Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Check This Dude Out

Sorry for the unusually long silence here at GNABB. I've got some good stuff in the works for you. But in the meantime, check this out. This is Michael Hedges, one of my favorite guitar players of all time, reworking one of my favorite songs of all time, "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones...

Impressed? If you can ignore the strange dancing, the guy was an amazing guitar player. He died in a car accident several years ago. Most of his work is instrumental, but he occasionally throws in fantastic covers like this one (if you watch enough of the clip, they show his whole setlist from this show, and it shows he also did The Who's "Eminence Front" here as well. Another favorite song of mine). I picked this tune mainly for the fantastic groove, but his recorded work can be jawdropping at times on a purely guitar technique level. If you are interested in checking out more of his stuff, I would highly recommend Live on the Double Planet.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Ten Year Rule

Years ago over bad college cafeteria food I was having a discussion with a friend of mine, JMW. As we often did in our college days, we were debating the finer points of popular culture. JMW said something that has always stuck with me, and I think it remains a truism with only a few exceptions. He said that in rock music, you’ve got, at most, a ten year window of real relevance. Before the golden decade you are trying to find your voice. After the golden decade you are coasting on what you did during your crucial ten years. Now, this is not to say that after your ten years you can’t make some great music. But this later music: 1. builds on what you’ve already done without breaking much new ground; 2. or it repeats, albeit to a satisfying degree, what you have already done; 3. or at best it shows flashes of your former brilliance on a song or two. So in other words, an artist has at most a ten year window to make consistently groundbreaking music. Why is this so? Perhaps it is related to Neil Young's famous line, "it is better to burn out than to fade away". Perhaps it is physically impossible to stay consistently great and groundbreaking for any longer period of time than ten years. Perhaps it is the limitations of the genre itself. Hell, The Beatles accomplished all that they accomplished within an eight year window.

I like to look at three case studies from the 80’s to show the divergent paths an artist can follow. Three bands who hit the scene at approximately the same time (give or take two or three years) and each one had their moment in the sun and reached a peak with a certain album. What each band did after that point created very divergent destinies: The Police, INXS and U2.

ABOVE: The Police knew when to hang it up

The Police recorded their five studio records over a period of about six years. Each record showed a clear progression in their sound from the previous one, and each record stands on its own as the best that rock can offer. They hit their natural apex with their swansong Synchronicity. They went out on top, with their reputation firmly intact. This recent reunion tour notwithstanding, their legacy was defined in the early 80’s with no decline at all. Not that they were thinking of preserving their legacy when they split in the mid-80's (regardless of the self-serving comments Andy Summers has made since then). They broke up because they could not stand each other and Sting's ego could no longer be contained within the group context. But that is irrelevant. The result is that The Police have one of the finest legacies of any band precisely because they did not stay together beyond their sell buy date.

INXS hit the big time with Kick. After Kick they tried to release more of the same, essentially a Kick 2 or Kick 3, to diminishing returns. X was only slightly less exciting than Kick, but they burned out after that. Truth be told, they were finished as a creative band well before Michael Hutchense’s suicide.

U2 reached the stratosphere with The Joshua Tree. Slight misstep Rattle and Hum aside, they soon realized that although they did not want to break up (a la Police), they could not try to reproduce The Joshua Tree again and again. It was perfection. U2 had traveled down that road as far as they could go without repeating themselves. So they managed the trickiest move of all – successfully retooling their sound and reinventing themselves. Achtung Baby marked the most successful reinvention in rock history. It saved them creatively.

ABOVE: U2 knew they could not top The Joshua Tree, so they set about reinventing themselves

So there you have it: you can go out on top, decline, or reinvent yourself.

But back to my original thesis. Can you name an artist/group who was consistently breaking ground and shaking things up beyond a decade’s time? Keep in mind I’m not saying that they cannot make good music beyond that time. I am talking about “leaving their mark,” so to speak. Look at even U2, the most consistently popular band of the last 25 years. Their first really relevant record was War from 1983. Achtung Baby came out in 1991. They have remained popular, but have they released anything really important since Achtung Baby? No. That is still only a decade of real relevancy.

Some may bring up two of my faves, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. Neil remains a vital artist, but his great material after 1979 is variations on the foundations he laid in the 70’s (exception: 1989’s brilliant Freedom. That record stands alone.) Bruce? Same deal. Good material, but nothing truly great from start to finish since 1984. His celebrated recent acoustic forays are just repeating Nebraska, and he’s put out some good rock records (his most recent, Magic, is his best since the early 80’s) but it admittedly can’t stand up in consistency to his work 1973-84. And no, Tim, Bowie hasn't done anything relevant since the early 80's.

ABOVE: Neil Young's Freedom is the exception to the rule

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Super Trends

In recent years the onslaught of superhero/comic book-based films has reached a fever pitch. This is not an unusual thing in Hollywood; when a certain formula produces results, they tend to do it again and again and again. Not counting early attempts, the “modern” era of comics to screen features started with 1978’s Superman. For my tastes, Superman is one of the blandest of all superheroes. The guy can fly (big deal) and is real strong. That's really it. His main competition within the DC Comics universe, Batman, has always been much more intriguing. At any rate, from '78 through the 80's, DC Comics’ Superman and Batman were the only major heroes deemed safe bets by the movie studios. But in the 1990’s and beyond, the flood gates opened.

ABOVE: Superman is boring

I’m not a big superhero fan and I’ve never read comic books. But this trend in the industry has interested me over the years (just how obscure can they go? I read that Ant Man is actually in development), and I enjoy a well done fantasy/action flick just as much as any other red-blooded American.

Most of these films start with the “origin story”, revealing how the superhero became so super in the first place. If the film is a flop, then it usually stops there. If not, the studio strikes gold with a successful franchise of sequels, featuring the hero battling a revolving door of ridiculous villains. Even more important, financially speaking, are the endless promotions with fast food chains and children’s toys (thanks, Star Wars). The franchise usually runs its course, and then studios can pull the ultimate recycling trick with the “reboot”. All they need to do is wait the appropriate amount of time, and start over as if the first series never happened. The studios count on short memories from the viewing public. You can even retell the origin story. This has been done so far with great success for Batman, and to a lesser degree of success with Superman. The first Hulk film flopped, so Marvel Studios is pretending that one never happened and they are starting over with The Incredible Hulk this summer. Another recent trend can be characterized as “go dark, go adult”; which I welcome, as those generally are more interesting.

Most superheroes have one of two homes, DC Comics or Marvel Comics. DC heroes with films out are: Superman, Batman, Supergirl, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Catwoman and Constantine. In development or coming soon are Watchmen, The Flash, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern and the all-star extravaganza Justice League. On the other side of the ledger is Marvel: X-Men, Spiderman, Howard the Duck, Fantastic Four, Blade, Daredevil, The Incredible Hulk, Punisher, Elektra and Ghost Rider all have films. In development or coming soon are Iron Man, Captain America, Wolverine (X-Men spinoff), Ant Man, Black Panther, Deathlok, Dr. Strange, Luke Cage, Nick Fury, Thor and Venom. They also have their own all-star flick in the works for The Avengers. Fans of 'Entourage' on HBO will be wondering where the hell Aquaman is, but no word on that one.

ABOVE: Recovering alcoholic/drug addict and depressive actor Robert Downey, Jr. plays alcoholic and troubled billionaire/superhero Tony Stark/Iron Man

Marvel has gone so far as to form their own movie studio, and they plan on releasing a steady diet of two superhero films per year for the foreseeable future. This year we get Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. Iron Man has always been a favorite of mine, so I am looking forward to that one. Robert Downey, Jr. is an inspired choice for the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man. I will be interested to see the tone they use here. Iron Man is a rather ambiguous hero at best, as far as his character and intentions go. He is decidedly more right wing than most other heroes; and Tony Stark is a multifaceted character as well, battling depression and alcoholism when he’s not flying around saving the world in his tin suit. Downey’s own well publicized battles with substance abuse make him a great choice to play the troubled Stark/Iron Man.

ABOVE: I prefer Lou Ferigno's interpretation of The Hulk (70's TV). Notice the paint is rubbing off on his right hand.

Edward Norton is also an intriguing choice to play the Hulk, although his public spat with the studio over editing of the film and his subsequent refusal to promote it does not bode well. I am also looking forward to the upcoming Dark Knight, the second Batman film in the latest reboot, featuring the recently deceased Heath Ledger in what is by all accounts a mesmerizing and creepy interpretation of one of the great villains, The Joker.

ABOVE: Heath Ledger as The Joker in the upcoming Batman feature, Dark Knight. It was his last completed film before his death.

So, I’m interested in your thoughts. Favorite superhero films? Ones than need a good “reboot”? Ones that should be put to rest?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

RIP Danny Federici, 1950-2008

ABOVE: Federici (right) jams with his Boss, Bruce Springsteen

The death of keyboardist Danny Federici this last Thursday effected me in a real, immediate way. As in, I had a flight booked and killer tickets lined up for the Springsteen show in Tampa, Florida this coming Monday night, which has now been rescheduled to a date when I cannot attend. This will mark the first Springsteen tour since 1984 that I will miss (I already let the Texas dates go by since I had the Tampa deal set), and coincidently, it is a tour for his best record (Magic) since about that time. But enough about my woes...

Springsteen's E Street Band is unlike most "back-up" bands for major artists, in that it is an incredibly tight and close group of gentlemen of the road. The old cliche of bands being like family, that really does apply to the E Streeters. With the exception of Soozie Tyrell, the "newest" member of the band has been with them for 24 years. Federici had been with Bruce since the very beginning, playing with him in 1972 along the Jersey shore and making up the core of the original E Street Band. Federici's tasteful and fluid keyboards have been a pillar of the Springsteen sound throughout the decades. While he was never one of the more flamboyant or colorful characters on E Street (like, say, Clarence Clemons or Steve Van Zandt), his contributions to the sound of the band were just as essential. His most prominent moment in the spotlight was his wonderful organ solo on the Springsteen hit, "Hungry Heart".

Federici battled melanoma for several years, and in November of last year he took a "leave of absence" from the tour as his condition worsened. For purely selfish reasons, I wish he could have held on for another week or two. But in all seriousness, I will always appreciate his contributions to Springsteen's body of work, which in turn has been a major part of my life. RIP "Phantom" Danny Federici.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Debate

I must admit that I have been suffering from debate withdrawal. The debate held Wednesday evening between Shrillary (OK Pocky, you win, I will use “Shrillary”) and the Dalai Obama was the first in six weeks. I had gotten used to debates every couple of days or so.

I also have a caveat here. My comments are from notes I took as I was watching the debate, but I didn't have the time or the willpower to write them out and post them until now. So while I may be stating the obvious in places (in light of the news coverage since the debate), these were my impressions as I was watching.

Who came across the worst? Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. The first half of the debate concerned questions about Obama’s “bitter” remark, Rev. Wright, Shrillary’s “sniper” exaggerations, and Obama’s alleged refusal to wear a freakin’ American flag pin on his lapel. I mean…really? With all of the issues facing us, we have to spend half of the debate talking about these trivialities?

ABOVE: Shrillary and The Dalai Obama ponder important issues for the future of our nation, such as why Obama doesn't wear an American flag pin on his lapel

I posted about the Rev. Wright issue awhile ago. That one does raise some substantive questions about Obama’s philosophical worldview. That is relevant. But the rest of it? Those moldy stories had already run their course in the news cycle. Both candidates had addressed them, opponents had capitalized upon them, and the pundits had pontificated on them. Why dredge them up again in the debate? Because Gibson, Stephanopoulos and their puppetmasters wanted some sparks. Obama was getting visibly impatient, and I don’t think it was only because the questions were uncomfortable. I think it was also because he was feeling the same as many viewers were. Let’s get to some substance, please.

Readers know that I am a supporter of Juan McCain, so I have no strong feeling either way other than a natural dislike for anything Clinton, but at times it was as if it were three on one, with Obama fighting off the moderators as much as he was battling Shrillary. True, they did go after her on her claims that when she visited Bosnia she flew her airplane through enemy fire, crash-landed on an airstrip laced with mines and fought her way into prison camps and liberated POW’s and orphans, but it was a brief respite before they continued their assault on Obama.

On the “bitter” remark, I think that Obama meant exactly what it sounded like he meant (vs. his subsequent explanation). He is an elite (-ist), but so were our founding fathers. They weren’t your average George or Thomas. I don’t understand why we celebrate this virtue of averageness so much in this country. Yes, alot of working class folks cling to simple things like religion and guns. He was just stating the obvious. And then Shrillary’s Everywoman act is hardly convincing (I enjoyed Obama’s making fun of her sudden love of firearms a few days ago, calling her “Calamity Jane”). But what else can she do at this point? She’s got to attack him on anything she can.

ABOVE: Stephanopoulos - Didn't he used to work for the Clintons? On Wednesday night, it appeared that he was still on their payroll

Gibson redeemed himself somewhat when he went after both of them on tax and economic issues in the more substantive second half of the debate. When Gibson pointed out that historically lower capital gains taxes bring in more revenue to the government, Obama really had no answer for that other than it wasn’t “fair”. Shrillary definitely got the upper hand in the economic discussion. Then Stephanopoulos tried to get them both to “make a ‘read my lips’ promise” (his actual words) on taxes, not even hiding the fact that he wanted to pigeonhole them for their entire terms in office, or alternatively set up a "gotcha" to use years down the road, regardless of what circumstances might arise in the next 4-8 years. What a jackass. Kudos to both candidates for not playing along.

They are both dead wrong on Iraq. Obama was noticeably taller than Shrillary.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Playoff Picture

GNABB Programming Note: I did slog through the Democratic Debate last night, hopefully I will post my penetrating analysis tonight or tomorrow. So that is coming. But on to more important things...

Last night was the final night of the regular NBA season, and this weekend we start NBA Season No. 2: the playoffs. Before the games last night, spots 3-8 in the Western Conference were yet to be settled. I can't remember the last time that happened. But this morning, we know the match-ups:


L.A. Lakers (1) vs. Denver Nuggets (8)
Lakers should handle this with little trouble. Denver doesn't play defense.

New Orleans Hornets (2) vs. Dallas Mavericks (7)
Very interesting match-up. New Orleans has been outstanding this season, exceeding everyone's expectations due to Chris Paul and David West's amazing play. But are they ready for prime time? This Hornets squad is comprised of playoff rookies, and Dallas has a lot to prove after last season's first round collapse. Perhaps the Mavs are more comfortable in the "underdog" position. I say Dallas wins this, but it will be a tough series.

San Antonio Spurs (3) vs. Phoenix Suns (6)
This is ridiculous for a first round match-up. In previous years, this would be the Western Conference Finals. There are so many storylines here, THIS is the first round series to watch. It is hard to make a prediction, but I say this is Phoenix's year to finally prevail over their nemesis. And the Spurs won't have Cheap Shot Robert Horry to go out and slam Nash into the scorer's table this time around.

Utah Jazz (4) vs. Houston Rockets (5)
I am pulling for my Rockets, of course, but I've got to give this one to the Jazz. Once again, Tracy McGrady will not advance beyond the first round. Although, the Rockets have home court advantage because they have the better record (Utah won their division, hence the higher technical seed), and while being almost unbeatable at home, the Jazz have not been great on the road. But, I still say Jazz here. I hope I'm wrong.


Boston Celtics (1) vs. Atlanta Hawks (8)
I'm happy for Atlanta finally making the playoffs, and I like their young group of players. Boston sweeps.

Detroit (2) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (7)
Detroit is Boston's only real competition in the East. Detroit wins this fairly easily unless they get too relaxed (as they sometimes do when facing inferior opponents).

Orlando Magic (3) vs. Toronto Raptors (6)
The series I am least interested in. I say Orlando prevails.

Cleveland Cavaliers (4) vs. Washington Wizards (5)
This has become quite a rivalry (the third year in a row these two have met in the first round of the playoffs). With Lebron's gimpy back in question and Arenas' timely return, I say this is the year Washington overcomes Cleveland.

Anyway you slice it, these playoffs are going to be AWESOME. Especially in the West. And in the East, I can't wait for Boston and Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals. Games start Saturday. Be there!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Evolution of "Black Betty"

"Black Betty" is a rather scandalous tune that has its roots as an African-American work song and is often attributed to blues innovator Leadbelly, but the song's origins are still up for debate. The meaning of the song has alternatively been interpreted as referring to the spawn of rape/incest, a flint-lock musket (hence "bam-a-lam"), a prostitute or a prison wagon. The lyrics of the song vary with different versions as well. We will start with an a capella version attributed to Leadbelly...

In the late 70's, a band called Ram Jam put a decidedly southern rock spin on the tune...

Here's my favorite version. Call this Tom Jones moment, Pt. 2. TJ turns it into a groovy club jam...

Now I really dig this version as well by Australia's Spiderbait. They turn it into a killer punk/folk jam. Great video too.

"Black Betty" has been done by artists as diverse as Harry Belafonte, Nick Cave, Meatloaf and Ministry. The highest charting version was in fact by Spiderbait, which reached #1 in Australia.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

This Really Puts a Bur in My Saddle

The other night my wife and I were watching the evening news on one of the major networks, and they were covering the polygamist compound story out in west Texas. As usual, the smug reporters interviewed some locals about the situation, and naturally the interviewees were toothless, dumbass hicks.

It seems to me that whenever there is a national news story that takes place in Texas, they generally feature interviews with the most stereotypical man-in-a-trailer-park folks. You rarely see an articulate and sophisticated Texan interviewed for a national news story (I know, that includes our current president). Do they go and hunt down these yahoos on purpose?

ABOVE: Not every wealthy Texan is like J.R. Ewing

I acknowledge that these inbred yokels exist (in somewhat abundance) in the great state of Texas. For work in a previous job of mine, I had the opportunity to travel to all corners of the state. I recall a particular stop in some godforsaken town up in the Panhandle (the area near Amarillo) for a meal. On the outside, it looked like a quaint enough local diner. On the inside it was flies and toothless Deliverance-people staring at this city boy as he quickly finished his meal to get the hell out of there. So, yes, it exists.

But at the same time, we have huge cities and metro areas. The Dallas/Fort Worth metro area has 6 million people and is the 4th largest metro area in the country. Houston metro is at 5.6 million and is the 6th largest in population (it may be only behind Los Angeles in physical size). San Antonio metro is just shy of 2 million and is the second fastest growing city in the country (behind Phoenix). Dallas and Houston are two of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country, Austin is one of the hippest places in the country to be. Yet people still think of trailer parks, horses and oil rigs when you mention "Texas" to them.

I recall several years back watching a nationally-televised, important (for playoff purposes) NBA match-up between the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks. What visual do they choose to show before the start of the game? A dusty main street from some Old West town with, yes, a saloon and a freakin' tumbleweed blowing across the street. This is the visual the network chose for a game between teams representing city metro areas with a combined population upwards of 8 million people.

ABOVE: The skyline of downtown Dallas. Does this look like a dusty trailer park to you?

Honestly, I am somewhat torn on this issue. Part of me takes great pride in the idiosyncratic reputation Texas has (vs., say, being from Idaho). When traveling through Europe about ten years ago, young Europeans that I met were much more interested that I was from Texas than they were that I was American. Reruns of 'Dallas' were still popular over there, so I was questioned seriously about my horses and oil wells. Right there: it is cool to be from a place that people worldwide are interested in, but the stereotypes vastly overlook the cultural richness and sophistication (in certain pockets, like the metro areas) in this great state.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dez's Picks: 'The Road Warrior' (aka 'Mad Max 2'), 1981

ABOVE: Mel 'sugar tits' Gibson stars as Mad Max

I admit that I have a weakness for post-apocalyptic films. The Road Warrior is the Citizen Kane of post-apocalyptic cinema. It is also one of the greatest pure action films on the planet. For those unfamiliar with the plot, it is very simple. The first film in the trilogy, Mad Max, featured a young Australian unknown by the name of Mel Gibson. Mel is Max Rockatansky, a cop in a not so distant future where society is falling apart and rogue biker gangs rule the highways. Max is also a family man (featuring some very cheesy domestic bliss scenes). To cut a long story short, his family gets mowed down by bikers, Max goes crazy with revenge, and the film ends. Mad Max turned out to be an unexpected international hit. In Australia it was followed by Mad Max 2, named The Road Warrior in America because nobody here saw the first one (not that you needed to; a narrator sums up the first film at the beginning of the second).

The Road Warrior opens with Max wandering the wastelands “a shell of a man”, surviving day by day. Things have further deteriorated to where there is no semblance of civilized society left. Max happens upon a desperate holdout band of folks defending their precious gas reserves from a vicious gang, led by the menacing Humungus. Gas = survival out here, because if you are not mobile you are dead. The Humungus and his gang will stop at nothing to get the "go-juice" being protected within the fortress guarded by this group of survivors. Through circumstance, Max is thrown in the middle of this battle, and he slowly rediscovers his humanity when he joins forces with this outpost group against the brigand gangs of the wastelands...blah blah blah. The Road Warrior is really about kick-ass action.

ABOVE: Beware of The Humungus

The final 30 minute or so climax is an adrenaline rush nearly unmatched in movies. In his famous review of the film, critic Roger Ebert dubbed The Road Warrior “one of the most relentlessly aggressive films ever made.” Recall this is all before computer effects. These stunts are real. The kinetic energy is so palpable, there is no substitute for the real thing, people. Forget George Lucas and his plastic planetary worlds and intergalactic video game-like battles. Director George Miller creates action that is made of dirt, sweat, blood and gasoline. (Or as they say in the film, "guzaline.")

BELOW: This compilation of action clips from all three Mad Max films (done to Motorhead's 'Ace of Spades,' a song which is not featured in the actual movies) gives you a taste of the adrenaline rush of which I speak...

The Road Warrior is a western set in the future, replacing horses with cars. Miller brilliantly does more with less, allowing the stark Australian desert to become as much a character as any of the humans who inhabit the picture. Mel Gibson’s Max is in almost every frame, but he barely utters word. Max is a post-apocalyptic Man With No Name, Clint Eastwood's immortal character from the Sergio Leone epics. The society-besieged-by-evildoers is as old as Kirosawa’s Seven Samurai through westerns like The Magnificent Seven.

The Road Warrior was followed by a horrible third entry, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, valuable for pure camp purposes. You can enjoy the minor low budget charms of the first film and enjoy the camp elements of the third…but The Road Warrior stands on its own as one of the most exhilarating action films ever made.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Dream Gets His Due

Congratulations to Hakeem Olajuwon for getting inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this year. For me, growing up in Houston, Olajuwon of course looms large in Houston sports lore.

ABOVE: The Dream helped to win a gold medal for the U.S. in 1996

He emigrated from his native Nigeria to play for the University of Houston in the famed "Phi Slama Jama" era (along with Clyde Drexler). The Houston Rockets picked Olajuwon with the first pick of the 1984 draft (picking him over Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton). In the 1980's he formed half of the Twin Towers duo with Ralph Sampson. Once Sampson was traded, The Rockets became Hakeem's Team.

Side note: when I was living in Houston a few years back, I regularly got my car washed over at Dream Bros., a Houston car wash chain owned by Hakeem's brother (and funded by Hakeem's money, no doubt). They did a good job. I would often see a well dressed fellow, who had to be Hakeem's brother judging by size, walking around talking on his cell phone. In the office where you paid, they had Hakeem posters everywhere, including one that traced the footwork for his patented Dream Shake (more on that below).

Entering his prime years in the mid-1990's, Olajuwon became one of the greatest Centers to ever play the game. He led the Rockets to back-to-back NBA championships in the mid-1990's. Hakeem retired all-time NBA shot block leader, and in the top ten for scoring, rebounding and steals (the only player in the top ten of all four of those categories). His most famous move, the Dream Shake, was nearly unguardable. Hakeem himself explained: "The Dream Shake was actually one of my soccer moves which I translated to basketball. It would accomplish one of three things: one, to misdirect the opponent and make him go the opposite way; two, to freeze the opponent and leave him devastated in his tracks; three, to shake off the opponent and giving him no chance to contest the shot." Olajuwon is also noted for his impressive charity work and his devotion to his Muslim faith.

I've got a great memory of seeing Olajuwon play when I attended a game in the Western Conference Finals in 1995 here in San Antonio. The heavily favored Spurs were playing The Rockets in an epic series. It was the game where David Robinson was awarded the MVP trophy for the season amid much hoopla before tipoff. Then Olajuwon proceeded to destroy Robinson on the court. It was incredible to watch.

In my opinion, Olajuwon is the greatest Houston sports figure. Afterall, his Rockets are the only team out of the Rockets, Astros, Texans (or former Oilers) to bring a championship home to the city. (Yet The Rockets usually take a backseat to the ever-disappointing Astros or the even more disappointing NFL teams in the hearts of Houston sports fans).

Also inducted this year: Patrick Ewing, Pat Riley, Adrian Dantley, Bill Davidson, Cathy Rush and Dick Vitale.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

RIP Moses, Col. Taylor and Ben-Hur, 1924-2008

Moses has died. I say this only half in jest, because when you think of the biblical Moses and try to picture him, what image comes to mind? Thought so. When we get much of our religion through popular culture, it is somewhat fitting that Charlton Heston's iconic performance as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments is as good a reference point as any for humanizing the man who brought God's commandments down from the mountain.

Charlton Heston is now remembered as much for his political activism as he is for his performances, and both sides of his life should be appreciated. One of Heston's more famous remarks is that "I have a face that belongs in another century." Many of Heston's most lasting performances were in gaudy Hollywood historical epics where he took on roles of important historical figures, such as The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur (for which he won an Oscar), El Cid, and many more.

But later in his acting career he forged a new identity in a series of classic and now cult favorite sci-fi/post-apocalyptic flicks. His Col. Taylor in The Planet of the Apes is just as iconic as Moses, but also check out 70's cult classics Soylent Green and Omega Man (an earlier version of I Am Legend).

I admire Heston more than most actors for his political activism, mainly because he went against the Hollywood grain his whole career. Early on he was a liberal activist, marching in civil rights marches and protesting against segregation in the South, as Heston himself said, "long before Hollywood found it fashionable." He was also an early critic of the Vietnam War. But by the 1980's he had shifted to the Right and became one of the few conservative voices in the wilderness in Hollywood. He was an outspoken critic of affirmative action, political correctness ("political correctness is tyranny with manners") and most famously he served as the president of the NRA between 1998 and 2003. I don't agree with all of his views, but I respect Heston for not going with the Hollywood flow and towing their political agenda.

ABOVE: "From my cold, dead hands." Now we can get the gun.

He developed Alzeimer's disease in the early 2000's, around the same time that Michael Moore infamously ambushed him for an embarrassing interview in Bowling For Columbine. He has been out of the public eye in recent years, and passed away on Saturday. RIP Charlton Heston.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Once Upon a Time in the West

I know this is Final Four weekend (being held where I currently live, San Antonio), but I’ve never followed college ball too closely. I want to talk about the most exciting playoff race ever in the NBA (at least in the Western Conference.) With about two weeks left to go in the season, here is how it stands out West (My apologies for the format of the chart, I was having trouble posting a full stat chart in readable form on the blog, and therefore had to cut out the other stats that basketball junkies like to study)…

1 New Orleans 53-22
2 San Antonio 52-24
3 L.A. Lakers 52-24
4 Utah 51-26
5 Phoenix 51-25
6 Houston 51-25
7 Dallas 47-29
8 Denver 46-29
9 Golden State46-30
10 Portland 38-38
11 Sacramento 35-40
12 L.A. Clippers 23-53
13 Memphis 20-56
14 Minnesota 19-56
15 Seattle 17-59

The top eight teams in each conference make the playoffs. The Eastern side of things is not nearly as interesting. There is Boston (60-15), Detroit (54-21), Orlando (47-28) and Cleveland (42-34) and then it doesn’t matter. The Miami Heat, NBA champions two years ago, stand at 13-63 this year. Back to the West. The hyperbolic sports writers are correct, this is the most compelling playoff race ever. Less than ten wins separate the No. 1 spot and not making the playoffs at all. Take a look at the range between No. 2 and No. 6. With slightly less than 2 weeks to go, these games still matter. (I bet Golden State would like to have back those six losses in a row at the beginning of the season when things “don’t matter”).

ABOVE: Chris Paul: my vote for MVP this season

I’m really happy for New Orleans, a team that was in danger of being moved even before Katrina is now one of the few bright spots for the Big Easy. Chris Paul should get MVP this year. Another unlikely success story this season is the Lakers. If you remember last summer all the talk was of Kobe wanting to be traded because the organization no longer seemed to have the passion for excellence. Forget all that now. They probably got the biggest steal of a trade this season when they got Pau Gasol from Memphis. The team formerly known as Kobe and His Scrubs is now Kobe, Gasol, “next big thing” Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and a suddenly competent bench. The most controversial and risky trade of the season, Shaq to Phoenix, seems to be gelling and paying off just at the right time. It is insane that teams as good as Denver, Dallas and Golden State are all in a real battle just to make the playoffs. And of course, the silent killers Utah and San Antonio don’t make much news, but the Spurs are still World Champions until further notice and everybody wants to avoid Utah this year. Unfortunately, my Houston Rockets will probably once again be bounced out in the first round (another underwhelming performance brought to you by Tracy McGrady and the forever injured Yao Ming).

ABOVE: Until the Houston Rockets trade emotional basketcase T-Mac, they will not get too far in the brutal NBA playoffs

By the way, I was trying to come up with the typical sports writer title for the article, and I considered the well-worn “The Wild West”, or even "The Wild, Wild West”, or perhaps “How the West Will Be Won”…but I went with the title of a favorite Sergio Leone movie and great Dire Straits song.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Bomb, Sex and Suburbia

I listened to a remarkable song the other day. It is a minor hit from 1954 by Bill Haley & the Comets (of "Rock Around the Clock" fame) called "Thirteen Women (And Only One Man In Town)". To really appreciate the tune, you've got to keep the context of the times in mind. Over an anxious rockabilly beat, Haley sings a song of nuclear paranoia and the ultimate male post-apocalyptic fantasy. Singing a verse in 1954 like "Last night I was dreamin' / dreamed about the H-Bomb / Well, the bomb went off and I was caught / I was the only man on the ground" invoked real anxieties in a Cold War world. But things aren't so bad, because out of the survivors "there's thirteen women and only one man in town...I had two gals every mornin' / Seein' that I was well fed / And believe you me, one sweetened my tea / while another one buttered my bread..." This is a full decade before Peter Sellers' famous fall-out shelter speech in 'Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb' (where the ratio of women to men was a slightly less exciting 10 to 1). Being the 1950's, sexual innuendo had to be a bit more subtle. But he ain't talkin' about tea and toast, this is a full on threesome for breakfast before moving on to more in the afternoon (the next verse makes that clear). The last verse of "I thought I was in heaven and all these angels were mine / But I woke up and ended the dream because I had to get to work on time" brings it all back home to the 50's suburban malaise; but with the sexual frustrations still right under the surface. Cold War paranoia, sexual taboo, suburban frustration...all in a two minute tune. Pretty remarkable.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


As a fan of horror movies and roller coasters, I’ve always been interested in what scares people. Of course there are the obvious ones – death, cancer, or a Democratically controlled White House and Congress. But even more interesting are the unreasonable phobias. Phobias are the type of thing that will excuse normally brave individuals when they act like frightened children. Even Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes.

I’ve got two. The first one is a phobia regarding flying stinging insects. I’m talking about bees, wasps, hornets, bumble bees, etc. Just look at this evil, menacing creature...

ABOVE: If one of these things comes near Dezmond, he will run off screaming like a little girl

Secondly, I am terrified of the ocean. While I still enjoy the beach and getting in the water, if I go out further than where I can stand, I freak out. Too many viewings of “Jaws” as a child.

ABOVE: Dez is frightened of this swimming under him in the ocean

A good friend of mine (“Johannes” on GNABB) is petrified of spiders. Similar to my reaction to evil flying stinging insects, when Johannes sees a spider…he runs off screaming like said little girl.

ABOVE: What is wrong with Johannes? As this picture clearly shows, spiders are not very scary. Johannes must be a wuss.

What are the roots of phobias? Who knows. Some are deeply ingrained survival instincts (perhaps it is good for humans to fear snakes). Some phobias can be traced to childhood traumas. So, dear readers, I’d be curious to hear about your phobias. Spiders? Snakes? Small, enclosed spaces? Small people? Clowns? Ahh, I saw you flinch a little there. Is it clowns, then? I bet you are afraid of clowns. Well, how about THIS!!!!!