Monday, August 31, 2009

Potential Personified: Lily Allen

Daughter of a famous UK comedian, Lily Allen has emerged as one of the brightest lights on the UK Pop scene.

Though lacking the raw talent of British counterpart Amy Winehouse, Allen writes with a scathing, unmistakably Anglo wit that recalls the best work of Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker.

She's clearly in love with art and music, liberally quoting from reggae, house, calypso, post-rock, country/western, pop, and trance. Her mind is open to anything. Nothing is off-limits.

She's born of privilege, yet she sings with a Mockney accent. She knows she's lucky, but wishes she came from the streets. Still, she didn't, and she's ok with this, and you never doubt that artists from the street will recognize her as one of their own.

Her untrained voice is breathy and rough, yet angelic, and she possesses a natural sex appeal that screams "I'm quite alright with myself as I am." Fake tits? Not a chance. She doesn't need them. Her wide-set eyes suggest the coolness of a reptile, but they're as big as the sky. Her brain lets you know she's in charge. Is she pretty? Yes... maybe... who knows? Who cares?

As Amy Winehouse struggles with drug addiction, Lily Allen seems poised to succeed over the long haul. Like Madonna nearly 30 years ago, Allen is almost a completely realized artist with a clear vision of what she wants to achieve. Would the Madonna of 1983 suffered a fool? Of course not. While Amy Winehouse surrendered her talent to a junkie boyfriend, Allen has glided over a series of men, completely unwilling to sacrifice her identity. Just as Madonna has dumped destructive influences, so has Allen.

Check out this sympathetic remix of "The Fear," by Dr. Rosen Rosen.  His uncommisioned mix of synthetic piano and strings give the song a timeless quality that exceeds the official album mix.

Her lyrics remind you of what your life was like when you were twenty-two, endlessly searching for the right "one," trying to figure out the meaning of life, and hoping to carve out a place in the world you could call your very own.

She's the cool girl you wanted in college, completely infatuated with art and music (and herself), dressing in a style all her own, blissfully unconcerned with being "popular." She didn't have a boyfriend. She didn't seem to care. She knew where she was going, and understood that older men would help her arrive at her destiny. You didn't stand a chance. You longed for her, but she was always out of reach. Still, you're glad things worked out as they did, because no man could tolerate the drama she craved, nor the isolation she constructed, and there would never be room enough for the both of you in her world.

This is Lily Allen.

Overheard at the HHH

"Check it out, dude, the bike is almost bigger than the car! Get a picture!"

My little '05 Mini Cooper dutifully carried the Schwinn Paramount (circa 1970) across the Great Plains.

The Zen Of Self-Propulsion

Riding in the Hotter 'N Hell 100 over the weekend, I was seduced once again by the zen of self-propulsion.

There's a spiritual awakening that occurs when you traverse long distances without using a motor. It's almost anarchic. Why would anyone choose to ride a bicycle 100 miles, when a car is easily available?

Here's my answer: when you're barreling down the freeway, yakking on your cell phone, you've lost your humanity. You're a pawn in a game that rewards technology for technology's sake. You're participating in someone else's moment, not your own. You're part of a game you cannot win.

But when you use your own body to propel yourself across the landscape, you reconnect with your humanity. You disconnnect from florescent lights and air-conditioned cubicles, and get a small taste of the struggles we've faced as a species. You feel as though you could survive, even if everything goes to hell.

You appreciate our ingenuity as a species, but understand the necessity of deconstructing that ingenuity. Our humanity depends upon it.

Riding across a hot, brutal landcape, your mind focuses on the moment. You reconnect with your body. Your legs become your best friend. You learn to quiet your mind. A lifetime spent in church pews, following the whims of tradition, can't possibly equal the insight gained in a long-distance physical challenge.

Money? It doesn't matter. Sex? It doesn't matter. All that matters is that you're alive, and you have energy, and that you must complete your mission. All else is extraneous.

Anything that you've done during your life that has made you unhealthy is a hindrance. Any illness that's befallen you is a challenge to be conquered.

You stop thinking. You hear the beat of your own heart. You feel your lungs gasping for breath. Nothing else is important.

You're not concerned with politics. You don't care who your neighbor is sleeping with. It's not important, what kind of car you drive, or where you live, or what religion you practice (or don't).

There's a special joy in living for a few hours with your mind shut off from the world. A long, tortuous bike ride can bring that back into focus.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Great Success at the Hotter 'N Hell Hundred

Three weeks ago I received a call from my friend Brent. "Let's do the Hotter 'N Hell this year." I mulled it over for a moment. "Sure," I said. The only hitch? I hadn't been on a bike in several years.

Still, I had been exercising throughout the summer, and felt I could get prepared for the ride. I dusted off my old Cannondale hybrid, and started riding after work. I started riding the 9-mile loop at Lake Hefner. After the first couple of rides I felt rough. My bike was forcing my body to remain upright, and several sections of the Hefner course take you into some pretty strong lake winds. I rode 9 miles in slightly under one hour. This wasn't so good.

Then, I was offered use of a vintage road bike (Thanks, M.X.A.) and started riding it around the Lake. My time improved dramatically, and I was biking the 9 mile loop in 30 minutes. That's an average of 18 mph, which was pretty acceptable for a recreational rider.

But because I was working during the day, I had trouble starting my evening lake rides before 7:00. That gave me enough time to do 2 loops around the lake before it started getting dark. Also, as the sun sets at the lake, thousands of pesky bugs would appear for their evening feeding. If I rode much past 8:15, I was inhaling swarms of gnats, and they weren't tasty.

Bottom line: I never biked more than 18 miles in a day. The HHH would require me to bike at least 50 miles, in furnace-like conditions. I was only cautiously optimistic about my chances.

But during the actual HHH yesterday, a few factors worked to my benefit:

• The heat. It's not unusual for temperatures at the HHH to reach 108 degrees. Yesterday's temperatures peaked in the low 90's. The temperature was the talk of the day, and even the most masochistic riders didn't seem to be complaining.
• The bike. Riding a proper road bike put my body in a low position, which allowed me to ride much faster than I would have on my hybrid Cannondale. The bike has been kept in impeccable shape, and performed marvelously.
• The setting. The HHH is truly a standout event. Armies of volunteers, interaction with the men and women from the local Air Force base, and the 14,000 riders make you push beyond your normal limits.

I'd planned on biking 50 miles. I wound up biking 100K, which is approximately 63 miles. I took frequent breaks, probably more than I needed, but I wasn't trying to break a record, I was just trying to finish. The bathroom lines were long. I probably spent about 30 minutes off my bike, taking breaks. I finished biking 100K at high noon, which meant I was on the course for five hours.

I know I could have biked 100 miles, but that would have been foolish, given my age and lack of serious preparation. I felt very tired driving home last night, and my legs feel heavy today. Despite slathering sunscreen all over my body, I'm still burned and still slightly dehydrated.

Next year, who knows?

Brent W. Crossing the Finish Line

After 8.5 hours plus in the saddle, Brent finished the 100 mile course in Wichita Falls, TX.

Hotter 'N Hell Hundred

The challenge begins at 7:00 am sharp, just as the sun is rising. Temperatures were slightly cool, but we all knew we'd be baking in the heat in just a few hours. Over 14,000 riders waited at the starting line, and it was impossible to even mount your bike for the first 1/8th of a mile.

Brent readies himself for the start. We still hadn't decided how far to ride. I'd committed to 50 miles, but was willing to try for 100K (63 miles) if I was feeling good. Brent completed 100 miles last year at the HHH, but was willing to hang back with me for 100K.

The HHH is legendary for well-staffed rest areas spaced frequently along the course. In this shot, little cups of pickle juice (yes, pickle juice) are set out for sampling.

At the first rest station outside of the city, bikers line up to use the Port-A-Potty.

When you decide to pull over at a rest stop, you must find a place to "park" your bike. Invariably, the only place for your bike is laid flat on a field. These shots look a mess, and they are, but you're actually looking at very expensive, state-of-the-art lightweight bikes strewn around randomly. No one worries about theft, even if it's a $10,000 bike you've left in the grass.

I managed to prop up my borrowed (thanks, Mike Agan) vintage Schwinn Paramount against a barbed wire fence during one of my rest stops. Several riders took note of this bike. One older guy told me it was exactly like the very first road bike he ever raced, and marveled at its fantastic condition. I heard other riders murmur things like "Cool bike, dude" as I passed them. The biking community is notorious for burning money on expensive gear, and events like the HHH are full of ostentatious displays of wealth. When a rider sees a vintage bike like this, they don't think, "That guy must be poor," they think "That guy must be making a statement."

A group of riders smile as they cross the finish line. The HHH certainly makes you feel like a superstar athlete, even if you're just a weekend warrior like myself.

After crossing the finish line, many riders make a beeline for the hoses spraying cool water all over the street.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Please Memorize

It would really be nice if you could memorize the Seoul, South Korea Metro System map by this Monday. It's fairly straightforward, and shouldn't pose a problem.

Scare-port: Tegucigalpa

Landing in the capital city of Honduras is a hair-raising affair. A single, short runway with mountains all around (and frequently stormy weather) make arriving in Tegucigalpa pretty dramatic. It's considered one of the world's most dangerous runways.

Despite all this, the word "Tegucigalpa" is very cool, and just saying it makes you feel cosmopolitan.

News You Can Use: They're On Your Side, With Coverage You Can Count On

Where's the remote?
Kill me now.
When the chips are down, isn't it reassuring to know that you've got a team of fresh-faced local newsreaders "On Your Side?"

Local TV News is about as predictable as a visit to Taco Bell. There are several general patterns:
• Male anchorman is permitted to be older than female anchor. He must wear dark suits, power ties, and should appear to be virile and heterosexual. Ideally, he should resemble a corporate CEO. White hair is a plus.
• Female anchor must be slim, young, and wholesomely sexy. Her hair should be longish and styled just like every other anchor woman in the country. Glasses are not permitted. She must be seated on the right side of the screen. She shall not be larger than a size 8, and must always wear jewelry and solid-print clothing. Fake tits are a plus.
• Weatherman is permitted to be wacky and outrageous, and is encouraged to speak with the region's local accent. He is permitted to be gay, as long as his sexual preference is never mentioned on-air. He must entertain us, because weather is incredibly dull. Loud ties are a plus.
• Sports Director is usually an out of shape ex-athlete, and is always a man. He must be a man's man, with a hearty laugh. He is only permitted to talk about football, baseball and basketball. Cleft chins are a plus.

Naturally, when reporting stories, If It Bleeds, It Leads. Next to bloody double-murder suicides, local news usually trumpets stories aimed at Keeping Your Family Safe. Just before the first commercial break, the anchors will tease you to stay tuned for a story that might prevent your children from dying a horrible death.

The beat reporters are all under age 30, all with identical haircuts, suits and speaking voices. They don't appear to be artistic, bohemian, or interesting; they all look like college Republicans. They usually disappear from your TV screen after a year or two, with nary a word of explanation. It's understood that their jobs are so horrible that only the most desperate journalism grad will sign on for the 80 hour weeks at low pay. Attractive female beat reporters will typically retire to marry a local doctor or attorney; male reporters will often move into auto sales or corporate human resources positions. Local websites will debate how "hot" these young beat reporters are, and speculate on why they're no longer on air, until the next crop of young reporters arrive to fill their positions. Wash, rinse, repeat.

It's an unglamorous glamour job.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Heavy Rotation: Musics I'm Loving

Here are a few songs I'm listening to nearly constantly. With one exception (Everlast), all are either British, or part of a British collaboration. What gives? Well, I'll tell you. The Italians gave us opera, the Russians, ballet. The Germans make great cars, and the British? They make the best pop/rock music in the world, full stop. Rue Britannia!

Why is this? Well, from my experience, the British are the coolest, funniest people in the world. They've always been a class-driven society, but with the advent of rock and roll, common Britons could suddenly find themselves richer than The Royal Family. Detached from racial politics, the Brits were quicker to embrace black American music, and they've always represented the leading edge of studio experimentation. This combination has captivated the world, and firmly thrust the Brits to the pop fore, going on 50 years now.

"The Golden Path" - The Chemical Brothers featuring The Flaming Lips
What a great marriage of styles! The Chemical Brothers, with their post-psychedelic electronica, and the Flaming Lips, with their ramshackle organic psychedelica are a perfect fit on this track. The song bubbles and percolates like a video game soundtrack, which is appropriate, considering the existential "life is a game" lyrics. Interesting stuff, even after multiple listens. Not bad for a bunch of forty-somethings trying navigating the world of modern rock.

"LDN" - Lily Allen
I resisted Lily Allen for years (she was way overexposed in the British press) but a chance encounter with Wookies remix of "LDN" completely floored me. Here's "LDN" performed with only an acoustic guitar. She's a compelling performer, with Susanna Hoffs eyes, and a demure facade that she seems all too willing to dismantle. She's the face of young British pop, and she's the real deal.

"Up the Hill Backwards" - David Bowie
From the 1979 Scary Monsters LP, this song sounds as if it was released yesterday. It's creative and clever, with an unexpected arrangement of acoustic and electric guitars churning underneath multi-tracked Bowie vocals. Great stuff, from a classic album.

"Black Cherry" - Goldfrapp
I played this song once while DJ'ing at the OKC Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School. During a break a young art chick walked over to my booth and asked, "Who did that song you played about "Black Cherry?" I wasn't surprised. Artisticly-minded young folk can't resist this song's slow, seductive groove, and Alison Goldfrapp's vocals beautifully communicate the pain of a lost love.

"Ends" - Everlast
White-boy soft rap with a low-key groove and a self-assured delivery. This could sound laughable in someone else's hands, but Everlast pulls it off.

"Rain" - The Beatles
While this song isn't as well-known as Beatles hits, it's got a great proto-psychedelic arrangement and energetic rhythm playing. Paul McCartney's bass lines are intuitive and creative, and are prominent in the mix. Meanwhile, Ringo Starr's drums add an element of surprise to the song, sung by John Lennon at his world-weary best. The outro, beginning at 2:27, is a fantastic piece of bass and drum interaction. The Beatles managed to make the avant-garde accessible, and the accessible avant-garde. Why does anyone else even bother to form a band? The Beatles did it all 45 years ago, better than anyone can ever hope to equal. All in all, this is one of The Beatles most under-appreciated classics, and I never tire of it.

"Valerie" - Mark Ronson, featuring Amy Winehouse
Producer du jour Ronson, brother of Samantha (Lindsay Lohan's ex-girlfriend) and stepson of Foreigner's Mick Jones, has perfected a Phil Spector-redux sound. His work with Amy Winehouse is self-assured and memorable, and "Valerie" is no exception. Winehouse is a once-in-a-generation talent, a fragile creature born to make music. Her performance here is extraordinary. Listening note: check out the out-of-key horns, a Ronson trademark. It shatters the computerized perfection of modern music, reminding us that human beings make music, not machines. It's pure New Orleans jazz funeral, targeted at kids who've never heard of New Orleans jazz.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Pyongyang Is For Lovers

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about life in the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang. You know how some cities make you think of romance and adventure? Pyongyang makes me think of toil and strife. And isolation.

But what is it really like? Since I've never met someone who's visited, I try to read about it and look at photographs of the city. Here's an interesting collections of photos from Kernbeisser, who toured the least visited country on Earth.

It's sort of like an ancient, forbidden city, frozen in the past.

I picture it as lonely place, with few people walking on the streets.

Department store windows are a far cry from Fifth Avenue. The signage still seems to be made by hand, not computer.

Here's a lovely entree of dog meat.

One of the tallest buildings in the world, Ryugyong Hotel, has never been completed.

North Korean monumental architecture.

A seaweed vendor completes a transaction.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Summer Reading

It's always relaxing to head to the beach with a good book. Here are a few page-turners you might enjoy:

Remember to wear sunscreen!