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Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Ultimate List of Amputated and Disabled Musicians

I know how to type in the proper, traditional form. Learning how to do that was part of my ninth grade curriculum, and it largely turned out to be more or less like riding a bicycle. I never forgot how to do it. If I really decided to apply myself to it and learn the whole process over again, I could probably get my word-per-minute rate up to around 70. However, I choose to instead keep pecking out essay after essay on my two index fingers – well, technically it’s one index finger and one middle finger – for one reason: Proper typing is extremely uncomfortable. Not only for the typical reason, but my immobile wrist tends to cramp up quickly, and go into the occasional spasm.

This is a real pain in the ass for me sometimes, but in a way, I’m also lucky. My greatest talent is verbosity in print, which is a fancy way of saying I can write well. When I type, I need one finger to use one key at a time. Mistakes are easy to correct. And when I’m not coming off well, at least readers aren’t tortured by nails scratching on a chalkboard. The people in today’s tribute to amputees and disable people don’t have that luxury. They’re all musicians, all disabled in some way, and some of them are disabled in ways which could put a serious clamp on the ability to make music without straining or guessing at the notes. Making good music takes talent, an ear for timing and accuracy, and a full compliment of limbs and senses. That’s the common line of thinking, anyway. For other people, it just takes a work ethic and creative fire which are both strong enough for them to say screw it, I’m doing it anyway. Guess which route the musicians on this list took!

Ludwig Van Beethoven
Let’s begin with Beethoven, a composer who became one of the most influential in the history of music in spite of lacking the one sense which is the most crucial to creating music. It was probably in Beethoven’s favor that he began to exhibit signs of being musically prodigious at an early age and started to lose his hearing at age 26. He came down with a hard case of tinnitus, the scientific way of saying his ears were ringing and making it tough for him to hear music. No one knows what caused his deafness, although typhus, auto-immune disorders, and his habit of dunking his head in cold water to stay awake seem to be the most popular culprits. It didn’t stop him from composing, of course, but it did make his live performances hell. After 1811, he never played live again.

You might not know Beethoven’s popular compositions – like the Moonlight Sonata or the Ninth Symphony – by name, but trust me, you do know them.

Kenny G
Kenny G fucking sucks. You know it, I know it, and there’s no point in trying to hide it. Kenny G is an easy listening muzak producer. Although he’s frequently called a jazz musician, he does for jazz the same thing Shania Twain and Taylor Swift are known to do for country: Dial and layer back the identifying elements of it to drown out the hotter material, thus making it palatable to suburban America, then trick them into buying it by giving them the impression they’re enriching their own understanding of their country’s cultural heritage when they’re actually contributing to the wipeout of everything that made it so unique and different.

But talent is talent and disability is disability, and an asthmatic man who can hold a single note for 40 minutes on a woodwind instrument more than qualifies.

Paul Stanley
Paul Stanley was born with microtia, a relatively uncommon ear defect which affects roughly one out of every 7000 to 10,000 people. That means his outer ear is misshapen, if it’s even there at all. Stanley counteracted the torment that goes with having a birth defect by growing his hair long. I’m not sure how much of a difference that would make, given that he grew up in the 60’s, when long hair was not just ripe for torment but worthy of expulsion from school and arrest. The misshapen ear isn’t the defect itself, but frequently the result of a much worse defect: The absence of a normal ear canal, functional ossicles, and tympanic membrane – basically all those nice little parts which enable people to hear normally.

Certainly Stanley’s critics are rolling their eyes and saying “it figures,” because Stanley is one of the founding members and the frontman for Kiss. It’s hard to think of fine musicianship when your band is always selling out, a concept which was central to the very formation of Kiss, and a fact Stanley and Gene Simmons themselves gleefully admit to. Then again, this:

Ray Charles
First of two blind musicians, Ray Charles’s disability is common knowledge. He showed a curiosity for all things mechanical from an early age, when he would watch mechanics work on cars at the local garage. His musical curiosity was sparked at a cafe when he overheard the owner play a boogie woogie on a piano. He also came down with glaucoma, and was completely blind by the time he was seven years old. While studying at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, he became the school’s premier musician. Looking for his own band, Charles moved to Seattle in 1947, released his first number one single in 1954, and by the time he died 50 years later, Ray Charles was revered as one of the most influential and important rhythm and blues musicians in American music.

Stevie Wonder
I was originally tempted to cram him and Charles into the same entry. Both are blind, black musicians who performed rhythm and blues and were voices during the Civil Rights movement. Yeah, those are some pretty big similarities, but…

Stevie Wonder is a Motown boy. He was born six weeks premature in Saginaw, Michigan, which caused the not-yet-attached blood vessels at the back of his eyes to abort their growth, eventually detaching from the retinas. The medical term for this is retinopathy of prematurity. Despite his blindness, he developed an interest in music and became one of those ridiculously talented young prodigies, taking up piano, harmonica, drums, and bass. Wonder was friends with a man named Gerald White, who was a friend of Ronnie White of The Miracles. Gerald begged Ronnie to check out Stevie, and when Ronnie finally gave in, he ended up bringing Wonder to Motown Records. By the time he was 13 years old, Stevie Wonder had a major hit. He’s still the youngest singer to ever top the Billboard and R&B charts. In the 70’s he released a series of classic albums like Innervisions, Talking Book, and Songs in the Key of Life. He was considered an icon by the 80’s, and he’s still recording and performing today.

Edgar Winter
Another child prodigy, Winter is also an albino. While his albinism doesn’t subject him to the same torment or or physical hardship as everyone else on this list, the albino light sensitivity could easily hinder his ability to perform under bright lights.

Itzhak Perlman
The trouble with writing up a list like this is that our society is currently so intertwined with rock music that we overlook almost everything else. Perlman is not a rock musician. He’s one of the preeminent violinists of the 20th and 21st centuries. He’s also Israeli, which means American audiences aren’t going to hear about him very much if they’re not violin fanatics.

Perlman took up the violin after hearing a performance on the radio, but was too small to hold the instrument, which got him denied entrance into the Shulamit Conservatory. Instead, he taught himself how to play by using a toy fiddle until he was old enough to study at the Conservatory, and later at the Academy of Music in Tel Aviv – giving his first recital when he was ten years old – and eventually Juilliard. He contracted polio when he was four years old, and although he recovered well enough, he does have to use crutches and electric scooters to get around and sit during performances. Although he’s best known for his classical music, he did score a few movies, including Schindler’s List and Memoirs of a Geisha.

Jacqueline du Pre
Jacqueline du Pre heard a cello solo on the radio in her home of Oxford, England when she was four years old and asked her mother for “one of those.” Her mother obliged and became her first teacher, and alongside her sister, flautist Hilary, du Pre was entering and winning music competitions from an early age. She then began working with the damn ivy league of cellists. By the late 60’s, her peers were declaring her one of the truly gifted musicians of her time.

By the 70’s, however, she started to lose sensitivity through the onset of multiple sclerosis. After the disease really began to overwhelm her, she stopped performing in 1973 after getting trashed in print by some American critics. She developed problems with the weight of her instrument and had trouble opening the case for it. Although she stopped performing in 1973, she lived until 1987. Although she never did get to score a movie, she did get to be the subject of the 1998 film Hilary and Jackie, which was controversial because it appeared to sensationalize her private life and it pissed off a lot of people who were close to her.

Rick Allen
Try to imagine this: You’re the drummer for a popular headbanger band from England called Def Leppard. So far, your career has been going pretty well. You’ve opened for metal luminaries like AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne, your video was one of the first metal videos ever shown on MTV, and your most recent album just sold six million copies and yielded three hit singles. Naturally, you want to go out and celebrate on New Year’s Eve, but on the way to the party some asshole in an Alfa Romeo passes you, slows down, and doesn’t let you by. You get angry and start jockeying for position to pass him, lose control of the car, and eventually flip over a stone wall. Since you’re an idiot who thinks you’re too good for seat belts, you take an impromptu flying lesson into the field. In getting up, you try to move your left arm, but you can’t because it’s apparently afraid of flying and decided not to make the trip with you.

Doctors originally reattached Allen’s arm, but they took it off again because it was infected. Allen originally developed a severe depression, but with the encouragement of his bandmates, he had some engineers develop an electronic drum kit to help him play the snare as he re-learned some of his old rhythms in order to play them one-handed. My favorite part of this story is that after Allen’s accident, the band reached its greatest success. The first Def Leppard album after the accident was Hysteria, which went on to sell over 20 million copies and produced the band’s best-known single. Although Def Leppard doesn’t headline like they used to in the 80’s, they still record and tour, and with over 100 million albums sold worldwide, are one of the most successful bands in the world. Allen was another famously disabled person my father told me about when I was very young.

Before:

After:

Tony Iommi
Aston, England may not be an American city, but I get the feeling it would fit right in on the Rust Belt: Industrial base. Roughneck population. You’re lucky to earn a high school diploma, and even if you do, you’re still expected to fall in line like everyone else – you go to the factory and die, mainly because you don’t have the capacity to imagine anything more. Tony Iommi was a 17-year-old Birmingham kid who liked to play guitar and was close to going professional. On what was supposed to be his last day at the factory, the metal presses ate a little extra when they lopped the tips of two of his fingers. The devastated Iommi never thought he’d play again.

Iommi’s manager offered some encouragement to him by playing a record by guitarist Django Reinhardt, and after Reinhardt blew his mind, he was determined to keep playing guitar. The southpawed Iommi tried to learn righty guitar and, failing that, went back to playing left-handed with ligther strings and thimbles. He tells the story in this video:

After one of his bands broke up, the young Iommi answered an ad from an inexperienced musician who used the stage name Ozzy Zig. Zig turned out to be some weird kid named John Osbourne, whom Iommi bullied when they were kids. But with that in the past, they formed a new band called Earth. When a booking mixup resulted in them showing up to a gig instead of a small-time band on the English circuit which happened to share the same name, Earth changed its name to Black Sabbath, and Iommi became the defining guitarist for a subgenre of rock music which is still very, very popular.

If you’re wondering why Django Reinhardt’s music was so important to Iommi, well…

Django Reinhardt
Those who know movies might know Django Reinhardt as the guy Sean Penn’s character idolizes in Woody Allen’s movie Sweet and Lowdown. Since the movie is a piece of fiction revolving around a character who is also fictional, I figured he was a work of Allen’s imagination. At a housewarming party some years later, I was chatting with a friend who was a musician about the potential musical limits of my own birth defect when he asked me if I had ever heard of Django Reinhardt. He let me in on the fact that Reinhardt was a real person and, what’s more, had two paralyzed fingers on his fret hand. When I went home and looked him up, I learned that the paralyzed fingers were the result of a fire which severely injured him. He had to learn a whole new style, and when he discovered jazz, he just about went nuts for it.

Whenever those “Greatest Guitarist Ever” lists are drawn up, they usually cite the usual guys among rock journalists: Hendrix, Van Halen, Page… Reinhardt is considered the greatest among people who aren’t afriad to look outside the rock field.

Jerry Garcia
The Grateful Dead face severed part of his finger when he inadvertently put it in the way of a falling axe. He used it to his advantage when he was a kid, showing it off to other kids in the neighborhood.

A Tribute to Tony Scott

I doubt there’s a single person of my generation who didn’t feel almost legally obligated to spend a couple of hours a day playing Top Gun, pretending to be Maverick, or Goose, or Iceman. Top Gun was the first movie that I could ever legitimately call a favorite movie, and a neighbor had a copy of it on a blank video which I watched a lot, up to the scene where the prize is handed out at the ceremony; that’s where the copy cut off. Of course, it wasn’t until later that I began to realize the absurdity of the entire movie. In real life, Maverick would have had his ass court-martialed for probably five or six of the little stunts he had pulled throughout the movie, assuming they had let a guy with his temperament and mentality become a fighter pilot in the first place. Even though the Navy’s most effective recruiting video was almost entirely fraudulent, though, Top Gun was a fun little fantasy, and it held its impact on me far more than any other movie of the time with the possible exceptions of Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET: The Extraterrestrial, or Batman.

God bless the director of Top Gun, Tony Scott. Scott received word recently of the fact that he was developing a form of inoperable brain cancer. As a director known mainly for his action movies, Scott did something which was as fitting as it was sad and tragic: Instead of letting his cancer slowly eat him, he went the way of a lot of tragic action heroes and jumped off a bridge near the Los Angeles area. More philosophical types can probably find ways to argue the nobility of this gesture; however, in this case there was no being a real hero. No one was burning in a building or about to get blown up. It was just Scott taking what I guess was an easier way out, at least in his mind.

It’s often Tony Scott’s older brother, Ridley, whom all the attention and critical acclaim gets lavished on. It was Ridley, after all, who redefined science fiction in 1978 when he directed Alien, and again in 1982 with Blade Runner. It was Ridley’s movie, Gladiator, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2001. There are few film buffs who will argue against the idea of Ridley being the more talented of the two. Tony’s trademark style was a lot more frenetic than Ridley’s, and it was unfortunately brought to lows through constant usage by Michael Bay. But while Ridley’s boosters mainly seem to be people who are film buffs, it was Tony who captured the heart of the average moviegoer. Yes, Tony might have had the worse directorial style, and his acumen in picking out decent scripts was questionable. There are movies he made in which he came off as desperate to turn a scene without any real substance into an image that could keep an audience’s interest (The Fan, ahem). But it was always Tony who had the touch necessary to connect with those who see movies for the pure escapism and joy of the movies themselves.

Although I can admit my guilt in the Tony-bashing role, the truth is he always did receive something of a bum rap. His 1993 masterpiece, True Romance, is considered a legitimate classic and a thought-provoker. His 1998 chase festival, Enemy of the State, was written off as masturbation for conspiracy theorists when it was released, but in the social media age, it’s looking more and more eerily prophetic by the year. Crimson Tide made an exciting movie out of a communications mishap which would be very silly and absurd in real life and, like in the case of Top Gun, would probably result in someone getting booted from the Navy. Speaking of Top Gun, that was one of three movies in Tony’s output which are considered exciting action movies which aren’t completely reliant on direct man-to-man violence. There’s a little bit of hostility between characters, and the American pilots enter a dogfight with some Russian pilots in the end, but the crux of Top Gun’s action is a bunch of training sequences. Days of Thunder is seen as an action movie but, since it’s about race car drivers, could very easily be written up as a sports movie. Unstoppable is about a train full of chemicals that needs to be slowed. I’m not certain about that last one since I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard there’s no actual violence it in.

It’s a classic case of people concentrating so hard on what a director can’t do that we forget just what he can do. Tony Scott was deprived of critical acclaim because he was so good at tracking down the popcorn scripts. Movies rarely go both ways. Everyone knows the last Best Picture Oscar was taken by The Artist, but how many people would honestly know that movie even existed if it didn’t receive attention from the Academy? Iron Man 2 was forgotten about in short order because it was the worse sequel to a good movie, even though it got a huge release and had a brilliant actor playing the titular role. Occasionally, we get movies which somehow travel down both roads; Inception and The Dark Knight Rises are both great examples. Those, however, are the kinds of scripts that just have to be lucked into.

In all, Tony Scott knew he was an entertainer, first and forever. Unlike a lot of other directors, he didn’t give second mind to allegorical depth and metaphor. He never tried to twist a script into a kind of theme glove which he would try to then fit over a meaningless piece of popcorn entertainment in an attempt to ambush movie audiences. Even when a little bit of reflective examination might have helped a script, he held back and let screenwriters do their jobs.

Tony Scott’s greatest achievement was probably the fact that, in spite of the fact that so many of his movies were popcorn flicks, people remember them and still enjoy them, long after they should have faded out of the spotlight.

The Fan: A Tony Scott Film

I didn’t want to spend a tone of time today finding the right words to talk about the recent suicide of director Tony Scott. So for now, this is a re-posting of a review I wrote about one of his movies, The Fan, for my blog Lit Bases. I’ll give Scott his props in another day or two, because I want to say something more instead of merely re-posting a negative review I gave to a bad movie he made.

I’m not sure how I’m thought of by my readers. This blog is about baseball books, so it’s probably easy to type the web address into the search bar, visit Lit Bases, and wonder how obsessed I am with baseball. But if anyone has been reading my personal blog, The Windy Nickel, they might be starting to realize that I have a legion of interests that have nothing to do with baseball. I’m also into writing (so yes, I really am this good when I write about other subjects too; I originally created my name online by reviewing video games, which I did for a respected independent site for seven years), bicycling, photography and filmmaking, and I was deeply involved in political activism for awhile before learning that being politically active requires keeping one’s mouth shut and his head up his ass. I travel when I can and have been a volunteer for a number of organizations. Baseball isn’t even my primary reading interest; I started reading baseball books as intellectual downtime between books that are harder for my head to digest, and Lit Bases came about because I see baseball books as a comfy niche. If you’ve been REALLY paying attention to my posts in this blog, in fact, you know baseball isn’t even my favorite sport – that would be hockey.

Baseball is, however, a big part of my life because watching and following it helped me interact with people when I began trying to shed my status as a social outcast a decade ago. It was a big sport in my school; big subjects for student debate included abortion rights, which are never really far from the frontline; the war on terror, which began during my second semester; and whether or not MLB should have a salary cap. I began watching Saturday baseball – the Yankees on Fox and the Mets on the WB – and so whenever I heard people nearby discussing Jason Giambi’s ability to crush every ball in sight or Roger Clemens make competent batters flail gracelessly, I was able to interject with my own opinion and was welcomed into conversations I would have ignored before.

I’m saying this because after watching The Fan, I felt a need to say something about how baseball has been a positive contributor to the person I am now. It helped make me from a guarded social outcast who snapped at people who said anything to me into a more outgoing person who can hold his own in a crowd. The Fan would have you believe that all people with any interest in baseball are pathetic nutcases who morph into ranting pack hunters at the ballpark. Even exempting Robert De Niro’s character, Gil Renard, nearly everyone shown in the ballpark crowd scenes is there to unleash their inner beast.

A certain story about sports fandom always stuck out in my head: I once read that a fan of the Houston Oilers killed himself after the famous Miracle Comeback game, in which the Oilers ran up a 32-point lead by the third quarter and managed to lose the game anyway. This is clearly an effect of a more negative kind of fandom, and I think The Fan is trying to come off as a bit of an examination of this kind of fandom. In this respect, it fails epically because Gil is established as a real wackjob from the get go. Watching him is akin to watching Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining: There’s always a bit of a psychotic glimmer in his eye and so trying to establish him as the ordinary guy who flips out simply doesn’t work. You would have to be out of your own mind yourself in order to believe Gil is simply an ordinary guy with a slight excess of love for his favorite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants. Even the people who follow their teams the closest usually have a sense of proper priorities and perspective. Gil skips an important work meeting for opening day, calls into the local radio show regularly to rant, and is issued a restraining order early in the movie for not bringing his son back to his home with his mother in time. Now really, how many baseball fans do you know have gotten issued restraining orders?

Gil also works as a hunting knife salesman. You can guess where this is going.

The Giants in The Fan are going to have a special season because they just signed a $40 million player named Bobby Rayburn. Rayburn is Gil’s favorite player, and Gil constantly calls into the local sports talk show to talk about why Rayburn is worth so much. Rayburn has to give up his number 11 to another player, Juan Primo, and he isn’t happy about it. Rayburn is supposed to be the good guy in The Fan, but he comes off as spoiled and a whiner who is unconcerned with anyone but himself, so most people aren’t going to relate to him, either. So to reiterate the basic fact: Your two main characters can’t be related to and are unlikable.

The only way the script tries to create a connection between the audience and the main characters is to give them both children. The relationship between Gil and his kid is something the script apparently doesn’t care to decipher. I couldn’t tell if there was any mutual love between the two or if it was an unreciprocated affection by the father for the son. There are times when the son appears to get along just fine with Gil, but others – before the restraining order – in which he appears to be afraid of Gil. Rayburn gets along with his son, Sean, just fine. One of the pivotal plot points in The Fan revolves around Gil kidnapping Sean and Sean appears at first to be trying to befriend Gil. Sean doesn’t appear to have his danger detector on until Gil takes him to visit his old friend Coop.

Anyway, Rayburn goes into the worst slump of his career while Primo picks up Rayburn’s slack and leads the team. Gil, long an admirer of Rayburn, hates that and takes matters into his own hands to get Rayburn to wear his original number 11 again. He tries to reason with Primo, and when that doesn’t work out, he kills Primo. The killing scene is director Tony Scott at his worst, slow motion and quick cross cuts as a way of covering up the fact that there really isn’t that much substance to the scene. Scott can hardly be blamed a whole lot, though, and given the way The Fan plays out I’m tempted to place more blame at the feet of Peter Abrahams – who wrote the book The Fan was based on – and Phoef Sutton. Maybe Sutton was being asked to stretch a bit much, because most of his screenwriting work takes place on TV.

As if that wasn’t enough, the climactic scenes destroy any sense of disbelief and plausibility The Fan might have carried. The weak source material means poor Tony Scott, who can be a solid action director given the right material (his best known movies are probably Top Gun and Enemy of the State), is stuck trying to use a deluge rain as the movie’s pivotal moment of suspense. This isn’t a light, misty rain here; this is a full-on drenching that might drown a fish. And there is a baseball game being played right in the middle of it! We’re also asked to believe this despite the fact that the local law enforcement – which knows full well that Sean has been kidnapped and might be killed if the game is delayed – has neglected to fill in the details to the umpires or the other team. The pitcher in that climactic game is also not pitching to Rayburn, and this is important because Gil want Rayburn to hit a home run for him, or else he’ll kill Sean. It’s certainly easy to understand that Rayburn needs to be pitched to so he can hit that home run and save Sean, it’s also tough to not place yourself in the shoes of the pitcher who thinks Rayburn is just an egomaniac looking to inflate his numbers Barry Bonds style.

I can’t let off Scott that lightly, though, because his musical choices for the score are interesting to say the least. Suspenseful, slow melodramatic pieces combined with Rolling Stones songs. Seriously.

There’s no sufficient explanation as to just why Gil is so obsessed with Rayburn. The movie sort of lets him descend into his madness – as much as an already overtly obsessed person can descend into madness, anyway – but the montage that closes out The Fan shows that Gil has been cutting out articles about Rayburn and hanging them on his wall, interspersed with a handful of articles about his own little league baseball heroics. The little league articles explain why he tracked down his old friend Coop, at least to a point, but Gil’s little league dominance really flies out of left field. Since the connection between that and his obsession with Rayburn is not explained, well, Gil still just comes of as a psycho.

Is this what we get for letting an Englishman direct a movie revolving around baseball? We could call it a small measure of revenge – baseball does, after all, have its roots in the English games of Rounders and Cricket, and we did bastardize it, as those in England frequently point out to Americans who broach the subject. I’m not sure I would call The Fan one of the worst movies of all time, but you could probably place it in the bottom ten percent of the worst. It is most certainly one of the worst movies about sports I’ve ever seen.

What’s Wrong with a Little Hope?

“If you truly expect to realize your dreams, abandon the need for blanket approval. If conforming to everyone’s expectations is the number one goal, you have sacrificed your uniqueness, and therefore your excellence.”
-Hope Solo

Doesn’t it make perfect sense that it would be Seattle Sounders FC keeper Hope Solo who would welcome Terrell Owens to the Seattle Seahawks on her Twitter feed? And later ask how long Metta World Peace would be on for his latest TV appearance? All three of them have been lightning rods for “controversy.” Which in their cases is a euphemism for “loud and brash with people hating them for no conceivably good reason.”

I’m a soccer fan. I started actively getting into The Beautiful Game about ten years ago during the 2002 World Cup. That was the World Cup set in Asia, when westerners had to get up so early to watch the games that there was no real point in going to bed in Buffalo if you closed the bar at the city’s traditional 4 AM time. When the local news did a report about people getting up that early and going to bars just to catch the matches, I started to wonder what the rest of the world knew that the United States didn’t and made it a point to catch at least one game. I caught that game a few days later and I can’t even remember which teams were playing against each other, but it was love at first sight. I caught matches regularly for the next couple of years, began following MLS when it began making headway onto the American sports radar in 2005, began keeping track of the European leagues in 2007, and in 2010 I took the completion step, adopting a team from Europe to follow in Arsenal FC, the legendary Premier League club from North London, before eventually settling on Liverpool FC.

Of course, dedicating oneself to the world’s most popular sport means cheering on the national team, no matter how badly they suck. The United States National Team – alternately called the Red, White, and Blue, or the Stars and Stripes, but most often simply the Yanks – has led a famously up and down existence. The men’s team has qualified for the World Cup only nine times. Their best finish was in their first appearance all the way back in 1930, when they finished in third place. After qualifying for the following World Cup in 1934, they underwent a 16-year dry spell before their legendary upset of the English national side, then the best in the world. After that, they missed the next four decades before coming to consistency starting in 1990. But one of the pleasures of supporting the Yanks is the fact that we get to cheer for the women’s national side as well, and… Well, Yank ladies can fucking PLAY. In the Women’s World Cup – established in 1991 – the women’s side has been absolutely dominant, winning the entire tournament twice (1991, 1999), the runners-up once (2011), and never finishing below third. They’ve qualified for every tournament. Their lowest-ever FIFA ranking was second. Despite my moral objections to the International Olympic Committee, you won’t often see me turn down a chance to watch Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Heather Mitts, Hope Solo, and the rest of the women’s national side. Like my beloved baseball Yankees, these Yanks can virtually guarantee wins, so there’s no worry about IF they’re going to win. I love to watch the women’s Yanks because they have the greatest collection of talent anywhere, playing cohesively, in perfect unison, which doesn’t happen very often in American sports. I love to watch them because I want to see HOW they win.

Hope Solo has been a constant with the Yanks since 2000, with 124 caps (a fancy soccer term for appearances), and a magnet for sports commentators’ ire for some time now as well. See, she’s one of those people who doesn’t come with a mouth filter, so she tends to ruffle feathers. In 2007, she was famously benched during the Women’s World Cup. Solo hadn’t done anything to warrant a benching. She had led the Yanks to victories over Sweden, Nigeria, and England – all shutouts – before coach Greg Ryan decided to go on a hunch. In fairness to him, replacement Briana Scurry had an outstanding performance history against their impending opponents, Brazil. But she hadn’t played a full game in three months, and so her 36-year-old body wasn’t quite properly prepared to withstand a full onslaught against Marta and the rest of the Samba Queens. Brazil being, you know, Brazil, they humiliated and embarrassed Scurry and the rest of the Yanks in a one-sided 4-0 rout, and Solo flipped out. Going to the media, Solo claimed her replacement was the wrong decision, that she could have made those saves, and Ryan shouldn’t have made a decision based on a performance from 2004. After her outburst, the team decided she needed to be made an example of and benched her for the rest of the year. In 2010, she claimed to have heard racist insults coming from the stands during one match in which her Atlanta Beat played against the Boston Breakers, left the media session without speaking or signing autographs, and used Twitter to address the issue.

What’s been forgotten is that when Solo was benched, everyone was initially on her side in 2007. Solo wears her competitiveness on the outside, and her comments shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Being benched when you’ve proven yourself has to be frustrating, and it’s clear Solo was venting over the fact that Greg Ryan tried a radical strategy which backfired. I don’t know what everyone was so upset about in Boston. If Solo did hear people shouting racial slurs at her teammates from the stands, she was totally in the right to react the way she did. What’s the chance that she heard people shout slurs, though? They have to be next to nil. After all, Boston has a rich history of racial diversity and tolerance, right? It’s a well-known fact that no minorities have ever been wronged there, and that Boston has always been, is now, and shall always be a real bastion of equal opportunity where minorities are treated with nothing but the utmost dignity and respect, I’m sure.

Solo has owned the last couple of years. After the 2011 Women’s World Cup, she made waves by doing something a lot of famous women do: Get nekkid and let people take pictures of her for magazines. In a blatant example of how women can’t catch breaks and are held to double standards, people got on her back for this decision. Solo’s nudies are unique, though, because she wasn’t doing it as a celebration of her emergent status as a sex symbol for a magazine that catered to overly hormonal men. She did it for ESPN Magazine, which was photographing several athletes in the buff as a celebration of fitness and athleticism. The pictures are tastefully done and don’t reveal anything which would cause parents to scream about the children. Although the designated heartbreaker role for the Yanks was given to Alex Morgan in a landslide with Heather Mitts being the backup, Solo is a gorgeous woman who definitely turns her share of heads too.

Although the spread was only barely sexual and brought tons of positive attention to the women’s side, commentators still accused her of being there to promote the Hope Solo Brand Inc. The universal reasoning appears to have been that it SEEMED like she was in it for her own selfish reasons. I haven’t read even one convincing argument against her nude photos. Every last piece about her that mentions them dismisses them in a quick huff.

During the 2012 Olympics, she stood out in every way. The past couple of weeks have been a banner to both the otherworldliness and humanity of Hope Solo. After a June 15 drug test, she tested positive for a banned substance. I don’t need to repeat my belief here that drugs of every stripe should be legalized in order to excuse Solo; Solo didn’t need to be excused. The banned substance happened to come as an ingredient in her pre-menstrual meds, and after Solo gave the USADA her full cooperation, her story checked out and she was cleared. The positive drug test was reported. The checkout, not so much.

As Solo deftly defended the American goal during the Olympics, she was beset by controversy with nearly everything she said or did. With her autobiography coming out soon, Solo released an excerpt about being conceived in a prison. Then she talked about how she and her 2008 Gold Medal teammates from the Beijing Olympics partied all night and appeared on The Today Show drunk and on zero sleep, and also invited an unnamed celebrity up to her room. She got into a Twitter war with former teammate – and 1999 World Cup champion – Brandi Chastain. She went on Dancing with the Stars, which also pissed everyone off for some reason. The popular complaint was that she was seeking attention for her autobio, which is being released tomorrow. I’m not sure how right it is to jump to the conclusion that Solo was looking for the attention; after all, don’t books usually spend months in publication at the very least? She’s a marquee athlete, so the book was bound to be brought up whether or not she had kept her mouth shut.

The Olympics were rocked by scandal weeks before the opening ceremonies because someone revealed that the Olympic Village where the athletes are put up are also giant orgies. This makes perfect sense when you think about it. When you’re a teenager or young adult who has no real life because you’ve spent nearly every minute of every day training to build your Olympic-worthy physique, it’s probably tough to avoid being overwhelmed by hormones while sharing unsupervised housing with some of the most physically perfect specimens the opposite gender – or the same gender, for that matter – has to offer. All Solo did by mentioning her partying and celebrity fling was confirm the new perception of the Olympic Village being a giant frat house, and for my life I don’t see what was so wrong about that. Why is it that sports columnists are so offended by the idea that these athletes are human beings, who in many cases have been deprived of a real life, acting like regular young people? If anything, the Olympic Village is a fine opportunity to cut loose the old regimen, socialize, and possibly make a few friends among a big crowd of uniquely reared people who are able to understand the kind of strain and pressure you were raised under yourownself. I won’t even get into the fact that a “scandal” like this is actually good for the International Olympic Committee, because a nonsensical little scandal like that would be a useful cover for the fact that the poor and underprivileged people of Rio de Janeiro are being forcibly removed from their homes because of them.

Solo’s spat with Chastain was a bit of an overreaction, because Solo’s comments are a lot harsher than the comment Chastain made about her teammate which tipped it off. Chastain’s comment also had some validity. But what I got out of Solo’s reaction was that Solo was leaping to the defense of a teammate as if she had been a target herself. I like that because it shows how far she would go to protect and defend her team. Julie Foudy wrote that Solo’s outburst doesn’t show any signs of leadership, but don’t great leaders stand up for their troops? What’s more, her benching in 2007 was the result of her team getting pissed at her and voting in favor of it. Solo stood up for at least a few players who put her on the bench five years ago.

Stereotypically bullshit was the way the media rushed to attack Solo for trying to become her own brand name while defending Chastain, a woman who, after scoring the game-winning goal in the 1999 World Cup, ripped her shirt off, revealing her sports bra and the brand name plastered all over it. The reactions of sports columnists like Foudy, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, and Rick Morrissey of the Chicago Sun-Times has been to try to deflect the fact that Chastain did that by pointing out everything Chastain accomplished with her teams, and saying the women’s team wouldn’t be where it is now if not for Chastain, claiming that Solo hasn’t done anything in comparison to her senior ex-teammate. The Olympic Gold Medal she won in 2008 is a pretty high honor, though, and her taking the Yanks to the brink of the World Cup in 2011 wasn’t too shabby either. She’s won a score of individual awards as well, and is considered the best in the world at her position. Think about that; soccer is the most popular sport in the world. Billions of people have booted the ball around the pitch at one point or another, including a countless number of women. Hope Solo is better than all of them. Trumpeting Chastain’s accomplishments just to degrade Solo is blatantly ignoring and rejecting everything Solo has done.

As far as her playing on Dancing with the Stars, I guess it was optimistic of me to think the media wouldn’t be piling on. That’s the sole basis of hating her for her Dancing appearance. They hate her for a lot of other things, so let’s hate her for going on a kitch show that lots of athletes have gone on before (with one of them, Emmitt Smith, actually winning the whole competition). Olympic athletes who haven’t retired are among the show’s alumni, but I don’t recall such outrage over Misty May showing up to play twinkletoes.

Let’s see: So far Hope Solo has been scrutinized this year for a smear coming from a media that didn’t do its research and won’t report the fact that she’s clean; adding her two cents to a fake scandal which upset people because it wrecked their images of Olympic athletes being pure, chaste, clean-cut people who wouldn’t dream of doing anything but perfecting their physical molds; defending her teammates from criticism (even though it was light criticism that was warranted); told a story to promote a book whose publication coincided with the Olympics; appearing in a magazine spread which glorified human physicality and brought attention to the Yanks for a good reason; and dancing on TV. Next thing you know, she’ll begin complaining that her team doesn’t have a league to play in for the upcoming soccer season, the bitch! It’s worth noting that one of the primary complaints coming from every sportswriter who attacked her was that she was going to end up being a distraction for her team. It’s also worth noting that her team hasn’t said anything bad about her. With that, I’m glad the women won the Gold, so everyone who used that excuse would have to eat crow. So far, Solo has shown a ton of class by not rubbing it in sportswriters’ faces. If she suddenly begins doing that, she has every right.

It would be refreshing if some columnist finally came forward and just told the truth: They don’t like Hope Solo because she falls outside the mold we’ve cast for our Olympian heroes. For that, she has permanently placed herself on my personal list of all-time favorite Olympic athletes. There’s nothing wrong with the quiet humility shown by other members of the team, but when all is said and done, in a park pickup contest, I want the player who defends the team that voted to bench her. I want a fiery, emotionally raging leader who leaves everything on the pitch. I want a person who is dedicated to her game but still can cut loose. I want the player who is vocal about frustration, has complete confidence in her own abilities, and believes her teammates are the greatest group of people in the world.

In layman’s terms so simple that even the amputee bigot Morrissey could recognize them, I want Hope Solo. She is the greatest thing to ever happen to the Yanks, and it’s a shame holier-than-thou-art sportswriters are too stupid to realize that.

“The Experience”

I remember a show. I remember this show only insofar as the show itself and really not much else. I couldn’t tell you what songs I performed, what I said to the audience, if I slipped up on this move, that lyric, or whatever other. Those details escape me in a hazy combination of pot smoke and pyrotechnic smoke which, to my eye, left the audience in a giant pale oyster blob. I couldn’t remember my lyrics as usual, thank god for lip-synching. I had performed both drunk and high for the umpteenth time in my career, and I remember the radiant bloom of the stage lights shining at me, blinding me, screwing with what little orientation I had left. Every time I moved my head just a little, my mind registered some kind of interdimensional shift. Fortunately, I don’t think the audience cared. They knew my music; they wouldn’t have been there otherwise. What they wanted was spectacle. They wanted their tickets’ worth of their hard-earned cash.

My stage spectacle simply rushed by me in a blur. After the lights dimmed, I charged off the stage with force. All I could think about was my next fix. I had all kinds of backstage amenities written into my contract: Wall to wall carpeting, a new CD by whoever the hot artist of the moment was, pizzas, candies, video games set up on giant plasma TV sets. But the allure of the dust decimated all of them, and so they were mainly fed to fans with backstage passes. I would quickly run into my dressing room for a couple of short snorts. After my latest hit, I would wobble out to the backstage area, mumble gobbledygook to the fans, and either knock up the groupies or collapse on the floor when they left. My eyes were bloodshot and my skin pale from too much coke, but the rush of invincibility was incredible. But when my body got used to it, I started needing more and more cocaine. This night, I needed more than ever. My roadie drug dealers cut up the stuff during the show and even left a pre-rolled dollar bill for me to sniff through. I made a beeline toward my bathroom where the puffy white powder called out. I sniffed up the first line and felt the shock wave fly into my brain, hitting with a thud. My thoughts stopped and my mind began to register everything through a fuzzy outline. A powerful wave of pleasure, like the kind of pleasure you feel after a good lay, overtook my body. My movements, which had the stiffness of a ten-year Marine veteran onstage, became loose and vibrant. I needed a moment to recover from the high. That night, I should have stopped after the first one. The second hit slammed into my brain with the same shocking thud as the first. But afterward, I began to gasp for air through my nose. This wasn’t normal. Through my pleasure haze, I was able to make out a trio of large red drops which had suddenly appeared on the floor. I reached up to my nose, more on instinct than on the rational response one makes when he suspects his nose of bleeding. This also wasn’t normal, and I certainly didn’t think it was good. I thought about crying for help, but I was high as a kite. Before my thoughts were able to turn into coherent body actions, the scenery surrounding me faded to black, and the ground rushed up to my shoulder. The light above me was the only discoloration, a circular white blur on an otherwise black field. After a couple of brief moments, the blur died out. OD. Fade to black. Rock and roll.

I was still high when I woke. Or at least I felt high. I could tell I was being rolled out on the top of a medical gurney. But my reawakening wasn’t some gradual fade-in with the blurry eyes and heavy head and all those other crappy good morning symptoms. My eyes just snapped open. I scanned the area, sort of buzzing the scene as I watched the paramedics roll me into the ambulance while screaming that I needed ten CC’s of this or that unpronounceable med drug. I would have thought they noticed my open eyes and welcomed me back to civilization. Apparently not. I decided what they needed was a little bit of vocal encouragement.

“That was awesome! Best high of my life!” I said. They didn’t notice. They carefully threw the gurney into the ambulance, closed the doors, flipped on the sirens, and away we rolled.

I tried again, politely and without the sarcasm. “Hey guys, I appreciate the fact that you all came for me, but I feel pretty good now. Thanks,” I said. One of them shoved an IV into my arm. Message still not getting across. Message blurred, I guess. So it was time to bring out the BFG of my body’s arsenal – a visualization! I sat up. But sitting up turned out to be much like my waking up – no struggle, just a single-motion shot straight up. No trouble. But I noticed when I sat up that the medics never looked up. They continued to stare downward at my legs with troubled looks on their faces. “We’re losing him!” one shouted.

“People!” I said. “What are you doing to…” Well, at this point I made the mistake of turning around and staring at the spot my top half should have still been laying on. Turned out that my top half, or at least the overweight blob of light blue which once housed my top half, was still lying there. It would be customary at this point to tell you about how hard my heart was beating. But I wasn’t feeling my heart. It was still lodged inside the cold, seriously damaged vessel which now sat lifeless in front of me. Gone though as my heart may have been, I was perfectly able to feel awash in dread the way the wave of pleasure hit me earlier in the evening. As I slowly began to drift upward, that same feeling hit me harder. I had been a hard-living rock star just a few minutes ago. Memories rushed by me, my life featuring prominent things I never would have gotten away with had I been some everyday schmuck. I didn’t think my first nine years of life as God’s perfect little choir boy would balance out against trashed hotels, crashed cars, and all those other wonderful staples of the rocker lifestyle. Perhaps God hated me. Wasn’t I supposed to be pulled down a tunnel into some kind of white light?

The white light never appeared. Instead I wafted. I drifted upward, hovering above the paramedics as they now tried to rescue what was left of my body. I continued to drift, slowly and softly as a feather through the top of the ambulance. I saw the mighty skyscrapers and listened to the noise of the traffic. This was really happening. I was still panicked. I was supposed to be invincible as a rock star. But now I was horrified with thoughts of my ultimate fate, repentant, ready to surrender my pride and beg for my afterlife if necessary. I couldn’t possibly be on good terms with the big man. At the same time, I tried not to be resigned to my death. I struggled, swam, grabbed, and did everything I could to fight this spirit drift. None of it worked, but I will never forget what happened next.

I felt a tug on my full body. The drifting stopped. I was now moving along, parallel to the top of the ambulance. I wondered what happened with a mix of both worry and hope. The next two seconds drifted by in an eternity. Then a powerful force grabbed me and yanked me back through the top of the ambulance. I felt weight again now, as if someone had just suddenly performed a cannonball on top of my body. My body and spirit were now reunited as one. I awoke for the second time tonight, but with the expected struggle. I had never been so glad to be feeling like crap. Feeling like crap at least meant I was still alive. I had been granted a second chance to lead a better life and improve myself as a person. I checked out of the hospital that very night, not feeling great but having been pumped of the drugs.

The first thing I did with my second chance was smoke pot and knock up two groupies. Also that same night.

Awesome Amputees: A Tribute to My Favorite Deformed Athletes

Not many people realize this, but I’ve been inspired by amputated and disabled athletes since the second I learned that the terms “amputated athlete” and “disabled athlete” weren’t necessarily oxymorons. I was fortunate enough to be raised by parents who would be damned had they let me grow up believing myself to be any kind of invalid, and one of the ways my father kept letting me know that my deformed arm wasn’t a crutch was to point out professional athletes with worse defects than me sticking their middle fingers at those who kept telling them they couldn’t. Or at least swearing at them; not all of them had middle fingers. But physically deformed athletes have long been a source of fascination to me because the way they overcame their deformities is always unique. I’ve found a number of ways to cope with my arm during strenuous physical activities, but it’s still a source of frustration for certain things I do. When I ride my bicycle, I can’t steer properly because my right arm is so much shorter than my left arm. I can’t do anything about it, and I’m just stuck facing the reality that my right arm is only there for leverage. When I ride one-handed, my left arm is always the one that gets left on the handlebars; riding no-handed is out of the question. When I do pushups and yoga, I have to prop my right arm up under a foam block or a book.

Although I look pretty unkindly at the Olympics, I of course did develop a certain instinct to cheer for Oscar Pistorius, a sprinter from South Africa. His nicknames probably tell you everything about why I like the guy so much. The first is Blade Runner, which I like because it’s short, punchy, and also the name of one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made. But the second is the more obvious of the two: The Fastest Man on No Legs. Pistorius became a double amputee when he was only eleven months old, and received his first pair of prosthetic legs at 17 months. Now that he’s won the affections of the rest of the world simply by qualifying for the Olympics, it’s list time! This time, I’m writing about athletes who competed and excelled at sports, thus showing off a complete mastery of their bodies the norms only wish they had.

Oscar Pistorius
Runner
We might as well start with the obvious guy everyone is thinking about right now. When he was born, he had fibular hemimelia – congenital absence of the fibula – in both legs, so he had to be amputated before he was even a year old. His prosthetic legs mean a bunch of scientists had to reassure several groups of prissy sports committees that no, prosthetic legs are NOT an unfair advantage. Pistorius holds a 45.44 time in the 400-meter dash, to compare to Michael Johnson’s all-time Olympic record of 43-49. I’m sure those numbers would appear even more impressive to me if I knew anything about track and field.

My favorite part of the Oscar Pistorius story, though, is the fact that he actually took up running in 2004 as a way to rehabilitate a knee he shattered while playing rugby. For those who don’t know, rugby is about the closest thing the planet has to fully legalized murder right now. He also played tennis, wrestling, and water polo.

Garrincha
Soccer Player
Garrincha is the popular name of the great Brazilian soccer player Manuel Francisco dos Santos. He’s regarded by a lot of people as the greatest dribbler in football history, a skill which he had developed by age 18 to such an extent that at his first training session, he was able to dribble the ball literally right between the legs of Nilton Santos, a key Brazilian defender in three World Cups. After getting embarrassed by Garrincha, Santos basically told his superiors, “Sign this guy.” He did most of his damage with Brazil’s club Botafogo, and bounced around through other Brazilian clubs once that gig was over. It wasn’t as if the rich European clubs didn’t try to scoop him up, being the world’s greatest dribbler and all; he attracted considerable attention from some of the biggest guns across the pond – most notably the Italian club Juventus, but also Real Madrid, AC Milan, and Inter Milan. For the record, Real Madrid is the greatest club soccer team in the world, better than even Manchester United. The other three are the most dominant teams of Serie A, Italy’s top league and one which is competitively right on par with the Spanish La Liga and English Premier League.

Garrincha saved his most impressive performances for the World Cup in 1958 and 1962. The 1962 World Cup saw him emerging as Brazil’s best player, and he was the most outstanding player of the tournament. During performances against Chile and England, he scored four goals. It’s pretty impressive no matter what, but when you’re doing this good despite being born with a deformed spine, a right leg which is bent inwards, and a left leg six centimeters shorter than the right and bent outwards and playing on the same team as freaking Pele, you’re making one hell of a statement. Garrincha came to be known as Anjo de Pernas Tortas (Angel with Bent Legs) and Alegria de Povo (Joy of the People) and today, the home team locker room in Rio de Janeiro’s Estadia de Maracana bears his name.

Tom Dempsey
American Football Player
Dempsey was a journeyman placekicker in the National Football League who bounced around five teams in a career which lasted from 1969 to 1979. His longest stint was with the Philadelphia Eagles, and it only lasted from 1971 to 1974. But it was with his first team, the New Orleans Saints, that he made his imprint on the league. He made the Pro Bowl in 1969, his rookie year. In 1970, he followed that up with a game-winning field goal kick against the Detroit Lions that flew for an ungodly 63 yards. That was a record. And considering the only two kickers who ever even equalled it are Jason Elam (Denver, 1998) and Sebastian Janikowski (Oakland, 2011), the two greatest kickers in the history of the league, it’s a fairly significant record.

Dempsey was born without fingers on his right hand or toes on his right foot, and unlike most kickers, he began kicks by running straight up to the ball as opposed to the angled soccer style. When he was asked if the special kicking shoe he wore gave him an unfair advantage, Dempsey replied “Unfair eh? How ’bout you try kickin’ a 63-yard field goal to win it with two seconds left an’ yer wearin’ a square shoe, oh, yeah and no toes either.” ESPN Sport Science eventually ran an analysis of the kick and concluded that the modified shoe gave him no advantage, and that the smaller surface area of it actually increased the margin of error. Gee, ya think?

Jim Abbott
Baseball Player
Upon getting up one morning way back in 1993, my father told me that a pitcher named Jim Abbott had thrown a no-hitter the previous night. It was only in time that I came to fully appreciate that feat; my being a baseball fan was still seven years down the road, and Abbott was born with nothing but a stump for use as a right hand. He played by resting his glove on his right arm while throwing the pitch, then quickly jamming his left hand into the glove so he could field. If he had to field, he would again hold his glove between his right arm and chest, yank his left hand out, grab the ball, and throw it. Abbott was a natural athlete, and even though opponents tried constantly to exploit his birth defect by bunting at him, it’s a testament to his athleticism that bunting at him never worked. Batting was never an issue, since he was a pitcher who spent all but his final year in the American League. In his last year – spent with the Milwaukee Brewers – he went a total of two for 21, both of which came off Jon Lieber. Abbott’s career batting average is .095. But he did manage to triple off Rick Reuschel in a 1991 spring training game, and his old Yankees teammate Mariano Rivera claims to have seen Abbott hit homers during batting practice.

I’m not a fan of the asterisk or the abridged statistic. But all things considered, Abbott’s career record of 87-108 and career ERA of 4.25 are actually better than they appear from the outside. By any other standard, those are respectable statistics anyway, and no matter what, he’ll always have that no-hitter.

Mordecai Brown
Baseball Player
Brown’s nickname, Three Finger, was a little bit misleading. It should have actually been something more akin to Four and a Half Finger. His defect was the result of his playing an unwitting game of tag with a farm feed chopper, and that severed his index finger and damaged the nerves in one of the others so much that it was useless. Later, while his hand was still healing from that accident, he fell and broke several fingers in the same hand, and they never reset properly. While this may have sucked for Three Finger, it sucked even more for those burdened with the task of facing him in the batter’s box. The way he gripped a baseball resulted in an unusual amount of spin, making his fastball and change-up deceptive as hell and his curve one of the nastiest weapons in the history of the sport. When Ty Cobb is calling anyone’s curve the most devastating pitch he ever faced, what chance does any batter have against him?

Brown’s statistics and accomplishments reflect Cobb’s feelings: In a 13-year career which went from 1903 to 1916, Three Finger went 239-130, struck out 1375 batters, and picked up a career ERA of 2.06. And no, that last one is not a typo. He was with the Chicago Cubs from 1904 to 1912, where he won at least 20 games a season from 1906 to 1911, led the league in saves from 1908 to 1911, and pitched the Cubs to four Pennants and their two most recent World Series titles.

Bethany Hamilton
Surfer
Bethany Hamilton began surfing at a young age. By 2002, she already had a couple of big accomplishments under her belt. The next year, as she lay on her board during a lull in the waves, a tiger shark mistook her dangling left arm for its dinner. But someone who has been surfing her whole life naturally wouldn’t let her favorite sport go that easily, and Hamilton was back on the board less than a month after the accident. She initially used a custom board which was longer, thicker, and easier to paddle with, but is now back to using traditional competitive short boards.

According to her Wikipedia page, her best year was 2002, but her major achievements, like Brown’s up there, all happened after her accident. She’s a top-five regular in a lot of international competitions, and a couple of movies have been made about her. I have a friend who shares Hamilton’s name and is currently threatening to dress up as her for Halloween one of these days. (It would actually work. Both are blondes, and both are good Christians, and both work in uncommon fields: Hamilton as an athlete and Hamilton, my friend, as a professional singer. Sadly, though, my friend has all her limbs.)

Smoking Cigarettes with Style

“Come, dowsed in mud, soaked in bleach
as I want you to be
as a trend, as a friend, as an old memory”

Grunge-era folks might recognize that particular set of lyrics from the classic Nirvana song “Come as You Are.” Nirvana’s song oeuvre is full of such layered metaphors, and fans battle to the death about just what any random lyric or song written by Kurt Cobain is about. They will all agree, however, that Cobain was a sensitively tortured poet or some such, and that his obvious pain should be taken into account when looking for another new way to interpret one of his unintelligible mumblings. One inarguable fact about Cobain is that he hated his fame, hated what had been done to a lot of Nirvana’s sounds, and was enraged for some reason about earning the throne of Suburban White Angst King. He had a lot of contempt for his fans because they didn’t like his music the right way. In short, he didn’t seem to be enjoying himself as a rock star.

Somehow I’m supposed to deify this guy as a symbol of everything righteous and true about rock music. Nevermind became the world’s most overexposed rock album upon Cobain’s suicide in 1994, when our selective memories began blocking out a couple of inconvenient truths. Nevermind is credited with returning rock to bare-basic minimalism after ten solid years of shimmering tackiness in which overproduction ruled the day and musical derring-do took a backseat. No disrespect to a very troubled person who ultimately swallowed a gun, but everything Kurt Cobain accomplished with Nevermind had already been done four years earlier by a more objectively talented rock band on a better album. The reason society at large disagrees is because the band’s lead singer, Axl Rose, is still alive and he’s pretty much alienated everyone else who ever did anything important for the band. But Rose’s band, Guns ‘n’ Roses, contained a fiery and charismatic frontman in Rose himself, who has drawn favorable comparisons to none other than Led Zeppelin giant Robert Plant. They had two killer guitarists between Slash and Izzy Stradlin; a cool, laid-back bassist in Duff McKagan; and a destruction-minded, criminally underrated drummer with Steven Adler.

Guns ‘n’ Roses were better at being rock stars. They got it right. They oozed the right attitude while Nirvana moaned and wailed about how their fans weren’t getting the point. They had talent while Nirvana was able to construct songs in ways which disguised the fact that they didn’t. While Nirvana wrote nonsense liberal arts instructors mistook for depth, Guns embraced the devil-may-care hedonism of rock music and exulted it without mistake on their records:
“Wake up late
honey put on your clothes
take your credit card
to the liquor store
that’s one for you and
two for me by tonight”

That lyric is from one of the band’s premier singles, “Nightrain,” from their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, which 25 years after the fact is still their magnum opus.

Appetite for Destruction is the most important album of the last quarter-century as well. A raw, ferocious wall of scorn and fury that thumbs its nose at normal society even as it celebrates parts of it, Appetite for Destruction is a grounded exultation of hedonistic life in the small, dark fringes of society the norms will only ever bother reading about. While Cobain’s anguish from Nevermind was emotional, Rose plonks his listeners into a real, physical world which is all too familiar to those who have lived there. It says a lot that the song I quoted above is named for a brand of fortified wine called Night Train Express as a tribute to it. Appetite for Destruction speaks to the angry bad boys of the world while also saluting those who romanticize their world with one finger.

The opener of Appetite for Destruction, “Welcome to the Jungle,” is one of the most ubiquitous songs on the planet. Rose – who hails from the bustling metropolis of Lafayette, Indiana – wrote the lyrics upon his arrival in Seattle. The song is best known for its thick, lush guitar riffs and catchy hook, and the lyrics are both a beckoning and a foreboding, teasing listeners by saying they’ll be able to find whatever they desire in the ubiquitous city’s bright lights – at a cost.
“Welcome to the jungle
we take it day by day
if you want it you’re gonna bleed
but it’s the price you pay
and you’re a very sexy girl
that’s very hard to please
you can taste the bright lights
but you won’t get them for free”

In the meantime, Axl wants you to know that the jungle is gonna bring you to your knees, feel his serpentine, and make you scream, in that order. It’s just a layered metaphor about a keychain someone gave him before leaving Indiana, I’m sure.

While “Welcome to the Jungle” is (rightly) considered one of the greatest hard rock/heavy metal songs of all time, it’s also one of the weaker and most basic cuts of Appetite for Destruction. The real greatness begins with McKagan’s unique, monotonous, flight-of-the-bumblebee bass riff in the opening of “It’s so Easy,” an ode to one-and-done sex. Misogynist Axl Rose rears his ugly head for the first time in this song. This isn’t casual sex the band plays about here, it’s one-and-done sex with the band’s hangers-on. Women in this song aren’t getting anything in “It’s so Easy” except use as dollar toys, played with, ditched without second glances, and replaced just as easily. It has a rhythm similar to the following song, the laid-back “Nightrain,” which is about nearly every vice except sex. In “Nightrain,” Guns ‘n’ Roses tells you they are and do the following: Bad mothers with rattlesnake suitcases underarm, mean machines who drink gasoline, smoke their cigarettes with style, on the night train, ready to crash and burn, and they’ll never learn!

Axl keeps up his bad boy form with “Out ta Get Me,” doing what’s probably his angriest vocal work on the album. Guns ‘n’ Roses isn’t cool and easygoing in this song. They’re mad because they’re the first ones to blame whenever something goes wrong. The song is about Rose’s legal troubles in Lafayette. Heavy drumwork from Adler compliments the guitar exchanges of Slash and Stradlin as Rose defiantly brags that the cops will never catch him or break him. He’s innocent, and as he sings at the end, they can suck him and take that to heart!

Next up: Drugs! Hard stuff too, as the song title “Mr. Brownstone” is slang for heroin. Although one might be fooled by the chorus reference to dancing with Mr. Brownstone and the lighthearted step notes on guitar, there’s no mistaking what this song is about:
“I used to do a little
but a little wouldn’t do
so the little got more and more
I just keep tryin’
to get a little better
said a little better than before”

If anyone doesn’t know “Welcome to the Jungle,” it’s a safe bet they know Appetite for Destruction’s most popular single, “Paradise City.” Although the lyrics Slash originally wanted for the song were voted down, Slash calls “Paradise City” his favorite Guns ‘n’ Roses song. The hook is easily the best known part of the song, a rising guitar crescendo as Axl belts:
“Take me down to the paradise city
where the grass is green and the girls are pretty”

The verses, however, are a contrast to the chorus instead of a compliment. They take a sort of jump back to the beginning of the album. The lyrics tell about a man who’s surviving poor, pushing toward the paradise of the chorus, and the guitar is a lot more gravelly. The song concludes with a loud all-out jam.

“My Michelle” and “Think About You” are both a lot more frantic. Both are about women, the former a middle finger to one woman and the latter an odd love letter to another. “Sweet Child O’Mine” is also about a woman. Although it was a popular single, it was also the worst song on the album. The lead guitar riff has the feel of Christmas music with an edge. Axl’s emotional vocals make up some of the strength lost in the music and show us a soft side of him lost amidst the rest of the album. It’s the black sheep of Appetite for Destruction. Where the rest of the album is angry and gritty, this song is warm and sweet. Although Slash gets his piece with a solo, it’s one of his predictable solos, and the edge he brings only makes it weirder and more out of place.

“You’re Crazy,” “Anything Goes,” and “Rocket Queen” close out the album. They all bring back the frantic pace of earlier songs. Like typical closers, they’re weaker than the rest of the album, but they’re all nonetheless gems.

Although Stradlin, McKagan, and Adler all sure as hell make their contributions, Appetite for Destruction is the starmaking vehicle of Axl Rose and Slash. Axl has a very rare vocal range as a singer, and he can convey the highest highs and lowest lows. Rose’s emotion is genuine, and he can hit a note for every feeling. Slash is one of the most versatile guitarists who ever lived. Together, they have the chemistry necessary for alchemy. The subject matter of the album is a composite of hedonism among the people who are barely noticed or cared for and can therefore get away with it. It’s hardscrabble stuff without the romanticism. But in musical form, it’s glorious and powerful. Let the intelligentsia keep claiming how Nirvana speaks for them and debating over the meaning of “On a Plain.” Appetite for Destruction is for the people who have actually been through the jungle.