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January 2009

All Over the Map
by Rob Grace
January 28, 2009

Let's begin this week with your humble scribe piloting a Suburban SUV full of 11-year-old boys (give or take on the age) the other Saturday afternoon for my son's birthday party. We were heading into the countryside for a game of airsoft gun wars. (If you don't know what airsoft guns are, hang on. I'll explain in a second.)

 

Pumped full of Dr Pepper and other sugar-infused product, the gang crammed into the vehicle laughing and talking about 5000 decibels above normal. It was if they had to scream every sentence.

 

"WHEN WE GET THERE, I'M GONNA PUT ON MY NEW AIRSOFT HOLSTER WITH MY WALTHER PPK AND USE MY NEW PUMP SHOTGUN FOR MY OTHER WEAPON!" one said.

 

"HEY! CAN I SIT NEXT TO HUTTON??!!??" another asked.

 

And then I think I heard: "MR. GRACE, WHY IS YOUR HAIR SO WHITE??!!??" (Well, maybe I didn't hear that last one. I'm a little paranoid about the hair.)

 

So all these little men are stuffed into the vehicle yelling and laughing as I'm backing out of the driveway, and a CD is thrust into my hand.

 

"PUT THIS IN THE CD PLAYER! PUT THIS IN! IT'S AC/DC!" someone screamed.

 

The Suburban erupted in cheers.

 

"YEAH! WOO-HOO! PUT IT IN!"

 

"YEAH! AC/DC!"

 

"THEY ROCK! PUT IT IN THE PLAYER, MR. GRACE!"

 

I smiled, realizing I was about their age when I first heard AC/DC and went nuts about their music. It's cool when the music you grew up with is still relevant for your kids.

 

I put the CD in the player.

 

"WHOO-HOO!"

 

"AC/DC! YEAH! THEY ROCK!"

 

As the CD was getting ready, I switched the stereo to an area Southern Gospel radio station and cranked the volume.

 

"Here we go!" I said. "AC/DC! Yeah!"

 

An old hymn blared out of the speakers.

 

There was a slight pause as they tried to process what they were hearing.

 

Then: "NOOOO! NOOOO! THAT'S NOT AC/DC!!"

 

"WHAT IS THIS? THIS IS COUNTRY SOMETHING! YUCK!"

 

"PUT ON THE RIGHT CD, MR. GRACE!"

 

I feigned ignorance. "What? This isn't AC/DC? I thought this was AC/DC."

 

"NO! NO! THIS ISN'T AC/DC!"

 

"PUT ON THE RIGHT MUSIC, MR. GRACE!"

 

Finally, I switched to AC/DC, and the vehicle erupted in insane cheers.

 

"WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO-HOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! YES!!!!!!!!!!!!"

 

I looked in my rear view mirror, and all I could see were a bunch of little heads banging back and forth to the beat.

 

We pulled onto the street, windows down, AC/DC blasting out into the morning air, and headed down the road.

 

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with airsoft guns...

 

Airsoft guns shoot little round plastic pellets and are currently the rage with my son and his buds. The guns usually look exactly like a real firearm, but the barrels always have a bright orange tip to differentiate from their very real counterparts. The guns come in all models: shotguns, machine guns, pistols, etc.

 

Airsoft wars are when a bunch of guys get together, form teams, and well, play "war." As long as the participants are wearing some type of eye protection, the games are harmless since the pellets just bounce off the skin. It's like a little sting when you're hit, nothing more.

 

However, I can tell you one possible danger that can happen when you get these kids together with their weapons out in a remote location.

 

Someone driving by might mistake these little characters as mini terrorists in training.

 

Rob Grace is the president of W.R.D. Entertainment. Feel free to e-mail him at rgmax99@yahoo.com, and check out his blog: www.suburbanvoodoo.blogspot.com.

All Over the Map
by Rob Grace
January 21, 2009

Taking our daughter to school the other morning, I was listening to the John Boy & Billy Show on Classic Rock 93 KZLE. One of the folks who regularly appear on the show played some audio comments the vice chairman of General Motors, Bob Lutz, recently made at an auto show in Detroit.

Commenting in general about the state of the American auto industry, its importance to our economy and the sacrifices auto workers are making, the top GM exec. said the following to a public radio reporter:

"I've never quite been in this situation before of getting a massive pay cut, no bonus, no longer allowed to stay in decent hotels, no corporate airplane. I have to stand in line at the Northwest counter. I've never quite experienced this before. I'll let you know a year from now what it's like."

 

I don't mean to curse, but...damn. The dire situation facing not only GM, but also Ford and Dodge never really hit home to me until I heard those comments that morning. Tears welled up in my eyes when I realized the pure hell Lutz must be going through during this crisis in the auto industry. My vision blurred so much from my watery eyes that I had to pull over to the side of the road.

 

My daughter looked up to me. To her, I'm sure I looked quite the emotional mess.

 

"Daddy," she said tenderly. "What's wrong?"

 

I turned my head away from her.

 

"Sweetheart," I said, fighting back the tears. "America is struggling right now, particularly in the automobile industry. And that man you just heard on the radio...well, he works in the auto industry, and things are so bad..."

 

I gripped the steering wheel, hoping I could compose myself and complete my sentence.

 

"Sweetie, things are so bad that, instead of flying on a private corporate jet, that man now has to stand in line at the Northwest Airlines ticket counter!"

 

And with that, I could no longer hold my emotions: a river of sobs roared out of my body. Embarrassed, I turned away from my innocent little girl.

 

My daughter gently put her hand on my arm.

 

"It's okay, Daddy," she said. "Maybe he flies first class."

 

"Oh, for the love of..." I stopped, knowing that she is only 13. A 13-year-old girl doesn't yet know the emotional complexities an economic downturn could have on a highly paid automobile executive.

 

"Sweetheart," I said, composing myself. "Sweetheart, you're right. Maybe he does fly first class. Let's hope so. I would hate to think of Mr. Lutz having to sit in row 19, squeezed between a large woman from rural Kentucky on one side of him and a textile salesman with bad breath on the other. It's rough enough he has to stand in line!"

 

I wiped my eyes and patted my little girl's hand.

 

"But also remember, that instead of staying at a Four Seasons Hotel when he has to go to a business meeting in Beverly Hills, Mr. Lutz now probably has to stay at a Hyatt, or God forbid, a Hilton! And instead of being paid $10 million this year, he's probably only going take home $6 million -- give or take some incentives worked into his contract. I mean, how is his wife going to live knowing that they may have let go of Pedro, the illegal immigrant that takes care of feeding their ducks at their Palm Springs weekend mansion? I mean, something's going to have to give in the Lutz household!"

 

I started to weep again. My daughter reached over and held me.

 

"It's going to be okay, Daddy," she said. "We have a new president now, and lots of things are going to change for the better in this country. He's going to make sure there are lots of new jobs, and he's going to make sure our economy gets back on its feet. And, you know, when that happens, maybe Mr. Lutz will be able to go back to flying on his private jet and staying at the Four Seasons Hotel. You have to look at the glass half-full, Daddy."

 

I turned to this sweet little angel. Her big blue eyes were overflowing with hope and optimism.

 

"And...," I said, clearing my throat. "...and maybe Pedro can feed the ducks again at their Palm Springs weekend mansion?"

 

She nodded, then said: "As long as immigration officials don't apprehend Pedro and take him into federal custody beforehand."

 

Suddenly, I began to feel better. My eyes dried. My sniffles stopped. I smiled at my little girl.

 

And with that, I slowly pulled my car back onto the street and took her to school. Before she got out of the car, she leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.

 

"Bob Lutz is going to be okay," she said to me. "And so is America."

 

She shut the door and bounced up the steps of the school.

 

The hope of a child can overcome any pessimism, I thought as I drove away.

 

And I prayed that the next time Bob Lutz has to face the damned indignity of standing in line at a Northwest Airlines ticket counter, he will have a child-like optimism that things are going to be okay.

 

And soon, he'll be back on his private corporate jet, stretched out with a Scotch and water, realizing that the days of such sacrifice were now only a memory.

 

Rob Grace is the president of W.R.D. Entertainment. Feel free to e-mail him at rgmax99@yahoo.com, and check out his blog: www.suburbanvoodoo.blogspot.com.

All Over the Map
by Rob Grace
January 14, 2009



Lightning (Mike Sardina, left) and Thunder (Claire Sardina), subjects of the documentary Song Sung Blue. Photo copyright 2008 whatwaitproductions, LLC.

There's always been something appealingly quirky to me about Neil Diamond. I can't quite put my finger on it. There was an element of cheese in his mid-1970s look: open, big collared shirts; the scarves and sequins he sometimes wore; and, of course, that big hair that only Elvis probably envied. In fact, in his prime, Diamond was pegged as the "Jewish Elvis"

 

However, unlike Elvis, Diamond wrote (and still writes) most of his songs, and though the ones that veer into schmaltz make me want to drive off a cliff (prime examples: "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" and "Heartlight," a song about E.T. for heaven's sake!), the man has an impressive library of tunes that can still thrill a listener like me: "Sweet Caroline," "Cherry, Cherry," "Shilo," "I Am...I Said," and my personal fave, "Forever in Blue Jeans" Sure, they're pure pop -- ditties that quickly please and nothing more.

 

Mike Sardina would definitely disagree with my assessment of Diamond. Slightly trivializing Neil Diamond would likely be blasphemous in his book, somewhat akin to a person degrading Bruce Springsteen in my book. Sardina, a Vietnam veteran from Milwaukee and almost a mirror image of Diamond in both looks and sound, he supported himself through his musical talents, playing in bands around Milwaukee. His nickname was Lightning.

 

In the late 1980s, he met a pretty singer named Claire who could belt out Patsy Cline and ABBA covers like no other Mike had ever heard, and to top things off, there was some electricity immediately apparent between them. To state the obvious: Lightning struck and found his Thunder. That's the stage name Claire chose when the two decided to perform as a duo. And there they were: Lightning and Thunder (because, after all, lightning comes before thunder) performing at fairs, parties and clubs throughout Milwaukee and Chicago -- Mike channeling the spirit of Diamond in almost eerie replication, and Claire doing her ABBA and Cline material with a gusto that would impress the most jaded audience.

 

A few years later, a filmmaker named Greg Kohs came across Lightning and Thunder's act at, of all places, a Harley-Davidson event. Intrigued by the incredibly positive reaction of the crowd of bikers, Kohs decided to turn his video camera loose on the career of Lightning and Thunder as they paid their dues, lived their lives off the stage and raised Claire's sometimes rambunctious two kids from another marriage. It's captured all in Kohs' documentary, Song Sung Blue, which has been playing at film festivals across the country for the past few months.

 

The camera catches the homegrown celebrity status that envelops Mike and Claire in the early to mid-1990s, and in one glorious scene, we see the point when Lightning and Thunder play "Forever in Blue Jeans" in front of 30,000-plus people -- their biggest audience -- with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder on back-up vocals. Vedder had heard about the local celebrities when his band made a stop in Milwaukee and invited them onstage. It would've been the highlight of Lightning and Thunder's career.

 

Then...

 

Then one day tragedy hit. A runaway van slammed into Mike and Claire's house, pinning Claire against the porch, resulting in the partial amputation of her leg. Gigs came to a standstill during her recuperation. Painkillers, overdue bills and painful frustration accumulated. The potential of making a living off-stage for Lightning and Thunder came knocking at their door. And answering that door meant the abandonment of their passion and dreams in show business.

 

Song Sung Blue takes an agonizing look at the hard knocks Mike and Claire endure as their lives are drastically changed, not just by Claire's accident, but by other health issues, their crumbling finances, their strained relationship with the two kids and the disturbingly stubborn decision by Mike to pin all of their hopes on the unlikely resurrection of Lightning and Thunder.

 

The film is also a love story because even through the heartache and disillusionment, Lightning and Thunder still stand by each other as the years drag by. More surprises, both painful and joyous, reveal themselves through the film, and in an incredibly touching way, Vedder even figures back in their journey. The night Lightning and Thunder caught the attention of Kohs was a blessing. Emotionally raw and uncomfortable it may be at times, the ultimate joy of Song Sung Blue is witnessing the love these two have for each other on the rough path life takes them.

 

Unfortunately, viewing Song Sung Blue is somewhat of a tough thing these days. It doesn't have a theatrical or DVD distributor, meaning the only place you can likely catch it is at a film festival that is screening it. I found out about the movie by reading Roger Ebert's website where the critic gave it a favorable review and was puzzled why a distributor had yet to pick it up. I e-mailed Kohs, and he kindly loaned me a DVD of the film when I expressed interest in writing about the movie.

 

I'm hoping Song Sung Blue finds its way into theatres because there's no doubt the movie will touch many people. It's a film that belongs in the company of the great documentaries of the past ten or twenty years.

***

 

By the way, after Neil Diamond saw the film, he gladly allowed Kohs to utilize his music (as performed by Lightning and Thunder) in the movie.

 

For more information on the movie, upcoming screenings, film clips and Ebert's original review, go to www.songsungblueblog.com.

 

Rob Grace is the president of W.R.D. Entertainment. Feel free to e-mail him at rgmax99@yahoo.com, and check out his blog: www.suburbanvoodoo.blogspot.com.

 

All Over the Map
by Rob Grace
January 7, 2009

 

I have some advice for folks possibly thinking of heading to New York City for the 2009 holiday season: bring an electric cattle prod.

 

And, if you're planning on spending next New Year's Eve in Times Square, I also suggest you bring some Depends adult diapers.

 

I'll explain.

 

After spending a few days in Manhattan over the Christmas holidays, I can safely say that a cattle prod would be a highly effective -- though likely illegal -- method of trudging through the sardine-stuffed city sidewalks. I've been to NYC at all times of the year, but this was my first trip during the holiday season, and I've never seen the walkways so thick with people. One night I walked about 29 blocks, dangerously zig-zagging through the sidewalks at a rapid pace, praying I wouldn't run smack-dab into another pedestrian. But when I hit Times Square, it was nothing but a solid wall of people. Finding myself without a cattle prod, I decided to slip through the side streets and take the long way around to my hotel. It was a madhouse, and it wasn't even New Year's Eve.

Christmas Night, Times Square 2008.
Cell phone photo by yours truly.

Packed like lemmings into Times Square was not fun, and those folks brave (or foolish) enough to squeeze themselves into that area for the dropping of the ball each New Year's Eve are even more constricted. We left New York on December 30, and after talking to the bartender at our hotel late one night, it was a smart decision. Each New Year's Eve around 4 pm, he said, Times Square revelers begin crowding into a roughly twenty block radius around the ball. Once in that highly secured area, the NYPD won't let them back in if they leave for a moment -- so you're stuck until, literally, the next year. And guess what? Most people -- at least, most people I know -- usually have to use the bathroom within a six to eight hour span. And with many Times Square businesses extremely reluctant to allow a mess of drunken party people into their stores or restaurants, that leaves many folks with limited options.

 

That's where the Depends adult diapers come into the equation.

 

Yuck.

 

Our bartender swore this is true, and to top it off, many of the men forgo the diapers and simply...well...utilize the pavement when nature calls.

 

He said he can understand the appeal of people from all over the world wanting to celebrate New Year's Eve in Times Square at least once in their life. But anyone who does it twice, he said, is insane.

(From left) Our son, nephew, our daughter and my pop on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge on a foggy Saturday afternoon, December 27, 2008.

***

 

Last week, I noted that I'm an unapologetic irritating elitist cultural snob, and as such, I did take advantage of some cool (to me) films and exhibits in New York while there. I walked about 40 blocks to The Whitney Museum of American Art and caught an exhibit featuring the wonderful Memphis photographer, William Eggleston. Still rolling and going at 70 years old, Eggleston's pictures fascinate me. Whether it be a photo of a plate of ham and green beans, a pompadoured teenage bag boy pushing some shopping carts back into his grocery store, or two dazed young women seemingly consoling each other on a couch, Eggleston's eye catches seemingly mundane images and transforms them into rich, color-saturated memories that could have come from our own past. He personalizes his visual captures in a manner that is almost haunting.

 

Google his images sometime if you're unfamiliar with his work, or just find my thoughts regarding him on my blog at www.suburbanvoodoo.blogspot.com.

A blurry, cell phone pic of Radio City Music Hall,
December 29, 2008.

I also caught Mickey Rourke's comeback film, The Wrestler, and his performance will break your heart. Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, an aging ex-pro wrestler struggling to make ends meet by still sparring in wrestling battles in legion halls and rundown community centers across a decrepit New Jersey coast while working as a stocker in a grocery store. (Think Hulk Hogan with his celebrity long forgotten.) When a health scare after a particularly brutal match threatens what's left of his wrestling career, Ram has to face the ugly truth that his only home is in the ring. In order to live at peace in a world without wrestling, he attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter and begin a relationship with a stripper for whom he has fallen (played, wonderfully, by Marisa Tomei). It's easily the best film I saw in 2008, but there are still many from last year I've missed. I wanted to catch Clint Eastwood's new one, Gran Torino, and the Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet domestic drama, Revolutionary Road, but time was never found.

 

I didn't miss a chance, however, to see Che. The movie which follows the life of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara (as portrayed by Bencio Del Toro) will only be seen in its original five hour version (the length includes a thirty minute intermission) in New York until tomorrow. It will be released as two separate films later this month in markets across America. For a film geek, seeing this film on the big screen in its complete version (with a souvenir program, to boot) was a treat.

 

I'm certainly no fan of Guevara's politics, but by chronicling his leadership with the Castro brothers in the overthrow of the Cuban government and his failed attempt at bringing down the Bolivian government almost a decade later, Che director Steven Soderbergh (who brought us the Oceans 11 through 13 comedies, Erin Brockovich and Traffic) has created an anti-epic epic. His observing camera simply follows the preparations of Che and his guerillas as they hide in the jungles, carefully training and tackling each obstacle, and sucking in the viewer as each obstacle becomes more daunting as the particular missions (in Cuba and in Bolivia) progress. It really is involving filmmaking that presents the audience as witnesses to the first revolution and, ultimately, his almost comical failure in Bolivia -- where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

***

 

Back at home, I realized that one could compare the sidewalk crowds in NYC on the holidays to the traffic on Harrison St. in Batesville.

 

Now you know what I mean about wanting a cattle prod.

***

 

If you're interested, you can read all about my Big Apple journey (and see more pics) at my blog.

 

Rob Grace is the president of W.R.D. Entertainment. Feel free to e-mail him at rgmax99@yahoo.com, and check out his blog: www.suburbanvoodoo.blogspot.com.

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