Friday, June 17, 2011

The Bulbous, Botoxed Antichrist

I was reading the news on the latest developments on the Anthony Weiner situation -- his resignation from Congress in the wake of his fundamental misreading of Twitter's purpose and basic functionality -- and my blood began to boil. Not because Weiner resigned (although I'm not quite sure how it came to this so fast -- and that his own party was even quicker to denounce him than the moral scolds across the aisle -- considering he didn't break any laws or do anything worse than tasteless), but because I saw a familiar face in the day's roundup of related stories. I beheld the face of evil, my friends. I beheld the awful visage of Gloria Allred.

What do Anthony Weiner, O.J. Simpson, Scott Peterson, Tiger Woods, and Britney have in common? (Other than having generated media circuses whose coverage quickly outgrew the public’s actual interest.) Self-described "celebrity lawyer" Gloria Allred found a way to attach herself to each of their cases, get her name in the newspaper, and get her face on CNN. She can smell publicity like a dog can smell a meatball: even buried under five pounds of trash, she’s going to find a way to get at it.

"Celebrity lawyer": does that mean she’s a lawyer who primarily counsels celebrities? Or that she’s a lawyer who happens also to be a celebrity? She’s neither. Her clients are only tangentially related to the figures that make high-profile cases high-profile, and she is not a celebrity herself (although I don’t doubt that Dancing With The Stars or Celebrity Rehab would welcome her with open arms).

What's so awful about being a publicity whore? Nothing, in and of itself. If we got rid of all the publicity whores, there would be no one left in New York or Los Angeles, and that would be sad. (Although, rents would go down, and that would be good.)

As with so many other things, it's not just what Allred does as the way she does it, and her involvement in the Weiner saga is a perfect example of that. It seems she is now representing a former adult film actress named Ginger Lee who claims that Weiner sent her a number of lewd messages, and then asked her to lie about it. I don't doubt Lee's story, given all the other things Weiner's admitted to here. But: what does she need a lawyer for? Weiner didn't do anything illegal. It's not illegal to take a picture of your schvantz, it's not illegal to make suggestive remarks, and it's not illegal to ask someone to lie. For that matter, it's not illegal to lie, if you're not under oath in court. I suppose lying to an investigator could be prosecuted as obstruction of justice, but Weiner didn't ask her to lie to an investigator because there are no investigators because he didn't do anything illegal and no one's saying he did! So, again: She's in no danger of being dragged into court, so what does Ginger Lee need a lawyer for?

She doesn't. The lawyer needs her. The lawyer needs her so she can attach herself to yet another high-profile incident (can't call it a case, because there is no case). Lee used to be in adult films and is currently just an "exotic dancer" -- which is a little like quitting drinking by restricting yourself to beer -- and doesn't appear to be a MENSA candidate (I would argue that her professional fate was sealed the moment her birth certificate was filled out with "Ginger Lee"). Allred found her, signed her up, and called the publicist, probably not in that order, and the young lady probably still doesn't know what's going on.

This is just the latest in a long line of peripheral figures in high-profile cases (and non-cases) that Allred has attached herself to, a long line that includes Scott Peterson's mistress Amber Frey; the Brown family in the O.J. Simpson case; Britney Spears' bodyguard in her child-custody battle with Kevin Federline; and not one but two of Tiger Woods' mistresses. She also represented a woman suing Dodi Fayed because he broke up with her and started seeing Princess Diana. Celebrity and deep pockets are the common thread. (Mostly celebrity.) I’m amazed she didn’t insinuate herself into the JonBenet Ramsey case. Surely there was a housekeeper or a babysitter with no knowledge of the crime that Allred could have clamped onto. No? Nobody bats 1,000, I guess.

Here's what's gross about it: Lawyers aren't free. None of these people is about to come into a big payday; they’re merely witnesses. Allred is probably making these people take out second mortgages so they can afford a "celebrity lawyer" who they know will have them booked on Larry King by sundown. But where does it get them in the end? Nowhere, fast. I think Allred client Rachel Uchitel parlayed her association with Tiger Woods into an appearance on Celebrity Rehab (despite having no apparent addiction to anything but lip gloss), but other than that, what are these people getting for their retainer that they couldn't have gotten from a lesser-known, non-publicity-whore lawyer? Probably 2,500 billable hours that Allred spent in a make-up chair or on the phone with her publicist.

So Allred is taking advantage of people's eagerness to get famous without doing anything. That's pretty shady. But does it really make her evil? I would argue that it does, but a look over some of her lesser-known cases -- her B-sides, her album cuts, as it were -- reveals an even yuckier strain of attention-seeking litigiousness.

She represented an eleven-year-old girl in suing the Boy Scouts of America for excluding girls, calling the practice "Gender Apartheid." The continued existence of the Girl Scouts of America -- would seem to be a ready rebuttal to that, but I'd also point out that eleven-year-olds are just starting to get interested in the opposite sex, and sending them out camping together would likely undermine the pursuit of teamwork, forestry, birdwatching, knot tying, etc. It's a stupid notion on its face.

She represented the plaintiff in a case against the Sav-On drugstore chain for having a Boys section and a Girls section for toys. You know: Dolls and play kitchens in one section, trucks and action figures in the other. Unless Sav-On was also employing a bouncer to work each section, I don't see any merit to this idea either. And who exactly would Sav-On be paying if found liable? Could that person prove pain and suffering? That is some testimony I would love to hear.

She represented a young lady who sued the TSA in 2008 because she claimed to have been humiliated when asked to take off her nipple rings on her way through airport security. If this young lady lived in the United States, post-9/11, and didn’t know she would have to surrender all her metal going through airport security, the only thing she’s humiliated by is being a total idiot. (Exhibit A: She hired Gloria Allred.)

But here’s my favorite case she involved herself with: a guy who attended a baseball game in San Francisco complained that Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell had responded to heckling by calling the hecklers a gay slur, asking if they were conducting a gay sex act in the stands, and then pantomiming said act with the aid of a baseball bat. Allred appeared at a press conference with the person complaining, and in the course of arguing that the pantomime was wildly inappropriate at a baseball game with kids in attendance, she herself imitated the pantomime with some kids in attendance. Was the complainant suing anyone? No. Was he engaged in any kind of formal legal dispute? No he was not. All Gloria Allred heard was “Major League  Baseball,” knew that that means lights and cameras (if not necessarily action – sorry baseball fans) and was probably on her way to that press conference before the phone hit the cradle.

Ms. Allred probably started out with her heart in the right place. Her early (publicized) efforts, though wildly misguided in my view, were an effort to affect some kind of gender equality, or something. But once she got a look at the bright lights, she never turned back, and has become the worst kind of ambulance-chaser: the kind that doesn’t get out of her BMW 7-series unless there will be a minimum of five news cameras waiting for her. She is the personification of everything that’s going wrong in this culture. She purports to be fighting for the little guy against all these big, bad celebrities, but she’s really only got one client: herself.

The face of evil will not try to knock you down when you’ve reached a height, when you’re feeling strong; it will try to scoop you up from your lowest depth, when you’re feeling weak. It will exploit that weakness, and try to make its evil sound like good. It will position itself as your ally when it is your enemy. It will listen patiently to your woes, and after a feigned moment’s thought, it will say, "I have Nancy Grace on speed-dial." It is the duty of all good men, and all good women, to look in the face of evil, and after a genuine moment’s thought, tell it to go fuck itself.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Coolest Band Ever Is Not Cool At All

The lead singer and guitarist takes the stage wearing a shapeless black smock with a high turtleneck collar that can hide the lower half of his head if he so chooses; the upper half of his head is dominated by an almost literal mop of tight, silver curls that brings The Simpsons' Sideshow Bob to mind. The stage lights play perfectly upon it, as the fan blowing from atop his Marshall amp keeps it dancing lightly, in contrast to the incredibly loud music he's playing. 

This is Buzz Osbourne, aka King Buzzo of the Melvins. His band's lineup has changed ceaselessly for the entirety of its 28-year career, as the Melvins have gone through bass players like Kleenex for their whole lifespan, but the band has been exactly what it is for all that time: Heavy. Loud. Slow. Fast. Kind Of Funny. Kind Of Scary. Experimental. Weird. They emerged, seemingly fully formed, from some kind of primordial ooze that they refuse to sink back into, they have not changed a thing about what they do, and they seem to be better, and doing better, than ever before: I caught them this week on the second of two sold-out shows at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn.  

I first saw the Melvins having no idea who they were, unfamiliar with any of their albums, which at that time were being released by Atlantic Records. It was 1996 (maybe '97), I was living in San Francisco, and my good friend Matt dragged me out to a tiny club called the Covered Wagon, where he'd heard they were playing an unannounced show. Apparently some friends of theirs had a new band, and they agreed to open for this band (whose name I've long since forgotten) just to help drive attendance a little. 

I don't remember a lot of details about that set: it was short. The place was packed. And they turned me into a fan for life. One thing I do remember was telling people afterward, "The drummer is the whole show." Here I was referring to Dale Crover, the other constant in the Melvins' lineup. 

Crover grimaces through every show, lips barely moving as he sings along with every song into a headset mic, sweat-soaked hair in his face from the first note, playing in odd tempos and time signatures with an array of stops and starts and off-time fills that sound like he's continuously messing up and recovering. Except he's not -- every beat of every drum is meticulously composed, and the result is a virtuosic performance that, absent the other instruments, would seem like one long improvisation that doesn't repeat. 

Over the 15 years since that first show, I'd guess I've seen the Melvins something like 8 or 9 times, and they have never disappointed. But they took things to a whole new level in 2005, when they absorbed another band, amoeba-like, into their fold. 

Big Business is a duo consisting of a bassist (Jared Warren, playing super-distorted lead, making guitar unnecessary) and a drummer (Coady Willis, more than fluent in the same style of off-beat, weird-fill thuddery as Crover) and specializing in loud, slow, fast, odd-time sludge obviously influenced by the Melvins. Buzz and Dale apparently found themselves between bass players for the kajillionth time and rather than poaching Big Business' guy, they took on both guys, turning the Melvins into a four-piece, and had them open Melvins shows with a Big Business set. 

Let's just pause a moment and let that sink in. The Melvins absorbed another band whole, let them keep their separate identity, and even gave them an opening slot on their gigs. 

Besides being a super cool thing to do, raising Big Business' profile and probably letting them get paid twice on every gig, it was a smart move because it made the Melvins, already the best live hard rock act around, way more awesome than they were before. What do you do when you have the best drummer ever? Apparently, you find the second-best drummer ever and put him right next to him. Then you have all four dudes sing, taking the menacing, droney lyrics into a four-part harmony that's even scarier than what they had before.

The first album they all made together, (A) Senile Animal, is in my opinion the best record of their career, melding their signature style with excellent production and much stronger, tighter songwriting than they've had since their short, 3-album run on Atlantic during the Seattle gold rush of the early '90s. 

And let's go back to this two-drummer thing for a minute. We are not talking about some kind of lame Allman Brothers/Grateful Dead thing, where one guy plays the beat and the other guy plays cute fills here and there. Nor are we talking about the two-drummer approach of James Brown, who handled abrupt tempo changes in his two-hour medley/shows simply by having the drummers switch off from song to song. 

No. Righthanded Dale and lefthanded Coady, in a mirrored setup, play the exact same thing 90% of the time. This would not be very impressive in most bands, where the drummer just plays simple 4/4 kick-snare-kick-snare, but the new guy is keeping up with Dale Crover, the aforenamed Best Drummer Ever (you can keep your Bonhams and your Pearts and your Grohls, thanks very much) and his bizarre array of invented beats that only flirt with conventional time or structure, and matching him beat for beat for beat. It is amazing to watch live. When they do, on occasion, diverge and play complementary fills, the impact is heightened because of the lockstep they stay in the rest of the time.

The show I saw this week was part of their "Endless Residency" tour, where they are playing whole albums (a trend that I am wholeheartedly behind, by the way -- I saw Sonic Youth play Daydream Nation soup to nuts a few years ago and it was really something special). They played 1991's Bullhead and 1994's Stoner Witch, albums recorded long before the second drummer came aboard, but the way they integrated him into the songs made me wonder if Dale hadn't been double-tracking his drum parts all along, and that now they've finally just found a way to do it live. (All it took was finding the second-best drummer ever.) 

Is there anything cool about the Melvins? Nothing, and everything. Everything they do seems to be geared toward one thing: moving forward, amoeba-like, doing what they do and have always done. They know they're not getting rich. That was never the point. They've never had airplay, they've never been on MTV, and they look like they're actively trying to keep women away from them. But goddamn if last week in Brooklyn they didn't have a line around the corner, a packed house, a sold-out merch table, and more cute rock girls than I've seen at a show since the Beastie Boys' Check Your Head tour. 

If they come to your town, go see them. They may not be your cup of tea, but you will walk away impressed. Just don't forget your earplugs. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Long, Miserable Day Doing The Right Thing

I was lucky enough to be chosen for Jury Duty not long ago -- much the way I was lucky enough to catch meningitis when I was in high school -- and after two postponements my date of service finally came up on June 1. So, like any good citizen, I got up extra early, put on a nice shirt, and tried to fake my own death.

I'm just kidding, of course. I didn't really put on a nice shirt.

Unfortunately, my ruse didn't fool my wife, 4-year-old-son, or either of our dogs -- I guess they saw my belly moving -- so I accepted my fate and went to the courthouse for my call time of 8:30 am. After I went through the metal detectors I found myself in a huge room with about 300 seats, all facing a podium.  A short video that touted the greatness of the modern justice system by dramatizing a medieval witch trial ("If she floats, she's guilty. If she sinks, she's innocent!") got everyone's attention by combining the production value of a Learn-To-Speak-French video with the raw charisma of a pre-earring Ed Bradley. (And even though the person on trial in the video sinks to the bottom of the lake, the camera thankfully holds on the scene long enough to see her pulled safely from the water. I'm not squeamish, but bearing witness to a drowning death so early in the morning would not have been an ideal start to the day -- grateful though it made me for the modern jury system.)

Then we are all instructed to fill out a form declaring our occupation and whether or not we'll be paid our full wages while we're at jury duty. And here is where the game begins.

From the moment everyone arrives at jury duty, we've all got one thing on our minds and one thing only: How Do I Get Out Of Serving More Than One Day?  While I must admit that a week or two spent listening to the gory details of a murder trial might be a nice break from my day job, I was uncertain whether my employers would provide full compensation for my jury duty absence (I meant to find out before I went to the courthouse but forgot), and I just can't afford to take a week or more of unpaid leave, civic duty be damned.

So, unsure whether it was true or not, I checked the box that said "No," indicating that my employer would not be paying me for the time off. I fought the temptation to scribble something about a wife in grad school and a kid in a less-than-frugal preschool in the margins. I did write it in pencil, which I hoped would subliminally convey an air of poverty. I did all this having no idea whether people are excused on the basis of whether they can afford the time off, or if it's even a factor. But it can't hurt.

Now it's time to wait. I brought a book with me, and though it really is the book I happened to be reading at the time (and am still reading), I am hoping that its title will get me out of further duty. The book is Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James, and it's an examination of why certain murders capture the public imaginations and others don't. I'm hoping that a defense attorney will see that I'm reading it and decide that I'm much too inquisitive in the area of murder to buy into whatever smoke and mirrors they're readying on behalf of their obviously guilty client. Until I'm called in for a voir dire, though, all I can do is read it. (It's a very good book, by the way.)

After not that long a wait, my name is called and I am told to go to Room 1. I follow directions and find myself in a tiny, windowless room with 19 other people, all of whom look like they also tried to fake their own deaths this morning (and a few of whom look like they have not yet given up on that strategy). We are soon joined by a pair of attorneys: one a female of apparently Hindu extraction, the other a silver-haired Brooklyn dude in a nice suit. I position my book prominently on my lap, making sure that it's turned right side up so they can read the title.

We are told that the lady lawyer is representing the plaintiff in a civil case involving a car accident, and that, if chosen, our jury service will begin on June 9 and last five or six days. My mind reels with conflicting emotions: It's a civil case?!? How is Popular Crime going to get me out of a civil case? Ack! Unless it's like the O.J. case, and an obviously guilty man acquitted of murder is sued for damages by the family of his victims because they have no other recourse. But how often does that happen? Maybe it's time to put this book away.

On the other hand: A car accident? I have been in nearly as many car accidents as I've been in cars. My nickname all through college was "Crash," and I didn't get it because I went to parties uninvited. This just might work!

Sure enough, the attorneys begin questioning us.  They ask everyone the same questions: Are you able to be fair to both sides? Though everyone answers "Yes," their inner struggle plays out on their face like a punch-and-judy show. If I say I can't be fair, I won't be chosen. It's obvious that we're all thinking this, but no one can bring themselves to actually say it.

And besides, it's not that easy, because if we're not chosen for this car-accident lawsuit case, we're sent back to the big room, where we might get called again for another voir dire in another case. If I get out of this room before lunch, that's probably what will happen. I decide my best play is to ride out this process and just hope they'll ask me if I've ever had a car accident. They're asking everyone that question. If you've had a car accident, that means you'll be oversympathetic to the driver in the case right? Instant DQ, right?

My plan hits a snag, though, when the girl sitting right next to me -- and I mean right next to me, because this is a very small room with 22 people crammed into it -- is asked if she can be fair to both sides. Her reply: "I mean, I guess so, but my best friend was in a car accident last year and she almost lost her life so if you're a driver, you better know what you're doing because it's serious. My friend almost lost her life. Too many people get in too many accidents because they don't take driving seriously enough."

I'm not sure how to spell the gulping sound I made, but suddenly it didn't seem like such a great idea to start bragging about my old nickname.

But I'm next, and the lady lawyer asks me if I can be fair to both sides. "Sure," is the closest I can come to saying "no." And then... she goes on to the next person. One question? How am I supposed to disqualify myself with one question? How are they supposed to determine my fitness for this jury with one yes-or-no question? She didn't even ask me if I drive! Are they going to pick me for this? Should I just go nuclear and start feigning Tourette's Syndrome? I never should have put that book away!

We're all dismissed for a lunch break. When we return, it's the defense lawyer's turn. He's infinitely more engaging than the plaintiff's attorney, if a little smarmy. He goes through the first eight people in front of him and engages them in conversation, gets more than yes or no answers out of them. I'm surprised to see that these eight people don't seem to be very worried about having to serve on this jury. None of them is answering sullenly -- as opposed to me and the girl next to me, whose body language resembles that of a maximum-security convict at chow time -- they all seem to be very nice and very intelligent, and they are like a demographic salad, representing all ages, races, and classes. Once again it's my turn to answer questions, and the defense lawyer asks if I have ever been in a car accident. "Yes. Several," I reply, momentarily forgetting the strong feelings of the girl next to me on the matter. The lawyer does not press me any further, and I once again find myself in the curious position of being wildly disappointed not to be asked about my deeply embarrassing driving record.

We're all dismissed again for a ten-minute break, and when we return we're told, "We have a jury!" I am terrified and start wondering about what the penalty is for failure to appear, but the lawyers tell us that for the first time in either of their 30-year careers, they are taking the first eight people they spoke to. Persons #9 (the girl who hates bad drivers) and #10 (me, the bad driver) breathe audible sighs of relief, and the ten in the back half of the room, who were never questioned at all, stir from their collective fugue state with the good news.

Those of us not chosen are thanked for our time and sent back out to the big room, but by now it's 3:30 and I'm not worried that I'll be called into another voir dire. My strategy was correct: I was right to stick with my car-accident case.

I have to say, I think the system worked pretty well. Out of 20 prospective jurors, about 8 or 10 clearly wanted no part of it. The eight they picked were the best eight for the job, and if I was either plaintiff or defendant I would be comfortable with them deciding my case. Our justice system really is something special. I just hope I never have to participate in it again.