October 17th: Sydney

We bought travel passes at Central, then headed back to our room. We picked up breakfast items at a convenience store (we have a fridge in the room), then went back out for dinner. We decided on the Bourbon and Beefsteak Bar, and I had an “American steak sandwich”, which was a steak between two slices of bread. Sharon had sauteed prawns, we enjoyed it. After that, it was time for bed. A good 12 hours later, we were finally on Sydney’s schedule. Unfortunately, the sky was overcast and we cancelled our plans to go to Manly Beach in favor of the Blue Mountains (The guy at the front desk said Sydney weather was unpredictable, and the Blue Mountains more so, so we might as well go today as any other). I write this from the train there, which will leave in another twenty minutes.

Things I know now from the train trip: collision=smash, Target and K-mart are everywhere (along with McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Century 21), pharmacist=chemist.

Now we’re on our way back, after four hours of walking. We got off the train, had a bite to eat at the Poppyseeds Cafe, and commenced walking. We walked to Cliff Drive and took a path to the Scenic Skyway. We took the skyway, then took the railway (world’s steepest) down and walked to see Katoomba Falls from the bottom. We took the railway up, then took the trail to Echo Point. We looked at the Three Sisters, then walked back to town, and are now headed back to Sydney. We went to Arun Thai for dinner, right next to the hotel. I had Tom Yum Goong (prawn soup; I liked the fresh jalapenos) and Ped Ob Num Paung (roasted duck; very tasty).

[Originally published at GoHither.Net]

October 16th: Sydney

I’m writing this from the Botanical Gardens. Sharon and I took a taxi from the airport, the hotel let us check in at 8am, so we showered (thank God) and changed. We are eating in a cafe in the Gardens, having taken pictures of the flowers, birds, and the Opera House. I had “wedges” for lunch. Turns out it’s not a sandwich, like I thought, but fried potato slices (I should have known when the cashier asked me if I wanted tomato sauce and handed me ketchup when I assented).

Now in Hyde Park. Saw bats at the Gardens, the Opera House, and the Circular Quay. We cashed some traveler’s checks, I picked up some tickets, and now we’re letting the jet lag make us nap.

[Originally published at GoHither.Net]

October 14th: Los Angeles to Sydney

The flight to LA is nice. I’ve never flown on a 777 before. I especially like the TV monitors in the back of the seats, and you can surf. LAX has funky columns outside that change color at night, and a restaurant that looks like a spider. The flight to Sydney is long. I haven’t been on a 747 either, but I don’t like it as much. It’s cramped, and I have a hard time sleeping. I watched Frequency (and For Love Of The Game to LA).

[Originally published at GoHither.Net]

Rush Animates the Capital Center

It might be expected that a group might start to slow down after 20 years together. That certainly wasn’t the case at the US Air Arena Tuesday as Rush showed that they can still rock with the best.

Candlebox started the evening, but was unable to get much out of the crowd. They had a great set though. They opened with “He Calls Home”, a great song about homelessness, and got better from there. They continued with “Change”, “Blossom”, and “Arrow” all from their debut album.

Kevin Martin’s vocals were clean for the most part, except for “Arrow”. He sounds like he’s singing, “Some On Ghetto” when the lyrics claim “Someone’s Got Arrow”. Easily half of guitarist Peter Klett’s solos sounded like Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains, which may be unavoidable since Candlebox calls Seattle home as well. Sometimes his tone was unique, though on “Far Behind” his solo sounded like Jimi Hendrix. That was intentional though, as the band followed his lead into “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”.

The band ended with their latest single “You”, as familiarity finally brought some crowd response. The most response Candlebox got was when they mentioned Rush would appear next. The anticipation mounted as roadies cleared off Candlebox’s equipment.

The lights went out as the crowd screamed. Then the curtains on the screen above the stage parted as the strains of “Also Sprach Zarathrusta” (the 2001 theme for you Beavis and Butthead addicts) became evident, On screen appeared a scene in space of a giant bolt approaching a giant nut (reproducing the cover art from Counterparts, their current album). As the bolt screwed into the nut, the music reached its climax. Then the lights burst on and Rush went into “Dreamline”, the first single from their last album. Next was 1980’s “The Spirit Of Radio”, a favorite which had most of the crowd singing along, followed by “Bravado”, an intriguing song about achieving your goals no matter what the cost.

One of the best things about seeing Rush live is their visuals. The giant screen over the stage will show scenes that are often in synch with the songs. The visuals are usually taken from their videos, but not always, as the next song “Time Stands Still”, had entirely new animation. “Limelight”, from the legendary Moving Pictures album forced the crowd back on its feet again, where they stayed for a while.

Lead singer and bassist Geddy Lee mentioned the next song was about tortured love, so it had to be a country-western song. The band even made some tentative country riffs before ripping into “Cold Fire”, their latest single. Then Rush got into a more serious vein with “Nobody’s Hero”, a new moving song about ordinary heroes like the guy who passed away from AIDS and the girl who’s a victim of senseless violence.

Two songs that have rarely been performed recently followed: the fantastic “The Analog Kid,” from Signals, and the African influenced “Mystic Rhythms” from 1986’s Power Windows. The crowd was obviously unfamiliar with these, but quickly rose to their feet and dug in their pockets for the lighters as guitarist Alex Lifeson reached for an acoustic guitar and started the intro to 1977’s “Closer To The Heart”. A song urging everyone to get inspired by the spiritual, not the physical. It’s still appropriate today.

Rush has recently dropped nearly all use of synthesizers, and this was nowhere more evident as their next two songs, “Animate,” and “Double Agent,” both new. Anyone who thinks these guys are old needs to see Geddy’s furious bass-slapping, Alex wailing away on guitar, and Neal Peart thundering away on drums. “Double Agent” featured pyrotechnics, making this the first Rush tour to feature them. It was particularly effective as well. A verse like “Cross of holy fire” had a field of burning crosses on the screen with six burning fire pots on the stage.

“Roll The Bones” from the album of the same name, features a rap in the middle. Originally done by Geddy, then electronically processed, the band played to the video version since keeping synchronized that long would be a significant effort. “Stick It Out” also had a great video, which was indescribably better when scenes of the band were removed and just a man in dreadlocks (strongly resembling the lead singer of Counting Crows), balancing on a pole, remained. “Show Don’t Tell” from 1989’s Presto followed, with huge inflatable bunny rabbits.

Next was the definite highlight of any Rush show: drummer Neal Peart’s “The Rhythm Method.” Some drummers just bang on the drums a couple of minutes to show off. Not Neal. “The Rhythm Method” is a song that changes for every tour but certain elements remain constant, especially since he introduced his electronic xylophone. He can play riffs on it which he can then duplicate rhythmically on the drums. The crowd was roaring as Geddy and Alex rejoined him for the instrumental from Counterparts: “Leave My Thing Alone.”

The crowd volume increased as Alex once more unleashed his acoustic guitar for 1978’s “The Trees”, a song that’s even more true in today’s politically correct world. A fable that tells of the maples complaining because the oaks take all the light, and concludes with equality being enforced “by hatchet, axe and saw.” Then, as in 1981, the band surged into “Xanadu” from A Farewell to Kings. Based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, Rush brings the story to life with a great light show and a killer tune. At the end of “Xanadu” the band segued into the rarely heard “Hemispheres”, performing “Part I: Prelude” as they closed their set.

Feet crashed into the floor as the crowd demanded an encore. Rush let them have it with a double shot from 1981’s Moving Pictures: the ferocious instrumental “YYZ”, and a fantastic version of “Tom Sawyer” to end the night.

This was my seventh trip to see Rush in concert. If you want to be entertained at a concert, you won’t be disappointed by them.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Kevn Kinney Rocks 9:30

The Nightclub 9:30 was considerably less crowded than usual for Kevn Kinney’s appearance there earlier this month. This was more than likely due to a last-minute schedule change as he was forced to do an early show on a different day.

Kevn is the lead singer of the Georgia-based band Drivin’ N Cryin’, but has just released his second solo album. His first solo tour saw him accompanied by Peter Buck of R.E.M., but this time around, he brought his brother, nevertheless still an accomplished accordion and guitar player.

Kevn focused on his two solo albums, Down Out Law and Macdougal Blues. New songs which were really done well were “Down And Out Law,” “Shindig With The Lord,” and “Never Far Behind.” Kevn did perform several Drivin’ N Cryin’ classics, including “Keys To Me”, “Honeysuckle Blue”, “Let’s Go Dancing”, and a stirring “The Friend Song”.

The best songs were those he interrupted in the middle to tell stories, such as “Macdougal Blues,” and “Hey Landlord (Meatloaf And Fish Sticks).” One story in particular, about trying to explain to his father about how he spent his rent money on a 26-foot bong, had the audience rolling. His brother was also amusing, especially the drinking song he started singing when Kevn took a piss break.

The Washington Post and The City Paper both trashed his album and blew their chances to see a great singer-songwriter in an intimate acoustic setting. I found I didn’t enjoy it as much as I do his full band, but it was a good performance.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Something to Crow About

You may have heard of The Crow. It’s a movie opening on Friday, May 13, notorious at this point because is the last film of star Brandon Lee. If you didn’t know, Lee (son of Bruce) was killed by a prop gun supposedly filled with blanks. This the last of a string of tragedies related to the film, but filming was nearly completed when Lee died and the movie was finished. The film will have an awesome soundtrack featuring Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, The Cure, and Rage Against The Machine.

So what does it have to do with comics? Well, like The Rocketeer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Batman, it was initially created as a comic book. However, The Crow has about as much in common with regular comics as Nine Inch Nails do with elevator music. The Crow is a three-issue black and white comic book, completed over the span of several years. It is the apparent product of a lot of pain. Writer and artist James O’Barr doesn’t talk much about the inspiration for The Crow, but it obviously forms some type of wish-fulfillment for him.

As the story begins, a mugger kills an old lady and slips into an alley. He is confronted by a tall man dressed in black, face garishly painted like a clown, with a thin scar across his nose. He is the Crow. The mugger takes a shot at him, but the Crow has better aim and the mugger goes down. The Crow asks the mugger if he remembers a cold October night and a broken-down car. The mugger blanches with fear and the Crow kills him. The Crow dispatches several other criminals, as flashbacks show him without makeup, becoming engaged to a beautiful blonde.

In the second book, the Crow goes after a junkie who has been allowed to gather his allies. They take shots at him at point-blank range,but aren’t able to stop him and he kills them all. Via an extended flashback we learn that Eric (The Crow) and Shelly (the blonde) were out celebrating their engagement when the car broke down. Unable to fix it, they fell victim to a gang of armed men high on crack. For laughs, they shot Eric twice in the head and raped and murdered Shelly. By a twist of fate, Eric survives and vows revenge.

The two remaining members of the gang meet. The leader refuses to believe the stories, and the other one overdoses on morphine rather than face the Crow again. After the Crow kills more of the leader’s men, the leader gets nervous and hires about fifteen men for protection. The Crow shows up and cannot be stopped. The leader hops into a car and abandons his men as the Crow polishes the rest of them off. The Crow gets into another car and forces the leader off the road at the same spot as the original incident. The leader’s legs are broken in the crash and the Crow has his revenge. The Crow joins his girlfriend as the story ends.

The Crow is simply the most intense comic book I have ever seen. A fantasy come true, it is extremely violent, although there is some black comedy. If the movie is anything like the comic, it will be incredible. If you’re interested in getting The Crow, you can pick up a copy at Big Planet Comics in Vienna.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Modern Art Is Modern Crap

Sometimes, life can surprise you. You learn things that you strongly believed from childhood can be wrong. Other times, these ideas are reinforced more strongly than you would have thought possible. The latter was my situation when I visited the National Gallery of Art last week. When I was younger, I had previously visited art museums and studied the pictures within. I was left with the impression that the 20th century artists were pushing a load of crap.

Once again, my beliefs were reinforced. From the reproductions of Warhol to the blatant rip-offs of Roy Lichtenstein (boy, that’s original. Take two or three panels from a comic book, copy it word for word, line for line onto a canvas, and call it art. Some call it art, I call it at least plagiarism, if not outright thievery). They all sucked. Most looked like finger-painting from my kindergarten class.

There were, of course, one or two exceptions. I was particularly impressed with Gerhard Ricter’s Abstract 780-1. Having admired many computer-generated works of art (it’s amazing at what can be done with over 16 million colors to play with), this guy has blended colors on a canvas that I find absolutely impossible to describe with words. I was also taken with Frank Stella’s Zeltweg. A strange, multi-colored, multi-piece work, it almost seemed like the pieces were jigsaw puzzle pieces. Both of these works can be found on the bottom floor of the East Building.

I left the 20th century artists and went to the West Building (if you want to go between buildings, be sure and take the underground passage; the waterfall is simply astounding), home of the 17th, 18th and 19th century artists. In particular, the galleries with the landscape artists were fantastic. Having tried my hand at some type of art, I was simply at a loss for words (although the anal-retentive guards weren’t. They made everyone stay at least 12 inches away from the paintings, and you were not allowed to bring your fingers anywhere near them). The detail in the paintings was incredible, but the most exquisite thing about them was the use of color. The remarkable depictions of sunrise and sunset on river valleys were breathtaking.

I understand that modern artist think this avenue is played out (although I don’t ever think I’ve seen successful depictions of automobiles or high-rises). However, that doesn’t give any excuse for the crap they claim to be art. I’ve heard their claims that their way is easier to convey emotions, but that’s bullshit. They’re just screaming with their hands, and if I want to be screamed at, I’ll pick a professional, like Kurt Cobain or my mom.

So where is good art being done these days? Well, I’ll tell you: comic books. Yeah, you heard me. Now with comics, as with everything else in life, Sturgeon’s Law applies: 90% of everything is crap. That includes most of your average super-heroes, your Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the like. The 10% that’s good, though, must be seen (and read) to be believed.

So who are the modern masters? Well, my current favorite is Jim Lee, head of Image’s Wildstorm Studios. His book is WildC.A.T.S., a story about an independently operating covert group (unaffiliated to any government) that helps to save the world. His detail and line work is incredible, and it’s his influence that is responsible for the increasing use of cross-hatching in today’s comics.

Another great artist is Barry Windsor-Smith. Barry first came to attention in 1972 with the first graphic adaption of Conan. Barry is a classically trained painter and left comics for a decade to focus on his own studio, issuing portfolios every couple of years to make money. He returned with a vengeance in the 80’s, and his exquisite organic work has been long sought after. He is currently working for Malibu’s Ultraverse on Rune, about an alien vampire who preys on super-heroes. It could be campy, but in his hands it’s an eerie horror story.

Also great is Frank Miller. He came to notice during his run on Daredevil in the early eighties, then achieved his greatest acclaim with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in 1986. His dark and gritty portrait of an over the hill hero coming out of retirement set the tone for years of hero makeovers. He took a vacation from comics to write screenplays for RoboCop 2 and 3, but came back recently with a new style. The black and white technique Miller uses in Sin City manages to evoke the classic forties mystery story with a nineties flair.

But I digress. The art in comics moves me so much, I have to go back a century to find that same depth in art. It seems like the modern artists aren’t even trying, that they’re turning in McAssignments. If they’re that apathetic, why don’t they just get a different career?

It’s not like I don’t love the cutting edge. I like it in music, film, comics, TV and cars. But at the same time I get the sense that the people who create these, care about what they do. Modern artists give me the impression that they care about how much money they can make if they’re the next Van Gogh. Most forms of expression in this world give me a great feeling; modern art leaves me feeling like I have to hurl.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Buy Comics Cheap: Back Issue Purchasing

Previously, in this column, I’ve discussed some of the best comics around. Now I’ll explain the best method of getting some (comics, that is), some that may be even cheap enough for college students.

There are two kinds of comics that you can buy, new comics and back issues. Back issues are any comics that were published more than a month ago. For new comics there are two ways you can go: subscriptions and buying them directly from comic book stores.

Subscriptions are normally done directly with the comic book companies that produce them. (Marvel, DC, etc.) They are exactly like magazine subscriptions in that you pay a set price for a year’s subscription. This has the advantage of giving you up to 30% off the cover price, but the drawback of trusting the US Postal Service to deliver your issues in undamaged condition, if at all. It also requires an advance commitment to a title you may not like.

The other way to get new comics is to buy them in a comics store. There are a couple of ways that you can do this. You can either buy them directly off the rack, or you can join a pull service. For the latter, you must sign up in advance, at the comics shop, for the individual titles you’ll buy each month. They’ll pull them for you each month and you can buy them without the hassle of finding them on the rack. This has the additional benefit of a discount, usually around 10% off the cover price. There are places that will do this through the mail, usually for a deeper discount, but you must know what you want, and pay for it months before it comes out.

Due to continual price hikes of new comics (most comics now start at $1.50, but some can cost in excess of $5.00) it can actually be cheaper to buy back issues, especially if you are a frugal college student. Often back issues are sold for cover price or less. The easiest place to find back issues is your local comic book store. Many local stores carry a selection of back issues and are willing to look for any they don’t have. The best thing to do is find out when the store is going to have a sale during which they frequently discount the comics from 10% to 20%. There are a lot of good local stores, including Big Planet Comics in Reston, and Burke Used Books in Burke.

Another good way to get back issues is through the mail. There are many companies that will do this, but it is best to stick to the well-known, established ones. The best one I’ve found is Mile High Comics at 2151 West 56th Ave., Denver, Co 80221. They carry nearly every comic published in the last fifty years, and offer some really great specials in their catalog, with several thousand comics for under a dollar each. I will say this: they’re not that fast, although they are accurate and dependable.

The other place to get back issues (and some new issues, for that matter) is at a comics show. These are events held in the main room of a hotel, usually on a weekend. With anywhere between 15 and 40 dealers selling comics and cards, you can usually get a good deal. To make their money back, they are usually willing to lower prices, especially if you have cash. The best bargains are usually found here, as many dealers bring boxes of comics for under a dollar. If you are interested in attending any shows in our area, there will be two on March 6: one in Springfield at the Hilton and one in Tyson’s Corner at the Ramada.

If you have comics to trade or sell, that puts you in another situation. Your best bet is to trade for more, as people are generally inclined to make better deals for trade if they do give out cash at all. The comics shops are not a great place to go; they’ll offer the worst prices. Some good trades can be worked at comics shows, but the best deals I’ve found have been through the mail. You can either place your own ads or respond to ads placed by others.

The best way to learn about mail order houses and comics in general is to pick up a copy of the Comic Buyer’s Guide, the only weekly periodical about comics. CBG contains reviews and letters by and about the comics industry, as well as plenty of ads to buy and sell comics.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Sheryl Crow Takes to Georgetown

Small and cramped are good descriptions of some clubs I’ve been to, but prove truly inadequate to describe the crowd at Sheryl Crow’s in store performance at Kemp Mill Music in Georgetown last Sunday.

Sheryl was scheduled to appear at 3pm but 3:30 came and went as the line grew out of the store and down the block. She finally showed and apologized for being both sick and hung over. “That’s okay” someone from the crowd responded, “we are too.” She took a minute to tune up then went into “Can’t Cry Anymore” and “Strong Enough”, off her album Tuesday Night Music Club. Her voice was harsh and cracked but it grew smoother as she warmed up. Sheryl used to be a backup singer, most notably for Michael Jackson and Don Henley, but she’s definitely ready for the big leagues.

Sheryl ended with an extended rendition of her single “Leaving Las Vegas”, which sounds ten times better unencumbered of those goofy drums on the album. Near the end she snuck in parts from the Beatles “Blackbird” and Steve Miller’s “The Joker” and the crowd loved it. She signed autographs afterwards, and was extremely nice. One piece of advice: if you ever go to an in-store appearance, be sure to get there early, or you’re not going to see a thing.

Crow opened that night for the New Zealand band, Crowded House, a partnership that plans to return to the Washington DC area at Johns Hopkins University later this year. The Lisner Auditorium concert was sold out two weeks before the concert.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Nuts and Bolts, Nuts and Bolts – We Got Screwed

I’ve been listening to a lot of Nirvana this week. Trying to understand why someone would do such a thing is never easy, and this is no exception. What I can’t accept though, is the attempt to make Kurt Cobain into another John Lennon. He’s not the “voice of our generation”.

Kurt didn’t want to talk about it, but he obviously had an unhappy youth. He grew up in a small logging town east of Seattle, filled with macho guys quick to make fun of anyone who didn’t fit the mold, such as Kurt. I can’t blame him for carrying a grudge, but it’s nothing different than what happened to me, or people I knew in school. Refusing to conform to the norm is never accepted, but Kurt was apparently really stigmatized. He thought if he could make music, all the pain would go away.

It didn’t, of course. His vision of Nirvana was success on the level of Sonic Youth, a major label contract, but not selling enough to be a household name. Instead, Nirvana achieved worldwide acceptance, and Kurt was adored by the people he despised He hated every second of the fame. Sure he had money, but now people wouldn’t leave him alone. He was constantly badgered to help out here, donate money there, and give ’til it hurt.

That coma he went into last month as a result of drugs and alcohol was apparently another suicide attempt, with note. This understandably freaked people out, and he was urged by his wife and band mates to seek treatment. He agreed, but left after a couple of days. I don’t know if we’ll ever know why he took this way out. He had been talking about quitting the band, but that solution just wasn’t good enough. Now it’s revealed that he was having horrible stomach pains, which is why he turned to heroin in the first place.

I personally don’t see it. Suicide is just an easy way out, forcing everyone else to deal with your problems because you just can’t handle it. But I digress.

Make no mistake, I do like Nirvana. I think they’ve made some great music. Soon after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” started getting big I bought Nevermind. I was impressed. After seeing Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Garth Brooks top the charts, it was refreshing to see some angst filled screaming overpower them all. I loved the album, and bought their first album Bleach, a couple of weeks later. A no frills album that sounds like a bunch of demos, it shows a promise that was delivered.

I was never deluded though. As good as Nevermind sounds, the lyrics are no more developed than Bleach. They just sound like a drunk guy spouting off, attempting to be wise, like “it’s okay to eat fish/’cause they haven’t any feelings” from “Something in the Way” or “when I was an alien, cultures weren’t opinions” from “Territorial Pissings.” They didn’t get much more intelligent on their last album In Utero. Witness “Like most babies smell like butter/his smell smelled like no other” from “Scentless Apprentice”.

I’m not saying that guy was a bad singer or songwriter. He had some legitimate angst to get rid of, and he managed to communicate that through his songs. How can you listen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and not think that this guy is really pissed off? About what though? At the end of the song he sings “a denial.” A denial? Of what? I got the anger, but I didn’t see the message.

I don’t see Kurt Cobain as the voice of my generation. He wrote some good songs, but he wasn’t effective at communicating what he felt, and I think he gave up instead of trying harder. So who is the voice of my generation? I think it’s Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam.

Pearl Jam has only had two albums, but they’re both incredible. Eddie is capable of taking a subject such as abortion, incest, or gun control, and letting us know exactly what he thinks about it, in “Porch”, “Daughter” and “Glorified G.” When he gets personal is when he’s at his best. “Black” just captures the emotions I feel at the end of a relationship perfectly. And when he sings it live, you can see him reliving that feeling. And he can use a song to communicate on different levels, as in “Even Flow” where he tells a story about a homeless man, while showing his rage about the system that causes homelessness.

Eddie manages to channel the angst many of us feel and tell us exactly why he’s angry. I never felt that Kurt was anywhere close to mastering communicating anything more than a general rage. I can’t support the idea that a guy that just screamed is the voice of my generation. I don’t think my generation would just give up like that either. I don’t like a lot of things that are going on in the world, but I can tell you what they are and why I don’t like them – like Eddie can, and like Kurt never could.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]