Tuesday, August 30, 2011

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1991

Next month, a documentary called "1991: The Year Punk Broke" will open in limited release in theaters across the country. This is not a new documentary by any means; in fact, it was first released in 1992 and is just now arriving on DVD. The movie itself is a crucial time capsule that inadvertantly caught a watershed moment in pop culture. What was originally supposed to spotlight Sonic Youth --an already well-established indie rock group-- performing live on tour gave equal attention to their various opening acts, including a young, fledging Seattle trio named Nirvana. Neither of these two bands nor did the director and producers of this movie know what was about to hit them.

People best remember 1991 as the year grunge (really a descendent of punk) hit the mainstream, but in reality the tidal change didn't really occur until the tail end of the year. Whatever musical trends were raging in 1989 and 1990 were still in vogue; there was a sense of complacency and sameness to Top 40 radio, at least until October or November of that year. One could even argue that nearly every #1 hit from that year was basically a variation on the same cheesy power ballad, regardless of the gender, race, or creed of the artist. Grunge was a game-changer, the new direction mainstream music needed at that time. Even though it's connection to straight up rock n' roll is fairly loose, it made a whole genre relevant again. Nirvana was the primary agitator of this new movement, and though they were the most infamous act in the bunch, bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and Alice in Chains owe their careers to Kurt Cobain's unlikely watershed moment. After this point, alternative rock was rock.

Even though I turned seven years old in '91, one might wonder what I would have put on a mixtape that year. This should give you a hint:

1. Nevermind, Nirvana. Some artists capture the zeitgeist; others are ensnared against their will. Nirvana straddled that line, jumping to a major label for their second album while also honing and mastering the fuzzbox fire of their 1989 debut Bleach. Where their metal contemporaries howled with the depth of a birdbath --especially in an era where cheesy, halfhearted ballads guaranteed record sales-- Kurt Cobain's music and lyrics are raw, evocative, and above all honest. Twenty years ago Nevermind was life-changing, but now its life-affirming, and perhaps for the better.
2. Ten, Pearl Jam. Rising from the ashes of Mother Love Bone (see my 1990 list for more details) and almost named for a basketball player (see my Mookie blog from four months ago), Ten plays second fiddle to Kurt & Co. in many critics' minds but deserves acclaim as a masterpiece in its own right. If Nirvana cracked the windshield, than Eddie Vedder and the boys smashed the whole damn window. Where Nirvana looked inward, PJ saw the world as their oyster, fusing social commentary into Vedder's raspy growl and Mike McCready's Hendrix-style guitar riffs. Conceived in tragedy, Ten rises above and never looks back.
3. The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest. Grunge gets all the press, but 1991 was also a watershed year for hip-hop. Taking a cue from De La Soul's jazzy beats and literate lyrics, ATCQ shies away from hardcore rap and the growing gangsta movement for something more cerebral and philosophical. Put together, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg are absolutely sublime; they don't battle each other with rhymes so much as they debate. The heart is in the groove, and on The Low End Theory, the heart could fill up a whole room.
4. Loveless, My Bloody Valentine
5. Badmotorfinger, Soundgarden

6. Blue Lines, Massive Attack
7. Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Red Hot Chili Peppers
8. Bandwagonesque, Teenage Fanclub
9. Achtung Baby, U2
10. Metallica (a/k/a The Black Album), Metallica. Leaping into the mainstream for their fifth album, The Black Album has a divisive place in the band's oeurve; either this is where you discovered Metallica or gave up on them. Following the production issues of ...And Justice For All, you can't blame the boys for trying a simpler approach, while at the same time giving death metal some mainstream credibility. It's hard to deny that this is a great disc, even if left turns like "The Unforgiven" and "Nothing Else Matters" foreshadow later indulgences.

Honorable Mentions: Use Your Illusion I, Guns n' Roses; My Brain Hurts, Screeching Weasel; Temple of the Dog, Temple of the Dog.

"Siva," Smashing Pumpkins
"Shiny Happy People," R.E.M.
"Unbelievable," E.M.F.
"Right Here Right Now," Jesus Jones
"I Touch Myself," Divinyls
"Tom's Diner," DMA feat. Suzanne Vega
"Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)," C+C Music Factory
"Summertime," The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff
"Bring The Noise," Anthrax feat. Chuck D
"Civil War," Guns n' Roses

1. "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana. The best song from the best album of the '90s also begat arguably the most compelling video of the grunge era. It's more than an anthem, "Teen Spirit" is a call to arms. Get lost, popular kids; the freaks have taken over.
2. "Losing My Religion," R.E.M. With a premise based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez' short story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" and a hook built upon a mandolin riff, this beautiful clip is another pleasant surprise in a year chock-full of unexpected delights. Somehow, this never screams "pretentious."
3. "Justify My Love," Madonna. Madge channels Fellini in this erotic, banned-from-MTV video. I think Wayne Campbell and Garth Alger put it best: "man, check out the package on THAT guy."
4. "Enter Sandman," Metallica. Finding that rare balance between critical acclaim and commercial success, this dreamlike escape perfectly matches Lars and James' nightmarish vision.
5. "Into The Great Wide Open," Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. One of first "all-star" videos with any semblance of plot, Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, and a pre-"Friends" Matt LeBlanc overshadow a chameleon-like Petty in a story about the pitfalls of instant fame.

Honorable Mention: "Black or White," Michael Jackson; "Been Caught Stealing," Jane's Addiction.

Finally, this week I received a new laptop (a Toshiba Intel, to be exact) and to mark the occasion I finally made a great leap forward in the social networking world. You can now find me on Twitter at #heystu818 and on Skype at heystu17. (I assume most of you have already added me on Facebook or found this blog via Zuckerman's website, so that goes without saying.)

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Right Hook, Everyone's Cross

It’s hard to tell if the GOP presidential race has improved or worsened. On one hand, Tim Pawlenty’s campaign never gained momentum and his quitting the race only shifts more moderate conservatives towards Mitt Romney. On the other hand, the entry of Texas Governor Rick Perry gives the GOP another wacky wild card, another devisive, over the top personality for the media to leech on. I still have confidence that the United States is first and foremost a centrist nation, and that the median of the political spectrum is still right smack in the middle. If that’s the case, than whoever caters most to the moderates will win in 2012. In the unlikely event that Bachmann or Perry nab the GOP nomination, President Obama would win a second term in a landslide. Even if the president's approval rating is still hovering around 45% next November, low voter turnout could work in his favor. The candidate that does the best job of playing to the center usually succeeds, and it's hard to imagine the governor or the congresswoman toning down their message to impact moderates.

My previous statement may seem biased, but I have a hard time taking candidates seriously when they use their religious beliefs for political gain. I have just as much skepticism towards Perry's bible-toting and Bachmann's denial of gay rights as I do Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. The authors of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights sought to create a country where no faith trumped any other, and while it is noble to hold strong Christian values, their strictness applies only to a strident minority of Americans. This is not how the phrase "God above nation" is supposed to work. As it stands, I predict the GOP nomination will be a three-way race; Romney's mainstream conservatism will be pitted against Ron Paul's en vogue libertarianism and Bachmann's Tea Party traditionalism. For all his fervor, Perry entered the race too late to make a true difference; he's just shaking up the pot, telling angry conservatives what they want to hear, and feeding off the frontrunners. There's nothing to worry about... for now.

Other notes:

+ At long last, the 2011 Beloit College mindset list --which I blogged about two months ago-- has been released. When I wrote "my" list, I had totally forgotten that this year's incoming college freshmen have never ordered from the Sears catalog, and that Kim Jong Il has always been taunting the United States. Here's the link: http://www.beloit.edu/mindset/2015/

+ Being an Illinoisan, I did not feel nor was I affected by the 5.8 earthquake in northeast Virginia, though I know a few people out here that did feel a faint tremor. Were any of you shaken by the quake?

+ Fielders Update: after a temporary panic, the troubled Lake County ballclub shut down for a week or so, than began a new, revised schedule that gives them more home games (thus, less money spent on airfare). Considering that the Fielders are the only team in the NABL that plays in this region of the continent --three teams play in Canada, one in Honolulu-- and their obvious money woes, the future of the organization beyond 2011 is still in doubt. More details as they arise.

Next week: the year in music, 1991.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Blowing the Candles, Passing the Torch

This coming Thursday, I turn 27 years old. It’s not really an official milestone by any means, unless you consider that to be one’s unendorsed entry into your late 20s. (Longtime readers may have noticed that my attempts to be introspective can be quite stilted, so bear with me.)

As a classic rock nerd in high school, turning 27 means outliving a fair percentage of the artists I grew up listening to. In a weird sort of way, I looked up to Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, and Jimi Hendrix; in the next few months, I will surpass them one by one. Even artists I discovered in early adulthood have been affected by “The 27 Club”: blues legend Robert Johnson, Chris Bell of Big Star, Pigpen McKernen of The Grateful Dead, Mia Zapata of The Gits. The fact that Amy Winehouse died last month at the same age of the aforementioned rock legends temporarily put me on edge, if only because the troubled “Rehab” singer graduated from high school one year before I did. Until her sad yet foreseeable demise, my reference point was Kurt Cobain, 17 years my senior but a tormented guiding spirit to an entire generation.

If I sound ghoulish, it’s only because the 27 Club marks the last vestiges of pure, unbridled youth and our surrender to adulthood… or so it seems. We’re now four or five years removed from college; nobody is holding our hand anymore. We never got see Janis Joplin with cellulite or Kurt Cobain with male pattern baldness, and for karmic reasons maybe we should happy that we didn’t. They lived their short lives in excess and paid dearly for it. Of the names I mentioned above, only Pigpen died of natural causes. The responsibilities of adulthood are not pretty, but they’re inevitable.

With my 27th birthday this week, I am marking a second moment of transition. On Sunday night I had my last class performance at iO Chicago, the climax of a 16-month journey into the basic concepts and assumed structures of long-form improv. My seven-week run with Ladies & Lumberjacks (our chosen team name, long story) is something that I am immensely proud of, and I will miss working with my friends and peers very dearly. We worked exclusively together for four months —the duration of the last level is twice as long as the others— and we formed a very tight bond, not unlike brothers and sisters. Between losing my job and dealing with a terminally ill parent last summer, improv became my reason to wake up in the morning. To say the experience was fun is an understatement; iO was a liberating thrill ride and the most consistent morale booster I’ve ever had.

With that said, I am segueing myself into the next chapter of my improv career at the Second City Conservatory. As I mentioned last week, I have orientation on the 28th and my first class is Labor Day weekend. Like iO and the Second City basic improv program before that, I will share a class with 15-odd complete strangers with similar interests and we will grow to become a cohesive unit, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to take the ride. Fittingly enough the conservatory program runs for exactly one year, and if all goes right my graduation will coincide with my 28th birthday next August. My job situation is still in limbo, but my confidence overall is in resurgence. This will be my year, and for the first time in a long while I’ll be pulling the reins.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

High and Inside

For all you baseball fans out there, let me tell you about a bizarre situation that’s playing out in the north Chicago suburbs. In 2010, an independent league baseball team called the Lake County Fielders began play in Zion, IL. The team owners brought pro baseball to the north ‘burbs under the condition that Zion and the county would fund a stadium. The Fielders’ selling point is actor Kevin Costner, who holds minority ownership but doesn’t contribute to day-to-day operations. Construction on Fielders Stadium was supposed to begin in Fall 2009, but it stalled shortly after because of funding issues. As it stands, the Fielders play in a makeshift facility across the street with temporary bleachers and party decks.

After breaking even financially in its inaugural season, the Fielders’ second year of existence has been a comedy of errors. Team paychecks started bouncing and corporate credit cards were being rejected. The coaching staff had to pay for hotel accommodations and players’ meals on road trips out of their own pockets. In late June a revolt began; the Fielders’ radio play-by-play man quit on-air in mid-ballgame, citing money owed. Eventually the manager resigned, and 11 of the 23 players on the roster gave up and quit too. Nine of the 12 remaining players demanded trades and were shipped off for cash and cheap replacements. Chris Thompson, a failed top draft pick with the Diamondbacks and the Fielders’ closer, has stepped in as interim pitching coach.

If you think that’s bad, the Fielders’ saga gets even more bizarre. Last Friday, a home game against the divisional rival Calgary Vipers was suspended in the middle of the second inning because the balls used in play weren’t approved by the league. As it turned out, the balls were bought on clearance at Wilson Sporting Goods by the clubhouse manager mere hours before game time. In attempting to defend his organization, principal owner Richard Ehrenreich steered away from apologizing or justifying his actions by ranting about American patriotism in the wake of the helicopter crash in Afghanistan that killed 30 of our troops. Though his love of country is noble, it had nothing to do with the matter at hand.

As I write this, it has been speculated that the Fielders will suspend the remainder of their 2011 schedule, than cease operations and liquidate whatever assets they still have. The economic downturn has not been kind to professional sports, especially the lowest ranks of pro baseball, but the Fielders’ situation takes it to a new, absurd extreme. Ehrenreich has blamed Zion for the team’s myriad struggles, but the mayor and village council are unilaterally fed up; the owners owe $185,000 in back rent and won’t pay. In reality, their whole existence has been a miscarriage. Everything about the Fielders feels slapped together, right down to their web site. I don’t live in the north suburbs —Downers Grove is about 45 minutes west of the city— but I am compelled to drive up to Lake County to see a ballclub that gives fledging a capital F. I don’t want to watch the Fielders out of pity, but to observe a group of athletes not only playing for a dying dream, but for their own lives and well-being.

Other notes:

+ Everyone should’ve seen the ramifications of last week’s “compromise” from a mile away. Action had to be taken, but the consequences are decidedly worse. A lowered credit rating, mayhem on the stock market, and empty “woulda coulda shoulda” posturing have the greatest short-term effects of the passed legislation. In short, temporarily raising the debt ceiling merely exposed our partisan, ineffectual government to our most crucial global partners and investors. Our national exasperation is now the world’s problem, too. I will not pretend to be a financial expert, but you’d be surprised by the number of Americans that have claimed to be economic connoisseurs in the past couple of weeks (especially in Congress, hint hint). At any rate, every elected official in the last five years that has claimed to “clean up Washington,” regardless of where they lay on the political spectrum has been ousted as a phony. My doubts about the Tea Party Republicans that so many saw as saviors last year have been all but confirmed. I’m beyond speechless.

+ Improv Update: for those of you that aren’t on Facebook or haven’t added me yet, I had reason to celebrate last Wednesday. After seven tries, I was finally accepted into the Second City Conservatory. For the uninitiated, the conservatory is the unofficial grad school of improv; you have a short audition where you perform a series of short scenes, and usually the top 30% get in. Suffice to say, after six near-misses it feels good to no longer be part of the “other” 70%. My first session is September 4th and I’m chomping at the bit.

Next week: thoughts on my 27th birthday.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Dancing on the Ceiling

I’m not one for jingoistic bluster, but… America, we dodged a bullet.

Not many people will be satisfied in the long run with Sunday’s compromise. The right end of the political spectrum is likely underwhelmed by the $2.4 trillion cut, the left side sitting shiva for such a major loss. The finer details of the cut are still dripping out, but for spectators like me it’ll be like how cows become beef: it delicious until you find out how it’s made. The president was faced with the highly unsavory option of having to raise taxes —confirming the worst fears of his conservative critics— but when that bullet point was grudgingly wiped off the table as reluctantly as it was initially suggested, the wheels were turning again. To be fair, this now-hypothetical taxation would’ve risen back to Clinton-era levels, a modest spike for some but a massive point of resistance for Tea Party Republicans.

I don’t want to kick Speaker John Boehner while he’s down, but in hindsight his proposal to raise the debt ceiling might’ve been too partisan. Boehner’s inability to muster enough GOP votes in Congress late last week not only inadvertently broke the budget gridlock, but gave President Obama the slightest morsel of a victory in a moment when he badly needed it. After that, the ball was in the president’s court; the new GOP strategy would’ve been too far-right to gain traction, and house Democrats had to woo that rarest and most endangered of species, moderate Republicans. Alas, I can’t call Obama the true winner, either; the plan that coasted through the House and Senate and signed by the president earlier today had to be approved no matter the flaws, or otherwise we’d suffer the consequences. This was a small triumph for the middle of the road; only the far right and extreme left opted not to follow the leader.

Alas, one crucial compromise will not inspire a renewal of faith in our government . Congress had to break up the loggerheads somehow or face dire consequences. One would argue that the budget crisis of 1979 provided some inspiration, but the true comparison point is Greece. The Mediterranean nation and cradle of Democracy hasn’t been a European power for centuries, and their defaulting was part of a sad slippery slope. As Faheed Zaharia pointed out in Time magazine back in July, the US has too many economic advantages —including controlling our own currency and a comparatively healthy trade system— to fail the same way Greece did. The Greek government deserved to fail, but the US government and its international investors alike had too much on the line. The domino effect would’ve been mythological, so to speak.

To reiterate my point: today America dodged a bullet.

Other notes:

+ Fantasy Update: both teams are still hovering around .500. Even though I’ve been bitten by the injury bug on repeat occasions —Brian McCann was my latest victim— so has everyone else, so I can’t really use that as an excuse.

+ Random question of the day: do the people that carry “Impeach Obama” signs on the edge of the highway realize that would make Joe Biden commander-in-chief? You’d think they would plan this type of thing out…

+ Finally, in early July a man in North Carolina recovered the class ring he lost 51 years ago when the girlfriend he gave it to accidentally flushed it down the toilet. No word yet on whether she said “yes” for prom.