Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Ball-Dropping Doldrums?

Still not sure what you're going to do on New Year's Eve? Don't worry, 'tis the season for last-minute plans.

Personally, I think the night gives real holidays a bad name, offering little more than an excuse to overpay for a night out, only to get let down by big plans that don't deliver on their promise. If you want hype, feel free to get your gala on, but I believe that low-key is the way to go. How many years of frigid ball drops, anti-climactic concerts, or mind-numbing parties that end with some demented, amateur-night drama does one need to endure before they realize that an intimate gathering is the best opportunity for a great night? Family, close friends, plenty of good food and drink, and a guest room and couches for everyone to crash on. Anything more than that, and you're asking for trouble.

I was interviewed by Los Angeles Times writer Adam Tschorn for a New Year's Eve feature that ran in the Image section of this Sunday's paper. It's a great article that concentrates less on what to do, and more on how and why we choose to do it. Click here to read it online.

Here's to a safe and enjoyable New Year's Eve, and a healthy, happy and prosperous 2009!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

New York Yankees Holiday Shopping

It's the day before Christmas Eve, and while you might think you have a lot of shopping to do, rest-assured you're not alone.

The New York Yankees started their holiday spending spree a few weeks ago, committing $243.5 million in long-term contracts to two front-line starters in CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Yesterday they re-signed Chien-Ming Wang to a comparatively bargain-basement price of $5.0 million for 2009, giving them three potential Cy Young Award candidates to anchor a rotation that was an achilles heel throughout the 2008 season.

What they still haven't addressed is the fact that their offense scored 179 fewer runs in 2008 than they did when scoring a Major League-leading 968 in 2007. Counting on the addition of 1B/OF Nick Swisher (86-24-69-.219 in '08) to replace free agent DH/1B Jason Giambi (68-32-96-.247) is realistic, but still doesn't account for the offensive hit the team is suffering by not resigning OF Bobby Abreu, who averaged 107-17-103-.291 and 26 SB in each of his three seasons in the Bronx.

There's been a lot of talk about Manny Ramirez and Mark Teixeira possibly ending up in pinstripes, and most of it is attached to criticism of the team's payroll and spending habits. To note, yesterday the Yankees were assessed a $26.9 million luxury task by Major League Baseball and handed a bill for 40 percent of every dollar over the league's $155.0 million soft cap in 2008 (that cap increases to $162.0 this year, and another $8.0 each of the next two years). What did New York get for their $222.2 million payroll? They finished in third place for the first time since the American and National Leagues expanded to three divisions in 1994, didn't qualify for postseason play for the first time since 1993, and subsequently failed to make the World Series for the fifth consecutive season.

The emergence of the Tampa Bay Rays (who won the Yankees' division and the American League Championship before falling to the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series), coupled by the success of the Colorado Rockies, Florida Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks in recent years, has done much to counter arguments that salary equates with success in Major League Baseball. It has also placed even more stress on large market teams like the Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers to step up their attempts to restore the storied luster to their franchise legacies.

But nobody is feeling it more than the Yankees, who in fairness, have more money to spend than any of the teams, and shouldn't be afraid to spend it to bring the results that their fans (and foes) demand. Peter King, in my opinion one of the greatest sports journalists of our time, asked in a recent Sports Illustrated column, "In this economy, should a baseball player be paid more than $20 million a year?" I counter with this question: Why not?

In 2008, Bon Jovi earned more than any other touring musical acts, amassing $210.7 million on the road. Bruce Springsteen followed, topping $204 million, and Madonna's tour grossed more than $185 million. Marquee movie stars are routinely paid between $10-$20 million for a single film, and some of the biggest actors and actresses on television make upwards of one million dollars an episode. So why shouldn't an elite baseball talent get $25 million/season? They'll be expected to play in 161 games (and presumably a post-season) in front of a league-average of 30,000 fans a game, each paying a league-average ticket price of more than $25.

We can balk about the current economy all we want, but the minute a professional athlete signs that contract that makes them "professional," they become an entertainer, no different than a musician, actor, or anyone else who is paid a premium to distract us from the rigors of our day-to-day lives. A player will likely make more with the Yankees than they will with the Milwaukee Brewers, just like a musician will make more playing the Staples Center in Los Angeles than they will the Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Idaho. It is supply and demand, and market dictates value.

The New York Yankees averaged an MLB-high 53,069 fans per home game in 2008, and will be opening a new stadium for the start of the 2009 season. The New York Post reported in a Nov. 11 piece that luxury box sales for the new stadium had stalled, with seven $600,000 boxes remaining vacant, and the last sale of a luxury box dating back to August. While that, no doubt, has more to do with the economy than it does the Yankees recent struggles, the Bronx Bombers remain the most storied franchise is sports history, with a tradition of winning. People who pay a premium price, expect to see a premium product.

Along with that tradition of winning (stress on tradition, as they haven't been winning as of late), the Yankees generate significantly more in licensing revenue than many other MLB teams combined, and are the only professional sports franchise in America with their own television network, the YES Network (Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network). Criticize their spending all you want, but they have the revenue streams to back it up. And can it truly be said that their high-priced spending is making baseball top-heavy, when the more they spend, the less they seem to win?

With the Yankees investing as much as they have in their pitching this off-season, they need to make one more significant splash before heading into Spring Training, and that splash needs to come in the form of offensive firepower. With three aces in their deck, they'd only be selling themselves short if they don't go all in with one of the marquee bats on the free agent market.

Mark Teixeira or Manny Ramirez in Pinstripes? It has to happen... And will.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Great American Bailout

You may not be able to tell in the grocery store, where people routinely shun the off brands for their advertised brethren, but even if a lot of Americans don't truly understand a good value, they'll all agree that they appreciate one. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the auto industry.

Why are there so many foreign cars on the road? Because they offer value. Instead of text-messaging someone at your next red light, compare the ratio of domestic to imported cars at the intersection. I've been doing it a lot lately (then text-messaging), and the results show us why the auto industry is crying for a bailout.

The problem is, what will the bailout accomplish?

President Bush approved $17.4 billion in rescue loans to the automotive industry this morning, tipping the domino that led Treasure Secretary Henry Paulson to request that Congress release the second half of October's $700 billion bailout for financial institutions, claiming that the auto rescue exhausts the first half of those funds.

President-elect Barack Obama, only a month away from claiming the office, praised the move. "Today's actions are a necessary step to help avoid a collapse in our auto industry that would have devastating consequences for our economy and our workers," he said. "With the short-term assistance provided by this package, the auto companies must bring all their stakeholders together — including labor, dealers, creditors and suppliers — to make the hard choices necessary to achieve long-term viability."

It took me longer than most to jump the Obama bandwagon, and I'm still not completely sold, but I am cautiously optimistic, and the living embodiment of his mantra of "hope." That hope glistens when I read things like, "...the hard choices necessary to achieve long-term viability." The candor and bluntness of his tone reminds me of New York City's great Mayor Rudy Giuliani more than a decade ago, when he had the fire to make change, and that fire was largely untempered by popular politics. Maybe a bailout is necessary, but neither President Obama or President Bush are so blind as to hail it as the answer.

Because when you boil it all down, the only real question is this: How will the bailout result in my purchasing of an American automobile when my current lease expires? I know I'm buying this next go-round, and I know I want an SUV. It is no secret that, by and large, foreign cars are longer lasting, get better mileage, and all things considered, offer far better value. I've done my research and rented many different makes and models as a manner of on-the-road research, and it's going to take more than my patriotism to get me to buy American.

The bailout will inject money into the coffers of American automobile manufactures, but unless they change the way they approach their engineering and sales, it's only going to put a band-aid on the hole in the damn that is their current dilemma. People want as much from their car as they can afford (if not more), not an ad campaign that pays $20 million to license a Led Zeppelin song.

If I can get a fully-loaded Hyundai for $10,000 less than any of it's lesser-stocked American counterparts, and along with that purchase get better MPG, a longer warranty, and more bang for my proverbial buck, why shouldn't I? Because GM has better television commercials? Because my patriotism will be called into question? Talk to me about patriotism when you can tell me where your television, cell phone, stereo and DVR were made.

America is changing, and we see it in all walks of life. The medical field is upside down. Retail is fading so fast, we need to add more pegs to the bottom of the limbo bar. People don't know where, or how, to invest their meager savings. And where we spend our hard-earned dollar has become even more important.

For this bailout to be anything more than temporary, the American automobile industry needs to change the way they approach business. They need to create a product that can compete with the imports, and they need to market the value of that product, not sugar-coat something less with bells and whistles and a bow on top.

Plants are closing because cars aren't selling. Period. End of story. This bailout needs to address that simple fact. Instead, I'm afraid that it will do little more than guarantee that fat-cats at the top of the automotive food chain maintain their inflated salaries for at least a little while longer, safely tucking their savings away as they make the "hard decisions" necessary to reduce operating costs in these trying economic times. Yes, that means more starch for the white collar, and more wear and tear to blue collar overalls.

When that doesn't work? As a provision of this bailout, the government has the option of becoming a shareholder in the automotive industry, as was the case with the major banks. That's right, a nationalized automotive industry... Why not, that's what democratic capitalism is all about, right?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I Want You To Want Me

House of Blues
West Hollywood, CA

1. Hello There
2. That '70s Song
3. California Man
4. High Roller
5. Oh, Candy
6. If You Want My Love
7. She's Tight
8. Heaven Tonight
9. Magical Mystery Tour
10. I Want You To Want Me
11. Voices
12. Downed
13. Ghost Town
14. Surrender
15. Goodnight
16. Dream Police
17. Just Got Back

I just got off the phone with a friend of mine, a veteran music journalist whose time in the biz makes mine seem like that of a greenhorn, and he lit up when I told him I saw Cheap Trick last night. "One of the great rock and roll bands..." he chimed, his voice humming as he said 'rock and roll,' "I'd love to see Cheap Trick." To which I replied, "I wish more people felt that way... They've got to be one of the most underrated bands in music."

He didn't agree that they're underrated, and asked me to explain... Well, AC/DC just played two sold-out nights at the Forum here in Los Angeles, filling more than 30,000 seats for the two shows. Cheap Trick performed two nights at the House of Blues, the second night having pre-sales well under 300 even though the magic of last-minute marketing/papering made the room look pretty decent by the time the Rockford, IL, quartet took the stage. Sure, tickets were $70 (that's nearly $1/minute for the 75-minute set) in an economy where $70 can go a long way heading into the holiday season, and it probably doesn't help that the shows went on-sale months ago, when gas in the So-Cal netherworld was flirting with $5/gallon. But this is still Cheap Trick we're talking about, not some gangly crew of flavor-of-the-week teenagers selling out at half that price! AC/DC can sell 30,000 tickets, and Cheap Trick bustle in at just over 1,000 - Not to knock AC/DC, but what's up with that?

In a word, perception. While Cheap Trick have the edge in hits, they lose their edge in image. AC/DC are a heavy metal monster truck, spitting flames from their ass and blowing smoke through their nostrils. It might not be the car you want to drive cross country, but hot-damn it's one fun place to hitch a ride. Cheap Trick are the dependable family wagon with wood paneling on the side and luggage tied to the rooftop and covered by a waterproof tarp. AC/DC are formulaic and kitsch, inviting audiences to get lost in their world of camp. Cheap Trick could also be accused of being formulaic - in as much as three decades of rock-solid songwriting, killer hooks and lush melodies can make someone formulaic - but despite themselves remain credibly fashionable. Both bands are fun as hell and could share a stage in a heartbeat, yet remain as different as night and day.

AC/DC release an album, tour their asses off, then disappear for a presidential term or two. Cheap Trick tour their asses off, only stopping long enough to record an album in between jaunts before returning to the road. When AC/DC tours it is an event; when Cheap Trick tours it's another chance to see one of the greatest bands of all time. If Cheap Trick toured twice a decade, they'd be packing arenas, but that's not the way they roll. They're road dogs, and they love to perform. They love their music, whether it's in front of 20,000 fans opening for Journey and Heart, or in front of 500 fans at a criminally under-attended L.A. club show. That said, one might say that a $70 tickets for a 75-minute show is criminal, as well. A friend we were watching the show with commented on how cool it is to see Cheap Trick in such a small venue. Another friend retorted that it would be a lot cooler if they didn't do it so often. Touche.

A little math: Two tickets to see Cheap Trick at the House of Blues: $140. Valet parking at House of Blues, including tip: $17. Dinner at House of Blues (two entrees, two desserts, two drinks, tip): $75. Four drinks during show (two each, including tips): $38. All things considered, it's a $275 night. And if you need a babysitter? You've topped the $300 mark. Even without the bells and whistles of a grown-up night out, Cheap Trick have still priced themselves out of the range of the casual fan. AC/DC, meanwhile, offer a ticket for half the price, with ten times the spectacle. In a world where people want bang for their buck, AC/DC shake you all night long and Cheap Trick want you to want them. A little bit of shaking goes a long way, and you can't always get what you want. 'Nuff said about that.

The joy is, none of this truly matters to Cheap Trick. At least, it doesn't seem to. AC/DC might out-gross them, but it's all shades of gray, because both bands are massively successful, both bands have had legendary careers, and both bands deliver everything they promise, and more, every time out there. Yeah, if Cheap Trick did things differently they might have more teenagers at their shows, but the argument can be made that while AC/DC grab them when they're young, lose them in the middle, and bring 'em back for some nostalgia when their older, Cheap Trick grab 'em when they're old enough to truly appreciate great music, and never lose 'em at all.

I didn't catch AC/DC this go-round. It's their first tour I missed in 20 years, and I didn't feel a tinge of regret. Everyone who saw the show confirmed my suspicion - It was a decent show, but if you've seen them before, you've been there, done that. Cheap Trick, on the other hand? I've seen them at least three times in the last two years. That may not be much next to the fans that flew cross-country to see their House of Blues twin-bill, but it's enough to know that as many times as I see them, I won't grow tired of their seamless musicianship, razor-sharp wit and rich musical history.

Whether they're dishing out their classics, covering the Beatles or the Move, or digging into KISS bassist Gene Simmons (enjoying the show from the VIP balcony) with some tongue-in-cheek barbs about firing fellow band members before an impromptu tear into "Love Gun," every Cheap Trick show offers something special to make it memorable. In a day-and-age where bands change musicians like most of us change light bulbs, to see the same four guys still delivering, better than ever, in their fourth decade, says a lot... And it doesn't even start to tell the story of the Cheap Trick.

That is why Cheap Trick are one of the most underrated bands in music.

# # #

Click here for an archived LiveDaily.com review of Cheap Trick's 11.02.06 performance at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Joe Satriani vs. Coldplay

“And the Oscar for best dramatic performance goes to… JOE SATRIANI!”

Okay, so maybe we won’t be hearing that anytime soon, but when the guitar shredder who was previously best known for his 1987 instrumental opus “Surfing with the Alien” was quoted on MusicRadar.com [Dec. 7] as saying “a dagger went right through my heart” when he first heard Coldplay’s title track to their new album Viva La Vida, you have to commend his flair for the melodramatic. That dagger led to court charges, but not for assault with a deadly weapon.

On Dec. 4, Satriani's legal team filed suit against Coldplay in Los Angeles, alleging that the band copied "substantial original portions" of the guitarists "If I Could Fly" in "Viva La Vida." Forget the old credo that imitation is the best form of flattery, because theft is theft, no matter how you cut it. But did Coldplay truly steal from Satriani when they wrote the title track to their new album? This is one case where I’m willing to give the accused the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think they intentionally stole the song, but you can’t deny the similarities. Maybe they heard it in passing, and it stuck… Only to later resurface in a work of their own.

Coldplay have cleared samples and licensing before. They borrowed from Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” for the song “Talk,” off X & Y in 2005, and don’t hide the fact that “Speed of Sound,” from the same album, was inspired by the drums on Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill.” Given their forthcoming track record, we’re left with little reason to believe they’d intentionally set out to rip anyone off. That said, if I start my great American novel with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” I don’t think it’s fair to counter critics with, “Charles Dickens is a great writer, but any similarities between my work and his are purely coincidental…”

Did you read Coldplay’s response to the allegations, posted on their website Tuesday? Their statement is so absurd, music fans should be awarded damages for having had to read it: “If there are any similarities between our two pieces of music, they are entirely coincidental and just as surprising to us as to him. Joe Satriani is a great musician but he did not write or have any influence on the song ‘Viva La Vida.’ We respectfully ask him to accept our assurances of this and wish him well with all future endeavors."

Um, okay. Are we serious? It’s the same damn song! Literally. No joke. I’d include a link to the YouTube address where they play the two songs independently, then again atop each other – in perfect symmetry – but there is now a message where the video used to be: “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by EMI Music.” Yes, the same EMI music that is the parent company of Coldplay’s label, Capitol Records. So now, it appears, it’s up to the lawyers. How much money are they going to spend on this case? Don’t worry, there’s plenty of money to spare, the music industry is doing almost as well as the national economy right about now. Talk about pork barrel spending. If the bills get too high, they’ll just lay a few more people off. If that doesn’t work, they can always ask for a bailout. Seems to work for everyone else.

In the same aforementioned interview, Satriani claims to have already tried to settle the issue with Coldplay, without a trial in front of a jury of their peers, but they responded that they weren’t willing to entertain his request. “I did everything I could to avoid a court case with this situation. But Coldplay didn't want to talk about it,” he said. “They just wanted this whole thing to go away. Maybe they figured this little guitar player guy will leave them alone after a while, I don't know.”

I bet you they’d have thought twice had they suspected that this story would get more mileage than Billy Joel's cheap pair of sneakers. Feel free to tug at our heartstrings all you want, Joe, you know the jury will slobber all over the fact that you wrote the song about your wife, and spent half your career laboring over your masterpiece. The track was released on the 2004 album Is There Love In Space, but Satriani claims to have started writing it back in 1990… That 14 years of labor must explain why he feels he deserves damages, in addition to “any and all profits.” Unless Coldplay hire O.J.’s defense attorneys, this case is a done deal already… And, yes, I’m referring to Simpson’s first team of attorneys, not the latest ones. Kharma’s a bitch, huh?

But Joe Satriani is already the big winner in this, and that's without the windfall. Before the lawsuit, nobody but guitar geeks knew his stuff. Hell, I’m a rock guy to the bone, and I stopped listening to him in the early ‘90s. No disrespect intended, he's an amazing player and his legend is nothing to sneeze at, but more people have heard his song in the past week then have heard his music in the past 20 years. Coldplay’s album came out June 17, but Satriani waited nearly six months to file his claim on Dec. 4, the day after Coldplay received seven Grammy nominations. Strategic timing, or just coincidence?

I guess we should be thanking the unlikely duo for the distraction they’re providing in these most unfortunate of economic times. Or maybe we should remind them that in a world where the middle class is getting pinched more and more with every passing day, the last thing any of us really need to be privy to is a bunch of filthy rich musicians fighting over table scraps because they can’t settle the most obvious of cases behind closed doors, like real adults.

Do we really need a court to decide this? Coldplay, you may not be guilty of intentional plagiarism, but the songs are the same, and his came first. It's that simple. Do the right thing. It’s no less than you’d expect were the tables turned. And Joe Satriani? You’re not guilty of any crime, and I really feel for you. But is this the way you wanted to make the pages of People magazine?

One last question… Is Satriani going to go after New York indie rockers Creaky Boards next? Earlier this year, they claimed that “Viva La Vida” was dangerously close to their song, “The Songs I Didn’t Write.” Yeah, we know you guys didn't write the song. But who did? And while we're at it, who's on first?

The real kicker will be the "jury of their peers" that decides the fate of the case: Yolanda, the receptionist from Inglewood; Jose, the gardener from Gardena; Steve, the aspiring actor who parks cars in Hollywood; Tony, the mechanic from Los Angeles; Mary, the assistant from Culver City...

Monday, December 8, 2008

My Big Mouth

A lesson I learned early: No matter how hard you try and how loudly you protest, you'll never escape the bozos in life.