Monday, December 15, 2008

Life, Love & Music Through "High Fidelity"

I’ve always connected with music and film better than I have with literature. It’s a bond I formed as early as I can remember anything. (As I type this sentence, I can recall, in detail, sitting at Rich Stadium in Buffalo, waiting for Michael Jackson to take the stage. I was five years old.) I don’t remember any particular feeling infiltrating my body when I read Johnny Tremain or On The Beach, but I do remember the enthusiasm accompanying the first CDs I purchased: The Beatles’ Revolver and Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream—picked up simultaneously at Media Play in 1993. I also have no recollection of a single sentence in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but can recite full scenes of dialogue from countless John Hughes or Jim Sheridan films. Most of my fondest memories have been either scored with a specific soundtrack, or have gained their prominence because their moves and moments have been akin to some of my favorite movie scenes. Consider the following:

Example #1: Early in high school, my friends and I used to smuggle canned beer and Camel Lights into this dingy pool hall south of downtown Buffalo. Every time we were there, Pink Floyd’s “Money” blared from jukebox speakers at least one time. To this day, I can never hear that song without thinking of chain smoking or sipping on warm cans of Red Dog.

Example #2: When I was in the 10th grade, I hit a key 18-foot jump shot from the left wing in a local basketball battle against rival Orchard Park, which gave me a starring role in my own personal version of Hoosiers. As I type these words, I can still mentally take myself to the spot on the hardwood, hear the delirious roar of the crowd around me.

My point in detailing this historical connection is that, before picking up Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity for the first time in 2000, I’d never inhaled a book like I inhaled, say, The Clash’s The Clash; I never had encountered a literary protagonist I related with the same way I related with John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything. In Hornby’s story, I found conversations I’ve had, odd philosophical musings I’ve been tortured or entertained by. In Hornby’s Rob, I saw a character who broke people down by their pop culture tastes, a practice I’ve (rightly or wrongly) engaged in since high school. Put both of those aforementioned points together and you have a relationship between me and this work. It’s a relationship between reader and novel to designate a social classification of me, something Hornby’s Rob does with other individuals throughout High Fidelity. He uses pop culture tastes to identify people, as well as himself and his own feelings. In his actions and in this novel’s narrative, I see much of myself, as I will detail in the following pages. If life is to be understood as an art form, I’d like to compare some of the thoughts and events formed throughout my own existence to the pop culture-infused trials and trivializations of Rob.

Near the beginning of this novel (page 25), Rob introduces a theory I’ve considered so many times in so many instances, spinning any number of songs by U2, Buffalo Tom, Bob Dylan, The Guess Who, Dinosaur Jr., Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, etc. “People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands—literally thousands—of songs about broken hearts and rejection and misery and loss. The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don’t know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they’ve been listening to sad songs longer than they’ve been living the unhappy lives” (25).

This is obviously a “what came first, the chicken or the egg” argument, but it’s one many people, romanced by the storylines of films and lyrics of songs, have probably had with themselves. I’m no different. In late grammar school and early high school, I looked for girls who invoked an Andrew McCarthy-in-Pretty-In-Pink-like gaze out of me; I wanted to feel the same kind of yearn for a girl Bruce Springsteen oozed in “I’m On Fire.” Unrealistic at 14 and 15 years old? Absolutely, but it didn’t stop me from becoming a mix tape-making machine, crafting balanced playlists and borrowing the thoughts of rock legends to express my innermost feelings for girl A, B or C. The problem with relying on the interpreted lyrics and arrangements of drunken frontmen and drug-addled guitarists was that, ultimately, they never came back properly reciprocated. The Edge’s swirling guitar solo in “All I Want Is You” provides (for some) a chance for that movie-like embrace with a lover, when the world stands still as two individuals chosen by pure fate touch lips and fade off into ecstasy. But, this isn’t reality; not mine, anyway. One of my most detrimental feelings of rejection, still burned into the depths of my memory, came with that song as a soundtrack. A beautiful cross-town cheerleader who I’d tenaciously pursued with every romantic trick in the book turned me down cold at a local garage party as Bono wailed from a small picnic radio. Though I still love that song, it always evokes that pain of adolescent rejection, tormenting me more than an unsecured revolver or violent film ever could.

Later on in this novel, Rob notes his aforementioned habit of classifying people by their pop culture tastes, something he discusses routinely with his lone employees at Championship Vinyl, musical introvert Dick and the bombastic and extroverted Barry. “A while back, when Dick and Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like, Barry proposed the idea of a questionnaire for prospective partners, a two- or three-page multiple-choice document that covered all the music/film/TV/book bases. It was intended a) to dispense with awkward conversation, and b) to prevent a chap from leaping into bed with someone who might, at a later date, have every Julio Iglesias record ever made” (117).

In this, he is indicating the ability to make final judgments about an individual by simply being informed of their pop culture tastes. Is this fair? Probably not, but I’ve done this with women my entire life. In high school, college, and even today, I’m frightened by any female who indulges in Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Tori Amos, or the almighty solo antics of Morrissey. This particular fandom has always indicated a certain darkness in a woman I didn’t want to encounter in a relationship, as well as a love of being bathed in depression and emotional longing. Also, and most importantly, it would indicate the given female had a propensity to be incredibly unstable. So, with this in mind, I’ve always checked girls’ record collections as soon as possible once a few dates were in the books. If they owned anything by these artists, I scrammed. If they didn’t, I continued along—until they expressed their love for Amos’s Under the Pink.

Then, there were the romantic connections formed through a specific artist, songs that single-handedly brought me together with a girl. Of course, Rob notes this as well. “See, records have helped me fall in love, no question. I hear something new, with a chord change that melts my guts, and before I know it I’m looking for someone, and before I know it I’ve found her. I fell in love with Rosie the simultaneous orgasm woman after I’d fallen in love with a Cowboy Junkies song: I played it and played it and played it, and it made me dreamy, and I needed someone to dream about, and I found her, and . . . well, there was trouble” (170).

I entered into my enduring fascination with Otis Redding in ‘97, right around the time I was headlong into the most serious relationship of my life (up to that point) with my college girlfriend. For over three years, Otis provided the soundtrack to many cold southern New York nights, his impassioned wails and moans warming a barricaded couple in their college dorm rooms. “These Arms of Mine” and “Pain In My Heart” were two songs capable of making a man cry—both from happiness and absolute sadness. When I started to absorb Redding’s lyrics and the enviable passion which poured from every smoky vocal, I wanted someone to share him with. Luckily, I had this girl, and the bond was formed. Unfortunately, when we broke up years later, she took Otis with her. I couldn’t listen to him without thinking of her, thinking about how it was her eyes I looked into when Redding’s passion pulsated through stereo speakers. Thankfully, after a significant time of mourning and ill-fated attempts to replace him with Wilson Pickett or Sam Cooke, I went back to Otis about six years ago. Though a relationship forged through his music had to end, I couldn’t let the man’s entire catalogue escape me as well.

In these last three examples from High Fidelity, Hornby’s Rob notes one’s connection to others or alienation from those parties through love of pop culture. Sometimes, as in the first excerpt, songs or films and their messages can emotionally hobble you, inspire you with a message before eventually deflating you when the interpretation of that message is not shared by a love interest. Other times, as in the second, similar enthusiasm toward a given piece of work can unite or restrain two people—who may be otherwise compatible. Finally, the third example shows how art can ignite simultaneous love affairs: one with the one present when this art is discovered, and the other with the artist. Later in High Fidelity, Rob talks about the affect music can have on an individual’s own choices outside of companionship, on decisions inspired by lyrics of what to do with oneself in a life full of uncontrollable variables. “In Bruce Springsteen songs, you can either stay and rot, or you can escape and burn. That’s OK; he’s a songwriter, after all, and he needs simple choices like that in his songs. But nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot—how escapes can go off at half-cock, how you can leave the suburbs for the city but end up living a limp suburban life anyway. That’s what happened to me; that’s what happens to most people” (136).

Nothing has inspired me to write more than the simple feeling a good song can ignite, the chill that rifles down my spine during a line or guitar lick. Lyrics scribbled by Lennon or Dylan, Strummer or Springsteen have always bounced through my head since I first played a record on a turntable in elementary school. I remember having a friend over to listen to The Beatles’ nonsense that was “I Am The Walrus”, just begging the kid to listen to how rhythmic Lennon’s absurdity was, how phrases that had no rational reason to paired together connected so seamlessly to form a spooky and uplifting stomp of a song. One day, I wanted to evoke that sort of enthusiasm through my own writing, and I assumed it would be as easy as grabbing paper and a pencil, jotting down what I knew. But, to put one good piece together, to truly connect, it’s not as easy as pressing “play” on a Discman. When you start writing, inspired by a song or a line or a short story, you can’t wait to get to the New York ending, the feeling that rips through your body when you know you’ve penned something worth reading. The problem is that, like Rob notes, it’s not that simple. Most wide-eyed idealists who perform music or write novels or escape the suburbs for the freewheeling cities to find some advertised freedom inevitably end up crushed. When I started to write my first novel, Running with Buffalo, I was excited and, ironically, inspired to begin by Springsteen’s “Night” off Born to Run. After some 25 edits and over 100 rejection letters from publishers and agents, I was exhausted, depleted. When I self-published the book, promoted its existence, and got it into retail outlets last year, I was too worn down to have my “my book’s in a bookstore” moment; I knew there was more writing to do, more ideas to expand upon, more training to seek. These craft details and engulfing frustrations are not included in the idealistic songs that inspire attitudes or the dialogue that has connected countless romantic couples. That’s why stories aren’t like life. Stories can be constructed within a scripted realm that recognizes simplicity as attainable.

Life, and finding even a modicum of professional success within it, is anything but simple—or scripted.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Summer's Done & I'm Thinking of Music

When you have a blog, you spend all kinds of fruitless time agonizing over what you should post and whether anyone will actually care about what you have to say.

Well, I now know this simple truth: Nobody gives a shit--ever.

This is fine, because it frees you from the shackles of popular opinion and/or interest. Since I know no one cares, I can post what I want, which is the following:

Below are all albums I deem essential to have in your home at all times. I'll break them into two categories: driving (albums for the car) or thinking (albums for relaxing or staring). I'll try to keep most before 1990, but there others past the grunge era I can't omit. You may like them, or you may hate them. Regardless, I mean well, so please consider my subjective genius. But, like I've typed above, you probably don't care. If you do, here we go:


Exile On Main Street - The Rolling Stones
Sticky Fingers - The Rolling Stones
A Hard Day's Night - The Beatles
Odelay - Beck
We Were Born In A Flame - Sam Roberts
London Calling - The Clash
Are You Experienced? - Jimi Hendrix
Lifeline - Ben Harper
The Great Twenty-Eight - Chuck Berry
Ben Folds Five - Ben Folds Five
Big Red Letter Day - Buffalo Tom
Actung Baby - U2
This Year's Model - Elvis Costello
Pinkerton - Weezer
Emblems - Matt Pond PA
Attack & Release - The Black Keys
Rubber Factory - The Black Keys
It Still Moves - My Morning Jacket
Z - My Morning Jacket
Yeah, It's That Easy - G Love & Special Sauce
The Georgia Peach - Little Richard
Highway 61 Revisited - Bob Dylan
Demolition - Ryan Adams
Descended Like Vultures - Rogue Wave
Funeral - The Arcade Fire
Greatest Hits - The Guess Who
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco
Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 1 - Billy Bragg & Wilco
Born To Run - Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
Live at Folsom Prison - Johnny Cash
Aha Shake Heartbreak - Kings of Leon
One Chord To Another - Sloan


Astral Weeks - Van Morrison
St. Dominic's Preview - Van Morrison
New York Sessions '67 - Van Morrison
Imagine - John Lennon
In Concert - Jimmy Cliff
XO - Elliot Smith
Either/Or - Elliot Smith
Axis: Bold As Love - Jimi Hendrix
All Things Must Pass - George Harrison
The Very Best of Cat Stevens - Cat Stevens
Abbey Road - The Beatles
The Beatles (White Album) - The Beatles
The Joshua Tree - U2
Dreams To Remember: The Otis Redding Anthology - Otis Redding
Fisherman's Blues - The Waterboys
The Basement Tapes - Bob Dylan & The Band
Blood On The Tracks - Bob Dylan
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan - Bob Dylan
The Last Waltz - The Band
White Ladder - David Gray
Lost Songs - David Gray
At Dawn - My Morning Jacket
Devils & Dust - Bruce Springsteen
Nebraska - Bruce Springsteen
The River - Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. - Bruce Springsteen
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea - Neutral Milk Hotel
A Ghost Is Born - Wilco
Sky Blue Sky - Wilco
Once (Soundtrack) - Glen Hansard
Illinoise - Sufjan Stevens
Trouble - Ray LaMontagne
Live at Luther College - Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds

See what happens when you stop caring what people think? You type what you want. Then again, if I didn't care, why are the above recommendations? Apparently, boredom can induce contradiction.

The unfortunate truth about blogs: If you want anyone to read, you need to interest someone with something. Hopefully, I just did.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Necessary Survival of Swayze

Over the past 30 years, America has been shaped by Patrick Wayne Swayze.

He stopped the Russians from taking over our nation. He battled the Socs with Ponyboy. He protected Dean Youngblood. He made pottery wheels erotic and ascended into heaven. He surfed with Johnny Utah. He took Baby out of the corner.

And, yes, he cleaned up The Double Deuce before cleaning up Jasper, Missouri.

Unfortunately, in January of 2008, Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. According to some estimates, this disease only allows 5% of its afflicted to survive for up to five years, as most die three to six months after diagnosis. Current reports—as recently as March 5th in a Reuters article—suggest that Swayze has a great chance of survival, as he has "a limited amount of the disease" and seems to be "responding well" to treatments. As he continues to attempt a recovery from this ailment, Farrell Street can only hope and pray Mr. Swayze continues to improve.

If he passes on, we'll have to mourn a man whose career was made by turning ridiculous script premises into cultural iconography.

Whether Swayze did this on purpose is unknown. I'm not sure if anyone can say he spent any morning thumbing through a script and said to his agent, "So they want me to play an extreme surfer who robs banks dressed as an ex-President? That sounds like Oscar gold!" I don't know if, one night, he sipped a beer and suggested, "I like the idea of playing the country's greatest bouncer, but can we give him a philosophy degree from NYU?"

No one knows what the hell was going through his head when he took these roles, but he mastered each one of them and made them household references, so good that most showcases are mainstays on basic cable and shown almost daily.

When was the last time you heard one of your sister's drunken friends say "Nobody puts baby in a corner" out loud, greeted by screeching laughter between sips of vodka tonics? Last weekend?

When was the last time you flipped on your television and either "Red Dawn" or "Road House" wasn't on F/X or Spike? Never.

Consider the following performance tricks turned by Mr. Swayze:

-In "Dirty Dancing," Swayze played Johnny Castle, the street-wise dance instructor at Kellerman's vacation resort in the Catskills, circa 1962. Johnny specializes in the mambo and the cha-cha, teaching old goats and prude teenagers to sway to gentle rhythms so he can put a little money in his pocket.

Emasculating, right? Wrong.

Swayze turns Castle into a leather jacket-wearing, beer-slugging, window-breaking, ass-kicking dance aficionado who conducts sweaty, late night dance parties to fuel the sexual revolt of underpaid camp dishwashers and busboys against the uptight culture of 1950s America. When not leading this uprising, he's punching preppy waiters, driving a hard Chevy, and luring the ordinary yet strangely attractive Baby under his sheets to the sounds of soul legend, Otis Redding.

Anyone else takes on this role, this movie goes down faster than "Waterworld." With Swayze at the controls, Jennifer Grey earns enough money for an eventual nose job, money is stuffed in one of The Righteous Brothers pockets, and this ridiculous movie becomes an American classic.

-In "Ghost," Swayze plays Sam Wheat, an investment banker who's killed in a botched mugging, but is enabled to communicate from the dead with his widow through a shifty, female con artist.

Ridiculous, Hall of Shame, "only Dane Cook would do this movie" terrible, right? Negative.

Before Swayze's Sam gets shot in an alley, he romantically ravages his attractive wife, Molly (Demi Moore in her prime) while at a pottery wheel, inspiring men everywhere to take ceramics classes. After he's accidentally killed, Sam spends his time in the Great Beyond plotting ways to claim revenge against his killer (Willie Lopez) and his duplicitous best friend (Carl Bruner), who arranged the mugging to get lucrative bank account numbers from Sam. If that's not enough, after Sam is dead, Carl tries to seduce a grieving Molly with the old "I spilled wine on my shirt so I have to take it off" move. Any other actor playing Sam would have suggested Carl and the killer find their hell-bound eternal reward quick.

But not Swayze.

While Sam uses Whoopi Goldberg's Oda Mae Brown to communicate with his wife, he also uses her to wipe out Carl's stolen bank accounts, driving his ex-friend crazy before orchestrating his "accidental" death with a large shard of glass. As for the killer, Sam sees that he gets conveniently crushed between a car and a bus.

Once again, with Swayze manning this seemingly moribund ship, success is found. "Ghost" went on to compete for a Best Picture Oscar, Goldberg earned a Best Supporting Actress statuette, and, this time, BOTH Righteous Brothers found loads of new money in their pockets.

-And last, but certainly not least, "Road House." Swayze plays James Dalton, one of the best two bouncers in America, depending on who you ask. After the undersized Dalton takes a job cleaning up a Missouri brawler bar called The Double Deuce for a reported annual salary somewhere north of $150K (plus $5000 up front), he finds himself working with the Jeff Healey Band, wooing a local doctor, doing topless tai chi in a barn, and unintentionally leading a town uprising against local high-roller and tyrant, Brad Wesley.

Um, what? The drunken ramblings of a late night game of "Can you top this?" stupidity?

Nope. Swayze gold.

In the span of 114 glorious minutes, Swayze's Dalton fires half of the Deuce staff, breaks up stock room sex, and puts an unruly patron's head through a tabletop with one hand. He drinks black coffee, takes multiple knife wounds, and spots a shimmering, one-inch boot knife from 30 feet away. At maybe 5-9, he routinely fights one-on-three, which is never preceded by him eating a meal and is always followed by multiple cigarettes. After uniting with America's other greatest bouncer, Wade Garrett, Dalton cleans up the bar and raises the ire of the local toughs to meteoric levels before scoring Jasper, Missouri's hottest doctor, who he somehow convinces back to his minimalist barn squalor for the greatest Otis Redding, brick wall-assisted love scene in film history. After Wesley and his men try to restore local order through property destruction, Swayze's Dalton rips one of their throats out with his right hand.

Not enough? Well, after Wesley's men match Dalton by stabbing Wade to death, Dalton decides to use that same knife to stab his Mercedes' accelerator and sensationally ghost ride the vehicle onto Wesley's compound--as a distraction. Once safely on Wesley's land and wearing a karate shirt, he kills each of his henchmen with a variety of tai chi, pocket knives, and bare hands before waiting for the townsmen to shoot Wesley dead with an assortment of hunting rifles. Finally, with Jasper and The Double Deuce safe, Swayze's Dalton goes for a naked dip in a clandestine swimming hole with his girl.

The end.

The script for "Road House" might have been written as the result of a lost bar wager. Its dialogue, premise, and acting are all possibly among the top 10 most ridiculous in their respective categories. If anyone else were cast to play James Dalton, the philosopher cooler with a majestic mullet, lines like "You're too stupid to have a good time" wouldn't have made it into the male lexicon. Without Patrick Swayze, "Road House" would have been "Road House 2."

But, with him? Simply the greatest guy movie of all time.

Patrick Swayze has made a career of turning legible lemons into visual lemonade, turning terribly contrived scenes into classic cinema. Right now, some studio executive is sitting in a boardroom of suits, pitching an idea he believes will make money but will ultimately be the next batch of box office poison. There will be a litany of these meetings, leaving the film-going public with nothing to choose from but movies like "Good Luck Chuck" and "The Hottie and The Nottie." But, with Swayze, there's still hope.

We need him to guide this next generation in an art only he can teach. We need him to instruct actors on how to own the screen, despite laughable dialogue and suffocating jeans or sweatpants. In these times of loathsome artistic duplication, we need a true movie original, one who invented masculine dancing, stage jumping, and the sexual move known simply as, "The Swayze."

With absolute sincerity, please get well, Patrick. The world needs you around.

Friday, February 8, 2008

In Buffalo, Football Not Merely About Dollars & Sense

“Pro football is a business.”

We hear this on talk radio and Sportscenter. As a jaded 29-year-old, I accept it, albeit through clenched teeth. Football is a business which pays its employees a tremendous amount of money to entertain millions with vicious tackles, arching throws, and hurdling runs.

This doesn’t work for you, does it? If you grew up in Buffalo, it never will.

With the recent news of the Bills playing eight games--three preseason, five regular season--over the next five seasons in Toronto, Buffalonians are being asked by Ralph Wilson to understand this as a “business decision,” one supposedly made for the franchise’s long-term economic viability in the Queen City. The problem with this is that Buffalo’s passionate fan base has always ignored the Bills as merely a business.

The team exists as a piece of an entire region, emotionally connected to generations. Fathers raised their sons in front of Jack Kemp, Cookie Gilchrist, and Elbert Dubenion; those sons raised their children cheering for the likes of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and Andre Reed. Through each generation, fans have been taught to take Bills games personally, to understand a win as not just a victory for the team, but for the city itself. It was easier to cheer when the AFL or AFC titles were popping up every 25 years or so. Now, with a so-called “dying economy,” local legions still consistently fill a 73,000-seat stadium for a franchise whose last playoff appearance (against Tennessee) scarred a new generation of fans too young to be traumatized by Super Bowl XXV.

Still, this isn’t enough. Our team is struggling financially, in need of new streams of revenue. Local families have never gathered around televisions in Hamburg or South Buffalo to point at how many corporate sponsors Ralph Wilson Stadium entertains. Now, we’re being asked to accept this economic dearth as a major reason the team we’ve lived and died with is being dangled above the tongue of a Toronto billionaire.

When I was nine years old, I didn’t care how many luxury boxes were available at Rich Stadium; I was too busy making a sign for Cornelius Bennett with a wooden bed slat. When I was 10, it wasn’t a strategic business decision to hate “The Ickey Shuffle.” When I was 11, I didn’t care how much money Ronnie Harmon made; I just hoped he wasn’t getting paid for dropped passes in Cleveland. Finally, when I was 12, I didn’t close my eyes and pray for Scott Norwood as a valued employee. I simply hoped, with one kick, he’d become a local icon.

As much more than a business, Buffalo football welcomed my friends to open their trunks and drink canned beer in 20-degree weather before their exhibitions. It’s an emotional industry that specialized in stress-inducing Sundays and Monday nights, destroying the stomach lining of locals since 1960. It’s a company whose intense action made my mother scream in 1989, made my sister cry in 1991, and enticed my father to buy sugar cereal in 1998. And, since opening its doors, its customers have been tremendously loyal through weather, strikes, embarrassing rosters, more embarrassing losses, and Super Bowl misfortune we--as consumers--are forced to relive in bar hecklings and on ESPN for the rest of our lives.

In an NFL boardroom, full of lapelled tycoons who forgot what this sport means to regions such as ours years ago, this is a cold business of dollars and sense. In Buffalo, though, football will never be considered just a business.

If it was, Ralph, it would’ve closed long ago.