Monday, March 30, 2009

Class Struggles with the Best Book of 2006

Every once in a while, a novel somehow sneaks its way into your life that seems to be life-changing. The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez (see my earlier post from when I was just beginning this book here) is one of these.

It's a coming-of-age story about three girls involved in some serious class struggles, with the storyline reaching from 1968 to many years later. Georgette George, from a glum upstate New York town, makes her escape to Barnard in NYC for college. She wants to leave that life behind and does a pretty good job of it. Her roommate, Dooley Ann Drayton, is a wealthy kid from Connecticut who is going the other way. She wants nothing more than to relate to the people who haven't had any silver spoons. Georgette's younger sister also plays prominently. She's a free spirit named Solange (but also goes by the names of Rain and Crash) who runs away to Woodstock and never comes back.

There are plenty of twists and turns, including excellent subplots involving Mick Jagger and The Great Gatsby. The story itself has similarities to Ethan Canin's amazing For Kings and Planets. A good sign. 

***** out of ***** stars

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Top 21 Films Directed by Woody Allen

It's rare that a director can have so many movies on his resume and virtually no stinkers. There are several more "pretty good" movies that almost make this best-of list. In fact, I can't ever remember not liking a Woody Allen movie. And his books of short comedy pieces, Side Effects and Without Feathers, are must-reads for anyone with a quirky sense of humor. From the less great to the immaculate:

22. Radio Days (1987)
21. Stardust Memories (1980)
20. Scoop (2006)
19. Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
18. Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
17. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
16. Bananas (1971)
15. Celebrity (1998)
14. What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)
13. Husbands and Wives (1992)
12. Match Point (2005)
11. Crime and Misdemeanors (1989)
10. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
09. Blue Jasmine (2013)
08. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
07. Deconstructing Harry (1997)
06. Sleeper (1973)
05. Zelig (1983)
04. Take the Money and Run (1969)
03. Manhattan (1979)
02. Love and Death (1975)
01. Annie Hall (1977)

Back to Barcelona with Vicky Christina

Hey! Rachel, Jackson, and I stood in that same spot on top of Antoni Gaudi's Case Mila last October! 

It's certainly partially the Catalan setting, but Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona oozes romance and passion. It's his best film in many years (and I don't mean that in the same way that the New York Times calls each new Allen movie his best in many years).

The pace and dialogue are snappy. Scarlett Johannson, Rebecca Hall, Penelope Cruz, and Javier Bardem are all hot. The story is kind of sad, bit it nicely shows the complex mix that makes some people so interesting and unpredictable. 

This is one of the best movies of 2008, and while Cruz brings the hoopla as the Academy's best supporting actress, the real spellbinders are Johansson and Hall. (Who is Rebecca Hall? She is captivating and unknown. The only thing she's been in is Frost/Nixon, which I should be seeing and reviewing soon).

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Best North Carolina Tarheels Since the 1980s

Because my dad and brother attended the University of North Carolina, I've been a fan of their stellar basketball program since I was about 10 years old. 

In honor of UNC's punishing Sweet 16 victory over Gonzaga last night, here is my list of the top Tarheels (mixed with my own prejudice of who my favorite players have been) from this time period. Feel free to comment with your own list of Top Tarheels:

33. Derrick Phelps
32. Shammond Williams
31. Julius Peppers
30. Joe Wolf
29. Danny Green
28. Reyshawn Terry
27. Hubert Davis
26. Rick Fox
25. Ed Davis
24. Marvin Williams
23. Joseph Forte
22. Rashad McCants
21. Jeff McInnis
20. Brendan Haywood
19. Sean May
18. Ed Cota
17. George Lynch
16. Wayne Ellington
15. Ty Lawson
14. Raymond Felton
13. Sam Perkins
12. J.R. Reid
11. James Worthy
10. Jerry Stackhouse
09. Donald Williams
08. Eric Montross
07. Antawn Jamison
06. Vince Carter
05. Kenny Smith
04. Rasheed Wallace
03. Brad Daugherty
02. Tyler Hansbrough
01. Michael Jordan

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Jackson Mackie: Future Rock Star

OK, so the last couple of posts were cover songs from my performance with Gordie at Eastern Village this past Saturday night. But let's get back to the good stuff. I wrote this about my son Jackson (left) last summer while overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at a beach house on the North Carolina Outer Banks. You might note that Wimbledon happened to be in full swing at the time ...

The Tide is High

Blondie made this a new wave #1 smash in 1980, but who knew that it was actually a cover originally performed by a 60s reggae group called The Paragons. Anyway, I have no real special connection to this song, but it's a lot of fun to play. And I particularly like singing the line, "I'm not the kind of girl who gives up just like that."

It Never Rains in Southern California

I always thought this was a great song from the bin of 1970s soft-rock goodness. Albert Hammond (right) claims it was the miniature story of his life. He's got some other good stuff, but this is definitely his best song. Incidentally, he is the father of the renowned guitarist for The Strokes and solo artist Albert Hammond Jr. I've been playing this for a few years now, mostly with my last band, The Sprogs.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bill Maher's Two Hours of Ignorance

Bill Maher is a funny guy. But one must also factor that, in Religulous, he's got a really easy target. Traveling the world to speak with religious figures, Maher offers a convincing case that all religions, when viewed fundamentally, are the same: knuckle-headed.

From Catholics to Jews to Muslims to the more wacky Mormons, Scientologists, Evangelicals, and Congressmen, there's no end to the deluded blank stares of people Maher interviews who are unable to argue or even understand their own beliefs in the fairy tale known as the Bible.

There's a great list of the interviewees here. And many are worth looking into a little more either for a laugh or because they're so incuriously nuts. Probably the best interview is with the "Pope's principal Latinist," Father Reginald Foster. He's quirky and actually intelligent. Not sure how the Pope hasn't fired him yet.

Give credit to Maher, who knows he has an audience. While he might irritate people when talking about their religions, the American Religious Identification Survey found those claiming "no religion" has grown from 8.2 percent of the U.S. population in 1990 to 15 percent now. And Maher also ends the movie with a strong commentary, urging atheists to stand up and speak out before the religious freaks finally drag us down for good.

**** out of ***** stars

The Return of Monotremes!

Monotremes is my band that existed from 1997 to 1999 in Edwardsville, Illinois. We only made one album, called A Bug Is Our Audience, but it features 14 quality college-pop songs. It was also featured on the Fox and the Hounds jukebox for about three years. This song, "Winter of My Youth," was a 17th Street crowd favorite. I hadn't played it in 10 years. But here's the acoustic version.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Men At Work: Paul and Gordie

Gordie notes that he took pointers on writing pop songs from yours truly and Colin Hay of 80s Aussie legends Men At Work (my second rock show ever, incidentally, which I attended with the entire Andres family). 

So while you watch this video of "We Refrain" - the excellent result of Sir Gordie's crash course in pop writing - enjoy my list of the top eight Men At Work songs.

08. "Underground," Business As Usual, 1982
07. "I Can See It In Your Eyes," Business As Usual, 1982
06. "Be Good Johnny," Business As Usual, 1982
04. "Blue For You," Cargo, 1983
03. "Overkill," Cargo, 1983
02. "Who Can It Be Now?" Business As Usual, 1982
01. "Down Under," Business As Usual, 1982


Paul Mackie and Gordie Shaw: Bedroom Politics

Half of The Sprogs reunited last night at Eastern Village Cohousing's first Common Grounds coffee house cafe/club night. Gordie Shaw accompanied me on 10 songs (one of which I actually accompanied him on). I'll post several of the songs we played.

The above clip is "Bedroom Politics," the only song we played from the musical comedy I wrote with Dan SullivanWiener Sausage: The Musical!

Gordie and I played after another former Sprogger, Tim Getman, played with Gordie and Phil in their bluegrass band.

Gordie and I played this set list, featuring two songs from my Edwardsville, Illinois-based group Monotremes (1997-1999):

Chocolate Kisses (Monotremes)
Drownin' (The Sprogs)
Seekers of the Truth and the Impossible (The Sprogs)
Future Rock Star (Paul Mackie)
We Refrain (The Sprogs)
Winter of My Youth (Monotremes)
Bedroom Politics (The Sprogs)


Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Many Lives of the Merry Prankster

This is the fourth installment in a series about a book I'm reading called Stories Done, which is a great collection of tales of excess from counter-culture leaders.

Ken Kesey is a legend in so many ways. Perhaps that's why author Mikal Gilmore has such a difficult time giving him a retrospective in this essay that amounts to little more than the equivalent of a Wikipedia entry (albeit a well-written one).

Kesey became a household name in 1962 with the publication of his novel about a psych ward, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He then embarked on a cross-country bus ride (see the actual bus above) with a legendary troupe of Beats called the Merry Pranksters. The ensuing shenanigans were detailed in one of journalism's greatest books, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. These two books should be required for anybody interested in American history (the fun side of American history, that is), as they present entire eras in colorful and graphic style.

Gilmore astutely notes that Kesey was a true bridge between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippie culture that dominated so much of the 60s. Unfortunately, like much else that ended badly in the late 60s, Kesey spend the period on the run from the law and imprisoned for various acts unbecoming to the The Man.

In his later years, Kesey published a handful of lesser novels and notably helped Stuart Brand found the environmental bible called The Whole Earth Catalog. He died on November 10, 2001 due to complications from surgery on a liver tumor.

Rachel Getting Married ... Neverendingly

Rachel Getting Married is about Kym (Anne Hathaway), who gets released from 12-step rehab to attend her sister Rachel's wedding at the upper-class Connecticut home of their dad and step-mother. Kym's selfish ways soon produce family and sisterly drama that shake up what is supposed to be a happy affair.

Hathaway (Get Smart, The Devil Wears Prada, Brokeback Mountain) gives a pretty wrenching performance. She gives it her all but I'm not entirely sure it was Oscar-nominee worthy for best actress.  

The movie begins promisingly with snappy dialogue, but takes an awful long time to get to character building and back stories. It dwells on the wedding celebration far too long at the end with a seemingly endless series of musicians playing different types of music. I guess this should have been expected since Rachel Getting Married was directed by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia), who has a long line of directing credits for rockumentaries like Stop Making Sense, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, and Storefront Hitchcock (about psych-popper Robyn Hitchcock, who incidentally has a too-small role in Rachel Getting Married).

**1/2 out of ***** stars

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Me and Obama's Brackets Are "Too Timid"

And of course Coach K doesn't like that Obama has Duke getting knocked out by Pitt in the Elite 8. But Coach K's a dweeb anyway. Although at least he really thinks "these kids played hard."

I digress. So shoot us. To me (and Barack), these are the best four teams in the tournament.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Big Surprise: North Carolina Wins My Brackets

Procrastinating until the end. I have finally filled out brackets for two pools (one with work and one with Georgetown grad friends).

Call me a homer since I'm a big Tarheel fan, but I still think if there's one potentially dominant team in college basketball this year, it's UNC. There has been so much jockeying in the top 10 all season long that it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see any one of a handful of teams win it all.

I pick the Heels to beat Louisville in both my pools, with the final score either turning out 80-75 or 90-75. North Carolina has missed the defense of Marcus Ginyard (out with an injury) all year, and if Ty Lawson can't return from his toe injury in time for the second round, I may append my prediction. Bobby Frasor just can't lead this team to a championship at the point. But I still think this year's team of stars, which finished 28-4 and underachieved to lose in the ACC quarterfinals to a really good Florida State team, has yet to peak.

Tarheel MVPs in order have been Tyler Hansborough, Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, and frosh Ed Davis.

I've got Pittsburgh losing to UNC in one semifinal and my only #2 seed to make the Final Four, Memphis, losing to Louisville and Coach Pitino's southern-gentleman white suits.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Thanks, Obama, For Putting Money In My Pocket

The Week has published a blurb about how "just 27 percent of likely voters believe the new economic stimulus package will personally benefit them or their family." That's a surprisingly low number and I wonder if people think the up-front costs of all these global warming, energy, health, and other initiatives outweigh what would be huge economic payoffs down the road.

Regardless of the sad lack of forward-thinking by most Americans, we got a wonderful e-mail yesterday at work from our human-resources department. It noted that the public transportation pre-tax reimbursement per month is going up from $120 to $230, which will actually cover quite a bit more of the costs of getting to work. There's also a $20-per-month pre-tax allotment for biking to work, which is great since I bike about half or a third of the time and take the Metro subway the rest of the time.

I'm not entirely sure exactly how much of that is directly linked to Obama's economic stimulus plan. But what is definitely linked is that the federal withholdings have changed under the plan and my paycheck is bigger now than it was last month.

So now that I'm in better financial shape, maybe it's time to think about putting some solar panels on my roof (in reality, may have to wait to move into a single-family household for that) to go along with the geothermal heating and cooling in my condo, the rooftop garden, and the wind power that we purchase from Pepco to run our electricity.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Seth Rogen: Still On the Adam Sandler Honeymoon with Zack and Miri

Seth Rogen (pictured, far right with Elizabeth Banks and Justin Long) is a lot like early Adam Sandler. Up through Saturday Night Live, Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, and The Wedding Singer, Sandler could do no wrong. Rogen has been in some modern comedy classics as well.

Zach and Miri Make a Porno is not as good as some other Rogen vehicles, but it's definitely got sufficient laughs. It's about two friends who can't make ends meet so they decide that producing a porn movie will bring them riches and not adversely affect them since they have no families and no dignity.

Standout performances include Elizabeth Banks (W., 13 episodes of Scrubs, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Spider-Man, Seabiscuit, Catch Me If You Can, Wet Hot American Summer), Craig Robinson (Darryl in The Office, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), and Justin Long as Brandon St. Randy (Ed, Jeepers Creepers, Pineapple Express, and George Harrison in Walk Hard).

Best Seth Rogen starring projects:
4. Pineapple Express
3. Zach and Miri Make a Porno (***1/2 out of ***** stars)
2. Superbad
1. Knocked Up

Can you believe he also appeared in these?:
Freaks and Geeks, which I've also started watching recently (***1/2 out of ***** stars)
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Donnie Darko

The Waterboy and Big Daddy were the beginning of the end for Sandler. Now, let's hope we can wring a few more good ones out of Rogen before he hits his "Anger Management phase."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Guns N' Roses' Top 18 Songs

There's a lot of bad stuff in this group's repertoire. Try, for example, starting a 10-mile bike ride listening to Chinese Democracy. Kinda gets you pumped for the first few minutes, but quite painful by the time you reach your destination.

Nevertheless, the good stuff is really good.

18. "14 Years," Use Your Illusion II, 1991
17. "Breakdown," Use Your Illusion II, 1991
16. "So Fine," Use Your Illusion II, 1991
15. "Estranged," Use Your Illusion II, 1991
14. "Rocket Queen," Appetite for Destruction, 1987
13. "Civil War," Use Your Illusion II, 1991
12. "It's So Easy," Appetite for Destruction, 1987
11. "Night Train," Appetite for Destruction, 1987
10. "November Rain," Use Your Illusion I, 1991
09. "Mr. Brownstone," Appetite for Destruction, 1987
08. "Don't Cry," Use Your Illusion I, 1991
07. "One in a Million," GN'R Lies, 1988
06. "Paradise City," Appetite for Destruction, 1987
05. "Yesterdays," Use Your Illusion II, 1991
04. "Used to Love Her," GN'R Lies, 1988
03. "Patience," GN'R Lies, 1988
02. "Welcome to the Jungle," Appetite for Destruction, 1987
01. "Sweet Child O' Mine," Appetite for Destruction

Axl Rose's Hick Rock

Mick Walls' 2008 book W.A.R.: The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose determines that the Guns N' Roses' leader's genius stems from his small-town Indiana origins and the fact that he is just "a little guy" who "comes from nowhere."

Walls was an insider with the band and frequently hung out with Axl's equally hickish brother Stuart, who we know is a hick because he's never heard of "egg cups." The only person Walls is not an insider with is Axl himself. Indeed, Axl, in the out-of-control lyrics of "Get in the Ring," from Use Your Illusion II, accuses Walls of printing journalistic lies.

This book would probably be better if it were "authorized." There are some good stories here, like the one that put Mills in Axl's doghouse. It entails a rant about Motley Crue's Vince Neil claiming to have punched out GN'R guitarist and Axl's only remaining friend from the original lineup, Izzy Stradlin, for "messing" with Neil's mud-wrestler wife. Neil tried repeatedly to coax Axl into a fistfight, but Axl continuously "chickened out."

I think I'll hold out hope for a better GN'R book. Like this one, by Stephen Davis, who wrote THE book on Led Zeppelin, Hammer of the Gods.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Last of Her Kind: A Novel

Coming-of-age stories still interest me (despite the fact that I've already basically come of age). I've never read anything by Sigrid Nunez (right), but she's won some prestigious awards and The Last of Her Kind sounded like a good yarn.

It's about two girls who meet in 1968 as freshman roommates at the New York City all-girl Barnard College. Dooley Drayton, who hates her name and goes by her middle name of Ann, is from Connecticut. Her dad owns a firm that produces surgical instruments and her mom is a serial volunteer and sits on several boards. Ann gets very angry when talking about her parents and claims she could get away with anything in their eyes: "I could murder someone and they wouldn't disown me."

Ann comes from a privileged background and has never shared a room with anyone. She is thrilled to finally have a roommate. and has requested "someone from a world as different as possible" from that of her own. She gets it in the form of Georgette George, who comes from an impoverished childhood in a drunken, inbred, violent Upstate New York community.

Well-written and I look forward to continuing onward with this story.

Feeling Minnesota

Rachel and I just returned from our first trip to Minneapolis in many years. We stayed at the swanky St. Paul Hotel in downtown St. Paul next to Rice Park. The James J. Hill Reference Library was located across the park and it's where our friends Jeff and Leah got married.

We visited famed establishments like St. Paul's The Happy Gnome and Minneapolis' Nyes Polonaise, home of "The World's Most Dangerous Polka Band" and a karaoke piano lady who helped Tim G. and I belt out Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."

Some other things I love about the Twin Cities:
1. The Replacements
2. F. Scott Fitzgerald (see his Rice Park statue to the left) lived there for a while
3. The Current 89.3 FM
4. Prince
5. Soul Asylum
6. Husker Du
7. The Hold Steady
8. Bob Dylan is from nearby Duluth
9. Twin/Tone Records
10. The Jayhawks
11. Mary Tyler Moore
12. Home of Peanuts' creator Charles M. Schulz
13. Lakes!

Places to see on my next visit:
1. First Avenue, the club from Prince's Purple Rain
2. The Electric Fetus and Oar Folkjokeopus (now Treehouse) record shops
3. The house where The Replacements had their photo taken on the cover of Let It Be
4. All the spots where my mom grew up in Minneapolis suburb Edina
5. The Halftime Rec, Tim H.'s recommendation

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Swayed By The Rolling Stones, Charles Manson and Anger

For people who have consumed as much 1960s sex-drugs-rock pop culture as possible, Sway may seem a tad dull. Zachary Lazar's second novel, however, should be worth reading for those who take a passing interest in this type of thing.

It weaves the stories of Rolling Stones founder and guitarist Brian Jones' lost last days after his breakup with Anita Pallenberg, Bobby Beausoleil's confused youth misspent under the guise of famed mass murderer Charles Manson, and occult-obsessed filmmaker Kenneth Anger's flirtings with both Beausoleil and the Stones.

The book uses Jones, Beausoleil and Anger's stories as a microcosm to tell how the 60s' lovefest ended. Keith Richards took Pallenberg away from Jones on a trip to Morocco, then Jones mysteriously drowned in his swimming pool just a month after Keith and Mick fired him from the band. Soon thereafter came the Hell's Angels' fierce security at the fatal Altamont concert.

The most rewarding part of Sway for me was the Kenneth Anger (pictured, right) story line, mainly because I knew the least about him. His films are truly psychedelic and a product of the era. And this was a fun way to learn about a follower of Aleister Crowley, the occultist who sold his British country mansion to another dark-sider, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin.

*** out of ***** stars

Monday, March 2, 2009

Sean Penn's Top Six Performances

6. Sweet and Lowdown, 1999
5. Colors, 1988
4. Carlito's Way, 1993
3. Mystic River, 2003
2. Milk, 2008
1. Fast Times At Ridgemont High, 1982

How Milk Made Me Angry

Milk made me really angry when I finally got around to seeing it this weekend. Don't get me wrong, I loved the film and Sean Penn easily deserved the Oscar for best actor, but the fact that this is an "important movie" says something really embarrassing about America.

It's plain ridiculous that gays and lesbians still don't have the same rights as everyone else. The movie's screenwriter movingly said at the Aacademy Awards that this film will help turn corners, but apparently there are still plenty of Anita Bryant's out there. Just when it looked like civil right were being accomplished, Bryant and the conservative Christian movement took aim with, according to the movie, their first major social campaign. Since the late '70s, when San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk made a real difference by organizing a powerful base of activism, the conservative Christians have been building more and more scary capital in various backwards campaigns. 

And because of that capital, this movie was indeed and unfortunately socially important. Let's hope it spurs lots of action, like Al Gore's movie did for global warming. 

Milk was the best movie I've seen in the past year (other than Slumdog Millionaire).

***** out of ***** stars