One Great Moment

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this idea in my head, about what I wanted to do with my life. Nothing specific, mind you. I’m not one of those few blessed souls who knew from an early age what they wanted, and in many facets of my life, this has been something of a curse. Recognizing one’s own talents is not the same as recognizing your own passions, unfortunately, and using that passion as fuel for the rigorous process of creation is an altogether different challenge entirely. Since I was about fifteen or so, I knew I wanted to be involved in creating things, and since I was entering college, and the protective shell of adolescence fell away, that desire was whittled down: what I want is to be remembered, for one great moment.

From what I can tell, it’s a common enough sentiment. Everybody, especially those who feel no strong belief in a higher power or afterlife, wants to leave their mark on the world somehow. It may be one of the more selfish motivations for having children. One’s legacy is something that lives on long after you’ve returned to dust, and the firmest way to cement it, in my mind, is to create something that is remembered as being great.

Critics and wannabe-critics alike often judge artists by the bulk of their careers, and while this makes sense from a certain point of view, it also seems unnecessarily nitpicky when it comes to assessing overall greatness. The sports world seems to have a leg up in this regard: nobody in their right mind would ever claim that Michael Jordan’s status as the greatest basketball player (and some would argue, myself included, greatest athlete) of all time was tarnished by his unimpressive stint with the Wizards, or his failed restaurants, or any of his other, post Chicago Bulls accomplishments. All that matters in the world of sports is that at one time, he was the greatest that ever was, and he played with a heart and ferocity that we haven’t seen since.

Last week, Levon Helm, a musician and artist whose talents cannot be overstated, passed away after a battle with cancer. His declining health was only made public by his family a few days before his death. While Helm’s career spans decades, generations, and different groups, I will always remember him for one great moment, that will always live on in my heart: the moment I heard “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” for the first time.

I was at the Hole in the Wall, an old favorite, with several close friends. My buddy Ben, a talented musician himself, fed a few dollars into the jukebox, and tottered back to our table. He informed everybody their in no uncertain terms, that anybody who knew the words had better be ready to sing along. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is one of those songs that passes, by an unequaled measure, my standard for what constitutes a timeless song. If you ever want to know if a song will truly stand the test of time, wait 5-10 years after its initial release, and then find a dive bar with a jukebox, and play that song after midnight on a Friday or Saturday. If more than half the bar sings their way through the entire song, it’s a certifiable classic.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” may not be as popular a song as “The Weight”, but it holds a special place in the heart of almost everybody I know who grew up in Texas or the South. I was recently discussing Helm’s passing with a friend of mine (who is from Los Angeles, but spent time in Mississippi with her Southern boyfriend), and she very correctly observed that the song is much like a country version of “Oh, Danny Boy”. Depending on my mood and how many whiskeys I’ve had, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” could move grown men to tears, but it’s a song that taps into a special side of humanity: our universal ability to find strength and joy in moments of incredible sadness. It’s a woefully melancholy song, made all the more despondent by Helm’s powerful, insistent twang. While some may balk at the idea of a song that is, all things considered, a requiem for the Confederate South, a close examination of the lyrics reveals a narrator whose sign does not say “The South Will Rise Again”, but only “Farewell”. Virgil Cane is not a slaveowner, and there is no hatred or even anger in his voice, but only beautiful, bittersweet regret. Helm didn’t write the lyrics, but his incredible vocal performance throws the doors open on a soul laid bare, and anybody, no matter their region or political beliefs, should be able to stop for a moment and revel in the majesty of such plainly expressed grief, pride, and acceptance.

I have often wondered if artists like Levon Helm ever look back at a single moment in their careers, a single contribution, and tell themselves “No matter what else I did wrong in my life, what opportunities I missed, I had this shining moment in which I gave something beautiful to the world”. In my mind, Levon goes to rest as a hero to American music and art in general, if for no other reason, than his telling of Virgil Cane’s story. There were countless other achievements in a long and fulfilling life, but for me, none will ever be equal to the creation of short little song that still has the power to move mountains and rattle the soul.

One great moment is all that any of us are really looking for on this earth. Here’s hoping that we all find it.

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The Return of Ron Artest

The following will be of almost no interest to anybody who isn’t at least conceptually interested in professional basketball. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

You can always tell when something has reached “big deal” status within the world of sports by how many non-sports people know about it. Last night’s incident during the Lakers/Thunder game is now officially a big deal; they’re even reporting on it at NPR, a media outlet that couldn’t be more of a polar opposite to ESPN if it tried. But this time, the questions flying aren’t about something as mundane as who Tiger Woods is sleeping with, or whether or not Barry Bonds’ home run record should be considered legitimate. This is, to put it in appropriately melodramatic terms, about life and death, and the Return of Ron.

The man who currently calls himself Metta World Peace used to go by a different name, one that was more or less synonymous with the “bad boy” professional athlete. In 2004, the man who was then known as Ron Artest was involved in the worst brawl in NBA history, now remembered as the “Malice at the Palace”. Several players from both the Indiana Pacers (for whom Artest was playing at the time) and the Detroit Pistons were involved in escalating aggressive play, that eventually erupted into a violent shoving match between Artest and Piston Ben Wallace. As officials struggled to regain control of the game, a fan threw a full beverage that struck Artest, who then dove into the stands and began attacking fans indiscriminately. Others joined the melee, and all hell broke loose. The whole debacle is summed up excellently here.

During Sunday night’s Lakers/Thunder game, Metta World Peace (as he is currently known) completed an impressive dunk, and was moving in a celebratory fashion as he walked back up the court to play defense. James Harden of the Thunder passed by, and World Peace threw an elbow into the side of his head, just behind the ear. Harden went crashing to the ground, and Artest continued without looking back or breaking stride. After the foul was called, Artest pulled the typical “who me?” look that every NBA player pulls when they’ve been caught doing something dirty. Review of the incident upgraded the foul to a flagrant 2 and an ejection. Harden was pulled from the game and did not return, and NBA sources later reported that he had a concussion. It’s unknown at this time whether he will miss any games. The league has yet to announce what penalties will be visited upon Artest, but it’s likely going to be at least a five-digit fine and a multiple-game suspension. Is this enough?

Punishment should not be the only issue being discussed in this case. The league, while determining the appropriate course of action, needs to consider Artest’s history of violence and mental health problems. Artest himself has acknowledged, in the wake of the Palace brawl and other incidents, that he has anger issues, and they have often boiled over into violent, physical confrontations. All questions of integrity and character aside, is it a good decision, from a liability standpoint, to continue employing an extremely large, strong, and mentally unstable person who has a history of attacking people, with and without provocation? The incident at the Staples Center wasn’t just about (or shouldn’t be about) a hard foul: Artest could have seriously injured or even killed Harden. In the ensuing aftermath, analysts and commentators lit up twitter like a Christmas tree, with more than a few pointing out that blows to the head behind the ear are even prohibited in boxing and mixed martial arts due to the high likelihood of permanent brain injury. Harden’s condition doesn’t seem to be too severe in the grand scheme of things, and he will likely return in a game or two, but that’s not really important.

This is also not a matter of intent, beyond a certain point. Artest’s post-game comments indicate that his story is basically “I got too excited and was celebrating”, which somehow led to an elbow being thrown so hard it nearly knocked Harden unconscious. Either Artest is so inept at controlling his emotions and his body that he injures people when he’s happy, or he was out for blood from the get-go. Either way he’s a danger to other players, fans, and quite frankly, if he doesn’t get real and prolonged psychiatric help, a danger to himself.

I’m not going on the record to say that Ron Artest is a menace to society and must be stopped, but the league has never taken much of an active interest in his mental health, other than awarding him with a phony plaque last year to commemorate just how far he’d come since the Palace brawl, right around the same time that he clotheslined J.J. Barea during the playoffs. I understand that the NBA is a business, and Ron Artest is a big draw both for the league and the Lakers franchise, but Stern and the rest of the powers that be need to take a step back and assess what the potential fallout from a full-scale Artest meltdown might be. If history is any indication, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

REVIEW: Midnight Cowboy Modeling

Been a while, whoever reads this page. Many things have happened, not the least of which is the good George Arun Chirayil being safely married off to Ashly Harrell. It was a beautiful wedding, I cried, shut up. Thoughts on that later, but for now, I thought I would follow up on my last post regarding the newly refurbished Midnight Cowboy Modeling, a former brothel-in-plain-sight that has been reopened as a speakeasy style mixology bar.

For those of you unfamiliar with these kinds of setups, the speakeasy style bar is designed to make everybody feel extra special and glamorous, and to also maximize the pleasure of the fine drinking experience. To that end, there’s a lot about Midnight Cowboy Modeling that will enrage your typical Austinite.

Reservations are required. 2-8 seats can be reserved at one time, depending on availability. This is partly to discourage drunks from wandering in off the street and ruining the “oasis on dirty sixth” vibe of the place, and partly because the joint is frigging SMALL.

I won’t give away the exact location of Midnight Cowboy (even though you can probably find it through a quick google search), but it is smack in the middle of the riff raff of dirty sixth. I have to say, I was endlessly amused when I spied the tell-tale red light that marks the front entrance (there is no signage). It’s a simple doorway, with a series of call buttons alongside it. Some drunk was standing there, looking at the buttons, trying to figure out exactly what they were for, and quickly scuttled away when I pushed by and pressed the appropriate button. Makes a man feel important and in the know.

To repeat, this place is small. Small and dark, the way a bar should be, in my not-so-humble opinion. The door opened and a very pleasant hostess took my name and offered us a few chairs to wait in while they prepared our room for us, giving me a chance to take in the layout. It very much brings to mind a…seedy joint, which is appropriate given the building’s history. 2 person booths line one wall, with four persons lining another, and a narrow pathway in between. The bar lies beyond the booths, where two impeccably dressed barmen mix it up. Beyond that are the rooms, for parties of 5 or more. The rooms are carved out from areas that presumably used to be “massage rooms”, cordoned off by black curtains that can be drawn or opened based on preference. Once we were seated, we realized, once again, that the place is tiny: we couldn’t have fit a 7th person in there if we tried. This might sound uncomfortable, but in practice it forces conversation, which is very nice. No TVS, jukeboxes, or other distractions here (although they do pipe jazz and ragtime into the rooms). House rules even forbid cell phone conversations, but texting/email, etc is allowed though seemingly discouraged. Other rules include: no loud conversations, no guns(!), no public displays of affection, and no untoward interaction with members of other parties. In short, it’s a bar that expects its clientele to compose themselves as gentlemen and ladies. Frankly, in this day and age and especially in this city, where a shirt with a collar is deemed “semi-formal”, it’s a refreshing policy.

On to the drinks themselves. Midnight Cowboy requires a 2 drink minimum from every guest in attendance, and these drinks are not to be trifled with. I can’t remember the name of every cocktail I tried, but most of the original specialties were great, with only a few wandering off the mark (the expected fallout of a bar that takes chances). The talented barstaff can handle any classic cocktail you throw at them. My first drink, a Manhattan, was perhaps the best I had ever had in my life: exquisitely mixed, with sweetness that was present but did not overwhelm the bite of the bourbon. Certain drinks, marked on the menu, are mixed tableside, which adds to the overall pampered, jazz-age atmosphere. A nice touch: rather than interrupt your conversation every five minutes to see if you need anything, the staff at Midnight Cowboy pointed out that there is a switch inside each room that, when thrown, activates a red light on the exterior of each room, signaling that you’re ready for another round.

The service is impeccable, though expect to wait a little bit for your drinks. These are high quality concoctions, not rum and cokes, and it takes time to get everything just right. That said, the waitress and bartenders couldn’t have been more pleasant and helpful throughout the evening. When one person in our party asked about food, he was informed that they had no kitchen, but did offer sausage runs to the nearby bestwurst stand for a nominal fee. Now, THAT’S service.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love fancy drinkin’ holes, and in my view, any opportunity to get a little dressed up in Austin should be celebrated. I only regret that I time and circumstance prevented me from wearing my suit, which surely would have blown that one guy’s off-the-rack job out of the water. If you’re in the mood for a great time with some close friends and riveting conversation over some good music and great cocktails, make a reservation, throw on a tie, and ignore the tides of Tyler’s t-shirt wearing morons who are calling you pretentious for wanting quality.

 

NOTE: Sorry for lack of pictures, but it is really dark in there.