Sunday, December 27, 2009

Nuggets from the Mad Life of Johnny Cash

This is the ninth installment in a series about a book I'm reading called Stories Done, which is a great collection of tales of excess from counter-culture leaders.

Why aren't there more greatLink rock-bio movies being made? Walk the Line, Ray, and The Doors offer proof of how great and rich with content they can be. A movie-industry friend of mine tells me it's often difficult to get the rights from protective family estates.

Anyway, Mikal Gilmore's chapter on Johnny Cash shows, if nothing else, that Walk the Line only touched the surface of great stories about the Man in Black. Here are some other doozies:

-- Johnny Cash was born without a name. "His parents simply called him JR. Years later, they decided J stood for John; they never did figure out what R stood for."

-- His sources of rebellion included, but were not limited to: the death of his brother, the heartlessness of his father, and the confinement he felt in his hometown.

-- As Cash sat writing "Folsom Prison Blues," the line "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" was what came to mind when he tried to think of "the worst reason a person could have for killing another person." He later said that line came to him quite easily.

-- He got thrown out of a hotel in Australia when he and Sammy Davis Jr. staged a fast-draw gun duel in the lobby. They fired off blanks and sent other hotel guests running.

-- He was the first U.S. citizen ever successfully sued by the government for setting fire to a national forest. He paid $125,000 in damages. Cash had been driving a camper through the forest. He knew it was leaking oil, and it caught the sun-hot grass on fire, causing three mountains to torch and driving nearly all 53 of the protected wild condors from the area. He laughed off the incident at trial while high on amphetamines.

-- The Ku Klux Klan picketed some of his shows because his first wife had a dark skin tone. They branded him "a degenerate who had mongrel children."

-- In 1967, he crawled into Nickajack Cave on the Tennessee River and lay down to die. But when an unexpected feeling came over him, telling him he wouldn't die there, he crawled back out and swore off drugs and madness. He soon thereafter married June Carter, and the story ends happily from there.

Eating the Dinosaur: Nirvana's Guilt Rock

This is the second part in a series about Chuck Klosterman's new book Eating the Dinosaur.

Kurt Cobain (and possibly bassist Krist Novoselic) "could not reconcile the dissonance between mass success and artistic merit" when their band, Nirvana, was releasing its follow-up to the mega-smash Nevermind album.

Klosterman tries to get inside Cobain's head to wonder why In Utero had to be "conventionally 'bad' in order for it to be exceptionally good" and "why did that fraction of badness only matter if people knew that the badness was intentional."

The author compares Cobain to David Koresh, whose Branch Davidian cult was being raided by the feds at the same time as In Utero's recording sessions were beginning, in February 1993. They both had shoulder-length hair, played guitar, had bad childhoods, often complained of stomach problems, were obsessed with guns, and had troubling taste in women.

Klosterman's comparison oddly ends there, without making any sweeping assumptions, but it appears this book could indeed be a hodgepodge of pop-culture musings. And the style works well in forcing the reader to make his or her own conclusions, which is perhaps why Klosterman is largely considered one of the keenest pop-culture critics of our time. I think his goal is to find overlooked similarities and simplifications of the weird ways in which we embrace celebrities and their culture.

But back to the bad-art-as-good issue, another interesting story Klosterman tells is how Cobain forced his wife, Courtney Love, to return the Lexus she purchased. He didn't identify with the rich-person car. At this point, Cobain "merely looked like a millionaire trying to convince people that he still wanted to be the kind of guy who refused to buy a Lexus.

"In Utero sounds like what it is: Guilt Rock."

Eating the Dinosaur: The Interview As Conversation

This is the first part in a series about Chuck Klosterman's new book Eating the Dinosaur.

When speaking to people, Klosterman prefers to interview them rather than talk to them "for real." He doesn't like the social limitations that tact puts upon real conversations, and he also doesn't like talking to most people more than once or twice in his lifetime.

Examining the odd phenomenon of the "interview," Klosterman recounts the singer Prince's behavior through much of the 1980s, when he declined almost every interview request he received. When he did allow an interview, he would demand that the reporter not use a tape recorder or write notes. Prince did this not because he was crazy but rather because he wanted the writer "to reflect only the sense of the conversation," as opposed to the specific phrasing he used.

Interesting. I often feel like I'm interviewing people when we're talking. I think it comes from actually interviewing people as a major part of my newspaper and PR jobs over the years. Sometimes I feel a little guilty about this, but I'm not sure why. The interviewing technique is a good way to get to know people and it keeps conversations with strangers from becoming awkward and filled with silences.

Beach Boys' Success Forced On Them By Father

Brian Wilson's father, Murray, was "a tireless worker with a penchant for big ideas, [but] nothing came easy for him. A gruesome accident at Goodyear cost him his left eye" which caused him to have an aggressive personality that alienated him from his co-workers and "stalled him on the lower rungs of management."

This accentuated his desire to "kick the world in the ass." He wanted everything for himself, but since his accident seemed like that wouldn't be possible, he transfered that desire over to wanting everything for his kids.

Murray noticed Brian's skill for music just before his son's first birthday, when he was carrying Brian on his shoulders and singing a song. It didn't take long before Brian was humming along in a note-perfect replication of his father's voice.

Murray loved his son even more because of his obvious talent. But that didn't stop the Wilson boys from later recounting horrific allegations against their dad. He forced Brian to defecate on a plate as punishment for some small deed. He forced tomato-hating Dennis to eat them until he puked. He beat Brian with a two-by-four for unleashing a neighborhood dog. He took out his fake eye and forced the kids to stare into his blood-red socket.

These tales begin the examination of Brian Wilson in the book, Catch a Wave, by Peter Ames Carlin (who also penned the new Paul McCartney: A Life). Unfortunately, this doesn't seem like the best book to read about the Beach Boys. It's poorly written and not very coherent, and I don't plan on continuing reading it, even though the Beach Boys are one of my all-time favorite bands and their story (what I know of it) really interests me.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Isn't One Christmas Enough?

Now, I'm a guy who likes a good chick flick fairly often. But Four Christmases goes beyond my capacity to enjoy the feel-good family holiday cutefest.

Whoever conceptualized this turkey made some big mistakes. Not that they didn't perhaps have a seed of a good idea at first. I can't remember much of the movie (it was sooo bad), but it had something to do with a couple that finds their Caribbean vacation canceled and is forced to spend the holidays with their four parents and their extended families.

Seems like this could work, at least slightly, once the usually reliable leads Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon were cast. But they may both have a difficult time recovering from this mess. A particularly porous scene is the one in which they pack their bags with sickening joy. I know it's the movies, but anybody having this much fun packing luggage is not a joy to watch.

Abhorrent performances are also on display from Sissy Spacek, Dwight Yoakam, Mary Steenburgen, Jon Voight, Jon Favreau, and Tim McGraw.

Sorry I've wasted this much time recapping this horrible experience (which, notably and embarrassingly, has grossed about $80 million since its Thanksgiving release).

1/2 out of ***** stars

The 10 Best Tarantino Flicks

10. Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) (director)
09. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) (director)
08. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) (screenwriter)
07. Natural Born Killers (1994) (story)
06. Inglourious Basterds (2009) (director)
05. Jackie Brown (1997) (director)
04. True Romance (1993) (writer)
03. Killing Zoe (1993) (executive producer)
02. Reservoir Dogs (1992) (director)
01. Pulp Fiction (1994) (director)

Inglourious Basterds - Misspelled, But Still Great

Inglourious Basterds continues to round out the case that Quintin Tarantino is one of the greatest movie directors of all time, right up there with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, and Victor Fleming.

Perhaps the movie's most powerful scene is the slow-builder tension of the opening sequence, in which a Nazi colonel known as "The Jew Hunter" (an award-deserving Christoph Waltz) visits a family in France to make sure there is no harboring of Jews on the property. From there, we follow this wicked and charming colonel as he faces off against American Lieutenant Aldo Raine (a typically awesome Brad Pitt), who leads a group of Jewish-Americans on a mission to kill as many Nazis as possible.

Also of note is the stunning and magnetic Melanie Laurent as a Jewish girl who is living under an alias in very close proximity to many of the top-brass Nazis.

**** out of ***** stars

Monday, December 21, 2009

One-and-a-Half Hours in Amsterdam

In the midst of an entire weekend spent in airports and airplanes (about 80 percent of my time between Friday night at 10 EST to 12:30 a.m. Monday), I was able to squeeze in 90 minutes in downtown Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

I had hoped to walk a full loop of the city, but instead only got to jump off at the Amsterdam Centraal train station and briskly walk through frigid, 10-degree temperatures in the famed Red Light District.

That's me above entering the area next to an oddly phallic statue. Passed the "coffeeshops," hookers in windows, headshops, and an endless variety of pizza-by-the-slice dives.

The picture to the left is a photo next to one of the city's many canals, where the ladies of the evening were displaying their wares in the front windows (you can barely make some of them out if you look closely). If the windows had white blinds drawn, that meant they were temporarily busy and not open for more business.

Fascinating, but I had no time to enjoy any of the local delights because I had to get back to the airport Sheridan so as not to worry about missing the last train.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Snowcopalypsed In in Amsterdam

This picture to the right is the "Snowpocalypse" that's keeping me from getting home to D.C. after two weeks in Sweden/Denmark.

The good news: I made it to Amsterdam! United is putting me up for the night in a fairly swanky Sheridan that is a 3-minute walk from the United ticketing desk and a 5-minute walk to the train, which is a 15-minute ride to downtown (American city planners take note; in the U.S., I would have had to take at least one shuttle to the nearest airport hotel).

The bad news: My kinda luck today. After waiting for four hours at the airport for someone to finally give me a hotel room, I then spent another two-and-a-half hours sitting on a train that was going nowhere while somebody tryed to commit suicide on the tracks between the airport and downtown. I finally gave up after a disgusting Dutch airport burger and went back to my hotel room.

It's pretty late on Saturday night, but I have nothing better to do, so I think I'll try again to check if the trains are going downtown. I really want to walk around the Red Light District and see Ann Frank's house.

And what with United apparently canceling 500 flights today, of which most of those were headed to D.C. airports, I'm not really counting much on getting back home anytime this weekend. The upshot of that would be that I would get to see Amsterdam in the daytime and have more than an hour or two to explore. The down side being, I really am ready to be home for a change. They told me to come back to the airport at 9 a.m. tomorrow to get on an 11 o'clock flight. We'll see how that goes ...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Obama, My Hero on Yet Another Issue. This Time it's Climate

Obama is THE MAN! Looks like no sleep for me before leaving for the Copenhagen airport in 5 hours, but who cares, when it means Jackson will get to live in a world that's not filled with droughts, famines, wars, flooding, etc.! I am gonna party when I get home!!!

Check out in a few hours when our news release is up.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bicycles and Copenhagen = The Perfect Infrastructure

The most beautiful thing about Copenhagen is the the bikes. Bikes, bikes everywhere. I HAD to have one after three days of walking and riding trains.

Much to my delight, I discovered a free rental booth right there at the climate conference. All 25 motor-bikes were rented, but I didn't care, I needed some exercise and completely emission-free action. I was surprised that they only had 180 bicycles rented out. But the guy at the stand said many people didn't came from places where there is a bicycle culture and, plus, the weather IS pretty cold in Denmark in December.

Never mind that, I soon had my IKEA-brand prototype, which supposedly isn't going to be anywhere on the market except in Denmark for the next three years. These particular 100-pound beasts will eventually be delivered by a Copenhagen non-profit, in partnership with the furniture seller, to African communities to be used as ambulances!

I was on the road and lethal (this bike could do some damage). With the brisk air in my face, I set off from the central train station, past the famed Tivoli amusement park and gardens, then straight over a bridge where I promptly got lost for well over an hour. But much to my good fortune, I ended up in what I've heard was a 200,000-plus mass of anarchists, socialists, and other angry yet friendly-enough people marching straight towards the Bella Center (home of the conference) to protest ... something. The gist was that they wanted action on climate change, but that politicians are far too incompetent to be up to the task. Fair enough.

The protesters were cool and all, but I was in love with the streets of Copenhagen (long "a" or short "a," take your pick). It's amazing; there are very few streets that don't have double-wide bike lanes. And cars and pedestrians seem to hold a strong bikes-first attitude.

Next I headed down to Christiania, or "Freetown." It's a hippie commune that is blocked off from the rest of the bohemian side of Copenhagen by a wall covered completely in tasteful graffiti. Apparently it's a tourist hotspot, despite its occasional bouts of violent crime. But it seemed to me like everyone else was much more at home than me. It was eerily quiet as I walked through dark, tree-lined walkways; markets selling hippie clothes, trinkets, and pot-smoking devices; anarchist aid stations set up for the protesters; and fireworks being set off near a field of teepees. I got out of there without taking any really good pictures (which, I heard, is frowned upon, but it was dark at 3 p.m. when I was there anyway). I lifted this shot of the main entrance from the Web.

Upon leaving Christiania, I passed a castle named Rosenborg Slot, wheeled my way around downtown, and headed back to work. But for one afternoon (and and hour or so the day before in Malmo, Sweden) I was in bike heaven, which is about as good as it gets.

Music Reviews in 3 Words or Less: Vol. 12

Doug Gillard - Call From Restricted (2009)
Perfect Ted Leo
Touchstones: Late-era Replacement meets late-era Guided By Voices
****1/2 out of ***** stars

Lady Gaga - The Fame Monster Disc I (2009)
Juiced-up Top 40
Touchstones: Madonna meets Britney Spears
**** out of ***** stars

Kiss - Destroyer (1976)
Love this album
Touchstones: Thin Lizzy meets a boogie-ing Bad Company
**** out of ***** stars

Jack Penate
- Everything Is New (2009)
Unafraid sass pop
Touchstones: The Cure meets The Shout Out Louds
***1/2 out of ***** stars

Alexi Murdoch - Away We Go Soundtrack (2009)
Longing, searching beauty
Touchstones: Nick Drake meets
***1/2 out of ***** stars

Annie - Don't Stop (2009)
Great, sometimes awful
Touchstones: Lily Allen meets Bananarama
*** out of ***** stars

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Protesters and Burger Burpers: Ah Scandanavia

The working hours got longer as the latter half of Week One came to a close here at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, but the action was clearly heating up.

I've had my nose in a barely-functioning rental laptop PC from my workplace, the World Resources Institute (I always kick myself when I don't bring my Mac on these kinds of work trips), when the protesters (pictured) barged into my space at the Bella Center. They chanted "Tuvalu. Listen to the islands" and demanded to be let in to speak to negotiators in one of the nearby mammoth UN assembly halls. The fuzz was quickly on the scene kicking the protesters and yours truly out of the area.

It's truly been madness. Because it's more difficult than ever to corral journalists with heightened security in front of the media center, I've resigned to do less of the schmoozing with reporters that I had planned and try to push more materials out to them through phone calls, press statements, press releases, and other correspondence. Very different from the annual climate conferences I attended in Montreal and Nairobi, where it was easy to walk through the press areas and line up interviews.

I got a chance to see a little bit of the cities of Malmo, Sweden (where it's cheaper and where my hotel is located) and Copenhagen in the late afternoon on a couple of days. I took a train from the Bella Center to the Copenhagen Central Station before proceeding to get lost looking for our office space at a place called the Vartov Center. At least that lostness kept me away from my faulty laptop for a while and I got to see the big "Hopenhagen" globe (pictured) next to the Tivoli Gardens, a famed amusement park where people were dropping and swinging and gliding on scary rides high above the city in below-freezing temperatures. Uh, no thanks.

I also ate some alright Thai food at a place that would accept none of my credit cards, but I escaped by way of paying with Swedish kronas instead of Dutch kronas. I ate a gnarly cheeseburger (with an incredibly drunk guy who grunted frequent noises my way and dropped most of his mega burger on the floor, each time accompanied by a large splat) and a debatably-contaminated Mediterranean thingy, mainly because it's always late when I'm done working and I have to eat SOMETHING.

Not to mention that this whole place disorients me quite a bit. I never feel as lost in places like Brazil, Africa and Asia as I have here. Maybe it's because of the cold and because they seem rude, even though every time I get into a conversation they're eagerly nice (except for the hamburger guy).

I'll tell you about my weekend bike ride to the hippy commune next. For now, it's already too late and next week starts in about 5 hours.

Sleepy But Still Saving the World

Jetlag began to wane by the second and third days here at the climate conference in Copenhagan. Not that anyone here would notice, since we're all getting 4 to 6 hours of sleep each night before trundling off each dark morning to more meetings and side events to negotiate how the entire world (even if the extremely unscientific Sarah Palin is dragged along kicking and screaming) can work together to save ourselves from ourselves. It will truly be a breath-taking achievement of mankind if we can make a dent in our man-made, heat-trapping pollutants and do so in a way that all countries see their economies improve and thrive.

On Tuesday, about 24 hours after I arrived, the first of two press briefings I organized went off without a hitch. With about 50 people in the room (about 15 or 20 were journalists, the rest were mostly from NGOs), the World Resources Institute's briefing titled "Essential Elements of a Copenhagen Agreement" was impressively led by our new climate director Jennifer Morgan. (WRI's last climate director was Jonathan Pershing, who now leads Obama's climate negotiating team.) Watch her and the other WRI panelists in action here. (The sign on the wall above them is my creation. I'll take PowerPoint lessons from anyone who offers.)

Jennifer outlined the major issues on the table in Copenhagen:
1.) How much will developed countries like the U.S. help fund measures (through institutions like the World Bank and UN) to improve the situations in developing countries like Tuvalu and the Maldives, not to mention Brazil, China, and India?
2.) How can forests be better represented in these funding measures, since unwisely-chopped-down forests account for about 15 percent of global-warming emissions? Right now, forests are more or less an afterthought when smart management could be a huge key that wouldn't take lots of technological wizardry.
3.) What kinds of technology, research, and education is needed to help poorer countries, the ones most effected by decades of pollution from rich countries, adapt to their changing climates?

OK, I'm getting wonky. This is supposed to be Pop Culture Lunch Box! It's 2 a.m. I better sleep for a bit.

Travels in Sweden and My Impending Darkness

Well, here it is Wednesday night and I'm just now posting my first travel entry about my trip to Copenhagen for the much-ballyhooed United Nations climate conference. I arrived from a red-eye flight Sunday night and have had jetlag and lack of sleep from working very hard to save the planet, so forgive me for not keeping you all updated. I'll try to do better for my remaining 10 days here.

Although it's always cool being in new places, I have to admit there hasn't been much to see so far. This has to do with the above mention of working too hard (always indoors) and the fact that I saw no sunlight from the time I left D.C. at 5 p.m. Sunday until around 2 p.m. Tuesday, when I ventured out of the conference's Bella Center to take the metro to a phone store to get more minutes on my travel phone. And even then it was pretty dark.

This conference is certainly exciting. Reports from registration officials are that 15,000 people are registered (about three times the usual for these annual meetings, in which country officials try to bang out an international climate agreement to succeed the less-than-optimal Kyoto Protocol), but that 37,000 will try to get in.

My proudest moment came on Monday evening. After waiting in line to register for nearly two hours, the police announced that registration was closed for the day. I hung around for a bit, but it was looking pretty useless, so I went to a nearby bathroom. After that, I took one last peek at the line before getting on the train. There were still a few people waiting and they were moving in through the gate quickly. I ran to try and join them and was stopped by a policewoman who was hearing none of my pleas. I saw a policeman who I had spoken with earlier and told him I HAD to set up for a press briefing in the morning. Thus, I became the very last, and I mean dead last, person to be allowed into the venue on opening day. Don't think of myself as a sweet-talker, but I guess I have a little touch.

These first couple of days have been like this: truly feeling helpless. I brought only half of my Europe power adapter, so my iPhone had no juice and my computer had no battery. My local phone was the only thing that worked, so at least the endless string of journalists trying to reach me had some way to do so. On top of all this, the Copenhagen hotels sold out all their rooms long ago, so we are staying about an hour away in Malmo, Sweden, which means a train ride then a metro ride every morning to get to the Bella Center for our 8 a.m. staff meeting.

It may not be Copenhagen (which I have yet to explore), but Malmo is cute, as you can see from the photos here. One is the Ferris wheel in one of the town squares around the corner from our Best Western (World Resources Institute has 30 staffers staying here and five lucky people staying in Copenhagen). The other is one of some weird interpretive dancers in the street and looking kind of like witches and KKK members (they probably had some perfectly reasonable explanation, I hope).

My last complaint will be that our hotel has no gym. Watching the multitude of bikers and streets virtually empty of motor-vehicle traffic only adds salt to the wound of my lack of exercise.

OK, I'll stop being negative now. This is bound to get better. Stay tuned ...

Funny People's Title May Mislead, But That's OK

Adam Sandler used to be my comic hero. And director Judd Apatow and his favorite leading man Seth Rogen are among my current comedic heroes. So Funny People, which I watched on my red-eye flight from D.C. to Copenhagen Sunday night, is can't miss. Right?

Pretty much right. The crazy part is that this movie is more touching than funny. It's got a few laugh-out-loud moments, but most of it grooves right where Sandler has been at his surprising best in recent years (the drama-first productions Spanglish and Punch-Drunk Love).

Sandler plays a mega-famous comedian who learns he's dying of leukemia. He quickly goes from happy-go-lucky to depressed and hires young-nobody comic Rogen to help write his jokes. The plotline dealing with Sandler trying to win back his old girlfriend (a pretty serviceable Leslie Mann) is unnecessarily long, but otherwise, this movie is a winner. And the never-ending cameos are worth the price of a rental any day.

**** out of ***** stars

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pixies Cash In With Great Performance

The Pixies may just be getting better with age, if that's possible for a grizzled corps of indie-rock uber-vets. The band was much better last night at DAR Constitution Hall in D.C. than they were during their first reunion tour in 2004 (I saw them then in New York City).

Why would anyone bother arguing with the old money-making scheme of playing a classic album in its entirety when that album is Doolittle? An argument could be made that this is one of the 10 greatest albums of all-time.

Kim Deal was in fine form, smiling like a happy kid as she wound her wrist-gripping bass lines all over David Lovering's non-stop cracking, pumping drumming. She did the majority of speaking for the band (which wasn't much), regularly keeping the audience abreast of exactly where they were in the chronological progression of the album. Lovering also offered an evening highlight with the band's love song "La La Love You."

Joey Santiago was masterful on guitar, and Frank Black is timeless, yelping, screeching, yelling, and beautifully singing effortlessly throughout the nearly 90-minute set.

Among the many highlights that I witnessed with rachel, Stu, and Arohi were "Hey," "Crackity Jones," "Debaser," both the slow and fast versions of "Wave of Mutilation," "Here Comes Your Man," Monkey Gone to Heaven," "Gigantic," and "Where Is My Mind?" Even the b-sides from the Doolittle era kept the momentum pumping throughout.

It's worth noting that the soundperson was incredible. Every element of the music was so well separated, and very loud and clear. This was a relief because sound has been an issue at past shows I've seen at Constitution Hall, including R.E.M., Modest Mouse (particularly awful sound), and Ryan Adams and the Cardinals. The sound, it should be noted, was also excellent for indie-rockers-by-way-of-Rush Mew.

The Pixies may just be in the reunion game for the money (a charge that seems to continue being leveled in various media I've seen), but if this is what selling out is about, sign me up for Team Capitalist.

***** out of ***** stars