Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Novel, Part #4

Sorry for the extended break from our story of the dead rock star Rory and his younger buddy Paul. I was offline in the Dominican Republic for most of last week.

Catch the earlier installments

Galaxy said the song he wrote to memorialize Rory was all about how some places, and some people, just get “used up” and someone or something new has to replace them or they die. He told me he thought Rory was all “used up.” He thought Rory had had enough of life and that his death would free him to find something new, something exciting like how those images of a new planet were so exciting. He said the look in Rory’s eyes that afternoon when looking at and discussing those photos of Mars was something that was no longer ever there the handful of times Galaxy met up with Rory in the last 10 years or so.

“So I think he’s happy and this was a positive thing,” he finished.

“Interesting,” I said. “I don’t know. Part of me thinks Rory just grew older and wiser and wasn’t as surprised or as na├»ve about many of the things he used to be that way about. But you may have a point. And that rocky terrain on Mars was definitely mesmerizing.”

Galaxy walked back to the funeral and it was probably the last time I was going to see him. This was probably the last time I was going to see many of the characters that Rory brought into my world. When I walked back, it wasn’t surprising to see that the only funeral-goers remaining were three women, each standing on their own and each crying with some degree of volume. I recognized two as Rory’s ex-girlfriends, one of whom I knew like a big sister. Although I probably should have continued to let Chloe Desmertes have her personal moment, I went up and had a nice long hug with her.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Waterfalls Adventure Is the Highlight of Dominican Trip

This is a somewhat crummy photo from off the brochure, but I can't wait to see the pictures of Tim, Dan and I leaping 30 feet into tight turqoise water holes when our waterfall-partner Martin from Brussels emails them to us in a few days.

We followed the ocean Highway 5 (essentially the only driveable road in the north of the country) Wednesday morning west and then south headed to the interior. Even though Carl and our hotel friends Jay and Laurie had told us to beware that the trip would be a rigorous workout, we all had no problems hiking to the top of the mountain and descending via a series of 27 waterfalls at the Damajaqua Cascades. Some of them we slid down like waterslides and others we leaped from high on the rocks. Several jumps were by no means for the faint at heart, and Dan and I felt like we overcame our respective fears of heights quite nicely. It helped that Danny, our guide, was a ruthless jokester, jumping out at us from behind trees and swimming underneath us and around bends only to leave us wondering if he had perished and left us stranded in the jungle.

He also climbed trees to fetch us grapefruits and cocoa fruits. At one point, he pointed out a live boa constrictor sitting next to the path. We though it was either dead or sleeping and had our faces down close to it, when it suddenly slithered, coiled, and hissed at all of us.

The waterfall trip is yet another of the high recommendations I offer to anyone who wants a Caribbean vacation with just the right mix of beach lazing and adventure seeking. And even though Dan destroyed his feet by wearing new sandals and can't walk, even he agrees that the waterfalls were totally awesome!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Westward Beach Trek: Failure

We began Tuesday buying snorkeling equipment down at one of the market stands leading to the Susua beach (the market reminds me a little of Puerto Vallarta).

Once we had our masks and flippers, the intention for the day was to drive west to see several isolated beaches and catch a boat to an island where the best reef in northern Dominican Republic supposedly lies.

It didn't quite work out like we had planned.

After passing through the bustling Puerto Plata (where we got lost for a while in a poor neighborhood near the marina), Tim turned off on a dirt road that the map marked as the beach road towards Guzmancito.

Three hours later, we had never seen a place called Guzmancito and had only enjoyed one pretty but minor beach. More significantly, we dragged our compact car through endless bumps, about 10 muddy rivers (luckily it had not rained for many days), rural mountain villages with people to help us push the car when we got stuck, and bulls with the frequent right-of-way.

We arrived at Luperon with a balance of harrowed disbelief and cheery accomplishment for our unexpected adventure. It was too late in the day to take our snorkeling trip, so we ate some late lunch and drove back on the main road (which took about 30 minutes to get back to the entrance of the dirt road where we had turned in earlier).

A perfect lesson on the extreme diversity of road conditions in the Dominican Republic.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Beautiful Sunsets Every Night

These are two of the great evening scenes we've experienced on our first three nights here in the Dominican.

Eastward Beach Trek: Success

Our first full day in the Dominican Republic was a time to unwind with a 90-minute drive east of Susua to the beautiful Playa Grande beach.

We spent $70 total for chairs and a full fresh fish extravaganza, including three lobsters, buttered conch, a spicy fried fish, rice, and fried salty plantains.

The long beach had white sand, dramatic rock formations, and a subtle, nuanced rip tide crashing in a turqoise blue foam.

Dan took a semi-deserved nap while Tim and I hiked up the rocks over the east end of the beach. We had to cover our heads as we trekked through a rocky climb of coconut trees, in hoping none of them would fall onto our noggins. After Tim stepped in something very unpleasant, we hurried down the rock face on the other side to descend on a deserted and majestic beach named Playa Preciosa (pictured).

Making it back to the Tropix Hotel by sundown, we enjoyed beer, bread, cheese, and chocolate from the grocery store while enjoying the pool until bedtime.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Scoping the Scene in Susua, Dominican Republic

Our Dominican Republic vacation got off to a bang Sunday when we arrived at Puerta Plata airport and made our way in the little red rental car down the coastal Highway 5 through zipping and zinging motorbikes and cars driving on all sides of the road.

Tim did an effortless job of driving while Dan and I rode along, unfazed and amused at the Frogger-like activity.

After checking in at our cozy and basic Tropix Hotel (that's the three of us in the picture by the pool), and being warmly welcomed by Carl, a New Yorker friend of the owners, we made a beeline for the nearby Sosua beach.

We had arrived with enough time left in the day to sit on beachchairs, drink juice from a coconut, eat fried cheese and fresh oysters, swim on the reef of the ocean floor, and watch a beautiful sunset over a faraway mountain.

After that, we grabbed a delicious late dinner for about $10 total at a trailer on the side of the road. We dined with a tall local named Robert, who shared something that was similar to a pork lasagna with us. And we ordered some sort of tacos and chicken paninis.

Then we hit the nightlife, enjoying the local liquor called Mama Juana, which is made from bark and some sort of fruity juice.

The prostitution is rampant and it's pretty saddening. Mostly it was old German men hooking up with extremely young (14 to 18?) Dominican girls. Somewhat oddly, most of the propositioning (which wasn't too overwhelming) went to Dan. He was also offered Viagra on the street. There was a young twitchy girl sitting at the table next to us at one bar who went home with an ugly, pony-tailed old German man with huge gout-ravaged ankles.

Breakfast at the hotel pool was a much prettier scene this morning. Now we're off to explore the beaches to the east.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alex Chilton, Dead at 59

This truly goes up at the top of my list of dead rock legends. In nearly the same league as John Lennon and George Harrison. And easily in the same league as Kurt Cobain, Keith Moon, Brian Jones, The Ramones, Jim Morrison, John Bonham, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, Jerry Garcia, and Elvis.

I discovered Alex Chilton soon after The Replacements issued their crunching 1987 song "Alex Chilton." Any recommendation of Mats' leader Paul Westerberg was good enough for me. And sure enough, Paul was right.

I couldn't get Chilton's 1972 and 1974 cassette tapes, #1 Record and Radio City, by his band Big Star, out of my car stereo for many months. Much later, one of those songs became the theme of one of my favorite TV shows, That 70's Show.

I began to dig deeper and only recently started listening to Chilton's first band, The Box Tops, which were a staple on 1960s AM radio.

RIP, Alex.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Muddy Mess of Clinton Vs. Starr

Larry Flynt, publisher of porno mag Hustler, called the famed Starr Report "'more depraved and scandalous' than any act Bill Clinton had committed."

Further, Clinton and many others thought Starr ended up being far more voyeuristic than Flynt, with his "minute description of every sordid little detail" between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. As late as 2004, Clinton was remarkably calm in conversations, but "when Starr's name was mentioned, his eyes flashed with anger" and his face reddened. Clinton said, "This fellow just thinks he's doing the Lord's work. And he's got the power and he's going to use it."

The Death of American Virtue: Clinton Vs. Starr, by law professor Ken Gormley (pictured right), digs deeply into a far less complex (although not exactly more innocent) era of presidential politics.

And it all makes for a thrillingly intriguing read. There are juicy details on Whitewater ringleader Jim McDougal eventually dying "naked on a [prison] floor begging for his medicine and begging the Office of the Independent Counsel to help him after they promised to put him in a medical facility." Yet Gormley stays safely away from myths, noting that Bill and Hillary Clinton had nothing to do with McDougal's death, despite some loud cries otherwise.

The Arkansas Whitewater development, like the relatively tattered remains of many of its key players, ended up being located on the wrong side of the river, difficult to access, and a muddy headache where nobody wanted to live.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Novel, Part #3

Read the start of the novel here.

Chapter 2

I walked away from the crowd after the funeral service ended on the last ringing notes of a new composition drafted for the occasion by Rory’s long-ago guitarist, Galaxy Jones. I was looking out across a hill on the side of the cemetery where a good slice of Manhattan was visible when Galaxy himself joined me.

“Andrews,” he said. “So how’s the rag gonna play this?”

“Oh, you know, typical legend-dies feature with an emotional close-up photo and the dates of his birth and death on the cover. I’m thinking about giving it to an intern.”

“You gotta be kidding me. Hey, you know what inspired me to write that song I just played? It was actually that time you and me were hanging out with Rory the afternoon before the ’76 show at CBGBs. We were all totally stroked about the Mars mission,” Galaxy said.

The Viking Probe had landed that week and sent back stunning photos of the red planet’s rocky terrain. Rory and Galaxy, being stars in one of the world’s most popular glam bands, figured those images of Mars would give them at least an album’s worth of inspiration to write a sort of space rock opera. It would be where NASA’s technical precision met Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” The idea did in fact come to fruition, but it wasn’t one of the band’s better-selling efforts and was viewed by many critics as a poor-man’s rip-off of Hunky Dory.

Galaxy continued. “I remembered that you were telling us about the way your hometown back out in the hills was the exact opposite of Manhattan and how it was rural but had bustling paper factories and a Universal record-pressing plant. But Rory was saying that when he was growing up there, it had been even more bustling and that he could see the differences already. And that the writing was clearly on the wall for those factories, that they would shut down and the town would one day have nothing.”

“Yup, that’s exactly what has happened. The paper factories moved to Taiwan and, well, record plants aren’t the busiest places around these days,” I confirmed.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Music Reviews in 3 Words or Less: Volume 17

The Doors - Morrison Hotel (1970)
Best Doors album
Touchstones: Elvis meets Jefferson Airplane
***** out of ***** stars

Lou Reed - New Sensations (1984)
Underrated Reed gem
Touchstones: Velvet Underground meets Kraftwerk
***** out of ***** stars

Blake Babies - Rosy Jack World (1991)
Acoustic-y pop assault
Touchstones: Juliana Hatfield meets Dinosaur Jr.
***** out of ***** stars

Freedy Johnston - This Perfect World (1996)
Rootsy, breezy strummer
Touchstones: Mason Jennings meets Matthew Sweet
****1/2 out of ***** stars

Bay City Rollers - Once Upon a Star (1975)
Dreamy power sugar
Touchstones: Solo John Lennon meets The Archies
***1/2 out of ***** stars

Side Effect - What You Need (1976)
Weird disco R&B
Touchstones: The O'Jays meet Funkadelic
***1/2 out of ***** stars

Ringo Starr - Y Not (2010)
Usual goofy fun
Touchstones: Electric Light Orchestra meets NRBQ
*** out of ***** stars

Spiral Stairs - The Real Feel (2009)
Letdown solo-Pavement project
Touchstones: Preston School of Industry meets The Fall
*** out of ***** stars

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Writing a Novel on My Blog: #2

Click here for the beginning of the novel.

“Mr. Andrews, could I write a sidebar to the cover story? I dug up a pretty interesting scoop – at least I’m 95 percent sure it hasn’t been reported – about Rory. He liked to tell a story about how he ate ham sandwiches with Mama Cass after performing a duet with her on stage in London in 1974. One night before she died! Now, I know that Mama Cass actually died of a heart attack in her sleep after the next night’s show. Sold-out show, mind you. She was very popular. But the legend is that she died eating a ham sandwich! That’s a pretty interesting little nugget, isn’t is?”

“Hmmm. While we’re talking trivia, did you know that Mama Cass died in the exact same hotel room as Keith Moon?" I paused. "I think your blurb might fit in somewhere. I can probably get a good source for you to double confirm it. I’ll say, off-the-record, that Rory liked to tell that story and he told me at least a few times over the years. The legend of Mama's ham sandwich definitely captures the public's imagination."

"Yeah, it's totally newsworthy!"

Starla’s youthful excitability is a pleasure to have around. I have two kids, a boy and a girl, who are both a little older than her, so I suppose she plays a little bit of the role of those two, both off at college now.

As I mentioned, she reminds me of myself at her age. When I met Rory in 1973, he was 24 and I was 13. He was the main reason I was a music writer, and he always drove me. I’m not sure exactly how Starla became similar to what I was at age 18. She must just be more of a natural. Rory also was a natural. Music was always easy for him. It was part of him. And although his death at age 53 has me somewhat shocked, he certainly accomplished a lot of good for the world.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Let the Novel Begin: #1

I've been outlining a novel since last summer. With the outline of more than 100 chapters in place, I need motivation to keep going on the writing. I've been stuck for a couple of months, but if I'm forced to continue writing publicly here on my blog, I may be able to finish it this year. We'll see. Anyway, I plan to unveil a few paragraphs at a time, a few times a week, right here. Feel free to tell me what you think. Who knows, if you've got good enough ideas, maybe we'll co-write it.

Here is the start of my as-yet-untitled novel. Enjoy ...


Chapter 1

Rory Cocksure
was deeper, more conflicted, and more regular than any of his biographers made him out to be. He was also deeper, more conflicted, and more regular than the stage name handed to him by the rock gods made him out to be. He never would have let me say this to him, but he would have agreed. And another thing about Rory: He taught me lots about how to live, and how to think about living.

Rory wasn’t all leather all the time. If that were it, I would have surely bored of his schtick. I’ve written hundreds of features on musicians for Rolling Earwax – the legendary magazine that I’m proud (and lucky) to work at as a senior editor – and it’s true what they say about rock stars viewed up close and personal: 90 percent of them are as dumb and affecting as a pet rock.

I could say the same about many of the young “writers” who have come in (and mostly right back out) the doors of the magazine at our offices in the Village. But Starla Matthews, like Rory Cocksure, is different. She’s one of the good ones, which is almost always difficult to say about an 18-year-old intern who, for all I know, may work only another month in the music-rag biz and disappear onto Wall Street or some other job that I would consider more soul-sucking.

In my view, Rolling Earwax is the greatest gig possible. It helps that my seniority allows me to do the jobs I love – reporting and writing – rather than dealing with the politics. I see Starla as a young me. How she got the internship I have no idea. But, modesty aside, she’s a natural at this, and has a nose for what readers want and also for what matters.

She looks like an outsider at Rory’s funeral. It’s hot in Woodlawn Cemetery on this July 2002 early afternoon, and she’s wearing a black jumpsuit more Hillary Clinton than Janis Joplin. While I’ve decided to go a little crazy and bust out my Tom Wolfe-like seersucker, I’m dressed conservatively by the standards of the hundreds of mourners in attendance. The hippies are here. The glam rockers. The indie rockers. Everyone loved Rory, even if most only knew him through his popular persona, most typified as the brilliant life-long rocker able to switch genres with the winds of fad but always with a great hook.

“You know this dump is where Irving Berlin and Louie Armstrong are buried. Not bad company for your friend,” Starla said, a little too loudly, as she approached me.

The Hurt Locker a Worthy Contender for Year's Best Movie

Well, tonight's the big Oscar night. I've been trying to see as many of the contenders as possible. I finally got to The Hurt Locker and it is deserving of the hype.

One could reduce the Oscar race for best picture down to left vs. right, Democrats vs. Republican. The environmental world under attack by an evil and militaristic corporation in Avatar will square off against the grim reality of war and what seems to be an ultra-realistic snapshot of Iraq in The Hurt Locker.

But really, there's no need to get political. Both films are worthy of the award, in what has been an unusually strong year for movies. If it were up to me, I would pick The Hangover as best movie, but seeing as comedy is ridiculously out-of-bounds for the Academy, that could never happen.

Suspense is the greatest attribute of The Hurt Locker. As the kids from Bravo Company work to diffuse bombs, Jeremy Renner as Sergeant First Class William James recklessly leads his crew. Death is, of course, all around, but he's the only one who doesn't seem to mind. This kind of work takes its toll on his fellow soldiers, such as the psychologically damaged Anthony Mackie and the physically shot Brian Geraghty. Renner is nominated for best actor and is wonderful for a relative newcomer (the only other film I've seen with him is 28 Days Later, in which he also plays a sergeant).

When Renner returns home, he admits to his infant son that there is only one thing he loves. Being on the battlefield diffusing bombs in his oversize space suit. And it's not long before he is back where he loves, in a situation where many soldiers become unhinged.

Curiously, the big stars (Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce, and Lost's Evangeline Lilly) all play unassuming bit parts.

While I'll be cheering on Avatar tonight, it will be reasonable if The Hurt Locker wins best picture.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The New Age Military ... And Goats

For a while into this movie, I thought The Men Who Stare at Goats was going to be a stone-cold classic.

The acting and actors were especially snappy, tight, and hilarious. George Clooney is a perfect mix of his whiskery and slick characters ala Three Kings and Ocean's Eleven. Ewan McGregor is a young "Jedi warrior" journalist on a mission to Iraq to prove to his ex-girlfriend that he's a real man. Jeff Bridges follows a strong line of movie-character gurus like Tom Cruise in Magnolia and Mike Myers in The Love Guru. Kevin Spacey is the only big star here who doesn't offer much.

An excellent McGregor finds his way into the middle of the war by sneaking into Iraq with Clooney, who has served for years under the New Age troop leader Bridges (who invented the slogan "Be all that you can be"). The soldiers in this troop learn the spiritual arts of mind control, and Clooney's powers are so strong that, at one point, he kills a goat just by out-staring it.

Although the three main stars keep this movie captivating throughout, and the dialog and social commentary on the true-life adventures of the U.S. military's explorations into parapsychology is truly fascinating and wacky, the script becomes a little tiring. By the end, it seems a little too silly, even by my low standards in this category.

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

Pavement Reunites!!!

They're back, playing their first show down under. Now we just have to wait until September to see them in New York. Photos courtesy of Spiral Stairs' blog.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Government Subsidies Could Return Journalism to Golden Era

Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) convened a hearing in Spring 2009 on the crisis of the current media landscape. And while it's encouraging that there are early signs of a political awakening, the loss of sheer numbers of reporters, enterprising investigation, and deep journalistic thought has clearly entered crisis mode.

"For the first time in modern American history, it is entirely plausible that we will not have even minimally sufficient resources dedicated to reporting and editing the news and distributing the information and informed analysis that citizens require."

These are the words near the opening of a new book by Robert McChesney, host of the Media Matters radio show, and John Nichols, The Nation's D.C. reporter, two writers I've respected since reading their media-theory books in graduate school and seen present their reformist theories a few years ago at Busboys and Poets.

But despite what sounds like a plea for the nostalgia of ink-stained newspapers, The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again makes the call for government subsidies to save the media.

Interestingly, "the entire press system of the U.S. was built on a foundation of massive federal postal and printing subsidies that were provided to newspapers during the many decades that forged the American experiment. The purpose of the subsidies was not to enrich publishers but to broaden the marketplace of ideas and to provide a journalistic check and balance on those who might threaten fragile freedoms."

The authors give the example of public universities drawing subsidies without political interference of academic freedoms. They rightfully blame journalism's problems on media owners, with their emphasis on entertainment over civic value. Thankfully, they don't blame a simple scapegoat like the Internet.

Subsidies is certainly something that would be interesting to explore. With health care, global warming, wars and the obstructionist partisan bickerings of Congress on President Obama's plate, it's probably something that will unfortunately have to wait. Good thing for my blog, eh?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Precious: The Urban Antidote to the Suburban Blind Side

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire is the second consecutive movie I've seen about a poor African-American kid who is mercilessly abused but goes on to lead a relatively happy existence.

And it's very good, with the benefit of being a lot less Hollywood syrupy than The Blind Side. Mo'Nique is pure evil as the domineering and extremely abusive mother of 16-year-old Precious. She chucks her daughter's babies aside like old rags. Babies that are the product of her boyfriend's rapes of her daughter! Then everyone gets HIV.

Yeah, fun stuff. The supposedly uplifting moments of the film examine the day-dreaming Precious imagining that her high-school teacher is in love with her and that she is a famous pop singer. A lot of these moments seem to cater to the American Idol masses, and they aren't very interesting.

The great thing about the movie is the characterization. Precious and her friends are fascinating, and singers Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz do nice jobs in supporting roles as a social worker and male nurse.

It will be interesting to see how many prizes Precious claims at the Academy Awards, where it's nominated in six major categories. My guess is that nothing about the movie is major enough other than Mo'Nique's face-melting scene at the end when she rationalizes her life to social worker Carey. She should be a lock for best supporting actress, if only for these five minutes.

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