Foolish, Foolish Throat: A Q&A with Steve Perry

Thursday  May 29, 2008

Journey's ex-frontman talks vocal burnout, hip replacement, rock superstardom, and coyotes with Alex Pappademas

PLUS: Journey co-founder and lead guitarist Neal Schon responds

Steve_perry

Every time I told somebody I was writing a story about the new lead singer of Journey, I’d get the same incredulous response: “Steve Perry’s not the lead singer of Journey anymore?” Even though the piece I was writing was mostly going to be about Arnel Pineda (whose pre-Journey work can be seen here) and the present-day incarnation of the band, I knew I couldn’t write anything about Journey without getting in touch with Steve Perry. I was supposed to talk to him for thirty minutes, but he had a lot to say—about how he joined the band, about why he left, and about the pride he still takes in the work they did together—and we ended up talking for almost two hours. The raw transcript of our interview was almost 11,000 words long; the highlights of that conversation appear below.

GQ: Journey had already made three records by the time you joined the band.
PERRY: Yeah. I joined the band in 1978. What happened was, I was in Los Angeles, trying to get signed, with a band that I was in at the time—it was called the Alien Project, but it was also called Street Talk. The name wasn’t settled yet. Don Ellis, who was running the west coast side of Columbia at the time, heard the tape and really liked the group. We were supposed to talk serious contract papers with him right after 4th of July weekend that year. And our bass player Richard Michaels got killed in a Fourth of July holiday accident on the freeway. We were destroyed by that—he was a wonderful singer, a wonderful bass player, and a great guy, and he was part of a real interesting chemistry that Columbia wanted to sign. So Don Ellis took the liberty, about two weeks after that, of sending our tapes to Herbie Herbert, who at the time was managing Journey. And I got a phone call from Don Ellis telling me that Herbie had called back and wanted to meet me and talk to me about joining the group. Because Journey had made a conscious decision, along with Columbia’s—what’s the correct word here—request [laughs] that they become a little more song-oriented. So they thought that I would be a good addition to the band. So Don Ellis called me and said Herbie wanted me to fly out and meet Neal. I think it was in Denver, Colorado—they were opening for Emerson, Lake and Palmer at the time. So I flew out there, hung out with the band. Neal and I wrote our first song that night in the hotel room, after the show. Called “Patiently.” It began at that point for me, with the band.

So Columbia was pushing Journey to write more commercial music?
They just wanted some songs to get on the radio. I was always a songwriting sort of guy. I wasn’t really into jamming too much. But I appreciated the musicality, the ability to jam. So it was the best of all worlds, I think, when I got into a band that had the ability to play in a progressive way but was open-minded about writing songs. When you have one or the other, it’s just not enough. They were really an amazing performing band. But they didn’t have any quote “hit records,” and weren’t on the radio much.

So they were okay with the change?
They were certainly amenable to it when I joined them.

And it obviously worked out pretty well.
It worked out really great. There was something that we had together that I think neither of us have been able to find anywhere else. Everybody’s gone on to their own incarnations, and everybody’s had success, but the truth is, there was a synergy that the band had, in the chemistry of writing and performing and arguing and recording, y'know?

You mentioned arguing—was there a lot of that?
Well, disagreements are part of life! Anything worth anything goes down the path of discussion, disagreement and greatness, I think. I mean, gee whiz. Whether it’s making a movie or making music. It’s no different.

But you ended up having creative and personal differences with Jon and Neal, differences that led to you leaving the band—is that a fair assessment of what happened?
[laughs] You’ve gotta print my response. You’ve gotta print your question and my response, because I think it’s so humorous that such a question is even asked. [laughs] I can’t believe that this is news. [laughs] Of course! The answer is of course there’s differences between us all! It’s called a band! You get in a baseball team and some people like each other and some people hate each other, but they still play together.

Were you and Neal friends?
Of course we were friends. We lived together when I first joined the band. He gave me the back bedroom at his place. But we were also working together. And a lot of time spent together can chew on a friendship. Look, you’ve got to remember, they didn’t want to make it with a lead singer. They wanted to make it without one. They had Gregg Rolie, and that was enough. And he was a great vocalist for what they were looking for, but they didn’t want to have a singer out front.

You think they would have been happier if they’d made it in that prog-rock incarnation?
I can’t speak for them. But I’m sure that if they could have been successful the way they originally set out to be, that would have been fine with them.

Do you think that dynamic was set up from the beginning? Did that tension persist throughout your tenure with the band? Do you think they wished they didn’t need a charismatic singer out front to succeed they way they did?
I don’t know. That’s a tough question. I think that’s getting a little into the area of conjecture.

But I’m wondering if you felt that way. Did you feel like you were the new guy, still, after all that?
Oh, most certainly, I was the new kid on the block with them. I was the new kid in town. There was a statement I made on a VH1 special, which I’m sure you’ve heard—that I never really felt part of the band. “All these years, it’s funny—I never really felt part of it.” What they took out, edit-wise, was that—[long pause] I gotta think about how to say this. Ask me the question again?

Okay. What did you mean when you said, on that VH1 special, that you’d never really felt like part of the band?
Okay. So—[long pause] when we did the VH1 thing, I said there was quite some time where I never really felt part of the band. And people didn’t understand what that meant. And what that meant was that there was a period of time where I always felt, from Neal, that I had to prove myself worthy of the position I was trying to occupy in the group. And not until it really took off, I think, did that question really get answered.
But along with this, you have to print that I can’t blame them. Because they’d had a certain amount of success without me, and they were wondering, once I joined, “Is this the right direction?” I could tell that. I didn’t have years of being in Santana under my belt, like Neal and Gregg. Ross Valory had played with Steve Miller and people like that, I didn’t have that. Aynsley Dunbar had played with everybody. I didn’t have that under my belt. So, yeah. I was the new kid. And I think that proving myself was something that went on for quite some time with the band members.

Schon was like fifteen years old when he joined Santana.
He was a child prodigy!

So he probably felt, justifiably—
You don’t understand. [Journey] was his band. Herbie built that band around Neal because he’s a star on his own from a guitar standpoint. There’s nobody who plays like Neal Schon, to this day. I still miss his playing. I love his playing. We don’t get along, but I love his playing. ‘Cause he’s brilliant. But you gotta know that Herbie built that band around Neal, and Gregg Rolie too, and then brought in Aynsley and Ross. And George Tickner in the beginning, who was the guitar player in the band before he left, and in came myself and Jon Cain.

That lineup of Journey ended up becoming one of the biggest bands in the world. You even had your own video game.
I was against that. Everybody went against me on that issue. ‘Cause I thought it was silly. I’ve come to find out that there’s a generation of kids who think it’s classic and wish they could find the arcade version. But I personally thought it was dumb.

But the fact that you had that—that’s a measure of how big you were.
See, it’s funny. That’s an interesting comment. Because I thought that we were big already, that we didn’t need a video game. But that’s how the world judges you. Like, “Gee whiz, you have a Lamborghini, so you must’ve been big.” I didn’t understand that. Every night, after every show, I would get everything I needed to hear. I didn’t need any of the other affirmations. I’ve read three reviews in my entire career, and they were all so painful that I decided not to read ‘em anymore. I got my review at the end of the night. When that audience wanted an encore, and they would not let you leave, it was just so gratifying. I didn’t need anything else, as far as an opinion on the show.

That kinda answers one of my questions. You had millions of fans and sold a ton of records—
I think it’s up to almost 50 million, now.

—but you were never a critics’ band. You were never cool.
That’s right. We did get a little bit trendy in spots, we all occasionally got a bit funny with our dressing, but we did not follow the New Wave thing, or the punk thing. We didn’t go nowhere near the disco thing.

Do you think that’s why the press didn’t like you?
There was a time that the press, and especially Rolling Stone, decided to call us—and by “us” I mean Foreigner, Journey, Styx—they called us faceless bands. Especially Journey and Foreigner. Because they said we all sounded alike. And I’ll tell you, to this day, I don’t understand what that meant. ‘Cause we didn’t sound alike. I think back in the day, there was a decision, by a couple of key editors, to never give us our just desserts. But like I said, at that point, I realized I wasn’t singing for, or co-writing with the guys, for critics. I was writing for the people who might want to listen to it. And as long as, at the end of the night, I heard what they felt about it, then I was good to go. Let’s roll. Next night.

When you started your solo career, was that the beginning of the end for Journey?
No. I think the beginning of the end was when Neal started his solo career. Neal did a solo album way before I was thinking about it, with Jan Hammer. And I said to Herbie, the manager, “I think this is a bad idea”—that it would fracture the band on some level. And he said “No, he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. I’ve tried to talk him out of it, but he wants to do it.” And then he did his second one, and I said “OK, look, if he does a second one, I’m probably going to end up doing one.” Then [drummer] Steve Smith wanted to do a jazz record. And the theory coming from Steve, and I kind of understood it, was that everybody’ll go out and be able to express themselves musically in some other areas, and then when we reconvene, perhaps we will have discovered or found things that we can bring to the group to help the group evolve. And so I thought that was okay. So after Neal did his second solo album, I went to LA, and in about three weeks, I wrote Street Talk, which was a bit of a nod to the earlier band, and to the bass player who’d passed, and with some great studio musicians and cowriters, we just knocked the record out and we released it.

That was the one that had “Oh Sherrie” on it?
“Oh Sherrie,” and “Foolish Heart,” yeah.

And that became a huge hit.
It did pretty good, yeah.

Was it weird, coming back to Journey after that?
Even while I was doing the solo album, even after it was successful—in my heart of hearts, I was never gonna leave Journey. I had no desire to. At the end of the last video from my solo album, for “Foolish Heart,” there’s an extra tag-on section that I shot for the video, to just tell everybody that that particular phase of my career was now over and now I’m back to Journey. The video is a one-camera move. One huge mag, with not one edit. It starts way in the back, over a railing, and it rolls up to the front. I walk onstage. I sing with a microphone and a music stand. And it rolls around, and halfway through the song it starts rolling back out. And when it parks back out in the audience, at the end of the song, I walk offstage. But in the extra tagged-on piece, I cut to stage right, facing me walking offstage, over the shoulders of Jon, Neal, Ross and Steve. Giving me high fives. Like, “Hey, man, that was great! Let’s go have some pizza. Right on!” So that was like a nod to Journey from my solo side. “Let’s go fuckin’ be Journey again.” I wouldn’t have done that if I had any desire to leave the group. I didn’t! We went back, and we started writing Raised on Radio.

So you came back together, you made one more record, and then the band took a break. You didn’t make another record for ten years after that. What happened?
Well. I remember [pause]. I remember that tour, the Raised on Radio tour. I remember by the end of that tour [pause], feeling musically toasty, feeling emotionally toasty, feeling vocally toasty, and, um, [pause] telling the manager, “I just don’t want to stay out here and keep doing this. Can’t we stop?” And eventually I had to say, “Look, don’t book any more shows after October. I just want to stop for a while.” So February 1st was when I finally got home from the last shows, in Alaska. And I just couldn’t do it anymore. I just needed to stop.

They would have kept going, I know that. But our relationships by then were not the greatest. At times it was wonderful, but it had been a long time, together. And we had differences of opinion in some areas, which eventually wore us down a bit. I thought it was silly to license songs for commercials and stuff. We’ve always had a difference of opinion in that area. There was a lot of stuff that we didn’t agree on. And a lot of things we did, but the point is we were toast. And maybe it’s just my opinion. Maybe I should just speak for myself. It felt like it was toast, and I felt like we should just stop. So I did.

Then shortly thereafter, I called Jon and Neal together. We met in San Rafael, we sat on the edge of the marina, and I just told them, “I can’t do this anymore. I gotta get out for a while.” And they said, “Well, what do you mean?” And I said, “That’s exactly what I mean, is what I’m saying. I just don’t wanna be in the band anymore. I wanna get out, I wanna stop.” And I think Jon said, “Well, just take some time off, and we’ll think,” and I said “Okay, fine.” And I just sort of fell back into my life. I looked around and realized that my whole life had become everything I’d worked so hard to be, and when I came back to have a regular life, I had to go find one.

Because you’d spent so many years—
Nothing was more important than being part of this huge family called Journey. And us being on this mission together, to be the greatest, and write the greatest songs, and come up with great sounds, and fight for the greatest performances. It was like being on a baseball team. Like, “Okay, we won the World Series. Now I wanna go home for a while.”

As a singer, were you dealing with a different set of demands?
Well, what I’m about to say—I’m gonna come across as a prima donna, but if there’s any singers out there reading this at this point, they’ll understand completely. You must put that in there, the preface, because it’s important. Everybody thinks singers are prima donnas. And to a degree I guess we are. But at the same time, the difference between a voice and fingers, or hands, is neurotic at best. When someone’s fingers get calluses on them, the guitar doesn’t hurt so bad. It feels better. Same for the bass. Same for the piano player, when his fingers get callused and strong. When a drummer gets calluses on his hands, they no longer chafe and they no longer blister, and that’s fantastic. The moment a singer gets one callus, he’s finished. Singers live on the edge of being powerful, being strong, and not degrading their voice, and it’s the most difficult edge to walk. You feel like you’re on a high-wire all the time. And the pressure of walking in front of an audience every night, and wanting to be what you know they want you to be, and what you want to be for them, and to have this silly little thing in your throat that’s about as neurotic as you are, is difficult. So it can make any singer a little crazy. It can make you just live your life in a state of insecurity and fear. Until you walk out there and open your mouth, and you see what you got, and then it tells you if it’s gonna be a fun evening or not.

And I imagine it’s much harder to take care of it.
Well, how do you do that and use it at the same time? It’s a very fine line. Like I said, using it can cause the problem. Using your fingers makes ‘em better. So it’s always a fine, artful dance. So at the end of a night, you feel great. I delivered what I wanted to do, I hit the notes, I feel good about it—but you don’t know how much you used up until tomorrow morning. And the tickets have already been sold. The next show is sold out. Only one night did I have to have a shot of B12 with an anti-inflammatory. That was in Dallas, Texas, because I got to a sound check and realized that people were lined up outside and I had half a voice. So that night we got a doctor to give me a shot. Which singers will do a lot—but I only had to do it once.

So that was a big part of the pressure? You were feeling like you were going to burn it out.
I was always on the edge of being what I expected out of myself, and what people wanted me to be, and I never wanted to settle for anything short of what it should be. And so I was always livin’ on that edge.

So when you told them you couldn’t do it anymore—at that point, were you thinking of it as a hiatus, or a breakup?
It was what I just said on tape. I sat down with ‘em at the edge of the marina, and I said I can’t do this anymore. And Jon said—or Neal, I can’t remember, it was so long ago—“Okay, we’ll take some time off.” And I said, “You don’t understand. I don’t want to be in the band anymore. I want out. I just wanna quit. I wanna let go.” And I’m sure they thought, “Oh, there he goes. Solo career. Fuck Steve”—y’know. But the truth is, no. I didn’t jump into that. I really had to let it all go. Completely. And fall back into my life. Because before that last tour—my mother had died, during the making of Raised on Radio. She was dying during the writing and recording of that record, and in the middle of doing vocals, she died. So I came home, took care of that, went back, finished the vocals and stuff, and before I know it, we’re on tour. And by the end of that tour, I was toast. I hadn’t even really addressed or dealt with anything pertaining to that loss. So I was about ready to crash and didn’t know it. And life just said, “I think you’ve got to go deal with this.” ‘Cause I was not happy with things in my life. And you can only run on the road and be in front of people so long before it doesn’t fix you enough, to where you can run away from things you haven’t addressed. You understand what I’m saying?

I imagine it was a really good way to run away from things, for a while.
You think? [laughs] Having people love you every night is a beautiful way to run away from things. Oh my God, it’s fantastic. But I needed to go home. So I did. After talking to Jon and Neal, I went back to my home town for a while, and I started doing things that people didn’t understand. I was going to the fair in my home town. I was riding my Harley a lot, all throughout the San Joaquin Valley. I mean, back roads, where there’s no cars, where there’s nothing but coyotes. Just lettin’ the wind kinda blow through me, and just trying to figure a little bit out, how much of me is in there, still, as opposed to what I became? What I thought I had to be? Now, I was grateful for everything that had happened. It was unbelievable. And I didn’t want to stop either, by the way. I didn’t want to leave the group, for Christ’s sake! I worked my whole frickin’ life to get to this point with these guys! We all put our lives and sweat and blood and tears into this thing. But it seemed like, for my life, to save it, I had to stop and get out. I know that sounds intense, but I had to take care of myself. It wasn’t easy to walk out, but I had to do it.

You made a couple of solo records after that.
Way after that. Way after. I think the last show, was at the end of January, ’87. I was back in my house February 1st—I’ll never forget that date. Home alone and going “Now what?” Knowing it was over. My first solo thing, I think, was maybe six, seven years later. ’94. Yeah. That’s right. Yeah, I ran right out there. [laughs] I think I needed some time off, what do you think?

But when you had that conversation, did you get the sense that they thought you were just going out on your own?
Mmm-hmm. I think they thought I was just going to leave the group and go solo and tell everybody to go—whatever. Remember, it took two solo albums from Neal before I did my first. I was a Journey member. I was a Journeyman. I was part of a band that saved my life. You don’t seem to understand how much I wanted to sing in that band. The manager, Herbie, fought for me to be in that band, when they weren’t sure. If it wasn’t for Herbie Herbert fighting for what he believed was the right direction, which was “This guy’s gonna be the singer of the band, and I don’t wanna talk about it anymore”—he fought for me. We’ve had our problems too, but if it wasn’t for Herbie, I woulda had no chance, to sing on that grand stage. He went to bat for me in a huge way.

With Neal, and the rest of the guys?
Yeah.

When they were uncertain?
When they were uncertain. ‘Cause you know, they had a singer before me, named Robert Fleischmann. And he was there for a brief time, until Herbie heard my tape and convinced them that they were gonna have to move from him to me. And he played the tape for ‘em, and they weren’t sure. They weren’t sure about any of it. I’m sure they weren’t sure about Robert, either, you know what I mean? But that’s okay. I completely understand their reluctance. They wanted to make it on their own goalposts. There’s nothing wrong with that. And I hope you print that, because it’s important that people know that. I’m not bitchin’. I can understand how they feel. But you’re asking me how it felt. I’m not whining. I’m not whining. I completely understand how they felt and why, and I want to make sure that’s clear.

Sure. You’re just responding to a question I asked.
Yeah. I did not use steroids! Except once in Dallas! [laughs] Okay? Now, have I perjured myself? You can’t bust me for steroids, but you’re gonna bust me for perjury—I get it!

The reunion, then—that was two years after?
Trial By Fire? I would say ’95. I called Jonathan around ’95, and talked to him on the phone.

So you didn’t speak before that?
No. Not much, no.

I imagine the band had become a huge business, given all the records you’d sold.
Oh, yeah, ‘cause it was so successful. People trying to sell hot dogs with your music. That doesn’t feel too great to me.

So you were always opposed to that stuff?
Yeah. Still am. The music is dear to me. Two summers ago I was asked by Sony to oversee the remastering of the entire catalog. And Journey was on tour, so I said “Fine, I’ll do that.” And so I went down and sat with this mastering engineer. We redid everything. That was one of the most cathartic and painful and wonderful experiences I’ve ever had, to go through the entire catalog, all the B-sides of albums that I’d forgotten about, and remember everything about the sessions, and remember the writing of ‘em, the struggles, the accomplishments. And the songs— I gotta tell you, it was unbelievable. And I only bring that up to tell you that, at some level, every one of those tracks are like a painting in a gallery to me, and they’re precious to me. And I just don’t think they’re for selling dogs and burgers. And so—[sigh]—I’ve tried to maintain that that’s just not what they’re for. ‘Cause I just believe in their sincerity. Those songs, and those tracks. And they are like paintings, ‘cause they were painted in a different time and they sound like it, and that gives ‘em their quality. And they’re good.

What was the reunion like? Tense?
It was a wonderful experience. I called Jonathan. His wife told me he was in a golf tournament, I think in Florida. And she gave him the message, he called me from there, and I said “Maybe we should talk about getting back together, I’d like to see what you think, let’s have coffee when you get back.” So we had coffee, talked about it, and he said, “Well, we should get together with Neal and talk about it,” and me and Neal and Jon had coffee, and that was kind of the beginning. We started trying to put back the original band, with Ross and Smith. And we wrote the record. It was really great. It was a real great experience.

We finished the record. We mastered the record. We were ready to go and rehearse and do the first video, and I was on a ten-day break before we started rehearsals. I was in Hawaii. And I went on a hike, one I had done many times before— this incredible trail, it’s pretty intense. I got to the top of this hill, and I was in trouble. I could hardly walk. I don’t know what had happened, but the pain was like an ice pick. I’d had some pain in my left hip area before, but I didn’t think nothin’ about it ‘cause it would come and go. I just thought it was part of the aging process.

So I came home, and started seeing a series of doctors, getting opinions. And the only one that was consistent was, “When the pain gets great enough, you’ll replace the hip.” And I said, “Excuse me? What are you talking about?” And they would show me on the X-rays, and the MRIs. I guess I was just in denial about it, like, “You gotta be kidding me.” [Journey had] just reworked our partnership. We were all ready to roll. And so I started a long process, seeing many doctors, and the guys got impatient. They wanted to get on the road, and I said “Well, let’s just get the video done.” So we got the “When You Love A Woman” video done—I was packing my whole left side in ice between takes. And, then after that, I continued looking for doctors, maybe hoping I’d hear what I wanted to hear. There was several medical, non-surgical choices, and I tried all of those. And then finally, months went by, and the band got impatient. I got a phone call from Jon, and I could tell Neal was on the phone, ‘cause I can tell when the line level’s down, and I could hear him breathing, I think. And Jon was telling me, “We want to know what you wanna do. We’ve tried out a few singers. And we need to know what you wanna do.” I said, “You’ve tried out some singers?” And he said yes. His exact words were, “You’re some big shoes to fill, but we wanna get out there. We wanna know when you’re going into surgery, because we want to tour.” And y’know— I didn’t feel like major surgery was a band decision. I said, “I’m gonna get it done. I can’t tell you when, but I’m gonna get it done.” It was suggested that I could tour and sit on a stool. And I said, I am not gonna tour and sit on a stool. [laughs] Please.

So at the end of that conversation, I said “Look, you go call whatever you wanna do with whomever you’ve checked out something else. Call it the J-Boys. Call it anything. But don’t call it Journey, y’know? Because I am gonna get this done, eventually.” But I needed to be ready to lay down and do this thing. And it took a few more months, until October, and then I was ready, and found the right doctor for me. Emotionally. Because then I started to become a medical guy. There’s like 20 different prosthetics, all claiming to be the one that lasts, and I had to do research on that crap. But in January, Jon told me on the phone, “I just wanna know.” And I said, “Don’t call it Journey. Because if you do, you will fracture the stone. And I don’t think I’ll be able to come back to it if you break it. If you crack it—it’s got so much integrity. We’ve worked so hard. Can’t you just, y’know—not do that?” And, he asked me again: “We wanna know when you’re going to surgery. Cause we wanna get out there.” That particular set of words. I said “Okay, you do what you gotta do, and I’ll do what I gotta do.” And I hung up the phone, and when the dial tone came back, I called my attorney, and I said “Start the divorce.” And he said, “What divorce?” And I said, “The divorce.” And I told him what happened. When somebody says, “We’ve checked out a few singers,” it’s like your wife’s saying, “Look, while you were gone—I know a few guys, and I just wanna know what you’ve decided to do, because I need to know.” My feeling at that point is very simple: “What am I going back to now? If you go back to that, what are you going back to now?” So that’s why I said, “Maybe we really are done.” I’d left to find my life, once before, gone back to it, to try to reclaim something we once had, and then we kinda fell into that same place again. Y'know? So I thought, “Well, maybe I’m not supposed to be there.”

Did you feel betrayed, by the fact that they’d been looking at other vocalists?
I did not like it, one bit. ‘Cause I’d called Jon to try to put it back together. I was the one who really wanted to do it.

You were the one driving the reunion.
I made the phone call. To Jon Cain.

Have you followed what’s gone on since then, at all?
I only know that they’ve been through three guys, and I’ve never heard any of ‘em, and there’s no need to. Really—I stay away from it, because it’s really none of my business now. We have children together, which are the songs we wrote together, and we have a vested interest, as songwriters, in where they go and where they don’t go. That’s about all. I really try to stay away from it. Because since May—hold on, I’ve got the fax on my wall, in my studio. May 8th, 1998, was the total release from all our contracts, and from Sony. I was a free man then. From all of it.

Did that feel good?
In the beginning, it felt extremely freeing. And then it felt terrible. [laughs]

Okay. Can you unpack that for me a little bit?
Well, it felt great to be free. They were gonna go do their thing. And I was not gonna be part of that. And I’m off Sony for the first time since ’78. And no contracts were really binding me to have to be or do anything anymore. So it felt freeing at some level to be a free agent, in ’98, ‘cause the industry was really changing, and the Internet was becoming a big thing, and I thought, “Gee, the future’s kinda wide open.” And then [laughs] then I just got this unbelievable freaky drive, which shows the neurosis of the singer-songwriter. I got a panic in me. Almost exactly like the panic I felt before I got into the band, Journey. Which was, “I gotta get signed before it’s too late.” [laughs]

You broke out of prison, and immediately started thinking about how to get back in.
As bizarre as it sounds, I felt like nothing had ever happened, like our arc of success almost didn’t exist. “I gotta go out there and try to get in this business.” [laughs] Before it’s too late! Which was my original motivation, back in the early ‘70s. Some of that stuff never goes away. It’s amazing. I was confounded by that. After all those years of doing everything, it didn’t change my original drive, my need to get some music out there or do something creative. I was kind of surprised. You’d think that a certain amount of success would squelch certain drives. At least I did. And I’m grateful for all of it, I wouldn’t trade it for the world—but it didn’t squelch much, y'know? I still felt this panic to get a deal, get signed, maybe make another record. But I didn’t. I didn’t do that.

That’s interesting. You had that urge, but you didn’t act on it.
No, I didn’t. I guess it’s because maybe I’d found a life. I’d gotten back in touch with parts of the life I had before I was successful. But I didn’t realize what we had done together until I stopped. And only now, when people come up to me, and tell me what it meant to them, do I realize what the band accomplished. It’s extremely gratifying to have people come up and say “‘Open Arms’ was my prom song, and to this day, my husband and I still listen to it.” Or when guys’ll come up and say, “Y’know, I wasn’t into youse guys, but if I took a chick to your concert… you know what I’m sayin?” I get the whole spectrum. And they’re all good. They’re all great. They’re all magical to me. I just love it.

Is there a validation when you see it crop up in pop culture? When you see a Journey song turn up on a movie soundtrack, or on TV?
[long pause, laughs.] Some of ‘em, I think the answer is yes. Sopranos is a definite yes. Because it was such an amazing use. The movie Monster, that Patty Jenkins wrote and directed, with Charlize Theron, was an amazing use of [“Don’t Stop Believin’ ”]. And there’s been some others, that I think have just been wonderful. And there’s been some that I wasn’t too pleased about, but my feet had been held to the fire, slightly, so I had to.

You were one of the few people in America to know how The Sopranos ended, before it aired.
What happened was, I guess Jon and Neal had signed off way before I did. I wasn’t sure what the Sopranos use was gonna be. I was concerned that it would play while somebody got whacked. So I held out a little bit, ‘cause I wanted to know. And the show was gonna air on Sunday, finally, my publisher got back to me saying well, they need to know, and I said, “If they’ll tell me how it’s used, then I’ll be glad to let go of my own equal approval.” So I had to swear to not tell nobody, which I did, and they told me how the show ends. But I didn’t see it until the first time it aired, that Sunday night. I stood up and screamed. He goes to a restaurant, he goes through the little jukebox at the table, they go through the thing, he goes through Heart, and then he ends up with Tony Bennett, and he reaches in, puts a quarter in and pushes a button, and you think he’s gonna play Tony Bennett—he’s a wiseguy, he’s either gonna play some rock and roll or Tony Bennett, that was how they threw the scent off. And then, boom, Journey starts, and I was like, “Oh, my God.” I just couldn’t believe it. It was so cool. It felt so awesome, to see that song be used in that moment.

It seemed completely right to me—given Tony Soprano’s age, he would totally have grown up listening to Journey.
You’re looking at it in a deep chronological way. I’m not. I’m looking at it very simply. Tony Soprano thinks Journey’s cool. And look at the choices he had! He could have picked Tony Bennett—the greatest voice! And he picks Journey. And then when they started editing with the lyrics—like on “Just a small-town girl,” they’re cuttin’ across to the wife, and they’re cuttin’ to everybody, as appropriately as the lyrics can—wow. It was really intense. And then the day after, I was at the airport, and you’d think we had a hit single again. Everybody at the airport, man, walkin’ by, givin’ me the thumbs-up, like, “Yo! Steve! Sopranos!” It’s like, “What the fuck?” It was unbelievably cool. And I tried to get to David Chase to try to thank him, and I have yet to be able to.

Of all the hits Journey had, why is that the one that seems to resonate the most?
Well, like I said—we were good together. Goddammit, we were good together. And Jon Cain and I used to spend hours together, doing lyrics. I mean, we’d get together with Neal, and we’d all write the arrangements. I’d write some melodies, I’d write some hooks. They’d play amazing chord changes, and we’d all try to navigate and try to help us be great with each other, and when we were done, Jon and I would take just, empty tracks, with the melodies in my head, to his house, and I would sit there at the coffee table and sing the melodies, and we would skull out lyrics. And those lyrics are a big part of it.

Is it just that people can relate to the sentiment in that song? That everybody’s a dreamer on some level?
I don’t know. If we’d had a crystal ball back then, we woulda wrote twelve of those. Nobody knew, y’know? I live just above San Diego, in Del Mar. And occasionally when I get up to Los Angeles, sometimes I’ll go out on the weekend, and some of these clubs, man—this new generation in the clubs, man, they’re playing this song, and when it comes on they’re screaming it out to each other. The girls are screaming “Just a small-town girl.” They’re screaming it at clubs. Do you have any idea what that feels like? In my lifetime, to see another generation embrace this? As I said in the beginning with you, there’s something reverent about that, to me. And I only wish to protect it, because it means something to them, like it means something to me. I don’t wanna see that get damaged. I really don’t. And I just love to see them love it so much. It just completely slays me. I would have never—I would have never thought that was gonna happen. I mean, who knew?

Are you unhappy that the other guys in the band are still out there performing this music?
I really, honestly—and you must print this—I really don’t want to respond to what they’re doing, because what they’re doing is none of my business. They’re doing what they’re doing because they feel it’s what they want to do, and I’m doing what I’m doing because it’s what I feel I wanna do.

Journey got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame a few years ago. Was that the last time you saw them?
That was the last time. And I wasn’t sure if I was gonna go. Because I’d never met the singer, I’d never met their drummer. And we do have some turbulence between us. I had always sort of planned to go, but I wasn’t sure I was gonna go, you know what I mean? But I went. And it was really, really great to see everybody. At some point, in all our lives, we’d all contributed to that star on the ground. But the greatest thing was, I really felt in my heart that Neal was happy to see me. He hugged me, I hugged him, and he said a few things in my ear—that are mine, I’m not gonna mention ‘em. But it was just great. And every now and then he’d look at me and go, “What the fuck, y’know? I’m so glad you came. Wow.” It was a lift for me, that I emotionally needed. And that star’s on the sidewalk. I go there, from time to time, when I’m in town.

Where is it?
It’s on Hollywood Boulevard, on the south side of the street, east of—I wanna say Vine. It could be east of Vine. Or east of Highland. Just a little bit east of the Musicians Institute.

So you just go check on it?
Yeah. I think I’m gonna go by with some brass cleaner one of these days, make sure it looks nice. One time, I went there—there used to be a coffee shop right in front of it, and I was having coffee, watching people. And these two girls were there with a friend. They were of the generation we were speaking of earlier, that newer generation of fans. And they laid down on each side of it and tried to pull sexy poses with the star. And their friend was kind of hovering over them with a camera. And I ran out of the coffee shop and said, “I gotta get in on this.” [laughs] She looked up, her eyes got like saucers. And I said, “Come on, we gotta take a picture.” And I laid down, and I said, “Aww, girls, this is too sexy.” So we took a picture laying down on the sidewalk, by the star. They love the band enough to lay down on the sidewalk? In front of all these people walkin’ around ‘em and shit? I thought, “Okay. I’m layin’ down, too.” And that sidewalk’s not exactly clean.

Are you working on anything now?
I started writing music again, at the beginning of last summer. I had not opened that up in over ten years. I was reluctant to try to write some more, but now I’ve been doing that, and it’s been a real experience. I got ProTools, and I’m working on stuff. I’m not sure what I’m gonna do with it yet, but I got a lot of material, and a lot of it I really like. I’m in the boil-down process. I got these ProTools sketches of songs, and I guess it’s time to record some of ‘em. I guess I have a desire to sing and write music again, and I’m letting it take me places. It’s been painful. Sometimes, when I hear myself sing, I sound like Steve Perry, and sometimes that has a lot of memories attached to it. I’m serious. I just told somebody that, a couple weeks ago, a writer that I’m working with—my own voice is sometimes difficult to hear. Because it reminds me of so much. But I’m embracing it. And I’ve played some of the stuff for friends, and for some people that aren’t afraid to tell me the truth. And they’ve really liked it. It sounds like me, they’ve said. And that’s great. It’s been a love-hate thing. All creative processes are a love-hate thing. Anything worth anything has got to be that way. Right?

*****

[A few days after I talked to Perry, I did a follow-up interview with Neal Schon, Journey’s co-founder and lead guitarist, in which we discussed some of the same issues Perry brought up. In the interest of fairness, here are the relevant parts of that conversation.]

GQ: The first three Journey albums sound like the work of a completely different band. There’s a heavy jazz-fusion influence, and none of the songs are as anthemic as “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” or “Lights,” the songs that would make you famous. When you changed your sound, what was the thought process behind that? Whose decision was it?
NEAL SCHON: We had run our course doing what we were doing, and what we started out being. What happened was we’d put out our first record, Journey, and I think we sold a little over 100,000 records. Which in those days was not good. In these days, it would actually be respectable! [laughs] But in those days it was a bomb. And so we were basically known as a touring band. We toured probably nine, ten months a year, and the other two months that were left, we were in the studio making more new music, and then we’d get right back out there. And we did that for about five years, that grueling schedule. And we ended up making two more records—we did Look Into the Future and then Next, and each record sold progressively less than the last one, but we attained a huger live audience, because we were playing live so much.

Did you just realize at some point that you needed a frontman?
Well, no—I didn’t realize anything. The label said, “We think you need a frontman. Otherwise we don’t think that we can ever get anything on the radio.” They wanted us to get on the radio. And sell some records. And so they gave us an ultimatum—you either get a frontman, or we’re gonna drop you from the label. And at that point we’re all thinking, “Oh, wow. This is a drag, after all this hard work.” And Herbie [Herbert] had received a tape from somebody at the label, of Steve Perry. He was in another band, at that point, and apparently they were getting ready to get signed, and his bass player was in an awful car crash and died. And I think what Steve felt at that point that he wanted to fold the band and go back to working on his grandfather’s ranch. So Herbie got his tape, and he played it for us, and he goes, “This is your new singer.” [laughs] And we’re all looking at each other going, “Really. Okay.” So we’re listening and goin’, “Wow, this guy’s got an amazing voice, but does he fit with us?” Because it was a radical change. Listening to what he was doing, and listening to what we were doing—it was like A to Z. I was goin’, “How are we gonna morph this together and make it work?”

Well, Steve came out with us and started hangin’ out—he was hangin’ with me, actually, and we were roomin’ together, and I pulled out an acoustic guitar, and one of the first songs we wrote, in about a half an hour, was “Patiently.” And that just kinda came out of nowhere. And then the second song we wrote, I was downstairs in Gregg Rolie’s house, where I was living, in Mill Valley, and Perry was over, and we were sittin’ down in the beanbags in the music room, and he started singin’ me these melodies that he had, for “Lights.” And I just started putting the stumble to it, felt like it was gonna be a stumble, and tried to give it some Hendrix-y type chords, to make it sound cool, and then I added a bridge to that, for a guitar solo, and that one was done, in about ten minutes. And so at that point, I knew I had some chemistry writing with him, even though it was very different from anything I’d done before. And I started learning how to craft song songs, instead of just jams.

How did it feel to be told that you needed to change what you were doing? Was that a hard pill to swallow at first?
At first it was, yeah. It was a bit of a learning curve, for me. Blues and progressive stuff was where I was at, y'know? And some funk. So it was a completely different area for me. But, y'know, I just flowed with it. I went along with it. I think in the end we all took Herbie’s advice, and it ended up being great advice.

Did Steve have to prove himself to you?
Well, there was no proving to us that he could sing. The guy could sing amazingly well. And after we compiled enough material to go in and cut our first record Infinity, we all listened to it and went, “Wow, there’s something here.” And the label was freakin’ out, they were lovin’ it. Management—Herbie was freakin’ out, he was lovin it. We were all lovin’ it. It sounded good. And lo and behold, all of a sudden you started hearin’ “Lights” on the radio. And “Wheel in the Sky.” And those were our first singles.

You went on to make a string of hit records with Steve. You became one of the biggest bands in the world. And then you went on hiatus. What was the deal with that? Did you get burned out?
Well, of course, everybody gets burned, but I was like a machine out there. I loved touring. So I was ready to go, go, go, and I think pretty much everybody else in the band was. [After the Raised on Radio tour] Steve Perry just came up and said, “Look, I’m burnt, I’m toast, I need to take a rest.” And so in the middle of a tour, he just pulled out. I believe we were in Hawaii. We hadn’t finished the second leg of the tour. And so everybody packed their stuff, went home, and I’m hearing that we’re gonna be off for maybe a couple months, three months, six months, whatever—but it turned out to be close to eight to ten years.

Did you feel like Journey had run its course?
No—I didn’t think Journey was done. We actually never even quit. It wasn’t like we called each other and went, “Okay, this is history, nice knowin’ ya.” It was just sort of left at a hiatus. And it was all based around Steve giving us a call and saying “Okay, I’m fine now, I’m ready to go.” And it just didn’t happen.

Was that frustrating for you, that he sort of pulled out like that?
Well, yeah. You work on something for so many years, and you attain what you attain, which was an amazing feat, and then it’s sort of like the rug is pulled out from under you.

Eventually he came back. You made one more record together. And then he left the band for good.
He said he was having health issues, and he needed to have hip replacement, and this and that. And so we kept waiting around to see if he was gonna go take care of it. And he pretty much came back and said, “Y'know, this is a personal issue, and I’m not gonna be pushed in a corner to get my hip fixed. When I’m ready I’m ready.” And I said, “I understand that.” Everybody understood that. And we still waited, even though we had things goin’ on. I still never wanted Journey to go away, because it was something that I was there from the beginning and started. And I felt that we still had wings, y’know? Which made me, inevitably, want to put it back together, without Steve. If you watch the [Behind the Music] documentary on VH1—it’s pretty much one-sided, with Perry, the way they edited that thing, but there was a couple funny things that went down in that interview. He’s saying, y'know, “If these guys wanna go on, I think they should just start something new and not use the Journey name.” Don’t crack the stone is what he kept on saying. Don’t crack the stone. Don’t go out and play these songs with someone else and crack the stone. Well, he did the same thing, way before we did! He went out on a solo tour, a solo Steve Perry tour, where none of us were invited. Actually Jonathan Cain tried to go down and go in and see him in San Francisco and they wouldn’t let him in the building! And he was playin’, I think, nine Journey songs and three of his original songs.

This was in the ‘80s? When he was touring behind his solo record?
Yeah, the “Oh Sherrie” record. And then, y'know, after that, he’s talking about not cracking the stone. So to me, the stone was already cracked.

So was that the big strain on your relationship—his solo career?
Well, I think—looking back, I was sort of a workaholic. I still am, somewhat. I’ve slowed down a bit. But in those days, if we took a month off from the road, I would jump into a side project. I did a one-off record with Sammy Hagar. And I had always been a big fan of Jan Hammer, the keyboard player that was playing with John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra, and was doing all the Miami Vice themes at that time, the music for the show. I met him when Journey was opening up for Jeff Beck, before Steve was in the band. And I’d always wanted to do a record with him, because I just loved his musicality—I loved the fact that he played like a wicked guitar player, and was always curious what I’d sound like playing with him. So I went to do my first solo record with him. We did it in a month, again, with some down time. And I think that actually might have provoked Perry to go and do a solo record. So in retrospect [laughs] maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing I ever did, because he went, “Well, Neal’s doin’ one, why can’t I do one?” And everybody’s goin’, “Well, Neal’s not doin’ anything that’s gonna conflict with Journey, y'know? It sounds progressive, and Neal’s singin’ on it, he obviously doesn’t sing like you.” But that was his open door, to go do it, and that was sort of the beginning of the demise.

It’s been your band longer than it was ever Steve’s band. Do you get tired of it being defined by his presence or his absence?
Um—no. I think he contributed so much to the sound of the band, obviously, to where those songs are gonna be embedded in everybody’s heads and hearts forever. And I think that we accomplished a lot together. And the legacy continues, with Arnel. I think that he brings the realness to even the old material. He’s not just a Steve Perry emulator.

You and Steve don’t talk, right? Is it safe to say that there’s not communication between you anymore?
I have tried to talk to him, numerous times. And he will not allow me to have his number. Everything has to go through lawyers and management. And that is sort of a drag. You’d think that after a while, everybody would grow up and be able to talk, one on one. But it just hasn’t happened. So, because of his wishes, that’s the way things go down.

What’s the beef about, specifically?
You know what? I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s like I said—I didn’t crack the stone. In my mind, he cracked the stone when he went out and did our stuff without us.

With what you make off the old stuff, could you afford to retire at this point?
Probably some time ago, yeah, I could have done that. With the other company that I’m a part of, Nocturne [a video-production studio]—between that and the residuals that I get, yes, I could live comfortably and just hang it up. But I’m just not in it for the money. I love doin’ it. I love playing. And so I think I’ll play, probably until the day I die. I look at people like BB King and I go, man, God bless ‘em. That’s what I want to be doing. I look at people like Jeff Beck who are in their 60s and still kicking ass, with more fire than they had when they were kids. Those are the guys that I look up to. This is what I wanna do. I mean, it’s in my blood, y'know? It’s what I do. And it’s what I really love. I feel lost when I’m not doing it. I mean, this last year, I had a whole year off, and I kinda went buggy. The one thing that was good was that it allotted me some time to get some personal issues in order with myself. I drank a lot. All through the years. And really did have a drinking problem, and didn’t know it. And so now I’ve been sober for the last nine months, and I never want to look back. This is the healthiest I’ve ever been, and I think it’s the best I’ve been playin’. I just sort of rid of a lot of demons that were inside of me. And I think without the year off, I wouldn’t ever have gotten to that place.

You were able to function, so you never really addressed any of that stuff.
Yeah. I believe I was a functioning alcoholic. And the reason I didn’t realize that I was an alcoholic is that I didn’t have to wake up in the morning and pound down a six-pack. I could go out and I could have eight, nine, ten vodkas, and then I wouldn’t drink for another three or four days. When I did drink, it was in excess. And I think I made a lot of really bad decisions over the years, because I was messed up like that. I’m just happy to be on the right track now, for once in a row.

Do you think you made bad decisions in terms of how you handled things with the band? Do you think there were things you would have dealt with differently if you were sober?
Possibly. There’s definitely some decisions, that are pretty personal, that I wouldn’t have done the way I did, because I was not thinking clearly. But for the most part, I’m just glad that I didn’t completely F up everything. And that I was still able just to play and have at least half of myself there. Now I feel like I have 100 percent of myself here, and I’m more into it than I’ve ever been into it. So I’m really excited about getting out there and just being completely in control of what’s going on, for real.

But do you think your drinking affected your relationships with the other guys in the band?
I’m sure I was a bitch to deal with. Definitely. It depended where you caught me. If I was drinkin’, I was great to be around, and funny. Much like a lot of people are. And then the next three days after that, I was terrible to be around. I’d be comin’ off it, and probably didn’t know that I was probably just jonesing for a drink. I had been through a lot of divorces, and probably a lot of ‘em due to this problem, and I had to just really face everything on a straight level. I was using alcohol for many, many years, to numb myself.

I imagine it’s really easy to be a functioning alcoholic when you’re on tour with a rock band.
It was a nightly thing for me when I was on tour. I wouldn’t drink onstage, but I’d get offstage, and when I got in the bus, there’d be a chilled bottle of whatever vodka I was drinking, and I’d start plowin’ into it. And I’d sleep, and I’d wake up, go do the gig, and the same thing would happen all over again. I just don’t hang out in that environment anymore. You won’t catch me in a bar, you won’t catch me anywhere around that. And if I am around people that are messed up, you won’t see me there too long, ‘cause it reminds me too much of what I probably looked like.

When I met you guys in Vegas, you referred to Steve as “He Who Cannot Be Named.” Is there some legal issue here? Are you not allowed to talk about him on the record?
Oh, y'know—there’s no legal issue with talking about him. It’s just that he thinks every time we talk about him, we talk crap about him, and it’s really not true. We just try not to talk about him.

So you’re not enjoined from discussing him in public?
No. I mean, I didn’t say anything inflammatory to him. I didn’t talk about how he still gets paid like a motherfucker even though he shouldn’t be. It’s stuff like that I’m not allowed to talk about. But the facts are the facts, y'know? He sorta just bitches and moans and whines about everything. And he just assumes that every time we bring up his name, we’re sayin’ bad things. Or he thinks we’re hangin’ on to his coattails. And it’s just not like that. It’s never been like that. He barely ever talks to the public, and he doesn’t want us talking about him, and he doesn’t want to talk about us, but when people ask me for stories about the band’s history, and things that went down, I’m gonna talk about it. I mean—we’re completely done. I told you about the VH1 thing, which is true, about crackin’ the stone—I’ve been wanting to set that straight for a while. It’s the truth. So fuck him.

alex pappademas is a GQ staff writer.

Click here to read Alex Pappademas's profile of current Journey frontman Arnel Pineda, from the June issue of GQ.

PLUS: Pappademas talked to GQ Radio about his travels with Pineda and Journey. Listen here:


And the Award for Worst Director Ever Goes to…

Wednesday  May 14, 2008

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His films shoot in Romania and the suburbs of Vancouver. They have titles like Bloodrayne, Postal, and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. He's the worst-reviewed living director, and he has beaten four of his critics senseless. But Uwe Boll—that's Dr. Uwe Boll to you—thinks he's make a movie that will change everything. And no, he's not kidding

by brett martin

let's get this part out of the way: Uwe Boll is not the worst director in Hollywood. He’s not, as TheMovieBoy.com once alleged, “a director so incompetent that the very job title of director seems too praiseworthy” or, as another message board suggested, “a worthless, life-sucking little maggot.” No matter what StopUweBoll.org would have you believe, a puppy is not run over by a car every time Boll makes a movie. And though there is also a Web site named UweBollIsAntichrist.com, Uwe Boll is probably not.

It is true, as his critics like to repeat, that three of the video-game adaptations Boll has released theatrically in the United States— House of the Dead, Bloodrayne, and Alone in the Dark—are all regularly ranked on the Internet Movie Database’s “Bottom 100” list of the worst movies ever made. But as Boll himself points out, “It’s absurd. Out of something like 5 million movies, only 200,000 can be on those lists. That leaves 4.8 million movies that aren’t even counted.” Nonetheless, The Dallas Morning News did give credit to Alone in the Dark for proving “it’s possible to dumb down a video game,” and Bloodrayne prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to opine that “Uwe Boll is such a bad director that it must be intentional.”

From Ed Wood to Roger Corman to Troma films, there is a long tradition of celebrating both B-movies and filmmakers who insist on working Outside the System. Uwe Boll has not exactly been a beneficiary of this romantic view. Instead, he is booed wherever he goes. The IMDb, for most of us a sober, objective compendium of data, is for Boll a howling chamber of hate. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that Uwe Boll (pronounced oo-vuh bowl) is the most hated director in Hollywood—or more precisely, outside Hollywood, since he insists on producing all his movies himself, a kind of Robert Altman of schlock. It’s a common (if ridiculous) rumor that his films are financed with Nazi gold.

But Boll says all this is about to change. He’s about to release his sixth video-game adaptation, a film that, unlike his previous work, he says expresses his personal vision. Postal is a comedy that involves, in no particular order, biological weapons, crooked cult leaders, hot blonds, sex with obese women, Verne Troyer being gang-raped by monkeys, a love affair between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden (played by Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi), and Boll himself, in lederhosen, as the führer of a Third Reich– themed amusement park.

“In Postal, people will finally see what I want them to see,” says Uwe Boll.

on the morning I come to see him in Vancouver, where he lives half the year and produces most of his films, Boll sits slouched on a sofa in a dark, crowded editing suite, sipping a Starbucks cappuccino with a straw. He’s shown up an hour late at a special-effects meeting for the action movie Far Cry. Packed in the small room are an editor, an effects producer, and a host of others, holding clipboards and laptops. The 42-year-old director has little patience for meetings, and he stares fixedly forward as the questions fly: “Do we want to pop a missile head onto the grenade POV?” “Should we go for a kind of Predator effect here?” “I can’t remember, is this the funny version or the gory version?”

Those who imagine Boll as a feral beast prowling the streets for brilliant, sincere scripts on which to defecate would be disappointed to meet him in person. Physically, he lives up to the role of movie villain, with his squat fighter’s frame, crew cut, crooked grin, and slight limp (a legacy of competitive handball in his youth). It helps, too, that he speaks in a near parody of a German accent, Colonel Klink hamming it up for The Producers. But the Raging Boll of Internet myth is mostly absent. He lives a relatively quiet life in Vancouver with his fiancée, Leeanne, and the couple’s two dogs. His default mode is less a blitzkrieg than a kind of distracted hurry, one foot always pointed toward the next item on an agenda he appears to keep only in his head.

Boll unconsciously taps his foot as a scene from Far Cry unspools. In it you can see a jeep being flipped over by a cable running offscreen. The cable will be easy enough to paint out digitally. Problem is, nobody can seem to remember why the jeep was supposed to roll over in the first place.

“We can stabilize this shot,” says Doug Oddy, the visual-effects supervisor.

“We don’t need to stabilize it,” Boll says. “We need a fucking mutant running around flipping over cars.”

Someone suggests that an alien from an earlier scene could be the jeep flipper. Boll slurps with the straw on the bottom of his cup and shrugs. “Okay, we try that.”

Thus is the plot of a feature film born.

We leave the editing suite and tour a floor of the studio devoted to all things Boll. At one end of the long hallway, an employee is doing some final work on the credits sequence of 1968 Tunnel Rats, the Vietnam War movie that Boll shot in South Africa in 2006. In the office next door, someone is working on the audio mix of a trailer for In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, Boll’s $60 million fantasy epic that went on to gross $3 million its opening weekend. In another office, one young staffer is doing promotional work for the slasher flick Seed while another is stamping screeners of Postal (out in May) with a digital antipiracy watermark. Whatever cinematic crimes Boll can be accused of, laziness isn’t one of them. He likes to work, work quickly, and then move on. One of his heroes is John Ford, who directed some 140 films in his career, including nineteen silent Westerns in one year.

Like Ford, Boll has developed an informal group of actors he likes, among them Michael Paré, a kind of poor man’s Tom Berenger, and Kristanna Loken, a poor man’s Angelina Jolie. (Africa doesn’t have enough poor men to account for the entirety of Boll’s casts.) As a rule, he seems to subscribe to the belief that actors are inconvenient necessities, those noisy objects on which blood squibs are affixed. He is proud to say that he has never paid an actor more than $1.5 million (Jason Statham in Dungeon Siege). He once boasted about hiring Romanian prostitutes to act alongside a vampire king played by Meat Loaf on Bloodrayne: “For 150 euros apiece, they would be naked and do what they were told.”

The meeting over, we climb into Boll’s car and wind our way to the top of Mount Seymour, where a key special effect is to be filmed that night. At the top, we find a scale model of a helicopter on a swivel tripod, a huge tank filled with freezing water, and a bunch of very cold PAs doomed to spend most of the night up there as the model is filmed tumbling into the water and blowing up from every possible angle. This is Boll’s element. His movies are filled with swooping crane shots and helicopter flyovers and huge, impossibly bright explosions. He loves slow motion with swelling music and flashbacks filmed in black and white. His are the movies that boys enact in their backyards, complete with elaborate slo-mo deaths and men screaming “Noooooo!” That is to say, the kind of movies you’d think would be perfectly suited to video-game adaptations.

to spend any time at all with Boll is to become fluent in the secret vital language of Hollywood: numbers of screens, print and advertising budgets, Chinese distribution rights, Croatian tax abatements, Spanish DVD-distribution deals—all the unglamorous ways in which the movie industry actually pays for its excesses.

Other directors like to pretend they’re above the vulgar details of commerce, but Boll is a genius at it. For years he brilliantly capitalized on a German tax loophole that allowed citizens to invest in his films taxfree. When he set his heart on making Tunnel Rats, a film with all unknown actors and an unhappy ending, Boll overcame the obvious funding obstacles by proposing to develop a Tunnel Rats video game at the same time. Before we met, I was intrigued by the uniformity in the length of his films; every one of them clocked in at almost precisely ninety minutes, as though reflecting some cinematic philosophy. In a sense, I was right: Ninety minutes is the typical length a film needs to be in order to be later sold for TV broadcast.

Boll pays himself only $120,000 to direct each movie but retains all the rights and takes 7.5 percent of the revenues. To raise the $25 million to make Bloodrayne, he crisscrossed Germany, assembling some 800 small investors. (Bizarrely, almost half were dentists.) For Boll, as for more filmmakers than would like to admit it, the art of filmmaking is the art of getting a film made.

“I think he gets lost in the job of being a producer,” says Zack Ward, who stars in Postal and acted in Bloodrayne II: Deliverance. “He’s always on the cell phone worrying about the next thing. I’ll tell you, if he would put all that aside and just do one movie a year, concentrate on directing, I’d jump in and do it for no money.”

But Boll says he’s just not that kind of director. “I’m not like Stanley Kubrick or somebody who wants only to do one particular project and make a masterpiece,” he says. “Even if a studio would finance something where I could have eight months to shoot it, I would still not do it. I would not see what I gained from it.”

critics like to deride Boll’s use of the Bond-villainish title “Dr. Boll,” but he really does have a Ph.D., in German literature. His doctoral thesis, from the University of Siegen, was about the boom in genre stories that occurred in eighteenth-century Germany—one of the earliest blossomings of mass-entertainment culture.

He’s also made a few stabs at serious drama. In 2003 he filmed Heart of America: Homeroom, a surprisingly ambitious if somewhat clumsy take on the Columbine high school shootings. It was a hard lesson in the ways of Hollywood. Boll was happy with the film, but it wound up being released only on DVD. “At the parallel time, Gus Van Sant made his movie Elephant,” he says, shaking his head. “I saw it, and I think Elephant was superboring. But he got all the A-list invitations. I got shit.”

“Shit” in this case included an offer to produce and direct an adaptation of the Sega zombie game House of the Dead. “They told me, ‘Go outside to the streets of Vancouver and ask anybody under 20 if they know this game,’ ” he remembers. It was a convincing poll. The director developed the script—about a group of twentysomethings that sail to an island off Seattle for a rave, there to be picked off one by one—and shot the film for $7 million. Despite universal pans, it grossed more than $10 million.

“I thought, You make a good movie like Heart of America and it doesn’t make money; then you do House of the Dead and you double your money. I want to make movies, I want to keep going—so I started looking for other video-game properties that interested me.”

House of the Dead is terrible—though, it has to be said, not significantly more terrible than you would imagine a movie version of House of the Dead to be. The same goes for Alone in the Dark and Bloodrayne. They’re clunky. They’re incoherent. But they’re also chockablock with more than enough material to become camp classics: Tara Reid playing an anthropologist; a doughy Michael Madsen slaying vampires; expository lines like “We broke up a few weeks ago so I could study and she could fence.” This is one of the more puzzling parts of the Boll phenomenon. Snakes on a Plane is so-bad-it’s-good, but Alone in the Dark is an affront to cinema? Dungeon Siege is singled out as pandering, derivative crap when it opens the same weekend The Bucket List earns $19.5 million?

“At least people should respect that I made something out of nothing,” he says. “This is what I don’t get: They hate me this much only because of the movies? You have to go deeper into a person than that.”

Eric Vespe, who writes under the name Quint at the Web site Ain’t It Cool News and has been one of Boll’s most fervent critics, says that it’s a question of intent. “I don’t buy the comparisons to Ed Wood, because I don’t believe that Dr. Boll loves what he’s doing,” Vespe says. “I think that he loves the attention. He loves the glamour. But I don’t think he loves movies.” Furthermore, says Vespe, in an industry known for a herd mentality, Boll’s failures spell doom for other, presumably more heartfelt filmmakers. “When he comes out with a terrible R-rated horror film that bombs, Hollywood doesn’t say, ‘Oh, this German guy made a terrible movie.’ They say, ‘There’s no market for R-rated horror,’ ” he says.

Ultimately, such economic arguments and George Bush–style assessments of Boll’s soul (“I looked the man in the eye and found he didn’t really love zombies”) seem like justifications for something far more visceral: Boll’s critics really hate him. And Boll accommodates them by fighting back.

One day in Vancouver, we sit in the living room of the cluttered house he shares with Leeanne and watch footage from what may be Boll’s most famous moment as a director: a series of boxing matches to which he challenged his critics in September 2006.

The four writers who showed up in the ring seemed unaware of just how seriously the director takes the sweet science. In fact, he spent much of his youth in the ring. The bout may have been a grand, old-fashioned publicity stunt—Boll secured sponsorship from GoldenPalace.com and press coverage all over the world—but that didn’t stop the director from training hard for months leading up to it. And his performance was fueled by real anger and real hurt. He chuckles as we watch round one of the fight with Richard Kyanka of SomethingAwful.com. Boll gives him a hard punch, and you can see the exact moment when it begins to dawn on the writer that this lunatic actually wants to hurt him.

“C’mon, this wasn’t ‘I’ll pay for you to fly to Vancouver and we’ll have a nice meeting,’ ” Boll says, eyes glued to the screen. A little later, we watch a writer for Ain’t It Cool News pull off his postbout oxygen mask to vomit on the floor. Boll laughs again.

Zack Ward says, “A big part of Uwe is a little boy that wants to be carried out of the theater on the audience’s shoulders. But he’s like, ‘If you’re not going to love me, I’m going to make you fucking hate me.’”

one of the charges Boll’s critics hurl at him is that he doesn’t sufficiently care about the games he adapts, that he only uses popular titles to finance whatever films he wants to make. It’s a valid point, though it’s debatable to what extent setting Bloodrayne in eighteenth-century Romania, instead of World War II Germany, constitutes a significant loss to the culture.

Nobody can complain that he didn’t capture the essence of Postal. The game, which first appeared in 1997, is a deeply retarded first-person shooter in which a character named Postal Dude wanders the streets smoking meth, returning library books, shooting cops, and generally behaving as nihilistically as possible. It was Boll’s either brilliant or disturbed insight that this game could in fact be a more accurate expression of what it means to live in post-9/11 America than any number of Reign Over Mes or In the Valley of Elahs.

“I believe the world is in need of a movie that is tougher in its mockery of the globe than South Park,” he wrote in a press document titled “Why I Produced and Directed Postal by Dr. Uwe Boll.” “Our world is out of balance, and Postal will reflect just how fucked-up we are.”

The film’s first and funniest scene takes place in the cockpit of one of the airplanes heading for the World Trade Center. (There is some disagreement on the number of virgins the pilots can expect in paradise.) What follows is a mixed bag of sharp satire and juvenile misfires that attempts to piss off as many people as possible. So far, it’s worked well enough to cause an uproar in Germany—a fact that seems to simultaneously delight and outrage Boll. Few things infuriate him more than the self-congratulation with which his countrymen greet pious movies about the Holocaust. “This is courageous? To say the Holocaust was a bad thing—in 2007? Postal is about things happening now. That is brave,” he says. In the film, he appears as himself, showing off a pocketful of gold teeth.

“If you are offended by the movie, it is not the fault of the movie. It is your fault,” Boll tells the audience at the film’s L.A. premiere. The film may not shift the public’s perception of Boll 180 degrees, but this is a sympathetic group. After the screening, there’s a reception in the theater lobby. A number of well-proportioned Web film writers hold court. “We get, like, sixty free DVDs sent in every week,” one tells the attractive girl he’s chatting up. The actor Michael Paré, who has appeared in no fewer than ten Boll movies, is standing by the bar, singing the director’s praises. “I think people misunderstand him because English isn’t his first language. In German, he’s a poet,” he says.

Boll himself looks haggard. He’s flown in from a whirlwind tour promoting Postal in Germany, and the airline lost his luggage. He clutches what clothes he has in a plastic bag. In the next several days, he will have a marathon marketing meeting with Vivendi Video, which is releasing Postal. He’ll make an appearance on MTV Networks’ online show Bonus Round and duly mention Zombie Massacre. (A fan site will announce that another title is set to be “raped and murdered.”) He’ll have lunch with Freddie Prinze Jr., who is interested in working with him on a romantic comedy. Then he’ll fly off to a horror-film festival “somewhere on the west coast of Lake Michigan.” This turns out to be Milwaukee.

First, though, there is the gala closing ceremony of the Hollywood Film Festival, where the Hollywood Awards are bestowed. The black-tie dinner is held in the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton. It is one of those events that seem to exist only because the people involved agree they do. If everybody were to look away at the same time, you get the feeling that the whole place would disappear, leaving only a few pieces of chicken rollatini and fluttering valet-parking tickets.

Boll, whose luggage is still at large, is wearing a black T-shirt and jeans. He sits uncomfortably at a table far from the stage, pushing a dollop of mocha cream around on his plate. At one point, he goes to the bathroom, and several minutes later my cell phone vibrates. Boll has accidentally wandered out of the ballroom, and security won’t let him back until I go vouch for him.

I’ve now spent several days with Boll and haven’t decided if he is a misunderstood artist, a cynical businessman, a courageous maverick, a venal philistine, or just a guy determined to keep working even though his desire might outrun his talent. I do know that every one of those traits is something we like to celebrate as essential to the American character, with one proviso: that they come packaged in a winner. And that may be Boll’s real and only unforgivable sin: So far, at least, he hasn’t been committed enough or talented enough or just lucky enough to do anything but lose.

Onstage, Brad Pitt bestows an award on Casey Affleck. Jennifer Connelly and John Travolta make speeches thanking people who will never know it, since the ceremony is untelevised. Boll fidgets as director Marc Forster accepts the Director of the Year award for The Kite Runner. The tuxedos and ball gowns happily applaud themselves. This may be the dead geographic center of the Hollywood circle jerk, but that is also a warm, comfortable place to be. It must be hard for Boll, I think, to always be on the outside looking in. Especially since he knows this: They may take meetings at Craft instead of a mall; they may be financed by Weinsteins instead of dentists; their genre may be Oscar trash instead of horror trash; but every person in that room is, in one way or another, a Raging Boll.

As though reading my mind, the real Boll suddenly looks up at me across the table. His bottom lip curls forward like a child’s in a leering caricature of self-pity. Then he grins his crooked grin.

brett martin is a GQ correspondent.

The World's Greatest Mom…

Tuesday  May 13, 2008

The World's Greatest Mom…

09

…has the season's creepiest reality show. Having done so well with daughter number one, Dina Lohan takes to shaping 14-year-old Ali's music career in a new E! reality series, Living Lohan. If the title is any indication, we're looking at jail time and nipple slips! Dina responds:

Lindsay has had a tough road. Why subject Ali to the same temptations?
I’m not going to close a door where God opened a window for Ali.

Uh, okay. What does Living Lohan mean?
It’s self-explanatory. Living the life, following us. I’m a single mom. Other moms can relate to having to work, to having the same problems I deal with. The producers wanted to set the show in Las Vegas. I didn’t want that. There’s this perception that I’m this crazy party mom, which has never been the truth.

That was my perception.
I hang out with moms! Yes, I’m Lindsay’s manager. Yes, I have to show up at events. Yes, sometimes they are at clubs. But Joe Simpson doesn’t get ridiculed—because he’s a manager and he’s respected.

Why do they ridicule you, then?
It’s because I’m a mother.

Is it true you were an analyst on Wall Street?
My ex-husband had a seat on the floor of the Commodities Exchange. And I was a chart analyst in the pit. Between dance classes and studying my craft, I would run and tell him what to buy and sell.

You could have been Suze Orman.
Oh God, no.

Do you have concerns about the paparazzi?
There are no boundaries with the tabloids. Lindsay would call me: “Mommy, I can’t even leave my house and get Starbucks today.” I mean, that’s just wrong. There need to be laws so nobody gets hurt. I think they’ve laid off Britney, the poor child. God willing, there won’t be another Diana.—mickey rapkin

Living Lohan • Premieres May 26 on E!

Image: Kevin Mazur/Wireimage/Getty Images

There's Finally a Wine for the Champagne Room

Tuesday  May 13, 2008

There's Finally a Wine for the Champagne Room

07

In 2004, Atlanta-bred rapper Lil Jon launched an energy drink, Crunk!!! (means "crazy drunk"). Now he's expanding his beverage holdings to include a trio of wines. The unlikely proprietor of Little Jonathan Winery speaks.

The label says “Little Jonathan Winery.” Why not Lil Jon?
Little Jonathan is more mature. Classy. With Little Jonathan, you could say, “Oh, that’s Lil Jon’s wine!” Or “Oh, that sounds like a nice wine.”

Are you a big oenophile?
When I was younger, we drank a lot of beer. But as you grow older, you start changing your tastes a little bit. I was drinking a lot of sweet wines, muscatels and ice wines and stuff of that nature. But
then I started getting more exposed to some red wines. Red wine chills me out. A nice glass of wine—it caps off the evening well.

Is it appropriate to drink Merlot out of a pimp cup?
No.

Even if you’re a pimp?
A pimp might have a wine-pimp-glass.

Would you ever release an album as Little Jonathan?
Little Jonathan is not a good rap name.—kevin sintumuang

Little Jonathan Winery • In select stores now

Image: Dale Wilcox/Wireimage/Getty Images

Kickin' It

Tuesday  May 13, 2008

Kickin' It

With breakout performances in three of the funniest movies this summer, including the new 'The Foot Fist Way,' Danny McBride announces himself with a shot to comedy's solar plexus

01

by alex pappademas

first things first: The Foot Fist Way, in which Danny McBride plays a dim, irascible Tae Kwon Do instructor named Fred Simmons, is really funny. It may be the funniest martial-arts movie about a dim, irascible white guy since Steven Seagal’s On Deadly Ground. (Here is a quote: “The funniest martial-arts movie since On Deadly Ground!”—GQ.) It’s Napoleon Dynamite with kicking and filthy language. It’s The King of Kong without real people. And it will make McBride, previously best known for his excellent dim-irascible-white-guy performances in less-than-excellent movies like Hot Rod and the Farrelly Brothers’ version of The Heartbreak Kid, into a comedy star.

McBride and his film-school buddy Jody Hill made Foot Fist two years ago, in seventeen days, for less than a hundred grand, with ambitions as modest as their budget. But after the film screened at Sundance, it became the most passed-around Hollywood cult-object since the first South Park short. Judd Apatow became a fan, as did Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen; Patton Oswalt called it “a sui generis work on par with The Big Lebowski”; and Will Ferrell and his Funnyordie.com partner Adam McKay agreed to release Foot Fist through their production company, Gary Sanchez Productions.

Next up for McBride: Total ubiquity. He’s playing an explosives expert in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder and a weed dealer in the Seth Rogen action comedy Pineapple Express, directed by another old college buddy, David Gordon Green, who cast him in All the Real Girls back in 2003. The scene in Pineapple where McBride and Rogen cruise through Los Angeles while heavily armed and bumping Public Enemy—in a Daewoo!—is an instant classic. And he’s calling in today from the set of the big-screen version of Land of the Lost, which also stars Ferrell. The budget reportedly exceeds Foot Fist’s by a factor of one thousand.

How much martial-arts training did The Foot Fist Way require?
There was about a week of martial-arts training involved. I had taken karate when I was a kid, at the Parks & Rec, so I knew the basic principles. But Jody was definitely the one who had the most martial-arts experience. I tried to come in and take classes at the school [where we shot], but I was just a little too lazy, so I was like, “Fuck it—I’m just gonna make Simmons lazy, and have him never actually do any of the moves.” [laughs] But watching the instructors—a lot of times, they wouldn’t even get in there. It was just them running these kids through exercises, y'know? Plus I had a good body double.

You took karate as a kid?
Yeah—I took it for three years, starting in fourth grade. I started making honor roll as soon as I started taking it, so my parents kept me in it, until I got to sixth grade and moved up to the advanced class. Then they started putting me up against these sixteen-year-old kids, who were just monsters. I used to get my ass handed to me. So I quit. That was the end of my karate adventure.

Did you base the Simmons character on any of the guys who’d taught you karate?
I did indeed. I remember the way a lot of these guys held court, and I kinda pulled on that. And in general, on different adult figures I remembered from being a kid in the South—these guys who knew absolutely nothing, and would give these long monologues where they’re teaching you about life, and even as a kid you’re looking at ‘em going, ‘What do you know about any of this?’” [laughs]

“You’re teaching karate at the Park & Rec. Something has gone wrong.”
Exactly.

Everybody’s had a dude like that as a coach, at some point.
Or someone who’s supposed to be a mentor and give you guidance, y'know, and it looks like they could probably use the most mentoring or guidance of everyone in the room.

So you had a body double? Were there injuries sustained on set?
There wasn’t really any blood spilled. The funniest thing was that my body double, Seth Jeremy, was an incredible martial artist. He’s amazing. He was also an instructor at the school. And Ben Best’s body double—I cannot remember what his name is right now—he was a student there. And so during the scene where me and Ben had to fight each other out in the yard, we did a lot of it, then they came in, just so there could be some wider shots with actual real kicks that would get above the waist—we weren’t capable of that. But it was so funny, because my body double was so tough that he would not take the fall. He was just kickin’ the shit out of Ben’s body double. We were like, All right, all right—you gotta lose. But he wouldn’t give it up. He was like, No, fuck that. There’s nothing like the sound of flesh hitting flesh—it sounds so disgusting. We just watched, like, Damn, these guys are really going for it.

You wrote this movie with Jody Hill—you guys went to film school together, right?
Yeah, yeah. We met back in ’95. North Carolina School of the Arts. We lived in the same hall. Jody was my one neighbor, on the one side, and David Gordon Green, the director, was on the other. We used to raise hell. Light the hall on fire and make movies all the time and get drunk. It was an incredible way for my parents to spend money.

Was it a good film school?
Man—and not just because I went there—I think it was an incredible school. It was a conservatory, so you started in film, and from your very first year you were immersed in everything. You learned editing, producing, cinematography, everything, in an environment that I think kinda prepared us for what we were gonna be gettin' in the indie world. Like, “This is what you got, these are the people you got to do it with, you gotta pull it off.” The best thing about it was it’s a state school, so tuition wasn’t an arm and a leg to go there, and then after your second year, you go into like a concentration. And if you get into directing, the school pays for everything you do. You’re actually not allowed to put your own money in. It kinda put all the filmmakers on an even playing field—it’s not like just the rich kids have the best movies. Everyone has the same sort of money and the same sort of equipment and supplies and talent pool, and you just gotta make it work.

Did David Gordon Green make his first movie, George Washington, out of that program?
No. David graduated a year before me and Jody. I used to write with David in school—we’ve been buddies for a long time. He moved up to L.A. right when he got out of school, and basically just wrote George Washington, and came back right when we were getting ready to finish school, and then we shot George Washington in two weeks, right after we graduated. That was pretty incredible, to come out of school and see David just doing it, doing it grass-roots, and actually seeing something happen with it. I think it really jumpstarted everybody else to keep at it. I think it gave a lot of us inspiration as far as making something independent and going for it. It seemed like there could be light at the end of that tunnel, like there could actually be a career after this, maybe.

What made you want to go to film school? Did you always want to direct?
Yeah. I always wanted to write and direct. I took drama in high school, only because it was the closest thing to movies. And of course—like all kids growing up in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, me and my friends had a video camera, and we would blow shit up and film it, on the weekends. We were always running around making films—and we’d just be in ‘em, because obviously at sixteen we didn’t know any real actors. It was the same thing at the film school. I think things have changed there, but at the time, the film school at the School of the Arts was so new—I think we were only like the third class to graduate from the film program—and at that time, the drama students there weren’t encouraged to work with the film students. I think they were afraid that these young directors would kinda ruin what the professors were trying to teach the kids—y'know, with their bad direction. So we just kinda all just showed up in our own student projects, ‘cause we didn’t have anyone to pull from. So I acted more in film school, just acting for buddies, doing whatever. But there was never really any goal to start a career in acting. It was just to get the job done.

So you didn’t really have a comedy background.
All the films I’d done at school, and all the stuff I’d done when I was younger, was all comedy. But the stuff I would write would be anywhere from, like, horror to action. I was just a fan of movies in general, so I was always trying to write the next summer blockbuster or whatever.

When you’re sixteen, you’re always Steven Spielberg in your mind.
Exactly.

So All The Real Girls, which David Gordon Green directed, was your first real movie.
That was the first real movie, yeah. Because the actor they had playing Bust-Ass, his show got picked up, and so he had to drop out of the movie just days before they had to start using him. So David was kind of in a pinch. I was out here in Los Angeles, shooting motion-control stuff for, like, the History Channel and Behind the Music. I’d gotten a 9-to-5 job after waitin’ tables and P.A.’ing for a while. I’d finally got to where I was getting steady paychecks, and then David called and asked if I could come down there. And I was like, “Shit, I can’t leave my buddy hangin’, but this 9-to-5 job with benefits seems so appealing.” But I quit that shit and just went down there and made the movie. I was just kinda surprised he’d asked me to do it, and I was really hoping I wasn’t gonna be the weak link and blow his big shot at making a movie with a decent budget. It was like, “Huh, okay—this could really end the friendship if it doesn’t go too good.”

Was a lot of your stuff in that movie improvised?
Well, y'know—I guess people will realize after they see Pineapple Express, but all of David’s films in college were fuckin’ hilarious. He really set the bar for comedy at our school. He was just doing shit that was real and funny and completely from left field. And so with that character, he had some pretty weird quirks and things written in there already, and I just kinda played with some of it. So about half of it was improv, and half of it was the weird things David already had in his head about where he wanted this character to go.

There’s that whole conversation about how Bust-Ass plays lap steel…
That was written, the lap steel! The stuff about pancakes was improv, but the lap steel—but it’s the little details, y'know? I just pulled ‘em out of my ass.

Was Foot Fist Way supposed to be a calling-card movie for you and Jody?
No, it really wasn’t. It really turned out that way, which is incredible, and I’m surprised that we weren’t smart enough to think about that from the beginning. I had just sold a screenplay, so I had a little bit of walking-around money, and was able to quit my job. So I was basically just spending all my money and being dumb. And Jody was kind of sick of the job he’d been working at. So he said, y'know, “Let’s go make a movie in North Carolina.” And it was one of those things where I really had nothing better to do, and I wanted to be there for him and help him out. And once again, it was that situation like, “Shit, he wants me to be the lead, this is all of his and his parents’ money, I could fuckin’ ruin this.” But we went down there, and literally, like—I don’t know if we had been really nice to people for years before, and had some karma built up, but everything just went so smooth, it was insane. For a movie that had no money. We shot the whole thing in like seventeen days, and really just ran into no problems. We had an amazing crew that was all kids from School of the Arts, kinda fulfilling their internship credit, and some old classmates, and the cast were all locals, and everything just fell right into place. We just had a really good time making it. It was nice. It was a really cool experience.

What was the job that Jody had been doing?
Jody is, like, embarrassed of this for some reason, so he’ll probably get mad if I tell you, but I think he should be outed, because I’ve always thought this was cool. He was a story editor for Real World/Road Rules Challenge. And in spite of what he thinks about the show, or what he did, I can completely see how it helped sculpt him. Because he’s not afraid of tons of footage, tons of improv. His eyes and ears are trained to pick out the bites that work and the jokes that work. We would improv so much on Foot Fist—every single take was completely different—and Jody just had this knack for retaining everything we were doing, and knowing what to go to in the editing room, and sifting through all of these hours and hours of footage…

A lot of which is probably pretty boring…
Not unlike the stuff we were giving him! [laughs]

How much did the movie actually cost to make?
We got it in the can for under a hundred thousand, I think. We didn’t have enough money to have dailies or any of that kind of stuff, so we didn’t see any of the footage until we got back to Los Angeles when we were done shooting. And then we didn’t have any money to pay people to make this a priority, so our cinematographer, Brian Mandle, was syncing dailies, and then two of our buddies, Zene Baker and Jeff Seibenick, were also editors on it, and some other guys we went to school with were kind of coming in whenever they could, and trying to put it together. We had about three weeks before the Sundance deadline. Our goal was always to shoot the film and try to get it into Sundance. And by the end of the three weeks, we had a really shitty cut of the movie. It was over two hours long, and there was no sound mix, and no score. It was one of those things that we had just pushed through to get it done, and when it was done, we were like, “Well, this isn’t really that good, but we’ll just turn it in, because we said we were going to.” And everyone was kind of burnt out on it, too, because no one had really been working other jobs, and the bills were piling up, and it was time to kind of go back into real life. So we turned the movie in, and kinda went our own way. We were planning on getting back to it the next year. And then, like a month later, we got a phone call from Sundance that it had been accepted into Sundance Midnight Screenings. And we were like, “Shit—how long do we have to get this thing finished now?” Because we had stopped working on it. But everyone really kinda ponied up and came together, and we worked on the movie around the clock for the next three-and-a-half weeks, and Ben Best and his band Pyramid scored the whole movie-- they put that score together in a week. It was just crazy. We pulled in all of our talented friends to come in and help us out.

Was Sundance where the buzz started, for lack of a less-lame term?
Y'know—I guess so. We just knew that there were more people who wanted to take meetings with us. People were popping up everywhere who’d seen the movie, which was weird. I guess copies of it were floatin’ around. And CAA, they were interested in the film and really liked it a lot, and so we signed up with those guys, and they were instrumental in getting it out to people. And before we knew it—I lived in Virginia at the time, and I would come out here to Los Angeles, and it was just crazy. Two or three weeks after Sundance, I came out here, and CAA had all these meetings set up for me. Like, Judd Apatow? All these people. Like, What? And then we’d go to the meetings, and everyone had seen the movie and dug it. We were just surprised. We really couldn’t believe that people we’d respected and looked up to all this time had 1, seen our movie, and 2, actually liked it. It just blew us away.

It sounds almost like how South Park first happened, when that short they made as a Christmas card became this cult thing that got passed around.
Exactly. And that was crazy, because—it’ll be cool for this movie to have a release and be out, but when we were shooting it, we really were like, “Y'know, worst-case scenario, this is just something that some stoned college kids will pull out every now and again and watch in their dorm rooms. That’d be okay with us.” ‘Cause we had our movies like that, when we were in college, that we did the same thing with. We just wanted to put our hat in that arena. So the fact that it got passed around and had this kind of cult appeal to it, for us, was super-fulfilling. And now the fact that it’s actually gonna see a release—we’re just over the moon about it.

What were some of the movies you used to pull out?
God—we lived with such a cross-section of people at the film school and everyone would kinda bring their own thing. Like, one of my guys, one of my buddies, would bring out Stalker, that Tarkovsky film. That was his let’s-get-lit-and-watch-this movie. And everything from Dumb and Dumber to, of course, the classics—like Animal House, Caddyshack, Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman. All that kind of stuff. The old John Hughes comedies. That stuff was all just devoured on a daily basis there.

I imagine when you’re in film school and you spend your whole day thinking seriously about filmmaking, you don’t necessarily want to unwind with Bergman movies at the end of the day.
Exactly. That was what was really awesome about our group of guys. There was never any weird competition or anything like that. There was just this group that we rolled with, and no one was looked down upon, and I think that kinda helped create the atmosphere for us to be able to look at these sort of comedies, and figure out a way to develop our in those areas. No one was being pretentious and looking down on you for watching Spinal Tap instead of watching Citizen Kane for the 20th time.

Do you think that had something to do with being where you were, in North Carolina, as opposed to a place like USC, where the industry is basically just a few freeway exits away?
Yeah. You’re at a state school, in North Carolina, so you had a big cross-section of people. Housewives who wanted to finally finish school. There were only a few guys, like me and Jody, that were right out of high school and had never been to college before this. A lot of people had kinda transferred in. But the deal with the school was it was a four year program. Once you came in, even if you’d been to college before, you had to go for four years to graduate. And they just basically put a bunch of different people all in the same room. Plus the film school was so new—even the faculty didn’t have the curriculum down pat yet. We had a lot of freedom. We could be like, “Yeah, we need the grip truck, and the dolly, and these Ari 16 cameras for the weekend, to do a project.” And then we’d just end up filming ourselves partying at our house the whole time.

In a way, Foot Fist kind of led to David Gordon Green directing you and Seth Rogen in Pineapple Express, right?
Well, y'know, we hit it off with Judd’s crew. The first time I met all those guys—they had invited me to come to the set of Knocked Up, and I was geeking out pretty hardcore, because I was a huge fan of Freaks & Geeks, and I loved Undeclared. I had been following Judd’s career since, like, The Cable Guy. I’d been into his sort of comedy, and what he was aiming for. So that was pretty amazing, to be able to go hang out on the set there. And then I met Seth and all those guys, and they all loved the film. I couldn’t believe that. We just got along, we gelled. They were just like any of my other buddies. So we were all just kinda swapping ideas and bullshittin’, and we were tellin’ em about David, how his stuff at school was so funny, and I think it just started to kinda open their eyes to him. And once you meet David, you can definitely see why that guy is a natural-born comedian. They just trusted him. It’s like what they did with Superbad, when they got Greg Mottola, who’s just an incredible director. I think they wanted to do something similar, and take a chance, and give an opportunity to somebody that, most of the time, probably wouldn’t be trusted with as much. I think it speaks for the movie—that movie couldn’t have been made anywhere else. It’s just insane to have that sort of protection that Judd offered David, and I think it really created a pretty memorable, unique, amazing movie.

Is the Apatow crew’s way of working, which seems to involve a lot of improvisation, similar to David’s approach? 
Judd’s been in the trenches. He’s been there for defeats and victories. When you’re dealing with comedy, and you’re sitting in a room, and the script you wrote is being developed by committee, it’s so hard to get anything funny through, and I think Judd completely gets why that’s a problem with comedies. So that was the thing that was incredible about Pineapple. Judd’s smart enough to hire funny people who he really believes in and then give them room to do their dance, to do what they do. And I think that’s how you get these unique comedies, that’s how you get these comedies that have this voice that you’re not used to seeing-- because the people that are making the films are actually able to make the film they want to make, and not the film that a committee of 16 development execs thinks should be made.

You get to die like four times Pineapple Express.
Which is great. I never had died before. That was awesome.

Did it make you less afraid of actually dying?
I’m ready for it. I know what kind of face to put on, and how I want to double over. I got it.

So you’re doing the Land of the Lost movie with Will Ferrell right now.
Right now. Literally, right before I got on the phone with you, I was just being chased by an army of Sleestaks. They’re just as scary as you remember ‘em.

Yeah-- I was going to ask what they’re like to work with.
Y'know, there’s something about the image of a Sleestak that just triggers this infant fear in the back of your mind. Just, like, “Oh, God—I remember being scared shitless of these things. And now here I am, standing next to one.”

That show was creepy as hell, even with the cheesy special effects.
It’s still scary. I’ve been devouring the episodes, just to consume this Land of the Lost world, and it freaks me out, it does. It’s pretty scary still. [laughs]

Have you doubled the effects budget to like, $80?
We have, we have. They were working with $42, and they’ve gone up to $67, which is cool. Which is almost double.

In a big, complicated movie like this, do you still get the latitude to pop off and say something funny?
That’s the thing that interested me the most about trying this project out. That was one of the initial things Brad Silberling, the director, said he wanted to do with this—he wanted to do a huge, big-budget special-effects bonanza without the restraints that a movie like that usually has. Since it’s a comedy, he wanted to give the people that he’s hired a chance to kinda go off script and do stuff. I was like, “Wow, I can’t really think of a movie that has that sort of improv feel along with huge special effects.” It just seemed like something cool to be a part of. There’s definitely different constrictions. You can’t just do typical coverage, like, “Oh, we can just put together the best bits of whatever,” because there’s actual, like, T-Rexes in shots. And those guys are so fucking moody! So we stay on script a lot, but there’s definitely been a lot of room to play around. Which has been cool. Will’s a blast to do that with. And Anna Friel, the actress from Pushing Daisies, she’s the girl in it, and she’s fucking great. So it’s just been a good time so far.

Will’s production company is releasing Foot Fist Way, right?
Yeah. Adam McKay and Will, they started Gary Sanchez Productions, and they got ahold of the film, and I guess it kinda fit into what they wanted to do. They wanted to use Gary Sanchez for their projects, but also to kinda break new talent, or put projects out there that normally wouldn’t get that Will-and-Adam sort of exposure. We were just luckier than shit. They saw the movie and dug it, and we’re huge fans of theirs, so it just worked out that we would be one of the first films on their slate.

It seems like the kind of thing Ferrell would be into—Fred has a lot of qualities in common with the characters he likes to play. That ridiculous strutting manliness...
…combined with no self-awareness.

And you’ve got an HBO show on deck, too, right?
Yeah. After we met with Adam and Will and kinda got the ball rolling with Foot Fist, they were curious about what other stuff we were interested in doing. One of the big influences on us is British comedy—we’re big fans of British comedy, everything from The Office to Spaced to Alan Partridge. We thought it would be awesome to do something like that, where you don’t have this humongous order of episodes, and you can just come in and just kill it each episode and then be done with the season, and maybe you just do it for one or two seasons, and that’s it. And we had this idea about this baseball pitcher that kinda falls on hard times. And they liked the idea, and we pitched it to HBO, and HBO dug it, and they were into the idea of doing a small number of episodes, so that it wouldn’t become a formula and we could kinda keep it fresh. We shot the pilot last summer, and then right we started writing, the writers’ strike happened, and we had to put out pencils down, so everything kinda got pushed, and then Land of the Lost came so it got pushed even more, but we’re back on track for writing this summer, and we’re gonna go back down to Wilmington, North Carolina, and we’re gonna shoot it this fall.

The character’s sort of in the same vein as a lot of the guys you’ve played in movies recently—he’s a Southerner who’s not a particularly great guy.
Exactly. That’s one of the things that really interests us now— just kinda playing with the idea of these heroes you’re supposed to follow, and those kinds of stories. I think the archetype has always been that the hero’s this guy who’s essentially good and doesn’t have a lot of flaws, and everyone can get behind him, he doesn’t offend anyone. And we just instinctually try to push that aside. It’s like, “How fucked up can we make this guy and still keep people on board?” You can present a character that people normally would have nothing to do with, and you figure out a way to make them empathize with him and kinda go on a journey with him. I don’t know—it just seems interesting to try to help people see the truth, even in an asshole.

How’s your haircut gonna be in Land of the Lost?
Y'know, it’s crazy—this is the first time I’ve been able to have my normal haircut. I always have buzz cuts, or mullets, or lines shaved in my head, something really disgusting. My fiancée just hates it, because every time I come back from my first day on a movie, she just looks at me like, “Oh, Jesus Christ, I have to sleep in a bed with this guy.”

You’re finding these weird regional variations on the mullet.
I’m just there with my fingers crossed, like, “Please, don’t say I need a mullet for this. Please don’t say I need a mullet for this.” And they’re like, “Well, you don’t need a mullet. But what if…”

Me Got Game

Tuesday  May 13, 2008

Me Got Game

Like a lot of (deluded) guys who live for their weekly pickup games, Davy Rothbart has always dreamed of playing in the NBA. So when he—along with hundreds of top-flight college athletes—was offered a tryout for the NBA development league, he wasn't about to let anything stop him. Not even the fact that he's five feet ten and can hardly dribble with his left hand

Me_got_game

one summer evening, after tearing up the court at Virginia Park in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I check my voice mail and hear this: “Hey, Davy, this is Chris Wallace from the NBA. We’re having a tryout for the NBA’s D-League next month, and we’d love for you to come down. Give me a call.”

I play the message again, wondering if this is just one of my buddies fucking with me. It sounds like the real thing, but where could they have seen me play? Surely there aren’t any pro scouts checking out my spin moves at the YMCA.

Then it comes to me: It must have been that visit to New York a couple of months ago, when I jumped into my friend’s rec-league game at Hunter College and scored twenty-two points in the second half, in jeans and sandals. I guess somebody was watching.

At the bar that night, I play the message for my friends and, after a few beers, for strangers. Later, maybe 4 a.m., while shooting around at the park across the street from my house with my friend Jordan, I tell him, “These once-in-a-lifetime opportunities only happen in Disney movies starring Dennis Quaid and Mark Wahlberg.”

“Yeah,” Jordan says, “but those movies are based on true stories.”

The next day, I call Chris Wallace. Turns out he’s not a personnel guy. He’s a publicity director. My invitation to predraft camp is not, in fact, the real thing; it’s a stunt. I’ve been invited because I’m a magazine writer, and the NBA’s hoping to draw some attention to its kid-brother league. Wallace expects me to make an ass out of myself.

“Should be fun,” he says, chuckling. “You’ll be running with the big boys.”

“Count me in,” I say. I’m gonna show those fuckers what this little white boy can do.

damn, these guys are tall. I’m in the lobby at the Hilton in Arlington, Texas, on Friday afternoon, waiting for my turn at the registration table. Gym bags dangling off the shoulders of seven-footers force me to keep bobbing and weaving so I don’t get smacked in the face.

The NBA Development League is one of those weird pro-sports way stations, like hockey’s AHL or Double-A baseball. It rose up as the old Continental Basketball Association went bankrupt in 2001, and though its connection with the NBA lends it some legitimacy, it still has its bleak qualities: You play in front of sparse crowds in drafty arenas for teams like the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and the Sioux Falls Skyforce. Salaries top out at $30,000. You’re constantly on the road and rarely get to see your family. But down-and-out as it may seem, the league has also become a bona fide pipeline to the NBA. Over the past seven years, thirty-six players have made the leap; the names of these players become a kind of mantra among D-League hopefuls—Jamario Moon, Matt Carroll, Mikki Moore. If they can make it, the thinking goes, so can I.

Once we register and get our team assignments, we’re corralled into a huge conference room for a welcome reception. At my table are two of my teammates for the weekend—Marcus Sloan, from Houston, and Anthony Moore, from Baltimore. Marcus, 24, a wiry six feet nine, shows a quiet confidence; he played four years of Div I ball at nearby Texas Christian University. He’s cautious about his expectations for the weekend. “I just want to play the best I can and have fun,” he says. “Everything else is out of my control.” Anthony, 28, has a round head and a booming laugh. He’s an inch shorter than Marcus but far outweighs him. Since his playing days at a community college outside Baltimore, he says, he’s let himself slip to 303 pounds, about thirty pounds heavier than his ideal playing weight. He looks nervously around the room.

“Got some ballers up in here,” he says.

He’s right. I’ve seen plenty of the guys in this room throwing down monster dunks or drilling buzzer beaters on SportsCenter—Cincinnati’s Melvin Levett, USC’s Dwayne Shackleford, even Ron Artest’s brother Daniel, who’s been playing pro ball in Germany. They’re all strangely somber—200 guys sipping from water bottles, peering around at one another, trying to gauge how they measure up.

Here’s how I measure up: I’m short. I suck at dribbling with my left hand. I graduated from college eleven years ago and never even played high school ball. Still, there’ve been games in my life when I could not miss: That intramural game in college when I nailed twelve of thirteen three-pointers to win the East Quad crown; that playground game on the South Side of Chicago when they started calling me White Chocolate, and guys draped along the chain-link fence were betting twenties on my shots—a huge dude named Lonnie won six bills on me and tipped me out fifty bucks. On days like that, it’s hard not to wonder what it would be like to play ball all the time—to make a living doing what I love best. For the other guys in the conference room—guys who played college ball but went undrafted—this tryout is one last chance to make that dream happen. For me, it’s a chance to see how my rec-league skills hold up.

Finally, in strides a smiling giant with long braids like Busta Rhymes’s. It’s NBA forward Mikki Moore, who takes the mike to welcome us. “My dream started with the D-League,” he says. “Now it’s your time to shine.” Moore has a gentle charisma and charm—he’s the perfect ambassador.

“Just ’cause you’re not in the NBA already doesn’t mean you don’t have NBA potential,” he goes on. “Every year thirty or forty guys jump from college to the NBA. A couple hundred others with the same amount of talent don’t make it. It’s guys like you—guys like me—that have to find an alternate route.” His voice gets soft. “A few years ago, I was playing in the D-League. But last week, I signed a contract with the Sacramento Kings for eighteen million dollars!

The room erupts with deafening applause. A few guys stand and pump their fists and give each other high fives.

“God bless the D-League!” shouts Moore. “God bless Miller Lite for sponsoring this weekend! Now lace up your shoes and show the world what you can do!”

we split off into smaller conference rooms for team meetings. Marcus, Anthony, and I are on Team 11. Our coach is Brian Walsh, assistant coach for the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers. He’s a bulldog of a man, about five and a half feet tall, with that perfect coachly ratio of kindness and toughness. He gives us the lowdown: Our tryout won’t include timed sprints, bench presses, or vertical leap tests—everything will be decided on the court. We’ll play four games, two on -Saturday, two on Sunday, all under the watchful eyes of D-League coaches and scouts and Chris Alpert, the D-League’s personnel director. Out of 200 players, Alpert and his staff will offer contracts to ten to twenty of them, making them eligible for the D-League draft in the fall.

“It’s easier to shoot your way out of the running than to shoot your way in,” Coach Walsh warns us. “You’re as likely to get signed for your defense as your offense.”

I see Marcus smiling. In college, I later learn, he was known as a defensive stopper; he led TCU in blocked shots three years in a row. Coach Walsh asks us to form a circle and give our name, height, position, and basketball background. Most of my teammates played Div I ball—either they were the star of a school from a smaller conference, like Valdosta State, or they were the third- or fourth-best player at a school from a major conference—ACC, SEC, Big 12.

When it’s my turn, I pipe up in the huskiest voice I can muster: “Yeah, my name’s Davy. I’m five ten and three-quarters; I play the point. Basketball background—well, I’ve played at a thousand parks and gyms.”

Everyone laughs, and Walsh jumps in to save me. “What you’ve done up till now means nothing,” he tells us. “It’s what you do in four games this weekend that’s gonna determine your basketball future.” He grunts and smiles. “No pressure, though. Okay, let’s run through some plays.”

I follow along closely, and soon my notebook is filled with X’s and O’s. When Walsh is done, we’re all issued matching jerseys and shorts. Up in my hotel room, before crashing for the night, I decide to try them on—it’s the first real uniform I’ve ever worn. I pull on my ratty basketball shoes (nabbed for twelve bucks from Value Village in Ypsilanti, Michigan), stare at myself in the mirror, and—shit, I look like I should be delivering you hot wings to eat while you watch a game, not playing in one.

This could get ugly.

in the lobby, waiting for our bus to the UT Arlington athletic center, everyone’s occupying his own meditative space. Marcus sits on the floor stretching his legs, his eyes closed, head bowed to his knee as though deep in prayer. Only Anthony, a true underdog, seems relaxed. He’s eating crackers and reading an article in a film magazine about the making of Harry Potter.

When we get to the arena, we run our pregame warm-up. I feel good, and every shot I fling up is going down. Marcus whistles. “Dang,” he says. “If I get the rebound down low, look for me to kick it out to you. I want to rack up some assists.”

Once the game starts, its pace is relentless, a nonstop sprint. When I sub in, I’m matched against a six-foot-two guard who played at Southern Oregon. I decide to drape myself on him on the perimeter so he can’t get off a shot, even if it means surrendering the drive. My lungs are on fire; my vision feels fogged. Then the ball rotates to me on -offense, and I let loose a long-range jumper, six feet behind the three-point line.

Swish!

My teammates shout and wave Gatorade towels. I see a couple of the guys in the bleachers exchange a look. Did they just jot something down on their pads? Walsh subs me out, and I collapse into my seat.

“Beautiful shot,” says Marcus. I nod but can’t catch my breath to say anything.

The next time I enter the game, though, I’ve regained my wind. I’m defending the same player, whom I’ve managed to keep scoreless so far. With just a few minutes left in the half, he drives past me, heading for the rim, when Anthony steps up and sends his shot into the bleachers.

“Dang, I got to call my cousin in Amarillo, ask him to fedex that ball back!” I shout.

The opposing player glares at me, but apparently I look too ridiculous to deserve a response. We end up winning by twenty.

marcus was a standout at Eisenhower High School in Houston and played four solid though undistinguished years at TCU—he was a stellar rebounder and defender but averaged fewer than four points a game. He played his last college game in March ’05, and after graduation his coach hooked him up with a management-track position with Frito-Lay in Austin. “I was the lucky one,” he tells me over lunch in the cafeteria after our first game. “Most players don’t have that kind of opportunity.”

Frito-Lay had him start off in a delivery truck to get some experience. At 3 a.m., he’d be stocking shelves with chips and dip. “There’d be tears in my eyes,” he says. “It’s not that the job was miserable; it’s just that all my life I’d worked toward playing pro basketball, and night after night, driving the truck, I could feel it slipping away.”

Marcus knew that if he stayed with Frito-Lay, in a few years he could be making six figures as a regional manager. For a couple of months, he agonized over what to do. -Finally, after talking it over with his dad, he decided to quit. A pro team in Germany had invited him to try out. He went over, signed with the team, and after a week of terrible homesickness, blossomed into the league’s rookie of the year. Now he had other European teams clamoring for his services, with offers above $100,000. Still, if the weekend went well and he was offered a D-League contract, he said he’d sign on in a flash.

“I’d like to think I’m the only guy who scored four points a game in college who could play in the NBA,” he tells me.

We compare notes on our Game 1 showings. Marcus is a little bit down. He had ten points and eight rebounds but feels it’s not enough. “If they’re taking ten guys total, that’s one in twenty. I’ve got to be the best guy on the court at all times. I wasn’t.”

I feel both proud and despairing over my own performance. I’m clearly in way over my head, but at the same time, I’m pretty sure I outplayed my opponent, a conference all-star. “You just need to shoot more,” says Marcus. “I saw you in warm-ups—you got the range. Don’t be gun-shy. Bombs away.”

He gives me a pound.

“Bombs away,” I say.

the opposing coach in Game 2 is Joey Meyer, who used to coach at DePaul University and now helms the D-League’s Tulsa 66ers. When I lived in Chicago, I would go to DePaul games and watch him stalk the sideline; it’s deeply weird to see him huddling with his assistants before the game and pointing my way, deciding which of his players to match against me.

Meyer has his team fired up, and this game is a battle. They keep beating us to every loose ball, and the whistles all seem to go their way. I look for my shot, but I can’t break free of my defender, who’s got six inches on me. At halftime I’m scoreless, and our team is down five points.

In the second half, we turn things around. Anthony bangs his 300-pound body down low and hustles some second-chance points. Since I can’t get a shot off, I put the ball on the floor, driving past the guy guarding me, slashing through the lane, and releasing a finger-roll over the outstretched hand of the other team’s center. The ball goes high off the glass and in. I hear Joey Meyer screaming at his players, “Whose man is that? Whose man is that?” This may be my proudest basketball moment ever.

Late in the game, the score tied, Marcus gets the ball in the lane and rises up for a dunk but misses—the ball clangs off the back of the rim and into the other team’s hands. He comes to the bench and buries his face in his hands. I can’t tell if he’s embarrassed, frustrated, or disconsolate. I think of him back in the potato-chip aisle and find myself shouting in his ear like a boxing trainer. “Shake it off, Marcus! Just forget about it. We’ve got a game to win!”

Marcus lifts his head and smiles. When we sub back in, he plays possessed. Three times in a row, he calls for the ball in the high post. The first two trips, he nails fifteen-foot jumpers. The third time down, he spins in the lane, skips toward the hoop, and throws down a wicked dunk in traffic. Mikki Moore, who has come over to check out our game, lets loose a mighty howl.

We finish the day unbeaten.

“my dream’s not to be in the NBA,” Anthony tells me as we ride in the bus to Sunday morning’s game. Huh?

“My dream is to be a filmmaker.”

Anthony explains: A former high school star, he was making a name for himself on his community college team and hoping to transfer to the University of Maryland to play Div I ball. But he was also working two jobs, going to school—something had to give. He started missing classes and ended up kicked off the team. “I was so broke,” he says. “All I wanted was not to be so broke anymore. But time works in a funny way once you get a job.”

He snaps his fingers. “Five years went by like that. If you want to play basketball, don’t get a job.” Plan A was basketball, he says. But five years after leaving school, he realized he wasn’t a basketball player moonlighting as a mechanic, a gas station attendant, a security guard—he was a mechanic, gas station attendant, and security guard who had once played ball. He’d always been interested in film and video and seemed to have a natural talent for it. Now all he needed was $110,000 to buy a professional Viper FilmStream Camera to film a hood action movie he’d written. That’s what had brought him here to Texas.

“The NBA needs big fellas like me,” he says. “I’ve got good hands. I know my footwork. So maybe I bang in the D-League for a minute. Maybe I get called up. One season in the NBA—that paycheck—that’s all I need to set my filmmaking career in motion.”

I suggest that Anthony may be the only player at the tryout who sees the NBA as a stepping-stone. He laughs, lifting his mammoth frame out of the seat as we arrive.

“Okay,” he says. “I make the league, I might decide to stick around for a while.”

for game 3, our undefeated team is playing another 2-0 squad, coached by former San Antonio Spurs forward Jaren Jackson. This guy knows what it takes—he’s wearing a championship ring that I watched him win from my couch. More important, Chris Alpert has parked himself at the scorer’s table, flanked by two assistants. When the weekend’s over, what he’s really going to remember is what he sees in the next sixty minutes. For Anthony and Marcus—and all of our teammates—this is it.

Right out of the gate, I know I’m in trouble. Yesterday’s games have sapped me of my juice, and the guy I’m D’ing up scores twice in a row. At the other end, I throw up an off-balance shot that barely glances the front rim. Coach Walsh yanks me. “Don’t force it, Davy,” he shouts. “Find your rhythm.” I nod, but when I sub back in, I can’t find shit. Walsh pulls me out again, and I take a seat at the end of the bench, sucking breaths, close to tears.

Anthony, too, seems to have run out of gas. He misses an easy layup and then gets his shot stuffed by a player six inches shorter than he is. We’re down a dozen points early, and Walsh is beside himself. He calls time-out and subs in Eric Dawson for Anthony. Anthony, looking dazed, puts a towel over his head and sags into his chair.

In the second half, Marcus goes berserk. He’s suddenly everywhere, wiping up rebounds, scoring on post moves, short jumpers, and fast breaks. It’s like someone’s moving him with a Nintendo controller. In one defensive series, he blocks shots by three separate players, then goes coast-to-coast and slams it down. Not until Jackson calls time-out and Marcus trots over to our bench does he even crack a smile.

We win by fifteen. Anthony and I don’t manage a single point, but Marcus scores twenty-four. Somehow, my disappointment is tempered by the knowledge that Marcus may have just earned himself a spot in the D-League. Once we’re out of the gym, he slumps against a brick wall and puts his head down, overwhelmed. When he looks up, his eyes are wet. “I want this so bad,” he says. “I didn’t even know how badly.”

two months later, I get an e-mail from Marcus: “I made the D-League!”

He’s writing from Switzerland, where he’s been playing with a European pro team called Benetton Fribourg Olympic. In Texas our final game had been our best of the weekend: We’d won by forty points (I’d scored seven and Marcus put up twenty-eight). Alpert and his scouting team wound up offering thirty players contracts, and five of those players were guys from my squad—Derrick Allen, Terrance Mouton, Eric Dawson, Andre Ingram, and Marcus.

Marcus is thrilled but conflicted. He likes his new team and his new coach, he’s had a strong preseason, and he’s making $120,000 to play basketball. What’s more, thanks to the proliferation of international players in the NBA, the league has begun to scout European teams. Should he stay in Switzerland or come back for the D-League? It’s not clear which path will give him the best chance of making the NBA.

“I’ve got a month or two, then I’ll have to make a decision,” he says in his e-mail. “Hey, you been ballin’ still?”

“Ballin’ outta control,” I write back. “Torched ’em last night at the Y.”

Yeah, I found out the hard way—I couldn’t hang. I was good enough only to keep from embarrassing myself. (I’d totaled fourteen points and fifteen assists.) Anthony, who scored three points in our final game, also came up short. But that’s kind of all right. There’s something about laying it all on the line that feels gutsy and noble.

“Plan A was the Viper FilmStream,” Anthony had told me as we spilled out of the gym at the end of camp. “But I can make my movie with a different camera. I’ll just go with plan B. You always gotta have a plan B, know what I’m saying?”

davy rothbart racked up a triple-double last night (over six games) at Slauson Middle School.

Divorce: The Ultimate Aphrodisiac

Tuesday  May 06, 2008

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There's only one good thing about getting your heart crushed in a bitter breakup: You're about to experience your sexual second coming

by adam sachs

GQ, April 2008

i am on my knees, pretending to cry. My wife is standing above me. She’s got a suitcase, which isn’t a good sign. We are in the basement of the building we moved into six years ago. The ad in the paper compared the tiny space in a wobbly old carriage house in the West Village to a “Parisian tree house” (whatever the hell that meant), and we liked the sound of it and rushed in to buy it, though we weren’t even engaged. Behind a heavy gate, at the back of a green courtyard shaded by a lucky Japanese maple, our home lay outside the grasp of the world. Inside we chirped and whistled to each other in some made-up bird language that said nothing could ever go wrong. We baked salmon in puff pastry. We drank old Armagnac and laughed our asses off. We were warmly affectionate in that discreet but evident way that made other couples quarrel when they left our dinner parties. We flew to Paris and Tokyo and Capri and Sydney and Martinique and brought home exotic salts and jams, artisanal moonshine, and tins of jellied pigs’ trotters—whatever was precisely the least practical crap you could have, delivered to our fridge, where it remained unused, a climate-controlled gallery of preserved memories, best intentions, and harmless affectations.

We weren’t—I don’t think—total assholes about it. But baby, we were smug about love. We’d cracked the code. It was all so simple: Pick someone you like to do everything with and just be nice to them the whole way through. We were geniuses.

I can see it’s not her weekend bag. It’s the clunky rolling armoire, the fat one that’s always awful to coax up stairs and into taxis. You could fit a body in this bag. You could zip yourself in with a book, a flashlight, and a snack, and check yourself in for a long-haul flight to far away, which is exactly where my wife wants to be now: away, as soon as possible. Fleeing here, leaving me. I’ve always hated that bag. I hate this basement, too. Where I want to be is upstairs, where the light is warm, where our pictures and books and useless kitchen appliances are, where our history is collecting on the sloped floorboards: the thousand mundane things that add up to a life lived together, that keep piling up on top of each other until you get old and die together atop that mountain of shared experience. Or until somebody comes home one night and just topples the thing and walks out.

Knees bent, hands up (executionee-style), I ask her to reconsider. Let’s slow this down. The word please comes out of my mouth too often, too weakly, like the desperate fart of some terrified donkey. Everything seems off—the wrong film reel played at the wrong speed. There’s no continuity, no connection to the rest of our life. The number of conversations we’d had about this—about the possibility of things being over—was zero. For a month she’d seemed somewhere else, wandering through a fog of grief, troubled by thoughts she couldn’t or wouldn’t explain. But over was not discussed. Over was not on the table. Yet here it was. One minute the faint rumble of thunder from two towns away. The next: lightning bolt to the groin! Fatal, a bad way to go, couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow. Except her speech to me left no room for niceties. Kindness was not one of its themes. Delivered wild-eyed in a voice I’d never heard before, it was all judgment, no plea, terms nonnegotiable: Bye-bye. All over. Move, now.

If I could beat her to the door and outrun this, I would. But it’s too late: An unbelievable thing is unmistakably happening. I know I should be crying, am in fact doing everything I can to get some kind of results in that department. I scrunch up my face, trying to wring hot tears from my skull. Nothing doing. Something’s jammed. Everything is coming out the wrong way. It’s a miracle I don’t shit my pants instead— though a good rock-bottom pants-shitting would be as apt and futile a response as any. Dry-eyed, I fake it. But the sounds that come out—of swelling outrage, of fear, of howling injured love and piercing what-the-fuck confusion—the sounds are real.

Imagine all the sweet, quiet things you say to someone you love. Now see that person buckled at your feet, a thing to be stepped over. The face of my wife—that new and unwelcome mask of rehearsed confidence—is suddenly distorted by abject horror. She looks at me and simply screams.

*****

i always thought I’d be the one who’d fuck it up. Or feared that I could, anyway. As a travel writer, I live an easy, pampered life. And like many without real cares, I am not unfamiliar with the urge to drive the happy bus off the side of the mountain just to see what happens. Complicating this is that disease of the brain called chronic male horniness. I used to tell people that the world will never seem more teeming with beautiful, fascinating, fuckable people than on the sunny afternoon when you walk to the post office carrying a box full of your wedding invitations. It was a joke that, for me, contained some sorrow and more than the usual measure of truth. I never imagined that love and marriage would cure the body of its urges or rid the mind of its curiosity, but it’s a manageable affliction. You handle it. You don’t do what you often desperately want to do. Could there be a simpler definition of commitment and sacrifice? The point is: You make it to the mailbox and send those invitations despite the hotness of strangers and in defiance of the gloom of never kissing anyone new ever again. You do it because it feels right, because there is a satisfaction in going all-in, on betting everything on forever.

But then she left. The deal was off. And here is where I must thank the grunting, unkillable needs of my addled male mind. For all its ceaseless nagging—the pointless years of thinking, If I could fuck somebody on this subway car, who would it be?—the monomania occasionally redeems itself. During moments of trauma, an emotional endorphin kicks in to soothe the pain, and a little voice inside the little brain says: Now we get to see other people naked again.

Male friends wanted to talk about this. After the proper declarations of shock and compassion, and after checking to see that their wives weren’t in the room, they would delicately float the idea of a possible upside to the unraveling of my marriage. After much empathy, a married friend announced: “You were doing life in Alcatraz, and you broke out and swam to freedom.” A funny thing, this freedom. I was free to not know where my life was going. Free to recast, reimagine, regroup. Free to fail or flourish. Another friend (married, sane, kids) spelled it out explicitly: “To walk away with no ties, no guilt, no responsibilities. It’s the male fantasy.”

But it wasn’t my fantasy. I’d signed on for the cozy carriage house with the two songbirds building their nest. I didn’t want to be a divorced guy any more than I wanted to wear a guayabera or ride around on a Razor scooter. I liked being married, accepted its compromises because I believed in the payoff of long-term togetherness.

The night my wife left, I smashed a chair in our living room. “There is someone else,” she said, the pitiless cliché delivered less like an admission than a frantic alert about something she’d witnessed. There’s been an accident! Run, get help! The nearest thing was a wooden chair. It hit the floor and snapped (saloon-brawl style) into a half-dozen pieces. But all I wanted was to make things whole again.

That night, I fed the pieces of the chair into the fireplace and watched them burn and thought only: I will save this. I will make passionate declarations and write patient, beautiful letters that our children’s children will find and think, Holy shit, if this were any less dazzling or persuasive we wouldn’t even be here! I’ll be forgiving as a saint and deliberate as a killer. I will consult the experts, build coalitions and make bullet-pointed plans in motherfucking PowerPoint. I will outmaneuver this by superior wit and pure intention and be the bighearted superhero of love and—

And it didn’t work. What followed were the worst wintry, whiskey-chugging months of my mostly charmed life. We were on again and then off. I learned to cry. Mastered it. Had the stamina of a colicky infant on a turbulent transpacific flight. My friend Elizabeth said that every time she saw me, it looked as if I were trying to work out the world’s hardest math problem. I couldn’t solve it. But I tried. Someone fucked it up, and it wasn’t me. I was left with no alternative but to fill my life with new entanglements, new fascinations, new people.

So I went off to San Francisco to write, but mostly for distraction. An amnesiac trying not to remember. I played tennis all the time and drank beer and ate pizza and napped in parks and sat on benches outside coffee shops talking to strangers and generally tried to make myself better by making myself 18 again.

I started slow. I’d been jerked around so much that it took some time to reacquaint myself with intimacy and kindness. I met M., a pretty Tokyoite on life-hiatus in San Francisco. We had a chaste lunch and a couple of days later a drunken dinner. That night we ended up at a bar in the tenderloin. While M. was dancing, a stranger in a cowboy hat took me aside and urged me to action. “She likes you,” he said. “Now kiss her. Kiss her on the neck.” Thank you, wise Cowboy Hat Man, for recognizing the romantically rusty. We stumbled back to her place and broke all the vows I’d taken some years ago.

M. and I settled quickly into a quiet routine. While she was at work, I’d nap at her apartment and read Murakami novels. She would teach me Japanese words (wakinoshita, armpit), and I would watch her glide around her tiny apartment. I took great comfort in observing her slice okra, fill a glass with water, boil noodles. Whatever we were doing felt less like a passionate affair than like physical therapy—I was learning to walk again.

We spent an enormous amount of time in bed. In her shy, whispery voice she took to calling a part of me “Coit Tower.” (I’m sorry, but when your sincerest aspirations are meanly crushed by the person you trusted the most, there is nothing more essential to surviving the barely-hanging-on period than having a sweet girl address a part of your body by a charitable and ludicrous nickname.)

M. and I asked little of each other. One night, though, she said, “Are you happy?” It was an innocent question, but alarm bells sounded. Happiness was a dangerous-sounding thing, emotional hazmat that required expert handling. What business did I have messing around with happy? Hadn’t my marriage imploded only a few months ago? Lost, away from home, wandering through the still smoldering wreckage of life-as-it-was, I was comfortable with the image of myself as distant, distraught. But lying around M.’s apartment, my guest toothbrush hanging in the bathroom, I realized that the answer was, weirdly, unseemly, honestly: Yes.

This was the happiness of reduced expectations, of boiled noodles and the comfort of strangers. Transient, directionless, very possibly self-deluding. But whatever kind of happiness it was, I’d take it and take some more, please.

After my recovery period, I returned to New York and tried to relearn how to be single. I hadn’t dated in nearly a decade, and I wasn’t very good at it my last go-around. This time, though, it was different. I had a superpower of sorts, one which, like any other superpower, was born of some life-changing calamity. In a world of men who can’t commit, I’d committed and lost. I assumed divorce would mark me with a scarlet letter, an unmissable warning label announcing caveat emptor: this person has loved and lost—ask yourself why. But women seem unfazed. Some find it sympathetic, sweet, a turn-on in a way I find slightly necrophilic but am thankful for.

I am a lucky man. For better or worse and mostly by accident, I am a professional vacationer and food writer. I have fun for a living. In this I am well suited to the temporary immunities and sanity reprieve offered by divorce. There is velocity in escape. My plan was to go everywhere, do everything. Self-distract (not destruct) for as long as it took to feel I’d beaten this thing. I climbed mountains and raced cars and walked in the woods. I saw lions in the Serengeti, copulating ostriches in Ngorongoro Crater, and an angry grizzly bear in the Canadian Rockies. In Bombay I ate goats’ brains off the hood of a car and went sandboarding in the desert between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. One day, horribly hungover, I ran into my soon-to-be ex-father-in-law on a street in London. We embraced and went around the corner and ate lobster omelets and caught up on things, like the fact that his daughter was threatening to sue me for divorce on the grounds of “inhuman treatment” (you read that right) and “constructive abandonment” (look it up for a laugh). It was a civilized, surreal lunch. What else could we do? We liked each other, and we weren’t the ones who’d fucked it up.

When I stopped moving, I would think about the wrecked recent past or the unknowable future, and I’d feel slightly sick, so I kept going. Much of it is a blur. In Miami, I meet a French Canadian who explained to me the importance of watching me kiss his young, lithe, coke-snorting wife in the bathroom of a South Beach hotel: that these controlled indiscretions are how the fickle flames of wedded bliss are kept eternal. So I go to the bathroom with his beautiful 22-year-old wife and do my part on behalf of the strength and longevity of their marital union and to keep my mind from the brevity and dissolution of my own. In San Francisco, I meet a girl who is studying for a Ph.D. in happiness. I give her a bite of a chocolate-chip cookie, and she leads me back to her apartment, where she has a yellow pillow on her bed that’s shaped like a star and says future celebrity, and I fear for my own future, for my sanity. I interview a Scandinavian minister of trade—and ask his pretty press secretary to dinner. I meet girls on planes and outside bars and at weddings (thank God for other people’s weddings!) and in hotel lobbies and, once, on a sheep farm. I am consistently shocked to be playing again in the rumpus room of the single people. I know I forgot how strange it all is: What people do. What they look like. The things they say. The carnivalesque variety, excitement, and sadness of it all. Thank God for the hope and the pleasures of the first kiss, which— no matter how porn-trained the world becomes— is what you miss most of all.

In South Beach, I lost the French Canadians around 4 a.m. and fell in with a Persian woman who came to my room at 7 and was rambunctious and loud but also polite and said thank you when she left at noon. In Sydney one morning I asked a departing stranger for her business card. “Is that your way of saying you can’t remember my name?” she asked. (It was a very unusual name.) At a nineteenth-century members’ club in London, I was propositioned by a divorcée with an admirable economy of words: “You, me, bathroom, now.” (I declined; there was someone else there I liked.) Closer to home, in fact just outside it, I said good-bye to a guest one morning. She walked in one direction and I walked the other to the coffee cart at the end of my block. The coffee man watched her walk away and smiled at me ridiculously. I told him that she was a part-time professional cheerleader for the WNBA, which was true. (I did not tell him that I’d prepared for her stay by washing down half a Viagra tablet with a can of diet Red Bull, which was also true.) Today, he announced, I would receive a special discount of twenty-five cents. We smiled at each other ridiculously.

*****

it is night, late. I am sitting at my desk in the little office overlooking the red-leafed Japanese maple. The creaky old floorboards announce that somebody is awake and moving. I nearly whistle one of the old nutty birdcalls my wife and I would communicate with. I stop myself: That’s a dead language now.

There’s a knock, and a sweet girl appears at the office door. We don’t know each other very well, but well enough. She drinks my whiskey and has a habit of asking me in a vaguely dirty way who I am and what I’m doing here (in my bed). I used to fear that this apartment would feel haunted by the presence of the person I once shared it with, worried that it would always remind me of her exit, of broken vows and smashed chairs. But it doesn’t. A year has passed since our scene in the basement, and to my genuine surprise I didn’t even notice the anniversary until a few days later. I’d arranged to meet a girl at a birthday party who showed up late and ravishing. After everyone left or fell asleep, we stole my friend’s wine and ran back here—this is my apartment now—and talked until the sun came up, all worked up with the giddy energy of new things. It was, unplanned, a perfect day to mark a year in this uncharted territory. My friend Liz Gilbert wrote a book, Eat, Pray, Love, about the year of pizza and spiritual questing that followed her divorce. I had a different kind of year. My version would be called Drink, Fuck, Forget.

Part of the ugliness of divorce and deceit is that it can take away a sense of yourself, temporarily blind you to who you are. But a year later I was still me. It was a big day. A fuck-you-to-sadness kind of day. So this is the unasked-for second act.

Now the sweet girl is at the office door. She can’t sleep and wants to know what I’m writing about. So, for the hundredth time, the story behind this story keeps me from finishing it. The characters have a funny habit of announcing themselves, getting in the way, dropping by for a drink. The soon-to- be ex-wife e-mails with some bland, grim business. The divorce lawyers cook up some hideous homework for me. The phone rings. The doorbell buzzes. The second act continues to unfold in all its comic weirdness. And it is a kind of gift, isn’t it, to be consistently surprised by one’s own life? If I am lucky, I am also diligent, defiant, dogged in pursuit of the silver lining. Mostly, what I feel now is happy. That unlikely, welcome word again, and once again I’ll take it. This isn’t the life I chose or maybe deserve, but it is vivid, curious, and often thrilling. I’ll never thank my wife for subjecting me to the near-death experience of divorce, never forgive her lies or admire her idiotic choices. But I am happy to find myself afloat in the world, cured of commitment but not of love, without any clue what comes next.

adam sachs is a former GQ senior staff writer who frequently writes about travel and food.

Photo credit: Mauricio Guillen/My Best Fred

Mr. GQ Goes to Washington

Friday  May 02, 2008

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Illustration by Frank Stockton

*****

When one of our former staffers moved to D.C., he discovered that what flies in Manhattan (black jeans, pointy shoes) doesn't pass muster among the pleated khakis and American-flag lapel pins of Capitol Hill

by greg veis

*****

I arrived at GQ in April 2004 as a 22-year-old schlub. I don’t say this to be falsely self-deprecating; I say it because it’s the sad, sad, God’s honest truth. Nearly every day for two years, I dragged my raggedy self into work wearing an untucked and baggy dress shirt, my hair frozen by gel, in jeans so ill fitting that they would’ve rendered any ass—let alone my ass—unidentifiable, a tiny protuberance awash in a sea of denim.

I mixed black and brown.

All of this would’ve been quasi-acceptable if I were an insurance adjuster or a back-room clerk at a Barnes & Noble. But I worked at GQ, home to some of the sharpest-dressed mofos I’ve ever met—guys who didn’t mind telling you that you looked like a Maloof brother. One particularly dispiriting day, a writer not known for his nattiness took a glance at my outfit—jeans, navy blue sneakers, a billowy brown-green-yellow-and-red vertically striped button-front—and scoffed, “You wear that to work?” He said he respected my willingness to embarrass myself.

There’s no use pretending things had changed all that much by last October, when I left GQ for a political journal in Washington, D.C. But I was getting better. I added a pair of slim-fit jeans to the rotation, along with some skinny ties and tailored jackets. In short, I looked like a New Yorker, maybe even one who had completed a summer internship at Bravo.

I wish it didn’t, but my improvement mattered to me. I liked that the folks who used to crack wise dropped the actually on the days they said I looked good. It meant I had completed a successful adaptation. And for those of us (I assume most of us) who like to look good but don’t have the stones to dress exactly how we want no matter what the situation, being in sync with your surroundings is key—right up there with personal style (defined loosely in my case) and comfort.

So then the strangest thing happens: I lug myself down to D.C., and all of a sudden I’m Mr. Fucking GQ. Apparently, what barely passed for fashionable in the Condé Nast cafeteria is cause for suspicion at the National Press Club. I can’t tell you how many times in my first couple of months here I was asked, normally by drunk girls, if I was gay.

“No,” I’d say. “I’m flattered, but I used to work at a men’s magazine.”

“Oh, well,” they’d respond sloppily. “You just dress kinda gay, I guess.”

Now, the District gets a bad enough rap for not being the most culturally edgy place—and I don’t mean to pile on. D.C. today is a lot different than the D.C. of ten years ago; there are now parts of the city just as plugged-in as the hippest hoods in Brooklyn. But that rumor about how everyone in Official Washington—Capitol Hill types, white-shoe attorneys, lobbyists—wears obscene amounts of Brooks Brothers? That shit is true! Also: pleats. Lots of pants down here be pleated. It’s crazy.

And like everywhere else, but perhaps even more so, there’s a premium on uniformity. You haven’t seen anyone testify before Congress wearing a suit from Rag & Bone, right? That’s because it would mark him as an outsider, just like my schlubby outfits did during my first days at GQ. I’m not suggesting you go all native and buy a cowboy hat if you get reassigned to Amarillo, Texas. (A friend of mine did that, a lawyer.) But context matters, particularly in professional situations.

So if you stop by the Brooks Brothers on Connecticut Avenue, you might spot me. I’ll be the one eyeing the seersucker, wondering why, just as I was finally starting to get a handle on things in New York, I chose to start over here.