Why Selling Your Book (or Anything) on eBay Is Hopeless

Copyright © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Do you sell your book (or anything else) on eBay? If you’ve had more than zero sales, consider yourself lucky.

eBay sellers have seen catastrophic drop-offs in sales this year, while eBay steals scads of their dough. WTF happened?

The easy blame is Cassini, the glitch-plagued search engine eBay rolled out in 2013 just when sales started flatlining. Naturally everyone assumed a connection. And there is one, but the real answer is more complex.

In fact, eBay started doing other things that are way more awful than Cassini:

● eBay gives preferential treatment to foreign mass marketers, pushing aside smaller domestic sellers.
● eBay started selling postage to sellers, for which it gets a fat cut from carrier services (a whopping 58% from USPS). Sellers who use it receive discounted shipping, but the service is frequently ultra-slow or completely down.
● eBay launched its Global Shipping Program (GSP) and forced sellers to use it. Sellers mail their international packages to a Kentucky distribution center run by Pitney Bowes, who removes their packing materials to save money on postage and then ships broken purchases, often to the wrong place, with exorbitant export fees due to buyers (typically 33% of item value) that apparently eBay keeps. GSP has also been caught stealing shipments and reselling them on eBay.
● eBay deliberately hides many listings.
● eBay’s mobile app is virtually useless. It omits item descriptions and shows all your listings with Free Shipping! If a buyer tries to leave you five-star feedback on his iPhone, eBay’s mobile app will erase it.
● eBay interlards the listings you pay for with links to competing listings, typically 31 per page not including advertising from external retailers like Target, who pay eBay to skunk up your listings with pop-up ads that redirect buyers away from eBay, and eBay product promotions.
● eBay tasks its programmers with screwing sellers instead of improving security, resulting in broad downtime outages and the hacking in May 2014 by cyberthieves who stole the private data of many, if not all, of eBay’s 128 million users. As a direct result, many buyers abandoned the venue.
● eBay sellers suffered massive cutbacks in their listings on Google Shopping search after Google made the service pay-to-play and eBay didn’t want to so much. Google’s new search algorithm (Panda 4.0) uses bid-based priority ranking that ignores cheap-ass clients like eBay. eBay has since moved its Internet ad business to Bing, used by no one.
● eBay rolled out Google Checkout in 2006 as a payment method, then rolled it back in a few days later.
● eBay pirated YouTube tutorials, further antagonizing Google (who owns YouTube).
● In retaliation for eBay being dickish, Google minimized the presence of low-quality and/or thin content promotions, like eBay’s poorly thought out AdWords campaign. eBay Adwords eBay’s unwillingness to upgrade its staff, coding, or infrastructure is a big mess of stupid, best exemplified by a market launch on October 9, 2014, when eBay began hosting live auctions for a consortium of major art auction houses. The highly publicized event crashed eBay’s American servers the first day and its European ones the next. eBay shut down other marketing operations and/or transferred their databases to foreign servers to free up bandwidth and server space for the live auctions. US sellers found their stores had become Russian or Chinese ones, their PayPal accounts were German, and their auctions had vanished. Some members could only access their accounts by logging in via eBay Canada. US buyers were blocked from making purchases from US sellers because, eBay insisted, one party wasn’t in the US.

Fun Fact: the buyer’s premium on eBay’s live auctions ranged up to 30% of price realized. Ha — bite that, screwed eBay Mom & Pop Store!

The upshot: eBay sales have tanked because eBay willfully thwarts sellers in pursuit of various ends, none of which benefits you. eBay revenues nosedived in 2014 (including a $200 million loss due to the Google debacle alone). And, apparently, eBay recruits programmers from the local bus station. (Except for the one who also coded Silk Road, which worked great until the Feds torpedoed it.) Instead of using dedicated standalone servers to conduct its cavalcade of bad experiments, eBay uses live listings for beta testing. Worldwide, eBay had 16 site crashes in 2014 alone, on top of its marginally functional postage program and the bonus site hacks resulting from inadequate security.

Fun Fact: On January 27, 2015, eBay announced it had created a new horrible technology division to build a new horrible payment gateway to replace its soon-to-be-independent PayPal operation, in spite of a non-compete agreement with PayPal.

Fun Fact: eBay started out 2014 blaming its spring/summer sales slump on the May data breach. eBay ended 2014 — after partnering with bottomfeeder mega-retailers like Wal-Mart and Sears — by blaming its fall/winter sales slump on food stamp reductions.

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Anyway, here’s how and why eBay limits visibility of (your) listings:

Rolling blackouts (rotating exposure). eBay’s file management system herds what it considers less-desirable listings (ie, yours) into dead zones. It assigns server locations and listing numbers based on criteria like category and seller volume, allocated regionally, which eBay can manipulate discreetly. So like, if eBay needs you to step off because they got boxcarloads of bad art and Korean Rolexes to fence and you’re hogging their precious bandwidth with your dumb book, they just turn off your whole server and the entire Midwest (or wherever you are) goes dark.
Restricted visibility of listings to small, distant areas.
By forcing you to sell far away, eBay gets a bigger postage kickback. And eBay doesn’t want you selling locally, where buyers can — horrors — pick up for free! And eBay doesn’t want you competing in desirable markets against eBay’s mass-market darlings, except when eBay’s had a real slow quarter and its financial report to investors is due and shazam! just watch those floodgates open. Fun Fact: ebay plans to force indie sellers to let their customers pick up purchases at partner retail outlets like Target, Best Buy, and Home Depot. Hey — what could possibly go wrong?
Secret selling limitations (throttling). No matter what you do, you’ll only be able to sell as much as eBay allows, and not one widget more.
eBay physically turns off listings (tap-on-tap-off) without notification (including ending auctions early, often within one minute of the end, to block snipe bidding because it overtaxes eBay’s inadequate infrastructure and bandwidth; eBay uses other means to block sniping, too).

Instead of your listing, buyers often see this:

ebay unavailable messageeBay’s rationale regarding restricted visibility is actually codified in their user agreement:

Accordingly, to drive a positive user experience, a listing may not appear in some search and browse results regardless of the sort order chosen by the buyer.

I now invite you to share my horror upon discovering that “a positive user experience” means my eBay listings are visible ONLY in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. They’re not big readers of cutting-edge literature there, so I gave up selling my novel Dead Spot on eBay.

Fun Fact: In December 2014 an eBay forum moderator posted an internal company memo explaining nine different kinds of limits to which sellers are arbitrarily subjected, including this one: “Silent limits (limits placed on an account that can’t be seen by the seller).” The post was deleted from the forum immediately, and the mod’s account obliterated. Here’s the deleted memo:

eBay secret seller limits

Fun Fact: eBay customer service reps are trained to call 911 in response to the many calls from sellers who are suicidal or having heart attacks.

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Seriously, WTH?

This seems like a good time to remind everyone (especially eBay) that even though eBay acts like a retailer, it’s not. It has neither inventory nor salespeople. It’s just a brokerage for independent sellers who provide stock and manage their own sales, and pay eBay a commission to use the venue. But for reasons that defy all logic of commerce, eBay has commenced jettisoning the small and mid-sized sellers who made it the 800-pound gorilla it is today, in ways it hopes aren’t obvious enough to start an avalanche of class actions.

In 2013 (and reportedly as early as 2008, when the current CEO took over) an anonymous eBay manager posted this chilling warning on the sellers’ forum, accompanied by details of the secret Machiavellian makeover designed to result in exactly what has transpired:

“[Small to mid-sized sellers] are not wanted. Leave. If you stay, you will be crushed. Leave. Go away. You cannot win. … You do not know how much they [eBay] hate you.”

Reports vary, but eBay admitted to (translation: probably grossly understated) 54,000 seller suspensions over just two days in 2013. In addition, ridiculous sales limitations were placed on an undisclosed number of active sellers. And when eBay clamps down on sellers, it uses their IP addresses to stop their rise from the grave, unlike deadbeat eBay buyers who return again and again like a zombie army.

After a tsunami of bad publicity, eBay clammed up about whatever it’s doing. (One possibility: driving disenfranchised sellers into its disastrous Valet selling program.) But on the 20th of every month since, thousands more sellers were kicked out, nominally for “underperformance” (directly caused by listing invisibility, duh).

Your turn will come. In the meantime, eBay doesn’t care if your listings never sell. Why? Because fees, dog.

When buyers can’t see listings, sellers relist perpetually, paying a fee per listing of 50 cents to $2. (By way of example, eBay collects $7.20 in basic fees for one unsold $10 item relisted for two years, compared with $3.63 if it sells once.) If a seller ends an auction early and there were bids on it, there’s a penalty fee. Do you prefer 30-day fixed-price listings? Don’t worry — eBay will convert them to Good Til Canceled without notice (no, you can’t change them back) and bill you monthly in perpetuity. Yes, even after you’re dead.

[This just in: per eBay’s 2015 Spring Seller Update, fees have increased up to 500%!]

If you do manage to actually sell something, eBay will relist it without telling you — and charge you a listing fee. If your buyer doesn’t pay or returns it, you ain’t getting your seller fees back. For returns you’ll pay for return shipping, at a specially inflated rate that’s hoovered from your PayPal account against your will along with the refund you’re forced to give, all of which you lose and eBay keeps when your buyer doesn’t bother returning your item. Fun Factoid: eBay reportedly scores an average of $100 for every sale that goes south.

Now multiply all of the above by millions of unsold listings to get the big picture.

Fun Fact: Another reason eBay doesn’t care if you get stiffed: fake sales inflate eBay’s gross merchandise volume (GMV) report to investors.

But wait, there’s more! eBay collects store fees — $16-$180 per month. If you have a store and you want out, you’ll pay an early termination fee, from $5.32 to $719.80. Cha ching, sucker!

Fun Fact: For books, eBay limits the shipping fee you can charge to $5 or $6 and then steals 13% of that in fees (10% to eBay + 3% to PayPal). Selling coffee table books? Reference books? Textbooks? Good luck with that!

Arguably the most disturbing thing is this: Instead of just outright banning the small sellers it no longer wants, eBay elected to painfully drag out and monetize their exodus.

And yes — there’s even more!:

● eBay forces sellers to start auctions at 99 cents to attract buyers to the site, then shuts off the auctions from views and late bidding, forcing a sale at the opening bid (or a relist).
● It wasn’t mean enough for eBay to hide your listings’ visibility, so eBay started hiding your listing descriptions, too. Except when eBay replaces your descriptions with random nonsense phrases.
● eBay secretly allows high-volume sellers to buy their way out of negative feedback (one reported payment: $150) or hide crappy ratings entirely.
● eBay would care way more about your sales if you were a bloodthirsty international terrorist.
● If you call eBay customer service and the CS rep doesn’t like your attitude after you’ve been on hold for hours, watch out for damaging retribution. Fun Fact: eBay CS reps, who are mostly in the Philippines, are paid $5 per day plus a sandwich.

Fun Fact: PayPal (which eBay owns) now places 21-day holds on seller funds. Why? Because it can. The problem (besides the obvious): The length of time a money transmitter can hold funds is regulated by states, and most allow a maximum hold of 10 business days. PayPal hopes you don’t know this.

And there’s also this:

● eBay unlawfully inflates the price of its stock by planting acquisition/spinoff rumors in the media. (Google to buy eBay! Carl Icahn to buy eBay! eBay may accept Bitcoin! eBay to sell off PayPal!) Every time the share price rises, board members and top execs sell theirs, then buy them back low (or don’t, if they grabbed the cash and bailed).
● Since eBay soon won’t have PayPal to suck the life out of (latest alleged spinoff date: mid-2015), eBay now pushes eBay MasterCards, with a vertigo-inducing variable purchase APR of 19.99% or 23.99%.

Fun Fact: According to eBay’s 2014 Q3 report, the company had $749 million net profit from 128 million users. Really? That’s $1.95 monthly profit per user. Who needs massive infrastructure for that? Homeless people make more money selling soda cans.

Fun Fact: eBay openly admits hiding money in Switzerland and Luxembourg. The company also has or had a vast off-the-books slush fund, called the black budget, that it uses to finance illegal activities.

So caveat venditor, dogs. eBay is no longer a venue for indie sellers. It’s just that eBay isn’t copping to that because they’re too greedy to blow off that much free dough.

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Sellers are already lining up to sue the crap out of eBay, if Icahn (the largest stockholder, who owns 46 million shares and the BOD’s balls) doesn’t rip it to shreds first. So far, three state attorneys general have started investigations.

eBay’s big, sure, but is it bulletproof? Nope!
● 2008: To honor the first eBay “live auctions,” the company was sued for bid rigging.
● 2009: A French court fined eBay 1.7 million euros on behalf of LVMH, the distributor of perfumes by Christian Dior, Guerlain, Givenchy and Kenzo, which by law aren’t supposed to be for sale at a dump like eBay.
● 2011: eBay settled a class action for $30 million for overcharging sellers in the Motor Parts and Accessories category.
● 2012: A federal class action was allowed to proceed in which claimants allege eBay’s refusal to allow any payments other than PayPal constitutes an unlawful monopoly.
● 2013: eBay settled a class action for $4.75 million after failing to provide visibility upgrades to sellers who paid for the service.
● 2013: A PayPal program called Bill Me Later was investigated by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for predatory lending. (eBay’s solution: rename it PayPal Credit and resume as before.)
● 2013: A DOJ judge allowed a lawsuit against eBay to proceed that charges the company with poaching employees from Intuit.
● 2014: Two technology companies sued eBay for patent infringements. (US patent numbers 7,296,033 and 8,195,569). In 2001 a third company, MercExchange LLC, sued eBay all the way to the Supreme Court for patent infringement of three technologies, resulting in a 2011 landmark technology ruling and a $30 million settlement.
● 2014: A class action was allowed to proceed in which eBay is accused of unfair policies toward sellers that enable buyers to defraud them.
● 2015: eBay settled a class action seeking damages for unauthorized charges to sellers for Good Til Canceled listings. Gross settlement amount: $6.4 million. Fun Fact: Payouts will be made as credit to claimants’ eBay accounts—after the eBay/PayPal split, just in time for eBay’s rumored bankruptcy filing.
Tiffany & Co. sued eBay after proving 73% of “Tiffany” jewelry sold on eBay was fake.
● Ditto Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior, who nailed eBay for 40 million euros for selling fakes.
● In 2011 the DOJ launched a criminal investigation after eBay stole confidential data from Craigslist in 2004, and used it to start a rival classifieds site, Kijiji, that eBay charmingly nicknamed the “Craigslist Killer.” eBay has yet to be indicted. eBay attempted a hostile takeover of Craigslist and ran bait-and-switch Google ads redirecting Craigslist searches to Kijiji. Craigslist sued eBay for 14 crimes including deceit, breach of fiduciary duty, securities fraud, and negligent misrepresentation. The case is still ongoing.

There’s no action yet against eBay by the SEC or FTC. But the last time anyone checked, the SEC still frowns on pump-and-dump and insider trading, and the FTC doesn’t look kindly upon theft of service or bait-and-switch. (Like France, Russia, interestingly enough, has no qualms about bitch slapping eBay.) So the most plausible reasons why eBay has dodged greater regulatory scrutiny should make you think, and squirm:

1) Boardroom bully Icahn makes generous political contributions to Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Mitt Romney, Orrin Hatch, John McCain, and other cash-before-Constitution carpetbaggers who endlessly block cabinet appointments and kill meaningful regulatory legislation; plus, he has successfully evaded SEC investigations himself;
2) eBay is used by the government to spy on … well, everybody, the same way it uses Facebook and Google. eBay saves searches and purchase histories of users, and maintains a proprietary email system for them. Connect the dots, yo. Back in 2006 an eBay executive claimed the company doxxed 200 members per month. (This being eBay, probably add a couple of zeroes to that figure.) “I don’t know another Web site that has a privacy policy as flexible as eBay’s,” he said. We are doing a lot of work with law enforcement agencies.”

As for the seller purge that’s destroying millions of small businesses, scuttlebutt is rampant in eBay forums and elsewhere concerning the real intent behind it. Pick your fave:

1) reduce payouts from upcoming lawsuits
2) minimize claimants from a rumored bankruptcy filing
3) easier reincorporation of eBay in the UK, where the company paid a paltry £620,000 income tax for 2013 sales of over £1.3 billion (eBay US paid $6.1 million on $2.86 billion net revenues the same year — and would’ve paid 80% less in the UK)
4) prep eBay for sale to Alibaba and PayPal to Apple, Google or Icahn.

On September 30, 2014, eBay announced it would part ways with PayPal sometime in 2015 (PayPal constitutes 45% of eBay’s value). On October 1 eBay assumed $7.5 billion of PayPal’s debt (ie, all of PayPal’s debt). Then on December 10, eBay announced layoffs in the thousands. According to the Wall Street Journal: “Analysts have said an independent eBay would be a candidate for a buyout, and job cuts would help lower operating costs, a key metric for buyout firms.”

On February 11, 2015, eBay CFO Bob Swan said at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference that PayPal will receive a $5 billion cash divorce settlement from eBay when the two companies split, a gift that would “more likely than not” be parked offshore. (Which corporations do to evade tax liability.) Let’s be clear: $5 billion is 80% of eBay’s entire 2014 end-of-year cash position.

So let’s just say it: eBay is transferring all its cash and assets to PayPal, obviously in preparation for (one way or another) The End.

Back on December 10, an eBay insider leak posited that after the eBay/PayPal split, CEO John Donahoe will truck on into the sunset… with PayPal. And — surprise! — eBay’s stock goes up again (over 5% in the next two days).

What’s not much of a surprise is that top eBay executives are fleeing, most recently CTO Mark Carges, VP of merchant development Michael Jones, board director and Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, PayPal president David Marcus, SVP for eBay North America Christopher Payne, PayPal VP Stan Chudnovsky, North America CMO Richelle Parham, and PayPal head retail exec Don Kingsborough.

Along with the first PayPal spin-off announcement on September 30, eBay also announced the imminent departures of the much-despised Donahoe and CFO Bob Swan.  Donahoe (the former Bain & Company CEO who calls eBay sellers “noise”) received a $23 million retention bonus to stick around and “help” with the PayPal spinoff. He also was awarded acceleration of all his restricted stock unit and stock option awards. (And yes, it turns out he will sail off with PayPal.) Swan received an obscene retention bonus, too, of $12 million.

Wow, what a coincidence! On September 30 Donahoe just happened to own 660,748 eBay shares that he no longer needed, the value of which shot up immediately by 7.5% on the spin-off announcement. (And predictably sank 20% following eBay’s Q3 report in October, after it was downgraded by analysts who consider a clusterfuck a bad investment.) Spoiler alert: Donahoe dumped 485,665 of his shares on November 18 for $26,672,721.

Donahoe wasn’t the only dumper. Other eBay insider sell-offs in November 2014:

CFO Bob Swan sold 148,000 shares for $6,015,482
SVP Alan Lee Marks sold 6,750 shares for $369,427
SVP Michael Jacobson sold 94,000 shares for $5,124,880
SVP Elizabeth L. Axelrod sold 241,250 shares for $13,222,912
Director Thomas J. Tierney sold 10,120 shares for $295,200
CTO Mark Carges sold 11,392 shares for $600,358 just before resigning in November, after unloading 37,421 shares for $849,861 in July.

http://ycharts.com/companies/EBAY Fun Fact: John Donahoe claims he once sold an old cell phone on eBay.

Few Nasdaq companies need to be investigated more than eBay does. In the meantime, eBay still laughably promises sellers better visibility in exchange for sellers providing 24-hour turnaround, free shipping, generous return policies, and of course lots of fees. But in reality seller compliance doesn’t buy blackout immunity, and eBay penalizes sellers for things they can’t control. eBay forums are clogged with complaints from cooperative sellers whose stuff is still deadweight at the ass end of search results (when it’s visible at all) behind thousands of duplicate listings for Chinese counterfeits and other dreck that don’t even have the search terms in the titles. And if you relied on buyers finding your listings via Google Shopping to pick up the slack, you can kiss that goodbye.

In other words, eBay’s current business model is you giving eBay money for nothing, not you selling stuff on eBay.

My advice: RUN LIKE HELL! Don’t bother selling your book (or anything else) on eBay. Short of worldwide famine or collision with a comet, eBay is your worst nightmare.

http://www.amazon.com/Dead-Spot-Sydney-Schuster-ebook/dp/B003WQAR9S Copyright © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

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

Memo from the Dead Zone | 1986 World Cycling Championships

Let’s take a trip back in time. The year: 1986 — the last and only year the US was allowed to host UCI World Cycling Championships since 1893. You’re about to find out why.

In the mid-1980s I was a columnist for the greatest cycling magazine ever, Bicycle Guide. They sent me to cover the Worlds in Colorado, and the following is my report. Consider it a little taste of what to expect next year when, for better or worse, the Worlds return!

That’s right, in 2015 they’re scheduled for Richmond, Virginia — a state with hurricanes, tornadoes, hazardous seismic activity, toxic waterways, 31 Superfund sites, doctors in tents instead of modern clinics, a governor convicted of 11 felony corruption counts, and police who tried to force a teenager to have an erection to prove they saw it in private emails they spied on illegally. Yup, Virginia is for lovers. And, uh, racing.


originally published in Bicycle Guide, January/February 1987
Text and Photos Copyright ©1987, ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

Colorado Springs, America’s largest small town, wasn’t quite ready for the Worlds. After all, who else would sic police dogs on the World Pursuit Champion and ask you not to ride your bike in their hotel rooms?


I’m no good with small towns. I need large quantities of food at odd hours, department stores open ’til 9, all-night newsstands, winos who wipe your windshield because gas stations won’t, and 24-hour greaserias serving rotgut coffee. I’m a New Yorker. Bite me.

In the pantheon of small towns that should be avoided, Colorado Springs may be America’s largest. Its population, mostly somnambulant, consists of 375,000 tropes who seemed utterly unaware they were hosting a major international sports event.

Upward of 100,000 bikies had been making World Championships-related reservations since the previous January, but by August the Springoids remained staunchly oblivious even as cycling interests mainlined $10 million into the local economy. Few area businesses benefitting from this windfall reciprocated by donating primes to the Wheat Thins Mayor’s Cup street races, pretty much the only recreational entertainment available (and organized by David Pelletier, a non-USCF East Coaster, natch). Because, you know, … duh.

Me, I saw the planets lining up upon my arrival at my fancy B&B, which was more like a dorm in hell. The headmistress saw our bikes and demanded to know — wait for it — if we intended to ride them in our room. Huh?!

I tried to imagine her scenarios: The next track session is three hours away and every restaurant in town is closed (yes, that happened): “Honey, I’m bored. Let’s ride bikes around the room!” Or I’ve just met some interesting people who also shlepped bicycles along, like the Italian team (that happened, too): “Hey, let’s have some fun riding bikes around my room!”

Soon the headmistress found out I was press, which resulted in surveillance of my “gourmet breakfast” plate. Her “inn” publishes and sells a collection of its “special recipes” (too special to actually waste on guests, apparently; I was never served any). My leftovers (ie, everything — hippie moderne crap!) elicited a stern lecture from the management, who considered that a smart way to avoid bad publicity.

I have to tell you, this grub nouvelle was everywhere, like acid rain. And they couldn’t even get that right. Hungry bikers turned militant as they searched in vain for bacon and eggs and burgers, and starved altogether from 3 to 5 pm and after 9, when Colorado Springs rolls up its streets — even when 100,000 tourists blow into town, dying to burn $10 million.

The city has exactly one diner (which I discovered on my way out of town) and barely enough late-night eateries to count on one hand. These establishments are distinguished by religious graffiti in the restrooms and menus featuring airbrushed, highly idealized photos of food-like matter. The pictures came in handy when the Japanese team (whose English was better than ours) failed at verbal communication with the waitresses, who eventually took orders by pictures. That is, after they finally stopped laughing and got up off the floor.

Where's the beef?

Where’s the beef?

Basic math

Ever notice how the ratio of small brains to small towns is in direct inverse proportion? I went sightseeing by bike and a local passed me in a tricked-out RV, yelling “Go Germany!” The jersey I wore was yellow, with my New York City club’s name. The Germans wear silver ones (East), or white (West). With German words, usually. Go figure.

I was luckier on my ride than others. Another hayseed drove his car over Olympic track star Shaun Wallace, and the police sicked an attack dog on world pursuit champion Tony Doyle. (Said Doyle after winning the pursuit gold with the teeth marks still visible on his calf, “I’ve got three legs he could have bitten. I’m glad he chose the one he did.”)

The Russians rode their bikes over to K-mart and were orgying inside when some hoods swiped their rides parked outside. Their bikes were recovered only because sharp-eyed neighbors noticed the $2,000 custom Colnagos with Cyrillic decals parked beside the Carrillo’s trash. Sensing something not quite right about that, they called the cops, who clearly need all the help they can get. They never did find the $25,600 worth of equipment stolen from Campagnolo’s service truck.

Colorado Springs — a national treasure

No, really. Where else would contractors build bleachers to seat 8,000 by balancing them on little piles of sticks and sand? Where else would an elite international audience be expected to sing “Home on the Range”? Where else can you spend $100 on dinner and get food poisoning? (The Broadmoor, y’all — plan accordingly.) Where else would the Soviets end up in the Satellite Motel?

It’s somehow fitting that the United States Cycling Federation* is HQed in Colorado Springs. As small-time as small-town operations get, the USCF was unfortunately the organizer of this event, and mired in provincialism to the bitter end. First they blew a deal for network TV coverage. Then they let sponsors paint advertising directly onto the brand-new, state-of-the-art track surface at the US Olympic Training Center, on which many racers subsequently slipped and crashed. They mounted signs on all the velodrome’s rails, blocking most paying folks’ view. They recruited redneck road marshals who’d never seen a bike race before, much less hoards of hardcore bike racing fans, with whom they interacted like the Berlin border patrol. There were a lot of fights.

Strategically placed advertising is key to viewing enhancement.

Strategically placed advertising is key to viewing enhancement.

Judging by how late the town got the event memo, I’m guessing the USCF dropped the ball on publicity, too.

The one thing that was micromanaged was the press. The Federation demanded that we send in passport pics for mandatory photo IDs, which the Federation immediately lost. Then the USCF generously reshot them, thoughtfully providing a broken laminating machine to seal the magic passes. I call them magic because, although they looked alike, women’s prohibited them from bringing anyone inside the press area, while men’s allowed access by their entire families plus their analysts, stockbrokers, refreshment dealers, Akita trainers, et al.

Olympic and World Champion Jeannie Longo looks for an exit.

Olympic and World Champion Jeannie Longo looks for an exit.

A night out in paradise

Every convention has its party scene and this Worlds was no different. The only thing was, utterly no entertainment was provided for athletes or press, so improvisation was necessary. The trick was finding a decent location for a party.

One nightclub deejay proudly informed me, “I’m from Iowa, and we’re at the same level musically as New York.” Sure. Whatever. He demonstrated by spinning up a stupefying disco cacophony of stuff listened to in New York by people who wear vinyl pants and shower caps.

I pounded the buckaroo meat beat until I struck gold. Everyone else seemed to have found it first — including the hardhats, food designers, RV fans, waitresses, merchants, graffitists, thieves — even the deejay from the other club was there. One of them flew at me out of nowhere, shrieking that I better dare not take the empty barstool that was obviously hers because she’d left her wallet on it while she was gone. Like, to reserve it. I am not making this up.

The track events had just concluded and the biciclisti were there, too, boogying with a vengeance. The crème de la crème of sports proceeded to rout the scum de la scum of Colorado Springs. By midnight the townies had retreated in disgust.

Closing time came and went (too many receipts to skim). The morals squad came and went (not enough paddy wagons). Into the wee hours the bikies danced on the tables, danced on the chairs, danced on the bars. Had there been rafters, they’d have swung from them. No big deal, our clueless bartender assured us. “It’s always like this on Ladies’ Night.”

The next day I called it quits. A simpatico native asked to beam up with me.

“The people who live here think the UCI championships are an annual local event,” he told me, incredulous. “They’re already talking about next year.”

Call it a hunch, but I’ll bet it’s a cold day in hell before Colorado Springs hosts another Worlds. And that’s just fine with me.

Many-times Tour de France winners Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, and Jacques Anquetil (and some guy) at a Colorado Springs press conference, wishing they were someplace else.

Many-times Tour de France winners Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, and Jacques Anquetil (and some guy) at a Colorado Springs press conference, wishing they were someplace else.

Text and Photos Copyright ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
May not be reproduced without permission.
*In 1993 the USCF was incorporated into USACycling. It didn’t help.

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

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 ©1987 ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

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 stockbroker played by Kevin Bacon. Vails had a cameo. He played a bicycle messenger.

The best part of Quicksilver is the exciting 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 yuppies 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 VailsNelson 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 – All Rights Reserved
Photo of Nelson Vails © 2014 Nelson Vails
Photo of Team Breakaway Courier © 2014 Kevin Hatt
Photo & Video 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 advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Film Review | Road to Hell

The Long-Awaited Film by Albert Pyun

Movie Review Copyright ©2014 Sydney Schuster – All Rights Reserved


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 lives 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’s 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 mash scene is extra steamy. 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 tableaux mixed with 1980s hair and semiautomatic weapons.

You might guess a formula like that would never work. You’d be wrong. Not to mention the soundtrack is so bitchin, 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 told Hill 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)

It opened the same week as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Doom being the operative term, 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. (Paré claimed the sequels were abandoned because everyone involved left Universal, who owned the rights to the franchise and wouldn’t play nice.)

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 beautiful, horrified face.

Speaking of meaningful looks, one part I was compelled to rewatch several times 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 a digital manipulation.

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.

And it’s freakin’ awesome. 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 for nothing, but in 1977 Luis Buñuel ingeniously used two actors (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) to play one character, Conchita, in That Obscure Object of Desire. No makeup magic there and no one laughed, either, at least not when they weren’t supposed to.

My point is, 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 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. 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 and sung the hell out of by Fulco. The whole score is quite good. Two Jim Steinman songs from Streets of Fire were dusted off and performed again, this time by Gunn, and arguably better: “Nowhere Fast” and “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young.” Gunn is a guitarist and vocalist who wrote and performed many of the film’s excellent tunes. Vegas Rocks! Magazine called Road to Hell “one of the best music-driven films of the year.”

I love Pyun’s willingness to take big chances on relative unknowns, a kind of artistic bravura that really pays off here. Newcomers Fulco and Gunn pull double duty supplying both pipes and pivotal character portrayals, and never miss a beat. Fulco, amazingly, is only about 15 here and has since moved on to leading roles in feature films. She’s going to be a huge star. Quadruple-threat Gunn also has a big career ahead. Her band The Roxy Gunn Project is a favorite on Vegas stages, with a rapidly growing fan base. Both Fulco’s and Gunn’s lungs should be gilded and enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Best of all, Road to Hell 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 – All Rights Reserved.
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 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

Text & Photo Copyright ©2013 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

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 and one-time Natural), Kevin Weyman (the singingest chef in the Ocean State), keyboardist Charlie Huntington (former songwriter and keys with Killer Kane & The Blue F.O.s), and legendary drummer Ignatius J. Reilly (aka Steve W, formerly with Bobby Fleet, Mark Ray, Professor Harp, Greg Hodde, et al).

pipes068taggedI’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, unlike the Pipes, 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 or website. Sandy’s Lighthouse is also on Facebook, where upcoming club events are posted. Don’t wait til the next superstorm.

All Content Copyright ©2013 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party  advertising that may appear below, 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 – All Rights Reserved
Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, 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 © 2013 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

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.

As if. Amazon is giving away ebooks like hot wings at happy hour. Why? 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.
☹ When you sign up for KDP Select, you cannot sell your book(s) anywhere but Amazon (a requirement of your enrollment agreement).

Amazon claims authors receive reduced royalties on lends. It doesn’t seem like a fair trade-off for mandatory exclusivity, and I’m unconvinced they’re reporting all the lends to authors anyway, so I ain’t signing up for KDP Select.

Check this out. Really.

There’s this website called Lendle.me. 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! and “building your brand.”) That went over like cow tipping, so now Amazon pays Kindle authors something like $2 per lend out of a mysterious 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!

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

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 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 Lulu.com, 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 Lulu.com 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 Lulu.com. 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 was asked if there’d be a personnel rout at WaPo, and what were his feelings about paying for content. He replied: “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 bit, and Amazon is actually horrified by Lendle’s felonious 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 there always said, “We lose money on every job we do. But we make it up in volume!”


Copyright © 2013 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

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