Tuesday, January 30, 2007

My Birth: A Day That Will Live In Infamy

Today is my birthday and it's a day that will live in infamy. I had no idea that the date of my arrival into this wonderful/horrible world was associated with so much sadness and bad karma. To wit:
Jan. 30, 1649.
English King Charles I was beheaded by order of Parliament under Oliver Cromwell.

Jan. 30, 1798.
The first brawl in the history of the history of the US Congress broke out in the House of Representatives in Philadelphia, PA after Matthew Lyon of Vermont spat in the face of Roger Griswold of Connecticut.

Jan. 30, 1941.
Dick Cheney - our 46th Vice-President and possibly the meanest, grumpiest, most stubborn and delusional man in the history of the world - was born on my birthday in Lincoln, NE.

Jan. 30, 1948.
Indian religious and political leader Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in New Delhi by Hindu extremist Ram Naturam.

Jan. 30, 1968.
Tet Offensive begins in Vietnam. After calling for a cease-fire during the Tet holiday celebrations, North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front launched a major offensive thrughout South Vietnam.

Jan. 30, 1969.
This was the day the music died, as the Beatles performed their last live gig on the rooftop of Apple Records (as recorded in the film Let It Be).

On the plus side, former Small Faces and Humble Pie frontman Steve Marriott was born on January 30, 1947. They don't make 'em any cooler than the original Little Steven.

And today my co-worker Michelle presented me with a hand-knitted winter scarf, while Brad burned me a mash-up mix CD and The Dreamgirls (Emma, Sarah and Mel) sang "Happy Birthday" to me. So, maybe things have turned the corner.

BUT WAIT - just like in all those sappy "I don't think there's going to be a Christmas this year" movies until something miraculous happens to save the day at the end...when I got home from work tonight, I had a message from my ex-wife congratulating me on turning 50 (The Big 5-0 is a milestone, after all). That was the biggest thrill of all. There are few things in existence as life-altering and traumatic as going through a divorce and for years there has been a chill (understandably so) between us. But lately, with so many of our friends and family having suffered illnesses or passing away, well...it's hard to justify carrying ill-feelings forever. Life is just too short. I think she realized that, and I'm glad she did. After expressing incredulity not only that I had made it through to 50 but (perhaps even more incredibly) that I still had the same message on my answering machine for the past 15 years, she said some really nice things that will make this a memorable day for years to come.

Monday, January 29, 2007

It's Rad, Dad!


Today Turner Classic Movies screened nothing but old rock and twist movies from the late '50s and early '60s. You know the fare - "films" like Bop Girl Goes Calypso (the film that caused Buddy Bradley a run-in with his collector nemesis in Peter Bagge's comic Hate), Rock around the Clock, Don't Knock the Rock and their inevitable (and cleverly named) twist versions Twist Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Twist. I use the term "film" advisedly because these were really nothing more than just excuses to sandwich musical performances of the top acts of the day around the loosest of narratives, usually the old Andy Hardy ploy of "Let's Put On A Show!" to save someone or something. But then I saw Richard Lester's little 1962 gem, It's Trad, Dad!, which was released here in the US as Ring-a-Ding Rhythm.

Oh sure, it's got the same flimsily formulaic "plot" as all the other pop music movies, this one the story of a small British "Town Which Shall Remain Nameless," whose mayor just wants a quiet cup of coffee and thus outlaws music in public places like the teen coffeehouse hangout where the kids are not listening to raucous rock but trad/Dixieland jazz!; whereupon a boy and a girl (15-year-old singer Helen Shapiro and clean-cut crooner Craig Douglas) concoct a plot to circumvent Town Council opposition by getting a big-name DJ to put on a benefit jazz show in the main square of The Town Which Shall Remain Nameless and save the day for lovers of that wild banjo and cornet Devil Music. But what makes this movie so cool is Richard Lester's style and direction. On the strength of It's Trad, Dad! it's easy to see why The Beatles selected him to direct them in their big screen debut, A Hard Day's Night (1964). In fact, the Beatles liked Lester so much they had him back to direct them in Help! (1965) as well. (Beatles fans should also note that the female star of It's Trad, Dad!, the deep-voiced Helen Shapiro, would later headline The Fab Four's first big tour, during which Lennon and McCartney wrote "Misery" for her. Similarly, male lead Craig Douglas - the British Pat Boone who hit No. 1 on the Brit charts in 1959 with his cover of Sam Cooke's "Only Sixteen" - topped the bill on The Beatles' first major stage show, though the emergence of their brand of rock & roll would ultimately curtail his career.)

Lester's comic sense is on full display here, as he peppers the proceedings (music act after music act, including the very odd-looking Del Shannon who sweats more than Richard Nixon during a televised debate and looks like he should be a sideshow freak character in some Lynch or Fellini film) with all kinds of imaginatively framed visuals and cleverly executed slapstick humor - not at all surprising given the American director's extensive experience working with English comedians like Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. But what really stands out is the artistry of Lester's cinematography. He knew how to capture musicians on film better than anyone else working at that time. This was not the routine - a close-up on the singer's face, a medium shot, a crowd reaction shot - a la some cheesy Dick Clark TV production. No, Lester used unusual camera angles, stylishly lit silhouettes, split screens, slow-mo, fast-cutting and any and every trick in the book to make the obvious (yet another musical performer performing) seem interesting and engaging (with the lone exception of Del Shannon, whose eerie looks and disturbing presence were beyond tweaking). Mad, not Trad, skills indeed.

Lots of Yanks turn up in It's Trad, Dad!, many no doubt enjoying second careers across the pond (Chubby Checker, Soloman Burke, and Gary "U.S." Bonds - the latter exhibiting a strange stage presence, tentatively attempting the twist as if he's afraid he'll crease his lovely suit). Gene Vincent and the Blue caps play the rockin' ditty "Spaceship To Mars" in one scene, which is enough to recommend this movie to most people - though Gene strangely just leans on the mic and doesn't move an inch (was this after his car accident?). But my favorite scene was the one in which I got to see The Temperance Seven - those ever-cool purveyors of '20s jazz and major-influence forerunners of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band - perform two songs, including the wonderful "Everybody Loves My Baby." My friend Tom Lehr turned me on to these guys back in college and I've been thankful ever since. Fronted by the deadpan crooner Paul MacDowell, the Temps actually had a British No. 1 hit in 1961 with "You're Driving Me Crazy." (For a good sampling of the Temps - as well as the Bonzos and others of their ilk - check out the compilation CD, By Jingo It's British Rubbish!).

If it comes on again, tape this movie. A title like It's Trad, Dad! may not sound like it, but it really is rad, dad, even despite all the Dixieland jazz. The Beatles certainly thought so.

Related Links:
Great TCM Review (Jeff Stafford)

Do Not Adjust Your Set, Adjust Your Ears


If you're a Monty Python fan, you have to get thee hither to Daedelus Books & Music and pick up the deeply discounted DVDs of DO NOT ADJUST YOUR SET ($9.98 for the 2-disc set at Daedelus, $27 on Amazon) and AT LAST THE 1948 SHOW ($6.98 at Daedelus, $27 on Amazon). These two British TV series featured the two comedy camps that would eventually merge into Monty Python, THE 1948 SHOW featuring John Cleese and Graham Chapman (not to mention Marty Feldman!) and DO NOT ADUST YOUR SET featuring Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle.

More importantly, DO NOT ADJUST YOUR SET launched the career of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, who were the house band of this children's program that aired on Britain's ITV channel from 1967-1969 (5 months after the last show in 1969, Monty Python was formed). So if you're a fan of the Bonzos, a 60s dada artschool ensemble, who described themselves as a cross between the jazzy vaudeville musicality of The Temperance Seven and the stage insanity of The Alberts, this is an essential purchase. Other than a brief Bonzos performance of "Death Cab for Cutie" in the Beatles' MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR, this is the only place you're likely to see live performances of this very visual comedy rock group.

As it's Monday morning and the coffee hasn't kicked in yet, I don't have the energy or mental fortitude to give a detailed history of the Bonzos, which I'll leave to the know-it-alls at Wikipedia, but here are some essential facts:

The Core Members:
* Vivian Stanshall (1943 - 1995): trumpet, lead vocals
* Neil Innes (b. 1944): piano, guitar, lead vocals
* Rodney "Rhino" Desborough Slater (b. 1944): saxophone
* Roger Ruskin Spear: tenor sax and various contraptions
* "Legs" Larry Smith: drums

The Name(s):
They were originally christened The Bonzo Dog Dada Band, after Bonzo the dog, a popular British cartoon character created by artist George Studdy in the 1920s and Dada, the early 20th century art movement. They later became known as the The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, The Bonzo Dog Bnd and, colloquially, as "The Bonzos."

And yes, the American indie rock band Death Cab For Cutie, from Bellingham, Washington, took their name from the Bonzo's song of that title, which originally appeared on their 1967 debut album Gorilla.

The Beatles Connection:
And speaking of "Death Cab for Cutie," here's the clip of the song from the Beatles' MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR TV special:

There was only one, "I'm the Urban Spaceman," written by Neil Innes and produced by fan-of-the-band Paul McCartney under the name Apollo C. Vermouth (another Beatles connection!).

McCartney later convinced John Lennon to add the Bonzos to the MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR film.

Here's the promotional film for "Urban Spaceman":

Famous Alums:
Neil Innes and Vivian Stanshall were the two main songwriters of the Bonzos and their most illustrious alumni.

Neil Innes went on to become basically "the 7th Python," providing musical bits for and touring frequently with the Pythons stage act. He also wrote the music for the Beatles parody group The Rutles, playing the John Lennon character Ron Nasty (yet another Beatles connection!).

Vivian Stanshall was a cohort of Eric Clapton, Keith Moon of The Who (the two notoriously used to walk about London's East End dressed up as Nazi SS officers and Stanshall's influence may be why The Who Sell Out is so much fun) and Steve Winwood of Traffic (no doubt the reason why Traffic's first album is so fun and unlike anything else they ever did). Stanshall later co-wrote songs with Traffic ("Dream Gerard" from When the Eagle Flies) and Steve Winwood during Winwood's solo career, such as Arc of a Diver. (Other Traffic-Bonzo connections include Jim Capaldi filling in occasionally at gigs for "Legs" Larry Smith and members of Traffic backing Stanshall on his solo album Men Opening Umbrellas Ahead.) And Stanshall's mellifluous voice was featured as the narrator of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. Stanshall's biggest post-Bonzos project was his spoof of the British Upper Class, Sir Henry At Rawlinson End, which spawned a theatrical show, an album, a radio program and even a 1980 film (starring Trevor Howard). Friends commented that Stanshall could have been another John Cleese had he not succumbed to his Triple-D demons of drink, drugs and depression.

Stanshall was found dead on 6 March 1995, after a fire at his Muswell Hill flat. According to Wikipedia, "Though Stanshall often smoked and drank in bed and even set fire to his long ginger beard, to the frequent concern of his friends, the coroner found that the fire was caused by faulty wiring near his bed."

A one-hour television documentary, Vivian Stanshall: The Canyons of his Mind (2003), was broadcast on BBC Four in June 2004.

"Legs" Larry Smith toured with Clapton and Elton John and can be heard tap dancing on John's "I Think I'm Going to Kill Myself." He also released a picture-sleeve single that featured a great cover of "Springtime For Hitler" (a song originally on the soundtrack of Mel Brooks' THE PRODUCERS) backed with the thematic "I've Got a Braun New Girl."

Richie Unterberger's Urban Spacemen and Other Wayfaring Strangers dedicates a chapter to the band he describes as "British music hall and vaudeville revivalists who became the prince clowns of the rock underground, with exploding robots, urban spacemen, and a priceless sense of humor that inspired Monty Python."

The Kinks Connection:
According to a Web fansite, someone in a record shop who spotted a Kinks 1989 CD called Shangri-La: A Tribute to the Kinks noticed that the liner notes said something about how they (The Kinks or the record company who put out the compilation) were working on We Are Normal And We Dig Bert Weedon: A Tribute To The Bonzos. I'd like to think it was Ray Davies behind this effort. After all, The Kinks had a similar sense of humor and appreciation for the Bonzo's music hall/vaudeville roots and, well, Viv Stanshall did live in Muswill Hills, home of the Muswill Hillbillies.


The Region 2 Connection:
If you're lucky enough to have an all-region DVD player, there's a British DVD of the Bonzos called Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band - The Complete Nutter History Of the Bonzo available from Amazon.UK.

It was 40 Years Ago Today:
If you can handle the absence of Vivian Stanshall (Stephen Fry and Adrian Edmondson fill in on vocals), Stateside there's the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band 40th Anniversity (2006) DVD, which is a recording of a reunion concert.

Videos (YouTube):

Equestrian Statute (2:43)

Look Out, There's a Monster Coming

I'm the Urban Spaceman (Beat Club 1969, 2:09)

Beautiful Zelda (2:43)

By A Waterfall (2:48)

Hunting Tigers Out In India (3:37)

Urban Spaceman/Canyons of Your Mind (4:42)

On the NEW FACES Show 1966 (5:59)

Big Shot (Jazz Bilden - Pt 1, German TV, 8:12)

Urban Spaceman/Quite Talks and Summer Walks (Jazz Bilden - Pt 2, 8:04)

Canyons Of Your Mind/Trouser Press (Jazz Bilden - Pt 3, 5:31)

Interview (Jazz Bilden - Pt 4, 4:04)
An interview with Neil Innes from a concert film of the Bonzo Dog Band in Germany. Neil tries to talk about the Bonzos in serious terms. An apparently drunk Vivian Stanshall and Roger Ruskin-Spear show up at the end.

Mixed Pathe Outtakes (8:11)
Mixed Pathe outtakes with karaoke "Cool Britania", the unreleased "It was a great party till somebody found a hammer" and a 1920's recording of "Jolity Farm"

Little Sir Echo (2:03)

Related Links:
Bonzo Dog Band (Wikipedia)
The Rutles (Wikipedia)
Do Not Adjust Your Set (BBC Guide To Comedy)
Do Not Adjust Your Set (Wikipedia)
Vivian Stanshall (Wikipedia)
Viv Archive (Vivian Stanshall Fan Website)
George Studdy (Wikipedia)
Bonzo the Dog (Answers.com)
Bonzo Dog UK Website
Ian Kitching's Bonzo Dog Website
Ginger Geezer (Fan Website)
Bonzos On YouTube
Dave Thompson Article on the Bonzos
Neil Innes Website
Bonzos on Myspace

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Obvious & Concrete TV

I recently put together an "art of editing" film program (see City Paper's "Splice World" review) at work and it reminded me that I needed to dig out an obscure video tape I got at Scott Huffines' old Atomic Books back in the '90s that was the ultimate in creative (and labor-intensive) editing. The tape was something called Peter Flechette's THE OBVIOUS (SEX AND VIOLENCE) and this 1990 curioddity was a pretty amazing bit of "cuts-only" analog splicing together of 2 hours of non-stop sex and violence clips from TV and film. A sample juxtaposition of sounds and visions: Rambo kills Charlie and pals with an M-16, followed by two women french kissing, followed by Leatherface dissecting some meat in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, followed by some young nubiles fucking, followed by a clip from THE DRILLER KILLER, followed by...well, you get the picture. It was the kind of visual curriculum that was force-fed to Malcolm McDowell's droog character when the authorities were de-programming him in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

Great stuff, but it's already been one-upped thanks to a New York public access TV show called CONCRETE TV. Once again, Scott Huffines, leading where others merely follow, turned me on to this amazing state-of-the-art editing showcase (OK, admittedly he was clued to it by Chris X of Reptilian Records). And, once again, like THE OBVIOUS, the theme of the show reflects the same two-fold, time-honored tenets of Modern Life that never go out of fashion or fascination: sex and violence. Seeing this show makes me wonder why Scott Huffines and I even bothered all those years with Atomic TV, our pathetic attempt at public access TV fame and glory.

What makes CONCRETE TV stand out is the way its creator, Concrete Ron (Ron Rocheleau), finds the perfect soundbite clips to tie his episodes together. It reminds me of Little Steven's UNDERGROUND GARAGE radio show (on Sirius Satellite Radio and for free Sundays 7-9 p.m. on Baltimore's WRNR 103.1 FM) in the way it intersperses thematic soundbites between the content. Amazingly, Concrete Ron's been doing his thing since 1994 and it looks like it's all analog "cuts-only" editing with title cards done by an Old School character generator (i.e., no fancy fonts). After Rolling Stone magazine cited the show as a "Hot Pick" in 1996, MTV came calling to throw some filthy lucre Ron's way, but he decided to stick it out on the Manhatten Neighborhood Network's public access Channel 56 (where it used to air late-night alongside another hip program, WFMU-TV).

But don't take my word for CONCRETE TV's jaw-dropping greatness. Below is a sample clip from CONCRETE TV Episode 8, Part 1 (9:41 minutes):

Here's Episode 8, Part 2 (9:36 minutes):

For those of you who need closure, here's Episode 8, Part 3 (8:45 minutes):

Here's a sample clip from Episode 9, Part 2 (4:32 minutes):

And here are some reviews from across the world-wide Web.

Concrete Ron describes himself as "perhaps the greatest video editor of all time", and anyone who's ever caught Concrete TV on Manhattan public access television over the last decade or so probably wouldn't argue: a typical episode incorporates vintage porn movies, 80s aerobics videos, car crash footage, Hong Kong shoot-em-ups, old commercials, beefcake reels, pro wrestling smackdowns, cheesy B-movie moments, sex education films, random explosions, wet t-shirt contests, and plenty of "raw emotion, euphoria, physical collision, glee, fantasy, despair, and discomfort" in one noisy, violent, sexy, and brilliantly edited pop culture/infoporn mashup. If we ever had to show visitors from another planet what's going on in our collective brains at any given moment, we'd make them tune in here.

...If you’ve been in enough bars on Thursday nights, chances are you’ve seen Concrete TV, the monumental cable access show that consists of car crashes, motorcycle chases, gunfights, hardcore porn, Chippendale’s stage footage and blips of dialogue cut together in half-hour action-movie montages. The show is favored by bartenders, because you can leave the sound off and it’s just as mesmerizing for drunks.

Concrete TV has been around since 1994, when creator Ron Rocheleau’s cable access sitcom ("It was bad because I was on drugs") began evolving into a "music video show." "I thought, what would it be like to make a movie with all cliches? So I started pasting cliches together, with background music, and that’s what became Concrete TV," says Ron.

Rolling Stone cited the show as a "Hot Pick" in 1996, and MTV came on the scene. But things didn’t work out. "They offered me this shitty gig to do Concrete TV with all footage from the MTV archive. You know how they are. They wanted ‘Behind the Scenes on the Making of Behind the Scenes.’ I told them: this isn’t interesting. This is bad."

MTV stopped calling, but Ron soldiered on, producing–to date–17 episodes of Concrete TV that he constantly edits and rotates, so you literally never see the same show twice.

Unfortunately, some cheap imitators have cropped up. Public Sex Acts, Liebography and Media Shower are three local cable shows that crib heavily from the Concrete TV formula. Public Sex Acts is the worst, with no continuity, shaky camerawork and a total lack of public sex. Liebography is story-oriented, with each show devoted to a figure like Calvin Klein, but it’s made by a Concrete TV devotee who recycles the same clip format. And Media Shower, which features "odd, rare, or unsettling video," is the yuppie Concrete TV for people who have not yet discovered the real thing.

"There are many imitators," Ron says. "But when I’ve seen the shows, they’re not very good... I can spend four-five hours on a few seconds of [Concrete TV]. I come from a fine arts background. So I have the patience to put it together slowly, and if I mess up, I start again. They don’t have that patience.

"It’s like, you know if you have a phat beat, people are going to steal it. All you can try to do is make it so good that you outshine all the imitators."

Don’t be fooled. The real Concrete TV airs Thursdays at 1 a.m. on MNN (channel 67, in Manhattan only).

Concrete TV is a bizarre video mix of all kinds of audio-visual craziness created by a guy called Concrete Ron. The Videos are broadcast on Channel 56, NYC Public Access but there are a couple of thirty minute six-part episodes archived online for our viewing pleasure. The only guarantee is violence, explosions, fitness videos and nudity! So, there’s the warning…not safe for viewing at work.


Concrete TV
Sample YouTube Clips
Boing Boing review
New York Press review
Ektopia review
Concrete TV (Wikipedia)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Getting a Leg Up On the Competition

Here's a stat from the 2007 Australian Open most people don't know, but one which I obsessively love: Daniela Hantuchova has the longest legs in women's professional tennis. The gamine 23-year-old Slovakian beauty, who was recently knocked out of the tournament by power-hitting Kim Clijsters, stands 5-feet and 11 inches tall, with 44 of those inches taken up by her breadstick-thin legs. In other words, her legs are taller than Herve Villechaize.

I've written about Daniela before, as I consider her top of the pops on my list of glamorous women tennis pros, and I'm not alone. Daniela used to be compared to Anna Kournikova for her good looks and is still often considered the supermodel of tennis due to her height and beauty. One British magazine went so far as to name her the world's "sexiest player." (Apparently the comparison riled a jealous Kournikova, who became Daniela's arch-enemy, especially after Hantuchova's sexy low-cut outfit stole the show at the 2002 Australian Open in her doubles final with Arantxa Sanchez Vicario against Anna K. and Martina Hingus.) In ESPN Magazine's "Glam Slam" profile of women tennis players, John Gustafson characterized Daniela's aura as "a lingering Eastern European cool, a sense of mystery...an impending danger." How telling that observation was.

Rail-thin Daniela was once rumored to have an eating disorder and even now weighs no more than a beefed-up 123 pounds, which is considered "healthy" for her 5-11 frame. In 2003 she climbed as high as number 5 in world rankings, before losing so much weight that spectators could see her ribcage portruding through her blouse. And she started losing more than just pounds. At Wimbledon that year she suffered what commentators called a breakdown, openly crying after losing to a lower-ranked player. She subsequently fell out of the world's Top 40, becoming what one commentator called "a hollow-eyed basket case" before getting her act together again in 2004. Perhaps her demise was a result of the twin pressures of great expectations both on the court and as the standard bearer of Tennis Glamour.

Sadly, what's lost in all the stats about Hantuchova is her stylish game. Obviously someone so frail and lightweight is never going to compete on a regular basis with the power-hitting baseliners like Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters and their ilk, being more in the Martina Hingus counterpuncher mold. But lost in all the commentator hype and hoopla over Serena Williams' Australian Open comeback this year is a reminder that the woman who dethroned defending '05 Aussie champ Williams in 2006 was none other than Hantuchova, who pulled a David vs. Goliath upset in the third round last year to send Serena home, 6-1, 7-6.

And speaking of Davids vs. Goliaths, the Aussie Open proves again that there are few delicately-built women on the current WTA Tour who can stay on the court with the heavy-hitting Goliaths of the game. An out-of-shape Serena Williams has twice escaped upsets with her heavy ground strokes and power serves (not to mention the frail nerves of her opponents), while Maria Sharapova's booming serve and ferocious forehand dispensed with another frail Hingus-mold counterpuncher last night in the form of fellow Rooskie Anna Chakvetadze, 7-6, 7-5 (Chakvetadze also obviously had the jitters, twice double-faulting in a key service game by mishitting the head of her racquet on one serve and then serving a blooper that didn't make it out of the service box - on her side of the net!). In fact, the women's semifinals is all power now: Sharapova, Clijsters, Williams and newcomer Nicole Vaidisova - a big serving Czech who leads the tournament in aces.

Sad days for the little ladies of women's tennis, like perpetually melancholy Justine Henin-Hardenne (the Francoise Hardy of Women's Tennis), who is apparently getting over a heart injury, having recently split from her husband. And Daniela? Well, she's got legs, but she's still figuring out how to use them.

Related Links:
ESPN's "Glam Slam" Article
Glam Slam (Accelerated Decreptitude blog)
Hantuchova.org Website
Hantuchova.com Website
Hantuchova Wikipedia Entry

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Tom Waits For No One

I grow old, I grow old/I shall wear my trousers rolled
- T. S. Elliott, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

I turn 50 one week from today, which makes me feel beyond ancient (and yes, I recently got a suit with cuffs, which means I'm wearing my trousers rolled!). I feel even more decrepit after watching the Australian Open all week and learning that the oldest remaining players in the field are Tommy Haas on the men's side and Martina Hingus on the women's. Haas is the ripe old age of 28, while Hingus - who returned from an early retirement exactly one year ago (debuting at the 2006 Australian Open) - is a mere 26.

My earliest retirement will be at age 65. Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn't it?

Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man
- Tennyson, "Tithonus"

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Rocket Launch

Last night I went to Rocket To Venus, the new restaurant-bar in Hampden that is Baltimore's current defacto Hipster Mecca. Old School Hampdenites will recognize the location at 3360 Chestnut Avenue as the old Showalters neighborhood bar, but to a new generation it might as well be called Club Charles North - that is, if the Charles combined its ambience and audience with the Zodiac's menu and eating options all under one roof. It's the latest entreprenurial endeavor by co-owner Geoff Danek (or is it Dannick? - I've seen it spelled both ways), who already has enjoyed great success with The Avenue's insanely popular Holy Frijoles and looks to have another winner on his hands around the corner from his Mexican cantina. Allegedly, the new hotspot's name is based on an unsuccessful Hampden-to-Venus rocket launched back in the early 20th century.

Admittedly, walking into the packed room on a busy Friday night, I immediately felt uneasy, suffering a sudden onset of Boho Vertigo - that unsettling vibe I get whenever I'm around try-too-hard hipsters, indie rockers, art school bohemians and trendy scenemakers with their predictable garb, hairstyles, tattoos and attitudes. Peering through a light veil of smoke (always a sign of a popular hangout), I thought I saw music-arts-zines promoter Todd Lesser at the end of the bar, but it was only a clone. Likewise there were at least two standard-issue goth nubiles with Louise Brooks doos sitting at the bar, two post-Grungers in plaid lumberjacks shirts, a couple of aging art school babes desperately trying to remain edgy, a Napoleon Dynamite wannabe, and the usual assortment of current vogue facial hair types (goatees, Van Dykes, mutton chop sideburns) and corrective eyewear styles (big thick Buddy Holly frames, the Colonel Sanders rimless bottom specs, etc.). In fact, my dining companion Scott Huffines remarked that he felt like he was in a scene from a Dan Clowes Eightball comic or perhaps Pete Bagge's slacker saga Hate. "There are so many stereotypes here you could play Hipster Bingo all night," Scott opined. "And everyone here has a Flickr page."

Yes, the usual suspects were all here. But while I wanted to dislike it for that reason alone, I had to admit I liked it.

For one thing, it has booths. For another, they take reservations so you can avoid long waits for tables. The smoke's not too bad and - here's the kicker - the food's good, both for carnivores and for veggies alike (Sloppy Tofus, Veggie Wimpies, Grilled Cheese, etc.). Not only that but they actually promote and celebrate the most maligned vegetable of them all - the Brussel Sprout. (Full disclosure: I love Brussel Sprouts. When my Mom was still alive, she would always make me Brussel Sprouts for my birthday. That's true love.) Admittedly, they are an aquired taste, and while some detractors have likened their taste to what they imagine Kermit the Muppet's balls would taste like (perhaps only Miss Piggy would know for sure), Rocket To Venus impressario Geoff Danek is clearly a fan of the oft-ostracized mini-cabbage delicacy known to aficionados as brassica oleracea.

Danek, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Jeff Beck, is a hard-working and passionate entrepreneur who clearly loves what he's doing. Just ask him about the Internet jukebox, a rocket science-complex contraption he helped build (how appropos for a place called Rocket To Venus!), which is basically a computer holding over 1,250 CDs and MP3s.

And the staff is a Who's Who of Baltimore's alternative arts scene. Members of Lake Trout and Two If By Sea, girlfriends of indie rockers, Video Americain alumnae and artists, photogs, and assorted alternatypes are all on hand in their never-out-of-fashion black garb.

And if there was any doubt about this being the new Club Charles, consider this: CC regular John Waters has already been spotted there.

Anyway, I'll be back for the Brussel Sprouts. I want to dip them in that spicy Thai Mussels dish on the menu!

Related Links:
Rocket To Venus Website
The Hipster Handbook
Hipster Bingo
Mondo Defekto Review
Brussels Sprout (Wikipedia)
Baltimore Sun Review (Elizabeth Large)
Baltimore City Paper Review (Richard Gorelick)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Choke Hold

(Melbourne, Australia - January 18, 2007)

Serving for the match against Serena Williams at 5-4 at the 2007 Australian Open, 5th-seeded (and WTA-ranked No. 6 in the world) Nadia Petrova had a gutcheck. And the check bounced, bouncing the Russian from the tournament and proving that Nadia Petrova will never be a champion. Her meltdown against an out-of-shape Serena (who is starting to look like a small SUV with monster truck tires on the back) also proved that she will never again beat Serena Williams (she's now 1-6 lifetime, last beating her in 2004). Or, as Pam Shriver - who along with Mary Carillo is the best female tennis commtator - put it after the match, it was a battle of The Warrior versus The Wimp. Serena was clearly the proud Warrior and Petrova was once again the self-doubting Wimp whose collapse after racing to a 6-1, 5-3 lead against Williams - perhaps her best chance ever to beat an opponent who has owned her - accentuated her mental weakness, that intangible chimera on her back that has enabled her to repeatedly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against a number of Top 10 players (like Sharapova, a Russian who knows a thing or two about putting away a match and closing the deal). It's the thing that keeps her from advancing beyond the quarter finals of the Grand Slams (for the record: Australian Open QF 2006, Wimbleton QF 2005, U.S. Open QFs in 2004 and 2005).

Petrova's Mind Games and her Dostoyevsky-like flirtation with tragic misfortune began in the second set when, unable to cope with good fortune, she allowed an on-the-run Serena to get back in the game, mentally and physically. She had break points against Serena in Williams first two service games, yet blew her chances with ill-advised shots, continually allowing a gasping Williams to stop moving by repeatedly hitting shots to her forehand instead of running her ragged corner-to-corner across the baseline. Unable to hold her own serve, Petrova found herself in a 0-3 hole. Battling back to go up 5-3, she again had Williams working to hold serve, yet let her off the hook.

At 5-4 with Petrova to serve for the match I turned the set off and started to watch Rosselini's OPEN CITY, for I knew she would get nervous and blow her chance to dethrone the 2005 Australian Open winner (Williams' last win in a major in the past two years). But came back, like a moth to the flame, to witness the inevitable meltdown. Quickly behind on her serve, Petrova blew it. At 30-40 she inexplicably tried a too-cute drop shot (why now?) when all she had to do was just put the ball anywhere over the net to beat a scrambling (and off the court) Serena. Serena held serve and then Petrova, now serving to stay in the match at 5-6, once again put herself in the hole. (What is it with these tragic Russians? Is Sharapova the only one with a killer attitude who can close out tough matches?) Serving to stay in the match, Petrova double-faulted at set point and was well on her way way down the road to ruin.

By the third set Petrova was in Anna Karenina mode, a train wreck in the making, willfully throwing herself on the tracks by falling behind 2-0, then 5-2. It was all over save the racquet smashing and self-recriminizations.

"Coffee is for closers," Alec Baldwin admonished Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross, cutting him off from the pot for not closing real estate deals. Petrova is clearly no coffee achiever, and she let a very big pot get away from her last night. When will she get a better chance to beat Williams - unfit, rusty, nervous - again? Warrior Williams knows she always has a choke hold up her sleeve against the tentative wimps.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Stop, Look, Laugh & Record!

Q: Are We Not Chimps? A: We Are Stooges

I noticed that Turner Classic Movies was airing a Three Stooges feature this morning and set up my recorder to tape it. Turns out it was Stop! Look! And Laugh!, a 1960 "best of" compilation put together by producer/director Jules White. White edited together some of the funniest clips featuring the original Three Stooges (Moe, Larry and Curly) - including "A Plumbing We Will Go," "Micro-Phonies" and "How High Is Up" - with new non-Stooges material tied together by Paul Winchell and his dummies Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff. But the best thing about it is the inclusion of The Marquis Chimps (world famous by 1960 from their frequent Ed Sullivan Show appearances) in a reinterpretation of the Cinderella story. Fans of Lancelot Link and the Evolution Revolution rejoice - it all started with the Marquis Chimps!

Realizing that the only thing funnier than watching three de-evolved human beings beating each other up is watching three upwardly evolved simians monkeying around, I tried Googling "Marquis Chimps", and learned the following:

The Marquis Chimps, who were owned and trained by Gene Detroy, were - like their human counterparts the Stooges - a trio: Charlie, Cindy and Enoch. They starred on the ABC-TV sitcom THE HATHAWAYS (1961-62), which told the story of real estate agent Walter Hathaway (Jack Weston) and his theatrical agent wife Elinore (Peggy Cass), who try to raise the Marquis Chimps as their children, when they're not booking them for show business appearances.

The TV Acres Website adds:
The Marquis Chimps made guest-star appearances on a series of JACK BENNY HOUR specials, as well as THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, THE HOLLYWOOD PALACE, and THE KRAFT MUSIC HALL "Comedy Survival Kit" episode No. 102 (February 28, 1968) with Steve Allen, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Louis Nye, Allen and Rossi.

The Marquis Chimps also starred in a popular TV commercial for Red Rose Tea where they played wild musicians who chanted the lyrics "Red Rose Tea" at the end of the ad spot.

TRIVIA NOTE: THE HATHAWAYS opening sequence is animated. First we, see a wooden barrel next to a house - right below a rainspout. Suddenly, one by one, a trio of chimpanzees pop out of the barrel and walk off to the right of the screen. As the third and smallest of the chimps (Cindy) tries to climb out of the barrel, it rocks back and forth and then falls over which affords her an easy exit route. She crawls out dragging a large white sign. With a wooden backyard fence as backdrop, the trio of chimps start to stand on top of each others shoulders. The chimp on top (Cindy) shows her white sign full to the screen. The sign begins to display the name of the show, cast credits and animated versions of the human stars (Peggy Cass, Jack Weston). At the end of the narration, the sign reading, "Featuring the Marquis Chimps" bumps both humans inside the sign which makes them fall down. Their tumble causes the precarious tower of chimps to collapse as well.

Related Links:

Stop! Look! And Laugh! DVD
The Hathways (IMDB)
Marquis Chimps (TV Acres)
The Hathaways (TV Party)

Friday, January 12, 2007

Pele and Old Bay Seasonings

Last night I was so depressed over the evening news' hints that George Dubya is looking to provoke Iran into war that I rewatched Once In a Lifetime, the ESPN documentary about the New York Cosmos - the superstar franchise that hired Pele in 1975 to put soccer on the map in America - in hopes that it would cheer me up. It did the trick, especially seeing all that footage of the amazing Pele, who I recalled seeing play an exhibition match (either with the Cosmos or his Brazilian club Santos) sometime in the mid-70s against the Baltimore Bays at Memorial Stadium.

Then this morning I read the obit for Baltimore's legendary sportscaster Jim Karvellis, he of the bourbon-flavored voice, who passed away on January 5 of this year. Synchronicity. In the early days of the North American Soccer League (1967-68), the Baltimore Bays had a franchise that played home games in Memorial Stadium and Karvellas was the team's play-by-play announcer. Karvellis later became a co-owner of the Bays when they played in the American Soccer League (1972-73). According to Baltimore's Press Box, "Following the final season with the ASL, Karvellas' Bays played an independent schedule against international competition and hosted the powerful Moscow Dynamos and Santos of Brazil for two exciting nights of big-time soccer that have never been duplicated in this town."

That might have been the game I attended, circa 1974 - which makes sense because I was a high school junior then and I'm pretty sure I went with my St. Paul's soccer teammates. (The only other time I was at Memorial Stadium for something other than a Colts or Orioles game was the infamous Eric Clapton rainout in the '70s.) I also remember the Baltimore Bays theme song they played over the loudspeakers, "It's a Red & Gold World." It was sung by none other than future crappy-lounge-coverband chanteusse Anita Shore (of Tiffany, Shore Patrol, and countless other forgettable ephemeral ensembles). I still have the 45 (featuring red text on a gold label, natch). I think the jingle was something along the lines of "It's a red, a red and gold world when the Baltimore Bays come on/A little pass here and little pass there and we score, baby we score!"

Anyway, Karvellas went on to become the TV and radio voice of the Cosmos. Small world, huh?

Once in a Lifetime is a pretty nice little documentary, done very much in the ESPN quick-cut editing style. But the most glaring omission in the doc is the total absence of commentary by Pele, the man who defined the Cosmos (even though egomaniac star striker Giorgio Chimaglio was their all-time scorer and personality). Apparently, he refused to be interviewed unless he was financially compensated. That's why I love the little dig during the end credits when Pele's name appears next to the text "Football Ambassador," followed by the sound of a cash register (ka-ching!) and the next line: "Declined to participate." Subtle and brilliant!

OK, now back to fretting over the gathering war clouds. Subtle and brilliant are two words that will never be used to describe George W. Bush. And, unfortunately, a George Dubya, even Once In a Lifetime, is one time too many.

Related Links:
Play On (Press Box obit)
This Is Cosmos Soccer (Big Apple Soccer Obit)
Once In a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (IMDB)
Baltimore Bays (Wikipedia)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

UFOria Revisited

Browsing through the always interesting Twitchfilm.net site the other day, I spotted a review of one of my all-time favorite films, the seldom-seen UFOria. Hardly anybody mentions this little cult film from 1985 that starred Cindy Williams (then at the height of her Laverne & Shirley fame, but proving that she could stretch beyond the confines of TV Sitcomland) and the usual cult movie suspects: Fred Ward and Harry Dean Stanton (if HDS is in a film, it is, defacto, a cult B-movie). Anyway, here's the review from Twitch posted by "Colin A" on January 4, 2007:

Seldom Seen review | UFORIA

It’s almost easy to understand why writer / director John Binder’s wonderfully bizarre, uplifting Uforia languished unreleased for four years after being completed in 1981. The film’s laid-back style belies its narrative roots, peppering the screen with characters who move and think at their own speeds in the face of an idea-heavy, high-concept plot about a young woman who thinks she’s been chosen by aliens to serve as a modern-day Noah for their intergalactic arc. The same dichotomy that makes Uforia a commercial challenge also renders it a wholly unique experience, and helps afford its veteran cast the opportunity to completely inhabit their roles.

Professional drifter Sheldon (Fred Ward) blows into a dusty Texas town and in short order hooks up with spacey grocery clerk Arlene (Cindy Williams) and old friend Brother Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a swindling evangelical preacher. As Sheldon eases back into Bud’s world of staged faith healings and quick money scams, he falls hard for Arlene, despite her believing extraterrestrials are speaking to her through her dreams and asking her to tell the world about the coming of their otherworldly wagon train. When Sheldon explodes on a news broadcast defending Arlene’s right to think what she wants, the public responds and Bud smells money. As Arlene’s proclaimed zero day nears, everyone scrambles to prepare for what they hope the future’s bringing.

The beauty of Uforia lies in its characters, all of whom believe so fervently in themselves when push comes to shove that it’s impossible not to root for them, regardless of how crazy, dangerously, or even illegally they think and behave. Despite everything going on within the film’s narrative, it seems closest in nature to something along the lines of an early Wes Anderson film, not the far-out Repo Man-styled meta-comedy it has, over the years, come to be identified as.

Uforia’s take on Midwestern American life is perhaps a little too askew, but isn’t entirely off-base. Having grown-up in and spent a portion of my adult life floating around the Ohio River valley, the earnest and God-fearing qualities the film imbues its characters with aren’t unlike those I’ve come to know in family and friends, distant or otherwise. That the characterizations stop short of caricatures is a testament to just how strong a collective handle the cast had on their roles. Ward and Stanton have played these parts before and after, but with such a wide birth of ideas and situations for both to explore they really lose themselves in Sheldon and Brother Bud. Williams was still the “Shirley” of TV’s ”Lavern and Shirley” when Uforia was lensed, and by the time it saw the light of day her career had begun to stall. It’s a shame the film sat for such a long because her performance is so strong, had it come on the heels of her success on TV its professional impact may well have been much greater. Arlene is a beautiful creation, and her personal transformation over the course of Uforia is a small-ish wonder to behold.

The film has a sunny, dust-covered look, its horizons dotted by double-wides and faded ranch homes. Again thinking more in terms of an ensemble piece than a high-concept comedy, overall tech credits are appropriate without stepping too far over the line in either direction. The climactic set-piece features some low-key effects and fits in nicely with the film as a whole.

Uforia’s rights currently sit with its production entity, Melvin Simon Productions, which no longer appears to be an active enterprise. Simon himself last worked as a production head at Columbia. It’s becoming old hat to say so in this column, but why on earth this title remains unavailable boggles the mind. A gem for the right enterprising DVD label, Uforia deserves the audience it would surely find (in some cases again) this go-round.

Related Links:

IMDB Listing
Roger Ebert's Review