Saturday, February 18, 2012

Poll Results - "The following bands have NEVER been nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame - which is the worst travesty?"

[I should have posted this a couple of months back, at the end of the polling period. But I got unavoidably sidetracked, and in addition an exercise related to this poll took a little longer to complete than I figured it would. So please pardon my delay.]

Thanks for all of the participation regarding this question. Here are the results to the question of which current non-inductee deserves immediate enshrinement in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame:

  8 (19%) The Smiths
  5 (12%) Captain Beefheart
  4 (9%) Roxy Music
  3 (7%) Nick Drake
  3 (7%) T. Rex
  3 (7%) Stevie Ray Vaughan
  2 (4%) The B-52's
  2 (4%) Dick Dale
  2 (4%) Hall & Oates
  2 (4%) Todd Rundgren
  2 (4%) Sonic Youth
  1 (2%) Black Flag
  1 (2%) Devo
  1 (2%) ELO
  1 (2%) X
  1 (2%) Yes
  0 (0%) Chubby Checker
  0 (0%) The Flying Burrito Brothers
  0 (0%) Los Lobos
  0 (0%) The Go-Go's
  0 (0%) Willie Nelson
  0 (0%) Jethro Tull
  0 (0%) The Replacements

Frankly, almost every band and artist listed above has a legitimate claim for inclusion. But for such an intensely subjective topic, I knew that I would have trouble in attempting to come up with even a semi-objective way to measure a band's "worthiness" for the Rock Hall of Fame. I mean, I'm a big fan of The Smiths, The B-52's and X, and would love to see them in the RRHOF someday. But are they more deserving of more immediate induction then, say, Roxy Music or Captain Beefheart? And if so, how could I 'prove' it? For weeks, I wracked my brains for a method by which to compare these bands that could fend off, if now wholly withstand, partisan criticism and finger-pointing. But I had no such luck . . .

. . . until, by chance, I stumbled across a copy of a book called Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life, by an author named John Sellers. The book, released in 2007, is both a witty memoir of and heartfelt homage to the author's longtime obsession with music, especially with alternative/indie bands, like Pavement and Guided By Voices, that the vast majority of people have never heard of. The book is a little chatty, filled with anecdotes of Sellers' personal encounters with his music heroes, like Robert Pollard and Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg. But all in all, it is a very entertaining read for those of us who have the same affinity for this type of tuneage.

For me, the best part of the book came in the back, with a series of appendicies added by the author. And in one of them, I believed that I found the solution to my problem. In this section. Sellers conducts a mock debate with himself, over the relative 'coolness' of one particular band over another. To resolve this question, he actually comes up with an obsessively detailed equation, involving many factors and variables, that measures "exactly how much your favorite band rocks". These variables include the quality of an artist's entire oeuvre, their 'image', and an "X" factor, with the music quality factor accounting for the majority (2/3rds) of the overall score.

Now, admittedly, a lot of the variables that Sellers comes up with are silly and/or tongue-in-cheek ("If the band members have costumes, -10 points, unless that band is Kiss, in which case, +75"; "Every lyric equal to or better than 'Her love’s a pony'?"). But the section regarding music quality was pretty straightforward. So, for lack of a better alternative, I decided to use this formula in my analysis and determination of "Worst Rock Hall of Fame Travesty of Non-Inclusion".

Utilizing album critiques and band information found on the Web to fill out the equation, I came up with the following scores/rankings:

1. Los Lobos (9,849.20)
2. Roxy Music (8,601.07)
3. Rundgren, Todd (7,542.98)
4. Yes (7,215.74)
5. ELO (4,074.89)
6. Sonic Youth (3,461.98)
7. Dale, Dick (2,914.92)
8. B-52's, The (2,497.10)
9. Hall & Oates (2,242.42)
10. Smiths, The (1,859.05)
11. Captain Beefheart (1,744.35)
12. T. Rex (1,559.47)
13. Replacements, The (1,510.93)
14. X (1,277.58)
15. Vaughan, Stevie Ray (1,157.38)
17. Devo (907.83)
18. Flying Burrito Brothers, The (764.17)
19. Go-Go's, The (465.35)
20. Jethro Tull (388.83)
21. Drake, Nick (241.52)
22. Black Flag (203.23)
23. Checker, Chubby (57.44)

Details of each band's scores are included here.

A couple of notes regarding this analysis:

- The most important consideration driving this band quality formula, the factor that raised scores the most, is that the band/artist had to have put out a high percentage (of their overall output) of critically-acclaimed studio albums over an extended period of time. For example, Los Lobos has released a total of fourteen albums in their 36-year history; two-thirds of them are considered 'good' or better, with five ranked as 'brilliant'. On the other hand, all four of The Smiths' studio albums were acclaimed, with 3 considered 'brilliant' . . . but The Smiths were only together for four years total. In this equation, longevity counts.

- According to this evaluation, the highest-scoring artist of the 24 considered was Willie Nelson. But I removed him from consideration for the RRHOF, since almost all of Nelson's celebrated output has been in the country genre (and besides, Willie's already in the Country Music Hall of Fame; give someone else a chance for the Rock Hall).

Again, this is an attempt to use objective methods to answer a subjective question. I am not a huge fan of the top five scorers on this list; my tastes lean toward bands like the aforementioned Smiths, the Bee-Fives, Devo, etc. But taking a step back and looking at each band's career with a cold, unprejudiced eye, I can see how those other bands would and could be more deserving than my own personal favorites.

If you have the chance, download and take a look at the spreadsheet, and let me know your thoughts on all of this. I'm looking forward to some comment on what is, in many ways, a highly personal issue. Thanks, and sorry again for taking so long to get this done. I'll try to come up with another poll question sometime soon.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Various Artists - O Brother Where Art Thou? Soundtrack

Hold onto your hats, folks - this is gonna be a long one . . .

I've found that the best times in your life are usually not the ones you plan, but the ones that just sort of happen. The great thing I've discovered about being alive, of being able to walk around on this nutty planet, is that even during the most mundane, ordinary days, there's potential magic and amazing experiences tucked away around every corner. Most of the time, we fail to see these opportunities, or we don't move fast enough to take advantage of them. But when that special thing actually does happen, seemingly from out of the blue, it reminds you that the possibility of magic IS out there. I have had some unique and interesting experiences in my life, and this is one of the best of them - moreso because I didn't really go looking for it, but it just sort of found me just the same.

One Friday in June of 2001, while I was living in Providence, Rhode Island, I took the day off of work to run some errands. None of the things I needed/wanted to do that day were of any major consequence - I needed a couple of things from the Stop & Shop grocery; I had to pick up some bits and pieces of dry cleaning; I needed to buy myself some new pants - typical stuff. As I was walking out of my apartment that morning, I remembered that I had a roll of undeveloped film sitting around, taken during a recent trip to California. So I turned back to grab it, figuring that I could head over to nearby Providence Place Mall and drop it off to be developed while I visited the clothing stores there for my slacks.

The mall was fairly deserted when I got there - since, of course, most other people besides me were at work. I left my film at the camera store, then wandered around the center for a bit, enjoying the sensation of not being cooped up in the office during a weekday. As I roamed, I happened upon two women sitting behind a small folding table set up in an out-of-the-way corner of the mall. It looked sort of like one of those temporary setups that insurance or credit card companies put up in shopping centers and airports - you know, the "Sign Up Today And Get A Free T-Shirt!" sort of things. This particular table didn't quite have that particular sort of vibe coming from it, but I still began to steer clear of it - I didn't feel like being hassled that time of morning.

But with no one else in the immediate vicinity, the women started waving me over, with a little more urgency than I thought necessary. My "No" radar was still flashing red, so I can't tell you why I stopped and turned back to respond to them - I suppose continuing to move away would have been impolite on my part. But in hindsight, I'm glad I did, for as I approached, one of the women greeted me with "Hi! Would you like to try out for a TV game show?"

It was then that I noticed the banner draped across the front of the table - "WEAKEST LINK SIGNUP HERE".

For those of you who may not recall, The Weakest Link was an NBC game show which had been airing in prime time since April of that year. It was the American version of the hit British show of the same name, and it even had the host of the UK version, the acerbic Anne Robinson, as the host of the U.S. show. In many ways, the show was NBC's answer to ABC's wildly popular Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, which had been running on that network for the past couple of years to great acclaim (and great profitability for the network).

In the first couple of months after its springtime debut, The Weakest Link experienced the same sort of huge popularity and success as its competitor. But with all of the hype and buzz surrounding it, I still had not bothered to watch the program. Game shows (especially prime time game shows) weren't really my bag, to be honest - I had seen Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? only a couple of times, and never all the way through. To me, all game shows just seemed so contrived and phony, with intellect not exactly being the determining factor in winning or losing. Every once in a while, I thought about trying out for Jeopardy!, since it seemed like you had to actually have (and use) some real smarts to succeed on that show. But overall, these contests weren't really the sort of thing that interested me.

I confessed my ignorance of the show to the two ladies. But they said that didn't matter; I should try out anyway, especially since I was the first one there and thus would be guaranteed a chance. Since I was going to hang around the mall anyway until my film was finished, I finally agreed. They had me sign my name to a register, and gave me a ticket with "#1" printed on it, and told me to come back in an hour or so.

I went up to the third floor food court to grab some lunch, and by the time I returned to the area where the Weakest Link table was, there were literally HUNDREDS of people gathered there, all vying for a chance to be a contestant. They only took a certain number, something like the first 300 or 400 - since I had ticket #1, I was good to go. At the appointed time, they trooped the vast lot of us through the mall, up two escalators and into a barren area that used to be a former store, now filled with folding cafeteria-style tables and benches where we all could sit.

Despite the vast size of the applicant pool, the Weakest Link folks were very efficient in their duties - it was very apparent that they had done this type of thing before, in cities all over the U.S. After greetings and preliminary remarks, they handed each of us pencils and a four-page "Biographical Questionnaire", on which we provided them with our names, addresses, education, occupation, hobbies and any other pertinent facts about ourselves. They gave us about 20 minutes to complete that. Then everyone's forms were gathered up and replaced with a single sheet of paper, with the numbers 1 through 20 listed along the left-hand side. This was the "testing" phase of the application - a staff member stood up in the middle of the room and shouted out twenty questions, one at a time, while we quickly scribbled our answers down on the sheets provided.

- "What is the capital of Wisconsin?"
- "What does DNA stand for?"
- "How many sides does a Rubik's Cube have?"; etc.

The game show recruiters then gathered up everyone's test sheets (we all put our names at the top beforehand), and took all of these papers back to another part of the room, closed off from the rest of it. In there, there appeared to be a couple of dozen additional staff members sitting, waiting to grade the exams and match them up with the bio sheets. Apparently, they were looking for both the smartest and quirkiest/most interesting personalities to be on the program. We (that is, myself and my fellow contestant applicants) sat in that room on those hard benches for what seemed like an eternity, until the group leader finally reappeared and announced the names of the applicants who would move on to the next round in the process. Out of more than 300 people, they selected about 20-25 of us for Phase II . . . and, lo and behold, I was one of the selectees.

After dismissing the others, they took my selected group back to yet another part of the store, which had been set up to vaguely resemble the actual game show set. There, we were told that we were going to assemble in groups of eight, and play a quick version of the game, all of which was to be filmed by several cameras set up around the room and "sent back to Hollywood" for the show's producer's to make the final determination as to who would and wouldn't be invited to be on the actual show. After a rapid run-through of the rules of play, we began the mock competition. While the cameras rolled, the stand-in for the show host lobbed questions and insults at us, and we all tried our best to answer/respond in kind (they claimed beforehand that it didn't matter if we answered a question incorrectly; they were just trying to see how we looked and responded on camera. Whether that was true or not, I know for a fact that I didn't miss a single question - a factor that played in my favor, as I learned later on).

After about 45 minutes of that sort of nonsense, that was that. The crew thanked us for our time, and said that they would be in touch with us soon. It was late afternoon when I finally left that store, so I went down to get my developed pictures before walking home (never did get those new pants that day, however . . .).

I didn't tell a lot of my friends about my experience that day, because despite assurances from the production staff that we would "hear from them", I honestly didn't expect to. I figured that that team had been doing the same type of recruiting all over the country, and as such there were scores of other applicants for them to choose from besides me. I was semi-hopeful to get a call from them, but I wasn't really banking on it.

However, to my surprise, an associate producer for the show contacted me in less than a week. The top-line producers, she said, were impressed with how I presented myself on camera, and they liked my background, etc. She also mentioned that, during the filmed portion of the process, I was the only one to correctly answer a question that had stumped every other applicant in the country (this is no bullshit). The question was, "Which Milwaukee band was discovered by the Pretenders in 1981?" At the time, I knew from the moment they said "Milwaukee band" that the answer was "Violent Femmes". No one else nationwide provided the correct answer - including the applicant group FROM Milwaukee (See - vast and obscure musical knowledge IS good for something!)!

The bottom line was they were very interested in getting me out to California immediately to participate in a real taping. She told me to stand by for further details, which would be coming in the next few days. I was jazzed to hear this news, but also a bit nervous, since I still had yet to actually WATCH the program. I thereby began a crash course in Weakest Link-ology, watching every episode I could and trying to discover its flow and nuances.

For those of you who don't recall, here's a rundown of how to play The Weakest Link (I edited this down from what I found on Wikipedia - sorry, but this is as brief a description as I could put together):
"Essentially, a team of players tries to reach and bank a set target within a time limit by compiling a chain of correct answers that would be broken with an incorrect answer or if a player decided to bank the money that was already in the chain. On NBC, the team was composed of eight people looking to win up to $1,000,000. One player would be eliminated after each round until two were remaining. Each round is reduced by 10 seconds thereafter (with the first round lasting for 2:30). Contestants who are eliminated in the rounds leading up to the final round are told by the host: 'You are the weakest link. Goodbye!'

The final vote occurs prior to the penultimate round, after which the two remaining players compete in one more round together for double stakes (with the round lasting for 1:30). The final round is a head-to-head five-question competition between the two finalists, with the contestant who answers the most questions designated the winner, or 'The Strongest Link'. The game show is winner-take-all, with the Strongest Link received the entire amount of funds banked during the show, up to a maximum of $1,000,000.

Prior to the start of the show, a random draw backstage is held among players to determine order, and the player who draws the first position starts the first round. Each round thereafter begins with the strongest link from the preceding round (or if that player had been voted off, the second strongest). For the head-to-head round, he or she also has the option of going first or passing play to the other finalist."
I received my first Weakest Link callback in mid-July, early on in my efforts to study the game. The producers wanted me to fly out to L.A. for a taping in early August. But at the last minute (and fortunately for me, in hindsight), the show I was supposed to be on was replaced with a 'celebrity' edition - they decided to tape an episode featuring the former cast of The Brady Bunch. I wasn't too disappointed - they assured me that I would be tapped for another taping "very soon", and I hadn't finished with my observations of the program yet. So it was all good.

I watched every episode of The Weakest Link that summer, and it didn't take long for me to discover one constant in all of the shows - the smartest person in each group of contestants rarely if ever won it all. That person would do well in the early rounds, then would be voted off late in the game as the others perceived him or her as a threat to their acquisition of all the money. That's when I began to realize that not all TV game shows were fake and moronic . . . and I started to understand and appreciate just how evilly well-constructed this particular game show really was. The winner-take-all aspect of The Weakest Link was both ingenious and insidious - ingenious in that it forces team cooperation in what is essentially a non-cooperative, cutthroat competition; insidious in that it seduces individual players to go all-out to win the money for themselves, thereby attracting undue attention to their efforts that ultimately cost them a chance at the prize. The show was more than just a trivia challenge - it was a very complex psychological struggle between eight people, with Anne Robinson's role being that of a gadfly, using insults and putdowns to ratchet up the already-present internal and external tensions within and between the contestants.

Once I figured out the show's structure, the WHY, I next had to come up with the HOW - how would I actually go about winning this game show? After a few more days of observation and thought, I came up with what I thought was a good plan:

In the first couple of rounds, I would go all out, answering as many questions as possible and trying to build up the overall bank as much as I could. Then beginning in the third round, when there are six players left, I would begin dumping questions; that is, purposely answering some questions incorrectly. Not all of them, mind you - just one or two per round, hopefully in spots where my breaking the answer chain wouldn't result in a large loss of money to the team. The goal was to be very subtle about it, and refrain from antagonizing my fellow contestants - not so that they would like me, but more so that they would forget about me when it came time to vote a member off at the end of each round, and focus on one of the louder, "smarter" contestants.

I didn't consider things like stage fright (I'd been the frontman for my band for a while by then, so being under lights in front of everyone didn't worry me a bit) or being unable to answer the questions (I'm sorry to say that I have a vast knowledge of useless trivia contained in my head) would impact the execution of my game plan. I figured that if I focused on the "timely dump" plan, I would at least make it to the final three contestants. At that point, I would trust to luck to get me into the finals.

At about the time I finished formulating my plan in late August, I began hearing from the Weakest Link producers again. They claimed they were done with "celebrity" editions for the time being, and were ready to start shooting some "regular people" shows. There were solid plans to tape a block of shows near the end of the following month, and the word I received was that I would be included in one of the early productions. I received several calls from them in the days that followed, and finally they locked down the time and date with me. I was told to expect a call from the Weakest Link travel coordinator that following Tuesday, to discuss flight schedules and hotel reservations.

I arrived in my office on the sunny, beautiful morning of the appointed day full of anticipation, looking forward to what was undoubtedly going to be a great day. At just before nine, I received a call on my office phone with a Los Angeles-area area code. I had a fleeting thought that it was odd to get a call from the West Coast so early (it being six a.m. there), but quickly chocked it up to studio efficiency as I picked up the phone. However, the call wasn't from NBC at all. It was from my sister in L.A., who was calling to tell me something about a news story she just heard, an unusual aircraft accident in New York City . . .

That was the morning of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001.

. . .

I think that it goes without saying that, in the immediate aftermath of that horrific day and week, I never received a call from the game show producers. I didn't bother to contact them either; somehow, my appearance on network TV just wasn't that important all of a sudden. Finally, after a week or so, I got a call from my contact there. The word I received was that, with the events of 9/11 still fresh on everyone's mind, NBC was going to curtail producing new episodes of The Weakest Link that involved 'regular' people, and concentrate on the exclusive production of 'celebrity' editions - the obvious but unspoken implication being that they were leery about flying people across the country, and would instead use the local talent pool. The network rep made the usual mouth noises regarding "In the future, if we decide to resume normal production, we'll keep you in mind, blah, blah, blah . . .", but I figured that I'd missed my opportunity, and my chances of ever appearing on the show were over and done with. It was disappointing, but what could you do? After a few weeks, I sort of put it all out of my mind, and by the early fall of 2001 I'd moved on with my life.

I still watched The Weakest Link from time to time. But the shows became less interesting after 9/11, as the network trotted out "special edition" after "special edition" episode, featuring washed-up actors and other pseudo-"celebs" playing for charity. As the quality of "celeb" contestants began sinking further and further (pro wrestlers, redheads, Anne Robinson lookalikes, etc.), the show's once-high ratings began sinking as well. In my opinion, the producers forgot the golden rule - people watch game shows to see people like themselves win life-altering prizes - NOT to see some Troy McClure clone playing for some obscure animal shelter in Tarzana.

Unlike NBC, my company had no intention of curtailing business flights, and as such, I spent the latter part of that year flying to places like Buffalo, San Francisco and Cleveland for work. In November, we began a project with a large bank in Canada, and in support of these efforts I began making regular visits to Toronto. In early January, I was standing in line in Customs at the Toronto airport when my phone rang. I was surprised to be greeted with the excited voice of my old Weakest Link contact, who I had not heard a peep from in almost four months. The network, she told me, had decided to resume regular production, and I was at the top of their contestant list. Would I be available at the end of the month? Hell yeah, I would be!

This time, there were no hitches - a little more than three weeks later, I was using a NBC-paid ticket to board a plane bound for Los Angeles.

They pulled out all the stops for me upon my arrival that Friday evening, with a limo waiting at LAX to whisk me over to the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Universal City, where all of the next day's contestants were staying. I was pretty psyched for the show taping the next morning . . . but there was another event that weekend that shared space in the forefront of my mind - Super Bowl XXXVI, between the St. Louis Rams and the New England Patriots, was being played that weekend. And while I had no special affinity to either team (I'm a longtime Saints fan, and frankly couldn't (and still can't) STAND the Pats), the fact that I was in close proximity to Las Vegas on perhaps the biggest sports betting day of the year was too great an opportunity to pass up. I had already made plans that, regardless of the outcome of my game show experience, my ass was going to be sitting at a poker table in Sin City, with sports book tickets in my hand, by no later than Sunday morning. The Rams were heavy favorites that year, and the thrilling possibility of making a twin killing in both LA and Vegas that weekend kept me awake far into the night.

I had to be up early the next morning - there was supposed to be a shuttle bus waiting for us at the front door of the hotel at 7:30. I was knackered due to my late night, but I made it on time, and clambered aboard the ride with about a dozen other folks. The contest instructions we had been given prior to our arrival stated that we were not supposed to engage with one another prior to arriving at the studio, so the ride to Burbank was made in stone silence - an eerie silence, albeit we were all sitting cheek-by-jowl with each other.

We soon arrived at NBC's Burbank Studio complex, a rather non-
descript row of gray warehouse-type buildings, where we were met by Weakest Link assistants and herded into a receiving area in Studio 1. It was here that I learned that my show auditions were not yet at an end. Like I said earlier, there were about a dozen of us on the bus - but the show only has spaces for eight contestants. So there was some final winnowing-out to be done. One by one over the next couple of hours, we were led into a room to face a panel of three or four show producers, who took turns asking us questions like "Why do you want to be on the show?" As opposed to my earlier audition in Providence, this one was a lot more serious - not a lot of smiles or nods coming from that grim group of execs. These were the gatekeepers, the guys in charge of making sure the show was entertaining and good, so the production company and network would make money. So they were keeping a keen eye open - not for weirdoes (because the show benefited from having interesting personalities on), but for boring, 'blah' people. So I went into my final interview with the whole 'happy face', "Hey, great to be here!" sort of attitude - and it worked. I made the final cut.

They moved the final eight of us into another room for a late brunch, and a chance now to finally speak to one another, as the restriction on contact was now lifted. My fellow contestants included a college student, a former beauty queen, a psychologist, a probation officer and a small town mayor. All in all, almost everyone was pretty cool. Since they were anticipating having us indoors for the taping for the next several hours, the show runners also gave us a little time to roam around outside in the parking lot for some fresh air. Studio 1 was the same studio where The Tonight Show was filmed, and we all admired Jay Leno's car parked outside in his own special spot - a spotless old-fashioned car (looked possibly like a Duesenburg to me) painted a shiny sea green with immaculate white-wall tires.

It was during this break that one of the contestants recommended a unique strategy. Apparently, she had also been watching the program, and was struck by how little of the potential $1 million grand prize was won (on average, the Strongest Link took home somewhere between $20,000 and $40,000). Her suggestion was that in the first round (when the questions were generally easier), NONE of us would 'bank' the money until we had correctly answered eight questions in a row, giving us a maximum payout for that round of $125,000. If it worked, it would instantly make our episode one of the most lucrative in Weakest Link history. Everyone immediately agreed to give it a try - myself included, since it played right into my strategy of "going all out" in the early rounds.

After that break, things began moving very quickly. We went back inside Studio 1, and were herded into wardrobe and makeup. We had to bring a couple of extra outfits, which were reviewed and critiqued by the producers. A couple of the female contestants were told (make that 'ordered') to change into one of their alternate ensembles, which pissed them off to no end.

After everyone was powdered, primped and kitted out to the satisfaction of the powers-that-be, we were led into the back of the studio, the place where they would actually be filming us on the show. We spent a few minutes in a dingy area behind and underneath the audience seating area. It was here that we finally met the host, Anne Robinson, for the first time. Our encounter with her was brief. She was dressed in her trademark style, completely in severe black with evil-looking steel-rimmed glasses. I don't remember her offering us any pre-show words of encouragement; she did say "This is the LAST time today you will see me smile!", apparently her stock phrase to contestants. I don't recall her actually smiling when she said that . . .

We were then moved to another part of the studio, where they had us all sort of mill around and pretend to chat with one another while they filmed us, for part of the opening sequence. From there, they led us across the floor, stepping over cables and around TV cameras, and onto the main stage, which looked like something out of Close Encounters.

I was placed in position 8, the last place to Anne Robinson's right as she faced the audience. As I walked to that spot, I quickly glanced ahead, to get a glimpse of the studio audience. But they were very difficult to see - it was like an audience full of undertakers or ghouls; they were all either dressed completely in black, or draped in black blankets. All in all, it was a very freaky effect. But before I could fully process my surroundings and get settled to everything else that was happening around us, I found to my mild shock that the filming had begun. I thought there might be a couple of practice shots or something . . . but no. One second, we were sort of milling around on stage - the next second, music was playing, lights were flashing, and I was staring into a TV camera saying my name. And off we went. I quickly put everything else out of my mind, and tried to concentrate on my "questions dumping" plan developed months earlier.

But first, we had to get through the initial round and see if we could max out our winnings, according to the plan we agreed to earlier that day. The play clock showed 2:30, and Ms. Robinson spun towards the player in position 1 to start.

Q. "For $1,000, what legendary Scottish sea creature is nicknamed 'Nessie'?"
A. "The Loch Ness Monster"


And on it went around to each of the first seven players, each one of them answering without banking, with the money meter highlighting our current level rising incrementally - $5,000 . . . $10,000 . . . $50,000 . . . $75,000. I could almost FEEL the audience holding its collective breath, as the money and tension level rose higher and higher. It finally came to my turn, as the eighth player - my correct answer would be worth $125,000 and would end the round, a feat never before accomplished on the U.S. version of the show. Even with so much at stake, surprisingly, I didn't feel the least bit nervous.

Q. "What 'A' is the superhighway in Germany with no speed limit?"

I instantly responded - "Autobahn". And with that, the crowd went wild, as did all of us there on stage! A $125,000 round! Holy smokes!

After all of that excitement, it was time to vote one of the contestants off the show. The first one to get the ax was the young college student, who was frankly sort of an arrogant douche to everyone that morning, an attitude that did him no favors once the taping began. During the first round of voting, I was happy to see that no one voted to put me off the show. So far, I was flying under the radar, just as I had hoped. Things were going well.

And so the show went. Round after round progressed, with the overall bank building and contestant after contestant being voted off (After being relieved, the dismissed contestant was taken to another part of the studio to film a brief valedictory segment, then immediately taken back to the hotel in a waiting limo). Beginning with the third round, I started intentionally dumping a question or two per round, at times when it wouldn't hurt the team (i.e., cost us money) - and to my delight, my plan was working like a charm. Players kept leaving, but I survived, time and time again. There were little breaks in production every couple of rounds, so the cameras could be reset and things moved around, stuff like that. I remember standing there during one of those breaks in the middle of the taping, quietly laughing to myself in incredulity - I couldn't BELIEVE that things were going the way I hoped they would!

Finally, it came to a point where only three of us remained - the small-town mayor, a woman from Texas and me. The woman from Texas had been gunning for me for the past couple of rounds, voting for me to be removed, so I knew she was a threat I had to neutralize (in addition, she was clearly the smartest remaining player - besides me, of course!). The mayor was visibly nervous as the show wore on, but was holding his own. I knew that at this point, my 'question dump' plan had to fall by the wayside, and I needed a little bit of luck to make it to the championship rounds. At the end of that round, we all had to vote for who to remove - and the audience gasped as our votes were revealed - the three of us all voted for a different contestant!

In situations like that, the contestant who had the highest number of correct answers during that round won the tiebreaker, with the opportunity to choose the member to be removed - and by the barest of margins, the strongest player for that round . . . was me. I quickly voted the Texas woman off. With a little strategy, and a heaping dollop of luck, I had made it to the penultimate round and the finals.
"The final vote occurs prior to the penultimate round, after which the two remaining players compete in one more round together for double stakes (with the round lasting for 1:30). The final round is a head-to-head five-question competition between the two finalists, with the contestant who answers the most questions designated the winner, or 'The Strongest Link'."
The penultimate round was a chance for us two remaining players to really stack some cash onto our already sizable winnings. But as I mentioned earlier, the small-town mayor was clearly rattled, especially so at nearly being eliminated the round before. So the guy kept missing question after question, limiting our take for that session. I, on the other hand, tried to remain calm and focused, particularly with the best-of-five championship round coming up.

As the strongest player from the previous round, I had the option of choosing who would go first in the final round. I told Ms. Robinson that I chose to go last, and as I did so I glanced at my opponent and watched the blood drain from his face. Wow, I thought; this guy is seriously in bad shape. And it showed - he missed his first question, a relatively easy one, as far as I was concerned. I answered mine correctly, so the score was now 1-0 in my favor. From that point, we both went on a tear, each of us giving correct responses to our next three questions. With only one question apiece left, the score stood at 4-3 for me. Still, I felt surprisingly calm.

Anne Robinson asked my opponent his fifth question - if he missed it, I would win automatically. But he nailed it, tying the score at 4 to 4. Fine - no problem. My last question was coming up - if I answered it correctly, I would be the Strongest Link, and the victory would be mine. Even with all that, I remained cool as a cucumber.

Then Ms. Robinson said " . . . if you answer this question correctly, you have won. So, for . . . ", and she said the amount of the grand prize.

THAT'S the moment when I got nervous.

Really nervous. Really, REALLY nervous. I could feel the tension and panic building inside my stomach - up to that point, I really hadn't thought about the money, per se; I was just concentrating on trying to win the game. But when she stated what exactly was at stake for me, well . . . My heart started pounding like a jackhammer, so hard that I could feel it shake my body, so loud that I was sure the folks in the audience could hear it. A low buzz started building in my ears, increasing slowly in volume - I later determined that what I was hearing was the sound of blood rushing through my head. And I got a mild case of tunnel vision - I couldn't see anything to my extreme left or right - just Anne Robinson's face right in front of me, as the Moment of Truth arrived, and she asked what hopefully would be the Final Question:

"The soundtrack of what George Clooney film - "

The answer that instantly came to my mind with those words was Out Of Sight, a recently released George Clooney/Jennifer Lopez vehicle. I instinctively knew that it was the WRONG answer . . . but that was the one that lodged in my head. And, truth be told, I almost blurted it our spasmodically. But I forced myself to calm down, and listen to the rest of the question:

" . . . won the 2001 Country Music Award for Album Of The Year?"

The answer was then obvious (at least to me), and I took several moments to compose myself. I looked away and took several deep breaths while I locked the words into my head. I then looked up, straight into Ms. Robinson's eyes, and slowly enunciated every word in my response:

"O . . . Brother . . . Where . . . Art . . . Thou?"

There was a soundless pause in the studio, then Ms. Robinson intoned these words: "That . . . is the correct answer." I was the winner!

AAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHH!!!! The word "relief" does not do justice to what I felt at that moment! I wanted to laugh and cry and faint and jump and hug everyone and slap five with Jesus, all at the same time! I barely heard the rest of what Ms. Robinson said, about me being the Strongest Link, and the money I had won! It was truly a mind-jolting, ecstatic experience!

They wrapped the taping on the main set shortly afterwards, and audience members came rushing up to congratulate me. I then had to go up to the little room to film my own final segment, like everyone who had gone before me. After that, it was back to the production offices to sign a shitload of paperwork, before climbing into the waiting limo that took me back to the Sheraton (now, THAT was an uncomfortable, awkward journey - as my fellow passenger on that trip was the small-town mayor, the guy I just defeated on the show. He was miserable about losing his chance at all of those winnings - understandably so. But still, for that short time, he was killing my buzz).

When we arrived back at the hotel, we found all of the other previously dismissed contestants waiting for us in the lobby. They had all gathered there that afternoon, one by one, as their limos returned them there. The word had already been passed to them that I was the winner, so when I walked through the hotel door, I was greeted with applause and a loud cheer. That was intensely gratifying - I didn't want those folks to hate me; my desire to win the show wasn't a personal issue - it was just business. I herded everyone into the nearby hotel bar, where we all partied together for the next several hours - all on my tab, of course!

But early on during our blowout, I excused myself to head up to my room for a couple of minutes, to drop off my extra show outfit and to have a moment to myself to contemplate the enormity of what had just occurred. That was the point when it all began to sink in . . . and as I looked out of my window over the smoggy San Fernando Valley, I could see the reflection of my big smile in the glass as I thought to myself how great it was to live in times like these, to revel in the unexpected, and to see a plan succeed beyond my wildest dreams. I allowed myself those precious few seconds of private, unbridled joy and satisfaction . . . then I changed my shoes and went back down to the party I was hosting.

So with all of this, I present to you the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack album to the movie of the same name, released on Mercury Records in December 2000 - the album whose name was worth six figures to me, ten years ago on this very day, one of the better days in my life. As I have stated earlier, I have no special affinity for country music. And truth be told, I have never actually seen this movie (although I should - I understand that it's excellent). But I felt that I HAD to purchase this album, if only for what it brought to me on that fine L.A. afternoon. I hope that it provides you with just as much joy and delight. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

(And thanks for reading this thing all the way through - I apologize again for the length. Pretty good story though, eh?)

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