More Great Adventures in Cheap Wine

Copyright © 2015 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

My last posts about liquid refreshments were such big hits, here’s some more!

wine

And now, the bad news. 2012 wines blow.

What 1929 was to the stock market, what 1963 and 2000 were to presidential debacles, what 2001 was to the demise of the Fourth Amendment and 3,000 people who mostly weren’t bothering anyone, 2012 is to wine.

I say this because every single 2012 I’ve tried — and there is no nice way to put this — sucked so loud I needed earmuffs to drink it.

Flat. Bitter. Mediciney. Weird colors. I will not touch any more 2012s with a barge pole. Unless someone gives me one for free, in which case I’ll cook with it. Maybe. 2012s are not — repeat NOT —  going to improve with age.

Why? A good question. And I have a theory. So permit me to winesplain.

Before you suggest that perhaps my neighborhood packies park their stock too close to the radiator, let me just say this: All wines usually aren’t bad at once.

That means the problem with the 2012s is something else, something way bigger. (Although the radiator thing is pretty bad too, and it actually happened at one store I used to frequent and don’t anymore.) That’s why this is such a disaster. Being a wine aficionado without being a dick is hard enough without obstacles like this.

As you know, we here at Casa Loco are ardent fans of cheap good wine. We consume it like pop. We don’t care if it has a screw cap. We’re fond of spritzers and goofy cocktails. It’s not that we don’t have refined palates. It’s just that, for the most part, expensive wine is wasted on us because we’ll drink it with corndogs. Plus also, fake wine sucks.

Until 2012 it was easy to score cheap delicious wines from all over the world. It’s stupid not to. Our go-to winners were Berco Do Infante Regional, a $6 super-Tuscan-like red from Portugal that I just adored, and a bangin’ $9 Medoc from Chateau Haut Queyran. Good stuff! Until 2012. Our first bottle of 2012 Berco mostly went into the ragout. There was not a second. And after we cleaned out the 2011 Haut Queyran Medocs, the store didn’t get any more.

Chateau Haut Queyran

Chateau Haut Queyran Medoc

An endless parade of 2012 swill ensued, along with my theory: I suspected 2012 was the first year wine growers got slammed by climate change, and it was major. Too much heat or cold, too much rain or not enough, hail in deserts, shorter growing seasons. The result: a uniform awfulness of product beyond description (and the reason I didn’t post about wine for a long time).

I figured I’d interview some real experts to get the poop, because I was going there anyway.

Everyone should have a wine store like my favorite, owned by two guys (Terry and Terry, I am not making this up) who sample everything they sell because they, you know, care. So I can always ask Terry, “Is this any good?” and they’ll answer “Yes!” or “Maybe get this other one instead.”

Anyway, I asked them what’s the deal with the 2012s. There was a lot of whispering and shoulder shrugging, followed by crickets.

Okay. So next I visited the Interwebs to see what I could find about the death march that is 2012 wine. Here ya go:

It turns out 2012 was a benchmark year in wine fails. According to this lady who clearly knows more than I do, European vineyards were ravaged by bad weather in 2012, “leading to what could be the worst grape harvest in 50 years.” Crop damage was so widespread, some fancypants French and Italian vintners, such as Château d’Yquem, wrote off 2012 altogether rather than produce crap wine.

So much for Europe (and my beloved Berco and Medoc). Unfortunately, I endured equally vile stuff from South America, so don’t believe any PR blather about what a great year 2012 was for their malbecs and carmeneres. It wasn’t. Although some whites took somewhat less of a beating. We did get all the way through a 2012 Concha Y Toro sauvignon blanc magnum. Not terrible, just meh.

Now if you’ll recall, 2012 also was the year Hurricane Sandy destroyed most of the east coast of the US and seven other countries, so don’t expect anything good from them. Not that I was such a fan, but Martha’s Vineyard and Newport do produce wine that some people actually don’t mind drinking when it doesn’t taste like lighter fluid.

Over on the left coast, 2011 was the start of a rough streak for the Northwest. Which makes me sad, because Oregon and Washington state wines had always been among my favorites. I remember a pre-climate change Columbia Crest Two Vines shiraz so divine, it made me weep. RIP, my friend.

Northern California wines got T-boned too, with their climate-related slide starting back in 2010. Out-of-control wildfires aren’t helping them, either. I’d bag Napa and Sonoma brands for now. Also Central Valley. The current drought there pretty much ensures they won’t be producing anything promising any time soon.

Reportedly SoCal wines dodged the ick bullet. But I tired of them a while back — the whites are too minerally and acidic for my taste, the reds too big and unnecessarily complex, and most are stupid expensive.

Doubters: Check out this chart below from Wine Folly. It only covers 2004 to 2011 vintages, but the point’s pretty obvious.

Vintage Badness Chart

Vintage Badness Chart

For what it’s worth, this guy here swears some 2012 German wines aren’t so bad. And while Australia had smaller 2012 crop yields due to drought, they’re not necessarily nasty-ass ones so don’t dismiss them out of hand if you can afford the jacked-up prices.

Now if one were to ask me, I’d guess that many 2012 wines that did make it to stores are “special blends” cobbled together from leftover dregs of previous years and recent rejects that in a million years would never have made it into any bottle. Except, obviously, in an emergency. Which clearly 2012 is. And I’m guessing the few 2012s that don’t suck aren’t really made from 2012 harvests.

Mystery wines to try at your own risk

Mystery wines to try at your own risk

I’m telling ya, it’s been a long year waiting for reinforcements to replace the dogshit 2012s that still bogart the store shelves. So it was with great emotion and gratitude that I flung myself upon the 2013s that finally rolled in and, just last week, a 2014! I was so happy to see it, I took a picture.

Frontera malbec

Frontera malbec (above) is a long-time bargain fave here at Casa Loco. (If you have a choice, 2014 is better than 2013.)

And now you know what torpedoed 2012. Take a moment. Breathe. Then buy something else, okay? Anything else. Thank me later.

Herewith are some wines that are affordable, available now, pretty damn tasty and, most important, not 2012s. Enjoy!

🍷Tricky (Rabbit) Reserva Sauvignon Blanc/Carmenere blend (white, from Chile) 2013 $11.49
🍷The Bean Pinotage (red, from South Africa) 2014 $12
🍷Concha Y Toro Frontera Malbec (Argentina) 2014 $10 magnum!
🍷Concha Y Toro Frontera Carmenere (Chile) 2014 $10 magnum!
🍷Black River Malbec (Argentina) 2014 $12 magnum!
🍷Hedges Family Estate CMS Red Blend (Cab/Merlot/Syrah from Columbia Valley, Washington state) 2011 $12
🍷Lab Vinho Regional Lisboa White Blend (Vital, Arinto, Moscatel, and Sauvignon Blanc, from Portugal) 2013 $6
🍷Lab Vinho Regional Lisboa Red Blend (Castelao, Tinta Roriz, Syrah, and Touriga Nacional, from Portugal) 2013 $6
🍷Slavcek Sivi Pinot (white, from Slovenia) 2014 $13 (a splurge for a bargain wine, and totes worth it!)
🍷Mandrarossa Nero D’Avola (red, from Sicily) 2013 $10
🍷Purato Nero D’Avola (organic red, from Sicily) 2013 $13
🍷Tilia Bonarda (red, from Argentina) 2013 $10
🍷Fairview Goats Do Roam (Cote du Rhone-style red blend from South Africa) 2014 $10
🍷Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava (bubbly goodness from Spain) 2014 $11
🍷Mionetta Prosecco Brut (bubbly goodness from Italy) $13
🍷Terrilogio Primitivo (red, from Italy) 2014 $10
🍷Morgan Cotes du Crow’s (syrah and grenache blend from Monterey) 2013 $18 — well worth the splurge!)
🍷Ninety+ Cellars Old Vine Malbec (Mendoza, Argentina) 2014 (earthier) and 2015 (cleaner; Lot 23 is awesome) $11

wine

Copyright © 2015 SYDNEY SCHUSTER — All Rights Reserved

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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 the World Cycling Championships road race is 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.

 ★★★

MEMO FROM THE DEAD ZONE
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 savvy 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 on it. 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. [$2000 was a LOT of money in 1986. — ss] 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 townie 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.

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Film Review | Road to Hell

road to hell title

The Long-Awaited Film by Albert Pyun

Movie Review Copyright ©2014 Sydney Schuster – All Rights Reserved

roadtohell_IMDB.43123343

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.

MSDSTOF EC108

STREETS OF FIRE, Michael Pare, 1984, (c)Universal Pictures

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, produced by Jimmy Iovine. 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-CG 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. “It wanted to be a comedy and it turned out to be a drama,” costar Rick Moranis groused to Empire magazine. “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 here, 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.

houston knights & women's club 3

Michael Pare in “Houston Knights” (left) and “The Women’s Club” (right)

“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, there are ways to do this sort of thing believably and too often it isn’t, due more to lack of imagination than budget. Film history is littered with 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 (and cleverly referencing Streets of Fire‘s original artwork).

Road to Hell

Streets of Fire posterAnother 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 Tom Cody, a cinema verité one for Ellen Dream, and a documentary feel for Reva Cody. 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. 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 (Scott Paulin) is 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
Streets of Fire photo of Michael Paré and film poster art © RKO Universal Pictures

I make no money from this blog. If you find it interesting or useful, please buy my book Dead Spot. The Kindle version’s only $5 and you’ll love it! Thanks.

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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.

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 © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

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
Dead SpotCopyright © 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.

Wedding Music

This is an article about wedding music that I wrote for the current issue of Rhode Island Monthly Engaged. The photo here is just a screen grab. To read the entire article, click this link, or cut and paste the one below into your browser.

http://www.bluetoad.com/publication/?i=96342&p=108


Copyright © 2012 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

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

Five O’Clock World | Was (Not Was)

I used to be the nightlife columnist for a newspaper. The column was called Five O’Clock World, after the old Vogues song. I’ve already explained this a gajillion times, so won’t bore you with the details again. The following is a club report I wrote in 2005. I’m posting it as a tribute to my departed friend, Josh Barber. Cheers, Josh.

Five O’Clock World
Was (Not Was)
Copyright © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Old clubs around here never die. It seems they just change names and reopen with different management. Such is the case with a couple of “new” lounges I checked out.

The first was Rusty’s (Wave Ave., Middletown), which in a former incarnation was the popular neighborhood watering hole called Overflo’s.

Though it has changed hands as well as names, everything at Rusty’s seemed comfortably the same on a recent Saturday night: the usual highly animated customers; a local band from the regular rotation; the familiar cheesy decor; the squirming line outside the miniature restroom; the rutted, parked-out parking lot.

As ever, the place was jammed. A cadre of loopettes commandeered the dance floor, boogying manlessly to driving rock‘n’roll and R&B tunes. The band providing them was Smokestack Lightning, the totally awesome project of Jamestown’s Josh Barber. A guitarist who’s a devotee of Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, Barber possesses staggering musical ability all his own that belies his tender age (25). Plus he’s really cute, which explains all the chicks.

As it turns out, one critical element of Rusty’s is different. I ordered a straight margarita and received — check it out — a straight margarita. I couldn’t remember the last time a bartender didn’t load up my margarita with ice and other useless crud. Score!

The way Rusty’s is losing money on the bar, you better go before you have to call it “the place that used to be Rusty’s.”

Josh Barber

Josh Barber

***

Being from a land where businesses stubbornly remain in the same families for all eternity, I find it amusing how the natives here describe everything in terms of what it used to be (as in “the place that used to be Overflo’s”). So don’t be surprised when you phone the new club Area Venue (3 River Lane), and the recording assures you “it’s where the back door of Friends used to be.”

Like Rusty’s, Area Venue lived a prior existence (in addition to Friends, apparently) as a place called Area 22. It was bigger then, and its front door on Broadway was easier to find. Area Venue is about half the size of Area 22 and its front door, to be honest, is in an alley. An alley exactly like the one with the bistro where Buffy and Principal Wood battled vampires on their first date.

Spooky? Kind of. But on the plus side, no vampires here yet. And Area Venue’s dance floor is now the perfect size. Its stage is elevated so that overwound drunks can’t slam into the band, only each other, as it should be.

The bar is on sort of a terrace that offers terrific people-watching opps for armchair dancers like me. No margaritas, alas, but you got your beer, wine, champagne, sake, juice, and endless combinations thereof. The bartender is indefatigably cheerful.

It’s all charmingly reminiscent of the punk-era pubs of London, especially the bathrooms. Not only don’t the stalls lock, but they have swinging saloon-style doors — the better to see you with, my dear.

Despite this one drawback (or value add, depending on your perspective), it’s just incomprehensible why a place this awesome is flat empty on a Saturday night.

Remembering the great wriggling hordes at Rusty’s, I ask the bartender whither Area Venue’s. Well, it’s been open for barely a couple of cold, nasty months, she explains, and “we’ve only had our liquor license for two weeks.” Another mitigating factor, she says, is that “people travel in clusters, following ‘their’ bands around. When we get an out-of-town band, it’s tough.” Ah, Newport — every touring band’s dream.

Indeed, the night’s music is provided by a New Jersey group, The Commons. They’re plenty good enough, playing original dance material for their sound check when we walk in at 9:30. They stop playing at 10:15, presumably to wait for more customers to arrive.

Now the band’s at the bar with us, drinking suds and watching “Design on a Dime” on the huge flat screen. (“Here, you hold the remote,” the bartender told me and then promptly regretted it.)

Me, I think an imported band is a fine reason to go anywhere. I hope others cluster on over to Area Venue, because I like this place and want it to stay open, swinging doors and all.

Text, Art & Photo 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.

Enright Has Left the Building

Copyright © 2012 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Thom Enright

Thom Enright. Know that name? Well, he’s a musician. Or more accurately, a musician’s musician. Three of Thom’s old bands — plus Thom himself, natch — will be inducted into the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame tomorrow.

Thom’s a certified big star in New England. Maybe he’s not a household name where you live, but if you think you’ve never heard him play, think again.

He was a regular member (and MVP, some would argue) of numerous bands of historical significance: The Young Adults, The Duke Robillard Band, The Pleasure Kings, Tombstone Blues Band, Roomful of Blues, Shakey Legs, and John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. He was also a first-call guitar and bass player who performed on many Grammy-winning and gold-selling albums for Sony, Columbia, and Rounder. Thom worked with Bo Diddley, James Cotton, Robert Cray, John Lee Hooker, Paul Butterfield, Ronnie Earl, Hubert Sumlin, Jimmy Vaughan, Big Joe Turner, John Hammond, Jimmy Thackery, and Dr. John. You can read more about his career here, here, and here.

As an artist and especially as a friend, Thom was unmatched in grace and style. His wry wit was legendary. He was some kinda snazzy dresser, too. I wish I’d gotten to see 1970s Tombstone Band Jewfro Thom, and skinny-ties Pleasure Kings Thom of the ’80s.

Should time machines ever be invented, here’s the top of my do-over list:

✔ See Thom Enright perform “A Power Tool Is Not a Toy” in a kimono and fishnets.
✔ Buy Apple shares at $22.
✔ Kill Hitler.

Thom and I met in the ’90s during his blazers-and-berets period, after he joined Beaver Brown. JCBBB sax player Tunes Antunes introduced us. “You should meet the new guy,” he said. “He needs a fan.”

He didn’t really. He totally had that covered. But I was sold. Long after Thom departed JCBBB and well into his Barney’s-manager-lookalike phase, I was still bugging him for his gig sked.

He was cute. And funny. And he really could play the hell out of every kind of music. I am not exaggerating. I heard it all.

What I’ve been hearing for the past few days, though, is lots of Thom Enright stories. Here’s one of my personal favorites:

After one of his shows, he was saying his goodnights to everyone. I grabbed his guitar case and said, “I’m carrying this!” He looked at me sideways and argued half-heartedly (girls didn’t carry anyone’s guitars back then, except their own, if they had one). Realizing that resistance was futile, he laughed as we hauled his gear out to the parking lot. One of the band wives happened to see this. We caught her glowering at us (we were both very married to stay-at-home spouses, so this cartage business was simply unacceptable). We paused to speculate about the havoc we’d wreaked on her moral sensibilities. That took, like, two seconds. Then we waved at her and resumed laughing and gossiping and cramming stuff into Thommy’s car.

A prize in every box

For sure, everyone in The Biggest Little knows Thom. It got me out of a traffic ticket once, when I blew through a red light I didn’t see because I was looking at a map instead. The cop who pulled me over asked me where I’d been. I told him I’d just left a Thom Enright show. It was my get-out-of-jail-free card.

Whenever I went to any of Thom’s gigs, I felt like I’d won the nightlife lottery. One time his wife Olga and I alternated loud singing of our favorite Enright tunes with loud yakking about shoe shopping, which I’m sure the band really appreciated. She isn’t your typical band spouse, and it was obvious why Thom loved her. She came to his gigs often, presiding over a salon of sorts with their friends.

There were always interesting people who came to hear Thom play. His audiences regularly included music world royalty, and sometimes Hollywood’s. It seemed perfectly natural to see Duke Robillard, Bobby Farrelly, Paul Geremia, or Barry Cowsill at the bar.

But a lot of Thom’s admirers were just crazed fans. When he was a regular at the Narragansett Cafe and I was in my cowboy-boots-and-DA period, I always got followed into the ladies’ head by an angry Jamestown mob that thought I was some drunk guy stalking their women.

Me, I was just there for some dazzling musicianship. I sometimes had to battle my way out of a restroom for it, but I was never disappointed.

Some Thom history & trivia

Thom elevated every band he ever joined, and he was in a lot of them. I saw him perform with two national acts.

The configuration of JCBBB that included Thom was their best. He gave them an oomph — sometimes on guitar, sometimes bass — that was new for them, yet complemented their style perfectly. One night Cafferty broke a string and ducked offstage to replace it. The band had already started playing their barn burner “Runnin’ Thru the Fire,” so Thommy and Gary Gramolini covered Cafferty’s absence with a dueling guitars shootout. It was such a steaming hot can of whupass, the band kept it in the act.

Thommy eventually left JCBBB for Roomful of Blues, who were willing to perform and record his songs. His blues romp “Love to Watch You When You Go” was the big hit on Roomful’s eponymous album of 2001. The Enright era of the long-running franchise was a particularly successful one. Roomful was so much in demand that Thom had to leave, he told me (with no hint of irony), because the constant travel was killing him.

He started recording his own albums, and it’s too bad there weren’t more of them. Blue Teeth (1994) and Intoxicated (2005) featured original material, plus blues and rock standards stamped with his unique creative spin. Thom was a superb tunesmith. He could also take pop songs you’ve heard a million times — “Don’t Worry Baby,” “To Love Somebody,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” — and finesse them into something refreshingly new.

Reviewing Intoxicated for the Boston Phoenix, Bob Gulla wrote: “The lead title track stands out, with some wicked riffs and an edgy arrangement. If you want to hear what all the fuss is about, you can get Intoxicated here.

Intoxicated - Thom Enright

When he fronted his own bands, serious magic happened. That’s when Thom became a really good singer, too. He sounded a lot like Warren Haynes. I heard him wring the bejeezus out of “Crazy” — any vocalist’s nightmare — and was blown away. I congratulated him on it. And this guy — this honkin’ monster talent who could play everyone else under the table — said this: “Thanks. I’m still kinda self-conscious about it.”

I don’t know which was more amazing — the sheer scope of Thom’s talent or the fact that he never got a big head about it. He welcomed any opportunity to play. No club was too small. That’s what he lived for.

You know, the dude could’ve been a raging egomaniac and no one would’ve questioned it. But he wasn’t. Years ago he asked me to write him a press release. The original title was: All Meat. No Filler. Enright Delivers! He was embarrassed and changed it to something not so Mister Saturday Night. Actually, his title was much better: Plays Right. Sings Right. Enright.

And that was Thom in a nutshell. He towered over everyone in his field (literally and figuratively). Yet he was never a diva, not that I ever saw. He’d be so mortified by this post, he’d turn eighty shades of pink. Sweetest guy you ever met, always with a joke and some gossip, always glad to see you. Unless you were a ginormous dick, in which case good luck with that.

For those who weren’t, an evening with Thom was always fun. Once I asked him to sign one of his CDs for me. “Write something steamy,” I said. He wrote: “Hurl, baby, hurl, all night long!” Another time he asked me if I wanted to sing. Sing? Really? I’d never suggested that was in my arsenal of dubious talents. I was quite shocked and wildly flattered that he trusted me not to skunk up his gig. He admired my fashion statement that night — blinding white Varvatos Cons.

I wore them to his funeral. In 2008 Thom was diagnosed with a brain glioma and given six months to live. He died on February 20 after kicking its butt to hell and back for four years. He never stopped performing, nor being a friend to the many people who now have one more reason to admire him. There’s been a disruption in the force, and it’s big.

Text & Photo Copyright © 2012 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved.
Thom Enright album covers copyright © Thom Enright.
No, you can’t use them without permission.