Monday, July 3, 2017

Car Seat Headrest, Ludacris, and Me: A Summerfest Review

Once the forecast cleared up early Sunday evening, I decided to embrace my inner outer creeper and plunge alone into the madness that is a weekend night at Summerfest to catch a couple of acts that I like but don’t love. This is how that went.

Up first was indie rock band Car Seat Headrest at the Johnson Controls Stage.

You know a band is small-time -- and that is almost certainly on purpose -- when they are on stage 15 minutes before showtime doing their own sound check. This is not a knock on them, merely an observation.

After a short introduction by Dori Zori from 88.9 the band took the stage to some pretentious, Bon Iver-esque vocal samplings before launching into “Vincent” from their current album Teens of Denial. Immediately apparent was the fact that the band set out to put the “rock” in indie rock. The faders were definitely pushed up to 11. Unfortunately this meant that the feedback-drenched guitars and thumping drums drowned out singer/guitarist/brains behind the band Will Toledo’s mumbly vocal delivery. He simply doesn’t have the pipes to cut through the crap.

Approximately half an hour into the set they played what was one of my favorite songs from last year, “Destroyed By Hippie Powers,” and it was excellent. Even though I think the crowd was enjoying the show overall, it also seemed like the arms-crossed, hipper-than-thou indie kids there didn’t give the song the moshpit freakout the song calls for. It is what I came to hear, though, so after it was done I bailed to see…

....Ludacris.

You know the song “Too Many People” by Paul McCartney? It was like that. By the time I made it to the Miller Oasis stage, the crowd wasn’t so much a crowd but a college kegger writ large: (nearly) everyone young, dumb, full of come. Blunts were everywhere, and so were teenagers grinding on each other to the jams.

Luda, to his credit, obliged the party scene by pumping out hit after hit.

My criticism of most modern rap shows applies here: he didn’t perform entire songs. Verses from “Money Maker” (with admittedly one of his all-time best lines: “Let me give you some swimming lessons on the penis / Backstroke, breaststroke, stroke of a genius”) blurred into “What’s Your Fantasy” which then eventually collided into “Rollout (My Business)”

Of course, nobody fucking cared.

Despite a total lack of personal space, everyone seemed to have a good time. My personal highlight was indicative of the rest of the set in that “Move Bitch” was awesome until Ludacris stopped after two verses and promptly dove into “Stand Up.” (I get it, Mystikal wasn’t in the building to do his verse, but still, it was disappointing to hear his best song cut short.)

Ultimately I’m guessing my opinion of both artists’ performances is in the minority. Car Seat Headrest is perfectly capable of rocking your socks off, if you don’t mind squalling feedback and garbled vocals. Ludacris is a legitimately fantastic rapper that has a string of unassailable party jams to his name - if only he’d perform them in whole. But I’m sure the amount of “amazing” and “unbelieveable” descriptions on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram will far outnumber the objections from old grumps like me.





Thursday, July 7, 2016

Concert Review: Sir-Mix-A-Lot at Summerfest

Two songs into his first-ever (!) Milwaukee show, Sir-Mix-A-Lot proclaimed (paraphrasing) “Ain’t nobody come out to these shows to hear some abstract-ass new song no one’s ever heard of. They want some old school!” The man certainly knows his audience.

That audience, as was probably expected was predominantly white and predominantly young, though all generations and races were represented. All the recent handwringing and thinkpieces in the music press about the misappropriation of black culture meant nothing here, because these people came to dance and Mix came to supply jams to dance to. The whole thing was essentially a 70-minute party.

It should be noted that Mix-A-Lot can flat-out rap. He had hype men, but they mostly stayed in the background to let Mix shine. Opener “Buckin’ My Horse” and a fiery rendition of “Testarossa” displayed his verbal skills. Also worth nothing was his storytelling skills. He said how he saw some lady on MTV -- who he claimed looked just like him, goatee and all -- who said he was the epitome of a one-hit-wonder. Mix -- yes, we are on a first name basis -- then got on Twitter to reply by taking a picture of his middle finger and then his taint. (Please don’t look that up on Google) But his nephew (also a member of his on-stage entourage) reminded him of his other hits, and they kicked into “Posse on Broadway”

It’s true that Sir Mix-A-Lot never reached the ubiquitous heights of “Baby Got Back,” but the set proved that he has songs that at the very least you’ve heard of. “My Hooptie” was well-received, if the stench of weed was any indication. “Swass,” which was apparently the basis for The Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha,” was present, as was “Beepers,” “Buttermilk Biscuits,” “Jump On It” (which got the second-best reaction of the night, complete with copious references to Milwaukee, 414, Brewers, and Bucks), and, yes, his masterwork -- or magnum opus, if you insist -- “Put ‘Em On The Glass.”

The only real misstep was a bizarre (to me, anyway) interlude where they played Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and chanted over it. The crowd kept dancing like nothing had changed, which was sort of cool actually. I had just the right amount of beer in me to think a mosh pit was a good idea, but that never came to pass.

Mix kept the energy high throughout, and the crowd ate up every second of it. There was much booty-shaking, particularly by lovely young women. One had a permanent grin on her face while dancing with her man -- a pure unadulterated joy that my unshakeable melancholy won’t permit me to experience. There were dudes dancing too -- a pasty shirtless guy by himself, an old guy with a pony tail also by himself. Me, who in lieu of sweet moves swayed to the rhythms and tried my best to sing the lyrics.

The set ended as one would expect, with ladies invited on stage for an extended version of “Baby Got Back.” Mix-A-Lot high-fived people and thanked the crowd for coming out, and claimed he would be back. For an hour-plus of jamming out to classic tunes and forgetting about the daily grind, I would definitely go see him again.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Dispatches from Detroit

My wife and I took a road trip to Detroit to see a concert. Yes, we are crazy. No, we did not get mugged, or stabbed, or carjacked. In fact, the majority of people we ran into were quite friendly. We stayed for a few days, and these are some thoughts I had about the trip.


THE DRIVE and the CITY


The six-hour trek from Milwaukee to Detroit was a perfect metaphor for what’s wrong with the deindustrialized Midwest in general and the greater Detroit area in particular. It was blustery and cool the entire way, with the sky a relentless, depressing gray. Milwaukee roads may be perpetually under construction, but at least we’re trying. Illinois has its own problems, but their roads are not one of them. But as soon as we crossed the border into Indiana, the freeway immediately turned to shit and only got worse as we made our way across Michigan.


Michigan drivers must not know what a signal light is, because they rarely ever used one. One driver even cut across three lanes to get onto an exit ramp, which was both dangerous and illustrated a Louis CK bit rather nicely.


Despite all that, we made it to the hotel in one piece.


Truthfully, we didn’t plan on being in Detroit proper for much of anything aside from the Motown Museum (see below). Certainly there were hip parts of the city that we could’ve visited. Or we could’ve seen the abandoned Michigan Central Station or the Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, but I don’t think either of us really wanted to see that ruin porn in the flesh.


(I get into politics here, so skip the next few paragraphs if you don’t want to read that.)


The parking around the museum was scarce and the streets unfamiliar, so we looped around a couple of times. During that process, we were funneled down some side streets that seemed more like alleys -- mostly unplowed and mostly barren. The buildings and homes on these streets were covered in graffiti, and were either boarded up or had all the windows busted out. The only word I can use to describe this is heartbreaking. It wasn’t just one or two structures, it was blocks and blocks of being surrounded by blight and disrepair.


Republicans will tell you this happened because of corrupt Democrat government and lazy black people, Democrats will tell you it’s because of greedy rich white men and the deindustrialization of the area. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, as it always is.


It’s become pretty apparent to me that 1) Americans are addicted to cheap goods and 2) CEOs and stockholders are addicted to cheap labor -- and when that happens the jobs move away the middle class gets fucked. Both sides are like two balled fists that keep smashing into each other. They keep hitting each other, but nothing changes.


The only way capitalism can really work (for everyone, not just the rich) is for the (mostly) unskilled middle-class workers to make or build things for their fellow middle-class workers to buy and use. This is because the rich mostly save their money, and the poor have no money to save.
So if Detroit wants to be “America’s Great Comeback City,” as it says on all their tourism material, those jobs need to come back. Companies might have to pay their workers more or pay more taxes, and consumers might have to pay more for their goods. But that’s the only way it can work. Perhaps they could start by getting their unemployed population to fix their freeways, but I doubt it.


THE MOTOWN MUSEUM




In more uplifting news, the Motown Museum was pretty cool.


I am normally not a fan of guided tours – I would much rather read/view/listen to things at my own pace – but our tour guide, Cecilia, really made the story of founder Berry Gordy and Motown Records come alive.


After a 20-minute video, the first part of the tour was in the building adjacent to the iconic “Hitsville U.S.A” building pictured above. Cecilia told us how Berry Gordy started the label with an $800 loan from his family after only getting a $3 royalty check for writing a hit song.
From there he signed the Marvelettes, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, and even a kid by the name of Little Stevie Wonder. Everything was accentuated by myriad photographs, memos, gold and platinum records, album covers, and even a hat and jeweled glove donated by Michael Jackson.


From there, Cecilia took us into the famed Hitsville building, which featured Gordy's living quarters upstairs, complete with furniture, dishes, multiple turn tables, and other furnishings. The basement was where the real action was, though, as that is where a ton of the hit singles from the Sixties were made.


Everything was set up as if they had never stopped making records. A punch clock was set up with time cards dated 1966. The candy and cigarette machines from that period are still there. You could take a peek inside the control room before descending a stair case to the studio where so much magic was made.


It was kind of cramped, but the 15-20 people on the tour all fit inside. There was a piano, various sets of headphones, microphones hanging from the ceiling, and songbooks opened to The Temptations' “My Girl.” Cecilia told us a little bit more about the studio itself, before ending the tour by leading us in a singalong of “My Girl.” Sure, it was mostly off-key (except for the theatrically trained twentysomethings who couldn't help but show off), but much like the music made there all those years ago, it was joyous. Thanks to the good music and the tour guide intent on her guests having a good time, I walked out feeling better about things than when I had walked in.


THE FOOD




I'm going to go out on a limb and say Michigan isn't really known for its cuisine. There may very well be all kinds of good places to eat, and admittedly we didn't go out of our way to find them.


Apparently Detroit-style pizza is a thing, but if the ads that I picked up at our hotel are any indication, Detroit-style pizza is merely cheap and shitty-looking.


Big Boy restaurants are alive and well in the area. Their burgers were actually quite delicious.


After the concert, we stopped at a hot dog stand (known as “Coney Islands” in the area) and... didn't have a hot dog. I had loose ground beef in a hot dog bun, covered with mustard, onions, and chili. You won't believe it, but it hit the spot at 2AM. (Steph had a grilled cheese; it was a grilled cheese.)

THE CONCERT


Dan Andriano (Alkaline Trio) and Anthony Raneri (Bayside)





This was the Main Event, our whole reason for coming to Detroit. The “Where's The Band” 2016 tour actually was stopping in Chicago the next night, so it was sort of like trading a 20-dollar bill for two fives as far as travel was concerned. But there we were, in lovely Ferndale, Michigan to see pop-punk/emo heroes of our youth perform solo acoustic.


The venue itself was fairly intimate, maybe 150-200 people could fit in there tops. We arrived 45 minutes before the start time, and after buying 2 24oz cans of Pabst ($6 apiece), settled about two rows from the stage.


On other dates of the tour, apparently all the performers were out on stage together for the entire show, helping each other out occasionally. For this show, it was mostly solo performances. This didn't hurt anything, but I do kind of wonder how much better it might have been with everyone out there.


If there's one thing that became clear over the course of the night, it was of the healing power of music. It doesn't really matter what genre or scene you come from, whether it's punk or emo or metal – in that moment of the song, all pain is shared pain; all happiness is shared happiness. It didn't matter who was on stage, almost all of the songs were singalong songs. And judging by the amount of couples there, it was proof that despite the common lyrical themes of longing and rejection that things would eventually get better and we'd all make it through.


Individually, my favorite performer of the night was Anthony Raneri of Bayside, though that just might be because he did the most songs that I recognized. He and Dan Andriano of Alkaline Trio covering The Smoking Popes' “Megan” was probably the set highlight.


Andriano didn't actually do that many Alkaline Trio songs. Either that, or the songs he chose were post-Crimson, which is where I stopped paying much attention to the band. Some dude dumped an entire beer on top of a girl during his set, which was a sour note on a night that was otherwise filled with good vibes.


Matt Pryor of The Get Up Kids closed out the show, and he did not disappoint. He opened with “Anne Arbour,” which was appropriate; he dug somewhat deep for a Reggie and the Full Effect song, which was unexpected. He messed with the crowd throughout – taking requests and not playing them; telling a girl all the guys would come out to sing “Happy Birthday” and then not doing that at all – before closing the set with “I'll Catch You,” a fan favorite and song he swore earlier he wasn't going to play because it was such a bummer.


For $16 and three hours of entertainment from some heroes of my younger, single days, it was not a bad time at all. I hope they go out on tour again next year – but maybe this time they could hit Milwaukee.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top 10 albums - 2015

No intro this year, just the top 10. And a 27-song playlist companion, featuring songs from the albums plus tracks from albums that didn't make the cut. (Some lyrics NSFW)


10. The Decemberists - What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World


Despite the pretentious title, What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World manages to be the least pretentious Decemberists album I’ve heard yet. It does what most of their albums have done before, which is to say it blends jangly folk, 60’s style pop, and country-inflected rock into what has become their signature sound. This time around the lyrics seem a little less literary and a little more human (standout lead single “Make You Better,” and “Philomena” in particular) which is for the better. The Decemberists may not be for everyone, but What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World isn’t a bad entry point.


9. Torche - Restarter


Good, hard, heavy rock ‘n’ roll seems to have fallen out of both critical and commercial favor these days. Torche’s Restarter probably isn’t going to convert any EDM or Nickelback fans, but their stoner-y, sludgy drone is a good respite from both the soft, synth-laden sound of what passes for modern alternative rock AND perfectly-polished butt rock.


8. Modest Mouse - Strangers to Ourselves


I’m not so sure the album was worth waiting eight years for, but Strangers To Ourselves maintains Modest Mouse’s one-of-a-kind sound. That means sometimes spacey, sometimes jagged guitars, meandering synthesizers, stabbing horn blasts, and existential lyrics. Lead single “Lampshades on Fire” follows the template of other hits like “Float On” and “Dashboard”; It is hooky, catchy, and mildly weird. “Sugar Boats” (opening line: “This rock of ours is just some big mistake”) sounds like a both a demented marching band and an off-kilter carnival theme, all with a buzzsaw lead guitar cutting through the middle. Familiar though it may be, it is a sound that I rather enjoy.


7. Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free


I didn’t quite get Something More Than Free until I listened to it at about 11:30 at night, with a few vodka-and-orange juices in me. It may not be as heady or weird as Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (what I consider to be the gold standard of modern country/Americana) but the songs are just as finely crafted. Each track is quietly devastating in its own way. “If It Takes a Lifetime” paints a portrait of someone that’s barely hanging on. “Speed Trap Town” is absolutely wracked with regret.


Something More Than Free may not click for you if you’ve never looked at a “past due” bill before, or have never picked up your fifth drink of the night and wondered “What’s the point of this?”  But if you have? Then you will enjoy this album, even if it hits a little too close to home like it did for me.


6. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly


It should surprise no one that To Pimp A Butterfly is the consensus album of the year as voted by (mostly white, mostly educated) music critics. Its dense, jazzy, funky (and on one track, a dead-ringer-but-not-quite-Radiohead sample) soundscape sets it apart from most other rap albums put out this or any other year. TPaB also features socially conscious lyrics. It is the epitome of this article.


The world that Kendrick Lamar has depicted here is sad, bleak, resilient (“Alright”), and conflicted (“The Blacker The Berry”). It is black life as seen through the eyes of an intelligent, articulate young black man. Unfortunately, the people that need to hear this the most -- that is to say, people that don’t resemble a Stuff White People Like article -- would never touch To Pimp a Butterfly with a ten foot pole.


If there is a criticism besides it being no fun to listen to -- and it really is a difficult listen -- it is that Kendrick Lamar relies too much on the word “nigga” or “nigger.” I don’t say this as a Concerned and/or Offended White Person, nor do I wonder why blacks can say the word and I can’t; I say it as a person with an English degree and someone who recognizes Kendrick’s immense talent. Even if it’s his artistic intent to make people uncomfortable with the use of the word, I think he can do better. If “nigga” can mean many different things to black people, he can use many different words to convey the same meaning. The proof is in his songs.  


5. Desaparacidos - Payola


Desaparacidos is the side project of folk-rock singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, most famous for his band Bright Eyes. Political punk rock is mostly a drag, but that is not the case with this album. Payola features 14 solid blasts of loud guitars and leftist rhetoric -- the first song is called “The Left is Right” for god’s sake. Like all good punk rock, it is not nuanced or balanced. But unlike Fox News (which is also not nuanced or balanced), it is fun as hell to listen to.


4. Beach House - Depression Cherry


Beach House actually had four albums to their name before this one, but I hadn’t actually heard all that much of their music. I am glad I changed that with Depression Cherry.


Beach House’s music is commonly referred to as “dream pop” and that is not wrong. Depression Cherry works as both an album to put on in the background, and something to lose yourself in while listening on headphones. After the 2015 we as a people had, melting away to the gauzy synthesizers, plaintive drum beats, and Victoria Legrand’s hazy, distant vocals doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.


“Levitation” suggests exactly that; “PPP” is sad and longing and makes me want to pop a few Vicodin and forget about it all. The entire album is a case for better living through chemistry. I’m not sure why I kept coming back to this album, but I did. It made me feel an enveloping warmth, or like a stream casually flowing to its end. (Mostly) electronic music hasn’t made me feel this good in quite some time, if ever.


3. The Mountain Goats - Beat The Champ


If professional wrestling turns a mirror on American life -- and it does; if you don’t think so then you were watching different programs than the ones I watched religiously from about 2003-2007 -- then Fight The Champ shows us what’s on the other side of that mirror.


“Heel Turn 2” is the emotional centerpiece of the album. “Turning heel,” in wrestling parlance, is when a good guy turns into a bad one; our narrator is having conflicted thoughts about the “turn” He knows it’s best for business, but maybe his fans would be upset (“President of the fan club / Up there choking on his tears”). On its face, this is all about wrestling, but it could just as easily be about anyone having to make any sort of tough decision. That’s why it connects.


Beat The Champ wins not just because of the way it portrays its muscled, tighted protagonists as real people, but because it also reminds wrestling fans -- supremely dorky though it may be -- of why they’re fans to begin with. Of course, you don’t need to be a fan to enjoy the album or even relate to it. Sometimes you just need a hero in your life (“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”) and sometimes you just want to stab someone with an ice pick (“Foreign Object.”).


(Oh, the music? It’s mostly pleasant. Mostly acoustic guitar, occasionally furiously strummed. Some piano. Some orchestral elements. Probably not what you’d expect from an album about wrestling.)


2. Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color


Alabama Shakes sure made a leap with their sophomore effort. Their southern roots-rock debut was plenty good, but Sound & Color made a quantum leap in terms of sound. It is at times space rock-y (“Gemini, “Future People”), funk and soul inspired (“Don’t Wanna Fight”), and straight-up rawk (“The Greatest”).


Brittany Howard’s vocals and guitar are both forces of nature here, and the rest of the band fills in nicely.


I should have more to say about my #2 album of the year, but I don’t. All I know is that whatever trip they’re taking next, I want to be on it.


1. Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit


The chorus of lead single “Pedestrian at Best” features four lines, three of them killer (the third line being the weak link)  “Put me on a pedestal and I will only disappoint you / Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you / give me all your money and I’ll make you origami honey / I think you’re a joke but I don’t find you very funny”


It is Courtney Barnett’s sharp lyrics and eye for detail that make this album the best of the year. Her characters are oftentimes a mess, insecure, mundane, sometimes joyful but only briefly. The album reads like an introvert’s fever dream - a tangle of thoughts that maybe weren’t supposed to be heard by human ears, all coming out at a machine gun clip. The music is a blend of 90’s and classic rock, which is always a winning formula as far as I’m concerned.


Much like Sound & Color, I don’t have much to say about this album. Perhaps you could say it left me speechless.


(Albums also worth checking out: Torres - Sprinter; Houndmouth - Sedona; Whitey Morgan and the 78’s - Sonic Ranch; Kacey Musgraves - Pageant Material; Local H - Hey Killer; Muse - Drones; Dr. Dre - Compton; Death Cab For Cutie - Kintsugi)

Friday, December 11, 2015

Concert Review: Weezer - 12/10/15



Weezer played in front of a sold out crowd last night at FM102.1’s Big Snow Show. The music should always be part of the story -- and it is -- but this time around the venue said music was played in was also part of the story.


You see, Weezer played at The Rave (in the Eagles’ Ballroom, if we’re being pedantic), Milwaukee’s venerable and somewhat detested all-ages concert venue. Certainly The Rave needs to exist; the kids need a place to go see live music too. And adults that want to rock out would probably rather do so at The Rave than be sneered at by some of the hipper-than-thou patrons at the Pabst/Riverside/Turner complex. Where would one get their fix of 90’s nostalgia? (Bush, Korn, Alice in Chains, Reel Big Fish… and, yes, Weezer almost always play The Rave when they come to Milwaukee) Where would Insane Clown Posse play? The only answer is The Rave.


But the awful acoustics, the $9 (!) beers, the stench of weed and B.O., and the poor sightlines that often accompany standing-room only venues make The Rave one of the shittiest places to actually see a show in the city.  


Of course, all of that seems to melt away once the band takes the stage.


Weezer played a workmanlike show. For 70 or so minutes, there was no fat, no bullshit, no deep cuts (unless you count set-opener “My Name Is Jonas” a deep cut), not even any banter with the crowd from Rivers Cuomo. Just hit single after hit single (and two new ones) from their entire 20-year career. And it was good.


Occasionally the muffled vocals (unintentionally) highlighted the fact that Weezer’s music is basically cock-rock for Millennials: big, dumb, happy guitars and a steady drumbeat that you can dance to. (Of course, not everyone shared in the joy; the guy next to me with his arms crossed the whole time while his girlfriend swayed to the beat was particularly galling.)

The highlight of the night came in the middle of the set, for “Say It Ain’t So.” It seemed like, for that one song, everyone in the crowd was engaged, dancing and singing along. If you’ll allow me some hyperbole, this performance of that song was life-affirming. Overpriced beers be damned… 4,000 people shouting the chorus of “Say It Ain’t So” in unison is the sort of thing that makes live music worth watching.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

How Bad Can It Get?

How Bad Can It Get?
An examination of sports -- both physical and digital -- and life



November, 1989*


One grey, late-autumn afternoon I decided I wanted to play football outside. Understandably, my dad didn’t want to throw the ol’ ball around with me. There weren’t many kids in my neighborhood, and being a loner, I wasn’t about to go round people up for a game they may or may not want to play.


So I went outside in my neon orange ski coat and threw passes to myself.


Like most Wisconsin boys, I imagined myself playing for the Green Bay Packers. With me pretending to be Don Majkowski, I caught his passes and broke tackles, scored touchdowns and won ballgames. I got high-fives on the sideline from Sterling Sharpe and Tim Harris. Everything was great.


I lobbed a throw high and far so I could make a long running grab for another touchdown. The ball never made it to my hands, because in all my eight-year-old determination to make that catch, I forgot to look up.


I ran full speed, head first into the metal laundry pole in our back yard.


I had to be knocked out cold, at least for a few seconds. All I remember is that when I tried to stand up, I immediately fell down. I stayed on the ground for a few minutes, the world spinning above me. Finally, I struggled to my feet again and made the walk around the building and up two flights of stairs to my apartment. My parents were mortified at the size of the size of the welt on my forehead.


Maybe I didn’t know it then, but I’m sure my parents did: A Green Bay Packer -- or any other professional football team -- I was not meant to be.


*May or may not be an entirely accurate date. I was under 10 years old, it was cold, there was no snow on the ground that day. So I say Nov. 1989.


****


I imagine I’m not alone in this, but I find myself daydreaming about being people I couldn’t possibly be. In my mind I can be a John McClane-style action hero, or a rock star, or a sports hero, whether or not I lack the toughness, charisma, or talent to be any of those things.


Modern video games bring these dreams to life, with minimal effort - especially in the realm of sports.


One might ask why not just play the actual sport instead of the video game version of it?


It’s pretty simple, really: If I had to stand in against a 90 MPH fastball, I’d piss my pants. (And so would you.) If I took it down a few notches to bar-league softball, I would more than likely share the field with post-college jocks who slam cheap beers before the game and “slay” pussy afterwards. Also, they still wear baseball socks, which is weird.


I play video game sports because I am aware of my own athletic limitations, and more importantly they allow me to chase greatness. No one grows up wanting to be Craig Counsell -- two World Series rings and Manager of his favorite boyhood team notwithstanding -- they want to be the MVP.


Starting in the late 90s, video game sports brought that dream closer to reality than ever before. You could attach more than just a name to your character; your guy could have whatever height and weight you wanted. You could rate him a 99 in every attribute if you wanted. Suddenly spindly, girl-armed 5’10” 160lb me was transformed into a strapping he-man of 6’5” and 240lbs with superhuman running and catching abilities.


In the next decade, you could add your face and body type to the mix, making for the most realistic representation of your better self. There aren’t too many things more fun than seeing yourself on the field or court as the star quarterback or shooting guard or center fielder.


****


June, 1996


There was a kid who lived across the street from me a couple of years younger than I was. Occasionally, we would play basketball. On this day, he just wanted to play catch.


He stood on his side of the street, and I on mine. Being a hotshot soon-to-be freshman in high school, I took it easy throwing the baseball to him. Not wanting to be treated like someone’s kid brother (and maybe wanting to show me up), he whipped the ball back at me. We started throwing it back at one another as hard as we could. It was actually fun for a few minutes.


Until I disobeyed the oldest adage in the game, that is. (That would be “keep your eye on the ball”, for those of you playing at home.)


I nonchalantly stuck out my glove to catch this kid’s latest fastball. The only problem is that my glove wasn’t in the right place. My face was. The impact spun me around, broke my front tooth, and split my lip wide open. A pool of blood formed on the sidewalk.


I went inside to stop the bleeding as best I could, ending up holding an icepack to my lip the rest of the afternoon. The kid’s dad came to check on me, but I assured him I was all right.


When my mom got home, she shrieked “OHMYGOD!” when she saw me. I didn’t know the severity of my injury, and maybe she didn’t either because the doctor’s office told her to take me to the emergency room.


Under a blindingly bright light on an examination table, with a towel over my eyes and a needle in my lip for the three stitches I was about to get, I mentally crossed off “starting centerfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers” on my “potential jobs” list.


****


Baseball didn’t become America’s pastime because it’s pastoral or a reminder of a quieter, simpler time. Nor did it become the national pastime because “chicks dig the long ball” or because there are few things more enjoyable than an afternoon at the ballpark with an ice cold Miller Lite and a hot dog.


Baseball became America’s pastime because it is a game based on failure and one’s reaction to said failure. Failure is a fact of American life: failed jobs, failed relationships, failed wars -- there have been a lot of those lately -- and failed businesses. But we as a nation have it so ingrained in our psyche that we’re supposed to keep getting up after those failures, much like there’s always tomorrow for a baseball player. We grind for a better life tomorrow, even if there might not be one.


(Conversely, football became America’s pastime because it features two teams literally beating the life out of one another for the profit of old white men and the amusement of the fat, undereducated, beer-swilling masses. (Or, as they are colloquially known, Raiders fans) What that says about our nation is another story for another day)


It should be without surprise, then, that I am drawn to the video game MLB: The Show, the “Road to the Show” mode in particular. In that mode, you create a player and try to make him into a hall of famer. It is different from other career modes in other major sports games because you’re not a member of the pro team to begin with. You start in the dregs of the minor leagues at the AA level. You grind. You work your way up through the system. You are Ragged Dick in spikes.


I’ve been playing The Show on and off since 2010, and though they’ve tweaked the system in mostly positive ways, the grind remains the same. You take your cuts or throw your innings, hoping that promotion comes soon. Sometimes you meet your goals, but sometimes you find yourself in the midst of a 2-for-24 slump with no end in sight. Sometimes you get benched and then finally demoted for disobeying your manager, which WAS FUCKING BULLSHIT BECAUSE WHO HAS THE STEAL SIGN ON ONLY ON A 0-0 COUNT??


But you put the uniform on (or hold the controller, I guess) the next day, and try again. The Show, as a series, captures all of this perfectly. The 2015 version of the game manages not just to capture that feeling, but also, somehow, to mirror life itself.

(You can stop here if you don't want to read about video game dorkery)


****


April 2015 - October 2018


I named my character Superfluous “Soup” Smith because I was tired of naming characters after myself. “Superfluous” may be ridiculous, but considering there are educated people giving their children last names as first names, I don’t think adjectives are that far off. Plus, I could make the announcers call him “Soup,” which is baseball-y enough. (Of course, Jeff Suppan’s nickname was Soup, and we all know how that turned out.) “Smith” is just a throwaway name that makes for alliteration and the announcer’s ability, to, well, announce his name.


Straight outta Milwaukee, 21-year-old Soup Smith is 6’ tall and 225 pounds (my actual height and weight!) and plays center field. He has a beer belly, because I have a beer belly. He is a speed and defense guy, though he will also come to have power. Soup got drafted in second round by the Angels (yes, the same Angels who employ Mike Trout, best CF in the game).


I decided to try to new dynamic difficulty mode, which started on “Rookie” and went from “just a guy” to “hot shit prospect” in the span of a month. I ended up hitting .404 with 3 HR and 25 RBI at AA before a promotion to AAA. In the meantime, I had turned up the difficulty to “All-Star.” This was a bad decision, gamewise, but is also the reason this piece of writing exists.


Soup was sent to AAA where he held his own for a while and then struggled. Eventually he was traded to the Blue Jays, for whom he continued to struggle at their AAA level. He broke his arm, which ended his season. This is where I went “oh, I guess he’ll have another season at AAA then.” But I was wrong. He was invited to spring training and made the team despite his (my) awfulness.


At this point I don’t need to go into too much detail about Soup Smith’s career. He struggled for the Blue Jays and was then traded to the San Francisco Giants, where he also struggled. He was sent down not once but twice to AAA in his three years with the Giants before getting traded back to the Blue Jays. My attributes were getting better, but my actual numbers said otherwise. This is not unlike having a Bachelor’s degree in English but shuffling boxes in a hot warehouse for a living. I don’t think he (I) hit better than .220 in any given year.


****


October, 2019


My last year with the Blue Jays seemed like it would be a turning point. As mostly a bench player, I hit .270 (career high) with 5 HR and 27 RBI. I signed a $747,000 contract before the 2019 season began, thinking maybe I had finally made it. No more demotions, no more embarrassments. Just a fine career from a kid who had a hard time at first but made it work.


I started off all right, maybe not hitting home runs but hitting for a decent average, and more importantly taking my walks. My on base percentage was 100 points higher than my batting average! I had arrived!


(Remember when I said baseball mirrored American life? This is where I remind you I got married in 2013, but fired from my job three weeks later. Then I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease three months after that. I still don’t have a full time job. Hey Life? Fuck you.)


The good times did not last, and I entered a god-awful series of slumps. Slumps happen in life and in baseball, but the (digital) Blue Jays management exacerbated the problem. Instead of moving me down in the order, or benching me, or even demoting me to AAA one more time, they stood pat. They trotted me out there every day in center field, batting third or fourth in the order.


As I endured a 2-for-40 dry spell, both myself and Superfluous Smith wondered “How bad can it get?” (Seriously, his demeanor walking to the plate for every futile at-bat nearly broke my heart. The way he held his bat behind him said “get me out of here!”)


Video games have their own internal logic, and The Show’s make sense here. Smith is technically an 84 overall, the best player on a bad team, statistics be damned. Yet, its own logic tells me I’m playing at a 72 level. I still have a minor league option left, but they did nothing. They hung me out to dry, one awful strikeout or weak groundout at a time.


I wonder if the fact that modern video games, in general, are just easier has anything to do with it. From the very beginning of my struggling, I wondered if the end game could possibly be a release from a team without catching on somewhere else. Washing out of the league at 25 is not a desirable outcome -- you’re supposed to be a hall of famer -- but an entirely possible outcome… at least in real life.


I kept waiting for an axe to fall that never did. I kept starting. I kept striking out. Every line drive that found a fielders’ glove and every long fly that died at the warning track wears on me, a pestering winter greyness that never seems to end.


The 2019 season stats were bleak: .195 AVG 8HR 44RBI. My slash line was .195/.241/.300 (average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage). The strikeout to walk ratio of 126-30 was great… if you’re a pitcher.


I’m not sure what will happen to me -- though I can guess. I probably won’t start the season at AAA like I should, and I almost certainly will not be released. Throughout all the awfulness, I did not change my look, my bat, my glove, or my at-bat music. (“Big Poppa” by Notorious BIG, if you were wondering) More importantly, I did not turn down the difficulty.


There may be difficulty sliders in modern video games, but there aren’t any in real life. Believe you me, I WANT to be that guy that hits .300 with 40 homers because I know I’m not the guy who’s going to make $100,000 a year with a nice house and car.


I struggle in games because I struggle in life. There’s nothing noble about it, but there is something real. I wake up every day with metaphorical welts on my forehead, another battle notched on my belt. But I’ll keep hacking away at every at-bat, fearing the unknown but hoping for a better tomorrow. I don’t know any other way.