Monday, June 29, 2009

The last week has been a blur: NBA draft, celebrity deaths, weird sleeping patterns, my first L.A.-based-casino poker excursion with "the guys" (fun but I should have left at 1:00am, not 3:00am), runarounds by auto mechanics, confusion surrounding a traffic ticket, too many phone calls to ignore, too much mail to not open, and my least favorite month is July and it hasn't even started yet but will very soon. But I can have dreams and wishes, right? Here are 4:

1. That the Timberwolves keep - and not trade - Ricky Rubio. There is that small part of my brain where my love of basketball intersects with my nostalgia for Minnesota. Yes, floppy-haired that 18-year old from Spain that we just got with the 5th pick is worth the wait.

2. That there is a book or a movie or an experience that can inspire me and shake me out of this goddamn fiction writer's block.

3. That clarity and peace and love and inspiration can all show up at the same time.

4. That Long Beach gets more interesting.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The 8 Regions of the Greater Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, All of Which I've Lived In: Part Two - The Inland Empire

The purpose of this series is laid out precisely in Part One. You may ask if there really should have been 52 days pass between Parts One and Two. No, not really. But it may be that I really really really didn't want to write about the Inland Empire, in which I toiled for seven months in 1991.

Some people called it Phillips Ranch. Some people called it Chino Hills. They called it by these names because they didn't want to say the name of the city they were actually in: Pomona. No, Pomona's legacy as birthplace to Tom Waits and Jessica Alba was somehow not enough to shroud the shame of living in a city of low sad houses and corner grocery stores where you could pay all your utility bills. But no back then Phillips Ranch was just a neighborhood (not sure what it is now) and Chino Hills was across the street. From April 1991 to November 1991, I was a Pomonan.

What was I doing there? After Brea, I returned to Minneapolis for a not-so-triumphant eight-month stint working odd jobs and watching Twin Peaks. With my Cal. State Fullerton Master's degree safely in its cheap default frame, I assumed Minnesota job offers (ful-time jobs, with benefits) would come flying my way. But no there was that mini-recession and I was broke. Just as Minnesota was starting to thaw out and spring was around the corner, I got a phone call from my parents (or maybe it was just one of them). My parents were living in Singapore then. Two years earlier, they had purchased a Pomona condo as an investment property. Their long-time tenant was moving out. They knewI was unhappy driving that high-concept delivery van around the western side of the Twin Cities (long story). Come back to California. Live in the condo. Pay rent when you get a job.

Little did they know I wouldn't get a job until November and the job was so far away from Pomona that I had to immediately move. But for seven months I got to live in a tacky two-story two-bedroom condo with awful red carpeting and inconsistent blinds. I do remember thoroughly enjoying the late-night jacuzzi dips (the sprawling condo complex had four pools and four jacuzzis which always seemed to be empty.) Much of my time was spent driving to Los Angeles to spend time with my new girlfriend. I spent a lot of time on that 60 freeway in '91. I was on it recently. It hasn't changed one bit. You could tell a lot about the world (traffic, weather, economic climate, how the Dodgers were doing) based on the time it took for you to get from the Montebello Town Center to the Puente Hills Mall (or vice versa).

But what about the I.E., on whose western edge I lived for little more than half a year? Are those stories true - bleak landscapes dotted with failed ideas and tired people just getting by... smoggy torpor punctuated only by the night...warehouses and storage facilities and pizza places where the Little League teams always comandeered the good tables on Saturdays? Yes, the stories are trie. It's difficult to define a massive region whose best city is Claremont (nice town but David Foster Wallace killed himself there and Leonard Cohen sequestered himself in the hills above the town, squandering half of the 90s) and whose worst city is Victorville (the town where sadness went to die, only to be reborn and multiplied). I won't try to define it. I'll just say this: please please don't make live there again.

(Note: My family's family compound (i.e., the Fahmpound) is in La Verne, a city that borders both Pomona and Claremont. Some would call it part of the Inland Empire (by the way - EMPIRE? Talk about overselling yourself); its residents prefer to think of themselves as the eastern edge of the San Gabriel Valley. I don't know, it's all arbitrary. But I think I'll leave La Verne out of both regions. It can be its own place, the city where my family went to retire, leaving its more interesting debris to slog its way around America.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

3 Saturday Songs

To honor my new blog layout and to acknowledge that I've had way too busy of a Saturday to actually write anything substantive, I'd like to offer three songs for a cloudy coastal Saturday afternoon. (Also, apparently not everyone was happy with the last post.)

From 1987 because it's good to hear those voices you should have listened to all along (and I can't think of a better song that I haven't heard in over 10 years):

From 1997 because there are those summer days that remind you of frozen rain winter nights and you compare the friends there to the friends here and there's no comparison because friends are friends:

From 2009 because it's an awesome song:

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell Saved My Soul

I'll admit it. I've been a bit depressed lately. I've lacked motivation. I was sick for two weeks with an unknown malady of unknown origins and unknown cure. Physically I'm better now. Mentally, it's still fuzzy and dewy, much like mornings in Long Beach.

I needed something to pull me out. I was in deep so I knew that something would have to be something strong and world-changing. As I walked past the majestic and looming library at USC this morning, I thought it would have to be a book, a big novel most likely. I long for the 750+ novels of not so long ago (Infinite Jest (1996, 1,079 pages), Underworld (1998, 836 pages), The Royal Family (2001, 804 pages). But those books have been rare lately. Yeah it's cool that the grand architecture of the library made me want to go read a book. But no it was not a book that shook me up and awake. It was this song:

I heard it for the first time an hour ago, on this couch, in this apartment. Depending on which version of the song you listen to, it's between three and four minutes. So, in 60 minutes, I should be able to listen to it approximately 16 times. I have listened to it 17 times I prefer the Wallpaper remix linked above but the original will work too. By the end of the summer, this will be the hugest song in the history of the world and people will complain about its ubiquity. Me? I will just keep listening. It will keep making me happy. It will always make me happy.

You see, it's a COMBINATION Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. This is what I should be doing - writing songs that capture a nation, define a generation, writing something - ANYTHING - to define a generation. For a while I lacked inspiration. I got it back at 7:38PM PDT time tonight. It's never going away. I'm at the Pizza Hut. What? I'm at the Taco Bell. What? I'm at the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

(This song has been out for a couple of months. I have some vague notion of the song bring mentioned somewhere, some place, So why haven't you - my "friends" - told me about it before? Do I have to learn everything from Pitchfork? You didn't think THIS SONG would make me happier than a little boy freshly rescued from a fall into a deep well? Wow, disturbing metaphor there.)

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Gospel Zombies of New Jersey

On June 15, 1986, I saw U2 perform at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. They were the headliner for the Amnesty International benefit concert series that summer. The show in New Jersey was the final one of the tour. Other artists that day - all of whom I saw perform - include Sting, Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, and The Hooters. I have no memory of this concert. None at all. The only reason I know I was there is that I wrote about it in my journal. I was visiting my friend Patrick in New Jersey. We spent the entire day at one of the most important concert events of our generation. We saw U2 in their early-ish years, in what most people (not me) consider to be their prime. We saw all of these bands along with over 80,000 other people in an MTV-broadcast MAJOR EVENT held across the river from Manhattan. Again, I have no memory of this concert.

(It should be noted that I was not drunk. I was not under the influence of any drugs. I was lucid and sober and present.)

One September 12, 1985, during another visit to New Jersey, Patrick and I went to see Foreigner and Joe Walsh at the smaller Meadowlands Arena, across the parking lot from Giants Stadium. I have a clear memory of this night. Joe Walsh was horrible (wasted, reckless... not in an interesting way). Foreigner played all of their average songs, with average energy and average stage presence, for an average audience. I clearly remember what happened during I Want to Know What Love Is. The crowd of 14,000 or so booed when the band brought out the New Jersey-based gospel choir that had been used for the recording of the song and the video. I remember fixing my binoculars on lead singer Lou Gramm's face and seeing his disappointment when he heard the boos. Yeah, Foreigner's core "rock" fans just couldn't accept the presence of a gospel choir (even a "local" one) on the song. (Also - it was 1985. Classic rock radio was completely, officially segregated and a full 24% of white New Jersey rock fans were racist, thereby partially explaining the boos of an entirely African-American gospel choir.) And did I mention that Joe Walsh was horrible? And that Foreigner was average?

What's the point of me bringing up two 20-plus-year-old concerts? I want to discuss memory. Why do I remember one concert featuring two artists I really didn't want to see... two artists that have never had any presence in my music collection? Why do I not remember seeing a generation-defining concert featuring U-Freaking-2 nine months later?

Was it because of other things going on in my life? Let's see:

September 1985 - working at the movie theater, living with my parents, hanging out with John and John and Blaine, no girlfriend, about to start my junior year of college, no real major issues/concerns.

June 1986 - working at the movie theater and the hotel gift shop, living with my parents, hanging out with John and John and Brett, no girlfriend, just finished my incredibly successful junior year of college, no real major issues/concerns.

Yes, my parents would leave for Singapore one year later and render me family-less in the Midwest. But that decision wasn't made until the fall. Yes, my sister had just left for Orange County but come on - that wasn't it.

It might seem like a fruitless exercise but lately I've been obsessed with figuring out why I have no memory of the concert. I even decided not to take my journal's word for it and I called up Patrick and he said yeah we were there. We stayed the whole day. We watched U2. They were awesome.

Over the years - before rediscovering my 1986 journal - people had asked me if I had ever seen U2 in concert. Nope. Never. I was almost as proud of this fact as I was of my insistence that Zooropa is their best album (IT IS!) But I guess I saw them. I was 20 and they were 30ish. It was in an iconic stadium in iconic New Jersey, for an iconic cause. It was important. But I have forgotten.

Was there a trauma that day that has caused me to quash the memory, deep in the recesses of my recollections? Don't think so.

Did I have a fever or other illness that caused temporary memory loss? Not likely. You'd think I'd mention that in my journal.

But here's the interesting part. Somewhere, somehow, I just pulled something up from my insides. It wasn't U2. It wasn't Sting or Miles Davis (Miles Davis!!!) No, I think I remember.... I think I remember.... no I DO REMEMBER... seeing The Hooters.

Here's a link for the un-embeddable video for their amazing song All You Zombies.

I believe they were the first act, the opener of openers. I believe we heard them play as we approached our seats. It was sunny. I think the sheer awesomeness of the Hooters (a band that played at my high school's PROM one year after I graduated) rendered the rest of the day unmemorable. Yes, that was it.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Madonna Effect

I watched Guy Ritchie's 2008 film RocknRolla recently. I was struck by how much the film was a return to form for Ritchie who wowed me with 1998's Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Many critics (and friends of mine) dismissed the earlier Lock, Stock as a Tarantino ripoff but let me defend it in this succinct fashion:
1. There were approximately 40 Tarantino ripoffs released between 1995 and 1999. One of them - Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels - was great. Another - Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead - was good. The other 38 were forgettable.

2. Watch Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and try to take your eyes off of it for even a moment. Can't be done.

3. Perfect ending.

Ritchie's 2000 follow-up, Snatch, was not quite as good. Okay, it wasn't even close in terms of innovation, quality, writing, screenplay, etc. Then came Swept Away (2002) and Revolver (2005), two forgettable movies (and yeah I admit to not having seen either one.) But then RocknRolla came out and Ritchie was back.

Sure, the stylized episodic examinations of British gangster life that he perfected with Lock, Stock and ruined with Snatch are still there. And yes he's rehashed the multiple-gangs-of-criminals-going-after-the-same-prize theme and the troubled father-son relationship B-story. But there was enough unexpected stuff and a sufficient amount of new touches (the amazing Thandie Newton, the most perfect use of a Clash song ever, the always perfect Idris Elba, and a hilarious/brilliant opening scene) that made RocknRolla seem completely fresh.

So what the hell happened between 1998 and 2008 to render Ritchie's brilliance impotent? Madonna, that's what happened.

There have been other off-handed, flippant articles/blog posts about Madonna's creativity-crushing effect on her mates. But I'm taking a different approach. I'm a researcher. I have a Ph.D. in statistics. I need empirical proof. So here goes

(note: all beginnings/ends of relationships with Madonna based on the indisputable Wikipedia which also informed me that Guy and I share the same birthday; AND all ratings are based on MY subjective opinions):

Exhibit A: Sean Penn (began dating Madonna in 1985; split up in 1989)

Before Madonna: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, quality rating (scale of 0 to 100): 82; The Falcon and the Snowman: 90
During Madonna: At Close Range: 61; Shanghai Surprise: 2; Colors: 0
After Madonna: Casualties of War; Carlito's Way; Dead Man Walking; Mystic River, Milk: all in the 70-90 range, with only I Am Sam to be embarrassed by.

Exhibit B: Sandra Bernhard (was considered to be a close "friend" of Madonna between 1988 and 1991)

Before Madonna: Richard Pryor Show: 72; King of Comedy: 93
During Madonna: Truth or Dare: 17; Hudson Hawk: 24; Without You, I'm Nothing: 87 (admittedly Without You, I'm Nothing is awesome but some "rules" have exceptions; besides, I think most of the material was written pre-Madonna)
Post-Madonna: INSIDE MONKEY ZETTERLAND: 96; Her guest work on Roseanne: 73; Her stage show I'm Still Here, Damn It: 85

Exhibit C: Guy Ritchie (began dating Madonna in 1998; split up in 2007 or early 2008)

Before Madonna: Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels: 94
During Madonna: Snatch: 27; Swept Away: 6; Revolver: 29
After Madonna: RocknRolla: 87

Exhibit D: Alex Rodriguez ("dated" Madonna during the 2008 baseball season)

Before Madonna: Career slugging percentage prior to 2008: .579
During Madonna: Slugging percentage during the 2008 season: .574
After Madonna: Slugging eprcentage during the 2009 season: .584
(disclaimer: Rodriguez's stats may be colored by his use of performance enhancing drugs)

I could put up charts and graphs but that would be overkill and besides, my lunch break is almost over. Anyway, the numbers don't lie. Before Madonna: UP. During Madonna: DOWN; After Madonna; UP again.

Interestingly, Madonna's own career actually shows improvement during these relationships. Arguably, she's released four really good songs in her career and they ALL have been come out during the first year of the aforementioned relationships:

1986: La Isla Bonita
1988: Like a Prayer
1998: Ray of Light
2008: 4 Minutes

(disclaimer: I've never actually heard 4 Minutes (featuring Justin Timberlake). I just needed something from 2008 to prove my point. Also, I'm well aware that the awesome Like a Virgin doesn't figure in my theory. Oh well. What can I do? Not every theory is airtight. For example, Catholicism is partially based on the notion that a WAFER holds mystical powers.)

I leave you with a memorable scene from RockNRolla, featuring a bad-ass Tom Wilkinson, an enigmatic Toby Kebbell, and a kid: