Sunday, October 12, 2008

Room With a Viewz

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in late September on Nextbook.]

“Michael Jackson takes himself so seriously,” said Jonathan Dagan, leafing through a salad in a Mexican restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Over dinner, the Haifa-born producer and frontman for J.Viewz, an electronica and trip-hop project from Tel Aviv, was explaining the inspiration behind his cover of “Smooth Criminal,” a down-tempo lounge treatment of the Jackson classic.

“Our version is a parody of that seriousness. It’s honest,” said Dagan, energetic and talkative in a sweatshirt and jeans. “It shines a new light on Michael Jackson.” Although it may sound paradoxical, Dagan’s description is right on: the song is an honest parody. In replacing Jackson’s frenetic elements with a slower tempo and sweet, loping vocals, the song is both irreverent and straightforward, a minimalist send-up with an aesthetic that characterizes most of the J.Viewz catalogue: smart, edgy, and altogether engaging.

J.Viewz, founded by Dagan in 2002 while he was in the band Violet Vision, functions mainly as Dagan’s one-man studio creation. He recruits a full band—guitars, vocals, trumpets, an MC, and even a laptop—for live performances, which include Dagan’s own work on the turntables, guitar, and computer.

Dagan lifts a heavy studio load in between tours. The Besides EP, J.Viewz’s most recent release, proved a stripped-down follow-up to its 2005 debut, Muse Breaks. Besides (so named because it consists entirely of b-sides and other one-offs) leads in with “Smooth Criminal” and includes other remixes, live tracks, and singles.

J. Viewz’s sound is an Israeli-flavored blend of beat-heavy rhythms, multifarious instrumentation, and computer-generated timbres. Haunting effects and subtle textural changes evince the influence of groups like Massive Attack and Sphongle.

The music suits its creator. Dagan is like a human remix, an amalgam of styles and source materials wrought into a clever, easygoing whole. He is humbly cosmopolitan, as eager to admit what he doesn’t know as he is to offer information. His J.Viewz material is similarly balanced, with a mood that remains simultaneously relaxed, danceable, and uplifting.

The variety of cultures and genres reflected in the music is a testament to what Dagan described as his lifelong struggle with Israel’s artistic shortcomings; he had to work to cultivate his tastes.

“I think that Israel has a lot to do with how my music sounds today, even if it’s the lack of cultural profundity I found in my hometown which had me searching for interesting music underground,” said Dagan. “I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have found [the same inspiration] if I’d lived in a place that satisfied my artistic needs.”

Having found more fertile musical ground in the States, Dagan—who said he developed his unhesitating English by watching TV as a kid—is thinking of permanently relocating to New York. Despite having produced ’s number-one Israeli radio hit “Adam Tsover Zichronot” this year and despite J.Viewz’s burgeoning success at home, Dagan took a rental in Manhattan this month and is exploring the Big Apple’s musical prospects.

“Something in New York City just feels right,” said Dagan, who will soon celebrate his twenty-seventh birthday. “Today we had rehearsal in Brooklyn, and we saw break dancers in the subway station, people just doing their art. I love that here…I have a hunch I’ll stay.” Still, there are things he’ll miss about his home country.

“I’ve been going in the streets and whispering to myself, ‘ch ch ch,’” said Dagan, mimicking the guttural friction the letters “ch” produce in Hebrew. “I haven’t used it for a while.”

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Happily Ever After?

Speculation abounds regarding whether the media’s influence is positive or negative for our collective psychology—the day has long passed since anyone of repute has argued that television, cinema, radio, advertising, et al. are epistemologically impotent. Indeed, the New Millennium meteoric mass packs a convoluted, dense punch, and unpacking the hazy penumbrae around the impact zone would take a very long time.

This much, however, is sure: we recognize patterns in popular culture and begin to anticipate what will happen next. We extrapolate from movie to movie, from song to song, and Western media being as homogeneous and formulaic as it is, we develop expectations. We know Jason Bourne isn’t going to die. We know the lost dog will find its way home.

We parse out heroes and villains, comedies and tragedies, and figure the good guys from the bad guys.

Most of all, we’ve come to expect the happy ending. And therein lies the problem.

We’re so bombarded with positive outcomes — inconceivable, unrealistic, and insultingly fabricated conclusions — that we’ve come to accept them as not just realistic, but as a given. Think about the Jason Bourne example: so many thousands of movies have reinforced our confidence in the hero’s right to a happy ending that we know what the end holds for Matt Damon. And we assume, extrapolators that we are, that we in the real world have the same right, are virtually assured a sublime epilogue.

We all expect a glorious resolution to our personal conflicts, believing each moment to be the penultimate frame in an inevitably feel-good reel. We believe in change being just around the corner. We believe in big breaks. We believe in magic. We believe in miracles. We believe in the majestic climax that awaits each of us. We have a brand of one-way consciousness that deludes us into categorical hopefulness.

Just one manifestation of our misguidedness is the way we characterize drug rehabilitation. Many call rehab a gateway to a better, warmhearted future. Others, including many who have gone through it, label rehab a stultifying entrée into bleak, temperate incompleteness. Likewise, we tie our relationships and jobs to the happy ending paradigm. We orient our expectations towards a consumer relationship with swooning songstresses, script-trapped actors, and cloistered authors fathoming redemption from the misanthropic generators of literary minds.

Are we delusional? Have we all lost our minds, intent on piquant delusions and reverie? Our echolalia is frightening: the Tourettic insistence on mimicking the media can only portend disaster. Whether we curate a calamity or merely end up severely upset is a matter of degrees, or perhaps courage. How willing are we to turn off the television of our lives, to set down the remote and go outside?

Stay Safe, Bourne
DJ Damon

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lost Tribe Finds Itself

[Editor's Note: This article originally appears in the 09/04 issue of The Forward.]

In the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, far in the northeast near the Burmese border, some 7,000 people observe the Jewish Sabbath, kosher dietary laws and rules of family purity. Already, 1,400 of these people, known as Bnei Menashe, have immigrated to Israel. The remaining 7,000 wish to join their brethren as soon as possible in relocating to the Holy Land, the act known in Hebrew as aliyah.

Their ambitions are proving more complicated than they thought, however, and so they have released a CD of their music. Titled “Aliya, Aliya…” it is intended to help make the case for their quest and, not incidentally, to help fund the move.

The Bnei Menashe claim descent from the ancient Israelite tribe of Menashe (Manasseh), one of the storied 10 Lost Tribes exiled from the land of Israel by Assyrian conquerors 27 centuries ago. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate affirmed in 2005 that these people are, indeed, of Jewish ancestry, but required that they undergo formal conversion before they can be deemed Jewish under rabbinic law — and thus qualify for immigration rights, in such areas as subsidies and citizenship, under Israel’s Law of Return. In the meantime, they must manage their resettlement on their own.

“Aliya, Aliya” features a collection of 15 songs, performed in Hebrew and in the Bnei Menashe’s local dialect, Thadou-Kuki, and is mostly devoted to Zionist and religious themes. The CD was produced and published by Shavei Israel, an organization that helps descendants of Jews from all over the world to reconnect with their Jewish roots.

According to Shavei Israel founder and chairman, Michael Freund, the Bnei Menashe are “a lost tribe of Israel. They live and practice Judaism, they keep Shabbat, they keep kosher, they keep the laws of family purity, they wear yarmulkes and tzitzit. They have built over 50 synagogues across Mizoram and Manipur.”

“Aliya, Aliya” combines Israeli and Indian styles, and, as its name implies, is a spirited plea for emigration. Some songs, like “Shokhen Ad,” are from the traditional Jewish prayer service, while others, such as the title track, echo the group’s attachment to Israel.

Although the disc showcases some exotic instrumentation, most of the songs are accessible and Western in musical style, with strong hints of modern Israeli music. In fact, though the expectation for a geographically far-flung disc may be a similarly unfamiliar style, the truth is just the opposite: The Bnei Menashe have produced a work that not only pines for the Holy Land, but also emulates Her sounds.

The result is pleasingly familiar, a percussion-heavy interpretation of Western fare. Not nearly as experimental as George Harrison’s famed Indian-style compositions, nor as traditional as the country’s classical raga style, “Aliya, Aliya” is surprisingly mainstream. With much of its material borrowed from Scripture and prayer, the album hits surprisingly close to home.

Shavei Israel is selling the CD through its Web site,, and has been instrumental in assisting the Bnei Menashe. In addition to facilitating the aliyah of the 1,400 who have already moved to Israel, the organization has assisted with the building of synagogues and mikvehs in India. Shavei also operates two educational centers, one in Mizoram and one in Manipur, that instruct the Bnei Menashe in Hebrew and Jewish culture.

“I first learned of the Bnei Menashe over a decade ago,” said Freund, who served from 1996 to 1999 on the staff of Israel’s then-prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. “I made contact with members of the community who’d managed to make it to Israel. I was very taken by them on a human level, with their sincerity and commitment to living as Jews.”

In 2004, at Freund’s urging, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate sent a delegation to India to try and determine if, indeed, the Bnei Menashe hail from a lost tribe.

“The rabbis spent time interviewing members of the community and meeting with some of the locals, learning more about their history and traditions and customs,” Freund said. The delegation submitted reports to Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar, who in 2005, Freund said, “formally recognized the Bnei Menashe as being descendants of Jews — ‘zera yisrael’ [the seed of Israel] — and [said he] would do what he can to facilitate bringing them to Israel.”

Since the Jewishness of Bnei Menashe is not recognized by Israeli government officialdom, Shavei Yisrael has often had to navigate through layers of bureaucracy to get them to Israel. A typical strategy has involved obtaining permission from Israel’s Interior Ministry to bring groups of Bnei Menashe to Israel for the purpose of conversion and resettlement.

“I think the Bnei Menashe are a blessing for the State of Israel and the people of Israel,” said Freund, who made aliyah himself from New York 13 years ago. “They are honest, decent, hardworking people; they serve in the army; volunteer for combat units, and raise beautiful Jewish children. As much as we try to strengthen them, ultimately they strengthen us.”

Stay Sonorous, Bnei Menashe
MC Manipur

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Age Rage

Aging is a process, and aged is a state, but real “age,” at least as it’s depicted on a driver’s license, is a vast artifice. You see, chronological age is only as relevant as its implications: having a physical body that has withstood thirteen corporeal years is one thing, but the assumptions, generalities, and social constructs that go along with that amount of time are what are truly meant by, “Oh, he’s just thirteen.”

So calling one of those Harvard-bound preteens a “twelve-year-old” is just as misleading as calling him dumb, or unmotivated. Sure, it’s accurate so far as the calendar is concerned, but attaching all the trappings and beliefs normally assigned to people of that birth year is preposterous.

So twenty could be thirty, thirty could be eighty, and ninety could be fifteen. Each moment of the present is a shared commodity anyhow, a common “now” of which we all equally own a part. Our interconnectivity makes our ages something of a wash, or at least interchangeable. If one can share a moment with someone else—or, really, share every moment with someone else—then surely the amount of days one has been here is inherently less valent than one's humanness, and one's ability to transcend age and into something more captivating—perhaps one's science, or credulity.

We are transported on jagged floes of time, afloat on embalmed menaces irreversibly destined for later destinations. Thusly oriented, we presume these swaths our rightful carriers, and align our self-concepts by the blurry way-stations of days past. We pivot our stories on crowded platforms pockmarked by strewn birthdays and heeded demarcations. There are none more tortured than us, time travelers resigned to ride, freezing away our virility on age's piked glaciers.

But is chronology not simply a candle, a votive resonance with a wick, a body, and—most vitally—an extinguishable quality? Like an hourglass than can turned on its side and halted, age is a conflagration that can be smothered, muted, and mutated into inertness. Whereas some might believe the floes too mighty, these sheets can be stopped and stowed, made stationary against the rhetorical cross-examination of “But I don't feel very old.”

Belief is time’s lone arbiter—perceptions of youth and elderliness the vales in which age resides. It is from these hamlets that classifications arise, glutinous and damning like the summer haze. Twenty, thirty, and all the rest are viscous crags, plucking victims from time’s beneficent streets.

Stay Specious, Age
DJ Derider

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Java Jeremiad

Coffee shops have long represented a certain culture, a Bohemian, B-Type liberalism associated, more or less, with screenplays that never get finished and scrawled notes that never get formalized. The bean brewery is home to the diurnal diuretic and estival beret—shelter to a fueled, fledgling artisanship.

Starbucks is not the traditional coffee shop. Starbucks sells John Mellencamp records. Starbucks sells first-person narratives driven by canine protagonists. Starbucks attracts more corporate shills than it does dowdy writers. Starbucks charges Benjamins and does not give free refills.

Like a dance club, Starbucks charges for a tony aesthetic. The acerbic, inky coffee is a high-priced hand stamp, a token of inclusion in an odd, pretentious party. The in-speak and latte lingo are the native patois, the jargon of dispossessed coffee drinkers with more insecurities than taste receptors. It is with an ingratiating smile that the counter clerk takes your order, and it is with a dismissive wave that your drink is served. Tired minions huff through Starbucks every day, wanting to tread in the shallow fraternity of Mint Mocha Chips and Caffé Americanos.

The question, “Would you like a little foam on your macchiato?” is supposed to be pathetic. It’s supposed to be asked of a faux installation artist by a faux barista, both—male or female—with unclipped body hair and idealism that slightly exceeds their respective intellects. It is a question that should, by café noir standards, evoke a round of mordant anti-Frenchism. It should not be asked in a central business district and should not be posed against an exclusively licensed John Coltrane recording. Thanks to Starbucks, macchiato foam flipped from freak to chic, its hilarity dissipated like so much steamed milk…err, soy milk.

What does Starbucks want? Not your money—they got that long ago. Not your loyalty—they snared that, too. What they’re really after is approval, a collective affirmation of the way the chain has hijacked coffee culture. Starbucks abruptly maimed the organic coffee shop experience, a fact that has become a mammoth elephant in the room. Instead of resolving the elephant, Starbucks has marketed it past innocuousness and into fashion, and desperately needs its customer base to help prolong the fiction.

Instead of addressing high prices and low roast, Starbucks is prospering by having us all participate in a farce. The knock-off paintings on its walls reek of wannabe, but we ignore that. The music it plays is teenybopper swill, but we listen anyway. Its heinous lighting and assembly line embrace violate everything quirky and sacred about coffee houses, but we forgive. We relent, yield, and sip.

Stay Scandalizing, Starbucks
DJ De Leche

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Phelps Phenomenon

If you Google Michael Phelps—at least as of 1:20am EST on Tuesday, August 19th—you’ll turn up 9,080,000 results. Just two days after the flagellar phenom took home his record 8th Olympic Gold Medal in Beijing, Phelps has a bigger online presence than Stonehenge (8,630,000), the Queen of England (7,790,000), and LeBron James (7,150,000). He carries about eight times more virtual weight than Mark Spitz (1,190,000), the swimmer whose gold medal mark Phelps bested. Granted, Phelps is no Kobayashi (11,500,000), but is in a different stratosphere than Joey Chestnut (636,000), the vacuum who out-ate the Japanese hotdogger.

Sportswriters the world over are hailing Phelps as the greatest athlete of all time. In a feature called “Phelps’ eight gold medals makes us rethink greatness,”’s Jemele Hill says, “Forget your previous notions. Forget other things you've seen from the other world's best athletes. What Phelps has done is as remarkably different as God giving us the sun one day and the seas the next…Phelps has changed the way we think about sport. Phelps has redefined athletics, and athleticism.”

Want to claim home-country bias? Understandable. But then there’s the Canberra Times, an Australian newspaper that published a piece by columnist Daniel MacDonald entitled, “Forget Tiger, Jordan, Federer…Phelps is now the greatest ever.” When the lauding comes from a rival country—as MacDonald notes, “It was hard not to be disappointed with some of Australia's narrow misses. World record-holders Leisel Jones, Libby Trickett, Eamon Sullivan and Grant Hackett all failed to shine in their pet events”—and a country that won less gold collectively than Phelps did personally, it is time to stop and smell the chlorine: Michael Phelps is the bomb diggity.

The Olympics are one of our last romantic bastions. Modern facts like Wi-Fi and space travel are immaterial, and, more to the point, each event has a definable result. Someone wins, someone finishes second, and then another third. Swimming is especially platonic, since it is so simple—like wrestling, it involves no high-tech equipment, and like running, it is a race in the truest sense. Just a bunch of dudes/dudettes swimming through a bunch of water, each hoping for a glory that rests in hundredths of seconds. What makes Michael Phelps so accessible, so easily celebrated, is that one can sum up his achievement in a single sentence.

He swam faster than everybody else.

Michael Jordan had teammates; Phelps swam alone. Tiger Woods uses a club to hit a ball into a hole; Phelps used only his body. Lance Armstrong had teammates and rode the best bicycle money could buy; Phelps did not benefit from superior engineering, as he shared a pool with his competition. Muhammad Ali competed once every few months; Phelps swam every day, sometimes twice a day. And obliterated world-class competition each time.

It is very tempting to label Phelps the best ever, especially in the immediate afterglow of his achievements. It is even more tempting since Spitz, whose mark of 7 gold medals stood since 1972, already called Phelps “the best Olympian of all time.” But is Phelps better than Ruth, Thorpe, Federer, Woods, Ali, Gretzky, and Rice?

It’s nearly impossible to say. But one thing is clear: Phelps has to swim a lot faster to catch Justin Timberlake (39,000,000).

Stay Searchable, Michael
MC Medal

Monday, August 18, 2008

Lolla, Part 3: Alarms and Surprises

[Editor’s Note: This is the third and final installment of The Verbal Calorie’s Lollapalooza diary. Like its two predecessors—“Lolla, Part 1 and Lolla, Part 2”—the finale is mostly an exposition of hazy memories, and at points boasts almost no connection to reality.]

[Editor’s Note 2: In regards to the comments in “Lolla, Part 1” about Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics, Gene Wojciechowski of wrote an excellent article on the same topic. Wojciechowski, a native Chicagoan, specifically mentions Lollapalooza.]

Somewhere between the maverick anti-label glory and the depressed public posturing lies the truth about Radiohead: they are a very good, very successful rock band. They long ago slid into the top-tier ranking—along with bands like U2, Dave Matthews, and Pearl Jam—that guarantees sold-out tours, excellent sales figures, and universal adulation. Like those other bands, Radiohead is largely mythologized, but they are also misunderstood.

The group’s legend roots in an absurd four-album run spanning 1997-2003. “The Bends,” a monumentally gorgeous record, came out in 1995, but, as has been noted repeatedly, it was “merely” a good pop record. Two years later, though, Radiohead released “OK Computer,” an experimental concept album that made unprecedented aural sense. Rock radio listeners were treated to daily airings of “Karma Police,” and “Paranoid Android” made the late-night MTV video rotation.

Radiohead released “Kid A” in 2000 and then “Amnesiac” one year later. In 2003, they submitted “Hail to the Thief” for public consumption.

Deservedly, these recordings lent the band a certain infallibility, a categorical assumption of genius that so few artists ever merit. Mythologized though they might be—their first album, “Pablo Honey,” is unremarkable, as is their latest, “In Rainbows”—the purpose, at least for the band members, was never to be a big, snotty rock band. In fact, what makes Radiohead so vastly misunderstood is that their music is hardly rock star fare. Much of it is quirky, electronic, and loping. Much of it is low-dynamic and hookless.

Much of it is completely indecipherable to a person brought up on U2, Dave Matthews, and Pearl Jam.

Which brings us to Lollapalooza: since there’s nothing cooler than professing to a) love Radiohead, and b) know all their songs, dozens of thousands of people jammed the main performance area for Radiohead’s performance on the festival’s first night. Body to body traffic spanned 200 feet from the stage, making passage impossible. At a festival like Lollapalooza, where neophyte listeners are as prevalent as diehards, it is difficult to say how much of the elbowing mass might be the genuine, Radiohead-addicted article.

For the initiated, the 24-song set was a Pantheon recital, with a few new tracks mixed in with the greatest hits. Glorious oldies included “Airbag,” the oddly apocalyptic “Everything In Its Right Place,” and “The Bends.” About half the audience knew the words to most songs, and a handful demonstrated the fixated geek information: track names, guitar patterns, historical context, etc.

At the set’s midway point, with the night just having stolen the last bits of sunlight, the Chicago skyline shone like a million small diadems. Fireworks exploded in curlicues just beyond of Grant Park, teaming with the skyline and Radiohead’s stalactitic light show for a seraphic gestalt.

Since the show ended at 10pm, there was time for a considerable spiritual debriefing afterwards. Radiohead-sated hordes flanked the streets, seeking food and further drink. Many coalesced at a small diner with a dance club in the basement, eager to either sit at a booth and reflect or get more boogie on. As we recounted the ways in which Thom Yorke's cadre had just reorganized our pleasure sensors, one benevolent truth stood accented above the rest:

For one night, Radiohead was understood.

Stay Seminal, OK Computer
DJ Diary

Monday, August 11, 2008

Lolla, Part 2: Perry, Perry Good

[Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of The Verbal Calorie’s slightly impaired, still unnamed Lollapalooza diary. See the last blog, “Lolla, Part I: You’re Not as Bad as You Think,” for a complete intro.]

I assume, as an ardent theist, that my deceased ancestors are either in heaven or hell. Hopefully heaven, but it takes temerity to posit where a given man or woman is situated. Since it’s been a very long time since various religions’ sages claimed to have temporally passed into the next world, maintaining faith in the heaven/hell construct can be a bit trying. Is the concept of a binary destiny merely an appeasement, a chimera shaped by terrified theologians and opportunistic feudal lords? Are heaven and hell the netherwordly parallel to the tooth fairy and tax rebates? Is the image of DJ Bloggers past enjoying a cup of ethereal tea simply too pleasing to be true?

Thank goodness I went to Lollapalooza.

No less an authority than Lollapalooza founder and Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell sermonized on our post-dead destiny. Performing on the Kids’ Stage on the festival’s third and final day—and accompanied by Guns N’ Roses/Velvet Revolver guitarist Slash—Farrell echoed my long-held suspicions about the afterlife.

“Well, kids,” he said, walking the length of the stage, “some of you might have a grandfather or grandmother who died. That means they’re in heaven right now.” There were some kids, even some borderline toddlers, in attendance. Farrell’s own 4-year-old son, wearing a pair of oversized red earphones, stood to stage right.

“And so that’s what this next song is about. It’s called ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.’”

And with that, the band launched into a semi-spirited rendition of the Dylan standard, its basic chord structure easing my cosmic doubt. With Farrell’s philosophy restoring my forebears to their rightful resting place, there was time to enjoy his music (see below for video of the almost rockin' "Knockin'").

The set closed with a less-than-inspired rendition of “Jane Says,” the original version of which remains history’s most jaunty song about heroin addiction. In that moment, however, after Farrell had spoken so definitively about Eternity, the song sounded ominous: where do heroin addicts go when they die? Farrell, a dabbling Kabbalist, could surely opine on the question, but that was not to be at this Lollapalooza.

Instead, the 49-year-old’s focus was more immediate.

“There are a lot of cute girls here,” Farrell told the kids. “You’ll understand that when you’re older.”

Stay Spiritual, Perry
DJ Dylan

Friday, August 8, 2008

Lolla, Part 1: You're Not as Bad as You Think

[Editor's Note: The Verbal Calorie attended Lollapalooza in Chicago this past weekend. This is the first of a multi-part retrospective that, despite The Verbal Calorie's best efforts, does not have a name.]

Chicago is not like New York. So I was told over and over this weekend, by both geographically yielding locals and adamant out-of-towners. For all that Lollapalooza had to offer—Radiohead and Rage Against the Machine, an extensive wine selection and homely joie de vivre—its greatest shortcoming was location. “Sure, Grant Park is really nice,” someone would say, referring to the festival’s home base, “but it’s not like New York.”

Chicago’s Trump Towers, watering holes, subways, and intellects were offered on a pyre of sub-Manhattanism. According to residents, the country’s third-largest city has pretty girls, but the really pretty ones move to Manhattan. The bars in Lincoln Park, Chicago’s ritzy hot spot, don’t make drinks like the bars in New York. You can see live music every night, but not like you can in New York. The skyline is nice, but can’t hold a scaffolded candle to the Big Apple’s.

Los Angelenos do not suffer from the same inferiority complex. Neither do Miamians, Clevelanders (although they should), or even the genial folks in Akron. But Chicago, the unrivaled Midwest monarch, is terribly insecure. Midway through Blues Traveler’s set, the girl standing next to me eagerly offered that, if she were me, she’d leave Chicago and never come back.

“Why?” I asked her.

“Because Chicago isn’t as good as New York.”

Trouble is, she’s right. Chicago isn't as good as New York, insofar as in all matters urban, economic, and demographic, the latter easily outstrips the former. Chicago, like many cities, is a scaled-down New York, and although the Sears Tower could cast a shadow over any building in Manhattan, the perception along Lake Michigan is far more defeatist. For four days, people of every creed, color, and political persuasion aggressively denounced their home city, simply on the grounds of its not being exactly as they imagine New York to be. The attitude is not just deferential, but reverential: masochistically, the people with whom I spoke celebrated how incomparably better my city is than theirs.

Theirs is a worldview borne not of particulars, but of outsized fantasy. It wouldn’t matter if a Chicago sports team were to beat a New York sports team. Hosting the 2016 Olympics wouldn't loosen the city's fatalistic grip on second place. “Chicago is not like New York” is so ingrained in their cosmopolitan conscious that Chicagoans assume it to be true on all levels. Their trees, thoroughfares, and traffic signals are dingier. Their lawns, museums, and pavilions are shoddier. Their residents aren’t as smart and their jobs aren’t as good; their food doesn’t taste as good and their money isn’t worth as much.

Our contingent at Lollapalooza was particularly targeted for praise, as all five of us live in various boroughs of New York. Chicagoans felt silly around us, like a group of poseurs who walk into an Armani and suddenly feel less fashionable than they once thought themselves. It was only in the small moments, when our zip code was incognito, that we got a sniff of Chicago's civic pride. Its residents desperately want the Olympics, and even more desperately want to celebrate the outlandish riches of Millennium Park, Wrigley Field, and yes—Lollapalooza.

The diary to follow will recount the thrills, oddities, and rapid-fire milieus of the latter. In just one weekend, we met an ex-dominatrix, heard Perry Farrell lecture about life and death to little kids, and saw fireworks cascade behind Thom Yorke.

Not surprisingly, Chicago proved to be very much like New York.

Stay Similar, Cities
MC Manhattan

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Miles of Piles

"Do you want to come upstairs?"

I was 12, and though I’d arrived somewhat late to the pheromones party, I’d seen enough movies to know that a question of this ilk was Admission: Granted in the dating game’s application process. Besides, I had almost expected the invitation for ascent, for earlier in the day I’d made a not-so-disparaging remark about ballet, which for preteen males is radical progressivism.

"Yeah. Let’s go upstairs."

This being one of my first solo forays into the female habitat, all the anatomical differences between boys’ and girls’ rooms frightened away my mojo. Soft pastel colors. Incense sticks in incense stick holders. A pink computer. Real furniture. Posters of bands I hated. An embroidered army of throw pillows.

There would be more girls’ rooms in my future, and somewhere along the evolutionary way, there would be womens’ rooms, in different countries and belonging to different economic communities. At that moment, however, on the literal threshold of what I thought would be my Man-itiation, the Crate and Barrel aesthetic was impenetrable. How can I impose myself here, and on this person, whose living space is more meticulously arranged than a mile of dominoes? This girl, all seven grades of her, was made of tougher stuff.

Beset by macro concerns about sexuality, gender, and where to sit if the bed was made, my immediate fate was determined by the room’s lone unordered element: clothing. Heaps of all styles, shapes, and identities—shirts, pants, dresses, socks, underwear (well, at least that was cool), skirts, tubes, tanks, and everything else—lay strewn about. The collection on the floor was quickly bloated by a cascade of garments from the dresser, which my friend was emptying with gusto.

“Sooo…I have to make piles,” she said, tossing handfuls of tees across the room. “And the thing is, I don’t really know what’s small on me and what’s not, so I’m just going to make piles of what I think I don't want anymore, and I’ll go through them with my mom tomorrow.”

It’s a scene that would replay itself dozens of times, and I read it correctly right away: Naughty stuff was not about to go down.

Indeed, piles of clothing are a disappointingly clear part of the male-female cipher. If they exist on or around a girl’s (or woman’s) floor, sex is not the offing. Luckily, men don’t have to participate in the ritualized folding, collating, and decision-making. This is probably because women realized long ago that, in all things couture, we have no idea what the hell we’re talking about.

Our sartorial sense never develops, even after years of watching our friends, girlfriends, and wives do the exact same thing over and over. Last night, I sat not five feet from two girls while they separated apparel into piles. I did not help, did not offer to help, and did not learn anything. Generations of men have had the same MO, and, barring heterosexuality's extinction, it will remain so.

The lesson in all of this?

Have a girl over to your place.

Stay Sorted, Piles
DJ Dresser

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Put That Kid On a Leash!

Memo to anyone attempting to cultivate an even more belittling application for the term “love handle.”

Your work is done.

It was done for you, actually, by Liberte Apparel, a Long Island-based company edging us one dimension closer to hell.

Behold: "The Love Handle."

The issue of child leashes is contentious, or at least would appear to be so based upon the amount of stand-up comedy that addresses the subject. Central to the discussion is a single observation: putting your kid on a leash makes them look like a dog. Especially in urban centers, it takes a double- or triple-take to determine which species of creature is housed within the shackles. Seeing a child leash in action is psychedelically horrifying, a sight so scary, dehumanized, and outlandish that it should only exist in Hunter S. Thompson’s posthumous flashbacks.

Liberte Apparel’s site offers a fantastically flimsy defense for The Love Handle. To wit:

“The Love Handle® gives today’s multi-tasking parents (and grandparents!) an extra hand, and allows children to express their independence outside the confines of a stroller, while safely within arm’s reach.”

The essential question is, how much more multi-tasking do today’s child-toting adults perform than they did 20, 30, 100 years ago? We might live in a multitasked world, and professional lives might employ more gadgets, but when you actually have a child in tow, the basic setup is the same: one hand for the kid, one hand available. If a child is already walking, then it makes no difference whether you use your non-smartphone hand to hold the child’s hand or to grab the end of a leash.

As for letting children “express their independence outside the confines of a stroller?” To quote Cartman, I hate hippies. I wanna kick ‘em in the nuts. What does "expressing their independence" mean? What kind emancipation are we talking about, and how, exactly, does canine-level treatment let kids express it? I may not be a child psychologist (or a hippie), but perhaps a more expressive form of outside-the-stroller freedom would be…um…regular walking.

"The Love Handle® is fully self-adjusting and fits children of all sizes from the time they take their first steps as toddlers, and for years to come."

How many years, exactly? Evidently, Liberte Apparel intends for parents to use The Love Handle for years untold; perhaps even decades. If my parents put me in a Love Handle back in 1985, would I still be in it now? Moreover, would it not be humiliating for a child to amble up to pre-school in a Love Handle? Is that not psychological abuse? And if you're in that kid's class, you have to kick his/her ass. Schoolyard laws dictate it. By direct causation, putting your child in a Love Handle is tantamount to physical harm.

"With The Love Handle® adults look hip, and kids keep their dignity intact."

Really? Like, really really? Did you see the video? When the woman puts the handle through the shoulder loop, it looks like she is about to string up that poor little girl like a birdhouse. There is no dignity—repeat: THERE IS NO DIGNITY—in wearing a leash. That’s why dogs wear them, and humans do not.

While it might be nice, furthermore, for parents to think they’ll look hip with The Love Handle, it is very difficult to look voguish when you're walking your kid like a pet.

It doesn’t matter that The Love Handle comes in a variety of designs with post-modern names. Carnival Candy, Raspberry Tie Dye, Sunburst, and Robin Stripe should all be renamed “Subhuman Idiocy” and eliminated from the global marketplace.

We’ve let this tyranny go on for too long.

Stay Strollered, Kids
DJ Dog Leash

Monday, July 21, 2008

Seeing Bread

I saw an erect penis poking out of a pair of shorts while its owner casually asked a group of guys if they had a condom. I saw a Porta Potty with one type of human waste on the walls and two more in the toilet. I saw a dreadlocked girl scrunch her face and wonder how it came about, at this same festival one year ago, that she statutorily raped a high school student. I saw the beating sun cook up a toxic miasma of hippie sweat, body odor, and septic overflow. I saw Snoop Dogg.

I saw a lot of things at this year’s installment of Camp Bisco—the seventh, if you’re counting—but what I mainly saw were white people. Nearly everyone roaming the Indian Lookout Country Club’s sprawling grounds, from the Hells Angels security detail to the thousands of scared-to-death-of-Hells-Angels attendees, was woefully Caucasian. So Caucasian, in fact, that during his performance, a bewildered Snoop repeatedly asked the crowd if we were ready to hear 311—despite the fact that 311, currently touring with the estimable Dogg, were not there.

Camp Bisco was not unlike its myriad counterparts dotting the neo-counterculture summer landscape. Music and camping events, typically held over weekends, have sprung up everywhere from Masontown, West Virginia (All Good), to Lawrence, Kansas (Wakarusa), to piney Mariaville, New York (Camp Bisco). The format, by now, is wonderfully formulaic. Organizers mash a few famous acts with a buffet of no-names, place the concert stages in the midst of vast dirt fields, and then make sure that it rains. If you’ve been to any of the summer festivals, you’ve already deciphered these answers for yourself: yes, mud comes out of leg hair fairly painlessly; no, I would not like to purchase the drugs you’re selling; yes, you’re better off peeing in the woods than anywhere else; and, actually, what drugs are you selling?

While the specter of a drug-addled, sound-tracked vacation should be universally appealing, the reality is a bit more antebellum. A festival is where Whiteness goes to regroup and have a self-affirming experience before returning to its one-bedroom apartment above Mitt Romney’s house. The pasty crowds don’t dance so much as they get rickety and throw glow sticks at people several rows in front of them. Glow stick culture, moreover, operates along a quirkily white hierarchy, wherein people who wear many of them are almost as cool as people who fashion spinning glow stick wheels, while both groups look up to the Glow Stick Kings—the luminescent lords who sell the toxin-filled tubes to other white people for bizarre prices.

And where would any concentration of Whiteness be without some better-living hypocrisy? Not at a festival, that’s for sure. Drug dealers, after failing to sell you MDMA, ask if you’d rather sassafras, an all-natural alternative to MDMA that is better, they say, since…well…MDMA is bad for you. Birkenstockers preach Green while ingesting a series of chemicals and foods more inorganic than Angelina Jolie’s immediate family. It’s all hilarious (and a lot of it’s on videotape), and about as swarthy as the American picket fence.

Camp Bisco is particularly egregious, since its eponymous band, The Disco Biscuits (who both organize and headline the event), are the whitest band of all time (if you can stand the anti-Motown pallor, click on the Biscuits picture above, snapped on CB7 premises by photojournalist extraordinaire Robust). I have seen the Disco Biscuits on more than a dozen occasions, including two Camp Biscos, and have come up with the following bio: they are four white dudes who dress like each of the four archetypal White Guys (punk, prep, slob, and skater, respectively), play music with no groove, and have an almost exclusively white fan base. The Disco Biscuits are so white, in fact, that they were recently awarded their own genre: “Jamtronica.” Doesn’t sound too bad? Consider this: most non-white musics—funk, jazz, blues, soul, rap, rock—have one syllable.

“Jamtronica,” besides for sounding ridiculous, has four.

Conclusion: The Disco Biscuits are four times whiter than they should be.

Let there be no misunderstanding—festivals, Camp Bisco included, are completely egalitarian. Anyone and everyone is welcome, from tatterdemalion vagrants to RV-rearing VIPs. That they’ve become the Whiteness War Room is simply a sad, weakly pigmented aside.

But I can only report what I saw.

Stay Sassy, Frassy
DJ Dogg

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Sea Monster Surfaces in New York

In a large oblong room with raised ceilings and a faded brick veneer, Shmuel Levy was picking up the pieces of his scattered songbook. “This is terrible,” he muttered, crawling along the floor, examining more than 100 three-hole-punched sheets that just a moment before had spiraled from his black music binder. “This is a really terrible thing.”

An Israeli by way of Casablanca, Morocco, Levy cut an odd prostrate figure. With a silver-burnished beard, foot-long sidelocks and incandescent spheres for eyes, the singer-songwriter who goes by the stage name “LevYatan” — homage to “leviathan,” a biblical sea monster — looks half-beatnik, half-Bible.

To see Levy sprawled and stammering in an office-cum-rehearsal space in Brooklyn seems all the more strange after realizing that he isn’t much of a stickler for organization. Though, at the time of this interview, he has a number of shows scheduled at Manhattan’s Sullivan Hall in the coming weeks, Levy only recently (May 21) started auditioning backup musicians.

“I have no worries,” Levy said, “and anyway, I have an acoustic set that I can play by myself.” Not sounding totally convinced, he added, “But I will get a drummer and bass player.”

Levy’s search for musicians was still on in late May. The band from the week before didn’t stick, and he hasn’t yet explored other options.

“[God] is taking care of everything,” he said. “Everything has its purpose. You just have to be aware of His wisdom.”

Religiosity is a recurring theme in Levy’s two Hebrew-language albums, “Yismah Moshe” and “Wisdom of the Stream,” and in the English-language album he released in 1998, “Mystic Heart.”

Levy’s music is notably dark and melodic. Deep, loping bass lines and straight-ahead rock beats counter hypnotic guitar patterns and haunting vocals. The result is a heavy, blues-tinged answer to most Jewish music of the day.

The music on “Mystic Heart” is particularly urgent. “I’ll Hate To See You Go” is a stripped-down arena rock number, reminiscent of such groups as Iron Maiden and Megadeth. The acoustic guitar and vocal arrangements on “Wooven,” meanwhile, call to mind Soundgarden’s more laid-back work. The disc's craftiest cut is "Wise Eyes," a cyclical multi-rhythm mover with glutinous themes and incalculable drama (see video below).

A Los Angeles resident since he married in 1990, Levy alternates between performing as LevYatan and as a sideman for various California-based projects. He sees this stint in New York as something of an East Coast coming-out party, so he planned accordingly: In mid-May, he packed his guitar and effects pedals, bought a plane ticket and left his L.A. life behind for what stands to be well over a month.

All signs point to Levy being comfortable on the road. Before settling in L.A., he did a fair amount of traveling. He left Morocco in 1965, at age 8, and moved to the northern Israeli coastal town of Nahariya. It was there that he first picked up a guitar. Levy learned to play rock, jazz, fusion and a number of Israeli styles, and later fulfilled his obligation to the Israel Defense Forces by entertaining the troops.

After completing his army service, Levy moved to Paris, where he formed a group called The Rail. He stayed in France for most of the 1980s and then immigrated to America.

Along the way, he picked up the name LevYatan.

“A friend and I were speaking about the sea lion and the fish of the sea and trying to get a name that was close to that,” he explained. “We came to ‘LevYatan.’”

The moniker had the added advantage of containing his last name, Levy.

LevYatan, Levy pointed out, also includes the Hebrew words “lev” and “yoten,” which together mean “the giving heart.”

“I want to open the heart to play music,” he said. “If you truly play from the heart, the other person will feel it.”

With a number of new songs in various stages of completion, Levy plans to record another album when he returns to L.A. One of the tracks — not yet named — sounds like a synthesis of Israeli artist Idan Raichel and indie-rock trio Dispatch. As with his previous recordings, the lyrics are very metaphorical, and there’s a lot of talk of hearts: giving ones, free ones and joyful ones.

Perhaps Levy’s road warrior mentality or his Hasidism, or both, serve as catalyst for his obscure lyrics. Still, for a guy who already looks a little out of this world, Levy doesn’t want to give concertgoers another reason to fancy him alien.

“I don’t want to confuse anybody,” he said. “I just want to sing songs.”

Stay Spiritual, Shmuel
MC Mystic Heart

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Kobe Beef

In securing their 17th NBA championship, the Boston Celtics continued New England’s ho-hum (if you don’t live in New England) reign of post-2000 sports dominance. If the Patriots could have salted away the New York Giants in this year’s Super Bowl, we’d be looking at a Boston whitewash—and the truth is, we still are. The Red Sox shattered the Bambino’s curse in 2004 and won the World Series again this past year, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls this decade (and came up a touchdown short in February), and now, the Celtics capped the greatest regular-season turnaround in league history with an unabashed disembowelment of the Lakers in the clinching Finals game.

Unlike virtually every other red-blooded New Yorker, I do not detest our chowder-happy neighbors to the northeast. I am a Mets fan, and entered long ago into the Red Sox-Mets anti-Yankee fraternity. I am also a Jets fan, so the Giants-Patriots subplots were largely uninteresting; in fact, I watched the Super Bowl mostly to vet for a) debilitating hits, b) long touchdown passes, and c) good catered food.

Last, and most important, I am a Nets fan. Though the Celtics may be a default “intra-division rival,” and although the two squads met in the playoffs a couple of times in the early 2000’s, it is an onerous task to hate the likes of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Eddie House. Much like the Super Bowl, the 2008 NBA Finals pleased me for a reason having nothing to do with my hometown rooting interests.

The Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, whose best player is Kobe Bryant.

I hate—HATE—Kobe Bryant.

I hated him before he’d played a moment in the NBA. Years ago, a local paper profiled the country’s five best high school players. At number two, just below Tim Thomas, was Bryant. The petulance, pretension, and egomania were evident even in that grainy black-and-white: here is an asshole, I thought. Better hope he never makes it.

But, of course, he made it. What’s worse, in the post-Jordan, pre-Lebron’s prime that is our current NBA era, Kobe is undoubtedly the league’s best player. Most talented, clutch, motivated, fearless, and exacting—these are Kobe’s truths, and they are self-evident. He is also, LeBron aside, the game’s most recognizable face.

By all accounts, Kobe is a deplorable teammate. He nixed a dynasty by forcing Laker management to deal Shaquille O’Neal (only one the best 20 best players of all-time) and to disown coach Phil Jackson (only one of the two best coaches of all-time) after Los Angeles lost to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 championship series. Bryant then ushered in the self-righteous-ball-hog period, a personal three-year hiatus from sportsmanship, professionalism, and accountability. He hoisted a historic number of shots en route to recording a historic amount of points, culminating on January 22, 2006, when he scored 81 points, the second-most ever in a regular-season game, by jacking an unconscionable 66 shots.
That’s 13 three-pointers, 33 two-pointers, and 20 free-throws. Yes, the Lakers beat the Raptors that Sunday, but something far greater was lost: the last shred of Bryant’s already-withering integrity.

Three years prior, just before the Lakers were to embark upon a suicide-blitz on the championship with Shaq, Bryant and the newly-acquired Karl Malone and Gary Payton, a woman in Eagle, Colorado accused Bryant of rape.
While the charges were dropped, and virtually no evidence of forced sexual contact ever surfaced, Bryant copped to having slept with the plaintiff—albeit consensually. Reportedly, Bryant made comments to investigators about Shaq's infidelity, widening the distance between the two embattled teammates.

They didn't stay teammates for long. The next off-season, after losing in the Finals, Bryant’s bedwetting PR nightmare from the rape trial only worsened. According to most inside sources, he demanded that ownership cede him the franchise, and encouraged them to export Shaquille O'Neal to Miami. Phil Jackson, who later called Bryant "uncoachable" in a book, quit his post. When the season started, and with the ink still running off Bryant's $136 million contract extension, the Lakers performed woefully and missed the playoffs.

Before the 2007-2008 season, after a run of unremarkable campaigns in which the Lakers couldn’t navigate beyond the first round of the playoffs, Bryant publicly demanded a trade. Then asked to stay. Then demanded a trade again. Los Angeles brass was appalled, incredulous at Bryant’s claim that after the team had mortgaged their present, their superstar, and their sage to clear the path for Bryant’s ascension, Bryant accused them of not working to assemble a more talented roster. Ignoring the obvious irony—that if Shaq and Jackson had stayed, the Lakers likely wouldn’t have been mired in mediocrity—Bryant’s backstab raised another curious conundrum: how do you trade the best player in the league?

It was a query, ultimately, that Los Angeles owner Jerry Buss never answered. The Lakers opened the season, Bryant in tow, on tenuous ground. Kobe was unhappy; the team kinda sucked; although Jackson was back as coach, not even the man who shepherded Michael Jordan and Co. to basketball Olympus could make topiary out of the weeds.

The Lakers hemmed and hawed, unsure as to whether they were a team or Kobe’s team. Teammates lived in fear of the mercurial, condescending superstar, who never thought it in bad taste—not in practice, not in the media, not during games—to scream, tirade, and tantrum in anybody’s, everybody’s direction.

Then, the pinnacle of unjust: the Lakers’ young players started clicking. The Lakers started winning. The “Kobe is a dog” conversation became the “Kobe is a leader of men” conversation. Finally, the Lakers traded for Memphis star Pau Gasol and got hotter than Bryant’s hotel room in Eagle. The “Kobe is a leader of men” conversation became, unbelievably, the “Kobe for Most Valuable Player” conversation. Indeed, the man who tried with all his might, just a few months earlier, to bail on his team, who thought nothing of dressing down and mortifying his teammates, who threw under the bus the organization that gave up everything plus $136 million to keep him, who flouted the coach and conducted himself with horrifying impunity, was the likeliest candidate to be coronated the league’s “most valuable” person.

TNT, ESPN, and ABC broadcast the rest. The Lakers marauded through the playoffs, hack-sawing through the Nuggets, Jazz, and defending champion Spurs with an incandescent offense. In the midst of all this, Kobe did, as predicted, win the MVP, a move that still represents a stultifying blow to the principles that ostensibly underwrite the award.

Doe-eyed broadcasters and analysts sucked at the Kobe teat, championing everything from his leadership (ha!) to his commitment to “team” (ha!) to his similarity to Jordan (triple ha!). The Lakers advanced to the Finals, where they were to take on an uninspiring Celtics team whose playoff run had been every bit as unimpressive as the Lakers’ was dominant.

Jesus Christ: Kobe Bryant was about to lead his team to the NBA championship. A pompous cancer was about to earn inarguable propers for pompous cancers everywhere.

As we know—and as the greatest proof that God exists—Kobe did not win. Instead, he played well, but not exceptionally well, and was out-performed by the Celtics’ Pierce. In the deciding Game 6, Kobe’s cadre got outgunned by a surreal 39 points, a record margin in a clinching contest. The Kobe schlock, disposed of by the Celtic mystique. This, for once, was the universe aligned.

During Game 2 in Boston, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling (quoted in my previous blog, “The Un-Sport”) sat next to the Lakers’ bench. In an NBA Finals column, ESPN writer Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons points to Schilling's post-game reflections, which serve to further eviscerate Bryant.

Writes Schilling:

“Kobe. This one stunned me a little bit…what I got to see up close and hear, was unexpected. From the first tip until about 4 minutes left in the game I saw and heard this guy bitch at his teammates. Every TO (time out) he came to the bench pissed, and a few of them he went to other guys and yelled about something they weren’t doing, or something they did wrong. No dialog about “hey let’s go, let’s get after it” or whatever. He spent the better part of 3.5 quarters pissed off and ranting at the non-execution or lack of, of his team…Watching the other 11 guys, every time out it was high fives and “Hey nice work, let’s get after it” or something to that affect. He walked off the floor, obligatory skin contact on the high five, and sat on the bench stone faced or pissed off, the whole game…He’d yell at someone, make a point, or send a message, turn and walk away, and more than once the person on the other end would roll eyes or give a ‘whatever dude’ look.”

It is my sincerest hope that losing these Finals will forever tarnish Bryant’s legacy. I am not a sadist, nor am I a purist—I am, however, a member of society. I’ve met Kobe Bryants, and they are all the same—destructive, self-obsessed, insufferable, and thoroughly unlikeable. They know right from wrong, yet knowingly operate to the contrary. Kobe Bryant—the Kobe Bryant—is wonderfully talented, but he’s hidden his malevolent persona behind virtuosity for far too long.

Here’s to another Boston championship.

Stay Second Place, Kobe

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Un-Sport

Earlier tonight, New York Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang sprained his foot while rounding the bases. Wang, who had to be helped off the field, came up lame while trotting at three-quarters speed on a meticulously maintained field of play.

Hearing this news after watching the Celtics and Lakers maul each other for 48 minutes only reaffirmed a gnawing suspicion:

Baseball players are not athletes.

The dictionary, of course, roundly rebuffs the previous statement. According to, an athlete is “a person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.” And this point I will concede—baseball players are extraordinarily gifted, blessed in all manner of throwing, hitting, and going to salary arbitration.

Something is wrong, though, when a player can’t run—nay, jog—without getting hurt. Something is askew when a sport can sport an obese vegetarian. In professional basketball, football, hockey, soccer, or just about any other institution inhabited by bestial, sculpted automatons, running is merely the prologue to a story built of jumping, cutting, checking, dunking, blocking, tackling, scissor-kicking, and fouling. Even golfers, whose “athlete” status is heavily disputed, can walk 18 holes without heading to the disabled list.

Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, a luminary of the sport and future Hall of Famer, describes himself on his blog as “not having one ounce of athletic ability.” Imagine Tracy McGrady, Randy Moss, or Sidney Crosby saying the same of themselves—not only would they be incorrect, but the very nature of their work would inherently disprove such a claim. Professional basketball (McGrady), football (Moss), and hockey (Crosby) demand a masterfully integrated skill set, wherein speed, power, and agility (and in hockey’s case, skating)—in other words, athleticism—are paramount.

Baseball does not demand the same prowess. The sport’s tasks are markedly linear and distributed: someone throws, then someone swings, then someone runs, then someone catches. Only one athletic act is performed in any given moment, and a different person performs each task. Forget an integrated skill set—baseball players only enact one motion at a time, and often, a player only possesses one skill. Pitchers in the American League, for instance, do not hit. Designated hitters do not field.

The result? A nominally agile, semi-out-of-shape guy who can nonetheless throw a ball with unusual velocity—say, Curt Schilling—can become a sports legend. In Schilling’s case, his skills, or lack thereof, could never translate into a career in another sport. Baseball is the only place, in other words, where a person without athletic ability is called an athlete.

If baseball players are to be considered athletes, then so are bowlers. And billiards players. And, for that matter, master carpenters—they, too, excel at a particular manual task. If baseballers are athletes, then by equivalency, so are musicians. One might argue that performing a Bach cantata takes more adeptness, accuracy, dexterity, and agility than throwing a baseball. If baseball players are athletes, then virtually anyone with a honed, individuated skill must be classified so.

Chien-Ming Wong hobbling off the field rang with inevitability: hurlers can’t be expected to run, just as a master carpenter can’t be expected to paint the house he builds. Just because two tasks happen in proximity to one another does not mean the same person can perform both.

As the Celtics-Lakers series slowly morphs into a classic, one can’t help but wonder how Wang or Schilling would fare in a machismo-laced battle with Kevin Garnett. Not well, no doubt, but no matter: they’re paid to throw a ball, and Garnett is paid to be an athlete.

Stay Sprained, CMW

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Clown Car Cartel: Indie Rock Hits the Small Stage

In a place where the climate flips from frigid to searing in a matter of days, the month of June, like a full moon does to werewolves, signals the amnesiacs to emerge. Those who bemoan the frost from November to mid-May forget the cold and abhor the heat. Tortured chants of “It’s so hot” arise as predictably as the sun.

It was in the nascent stages of the Manhattan furnace that Joe’s Pub, the most urbane of the city’s semi-haute music houses, hosted the CD release party for KaiserCartel, a Brooklyn-based indie duo. The pair, Courtney Kaiser and Benjamin Cartel, celebrated the birth of “March Forth,” their stripped-down debut, to what must have been a record-setting crowd for a Tuesday night.

Folk-clad and spare, with elements of T-Bone Burnett and KT Tunstall, KaiserCartel proved themselves something of a clown car cartel, with anywhere from two to six musicians crowding Joe’s Pub's diminutive stage during a given song. The crowd sat patiently as the Cartel worked out the spacing: before most tunes, tambourines, guitars, and xylophones were maneuvered to make way for personnel.

An unfolded accordion, in full plumage, stood behind glass to stage right, mirroring the graceful serenity throughout. With sweaty bodies in every seat, couch, and standing space—and near-tropical condensation on every glass—the Cartel’s easy listening calmed the folks inside. Without a bassist, and reliant on mostly airy instrumentation, the subways rumbling underfoot thundered more significantly than anything produced on stage. The band played through “March Forth” in its entirety, their coda a well-timed serenade, with Cartel following Kaiser through the crowd with an acoustic guitar as they harmonized one last time.

The evening’s most unpleasant turn was the venture outdoors following the performance, at which time most bars in the area were broadcasting David Cook’s rendition of the Star Spangled Banner at the NBA Finals in Los Angeles. This season’s American Idol winner, Cook embodied the gaudy bombast so spurned by KaiserCartel. The contrast was striking: inside Joe’s Pub, both temperature and troubadour were cool; outside, the climate and Cook were overwhelming. As Randy Jackson might say, they were, “Hot, dog. Really hot.”

Stay Simple, Folk-Pop
MC March Forth

Sunday, June 8, 2008

A Hungry Artist: Jamie Lidell on Food, White Noise, and Relocation

Of all the vices in which musicians famously indulge, food is often overlooked. Luxe dining is almost never grouped with promiscuity, intoxicants, and the sinful miscellany that comprise the "Behind the Music" motif. For Jamie Lidell, however, victuals are paramount--in the most recent issue of SPIN, Lidell is pictured with what appears to be a moldy pumpkin, and the opening paragraph speaks of Lidell wiping food from his face.

Lidell ( is passionate about his three squares a day. Recalling a recent stint in New York, the first thing Lidell mentioned (to me, not SPIN) was that, "I was eating the fucking best food, man. From fucking sushi to baccala pizza."

Lidell moved to Berlin more than eight years ago for a purpose he revealed in the title track of his 2005 album, "Multiply." In the song's chorus, the electronica-pioneer-turned-soul-child laments, "I'm so tired of repeating myself/ Beating myself up/ Wanna take a trip and multiply."

Yes, Lidell, a native Englishman, moved to Germany for "a lady that lured me there," he said. He took a trip, but the pair didn't multiply — luckily, since he's no longer with that lady.

"I admit, it's kind of freaker," said Lidell of his relocation. Speaking by phone from a café in Regensburg, Germany, he added, "But freakier things have happened. I never thought I'd be sitting here in Regensburg eating sausages and sauerkraut. Mysterious things happen every day."

Lidell released his third album, "Jim," earlier this year. Like "Multiply," it is 10 tracks long and cements Lidell's metamorphosis from outlaw DJ to soul crooner. His fuzzy, honeyed vocals equip him for virtually any style — Lidell sounds like a cross between Otis Redding and Jamiroquai — and the mainstream is starting to notice.

Target used "A Little Bit More," the fourth selection from "Multiply," for an American commercial. And the international tour for "Jim" will take Lidell through the world's archipelago of music hubs, including Los Angeles, Austin, Vienna, Montreal, London, Paris and New York.

"You've got a limited window of time, you've got to milk it," he said. "I don't want to do this when I'm 50."

By "this," Lidell means the all-consuming business of recording, touring and all the accompanying obligations — interviews, video shoots and the like. Having toiled for years in the underground, Lidell knows exactly how much work goes into forging a career.

"The record companies want cash so they're hassling me every other minute," said Lidell. The music business is an industry in which "everyone wants everything at the same time. It's difficult."

Plus, Lidell already knows what he wants to do next.

"I might want to be making musique concrète," he said, meaning music made from non-musical ingredients, such as environmental noises. "I always thought that was a dignified way to get old. It's a real labor of love — making white noise in a loft."

Recording avant-garde compositions is where Lidell began. He collaborated for many years with Cristian Vogel in Super_Collider, a group that used ambient and computerized elements to create deep, pulsating tracks.

"I'm really about the craft, that's where I'm coming from. If I lose that, I'm just going to be a guy that I hate. You can manufacture success in a very cheap way, but to maintain that craft [is hard]."

As Lidell's pop career blossomed, though, he became drawn out from behind the mixing board and found that his devil-may-care attitude was suited to the stage.

"I read something by Thom [Yorke, of Radiohead] that was kind of revealing. Radiohead are very comfortable, they have their lives, they do what they like. But he was driving about and listening to something on the radio about how Radiohead was the people's favorite, and he was like, 'Man, I should be rocking the stage right now.' A part of you says I can give it up when I get rich, but performing is kind of an itch."

Stay Salty, Baccala
DJ Delectable

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Damn, But Oh Well: An Epic Record, Post-Epic Records

It started with a bathrobe. Sorting through the mail, robe-clad, I found a flat first-class envelope addressed to me but otherwise unmarked. The CD within, moreover, was burned, with no writing. Owing to the bathrobe (and proximity of the neighbors), I didn’t venture outside to sling the disc towards the trash. So, into iTunes it went.

Two years later, that disc, “Air Stereo” by The Damnwells, is the single most-played album in my collection. Literally—iTunes says so. Inquiries with PR folk, label staff, and friends remain fruitless, and no one has any idea whence the record arrived. Like a lacuna in a manuscript, this mysterious manna begged a maddeningly simple question.

Who, or what, are The Damnwells?

With a name that reads more like an exhortation than bravado—the latter evident in appellations like Metallica, The Arcade Fire, and Return to Forever—The Damnwells might be the most aptly titled group in music. The alt-rock-country-pop foursome ( was initially the brainchild of singer/frontman Alex Dezen and then-bassist Ted Hudson. To make a very long and dispiriting story short—a story chronicled by the award-winning documentary, "Golden Days"—The Damnwells (questionably) enjoyed their incipient days in Brooklyn, where they self-recorded their first album, “Bastards of the Beat.” They secured a record deal with Epic Records in 2003, and subsequently began recording “Air Stereo” (the full-length which subsequently landed on my doorstep).

Midway through recording, however, Epic dropped the band. Suddenly without a deal, they scurried through the album's final stages, and eventually released “Air Stereo” on Zoe/Rounder Records, a veritable non-entity in relation to Epic. Still, with minimal distribution and heavy touring, the band managed to scrape together a modest following.

The ordeal was awash in corporate imprudence and bad timing. It was also—and remains—a shame. Dezen is one of music’s dulcet winners, an old soul who, in a more antiquated time, might have eloped with a lyre, some papyrus, and a quill. “Air Stereo” brims with cheeky pain, and the lyric self-effacement in songs like “Shiny Bruise” and “I’ve Got You” is coupled with perfect production and relentlessly appropriate instrumentation: sparse piano here; strings there; a spoonful of homophony.

The tunes experience genesis in Dezen’s chordal guitar, and the heartrending pop layered above echoes, eerily, the trauma surrounding the record.

With equal doses winsomeness and earnestness, the turmoil-laden group indeed chose a perfect moniker: their legacy is something between “we play damn well” and “we damn well make some money before we starve.” Making contact with Dezen was (surprise!) rather easy, and through email correspondence, MySpace blog stalking, and Wikipedia, the following facts came to light:

1) At one point, Dezen—who will soon begin an MFA program in fiction writing in Iowa City—had just $100 to his name.
2) Hudson, a slinky-haired scholar, broke away from The Damnwells to compose a book on Freemasonry and sundry Oddfellow-related topics.
3) Dezen aside, all the members from the band’s most recent tour had left the group, and were replaced by Adrian Dickey (bass), Andrew Ratcliffe (drums), and Freddy Hall (piano/guitar).
4) In March, The Damnwells completed a new, as-yet-untitled album, which will be available some time this summer.
5) Some of the new tracks are on YouTube, mainly as acoustic performances. Notable selections include acoustic versions of "Like It Is" (see the video below) and “It’s Okay (Hey Now),” both featuring Dezen and his wife Angela.

It continued with a bathrobe. Sorting through my e-mail, robe-clad, I found that The Damnwells will play at Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge on July 25.

They damn well come 'round here again.

Stay Suspicious, Media Mail
DJ Damnwells

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Memories of the Summer

It’s very hot in here.

It’s 2:00 on an early-June afternoon, and a generously sunny day is being filtered to impotence by this building’s obstinate windows. The sparse rays that make it into the room quickly find they have little for company—some cubicles, a couple of printers, computers. The cubicles are small, like shirt cuffs wrapped too tightly. Everyone is playing music at bewildering volumes, a virtual staple at every music label’s corporate headquarters. Guys with names like “Oliver” and “Kevin” are wearing clothing with names like “American Eagle” and “D&G,” but playing to a hip-hop sensibility. They are fist-pounding (often missing) and trading barbs about Kanye West.

There is an oversized poster of The Bravery on the far wall, and as I begin to abhor my very existence, someone offers coffee. I follow her past enclave after enclave of Olivers and Kevins and arrive at the kitchen: a frugal collection of utensils, a severe-looking fridge, and a coffeemaker. “Allie,” she says, extending her hand. “The coffee here sucks. Sorry.”

I take her hand, then the coffee.

The coffee sucks.

“Is it OK if I don’t drink it? I feel bad. You made it.”

“No, it’s fine,” Allie says. “Actually, you’d be insane to drink it.”

The coffee swooshes down the tiny sink. Allie empties hers, as well, perhaps for moral support. I follow her to the reception area, where she finds that an artist due to arrive any minute for an interview—the reason I am here—is still not here. Moreover, nobody knows when the air conditioning will be fixed.

A rotund, polo-shirt-clad man approaches. “Allie, what’s up baby?” he asks, employing the half-hug, half-butt-bump that is so popular among music-label types.

“Nothing,” she flirts back. “Just looking for some air conditioning.”

“Woo-wee!” he exclaims, as if she suddenly reminds him of the copious sweat holding court along his hairline. “Yeah, it’s hot as a mofo up in here.”

There are few certainties in New York City. One is that you will not get a seat on the Queens-bound F train between 6 and 8 in the evening if you get on after 34th Street. Another is that people complain about the weather—admittedly, New York has deplorable climactic behavior, with about five hot months, five cold months, one nice month, and around 30 days, collectively, that serve to transition from one undesirable weather-type to another. New Yorkers have legitimate claims, but that the former air the latter so frequently is something of an anomaly.

The winter in Montreal is so cold that the residents live in an underground civilization half the year, replete with supermarkets and transportation. The humidity in Miami is wringing, as torturous and inescapable as a first date. New Jersey abuts New York City; most days, the two share a forecast. Whatever the reason, NYC’s moaning quotient is greater than those other locales’ combined. Although New Yorkers endure work more hours than anyone else, the sun scandalizes them.

Holding a cell phone to her face, Allie winces and apologizes. “Sorry, she’s not going to be here today,” she says, referring to my interview subject. “Maybe you wanna come back later this week?”

“Sure,” I respond, a little dejected. “Maybe when the A.C. is fixed.”

“Yeah, we’re all dying. You better come back later.”

In the elevator down to the street, a saturnine fellow wearing a double-breasted suit, a gold watch, and designer sunglasses clutches a handkerchief against his nape.

“Goddamn weather,” he exhales. “Goddamn weather.”

Stay Sweaty, New York
MC Muggy

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Riot, Then Quiet: To and From and To The New Deal

Moans and caterwauls ululate in the undergrowth, and while cars and trucks zip up and down the Pennsylvania Turnpike nearby, a single pedestrian stops to listen. The young man lowers his sneakers into the grass behind a rest-stop convenience shop and examines the noise. He lopes further, the green sod underfoot checkered with fenestrate dirt patches, and locates the culprit: a small cat, beleaguered and gaunt, is rummaging for food. The pedestrian cedes the cat a Sunny Doodle, and the recipient unfurls a whimper and retreats to deeper reeds.

This small, eminently quiet moment happens at 3 am, a similarly small, eminently quiet time. Vehicles are passing only intermittently as the night wears on, and the convenience store clerk, wielding a broom, is the only other sign of human activity. To be fair, it is late at night, and this is a forsaken stretch in northern Pennsylvania, and the cat is situated in an abandoned thatch, so the hush is concomitant with the context.

The pedestrian, pleased with his generosity, wants to get back on the road. “Two more hours till New York,” he says to his two companions, who exit the store with a candy-and-caffeine haul. Suddenly, the pedestrian is pedestrian no more, as he torques the key in his SUV’s ignition. The car is rife with the evidence of travel—wrappers, empty Snapple bottles, old receipts, and an iPod hooked directly into the car stereo. The GPS flashes a northbound route as the driver exhumes a long-ago road trip.

“I was down in Asbury Park, south Jersey, for a Jimmy Eat World concert,” he says, lips perched above a coffee cup. “I came back up through Staten Island and got two tickets on the way home. I was about 17 or 18, and it totally ruined my life. I was in car insurance hell for years.” Now 23, his spell in hell is long over. But he still hates Staten Island, and so, “we’re not going that way. It’s probably longer the other way, but I can’t go back.”

The purpose of this trip is relatively straightforward. These three friends live in New York, and The New Deal, a band that pseudo-broke up and rarely performs, played in Philadelphia tonight. Two hours down, two-and-a-half hours there, two hours back. About seven hours in all, rest stops included. They’re on the way back home now, content with the The New Deal-inflicted abuse (“That pretty much rocked my face,” one of them remarked earlier, which seems to echo the general sentiment), but the damage is considerable—show-going is a taxing business, what with the drive, the sweat, the jostling, the dancing, and, of course, the face-rocking. The return trip is, for lack of a better word, sloppy. The three road warriors, all about the same age, rehash their favorite moments from the night, venture into guy-territory tangents (girls, boobs, LeBron James), then trail off into silence. There’s only so much to say at this hour on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and with The New Deal slated to perform in New York the next night—“which is huge,” the driver says—they’re probably contemplating how it might be possible to get home at five in the morning and still manage to present their faces, for rocking, a few hours later.

The driver figures it out first. “I’m going to sleep ‘til about 4 in the afternoon tomorrow,” he announces, “have myself a late breakfast, get ready for the concert.” He mulls over abandoning his traditional front-row spot for something farther back. “I stand front row. I AM front row,” the driver barks, lowering the stereo's volume. “But maybe I’m too distracted by watching the band to really listen to the music.” He may have a point—The New Deal, like a high-octane combustion engine, burns brightly. Watching the dance/trance/electronica trio from a front-row perch and listening to them from the bar are two different animals.

“You should meditate beforehand, get yourself really centered and focused on the show,” the front passenger responds to the driver. “That would take the concert back up a notch.”

The highway is dark, and the few drivers we pass are using their brights, as are we. The iPod is gently streaming another New Deal concert, from a festival in 2005. The car steadies at five miles per hour above the speed limit, an excruciating pace except for the serenity it engenders. It is already past 4:00, a full hour after the driver fed a stray cat behind a rest stop, but neither driver nor passengers evince any sign of being in a rush. Philadelphia was a victory for them, a cool thing to do. They are soaking in the win, knowing that tomorrow night—later tonight, really—brings another contest.

Stay Sleepy, Pennsylvania Turnpike
DJ Dance

Friday, May 9, 2008

Craigslist: Saving Monogamy, One Cheater at a Time

Cheating happens. Some of us do it, some do it to us, and the rest know people who do it. With divorce rates so high and caustic break-ups at their peak, cheating has become love’s dark handler. Disloyalty is an ancient fact—the Ten Commandments proscribe adultery—but only recently have we embraced technology that, among other functions, makes cheaters more visible. They’re caught on videotape, spied on surveillance systems, and exposed on YouTube. Cellphones, PDAs, emails, and instant messages are all potential evidence.

Now, it seems, technology is not just facilitating apprehension, but also punishment. My friend Rivas, while perusing the Craigslist apartment listings, discovered the following solicitation:

Punishment for cheating - mw4m
Reply to:
Date: 2008-05-08, 7:21PM

The worst thing imaginable has happened. My wife caught me messing around and she is the breadwinner in our home. Like everyone I never figured I would get caught- but I did.
So she gave me 2 choices. Pack my bags and split(that won't work and she knows it) or I have to run this ad and recruit 3 men who will let me service them on my knees while she watches! I have never done this before, but if I want to stay I have to.
I don't care what you look like- I just need you to show up at the hotel room at the appointed time and let me do what I have to do. Then leave- I would prefer if you didn't even say a word. The first 3 guys who answer are the ones.
It would be this Saturday night in the Upper East Side.

[Original post:]

For anyone genuinely interested, this is an unprecedented windfall: free gratification, no strings attached. More importantly, though, this post (and others like it, if there are any) should change the paradigm for how we handle infidelity. Millions of users log in to Craigslist every day, virtually guaranteeing that fetishists of all sorts are merely a post away. This is greatest possible deterrent to cheating: if you know that your partner could instantly access two hermaphrodites, a horse, and a ring of fire, you might not cheat in the first place. With technology increasing the probability that cheaters will be caught (as mentioned above), and with Craigslist making possible even the most perverse revenge schemes, not only would you have to be verminous to cheat, but you'd have to be idiotic.

Plus, there's an added bonus: we, the Craigslist community, will get to read about the whole thing. And, like three individuals will this Saturday night, we'll even get to participate.

Stay Single, Everybody
MC Monogamy