Monday, May 31, 1999

Amuss in La La Land

'Twas back in the first grade when I first discovered that I was different. Up to that point I had lived under the watchful and secure eye of my family. Things in my life had been rather uneventful and the closest thing to excitement was one day when my brother got home from school I showed my fondness for him by proceeding to run straight into a wall and thus needed three stitches in my forehead. In kindergarten I immediately made a puppy dog like friend in Dee Dee Hasselberg who followed me just about every where I went, but it was in first grade when I first heard the taunts of others who noticed I didn't quite look like them. "Chink," they teased as they made their eyes slant with their fingers. It hurt because it was clearly derogatory although I wasn't sure quite how, and it also hurt because I was the only one (besides Sally Murakami) who looked the way I did. It wasn't exactly something I had control over and something I clearly could not change (not that I would ever want to).

Still I had my friends and it wasn't long before I came to believe that "looking different" was an advantage of sorts. While others struggled to get noticed, to stand out and get attention, I did so automatically in almost every situation I found myself in. I found it easier to just be myself because I, unlike most others, was noticed no matter how I acted. It was much more difficult trying to deal with the feeling that the insides were as different as the outsides appeared and wondering if the person in front of me reacted to me the way they did because of the way I looked and not necessary the way I acted. Was the way I looked being judged by their experiences (or lack thereof) with people who looked similar?

Two years ago when Al and I visited Japan, it was the first time I was no longer in the minority and was surrounded by people who looked like me and I no longer felt like I stood out. It was a rather disorienting feeling, melting into the background without strain, and yet the oddest feeling of all was knowing I was just as different from the people that looked like me as I was the ones back home.

Life can often be a rather lonesome journey. We all struggle with defining who we are and who we ultimately want to be. I am always grateful whenever I come across someone who makes things seem just a little bit less confusing. Over the years I have found a few special people who I got close to and even let get a little close in return. These handful of people helped me define what a friend is, and helped me sometimes appreciate that differences can be a source of strength as well as a source of difficulty. Recently I have discovered another of these unique friends.

Ten years ago she was given a second chance. With ten percent of lung capacity left, suffering from a severe asthma attack she was turned away by a hospital, gray and shaken she, with the help of her mom, hung on. And she has been determined to make the most of every breath since. Her passion for life can be as breathtaking as it is inspiring. She has the indisputable ability to get under one's skin like autumn pollen to a hayfever sufferer. I've seen her put a smile on a face or two, some of them the most important faces I know. I for one am glad that a decade ago she was indeed blessed with that second chance and I never stop feeling quite fortunate that the events that have happened since somehow made it so our paths have crossed.

We haven't always seen eye to eye but that's mostly because she's a couple of inches taller than I am. After about each and every one of our conversations, I feel energized and often times I leave with a different perspective on my world. There are things I've told her about myself that no one else knows. It's not that I have many big secrets it's just there are certain things you don't share with others because if they don't understand or appreciate the magnitude of what's being revealed you just end up feeling bad. She has a rare remarkable ability, a keen insight, intuition and perceptive mind that proves she's been listening all along.

On this Memorial Day, I salute my dear friend on her very special ten year anniversary. A word she recently ran across in her trusty thesauras isn't quite appropriate but I for one am grateful for the lessons she has already taught me. Thanks Mish.

Monday, May 24, 1999

Le Copa de la Vida

One of the more noticeable accomplishments of my current employer during its recently completed session was to repeal automobile emissions testing in the state. The program will end March 1, next year. Thus last week as I got my car with the badly dented fender tested it was with that heavy heart of knowing that this would be the last time around. My car passed with shining cleanliness, but I'm beginning to wonder if the fumes from the exhaust aren't causing problems for the car's occupants. Evidence of this can be detected by the fact that I actually truly like that Ricky Martin song. Perhaps it's not the fumes, perhaps it has to do with my broad acceptance of almost all music, but one never knows.

It takes a small man to be so stubborn as to refuse to admit he can be wrong every now and then. And for those of you who have seen me up close and personally, you probably quickly realized that I can be no smaller a man. Thus pride isn't an issue when it comes to me admitting that I have made another mistake. One of the benefits of being in a constant state of transition is that you are allowed to change your mind every other minute. Disregard anything you might have read last week. This week the decision has been made that the greatest CD of the millennium is the Cranberries' Bury the Hatchet. If music is about sounds and sounds are about causing pleasant sensations, than this CD has to be rated very highly. I've been listening to it endlessly for the past week and it has grown on me like some strange rash. Where my initial reaction was one of a lot of cringing (or more so than usual not that anyone might have noticed) now I'm quite content to bob my head throughout the thirteen songs. I bought some batteries for the CD player I have at work, the one that was brought back from Mexico by my favorite Taeboing Melrose Place watchin' fan, and in a few days I wore the batteries down merely through constant playing of Bury the Hatchet.

I bought Bury the Hatchet the same day I bought Tom Waits' Mule Variations. I'll be the first to say that Waits' new work is superior musically, artistically and in every other standard you can measure music by. Still I have a feeling that years from now Mule Variations will come in a distant second in counting the number of times the two CDs are played in my house.

Two songs in particular have caught my fancy on Bury the Hatchet. The first, Just My Imagination, sounds like a long lost 10,000 Maniacs song. It's the second song in two years about imagination that has worked itself inside of me so tightly that quite literally has popped my belly button (which unlike one of my favorite people in the world, is not pierced). Along with my favorite song from last year, Brian Wilson's Your Imagination, the Cranberries have written a catchy little ditty that hopefully will help combat the fate that was so thoroughly spelled out in The World According to Garp. The lesson Garp painfully discovered was that as you get older your memories replace your imagination. I for one hope that isn't the case even if it seems to be sadly so. Just My Imagination is a song about remembering yesterday with a bit of creative license, but at the same time being able to look at the treasures of today with wide eyed clarity.

"There was a time I used to pray. I have always kept my faith in love. It's the greatest thing from the man above. The game I used to play. I've always put my cards upon the table. Let it never be said that I'd be unstable."

The second song which has worked its magic on me is, Saving Grace, a simple little love song. The minimal lyrics serve as a sort of prayer. "It could happen today. You're just a little thing my saving grace." It's not only a song about how anything is possible if you keep your mind open, but also how life's seemingly small moments, like the slight touch of a hand, can be one's saving grace. Dolores O'Riordon sings the song in a near whisper and the whole thing is dreamy and sweet. It is one of those songs that I heard just at the right time (and just in time) as it has a particular special meaning to me with the current events in my life.

The mistake in my original judgment of the CD was to look for a grandiose meaning. What the CD instead delivers is a simple message about redemption. Often times the most meaningful things are right in front of your nose and you can miss them if you look too far beyond.

Monday, May 17, 1999

Why There Were No Unicorns at the First Thanksgiving Dinner

"There was green alligators and long-necked geese, Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees, Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you're born, The loveliest of all was the unicorn..."

I like cranberries as much as the next person as long as the next person is TV's Calista Flockhart (speaking of Thanksgiving dishes). Indeed the only personal contribution I remember making for a Thanksgiving feast was fixing all by my lonesome, a special cranberry confection with orange peels on the top. It was extra orangy and seemed to go over well with the family. Though it was a tad sweet, it was sweet in that sinfully enjoyable way. Yes it was as delectable as the sound of Dolores O'Riordan's voice is on the ears.

O'Riordan the singer of the group the Cranberries, has a voice that I would pay to hear sing the phone book. Unfortunately an interpretation of the white pages might just be more interesting than the Cranberries latest effort, Bury the Hatchet. The CD is plagued by the same thing that has prevented the group's other work from crossing the threshold from being pleasant sounding music to something more significant. The music sounds great (it's a group I'll always be glad to hear from) and it's only when you start to listen to the words of the songs that you become a little agitated. The lyrics alternate between being just plain dumb to annoyingly cloy and trite. O'Riordan has yet to learn that the secret to most of rock's best writing is to be either semi-poetic and confessional or deliberately obtuse. "I hope that you miss me. Put me down on history. I feel such a reject now. Get yourself a life. I hope that you're sorry for not accepting me, for not adoring me. That's why I'm not your wife..." Indeed.

Still O'Riordan's voice pierces straight to the heart's core no matter what she is singing. She sings the hell out of the CD's best song, the current single, Promises. The song continues the group's pattern of its best songs having one word titles (Dreams, Zombie, Linger). The bombastic blast of the band's playing is pleasantly enhanced by the impressively overwhelming range and pure emotion of O'Riordan's singing. "Oh the promises we made. All the meaningless and empty words. I prayed, prayed, prayed. Oh, all the promises we broke. All the meaningless and empty words. I spoke, spoke, spoke..." It's primal and it means something merely through its sheer sound (just like, say, Ricky Martin's songs in Spanish for one who doesn't understand the language- somehow just by the inflections and expression one is able to know what the singer is singing). The song is good enough that it makes one willing to give the rest of the CD a few more listens knowing that simply through the beauty of O'Riordan's breathtaking voice and the group's trademark melodicism, the CD will somehow reluctantly make its way into one's regular play cycle even as it occasionally infuriates. In other words, a little cranberry goes a long way, but tradition dictates that without the side dish something definitely would be missed.

The weakness of the lyric writing isn't so much about not trying, it's about trying too hard. Sometimes simple is not inherently a weakness. It's better to be direct than to be too cerebral and unemotional. Rock and roll ain't meant to be real wordy yet the best songs say something. Perhaps the group might try and learn a thing or two from a song that has been played recently by radio stations in memory of songwriter/poet Shel Silverstein, who sadly passed away this past week. Silverstein's The Unicorn, was made famous by a predecessor of the Cranberries, the Irish Rovers. The song has long been one of my favorites, having been one of the first 45's in my collection (one of the ones I listened to hundreds of times before I even learned to read). "The Lord seen some sinning and it gave Him pain, And He says, 'Stand back, I'm going to make it rain,' He says, 'Hey Brother Noah, I'll tell you what to do: Build me a floating zoo.'" In essence it is a children's song putting to music one of the Bible's best known stories. Yet like the best grown up songs it tells the complete story in a compelling way. There's a lesson to be learned somewhere behind the sing song simplicity which says more in three minutes than the NBC mini-series that aired last week, said in two nights. "The ark started moving, it drifted with the tide. The unicorns looked up from the rocks, and they cried. And the waters came down and sort of floated them away. That's why you never see unicorns to this very day." Yes it is the type of song the Cranberries would be wise to either cover or emulate. They would benefit in being more prolific and in order to do so, it might be time for them to rethink their approach.

This time around the most provocative thing about the group that has struggled with whether or not they want to be artists or stars while being both and neither, is not the music but two revealing photos of the picturesque O'Riordan, who now unblinkably reveals herself visually in the CDs artwork (not that that is a bad thing). Ultimately the group seems to be at a crossroads at sorts, trying to figure out whether or not it wants to go in a new direction or somehow get back to their roots and make some really cranberry-ish music. Garnish or main meal? The group seems to be struggling distinguishing itself somehow, forging its own unique identity and expressing its own message, from all the others out there. All the pieces are there, but Bury the Hatchet can't really be the best this group can do.

Monday, May 10, 1999

Just Reflecting on a Job Well Done

Boy, talk about life imitating art. This past year basketball lost Michael Jordan, hockey lost Wayne Gretzky, football lost John Elway, and baseball lost Bob Tewksbury. And now TV has suffered just a major a loss as any of those. Gone is one of the few talk show hosts skilled in the art of conversation, Tom Snyder.

Snyder could be verbose and he could also be a skillful communicator. His reputation probably never recovered from Dan Ackroyd's wicked parody on Saturday Nite Live which was deadly accurate with its depiction of Tom's unique style. Still Snyder was the consummate broadcaster, endlessly entertaining. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Snyder's longevity on television was that he didn't really have a schtick. Ackroyd based his impersonation on Snyder's booming laugh and chain smoking theatrics. But Snyder long ago gave up smoking and just because a guy likes to chortle doesn't make him a TV personality. Tom was a talk show host that loved the art of talking.

It was sad to see Tom decide to step down from his four year stint on the Late Late Show, the show that followed David Letterman. He was the perfect act to follow Letterman not being a comedian, and yet matching Dave's love of broadcasting. As big of fan of Letterman as I am, I'm not sure his influence over television, and in our culture has necessarily been a good thing. Sarcasm and celebrity mockery was along long before Dave of course, but ever since his show hit the airwaves nearly twenty years ago, all that have followed have incorporated bits of his act into their own shows. Snyder's was one of the few talk shows that truly was unique and it was unique because it simply relied on the art of conversation for its success.

It was hard to appreciate Tom's skill until a guest host (and he had two in the four years, Jon Stewart and Martin Mull) sat in for him. Both Stewart and Mull are sharp and witty but both had a difficult time doing what Tom did night in and night out, sitting alone in a studio chatting first to just the camera, and then later with a single guest and callers to the show. Every night we got to hear about Tom's mom, and his dog Oliver, and his granddaughter and the mundane day to day events of his life, yet like the best conversationalists, he made it all seem interesting somehow.

Tom's replacement on the Late Late Show, Craig Kilborn, is the polar opposite meaning he often can be more Letterman like than Dave himself. The best thing one can say after watching the first few weeks of Kilborn is how quickly his show got off the ground and running. Unlike another Letterman disciple, Conan O'Brien, Kilborn was at ease immediately and his program seemed well crafted from the very first show. It undoubtedly has a lot to do with Kilborn having established himself on ESPN and the Comedy Channel before moving to CBS. Although I never saw his show on the Comedy Channel, from what I have heard, the CBS version is nearly identical, incorporating such bits as "Five Questions," "A Moment for Us," and "In the News." Kilborn's comfort in some ways works against him as his smoothness can seem too slick, his confidence borders on smugness.

Still, there already have been some memorable moments including a genuinely funny interview with Janene Garfeolo, and nice moments with Shirley Manson ("do your fans really understand the 'angst' in your songs or are they really just losers?"), Jeff Goldblum and Jon Lovitz. Kilborn's humor often seems a tad sophomoric, and his interviewing style is to go after a laugh no matter the guest. Still some of his quips are clever, and the show exudes an energy reminiscent of Letterman's NBC show (we're on late we can do whatever we want to do)...

The key to Johnny Carson's king of late night longevity and appeal was his charm and ease. Johnny was like a friend at the end of the day, no matter how tired you were, no matter what kind of day you had, Johnny was worth turning on for a chuckle or two. He never wore out his welcome. It is to be seen how long Kilborn can last with his over abundance of confidence. One of the disadvantages of hitting the road running is that the bits that already seem comfortable are that much closer to getting stale. Comedy can get old after awhile. Good conversation on the other hand, as rare as it can be, is always to be treasured. And TV has lost one of the best at that rare craft.

Monday, May 3, 1999

Put on a Happy Face

Maybe it's just me (it often times is), but has anyone else faced a growing dilemma in trying to decide how best to select and choose on a limited entertainment budget? The choices are aplenty and expanding nearly every day.

As an example, just recently we have had musical visits from Marilyn Manson and Rod Stewart. Our struggling and well turned over Timberwolves are fighting for a playoff spot. Our feisty Twins are proving the value of youthful enthusiasm. There are several worthwhile movies from The Matrix to Shakespeare in Love to see. Our cities are filled with plenty of art and science museums and fancy restaurants to visit. The fishing opener is just around the corner, and it is always a viable option for one to spend the evening at home hoping to see Bob Dole's ED commercial on TV. Never has there been so many worthwhile options. So it was no small matter that last weekend I chose (and as it turned out quite wisely) to shell out my hard earned dollars to see St. Paul Central's spring production of Bye Bye Birdie.

For those unfamiliar with the plot of the play, it is a story that makes mockery of one of the truly significant moments in American pop culture history- when the establishment usurped the most dangerous element of the counterculture, Elvis Presley, by drafting him into the military.

With hit songs like "A Lot of Livin' To Do," "One Boy" and "Put on a Happy Face," Bye Bye Birdie tells the story of a bumbling music manager who has somehow acquired a hot commodity: Conrad Birdie. Manager Albert Peterson and his spunky secretary, Rose Alvarez, who runs the show, launch a publicity scheme to give Birdie a national sendoff on the Ed Sullivan Show, where he'll bestow an all-American kiss on one lucky girl. Kim MacAfee of Sweet Apple, Ohio, wins the honor. The 15-year-old has just been "pinned" to Hugo, a local boy. The town goes into a tailspin when Birdie arrives and upsets the MacAfee household. Kim's father causes a fuss but then tries to break into the act by hamming on the show. Soon Rose starts to wonder if it is worth all the trouble since Mrs. Peterson, Albert's mother, doesn't like her one tiny bit. In the end, Conrad is drafted, Kim and Hugo get back together, and Albert and Rose get married.

Of course often a play is only as good as its lead actors. Central's effort of Bye Bye Birdie was able to overcome technical glitches (the lights stayed on throughout much of the first act due to a computer problem), and the unfortunate weakness of the script- its failure to demonstrate how Elvis becoming part of the military really did matter (it is much simpler to portray a kitschy tribute to Americana than it is to show that behind the screams and adulation was something dangerous that was closer to teenage angst and the edge than the swooning and seemingly silly crooning.)- because of the excellent work of the two leads, Robin Caperton as Rose Alvarez, and Nathan "Nate" Trygg as Albert Peterson.

Ms. Caperton had a confident stage presence, and strong singing voice. Mr. Trygg is the latest in the line of teen heartthrobs, wooing the young women in the audience like cheeze whiz on a graham cracker. Trygg, making his first substantial stage appearance, demonstrated the potential to become the next Leonardo "Leo" Dicaprio, with his boyish good looks (must run in the family) and graceful stage moves. Comparisons to Dicaprio might be heady stuff but Trygg demonstrated, at the very least, he is well on his way to becoming the next Neil Patrick Harris (TV's Doogie Howser).

All in all nothing quite beats the entertainment value of a quality high school production. The effort that goes into the show, the excitement and nervousness, the earnestness of it all, is the essence of what high school really is about. It was quite evident a lot of hard work and heart went into Central's production. The energy from the stage crackled. The dance numbers had an electricity comparable to that latest fad the kids are so crazy about, swing dancing. And though the spirit of Elvis might have been absent, it was a good fun time nonetheless.