You Wear it Well

Asked to describe the “greatest moment of their life” most people will defer to the obvious choices: their wedding, the birth of their children, their knighthood ceremony, etc.

Not me. While each of those aforementioned events were indeed magical moments in my life, they all pale in comparison to the day that was truly the “greatest moment of my life.”

Ironically enough, it all started out quite innocuously. I can’t even recall the details of the day before IT happened.

I left work as usual and hopped on the orange line. At North Station I got off to go upstairs to the commuter rail. And that’s when I saw her.

She was on the escalator in front of me. She was unremarkable in every way, except for what she was wearing – which was nothing less than amazing. It was a denim jacket…a painted denim jacket.

(Now if you’re exactly 38 years old you know that painted denim jackets were all the rage back in the ‘80s. I dreamed of having the cover of Springsteen’s “Born to Run” reproduced on the back of my Levi’s. Sadly, it never happened. But at least I didn’t try to paint it on myself, like that time when I was 13 and I tried to make my own U2 concert tee. I quickly came to realize that homemade concert tees don’t look anything like official concert tees. In fact, they look much worse than no concert tee, or at least that’s what I inferred from my friends when they were laughing at me and my limited edition ‘Sunday Bloddy Sunday’ concert tee shirt.)

Anyway, she was riding up the North Station escalator wearing a painted denim jacket. But it wasn’t painted with the cover of “Born to Run”. Nope, it had an astounding airbrushed picture of her hugging Rod Stewart. I just knew that it was copied from a real photo of her hugging Rod Stewart, but it also had that wonderfully creepy carnival look that is part and parcel of the airbrushing technique. And the best part is that they had the same kooky hairstyle. She looked ecstatic. To his credit, Rod looked happy too. (Kind of like how Rod must look when he’s thinking about the millions he can make by murdering covers of old ’40s-’50s-’60s-’70s songs.)

At that moment I felt complete. I loved life, I loved everyone and everything. I knew the purpose of life and why we’re all here. I loved that jacket with every speck of my soul. I may never have loved anything as much as I loved that painted denim jacket.

Just thinking about it now makes me happy. Oh, how I loved that jacket! Oh, how I loved that woman! Oh, how I loved Rod Stewart!

I wish I had a camera. I wish I bought that jacket off of her back. I wish that I could wear the painted denim jacket with a picture of some lady hugging a middle-aged Rod Stewart. I would wear it every day for the rest of my life and then I would be buried in it. That’s how much I loved that jacket.

It’s been years since that day. Since that greatest day ever. I’ve never seen the lady or the jacket again. But I’ve never forgotten it. And I never will. Because sometimes when you take a downtown train you’ll find a reason to believe as every picture does indeed tell a story.

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My Secret Life as an '80s Radical

Kids have it so easy nowadays. Sure, it’s hotter than ever due to global warming but public schools have gone soft. Back in the early 1980s when I was in middle school we had two problems that today’s kids would never have to deal with. First, there was no air conditioning in school and secondly, we weren’t allowed to wear shorts.

It was barbaric treatment, to put it mildly, and I think it’s high time that people heard the real story of why there’s both air conditioning and shorts-wearing in today’s schools.

Our tale begins with a plucky young radical from Marlboro, New Jersey. This man-child was the Norma Rae of his generation. This boy fought the law and, for once, the law didn’t win. Few know the true story of that boy, but I do.

I know the story because I was that young boy.

It was so very hot at Marlboro Middle School, especially in June and double especially when you had art class with Mr. Sharkey on the third floor. Absent shorts, our pant choices were limited to just two bad options: denim or parachute pants.

No one knows where parachute pants came from or where they’ve gone. But for a brief period in the Reagan era they were everywhere. The closest modern approximate is workout pants, but imagine if your workout pants: a) didn’t breathe; b) were fluorescent colored; and c) were covered in pocket-less zippers. Sounds awful? They were. But we had no choice. Parachute pants, rubber bracelets and shoulder pads were in style and we were a docile generation.

You have to understand that things were different back then. Movies like “The Day After Tomorrow” made us fear nuclear war on a daily basis and we were all convinced that Orwell’s 1984 was going to come true on the day after the day after tomorrow. We were obedient kids, well trained to do as we were told, always scared of mushroom clouds and cages full of bitey rats.

But it was so hot. And the girls didn’t care because they were allowed to wear skirts. We begged the teachers and the principals to let us wear shorts. They declined. We asked our parents to intervene. They demurred. We tried to start a blog rally, but couldn’t because the stupid internet wasn’t invented yet. Our situation looked hopeless.

Even the soothing sounds of Howard Jones on my Walkman couldn’t stop me from obsessing nonstop about the heat. And it was so much worse for me than anyone else in the entire world for I was both chubby and a redhead. I had to take action.

I rallied my male classmates and came up with a crazy solution. If they wouldn’t let us wear shorts than we would start wearing skirts to school until they relented! (Actually, we wanted to wear kilts, feeling that they were a more macho option, but none of us knew of any Scottish clothing stores in bicycle range of Marlboro.)

As you can imagine all hell broke loose on the day that we showed up to school in drag. Bear in mind that this was long before emo kids started wearing skinny jeans and eyeliner. Cross-dressing was strictly forbidden and a source of major embarrasment for any upper-middle class suburban school system.

Unsurprisingly, we were sent home that day and threatened with detention, suspension and reprogramming. But the administration was quickly forced to give in to our demands after the news media got involved. Once The Asbury Park Press caught wind of our protest and featured our story on their front page, victory was ours.

In many ways it was the defining moment of my life. A twelve year old boy – not even yet a bar mitzvah! – took on the system and won. And ever since that day shorts have been allowed in every school in America, all due to our heroic efforts.

Sure, they’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of Woodstock today but what did those hippies ever really accomplish besides deluding themselves that they could think the rain away? We changed everything 16 years ago and you’ve only hearing the story today. We changed the world, man. Where’s my commemorative expanded DVD box set? Where’s my Peter Max poster?

(Legal note: certain aspects of this story may have been slightly altered for entertainment value. The following parts are definitely true: 1) it was really hot at school when I was a kid; 2) I did go to Marlboro Middle School and Mr. Sharkey was my art teacher; 3) I did wear a lot of parachute pants; 4) I did enjoy listening to Howard Jones on my Walkman. The rest may or may not have happened.)

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Puzzling Behavior

It’s hard to escape the fact that people seem to like puzzles. Me? Not so much. I prefer for my leisure activities to be ‘not boring’ and let’s face it – puzzles are super-boring.

Just to clarify, I’m not talking about jigsaw puzzles. Jigsaw puzzles are still kind of boring but they’re also kind of fun in a boring way. Plus, I’m super awesome at any puzzle that has less than 200 pieces, so I’ve got that going for me.

No, I’m talking specifically about the kind of puzzles that you would find in the newspaper. {Editor’s note for younger readers: ‘newspapers’ were a popular means of disseminating ‘news’ before you were born by printing words on cheap ‘paper’.}

Soduko seemingly came out of nowhere a few years ago to become the number one puzzle game in the world. Now, I’ve never actually tried Soduko and I never would because it involves my arch-nemesis (math). People have tried to convince me that there’s no actual math involved in Soduko, but I’m pretty sure that those are numbers written in the little boxes, which makes it a math game in my book. Plus, people keep spelling Soduko differently everywhere I look. Sometimes it’s two words, sometimes there are too many ‘u’s and sometimes it’s written in Japanese. Maybe when they figure out what the game is actually called I’ll try it.

The worst puzzle game isn’t Soduko, though. Obviously that honor goes to Cryptoquote, which is so horrendously awful that it’s technically not even a game. Cryptoquote involves replacing letters with different letters in a futile attempt to reveal a quote by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The cryptic part of the puzzle is in trying to figure out what Longfellow’s stupid quote actually means and why they always use a Longfellow quote for the game. My best guess is that Longfellow’s heirs own the lucrative cryptoquote monopoly.

Crossword puzzles are definitely among your more fun puzzle options in the paper. I truly respect those people that do the crossword everyday, working their way up to the super difficult Sunday puzzle in Parade Magazine. Along with Parade my other favorite crossword is the People Magazine crossword. I appreciate that they give you the celebrity picture hint and assume that you know more about sitcoms than Shakespeare. Sure, I’ve read all of Willy’s plays, but I can’t remember who was who anymore. I’ll never forget the four-letter name for “blank and the Fatman”, though. (hint: Jake.)

The best puzzle, by far, is the Jumble (or better yet, it’s even more fun variant – the Junior Jumble). Jumble is great because it’s a funny comic as well as a puzzle. Even if you can’t unscramble the words you can usually still win by just guessing the punchline for the comic. Failing that you can just make up your own, even funnier punchlines. Now that’s a good time!

Studies have shown that people that do puzzles stay smarter longer and ward off Alzheimer’s disease. The irony, of course, is that if one were to spend their golden years doing nothing but puzzles they would probably end up yearning for death’s sweet embrace just to get away from the boring puzzles.

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The Black Crowes Album Project: The Lost Crowes: The Tall Sessions (2006)

The Black Crowes Album Project:
The Lost Crowes: The Tall Sessions (2006)

Band Members:

Chris Robinson, vocals, harp
Rich Robinson, guitar
Steve Gorman, drums
Johnny Colt, bass
Marc Ford, guitar
Eddie Harsch, keys

Additional Musicians:

Gary Louris, backing vocals
Andy Sturmer, backing vocals
Eric Bobo, percussion
Karen Grotberg, backing vocals
Bruce Kaphan, pedal steel

Produced by:

The Black Crowes

Engineered by:

Jim Mitchell (1994)

Mixed by:

Paul Stacey (2006)

Mitch’s Review:

In 2006 The Black Crowes finally released two classic albums that had been shelved back in the day. The Lost Crowes is comprised of The Tall Sessions (which is the early version of Amorica) and Band, which was the intended follow-up to TSAOC. These archival pieces, while widely available in trading circles for years, help us to fill in the blanks in understanding the band’s evolution.

I don’t think that we can consider The Tall Sessions as a final, mixed album. My guess is that they just filled the disc with their favorite cuts from the 1994 Conway Studio sessions. But Tall has to be viewed in the context of Amorica, so let’s focus on what’s different.

Songs that appear on Amorica but aren’t represented on Tall include ‘Gone’, ‘She Gave Good Sunflower’ and ‘Downtown Money Waster’. Curiously, I’ve always regarded those 3 tracks the weakest on Amorica, so in that regard Tall has a stronger tracklisting than Amorica.

More illustrative, however, is how Tall’s ‘Lowdown’ turned into Amorica’s ‘Ballad in Urgency’. ‘Lowdown’ perfectly captures the dark nature of the Tall Sessions. The music is powerful, emotional and raw.

My suspicion is that Tall was shelved because it was too dark. It was likely a cathartic experience in it’s creation but perhaps too painful to commit to wax forever. The music and the lyrics live within the shadows, the place deep within where love and fear intermingle, where the burdens of adulthood and the loss of innocence threaten our sense of self and raise too many questions that can’t be answered.

Or maybe the record company just didn’t like it.

The additions to the album are solid, including a better version of TSAOC’s ‘Evil Eye’. The instrument guitar duel ‘Sunday Night Buttermilk Waltz’ is a treat. The rootsy ‘Tornado’ and ‘Thunderstorm 6:54′ foreshadow the Crowes’ current direction. And ‘Dirty Hair Halo’ is just a great, great rocker.

But the most impressive track to my ears is ‘Feathers’. I can remember hearing the bootleg of this tune many years ago and just listening to it over and over again. It may be Chris’s most expressive vocal performance ever. It’s an intense tune.

Career-wise, I don’t think the band made any major mistake in shelving Tall in favor of Amorica. If anything, Amorica is slightly more accessible. But it’s still amazing to think that the Crowes chose not to release a better version of one of their best records. Final Score: 3.8

1) A Conspiracy: 4
2) Evil Eye: 4
3) Cursed Diamond: 4
4) London P25: 3
5) Dirty Hair Halo: 4
6) Hi-Head Blues: 4
7) Feathers: 4
8) Nonfiction: 4
9) Tied Up and Swallowed: 3
10) Wiser Time: 4
11) Sunday Buttermilk Waltz: 4
12) Descending: 4
13) Lowdown: 4
14) Tornado: 4
15) Songs of the Flesh: 3
16) Thunderstorm 6.54: 4

Don’s Review:

One of the greatest rock and roll albums of the 1990s – The Black Crowes’ amorica – may not have been as good as its rough draft, Tall, which was recorded over several sessions covering almost two years during perhaps the most tumultuous period in the history of one of the genre’s most dramatic bands.

Tall was intended to be the Crowes’ third album, following their stunning debut, Shake Your Money Maker, and masterpiece follow-up, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. When Harmony hit #1 on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart and delivered several top 5 rock radio hits, they were arguably the biggest (if not best) band in the world.

No doubt American Records and the vast majority who bought the first two records would have been more than satisfied had the Crowes followed with another 60’s and 70’s flavored slam dunk.

But Chris and Rich Robinson wrote and recorded more than 30 songs that were so different from what had preceded them – and so different from one another – that it is still fascinating to listen to Tall, which was released in 2006 after sitting in the vault for a dozen years. In fact, even the official release varies from the original intended track-listing (see the “Sessions” section of crowesbase.com), perhaps evidence that the brothers probably still haven’t truly agreed on the album’s direction and sound, which is what held it up for so long in the first place.

But this review focuses on 2006’s official release, which was finished by Paul Stacey, one time guitarist for New Earth Mud and post-Marc-Ford-Second-Era Black Crowes. We’ll refrain from ruminating on the tracks from the Tall Sessions that didn’t make the official release. And won’t compare it to amorica. We’ll judge it on its own merits.

The Official Tall is a sprawling collection of 16-tracks that, in this writer’s opinion, based on its scale and exploration, would have catapulted The Black Crowes into the pantheon of greatest bands ever and shattered their 70s-poseur label forever.

A few elements make it distinct from any of the band’s other official releases. Take the CSN-esque background vocals of Jellyfish’s Andy Sturmer and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, prominent on many tracks. Even the use of a French horn works as a bridge to Eddie Hawrch’s unforgettable piano at the end of ‘Descending’.

Rich’s songwriting was clearly influenced by Nick Drake, most notably the finger-picking of ‘Sunday Night Buttermilk Waltz’ and verses of ‘Thunderstorm 6:54′. Meanwhile, he and Marc Ford are as one, from the twin solos on ‘Dirty Hair Halo’ and ‘Wiser Time’ to their instrumental duet, “Sunday Night Buttermilk Waltz”.

Chris may never have been in better form vocally or lyrically. His voice sounds different than it has before or since, higher and more plaintive, though no less soulful. Hear the rawness of the line, “it’s all in my mind”, at the peak of ‘Cursed Diamond’. His lyrics have rarely been as evocative or revelatory than on ‘Nonfiction’ (“I like mine deep, so very deep, tied to the bottom, with a noose ‘round my feet”). His vocals on ‘Tornado’ get me every time. It’s maybe the best example on a Black Crowes original song of how he can take the simplest of tunes and make them untouchable. (I could go on forever about how he does this on many covers, easily surpassing the vocals of those songs’ writers. Maybe that should be a future guest-column here on Mitch’s blog.)

What strikes me most upon listening to Tall over and again is how it alternates between light and dark, sometimes even within the same song. Evidenced by the calm-after-storm endings of ‘Evil Eye’, ‘Feathers’ and ‘Cursed Diamond’ and epitomized by the coda of ‘Descending’. To me, this contrast of tension and release, desperation and salvation, devils and angels, is what epitomizes The Black Crowes. Final Score: 3.7

1) A Conspiracy: 4
2) Evil Eye: 3
3) Cursed Diamond: 4
4) P.25 London: 3
5) Dirty Hair Halo: 4
6) High Head Blues: 4
7) Feathers: 4
8) Nonfiction: 4
9) Tied Up & Swallowed: 2
10) Wiser Time: 4
11) Sunday Night Buttermilk Waltz: 4
12) Descending: 4
13) Low Down: 4
14) Tornado: 4
15) Song of the Flesh: 4
16) Thunderstorm 6:54: 3

Previous Release: 2001’s Lions

Next up: 2006’s The Lost Crowes: Band

To read more about The Black Crowes Album Project, click here

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Riding the Rails, Boston-style

Introduction

While I generally admire the concept behind the “Not for Tourist” book series – i.e. “insider” information for the traveling hipster – the truth is that they’re still geared for tourists and they don’t always deliver on the “insider” information that you really need to survive and thrive in the little city with the big attitude.

To help out my friends at NFT, I’ve taken it upon myself to offer up some strategies for riding the rails in Boston. I’m going to focus on the subway and the commuter rails, as nothing I say here can help the bus riding experience. I’m a recovering rainy-day bus rider myself (the #55 from the West Fens) and as the song goes: “things went down we don’t understand but I think in time we will.” In other words, godspeed, bus riders.

The T

What we call the “T” is the combination subway-trolley line that covers a large chunk of the city. There are four lines. In descending order of quality/safety they are: red (weapon to avoid: calculator), green (weapon to avoid: backpack), blue (weapon to avoid: machete) and orange (weapon to avoid: handgun). If you look at a map of the T you will also see an exciting new 5th line – the silver line. Don’t believe the hype! The Silver line is really just a fancified bus line. Don’t talk to me about “dedicated tunnels” – it’s still a stinky bus.

The subway is fairly dependable, unless it’s late at night (it stops running around 1) or if you need to be somewhere at a specific time (i.e. trying to catch a train). But your biggest challenge on the T will be in avoiding the gropers. Apparently there’s a large contingent of men in Boston that like to grab tuchas on a crowded subway. Now, I’m not quite sure what the thrill is in briefly rubbing up against some stranger’s butt, but you can’t deny its popularity – there’s a new groper featured in the paper nearly every week.

Now, some gropers are easy to spot – they’re the ones that are actively fondling themselves on the train. Avoid these men at all costs. Other gropers are a little harder to identify. Look, I don’t want to racially profile people here, but you might just want to stay away from balding white guys in their mid 50s wearing Bruins hats. An anonymous survey of subway gropers revealed that they support the Bruins 2:1 over the Sox. (Something about the ‘stickhandling skills’.)

While waiting for the subway you may encounter people playing music for your entertainment. They are called buskers. I encourage you to give them money, but please don’t feel obliged to buy their crappy self-produced CDs. One exception is the hippy lady that likes to butcher old folk tunes. Nobody in the city has the heart to tell her that she sings just like Bobby Dylan (i.e. poorly).  Hearing her sing “The Times They Are a-Changing” makes me actively wish for war -  just out of spite – and I’m a pacifist! Please don’t encourage her with your spare change.

I do recommend that you seek out the homeless gentleman that croons a solid a capella “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, both for his vocal prowess and his embrace of irony. As you will quickly learn, he is indeed, not too proud to beg.

In summary, the T is a convenient way to get around the city, especially if you like creepy older men and bad folk music.

The Commuter Rail

The commuter rail, on the other hand, provides a very different level of service geared towards its high-falutin’ suburban ridership. You may encounter any combination of the following on the commuter rail (aka purple line): lights, heat, air conditioning and/or free wi-fi. Unfortunately, none of those things are guaranteed, so each ride is different and full of exciting surprises!

You’ll need to buy your ticket in advance of getting on the commuter rail or else you’ll get hit for a surcharge on board the train. Of course, since you’ll be running late for the train because of a T delay, you won’t have time to wait in the ticket line which will be 50 people deep and will only have 2 open windows during rush hour. Your best bet for avoiding the surcharge is to bust out the “sad puppy dog eyes” on the conductor. Like most things in life, this will almost always work if you are a hot chick and will almost never work if you are a fat guy. Such is life.

Once on board you’ll have to choose between the love seats or the couches. This can be a very difficult decision, but here’s the secret pecking order of seat preference (best to worst): couch window, loveseat window, couch aisle, loveseat aisle.

If the only available seat is the couch center, please stand up for the duration of the trip. Although the couch is allegedly designed for 3 people, it’s really not a comfortable fit. Be prepared to get some serious stink eye if you insist on squeezing into the middle.

You’ll always want to avoid anyone that is eating McDonald’s on the train. Once the train starts moving a chemical reaction will occur between the recycled train air and the fast food odor. While the eater is immune to this noxious combination, nearby passengers will experience mild SARS-like symptoms. I kid you not.

Cellphones talkers are risky as well. Before sitting down, try to gauge whether the call is a quick “I’ll be home at 6:35” call or if the blabbermouth is going to ruin your entire ride with inane chatter about their stupid job, kids or test results.

Always avoid teenagers and men wearing sports jerseys. Teenagers will annoy you with their mysterious slang and men wearing sports jerseys are always a throw-up risk, especially post-game.

If you’re like me, you’ll seek out the guy wearing the headphones and reading the Justice League of America comic book, because that guy won’t ever talk, eat or barf. Actually, if you seek that guy out you’ll probably wind up sitting next to me.

Summary

Public transportation is slightly better than hitchhiking but slightly worse than just walking the three blocks.

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Concert Review: The Black Crowes in Hampton Beach, NH on 6/19/09

Concert Review:
The Black Crowes
June 19, 2009
Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom
Hampton Beach, NH

I’ve long been a believer in the theory that the venue defines the vibe at a rock and roll concert. Over time you begin to construct a virtual database in your head, mapping out the best and worst venues for particular bands.

It’s hard for me to believe that in all my years of concert-going I’ve never made the short trip up to Hampton Beach, NH to see a show. The Casino Ballroom is the perfect venue for The Black Crowes – it’s a big general admission room off the main strip in the fun yet trashy beach resort town. The feel of the room (except for the stage placement) reminded me of he first time that I saw the Crowes in 1990 at a barn in Cohoes, NY called Saratoga Winners. Sold-out general admission shows can be tough (cf. Hammerstein, NYC) but the crowd at Hampton Beach was great – lively, appreciative and respectful Amoricans just looking for a good time.

Unsurprisingly, the band opened up with a solid Good Friday. Risking life and limb, they then moved into the insane double-header of Young Man, Old Man and Blackberry. (I say insane because neither of those tunes are known by casual fans or really liked by the diehards, but the crowd was in such a good mood they ate it up anyway.) A real treat in Another Roadside Tragedy came next. Things then got heavy with Walk Believer Walk. A nice Nonfiction followed, featuring a six minute outro jam. An incredible My Morning Song came next, with Luther Dickinson absolutely on fire on the guitar.

Let’s talk about Luther for a second. I’m happy to report that Luther is finally “there.” He was on fire all night long on the Warpaint tunes, the covers and the catalog material. He was grinnin’, playing his ass off and delivering the goods. I am now officially on board with Luther. I’ll always miss Marc Ford, but I’m fully embracing the goodness that is Luther Dickinson.

Locust Street (which is a great album tune) provided a needed bathroom break. Next up was perhaps the finest performance of Girl from the North Country that I’ve ever heard. It was my highlight of the night. An amazing Comin’ Home came after and the momentum continued through the oldie-but-goodie Could I’ve Been So Blind, which featured a nice harp solo.

The greatest hits portion followed, with a solid run of By Your Side, Jealous Again and Remedy. The set came to a close with a Warpaint song that’s become a deserved warhorse in the live rotation – Movin’ on Down the Line. Once again, Luther was playing beautifully.

For a double encore we got a decent Descending and a great Don’t Do It.

As usual, the Crowes delivered. The addition of Joe Magistro on percussion really helped to add a new dimension to the sound. Chris and the Soul Sisters were in great voice, Steve and Sven were perfect all night, and I can’t say enough about Luther and Rich’s growing partnership.

It was a great performance, in a great venue, with a great crowd and a weird (but satisfying) setlist. All in all it was another magical night with The Black Crowes. August 27th can’t come soon enough.

(I still miss Ed, though.)

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You can find more concert reviews for The Black Crowes (and other hippie rock bands) here.

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The Truth About Men & Sports

Gather round, ladies, as I take yet another journey into the minds of men everywhere and expose some of my gender’s dirty little secrets. Please use this powerful information responsibly. My goal is merely to enhance understanding between the sexes and I do so at great personal risk.

With baseball season underway, hockey and basketball heading to the playoffs and the so-called March Madness coming to an end (thankfully), you may find yourself overwhelmed at home and at the office with endless sports chatter. Perhaps you’re feeling excluded or ignored. Maybe you’d like to join the conversation but are afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Fear Not! For the truth is that men don’t really know anything about sports! It’s all just a clever ruse designed to drive women away from the conversation. And then we talk about clothing and celebrities and food – the exact same things that you talk about!

See, following professional sports is really just a soap opera for men (with beer). We talk about which players we like and which players we don’t like. We talk about who’s fighting with whom and why. It’s completely personality-driven and has nothing to do with the actual intricacies of the game.

Most men stopped playing sports in middle school. Some played in high school. Hardly any played in college. And while men pretend to be experts in sports they’re absolutely not! The typical man’s sports knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep.

Think about it. If you were in a play in middle school do you think that would qualify you to be an expert on Broadway? Of course not! Yet these overgrown little leaguers try to pass themselves off as baseball savants all summer long.

A man’s sports knowledge actually comes from reading blogs, listening to sports chat radio and watching SportsCenter. They take all of that secondhand data, rehash it into ‘original thinking’ and make generic observations or idiotic predictions.

You could easily do the same thing (and don’t forget about wiki for the basics). The key is to talk about sports with authority…like you really believe what you’re saying!

Here’s a personal example. Matt Light is an offensive lineman for the Patriots. His job is to protect the quarterback (Mr. Dreamy himself, Tom Brady). Light is a decent but not great player. A few years ago I heard a lineman described as a “turnstile”. I liked the line so I filed it away for future use. This year whenever Light had a bad game I’d come into work the next day and start spouting off to the boys about how much Matt Light sucked and how he was a ‘turnstile’. I didn’t even know what it meant! But it was funny, it sounded good and I said it with conviction. Game, set, match!

If you’d like to destroy the frail egos of the men around you by embarrassing them with your superior sports knowledge, there are a couple of options for you to consider:

An effective (yet work-intensive) approach is to focus on one sport or one team and really study up. Lay low for a while, wait until the office big mouth is in front of a big crowd and spouting off some generic nonsense (i.e. Matt Light is a turnstile) and publicly challenge him with some real facts and data. Did somebody say humiliation?

The second (and much easier) option is to just be like the average guy. Occasionally read a few sports blogs, every now and again watch a few minutes of SportsCenter and just start saying the same hollow platitudes as everyone else. No one will challenge you on it because they don’t really know any more than you do. Believe you me, I’ve been doing this for years and I rarely get busted! Next thing you know, you’re in the club.

I have one final warning for you, though. Stay far, far away from anyone that is involved with “fantasy” sports. Most likely, the fantasy sports guy in your office is married or far too nervous to talk to you, but he’s very, very dangerous. The fantasy sports guy is obsessed with statistics and really knows his stuff. That’s a no-win situation for you and me both. Always avoid fantasy sports guy.

Ladies, men are simple creatures. They like girls, sitting around, drinking beer and talking about things that they don’t really understand. So don’t be intimidated when the conversation turns to sports. With few exceptions men are no smarter about sports then they are about any other subject.

You can thank me later.

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When I spot a businessman with a metal attaché case…

When I spot a businessman with a metal attaché case I’m immediately thinking one of two things: that dude is a spy or that dude wants to look like a spy.  Either way, I’m hooked.

If that metal attaché case is handcuffed to his wrist then I’m thinking that that dude has got the nuclear codes.  Unfortunately I have yet to run into handcuffed metal attaché guy.  There’s still time, though, and I haven’t given up hope yet.

What could anyone possibly have in their attaché that requires it to be encased in metal?  Looking into my bag today (full disclosure: it’s a Tumi knapsack) I spy the following items: banana, apple, iPod, laptop, toothbrush & paste, gum, lipstuff, pencil and a ‘Bart Simpson’ comic book.  Forget the metal attaché case.  Judging by my meager possessions I should probably be downgraded to a plastic Target bag.

You don’t see many traditional attaché cases anymore, probably due to the growing popularity of the messenger bag and the fancy knapsack.  That seems sensible to me.  Both the messenger bag and the knapsack are hands-free options, giving the user two free hands for drinking coffee or crackberrying or smoking or flashing gang signs.  Not only is the old-style attaché clumsy but the metal one is really heavy to boot.  I can’t think of any reason, besides image, to heft around a metal attaché case – hence my suspicion that metal attaché case users are either spies or wannabe spies.

I think lawyers have it the worst when it comes to attaché cases.  They’re always hefting around gigantic piles of papers and files, made worse by their insistence on using that arrogant “legal sized” paper.  Yeah, yeah, I get it.  You’re a fancy lawyer.  Do you really have to use your own special sized paper?

School kids have it the pretty bad too.  They insist on using those cheap character-themed backpacks and then their teachers jam them full of those stupid heavy textbooks.  No wonder they all have scoliosis.  When I was a kid I just left my textbooks in the bottom of my locker along with the uneaten fruit.  And now, I’m 100% scoliosis-free.  Coincidence?  I think not.

One day I might just buy myself a metal attaché case just to see if people treat me differently.  I suspect that a hint of intrigue and danger might suit me just fine.

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Concert Review: Steely Dan’s Gaucho in Boston, MA 7/24/09

The irony of the situation was just perfect for the most ironic duo in rock and roll – Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – better known as Steely Dan.

You see, the acclaimed jazz-rockers retired from the road back in the early ‘70s ostensibly due to Fagen’s stagefright but most likely also due to the difficulty in reproducing their increasingly meticulous studio arrangements live on stage.  And yet three decades later we find this studio band on the Wang Theatre stage in an attempt to recreate their most challenging albums – “Aja”, “Royal Scam” and “Gaucho”.  How perfect.

The Dan actually started slowly returning back to the stage in the ‘90s with Fagen’s incredible Rock and Soul Revue.  A full reunion and two solid albums later they improbably managed to turn themselves into a viable touring act without sullying their sterling reputation as master craftsmen.

“Gaucho” is Dan’s most mellow album, seemingly more suited for a Wednesday show than a Friday nighter (They surprised Wednesday’s crowd with an “Aja”/”Royal Scam” double-header,) but it contains some of the band’s finest songs.

After an opening jam by their excellent 11-piece backing band they launched into “Gaucho” with the familiar strains of ‘Babylon Sisters.’  Fagen’s voice – never the band’s strong suit – had aged noticeably since I last saw them in ’96(?).  He was even more nasaly than I remembered, but nostalgia, interesting vocal phrasings and judicious use of the back-up singers helped him to compensate on the more challenging singing parts.

‘Hey 19’ featured tremendous trombone work by Jim Pugh and was unmarred by Fagen’s lyrical flub at the beginning.  ‘Glamour Profession’ was fine, although it’s one of the weaker tracks on the album.  ‘Gaucho’ showcased the talents of alto saxman Walt Weiskopf and guitarist Jon Herington.  ‘Time out of Mind’ was great but suffered slightly for wont of Michael McDonald’s iconic vocals.  The less said about the dreadful ‘My Rival’ the better.

And of course the album performance closed with one of the greatest songs in their catalog, the subtle and amazing ‘Third World Man’.  “Gaucho” is an album that dates back to my vinyl collecting days and I can still vividly remember my friends and I dissecting ‘Third World Man’ through literally hundreds of spins.  Just hearing ‘Third World Man’ live was well worth the price of admission.

The rest of the setlist contained more tracks that only Dan nerds could love: “Daddy Don’t Live…” featuring lead vocals by Walter Becker; “Godwhacker”, “I’ve Got the News”, “Home at Last” with some excellent lead guitar work by Becker; a new arrangement of “Show Biz Kids”; a beautiful version of “Parker’s Band” with only the three female singers on lead vocals and “Deacon Blues”.  After the band intros Jon Herington shone once again on ‘Peg’; ‘Josie’ opened with a great keyboard intro by Jim Beard and more tasteful lead work by Becker.  The set closed with the upbeat “My Old School.”

After a brief break, the band returned for a triple-shot encore: “Kid Charlemagne” (oh, how I wish we saw “Royal Scam” with Larry Carlton on guitar), a fan pleaser in ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ and finally, a fun, cheesy version of ‘Dirty Water’ to stroke the Bostonians.

All in all, Steely Dan puts on an excellent show that plays to their core fanbase.  Casual fans need not apply.  Sure, Fagen’s voice struggles but his keyboard and melodica work is brilliant.  Becker’s guitar playing, always overshadowed by Denny Dias and Larry Carlton back in the day, is amazing.  And the band is perfect, with drummer Keith Carlock, alto sax Weiskopf and guitarist Herington deserving special attention.

The only downside was the geriatric crowd that remained seated throughout most of the performance.  Let’s just say that if you were under 40 or female, you probably weren’t at the Wang Center last night.

 NERDS ROCK!

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The Secret to Giving Effective Creative Feedback

One of the most difficult challenges for account service professionals in the agency world is how to deliver effective creative feedback.  Or, put another way, how can an account service person give feedback that the creatives will actually listen to?

Today I’m going to give you the keys to the kingdom.  I’m going to let you in on the secret of how to force the creatives to listen to you.  It’s taken me over 16 years to figure this out but I’m going to give it to you for free. 

The key for account people to give creative feedback that can’t be ignored is…

Don’t.  That’s not your job.

(I’m sorry.  I know that’s not the answer you were hoping for.)

Here’s the thing.  As an account service professional your job is to make sure that the creative concepts that you present to the client are on strategy.  That’s it.  It is not your job to decide if you personally like the work.  It is not your job to provide feedback on the creative concept or execution.

That’s what creative directors do and they do it much better than you ever could.

The absolute worst thing that you can do as an account service professional is to presume what the client will think and then fight for concept changes based on those presumptions.  That’s an insult to both the client and the creatives.

Be strategic.  Assess whether the work truly pays off the brief.  Judge whether the work is appropriate for the brand’s voice.  Determine whether the work fulfills the assignment.  But don’t give “creative” feedback.

The truth is that the most innovative creative work can be a little unsettling.  The best work is often original and different.  It could make people nervous.  It might make the client nervous.  The prospect of a nervous client definitely makes account people nervous.  That’s okay.  If the work is on strategy and on brand then a little nervousness might be a good sign.

Over time, if you successfully establish yourself as a strategic thinker that respects boundaries, your creative team might actually solicit your opinion on the work.  If that’s the case then by all means offer it respectfully and thoughtfully.

But then again, they might never ask for your opinion on creative.  That’s okay, too.

Junior account people: always strive to be brilliant strategists rather than crappy creative directors.  Don’t worry – in about 16 years you’ll thank me.

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