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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The King Of Pop: Unparalleled, Undisputed, Irreplacable

"And when the groove is dead and gone
You know that love survives
So we can rock forever, on"
- Michael Jackson

In an infamously devastating week for the entertainment industry, Ed McMahon and Farrah Fawcett passed away just two days apart. The world was still reeling from the news that Farrah Fawcett had passed away on June 25th when just hours later news came in of a third death; Michael Jackson, the King Of Pop, is dead at 50.

Michael was merely weeks away from the opening of the "This Is It" tour at London's O2 Arena, where rock legends Led Zeppelin reunited for a one-time show in December 2007. The tour would include 50 shows and was widely speculated to be his last. On June 25th, two days after a rehearsal at the Staples Center, he collapsed at a rented mansion in Los Angeles and after attempts at resuscitating him by his personal physician, and further unsuccessful attempts by paramedics en route to the hospital, he was pronounced dead at 2:25pm.

Recent interviews with Lisa Marie Presley reveal that during her short marriage to Michael, they had a conversation in which Michael shared an eerie insight to his fate. She said "He stared at me very intensely and he stated with an almost calm certainty, 'I am afraid that I am going to end up like Elvis, the way he did.'" This scene is all too familiar for Lisa Marie as her father, Elvis Presley, known as "The King", died at his home just one day before he was due to start his next tour. It reminded her of that long-ago talk she had with Jackson. "I am sitting here watching on the news an ambulance leaves the driveway of his home, the big gates, the crowds outside the gates, the coverage, the crowds outside the hospital, the cause of death and what may have led up to it," she wrote on her blog. "And the memory of this conversation hit me, as did the unstoppable tears. "A predicted ending by him, by loved ones and by me, but what I didn't predict was how much it was going to hurt when it finally happened."

I was at work when a friend came by my desk and said "did you hear that Michael Jackson died?" and my first thought was hoax because I just couldn't believe that we could have two celebrity deaths in the same day and a 3rd in the same week. The news online stated that he was in a coma but quickly changed to confirm that he had passed away. I guess it's strange to say that you're "shocked" at the fact that anyone has died but sometimes you just can't imagine a world without them. It seems that millions were not prepared for a world without Michael even though his image has been greatly damaged from the molestation charges against him from years ago.

My earliest memories of knowing about Michael Jackson was when I was 8 and my parents used to go to some friends' house to play poker, usually Saturday nights. I would hang out in their "living room" which, back in the 80's, was a room with furniture you never sat on and existed strictly for ornamental purposes. They had an old console TV and a portable VCR, and their son had the "Making of Michael Jackson's Thriller" on VHS. I watched it nearly every time I went to their house, and I was pretty young but was more fascinated than I ever was frightened. The video was presented in its long form at 14 minutes, following the making-of documentary. I also remember laying in my room in the dark listening to Vincent Price's rap in the middle of the Thriller song and that actually did scare me pretty good; I always made sure to have the curtains in my room closed. I remember my sister having a special LP version of Thriller with the album cover on the album itself.

In 1987, some of the biggest albums in rock history were released. Albums such as Def Leppard's "Hysteria" and Guns N Roses' debut "Appetite For Destruction", "Kick" by INXS, Midnight Oil's "Diesel and Dust" and U2's "The Joshua Tree" were dominating the radio. Michael released his "Bad" album during this time and even though I was in rock mode I still got the tape. It seems that Michael was paying attention to the music around him because songs like "Dirty Diana" and "Smooth Criminal" had a more aggressive sound leaning towards rock more than pop, and are two of my favorite tracks of his. "Diana" features a rock solo by Steve Stevens, and Michael occasionally teamed up with GnR guitarist Slash for live performances of the song. The video for "Criminal" features some of Jackson's best dance moves including the anti-gravity lean. Not all of the album was aggressive though, as his "Man In The Mirror" ballad included a heartbreaking video that focuses on starved children and poverty overseas. Jackson was honored for the stunning visual creativity that his videos captured when MTV renamed their Video Vanguard Award, which celebrated excellence in music videos, to include his name.

For his next album "Dangerous", Michael released a string of videos that were full of cameos from popular stars, ranging from Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson to Naomi Campbell and Macaulay Culkin. The video for "Black Or White" debuted on prime-time network television, which was a new strategy for releasing a music video. I think the Dangerous album is Jackson's most edgy, creative, and diverse in his entire catalog and it's my favorite of his for many reasons. I'm listening to the album right now as I write this, and it sounds like it could have been released yesterday. The "rock" tracks are fast and aggressive, the ballads are strong and the sound is all 100% signature Michael Jackson. I know many prefer the early disco sound on "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You" and those are two of my very favorite songs of his but I think he really tapped into his deep creative genius on the Dangerous album.

After the Dangerous tour, scandal plagued Jackson in the form of a molestation trial and his image never really recovered from it. His trial, in my opinion, was a repeat of the O.J. Simpson trial. In both cases, they were found not guilty on all charges and acquitted, yet the public completely changed their opinion of both figures. O.J.'s impressive career in the NFL started coming into question and Michael's music and talent became overshadowed by speculation that he was indeed guilty of molestation. Various online forums were filled by people posting rude messages celebrating the passing of Michael Jackson all focused on the allegations that were brought against him years ago, in spite of his being found innocent.

No matter what anybody says or wants to believe about Michael Jackson, regardless of his medical or mental problems, he will always be the King Of Pop and his catalog is one of the greatest in the history of music. "Thriller" continues to be the best-selling album in the world and may never be surpassed. In retrospect, that is exactly the lofty goal that Michael hoped that this album would achieve when recording began. Michael Jackson is an artist whose talent and vision are the likes of which may never be seen again.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Wii Bit Of Fun

When I was 12 years old, my mom got me the original Nintendo game system and I still have it to this day. After being packed away I brought it back out recently and acquired all of my favorite games on Ebay, but once again it sits dormant. Along with the original Nintendo, I had a Sega Genesis which I loved a million times more but sold it during a moment of stupidity several years ago. When my wife Kacy and I got our first place together, we thought it would be fun to get a Playstation 2 so we did. We got a few games and played it once in a while but now only I use it to play Madden football games. A few months ago, the Genesis bug bit me again and bought one from a family that was selling theirs. Unfortunately it was so used I couldn't get it to work and returned it.

Fast forward to the past weekend when Kacy gets home from being out of town and I open the trunk of our car to find a Wii system with the Wii Active set, a generous gift from her aunt Kellie. Upon seeing the Wii Active box I told her "have fun with that", as I had no interest in it, not knowing that we got the system with the Wii Sports game which includes bowling, tennis, boxing, baseball, and golf. I got the Wii hooked up, and we were bowling in minutes, at which time I joked about calling in sick to work the next day. Last night, I played at least 6 games of bowling, one after the other; I just couldn't stop playing!

Years ago, I remember seeing simulations of virtual reality systems where you'd stand in a spot and move your arms and you'd be boxing in a game. The Wii is essentially a virtual reality system, in which you actually hold the game controller as you would a baseball bat, or golf club and go through the motions you would if you were actually playing the game. In bowling, you take the steps in the approach and swing your arm just as you would if you were at the alley. I remember my dad saying how amazed he was at the progress made in video games back when I had my Sega Genesis, comparing it to my Nintendo and my old Atari system. Even back when the Genesis was new, the difference was amazing and the colors were sharp and vivid and gameplay was impressive.

The Wii has completely changed video games and included a whole new demographic. Video game systems aren't just for kids anymore, adults can go bowling without leaving the house and people who wish to get in shape but can't afford pricey memberships can do so in their living room in privacy while having fun. I had to eat my words on this one for sure, and already have a long list of games I want to get for the Wii and can't wait for when Gavin is old enough to enjoy it with us.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Chickenfoot Puts The Foot Down

Chickenfoot released their self-titled debut album on Friday June 5th, 2009. It all started as a casual jam session between Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony in post-Van Halen bliss, and drummer Chad Smith during a hiatus from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They called up guitar legend Joe Satriani to join the fun, and this album is the culmination of the inspiring sessions.

Hagar, Anthony, and Satriani had previously united for what would have been Planet Us, a supergroup including Neal Schon and Dean Castronovo of Journey. The project was terminated when the Van Halen brothers invited Sammy and Michael to record new tracks for a beefed-up hits collection and tour in support of the release. Planet Us only made a few appearances and recorded only two tracks, "Vertigo" and "Peeping Through A Hole". Vertigo was considered for the first Spiderman film before being turned down by Sony for being too heavy. Both tracks were renamed and included on Hagar's "Cosmic Universal Fashion" album which came years later.

Leading up to the release of the album, which was originally slated for June 9th then moved to June 5th and dubbed "Foot Day" by the band, a preview of every track was available on Facebook in a series called "The 12 Days of Chickenfoot". In each installment, a new track was previewed after each member discussed their take on its sound and conception. The slow reveal process used by the band was genius, giving fans just enough to wet their appetite and keep the buzz strong.

The album opens with Satriani tooling around on the guitar, leading into opening track "Avenida Revolution" which was written about people crossing the border. It's a good track but for me it's the second track, "Soap On A Rope", that really opens things up and shows what these guys can do and I feel it would have made a better opener. The agenda is clear from the start: upbeat, fast, loud rock and it keeps its pace all the way through the first eight tracks, including "Oh Yeah!", "Sexy Little Thing" and "Down The Drain" which are my favorite tracks on the album. After the onslaught of steady rock, things slow down for "Learning To Fall" which Sammy considers the best love song he's ever written. The song is about learning to love again after being burned and it's a good track with a guitar solo that is signature Satriani. However, I think Sammy made far better ballads with Van Halen and with the kind of chemistry they have on the early tracks, a ballad seems out of place on this album. They bring the rock back with "Turnin' Left", which is made for the road and features fast chunky picking on the guitar with an aggressive vibe. They end the album with "Future In The Past", a track that starts as a ballad but gains speed quickly. It's the only track that features some funk influence from Smith's regular gig. In the song, the band claims to be "savin' the best for last" but that's hardly the case as most of the early tracks are the standouts.

This is truly a collaborative effort and each member's talents are put right out front on every track on this album. The vocal harmonies between Hagar and Anthony are stronger on this album than they were on any Van Halen album. Chad Smith may be known for the funk-laden rock he produces with Red Hot Chili Peppers but he is a hard rock drummer to the core and it shows in full force. Chad and Michael lay a solid foundation upon which Satriani unleashes his collaborative genius which has been hidden until now. As a solo instrumental artist, Joe has released an impressive catalog of perfectly layered music with very few vocal tracks that stands on its own. To hear him lend his style to a project like this will open many eyes. Unlike Roth, who failed to move on after Van Halen and hung on to every chance to revisit the past, Hagar has never stopped making music and at 61 he sounds better than ever. Sammy Hagar is the Energizer bunny of rock and shows no signs of slowing down.

It's an unfortunate pattern that most "supergroups" follow as they fizzle out after a couple of releases, Damn Yankees and Velvet Revolver being prime examples with two albums each. Audioslave gave us three albums although I think the middle one is a throwaway. Typically, these unions are formed as an escape when creative differences get in the way and some members need to do their own thing. I'm hoping that we'll get at least one more album from Chickenfoot, which Sammy has already alluded to. For now we have this great album to enjoy and with any luck we can see the guys when they "put the foot down" on tour. The current setlist is pretty exclusive to Chickenfoot material and a few covers including "Bad Motor Scooter" from Sammy's Montrose era. According to reports, the setlist may open up to include songs from each member's resume.

I give this album "nine on a ten scale" and it ranks among my top 3 favorite albums in the supergroup genre along with Audioslave's debut and the one album released by Temple Of The Dog, both groups featuring Soundgarden's Chris Cornell on vocals. Sammy once compared the strength of Chickenfoot's music to that of Led Zeppelin; until Zep reunites I think Chickenfoot is the next best thing.