Thursday, October 27, 2011

Visiting The Ghost Of Kurt Cobain

Love, Loss and the
Greenhouse Effect

September 1, 1995

By Brian Bentley

The greenhouse behind Cobain's residence outside Seattle
Photo by Brian Bentley

Labor Day weekend is the official end of summer. As September arrives, families everywhere hit the road for one last vacation before it's back to school and work.

It's twilight on a warm "getaway" Friday and I'm outside the house where Grunge God Kurt Cobain lived and died. The world wants to immortalize the legend and forget the person. It’s impossible to do that when you’re standing in his backyard.

Thousands of people have gathered in this little green strip of land, a 100 by 150 foot "park" on East Lake Washington Drive in the upscale Seattle suburb of Madrona. I know. I saw them – puzzled fans huddled in the rain for MTV's Week in Rock reports.

Nobody is around but me right now. It's green and lush and quiet like a cemetery. You can hear the crickets chirp down by the lake, about 150 yards away. After all the crowds that amassed here, it feels strange to be alone in such a notorious place.

I stare at the landmark to a fallen idol, the garage/greenhouse where Kurt Cobain blew his brains out with a shotgun. It perches so close, so open and vulnerable, just like the man, spitting distance from the edge of public property. It looks smaller, less significant than I imagined.

The garage sits behind the main house, up a 100 foot winding driveway, totally obscured on all sides by foliage, except from the park side. And these bushes have grown six feet since the pictures taken just 18 months ago. Soon, the house next to Madrona Park will be sealed from public view.

Then I notice the curtains in the second story bedroom window. Vintage Victorian they are, all frilly and doily patterns perfectly suited for Courtney Love, the queen of Baby Doll punk. How long have they been there I wonder? She probably put them up when Kurt was still alive, when Francis still had a dad, when Courtney and her "knight in shining armor" enjoyed the only real family they'd ever known. Now the curtains just looked kind of sad and clichéd, the way Courtney looks these days when she's not making music.

I walk up the steep concrete steps at the rear of the park. Every square inch of undeveloped land in Seattle is covered with trees. It's dark and spooky in here. I emerge onto a winding, hilly street that would not look out of place in Laurel Canyon, California. Approaching the back fence of the property, I can hear the jingling of guard dog choke collars and the muffled voices of two men far away. Like a paparazzi shooting Hugh Grant, I lift my camera and muttering that I don't have a wide angle lens, snap a quick shot of the garage and the newly mounted security camera. Immediately, as if on cue, the dogs come running, too late.

So I head back to the lone bench that sits like a monument at a state park. Fans have scratched into it their reasons for forgiving and never forgetting the man who didn’t know when to quit. "Even in his youth he was something," quotes one of Kurt's best lyrics, not coincidentally about another dysfunctional American family. Some of the inscriptions sound really lost.

All by yourself in this vibe-heavy place, one almost feels a strange tinge of possession, like you’re channeling the dude in his sacred burial ground. But in contradiction, the scene is also completely ordinary. A big empty house owned by a rock widow who lost her husband way too soon – sad and not romantic in the least. In real life, Selena and Elvis are dead too, dust and dirt, nowhere near immortality and huge merchandising profits.

It was time to find my way back to wherever I had come from and bid so long to the Nowhere Man of 90's rock. But he was more than a media label. Kurt had it all. As a songwriter he was in the same league as Neil Young or Bob Dylan. Both those cats knew it too, as did Michael Stipe. Music Gods always seem to appreciate it the most when someone new has earned admission to their private club.

I take a few last photos. The twilight is fading, the bugs are taking over, and Graceland West is shutting down for the night. Suddenly, I hear the hum of a Mercedes as a car enters the gates. Is it Courtney, stopping to pick up some things before heading off to that Labor Day rock festival at the North Pole?

On my way down the grassy knoll, two boys outfitted with crash helmets, the kind a kid from the 60's wouldn't be caught dead with, pull up on their bicycles. "Isn't that Eddie Vedder's house?" one asks. " is," I say. Just then a car full of teenagers passes by and one of them shouts "COURRRTNEEEY” into the distance of the still, lakefront air.

Consider the paranoia that can come with fame and the constant intrusion from people who think they know you. As for the rock widow, I've always believed in her music, figured it was coming from the heart. Everyone can relate to shitty parents, the sense that you must somehow recreate a family of your own. Courtney failed so bitterly to pull that off. I admire her for showing respect and not selling the house off overnight, like it was diseased. I would not want her as a houseguest, but she does tackle everything head on, stares it in the face and has a drink with it. She doesn’t run.

I walk back to the car with a weird sense of self-fulfillment, of finally making the trip and paying respects. And I realize how glad I am to have seen this place, not in the carpal tunnel of TV, but in the three-dimensional reality of smell and sound, color and shape. It’s true. You can find anything you really want to find in this world. Sometimes that includes peace.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Layne Staley Didn't Burn Out
He Just Faded Away

Man in the Box
April 23, 2002

By Brian Bentley

On April 19th, Layne Staley, the 34 year-old lead singer of Alice in Chains and the most influential rock vocalist of his generation, was found dead in his Seattle apartment. Judging by the decomposition of the body, Staley may have been dead as long as two weeks. Kurt Cobain took his own life on, or about, April 5th, 1994. Was the timing just a macabre coincidence?

Even though it was made official last week, Layne Staley really died a long time ago. He didn't do it in dramatic public fashion, with a single shot, like Cobain. Rather, he wasted away, a la Elvis, in a hermitic, drug-induced stupor, his spirit and then his body destroyed piece by piece. Pending the outcome of toxicology tests, no one will be surprised if heroin was involved.

Besides a love for drugs, Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain shared much in common. Their lives and their music intersected across a multitude of landscapes – some personal, many professional. Both natives of Washington State, they found themselves, in 1991, at the forefront of a Seattle music scene that exploded across the world. Cobain's band, Nirvana, played punk rock with heavy metal overtones. Staley's group, Alice in Chains, delivered heavy metal with a liberal dose of punk. Suddenly, everywhere you looked, it was cool for metalers to mosh and for hard core punks to bang their heads – converting new fans to each genre and adding credibility to both. This wonderful new hybrid was labeled Grunge and it was a concept the world was ready to embrace faster than you could say, "Axl Who?"

At the turn of the 90's, much like today, mindless pop ruled the airwaves and a bored, record-buying public was hungry for substance, for a sense that music, especially rock, still mattered. Like any powerful new religion, Grunge had larger-than-life icons ready to supply instant soundbites of self-promotion. The Holy Trinity, in effect, was Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and Eddie Vedder and they blessed this new punk rock, making it easier for deserving bands like Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Tad, Screaming Trees and Afghan Whigs to follow in their wake.

Alice in Chains never quite fit the purist's mold but they sold the music to the average Metallica fan and this just heightened the cross-pollination of the species. AIC's 1990 debut album, Facelift was the first certified Grunge hit – powerfully dark and unrelenting Dirge rock with cheery titles like "Man in The Box" and "We Die Young." Their follow up, Dirt, sold 4 million copies.

Dirt was Staley's tour de force masterpiece. It seemed to crystallize everything Alice in Chains had been trying to achieve thematically and it did so in commanding fashion. Heavily injected with musical and lyrical hooks, Dirt was a documentary of sorts, a day-in-the-life of a disturbingly content junkie. In the hands of lesser talent, the album's one-note tales of gloom and despair might have seemed calculated. But Staley pulled it off with blunt conviction and an absence of self pity, mixing art with his real life in a potent recipe for oblivion.

In "Junkhead" he brags, "What's my drug of choice? Well, what have you got? I don't go broke and I do it a lot." The album's title track was even more to the point. "I want you to kill me and dig me under. I want to live no more." While Staley plumbed the lyrical depths, guitarist Jerry Cantrell, drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr elevated the music with majestic metal riffs and tight, glassine production – songs like "Would?" and "Rooster" became instant anthems for a new generation of disaffected slackers.

Like many of his contemporaries, Staley always labored in the shadows of Kurt Cobain's brilliance. Much has been written about how Nirvana's Nevermind changed the face of music, making Cobain the most influential artist of his time. But, when you turn on the radio today, it's Layne Staley who has become the common voice and the most copied rock vocalist since Michael Stipe or Mick Jagger. His diaphragm-driven growl laid the foundation for modern metal – from Stone Temple Pilots to Queens of the Stone Age to Staind to (gasp) Creed to all things Ozzfest. STP's 1992 breakthrough hit, "Sex Type Thing" sounded more like Alice in Chains than Alice in Chains did. Was it Weiland or Staley singing, "I know you want what's on my mind?"

To their credit, Staley and Cantrell continued to evolve and by the time of their perfecto 1996 appearance on MTV Unplugged, the band had developed a rich catalogue of material. The live performance was one of the group's finest moments. Listening to their voices seamlessly harmonize on "No Excuses" and "Brother" was to rediscover vintage power trio crooning – shades of Clapton and Jack Bruce in Cream.

This high water mark signaled the beginning of the end for Layne Staley. His remaining years were spent in a mute, self-imposed exile, getting high and watching TV. Many of his peers had become ghosts in a career field with no retirement plan. Depressed souls can suffer up here in the pines where the sun don't ever shine. The dark clouds that perpetually smother Seattle hovered over the short lives of precious native sons like Jimi Hendrix, Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone and Kurt Cobain. Mia Zapata of the Gits was brutally murdered in a 1993 case that remains unsolved.

One of the sadder aspects of Staley's slow capitulation was how he got written off. Many people presumed he died long ago. Such is the fate suffered by terminally-minded rock stars who choose not to burn out, but to fade away. Had Layne nodded off the night after his 1996 Unplugged rebirth, he might have theoretically been chiseled into a Seattle rock n' roll Mount Rushmore, along with Hendrix, Wood and Cobain.

Instead, his body lay unclaimed for two weeks in his University District apartment as those who might have presumed to care about him never bothered to check on their desperately ill friend. Perhaps this says more about the pain of being Layne Staley than all the lost opportunities and grave robbers ever could.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Booze, Betrayal and Broken Gin Blossoms

The Gift of the
Homemade Mix Tape

December 22, 2002

By Brian Bentley

Gin Blossoms’ New Miserable Experience was the best alternative country rock album of the 90’s
Gin Blossoms with Doug Hopkins (right, front)

It's a few days before Christmas. As usual, I find myself in the familiar holiday position of being financially strapped, so spending much money is out of the question. Better to give a present that money can't buy, namely some exceptional songs cued in a particularly creative order. There's nothing like a mix tape. That's right, it may be 2002, but mix tapes will always be cool. Digital can't beat the heart and soul of a 90 minute Hi-bias, Dolby B audiocassette.

But first, I want to talk about 3 CD’s I’ve got in constant rotation right now.

First up, is the soundtrack to the extremely underrated film, Jackie Brown. Director Quentin Tarantino one-ups his legendary soundtrack to Pulp Fiction (no easy task). Where else could you find the ghetto grandeur of Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" on the same slab with the bubblegum howitzer that is the Grass Roots' "Midnight Confession?"

Next, is the Gin Blossoms first full-length CD, New Miserable Experience, the best folk and country rock album of the 90's, which is saying a helluva lot. It is everything that critically-acclaimed efforts from boring and bombastic bands like Wilco are not – unself-conscious, pure, simple, optimistic, devastated and shot full with the kind of undeniable musical hooks and lyrical profundities that remind the listener of instant classics like Pet Sounds and Rubber Soul. Who cares if the group's catalog wound up on KOST 102?

The story of the Gin Blossoms begins and ends with its founder, Doug Hopkins, an unrepentant melancholic and doomed alcoholic who managed to write one of the 10 greatest songs ever about lost love ("Hey Jealousy") and get kicked out of the band he started the day the album he conceived from the ashes of a broken love affair went gold.

Four months before Kurt Cobain killed himself, Hopkins put a .38 caliber slug into his head. But these days, few speak with reverence about "Doug," like they do, "Kurt," which is unfortunate, since Hopkins was Cobain's equal as a songwriter in every way. He was betrayed by his own brothers in the Gin Blossoms, who forced him to sign away royalties and spitefully removed some of his credits and his photo from the album. But in the end, Hopkins made his point. Without his enormous manic energy and musical spark, the band languished, milking the formula he created until eventually it was an enterprise running entirely on fumes.

Hopkins created a jingle jangle musical landscape of lightness that was a lyrical minefield for darkened, broken hearts. From "Lost Horizon." "I'll drink enough of anything to make this world look new again..." "There was nothing left to say. So she said she loved me. I just stood there, grateful for the lie." This is music that sounds like someone literally poured their life into it.

Another CD I can’t stop playing is DGC RARITIES. One of the most popular compilations of its time, it signaled a record label (Geffen) at the height of its grunge dominance. With seldom-before-heard songs by Nirvana, Hole, Beck, That Dog, The Posies and more.

THE MIX TAPE (Selected Excerpts)

BEAUMONT'S LAMENT (from Jackie Brown) In this 30-second audio clip, a righteously lethal Samuel L. Jackson opens the trunk of his Caddy to reveal the very-dead Chris Tucker, while explaining his early employee retirement plan to a cow-eyed Robert DeNiro.

LOW First with Indie legends Camper Van Beethoven, and later, with Cracker, David Lowery kept buffing up his dust bowl folk/punk until it shined like California studio gold.

I'M TAKING EUROPE WITH ME College honeys that even riot girrrls could love, Veruca Salt teamed with famed Nirvana producer, Steve Albini to chop off this slice of jagged velveteen. A favorite among Eurorail slackers.

SOMEONE TO PULL THE TRIGGER It's doubtful that even vintage-era Fleetwood Mac could have pulled off a more catchy and irresistible ode to self-loathing than this soulful refrain by Matthew Sweet. How's this for getting to the point? "I'm ready and willing, the clarity is chilling, but I'm not asking you to save my life. I need someone ... to pull the trigger. Cause this hole in my heart is getting bigger. And everything I'll ever be, I've been. And I need someone to pull the trigger. So if you're who I think you'll be, if you're who I think I see .. Then shoot."

WILLING TO WAIT Lou Barlow split acrimoniously from Dinosaur Jr. and formed Sebadoh, releasing a series of lo-fi home-produced albums that contained some of the most exquisite vocal arrangements ever to waft from a dorm room speaker. On this plaintive, sensitive-guy tune, Barlow gently asks an ex-girlfriend to dump that jerk she left him for.

TALLAHASSEE As immortalized in Nick Broomfield's drugopic Kurt and Courtney, Earth is a band fronted by the marginally talented, majorly slimy Dylan Carlson, ex best-friend of Kurt Cobain. Carlson wanted to help his insanely depressed buddy, so he bought him the shotgun that ended his life. Or maybe he just gave it to Courtney ... Here, Earth do a decent job of evoking the swirling moodiness of early Pink Floyd.

YOU KNOW YOU'RE RIGHT In this freshly-exhumed Nirvana nugget, Kurt basically lets you know who he had grown to hate in the end (along with himself). With sheet metal vocals that alternate with Stipe-like nasal mumblings, it's apparent that Cobain's perfection of the soft/loud dynamic had reached truly frightening proportions.

Monday, October 24, 2011

How Electronica Became the New Grunge

Digging a Hole with
The Chemical Brothers

May 21, 1997

By Brian Bentley

Electronic music was the most influential sound of the late 90’s

It's 1997. For those who wondered when Techno would finally be swallowed whole by the mainstream, this is your year. Whether you prefer ambient, trip-hop, trance or acid jazz, Electronica has a lot of people dancing in the streets. Critics and the music press are hungry for a movement that can rival the energy and right-nowness of early Grunge. There are a lot of intriguing new acts out there (details to follow), but The Chemical Brothers are Electronica's rock stars, and this has made them the object of great expectation.

Media overkill has panicked record labels. Nervous executives with visions of a Nirvana-like feeding frenzy, scramble about in search of the next Chemical Brothers. TV commercials feature techno and house as musical beds. Just ask Kennedy, the former host of MTV's recently-cancelled, Alternative Nation. Break-beat is the new rock for burned-out metal/punks who've decided it's better to join the universal party than bang your head.

Electronica may have exploded this year, but it's been with us, in one form or another, since the first synthesizer. Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive" was a dance hall staple in 1967. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes and King Crimson founded prog-rock. By the mid 70's, artists like Brian Eno were sculpting ethereal soundscapes that paved the way for all things ambient. Tangerine Dream scored major film soundtracks. New Order made ridiculously catchy new wave dance music, and industrial acts like KMFDM injected churning goth/metal into the mix. By the early 90's, Astralwerks had emerged as the record label that represented the meat of the genre, much like Sub Pop had done for Seattle's music scene a few years earlier.

So what does this mean to punk rock and indie music lovers? Need we feel threatened by the glow sticks and jazz-like dispensing of concrete lyrical themes? Epitaph Records Prez Brett Gurewitz recently lost his precious sense of humor when he dismissed Electronica as "a lot of garbage." This thinking seems beside the point and very 1994. The better move might be to collect your significant other and any recreational substance you enjoy and take a break from verse-chorus-verse, three minutes and out, whiny post-punk rock. Who really needs The Muffs, anyway?

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the Shrine Expo Hall in L.A. to see The Chemical Brothers show with Vegas openers, The Crystal Method. Something about the night felt surprisingly substantial, like a breath of very fresh air. There was a lot of tie-dye going on, but it wasn't the indulgent hippie, smelly Deadhead kind. The crowd was a mix of "normal" people: Industrial Siouxie girls, Manchester types sporting hats, college students and assorted ravers. Everyone was dancing with their neighbor and the pot smoke hung in the air as perfectly as the block rockin' beats.

The Chemical Brothers represent the best of Electronica and Dance Music
The Chemical Brothers

The show's focus was obviously on the Chemical Brothers' new album, the mind-blowing, Dig Your Own Hole, which features a sound as thoroughly original and never-before-heard as Beck's Mellow Gold. Combine N.Y.C. Grand Royale vintage hip hop with psychedelic techno and elements of hard rock, and you get an idea why the Chemical Brothers have arrived at the perfect time. Like Nirvana, they bust genre stereotypes wide open and sell a lot of records. On their heels, expect an onslaught of keyboard-equipped wanna-be rock stars wielding computers and turntables. Whether the current Electronica craze will endure, is up to the same vagaries that created Grunge with Soundgarden and let it evolve into Seven Mary Three. One always hopes for the best.

But the fact is, with a new millennium only 30 months away, it's time to open your mind and embrace something entirely different. Musical bigotry is counterproductive to growth. If you've got a hundred bucks and want to be entertained, pass on those two tickets to the Staind tour and head for your local record store. Be on the lookout for anything on Astralwerks or the Deconstruction labels. Take home the first Chemical Brothers album, Exit Planet Dust. Scour the bins for the latest from Orb, Orbital, Underworld, Daft Punk, The Future Sound of London, Kraftwelt, or try the compilation L.P. Wipeout (on Astralwerks), which features many of the before-mentioned groups.

Remember, both Tim Leary and Heaven's Gate guru Marshall Applewhite believed that technology and mind-expansion could lead to higher consciousness. Look where it got them. Grunge is as tapped-out as an empty beer keg in a rainy backyard. Move with the flow and let the flow move you. Enjoy Electronica while you still can. Before you know it, Grunge will return in force as retro music and everyone knows punks can't dance.

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Remembering John Lennon

Twenty Five Years of Lost Memories
December 8, 2005

By Brian Bentley

John Lennon survived The Beatles and the 60’s, but was murdered by a crazed Mark David Chapman

How fast can 25 years go by? In my mind, John Lennon's murder is still the single biggest ripoff/crime/tragedy in the history of rock misadventures. I remember watching Monday Night Football the evening Howard Cosell reported that Lennon had just been shot. After ten straight years of rock gods falling from the skies in planes, electrocuting themselves, choking on vomit, "accidentally" blowing their brains out, or just checking out in general, my first reaction upon hearing the news was complete disbelief. "Give me a break, no freakin way, he didn't go like THAT!"

John Lennon was a guy who had survived the darkest recesses of his own self-destructive tendencies. He was an absent father and husband who had finally come to grips with so many addictions and expectations, the kind that would crush any random ten men. In a rock landscape littered with icons, Lennon was its single, most powerful conscience, committed to doing the right thing in the face of overwhelming odds. He was nobody's false idol. If Paul McCartney could hold up a mirror to a parallel universe, one where everything he represented was reflected back to him in opposite perspective, like a photographic negative, surely the image would be John's.

Two famous videos that display Lennon's intimidating presence and cool come to mind. The first is the widely circulated clip from 1966 of Lennon and Bob Dylan in the backseat of a limo. At the time, Dylan was the single most important cultural figure going, a man whose every word was broken down into infinite analysis. But riding next to Lennon, dressed in impossibly natty Carnaby Street ware, a drunk and babbling Dylan comes off like some Midwest hick on a barstool, desperately trying to impress. As Dylan rambles on about nothing in particular, a blasé John stares at him the way Michael Caine might take in a schizophrenic tirade from Charles Manson. "Dear boy, go on with what you're saying, I'm still listening."

The other defining Lennon moment, was on the London rooftop where the Beatles played their last gig, for the filming of Let It Be. The documentary captures the disintegration of the group, and even more amusingly, the final flailing of Paul McCartney as their paranoid bandleader. John has already moved on, and seems to be floating on a cloud of confidence and purpose above the rest. He even gets the best and final word in edgewise. "Thanks, and on behalf of the band, I hope we passed the audition."

Last night, I was shopping at Amoeba in Hollywood, and the store was playing The White Album. I couldn't believe how vital and revolutionary it still is. At the end of "Helter Skelter," Ringo Starr's disembodied voice suddenly boomed from one speaker to the next in a surround-sound effect, startling the shopper next to me in The Strokes t-shirt and ringing the entire insides of the monolithic structure. "I got BLISTERS on my fingers!..." The words erupted violently, like multiple gunshots going off.

"Nothing to kill or die for … and no religion too." Imagine everything we’ve missed in the past 25 years.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dick Cheney Melts Down

Campaign 2004: Bald Faced Lies and Frozen Deer
September 8, 2004

By Brian Bentley

Vice President Dick Cheney was the brains behind the evil Bush empire

The bloody War in Iraq paled in comparison to Tuesday's War of Words in the 2004 Presidential campaign. Vice President, Dick Cheney, veering off course like an errant Tomahawk cruise missile, suggested that a vote for John Kerry is a vote for weaker security, making it likely that we will be "hit again" with another U.S. mainland terrorist attack. In other words, if you want John Kerry for President, then you want to die.

A brittle and weary George W. Bush had no comment when asked about Cheney's remarks, as Cheney was apparently in hiding and unable to brief the President on what to say. Surprisingly enough, John Kerry also had nothing to say, letting his defiantly-perky running mate, John Edwards, do all the talking. Edwards said it was "inappropriate" for Cheney to "threaten the American people."

As the administration's deafening silence regarding this latest foray into the gutter of American politics leaves the Vice President to flap in the breeze, the usual assortment of right wing mouthpieces will soon be forced to unsay what Cheney said, because he didn't mean to say it so honestly. But that's what campaigns are all about today. Candidates hide behind the veil of "moderation" while subordinates are left to sling mud like chimpanzees. As cunning and ruthless a politician as they come, Cheney is hoping to raise the stakes even higher. MSNBC's Chris Matthews stated tonight, "This has become a one-issue campaign and if the American voters actually buy what Cheney is selling, then this election is over, now."

To further confuse the splintered fence sitters in the swing states, Democratic forces have finally responded to all things Swift Boat with a fresh and particularly effective campaign questioning George W. Bush's military service in Alabama. None of the men interviewed in the new series of TV spots ever remembered serving with George W., or even seeing him on the premises. At this point, with their candidate having taken a severe public beating for a month, the Democrats are best advised to fight as dirty as they can to survive. The American public has never been more easily distracted or frightened – whether it's scrutinizing old war records, or voting for old liars they are too afraid to question.

It is difficult to recollect a Presidential campaign in recent memory that has produced such polarity and raw vitriol. Zell Miller and Michael Moore are just opposite ends of the same one-sided coin. Their brand of Extreme politics isn’t exactly wooing that great American diva, the Undecided Voter. While good ol' Zell's fire and brimstone expansionist zeal drives Midwest moderates toward Kerry, Michael Moore's ill-advised, embarrassing appearance at the RNC was a self-indulgent, self-promoting misstep for the Party. As Pat Buchanan said recently, "Wow, you could not have gotten a better endorsement for Bush – this guy (Moore) as the sole representative for the Democrats at the other guy's convention."

Meanwhile Kerry's camp denies that the next print campaign will feature their candidate on milk cartons and Kerry continues to impress the world as a numbingly sterile public speaker, flatter than Michael Dukakis at a pancake breakfast. Last week, he again issued conflicting opinions on the war, leaving the casual observer to wonder how he ever hopes to define himself. Does he have a strategy for anything? What was he thinking when he scheduled his first official speech in response to the Republican convention, for after midnight, in the middle of nowhere, when few reporters would bother covering it?

It is no surprise that Kerry's boilerplate responses to Bush’s attacks are largely ignored by everyone in the media except The Los Angeles Times. While Bush is an unpredictable and quotable villain, Kerry is a press release, always on the defensive, using the same canned rhetoric. He suffers from a stubborn inability to switch gears when the situation demands stronger words and faster responses. This week, he has focused solely on economic and domestic issues because they are comfortable and safe topics, even when faced with the reality that those in the Midwest who have lost their jobs and livelihoods, still worry more about the War. With the air of an undertaker, Kerry appears stiff, robotic and dark, possessing more hair than passion. Never have the forces of good had a tougher sell.

On the other side, Bush obviously believes history can repeat itself and that he can steal another election. That's why he's currently lobbying hard for two presidential debates instead of three. What candidate of integrity wants the voters to be exposed to him less, rather than more?

John Kerry clearly has his work cut out for him. Bill Clinton is on injured reserve and cannot bail him out of the game. Kerry's unstable wife had a recent meltdown on the campaign trail and was hospitalized. Big John is also a Massachusetts Democrat. These are not good signs at the moment. Those who know Kerry, say he is best when the chips are down and his back is against the wall. Maybe he is luring Bush into overconfidence, a political rope-a-dope. Or maybe Kerry is just frozen, like a deer in headlights. At this point, his best chance is to pray that Dick Cheney keeps blurting out the truth, because truth is the one thing that George W. Bush can’t handle.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Jaywalking With Britney Spears

Britney Takes on Melrose Ave
June 26, 2001

By Brian Bentley

Pop superstar Britney Spears needs to shop just like everyone else

I had the unique privilege of walking down an almost deserted Melrose Ave. on Tuesday afternoon, suddenly in lock-step, right next to Britney Spears. As just another fellow pedestrian, Britney was sans bodyguards of any kind, store-trolling with a small entourage – her mother, three sisters and another girl who looked like her mirror image. It was weird, because it occurred to me that here's the biggest music star in the world, at this exact moment, just another 19 year-old, hanging with her mom in plain sight.

The group had that "just stopped by from Universal City Walk" Midwest Geek-Chic look down pat. Britney was wearing black hotpants and heavily detailed make-up, resembling one of those porcelain, baby doll AVN girls who promote the porno conventions downtown. Out of nowhere, Dennis Woodruff (you know, the ubiquitous, self-promoting actor who drives around in those painted-up 70's jalopies?) joined the procession, babbling incoherently, completely unaware of who he was talking to. As they disappeared down the street, Dennis, the space cowboy cum minor celebrity, was earnestly soliciting Britney's mega-celebrity mom for donations to his motorcycle youth club.

As a perfect capper to an "Only in L.A." nightmare, a sarcastic group of Mohawked teenage punk panhandlers in leather got whiff of what was happening and started following Britney and her clones. I quickly realized that no typical 19 year-old has to put up with this. Before you could say, "Stalker Laws" – at the crosswalk of Curson and Melrose, the loudest punk, who looked kinda like Courtney Love at 16, raced up and pinched Britney's booty hard. Britney swung around in ass-kicking mode, mouthing the word "bitch," while her attacker ran off with her DNA souvenir, giggling manically like a sociopathic 12 year-old.

Oh My God!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Album Review
Mudhoney Tomorrow Hit Today

Mudhoney Survives Grunge
November 5, 1998

By Brian Bentley

Mudhoney’s new album Tomorrow Hit Today is an instant classic

There are two things to admire about Mudhoney. The first is their tenacity. In 1998, two years after grunge officially crashed and burned, scattering the musical landscape with bits and pieces of once Godhead bands, the fact that Mudhoney remains intact and on a major label, is revolutionary.

Purity is the other quality that defines this band. Determined to be the ultimate iconoclasts in the ultimate alternative scene, Mudhoney were too much the punk misfits to be caught up in the hype. Vocalist-songwriter, Mark Arm, arguably the most influential rock musician to emerge from Seattle since Jimi Hendrix, navigated his seminal 80's band, Green River, to a critical high-water mark. Yet, he had to stand by and watch while two of the group’s members later became superstars in Pearl Jam. Mark may have deserved better than his relative obscurity. But what's fame, money and recognition when respect and credibility are on the line?

Tomorrow Hit Today could have been released anytime in the 90's; it's the same mid-60's, psychedelic, garage-rock party that has become Mudhoney's trademark. Track #1, "A Thousand Forms of Mind,” hooks you from the first fuzz-drenched, Fender riff as Mark Arm's typically disembodied vocals float precariously over the eerie wails of a Vox organ. "Oblivion" plays to the band's strong suit – creepy Delta Blues guitars mixed with cynical punk-humor lyrics. In our Prozac age where pain is something to be numbed instead of dealt with, Arm's characters find oblivion through Karaoke or dropping out of the drug society for something far more sinister. "He left town because it could not get any worse/ Moved to Santa Fe and increased his girth/ Dropped a spoon and picked up a fork/ On a commune making pictures of the earth."

The nitpickers among us might argue that Mudhoney has said all this before and more convincingly, but looking for musical "growth" is not what this band is about. The credo here, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," applies. After 10 years, Mudhoney has become the Energizer Bunnies of rock, still kicking out the jams while the rest of their grunge brethren ran out of gas some time ago.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

John Kerry: Lost in Translation

Savior, or the Great White Dope?
August 30, 2004

By Brian Bentley

John Kerry salutes himself at the 2004 Democratic National Convention

In the timeless film, The Candidate, Robert Redford portrays Bill McKay, an unknown grass roots activist who decides to run for the California Senate. Against impossible odds and facing a powerful conservative incumbent, McKay struggles to get his message out – a progressive platform of sharp and simple idealism that appears hopelessly at odds with the harsh realities of the political system. At one point, McKay’s campaign manager hands him a slip of paper with two words written on it: “You lose.” The words become a mantra and McKay’s guarantee that he can tell the truth, say what he wants and be his own man, because he has no chance to win.

Back in January of this year, John Kerry appeared as a modern day Bill McKay. He wasn’t given a housefly’s chance of survival in the bitter cold of the New Hampshire primary. Howard Dean had captured the imagination of the New Left and was preparing for his coronation as The Candidate to challenge George W. Bush in November. But from the back of the pack (or at least the middle), John Kerry burst forth and with military precision, conquered Dean on every front, becoming the party’s presumptive candidate for president in the space of three weeks. It almost seemed like a movie.

Since then, Kerry has gone further and flown higher than anyone had a right to expect. He has accomplished the unthinkable, taking a wartime president all the way to the mat, turning what should have been a Republican blowout into one of the tightest Presidential contests in modern history. Kerry has become the Anti-Bush and along the way, harvested the deep and growing dissatisfaction that a majority of Americans feel about the country’s direction.

So how, with a work record that would get you fired in most jobs, can President Bush be headed for an apparent contract extension? After the upcoming Republican Convention bounce, he should be ahead by 8-10% in the polls. It seems that even though a majority of voters agree that we are “headed in the wrong direction,” they seem content to crash, to re-elect the very same managerial team that has steered us into an un-winnable war, alienated our free world allies, plunged the country into a massive budget deficit, yielded the first net loss of jobs since the Hoover administration and set the stage for environmental disaster.

While pollsters scratch their heads in confusion, some of the answers can be found in studying George W. Bush’s continued war of psychological terror against his own people. Bush has appropriated many of the tools of classic Fascist dictatorships. He began with the initial misinformation regarding the Iraqi presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Then, he sacrificed Colin Powell’s reputation in N.A.T.O. testimony that was so inaccurate as to be vaguely criminal. Bush followed up with the standard tactic employed by many Third World strongmen, the philosophy that exaggerates and promotes the notion of “Us Against Them.” In late 1930’s Germany, Adolph Hitler solidified his enormous power by launching a genocidal campaign against the Jewish people, portraying them as the very incarnate of evil. Hitler’s public rallied around their leader, ignoring his major blunders because the Fear kept them united. This lesson wasn’t lost on George W.

Bush has blundered and he has bungled and he has miscalculated and yet, he is still here and about to be re-elected because he is a master, one of the best ever, at harnessing the Fear. At critically-timed intervals, he has launched humorously color-coded terror alerts via his Frankensteinian mouthpiece, Tom Ridge. He's our Daddy Dubya, the only leader we can trust to defeat the enemy. Bush has had some luck on the way. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel markets and reinforces the Fear in masterful fashion. Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, would be envious.

But we all know what George Bush is about. His growing lead in the polls has more to do with the fact that nobody knows anything about John Kerry. In times of trouble, change can be frightening and John Kerry’s campaign in recent weeks has been indeed frightening. I don’t know who is advising him, but unless he is simply ignoring their suggestions, he should fire the lot of them. Kerry is about to lose and perhaps even bigger than one might expect, think double digits.

This isn’t just negative thinking for argument’s sake. It’s about the desire to win and not just make a nice statement. Howard Dean made a statement and he was a loser. I want John Kerry and the American people to win. And Kerry’s not going to win unless he wakes up. It may already be too late to sway those overly wined-and-dined undecided voters, because Kerry has probably lost the swing states of Ohio and Missouri. Don’t even think about Florida.

Instead, think of the Presidential race as a 12 round fight. If I’m managing Kerry and he’s my boxer, I’m worried. Outside the ring, the Kerry faithful are praying for a miracle while Kerry believes he can still win the bout just on points and rebuttals. And I’m telling him, “Forget the points, John. It’s the 12th round of the fight and you're way behind. This guy is the champion, you’re the challenger. The only chance you’ve got is to knock the sonofabitch out, now. Don’t let the decision go to the cards or you have no chance.”

John Kerry needs a knockout like Rocky Balboa in November

For Kerry, the 12th round is the upcoming nationally televised Presidential debates. It is his last opportunity to finally articulate who he is and what he stands for. He has to score a knockout or it’s all over. Though Bush is assuredly the Anti-Christ, he has more courage of conviction than John Kerry. He is not afraid. He doesn’t worry if you like him or not. He doesn’t tailor his opinions to fit the latest poll. He says what he means and means what he says and whether he’s right or wrong, you know where he stands. George W. Bush believes in his heart that he is right. He believes that he has a mission to fulfill, whether it’s quashing terror, or at last, pleasing his own father by accomplishing the one thing that dear Ol’ Dad never could, which is to be elected to a second term.

Despite the inherent wrongness of it, Bush’s launching of the war in Iraq required tremendous political cajones. By any stretch of the imagination, it was a move that most likely would backfire and certainly did. On the other hand, John Kerry does not even have the guts to officially admit that he is against the war, despite polls that show half or more of the country agrees. This is nothing short of incredible. Handed the mic at his own convention, with a golden opportunity to get down to specifics, Kerry dropped the ball. Instead, he droned on and on with the G.I. Joe monologues, relentlessly, interminably, reminding an already much-reminded audience of his war record and gunboat accomplishments, trying too hard to sound pro-military, losing sight of the objective.

Kerry has two months, nine short weeks, to decide just how badly he wants to be President. His mission begins with defining just who he is and why he matters and how he can make a difference. This may prove difficult. Any second tier cable TV analyst can articulate the Democratic platform more clearly and passionately than the man currently running the party. And what’s the tagline Kerry needs to write? It’s simple. George W. Bush is a one-issue candidate. No one in the Kerry camp seems to understand just how little the American public realizes this. Remove the War on Terror from the picture and George W. has nothing, nada, zilch, to represent any true accomplishments in his four miserable years in office.

It is obvious Kerry has courage. To serve his country in Vietnam, he rushed headfirst, into a jungle, in hand-to-hand combat and killed a hostile soldier. A couple of years later, in another extremely hostile environment, he testified against his country before Congress, against a war that had clearly gone insane and needed to be stopped. By stepping forward, Kerry had little to gain and in hindsight, much to lose.

Now we all have much to lose if John Kerry cannot get his act together, if he can’t match George W., blow for blow in the 12th round. If Kerry does not find a way to reach Middle America and convince them that he is more than just a flip-floppy Ivy League bore, the country suffers his failure for the next four years. To stay on message, he must first have one. Somehow, he must convince the undecided that he is indeed more interesting than a plate of carrots. As Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole and Al Gore can tell you, when you snooze you lose – no balls means no glory. On the flip side, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have demonstrated that true power starts somewhere south of the beltline.

Of course, John Kerry may turn it all around in the upcoming debates. He could suddenly become JFK to Bush’s Nixon. Can anyone picture JK as a straight-shooting, Robert Redford in All The President's Men, or a desperately cool Harrison Ford in The Fugitive? Kerry might belly up to the hotel bar and instead of white wine, drink a half quart of Wild Turkey, put on the camouflage paint, grab Bush in an on-camera headlock and scream, “This is what war really feels like you draft dodging, baseball team owner!” He could come out swinging and tell the nation his Master Plan, hell any plan, as long as the masses, or the asses, will buy it. Now that would be a bold statement.

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