Tuesday, May 25, 2010

76-Second Travel Show: 'How to get Lost'

Episode #035
F E A T U R I N G * 1 8 7 * B O N U S * S E C O N D S

That TV show 'Lost' is over. Thank goodness.

Here's my take for Lonely Planet.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

76-Second Travel Show: 'Billy Joel's Long Island'

Episode #034
S P E C I A L * 7 . 6 - M I N U T E * V E R S I O N

One of these days we'll all go through a Billy Joel renaissance -- making amends for the delay as a 'Joelky' and pour with fervor through his catalog to find the nuggets that didn't reach MTV, like 'Vienna' or 'Laura' -- then debate whether the Innocent Man record is even listenable? (It is.)

The problem with Billy's legacy is that he's a bit of a 'shlubby guy' -- he said so himself at one of his two 'last night' shows at Shea Stadium. It doesn't necessarily help that he touts a working-class area New York City likes to make fun of -- Long Island, or 'guyland.' And unlike Bruce Springsteen, who successfully translates the wastelands of Jersey -- a catapult shot over the Big Apple -- into the enduring hearts of rock fans, Billy's never been cool. And he never will be.

But that, as Chuck Klosterman writes in Sex, Drugs & Coco Puffs, never meant he wasn't great.

I'm naturally inclined to the overlooked places in travel, and Long Island's heartland (on/off the Long Island Expressway, in neither here-nor-there towns like Hicksville where Joel was raised) strikes me as something of 'New York's Kansas.'

Also, Joel seems like he kinda deserves a break too.

So the SSSTS staged a Billy Joel roadtrip contest, and three Brooklyn-based winners -- Sherry Wasserman, Andrew Hickey (aka BrooklynNomad) and Matt Watt -- shrugged off the B-Jo critics to join me on Billy Joel's 61st Birthday Eve.

But where to go? Simple, just follow the ultimate Long Island guidebook: Billy's songs.

As part of the exercise, we ranked each of the stops on a zero to five 'fires' system. The results, shown above, show a deep valley in places with no local interaction (eg 'Miracle Mile') while it peaks in places like Hicksville home to many Joel-linked characters. Says something about what sorts of 'travel' works best.

Now, 'Billy Joel travel' -- ie, with devoted 'Joelkies' hanging out in suburban streets of middle Long Island -- may not transform the travel landscape for good, but having done a Joel trip now, I can attest that I'll never hear 'Scenes from an Italian Restaurant' the same way again.

Billy's high school, where he finally got his diploma in 1992.

Is Syosset's Christiano's the 'Italian Restaurant' from 'Scenes from an Italian Restaurant'? Many say it is. In the June 1977 concert in the bonus CD of the 30th anniversary edition of The Stranger, Billy dedicates the song to Christiano's. Though some say, including David Fricke in that album's liner notes! -- that it's based on the now-closed Fontana di Trevi in Manhattan. You decide, but my vote is with Christiano's.

Billy's former neighbor Bob Hess tells us Billy's home (shown above) used to be red.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Tribute: Ronnie James Dio on Travel

During my first crossing of Siberia, in 2005, I was smitten by the kindness of Russians on trains, the beauty of Lake Baikal and Kamchatka and -- even more so -- the flood of 'Dio' posters plastered on street signs in places like Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk. It left me to wonder, maybe heavy metal didn't die when Kurt Cobain donned his flannel -- maybe it just moved to Eastern Europe?

Turns out, Ronnie James Dio -- who died Sunday from cancer -- was beginning his 2005 tour in, of all places, Khabarovsk's Theater of Musical Comedy (above), a five-plus day train ride east of Moscow. I was blogging about my trip for Lonely Planet and just had to ask about this, and talk with the man who invented the heavy-metal 'devil horns' salute about travel in general.

After relentless efforts, he agreed.

In tribute to Dio, here's his take on travel, grunge and that famous salute, from my interview in 2005.

RR: How do Russians 'rock' in comparison with fans in other countries -- say Belgium or Canada?

DIO: Russian rock fans are like good rock fans everywhere. They're loyal, knowledgeable, and they live for the music. We found them to be great in every way.

RR: Do you travel much?

DIO: I travel enough while touring so I don't need anymore. Home is a very welcome sight.

RR: If you got a couple tickets and a week or two to go anywhere you haven't been, where would you go?

DIO: I'd go where ever they don't have phones, so I guess it would be some where in the wilderness, if there's any left.

[Note: The Far East of Russia is a very good place to look for it.]

RR: Some might say that 1991 was a bad year for communism and heavy metal. The USSR collapsed, and Nirvana brought on a decade of grunge and flannel shirts. Is the 1990s something the heavy-metal world would like to forget?

DIO: I think if you forget about the bad things in your past you can never correct them, because music and life travel in cycles and it just wasn't our time any more. A new generation of fans wanted their music, and not their brother's or sister's songs or bands, so they embraced Grunge because they could make what they heard and liked their own. Luckily metal never went away and now enjoys somewhat of a renaissance.

RR: And how is the state of heavy metal in 2005?

DIO: Metal in 2005 is thriving, as judged by the huge turnouts at festivals, and can actually be heard on the radio again. It looks good.

RR: The new tour starts at the Theatre of Musical Comedy in Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East. The Theatre of Musical-Comedy? Is there something we don't know about this tour?

DIO: I guess it means our drummer Simon, is going to rehearse his stand up comedy act in Khabarovsk, but the band will still play the show!

RR: I listened to some of your first and last solo albums recently and am impressed at how much you've stayed with the same type of music (ie no duets with Phil Collins) -- dark, hard, fast, titles like 'Dream Evil,' 'Evilution' and 'God Hates Heavy Metal.' Why so dark all the time?

DIO: Dark themes are generally about things we can never see, so you must use your imagination. After all, who has ever seen a dragon. They are also a great match to the heavy, almost always minor keys that we write around, and who wants to talk about love and relationships when you have these dark vehicles to use.

RR: What's the most surprising CD in your collection?

DIO: Sergio Mendes' 'Equinox' and 'Brazil 66.'

RR: One of your more recent albums is 'Killing the Dragon.' Is the dragon anyone we know?

DIO: The dragon represents bad government, brutal rulers, and technology. Bad governments and harsh rulers speak for themselves, and if we let technology get out of control, we may end up controlled by it.

RR: Many of your photos shows you giving 'the sign' -- pinky and forefringer raised, middle fingers curled under your thumb. Is that really a 'devil sign' or what?

DIO: The "sign" is a superstitious symbol used by many older cultures. It's meant to intercept the evil-eye and other curses, and what better place to use it than at a metal show?

--> If you haven't heard Ronnie, 'Rainbow in the Dark' from Holy Diver (1983) is a famed solo single. 'Man on the Silver Mountain' from Rainbow's first album (1975) is another enduring song.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Why I'm not speaking with Cleveland's Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame

I'm not on speaking terms with Cleveland's Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame -- that is, not until the greatest Canadian three-piece prog-rock band RUSH gets inducted.

Any place that takes rock seriously -- and presents fame badges to the likes of a Seger, Hollies and Jackson Browne -- needs to stop what they're doing and watch this:

Seriously, if thousands of model-looking 20-year-olds in RIO can be moved by dorky aged Canadians playing unrhythmic songs about black holes, space ships, Toronto's airport and Ayn Rand -- never mind how many millions of people who've bought tickets to Rush shows -- they probably deserve a slot in the lakeside museum.

That said, I think LeBron needs to stay in Cleveland. Only a champ makes a champ out of his home-town's eternally losing sports teams. And the Knicks simply don't deserve him. I posted my eight main reasons LeBron should keep his Cleveland Cavalier uniform on Lonely Planet.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

76-Second Travel Show: 'Airline Logo Awards'

Episode #033
F E A T U R I N G * 4 6 * B O N U S * S E C O N D S

There are two reasons why I've been bit by the travel bug most of my life:
  • my dad buying me a sun idol outside the 1st-century pyramid at Teotihuacán outside Mexico City at five years old, and
  • looking out over the pastel-colored Braniff jets at the rainy Dallas/Ft Worth Airport on the way there. And dreaming.
Airports birth many travel dreams. Looking out over runways and seeing exciting, artful planes named for far-off countries you hadn't heard of before. Some with funny logos. Others starting with 'Q' and featuring winged kangaroos. Certainly as a kid, I loved any chance to be at airports -- to me, diesel fuel in the morning smelled like victory. But mostly I loved Braniff.

It was the jet that took us most places in those early days -- trips to San Diego, to Mexico, to San Antonio, to Chicago. And it was the first jet to get serious with colors in its 'end of the plain plane' movement that led to sculptor Alexander Calder's imaginative designs for Braniff tails and fuselages in the mid '70s. Airplanes as art.

Braniff, it should be noted, originally began in the Oklahoma oil boom in 1928 as the 'TULSA-OKLAHOMA CITY AIRWAYS,' one of the great airline names of all time. It'd evolve, then it'd collapse by 1982 -- shortly after J.R. Ewing got shot on the TV show Dallas.

Considering that United/Continental -- curiously -- will be known as 'United' from 2011, but look 'Continental,' I thought it was time to tribute the best of airline logos, particularly Braniff's love of art.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

76-Second Travel Show: "The SSSTS Testament"

Episode #032
F E A T U R I N G * 2 1 * B O N U S * S E C O N D S

Letters pouring into the (new) Long Island City, Queens, HQ of the SSSTS have indicated some concern that the show is veering 'off course,' that subjects like Vikings, beards, mis-celebrated birthdays, Billy Joel don't 'gel' with the notion of travel confined to museums, bus tours, parks and lake-side villas.

The SSSTS disagrees.

Thus we introduce the SSSTS Testament: to reach for truth (in travel).