Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Jerry Weintraub with Rich Cohen- When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead – Useful Stories From a Persuasive Man (Twelve Books)

When I was still in college in the early 80s, I had the opportunity to work in the promotions department of a local concert promoter and ticket agent in Buffalo, New York. Along the way I had the opportunity to work with a number incredible musical acts and music industry legends.

No one was more legendary than Jerry Weintraub. Around the arenas we worked with, Weintraub's name was uttered alternately with awe or derision depending on the speaker's point of view. Weintraub was a consummate wheeler dealer, out to make big bucks for not only the acts he represented, but also for himself. He is a pioneer, who cut a wide swath of deal-making through the heart of American popular culture.

When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead, is the Brooklyn-born, Bronx-raised tale of Weintraub's meteoric rise and entertaining life in the entertainment biz. It reads like a who's who of show business, spanning Weintraub's careers in music, film, Broadway and sports.

The names include Elvis, Sinatra, Dylan, Led Zeppelin, John Denver, Pitt, Clooney, Belushi, Cary Grant and on and on. The curve balls include; America's sweetheart, Olympic skating champion Dorothy Hamill. Who could forget the Short 'n Sassy campaign with Bristol Myers, a deal Weintraub engineered that made Hamill a millionaire. Weintraub isn't shy about including stories detailing the millions of dollars he “made” for the people he worked with and often had a hand in creating.

The most twisted tale is Weintraub's adventure with chess grand master Bobby Fischer. Weintraub was so taken by what he called Fischer's “rock star” quality, that he hopped a plane to Iceland to meet with the eccentric chess wizard during his legendary battle with Soviet champion Boris Spassky. Weintraub recounts how he worked his magic to win the troubled Fischer's confidence and struck a deal with Warner Brothers to record an album of chess instruction, that would include a chess board and pieces so young players could learn the game from the master. Later Fischer became so un-glued that the deal was sunk.

While the behind the scenes stories are equally fascinating and entertaining, it is the second half of the book's title, Useful Stories From a Persuasive Man, that I found so intriguing. In this day and age of Twitter, Facebook and Web-based marketing, Weintraub shows how he created buzz the old-fashioned way; by begging, borrowing, cajoling and whatever else it took to get the word out on his latest project.

Weintraub pre-dated the guerrilla marketing phenomenon, planting seeds in movers and shaker's minds about up and coming talent; like having Elvis mention John Denver in a TV interview and staging a “concert” by Justin Hayward and John Lodge of the Moody Blues, where he played the debut album of their side project, the Blue Jays, through a full concert sound system, for music industry insiders. Irate reviewers ripped Weintraub for the faux-show, but also wrote positively about the record; for Weintraub it was mission accomplished.

When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead is a portrait of a self-made, hard-working, often shameless promoter, who always looked for the angle that would garner the most impact for his client and himself. It is a classic American tale and one we won't likely see repeated anytime soon.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What Happens on Wall Street...Impacts Main Street

Michael Lewis- The Big Short- Inside The Doomsday Machine (W. W. Norton - $27.95)

When our current financial meltdown was in it's earliest stages I distinctly remember asking the listeners of my radio show the question “what are these companies, (that have lost a huge portion of their value) doing differently today from what they were doing yesterday?” The products and services they where providing are still the same, so why has the value of their company dropped so dramatically?

The question was based upon the simplistic theory that the value of a company was based on the demand for the products or services they provided. The reality is that often times that value was manipulated by financial institutions who created a series of complex financial instruments for the purpose of having investors place bets, not on those products and services, but the fluctuations in the values of those companies.

Author Michael Lewis takes readers inside the inner workings of how those financial institutions operate in his latest book The Big Short (W W Norton) which focuses on the sub-prime mortgage debacle that is front and center as the root cause of our current financial meltdown.

The Big Short paints a dubious portrait of the “brain” trust of Wall Street investment bankers and bond traders. Literary takes on these modern day tycoons often portray these financial titans as swashbuckling, work-hard, play-hard types, swathed in $5000 suits and expensive silk ties and packing best and brightest, Ivy League credentials.

The reality Lewis describes is loaded guys who don't qualify as the sharpest tool in the shed, who sport a track record of past failures on a grand scale, that move on to the next rung on the ladder and are rewarded with new levels of power and even larger piles of cash to plunder.

The Big Short is an at times confusing road map, think Mapquest on crack, that runs through the multiple layers of investment banks, bond houses, hedge funds and insurance companies, where billions of dollars are gambled and where all-to-often the house gets bailed out by the taxpayer.

Lewis is a master storyteller, with the ability to both entertain and outrage. As he walks you through the story of how the sub-prime house of cards was being constructed and how financial operators developed the so-called investment “derivatives” which boil down to nothing more than the investment equivalent of placing bets, you'll be left scratching your head wondering what it is that government regulators actually do? The sub-prime story combined with the the Bernie Madoff Ponzi Scheme, is a scathing indictment of the mismanagement of financial watchdogs like the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The amazing thing, even to those like me, who are casually literate in these kinds of financial doings, is that each of this dubious investment vehicles received a sign off from a government regulator. You had some of the largest investment houses packaging these doomed-to-fail loans for bond trade and then creating derivatives that boiled down to taking bets that those bonds would fail.

Like Madoff's plan and all Ponzi schemes, these Wall Street geniuses need to have enough new loans in the pipeline for re-packaging, that even after it became obvious that they were building a house of cards on a windy day, they continued to write new loans that should have been stamped “Guaranteed to Fail” rather than “Approved.”

Lewis cites the example: “In Bakersfield, California a Mexican strawberry picker with an income of $14,000 and no English was lent every penny he needed to buy a house for $724,000.” Now some folks would have you feel pity for this poor schmuck when he inevitably lost his house. Really? At what point did we completely toss having any iota of personal responsibility out the window? Even if this guy paid every dime of his earnings each year toward an interest free loan it would take him over 50 years to crack the nut! Sorry, but I feel no sorrow for this guy.

Along the way, The Big Short, makes an interesting statement about the current state of ethics in this country. There are no real heroes here. Some of the players involved in the story discovered the brewing tempest and rather than warning about the impending storm, they looked for ways to capitalize and make billions off the mis-management and down right wrong doing. It also begs the question; if Bernie Madoff belatedly ended up behind bars for his scheme, will we ever see anyone, aside from the taxpayers, pay a price for this outright crime?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Worst Love Songs of All Time!

Ah, the love song. When it's done right, it can stir emotions, set the mood and sometimes even move mountains! However when it's done wrong it can cause grinding of teeth, hysterical screams and even vile body functions. It is those teeth grinders that are the focus of today's musical journey into the worst love songs and what makes them bad.

20. Chevy Van- Sammy Johns- (No relation, at least none I'd be willing to admit) How this ever became a staple of AM radio is a mystery to me, as Sammy croons of his conquest of hitch hiker chick in the back of his love den on wheels. Lyrics like, "like a princess I can see her lying there, moonlight playing off her hair," are enough to bring up this morning's breakfast.

19. If- Bread- Tough choice to narrow it down to one song from the Bread discography, but the clincher was the lyric "if the world should stop revolving spinning slowly down to die." Is this supposed to be a love song or a sign of the end times?!

18. Longer- Dan Fogelberg- God rest his soul, but what the heck was old Dan thinking when he came up with the line, "deeper than any forest primeval, I am in love with you." Can you see it now, battling lyricist block, struggling to come up with something really, really deep, he comes up with a forest primeval! Yes! That's the ticket!

17. Babe and Lady- Styx- Not to pile on too many singer songwriters, here proof that even rock bands can crank out really awful love songs, in fact a double dose from Styx. These songs are so lame they actually start to blend together! "Babe I'm leaving I must be on my wayjust touch me and my troubles abade." Huh? Abade? When did Tommy Shaw become a knight of the round table?

16. Muskrat Love- Captain and Tennille- While it seems that the guys have cornered the worst love song market, and The Captain, is likely responsible for this god awful abomination, I can only wonder what the heck Toni Tennille was thinking when she agreed to sing about Muskrat Susie and Muskrat Sam over the Captain's piano tinkling!

15. Honey- Bobby Goldsboro- This song was almost single-handedly brought about the renaissance of the tearjerker. This could have been prime fodder for a Weird Al Yankovic renderingI can hear it now, "and Honey I miss youand I'm looking for the razor blades"

14. Let Her In- John Travolta- Before he hit it big on the Saturday Night Fever dance floor, Travolta was one of Mr. Kotter's Sweathogs who became a double threat with juicy slab of schlock.

13. Don't Give Up On Us- David Soul- Speaking of double threat, the blonde half of TV's Starsky and Hutch cop show, earned a place on the charts with his quavering vocal on this steaming piece of dung. While it would have been wise, he didn't stop here and continued to crank out records, not sure if his fame ever reached Hasselhoff-ian proportions in Europe.

12. Making Love Out Of Nothing At All- Air Supply- There was just something not quite right about this sappy Australian duos string of syrupy ballads. Maybe it was the odd combination of the tall, Nordic-looking blonde guy teamed with the short due with the bad white-guy Afro that seemed more than a little skivey.

11. Close to You- The Carpenters- Speaking of skivey combinations, sorry but there was just something not quite right about the brother/sister combo of Richard and Karen Carpenter. It's tough to get past those longing looks over Karen drum kit, while belting out, "just like me...they long to be close to you."

10. Annie's Song- John Denver- Here's a hint for any aspiring balladeers, if you want to pen an ode to your significant other, go for it, but don't ever release it as a single! I can guarantee that some day a line like "let me drown in your laughterlet me die in your arms," will come back to haunt you. Write I, record it, burn her a copy and keep it to yourself!

9. Just Remember I Love You- Firefall- What the heck was it about the mid-1970s and a string of interchangeable duos and groups that cranked out pabulum puke that found it's way up the charts?

8. I'd Really Love To See You Tonight- England Dan and John Ford Coley- See Firefall at number 8.

7. You're the Inspiration- Chicago- This was a band that cranked out a string of great songs with driving rhythms and great horns, then Peter Cetera moved out front and things went off the rails. Somewhere the late Terry Kath is rolling over.

6. Rosanna- Toto- Studio aces turned hit makers, Toto went off the celebrity deep end with this ode to a day, morning, afternoon and night with actress Rosanna Arquette.

5. I Just Called To Say I Love You- Stevie Wonder- While this one was on the Women In Red movie soundtrack, every time I hear it I think of Jack Black's music snob store clerk character from the movie High Fidelity, berating the Dad who wanted to buy the single for his daughter! What was Stevie thinking?

4. Faithfully- Journey- This dreadful dreck seemed to spawn an entire generation of bad, hair band, power ballads and now there is an entire generation of married couples who have to look back on really bad records that were their wedding songs! It's no wonder the divorce rates are so high!

3. Lovin' You- Minnie Ripperton- Ms. Ripperton pre-dated the five-octave diva Mariah Carey by a generation with this down right painful eardrum buster. Hard to believe she earned high praise for this caterwauling.

2. Afternoon Delight- Starland Vocal Band- What could possibly be worse than this two couple quartet belting out four part harmony on an ode to afternoon nookie? Because this was such a huge radio hit, your Dad adding his vocal prowess to the sing-a-long! Ewww!

1. Lady in Red- Chris DeBurgh- as a former wedding DJ, if I had one more leisure suit wearing, stud wannabe request this blathering piece of crap so he could make moves on the maid of honor, I don't know who I would have shot first, him or me! Absolutely the definition of DREADFUL!

I Waited 7 Years for This?

I vividly remember when I first became aware of the phenomenon that is The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s mega-mega bestseller. I had just stepped off an airplane in Chicago, finishing the first leg of a three-part, 8-hour journey. As we strolled to the next gate we passed countless travelers with their nose tucked into the book and a handful of book and gift shops on the concourse with Everest sized stacks of the hard cover piled precariously near their entrances. Heading up the aisle of our next flight, I passed no fewer than 7 fellow travelers flipping through the pages of the non-stop thriller.

I had dashed through a couple of Brown’s adventures, the techno-thriller Digital Fortress and the ice pack action piece Deception Point, but not yet become aware of his collegial hero Robert Langdon, who debuted in Angels and Demons. With claims of over 80 million copies sold, The Da Vinci Code became a fixture on the bestseller charts and spawned not only a new genre of modern day adventures with ties to the middle ages, but also a cottage industry of books, pro and con, trying to decipher the true meaning of Brown’s epic.

With all that preceded it’s arrival in bookstores, Browns long-anticipated follow up, The Lost Symbol, which once again features symbologist and historian Langdon, faced some pretty tall expectations. As with Brown’s prior work, he wasted no time setting the hook squarely in the reader’s mouth. It looked like we were in for another roller coaster ride through the twists, turns and history that Brown does so well. That is until this high-speed train drove straight of the rails and detoured straight into disappointment.

Brown had the tendency to walk close to the edge of preachy-ness and could easily overwhelm readers with the minutia of history and arcane symbology. The fact that The Lost Symbol centers on a storyline involving Freemasonry, a favorite whipping boy for conspiracy theorists, adds to the level of detail stacked neatly upon detail.

As the story races through a single night, showcasing some of Washington D C’s most interesting and historic buildings it comes to a crashing, predictable climax with about 30 pages remaining. In those 30 or so pages, Brown back fills the story with more than a little ponderous, preaching. While his work should never be confused with great literature, as a fan, that’s not what I expect from Dan Brown. My expectation is one of great escape, but I was left with wondering, “I waited 7 years for this”?

The Hurt Locker...I Should Have Known Better

With the Oscars behind us, I thought it might be a good time to check out the highly praised Kathryn Bigelow film The Hurt Locker. For no reason in particular I have made it a practice over the past ten years or so of not seeing most of the Oscar nominated movies that make up the Best Picture category.

With some genius at the "Academy" deciding that there was a need to nominate TEN! films in that category, it was pretty hard not to stumble upon at least a couple of these films. On a side note...ten best picture nominees? Really? can anyone name a year when there were ten movies that really deserved this allegedly vaunted title of being the Best Picture of a given year? Kind of dilutes the value don't you think, when a kid with a Flip Video camera could qualify.

With all of the high praise being rained down on The Hurt Locker by film critics at liberal print outlets like the New York Times, Los Angles Times and Time magazine I really should have know better going into watching this movie that it likely wouldn't portray the military in the best light.

It didn't take long for the first red flag to go up. In the opening credits, Bigelow includes a quote from moonbat "journalist" Chris Hedges that concludes with the line "war is a drug." That was all I needed to see to know exactly what would follow.

The gritty film follows a Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team through a series of episodes where they deal not only with improvised explosive devices but also explosive settings and situations. Most of the film is set a a fairly high pace, with the team thrust from one tinderbox to the next. Some of the scenarios will have you sliding up to the edge of your seat.

The problem is the underlying tone of the film which casts the military leadership the EOD team interacts with, as a bunch of bumbling morons. These guys are either certified, tobacco chewing red necks or desk jockeys who drop lines like "this (war) can be fun."

Does anyone really believe that any member of the military would ever describe war as fun? It's no shock when later in the film this Colonel is blown to bit by an IED when he decides to tag-a-long on a disposal mission.

The portrayal of S.F.C. William James as a reckless, cigarette smoking, adrenalin junkie who just can't get enough action is completely out of character, when compared to the highly trained, incredibly skilled and rightfully cautious men and women who do the job of an EOD tech. This living on the edge portrayal makes for great cinema, but departs reality pretty early in the film.

It is this reckless characterization that has spawned a backlash against the film by members of the military who know the truth about the disciplined soldiers who tackle this difficult job.

Bigelow has been cast by the media as a Hollywood outsider, but this film is a pure Hollywood vision of the military. Know that going in, suspend reality and this ends up being a mildly entertaining film at it's best moments, but often loses it's way as it tries to portray the human side of these characters.