In 2015 I wrote two off-the-wall comedy film scripts. After giving them to a friend for feedback she asked, “Do you listen to Howard Stern?” I said no. From 1998 to 2002 I lived in Providence and caught him on the radio from time to time, and what I heard was hilarious, but he’d go to commercial for a never-ending block of ads so I’d search the dial. My friend concluded emphatically, “You’ve really gotta check out Howard Stern – he’s right up your alley.”
The next week I nabbed a torrent for The Howard Stern Show and the following day cleaned the house while Howard berated his producer Gary Dell’Abate for placing a Christmas card he didn’t want in his man purse. Interspersed with this browbeating were songs mocking Gary relentlessly, a parody of a Justin Bieber song called I’ll Suck Your Ween, and a caller with a gravelly, shrill voice screaming about her love for all things Howard as a sound-effect of crow’s cawing repeated over her. This is Mariann from Brooklyn, a regular caller who’s concurrently lampooned and loved on the air.
After what must’ve been an hour of Howard dressing down Gary he took another call and the caller asked what Howard’s wife Beth’s vagina looked like. And the guy requested specifics too, like the amount of lip meat and tightness, and the color and general aesthetic. I thought, man what an inappropriate question. You can’t ask something like that. If Howard yelled at Gary about putting a Christmas card in his bag he’s gonna destroy this guy. Well, he paused; he took a deep breath and sighed… and then Howard calmly described how nice his wife’s vagina is in extraordinary detail.
I was hooked. I listened to entire years of The Howard Stern Show, mostly from his new Sirius catalog; 2006, 2009, 2012, 2014. Any show I could find I listened to, even specials like Wack Pack History and Sternthology. I listened daily, for hours. There’s just so much brilliance in Howard’s takes on contemporary news and culture, his interactions with the Wack Packers and callers, his musings about celebrity gossip, the interplay with Robin, the zany characters on the staff, the phony phone calls, the parody songs, the interviews, the silly game show premises and more. The Howard Stern Show is a radio masterpiece.
So enthralled I did something I never do: I joined a Facebook group for The Howard Stern Show, and two things happened afterward. First I received a friend request from Wendy Pack. I did a little digging to uncover that this is Wendy the Slow Adult, a prominent Wack Packer from the show. I may love listening, but did I want to get personally involved? Maybe if Howard wants to be friends, but Wendy the Slow Adult? She’s such a moocher, as I’m sure Wendy would agree, right Wendy? “Yes.” The second I accepted that request she’d have a sob story about how she needs money to buy food for her mom and nephews when in reality she’d waste it all on scratch-off lottery tickets and Mt. Dew, then come back for more. I had to ignore that friend request, or as Wendy would put it, “Ah… no.”
The second thing I experienced in this Howard Stern fan group was the vitriol they had toward Howard. A large amount of the posts were about how badly Howard sucks. The show was better when they had more strippers, the show was better with Artie, Howard’s gotten soft, Howard’s sold out, Howard doesn’t have it anymore, he’s a liberal, yada, yada, yada. For a fan group they are insanely overly critical, even claiming they’ve stopped listening as they shit all over Howard, but obviously when they comment about specific details from that day’s show they’re still tuned in.
With that in mind and since Howard’s contract expires at the end of this tumultuous year it seems like a good time to put his career into perspective. Not what he is now, but what he’s always been and always will be; the GOAT of radio. He’s Radio Zeus. If you take Howard’s career as a whole there’s only one modern entertainer whose comes close to doing what he did for his medium and that’s Miles Davis, the single greatest jazz musician to ever live. Miles career, his music and his influence went way beyond jazz. That cat was a navigator of sound for half a century, keeping jazz relevant through the rock revolution. When Miles Davis died jazz was left in his wake and hasn’t been the same since.
Well, the same types of accolades apply to Howard Stern. He’s the Miles Davis of radio. Consider this: when Howard got to Sirius in 2006 it was universally agreed that he took a massive payoff to leave terrestrial radio for satellite where he’d fade into obscurity. Sirius had less than 400,000 subscribers and was far behind their satellite radio competitor XM. But Howard didn’t go away and his show didn’t become a daily porn orgy as predicted either. Instead he improved in a multitude of ways and his fans followed him, bringing more than 6 million new subscribers by the end of his first year. By 2020 Sirius has nearly 35 million subscribers, acquired XM after they couldn’t compete with Howard and completed the acquisition of music streaming service Pandora, making SiriusXM Pandora the largest audio entertainment company in the world. Sure there are other business parameters to consider, but Sirius’s remarkable level of success happened on the back of Howard Stern. There must’ve been some serious pegging going for that Cocktober.
However, that’s just the business side. It’s really their craft where a comparison of the Prince of Darkness to the King of All Media is most apropos. Miles started in the 40s playing bebop jazz that was popular at the time, yet discovering individuality with his muted trumpet sound, whereas Howard started out in the mid-70s on WRNW, WCCC and WWWW mostly being a DJ common for the time, but learning the craft and showing signs of finding his exceptional radio voice through humor and human connectivity.
By the next decade Miles experimented with more space in the arrangements, using different lineups as he explored the boundaries of swing, hard-bop, post-bop and cool jazz. His skills peaked around modal jazz on 1959’s Kind of Blue, widely regarded as the greatest jazz album of all time. By the next decade for Howard, the 80’s, he headed to WWDC and actively tested the boundaries of the traditional radio format, adding radio partner Robin Quivers as news presenter and gradually molding the program into something more authentic to his vision. His gamble paid off as he shot up the ratings and was offered a sizable contract by WNBC. While a turbulent stop that tested Howard’s mettle, WNBC helped him refine his abilities and provided great fodder for the air.
From 1963 to 1968 Miles Davis put together a prolific quintet that released numerous albums showing how developed and distinctive his sound had become. It was near the end of this period that electric instruments were introduced, ushering in a whole new period for jazz with the melodically spacious and rhythmically contained fusion jazz albums, 1969’s In A Silent Way and 1970’s Bitches Brew. After WNBC Howard moved over to WXRK at the end of 1985 and by the following year dismantled his radio competition for ratings while expanding into syndication, making TV appearances, doing PPV events and increasing his popularity with video releases. Howard Stern was moving well beyond the frontlines of thought and decorum in comical and creative ways, elevating him to a position of national recognition.
As the decade changed to the 70’s Miles imbued his sound with elements of rock and oriented heavily toward funk, as evidenced by the 1971 release Live-Evil, while 1972’s On The Corner Miles mixed in avant-garde with classical features on a foundation of funk-jazz. This was a massive peak for Miles, similar to the one Howard experienced in the 90’s as he put together his own TV show, The Howard Stern Show, released the album Crucified by the FCC, appeared on the MTV video music awards as Fartman, had a New York Times bestseller with his book Private Parts, and even found success in a 1994 run for governor of New York.
After a 5 year hiatus from music to focus on sex and drugs Miles returned to jazz with 1981’s The Man with the Horn and 1982’s double live album We Want Miles, which earned him a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance by a Soloist. In the latter half of the 90’s Howard scored a huge success with his second bestselling book, Miss America, and in 1997 a film adaption of Private Parts was released with Howard as the star. The movie topped the US box office in its opening weekend, won Howard awards and turned him into a household name.
As the 80’s wore on Miles experimented with elements of soul music and electronica, culminating in the 1984 release of Decoy. He spent the next few years performing concerts all over the world as an ambassador for jazz. For Howard, as he entered a new century, on top of his radio program, a feature film, comedy albums, bestselling books and more, he had numerous television shows being broadcast or in some stage of development. He truly was living up to the satirical moniker he gave himself as the King of All Media. However, after Justin Timberlake gave America a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s breast at the 2004 Super Bowl the FCC began a campaign of removing indecency from radio and television that targeted Howard and cost his employers millions in fines. As a result Howard eventually left terrestrial radio and took a career gamble on a new medium, subscription-based satellite radio. It paid off as Howard, finally free to format his content the way he’d always envisioned, made this period from 2006 to the present the greatest radio experience ever, highlighted by Howard’s growth into the best celebrity interviewer of all time, which inspired his latest book and bestseller, 2019’s Howard Stern Comes Again.
Now, why use thousands of words to lay out this comparison? Because it doesn’t do justice to how unparalleled these two men’s impacts are without being this thorough. Where Miles controlled the chaos of jazz, Howard steered the entire radio industry. Where Miles innovated the use of the mute, electric instrumentation and the blending of musical styles, Howard revolutionized the role of the DJ, the interviewer, the news presenter, the game show host, and being a researcher of babysitter porn. Where Miles had a career spanning 5 decades never absent of growth, evolution and experimentation, so too does Howard. The point is, love him or hate him, Howard Stern is a titan at what he does.
So before Howard’s legion of critics, sorry fans, claim he jumped the shark, and before Howard considers retiring it should be said that while Howard might be close to the end he isn’t there yet. Yes he’s reached the final years, but for Miles that meant albums like 1986’s Tutu where he incorporated synthesizers, drum loops and sampling, or 1992’s Doo-Bop, a hip-hop album recorded shortly before his death and released posthumously. These might not be considered Miles best works, but their contributions are vital to his career arch and the current direction of music.
And this is where I see Howard’s career. He might not have strippers on the Sybian anymore and he might not have the piss and vinegar he used to, he might be more interested in celebrities or the blueberries he puts in his yogurt, but he’s not done. He’s still evolving, still creating, still immensely entertaining and still checking the pulse of contemporary culture with a two fingered cul-de-sac, just like the way his mother took his temperature until he was the age of 35.
So to you fans who don’t get the version of Howard you want, don’t diminish the growth and gifts of what Howard still gives. Just because you’re stuck listening to Kind of Blue, I’m okay with listening to Howard craft his equivalent to You’re Under Arrest, a 1985 Miles album that mixed in pop and political statements. We can only be so fortunate that Howard re-signs for one more contract so we can get his swan song version of Tutu and Doo-Bop, so don’t push him away. There will never be another Miles Davis and there will never be another Howard Stern. Once he’s gone, ‘It’s over Johnny’.
Finally, to you Howard, don’t rob us of the home stretch. Give us those last few albums. Sign another contract so we can be there for your Zepplin’s Coda. Let us listen as you lose your timbre and stroke-out and give us a Dick Clark ending. Come on Howard, you can hate things at home alone for only so long and then you need to get behind the mic and do your one thing a day, The Howard Stern Show.
Look Howard, you can tell this is a genuine plea; I haven’t mentioned Fred once.
The NBA has proposed cutting 4 games out of the regular season to create a mid-season tournament and it’s not a bad idea. It’d create intrigue and drama and develop new storylines to make the regular season, especially the first half, more compelling. Of course it could create unintended consequences such as injuries, resting stars, lost revenues or teams giving up on the season way, way too early, but who knows?
Yet rather than dissect the various manifestations an in-season tourney may bring, there’s already a multitude of NBA prognosticators for that, I’d prefer to focus on a different idea. What I’d like to see instead is a single elimination tournament at the end of the season between the non-playoff teams for lottery seeding.
Let’s lay it out and think about it. Once the regular season is over the playoff teams get a week to prepare for the playoffs. During that time the 14 non-playoff teams, 7 from the west and 7 from the east, could play a single elimination tournament over the course of 5 days, with the top non-playoff teams getting a first round bye. However the, let’s call it ‘lottery tournament’, should not be based on conference, it should be based on record, so the highest seeds are the best non-playoff teams record-wise, on down to the lowest seeds with the worse records (tie breakers could be conference and then divisional records). In the first round you’d have 6 games and in the second round there’d be 4. Then there could be a day off. In the third round there’d be 2 games and then on the last day there’d be 2 more – one for the lottery winner, between the 1 and 2 for the top and second pick in the lottery, and before that game a consolation game between the losers for the 3rd and 4th pick. Beyond that, order the lottery based on how far the other teams made it in the tournament with tie breakers being determined based on regular season record, point differentials in tourney games or something else.
Now, what would a lottery tournament do for the NBA? First, it’d give the fans something exciting to watch during a week when there are no games on. Additionally, fans of the non-playoff teams would have something to cheer for. It may even build more excitement for the playoffs from casual fans. So the fans would win big. The owners would win big too. Think about the added revenue this would generate, from ticket sales to broadcast rights and merchandising. They could even bid on hosting it as well, though I’d prefer to see it held in a non-NBA city each year, like Vegas, Seattle, Pittsburgh or St. Louis.
The players would also benefit. Many non-playoff teams have a lot of young inexperienced players who could gain valuable experience from a playoff atmosphere. Some may even emerge as budding stars or crucial role players as happens each year in the playoffs when certain guys raise their profiles in the post-season. So players, fans and owners would benefit; as would businesses around the hosting arena.
Beyond those winners, the biggest winner would be the game itself. Think about it - no more tanking. With the best among the non-playoff teams getting the best lottery picks there’d be no more incentive to tank. In fact, every year every team would have to do everything possible to be as competitive as possible. And there’s no way a fringe playoff team would try to not make the playoffs in lieu of getting a good pick. Maybe an owner would rather want a top pick over an 8th seed, but the players and coaches wouldn’t, and once the owners got the revenue from a playoff series they’d be fine as well.
So NBA, forget the mid-season tourney and create a lottery tournament, ending tanking while adding revenue and excitement. Where’s the downside? Adam Silver, pardon the pun, but the ball is in your court.
An excerpt from The Greek Tragedy
I met Gary for lunch at Santa Café located at the back end of the foreigner ghetto in Saigon. It was a hot and humid, sunny day. Motorbike horns ripped through the thick, gritty air, going recklessly around the corner. A dark-skinned girl with a tray of noodle bowls walked to and fro under a conical hat in what looked like homemade pajamas as I shooed flies off the table. The street vendors we’d told every day that we aren’t going to buy their poor quality sunglasses, nail clippers, wallets or Zippos, we told again.
“So, I found out what Loan was after. You know that Nigerian neurosurgeon, Chime, the one I’ve been hanging out with? Loan stole $9,000 and a camera off her,” Gary said as he lit a Craven A cigarette.
“She stole $9,000. Can you believe that?”
“No, I can’t. How’d she do that?”
“Well, Chime was getting ready to leave, so I went over to see her. She’s heading to the Ukraine to do her residency.”
“Was Loan there?”
“Yeah, and I asked Chime if she had everything sorted out and she said she did. One of the things she said she did was to get her money out of the bank, so I asked her where it was. She said it was in the room. She had over $40,000 on her in a shitty five dollar a night guesthouse in Pham Ngu Lao.”
“That’s asking for it.”
“Yeah, but she doesn’t know any better. She’s lived such a sheltered life at the monastery in Nigeria, you know. I asked her if the money was safe and she said that $9000 and her camera was missing.”
“And Loan was sitting right there?”
“Yeah, she wouldn’t leave. I asked Chime how it went missing and she said she didn’t know. I asked her who’d been in the room besides her and she said only Loan and one of Loan’s friends. So, I turned to Loan and asked her what happened to the money.”
“What did she say?”
“She said, ‘I don’t know. No problem. That happens sometimes’.”
“Oh, she definitely stole the money.”
“She kept saying its normal, that those things happen.” Gary shook his head. He took a draw off his cigarette.
“$9000 doesn’t just go missing. So what happened next?”
“Chime saw that I was getting worked up about it and tried to say it was ok. I turned to her and said, ‘Chime, it’s not ok. You’ve just had $9000 stolen out of your room’.”
“Why didn’t you call the police?”
“I wanted to, but Chime was worried about causing trouble.”
“What was her deal? Why was she being so passive? I would’ve been ready to kill someone if $9000 was gone.”
“She’s just so naïve and peaceful.”
“So I forced Loan to get out. She refused to leave and I told her if she didn’t I was going to get the police and tell them that she stole the $9000 dollars. Chime was crying and begging me not to, but I told her that if Loan didn’t leave I’d do it.”
“Why wouldn’t Loan leave?”
“Because she knew there was still over $30,000 in the room and she was waiting for the opportunity to steal it.”
“I went out in the hall and yelled for the landlord. I told her that Loan was a thief and stole a lot of money off Chime, and that if they didn’t get her out of the building that I was going to call the police. So she sent her sons to the room.”
“The landlord came in with her sons and yelled at Loan. Chime cried and told me it was ok, but I kept telling Chime it wasn’t and that Loan had to leave. But Loan sat there and wouldn’t leave. She told the landlord it was ok, that there was no problem. Finally, one of the landlord’s sons grabbed her by her arm, yanked her up and dragged her out.”
“Shit! What about the money?”
“Chime didn’t want to press the issue.” Gary looked down at his phone. He took another draw off his cigarette.
“Where’s Loan? I’ll go after her for $9000. That’s a lot of fucking money.”
“I know mate, I know.” Gray wafts of smoke curled out of Gary’s nostrils. “The thing is, it didn’t end there.”
“What happened next?”
“I told Chime she had to get out of there. She didn’t want to because she said the landlord had been nice to her, but I told her she couldn’t stay in a five dollar a night guesthouse in heroin alley of Pham Ngu Lao with over $30,000 on her when a thief like Loan, the landlord, and God knows who else knew about it. At that point Chime got really scared, but I told her if she spent like $60 and stayed at a nice hotel with security and a safe that she’d be fine.”
“She was freaking out?”
“Yeah, she said I was scaring her. I told her she needed to face reality, that there’s a lot of bad shit in the world and she had to be careful.”
“It’s true, she does. She also needs to get her $9000 dollars back.”
“Mate, we weren’t going to get that money back once Loan was gone. It sucks, I know, but Chime didn’t want to push it.”
“I just don’t get that.”
“Me neither, but we still had a lot of money to look after, so we packed her things and I helped her check out. We left on my motorbike and as we got to the end of the hamlet Loan was with two guys and two girls drinking coffees from little plastic stools in front of a street vendor stall. They scrambled to grab us as we went by, so I sped off. I floored it going down Bui Vien, sped around the corner at De Tham and went right through the red light onto Tran Hung Dao.”
“What was Chime doing?”
“She was hysterical, screaming and crying, clutching me for dear life with a bag that had $31,000 between us. I weaved through traffic as fast as I could.”
“As I got up to the roundabout in front of Ben Thanh Market two of the guys, Loan and another girl had caught up to us. They were all on separate motorbikes. I don’t know what happened to the other girl. I sped around the roundabout a few times as they lined up behind me.”
“What were you going to do?”
“I didn’t know. I was just reacting. You know how there’s that bus station across the roundabout from Ben Thanh?”
“I saw a bus cutting across heading toward it, sort of blocking the way, so I kicked down into third, went full throttle behind the motorbikes that were waiting on the bus, and cut right in front of the bus so that I went through the petrol station at top speed. As we flew past and headed into traffic on the other side I heard a huge crash and Chime screamed.”
“Do you know what happened?”
“Well, as I barreled down Ham Nghi I slowed a little and turned to look. Only one of the guys and one girl were still in pursuit, so my guess was that Loan and one of the other guys crashed into the bus or some of the stopped motorbikes.”
“Jesus man, this is like a Hollywood action sequence!”
“It’s not over, mate. I sped back up, got to the end of Ham Nghi and flew left onto Ton Duc Thang. I was going really fast, weaving in and out of traffic, but the guy was catching up to me because he was driving just as aggressively as I was, only he wasn’t carrying as much weight.”
“What was Chime doing?”
“We went through the area by the river at like 80k, following the road around where it goes by Lush. You know where I mean?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“He got up next to us to grab for Chime’s bag, but as he did, it pulled his motorbike to the left, so I leaned into him, which drove him into the median. He hit the curb and lost control of the bike, letting go of the bag. I knew he was going down so I stopped as he crashed and turned around.”
“He was lying still next to a tree with his face down in the road. His bike flew off and hit a cyclo. The cyclo was all fucked up, but the driver was standing there looking shocked, so I think he was ok.”
“What about the other girl who was following?”
“She pulled up, jumped off her bike and went over to the guy on the ground. She looked at me and I stared her down for a second. Then I drove off.”
“Gary, you’re like James Bond!” Another sunglasses and Zippo seller came up with his display board and lit a Zippo. “Khong, khong, di di (No, no, go away).” I turned back to Gary. “Then what happened?”
“We got out of there. Because of where we were, I thought they’d assume we’d get a hotel downtown, so I actually took Chime back near Pham Ngu Lao, to the New World Hotel, on Le Lai, across from the park. We put my motorbike in the garage so it was hidden and went inside to check in. Chime was so panic-stricken. We put her money in the safe, got a receipt and a key from the desk manager, and went to the room. I stayed with her all night. We ordered in food and this morning I went with her to get the money out of the safe. I rode the bus New World Hotel provides out to the airport with her. I watched her check in and go into the terminal before I caught the bus back and picked up my motorbike. Then I went home and showered, and here I am.”
An excerpt from my first novel, Fall 98
The next day Harry, Kay-Dee, Ultra Funk and I drove out to Venice Beach to see the weird and the addicted. We wove through Beverly Hills, which lived up to the overly described displays of wealth. Each house had a lavish gate centering grounds manicured immaculately. Layman streets spout decor of sidewalk weeds and litter, not exotic plants imported for neo-Dadaist displays.
Venice Beach was a collage of freaks, copiously adorned for the image’s sake. Weightlifters and drug addicts, bums and tourists, all the wild strands of life’s hair were waving in the ocean breeze. The guy in the turban that rides rollerblades and plays guitar in Perry Farrell's Gift, he was there, along with an assorted band of hustled acts. A couple of African guys pulled me in to show me the prophetic signs of the pyramid on the dollar bill. They kept claiming that white people were going to pay for the three thousand years of enslaving their people. They said the pyramid on the dollar bill showed how African’s were going to pay me back personally for centuries of oppression. They were way too much of a mimic to be taken seriously.
"Come on, that pyramid isn’t even based on Nubian structures.”
“No cracker, it is. Look at the-”
“Look, if the Illuminati was really African you’d have already been running things for centuries, but it’s not.”
“The prophecy is right there on the bill, look.”
"You misread ‘Novus Ordo Seclorum’."
This was going nowhere. I helped them chant ‘down with whitey’, which we barked at Caucasian tourists going by. The whole act went over like a lead balloon in a radon atmosphere.
We stopped at an outdoor café near Vermont Ave for sandwiches. The place was packed with the hippies flooding into town for Phish, who mixed in with bronzed feminists coming home from an abortion rally. We were standing on the ledge of a vortex between 1998 L.A. and 1968 Haight-Ashbury.
A girl, about seven made faces at me from further up the take-out line. She stuck out her tongue and scrunched up her nose. I pulled my ears out, filled my cheeks with air and made my eyes go cross. She giggled, got out of line and came over to me. She was wearing a white t-shirt that read, ‘MY VAGINA MY CHOICE’ in big, black, block letters. She put her hands out in front of her with her palms up. I put my hands over hers with my palms down. She tried to flip her hands over to smack the back of my hands, but I was too quick. She hooted like a soprano owl when she missed.
“God damn it Clare. Would you stop wandering off and bothering people.” It was a tall, thick woman with short spiky hair. She wore a white t-shirt that said ‘KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF MY BODY’ in big, black, block letters. She reached over and grabbed the girl by the arm, dragging her off and saying, “I’m getting sick and tired of chasing you around. You better stay by my side or you’ll be in real trouble when we get home, missy. Do you hear me?”
Little Clare turned back to smile and wave. I hooked my pinkies in the corners of my mouth and stretched my lips out, pulled the skin near my eyes outward with my index fingers, and stuck out my tongue. She hooted and her butch guardian smacked her hard on the bottom. She cried. They paid, took the food and left.
When I was headed out to the car I ran into Fernanda, a stoner set apart by self-righteousness and vaginal freedom. She wasn’t a very accepting person in most terms, only in terms of her vagina, and sometimes her ass, but her vagina and her ass came across much less self-important than her mouth. We’d been on tour together before, and dated briefly.
“Julian, oh my God, I didn’t know you were doing tour?” She walked up and gave me a hug. “So, um, are you on for the whole tour, or just L.A. and Vegas?”
“I’m going all the way, and you?”
“Oh yeah, I haven’t missed one in like four years.”
“Wow, impressive.” Her first show was two years ago. We missed shows together. She wasn’t on the last holiday run. She didn’t go to Europe.
“Yeah, well, I love tour, its like, my life. And I’ve managed to gain a lot of exposure for my solo career on Phish tour.”
“How is that?”
“Well, I mean, I get to play in front of crowds all the time and a lot of people dig the songs I’ve been doing over the last year. People are really interested in me. I’m going to make a CD when tour’s over.”
“Where do you play?”
“In the lot.”
“A lot of people play acoustic guitar in the parking lot Fernanda.”
“You haven’t changed. You still don’t get me.”
“I get you.”
“Whatever, you’re just jealous because I’m a funky princess who people love. I’m going to be a star Julian, you wait.”
“I rest my case.”
“Do you still play bass?”
“Every chance I get.”
“Good for you. Maybe one day you’ll do something with it.”
“Like become a funky princess that everyone loves?”
“You’re still an asshole.”
“I can live with that.”
“See you later Fernanda.”
“See you Julian.”
An excerpt from the forthcoming novel, A Life in Saigon
I pulled the hefty metal gate closed behind me, the routine screech of metal followed by the click of the lock. It was a muggier than average weekday as I mounted my obscenely tall electric bicycle, best to see over traffic with, before heading for work. Turning the handle, the electric motor engaged the chain and thrust the bike forward, propelling me into the wide arch I take around the corner where I was forced to suddenly release the throttle and slam on the brakes. A fight was in progress between what looked like a father and son, with a smattering of onlookers standing around.
The older man showed serious determination as he lunged at his cowering junior, landing face shots and kicking jabs into the legs. The boy absorbed the blows and edged away, only giving the older guy a new angle to lunge at. The boy, being beaten badly, did little to defend himself. The only way he fought back, was by holding back tears.
While it wasn’t a good scene there was little I could do. I’d learned years before that Vietnamese don’t appreciate foreigners getting into their disagreements. Once I had been run off after attempting to stop a deranged man from beating a woman with a brick. As I was being pushed away by the males in the crowd, the last man communicated a clear message through his pigeon English, ‘Vietnamie entertainman, you no like, go home’. Fair enough.
Still, as the lopsided skirmish continued there was another compelling urge to break it up. Then I recalled a more recent night when Ngoc and I, as we usually did for the breeze, opened the third floor balcony doors before we slept. In the breadth of the night some stolen valor Spiderman scaled the vertical front of the house, climbing for the open doors of the third floor. By chance a nocturnal neighbor doing the wash on her balcony in large plastic pails shouted and scared the would-be robber off. So as the kid took a slug to the stomach I wondered, wouldn’t it take a neighbor to see that our balcony doors were open? Could this boy have been the thief?
So I watched the fight alongside the rest of our neighbors. As the man fatigued he pinned the boy into a corner and the action subsided. I put one foot on a pedal, pushed off with the other, pulled back the throttle, rang my bell and cycled onto work.
When I arrived back home in the evening I told Ngoc what I'd saw. She reminded me that many of the neighbors are poor and that it was best I didn't get involved. Living down the narrow hamlets zigging and zagging through the local areas of the older districts, such as ours in District 10, social ills can’t help but at times spill out into them; child abuse, sexual exploitation, domestic violence and more; all part of the rich tapestry of life for the modern, urban poor. Yet compared to my experiences in America, Vietnamese were much less retrained. Events that would utterly jar the American consciousness, fights in the streets, whores on the prowl, old lady shouting matches, cock fights, street vendor calls at the crack of dawn, motorbike accidents, shirtless old men pissing on walls, whatever it may be it is on an almost daily basis, with me passing by, shaking my head and thinking, yup, that's about right.
The next night I returned home from work to an alley brimming with jockeying neighbors. It was impossible to pass so I parked along the side near a couple of the big police motorcycles with their siren stick erections mounted on back. My immediate thought was, after all of the money I’d invested in the local cannabis industry, and this is how they’re going to repay me, by taking me out with a public shaming, the red carpet of the debased.
One of the cops in all his gear and his utility belt stepped purposefully toward me. He looked me over crossly, then held out his nightstick, parting the sea of gawkers so I could move forward to my house.
As I mounted up on the bike I rose above the heads of the crowd to see the center of activity, the front of a house where the larger alleyway split into smaller ones where a dead body, a nondescript, hardened by a working poor existence, middle-aged Vietnamese woman, lay. As I picked up momentum and headed out of eye line, the body, surrounded by a throng, was covered with a blanket.
Once to the gate it was already open, with Ngoc standing in front talking to the neighbors. "Did you see the body?" she asked.
"Yeah. What happened?"
"The lady over there hung herself. Everyone came out to look. The police just took her down and put a blanket over her."
"Everyone came out to have a look at her hanging?"
"They want to see it dear. They're curious."
"Dear, do you remember the fight you saw yesterday before work?"
"That was her son. They're very poor and he has a problem with betting on football, and um, gambling, you know?"
"He's a gambling degenerate."
"Yeah, he gambles and loses money he can't pay."
"Yeah, he's a gambling degenerate."
"That guy you saw beating him up, he owed him four million dong ($175) and couldn't pay. So, that man pulled him into the hamlet to hit him in front of the others so people would know he's no good."
"Damn, a definitive public disgracing. And now his mom hung herself. That poor family."
"I talked to some of the ladies from the market and they said that when that lady was at the market this morning she was really upset. She was telling the others how she felt so much shame because of her son and his gambling debts that she wanted to kill herself."
"That's terrible. But why are the police letting everyone around the body? Why don't they make those people disperse? Show the lady a little dignity. I mean, shit, she hung herself out of shame after all."
"They're just curious, dear."
"I'm a little curious myself, but I’d rather not see a dead lady in the alley."
"The ladies at the market say that her son won't be far behind. He brought a lot of shame to his family and they think he'll kill himself too. The neighbors are trying to raise money just to be able to buy her a coffin because her son doesn't have any money."
"Yeah, but I don't like having a dead lady in the hamlet. It makes me scared."
"You know, if that guy's a degenerate gambler with debts, maybe he was the one who tried to break into our house."
"Yeah dear, maybe."
Was this just another day, or a day of Saigonese intensity? It felt like a bit of both. That day, the day that woman hung herself, was known as Le Vu Lan, or Vietnamese Mother's Day, which falls on the seventh full moon of the lunar calendar. It’s a day where swarms of Vietnamese head to pagodas to honor their mothers by lighting incense and wearing a rose, red if your mother is alive and white if your mother is dead. It was a day that Ngoc concluded, "Her son started the day wearing a red rose and finished it wearing a white one."
I’m officially done with The Daily Show, must-see-TV since the Craig Kilborn days. After Kilborn Jon Stewart brought a whole new level of political satire for his amazing run. Then came Trevor Noah in September of 2015 and I watched each episode, like I always had, but he just isn’t that good. His delivery, his timing, his takes; they’re a massive step down. Four years is enough of a chance so I’m throwing in the towel. If there’s one thing a Trump administration can provide, it’s a windfall for political satire and The Daily Show is a C at best under Trevor Noah. He doesn’t have it. If Jon Stewart was an A+, this guy is at best a C.
That’s not to say there aren’t some funny and redeeming moments to the current iteration of The Daily Show. The best part is the correspondents, but there aren’t enough segments with them and only half of their segments are good. Ronny Chieng, Desi Lydic and Roy Wood Jr. give the audience salty, edgy and fierce takes that bring the right mix of contemplation and belly laughter. Give them an A. But Michael Kosta, Dulce Sloan and Jaboukie Young-White, who they trot out from the farm leagues of comedy, give them a cable D. That’s a network F.
So where do we turn? We had Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert teaming up for over a decade of nightly gems, but they’ve moved on. John Oliver is an A+. Give Samantha Bee, Bill Maher and Jim Jeffries a B+ or an A-. However, they’re all weekly, not nightly. Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update has its moments, but it’s weekly too, and more often than not a C at best.
At the volume and pace of Trump gaffs and controversies we need nightly polemics. The Seth Myers segment A Closer Look is worth a YouTube watch, but he’s a C. Has that guy ever looked comfortable in front of a camera? He’s a stiff. The monologues on Jimmy Kimmel are a B and Stephen Colbert can still bring the A game, yet despite turning The Late Show toward more political hilarity Colbert could be served by bringing back some of the funnier recurring segments from Colbert Report, like The Word or Better Know A District.
So looking at all that, what does that leave us with? Piecing together random segments from Colbert, Kimmel and Seth Myers? That’s all we have on a nightly basis in the Trump era, seriously?
What can fill the void? Cosplay network executive with me for a moment. Looking in-house, what about swapping out Trevor Noah with Roy Wood Jr as the host of The Daily Show? Between Roy Wood Jr’s stand-up specials, his appearances on This Is Not Happening, This Week At The Comedy Cellar and his segments on The Daily Show he’s shown the cutting barbs and acumen to deliver. Go to YouTube and check out a few of his segments for proof.
Here’s another option to consider: Conan O’Brien. Hear me out. Conan was at the top of his game as the host of Late Night from 1993 to 2009. He along with Jon Stewart and David Letterman brought the best political humor to television back then. He’s got all the qualities you need for this: he’s edgy, non-traditional, emotional, adept on his feet, witty, interesting and importantly, genuinely funny. Those are the plaudits. On the other hand, since that The Tonight Show debacle that eventually landed him on his TBS talk show since 2010, aptly named Conan, he’s kind of gone downhill, gradually declining into a state of cultural irrelevance. Case in point, his show was reduced to a half-hour format, without a band… or the ability to book A-list guests. It’s sunk to a C as Conan’s gotten stale. It’s underscored by instances when he falls back on bits from decades past for hacky, cheap laughs. See the string dance routine as evidence.
That’s not a good recommendation for Conan, I know, but he’s still really funny when he’s inspired. Have you seen him as a guest on other talk shows? He talked about being inbred on Stephen Colbert. Have you seen any Conan Without Borders specials? There are brilliant, doubled-over with laughter moments, particularly when he’s mocking his producer Jordan Schlansky.
So what if hosting a politically satirical news program brought him back into greater cultural significance? An impassioned Conan could bring delicious political humor with the momentum of The Daily Show circa Jon Stewart. Conan has A+ potential. We’ve seen it. So TV executives, bring on... the O’Brien Report? Or if not, just bring us something better than we've currently got.
An excerpt from A Life in Concert
Due to my now established prowess in the concert scene my parents forced me to accompany my older sister to a concert she wanted to go to. She grew up worshipping the band Def Leppard during the eighties… but it was now November of 1992. Once the grunge scene exploded in 1991 all those 80’s hair bands died on the vine. That type of music was no longer relevant.
See, that’s 15 year old cool guy me, wearing my Lollapalooza concert t-shirt for picture day. If you look closely you’ll notice that I’m missing half an eyebrow. That’s from getting high and watching The Wall, and wanting to be as tortured as Pink, but too vain to shave off the entire brow. Well played bro.
But don’t try to tell my sister that by 1992 Def Leppard was irrelevant. They were the greatest single influence of her young life aside from the movie Dirty Dancing, and neither Baby nor Johnny Castle were coming to the Roanoke Civic Center, but Def Leppard was. She pleaded with my parents to let her go and they said, fine, but you have to take your brother with you. Not only did I not want to see Def Leppard, I didn’t want to be seen at a Def Leppard concert. Regardless, one week after my torrid love affair at the Kiss concert, I was crestfallen to have to accompany my dorky older sister to the Def Leppard show.
Now because the show was a general admission show my sister wanted to leave right after school, so she started in on me.
“Come on, I want to be sure we can get close to the stage.”
“No way Nicole, schools out at 2:30 and it’s only a 45 minute drive to Roanoke. I don’t want to have to sit there for 5 hours.”
“Come on! This is my all-time favorite band!”
“Let’s just wait a little while. We can leave at 6. I’ll get you close to the stage, I promise.”
“Come on Daniel, don’t be selfish. This is for me and I want to leave right after school. I want to get there as early as possible.”
Now having already been to the Roanoke Civic Center for a few concerts I happened to know that there was a McDonald’s right across the street.
“Alright, I’ll make you a deal. We can leave right after school, as long as you get me whatever I want at McDonald’s. We’re talking super-sized combo of my choice, plus my choice of either apple pie or ice cream cone for dessert.”
“And nothing less.”
After school we drove straight to the Roanoke Civic Center, me in my grunge garb, my sister decked out in her Def Leppard gear – Def Leppard t-shirt, Def Leppard wrist bands, Aqua Net poofed up hair – she was ready for this.
We got to the civic center at quarter after three in the afternoon. It was so early there wasn’t even an attendant in the toll booth to charge for parking. We drove into the lot, parked, and my sister immediately bolted for the front door of the civic center with me chasing after her yelling, “Wait! What about my McDonald’s! You promised!”
We got into the lobby and there was just one old lady sitting at a booth. In her best southern drawl she said, “Hello there, how can I help you?”
My sister squealed at her, “We’re here for the Def Leppard concert!”
The lady looked at her and said, “Oh, well you’re a bit early for that. Why don’t ya’ll go home and come back in a few hours. We’re sellin’ hockey tickets until 5, and then the doors’ll close until 7 when they open back up for the concert, so I’m afraid ya’ll’ll have to wait outside until then, ok hun.” All that was missing was for her to fan herself and say, “I do declare.”
It was good that we wound up back outside. In my sisters spastic B-line freak-out for the civic center doors she failed to take the car keys out of the door of the car. So retrieving those was probably a good idea. For it was then, and only then, that I got my McDonald’s. Combo number 4: Double quarter pounder with cheese, extra cheese and pickles, super-sized fries and a Spite to drink; apple pie for dessert.
When we finished eating we walked back over to the parking lot and sat on the steps in front of the main entrance. It was 4 o’clock and I had ass-searing Mcfarts. You know, the kind that just sort of seep out quietly, but heated, the type to really pollute the olfactory. There’d be 4 more hours of this until show time. Someone had to pay for the wait, for the horrendousness of Def Leppard, and it was going to be my sister.
Another hour went by when my sister jumped up and started screeching. She ran like hell so I got up and ran after her, brown cloud of backside emission following me like a dirty contrail. She was running alongside a tour bus screaming her head off as I caught up to her. Suddenly the curtains in the windows of the tour bus sweep aside and the heads of the Def Leppard members appeared. I stopped running. My sister meanwhile yelled at the top of her lungs and sexually assaulted the side of the bus as it drove into the back of the civic center. The Def Leppard guys looked back and forth, from her to me, laughing. Five years earlier there would’ve been thousands of screaming girls waiting for a Def Leppard tour bus. Today, one – my sister.
That broke up the monotony, but we still had three hours to wait, and this was 1992. There was no internet or smart phones, no tablets or laptops back then. We just sat there, me farting. We’re talking turbo-charged sulphurous cupcakes. By the time the doors opened for the show a total of 6 people had shown up for the concert. Six! And for some reason the whole entryway smelled of shit.
When the doors opened my sister ran frantically in, screaming and barreling toward the stage as me and the other six people strolled in casually. As we passed from lobby into the arena, there was my sister, at the partition in front of the stage, jumping and screaming at the empty risers.
Now Def Leppard in their heyday had a stage that was setup in the center of the arena floor. You know, for most bands the stage is setup at one end of the arena, but for Def Leppard the stage was right in the middle, and it would rotate so they could face fans in every direction.
Well, as show time neared, there was no one there. No one. The place was empty. There might have been a couple hundred people in the Roanoke Civic Center, which has a capacity of 10,500 people. 10,500 seats and only a few hundred people showed up. So before the show the civic center staff closed off every section around that floor-centered stage except the one by the main entrance. We could have arrived 5 minutes before show time and walked right up to the stage, but instead we spent almost 5 hours in the civic center parking lot, heated by the setting sun and a chorus of my best air dumps. There were a couple of backside bugle calls where I thought I might have laid a bacon strip in the skivvies. Delete thought I might have.
At eight Def Leppard took the stage and did their thing. My sister freaked out, shaking the partition and jumping up and down. She screamed at the band and carried on. Meanwhile, the other couple hundred people just watched, maybe bobbing their heads. This should have been a moment of great shame for Def Leppard. They were one of the biggest bands of the last decade, selling out stadiums around the world, and here they were in Roanoke Virginia, their revolving stage taking them around the empty arena, only the one section with a few hundred mildly interested spectators, except for one clearly deranged teenage girl.
As the show went on the members of Def Leppard were obviously watching my sister freak out, but they also picked up how disinterested and embarrassed I was. They watched me trying to calm my sister down, or shaking my head, or burying my face in my hands. So they focused on us. Joe Elliot and Phil Collins (not that Phil Collins), they kept coming over and gyrating in front of us, but not so much to my sister, now they were focusing on me. They were taking the piss out of me, as those limey imperialists would say. With every Joe Elliot hip thrust that I flinched at, he and his bandmates laughed, and all the while my sister kept screaming. I got mocked, but to her, she was getting a personalized show.
After a while Def Leppard began to more openly taunt me, like trying to give me high-fives, which I refused, or Joe Elliot announcing me as their new number 1 fan. At one point I told my sister I was going to go to the lobby to pee. As I walked out Def Leppard stopped playing.
Joe Elliot said, “Hey mate, where are you going? I thought we were just starting to rocket, yeah!”
I shook my head and said, “I’m going to the toilet.”
He responded, “We’ll wait.”
Then they and their 200 pathetic fans laughed at me. Me! This really farty grunge solider stuck at the mortifying Def Leppard show with his sister. I was ridiculed by Def Leppard. The fucking one armed drummer laughed at me! The one-armed drummer! What should have been a day of great shame for Def Leppard became my day of shame! God damn you Def Leppard. Oh wait, you’re Def Leppard. Keep it up God.
Now, in a place like Roanoke, when a concert or event comes to town they send the network affiliates local news team out to cover it. So once the concert was over I was pulling on the sleeve of my sister’s Def Leppard t-shirt, saying, “Come on, let’s go home.” But as we headed out of the exit the local news reporters asked if they could talk to me for a minute. The cameras were on me. I hid my face and told them to leave me alone – I can’t be seen at a Def Leppard concert, not after what happened, not after the shame of being lampooned by those cheesy British tossers. I felt your pain that day Steve Bartman. Where’s my 30 for 30 for the Def Leppard concert ESPN? Instead of an interview, I ran for the car, butt barks still emitting heat from the tail pipe.
We got in the car and drove home… with the windows down for obvious reasons. When we got in my parents asked, ‘how was the concert’? My sister talked about how it was the greatest night of her life while I claimed it was the worst concert I’d ever seen. Well, since it was about eleven they went ahead and switched on the local news. The news went through one or two stories and then the anchor said, “At the civic center this evening a poorly attended Def Leppard concert wound up being bliss for one young fan and a nightmare for another.” And there it was, Joe Elliot in front of my sister and I, whirling his hips around, my sister freaking out and screaming, like reaching for his crotch, and me beside her, beating my head against the partition. The news anchors, the weatherman, the fucking sportscaster, they all had a good laugh at my expense that evening. Fuck you Def Leppard and your one-armed drummer!
Stephen Hawking gave us 100 years left on this planet. Great. A recent report issued by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave us just 12 years to limit a climate catastrophe. Even better. As if we didn’t have enough problems. So fight or flight? Well, we’re losing the fight, so, flight?
While multiple planets have been discovered in habitable zones throughout the universe, we have no way of getting there… yet. So what could we accomplish in the foreseeable future? What could we do in 100 years? If we invested resources in seizing control of the solar system instead of wasting our funds & lives on war, that'd be a good place to start. But what would that look like?
Well, we’ve already begun. There are always people living in the International Space Station, so why not expand it into a small city orbiting the Earth? At the same time we could establish a settlement on the moon. According to space.com, “Researchers have identified what may be the perfect place for a Moon base, a crater rim near the lunar north pole that's in near-constant sunlight yet not far from suspected stores of water ice. Permanently sunlit areas would provide crucial solar energy for any future Moon settlement… Equally important, in the permanently shadowed depths of craters around the lunar north pole, water ice may lurk, according to previous but unconfirmed observations.”
After that, sure, Mars would be a logical step, but a man-made settlement midway might be helpful too, like a South of the Border or a Wall Drug of space if you will; a pit stop during the long haul. This would also be a good way to work out the kinks for future man-made settlements in space. It could be an O’Neill cylinder similar to Cooper’s Station at the end of Interstellar, or maybe more of a Death Star, or anything else from a cool sci-fi film or book. Say its only fiction, but this stuff becomes reality eventually.
From there we settle Mars, terraform it and replicate this movement outward through the solar system, building man-made megastructures as pit stops between planets and moons, and then colonizing those planets and moons until we reach Pluto. Astrobiologists have already determined numerous moons of Saturn & Jupiter with habitable environments, the most commonly known being Europa and Titan. Neptune & Pluto have habitable moons too. Beyond settlements, the solar system offers a lot of resources as well. How about mining Venus, unmanned & automated, or extracting resources from any other place not suitable to settle.
By the time we reach the Kuiper Belt we’ll probably have developed such new technology that the work of expansion may take an entirely new direction. Maybe by then we can travel at light speed or we'll have some other tech that allows us to get further out into the universe. But spreading out through our own solar system, that’s feasible now with the right funding & commitment.
So, hey, Elon Musk, stop smoking weed with Joe Rogan and let's get on this please.