Something Good From LA

So if you’re actually reading this Blog, you know that I just recently came back from a rather underwhelming trip to Los Angeles.  Among the few highlights (besides simply getting the fuck out of traffic) was going to the Whisky A Go Go, the legendary rock club in Hollywood.  Admittedly, this was about 80% of my desire to spend any time in Los Angeles at all. 

The club itself was rather surprising.  I’m used to rock clubs like The Middle East or Lupo’s or O’Brien’s.  Places where you feel the need to wash at least your hands, if not burn your clothes, after you leave.  Dark, somewhat dank, and what appears to be a half-dozen fire and health code violations in any direction you look.  And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  It is "very rock n’ roll" one might say.

The Whisky was remarkably well-lit in between sets, and you could actually see the bartender and see what money you had in your wallet when you went to the bar, even while bands were playing.  Usually the bar experience is a doubtful one at best.  It was also very clean, especially for a rock club.  I’ve eaten in diners that were dirtier than that. 

I suppose I shouldn’t complain, since one would think it would be nice to not be in a rat hole to hear some good rock bands play, but it is suddenly like dating the prom queen after banging skanks all you life.

Anyway, venue aside, it was a very cool experience.  It is about 1/10th the size of the club shown in the movie The Doors.  Damn Oliver Stone.  But you can feel the history and see it on the walls with all the photos.

While there, I caught two bands – one very good, the other just plain great.   The very good band was actually the headliner, The Real Mckenzies.  For all you Boston-area folks out there, they appear to be the West Coast equivalent of our beloved Dropkick Murphys.  They have that great – and already classic – combination of punk and Scottish music that goes so strangely well together.  I think around the same time scientists finally get a handle on cold fusion, they will figure out why the hell a set of bagpipes sound so good up against a solid punk guitar riff. 

The funniest part about the Real McKenzies were the band members.  I have this habit/talent of matching people up with their celebrity look-alike counterparts, which is quite funny if you pick someone who is completely out of place.  For example, in the Real McKenzies, you had Martin Short on lead guitar, Huey Lewis on bass, Uncle Fester on rhythm guitar, and apparently Tommy Lee has left Motley Crue once again, this time to take up playing the bagpipes.  Seriously – this guy looked – and acted – just like Tommy Lee.  It was kind of freaky.  If he had come out stage with a big-titted blonde "actress" it wouldn’t have surprised me.  There were a few other guys in the band who reminded me of other oddly placed celebrities, but it has been a few weeks and I can’t remember them…

Anyway, they were cool, and I ended up staying later than I should have, since I ended up with only two hours of sleep before my 6 hour flight the next day.  However, the real highlight of the evening was the band Custom Made Scare.  When they first hit the stage, they sounded a bit like they might just be another typical punk band, but they quickly changed my mind.  They bill themselves as "cowpunk" but I think that really limits their range.  They’ve been around for about 10 years now according to their web site and the fact that I haven’t heard about them simply illustrates just how badly fucked up the music industry is.

Live, they are a fast, punchy band with Charlie as the lead singer who sounds an awful like Axl Rose at times (and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible).   Charlie is definitely the best front man for a local band I’ve seen in a long time, exuding rock n’ roll without falling into too many cliches.  He seems to be having a legitimately good time up on stage, not just going through the motions.  The rest of the band have a cock-sure rock swagger that matches the music while complementing Charlie’s antics.

The music goes well beyond the cowpunk definition, while still bringing up a few country-ish elements here and there.  A more accurate description of their music is classic Sunset Strip rock n’ roll in the tradition of Motley Crue, Guns n’ Roses, the Doors, LA Guns and others.  And in case you get the wrong fucking impression, I also mean that in the best way possible.  At least twice during the show I said to myself "holy shit, this song could be straight off of Appetite for Destruction" and I don’t know if you can come up with a better compliment for a band than that. 

However, they aren’t stuck in the past, and definitely pay homage to their influences more than copy them, bringing in a slightly updated and fresh sound to the mix, including the aforementioned Johnny Cash-style country, as well as borrowing some of the best bombastic parts of modern rocks bands like Stone Temple Pilots. 

In fact, on record, Charlie begins to sound a lot more like Scott Weiland than Axl Rose, but the music still rocks with the same intensity as it does on stage, which officially makes Custom Made Scare’s album The Show Must Go Off the album that Velvet Revolver SHOULD have put out.   The cowpunk bit really falls off on many of the songs here, trading it in – with no compromise whatsoever – for fucking awesome balls-to-the-wall rock and roll.  If you don’t find yourself singing along to "Detroit" every time you hear it, and trying to turn the radio up louder and louder each time, then check your pulse.  The music has great production values, both in terms of quality AND the music itself.  The band sound properly experienced and sure of themselves, taking the room they need to stretch out in the songs and add some depth to the music (unlike Sin City Chainsaw, who is still a really good band, but could definitely learn a thing or two from Custom Made Scare when it comes to controlling themselves – see my previous post about that).

The result is a CD that definitely rocks, but also provides plenty of hooks to sink into you and not let go.  It is without a doubt, one of the best non-major label releases I’ve heard in a long time, and they have the best live show of a local act I’ve seen since the hey days of PURRR (the old Boston band I used to help out with back in the day).  Buy the album, see the band if they are in your area, and for chrissake, I hope they come out to the East Coast so I get my friends to go see them!

Sideways Thinking

So I recently finally saw the movie Sideways that has been winning all the critical acclaim for the past year.  I enjoyed the movie, as it was a well done film, and if you’re a bit of a "wine geek" like myself, it was particularly entertaining.  Kind of in the same way that High Fidelity is for a music geek… like myself. 

The night before I watched Sideways, I saw Garden State, another excellent movie also distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.  Garden State got some critical attention, but no where near the attention that Sideways did, though I view them as almost identical in their concept: the main character learning something about himself through his relationship with others.

As a guy in his late 20’s, I found Sideways entertaining, but definitely not "speaking" to me, since it is about a guy trying to make his way through the middle of his life.  Garden State, on the other hand, featured Zach Braff as a guy in his mid-to-late 20’s trying to make heads or tails out of his life.  Since it was closer to my age, I found it a lot more relevant, and just generally more entertaining.  Though I thought both movies were equally excellently done.

So why all the attention heaped on Sideways?  Well, face it – most of the major movie reviewers are middle aged (Ebert & Roeper, Gene Shalit, and just about any "critic" that is on TV or radio or any newspaper except for local weeklies) and voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences have always been "criticized" for being dominated by older members.  Of course the movie Sideways is going to appeal to them way more than a movie about some young punk coming to realize that his life isn’t as miserable as he thinks it is.

Unfortunately, I don’t really have a point here.  I pretty much just made it.  I guess the closest thing to a point that I can make is that you do need to take the viewpoint of the reviewer/critic into mind when following their advice.   Spin magazine does a decent job with their music reviews and I’ve always liked CMJ New Music‘s "RIYL" (recommended if you like) categories, though I wish someone would combine them… how good is it in relation to the stuff that I like?  Is it at the top of the form for that genre, even if it isn’t that good overall (let’s face it – some movies just aren’t going to be a Casablanca or Citizen Cane, no matter how hard they try, but when you go to see a movie like Die Hard or Terminator, you’re not looking for fucking high drama!)? 

Well… that’s it.  Feel free to discuss 🙂

Contrary to What randy Newman may think…

I do NOT love L.A.  I don’t hate it either, but generally can take it or leave it. 

I just came back from a trip to SoCal for business, and I did what I’m generally quite good at – stretching out a business trip at no additional cost to my company and turning it into a little getaway and a chance to see a new city, with the flight subsidized by my employer.  I truly love doing that.

So what’s the deal with L.A.?  Well, to be honest, a lot of the negative stuff you may have heard is pretty much true.  There’s a lot of freakin’ traffic.  A lot.  Imagine the entire population of China trying to drive on the street you live on… that’s what the traffic is like.  There’s also smog, and there’s a certain level of superficiality to just about everything there.

First of all, the traffic.  Yes, its true, the traffic in L.A. sucks.  This is coming from someone regularly has to deal with Boston area traffic, which I thought sucked, but I now find out merely blows.  What’s the most amazing about it is that it is NOT just the highways during the rush hour commutes – it is the traffic on the streets and ALL HOURS of the day!  Trying to navigate down Santa Monica Boulevard on Saturday afternoon was nearly impossible and driving down Sunset Boulevard during… well, just driving down Sunset anytime just sucked.   It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that people have starved to death trying to get out of traffic, except with all the fast food places in L.A. that would be pretty much impossible.

(side note: Boston still takes the prize in total lack of traffic pattern logic and/or reason. For example: my flight to LA was at 6:30 on Thursday morning, so I figured I would stay over at an airport hotel Wednesday night.  I went out with Andrea that night, and ended up leaving her house in Newton around 11:30 p.m. to go to the hotel near Logan.  Thanks to the Mass Pike and Rte. 93 effectively being shut down, it took me – and several hundred cars clearly trying to find their way to Logan – about an hour to go five miles, including driving through half of downtown Boston) 

Second, the city is just really tough to get around.  I’m a big fan of big cities, but my idea of cities are based on Boston, Chicago, NYC, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, etc.  Concentrated hubs of metropolitan activity.  L.A. isn’t that sort of place.  It’s very rambling and spread out, which means everyone needs a car, which adds to the traffic and smog.  I think the city is probably TOO well designed – big, wide roads and tons of traffic controls and signs give the appearance of it being easy to drive in L.A., which means that everyone tries to drive – all at the same time.  So those big wide streets aren’t big and wide enough any more. 

Subways, buses, and cabs exist because people need them, and in other cities, they do.  These public transit systems do exist in L.A. but I’m not sure if anyone uses them, since everything is designed for cars.  Of course, that is also part of being a relatively newer city and not having buildings and streets from the 1700’s like cities on the East Coast. 

Between the traffic and the layout of the city, I ended up doing only a third of the things I wanted to do, which is unusual for me.

Third, there’s just a lack of a true “L.A. experience.”  When I travel, I want to make the most of visiting a new place.  I get a few tour guidebooks, a couple of maps, and surf the web so I can get a good feel for the city, its layout, how to get around, and where to go and what to do.  It preps me for the trip, makes me feel comfortable and prevents me from aimlessly wandering, looking for something to do while also maximizing my time. 

I usually look for a definitive eating experience, such as Cheesesteaks in Philly, pizza in Chicago, a hot dog from a street vendor in New York, a PoBoy in New Orleans, Chili in Cincinatti… you get the idea (ever notice how these things are NEVER healthy for you?).   Then I look for a music or entertainment scene that is associated with the city – I’ve been to a country dance hall in Dallas, several blues clubs in Chicago, jazz in New Orleans, and strip clubs in Tampa and New York (hey, when in Rome…). 

Then I look for the museums and/or major attractions in a city, such as the Art Museum (and its stairs) and Independence Park in Philly, the Empire State Building in New York, or the Book Depository and opposing Conspiracy Museum in Dallas. 

The other thing I love to look for is a unique food/merchandise farmer’s market type of place.  One of the best I’ve ever found was the Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver, and the Farmer’s Market in Dallas was a great experience. 

Lastly, I also try to figure out the “nightlife” area in a city – Elm street in Dallas, Lansdowne Street in Boston, Rush Street in Chicago, etc. etc.

Since this has worked so well for me in the past and for this trip, I tried to do the same, but right from the start it was difficult to identify the key L.A. experience in terms of culture, food, drink, or whatever. 

Again, this stems from a unique “problem” with LA, which I guess may not even be a problem in itself: the greater “city” of LA is made up of literally dozens of smaller cities and although in a few miles you can go through several of them, making you feel like you’re in the same place, you’re not.  Santa Monica is very different from Hollywood, which is surprisingly different from Beverly Hills, and none of them is like downtown LA itself.  So I guess you can look at it as an upside that there’s so many different parts – if they weren’t so much alike for a visitor.

See, my overall impression of LA is that it’s a huge collection of malls connected by highways.  Go to Santa Monica and you’ll find a neat little shopping area with the Santa Monica pier with some carnival rides and shops and restaurants.  Up from there is the pedestrian mall that has more shops and restaurants.  Then if you go to the “farmers market” in Hollywood, you’ll find that it has been built over with more Johnny Rockets, and Borders and Gap stores.  All the streets are lined with strip mall after strip mall. 

I realized how out of control this was when I saw the Kodak Theatre, where the Oscars are held.  Now, you think that the Oscars would be held in some incredible theater standing majestically by itself on Hollywood Boulevard – kind of like Grauman’s Chinese Theater, which is just next door.  However, it is actually surrounded by a MALL!  The entrance to the theater is basically a shopping mall, and it kind of feels like just a really fancy typical mall movie theater.  Rather disappointing. 

Let’s face it, one of the most defining places of Los Angeles is Rodeo Drive, which is really nothing but a very fancy, upscale shopping district.  Whee.

So anyway, before I go on and on dissing Los Angeles, I have to say that it is an amazing city, unlike just about any other.  Most large cities are variations on the same idea, but LA breaks that mold, which I guess isn’t that surprising.  There is certainly a lot to do, though I’m not sure if I feel like it is work going back to explore it all. 

If you want to do a lot of shopping, it’s a wet dream come true.  If you are into following the personal lives of the stars like a stalker (which I’m not into – in fact, I freakin’ HATE magazines like People, Us, Star, etc. and pretty much the entire “E!” channel), then it is obviously the place to be.  If you’re really into movies, I guess there’s some cool stuff there, but admittedly not as much as I thought there would be.  There are also some remarkable landscapes not far outside of the city that is again unlike just about anything else in the country. 

So my advice for the traveler finding him or herself in LA for only a day or two would be to pick a SINGLE area and explore it well.  If you want to hear music and party in the clubs, stay somewhere on Sunset (the old “Riot House Hyatt” or the Best Western, for example) and stick around there.  There’s enough bars, clubs and restaurants to keep you entertained for several days, never mind 1 or 2.  If you’re a movie fan, stay in Hollywood, or maybe Beverly Hills.  If you want the West Coast ocean/surfer experience, stay in Santa Monica or Venice Beach.  But overall, just pick a part and stick with it.  I made the mistake of trying to see as much as I could and as a result, didn’t see nearly as much as I wanted.

I’m not sure why LA didn’t appeal to me – I usually like variety and differences in culture and experiencing a wide range of new things.  I think part of it stems of the lack of identity I spoke of earlier.  When a city has defining cultural elements, it does more than just provide identity, it also provides character and charm.  I did not find LA charming in any sense.  As the definitive "big city," most people wouldn’t define New York City as “charming” either, but it does have character, a sense of identity, pride in that identity, and therefore, I think it does exude quite a bit of charm.  LA didn’t capture me in that way – nothing that made me want to stay there, move there, or urge me to come back and explore more. 

Anyway – that’s my philosophical view of Los Angeles.  Details of the trip coming up next!

Apostrophe Catastrophe

So I haven’t had much time lately for many posts.  I returned from a trip to Los Angeles and actually had almost an entire LONG post written up here, and then I accidentally closed the window, losing about an hour’s worth of work.  That resulted in two observations: 1) Is it THAT hard to put a little bit of programming on the web page that asks you if you’re sure you want to close it? TypePad may want to consider that.  and 2) I will never write a long post in the browser again.  That same post was re-started in a Word document and is saved on my computer waiting for me to finish it.  So be watching for that.

In the meantime, I have to vent about something.  Lately, I’ve been noticing a LOT of apostrophe usage errors, and it is driving me nuts!  The biggest error I have been seeing is a lot errors around using an apostrophe to indicate plurality.  You DO NOT use an apostrophe to indicate more than one of ANYTHING.  Never! Ever!  See this web page for further explanation:

Thank you… and remember to practice safe punctuation.