Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Yanni Dilemma

A couple of weeks ago my family went out to Five All's to celebrate my dad's birthday. For anyone who has never heard of the Five All's, you're missing out. It's a great spot off Foothill in Salt Lake that serves five-course meals on pewter. The only trick is parking, because the schmuck who owns the oriental rug store next door chains off the parking lot after 6pm. Anyway, the local economy hasn't helped my friends at the restaurant either, so it made my family feel good to be helping out for at least one night.

Five All's has become something of a tradition for commemorative family meals. Most of the time I only go with my family, because the place isn't cheap, and I am. But a while back my friend Elise and I went there to celebrate our 30th birthdays. As usual, the food was great--I had the filet mignon--but that night was special because of an unexpected celebrity presence.

We were making our way through our Scottish Meatball appetizers when Elise noticed something curious about the dinner party that was moving in behind us.

“Don’t look too obvious,” she said, leaning across the table, “but that guy behind you looks just like Yanni.”

“Really?” I said, turning in what I hoped was a subtle fashion.

She was right. There were about half a dozen people in the dinner party, and one of them looked just like Yanni. He was a slight, elegant man with long, wavy dark hair and a stylish mustache. I considered the implications of dining in the same room with the guy from “Live at the Acropolis”. Should I sit up straighter? Do I make loud insightful comments on the food? Do I even acknowledge his presence?

“How much would it take to get you to go ask for his autograph?” I asked Elise.

She smirked. “I don’t think I could keep a straight face.”

Now, I'm no expert, but I was pretty sure that the guy behind us wasn't really Yanni. The entrance seemed off, for one thing. I imagine a guy like Yanni never enters a room without people at his side tossing flowers to stunned onlookers. Plus I had a tough time figuring out what course of events would lead Yanni to the east bench, though if my encounter with George Lucas last year has taught me anything, it is that you can run into a celebrity anywhere.

But whether it was the real deal or not, the guy looked enough like the maestro to get me thinking. I started to wonder if he suffered from some of the same social limitations that I imagined Yanni is subjected to. Once one chooses to adopt a style of dress and demeanor consistent with the fine arts, one is kind of limited to that line of social interaction. Yanni Guy, for example, cannot show up at Iggy’s anymore; at least without turning a lot of heads, and getting a lot of drunk guys yelling, “Hey Yanni!”, “Yo Yanni!”, and so forth. Yanni Guy can’t go to see stock car races, or watch professional wrestling in his underwear. It just doesn’t fit. In fact, Yanni Guy pretty much has to stay fully dressed at all times, unless he takes off his shirt to drink tea on the deck of his Italian villa. But then he has to be wearing cream-colored pants.

This is the same reason I’ve always felt a little bit awkward whenever I’ve had to socialize with my academic colleagues in group settings. Part of it is because I don’t drink, but a bigger part of it is because my Ph.D.-holding peers are more sophisticated than I am, and their conversations with me are limited to an analysis of whether Michael J. Fox looked too old to play teenage Marty McFly in “Back to the Future”. Sure, Dr. Tinnemeyer supported my decision to write my conference paper on Ricardo Montalban’s performance in “Star Trek II”, but would she ever endeavor to write such a thing? I seriously doubt it. And neither would Yanni Guy.

It’s very possible that in today’s culture, only musically-inclined men feel naturally drawn to grow long, wavy hair. A few years ago, there was another guy in my student ward who had long, wavy blonde hair, and he was really into classical music. In fact, I always referred to him as “Blonde Yanni” behind his back. I didn’t refer to him as anything to his face, because I never officially met him, and I could never remember his real name. I can say that he seemed like a solid, upstanding young man who happened to sport long curly blonde locks. I can't say that it ever occurred to me to invite him over to swear at my television while watching a Jazz game.

It is also possible that the man at Five All’s was a Yanni Impersonator, and that he had been hired by the rest of his dinner party to improve their social status and image by making them look more sophisticated and culturally-savvy. I can’t put an exact dollar amount on such a service, but if the cost is within reason, it might be worth bringing him along on a date sometime.

“Hello, Mr. So-and-So, I’m here to pick up your daughter. I'm Josh, and I'm sure you've already met my associate, Yanni…”

That would be more than enough to calm the nerves of any protective father, and it would probably go a long way towards making a good impression on his daughter, too. With Yanni at our side, we could get into any restaurant we wanted, get any seat we wanted, and might even be able to fake our way through conversations with prominent local celebrities.

"Why thank you, Mr. Decker. Yanni and I were just talking about how much we've enjoyed your investigative reporting over the years."

Elise and I never did find out if we were dining with the real Yanni or not. I'm sadistic enough to come up with mischievous prank ideas, but my conscience keeps me from following through most of the time. I always worry that my actions will genuinely hurt somebody's feelings, or even worse. One time I snuck a friend's cell phone and changed a couple of speed dial numbers, then felt horrible four hours later and called her up because I had this terrible picture of her lying at the side of the road after a brutal car crash, bleeding internally and frantically trying to dial her parents to give one last tearful goodbye, only to find herself connected to the Domino's Pizza on the corner of 4th East and Pages Lane in Centerville. So instead we just returned to our previous conversation, which was most likely me complaining about my dating life. Elise, on the other hand, was in the early stages of dating her soon-to-be husband, which is why that was our last official "celebrate each other's birthday's" dinner.

Maybe next time my big day rolls around, I'll give the Yanni Guy a call.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ballad of the I-70 Soul Soldiers

At 6:15am I rolled out of Orem in a 2006 Jeep Cherokee with my buddy Fabian, two nannies from Salt Lake, and Senator Bob Bennett's great-nephew. Our plan was simple: take a straight shot into Colorado, hit the Killers concert at Denver University that night, and get the senator's nephew out to DC in time for the Obama inauguration. And so in the heavy black of a January morning we cruised out of Utah County to the sound of Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused", armed with four dozen rice krispy treats, two dozen bottles of vitamin water, two bags of Cheetos, some dried mangoes from Costco, and a track list of 25,000 songs from our five iPods.

For the first hour we wound down the perilous treachery of Highway 6 in total darkness, then somewhere south of Price the sun began to shine through the waves of fog that rolled across the frozen eastern Utah tundra while Johnny Cash blared "Sam Hall" through the stereo. As the fog thinned the sunlight blazed more and more intently through the front windshield until it felt like we were driving straight into the presence of God Himself. By the time we made the Colorado border, the fog finally fell behind, and we spent the next five hours winding our way over, around, and through the Rocky Mountains as I improvised a playlist that took us from AC/DC to The Clash to the Beatles in half a dozen moves. Then Tyler the Senator's Great-Nephew took over and served up a round of Killers tracks to warm us up for the evenings' big event.

As attractive as the concert was, we were hardly a pack of Killer diehards. Fans, yes, but only Tyler seemed to know the in's and out's of the complete Killer catalog. For the rest of us, the trip was a perfect excuse to get out of Dodge for a couple of days that happened to feature a great show right in the middle of it. For me in particular, it was a weekend away from unemployment, inversion, and the belabored process of integrating into my new family ward. And with gas prices as low as they've been for the last couple of months, there was no reason to think a quick road trip could be a bad idea.

Thanks to our early run out of Utah County, we checked into our yellow-bricked crash pad at La Quinta Inn with plenty of time to unload our gear, take a nap, and fill up on the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet at Beau Joe's before showtime. Beau Joe's was a local pizzeria chain whose claim to fame was their authentic Colorado-style pizza, which as far as we could tell just meant you put honey on the crust before you ate it.

The concert itself took place in the heart of the DU campus at Magness Arena, a mid-range venue that held somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 screaming twenty-something fans and 2,000 slightly less jubilant fans aged 30-65. Since they'd picked up their tickets three weeks in advance, my comrades landed right smack in the middle of the general admission crowd, five feet off the front rail in direct view of Brandon Flowers' keyboards. I picked up a solo ticket off eBay, which wound up just off stage right on the second row off the floor, at eye level with the musicians.

Shortly after 8pm M83 emerged from offstage and churned out a half-hour of opening tracks, heavy on the drums and synthesizer, and light on vocals. Their style clearly echoed the influence of the main act, and without the Killers' passionate vocals, they sounded almost like a half-hour overture to the evening's showcase. Then as the clock spun towards 9:30 the Killers finally took the stage in front of a wall of light, and the arena jumped to life as they blasted "Spaceman" through the tiny arena. Flowers zipped back and forth on the stage, hopping up on the monitor speakers to egg on the crowd as the band churned through three albums' worth of epic anthemic angst, from "For Reasons Unknown" to "Somebody Told Me" to "Human", with plenty of other hits in-between. Each song was a barrage of Spector-like synthesized Wall of Sound, anchored by rock-solid bass from Mark Stoermer and a flurry of backbeat hammering from drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr., who had the presence of mind to mount a fan behind his kit so his hair would blow while he played.

Over on my end, Dave Keuning rotated through a series of Gibsons and Fenders while laying down his assorted lead guitar licks, all the time looking like the one member of the band most likely to fill in for Bon Jovi in a pinch.

The arena pulsed and cheered for every track, but we saved our best response for the most grandiose of the Killers catalogue, "Mr. Brightside" and the set-capper, "All These Things That I Have Done". The finale showered the crowd with confetti and left us wondering what else they could possibly do to top the show, then the band reappeared and blasted out "Dustland Fairytale", "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" and "When You Were Young" to hammer the final nail into the evening. Like U2 and Coldplay and so many other arena bands before them, the Killers connected with the crowd through their music and their message. Far from simple angst, the lyrics captured not only the passion of youth, but the frustration of being older than you deserve to be.

Once the initial buzz passed and we'd knocked down a late-night meal at a surprisingly hip and well-decorated Village Inn, we got Tyler the Senator's Great-Nephew out to the airport on time for his flight, then crashed for a few hours before taking in a local Sacrament service and heading back out on the road for our return trip. In spite of a little fog and a little cold, the highways greeted us with clear asphalt the whole way, a massive stroke of fortune given the timing of our weekend journey. Six hours later as I steered the Jeep west along I-70 towards the Green River junction, the setting sun once again blazed over the snow-capped ripples of Southern Utah, giving the distant peaks a pink glow as Nick Drake lulled out "Northern Sky" through the stereo, and I remembered once again that sometimes the best way to get out of a funk is to get out on the open road.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Khan Lives!

In Memoriam: Ricardo Montalban (1920-2009)

Last year we lost Paul Newman, one of the classiest actors Hollywood ever produced. Today, we lost his Latin equivalent. If there was ever a guy who could quote Melville on the bridge of a starship that was about to explode, and totally get away with it, it was Ricardo Montalban.

Montalban was the consummate Latin Lover, starring in all sorts of films throughout the 50's and 60's, but he became an icon through his roles as Mr. Roarke in "Fantasy Island" and as Captain Kirk's greatest nemesis, Khan Noonian Singh, in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan". If you ask most Trekkies, they will agree that "Wrath of Khan" was easily the best of the Star Trek movies, and I still think that it's the one film in the series that people who aren't Trekkies would still enjoy.

And the reason is Montalban.

Montalban got into his Khan character the same way Heath Ledger got into The Joker last year in "Dark Knight", and both wound up stealing the show from each film's respective hero. Fortunately, Montalban didn't share Ledger's substance abuse problems, and was able to make it to 88 before he passed away.

"Wrath of Khan" was actually an extension of a narrative from one of the original TV series plots, an episode called "Space Seed", where Kirk and Co. discover a ship full of super-humans who had been in suspended animation since they fled Earth 300 years earlier. Khan is their leader, and when Kirk wakes them all up, he tries to overthrow the Enterprise. By the end of the episode, Kirk manages to capture the whole cult and maroon them on an uninhabited planet to start a new life. At the beginning of the movie, which takes place fifteen years later, Khan and his posse get loose on another ship that comes along, and Mr. Montalban spends two hours going ape-sh@# trying to get his revenge.

It's a great movie. I highly recommend it.

Montalban actually holds a dear place in my heart, and not just because he played a great bad guy. During my first semester in grad school, I was taking a course that had us reading all sorts of books on Chicano Nationalism, which is essentially a political movement based around the idea that the western United States will ultimately be retaken as part of the original Mexican homeland (referred to as Aztlan). Our final project for the class was to write a conference paper on some aspect of the issue, and somehow I convinced my professor to let me write my paper on Montalban, since he'd been fairly outspoken on Latino-Caucasian relations in the west.

At first I just thought it was funny that I was getting away with writing a serious academic paper on the guy who played Khan in an old Star Trek movie, but the more I learned about him, the more I became impressed with Montalban's character. He was a very passionate man who cared deeply for his people and his community, but his approach to his cause was not angry or combative, and I really admired his clear-thinking, down-to-earth views.

Of course I still spent a lot of the paper talking about Star Trek. I even tried to use a clip from the movie when I presented my paper at the end of the semester, but the DVD player wouldn't work. (If anyone is actually interested in reading a 15-page paper about Ricardo Montalban and his relationship to the Chicano Movement, you can find it here).

After finishing the project, I always intended to contact him or his organization and at least express my appreciation for his work. He really seemed like a class act, and I thought that he might appreciate what I had written about him. But sadly, I never did, and I suppose it's too late now.

At least I've still got "Wrath of Khan" on DVD. I've always thought it would be a worthy choice for a "Movie Night". Maybe now is the appropriate time.