Friday, November 25, 2011

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Hunter S. Thompson as a sportswriter for the U.S. Air Force, 1958




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Monday, November 21, 2011

Hunter S. Thompson
Goodbye to the Last American Hero

The Headless Thompson Gunner
February 25, 2005

By Brian Bentley

Hunter S. Thompson was the most brilliant satirical writer of the twentieth century

Sunday afternoon, on the 20th of February, on the cusp of Pisces, Hunter S. Thompson, the most brilliant satirical writer of the 20th Century, was no match for the business end of a .45 handgun he used to scatter his brains like snowflakes across the Colorado winter.

Suicide seemed a fitting end for a writer who was the closest thing the Boomer generation had to Ernest Hemingway. Thompson was not going to shrink from the responsibility of determining his own destiny. You weren't going to find him tied to a hospital bed on the end of a tube, ready to meet his maker. There is only one way an old soldier goes out and that’s with his boots on. Don’t leave it to the pill pushers and bean counters and the do-gooders to decide what's best for you.

Hunter S. Thompson, the founder and Godfather of Gonzo Journalism, was 67 years old and had lived a half dozen different lifetimes when he died last week. Clearly his best work was behind him, even though he was still writing regularly and cashing paychecks from There was nothing amiss with his mechanics; it was more like he had run out of subject matter, while the values he idealized in his writing, the ones that seemed precious enough to die for in the 1960’s, were compromised away by a world that had become too jaded to care anymore.

Despite the setbacks, Hunter always enjoyed himself. His last column for ESPN was about a sport he had just invented called, “Shotgun Golf,” in which the object of the game is to blow the opponents ball out of the air in mid-flight. It was the perfect metaphor for the Thompson literary ethos: to be high, to be moving at great velocity, to be blown to pieces like some doomed speed freak outlaw.

The amazing aspect of Thompson’s story is how he managed to live as long as he did. He had the kind of lifestyle habits that kill bulls. His daily drug regimen would have brought most men to their knees; with the exception of cats like Keith Richards, he had few peers still standing. But in the end, I suspect, it wasn’t the drugs or the physical ailments that did him in. It was the isolation. The world had forgotten about Thompson. He was suffering from irrelevancy. And to a man who had made such on impact on so many, to be ignored was a fate worse than death.

Hunter Thompson didn't start out to become an icon, which can be rare in the icon business. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1937, he served two tumultuous years in the Air Force and by the early 60’s, was a struggling sportswriter. In 1965, Thompson unwittingly launched a revolutionary participatory literary style when he persuaded the Hells Angels to let him ride with their thug gang and write about the experience. Two years later, his diaries were optioned into the book, Hells Angels: a Strange and Terrible Saga and Thompson became a cultural star overnight.

Hunter S. Thompson hitchhiking before the days of Gonzo

Suddenly, the icons of New Journalism like Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and George Plimpton were lining up to sing his praises. With the 60’s providing the perfect canvas for Thompson's foot-to-the-floor, drug-laced narratives, he blazed with moral outrage and a manic, first person, subjective style of reporting that incinerated the lines between fact and fiction.

But fiction and embellishment were not to be confused with Thompson’s eternal quest for the TRUTH. There was often more truth in his eccentric ramblings, simply because he didn't conform to the conventional school of reporting. In his day, writers veered toward safety and mediocrity. Hunter never sold out. He challenged the process and the editors he worked with to keep up with him. There was no compromise, no quarter. Thompson's press credentials from Rolling Stone gave him the same priceless access as the guys from Newsweek and The Washington Post, yet he was covering stories with an underground zeal that lampooned the dreary realities of standard news coverage.

“One of the constant nightmares of traveling with politicians is the need to keep them in sight at all times. Every Presidential campaign has its horror stories about reporters who thought they had plenty of time to “run across the street for a quick beer” instead of hanging around in the rear of some grim auditorium, only to come back in 20 minutes to find no sign of the press bus, the candidate or anybody who can tell them where they went. The temperature is always below zero, there is usually a major blizzard to keep cabs off the street, and just as the victim remembers that he left his wallet on the press bus, his stomach erupts with a sudden attack of Ptomaine poisoning. And then, while crawling around on his knees in some ice-covered alley and racked with fits of projectile vomiting, he is grabbed by vicious cops and whipped on the shins with a night stick, then locked in the drunk tank of the local jail and buggered all night by winos.”
("Jimmy Carter and the Great Leap of Faith” from The Great Shark Hunt)

By the turn of the decade, Thompson was no longer content to just reference the other side. He was becoming the other side – a volatile, loose cannon who injected himself into his stories and made his very survival dependent on their outcomes. Part of it was obviously an act, a manipulation of reality, a form of the Living Theater that artists like Jim Morrison and Andy Kaufman made their own.

The book jacket for Hunter S. Thompson’s best book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The breakthrough for Thompson came in 1971 when he took his act to Las Vegas. Sent by Rolling Stone uber-editor, Jann Wenner, to ostensibly cover the Mint 400 desert motorcycle race and a convention of drug enforcement officials, Thompson turned the fractured, psychedelic weekend into a tour de force account of drugs, destruction, imminent nervous breakdown and excessive room service bills. The book which rose from the ashes, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was a masterpiece of literature – part fact, part fiction and completely insane. Colonel Kurtz had taken a trip upriver, landed on The Strip and turned it into a towering inferno.

“Circus Circus (casino) is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazi’s had won the war. The place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent with all manners of strange county fair/Polish carnival madness going on in mid-air over the gambling tables. And for 99 cents, your likeness can appear, two hundred feet tall on a screen above downtown Las Vegas. We will close the hotel room drapes tonight. A thing like that could send a drug person careening around the room like a ping pong ball. Nobody can handle the possibility that any freak with a $1.98 can appear in the sky twelve times the size of God, howling at anything that comes into his head. No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.”
(Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)

To writers and erstwhile social critics, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was our generation’s equivalent of Kerouac’s On the Road, or Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It was a shotgun blast to the face of the establishment and changed pop literature the way Sergeant Pepper’s changed pop music. Part of the beauty was its inclusive counterculture charm and how effortlessly it brought the reader into Hunter’s road trip from hell, diving headlong from the sheer boredom of everyday life into a darkly hilarious world where you can get away with anything you’re crazy enough to try.

Thompson’s partner in crime on the Vegas trip was his real life buddy, L.A. renegade attorney, Oscar Zeta Acosta. True life could be stranger than fiction and Acosta was certainly up for the task. He was Hunter’s greatest character and the complete embodiment of all things Gonzo – a borderline psychopath who was smart enough to be thoroughly dangerous.

“Oscar was not into serious street fighting, but he was hell on wheels in a bar brawl. Any combination of a 250-pound Mexican and LSD-25 is a potentially terminal menace for anything it can reach – but when the alleged Mexican is in fact a profoundly angry Chicano lawyer with no fear at all of anything that walks on less than three legs and a defacto suicidal conviction that he WILL die at the age of thirty-three – just like Jesus Christ – you have a serious piece of work on your hands. Specially if the bastard is ALREADY thirty-three and a half years old with a head full of Sandoz acid and a loaded .357 Magnum in his belt.”
(“The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat” from the Rolling Stone Tenth Anniversary issue)

Hunter S. Thompson’s attorney, Oscar Acosta, was the basis for Benicio Del Toro’s character in the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Thompson and his attorney, Oscar Acosta (circa 1971)

On a major creative roll, Thompson was back on the road again, this time as the National Affairs editor for Rolling Stone. With the release of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, a collection of stories he’d filed on the looming re-election of Richard Nixon, Thompson took the hallucinatory stylings of FLLV and directed them downward, on a journey to the center of madness, the campaign to elect a President.

The book made him a superstar. A masterfully detailed primer on the grim realities, manipulations and sheer insanity of the political landscape, Campaign Trail '72 chronicles the further co-opting of the American dream as great careers are born and dissolved under the new-found power of media examination. By the book’s end, Thompson was flat on his back in a hotel room, suffering from an exhaustion-based nervous breakdown. Candidate Ed Muskie, once a front-runner, saw his candidacy go down in flames, assisted no doubt by Thompson’s published assertions that Big Ed’s slurred speeches were the result of a hopeless addiction to Ibogaine, a mind-altering drug that supposedly rendered its users tired, feeble and confused.

Hunter S. Thompson was at his best and brightest when he tackled his arch nemesis, Richard Nixon, a man he seemed to fear, loathe, respect and desperately need for satirical inspiration. In 1968, when Nixon was running for President, Thompson finagled a limousine interview, but with strict Nixon ground rules: only football would be discussed. While the average reporter would have declined, Thompson considered Nixon’s request to be a sporting proposal and an eminently reasonable, if not brilliant, idea.

Every great story has a frightening villain and Nixon was to Thompson what horror is to Stephen King. Hunter chronicled every chapter of Nixon’s scary rise and fall from power with profound observations that captured the heart of the man’s darkness.

“Innocence? It is even hard to type that word on the same page with Nixon’s name. Nixon's entire political career – and in fact his whole life – is a gloomy monument to the notion that not even pure schizophrenia or malignant psychosis can prevent a determined loser from rising to the top of the heap in this strange society we have built for ourselves in the name of “democracy and “free enterprise.” For most of his life, the mainspring of Richard Nixon’s energy and ambition seems to have been a deep and unrecognized need to overcome, at all costs, that sense of having been Born Guilty – not for crimes or transgressions Already committed, but for those he somehow sensed he was fated to commit as he grappled his way to the summit.”
(“Fear and Loathing in Limbo: The Scum Also Rises”)

Things were never quite the same after Nixon's premature exit from the White House. Thompson had sped to the summit in the fast lane and after ten crazy years, his career was running on empty. He continued to write magazine articles for Rolling Stone and released a steady stream of books that grew more strident and less impactful as the years wore on. Thompson’s legacy for excess, however, remained fully lit. When he wasn't holding court at the Woody Creek Tavern near his home, a few miles from Aspen, he could be often found firing tracer bullets over the local highway or hunting rogue bears on his property with tasers and shotguns.

When one stops to consider the best performance comics of modern times – the ones who flipped reality on its rear end – when you consider the Andy Kaufman's and the Dick Shawn's and the Ali G.'s – Hunter S. Thompson might well be considered the Cro-Magnon who started the entire evolution with one big bang.

As Tom Wolfe wrote last week, “You didn't have lunch or dinner with Hunter Thompson. You attended an event at mealtime.” Such was the case with his infamous college lecture tours, like the strange night I witnessed “An Evening with Hunter S. Thompson” on the UC Santa Barbara campus.

Over a thousand rabid fans of Doonesbury's, “Raoul Duke,” filed into the school gym, unaware of what lay in store for them. The mood was festive, like some kind of hippie rock concert lecture by the nuttiest professor of all. The opening act, a magician, was quickly booed off the stage beneath a shower of spent beer cups. The crowd was impatiently waiting for the man.

At one hour past the scheduled show time, a student body affairs geek announced that Thompson had been “unavoidably delayed,” and was in a bar “somewhere in Goleta.” The audience groaned. As the clock ticked, the stage announcements grew stranger. “Thompson has left the bar and just called from his mobile phone. He's lost. Wait, he's on the phone and just got directions, he's on his way.”

Random booing and the predictable early exits of the uninitiated continued for another half hour. Somewhere, stage right, a vicious fist fight broke out. The mood was sullen as so many of the faithful had mistimed their drugs and were coming down. Things were getting fairly ugly.

Suddenly, almost two hours beyond reason, Thompson's jug-eared, skinned-rabbit silhouette appeared in a dimly lit doorway to the left of the stage. The crowd erupted in a long, low volcanic howl, screaming insults, half in jest, half in real anger. Some in the audience were literally berserk with rage. I never saw a performer get that kind of reaction in my life.

Thompson promptly ran into the bowels of the building like a frightened rat. After some backstage huddling, the student speaker issued an apology. “Dr. Thompson says he's very sorry for being two hours late and would like to tell you from the bottom of his heart … that you can all kindly kiss his Ass.”

After several in the crowd rushed the stage and were ejected, Thompson finally sat down at the lectern with a bottle of booze and a large glass. But I never saw him drink from it. He began to field questions from the audience and because of the kind of technical problems one finds in school gymnasiums, barely any of these exchanges were audible. I do remember him plainly calling Hubert Humphrey a white slave trader who was running a concentration camp in the wilds of Minnesota. His mumbled monologue lasted about forty minutes and by the last question, there were only about 40 people still there.

Those who had come expecting Thompson to let them in on the joke didn't understand that the joke was on them. It was a dose of his pure anarchy, which is funny to read about, but not so funny to experience firsthand. Pay the admission and enjoy the show. Hunter was one of those prophets who considered expectation to be only premeditated disappointment. Besides the books were better anyway…

And now, he’s gone. I still don’t believe he’s dead and that a man like Thompson could be killed with a single gunshot. He was Superman. Bullets were supposed to just bounce off his animal-skin hide. In a world where cynicism and political apathy are the foregone conclusions of rigged Presidential elections, Thompson was the ultimate idealist and it cost him. No one will ever know how much John Kerry’s defeat, three months before Thompson's suicide, affected his will to go on. His final column in Rolling Stone in which he postulated that Kerry might win handily, seemed hopelessly naïve and wishful for better days. Too bad the country was no longer on the same page with him.

“All energy flows according to the Great Magnet. What a fool I was to defy him. He knew. He knew all along. I had run far enough, so He nailed me … closing off my escape routes … plunging me into fear and confusion. Never cross the Great Magnet. I understand this now … and with understanding came a sense of almost terminal relief.”
(Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)

“A generation of swine” is what Thompson called the shallow, me-first yuppies of the 80’s who now seem to own the world with their conspicuous consumption and self-important, yak-on-cell-phones-in-the-movie-theater mentality. In the irony of ironies, the social oppression of the 60’s – that twisted totalitarian way of thinking that seeks to control the free will of others was finally defeated – only to reappear in the late 80’s in the form of Political Correctness. But this time, the forces of oppression were no longer the other guys – the enemy we could plainly see. This time, the enemy was US, the progressive people who were supposed to have fought so hard for personal freedoms.

Thompson was sacrificed by the PC forces. They labeled him a misogynist, a minority hater, a drug-addled bad influence, a gun nut and then they turned their back on him like he was Jesus and nailed him to that old-hippie cross – too out of touch, an embarrassment to us all. His legacy was forever tarnished because a bunch of dummies took a lot of drugs to attempt piss poor imitations of him and then he got blamed for it, as if it was his obligation to be a role model instead of an artist. In the end, those he had fought for, judged him for everything and understood nothing.

So now, in the dead of winter, with the dark heavens above L.A. twisting ominously and the rain clouds spewing their venomous piss onto homes sliding into the Great Beyond beneath the local hills, the gods upstairs must have realized by now that a newly-minted, crazed soul just broke into St. Peter’s liquor cabinet and is creating an unholy shitstorm in the sky.

Hunter S. Thompson holding what appears to be a .44 Magnum
Hunter S. Thompson loved guns, drugs and the Gonzo Life

Down here, things just don't seem the same. Filmmakers like Michael Moore still stir things up, but they are too self-serving and well-balanced to see the demons at night. They are not one of us. Who is out there to inspire the rest to show courage in the face of political and cultural defeat? Thompson stood toe-to-toe against the forces of darkness – .44 Magnum in one hand and a bottle of Wild Turkey in the other and inspired everybody to drive stakes through the hearts of the liars and bloodsuckers. Hunter was the point man for all the loonies in the hall.

Bob Dylan wrote, “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” Hunter S. Thompson was an outlaw and a brute, an anarchist and a royal pain in the ass. As one of his Colorado drinking buddies put it, “He will be hard to replace and I'm not sure you'd want to.”

“Hunter Thompson's art is purer than that of Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe. Thompson never preaches. He amuses; he frightens; he flirts with doom. His achievement is substantial.”
--Washington Post

Thompson was really from the old school. His peers were newspapermen, and because he was so well grounded in his craft and because he was a consummate reporter with an infinite eye for detail, his flights of narrative fantasy carried true weight behind them. He combined his background in traditional journalism with the street aesthetics of a 60’s revolutionary. It was a lethal mix. Once he’d been initiated into The Hells Angels, Thompson had an epiphany, one of those crossroads moments so many people arrived at in the 60’s. It was almost as if someone had dosed anchorman Tom Brokaw with twenty sheets of blotter acid and he woke up the next day as Frank Zappa. The world had a smart, dangerous and dedicated threat to all that was sacred.

“Thompson elicits the same kind of admiration one would feel for a streaker at Queen Victoria's funeral.”
--William F. Buckley, Jr.

As an Agent Provocateur, Hunter S. Thompson established Gonzo Journalism as the literary equivalent of rock n’ roll revolution music – like The Who’s “My Generation” and the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” (as interpreted by Charles Manson). Gonzo was at first purely observational, but it quickly evolved into sheer disruption. Hunter was at his best when operating as a button-pusher, square in the center of the action, becoming the action, risking his life and limb to up the ante. He kept his wicked humor and his fearless style amidst the kind of desperate compulsive gambling only a high roller at the crap table understands.

“Few people understand the psychology of dealing with a highway traffic cop. Your normal speeder will panic and immediately pull over to the side when he sees the big red light behind him. This is wrong. It arouses contempt in the cop heart. The thing to do – when you're running along about a hundred or so and you suddenly find a red-flashing CHP-tracker on your trail – what you want to do then is ACCELERATE. Never pull over at the first siren howl. Mash it down and make the bastard chase you at speeds up to 120 m.p.h…”
(Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)

But as the world kept moving and the 80’s became the 90’s, Thompson pretty much stayed at home, freeze dried in the past, kind of like Cheech and Chong. He had begun his writing career as a distanced observer with an abundance of insight – rocketing skyward with warp-speed chronicles of American institutions like the Kentucky Derby and the Super Bowl – and by the early 90's, he'd de-evolved into an extremely biased professional who kept repeating himself over and over. Now, the “story” was only about what was going on inside his head.

Hunter might have been at the happiest point in his life in 1998, when the filmed adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, starring a perfectly cast Johnny Depp and directed by Terry Gilliam, hit the big screen. While the movie worked in plenty of ways and had a spectacular soundtrack, the net result of its cartoonish depictions was to pretty much cement Thompson's legacy as “that Nutty Guy on Drugs.” If you have a reputation for being crazy, staying at the top of your game requires a certain dedication to preserving that reputation. Loyalty’s a killer. The more Thompson partied and fed the myth, the hungrier his soul became. The cycle just got worse as time wore on. With his health failing and his body joints and spirit worn to a nub, he obviously preferred to be master of his own destiny. I don’t fault him at all. I’ll just miss him.

They say the souls of suicides wander the earth, haunting the night with their restless yearning. Not yet in Heaven and just removed from Hell, they exist in that In-Between where sinners and would-be saviors dwell in uneasy company. Here's to you, Hunter – Ruler of the Roost of the Damned – you were the Greatest.

And to anyone who has to ask what all the Thompson tribute and fuss is about, just read the Work – in fact, the Work speaks so much more eloquently as to why his viewpoint mattered. The thinking behind that inflamed logic simply doesn’t age. Start with the 1979 compilation of his best stories, The Great Shark Hunt, and go from there. You will find yourself less afraid as a result. Move confidently in their midst, like Thompson did, as he stripped away the bullshit of the world to move closer to simple basic truths, or what Neil Young likes to call, “The Source.”

Hunter S. Thompson started his career as a sportswriter and died working as one for Sports provided everything his writing demanded: action, color, speed, violence. His favorite athlete of all time was not coincidentally, Muhammad Ali, a man who had suffered dearly at humanity’s hands for having the courage of his monstrous convictions.

“Muhammad Ali moved from the very beginning with the same instinct that drove The Great Gatsby – an endless fascination with the green light at the end of the pier. That was always the difference between Ali and the rest of us. He came, he saw and if he didn't entirely conquer – he came as close as anybody we are likely to see in the lifetime of this doomed generation.

Res Ipsa Loquitor”

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Why I Won't Miss Steve Jobs

Technology Under The Influence
October 7, 2011

By Brian Bentley

Steve Jobs introduces the Apple II computer in 1977

Steve Jobs died this past Wednesday, on October 5th. It was perhaps the longest, most protracted, analyzed and expected departure in cultural icon history. Jobs’ death was not a surprise, but still carried shock value. Like Kurt Cobain, he went out on top. It’s hard to think of another figure of his stature who died more at the peak of his game. In 1985, Jobs lost a power struggle with the board of directors at Apple, and was pushed out of the pioneering company he’d co-founded. By the late 90’s he was back as CEO and on a mission to radically reshape his legacy.

Job’s second career arc began with a technological big bang in 2001 when he introduced a cute little MP3 player called the iPod to an unsuspecting world dominated by CD’s. Nothing in the music business would ever be the same again, and neither would he. Steve Jobs’ ascendancy back up the mountain was truly a rags to riches to rags to riches story, and he became a very different man. The need to prove himself and dominate the competition was now the driving force in his life.

For years, Jobs had carefully cultivated his persona as the motorcycle riding, casual dressing, no-bullshit hater of corporate stuffiness. A bit of an enigma, he could be accessible and impossible to know. But with the iPod and later the iPhone, he morphed into something much bigger – the cool dude who came up with the cool gadgets that plugged the world in – and took media technology out of the house and into the street.

His inventions featured smooth interfaces and amazingly simple and practical designs that worked as nicely as they looked. People fell in love with these cuddly devices, integrating them into their lives like household pets. Anything with an i in front of it was an automatic purchase. The success and adulation turned Jobs into a tech god. Like Jesus, he was a man of the people, and like a rock star, he owned the stage. His passing at the age of 56 is a loss felt by his friends, family, co-workers and millions around the world.

But I won’t miss Steve Jobs at all. In fact, I’m glad he’s gone. Not dead, just gone, out of the picture, no longer a threat to burden us with another tech toy that promises convenience, but delivers complication and the obligation to upgrade every year. Jobs was like Owsley, the guy who mass-marketed LSD in the 60’s. He manufactured shiny gadgets that worked like drugs. They made us high and changed our thought processes. For awhile, they were mind expanding and a trip, but like any powerful hallucinogenic, people had trouble handling them with restraint.

After 9/11, overwhelmed Americans were in desperate need for diversion. Unable to control the outside world, we found comfort in the power to shape our own realities with computer phones and social networks that positioned each user as the center of their own universe.

Myspace gave the average Joe the opportunity to fashion himself as a celebrity and create a personal webpage just like a movie star, like one of the contestants on “Survivor,” the show that ruined network television. Handheld electronics just blew that concept up. Casual narcissism slid into blatant exhibitionism, as our private lives, photos, hobbies, tastes, opinions, and likes became something we were positive had to be shared with the world. Social networking created a culture of false intimacy, the meaningless accumulation of “friends” we barely know, and a cyberscape of talkers, not listeners, people who used and abused the medium to lose themselves in a babbling bubble of self-reference. Rate this “Dislike.”

By 2005, machines became our preferred, and eventually, our mandatory method of communication. Keyboards were the lifeline equivalent of old landline phones, and this seismic shift in how we interacted fostered a dependence bordering on enslavement – the direct brainchild of enablers like Steve Jobs.

Fortune Magazine once referred to him as “Silicon Valley’s leading egomaniac.” Last week, free software blogger Richard Stallman proclaimed, "Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.” A demanding and temperamental perfectionist, Jobs was ready and willing to not just sell technology, but push it like a dealer on a street corner. His obsession with presiding over a wired world meant giving us not just what he decided we should want, but what we couldn’t live without.

In 1949, an English writer named George Orwell published “1984,” the prophetic book about the evils of totalitariasm and manipulative social phenomena. In the mid-90’s, Ted Kaczynski (The Unabomber) authored a startlingly coherent manifesto addressing the erosion of human freedom necessitated by modern technology – but added a grisly footnote, sending over a dozen mail bombs that killed people. Thirty five years ago, DEVO, a punk rock band from Ohio, advanced the concept of “De-evolution,” a theory which states that instead of continuing to evolve, mankind has actually begun to regress, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society.

Steve Jobs can’t take all the blame for the evils of technology. But there’s no denying that he was the spiritual leader of a movement that was about making huge bucks while putting enormous pressure on the consumer to keep up. I often wondered if Jobs cared much about the collateral damage that came from our blind rush to go digital, while we dumped analog media faster than an old girlfriend.

The hip notion is to celebrate the demise of the music industry (which was directly triggered by the iPod) because big, greedy record companies needed to go. Well big, greedy record companies were the only method musicians had to make a living. Once an artist could not sell a CD to pay his/her bills, the quality of music degraded. MP3’s were free on file sharing sites and changed the focus from albums to single songs. This lethal combination crippled not only most artist’s careers, but the entire music business. Had the legendary recording exec Ahmet Ertegun been born 30 years later, he’d be selling real estate now.

Jobs’ business was booming because of his uncanny knack for anticipating trends and seamlessly integrating production with marketing. He popularized the Smartphone when Apple introduced the first generation iPhone in 2007. The long lines that wrapped around every Best Buy the night before the iPhone went on sale were testimony to Jobs, and the cachet he had created for the Apple brand. Nobody stood in line for a Nokia. The Cult of Steve was all-encompassing. Online forums were clogged with the breathless faithful who hung on every morsel of new product info. On any given topic, there were deep-seated feelings of love, hate, worship, rejection, and self-recrimination. Some posters seemed to savor the abuse they got from Uncle Steve’s whims, like masochists longing to be victimized.

Apple has long been infamous for its proprietary strong-arm software tactics. A thorny issue was the company’s refusal to allow the Flash program onto its iPhone platform. Since many websites operate on Flash, iPhone customers were given the option to load up cheesy and unstable third-party applications, just to view what Droid customers could easily watch while speeding down a freeway. Jobs knew the issue was a hot enough political potato, that he wrote a five-page letter about the subject on his home page.

While some of his arguments have merit, they were basically misleading and dishonest in their smarmy “you can trust me,” tone. The real reason behind omitting Flash was simple. Like one of those Mafia wars that date back to ancient Sicily, Apple and Adobe, the creators of Flash, had been engaged in a petty, decades-long feud that began when the two fledgling companies were upstarts working out of competing garages in the Silicon Valley.

Jobs in 2010 with the iPad, his final creation

Last year, the iPad became the crown jewel in the Apple collection, igniting the world of tablets and revolutionizing yet another corner of the tech universe. Though competition has sprung up everywhere, 85% of all tablets sold today are iPads, and sales of tablets are one of the few positives in retail electronics.

While the iPad peaked, Steve Jobs’ health worsened. After years of battling pancreatic cancer, it was sad (if not expected) to hear the standard corporate line that everything was fine, that Steve’s condition was “robust.” In fact, the intractability that defined Jobs may have led to a needless early death. His decision to seek alternative treatment, when conventional medical solutions offered him a 90% chance at recovery, was symptomatic of his severe inability to relinquish control.

Cynics accused him of manipulating Apple stock prices by not divulging the truth and extent of his health problems. But as his traditional black turtleneck sagged, and his jeans grew more drawn in at the waist, it was clear that the spindly Jobs was losing the only battle he had left. Not only did the man defiantly dissipate before our eyes, but he died a hero of his time, the dude who made our world more fun.

Some folks reacted as if a President had been killed. Check that, no President would ever have been loved like Steve Jobs. The faithful were hard to miss as they clogged the doorways of Apple stores, candles in hand, ready to tell anyone with a camera or audio recorder how much Jobs meant to them. They bore a disturbing similarity to the idol worshipers who clogged Hollywood Boulevard a couple of years ago to walk in circles around the star for Michael Jackson. It was hard to watch the unrelenting hagiographic TV tributes to Jobs without immediately thinking of our all-or-nothing mentality, and how the overblown mourning was much like the gadgets he gave us. People just didn’t know when to quit.

I don’t begrudge Steve Jobs for his ambition or his thirst for privacy or even the manic way he ran his company like it was selling crack. I just hope we don’t see another guy like him for awhile. The world can’t handle a new visionary. The pace we are going is already much too fast. Instead of expanding the planet, technology has actually shrunk it, and reduced our real-world experiences, as we blow more and more of our spare time in front of various-sized TV sets.

Directors, who made films intended for the big screen, must watch their hard work streamed on smartphones. DVD sales are down 40%, as the movie biz adjusts to downloading, anticipating a blockbuster sequel to what whacked the music labels - devaluation and piracy. Disney Studios recently announced plans to pull a sizeable chunk of their newspaper print ads for new releases, and concentrate on promoting movies via Facebook and Twitter. The financially crippled L.A. Times recently said, “writers and book publishers will eventually see the value of any given manuscript reduced to zero,” as Kindle lowers the sale price of books, and digitization opens the door to rampant file sharing.

Newspapers should know. They gave their product away for free and wrote their own obituaries. I was having a conversation about this with a man in Hollywood who owns a newsstand. These days he makes more money selling cigarettes than Vanity Fair. Packaged media is in nearly as bad a shape. The enormous profit cycle that sprang from the days when consumers replaced vinyl albums with CD’s, and VHS tapes with DVD’s, is long gone. 3-D has been an enormous dud. Digital promises little sales growth. It may be the “dead end” sign at the end of the road for media formats. This week, Mike Lang, the CEO of Miramax said, “failure to attract consumers to cloud-based digital lockers could spell doom for the home entertainment industry.”

Some side effects of this new age are amusing to watch. There was the woman I saw at Home Depot, sobbing uncontrollably into her phone that someone had de-friended her on Facebook. A store supervisor came over to console her. Or the kid I heard about who was texting on his bicycle, ran a stop sign, got hit by a car, and continued to text while a cop demanded he drop the phone. Maybe next year, that kid will be behind the wheel of a car.

I talked to a grandmother who doesn’t get many visits from her grandkids anymore. Try explaining to an 80 year-old woman why a text is the same thing as a real conversation. A colleague told me that he preferred texting and Facebook because he could “control” his interaction better and not waste time. His logic seemed to consider people as objects to be shuffled about on a chess board to fit his liking. After all, time is precious when you have to check your e-mail and notifications on a half dozen accounts, three times a day. It’s no wonder most people haven’t read a book since they were assigned one for a class.

The ease of communication via text, e-mail, IM and Facebook messaging has made it easier to communicate a quick thought, arrange a meeting, or drop a short line to someone. Unfortunately, this convenience has become a crutch. It has shut us off from each other and from spontaneous interaction. We have become, in essence, more like computers and less like humans. This chilling effect could be described as “negative societal reinforcement.”

"Honey, I'm getting a text to landline message"

The New York Times ran a great piece called “Nobody Calls Anymore.” It says that in the last five years, full-fledged adults have seemingly given up the telephone – land line, mobile, voice mail and all. According to Nielsen Media, even on cellphones, voice spending has been trending downward, with text spending expected to surpass it within three years.

Here’s an excerpt from the story that’s priceless.

“It’s at the point where when the phone does ring – and it’s not my mom, dad, husband or baby sitter – my first thought is: ‘What’s happened? What’s wrong?’ My second thought is: ‘Isn’t it weird to just call like that? Out of the blue? With no e-mailed warning?”

“Phone call appointments have become common in the workplace. Without them, there’s no guarantee your call will be returned. ‘Only people I’ve ruthlessly hounded call me back,’ said Mary Roach, author of “Packing for Mars.” Writers and others who work alone can find the silence isolating. ‘But if I called my editor and agent every time I wanted to chat, I think they’d say, ‘Oh no, Mary Roach is calling again.’ So I’ve pulled back, just like everyone else.”

While there may be no turning back the clock, one should still appreciate the collateral damage that over-reliance on the Internet has wreaked on small businesses – like your favorite bookstore, or video store, or the record store you loved, or the neighborly hardware store on the corner. The last major brick and mortar electronics chain, Best Buy, has suffered a steady decline, with sales down as much as 40%. As a cost-cutting move, the company recently announced plans to lease large amounts of floor space to retailers like Starbucks.

Think back when shopping was so less complicated; before every transaction had to be done online, with separate orders that the delivery person delivers to the wrong door, if at all. The U.S. Post Office is going broke, partly because nobody mails letters or bills anymore. Check out the hilarious new USPS TV spot where the announcer warns that “a real letter can’t carry an online virus.”

It’s not too late to support your local retailer. The Web is excellent for tracking down impossible-to-find items. But shoes? I have seen my local shoe store packed with dozens of people, trying them on for size, and then commenting aloud that they intend to save a few bucks by purchasing them online. Soon, these tools will spend three times the effort buying, returning, and then reshipping, shoes that don’t fit to Zappos – because their local store will be replaced by a condo. Just remember that Amazon may not charge sales tax (at least for another year in California), but Amazon is not your neighbor, or your friend.

Of all the human traits, the need to be liked is so powerful that studies have shown that we will change our habits and thinking, even our moral standards, to gain the approval of our peers. Several years ago, I’d hear people saying stuff like, “I was kinda forced in to Facebook.” You don’t hear that anymore, for good reason. Nobody wants to be penalized, to miss out on what’s happening, and be marginalized from the rest of life. Even if the price of this tethered subscription includes the shameless marketing of your privacy to the same companies who drop junk mail on your doorstep.

What does all this mean? Is it really that bad? These next few years should be interesting. Maybe they will mark that point in time when a backlash developed, when people woke up and rebelled against technology, questioning whether all of this shit is getting out of hand. Or maybe, like some noir episode of “The Twilight Zone,” it will be remembered as the point when man finally lost control of his machines, a period that future generations will look back on with regret.

The other day, the subject of Steve Jobs’ came up, and everyone agreed he was a brilliant inventor and salesman. But a 23 year-old kid offered something extraordinary. He said he rarely used his cell phone, never texted and despised Facebook, considering it trivial and annoying. I was astounded, and asked him what kind of life he expected to lead when nobody could track who, where, or what he was. He smiled at me with the knowing look of someone who had heard that before. “My real friends know how to find me,” he said.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Taglines and Entertainment Copywriters

Marketing a Film in
15 Words or Less

June 6, 1998

By Brian Bentley

Hunter S. Thompson as a sportswriter for the U.S. Air Force, 1958

Here’s one of the last stories from the vault left to post. In the summer of 1998, I was in my usual weekly spot inside Spaceland when Steve Moramarco from The Abe Lincoln Story asked me if I wanted to be interviewed for a web magazine. He was writing a column for about people with weird, out-of-the-way jobs. He’d just written a piece on a bounty hunter. Since I was working as an entertainment copywriter doing taglines for movie posters, it seemed like a good fit. This was the profile that resulted from our long talk.

I write promotional copy for films. Basically, it's just trying to get people motivated to see a movie using elements such as video box synopses, taglines on posters and billboards, press kits and radio spots.

My career started at ad agencies. I got into that because I thought advertising combined creative pop culture with writing that was immediate and impactful. But what I was doing was just dull, plain and simple. I decided to try ad copywriting for the entertainment industry. So I clipped a bunch of movie ads out of the L.A. Times and pasted my own taglines over the existing ones, and then xeroxed the mockup.

I sent these samples out on spec to entertainment agencies, and I got very lucky, very fast. My first assignment was for Dances with Wolves. Against some fairly long odds, and competition from legendary ad agencies with unlimited budgets, my taglines went to finish, and they used my stuff for the teaser campaign and also for the final one-sheet. My fee was low, but after that, things started happening quickly. It's a cyclical business. You'll get very hot and all of a sudden, things will dry up and you'll have to go back and pitch people. But that one worked out sort of magically.

My tag for Dances with Wolves was: "Inside everyone is a frontier waiting to be discovered." It was supposed to be a psychological approach, because they wanted something that wasn't just cowboys and Indians. It was 1990; Westerns were really out of style. In fact, I think that was the reason they gave the job to an unknown – because a lot of people figured nobody would see the movie anyway. So it ended up winning about ten Oscars, including Best Picture of 1990.

The teaser poster for Dances With Wolves

That was eight years ago, and I'm still at it. I'm freelance, so I do a lot of different stuff, and I've taken breaks from the movies and done writing for the music labels, but mostly it's been movies. What happens is I get a script or I go to a screening, sometimes both. Then I talk to the people in the marketing department, and they tell me what they want, what they don't want, what they've seen before.

I've built this technique for coming up with lines. A lot of it revolves around my own gut instinct. I mean, there are formulas you can use, but you don't want to get too formulaic because you don't want to sound like a cliché. If you see the stuff that's out there, you can tell the people who follow weak formulas. That's why when something comes out that is really creative, it makes an impact with people. Like the movie Volcano – "The Coast is Toast" – that kind of thing. It’s a brilliant tagline that grabs you.

The best taglines play off the title. You also have to consider the theme, the artwork for the poster or the box, and so forth, but everything starts and ends with the title. I'll write long, narrative tags if I think the title is vague and needs explanation, and I'll generally let myself go a little wilder, into more abstract territory, if the title is very straightforward.

I draw up huge word association lists. You have to explore all the various combinations. For the film, Meteorites, my list included words like "meteors, destruction, survival, hope, impact, speed, annihilation," and on and on. I had stuff like "Bad News Travels Fast" – as in speeding meteors crashing into earth. The video box actually ended up with two of my lines on it: Meteorites – "They've Traveled a Billion Years to Destroy the Earth in One Night," and then, to punch it home with a short and memorable line: "They're Going to Rock Your World." When you know in your heart that you nail an assignment like that, the feeling is usually mutual. The client almost always sees the light. Sorry, But I’ve been known to speak in taglines too.

Right now, I do much more home video than theatrical – a lot of sci-fi, which is a huge market. It's maybe also a bit of a fringe market, but, actually the smaller the movie, the less channels of approval you have, so they'll let weirder stuff get through. For Pinocchio's Revenge, that satanic puppet movie, I had "Evil Comes with Strings Attached." (Laughs.)

It’s a fun job. You drink a couple of beers and go for it. The downside is that it's a fairly lonely profession. You're just a freelancer, a guy at the other end of a phone. And if someone like Disney waits ninety days before they even look at your invoice, well, that's just tough. Also, you frequently have only twenty-four hours to deliver your product. When a festival arrives like Cannes, you get three calls in one day and everybody wants it yesterday. Some people might find the pressure to come up with stuff on the spot like that totally insane, they might freeze, get writer's block. But I find it challenging. I think my record was I wrote twenty-five taglines in thirty-five minutes for something. I didn't really know what I'd written after I finished because I was going so damn fast.

Another thing that drives you nuts is negotiating your fee. The problem is that sometimes you are competing with people who want to get a foot in the door in entertainment any way they can, and they're willing to work for spec (free), which I don't do. I mean, I did it when I first started, but it's pretty much insulting. It devalues your work and your reputation. I try and stick to my guns for what I think I'm worth. And if a client tries to lowball me, I'll only agree if I'm just starting out with them. Once they like what I do, then I figure it is worth it for them to pay me what we both know is fair. Because if I sell their movie, the amount of money they're shelling out is worth it. And they know that.

It's a very tough business. There are probably fifty other people doing the same thing I'm doing right here in L.A. All freelancers. It's extremely competitive. I worked on this movie Atomic Dog, a Paramount film that wound up on the USA Network. I had a couple of good lines – "Someone's Been a Very Bad Dog," and my personal favorite "Reality Bites," – and apparently, those lines got framed and put up on a wall in the Paramount offices. I thought that was pretty complimentary, so I called them up and said "Can I work on anything else for you?" And they said, "Who the hell are you?" That's show biz.

If you have thin skin or rejection is difficult for you, I highly recommend getting into something else. In fact, it takes a lot of stick-to-it-ive-ness to freelance anything. I've got to get on the phone every other month and make dozens of cold calls to keep the thing going, because companies downsize, companies get swallowed up, they go in-house. It's a constant challenge to keep contacts current. Fortunately, I've got a couple of clients that have been great to me over the years. They pay well, they're fair, and they’ll even fight for a good idea in a meeting, which is great.

I don't consider myself as someone who works in show business. I work in retail advertising. It's not much different from the guy who toils at Target writing catalogues for Sunday newspapers. In ten years, I just hope I'll still be making a living as a writer, because if you can actually survive as a freelancer, you are a success.

The rewards vary. If I'm out socializing at a club and I tell a woman what I do, frequently, she either thinks I'm making it up, lying or exaggerating. You don't get a lot of recognition, because you don't get a byline. Still, a lot of people see your stuff, and that's pretty cool. Walking into a Tower Video and seeing dozens of video boxes with your work on it is something you can take pride in. I have gone to finish on over 200 films and my portfolio includes the posters and video boxes for Blade, Billy Bathgate, Get Shorty, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Bride of Chucky.

I just worked on Buffalo 66. It's a really poignant and also mean-spirited film. Vincent Gallo, the director, was a very hands-on guy. I was proud to work with him, even though I had to do ten different rewrites for the box synopsis. The synopsis is your life story for a movie in ninety-five words or less. Like: "Billy Brown is a three-time loser with a score to settle, da, da, da."

If you think about how much money goes into a film, and that the video box customers see in the store is what prompts some to buy it, you can see why studios get very, very, particular about the copy. I would too. Gallo had some concepts that I built on and he didn't like them, and I kept doing them over and over again. I thought I was going to get an aneurysm. But finally, it all worked out great, and it was probably one of the best synopses I ever wrote. I hope it makes it onto the box.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Courtney Love Unplugged

Courtney Love Unplugged
Hollywood Bowl
Los Angeles, CA

October 27, 2001

By Brian Bentley

Courtney Love's Baby Doll Punk hasn't grown up yet
Courtney Love has a full-time job as
the world's most famous rock star widow

Leave it to Perry Farrell – half industry weasel, half punk visionary – to discover the only guaranteed method of shutting up Courtney Love. Just unplug her. That's what happened, four songs into her scattered and self-indulgent set, opening for Farrell's 90's icons, Jane's Addiction at the Hollywood Bowl. It seems Ms. Love suddenly found herself sans amplification.

With the house lights turned on and her spotlight gone – her microphone as dead as her musical career – Courtney continued to perform for the few dozen unlucky fans still stuck in the front rows. She wasn't playing music anymore, she really hadn't done that all night, she was just performing Courtney. That would include her latest role as the bitter, professional widow whose lawsuit against the surviving members of Nirvana has stalled release of their long-awaited box set and left her with the karma of an American Airlines pilot.

As roadies scrambled about, Courtney refused to vacate the stage, strumming her soundless guitar for the benefit of a few well-paid, nearby flacks like KROQ's briny, Jed The Fish. Earlier, approximately one song before they cut her mic, Love had boldly announced that "Perry just told us we have only two songs left before we have to get off. F you Perry Farrell, we're going to play four!" Courtney's punk pledge fell on deaf ears when, a few minutes later, Farrell bitch-slapped back and cued the house DJ – sending Love into a complete meltdown. Screaming at the members of her band to stay on stage, she was, by turns: shocked, angry, frustrated, outraged, flabbergasted, flat-footed, stymied, thwarted, humiliated, flummoxed, flustered, bamboozled – and most certainly, pissed. All at the same time.

But then Ms. Love got just what she asked for and Courtney always gets what she wants. As for the rest of the show, what more can you say about a line-up including Jane's Addiction and grizzled techno vets, Stereo MC's? Ten years ago, this exact bill would have actually meant something significant, both musically and socially. But tonight, in the vast, acoustically-challenged, half-filled Hollywood Bowl, it seemed to signify little more than the creaky wheels of nostalgia and the methodical flow of commerce.

Jane's Addiction performed with grace and power, although Dave Navarro needs to update his stale, Jimmy Page-isms and add a second guitarist to match the nimble power of the band's rhythm section, featuring drummer Stephen Perkins and bassist Martyn LeNoble. Farrell was his usual New Age, punk, hippie, grand bad-ass self and sang fabulously. The leggy stripper/dancers he employed to ride giant seesaws were politically fine with the crowd because nakedness is really so Jane's.

As the headliner rolled into the night, Ms. Love was obviously long gone into the bowels of the building, perhaps paging her lead attorney to begin drafting civil suit papers. But her mystifying and horribly awkward latest appearance begs for a few helpful career pointers.

Dear Courtney:

When the venue's set-in-stone curfew is 11 p.m. and thousands of schmoes have shelled out $50 each for a ticket that says, "Jane's Addiction," on it, you might negotiate your set change in under 45 minutes.

This includes tuning your guitar and singing on-key. It also means including actual Ends to your songs that are more than just free-associated rantings in search of a subject.

The low-slung, three-inches-below the navel, hip huggers you were wearing looked to be stolen from Robert Plant's dressing room during the filming of The Song Remains The Same. Those pants are as last year as this article.

New guitarist Steve McDonald sounded great in Redd Kross but his thin, uncertain playing has none of Erlandson's confident, sustained crunch. As for Love's longtime drummer, when Courtney announced, "Patty wrote half of the songs on my last record and I didn't let her play on it, so tonight's her chance to redeem herself," Schemel looked ready to crawl inside her kick drum.

Your late husband set a rather poor example, but don't you think it's time you found a new identity to take you with dignity into middle age? Seven long years ago you were associated with one of the best albums of the 90's, and now you're a C-List movie actress. What happened?

How's this? To start with, fire all your lawyers. Give Kurt's music back to his true fans, whose dollars for "Nevermind" helped make you a player. Then quit rock and roll. Start a country band. Tour the country in a smelly van. Live on $20 a day. Sleep with Mike Watt. Sleep with whoever will get the job done. But the one thing you might want to avoid, is screwing with Perry Farrell.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Kurt Cobain Joins the Dead Rock Star Club

Underneath The Bridge
April 11, 1994

By Brian Bentley

The tragic death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain turned a punk rock star into a Grunge martyr

In April 1994, several days after Kurt Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, I wrote a fan’s lament to the tragedy. I sent my ideas to editors at several music magazines in hopes of generating an article. Katherine Turman, then editor at the metal mag, RIP, was very supportive.

My mini-feature story never came out, but the meat of it was bill-boarded on the RIP letters page. 17 years later, and Kurt’s death still seems shocking. More than any figure in rock history, his passing marked the end of an era. Of all the ways that Nirvana made our lives better, it was Kurt’s fanatical attention to quality control that meant the most. Not only did he strive to stay true to himself in his own music, but he raised the bar for every band out there. Rock musicians in the 90’s were actively competing with Nirvana and for most, it resulted in the best work of their careers.

This business of dead rock stars was old 20 years ago. Now it's just boring, a cliché that didn't need to include Kurt Cobain. "That stupid club" is how his mom Wendy described it to the press. The likes of Morrison, Hendrix and Joplin make up the club – all people Kurt had little in common with except death at the age of 27.

Kurt Cobain wasn't some pathetic reject from an Oliver Stone movie. His was not a gradual descent into the oblivion of self-pity. He wasn't a burned out, washed-up caricature of former greatness or someone who figured he'd better die before his legacy evaporated. Kurt should have lived to be 90. We could have grown old with him. His wife and baby daughter needed him. The world needed him, not because he was a "spokesman" or a rock God to worship from afar. We needed him because he was none of these things, because he achieved success accidentally, dragged into superstardom kicking and screaming.

It's been only three days since the news of Kurt's demise turned MTV into a 24-hour tribute channel. You can’t look at a photo of the band or listen to their music and think of Nirvana in the past tense. It's impossible to imagine someone as completely vital as Kurt gone. Now the media circus really begins. Captions next to every Cobain story will include the inevitable words "troubled" and "doomed." The name Nirvana will come to represent failed potential, suicide, and, worst of all, fodder for A Current Affair.

Surely, someone will conjure up a chart with diagrams to show the similarities between John Lennon and Cobain. Let's see: 1. They both have the same amount of letters in their first and last names; 2. Same number of letters in their band's name; 3. They both died on the 8th of the month; 4. Both favored pop melodies; 5. Both were small-town lads who hit the big time in cold, rainy swinging cultural meccas (London, Seattle); 6. Both loved heroin; 7. Just when both seemingly had it together, they wound up on the wrong end of a gun; 8. And, finally, both attached themselves to vilified artist wives who are now arguably the most famous widows in rock history.

Kurt once said that he wanted to kill off his career before it got too big. Suicide is the ultimate way of telling the world that no one owns you but you. There will be those who judge Kurt in the harshest of terms because he took his own life. These wise men will conclude that everyone has pressures and only weaklings cave in. But the last thing Kurt wanted was to be remembered as a dead rock star. For all his alienation and anger, he was possibly the most sensitive man to ever sell 10 million albums. And, like all sensitive people, his hurt ran deeper, his doubts loomed larger, his physical ailments became more disabling, his depression more bottomless.

Long after the funeral wreaths and tributes, long after the last Hard Copy expose, long after the Top-40 world has forgotten everything Kurt stood for, there will be his family, friends and true fans. For them, there will just be an empty space. And that emptiness will be there every day, for as long as memories last.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The 2004 Presidential Debates

Speechless in Miami
October 3, 2004

By Brian Bentley

John Kerry shaking hands with George W. Bush at the 2004 Presidential debate

In 1966, John Kerry stood before his Yale graduating class and thousands of others and delivered a remarkably polished speech critiquing American foreign policy and questioning U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The speech was well-rehearsed, analytical and very nearly perfect. But in its perfection, something important was lacking.

"It was a policy wonk's speech, pretty analytical and dispassionate,” recalled his brother, Cameron Kerry, who was in the audience that day.

Five years later, after his baptism of fire in the Vietnam War, John Kerry delivered a very different kind of speech before a Senate committee. Wrenching, emotional and direct, Kerry's anti-war diatribe concluded with a question that still hangs in the air nearly 35 years later: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

At the first Presidential debate of the 2004 race, George W. Bush could not answer that question. But John Kerry answered a big question in the minds of voters and viewers. Which Kerry would stand before us in Miami – would it be the plodding Clark Kent Kerry or the Superman of the Swift Boat?

Like the Man of Steel, Kerry hit the stage with hurricane force and had Bush crouching for cover from the very outset. This was the crunch-time John Kerry, the fighter we had been told was lurking underneath all that hair. It was a performance delivered better late than never. In the past two months, Kerry had swung in the polls from five points up to eight points down and never, in the history of presidential elections, was more riding on the outcome of one evening.

With his career on the line, Kerry's Mission was formidable. On the one hand, he had to be the anti-war candidate to rally his own demoralized Democratic troops and maybe woo some of the knuckleheads who plan to waste their votes on Ralph Nader. On the other hand, there are real fighting troops in the field and a slew of moderates who would not settle for Kerry channeling his inner Jane Fonda. Surrounded by hostile forces, he took aim and hit his political target dead center.

Kerry built his arguments around the cornerstone theory that Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein are about as connected to each other as George W. Bush is to his European allies. The Senator turned the emphasis away from his own credibility and pointed us in the direction of Bush's dismal job performance. Walking a semantic tightrope, Kerry skillfully and at long last, defined his opposition to the conflict in Iraq, not as a theoretical opposition to war being an instrument for liberty, but as an opposition to THIS War being the wrong way to combat terror right now.

George W. Bush looks on as John Kerry makes a point at the 2004 Presidential debate

Bush squirmed noticeably when Kerry delivered the best sound bite of the evening, calling Bush's sinking campaign in Iraq a "colossal error in judgment," adding that there was a vital difference between "certainty" and foolish stubbornness and that it is possible to be certain and still be wrong. Then, in a speechwriting tagline for the ages, Kerry managed to hit two birds with one stone – the listless economy and the War. Scowling like a disappointed professor at the smirking President, Kerry said, "We had Bin Laden cornered in Tora Bora. Instead of doing the job ourselves, we sent a bunch of Afghan Warlords to do it. We outsourced that job too."

To his credit, Bush went toe-to-toe with Kerry for the first half hour. He made the valid point that despotic dictators don't pay much attention to U.N. Resolutions, and that Kerry's campfire song vision of universal alliances between nations would wind up in ashes. Bush repeated that Kerry had access to the same military intelligence that he did and still voted for the War. The President reached out to millions watching in foreign lands when he promised freedom to "those who suffer in silence, yearning for liberty." And then, Bush tweaked the faithful with a reference to prayer that probably solidified, in just 45 seconds, as many votes as Kerry did in 90 minutes.

But at about the 35 minute mark in the debate, something extraordinary happened. Bush apparently ran out of original material. This was not a good thing as the debate still had an hour to go. Kerry was performing with the stamina of a porn star and looked like he could keep it up for another three hours. As Bush fidgeted and slouched and stammered, the world was finally treated to the kind of real human interaction that had been denied them after months of orchestrated campaigns.

The very same time-management compulsions that forced Kerry to rush to fit his acceptance speech at the DNC into a 59 minute and 55 second slot, worked in his favor this time. He delivered his answers on cue, beating the red light on the podium with ease while Bush continually asked for 30 second rebuttal time and then just stood there speechless, staring blankly at the camera, looking like Johnny Carson might if a small zoo animal was peeing on his head.

To fill the dead air, Bush repeated himself again and again and still again. You could almost feel the audience in the auditorium collectively gasp, half in embarrassment for the moment, half in amazement that something spontaneous was actually happening. The reaction shot cutaways, which the Bush camp had lobbied hard to avoid, did serious damage to Dubya. While many would argue that there's more to being a President than being a great debater, few could debate that George W. Bush did not look very Presidential whenever Kerry was digging in for the kill.

Kerry was in the zone from the get-go. When Bush asked him how he could support our troops and still vote against 87 billion dollars in military improvements, Kerry countered with the admission that, "I made a mistake in how I talk about the War. But the President made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?"

Time and again, Kerry fleshed out his points with effective and stinging examples. After both candidates agreed that nuclear proliferation was their chief concern, Kerry, ever the shrewd lawyer and prosecutor, provided a brilliant summation of Bush's bungled diplomacy. Several years ago, after Colin Powell invited the president of North Korea to talks limiting nuclear weapons, Bush reversed Powell in public and sent the embarrassed North Koreans home. Kerry said, "For two years this administration didn't talk at all to North Korea. During that time, our inspectors were kicked out, our television cameras were kicked out and today they have four to seven nuclear weapons and we have one of the most serious reversals or mixed messages that you could send."

As the first debate wound to a close, you clearly felt that Kerry had the audience in the palm of his ski glove. It was a magical night, like one of those solar phenomenons where all the planets line up a certain way and a giant tidal wave is created that lays waste to an oligarchy.

Bush found no mercy from his opponent and certainly no mercy in the beady, black eyes of moderator Jim Lehrer. The PBS anchor presided over the evening with the stiff, humorless air of a Dean of Admissions warily interviewing two prep school candidates. When the debate ended, Bush and Kerry met center stage and were joined by their families. It's hard not to like the Bush clan. Stepford Wife Laura and her two Girls Gone Wild daughters have approachable appeal, while folks are still trying to figure out what's up with Teresa Heinz Kerry. The would-be First Lady wandered onto the stage like a tipsy Liz Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In retrospect, both candidates missed opportunities. Kerry should have hammered harder on hidden administration agendas. What does Bush have planned for North Korea and Iran, two countries that actually have WMDs? What priority will be given to our domestic agenda if we continue to franchise Freedom with the expansionist zeal of a fast-food chain? When Bush promised onstage that we would continue with the all-volunteer army, Kerry could have quoted the recent report that 622 of the 1,765 Individual Ready Reserve members who were supposed to report on September 28th for additional tours of duty, failed to show up and many are considered AWOL. Can you spell D-R-A-F-T?

Draft cards, like politicians, can get burned

While the Kerry team missed a priceless opportunity to drop the D word, the Bush speechwriters flubbed by not defining the G.O.P.'s positive influence on Libya. The argument could be made that when a country as dangerous as Libya decides to disarm at the same time that we are invading their next door neighbors, the reason is likely to be military, not political, pressure.

As we look forward to Debate 2, those in search of a history lesson can learn much from the mistakes and flawed logic of George W. Bush. His warped view of diplomacy and lack of understanding of Imperialist-style aggression is rooted in the belief that when you've got the other guy outgunned, it doesn't really matter what he thinks. His team swears by the notion that you can force and intimidate countries into seeing things your way. This works in the short term, but taken long range, it's a philosophy that plants seeds of resistance that eventually sprout into a virulent form of hate.

In the eyes of many in the Third World, the U.S. and not Al Qaeda, is the most serious threat to all that is sacred. This is a War we cannot win with our present strategy and this is why the situation has now digressed to the point that average Joes – the Iraqi butchers, bakers and candlestick makers – are willing to blow themselves up for a cause far mightier than any Bradley armored vehicle. Sadly George W. has never understood the difference between winning a military battle and losing a war for the will of the people.

This is the reason the world needs John Kerry just as much as we do. He believes that if you have a small army of rats in an otherwise healthy building, you lay traps to catch the rats one by one; you don't blow up the entire building. Bush's greatest success in Iraq – the capture of Saddam Hussein in a spider hole – was just the kind of low casualty, intelligence-based operation that John Kerry so espouses.

Success for George W. Bush comes whenever he is able to manipulate millions of Americans into adopting his black and white view of the world, an ideology without shades of gray. Bush wants us to believe that if you're against the War, you aren't supporting our troops. You're not a religious person who cherishes life if you believe that a woman has the right to choose what happens inside her own body. And if you don't vote for his re-election, you are inviting disaster.

Fear of the unknown continues to be the fuel that drives this propaganda machine. In poll after poll, people bemoan the country's direction. But out in Bushland, in that vast Midwest and Southern state disconnect, folks are too scared and confused to shake things up. How many of these voters, so terrified of change, are looking towards the future with hope, or running from the past in fear?

Still there is much to be excited about. If John Kerry can maintain his debate advantage when the topics turn to domestic issues (Bush's obvious weak point) the momentum will stay on his side. With his performance Thursday night, Kerry achieved the credibility needed to get out the Democrat and progressive vote, to actually make people visualize this guy as President.

Can John Kerry really change voter's minds? With roughly 95% of the country supposedly already decided, this is the harder question. The impact of the debates won't be decided for sure until Election Day. Don't be surprised if the country suffers a massive deja-vu flashback to 2000: Nader making the ballot in both Florida and Wisconsin and siphoning away precious votes, Florida casting the deciding Electoral College and a disturbing number of people arriving at the conclusion that Bush won the debates, even though they never actually saw them.

But the good news is what John Kerry did NOT do in Debate 1. He did not salute the camera, nor did he windsurf his way into a gale of numbing statistics and boring minutiae. This was John Kerry Version 9.0 Optimized. He was clear, simple and easy to access. If just 4% of the voters have bounced Kerry's way, the contest is on again. Back in 2000, Al Gore led by 8% going into the debates. Before Thursday, the pundits said that the 2004 election was all up to George W. Bush. It was his to lose. If John Kerry keeps this up, it will be his race to win.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Sopranos Final Episode
Fade to Hack

The Last Supper
June 11, 2007

By Brian Bentley

Tony Soprano and his family sit down for dinner in the final scene of The Sopranos

The Sopranos final episode, “Made in America,” has come and gone, and it left millions of viewers in the dark. Of course, I’m talking about the last ten seconds of the show, where the screen went silent and black. There was nothing wrong with your TV. After six and half seasons of the best television show in history, the producers decided to wind it up a few heartbeats short of completion.

Showrunner David Chase has continually demonstrated a sadistic streak toward his audience. Cast favorites are butchered without the slightest regard to humanity (witness the manipulative and gruesome execution of sweet Adriana La Cerva). So, if twelve million loyal viewers crave something epic to close out a series that has built HBO into a powerhouse (giving the network the means to foist up mean-spirited, forgettable shit like John from Cincinnati), then Chase is going to confound expectation, be an asshole and disappoint.

Close monitoring of previous seasons demonstrates that Chase and co-producer Terence Winter usually pack the next-to-last episode with the best material. Season six and a half was no different. The action-packed hour that preceded the show’s finale was called “The Blue Comet” and it finds Tony and the remainder of his decimated crew in ruins. The man of a thousand appetites has descended from the opulence of a Las Vegas penthouse to the coffin of a safe house in just three viewing weeks. The New Jersey and New York families are at war. As the credits roll, Tony lays down on a bare mattress to sleep the fitful sleep of the doomed, holding not his faithful wife Carmela, or the hooker du jour, but an automatic weapon he may soon put to his head.

Somewhere in the bowels of the Tri-State area, Tony’s mob-boss rival and nemesis Phil Leotardo, he of the simian hairline and withering quips, is in hiding after the Sopranos tried to kill him and settled instead for the look-alike father of his mistress. Bobby Bacala, Tony’s brother-in-law, the sweet man-boy who never really fit in, is gunned down in a hobby store while shopping for a vintage train set. Silvio Dante, the consigliere in Tony’s outfit, eternally damned for his cold-blooded execution of poor Adriana, lies in a coma after a shooting in the Bada Bing nightclub parking lot.

Everything in Tony’s world is falling down. After numerous threats to quit therapy, he has the shoe jammed up his own ass when he’s suddenly fired by his lady shrink. It’s an ignoble and personal betrayal. His interplay with Dr. Melfi is a window into the Tony Soprano we can connect with – an anxiety-wracked human filled with doubt, concerned about playing fair with his own family and his crew, agonizing about the same decisions all business managers worry about.

But where Tony’s going, he’ll need more than psychiatric help. He currently has, as Phil would say, “a couple of three options.” He could be killed, go to jail, pull a Ray Liotta from Goodfellas and turn state’s evidence, or commit suicide. Option five might feature Tony leaving town to create a new posse in another state. But that would lie in the realm of impossible-to-process, about the same odds of Edie Falco ringing my doorbell tonight with a steaming plate of her baked zitti.

Tony Soprano is the best gangster character since Al Pacino in Scarface
James Gandolfini plays New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano

With a build-up like that, the final episode, “Made in America,” had a lot to live up to. Unfortunately, The Sopranos season-ending shows are often a disappointing and confusing post-script. So why change things up? With 60 minutes left in the lives of America’s first Family, Chase opted to spend his time meandering back and forth between the same redundant, flat subplots that have prompted bathroom breaks for years.

Will it be law or medicine for Meadow (which makes more dough)? Terminally out-of-step A.J. is determined to enlist in the Army and head for Afghanistan. Displaced housewife/whore Carmela wrings her hands in typical babbling denial, complaining about unsanitary conditions in the new safe house. Senile old fart Uncle Junior burns up five precious screen minutes trying to remember who his nephew Tony is, and why we should care. TIME TIME TIME, that the final episode didn’t have, is wasted.

Paulie Gualtieri, as usual, gets the best material. When a stray cat spends hours staring at the wall photo of dead Christopher Moltisanti, it drives the superstitious Paulie nuts, so he picks up a broom to swat the kitty. Tony walks into the room and Paulie pretends to be sweeping up. Priceless moments like these are proof that in between the mob hits and tiring, New Age psychological meanderings, The Sopranos was a hell of a funny show.

Phil Leotardo finally does get whacked and has his head run over by an SUV, which I guess is payback for the disfigurements of Vito, the gay guy, and Bobby. But the too-easy tip from Tony’s federal agent/snitch on Phil’s location that prompted the hit? I bet that suspense-cheating concept took hours to figure out in story meetings. The other holes in logic are simply mind-numbing. With Phil dead and the New York crew possibly seeking revenge, Tony visits his sister Janice, Bobby’s widow, in the last place anyone would think to stake out – her house.

As the body count rises in the midst of a major mob war, there’s no sign of the Feds. It has always seemed like the Soprano gang exists in an alternate universe where murder and mayhem prompt none of the crushing real-world responses from the authorities or the media. Major figures are killed off and the following week it’s like nothing happened. Is Chase saying that life moves in unexpected ways, or is he telling us his fantasies are everyone else’s incomprehensible bullshit? Maybe it was all just a dream and Tony really is a traveling salesman who sees lights at the end of the world outside his hotel room window.

I’ll spare you the rest of the forgettable details of final episode #86, since all anybody talks about is the ending. With time about up, Tony, A.J. and Carmela sit down for their last supper at Holsten’s restaurant. The eatery is the kind of drab dump that precious Carm wouldn’t usually be caught dead in. Meadow is clumsily trying to parallel park her car and arrives late, or maybe just in time, to be riddled with bullets. A predatory thug in a Members Only jacket is lurking inside the joint. The thug passes the Soprano table and goes into the bathroom, presumably to retrieve a handgun taped to the toilet a la Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” is on the jukebox. Tony looks up one more time from his onion rings and just as Steve Perry sings the words ‘Don’t Stop,’ the screen smash-cuts to black, like someone shot your TV through the head. Three million viewers check to see if they paid their cable bill.

So what can we presume really “happened” in this monumental cop-out to cinematic closure? Let’s toss out some theories and see what sticks to the wall besides Tony’s brains. If the entire clan was to be killed, it runs contrary to previous hits where bystanders and wives are spared. In a past episode, Tony assured Carmela, “Don’t worry, they never hit the family.” Sure, Tony had Phil whacked, but the lizard-like istigatore was getting on everyone’s nerves anyway.

Tony is about to be indicted by a grand jury. Prison would remove him from substantial leadership and leave the territory wide open. With Phil gone, there wasn’t a single hood with the clout to order a contract. Why bother? Phil’s weasel lieutenant, Butch, has the grudge, but hardly the balls. Maybe the guy in the Members Only jacket is a Fed on stakeout, reminding Tony that either the net of justice is going to drop, or he'll be looking over his shoulder the rest of his life. Since when do shooters openly eyeball the mark for five minutes before taking care of business? For a guy of Tony’s stature, it would likely be several gunmen on the job, and the less face-time the better.

But it would be wise to remember, that in the world of David Chase, metaphor and not conventional logic, often prevails. Under those criteria, Tony really was killed in the diner by a gunshot to the back of the head when the stalker guy came out of the bathroom. As Chase said in a recent interview regarding clues to Tony’s fate, “Anybody who wants to watch it, it’s all there.” Remember the conversation when Bobby tells the Boss, “You probably won’t even hear it when it happens, right?” Then there was the rotten karma left over from the suicide of tossed-aside Soprano henchman Eugene Pontecorvo. To free himself from the grip of The Family, Eugene’s wife implores him to “put a bullet in (Tony’s) fucking head.” Can anyone forget that the first episode of The Sopranos sixth season, where Tony is shot by Uncle Junior, was titled “Members Only?”

Adriana and Tony Soprano in a lighter moment before he had her killed for cooperating with the Feds

Way back in the second season finale, “Funhouse,” Tony has a dream where he has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and decides to kill himself. He pours gasoline over his head and lights a match. At the exact moment he explodes, and presumably dies, he wakes up crying and says “Everything’s black!” Speaking of black, more than a few websites have had great fun with the POV shots inside Holsten’s. Each begins with a close-up of Tony as he eyes every person entering the restaurant. The viewer sees what he is seeing. On the final POV shot, he looks up and we see nothing. I guess that means what Tony sees is also nothing – his death, the big blank TV screen in the sky.

You have to hand it to David Chase. The guy knew how to go out with a bang. To ensure secrecy, he removed the last pages of the script for “Made in America” before he gave it to his crew, and the very last scene shot was inside Holsten’s. So while the final episode was generally superfluous, the ending is a nifty bit of filmmaking – even though the audience was gypped out of seeing T get the payback he deserved for all the lives he ruined.

Chase had reasons for leaving the ending ambiguous. He has complained that fans demanded to see Tony’s blood, and he wasn’t going to give them what they wanted. It’s safe to say that the moral awakening which followed Tony’s shooting and near-death experience had run its course, and he was worse than ever, becoming a compulsive gambler and treating those closest to him like captured prisoners. His gift for blankness when he kills Christopher is not unlike the bloodless gaze of Michael Corleone at the end of Godfather Part II, when he orders his own brother executed for weakness in the line of fire. Tony’s once big heart for others in need had shrunk to the size of a .45 caliber slug. In the end, there were a thousand people/victims with the desire to see him dead and any one of them could have figuratively pulled the trigger. Prison would have perverted Tony’s enormous appetitive for wringing every dime out of life, so maybe someone was doing him a favor.

If the show had a unifying theme, it was that you reap the seeds you sow. Not just society’s judgment, but the brutal discipline of organized crime. Every character in The Sopranos is given a chance to measure up. Those who don’t, pay the price – not just the wrath of The Family, but the damnation of karma. Tony murders Christopher, his own “nephew,” because the drugged loser is a liability who has run out of chances to fuck up. Gay Vito flees from an old-world culture that kills independents who disgrace it. He should have stayed “living free” with his boyfriend, the fry cook. Vito returns home because he can’t survive outside The Life, and that decision brings the end of his. Bobby’s spirit was clean until Tony pushed him into his first murder – where Bobby lost his soul. Tony Blundetto is headed for a straight career and a real life, until his uncontrollable self-destructive urges lead him to shoot Phil's brother and seal his own oblivion.

Any ending of a series like The Sopranos could never expect to satisfy more than 51 percent of the viewers anyway. One thing is certain. A show with its infinite attention to plot detail will not pass our way again. Like innocence, we have lost something that cannot be restored. The communal experience of sitting down at a designated hour, with millions of other viewers, to share the expectations and joys of something new, dark and revelatory is over. The actors who became extended family to us must now suffer diminished expectations for the rest of their careers. In our minds, they will always be Tony, Carmela, A.J., Meadow, Christopher and Paulie. If half the soil in New Jersey was turned over, you couldn’t dig up characters like these again and I’m not sure anyone would want to.

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