HELP WANTED / The Myth of the Mighty Bicycle Messenger

Back during The Great Bike Boom of the 1980s, I wrote for an assortment of cycling publications. Mostly I covered racing.

At that time there was this inexplicable American obsession with big-city bicycle messengers — or rather, the idiosyncratic romantic heroes Americans imagined they were.

I knew many New York City bike messengers and was mystified by the out-of-towner’s fascination with them. Romance, my ass. We were in a recession, and they were just a bunch of good kids making a bad living the hard way. In 1987 Cyclist magazine asked me for a report. Here it is. Enjoy!

Originally published in Cyclist Magazine, August 1987

Copyright © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

Kevin Bacon making a delivery.

Kevin Bacon making a delivery.

Let’s start this thing off with a fairy tale that came true. The prince is Nelson Vails — Olympian, film star, and officially New York City’s most famous ex-bicycle messenger.

Popular legend holds that Vails was snatched from obscurity by Fred Mengoni, the US Bicycling Hall of Famer who founded GS Mengoni USA. That’s the NYC farm team that produced international champions Alexi Grewal, Leonard Harvey Nitz, Mike McCarthy, Steve Bauer, and George Hincapie.

The story goes that one day Mengoni spotted the Harlem native chasing racers on a beater bike in Central Park. Profoundly impressed, Mengoni was moved to buy Vails his first good racing bike. The rest — Olympic stardom, product endorsement deals, film role, nice house in fancy neighborhood — it’s all history now. From ghetto to Gollywood on the express track.

Vails became the first African American to win an Olympic cycling medal (the silver), back in 1984. He also won a gold medal at the prestigious Pan Am Games in 1983. Not for nothing, but Vails’ messenger nickname was The Cheetah.

In the press, Vails’ story sold like ice water to bedouins. Hollywood couldn’t resist. So instead of making a movie about that, Columbia Pictures pandered to the appetites of drooling yahoos enraptured with idealized urban rebels (or the idea of them, anyway). The result was the fawning 1986 tribute to bicycle couriers, Quicksilver, about a fictional white yuppie played by Kevin Bacon. Vails had a cameo. He played a bicycle messenger.

The best part of Quicksilver is the opening action scene: a street race between Vails on a bike and Bacon in a cab. (Saw it or not, you know who won.) The movie goes downhill from there. New York Times reviewer Walter Goodman wrote: “Quicksilver is as much fun as a slow leak.”

No doubt about it. Bike messengers are hot stuff. But are the genuine items really the scruffy-yet-lovable street urchins portrayed in the media? Or are they slumming stockbrokers like Kevin Bacon, or world champions in training, or something else? Who the heck becomes a bicycle messenger, anyway? And does the reality live up to the hype?

Nelson Vails

Nelson Vails delivering the bacon.


At a spartan loft space one flight up from Park Avenue’s glitz, you’re welcomed into Amazing Racing Messengers by a scrawled Kilroy with a hole in the plaster instead of a nose. A crazy quilt of receipts, bike frames, posters and flags is the backdrop for Stella Buckwalter, a former racer. She looks like a fashion model, talks like a corporate executive and manages the business like an air traffic controller.

Most messengers, including Buckwalter’s, work part-time, furnish their own equipment and get a commission. Buckwalter’s are independent contractors who keep the standard 50 percent of what each trip nets, which is about $10. Buckwalter feels they don’t get compensated enough and loads them down with quarters out of her own pocket, she says, “to make sure they call for pick-ups.”

Not far away from Amazing Racing Messengers is its competitor, Born to Run. On the surface it seems antithetical to the standard courier company model. There are no random arrangements of tire tracks and chain grease. Floating amid glowing oak floors and pristine white walls is the only decoration: a landing strip of a desk covered with phones. Born to Run looks like an art gallery, sans the art.

“We just moved in,” apologizes owner Shelly Mossey, a former messenger with some great stories to tell.

While back office decor may differ, the function served by bicycle messengers stays the same. Or as Mossey puts it, couriers accommodate “anybody who can’t FAX their package across town.”

Even with the proliferation of telecommunications and overnight air delivery, the cyclists’ immunity to gridlock and AT&T strikes makes them tough to beat.

Road to Riches! (Not)

Just so you know, messengers don’t get rich doing this. For 40 or so miles of daily riding, the average week’s messenger pay is a modest $250 to $300. A little ambition guarantees $450 to $600, and $1,000 weekly isn’t impossible for top earners.

But employee turnover is rapid — a messenger’s career is as spasmodic as a cabbie’s driving. And while they may have transformed communications, New York’s 3,000-plus messengers haven’t endeared themselves to the man on the street.

Despite superior bike-handling skills and a competitive attitude (plus any bull you’re asked to believe by Hollywood about stockbrokers-turned-messengers), these are not all middle-class bike racers.

The reality is that a relatively lucrative job with limited educational requirements is flypaper to immigrants and the underclasses. The racer look is often just vigorous posturing by wannabes with every reason to emulate athletes and no reason to take a driving test or learn vehicular law. Language comprehension and social graces are not givens, either.

The picture New Yorkers see frequently looks like this:

• A messenger zigzags the wrong way down a one-way street and then peels south on Madison Avenue, which goes north. He hits a pedestrian, who lies unconscious in the intersection. As a crowd gathers, he takes off without so much as a wave. Don’t want that pizza to be late!

• Joey is famous for his delivery uniform and style, which includes a hockey helmet complete with goalie’s mask. “He’ll ride the wrong way up Fifth Avenue, weaving in and out,” laughs Mossey. “At full speed. He’s totally crazed!”

• A non-English-speaking messenger drops off a package at the wrong address. The client is desperate. The frantic dispatcher tries to reconstruct the messenger’s trip. “Where did you come from?” he asks the messenger. The reply: “Cuba.”

• A messenger cuts off a bike commuter, hops a curb, scatters a gaggle of terrified pedestrians, and is stopped. A shouting match ensues. The messenger reaches into his pants as if to seize a weapon. Lycra doesn’t lie, clearly indicating the limitations of his defense options. Bewildered but relieved victims close in.

Despite the inherent chaos, it’s wrong to assume all messengers are guerillas. You’re just as likely to find gentle folk who can’t abide suits, or need flexible hours for auditions or classes. A cross-sampling of employees discloses lots of moonlighters from other trades: musicians, students, writers, artists, models — yes, even bike racers.

One of the latter is Craig Cook, a USCF-licensed junior racer. At 17 he’s more articulate and self-assured than your garden-variety teenager (or even your garden-variety racer). He looks like a choirboy from the waist up and a power sprinter from the waist down and doesn’t wear weird outfits.

Initially Cook was attracted to messengering by its mystique. That was before the pick-up that turned out to be a stack of dining chairs.

“But it also looked like a way to combine race training with a summer job,” he says. Now he finds that riding in fits and starts all day is stressful, and after-hours laps and Saturday races feel redundant. “By the end of the week,” Cook admits, “you’re sort of sick of bicycles.”

An interesting messenger subset is the small but growing contingent of women invading what’s considered male territory, because of the risks. One of them is Julia Ashcroft. Her purple locks are souvenirs from her last job, writing for a rock music publication in London. This American adventure junkie shifted to bike messenger mode, she says, “because the pay is better than a staff journalist’s, and I love riding.” She also loves the undeniable glamor of being a road warrior.

That last part, of course, comes with a downside.

Wild Kingdom

“It’s not an easy job, and it’s dangerous. It gets pretty wild for them out there,” insists Buckwalter. She estimates Amazing Racing Messengers’ crashes at one per week, “mostly minor. We try to get them to wear helmets.”

Trouble is a messenger’s shadow. Car doors open unexpectedly. Pedestrians cross against the light. One time a chicken-playing bus driver intentionally broadsided Mossey.

“Compare it to skydiving,” he suggests, remembering a messenger who lost two front teeth in an accident. “Take your eyes off the road for one second, you end up under a truck.”

Cook was prepared for bad surprises like oversized deliveries and rushes, but not certain others, like getting hit by a limousine that ran a light.

Casualties, which have doubled over the last five years, are a touchy subject. Sizable taxes and licensing fees are derived by the local government from commercial delivery activities, and the city doesn’t want the negatives publicized. But in 1986 there were 2,629 injuries and 7 fatalities in bike/motor vehicle accidents in New York. Pedestrians in the wrong place at the wrong time numbered 617, one of whom checked out permanently.

Who’s minding the store? The city claims courier services are responsible for insuring their messengers. Services claim their messengers are responsible for insuring themselves.

Just call it a free-for-all, because that’s what it is. Tired of dodging two-wheeled projectiles, irate citizens and businesses lobbied for citywide bike control several years back. City Council members and even Mayor Ed Koch jumped in, although Koch would jump into a vat of boiling Afrosheen if a camera was there. Steady streams of damning legal documents flowed between lobbyists and City Hall. Guess who was hired to deliver them.

The upshot was a toothless commercial regulation passed in 1984, Local Law 47. It requires company uniforms on messengers and identification plates on their equipment, so they can be more accurately fingered in the event of mishaps.

With messengers pretty much left to police themselves, compliance is unsurprisingly lax. Improvised head protection and comic book onesies rule. A courier named Juda authored and distributes a handout entitled Safe Cyclists Code [sic] in a sincere (if bone-headed) attempt at self-government. The Code dispenses jewels of advice like this one: “Don’t run red lights or ride against traffic without giving everyone else the right of way.”

So are couriers above the law, or what? Let’s just say they’re in a grey area of enforcement. This fact contributes substantially to their fearlessness, or foolhardiness, depending upon your vantage point.

One fellow sure to take the long view was standing on Wall Street recently, minding his own business, lost in thoughts of blind trusts and insider trading when one of Mercury’s own zoomed out of nowhere. Pedal and knee connected in a mighty crunch. David Stockman, former bad-boy budget director of the Reagan administration, went straight to the hospital. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Legends die hard, especially ones about blue-collar workers in day-glo Spandex. Andy Warhol said that in this, the Electronic Age, everyone will be a celebrity for 15 minutes. It’s been a long trip from anthropological footnote to media darling, but for better or worse, the bicycle messenger’s quarter-hour has arrived.

Team Breakaway Courier — real messengers, really racing.

Team Breakaway Courier — real messengers, really racing.

New York City’s 1992 Team Breakaway Courier. From left to right: Craig Cook, architect; Mike McCarthy, 1992 World Pro Pursuit Champion; Kurt Gustafsson, competitive skier; and Rafe Diaz, MIA. Photo © 2014 Kevin Hatt


Sydney Schuster rides bikes, lifts weights and battles computers in New York City. She was hit by a bike messenger once. He is expected to recover.

Text Copyright © 1987, 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER
Photo of Nelson Vails © 2014 Nelson Vails
Photo of Team Breakaway Courier © 2014 Kevin Hatt
Photo from Quicksilver © 2014 Columbia Pictures

Breaking: A new documentary about the life of Nelson Vails will premiere in New York City on February 15, 2014. It’s called Cheetah: The Nelson Vails Story. For tickets, go to Vails’ info page.

Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party video advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Film Review / Road to Hell

Road to Hell
The Long-Awaited Film by Albert Pyun

Movie Review Copyright ©2014 Sydney Schuster


I watch an awful lot of movies. I own very few. One of them is Streets of Fire, the 1984 cult rock drama by Walter Hill about a mercenary soldier, Tom Cody. Another is Cyborg, the 1989 martial arts horror extravaganza by Albert Pyun starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. So when I heard years ago that Pyun was making a sequel to Streets of Fire, it stayed on my radar like gum stuck to my shoe.

I finally got to see it this week. Let me just say this: It is stunning.

Road to Hell, as it’s called, certainly lived up to its name. A largely self-financed labor of love, it was in production for five years and survived many setbacks before finally making its maiden tour of film festivals in 2012. So far it’s won three Best Picture awards: Yellow Fever (Belfast), XIII Costa del Sol Fantasy Film Festival (Spain), and the PollyGrind UnderGround Film Festival (Las Vegas, where it also scored Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Song, and Best Visual Effects). It recently began general theatrical showings. At its first screening, Road to Hell grossed enough to make Indiewire’s box office chart, and was the only independently distributed film in the bunch. If you get the chance to see it, do not hesitate. Go!

That said, Road to Hell is not what you’d expect. If you’re a Hill fan, keep in mind that it’s an homage, not an official sequel. If you’re a Pyun fan, you’ll love it no matter what. One viewing tip: If you never saw Streets of Fire, watch that first and you’ll appreciate Road to Hell even more. (Rent it. It’s $3 on Amazon.) For fans of both Streets of Fire and Pyun, Road to Hell is totally worth the interminable wait.

So what’s it about? Okay, first let’s review. When we last saw our hero Tom Cody (Michael Paré), it was 1984. He’d just rescued the toothsome Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) from rubber-clad kidnappers and was leaving to attend a war, apparently because he liked guns more than her. Go figure. And she was leaving their slummy ‘hood, The Richmond, for rock superstardom. Fair enough.

Plotwise, Streets of Fire is your boilerplate morality play with the usual suspects. The only characters with any emotional depth are Cody and his sister Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). The rest are one-dimensional, almost cartoon-like. Or as Pyun explains it, “Cody was all about Ellen and Ellen was all about Ellen.” Which is perfect here, because anything more complex would just muddy an effort of this scale. Sort of the way Ben & Jerry flavors all have one too many ingredients so you buy Haagen-Dazs chocolate chip instead, just so your head won’t explode.

Why pay $3 to watch this? I hear you asking. Well, Streets of Fire has singing and dancing. It has brawls and car chases and motorcycles, and stuff exploding everywhere, and the obligatory steamy mash scene. It has a huge cast of talent who became famous for doing something else. The action’s artily set against other-dimensional backdrops of garish 1950-ish tableaus mixed with 1980s hair and semiautomatic weapons.

You might guess a formula like that would never work, but you’d be wrong. Not to mention the soundtrack was so bitchen, it had a life all its own. There are songs by Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Ry Cooder, Leiber and Stoller, Link Wray, Bob Seger, and Meat Loaf’s wife, Jim Steinman. The Dan Hartman hit “I Can Dream About You” made Billboard‘s Top 10 chart. In 2007 Vanity Fair rated the film’s score Number 6 on its Best Soundtracks Ever list. Simply put, Streets of Fire is a pre-CGI sensory feast.

A rock & roll fable, Hill called it. Others called Streets of Fire the first music video. MTV didn’t exist yet, and Hill famously said in interviews that he filmed all the concert scenes by the seat of his pants, having no precedent to follow.

“It’s cut in time with the music!” oozed viewers who’d never seen A Hard Day’s Night. “You can’t use my song!” snorted Bruce Springsteen when Hill wanted to use it but didn’t want him to sing it. “What is this crap?” said just about everyone at industry screenings. Nobody got it. One reviewer picked on the stars’ noses. (“…the smallest noses in show business history; perhaps this is why, when their faces meet, so little happens.” — Susan Dworkin, Ms. Magazine, August 1984)

Box office was half what the film cost to make. ($14.5 M cost, $8 M gross.) And so Streets of Fire bombed resoundingly, thus claiming its rightful place in the pantheon of Eye Candy Rock Movies We Love, Now.

According to Hill, Streets of Fire was to be the first film in a Tom Cody trilogy. When it tanked at the box office, The Bombers Strike Back and Return of the Sorels sank with it. For three decades, Streets of Fire fans waited patiently for someone to salvage the wreckage. Albert Pyun is their Argo.

Pyun, for those who don’t know, apprenticed to Akira Kurosawa in the 1970s and debuted as a feature film director in 1982, with The Sword and the Sorcerer, one of the top-grossing indie films of all time. His 50-some movies include the horrorfests Nemesis (1992) and Infection (2005), which won best picture and best director awards at VI Semana Internacional de Cine Fantástico y de Terror de Estepona. In 2013 he received the Indie Genre Spirit Award at the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival.

Pyun first met Paré in the 1990s. Both were making movies for Cannon Pictures then, albeit not together, and racking up industry cred — Paré was upcycling his image to action hero after a decade of mostly forgettable TV roles and romance films, while Pyun was establishing himself as a director who could quickly make profitable movies, often two at a time.

“We discussed the Road to Hell movie with Paré in 2007, in Spain” at a film festival, says Pyun’s longtime collaborator, Cynthia Curnan. “Albert and Michael had wanted to work together for a long time.”

With Pyun directing, Curnan writing and producing, and the preternaturally handsome Paré in nearly every scene, they started shooting Road to Hell in 2008. The result is more a tribute to Streets of Fire than a followup: not so much singing and dancing, way more violence and blood, all of it set against staggeringly beautiful scenery.

But that’s Pyun’s forté. Shocking visual effects, coupled with edgy dialogue by Curnan that makes you believe ordinary people can triumph in extraordinary circumstances. Like Streets of Fire, Road to Hell is way, way ahead of its time.

Much of the film’s carnage is suggested rather than shown (probably as a result of budget constraints and lost footage — I’ll get to that). There’s a lot of outside-the-letterbox mayhem and sex. Personally, I like this approach. It leaves more room for the characters to develop and the plot to run on its own wheels. A great director is one who presents stories as well as he does entrails.

I don’t want to give away too much plot here. Me, I thought I knew what to expect and still had a visceral reaction at key moments, so I’ll let some other reviewer mess up that pleasure for you.

Suffice it to say that Road to Hell didn’t win PollyGrind’s best effects award for nothing. Much like Streets of Fire, many scenes have mesmerizing other-worldly backdrops. Every color-saturated shot is carefully framed, almost like a postcard — a picture postcard from Hell.

Hell Valley, that is. That’s where we hook up with Cody again, returning from his precious war with a bad case of post traumatic stress disorder. He still has too many weapons. Hell, he is a weapon.

Having had 29 years to reconsider his earlier poor decision, he’s now on his way back to The Richmond to reconnect with the hot girlfriend who got away. Along the way he meets two new characters: Caitlin (Clare Kramer) and Ash (Courtney Peldon), a pair of fetchingly underdressed misanthropes having car trouble on Route 666.

The women are luminous and electric, even while changing a tire that’s bigger than they are, and so reprehensible it’s hard to feel sorry for them. They’re loud and pottymouthed. They kill people for fun. Caitlin thinks she’s found her soul mate in Cody.

Kramer simmers in her role. She was my favorite villain — the mean, funny, fashion-victim god Glory — in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and she makes a good baddie here. Peldon cooks, too. Her best moments come when she realizes her use-by date has expired, and she utters barely a word. It’s all on her face.

Speaking of meaningful looks, one part I was compelled to watch and rewatch is the scene where Cody meets Caitlin and Ash. Look carefully. You’ll see the face of a softer, younger Cody, the one who wants to believe in love, in a pitched battle with harder, older, no-bullshit Cody who’d rather just kill. Paré’s face actually changes, then changes back. It’s more than acting (bygones, Michael). And it’s not makeup. Or digital manipulation. Or even lighting.

The technical explanation? “A camera malfunction damaged all the shots,” says Curnan. “We had to wait for technology to advance to fix them. We couldn’t afford to rotoscope each frame.” Five years after they started, they were reshooting and repairing scenes. This sequence was among them. What you see is an epic Jekyll/Hyde duel between a 40-something Paré and a 50-something Paré, duking it out for realsies.

There isn’t a makeup artist alive who could believably achieve what Pyun accomplished here. That he arrived at it while making lemonade out of lemons is the stuff of legends.

If you don’t understand what I mean, or think I’m full of crap, or both, I refer you to 1989′s Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!, in which a then-30ish Paré alternated between a 20ish Eddie and a 40ish one wholly via makeup, and succeeded at neither. Clare Kramer had an alter ego in Buffy who was more believable, and he was a guy. Not to beat my point to death, but an even lower-tech version of this idea, Luis Buñuel’s 1977 That Obscure Object of Desire, used two completely different actors, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, to play one character, Conchita. No makeup magic there at all. And no one laughed, either, at least not when they weren’t supposed to. Film history is already littered with enough detritus from failed id-versus-ego slapdowns. (The Curse of the Werewolf? The ShiningMary Reilly? Sybil? Anyone?) I say do it right or go home, and Pyun nails it.

Among Road to Hell’s other visual treats are the spectacular Nevada desert, subbing for purgatory here with enhancements recalling a bad acid trip.

Road to Hell

Another thing I liked immensely is the juxtaposition of multiple timelines in the present (Cody’s, Ellen Dream’s, and Reva’s) with the Ellen Aim flashbacks. The present-time scenes are all different styles: a graphic novel look for Cody, a cinema verité one for Ellen Dream, and a documentary feel for Reva. They’re knitted artfully with the happy-fuzzy uber-romanticized memories of Ellen Aim. When they all collide at the end, you know exactly where you are.

Anyway, Van Valkenburgh reliably reprises the role of Reva Cody. She does a fine job of tethering the day-glo present to a noir past necessarily relegated to viewer memory. It’s good to see her again. Ellen Aim is played by the sexy Anita Leeman. Other characters from Streets of Fire are mentioned but never shown at all (except for Cody’s sidekick McCoy and arch enemy Raven, briefly and gorily). As always, Brick Bardo’s in the mix, too.

Michael Paré of course plays Tom Cody. Michael Paré rocks Tom Cody. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in that role, ever. If there’s ever a sequel to the sequel, they’ll just have to wheel Paré out and let him gum the scenery. That’s how much he owns the part.

The Cody in Road to Hell is disillusioned and surly, seeking some type of redemption while questioning whether he even deserves it. He’s so discombobulated, he even toys with the idea of badgirl Caitlin as a viable alternative to Ellen, I guess in case his childhood sweetheart who’s probably an altacocker now doesn’t work out. Caitlin’s hot. She’s there. She gives MRE new meaning. So what if she’s depraved?

Granted, it’s a lot of story packed into a compact space and I’ve only told you half of it, like I promised I wouldn’t. Pyun and Curnan cleverly manage to convey all this in terms of biblical allegory. Don’t worry. It’s fun, not preachy.

The unique concept gives an interesting spin to a plot that, in the hands of lesser storytellers, could easily be not so special. I dare you not to love the backstory exposition humorously offered by Gabriel, of all people — yes, the same archangel given the unenviable job of telling the Virgin Mary that the rabbit died. Joei Fulco plays the part — yes, she’s a woman. Instead of a horn, this Gabriel wields a mean guitar and modern slang. Plus she ain’t hard to look at. Her mission: Snatch Cody from the jaws of hell. Woot!

One of many other scripty things Curnan does especially well is sandwich very funny quips in between body blows. Consider this one, delivered ominously by a grinning, up-to-no-good Cody: “I’ve hunted up here. I hunt wabbit. The two-legged breed.” And this, blurted by Ellen Aim’s eternally disappointed daughter (Roxy Gunn) during a confrontation about to turn postal: “I needed you my whole life, asshole!”

Streets of Fire fans will delight in the strategic reuse of signature lines throughout Road to Hell. There are slick cross references, too: a flat tire that changes everything; OTT bondage; Ellen suffers idiotic fan questions about her creative process. Her band sports the same name as Torchie’s band, the Blasters. Cody coldcocks chicks. He even mentions his “dark side,” a sly wink at another Paré cult musical, Eddie and the Cruisers.

Much to the relief of everyone except Springsteen, there’s finally an actual song called “Streets of Fire,” written for the movie by musical director Tony Riparetti. The whole score is quite good. Vegas Rocks! Magazine called Road to Hell “one of the best music-driven films of the year.” Two Jim Steinman songs from Streets of Fire were dusted off and performed again, arguably better this time around: “Nowhere Fast” and “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young.” Newcomers Fulco and Gunn (Gunn also wrote a bunch of the songs) pull double duty supplying both pipes and pivotal character portrayals, and never miss a beat. Their lungs should be gilded and enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Best of all, this flick has a twist ending you’ll never expect. I foresee it winning a lot more awards. And fans. Go see it. You’re welcome.

Albert Pyun Movies on Facebook
Road to Hell official website
Road to Hell on IMDB

Content of this blog Copyright ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER
Road to Hell material Copyright ©2014 Albert Pyun Movies and Curnan Pictures ★ Images used with permission

Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party video advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Five O’Clock World / The Straight Pipes Band

Five O’Clock World Club Review
The Straight Pipes Band at Sandy’s Lighthouse

Text & Photo Copyright ©2013 ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

There’s always something magical about an evening spent at the beach, lapping at drinks and listening to good music. You appreciate it all the more after acts of nature threaten your fun.

A lot of East Coast businesses were destroyed by hurricanes Irene and Sandy which, sadly, washed a lot of nightlife units out to sea. I revisited a survivor recently to take its pulse and catch a new act I really like, the Straight Pipes Band.

I’d been to Sandy’s Lighthouse (148 Atlantic Ave., Misquamicut) many times, and never had as good a time there before Sandy clobbered Sandy’s. Owners Sandra and Don Daggett rallied valiantly to rebuild it into a way nicer venue than it was pre-storm. It must’ve been wicked messed up, too, because the last time I saw Sandy’s it was a bare-bones biker bar. The phoenix risen in its place is a thing of beauty.

It’s all cozy and homey now, with an easy-access bar and shiny wooden dance floor that’s no longer in the path of … well, everything. (If you’ve ever had to fight your way through drunken twisters to get to a beer or a urinal, you know what I mean.) There’s nothing in the way of anything here now, unless you count the fancy new pool table that kept some dudes from dancing with their confused dates. (Eventually the women just said to hell with it and danced with each other. Who wouldn’t? A Straight Pipes tune sat out for no good reason equals two minutes you’ll always wish you could do over.)

The new and improved Sandy’s has lots of tables and chairs for us armchair dancers, and the cleanest club bathroom I’ve seen in the history of ever. Wait, there’s more! AC that works. A psychedelic light show. An ATM. A fireplace. No, a real one. Good acoustics. Cool decorations, like giant sci-fi fans and colorful lighthouse models. Classic home-cooked seashore food that my spies assure me is extra tasty (okay, I might’ve hoovered someone else’s clam fritters that were too bangin’ to resist).

I’m telling you, Sandy’s is the beach bar with everything, including tonight’s great dance band, Straight Pipes.

And dance you will. Straight Pipes decided from the git-go to just play straight-up party music, the heck with pretentious arty shit. No blues. No jazz. No technopop. The band’s repertoire is all rock’n’roll, like your dream jukebox with only your fave butt-shaking tunes. You know — all the guilty-pleasure stuff you crank up to 11 when nobody’s around to make faces.

That’s not to say their set list isn’t ambitious. There are plenty of Top 40 tunes nobody ever needs to hear again. Thankfully, these guys don’t play any of those. And what they do play is often better than the originals. Rebel Rebel. Whipping Post. Keep On Rocking Me Baby. All Right Now. Feels Like The First Time. White Room. The Letter. Mary Jane’s Last Dance. Money For Nothing. Addicted To Love. C’mon — when was the last time you heard a bar band with the balls to cover that?

Who are the Straight Pipes? Well, its members kind of floated around in other bands for years, finally coalescing into something that seems preordained. Sort of a frat party version of CSNY or Cream, with all the chops and none of the attitude. The core members are bassist Chris Bergeron (Soul Ambition), guitarist Paul Gizelt (a NYC export), Kevin Weyman (the singingest chef in the Ocean State), and keyboardist Billy Maine (San Diego’s Big Shot Reub & The Reloaders), accompanied by an assortment of ever-changing guest drummers, none of whom will disappoint you.

I’ve actually seen the Straight Pipes a few times. They always bring new material to each gig. And their formula seems to be working. They’re getting lots of bookings in a geographic area overrun by bands clinging tearily to their precious hoary “blues tradition” (and who wind up playing mostly for themselves).

“We ain’t just thrashing. We’re rehearsing and planning,” says guitarist Gizelt about the Straight Pipes’ game plan. So far, it’s all good. “There are times when the crowd is singing along so loud, I can barely hear the band. It’s so much fun, I’m thinking of applying for a patent!”

There’s no cover at Sandy’s — great for guests, but also makes you wonder WTF? as the Straight Pipes effortlessly deliver one delicious hit after another. I’d totally pay for that.

Straight Pipes has a bunch of gigs lined up. Catch one. You can get details on the band’s Facebook page. Sandy’s Lighthouse is also on Facebook, where upcoming club events are posted. Don’t wait til the next superstorm.

All Content Copyright ©2013 ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER
Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorsed any third-party video advertising that may appear on this blog, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Speaks for Itself

An adorable but completely insane admirer linked this to Dead Spot. Can’t imagine why!


Dead SpotCopyright © 2013 SYDNEY SCHUSTER
Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorsed any third-party video advertising that may appear on this blog, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

What You Don’t Know Can’t Hurt You (Unless It’s Your Publisher Welshing On Royalties)

Copyright © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

If you’re an author who sells your book on Amazon, you should read this.

I sell my bangin’ rock-n-roll mystery novel Dead Spot on Amazon. It’s available as a paperback and ebook. Naturally, Amazon’s been after me relentlessly to enroll the electronic version in Kindle’s lending program, KDP Select.

Are you the author of a Kindle ebook? Did you join KDP Select? Or are you, like me, still holding out? And if so, does Amazon bug you daily to enroll? Even more important, did you ever wonder why?

I did, because Amazon is giving away ebooks like hot wings at happy hour. Amazon is not a charity. So how does it profit from lending? Because it’s, you know, lending. Well, here are some answers. (Spoiler alert: You won’t like them.)

First, some horrifying freebie facts!
☹ When someone buys a Kindle book, they can lend it out for free.
☹ Amazon Prime members can borrow one Kindle book per month without charges or due dates.
The general public can borrow Kindle books from libraries for free.
A Kindle customer can register as many computers on his account as s/he wants, and then everyone with those computers can read his ebooks without paying for them.
☹ If you run a free Kindle ebook promotion, downloaders can lend your book, too.

I have no clue whether authors receive royalties for any of this, or are even notified. And until I get an answer, I ain’t signing up for KDP Select.

Unlike authors, Amazon actually makes more money giving away ebooks than selling them. And maybe also from reformatting and selling them without telling you.

Check this out. Really.

There’s this website called It’s an ebook barter hub. Look into it.

When someone buys a Kindle book from Amazon, they’re allowed to lend it out, once, to anyone they choose. But I guess lots of buyers never lend, and there’s a backlog in Amazon’s database. And lord knows there’s lots of deadbeats who don’t want to pay for books.

The obvious solution is barter, which is an Amazon no-no (and doesn’t generate income). Ergo, Lendle. I doubt it’s a coincidence that Amazon’s Kindle Lending FAQ doesn’t mention Lendle.

Lendle lets Kindle ebook buyers trade their unused lends for “borrows” of books they’d like to read for free. Ordinarily a Kindle book buyer is entitled to a number of “borrows” equal to the number of his unused “lends.” But Lendle permits someone to borrow more Kindle books than they’re contractually allowed — way more — for a $25 fee. If you borrow enough ebooks, that’s a much better deal than buying them from Amazon. (Do the math, dammit!) Lendle also gives away free “review copies” of ebooks — your ebooks — something I couldn’t get Kindle to do when I actually wanted people to review mine.

Lendle claims it’s not part of Amazon, just an Amazon Associate.


It would take an entire post just to explain the technology involved in third-party manipulation of a database as massive and armored as Amazon’s. Suffice it to say that Lendle is, in fact, either an Amazon subsidiary with full access to Kindle’s entire library, or Amazon is giving out member passwords and records to Lendle, along with free access to authors’ copyrighted intellectual property and other stuff you didn’t knowingly authorize and probably aren’t getting paid for.

In other words, Lendle can’t be doing what it’s doing without Amazon’s cooperation. And what it’s doing isn’t limited to KDP Select’s lending library (approximately only 350,000 of Kindle’s million+ ebooks). Dead Spot is listed with Lendle, without my permission. (It’s not enrolled for lending, remember?) Check Lendle’s site to see if your book’s there, too.

But wait — there’s more!

More barter sites like Lendle, that is. eBookFling claims “Any Kindle or Nook books you own can be listed.” (Emphasis mine.) eBookFling purports to be another “Amazon associate.” An Amazon associate that just happens to sell its members extra Kindle ebook exchanges for $1.99 each.

Free, free, free!

So what the heck do authors get out of this?

Not much. If you enrolled with KDP Select, you’ll get more than if you didn’t, maybe. If you’re “enrolled” with Lendle you’ll probably get, as I have, zilch.

Originally the benefit of KDP Select membership to Kindle authors was … ta da! absolutely nothing. (Otherwise known as good will! and wider visibility!) That went over like cow tipping, so now Amazon pays Kindle authors something like $2 per lend out of a slush fund called the KDP Select Global Fund. (I usually throw away the announcements, but in January it was $2.23). The earn amount changes monthly for reasons that are incomprehensible and will, I’m guessing, stop entirely as soon as Amazon suckers enough authors into the program.

The bottom line is, maybe you’ll get $2 whenever Lendle lends your ebook. Or maybe you won’t, if nobody feels like telling you about it. After all, Lendle didn’t bother telling me it listed my book in the first place. Have you ever received notifications from Lendle regarding lends of your book? I haven’t.

When you get time, have a stiff drink and check out Lendle’s FAQ.

Way at the bottom is the part about how anyone can pay Lendle a fee to get lotsa mo’ Kindle books without paying Kindle (or you, the author) for them.

And now, the bad news

Okay, refill your glass. It gets worse. Much worse!

Amazon has a legit service (hahahahahaha!) called Buy In Bulk And Save, where customers can order paperbacks in quantity for a discount. The paperback version of my book Dead Spot is listed there (without my consent, natch) for the bargain price of $71.13. Per copy. I am not making this up.

Good luck with that, guys. I sell those on Amazon for $14. But my point here isn’t about overpriced paperbacks. It’s about theft.

Buy In Bulk And Save does not have a shelf full of Dead Spots, not the real ones I paid to have printed, not even a bunch of secondhand review copies. To fulfill bulk orders for my book, Buy In Bulk And Save has two options. It can get the books from me (it doesn’t). Or it can do a POD thing. A totally unauthorized secret illegal POD thing. Because it can.

Amazon has its own print-on-demand division that prints paper books to order from PDFs. It’s been called CreateSpace since 2010, when Amazon changed the name from BookSurge after losing a federal antitrust suit alleging BookSurge intimidated other POD publishers. What a coincidence! Kindle ebooks can easily be converted to PDF. Without your knowledge or consent. What — you wanted to know?

Amazon never informed me about Buy In Bulk And Save, nor that it was listing my book there, nor that it might be converting my book to another format and selling it through another source. (“We guarantee the lowest delivered prices for large orders,” blows Buy In Bulk And Save.)

This seems like the perfect time to mention an eerily similar experience I had with, the Chinese Kitchen of Publishing. (It’s ebooks! It’s POD! It’s blogs! It’s social networking! It’s widespread intellectual property theft of unfathomable dimensions!)

Before Amazon, I tried selling Dead Spot on as a PDF ebook. Every time I turned around, Lulu was stealing from me — ignoring contractual agreements, doing shit behind my back, making unauthorized versions of my book and selling them through Nook and iBook and for 99¢ on 99¢! WTF? Lulu never had my permission for any of it, ever. Nor did Lulu ever report any of the sales to me.

So call me paranoid, but that don’t mean they ain’t after me. A friend told me he bought two Dead Spot ebooks — two! thanks, Dave! — in a month when Amazon reported I had zero sales.

Fun Fact: Until a Federal lawsuit stopped them in 2013, Amazon was raking in $160 million per day from third-party sales and withholding the money, instead of remitting it to sellers.

Which brings us back to Amazon hell.

So let’s suppose my illicit POD suspicion is right. Here’s how it plays out.

Let’s say the Hell’s Angels order a gross of Dead Spot paperbacks for pot party favors. Buy In Bulk And Save can print and ship them — and cut me right out of the equation, because I’d never know about any of it. Or it could do the right thing (bwahahaha!) and order the books from me, but insist on paying me the wholesale price listed with Bowker (about $7). They’re smart enough to know I won’t go for that if they’re reselling them for $71.

So you can see how it’s in Amazon’s best interest to maybe go with the secret POD solution, and not disclose to me their 91% profit. And even if Amazon did order from me, and gave the Angels a generous discount of 40% for buying quantity, Amazon’s profit is still $35 per unit while mine is $3. Woot?

Why would Amazon do this?

Aside from the free money part, I mean? And us, the self-published rabble who make it all possible, being too stupid to figure it out?

The reason is simple. Electronic publishing was never profitable for Amazon, despite Amazon charging Kindle authors more in fees than it pays them in royalties (do the math, dog!), and even despite Amazon’s valiant attempt at price fixing and elimination of market competition. Kindle devices are a loss leader, or at best a break-even proposition. The whole ebook venture left Amazon with shareholders to pay and a vast stockpile of unsellable intellectual property, which incidentally it got from you for free so any money Amazon makes from it is gravy. The trick was how to leverage it.

So poor Amazon is transitioning to a new brave new business model. It includes pay-to-play ebook “lending,” giving away free downloads of the book you spent a decade writing to reward Prime customers (who pay Amazon $79 per year), and charging third parties money to lard up your ebook with their advertising. If you think the advertising video plastered onto this blog is annoying, wait ’til you see one in your ebook.

Amazon’s newest ebook fleece is Kindle MatchBook, something the company calls “an innovative new program which enables you to offer your Kindle book at a discount when readers purchase your print book.” (Read: Enables Amazon to pocket even more cash without telling you about it.)

Plus there’s all the old-school scamming of money off the back end of … everything else Amazon does. The everything else includes ecommerce hosting for other retail sites (Ruby Lane is one), cloud storage service (the CIA is a customer), and the PayPal copycat Amazon Payments (because we don’t have enough unregulated financial services suspending our accounts without notice and protecting us from our own money). Amazon also issues Visa credit cards, charging from 13% to 22% interest. And of course there are still dead trees books and mass-produced sweatshop crap for sale on its flagship site.

In a recent interview with Politico about how he’ll run his newly acquired Washington Post, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos rather humorously said, “We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient.” Then when asked about the concept of paying for content, he added: “Why should I pay … for all that journalistic effort when I can get it for free?”

Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe the Post won’t change a whit, and Amazon is actually horrified by Lendle’s activities and will shut it down. (Hahahahahaha!) Maybe Buy In Bulk And Save is just a big money laundering op used by political hacks and celebrity grifters who buy truckloads of their own books just to get them onto bestseller lists, then give them away to fans and donors for a big tax write-off. In which case Amazon has even more ‘splainin’ to do.

I’d be interested in hearing from authors who opted into Kindle’s lending program, or dealt with Lendle or Buy In Bulk And Save.

Amazon reminds me of a place where I used to work. My boss always said, “We lose money on every job we do. But we make it up in volume!”


Copyright © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorsed any third-party video advertising that may appear on this blog, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Diagnosis Murder: Imaging as a Psycholegal Defense Tool

I used to be a regular contributor to the website — an unfortunate name for a fantastic publication read and revered by the entire radiology profession. Go check it out sometime.

I covered many aspects of radiology, but my hands-down favorites were legal-flavored. In 2006 I wrote the following story for, a look into the surprising ways medical imaging could be used to defend — or convict — people accused of violent crimes.


Diagnosis Murder: Imaging as a Psycholegal Defense Tool
Originally published in, June 29, 2006
Copyright © 2013 Sydney Schuster

If the current crop of TV shows is any indication, medical imaging is primed to replace forensics as the cool crime-fighting science. On the Fox drama “Bones,” FBI doctors use whiz-bang 3D virtual reconstruction to identify homicide victims.

Imaging has also popped up on all the incarnations of “CSI,” most often in the context of forensic autopsy, although one episode of “CSI: Miami” did raise hackles when iodine-131 was used as a murder weapon.

Of course, in these cases, imaging was used on the deceased victim. But in real-life crime dramas, imaging is being deployed in a new context — as a defense tool for those looking to back up a plea of legal insanity.

Consider the recent trial of Dena Schlosser, who was accused of fatally dismembering her 10-month-old daughter with a kitchen knife in the family’s apartment in Plano, TX. During her first trial, which ended in a hung jury, Schlosser’s team failed to convince the jury that voices in her head drove her to commit murder.

During Schlosser’s retrial, defense attorney David Haynes introduced new evidence that Schlosser had a midbrain tumor, which was spotted after she underwent a functional MRI (fMRI) test. The new defense tactic was that the voices Schlosser had heard were caused by this inoperable brain tumor. Schlosser was subsequently found not guilty by reason of insanity earlier this year.

Schlosser beat serious odds when her brain tumor was confirmed with the MR scan. Others are attempting to do the same. It would seem that defense attorneys order up MRI, PET, and SPECT scans so often that the topic inspired a lively debate in the General Radiology Forum.

“We had an attorney in the state’s public defender office (who) would get a PET or MRI (on the taxpayer’s dime) on every capital murder defendant,” stated one Forum member.

Such complaints inspired to investigate the use of scanning as a psycholegal defense tool (and before “Law & Order” beat us to it). Can a scan actually convince a jury that a person is not at fault for committing a heinous act of violence against another human being? Under what circumstances are scans most likely to be ordered? And how much liability do radiologists carry when they are asked to perform such exams?

Different states, different standards

Certainly defense teams can request an imaging exam, find a doctor to perform and interpret it, and submit the results as evidence in their client’s favor. But how likely are the courts to admit the evidence, especially as a bolster for the tricky insanity plea? The answer varies from state to state.

“The Texas formulation of the insanity defense is one of the tightest in the 50 states,” said David Haynes, Schlosser’s attorney, in an interview with “In Texas, a person is insane if, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, he did not know that his conduct was wrong. Unless a defendant can show a long history of documented bizarre behavior that has been observed by lay persons, he has no chance to use the insanity defense successfully.”


Primary glioma imaged on FDG-PET and 11C-methionine PET, revealing tumor glucose utilization and protein synthesis respectively. Image courtesy of Siemens Medical Solutions and Huashan Hospital, Shanghai.

Before the MR scan and the brain tumor, Schlosser had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, for which hallucinations are a classic symptom. But that diagnosis alone was considered inadequate proof of incompetency by the Texas court.

Above,T1-weighted postcontrast axial image from the MRI series undergone by Dena Schlosser. Below, an axial diffusion-weighted image. Schlosser’s neurologist examined Schlosser after her first trial and, based on the MRI exam, testified that midbrain injuries could cause visual hallucinations. Schlosser had previously told psychiatrists that she believed God wanted her to cut off her child’s arms, as well as her own arms, legs, and head (Dallas Morning News, April 3, 2006). Images courtesy of David K. Haynes, Attorney at Law.


In 1998, a Florida death row inmate Michael Robinson — who had pleaded guilty to first-degree murder — decided he wanted to serve a life sentence instead. In an effort to show mental incompetence, his defense counsel put in a bid for a state-sponsored PET scan, which was deemed too expensive by the state, and then a SPECT scan — dubbed “a poor man’s PET scan” by the defense. Robinson claimed his constitutional right to due process was violated when Florida denied him both scans.

Other states are more lenient. In Massachusetts, a judge felt a homicide defendant with attention deficient/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), traumatic brain injuries, and a language disability actually may have been unable to control his behavior. The court blamed the defense attorney for not mentioning those details during the trial, thereby depriving the accused of an insanity defense, and the defendant was granted a new trial.

In the U.S. territory of Guam, Joseph Hughes Valenzuela, accused of repeatedly stabbing his wife with a kitchen knife in 2003, was actually ordered by the court to undergo a brain scan. His criminal trial is set for June 30.

In New York City, Peter Braunstein underwent PET scans at the request of his attorney, Robert Gottlieb. Braunstein allegedly set a small fire in an apartment building and impersonated a firefighter to gain access to the victim’s apartment. He is accused of drugging the woman and raping her repeatedly for 13 hours, before fleeing with a pair of her shoes.

2006_06_23_14_17_12_706 Above, Peter Braunstein. Image courtesy of Below, Braunstein’s PET scan. Image courtesy of the Law Offices of Robert C. Gottlieb.


A neuropsychiatrist who reviewed the images said that Braunstein’s scans showed frontal lobe deficiencies consistent with schizophrenia. Additionally, a psychologist hired by the defense interviewed Braunstein at Rikers Island and said that he suffered from “psychotic breaks with reality, a systematized paranoid delusion and compromised ability to control his impulses.”

In December 2005, Braunstein pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual abuse, arson, kidnapping, burglary, and robbery. Gottleib is rumored to be planning a psychiatric defense (New York Daily News, June 2, 2006).

A felon in your future?

Many types of psychoses and dementias are identifiable by brain anomalies or pathologies on imaging, so the appeal of imaging to defense attorneys is a given, especially as technologies become more cost-effective.

A 2001 study found that among forensic referrals for competency to stand trial the largest diagnostic category was schizophrenia (44%), followed by psychosis (43%). Overall, 18% of the present sample was found to be incompetent to stand trial, while 12% were found to be not criminally responsible or “insane” (Behavioral Sciences & the Law, September 17, 2001, Vol. 19:4, pp. 565-582).

Another study from the Yale University Child Study Center in New Haven, CT, found that of the 18 males in their patient sample — all of whom were condemned to death — all showed signs of prefrontal cortex impairment. In addition, “83% had signs, symptoms, and histories consistent with bipolar spectrum, schizoaffective spectrum, or hypomanic disorders” (Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 2005, Vol. 32:4, pp. 408-429).

What is the role of radiologists when requests for these scans come their way? Does the imaging expert’s obligation end once this “patient” is out of the scanner and/or once the films have been read, or is he or she now a reluctant participant in a criminal case?

First, the type of practice can makes a difference. A radiologist in private practice can always refuse a referral to image a violent criminal. On the other hand, those who work for government institutions (federal or state hospitals) may not have that option, although prison-based doctors have successfully bowed out of certain tasks citing ethical concerns (Boston Globe, February 21, 2006).

When defendants are referred for imaging, the order may come from another physician who is acting on the request of a judge or attorney, or if the defendant has been sent to a particular institution for competency evaluation. Occasionally, proper protocol is ignored and attorneys will order imaging exams as will physicians who are acting as an expert witness, but are not licensed to practice within the trial state.

Radiologists can refuse to provide medically unauthorized exams, although they risk being called on the carpet for insubordination, especially if a supervisor has approved the order. But that may be lesser of two evils — accepting such a referral does carry some legal risk. Conducting an imaging exam without a medical indication is questionable. Imaging experts also may be held liable for performing medical exams on referral from someone who is not a doctor.

The request for the scan should come directly from a medical professional, although the implicit understanding is that the psychiatrist or neurologist is asking on behalf of an attorney, said Dr. Harry Zibners, chairman of the medicolegal commission of the American College of Radiology (ACR).

As for reading the scan itself, Zibners recommended that radiologists approach it as they would in a routine clinical setting, including a working knowledge of the person’s relevant medical history.

“I would not view this any differently than any other case that I agreed to read,” Zibners told “I want to have some kind of history. I would read it and interpret it like I would anything else. That’s what my job is.”
For the written report, Zibners again suggested that radiologists walk the straight and narrow. While it may be obvious to everyone involved in this case that the defense team has an agenda, the radiologist need not play into that by making any connection between results of the scan and the defendant’s violent actions.

“I would not (make that connection) because I’m not a psychiatrist, and I don’t have that kind of expertise,” he said. “The radiologist’s job is to demonstrate an abnormality if there is one. But I think the attempt to connect these abnormalities with certain kinds of behavior is overdrawn. I don’t think it’s appropriate to say in a report ‘There’s a certain kind of abnormality in the frontal lobe so that might explain why this guy killed someone.’”

If the medical expert working for the defense requests a consultation to go over imaging exam results, Zibners said taking that meeting is up to the individual radiologist. “It’s like any other malpractice litigation. The radiologist has to decide whether he will or he won’t. I bet most people would say ‘No.’ I think that’s why the radiologists are upset (by these requests) because they feel like they are being set up. They don’t need to get pulled into that (case).”

Above, regions of interest (ROI) examined in MRI study of patients with first-episode schizophrenia or affective psychosis and normal comparison subjects. Top (A) is a 1.5-mm coronal slice of the temporal lobe; the ROI used to evaluate the temporal structures are outlines. The gray matter of the superior temporal gyrus is shown in red (subject left) and green (subject right); more medially, the amygdala-hippocampal complex is shown in orange (left) and blue (right) with the parahippocampal gyrus underneath in pink (left) and purple (right). Below, a left lateral view of a 3D reconstruction of the cortical surface with the anterior superior temporal gyrus (light pink) and posterior superior temporal gyrus (red).


There is a chance that the imaging expert will be called to testify, but it’s a slim chance. What attorneys really want is an image that will sway a jury and give weight to a psychiatric evaluation, not testimony from someone who may not stick with the defense team’s strategy.

“Lawyers don’t want an unfriendly witness,” said Dr. Leonard Berlin, chairman of the department of radiology at Rush North Shore Medical Center in Skokie, IL.

Same subject. Above and below, axial MRI is used to present top-down views of the 3D reconstruction of the amygdala-hippocampal complex and parahippocampal gyrus. All images: Figure 1, Hirayasu Y, Shenton ME, Salisbury DF, et al. “Lower Left Temporal Lobe MRI Volumes in Patients with First-Episode Schizophrenia Compared with Psychotic Patients With First-Episode Affective Disorder and Normal Subjects,” (Am J Psychiatry 1998; 155:1384-1391).


If a subpoena is issued, don’t even think of ignoring it, Berlin said. “If subpoenaed by a court, you must obey that order. If you don’t, you’re in contempt of court and can be jailed. But you cannot be forced, except in rare circumstances, to testify as an expert witness.”

If subpoenaed to testify, consult an attorney first and your malpractice insurance carrier, as they often will cover lawyer fees. The ACR offers practice guidelines on being an expert witness in radiology.

Finally, Zibners suggested that if a radiologist is contacted directly by the defense team for a consultation, the practice or hospital’s legal counsel should be notified about the request as a courtesy, even if the radiologist refused the meeting.

Endless possibilities

So what are defense teams looking for with imaging? In most cases, they order neurological scans that will cast their client’s violent actions in a slightly more forgiving light. And radiologic forensic studies have indicated that tendencies toward violent behavior are manifested physically.

For instance, an FDG-PET study showed that temporal lobe anomalies can be linked to violent crimes, particularly homicide and sexual assault (American Journal of Neuroradiology, April 1997, Vol. 18:4, pp. 625-63).

Above, a coronal FDG-PET scan in a control subject. Note relatively homogenous temporal lobe metabolism. Below, a coronal FDG-PET scan in a 20-year-old male, with a history of unpredictable behavior and domestic violence, who shot and raped his stepmother and hid her body in a closet. Note low metabolic activity in medial temporal lobes.

D Seidenwurm, TR Pounds, A Globus, PE Valk, Abnormal Temporal Lobe Metabolism in Violent Subjects: Correlation of Imaging and Neuropsychiatric Findings. American Journal of Neuroradiology, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp. 625-631, April 1997. © by American Society of Neuroradiology.

In a poster presentation at the 2006 International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM) meeting in Seattle, Danish researchers used 3D volumetric MRI to demonstrate that major depression caused measurable structural changes in the thalamus, inferior and middle prefrontal gyrus, and occipital lobe. Severe postpartum depression was the defense mounted by Andrea Yates’ attorneys when she was tried in 2002 for drowning three of her five children in the bathtub. Yates is currently undergoing a retrial and has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity (, February 7, 2005).

Physical illness as the basis for an insanity defense has also relied on imaging to prove a disconnection — or disprove a connection — between a violent act and the defendant a la Dena Schlosser.

In 1998, Concord, CA-based physician Gary Parkison claimed AIDS-related dementia made him legally insane — and that’s why he plotted to hire a hitman to kill his former lover in a life insurance scam. Parkison was also convicted of setting fire to his office to dodge his lease.

Coronal MR scans from a chronic schizophrenic (above) and normal comparison subject (below). Note increase in CSF in left amygdala-hippocampal complex. Images courtesy of Schizophrenia Research Project and Psychiatry Neuroimaging Laboratory, Harvard University, Boston.


Parkison was diagnosed with AIDS in 1992 and, after he was jailed, an MRI scan showed brain lesions. In an HIV-positive patient, these lesions can lead to poor impulse control and a lack of judgment, according to the psychiatrist who examined Parkison (, May 1, 1998).

Liar, liar

And what if there are no obvious disease processes or mitigating psychological problems? Then bring on the “No Lie MRI.” Recent research has focused on differentiating truth tellers from those who are being less than honest. A study done at the University of California, Los Angeles, used MRI to determine that pathological liars had 22% more prefrontal cortex white matter and 14% less gray matter than normal controls (British Journal of Psychiatry, October 2005, Vol. 187, pp. 320-325).

An earlier controlled fMRI study at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles also showed that schizophrenics showed a distinct lack of functioning in the prefrontal region of the brain (Schizophrenia Bulletin, 2002, Vol. 28:3, pp. 501-513).

In another study, Dr. Daniel Langleben, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, showed that deception is distinguishable from truth by increased prefrontal and parietal activity, and that fMRI clearly revealed frontal lobe activity associated with lying (Human Brain Mapping, December 2005, Vol. 26:4, pp. 262-272).

Group analysis showing significant differences in brain activation between Lie, Truth, and Repeat Distracter conditions. Row 1: Truth > Repeat Distracter; row 2: Lie > Repeat Distracter; row 3: Lie > Truth (blue scale) Truth > Lie (red scale). Images are displayed over a Talairach-normalized template in radiological convention. Significance thresholds for all contrasts based on spatial extent using a height of z ≥ 2.57 and cluster probability p ≤ 0.05, except Lie > Truth (blue scale) presented at a z ≥ 1.64, uncorrected. Image courtesy of Dr. Daniel Langleben.

Could defense attorneys start ordering MRI exams as “proof” that their clients are telling the truth when they claim they suffered from diminished mental capacity at the time of the crime and did not understand their actions?

Possibly. According to Langleben, the No Lie MRI system, when used in combination with a carefully controlled query procedure, demonstrated 80% to 92% accuracy versus a polygraph test, which turns in an accuracy of 50% to 90%.

“The problem with polygraph is that it seems to be operator-dependent and thus susceptible to manipulations,” Langleben told With the 3-tesla MR test, “no one ‘reads’ the scan,” he said. “The data is automatically processed with preset thresholds of significance.”

The No Lie MRI system has not been used in a U.S. criminal court case to date, although fMRI lie detection and brain mapping were used in 2006 to convict a rapist in Mumbai, India. Abhishek Kasliwal, 27, was accused of kidnapping and raping a 52-year-old woman at the compound of a mill owned by his father. Kasliwal underwent brain mapping at the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Bangalore as a routine part of the investigation (, March 28, 2006).


While courts seem to be more open to using imaging in criminal cases, ethical questions still need to be answered. Neuroethics is the name given to a new field that encompasses the array of issues emerging from different branches of clinical neuroscience (neurology, psychiatry, psychopharmacology) and basic neuroscience (cognitive neuroscience, affective neuroscience), including the use of functional neuroimaging.

“Most of neuroethics theory is highly speculative at the moment,” said Professor Margaret Somerville, founding director of McGill University’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law in Montreal. Scanning for insanity or deception “leads into a whole lot of other things,” according to Somerville. “What if you find someone’s got a hyperaggressivity gene? Does that mean they couldn’t help it if they did something aggressively?” she said.

There are other ethics issues as well, such as the application of imaging for nonmedical reasons and the potential violation of informed consent if the attorney is keen on the scan but the accused isn’t interested in being tested, whether by choice or an inability to make those kinds of decisions. “The patient has to agree. It can’t be done against a patient’s will,” Berlin said.

Haynes agreed with Somerville that the future of brain scans in court appears limited. “The law proceeds on the assumption that people decide to do bad things out of their evil hearts and minds,” he said. “This is the basis of the criminal law. If we’re now going to say we can scan a person and see why he engages in violent behavior, then why are we going to put him on trial or punish him at all?”


By Sydney Schuster / Copyright © 2013 SYDNEY SCHUSTER contributing writer
Originally published June 29, 2006

Dead SpotSydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorsed any third-party video advertising that may appear on this blog, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

MARY WELLS / A Great New Bio About Motown’s First Superstar

Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar
by Peter Benjaminson
Book Review © 2013 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

It doesn’t matter how much you think you know about the music world. Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar is a revelation. Peter Benjaminson’s fascinating exposé about this underappreciated hitmaker is a roller coaster ride that will leave you breathless. I couldn’t wait to see how it ended, even though I already knew (or thought I did).

This is the first book written about megastar Wells, and Benjaminson’s third book about Motown (along with The Lost Supreme and The Story of Motown). Clearly a devotee of R&B, he takes special care to explain why this musical genre is so compelling. But this superb book is also a gold mine of historical anecdotes — some humorous, some flat-out shocking, from wardrobe malfunctions to family deathbed fights to celebrity shootings. Lovers of showbiz dish will relish the stories about a teenaged Stevie Wonder groping Wells on the Motortown Revue tour bus, and Wells telling a furious Diana Ross to get a girdle. Reliably, Benjaminson never shrinks from airing the dirty laundry of anyone, including Motown founder Berry Gordy, one of the most feared and loathed gods of the entertainment world.

Gordy was himself a frustrated musical artist about whom Benjaminson explains: “No one found his playing or his singing all that overwhelming.” Gordy was far more successful as a producer and napoleonic CEO. Under his influence, Wells abandoned what the author describes as her “gutsy, gospel-type” singing style for “innocent, vulnerable adolescent lyrics … over a high-production, harmony-heavy vocal and instrumental background best exemplified by [Phil] Spector’s `Wall of Sound.’”

Thus in 1960 Wells became the first superstar of Motown Records. Then Gordy teamed her up with legendary songwriter Smokey Robinson, who, as Benjaminson explains, “encouraged her to sing in a higher register…. She followed his directions, then added her own smooth, knowing coyness, like a layer of delicious frosting, right on top.” Their songs catapulted Wells to crossover superpower status, where the Grammy-nominated phenom spent three years repeatedly topping charts with hits like “My Guy” and “Bye Bye Baby.”

What happened next is truly tragic. Wells’s life became a toxic stew of bad business decisions, aborted career reboots, and volatile romances. For her there would be no movies or TV shows like white pop stars got, and no more monster hits — only indifferent promotion by record companies, industrial sabotage, and substance abuse, all of which ultimately destroyed her.

Great gobs of Wells’s misfortune derived from unscrupulous managers and predatory contracts (she was only 17 when she joined Motown Records). Drugs and booze just made it all easier for her to bear. Hers is a cautionary tale that Benjaminson delivers with the warmth and understanding befitting a star of her caliber. His bulletproof reporting is built on extensive research and interviews with scores of people in Wells’s sphere, spiced with ballsy observations like this one about Wells’s first husband (band leader Herman Griffin, who performed backflips and splits while conducting):

Something other than drugs, liquor, and music was soon occupying her mind. “The audience liked to look at him as much as at her,” said Pete Moore [of The Miracles]. Mary also liked looking at Herman Griffin.

I confess to being a long-time Benjaminson fan. As a scribe, his style is delightful. Take how he characterizes two of Wells’s songs as “enlivened by what sound like farts from a low-pitched tuba.” C’mon, what’s not to like? If he wrote a book about fly swatters, I’d totally read it — and underline stuff and scrawl margin notes and make my friends read it, too.

As an investigator, his digging is so exhaustive it wears me out just thinking about it. Plus, he has a gift for distilling the maddeningly complex legal constructs of music contracts so that the lay wonks among us can appreciate their insanity, too. And he nimbly puts into perspective the numerous and often conflicting contemporary accounts of what really happened to the people he writes about.

I especially enjoy his books about showbiz luminaries, and this one is his best yet. Here Benjaminson delivers a seamless portrayal of an industry that devours its young, and what it was really like for a gifted casualty like Mary Wells.

Available on Amazon.

Mary Wells

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