looked at the man behind the counter and we were both silent for a moment, before he broke up giggling like a 10-year-old kid, his face more alive than I'd ever seen it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Three things people are seeking

Received this evening from someone on the University of Tennessee domain:
"chris leak kisses little boys with his shirt off"
Second-worst search hit of the day:
"butler "mr. mom" economics milton friedman"
Third-worst search hit of today;
"see very cool russian movies plus new movies from russian chanels"

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

In case you missed the A-Kucz hatin'

Gawker has taken up the torch, with a never-gratuitous swipe at The New York Times' own materialism beat writer, Alex Kuczynski.

We've haven't by any means run out of nasty things to say about The New York Times, we've just stopped saying them because they made us feel like angry old men shaking our fists at the sky. Or at least, that's how I felt, so I cut it out.

That said, I don't care if Alex throws her Italo Zuccheli-designed acrylic frisbee or her pashmina Nerf football over our hedges. I'm not letting her go get it. She should have thought of that before she lost it.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Hooters is a cruel mistress

The wedding was over and I needed a fix, the way any vein-corrupted addict needs a fix.

I understood the urgency of the common crackwhore; I felt the jitters of the cokehead and the cravings of the junky, the humiliation of the man who pawns the only heirloom to take a last turn at the blackjack table.

I couldn't follow my embargo. Self-control is for the weak and discipline is for the apathetic.

"You have to call your brother and get the score," I said to the Watchman.

It had been an afternoon of defeat of frustrations. We drove from New York to ACC country, where we would attend the wedding of a close friend. Michigan-Iowa would not be broadcast by ABC. The Watchman called a local Hooters (a dining establishment that stands out for its boobery and eclectic clientele) to confirm that it would carry the game. No problem, we were told.

At zero hour, Hooters did not carry the game. It didn't carry ABC at all, much less GamePlan. Our waitress tried to convince us that Michigan-Iowa wasn't being aired anyplace in the nation at all, an assertion so disboobular that it should have lost her a tip; having observed her other patrons, the Watchman and I still left thirty percent.

In our rented SUV, I had a Rain Man outburst of profanity and howling, then immediately settled. I was certain of a Michigan victory. By maintaining my composure, I would prove to myself that I am an adult.

The college football season is a cactus flower. Your team blooms on only 12 Saturdays each year. That allows a team about 42 hour of oxygen and sunlight. We pause and it is gone, and for the eight months that follow the bowl season we can only reflect on our misspent youths, the sins of punting, and life's cruel brevity.

I contemplated these things as Hooters faded in the rearview mirror.

Improvising, I decided to turn off my cell phone and avoid all updates on the score. I would watch Notre Dame-UCLA at the hotel, and watch the Michigan game when I returned to my apartment and my Tivo. It would be fine -- maybe even ideal.

I conjured my happy place (thoughts of puppy dogs, Grand Theft Auto, the poetry of e.e. cummings) and forgot.

We arrived at the wedding; my condition was of a man drugged on antipsychotics, and the game was far from my mind. The Watchman and I chatted with the groom's father and posed for a photograph with the groom's brother. I enjoyed the cool night air and the birds overhead, imperturbable.

Then came one of the groom's college roommates. He knew the score at halftime. My facade crumbled and I begged: tied 3-3.

As we settled into our seats, apocalyptic scenarios tumbled through my mind. I recalled internet rumors that Mike Hart was injured, that Adrian Arrington was suspended. I imagined an injured Chad Henne replaced by a dumbstruck Jason Forcier, an imploded offensive line, and I recalled the curse of the recent second-ranked teams that had suffered such inglorious meltdowns.

The ceremony was as well officiated as any that I've attended. As occasionally happens at weddings, there were neutral remarks that triggered moments of clarity and the concern that I'm a bit of a mess. And I was genuinely happy for the bride and groom, whose relationship I'd first heard about in the summer of 1998.

It was no easy job, reconciling the moment with my terror about the Michigan score. Cognitive dissonance? Don't mind if I do.

I might compare my thoughts to the following:
  • A video of adorable bunnies while Megadeth blares in the background.
  • A photo that depicts a bouquet of roses in a crystal vase while a house burns in the background.
  • A pastoral country picnic with Garrison Keiler and Terri Gross while a storm of locusts blackens the horizon.
Quiet, contemplative contentment coupled with dread.

The wedding ended and I begged the Watchman to call his brother for an update. (Confident of my newly scorched detachment, I'd left my phone at the hotel.)

The score was 20-6, with minutes left in the game. The hurricane disappeared as quickly as it arrived. I lit a cigarette, exhaled slowly, laughed at my folly, and enjoyed the wedding worry-free.

I tend to feel minor stress when I attend weddings, but I sat at a gregarious table and made new friends. A couple orchestrated blind dates for the Watchman while two fellow-gentiles and I mangled the hora. As the reception wound down the groom's brother organized the hotel afterparty.

There are two kinds of social functions I can competently organize: my yearly St. Patrick's Day dinner and wedding afterparties at hotels. The hotel afterparty may be my favorite part of the wedding. You spend several hours with people you have seen passed out in bars and sick on sidewalk corners, or for whom you bought beer when they were underage, who have seen you in pitches of rowdiness and misery. I thought about how the groom went to the hospital the night after Michigan beat Ohio State in 1997 because he bloodied up his forehead with an ill-timed leap into a doorframe. And suddenly -- pow! -- there you all are, in suits and ties, and there are careers and new spouses and a wedding etiquette.

At the hotel afterparty, everyone returns to normal: jeans and sneakers, bottles of beer and hard liquor, the natural order still in effect.

The groom's brother designated a room. I helped spread the word and volunteered to buy the beer. The Watchman and I began our second doomed quest of the day. A local ordinance forbade grocery stores from selling beer, and all the liquor stores were closed. For a half-hour, the Watchman and I drove through empty streets and the parking lots of strip malls. There was nothing we could do, but I nevertheless chastised myself, imagining an afterparty lubricated only by Diet Pepsi and Fritos. I would take responsibility for the night's premature end.

Yet as with the day's earlier crisis, everything worked out. Others had prepurchased some liquor and beer. There was enough to last us until well past 2 a.m.

The groom came shortly after the Watchman and I arrived. As we watched College Football Final and drank Blue Moon, two Penn State grads tried to bait us by singing the Nittany Lions fight song. The groom tried to make them shut up. I told him that they should sing because it was cute: Penn State provoking Michigan is like a kitten provoking a hippo.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

On love and loss

Just got off the horn with CrimeNotes, who is in football-fan hell. He has a wedding to attend this weekend, in the suburbs of a mid-sized American city that happens to be in ACC territory. He and a friend just spent two hours sitting at a Hooters only to be informed moments ago by the staff that the Michigan-Iowa game "just isn't on any network anywhere."

Apparently, much conversation and attempted explanation ensued before they finally threw up their hands in frustration. My co-blogger will now spend the rest of the day drinking, trying not to think about football, and dancing the Hora. Weeping in frustration is optional, though he can always explain it away by saying that he's a sentimental fool at weddings.

Also, in two hours at a Hooters, he's probably had more than his weekly RDA of eye candy, so maybe the day's not a total loss.



Who would you rather watch shake it on a football Saturday? Yeah, me too.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Words of reassurance

You don't have bedbugs. Bedbugs exist and may be a minor plague in certain New York neighborhoods, including my own. What you just showed me isn't a bedbug scab, it's a zit. What you just showed me isn't a bedbug scab, it's a paper cut. What you just showed me isn't a bedbug scab, it's a bullet wound.

You don't have bedbugs.

Obsessing over bedbugs will not help you, your ancestors, your descendants or your sleep. It will make you crazy.

You don't have bedbugs, you have fleas.

You don't have bedbugs, you have Dutch Elm Disease.

You don't have bedbugs, you have lice, and if I were the principal, I would inspect your hair to prove it. Unfortunately, I am not the principal -- I am a jackass, and when I find your headlice, I will mock you and then spray Raid in your hair. Then I will shave your head. You'll thank me for it later -- best way to get rid of lice.

You don't have bedbugs, you have scurvy, which you probably deserve because all you drink is cans of Miller High Life, Nyquil, and decaf coffee (you're worried about blood pressure) and all you eat is bacon and more bacon. This wouldn't have happened if you ate cole slaw, but you think you're too good for cabbage, so instead you got scurvy. Ahoy.

You don't have bedbugs.

Cole Slaw Blog's urban dictionary

baby: (n.) A self-deprecating replacement for the first-person pronoun when referencing oneself, often used to express desires that are basic (ex: "Baby wants to order pizza.") whiny (ex: "Baby hates this bar.") or arbitrary (ex: "Baby doesn't like haircuts.").
bag of dicks: (n.) 1. A highly unpleasant and unnecessary experience; nuisance. (Ex.: "I fell down and twisted my ankle. It was a bag of dicks.") 2. A satchel of penises. (Ex.: "Mary Jo found a bag of dicks by the pond, so she called the police.")
crack (n.) Upper cleavage of the buttocks. (ex: "I saw some lady's crack when she sat at the bar.").
DDP: (n.) A mythical, irrepressible hybrid who communicates via cawing, sports curly hair, and has flippers for hands. Ex.: "I saw the DDP in East River Park. She was feasting on a seagull."
french (v.) A manner of kissing that involves the contact of tongues; French kissing; making out. Ex: "At my birthday party, I Frenched that pretty lady by the bathroom doors."
hoot: (v.) A high-pitch onomatopoeic call; whoop. Ex: "I hooted on the rooftop until 3 a.m."
navarre: (n.) Profanity shouted in moments of great pain and frustration. Ex: "You just severed my arm. Navarre!"
pretty lady: (n.) An attractive female. Ex: "The pretty lady entices me."
smashtastic: (adj.) Of superb quality; fantastic. Ex: "That triple lindy you just performed was smashtastic."
tits: (adj.) A superlative that connotes peerless excellence. Ex.: "Mario Manningham is tits."
Turkish: (adj.) A modifier used to describe a poor imitation of a higher-quality original; derives from film classic Turkish Wizard of Oz and the Turkish film industry generally, but does not apply to Turkey or its people. Ex.: "Jim and Pam are the Turkish Tim and Dawn."

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

So does this mean the Green Zone is like the Meatpacking District?

Ah, Republicans. There's literally no straw they'll leave ungrasped.

Clearly, he's wrong. Because if Baghdad were the new Manhattan, we'd soon be seeing The New York Times debut its new section: "Baghdad Styles." Just think of it. Reviews of the new Vera Wang line of hijabs, trend stories about how more and more men are turning toward professionals for honor killings, and the effect of sites like myspace.com on death-squad organizing.

Also, Alex Kuczynski sniffs at the handbag selections in the local bazaars and Stephanie Rosenbloom reports that shrapnel stings like a motherfucker.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Maybe every day actually should be Saturday

1. The Detroit Tigers. Growing up, the Detroit Tigers were the only team that I loved: not Michigan football or the Red Wings. The Bad Boys weren't yet a glimmer.

I became a sports fan in 1987. The Tigers and the Blue Jays ended the regular season with a three-game series that determined the American League East championship. Frank Tanana ended the season with a 1-0 victory. My elementary school class: overjoyed.

Until moving away in 1999, I followed the Tigers every day. During college, we'd go to an empty Tiger Stadium to watch Juan Encarnacion and Gabe Kapler. (Memorably, we also were in Tiger Stadium the day that Grosse Pointe was struck by a tornado; we spent the entire drive back to Ann Arbor arguing about weather. Jim remains safe.) I still know the Tigers of the mid-1980s better than I know the team today.

This season took me by surprise, like it did everyone. Not until I was home in August did I fall back in love with this team. The problem with baseball is that it's such a daily habit. It requires energy to track any team's rhythm. Reading online doesn't do the trick. Without TV or radio, it's only a long-distance relationship.

A long-distance relationship has its rewards. I was at Yankee Stadium on August 30 when the Tigers won in their last at-bat. Our row of Detroit fans, silent and respectful through the whole game, erupted. We took the slings and arrows of a bitter Yankees fan in the row ahead of us, but no punches to the head like the unlucky Tigers fan a few rows behind. The romance was rekindled.

My happiness with this year's Tigers team is altogether different from my Michigan fandom. It's more about nostalgia than real-time triumph. I don't know if it has to do with baseball specifically -- some kind of watered-down Field of Dreams hokum -- or the fact that I'm so far removed from a team that once meant everything to me. It isn't as triumphant or euphoric as seeing Michigan beat Notre Dame or Ohio State, but for some reason it feels warmer and more satisfying. College football is like standing outside drunk, watching Fourth of July fireworks; the Tigers going to the World Series is like going home for Thanksgiving.

2. Chad Henne: all grown up. Michigan's defense is an apocalyptic concussion machine. It is Ash Williams slaughtering a legion of Evil Dead. It is Kamala the Ugandan Headhunter crushing Tito Santana. Its seven-sack, quarterback-crippling blitzkrieg can only be attributed to Lloyd Carr's secret ownership of the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

Even though we got to see two Penn State quarterbacks melt in real time, the observation that I take from Saturday night's whupping session -- so much starker and more dramatic than the 17-10 score -- is that Chad Henne, a mere boy last season, has become a man. He played with poise and composition. Watching the game for a second time, I was struck by how authoritative and in control he looked. His judgment was superb throughout. But for a dropped pass to Mike Massey and a couple more drops from an otherwise-superb Steve Breaston, this would have been a two- or three-touchdown domination.

In a loud crowd without his star receiver, Henne's worst sins amounted to a couple passes thrown too low and another couple thrown too far. Any Big 10 quarterback short of Troy Smith would have had the aim of a drunken PR flak playing Big Buck Hunter 3. That stage of Henne's college career is over. He is to be believed.

3. Miami's vices. I'm done saying nice things about Larry Coker, who, despite a growing record of mediocrity at Miami, I credited for reining in a program that often displays the discipline and dignity of a prison riot. For much of this season, I viewed calls for his ousting as emblematic of college football's bad priorities.

First came the fracas at Louisville, where Miami's finest thought that it would be good form to hold a pre-game squaredance on Louisville's mid-field logo. But Saturday night's bloodfest -- featuring post-societal anarchical violence best left to a Mel Gibson movie -- was of a completely different scale.

Donna Shalala, the president of Miami, was Bill Clinton's HHS Secretary. Between Clinton, Coker, and his team, she has earned an honorary doctorate in men behaving badly.



4. Breaking Away. Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner has had two brain surgeries in the last year. Indiana is a thoroughly likeable school and inoffensive football program. And yet, I couldn't help feeling frustrated that Iowa -- a team expected to compete for the Big 10 title -- fell to Indiana on Saturday. It was the kind of loss worthy of an ACC program; it made the Big 10 look bush league.

Still, it was a moment of joy, watching Hoeppner's gray-haired wife, in a skirt and white cardigan, run through the end zone as the clock ran out, then peck kisses on Terry's face when his postgame interview ended. I loved every second of that. Thank you, Tivo. Sometimes you forget that sports cliches from TV and movies happen with regularity in real life, and when they do, it's always more satisfying than the movie.

5. Florida-Auburn. It could be my year-long, all-day-long addiction to EDSBS. For whatever reason, Florida may be the team I've watched most this season, after Michigan, and I would have liked nothing more than seeing Florida play Michigan or Ohio State in a national championship game. I've loved the unpredictability caused by the Chris Leak/Tim Tebow quarterbacking duo, and in a day-glo conference fueled by moonshine, Phil Fulmer, cheerleader boobs, and the ghost of Bear Bryant, Florida's program is comparatively likeable.

Hence, I was disappointed to see them lose to Auburn, whose sour-grapes coach Tommy Tuberville is now giving Phil Fulmer and Jim Tressel a run as most hateable coach in college football. (Post-Neuheisel only.) As a program, Auburn appears to care about bitching roughly as much as competence -- even in victory, Tuberville was whining about the absence of a college football playoff. Rain of dogs, please.

6. A tip for cleaner living. Hey, have you guys tried this shit where you can go to a gym, run on a treadmill, and watch college football on a little TV? A few miles and much sweat later, it's halftime of Wisconsin-Minnesota. Also, running really hard while you watch football is fun. It just is. It may make you too tired to stay out drinking until 4, but I think that it enhances the experience.

Friday, October 13, 2006

And out come the stupids

In the 48 hours since Cory Lidle's plane flew into a building on the Upper East Side, there have been all sorts of silly, dimwitted and downright panicked reactions by people who were nowhere near the impact.

Most center around the fact that, five years after Sept. 11, a giant armored dome wasn't built over Manhattan to protect it from hurtling aircraft.

In the hours immediately after, I recall watching CNN and seeing Jack Cafferty grumble his way through some viewer e-mail. One, from Brooklyn appeared to advocate a total ban on planes anywhere in the country taking off without a flight plan and total supervision from our nation's already chronically understaffed corps of air-traffic controllers.

There has also been grandstanding from pols. "A smart terrorist could load up a small, little plane with biological, chemical or even nuclear material and fly up the Hudson or East rivers, no questions asked," said Senator Charles Schumer, who clearly favors floating security desks at all approaches to Manhattan, at pilots would have questions asked.

Our douchebag governor got into the act, too. Yeah, those controllers keeping jumbos from piling up over Canarsie and East Rutherford, let's make them monitor the 1010 WINS traffic chopper, too. Because effective air-traffic control would totally have made that plane's turn tigther.

While this disaster wasn't an act of terrorism, I think it's safe to say, all these people _ and presumably thousands of others _ have been pretty effectively terrorized. And they've shown as much by their reactions.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

These are the girls who date me

I got a call from an ex girlfriend last night. We dated for 11 months before we separated under friendly circumstances for reasons that had little to do with our relationship. Consquently, we remain friends to this day. Chuggy, as we'll call her on this blog, because she once drank Crimenotes under the table in short order, is originally from the Bay area, but has been living in Chicago since August. The following is an approximate recreation of our conversation last night:

Me: So how's life in "the middle"?
Chuggy: It's good. I love it, but it's hard to find good seafood.
Me: Yes, not like here, when you knew the sushi was fresh because it came right out of the East River. Have you been going out much?
Chuggy: Yeah, I went out with [a large group of grad-school classmates]. We decided to go see an 80's cover band at this club.
Me: Sounds cool.
Chuggy: It was. I got all dressed up. I spent over an hour getting ready. I teased my hair and wore green eyeshadow. I had the ripped shirt off one shoulder, and I tore up some leggings to go with it.
Me: Yeah, you're good at a la minute T-shirt modification. [This is a reference to when she won a $40 bet with my friend and frequent commenter Crunk Raconteur by girling up a gag-gift T-shirt that read "Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck" and wearing it unabashedly out to the bar that night.]
Chuggy: Yeah, but here's the problem. I got to the club where the band was playing first, and they were trying to seem cool, so they weren't letting anyone in. And I was the only one in line wearing these clothes. Then everyone else showed up, and no one else was dressed up. I was the only one!
Me: [laughter]
Chuggy: Yeah, and then the line still wasn't moving, so we went across the street to an OTB and drank there. I fit in a little bit better. Then we finally went into the club across the street, and I got pretty drunk.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Friday Night Lights

I haven't read the universally loved book by Buzz Bissinger, but I admire the movie and expected the TV series to misfire. A weekly drama about high schoolers who play football sounded like a sporty Dawson's Creek, or, at best, serialized Lucas.

Tonight I caught the pilot on Tivo. It's as good as the adulatory reviews say. It knows how small-town kids look and talk -- and how they spar and drink and self-delude. Like the movie, it doesn't waste time with mechanical exposition or sentiment. It also owes a debt to The Last Picture Show, the best movie ever made about small towns, teenage sex, and Texas. In both, you can't tell what emotions are repressed and when people are just cluelessly numb.

In a few shots, the flatland panoramas look like they were pulled from an Andrew Wyeth painting.

If the pilot errs anywhere, it's a failure to integrate the football game itself into the narrative momentum. Unlike the film, where the games have the crushing tension and unpredictability of a real-life contest, the on-the-field developments in the series feature a grab-bag of plays and angles climaxing with injury and cliche.

The other great new show is called Ugly Betty, which is not geared toward me, and which I'm embarrased to admit that I love. It's a serialized comedy about a not-beautiful Queens College graduate working at a nasty fashion magazine. The title character is so endearing and pure, and she suffers so many petty cruelties at the hands of lesser people, that in both episodes I've felt genuinely moved by her. All credit goes to the lead actress, who knows how to portray vulnerable and tough, but doesn't overact or go for easy emotion. Due to the show, I've promised myself to be nicer at work and patient about little screw-ups.

Like Friday Night Lights, Ugly Betty isn't hung up on winking inside jokes, false hipness or misplaced "irony." As HBO quickly nears a post-Sopranos implosion, it has much to learn from the major networks.

Why we don't write about Mark Foley

One of our loyal readers wrote to ask why Flop and I haven't tackled the typo-laden Humbert Humbert routine of a predatory Congressman. In my reply e-mail, I ended up writing something worthwhile about what's not worth writing about:
I'm at a loss -- the thing speaks for itself. Is it tragic? Is it hilarious? I'm an edge uncomfortable with how the Democrats framed this, certainly disgusted with how the Republicans have responded, but at the end of the day, can I justify thinking about this more than Iraq? Not to be a self-righteous downer, but the spectacle seems like the tale of a lunatic, his enablers, dimwitted teens, and political opportunists, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. At least the matter of individual liberties underlined the Schiavo disaster.

I did briefly consider a post about graphic D-list celebrity sex tapes a la Screech, but imagining Mindy Cohn getting banged by the cast of Meerkat Manor felt a little too tawdry.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Golden with barlight and beer: The last in a series about The Hold Steady

If you're reading this sentence -- if you've been reading anything I've written lately -- you probably know that The Hold Steady's "Boys and Girls in America" went on sale today.

Yes, it's been a long wait, and yes, after the band's euphoric Sunday night show it's a little anticlimactic. Not to mention that I've had the album long enough that I've now listened to it about 20 times.

Tad Kubler and his badass new guitar. Sunday night at Irving
Plaza, via
rogo2000's photo stream.

Good News: "Boys and Girls in America" is clearly their most accessible album, packed with catchy hooks and choruses and vocals sufficiently close to singing that one of the most persistent gripes about the band may be slightly alleviated.

I'm not holding my breath. This is a polarizing band, and I understand that. The biggest reason I love them is a body of lyrics that speaks to me in a way that Springsteen speaks to some of my friends and Billy Joel speaks to others and Bob Seger speaks to a few. I've never loved those guys because I find them unrelatable. The Hold Steady's stories, I find hugely relatable, and they somehow came along at the right time in my life to work. In college I would have talked about Dante, in high school I would have talked about Dylan, in junior high I would have talked about the Detroit Tigers -- but right now it's a little embarrassing that the two things that thrill me most are a rock band and a college football team.

Notwithstanding, it's a peppy album -- at times a cheerful album -- even though one too familiar with hangovers and hospitals to be uplifting. It's their most listenable album. It doesn't wear you down and it wants you at the party.

The slightly less good news. It's no "Separation Sunday." It doesn't swing for the fences in the same way and it doesn't move in the same way. Craig Finn isn't drawing from the Old Testament or the Resurrection; he isn't telling a virtuoso multicharacter story about a fall and a redemption. As catchy as the songs are, none knocks me to the floor the way "Stevie Nix" and "How a Resurrection Really Feels" still do.

But expecting that would be unreasonable. "Blood on the Tracks" is still "Blood on the Tracks," and if you spend your whole time comparing "Desire" to the masterwork you're going to end up frustrated. A near-great album is nothing to scoff at.

But for one stretch, the album is great. In the middle of the album is a trio of perfectly aligned songs.

First is the graceful, beautiful "First Nights." We catch up with old friends from "Separation Sunday," and they've seen better days. After a brief melody from Franz Nicolay's piano, we're told that "Charlemagne shakes in the streets. Gideon makes love to the sweets. Holly's not invincible. In fact she's in the hospital, not far from that bar where we met on that first night."

What's the first night? The first high, and the first night they met. It's a mournful, beautiful songs about regrets, nostalgia, and separation. "Holly's insatiable. She still looks incredible, but she don't look like that same girl we met on that first night. She was golden with barlight and beer. She slept like she's never been scared."

Golden with barlight and beer: if that phrase doesn't evoke an image for you, this is not a band you want to know and you're not someone I want to drink with.

The piano-heavy tune evokes everything, drinking alone in a bar in the rain, thinking about what's missing and what you've missed. And after all of that beautiful bittersweet reminiscing, what do you learn? That's Holly's inconsolable because she can't get as high as she got on that first night. Is she talking about drugs (probably) or the ineffible (optimistically)? It's sad either way.

We get a slow crescendo starting with the album's title -- the phrase "boys and girls in America" repeated in a half-whisper -- that builds into a guitar boomlet and lyrics that allude to an ealier song on the album -- "don't bother with the guys with the hot soft eyes" -- and then the refrain "when they kiss they spit white noise." And those white-noise kisses contrast with the Twin Cities kisses from the first track, "Stuck Between Stations," where they "sound like clicks and hisses."

The lyrical self-references continue in the next track, "The Party Pit," which to my ears is a straight-out party song. The last time we were in the party pit, it was in "Separation Sunday's" song "Banging Camp," where we saw Holly shaking but still trying to shake it. It's the story about a lost girlfriend that the narrator met at the party pit. They "sailed away on such separate trips, and she got pimped out at the party pit" once the narrator was away at college.

In an e-mail, our occasional guest-blogger and commentator Crunk Raconteur indicated that he thought this was an extremely dark song. I don't hear it that way. I think that "pimped" is used in the colloquial sense, not a literal one. She thinks that all those things she did were just momentum from the party pit; our two main characters are speculating while they walk into a euphoria-inducing "brand new Minneapolis."

These aren't exactly good times, but like so much in this band's body of lyrics, they're times when the best and worst naturally coexist. The narrator is "pretty sure we kissed," but then he's left with no option but to "walk around and drink some more."

More ambiguous is the next song, "You Can Make Him Like You." The Sunday Times just ran an interesting article on this band that varied between the insightful and the vacuous, but one of the mysteries of it was a description of this song as "uncharacteristically heavy-handed."

The song is not heavy-handed. I'm not sure what exactly it is -- whether it's a bitter ex-boyfriend declaiming the recklessness of an ex-girlfriend, whether it's an oddly encouraging song about a spoiled girl who waltzes through whatever she likes, whether it's a depressed girl trying to encourage herself. It's a song packed with memorable lines: "You don't have to know inspiring people, let your boyfriend know inspiring people. You can hang out in the kitchen, talk about the stars and the upcoming sequel. ... You don't have to go to the right kind of schools, let your boyfriend come from the right kind of schools. You can wear his old sweatshirt and cover yourself like a bruise."

I don't know what exactly Craig Finn is trying to say, but with great specificity it conjures up all kinds of names, faces, incidents and disruptions from high school. Some of those girls turned out to have great lives and some did not, but we definitely knew them.

Mutual crowd-band love on display Sunday night at Irving Plaza,
from
rogo2000's photostream.

This three-song stretch is particularly strong, but scattered elsewhere on the album are some other small triumphs.

The strange and beautiful acoustic song "Citrus" is a paean to booze and Christianity: "Hey citrus, hey liquor, I love it when you touch each other ... I see Judas in the hard eyes of the boys working the corners. I feel Jesus in the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers." Like "Stuck Between Stations" and "First Nights," it's a genuinely moving piece of work.

The album's first single "Chips Ahoy!" and its companion piece "Hot Soft Light" are two of the hardest rocking, most straightforward songs on the album. "Chips Ahoy!" features a man who dates a woman with the psychic gift to predict the winners of horseraces. "Hot Soft Light" is a chronicle about addiction ("it started recreational / and it ended kind of medical / it came on hot and soft and then it tightened up its tentacles."). They're the band flexing its "Back in Black" muscles and giving the introspection a rest.

But then the album gets slightly clumsy. Another guitar-heavy song called "Same Kooks" is fine, but not particularly memorable. It abstains from the same lyrical pyrotechnics of earlier rockers like "Knuckles" or "The Swish."

"Massive Night" and "Southtown Girls" I found slightly annoying until I saw them played live, when they proved to be great sing-along anthems. "Massive Night," about antics at a school dance, comes across as a parody of Hold Steady lyrics, culminating with the lines, "She had a gun in her mouth and she was shooting up in her dreams when the chaperone said that we'd been crowned the king and the queen."

I classify that as trying too hard.

"Southtown Girls" sounds a little syrupy. If the phrase "Southtown girls won't blow you away, but you know that they'll stay" sounds potentially tiresome, you're right -- except when at a live show with several hundred of your best friends, screaming the words repeatedly.

Lastly, there's an abysmal song called "Chillout Tent." It's a song I'd rather forget. It's the story of two hugely unlikeable kids who show up at a rock festival, overindulge on psychedlics, detox in "the chillout tent," hook up, and never see one another again. Craig Finn serves as narrator, and two guest vocalists play the part of the boy and girl. The song sounds like a horrendous misfire from a Broadway musical that aspires to edginess; the guest vocals, so annoying that they're unbearable.

This band is nothing if not generous with thanks and lavish with praise to other musicians. I imagine that someone recognized this was a clunker, but, not wanting to offend the two guest vocalists (who have bands and careers of their own) they decided to include it anyway.

"Chillout Tent" poisoned my first listen of this album, which I've since grown to love. With the exception of "Chillout Tent," even the clumsy songs are better than 95 percent of other bands' output.

I previously made some Dylan allusions. Blasphemous, yes, and not particularly meaningful, but it's time to expand on the heresy.

I'm not speaking in terms of greatness.

But the best lyrics of The Hold Steady have created a wholly authentic and credible world of their own. Like "Desolation Row." Like "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts." Like "Queen Jane Approximately" and "Like a Rolling Stone" and "One More Cup of Coffee." The Hold Steady has produced a near-great album and a kick-ass party, but have also established discrete worlds of their own, as universal as they are specific.

Monday, October 02, 2006

We were overjoyed

Photo taken from Kathryn's photostream.

Reveling at tonight's Hold Steady show in Irving Plaza, about six months after the band's April barnburner at Warsaw, I reached some conclusions about crowds at Hold Steady shows. What I saw last April was not an outlier.

These are not the standard New York concertgoing crowds. People do not stand hugging themselves, nod indifferently, and chat between songs. There is hardly a hipster in sight -- the sniffling indie kids and the clustered up clubber kids are called out at the start of the encore set when, inevitably, Craig Finn starts it off with a positive jam. The median age is somewhere in the early 30s. A solid contingent of exiles from the Upper Midwest make up the crowd, as is made clear when Craig Finn references Minneapolis or the region during his segues between songs.

In this city, only at a Hold Steady show do you see middle-aged professional greybeards jumping -- jumping -- next to a trio of hot 25-year-old girls shouting about how Mackenzie Phillips doesn't live here anymore. Most nights you see a band perform to a crowd that roundly could not give a shit.

So The Hold Steady sings about how they always dream of a unified scene, and at their shows they somehow pull it off. My voice hoarse and fist in the air, I turned back to say something to a friend and caught the eye of a woman standing next to me. She and I didn't say anything, just smiled -- beamed -- in a moment of collective triumph that I've rarely experienced anywhere other than Michigan Stadium.

The rapport between band and audience is incomparable. For all the gripes about Craig Finn not having a melodic singing voice, it's his rhythmic half-shouting that makes a great live show. Anyone can sing along, and everyone seems to. When they broke into "Southtown Girls," a song from an album that isn't even released yet, instead of an unaccompanied a capella voice beginning the song's opening anthem, all of Irving Plaza was singing: Southtown girls won't blow you away, but you know that they'll stay. This appeared to take the band completely by surprise.

This intensity and affection goes both ways: When guitarist Tad Kubler stepped to the microphone and said, "We can't thank you guys enough," there wasn't a drop of cynicism.

Tonight's penultimate song was "Most People Are DJs." Craig Finn opened up his arms like he was hugging the entire crowd, repeatedly mouthing the words 'Thank you." Tad drank from a bottle of Jack Daniels and passed it down to the crowd. Crowd surfing ensued. Every hand in the house was in the air. By then, my arms were hurting. My voice had run out.