Thursday, June 29, 2006

Feeling a Draft???

Last night marked the final exciting sports event of the summer (all apologies to my soccer enthusiast and baseball enthusiast friends), the laugh-fest that is the NBA Draft. Still bereft of cable TV at my new pad, I instead cruised over to my buddy Vaughn's place and jumped in the game in time to see Orlando take the one guy I would have been excited for the Jazz to pick up: J.J. "Don't hate me because I'm a Dookie--Actually go ahead, I really don't care" Redick. In spite of the DUI and the back thing and the no-D thing, I still thought he might be a good addition.

Oh well.

If he gets drunk one night next season after giving up 50 points to Dwyane Wade and wraps a Ferrari around a tree--breaking his back--maybe my opinion will change.

Come to find out, Redick was only the most recent Jazz prospect to be taken off the board early--Patrick O'Bryant and that Sene guy were already gone, too. With a little thought, I came to the conclusion that there wasn't anybody left that felt like a good pick-up, and so I tossed my support behind pulling a Boston and drafting Greg Oden early, or better yet, drafting ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, just to see his reaction.

Turns out Smith's reaction couldn't have been much better than the guy the Jazz did wind up picking--Ronnie Brewer of Arkansas. The guy looked so stone-cold somber I couldn't tell if he was just scared or horrified at the prospect of playing with the Jazz. I'm telling you, we are getting such a bad rep for being unfriendly to black players that I'm beginning to think we should just draft European's exclusively. It's seriously becoming a bad joke. What I can't figure out, though, is that with all of the celebrity trash-talking and complaining about how hard it is to get a beer in Salt Lake, why do so many people keep moving here?

Actually, I can figure it out. I know exactly why they're still coming, but I'm not going into it now. It is a rant for another time.

Besides, it's much more important to talk about the true highlight of the evening...watching David Stern announce Knick draft picks in front of more-irate-than-usual Knick fans. The Reign of Isaiah Thomas has become can't-miss entertainment; it's to the point where someone will speculate on something dumb he could do, and he'll either do it (like trade for Steve Francis), or find something even more dumb or shocking to do (read on).

So once the Jazz had picked, Vaughn and I turned our attention towards watching for what Isaiah would do next, and he didn't disappoint. Once the Knicks were on the clock, ESPN sent a guy into the crowd to get some 200-on-one feedback. The guy kept trying to ask sensible questions while being horded by about a dozen maniacal fans waving their hands, screaming obscenities about Thomas, and flashing peace/gang/what-up signs at the camera. When they spoke, they sounded like a Saturday Night Fever-era John Travolta. Couldn't have been better, unless Stern himself would have crowd surfed.

So the big guy comes out to the podium after ESPN shows the Isaiah: Reign of Terror graphic, to big cheers/boos/general pandemonium. Easily the most energy ever for a #20 pick. Laughingly, I predict the first words out of Don Stern's mouth: "there has been a trade".

First words out of Stern's mouth: "there has been a trade".

Score one for Josh. Unfortunately, the trade didn't involve the Knicks picking up Peja Stoyakovic in a sign-and-trade after Indiana had given him a fifteen-year, 350 million dollar contract, but the moment was good regardless. Then it got better...

"With the twentieth pick in the 2006 NBA draft, the New York Knicks select...Renaldo Balkman."

Who? WHO?

Crowd goes nuts in a combination of rage, horror, and outright shock. ESPN guys almost fall over laughing. Shoulda been a second-rounder, they say. Spike Lee tries to say something positive, because after all, the Knicks have him under contract. Somewhere in a dark room in the catacombs of New York Knick headquarters, Isaiah Thomas chuckles and pours himself a drink.

By the time New York picks another no-name guy with the 29th pick, most in-house fans are too stunned to do anything more than stand around with blank stares and maybe shake their heads. Some of them are still waving "Fire Isaiah" signs. The ESPN camera pans by, catching it all in it's distorted surreal beauty.

And the world laughs...

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Shame On (Insert Company Here)

I don't imagine there's anyone left in the Salt Lake Valley that hasn't driven by a business with one of those "Shame on..." banners out front. In the past six months, I must have passed a dozen such businesses, always with the same professionally printed banners and a few random people standing around them looking angry. They're up at the Capitol Building, they're downtown, my coworker (not the pregnant one) saw one out in Midvale today.

Now, I would be the last person to deny our right to protest, but in this case I don't think they're doing themselves any credit. Whatever union or organization is putting up these banners doesn't seem to understand that the more businesses they protest, the more they just look like whiners. If you have a banner outside of the Capitol, you might think something bad is going down. But if you see similar banners all over town protesting all sorts of businesses, you get the feeling the folks just want attention...everywhere they can possibly get it.

And credibility falls.

There's another factor, too. I think that ever since the 60's, most people blow protestors off as looney-tune eccentrics. We're used to all the old footage of hippies dancing around, yelling and throwing flowers, and nowadays all the protestors look like they never emerged from that era, or they just look crazy. I thought Ralph Nader was a feasible candidate for President until I saw the kid on six-foot stilts campaigning for him in a green suit and top hat. Whether it's far left-wing or far right-wing, I think most people are weirded out by anyone who wants to go march around with signs and yell all day.

There are plenty of valid causes out there. I remember getting out of school so my teachers could go protest at the capitol. And I think that immigration is an issue that deserves attention--there are valid voices on both sides of that one. I think pretty much everyone agrees that the civil rights protests of the 60's were a good thing.

It's just those odd protests that throw me. A few years ago I was working at the Federal Building, a virtual haven for eccentric demonstrations, when I walked into my boss's office. He and a couple of my fellow feds were staring out the front window down at the plaza in front of the building, where a dozen or so people had gathered to protest something. We had no idea what, since none of them had any signs. What they did have was a huge Oriental dragon costume, the kind with a huge head and a twenty-foot ruffled tail that takes half a dozen people to operate. This tall skinny white guy in a button up shirt and slacks was holding the head and leading the dragon around in this erratic pattern, while two more guys sat on the cement Indian-style slapping bongos off-time. Where did this brainstorm come from?

"OK, so we've got a couple of bongos and a huge Chinese Dragon costume I picked up in Chinatown...what can we do with that?"

We continued to watch for a while, out of the sheer oddity of it, then got bored and went back to work. I'm guessing everyone else did, too.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A Trax Ticket, A Bag of Corn Nuts, and a Dream

About 9:30 am yesterday I got the call to take my pregnant co-worker to LDS Hospital. After spending a couple of hours in a Gynecology waiting room reading (thankfully) Road and Track, Car and Driver, and a Men's Health list of qualities that signal a girlfriend to hold on to (apparently if I think she's smarter than me, she's a keeper), I learned that my co-worker would need to go to University Hospital for a different test. Since I didn't feel the desire or justification to hang out in yet another waiting room watching women trudge by with pained expressions on their faces (No really, I'm sure I'll be a totally supportive husband), I was faced with the task of figuring out how to get from the U campus out to my office in Murray. I may be a chump, but I wasn't going to ditch my co-worker without a car, even if she didn't look like she'd live long enough to get behind the wheel anyway.

So, after dropping her off at her next round of hedonistic maternity tests, I wandered back out into the parking lot, excited at the prospect of an extensive public transportation journey. I took a quick shuttle ride down from the medical district to the main campus, and there determined that I would need some cash. My co-worker had generously offered her bus pass, but since the pass indicated that a transit official may demand to see a student ID at any time, I figured the best thing to do would be to cave in to conscience and foot the bill myself.

After a quick stroll past some of my old campus haunts, I wound up in the University Union building, where I granted the Boy Scout-hating people of Wells Fargo $1.75 in order to withdraw a twenty from my account. Next I broke said twenty over by the bowling alley by purchasing a Cherry Hostess Fruit Pie and a small bag of Barbeque Corn Nuts (total, with tax: $2.05). Armed with small bills and some quarters, I hiked back across campus to the Trax station, eager for my first transit ride since a quick downtown spin in Summer 2002 to see "Star Wars: Episode II" at the Gateway.

On the way I passed through the FAMB building (acronymn details escape me at the moment), where I took my very first college class back in fall of 1994. So I stopped by to check out my old classroom, wondering for the 1,789th time whatever became of the cute blonde from Texas I befriended there. The room was much smaller than I remember it.

Pie and Corn Nuts still in hand, I moved on to the station. I didn't want to open my food, preferring to save it for lunch upon my return. It was no small thing that I chose Corn Nuts; several years ago I was a huge fan of the item, until they suddenly changed the recipe and altered the smoky barbeque flavor into a slightly more fruity aftertaste. Enraged, I swore off the product until a recent purchase convinced me they didn't taste too bad.

When I arrived at the station I discovered that my coveted quarters would be of no use to me, since the ticket machine accepted no change. Neither did it accept my crumpled one-dollar bills. It did accept my five-dollar bill, and hence I walked away with a ticket and a pocketfull of noisy coins.

I sat down at one of the benches and began making mental comparisons with the Trax experience and my previous UTA bus adventures. Any critique of public transportation must cover these requisite criteria:

1. Timeliness
2. Convenience
3. Service
4. Crazy People

I had no schedule, so I don't know if the train was on time or not, but I do know that I had enough time before departure to find out from another helpful passenger that he really didn't know if I had to get a transfer to change trains or not either. What I also didn't know was that you don't ever have to give anyone your ticket on Trax; you just get on when the door opens and sit on a bench somewhere. You don't even interact with the driver at all--the only time I even saw my driver was when she had to come out of her booth to open the handicapped entrance and when she had to help a woman from Kentucky that had overshot her stop when she couldn't get the door to open.

As for crazy people, I saw more outside the train than on it. There was one crazy guy yelling at some normal folks by the City County Building, and another old man was shaking his fist at some pigeons down on Main Street. The closest thing to a genuinely crazy person was a guy that rode by with his bicycle helmet on backwards. That was the best Salt Lake could offer that day. It paled compared to the trips I used to take on the 70 but out of downtown on its way to Ogden in the late afternoons when I was working at the Federal Building on 1st and State. One time I was sitting towards the back when I overheard a passioned conversation behind me, not unlike the conversations I sometimes have with my peers when we are discouraged about dating. Only this guy said this:

"Yeah, women these days aren't loyal at all. I mean, I go to jail for like, thirty days, and my old lady walks out on me!"

The nerve. Some people, huh?

I didn't even get to see any awkward weirdo friendships like I did on a State street bus a few years ago, when one 20-something weird guy jumped to his feet and got off at a stop, then a few seconds later, his buddy ran after him and called out the open door, "Hey! Hey! I love you, man!"

After transferring trains at the Gallivan Center stop (again, no tickets taken or given), I took off on a straight shot South on the Sandy line, noting that every bare cement surface facing either side of the train was now covered in mediocre graffiti. Salt Lake almost felt metropolitan at that moment. Rocky would be proud.

Around 1:20pm, I stepped off the Trax at the 5200 South station and started hiking the remaining half-mile to my office, wishing that I had had the foresight that morning to put some sunblock on the top of my shaved head, just in case I wound up driving a coworker to Salt Lake and then coming home on my own out in the sun and all. I still hadn't opened my precious change-granting munchies (even now my Hostess pie awaits my attention). When I finally walked into the office, I realized that even though I had been through what I thought was a very interesting and eventful experience, to my coworkers I had only been out of the office for a couple of hours. It was like the time my companion Elder Clark and I endured projectile glass bottles, a car collision, a blown tire, a lightning storm, and the threat of a tornado on the way back to our south side missionary apartment in Chicago. It was big to us, but our roommates greeted us with relative indifference, even though Elder Clark had been riding on a bare rim for a mile and a half in a thunderstorm. Oh well...


After returning from my epic journey and settling into my desk, I found an article on Drudge that talked about these cross-dressing clothes thieves that had been conducting a kleptomaniac reign of terror in the French Quarter. One store owner described the perpetrators as all being African-American males between 6' and 6'5'' tall and wearing women's clothing. Apparently one of them would distract the employees while the others would snatch and grab merchandise and head for the door.

“They’re all very skinny and very flamboyant,” said the owner.

What do you say after that?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Me and Flash

Last night Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat won their first NBA championship, and to my surprise, it brought back a few fond memories.

I already felt a little bit of kinship with Wade, ever since I found out he hailed from South Chicago. Back in the summer of 1997, I lived at 60th and Talman while serving an LDS mission, and the South Side has been a kind of second home for me ever since. In fact, I knew a kid named Dwayne there--a kid some of the other missionaries had been teaching--and until I finally remembered his last name, I wondered if that skinny little kid from Chi-Town had made it all the way to the NBA.

For that reason, and because he seems like a more amicable version of Kobe Bryant, I've been a fan of Wade. Can't say I'm a huge Heat fan, but I liked seeing Dwyane do well, because he seemed like the kind of guy that deserved the success. If the Jazz couldn't be there, at least a good guy would be taking home the trophy.

But after last night's finish, I feel even more bonded to the guy. Wade put up 36 points last night, another great effort in a solid series. But with 10 seconds left and a three-point lead, Wade went to the foul line with a chance to bury Dallas for good.

He missed both free throws.

Dallas had a shot to tie at the end, and a good one. Jason Terry got off a solid shot, but fortunately for Wade, he missed. Otherwize, Wade probably would have caught some serious grief for the free throws. I can't imagine how relieved he must have been when he caught that last rebound and chucked the ball up in the air in relief.

Actually...I can.

For several years from junior high through to the beginning of my mission, every winter was spent cycling through the church basketball season, and every year, the most hotly contested games were against our bitter rivals, the Bountiful 53rd Ward. They weren't contested in that they were close--they were contested in that we hated getting blown out by them every time.

They had more players, more talent, more height, more money, and more social status, and they loudly proclaimed their dominance both verbally and with their fast-breaking, overwhelming style of play. Losing to them--getting routinely blown out by them--was a humiliating experience, and a yearly tradition.

Finally, by the time I started high school, my ward--the 19th--had started to make up some ground on them. My sophomore year we actually held a lead on them at halftime before a 6 and a half foot player showed up and took over the game for the final 20 minutes. We just couldn't seem to get over the hump.

During my junior year we battled hard for the first half, and managed to stay even with them. I contributed my usual modest numbers--about eight points--and tried to add on as much defense and scrappiness as I could. Throughout the second half, to our surprise, we stayed with them, and as time wound down I fed a pass in to Brian Reese, our center, and he muscled up a shot over future Atlanta Braves prospect Jeff Garff for a one-point lead.

I don't have near the room here to do justice to the feeling that night, but the notion of us actually beating the 53rd ward was absolutely surreal. We held them on their next possession, and as time wound under a minute to go, we tried to stall on the offensive end. Eventually I put up a medium range shot and was fouled.

So I went to the line with a one-point lead and the chance to bury my hated rivals. Looking back, it was a rivalry that had only lasted four or five years, but at that age, it may as well have been my entire life. Somehow I held my nerves in check and sank the first free throw.

I missed the second one.

It wasn't quite the exclamation point I was looking for, but I didn't have time to think about it. We scrambled back on defense as Jeremy Call brought down the ball for a final shot. As he threw a pass over to the right side, I stepped over to help my teammate Chuck Bangerter double-team Chad Russon. Trapped, Chad threw a pass back to Jeremy, and I dived at him as he sent up a three-point shot.

If he'd hit that shot, I would have cursed that second missed free throw for the rest of my life. That's why the sight of my longtime friend Steve Jones pulling down the rebound over Garff at the buzzer is one of the happiest sights of my childhood. We finally put down our Goliath, but like Dwyane Wade, I knew things could have gone the other way very easily.

Just a touch of humility to temper a jolt of elation. Nothing wrong with that recipe.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

50-50 on the TV/Movie Scene

Hard to believe we're halfway through June. I must have entered that stage in life when time starts moving a lot faster...

About a month ago I remember being really excited about the summer's movie prospects. There were at least a good half dozen movies that looked like solid prospects. Plus, in the middle of May sweeps and the NBA playoffs, there was plenty to watch on TV. A good time to be alive, I guess, if you're the type that prefers to live life in front of the big screen.

Well, now we're 2-4 games from the end of the NBA season, half of the big movies have come out, and "Lost" and "24" are both finished for the year. And what have I discovered?

1. "Lost" may yet dodge the X-Files curse.

2. Someone else completely out-did my "Bauer Body Count Jack-O-Meter", and I couldn't be happier about it.

3. When I read an story on a playoff game I missed, it was a classic nail-biter. When I sit down to watch one live myself (or TiVo one and watch it at 1am, like I did with Lakers-Suns game 7), it is an uninspired blowout.

4. Not only am I not turned off to Tom Cruise's work because he is crazy, I think I actually like it more now. At least I really liked "MI:3"...all three times I've seen it so far.

5. The reviews for "Poseidon" sounded like the remake was weaker than the original I didn't really like when I rented it two months ago, so I didn't see it.

6. The reviews for "DaVinci Code" were horrible, but since I finally got around to reading the book--and pretty much enjoyed it--I'll probably still go see it.

7. The reviews for "X-Men:3" were pretty bad, too, but I went and saw it anyway--and really enjoyed it. Short a few--OK, maybe a number of--bad lines, it was just fine, and a lot less preachy than it could have been. I even found it to be pretty evenhanded, actually.

So what's next? "Nacho Libre" comes out tomorrow, but I'm going rafting this weekend, so I won't see it for a little while at least. "Pirates of the Carribbean:2" looks better than I thought it would be, and if I get confirmation of a Keith Richards cameo, I might give it a chance.

And that leaves "Superman". Now, anyone who has read any of my past blogs/columns or had any extensive conversations with me knows that I have a soft spot in my heart for the first two Christopher Reeve movies. I'm not going to pin a judgement on the new one, and I'm completely open to it being a great movie--especially since word has it this edition is supposed to fall into place after the second movie, thus helping all the children of the 70's and 80's forget about that whole Richard Pryor thing--but as I watch the previews...I'm not impressed. It just feels wrong to have anyone but Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, with all due respect to Kevin Spacey.

With all that in mind, maybe I should work on finding a different way of enjoying my summer months. Maybe a river trip...

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

No Motor Runnin'

I'm not going to take a lot of time to bag on Steeler's quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. I think everyone is just glad the guy is OK, mostly because now they (we?) feel more justified in talking about what an idiot he is for zipping around on a bullet bike without a helmet on.

"Gee, you think you'll wear a helmet now, smart guy?"

The sentiment is intensified by the defiance he showed not too long ago in proclaiming his preference for going "helmetless", an attitude that's pretty frustrating for the rest of us who grew up feeling like idiots for wearing helmets to ride our bicycles, while watching our friends clearly have a funner time without them. Some of us may have worn our helmets because our mothers told us to, but I think everyone knew they were right.

All I think this latest episode does is confirm my growing suspicion that I'll never justifiably join the league of bikers living their "Easy Rider" dreams. Even without Big Ben's poor example, I've got enough harrowing motorcycle experiences in my past to make me feel like I'm getting a clear message from above:

1. When I was about eleven years old, my uncle wiped out on a cruiser bike on a highway, breaking his neck and landing him in a halo. The sight of him in that metal bear-trap, knowing that those rods were lodged directly into his skull, was the kind of warning that doesn't fade easily.

2. On the way to church about a year ago, I was heading east on 400 south right before the road swings south just past 900 east. It's a pretty tight turn, practically 90 degrees, in fact. Anyway, I'm at the 900 east stoplight with a couple of motorcycles, and we all take off at the green. This bullet bike, obviously trying to demonstrate his speed dominance, flys out ahead of the rest of us by about forty, fifty yards...and runs right into the cement median at the turn. Very impressive. Luckily he was only shaken up, and managed to make it the rest of the way to church. Looked like he was going to need a new pair of Dockers, though...

3. Three-odd weeks ago, I'm heading to Layton to meet my family for lunch at the Olive Garden. I-15 gets really jammed up because of some construction going on in the median about a mile shy of the Layton Hills Mall exit. I'm in the fast lane, behind a guy on another cruiser, and we're all slowed down to about 20mph. As we pass the construction, the driver looks over to see what's been slowing us all down, then turns back just in time to see that the SUV in front of him has stopped. He jams his handbrake, the bike skids, falls on him, then pops back up and keeps moving. Either unharmed or just in shock, the guy jumps to his feet and starts chasing the bike, which is making its way through the construction site and towards the traffic heading south on the opposite side of the freeway. Simply one of the funniest things I've ever seen.

4. I don't know that this ever really presented a deterrent to me, since I never planned on leading police on a 125mph freeway chase on a bullet bike, but I would be amiss to leave out the classic shot of the bike broadsiding a city bus in California after trying to escape off a freeway off ramp.

5. Here's the capper, the experience I actually had, rather than just observed. When I was elevenish, I lived across the street from a kid named Phil, who had moved into the neighborhood--a typical Davis County suburban village--from a farm community called Fountain Green. Back on the farm, Phil could drive around the pasture and dirt roads on his little non-street-legal dirt bike all day (he was a year older than me, by the way). But in Bountiful, he was stuck cruising his family's quarter acre yard. One day Phil invites me over and asks me if I want to ride his motorcycle. Sure, I say. So I find myself sitting in his backyard on this bike while Phil points out the clutch, the gas, the brake, and a bunch of stuff that makes no sense to me whatsoever. I just keep nodding like I know what he's talking about. Then I crank the gas, and shoot forward in a high-octane straight line...right towards the family rabbit cages. Fortunately I manage to make a slight left veer, so I just knock the cages over instead of plow directly through them, and as I stagger to my feet in humiliation, I see all these petrified rabbits cowering in their overturned cages. Muttering an apology, I flee Phil's yard, our budding friendship hopelessly crippled.

A year later, I find out the rabbits all died the next day.

And yet, in spite of all of this, I still have this romantic attraction for a Harley and an open road. I'm still waiting for the biker mama of my dreams to drive me off into the sunset on her chopper of love.

I'll just have to make sure to wear a helmet. Even Peter Fonda did that.

Monday, June 12, 2006


I'm not sure why I did it, but I caved: I read "The DaVinci Code". Must have read too many links to it on Drudge Report.

I still haven't seen the movie, or read the book my sister picked up about what Dan Brown got right and what he made up, so everything I post here is from that perspective. Maybe it will change.

The book wasn't too bad. It was a pretty quick read (I did it in about five days or so, I think), and even though it went into a lot of depth on complex conspiracies and symbolic explanations, it never goes so far off course that the reader gets bored. I never did, anyway, and since this is my review, and not "the reader's", what do I care about what "the reader" thinks anyway?

All the controversy seems to be about the religious stuff, so let's go there. Reading this book from an LDS perspective is pretty interesting, because a lot of the stuff that is super-offensive to "traditional"(?) Christians isn't so far out to my associates. As a religion that spends so much time emphasizing the eternal nature of the family, not to mention the place of Christ within that family, it's not such a heretic stretch to think that the Savior might have one of His own. In a way, it's almost silly not to consider it.

Additionally, one of the notions of LDS doctrine that sets us apart is the idea that the original church Christ set up was undermined by wickedness and conspiratorial forces, not unlike those described in "DaVinci Code". I imagine most returned missionaries, when they came across the bits that talked about Christianity being merged with pagan polytheism, just kind of nodded and said, "yep".

And I think that's what's both compelling and representative about "DaVinci Code": basically that Dan Brown has some good ideas, but that his connections and conclusions are just the result of playing around with only half the story. For some reason, in the first half of the book, you get the idea that the good guys are the pagans and the bad guys are the Christians, like that the true religion is fertility worship or something. This idea seemed the most strained when the Langdon character is trying to make Sophie appreciate the cult ceremony she saw her grandfather participating in. It just doesn't sell, to me or to her.

But then Brown backs off and becomes apologetic towards the traditional Christian folks, making them look like well-intended but misguided pawns towards some secular party's insiduous ends. In the end Brown seems to be saying that everyone just got sold out by some bad guys that weren't bad because they were connected to a church, but because they were just bad, and that religions may be constructions of weak folks that need meaning in life, but most of them are still OK because they mean well.

If you read the whole thing through a more complete LDS lens, it makes sense. Brown's book, and most atheist-related philosophy, even if they stop short of saying religious people are either fanatics or well-intentioned spiritual weaklings, still don't answer the main question with their theories, which is, what is the point? Why are so many people so determined to live in a world where there is no God? Is it just that they don't like the idea of anyone else telling them what they should or shouldn't do? I'm also holding my breath here, because word on the horizon is that Brown's next novel is going to go after the whole Mormon-Mason thing.

I realize this opens up a whole can of worms, but I'm guessing that the three people that read this won't delve too deeply, so I'll just wrap things up here. The best way to end might be to quote Elder Hugh B. Brown, who said, "men don't believe in God because they've proved him; rather they try endlessly to prove him because they can't help believing in him."

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Get Back, Billy, You're Mama's Waiting For You...

It's turning into a sad running joke...

Whenever I log off of my hotmail account and see one of my favorite musicians/actors on the "most popular searches" list on, I know they're dead.

This morning I saw that Billy Preston had joined the list.

Billy Preston, the much-hailed "fifth Beatle", is another one of those late 60's-early 70's musicians that most people have never heard of. The only people that remember Billy Preston are the folks that read the liner notes on their CD's.

In fact, Billy played at the same Bangla Desh benefit concert that Leon Russell did. He did a stomping version of his hit "That's the Way God Planned It", bouncing around between the front of the stage and his Hammond B3 organ. Good stuff.

He was better known for playing on the last couple of Beatle albums as a special guest, brought in not only for musical competence, but because his presence mellowed the Liverpool boys out enough to keep them from killing each other during recording sessions. He played on "Get Back" and "Don't Let Me Down", as well as some other good songs. He covered some of their stuff later on on his own albums, too. I can't help but think he at least partially inspired Eddie Murphy's early SNL skit back in the 80's; the one where Eddie claims he was the fifth--and founding--member of the Beatles. (His primary argument? That early Beatle hits had him stripped from the tracks--"She Loves You" was originally, "She Loves You, Man"; "Help" was "Help Me, Man"; and "Ticket to Ride" was "She Got a Ticket to Ride and the B---- don't Care, Man".) Also good stuff.

Never did get to see Billy in concert, though I hear he did tour around with one of Ringo's All-Starr Bands one year. I caught the one with Jack Bruce and Gary Brooker--no Preston. Too bad.

Monday, June 05, 2006

The Master of Space and Time

Sometimes explaining my musical tastes to family and friends is like playing "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon". Such was the case last week as I got ready to attend my first concert since seeing U2 at the Delta Center last December:

"I'm going to see Leon Russell at The Depot Thursday night."


"He played with Joe Cocker in the early '70s."

"Who's Joe Cocker?"

"He recorded 'With a Little Help From My Friends'."

"What's that?"

"That's the song they play at the beginning of 'The Wonder Years'."

No big surprise that I attended Thursday's concert alone.

My introduction to Leon Russell came via my parents' copy of the "Concert for Bangla Desh" album, the benefit concert George Harrison and Ravi "Listen to my 15-minute Sitar Jam" Shankar put together back in 1971. The concert featured Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo, and even Badfinger, in addition to the organizers themselves.

But for me, the highlight was a ten-minute medley cover of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" by this scary silver-haired dude that played the piano. As much as I loved the original Stones version, Leon Russell tore the roof off Madison Square Garden with his version. It was clearly the highlight of the set, in spite of a classic take on Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" with Clapton on lead guitar.

Leon's long straight hair was silver back in 71', and it was pure white by the time he took the stage in Salt Lake last week. He'd also grown a big white beard and topped the whole thing off with a classic cowboy hat that turned him into a bizarro Country Western version of Santa Claus as he hobbled around on a cane. But even though his legs were withered, he could still play a mad piano.

Coming by myself turned out to be a smart plan. Soon after arriving, I managed to work my way through the club-style venue to a group of tables at the front of the room that were only half-occupied. As the opening act wound up their set, I nudged a middle-aged couple that had a couple of empty chairs at their table and asked if I could sit with them. Initially they gave me a look that said, "who is this strange bald fellow trying to sit at our table? Is he here to steal our t-shirts?" But soon after taking my seat I realized that I probably could have asked them if I could sit on their laps and they would have obliged.

Steve and Ruth were old friends that were all about making new friends that night. I arrived midway through a conversation about Zildjian cymbals and why Mormons are OK with the Da Vinci Code, and while Steve made a quick call to his mother, Ruth introduced herself and welcomed me to the group. Thanks to an above-average knowledge of obscure session band members from the early '70s, I was able to win their trust quickly. They were great folks.

My two new friends were par for the course as far as my typical concert cross-sections went. Since most of my favorite bands had passed their primes before I was born, the median age of the concert attendee I usually encountered was 55+. There were a few patrons my age milling about The Depot, but for the most part it looked like my parent's 35-year high school reunion.

It was this age dynamic that made the concert so interesting. For one thing, Leon and his band--the band was made up of younger-to-middle-aged players--played a pretty tireless set for their ages. About four seconds after finishing a song, Leon would bang out the intro chords to the next track without so much as a nod to his appreciative audience. But far from a token of disrespect, Leon was just continuing a reputation for pounding out a high-energy set that left the audience about as wiped out as the band. Indeed, it was Leon Russell and the Mad Dogs and Englishmen band that almost wiped out Joe Cocker.

As entertaining as it was to watch Cowboy Santa bop out "Delta Lady", "Georgia On My Mind", and the fastest version of "Wild Horses" Mick Jagger could ever imagine, the audience was almost as fun to see. For the first half of the set the only people dancing were the odd drunk dudes that would wander to the center of the floor and sway incoherently until their glasses were empty, so in the middle of one song, a loyal fan dragged her husband up front to get a photo of her with Leon. She wandered up and stood at the foot of the stage right in front of Leon's keyboard setup, turning and flaring her arms out like she was posing in front of a zoo exhibit. Leon played on, no doubt rolling his eyes behind his dark aviator shades.

Later another loyal fan curled herself up in the long curtains hanging over Leon's side of the stage and gazed at the Master of Space and Time for about 45 minutes straight. This woman had to be at least fifty years old, but the look on her face told you she felt about fourteen as she stood there within a hop and stretch of her hero.

In fact, the proximity to Leon had me a bit baffled. The table I'd scored was about fifteen yards away from the Master himself, including the distance from floor to stage. It occurred to me that it would be quite easy to take him out with a beer, even with my suspect accuracy, and I was quite glad at that moment that I wasn't a drinker. The headline would have been quite embarassing:


Finally after an exhaustive hour of constant upbeat tunes, Leon said hello to the beautiful Salt Lake crowd and gave his band a break. Everyone left the stage except for his lead guitarist, who stayed on to favor the club with a slide guitar solo. Leon himself stayed at his bench, no doubt to ease his rusty knees. Photo Lady took advantage of the moment and climbed on stage to try to have a word with the Master, but a security guard managed to escort her off stage before Leon had to impale her with his cane. Once the guitar solo was done, Leon cranked out a couple of slow numbers, including one of his all-time greats, "A Song For You".

Then came the big moment. The band came back out on stage, picked up their instruments, and Leon pounded out the opening chords to "Jumpin' Jack Flash". With every bit of swagger and strut as Mick ever put out, Leon more than did justice to the Jagger/Richards original, eventually seguing into a full "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone"/"Paint it, Black"/"Kansas City" medley that brought The Depot to a full holy roller peak. As we all came down off our high and gave Leon a standing ovation, he told us he had to go after the next number, a love song, he said, taught to him by an old teacher years ago.

Then Leon ripped into "Great Balls of Fire".

With that, the band left the stage with a wave, and the guitarist came out to sell tour t-shirts in the corner. I stood around for a while, figuring Leon probably wouldn't be coming back out on his cane for any encores. But that was OK. He'd more than done his job for the evening. It's hard to say whether he won any new fans that night. I imagine most everyone there already knew him. There was one girl up front dancing with I guy I figured was her dad who may have been getting her first dose of Mr. Space and Time who couldn't have been more than the 21 years she needed to get in the club, so I guess there was a little bit of torch passing going on.

Leon never did get a lot of recognition even in his prime, so I don't expect a whole lot to change now. He probably doesn't even care. He knows his music will live on as long as we've got "The Wonder Years".