Wednesday, October 22, 2008

COLUMN: Gibson v. Mountain

As a creature of habit, I follow some fairly concrete routines on my lunch hours. One's usually spent at the record store. Another in the aisles of a book store. And on one day each week, I meet my friend Linn at the base of the I-74 bridge for lunch at Ross'.

A person needs to have goals in life, and my new goal is to spend enough time at Ross' that one day I'll walk in to find Linn and I painted into their awesomely weird mural of employees, regulars, and, inexplicably, Humphrey Bogart.

Last Friday, though, our routine was anything but. We'd been at Ross' for about five minutes when I saw it.

"Hmm," I nodded towards Linn. "Check out the camera crew."

Sure enough, some dudes were out in the parking lot with some impressive looking television cameras. Suddenly it dawned on me.

"Hey, this isn't the day that what's-his-head's s'posed to..."

Before I could get the sentence out, I saw it. A bus the size of Rhode Island was pulling up to the outside of Ross', and inside that bus was the star of ABC World News Now. Charlie Gibson was swinging in for a Magic Mountain, and the gods of fate had given us front row seats.

This was not your run of the mill mass transit vehicle. No, this was a mobile command center. The irony was NOT lost on me: a Presidential election featuring the hotbed topic of environmental conservation, and here's that election being covered by a metal behemoth that probably averages .1 miles to the gallon while leaving a carbon footprint the size of King Kong.

In the minutes that followed, I learned an important and valuable piece of information about modern news:

Anytime that you see someone on network television appearing to walk into a business spontaneously, it's a load of hooey. On the telecast later that night, it looked as if Chuck was just happily cruising around the QCA and decided on a whim to swing by Ross' for a chat.

In reality, the whole thing was pre-planned and orchestrated to perfection. Camera crews were already in the parking lot just to film the bus rolling up. Once it dropped anchor, a team of producers came in to set the interior scene, up to and including the hanging of temporary blinds for optimal lighting conditions. The owners and staff at Ross' were given their marks where to stand, while the kitchen staff were busily preparing a smorgasboard of specialty dishes to show off.

I'd like to say that, as a semi-professional journalist dude myself, I was beyond the spectacle of the whole thing. Truth be told, I was waaaaay into it. It was kind of like a U2 concert, but instead of Bono, it was a middle-aged paunchy dude. Wait, actually that IS kinda like Bono.

Anyways, in walks Chuck and you can cut the excitement in the place with the same knife I'm using on my ham-n-cheese. Here was an opportunity for me to see a REAL journalist at work. A guy who's surely seen the best and worst of society. A guy who knows the important questions to ask. I tried my best to listen and learn from a master.

His first question was indeed important, pointed, and cut to the chase. I believe, in fact, that it was: "Hi. Do you have a men's room?"

Way to go, Charlie. I knew a professional journalism move when I saw it. He may have been in the Quad Cities under the guise of covering the election, but I bet he was secretly doing an expose on public restroom cleanliness. Or maybe he just had to tinkle.

Either way, it was seriously cool to watch his visit unfold. The owners of Ross' beamed with pride while being interviewed, and yes, The Magic Mountain got some quality national airtime -- though between you and me, I think Charlie might've been a little scared by it. Let's admit it, we Quad Citizens are the secret-keepers that Rossmeat + cheese + hash browns + toast piled on a plate is culinary heaven, but it might take some time for the rest of the world to catch on. That's fine, 'cause it's just more Rossmeat for you and me.

More revealing, though, was just what the presence of journalistic greatness did to me and Linn. We were two professional and intellectual 30-somethings, but as soon as we realized that we were in the background of the shot, we did nothing but awkwardly giggle the whole time. I've never had a more self-conscious lunch in my life. Do I hold my fork weird? Am I eating applesauce believably enough?

Somehow, we soldiered through. And later that night, I was rewarded by seeing my blurry visage on national news for 1.8 seconds. That's right, I'm sure you saw it. That kinda greenish blob? Totally me. Any second now, I'll be getting a call from Hollywood. Somewhere there's a big-shot director right now going, "Who IS this man? I must have him for my large budget picture, 'The Adventures of Blurry Green-Shirted Applesauce-Eating Guy." Don't worry, though, when I make it big, I won't forget about the little people. Or the Rossmeat.



It's a good thing Boyz II Men released that song, 'cause I stink at the sappy stuff. But today, the sappy stuff is sadly an obligation of sorts.

You're holding in your hand the very last issue of the QC-Leader. The closure came as a bit of a shock to us all, but given the current state of the economy, I suppose it's not particularly surprising. Still, it's almost like a death in the family.

I was an unemployed college grad in 1995, and I'll admit it, kind of a mess. I'd been supporting myself by DJ'ing at a night club on the weekends, but the club had just gone belly-up and I was completely jobless and reasonably helpless. That was when I bumped into an old friend, Nikki Zeger, who told me about an opening in her department -- selling classified ads for the Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.

"Ohh, I doubt I'd be any good at that," I remember telling her. My only sales experience up to that point was working behind the counter at a record store, and I'd been canned from there after forgetting to lock the place up one night. But Nikki assured me that it was a fun and relatively easy gig, and I figured it'd be a temporary way to pay the bills while I sorted out my life.

Well, apparantly I was the only sane person to apply, because I somehow got the job. Thirteen years later, I'm still at that "temporary" job. Once I realized what a great company I had lucked into, suddenly that desk chair started getting pretty doggone comfy. Still, there was something missing.

Word had eventually gotten around the office about my unhealthy obsession with pop culture, and thusly I'd been called upon to write a few entertainment articles for the paper. It was fun, but nobody knew my REAL passion. I wanted a column. I wanted a column SOOOO bad. Each week, I would read our columnists with an envy and jealously almost criminal. Eventually, I figured I had two choices.

(1) Kill current columnists Sean Leary or Johnny Marx. This seemed impractical, plus I'd kinda miss the dorks. Besides, I pass out when I see blood, so I think I'd be a sucky murderer. Ergo, I settled on (2): Inundate our editors with sample columns and pleas.

I'd done this two or three times to no avail. Each time, I was told that they liked my stuff, but it just wasn't the right time or right fit. I'd resigned myself to despondency when the great Russ Scott asked me if I'd ever tried submitting anything to the Leader.

Wow, I'd never really thought of that. To a Rock Islander like me, the Leader was kind of the forgotten stepchild of our family of newspapers. It was a great publication, don't get me wrong, but it only came out to Iowa -- and only once a week. Surely they had a crowded pool of material to draw from every issue, right? Still, I fired off a couple sample columns regardless. Two hours later, the call came.

"So," said the voice of Leader editor Michael Romkey, "Can you start this week?"

And for that week and the 204 that have followed, it's been my pleasure and honor to come into your homes. Why ANYONE would care about the ramblings of a hopeless slacker is still beyond me, but I've been truly humbled by your support over the years -- even YOU, crazy cat lady who writes me all the time. My only hope is that maybe I got to serve as a momentary distraction to the suckier bits of life.

And now its time to put the old girl to bed. It turns out that the only thing more expensive than a gallon of gas these days is, apparantly, newsprint ink, which has risen in price some 35% this year alone. Seriously. Look at your hands right now. See that ink smudge? Your thumb's now worth, like, $1.40. That kind of a price hike just makes it impossible to effectively circulate a free paper every week.

Some people point to the internet as the downfall of the newspaper industry. I think that's a load of hooey. While it's true that even I get most of my national news online, there will ALWAYS be a need for local news and a guide for community events, and there will ALWAYS be businesses that need to advertise their products to the local market. Advancing technologies aren't spelling the end of our business, just a new way to DO that business. The future might be different, but it IS still bright.

In the meantime, though, we are losing a dear friend in the Leader. I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as we've enjoyed putting it out every week. For those of you who can, I strongly encourage you to call up and get an affordable subscription to the Dispatch or Rock Island Argus, where I'll continue to amuse/annoy you every Sunday. If not, check us out online and say hi every once in a while.

I leave you with the Beatles, who once said, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make," even though I have NO idea what that's supposed to mean. Still, it's appropriately sappy. I think.

The Leader is dead. Long live the Leader!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

COLUMN: The District

Once upon a time, the city leaders of Rock Island had a plan, and it was a good one.

They saw their downtown, once the centerpiece of a thriving river community, turning into a museum of forgotten dreams and days gone by. But rather than see nothing but gloom and doom (and trust me, I originally hail from Galesburg, I know a little something about gloom and doom,) these visionaries instead saw potential. They had an idea that could turn Rock Island from yet another slice of forgotten Americana into a thriving center for culture and tourism.

Calls were made to some of the area's most proven business leaders -- pleas to come to downtown Rock Island and bring it back to life. With dreams, promises, and financial assistance, businesses began sprouting up in a two block radius soon to become the shining star of Quad City nightlife. A non-profit group (DARI) was formed to help these businesses prosper. The District was born.

A perfect complement to the riverfront casino and the elegance of Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse, the District has now become synonymous with weekend fun in the Quad Cities. Walk through the District and you'll see a neighborhood wholly unique to this neck of the woods. Brew pubs, live music venues, bars, and clubs working hand-in-hand with art galleries, cutting-edge theatre groups, and loft-style residential living -- you've got to look far and wide to find anything as vibrant up or down the river. The District created the blueprint for the modern street festival that you now see emulated all over the Midwest.

Once upon a now, the city leaders of Rock Island have another plan, and this one's not so good.

The District has become a destination point for fun and nightlife in the Quad Cities. Drive 100 miles away and tell someone you're from Rock Island. "Ohhh, the District!" they'll say, I guarantee it. As a tourism and entertainment hub, a weekend in the District draws folks in by the thousands. From what I hear, in fact, the DJ at the club 2nd Ave. is such a talented, sexy, and mega-awesome draw that he sometimes forgets that his REAL day job is writing an unbiased newspaper column.

But the road to success doesn't come without a bump or two. Every time you've got thousands of people gathering together for revelry, the potential for problems is there. The District can help people have a great night out, but it can't stop people from occasionally being idiots.

Every night at 3 a.m., the nightclubs and bars of the District close up shop. And every night, thousands of folks are herded onto the downtown plaza, where occasionally fights can break out. Usually it's just a couple of morons, and it's handled quickly and effectively by the off-duty officers paid for by the clubs to patrol the area. Still, you get word of some fights and the next thing you know, people get worked up.

That's why the city council members are getting together to discuss ways of improving the District, and one of the proposals being discussed is to change Rock Island liquor licenses to 2 a.m. This isn't just a dumb move, it's a move that would spell the end for the District.

The bars and clubs of the downtown depend on the 3 a.m. closing time to prosper, plain and simple. Cutting operations by an hour is just bad business, and these clubs will close down, pack up shop and head for higher ground. Hundreds of bartenders, wait staff, and yes -- even talented, sexy, and mega-awesome DJ's -- will be out of work.

And then what happens to Rock Island? The casino's relocating in weeks, Circa '21 has made no secret of their efforts to keep attendance high -- and if the bars leave, so too will the folks who live in the downtown loft developments for the opportunity to be a part of the District (because they sure don't live there for the ample parking.)

Beyond the District, the downtown clubs also provide an extra 1% sales tax that goes straight into city coiffers, and that means tens of thousands of dollars disappearing from the city budget by losing that single hour of business.

The answer clearly isn't early closure. The same problems facing downtown Rock Island at 3 a.m. are occurring in downtown Davenport when they close shop at 2 a.m. Idiots don't set their watches to 3 a.m. for fightin' time. When Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood enacted similar changes, it didn't curb the violence -- but it DID result in the closure of over 80 successful businesses.

The answer is simple: Soft closure. Let the District bars stay open as long as they want. Don't panic - I'm not proposing 24 hours of drunken hedonism. At 3 a.m., all bars would stop serving alcohol and stop letting people in, but would continue pumping tunes onto dancefloors until the crowd slowly departs at their own pace. When you're not forcing 5000 people onto the streets at once, your potential for problems drops ten-fold.

At the end of the day, am I biased here? Sure I am. I'm proud to have worked in the District for the last 8 years, and I want to be there for 8 more. Despite the grumblings of online bloggers and naysayers, the District is the premiere fun and safe nightlife destination in the Quads. Hey, I'm a giant wuss and I wouldn't hang out someplace that's dangerous. But if you change the closing times to 2 a.m., you'll do little more than sign the death sentence for the arts & entertainment district we cherish.

Now someone help me off this soapbox so I can go play Guitar Hero.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

COLUMN: My Bloody Valentine

I think it was Gene Simmons of KISS who coined the phrase, "If it's too loud, you're too old." Sadly, of course, no one told Gene the follow-up rule: "If you're 59 years old and still putting on Spandex and demon make-up while boasting about your 'Love Gun,' it may also be time to roll up your tongue and call it a day.

Still, I've always thought ol' Gene had a point with the "too loud, too old" bit. In fact, I've spent an inordinate amount of my adult life worrying about that phrase.

See, I'm a music nerd. It's my only hobby, my only passion. It's even my second job -- spinning records for the dance club crowd down in the District every weekend. And thanks to Gene, I now wake up every morning in perpetual fear of discovering that music's too loud and I'm too old. I just know that one day, my alarm clock will go off to the radio, and my first thought of the day will be: "You confound kids with your gall darn rocking and your rolling! Shut that racket off!"

And that will be the day that my life ceases to have meaning.

I can already feel it happening. There's already a good chunk of Top 40 music that I just don't "get," be it the pointless aggression of metal bands like Disturbed (sample lyric: "Ooh ah ah ah ah! Awk! Awk!") or the repetitive drone of dirty South hip hop (sample lyric: "Yahhh, trick, Yahhh!") And, while I still dutifully go to the record store every week and walk out with a handful of new releases -- many of which are exceptionally good -- it's still the music of 20 years ago that gets the most play on my iPod.

My fate may be sealed. I'm guessing it's only a matter of time before I start calling my mom to borrow her Celine Dion and Kenny G records -- to play, of course, at a courteous and respectful volume.

I was bargain-shopping for Geritol when a text message showed up on my phone:


To the average mortal? Gibberish. To an aging music nerd in dire need of redemption? It was like being born again.

My music tastes occasionally run a little left of the dial, I realize. The bands and scenes that saw me through the college years are admittedly not for everyone. I experimented with all kinds of music, but one scene and one sound connected with me like none other: SHOEGAZING.

It's a term coined by a British music journalist in the early 90's while trying to describe a batch of bands coming out of the art schools of England. Bands that were taking basic rock melodies and layering them with waves of guitar overdubs, reverberating tremolos, and vocals so fragile and low in the mix that sometimes you couldn't discern what you were hearing. Bands so concerned with hitting the right effect pedals for their guitars that they would never look up when playing live - quite literally, they would be gazing at their shoes all night.

If there was ever music invented solely for me, this was it. I worshipped shoegazer bands like:








But above all of them, there was the band that essentially invented the sound:


With a name so evil, you'd think their music would be angry, right? Far from it. It's the most perfect noise ever confined onto record. If you believe me, it's the sound of God dreaming. If you believe my mom, it's a defective recording of a dying pig onboard a crashing airliner. And even after a 14 year hiatus, the band's devoted fans never gave up on their return. And when I got that text message, I knew it wasn't a joke. The Valentines were back.

Their music might not be angry, but it IS loud. So loud, in fact, they once held a Guinness record for being the loudest band on Earth. Ergo, as we made our way to Chicago's Aragon Ballroom last Saturday, earplugs were the primary fashion accessory. A half hour later, I was doing the impossible: I was seeing My Bloody Valentine play live.

And it was heaven. Loud, noisy heaven. A crushing wall of sound meeting a sea of music nerds, culminating in -- I kid you not -- 23 minutes of pure, mind-numbing, atonal feedback. It was like 12 jet airliners taxiing down the runway of my soul. And I sucked every second of it up (earplugs safely in place.) At times, we worried for the structural integrity of the Aragon Ballroom, but it held up. The crowd held up. I held up. And then, with nary more than a "Yea, thanks," they were gone again.

And so, too, was any notion that I was losing my music nerd credibility. My Bloody Valentine is NOT a band for amateurs. Even the dudes who listen to that scary death metal that sounds like the Cookie Monster screaming over a power drill might be spooked by the sonic maelstrom of an MBV gig. And I didn't just survive; I loved every minute of it. They're not for everyone (look 'em up on Youtube - you'll hate 'em, trust me,) but for this humble nerd, it was bliss -- and enough to convince myself that, officially, it's not too loud and I'm not too old.