Spirit in the Night: A Tribute Band’s Tribute to Clarence

June 26, 2011

Tramps Like Us onstage at The Stone Pony

The first time I saw Tramps Like Us was by accident. I was at the Newport Folk Festival last summer. After the Saturday lineup wrapped up, my friends and I ventured into Newport proper, to wander around and maybe find a good place to eat. We happened across a bar advertising “Springsteen Night” and (for me at least) the lure was irresistible. Inside, Tramps Like Us were playing on a small stage barely a foot elevated off the floor. I noticed their 50-60 song set lists taped to the floor. They were taking requests and that was their repertoire for the night. We arrived at the tail-end of their set, but I saw them do a rousing take on “Badlands” and close, like a good Springsteen set ought to, with “Born to Run.” I conceded that, for a tribute band, they were doing considerable justice to E Street.

Big Man memorials outside The Stone Pony

I live in New Jersey. When the Big Man passed away two weeks ago, it was regarded as a heavy loss to the rock n’ roll world – but to New Jerseyans, it was equivalent to the passing of a major head of state. Flags at half-mast, memorials, moments of silence, statements from politicians, etc. And many a newspaper tribute. (Who says the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all!) I read an article on the New York Times’ City Room blog about the Sunday after Clemons passed, when literally hundreds were drawn to the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ for an impromptu vigil. The bar played a live version of “10th Avenue Freezeout” which people sang along to, cheering extra loud when Springsteen sings the Clarence-referencing lyric about a change made uptown and the Big Man joining the band.

Less than a week later, I found myself drawn to The Stone Pony as well. I had received an email earlier in the week about a Tramps Like Us show on Friday night. The band would be playing the E Street Band’s 1978 show at the Cleveland Agora in its entirety. Already considered a legendary set to Springsteen bootleg connoisseurs, the performance took on added significance due to its proximity to Clarence’s passing.

At the bar before the band took the stage, others in the crowd seemed to be there for the same reason I (and my sister, who drove) were. It just seemed like the right thing to do. There was a need to hear the music of the E Street Band in a live setting again, and if the band themselves could not be present, Tramps Like Us proved to be worthy stand-ins.

The Star Ledger (New Jersey’s paper of record) have called them the next best thing to the E Street Band themselves, and though no E Street bandmembers themselves have gone on record, the official E Street Radio has – calling them the best E Street tribute band out there. Mike Appel, former Springsteen manager and producer, has called their performances “second to none.” Hillary Clinton once introduced them, at a 9/11 memorial dedication called, fittingly, “The Rising.”

Unlike the hoary Beatles and Elvis tribute acts of Vegas and Branson, with their mop-top wigs and rhinestone jumpsuits, Tramps Like Us keep their dignity during their act. Their job is to sound like the the E Street Band, not to look like them. And to that point, they do a pretty excellent job. Mark Salore, founder, guitarist and lead vocalist, does a very credible Springsteen-voice (circa the late 70s or early 80s) without any kind of audible affectation taking place. Ken Hope, filling in for Roy Bittan and the late Dan Federici (AKA piano + organ) recreates both instruments with simultaneous gusto. Jonathan Sanborn’s bass, like Gary Tallent’s, is never the flashiest part of any E Street song, but it is consistently reliable and provides the all important backbeat whether you notice or not. Rudy Feinauer, who in the right light bears a striking resemblance to comedian Michael Ian Black, comes the closest out of anyone in the band in recreating the mannerisms of the E Streeter he’s filling in. He has a tendency to stare straight ahead with an almost emotionless look on his face, hitting his mark on song after song with machine-precision. Much like stone-faced Max Weinberg.

Finally, Brian Ognan, who has arguably the largest shoes to fill, in particular after the events of a couple of weeks ago. Looking like the logo for chocolatier Max Brenner, Ognan, called “The BO Man” (his initials) as a play on Big Man, absolutely kills every sax solo. For Tramps Like Us, playing their first show since Clarence’s passing, this was perhaps Ognan’s most critical time to shine. And shine he did, from the first sax solo of the night on “Badlands” through the Big Man’s finest hour in the solo from “Jungleland.” The band passed out little battery-operated candles before they played that one.

(A more cynical writer might make a joke about fake candles for a fake E Street Band. But first of all, the heart was real, and second, fire safety! The last thing the rickety Stone Pony club needs is a few hundred drunks holding real candles.) Anyway…

Before diving into the Cleveland Agora set, Salore came out to do a solo tribute to Clarence, a quiet take on “Incident on 57th Street” with Hope on piano and guest violinist Ellen Lipkind. It was a somber way to start off the evening, but the right thing to do before heading straight into the fun stuff. And if there is one thing the set from that Cleveland ’78 show is, its fun. Many Springsteen aficionados rightfully regard the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour as the E Street Band at the peak of their powers. Held up by legal troubles for three long years, it was a moment in time when the band was hungry to not only return to the stage, but to claim it as their own. Over 100+ shows, many of which have gone on to become cherished bootlegs, the E Street Band solidified their status as arguably THE great live band in rock n’ roll. Performing epic sets between three and a half and four hours in length, with a catalogue that even then must’ve felt like nothing but greatest hits, E Street was a force to be reckoned with.

Tramps Like Us founder/singer/guitarist Mark Salore

After the first few songs – a killer trio of Summertime Blues >> Badlands >> Spirit in the Night – it was clear that Tramps would have no trouble replicating the sound of the E Street Band in ’78. Mark Salore was even making winking references to some of Bruce’s actual stage banter from that show. Even more impressive however, was the band’s effort to interpret the sound of the E Street Band on the Darkness tour. That particular tour is my favorite era of the E Street Band live (second would be the Reunion tour), and one of the reasons is because the band would often stretch out some of their best numbers to truly epic length. If you’ve heard the E Street Band’s live album from the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975, you know they were more than capable of hitting Grateful-Dead-length on some tunes, IE the exhilarating 17-minute long rendition of Kitty’s Back. (Trust me, those 17 minutes go by quick.)

By the Darkness tour, Springsteen & the E Street Band had grown even more inventive with their live arrangements. In particular, throughout the Darkness tour, Springsteen would begin “Prove it All Night” and “Because the Night” with gorgeous, reverb-soaked soloing – revving the crowd up until the point where the song finally takes off and the crowd is in full-on frenzy mode. Mark Salore did a fantastic job recreating the soloing on those two songs, and indeed that was one of Tramps Like Us’s most effective means of recreating the sound of E Street in 1978.

I did wonder what the band would do during “Growin’ Up” though. In the Cleveland Agora set, Springsteen intercuts the song with a long tall-tale about his days as a wayward youth, and his and Clarence’s drive up to a dark hill next to a cemetery where they hoped to “meet God.”

Bruce: “Dear God, my father wants me to be a doctor. My mother wants me to be a lawyer. But all I got is this guitar”

The immortal’s immortal reply, three words, “LET IT ROCK.”

The band explodes back into action. Mass euphoria ensues.

Thankfully, Salore didn’t even try to recreate Bruce’s epic yarn – filling the lull instead with a story of his own about the time he met a God a little closer to home, the Boss himself. A few months ago, he and Tramps Like Us were playing the Stone Pony, recreating Bruce’s legendary 38-song-long New Years Eve 1980 show at the Nassau Coliseum. At some point during the show, Mark received word that Bruce was down the street at one of the boardwalk bars. They thought Bruce might walk in the backdoor of the Stone Pony and actually join them onstage – it never materialized. So after the show, someone invites Mark to come over and meet with the man he makes a living paying tribute to. They have an awkward exchange, and just as Salore is about to end it, he tells how he asked Bruce what he thought of Tramps Like Us and their recreations of classic E Street sets. Did the Boss approve? Again, three words: Let. It. Rock. Well played, Tramps.

For more photos of mine from Tramps Like Us @ The Stone Pony, click here.


Eleven Acts I Can’t Wait For at Bonnaroo 2011

June 7, 2011

The Bonnaroo Arch

48 hours from now, the tenth annual Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival will be in full swing. As a writer and photographer, this is my third consecutive trip to the festival, but my first covering professionally, for the AV Club. The photographer-part of me is thrilled to have a photo pass and get up close to all the bands I want to see. But the music-fan part of me is a little intimidated, as the responsibility of getting as many photos as possible means more sacrifice. If there is one consistent feeling at Bonnaroo, it’s the pendulum-swing from “Oh wow, THIS band is playing right here” to “Oh no, THAT band is playing way over there.” You will not see every last band you came to see. But if you strategize, you’ll catch most of them, and have the good sense to duck out of a few of them early enough to catch something else.

Below, 11 acts that I’m excited For. Sorry in advance for leaving so-and-so off the list.

Wiz Khalifa


Could anyone have guessed a year ago that 2010 XXL Freshman Wiz Khalifa (the one with the Alfred E. Neuman grin tipping his hat back) would command a BIGGER stage at Bonnaroo than Lil Wayne? Lil Wayne’s on the 2nd biggest stage Friday night (Which Stage) and Wiz is on the main stage Saturday afternoon. (He’ll be competing against Mumford & Sons back on Which Stage.) Of course, these stage names and schedules are a fairly arbitrary way of ranking the popularity of a particular act. Still, the fact remains, over the past year, Wiz Khalifa has kind of become a huge pop star. Stargate – the gifted Norweigian production duo behind a bunch of great Rihanna songs – bequeathed the instrumental to “Black and Yellow” for Wiz Khalifa. And I’ll be damned if he didn’t take their track and turn it into the unofficial anthem of last year’s Superbowl. His debut album Rolling Papers (not to be confused with Domo Genesis’s) is in rarified air simply because it joins the dying breed of “albums that people actually purchase.” Also it’s got some dope beats on it. Too $hort pulls his best cameo since Big Boi’s album on “On My Level” and “The Race” is going to sound fucking fantastic rippling out over 90,000 fellow stoners.

Loretta Lynn


I didn’t even notice Loretta Lynn on the bill until a couple of days after the Bonnaroo lineup was posted. She’s buried in the eye-blurring middle of the bill, below Bruce Hornsby but above Cold War Kids. (Remember, don’t think too hard about the ordering of this stuff.) When I saw that Loretta Lynn was playing, she became one of my “Holy shit, I didn’t realize SO-AND-SO was going to be here too!” acts, a thrill that many a Bonnaroo-goer experiences.

Loretta Lynn’s last album Van Lear Rose, may literally be her last ever album. It’s crafted that way – encapsulating a lifetime of country, honky-tonk heartache and pathos into one record, sung with a voice that sounds like it had been preserved in amber some time in the late 70s. (When she recorded the last of her duet albums with Conway Twitty.)

And she’s not even the only Jack White-produced legend appearing at Bonnaroo! Hot off her own nostalgia-laced comeback album, Wanda Jackson (hopefully with the Third Man House Band) plays 5:45-7:00 on Friday in The Other Tent.

The Black Angels


Jim Jarmusch curated the Sunday lineup for the 2010 All Tomorrow’s Parties in New York. The director evidently has a thing for rough analog-equipment-sounding garage rock: selecting, among others that day: The Greenhornes, Girls, Kurt Vile (whose Smoke Ring For My Halo is only of my favorite albums of the year) and The Black Angels, a five-piece psychedelic-sounding band from Austin, Texas. I was there that day to see their fantastic set from Kutsher’s Resort in the Catskills.

Sadly, they’re playing opposite Big Boi on Friday night. Technically they start 15 minutes before, so try and catch at least their first few songs if you can!

Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari in bank-robbing attire


You might think “I didn’t drive 14 hours to sit in a dark tent and watch movies”…but what if I told you that dark tent was also air-conditioned? You’ll see how enticing that sounds after a few hours walking around Bonnaroo. Also, if you’re going to catch relief in the Movie Tent, you might as well see some original programming. Aziz Ansari and Jesse Eisenberg (following up his career-making role in The Social Network) will be doing a Q&A and presenting 30 Minutes Or Less, the heartwarming tale of two friends who team up to rob a bank after one of them is strapped with explosives set to detonate in…well, the title pretty much says it all.

The Cinema Tent will also be screening the complete Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair (still not on DVD?!) a couple of times throughout the festival, if you need a full four hours to cool off.

J. Cole

7) J. COLE – THURSDAY – THIS TENT – 8:30-9:30 PM

“This the summer that our lives change. Hov’ asked me ‘Is you ready for it?’ I looked around at all his nice things – told him “Ni**a you already know it!”

That’s a couple of lines from “Return of Simba”, a self-released, self-produced track J. Cole released a few weeks ago. J. Cole is staring down the mouth of a hot summer. There’s a feeling in the air that a classic is being readied, and J. Cole is doubtless trying to steel himself the way Kanye did before The College Dropout or his mentor Jay-Z before Reasonable Doubt. When J. Cole’s NOT steeling himself, he’s usually touring. I’m absolutely thrilled that he’s making a stop at Bonnaroo. His set, on the first night, is sandwiched after The Knux and before Childish Gambino. That’s a pretty fantastic trio to set the festival off if you’re a hip hop head. If you ain’t one, become one. You’ll have more fun that way.

Bootsy Collins - From that one time when he battled Rodan using only the power of funk.


The persona of Bootsy Collins is so outrageously funky that OF COURSE he had a short-lived mid-90s animated series. (Tearing the roof off this motherfucka is very costly in a live-action setting.) Bootsy Collins’ music defines the spirit of Bonnaroo as well as anyone – in that it’s a lot of fun and you should probably not think too much and just funk out. I believe this is Bootsy’s very first appearance at Bonnaroo. But as some aging hippie will tell you, his presence has been felt here for years.

Young Neil Young


This incarnation of Buffalo Springfield – featuring original members Neil Young, Stephen Stills Richie Furay and longtime Neil Young bassist Rick Rosas – has reunited for just six concerts this summer. Thankfully, Bonnaroo is one of them. If the old-timers don’t melt onstage in front of our very eyes, it should be a great set. For what it’s worth, I’m looking forward to “For What It’s Worth.”*

*Trademarking that, since I obviously invented it. If you see any other music writer use that song’s title as a play-on-words, let me know.

Not sure if this is a picture of Donald Glover or Childish Gambino


“Damn bloggers argue ’bout whether or not I’m serious. It’s Nas’s Illmatic not Eddie Murphy’s Delirious!” – Childish Gambino

Actually, it’s both. Donald Glover is pulling a Conan O’Brien at this year’s Bonnaroo, slotted on Thursday night as Childish Gambino, and doing two shows in the Comedy Tent on Saturday. (If the ticket distribution for comedy shows is anything like last year, line up fucking EARLY if you want to see him do stand-up.)

So many rappers play the “ain’t nobody else on my level” card, but honestly, who out there in the game can we reasonably compare to Donald Glover? He’s on the flat-out funniest show on television, Community. And he wrote for three seasons for the show that used to be the funniest on TV before Community, 30 Rock!

In the midst of all that, his not-that-alter-of-an-ego Childish Gambino has put out five albums worth of material packed with increasingly sophisticated production and punchlines. His untitled EP released earlier this year contains one of the hottest beats of the year: “Freaks and Geeks” – a three-minute string of Tunechi-quality punchlines delivered with equal swagger. (Or whatever word replaces “swagger” by the time I publish this.)

The Decemberists


I saw the Decemberists at Bonnaroo in 2009, when they were touring the country playing The Hazards Of Love in it’s entirety. They turned their already-theatrical (but rocking) concept album into a true spectacle, with costume changes and dramatic lighting effects to boot. When they finished, I ran like hell over to the main stage to catch Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. (Which was, flat-out, one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen. And I’m already something of a Deadhead but for Springsteen shows.)

This year I can take my time with the Decemberists. And since now they’re touring off their more traditional (but rocking) The King Is Dead, they’ll have a more rounded set list with hopefully a couple (or several) deep cuts thrown in, from Her Majesty and Picaresque.

An hour after The Decemberists on the main stage, it’s time for…

My Morning Jacket


Not that I take it personally, but My Morning Jacket played every single Bonnaroo from the start until I started coming. This is their first time back since 2008. And since they’re such Bonnaroo OG’s AND they represent Tennessee*, they are as close to royalty at the festival as it gets. Expect epic shredding. And be ready to sing along.

*Yes, they’re from Louisville, KY. But their first album is called The Tennessee Fire.

Lil Tunechi


Part of me is apprehensive about this set – I’ve been burned by A-list rappers in concert before. If it’s just Lil Wayne rapping the setup and 3 hypemen yelling the punchline, this won’t be any fun. But if this performance by Lil Wayne and Rick Ross at Summerjam this past weekend is any indicator, I think we’re in for something special:

I’m ready to see Lil Wayne come out with (figurative) guns blazing, blowing through classics from Dedication 2 and Carter III, and tantalizing us with cuts from his ever-delayed Carter IV. Yes, the album was delayed a fourth time (till August now) a few days ago. But Tunechi fans can take comfort in the fact that between his own singles and numerous collabo’s with other MCs, Lil Wayne has released at least an album’s worth of material since getting out the joint. His killer bars on “Look At Me Now” (Diplo and Afrojack’s distorted computer-blip masterpiece is my favorite beat of the year), his ‘A Milli’-redux on “6”7″ and Young-Money bombast with Birdman on “Fire Flame (Remix)” should all sound insane at 1:30 in the morning in a muddy field in Tennessee.

I’m expecting rapper-eating Martian-mode from Wayne. Or at the very least, the dirty South equivalent of the spectacle Kanye unleashed at Coachella this year.

How My View of Kevin Smith Ran Askew

June 4, 2011

Me circa 2001 meeting my heroes at Jay & Silent Bob's Secret Stash in Redbank, NJ. Yes, that's a Clerks: The Comic Book t-shirt beneath my sweet North Face fleece.

If I had to choose, 1999 was probably the year I started to get seriously into film. I was 14 – a year away from high school. DVDs were becoming cheaper, and my parents were cool with me seeing/renting any movie I wanted really.

My parents were always good film influences on me. My Mom tried to get me into Star Wars when I was 4 (but I didn’t go berserk over it until a year later when other friends had seen it). My Dad sat me down to watch The Producers and other Mel Brooks movies, and both of my parents were huge Woody Allen fans. Even my Grandma bought me an invaluable Time Life VHS set on Legends of Comedy from the silent era to the 50s. I watched it over and over again.

Heading into high school, I felt pretty well versed in film. I had respect for my elders. Still, the filmmaker of the moment that spoke to me the most was, without a doubt, Kevin Smith. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, an hour away from Redbank, AKA the Springfield/Mayberry/Newbridge of Kevin Smith’s world, the View Askewniverse. I owned all of his films on DVD, even Clerks: The Animated Series, which, like the films, I watched over and over again with and without commentary. I hadn’t ever smoked weed, but Jay and Silent Bob were my cult heroes. Cult is the key word here. And the fun of belonging to one. Being a Smith-phile was to be versed in an odd suburban New Jersey-centric universe of interconnected weirdos, losers and slackers.

At that age, I wasn’t very well versed with the technical aspects of making films. From the start of his career, Kevin Smith’s directorial abilities were dubious. His static shot sequencing, unchanging angles from cameras that never move. Basically, his unintentional ability to give anything he films the urgency of a mediocre three-camera sitcom – none of that mattered to me. Smith himself seemed to shrug off that type of criticism as well. He was a writer first and foremost, and his writing was so specific and phrased (however clunkily) with funny Star Wars references, etc. that it seemed brilliant to me at the time. Every other line felt like a memorable catchphrase – and to fellow View Askewniversites at the time, they were.

At the very least, it was distinctive. I wouldn’t find it distinctively cringe-worthy till years later.

I owned at least three different Kevin Smith-related shirts. Being the budding film nerd that I was, I gravitated towards attention-getting shirts with obscure references (to outsiders). I still have a black long-sleeve fake tour tee from the foreign “Berserker” dude who’s in Clerks for five minutes. With fake tour dates on the back and everything. In the wintertime, I rocked a replica Snoogins beanie like the one Jay wore.

I watched An Evening With Kevin Smith at least three or four times. It was like standup comedy to me. Looking at the box now – holy fuck that thing was long – Disc One is 128 minutes and Disc Two another 97 minutes. And he’s released MORE of these “lecture” DVDs since.

Looking back now, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which came out the summer before my sophomore year of high school, was the turning point. At the time, JASBSB was to be the “final chapter in the View Askewniverse,” a grand sendoff to beloved characters with a wacky cast of comedian cameos that was sure to be Smith’s first film to gross more than $30 million dollars at the box office. It didn’t. (“Oh what a lovely tea party” still makes me smile though.)

Then came Jersey Girl.It had the misfortune of starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, and being released just a few months after the two of them starred in one of the most widely loathed film flops of all time. Perhaps it never had a chance. But hey, George Carlin was funny as the Dad, right? And Jason Lee? He’s always good! (He is to Kevin Smith fans as Nathan Fillion is to Whedonites.) Man, you all are just being cynical jerks. This was the movie where Kevin Smith bared his heart – we, the loyal, fanbase, could at least forgive, if not outright convince ourselves we liked the movie.

Jersey Girl (2004)

Forebodingly, Jersey Girl was the first Smith film I didn’t pick up on DVD. Even the pull of a hee-larious Kevin Smith commentary track wasn’t enough incentive. I could not have that (at the time hated to say this) piece of shit on my DVD shelf, next to classics like Chasing Amy and Dogma.

A couple of years went by. I graduated high school. Went to college, as a film major. By my sophomore year, when Clerks II came out, I had thoroughly drifted away from the View Askewniverse. I saw Clerks II in theaters, thought it was good enough – I liked the Mooby’s restaraunt for a setting – I remember thinking the excessive Lord of the Rings vs. Star Wars talk felt like a sweaty attempt to feel like “classic” Dante and Randall bickering in the original Clerks. I only saw Clerks II once, in theaters. I never bought the DVD.

Two more years go by. Now I’m almost a college graduate. Zach and Miri Make a Porno comes out, starring a budding comedy hero, Seth Rogen, hot off his star-making summer in Knocked Up and Superbad. Zach and Miri became the first film since Dogma I didn’t even bother to see in theaters. I read shitty reviews of it, and when I saw it On-Demand a few months after it left theaters, I realized the reviews were right.

What had happened to my hero? My favorite director. The guy I might have once thought of as some kind of voice of my generation? This wasn’t a life-altering change taking place. But I did decide that the guy gave me a lot of entertainment over the years, and if he’s got nothing left to offer me, at least he’s already offered so much. Thanks for the memories.

Around the same time Zach and Miri came out, the AV Club’s Scott Tobias – via his recurring series “The New Cult Canon” – published a searing indictment of all things Kevin Smith in his entry for Clerks. The AV Club is my favorite publication – digital or print – and Scott Tobias, in addition to being the site’s film editor, is one of its best writers. I don’t treat the opinions of AV Club writers as scripture, but if any one piece of writing was going to really shake my world up about Kevin Smith, there’s a good chance it would come from the AV Club. I even thought the entry was going to be a positive one. Sure, people dump on Jersey Girl and Clerks II, but the status of the original Clerks was untouchable, right?

Scott Tobias starts off his entry questioning why Clerks caused such a sensation in the first place. It was shot on a low budget, but as he says, “Clerks may be the only $25,000 movie ever made that leaves people wondering where all the money went.” It had groundbreakingly funny pop-culture-laced dialogue like its contemporary, Pulp Fiction. But Tobias is unimpressed by it as well. The dialogue, and all the memorable moments from the film it is sprinkled upon – are to Tobias, “Just a crude assemblage of comic vignettes. Cut one away, and nothing’s lost but a few minutes of running time.”

The New Jersey tetralogy of Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy and Dogma were the untouchable films in the Smith canon – the ones any fan could fall back on if the veneer of Kevin Smith’s awesomeness was in danger of cracking. With this in mind, reading Scott’s review, it felt like my infatuation with the View Askewniverse was being killed at the source. I don’t know if I immediately agreed 100% with Scott’s systematic takedown of Smith’s writing and directorial abilities. But for someone who had already moved on from Smith, this article didn’t make me want to return any time soon.

In the same way that Smith’s first four films were untouchable, the other thing most fans always fell back on was that, even if they conceded he was not a very gifted director, you couldn’t fault the writing. Bullshit. Scott was right about Clerks‘ aimless plot – in hindsight, its clever chapters were really just awkward transitions between two scenes that really had nothing to do with each other as far as servicing any kind of plot.

Scott debunked Smith the filmmaker. But the guy who made an even more devastating attack on my childhood hero was Tom Scharpling on The Best Show on WFMU. I first got into the Best Show towards the end of 2008. It took at least a year to properly get caught up in the show’s history – 3 hours every Tuesday night since October, 2000, AKA nearly 1500 hours of radio! – but once I had gone through enough of it, one recurring theme was unavoidable: Tom Scharpling really, really can’t stand Kevin Smith.

In a way it’s ironic that Scharpling would have such hostility towards a fellow New Jerseyan – one who’s View Askewniverse really wasn’t that different from Scharpling’s fictional town of Newbridge. Newbridge, and its many oddball Jon Wurster-voiced inhabitants, also bear a resemblance to another favorite target of Scharpling’s: Garrison Keillor and his charming tales of life in Lake Wobegon.

The difference of course was the quality of the comedy. The world of Newbridge and Scharpling & Wurster vastly exceeded the Askewniverse in terms of intelligence, originality, and also it just wasn’t nearly as embarrassing to like. It felt mature without being pompous, smart without getting too cerebral, and funny. Did I say funny? So fucking funny.

If Scott Tobias was the debunker of Smith as filmmaker, Scharpling’s job seemed to be debunker of Smith as a person. Around the buildup to Cop Out, which Smith had wanted to call A Couple Of Dicks until the man stepped in and ruined it, Smith had become something of a mediawhore. His rise in notoriety dovetailed nicely with the ascendancy of comedy podcasts and movie blogs – of which he seemed to be the prince of both. His podcast did (and still does) huge numbers and his every showbiz-move is chronicled breathlessly by dozens of fawning movie blogs.

As directors-as-celebrities go, Smith’s name recognition easily matches that of a Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher or Chris Nolan. But does anything in his filmography match the output of those three directors? Kevin Smith is like the Paris Hilton of movie directors. As the cliche goes: Paris Hilton is famous for being famous. Kevin Smith is a famous director because he is a famous director.

Smith’s phony campaign over the past year to show he’s a cool stoner now has been a frequent topic of Scharpling’s. He brags about it like a teenager who just discovered the stuff (he’s pushing 40), has the pomposity of an overly-forward member of NORML, and then there’s the hypocrisy – Yeah, go ahead and throw shame on your best friend Jay Mewes when he’s going through a drug problem, then turn around and try to make yourself the new Tommy Chong. Oh, and he says it makes him more creative, meanwhile he’s talking about retiring from filmmaking forever. (To sit around and smoke all day?)

I sense my tone is becoming mean spirited. Pause for a moment – Here’s honestly what set me off to blurt out this rambling blog post in the first place. I was listening to Marc Maron on this week’s episode of The Best Show. Maron is talking about how eventually he’s going to get Kevin Smith on the show – but during a phone call planning for the episode, Kevin Smith asked Marc Maron – sober for 10+ years – if it was cool that he smokes weed during the interview. As if this phony, who, again, just “decided” to become a stoner only about a year ago, literally couldn’t go an hour without lighting up? Isn’t that just plain unprofessional? And kind of arrogant? (Still more obnoxious considering Smith would surely know the interviews are conducted in Maron’s garage.) Even Snoop Dogg, or maybe Wiz Khalifa, wouldn’t pull shit like that. They’d have the decency to smoke right before the interview.

Kevin Smith at Sundance

When you compound behavior like that with Smith’s bafflingly-defended filmic output, I’ve just come to find him a detestable person in the film industry. His tired stunt at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, staging an auction for Red State only to cheekily acquire the distribution rights himself. Where does this at best marginally-talented guy, who’s coasted through a career in Hollywood for nearly 20 years now, get off indicting the system? When in fact he is one of the system’s most egregious benefactors! His movies make no money and get average-to-abysmal reviews. Yet he’s still getting work. He should’ve thanked all those distributors who lined up for hours to his fake-auction. Instead he mocks them, and he doesn’t seem to get the irony whatsoever.

Maybe Smith’s films were always destined to be something I’d grow out of. I don’t know. I feel like my tastes have evolved since I was an 8th grader. (When Dogma came out.) Maybe I evolved, but Smith didn’t. But couldn’t you also make the argument that he’s actually devolved? Am I being too harsh?

For Kevin Smith, and his legion of fanboys who live in his world, ignorance is bliss. They just love the stuff they love! No need to overthink it!

Tom Scharpling often repeats the notion – on things people like that are terrible – that, hey, “Life is short. This world is hard. You found something you like? I’m glad. Enjoy it.” And that’s pretty much how I feel today. It was fun while it lasted. I used to think Clerks was maybe my all time favorite film. I also used to wear JNCO’s.

Until next time, snoochie boochies, little noochies.

The Body of an American

June 1, 2011

The FICTIONAL Jay Landsman, played by Delaney Williams

The wake for detective Ray Cole in season 3 of The Wire is rightly celebrated as one of the high watermarks of the series. It’s one of the most moving moments in the run of the show, and also one of the most meta.

Ray Cole was played by Robert F. Colesberry, a producer who had worked with David Simon on The Corner and was an executive producer on The Wire until he died in February, 2004, after suffering complications following cardiac surgery. His last act for the show was his directorial debut, for “Port in a Storm,” the finale of season two.

Colesberry, in the form of the character he sometimes played, Ray Cole, is eulogized eloquently (and profanely) by Jay Landsman (Delaney Williams). Not to be confused with the real Jay Landsman, a retired homicide detective featured in David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. (I told you this scene was meta.) Landsman gives his speech in the old policemans’ tavern. Cole’s body is laid out on the pool table. This is a policeman’s wake. The hearse waits outside, presumably to rush the body off to Cole’s actual wake. But first, the eulogy.

To an outsider, Landsman’s speech might come off as cloying, or hokum. Landsman speaks mock-profoundly, but the writing is clearly intended to be actual-profound. And it is. In addition, there is the inherent joke that Landsman, the most comically boorish and profane character in the Baltimore Homicide squad, is the one delivering this poetic monologue.

The specifics of the eulogy – detective accolades, pissing off a wife, or three – don’t necessarily apply to where I’m about to take this blog post. But Landsman has a perfect way of summing up the things we accomplish in our lives, good and the bad:

“The motherfucker had his moments. Yes he fucking did.”

Landsman closes by saying, despite his ups and downs, Cole was first and foremost one of us: “Sharing a dark corner of the American experiment,” which might as well be the unofficial log line of the series.

My high-school bowling coach, Fritz Jonach, passed away last week at the age of 43. He died suddenly in his sleep – a congenital disease that apparently claimed his father the same way. I was on the bowling team for four years, captain in my senior year, and Mr. Jonach even taught the first film class I ever took. (I went on to major in Cinema & Photography in college, and I’m a graduate student at NYU right now, going for a Masters in Cinema Studies.) I remember a couple of the films he showed us. Peter Weir’s Witness with Harrison Ford, a section of the class on the origins of summer blockbusters where we watched The Towering Inferno. Probably Citizen Kane at some point. Look, every high school kid wants to take the class where all you do is watch movies. I took it as a sophomore but most save it for their second semester of senior year. But even if it’s a blow-off class, every year a few kids get something out of it, and I’d like to think I was one of them.

I don’t think I ever saw Mr. Jonach actually swing a bowling ball in my four years on the team. I can’t recall any specific advice he gave me that improved my game. We used to talk about The Simpsons more often than how the season was going. (I remember being impressed that he had a couple of “World of Springfield” Simpsons figurines on his office desk.) One of his children was born while I was on the team, and I remember his family showing up to the matches.

In my senior year, after the bowling team’s roster had grown stagnant for a couple of years, all of a sudden we had a big influx of recruits. We went from 7 or 8 guys to getting like 11 freshmen joining the team all at once. And since no one gets cut from the bowling team, they all had a vote in picking the team captain for the year. These new freshman recruits clearly outnumbered us old-timers, which was fine until they all wanted to vote for one of their dumb friends to be the captain. A freshman? As captain?! Heresy. Mr. Jonach counteracted this, and did the right thing by appointing my and my friend David, who had also been on the team for four years, as co-captains. (This despite the fact that neither of us were the best bowler on the team, even after four years of practice.)

Mr. Jonach was the quintessential stand-up guy. He was a Millburn high school alum himself, class of ’86 (the year after I was born). He took his good experiences and put them back into the system, becoming a teacher, coach, head of various clubs and committees, and in my memory he was just one of those teachers that every student liked.

If he wasn’t up for Educator of the Year, he was certainly on track for a pretty substantial lifetime achievement award. He had his moments. Yes he did.

Below, Landsman’s eulogy, followed by a drunken policemens’ choir rendition of The Pogues’ “The Body of an American.” (The greatest funeral dirge ever written.)

Rest in peace, coach.

On Lil B’s Memorial Day Wishes

May 30, 2011

Lil B The Based God's Memorial Day Wishes

First things first, I love the way Lil B quotes himself in all of his tweets. It reminds me of one of my all-time favorite jokes from the U.S. version of The Office: when Michael Scott puts an inspirational quote up on the wall of the conference room. The quote: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” – Wayne Gretzky – Michael Scott. I.E., Michael Scott’s quoting of Wayne Gretzky is as important as the quote itself. Anyway…

It was only a couple of weeks ago that we lost M-Bone, a 22-year old kid from Cali Swag District who was gunned down outside a restaurant in Inglewood, CA. Dude just wanted to teach the world how to dougie. Just horrible. I know his friends and family are still grieving and my heart goes out to them all.

Lil B of course sent out wishes to M-Bone, etc. But I really love his take on violence in general: “Why would you want to take someone’s life when we all die anyway?” is a very Buddhist stance. Fitting that a rapper like Lil B, who, to make a grand understatement, approaches life from his own unique perspective, would put things this way. (Lil B is The Based God, after all. So really it’s just one deity speaking to another.)

Wayne and The Game

Lil B’s tweet reminds me of one of the most flat-out WHACK songs of the year: The Game & Lil Wayne’s “Red Nation.” There’s two things majorly off about this song. One, it samples Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400” (no relation to Kern pharmaceuticals), one of the cheesiest “Jock Jam” eurotrash songs this side of Haddaway’s “What Is Love.” Oh wait, Lil Wayne appeared on a track that samples that song too. (Although I actually like that one a lot. It’s good to hear Eminem starving for a change.)

The other, more obvious reason “Red Nation” is whack is of course, the gang element. I’m not going to get all Al Sharpton in this bitch and type a bunch of anti-gang platitudes at you. All I’ll say is – for a rapper who claims he’s so unique he’s not even from this PLANET, Lil Wayne is awfully enthusiastic about joining a club where everybody dresses and thinks the same. I have respect for repping for the block, repping where you came from, etc. But Tunechi would be so much more of a badass in my eyes if instead of “Blood the fuck up” he just said “Fuck Bloods.”

Happy Memorial Day, everyone.

Title Imagery Explanation

May 29, 2011

The “saying something is pretentious is pretentious” paradox means I usually avoid that word. But allow me to act pretentious for a second as I explain the selection of artwork in this blog’s header. A lot of the time I see a blog with interesting, if opaque, design choices. The more interesting the blog is, the more likely you are to wonder “Oh, I wonder what they chose that for?”

The Simpsons is mankind’s greatest artistic achievement, but The Sopranos is my favorite television series of all time. I’m disheartened when newly minted The Wire aficionados stake their affection for that show and dismiss The Sopranos. I strongly believe there could be no The Wire without The Sopranos – the first three seasons of the show, and their pioneering season-length story structures, are models against which the best shows of the present are measured. Subconsciously if not directly. Or to put it another way, The Wire is so perfect that no one ever has a favorite episode! The Wire has no “Pine Barrens,” no “Pie-O-My,” or even a forgotten weak episode like when Tony n’ the gang get all up in arms about defending Columbus Day. The Wire has no fun diversions. Each episode is a perfectly selected move in its’ season-long chess games. The imperfections of The Sopranos deepen my affection for the show the way a flawless novel of a series like The Wire doesn’t.

So the header-image choice reflects that. Also, I like collecting TV shows on DVD. And New Jersey. And the colors. They’re pretty. Though I wish they made one season purple instead of using silver twice.

AAA – Album Artwork Appreciation #1: Cut Copy’s “Zonoscope”

May 29, 2011

Album artwork for Cut Copy's "Zonoscope"

I won’t lie. The first time I saw it, I found the artwork for Zonoscope so striking I was compelled to purchase a print of it. (In t-shirt form.) The buildup to seeing this image was magnified by the fact that the album was a followup to one that I would put in my Top 20 of the previous decade.

I find the number of contradicting genre titles for music that employs electronic elements as confounding as the next guy. But under whatever category you place it, Cut Copy’s 2007 album In Ghost Colours is a masterwork. Songs like “Out There On The Ice” and “Hearts on Fire” are as emotionally resonant to me as anything disco has ever produced. And perhaps no dance song in the past 15 years can top the ecstatic peak of a rave like “Lights and Music.” (This coming from someone who can count on two hands the minutes he’s spent on a dance floor in the past year.)

A band like Cut Copy deserved the four years they took to craft their followup, and one of the first exciting tidbits about the new album to emerge was its otherworldly artwork. I know I’ve read elsewhere about Zonoscope’s resemblance to The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the iconic Japanese woodblock print. (Which I also owned a print of, in the form of a dorm-room poster.)  Zonoscope certainly does, but the striking circle-shaped frame of vision also recalls a porthole to a ship. Or a telescope. Or some fantastical instrument, a “zonoscope,” if you will.

I also love the way the wave forms off some unseen cliff that has apparently formed along 34th street, and reaches the height of halfway up the Empire State Building. From the angle the viewer sees the waterfall, it looks awfully similar to Niagara Falls.

There is also the message that society – here represented as New York City – is itself about to plunge off an unseen cliff. However we interpret it, it is a melding of sorts. Fitting that the artist who created the image was the late Japanese photomontage artist Tsunehisa Kimura. He melds nature and city with exhilarating, inspiring results for an album that melds musical genres the same way. (I’ll give you a dustpan and broom to wipe your exploded brain bits and skeletal tissue off the floor.)

BTW, here’s the full version of Kimura’s work. Truly awe-inspiring, no? In your face, Roland Emmerich.

The gospel production of No I.D.

May 28, 2011

Kanye West & No I.D. in the lab. (No I.D. is the dude on the left.)

I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of Big Sean’s “Finally Famous: The Album” in a couple of weeks. Big Sean has been one of the most entertaining MC personalities to keep track of over the past couple of years. He’s the best kind of combination in hip-hop – His punchlines are actually funny AND he gets to land a lot of them on top of some of the best beats the game has to offer. My favorite single released in the buildup to “Finally Famous: The Album” has been “What Goes Around,” a look-how-far-I’ve-come anthem that sounds like an album-closer. It has the stomp, and soul, of a particularly lively gospel church service. So good it sounds like a sequel to “See Me Now,” my favorite track off of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. (The remix of which features a star-making verse from Sean.)

It’s no accident the production sounds so similar. The man at the boards in both cases is No I.D., “godfather of Chicago hip-hop” and mentor to Kanye West. Kanye landed Beyonce and Charlie Wilson for “See Me Now” but “What Goes Around” hits as hard regardless. I’d cherish the instrumental alone but the Big Sean bars are the icing on the cake.

Statement of Purpose

May 28, 2011

“I don’t give a shit where the stuff I love comes from! I just love the stuff I love!” an exasperated Patton Oswalt says to George Lucas in 1994, when the comedian and filmmaker met each other via time-machine to discuss plans for the Star Wars prequel-ology. Patton’s initial point is “Who cares where it came from as long as it’s awesome?” But that second italicized line is where this blog takes its name. “I just love the stuff I love” is Patton Oswalt’s “I Want to go to there!” A quasi-nonsensical utterance meant to convey “That! That right there! That’s what I enjoy.” And that’s pretty much the goal of this blog. A place to gush about stuff I like. Because glowing reviews are so much more fun to write than bad ones.

BTW, for those interested, that Patton Oswalt bit is from this track on one of the funniest stand-up albums ever recorded, Werewolves & Lollipops. You should probably just buy it!