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