Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bill Hicks, The Angry Shepherd (12/16/61-2/26/94)

Photo courtesy of cashislindsey

Another comedian once said "Sometimes you just need someone to come up and just grab you and shake the bullshit out of you" in regards to the late Bill Hicks. I'm not sure anyone has done it better.

It's 15 years since Hicks died of pancreatic cancer and his material is still every bit as relevant today. His rants about Iraq were spot-on, including the one about the CIA having a fool-proof plan to get rid of Saddam Hussein. They just couldn't figure out a way to fly him to Dallas.

Hicks insisted on getting in your face and staying there, fancying himself as some sort of dark preacher. I'd love to hear Hicks' thoughts on spectacles like American Idol considering his rants on fevered egos and mediocre hacks.

It's amazing how when I put my iPod on shuffle, his bits seamlessly flow into the musical mix. Radiohead, among countless others influenced by Hicks, dedicated The Bends to him.

Even Jay Leno, who Hicks absolutely destroyed in a bit on Rant In E-Minor, still speaks fondly of him. And David Letterman finally made pennance by recently apologizing to Hicks' mother and playing a bit that had been censored in 1993 in 1, 2, 3 parts.

His discography starts with Dangerous and Relentless, but my personal favorite is Arizona Bay, including my favorite bit, Hooligans. Rant In E-Minor comes after Hicks knew he had been diagnosed with cancer and takes his final swipes at the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Jesse Helms and others. Flying Saucer Tour, Vol. 1 is a show he did Pittsburgh where he battles a lukewarm audience, half trying to coax them into laughter, half castigating them.

Then there's the issue of plagarist Denis Leary, who still wears the scarlet letter in the comic community for ripping off Hicks. When asked why he quit smoking, Hicks said "I just wanted to see if Denis would, too", adding later "I have a scoop for you. I stole his act. I camouflaged it with punchlines, and to really throw people off, I did it before he did."

Any fans of stand-up comedy should get familiar with Hicks. His death has left a massive void.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Champions League knockout round

Imagine the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament, except with North Carolina and UCLA drawing each other in the opening round. That's why I love the knockout round of the UEFA Champions League. Teams like Inter Milan and Manchester United can dominate their leagues with their superior resources. Now they're pitted against each other and it's who shows up to play on those two nights, one at each team's home pitch.

It starts up again tomorrow. Here's a quick capsule breakdown of the opening matchups:

Tuesday's matches
Manchester United at Inter Milan, 2:30 EST, ESPN2
- The defending champs and English Premiership leaders face the Serie A frontrunners. Both teams are likely to run away with their respective leagues as Inter is up 9 points and Man U is up 7. The Red Devils have standout defender Nemanja Vidic out due to suspension and several other defenders banged up.
Players to watch: For Inter, it's Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, moody as he is talented. He's deadly when he feels the urge but the knock on him is he disappears in big matches. Man U has reigning world footballer of the year Cristiano Ronaldo.
Juicy subplot: Former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho clashes once again with Sir Alex Ferguson.

Barcelona at Lyon, 5 EST, ESPN Classic - Lyon sits six points up in the French league while Barca hold an eight-point lead in La Liga. The Catalans have stampeded everyone but have sputtered lately without Spanish sparkplug Andres Iniesta.
Players to watch: French striker Karim Benzema will shortly head to a huge club for a lot of money. Big, fast and good with either foot. After Ronaldo, the next name usually mentioned for best player on the planet is mesmerizing Argentine Lionel Messi, Barcelona's La Pulga Atomica (atomic flea).
Juicy subplot: Lyon dominates the French league every year but can't translate it into Champions League success. If that continues, Benzema has hinted it will hasten his departure.

Roma at Arsenal - Roma has lost just once in its last six matches. Arsenal have been ravaged by injuries and are in danger of not finishing in the top four in England for the first time in a decade.
Players to watch: Roma has been much better since getting icon Francesco Totti back from injury. For shorthanded Arsenal, it's probably Robin van Persie by default.
Juicy subplot: Arsenal has standouts like Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky, Emmanuel Adebayor and Eduardo all injured. New addition Andrei Arshavin is cup tied and can't play. If the Gunners find a way past Roma and get some more weapons back, no one will want to play them.

Porto at Atletico Madrid - Porto won the Champs League a few years ago (yes, miracles happen) and is four points up on the Portuguese league. Atletico has struggled to seventh in La Liga.
Players to watch: Argentine midfielder Lucio Gonzalez, or El Comandante, runs the show for Porto. Another Argentine, Sergio Aguero, is only 20 but is one of many young Argentines around the planet that can turn games quickly.
Juicy subplot: You'd think this would have a rivalry feel with Spain vs. Portugal but most of Atletico's top players come from South America.

Wednesday's matches
Juventus at Chelsea, 2:30 EST, ESPN2
- Juventus, a couple years removed from Serie B and the match-fixing scandal, are second in Serie A. Chelsea, last year's finalist, are third in England and are a soap opera and soccer team all in one. Russian boss Guus Hiddink took over temporarily for Felipe Scolari last week.
Players to watch: For Juve, it's either keeper Gigi Buffon, long believed by some observers to be the best netminder on the planet; or resurgent Alessandro Del Piero, who has found the fountain of youth and provided a big spark. For Chelsea, it's Frank Lampard because Michael Essien is injured and Didier Drogba is pouting.
Juicy subplot: Which Chelsea team will show up? The Blues are ridiculously talented but are aging and without a good winger. If Hiddink can get them motivated, look out.

Liverpool at Real Madrid, 5 EST, ESPN Classic - The most successful club in Spanish history, or the Champs League for that matter, meets the most successful club in English history. Between them, the two storied sides have 14 Champs League titles and five runner-up finishes. Liverpool staged a stunning comeback, down 3-0 at halftime, to win on penalties over AC Milan in 2005 and lost the 2007 final. Madrid hasn't won since 2002 when Zinedine Zidane's miracle strike stopped Bayern Leverkusen in the galacticos days. Real has won nine straight in La Liga and allowed two total goals in that span. Both teams are second in their leagues.
Players to watch: If Steven Gerrard is hurt, then it's El Nino, or Liverpool's Spanish waterbug Fernando Torres. For Madrid, it's another young Argentine, midfielder Gonzalo Higuain, age 21.
Juicy subplot: Managers Rafa Benitez and Juande Ramos crossed swords in Spain earlier in their careers and Ramos already tweaked Benitez last week about the failed Robbie Keane experiment.

Panathinaikos at Villareal - Panathinaikos is second in the Greek league; Villareal is fourth in La Liga. Villareal made a surprise run to the semis in 2006.
Players to watch: I'm not familiar enough with Panathinaikos. Villareal boasts US-born striker Guiseppi Rossi, who opted to play for Italy internationally. Midfielder Marco Senna was an important part of Spain's European Championship.
Juicy subplot: The Greeks won their group. Both teams play in small but intimidating venues. Whoever wins this could easily bite one of the big boys.

Bayern Munich at Sporting Lisbon - Germany's most successful club won the Champs League in 2001 but has sputtered to fourth in the Bundesliga. Lisbon is third in Portugal.
Players to watch: Brazilian Liedson leads the Lisbon attack. French winger Franck Ribery can cause all sorts of havoc for Munich.
Juicy subplot: There's a bit of grumbling going on in Munich about coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Departing the Champs League early would only intensify that discontent.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fucked Up | Empty Bottle | Valentine’s Day

Photo courtesy of silverfuture

It’s odd that it’s taking a while to sink in.
Especially considering that Fucked Up, the critically acclaimed Toronto hardcore punk band, is about as subtle as a two-by-four to the skull.
My friend Rich and I caught the second of their two shows in Chicago, which is a light day’s work for a band that once played for 12 straight hours in store window. I’m not sure how much sucking up to the Mrs. was required by Rich afterward, but being single, I don’t have such concerns.
Smitten by the release of the highly-touted The Chemistry Of Common Life, I couldn’t resist seeing FU live. Both having various illness-related issues, Rich and I nearly didn’t make the trip but decided to get our senses pounded anyway.
The Empty Bottle looks like a bomb shelter. It also doubles as a pretty nice small club with good sound quality and we found a good spot in the back, dead center, to take in the show.
Like any band with some talent to come down the pipe recently, they have to resist strangulation by tentacles of media hype. FU has been hailed as saviors and throwbacks to the punk and hardcore scenes by various pundits.
I don’t feel any need to jump into that debate. What I do know is that there’s a huge void for an utterly ferocious rock act and I’d recommend Chemistry to anyone pissed off for any particular reason that needs to get it out of their system.
The bomb shelter probably felt spacious to FU. They notoriously played a song in a men’s bathroom for MTV Canada and music like this lends itself to volatile crowd reactions.
Which is why it was nice to have a clear view of the stage from behind the mosh pit. It would be impossible to duplicate the immense layering and production values of Chemistry live so the band compensated by playing like they had a contest chugging Red Bull before taking the stage.
Crooked Head, a 6-minute track on Chemistry, seemed like it finished in three. They almost played too fast, if that’s possible for a punk band (if you choose to call them that), but a hardcore band that starts its album with a flute solo clearly doesn’t give a frog’s fat ass what anyone thinks.
Upon first listening to Chemistry, lead singer Damien Abraham (i.e. Pink Eyes) has a voice that will put you off and make you think they’re just run-of-the-mill hardcore. The more I listen to FU, the more I realize that Abraham’s snarl is the perfect final ingredient and anything easier on the ears would fail to match the brute force the band plays with.
FU is tough to get a handle on but there's more than initially meets the ear. The guitar work is frenzied and addictive, but No Epiphany starts with a chorus of sirens.
Abraham certainly looks menacing enough but is rather playful live. Anyone who lets a fan pull down hits pants and punch him in the left ass cheek two songs into his set doesn’t take himself too seriously.
I’m guessing band members must really enjoy seeing the hairy crack of Abraham, whose inability to keep his shirt on is matched only by his inability to keep his pants up, on a nightly basis while touring. Evidently his gut doubles as a stage prop, with various fans either poking him in the belly or using it for bongos.
He routinely shares the mic with the crowd and is prone to strolls in the crowd. Meanwhile, the guitars and rhythm section relentlessly pour it on.
The Pixies and the White Stripes are the only other bands I think of that whip through live sets in such a quick fashion. FU capped the night with their venomous Baiting The Public.
(Note to mosh pit jumpers: Along the lines of not biting the hands that feed you, it’s probably a good idea to avoid punching people in the face before jumping off the stage. Fellow fans will be more inclined to catch you.)
Clearly, FU is happy to skip along on its rampage. They'll leave sorting out the collateral damage to everyone else.
Various issues had us missing most of AV Murderer. The opening act, Boystown, had a great sound ruined by one guy that can’t sing and Rich agreed with my opinion, but it wasn’t unanimous:
Me: That guy in the red can’t sing.
Fellow fan: He’s a good friend of mine. I like the way he sings.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Dos y cero: More Mexican Misery

photo courtesy of Bill Vieth/

Here's a recap of my recent trip to Columbus, OH to watch the US national soccer team defeat Mexico in World Cup soccer:

6 p.m. CST
- Bill becomes the early leader for trip MVP by borrowing an I-Pass from a work colleague and packing a cooler of snacks and drinks from his work place. Turns out his iPhone charger also works for my iPod.

7 p.m. CST - We pick up Tom St., who has his camouflage gear and combat boots with him. That's the difference between Tom St., a two-time Cold War vet, and myself, a mere Columbus vet from 2007.

9 p.m. CST - Between the I-Pass and midweek night traffic, we whip through Chicago with stunning ease.

9:35 CST - Upon entering the Skyway Tollway, it's not open-road tolling like most Illinois toll gates. This does not dawn on me until I nearly break a toll gate. My anti-lock brakes are my only saving grace. Bill and Tom St. fear for their lives and won't be sleeping in the car any time soon.

Sometime after midnight EST
- Between the lack of night traffic and the 70 mph limit in Indiana, we quickly reach the Indianapolis bypass. It's time for a pit stop, only to find myself with loss-of-balance issues upon leaving the car. Tom St. and I both are sick and I appear to have sinus-related issues. Bill takes over behind the wheel, probably to the relief of Tom St..

Just before 2 a.m. - Going nearly 80 through Indiana puts the fuel light on. Bill tries the next exit in Sunman, a one-stop-sign town with a gas station that is closed. The next exit has an open gas station and we breathe another sigh of relief as we wonder why we didn't just fill up in Indy.

Between 2:30 and 3 a.m. - We take the scenic route but eventually arrive at the house of my friend Tim, who volunteered to put us up at his house in Cincy. He also stayed up to take care of work stuff and greet us as well. A round of NyQuil shots puts everyone out quickly.

Later that morning - Coffee, OJ, and Krispy Kremes await us. One of the benefits of having a sister that's a nurse is that a diagnosis is always a phone call away. I get drugs at Walgreen's and we stop for food, OJ, a parka for Bill and ....Jo Ann's Fabrics. Why? I joked with friends that we should get soccer cards like the officials have, except throw in a green card for our Mexican friends. I watch in horror as Tom St. and Bill decide to make these poster-sized. I come to terms with the idea that if you're going to rub someone's nose in it, there's no sense being bashful about it. You've already crossed the line.

3 p.m. EST - We stop for gas and the skies look forboding. We also see a couple Mexican soccer fans but don't realize that's forboding at the same time. The good news is the drugs have taken effect and I've regained my bearings after being wobbly.

Shortly before 4 - We get to the parking lot and there are Mexican fans....everywhere. We decide to walk to the front gate looking for merchandise in the rain and walk past Mexican fans unfurling a huge flag. I start our chorus of 'dos y cero', the scores of the last two US-Mexico matches as well as the score when we knocked them out in the 2002 World Cup in Korea. My 6-foot-6 frame means the Mexicans respond with little more than dirty looks and the incessant blowing of horns.

4:30 EST - On the way back to the car, we find a building on the state fair grounds with a huge canopy and get out of the rain. It looks to be a good spot to spray glue the colored yellow, green and red poster boards to the thicker backing. Two Mexican fans walk by and their expressions turn sour when it dawns on them what the green is for.

5:20 - The wind shifts and despite eight feet of cover under the canopy, we nearly get wet. There's nothing but pure precipitation everywhere in the sky. It looks like a hornet's nest. Turns out it was a tornado watch. Fortunately, it passes as quickly as it comes on.

6 - It dries up. Seems like a good time to head for the gate.

6:20 - I hold the cards while Tom St. and Bill shop for merchandise. A Mexican fan ask what the big posters are for, which are turned with the white backs outside to the viewing public for now. I respond only with a huge smile.

6:55 - After just telling Flatlander by phone that it was wet and nasty earlier but it appears just dry and windy now, the skies open up again. Once more, the storm quickly departs and dries up after the brief but intense dousing.

7:05 - The anthems are played. We're relieved to find that what looked to be a 90-10 Mexican crowd split from the parking lot appears to be more like 60-40 US, like four years ago. Guess we were just in the Mexican parking lot.

6th minute - US keeper Tim Howard is forced to make a huge foot save early. The Everton netminder once again puts goalkeeping at the bottom of the list of American worries. This would be the best chance the Mexicans, who shrivel in Crew Stadium, get on the attack.

22nd minute - Landon Donovan, the player Mexico despises more than any other, lines up a free kick at the far end from the corner we're sitting in. I see a US player in the wall and hope Donovan takes that opening. He does, but he barely misses wide.

34th minute - Nery Castillo, who has given the US fits in past, goes down injured. One less headache for the suspect American back four.

43rd minute - One of my friend Mario's unwritten rules of soccer, which is two headers in the penalty area almost always leads to a goal, comes to fruition. DaMarcus Beasley's corner is headed from the far post back to the crease by Donovan, where Oguchi Onyewu heads it on goal. Mexican sieve Oswaldo Sanchez can't control the shot and Michael Bradley slams the rebound into the roof of the net. We erupt as the goal comes at a back-breaking time, just before the half. Mexico counters quickly but it ends 1-0 at the break.

65th minute - Rafa Marquez was our pre-match pick to enable us to use our red and green cards and the Mexican captain makes me look prophetic. It wasn't a difficult pick. Marquez always snaps when playing the US and we just watched him get sent off playing for Barcelona two Sundays ago at The Highbury, Milwaukee's superb soccer bar in Bay View. This time, Marquez goes in late on Howard with studs to the knee, setting off a skirmish between the two squads. The Guatemalan official had been loathe to book anyone all game. But Marquez gets a straight red from him and Mexico is a man short the rest of the way. Marquez once again proves to be an over-the-hill liability and he will cost the Catalans, who are destroying the Spanish league, the Champions League if they play him. You heard it here first.

66th minute - Because it was at the far end, we're not sure it's a red card until we see Marquez jog off. Up go to poster-size red and green cards. We're estatic and we're the envy of our section, except for the Mexican fans behind us. Not only do they know that Marquez just sealed their fate but then they had to endure our little stunt on top of it.

88th minute - One of the reasons I enjoy taunting Mexican fans is what is going down right now. When the US beats them, I have never seen a more unsportsmanlike group of ....douchebags. I don't know any other way to put it. Because the ref won't card anyone, the Mexicans are taking as many cheap shots as possible. The fans are every bit as classy, throwing beers and whatever else they can on the pitch.

90th minute - Bradley seals his man-of-the-match performance with the brace, a knuckling shot from the top of the 18 that dips under Sanchez, who looks like an idiot on the play. Sanchez is famous for trying to kick an American player while he was celebrating his teammate's goal. Sub Jozy Altidore and Donovan take fouls on the play to set it up. We're in a screaming frenzy at this point and start chanting 'dos y cero' once more.

Post-match - Bradley could have been the MVP by defusing one Mexican attack after another, say nothing of pumping in both goals. His dad played the formation I expected, a 4-5-1 with Brian Ching up top while Clint Dempsey, Beasley and Donovan join the attack from the midfield. Sasha Klejstan, fresh off an impressive hat trick against Sweden, appeared a bit out of place as a holding midfielder alongside Bradley to buffer the back four. But Mexico was relatively punchless once again in Columbus as it would be a major shock if the US didn't make it to South Africa next year. No better way to start the journey.