On WrestleMania 30

 

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“Upon examining the galaxies in space, images begin to appear. Images of strange and powerful forces. But of all the forces in the universe, the two most powerful – Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior, prepare to explode. Champion vs Champion, Title for Title, IT’S THE ULLLLLTIMMMMMATE CHALLENGE, IT’S WRESTLEMANIAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

I first heard that voiceover when I was six years old, lying on my back in a body cast.  My parents bought me a copy of WrestleMania VI as a post-surgery present, and that is when wrestling became a permanent part of my life

As anyone who has ever read any of my work probably knows, I discovered professional wrestling when I saw Sgt. Slaughter burn an American flag while wearing an Iraqi uniform.  However, WrestleMania VI is more sentimental.  Seeing an irresistible force like The Ultimate Warrior stare down an immovable object like Hulk Hogan captured my imagination like nothing else ever had.  I liked Star Wars, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the magic of the World Wrestling Federation.

I’ve never stopped watching completely, but once I hit my mid-20s, Monday nights were no longer reserved for Raw.  Wrestling was evolving, and I didn’t relate to the characters they were pushing.   Although I’d quit watching on Monday night, WrestleMania was sacred.  No matter how Vince McMahon disappointed me during the year, he would always pull me back for the granddaddy of them all.  However, the last three years were less about wrestling and more of an excuse to eat fried cheese with my buddy Shaun.  I didn’t even watch last year, because Shaun couldn’t make it to the bar, and I didn’t care about The Rock wrestling John Cena.

Heading into WrestleMania season this year, WWE launched their 24 hour streaming service, the WWE Network.  For a paltry 9.99 a month, wrestling fans would be able to watch every WWE pay per view.  Although I thought it was a cool concept, WrestleMania was shaping up to be uneventful.  And then something unexpected  happened.

Daniel Bryan, one of the greatest technical wrestlers on earth, and an internet darling, suddenly became the hottest act in World Wrestling Entertainment.  Using the classic underdog vs. corporate machine trope, Bryan was getting people to react in a way I hadn’t seen since the rise of Steve Austin back in 1997.

The savvy wrestling observer could note that something similar had occurred with C.M. Punk’s “pipebomb” promo back in 2011, but while that had gotten my attention, there was distance.  Punk was deliberately appealing to the “smart,” fans in the audience, breaking the fourth wall by namedropping Colt Cabana and Ring of Honor.  He turned Monday Night Raw into Pitchfork Media.

Like Punk, Daniel Bryan also hijacked Raw, but without a trace of a smirk.  Sitting on the left corner turnbuckle, surrounded by hundreds of fans wearing identical t-shirts, Daniel told Triple H that he would not leave the ring without a title shot.  Triple H relented, but only after he added the caveat that Bryan would have to go through him first.  I was transfixed. For the first time in a decade, I not only wanted to see WrestleMania, I wanted someone to lose.

I considered having a WrestleMania party, but I didn’t want to be self-depricating or sarcastic about my love of professional wrestling.  I wanted to feel the joy and not feel weird that I was freaking out over a pre-determined sport.  I wanted to be unfiltered

The show opened with Hulk Hogan, The Rock and Steve Austin sharing the same ring.  I reacted as if Bruce Springsteen had walked through the door carrying a family size bag of Twizzlers.

After the three biggest stars in the history of the business left the ring, Lemmy’s tobacco charred vocal chords filled the Superdome.  Triple H was sitting on an iron throne, a cross between Conan The Barbarian and Jamie Lannister.  He looked ridiculous, but I didn’t laugh at him.  Instead, I marveled at how powerful he looked, and wondered if Daniel Bryan had the intestinal fortitude to defeat such a powerful specimen.  This was supposed to be predetermined, right?

Triple H’s walk was slow and methodical.  In contrast, Daniel Bryan strode to the ring, urging the crowd to chant with him.  The crowd crested and fell like a wave: “YES! YES! YES! YES!”  I was chanting along with them.

There comes a time in every wrestling fan’s life when the moves overtake the narrative.  This usually happens when you become a teenager, and need to explain to non-believers why you still watch a morality play performed by large men in spandex.  Instead of focusing on how a match or a performer makes you feel, you judge them by wether or not they can perform a shooting star press.  I’ve seen both Daniel Bryan and Triple H have better technical matches than this.  Daniel’s work didn’t seem as fluid as usual, and Triple H moved like the 40-something he is. I didn’t care, because for the first time in my adult life, it was about the story.  Bryan could have poked Triple H with his finger, and I would have still reacted as if I had never seen a wrestling match before.

My relationship with Vince McMahon is similar to many of my friends’ relationship to George Lucas.  No matter how frustrated I get with the direction of his company, he created a world that I  love.  It’s damn near impossible to break free from something that shaped me as a person.  Watching Daniel Bryan hoist the gleaming straps of leather across his narrow shoulders, I became six years old.  For that moment, it was real to me, damn it.

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Join The Yes Revolution

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Daniel Bryan is in a trance.  Clad in a drab black jumpsuit, his eyes are focused on Bray Wyatt, the self-proclaimed messiah of The Wyatt Family.  He was forced to join two weeks before.  Wyatt taunts him, grabs him by his hair tries to put him into submission.  Daniel is docile at first, defeated, broken.  And then, he summons the strength to break free from his captor. The sold out crowd explodes in a way they haven’t since the heyday of Stone Cold Steve Austin.  Man, woman and child start to chant: “YES, YES YES!” Their arms go up and down like the needle on the Richter Scale.  There is no expression on Bryan’s face.  The crowd gets louder: “DANIEL BRYAN! DANIEL BRYAN!” Wyatt jeers at Bryan, begging him to take a shot.  Bryan’s face remains passive, but his eyes are blazing.

“YOU ARE A COWARD!” Wyatt screams.

The trance is finally broken.  Daniel Bryan hits Wyatt with a right, and then a left, then another huge right.  He runs into the corner and fires off three dropkicks, which bring the leviathan to his knees.  He walks to the middle of the ring and hits Wyatt with five crescent kicks to the face.  The crowd chants along with every kick: “YES! YES! YES!”  He looks the adoring throngs before him and slowly unzips the jumpsuit, revealing his trademark crimson trunks.  The crowd is delirious as he slowly scales the cage and sits on top.  He surveys his public once again before raising his arms up and down.  The chants get louder.  YES! YES! YES! YES!

This is not sports entertainment.  This is an old-fashioned pro wrestling angle that could have been written by legendary Florida promoter Eddie Graham.   The virtuous underdog is battling against the vaguely satanic cult, and the people believe. Packed arenas across the country are telling the powers that be exactly what they want, and the powers that be, the men who drive the proverbial Cadillacs, steadfastly refuse to give it to them.

One of the recurring themes of the Vince McMahon History of Professional Wrestling is that McMahon destroyed the territorial wrestling system by poaching the top stars from every territory and making them his own.  This is true, but McMahon doesn’t get enough credit for listening to the fanbase.  In 1983, Hulk Hogan was poised to be the biggest star in the history of the sport, but Verne Gagne, the promoter of the American Wrestling Association was reluctant to pull the trigger.  McMahon hired Hogan, and put the WWF Championship on him immediately.  If the fans were cheering loud enough, that was enough for him.  It wasn’t because he cared about us, it was because if we cheered for a guy, we would pay to see him in the arenas.

I was too young for the ascent of Hogan, but I vividly remember the rise of Shawn Michaels.  He was half of my favorite tag team, The Rockers.  In 1992, Shawn threw his partner through a plate glass window and became the cocky Heartbreak Kid.  I pretended to hate his guts, but I secretly thought he was the coolest guy in the company.  He always had the best match on the card, he had a gigantic bodyguard who wore sunglasses indoors and Jenny McCarthy accompanied him to the ring a couple of times.  I wasn’t the only one, because by early 1995, Shawn was getting more cheers than boos.  When he turned babyface the night after WrestleMania XI, I breathed a sigh of relief because I could openly cheer for HBK.  He won his second Intercontinental Title at SummerSlam that year, and won the WWF Championship at WrestleMania XII a year later.  Michaels’ rise to the top of the card made wrestling seem more democratic than other forms of entertainment.  Yes, McMahon made the final decisions, and yes, Michaels was Machiavellian in his pursuit of the title, but if the fans didn’t believe, it wouldn’t have happened.

Daniel Bryan is where Shawn Michaels was fifteen years ago.  The fans believe in him.  They chant his catchphrase because they want to, not because the front office has drilled it into their skulls.  Bryan is getting mainstream press coverage, and Make-A-Wish kids are asking to meet him.  Despite the grassroots support, the main event remains exactly as it was in 2006, shuffling between John Cena and Randy Orton, having the same match they have had since they were classmates in Ohio Valley Wrestling.

The WWE claims that Bryan doesn’t move merchandise, doesn’t affect television ratings and doesn’t move pay per views.  This doesn’t matter, because despite WWE’s continued effort to promote the WWE brand as a television program, wrestling is meant to be witnessed live.  It’s about going to the arena and feeling a connection with the hero.  It’s about emotion, and feeling like you are a part of something larger.  When you have that, then you have television ratings, because the casual fans will want to experience the emotion of the live crowd for themselves.

On an episode of The Dick Cavett Show, Bette Davis said that the only thing that matters is the work.  When I watch Daniel Bryan charge down the aisle to “Ride of the Valkyries,” I see a man who believes in that principle.  He takes potentially harmful booking decisions and turns them into gold.  The Wyatt Family angle could have been fatal to his character, but it became the highlight of his WWE career.  If WWE waits too long to pull the trigger however, Bryan will lose his momentum.

WWE can’t afford such a huge casualty.  John Cena has been on top for a decade, and his Chain Gang Soldiers are growing up.  They are going to stop buying his candy colored t-shirts and see “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect” as corny schtick.  They are going to turn off their television sets in droves, leaving the hardcore.  This frightens WWE executives, because a product that appeals strictly to wrestling fans destroys mainstream credibility.  Daniel Bryan is the rare breed of performer that appeals to hardcore fans, but has the charisma to draw casual viewers.

Whenever business is down, promotors trot out the adage that wrestling is cyclical business. If WWE shows faith in Daniel Bryan, they could weather this downturn.  We are on the cusp of a revolution, but the men who drive the Cadillacs need to say, “YES!”

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John at 29: Celebration Rock

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If you are lucky, you will experience a record that will change your life.  An album that fundamentally makes you the person you are.  It’s impossible to predict, but when this happens, it is one of the most marvelous experiences a human being can have.  It tells you that you are not alone, and makes you feel connected to the world around you.  I have had this experience a few times in my life.  The first time I heard Paul McCartney’s “BE GLAAAAAAAAAD!”, Axl Rose telling his enemies to fuck off, Butch Walker reminiscing about the best mixtape he had, Springsteen watching Mary’s dress wave.  However, I never expected to have a musical epiphany at age 27.

For the past three years, I have been suffering from depression.  Not the garden variety melancholy that everyone feels at some point in their lives, but the illness.  There were days when I could barely get out of bed, and when I did, I mostly stayed in my room, listening to Iron Maiden and putting on a brave face. I would psyche myself into it, creating the illusion of the happy-go-lucky John that everyone liked, and then crash the second I got home.  From the fall of 2011 to the middle of 2012, I dropped off the face of the earth.  My friends Cody, Shaun, Jordan and Natalie would check in every few weeks to make sure I was still around.  Each time I assured them I was doing OK, just working some stuff out.

I never attempted suicide, but I’d given up on living.  I’d stopped writing entirely, and made no attempts to see my friends.

In late spring, my Facebook wall started to buzz with the type of purple prose and hyperbole that only nerds can muster.  The Canadian rock duo The Japandroids had made a new record, and it was being written about in grandiose terms.  My friends Brendan and Quinn were the earliest cheerleaders, writing several Facebook statuses.  Then Pitchfork Media chimed in with a glowing review.  Finally, the Onion’s A.V. Club gave Celebration Rock an A.

Instead of believing the opinions of my friends and the breathless notices I had read, I did what came naturally.

“It can’t be that good.”

In my review of their debut album, Post-Nothing, I wrote “At only eight tracks, The Japandroids leave you wanting more.  It’s hard to tell where they will go from here.

Based upon Post Nothing, I expected another enjoyable garage rock record that I would listen to a few times, and then go back to Born To Run.

Then again, it was rare for everyone in my circle to agree on things.  So the day before the album was officially released, I downloaded a torrent of Celebration Rock.  And there were fireworks.

The fireworks became thunderous drums.  And then there were guitars.  Tremendous, chiming, distorted, guitars that sounded like they were coming from a thousand Marshall stacks.  Then Brian King started to sing:

Long lit up tonight, and still drinking

Don’t we have anything to live for?

Well of course we do, but until it comes true

We’re drinking!

The overwhelming positivity of the third line hooked me.  In an era of suffocating irony, here was something that was unapologetically earnest.  I didn’t quite know how to feel, until I heard “Fire’s Highway.”

The riff.  The drums.  The lyrics.  But then the chorus.  David Prouse has one line.  A single WHOAAAA-HOAAAAAA!”  The second I heard it, I started crying.  For the first time in a long time, I felt something besides sadness.  Something flipped on, and I knew that my friends praise wasn’t hyperbole, this was one of the most profound records I had ever heard.  As a card-carrying Millennial, I immediately posted my thoughts on my Facebook page.

“Dear God, Celebration Rock.  I think I’ll spend the rest of the day picking my jaw up from the floor.

At its core, Celebration Rock is about learning how to grow up without losing who you are, which was something I was having trouble dealing with.  I had just started working at McCormick & Co., which I saw as giving up on my dream of being a full-time writer.  I was still living with my parents, while I watched my friends buy houses, get married, have kids.  My brother and sister were living in New York, my dream city, while I was still in Baltimore, essentially living the same life I had been living when I was 17.

Celebration Rock helped me realize that there is no such thing as being behind.  Life is not clear cut.  The important thing is that you are alive today, and that is cause for celebration.  In the chorus of “The House That Heaven Built,” Brian sings “I must live.”  He doesn’t just sing it, he shouts it with an evangelical zeal.  It was exactly what I needed to hear.

I downloaded the album around 2:00 in the afternoon, and I did not stop until my mom called me for dinner.  When I came into the breakfast room, my parents looked at me and said almost in unison, “You have been playing the same record all day.”

“I know.  It’s incredible,” I said.

I ate as quickly as I could, and then went back to my room, where I listened to Celebration Rock for another four hours.  I ordered the vinyl.  When my parents went to bed, I put it on my iPod, and listened until about 2 a.m.  I got up the next morning, and listened to it until I had to go to work.  I considered skipping work because work would get in the way of listening to the Japandroids, which was something I hadn’t done since my freshman year of college.  When I got to work, it was all I could talk about.  There is a band called the Japandroids, and you all need to buy their record right now.  There was no need to transform myself into John that day; I felt like myself.

Later that week, I went to see my therapist, and all I could talk about was Celebration Rock.  At the end of the hour, Anthony looked at me and said “John, this is the first time I have ever seen you this happy.  And I need to buy this record immediately.”

It has been almost two years since I first heard Celebration Rock, and my life has changed immeasurably.  I live in my own apartment, which is something I never thought would be possible  I am a fully accredited sensory panelist.  I am no longer reclusive.  Most importantly, I am writing everyday, truly grateful for the gift I have been given.  Celebration Rock did not solve all my problems. Music and art never does.  However, it can show you the light at the end of the tunnel, that things will get better.  A lot of people and events helped me get where I am today, but Celebration Rock lit the fuse.  I have something to live for.

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The Undeniable Greatness of Pretty Boy Floyd

I met my friend Brendan Hilliard waiting in line at a Hold Steady show, shortly after Stay Positive was released.  We have a lot in common.  We’re both writers, we both like professional wrestling, and we both romanticize rock music to an unhealthy degree. However, there is one thing that we have never agreed on, and that is the legitimacy of hair metal in the rock canon.

I have spent a large portion of musical life devoted to hair metal.   It was how I defined myself in high school, and I will always love it, no matter how many Belle and Sebastian records I own.  Brendan, in the words of the great philosopher Paul Westerberg, had seen the video and dismissed it (sometimes rightfully) as phony rock n’ roll.  So whenever we would have a friendly argument, he would shoot me down with a snarky “Well, you like Poison.”

One day, after a few too many barbs at the expense of Bret Michaels, I decided it was time to fight back for my Aqua-Net brethren.  I sent him a record, not telling him who it was, or where it came from.  The next day, Brendan sent me a message.

“Dude, what record was that?” he asked.

Leather Boyz With Electric Toyz by Pretty Boy Floyd,” I said.

“It’s amazing!  It sounds like hair metal clawing its way back.”

I leaned back with self-satisfaction.  I had won.

When hair metal is viewed through a critical lens, people make the mistake of comparing it to the grand monoliths of rock n’ roll.  But hair metal was never meant to be art; it was music to party to.  When I listen to Poison or Motley Crue, I’m not comparing them to Blonde On Blonde.  I look at hair metal the same way I look at genre pictures.   Action pictures are not judged by the freshness of the plot, but how the director and scriptwriter twist familiar tropes.

Hair metal roughly spanned from 1984 to 1991.  Hundreds of records were released during that time.  Out of the hundreds, there are only three that transcend the genre.  The first is Motley Crue’s Too Fast For Love, which is the prototype for everything came after it.  Poison’s Look What The Cat Dragged In is the moment where the sound and look crystalized.  The third is Leather Boyz, which took the formula of Look What The Cat Dragged In and blew it up to obscene proportions.  It is Pulp Fiction in leather pants.

1989 was hair metal’s biggest year, but it was also the beginning of the end.  It was the year that Poison and Motley Crue sold millions of records with Dr. Feelgood and Open Up and Say…AAAH!, but both bands toned down their look and sound.  The result was the pasteurized rock n’ roll that most critics associate with the Sunset Strip.  Other bands saw the success of Motley and Poison and followed their lead.  Warrant, White Lion, Danger Danger, Slaughter and Winger all have their moments, but they were largely faceless.

Somehow, from this faceless morass of power balladry, Pretty Boy Floyd emerged.  I’ll never forget the first time I held the record in my hands.  It is a painting of the Boyz, forty feet tall above the Los Angeles skyline. Lightning bolts shoot from Steve Summers’ fingers, and collect in Kari Kane’s fist.  It looks ridiculous, until you realize that they selling this with a straight face.  There is no room for irony in the world of these Leather Boyz; they truly believe that they are going to take over the world.

That cockiness is what makes Leather Boyz.  If they flinched for a second, everything would fall apart, but they hold it together for the entire running time.  The title track is their manifesto.  Steve Summers puffs out his chest and proclaims that he is a “black on black sex attack.”  What does that mean?  I don’t know, I don’t care, but it sounds really fucking cool.  He doesn’t have much a voice, and guitarist Kristy Majors’ riffs are rudimentary, but when they meld, it is magic.  Majors’ playing is closer to Johnny Ramone than Eddie Van Halen, which gives the band a poppy sound without sacrificing edge.

Ironically, the most interesting song on Leather Boyz is the ballad, “Wild Angels.”  It starts out in the typical way, just an acoustic guitar and Steve Summers talking about running away to Hollywood.  Then Majors hits a single power chord and lets it fade.  It fades out entirely before he hits the chord again.  The effect is Black Francis’ loudQUIETloud theory, inverted.  The sheets of distortion give “Wild Angels” the kind of urgency that “Home Sweet Home” doesn’t have.  So when Steve Summers rhymes “tonight” with “tonight” at the end, it’s not an error.   You are rooting for him.  You want him to run away to Hollywood and rock and roll all night long (like he never could).

To me, Leather Boyz is the final fleeting gasp of the rock star archetype invented by Zeppelin, The Who and Alice Cooper.  The four Boyz believed in what they had read in the rock magazines, and created what they thought rock n’ roll was supposed to be. I connected with it because it is the record I would have made if MCA gave me a million dollar contract at 20.  I didn’t want to be a confessional singer songwriter, I wanted to wear red leather pants and do cool synchronized moves.  Honestly, if someone gave me a record contract right now, I would still make Leather Boyz,  I love the myths, man.

In January of 2011, Kristy Majors and Steve Summers announced that they were reviving Pretty Boy Floyd for the annual M3 Festival at Merriweather Post Pavilion. I didn’t have the same clout I had two years before, but I used my remaining contacts in the industry to score a press pass.  I had to see them.  I had to interview them.  I had to scream “LAST KISS,” at exactly the right moment.  I found Kristy on Facebook and asked, begged, and cajoled him for an interview. He granted it.

I got to the festival at 10:00.  The band was going on at noon.  Steve and Kristy were nice enough, but gave me the runaround.  I left the backstage area and headed over to the side stage to catch their set.  They came on late and it was obvious that Kristy and Steve were not getting along.  The intro to “Leather Boyz” didn’t work, and they couldn’t decide if they wanted to play “Wild Angels” or “I Wanna Be With You.”  They were a mess.

When I got home, my sister asked me how my interview went.

“They blew me off,” I said. “I’m bummed, but I still love them.”

“Why?” she asked.  “They blew you off.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But I love those songs, Elizabeth.  Nothing can kill those songs for me.”

 

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WWE 50

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A half century ago, Vincent J. McMahon took his northeastern wrestling fiefdom and broke away from the National Wrestling Alliance.  The World Wide Wrestling Federation would eventually morph into World Wrestling Entertainment, a billion dollar entertainment conglomerate, run by McMahon’s son, Vincent Kennedy McMahon.  As with any major milestone, the WWE has marked this occasion with a new documentary.  While WWE 50 takes a few more risks than the average WWE-sanctioned production, it is marred by the usual congratulatory backslapping that fans have come to expect from WWE Home Video.

The opening shots of WWE 50 tell you everything you need to know.  Vince McMahon pulls into the parking garage of Titan Tower, gets on the elevator and walks to his office.  The wrestlers and fans of the WWE are important, but without McMahon’s vision, the WWE would never have gone beyond the Northeastern United States.

The first 45 minutes of WWE 50  discuss the early days in detail, and it is fascinating.  The core of the segment is provided by Bruno Sammartino, the Italian strongman who was WWWF champion for an astonishing eight years.  He talks briefly about his reign as champion, but more importantly, he provides us with a picture of the elder McMahon, who is portrayed as an honest man in a business run by carnies.  He is also quite candid, admitting that the wrestling magazines were all based in the New York area, so he got more press than any other wrestler. His stories are backed up by his peers, many of whom have never been featured in a WWE documentary before.  Spoiler alert: Ivan Koloff isn’t Russian.

The documentary loses credibility when Vince Jr. enters the picture.  There is  get the apocryphal story of Vince Sr. warning his son not to go beyond the New York market.  This is followed by narrator Keith David informing us that the WWF was the first promotion to use music for wrestler entrances, the first to go national, and that WrestleMania was the first wrestling supershow to be broadcast through closed circuit.

Music has been a part of wrestling since the days of Gorgeous George, who used to enter arenas to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.”  From a more modern perspective, Jerry Lawler had been making music videos featuring his wrestlers since the dawn of MTV, and the Fabulous Freebirds and the Von Erichs used the cock rock of heavy metal parking lots to set fans afire.

Though they didn’t cross promotional boundaries, Ole Anderson’s Georgia Championship Wrestling was the flagship program on Ted Turner’s fledgling WTBS SuperStation through the early 1980s.

Most egregious is the claim that WrestleMania was the first show of its kind.  The NWA’s flagship show, Starrcade, made its debut almost two years before WrestleMania, and was broadcast throughout the south.  Like every successful businessman, Vince McMahon took the best ideas of his competitors and made them his own.  If the WWE would admit this, their documentaries would have depth and scope, instead of being puff pieces.

In the middle of all the grandstanding, Hulk Hogan comes to the WWF from Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association. The footage of early Hulkamania is mesmerizing.   Hogan’s mannerisms are so ingrained into my psyche, that it’s easy to forget how charismatic he was.  When he hits The Iron Sheik with his deadly leg drop, it sounds like the roof is going to come off Madison Square Garden.  No matter what the critics say about pro wrestling, you can’t fake a reaction like that.  It’s completely honest, which is something I haven’t felt from the product in a long time.

The other transcendent moment is far more tragic.  There are several minutes devoted to the death of Owen Hart, who fell from the rafters of the Kemper Arena while trying to make an entrance as his superhero alter-ego, The Blue Blazer.  When Linda McMahon tears up and says that Owen was like a member of their family, her emotion is genuine.

While Owen’s death is discussed in detail, the deaths of Eddie Guererro and Chris Benoit are not mentioned at all, and their deaths had a much bigger effect on the company, leading to rampant changes in its wellness policy, as well as more family friendly content.

Even though I knew exactly what I would be getting when I rented WWE 50, I was still disappointed.   Although history is written by the winners, the WWE and Vince McMahon should be secure enough in their victory to tell their story with warts and all.   It is worth a rental for the hardcore fan, but it is not the essential addition to your DVD collection that WWE is purporting it to be.

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Safety Glasses

“Mister I’m not a boy, I’m a man.”

-Bruce Springsteen, “The Promised Land”

“I finally get it, Token! I don’t get it!”

-Stan Marsh, South Park

In the words of Ice Cube, it was a good day.  The sun was out, and the weather was expected to remain warm through the weekend.  Metallica’s “Creeping Death,” came up on my iPod and I wore my “Macho Man” Randy Savage shirt to work.  Yes sir, things were coming up Milhouse.

I had just entered the McCormick Technical Innovations Center when I saw him walking up the corridor, talking to someone else.

“Oh Christ,” I thought. “This is going to be unpleasant.”

I have worked at McCormick & Co. for a year and a half.  I have not had a single interaction with this person without a “joke.”

When I was rushing to get to panel one morning, he told me to stop speeding.  He has asked me if I have a license for my chair.  When I was telling someone about the Orson Welles biography I was reading, he interrupted me mid-sentence to tell me about a wheelchair that climbs up steps.

That’s all I am to him.  The wheelchair.

I knew this was going to be bad, because he hadn’t seen me in a while.

Last month, I went to the ophthalmologist for a routine checkup, and was informed that I have a stigmatism in my right eye, and needed glasses.  I was feeling really good about my appearance, especially when my friend Cody told me that I looked like Elvis Costello circa 1979. Based on his track record, I had a feeling that this guy wouldn’t be as positive.

I kept my distance, hoping that he wouldn’t turn around.  I contemplated ducking into the men’s room.  Unfortunately, his conversation ended and he saw me.

“Deep breath, John.” I told myself. “Remember what your therapist said.  He’s an asshole.  Don’t give him any power.”

“Wow! You need safety glasses to drive that thing?” he asked, chuckling.

So much for not giving him any power.

No matter how many times I prepare myself, no matter how many times I tell myself that  only my friends matter, or that people are just ignorant, it hurts every time.  The pain is not negligible.  Every time someone says something like that to me, a part of me dies.

When I got to panel, I was obviously upset, and a few people asked me what was wrong.  When I told them, they gave me the usual well-meaning responses.

“You should tell someone!”

Whenever someone makes a comment about my disability, there is rarely any malice behind it.  The guy didn’t call me crippled, he made what he thought was a lighthearted joke, and would probably tell my boss as such.

“Don’t let them get you down.  You should just let it roll off your back.”

Here’s the thing: 99 percent of the time, I do. Unfortunately, this is not a rare occurrence.  Someone comments about my disability every day, and if I didn’t let most of them go, I’d be in a fetal position.  Here are the greatest hits of the past few months:

“It’s a pity you are in a wheelchair and you can’t dance.”

If that man had been in my apartment the night before, he would have witnessed me cutting a rug to White Zombie’s “Thunderkiss 65.”  I probably shouldn’t have admitted that.

You decorated your apartment all by yourself? Good for you!”

No, signed RATT records come standard in all apartments now.

And my personal favorite:

“If you believe in Jesus Christ, He will make you better.”

I’m pretty sure it was the high amount of muscle tone in my legs, not my supposed lack of faith that put me in this chair.  Thanks for caring about my immortal soul!

“That person just needs to be educated! You need to educate them!”

Ah, yes.  Education.  Been there.  Done that.  Bought many T-shirts.  You want me to educate you? ASK ME ABOUT MY DISABILITY!  If you approach me and say “Excuse me, why are you in a wheelchair?” I will be more than happy to answer you.

“You need more handicapped friends!” or “You should be an advocate!”

This is the one I hear the most, and the one that really bothers me.  From the moment a handicapped person enters the world, their disability is supposed to be the core of their identity.  I have fought against handicapped culture tooth and nail my entire life, because my disability is the least interesting thing about me.  I don’t want to talk about wheelchairs, the Americans With Disabilities Act or other disabled issues.  I would much rather talk about Mad Men or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Bruce Springsteen.  Seriously, talk to me about Bruce Springsteen, we’ll be friends.

My friend Steve used to tell me that I hated my own kind.  This isn’t true, but I must admit that I have only one wheelchair bound friend. I met Alicia through LiveJournal, and started talking to her because she likes punk rock and South Park.  When I saw she was in a wheelchair, I thought “Oh cool, that’s something else we have in common,” and continued trading Randy Marsh quotes with her.

Sadly, many handicapped people are taught to make friends the opposite way.  The disability should be the main thing you have in common, and everything else is secondary.

I get OK Cupid e-mails all the time from handicapped girls who only have one thing to say to me: “Hi! I’m in a wheelchair too!  Let’s talk!”

I rarely respond, because it shows that they hadn’t read my profile beyond the two sentences where I mention my disability.  If they had said that their favorite Warner Brothers tough guy is James Cagney, or that their favorite Woody Allen film is Hannah and Her Sisters, then we might have something.

I’ve explained this to case workers, and it makes them angry.  To them, my refusal to participate in disability culture means that I am ashamed of being disabled.  I am not ashamed, but I’m not proud of it either.  I am proud of the interviews I’ve done.  I am proud of writing decent criticism. I am proud of having friends.  I use a wheelchair because it’s a necessity.  There is a difference.

I’ve spoken to kids at schools, I’ve pleaded my case in front of people with power, and I have come to the conclusion that traditional advocacy doesn’t work for me.  I advocate for myself by living the most normal life I can with what I’ve been given.  I hang out at the Barnes and Noble Starbucks a lot, and I think I have more of an impact being there every day than I ever would speaking to groups of middle school kids.  What the case workers don’t tell you is that the more you are out there, the more normal it becomes. The girl at Starbucks may have initially thought of me as “the guy in the wheelchair” but now I’m just a guy.  That is my goal.

I can’t fault the able-bodied people around me for misunderstanding the way I feel, because you can’t explain being in a minority unless you are part of it.  All I ask is that when I get angry or upset about a comment or a situation, let me have my feelings.  You don’t understand, and I hope you never will.

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Heroes of Mid-South

loaded glove

It was hard to be a wrestling fan in 1995.  Of course, it’s hard to be a wrestling fan at any time, but it was especially hard in the era after Hulkamania and before Austin 3:16.  Vince McMahon was mired in a federal trial, Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage had left the World Wrestling Federation for Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, and the Lex Luger experiment fizzled out.  I was blissfully unaware of all these developments however, and ate up whatever wrestling I could find.

This made me a minority among my peer group, most of whom had grown out of their infatuation with professional wrestling and moved on to “real” sports.  Therefore, when I found out that someone liked it, we immediately became best friends.  It was like knowing a secret code.

My best wrestling friend in the summer of 1995 was a lifeguard at my pool, Dave.  Dave was 20, and I was 11, but when he found me playing with my figures at the snack bar one day, we bonded instantly.  Because he was a decade older, Dave became a fan during the territory days, and loved telling me about a time when the sports entertainment of Vince McMahon wasn’t the only game in town.

“You missed out, John,” he would say, stroking his soul patch plaintively.  “Guys wrestled back then.  They fought and they bled.  Then when they moved to the WWF, they became bad wrestlers.  You know Ted DiBiase?”

“Of course!” I said.  “’The Million Dollar Man!”

“No!” Dave said. “I will never call him by that name.  He used to be one hell of a wrestler.  He used to wear a black glove on his right hand, and knock dudes out with it.  He was amazing.”

Wait, Ted DiBiase wasn’t born wearing glittery green tuxedos?  It couldn’t be.  It made no sense.  Dave continued his sermon.

“If you ever get a chance, check out the UWF.  Then you will see some real wrestling, not the cartoon you watch.”

The UWF stood for Universal Wrestling Federation, run by the famously old-school “Cowboy” Bill Watts.  Like many promoters of his generation, Watts had a very specific idea of what professional wrestling should be.  The top guys should be legitimately tough.  Good guys and bad guys were not supposed to fraternize outside the arena.  Moves off the top rope should be completely eliminated, and the most ridiculous of all, no protective mats outside the ring.

As I began exploring wrestling’s past, the UWF remained mysterious.  While the other promoters gladly sold their tape libraries to WWE, Bill Watts held out, selling DVDs to fans for $19.99 a pop.  A clip or two would occasionally pop up on YouTube, but it was hard to see anything other than a tantalizing glimpse.

Then, in June 2012, the Cowboy finally turned in his badge.  He sold the library to Vince McMahon, and with it came the promise of a DVD set.  I buy wrestling DVDs sporadically these days, buy I preordered Heroes of Mid-South the second it became available.  When it came in the mail last week, I watched all seven hours in one sitting.  When “Dr. Death” Steve Williams held up his title as the credits rolled, I had a solitary thought in my head.

“I want more of this.”

When I write about wrestling these days, I try to write so that non-fans will understand, because I realize how ridiculous wrestling can be.  However, I can’t really do that with the UWF.  The UWF and its predecessor, Mid-South Wrestling, is not a gateway drug.  To be blunt, it is pretty much every stereotype people have about professional wrestling.  Actually, I wouldn’t even call it wrestling.  It’s pure, simple, Southern-fried rasslin.  So if you aren’t a fan, you will be turned off.  There’s blood.  Lots of blood.  Did I mention there is a ton of blood on this disc?  I did?  Let me just repeat that, there is a ton of blood on this disc.

If you are a fan, you need to stop reading this right now and procure a copy of this disc.  Heroes of Mid-South is the best DVD the WWE has produced since The Ultimate Ric Flair Collection a decade ago.  Like that disc, it contains very little editorializing and lets the action speak for itself.

Everything that is great about Mid-South Wrestling can be summed up in one match, the Loser Leaves Town Tuxedo Cage Coal Miner’s Glove on a Pole match between Ted DiBiase and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan.  They beat the shit out of each other for 20 minutes.  That’s it.  There is nothing flashy or showbiz about it; the two of them willingly beat themselves to a pulp.  By the end of the match, Duggan’s face is so bloody that it obscures his features.  These two guys committed themselves so completely that you truly believed that they hated each other, which is what I think wrestling is missing these days.  It’s hard to invest yourself fully in a feud when you know that the two guys in the ring are going to have a beer together after the match.

I can’t really condemn men like Duggan, DiBiase and the Junkyard Dog for signing with Vince McMahon for the promise of national exposure and big paychecks.  Duggan and DiBiase became cartoon characters at the expense of some of their ability, but they captured my imagination.  “The Million Dollar Man” making his fall residence in Palm Beach, Florida has a much better ring to it than Ted DiBiase from Omaha, Nebraska.

I haven’t seen Dave in almost 20 years.  If I ran into him tomorrow, I could tell him that I have finally seen his elusive Universal Wrestling Federation.  I have seen Ted DiBiase use his ominous loaded glove, and that he could wrestle his ass off.  However, I would also tell him that I still enjoy DiBiase kicking people out of a public pool because he can.  The more wrestling I watch, the more I realize that every style has its place.

 

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King Justin I

justin-timberlake-moonmen

Justin Timberlake seems like a good dude.  I’ve never been in the same room with him, so I am basing this assumption on various talk show appearances, records and episodes of Saturday Night Live.  If I were to ask my male friends what they thought of him, I’m pretty sure they would agree with me, even if they hate pop music on principle.  This is because even though JT is capable of the smoothest of slow jams, he also writes funny songs about his dick.  Nothing endears a man to other men like dick jokes, except for Caddyshack.  At the Video Music Awards last Sunday night, however, Justin Timberlake did not come off like a good dude.

Don’t get me wrong, it was 20 minutes of Justin Timberlake being Justin Timberlake.  He rocked his body, brought sexy back, and wore his suit and tie.  He danced with many beautiful ladies, and he wore a jaunty fedora. But Timberlake’s other trademark, his McCartney-esque eagerness to please, was noticeably absent.   For the first time, I saw a man who was completely secure in his position as the number one pop star in the world.

Timberlake’s detachment probably went unnoticed by the casual viewer at home, except for one crucial moment.  The week before the VMAs, America was besieged with news about the possible reunion of *N’Sync, the boy band that brought Justin Timberlake into popular consciousness.  As with all modern “surprises,” every party involved denied it.  And yet, as the final notes of “Rock Your Body” floated into the air, everyone knew what was coming next.

Justin, J.C., Joey, Lance and Chris were together again! More accurately, Justin was placed front and center as his former comrades struggled through a performance of “Pop” looking every bit like the middle aged Pips they were.  Before leaving on a midnight train tor Orlando, they performed a few bars of “Bye, Bye Bye,” and J.C. was benevolently allowed a couple extra notes.  Then it was over, and Timberlake blankly acknowledged his former friends.  The other guys were lowered underneath the stage, never to be heard from again.  It reminded me of Al Neri shutting the door on Kay Corleone in the final scene of The Godfather.

After performing “Suit and Tie,” his latest and greatest hit, Jimmy Fallon, late night talk-show host and longtime comic foil, came onstage to present him with rare Golden Moonman.  In previous years, the presenter of the Video Vanguard Award gave a simple, dignified speech about the artist or director’s accomplishment.  This was not Jimmy Fallon’s style.  He ran around.  He screamed to the high heavens.  He sang songs.  He proclaimed his friend a legend, as JT looked on, amused.  As Timberlake accepted the award, I was waiting for Fallon to kiss his ring.

In his acceptance speech, JT gave credit to everyone who had helped him along the way, and while his sentiment was honest, the detachment remained.  This was in sharp contrast to *N’Sync’s VMA win in 2000, when he ecstatically proclaimed “WE GOT A MOONMAN! WE GOT A MOONMAN!”

When Justin Timberlake won his first Moonman, he was a young pop star enjoying his first, and possibly last Video Music Award.  Thirteen years later, he joined Paul McCartney, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and George Michael as the rare pop star who is able to transcend the ephemeral nature of his genre.  He was anointed, and the audience got to witness his coronation.

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Catharsis

savage n liz mania 7

Randy Savage is on his knees.  He has just been defeated by The Ultimate Warrior, and his legendary career is over.  He fought valiantly, but the forces of Parts Unknown were too much.  Sensational Queen Sherri is irate, screaming her lungs out at Savage, because she has lost her meal ticket.  Savage begs Sherri for forgiveness.  The camera zooms in on his face, and you can hear him say, “I tried my best, Sherri. I tried my best.”

Savage’s desperate plea for empathy is answered with a kick to the midsection.  Savage goes down.  Sherri whips off her rhinestone studded belt and starts lashing him with it, berating him.  The beating continues for another minute or two, and then Miss Elizabeth vaults over the guardrail, charging into the ring.  She grabs Sherri by her hair and violently throws her to the floor.

Savage is slowly getting back to his knees after Sherri’s attack, and slaps Elizabeth’s hand away as she tenderly tries to help him up.  She tries again, and he slaps it away.  He gingerly gets to his feet, turns around, and sees her.

 

Randy Savage is in disbelief.  The woman he abandoned for Sensational Sherri has returned.

“What are you doing here?” he asks.

Elizabeth doesn’t say anything. Tears are streaming down her face.

“What are you doing here?” he asks again.  He doesn’t know what to do.  After all he has done, she still loves him. She has always loved him.

The Los Angeles Sports Arena gets louder as the seconds tick by.  The camera cuts to the fans, each one looking at the tableau in the ring with baited breath.

 

Miss Elizabeth runs into Randy Savage’s arms as “Pomp and Circumstance” swirls through the arena.  He picks her up, spins her around, and then hoists her up on his brawny shoulders, just like he used to.  Grown men are openly weeping.  Savage puts Elizabeth down, and she holds the ropes open for him, just like she used to.

“Not today.” Savage says.

He tells Elizabeth to step aside, and then holds the bottom rope open for her.  The crowd squeals with joy.  Randy Savage’s redemption is complete.  As Bobby “The Brain” Heenan aptly put it, it was better than Love Story.

I was seven years old when Randy Savage and Elizabeth reunited at WrestleMania VII.  I became a wrestling fan six months earlier, when Sgt. Slaughter burned an American flag on an episode of Superstars of Wrestling, and vowed to bring the WWF Championship to Saddam Hussein.  The mixture of jingoism and Hulkamania brought me into the fold, but Savage and Elizabeth’s reunion is the reason I’ve never been able to grow out of something that most guys grow out of the second they discover girls.

The thing that hooked me is what hooks all human beings into good drama: Emotional investment and catharsis.  Wrestling fans had been watching Randy Savage battle his inner demons for seven years, and to watch him overcome his inner struggle was exhilarating.  In wrestling jargon, it’s called the blowoff.

Watching the footage almost a quarter century later, I got a lump in my throat, even though I knew what was coming.  Randy Savage was the Robert DeNiro of professional wrestlers, able to draw the crowd in like no other performer before or since.  Wrestling is predetermined, but the emotion on Savage’s face as he embraced the woman he loved was genuine.

Whenever the WWE wants to pat itself on the back (about every 30 seconds, last time I checked) it points out that WWE Raw is the longest running dramatic show in the history of television.  Unfortunately, the modern WWE booking committee fails to realize that a successful drama needs to have a climax and a falling action.  Without such devices, Willy Loman would simply be a salesman.

A prime example occurred on last Sunday’s SummerSlam pay per view, when plucky underdog Daniel Bryan finally defeated John Cena for the WWE Championship, only to be foiled by Randy Orton, who cashed in his Money in the Bank title shot.  Some pundits have already defended WWE’s decision, with the argument that Orton’s cheap win sets up Daniel Bryan for the main event at WrestleMania.  They could be right, but wrestling writers often forget that wrestling is a western.  The bandit can cause havoc for three reels, but if the sheriff doesn’t catch him in the fourth, the kids will be disappointed.

The most obvious example in the wrestling idiom is the NWA World Title match between Lex Luger and Ric Flair in 1988.  Luger had been chasing Flair since he was kicked out of the Four Horsemen in January.  He won a moral victory when he and Barry Windham defeated Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard for the tag team titles, only to have Barry turn on him a week later.  Every time the Horsemen thwarted Luger’s plans, the cheers grew louder, and by the time The Great American Bash rolled around, the fans were primed for the changing of the guard.

It didn’t happen. Luger lost the match due to a cut over his eye, and Flair walked away with the belt once again.  In wrestling terms, it’s what is known as the “The Dusty Finish,” where it appears the good guy has defeated the forces of evil, only to have the rug pulled out from under him.  It had worked for many years, from small town armories to enormous arenas, but this time the fans were legitimately angry.  Lex Luger’s career never recovered from the loss, and it was the beginning of the end for the National Wrestling Alliance.  By the time Sting dethroned Flair in 1990, the fans had moved on.

The Money in the Bank briefcase is the modern Dusty Finish.  Daniel Bryan defeated John Cena in the middle of the ring, but when Orton defeated him five minutes later, he halted the momentum.  It didn’t matter that WrestleMania is the bigger show; the crowd was begging for some catharsis, and the WWE failed to provide it.

We’ll always have Savage.

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Japandroids, North America 2013

celebration rockFire’s Highway Ottobar

“Horns will be thrown, fists will be pumped, heads will bang, and tears will be shed.”

“I’m so excited for this show I’m nervous.”

“I’m excited.”

These status updates were posted on my Facebook page in quick succession.  A year after the release of Celebration Rock, one of the seminal records of my youth, I was finally going to see the Japandroids.  When the record came out last June, I was mired in one of the lowest points of my life.  I was living with my parents, working an entry level job, about to quit writing for good, and was hopelessly lonely.  The fireworks at the beginning of “Days of Wine and Roses” didn’t cure my depression or solve my problems, but they gave me hope that something better was on the horizon.

A year later I was sitting in the balcony at the Ottobar, wearing my faithful Ramones shirt, and everything had changed.  I am writing this from my own apartment, my job is solid, and I am able to go out in the world.  I wasn’t at the show to get away from my problems, as I would have been when they played Philly last winter, but to celebrate how far I had come.

When you become a serious student of rock music, a concert becomes a series of rituals.  The lights go down, the crowd cheers, the band comes on, and we have liftoff.  Because the ritual is the same, it’s easy to become desensitized to the magic of the moment.  I have been to dozens of shows in my lifetime, and for the first time in a long time, I had butterflies in my stomach.  There was something about the atmosphere, something about the crowd that told me that this one was going to be special.  The lights went down, and Brian King and David Prowse took their positions.  Brian strapped his guitar around his neck and played the opening notes of “Adrenaline Nightshift,” once, twice, three times.  He kept repeating them, building anticipation, and then stepped up to the mike.

“Hi. I’m Brian and that’s David, and we are Japandroids from Vancouver, British Columbia.  We’ve been touring on this record for a year and a half now, and we want you all to know that this is not only our first show in Baltimore, it will be our final club show in North America.”

The crowd erupted, and the band launched into the song.  They played “Adrenaline Nightshift” with all the passion that came out of the record’s white vinyl grooves.

They were just warming up.  When Brian sang the first chorus of “Fire’s Highway,” all the tension and electricity that had been building was released at once.  700 people put their fists in the air and chanted “WHOAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” in unison.  There were no lighting cues or pyrotechnics or video screens, it just happened.  In that moment, 700 strangers became a family.  Moments like that are the reason rock and roll continues to exist, despite critics proclaiming its death.

It sounds trite to say that I had a religious experience, but it’s really not that far off the mark.  The reason human beings interact with each other in large groups is so we can feel like we are part of something that is larger than ourselves, and that is precisely what occurred in the Ottobar last Friday night.  It was more than just a celebration of rock; it was a celebration of life.

As I left the club with my friend Quinn, all I could think about was the joy that was coursing through my veins.  I thought back to the final lines of my Celebration Rock review:

I am alive. You are alive. Put your fist in the air.

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Celebration Rock is King!

celebration rock

One of the hardest things about being a committed music fan is the year end list.  Whenever I put on a new record, the question haunts me: Where will this fit?  In the past, I spent weeks obsessing over the top spot, but not this year.  I knew from the moment the I heard the fireworks in “The Days of Wine and Roses” that nothing would top The Japandroids’ Celebration Rock.

There are records that you like, there are records that you love, but there are a select few that you can recall where you were when you first heard it.  I didn’t expect to ever have that feeling again, but when “Fire’s Highway,” came blaring out of my speakers for the first time, I felt like I did the first time I heard Appetite for Destruction.  All I could think about was playing that record again, and again, and again, and again.  I actually considered skipping work for a week, because it would get in the way of listening to a record.  I hadn’t felt that way since my sophomore year of college, when Butch Walker released Letters.

I have been suffering from serious depression for the past three years, which is part of the reason why my writing has been so sporadic.  The week Celebration Rock came out, I was about to write a farewell, cancel my domain name and give up writing forever.  When the album was over, all I could think about was writing.  I had to tell people how magnificent this record was, even if it was only for my own satisfaction.  At my lowest point, it reminded me that I was alive.

Celebration Rock is my favorite record of 2012, and one of the major records of my life.

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Counted Out

Television cameras have never quite been able to capture the weird, wonderful amalgam of bombast, theatre and athleticism of professional wrestling.  In the arena, surrounded by other true believers, you somehow forget that the huge men in the squared circle are performing an exhibition.  I hadn’t been to a live match in a several years, so when Ring of Honor announced their final television taping of the year at the DuBurns Arena in downtown Baltimore, I immediately got tickets.

I have cerebral palsy, so I am unable to walk and am wheelchair bound.  Since I can’t stand up under my own power, I always make sure to get the best seats possible, just in case people stand up.  I managed to get a front row seat to the show, section C, dead center.  A front row seat not only puts a fan in the center of the action, it also gives you license to antagonize the performers.  My target was “The Prodigy” Mike Bennett, and his beautiful valet, Maria Kannellis.  My insults were going to be witty, urbane and mostly centered around the idea that Maria would be happier with someone of the handicapped persuasion.  I keep it classy.

I had never been to the DuBurns Arena.  When I go somewhere for the first time, I usually call ahead and make sure that it is handicapped accessible, which means ramps, elevators and at least one bathroom with handicapped accommodations.  Since the DuBurns was built in 1991, a year after the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed into law, I assumed that I wouldn’t have any problems.

I arrived at the arena a half hour before doors opened.  As my mom and I drove past the main entrance, we saw that there wasn’t a ramp.  We drove around the building until we saw three handicapped parking spaces, obscured by the ROH television production truck.  We flagged down an ROH staff member and asked him about the accessibility of the building.

He said I could get in the building, but was almost positive that I would unable to get down to the arena floor.  He went into the building, and came back a few minutes later with an ROH official.

“Hi, John, he said. “I’m sorry to say that there is no way you can get down to the arena floor.  I know you had a front row seat, but you will have to watch the show from the bleachers.  We will refund your money and give you a DVD.”

I couldn’t believe it.  A sports arena was not wheelchair accessible.  A million questions raced through my mind.  How is this possible?   Handicapped people don’t like soccer?  We don’t like sports?  I have to be content with nosebleed seats when I paid $50 for the front row?  In 2012, it is completely unacceptable.

I had a decent view, but I was a million miles away.  Instead of being in a rabid crowd of the ROH faithful, I felt like I was watching a DVD with the volume turned to the max.  I could have stayed home.

Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence around Baltimore.  The city is not very friendly to the disabled, largely due to the old buildings that give the city its charms.  I am not suggesting that Fells Point get rid of its famed cobblestone streets, or that a rowhouse in Little Italy trade in its marble steps for a cement incline. but at the same time, it gets tiresome wondering if I will be able to physically get into a restaurant I’ve heard about.

All I want is to be able to go out with my friends, take a girl out, and watch big men in spandex slam each other to the ground without having to think about it.  I don’t think that is too much to ask.

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History Beckons the Macho Man, Yeah! (Part 1)

 

Last April, “Macho Man” Randy Savage died of a heart attack.  He was 58 years old.  Within hours, tributes began to appear, not just from the wrestling community, but from mainstream sports outlets and pop culture blogs.  Savage was one of the rare performers whose larger than life persona transcended the world of professional wrestling, and fans and nonfans alike gathered in cyberspace to share their memories.

I’ve read many columns since his death, and they all hit the same beats.  Savage was a minor league baseball player who wrestled on the side for his father’s regional promotion.  He started wrestling full time after a shoulder injury and joined the then-World Wrestling Federation in 1985.  He held the Intercontinental Championship once and the WWF Heavyweight Championship twice.  With the lovely Elizabeth by his side, he had classic battles with Ricky Steamboat, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, The Ultimate Warrior and Jake Roberts.  Outside of the ring, he hawked Slim Jims and lent his distinctive voice to animated features.

While watching Savage’s DVD recently, the thing that struck me the most about his work was not the title wins, but the vulnerability he displayed.  Professional wrestling is built around people with larger than life personalities; real life superheroes that are able to do things that the average human being can only dream of.  Savage was larger than life, but his character was never one dimensional.  Babyface or heel, he was ambitious, driven, paranoid, insecure, and jealous.   He was the Dark Knight to Hulk Hogan’s Man of Steel.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lr_ehvSPynw

When Savage first came onto the national stage, he was the antithesis of every bad guy on the WWF roster.  He wasn’t out to destroy Hulkamania like King Kong Bundy or Roddy Piper, nor was he an ethnic stereotype like The Iron Sheik or Nikolai Volkoff.  Savage’s focus was to defeat the insecurity that lurked within him.  This manifested itself in his relentless drive to capture titles, and his obsession with Miss Elizabeth.  His protection (and mistreatment) of Elizabeth was the basis of his early run.  If another wrestler even looked at her, he would fly into a rage, leading fans to wonder what she saw in him.  Savage was asking this question himself, which is why their relationship carried so much emotional weight.  He couldn’t believe that a beautiful woman like Elizabeth wanted to be with him.

During his year-long tenure as Intercontinental Champion, announcers on WWF television went to great lengths to tell the fans what a fighting champion Randy Savage was.  In an era where heel champions were portrayed as cowardly, this was unprecedented.  From November of 1985 to March of 1987, Randy Savage took on every contender that came down the pike.  In late 1986, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat came in the picture, and Savage’s insecurity bubbled to the surface.  Steamboat was a handsome, charismatic babyface and one of the only wrestlers who could match Savage in wrestling ability.  To eliminate the threat, he resorted to desperate measures, hitting Steamboat with the ring bell and damaging his throat.  When Steamboat and Savage met again, it was in front of the largest indoor crowd in the history of American sports.

Rivers of ink have been written about the Savage/Steamboat encounter at WrestleMania III.  In 15 minutes and 23 near falls, they showed that small men had a place in the giant world of wrestling, and inspired dozens of kids to get into the business.  While the influence and the technical brilliance of the match have been analyzed to death, the most important moment often gets overlooked.  After wrestling his heart out and coming up short, the defeated Randy Savage slowly gets on the motorized cart used to bring the wrestlers to the ring, and buries his head in his hands.  Elizabeth is by his side, trying in vain to console him.  It’s one of the rare situations where the fans made the decision for the promoter.  Randy Savage came into the Pontiac Silverdome as a villain, but left a hero.

Part 2 coming soon!

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Rock n’ Roll is Dead?

I spent last Friday night crammed up against four Marshall stacks.  The Biters were in town, supporting former Dictators singer, “Handsome” Dick Manitoba.  A young man in tight jeans and a Joyce DeWitt shag haircut (his description) banged out crunchy power pop riffs on a battered Les Paul guitar.  He shook his hips in perfect time with the pounding drums behind him.  The lead guitarist wore the same uniform, occasionally moving forward to solo like the bastard son of Rick Nielsen and Angus Young.  It was a sweaty, sleazy, unfashionable affair.  When the Biters finished their set, I bought one of their t-shirts.  The design featured Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne and Justin Bieber with their eyes blacked out.  Underneath was a provocative statement: Rock n’ Roll is Dead.

Critics have been proclaiming rock n’ roll’s demise since Elvis went into the army, but when the New York Times published this article in December of 2011, the theory seemed to have weight.  When I asked my 14-year old cousin who his favorite band was, he looked at me blankly.  To his generation, it was only rock n’ roll and he didn’t really like it.

If my cousin had looked at me blankly in the year 2005, I would have gone on a crusade to corrupt him.  He would have received copies of Never Mind The Bollocks, Appetite for Destruction, At Budokan, London Calling, hoping to save the young man with the mightiest of rock.  My reactionary days are over, friends.  Instead of going into conniptions, I did some research.

1968 is arguably the most turbulent year in the history of the United States.  We were mired in an unpopular and pointless war; Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, resulting in riots in cities across the country.  Popular music was reaching its apex in creativity. .  Here are some pivotal albums released that year:

  • The Beatles: s/t  (The White Album)
  • The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland
  • Sly and the Family Stone: Life
  • The Rolling Stones: Beggar’s Banquet
  • Johnny Cash: Live at Folsom Prison
  • Big Brother and The Holding Company: Cheap Thrills
  • Aretha Franklin: Lady Soul
  • The Velvet Underground: White Light/White Heat
  • Jeff Beck Group: Truth
  • The Band: Music From Big Pink

That’s a pretty high batting average, right?  The Beatles were most famous people on the planet, so The White Album was probably the biggest album of the year. No.

This was the biggest record of 1968:

A band fronted by a cartoon teenager outsold one of the most influential albums of all time.

Rock n’ roll wasn’t exactly “dead” that year, was it?  Let’s move on.

The late 70s were also a tumultuous time for our nation.  We were in the middle of a severe energy crisis, New York experienced a blackout, bankruptcy and The Son of Sam killed several attractive brunettes because a dog told him to. Here is 1977, the year OG punk rock broke.

  • The Ramones: Rocket to Russia
  • The Clash: s/t
  • The Sex Pistols: Never Mind The Bollocks
  • Damned: Damned Damned Damned
  • Elvis Costello: My Aim is True
  • Talking Heads: ‘77
  • David Bowie: Low and “Heroes”
  • Brian Eno: Before and After Science
  • Cheap Trick: In Color

This was the biggest record of 1977.  Avoid sharp objects.

Yes folks, in the year Joe Strummer declared there would be “No Beatles, no Elvis, no Rolling Stones,” Debby Boone was on top of the mountain.  “Sugar Sugar” is a pretty tasty piece of bubble gum, but there is no redeeming value in “You Light Up My Life.”   It’s a toxic piece of schmaltz.

“Rock is dead” is a meaningless statement, because it has always been on the fringes of the charts.  It’s too abrasive, too unpolished, and too dangerous for the general public.  You can ignore “Sugar Sugar,” in an elevator, but a song like The Clash’s “White Riot” makes you pay attention.

The mid-60s were an exception to the rule.  The Beatles, Motown and The Rolling Stones were able to cross over to a wide audience, but the world was a much different place 40 years ago.  People watched the same shows and listened to the same radio stations.  Popular culture is completely segregated today.  There is no Ed Sullivan Show, Soul Train or American Bandstand, programs which formed the fabric of American popular culture.  If The Beatles came to America today, they would be darlings of the music press, but they would never reach the Heartland.  They would probably be on Merge, and Meet The Beatles would register a 7.5 on Pitchfork (Sample line: “All My Loving is an enjoyable pop trifle, but could use an oompah-pah band in the background”).

The fact that Justin Bieber’s “Boyfriend” is a bigger record than The Japandroids’ “The House That Heaven Built” isn’t cause for alarm, it’s just part of a never-ending cycle.  If rock n’ roll was truly embraced by the masses, it wouldn’t be as thrilling as it is.  A pummeling power chord barreling trough a Marshall stack might not sell records, but it could start a riot.

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Japandroids: Celebration Rock

When Pitchfork, the A.V. Club and other cultural tastemakers began buzzing about The Japandroids highly anticipated second LP, Celebration Rock, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge healthy skepticism.  Post-Nothing was a good record, but it wasn’t life changing.  I listened to it a lot, but I couldn’t immerse myself in their world.  When the acclaim trickled down to the Facebook statuses of friends and acquaintances, then I took notice.  Is Celebration Rock worthy of the hype?  In the words of the great philosopher Daniel Bryan, YES! YES! YES!

The most striking thing about Celebration Rock is the lack of irony.  Modern rock n’ roll is largely performed with a wink and a smile.  Bands put on leather pants, throw the devil horns and celebrate the debauchery of yore while letting the audience know that they are in on the joke.  The Japandroids aren’t hinting at rock, they are rocking out.  There are bombastic riffs, cavernous drums, and choruses that demand to be chanted by thousands of people.  It delivers exactly what it advertises, a celebration. When lead singer/guitarist Brian King screams toward the end of “Younger Us,” his joy is so palpable that you can almost reach into the speaker and grab it.

Although the reviews have been universally positive, the criticism has centered on the simplicity of the songs.  There are too many “yeaaahhhs,” too many “whoaaaaas.”  Unlike another Canadian rock outfit that shall not be named, the gang vocals are completely necessary.  Somehow King and drummer/vocalist, David Prowse have recreated the tribal ebb and flow of a rock concert within the confines of a recording studio.  Celebration Rock sounds more live than most live albums.

While the music and feeling of the album is generally joyous, Celebration Rock isn’t an ephemeral trifle.  The lyrics perfectly capture the uncertainty of being in your mid-to late 20s in the early 2010s.  “The Days of Wine and Roses” says it all: “Don’t we have anything to live for?/Of course we do, but ‘til they come true, we’re drinking.”   On “Younger Us,” they lament the fact they can no longer stay up as late as they used to.  Technically we are adults, but we don’t quite feel that way.

These are not joyous themes.  Growing older sucks.  Not knowing your place in the world sucks.  Being caught between adolescence and maturity sucks.  These are dark themes for dark times, yet Celebration Rock is a completely joyous and invigorating experience, because it reminds us that life is the reason for celebration.  Life might not be going the way you planned, but it is certainly better than the alternative.  That is what rock n’ roll has done since its inception, and what puts Celebration Rock in the pantheon of great rock albums.  I’m alive.  You are alive.  Rock n’ roll is alive.  Let’s put our fists in the air and rejoice.

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Superman Need Not Apply

 

John Cena has everything wrestling promoters revere.  He’s well-built, good-looking, has a ton of charisma, and delivers in big match situations.   He sells a ton of merchandise, is an ambassador for the business, and goes out of his way for charity.  He should be the biggest babyface in the 40-year history of World Wrestling Entertainment, but he is reviled by half of the audience.  Why?

The answer is simple: John Cena is a superhero.  Every month he has a new enemy to vanquish.  He’ll get beaten down, but he’s never in peril.  You know that even though Mark Henry or Kane is booked to be a monster, Cena will hit him with the Attitude Adjustment and move on.  This goes against the most basic principle of professional wrestling.

A babyface is supposed to be a normal human being under extraordinary circumstances.  He is the blank slate for the fans to project their hopes, dreams and desires.  If you can’t identify with the hero, then the heel’s ultimate defeat is meaningless.  Fans cannot identify with John Cena, because he has no flaws.  He doesn’t get distracted by the cheers of the crowd, he never bleeds, and he has no discernable ego.  There is no reason for anyone over 12 to get behind him.

Dusty Rhodes is the polar opposite of John Cena.  He’s middle-aged, fat and has a speech impediment, yet he is arguably the greatest babyface in the history of the business.  I’ll let him explain why.

Every young babyface should be forced to watch “Hard Times” at least once a day.  Rhodes gives his entire reason for being in three and a half minutes.  He is a family man that doesn’t particularly care to fight anymore, but Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen have pushed him to his breaking point.   He admits that he is not perfect, but he will do his best.  This line is key:

“I HAVEN’T FORGOTTEN THE LOVE THAT WAS GIVEN TO ME, AND I WILL REPAY YOU BY BECOMING THE WORLD’S HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION.”

Rhodes wants the title so he can repay the fans for their kindness.  While the babyface doesn’t need to be entirely selfless, the fans are always their motivation for getting into the squared circle.  For of all of Cena’s talk about his Chain Gang, he has never been able to connect with his audience on an intimate level.   If he can do that, the catcalls will disappear.

The reason professional wrestling has survived for a century is because human beings have an innate need to see good conquer evil.  With all the changes in the pop cultural landscape, that one trope remained constant, from Bruno Sammartino to Steve Austin.  If the babyface is replaced by Superman, this American art form will cease to exist.   Without conflict, there is no drama.

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My Top 10 of 2011 (and other fun lists!)

Remember when I used to be a writer?  That was awesome, right?  2011 was a really intense year for me, so my “career,” unfortunately fell by the wayside.  However, I never stopped listening, so here are my favorite records of 2011.  Before I get started, I want to give shoutouts to a couple people.  Thanks to Nick Jackson and Kelly Lavelle for making my site look so incredible.  If you want an amazing website, get in touch with these two.  They know what they are doing, and they put up with my impossible demands.  Thanks, guys.  I really appreciate your help and I am in your debt.

 

I also want to say that Mixtape Muse is one of the best blogs on the web, run by my buddy Quinn S., whose skills are lightyears beyond mine.  It’s already blowing up, but it’s going to be the blog to watch in 2012.  Plus, he writes cool power pop songs, and the world needs more of those.

 

But enough of my yakking, let’s boogie!

 

1. Anthrax: Worship Music (Thrash ain’t dead!)

2. The Roots: Undun (Gold, Jerry)

3. Real Estate: Days

4. The Biters: All Chewed Up

5. Butch Walker and the Black Widows: The Spade

6. Mastodon: The Hunter

6. Dum Dum Girls: Only in Dreams

7. Smith Westerns: Dye it Blonde

8. Fucked Up: David Comes to Life

9. Sloan: The Double Cross

10. Wye Oak: Civillan

 

Honorable Mentions

Florence and the Machine: Ceremonials

The Copyrights: North Sentinal Island

Motorhead: The World is Yours

Megadeth: Thirteen

Drive-By Truckers: Go-Go Boots

The Horrible Crowes: Elsie

The Happen-Ins: s/t

TV On the Radio: Nine Types of Light

Ryan Adams: Ashes and Fire

Will Dailey and the Rivals: s/t

 

Favorite Box Set:

The Beach Boys: Smile

 

Favorite Reissues:

Elvis is Back! (shocking, no?)

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls

 

Biggest Disappointment:

Lady Gaga: Born This Way (Where did the hooks go, Germanotta? WHERE DID THE HOOKS GO?!)

 

 

Most Inessential Album:

Justin Bieber: Under the Mistletoe (I’ll take A Christmas with Shaun Cassidy, thank you very much.)

 

Way to be Ahead of the Curve, John (Albums I Discovered This Year)

Superdrag: Regretfully Yours

Sunny Day Real Estate: Diary

The Jayhawks: Hollywood Town Hall

Rose Tattoo: s/t

The Undertones: s/t

Mission of Burma: Signals, Calls and Marches (I know, and you can all shut up)

Count Basie: The Atomic Mr. Basie

Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club (Thanks to Scott Mullins for that one)

Waylon Jennings: Lonesome On’ry and Mean

Kinks: Kinda Kinks

 

Audio Comfort Food

Cheap Trick: At Budokan

Iron Maiden: Anything, but usually Powerslave, Live After Death or Somewhere in Time

The Ramones: Anything, but usually It’s Alive!

Rush: Moving Pictures

The Faces: Five Guys Walk Into a Bar

The Marvelous 3: ReadySexGo!

Pretty Boy Floyd: Leather Boyz With Electric Toyz

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

Superchunk: No Pocky For Kitty

Al Green’s Greatest Hits

From Elvis in Memphis

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

David Bowie: Young Americans

The Clash: Give Em Enough Rope

Elton John’s Greatest Hits

Guns n’ Roses: Appetite for Destruction

The Gaslight Anthem: The ’59 Sound

Rod Stewart (who is AWESOME, despite what certain people think) Every Picture Tells a Story

Frank Sinatra: Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!

The Replacements: Tim

Poison: Look What the Cat Dragged In

 

 

I told you the extra lists would be super fun.  Feel free to comment and let me know that I have no taste.  See you in 2012

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What’s His Signature?

 

Freak of the Week at Ram\’s Head Live

In 1999, Butch Walker’s power pop band, The Marvelous 3, scored a top five hit with “Freak of the Week,” a song about an indie band getting a taste of fame.  When the song fell off the charts, the band was promptly forgotten by their label, and left to wallow in Buzz Ballads purgatory.

When Walker played “Freak of the Week” during his acoustic set at Ram’s Head Live, the crowd roared.  Not because it was the song they came to hear, but because it has become a rarity.  Butch Walker is no longer the lead singer of The Marvelous 3, but his own man.  The Marvies and Left of Self-Centered certainly introduced some of the crowd to Butch Walker (myself included), but nobody was there to huddle under a warm blanket of nostalgia.

Butch Walker has a few well-known songs, but not a signature.  Because of this, he can play what he wants. He can open the show with an acoustic set, or he can storm the stage with his Les Paul blazing.  Like any artist with a robust body of work, there are a few songs you can generally count on, but nothing is a sure thing.  That is what makes a Butch Walker show special.  Even “Cigarette Lighter Love Song,” the closest thing he has to a signature song, gets played with.  The first time I saw him, he did it with a full band, like on the album.  The second time, he was on the piano.  At Ram’s Head last week, he scrapped the instrumentation entirely, performing the song a cappella.

Hardcore fans often lament the fact that Butch Walker isn’t a bigger star, that he should be selling out theatres instead of playing clubs.  He should.  However, watching Butch at Ram’s Head, I realized that if he had a huge hit single, he would have to make certain concessions.  The loose, freewheeling structure of his show would be gone.  He would have to play the hits, and concentrate on what the fans of that single wanted to hear.  They wouldn’t want to hear the evolution of Butch as a songwriter, which is what the crowd at Ram’s Head was lucky enough to get.  They didn’t get a Butch Walker show, they got his musical history; from the guitar duel of “Freebird”, to the Marvelous 3, to The Black Widows.  Butch wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Sebastian Bach: Kicking and Screaming

 

Sebastian Bach is one of heavy metal’s great interpreters.  Dave “The Snake” Sabo and Rachael Bolan were good songwriters, and Skid Row would have probably been successful with another singer, but Bach took their songs and shaped them into molten slabs of rock.  He has the combustible mixture of technical virtuosity and personal charisma that all great singers possess, regardless of genre.

So where is it?  Sebastian Bach rarely sounds like Sebastian Bach on Kicking and Screaming, his first solo album in almost five years. Listening to Sebastian Bach sing was like watching a great actor perform Shakespeare.  He would pick apart every lyric and figure out where to inject his trademark mannerisms.  He was so good at his craft that it never felt like showbiz trickery.  On Kicking and Screaming, every Bachism is intact, but they feel tacked on.  He’s screaming because he feels he has to, not because it fits the music.

You could make the argument that Bach is just trying to work with the material he was given.  If this was the case, I would be more forgiving, but Bach co-wrote many of the songs.  Bach is still writing from a 19 year old’s point of view.  He’s misunderstood, he’s full of aggression, and he’s still untouchable.  Metal is an ageless genre, but Bach is trying to portray the guy from the “Youth Gone Wild” video.  He’s not that guy anymore, and he hasn’t been for a long time. Besides, even if you write from a place of arrested development, couldn’t you come up with a better line than “I’m the original crazy/in a world that I never known?”

The lyrics are complimented by the most generic heavy metal that Bach has ever lent his vocals to.  The metal press has made a big deal over Bach’s latest axe-slinger, 21 year old prodigy, Nick Sterling, but he doesn’t bring much to the table.  He can shred, but his playing isn’t very distinctive.  His style consists of by-the-numbers metal riffing with a flashy but faceless solo on top.  His playing is also hindered by the terrible production, which is as clean and septic as a hospital hallway.

When Skid Row released Slave to the Grind two decades ago, it was a quantum leap from the rebellious party rock of their self-titled debut.  On that record, Sebastian Bach sounded like he was capable of anything.  Now he’s just another guy, trading on past glories.  Bach’s voice is still there, but the fire is gone.  It’s a damn shame.

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