Wednesday, July 31, 2013

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1993

Given  my hectic schedule and family issues of late, I've been neglecting a certain pet project of mine.  Of all the music blogs I wrote, 1993 was probably the one I felt least satisfied with; I wrote a measly top five of albums and the list of singles included songs released the year before. I intended to revise my look back at '93 in early-to-mid June, but real life happened.

If 1991 was the year Grunge broke out and 1992 was the year alternative rock divided and conquered, than 1993 was when it completely and unilaterally controlled the world. The Seattle rock scene had become their generation's equivalent of Liverpool, with new acts from the Pacific Northwest getting signed to record labels on a seemingly daily basis. Nirvana and Pearl Jam, the two bands that spearheaded the movement, released follow-up albums that met lofty expectations and than some. Even top 40 "pop" radio was a little more guitar-heavy than usual. That's not to say alt-rock was the only show in town, though; gangsta rap was in full swing, house and electronica were on the cusp of a breakthrough, and Brit-Pop (er, British alt-rock) was giving the Yanks a run for the money.

NOTE: numbers in parentheses note previous ranking

1. In Utero, Nirvana. (2) What I said in 2008: "Nirvana's third album bites the hand that feeds them, except their bile is aimed towards the music industry ("Serve the Servants"), the pitfalls of stardom ("Frances Fisher"), and Kurt Cobain's troubled marriage ("Heart-Shaped Box"). Bittersweet, though painfully autobiographical." I neglected to mention that Steve Albini's stark, uncompromising was a perfect match to Cobain's nihilistic, almost suicidal lyrics. All in all, a shattering epitaph.
2. Siamese Dream, Smashing Pumpkins. (3) Nudging themselves from "promising young band" to "promise fulfilled," Dream was made by a band barely keeping it together: frontman Billy Corgan was in the throes of depression, guitarist James Iha and bassist D'Arcy Wretzky had broken up, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain had a serious drug problem. With all these demons in the air, they churned out essential tracks like "Cherub Rock," "Today," "Rocket," and "Disarm," mere ingredients in one of most influential albums of the decade.
3. Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Wu-Tang Clan. (7) The year's most staggering debut didn't introduce us to one MC but eight. This group of colorful characters --led by Prince Rakeem (aka RZA) and Ol' Dirty Bastard-- invented more than just a sound, they nearly created a full-fledged lifestyle and mindset. No '90s rap album is alternately witty, cocky, and sociopathic, or as eclectic. To paraphrase track 7, the Wu-Tang Clan was nothing to f*** with.
4. Vs., Pearl Jam (4)
5. Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements, Stereolab
6. Exile in Guyville, Liz Phair (1)
7. Debut, Björk
8. Modern Life is Rubbish, Blur
9. Midnight Maurauders, A Tribe Called Quest
10. Rid of Me, PJ Harvey. (6) If Liz Phair was America's angry young feminist, than Polly Jean Harvey was her British equal. Both have a lot to say and aren't much for subtlety. However, where Phair was gleefully profane and visceral, Harvey is a more tortured soul. Where Phair teeters on insanity, Harvey isn't afraid to show her wounds. In the end, Harvey is the least compromising of the two.

Honorable Mentions: New Wave, The Auteurs; Songs of Faith and Devotion, Depeche Mode; So Tonight That I Might See, Mazzy Star; Republic, New Order; In On the Kill Taker, Fugazi; Souvlaki, Slowdive; Saturation, Urge Overkill; Suede, The (London) Suede.

"Mr. Jones," Counting Crows
"Cannonball," The Breeders
"Laid," James
"Feed the Tree," Belly
"Linger," The Cranberries
"Creep," Radiohead
"Soul to Squeeze," Red Hot Chili Peppers
"Insane in the Brain," Cypress Hill
"Low," Cracker
"Backwater," Meat Puppets

1.  "Heart-Shaped Box," Nirvana. This is one of those clips that can be hard to describe without somehow ruining or trivializing the work. Too bad the collaboration of Anton Corbijn and Kurt Cobain never went beyond this haunting video.
2. "No Rain," Blind Melon. Let your freak flag fly, Bee Girl.
3. "Loser," Beck. "Soy... un perdedor..."
4. "Runaway Train," Soul Asylum. All those missing kids...
5. "Are You Gonna Go My Way?," Lenny Kravitz. No, he's not Jimi Hendrix, but it's a pretty solid imitation.

Honorable Mentions: "Man-Size," PJ Harvey; "Creep," Stone Temple Pilots.

Finally, some interesting news: effective last week, I am now writing original comedy material (i.e. jokes) for iO Watercooler, the web site for Improv Olympic fans and alumni. Be on the lookout for "Stu's News" about five days a week. :)

Your thoughts?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Ruminations on a Verdict

Late Saturday night, I posted on Facebook that the George Zimmerman verdict was "Emmett Till all over again." Reaction from my friends was mixed, to put it mildly. Eight or nine of my friends liked the status, but those that disagreed were not afraid to comment. Eventually, I backpedaled; I admitted that the Till comparison was over the top, but I still believed the jury made the wrong call. Mea culpa or not, an awkward silence hovered over the rest of my weekend.

Treyvon Martin's murder 15 months ago was no cut-and-dry homicide, and the ensuing media circus constantly reminded us of that observation. For the prickly debate about gun control and race that Martin's death fueled there has been an undercurrent of idiocy, of poor decision-making, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Martin's death provoked a national discussion on race relations that wasn't wholly necessary, and only fanned the fire of the never-ending debate on gun control. At the same time, George Zimmerman will forever be perceived as a trigger-happy goon who got off scot-free, anointed by a jury that not only ignored his abuse of power a neighborhood watchdog, but also his wife's act of perjury. What a mess.

Other notes:

+ The bankruptcy of Detroit is as pitiful as it was inevitable. NBA great Dave Bing entered a very bad situation when we was elected mayor, and despite some minor gains he situation was just too insurmountable. The lack of economic growth was one thing, but the corruption was another (thanks, Kwame Kilpatrick). This once-great metropolis is now a black hole, sucking nearly the entire state of Michigan into its malaise. (For those of you that aren't familiar with this sorry situation, this article should bring you up to speed.) It'll only get worse before it ever gets better.

+ My congratulations go out to my friend Claire Mulaney on being hired to write for "Saturday Night Live" next season. Apparently, I've been on the Chicago improv scene long enough that I can (sort of) brag that people I've hung out with can --and have-- made their comedy dreams come true. Do your brother John proud.

Next week: the year in music, 1993.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Monday, June 24th

So how did I spend my Game 6?

In my lifetime I've experienced ten* championships between Chicago's five major sports teams; six from the Bulls, one apiece from the Bears and White Sox, and now two from my beloved Blackhawks. (I gave up on the Cubs at age nine and I haven't looked back.) Unlike the previous nine I spent the Hawks' second title in four years in the city, as opposed to my native southwest suburbs. To elaborate:

I watched Game 6 of the 2010 Finals at a restaurant called Cabana Charlie's. My father and I wanted to see the game in a sports bar setting, and with Tilted Kilt and Buffalo Wild Wings packed shoulder to shoulder, we settled on Charlie's. The restaurant itself was a pale imitator of Jimmy Buffett's Cheeseburger in Paradise franchise, with a friendly, palm-tree exterior protecting its soulless, ersatz center. The only TVs were in the bar, and we snagged the last table with a view with 15 minutes before game time.

My family had dined at Cabana Charlie's once or twice before; the burgers were adequate but somewhat overpriced. It was never as loud or energetic, however as it was that magical night in June 2010. The bar erupted for every Hawks goal and fell silent for every Flyers lamp-lighter. I recall the confused jubilance as Patrick Kane slipped it past Michael Leighton in overtime; the buzzer went off, we cheered, but nobody could tell what happened. The replay confirmed our greatest hopes, and when the Stanley Cup was carried onto the ice about a third of the bar (including myself) cried.

Fast forward to June 2013. I had never been anywhere near the mayhem that accompanies a Chicago sports title. The Bulls riots in the early '90s made national news, but that would be the most extreme example. I stormed the north quad at Illinois State when the Bears won the 2006 NFC title, but it didn't compare to the full-fledged White Sox riot from 15 months earlier, before I transferred. Cabana Charlie's shuttered their doors earlier this year --I don't think they ever turned a profit-- so even if I had a fallback, the option wasn't there. Hook, line or sinker I would spend the clinching game somewhere in the city.

My improv commitments complicated matters. As mentioned in past blogs, I belong to a charity organization called Funny Bones, where we do game-oriented improv for sick children in nearby hospitals. We have a monthly meeting/rehearsal the last Monday of each month, and with the Hawks up three game to two and Game 6 set for that evening, I had no choice but to miss the first period. Luckily, said meeting at the Ronald McDonald House in River North, so I accomplished half of my goal right there.

Earlier that day, my dear friend Andy invited me over to his apartment to watch the game. I told him I'd meet up after Funny Bones. Driving from River North to Old Town wasn't much a challenge; finding parking was another story. Every bar and grill within walking distance was packed, and the lack of street parking indicated that. Eventually I bit the bullet and spent $13 to park in the garage adjacent to Piper's Alley (home of Second City), than ran down the street to Andy's place. At that point, the second period was almost over and the game was tied at one. Listening to the action on my car radio was not quenching my thirst.

I plopped down on Andy's couch just as the second intermission wrapped. I nearly choked on the last part of my Subway sandwich when Boston scored their second goal midway through the period. My heart sank as I feared another tidal shift in the series. I was withdrawn to the possibly of a Game 7 until the last 1:20 of the third period. Corey Crawford was pulled and an extra defenseman brought in, which usually screams desperation. I was hoping against hope for another overtime thriller, just like three years earlier. Out of the blue, Toews fed the puck to Bryan Bickell, who slipped it past Tuukka Rask, and the game was suddenly tied. I screamed with ecstasy.

The action halted for a minute or so while everyone --TD Garden, every bar in Chicago, yours truly-- could catch their breath. I had just sat down when Dave Bolland clinched it, a mere 17 seconds after the previous goal. I screamed again, loud enough to make the apartment rattle a little, than bear-hugged Andy. The last 59 seconds of the game, complete with Boston's feeble attempt at a backhander against Crawford, was just icing on the cake. In 2007 I feared the Hawks had been irreversibly run into the ground, much like the Cubs were in the '50s and '60s. Now they had won two Stanley Cups in my lifetime. Like 2010, I cried when the Cup was carried to the ice. It was just too much.

Of course, I can't forget the pandemonium in the streets. I walked down North Avenue to see if any of the bars were getting trashed, but the post-game celebration was surprisingly mannered and mostly well-behaved. Prior to leaving Andy's apartment, I watched news footage of a helicopter hovering above the corner and Clark and Addison, where the real chaos was happening. You would think half the city was celebrating in the streets, reveling shoulder-to-shoulder as the bars and clubs poured out. In a weird twist of fate, my independent improv team was supposed to play at Mullen's on Clark that night, but the show was cancelled for the Hawks game. I was reminded of that odd twist of fate as Mullen's bright green awning glowed in the noisy dark, a beacon in the joyous ataxia. I was tempted to drive up to Wrigleyville, but I was more content to stop by the United Center on my long drive home, where a smaller but equally boisterous crowd had formed a circle of cars around the stadium lot.

And that is how I spent my Game 6.

*11 if you include the 1998 Chicago Fire, but really, let's not.