Under 30

I can't complain but sometimes I still do

Friday, February 03, 2006

For the 11 Packers fans who still think Brett Favre won't retire

Once a youthful gunslinger on the gridiron, No. 4 is now selling to geriatrics with sensitive gums. Somehow, it's still not as embarrassing as his cameo in "There's Something About Mary."

Does he suck? election results

First off, I want to thank the people who voted. There were 23 votes cast and 41 comments posted. That is far more than I anticipated. It's nice to know that you all respected the seriousness of this issue.

Now, the final verdict. Based on votes cast by readers of the Under 30 blog, Dashboard Confessional ... DOES NOT SUCK. The final vote was 14 for "Not suck," and 9 for "Suck." Even if you add a vote for "Suck" from yours truly, that's still a decisive victory for "Not suck" by 58 to 42 percent.

I'm shocked. I had no idea my readership was so lame. I mean, look at this fool!!! Living Life 100%?!? Ugh!

What does this mean in the long run? Well, sadly, it means that the official stance of Under 30 blog on Dashboard Confessional is that he does not suck. I will preserve this result in a permanent list on the left side of this blog. I hate the decision, but I love democracy more. Besides, I'm used to being disappointed by elections.

Look out for the next "Does he suck?" on Wednesday. I'm open to suggestions. I'm looking for people, places, things, ideas, and anything else with debateable suckitude.

For the Appleton peeps: Valley Fair Mall RIP

In case you haven't heard, the Valley Fair Mall is being sent to the great shopping center in the sky. Like countless other native Appletonians, I have many cherished childhood memories of the Valley Fair Mall. Going to the arcade, seeing movies at Valley Value Cinema, shoplifting dirty magazines by the half-dozen from the book store. Please excuse me, I have to stop typing to wipe away a tear.

Still, this is the for the best. The Valley Fair Mall has been a mess for years. Some well-intentioned folks recently tried to turn it into the world's first "teen mall" or whatever, but they failed. Apparently, every mall is a teen mall. And a vaguely religious paintball court can't compete with the Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch.

I wonder how this will affect the Valley Fair's core demographic, which is evenly split among mall-walking senior citizens and dry-humping teenagers looking for a safe place to smoke.

Another Does he suck? election update

Say what you will about Dashboard Confessional, but the professional cry-baby with caterpillar sideburns really brings out the voters. We have had record turnout and there still are about two and a half hours to go before the polls close. Of course, this is our first Does he suck? election, so any turnout would be a record, but still.

As with any hotly contested election, voters are sharply divided. One "Suck" supporter asserted that Dashboard doesn't suck, he is the definition of suck, a statement I have unfortunately been unable to confirm with my American College Dictionary.

"Not suck" voters have been equally vitriolic, including one voter who doubted whether the "Suck" supporters had ever been in love. Ouch! Apparently Dashboard Confessional is like Christmas, and embracing him will make your heart grow three sizes. I don't dare count the votes yet. It's too close. If you haven't voted yet, do it!

Is this supposed to be funny?

Is it? Because I have been saying the exact same thing for the past four months.

Oh, I get it! What will you think of next, Onion?

Shameless self-promotion

Today's Under 30!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Lil' Markie news update: A VH1 debut!?!

These are high times at Under 30 HQ. Not only are we in the middle of a hotly contested Dashboard Confessional suckiness election (don't forget to vote!), but now there's also word that our friend Lil' Markie could be on the verge of the big time.

Some VH1 show called "Web Junk" supposedly is airing a clip of our loveable dope in its next episode airing Friday night at 10:30 p.m. CST. Here is what the episode description says: ... a schizophrenic church soloist who channels what sounds like Donald Duck for his curious parishioners ... Not how we would have described it (Donald Duck? More like Alvin and the Chipmunks), but it sure sounds like our Lil' Markie!

Regular readers already know about Lil' Markie, so the man requires no introduction. (Here's an introduction anyway.) This VH1 thing is huge news. Obviously, we at Under 30 feel responsible for Lil' Markie's sudden rise to power. Now we can start hating him for being so popular.

Does he suck? election update

The Dashboard Confessional "Does he suck?" vote has turned into a real heavyweight bout. "Suck" got off to a quick start, landing a series of devastating body blows on "Not suck" that I thought spelled doom for the cagey upstart. But "Not suck" has shown incredible heart and battled back. Now, shockingly, "Not suck" has the lead.

This is far from over. I'm counting votes until NOON FRIDAY.

P.S. It goes without saying that we are operating under the honor system. That means no ballot-stuffing. We are determining the potential suckiness of a human being here, so honesty is expected and demanded.

P.P.S. Please make your votes clear. We have at least one disputed vote that will have to be thrown out. With an election this hotly contested, every voice counts. Please, I don't want to drag the Supreme Court into this.

Note to self: Don't send the "Ghetto Prom" e-mail from work

This guy should have cleared out his desk as soon as he hit send. Me, I keep all offensive content pored over at work contained to my blog. That's what they used to call "class."

New blog feature: Does he suck?

I admit, I'm a judgemental guy. I make snap judgements about people, places, things, ideas and other nouns all the time. And I'm often wrong. (Upcoming blog feature: "I was wrong." Topics include Woody Allen, Ryan Adams and my mom's dumplings and sauce. Look for it!)

I'm trying to be less judgemental and more open to other points of view. Hence my new semi-regular blog feature, "Does he suck?" This represents tremendous growth for me. There was a time when I wouldn't bother asking. If I thought he sucked, he sucked. End of story.

But this is the dawn of a new enlightened time. I want to hear what you think. Our first installment features Dashboard Confessional, a.k.a. Chris Carrabba.

Not to sway the jury, but Dashboard obviously sucks. His MTV Unplugged special from a few years back is the single most disturbing pop music moment outside of Woodstock '99 from the past 15 years. Seeing all those creepy teenagers singing along to Dashboard's whiny wimp anthems at the tops of their lungs was like watching "Children of the Corn" re-enacted by the cast of Up With People.

But, hey, I could be wrong. My friend Erin thinks so. What do you think?

UPDATE: I'm keeping the polls open until NOON FRIDAY.

How rude! Now, seriously, pass the meth pipe

Is this really that big of a surprise? How would you turn out if this was your family?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Speaking of cheap standing ovations...

...here's a piece I wrote for Harp about another annoying show biz tradition: fake encores.

Who wants to see drunk Ben Roethlisberger?

I admit, before this year's NFL playoffs, I thought Big Ben was overrated. But the guy is a worldbeater, on and off the field.

For more, go here.

Note to self: No James Earl Ray jokes on blog

The following note appeared on the media Web site Poynter. Thankfully, I stick to turds and virgins.

Matt Donegan, a copy editor and reporter for the weekly Dover (DE) Post, was fired after his editor, Don Flood, was alerted to his blog. Flood calls the 24-year-old's posts "extremely offensive and just contrary to what we believe here." (Donegan wrote after his black neighbors had a party on Martin Luther King Jr. Day eve: "I bet James Earl Ray was woken up by black people yelling pointlessly in the streets the night before he killed your civil rights leader.") Donegan says "what I wrote ... was rude, but it doesn't make it wrong."

The cheapening of standing ovations

I watched about 15 minutes of the president's State of the Union address before shutting it off last night. Nothing to do with the speech itself, though as a former high school forensics star who went to nationals TWICE (that's right, I was a forensics dynasty), I think Bush could have sold his "We're addicted to oil" money line better. Draw it out more, George: "We're. Addicted. To. Oiiil!" And drive each word home with a powerful right hand gesture.

What bothered me about the speech (and all State of the Unions) is the preponderance of standing ovations. Every other sentence, these people were standing up and clapping for 10 seconds. Even if Bush said something obvious like, "Children need to eat food to survive!" they applauded like he just came up with Declaration of Independence right there on the spot. It made a 15 minute address last 45 minutes.

I've noticed this phenomenon at theater shows I have reviewed. Almost every play or musical I have ever attended has ended with a standing ovation, even when the show clearly sucked. Whatever happened to saving the standing ovation for something really special? Now if you don't stand up, it's like not clapping at all. Standing ovations are expected.

My question is this: Now that the standing ovation is totally cheap, how do you recognize something exceptional? Jump and clap? Maybe some sort of synchronized routine with the other people in your row? How about a tip jar?

Any ideas?

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Klosterman blog

One of my favorite writers, Chuck Klosterman, is doing a blog from the Super Bowl for ESPN.com. Read it here.

The cool, refreshing rush of hatred

I write for a newspaper, and I often write about what I think, so I get my share of hate mail. After all these years (OK, five years), I sometimes wonder if I have become so jaded that the ability to hate a newspaper story written about somebody else has left me. Thanks to this, my fear has been abated.

I don't hate this story because I love Jon Stewart. I hate it because the guy makes an annoying argument. First off, he never says why Stewart isn't funny. He falls back on that age old track of ripping "the elite" for thinking that he's funny. If "the elite" finds him funny, he must be an elitist, right? Because, seriously, why doesn't this fella do more jokes about how his wife won't let him watch football?

This leads into the second thing I hate about the story: the guy either is an idiot or deliberately misleading with numbers. I quoth: Take a look at the Nielsen figures for the show, and the numbers are startling. This supposedly terrific program, with its high hipness factor - people actually say they get their only news from "The Daily Show" - is averaging 1.3 million viewers in January, most of them men between the ages of 18 and 49. During November, the political high season in which Stewart and his cohorts supposedly thrive, the show averaged 1.45 million viewers ... For comparison, Nielsen estimates there are 218 million people over the age of 18 in the nation's 112 million homes with televisions.

I'm not even going to waste my time debunking the popularity=good argument. Does this guy really believe that every single one of those 218 million people watch TV every single minute of the day every day? Does he believe even 50 percent of them do? What is he, 5? Even if all those people were TV-obsessed shut-ins, they have 500 channels to choose from. That tends to divide the audience a bit. But Huff addresses this point.

Now, before the legions of Stewartites start bellyaching that the show airs on Comedy Central, so the numbers are going to be smaller, stop. Comedy Central is in 88 million homes, so it's well-distributed.

Again, he's either stupid or misleading. Being in a home doesn't mean the channel is being watched. I have approximately 79 channels that I have never, ever watched in my life. If a cable show can get over a million vierwers, that's a success.

I did write this guy some knee-jerk hate mail, by the way:

Hey Richard,

I'm sorry you don't like Jon Stewart. Unfortunately, Larry the Cable Guy wasn't available to host the Oscars. Maybe Carrot Top is free?

A member of the non-masses,

Steven Hyden

I admit, my references were easy. But I was too busy enjoying the hatred to care.

" I eat with my hands. Because my best friends are my dogs. And I like pit bulls. And N.W.A."

Now that everybody hates "A Million Little Pieces" author James Frey because Oprah told them to, it's only a matter of time before somebody digs this out. I remember reading the story when it came out and thinking the guy was a real, um, let's just say it rhymes with moose hag. But now that this proto Hemingway is persona non grata in the United States of Winfrey, his bravado is almost poignant. I'm reminded of that scene in "Boogie Nights" where Dirk Diggler stands in Jack Horner's kitchen after almost getting his head blown off in a horrifying drug deal, and he admits that he really screwed a good thing up. Jack knows he's absolutely right, and he shouldn't forgive him, but he does anyway, because the kid is just so damn pathetic.

Be warned: Frey really, really likes the f-word. So if you don't, don't click the link.

Monday, January 30, 2006

This is why I'm not into bondage

Because I know I would be the guy who had a heart attack while strapped to the medieval rack. And then they would write stories like this about me.

Favorite passage: During his closing argument to the jury, prosecutor Robert Nelson put on a black leather mask with a zippered mouth opening and re-enacted the bondage session. With both hands, he reached back and clutched the top of a blackboard as if strapped to the rack. Then he hung his head as if dead.

Asher's lawyer objected, and the judge agreed.

"That's enough Mr. Nelson," Judge Charles Grabau said. "Thank you for your demonstration."

No, judge. Thank you!

George Bush supporters don't care for black people


I am shocked (shocked!) by these findings!

"Oh, my God, I can't believe you're still wearing pleats!"

Here's a cool story about one of Wisconsin's greatest exports sticking it to snobby New Yorkers.

If you are from Wisconsin, what makes this story funny is that Madison is so freakin' metropolitan compared to the rest of us. If they're rubes, what the heck are we?

The biggest honor of my career

A co-worker listening to Lawrence University's Great Midwest Trivia Contest e-mailed me last night:

At Trivia, after the teams have answered the question for points, they jam the phones with fake team names. So far I've heard team names "Steve Hyden Appreciation Society," "Steve Hyden took me for $8," and something else unprintable about what you would do for a quarter.

I'm totally stumped on this one. Does anybody know what unprintable thing I would do for a quarter? Please use printable language.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

An interview with Robert Pollard

One of my favorite bands ever is Guided by Voices, a group few people know about but loved passionately by those that do. (Newbies, please check out the albums "Bee Thousand," "Under the Bushes, Under the Stars" and "Isolation Drills" and be blown away.)

I have had the privilege of interviewing GBV frontman and songwriter Robert Pollard twice, and have met him a few times at concerts. Along with being a genius (if erratic) songwriter, he's also a helluva nice guy. This interview originally ran about two years ago in Ladies and Gentlemen, a Chicago-based mag run by my friend Erik Westra. The story isn't online, so I'm posting it here.

Patti Smith once said she never wanted to talk to Bob Dylan because it would ruin the ongoing conversation she’d been having with her idea of Bob Dylan in her mind. At least I think she said that. I can’t verify that she actually said it. It’s possible that I read that somewhere and “Horses” was playing in the background. Either way, I agree with the alleged statement. I definitely do not want to talk to any of my heroes, especially Bob Dylan, who would probably treat me like a dick.

My hero exception is Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, a man who must be ranked among the best conversationalists in rock ‘n’ roll. We launched right into our interview like we were old friends. Amazingly I found our conversation to be remarkably like the one I’ve had with Bob hundreds of time in my head.

The problem with most musicians is they never ever want to talk about music, especially their music. I guess it’s like you or me talking about our daily 9-to-5 jobs. Whereas if you’re a fan, (their) music is all you want to talk about. It is the only thing you have in common, after all. Suffice it to say that this equation results in a lot of awkward silences between the have and have not. There’s none of that with Bob.

Bob is cool. Bob is as interested in talking about Bob as you are. It’s almost like talking with another GBV fan, probably because it is.

The main topics of our conversation were, unsurprisingly, songwriting and drinking, the two things Bob does more prolifically than anybody in indie rock. Songwriting and drinking are the twin pillars of the Bob legend. Bob, in case you didn’t know, is the guy who writes 29 songs in the morning and drinks 29 Budweisers at that night’s three-hour rock show. There is no bigger proponent of the Bob legend than Bob himself. He didn’t become a full-time musician until he was 35, and you get the sense he kept pretending to be in a real band long after he actually became a part of one. Drinking always has fueled the fantasy. Drinking makes you a rocker, even if you aren’t one. Drinking informs his songwriting, as both subject matter and mood enhancer, but it also is the flipside of his daily routine. A primary reason Bob writes so many songs is it keeps his overactive mind entertained. “It keeps me out of trouble that way,” he says.
I caught him on an early August morning just as he was wrapping up the day’s work on some new GBV songs. The band’s latest album, the pretty darn wonderful “Earthquake Glue”, wasn’t even out yet and here he was already planning ahead. The publicist from Matador had warned that Bob would be screening his calls (word is he has some loony fans) but he picked up on the second ring.

LG: So what are you up to this morning?
BP: I’ve just been hanging out and working on some collages. I’m going to start this quarterly with our merchandising company for my collages and poems and shit. So I’ve been working on that, trying to get that first issue together. And I’m working on songs for the next Guided by Voices record. I’m going to do some demos tomorrow for it.

LG: Do you write songs every day?
BP: I work on them. Every morning I work on stuff. I don’t necessarily come up with new stuff every day but I do work every morning.

LG: I hear you’re an early riser.
BP: Yeah, I get up usually around 6 or something and by 10 I’m finished, I’ve got the rest of the day. People stay in bed all day long, they waste the fucking day. I think that’s the most creative part of the day, the morning. But that’s just me, I don’t know, some people work differently.

LG: Have you been doing collages as long as you’ve been writing songs?
Bp: I used to make all these fake album covers and they were basically collages that I would give band names to. And I’ve been doing that since I was probably in early high school. But I was writing songs before that even. I started writing songs when I was maybe 9 years old or something like that. They were silly, stupid shit. “Planet Mars.” “Eggs Make Me Sick.” “Jagwire.” Not Jaguar, Jagwire.

LG: That sounds like a hit, man.
BP: Yeah, they were hits back then.

LG: The new album is great by the way.
BP: Thank you. I think it’s solid. It kind of rocks.

LG: It’s a good rebound from “Universal Truths and Cycles”, which I thought was a drop-off from “Isolation Drills.”
BP: You’re more into the more solid, more focused shit, aren’t you?

LG: Not necessarily because I love a lot of your solo work. It just seems like “Isolation Drills” was this great, large scale rock album and everything you’ve done since has backed away from that.
BP: That was kind of a catharsis for me, that album. That was just kind of a point in my life where a lot of shit went down and it was just a complete change in my life, with the break-up of my wife of 21 years. I was so lost. I just didn’t know what I was going to do and that record came out of that. And after that everything was a rebuilding process. I’m much more comfortable with what we’re doing now. My ideas come from the way I feel, my emotions. Right now I’m happy. I just got engaged to a girl I met in St. Louis about four or five months ago, so the stuff I’m writing now is more poppy, more up.

LG: Is it hard to listen to “Isolation Drills” now?
BP: It is but I like that. I always wanted to make what I call a blue record, like a “Who’s Next” type of album. I always wanted to do a sad, anthemic record that kind of lifts you up from your depression. That to me was that so hopefully I’ve been able to stay up. I have ups and downs and shit but I’m pretty happy right now. I’m pretty happy with my life and where I live now. I lived in a shitty apartment at that time and that made me depressed and now I live in a nice big loft. And I have a girl. And my band is getting along really well right now. The chemistry is there. So everything is going really well and the songs are positive because of that.

LG: Is that where the title comes from, “Earthquake Glue”? Has all that stuff kept your world from being ripped apart?
BP: To me it’s synonymous with love. Not only me but everyone. More so now than ever we need to figure out how to keep it together. But it didn’t come from that originally. When I write lyrics it’s just kind of spontaneous. I just kind of let it go, space out and write them.
Titles are important to me. Every facet of making a record is important to me as an art. The cover, the title. It’s important that the title isn’t too obvious with what the cover looks like. A lot of times you see records that are just too obvious. One thing I really labor over is the sequence. One of my favorite things to do is to sequence stuff. So like, the thing about “Universal Truths and Cycles“, you say you didn’t like that record as much as this one, that record we were starting to do things ourselves again and we were working with Todd Tobias, a new producer actually. And we were kind of feeling our way around on that one and it’s kind erratic and kind of all over the place. It’s not as focused as “Earthquake Glue.”

LG: The cool thing about you is that you’re kind of like Neil Young in that you make a record every year, and it’s fun to follow you because even your less successful records are interesting in the context of what you do. A record like “Universal Truths and Cycles” would be more disappointing if you only put out one record every five years.
BP: Well that’s the thing I’ve always said, if you don’t like something you can go to the next one quickly. A lot of bands will labor over 12 songs for five years. What happens if you don’t like those songs? You’ve pretty much wasted five years. I think I work out of fear of failure. But it’s also because I love doing it. Everybody has something they love to do and this is what I love to do.

LG: So these songs you’re working on now, you’re intending them for the next Guided by Voices record?
BP: Yeah. I like to stay ahead. Before we put a record out, I kind of have the understanding that we have to get on the road for a long time and it’s going to be pretty difficult to do a whole lot of work. So I like to get my work finished before we get out on tour. I always pretty much have the next record ready to go before the latest album is released. I’ve got 15 songs ready to go. A friend of mine below me in this apartment building has an 8-track set-up and we’re going to do demos tomorrow for the band. I like to keep the band working.

LG: Your songwriting for GBV projects seems really influenced by this current line-up.
BP: I have them in mind now when I write for Guided by Voices. There is kind of a distinction between the types of songs I write now and what projects they go on. I keep a notebook and I keep it organized, where like I’ll say, these songs go to Circus Devils or these songs definitely go to Guided by Voices. Now I think my best songs go to Guided by Voices. It used to be like it didn’t matter. Whatever batch of songs I’m working on, whatever’s next, they will go to that project. But now I’ve slowed myself down and become more patient, working on the arrangements and sending demos to my band so they can give me some input and they send back their parts and ideas they have. It’s gotten to be more of a collaborative thing, more of a band effort now. And whatever else I’ll reserve for whatever solo project I’m working on. I just did this Phantom Tollbooth thing. I just finished another Circus Devils record. I’m getting ready to work with Tommy Keene, do you remember him?

LG: Yeah.
BP: Yeah, we’re going to be called the Keene Brothers. So he sent me some music and I kind of talked about which ones we want to do. It’s probably going to be a slow thing because he’s pretty busy and I’m pretty busy. So we’ll probably start working on that around November and it will come out next year.

LG: You said earlier that if you aren’t writing songs you get depressed. What do you mean by that?
BP: Well, I just sit around not knowing what the fuck to do. I don’t know, I just drive around and fucking drink and shit. (laughs) I drink too early. I like to not start drinking until 5 or 6 or something. If I’m not doing anything I might want to start earlier than that. I don’t want to do that.

LG: Do you think GBV fans would be disappointed if they showed up and you weren’t drinking on stage?
BP: I tried it once and they were. I told (GBV guitarist) Nate Farley first of all, I said I’m not going to drink tonight. And he said I’ll boo you if you don’t drink. And I go, well I’m going to try it anyway and see what it’s like. And I went out there and was completely petrified. And I could tell people were looking at me like what the fuck is wrong with him, he’s not even drinking. And they’re all yelling at me and shit and drinking and I’m not drinking. So immediately I grabbed a bottle of Jack and caught up real quick.

LG: Does it bother you that your audience expects you to get wasted every night?
BP: (pauses) No. (laughs) I agree with them. (laughs). It’s weird, man. I’m shy. Getting on stage is fucking clownish anyway. It’s ridiculous to get on stage in front of someone. So it’s my crutch, I enjoy it, it makes it more enjoyable for me and the crowd. So no, I don’t care. I’m glad.

LG: So you don’t look at it as shtick?
BP: Nah. I look at it as part of rock n roll. I don’t go watch a lot of shows anymore. When you do it it’s not as glamorous. But I don’t like to see bands that don’t drink. I don’t think they’re very exciting. I grew up in the arena rock era. The bands drink and the fucking audience drinks and it was ridiculous and it was a party and everybody acted stupid but it was fun. That’s what rock n roll is about I think.

LG: Do you see yourself touring so much at 50?
BP: No. But it depends on how I feel. If I feel pretty good still I’ll still do it. We may have to adapt a little bit. We might have to change what we do. If it gets to the point where I can’t keep jumping around and slinging beer on people, we might have to rethink whether or not I want to tour at all or take a different direction.

LG: So you don’t want to do the Mick Jagger, rocking into your 60s thing?
BP: I don’t want to keep jumping around like a fool. I find Mick Jagger to be kind of silly and repulsive, actually. Maybe I’ll turn into some kind of a crooner or a singer-songwriter type with a spotlight and a martini.

Thoughts on "Brokeback Mountain"

Probably the worst thing about living in a town that gets movies weeks or even months after they have been released in major cities is you end up reading a ton about a film before actually seeing it. And this inevitably builds expecations in your mind that often aren't met.

I think that's why "Brokeback Mountain" left me underwhelmed this weekend. Thumbs up vs. thumbs down, I'm going thumbs up, but it's a pretty weak thumb. I just expected more. Sure, I liked Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal (though the former's performance, I think, has been overrated while the latter has been underrated) and all those beautiful shots of wide open vistas had a lovely grandeur that harkens back to John Ford's classic westerns from the 1940 and 50s.


The story was thin. "Brokeback Mountain" is based on a short story Annie Proulx wrote for The New Yorker. At 135 minutes, the movie feels padded. Scenes where Jake and Heath chase each other around and wrestle with their shirts off start to get repetitve by the movie's midpoint. At 90 minutes, it would have been much tighter and more effective.

My biggest disappointment is that "Brokeback Mountain" ultimately is a very artfully made TV movie of the week that attempts to teach the audience that being gay is OK and middle Americans are evil for keeping them apart. I happen to agree 1,000 percent with a "being gay is OK" message, by the way, but when it comes to movies, I'm more interested in story than a lesson. And too often, "Brokeback Mountain" feels like one of those solemn social conscience movies designed to make liberals feel better about themselves at the expense of faceless rednecks who don't live on the coasts. (See also "American Beauty" and "Philadelphia.) Coincidentally, these movies almost always win Oscars.

I keep thinking about the movie "Brokeback Mountain" isn't rather than the movie it is. I would have loved to see a story about two individuals who fall into a doomed love affair that feels real and genuine. The lovers might happen to be gay, but their gayness isn't the issue. Rather, it would be all the other interpersonal stuff that dooms or saves every relationship. With the unique setting and characters, I think that could have been a beautiful, emotionally powerful film.

Instead, director Ang Lee plays things a little too broad. Whenever Jake and Heath aren't off in the Wyoming wilderness, they are saddled with dull wives, screaming kids and emascalating in-laws. The contrast in lifestyles isn't exactly subtle, and the one-dimensional roles written for Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway make heterosexual life look dire indeed. But the relationship between Jake and Heath is so idealized that it never feels real. That's why at the end, when tragedy (predictably) unfolds, the emotional payoff isn't quite there. At least not for me.

It was probably impossible to make a major studio film like this and not have the social implications on your mind. We just aren't at a place where you can make a movie about gay people where their sexual preference isn't the point of the movie. You probably need a bunch of movies like "Brokeback Mountain" to prepare audiences for that. Esquire movie writer Mike D'Angelo wrote an interesting piece where he said a truly subversive film would be a gay "Pretty Women," where two guys meet, fall in love and live happily ever after. But for now, apparently, we need our gay movie characters to be doomed.

A deep cut from the archives: A loooong essay about R.E.M.

In 2003, I was involved in a book project called "Kill Your Idols" edited by Chicago Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis. The idea was to assemble a bunch of hip, young music writers and have them rip a classic rock album to shreads. With an idea like that, you are bound to sell millions of books, right?

The album I picked was "Automatic for the People" by R.E.M., a band so inextricably linked to my teenage years that I find them virtually impossible to stomach now. Imagine paging through a photo album filled with every pimply, bracefaced, and mulleted picture ever taken of yourself and you get an idea of how I feel whenever "Shiny Happy People" comes on the radio.

Anyway, my essay ended up being dropped from the book at the last minute due to space constraints. (Part of me suspects this is the publishing equivilant of "I just want to be friends," but maybe not.) It has stayed in my computer, unread, ever since.

Reading it now, I'm pretty ho-hum on the whole thing. There are some good bits, but otherwise the usual things I hate about my old writing (using too many words, too many "hey man!" asides, etc.) pop up frequently. But I did work long and hard on this thing, and it would be nice if somebody read it.

WARNING: This is pretty long, about 3,000 words or so. I'm violating a core blog rule with this kind of sprawling post, but rules were made to be broken. (Cue "Bad to the Bone" music.) I'll understand if this is too long to read, though.

If R.E.M. releases an album to an indifferent public, does that music really exist? Or does it dissipate into the heavens and float outside gravity's pull? Maybe 400 billion years from now aliens will discover the stray notes and use them to trace the history of man on a planet once called Earth. Or maybe the CD gets marked down and tossed in the cutout bin. Who knows?

More important, who cares?Like most rock fans, I haven't cared about R.E.M. for a while now. It used to be big deal for me to admit that my favorite band didn't do anything for me anymore. But now, I don't give it a second thought. When Reveal came out a couple of years back (is that what it's called, Reveal? I think that's it), I made a conscious decision not to buy it. It was the first time I did that with an R.E.M. record. I felt the guilt any fan feels when they turn their back on something they once loved. But guilt was the only thing left motivating my R.E.M. fandom. And guilt without good reason is nothing but self-delusion disguised as nostalgia (at least in the rock sense). Once it was found out I never looked back. I heard R.E.M. still is touring and making albums. Good for them. Hey, so is Kansas. Heck, maybe they'll share a double bill at the county fair. If tickets are cheap, we can check them out! Just as long as they play the hits, like that one about Leonard Bernstein with the really long title!

R.E.M's best days, it seems, have drifted away like dust in the wind. And yet, in the tradition of deluded rock stars everywhere, they continue. Diehards faithfully argue that they still have something to say, but those of us who live in reality know R.E.M. has a pulse because they either (a) won't acknowledge that they suck or (b) don't know that they suck, which, of course, is worse and probably the truer theory. You get the feeling the band missed a perfect out when drummer Bill Berry decided keeping his brain intact was more important that the occasional Rolling Stone cover and quit. The rest of R.E.M. could have called it a day and started systematically selling their songs to corporate advertisers, satisfied in the knowledge that they helped define rock 'n' roll for a generation of college students. But for some reason, Michael Stipe and the other two guys decided to stick together and release exceedingly underwhelming records into the next century. (Actually, I can think of 80 million reasons why R.E.M. didn't break up, but that's between them and owners of Warner Bros. stock.) Berry had a nice fantasy once upon a time (before he became a farmer) about R.E.M. playing a massive concert on Dec. 31, 1999 and calling it quits afterward. Such a scenario would have fit with the impeccable sense of timing the band had during the first 10 years of their career, and might have helped cinch legendary status a la the Beatles playing their last gig on the rooftop of Apple Records surrounded by cops.

But by not breaking up, Stipe and the other two guys have saddled their band with the incredible shrinking legacy (which comes with the incredible shrinking audience with the incredible shrinking attention span for anything recorded post-1992.) With each passing year, R.E.M.'s piece of rock history real estate grows smaller. Sure, they are guaranteed first ballot Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductees. But does anyone really put them up there with the greats? Do they have a single song that ranks among rock's most essential? When you're drunk at your favorite bar at 2 a.m. (the optimum time for the best rock 'n' roll), is this the band you punch up on the jukebox? Are they even on there? Do I hear crickets?

Where did things go wrong for R.E.M.? There was a time when you couldn't throw a rock magazine without hitting a story genuflecting at their incredibly monumental brilliance. They were the avatars of the underground, the most respected band in America. They were cool. Now that Fred Durst and Kid Rock have made the world safe again for uber-masculine, sexist jackasses, a band of flaming liberals who write songs about the ozone layer is as quaint as "Unskinny Bop" was after Nirvana got played on MTV. Which is another way of saying that R.E.M. ain't so cool no more. The only people who like R.E.M. now are those wretched Gen-Xers who came of age from 1984 to 1994. And they cling to R.E.M. like the baby boomers who pay 150 bucks to see The Eagles or Billy Joel. They play "real" music, man. With guitars and poetic lyrics, not any of that rap crap. That was when all things virtuous and true mattered, kids.

So again, where did things go wrong? Most R.E.M.ologists go back to the band’s disastrous 1994-95 period, when they released the grunge-inspired Monster and launched an ill-fated concert tour, their first in six years. Monster marked the first time in the band’s 14-year career where they were following instead of leading. Nirvana laid down the gauntlet, and R.E.M. was strong-armed into playing hard rock to keep pace. Unfortunately, they got a wicked side ache in the process. Not even the most passionate R.E.M. fan would argue that these guys are gut-level rockers, and re-writing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” clearly was not their forte. The sessions reportedly were marred by in-fighting, and for the first time, fans had reason to think their golden boys really didn’t like each other after all. Being in the same band for a decade and a half can do that to you, as can failing to come up with anything better than “Bang and Blame” and “The King of Comedy.” (Peter Buck insisting on playing tremolo guitar on every track must have been frustrating, too, especially since he couldn‘t put the damn mandolin down on the previous two records.) Of course, Monster was hailed by the rock press at the time (though not in retrospect) and the accompanying tour was positioned as a coronation for one of the biggest bands in the world. The gods choose not to cooperate on that one, however. Bill Berry was almost killed by an aneurysm right in the middle of a show in Switzerland. Stipe and bassist Mike Mills also had health problems during the tour. Artistically, the shows were dull and predictable, with Stipe prancing around doing his sub-Bono “irony” routine while the rest of the band was shaky at best, disinterested at worst. (Maybe they were praying that the Lord Almighty wouldn’t rain toads on their multi-million dollar field trip.) By tour’s end R.E.M., for all intents and purposes, was finished. Monster drained them musically and the tour sucked them dry physically and emotionally. Recognizing this, their record company awarded them a new $80 million contract, one dollar for every grain of dirt tossed on their grave.

Warner Bros. has played a “Weekend at Bernie’s” with R.E.M. ever since, and Stipe and the other two guys have been all too willing to fling their lifeless limbs on meaningless albums nobody wants to buy. But Monster was really a symptom of a deeper rot, not the cause of it. When the obit for R.E.M. finally is written, I think the beginning of the end will be traced back to Monster’s predecessor, Automatic for the People, the album that defines the limits of what they are capable of. Coming from most people, that would be a compliment. Automatic for the People is considered R.E.M.'s masterpiece, second to none (except for maybe Murmur) in their vaunted catalog. It is their career-definer and re-inventor. "This is the members of R.E.M. delving deeper than ever; grown sadder and wiser, the Athens subversives reveal a darker vision that shimmers with new, complex beauty," Rolling Stone raved in a rare, non-Mick Jagger five-star review. Adds The Trouser Press: “Whatever R.E.M. once was no longer counts in the new math being reckoned in this eloquent chamber.” And The All Music Guide calls it "the most rewarding record in their oeuvre." (Only bands like R.E.M. have "oeuvres." No matter how many albums they release, Def Leppard will never have an oeuvre, no matter how much Pyromania rules.)

The problem here is that these people wrote nice things about Automatic for the People and then stored it away for 10 years. Before I dug it out recently, I also remembered it being a lot better than the creaky, stiff and unexciting album it really is. Seriously, the first NINE songs are filler (so much for masterpiece) and the other three are pleasant folk ballads wrecked by Stipe's flat-as-a-freakin'-pancake voice and bad high school poetry. Even "Nightswimming," which has an undeniably lovely if repetitive melody, is mucked up by a series of howlers straight from Mikey's 10th grade creative writing journal: "September's coming soon/I'm pining for the moon/And what if there were two/Side by side in orbit/Around the fairest sun?" Ugh! Where's John Belushi when you need him to smash up this kind of twee prattle? (Plus, I really hate how Stipe sings, "Nightswimming de-sa-erves a quiet a night." Can't explain it, just hate it.) But that's nothing compared to the album's biggest embarrassment, "Everybody Hurts," which is "Shiny Happy People" without Prozac, only dumber. After years of beating around the bush, Stipe finally came out loud and clear with a message: Suicide is bad, so, like, don't do it people. Kind of makes you wish he would have kept the marbles in his mouth, but oh well. Put that over creamy instrumentation that sounds lifted from a 10,000 Maniacs outtake and you have the makings of some mighty fine treacle. When Whitney Houston decides to cover "Everybody Hurts" (as it is her destiny to do), she will have the biggest single of her career. I

t's funny how things come full circle. When I bought Automatic for the People the week it came out in 1992, I didn't like it. I thought then, as I do now, that most of the songs were unmemorable and over-orchestrated. "Drive" and "Monty Got a Raw Deal" had decent guitar licks, but little else. "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight" bugged the shit out of me. "Man on the Moon" probably was the best R.E.M. song of the 1990s, but the petulant anti-Republican rant "Ignoreland" was one of the worst. "Star Me Kitten" and "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" were rehearsal tape rejects the engineer forgot to erase. The rest got skipped over. ("Sweetness Follows?" Nope, don't remember it.)

This initial reaction, frankly, really scared me. Not liking R.E.M. in 1992 meant you had bad taste, and I desperately wanted to have good taste. By age 14, I already was a student of rock journalism, and like a lot of people, I read about R.E.M. before I heard them. Those mostly worshipful stories provided a context that made the music seem more important than it might otherwise seem. If I didn't like Automatic for the People, that just meant I wasn't equipped to appreciate it. Like Trout Mask Replica and Jack Keroauc, it was something I had to train myself to love.

If Automatic for the People represents the pinnacle of R.E.M.'s critical and commercial popularity (it does), and they were never more free to make the album they wanted to make in the fashion they wanted to make it (they weren't), it's no wonder the band's legacy has taken a nosedive. Bands are defined by their masterpieces. Pink Floyd is a solid classic rock group, but people wouldn't be poring over their records like the Dead Sea Scrolls if Dark Side of the Moon hadn't roped them in. The Clash would have just been a noteworthy Sex Pistols rip-off if they hadn't released London Calling. OK Computer made The Bends seem more visionary than it sounded initially (though that doesn't translate to Radiohead's debut, Pablo Honey.) Good albums are validated by great albums in an artist's discography because they provide the set up, just as an OK movie like The Usual Suspects becomes a great one because Kevin Spacey turns into Keyzer Soze at the end. For R.E.M., Automatic for the People changed how their previous music sounded, but not in a good way. Post-Automatic, R.E.M. albums suddenly became interchangeable. It is the best thing they ever did and it's not all that better than their worst record, and their worst record (I vote “Lifes Rich Pagaent“) isn't all that worse than any album they ever made. Automatic for the People is the definitive R.E.M. record, just as every R.E.M. record is the definitive R.E.M. record, just as long as you've got those good ol' borrowed sounds from the Byrds, Beach Boys, Velvets and Patti Smith and Stipe's mumbling to go on top of them.

Because that's the blueprint, folks. R.E.M. has a rep for stylistic invention, but their range always has been incredibly narrow. On the plus side, conservatism has made them consistent; there are no embarrassing trip-hop experiments, no Brazilian jazz indulgences, nothing outside the tastefully melodic, "intelligent" music dripping with integrity that everybody expects from them. But you know what? Consistency might make for a better value when you buy a record by an established artist, but in the end you’re stuck with a bunch of records you don't like listening to anymore. There's no potential for discovery with an R.E.M. album. And how can you relate to a band that never screws up? Nobody in R.E.M. ever overdosed, ever got caught with a 14-year-old girl and the Hell's Angels never killed anyone at one of their concerts. They always seemed to do everything right. Even now, while R.E.M. sells fewer records, it has been a quiet, respectable fade. Even as dinosaurs, they have grace. I guess that's commendable, but it's also pretty cowardly. R.E.M. has never risked looking foolish in public, and that's the key thing separating them from the greatest of the great rock bands. It's not that scandal and failure make an artist more interesting, just that scandal and failure usually means there's some actual life being lived, with risks and rewards and limbs that have been trespassed. It might have been easy to laugh at U2 when they crawled out of that lemon during the PopMart debacle, but at least they put their balls on the line for the sake of taking a risk. (A stupid, pointless, "Who the hell told them that would be awesome?" kind of risk, but a risk just the same.) They took a chance, and when they messed up, at least it made them seem more human.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with having a routine and sticking to it. Neil Young is at his best when he's remaking Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and After the Goldrush, his second and third albums. (If you don't believe me, try listening to Trans.) But R.E.M. have long been packaged as weirdo revolutionaries, and pumping out the same old jangle pop for two plus decades doesn't fit with that image. So writers and fans regularly have trumped up dubious "innovations" to obscure how tired R.E.M.’s formula has become. For instance, there was that business of Stipe pledging to never lip-synch in an R.E.M. video, a snore-bore non-story that nevertheless won the Bald One points for daring to be "real" in a patently false setting. (This promise ended up biting Stipe in the ass when he (gasp!) did lip-synch for a video off New Adventures in Hi-Fi that MTV played maybe three times.) Then there was "The Great Mandolin Achievement of 1991," where Peter Buck made a point of telling any interviewer within earshot that "Losing My Religion" was the only song on Top 40 radio at the time with a mandolin on it. (A mando-what? Hoo-wee, that's crazy!) When Automatic for the People was released, critics praised the band for doing a Dylan in reverse, basically toning down its sound at a time when everybody else was doing their best Black Sabbath. Like R.E.M. had a choice. That theory is true only if R.E.M. was a fire-breathing rock band before Automatic for the People, and I don't think anybody was head banging to "The One I Love."

Fact is, R.E.M. was, is and always will be wimpy. A/C masquerading as modern rock was the only response they were qualified to make to the grunge explosion. They were "alternative" for anyone who thought that Seattle stuff was too darn rowdy. The band is said to have planned for Automatic to be a loud guitar album, but any attempt to crank the amps in the wake of Nirvana would have sounded as lame as The Cranberries (who bore an obvious R.E.M. influence from the beginning.) The Monster quagmire who have been bumped up a few years, and R.E.M.'s slide into irrelevancy would have been that much quicker.

As the spiritual godfathers of odious Hootie/Matchbox "regular guy" shtick, R.E.M. are a profoundly boring band. Just forget everything you think you know about them and listen to their CDs. (Trust me, they are still there, right under your Pearl Jam and Oasis records.) The music tells the story of a band desperately trying to be "important," which was horribly important for self-important important artists in the Reagan era. I mean, R.E.M.'s fourth album was produced by the guy who did John Cougar Mellencamp's records, for Christ's sakes. And that's back when they were considered "indie." (At least Don Gehman didn't push for more songs about farms on "Lifes Rich Pageant," though Berry would have amenable, I'm sure.) Now that the '80s are over and the marketing of the time is easier to forget, "Driver 8" sure sounds a lot like "Authority Song," doesn't it?

Shameless self-promotion

Today's Check it Out.

Regular bloggees will recognize the bulk of this from my rambling "Pretty in Pink" post that nobody read. However, it has been shortened, tightened and cleaned up for official publication. This transformation is something us writers like to call "the creative process." Think of the blog as my demo and the paper as my album.