Archive for November, 2009


Opium, fireworks and lead: Tom Waits’ “Glitter and Doom Live” reviewed

Well they call me William The Pleaser
I sold opium, fireworks and lead
Now I’m telling my troubles to strangers
When the shadows get long I’ll be dead

From the first spitfire stanza of the opening track on “Glitter and Doom Live,” an amalgamation of “Lucinda” and “Ain’t Goin’ Down the Well,” it’s quite clear that Tom Waits has barely slowed his pace, even at 59 (Here’s a video of Waits performing the songs on Late Night With Conan O’Brien in 2007— how’s that for stage presence?).

This album is hardly a collection of hits from Waits’ long and storied career— indeed, these 17 live cuts aren’t even from one live show (here’s an NPR recording of the two-hour-plus Atlanta show from the tour). The tracks, mostly from more recent releases like “Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards,” “Real Gone,” “Mule Variations,” and “Bone Machine,”  are culled from various performance over the course of the Glitter and Doom tour. The production is seamless, and you likely won’t notice any disparity between cuts.

Critics have invoked many adjectives over the years to describe Waits’ music— “creaky,” “dusty,” “ramshackle,” and so on— but as far as I’m concerned, these terms connote a dated or irrelevant presentation, which is never, ever the case with Waits. He’s pushed the envelope from day one, and the sharp division between devotees and staunch critics should be a testament to that.

And it’s the same story on “Glitter and Doom Live;” this is not an album for everyone. It is not an introduction to Waits, nor is it his best album. But it is a vital affirmation for longtime fans who couldn’t find the time nor money to travel to and attend any of the tour’s shows. Waits still possesses those coarse vocal bellows, he can still work a crowd, and he hasn’t descended into complacent acceptance of his near-mythical status.

Waits saunters from the merciless, carnal howl of death-jam blues numbers like “Goin’ Out West” and “Get Behind that Mule” to half-coherent spoken-word ramblings on the demented waltz “Live Circus” (gimme a little bit of livery-stable blues, boys, play it nice) all the way to crooning, dive-bar balladry on “Fannin Street” and “I’ll Shoot the Moon.” And he does it without ever seeming to skip a beat.

His band, perhaps one of the best he’s assembled in years, even sinks into a funky groove on “Such a Scream” and “Metropolitan Glide,” cuts replete with sax solos, stuttering syncopation, and Waits’ barking beatbox.

“Singapore,” a standard from the seminal 1985 album “Rain Dogs,” descends into a roiling, disoriented patchwork of creaking and groaning, evoking in the listener an image of a blustery night on a vessel bound for shipwreck (heave away, boys) before recouping the rhythm and concluding with an emphatic push.

Metal fanatics should take note: this is what heavy music sounds like. It’s relentless, almost unnerving. As one reviewer put it, Waits performs with “a throat full of soul and gravel.” And at his age, he only sounds the more brutal. He’s still at the top of his game, somehow; his tenacious howling hasn’t yet popped a blood vessel or engendered a stroke or heart attack.

Really, he’d be terrifying if he weren’t so charming a performer. And that’s where the bonus disc, “Tom Tales” comes in. It’s 35 minutes of Waits’ interspersed stories, jokes,  and rambling observations he expounds while tinkering at the piano. The liner notes call them “quixotic.”

This disc is really little more than a bonus. It’s good for a few listens, and surely there are some classic one-liners, but it’ll spend most of its time in the CD packaging.

The first disc is the meat of this album, and it’s gristly, alright. Listen to it. Love it or hate it, this is what Tom Waits is made of.


CN Column 11/23/09: Carry out what you carry in— really, though

Like any university student, I spent my summer interims working at any variety of minimum- or low-wage hourly jobs— mostly, I’ll admit, to benefit my tendencies toward self-destruction and financial ruin.

Be that as it may, the laundry list of my summer professions is a long one.

Before college, I was limited to the food service industry. I worked at a Quizno’s Sub (to this day, I consider myself to be a sandwich artisan in the truest sense), a Baskin Robbins (branch now defunct, and I only wish I could claim credit), and, to top it all off, I jockeyed a grill at the Post Mall Cinema De Lux (if you haven’t been there, the restaurant side comprises a Nathan’s, Sbarro’s, Ben and Jerry’s, and Starbucks—a proverbial smorgasbord of calorie-bombs, all offered at the requisite 250 percent markup).

I’m still not sure they whether they were suggesting the 12-theater multiplex qualified as “de lux,” which translates literally from the Latin to “of or concerning light,” or just “deluxe.”

Had they intended the former, I’ll limit my judgment to “extreme misrepresentation,” especially considering I saw every movie they ever screened for free— and the best movie I saw in those months was the keen, nuanced Matthew McConaughey drama “Failure to Launch.” Or maybe it was Robin Williams’ uproarious satirical essay on the dysfunction of modern family life, “RV.” Jeebus, it’s hard to choose.

But I digress (can’t you see, just the memory of this sends me back into the snide, sarcastic bent I developed in those years?).

I spent the next summer as a laborer on a job site for a construction contractor. It was here that I not only taught myself to use dangerous power tools with no professional guidance, where I learned to speak elementary Spanish, where I acquainted myself with the charm and urbanity of your average skilled tradesman. More than anything else, it was where I discovered that, by golly, hard manual labor sure beats actual interface with and service to American consumers.

So I took a similar route the next summer and found work at the state Department of Environmental Protection as a “park maintainer,” the duties of which comprised picking up after slobs, picking up after other slobs, and cutting the grass.

Actually, it was a great job. As more seasoned parks employees would assure me when they caught me actually sweating over a string trimmer or push-mower, “Hey, man, it’s a state job! Relax!”

But one duty I couldn’t well snub was the trash-picking, which I executed in enviable form from 7:30 ‘til about 9:00 every morning. You’d guess, I imagine, litter was limited to a few stray paper plates, a tangle of fishing line, a food wrapper here and there. These are, after all, state parks we’re talking about here.

But almost every day, I was handling soiled diapers, discarded smut magazines, dozens of empty beer cans and pint bottles, used condoms, scores of wrappers, etc. And it was at such a volume that it actually would take me and a few other workers over an hour to clean it all up.

The rest of the day, of course, was wheedled away sitting atop a lawn mower, trying (in vain, joyously) to cover the vast areas of two large parks per week.

The next summer, my last summer before graduation, I was your friendly neighborhood pizza delivery guy. Here I learned that your average college student— even in light of the dregs of social etiquette I’d witnessed in customers of years past— has worse manners than anyone else, at least demographically speaking.

But what do you care about my summer jobs? Well, hopefully, you don’t, at least not in a practical sense. But my point here is this, folks: we’re all people. The guy who flips your burgers, the young woman who waits on your table, the team of hapless DEP workers who have to clean up the disgusting mess when some beer-soaked sex binge on state grounds is over— they’re all people who deserve respect, at least insofar as they show it to you.

The popular perception, of course, is that a man’s job defines him. This might be true for some, especially those who work in a professional capacity, but for the rest of the workforce, a job is often just a way to get by— whether it’s a quick fix to temporary unemployment or a permanent occupation. Many find satisfaction in menial work not necessarily because it defines who they are, but because it affords them independence from that pigeonholing— and often the creative freedom to pursue their own aspirations outside of the workplace.

So next time you feel your blood boiling because the McDonald’s cashier can’t seem to find the button for “hold the onions,” take a deep breath and remember we’re all in this together.


CN Column 11/20/09: Money: the deciding factor?

In September, the pending race for Democrat Chris Dodd’s vulnerable seat in the U.S. Senate became a veritable circus, as Republican contenders expanded their ranks to a motley crew of five.

Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee put it better than I ever could:

“Between a defeated, three-term congressman [Rob Simmons], a Ron Paul acolyte [Peter Schiff], a George Bush foot soldier [Tom Foley] and a wrestling personality [Linda McMahon], this cast of characters will be endlessly entertaining to watch.”

But despite Democrats’ attempts to cast the GOP potentials as a ragtag band of celebrities and political has-beens, recent poll numbers from Quinnipiac University in Hamden show that even McMahon, a former director of the World Wrestling Federation with little to show in the way of political acumen, runs well (though not as well as Simmons) against Dodd, netting 43 percent to his 41.

McMahon has said she’s willing to spend as much as $30 million out-of-pocket on her campaign.

Some (61 percent in the Quinnipiac poll) see her relative wealth as potential freedom from special interest money. But I might flip the coin and take the opposite tack, and 29 percent of respondents in the poll would probably agree: under the assumption that an expensive, aggressive campaign will fare better than an underfunded one, it follows that wealth is the true measure of political viability. If that’s the case, what is the real value of democratic choice under the current campaign finance paradigm? I don’t want to single out McMahon; obviously the roots of the problem run deeper than that.

Connecticut House Republican leader Larry Cafero, who backs Simmons, was quoted by the Hartford Courant as saying “I bristle when people say he or she has a lot of money and they’re going to win … If all it takes is money to get publicity and name recognition, that’s a sad commentary.” Cafero stressed that he wasn’t speaking specifically about McMahon.

But his point is telling. To me, the argument for decisive campaign finance reform is analogous to the one often made for salary caps in professional sports.

For the sake of transparency, I’ll submit that I am a lifelong Red Sox fan. My father grew up in Springfield, Mass., and I’m fairly certain he would have kicked me to the curb had I rooted for anyone else in my childhood.

So naturally, when the Yankees win a series, it puts me a in a nasty mood. This year, a trash-talking Yankee fan, one of my good friends, posted some mockery on my Facebook wall. All in good fun. But of course I had to respond with a long-winded diatribe on the injustice of the Yankees’ roughly $200 million payroll. Naturally, I only care to make an argument for a salary cap when the Yankees have a dominant season. In that, I’ll admit, I apply a huge double standard.

The back-and-forth intensified, and soon he radioed in the air support from two fellow Yanks fans—both of them law students. I was swiftly and summarily defeated, largely because I didn’t have the energy to formulate a pointed argument and pitch it to a couple of guys who would likely find a good way to shoot it right down.

At any rate, I don’t want to marginalize the Yankees’ success. They had a fantastic season, and their talent shined. For years they’ve had the business and marketing savvy to accumulate the wealth needed to maintain a grade-A lineup. But money buys talent.

And my overarching point during the aforementioned debate was that the Yankees’ payroll ($201 million in ‘09) is light-years ahead of the next-closest contender (the Mets, who paid $149 million this year).

“But what of the Marlins?” the attorneys-to-be asked. The fish have the lowest payroll in baseball (about $37 million), yet they managed to eke out a World Series win over the Yanks in ’03. So maybe money isn’t the deciding factor. They also provoked a discussion about free-agency versus home-grown talent, but that aspect is too involved to discuss here.

I would never suggest that money is the sole cobbler of championship franchises. There are thousands of other factors that decide each year’s ring-wearers, and especially in baseball, uncertainty is the name of the game. But there are also many facets to, say, a cash poker game. But is it not true that the guy who comes over and buys in for $200 when everyone else started with a $50, $100, or $150 chip stack stands at a distinct advantage?

In poker, that’s the nature of play. It’s a bettor’s contest.

But professional sports, like democratic elections, should be decided on a somewhat level playing field. And for the same reasons that campaign finance laws need revisiting, Major League Baseball should reconsider its judgment that a luxury tax (a duty imposed on any payroll amount over a certain threshold) is sufficient to make fair what should be an equitable competition.


CN Column 11/13/09: Candid advertising: The wave of the future?

I don’t think I’m alone when I say Thursday night is my allotted TV time. For me, it’s NBC’s comedy block followed by FX’s rollicking college-set smash, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

Suffice it to say NBC continues to prove its mettle when it comes to comedy. “The Office” may be waning, if not in popularity than in narrative integrity, but two new series are rising in the ranks to take its stead. “Parks and Recreation” continues to show more promise than quality while delivering only marginal laughs, but the new series “Community” may well prove a hit; I’ve seen only one episode, but it featured Chevy Chase donning a Beastman outfit and tripping on acid. Enough said?

But the best NBC has to offer right now, though sliding in terms of ratings, is the absurdist, self-aware “30 Rock.” It’s a “show within a show,” a zany picture of the inner workings of a fictional NBC comedy. Tracy Morgan slays me every time, and the rest of the supporting cast rarely disappoints. Alec Baldwin plays GE exec Jack Donaghy with wit and flair. The writing caters well to each cast member’s unique voice (and it’s a good thing, because half of the show revolves around the writers of the fictional show).

But I was struck recently by what seems to be an increasingly-popular trend in TV advertising, especially in comedy: Rather than sneaking in subversive product plugs visually, shows like “30 Rock” are making their advertising as candid as can be.

Take, for example, last week’s episode. Immediately after a Cisco Systems ad featuring video chat support was aired during a commercial break, Donaghy was forced to use an identical video chat interface when he became infested with bed bugs and his corporate peers refused to have him in the conference room. He even mentioned Cisco by name.

I can also recall “30 Rock” plugging other products in addition to in-house shows and TV events in prior episodes. GE is constantly mentioned as Donaghy’s employer. I suppose they have a forum for it, because the show is, by definition, loaded with self-reference anyway.


From left, Frank, Dennis and Mac talk up their experience at Dave and Busters on a recent episode of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

This is only one example of a wider pattern. In a recent episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” characters repeatedly visit—and soliloquize over the quality of their experience at—Dave and Buster’s, an adult arcade-bar-restaurant hybrid. The company purchased normal ads for the commercial breaks and was a featured sponsor on FX spots. The arcade’s fake-money system, in which players win and/or earn Dave and Buster Dollars to entice them back, is hilariously (and idiotically) emulated by Mac and Dennis, who print fake money for use at their failing bar, give it out for free, and allow shantytown residents to buy cases of booze with it. They realize their misstep only in hindsight.

The Internet was alight shortly thereafter. The general consensus was the show had “sold out” by directly referencing an advertiser in such an extensive manner. Fans were angry. I wasn’t particularly offended, but it did leave a sour taste in my mouth.

The key difference between this clumsy, heavy-handed integration and the direct plugs in “30 Rock” is wit. In order for such transparent advertising to be defensible, it has to be integrated in such a way as to avoid insulting the viewer.

“30 Rock” rides a fine line when it plugs its advertisers within the script, but more often than not, I find myself amused by the candidness. I feel as though I’m sharing a joke with the show’s producers. It feels natural, honest, unforced.

But it’s a razor’s edge that can be navigated by only the savviest of writers. If it becomes a commonality, we might as well say goodbye to decent television, as advertising will kill creative impulse and reduce character-driven comedy to utter banality. That possibility was, to a degree, on display in the aforementioned episode of “… Sunny,” and I’m willing to bet the viewer backlash was enough to convince the producers to never advertise so radically again.

The relationship between media product and advertiser has always been a strange one, and to be sure, integrated TV plugs are one innovative way the new media machine is stroking the collective belly of potential advertisers. What remains to be seen is whether it can be done in a tasteful manner into perpetuity.


Mickey to get a makeover

No more Mr. Nice Guy for Mickey, says the New York Times, as Disney tries to reach a new, more tech-savvy audience more familiar with Pixar and Family Guy than the beloved cartoon mouse.

From Times writer Brooks Barnes:

“Epic Mickey, designed for Nintendo’s Wii console, is set in a “cartoon wasteland” where Disney’s forgotten and retired creations live. The chief inhabitant is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a cartoon character Walt Disney created in 1927 as a precursor to Mickey but ultimately abandoned in a dispute with Universal Studios. In the game, Oswald has become bitter and envious of Mickey’s popularity. The game also features a disemboweled, robotic Donald Duck and a “twisted, broken, dangerous” version of Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World.” Using paint and thinner thrown from a magic paintbrush, Mickey must stop the Phantom Blot overlord, gain the trust of Oswald and save the day.”

Say what you will about the manipulation of an American media icon, but I will almost definitely be playing that title.

This reminds me of the 13th-season South Park Episode “The Ring,” wherein Mickey Mouse terrorizes the Jonas Brothers and forces them to wear “purity rings” so Disney can continue selling sex to preteen girls.


Mickey kicks some Jonas Brothers tail in Season 13 of South Park


“Change” isn’t such a hot topic anymore

As most of you (better) know, Tuesday was Election Day in many municipalities across the country. I was assigned to cover Prospect, Conn.

In the small agricultural town (population about 9,000), Republican Mayor Bob Chatfield has enjoyed 16 straight terms (that’s 32 years, folks). He won his 17th last night. He’s also the Public Works director and the Assistant Fire Chief (formerly the Fire Chief). Call it what you will, but voters seem to think he’s done alright. He won by a landslide (a roughly 4-1 margin).

But I was struck by one gent’s comments during my “man-on-the-street” interviews (in these, I mostly got to hear how many creative ways people could conjure to tell me to bugger off) outside polling places during the day. He said he’d be voting against the incumbent in Beacon Falls, mainly because he wanted to see “the old guard changed.” Democrat Sue Cable has served six terms there.

We have a check on presidential terms; I won’t reiterate basic civics. Seems to me we should have a similar device in municipalities, if for no other reason than to keep people from basing their voting decisions on abstractions like “change.” Not that I wholly disagree with this sentiment; sometimes things need to be given a good shake— but at what cost? That, of course, remains to be seen with our current chief executive, who ran proudly on his white stallion, bearing a great standard invoking “change.”

On a completely unrelated note, there was a tie for an oh-so-coveted Region 16 Board of Education seat in Beacon Falls. How will they break the tie? Most likely with a coin toss (not kidding). Looking forward to that photo-op.


CN Column 11/06/09: Child Worship: It’s Bad for Ya

Last week I had the privilege to watch George Carlin’s 2008 HBO Special, “It’s Bad For Ya,” which was televised live not even four months before his death.

Now, we probably all have our own opinions about the acerbic comedy legend—his excessive vulgarity and cynicism were hallmarks of his style, and probably went a long way in polarizing viewers. We’ve likely all heard the “Seven words you can’t say on television” routine, first performed in 1972—and had a variety of reactions to it.

George Carlin, above, rants and raves in 2008.

George Carlin, above, rants and raves in 2008.

But the real function these less-savory distinctions served was to cloak the genius of a man with incisive wit, a man who was unafraid to dissect even the most ingrained social niceties, a man who had a knack for pulling apart idiomatic language and fully-entrenched cultural norms—and casting it all back in our faces. In all, Carlin forced us to look in the mirror and laugh not necessarily at his jokes, but at the absurdity of modern life. No one was safe and nothing was sacred, and in this respect Carlin changed the face of mainstream comedy for all who followed in his footsteps.

And one subject he tackled to great effect in 2008 was what he termed “child worship”—the “excessive devotion to children” perpetrated by today’s “professional parents, these obsessive diaper-sniffers who are over-scheduling and over-managing their children and robbing them of their childhoods.

“Even the simple act of playing has been taken away from children and put on mommy’s schedule in the form of ‘play-dates,’” Carlin rants. “Something that should be spontaneous and free is now being rigidly planned.”

Carlin goes on to denounce modern child-rearing in dozens of ways. Check out the video on YouTube to see the whole thing (Just search “It’s Bad For Ya”).

After watching Carlin’s routine, these ideas were backlogged, filed under “simple amusement” in the cavernous archives of my mind. That is, until the next morning.

I was on my way to work here in Naugatuck from North Haven, where my girlfriend rents an apartment. I was running a few minutes later than normal, and I got stuck behind a school bus.

The first stop appeared normal; it was at the end of a residential road, likely a cul-de-sac. Children filed out of their parents’ cars (that’s right, rare is the child that actually walks to the rendezvous point anymore) and onto the bus.

Okay, I thought, time to keep moving. I only lost 30 seconds there.

But then, not ten seconds later, the bus stopped about 200 feet farther along, at the next intersection of Route 42 and a residential road.

And then came the real doozy: When the bus started back up (and I wish I were exaggerating here) it went not 100 feet before stopping again, this time at the end of someone’s private drive.

If there had been no sidewalks on this stretch, I would have understood a little better the rationale, the legitimate concern for kids’ safety. But there were sidewalks.

Next thing you know, bus drivers will have to pull in to students’ driveways and carry them, piggy-back style, to the bus. It’s getting to a point where that doesn’t even seem implausible. After all, you wouldn’t want to cause kids the undue stress or danger inherent in walking 25 feet down the driveway or stepping six inches off the doorstep.

To say nothing of the long-term effects of more and more stops on the maintenance and upkeep of buses (and the related costs), the real problem is that we’re pampering and babying children so much now that we should actually fear for their futures. Kids growing up will eventually have such a sense of entitlement that they’ll expect everything to be handed to them.

And as we all know, nothing in life is handed to us, at least not after a certain point.

I personally consider myself to be fairly open-minded and forward-thinking, but so often I feel myself taking the tone of an old miser (“When I was your age, I had to walk a mile through the snow to get to school, uphill both ways!”).

In Carlin’s 2008 special, he talks about the advantages of being an old man—such as getting out of anything just by claiming exhaustion, or being able to enlist the help of younger men willing to carry your groceries or luggage.

But he also says, “‘Old man’ isn’t really a time in your life, or a period of years, it’s an attitude. ‘Old man’ is a point of view … some guys are old men when they’re in their 20s. You’ve met guys like that. They’re just wired like old men!”

I’m beginning to think he was right about that as well, and I (at 22) am becoming a prime example.