Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Bird That Sang Too Much

There is a part in the “Circe” episode of Ulysses where Stephen Dedalus and his friend Lynch are in Bella Cohen’s brothel (followed by Mr. Bloom) and Lynch reveals that Stephen is a terrific singer.  The prostitutes, namely Zoe, who is trying to get the last remaining bits of money from Stephen’s pocket, beg Stephen to play the pianola in the parlor and sing.  Stephen, however, refuses, which prompts Zoe to utter one of my favorite lines in all of Ulysses and perhaps in all of literature and  of life:

“The bird that can sing but won’t sing.”

This phrase can be used in so many instances in art and in life in general.  How often are we attracted to that character or that person with the ability to inspire us or to perform a task, whether artistic or athletic or otherwise, with such ease, but who simply declines to.  When exceptional ability meets the reluctance to exhibit that ability, we are always intrigued.  We want to know why that bird won’t sing.  We want to know why he or she won’t live up to their talents and deliver what they can deliver.  We want to know to know why they won’t meet our image.  We want to know why they will not give us what we want.

Now, Ryan Adams does not deliver on many of these conflicts in the way they have been set up.  Ryan Adams has never refused to sing.  He has been singing since he was 17 or 16 years old when he moved from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Raleigh, North Carolina and formed Whiskeytown.  He was one of those child prodigy singers like Steve Winwood in the Spencer Davis Group or Alex Chilton in the Box Tops.  A guy – a kid – who was able to emote and deliver songs as if he were well beyond his years and had actually felt the pain in the songs he was singing, who truly knew the weathered ins and outs of the vinyl and carboard edges of the music he was attempting to continue the tradition of.  Ryan Adams has obviously proven that he has a deep knowledge of not only country music but also straight forward rock music in general, which is what he initially became very famous for at the turn of this new century.

If anything, Ryan Adams has perhaps been too inclined to sing, to speak his mind. He has released fifteen albums in fourteen years, this includes solo albums, Whiskeytown albums and albums backed by The Cardinals.  He has even released unofficial albums through his notorious website, including Jacksonville City Nights outtakes that are some of the funniest and most authentic country songs that I have ever heard, including the legendary “Jailbreak” song that features the following lyrics in its barely one minute entirety:

“Hey fellas where’s the party/I just got out of jail/Burn down the motherfucking forest/Just got out/….Monday Night Football!”

This song is replete with rooser noises and laser beam sounds along with fiddle and country picking guitar.  Adams manipulates his malleable ovice to sound like a man who has literally just gotten out of prison.  Adams has sang too much in his career and he has spoken too much in his career.  This touches on what Don Draper spoke about in the beginning of Season 3 of Mad Men when he said, “limit your exposure” in reference to thhe London Fog campaign, but really to telling Salvatore to keep his homosexuality hidden.  That element doesn’t have anything to do with Ryan Adams, but the idea of limiting your exposure does.  Ryan Adams has always had an issue with limiting his exposure.  He has always  been outspoken and has embraced the changing means of communication over the past ten years via the internet to make his immediate thoughts and feelings known.  He has often done this much his own detriment.  We can only wonder what can of image we would have of Ryan Adams had he seemed more aloof and less of a cocky, brazen, overly-sensitive ass who could really sing and when he felt like it write damn good/amazing songs that he released on albums that were shared with and among the public.  And we wouldn’t care about any of this at all unless he had that terrific talent.  That ability to “sing” in both the literal and the metaphorical.

If there weren’t alt-country or straight up country classics like “16 Days,” “Faithless Street,” or “The Ballad of Carol Lynn,” not to mention a sleu of other songs with Whiskeytown or “A Kiss Before I Go,” “Hard Way To Fall,” “The Hardest Part,” or “My Heart is Broken”; if there weren’t rockers like “To Be Young,” “New York, New York,” “Firecracker,” “Magnolia Mountain,” and “Halloweenhead” we wouldn’t ascribe any drama or emotion to Ryan Aadams.  Where as the character of Stephen Dedalus or Done Draper “refuse” to sing in so many ways, where they remain silent and aloof, Adams has sung his heart out and exposed himself.  We have seen the talent and moving ability of his highest highs as well as the pathetic obviousness and childishness of his lowest lows.  The fact that we know how good he can be and has been will always bring us back. “Why doesn’t he make an album like that again?” “Why doesn’t he write like that?” “These sort of relationships with the people in our lives and the artists that we love or at the very least appreciate on a certain level are what make some of the best drama or charged situations in our lives.  We want to see a consummation of talent and production – but that never comes. Now, it may be painfully obvious with Ryan Adams and he may be, as my college writing professor once described my admiration for Thomas Wolfe, “second-rate,” but he has made some terrific songs and albums and there is one album, “Cold Roses,” that has a strange “middle” ground in the universe of Ryan Adams.

“Cold Roses” was the first of a trilogy of albums that Adams released in 2005 when he was making a self-proclaimed “comeback” and getting serious about his music again.  The album after “Cold Roses,” “Jacksonville City Nights,” was one of the best country albums of all time in my opinion, it was certainly a genre piece, but Adams knew the genre so well that he was able to put his own stamp on it. The final album of the trilogy “29” is one of the worst albums of all time – I’ll just leave it at that.  “Cold Roses” achieves some kind of middle ground for Ryan Adams and has always baffled me.  I love the album.  It is an homage to the Grateful Dead in so many ways, and perhaps no jam band that is indebted to the Grateful Dead in all the obvious respects never came as close to the aesthetic that the Dead crafted as Adams did on this double album.  So, we are going to dive head first and just wade through some of the songs and the sounds.

To put this all in perspective, I was heavily into this album and “Jacksonville City Nights” in the spring of 2006.  I had come back from Ireland, was feeling disillusioned, had a radio show and was driving my car around a lot.  I’d play these songs of heartbreak and wondering while driving alone on long stretches of Interstate 87, sometimes in the dark, sometimes in the light with the stain of salt along the highway and the grass on the sides of the road still brownish green and straw colored, waiting for the upstate spring rains to bring it all back to life.  Or, I’d drive at night watching the taillights, thinking about something or things sad that happened to me a long time ago, passing Poughkeepsie and New Paltz, then on past Kingston up to Saugerties then the dusky purple smog and blinking red lights of Albany and further until the light pollution faded slightly enough to feel refreshing near Half Moon and Ballston Spa until finally there I was in Saratoga and raging against whatever I felt to be light.

The radio show was at 10:00 on Sunday nights.

Anyway, “Cold Roses” starts off with the epic rocker “Magnolia Mountain,” which is one of my top songs of all-time. In fact, its one of the best songs that Neil Young never wrote.  It features rambling, sloppy but tactful guitar work and snarling lines like “I wanna to Magnolia Mountain and lay my weary head down/Down on the rocks on the mountain my saviour made/Steady my soul and ease my worry/Hold me when I rattle like a hummingbird humming/tie me to the rocks on the mountain my saviour made” before it enters a chorus of “Lie to me/sing me a song/sing me a song til the morning comes/and if the morning comes/will you lie to me?/will you take me to your bed? Will you  lay me down?/until I’m heaving in the rocks by the riverbed/that my saviour made?”  This goes into a similar verse before Adams and the Cardinals unleash waves of guitar noise that will make you feel cramped in whatever car you are driving and force you to open the windows in even the cold wind of March in order to sing as loud as you can and let the air pass through from the driver’s seat to the passenger’s seat.  The rest of the first album features gentle, fluid and idyllic melodies that are completely reminiscent of the Grateful Dead in their 1970-1974 period on the albums “American Beauty,” “From the Mars Hotel,” and “Wake of the Flood.”  Throughout, Adams is inspired and the Cardinals as a backing band provide him with intricate and melodic playing that veers away from the dangerous parts of melancholic and melodramatic.  Meanwhile, Adams shows his range as he croons and wails almost like Roy Orbison on the lovelorn song “Cherry Lane.”

The second album of the set reveals the muscle.  “Easy Plateau,” is a rambling song that the Dead easily could have played at Cornell in 1977.  Its all slinky guitar, slide guitar and propulsive drumming and a strumming chorus that would work around any campfire – all of which were elements of the Dead at their very best and accessible, which I actually consider their heart.  To me, there are four songs that tower above the others on the second side; those songs are “Let It Ride,” “Cold Roses,” “If I Am A Stranger,” and “Life Is Beautiful.”  We’ll tackle “Let It Ride,” first.  This is a song with a guitar part in the chorus that Ennio Morricone easily could have written, but it also features classic Adams lyrics like “twenty-seven years of nothing but heartaches and failures and promises I couldn’t keep.”  Yet, there is a refrain throughout the song of “I’m not ready to go/I’m never ready to go.”  This song is a perfect example of what Adams can inspire within us.  For all of his messiness for all of his overreaching he makes us feel invincible in some way, like we can never die; like everything is immediate and important.  Its not a desperation that most country songs or most great literature is born out of, it is a romantic vision, something almost adolescent that makes us want to burn up and die at the age of 25 like John Keats.

The title track, “Cold Roses,” starts with a  lead guitar line that is vintage Jerry Garcia, while Adams comes in with vocals that are by-the numbers for him.  He moans the ends of his words and syllables he over-enunciates in a way that Mick Jagger mastered, which Adams mastered and made useful in his own way.  The guitar is fluid but ragged and unorthodox like Jerry’s playing before we get into a chorus, which again is classic Adams, “daylight comes and uncovers/Saturday’s bruises in cold roses.”  Throughout the song Adams moves his voice around playfully, hitting hight notes, lower notes, side notes and everything in between, creating all kinds of howling melodic vocal hooks.  We even get a furious guitar solo that is extremely welcome, hummable and fitting for the song as a whole, before it turns into rumbling noise and then allows Adams to finish off with a delicate return to the chorus of “cold roses,” which he howls and harmonizes.

That song fades out and leads into perhaps my favorite song on the album, “If I Am A Stranger.” We again get an impossibly catchy and melodic guitar line that borders on Ennio Morricone territory and also a chorus of “If I am a stranger now to you/I will always be/I will always be/Stronger now than me/Stronger now than you/Love will always be/And if we let it go/I will try to be there for you/If I can/but what if I can’t?” It doesn’t get more melodramatic than that.  However, in some ways that’s what we want.  We want the melodrama, we want to feel the emotion behind a line like “If all this love is real/How will we know/And if we’re only scared of losing it/How will it last?”  Isn’t there something completely honest about a guy with a gifted voice earnestly singing (voice sometimes breaking) “If I am a stranger now to you/I will always be.”  If you take the line at just that value, well then the rest of the short story or the scene should just spring up from there.  A couple sitting in the gloaming of an August evening.  The girl says that the evenings are cooler now so that sleeping is more bearable.  The crickets begin to make their noise. “If I am a stranger now to you/I will always be.”  Those are gut punch type of moments and perhaps Ryan Adams smears them with his brush, but he delivers them in a way that sticks with you.

Finally, there is “Life is Beautiful,” which is like some McCartney mid-tempo ballad/rocker that builds to one of  those undeniable choruses – in fact there is some symbol in this song that is completely reminiscent of “Hey Jude” – mixed with the standard Ryan Adams vibe.  He rasps some lines of the verses, then wails the chorus like Roy Orbison and hits a whining tone like Bono in other areas or as he sings, “Because if I don’t believe in love/Then I don’t believe in you/And I do.”  These are not compelling lyrics but they are honest in some way that I have never been able to comprehend.  Maybe it all lies with something a friend of mine in college once said to me.  We were outside smoking cigarettes – we smoked a lot of cigarettes then and called them “heats” – it could have been cold and snowy and the light from the dorms could have spread out in big rectangles on the snow, making it shine, while I draped myself in my pea coat and he wore a t-shirt, shorts, and worn wolverine boots with no socks.  Or, it could have been warm and we could’ve been barefoot with beers tucked in the pockets of our shorts looking out at the lawn in front of the dorm and there would have been dew and guys and girls walking along the permiter road of the campus, laughing and enjoying themselves, but for some reason we furiously smoked cigarettes and drank lots of  beer.  My friend said to me in one of these times, “Being fourteen was great.  You think stuff like ‘I love this girl.  If I don’t have her then I’ll die.’ It’s so melodramatic.  But at least you care about something.”  I don’t know if that’s what Ryan Adams intended – he probably didn’t. But something about me likes these songs and lyrics like those, if only in this instance.  And something about it reminds me of my friend and how I liked smoking cigarettes with him and thinking about that important thing that he one time said to me.

Maybe Ryan Adams is the great Romantic Rocker of our time. Maybe he is just a guy who made some good records and some really terrible records. I’m sure Pitchfork tore apart “Cold Roses” but gave “Jacksonville City Nights” a 7.8 and hailed it as “not a return to form, but Adams recognizing his strengths once again, albeit within the contstraints of the country genre.”  I know that I love the album “Cold Roses” and I know that this is not objective journalism or blogging.  However, there is some lesson to be learned from Ryan Adams.  Should we as a youth and as a culture be learning to limit our exposure?  Certainly from this blog you would not say so – this blog is about exposing yourself whether through the guise of a podcast or a sports post or a post about a musician, book or author.  However, some part of me believes that if we left a bit of the mystery around ourselves, we would be able to regain some element of life that has been lost or that is slipping away.  Should we not sing?  Should we not put ourselves out there?  Somone once said that John Cazale was one of the best actors and people of all time because when you were with him, you could feel him putting himself out into the world, exposing his core through his art.  And maybe that is the lesson that we are supposed to learn from Ryan Adams’ up and down career.  Perhaps if he had exposed himself through his art more directly, had used his prodigious abilities and prolific output to put forth some of the elements of his soul rather than work in genres and release three albums in one year, then he would have truly “sung.”  We do not have to limit our exposure like Don Draper (although perhaps that is an art in itself, no?), we simply have to understand how to hone it to its utmost effectiveness through the art that we unleash or release into the world.

In any event, he wrote some damn good songs.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Less than Breaking News

This serves as a mid-week link outpost while I draft up the beginnings of my Ryan Adams column later tonight and will finish and post tomorrow evening.  That should be another 3,000 to 4,000 word rambler that will hopefully take you through a refreshing and not too hot weekend.  But, like I say, it wouldn't be summer without feeling slightly homicidal towards the air, no?

In other blog related news, I'll be most likely taking a break from writing blog posts for much of August in September as I am going to start a major revision of the manuscript of From Here to the Last Mound of Dirt that will require the attention of most of my evenings.  I'll still be trying to schedule podcasts because those require a smaller degree of time and concentration than long posts and columns do.  Some of the possible upcoming podcasts: Discussion of Mad Men with girls I know, Gilmore Girls Podcast Part 2, Teen Wolf podcast, Gabi Wurzel of Tony Castles, Ted Robinson of Forest City, the How to Make Mead podcast, and the Opinions of Jeff Schles/NBA Preview podcast.

You will most likely get another week or two of regular posts in August, but after that I will need the time off to write seriously.  I love my puddlers so I will think of other ways to keep you occupied with material in the dog days of summer.

Anyway, lets get to the links:

- If you enjoy the NBA, I found this interesting link to track all of the recent free agent movement over the summer.  Fun to play around with for sure.

- The Paris Review is obviously one of the most prestigious publications in the world.  However, their interview section is what really makes it stellar in my opinion.  On their website, you can find an entire record of all of the interviews that have been conducted since 1950.  I have found these endlessly useful and the Hemingway interview actually helped to propel me through the last third of my first draft of the manuscript for From Here to the Last Mound of Dirt.

- This is a blog of a girl who I worked with at Brewster Academy. It turns out that she has landed in Brooklyn as well and has a blog that uses the word “puddle” to good effect.  Check it out here.

- For those of you that couldn’t really follow the links that were put up for the Tony Wain podcast the other night, this one is for the official Tony Wain and the Payne MySpace page, while this link is for a legendary live show Tony Wain and the Payne recorded in Asheville, North Carolina.  Both worth checking out obviously.

- If you enjoyed my Mad Men Season 4 Episode 1 recap last night, then you should check out a real pro in Alan Sepinwall, who will be providing insight on the entire season of Mad Men.  He also has a terrific interview with the creator of Mad Men, Matt Weiner, that has Weiner revealing some of his intentions for the upcoming season.

- Here is yet another great article that was provided by the guys at  This link comes from and addresses the current Chris Paul situation in terms of LeBron’s recent Decision and the desire for players to play on “super teams.”

- And here is another good article on the Chris Paul Situation.

- Finally, if anyone has been following all the good press on Gary Shtyengart’s new novel Super Sad Super True Love Story, here is the official New York Times review that appeared Monday.  I’ll be picking it up to check out the competition.

Now I leave you with the mind of Matt Domino circa  February 2003:

Ode to Pastaria (Desolation Song)

I stand outside in cold February weather,
   Breathing smoke into the bitter air,
 Writing my name on bone white sidewalks,
       With cigarette ash.
 Rosetta colored stone columns rise up,
   Holding up the roofs of Pizza Place, Chinee Restaurant
    Bagel Store, and Desolate Auto shop.
    Dozens of oil cans sitting on shelves,
    Will they ever be bought?
                Someday by thickskulled carhead,
          Oh well, we all must have a hobby.
So much loneliness in the generic urban sprawl,
     Empty plastic bags rattle in the wind
 Blowing every which way,
 Rubbing up against rusted over Buicks,
    Flying past the elderly, who stagger with their aged hunched backs
 Through the parking lot to Kohl’s to buy presents, for those who stopped caring,
Losing touch in old age, over long distances
    Of time and space.
  O, how I quiver inside seeing all of this.
    Smoking my Marlboro ever so quickly, trying to escape it.
How does one reach this dead end?
    I don’t ever want to come to it.
I am Algernon the mouse! I can defeat the maze of life,
   I can escape old age hobblings, and mid-thirties sweatpants loneliness,
   Of waiting on the line in Waldbaums,
    To check out my goods while parents scream at children.
   What ever happened to the sweetness of the children’s song?
I hear its effect every now and then from stories,
  Retold by my mother to me over lunches and dinners, and Coca-Cola happiness.
    So far away from my sour drunken happiness, and so glad it is as well,
      For in Coca-Cola I still have the bridge to the beauty of simple childhood,
      And being in the golden lights of home.
Alcohol brings me across to the other side, away from the bridge and childhood,
    Out into the cold nights of life, not at all as pleasant,
       Although certain epiphanies come under the influence that warm me up.

There is no price for these musings anywhere,
   For wherever you go, urban sprawl awaits you there.
Passing through the rich snowy Appalachian mountains and fields of Vermont,
        I spy a Stop N’ Shop parking lot.
Who roams in these pastures during the day, and more importantly at night?
Who howls and moans drunkenly at passing cars trying to understand what it all means?
Who parks in the corner of the vast lot and cries each night?
    I have seen urban sprawl in Montreal, Quebec, and lazy summer Virginia,
      Also in cracked pavement Miami, and green Massachusetts towns.
O the sadness everywhere you go!
  Years ago I was ignorant to it all, enjoyed the metallic rattling of shopping carts,
     As I sat, or held mother’s hand, and loved everything that was.

The blankslate must be filled eventually,
   No canvas is left undone.
Child must separate from the womb,
       Move away from mother and become father to the man.
It is the way of the world.
It is the duty of human.
  Like salmon swimming upstream against the current, we must move in life against the flow,
    Pushing ourselves and beating on ever and ever,
       Until it is time to go quietly into that good night,
    And forget the loneliness of traveling from here to there,
    Or from a Waldbaums to a Stop N’ Shop,
    Or from a Burger King to a McDonald’s
        And remember that the darkness of night can envelop you like the womb.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Snap Out Of It!


The title of this post refers to quite a few things, one of those things being the jarring scene in Episode 1 of Season 4  (“Public Relations”) where the viewer witnesses Don Draper being slapped by a prostitute in his Greenwich Village apartment on Thanksgiving, away from his family who are having a rather dysfunctional holiday upstate with Henry Francis’ family.  In any event, as many of the initial reviews of Season 4 of Mad Men have mentioned, lots of things have changed in the universe that surrounds Don Draper.

And this is not surprising considering how Season 3 ended with Don, Sterling, Cooper, Lane Pryce, Pete Cambell, Peggy, Harry Crane, and Joan leaving Sterling Cooper as it was known and forming their own agency.  “Close the Door, Have a Seat,” as that episode is titled, was one of the best episodes in the three seasons of Mad Men.  It dealt with, in a very natural way, how our relationships with the people we work with, live with and spend much of our time with can be neglected and fall apart and how we sometimes have to learn the hard way how important those people and relationships around us are. This was done under the guise of a renegade plot of rebelling against conformity and gathering the troops up a sort of “getting the band back together” feel aka the theme of the upcomin 2010-2011 Boston Celtics season.  So, once that episode and season concluded with Don accepting the end of his marriage with Betty and the beginning of his new ad agency in his suite at the Pierre, any Mad Men fan could get the sense that the show as we knew it was most likely over.

Season 4 opens with Don Draper being interviewed and the cliched question of “Who is ___?” is directed at Don, which is clever because of the obvious nod towards perhaps the main theme of the show.  However, we know that things have changed because Don is now in more of a public position.  In the past three seasons there have been allusions to awards and awards ceremonies honoring Don, but they never seemed that palpable.  You could never picture Don really receiving these awards or giving interviews.  And we see quickly that Don is certainly not comfortable doing that now that he is the face of the new company.

The office of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce is different as well, reflecting some of the changing tones and styles of the 60’s as the show has now moved into late 1964.  Peggy has yet another new haircut and has gained another level of poise and confidence in her work and her work persona.  Pete Cambell is still eager to please, but has gained a certain polish of professionalism or maturity that was lacking in previous seasons.  Perhaps he is, as he said in Season 1, starting to “do his best to emulate Roger.” That’s not to say that Roger is professional, with his quips about Don “stuffing” Jane’s friend and also getting “butter squirts” on her at dinner while they eat their chicken kiev.  In this episode Roger is able to run wild, but, being in such close quarters with Pete, we see that Pete is closer to developing the panache that Roger has – because it is more of a panache than a level of maturity in many ways.

However, what I watch the show for is usually Don and his conflicts.  I’ve explained my fascination with the themes that surround Don: secrecy, crafting an identity, how different identities clash in different environments, the inability to be satisfied and balancing a creative streak and a drive to work with the other elements of life. Now, with this prostitue scene we do have to add “self-loathing” and “self-flagellation” to his conflicts and, with the innuendos Don’s new maid makes about him not eating, perhaps even “deprivation” or “self-torture.”  I find myself thinking about the words Joy once said to Don in Season 2 when she asked him, “why would you deprive yourself of something you want?” 

Season 4, casts Don in a dark light in its first episode.  He is in the position he always wanted to be - he has his own firm where he can exert his power and creative influence – yet he is still not happy.  He has the freedom the “Dick Whitman” in him always seeks out, not only professionally, but personally since he is no longer married. However, although he may seem freer, he is actually more of a father and husband now that he was when he was married because he is legally forced to soley take care of the kids on weekends but also emotionally forced because he sees how bad of a mother Betty is.  Professionally, Don is also trapped because the business does soley rely on him to bring in business and the firm will be cast in public light and persona Don gives off – his talent is what will make the company’s name.  Now, more than ever, Don can’t just run away.  He has an entire company resting on his back, not just the corner office of the Creative Department where he could brood and unleash his genius advertising campaigns on the world. And when the Jantzen’s bathing suits representitives don’t understand Don’s clever campaign to sell their “two-piece” bathing suit, he loses it and kicks them out of his office for not recognizing his vision.

I read a theory that Don doing this was a means of him taking control of this new business and his current situation to create a stir in the Advertising Papers to bring some attention to the firm.  After watching the episode 2-3 times, I buy into this theory. Don finishes kicking out the Jantzen guys and immediately requests to get on the phone with Cooper’s “man at the Wall Street Journal.” Then, the episode closes with Don beginning to rehash the story of forming Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce by seemingly taking all the credit.  As Don eases into the story, the song “Tobacco Road” by the Nashville Teens crunches in as the credits come up and begin to roll.  It’s a muscular and exciting ending to the show as it feels like Don is now in a position of control.  He made a strong move at the end of Season 3, but it seems like in the time we have left him that he’s been boxed into a corner by clients, the press, his ex-wife, his own demons and perhaps even the changing times.  However, after getting slapped in the face by a prostitute, his wife, and clients in the course of one episode, Don has certainly seemed to snap out of it. And perhaps is on the course to crafting yet another identity for himself, one where he "holsters his guns."

Mad Men season openers are usually slow, slow burning episodes for an already slow show.  They set the table for what is to come in the rest of the season sometimes to the chagrin of fans of the show.  However, this was the most eventful and exciting first episode to season – perhaps even more than the pilot.  No matter what happens, this show is going to be different this season and  you have to salute Matthew Weiner and his staff for making that move and seemingly running with it.

And now that Mad Men is back on the air, I feel like I was snapped out of some summer malaise as well.  Sunday evenings are back in style.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Puddles of My Podcast - Episode 20

Well, lady Puddlers and gentleman Puddlers of Myself (now that's what I call accidental innuendos), after an insanely hot weekend I am bringing you yet another scorching hot podcast.  This podcast represents the 20th Episode in the Puddles of My Podcast series.  We are slowly making our way to 100 podcasts and I'll get there - any doubters be damned. In this, Episode 20 of Puddles of My Podcast, I welcome an extraordinarily special guest - legendary underground country crooner Tony Wain of Tony Wain and The Payne.  In this installment, Tony and I discuss Buddhist ceremonies, living in Asheville, the North Carolina/Duke rivalry, Thomas Wolfe, what makes a good country song, Tony's favorite country musicians, his history playing music, Dig Shovel Dig and some excellent words of wisdom for the children and adults suffering from arrested development in America today.  This podcast also features Nick Mencia sitting shotgun in case the wheel veers too far off to the shoulder.

As a special bonus, below you will find some streaming acoustic versions of Tony Wain and The Payne songs that were played live. You will also find links to download these songs as well.

Later this week I will have my thoughts on Episode 1 of Season 4 of Mad Men, a column on Ryan Adams titled "The Bird That Couldn't Stop Singing," and some more links because I keep getting good stuff thrown my way.  So, just stick with me and I'm always going to take you to the promised land, whether its judgment day or not.

Twenty More Beers:

Bullets and Beer:

Tony Wain #1:

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Link to the Past (?)

It's been a long week for some reason and I am just about ready to get to the weekend.  I will be back next week with some thoughts on Ryan Adams as well as, hopefully, two new podcasts for you all to take a listen to.  However, in order to take you through the weekend, here are a few links for you all to check out in your free time/boredom time at work, or in that hungover period when you don't quite want to drink water and eat breakfast yet and would like to kill some time.  This is all for you.

- The New Yorker put out their Best 20 Writers Under 40 last month and Gary Shteyngart was on that list.  He recently did an interview with the New York Times that is quite worth reading I must say.  You can check it out here.

- In some Conde Nast news (wink, wink), GQ did an interview with Bull Murray that they have made available on their website.  Of course, Murray is hilarious through much of the interview, although he does waver on dickhead/hipster doofus boundaries in some areas.  The best thing about Bill Murray is that even when he is sending off those type of vibes, some part of you has to think that he is doing it completely on purpose.  Take a look.

- Of course, this Sunday we all know that Season 4 of Mad Men will be coming on the air.  This is a moment that I have been waiting for basically since last November.  I've been reading advance reviews of the first episode and if you aren't afraid of spoilers, check out this review on

- My good friend, sometime editor, and most valued creative soundboard when it comes to writing, Alex Ramsdell, recently reminded me of this writer, Nicholson Baker, who our fiction teacher, Steven Millhauser, mentioned when we were in college.  Some of these novels are ones  that I intend to read, because they sound like novels that I myself would write. 

- My good friend, Janelle Sing, pointed me in the direction of some of these designers who she recently met at a trade show this week.  She may be working with them sometime soon.  Now, I may work for a fashion magazine, but that doesn't mean I know much about it.  Janelle does, so I'd check out the following: Taylor Supply, Baron Wells, Schott NYCErnest Alexander, and Crisp NYC.

- In other news about the fall, the Walkmen will be coming out with their next album Lisbon. I have been scouring the internet to find out more information about the album and it turns out, a few more of the tracks have been released.  Here are all four of the released tracks in one place.  Please enjoy them as much as I have been.

- In the wake of the LeBron Decision, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley have all publicly criticized LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for playing together.  Here is a smart rebuke of Magic Johnson's criticism.  And here is an interesting TrueHoop article about Michael Jordan's complaint.

- In some other blog/bookish sort of interest, here is today's Blogger Blog of Note.  It is a website that analyzes and comments on different book covers. Actually a very interesting blog to check out.  Take a look at the Caustic Cover Critic.

- Finally, here is a terrific article I found while looking up this William Blake quote:

"a female descends to meet her lover or husband, representative of that love called friendship, which looks for no other heaven than the beloved, and in him sees all reflected as in a glass of eternal diamond."

The article doesn't have very much to do with that quote other than William Blake may be mentioned once.  But it is a thought provoking article that gives some good analysis of Stendhal, which we rarely see so often these days. As well as play with some notions of modern romanticism. It may be a little didactic, but I think its overall optimism in the end gives it a bit of charm or at least an endearing quality.  Take a read right here.

Alright, my Puddlers, that's it, that's all I've got for you this week.  Enjoy the weekend.  Try to stay cool.  Have a few cocktails, read some kind of good fiction and be sure to enjoy Mad Men in the coolness of however you keep your home cool this Sunday evening.

I've never met you but I love you. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Puddles of My Podcast Episode 19

Well, my Puddlers, its hot out and hopefully that thunderstorm is going to come and wash all our problems away and blow some kind of breeze in through our screened, un-airconditioned windows.  And if that thunderstorm doesn't come? Well, you can always slide in Puddles of My Podcast because we have a brand new one for you this evening/Thursday during the day when you're bored at work.  In this, Episode 19 on  Puddles of My Podcast, I welcome writer, retired political activist, and owner of the book store Book Thug Nation, Corey Eastwood to the program.  In this installment, Corey and I discuss the Hudson River Valley, Jack Kerouac, Ralph Nader, the organization of NYU, the East Village,  Tomas Bernhard, selling books on the street, opening your own book store, writing and what makes a piece of fiction good.  This is an action packed podcast that features a special guest as well as a special promotional offer that you would be a fool not to check out.  This is one highly enjoyable listening experience whether it is in the rain or in the snow.

I'll be back either tomorrow evening or Friday with some links and general thoughts for you all to check out.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Twenty Years Ago Today?

When I was in tenth grade, I resumed taking lessons from a math tutor.  I had originally used the tutor before I went to middle school in order to prepare me for the supposed leap in the difficulty of the work.  My tutor was a kind woman who had been a high school math teacher for years.  She taught in a different, tougher, school district of mine so she had honed a firm but warm teaching style.  She had children that went through my own school district as well, though they were quite a few years older than I was.  In any event, I had grown quite fond of her as a maternal figure (my mother was a terrific mother, but no matter how good our mothers and fathers are, we are always looking for similar figures out in the world) and felt quite happy to resume my lessons with her in preparation for taking the New York State Math Regents Part II, since it had become painfully obvious that at age 15 my mind was already extremely bored with math and would simply not pay attention to it.

This math tutor lived in a neighborhood that you wouldn’t call “across town,” but it was certainly across the train trestle and located about a mile or two from where my house was.  Her home sat on the hill above one of the other elementary schools that had fed into my former middle school (an elementary school whose back playing fields I would become quite acquainted with later on in high school when my friend moved to a house through the woods behind the school, where we would drag stolen kegs of beer from his basement and drink out underneath the stars and in the mist – but that is another image for another story and another album) and once or twice a week, my mother would drop me off at her cozy home that always carried the fading warmth of a dinner cooked, mixed with that faint, rich matronly smell of perfume that any woman over the age of fifty-five or sixty seems to carry.  The math teacher and I had known each other for a certain amount of years at this point and I was developing a dry sense of humor that had equal effects on adults as it did on people I went to school with, so we were able to joke around and, before you knew it, the hour lesson was over and I had my TI whatever packed up in my disintegrating Jansport backpack.

Now, at this time, my mother had started going back to school to become a teacher; I couldn’t drive yet; my younger sister had begun to participate in more after school activities; and my father continued to work late in order to properly run his business.  All of this led to the inevitable decision that I should walk home from my math lessons.  I had already been friends with a group of guys that took pride in walking long distances among the Three Villages that made up the town in which I lived; crossing busy roads; stealing cars; and engaging in the sort of intoxication that didn’t really seem to fit our years. So, this ability to walk myself home from my math lessons in the twilight of May fit in with everything else that was going on in my life.

The first time I left my lesson, my math tutor asked me if my mother was picking me up.  I told her no.

“Your mother?” she asked.  This of course came as a surprise because my mother was tenacious in her drive to live up to her matriarchal duties.

I nodded in the affirmative.  My father had to work late hours, she had to go to class and my sister needed to be picked up from her events and activities since she was younger.  I didn’t mind walking home and my mother knew this. She seemed to understand this sort of familial crossroads, being a mother of three herself, and patted me on the back as a firefly or three lit up in the grey light above the pavement of the cul-de-sac she lived in.  As I turned and placed the headphones of my Discman over my ears, she yelled something at me.  She was prone to yelling, of course in only a most endearing way.

“What?” I pulled off the headphones.

“Be careful with those things,” she said. “It’s a dangerous turn on the back way.  Cars won’t see you and you won’t hear them.”

“Ok,” I said, seriously.

“Don’t go the back way,” she said. “Go the longer way.”

I nodded my head and said I would.  Then I turned back and headed up the hill of her cul-de-sac and out into the remaining neighborhood as it turned that terrific color of gloaming that only hits its peak in May and June before the streetlight orange of July and August truly dominate one’s child or adolescent vision of the summer night.

Now, at this time I had been participating in certain extra-curricular activities with my friends at poolside, in side yards, on the beach and under bushes that were not necessarily smiled upon.  Under the guise of studying, we shouted European capitals and events for AP History while jumping into a pool amid a faint, sweet trail of smoke.  After one of these events, my friend had left a burnt copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the stereo by my pool.  I had never really listened to the Beatles up until then, other than the culturally omniscient songs (I know they all are) such as “Yellow Submarine,” “Hey Jude,” “Revolution,” “Twist and Shout,” “Hello Goodbye,” “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” I had picked up their Blue Volume of hits from 1967-1970 and was beginning to digest that, but it wasn’t really a comprehensive listening experience.  So, when this album, with its legendary title written in red Sharpie, appeared in my stereo, I decided to place it in my Discman, where it would remain for the rest of that summer.

I walked through my math tutor’s neighborhood and looked at the wood-sided homes with their fresh white paint trim, their drooping wisterias and hyacinths and felt the itch of grass from the street while the searing guitar of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” band filled my head and Paul screamed among the horns, fanfare and crowd noise.  At that time, I had no thorough love and devotion to the intricacies of Paul McCartney’s voice or its evolution from 1963 to 1973. I only knew that I loved the richness of the backing track; rich because of the variety of sounds, not because of the quality, which I now know was very inferior, however, then there were horns and guitar and harmonies and it sounded so far-away, so much a part of history that it grabbed my imagination. What grabbed my imagination, too, was the seamless segue of that title track into “A Little Help From My Friends.” There he was, Billy Shears, Ringo, taking this character and bringing him to life if only for a song.  And for a moment, it was like a story, and I loved stories. I loved concepts, I loved big ideas.  I, who had nearly destroyed his reputation in school by writing a one act play in iambic pentameter about a girl he had a crush on and distributing it to the entire school. This was important stuff.

And, as I came to the wide bend where one could continue straight and go the long way down Gnarled Hollow Road or go down the big hill and save some time by meeting up with the busier and curvier Old Town Road, I decided to go down the hill – because my math tutor had told me not to. Lights in the windows of homes, below the heavy leaf-lines of trees, became more prevalent.  The orange streetlights came on and so too did the evening sprinklers, projecting their spray out, wasteward, to the street where the water collected in streams and then pools, that turned some strange deep purple in the evening’s light. And I listened to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and thought about all of the terrific imagery and the psychedelic feeling of the song.  At that time I had already become familiar with the myths and histories of psychedelia and as I walked along listening to one of the “pinnacles” of psychedelic-pop, there was some feeling deep inside of myself that appreciated this walking, the feel of my feet on the gravel, the kick of the small pebbles along the off-white of the curb, more than those visions I had read some much about and pursued. 

At that time, my favorite song was “Lovely Rita,” and it was a remarkable song of the every day. A song that celebrated a meter maid of all people and how lovely and enchanting she was.  However, even in that everyday occurrence, something bizarre occurred and the narrator found himself sitting on the couch with a sister or two. In its coda, the song turned into a bizarre collage of moaning and panting, however, before it there had been soaring vocals and those helium-sounding harmonies that could only be described by my inexperienced mind as “Beatlesque.”  That song just sounded like The Beatles to me and it made sense.  It soared and it always came on just as I was reaching the bend by the train trestle, across the street from one of those small farms that had been obscured by the improvement of roads and the insertion of train tracks.  And the cars did fly past and it was night, and you could see the open space where they had inserted power-lines, that open space that used to be farm fields and something in me soared along with this “Lovely Rita.”

I read later that summer, after my initial springtime experiences with Sgt. Pepper, an article that Allen Ginsberg wrote after listening to the album.  He claimed it was an album that celebrated the everyday.  That it was not an album of the psychedelic experience, but an album that cherished those sensations that we can gain from moving about our day.  This should not have been a surprise from the band that created “Penny Lane.” Now, the argument could be that that was Paul McCartney and not John Lennon, the John Lennon that wrote “Strawberry Fields.”  However, although John claimed his songs were all throwaways on Sgt. Pepper even he was involved in the everyday.  “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” has ordinary objects that become fantastical hallucinations, “Good Morning, Good Morning” is about a person conducting their daily routine, going by their old school and realizing that nothing has changed.  “A Day in the Life” is probably the perfect example of being concerned with the everyday. It’s title says it all.  And it focuses on the everyday just as much as any novel or short story in the modernist tradition of literature.  The newspaper is the object that allows us to enter a gateway of kaleidoscopic hallucination of the mind, that turns ordinary things in our realm into the powerful signifiers of human history and emotion.  After Paul takes his turn waking up and dragging a comb across his head we are taken to what could be the pinnacle of pop music with the soaring “ahhhhhh” section before we are brought back into John Lennon’s narrator explaining the last item he saw in the news that day.  And as the final piano chord would sound, I’d still be about another mile from home and thinking of encountering those strange feelings of “Getting Better,” and the bittersweet heartbreak of “She’s Leaving Home,” where an ordinary family is broken up by a girl leaving home.  So, all I could do was to hit the stop button and then the play button so that the album would start in its entirety all over again and each little nuance, each vocal and melodic hook would become embedded in my brain as I passed town landmarks: my friend Dan’s house, the Country Corner Bar, the Setauket Automotive, the Se Port Deli, Fox’ Hardware Store, the Korean War Monument, the Field, Jay’s House, Rich’s House, the Rowe Tavern Sign, the Abandoned House.  All of these things and places were a part of my everyday and I’d see them bathed in the orange and purple swaths of the May or June evening, with the fireflies marking their territory in and around the dark space of the night. The crickets would sing and chirp when I’d pause the album to check my back, but of course no one was there, not even the ghosts that would later appear as I grew older and went to college and got drunker.  And by the time the album finished a second time, I was plodding my feet against the cement as I entered the cul-de-sac where I lived.  Sometimes the lights would be on, sometimes they would be off, but I’d always be coming home with the sound of music in my ear, that last piano chord.  Then’ I’d pull the headphones off my head and let my little puppy out into the yard to eat dirt and rocks and I’d smell the mulch around my mother’s flowerbeds and think of summer vacation.

That is what Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was for me then.  It was some slight signal that what I thought was experimental and psychedelic was really just the outskirts of the everyday. That album is a celebration of the life around us.  The funny sounds we can make, the strange occurrences that we read in the newspaper, found phrases, things that become fantastic, like a meter maid in her silly uniform, who in reality is a freak in the bed, as is her sister, her roommate.  They said that it ushered in the Summer of Love.  Perhaps that is true; because of it gives off a feeling of open-arms, embracing different levels of life.  For me, it opened up one of the better summers of my life. A summer I spent walking all over the place, spending time with girls, swimming and continuing my extra-curricular activities.  So, in a way, it did open up some kind of Summer of Love, whatever that means.  Perhaps there is no such thing as a Summer of Love, because those kinds of things are repeatable, they are really only about how you approach the everyday with open arms, the people you see on the street with a warm-feeling.  If that happens, then the rest is usually easy.

Now, I listen to Sgt. Pepper’s and it has been beautifully remastered along with the rest of the Beatles catalogue.  I have approached the album from a variety of mindsets, perspectives and points of life. I still love it in some strange way.  However, now with the bass so fluid, round and prominent and every overdub so clear and shining over the speakers of my living room or on my headphones I see something deeper.  My friend recently told me, when he heard the remastered Beatles, that he’d still prefer the old muddled versions. I understood his point, that he liked the sounds he’d known and grown up with, and respectfully called him an idiot.  I explained to him that you want to enjoy something in the best sound that you can, you want to enjoy these albums in the way that they, perhaps, were intended to sound in the moment: clear, full, complicated and rich with sound and music. In these new, rich, remastered versions, I listen to a song like “With a Little Help from My Friends” and the bass, the drums and the solid mid-tempo rhythm are so much more up front than they ever were; the song picks up a relevance that it never had before for me.  For, when I was younger, it signaled a greater idea and concept (which I found out was a failed endeavor). It also signaled a call to your friends.  That you could all band together and help each other out through the hard times.  And perhaps it all means that still – and part of me believes it.  Yet, I still can’t help but see it as another cry for help.  A self-reflective look at how far an individual has come in life and how much he or she is able to remain happy when they have to face themselves, or find themselves alone for even a second.  And sometimes not even your friends can assist you with that.  For, as much as the melodic bass and the overall Beatles feel of the song makes you tap your foot and bob your head along with the melody; makes you feel as though you are on some television program in 1967 and just as famous as the Beatles themselves, there is something more desperate and complicated there, something more Replacements than Beatles, or at least what we identify the Beatles as being.  These new remastered versions not only make the songs sound as they perhaps were always supposed to sound, they in many ways seem to reveal the true intent of the songs as well, especially a song like “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

Even if that isn’t the true meaning of “With A Little Help From My Friends,” my feelings about the album remain the same.  As I find myself in the peak of yet another summer, at the pinnacle of heat, I look back fondly at the May and June that it was borne out of and ahead to the late-August and September that it will inevitably fade into.  I think of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and what it meant as a Summer of Love at one point to a generation; what it meant as part of an idyllic summer to one guy; and what it meant to a band at one point who were questioning their own existence and their own enjoyment of what exactly what they were doing. How they ventured into the kaleidoscopic ability of the everyday, the enjoyment of the imagination in order to create an art.  Those kinds of things will never get old.  I will always appreciate those virtues; no matter what kind of antics I seem to take pride in.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Puddles of My Podcast - Episode 18

Well, my Puddlers, its going to be another heatwave weekend, so watch out for those psychopaths as they emerge out of the woodwork trying to stay cool.  And since it is going to be such a hot weekend, what better thing to do than to wade in some Puddles of Myself- er, rather Yourself.

Anyway, like I promised (I always live up to my promises) we have a podcast up this week.  In this Episode 18 of Puddles of My Podcast, I welcome basketball enthusiast as well as the bassist and singer of the Tony Castles, Paul Sicilian.  In this latest installment, Paul and I discuss LeBron's Decision, the NBA Finals,  playing the clarinet, Paul's musical history, the legacy of Dwyane Wade, the best Celtic of all-time, the genesis of the Tony Castles, their upcoming album and tour with the Tom Tom Club, and 2010 NBA Predictions.  This podcast was a few months in the making so please sit back with a cool glass of water or beer in front of a fan or air conditioner and feel cooled by the sound of two grown men talking about basketball and music.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Live From New York...

It's ridiculously humid!  Seriously, I have to go on record and say that this is one of the best weather New York summers of all time - granted it is only my third REAL one.  I mean its hot, our apartments are sweltering, the average amount of sweat is up, power is running low, people are burning LeBron jerseys, we are definitely reaching classic summer psychopath levels here - you have got to love it.

Anyway, the reader comments are rolling in about my LeBron column and I just want to thank you all for doing so.  Keep up the comments and continue to let me know what you think.

Tomorrow, me and my associates will be submitting our sketch material to Saturday Night Live for consideration.  Here are a few synopses for your brief reading pleasure:

1. A teacher who literally has a stick up his ass conducts class.
2. The matriarch of a family - used to eating from a trough - doesn't know what plates are.
3. A husband has been lying to his wife about knowing famous people.
4. A fourth, tone-deaf Wilson brother joins the Beach Boys in the studio.
5. A racist guru delivers his wisdom to unsuspecting pupils.
6. A commercial for old fashioned duck sauce.

Do any of those topics interest you?

Now, to clear the backlog of items with a few links:

- I am planning a podcast this fall with the Indian writer Chandrahas Choudhury.  You can check out his blog here.  Chandrahas has one novel out called Arzee the Dwarf  and has just finished editing a collection of Indian fiction called A Traveler's Literary Companion. He is a friend of my friend, the artist, Janelle Sing and he is coming to America in the fall. Stay tuned for that and get acquainted with his work in the meantime.

- Another podcast I am planning is with the guys who run the bookstore, Book Thug Nation, on North 3rd Street between Berry and Wythe. I have met one of the guys, Corey, who runs the store at a party at my apartment and he definitely knows his stuff. I have heard a lot of good things about their collection and I will be stopping by this week.  They do readings and other kinds of events so hopefully you will be hearing about a reading that I will be doing there in the near future.

- First news from the Walkmen's new album, Lisbon.  A new track, "Stranded" has been released through NPR radio.  It seems like the Walkmen are taking up right where they left off on You and Me and are even looking to enhance and polish their sound if ever so slightly.  I am looking for a very brooding and wistful end of summer/fall listening to an album's worth of these songs.  Who knows, maybe I'll write about it in about four years.  But you need to check this song out for now.

- Finally, my current, upcoming reading list:

1. Finish Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (classic Domino toolbox book)
2. All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren (classic Domino toolbox book that I just wrote about and in the process reminded myself that I need to re-read it.
3. Rabbit, Run by John Updike (talked into by this New York Times article. Updike reminds me of me).

Alright, my Puddlers, stick with me.  Enjoy my sports writing and I swear we are going to have another podcast up here this week. Too much basketball talk to cover that if I can't get a guest I may just literally podcast myself to get it off my chest.

It's just Puddles of Myself.

Monday, July 12, 2010

LeBron is Burning

Well, my Puddlers, I am sure that you have all been waiting for me to weigh in on all things basketball in the wake of “The Decision.”  I was at a party the other night and someone asked me to give my opinion of “The Decision.” I went into a long discussion of the different theories of basketball and what this means for the league next year, when the person I was speaking to asked:

 “But what do you think of the actual delivery?”

The only way I could respond was to say the following:

“Well, I consider myself a history buff, so I have to say that the TV special was the worst thing of all time.”

Now, of course that is hyperbole, but – is it?

I am going to split this post up into my play-by-play account of watching “The Decision Special” with my own thoughts on the actual decision itself and what it means for basketball as well as the legacies of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.  So, lets get to the night of “The Decision” shall we?


- “The Decision” begins with an introduction laying out the fact that LeBron James is about to make a decision.  There is a strange voice narrating that makes me sweat.  Oh, wait, my apartment is literally 99 degrees, that’s why I’m sweating

- Jon Barry compares waiting to LeBron James to the movie Trading Places when they wait for the crop report.  This is nothing like that. LeBron James was not part of two rich men’s elaborate $1.00 bet in order to switch places with a pompous rich stock broker.  Although, the rise and fall of the MSG stock on the day before and the day of “The Decision” does have some tie-ins.

- Mike Wilbon, Jon Barry and Stuart Scott go through the relevance of LeBron James’ decision to Cleveland. Depressed city. Depressed fans.  The city will die if he doesn’t come back.  Classic sports stories that deserve to be aired on national television.

- Stuart Scott narrates the failures in LeBron James’ career. Wait, if the entire show is going to be like this, well, then this IS my kind of “Must See TV.” Anything to make people remember Wade is better.

- Camera shows LeBron preparing in the gym of the Boys and Girls club. Wow, reminds me of wrestling a lot.  I really hope we see a chair shot tonight. LeBron chooses Cleveland, then rips off his shirt, revealing a Heat jersey (my sources say) gives Jim Grey a chair shot and puts on sunglasses while his NEW music plays.

- Stuart Scott goes through the free agent signings so far. A lot of bad deals. Tons.  This is the NBA.

- We come back to the studio and Jon Barry says that Chicago is the best situation for LeBron.  Young, talented point guard, great defensive center, good low post scorer, nice complimentary role players.  Duh.

- Chris Broussard says that LeBron will pick the Heat.  Chris Broussard made his name during the past two weeks. He has had all the inside and breaking news and has been right about basically all of it. He is the one who really cashed in.

- Jon Barry and Michael Wilbon discuss the makeup of an NBA team when you have three stars as opposed to one star.  They discuss the merits of staying with one team.

- There is a graphic of LeBron James in different jerseys of the teams that have been courting him.  I think he does look good in the Nets and the Bulls jerseys.


- Broussard with a great line, “My heart says Cleveland, but my sources say Miami.” This man MADE HIS CAREER this past week.

- There are more delays and graphics before we actually go to LeBron.  I have seen so many multi-colored graphics depicting the U.S. and how they are voting about LeBron this week.

- Now we get to see old high school clips of LeBron.  Yeah, we know.

- We get a replay of LeBron’s first NBA game in 2003.  I mean they are really toturing Cleveland fans right now.  I’m getting slightly uncomfortable and now it’s not the stifling heat of my apartment.

- Finally, we are kicked to Jim Grey and LeBron.  Jim Grey makes a limp joke about LeBron’s powder and then asks the obvious joke question, “What’s been going on?”

- This pre-Decision interview is completely bizarre.  Jim Grey is so out of touch.  He is just stringing a TV audience and a tortured fan base along. Is this journalism? What is this?

- I caught a shot of the little kids in the back who are watching. It’s so surreal.  Jim Grey references Barack Obama’s desire for LeBron to play in Chicago.  Mr. President, I love you, but for these next two years, please keep your nose out of the NBA and other sporting events. Just stick to the multitude of political problems we have – thank you.

- LeBron claims he made his decision this morning.  He says his mom helped him make the Decision.  Oh, mom buffer.  This is going to be bad.
- LeBron says he changed his mind in his dreams. Dreams? DREAM TEAM? SPOILER ALERT?

- Jim Grey is just a master at dragging this interview out.  However, to be fair, this whole situation has been dragged out entirely too long.

- LeBron James: “I just want to be in the best opportunity to win.”


- Grey asks the question.

- LeBron James: “Next year, I will be taking my talents to South Beach where I’ll be playing for the Miami Heat.”  There it is!  LeBron breaks everyone’s heart on live, national television. Ohio is snapped in two.

- Biggest double cross since the nWo. This OOZES of wrestling. There have been rumors of this conspiracy since the 2008 Olympics.  The meeting on the beach was rumored and it came true.  The actual decision came true.  LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh; Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash.

- In this instance, the LeBron/Wade competition and legacy has totally shifted.  I would have loved them to be on different teams.

- I gotta say that the post-Decision speech was very articulate.  It’s probably the best he could do after all of that.


- We go back to the studio.  Broussard is gone? Oh, getting a raise and his own show?  He NAILED the 2010 Free Agency period.

- Reaction shots: In Miami they are happy. In Cleveland, they are sad. Right before they show the reaction, Jon Barry goes, “Oh, no.” This is classic trainwreck TV.

- Back to LeBron James in the gym.


- My head is spinning. I am so confused legacy wise.

- LeBron says championships are championships.  Really interesting. He is feeling his mortality at 25.


- LeBron is doing well in his interview with Michael Wilbon.  I do buy what he says about great players making others better.  OK, Bulls  had some GREAT roleplayers when Jordan played.  But there were literally a ton of scrubs on each era of championship teams. Jordan and Pippen made a lot of those guys better.

- Wilbon wants to talk turkey.  How much money in the contract?


- They are burning LeBron’s jersey in Cleveland.  That is an image we will always see for years to come.  Iconic. Yes. Terrible. Yes.


- We get one more moment with LeBron.  He says that he hasn’t turned on his phone since the Decision.

- Stuart Scott says Cleveland is devastated. LeBron makes the point that he is going to be taking less money. Ok, notes.  But, come on – one hour, back-stabbing TV special? That ain’t no pay-cut.

- Jon Barry is asking hard-hitting questions about sharing the ball.  LeBron says that they will all probably have less points per game.

- LeBron makes one mistake by not using himself as being downgraded.  He says, “I’m not going to down-grade D-Wade, D-Wade isn’t going to downgrade Bosh.”  We’ll give him a pass after this extra brutal hour.  That was terrible for everyone.

- Wilbon asks the Olympic conspiracy question. LeBron says it was in the making. Yes!  I knew that one NBA conspiracy theory was right. He calls it a “dream come true.”

- The one fan question we get is, can LeBron beat Obama in HORSE? ARE YOU SERIOUS? NOOOOO! MR. PRESIDENT!! Why?  I blame Obama for everything. For The Decision.  What a softball for LeBron to hit out to end the show.


- I thought this ended at 10:00? Oh, Lebron makes the announcement of the charity donation figure.  There is good in this after all. And that philanthropic gesture segues us fluidly into SportsCenter for some over-analysis.  This is the American Dream.

So, that was my play-by-play of the night as it happened.  I have had quite a few days to ruminate on what occurred on July 8, 2010 when LeBron made his decision to move to the Miami Heat from the Cleveland Cavaliers. As you all know, I love the NBA, so I believe that this was one of the best things that could happen to the NBA.  Although, the league is in danger of a lockout after the 2010-2011 season, this makes the storylines heading into the 2010-2011 season more interesting than they could have been otherwise.  Sure, the common sense side of me says that if LeBron had gone to Chicago to play with Rose, Boozer, Noah, Deng, and Gibson, he would have been a much more natural fit and their roster would have been extremely deep.  They would have become the favorite to win the East and most likely the NBA Championship, except that they still don’t really have the size to match the Lakers.  The East would have been interesting because the Bulls would have been a great team; Bosh and Wade and the higher-quality free agents they could have signed in Miami would have been a great team; the Celtics, getting the band back one more time, this time with a full season of chemistry and a Rondo who knows he is the best player on the team, are a great time looking to avenge their loss; the Magic are a spurned team that is feeling overlooked; the Hawks are headcases that are talented and can excite; the Bucks are quietly better; the Knicks might make the playoffs.  All of these things are exciting storylines and they are just happening in the East. In the West, you get Oklahoma City looking to stake a claim as the second best team; the Mavericks looking to capitalize on the end of Dirk’s prime; the Lakers looking to three-peat; and now that Stoudemire and Boozer and other free agents have moved East, the West is suddenly even more wide open than it has been in the past.

Yet, LeBron chose Miami. He chose a storyline with more drama – such an abundance of drama that it feels completely manufactured as if it were some kind of storyline concocted by Vince McMahon or Eric Bischoff back in the nWo days. So, you get all of the above terrific NBA storylines (the Bulls are still going to be a damn dangerous team with Boozer and now Korver and possibly Reddick for Rose to drive and dish too. Plus, they will play even better defense, and they weren’t bad at all at the end of last year), plus the intrigue of the Heat.  The fact that these three stars are looking to conduct what is the equivalent of an NBA science experiment.  They are basically putting forward the thesis that the Secret of Basketball (as Bill Simmons said) is knowing your role on the court, filling that role, and playing unselfishly. So far, they have all said the right things. They are sacrificing money, they will sacrifice numbers, they will make each other better and round out each other’s games, they will raise the games of the teammmates around them.  Other players are going to be tempted to take less money to play with them (Udonis Haslem made that decision today, Mike Miller is pending). The way they even fill out the roster is going to be an intriguing story.  Who will be the rest of the players on this team? They only have five players as of today. Can they make Mario Chalmers a serviceable to better than average NBA point guard by taking so much attention and pressure off him that he can just focus on his outside shooting and defense and eventually get overpaid when he forgets that Wade, LeBron and Bosh made him better than he was.  Can these three guys make players who are over the hill seem relevant and vibrant again by setting them up to succeed? Can they make a rookie a household name?  This is all stuff I want to find out as an NBA fan. I want to have these theories proved to me.  That anyone can thrive if they play with talent and if that talent plays unselfishly and within the roles of the team, within the perameters that allow for success.

Now, we get to the actual nitty gritty. To what I want to talk about.  I have been an unabashed Dwyane Wade fan and out of this whole situation, Dwyane Wade has emerged as the winner.  Even as recent as this past spring, it was looking like there was no way to stem the tide on the public’s perception of LeBron James as the best player in the NBA, as the most talented, and the fact that he would forever overshadow Dwyane Wade, who was in most cases his equal and in some areas his superior: most importantly in the category of championships.  Now, after one night, LeBron James has forever put himself beneath Dwyane Wade in the spectrum of the NBA and its greatest players. Wade will always have one more title than LeBron and people will always wonder why LeBron would want to have played with Dwyane Wade.  In the subsequent days since the Decision, we have seen the trio on TV and in public and Wade always appears at the center with LeBron and Bosh flanking him.  Wade is better known as a finisher and his game is the closest we have seen to Michael Jordan’s.  LeBron has always been praised for his passing and his well-rounded game, the fact that he contains so much Magic Johnson in him.  He has never had that killer instinct to take over a series that M.J. had or that Kobe has.  You could never picture him turning a series on its head, like Wade did in the 2006 NBA Finals  or dominating a series like Michael Jordan in the 1993 NBA Finals, both against teams that were better (Kobe has still never really done this). So, by choosing to play with Wade, by joining forces, LeBron has in some way acknowledged that he would feel more comforable facilitating. I am not saying he will be a Pippen role, it will be something we haven’t seen before, but he will not be the killer.  I usually agree with Bill Simmons about teams needing an Alpha Dog who will take the lost shot, and I think that this team will have an Alpha Dog (Wade) but I think they will redefine how limited those roles are.  They will still keep the structure that leads to success, but they will change how we view it. I think Simmons has gotten a little carried away in his naysaying of this Decision and how the Heat are going to proceed. And if he reads this and puts me in my place, I would be more than happy.

I am not going to harp on LeBron for seeking help.  I don’t want to compare him to Jordan or compare Wade to Jordan or compare Kobe to Jordan (he would like that too damn much). I don’t want to do it because now, I can finally, truly see, how unique of a HUMAN BEING Michael Jordan was.  Not just a basketball player.  He had some kind of psychological disorder of competitiveness.  I know that most players back in the 80’s and 90’s were more competitive and antagonistic towards each other, but Jordan (as we have seen in his HOF speech) took it to another level. His ability to raise a conflict, to create a challenge at the expense of whoever was in his way or even in his peripherary was extraordinary and also frightening. I was watching old footage of Jordan recently and realized there was no way to compare him.  Even Kobe on his best days, even if he wasn’t a dick, would never make us say his name the way people used to say “Michael Jordan.”  LeBron had the chance, I’ll admit – even more than Wade.  However, it is an different era and LeBron isn’t like Michael Jordan – no human being really is and I argue they shouldn’t be.  Michael Jordan’s ability, his name, his drive and nearly insane desire touch something within us that is hard to define, it gets at a part of human nature that not all of us want to know, that part of us that wants to succeed no matter what it costs and to make others feel foolish for even trying to stop what was inevitable.  It is a powerful force and element of the human soul and sometimes I don’t understand how he was able to personify it with such athletic beauty and grace.

Howcver, besides Jordan’s singular ability, we live in an era of basketball that is very much informed by the AAU culture of organized, nationwide, youth basketball.  Many of these players have known each other in some way or another since they were younger.  They are friends, they have grown up friendly and want to remain that way. Wade stayed at LeBron’s house when the Heat and Cavaliers would play each other.  That would have never happened in the past with Michael or Charles or Larry or Magic.  In a league that has over-expanded, where too many players have set the precedent of playing for a paycheck or for deferring to players who are better than them, where roleplayers hardly ever seek out the moment to help support the star, these stars would rather trust each other for the bulk of the work rather than wait around for a team to fit into place.  We would all rather work with our friends rather than strangers that we can’t trust.  So, I don’t blame any of these guys. Sure, those of us that love sports and that love the history of sports want our stars to seek out greatness.  Charles Barkley has criticized this decision.  Charles Barkley never won an NBA title and was a terrible defensive player and a bit of a headcase himself. I love Charles Barkley, but he is wrong in many ways.  However, judging Charles because he didn’t win a championship is wrong because championships aren’t everything, because they are very often born of circumstance and organization and things beyond the control of the player. The player or players can seize their destiny when they have the chance and very often Charles couldn’t, but he wasn’t often put in a situation to do just that.  However, championships do make up most of what a player’s legacy is.  Now, LeBron, Wade and Bosh have taken control of their destiny. They have chosen to give up individual accolades; they have given up the chance to carve out an individual identity in the historybook of the NBA; they have decided to make their reputation on themselves as a team, as three players who wanted to bring themselves to the championship at the cost of what it might mean to them as players – this is the ultimate gesture of team and that’s why I want to watch.  They have the talent, they have the situation they want.  The players will come to play with them.  Riley will get them the roleplayers.  It’s just up to them to deliver on their word and all the posturing it took for them to get their ideal situation. 

They should be able to do it, because they don’t have the shadow of Jordan looming over them – no one should anymore. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Advantage Nadal

There are only two teams in sports that I will lose my mind over: the Philadelphia Eagles and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.  I can’t even relay to you how many hours I have spent yelling at various televisions in public or in private when these teams are playing a game on TV.  I grew up in Philadelphia, so I became a die hard Eagles fan.  Over the years I have been pulled in at their attempts at success only to be repeatedly disappointed and tortured by their defeats. It is a cycle that has defined my sports fandom. I became a North Carolina Tar Heel fan because, at the age of seven, my father took me to an event known as the 1993 East Regional Semifinals aka the Sweet Sixteen.  We went to the Meadowlands to watch Virginia take on Cincinnati.  The game ended and I enjoyed my second live basketball game. As I moved to get up, my father stopped me and said, “Hold on.  There’s another game.”  My budding sports fan’s mind couldn’t believe it.  Then, the North Carolina Tar Heels took the floor in their Carolina Blue uniforms.  Eric Montross and Donald Williams were the stars of the team.  They beat Virginia that night and my dad and I didn’t get home until one or two in the morning.  I was hooked on the North Carolina Tar Heels and watched as they went on to win the 1993 NCAA Championship.  My love of these two teams, their players, their traditions – one successful, the other torturous – have been unparalleled throughout my life.  I have screamed horrible things at Cowboys and Giants fans.  I literally hate Duke University and every player that played there (unless they redeem themselves with gritty play in the NBA).  I will never admit that the Cowboys, Giants or Duke Blue Devils ever have a superior team – they always suck and get lucky.  And that has been the story of my sporting passion.

I realized recently, that slowly a third figure was emerging as a figure where I could direct my sporting passion and frustration toward.  Shockingly, this figure emerged in the sport of tennis. I sport I had for the most part always overlooked and even in some cases frowned upon as I was growing up.  However, in part due to this man, my opinion has changed on the sport entirely.  That man is Rafael Nadal.  And, in the most underrated sports story of the year, he has become my third favorite athlete/sports team to root for – perhaps of all time.

How did this happen you ask?  Well let me start in the spring of 2008 when I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  My roommate was a big tennis fan and as we entered the peak of tennis season with the French Open and Wimbledon, I began to sit and be patient and watch tennis matches with him.  We watched as Nadal won his fourth straight French Open in 2008.  I had seen Nadal play before, but I never paid very close attention.  However, as I watched the 2008 French Open unfold, I realized that he had all the attributes that I enjoyed in an athlete: drive, toughness, determination, grittiness, a bit of magic, passion and the essence of the underdog, the unwillingness to ever give in.  I say “the essence of the underdog” because Federer was then and in many ways still is seen as the best player in the world.  Federer was one of the reasons I did not like tennis.  He seemed to win too easily, he seemed smug (I have since come to find out that he is one of the greatest champions and nicest human beings, but I remain skeptical) and content with himself – in other words, he represented everything that I do not like in other people or in the world.  There was something substantive to Nadal.  He was Spanish and I love the Spanish culture.  He had long hair and played hard, so hard that everyone questioned if he could keep up his pace.  He was like a Romantic poet, like Keats or Shelley, someone who may just die at 25 or 26 because they are too damn explosive for this world.

Then, we came to Wimbledon 2008.  In my personal life, Wimbledon came on the last day of one of the best Fourth of July weekends I have ever had in my life.  Quite possibly the best, though this past one has risen very close to that level. As I watched the match at my kitchen table with friends of mine who were staying over, we suddenly realized that we were watching history.  We were watching quite possibly the best tennis match of all time.  You had Nadal and Federer with two contrasting styles, but both with the same desire to win the match.  This was on tennis’ biggest stage.  There was the drama of the rain that continued to threaten.  There was Nadal jumping up two sets and then Federer coming back.  There were the rain delays and then the match entered a fifth set and everyone began to wonder if the darkness would set in and that the match would have to be concluded on Monday – the fortnight plus one.  My friends and I also had the added drama of catching a train back to the city.  As the match went on, we let one train go. The match continued and we decided to let a second train go.  The match continued and we needed to make the third train or else we wouldn’t have a ride to the station. So, we sat in anticipation as the fifth set carried on into tiebreak.  Nadal and Federer went back and forth.  The match stretched closer and closer to the five hour mark. Finally, as the darkness was just about to envelop the edges of the stadium, and that iconic green court would have turned to a murky purple and grey, Nadal forced Federer into the net, collapsed on his back and screamed up into the evening air, his all white uniform standing out against the gloaming.  Federer cried (of course) as Nadal held up the Wimbledon trophy. Then, my friends and I grabbed a train to head back to the city and our overheated apartments.

Nadal kept the hits coming as he won the Gold Medal in the 2008 Olympics while Federer bowed out early.  Everyone began to question Federer’s dominance as Nadal rose to number one in the world.  However, I watched Nadal lose to Andy Murray at the U.S. Open and felt that first burning in my chest that some injustice had been done to my man.  Murray wasn’t better, he must have cheated.  Murray sucked and he got lucky.  Those were the thoughts that ran through my head.

When the tennis season resumed in February 2009 for the 2009 Australian Open, I found myself genuinely excited to watch.  And, when Federer and Nadal were to face each other once more in the final, I had to stay up all night.  I had been out at a show and been drinking, but I kept myself up at least long enough to watch the epic first set of that match.  The first set lasted nearly and hour as Federer and Nadal went back and forth. Nadal came out strong, but then Federer took control of the set, only to have Nadal come roaring back. They each made impossible shot after impossible shot. I sipped on late night beers just to keep my engine going, but I could barely keep my eyes open. Finally, Nadal won the set and I was able to stumble to my room and fall asleep in the four in the morning darkness. But not before I streamed coverage of the match on my computer.  I woke up the next morning to the terrific news that Nadal had won in four sets. He had certainly pulled even with Federer and was looking to leave the former smug champion in his rearview mirror.  As the spring came, I was anticipating another glorious summer of Nadal, who I all of a sudden realized I was a fan of.

However, Nadal injured his knee in the French Open when he lost to Soderling, which allowed Federer to win the French Open – the one tournament he had never won before.  That was followed by Federer defeating an ever-so-earnest Andy Roddick in the longest Wimbledon Final of all time.  We had to watch Roddick make self-deprecating jokes after playing the best tennis of his life and still losing to an off the charts smug looking Federer. I had to watch Federer in his gold and white jump suit as he was coronated “The Best Tennis Player of All Time” with the Most Grand Slam Tournament Championships of All-Time.  It made me sick. And I realized that that sensation, that sickness was the same emotion I had only reserved for the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys and the Duke Blue Devils.  I wanted blood.

Nadal tried to come back at the U.S. Open but fell meekly to Del Potro in the semifinals on a strange grey September day in New York.  Then, after I waited with a shocking amount of anxiousness for the 2010 Tennis Season, Nadal had to retire against Murray at the Australian Open.  The floodgates opened for the pundits – “this is it for Nadal,” “his knees couldn’t keep up,” “his game isn’t like Federer’s,” “he’ll still go down as one of the best.”  I couldn’t stand all of this, because I knew that he had more in him.  I knew that Nadal would not be denied.  He was an underdog, he was tough, he had a passion for the game that seemed to extend outward to life; in short, he reminded me of a young me.

Fast forward to this past June.  Nadal smokes Soderling in the French Open Final after Federer had lost to Soderling in the Quarterfinals.  It’s Nadal’s fifth French Open and seventh Grand Slam Championship.  Nadal is healthy.  He is ready to head to Wimbledon and win another title there.  He cruises through the first two rounds but goes five sets in the third.  Then, on June 12, the day the U.S. lost to Ghana, I woke up to find Nadal struggling against some guy named Petzschner.  He was down two sets to one and it looked like Petzschner was going to win the match.  I was slightly hung over and I was livid. My apartment was boiling hot and I just lost it.

“God damnit! Come on, Nadal! This guy looks like Tom Jane! You can’t fucking lose to him!”

Nadal fought back to tie the set, but then Petzschner pulled ahead again.  The pillows started flying across my living room.  However, Nadal composed himself (through a trainer break) and came back to win the set and tie the match at two sets apiece.  He was back in it and he had the mental edge. Heading into the fifth set, you knew that Petzschner was done.  And he was.  Petzschner had come so close to defeating Nadal, he had used all the essential tools to beat Nadal (strong serve that forces Nadal back on the baseline, attacking the net to keep him off-guard, for Nadal thrives on keeping his opponents off-guard with off-speeed shots), yet he couldn’t finish it off.  Nadal cooly won the fifth set 6-4.  He was into the quarters to play Soderling. I knew he’d beat Soderling after the confidence Nadal displayed at the French Open and as I followed the game tracker at work I was pleased to see he did.  I was also pleased to see that Federer lost .  The head boss at my office noticed I was following the matches.

“Did he lose?” He asked me.

“Federer?” I hid my nerves.


“Yeah, Berdych beat him pretty cooly.”

“I can’t believe it. And Nadal?”

“Beat Soderling in straight sets.”

“I play so much tennis,” he said. “That I don’t watch tennis.” He chuckled and walked away in his finely tailored Italian suit.

Nadal was even helping me score points with my boss.  So, I knew that when he faced Murray, a player who had Nadal’s number in the past, that he would win.  And, following at work again, I was pleased to see my prediction come true.  Nadal beat him in straight sets.  Just outworking him and taking all the advantages that Murray gave him and also allowing Murray to beat himself.  I knew that Nadal would beat Berdych in the Wimbledon Final.

I woke up on Sunday morning with a house full of people.  We had partied by my pool the night before. As people staggered in and sat around the kitchen table with my family and I and our bagels and the hot, black coffee, we all watched as Nadal, once again cooly beat his opponent in straight sets.  He had won his second Wimbledon Title.  Reading about the match afterwards, Berdych said that Nadal was not playing his best, but that he just couldn’t use the opportunities to beat him.  It was then that I realized Nadal had become what Federer once was – the man that lets his opponent beat himself; that, even is he is not playing his best game, will not be beaten, becaue his opponents are so aware of the opportunity they have to beat the best, that they end up forcing their own mistakes and give the match away.  This was the trademark of the Federer era and it will be the trademark of the Nadal era.

As I look forward to Nadal trying to win the Career Slam at only 24 years old at the U.S. Open in September, I can’t help but think of how much he’s been through.  His knees have constantly been questioned.  He witnessed his parents’ divorce last year.  He suffered humiliating defeats and forfeits, yet at 24 years old, he has 8 Grand Slams to Federer’s 16.  Federer had only 5 by the time he was 25.  We will see if Nadal has to rack up all of his championships while he is young and if his game will not hold up over time.  However, I love Rafael Nadal.  And I do not doubt him for a second.  His serve has improved, his backhand is devastating and he is rounding his game out to keep the pressure off his knees.  He is in amazing shape and he defeats his opponents mentally by first defeating them physically.  He is a machine that can’t be stopped or slowed down. You see his opponents getting tired when they are up 2 sets to 1.  But Nadal never slows down.  You know he’s going to win.  He’s doesn’t suck and isn’t lucky like Federer is.  In Nadal, there is passion, there is grit, there is always that underdog essence.  And most of all, he wants to beat Federer because he wants to be the best.

That’s why I love him. He’s got me as a fan now and there will be plenty of expletives and thrown household objects to come.