Monthly Archives: June 2008

Iowa: Dan Gable Museum flooded!

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You can count the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum among the many victims of the flooding to sweep across the midwestern US. An article in the Des Moines Register–got the link from Dave Meltzer’s inimitable “Wrestling Observer” site–goes in depth about the damage suffered by the building. Vince McMahon should write them a big check as penance for his stunt last Monday.

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Insanity: TSI shut down!

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Last night was another one of those “busy work” evenings for a local constabulary that apparently has nothing better to do than harass relatively innocent club-goers. The raid on TSI was followed by another semi-raid on a houseparty in Springfield. When the house owner (who, like Roy, was celebrating her exit from this town) asserted her rights not to let the cops in without a warrant, she was hog-tied and thrown wailing into the back of a car, where her cries filled the night air for blocks.

The police should understand that they are being set up for failure. Their real enemies are the ones making sure they can’t do their jobs properly, but underfunding the department and diluting their manpower by sending them off on wild goosechases like the nonsense last night. Upwards of two dozen cops’ time was occupied on a busy Friday night doing work that had nothing to do with crime-fighting. The only thing “accomplished” was the shutting-down of a club that some really decent people worked their asses off to make a viable prospect, not to mention the continued erosion of the police credibility and and the respect they command among the younger citizens who are increasingly carrying more of the load, in terms of being tax-payers and revenue-generators in the city.

It’s really pathetic. These poor cops have to jockey and politick just to get the overtime hours that are necessary to raise a modern family on a policeman’s wages, yet still some of them have to seek government assistance. They don’t see their kids enough, risk their lives routinely, just to have their efforts spit on by the same politicians whose policies created the criminal underclass that is now punking out JSO on a daily basis. Their undercover operations have been stymied, now that it’s become impossible to tell the difference between cops pretending to be civilians and civilians pretending to be cops. And the worst, for them, is yet to come–wait until they start retiring: All their pension/401(k) money is gone!

What, precisely, is the benefit from gutting one of the few active club districts in town? There is something ironic about condemning the building for code violations, when it sits across the street from a courthouse that could literally collapse at any time, and just down the street from a police station with mold, leaks, vermin, plaster falling from the ceiling and a bunch of disgruntled cops who are having to work more for less money and fewer benefits. But the city has $5,000, give or take, to run on operations like that. Let’s all remember nights like that after the next terrorist attack, when the authorities are acting so surprised!

All in all, the authorities’ performance last night came off as resolutely small-time. It was an embarrassment to Jacksonville and a shitty final memory of this place for people who’ve been positive members of society. With the resignation of mayoral aide Susie Wiles earlier that day, Mayor Peyton is now a lame duck for the next three years, and Jacksonville officially has no established authority or leadership anymore.

Below is an update from the club, copied from the Myspace:

We are sorry to inform you of the following and would like for you to understand that the following situation is being resolved as quickly as possible.

***TSI will be closed as of last night till an undeterminable time***
This includes the Wet Hot American Summer Party and The Art & Music Mixer

We want to be sure to put the actual events out there to clear up any speculation and assumption.
Last night (Friday) at 10:30pm, just as the first band was scheduled to take the stage, TSI was subjected to a random raid. These are common.
JSO’s Drug Abatement Response Team aka D.A.R.T. along with several code inspectors entered the nightclub, ordered all customers to line up and exit the building. They randomly checked ID’s of those leaving. One individual presented a false ID to the officer, was then searched and was in possession of a small amount of Marijuana. He then admitted that he was in fact only 19 and was arrested thereafter. The building was then posted with a “D.A.R.T.” posting declaring the building condemned.

The building received this posting because of the fact that drugs (though a small amount and on a customer) were found in the building. The building in general was also in violation of city codes, which can be repaired.
AS FOR NOW….
TSI will remain closed until these issues are resolved.
We sincerely apologize to all of you who came out last night to see the bands and to say farewell to Roy. We are also sorry if this put a damper on your party schedule.

We recommend that you all throw your own personal Wet Hot American Summer Parties.

Brendon Clark
Booking & Promotional Manager

Review: “Ring of Hell”

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The professional wrestling industry exists in relative obscurity to anyone who doesn’t follow it regularly. Names and affiliations tend to change faster than the companies’ TV deals, it seems. A few wrestlers are known to even the most clueless observer, such as Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan and Dwayne Johnson (aka the Rock). Another name now etched into their minds: Chris Benoit. He was a technician without equal, a shaman of the suplex, a paragon of powerbombers, someone whose name was once synonymous with quiet excellence, rigid discipline and relentless perfectionism. All of that is forgotten now.

The death of Chris Benoit, his wife Nancy and son Daniel was the lead story across America at this time last year. The tragedy exploded onto TV screens with seemingly no warning, and fans who had watched Benoit’s work over the previous 20 years (ten or 15, from the prespective of American viewers) were left with no explanation outside of the self-interested speculations of WWE or their media apostates, both of whom were quick to present the debacle as the result of one or two isolated factors. The humanity of Benoit and, most troubling, his innocent victims, never really factored into anyone’s coverage.

Now, just in time for the anniversary, the new book by Matthew Randazzo V has hit the shelves to the kind of response John Cena gets from the audience: a roughly even mix of cheers and boos. Ring of Hell (Phoenix Books) is written in that “purple prose” one expects from a true-crime author, with enough errors in spelling and grammar to suggest a rush job on the editing, probably to be sure it was out by June. He clearly set out to bury the business in print, but has in fact produced one of the best books ever written about professional wrestling–certainly the best ever written by a non-wrestler.

Author Randazzo has all the right tools for a task of this kind. His parents were both corporate lawyers, and their son works on the legal side of redevelopment projects in his native New Orleans. His main writing gigs tend to center on organized crime, fine preparation for covering an industry with roots, branches and fruit in organized crime. If everything is the book was true, and it’s impossible to confirm or deny all of it since so many of the principals are dead, then the author is entirely in his element.

By telling the life story of Chris Benoit, Randazzo tells a story of pro wrestling’s evolution over those short but strenuous 40 years. Benoit’s sole ambition was to be a wrestler–specifically, a modernized version of his idol, Tom Billington, whose exploits as “the Dynamite Kid” made it possible for shorter, lighter workers to get exposure in the size-conscious American scene. Both men consumed massive amounts of steroids whose salubrious effect on muscle growth was more than balanced by the havoc they wreaked on their bones, connective tissue and their personal lives.

The core of Randazzo’s thesis is that Benoit had serious mental issues dating back to the earliest years of his career, issues related to self-consciousness about height, an emphasis on technical perfection bordering on OCD, and a propensity for cruelty whose limits were apparently nonexistent. These issues–the latter, in particular–were only made worse by his indoctrination into the highly political and ultraviolent wrestling subculture, with its PSYOP-worthy pranks and lethal hazing. Randazzo paints his trainers in Stampede and New Japan as professional sadists who took pride in breaking their students’ bodies and their will. Benoit learned his lessons well, and would mature into a legendary taskmaster who had no problem making a grown man cry on national television if he felt it was necessary to “protect the business”.

Benoit made his bones, as they say, in New Japan as a standout in its light-heavyweight division, and would probably still be there, wealthy and reasonably sane, had he never come to work in America, Randazzo asserts. Instead Benoit and colleagues Dean Malenko and “Latino Heat” Eddy Guerrero played a huge role in the explosion of pro wrestling in the 1990s, with catastrophic consequences for their physical well-being. This is the most entertaining part of the book–the fun and games of ECW and Monday Nitro, when the idea of half the cast being dead in a decade was simply unthinkable, because nothing like it had ever happened before. The combination of prescription drugs, alcohol and steroids killed 50 people and almost killed 50 more. People like Scott Hall, Sunny, Shawn Michaels, Konnan, Juventud Guerrera and Raven–who allegedly rolled on ecstasy for 14 straight days, with the dose doubled daily–are alive practically by accident.

An already-dark story gets darker after the deaths of Brian Pillman in 1997 and Owen Hart in ’99. Both had trained with Benoit in Calgary, and they were the first in what would become an unbearable string of losses for Benoit. The clearest contrast is drawn by Randazzo, between the Benoit who wrestled a tribute match to Hart and the Benoit who did the same for Guerrero just six years later, in 2005. After the death of Guerrero, which is still the saddest moment in wrestling history, the death of Benoit was probably inevitable, but the way it happened was too bone-chilling to be believed.

To write Ring of Hell, Randazzo leaned heavily on the research of others, including a lot of the wrestling media, absorbing 22 books, 38 videos and countless websites. He also cites ECW head Paul Heyman as a primary source along with several former WWE writers, whose takes on the company hierarchy are laugh-out-loud funny. It’s to be expected that many of his sources, including any active wrestlers he talked to, opted not to be identified; if Bob Woodward can do it, why can’t he?

Randazzo’s tone and word choices throughout the book make clear not only that he is not a wrestling fan, but that he harbors serious contempt for both the wrestlers and their fans. He seems unable to understand what could drive wrestler to make the sort of foolish sacrifices required for success in the modern wrestling business, although they aren’t anything that would be unfamiliar to, say, a pro football player or a musician. The awesome body count that came immediately out of 1960s rock, ’90s grunge or the rap scene of the last 15 years makes for an incomplete argument against the music scene (outside of evangelical circles, that is), but the persistence of death among wrestlers is presented by Randazzo as a sufficient reason to shut it all down, or at least to disparage anyone who can still watch the stuff.

Ultimately, what sells this book is the same thing that sells any book about wrestling: the stories. Even the most ardent fan must admit that pro wrestling is one of the shadiest industries this side of the Beltway, and Randazzo offers readers a veritable feast of frighteningly weird tales. One hesitates to go into much detail, since 1) it would be unfair to the author, and 2) paraphrasing does no justice to this stuff. Suffice to say that this ranks right up there with the infamous “wrestling sleaze” thread. Randazzo’s abs are probably in their best shape in years, given the hours he may have spent laughing as he wrote some of this stuff, even though it all ultimately wraps up awfulness that still sinks the spirit when read about now.

 

When first told of her son’s plans to become a pro wrestler, Chris Benoit’s mother thought “He’ll be hurting by the time he’s 40.” She was right, of course, but Benoit, who excelled in his chosen field, got over one more time on his colleagues. Unlike Pillman, Hart or Guerrero, Benoit actually lived to be 40 years old–for 34 days, at least. In life, as in death, Benoit had a little bit extra.

Nader’s batshit Obama dis

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2008 Presidential also-ran Ralph Nader cut a promo on Obama in the Rocky Mountain News. Just when one wonders why Obama hasn’t acted to engage him, he upbraids the guy for not being sensitive enough to the issues affecting black communities in this country. The critique itself is very much debatable, but it’s not really one that a non-black can make with any credibility–it comes off as the sort of passive reverse-racism that crops up among white liberals, often a case of overreaching to show empathy.

The plague of gangsterism forced onto black youth by corporate media (specifically, Interscope, Viacom, Clear Channel and Time-Warner) results largely from the efforts of misguided whites to embrace and, indeed, sponsor a narrow slice of the African diaspora as a uniform standard. Just as whites are constantly pressured to conform to stylistic norms through the idealized projections of mass media, black have been pressured to be a certain way over the last 20 years–the men, especially. Among black men, the rate of attrition has been unprecedented for populations not under direct assault–but, of course, they are, and that’s one of those things that cannot be said in print.

Obama spent many years doing good work in, around and for the streets of Chicago, and so it is inevitable that he may know as many casualties of those years as most black men his age do. Anyone who thinks he does not, or will not take those memories and lessons with him into the future is a mark. For Nader to play that card makes him look ever more that way. For his sake, one hopes that he is saying such things to help Obama by torpedoing an argument someone else might have made with more finesse later.

I’ve always felt the Wright “scandal”, for example, was a net positive for Obama because it fleshed out his backstory, floating a bunch of memes that he may or may not agree with, baiting his opponents into overstretching and squandering resources on the chasing of false leads, wasting tons of TV time and reminding minoriy voters how gullible some of the media elite think they are. The scandal revealed two things: 1) Chicago is shady; 2) the media just realized that.

Sonny Rollins: the Freedom Suite

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Sonny Rollins is one of a handful of artists universally regarded as a master of the tenor saxophone. Only John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins (who put the instrument on the map back in the 1920s) outrank Rollins on the totem pole of tenor men, and many fans will offer credible arguments for why Rollins belongs at the very top of any such list. Even contemporary players like Joe Lovano and Branford Marsalis fall well short of the standard set by Hawk, Trane and Sonny–and they would be first to say so.

The phrase “silent weapons for quiet wars” reminds me, oddly, of the battle waged between Rollins and Coltrane for the top tenor spot in the 1950s. Trane, of course, had spent a formative few years working with Miles Davis, who set him up for his epochal run with Thelonious Monk in summer 1957, while Rollins had broken in as part of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach unit. After Brown’s death, Rollins hung around to record Max Roach +4, one of the best albums to come from Roach’s recorded peak, before launching his own solo career, which caught fire pretty quick. Comparing the albums recorded under their names in the 1950s, the Rollins stuff is vastly superior to Coltrane’s; this included masterpieces like Way Out West and Saxophone Colossus. It wasn’t until Coltrane began his run with Atlantic Records (documented on the appropriately-titled box set The Heavyweight Champion) that he achieved true creative parity; by the time he died in 1967, his legacy as the greatest tenor player of all time was secure.

Rollins’ career is now in its sixth decade, giving him unprecedented longevity to match a tone that reveals itself as his from the first note. His post-9/11 live album Without a Song introduced Rollins’ music to a new generation of fans, many of whom could be forgiven for thinking he is no longer among us. Thankfully, he still is, and shows no signs of slowing down as he marches toward 80. While we wait for a new album from him, we can slake our thirst for his music by reviewing some of his older, classic titles.

The Freedom Suite was recorded in March and April, 1958 for the Riverside label. Concord Records, which bought out Riverside some time back, has rereleased the album as part of the fifth series of their “Keepnews Collection”. Orrin Keepnews produced the album and helped run the label; he returns to oversee remastering an provide some “inside baseball”-type anecdotes for the liner notes. As such, the series could be viewed as analogous to Blue Note’s “RVG (for Rudy Van Gelder) Collection”. This record, like Saxophone Colossus, was recorded as a trio, with bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach, who is inexplicably labeled on the back of the CD as the trumpeter for a session with no trumpet. These two make for one of Rollins’ most sympathetic rhythm sections, and listening to them makes one appreciate the excellent job Rollins has done in picking sidemen and collaborators over the past half-century.

Assuming that the CD sequencing (bonus tracks aside) matches that of the original record, then “Freedom Suite” took up side one, running nearly 20 minutes, while “Someday I’ll Find You”, “Will You Still Be Mine?”, “Till There Was You” and “Shadow Waltz” take up side two. While the whole record makes for credible hard-bop, it is the title track that deserves the listener’s focus. Rollins was one of the first to really exploit the freedoms afforded by LP technology to play at extended lengths–the sort of thing now synonymous with Coltrane. “Freedom Suite” arrived shortly after the sublime “Blue 7”, and nearly a decade before his East Broadway Rundown record with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.

The hero of this album is Pettiford, who would be dead within two years. Pettiford was one of the top three bass players of his time, alongside Mingus and Paul Chambers, and Freedom Suite offers the best setting for appreciating his work that I’ve ever encountered. One of the three bonus tracks is a duet take of “There Will Never Be Another You” that he and Roach recorded while waiting for Rollins to arrive. It was my introduction to Pettiford’s playing, nearly 15 years ago, when it appeared as a bonus track on Roach’s Deeds Not Words album, and it still sounds fresh today. The poignancy of the title, when one considers that it was one of his last sessions, makes it the definitive Pettiford, and a key part of Roach’s recorded legacy, as well.

The Freedom Suite marked the beginning of an intensely political period in jazz music. Artists had already begun to follow Art Blakey’s lead in converting to Islam, and the civil rights movement offered the first real chance for serious expression of the African-American “situation” since “Strange Fruit” 15 years earlier. By 1960, Roach was releasing his We Insist! Freedom Now Suite for Candid, while Charles Mingus was offering the first substantive challenges to the mostly white-run music industry. This album would be a classic by any name, but its organizational concept raises it up to seminal status.

 

McMahon mocks God again

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Timing, it seems, is everything. WWE Vince McMahon has made a legitimate fortune playing fast and loose with the laws of both physics and social decorum. His company has become known as a repository for more shadiness and dysfunction than any business outside of the US Congress. On the Monday night “RAW” show that aired Monday night on Spike TV, McMahon hit yet another unprecedented low.

Backstory: this week marks the one-year anniversary of what was probably the darkest day in the history of pro wrestling: the infamous Benoit Family Tragedy, which has been covered in vast, unscrupulous detail all over the place and needs no recap here. The new book by New Orleans lawyer and “true-crime” specialist Matthew Randazzo, “Ring of Hell,” uses the story of Chris Benoit as a template for crafting the most dense compilation of so-called “wrestling sleaze” outside of an old internet comment thread that was itself taken down after the BFT opened the business to greatly enhanced scrutiny by both federal authorities and the mainstream media–which has always carried a grudge against the business, perhaps because their beloved cable news shows struggle to match ratings WWE programming that is sometimes stunningly, suspiciously bad. My review copy arrived on Monday morning, just in time for RAW.

What made the Benoit debacle all the more jarring was that McMahon had faked his own assassination in an exploding limousine the week before it happened, and that Benoit had participated in a show the next night in which the “death” of McMahon’s character played a central role in the storyline, complete with “ten-bell” salute and taped encomiums from colleagues. Recall that Benoit, more than any other wrestler, completely broke down on-air following the death of best friend Eddie Guererro, on two consecutive nights of TV tapings. The following Monday night show was planned as a three-hour tribute to the McMahon character, but instead it aired as a tribute to the Benoits that was renounced by the company the next day, contingent with the purging of all Benoit-related video from their public archives. That of course necessitated losing a lot of their best material of the last decade, including key matches with people like Guererro, Steve Austin, Kurt Angle, and much of Ric Flair’s stuff from the period when Benoit was a Horseman.

McMahon has recently been giving away money on the air, calling up viewers who registered online. Vince doles out $1 million per week to those who recite the week’s password. Randazzo has reportedly claimed that the PR stunt is being done to counter negative publicity from his book, which is selling respectably in a pretty specialized market. That theory was personally obliterated by McMahon Monday night, with one of the most dangerous stunts ever attempted on TV. After the battle royal in the show’s last segment, McMahon gave away $500,000 to a viewer who said “I love you, Vince.”

McMahon replied “I love you, too,” and shortly after a massive lighting rig fell from the arena ceiling, landing a few feet away from McMahon–an eerie reminder of the death of Owen Hart in 1999. He was standing at the podium, looking confused, while what looked like a pyrotechnics mishap occurred around him–an eerier reminder of the real pyro mishap that injured dozens of people at WrestleMania in Miami three months ago. He then stumbled, like he was fainting, and fell off-camera, off the back of the stage through what may have been a table or something. No one seemed to know what was happening, but then Vince got up from where he’d fallen and started walking around in a daze, briefly, before the gigantic steel rig that held up one of their massive digital video screen literally collapsed on top of him.

From the moment the lighting rig fell, about three minutes passed by in which any reasonable viewer could have concluded that Vince McMahon had just become the first major celebrity to die on live TV. But it was apparently all planned in advance. Wrestlers ran up and worked together to free the chairman (who looked unmarked and at one point appeared to be smiling, perhaps grateful to God for an unlikely success) and help EMTs ease him gently out on a stretcher. Vince broke character by addressing real-life son-in-law HHH (whose on-air character is divorced from Stephanie McMahon and has been a constant thorn in her father’s side) by his real name of Paul, crying out that he couldn’t feel his legs. This will presumably be a key storyline in coming weeks, assuming that no wrestling superstar dies for real this week.

The level of risk is absurd. Anything rigged to fall at a specific time could fall at any time, which they know, and the lighting rig was right above the main ramp for wrestlers coming to and from the ring. Pyro is pyro, and the uncertain mechanics of that set collapse could have been a disaster. Unlike the exploding limo stunt, which merely involved airing Vince’s pretaped entry just before the live explosion (which still looks fairly seamless), this time he actually stood there and let it happen around him, and in the process probably cheated death for real. To have his wrestlers on and around the fallen structure while fresh pyro popped off from it made things worse. He’s lucky he didn’t start a damned riot!

 It was a shocking end to a night of wrestling action that was weird even by the singular standards of WWE, a night that turned often on injuries, real and fake. Shawn Michaels went face-first into the edge of a table, compounding a fake eye injury received weeks earlier from Chris Jericho (in a feud built around Michaels’ history of faking injuries). Melina Perez did injure her leg while teaming with Victoria against Beth Phoenix and Natalya Neidhart, and former squeeze Batista was busted open after a violent collision with Edge during the battle royal. The cut was probably self-inflicted, but the sound of their heads cracking each other had me briefly worried about Edge’s surgically-fused neck. (He went on to win, though.)

The obverse view, of course, is that Vince indulged this madness as a gesture of trust for a technical crew that had gotten a lot of bad publicity after the WrestleMania accident. One hopes he wasn’t consciously referencing past tragedies, though he must have been aware of the accident that killed a tech worker for rival company TNA about a month ago. All in all, it was really fucked-up, and it could have easily become something that eclipsed the BFT–if such a thing is even possible.

 

Ugly Dogs ’08

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We all spend what is probably disproportionate time online, and much of that time is spent looking at websites we view regularly. I can only think of a few sites that I visit specifically once a year, and the site for the Sonoma-Marin County Fair is one of them. Why? Because they are hosts of the annual World’s Ugliest Dog Contest, which makes for guaranteed good fun. Although the winner has already been declared, this is a contest with no losers, expect perhaps the people who have to clean these beasts.