Monday, February 24, 1997

Music by Committee

One of the duties of my job with Washington County is to occasionally go down to the Capitol to track election legislation. It has been an educational experience to witness how our laws are conceived and executed and the protocol of politics. Election laws are a highly discussed issue with legislators since each of them in order to be where they are had to succeed in an election. And since there is nothing so dangerous as a successful politician, each of them feels they have some expertise in how elections should be conducted. This is akin however to each of us thinking we are expert musicians simply on the basis of our ability to sell the latest U2 CD.

Watching the legislature at work is more a psychology than a civics lesson. On the particular day I went down to sit in on a elections hearing the house committee was discussing a bill that would allow all registered voters in Minnesota the choice to vote by mail by requesting a ballot in writing. Current law only allows voters who are absent from their precinct, incapacitated or serving as an election judge in another precinct to vote absentee. The bill's author and supporters feel that by allowing everyone the choice to vote by mail, voter participation would increase.

During the committee's discussion the only concern to the bill that was raised was the argument that elections are geared to happen on a given day, a given moment and all the campaign energy is focused to reach its effectiveness by that specific date. Allowing people to vote by mail would mean campaigns couldn't coordinate their focus as effectively. And in a worst case scenario such as the governor's race of a few years back when a candidate (Jon Grunseth) became involved in a scandal days before election day, voters who had already cast their ballot would not have the opportunity to react to the latest news.

The bill's author countered this argument by saying the option to vote by mail would still allow voters the chance to go to their polling place on election day and cast their ballot in person, canceling their mailed in vote. Discussion aside, the chair of the committee called for a vote. What had been a one sided discussion where everyone seemed to think the bill was a good idea, was not reflected in the vote. All the DFL'ers in the room voted for passage, and all the Republicans voted against the bill. Turns out the current governor is against any vote by mail provisions. Despite the claims that partisan politics were a thing of the past, they are going just as strong as ever. So it was just another day at the legislature.


This coming from a guy that actually enjoyed the Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, phenomenon, I must admit I was at a loss to appreciate the New Kids on the Block and now the Spice Girls' appeal. While I agree it is true that this country needs teeny bopping role models, I fail to see what all the hoopla is about the current group du jour. Granted the only thing I've seen or heard of theirs was a video I happened across on MTV while I was in the middle of clicking. I watched for a few minutes and then continued with my clicking. The music seemed pleasant enough, and they appear to be happy and wholesome youngsters but there lacked a certain charisma, a certain intrigue to it all. Maybe I'm just becoming the curmudgeon I've strived to be but I wouldn't want my youngsters to spend their hard earned (I'm sure) allowances on this latest marketing fad.

So how do I explain my fondness for Debbie Gibson and yet maintain my equal disdain for the Spice Girls? It's the committee, gang, clique, group mentality that doesn't quite work for me. If you're going to try and corner the teenage market (and I of course being the perpetual teenager am now going on to my twenty second teenage year) at least have the courage to do it individually. The message that teenagers seldom hear is the one that encourages them to develop whatever it is that makes them different, makes them unique and not give into the all too prevalent don't do alone what all your friends, your tribe, are doing. And at the risk of being accused of being border closing, red coat fearing patriot I think we have plenty of fine young performers from our own shores. So stop the damn invasion. If the kiddies need to go to see a show I would have to steer them in the direction of LeAnn Rimes instead of that conglomerate from overseas.

Monday, February 17, 1997

Oh Susannah

Before the plan was devised and hatched to make Sandra Bullock the future Mrs. Maeda, there was another. Back in the archives of Cheapo lore lies my affection for this other who every time I saw her, every time I heard her, my heart would go flutter like a little bunny's. Susanna Hoffs, formerly of the Bangles, forever a fabulous babe, was this other lucky person that once occupied my heart. Whenever I saw her do that thing with her eyes, the "look" where she turns her gaze to the side, sigh...

So deep and so public was my affection that former Cheapo East Manager, Brian Haws, who used to disagree with me just to see if I actually had a pulse, used to fill my work shifts with disparaging remarks about Susanna ("She's got bug eyes! She says 'cowps' instead of cops in Walk Like an Egyptian and that isn't even a word!") just to test my loyalty to Ms. Hoffs. Christina Schlieske, now known as Tina of Tina and the B-Side Movement, promised to set me up with her friend Missy Morales because she supposedly looked exactly like Ms. Hoffs. Fernande Rodgers, who used to manage our video rentals back when we used to have video rentals, set aside Susanna's movie, The Allnighter just for me as soon as it arrived in the store so I could be the very first to see it. She also gave me the promotional poster that came along, all the while muttering underneath her breath, "I can't believe such an otherwise intelligent young man can behave so childish..."

When the Bangles broke up a few years back it was to me what the breakup of the Jayhawks was to many others. While it meant Susanna was now free to pursue solo endeavors, it meant the end of a group whose work I so enjoyed. As deep as my admiration was for Susanna, it was the group's harmonies and those jangly Byrd like guitars that made me listen to the music. Thus Susanna's first solo effort, When You're a Boy, though much anticipated was a bit of a let down. The CD was OK, but nothing I listen to very often. One of the Bangles charms was their astute choice of cover songs from Jules Shear's If She Knew What She Wants, to Alex Chilton's September Gurls, the group had a knack for complimenting decent originals with other well written songs. Susanna tried following the same formula with her effective and unusual cover of David Bowie's Boys Keep Swinging, but the rest of the disc seemed a bit impersonal at best.

It took six years for the follow up to finally arrive, the self titled Susanna Hoffs, but it was well worth the wait. The disc combines Susanna's whispy vocals with rocking good tunes, economical ballads, and a strong selection of songs. Like all good collections, the CD gathers impact with each repeated listen. The growth and maturity from her first disc is impressive during a time when the competition has raised the stakes, everyone from Sheryl Crow to Joan Osborne, Jewel to Tori Amos, Liz Phair to Patti Rothberg, Susanna's disc, with her sense of adventure and artistic aspirations holds its own. Now a veteran of the industry she helped move forward, it's appropriate that she is making a return of sorts in an era where the traditional has withstood the test of trends. With the return to form of perennial favorites like the world champion Yankees and Packers, Hoffs' comeback is welcome. Hers is a voice that was missed and has gained strength over the years, now achingly authentic in its appealing vulnerability.

Susanna Hoffs opens with her multi- tracked vocal sweetly "aahing" above a lone piano and the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar. Beekeeper's Blues strings several pop lyric homilies, "no good deed goes unpunished," "these boots are made for walking, they're walking back to you," "you were a future star, who do you think you are?" into an effective bittersweet diatribe directed toward one who the singer wants to walk away from as much as she wants to walk next to. The second song, a cover of the Lightning Seeds' All I Want, is the CD's first single. It is a lush ballad sung confidently by one who is willing to lay down what she wants. Indeed it is the sheer confidence of the singing and presentation that makes these silly love songs immensely listenable.

Other highlights include the confessional Darling One a song about her struggles and frustrations with her record label. "I saw you waiting there for the music to come back. Feeling blue cause there's so much to live up to. I wish that somehow I could give it to you." There's a "bonus" track cover of Lulu's To Sir With Love sung with convincing affection. Also Weak With Love a touching tribute to John Lennon, the most moving I've heard since Paul McCartney's Here Today. The song works because it doesn't praise John to the heavens but rather reflects on the loss the singer felt when she heard about his murder.

The disc reminds that the arc of time can be so compelling. Art that endures is as difficult to find as a permanent feeling. Feelings evolve and change, some for better, some for worse and one almost never knows which way they will go. It's a challenge to understand one's roots as those roots are constantly growing. Infatuation turns to intrigue turns to respect- a heart's beat. It is a lesson music like this helps one to understand.

NEXT WEEK: The Martha Quinn Years

Monday, February 10, 1997

A Clean Well Lighted Place

"In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused."
-Ernest Hemingway

Richard Attenborough's In Love and War is the type of movie that when it ends you ask yourself, "that was all very nice and all but what exactly was the point?" Yet the feeling may actually be oddly appropriate since in both love and war once they are over, one is often left asking one's self, "what the hell was that all about?" So it is a quiet, well lit, contemplative movie with not a lot of action, little memorable dialogue, yet touching at times and certainly more earnest than your average Hollywood movie.

The movie stars Chris O'Donnell as a young Ernest Hemingway seeking adventure and experience in war torn Italy, and Sandra Bullock as Agnes Von Kurowsky, a Red Cross nurse who cares for Hemingway after the yet to be famous writer is shot in the leg. There is a warning early on that this movie may have a few cracks in its simple structure. Before the opening scene we get the dreaded "based on a true story" (as if there is any other kind). Herein lies the problem of the movie. Since most viewers will begin with some kind of preconceived notion of Papa Hemingway, O'Donnell's attempts to portray a yet to be formed brash and cocky Hemingway somehow don't work or don't offer the insight one expects. Take away that and all that is left is a common love story, one which is not terribly romantic or memorable. We never really see any of the passion or whatever it is that attracts O'Donnell and Bullock to each other.

The story suggests that it was this relationship and the events surrounding it that helped form the harder edged Hemingway, forever coloring his personality and his writing. By his written accounts, Hemingway in the middle of all the destruction, pain and suffering found his comforting soul mate who changed the unchangeable while at the same time returning him to his old self nursing him back to health. He wrote that while far from the familiar, she felt like she had been around forever yet at the same time felt so refreshing and new, helping him return to his foundation, an anchor in the turbulent storm. Haunted by a trip taken as real as the scar on his wounded leg, by her presence turned absence, the writer transformed his love from the tangible one in front of him somehow never to be touched, to just another tragic character in another story. In the movie this merely translates into being portrayed as a believer of the rather standard notion that a writer is to suffer for his art while also showing that there are some things one should be willing to die for. One of the movie's strengths is in showing the war's horror, which is faithfully conveyed in one frightening battle scene, and later on in the personal sufferings of those involved.

But the depth of Hemingway's eternal feelings for Von Kurowsky certainly aren't conveyed in movie. O'Donnell instead emotes what looks like a school boy crush on his nurse. Bullock seems bemused by his alternating bravado and boyish enthusiasm. The viewer is asked to make the jump internally, to accept that this colorful young reporter became the brooding but often times masterful writer. And because that isn't the easiest jump to make, one begins to wonder that if this story wasn't about Hemingway would there be anything that worthwhile to watch? Yet it is a good looking movie, easy on the eyes. Attenborough is able to use the beautiful Italian countryside as an effective backdrop to the courtship and flirtation.

For Bullock it is another in a growing string of diverse roles. She gives a quiet yet charismatic performance, creating a portrait of a woman both nurturing and independent. It is through this performance that her lasting power is beginning to show. Rather than playing the nurse as the young plucky heroine type, she gives a more distinguished, dignified reading. While her appeal remains her down to earth charm and sense of humor, this role shows it is possible she will grow to play something other than the youthful "star." This is someone whose movies are worth waiting for, one to grow old with.

Monday, February 3, 1997

Inside the Gaze of Mr. Max

There was a recent urge, not quite a desire for the student to return to school and further his education. Thus this past week he began, at the University of Minnesota, a five week course called Managing Human Behavior which put to rest any notions of his returning to school on a regular basis, at least for a while. The whole academic environment thing was a bit too painful to return to. Nonetheless he thought how part of him would forever remain the perpetual student. He doubted those dreams of his college days or heaven forbid, high school days, would ever completely go away. Besides he thought, one doesn't need the formalities of academia to realize that in life we are all constantly learning if for no reason than to survive in a rapidly changing world. And on top of that all of his closest siblings were teachers.

So after class this past week he returned to his humble little abode to the wise if not vacant face of his little kitty. The student told Max all about what he learned that night, what was covered in class and what was to be covered in upcoming weeks. He learned that one cannot motivate another person, only inspire them to motivate themselves. He also learned there are no answers only responses.

Max looked up at the student as one who hadn't been fed his dinner yet. It was at that moment the student decided to finally put those tens of thousands of dollars invested in his history degree to use. He began to explain to Max what a historical time they were living in to help the cat appreciate the significance of their tiny little lives in this momentous age. And to put to use his recent foray into the Japanese language, he decided from now on to call his little friend Mr. Maximoto. (It didn't make any sense of course, but Max was quite used to accepting his roommate's eccentricities by now.) "Mercy," the student said for no apparent reason, once again using his favorite expletive.

The history lesson began. The student balanced Mr. Maximoto on his lap, stroked his fur and told the cat all about the train they were on, gathering speed careening and caroming toward the 21st Century. The student explained the train was now crossing the bridge being built into the next millennium which wouldn't slow down enough to catch one's breath let alone realize and appreciate the time they were lucky enough to be living in.

The changes, the advances, the setbacks, all seemed to be occurring at exponential speed. The student told Mr. Maximoto how the industrial age gave way to the technical age which led to the information age. From the rise of the Great Wall of China to fall of the Berlin Wall, from the first man on the moon to flying toasters on everyone's personal computer they had seen a remarkable amount of earth shattering events. The student told Mr. Maximoto to forget for a moment about catnapping near a forced air heating vent. Things were changing so fast that they forced themselves to catch the evening news every night just to know if the world was going to end that night. During Mr. Maximoto's short little lifetime, he was witness to some breathtaking historical advances.

As an example, the student recalled how when they first started rooming together Mr. Maximoto used the standard kitty litter, the kind where you dumped a bunch in his litter box, he did his business and when it all got too smelly the student had to empty it into a garbage bag all the while choking on the fumes of ammonia and those other tear producing smells. No more. Now with clumpable litter the student merely scooped out the product after Mr. Maximoto had a sit down and the rest of the litter remained fresh for his next visit.

Another recent advance made this chore even easier. For Christmas, Mr. Maximoto's grandparents bought him "The Perpetual Litter Sifting System" which comes in three slotted trays. After Mr. Maximoto is finished with his duty, the student merely lifts the top tray which sifts the unused litter down into the bottom two trays and leaves the clump solitary and ready for disposal. "We have advanced light years in the area of kitty excrement disposal. This is a marvelous age we are in," the student said to his now sleeping kitty. "It's like we're a traffic cop to the speeding world going by, trying to decide if the conditions are safe enough to be going so fast. Managing human behavior? Inspiration? Motivation? They're just down the street, thousands of light years and miles away. Mercy, Mr. Maximoto, mercy..."