Friday, June 29, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Greetings from Orlando! I think the Go Go's pretty much say all that needs to be said today.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Bobby Bare.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday Night Videos

My summer vacation is about to start, right as my boss' vacation is coming to an end. He's spent the past two weeks road tripping around the Gulf Coast and Deep South, spending several days in the Big Easy. So this Bobby Bare classic goes out to him.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Beach Boys.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Prometheus wears no clothes

This is not another deconstruction/takedown/rant about the movie Prometheus. There are folks far more studied in film and subtext and metaphor out there than I who are doing that far better than I could hope. But I do think there is a big element missing in the analysis.

I'll admit I was hopeful for Prometheus because I do like Ridley Scott as a director very much. I rank Kingdom of Heaven very highly, even if few other people seem to share my love. But I grew very, very wary when I learned Damon Lindelof wrote the script--of the final version of the script, at any rate. See, way back when, I watched the first six episodes of LOST like everyone else on the planet, then got up and walked away, warning The Wife and my brother, "They have no idea where this is going." I kept up with the show, sure. How could I not? I watched about a dozen episodes of each of the following season (The Wife and my brother kept watching, religiously) and saw a pattern emerge: As soon as the characters came close to solving one Major Mystery, another LARGER mystery suddenly appeared, supplanting the former (which was generally ignored from that point on with no resolution). I read the interviews early on where Lindelof boldly declared that viewers better watch out, because in upcoming episodes the main characters would walk into the jungle with, essentially, "Red Shirts" but only the Red Shirts would make it out alive! Which, essentially turned out to be a pie crust promise--easily made, easily broken. A pattern repeated when, in the middle of season 4 (my dates may be off a little, so forgive any inaccuracies) they made a much-ballyhooed announcement that LOST secured a deal to end with season 6, which, Lindelof said, gave the writing staff all the time they needed to wrap up all the plot threads and answer the questions they'd been tormenting fans with. Of course, when the finale aired and fan backlash mounted because Lost had answered almost none of the grand questions posed, Lindelof held up his hands and said they simply hadn't had enough time to get to that stuff. Translation: He had no idea where all this was going.

So it's no surprise that he's trotting out the same non-resolution, non-thinking, non-answers again with Prometheus and defending it as deep and philosophical. I suspect it is actually because Lindelof is psychologically incapable of telling a story with a beginning, middle and end. Seriously. I didn't believe it myself until last week when I heard him give an interview on NPR and this particularly stunning anecdote came out:

"When I was a kid there were these books called the Encyclopedia Brown Mysteries. Essentially it was a boy detective who worked out of his garage, and the boys in the neighborhood would come and say, 'Hey, my bike got stolen, my piggy bank got broken into, will you solve the case, Encyclopedia Brown?' It would be about a five- or six-page story, and there would be some sort of clue in there that gave away the answer. And then you would flip to the back of the book and see if you were right. I would read the story and immediately flip to the back of the book even if I hadn't guessed it, and my dad saw me doing this and he ripped out the answers on all my Encyclopedia Brown books. So I would go to him and I'd say, 'OK, I solved the case, I think that I know what it is now.' And he'd go, 'Oh I threw those away.' ... I guess I could've walked into any bookstore and just pulled another copy off the shelf, but that was less interesting to me than basically sitting with my own theory."
Lindelof presented it as a sort of revelatory creative epiphany. I saw it as a case of a grade-A asshole of a father traumatizing a child (something I sadly recognize all too well), who then rationalizes a horrible experience as a positive one (ditto there, too). Of course, your mileage may vary.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 21

Back in December I set for myself a June 1 deadline to get this Chicken Ranch book completed. It was an arbitrary deadline, but a necessary one considering I'd spent nearly three years of my life working on it at that point. Suffice to say, I didn't hit my target. I'm not much farther along today than when I posted my last writing update almost a month ago. This chapter is proving to be exceptionally difficult.

Part of the problem is summer vacation. The kids are out of school, and the family's routines are in upheaval. That makes dedicated writing time kind of wobbly for me. We're also traveling more, which puts a serious damper on my writing--I'm not someone who is just as productive on the road as at home, although I do manage a trickle of output. The day job and other life issues have proven quite demanding of late as well, making it hard to martial the functioning brain cells required to write coherently. In truth, though, while those issues slowed my progress, this chapter itself--the actual closing of the Chicken Ranch--is to blame in large part for my snail's place. There is a lot of material to convey. At the basic level, there are dozens of newspaper articles covering a five-day span, plus several extensive magazine articles that came after the fact. There are the first-person interviews I conducted, letters, DPS reports and other bits and pieces I've picked up along the way. It's all very fascinating, and none of the accounts agree. It's like playing a giant four-dimensional game of Tetris with pieces that constantly change shape.

For example, not one primary source actually pins a date on Marvin Zindler's first news report that "exposed" the brothels operating openly in Austin and Fayette Counties. The closest I've found mentions "the last week of July" but that "last week" in 1973 consisted of just Monday and Tuesday, almost too short a span for all the events to happen. But the previous Monday is too long a time, and there are issues with other dates as well. People involved remember different meetings and different encounters happening at conflicting times. Also, Governor Dolph Briscoe and other folks long insisted he was blindsided by Zindler. Some of Briscoe's aids, and Zindler himself, indicate Briscoe was briefed in advance and knew what to expect during the interview. What's the truth? Nearly 40 years on, it's well nigh impossible to say with any certainty. To complicate matters still further, certain folks who with an inflated sense of self-importance have gone online and added their own accounts (which they believe to be the Gospel truth) that only serve to muddy the waters still further. If anyone out there is looking to do research on the Chicken Ranch, avoid Wikipedia at all costs. The Handbook of Texas Online isn't entirely accurate, but heaven help us, it's infinitely less wrong than most other sources out there.

Here's another example of the headwinds I'm flying against: Marvin Zindler commissioned three biographies/memoirs on himself over the years. Of the three, two pages is the most any single one devotes to the broadcasts and closure of the brothels. There's plenty of talk about the buildup and aftermath, but Zindler's actual series of exposes? Practically nothing. Well, mine won't consist of practically nothing--I'm up to 30 pages on this chapter, and still going strong. Here's a sample of where we are:

In the end, Governor Briscoe called a war room meeting with his top staff as well as Attorney General John Hill and DPS Director Colonel Wilson Spier for the following Tuesday. Late in the day, Attorney General Hill happened by the office of the governor’s press secretary, Robert L. Hardesty, and stuck his head in the doorway.

“What's this meeting all about?” Hill asked, suspicious.

“The Chicken Ranch,” Hardesty replied simply.

“If Dolph thinks I'm going to touch that tar baby,” the attorney general scoffed, “he's sadly mistaken.”

Colonel Spier proved equally reluctant to take on the Chicken Ranch, although he chose more measured words than Hill when Houston media cornered him about the scheduled meeting with the governor.

“We’ve been trying to see if there is any connection with organized crime,” Colonel Spier explained carefully. “I envision an exchange of information on the subject, but I don’t know exactly what shape the meeting will take.”

Clearly, Texas’ top law enforcers were chomping at the bit to eradicate prostitution from the rural areas of the state.
Fingers are crossed that I can get this chapter put to bed in the next couple of days. After that, I'll have just two chapters left to knock out, both of which should be comparatively short and straightforward to write. At least, that's what I keep telling myself...

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas!

In all the time I've been working on my book about the Chicken Ranch, I've never talked much about The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Or rather, I haven't written much about it online, because in truth, I've been asked about it plenty. Usually the questions fall into a predictable range, mostly variations on, "Did the madam really look like Dolly Parton?" The answer, for you curious folk, is no, she did not look anything at all like Dolly Parton. More than a few people seem to assume the majority of my book is devoted to that movie, and they ask if I've interviewed Burt Reynolds or excitedly point out that the house used in the movie is actually in Pflugerville, and that a replica was built on the Universal Studios back lot out in Hollywood. Which is all find and dandy, except that The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas--the Broadway play and motion picture combined--account for a little over one half of one chapter in the book (chapter 13, if you're keeping track at home. I hope to start writing on that next week, if all goes well).

The reason I devote so few pages to BLWIT in the book is simple: It's mostly irrelevant. At least in a direct sense. If it weren't for the success of the play and movie, the Chicken Ranch would've faded into obscurity long ago, so in that sense the productions are important and very much a part of the overall story. But relevant to the events that happened in 1973 and before? Not hardly.

Even so, I was particularly excited about going to Houston this past weekend, in part, to catch the Theatre Under the Stars production of BLWIT at the Hobby Center. I have to confess here, folks, that although I own the Burt and Dolly movie on DVD, the movie soundtrack and the original Broadway cast recording on CD, plus the Samuel French stage script as well as Larry L. King's The Whorehouse Papers, I'd never actually seen the thing live prior to Saturday. Even though I know the material backwards and forwards, I have to say it was a treat to see it performed live.

For those of you only familiar with the movie version, be aware that the play differs substantially. First of all, the romance between the sheriff and madam that is such a huge focus of the movie doesn't exist onstage. There are hints, and a poignant moment toward the end, but don't expect anyone to start singing "Sneaking Around," an embarrassingly bad number that's thankfully restricted to the movie. Instead, the play gives the audience subplots involving Amber and Shy, two new arrivals at the Chicken Ranch, who serve as the audience surrogates as we're introduced to this little country whorehouse and the various characters connected to it. The play focuses heavily on the hypocrisy at work as the brothel is attacked by moral crusaders, whilst other more crass forms of vice and sexual exploitation are allowed to flourish across the state. The "Aggie Angelettes" sequence--more a direct shot at the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders or Kilgore Rangerettes than any pep squad that ever existed at Texas A&M--comes off as bizarre and almost out of place until viewed as part of a thematic whole. Then it seems perfectly logical.

The play, see, is not about the Chicken Ranch, or the actual closing of the brothel, although that provides the skeleton supporting the play. Rather, BLWIT is about the people involved there, from the women who work in the brothel, the madam Miss Mona, Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd who protects it, the mayor and townsfolk who are happy enough to support the brothel until media scrutiny turns their way, and the politicians who are happy enough to patronize the brothel one day while condemning it as a moral outrage the next. The narrative serves to present the audience with a series of musical vignettes that are essentially character studies, fleshing out these various types and giving them the illusion of depth and history and dreams even as they unknowingly speed toward an unexpected media circus and everything comes crashing down. For a musical comedy--and the play is incredibly funny--the ending is unmistakeably bittersweet, and several poignant moments between the laughs remind the audience (sometimes uncomfortably) that none of the whores are in their particular profession by choice. At best, the Chicken Ranch represents the lesser of a host of many evils.

From what I know, the TUTS production tracked fairly close to the original Broadway production, although there were enough tweaks and creative arrangements within scenes to keep the show fresh. Several references to the "blue water" of Galveston drew sustained laughter from the Houston audience, as does the Governor when he outlines three things he'll do to shut down the Chicken Ranch en route to an "oops" moment (most of the audience guffawed at the gag, although there were several pockets of offended silence). A live country band, Six Easy Pieces, took the place of the Rio Grand Band from Broadway and kept the music bouncing along nimbly (Lisa Pederson's fiddling on "Orange Blossom Special" prior to the start of the show was a particular treat).

Onstage, Michelle DeJean cut a powerful figure in the role of Miss Mona. Carlin Glynn may have originated the role and won a Tony for it, but DeJean clearly has the stronger singing voice. She projected the necessary hard edge required to be a convincing madam, but at the same time held a certain vulnerability in reserve. The "prostitute with a heart of gold" is a terrible cliche and that holds true for Miss Edna and the Chicken Ranch. Miss Edna was always a businesswoman first, and learned early on not to be suckered by sob stories. At the same time, she knew first hand how hard the life of a prostitute was, so had a great deal of compassion for the women who worked for her. I'm not saying DeJean channeled Miss Edna, but she did bring strength to the character of Miss Mona and kept it from slipping into wholesale cliche (she's also a closer physical match to Miss Edna that Dolly Parton--particularly in the rockin' gold lame pantsuit she opens the show with, but that's neither here nor there).

Veteran stage and screen actor Kevin Cooney played Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, a softer, more approachable version of Sheriff Jim Flournoy, although he did have the swearing down pat. Cooney's timing seemed a little off early on, but by the time he had his big run-in with Melvin P. Thorpe, he was wholly inhabiting the character and on a roll. And speaking of Thorpe, Michael Tapley did a fine job with the Marvin Zindler character, which is easy to overlook because the personality is so over-the-top already. Tapley brings an earnestness to the role--albeit a mindless, self-aggrandizing earnestness--that prevents Thorpe from being a mere mustache-twirling villain. He also gets one of the biggest laughs of the night with a well-placed "Slime in the ice machine!" line, which obviously played well to the home crowd. Tamara Siler, a part-time actress who works a day job in admissions at Rice University, stole every scene she was in as Jewel. And Brooke Wilson and Julia Krohn deserve special mention as Shy and Amber, two prostitutes whose presence did a lot to humanize the play.

The production design and costuming and choreography were all excellent, although there were a couple of moments when the play's forward momentum sagged briefly. "The Aggie Song" sequence was one dance sequence that stood out, not because it was particularly original--I've seen videos of regional productions on YouTube that used the same basic choreography--but rather because it was so professionally and crisply executed. I've seen enough serious dance at Texas State to know that these guys really worked their butts off to nail the routine. All in all, the show was a whole lot of fun. The only real negative, if you want to call it that, was the cancellation of a speaking engagement I'd been invited to present between the matinee and evening performances. The deal fell through at the last minute as these things have a way of doing, but that hardly detracted from my enjoyment of the show. It you get a chance to catch it before the end of its run June 17 at the Hobby Center, I highly recommend you do so. It's not history, but it is entertaining.

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Back to the beach!

We saw the Beach Boys on Friday, making the trek up to the Woodlands to catch the venerable band at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion on one of only two Texas stops during their 50th anniversary reunion tour. With various factions of the band suing each other over the past decade, the cynic in me thinks back to the Rolling Stones and how many times that band has been at each others' throats until a lucrative concert tour and album deal proves that if you throw enough money at a problem, hurt feeling eventually go away. But cynicism aside, these were the Beach Boys for crying out loud. With Brian Wilson, who hasn't toured with the group since his infamous breakdown in '64. They're all in their 60s and 70s, with a good chance that this will be the last chance to ever catch them playing together--remember, brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson have already passed away. I missed several opportunities to see them live in the 80s, and with the family all fans of their, catching this show was a no-brainer.

We were nervous, though. We'd gotten lawn seats, which are uncovered, and the skies looked ominous all day. It rained on us briefly as we grabbed dinner before the show, and the air was thick and humid. Thankfully, the clouds kept temperatures relatively cool. We got in early and snagged a pretty prime location for the show, although to be honest, there aren't really any bad seats unless you get a view obstructed by one of the pavilion's support pillars. The clouds threatened, sprinkling a few times, but then the show started and blue sky opened up. We were off!

The show opened with "Do It Again," an obvious choice (curiously, their much-hyped re-recording of this tune promoting the tour doesn't appear on the new album), and the crowd ate it up. They followed it with "Little Honda" and "Catch a Wave" (I found myself really, really hoping they'd slip in a verse of "Sidewalk Surfing" but it was not to be). Brian sat behind his grand piano, with Bruce Johnston on the opposite end of the stage behind keybords and Mike Love, Al Jardine and David Marks in between. Scattered about the rest of the stage was Brian's backup band, the Wondermints, and several of Mike's backing musicians as well. It became clear early on why there were so many other performers--the Boys' voices weren't what they used to be, and couldn't hit all the high notes they were once known for. Brian, in particular, had issues with his vocals. His voice was thin early on, very apparent on "Surfer Girl" and "Marcella," and on a couple of occasions he just trailed off, not finishing the lyric at hand. He got stronger as the evening wore on, and sounded fantastic on "Isn't It Time?" one of two tracks from the new album. That song sounded great, too, as Monkey Girl and I looked at each other in surprise and agreed that we liked it very much--we'd expected the newer material to be lacking, but that and the title track off the new album, "That's Why God Made the Radio," are both keepers in my book.

The audience skewed older than most concerts--my 42 is the likely median age--but there were plenty of teens and younger kids along to balance us old (and older) farts. I will say I have never seen so many Hawaiian shirts in my life, although for the sake of full disclosure, I've never been to a Jimmy Buffett concert, either. But to show that it wasn't just the old, nostalgic folks getting into the music, I now share with you this clip of Bug showing off "his moves" during "Little Honda."

Brian seemed pretty fragile all night, although when he hit his stride, he was magnificent. Al gave a good accounting for himself as well, doing a rip-roarin' version of "Cotton Fields" that was light years better than the version from the 20/20 album. Bruce got to shine with his often overlooked "Disney Girls." But the man who impressed me most was Mike. Through all the squabbles and ill-advised comments to the press over the years, I'd gotten the impression that Mike had an ego bigger than California itself, with a sense of self-importance to match. That may be, but he was the prototypical front man, winning the crowd over immediately with easy humor and generously bragging about the skills and contributions of the other bandmembers without directly tooting his own horn. He really came off as someone you'd want to hang out with, and that's exactly what you want in a front man. He even made a series of potentially-awkward sales pitches funny when he announced (over and over again) that the new CD was available at the show for a surprisingly low price of $5 (doubly surprising when you saw the gouging prices of t-shirts and other souvenirs). The band had also autographed 50 of the discs, and randomly placed those sets in amongst the others to be sold. And that anyone with a signed CD would get to meet the Beach Boys (minus Brian, presumably) after the show. The reason? They'd been battling Adelle for the top spot on the Billboard album chart, and really, really, really wanted to score the no. 1 album for the week. Hence, they were pumping their numbers with sales at the show. It sounds kinda crass, but hearing Mike Love explain it was hilarious.

Alas, the weather wasn't nearly so entertaining. Ominous clouds rolled over, and lightning came quicker and closer all the time. I breathed a sign of relief when they played "Sloop John B." mine and Monkey Girl's favorite Beach Boys song, hands down (yes, I know it's a Kingston Trio cover. Still, Brian's arrangement is monumentally spectacular). I checked the weather radar on my new smartphone, and discovered some seriously ugly storms moving toward us from the east. The Wife and I, on our own, might have stuck it out. But we had three kids on uncovered lawn seats. No way could we get caught in a nasty storm with them unprotected. Following a really nice rendition of "Heroes and Villains" halfway through the second set (Monkey Girl was extremely happy they played that--and when I informed here there was a supposedly lost 14-minute take of that song from the Smile sessions, she just about had a conniption), we packed our stuff and moved up the hill to the exit. We camped out near the gate through "That's Why God Made the Radio," but then the wind really picked up, and lightning really started flashing. Lots of people began leaving at that point. Considering the show was a near-sellout, with approximately 16,000 folks in attendance, we didn't want to get caught in a mad rush for the exits if the skies opened up. Over the kids' protests, we exited the venue. Which is a shame, because we missed seeing the Dennis/Carl tribute I'd heard quite a bit about, although we were able to hear both songs. We got down to the park below, and the weather seemed to back off a bit, so we found a park bench and took in the rest of the set. "Good Vibrations," "All Summer Long," "California Girls," "Help Me Rhonda," they all sounded great. We danced on the lawn. Bug ran around like a maniac. Some rain kicked up again during "Rock and Roll Music," so we headed out to the parking lot. We listened to "Do You Wanna Dance?" and "Surfin' USA" as we walked, and just as we got to the car, it started to pour. Even so, we sat there in the parking lot with the window opened, listening for what came next. Silence, except for the cheering of the crowd. "They've left the stage," I decided, then told the kids, "They'll be back for the encore in a moment. Listen." Just then, a huge roar went up. And that's all we heard. Between the wind and rain, all remaining sounds were drowned out. I later learned we'd missed "Kokomo"--not their best, but still an enjoyable tune--along with "Barbara Ann" and "Fun, Fun, Fun." That last song was one I'd really wanted to hear, but more than that, I regret missing Brian step out from behind his piano and strap on a bass for the final numbers. That would've been cool.

All in all, it was a fun show. That was the main takeaway. All of the core band members seemed to be enjoying the heck out of performing on stage in front of all of us, and even Brian offered up the occasional smile as he played. The backing musicians were unobtrusive, doing their best to pick up the slack when the original players couldn't play a particular note or sing in a particular register. The illusion worked well, for the most part. At any rate, it evoked visions of the Beach Boys from the 80s, when they were one of the busiest touring bands in the country. Of course, Carl was with them then, doing most of the vocal heavy lifting. Still, that version of the band didn't have Brian performing, and fragile or not, how many times do you get to see a veritable musical genius play in person? If they stick together long enough, I'll be more than happy to catch them again. Who knows? Maybe I'll get lucky and hear them sing "I Can Hear Music" or "Let Him Run Wild" or "Surf's Up." A guy can dream, can't he?

Beach Boys set list
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands, Texas
June 8, 2012

Do It Again
Little Honda
Catch a Wave
Don't Back Down
Surfin' Safari
Surfer Girl
Please Let Me Wonder
This Whole World
Disney Girls
Then I Kissed Her
Kiss Me, Baby
Isn't It Time?
Why Do Fools Fall in Love?
When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)
Cotton Fields
It's OK
Be True to Your School
Ballad of Ole' Betsy
Don't Worry Baby
Little Deuce Coupe
Shut Down
I Get Around


Add Some Music to Your Day
California Saga: California
Sloop John B.
Wouldn't It Be Nice
I Just Wasn't Made for These Times
Sail On Sailor
Heroes and Villains
In My Room
All This Is That
That's Why God Made the Radio
God Only Knows
Good Vibrations
California Girls
All Summer Long
Help Me, Rhonda
Rock and Roll Music
Do You Wanna Dance?
Surfin' USA

Barbara Ann
Fun, Fun, Fun
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Friday, June 08, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Let's keep it short and sweet: Guess where we're going to be tonight? Watching the Beach Boys!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Flight of the Conchordes.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Transiting Venus

Sometimes, when faced with a once-in-a-lifetime event, you don't let anything so mundane as blistering Texas heat, a cloudy sky or a tragically cracked telescope mirror get in the way. There are other, better photos of the transit of Venus across the face of the sun out there, but not so many from New Braunfels and not so many taken under circumstances as trying.

Transit of Venus, June 5, 2012

The silhouette of Venus is the circle in the upper right quadrant of the sun. Quite a few sunspots are also visible, as is a region of brighter, white detail near the south pole. All things considered, this white light image of the sun (taken using Baader solar film filters--never look directly at the sun without specialized filters!) was able to capture quite a bit of fine detail, brought out with a little bit of coaxing via Photoshop. Someday I hope to own a dedicated hydrogen-alpha solar scope, but considering the fact that I don't have a reasonably useful straightforward telescope at the moment (I masked the damaged section to use the undamaged section of mirror for these images) that "someday" is probably quite a distance in the future.

Still, even though my shots of the transit of Venus are not what I'd hoped for, years from now when my eyesight's failing and I'm not able to look through a telescope, I'll cherish these photos all the more.

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