Tuesday, 27 October 2009

A Matter of Taste

Nutrition experts talk about how portion sizes of foods have expanded with our waistlines over the years, but I find it fascinating that we haven't talked much about how our tastebuds have evolved in a relatively short time. Or maybe it's not scientific or evolution-based. Maybe it's merely money-driven. What I'm getting at is the mysterious disappearance of grape soda.
When my mom was a child in the late 1950s, she and her family would pile into the car on a Saturday night and head to the local burger joint, where she'd order a single burger (probably a Jr. size by today's inflated standards), a small fry (again, probably kiddie sized), and a grape soda. Grape soda, popularized by the now-scarce Nehi brand of soft drinks, was everywhere. The flavor, a purely artificial sugar bonanza that never really tasted like real grapes, was consumed all over television. In fact, it was Radar on the acclaimed series, "M.A.S.H."'s signature quaff at the bar.
But something happened sometime between the 1970s and 1980s to grape soda. It was as if the flavor had been snatched off of its proverbial vine and replaced...replaced by orange, in fact. By the early 1980s, when yours truly came along, the only bubbly made available to us kiddies was some version of thick syrupy orange stuff or a limon concoction. Grape sodas had been culturally banished to the ghetto (or so urban legend says), along with BBQ chips (also tasty--why?). By 1988, when R.E.M. released its sixth album, "Green," "Orange Crush" was a household name. Grape, as we knew it, was marginalized, practically gone.
Orange, however, now takes a back seat to other flavors. By the 90s, we had every flavor we could ever wish for in fizz. Biggest on the list in fast food corp fruit flavors were things like cherry limeade and grapefruit (Fresca). Jones sodas have an extensive list of flavors and are available at places like Panera Bread. Is this flavor explosion a sign of sophistication in tastebuds, greed, or too many choices in America? To quote a wise candy commercial: "The world may never know."

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Westward Expansion: Reaching the Coast

Day 3: (Flagstaff, AZ to Huntington Beach, CA)

I woke up in Flagstaff to the sound of trains tooting away as they cut through the thick mountain landscape. Throwing on some clothes, I wandered to the elevator to catch an early breakfast at 7 a.m. Lo, I did not beat the other guests to the buffet. The dining area was infested with tourists, mostly German-speaking tourists, actually.
The breakfast at this Holiday Inn was a bit disappointing. The only eggs (I rarely eat eggs for breakfast, except when I'm road-tripping--then I crave them--weird) available were perfectly formed eggbeater mini-omelettes containing some sort of liquidy processed cheese. I had one for a protein boost, then went for a biscuit that was dry and crumbly. That's where Texas had put Arizona to shame. I abandoned my crumbly biscuit for a banana and then headed upstairs to digest a little bit before hitting the gym for a morning workout I desperately needed.
The fitness room was teeny, but contained functioning treadmills and a stair stepper. I alternated between machines to get a good cross training workout for my atrophying legs and booty. A half hour later, and I'd worked up a good sweat and was ready to hit the road again.
I'd discovered that the first several hours of my drive after getting a good night's sleep were always the most blissful. I was pain-free, refreshed, joyful and skimming the earth like a low-flying hawk, taking in the breathtaking scenery as I went. After about four hours of this bliss, however, and after a couple of days of it, I'd gotten sick of my iPod music, the mountains, the desert, my own thoughts even, and was ready to get there already.
A friend had called me and I was on the phone when I crossed the boarder into California. There was a checkpoint shortly thereafter. "What are they checking for?" I wondered. I stopped as the friendly guard smiled at me and asked me where I was coming from. "Missouri," I replied. She asked me if I had any plants, fruits, vegetables or animals with me and I told her that I didn't. She waved me on through. Weird state, California.
I knew that I was about to go through the Mojave, so I stopped at a lone gas station in the middle of nowhere. Gas there was astronomical. I cringed as I pressed the highest fuel rating button. A service guy came out of nowhere and leaned against the pump. "I like your car," he said. I said thanks and walked around to check the tires.
"They look a little low," the guy remarked, squinting through the glare of the desert sun to check out my wheels.
He had a gauge in his pocket, pulled it out and read it. "Yeah, you're at about 20. Pull it around and I'll fill em up for you."
I pulled up and the guy ran around the car, quick as a jackrabbit, filling up my tires. I thanked him and ambled back to the highway. I guess you pay an extra dollar a gallon for good service in California (?).
Finally, the desert gave way to civilization. The roads wound and sliced through the mountains for a good hour. However, when I hit the mother-of-all traffic jams, I practically squealed for joy--I was in L.A.! I had, of course, stumbled on Los Angeles during rush hour. Luckily, the majority of the traffic flow was coming from the opposite direction. I was close enough to my destination, and I'd come so far that a little traffic wasn't even much of an annoyance at this point.
Soon enough, I'd reached the coast. Walking along the boardwalk on the way to dinner that evening with Donna and Greg, I thought about how far I'd come. And the adventure is just beginning.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The Westward Expansion Continued

Day 2: (Amarillo, TX to Flagstaff, AZ)

Happy as I was to leave Amarillo, happier still I was to see that the rain and fog had cleared away to reveal the bright blue sky. There's an uplifting feeling associated with coasting down the interstate in great weather. You feel invincible and that the horizon is wide open and drawing you into itself.
My first hour on the road I fielded phone calls from worried friends, people whom I'd had to cut short the night before on account of the bad weather. "Yes, I'm alive," I told them. "But still in Texas."
It wasn't long, however, before the brush started to change colors again. Hints of yellows and reds splattered the grayish-brown scape. Huge rocks began to poke out of the flattened earth. Before I knew it, it was "Welcome to New Mexico."
At first, the plains yawned out for miles in every direction. I could see faint rock formations in the distance. As I got closer, mountains rose up on all sides.
I stopped in Albuquerque, at a Flying J travel mart. That thing was packed to the gills with cars and RVs. From the looks of my fellow trekkers, I seemed to be one of the few travelers under 50 at this junction. There was one other guy around my age, in head-to-toe scrubby camo, who made it a point to try to flirt with me while I was contemplating what to stuff my face with. Hot.
The travel mart had two kinds of "to-go" foods: Pizza or "Chinese." I've learned as a general rule in America never to eat Chinese food made by someone who is not Chinese, so that left me with pizza. I wasn't really in the mood for pizza, but it was either that or dry travel snacks, of which I was so sick I would have eaten pretty much anything besides.
By the end of New Mexico, I was kind of getting sick of New Mexico. Luckily, the landscape again began to change. The rocks and earth became redder and redder. No wonder AZ is a red state, btw. Even the soil is red! (I am SO funny).
The rock formations of Arizona are gorgeous. I'm one of those people who automatically sees people in the shapes made by rocks. They placidly watched me as I whizzed by, their red faces beaming into the sunlight. It felt a little eerie, a little reassuring, all at once.
I decided that I would stop overnight in Flagstaff. I found a Holiday Inn Express, which had one room left open for the night, thankfully. This morning, when I headed down to breakfast, the room swarmed with people, mostly Germans, and one really loud and whiney baby.
I'm going to hit the fitness center this morning before heading back to the road, the last leg of my journey to the coast!

A Westward Expansion

Friends asked me to please blog my drive from St. Louis to my new (temporary) home in Huntington Beach, CA, so forgive me for interrupting my usual commentary with this ridiculousness. I didn't want to start a new blog for this foolishness.

Day 1 (StL through Amarillo, TX)

The trip began innocently enough. The weather was 45 degrees F and cloudy as I and the loaded-down Jag embarked on our journey. Fully vetted, the Jag roared down the road as I sniffled, partly because of the cold that had attacked my sinuses over recent days, and partly because of the way my dog looked at me as I backed out of the doorway that day. "I'm crying over a dog," I chided myself, knowing how ridiculous this would sound relaying it to others. Then again, those who have seen this dog know how she has that way of looking, all adoring and innocent and trusting...ugh, it is TOO much!
MO started to mist a bit, about an hour out. By then, all signs of moisture on the inside of the vehicle had left. I was hard tacked on the open road. My wanderlust had kicked in, and I could not WAIT to get to another state!
The further West in Missouri one goes, the weirder it gets. Yes, it's on the Bible Belt, so there are a lot of Jesus billboards. One sign implored people to attend the "church of your choice" this Sunday. Who is paying for that one?
Of course, next to the church and Jesus signs, there are signs for guns and ammo warehouses. Guns, guns, guns! As far as the eye can see! Down the way from the firearms, pro-life and Jesus billboards are the ever-present "Adult Video" supercenters. Oh, Missouri, you are a conundrum!
Suddenly the rain came down in big splats, which the weighted-down vehicle handled well, until we hit mildly flooded roads outside of Springfield. Orange road sign flashed: "Road closed ahead. All traffic must exit at 64." Greeaaattt. Then, I hit what we French like to call, the "bouchon."
We crawled down the road so slowly that I was sure that the dead possum I'd seen a while back could have moved faster. Even off the highway on the exit ramp and down the main road, the pace was excruciating. The diverted highway traffic snaked through Springfield, and finally I found myself back on the highway, slightly annoyed, but no worse for the wear.
By the time that I FINALLY got out of Missouri and into Oklahoma, I was more than ready. OK isn't much better than MO, I must say. It is just as flat and there are just as many non-noteworthy cow fields there as in my home state. However, the slight change in the look of the fields, accented by red brush plants, gave the scenery a more Southwesterly feel.
Like a starving artist, I ate up the scenery, trying to figure out what I'd do with it later in sitting down and writing. Wide open plains, cattle, brush...aaaand that was it, pretty much. Not much fodder for amazing writing. Wait, they wrote an award-winning musical production about this state! However, the wavin' wheat was gone, and the winds were muggy and still on account of the rain. I guessed that I belonged to the land, so long as it would let me go after I crossed state lines.
"Don't stay too long in Texas," my friend, Robb, had said, semi-jokingly. I ended up staying the night in Amarillo, mostly because I feared that I would die if I went any further that night.
I had already decided to bypass staying in Oklahoma City because, after taking a "Stacker" pill, after feeling drowsy that afternoon (I hadn't had a full night's sleep at all Friday through Tuesday), I was still bright-eyed and full steam. However, as night's pitch black drapery fell across the landscape, the misty rain that had been drizzling all damn day created patches of pea soupey fog in the middle of Nowheresville, TX.
Images of Ed Gein and his family flashing through my head as my eyes tried to make heads or tails of the blackness, I sought the comfort of the lights of a well-lit cattle semi. I hugged the guy's tail all 200 miles to Amarillo. Trucks make great lighthouses in the fog, rain, snow and mist--especially the ones with the lights that go all the way up the sides.
About 30 miles outside of Amarillo, we encountered a flipped truck, flames shooting from its underside. The smoke added to the fog that blanketed the highway. You could smell the thing burning for miles. The driver might have been pulled from the wreck, but he was clearly injured. Ten miles or so up the road, I saw the ambulance screaming down the highway on the other side. It must be awful to be in a wreck out in the middle of nowhere, where the nearest hospital is miles and miles away. Terrible. I hoped that the guy was okay.
Once in Amarillo, I found the closest, decent-looking inn in town. My father had insisted that I try to find a hotel in favor of a motel, which I guess that this place was. Baymont Inn. It wasn't too shabby looking, inside or out.
By the time I pulled up, I had been holding my bladder for way too long. I ran inside.
"Can I help you?" The girl at the front desk looked up to ask.
"Yes-I need to book a room for the night, but first, do you have a restroom I could use?" I shot her a plaintive look as I said this.
She pointed me to the public pee spot. I looked in the mirror after I relieved myself and saw that both of my eyes were black underneath. "Ugh. I look like death. This woman probably thinks I'm some sort of drug addict," I thought as I examined my pale, makeup-less face and washed my hands.
I came back and booked the room, trying to throw out light-hearted, jovial comments, which this humorless woman was not quite receiving. She gave me my room keys and pointed me to the parking area.
I parked and lugged a few things to the outer door, which, she said, would open with my key. It did not. I looped around to the front desk again and she told me that the door was not always mechanically reliable, and to come through the inside. Yippeedee. I went through the inside corridor, found my room, and tried my key. No dice. I tried again. Red light. The third time, the door flashed green and the lock popped open. Ahh, finally! Respite! Sanctuary! Re...what was this? A neat little row of suitcases propped on the couch? A laptop on the desk? Someone's been sleeping in my bed! My heart pounded for fear that the occupant was still somehow occupying the room, perhaps hiding in a closet or something. I backed out slowly and headed back to the front desk.
"Was there someone in that room?" The woman at the front desk drawled.
"Yeeesss..." How did she know?
"I was afraid of that. I switched someone to that room just a little bit ago, but I assigned him the wrong room in the computer." She explained. "It's a good thing that he wasn't in there. I would have been in big trouble!"
She drawled her statement with such a lack of intensity, I worried if she really understood the gravity of her mistake. She should thank her lucky stars that she had goofed on good-natured (albeit drained) me. And that the guy hadn't been in there. Naked. *shudder to think*
Finally, I found my bed and a good night's rest. A hot scrambled egg and biscuit breakfast had me up and ready to scramble for the Texas border. Not before stopping at a fill station and discovering that, in Texas, both pickup trucks and mullets will never go out of style.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

TORTOISE @ The Firebird StL 09-29-09

As a music journalist, seeing hundreds of shows, speaking with hundreds of music celebrities, I'm always amazed that I'm still able to be impressed by musicians. It doesn't happen as much as it used to, as the "adult" critic in me has been conditioned to be jaded and skeptical by the "cool kids" in the biz. Bump that though, I can't help it: Much of the time I'm as sparkley-eyed and grinney as the 16-year-olds crowding the stage, flailing their "MINOR" hand stamps high. I'm a total dork, and I'm okay with that. Especially when it comes to a band of the caliber of Tortoise.
Maybe they're called Tortoise because they tour about as often as Giant Tortoises mate. It's been about five years since the last album release, and the fans were clearly hungry for a little turtle soup. For a Tuesday night at the Firebird in St. Louis, the turnout filled half the venue, which was more than I could say for any band or artist I'd ever seen in the place on a week night. The turnout always surprises me in this place because it is, in my opinion, one of the best rock venues in all of St. Louis. Then again, the place isn't exactly advertising itself from the road (it's about as conspicuous as an ant's ear), but anyway, I digress.
For those who haven't heard Tortoise, they are a five-member experimental group that hails from Chicago. The group uses a variety of organic instruments and also electronic toys to create its vast wealth of sounds. Each member of the group comes from some other project, and somehow they all seem to piece themselves together in a way that creates a multi-layered symbiosis. Instead of egos clashing, I guess that somehow they've learned to work with each person's individual talents in a way that, for most bands, is a veritable impossibility.
The stage at the Firebird held a wealth of instruments: Bass guitars, regular electric babies, two drum kits, a fantasy-inducing Moog synth, keyboards, an electronic marimba and a xylophone. As the band took tot he stage, the disjointed lot of instruments all came to life and each element had its turn in the spotlight.
Jeff Parker's wicked guitar fingers send melodic waves cascading like an avalanche over the opening track. His jaw clenches and a hard grin of concentration flashes in and out as his lips draw back in time with the unrelenting rhythm.
In whomps the drum kit. Not one of them, two. It comes as a pleasant surprise that Dan Bitney, not usually known for his percussion, takes up the sticks for a flashy and syncopated drum duet with John Herndon. McCombs, the bassist, takes up the keys, and that turns everything we thought about Tortoise right on its head. And that is awesome.
The dizzy rockadelic frolic is brought on by a banquet of electronics (having never seen an electronic marimba, I was quite intrigued by its light-up action). Bitney and Herndon take up that and the xylophone in another duet. Herndon at one point scratches at the xylophone with the sticks like a cave man carving bones, then flips them right-side and flows right into a gorgeously bone-melting ditty on the metal. All the while, John McIntire dabbles the keys and tosses in robotic noise and "fun" stuff like dimestore beads at a Mardi Gras parade.
Somehow with Tortoise, tacky is tasteful. That 70s cop-show, slouchy polyester vibe suddenly feels like it's en vogue; it just feels right on your skin. A guy in the crowd told me that he could "feel the music in [his] pants." If that isn't rock-tastic, I don't know what is.
I'd like to say that I was fully music-critic sharp and "with it" during this show, that my brain was actively analyzing the elements 100 percent of the time, but if I said that I would be lying. I did get a little bit lost in the music for a while. The psychedelic elements whisked my brain off to another place for a few minutes before I realized what was happening. Listening to Tortoise is like hearing interpreted into music every dream you ever had--or every dream you wish that you ever had.
John Herndon really snapped me back to reality with his incredible guttural drumming. After a good hour of drumming, I imagine anyone would be exhausted, but Herndon, sweat flowing off of his nose like a mini-waterfall, took it to the next level, hitting harder and faster. Whipping the music into a froth, he brought the backbeat to the foreground. I haven't seen dedication like that in years. Hats off, buddy.
All the rock, wonk and jazz add up to a fantastic mystery flavor. As always, Tortoise delivers a rare treat.

(Photos by Harold Coin)