Thursday, November 27, 2008


I'm not the best writer. I know this. That said, I'm able to console myself with the knowledge that a lesser writer would start this essay off with some half-inspired tripe like "Is it me, or is Black Friday a big deal for no reason?" I won't write that because I know it's a big deal for one very big reason. I've known this since 1992 when I got my first record store job in the mall. I know full well that "Black Friday" is the day when retailers sink or swim for the year, and has been since the '70's. What I don't know is why consumers continue to buy into the idea that they need to go batshit insane with their spending habits for this one special day each and every year. I don't get it because I understand that ON BLACK FRIDAY THERE ARE NO ACTUAL BARGAINS TO BE FOUND ANYWHERE PERIOD.

Sure, that Kitchen Aid Mixer you were admiring three years ago is suddenly within your price range for six hours, but only if you're willing to miss all your favorite stories on prime time TV and sleep on a sidewalk in temperatures hovering near the low thirties. Then you have to tussle with someone who is probably reasonable throughout most of the rest of their lifetime just to get through the door and to the thing you cherish before all eight of them are purchased and your dreams are crushed. Of course I'm only kidding about someone cherishing an outdated appliance. The fact is none of the stuff people are clamoring for on this day is the special big ticket item that their loved ones actually want. Looking through the ads it becomes apparent that these so-called great deals are actually close out specials on overstock and yesterdays mass marketed garbage.

For example: An eight year old boy today wants nothing more than Bakugon for Christmas. It's the hot toy that parents are pulling out their hair looking for this year. Toy's 'R' Us has a huge "doorbuster" sale starting at five in the morning, with lots of stuff drastically marked down, however, none of that stuff is Bakugon. In fact, they probably still don't have any Bakugon on the shelves or in the stock room, yet these same parents will cave in and buy a four year old Optimus Prime figure that the more privileged kids have already loved to pieces. If that wasn't suspect enough, it's ONLY the outdated Optimus Prime and none of the others of the multitudes of Transformers. This reflects manufacturing surplus and distribution patterns more than any interest on the part of a child. When you hand that toy to a kid that doesn't already have one you probably won't get any complaints. You won't get a high five either, because he'll go back to school the following week knowing he didn't score the big prize that is Bakugon. That's because "doorbuster" sales don't offer what you want, they only offer "deals," and these two concepts seldom intersect.

Touted by the media as a sort of shadow holiday, but really a symptom of consumer culture's clash with family values, Black Friday is traditionally the day when women lash out at their men for watching football all day during Thanksgiving, rather than actually spending quality time with their families. Since men define quality time as time spent in front of the tube watching football, it can be reasoned that women scuttling about at ungodly hours of the morning buying a bunch of stuff nobody wants or needs can also be regarded as quality time. And just as there are now three football games on Thanksgiving Day there is an even greater urgency for women to go out into the night and return ten hours later, exhausted, in a SUV sagging from the weight of all the future Christmas re-gifting, which can only be unpacked in the evening after a three and a half hour nap. This is a generational thing that has been cultivated for close to fifty years, and retailers have come to depend on it, only it isn't going to save them this time because they've been increasingly selling themselves out with outlet store marketing techniques the savvy shopper can find elsewhere all year round.

This year is the toughest year retailers have seen in a long, long time. Apologists will argue, but the truth is our economy has been in recession for somewhere near twelve straight years, or ever since the dot com bubble burst. Holding steady is not growth. Undocumented unemployment is still unemployment. Major retail chains like Circuit City do not tank because of one bad year. Just the same, when the news anchor introduces the unlucky suburban bureau reporter stuck at the mall annex, you can be sure that the people he or she interviews for the segment aren't actually accomplishing anything towards their long term financial goals. That is because buying something nobody wants at a steep discount isn't doing anyone any good. Not the presenter, nor the presentee, and certainly not the store it was purchased from. This is the year when Black Friday truly fails on all fronts.

It will be interesting to see what happens next year, whether the trend persists or women begin realizing how richly rewarding it is to merely sleep in on a day off. How many stores will emerge to fill the vacuum left by all the closings, and will there be any money left for the shear volume of stuff nobody particularly cares for but will recieve this year regardless? Maybe next year, there will be a sale featuring things that are culturally relevant to the time, and not the retail equivalent of your older siblings hand-me-downs. We'd all better hope so, because at this rate Black Friday isn't going to be such a big deal for much longer, and that's a problem.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Dr. Dog "America's Next Great band," according to America's Worst Rock Magazine


Dr.Dog continues to impress me, while Relix continues to sour me on the East Coast music scene in general. What was once an essential music magazine has left it's entire purpose to be rediscovered down the line by the tired, yet ambitious music journalists that, as far as I can tell, have yet to emerge to report on the great West Coast psyche rock scene of yesterday and today. Until then, we get The Flaming Lips, or String Cheese Incident gracing the cover of this bastardized, in name only, once great publication. Phish? Not again, please! Ben Harper? Are you serious? Is it still 1992? All of this nonsense, this serious lack of taste, arrived with the term "Jam Band."

Relix used to be innovative in so many ways. They relied on fan participation for starters, utilizing found artwork, photos, and reviews, all of which were able to avoid looking like more corporate shit and actually convey feeling to someone willing to take a minute and absorb the publication he or she was handling. Recycled papers and Soy inks were another amazing feature in terms of being true to the righteous cause, regardless of how lackluster a B/W magazine might seem to the cheesy masses. Then, a few years after Jerry died and appeared to take the scene with him, the ownership sold the publication to some East Coast wankers who proceeded to devote it's attention to crappy East Coast "Jam Bands" such as Phish, Blues Traveler, and the best of the second-rate bunch, Widespread Panic. No more David Nelson, Hot Tuna, or legitimate extended GD family. No more cool west coast band that isn't getting the exposure anywhere else. No more reports on whatever crazy festival is happening in whatever crazy West Coast truck stop town in the north. Lot's of full color, full page adds bought by fully bonded and insured corporate NYC promoters, however, and I'll bet MOE made the cover more than a few times, probably on the issue that should have been devoted to Zero (RIP)

Seeing as how the scene has continued to move away from the goals, ideas, and style of it's West Coast originators, I guess I can't blame the Relix people for selling out and disappearing. I mean, once the marketing term "Jam Band" took hold only a fool couldn't see the writing on the wall. Still, it sure would be nice to know whats going on back out west. I guess it's somewhere on the internet. And while I'm happy to see Dr. Dog getting a front cover on a national publication, I have to wonder "what type of assholes are going to overrun their shows from now on?" and I'm not talking about their existing, condescending, elitist, dad's money/ twenty something hipster who knows a guy in Philly crowd, either. Those people will come around someday. I mean the truly behind the times, waiting for it to be okay to like a band, alcoholic spectator crowd that can't deem a live show to be worthwhile until it costs fifty bucks and requires a day off from work to able to witness. Do I, a guy in Pittsburgh where Dr. Dog has had NO draw, need to go buy my tickets in advance?

I started reading the article, a cliche ode to reluctant stardom, until I had to throw it down in disgust over the commentary on Converse All-Stars, as if they where at some point not cool. I have news for all you good people, rockers and otherwise; Converse All-Stars have been and will remain one of the all-time great pair of kicks, no matter how over priced they are. The old Relix would not tell you how to dress. And am I to believe that Relix is providing me with a news flash by reminding me that they are the first national press to feature the band on a cover? Well, they are, even though Rolling Stone has been dry humping Dr. Dog in print and online for the last three years. Dr. Dog just might be ready to explode, but Relix is waaaaay down on the list of people in the know, and believe me, if the band does blow up, Relix will be the main perpetrator inundating the world with too much coverage of the too many copycat Philly bands that really aren't quite so good.

Dr. Dog's "Fate" will be released on July 22nd, and if it's anything like the previous recordings, will be well worth the purchase price. Relix Issue #whatever will be out soon enough to provide further argument for online music publications killing print media entirely.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bandai Creation Classic 12" Godzilla Figures

Fans of the Kaiju genre, particularly those that collect the terrific, albeit expensive, Bandai imports, have had a great couple of years thanks to Bandai Creation's prodigious vinyl toy monster output, and the company shows no signs of slowing down. With virtually no marketing support whatsoever this offering of expertly sculpted likenesses of the various incarnations of Godzilla and his foes has continued to impress and sometimes confound fans of the 50 year old film series. The toys are a mix of home runs and missteps, and a reason to celebrate with the release of each totally unexpected new wave of figures. Like all previous releases, Wave four came out of nowhere and has it's good points and bad, but ultimately its about children being able to enjoy cool vinyl Godzilla toys just like their Japanese counterparts, and without the need for having a sci-fi geek uncle with too much frivolous income. This wave of figures also happens to herald a new surprise for collectors; enter the latest product category, the Classic 12" Godzilla Figures collection comprised of Final Wars Godzilla and Mecha Godzilla.

Not since the failed play sets of the first wave has Bandai Creation attempted to deviate from the tried and true 7" line of figures, and this time I believe they got it right. Rather than a bunch of tiny figures and cheap accessories, what Kaiju loving kids are looking for at a higher price point is actually a larger version of the monsters, perhaps scaled up enough to be a true menace to a matchbox car or army men collection. This time the manufacturer was listening. These toys are finally trickling into stores at their famously uneven distribution rate, and I'm telling you they are worth the trouble.


The first thing you'll notice is their size when compared to regular ol' Bandai's larger 9" scale figures. They are more than just taller, they are bulkier, and sporting additional points of articulation. They look like they could eat the 9" figures from Japan. They are large enough to force a collector to consider the various properties of soft vinyl as they are practically collapsing under their own weight. When you take into account the incredibly low price point ($15 Toys 'R' Us) these things become positively mammoth. As a long time collector used to browsing online and in specialty shops, I find it almost ludicrous that I'm able to walk out of a major toy store chain with so much injection molded vinyl after years of supporting this otherwise expensive hobby. I think I cheered out loud when I scanned the bar code and saw how reasonably priced they are. I don't believe they were on any sort of clearance, since this is the first time I've seen them anywhere on the shelves, and I'm pretty sure that Godzilla collectors need to get a hold of these two before they disappear.

As for the sculpts, well, these are still Bandai Creation toys. Keeping in mind that I've been collecting domestic Japanese releases for years, it's easy to see the flaws in an otherwise awesome toy line. It's awesome because it's authentic Godzilla coolness finally made available on our shores, and does a lot towards helping us forget the clunky Trendmasters offerings from ten years ago. Even though Trendmasters gets credit for understanding how badly kids desire Godzilla toys, the execution wasn't quite enough to garner the support of adult collectors, which we all now understand to comprise nearly a third of the current toy buying public. Bandai Creation has cleared that hurdle by offering the closest thing to the truly cool, virtually indestructible toys its parent company has been selling in Japan for decades. That said, after five years of inspecting these toys I'm convinced that there is a conspiracy to deprive American collectors the same levels of perfection enjoyed in the Far East. There's always something a little wonky about certain figures, whether it's a clumsy paint scheme or a disproportion. With such expectations I don't think it's a big deal that the 12" Final Wars Godzilla only vaguely resembles the creature as it appears in the film. Looking at the previous waves accurate 7" representation makes me wonder why they couldn't get it right at this size, but it's not the end of the world. The monster sort of looks like Final Wars G, with a little Heisei G thrown into the mix, perhaps in an effort to broaden the appeal of the toy. I like the crouching pose and lashing tail as a nice change from the more uniform poses of the Japanese releases, although I don't feel compelled to remove it from the sturdy card backed tray packaging. The pose is definitely a better solution to the apparent problem of the "overreaching tails" than the current waves curved tails (which you can reshape with a heat gun) They should have all the 7" toy lines tails lashing since no one wants a static looking Godzilla toy.


Mecha Godzilla is a slightly different story. It's the Kiryu version of the monster, which is the right version to release at this scale, and also the first Kiryu to be released domestically. Similar to it's Japanese vinyl toy counterpart, Mecha G has less articulation. His legs don't move, and his tail has only one point of articulation compared to Final Wars G's three points, which is kind of a bummer, but again, not a deal breaker. Another flaw might be the shortened tail with a stubby end, very unlike the actual monster, however the entire wave of toys seems stuck on the idea that the monsters tails should not disrupt the delicate balance of available shelf space. The toy does benefit from a dynamic pose and slightly taller height than it's companion piece. It's legs are askance, and when placed head to head the two toys look as though they're about to clash. Of the two figures, this one is begging me to remove it from the packaging, but I think I'll pass it along to my nephew and let him do the honors. I don't think the lack of articulation makes too much difference in light of the cool pose, although I find it curious that they wouldn't try to tackle a shortcoming that has plagued every vinyl incarnation of the character.


That's my harsh criticism of an otherwise intelligent decision in moving this toy line forward. The epic 12" scaled figures should be enough to have Japanese collectors drooling, pining for a cool toy that is beyond their possession (unless they want to shell out $50 bucks to purchase and ship. Ha! See how they like it!) These two figures should have U.S. fans responding in much the same way. These are the first Bandai Creation toys, other than GMK Ghidorah, that I would highly recommend including in a collection of original Bandai vinyls. They won't look out of place at all, and will continue to tempt you to open them. When I present these to my six year old nephew, I truly believe he will flip out. Who knows when or if Bandai Creation will launch a fifth wave of figures, since you can't find anything official about any of these toys on the internet, which is bizarre. In any case it's probably still a few months off. If we do get another wave, I sincerely hope they'll continue the 12" line, maybe throwing in some other characters as they did with Kiryu Mecha G. I could go for a 60's Baragon or Kameba. Since there isn't any place to find out more, I'll just sit with my fingers crossed and look forward to whatever they have up their sleeve.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Pittsburgh Steak Salad...Mmmmmmm!

Here's another great food variation from my homeland, the "Pittsburgh Steak Salad." It's awesome, and in keeping with the traditions of Pittsburgh cuisine, completely unhealthy. "But Steve, how can a salad be unhealthy?" you might ask. Read on, dear diner, and keep that defibrillator handy cuz yinz is in Stiller country!

The Pittsburgh Steak Salad is your basic entree sized salad, with the typical mix of veggies (btw, hardboiled eggs and shredded cheese are considered vegetables in these parts,) and is, of course, piled with strips of grilled sirloin. That's great for some regions, however, here in the 'Burgh we like to take it to another level by throwing a heap of deep fried starch into the equation. That's right, nothing says "salad" like a pile of French fries serving as a salty, greasy bed to the meat. Essentially, when you order this dish, you're ordering several extra value meals without the buns. It's the price you pay for "delicious."

So fix your salad greens, toss a bunch of fries on it, then the steak, and finally the shredded cheese, which should melt from the heat of the meat and potatoes. That's a Pittsburgh Steak Salad, and it's something you're not likely to be served anywhere else. If you're dining out in Pittsburgh, just ask for a steak salad, and you WILL get fries on it. Then try to do something healthy for the next few days. Bon Apatite!

Monday, April 7, 2008

R.I.P. The Teeth


The great Philly band The Teeth have officially disbanded, sending a minor shock wave around certain granola crunching, mildly androgynous, indie rock circles. To be sure, The Teeth were among the elite of the current crop of great bands hailing from the eastern part of the state, having the type of impact that most bands in the mid west can only dream of. Maybe they listened to too much Kinks and Bowie for some tastes, since these guys wore their influences on their sleeves, yet somehow they managed to provide a fresh listening experience time and again, be it live or with a new recording. Plus, The Teeth earned heaps of additional credibility for their grueling tour schedule and "electrifying stage presentation." That's exactly how I put it to Peter a couple of years ago outside of the Garfield Artworks, and it got me a big smile from the giant. Good times. As a humble tribute I was going to offer an account of my experiences as a promoter working with the band, but the more I wrote I began to realize that would just be more boring, self-aggrandizing internet tripe. The Teeth slept on my floor and I watched Peter eat an uncooked can of Spaghetti-o's in a Sheetz parking lot. Add to that a couple of shows, a trip to the Funhouse to see them explode on some townies, and finally, a discombobulated voyage around the foothills of the Rockies listening to "You're my Lover Now" and I have what I consider to be a sort of reckoning in light of the recent news. Instead of selling myself as a cool dude (which the band and their eventual "hip" crowd would probably argue,) I'll share some thoughts about the current state of the independent music scene.

First of all, I can't blame The teeth for cashing in their chips after several years of working with Chris Watson at Park The Van. After all, the guy is a slave driver, and I say that with all due respect. Even though the trend appears to be for his bands to burn out on the road, they do so willingly, such is the confidence the guy inspires. Chris possesses a certain charisma and a ton of hard earned music biz knowledge, as well as a keen ear and sense for which bands are doing things in a way he can harness for his cause. And that's not a whole lot of people. I can safely say that even if something I attempt musically shows up on his radar, there is no way in hell it will occur with people willing to work as hard as Park The Van bands do. Maybe not all of them, but it seems to me that if Chris sets his sights on your band, you will spend several months out of a year inside a van, cruising through the middle of nowhere, playing to a nil audience and sleeping on floors.

It occurs to me that The Teeth, operating within the sphere of Chris' influence, quite possibly blew up too fast in an era were even the most influential names in modern rock continue to work day jobs. If we're honest with ourselves we can see that it's next to impossible to maintain that type of aggressive touring routine they had while at the same time having a place to live that's all your own. Despite the best of intentions somethings gotta give. If I'm asking a question it has to be "what price for success?" Does one push so hard, for as long as he or she can, achieve (in relative terms) tremendous levels of success and then stop? Some bands seem to go on forever, and I have to wonder if maybe they aren't working so hard at all. Maybe those bands that seem to have it don't want it so bad. I'm not even sure which bands I'm referring to, and I don't mean to say that guys in The Teeth were delusional or misguided or in any way doing something wrong, I just wonder what happens to make a successful band, one seemingly poised for even greater success, decide to pick up and call it a day. It's not just the hard touring, for I agree that logging some serious mileage is the only way to get ahead of the thousands of bands vying for the some recognition.

I believe that the internet has diluted the business model necessary for making a living solely from performing original music. People have too many options and are permitted to navigate onto a musical island, thereby isolating themselves from any random influences that otherwise might open their minds to something different. This is evidenced by the numerous varying tribes of twenty somethings lurking all over the web. Modern rock and pop music seem to exist in a previously unknown vacuum of listeners attempts for self actualization, manifest through strict adherence to categorization, fueled by the glut of info on the web. By the end of the eighties most musicians would find the idea of labeling their music to be repugnant, but with the rise of the internet labeling seems to have approached epidemic proportions. Categorizing your band for the sake of a Myspace profile is a ridiculous effort in redundancy. Scrolling down a list of hundreds of options it's evident that at this point, none of them can properly be applied to your band. "Screamo?" Is that a for real musical term? It sounds like more sub categorized bullshit. Naturally, they don't even begin to approach the broad spectrum of classic rock, which makes me wonder who it is serving as arbitrator of the online musical dialog. Imagine what it takes to get your band attention in a climate like that. I have a friend who insists that the internet is actually making it more possible for bands to become known, and he offers plenty of valid points to back up his argument, none of which didn't exist in some form prior to the internet. Self promotion has always been essential to a bands success, only now apparently, you have to own a bunch of expensive computer equipment and be able to write code just to combat the over saturation of music attempting to make an impact by way of the web. It looks like the only way around that is the only way there ever was, bringing us back to the basics of touring your ass off. That's exactly what The Teeth did, that's what other bands on their label do. Unfortunately, when your potential audience is inundated with so many options that they don't respond to any, playing to half filled rooms in the great lakes region goes from fun and adventure to a being grind real fast.

Then again this is all purely opinion. There are any numbers of reasons awesome bands don't survive in the corporal world. Music, however, is something entirely different from the tangible, and has a way of finding a life of it's own long after the creators are gone. The Teeth have always impressed me with their talent and creativity, and as good people. The enthusiasm at the beginning of their national touring was truly inspiring and impossible to maintain. I enjoyed some cool exchanges with each respective band member at various times, and watched as their hard work slowly wore them down. Still, they never let up on the stage, were the energy needs to be dispensed, and have earned their spot in music history. They have transcended their humble beginnings. Frankly, the last couple of stops seemed to indicate that these guys were getting a little whacked out, at least by western PA standards, yet it's hard to say if it wasn't just life on the road, a blur of strange and familiar faces, and too much sleeping on hard surfaces. No matter, this band's legacy will remain through several fantastic recordings and so much great press, so however they went out will likely be disregarded. The Teeth climbed above the clutter and into our ears, and filled our heads and hearts with their love of great music, something I suspect their recordings will continue to do in their absence for years to come. Long may you run, Teeth recordings, and long live The Teeth.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Jennifer Love Hewitt's "Ghost Whisperer"

It's Friday night and I've been sick all week. I've got all the symptoms, the weather is bad, and the supply run has left me exhausted, all of which lends a blanket, hot tea, and my couch the appearance of a great weekend. By the time 8pm rolled around, I was wrapped up tight and on the "Night Time Formula," settled in and ready for my first viewing of the CBS prime time thriller, "Ghost Whisperer." Oooh, spooky!


"Ghost Whisperer" sounds interesting enough, even though I've never felt compelled to tune in before. I guess there's a lot of shows on Friday and Saturday nights that I've never seen, most of which have not made it to the third season. Watching TV on weekends is exactly the sort of thing I try to avoid, which is a smart move now that I'm stuck inside with the flu and bored out of my mind. Scanning the list of options, and being a fan of the supernatural, it was obvious what I'd be watching.

I'm not sure where I know Jennifer Love Hewitt from (I want to say "Scream") but I can't deny her marquee value on network television. Not sure what the general opinion of her is, but I find her to be rather easy on the eyes. Actually, after an hour she starts to look a little like a cartoon character, kind of goofy and awkward, not the typical bland starlet that fits whatever the mold of perceived beauty happens to be at the moment. I think it's great, and I bet there's a female audience that can really identify with that. Her character is said Ghost Whisperer, a title that I'm not sure is directly referenced anywhere in the show, who operates pretty much how you'd expect a Hollywood clairvoyant would, meaning the authorities have come to trust her help in solving crimes. Of course, that's pretty much her hobby, her real bread and butter comes from operating an antiques store, which I find to be a solid plot point in a show that is otherwise completely out there. I say that having been involved in collecting all my life, with experiences that would seem to indicate the human love of materialist things transcends mere life and death. I once saw a Hot Wheels car launch off my coffee table, without any explanation, in an apartment that creeped my girlfriend out, and I've heard other collectors make similar observations. Having a attractive psychic handling previously owned, beloved objects makes sense for the character. It didn't come into play in this particular episode, but I'll bet it has plenty of times before.

I didn't catch the title of the episode, but a brief synopsis will do. It centers around the teen aged son of one of Ghost Whisperer's associates, who is entering into his first relationship. Both teens are portrayed by twenty somethings. Weird stuff starts happening to the boy, like a door slamming and bloodying his nose. In fact, from what I can tell, most of the supernatural occurrences take the form of a door or window slamming. That's not exactly playing up the scares as far as most horror audiences are concerned, but then, this program is more of a mystery, so I'll take what I can get. Later, when the next door neighbor gets locked in the basement, the screen goes black, we hear a quick scream, then cut to some other scene. Zero tension in what would have been show stealer handled in a theatrical presentation helmed by someone like Wes Craven. Back in the day Wes would have made us all uncomfortable by showing her getting tormented by unknown forces while strange voices and mood lighting drove the point home. To the show's credit they create a reasonably ominous presence when depicting the actual spirits of the deceased, in this case, the girl's dad. Nothing major, just some quick glimpses leading up to GW quickly turning around and coming face to face with an actor in pancake makeup who wasn't there a second ago. You've seen that before and by now can get over any thrill the trick might yet provide. Anyhow, this ghost is causing trouble and it's up to GW to sort things out and provide closure so the spirit can "go to the light." That's an old favorite, ain't it? What if nothing happens when you die? What if you just start decomposing? I think I'd feel pretty gypped after decades of implied transcendental experience. By a half hour into the program it is revealed the ghost is really the girl's mom who died of cancer and is bald and kind of mannish looking (with the help of make up, of course.) The ghost mom is desperate to keep her children together as a family, so prior to death she drills her eldest in home economics and then sticks around on the mortal plain to oversee their safety. The strange happenings are then attributed to a ghost dad, while their mom is said to have a headache, be away on business, to have been kidnapped, etc. The kids bury her in the backyard and stick to their cover until GW shows up and figure's out what going on. The family drama is finally resolved by the return of the mom's big sister, the kid's aunt, who adopts them and frees the ghost. This happens because GW has lengthy conversations with the undead, and is a good listener.

I doubt very much that I'll be sick next weekend, or any of the following weekends for that matter, so I probably won't be watching "Ghost Whisperer" again soon. Although I found it enjoyable enough, I don't think a thirty something, single male is the target market. I think it's safe to say this show is for housewives and little girls, and maybe the occasional dude on extra-strength cold remedy. Since it's been around this long it would seem that it will be here for a few more seasons, so I won't feel bad if I miss it. Married guys with wives who like to hijack their TVs could be in worse shape. J Love, yo! Looking at the rest of the schedule reveals few options, just a lot of bimbos in a lot of reality shows. "Ghost Whisperer" gets my approval simply for being an honest, old fashioned attempt at a narrative that isn't about doctors, lawyers, or detectives.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Assessment of Boyce Park Ski Area Renovations

Here I come to clear up a few of the misconceptions concerning the recently updated facilities at the Boyce Park Ski Area. As many Pittsburgh area winter sports enthusiasts know, the Allegheny County Parks system has for years provided locals with a reasonably well maintained, inexpensive option for skiers and snowboarders, nestled minutes aways from the bustling commerce center of Monroeville, in beautiful Boyce Park. The reason I state the ski area is "reasonably well maintained" has more to do with mother nature than any human shortcomings, so when it was revealed that the county recently pumped a few million dollars into snow making and chair lifts, it seemed like a good time to revisit the place.


First of all, it's difficult to find information about anything the County is doing, let alone the specifics of an updated ski facility, so you can take pretty much take all of the online information offerings with a grain of salt. What you will find are a variety of skiing websites listing inaccurate specs. For example, the vertical is 160' to 180', depending on which site you visit. Many site indicate the snow making capacity is 100 percent, but this is sadly not the case either, even after the newly installed snow machines (more on that sore point, later.) The closest thing to an accurate measure of the base was 31", but I think it's probably more like 18". Nor does the ski area boast five lifts, no matter how broadly you define the term. The map pictured above is all I could find, and I would soon find out it is in no way current. After all the renovations, you'd think they'd want to make a new trail map available. Since no one else has, I have altered the previous map to reflect the current layout of the Boyce Park Ski Area, seen here below.


If it looks like I merely chopped off the left side of the mountain, it's because it is now entirely occupied by snow tubing. Six glorious lanes of snow tubing, lanes that look like curious moguls if that's what you choose to believe. You'd probably get charged with homicide if you tried, so it's better to let the tubers have their lame fun. I would love to continue verbally attacking these people, but that would be unfair since the long lines for the activity are comprised entirely of families with young children too small to ski. I can even see myself taking my young nephew and niece there next winter, since little kids probably need to experience that type of sensation before they can move on to skilled activities. The reason Boyce snow tubing is such a touchy subject is that it's obviously getting all the emphasis from management. It is where the money went, while the real sport of skiing suffers neglect. Here's how:

Snow Making. There are nine brand new snow machines pointed directly towards the snow tubing lanes, against the wind. I cannot understand why this activity deserves nine machines. I can only hope that as the activity becomes more established and pays itself off, they will relocate half of those devices and begin opening the trails between Casper and Adams Run, maybe including Alpine and Avalanche. I couldn't be sure Avalanche is still there, but I left it on the map out of hope. The best thing that can happen to the ski area with this current set up would be for the snow machines to be so poorly managed that some fake snow mistakenly gets blown over towards the slopes.

Chair Lifts. This was a good rumor; new chair lifts. When I saw that they had removed Tahoe's lift I freaked out, fearing that local skiing was gone for good. Then I heard about the "improvements" which were said to include new chair lifts, and got excited. When I got there I learned that what they actually installed were two magic carpet lifts, one for tubing and one for Casper the Friendly Bunny Slope. Watching the tubers patiently ride the carpet lift uphill, I fondly recalled the amount of effort people once had to exert in order to be able to enjoy a sled ride. As the saying goes "What goes down, must come up" but this isn't what they meant. Here they have effectively stripped the talentless activity of snow tubing of all it's cardiovascular benefit and reduced it to yet another commodified form of instant gratification. They have also removed all the rope tows.

While the idea of new chair lifts is exposed as farce, I am grateful they left the old one in at Adams Run. If it was absolutely necessary to remove half the ski area, at least they preserved the better slope. On this day, there was actually enough natural snow to be able to ski Pine Valley and parts of Rattlesnake Ridge. Adams Run itself was properly groomed and snowed, being the one trail that receives any daily maintenance. Alpine continues to serve as a board park, with some real jumps and a small half pipe, yet has not much more snow than elsewhere. When I inquired about the new chair lifts, the operator laughed, then explained that the park had actually upgraded the existing equipment with new parts. That's fine with me, except that no less than an hour later the lift broke down, which leads me to believe that, in reality, the old lift is in a crate somewhere slowly being cannibalized. So we ended our day making quarter mile trips up the 160'- 180' vertical for sake of feeling like we actually got some skiing in. "What goes down, must come up"

It worked. After, my fifth hike or so, Adams Run seemed to feel more like an epic adventure rather than the beginner ski slope that it really is. Hiking uphill in ski boots, shouldering outerwear and gear may require one to stop and take a breather at the summit, where you can peer through the trees to see the tubers enjoying their numerous amenities. It all seems so backwards. For our inconvenience, the kids at the ticket counter gave us vouchers for another day of skiing, thus further imperiling the prospect of operating a profitable facility. When we called about the lift two days later, it had still not been serviced, so maybe they know what they're doing after all.

The fact that snow tubing is an obvious attempt to make money is not lost. Anyone with twelve bucks can sit on their ass for ten seconds at a time while going fifteen miles per hour into a soft embankment of man-made snow, and on this day there was a good crowd doing just that. I just wish there could be some emphasis on the existing ski facilities, particularly in regards to snow making. Boyce's reputation is that of having poor conditions, or not being open at all. Very real climate change makes snow making at Boyce an absolute necessity, as annual accumulation continues to decline and get washed away in the alternating rains. So to have a ski facility fifteen minutes from half the population of Pittsburgh is special, although maybe not so realistic. Even if it's only half the facility it once was, Boyce Park Ski Area provides a great value, particularly for the novice skier who needs to log a few miles before attempting Seven Springs. It's the most inexpensive place to decide if you're a skier. I personally like it as a relaxed, non-elitist atmosphere where a guy without health insurance can enjoy his favorite winter sport, then go have a beer, then be home before five. The tubing park will probably make a ton of money, enough to help maintain its parent ski area, then can easily be converted to a double black diamond (in my dreams)

In summary, no improvements have been made to the ski area, unless removing half the ski area can be seen as an improvement. If you weren't enthusiastic about skiing Boyce before, I haven't much to say that could change your mind. On the other hand, maybe if the ski area received more support I could be reporting on it's expansion. With the season over, there's no point in pushing the hard sell, however next year I intend to take more advantage of whats left of the facility, whenever the region receives a proper snow fall. The place doesn't have to be there at all when you think about it, so it still deserves our support. Here's hoping management comes to understand that skiing can be profitable when there is snow and an operating lift.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

BloodRayne, The Vampire Killing Fox


Uwe Boll gets such a lashing in the fan circles that I was prepared to let this one go by. Ultimately, I rented it after seeing Kristanna Loken's "come hither" gaze in every retail establishment that sells DVDs, everywhere in the world, for the past two years. That's what's weird about this guy's movies. It's like there's a conspiracy to place them at point of purchase zones in the wal-mart, target, and best buy stores all over the land, despite the bad rap they continue to get. With lowered expectations and an interest in the female lead based on her Terminator 3 status, I settled in for my first Uwe Boll flick.

Frankly, it wasn't that bad. I've seen worse attempts at action/ horror, and in movies that got better reviews. BloodRayne is going up against your Blade/ Underworld/ Hellboy type of film, being a movie that looks like it might be horror, but is in fact, action. Classics like Aliens and Terminator aside, it's a sub-genre that I simply cannot get excited about, which is probably why I'm okay with the ridiculous costumes and bizarre casting presented here. Seriously, Michael Madsen rules, but I was hoping to see him carve off a vampire's ear and light him on fire. Likewise, the women all know karate and bare exposed midriffs, and sport video game style vampire hunting gear unique to their characters personality traits.

Another thing that some might find upsetting is a near complete disregard of vampire canon, allowing for an amazing vampire body count that actually hinders the sensibilities of the plot. Maybe they explain this somewhere, but that's another problem I have. There seems to be an artistic decision here that interferes with the story telling. There are several scenes that are flashbacks, and then several more that appear to be flashbacks, but are actually stylized transitions that left me sort of confused until the action starts up and everyone is face to face, kicking the crap out of each other again. The ending is also subjective enough to cause further bewilderment.

Yet, despite being a film that is really all over the place, BloodRayne has it's charms and works as your basic popcorn flick. There are buckets of fake blood poured over the cartoonish, old world landscape, the aforementioned ass-kicking women, and a completely unnecessary sex scene for the new (goth?)couples who might be watching. None of this was nearly as horrible and tasteless as one is led to believe from reading the reviews, although it's not winning any awards. In edited form, this flick would play well on the upper dial of your basic cable TV service, perhaps on USA or TNT. It's the movie your inner thirteen year old watches at 1:30am, eating pizza, when sleeping over at your childhood friend's house. This film might be representative of what Uwe Boll is reviled for, which I take to be amateurish film making. Yet, after watching BloodRayne, I have to believe the backlash against his movies is due to the unprecedented marketing support they receive, rather than any short comings of the director. In the end, this is the type of movie where you know, even before watching, whether you'll enjoy it or not.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Yocco's "The Hot Dog King"

In the mid-90's I was driving from Pittsburgh to NYC with great regularity. I would take PA-I76 to I80 to I78, before finally hitting the home stretch that is the Jersey Turnpike. For a few years it seemed like I was making this trip every other month or so, mainly to discover the cultural wonders of the lower east side and import some bizarre trend or experience to my quiet home town. While New York City never fails to deliver in that respect, the biggest impression was made on the journey home by a billboard advertising the legendary "Yocco's" restaurant chain of Allentown, PA. Seen only from the west bound lane of I-78, the wary (i.e. hungover) traveler was rewarded by the image of a menacing, anthropomorphic hot dog, wearing a crown and holding a BBQ fork with an impaled hot dog on the end, presumably one of his loyal hot dog subjects. Clearly a retro illustration without any sense of irony, it stands as one the most mind blowing images I would see on many a trip to the big apple. Since I could never leave the city in anything less than a contemplative state, the Yocco's billboard always amused me with it's cartoon character from a bygone era, a mascot that would seem to possess a drive and ambition bordering on insane if compared to anything found in McDonaldland. If the Hot Dog king were any indication, one would expect McDonaldland to more closely resemble North Korea. Indeed, the fact that Yocco's only exists within the relative confines of the Allentown/ Bethlehem area could indicate that the major powers in fast food have utilized some sort of preemptive strike, most likely to keep the tyrant in check.
"Hot Dogs With A Personality"
It would be ten years before I finally enjoyed my first hot dog at Yocco's, a happy accident when I realized my brother had moved to the same Allentown, PA that Yocco's called home. I don't know if it's the Hot Dog King's subtle use of demagoguery or if those 'dogs are, in fact, awesome. Whatever the case may be, if you're in Allentown and reading this, don't tell me or you might be expected to Fed Ex me a "Dog Pack" sometime in the near future. Nowadays, my trip east pretty much end in Easton, where I visit my bro's family and then eat Yocco's. I know I was driving home, alone, when I decided I should finally check in on the place and see what it's all about. I had gained some insight after viewing Rick Seebak's "The Hot Dog Program" which dutifully mentions the Hot Dog King, if not properly advising the viewer of how fantastic Yocco's is. I had also read about it in an issue of the great zine "Snack Bar Confidential" but said reviewer was highly critical of the fare. Probably a health nut. Finally, now in the information age, I went online to find all sorts of praise, mostly from transplanted natives. It was online that I realized how one should order when at Yocco's; two "Yocco's" a side of Pierogies, and a chocolate milk. When they finally removed the billboard I guess it became a mission to finally see what exactly the Hot Dog King was really offering.
Since trying my first Yocco's I make a point to stop on the way home after every trip. Yocco's is for real. Maybe not exactly wholesome eats, but very much so in the sense that it's a regional dish that isn't found anywhere else, relying on regional outlets to provide the various ingrediants. Although Mrs. T's pierogies are everywhere the steel industry was, you usually don't see them deep fried and offered by way of the drive thru window. The buns are baked at the local starch powerhouse and stand above the typical plastic wrap variety found at the grocers. The dogs and milk are also shining regional examples of local household staples that have somehow managed to avoid being absorbed into the Wal-Mart model of retail. And then there's the sauce. You see, Yocco's has a secret, and "the secret's in Yocco's sauce." A chili sauce, to be precise, a thin, brownish red drizzling with only a hint of beef, that when coupled with mustard and onions, rockets this pup into hot dog heaven. When you ask for a "Yocco's," that's how it's served, a dog with chili sauce, mustard, and onions, and as simple as that sounds, I am pressed to find better.
My family thinks I'm crazy. They don't get what the fuss is all about, and can't stand that there's no sauerkraut at this place. Then again, they didn't have to see that billboard on the way home from so many studio parties. Once I stopped on the way TO my brother's place, and found that they had mistakingly given me an extra hot dog. I try to limit my consumpuntion to just two Yocco's per visit, but this time I was happy to make an exception. Elated, actually. Later that evening, as I slept, I dreamed that I made the trip all the way back to the 'burgh and found yet another, hot, fresh, delicious Yocco's while cleaning my car. I woke up somehow disappointed, at 8am, despite knowing this particular dream was somehow more attainable than, say, Anna Nicole Smith or the ability to fly. I decided not to stop on the way back, because I don't want to kill my Yocco's experience. I want to know the malevolent Hot Dog King is still driving his minions, with an iron fist, into my grateful belly the next time I make my way to Eastern Pennsylvania. I'm part of and privy to his homicidal reign, god help me. Long Live Yocco's "The Hot Dog King!"

Monday, January 7, 2008

Buffalo Wings... "Pittsburgh Style" Mmmmmmm!

Just in time for your Super Bowl party! Pittsburgh does indeed offer a unique take on that greatest of bar appetizers, the noble Buffalo Wing. Careful when ordering your wings "Pittsburgh Style" though, even in Pittsburgh. The chain restaurants that thrive on ease of preparation have no time for the extra steps that make these wings superior, so this variation is in danger of being forgotten even in it's home town. No problem, it's actually simple and ingenious, and can be made at home or accommodated in any establishment where whole wings are served. You see, Pittsburgh Style Buffalo wings only work on "whole" wings, and you'll soon understand why.

To make Pittsburgh Style wings you drop a dozen or so in the fry vat and prepare your sauce. The sauce doesn't vary from traditional Buffalo sauce, you just make twice as much. When the wings are done you mix them in the sauce as you would normally, only instead of serving them you throw them on the grill on a high flame! You can see now how frozen wing "Dings" are never going to work with this method, right? Char (blacken) the edges, then turn and repeat. When there is no longer wet sauce in evidence, transfer the wings to a serving tray and drizzle remaining sauce upon them. Enjoy!

Doesn't that sound much healthier then normal wings? Well, don't be an idiot! You're actually eating twice as much buttery sauce! Here in Pittsburgh we understand that Buffalo Wings are never going to be healthier, but they can be a heck of a lot tastier!

If you're around town, take Interstate 76 to Route 376 to Monroeville. Hop on business Route 22 West and follow four miles to Carl's Tavern on your left . Carl's is keeping this tradition alive and well and has a great beer selection, too.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Megazone 23 Perfect Collection (ADV 2007)

Finally. I missed the initial region 1 DVD release of Megazone 23 and could not turn it up until now, and I didn't want to just rent it, such is the admiration I have for this title. After twenty years, it's a relief to be able to see this again.

Cover scan for Megazone 23 Collection Pictures, Images and Photos

In the mid 80's, anime was proliferating the US through a network of fan clubs starting with the CFO and working it's way down to various regional groups, including our own Anime Keiken in Pittsburgh. Anime at this time meant taking what offerings you could get from Saban or DIC, or enjoying a crummy third or fourth generation dub in it's original Japanese without the aide of subs. Such was my introduction to "Megazone 23", a dark (for the time) sci-fi with a massive human element that suffered only slightly for the lack of translation. It continues to serve as an early example of seriously compressed storytelling that succeeds with the aid of a (for the time) mind-blowing twist and excellent design aesthetic developed by ARTMIC and Hiruhiko Mikimoto. It also featured a gory execution and a sex scene, two "Firsts" for a mainstream production such as this, and also rather mind-blowing (for the time.) Finally, it reserves it's place in anime history for being the blockbuster anime to secure the future of the OAV, then a fledgling concept. Seeing this as a kid in Western PA only further convinced me that anime was here to stay. Seeing it again with subtitles convinces me that I was right. Part II is great, mainly because it provides resolution and breaks the mold as far as character design goes. Part III was a mistake, but it's out there. Oh well. I lent my fan dubbed VHS to my friend Dave back in 1989, and never saw him or my movie again. I could never have guessed at the immense popularity anime would garner in the following decades, and as annoying as it can be, in this case it's more of a lucky break.

Props to ADV for continuing to exploit this property. It's truly one of the great films of the "Real Robot" era, and needs to be available like a lot of other deserving titles (Crusher Joe, Giant Gorg) It's nice to see a company maintain respect for the groundbreaking works in a time when anime seems to focus entirely on "Fan Service," Gundam, and collectible card games. US otaku, however, will not likely respond as I have, and so this release will probably not release the floodgates as I would like. True, classic titles continue to trickle in as the market continues to broaden, but it's clear by the packaging of the Megazone 23 Perfect Collection that ADV will be taking their time about it. If I wasn't sure about the story already, after reading the summary on the case I might be expecting the prequel to "Ghost in the Shell," and the artwork approved for the cover adds further confusion by featuring characters only from the sequels in a stylized layout that's hard to read. I realize that there are complicated rights issues when a US company is handling anime, but, like, who the hell are they trying to sell this to? Special features-wise, there are enough design sketches to make this worthwhile for the older fan who never picked up the Roman Album, otherwise, I was really hoping for the scratched footage of Shogo raiding the airport ( filmed as the original ending, or maybe for "Robotech: The Movie") Not much other information, unless the English speaking cast offers insights in their commentary, which seems unlikely (People watching dubbed anime have no idea what they're missing!)

Priced at $30, it's a little steep for me to be sending casual fans out of their way for, especially when they really want more "Full Metal Alchemist" so I'll just say if you're like me, gathering up all the great anime from the 80's, this should be on your list.