Sunday, October 27, 2013

Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die

A couple months back, the staff of put together an opinion poll designed to infuriate their readers. The topic? Best song of the new millennium. They set up four brackets matching the 64 candidates they felt best represented the last thirteen years of popular music, and let the fans go at it.

The resulting hate and vitriol that teemed on the comment boards may have been intentional, but Grantland does deserve its reputation for being preoccupied with hip-hop and top-40 pop music. This latest spectacle wasn't the first time I found myself scrolling down their list of music favorites and wondering who exactly they were trying to impress. Aside from Steven Hyden (who wrote an excellent--if kind of depressing--series on "The Winner's History of Rock and Roll"), I have little use for the site's musical commentary.

But that has as much to do with me as it does them. As a Bicentennial Baby, I have the distinction of being both too young for Generation X and too old to be a Millenial. Because of this dissonance, these days I often find myself straddling the perspectives of two distinct generations of music fans:

The first is the surly, aging rock fan who dutifully listens to Classic Rock radio and insists that "they don't make music they way they used to." I meet members of this group all the time. My boss at KJZZ feels this way, and so did a woman who approached me in the aftermath of one of my blues band gigs two years ago (I think she was happy because we covered ZZ Top). Of course, now that the Classic Rock powers-that-be have shoehorned the likes of Def Leppard and U2 into their playlists (suggesting Classic Rock should be defined as "guitar and drum music that's more than 20 years old" instead of "that period between Hendrix igniting his strat at Monterey and the night John Bonham took 40 shots of vodka and killed Led Zeppelin"), their territory is officially under seige.

The second group is mostly* made up of post-millenials who love all things pop and hip-hop, and give you blank stares whenever you ask them about something that was released more than ten years ago. This is the same group that sneers with distain at the mention of anything that was created before they were born, implicitly suggesting that the only relevant popular culture is the popular culture that was created after the dawn of civilization (IE, their birth). This is the group exemplified by Justin Long's Creedence-hating techie-nerd character in "Live Free or Die Hard."**

My lot comprises a third group which holds a deep personal affection for all the classic music that came from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, but also holds that the last three decades have brought the goods as well. Maybe not in terms of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga, but certainly in terms of Ray LaMontagne or The Black Keys. This group feels like there is plenty of good music out there; you just need to know where to find it. (And where do you find it? The soundtracks of indie movies and cult TV shows that only snobs like. Oh, and "Top Gear.")

On behalf of the third group, I would like to offer groups one and two a sample list of music they should consider adding to their own personal canon, for the expansion of their experience, and the betterment of mankind.

For group one, ten songs from the last ten years that may not be "as good" as your weekly Classic Rock rotation, but deserve your consideration:

1. "How You Like Me Now," The Heavy
2. "Hold You In My Arms," Ray LaMontagne
3. "Tighten Up," The Black Keys
4. "Never Give You Up," Raphael Saadiq
5. "You Only Live Once," The Strokes
6. "Typical," Mutemath
7. "Delicate," Damien Rice
8. "Love is a Losing Game," Amy Winehouse
9. "Unaware," Allen Stone
10. "All These Things That I've Done," The Killers

For group two, ten songs from before 1980 that you may not have already heard ad nauseum on your parents' car stereo, but that deserve your consideration:

1. "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)," Jimi Hendrix Experience
2. "A Change is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke
3. "Rudie Can't Fail," The Clash
4. "Try a Little Tenderness," Otis Redding
5. "Miles From Nowhere," Cat Stevens
6. "Presence of the Lord," Blind Faith
7. "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City," Bobby "Blue" Bland
8. "Maggot Brain," Funkadelic
9. "Ooh La La," The Faces
10. "Sweet Jane," The Velvet Underground

The funny thing about the Grantland poll is that the finalists (Outkast's "Hey Ya" and Adele's "Rolling in the Deep") were actually pretty reasonable choices, and at least in Adele's case, might even appeal to the "they don't make 'em like they used to" group. Which suggests that good taste will eventually rise to the top no matter where (or when) you are. I'd like to think that's true.


*I say mostly because there are plenty of people my age or older who behave the same way.

**This may be the first time this movie has been referenced in anything other than a "disappointment to the franchise" context.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Life Lessons of the Zombie Apocalypse

This weekend I hosted my eighth annual Zombie Fest, a simple celebration I started with my roommates back in 2006. The formula is simple: gather a few like-minded zombie fans, and watch a couple of zombie movies. That’s pretty much it.

Over the years I’ve wondered what it is that makes me such a fan of zombie movies. Is it the thrill of the scares? Is it the black humor or the incisive social commentary? Maybe it’s just the fond memory of watching the original “Night of the Living Dead” in my parents’ basement all alone Halloween night back in high school.

Whatever makes the connection, it’s pretty clear that, judging from the number of annual zombie-themed movies, not to mention a top-rated cable TV show, I’m not alone in my affections. But even if you write it off as a passing trend or a sick fascination with gory makeup effects, a little digging will reveal a surprise beneath all the prosthetics: the zombies want to teach us.

Here are some of the life lessons I’ve taken from a few of my favorite zombie movies:

(Note: Readers should expect spoilers in the following analysis, though I’ve tried to be as discreet as possible for anyone still hoping for a fresh viewing).

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

The Movie: Ground Zero for the modern zombie film genre takes place in a farmhouse where a group of strangers gather to fight off an advancing pack of the undead. George Romero’s low-budget film almost singlehandedly took horror from the camp of the 1960s to the gore fest of the ‘70s, and in the process, “Night of the Living Dead” drew the template for zombie-fighting male archetypes.

There are two principle leads: Ben, the African-American who leads the effort to board up the farmhouse, and Harry, who Ben discovers hiding his wife and injured daughter in the cellar. Ben is all business, and understands that survival will only be possible if the refugees work together as a team. Harry is paranoid and unwilling to trust anyone but himself. Eventually this friction comes to a head, and Ben shoots Harry in one of the film’s few violent exchanges between living characters.

The Message: If you want to survive, work as a team, and be willing to trust others.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The Movie: Ten years after ushering in the modern zombie era, Romero delivered “Dawn of the Dead,” about a group of apocalypse survivors who hole up in an abandoned shopping mall and try to establish a normal day-to-day existence while fighting off competing survivalists and the undead. Surrounded by the finest of material goods (for 1978, anyway), the protagonists of “Dawn of the Dead” are often interpreted as a metaphor for first-world materialistic consumption and its oblivious attitude toward third-world suffering.

As in “Night of the Living Dead,” “Dawn” focuses on two leads: Peter is an echo of the previous film’s Ben, a practical-minded African-American who acts as the group’s realist. Stephen, the other lead, is a helicopter pilot who holds out hope for a traditional domestic existence with his girlfriend Fran. When a group of looting bikers break into the mall, Peter’s plan is to lay low and wait for the survivalists to leave once they’ve finished indulging themselves. But Stephen is unable to overcome his own pride, and the misguided sense of ownership he has developed for his new materialistic surroundings. He opts to confront the looters, and loses his life in the process.

The Message: Let go of material things.

Evil Dead II  (1987)

The Film: Long before he helmed the first Spiderman franchise or sent James Franco to Oz, Sam Raimi staked his reputation with this celebrated cult film about a group of youngsters who unleash a demon in a remote cabin that turns its victims into a possessed, chaotic breed of walking dead.

 “Evil Dead II” features future B-movie hero Bruce Campbell in the same role he introduced in the first film in 1981. As Ash, the leader of the ill-fated cabin group, Campbell is forced to take a chainsaw to his own arm when it becomes possessed with the demon. Ever the optimist, Ash attaches a chainsaw to the stump as an added convenience.

The Message: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

28 Days Later (2002)

The Movie: For decades after “Night of the Living Dead,” traditional zombies were by definition a slow-moving and dim-witted bunch, until Danny Boyle decided to break the rules in his 2002 film about a virus outbreak that turns Britain into a quarantined island full of sprinting rage-fueled monsters. Some traditionalists refuse to accept Boyle’s masses into the zombie canon, but like the possessed victims of “The Evil Dead,” they should be considered close cousins, at least.

The primary protagonist of “28 Days Later” is Jim, a bike courier who wakes up in an abandoned hospital four weeks after the outbreak. He teams up with a handful of other desperate survivors, including Frank, who shelters everyone in a tower flat where he has been hiding out with his teenage daughter. Unlike Harry from “Night of the Living Dead,” Frank is a father figure who is willing to trust outsiders, and eventually the group sets out on a journey to locate the source of a mysterious radio signal. But in a fit of frustration along the way, he strikes out at an irritating bird and winds up with infected blood in his eye.

The Message: Be quick to action, but slow to anger.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

The Movie: Almost all zombie movies have a degree of campiness, but “Shaun of the Dead” was the first all-out satire of the genre, focusing on yet another band of British survivors who fight their way to the local pub in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse.

The titular Shaun, played by Simon Pegg, is the poster child for the stunted man-child modern society has created (and Art of Manliness has sought to cure). Sitting at plus or minus 30 years old, Shaun is going nowhere in life, working at an electronics store, playing video games with his best friend, and wondering why his long-suffering girlfriend dumps him when he tries to take her to the local pub for their anniversary. Fittingly, once the zombie apocalypse hits, Shaun opts to take his group of survivors (including the girlfriend and the best friend) to that same pub. But in Shaun’s case, the worst of circumstances brings out the best in the man. Simply by creating and sticking to a plan, Shaun is able to steer (most of) his comrades to safety, and the apocalypse makes a man out of him in a way normal life never could.

The Message: Have a plan.

The Walking Dead (2010-Present)

The TV show: “The Walking Dead” is based on a graphic novel series of the same name, and has been eating up the competition (pun intended) in the ratings for three seasons on AMC. Like many of the films on this list, it is less interested in the origin of the apocalypse and more focused on its survivors (in this case the ones just outside of Atlanta, Georgia).

Walking Dead features a laundry list of interesting male characters, but by season three, the focus centered on a pair of rival faction leaders. One is Rick, a former police officer whose leadership experience and access to firearms placed him in charge of a group of survivors that is trying to hold down an abandoned (and sometimes zombie-infested) prison. The other is The Governor, a former schoolteacher who has managed to create a facsimile of pre-apocalypse life for a few dozen survivors inside a portion of a small town that has been walled off to the outside world. In many regards, Rick and The Governor are almost identical: both have lost close family members, both are distrustful of outsiders, and neither is much of a saint. But you don’t need the Governor’s eye patch to make it obvious that while one man is fighting the temptation to descend into madness, the other set up camp in Crazy Town long ago.

The Message: Hang on to your humanity.

Warm Bodies (2013)

The Movie: With over four decades of zombie movies in the rear-view mirror, originality has become a challenge. Yet early in 2013 we have been favored by what could be considered the first zombie romantic comedy, and certainly the first zombie romantic comedy told from the perspective of the zombie himself. This story of young love in the zombie apocalypse is heavy on wit, but also strong on message.

The first true zombie lead is R, who spends his days wandering an abandoned airport with his fellow undead and having funny interior monologues until one day he encounters a group of human survivors searching for medical supplies. The humans are led by a striking blonde with a knack for heavy artillery, and with a little help from John Waite’s “Missing You,” R is smitten, triggering one of the strangest love stories in recent years. Along the way, “Warm Bodies” suggests that the zombie condition may not be irreversible.

The Message: Redemption is possible, for even the most unlikely of candidates.

World War Z (2013)

The Movie: Based on Max Brooks’s exhaustive novel of the same name, “World War Z” takes on the zombie apocalypse on an unprecedented worldwide scale. Where most zombie movies center their stories on the plight of a handful of scrappy survivors, “WWZ” gives viewers the chance to watch the apocalypse tear down civilization as we know it, in country after ill-fated country.

“WWZ” is told from the perspective of Gerry, an ex-United Nations operative played by Brad Pitt, who spends the film on a globe-trotting detective hunt, narrowly avoiding the zombie rampage all around him as he desperately searches for a solution to the epidemic. As he does, he learns that sometimes the answers can be found in the chaotic midst of an adversary’s perceived strengths.

The Message: Pay attention to the details.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Are the Utah Jazz really tanking?

I'm not bothered by the fact that the Jazz probably aren't going to win a lot of games this season. I'm bothered because for the first time in three decades of following the team, I'm not sure I actually want them to win.

As you look through the forecasts and the predictions from outlets with a lot more than 68 followers, you see the Jazz lumped in with a group of teams accused of tanking the 2013-14 season. Teams that have no solid chance to compete, and have opted to bottom out, presumably to snag one of the top prospects in next year's draft. As evidence, pundits point to the fact that the Jazz let all of their veteran players walk without any real effort to bring them back. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap were pretty much the only reason we've sniffed the playoffs for the last two years, and I don't even know that the Jazz extended offers to re-sign either free agent this summer. In their place, the Jazz filled out their roster with expensive vets on short-term contracts (Richard Jefferson, Andres Biedrins) who feel a lot more like placeholders than game changers. At one point I wondered if I should have contacted Dennis Lindsey myself. This may have been my best shot at making my junior high dreams come true.

Let's be honest: when you let your best players walk and plug in short timers to meet the league salary cap minimum, it kind of sounds like tanking, right?

I'm not so sure.

Note to Dennis Lindsey: During my
sophomore year at Viewmont High
School, I averaged over 12 points per
game for my Junior Jazz team.
I don't think the Jazz harbor any serious expectations for making playoff noise this year, but I don't think they're tanking, either*. To me, tanking is trying to lose. Trying to be bad. It's getting rid of assets for no reason, and deliberately sitting good players on the bench to make it hard for your team to compete. It may all happen in the hopes of a brighter future, but it feels disingenuous. It's basically the Golden State Warriors in the spring of 2012.

That season, just as in so many over the years, the Warriors weren't in any legit position to make the playoffs. The problem was that if they didn't meet a certain threshold in the next summer draft, they had to forfeit their pick to another team per the conditions of a previous trade.

Take a guess who that team was.

Over the course of two months, Golden State went from a fringe playoff team to, well, I don't know what they were, because they didn't play the guys they had. They tried to lose. They tried to be bad. All to preserve a draft choice they'd already decided to trade away in a deal that helped to get them there in the first place.

What the Jazz are doing is different. The four key players they retained this summer (Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors, and Alec Burks) are the players they see as the core of their future. They will not be seeing the bench when the Jazz need to play their hardest. The Jazz intend to ride them hard (just like many Jazz fans have been demanding for the last two years, actually). They added a first-round point guard named Trey Burke to that mix through the draft, and he's going to get a baptism by fire. The Jazz may not win a lot of games while these guys go through their make-or-break growing pains, but to me that's a lot more sincere an effort than "resting" good players for several games at the end of a lost season.

Maybe its too subtle a difference. Maybe we're just splitting hairs or debating semantics. But I don't have a problem with what the Jazz are doing this season, and I don't think that fans should feel like the team is deliberately trying to field a bad team this year. They've decided to field an inexperienced team in the hopes that they'll grow together, and they've pretty much stripped away anything that won't be coming along for the long haul.

Of course, that doesn't have much to do with my wrestle to decide whether I want the Jazz to win games this year. I guess what I'm saying is I won't be bent out of shape if they don't. Because this year, losses still provide valuable learning experience, and lots of losses could translate to better draft choices. Plus, losses that come at the end of honest efforts feel a lot different than losses that come because you aren't trying.

Ever since Stockton and Malone retired, we've been more or less stuck in a "just-in-or-just-out of the playoffs" limbo, and Lindsey and the Jazz have effectively told fans that limbo isn't good enough anymore. It's a brave move, but I support it. And I don't have a problem with the way they are doing it.


*At this point it might be smart to acknowledge that since I am employed by KJZZ Television, which falls under the umbrella of the Larry H. Miller Corporation, I have good reason to "tow the company line." But I stand by what I'm writing here, and besides, I don't think the team is very concerned about the blog analysis of some peripheral kind-of co-worker.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Re-Read

This past summer I crossed a notable milestone: 15 years of consecutive daily journal entries. When it comes to family history work, daily scripture study, or maintaining a charitable relationship with my fellow man as I navigate the sprawling Utah highway system, my record is spotty. But at least that record is well-documented.

Last spring I pulled out the journal I used during my mission to Chicago, and over a couple of weeks I read its 100 pages chronologically, re-living those early idealistic days in the MTC, the shock to the system that was Kankakee, Illinois in December, and the summer I spent riding a bike around south Chicago in 1997.

It wasn't the first time I'd re-read those pages, or any of the other pages I'd filled in the time since. But it was the first time I'd read them front to back, and when I finished, I decided to continue the effort. So I pulled out my next volume, started after I returned home, the volume that brought me back to college and dating and eventually into the world of the LDS singles ward. It was also the volume that started my daily streak in June of 1998. It was amusing, enlightening, and sobering to read my thoughts and feelings through that period, as the joy of reunion with longtime friends and family was offset with the gradual realization that everything I'd been told about the myth of the Returned Missionary was just so much chin music. When I recorded the first of those consecutive entries, I was on a trip to Island Park with my friend Mike, shortly removed from another year of study at the University of Utah, and still reeling from a date that left me twitterpated, like so many used to do back then.

I never sat down and decided to record daily journal entries from that moment on; I just kind of did. One entry led to another, then another, and eventually I couldn't sleep until I knew I had written something down for the day, even if it was just a quick line of sarcasm that hinted at a day I had no desire to recount at the time. Writing in my journal was like brushing my teeth or saying prayers at night. I just did it. And because I did it, I now have fifteen years' worth of history to back up my foggy memory. The BS I finished at the U, and the MS I picked up in Logan four years later. All the jobs I loved and all the jobs I hated, working only because I was desperate to pay my rent. My longstanding love-hate relationship with the University 32nd Ward, love because of all the good times, and hate because the ward kept having them without me. All those dates...those many, many dates.

Last week I finally made it to the present, as I read about another new semester and another show at the Ed Kenley Amphitheater. Thirteen volumes of history returned to my closet, and nothing but unwritten pages lay ahead of me. Like I said, I'd read it all before, in small chunks, here or there. But reading it as a saga, as an epic, I recognized a few new twists:

1. My handwriting is getting worse. A lot worse.

2. My youthful idealism is now...tempered. As I left the MTC for the mission field, I had decided my course in life would be to serve faithfully, then return home and transfer to BYU so I could teach at the MTC. I would get married within six months and start a family right away. I didn't even know what my major was going to be, and I didn't care. I guess you could say that things change.

3. Sometimes I didn't write about things that I clearly remember happening, almost as if I were trying to hide things from future readers. The fall after I finished my BS at the University of Utah, I got myself into an embarrassing predicament that led to me getting recruited by the financial planning equivalent of Amway while strolling the BYU campus in Provo at 8pm one night. That trip is never mentioned in text.

4. Sometimes I can see myself trying to put a positive spin on things I was writing about, even if I was miserable in the middle of them. Like the time I went to the midnight showing of "Transformers 2," or all the times I saw "Phantom Menace" in the summer of '99. I knew they were bad when I saw them; I just didn't want to admit it.

5. Often times the best things were happening hand-in-hand with the worst things. The year after finishing grad school was one of the most difficult stretches I've ever encountered from a professional standpoint, but my calling in Sunday School led to a series of lessons I remember fondly. A nightmare of a dating saga in late 2001 was mirrored by a dream team of an Elders Quorum presidency made up of some of my best longtime friends. A physically and spiritually draining first semester of grad school kicked off ten years' worth of English composition classes that have provided many of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career.

Whenever I've talked with friends or family about my journal-keeping habit, I'll often get a response that suggests they, too, have tried to record faithfully, but have been discouraged and embarrassed by the results. I can definitely relate. Having read fifteen years worth of success and failure over the last few months, there are plenty of things I've done and plenty more that I've written that should probably never see the light of day. But I don't regret writing them, or experiencing them.

OK, check that: I've got a couple of pre-mission spiral notebooks that feature some adolescent rants I may choose to burn someday. I may not have been born in Chicago, but I definitely grew up in Chicago. And I've got a few thousand pages to prove it.