International Affairs – In which PMAL ventures beyond the Great Wall….

This just in from the international desk: PAUL McCARTNEY: A LIFE will be published in China, sometime in the near-ish future.

This edition (in ‘simplified Chinese characters,’ which still doesn’t mean I’ll ever be able to read it) joins translations already coming in: Brazil, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands and I think one or two other places I can’t remember right now.

2009 Favorites: Dancing In the Dark of 80s Nostalgia

(Another episode in our 2009 rewind, this one about an evening spent rewinding to the 1980’s…)

The guy we’re going to call LeBon calls just after 9 p.m. and says he’s running late. A family engagement ran long, now he’s in his car looking for a place to park. Hassles upon hassles. You know the drill.

He appears a few minutes later, moving full-tilt down the sidewalk, headed for the door to the Crystal Ballroom, eyes gleaming.
“Let’s go, chief,” he calls out, and doesn’t break stride as he skips through the door and up the stairs toward Lola’s, the dance hall on the second floor. He flashes his VIP card at the bouncer, is rewarded with a stamp on his wrist, and makes for the bar and a cold pint of beer. It’s still early, the crowd is thin, but he takes a gulp and looks extremely pleased.

“This,” LeBon declares, “is the place.”

If you know LeBon, and maybe you do, you’ve heard about Fridays at Lola’s. That’s the night the club devotes to the ” ’80s Video Dance Attack!,” a party for anyone who wants to groove to the sound and video wallpaper from MTV’s most golden era.

Madonna, Prince, Talking Heads, Whitney Houston, the Go-Go’s, the Human League, Michael Jackson and more. Big, echoing beats. Gel-sculpted hair and absurdly padded shoulders.

It sounds ridiculous. But it was an interesting decade, to say the least, and if you happened to be young then, it all made a kind of sense. Some of it really wasn’t bad, and some of it was actually quite good. For instance, the VJ/DJ behind the music and video selection turns up “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads, and the cinema-sized screen fills with the image of David Byrne; all wide-open eyes and oversized suit, yammering about being behind the wheel of a large automobile and having no idea how he got there, let alone where he’s going.

LeBon drains his beer and makes for the dance floor. He’s a big guy, an ex-football player a few years beyond his last two-a-day practice. But he’s light on his feet and dives right into the rolling beat with athletic grace.

You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife . . .

(Hit Read More in order to, well, what do you think?)

Funny how the passage of time changes the meaning of a song. LeBon is married now with kids in school, Little League baseball and spring soccer, too. Factor in his career in the federal government, his lawyer wife starting her own business and the ongoing basement-to-attic remodel of their house. Suddenly “Once in a Lifetime” sounds less abstract than it once did. Less nightmarish, too.

Letting the days go by/ letting the water hold me down . . .

Then the music gets lighter and sillier. Wang Chung popping around the screen, the singer looking oddly furrowed and concerned even as he urges the world to have fun and also to Wang Chung; then Modern English, then Michael Jackson (back when he looked happy and recognizably human) and Whitney Houston (same deal) and then Madonna, still looking naughty and prankish as she proclaims herself a Material Girl.

Now the dance floor is packed, and the temperature rises to sweat-factory level. Faces in the crowd trend toward the 30s and 40s, but a surprising number of young folks are here, too. One or two dress in vintage gear –spaghetti straps, leg warmers, “Miami Vice” pastels –but that seems like overkill. This isn’t a costume party. It’s not the least bit ironic. LeBon has been on the floor for more than hour, and his cheeks are aglow, his shirt open and darkening with his efforts.

Everyone has their way of reconnecting with the person that lives inside them. There’s yoga and meditation, running, golf and rock climbing. Some have their book clubs, others manage fantasy baseball teams or cultivate gardens.

But for LeBon and everyone else here, it’s this journey into the past. Call it nostalgia, call it a goof, call it straight-up goofy. But nothing’s about this is silly for LeBon. It’s not in the clothes, or the glossy videos or the frantic need to Wang Chung. It’s somewhere deeper than that, in the echoes of long-ago freedom and discovery; of the time in your life when the world seemed loud, shiny and weightless.

Same as it ever was? Not even. But for an evening, at least, it can almost feel like it.

2009 Favorites: Life, Death and College Revisited

(This week we’re posting some faves from the last 12 months. This was published in The Oregonian in June, a recounting of a long weekend in central Oregon with my surviving college housemates)

The last time the four of us were together there were five of us.

That was more than 20 years ago. Charlie was an oarsman from Colorado, Mike had played football at the same Seattle high school I’d come from, Dusty was a theater major from Oakland, and Todd, out of suburban Los Gatos, Calif., edited the school newspaper. We were a varied bunch, but for a few years in the mid-’80s we all orbited around one dumpy prefab house on Southwest Terwilliger Boulevard.

We ate in the kitchen, drank beer and watched “Hill Street Blues” in the living room, and cranked Little Feat loud enough to be heard down the block. None of that had happened before, not to us, anyway. And now that it was, you couldn’t imagine wanting it to change.

It did anyway. Graduate school and first jobs. Serious girlfriends and wives. New jobs in new cities. Then wives and kids. Divorce, new girlfriends and new wives. Friendship and estrangement; life and, inevitably, death.

We drifted in and out of touch, then suddenly a couple of decades had passed and we decided to get together. It took months to plan –the requirements of work, kids, wives –but then it happened. Todd flew in from Michigan. He and I drove out to Hood River to pick up Mike, and we loaded the bikes onto his car and drove to Black Butte in central Oregon. Dusty drove up from Lake Tahoe and then we were at the same table, drinking beer and laughing like no time had passed and nothing had ever changed.

This is what people do. You keep these magical thoughts in your head, this belief that somewhere in the world your own past continues to exist; that it’s just a matter of being in the right place, surrounded by the right faces. And then everything else will fade away and the younger you will re-emerge, smiling, to take his place in the sunlight.

So this is how we planned it. Four of us alone together in central Oregon, with the sun-baked wilderness at our feet; with grown-up responsibilities out of  sight and nothing but the clear sky looming above us.

Hours in the morning to drink coffee, old stories to retell, memories that hadn’t been dislodged since they weren’t even memories, as much as stuff that had just happened.

After a while we put on our boots and hiked to the top of Black Butte, talking about the sunny autumn of 1983, when we loaded up our books and records and set our collegiate minds to playing house. It was all fun and games then: the first boozy trip to the grocery store, when Charlie hurled the spice jars high into the air from 100 feet away, daring me to let one crash to the floor; the family-style dinners; the wild midnight basketball games at the school across the street.

Up on top of Black Butte that morning we were those guys again. Later, we had beers with lunch, then drifted off to the pool to lounge in the golden light of an unseasonably hot afternoon.

It was all perfect, except for the empty chair where Charlie might have been. Except that he died of cancer in 2003. And he’d kept himself distant for much of the 15 years before then, anyway.

(grab a beer and hit the Read More button to, you know, read more…)

When the light faded we drove off to Sisters to get dinner, and this was where the world started to intrude. Waiting for a table near the bar of a pub, we had to fend off an aggressive tout trying to hit us up to pay an unposted cover charge for a band we had no intention of listening to; then another customer swooped in on the just-vacated table the waitress had told us to wait for. “Oh, you’ve been waiting,” he snarled, his eyes hard and his chest, if not his fists, thrust out.

It was a small cloud, but somehow the world seemed chillier than it had before. Now it was easier to remember the raised voices and slammed doors; the icy floors in wintertime and the bitter feuds that always seemed to coincide with the approach of finals.

Twenty-five years later we could keep most of that out of our minds. We rode our bikes. We traded family pictures and caught up on career moves and tales of ex-spouses and their new spouses. Then cell phones started ringing. One of my kids had a slight concussion; Dusty’s wife was facing an even more unsettling health crisis. Then our time together was dwindling, and we hadn’t talked about Charlie yet.

He’d been the first to leave. The first to settle down with a girlfriend and the first to dedicate himself to a career. He was the first to get seriously ill and then the first to die. Which was all the more difficult to internalize, given that he’d stopped returning our calls a decade earlier. Not because there had been a feud or hard feelings. Charlie had turned the page, and he wasn’t the sort of guy who would, or could, look back.

We didn’t talk about any of that. We did talk about how young we looked; how lucky we were, because time had more or less kept its mitts off of us, and who could say when that was going to change?

Then the man eating breakfast just across from us slumped to the floor. It happened that suddenly. One minute the 60-ish guy in the camouflage trucker’s cap and checked button-up shirt was eating his eggs like the rest of us. Then he was on the floor, not breathing.

Someone started CPR. The waitress dialed 9-1-1. I pushed a table out of the way and stood back, feeling helpless as the minutes crept by. Finally, a siren wailed closer, and an ambulance discharged three paramedics, who hooked the man up to machines, then rolled him onto a board and hefted him quickly onto the gurney. Then they skidded off. We paid our bill and walked out into the high desert sunshine.

The mountains were still sparkling in the distance. We still had another day to spend together. We still didn’t talk about Charlie, but now we didn’t have to. We knew we’d be catching up with him soon enough.

Tiger Woods Lets the Media Play Through

The first thing we need to think about when we think about the media’s coverage of the Tiger Woods sex scandal is the speech Yahoo chief executive Carol Bartz made to the UBS Media Conference on Tuesday.

“God bless Tiger,” Bartz said, going on to declare that public curiosity about the golfer’s private life will “absolutely” help her website make its target numbers for readers, advertiser money and profits for the year.

The story, she continued, is “better than Michael Jackson dying.” If only because “it’s hard to put an ad up next to a funeral.”

“We build people up just to rip them apart,” said Dr. Lee Wilkins, who teaches media ethics in the University of Missouri’s journalism school. “It’s pretty grotesque when you think about it.”

Particularly when you consider how a juicy celebrity scandal can overwhelm the coverage of serious, even important, news stories. “It’s what we call a story on a stick,” she continued: the kind of story a reporter can report on Google, or in the crowd camped out near Woods’s house. “But it’s not enterprise journalism. And there’s nothing new here.”

Which is part of why the story about the story about Tiger Woods is so compelling. Because this tabloid mud-fest is actually just another facet of the heroic tales he has inspired for so much of his brief, yet perpetually examined, life.

Bartz, as it turns out, is only the latest in a long line of observers who can’t resist treating  Eldrick “Tiger” Woods as a living abstraction. More than a man, more than the vast majority of professional athletes, he has become a projection: The embodiment of all the dreams, fantasies and fears we have for ourselves.

It’s virtually the only life Woods has ever had. Which may be why he has been so successful at using his own media persona as a combination shield, power source and marketing device. Just as he does on the golf course, he’s played all the angles, breezes, hills and hazards to his own advantage. The only trap he never anticipated was how his own ability to focus on himself could work against him. And once it did, how quickly the media narrative can pivot from unquestioning adulation to unrelenting contempt.

(follow the jump for more…)

It has always out there, just beyond the edge of the glorious vision the young African-Asian-American cut on the golf course. As a 15-year-old amateur in 1991 he was already attracting national attention, such as the column that appeared in the Miami Herald on Christmas day that year, in the midst of a junior tournament Woods was playing in.

“The country’s best junior golfer,” wrote Robert Lohrer, “confident enough to be mistaken as arrogant, creative enough with a golf club to be described as a genius.” 

A genius. At 15. Just six years later the writer Marino Parascenzo scoffed at the young golfer’s decision to trade the remaining two years of his college eligibility for professional status. “Tiger Woods, black kid and genius golfer was getting stale as both a story and a sale,” he wrote. So dismiss all that talk of how three straight amateur championships
left him with nothing else to prove on the sub-professional level. “It was the money.” 

As tempting as it is to get bogged down in Parascenzo’s choice of “black kid” as an identifier, let’s move on to the “genius” part, and acknowledge how often that word has been used to describe Woods. It finds its way into nearly every profile and news story, including the headline of a 2000 Washington Post story (“A Stroke of Pure Genius”) about the angst of golfers who couldn’t compete with the young champion. Nine years later Sports Illustrated’s Selena Roberts declared” there is no arguing his genius,” even as she tried to figure out why the 33-year-old seemed stalled at 14 majors titles. Which, she had to admit, was an awful lot of majors titles for a 33-year-old to have won.

What no one seemed to acknowledge was that genius — or the intense confidence, focus and self-control that allows a person to be that successful that much of the time — also indicates the existence of less appealing traits. As Esquire’s Charles Pierce revealed in an unvarnished profile in 1997, the still-college-aged athlete could be as rude and profane as a fraternity brother. And regal, too – when Woods noticed Pierce writing down the sex joke he had just told he ordered the reporter to take it off the record. Pierce refused (“Too late,” he snapped back) but the story did nothing to halt Woods’s rise as a corporate pitchman, to say nothing of his performance on the world’s golf courses.

Or maybe Woods’s audience secretly appreciated the crack in his relentlessly perfect public face. Because sports stories, as with all tales of otherworldly abilities and achievements, are all about human possibility. And if there’s one thing humans have in common it’s that we’re all flawed creatures. Thus, no idol gets to triumph forever, if only because that would undermine their fans’s sense of connection; that thrilling sense that the hero’s victories are also ours, because they lived, breathed and failed like everyone else.  

So while golf reporters spent years either looking the other way or simply not reporting Woods’s rather active extra-marital life, their erring on the side of privacy (or secrecy, depending on your perspective) also served to heighten the impact of the eventual, possibly inevitable, eruption.

As it turned out Woods’s genius — that freakish ability to remain focused and confident even when the weather turned ugly and antagonists breathed down his neck — was also his weakness. He was too self-involved to ignore his own appetites, and too confident in his self-control to imagine any game blowing up in his face. He was the genius; the golden child. Doesn’t he always win when it counts? 

Not all the time.  


If only because he’s not hitting a ball now. He IS the ball.

Woods has spent so much time creating and tending to his public image he didn’t notice that he had also made himself into a living alter-ego for a vast and quirky audience of fans and viewers. It’s a whole new game, with angles and traps he never imagined encountering. But he’s in the middle of it now. The cameras are on, the whole world’s watching.

And while his fans don’t want him to lose, exactly, they won’t be heartbroken, either. Genius golfers don’t come around every day. But heroes do.

Music of the Moment: Brian Wilson and the Avett Brothers

I spent too many years neck-deep in the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, both for professional purposes (maybe 10 percent of the time) and weird personal ones (the other 90). You already know what you know about the music itself, the harmonies and the lush instrumentation, etc. etc. I was walking the dog the other day with this newish Purple Chick bootleg of “Smile,” pulling together as much original ’66-’67 ‘Smile’ tracks, with an emphasis on the original vocals (one or two of which I’d never heard before, e.g. Brian’s original vocal on “Child is the Father to the Man”) and what sounds like (am I dreaming?) a Dennis Wilson vocal on an original verse or two of the “Roll Plymouth Rock” verses. (beaded cheering Indians behind them….) Check it out, it’s a free download right here. Some parts of this re-imagining grate on me just a bit (the random puzzle work in the third movement, with the “wind chimes” bits) but it got me going again on “Smile,” and then into the late ’60s BW and BB stuff, right up to the sizzling medley of “Wonderful” and “Don’t Worry Bill” from ’72 (Carnegie Hall, I think), which made me yearn again for the artsy days. Ah, gee.

Only now I’m also listening to this new album by the Avett Brothers, “I and Love and You,” which a colleague hipped me to a couple of weeks back. And so I’ve got it on the band’s website player (right here) and as Brian is my witness I’ll run off to Music Millennium before the day is done and have the actual product right here and into my iTunes. It feels lovely right now, sweet and heartbroken and full of imagination and off-kilter images and ideas. Raw and beautiful, understated and right on.

So it’s a good morning so far, with a lot of work ahead and some cool new music to contemplate while I do it all. Writing at its best is an out of body, other-worldly experience….losing your shell and drifting off somewhere else. These Avett boys did it on this new album, just as Brian and Van Dyke did it on “Smile.” Everyone in their own way, to their own end.