Monday, June 29, 2009

Granted, I should know better. Ten bucks shelled out to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The last one was loud, incoherent, annoying and pubescent, not to mention an almost desperate attempt to recruit people to the military. The next one was even worse.

But it wasn't my ten bucks. It was Reed's.


What better way to cap off the month of June, I ask you. Summers past, I had movies to drool over and look forward to. Some speak to a desperate need for better taste on my part (Gone in Sixty Seconds, the 2000 version; X-Men and all its sequels; The Blair Witch Project, probably many others I can't recall now). Lately, the closest thing to a "summer blockbuster" I've seen in the multiplex lately has been Wolverine. It was good, but I miss the old days of Indiana Jones.

I can't take the recommendations any more. "Oh, go see The Hangover--it's good, mindless fun." "Come on, you know you want to go see Night at the Museum 2--it's fun." "What the hell, does everything you see have to make you think? Can't you just loosen up and enjoy a movie?"

I can. And do. But this is ten bucks we're talking about here.

And since when did movies that make you think get turned into the cinematic equivalent of a trip to the dentist's office? Seeing something like Smart People (ho-hum, by the way) or the eventual remake of Taras Bulba isn't like studying for the bar exam. I take comfort in the fact that such films exist in today's sugar cereal, ADHD consumer demand. Though, to judge by all the guffaws I heard when watching Transformers, such films won't be around much longer.

Here are a few lines from Michael Bay's latest hyperkinetic, visual mess that, despite its level of crapdom (I actually had to cover my eyes during every romance scene between the two stars--the acting was that bad), had the audience rolling on the floor:
TOUGH SOLDIER: We about to get our asses whupped.

STUPID BLACK-STEREOTYPE ROBOT: It's an ass-whuppin. It's supposed to hurt.

YOUNG COMPUTER GEEK: Oh my God! We're all gonna die!

OLDER COMPUTER GEEK: I am now right below the monster's scrotum.

YOUNG COMPUTER GEEK: Oh my God! I don't wanna die!
Once again, a classic has been pissed and stomped upon. I'd say it couldn't get any worse, but look what's coming out in August: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I don't even want to speculate on what lines will screw up that franchise too.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Weekend Baby-Sitting Schedule


10:15 a.m. Brother gives directions for weekend
10:45 a.m. Brother finishes directions
12:00 p.m. Brother's wife arrives, countermands all directions and gives them again
12:15 p.m. They leave. Brother's parting words: "Stay out of my booze."
2:30 p.m. Nephew wakes up from nap. Wants to watch TV. I oblige.
2:45 p.m. Uncle (me) wants to watch more TV. Nephew says it's time to do something else.
3:15 p.m. Nephew wants puzzles. I provide Suduko; he complains about its redundancy.
3:30 p.m. Nephew beats me two games to one.
3:31 p.m. "How about we watch TV instead?"
4 p.m.-5 p.m. Nephew colors abstract pictures; I try to break the lock on brother's liquor cabinet.
5:15 p.m. Dinner time. Little eaten. Most of it used by nephew to decorate face and shampoo hair instead.
5:30 p.m. Successfully pick liquor cabinet lock. Nephew, to celebrate, has another glass of juice.
5:45-6:45 p.m. I fill nephew in on facts of life over our bottles, dwelling particularly on the GOP, global warming, children's television and the remaining problems with No Child Left Behind. He takes the news well.
7-8 p.m. Story time. Girlfriend shows up and reads him Fast Food Nation.
8 p.m.-6:30 a.m. Sunday Nephew sleeps. I don't remember what we did.


6:45-7:30 a.m. TV and breakfast. Nephew eats quite a bit of cereal and fruit, then watches Barney and Friends. Girlfriend and I are unable to keep our breakfasts down while Barney is on.
8-9 a.m. Park. Nephew has more fun picking leaves off the trees than he does using any of the playground equipment. So do we.
10-noon Zoo. Prompted by call from friend. "Hey, nephew, you want to go to the zoo?" "ZOO! ZOO!" "Sorry, John, he wants to go to church instead." Once at zoo, nephew insists on picking more leaves off the trees, giving animals cursory investigation.
12:15-2:00 Lunch and nap time. Nephew demands a bath instead of a nap. I hem and haw and fuss, but he insists he wants a bath instead. I put him to bed, close the door. The howls of indignation subside, after which point I sneak back in and take a closer look at him. Blech. Kid needs a bath. I furtively wipe him down with hand sanitizer.
2:15 p.m. Girlfriend goes home sick. Still can't get Barney out of her system.
2:45 p.m. Brother and sister-in-law return. I hurriedly turn off the Playboy channel upon their arrival. Profuse thanks. I tell about how a burglar broke in and stole all the liquor. Sister wants to know why I reek of hand sanitizer. I make an excuse and I leave.
3:00 p.m. Nephew wakes up from nap. I get a text from brother: "Why is my son yelling 'No AYP!'?"

Monday, June 22, 2009

Bullets in Madison Rocks at Reggie's

I'm chatting up a brunette waitress in a dive bar in downtown Chicago. Her eyes flicking behind me, constant sighs, repeated shifts from leg to leg and scowls of irritation all spell out entrancement to me. I am seductive. I am damn seductive. I'm so seductive, I could smooth-talk myself into bed. And I may have to, if this dippy broad doesn't get the hint in about ten seconds.

"I can totally get you backstage passes," I tell her, pausing to take a sip of my Cosmopolitan and adjust the collar of my Scooby Doo t-shirt. "I know the band."

"I work here," she says.

"Well, there's all kinds of backstage," I say after a moment's pause. Then I waggle my eyebrows. "If you know what I mean."

It's clear from her irritated look and imploring glances at the nearest bouncer, a guy with "Your Ad Here" tattooed on the back of his shaved, bull-like head, that she doesn't know what I mean, or else she'd be tearing my clothes off with her teeth right now. This irritates me no small deal. Women. Jesus. It's like they get more obtuse about blatant come-ons as they age. I shift my seat, take another swig of my drink, and try changing tacks.

"I mean a different kind of backstage pass," I say, tempted to draw it out on a cocktail napkin. "In my pants."

"Yeah, I got that."

"Anal," I say, pressing the point.

"I make it a point to never get involved with guys whose hair is thinning on top," she tells me, and my hand immediately flies to the crown of my head.

Damn her, I think as she walks away smirking, she's just toying with me. Or is she? I scamper over to a mirror on the wall, furtively examining my scalp and trying to decide whether the glaring white patch I'm seeing in the hairline has only just appeared, or whether it's been there for years and I just never noticed. My head is turning this way and that. My neck starts to hurt. My hands are shaking and there's the sour taste of approaching-middle-age desperation beginning to enter my mouth.

This can't do, I decide. I need to be up front and mature about this.

I immediately spin around and find the waitress again. I tap her on the shoulder. She turns. Recognizes me. Narrows her lips and waits.

"Bitch," I say calmly.

At that point, the bouncer approaches. I immediately tear off my Scooby Doo t-shirt and strike an instant flexdown. Pandemonium erupts.


If God really existed, I wouldn't have to keep following this goddamned band around the entire Chicago and suburban area into every two-bit dive and two-for-one-drink special club that agrees to hire these schmoes. But with the upcoming release of their new album, We Became Your Family When You Died, Bullets in Madison has been getting heavy airplay, and every screaming, frizzy-haired "Win a Dream Date with Brendan Losch"-hopeful teen (and not a few adults) has been demanding more and better media coverage. More, I can definitely supply.

So, after an early Father's Day evening out getting belittled by my immediate family in the Western suburbs, I climbed into my 1978 Pinto and prepared to make the forty-plus-mile journey to Reggie's, where they were scheduled to take stage at eleven p.m. My father looked dubious as I prepared to leave.

"You're not going to make it," he said. "It's late."

"Only for the old," I assured him while shrugging into my Wham! concert T-shirt and spraying my slowly-emerging mullet. "For the young and hip, the night is so not old. You just don't understand. You're not New Wave."

"Gregg, you're thirty-four."

"I'm thirty-three," I corrected him. "And I be chillin still."

"I still think you ought to at least have some coffee and take the train."

"That's what your mother said," I slurred wittily, backing out of his driveway and managing to carefully and expertly knock over his mailbox and garbage cans. My rapier wit had served me yet again, so I decided to reward it by parking the car at a nearby station, grabbing some coffee and taking the train downtown. Ha. Shows my father who's the boss of me.

During the ride, I snoozed and recharged for what I was sure would be a no-holds-barred one-in-a-million musical experience. At least, that's what it was the last time I saw them play. Bullets in Madison uses such a cacophony of musical appeals, they're difficult to categorize, but thanks to my expert training at the School of Writing Music, I can do so: They're Unique. However, I was worried that that might not be enough to satisfy my editor, which was why I was actually making the trip to the city to hear them. Otherwise, I would have just stolen the playlist, gotten a few sound bytes from the bar owner and made the whole thing up while drinking beer outside in my neighbor's kiddie pool. But music journalism is a harsh mistress and can sometimes be unreasonably demanding.

One hour and twenty minutes later, I staggered into the bar, Ready to Review. The first thing I noticed upon entrance was that every single dancer in a cage was not only thematically dressed (the Cheerleader, the Cowgirl, the French Maid), but could also pass for a pubescent.

My interest flared, then got confused.

Crap. I'd wandered into Roscoe's Titty Bar by mistake.

So it was another three hours (and several hundred dollars) before I made it to Reggie's, where, thankfully enough, the audience had spent so much time hectoring the previous bands and playing Beer Pong Twister, that BiM was only just setting up their equipment. Good. Problem solved. Starting over:

I walked into the bar, Ready to Review. I strode confidently over to the band, notebook in hand, fake smile plastered on my face, wiping the stripper's lipstick and boob powder off my cheeks, ready to do or die for indy Chicago rock journalism.

The keyboarder saw me coming. "Oh fuck me," he muttered, diving under the drum set and pretending to examine the floor beneath it. The rest of the band immediately looked as busy as possible doing the same.

"Come on out, you Gen-Next assholes," I raged, thumping the drums with the mike stand. "I know you're under there."

Evidently, the band conferred for a while, exchanging repartee like, "No, you go get rid of him," and eventually, one of the guitarists emerged. "Okay, make it quick," he said. "We've got to do a soundcheck. And order another round of Fuzzy Navels."

I snickered.

"What?" he demanded. "A lot of guys drink Fuzzy Navels now. They've come a long way."

I snickered again.

"Goddamn it, let's get this over with!"

"Well, I'm here doing another profile piece. I don't want to make the evening more stressful to you, but we just picked up another ten readers, mostly friends of my aunt, and they want to know about the new album."

The guitarist visibly gulped. A wiser head than I thought. My aunt's legions of fans can make or break a band in about five seconds. Look what they did to Menudo in 1985.

"Anyway, my editor wants two hundred words about either the show, the new album, or, if not that, transcriptions of the graffiti on the walls. So say something witty and engaging about it right now." With that, I whipped out a tape recorder and shoved it in his face. "Now, damn you."

He stammered and swallowed. "For the new album, we wanted to explore some new ground. We were looking to bridge the gap between the esoterics and objective message of our music, and found this was the best way to do it." He looked at me hopefully. "Okay?"

"Whatever. More." I pointed at my watch.

"Well, we found that the more we expected of ourselves, the more we managed to perform. It's like listening to the sounds of silence. It's a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll. Come on, feel the noise. I don't know, shit, just give it a good review, will you? I've got rent to pay." The guitarist tossed aside his copy of Rock Music Clich├ęs to Give the Critics and looked at me imploringly.

"Can do." I winked at him. "Get up there and kick some ass."

And they did. Or so I would imagine. I couldn't say for sure since, for the entire duration of the show, I was getting pummeled by a bouncer named Moose over alleged improper advances made towards Tiffany, the waitress of the brunette locks and disparaging comments about putative receding hairlines. As I spat teeth and bled internally, however, I could hear a few new songs in BiM's lineup that hadn't previously made the playlist at any of their previous shows. The new songs, it would seem. And you know what? That nimrod with the guitar was right: they really do blend feeling and thought. They really do emote. It really is a long way to the top (if you want to rock and roll).

So in conclusion, fans would do well to run, not walk, to the nearest library, where you can grab...a book. You know, because people aren't reading enough and shit. Also, jump on to a computer before the library lady yells at you about registration, log on to, and put in an advance order of We Became Your Family When You Died, out sometime this summer. Because if the other songs are anything like the ones I heard this weekend, then the whole album is going to sound a lot like those songs. Until then, Dear Readers, I remain, as always, your rock music appreciation superior.

Next Week: Whatever Did Happen to Menudo? Aunt Sally Tells All.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

What my girlfriend and I argue about

(with apologies to Philip Roth)

It was a warm summer afternoon in June and the clouds were low in the sky. They had been out on the balcony for maybe an hour, maybe ten. The movie was due to start at seven, and he kept checking his watch surreptitiously. After a while, she stretched luxuriously and grinned at him in unchecked satisfaction. Then, the words. A torrent of words between them, brimming over with emotion.

"You're so good to me."

"Yeah. Are you ready yet?"

"Gee, thanks."

"Sorry. But, seriously, we're late."

"Not that late. Anyway, we're having a moment here."

"We don't have time for a moment."

"Do we have time for a beer?"

"Okay, one beer."

The bottlecaps fell to the pavement with a ringing sound that can only evince lethargy and every Midwestern backyard barbecue in human history. They both emitted sounds of satisfaction, his more frenzied than hers as he contemplated watching Christian Bale fight a T-800 on the big screen.

Then, more words. Always the words. Always the emotion.

"I wish I had all summer to hang with you."

"That fight scene between them looked kickass."


"I mean, yeah."

"Well I do. A summer together to just be together would be great."

"Well, we're leaving on vacation this week, right?"

"Yeah, but--"

"And we're hanging right now, right?"

"You know, I was trying to say something nice here. You don't need to be such a buzzkill."

"Who's a buzzkill? I'm giving you a buzz. I'm like a Buzz Lite Year. I'm reminding you about your vacation and what not."

"Okay, but still--"

"We're going to miss the previews."

"But still, when I say I'd like to have summers off--"

"Hey, I work during summers!"

She paused. Her eyes narrowed to slits. The beer in his stomach flopped over uneasily and he began examining his nails.

"Don't start with that. When I came home this afternoon, you were downloading fake GI Joe PSAs off Youtube."

"That? Oh. That was just a brief coffee break in an otherwise crowded and productive day."

"Yeah. You betcha. Now what I was trying to say was, I wish I had all summer to hang with you and not have to worry about going back to work."

"Well, I'm worrying about going back to work, and it's not even August yet."

"I'm trying to express my deep and sincere love for you, you jackass. Are you getting that?"

"I think in this movie, they get somebody who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger to play the first Terminator off the assembly line. Pretty cool, right?"

"I was trying to tell you I love you, but now you're just annoying me, so never mind."

The words broke through his preoccupation with buff robots and postapocalyptic storylines. He paused. He fumbled for the appropriate gesture.

"Oh. Well. Thanks."

"Yeah. Sure."

And with that, the moment crushed, stunned and reeling on the cutting room floor of the cinematic vista of a life in Anytown, USA, she left the patio. He sat, bemused, wondering whether he should follow, or take a separate car or what. He cast about in his mind to find the words to slap a Band-Aid on the situation. Always, it's the words. Like Hamlet said: "Words, words, words." If only he could come up with the right words this time.

He remembered that the movie started in ten minutes. He got up and made for the car.

And they made the movie with minutes to spare. They sat in the darkness. They held hands. They shared a soda. And as the screen lit up, he leaned over to tell her what he was sure, in her heart of hearts, she truly needed to hear:

"It really was a coffee break, dammit."

"Shut up."

"A real long one, sure, but still..."

"Just...shut up."