Sunday, June 21, 2009

One Thing I have Learned Over The Weekend . . .

Iran has a lot of hot women. Like tons of them. Persian chicks. Who knew?

I have been glued to CNN the last few days, fascinated by the uprising in Tehran. I'm fascinated by the events leading up to it, by the irresistible nature of freedom and democracy and by the courage of people who risk their lives to defy tyranny. I'm fascinated by the reactions of different nations to that defiance and by the changing political climate that will result from it. And I'm fascinated by the fact that there seems to be a large percentage of sultry, exotic looking vixens rocking the "Princess Jasmine" look living in Iran of all places. Speaking as a proudly ignorant, ethnocentric American pig, who the hell would have guessed that?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Lots of Booze and Lots of Rambling: 5 Great Country Songs

Ah, "Hee Haw". (That is an awkward sentence to say out loud.) I remember walking around my Grandma's house in Smoot, Wyoming as a young boy. My Mom and her sisters would congregate in the kitchen by the pear shaped clock and chatter about . . . whatever the hell it was they talked about. I was never that interested in getting the latest scoop on Star Valley gossip. So I would amuse myself by either flipping through the dozens of Reader's Digests my Grandma had stacked around the living room, or take my chances on what was on TV. Without fail, "Hee Haw" would always be on one of the three available channels. Every time. Usually, it was already on, blaring loud enough to be heard in the kitchen.

I'm not sure why, but I hated "Hee Haw". Now, that's nothing to apologize for. It's a terrible show. But there were all sorts of terrible shows that I watched on a regular basis as a seven year old. Hell, I still watch a lot of terrible shows. It wasn't the corny jokes or bad delivery that irritated me. Look at this clip of "Hee Haw" (for as long as you can stand it). Now watch this clip of "You Can't Do That On Television". Both are equally terrible for the same reasons. And yet I remember running home from school to catch YCDTOT (give me a break, I was seven) but I could not tolerate the same level of corn on "Hee Haw".

The reason for this disparity lies in this fact; I hated Country Music growing up. Hated it with all the energy of my being. It felt like phony, hokey, inbred, slack-jawed garbage. Denim shirts and fiberglass hay. Not my bag. It didn't help that in the early 90's (my formative music listening years) "Achey Breaky Heart" was unavoidable. Honestly, what a shit song. I was forced to line dance to that thing at mutual for hell sakes. In 1994 (?) my beloved classic rock station Z93 changed its format to Country and became KBUL 93. Yee Ha! I felt personally attacked. For a few summers I installed phone lines at the University of Utah where I worked with a shaky, burned out hippie named Randy. We would sit in the van for hours listening to Country radio on am radio while I inhaled his second hand smoke. The scary thing about that, was that Garth Brooks and Shania Twain started to grow on me. But not in a good way. The way a fungus grows on you. It's itchy and unnatural but you can't get rid of it. (For the record, I haven't had many fungi growing on me. Just that one scrotum thing back in 02. That's it. I swear.)

I persisted in my resistance. Until one day, I was driving my brother's 1980 VW Jetta home from High School listening to Oldies 94.1. That's where I first heard "Boy Named Sue" by the man, Johnny Cash. That was probably 1995. I was an opinionated 17 year old asshole (believe it or not) that knew what music I loved and knew what music I hated. I loved Rock and Country sucked. It was simple. But then Johnny Cash had to come along and screw it all up.

There was an authenticity to that song that I couldn't deny. It resonated with me. My biggest gripe with Country music has always been that it's contrived. It pretends to be genuine when it couldn't be more phony. And yet Cash's voice and delivery just felt so damn real. I later found out that the lyrics that I found so entertaining and "authentic" were written by children's author Shel Silverstein. I was a black T shirt wearing, Zeppelin rocking, Metallica listening rock snob that got into snotty arguments about why Jimmy Page was a better guitarist than . . .whoever. And yet, I had to acknowledge the fact that I liked a country song written by the "Where the Sidewalk Ends" guy. I didn't know what the hell to believe anymore.

But I couldn't get that song out of my head. In a good way. This, of course, was in the dark days before the interweb. Before you could listen to any given song at any time on a variety of websites. So my only options to hear it again were to stand by the radio, ready to tape it off (which I did for about a week to no avail) or break down and buy a Country CD. Finally, I surrendered. I drove down to Sugarhouse to Blockbuster Music and spent good money on the music I had vocally despised my whole life.

I remember sitting in my parked car for a while, psyching myself up for self betrayal. It felt like I was buying porn. The deviant, weird porn that guys who work at porn shops get creeped out by. I went into the music store with my hat pulled down over my face. I first loitered around the Rock section, scanning the store for anyone that might recognize me. I then quickly moved directly to the "C's" in the Country section, located a Cash Greatest hits careful to not touch any other CD's. I then bootlegged it to the register as quickly as I could. Avoiding eye contact with the clerk, I handed him cash, uninterested in any change. I got my receipt and shoved the CD deep into my coat, to hide my shame from the light of day. I entered the privacy of my car, opened the CD and popped it into my discman balanced on the dash board.

Son of a bitch.

I loved every single song on that CD. "Walk The Line", "Ring of Fire", "Big River", "Folsom Prison Blues", "Sunday Morning, Coming Down". Every song was absolutely amazing. Johnny, you're really messing with my world, here. It was the only CD I listened to for the next few weeks. Secretly, of course. But I could not deny the brilliance of Johnny Cash. I had to deal with the fact that I liked at least one Country music singer. And there may be more. Up was down, black was white. Dogs and cats living together! MASS HYSTERIA! It's hard to recover, when your world view is rocked to its foundation.

Over the last fifteen years or so, I have developed a healthy respect for good, solid country. I'm still picky about it. As a general rule, I still reject most all of what could be called Wal-Mart Country. Which is anything on a top 40 Country station or on CMT. I still despise Billy Ray Cyrus and his ilk (Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, Kenny Chesney and the like) for all my above stated reasons. But that doesn't mean there isn't an ocean of powerful, honest music out there worth the time to explore. Most of the good stuff is old. From the 50's, 60's and 70's. I am also a big fan of many of the so-called "Alt County" bands that have come out recently. Now, there is such a huge volume of Country out there, I'm not too ashamed to admit that I am still a novice. There is tons of stuff I don't know. But I do know what I like. So here are five songs that for one reason or another, speak to me.

I'll Fly Away - Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

This song was on "The O Brother, Where Art Thou" Soundtrack. It has a great flatpicking Bluegrass vibe to it. What I love about this song is how happy and bright the guitar work and the vocals are despite lyrics that border on despair. He is a link to them. They are heartbreaking and beautiful. Basically they say "I can't wait to die, because I won't be free of all the pain of life until then." And yet the delivery is carefree and convincing. This song isn't misguided escapism. It's genuinely hopeful.

It's Only Make Believe - Conway Twitty

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Conway Twitty! On Hee- Haw of all things. I never would have thought that I would love this. Twitty has a nice Elvis crooner thing going. But the best part is how he looks really pissed off. Even when he nervously smiles. Sure he's singing about heart ache and rejection, but he looks like he could punch the camera man at any time. And if he did, his hair would remain perfectly in place. Years ago, I was in Chicago on business and heard a bluesy version of this song in a club sung by a woman. It was amazing. I have no idea who the band was. Probably just the house band. But they did this song justice.

Waiting Around To Die - Townes Van Zandt

This video was made in 1975. It was supposed to focus on Townes himself, but he decided to interview a blacksmith friend of his that was born in 1896. The song starts at about four minutes but it's worth watching the conversation at the beginning. It gives you context for his emotional response during the song. It takes a hell of a song to bring a guy like Uncle Seymour Washington to tears.

Steve McQueen - The Drive By Truckers

This is more Southern Rock than Country. But they're all branches from the same tree. Fair warning; this song is rated R for adult themes. That said, this is a badass song. A celebration of all things American. Is there a cooler American Icon than Steve McQueen? The answer is, no. And I say that, having only seen two of his movies. "The Great Escape" and "Bullet". Lando Calrissian is a close second. (Yes, Gregg. I stole that line from your comment from a few months ago. Suck it.)

Walking After Midnight
- Patsy Cline

I've heard this song my entire life. But it is strange to me to see how young Patsy Cline is in this video. I know she died young, so it doesn't make sense for me to picture her being old. But her voice sounds so wise and so weary. It doesn't seem like that sound should come from a 24 year old girl. But it does. She has that "crying while laughing" cracking in her voice, that speaks to the pain of life. Truly beautiful.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Is The Spandex Really Necessary?

I am not a urologist. But those are some pretty mess up looking moose knuckles. I think the beans got twisted over the frank for a couple of those guys.

I have a stomach ache, for some reason.

So I was driving up Big Cottonwood Canyon rocking out to some Journey (that's how I roll) and had to swerve into on-coming traffic several different times to avoid hitting bikers. Now the only gripe I have with bikers is with the ones that insist on riding side by side so they can chat, oblivious to the train of cars stuck behind them. That is bush. Bush league. But that doesn't happen that often. It's a fine way to get fit and enjoy the outdoors. And it's certainly exhilarating to zoom down a canyon road going 40 mph. But I do have the following question for any reader that may know the answer.

Does the neon yellow spandex outfit make a difference?

I'm sure there are several functional advantages of the fully decked out spandex suit. And far be it from me to spout off, criticizing something I know nothing about. But can you no longer ride a bike and simply wear a pair of shorts and a t shirt? Will you be laughed off the road by the team in the the full on matching Tour De France garb complete with fake sponsors? I like to go hiking. But do I change into lederhosen and massive crampon-ready boots every time I head up a trail? I'm sure there are some nominal performance advantages that would come from nut crunching green shorts / suspenders and those cool gray hats with the feather in them. But I keep it casual. Pair of shorts, some running shoes and a non cotton shirt. I do sport some under armor compressions shorts, otherwise my inner thighs would burst into flames from the friction. (That last line was for the ladies.) But I don't dress up in a costume. I don't wear something that screams to everyone at 7-11 "Yeah, I'm a hiker. That's right. I care about my health. And nature. So suck it."

Taken out of the biking context the "Lance Armstrong" is a pretty silly look. And you know what? Within the context of biking, it's still a silly look. Especially for the portly biker. And there are a lot of them. Now I have nothing but love and sympathy for any fatty magoos out there trying to get back to their playing weight. It's a struggle that I am very aware of. But because I'm currently fatter than I want to be, I am also conscientious of looking like a big fat guy. Take this picture my friend Brianna took in Moab a few months ago. You'll note the day-pack fastened underneath my manly girth. It's like you came up to me a squeezed every ounce of cookie dough that was there, isolating it just for the camera. Not flattering. Brianna, seriously you gotta warn me before you take these pictures so I can suck it in. But now imagine I was sporting skin tight Lycra in a "look at me" shade of neon green. Or pink and blue.

That's what you call ten pounds of crap in a five pound bag.

Look fatty magoo bikers, you have realized that it's gone too far. You're too fat and you're ready to do something about it. You're committed enough to buy a $2,000 plus road bike to really get back into shape. Good for you. But don't forget to hide your shame. Seriously. For the same reason you don't take your shirt off when you run in the park, you'll want to avoid the "Lance Armstrong". You are not him. It's a great goal to have. But until you're a little closer to it, try wearing a poncho. Maybe a classy moo moo. Sure you may have a little more wind resistance with all that floral print flapping in the breeze but dude, you're 250 pounds trudging up BCC. You're not going to notice.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Why Is It That I Hate Kobe Bryant So Very, Very Much?

Way to got, Raja. Now kick him in the face!

So I'm sitting here watching game 1 of the NBA finals. It feels like I'm watching the German Army about to roll into Paris. No matter how I try to convince myself that The Magic can win, I just don't think it's gonna happen. The bad guys are going to win this one.

I know, Orlando beat LA both times they played this year. And no one thought they would beat Cleveland. And LA hasn't exactly been overwhelming in the playoffs this year. But I just feel dread in my bones. I blame my sports pessimism on my love of The Jazz and BYU football. Both teams are usually good enough to get to a big moment, only to collapse when it matters most. Yeah, it's been beaten into my soul to believe that when it comes to really important games, bad things are going to happen. The Lakers are going to win the damn title.

And yes, that is a very bad thing.

It is important to note that this is just sports. As such, it is inherently irrational. Nothing could be more irrational than a grown man leaping off the couch in genuine triumph because far away someone that they have never met threw a ball into a hoop. I know that. I tell myself over and over that it is stupid to care so much about such trivial nonsense. And yet, when D Will pauses at the top of the key, toys with his defender, break them down, snaps their ankle and humiliates them on his way to an open lane, I am filled with elation. It is the same sense of victory that I would feel if I myself had just done that. Perhaps not the same level of intensity. But the feeling is the same. And it is this notion of vicarious accomplishment that makes being a sports fan both exhilarating and insane. Intelligent, clear thinking adults make heroes out of out strangers for having a specific skill. Heroes! That's rediculous. Like I said, it is inherently irrational. And where there are heroes, there are villains.

Now before I go on, it is important to stress that when I speak in these admittedly absurd terms of "heroes" and "villains" (suddenly I have The Beach Boys stuck in my head), I am not referring to the actual people involved. This may be a cop out, but when I say, "I hate Kobe Bryant" it's like saying, "I hate Billy Zane's character from Titanic." ( In fact that's a perfect comparison. Wealthy, smug and evil.) It's not the flesh and blood human being named Kobe Bryant that infuriates me, it is the character he plays in the drama of the NBA. They are two different things. If I saw Kobe Bryant walking around town, I wouldn't feel the need to beat the hell out of him anymore than I would want to punch Billy Zane in the face if I saw him at the airport. "That's for handcuffing Leo, you bastard!"

Likewise when I say, "I hate Laker fans." I am referring to a crowd of faceless people wearing the same inexcusably ugly yellow shirts. Many of my good friends are from Southern California and are Laker fans. Which is to say they like the Lakers enough to talk shit when they're winning. But I have no actual hatred at all for them as individuals. They are my good friends.

In this strange mindset of vicarious victory and defeat, it's okay to hate. It really is. Because no matter how die hard a sports fan may be, we all realize that it really is just a game. And even though the hatred is real, (and it most definitely is) it is directed at an antagonist that doesn't exist in reality. When you love a team or a player with such devotion and passion, it is almost required to hate those teams and players that stand in their way. Vicarious competition. It's a weird thing.

Now, with that disclaimer out of the way . . .

I hate the filthy Lakers. I hate their ugly ass yellow jerseys. I hate their arena. I hate their pompous asshole of a coach. I hate that every national broadcast includes shots of crappy celebrities pretending to not be bored. Jack Nicholson hasn't been good in a movie since "A Few Good Men". That was in 1992. Stop showing the reaction of the star of "The Bucket List" to every damn play! The old man is irrelevant. *

Back to my mouth foaming diatribe: I hate Laker fans. Oooo, how I hate their fans. Entitled, arrogant, apathetic frauds that lack any sense of integrity. They do not deserve the success that they have. You can only truly call a team yours if they have broken your heart. And I have never met a Laker fan that has ever been hurt by the Lakers losing. They don't care. But the second it looks like they're back on top, they pound their chest and talk shit. They are the spoiled rich kids in high school that drive to school in a brand new Mercedes daddy bought them and then snicker at your pickup that you bought with your own money. (Yes, the Utah Jazz are a beloved pickup in this analogy.) Is a Mercedes a better car than a pickup? Sure. But do they deserve what they have? Do they appreciate it? Do they love it? No, they just love that it's better than what you have. Assholes.

And I hate their players. I hate Vujachich (I refuse to look up the proper spelling of his name) and his girly hair and his sour face. I hate Walton and that stupid ring around the rosies tattoo. I hate Ariza and the fact that he couldn't miss a 3 against the Jazz (Actually, I would love to have Ariza on the Jazz but as long as he wears that nasty yellow, I hate him). I hate Gasol and his sweaty half beard and the bullshit trade that brought him to LA. I hate his greasy Spanish basketball team. I hate the fact that he looks like the bastard son of the Geico Caveman and Jafar from Aladdin. I hate his flopping bullshit and his flying elbows. Hell, I hate his brother for having the same last name.

And I hate Kobe Bean Bryant.

I hated his Marge Simpsons afro and I hate his pointy bald head. I hate his constant sneer, I hate his phony smile. I hate that he gets every damn call imaginable and I hate that he still has the balls to bitch to the refs when they don't bail him out. I hate that he screwed over his fans by changing his number just so he would sell more jerseys and I hate that his fans were too stupid to notice. I hate that he brings his kids to post game interviews in a transparent exploitation to appear likable and I hate that it actually works. I hate that the overwhelming majority of NBA players that know him personally hate his guts and yet they pretend to be his buddy because the NBA PR people convinced them it is their interest to do so.** I hate that his own coach can't stand him and yet they realize the mutual benefit of tolerating each other. I hate that ESPN, Nike, Vitamin Water and McDonalds are committed to transforming him into marketable Jordan 2.0, international nice guy regardless of the fact that his arrest report for rape is on the internet for all to read. (Guilty or not, read that and tell me he isn't a self involved dirt bag.)

Most of all, I hate the fact that he is so damn good.

But this isn't anything too out of the ordinary. Everyone hates Kobe Bryant. It's like hating the Ebola Virus. He's a petulant, contemptuous, phony pile of human garbage. And yet in many ways he embodies all of the characteristics I admire most in professional athletes. Despite his off the chart talent, he works harder than anyone else in the league. He almost always performs his best when it matters the most. There is not better big-moment-assassin out there. Given my favorite teams' previously mentioned tendency to collapse under pressure, that is an enviable quality. All that said, he is also a destructive, selfish cancer that will happily tank an elimination game to prove a point. Man, I can't even give him two compliments in a row without instinctively crapping on him.

Now that I have gotten that off my chest, let me reiterate the hypothetical nature of this malice. Again, these grievances aren't with the actual human being named Kobe Bryant. They are with the fictional character we sports fans have created, named Kobe Bryant. The rape allegations from a few years ago seem confirm that the actual Kobe Bryant is in fact a horrible human being. I certainly wouldn't disagree with that statement. And it seems okay in my mind to hate someone that is so destructive and unaccountable. But, if I am going to allow that standard to apply to my personal sports nemesis, integrity demands that I apply it to my personal sports heroes as well. And that can be a hard reality to face.

Karl Malone inpregnated a 13 year old girl when he was a sophomore at Louisiana Tech (20 years old?) and has refused to acknowledge his son either personally or financially to this day. As despicable as Kobe's rape allegations are, I would say that Malone's secret shame is probably worse. And yet I love the Mailman. Does this revelation seriously taint my image of him? Hell yes. I have no desire to hang out with the guy. But I never loved him because he was a great father with impeccable integrity. I love him because he built the only pro franchise of my home town. I love him because he bled on the court for 18 straight years wearing my team's jersey. I love him because he's the second all time NBA scorer, the best power forward of all time (suck it, Duncan) and he belongs to me and my team and my town. Like all Jazz fans, I do have a conflicted view of him. As great as he was, he collapsed when it mattered most. But I don't let the fact that he was unable to beat Jordan (no one did) cancel out his greatness.

However, in an attempt to justify a hatred for the actual person Kobe Bryant, I can't apply a standard of personal behavior to one character in the NBA drama, as reasonable as it may be, and then selectively ignore that standard for a character I like. I can't burn Kobe Bryant at the stake, no matter how good the reason and then disregard the disgraceful reality of Karl Malone. To hate one, is to hate the other. Of course, for anyone outside of LA or Utah, that's not a problem. Everyone hates Malone. But whoever your favorite player may be, odds are he's pile of shit.

My point is, as sports fans the only way to make this insanity work is to keep all the extreme emotions contained within the quasi-fictional sports world. When D Will crosses over Chris Paul, I feel a sense of personal victory even though I know I didn't do anything. When Kobe Bryant hits an impossible three pointer against perfect defense, I feel a personal sense of injustice. (Seriously, no one makes that shot. It isn't fair.) But I know all the crazy emotions that make sports so compelling to follow are ultimately fabrications. Just like the characters we love and hate.

Damn it, I hate you Billy Zane!

* The NBA needs to figure out a sliding scale to determine who sits where. That way the biggest fans who care the most, get the best seats. So you may have paid $1,500 for floor seats but after a quick brain scan determines that you don't know a single player on the opposing team, you are banished to the nosebleeds to make room for the lunatic father and son tandem with painted faces who paid 15 bucks each for their ticket. This will mean less fake boobs in the first couple of rows, but I still like it.)

** A completely unsubstantiated statement that you can't convince me is false.

JUNE 15 th UPDATE: Shit. Shitty shit shit. Damn Lakers.