Monday, August 27, 2012

Spin Doctors - Pocket Full Of Kryptonite

I hate Labor Day.

I'll just let everyone know that right up front - I can't STAND this holiday. Yeah, yeah - I'm all for the "working man's day of rest" (the reason this day was founded in the first place), Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon (that used to be a big deal when I was a kid - tell me, when was the last time you remember watching it?), big parades and county fairs and all of that. And Lord knows, any day away from my job is most welcome.

The thing I hate about Labor Day is the seeming finality of it all, hammered into our heads for days in advance by local and national newscasters, endlessly prattling on about the upcoming "End of Summer". As such, Labor Day Weekend usually ends up as a frenzied whirlwind of disjointed activity, as people who are already dissatisfied with the amount and use of their leisure time since Memorial Day (aka "The Beginning of Summer") make one last dash to gainfully use the very last minutes of weekend pleasure available to them, to squeeze the last pitiful few drops of fun out of the bone-dry lemon of their summer months, apparently before the thermometer suddenly plunges 40 degrees during the first week of September.

The exploitation surrounding this weekend is incredible. Seaside hotels jack up the rates to astronomical levels. Gas companies suddenly report "shortages" and "refinery issues", in an excuse to nudge the unleaded prices up a couple more cents. Restaurants advertise "Labor Day Specials", charging big money for the same meal you could have had for 40% less the weekend before. Dance clubs increase the cover charge, but still play the same old music as before. Local cops leave the ticket books sitting in their cars where they can reach them and chuckle gleefully to themselves, knowing that their speeding ticket quota problems will all be solved during this three-day period (I understand that a couple of years ago in Virginia, they increased the penalty for speeding just before the holiday weekend to a MINIMUM of $1,000 - so long, budget deficit, eh, guys?).

It's all a bunch of crap. Last time I checked, summer ends on the vernal equinox, sometime around September 23rd. Yes, yes - I know that school starts this week, and you allegedly don't have as much free time to do stuff with the kids after they head back to school. But if you're working, how much free time did you have with them at all this summer? A week? Possibly two? I would wager that over the summer, just as during the other seasons, most of your leisure activities took place on Saturday and Sunday. So what's the rush with doing a bunch of stuff this particular weekend? Unless you live in northern Manitoba or Narvik, Norway, there are still going to be a few more gorgeous weekends available this year. Just relax, pace yourself, and enjoy.

The upcoming "end of this summer" puts me in mind of the end of another summer, twenty years back. Ah, the good ol' Summer of '92, at that point the best summer I ever had. In the spring of that year, I had left my ship, the USS Hayler, after three years aboard, and transferred from Norfolk, VA to Arlington, VA, where I was a finance officer in a department of the Navy Recruiting Command. I liked my new job and the Washington DC area, but I left a lot of friends down in Hampton Roads, mainly guys who I had served aboard the ship with. One guy, an officer and fellow shipmate, was still aboard the Hayler; he lived in Virginia Beach in a house he shared with two other officer friends of his who were stationed aboard other local ships.

Now this dude (nicknamed "Doogie", as in Doogie Howser M.D., since he looked much younger than he was) was a friggin' wild man, a hard-partying boy who was still running off of the pent-up energy of his fairly recent college days (he went to a very reputable Midwestern university, where his antics were legendary, and legendarily filthy - his nickname in college was "Dirtman"). His housemates were just as nutty as he was. So they were all a great bunch to hang out with. Although by the spring of 1992, many of the old Hayler gang had been transferred to other parts of the country, we all were loath to end the party.

So on Memorial Day Weekend that year, Doogie and his boys got on the phone and invited everyone down to Virginia Beach to crash and hang out. Most of the gang made it, many travelling from far and wide to make it to Chez Doogie - DC, Charleston, and as far away as Jacksonville and Boston. It was a great weekend. One of the housemates had a boat docked near Little Creek, so we spend the afternoons water-skiing or tubing (I was horrible, and kept falling off), and of course knocking back a few 'refreshments' onboard. Or we would head down to the beach for the day, chilling and chatting with the beach patrol, all of whom were friends with Doogie and his boys. Friday and Saturday nights were spent at various clubs in Virginia Beach - Peabody's and a couple of other frat-type beer joints downtown, TCC's in Lynnhaven, and a few others whose names I've long since forgotten. We'd usually grab a quick bite to eat at Taco Bell or the Jewish Mother before heading back to the house to fall asleep haphazardly wherever we could find a place to snooze. And the highlight of the weekend was on Sunday nights, when the beachside club at the nearby Fort Story army base would open up for anyone who wanted to come, military or civilian, and they'd pump great music (i.e,, Jesus Jones, EMF's "Unbelievable" and Nine Inch Nail's Pretty Hate Machine were HUGE that summer) and dispense cheap beer well into the night (those were the pre-9/11 days, of course, when they'd let anyone through the base gates for the party; needless to say, they stopped doing that long ago).

It was a lot of fun - so much so, that during that summer, the trek to Doogie's house in Virginia Beach became a nearly-every-weekend pilgrimage. It seemed like I was down there all the time, partying with the boys. And I wasn't the only one - everyone came there, practically every weekend (one guy made the trip from Boston multiple times that summer - I still don't know how he did it and managed to remain upright). And every time I was there, it was just as fun as that first weekend. It never got old, no one fought or made asses of themselves, and everyone just laughed and had a good time. I got a little better on the water skis, and I was always one of the first ones into the pit during the slam-dance songs at Fort Story (once, during a particularly high leap, some Air Force jerk tried to 'submarine' me, taking me legs out from under me - fortunately, I recovered before hitting the ground. That was the only unpleasant incident of that summer that I recall). By the time Labor Day rolled around, I was sure that the summer of 1992 was the best summer I ever had. And up to that point, it was.

You know how every summer seems to have a theme song? In a year full of great music played to death in every city and club I was in (including Kriss Kross's "Jump", Sir Mix-A-Lot's "Baby Got Back", "Jump Around" by House of Pain, Tom Cochrane's "Life Is A Highway", Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy" . . . and of course "Smells Like Teen Spirit", among many, many others), for me, 1992 was the summer of The Spin Doctors, and their two huge hits "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" and "Two Princes". It seemed that these songs and this band sprung up seemingly from out of nowhere, but The Spin Doctors' roots go back further than you might think.

The origins of The Spin Doctors can be traced to the mid-80s New York City club scene. The band evolved from an earlier group called Trucking Company, featuring guitarist Eric Schenkman and vocalist Chris Barron backing the then-front man, none other than Mr. John Popper. Popper never fully committed to Trucking Company, preferring to focus most of his musical efforts on his main band, the up-and-coming Blues Traveler. So when he quit Trucking Company in the spring of 1989, Schenkman and Barron recruited bassist Mark White and Dallas drumming legend Aaron Comess, and changed their band name to The Spin Doctors.

The band spent the next couple of years gigging in the NYC area and building an audience. Despite their split with Popper, they all remained friends, so much so that The Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler regularly appeared together on double bills in the city. Their growing buzz brought them to the attention of Epic Records, which signed them in the winter of 1991. The label quickly released the band's debut EP, Up For Grabs . . . Live, in January 1991, followed by their debut album, Pocket Full of Kryptonite, that following August.

Pocket Full of Kryptonite was initially greeted, both critically and commercially, with resounding . . . crickets. Basically, it was ignored by the record-buying public, and considered a failure by the label. In their efforts to build an nationwide audience, The Spin Doctors undertook an extensive national tour schedule during the fall/winter of 1991/92, travelling on the cheap and playing tons of small colleges and one-horse towns, trying to make themselves heard. From all indications, the gigs were generally well received, but didn't exactly make the band household names.

By the late spring of 1992, the band was exhausted from making the club circuit rounds; despite their herculean efforts, their national profile hadn't increased significantly. At this juncture, their old friend John Popper came to their rescue. He too was tired of the club scene, and wanted to avoid those small, dark, hot and sweaty clubs during the upcoming summer. Inspired by the successful Lollapalooza Festival from the year before, Popper figured he could do the same sort of thing - a nationwide outdoor amphitheater tour - with bands that shared a similar approach to music as Blues Traveler. He invited Widespread Panic, Phish, The Samples and The Spin Doctors to join him that summer on what became known as the H.O.R.D.E. ("Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere") Festival.

The H.O.R.D.E. tour was a critical and financial success from the very beginning, and it made the Spin Doctors; due to it, the band's star immediately began rising. Due to popular demand generated from those shows, "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" suddenly went into heavy rotation on radio stations across the country (eventually making it into the U.S. Top Twenty), and MTV began airing the song's video practically around the clock.

The second album single, "Two Princes", was released on the heels of the first song that summer, and did even better than its predecessor, entering the U.S. Top Ten by mid-August. And the album that no one noticed or wanted the year before began flying off the shelves. Pocket Full of Kryptonite was certified Gold by the end of the summer, and by the end of the year went multi-platinum, eventually selling over 5 million copies in the U.S. alone and peaking at #3 on the national charts.

These Spin Doctors songs were always guaranteed to fill up a dance floor the moment the DJ dropped the needle - everyone out there gyrating, laughing and singing along. I danced to these tunes at Fort Story, in Virginia Beach, at Lulu's in DC (damn, I miss that place), and a score of other clubs up and down the East Coast that summer. The band wasn't hugely innovative, but they had a sound that was accessible to a lot of people back then - sort of like a frat house band that made good. And that was all right with me at that time.

Sadly, The Spin Doctors couldn't sustain their momentum. The band put out its follow-up release, Turn It Upside Down, in 1994. While it sold over 2 million copies worldwide, it was considered a disappointment of sorts, by both the band and Epic. At that point, things began to fall apart very quickly. During their tour that summer, Schenkman quit the band in the worst possible way, walking offstage during a show in California. The group hired a replacement and recorded You've Got To Believe In Something in the spring of 1996, but the album was a huge bomb, selling less than 100,000 copies. Epic dropped The Spin Doctors like a hot potato shortly thereafter, and gradually the band fell apart, all but defunct by 1999.

Just like the band, my life and the lives of my summer friends were quickly changing as well as the summer of 1992 came to a close. Doogie got married a few months later, along with a couple of other guys from our group. Other guys transferred to far-away locations, or just drifted away - I have no idea where most of them are now. As for myself, I got transferred to Christchurch, New Zealand in the spring of 1993, so I wasn't going to be around for that upcoming summer anyway. I was sad about it for a little while . . . but I sort of knew that there would be no way to repeat the epic experiences and good times we all had from the year before; it would have been futile to even try. Life moves on, and you enjoy it as it comes. I never thought I would ever have as good a time in my life ever again . . . until I settled into my new home in New Zealand, and the days I would spend in that country were to become the best period of my life, even better than those storied three months in 1992.

But that's another story . . .

So, anyway, at the "end" of another summer, I raise my bottle of Sam Adams and salute a long-ago time and place, the friends I had back then and the fun we all shared. The Spin Doctors were an integral part of that great period in my life, and I salute them as well. To Doogie, guys, all the ladies we encountered and everyone else involved in my Summer of '92 (all of whom, for purposes here, shall remain nameless) - thank you, and all the best to you in your current lives.

Here's the album, released by Epic Records in 1991. Enjoy, let me know what you think, and if you have the chance, tell me about your best summers as well.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Various Artists - W Hotels Warmth Of Cool - Overture

My younger sister works for a large pharmaceutical company out on the West Coast, and the nature of her job has her traveling all over the country, essentially trying to entice doctors and hospitals to make use of her company's products. It goes without saying that, as one of the leaders of Big Pharm, her company has more money than God Himself, enabling the firm's sales reps to live relatively well when they're out on the road. As such, my sis stays in some pretty swank places and enjoys some fine dining while making site visits. Shoot, I used to travel quite a bit for work myself, but the ambiance I encountered rarely rose above the level of a sweaty-smelling Radisson and T.G.I. Fridays-esque fare in some second-tier Midwestern burg. But I didn't hold my sister's comparatively gold-plated travel against her or her company, especially when, on the times where she traveled to fun places like Vegas or New York, she would occasionally invite me there to hang out and have a few laughs in the city. A free hotel room in the Big Apple is hard to say 'no' to!

During her frequent travels to New York City, she almost invariably stays at one of the many W hotels that dot the town. W Hotels is a subsidiary of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, a corporation that owns and operates the Westin, Sheraton, and St. Regis luxury lodging brands (among others). W is basically Starwood's boutique brand, their attempt to move away from the stodgy, old-fashioned, musty swankiness of their other hoity-toity hotels and project a newer, funkier kind of luxury to attract younger 'urban hipster'-type customers. That "hipness" is reflected in the decor - a lot of earth tones, beiges and dark woods, along with meticulously pebbled atriums containing quiet, sleek sculptures and water art (small waterfalls, fountains, etc.). Thanks to my sis, I've stayed in several Ws in the New York City area, and while they all have their esoteric differences, that nouvelle hip aesthetic is a hallmark of every one of them.

I enjoy the hotel rooms and their amenities, but frankly, I've never felt entirely comfortable in them. Why? Well, a couple of reasons, really. One big problem I have with W Hotels is that it seems they're trying TOO hard to be contemporary and hip, so much so that the whole effect comes off as forced and false. Examples? OK - the one-word shorthand codes for services and amenities: "Bliss" for their soaps and cosmetics, the fitness center is called "SWEAT", pet services and known as P.A.W. I guess it sounded like a good, funky idea when they were setting the places up, but after a while it's just a bit annoying, at least to me.

But my main issue with W Hotels is that in their drive to be 'cooler than . . .', they create a very peculiar kind of exclusivity and snobbishness far beyond that of other higher-end hotels in the city. The lobbies of the W give off a weird vibe of studied pretentiousness. Dark-suited and/or leather-clad young urbanites (both staff and visitors), looking like they're on their way to the next gallery opening, congregate in the desks or hold court in the large open bar area, all but looking down their noses at other folks who don't rise to their perceived level of fashion and sophistication. There's not a lot of Kenneth Cole or Versace in my everyday wardrobe, so I've always felt like "the poor kid in prep school" every time I'm in a W and have to walk through that gauntlet of pretension. I've stayed in other, more storied and swank hotels in NYC (including Le Parker Meridian, Gramercy Park Hotel and the Plaza), and in all of them have felt more welcome and accommodated than I have at the W. That "We're so cool, you really shouldn't be here" vibe there is something they really need to work on to rid themselves of, if they're serious about expanding their customer base to families and regular business travelers - the 'hip' folks won't frequent the same place for forever.

But enough of that. Like I said, despite the weirdness of the lobbies, the rooms are very nice and fairly stuffed with amenities - flat-screen TVs, DVD players, iPod docks, high-end snacks, etc. At one W my sister and I booked for a couple of days, they had a CD available to play in your room during your stay called Warmth Of Cool - Overture, featuring what was described as 'contemporary, relaxing' music. I had a listen to it while we were there, and liked what I heard. Here's the lineup:
1. Wax Poetic (w/Norah Jones) – Angels (Thievery Corporation Remix)
2. Martina Topley-Bird – I Still Feel
3. Rouge Rouge – Décide-Toi
4. Blank & Jones (feat. Robert Smith) – A Forest Remix (Short Cut)
5. DJ Cam – Success (Thievery Corporation Remix)
6. Just Jack – Snowflakes
7. Natacha Atlas – Who's My Baby
8. Stigmato Inc. – Reality Check
9. Federico Aubele – Postales
10. Galactic – Paint
11. Dos Y Uno - Love Is Desire
12. Quantic – En Focus
A lot of the tunes on this disc are just what you would expect a place like W Hotels to feature - stuff straight out of a dance club that they thought was 'cool' (hence the name). However, I do have some favorites on this disc, including the remix of The Cure's "A Forest" by Blank & Jones, featuring Robert Smith himself on vocals; Just Jack's Euro-rap "Snowflakes"; and both of the Thievery Corporation remixes. All in all, it's not a half-bad collection.

Of course, if you liked the CD and decided to keep it, the hotel would charge you something like $25 for the privilege. Fortunately, I had my computer with me. So I quickly burned a copy of my own - problem solved (at least for me!).

So, for your listening pleasure, here's the W Hotels Warmth Of Cool - Overture compilation from 2005 (released in conjunction with Rock River Records). Despite my overall dissatisfaction with the hotels themselves, they DID manage to redeem themselves by making some decent music available. Enjoy, and let me know what you think.

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Monday, August 20, 2012

More than one way to skin a cat . . .

Hello all.

Well, it's come to this. You might have noticed that I changed all of my music links into email hypertext. That's because my files keep getting shut down by various carriers, no doubt skittish after the authorities kicked in Kim's door last year. So I've removed all direct links to my tunes, and am keeping them in my own private area. If you want a particular set of tunes, just click on the link at the bottom of each posting that automatically forwards me an email request; I'll respond with the appropriate music requested ASAP.

Yeah, it's a little more cumbersome than before, but with the state of things as they are, that's the way it's gotta be. Keep on coming back, and send me those requests when you can!