Friday, April 19, 2013

RUSH: Clockwork Angels album review

On the occasion of the long-overdue induction of Rush into the Rock & Roll hall of Fame, I present my review of their current album “Clockwork Angels”:

In their 44-year (and counting) career, Rush has amassed 24 gold records and 14 platinum (3 multi-platinum) records; placing them third after The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the most consecutive gold or platinum studio albums by a rock band.  Their 20th studio album, “Clockwork Angels,” could very well be their best yet.  I give it 9 out of 10 stars – and I reserve the right to increase that rating.

Clockwork Angels” is an ambitious concept album that fires on all cylinders and dramatically delivers an entertaining emotional story with the surgical precision that Rush fans have come to expect.   The concept is simple, broad and universal: an idealistic young man takes a literal and emotional journey.  Rather than create epics songs as they have in the past (2112, Hemispheres), Rush created an epic album with each song illustrating a high point of the man’s journey.  The album’s 12 tracks are the 12 most important chapters in a story that likely contains 20+ chapters.  For those who want to know the complete Clockwork Angels story, Novelist Kevin J. Anderson, a friend of Neil Peart, will release a novelization of the album later this year. 

Starting with their 1996 album “Test For Echo”, Neil Peart’s lyrics took a decidedly heavy turn - more so following the tragic loss of his daughter in 1997 and wife in 1998.  The lyrics on 2002’s “Vapor Trails” and 2007’s “Snakes And Arrows” feel heavy, meandering, detached and in some cases joyless.  Conversely, the lyrics on “Clockwork Angels” feel fresh, tight and multi-layered.  Neil Peart’s drumming on Clockwork Angels is better than ever thanks to his studies with Freddie Gruber  and the direction of album Co-Producer Nick Raskulinecz.  Ho-hum: Alex Lifeson’s guitar playing and Geddy Lee’s Bass playing are as stellar as ever. 

The following is my track-by-track analysis, including songwriter notes that might only interest a few:

“In a world where I feel so small / I can’t stop thinking big”
One of two tracks released in June 2010, it sets up the story nicely: In a steampunk world, a boy watches steamliners rolling by and dreams of leaving his farming village and making it in the distant city.  Hard-driving and fairly straight-forward with a funky 1:30 instrumental in the middle, “Caravan” sets up the album perfectly.
This is technically the first single from the album, released in 2010.

“Blind men in the market / Buying what we’re sold”
Released with Caravan in 2010, “BU2B” (Brought Up To Believe) was remixed and a new intro was added for the album version.  BU2B presents the mindset of the society – life has been pre-planned for everyone by the loving Watchmaker and you get out of life what you deserve as long as you blindly conform. A dark slash-and-burn song, the heavy guitars in the verses contrast with buzzing, dissonant guitar sounds in the chorus. 
*Songwriting Note*: Peart wrote the song as a series of quatrains in which the first line of each quatrain is the 2nd line of the previous quatrain.  Works fine for the first 2 verses & chorus, but the last 2 verses had to be re-arranged when the song was completed.  Still, it’s an interesting lyric form.

“You promise every treasure to the foolish and the wise / Goddesses of mystery, spirits in disguise”
High above the heart of the city square we see the angels of light, sea, sky and land assuring the denizens that “everything will turn out for the best”.  Clocking in at a trim 7 ½ minutes, the title track of the album begins with a guitar part that had me thinking of “Cygnus X-1” and “Hemispheres”.  Dissonance in the vocal melody called back to those songs as well but also added tension to the narrative. 
*Songwriting Note*: The Bridge of the song is a variation of Proverbs 3:5  from the Hebrew bible.

”The lenses inside of me that paint the world black / The pools of poison, the scarlet mist, that spill over into rage”
We are introduced to a new character – a terrorist who blames his life’s failures on society and plans revenge. The song’s intro knocks you down: thunderous tom-toms, driving descending guitar riff, funky bass, then the bass melody knocks you out.  The song circles around and inside the Anarchist’s mind -  not to make sense of his actions but to illustrate commitment and motivation.  The guitar solo on this song reminded me of Alex’s guitars on Grace Under Pressure.
*Songwriting Note*: The verses carry the same rhyme for 4 lines, the chorus rhymes lines 2, 5 & 6 (a repeater line) also lines 3 & 4 rhyme.

“Sometimes the angels punish us by answering our prayers”
Our protagonist is working in a travelling carnival when his path crosses with that of the Anarchist leading to an unfortunate outcome.  The song opens with a heavy, HEAVY guitar riff evocative of “Working Man” - I wanted more of that riff. There’s a lot of nice things in this song that I wanted to hear more of – including a cool jabbing synth riff – that I wonder if this song was originally twice as long to accommodate all the great parts.  A good song that made me wanting more.

“So shameful to tell / Just how often I fell / In love with illusions again”
A short interlude to the narrative as the young man muses on a girl in the carnival he fell for who reeled him in only to ultimately reject him.  Musically this song is a bit of a pallet cleanser – a short, light ballad detailing yet another instance where the young man’s perception is proven terribly wrong.
*Songwriting Note*: There is no rhyming scheme and there is no chorus - a musical interlude serves as a bridge.  The changing refrain “What did I ___? / Fool that I was” at the start of each verse serves to tie everything together.

“A man can lose himself in a country like this”
Our protagonist hears the legend of the seven cities of gold that lie past the desert.  Enduring a parched desert and snow-covered mountains, Cibola always seems out of reach.  The songs starts out with a very funky bass riff and has an atmospheric guitar solo in the middle. 
*Songwriting Note*: The chorus rhyming scheme effectively uses the suffix “-ation”  The second half of lines 1 & 3 of each verse repeat the same line, while lines 2 & 4 rhyme both halves of each line (4 rhymes total) with relevant imagery of the journey.  Simple & effective.

“All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary / Of a miracle too good to be true”
Our protagonist is on a sailing vessel that is distressed during a storm, when the boat steers toward what appears to be a safe harbor.  As the ship breaks apart on jagged reefs and is plundered by locals, our protagonist is the sole survivor.  This is the 3rd single from the album.
The music for this song came about when Geddy was fooling around with one of Alex’s guitars that had been set to “Nashville tuning”.  After Geddy wrote the chorus and verse chords, Alex grabbed a bass and wrote the bass part. 
*Songwriting Note*: Nashville tuning is replacing the 4 low strings (E A D G) on a 6-string guitar with lighter gauge strings set an octave higher than usual.  This is usually done by taking the higher strings from a 12-string set.

“Some days were dark / I wish that I could live it all again”
Our protagonist reflects back on his adventures, and despite enduring some tough times, he wishes he could do it all over for the fun of it.  This is the 2nd single from the album.
This is the song that “old Rush” fans would enjoy the most.  It’s a non-stop out-of-control jam.  The lyric “I wish that I could live it all again” came from Neil’s drum teacher and friend Freddie Gruber who passed away in 2011.  The drum work on this song is insane!

“Belief has failed me now / Life goes from bad to worse”
A dark cloud is over our protagonist as he reflects back on his adventures again and this time he feels despair that things are not all that great living outside the orderly universe of the Watchmaker, but he makes the best of what he has left.  This is a very short, story-filler song.
*Songwriting Note*: Like BU2B, this song is a series of quatrains.

“Thank your stars you're not that way / Turn your back and walk away”
Rather than try to change or waste energy on people who are bitter and vengeful toward him, our protagonist decides to just walk away and let them go without even asking for an explanation.
The lyrics apparently sprang from Neil Peart’s own experiences with people once considered friends.  It’s a good hard-driving song, but the message in the lyrics carry the song.

“The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect / So hard to earn, so easily burned”
Sentimental and heartfelt, this is a song about reflection and the meaning of life itself.  The final song on the album is possibly the best song on the album.  Starts out with shimmering keyboards and strings, with acoustic guitar entering as the verse starts.  The drums do not enter until after the chorus – it’s a great build to the highly emotional song.  Say what you will about the tone of Geddy’s voice, but he nails this song perfectly.  Alex’s solo for this song is amazing!   Awesome, awesome song.

For all those “Old Rush” Rush fans – THIS is an album to check out.   
You might actually like it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Online Dating Thing

Since 1998, on and off, I have done “the online dating thing”.
I am doing it again.

I have done: Love at AOL, Yahoo Personals, Lavalife, Zoosk, Plenty of Fish, JDate, eHarmony, Chemistry, Match, OK Cupid, and several other sites that no longer exist. In the early days, most people did not have access to a scanner, so posting photos was rare. There also was a stigma to meeting someone online, one that was fostered by people who thought the only thing online were chat rooms, and all chat rooms contained pervs trying to lure kids into their lairs. Good thing parents sent their boys to catholic churches to be altar boys instead of exposing themselves to online chat rooms!

From the start, I saw online dating for what it is: just another way for single people to meet other single people.
No more, no less.

I have met some great people, I have met some not-so-great people and I have met some “meh” people via online dating. I have four great female friends who I met online, went out on dates with and we subsequently decided a romantic relationship would not work but a friendship worked instead. My only bad experience was falling for a sociopath who emotionally shattered me – but I can’t blame meeting online for that. My overall opinion of online dating is that it works in introducing people who may not have otherwise met. After that, anyone’s success in dating online depends on their objective and how they handle it.

Everyone knows that men are superficial, right? Well, they are. But women are equally superficial. Equally. The difference is that men are more obvious and unapologetic about it while women hide it better and frequently don’t realize it. Date online for as long as I have and you learn that everyone is superficial to some degree - and it’s not a bad thing. Accept it and recognize it.

I am amazed that there are still people on online dating sites who do not post pictures, If you don’t post a photo, it means one of two things: You think you are ugly or you are cheating on someone and don’t want to be caught. I have exchanged emails over the years with people who have the belief that they can meet someone online, get to know them via email or chat, fall madly in love with that person and then when they meet, it won’t matter what they look like because they have already fallen in love. This only worked when no one had photos online, and it was lottery-winning rare. It’s a story that only has a happy ending in a Hollywood screenplay. For 99% of humanity, physical attractiveness is very important.

And then there are the extremes. As I said, men are more obvious with their superficiality. I have heard about aesthetically-challenged men posting that they are looking for skinny or petite women, model material, height 5’6” or shorter, thin & busty, physically fit. Women are less obvious…sometimes. I have seen postings from women looking for a doctor or lawyer, $100k+ income, enjoys fine dining, is not cheap, enjoys frequent travel. The very superficial guys are looking for hotties, the very superficial women are looking for financial stability. Accept it and recognize it.

It’s easy to ignore the obvious superficial people, and also easy to screen out some of the not-so-obvious superficial people.

1. Be honest about who you are and what you want.
No one wants their time wasted, so don’t be dishonest. If you have kids, state it on your profile. If you hate cats, state it. If you are conservative and cannot stand liberals, state it. Put your correct age on your profile. Don’t be evasive about who you are or what you do. In the end, “omissions” and deception will sour a relationship. You don’t want someone to lie to you in order to get a date – neither does anyone else.

2. Post several clear photos of you in various poses. 
The vast majority of online daters ignore profiles with no photos or non-helpful photos. A vast majority of online daters judge profiles on their photos first, and only read the profile if they have an attraction. Accept it and recognize it. Post at least 3 photos from different times in the past 12 months. Nothing older than that. One should be a head-and-shoulders close-up. Two should be full-body head-to-toe. They should be in focus and preferably taken by someone else. Women: self-portraits in the bathroom mirror with or without duck face have become tired clichés. Men: self-portraits in the bathroom mirror shirtless have become mock-worthy clichés. Stop it – both of you. Yes, we all know that most people look better in person, so stop stressing about it and post pics. Most people also look better in natural light, so take some pics outside during the day. Stop posting nature photos or photos of your pets. Just stop it. Are you overweight? Posting only shots of your face is a bad idea – you are setting yourself up for disappointment when you reveal your full self. Why not just screen out the superficial people right away and stop wasting time? Post a full body pic. Women, use your cleavage if you want, but if you post boobalicious shots, don’t complain when 100 guys a day are flooding your inbox asking for a good time.

3. List your deal-breakers, but be reasonable. 
Let everyone know in your profile if there is something you just can’t deal with – smokers, people with kids, a different political affiliation, animal allergies, religion, etc. But be reasonable. A preference is not a deal-breaker. If you prefer to meet people who travel, that’s great, but if you list that as a deal-breaker then you might miss out on someone great who eventually will warm up to your travel fetish.

4. If you have kids, be realistic.
If you have kids, mention it. Do not ever post something like “I have kids, but you won’t notice them”. That’s a load of crap - you have kids and they are the most important thing in your life. Do not be surprised that most people without kids would rather not date people with kids. As someone who has no kids – but wants them – I know it can be tough. Personally, I would like to get married and experience childbirth for the first time with a partner who is also experiencing it for the first time. Oh, and that’s another thing – if you have had kids and post that you don’t want anymore, then don’t be shocked when childless people who post they want kids don’t answer your emails.

5. Women, cut out the chivalry b.s. 
Something new I am seeing a lot is women defiantly posting on their profiles that they don’t EVER make the first contact – that the guy has to send them an email message, not just a wink. That means she is high-maintenance, and guys should avoid her.  This is the 21st century and women get ten times the emails than men do on online personals sites. A woman who refuses to make a move needs to grow up.

6. No incessant emailing – cut to the chase 
2-4 emails exchanged is enough. Then the woman should get the man’s phone number and call him sometime. You can learn more talking to someone than reading emails. After a couple calls, set up a meeting. I recently emailed with someone for a whole month and she still had not even offered me her first name. I suggested a phone call after 2 weeks and got no response. Fail. Move on.

7. Report & ban the creeps & fake profiles 
Lots of them out there – more creepy guys than suspicious women, but they are there. Just ignore & report.

8. Don’t get discouraged 
You’re not going to find the love of your life in the first week you are online. It takes time, be patient.

9. Be safe
Normal dating conventions are turned on their head for the sake of safely. Deal with it. The man should give the woman his phone number. She calls him and blocks her number just to be safe. The first meeting should be in a public place chosen by the woman. Somewhere that she is comfortable and feels safe. The first meeting should be short – coffee, lunch, drinks – something that won’t drag too long if things aren’t going well. Consider meeting up for the first date – again, just to be safe. Don’t want a psycho knowing where you live.

Just a few thoughts.

Monday, December 10, 2012

TV Shows I Watch: Chicago Fire

  Wednesdays @ 9pm on NBC
Starring: Jesse Spencer, Taylor Kinney, Charlie Barnett, Monica Raymund, Lauren German, Eamonn Walker, David Eigenberg, Teri Reeves

When it was first reported that Dick Wolf was going to be shooting a pilot about Firefighters in Chicago, I can't say I was all that enthused.  As much as I can appreciate the quality of Dick Wolf's programs, I never got hooked on any of them. Sure, I could watch any Law & Order episode and enjoy it - but I've never programmed my DVR to tape them regularly.  Interestingly, I was one of the few people who enjoyed the first season of his Dragnet remake.

I consider the 1972-1977 series Emergency! to be the second greatest TV series of all-time.
While the characters and their personal lives in Emergency were interesting, what I liked best about Emergency! were the rescue scenes and how they impacted the characters. 

Early on, the Chicago Fire creators Michael Brandt and Derek Haas stated that the show is more like ER in a firehouse than previous shows that had a "Fire of the Week:

In an interview, showrunners Brandt and Haas said:
We want to be sure that the message is out that we’re not writing a fire-of-the-week show. This isn’t Emergency. As much as I loved Emergency, sitting in my bean bag as a kid in Kansas City, watching that every afternoon, after school, this is not that. This is not about a fire each week, and then the procedural way that that fire gets put out, and then the aftermath. This is a show, much like E.R. or Hill Street Blues, where you have the occasional action set piece and something goes wrong in the city that our characters have to go deal with, but it really is a character-driven show. There will be weeks where nothing will light on fire, and there will be weeks when we burn down a building, but it’s not about the fires. It’s really about what it is like in a giant firehouse. Ours is modeled after one of the biggest firehouses in Chicago, where there are men and women working together, and there are civilians working in there. So, it’s much closer to E.R. than it is to Emergency.
So, while I feel like they were kinda dissing the second greatest TV show of all-time, it was actually kinda cool that they numbered their Engine "51" - an homage to the second greatest TV show of all time!  Nice.  Convenient that there is no Engine 51 in service for the CFD.

My review:  It's a good show, frequently enjoyable with great rescue scenes, but way too melodramatic to the point of stretching believability.

One big problem I have with the show is that 8 episodes in and I am still fuzzy on some character names and jobs.  If ever there was a show that deserved an explanatory theme song / opening sequence - this is it.  It really would go a long way to helping the viewer keep the characters straight.  They've already added a "...last time on Chicago Fire" recap, but other than that there's just a 5 second slug to open the show.  The end theme is okay - it would serve as a decent theme song.

The main characters of Casey, Severide and Mills are well-developed and interesting.  Casey and Severide are the veterans and station leaders while Mills is the rookie.

Unfortunately, the creators made a huge mistake with the Paramedic crew.  Dawson and Shay seem to be strong characters - strong women characters, but among the whole cast, they are also the most emotionally messed up.  I question the wisdom of assigning the only two women in the station on the ambulance.  I would think having one woman on the Truck, Engine or Rescue Squad would have been a wiser choice.  Meantime, Shay is a Lesbian dealing with feelings for a past love that she recently ran into on a run while Dawson has a thing for Casey, is a stereotypical hot-headed Latina who doesn't play by the rules and acts impulsively.  In 8 episodes, she's almost gotten in legal trouble twice already.  Argh.  God forbid you have a strong woman character who isn't messed up in some way.

I don't mean to pick on the female character characterization - everyone at the station has some kind of dramatic emotional issues, and from the start the writers jumped in and got into everyone's drama.  I think that was a bad idea and likely stunted the show's initial appeal.  Rather than throw 7-8 different plot lines at everyone, this is the kind of show where every week you can work on drama for 3-4 characters, interwoven over the season.  I mean, let's face it, not everyone is going to have drama at all times.  It happens, but the odds of everyone there having this gripping emotional drama every week is kinda crazy.

Story-wise, the writing has been fine.
- Casey has to deal with a bad cop trying to cover up the cop's son drunk driving.  This was completely believable knowing the Chicago Police.  Not believable was the help Casey got bringing the bad cop down from Dawson's brother - a detective on the police force.  Recent and past events in Chicago have shown that good cops never do anything about bad cops in Chicago. Never.
- I find it odd that most calls involve dispatching the entire station - Squad, Ambulance, Truck and Engine nearly every time.
- Battalion Chief Boden is not being given much by the writers. Eamonn Walker (he's a Brit!) deserves better than to play a stiff, overly-serious one-dimensional character. 

It's on my DVR and I''m watching it weekly.  I like the show and recommend it.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pittsburgh - Home of the Black & Gold

Have you noticed that all three of Pittsburgh's major sports teams use the Black & Gold color scheme?  I was thinking about that after my last post explaining why I am a Steelers fan.  I think it is pretty cool that they use the same colors and it subconsciously ties Pittsburgh sports fandom together.

The Black & Gold coloring comes from the Pittsburgh city flag, which has an interesting origin story as well.

The first major team to adopt the colors was the NHL Pittsburgh Pirates in 1925.
The next team was the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers (originally known as the Pittsburgh Pirates) in 1933.
The MLB Pittsburgh Pirates switched from Black & Red to Black & Gold in 1948.
The NHL Pittsburgh Penguins changed their colors in the middle of the 1979-80 season to match the Steelers and Pirates.

The story behind the Steelers logo and the three hypocycloids is pretty cool.

Monday, November 12, 2012

How I Became A Pittsburgh Steelers Fan

I started watching NFL Football in 1978 when I was 9 years old.  At that age, my bedtime was 9pm.  We had two TVs in the house - the one in the front room (or as I always though it was called - "the French Room") that was connected to the antenna in the roof and a small TV on the back porch that was not connected and got bad reception.  My mom spent most of her time watching the TV on the back porch - usually ironing or sewing at the sewing machine or multitasking something else.  My dad, of course, was master of the front room TV. 

When dad watched football on Sundays, I generally was outside playing with friends.  But then there was Monday Night Football.  I distinctly remember lobbying my mom to stay up late on Mondays to watch the game.  Of course, I was usually doing something else during it - like sorting through baseball or football cards - but dad had my back and suggested I stay up way past 9.  So, I became a fan of football mostly as a way to stay up past my bedtime on Mondays.

A funny thing happened with the Superbowl that year - the Dallas Cowboys played the Pittsburgh Steelers, and my dad was rooting for the Steelers!  Rooting for a team other than the Bears was an odd concept to me at the time, but my dad talked about Terry Bradshaw and John Stallworth and Mean Joe Greene and how great they were.

By the time the 1979 season rolled around, I started to watch the Steelers when they were on.  Oh, sure, I was still a Bears fan - who would not be a Bears fan with players like Mike Phipps, Rickey Watts, Brian Baschnagel and Len Walterscheid on the team!
Oh, and also Sweetness.
The Steelers made it to their 4th Superbowl that year and it was the first year that I was REALLY excited for the game.

Of course, the hiring of Mike Ditka as Bears Head Coach starting with the 1982 season revitalized the team and turned my attention primarily on the Bears.  The 1980's Mark Malone-Bubby Brister era was a tough one for Steeler fans anyway.  1992 was the last season for Mike Ditka as head coach of the Bears but also the first for Bill Cowher as head coach of the Steelers.  When the villainous Mike McCaskey made the bad decision to fire Mike Ditka and hire the personality-challenged Dave Wannstedt, I turned my back on the Bears.  They lost their heart and soul (no, not Ditka) and felt soft.

Meanwhile, Bill Cowher's Steelers dominated from 1992-1997 with a smash-mouth style that Chicagoans love.  Sure, they continually fell short of the Superbowl, but Neil O'Donnell and this exciting new guy Kordell Stewart were fun to watch.  I became such a big Kordell fan that starting in 1999 until 2003 I made sure he was always on my Fantasy Football team - the Montana Lizard-Men.  Unfortunately, Kordell was exciting but just not good enough to captain the Steelers to the 'Bowl.  In 1999 Dick Jauron replaced Dave Wannstedt as Bears head coach.  While Wanny had no personality, Jauron sucked the life out of the room.  It was like painting a beige room over with another, more horrible, shade of beige.   Thank you, no. 

A couple of great things for the Bears and Steelers happened during the 2004 season - first, the Bears finally got a good head coach in Lovie Smith.  Now I could start to enjoy the team again.  For the Steelers, their rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger came off the bench for an injured Tommy Maddox and ripped off 14 straight wins until losing in the AFC Championship game.  I couldn't get a Big Ben Steelers jersey fast enough. 

The successful Cowher-era (Superbowl win in 2005) led right into the successful Mike Tomlin-era (Superbowl win in 2008) and even though Lovie Smith had the Bears playing "Bears football" again, it's the Steelers that have been #1 in my heart most of the time.  Sure, I could not sell my Big Ben jerseys fast enough a couple years ago after he failed to heed the phrase "No Means No", but just because I don't respect the QB doesn't mean I don't love the team.


Monday, November 5, 2012

What's In A Name: John Kuczaj & Atomic Shop

My last name is "Kuczaj".  It's Polish.  It's pronounced "KOOCH-eye".  It was the source of much grief when I was in High School.

One of the most celebrated traits of being an American is individuality.
One of the most lampooned traits of being an American is individuality.
Cynicism kicked in for me at a very young age once I started to realize that everyone is a hypocrite and most people just plain suck.

When I was a kid, going to St. Ferdinand grammar school on the Northwest side of Chicago, if there was a culture of teasing then I wasn't part of it.  By the time you were in the 8th grade, you'd spent 7-8 years growing up with your classmates, and by then it was as if we were a family or sorts - in it together.  I recall meeting some new kids in the neighborhood around 7th or 8th grade who thought my name to be funny and made fun of it.  My reaction was puzzlement and indifference.  I do recall thinking that they were strange and likely not too intelligent for thinking my name was a source of amusement.

Sadly, that entirely appropriate reaction and assessment would change over time.

High school for me was 4 years of hell.  I hated almost every minute of it from day 1.  At first I was excited to be going to St. Patrick High School - then the first day happened.  The first class I had was gym class, where one of the gym teachers / coaches proceeded to call out all the Freshmen and explain to them that they were no longer  "king of the hill" and were now at the bottom of the food chain.
No "Welcome to St. Pat's", instead we got "You are scum".

2nd thru 4th period wasn't any better for me as every teacher insisted on horribly mispronouncing my name to the amusement of everyone in the class and then they had trouble with it AFTER I told them how it was pronounced.  This was my lot for the next 4 years - constant ridicule of my name.  In the 4th period class I was so frustrated and bewildered by then that when I called out the correct pronunciation, I yelled the first part too loud.  The non-athlete bully of the Class of '87 seized upon that and decided that my name came from a Kung Fu movie sound effect.  For the next four years I would frequently be greeted by people who would over-pronounce my name and make karate chop moves.

Looking back on it, the verbal bullying was a defense mechanism and a way to curry favor with the majority of students.  While at St. Ferdinand there were Jocks and Brains and Popular people, none of the groups shunned the others (well...some of the popular kids preferred their own) and there was a mutual respect and sense of community.  At St. Pat's, the Freshman class was quickly beat down several pegs by the staff, so most felt the need to assert some kind of dominance over someone, hence the verbal bullying.

The afternoon classes had more of the same, hitting a crescendo in Pre-Honors English, where the teacher - Mr. Horan - joined in the ridicule.  It started out fine - when he got to my name he asked first.  Scott, the non-athlete bully piped in with his karate routine, much to everyone's amusement. When the laughter diminished, I piped in with "KOOCH-eye".  Horan then said "Oh, like, Koochy Kooch Eye?"
The class roared with laughter and began repeating it so much that the room sounded like the monkey cage at Lincoln Park Zoo.  Horan, to my disdain, looked fairly pleased with his brilliant quip and half-halfheartedly got the class to calm down. It is my sincere hope that Mr. Horan has suffered a very painful, slow death.

My lot was set for 4 years at St. Patrick. Constant put-down based on whatever new name variation anyone can come up with. Any adult looking at it now might say - so what?  It's stupid.  Ignore it.  Indeed, that was my original reaction a couple years prior. However, it was impossible to ignore because it was ubiquitous and it didn't REALLY matter WHAT was being ridiculed, did it?   The message was "I am picking on you because you are weak / different / inferior".  That message was received loud & clear.

I never experienced ridicule at Columbia College Chicago - not once.  The message going into the school was clear to everyone: you are an adult now, act like one.  Meantime, my goal was to break into the TV business and at Columbia that meant either doing technical things (editing, camera, control room) or being a reporter.  I  opted to try the reporting side. No instructor (most of them TV news professionals themselves) ever suggested I come up with a "viewer-friendly" name, but it was a thought I had. For about 10 seconds.

Despite having a hard-to-pronounce and hard-to-spell last name, it was mine.  It was my identity.  To give a fake name would be whoring myself out, and to operate as a journalist with a made-up stage name would undermine my credibility and worst of all - it would be a lie.
So, John Kuczaj it was.  Unique.  Weird.  Difficult to pronounce.  Me.

So, when I started to record songs that I had written with the ultimate goal of releasing the final recordings, I had a decision to make.  Would I release them as solo artist John Kuczaj, or with another name?  Well, since my ultimate goal was to be in a band rather than be a solo artist, I decided that a catchy band name would be the best option - perhaps at some point I could recruit some band members and play live shows under the moniker.  Also, it would be much easier for people to search the internet for info on a catchy band name than my name.  My choice of band name was never in doubt.  It was a name I had in the back of my mind for almost 20 years - but that is a story for another time.  Until then:

John Kuczaj IS Atomic Shop
Atomic Shop IS John Kuczaj

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Problem With The Sports Channels

I was a fan of ESPN in 1982 - even though the city of Chicago was not completely wired for cable until 1985.  Whenever we had to go to birthday parties for cousins who lived in the suburbs, they invariable had cable TV and I could watch the wonder of ESPN.  Mostly that meant Canadian Football, Australian Rules Football and Tom Mees on SportsCenter.  By the mid-80's, ESPN had the rights to the NHL and I was able to become a rabid Buffalo Sabres fan.  I even wrote the channel when they debuted the new SportsCenter theme ("da da da!  da da da!") and they sent me back a logo bumper sticker that I put on my '82 Mustang.

SportsCenter slowly supplanted CNN Sports Tonight as the best daily sports highlights show - thanks in part to Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann.  The great thing about both those shows was that they gave you  highlights for every televised game of the day in the major sports.

Nowadays...not so much.

SportsCenter has become an unwatchable mess.  Incessant speculation and discussions and punditry permeates the show.  It still has highlights, though not for EVERY game...and not for EVERY major sport.  If ESPN doesn't have a contract to broadcast the sport, well, godspeed.  ESPN has been punishing the NHL since the 2004 lockout when the NHL's contract with ESPN ended and they jumped to Versus.  ESPN had originally hoped to set up ESPN 2 as the NHL destination channel but they low-balled the league.  Comcast swooped in and took the rights away.  ESPN responded by relegating hockey coverage to short segments in the middle of SportsCenter - usually with Barry Melrose talking up whatever happened that night.  The WNBA got more coverage during SportsCenter.  Why/  ESPN had the rights to the games.

That was pretty much the end of SportsCenter for me.  If the ESPN honchos were going to be petulant children and give a middle finger to Hockey fans like me...well then, there really was little reason to trust SportsCenter to be impartial, now, was there?

Fast Forward to last year when Comcast/NBC re-branded Versus as the NBC Sports Network and started to go after sports rights.  NHL was the crown jewel of the network, but they needed more than rodeo and cycling.  This could be an opportunity for another for the "big 4" sports to get more visibility than the cluttered ESPN landscape.  Alas, twas not to be:
  • The NBA contracts go to 2016
  • The NFL extended the current TV contracts to 2021
  • MLB just extended their contracts to 2021
So, the NBC Sports Network is shut out of the remaining 3 of the "Big 4".  What to they do?  They corner the market on Soccer.  After picking up the rights to the MLS last year, they just spent $250 million for the English Premier League for the next 3 years - stealing it away from ESPN and Fox Soccer Channel (who knew?).

I expect ESPN will once again throw a tantrum and soccer highlights will almost completely disappear from SportsCenter.  On the one hand - not a bad thing as soccer is a horrible game - but on the other hand, there are a lot of foreign-born and IQ challenged sports fans who seem to find something to enjoy about soccer.  Those people will stop watching SportsCenter and start watching more NBC Sports Network, I suppose.

ESPN set a lame precedent of ignoring sports that they have no rights to, and I am certain this record will play again.

p.s.  Poker is not a sport, ESPN.