1.31.2007

Identity Crisis

by Jeff Siegel

There is a concert pianist, a fairly well-known and critically respected performer, named Jeff Siegel. I mention this not to flatter myself (my musical talent is almost non-existent) but to note that identity is a curious thing. Our culture is so focused on the individual that it comes almost as a shock to hear a radio voice announce that someone with your exact same name just played a piano sonata. After all, isn’t there supposed to be only one of me?

American society’s focus on the individual is, in this case, not a value judgment. Rather, it’s a comment on how different our particular culture is from others, even those in the West. I’m no sociologist, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to realize that the United States is about individualism, as opposed to clan or class. Even if the long-standing American ideal that every boy could grow up to be the president was a myth, it’s still a myth that is unique to the U.S. We celebrate the cowboy blazing the frontier, the entrepreneur, the man who goes bravely where no man has gone before. It’s the idea that each of us counts for something, that there is no one else like us.

Hence the doppleganger-type feeling when we discover someone who shares our name. If it makes me pause, and Jeff Siegel is hardly as common as John Smith, what must it do to all those John Smiths? Rick Rockwell, the ringmaster here at iVoryTowerz, has the same name as a nefarious sort who once headlined a TV network reality show, and Rick still has people ask him if he is the same fellow as that supposed millionaire.

There is a second Jeff Siegel in Dallas, a prominent psychologist, and I have not only gotten his mail (including a recent flier from the Jung Society of North Texas), but his phone calls as well. The ones from husbands who must get counseling as part of their divorce are unsettling, but are probably more embarrassing to the husband than to me. On the other hand, I have gotten calls (or even voice mail) from people who desperately need to reach the doctor. And I ain’t the doctor, no matter what my name is.

It almost makes me wish I had studied psychology. Or at least the piano.

(The photo is another wonderful contribution from Clara Natoli of Rome from morgueFile.)




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1.30.2007

Inside the Journalism Confessional

by Hilary Crowe

The seemingly unfortunate combination of NYU’s exorbitant tuition and my parent’s protracted lack of excessive wealth has been a blessing in disguise. Attending a small university in D.C. looking to better its reputation has afforded this budding journalist more opportunities than she can name. Never before have I had so much conviction that journalism is the only career path worth my efforts. Then again, this past week has been planting seeds of doubt in my mind. I still know I want to write, but what about?

As you may or may not have noticed, my past posts have not been about politics, current events or international news (for instance, please see: "Rolling Stone: Not Gathering Moss, So Now Gathering Mass" or "Film Review: American Hardcore"). I avoid newswriting at all costs and more recently my professor for communication writing has helped me realize that I am absolutely terrible at writing news leads. I will get better with practice, but I have a mental block against anything so cut and dried. The thought of covering insipid campus occurrences and conspicuous congressional scandals, quite honestly, makes me want to vomit a little in my mouth. Living in D.C., and the colossal convergence on the National Mall this past weekend to protest the war, have made me feel a twinge of shame for feeling so. In the same vein, the much alluded to dogma that real, good journalists care about these issues and must cover them to gain the respect of their peers and superiors makes me contemplate abandoning my print journalism major completely.

As a student journalist, I see none of my dreams and hopes for my career realized by professors of print journalism. All have written for newspapers and the Associated Press. I want to write for The Village Voice, or eventually Rolling Stone, Esquire, or Bust. Are those less respectable publications because of the material they do and do not cover? Is it so horrible for a journalist, a writer, to idolize Ian MacKaye and Cameron Crowe instead of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein? These are questions better explored now, before I am forced into the five-year graduation plan.

In writing this, I have also come to answer myself. I just bought The Evens’ Get Evens at my favorite record store (Crooked Beat – the best place for D.C. albums) in Adams Morgan (I rode the Metro to and from with protesters on their way home from the rally with their picket signs). It’s a great album – entirely political, but artfully so, as it does not simply cram another ideology down listeners’ throats. And Joe Lally’s There to Here is poetic in its sociopolitical questioning of the state of the human condition, and criticism of the state of the union (though his album is beautiful, nothing compares to his live set). This is how I want to imbibe my protest culture. I have always loved music, and even more so writing about music. What’s more, I do not think that I am predestined for failure, as a journalist or as a contributor to society, for wanting to spend the rest of my life interviewing old punks, new DJs, and ex-Fugazi members turned solo artists. There are countless publications (Spin), movies (Almost Famous), and books (High Fidelity) dedicated to the life-affirming and life–saving power of music and its creators. I only hope I will be able to rise to the challenge of honoring this tradition, and that my education in the birthplace of hardcore will equip me with an adequate arsenal of ability to do so.

Playlist to go with post: Youth Brigade, "Barbed Wire"; Circus Lupus, "The One"; Embrace, "Money"; Rites of Spring, "Drink Deep"; Fugazi, "Waiting Room"; Egg Hunt, "We All Fall Down"; Iggy Pop, "Lust for Life"; The Specials, "Rat Race"; Bob Dylan, "Maggie’s Farm"; Dead Kennedys, "Take This Job and Shove It"; Gnarls Barkley, "Crazy"; Minor Threat, "I Don’t Wanna Hear It"; Roxy Music, "Mother of Pearl"; The Ramones, "It’s not my Place (in the 9 to 5 World)"; The Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime"; The Velvet Underground, "Beginning to See the Light"; Joe Lally, "There to Here"; The Evens, "Cut from the Cloth."

(Photo by sgarbe84 of Curitiba, Brazil from stock.xchng.)





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1.29.2007

(Mis)Adventures in Ticketland

by Caitlin Servilio

This past weekend, I found myself shivering uncontrollably, swaddled in three or four layers of my warmest clothes, surrounded by a throng of college students in the middle of Washington, DC at 7:40 in the morning. Was I getting ready to participate in the huge peace rally going on at the National Mall? No. I was standing in an extremely long line outside the Kennedy Center, trying to get free tickets to see Sufjan Stevens.

As anyone who is, or ever was a college student knows, the word “free” has a powerful magical allure. Free food? College students are there. Free t-shirts? College students are there. So when I heard Stevens was playing at the Kennedy Center, I knew instinctively that I’d be there too. Unfortunately, so did every other student in the DC area. While our classmates marched in harmony on the Mall, we were locked in a deathly struggle for our beloved Sufjan Stevens tickets, calling friends and casting dirty looks at each other.

As I stood in the icy morning air, suffering from A Christmas Story Syndrome (the inability to put one’s arms down because one’s garments are too puffy) I started thinking about some of my previous experiences with shows I really wanted to see. One highlight was trying to see the sold-out Decemberists show: I frantically e-mailed every seller on Craigslist until one agreed to sell me their ticket for almost twice its original price. I had to take the Metro out to some place called West Falls Church (to the uninitiated: a DC suburb in Virginia) to pick them up outside a parking garage. Very sketchy.

Why is it so hard to get to see an artist you really appreciate and admire? I wondered. And why are tickets so expensive when you do get them? A reasonable price of $25 quickly becomes $32 if you order online, with service charges. If you happen to miss the window for that show, you’ll end up paying $40 on eBay or Craigslist — if you’re lucky. It seems unfair. Is this what artists picture when they dream of their careers, for their biggest fans to be excluded from overpriced shows in too-small venues? Don’t clubs care that they’re alienating their younger, poorer customers?

Frankly, concerts are my vice. I blow my savings on bands like Apples in Stereo and Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. But even as hardened an addict as myself notices when her concert habits start to deplete her food fund. I don’t want to spend so much money on shows. But by boycotting prices, am I really hurting the venue, or the artist whose music gets stolen online and needs concert profits to get by?

“God, if you approve of concert prices, show me a sign now!” I prayed in the Kennedy Center's courtyard.

At that moment, word did come down from above. “The show’s sold out!” came the yell.

As I trudged away from the Kennedy Center, foiled again in search of free tickets, I knew one thing: next time this happened, I wasn’t going to wake up so early.

I was going to camp out.

(Photo of the line at the Kennedy Center by Caitlin Servilio.)




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1.26.2007

Temporarily Speaking: Sweet Bluegrass

by Stephen Tringali

“Hey, you guys want to hear some sweet bluegrass?” asked Freshman Kailynn West from the Berklee College of Music as the crowd gathered at the Lower Paxton Youth Center (LPYC) on an uncharacteristically warm January night in Pennsylvania.

This wasn’t the kind of question typically posed to the LPYC audience, a mostly high-school-aged demographic raised on pop-punk, hard rock, and metal. Nevertheless, the crowd erupted with cheers as Temporarily Speaking — the bluegrass trio composed of West (guitar), Kelly Muser (upright bass), and Elizabeth Zook (violin) — went through sound check and prepared to play their first song.

“It was kind of scary [playing that venue],” West said. “I knew they were all hard rockers at the show....But at LPYC, the kids are all really open minded….”

A small, cinderblock structure adorned with kids’ colorful artwork, the center opens its doors on varying nights of the week to allow youth in the Harrisburg area a showcase for their musical talents.

I first visited the venue earlier this year, Jan. 5, and was met with an eclectic mix of high school and college acts — everything from grunge to indie rock to metal took the makeshift stage that night. West and LPYC’s Youth President Abbey Wheeler were kind enough to allow me and a few of my friends to film Temporarily Speaking’s performance.

My task was simple: I wanted to prove that I was capable of filming a concert. My last effort, attempted less than a year ago, worked in the context of its project, a documentary detailing the senior year of my high school class. But there were still many improvements I could make, one being an increase in the number of camera angles.

What I eventually captured on video was a band much in love with the folk and bluegrass traditions. Their strengths: incredible vocal harmonies, a curious sense of storytelling, and lively instrumentation. You can judge for yourself whether I created a satisfactory product — one song from Temporarily Speaking’s performance, entitled “Peter Pan,” is posted at the end of this article.

Temporarily Speaking formed during the 2005-2006 school year when West, Musser, and Zook met at the Capital Area School for the Arts, located in Harrisburg. A midterm project was assigned and forming this band seemed to be the best solution.

“We didn’t have any trouble coming up with things to play or any certain style,” West said. “I started getting into Nickel Creek in the middle of my senior year…Kelly really likes folk like James Taylor…[and] Liz is into Sufjan Stevens and more modern [music].”

As far as future plans are concerned, a full-length LP is in the works.

“We’re aiming for that by June,” West said. “And eventually we’re going to start touring around PA….We’re seeing how much we can do with [the band].”

However, the songwriting process has been altered significantly for all three members. With West at Berklee, Musser at University of the Arts, and Zook at Houghton College, Temporarily Speaking is only able to rehearse between semesters.

“Even though I’ve been away, I’ve still been writing, Kelly’s still been writing, [and] Liz’s still writing,” West said. “It will be interesting [to see how the material for the new album turns out] considering this is the first time we’ve been writing away from each other.”

(Promotional photo of Temporarily Speaking used with permission. To see Temporarily Speaking's concert video -- produced and directed by Stephen Tringali -- please check below.)



(For more examples of regional artists, please see this week's podcast.)





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1.25.2007

The Invisible Government

by Laura Snedeker

There is a parallel government in the United States that deals in clandestine operations, in assassinations, in coups d’etat, and in terrorism. This government is not held accountable for its actions, which are rarely made known to the American public. Even much of its budget is kept a secret – the “black budget” they call it.

This “invisible government” – a phrase used by Washington journalist David Wise in his 1964 book of the same name – is an unchanging part of the government. The CIA, the NSA (National Security Agency), Special Operations forces, and other clandestine services have outlasted the rise and fall of many a president, from those who opposed its power to those who used it willingly.

The new Democratic leaders in Washington have promised greater transparency and accountability – two things sorely lacking in government. But they have not challenged the workings of this entrenched apparatus, one that has brought misery to great masses of people and has undermined democracy at home.

Americans find it extraordinarily difficult to believe in the existence of black operations that overthrow democratically elected leaders (such as President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 2002), and in assassination attempts. When they do believe, they pass these actions off as part of our “national security” strategy. When the NSA spies on Americans’ e-mail and phone conversations, it’s passed off by many as being harmless.

After all, this is a democracy. If you’re not doing anything wrong, why worry? I worry because it’s unhealthy for a democracy to rely on faith and not on transparency. I’m afraid that America has become a nation where domestic espionage is expected and where people are more suspicious of each other than they are of the government.

The intelligence community has grown enormously over the past few years. The government created the Director of National Intelligence to oversee all agencies. Foreign and domestic intelligence agencies are expected to communicate more, although they were created to be separate for a reason.

Of course, these agencies did not fall from the sky. They were created by politicians and military men to achieve their nefarious ends. Why fight a war with American soldiers when a proxy army of dangerous right-wing fanatics will work just as well? Why try to negotiate with a government when you can assassinate its leaders?

The invisible government creates and destroys enemies. When the US government gave Saddam Hussein chemical weapons to gas the Kurds he was our friend, a fact conveniently forgotten or unknown by much of the American public. Allegations have surfaced about covert US support for the Mujahidin e Khalq, an Iranian opposition group. We’ve been down this road before, and it ends badly. Today’s allies are tomorrow’s enemies (and maybe that’s part of the plan).

There have always been and there probably always will be secrets. But democracy cannot flourish at home or abroad while extra-judicial agencies run about, gathering secret information to be delivered to secret courts for secret arrests, or while more terrorists are created by clandestine foreign actions.

(In the photo, left to right: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte; President George W. Bush; and Vice Admiral Mike McConnell, former director of the NSA and nominated by the president as the new Director of National Intelligence. This is an official White House photo by Paul Morse and is in the public domain.)





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iVoryTowerz Radio: Nutbush City Limits

This week's podcast is devoted to a variety of regional music. Yes, indeed, if you are from the right spot, you probably know some of these selections quite well, but others you probably never ran across unless you were inside the right city limits.

(This podcast is no longer available for download.)

Playlist

“Late November” by Pavlov's Dog
“I Got a Girl" by Tripping Daisy
“Learning the Hard Way” by Gin Blossoms
"Three Full Virginias" by Tall Hands
"Red Hot" by Marcia Ball
"Armadillo Jackal" by Robert Earl Keen
"All the Same to Me" by The Ackermans

“Walking to New Orleans” by Fats Domino
“When I'm Dead and Gone” by Chris Ardoin
“Soul of a Man” by Irma Thomas
Cover Me: “Nutbush City Limits” by The Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
“TV Eye” by The Stooges
“In My Eyes” by Minor Threat
“Glitter in the Eyes” by Patti Smith

Rick’s Metal Shoppe: “Kick Out the Jams” by The MC5 (for the listeners in Switzerland)
Jeff’s New Wave: “Holiday in Cambodia” by The Dead Kennedys

(Mp3 Runs - 1:16:12; 70MB; program contains explicit lyrics
.)

(Photo from Phil BF of Liverpool, England using a Creative Commons license via Flickr.)




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Rocky's Football Corner #21

by Rick Rockwell

Rebuilding is on the calendar in the National Football League (NFL). Sure, the Super Bowl has yet to be played. But unless you are the Indianapolis Colts or Chicago Bears, your team is already retooling. So reload. Rethink. Reconceptualize.

Let’s face it, some teams just need to start from scratch. And that’s happening with half a dozen teams because they are replacing head coaches.

This week, Bill Parcells added the Dallas Cowboys to that list when he retired. Quarterback Tony Romo’s fumbled snap in the playoffs may have been the last straw for Parcells who never achieved greatness in the Big D, although he did get the team back to the playoffs a few times. Parcells has made a name as a rehabilitation specialist, someone who can turnaround a downtrodden lot and get them playing playoff caliber football. Few expected he would last four years in a system where the micromanaging Jerry Jones doesn’t just own the team but acts as general manager. Like it or not, Jones started the process of pushing Parcells out the door when he brought in controversial receiver Terrell Owens, whom Parcells referenced only as “the player.” Jones likely would have parted ways with Owens to keep Parcells, but that would have been too little too late in that relationship. Dealing with Owens, Jones, and all the other giant egos in Big D was apparently too frustrating for Parcells, who usually likes it best when he is respected as the biggest ego in the stadium.

But without Parcells, and maybe without Owens, watch the Cowboys fade for at least a season or two. Yes, fans in Dallas (and the owner too) are notoriously impatient for winners. They want their Super Bowls back from the 1990s.

But there aren’t many NFL Coaches like Sean Payton of the Saints, who can retrofit a team and get them into the playoffs in a year.

Look at Lovie Smith, a Super Bowl coach this year. Last year, Smith was the Coach of the Year. He has steadily rebuilt the Bears, but it is a multi-year project. And they have yet to win the Super Bowl under Smith. After producing the best Bears team since the 1980s, the Bears’ management is overdue to reward Smith’s success with a contract extension. Bears management seemed to be holding its breath to see if Smith could improve on the Bears’ playoff record. Now, that he has, he also provides a picture of how it is done in the modern NFL. You want a team to get to the Super Bowl? Better give over three or four years to that project.

So Dallas, unless you can lure Sean Payton back (not likely) put the playoffs in the freezer for a few years.

And here’s the short prescription for the other teams with new coaches:

Pittsburgh Steelers: The core of last year’s championship team is still there and new coach Mike Tomlin showed in Minnesota he likes a tough bare-knuckles defense. They could be back next year.

Miami Dolphins: Cam Cameron, the coach who drew up the plays for the innovative Chargers’ offense is now at the helm. Even with voodoo though, the Dolphins need two years to contend.

Atlanta Falcons: This team needs to build around the multi-talented quarterback Micahel Vick and get him mentally back into the fold. If they create a college style, run-first, multi-set approach, (new coach: Bobby Petrino) they could be back next year. But more likely they are two years away.

Arizona Cardinals: They stole two of the key coaches who made the Steelers’ offense run (new coach: Ken Whisenhunt), and they have great offensive skills players. But remember, the Bidwell family owns the Cards. Three years, at the very least, until they hit success.

Oakland Raiders: Talk about dysfunctional owners! Al Davis is the definition of the out-of-control owner. First, he wants an offensive mind who can deal with the great (but wasted talent) on the team. So there was Norv Turner as coach. Oh, but he couldn’t get the talent to work hard, so then there was Art Shell as the disciplinarian coach. But that didn’t work when the players realized the front office was undermining Shell. Davis has gone back to his old pattern: hire a young coach (new coach: Lane Kiffen) and micromanage the team from above. It worked for Jon Gruden and John Madden. The Raiders are catatonic. Who knows if they can be saved during this decade.





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1.24.2007

No Tears for the Music Companies

by Jeff Siegel

The news was dispensed with the appropriate rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. Album sales continued their decline in 2005, falling eight percent from 2004. Sample the reporting, and everyone – from Wall Street analysts to retail consultants to industry executives – was wondering how the Big Four record companies were going to survive.

Well, how about by not shooting themselves in the foot?

Much has been written about the end of the record or CD or album or whatever it’s called these days, and much of it is true. But anyone who thinks that downloads and digital music are killing the record business isn’t paying attention -- or works for one of the record companies, where they prefer to blame someone else. After all, when’s the last time you heard a $6 billion company like Universal Music Group admit it screwed up?

The mostly unwritten truth is that the record companies have no one to blame but themselves. Consider just these four points, none of which the record companies seem to have figured out:

The collapse of the album retail system, without anything to replace it: When Tower Records closed at the end of last year, the last great traditional record store chain disappeared. This means that anyone who wants to buy a CD has to go to a discount store like Target, an appliance store like Best Buy or a bookstore like Barnes & Noble. Max Fraser had a terrific piece on The Nation’s blog about what this means.

Album pricing: The record companies have overcharged for years, and even got caught fixing prices in 2002. The cost to manufacture a CD is about $1, so where does the rest of the money go? The Recording Artists Coalition argues that it goes to the same record companies who are complaining about their losses. Want to increase sales? Cut prices.

Changes in the radio business: As late as the mid-1990s, you listened to the radio, heard new music, and then went out and bought it. This is happening less and less, because radio stations are playing less music (news/talk was the most popular format in 2004, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism), and those that do play music increasingly play the same songs, according to the Future of Music Coalition. It’s not that Beyonce is good or bad. It’s that all you hear, regardless of format, is Beyonce. This doesn’t help sell all the music that isn’t Beyonce – and, again, the record companies don’t seem to know what to do about radio’s current sound.

Suing your customers: Uncopyrighted downloads may or may not be the Black Death of the business (a 2004 study by researchers at Harvard and the University of North Carolina said they weren’t), but it’s never a good idea to flagellate your customers in public. You want people to buy your product? Don’t threaten them with six-figure penalties. And, just to show how little the industry understands this concept, its trade group is suing XM, the satellite radio company, over file sharing -- and XM is supposed to be on their side.

The record business, despite the glitz and the glamour, is retailing. It’s not all that different from selling shoes or heads of lettuce. Offer a fair product at a fair price, make it convenient for your customers to buy the product, and you’ll do well. The Big Four, though they control 85 percent of the U.S. market, don’t do any of those things. And no amount of alibis from the business press are going to change that. Which is why you won’t see any rending of garments or gnashing of teeth here.

(Photo by Iván Melenchón of Barcelona via morgueFile.)





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1.23.2007

Punking Lady Sovereign

by Stephen Tringali

Lady Sovereign is a punk. I write this not as an insult but instead as an observation, as a musical definition. Sovereign is a punk of the original variety, a heedless nihilist who probably finds more joy in spraying fans with spit than in graciously accepting compliments and “Top 50 Albums of the Year” accolades.

The events that transpired earlier this month — including a San Francisco Mezzanine performance on Jan. 8 — are only the latest confirming her punk disposition. According to Pitchfork Media, the Mezzanine’s crowd met the 21-year-old British rapper with a demand: “Battle Jelly Donut.”

Jelly Donut, for those who aren’t familiar with this San Francisco MC, throws down his mad lyrical musings while dressed in a plush jelly donut costume. He attended Sovereign’s Mezzanine show with one mission: to get revenge. You might be wondering how someone clothed in a shapeless vanilla tarp could possibly hold a grudge against Sovereign.

Well, Jelly Donut happens to be the friend of a certain Zach Slow. Yes, that’s the guy who gathered $10,000 to “Get Random With Lady Sovereign.” Because Slow wanted to treat Sovereign on an expensive date, he created a website for fundraising purposes. He eventually raised the money and took Sovereign out for what he thought would be an excellent time.

Despite all the convening and currency involved, Sovereign didn’t enjoy the date; she thought it could have been better. Ten thousand dollars — that’s a lot of money. "Couldn’t it buy a more exciting time?" Sovereign wondered aloud to the press.

Jelly D couldn’t let his friend get trashed in the news like that. Sovereign, however, wasn’t going to put up with the local MC’s Mezzanine antics. She allegedly responded to his rap battle challenge by spitting on him, later throwing a drink at him, and finally having security remove the plump pastry from the venue.

Let’s face it: this story first caught my eye for its entertainment value. I think we can all agree that, between James Brown’s death and President George W. Bush’s call for increased troop presence in Iraq, a bit of levity was needed over this past winter break. But in addition to making some of us laugh, Jelly D also brought to light something about Sovereign’s character, which in turn revealed something about the nature of music and how its facets have been changing over the past decade.

Rap has its roots in a variety of genres. Soul, funk, jazz, etc. We know this. What most people don’t understand — and when I write most people, I mean those who decry rap specifically for fostering an entire generation of amoral teenagers — is that rap’s demeanor is motivated primarily by the punk rock scene, a persona that’s been in existence since the late '60’s.
There’s a history of rebellion and disillusion behind Eminem’s declaration that he “Just Don’t Give A Fuck,” Wu-Tang Clan’s assertion that they “…Ain’t Nothin’ Ta Fuck Wit,” and even in Lady Sovereign’s rejection of the “9 to 5” work day. That history began with the Velvet Underground, was brought to public attention by the Sex Pistols, and blossomed through the '80s.

Somewhere between the '90s and the turn of the new millennium, punk rock lost its bite and found itself transmogrified into something decidedly less potent—a mixture of emo, pop, and dance. There to rescue the disaffected torch was rap.

Yes, I understand that much of rap, especially what’s played on the radio today, is just as tame, if not tamer, than contemporary punk rock. What I can say with much certainty, however, is that the spirit of punk rock lives most powerfully in the minds of those rappers the public considers dangerous, unacceptable, immature, or peculiar. The Eminems, the Ghost Face Killahs, the Lady Sovereigns, and even the Jelly Donuts.

(Photo of Lady Sovereign at the 2006 Coachella Music & Arts Festival by mteson of Los Angeles via Flickr using a Creative Commons license. To see a short film based on the Jelly D. vs. Lady Sovereign incident, please check below.)







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1.22.2007

"Rolling Stone:" Not Gathering Moss So Now Seeking Mass

by Hilary Crowe

On Sunday January 7th, the Zoloft-popping and zombie-eyed consumers of MTV were introduced to a novel idea on the network’s part: quality programming. At 10 p.m. the omnipresent media network officially launched the series I’m From Rolling Stone, a fascinating partnership with the well-established and highly-regarded music magazine, Rolling Stone, wherein young writers intern and compete to be hired as a contributing editor. However, can six hipsters, ranging in age from 19 to 25-years-old, bridge the generation gap between Baby Boomers who came of age with Ben Fong-Torres and Generation X-ers who have been spoon-fed MTV since their mouths could open wide enough to declare “I want my MTV”?

Both giants hope so. The series seems to be a PR dream-come-true for both media outlets. MTV finally gets the “cred” from music journalism’s resident Edward R. Murrow, and Rolling Stone acquires a new avenue by which to spread its gospel to impressionable youths, i.e. future readers. As more teens express interest in classic rock acts the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and AC/DC, as shown by T-shirt sales indices, this partnership makes dollars and sense.

I may be reading too far into the deal, but judging by the frantic coverage of fresh-faced Fall Out Boy clones and the magazine’s declaration of My Chemical Romance’s latest release, Welcome to the Black Parade, as the greatest rock album of the decade (no joke – it’s in the issue with the Snoop Dogg cover story), Rolling Stone is feeling the pressure to revisit the marketing drawing board. Look at it this way: when Camel has tapped out its resources, meaning all the men are already addicted to cigarettes or dead, it’s time to redirect ads to an untapped market – young women (young, impressionable, image-conscious males would never be caught dead smoking a clove or mentholated cigarette). Rolling Stone is simply doing the same, only the product is less deadly and the audience more difficult to convince. I mean, playing the new Wii is definitely cooler than reading, but I digress.

I must say, however, that such a marketing scheme, either intentional or not, has worked. For years my friends have scoffed at my paltry hobby of reading magazines, namely Jann Wenner’s lovely gem (which, as previously alluded to, is in need of some polishing at the moment). However, it only took approximately two minutes for a 23-year-old, UC Berkeley-by-way-of-Sydney golden boy’s shared enthusiasm for them to crack open an issue. I’ll admit to occasional forays into the dubious territory of cable reality shows, and I’m not claiming to be of a more precious mettle than the gourmandizing couch potatoes, such as many of my peers, who frequent that place – but I was hooked, too.

Done in, yes, but not by the same bait. Aside from Aussie Peter, my friends also fell for the lovable stoner (the dark horse in the race), hard-knock street girl, gender-bending lesbian poet, beautiful blonde poet, and bad boy favorite. Human interest-fueled voyeurism at its finest. I, however, was enamored with this inside look at what it takes to write for Rolling Stone, the cherry on top of any self-respecting music journalist’s career. Honestly, I am enraptured that the magazine is giving me the information necessary to force David Fricke out of office – what they want in an editor.

It would seem then, that the show has the syrupy formula for sweet success and, perhaps an added bonus: it grabs the attention of yet another subgroup, aspiring journalists. Now that we’ve bitten, it’ll be interesting to see how the show plans to reel us in for the catch. Can it stay afloat and garner ratings comparable to MTV stand-bys The Real World and Next? The only conflict and scandal in the show is the inner turmoil each writer faces as they are ripped apart by their editors and realize they still have a lot to learn, a feeling with which most writers can empathize. The plot may be too slow for non-journalist viewers and almost too non-existent to be developed into a series, let alone a single 30-minute episode.

There is one thing I am sure of though: like most in the U.S., this marriage seems destined for failure before its first anniversary. But that’s just my view. See for yourself. I’m From Rolling Stone airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. (EST) on MTV.

(To see an extended trailer for the series, please check below.)










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1.20.2007

Zin Eschews Chic, Thankfully

by Jeff Siegel

California’s Sonoma County is part and parcel of what’s chic and trendy about American cuisine, whether it’s food piled eight feet high on a plate or ingredients no one has ever heard of. Yet Jeff Mall, who is the chef and co-owner of a restaurant called Zin in Healdsburg in the heart of wine country, is about as chic and trendy as collard greens, red beans and biscuits allow him to be. Which is not at all, and which is just fine with Mall.

That’s because he belongs to a group called the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), which provides a service and offers insight and wisdom even to those who don’t think southern food applies to them. For it does. Southern cooking is this country’s only real regional cuisine, and the SFA’s goal is to honor it, preserve it, and pass along its traditions before they are lost in the maze of fast food restaurants, celebrity chef recipes, and processed grocery store products that dominate the American table these days.

Those of us who have taken the pledge (and I’ve been an SFA member almost since it was formed, which is a pretty neat trick for a Midwestern boy) understand that southern food is not just about grits and greens, though that’s part of it. It’s about food that tastes like it’s supposed to taste, about using fresh ingredients, and about using seasonal ingredients only in season. It’s about using food to bring people together, as corny as that sounds – whether it’s the modern American family or something even larger. Leah Chase, the doyenne of New Orleans’ Dooky Chase restaurant, once told the group: “There is no greater way of knowing a person than to know their food. It talks to you about who you are and what you are.”

In this, the SFA has much in common with the Slow Foods movement – it holds an academic-style conference each year, plus an annual field trip to a Southern city to taste that area’s particular specialty (Nashville last year, Charleston this year). But it’s a little more subversive, thanks to director John T. Edge. John T., as everyone calls him, doesn’t see why food can’t be used to discuss the burning issues of the day. That means he is not averse to scheduling a discussion about segregation in the restaurant business in the Jim Crow South after lunch at Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar & Grill in Birmingham. The lunch was one of the best meals I have ever had, and the discussion was just as good.

All of which means the next time I’m in Healdsburg, I’m eating red beans at Zin. Jeff Mall understands.

(Photo of Chef Jeff Mall used with permission.)





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1.19.2007

Film Review: "Pan's Labyrinth"

by Caitlin Servilio

Frightening and beautiful—two words that describe in equal measure Pan’s Labyrinth, the dark vision from the mind of Guillermo del Toro. While I was enthralled by the storyline, characters, and visual spectacle that del Toro brought to this surreal fairy tale, I alternated between staring intently at the screen and literally covering my eyes with my hands.

Ofelia is one of those quiet, fragile-looking children who cling to fairy tales even when adults say they’re too old for them—as does Ofelia’s mother, the beautiful Carmen. Ofelia and Carmen have just joined Carmen’s new husband, Captain Vidal, at a remote forest outpost. The violent, mercurial Vidal is trying to exterminate the rebellion against Spain’s fascist regime. Carmen is struggling to hold on to her life as her pregnancy grows more and more dangerous.

Meanwhile, Ofelia slips into the ruins of an ancient labyrinth in the woods and stumbles into a world of fauns and fairies, who tell her she is the princess of another realm and has only to complete three tasks before she can return to a kingdom without suffering. As the atmosphere at the outpost grows more and more tense and violent, the smart, brave Ofelia tries to complete the tasks and save her family.

Pan’s Labyrinth contains one of the most chilling characters I’ve ever seen on screen—and I’m not referring to the gaunt giant with eyes in his hands, or the monstrous, obese frog, though those are certainly scary. I mean Sergi Lopez as Vidal. He captures more than any other actor the essence of a man capable of doing unspeakably bloody deeds without flinching, and every time he appeared I felt a strong sense of dread. Another standout is Maribel Verdu as a rebellious housekeeper, who proves to be Vidal’s match. But Ivana Baquero steals the movie as Ofelia, lacking the ridiculous cuteness of, say, Dakota Fanning, but poignantly depicting the depths of a child who’s lost both parents.

Del Toro stages the film darkly, with every set piece and CGI creature hinting at danger, but the movie is also quite lovely, and images of marble halls and huge trees remained in front of my eyes afterwards. Each individual gunshot in the movie is jarringly, upsettingly loud and immediate. The eerie soundtrack and flowing Spanish language only build atmosphere.

Even though I did spend some of it peeking through my fingers, I recommend seeing Pan’s Labyrinth—courageous viewers will find, like Ofelia, that fear is nothing compared to the beauty that awaits those brave enough to endure.

(Promotional poster from Picturehouse, a division of Time Warner. To see the R-rated film's trailer, please check below.)






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1.18.2007

Iraq: Where the Truth Goes to Die

by Laura Snedeker

On December 30, 2006, Saddam Hussein was hanged in silence in Iraq’s Interior Ministry. Days later he was hanged again, this time to the jeers of his executioners and cries of “Moqtada! Moqtada! Moqtada!” in reference to the cleric who now supports the ruling Shi’ite bloc in the Iraqi legislature.

The second death – the real death, the unofficial death – occurred thanks to a video captured by the camera-phone of one of the Iraqi officials in attendance. Much to the horror of the US-backed Iraqi government (and the war’s supporters in Washington), the footage was broadcast by al-Jazeera and several internet sites, prompting an outcry from the minority Sunni population. And in accordance with democratic procedure, the perpetrator was arrested on the orders of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

It’s not clear whether the man responsible taped the execution with the intention of providing the truth or whether he intended to provoke the Sunni population, or even if he recorded it for his own amusement. It’s telling, though, that the Iraqi government arrested the man who recorded the execution and not the jeering executioners. Blame the messenger.

For the war hawks in Washington and their puppets in Baghdad, Iraq is a blank canvas on which they can paint their own version of events, so long as meddling snitches with cameras keep out of the way. If the official TV recording shows that Saddam Hussein was executed in silence, then he was. Bad things only happen in Iraq when someone – whether an Iraqi government official or a US soldier in a torture prison – sneaks in a camera. The atrocities in Abu Ghraib and Haditha were not part of a larger pattern of criminal activity; they were isolated incidents seized upon by the so-called “liberal media” in order to undermine a war that was already lost.

If no one counts the bodies, then no one died today. The administration insists that sending 21,500 more soldiers to Iraq is not part of an escalation, but a surge, and the media have consented to using that terminology. They consented years ago to report the “War on Terror,” when all we’ve seen so far is a war against freedom at home and against two (yes, the United States is still in Afghanistan) foreign countries.

Iraq is a black hole from which people emerge in body bags every day, although we are told that America is “winning” the war (whatever “winning” means today). It is a black hole in which the news of the day is created and controlled to suit the needs of the war profiteers. Like the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the truth has been “disappeared.” What happens in Iraq is meant to stay in Iraq.

(The photo is a still created from official video released by Iraqi State Television, and is in the public domain.)





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Welcome Back!

After five weeks of transitions, our new writing team is in place and ready to go.

Lucky for us, there are plenty of familiar faces:

Hilary Crowe rejoins our group. Hilary is best remembered for her review of American Hardcore, among other pieces.

Caitlin Servilio also returns. Her interview with the founder of Pandora was one of our coups of 2006.

Laura Snedeker and her work will also be gracing these pages again. Her piece, “Nancy Dis-Grace” continues to be the most popular entry on this blog. Stay tuned for her scathing commentary on Iraq, among other subjects.

Also, Stephen Tringali will be contributing again. Longtime readers may recall Stephen’s piece on the Pixies, among other musical posts.

Finally, newer readers may have become familiar with our sage from the West: Jeff Siegel in Dallas. Jeff’s piece reflecting on the anti-war song “The Ballad of Penny Evans” has proved to be one of the more popular entries in the past month.

Now that this group has the green light, we hope to keep you reading, commenting, and clicking back for more well into 2007.

(Photo by mbsordilla of Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)


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iVoryTowerz Radio: Life's Rich Pageant


If the album-rock stations want to stay in their comfortable niche, here's our suggestion on how they could make the format bearable. See if you can find the hidden messages. No backward-masking included.

(This podcast is no longer available for download.)

Playlist

“Old Man” by Neil Young
“These Are Days” by 10,000 Maniacs
“Free Man in Paris” by Joni Mitchell
"Possession" by Sarah McLachlan
"Fall On Me" by R.E.M.
"Reason to Believe" by Rod Stewart
"It Was a Very Good Year" by Frank Sinatra
Cover Me: “Money” by The Beatles
“FM” by Steely Dan
“Security Joan” by Donald Fagen
“How Can You Live in the Northeast?” by Paul Simon
Jeff’s New Wave: “The Funky Western Civilization” by Tonio K.
“Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan
“Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen & The E St. Band
“Roadrunner” by The Modern Lovers

Rick’s Metal Shoppe: “The Ripper” by Judas Priest

(Mp3 Runs - 1:27:08; 80MB
.)

(Photo from topgold of Kilkenny, Ireland using a Creative Commons license via Flickr.)




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In Memoriam: Art Buchwald

Good-bye.

Art Buchwald


(1925-2007)




(The photo of Art Buchwald is from the Library of Congress and in the public domain. Please see The New York Times for Buchwald's video obituary.)



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