20 November 2016

Happy Birthday, Dad

Today (Nov 19) is my dad’s birthday. Since my parents divorced when I was three or four, I haven’t really done much for his birthday. A card sent when I was younger, a text or a Facebook message in more recent years. It certainly was never about not caring. In some ways, I really take after him, or at least the side of him I’ve always known: not opening up easily, not sharing emotions very openly. One way I know this is similar to him is because it’s the same thing I’d get on my birthday.

But this year is different. This is the first birthday for him that’s come up that he won’t be getting older. The next few weeks are going to be tough for all of these “firsts” without him.

When Dad died back in January, to say it was a shock would be an understatement of huge proportions. And to have it happen just a few hours separate from the passing of his mom, my grandma, left an open wound for the whole family. It’s been ten months of healing, but I have no question that wound is about to open wide again.

This is the second time I’ve lost a father. My step-dad passed away in 1996, and even to this day there’s still a gap in my life. But while that will never go away, two decades has a way of easing the pain and promoting the good memories instead. But that time hasn’t passed yet, and so I’m just putting some thoughts out there.

After the divorce, Dad and I weren’t that close. I’ve posted about it before, but it’s just a matter of reality. We moved four hours away, and at that age, it’s tough to form a close bond with someone you see a total of maybe two months out of the year, spread out over four or five visits. There have been many times I’ve been envious of my sister Lori and her family, and my step-sister and -brother Michelle and Steve and their families because they got to know Dad is ways I never did, and never will. Their kids got to grow up with their grandpa, while mine met him twice. I don’t bregrude a single second of that time for them. That’s the way life happens, and it wasn’t “against” me, it’s simply the way things worked out. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking about “what if…?”

Today would have been his 65th birthday. I have no doubt there would have been a bit of a to-do, especially with it being on a Saturday. Cake and ice cream, lots of laughter. But that’s not what this year will have in store.

I guess I’m just writing this as a little bit of personal therapy. In the weeks to come there will be thanks given among the tears, and gifts under trees that won’t shine quite as bright because of his absence, and that of Grandma.

I’ll just leave this a open letter to all my family – to Lori, and ‘Chelle, Stevie, and my step-mom, Sheila. To all my aunts and uncles, and all the (countless!) cousins. Whether you knew him as Dad, uncle, brother, grandpa, it doesn’t matter. The absence is real, and I know it affects us all.

19 November 2016

Praying for Success

In the mid-80s, the glam-band heyday was in full swing. Bands like Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi were setting the world on fire, filling arenas and flooding the airwaves of MTV. In the middle of all of that came a surprising upstart that shifted perceptions in the music world. “To Hell With The Devil” was released in 1986 and struck gold – then platinum!

The third album from Christian hard rock band Stryper was the first album by any Christian rock band to reach platinum, and held on to the title of best-selling album in that genre for fifteen years. Stryper would find massive success with the broader audiences with their videos for the album playing alongside the likes of Poison, Def Leppard Warrant, Great White, and Tesla – the dominant forces of music in the 80s and 90s.

Stryper at the Limelight Eventplex in Peoria, Nov 4th 2016
Now, thirty years after that groundbreaking release, Stryper is taking the “THWTD” show back on the road. With the original band members wearing the traditional black and yellow and playing the album in its entirety, the 30th Anniversary tour dropped into the Limelight Eventplex in Peoria on November 4th
Michael Sweet

Even after all this time, this band is a tight unit. Michael Sweet still brings the crowd to a cheering roar with every note. He doesn’t sound exactly the same as he did when the bad was at their MTV-era peak, but in all honesty, that’s not a complaint. He doesn’t sound the same because his voice and skill have continued to mature. His guitar playing is also immaculate, sharing duties with Oz Fox and contributing one half of a two-axe attack that just sounds incredible.

Robert Sweet
Carrying on his standard form of sitting sideways, Robert Sweet drives every song. He plays like a madman, and plays to the crowd like the veteran he is. And with the way he sits, the audience can see just how much effort it is to work behind the tubs.

Oz Fox
Shredding the six-strings in true 80s hair-metal fashion is Oz Fox, and he hasn’t dropped a single note. He still fills the songs with the screaming sound that you would want to hear, and his stage presence is hugely entertaining. As mentioned, Fox and Sweet don’t have a traditional lead and rhythm relationship. They trade back and forth, and the bring a duality to solos that brings to mind the heyday of KISS, with Stanley and Frehley harmonizing with their six-strings.
Timothy Gaines

Timothy Gaines works right along with Robert to make up the rhythm section. His bass still thunders, and his backing vocals blend into a great harmony with both Sweet and Fox. It’s not hard to imagine how different the band might sound with someone else in his spot – it’s happened in the past – but this is the line-up the band should have.

As Michael Sweet stated, some of the songs from “To Hell With The Devil” haven’t been played since that time thirty years ago. But I would challenge anyone to pick them out of the crowd. Songs like “Holding On” and “Rockin’ The World” sound as slick and practiced as “Calling On You” and “Free.” The set list is a touch awkward, because they open with the entire album, in album order. This isn’t always the best flow for live shows, but they make it work, and the nostalgia factor is cranked to eleven.
Michael Sweet
After the album portion of the show, and following a quick costume change which found frontman Sweet sporting a crowd-please Cubs jersey, the band switched up to a more standard set. Newer numbers like “Yahweh” joined classics from other albums like “Soldiers Under Command” and “In God We Trust.” They also pulled a pair of covers – “Shout it Out Loud” and the apropos “Heaven and Hell” – to fill out the set of ten songs on top of the ten from “To Hell With The Devil”. 

While the venue – Limelight Eventplex in Peoria – is a fair difference from the arenas the band was playing three decades past, the place was packed with screaming, singing-along fans clamoring for the picks and Bibles tossed from the stage. It’s a fantastic facility the likes of which would be welcome down here in the Gem City, and they know how to present a true headlining show.
Oz Fox
Nearly thirty-three years after they started, and thirty years after they broke through as a major force, Stryper hasn’t pulled any punches. They wear their faith proudly, not as a gimmick, and while they’re happy to share their views, they’re never preachy about it. Whether that’s your thing or not, it doesn’t matter. Lyrics raising praise to the heavens or conjuring darker imagery are both tools of the trade, and neither of them matter if the music isn’t solid. Stryper’s songs bring the former, but they’re rooted in a solid foundation of hard, heavy rock music.

Every word of praise, every accolade laid at the feet of this band is well-earned. While other bands come and go as flashes in the pan, Stryper has proven that their faith and their talents are still relevant and still hold that stage with grace and humility. It’s been a 30+ year ride, and these guys don’t show any signs of hitting the brakes.

Michael Sweet

*note: more photos from the show can be found at http://www.badwolfmedia.net/facebook

09 September 2016

Give Us Dirty Laundry....

There’s a great Don Henley song that talks about our obsession with the worst possible news stories, and how that’s what everyone wants to see. (There’s a cover out right now by Nickelback, a band people love to hate, and I don’t get that, either…but that’s a digression) There’s been a (too-)long-held mantra in the news business that “if it bleeds, it leads.” And now it’s coming in the form of movie reviews and commentary for a film about a real-life event.

This week, Warner Bros releases SULLY, directed by Clint Eastwood, about the “Miracle on the Hudson” emergency landing of a US Airways passenger jet in New York’s Hudson River. On that day, January 15, 2009, 150 passengers, 3 flight attendants, and 2 cockpit crew members were on the edge of being another sad statistic in air-travel, and another open wound to the NYC area. But instead (Spoiler, for those who were living in a cave seven years ago!) everyone lived. Through four decades of experience, the pilot – Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger – pulled off an amazing feat, belly-flopping the plane in the frigid water, where New York and New Jersey ferries responded and picked up everyone that had been on the plane, a little soggy and cold, but truly no worse for the wear.

That’s the history part of today’s lesson. It’s a story that really happened. It’s not fiction created for the big screen, we watched the water rescue unfold on the news (the landing happened too fast, but there’s still video of it). The captain was (rightfully) hailed as a hero.

And now comes the film.

From people who don’t, apparently, understand dramatic storytelling, I’ve seen a couple of common refrains of complaint about the movie, and I just don’t understand them.

First up, I’ve seen people saying “why do we need this movie? We already know how it ends, why should waste the money?” We knew how TITANIC was going to end. We know how every movie about WWII is going to end. We knew how the Apollo 13 mission turned out. So why make those movies? The answer is simple to say, and hard as hell to do: It’s the humanity of the stories. It’s not a news blurb, it’s not a line on a scrolling ticker. It’s what these people lived and felt and thought. The story is mostly relived through Sullenberger’s eyes, but we also get glimpses of the men and women that could do nothing but hold on and (if they were so inclined) pray. Yes, we know how the story ends. But what Eastwood has done with this film is shown us, and to a degree brought us into, how the story happened.

Next, I’ve seen people saying that it’s a bunch of hype over a guy who just did his job. And you know, they’re right. Sullenberger himself has said much the same thing about what happened that day. But here’s the other thing: Those people, including the good Captain, are also wrong. A firefighter gets paid to run into a burning building, but that doesn’t make it less heroic when they come out carrying an infant. When a crazy person is shooting up a mall, the police are paid to run toward the gunfire while everyone else is running away. That doesn’t lessen the impact of their actions, though. And Captain Sullenberger, along with First Officer Jeff Skiles, were paid to get those passengers back on the ground and home to their loved ones. I think part of the attitude of dismal is because we’ve forgotten how dangerous air travel can be. We’ve eliminated as much risk as possible, but sometime stupid, dumb, blind luck – good and bad – rears its head. In this case, it was a catastrophic mechanical loss that, honestly, should have killed every person in that plane and who knows how many on the ground. But that didn’t happen, because the pilots were “just doing their job.” When the routine becomes the dramatic, those we barely think of at all become the heroic. That’s the way of the world.

And lastly, I’ve seen comments that are a combination of the two above: “The story is boring. No one even died, what’s the big deal?” That no one even died is the big deal. That’s kind of the whole point. At the time this happened, NYC was still recovering from the events of September 11th a few years earlier, and from the tragedy of the airliner that crashed in a Queens neighborhood in November of 2001. As is stated in the movie, it had been a long time since New York had a good story to tell, especially one involving an airplane. That whole mentality of “no one died, who cares?” is, in my opinion, one of the biggest problems in the country today, not just with the news, but every day. But this is a story where, instead of body bags and shovels, the police and fire crews showed up with Red Cross blankets, dry clothes, and coffee. It’s a real-life, honest fairy-tale ending that, had they written it for fiction, would have been laughed out of the room as too unbelievable to be told.

This isn’t a movie review. I don’t know how to write reviews. This is a stream of thought on the reactions I’ve seen to this movie. If you want to know what I think of the film, that can be summed up in three words: Go See It! It’s Clint Eastwood behind the camera, with Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, and an amazing supporting cast in front of the lens. Yes, there is some dramatic license taken – the NTSB investigation wasn’t nearly as adversarial as it’s portrayed – but that’s a creative decision, and I think it pays off in that it frames Captain Sullenberger’s self-doubt.

This isn’t a review, though. This is about story, and how people are losing sight of what makes a good story. You don’t have to have a body count. You don’t need blood and gore. You don’t need an evil villain in his bowler hat twirling his mustache to show tension. What you need is humanity, and the character. The story will then tell itself.

25 August 2016

No Good Deed...

About two weeks ago, Tiffany and I were driving around town randomly. We like to do that from time to time, and (yes, I’m spilling here!) she occasionally likes to play the new Pokemon mobile game. We were winding our way through the beautiful southern portion of Indian Mounds Park when we saw a couple of fairly young kittens by a storm-drain. Of course we stopped; we’re animal lovers, and we both believe that kittens don’t belong outside. There were three of them – two black kittens and a tortoiseshell coloured younger kitten.

And so started a week and a half of checking on them, trying to get their trust, and working to find them new homes. We borrowed a pair of live-trap cages from the good folks at the Quincy Humane Society and managed to get the two black kittens within a few minutes. Thinking there was only one more left, we reset one of the traps and waited…only to discover there was another black cat, a little older but still a kitten. We returned the traps for that day with only two caught. But we weren’t done.

The two we had spent about a day and a half in the dog kennel, converted to a little quarantine area until we were confident there was nothing immediately life-threatening. Then we let them out to explore. These kittens were timid, but they were not feral. After only a few hours, they were playing with the toys we have for our cats, and after a day, they were letting us pet them, climbing up to see us. Even after just a few days, their fur was cleaner, being able to groom themselves out of the elements.

After a few days, we were able to catch the last two that we knew were down there. The older one seemed to be the mother of the litter, while the small tortie was clingy and scared. Once we had all four rounded up, we took them out to the Humane Society to take advantage of some of the medical options available, including the trap-neuter-release program. Since we already have cats of our own, we couldn’t keep them (that would have made an already-modest-size home very cramped). While not as ideal as finding them a new home, we fully planned to honor the TNR program and release them on a local farm. They would still be outdoors, but they would have regular access to food and water. We did make the decision to adopt the tortie kitten.

Now, let me first say this is hard enough. As an animal-lover, to look at a kitten and know that I’d let them be a kitten for three days – no worries about fighting for their lives, scrambling for food, and being petted and paid attention to whenever they want it – and then telling them ‘that’s all…back outside you go!’ was heartbreaking. How you pick one that gets to have a loving family while the others don’t…how does anyone with a heart make that decision without it tearing them apart?

But then the call came from the Humane Society: The mama cat was still actively nursing, which means there was another litter out there in the woods somewhere. And on top of that, they didn’t find the signs of that until after the surgery, so there’s a chance now that she won’t be able to nurse any more. By trying to help these cats, it’s possible we condemned others. And I had to do something I never thought I’d do: release cats into the wild.

It may just be rationalizing to myself, but rather than split them up, we released all three – the mama and two male black kittens – back where we found them. My reasoning was that the mama cat had to get back to try and save the other litter. The rationalization comes from my conclusion that the other two will help keep her and the others safer – safety in numbers.

We’ve lost our share of pets to illness and age. We’ve said goodbye to two of them just in the last few months. These weren’t our cats. They were strays, and we were just trying to help. But taking them out of the carrier and letting them loose into the wild, that ranks up there to me as one of the toughest, hardest things I’ve done.

I’ve always thought it was stupid when people say they “care too much.” How is it possible to care too much about something, especially another living creature? Well, the answer is that you can, and you’ll know it when something like this happens, when you can’t help any more, and have even potentially made things worse...when that happens and you feel the heart ripped out of your chest just thinking about it, then you’ll know that you can, indeed, care too much.

I don’t know if there’s anything I’m hoping to accomplish with sharing this. If anyone’s looking to add some incredibly sweet kittens to your family, I know where to find them. They’re fixed, and for the next 12 months they’re already up to date on rabies vaccinations. And if anyone is looking for a cause to support, call up the Quincy Humane society and ask what you can do. Because I’ve done this rescue thing one time now, and I can’t do it again. They do it day after day, both locally and assisting around the country. Sally and her team are amazing, and I don’t know how they do it, because I know they care as much as I do. And I know they can always use help.


24 June 2016

2nd-Day Chili

Contrary to popular belief, some things are better as leftovers. Chili is usually the first thing that comes to mind. A good chili is good no matter when you eat it, but it often becomes a great chili when you let it sit, undisturbed for a day or so, letting it settle, get infused with all the flavors.

But let’s be honest, the things that benefit from sitting untouched are pretty few and far between. Chili, wine, bourbon, these things get better with some age. But a soda goes flat, bread gets stale, and fruits rot.

The same thing happens with movies. When you let a story sit untouched for years, it’s probably best if you just leave it alone. By that point, your tale has gone past its prime, your story is likely well-remembered on the palette of your audience, and the world has moved on. There are numerous examples of this, but ZOOLANDER 2 is a recent example: wait too long, and you lose relevance.

Last night I went out with the family to see INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE. Without giving anything away, I would have to say the film isn’t exactly a good chili.

The film is set in real time, so it’s been 20 years since the events of the first movie. It seems, however, that very few lessons were learned along the way other than how to make things faster, and flashier. (Maybe the filmmakers’ real intention was to make it a parable about Hollywood itself?) The story is kinda stale, it’s a familiar flavor, something we’ve had before, enjoyed, but that didn’t hold up as leftovers. There’s nothing wrong with it, really, it’s just…’been there, done that’.

This isn’t really a review of the movie, but the film is a good stepping-off point for a discussion about a problem that’s been going on for a while: Sequels without real purpose. Yes, I do understand that the purpose is to make money for the studios. But that doesn’t mean you should just serve up the same thing year after year, and you really shouldn’t go back two decades and then deliver a lot of the same story.

Here, I’m a little hypocritical, now, and I can admit that. A lot of the arguments around the latest STAR WARS film is how much it rehashed earlier films. While this is a valid argument to a degree, that film delivered the story while introducing new characters. There are new characters in RESURGENCE, also, but the primary story still focuses on old faces we know well.

If you’re going to wait twenty years to make a sequel, I think you really need to deliver a story that’s new. Telling the same story with a new glossy coating just feels a bit lazy to me. The story-beats, the pacing, it all feels the same, and “same” should be a four-letter word with any sequel, but especially twenty years on. If you’re going to use the same characters, you have to take them someplace new. While it’s panned for the story (which I disagree with) and the visual effects (which I do agree with), INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is a good example of this. We get Dr. Jones and Marion Ravenwood back, but they’re in the jungle, not the desert. They deal with Russians and aliens, not Nazis and holy powers. It’s familiar, but new at the same time. Whether they succeeded or failed is more personal taste, but at least they tried.

With STAR WARS, it’s a mirror image: The story is similar, but it’s new faces going on the adventure. Some old friends join in the fun, but they’re not the main focus of the story. It’s a passing-the-torch tale, and it works because the older characters are more mentors, not taking the hero’s quest themselves.

RESURGENCE misses on these points. It tells an almost-identical story to the first and it does it primarily with characters we’ve seen on that path before. The predictability of the story is almost a given: the good guys have to triumph, so they can make another sequel, right? But there’s nothing new being brought to the table. The bad guys are bigger, the guns are flashier, but in the end, they’re the same bad guys, and the same heroes toeing the line. The few new characters that are present come off as more expository than anything, and the few storylines they try to introduce for them are either heavily rushed or have no pay-off.

Here’s how I see it: If you’re going to wait twenty years, you need to make it count. You need to let your audience feel it was worth the wait. You need to give them that second-day chili to savor. This movie feels more like the old heels from a loaf of bread. Yeah, they work to make a sandwich, but it’s bland and doesn’t stay with you like that hearty chili would.

And now I’m hungry.

01 May 2016

What's it worth to ya?

Whoever said a picture is worth a thousand words didn't know what they were talking about.

I've been working on photos from this weekend, and I shared the one below with a friend. It's a picture of him with his little girl, and she looks so incredibly happy, and her dad, looking at her...you can tell without a doubt she's the apple of his eye. How do you put something like that into words? I know my words - what you're reading right now - don't really convey it properly.

I take a lot of picture. Good LORD do I take a lot of pictures! But very rarely do they mean something. Every one of them tells a story, certainly - I can look at them and tell you a lot about when and where they were taken, what I was doing, etc. I shoot a fair number of events - concerts, charity fundraisers, things like that. All of those pictures are important as they capture those moments that people like to look back on. But that's not the same as the photos having meaning.

When I shared the photo above, my hope was that he liked it, that's all. He told me that he felt it's his favorite photo he's had with his daughter. Look at the pair of them, you can see she means the world to him, and even though she probably wouldn't be able to explain it, I guarantee she feels the same way about him.

It really moved me when he said that. It says that photo means something, it's not just a snapshot, or even a frozen moment in time. It means something to him, and hopefully someday to her. And that makes it mean something to me. And I can't tell you, as the guy behind the lens, how satisfying it is to hear that. All the thousands and thousands of other photos I've taken, every flower, every guitarist, every sunset, every cloud, is worth more to be because they led me to that one shot.

It also makes me a bit sad, as well. As I said in a post here a few months back, when I lost my dad it dawned on me that I never got a photo of him and my son. I don't have any pictures of my kid and his grandpa. When we visited, we spent time catching up, and that didn't seem that important. I had time, I'll get those shots later. And then the time is passed. The moment is gone, and won't ever be here again. I'm trying to not let it get to me, but it does. I wasn't terribly close with him, but he's still my dad, and my son's grandpa. And it's tough.

But I look at that picture, and I see that perfectly happy, innocent, carefree smile, and I can't help be be thrilled to have caught that moment. I didn't know I was catching it at the time - I honestly don't think too much about that stuff when I'm shooting. That's one of my joys of editing photos, finding the nuggets buried in a hundred other commonplace shots.

I'm glad I got this shot, and I'm glad it means so much to him. I don't think I've ever been paid as high a compliment as he gave me about it.

I'm glad it means something words can't say, no matter how many thousands.

08 April 2016

Welcome to the pit...

There's a trope in comic books that goes something like this: When a new character joins a team, the cover features the heroes looking menacing. The tagline is a variation on the theme of "Hey, new guy! Welcome to the team! Hope you survive the experience!"

This past week, I had a real dream-come-true moment. I got a message that I was going to get to shoot photos for a show on an international tour. Just in general, this would have been amazing enough. But the icing, the cherry, and the extra piece of cake on top of that cake was that the show was for Iron Maiden. I mean, they've simply been one of my favorite bands for twenty or thirty years. No big deal, right?


So, in an effort to not look like the complete amateur I am, I started digging. I was looking at tips, advice, and stories from concert photographers. And that's when I learned about the pit.

See, the pit in this case refers to the fairly narrow space between the stage and the maniac fans pressed right up to the barrier. This small space is where security stands, technicians for the tour move through, video guys are shooting for the live big screen. And this is where the photographers stand to get the shots you see from concerts.

Typically, photographers have access for the first three songs of the set. Then they get out of the way and let those front-row maniacs enjoy the show without distraction. What that means, though, is you have all these guys and gals swinging cameras, lenses, and themselves all over the place trying to get "the shot" in around 12 minutes (give or take, with 4-minute songs). Everyone wants "the shot" and everyone's trying to use the same two-foot-square piece of real estate to get that perfect position. As I read more on the etiquette, I was educated on how to get around other photogs, how to get my shot and get the hell out of the way so others can get theirs. All the things that make working in that small space bearable.

So, with this knowledge in hand, that old comic book trope started running through my head. I had, essentially 24-hours notice to make sure my gear was ready, to arrange a place to stay (God bless understanding family!), and to get myself to Chicago (about 5 hours) in time to take my place. And through all of this, all I kept thinking was "Welcome to the pit, Mike! Hope you survive the experience!"

I got to the venue - the Madhouse on Madison, the United Center in Chicago - way to early, because I'd been anticipating worse traffic. I was so early, when I pulled into the parking lot, the lot technically wasn't even open yet. I had to check in at will-call and contact the PR rep on site to get things arranged, but I couldn't leave my car. Getting towed that far from home  - and while broke as all get-out! - would have been very, very bad. So I called the venue to see if they could put me in touch with the PR rep I needed to reach. No luck. I was so early, the tour people weren't even there yet.

So I waited. I cleaned my lenses one more time. And then waited some more. Finally the lot "opened" and I talked to one of the parking guys. Yes, I was in the right spot, but no, parking wasn't free. So I paid the man for the little piece of cardboard that said "you're good, your car will still be here when you get back!", and I set off to find my ticket.

That part was easy. The will-call windows were moving fast, and after I handed over my ID, they handed it back with my ticket in about thirty seconds. Fast and efficient, now I just had to wait (again) for the PR rep to check my paperwork and give me my photo pass. And that's when it got really real.

This is also when I met my fellow pit-dwellers for the night. Just from listening to them talk, these were all old hands at that job. "Were you in Detroit last night?" "No, I was going to, but they had me go to Cleveland instead..." They knew each other, and they were talking about how other folks they knew in common had been shut out of this show. That was daunting - folks with experience doing this stuff were told no, and here I was with a decal that let me go places I have dreamed about. Why? What made the PR guy pick me? I have no idea, and I'm not going to ask (because something about gift horses and such).

I want to say, I'm proud of my photo work. I think I'm decent, and I'm not of the opinion that I didn't belong there. I have a healthy enough ego to think that I'm good enough, or I wouldn't be there, plain and simple. But I'm also a realist. These folks, who were nice as could be, inviting and welcoming into their club, were pros. They had me outclassed in experience, and had me outgunned in equipment. At that moment in time, though - 7:30pm Central Daylight Time, in Chicago, IL - it didn't matter. As we all checked gear one last time, mounted lenses to bodies, got earplugs ready, I was one of them. I took a breath, and then we were off.

Down a flight of stairs and we were in a white hallway. Dayglow-green signs were posted on doors: "Band room," "Rod's Room*," all these places set aside where, behind closed doors, were the guys I'd listened to for most of my life. And I was here, under the seats, with them. And those doors at the end of the hall opened and we were led out onto the arena floor. Past the crowds in the seats, and the cattle-call of people in general admission. This was the opening act, so there were only four photographers. We all found a comfortable place in the pit to start the night. I heard someone in the crowd behind me say "you know it's about to start when they bring these guys out!"

Holy crap! That was me he was talking about! I was his indicator that the show was coming. That was at the time, and still is, two days later, bizarre for me to think about.

After we got the first songs committed to film (or digital media, actually), we were led back through the hall to the holding area to wait for the headliner. Then the process was repeated - down the white halls, through the doors, only this time, the place was packed. Just absolutely stuffed to the gills with people. Unlike the opening act, this time we were stopped by a representative of the band. A very kind, polite young British woman explained that the show would open with a blast of pyrotechnics, and that it would be very hot and bright, so be ready. Boy, was she ever not kidding! Those controlled bursts of flame are HOT! But it didn't matter. I was there. This time, the pit was more crowded, with two more photographers, the video guys, security, band staff, etc. But it wasn't at all like I'd read about. There was no real bumping, no one in each others' way. It was the epitome of professional courtesy.

Maybe this was an unusual occurrence because they had been so stingy with the photo passes. But, for me, it was a dream come true. I was in the pit.

And I survived the experience.

See my review and photos at The Herald-Whig.

*for those who don't know, Rod Smallwood is Iron Maiden's manager. He's a legend for running a tight ship and keeping absolute control over the access on tours. I didn't see him, but even seeing his name on the door mean I was "there."

29 March 2016

The Song Remains The Same

This past weekend, my friend Rodney got to see his favorite band (The Who) in concert, and he had a great time (and you can read all about it here!). While reading his review of/love letter to the show, it dawned on me just how many of the songs I know, but by other artists.

To be right up front, I've never been the biggest fan of The Who. I have no problem with them - they're great musicians, and they obviously write great songs (which is the point of my writing here). It's just that, honestly, they're not of my generation.

Ironic, ain't it?

I grew up listening to country music - as in: George Jones, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Pride. We lived out in the country, no cable, and watched "Hee-Haw" every weekend.

Once we moved into town, my music vocabulary started expanding in huge ways. A couple of neighborhood friends (Jamie and Rocky are mostly to blame) introduced me to the joy of rock n' roll. KISS and Iron Maiden were two that caught my attention early and held on, with others - W.A.S.P., for one - coming into the picture later.

And that circles back to what I was thinking about today. In Rodney's post about The Who, he made a passing reference to the song "The Real Me." I absolutely love this song. It's got a great guitar riff, but more than that, it's got a terrific bass line in that is one of the earliest things I recall noticing a bass line. It's almost like a separate lead guitar part, but it's definitely doing its own thing.

But the kicker is, I didn't know it was a song from The Who. I know it as a W.A.S.P. song, with Johnny Rod playing the part that I now know was created by John Entwistle. It was the song I first recall understanding that bass is something more than just rhythm-keeping, that it can be a part of the song, too. When I started hearing Billy Sheehan playing with David Lee Roth, I knew it was something special, but at the time, I thought it was just something DLR had put together to try and climb out of Van Halen's shadow. But "The Real Me" introduced me to the concept of bass as its own voice, rather than just a piece of the background. (Before all my drummer-buddies start yelling at me, I did learn the same thing about drums from other songs, like "Dangerous Toys" by the band of the same name, in particular the song "Ten Boots.)

I've known the song since W.A.S.P. released it in 1989, but - embarrassingly - I didn't even realize it was a cover until a few years back (7, 8 years now, I guess). As a yout', I didn't have the benefit of the internet, and as a not-yout', I had never really thought to look it up. I just really enjoyed the song.

Now, having learned it was a cover, I found The Who's version. And it's great! It really does rock, heavier than I would have expected (at that time; I've learned way more about The Who since then), with amazing vocals and that gorgeous bass in it. But it's not my version of the song.

So, while dwelling on all this, it made me realize there are a lot of songs that I musically "grew up" on cover versions. To me, those are the "real" versions, even if they're not the original. Thought I'd share a few, so the three people that ever read this can get a look into my own music-fan history.


The Who's "The Real Me" - Covered by W.A.S.P.

Another from The Who "My Generation" as covered by Gorky Park
This one, I knew was a cover, but this is the version that caught me at just the right moment in my music development. I really like this band, and I'm bummed they didn't make it bigger

"Mony Mony" by Tommy James and the Shondells, famously covered (and banned from school functions) by Billy Idol (this is the live version with Steve Stevens on guitar; this version of the song, coincidentally, bumped off another Tommy James cover - Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now" - from the #1 spot)

The King, Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" - Covered by another legendary band making a come-back in their career at the time, Cheap Trick. Just as a personal note, as a 12, 13 year old kid watching the video for the Cheap Trick version, it was incredibly cool to see an electric base on a monopod stand being played as an upright bass.

Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" recreated as an early, popular rap song by Run DMC. This one might be a bit of a cheat, because Aerosmith is part of it. But - like Cheap Trick - this new version of the song brought Aerosmith back from the edge of obscurity to continue their legendary career.


That's just a few notable songs. I'm not trying to say any of these covers are better than the originals. Just that these are the way I first heard these songs.

And the songs are the same. The music is there. If the songs weren't great in the first place, they wouldn't have been covered, and they certainly couldn't have been covered so well! It's just proof that good music transcends generations. Good music is good music, even when it's tweaked and twisted and "made new." At its core, good music lasts forever.

But what do I know.

22 March 2016

"Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice" - My take

Thanks to the generous folks at Warner Bros, AMC, WGEM/CW, and County Market stores, I got to see an early screening of this film tonight, two days before the 'preview' showings on Thursday, and three before the official release date on Friday.

I'm going to write up my thoughts on it, and I'm not going to avoid any spoilers. The majority of this text will be hidden, so you'll have to swipe over it if you want to read it.

For those who care about my opinion (and why would you?), here's the non-spoiler take on it: It was pretty much what I expected, and less than I would have hoped for. How's that?

Okay, spoiler-filled text below. You've been warned!

"God versus man. Day versus night! Son of Krypton...versus Bat of Gotham!" -Lex Luthor

This is the fight comic fans have been wanting on the big screen for years. Before comic book movies really took off, back to 1978, when we believed "a man can fly." It's taken a long time, and several different incarnations of both characters to finally get them face to face. And now, here we are.

I would have rather waited long. Back around the time Nolan was making Batman films and Superman returned to find out he had a kid, Marvel snuck up on the world with "Iron Man" and changed the way comic book movies could be made. Bright, colourful costumes, Light-hearted banter blended with high-intensity action. They made comic books come to life. They followed that up with other heroes before assembling a team worthy of the four-coloured books from which they were spawned.

And WB/DC saw this, and they were awed. DC vs Marvel is as big of a fight as the title bout this movie offers. And I will openly admit I've always been more of a Marvel guy. But I also love the DC properties. In 1989, Tim Burton's "Batman" was the first movie I ever went to multiple times. I pre-ordered that movie on VHS from my local video store (Frese Video, in the old location at the corner of 12th & Lind, for anyone reading this from Quincy!). I loved (and still love) that movie. It's been downhill from there, though.

DC and their parent-company Warner Bros saw the success Marvel was building with their Avengers films, and realized wanted to cash in on those dollars. Nolan had finished telling his story, and Superman was on life-support. Before "The Dark Knight Rises" was even cold in the ground, word was out that Batman would be rebooted again, bringing him into the same movie universe as Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel." Fans were instantly psyched, because they knew the legendary fight was coming.

There's the history lesson (or my spin on history, anyway). After a few delays and schedule bounces, "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" is upon us. And I wish I could be happier with it. I really like Henry Cavill's turn as Clark Kent/Superman, and I REALLY like Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne and Batman. They both really fit the roles, but the material they're given to work with lets them down.

The story is really convoluted here. Lex Luthor sets up an elaborate trap to make it look like Superman slaughtered a bunch of people - mostly terrorists - so that he can convince the US government to let him have control of the wrecked ship from "Man of Steel". His goal is ostensibly to develop a counter-measure to Superman.

In the meantime, Bruce Wayne is stewing over having one of his skyscrapers destroyed in the climax of the previous movie (which we get to see from his POV in an extended opening flashback). He's also trying to track down a super-weapon that he thinks is coming into Gotham, which he eventually tracks back to Lex Luthor.

Things carry on for a good long while, though nothing really happens until Lex sets things up to blow up a hearing in the Senate at which Superman is testifying. This leads the populace to think that Superman saw it coming but didn't care enough to stop it, turning popular opinion against him. Lex also - somehow, though I'm not clear how - convinces Bruce Wayne (not Batman; apparently Lex knows they're one and the same) that Superman's indifference reflects on Bruce "letting" his building and employees get destroyed. So then Luthor kidnaps Martha Kent (a criminally wasted return of Diane Lane!) to blackmail Superman into killing Bruce for him.

That brings us to the Big Show, the top of the card, the fight we all came to see. And it's a beautiful video game. There shouldn't have been any concern about Ben Affleck playing Batman because the fight is all CGI anyway. You get a few close-ups, but even those seem digitally enhanced. For all of Bruce Wayne's pathos about people getting killed and hurt from buildings being pummeled in Metropolis, he has no problem (once he gets the upper hand) in tossing Supes through buildings like they're paper mache.

The fight ends with Batman about to impale Superman with a kryptonite spear, but Superman says he needs to save Martha, causing Bruce to try and figure out what he means, why he said that name. It was at this point that I felt the need to surrender my geek-credential ID card, because it never clicked in my head that Bruce's mom and Clark's adopted mom shared the name. The DC offices in 1938 must have been hard up to figure out an "old woman" name.

So after Martha is saved (this is the warehouse scene they showed in the last trailer) and Superman let's Luthor know he's lost, Luthor unleashed his secret weapon - a hybrid clone created from Zod's DNA combined with.......Lex Luthor's DNA? Somehow this cocktail becomes Doomsday, the Kryptonian killing machine.

After the US fires a nuke to the edge of space trying to kill the monster as it's locked in combat with Superman, nearly killing Superman, Doomsday falls to Earth and confronts Batman. Luckily Wonder Woman picks this moment to show up and save Bruce's bacon. I want to note here, throughout the roughly 2.5 hour run-time, in a packed house filled mostly with geeks and fans, the appearance of Wonder Woman was the only moment the crowd cheered and applauded. The ONLY time.

So they all team up, fight the big monster, and win the day with Superman seeming to sacrifice himself. They show two funerals - one for Superman in Metropolis, and one for Clark in Smallville. Bruce and Diana talk, deciding they're going to find the others like her - meta-humans that Lex had files on (Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman). The last shot of the film is the handful of dirt that Lois tossed on Clark's casket starting to float.

That's the big shocker. WB "fooled" us into thinking one of their "Big Three" was actually dead while they're planning a Justice League movie and a direct sequel to "Man of Steel." So, to quote Iago the parrot from "Aladdin" - "I think I'm going to die from not-surprise."

Everything in this movie seems rushed, and forced. Super-detective Bruce Wayne is so easily manipulated it's embarrassing. He doesn't bother trying to talk to Clark, but just starts in on the fighting. To be fair, Clark doesn't try all that hard to say "we're being set up here!" There's really no organic story-reason for them to be fighting at all other than that's what the audience wanted to see.

Affleck has a pretty cool training montage, showing how much work he put in to get into Bat-shape for the film. As good as this scene is, it makes the use of CGI in the fights that much more criminal.

The fights are really just a rehash of what we saw in "Man of Steel" - people pounding on each other, tossing one another through walls and buildings. We get a moment of exposition when Anderson Copper is reporting on the fight and makes an off-hand comment about it being after business hours, so the buildings are mostly empty. This is obviously a preemptive strike against the same complaints that "Man of Steel" suffered from - the wanton destruction.

So, I've told ya pretty much the whole story of the movie here. I would apologize, but all of this is pretty well spelled out in the trailers. I think the only plot-point I didn't know from commercials and such was the kidnapping of Martha Kent. So, as I said in the non-spoilery part WAY back at the beginning, it was everything I expected, and so much less than I hoped for.

Now we just have to wait and see if paying audiences agree with me.

16 March 2016

Election fallout, or voter let-down?

The social media world related to Quincy and Adams County is bursting at the seams today. And it's actually pretty tragic.

There were plenty of problems with the election yesterday. Not enough ballots on both sides of the aisle is the root cause, but not the only problem. That issue is being addressed everywhere, so let's ignore it for a moment.

Today on Facebook, I've seen complaints that people pulled one party's ballot, and then couldn't figure out why a specific race wasn't on the ballot. And it's because the race they were looking for was on the other party's ballot. This has been a problem for me with the IL primaries for as long as I've been voting, and why I generally don't vote in primaries. If I want to vote for a Democrat in a Congressional primary, but a Republican for Senate, I have to choose which one is more important to me. That's absurd to me.

But more absurd is how many people don't understand how this works. This isn't new, it wasn't unique to this election. And yet people are up in arms that it wasn't "explained" to them, they weren't "educated" about the process.

I guess on that last point, I heartily agree: They weren't educated. But that's not the fault of election officials. Voting shouldn't require a test to do it, but it also shouldn't be a spur-of-the-moment, spontaneous decision. You should think about the issues, the candidates, and you should know what the process is before you walk into the polling place.

Another problem that I saw happen was a flaw in a new process for giving information to the public. The county clerk's office used a new, third-party vendor for updating results to a website. Somewhere along the line, some of the information got messed up. All of the candidates' information was right, and all of the vote-totals were right, but the numbers were posted to the opposite candidate. For hours, local media was running result numbers based on this mistake, showing one candidate winning handily, when it was actually the other candidate winning.

Since this was after the polls closed, it's not a huge issue; it likely didn't affect people locked in the polls waiting to vote. But it's another strike against the process and how it was handled. It's embarrassing.

It will be interesting to watch whatever fallout comes from this whole adventure. Hopefully rational heads prevail and the damage is minimal. I've heard lots of speculation on what will happen. At this point, they're all just rumors.

Between now and November, I believe these problems will be mitigated, though. I would like to believe that voters will make more efforts to educate themselves on the process along the way, but the cynical side of me thinks that's highly unlikely, unfortunately. This was definitely a weird primary cycle.

And holding the election on the ides of March probably didn't help.

09 March 2016

When does a band become an act?

So, of course, there's lots of talk about the big news from hard rock this week. Due to medical issues and the potential for permanent and complete hearing loss of singer Brian Johnson, AC/DC has postponed the last 10 shows of their current tour (and, rumor has it, their last 10 shows in the US ever). The band has announced that fans can get a refund, or hold their tickets for make-up shows likely to feature fill-in singers.

Much ado is being made about the replacement singer part. The arguments tend to fall into two camps: "Well, if it's not Brian Johnson singing, then it's just a cover band at this point!" vs "Johnson was a replacement singer himself, so what's the big deal?"

Yes, Brian Johnson was a replacement following the death of Bon Scott. Scott didn't quit over contract issues, didn't run out and form "Bon Scott's AC/DC" to compete against the 'real' band. He passed away. The current band line-up had been together about 5 years at that point. But now the lead singer has been Johnson for 35 years. Pretty sure it's safe to stop calling him a replacement.

But it brings up an interesting point: When does a band stop being a band and become an act, more like a Broadway show, where the parts are the same, but the actors are different?

KISS is a band that had divided their fandom on this issue. They made the very conscious decision to put new players - Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer - into the original characters created by Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, respectively. Now there is talk that Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons may be looking for replacements to fill their own platform boots so that the show - the act - can keep going.

Foreigner was formed by Mick Jones, Ian McDonald, Lou Gramm, Ed Gagliardi, Dennis Elliott, and Al Greenwood. In their 40+ years as a band, only Mick Jones remains. So are they still rightfully the same band?

The Who is another big one. This is a band that has legendary names associated with it: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, One of the biggest names - Keith Moon - was the band's second drummer. Townshend and Daltrey are still there, though, and touring with different faces joining them on stage.

Even AC/DC itself - they've had drummers come and go like they're Spinal Tap! They lost one of the two founding members to health issues when Malcolm Young had to step aside. The two longest-serving members - Angus Young and Cliff Williams - will be the only two left on stage with this replacement-singer plan being put forward. Does that make them less of a band than The Who?

So where is the line drawn? How do you tell the difference between a reformed band and a cover act that has a really cool long-term cameo from an original member? Is the upcoming Guns N Roses tour REALLY a reunion when there will still be "new" players in the band (who have been there longer than the original members)?

And when did it start to matter? I seem to recall days long past when a band was 4, 5, 6 guys and that line-up stayed pretty constant. But nowadays, I think bands trade members around more the Major League Baseball on deadline-day. Guys play for so many different bands, it's hard to know who they "belong" to in a given moment.

I have no idea what my point here is, other than to say that, yes, if AC/DC - or more specifically, Angus Young - decides to keep playing, the band will still be called AC/DC if that's what he wants. It's his band, regardless of who's out front. Will it be weird? Sure, but I guarantee the guy in the funny hat seemed bizarre to the Bon Scott fans in 1980.

The only question that really matters is 'Will the tickets still sell?' I know they're still still for "The Who Hits 50!" tour, so I guess that answer that question....

....or does it?

03 February 2016

The Little Green Raft

I remember the little green raft that sat in the middle of the water. A ladder on one side to climb up to the astroturf-covered deck (the cheap kind of astroturf, plastic and sharp) and then jump off one of the sides. I mostly remember going off the left or right, because the far side was the deep side.

I remember the two slides - big, blue fiberglass monstrosities that seemed to reach to the sky. Even the shorter of the two was daunting. The ladders onto them seemed to go up forever, and you could see the world from the top.

Further out was The Rope. The Rope was where the water got deep. Big kids played out past The Rope, but it was forbidden territory for smaller kids. Even in the arms of a parent, going past that rope was a frightening prospect.

These are my memories of the South Wilmington, IL Fireman's Club, a private-membership park with lakes carved from the old coal-mining days. Fishing, swimming, boating, camping, it was all there. Both before my parents divorced, and after when I'd spend a month or so each summer there, this is where my dad would take us on those hot days, to get some family time. I remember him scooping me out of the water and throwing me a hundred feet in the air. I remember coming up out of the water and hearing his big laugh over all the other sounds of people splashing, playing, laughing. And I remember doing it all over and over again.

The last time I was there was a few years back. To be honest, I can't even remember when. It was after I was an adult, and so some things struck me then: The slides weren't really all that big. The "deep end" of the little green raft was, maybe, three feet deep. The tosses through the air were probably four or five feet. The Rope that delineated the children and the teens was probably in six feet of water. And the big raft beyond the rope...well, to this day I can't say I ever set foot on that raft. First I was too little to play with the "big kids", and then I was grown and it would have just been odd.

But what didn't change for me was my dad. Larger than life, I never looked at him the same way I saw those other objects. He never "shrank" to fit my worldview. And part of that, I'm now realizing, is because I never actually knew him.

My parents divorced when I was around four. From that point on, I saw my dad during summer break, for a week around Christmas, and a short break around Easter. A lot of those times, he still had to work, so even then it wasn't a lot of time spent together. Aside from me, there was also my two sisters, a step-sister and step-brother, and a half-sister from his second marriage (as well as his new wife, my step-mom). Even during down-time for him, that's a lot of people to split his attention. We did spend time together, but it wasn't just our time.

Life is very strange, and becomes far more so as you get older. As I got older, I started going to visit 'up north' less and less. I had friends, we were running and doing stuff during our breaks from school. I think this is pretty normal. Teens generally spend less time with parents anyway, and when you add in the four-hour drive to get there, it just exaggerates that. I remember my dad coming down with his boat and spending a day or two with him on Mark Twain Lake. And he came down for the high school graduation for myself and my sisters. But those are the only times I really recall him coming to see us rather than us going to see him.

All of these thoughts are rattling around in my head today, and I'm sure they will be for a long time. Dad died two weeks ago. And it hurts, there's no doubt. But I keep coming back to one thought: Why doesn't it hurt more? And honestly, that hurts even worse. Because I know the answer. And I hate it.

There were people non-stop coming through his visitation for nearly 5 hours. All of them had such great things to say about what a great guy, a hard worker, and a great dad he was. But there was a little dagger in my heart to see the surprise on their faces when I (and my sisters) were introduced as his kids from his first marriage. More than one used a variation on the line of "I didn't know he had other kids."

One of the reasons that hurts is because I know it's at least partially my fault. Yes, there are other factors involved, and yes, I could write an anger-filled rant about those reason (and, I believe, be fully justified in doing so), but those are things I had no real control over. What I did have control over was actually just being there more often. I would be hard pressed to say for certain, but I believe I've seen my dad maybe four times in the last decade. Four times in ten years. There's always an excuse - work, kid in school, etc (there's a very real reason I've turned off "Cats In The Cradle" on the radio twice in the last two weeks). Everyone has those excuse, and they're all valid. But you don't know they're excuses until it's too late! And that's weighing on me.

Along with the people I've never seen before and will never see again at the visitation, I've been watching posts from family on Facebook. From my half- and step-sister and step-brother, talking about how huge of a factor he was in their lives and the lives of their kids, to my cousins, aunts, uncles, talking about how he was always there, to even his great-nieces and -nephews going on about "Uncle Lonnie." And there's a selfish part of me that is so very jealous of them.

They knew a completely different person than I ever did, and I'll never get the chance to know him the way they do. Even if he hadn't passed away, I wouldn't have had the lifetime of knowing him they've had. For part of my life, that was out of my hands. I don't blame anyone for that. That's just the way life goes. The second half of my life (so far), though, that's on my shoulders. I didn't want to cause 'waves' with some people, I didn't want to impose myself into a life already lived. So I visited on occasion, talked here and there. That's about it. I was a guest in my dad's house, not family. And that's really all I have left to remember. It hit me - very, very hard - today that I don't think I have a single photo of my kid with his grandfather. Not one.

I don't know if that little green raft is still there. I'm pretty sure the slides are gone. But I'm holding on to the memories I have of a big bear of a man, laughing as he tossed kids - his kids, and his nieces and nephews - around in the blue-green lake water in South Wilmington. I'm holding on to those, but wishing I had more.

3 February 2016