Wednesday, October 15, 2014

X Japan at Madison Square Garden NYC 10/11/2014 Show Report

A few days ago my wife and I saw X Japan at Madison Square Garden. They're one of my wife's favorite bands, and I like them too.

Japanese music is like an alternate universe so near and yet so very far from our own. Imagine if Nirvana and grunge had never happened, and glam metal just kept right on going. That's the state of Japanese rock right now.

X Japan is like Motley Crue, Yngwie Malmsteen and Dokken put together. Definitely a virtuoso band in terms of musicianship, but with a lot of drama mixed in with party beats. They're massively popular in their home country, where they still sell out stadiums on a regular basis.

We were in section 107. Our section was kind of lame and the people in it pissed me off. The show started right at 8PM with no opening band (cheers to X for bringing this custom over from Japan!), and the people in front of us all just sat there. They didn't even clap, they sat completely motionless through most of the concert. I wondered why any of them were there. I would have loved to have gotten some closer seats if those people didn't care!

I tried sitting for a few minutes of the first song because I'm 6'4" and the tiny Japanese girls behind me probably deserved a chance to see (or maybe not, I don't know them), but it's just kind of rude to a band to sit there like an idiot. So I got up. This was a special show for them; I didn't want any small part in spoiling that.

The show itself was the mix of bombast and drama that you'd expect from an X Japan show, with plenty of pyrotechnics, a massive light show that the crowd ended up being part of (through electronically controlled LED bracelets), and a stage that extended all the way to the back of the arena. One thing I will say about X Japan is that they're pretty dynamic, and there was a good mix of soft and loud, slow and fast - that's all part of the drama, after all.

They sounded pretty good too, although they started off pretty quiet at first (and not just in quiet songs). We had a bank of speakers pointed directly at us and initially I was still able to talk to my wife at pretty normal volume - it was sort of like talking at a bar. This may have been calculated to make the crowd sound bigger for the upcoming DVD, though, because they actually got louder as the show went on. By the second encore, it started to get kind of ear-splitting - which is what you want from a show like this.

Of course there were the requisite solos, including a Yoshiki drum solo that took up a big part of the encore, during which his drum kit floated out to the edge of the extended stage pier and then rose up into the air. It was Tommy Lee-esque.

The band played two encores that ended up being about as long as the main show. To be honest, when they left the stage the first time I actually said, "that's it?" I checked my watch and it was 9:15. With a "normal" encore it'd still have been a very short show, but, you know, drama! A short show followed by two long encores makes for more of it... and they even played one more song after their announced "last song".

They played all the material you'd expect, plus two new songs from their newly-announced new album (it's new!), which, if I remember right, were called "Beneath Your Skin" and "Hero".

At the start of the second encore, Yoshiki played the American national anthem on piano, which made me strangely emotional. I'm not very patriotic and I text and Facebook my way through the boredom of the national anthem at baseball games, but something about this Japanese band coming to America and playing the American national anthem, and the crowd all singing it, got me a little verklempt.

They closed things out with a Yoshiki monologue about the band's history and a dedication to Taiji and Hide, their former members who died. Some American fans probably didn't get this (the Billboard show report thought it was just "schmaltz"), but this band's really been through a lot more than most. No, they didn't use the Hide hologram that they've employed at Japanese shows in the recent past, but they showed many pictures of the band's earlier days with him during the final encore. As a new fan of the band I might find this exploitative. But think about being a fan of a band from their early days, and one of your favorite members of that band dying. Wouldn't you want the rest of the band to pay tribute to that person any chance they get? So I understand it. It's different if you've been with them from the start. And Hide has ended up being sort of the Randy Rhoads of Japan.

Oh, and be sure to watch for the Yoshiki stage dive in my video above! I think he meant to crowd-surf but the crowd didn't quite know what to do! It was a very surprising moment - you can see my camera shake a bit because all I could think was "what?!"

Sunday, August 24, 2014

To those of you commenting here using the old Blogger system

This is just a heads-up for those of you who have been commenting recently. Somehow it seems like some of you are seeing the old standard Blogger comments, which I haven't used in maybe 5 years, and in fact I can't even reply to them. So if you've written a comment to me using this system (which just looks like a standard text box with a submit button, from what I remember), I unfortunately have no way to respond to you. I can see your comments but I just can't answer the questions you've asked or thank you for any of the kind words some of you have left.

I've been using Disqus as my comment system for a long time, and it's worked well. I don't get a lot of comments but I do get some and I'm still seeing Disqus comments come through. I also see the Disqus system when I view my blog posts as a reader. So I'm not sure exactly why some people are seeing the old system. I'll have to look further into it. But in the meantime, if you're *not* seeing Disqus comments at the bottom of a post and want to ask me something, please email me instead.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

I so want to love this car

Sorry for the dearth of posts lately - I have been insanely busy and may post about that later. I've just done something people lined up around the block to see! And it took a lot of my time.

What I want to talk about now, though, is my Mini Cooper.

I posted about buying this car a little while ago and was really excited about it. I waited for months for it to be built just the way my wife and I wanted it - green with white stripes and roof, 16" wheels, sunroof, upgraded stereo, all the tech options, and a manual transmission. My first stick shift since I was in college! I try to buy a stick every time I buy a car and somehow it never works out (we actually ordered our PT with a stick but they put an automatic in it by mistake), so I was really looking forward to getting the Mini - our first new car in 9 years, and a real driver's car.

So why can't I like it?

I loved our PT right from the start, although I admit that was a special case - the first new car I ever bought outright. But it also just "felt right", in that intangible way that some cars do. It was never fast, and never all that impressive to look at (though it was cute), but it just had a friendly vibe and felt like it was trying really hard to be liked. And I did like it, a lot. It was fun to drive and really useful and comfortable for me, which is almost impossible for any car with a guy of my height and lankiness.

The new Mini Cooper is superficially similar to the PT as a small cute car, but it's got all the details wrong - stuff you'd never notice on a test drive. For example, why do I have to click the "off" switch twice to really turn the car off? For that matter, why do I need to keep the key in my pocket - until I want to lock or unlock the doors from outside, that is? (This is a "convenience" feature that actually ends up being less convenient in practice.) Why does it keep randomly forgetting all my radio station presets? Why isn't there a CD player? Why doesn't it remember the driving mode I last left it in? Why is there a cheap piece of plastic above the side window bumping my head all the time instead of a standard swing-out front visor? Why don't the auto headlights ever turn off? Etc. etc.

And why is the interior so dour? You can get a "color line" that adds an accent color to the basic black, but I don't remember an option on the base Cooper for changing the entire interior color to something a little less like your own personal hearse. (Our base PT interior was a very light grey.) Mini black is really black, like your soul - not the charcoal many other car makers use.

Even my beloved manual transmission is giving me fits - the Cooper comes with a 6-speed, with reverse on the left, and it's extremely easy to put it in R by mistake when you were aiming for 1st. What moron designed this? The first day I took it out (and several times since), I slammed it into reverse by mistake and almost "front-ended" the guy behind me. How has every Mini on the road not been recalled for this? In a 5-speed, reverse is literally impossible to engage by mistake. Many other 6-speeds have reverse on the right side, which also makes it basically impossible to engage unless you mean to.

I admit that the car's not without its charms, but they're things that pretty much any car could do. Put it in "sport" mode (the only mode any self-respecting driver should ever use, and the mode I wish the car would default to), pop the sunroof and windows, and on an open road it can definitely be a thrilling experience to dart around in this little pocket rocket. But this isn't unique to the Mini - I could say the same about a Hyundai Veloster.

I guess the car's also just not really my style. Somehow the PT won me over (and quickly) despite this, but I've always been a big American sporty car kind of guy. My first car was a 1984 Firebird (though it was more bark than bite), and two of my next three were 1980 Camaros (purely coincidental, I assure you). The final choice this time was between the Mini and a 2014 Mustang, although my real desire is a Dodge Challenger. But, well, the base Challenger is crap and the upgraded models quickly reach the pricing stratosphere. My wife and I went with the Mini because it was a) pretty cheap with a lot of cool features, and b) easy to park in Manhattan. I won't say I regret that, because the current Mustang's lacking a lot of the Mini's tech features and the Challenger's still just too expensive (and big for Manhattan). But next time I will probably get something else.

I guess I should be happy that we have a short term lease.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

An ode to my 4-cylinder Iron Duke Pontiac Firebird

It's a little known fact that just after Pontiac retired the screaming chicken in 1982, they replaced it with the only upgrade they could: a 4 cylinder engine ripped straight out of the Chevrolet Citation. Yep, for the introduction to the third-gen F-body, Pontiac's base model "muscle car" now came with an engine designed for maximum fuel economy rather than power. I owned one of these. I loved it. It was my first car.

The motor was an "Iron Duke", a 2.5 liter lawnmower engine that was really a 301 V-8 chopped in half. It developed 90 horsepower.

But I'm here to tell you that that thing was fun. Don't let anyone tell you different. Mine was a 5 speed stick (it was actually a late-year '84, so after they'd added the extra gear), and I am being completely serious when I say that in the first two gears, that thing would press you back in your seat. It had a beast of a clutch - I remember stalling out 12 times in a row the first time I tried to get over the 2 degree hill out of the parking lot at my job at K-Mart. But once I got used to it, I was able to throw that car around like it was the business end of a whip. It was a very different experience than a V8 Trans Am, but just as much fun.

It felt light and sporty - think more Mini Cooper than modern-day Camaro (its closest current brethren). One of my most vivid memories with it is going airborne (by mistake) somewhere on I-80 between Chicago and New York at about 3AM one night. I nearly bought it that night, as just beyond my landing point was a sharp turn to the right. I barely made it, fishtailing a bit just inches away from the median as I let the car coast to a safer speed, but the lightness of the car let the handling kick in when I needed it.

The car fit me perfectly. To this day - nearly 30 years later - I still measure every car I test against the comfort and ergonomics of my '84 Firebird. The seating, pedal, and shifter positions were all just right for my 6'4" frame, and I can't say that about many other cars I've ever tried, of any size or type. My hand naturally rested on the stick; my feet naturally rested on the pedals. Visibility was great. It was the least tiring, most relaxing, most comfortable car I've ever driven. And I'm not just saying that through rose colored glasses - I thought so at the time too. Why do you think I bought it??

This shot brings back some interior memories.

I did have one pretty major mishap, rear-ending a poor elderly fellow in his (wait for it!) Chevrolet Citation while attempting to race one of my friends in his 4 cylinder Mustang. Kind of a hilarious thing all around when you think about it. I hit the guy from behind going about 30mph but surprisingly, he had no damage at all. The Firebird's front bumper was long and soft, though my car did end up with a spiderweb of paint cracks, as well as pop-up headlights that would no longer pop up because the bumper had been pushed back into them. I ended up shaving the plastic down so the lights would clear it again.

Sadly, my car had one of those problems no mechanic can figure out until you've sunk all your money into it. It made a ringing sound going over bumps - after $500 spent on new suspension to cure its "bottoming out" problem, the noise was finally identified as metal shavings in the differentials. (Remember when hatchbacks had differentials??) With no more money to fix anything else, I had no choice but to sell the car. I don't even remember what I got for it. I was too broken up about it to care. There was nothing else I could do.

Sometime next month, my new Mini Cooper should arrive. It probably would surprise most people if I told them I expect it to be the most like my Firebird of any car I've owned since. That'd be one of the highest compliments I could pay it.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.

About Me

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I'm married. I like to travel. I have no kids. I have a house... that I'm bad at maintaining. I used to collect classic video games. I'm the proud owner of two Fender Jazzmasters, a Gretsch G5422DC, and a Fender Twin Reverb amp - all musical equipment far better than my ability to use it. When I was younger, I was in a band. I like gadgets, and I'm an Android guy. Someday, I would like to go to outer space.


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