Osama Bin Laden Ruined my Meeting with Michael Jackson

2001Jacko-black-ma_1431610iIt’s been nearly 13 year since I met Michael Jackson. It’s almost a funny story.

It was forgettable in a way I now find unsettling. He didn’t moonwalk or dangle a baby. We didn’t talk or even shake hands. I forgot the whole thing for a long time. It drifted back into my mind while I was prepping 9-11 commemorative articles for Patch.com and the Huffington Post in 2011.

I grew up in New York and New Jersey, but was on the other side of the country for 9/11. When I landed at Newark Airport in late September, ground zero smoke was still visible from New Jersey highways. I don’t remember much of that September or October other than going to a crowded memorial for a family friend who died in the towers. But one day in November still stands out.

For a couple of hours, Nov. 12, 2001 seemed like it could have been one of the worst days in the country’s history. American Airlines Flight 587 crashed that morning in Queens, killing 265 people.  It was the second deadliest air accident aircraft accident in American history. But that day it was far worse than any plane crash could be. We thought it was the second 9/11, a mere two months after the first.

The initial belief that it was a terrorist attack panicked the East Coast to its bones. It confirmed the suspicion that life would just be like this from now on. Anthrax envelopes were always going to be in the mail. CNN reporters would be embedded forever. Suitcase nukes could be left on subway cars at any minute. And terrorist would murder people with planes on the reg. That was life for the foreseeable future.

And that was the day I almost met Michael Jackson.

Evidently, because of the crash, there was no getting in or out of New York. Evidently, Michael Jackson’s limo turned around on the way to the George Washington Bridge. Stranded on the less glamorous side of the Hudson, Jackson had his driver pull into a chain bookstore on a highway. Coincidentally, I just so happened to be at the same chain bookstore at the same time.

While I definitely noticed him, I had no idea who it was. As he often did in the last years of his strange life, he wore a surgical mask over his face, trying to either hide from germs or the public.  He was a tall but his thin frame made him seem diminutive, elf-like. I thought he was Asian. Matted down under a black fedora, his hair looked wet and wiry, like a teen metal head that had spent a month skipping conditioner.

I thought he was a Hot Topic kid wearing a surgical mask to make a bad joke about terrorism. I remember pulling aside my friend Tom, then a manager at the store, and saying something along the lines of “get a load of this guy.” Tom subtly stink-eyed me for badmouthing one of his customers and moved along.

When I got in line, he was standing about three feet from me. For maybe five seconds, I faced one of the most famous people of all time. I shook my head in disapproval at him based on my hilariously wrong understanding of the situation.

After I left a cashier realized it was Michael Jackson. Tom told me that once his identity was revealed, MJ danced, posed for pictures and signed autographs. By then, I think, everybody was pretty sure the plane crash wasn’t terrorism. So it was a kind of celebration. Or at least a relief.

I didn’t get to tell Michael Jackson that “Wanna Be Starting Something” is genius progressive rock disco. Nor did I get to publically shame him as a suspected pedophile. Something that should have been amazing was nothing.

So, happy 9/11. Hope by this November you don’t feel too numb and scared to enjoy standing next to Michael Jackson.

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U2’s “Songs of Innocence,” Reviewed by the Only U2 Writer Who Matters: Me

u2-2This is the first album review I’ve written in years. I thought it would be appropriate for me to write considering my earlier 100 percent accurate ranking of U2’s albums and that I am the only pop culture observer to have the bravery to say The Joshua Tree is a piece of shit.

So my opinion on U2’s Songs of Innocence needs to be heard.

But first, a quick word about album reviews: they are stupid. Only the rare sociopathic loner buys music based on them. Everybody up and down the music food chain knows that. Writing about music is really difficult and doing it on deadline is almost impossible. Music is about sound and feeling and the written words is about about silence and reason. The writer is always tempted to start a sentence with a variation of the phrase “it’s like” and employ shopworn clichés like “cross between” and “on drugs” or resort to tossed word salad with hipster catch-phrase dressing (aka: this rickity rocket of a rocker hits the proverbial fence like William Shatner on a bender).

Sidenote: as my old Hartford Advocate buddy Katie Vrabel noted, heavy metal reviewers have a disturbing love of the word “bowel,” which is  gross and loaded with uncomfortable Freudian implications.

And while you can walk away from watching a movie or reading a book confident you’ve had a complete experience with a work of art, music is rarely understood on initial listen. You might have to hear something for the fifth or six time, on the right sound system, in the right context, to  understand it. That’s why old reviews of classic albums sound they’re written by a smug asshole with shitty taste (looking at you, Christgau).

That said: if you can accept that Songs of Innocence is as much a commodity as the iPhone Watch, it’s pretty good! It’s a c plus collection of songs elevated to a b minus by virtue of Danger Mouse’s production. You’ll hear the choruses blaring in car commercials, sporting events and movie trailers and you may catch yourself singing along in spite of yourself.

U2’s greatest strength remains their seeming unforced ability to create enormous rock hooks. It’s easy to take for granted over the course of a whole album, but it’s really remarkable that every song is ready for arena fist pumping. So even if a song limps out of the gate it’ll hit a hard stride by the time it gets to the chorus.

The song titles are strange clunkers, but I have to applaud U2’s confidence in putting out such naked first drafts. On first listen, Bono doesn’t seem to say anything too stupid in the lyrics except for the musty title of “Sleep Like a Baby.”

The album kicks off with the first of a handful of rockers, the regrettably titled “Miracle (Of Joey Ramone). It’s an anthemic intro and verse and an impeccable build to a let down, limp chorus. The song hangs on a distorted guitar riff that record producers are going to rip off for the next three years. It’s like an alien race reverse engineered the sound of a distorted guitar with nanotechnology. “Raised by Wolves” sounds like it might actually sample guitar sounds from “New Year’s Day.”

“Every Breaking Wave” is a beautiful song with an intro calling back to The Joshua Tree and a chorus that seems written for a Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy movie trailer.

Dangermouse lends “Cedarwood Road,” the other conspicuous rocker, the same polished grit he brought to The Black Keys’ Attack and Release. The atavistically simple minor third single note riff that opens the song could comfortably play over the closing credits of a Sopranos episode. It’s here and on the intro of Miracle that his influence is most strongly felt.

“Sleep Like a Baby” is an early frontrunner for my favorite track on the album. The title is really a pity because it’s actually otherwise strong lyrically, with great lines like “eyes as red as Christmas” and “dreaming is a dirty business” floating over Eurythmics-inflected trip hop and punctuated by a beautiful electronic welp of a guitar solo outro. The synth-pop on “SLAB” and the B-52s organ and jagged new wave guitar on “This is Where you Can Reach me Now” makes me wish they had gone full ’80s but I guess that’s not possible.

Maybe I’ll write about this album again in a couple weeks. But the critical question: how does this effect The Definitive Ranking of U2 Albums? Sorry, All that You Can’t Leave Behind. Hope you weren’t too comfortable in sixth place. Building on the experimental anthem electro-rock of their previous two albums, Songs of Innocence is officially ranked behind War, Zooropa, Achtung Baby and Boy.

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New Song: “Nervous Music For Sexy People”

What if you created your masterpiece and didn’t like it?

That seems an unreasonably pretentious worry to have about a song recorded on free Apple software. But it’s the thought I’m having about “Nervous Music For Sexy People,” the song I posted on Sound cloud Sunday night.

A song that started as an exercising in rewriting Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” became an exercise in dynamics and increasing intensity inspired by DJ Shadow’s “Organ Donor.” The intro has a nice urgency and the song builds steadily. The mood is tense throughout. I like that the chorus power chords evolve from ZZ Top grit into Euro-metal drama. There’s a nice crisp sound overall and there’s nothing too jarringly out of tune or out of time.

It’s probably a verse too long. The kaossilator break might have been a miscalculation. The outro solo storms out of the gate but fizzles before the finish line, but I actually like the effect.

The bigger issue is the lack of a strong hook. The bassline/rhythm guitar part is so busy the melodies I tried to overlay on  it just got lost. I wanted to write a synth part but couldn’t settle on a sound. If I were a better singer I could have just sung something to tie it all together but alas, no.

But obviously I’ve thought about this song too much. I am satisfied with the effort and craft I put into the song but I have no idea if the song is enjoyable.

Anyway, if someone could let me know, I’d appreciate it. All criticism is welcome. Constructive, destructive—have at it.

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With Military Gear, There Are No Good Cops

tensions-still-high-in-missouri-war-zone-after-mondays-riotsAs a reporter, I’ve dealt with a lot of small town cops. With rare exceptions, I got along with them. Reading the coverage of the protests and police riots, I’ve struggled in vain to recognize anything resembling my personal experience.

My impression is that being a small town cop is most often like being a hall monitor with a gun. There’s a lot of sitting around in cars, directing traffic and filling out forms. It’s kind of boring, but a good gig overall. The perks are great. You get uniform stipends and generous time off. Then it’s pension city after a quick 30 years or so.

In general, I found small town cops to be friendly and genuinely concerned about their communities. They were mellow, upbeat guys. With notable exceptions, we got along.

Despite that sunny outlook, I wouldn’t trust any of them with military grade weapons.

My disagreements with cops occurred happened during interruptions to their routine. When bad stuff goes down, cops get heated and feel they have to assert order. Ordinary places become crime scenes, holy land upon which infidel reporters can’t tread. That’s when they start screaming at rookie reporters crossing police tape. They grab for cameras and invoke their right to take 24 hours to make a statement.

No matter how good a person you are, no matter how well trained you are, breaking from a comfortable, quiet routine will make your emotions run how. Being outfitted with twice your normal complement of weapons, armor and vehicles will only make it worse.

These weapons are designed for soldiers to suppress large groups of enemy combatants. Active duty soldiers could encounter situations like that everyday; they get a lot of practice with the gear. A cop might have to put it on once, maybe twice in a career. Even if they’ve been trained to use it, it will be disorienting and foreign.

The presence alone of scopes, the armor and the vehicles create a hostile environment. They are meant to be aimed at an enemy. When police take them out, they are no longer protecting and serving their community. They’re threatening to fight it. 

Besides, small town cop would never have a real need for military equipment. Regular police gear will suffice for everything except extreme situations, and those only require swat gear. It isn’t like ISIS is coming to the suburbs anytime soon.

Once the armor and the sniper rifles are in play, a cop’s ability to exude calming authority is ruined. They can’t direct traffic out of the elementary school after parents have seen them pointing a high-powered sniper rifle at their neighbors?

While the long term effects of using military weapons are likely to be corrosive for community relations, according to one security expert interviewed this week by the news website Vox, they’re not even helpful in the moment.  

There’s a couple levels on which what the Ferguson police are doing, compared to the phalanx, is ineffective. They’re not near the protestors, and they’re not pushing them off the ground they want to push them off of. They’re not doing what they want to do. They’re standing back, using this show of force — I guess that’s the best way to describe it — and it doesn’t work. 

I don’t know how to turn back the clock on the militarization of America’s police departments. But maybe the thing for a good cop to do is to send the gear back.

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This Song Bums me out for all the Right Reasons

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Wes Montgomery, and Maybe we do Live in an Age of Miracle and Wonder

So I googled “Wes Montgomery live,” not really expecting much. And this whole thing popped up. 20 years ago you’d probably only be able to access this when a PBS station played it or you dug into the crates at a college library. Now, you can have it for free, instantly, on a whim.

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So I Spent Two Hours Listening to “Sledgehammer” on Repeat. Am I a Lunatic?

The other day I had to get some shit done. I was alone (the baby was with grandma) so I pulled my old school move of putting a single song on repeat for an hour. It’s a good technique if you’ve never tried it. You forget the song is on after the third time. It stops being a work of art and starts being a propulsive force. Once in a while you hum along. An hour feels like five minutes.

When I started working, “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel was in my head. Since I was on that groove already, and it seemed like a funny 80s movie montage tune, I pulled up Rhapsody and put it on repeat.

Later, I told my wife about my afternoon and she said I picked the worst song in the world for my work lunatic repeat trick.

Would love to get some comments. Am I a lunatic? Was my song choice crazy?

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June 18, 2014 · 8:58 pm

Apple Jacks Off its Earhole

iPhone-5-Bryce-Haymond-Creative-CommonsIf Apple does indeed get rid of headphone jacks on future iPhones, something of minor beauty will be lost.

The universal headphone jack is a rare example of shared technology that allows seamless sharing among otherwise disparate devices. You can buy a set of headphones for $4 and be assured it be compatible with expensive, advanced technology, like professional recording equipment or an airplane.

There’s a rumor that Apple boughtBeats by Dre headphones to replace the headphone jacks on Apple devices with propriety connections. Instead of plugging headphones into the headphone jack, iPhone users will connect them through the “lightning connector.”

The lightning connector currently acts as the charging point of the iPhone. An tech journalist speaking with NPR suggested that merging the power source and headphone jack on an iPhone will someday be a boon to consumers as headphones with features like noise cancellation or EQ boosting will not require batteries.

If you read the article on NPR’s website, the bullshit of the suggestion becomes obvious in the space of two user comments.

apple

But beyond consumer annoyance, this will also have a negative effect on parts of the consumer electronics economy we rarely consider. This will wipe out an entire aisle of every Radio Shack in America. Dollar stores will lose half their tech section. Airport stores will no longer be able to overcharge for offbrand headphones. It will make home audio recording more difficult and expensive.

 

 

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“Free Bird” is the Worst Song of All Time

lynyrd_skynyrd_-_free_birdAfter writing twice about “Stairway to Heaven,” there’s an obnoxious voice in my head yelling “play ‘Free Bird.'” Bear with me as I get it to shut up.

Some people will defend playing the nine minute Lynyrd Skynyrd epic on a jukebox at a crowded bar by saying they were “getting their money’s worth.”

Those people don’t understand money or how to enjoy things.

“Free Bird” starts as a slow rolling storm of a bummer then crests into a tidal wave of irritation. Congratulations. For the low price of $.75 you’ve tested the patience of a room full of drunks.

“Free Bird” wants to to be an epic but, like an Ayn Rand novel, has epic length and epic pretensions without epic importance.

It’s a break-up song, but it’s told from a position of power in the relationship, which kills its effectiveness as a breakup song. It’s a shitty dude bailing on a girl who wants him to stay. His defense doesn’t even rise to the level of shallow, saying there are “too many places [he] has to see” and that if he stayed “things just wouldn’t be the same.” That’s the kind of shit that gets a beer bottle thrown at you if you say it in real life.

Frankly, it sounds like this Free Bird could stand some changing. I wish there a woman sung a last verse about how the guy is pushing 30 and really needs to start taking himself seriously.

Instead, the song ends with a guitar section played by several guitarists who, presumably, couldn’t hear each other while they recorded. The notes mesh together without any sense of relation to each other. There’s no dynamic, no build. It starts fast and ends fast. There’s no soul or personality. Just a blur of blues notes. It’s like a Guitar Center with three middle age men testing out mid life crisis purchases.

Say what you will about “Stairway to Heaven.” Its guitar solo tells a fucking story. Jimmy Page took a long break from kidnapping underage groupies, practicing witchcraft and dabbling in heroin to compose a memorable, simple and melodic musical break.

“Sweet Home Alabama” sucks too, but at least it’s only half the length.

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Is it Weird Being a Super-Chill Person?

Are you the kind of person that naturally puts other people at ease? Do people relax around you, like it’s an instinct? I’m not sure if that’s a burden or a blessing, honestly.

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May 31, 2014 · 10:20 pm