Read This Book: 'Lowboy'

Friday  February 27, 2009

Lowboy

It's clear from word one that Lowboy was written by a musician. This virtuosic novel about a 16-year-old paranoid schizophrenic on the loose in the New York City subway system is a masterpiece of aural description—the city's heartbeat expressed in the clicking and cross-switching of the underground rails, the hiss of a breaking train. But it's more than just a score for subterranean living. John Wray, the former frontman of indie-rock outfit Marmalade (among others), has written a fast-paced thriller (will they find the boy before he hurts someone?) that holds a fun-house mirror up to the culture, producing an off-kilter meditation on urban malaise, climate change, and pharmacology. This is Holden Caulfield cast adrift in the seamier reaches of Bloomberg's metropolis.—laurence lowe

Memo to the Partners

Friday  February 27, 2009

Partners_spade

If you're on the market for gilded motorcycle helmets, antique staplers, or Marcel Proust wrapping paper, then Partners & Spade—the gallery/vintage store/studio that officially opened Wednesday night on New York’s Great Jones Street—is the spot for you. Partners & Spade is the branding consultancy started by Andy Spade (he of the ubiquitous Jack Spade bags) and Anthony Sperduti, the duo who most recently brought their old-school sensibility to bear on the J.Crew Liquor Store in the West Village. This new space will serve as their office during the week and as a gallery open to the public on weekends.

Despite the amount of stuff they’ve packed into the space (and stuff is exactly what it is), it manages to feel uncluttered. That's because everything is impeccably displayed, from a mounted technicolor bicycle to a rubber ball collection tucked away in a drawer to an aviary in the front window. (There's a sign assuring passers-by that the birds are happy and well cared for.) One of the sharpest displays was a glass case exhibiting Lehman Brothers schwag (golf hats, paper weights, a baby's onesie) as if they were artifacts from another time—which, of course, they are. In fact, the Lehman display was the only sign of the recession to be found last night. Most items for sale have price tags that only those with disposable income could realistically justify: antique globes for $650; 18th century nature books for $25,000. Even the moderately priced first-edition books and prints can't be an easy sell right now. "We planned the space a year ago," Sperduti acknowledged on Wednesday night. "Who the fuck knew what was going to happen?"

At the launch party, girls with bangs and high-waisted skirts lined up to have their auras photographed, giving the place the feel of a hipster bar mitzvah. Adults opened and closed drawers and touched the exhibits much as kids would at a children's museum. Do you need any of this stuff? No. But is it fun to look at? Well, yeah. Partners & Spade feels like a curated and better-lit version of your grandparents' attic. Someone's already dusted and labeled and gotten rid of the junk; what's left is to marvel.—sarah goldstein

Partners & Spade, 40 Great Jones Street, New York, NY; partnersandspade.com

Partners_spade_2

Thursday  February 26, 2009

Tomcarsonweb3

Ghosts in the Machine

Devils_general_1

Movie lovers all have their capital-G Grails. We can't help but fantasize about stumbling across the long-lost complete version of Erich von Stroheim's Greed in a Pasadena attic, say, or whooping it up at the blooper reel from The Passion of the Christ—which probably does exist somewhere, guarded by Opus Dei zombies under Gibsonian lock and key. But since neither of those is likely to happen, we settle for small-g grails instead. Hence my one and, I'm pretty sure, only transaction with Belle & Blade War Video.

Once their catalog showed up with its dingy mail-order tongue hanging out, I felt a little dismayed for encouraging them. B & B caters to World War II reenactors and suchlike fetishists by peddling a wargasbord of obscure DVD titles that makes no distinctions between deserving and cheesy, not to mention maggoty. Out of what I'm guessing is cheerful capitalist cretinism, not ideology—though you never know—they also sell a very dumb line of mock souvenirs on the level of T-shirts commemorating the 10th SS Panzer Division's "World Tour," har har. But screw it: Nobody else had The Devil's General, a reassuringly anti-Nazi (whew) 1955 German drama about a rogue Luftwaffe general who goes sour on Hitler's war machine that I'd wanted to see since I was 15 or so. For which I blame Pauline Kael.

Kael

The Godmother—as David Thomson once called her—in her Sixties prime.
Photo: Rollins Maxwell

Half the virgin cinephiles in my now graying demographic got their introduction to small-g grails from the capsule descriptions of a slew of old movies in Kael's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, mostly culled from her program notes when she was running Bay Area revival houses in the 1950s. The other half acquired the bug from the less slapdash but also less flavorful summaries of directorial careers in Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema, creating a chasm that persists to this day. Kael reprinted her nuggets in 5001 Nights at the Movies, but often with their liveliest idiosyncrasies and asides removed. In that incarnation, they also jostle up against her later New Yorker McNuggets, too many of which date from her decline into hyperbolizing forgettable slop to make it seem worthy of her. To hardcore Kiss Kiss Bang Bang fans, 5001 Nights is a little like a print of Greed that's been intercut at random with The Devil Wears Prada.

Anyhow, Kael's fondness for The Devil's General had stuck in my mind for decades. No doubt one reason was that she wrote like one worldly dame, adding clout to her claim that the movie owed much of its impact to "the sexual assurance of Curt Jurgens in the leading role." Sexual assurance, really? Talk about a capital-G Grail when I was in high school. As a model to mimic, "a mature but dashing figure that is one of the most satisfying romantic images of masculinity that has ever adorned the screen" sounded worth checking out, ramshackle syntax aside.

But by the time Devil's General showed up from Belle & Blade—cover art tacky, extras nonexistent, star's name misspelled—I slid it into the player with some trepidation. That wasn't only because these days I'm already so mature but dashing I could plotz—one of the most satisfying romantic images of masculinity that has ever adorned a sagging office chair from Target, so my loyal wife tells me. From Kael's indifference to Westerns to her insistence on shilling for John Huston at his most fraudulent, I'd long since learned that even the Kiss Kiss Pauline had her blind spots.

Devils_general_2

Curt Jurgens, alone with his conscience…

This flick wasn't one of them. First off, she's right about Jurgens, whom most of you know best, if at all, from his role in old age as 007's nemesis—"Within minutes, New York and Moscow will cease to exist"—in The Spy Who Loved Me. Gifted with leonine camera presence, a fabulously mordant voice and the world's coldest sensitive eyes, this commandingly worldly-wise actor was always hopelessly underused by Hollywood, though he's excellent as a war-weary U-Boat captain playing cat and mouse with a U.S. destroyer skippered by Robert Mitchum in 1957's The Enemy Below.

Even in Jurgens's native Germany, however, it's hard to imagine he ever had a better or more telling part than this one, derived from a postwar stage hit by playwright Carl Zuckmayer—who was also the screenwriter for Josef von Sternberg's legendary 1930 The Blue Angel. Womanizing, hard-drinking, corrosively disgusted Hitler enabler "Harry" Harras is Zuckmayer's idealized version of real-life flying ace Ernst Udet, who played along with the Nazis before killing himself in despair in 1941. (Odd footnote for trivia buffs: Jurgens also played the male lead in The Blue Angel's critically scorned 1959 remake, opposite future Sammy Davis Jr. love muffin May Britt. Sometimes, I could stay on imdb.com all day.)

At least in this country, Devil's journeyman director, one Helmut Kautner, has no particular reputation. That may help explain the movie's absence from the very director-centric Criterion Collection or other prestige-oriented DVD catalogs. Now that the age when international stars spelled glamour to American moviegoers has passed, we think of foreign cinema exclusively in terms of great films by great filmmakers. But especially in material with this much evocative bite—you can only imagine how German audiences felt at watching it just 10 years after Hitler's demise—a performance as terrific as Jurgens's deserves salvaging too.

Besides, Kautner isn't so bad, above all in the movie's first half. This must be one of the few stage-derived films whose exposition-heavy Act One—a single night in late 1941 that takes an increasingly drunken Harras from a stuffy banquet in a colleague’s honor to a livelier wingding at an old girlfriend's digs—is more "cinematic," in a sub-Visconti way, than the later attempts to open things up by shifting the action to a Gestapo prison and then an air base. One of the few indelible moments in the later sequences comes when Harras learns that America has entered the war. Excusing himself to go stare at a swastika-emblazoned statue, he knows it's doomed to end up as rubble.

Devils_general_3

…and surrounded by frauleins in The Devil's General.

In the good old tradition of problem plays, all the lesser characters are devised to illustrate aspects of the hero's dilemma. There's an industrialist complicit in Hitler's rise who knows he's made a mistake, a rival SS general with fewer scruples than Harras, an earnest young flyer soon to be posted to the Russian front who reminds him of his earlier self, and so on. More urgently yet, he's also got two symbolic frauleins—one an opportunistic minx who comes on like wartime Berlin's answer to Eve Harrington, the other an apple-cheeked, ever so faintly Julie Andrews-ish representative of the "good" Germany—competing for his boozy affections. But Jurgens's rakish persuasiveness keeps you from caring how creaky the dramaturgy is underneath. He's never less than riveting as he sizes up each encounter to decide how much to confide and which mask to adopt.

Over half a century later, The Devil's General has also acquired a whole other patina of quasi-documentary fascination just because it was made relatively soon after the war and all parties involved had lived through part or all of the real thing. Zuckmayer had fled Germany for America in 1939, but Jurgens had done time in a concentration camp after incurring Goebbels's displeasure. Kautner, less nobly, had gone right on directing movies under the Nazis, albeit apparently more in the vein of escapist fluff than propaganda.

While the movie's proximity to actual events is no guarantee of superior insight, it does mean that all the details of furnishings, manners and chit-chat—not to mention the now old-fashioned style of the performances and direction themselves—have a sort of retrospective, unconsciously authentic plausibility that even the most painstaking later re-creations of the period can't equal. It's the same time-capsule effect that makes William Wellman's 1949 Battleground, hokey back-lot Bastogne or no, more prosaically eloquent about America's World War II to my eyes than Saving Private Ryan's gushy long-distance wonder.

But that's an argument for another time, so if I've induced you to scout out The Devil's General on your own, do me one favor. If you aren't going to lobby Criterion for a decent transfer instead, don't tell Belle & Blade I sent you, OK? Not only did those frigging T-shirts give me the creeps, but my larky idea of calling this blog "Notes From The Culture Bunker" has its downside sometimes. Thanks in large part to Pauline Kael, all the good titles were already taken, so help me.


The Last Record Store

Wednesday  February 25, 2009

Record_store

With hundreds of independent music stores going out of business every year, our resident rock correspondent spent two weeks working behind the counter of one of the last stores left standing—and found a place where metal still rules, vinyl still sells, and the 16-year-old clerk ringing you up has never heard of Hannah Montana

by dan kennedy; photograph by tom schierlitz

CLICK HERE FOR GQ'S 20 FAVORITE RECORD STORES

Under the racks are large boxes of used albums, taken from what seems like a thousand dank basements. The smell of unburned incense permeates the store, and fluorescent light falls on purple walls. Tacked-up flyers flicker key words to a story you’ve heard in doorways like this for as long as you can remember: That rarest of drummers is needed—the type who is not a flake, is not a drug addict, and has his own transportation; a blues festival and barbecue is happening next month in a town just a few miles away; there’s a car for sale that runs great, and someone needs $1,100 or best offer in exchange for it.

As I stand in the doorway of Kiss the Sky, I’m awash in memories of my first job, eighteen years ago, when I was a record-store clerk in Chico, California, at a place called Sundance Records. I remember that the album Tim by the Replacements took up one-third of a face-out rack. I remember thumbing through copies of the Pixies’ Doolittle, which came on CD and cassette. The cassettes were always in one of those long skinny WEA boxes that you’ll never see again. I used to rip the paper seal open with a key or a ballpoint pen. I remember spending hours memorizing release dates, unboxing, pricing, filing, and displaying CDs on whatever Tuesday they dropped.

But the record store is only a nostalgia trip if, like me, you’re one of those people who stopped going. That Chico store shut down years ago. And both of the record stores I used to hang around when I lived in Seattle have folded shop as well. But in Geneva, Illinois, Kiss the Sky is still here. In this tiny town, thirty-five miles outside Chicago, the neighborhood record store still lives. I’ve come here to remember what things were like before I started buying my music on a laptop; to remember what it’s like to kill a five-hour shift; to remember what it’s like to even be in a record store.

As I head toward the back of Kiss the Sky, my eyes land on a Fender Stratocaster hanging on the wall, with the sunburst finish cracked and worn to the wood. The guy behind the counter notices me admiring it.

“Yep. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Strat, man,” he says.

Slack-jawed, I stare at the guitar with renewed appreciation. Then the guy starts cracking up. “I’m kidding. Totally kidding, man. You should’ve seen your face.”

This is how my first day on the job begins.

*****

Hello, My Name Is Trainee

I’m standing in front of the register, awkwardly, for a good fifteen minutes before my first customer approaches the counter with a used copy of the Beatles’ Revolver on vinyl that he wants to buy. He’s got long hair, and he’s wearing an old Led Zeppelin T-shirt, jeans, and one of those leather belts that looks like it could have his name branded onto the back of it next to the Zig-Zag man. I haven’t seen this particular ensemble since a derelict uncle wore it daily in 1976. He was maybe 40 years old at the time and spent his weekdays in a trance of ignoring unpaid parking tickets, developing minor respiratory infections, and not showing up for court dates. The man standing in front of me in this getup, however, is 14 years old at most.

Suddenly, the panic of being a clerk for the first time in eighteen years hits me. Should I say, ‘Can I help you?’ or ‘Welcome to Kiss the Sky’ or something? Jesus, I’m so much older than this kid. I wonder if he thinks I was placed at this job through some drug-rehabilitation program. I open my mouth to say hello, but what comes out is some strange World’s Greatest Dad monologue I didn’t know I was capable of. “Okaaay, all set there, guy? So, is this a gift? No? Okay, hey, you’re buying it for yourself? Well, that’s great. I first listened to this one when I was your age, too. Pretty cool, huh?!” The kid is expressionless. He kind of nods yes but mostly looks away while Mike, a co-founder of Kiss the Sky, reaches around me to ring him up, gently instructing me along the way.

“So, first you ask him if that will be cash or charge,” Mike tells me.

“Will that be cash or charge?” I parrot back.

“Okay, so you take the cash, put in the amount—$10—then hit your total button. Out of ten…” It’s occurring to me that Mike thinks I might be mildly stupid.

“Out of ten…,” I slowly repeat, confirming his suspicion.

“And it tells you that $1.80 is his change.…,” Mike says.

“Annnnd, $1.80 is your change,” I say, a little too boldly this time.

“And I’ll usually tell them: We do have a return policy on used vinyl. If there’s anything wrong with that, you can just bring it back for store credit. But taking a look at it here, it looks like it’s in pretty good shape, so you should be all set.”

I just stand there smiling politely while Mike lays out this longer, impossible-to-memorize nugget.

Mike says thank you.

The kid says thank you.

I say thank you.

*****

My Co-Workers for the Next Two Weeks

Steve  |  56  |  owner and co-founder
  VIBE: A character out of a Steely Dan song; super laid-back, like someone who knows that the note you don’t play is as important as the one you do.
  AREA OF EXPERTISE: Steve is the numbers man at Kiss the Sky, an aging hippie completely comfortable using the word capitalize.
  TYPICAL QUOTE: “We can adapt, and we can adapt fast. Faster than a big store.”
  RELEVANT BIO INFO: He walked away from the CEO salary, the 401(k), and the corporatepied-à-terre in Brussels. Because twelve years ago, when he was 44, he realized he and Mike had been talking about opening a record store together ever since their
  college days.

Mike  |  55  |  co-founder
  VIBE: Picture a corn-fed version of a tech nerd. Mike laughs a lot. Loudly. At me.
  AREA OF EXPERTISE: He knows every piece of music coming and going from Kiss the Sky, down to the day it goes and the day regulars can expect it to be restocked.
  TYPICAL QUOTE: [after a huge guffaw] “Jesus, Kennedy! Well done! Damn!”
  RELEVANT BIO INFO: Even though he has told this story a hundred times, Mike is game to rehash how Kiss the Sky was kicked out of its old location in Batavia, Illinois. (It involves a Shaggy 2 Dope in-store that went horribly wrong. Six hundred kids painted like satanic clowns played some game where they kick each other in the nuts and spray orange Faygo soda on everything.)

Mat  |  23  |  manager
  VIBE: Tall and broad enough to inspire the phrase “Are you a cop?” But maybe that’s because he’s always busting Mike and Steve (his dad).
  AREA OF EXPERTISE: Knows hundreds of indie, small-release, will-never-go-platinum bands you’ve never heard of.
  TYPICAL QUOTE: “Where were you yesterday? You were sleeping in, weren’t you?
  What do you mean you were mowing the lawn? See, if you’d get a cell phone, people could reach you when you’re doing things like mowing the lawn. [long pause] You weren’t mowing the lawn. Just tell me the truth. [and the encore] You were sleeping in, weren’t you?”
  RELEVANT BIO INFO: He graduated from college this year, and the question that hangs over him is whether he can really find something out there that he loves as much as his gig at Kiss the Sky…and his bartending job.

Lauren  |  16  |  clerk
  VIBE: Mildly bored but perfectly polite, like a miniature version of the town’s prettiest bank teller.
  AREAS OF EXPERTISE: A little bit of alternative pop, but really anything ‘60s garage and anything Iggy Pop.
  TYPICAL QUOTE: “I don’t know the stuff that’s quote-unquote hot right now.”
RELEVANT BIO INFO: Has a knack for making customers fall in love with her. Some bring gifts.

*****

Everything in Its Right Place

If you ever wonder what a record-store clerk does with his time, the answer is simple: He files. And as I stare at a bunch of new CDs that I need to scan and place into the racks, I realize that this is pretty much what I’m going to be doing for the full two weeks.

Lauren is tasked with showing me how the filing system works. She’s putting these clear plastic rectangular security frames onto each CD. “So, these are the plastic things we put on the CDs that are to keep people from stealing them. You just…take a CD…” Lauren has a way of sounding bored no matter what she’s talking about. It’s completely intimidating. “But the thing at the front of the store that beeps if they go through hasn’t even been plugged in since we moved here. They have to, like, put in another outlet or something. But…anyway…” The process of filing is pretty simple. Once you attach the plastic frame, you place the CD in the right section behind the appropriate alphabetical card. It’s kind of a drag when you first start it, and then a calm washes over you, like the feeling you get when you’re washing dishes, folding laundry, or doing just about any other wonderfully repetitive task. There is nothing like this calm.

As I organize the stacks, I start to realize that I have no clue how to tell punk from metal. I’m familiar with the staples, like, say, Black Flag (punk) and Iron Maiden and Judas Priest (both metal), but a lot has changed on the landscape since my record-store days. Lauren is patient with all my questions, but only to a degree. Right, so a guy in a cowboy hat looking pensive and standing in an amber field of grain will henceforth signal me to “file under country.” Got it. To spare her further grief, I concoct a rule of thumb: If the word hate is in the band name, it’s metal, not punk.

Take your Hate Eternal, Hate Plow, Hatebreed, and Hatesphere and set them aside. All hate, all metal, period. I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking: Yes, but how can you tell punk from metal when it comes to the Atomic Bitchwax, Dead Child, Cock and Ball Torture, Blood Tsunami-—how can you be sure of where to file these nuanced trios and quartets? Excellent question. That’s where the second part of my simple system comes in: If they don’t have hate in the band name, the art will show you the way. So when any of the following elements are on the cover, it’s metal:

  • Well-muscled corpse men with insect-like mandibles, often wearing a gas mask or a scuba breathing apparatus.
  • Red swamps, especially red swamps filled with armored skeletons.
  • Hot zombie women performing fellatio on corpses that are half man and half goat or ox.
  • Muscular Grim Reaper/hooded executioner appearing to hump a big pile of skulls under a sky that’s on fire.
  • Huge robotic/skeletal spider with bloody fangs standing next to a pretty woman in a dress whose abdomen has a large wound exposing intestines and other vital organs.

There is one tricky exception, and that’s the band Naked Raygun. On the Naked Raygun cover, you’ve got your basic apocalyptic swamp diver wearing a futuristic mask/breathing apparatus in a lagoon of sewage, and they are filed under punk.

Thank God that there is also filing to be done in rock and pop. The metal section is kind of making me a little bit hopeless or lonely or something, as if everybody is a mall shooter waiting to happen. But maybe that’s the point?

*****

NEW GENERATION

i’m working an afternoon shift with Mat, and he’s playing something on the store speakers that I can’t quite place. “The Deadstring Brothers,” he tells me without making eye contact. I’m starting to think that Mat doesn’t trust me. It’s as if he’s deputy Barney Fife and I’m the big-city writer whose car has broken down, leaving him stranded in Mayberry. A typical conversation goes as follows:

me: Afternoon shifts were always my favorite when I worked in a record store.
mat:
me: Afternoons. Those were, um, definitely…
mat: [Nods suddenly and slowly, not so much in agreement, but as if to confirm that he heard me the first time.]

The only time Mat really lets his guard down is when he starts talking about his band—which is on a break right now. Their guitarist just moved into a new place, and they’ve been rehearsing in a barn. “I think we’re going to try and record some new stuff there. It’s just weird right now, you know? I mean, a lot of stuff is changing.… I’m graduating. And we’re all into different kinds of music now.” I say as little as possible, hoping not to ruin the moment, hoping that he’ll continue to forgive the fact that I’m writing everything down.

The one thing that gets under Mat’s skin about working at Kiss the Sky (other than my presence) is the customers who challenge him on the price of something. “It’s on used stuff. They’ll come up and ask me why something is priced at, you know, $9.99 instead of $7.99, or something ridiculous. They want to haggle a dollar off the price. I don’t know why they do it. And they always end up buying it anyway.” Then, with eerie timing, a twentysomething guy with a knit cap pulled down a little low over his eyes comes up to the counter holding up some vinyl. He looks at Mat. “Is this really $9.99?”

“Yeah, that’s really $9.99,” Mat says.

The guy makes his best what-ever face, and with a sort of community-college-acting-class flair, shakes his head, audibly scoffs, turns around, and walks back to the racks.

And then, just like that, Mat looks at me accusingly, as if I had cued this guy from central casting with my special magazine-writer wand.
  The guy keeps flipping through racks and bins. He comes back to the counter again to do a less intense version of the what-ever face—it’s now more of a what-ever pout—and buys the album anyway.

*****

THE REGULAR

when I meet mike ptack for the first time, he eyes me from the front door and heads for the counter. Unlike the other customers at Kiss the Sky, Ptack is special. Steve and Mike set aside music for him—stuff they know he’ll like. Stuff that just came in. Used, rare stuff that he has earned first dibs on. Because after coming to the store for eleven years straight, Ptack has rightfully earned the title of regular.

Mike and Steve had filled me in a little on Ptack, told me that he’s 52, married, and works for a construction company. What I didn’t expect was that he would look nothing like how I imagine a fiftysomething music-store regular to look-—he resembles Frank Black from the Pixies. If Frank Black were ten years older. And a corn farmer.

I come out from behind the front counter to shake Ptack’s hand, and as if it’s the only language he knows how to speak, he immediately starts telling me about music.

“You have to listen to the new CD from Old 97’s. Period. I’ve been playing the hell out of that thing,” he says with authority. Then he starts adjusting his pants at the waist the way, like, dads do, except for the fact that he’s now talking about which Black Flag album was really the best one.

“Henry Rollins…he, you know, he did it right. If you ask me,” I say, trying to show him that I know a thing a two.

Ptack agrees quickly, then jumps straight to “Tell Steve or Mike to play that new Kooks album for you. It’s back there somewhere in one of the stacks; they opened one, I think. You’ve got to listen to that before you leave,” he says, rapidly tapping his foot. “I’d be interested to hear what you think of that.” I stammer toward answering, leaning back on the counter with my elbows as if to steady a reply.

Then he turns to Steve and starts talking about how the last two Nada Surf records are the most underrated albums he’s heard in the past ten years. It’s as if he’s been storing this information since the last time he was at Kiss the Sky, as if these are the only people he can tell these things to. And in a lot of ways, it is. Because where else can people like Mike Ptack go, kill a few hours, and talk about music with other people who care about it just as much as they do?

The morning shift is coming to an end. I grab my backpack, and we all, Ptack included, walk a few doors down to the pub where we’ll raise a toast to Mat, since he’s graduating this week.

Drinks with the crew and the regular, a record-store rite of passage that, until this moment, I never knew existed.

*****

WHY I CAN NEVER OWN A RECORD STORE

“one death cab for Cutie? You think we should bring in one copy of the new Death Cab for Cutie?” says Mike.

“Are they really, like… Will enough people…?” I stammer.

He practically hoots. “Wow, good thing you showed up to help us out, Kennedy. Should we serve beer and take bets on Tuesday to see who wins the fistfight over the one copy of the new Death Cab when ten regulars come looking for it?”

We had played this game, done this thing where Mike sent me home last night with the distributor catalogs of the next week’s new releases and told me to just order what I would order if it was my store. In short, we found out that I’d be demoted.

Mike pipes up again with my order sheets in hand, “Jesus, it gets better! We’re bringing in one copy of the new Death Cab but four copies of something called Hell Girl, which, according to the description in the catalog, is a Japanese cartoon on VHS.” His laughter reaches a new loud.

There were descriptions?

When I was looking at the catalog, I couldn’t even get past the pricing. The wholesale price of most new releases is about the same as the list price at places like Best Buy and Starbucks. Which means that Mike and Steve pay the same amount on new music that I do. If they want to make a living, they add a couple of bucks to the wholesale price. And even then, all I can think about is: How the hell are you supposed to keep a store afloat on a $2 profit margin? Looking at a couple of pages of this, things went from a feeling of Cool, what should I order? to How do these guys eat?

Mike will likely order ten copies of Death Cab. On a superbig new release—something like Radiohead or Coldplay—he might bring in thirty pieces of it. Maybe. Six or seven years ago, he would have brought in a hundred of something like that. And most of it would sell right from the boxes they were shipped in.

Mike disappears to correct things on the order for this week. He’ll write over my pencil with pen so he can get it all ready to call in. Single pieces instead of cases. Mike and the sales rep will bullshit a little bit about the old days, the rep will put the order in. The CDs will ship, the CDs will sell. The following week, the whole cycle repeats itself. I try not to think about the fact that maybe there will come a time when it simply doesn’t.

*****

A WORD ABOUT HOW PEOPLE GET THEIR MUSIC

during my brief, eighteen-month tenure working in the New York offices of Atlantic Records back in 2002, just before a thousand of us were laid off in budget cuts, I sat in plenty of marketing meetings where executives focused on how to get music into places that could move large volumes at discount prices. I can’t really recall hearing much talk about record stores at all in these weekly marketing meetings.

Instead, they focused on sending promotional copies to video-game manufacturers in hopes of getting a song licensed. Or setting up exclusives with places that had the largest retail footprint, with millions of customers—places that seemed to specialize in selling everything except music. Get the music next to coffee and baked goods at Starbucks. Get the music into places moving tons of televisions, dishwashers, and microwave ovens. The thinking seemed to be that if small stores are moving only ten copies of a new release, and Wal-Mart can put a CD in front of 130 million customers a week, why cut a deal with the small independent record store at all?

Somewhere along the line (maybe when record companies never came through on lowering that $18.99 list price; maybe when Steve Jobs introduced iTunes and proved that when a CD was sold as digital files, everyone involved could make a reasonable profit), consumers started thinking that the price of a CD should probably be about $9.99 to $13.99, at the most. And these record-industry dudes with four houses, who prefer to fly private instead of commercial—maybe they realized they’ve got to sell 20 million CDs to have a hit and preserve their lifestyle.
So, high-volume retailers it is.

*****

ONE OF THE MANY CUSTOMER QUESTIONS THAT I AM COMPLETELY UNABLE TO ANSWER

“what is a good ‘50s sampler? I need one CD that kind of covers all of the popular doo-wop ballads and the fun stuff, too. There was a boy who helped me the other day when I was here. A younger man. Is he in?”

*****

HELP WANTED

kiss the sky is completely empty. This happens a lot on weekdays around 2 p.m. Steve is telling me and Mike about a spice mixture he’s been making since taking his cooking classes at night. He’s got a few jars of it for sale up by the cash register now, and he’s going to be selling it at a blues festival on the Fox River this year, too. Mike and I admire the bottle of spice as much as anyone can admire a bottle of spice.

“Oh, okay, look at that,” I say. “That does look good. You’ve got your, what is that, maybe, garlic in there? Tarragon?”

“Yeah, there’s some garlic in there,” Steve responds.

“And, what, it looks like I’m seeing some kind of leek or red onion maybe?”

“Well, there’s a whole bunch of things in there that I’m combining,” he says.

“And I see some red pepper or cayenne, too.…” This one falls like a brick into silent seas, and I realize we’re done talking about what I can see in the seasoning.

Our focus drifts back to “Arizona,” by Kings of Leon, which is playing on the store stereo. Steve is on the tall stool behind the register; Mike is standing to his right, half thinking about scanning in some new inventory; I’m on the business side of the counter, hunched onto the Formica, the palm of my hand supporting my head.

And then… Holy Christ. Do. Not. Look.

This has to be what every record-store clerk is hoping for, day in, day out: The moment when Gorgeous Rock Woman comes into your retail domain, the store you man, the counter you work, the vortex and physical manifestation of all of the musical love and knowledge inside you that you can certainly impress her with. And she pretty much has to talk to you, because all aisles lead to the counter. It’s as if the Romans built this place.

God, she’s beautiful. She is Candy-O. She is Phoebe Cates. She is every box-office-smash movie-poster girl from 1986, and perhaps the best thing about her? She’s holding her résumé and a job application. We could be hanging out with her every single day.

Steve steps up to the bat as Mike and I keep talking to each other, very deliberately pretending not to notice she’s even there. I don’t quite have the heart to tell Mike that his voice has gone a half step up, somewhere around the F-sharp-above-middle-C note. His eyes have also widened into mild shock, and he’s suddenly infusing our conversation with thesis-grade, quasi-genius bits of cultural theory. It was, only moments ago, if I recall, a simple conversation about how the guitars on a particular Ryan Adams record sound so awesome. To his credit, Steve is handling speaking to the girl with flying colors, but he’s choosing his words very carefully, like he suspects he’s being videotaped by some kind of human-resources department.

And then the universe mercifully delivers a cold shower—her Kiss the Sky application. We huddle around it as she stares off into space. Apparently her favorite blues artist is Phil Collens [sic], she does not like jazz, and she wants to work in a record store because she “is a fast learner, enjoys providing good customer service.”

Her spelling is atrocious, but her penmanship is playful. The effect is like a female gang member writing a love note from prison. There isn’t a single thing on her résumé or job application that indicates that she loves music. In a weird way, there’s nothing to indicate that she even likes music. And this is enough to make us completely free of her spell.

Steve tells her that he’ll be in touch. As she says good-bye, she turns and strolls down the center aisle: Rock and Pop H–Z on her left and Country, Jazz, and Bluegrass on her right. My head starts the compulsive tic of trying to recall every lyric about Her walking out the door. In my mind, Broken Social Scene sing, Now you’re all gone, got your makeup on / And you’re not coming back. John #1 from They Might Be Giants sings, And I just stood there whistling “there goes the bride” / As she walked out the door. Jim Morrison sings, Don’t you love her as she’s walking out the door.

And on.

And on.

*****

HEART ON (INNER) SLEEVE

a brief guide to pricing used vinyl: Look up the title and the artist in the price guide and it might tell you, say, $12 if it’s in particularly good condition, $8 or $10 if it’s in merely good condition. If it’s got someone’s initials written on it and some sleeve wear, I dunno, knock off a dollar or two. If it’s a copy of Every Picture Tells a Story by Rod Stewart, with crossed-out and blacked-out loopy girlie ballpoint-pen scrawl on the inside sleeve that says “Greg and Karen 4-ever” in a curvy heart, well, that seems like it should be worth $40 or $50, if you ask me.

Some of the inside sleeves have marketing messages that invite you to join fan clubs. There are fading color pictures of younger versions of bands.

There’s one sleeve, a summer sampler album from the ‘70s, that has all of this down-home copy about why the album is being priced at only $1.99: We’ll be honest with you: We’re not making any money selling this fine record to you for only $1.99. As a matter of fact, we’re just barely breaking even. My boss here at the record company thinks I’m crazy! So what’s the catch? Well, we’re simply hoping that once you hear these great new songs you might decide to buy a copy of the full-length album that it’s featured on.

I spend a solid two or three hours pricing the endless parade of slightly edge-worn, good, like-new, and near-mint mile markers of the past four decades. Aja by Steely Dan. Cheap Trick at Budokan. Mars Needs Guitars! by the Hoodoo Gurus. So many people’s initials staking claim. Sometimes the initials are small letters in the upper corner; sometimes they’re written on the back of the cover and repeated like a clever, lo-fi security watermark on the inside sleeve, then again on the actual label at the center of the vinyl. Sometimes the initials are backed up by some serious improv legalese: property of j.m.

Mike comes up from his desk in back to ask if I’d like to grab some dinner after work. Pizza with him and Steve and Mike Ptack. Standing there holding my price gun, “Mike Ptack” is converted in my head to “M.P.” the second I hear it.

*****

THE HARDEST PART

after two weeks of selling vinyl to customers, I decide to take a used copy of Toys in the Attic, by Aerosmith, over to the store turntable and listen to it. I can’t remember the last time I listened to a record. Maybe that’s because about twenty years ago, I replaced all of my vinyl with CDs, and what I didn’t replace had been abandoned in different apartments I lived in during my twenties.

Out of the sleeve, headphones go on, press the power switch on the store’s old walnut-grain-and-brushed-silver amp. I heard the title track on the radio when I was little, then on CD when I was in my twenties, and now on my iPhone almost daily. Needle drops slowly and suddenly Joe Perry’s riff rolls into my head and chest. Warm and electric. It hits so big that you can hear the metal wrapped around the strings. The guitar and bass amps sound like the wood, wire, tubes, and speakers they’re made of. Rich like you forgot it could be.

Damn, this is the way I used to listen. I grew up holding album covers, taking in the art and the names of everyone who had something to do with what I was hearing. Another 12-year-old in the suburbs reading tiny type and thinking: Mastered by Doug Sax at the Mastering Lab, Los Angeles… Hmmmm. I used to spend hours listening to just one album. Picking out each instrument, committing the lyrics to memory. I used to care so much about my record collection: what it was missing, what I had to buy next.

The sound from the black groove spinning in front of me is peaking. In the headphones, a guitar amp leans on the edge of feedback as a high note fades just before Steven Tyler howls that line about how we’re leaving the things that are real behind. I turn up the volume. I console myself in that futile way we do when we realize we have our hearts invested in something. This record store I’m standing in might survive, or it might go away forever like all of the others that have disappeared over the past four or five years.

I turn up the volume again.

I tell myself that there are two comforting truths about matters of the heart:
  (1) Everyone does their best to make it last.
  (2) Nobody knows how these things end.

dan kennedy is the author of Rock On: An Office Power Ballad.

Thursday  February 19, 2009

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Most of the late, great Paul Newman's obituaries last September found room to mention the ad he took out apologizing for his big-screen debut in The Silver Chalice. In case that got you wondering how bad the damn thing could be, you're in luck. Though not exactly cause for celebration, this notorious 1954 turkey's inclusion in Warner Home Video's expedient (by and large, no extras) new "Paul Newman Film Series"—aka "We're Scraping The Vault, Since Most of his Worthwhile Filmography is Already Available”—does provide cause for wonder at what might have been. A couple more movies half as godawful, and Newman would've been lucky to end up as Troy Donahue.

With the exception of 1968's Rachel, Rachel—of which more later, as they say—none of the other titles exhumed here is likely to ring bells even for cine-heads. But with the exception of the all-star (Red Buttons! Alex Karras! James Franciscus, baby) 1980 disaster flick When Time Ran Out, whose title I decided to honor by hitting "Eject" the first time William Holden frowned worriedly, vault-scraping does have its rewards. Fans recall Newman as so reliably pleasurable that watching his rare missteps has some of the fascination of hearing an inept Beatles tune.

For one thing, I'm not sure I'd ever appreciated how acute his sense of the camera was in his mature years. The Silver Chalice is a crash course in what lacking any awareness of which of your fidgets will register onscreen can do to an actor. He's visibly got no idea how he's coming across, and at times the best way to tell him from a hat rack is that the hat rack would seem not only calmer but wilier.

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Virginia Mayo consoles a glum Newman in The Silver Chalice, 1954. Maybe he's just read the script.

In a remotely competent movie, Newman's gaucheness would stick out, but here it's just par for the course. At the time, American culture had a considerable thing for democratizing the New Testament with stories of invented people on the margins of Christ's life, including Thomas B. Costain's bestseller about a sculptor tasked with preserving one of the Last Supper's tchotchkes. Yet calling The Silver Chalice a poor man's The Robe doesn't do justice to its special brand of soporific lunacy.

As "Basil the Greek"—an ancient-world handle that unfortunately makes it sound like he's waiting for a slow boat from Assyria to bring back his cousin Herb the Fenugreek so they can open a spice shop—Newman's trapped amid gargantuan sets best described as Holy Land Bauhaus. The rest of the cast is so echt-Fifties oddball that Lorne Greene clodhopping around as St. Peter when the scene shifts to Rome rates barely a yawn. Natalie Wood is a platinum-blond Antioch (no, not the college, though you might be forgiven for thinking so) slave girl who grows up to be James Cagney's onetime White Heat costar, Virginia Mayo. Mayo's wicked-seductress eyebrows are hiked so high by the makeup man that they seem like suspension bridges for her double chin.

Fresh from Shane, Jack Palance plays a beehive-bonneted magician out to woo the faithful away from Christianity by setting himself up as the new miracle worker. That scheme's weak spot emerges once he mounts some sort of Tower of Bauhaus as a crowd presided over by Nero chants "Fly, Simon, fly!" Then Palance leaps, and—well, doesn't fly.

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Newman with Ann Blyth in The Helen Morgan Story, 1957.

Newman learned what he was good at fast, though. Though still callow, he's already recognizable as "Paul Newman" in 1957's The Helen Morgan Story, a factually challenged but enjoyable bio of the Jazz Age songbird who starred in the original Show Boat before dying young of cirrhosis. Spared that fate, her pertly leaky screen stand-in, Ann Blyth, gets a testimonial dinner instead at the fadeout. Bring on the champagne!

As the heroine's no-goodnik lover/promoter, memorably described by another character as a guy who'd "shoot his own grandma in the back and lay bets on which way she's falling," Newman's taking one of his first cracks at the seductively cynical, fliply embittered persona—a smoother, sprucer Bogart for suburbanites—that defined what he brought to the party for the next decade, from The Long, Hot Summer through Hud and Cool Hand Luke. Because he was just about impossible to dislike, it was money in the bank once studio execs caught on we'd root for Mr. Blue Eyes to win that bet on his grandma.

Directed by Hud's Martin Ritt, 1964's forgotten The Outrage was one of Newman's (not to mention poor, dreary Ritt's) attempts to break the lucrative mold: an American remake of Rashomon, believe it or not, transposed to the Old West a good deal less winningly than its obvious box-office inspiration, The Magnificent Seven's reworking of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Though not quite a gaga classic of Silver Chalice caliber, the movie's another of its star's few abysmal performances. With his gift for insouciance, he was never too credible doing the kind of acting that strenuously announces itself as such—in this case, playing a Mexican bandit named Juan Carrasco who's accused of raping frantic Claire Bloom ("Ah have just been violated!") and murdering her dullard of a husband, Laurence Harvey. If only it had been the other way around, Harvey might have perked up and critics would have applauded.

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As Juan Valdez—sorry, Carrasco—in The Outrage, 1964.

Notice the sop to 1964 audiences in making the rapist non-Anglo, a racial ingredient not present in the original. Even so, Newman isn't just made up to resemble Toshiro Mifune in the Japanese version; he speaks in an approximation of Mifune's gravel-truck voice, which in combination with a surly Mexican accent may define adding insult to injury. But the whole cast is lamentable, from Edward G. Robinson in a hackneyed Greek-chorus part as a guffawing bunco artist to, so help me, William Shatner as a troubled young preacher. (Clearly not sure yet how much he can chew, Shatner looks panicked whenever another small bite of scenery ends up lodged in his windpipe.) Clinching the whole demonstration of would-be "distinguished" filmmaking gone wrong is an excess of fancy cinematography by the great James Wong Howe, who clearly had leeway from Ritt to prove he could be as mannered as anyone when he got bored.

Either The Outrage or The Silver Chalice will make your next party if you have friends good at MST3K backtalk. But the only movie in Warners' posthumous pinata whose appeal is untainted by camp is the aforementioned Rachel, Rachel, in which Newman doesn't appear. His first try at directing, it's a showcase for wife Joanne Woodward instead.

Not that this engaging study of a lovelorn, self-conscious schoolteacher who takes those broken wings and learns to fly hasn't dated. Too gentle if not unwittingly patronizing to even qualify as feminist, it was dated when it came out. But in spite of symbolism on the level of making the ruefully boxed-in heroine a mortician's daughter who still lives with her horror-show mother upstairs from Dad's old funeral home—not to mention Estelle Parsons playing a friendly, equally lonesome fellow teacher whose private torment won't come as news to most eight-year-olds—it hasn't dated badly.

Above all, Rachel stays individual. Whatever his limitations behind the camera—he had no creative fire, just an attractive desire to make a good job of it—Newman's basic decency and tact come out in his reluctance to oversell her small moments of truth as epiphanies for anybody but her. So far as Woodward goes, he was also making amends for his own greater fame. A smart man with terrific taste, he undoubtedly knew her acting went deeper than his did.

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Joanne Woodward in Rachel, Rachel, 1968.

He was only the more talented movie star. The difference between them is that Newman couldn't be vulnerable without roguishly letting on that it might be a ploy—and Woodward, with her unnerving honesty, couldn't try out a ploy without showing us vulnerability. Give a loving husband credit for not only appreciating as much, but making her look as radiant as she ever did on film. Even though the glowing way Woodward's photographed doesn't quite suit the theme or her character, don't we all know how dull movies would be if everything in them had to be justified? Newman did. So did his fans, me included.

L.A.: The Best Breakfast City in America

Thursday  February 19, 2009

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(Above: Kings Road Café, 8361 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA; 323-655-9044; www.kingsroadcafe.com)

To visit L.A. is to act like you wear $300 chinos and drive a black Range Rover and wear sunglasses that would otherwise embarrass you. And to wake up in L.A. is to pretend that you don't have a job and eat breakfast at 10 a.m. L. A. is a breakfast town. Breakfast at ten in Cleveland or Houston is a lonely affair, where you'll meet the kind of people who steal Sweet’N Low and talk to their lottery tickets. In L.A., though, if you go eat a scramblette at Toast or some raspberry and lemon pancakes at Griddle Café, you'll be surrounded by people who seem famous even if they're not. Plus, there's the food—killer coffee at Kings Road, omelets with caramelized onions at the Chateau Marmont, huevos rancheros basically everywhere, and all that great produce (never have breakfast in L.A. without at least one avocado). It's a breakfast town because it's a town where people actually eat breakfast, at restaurants, every day of the week, where there are dedicated breakfast spots instead of lame brunch places. And it's one of the few locations where there's no shame in ordering the egg-white omelet with veggie bacon. Because L.A. is a place where, in general, there is no shame.—devin friedman

Photo: Cedric Angeles

Adidas Opens New SLVR Store in New York

Tuesday  February 17, 2009

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Here's why Adidas's new SLVR store in New York's SoHo district is a go-to destination for guys looking to build their weekend wardrobes: because the clothes you'll find there are classic, comfortable, versatile, and sold at prices that won't break your budget. Look for basics like fitted lightweight sweatshirts, windbreakers, and white leather low-top sneakers—all free of flashy logos. Although the New York location—which opened last Tuesday—is the only store currently carrying the SLVR line, an outpost in Miami's design district will open next week; and international openings in Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and Beijing will follow this spring.—andrew richdale

108 Wooster Street, New York, NY; 212-941-6580; www.adidas.com/slvr

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$190

David Letterman Protests GQ's "10 Most Stylish Men" Cover

Tuesday  February 17, 2009

From last night's Late Show with David Letterman:


Forward in the Gray Suit

Tuesday  February 17, 2009

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Chris Bosh may have sat out Sunday's NBA All-Star Game with a bum knee, but the Toronto Raptors forward suited up for more than just the sidelines. Wearing a trim gray suit and a narrow black tie fastened with a tie clip—and flashing a quarter-inch of white pocket square—he looked, well… straight out of our pages. We can't help but wonder if he was following LeBron James's sartorial lead on GQ's February cover. In any case, Project Upgrade NBA appears to be working.—sarah goldstein

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The Passion of the Antichrist

Thursday  February 12, 2009

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The Passion of the Antichrist

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Silvia Pinal in The Exterminating Angel…

there's a reason onetime Salvador Dali collaborator Luis Buñuel was Alfred Hitchcock's favorite filmmaker ever. Any film prof can tell you that no other director in history lives up to the now threadbare term "subversive" the way Buñuel does, but what sets him apart from a slew of avant-garde artists with similar ambitions is a virtue most academics wouldn't appreciate: He's never boring. Forced to work under commercial constraints during most of the Mexican exile that followed his early Surrealist days—with Franco in power, Buñuel's native Spain was no place for a man of his temperament—he knew better than poor Todd Solondz ever will that you can't truly scandalize an audience until you've gotten them interested in what's coming next.

Above all, Buñuel was peerless at creating situations—routine-looking ones that go slowly askew, bizarre ones he stages with earthy verisimilitude. Each kind gets a perfect showcase in the last two films he made in Mexico: 1962's masterly The Exterminating Angel and the 45-minute fable Simon of the Desert, both out on DVD this week in sterling editions from the Criterion Collection.

In case cinephiles need more bait—but why should they?—these two unassailable reasons to mourn b & w were also Buñuel's final work with legendary cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. In case red-blooded ones do, both Angel and Simon feature Silvia Pinal—the star of Buñuel's Viridiana, already available from Criterion and nothing to sneeze at unless you're allergic to genius send-ups of the Last Supper. For my money, she's the sexiest actress he ever worked with, not to mention the one who understood best what he was up to. Since Pinal's competition includes Jeanne Moreau in Diary of a Chambermaid and Catherine Deneuve in Belle De Jour, the rest of you had better understand I'm not just whistling Dixie here.

In Exterminating Angel, she's Leticia, also known as "the Valkyrie"—the feistiest guest at a posh dinner party whose elegant guests, for reasons never explained, end up marooned in their host's living room because they're too unnerved to leave. As days go by in increasing squalor, with a closet that's decorated by a saint's icon now their improvised lavatory and a bear who was rented for their amusement roaming the halls, they lose everything but their sense of self-importance. One narcissistic pair of lovers opts for Wagnerian suicide; a musician's prize cello is broken up for firewood. Meanwhile, everyone else keeps squabbling about "solutions" to their dilemma that include someone's happy idea of killing the host. Buñuel later said that his main regret was not letting things deteriorate all the way into cannibalism.

At one level, the movie is a wonderful knock at privileged impotence. The first sign of trouble comes when the servants decamp, leaving only a stoic butler, played by future Simon star Claudio Brook, to cope with his masters' demands: If you picture The Addams Family's Lurch as reconceived by, say, Jean-Paul Sartre, then you've got the idea. At another level, it's both a mocking study of etiquette as civilization's last balsa bastion—these stuffed shirts are all turning monstrous, but violating decorum remains their sin of sins—and, as the closing shot reveals, a Twilight Zone metaphor for society itself (or the Catholic Church, in some ways this society's ultimate etiquette manual) as a prison. But the difference between Buñuel and less seasoned satirists is that he's under no illusion his targets won't outlive him. All caustic equanimity, he delights in their follies instead.

Much sparer but equally funny, Simon of the Desert gives us Brook as a hairy anchorite who's spent years perched atop a pillar for God's greater glory. He's ridiculous, but Buñuel the atheist respects him enough to teasingly show him performing one miracle. By dint of prayer, he restores a double amputee's hands, which the beneficiary accepts with a grunt before—in a bit that's among the most famous jokes in Buñuel's filmography—he puts his new mitts to good use by smacking his pesky daughter's head when she asks if they're the same as the old ones.

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…and with Claudio Brook in Simon of the Desert.

Pinal gets the plum part of Satan, who shows up in multiple guises—a naughty schoolgirl baring her breasts, a bearded female Jesus, a passenger in a scuttling coffin that moves without human help—to tempt saintly Simon back down to wicked old earth. When the actress, who's still with us today and in great shape for a legend—interviews with the goddess herself are a highlight of both Angel and Simon's scrumptious DVD extras—reports that this was the film with Buñuel she most enjoyed making, one reason you believe her is that it shows in every scene.

That includes the jarring but strangely poignant finale Buñuel resorted to when lack of funding obliged him to abridge the full-length feature he'd planned. Out of the blue, Simon's tormentor transports him to a New York discotheque; as frantic teens cut rugs around them, they bicker like the old married couple that, theologically speaking, they are. But when a fed-up Pinal goes to join the dancers, the exultant yowl from her that ends the film could be the only time a performer in any Buñuel movie took control of its meaning away from him, because you couldn't care less that she's playing the Devil. She's Silvia Pinal, and no matter what side she's on, you'll sign up.

GQ's Best New Menswear Designer in America, 2009

Thursday  February 12, 2009

Today GQ announced Robert Geller as winner of the Second Annual Best New Menswear Designers in America project. The initiative, established in 2008 in collaboration with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), was created to recognize the rising stars of American men's fashion. Geller will receive a $50,000 cash prize and the opportunity to create a limited-edition collection for the Levi's brand. The collection will debut at Levi.com and be available for a month-long exclusive in all major Bloomingdale's locations at the start of New York Fashion Week in September. And a select item or outfit from Geller's collection for Levi's will be featured in the September 2009 issue of GQ.

GQ selected six finalists for the 2009 competition (click here to see them). And scroll down for photos from our Best New Menswear Designers in America event on Wednesday night in New York City.

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GQ's 2009 Best New Menswear Designer in America Robert Geller with his Fall '09 collection presentation.

Photo: Patrick McMullan

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(Left to right) Best New American Designer nominees André Benjamin of Benjamin Bixby, David Mullen of Save Khaki, Alex Carleton of Rogues Gallery, Robert Geller, Sam Shipley and Jeff Halmos of Shipley & Halmos, and Yigal Azrouël.

Photo: Getty Images

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Sam Shipley, GQ editor-in-chief Jim Nelson, and Jeff Halmos.

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GQ editor-in-chief Jim Nelson, GQ creative director Jim Moore, and Tommy Hilfiger.

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Gossip Girl's Chace Crawford.

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GQ's senior fashion and market editor Brian Coats, creative director Jim Moore, and fashion editor Damien Nunes.

Photo: Patrick McMullan

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André Benjamin, GQ publisher Pete Hunsinger, Thom Browne, and GQ editor-in-chief Jim Nelson.

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Johan Lindeberg and wife Marcella Lindeberg.

Photo: Patrick McMullan

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Yigal Azrouël (center) with his models.

Photo: Patrick McMullan

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Thom Browne and Ally Hilfiger.

Photo: Patrick McMullan

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GQ editorial assistant Sarah Goldstein, deputy editor Michael Hainey, and senior editor Mickey Rapkin.

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Photo: Patrick McMullan

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GQ's Best New Menswear Designer in America Robert Geller

Photo: Patrick McMullan

"The Pirates Have Seized the Ship"

Friday  February 06, 2009

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Even as gunboats from across the globe move into their waters, the desperate, well-armed, and increasingly bold bandits of Somalia keep swarming the decks of the world’s largest ships. They take what they want, they don’t leave until the (higher and higher) ransoms are paid, and they won’t stop until a modern-day war against piracy breaks out

by jeffrey gettleman

our little plane buzzed over the crumbling dunes, and the midday sun made the wasteland beneath us look impossibly bright and lifeless. We crossed over a ridge of mountains that gave way to a long empty beach and then a vast, beautiful expanse of teal blue. The pilot cut our speed, and the plane began its descent into Boosaaso, a booming pirate city and a portal into the chaotic underworld of Somalia.

The airport in Boosaaso is like most in this country, a strip of gravel with an outhouse and a corrugated-iron shack where a few veiled women stirred a murky pot of tea. Outside, in the thin lattice of shade provided by thorn trees, lurked the mooryaan, the half-starved young men with glassy eyes and loaded Kalashnikovs who haunt every nook and cranny of this country. Some of them wore military fatigues that drooped off their shoulders, making them look like boys in men’s clothing, which they were. They watched as the plane rolled to a halt and the pilot opened the cabin door.

Friends who work for the United Nations in Kenya had warned me to stay away from Boosaaso. I had about a 100 percent chance of being stuffed into the back of a Toyota or shot in the head, they said, unless I was extremely well guarded, around the clock, in which case my chances were only marginally better. In Boosaaso you have to go through the local “government” to hire security, which really means you’re going to criminals to hire security to protect you from criminals. The guards you’re assigned may keep you from being kidnapped, or they may kidnap you themselves. There’s a lot of money on the line, in a very poor place, so it’s impossible to know which way it will go. (Shortly after I visited Boosaaso, two journalists who’d come here to get a closer look at Somalia’s pirates were kidnapped for forty days, most likely sold out by their Somali fixer.)

I grabbed my bags and stepped out into the crushing light and heat. I’d been in contact with a young Somali journalist named Bulgaz, whom I’d deputized to line up security. He was wearing a polo shirt and wraparound shades when we met on the airstrip, and we shook hands and hugged Somali-style, shoulder to shoulder. He pulled me into a nearby four-wheel-drive truck with tinted windows, decorated like a gaudy mosque, with a feather boa covering the dashboard and gold-plated charms dangling from the rearview mirror. The windows were rolled up tight, and I nearly gagged from the overpowering smell of air freshener. Behind our truck was another pickup, with ten gunmen crouched in the back. I swiveled around to check out the guys in charge of saving my life. They looked back at me, unblinking. Their commander had just confiscated all their cell phones so that none of them could call in our location to anyone else, a smart move, security-wise, but one that immediately pissed them off. “Ten, like you said,” Bulgaz said. “Let’s go.”

We bumped along a dirt road through a field of garbage, where goats snacked on plastic bags and thin little boys with sunken eyes watched over them. Women, veiled head to toe, trudged along the road hauling plastic jerricans sloshing with water. Occasionally a cart would pass, pulled by an emaciated donkey with every rib showing. It’s impossible to overstate the level of poverty and human suffering in Somalia. After eighteen years without a functioning government, after ceaseless fighting and famine, it is the world’s most failed state. And the grubby city of Boosaaso is the logical, Hobbesian end toward which all of Somalia is headed.

Boosaaso is perfectly positioned near the mouth of the Red Sea, at the crossroads of Africa and Arabia, to supply this lawless corner of the world with all its contraband needs: guns, drugs, expired baby formula, counterfeit electronics, counterfeit dollars, even smuggled human beings. If it’s illegal and it makes money, then someone is trafficking in it here. When we arrived, the center of town was packed with people—money changers sitting sphinxlike in front of bricks of Somali shillings, waiting to convert pirate dollars into the filthy local notes; old men in skullcaps chewing camel steaks at dingy, whitewashed restaurants; boys hawking slices of watermelon from roadside carts. Several late-model Land Cruisers, trucks that cost at least $50,000, prowled the deeply rutted roads. As we moved through town, our driver jutted his finger toward a large white house with a steel gate. “C.I.A.,” he said. He may have been right. It was an open secret that the American government was working with notorious figures in northern Somalia to track Islamist terrorists. Not far from the center of town was a neighborhood called New Boosaaso, where just beyond a cluster of refugee huts made from bits of cloth and cardboard rose a colony of palatial new homes with huge walls surrounding them and satellite dishes on their roofs. Spectral figures tramped through the dust on the way to their hovels, and right next to them were some of the nicest houses I had seen anywhere in Somalia, where so many buildings have been reduced to piles of machine-gun-chewed bricks. I suspected that this was where the pirates lived.

Thanks to Somalia, the world is in the midst of the greatest piracy epidemic since the Barbary Wars in the early nineteenth century. From Boosaaso and rocky little coves up and down the 1,900-mile coast, Somalia’s pirates are threatening to choke off the Gulf of Aden, through which 20,000 ships pass each year. The economic consequences of all this piracy are potentially catastrophic. The world’s biggest shipping companies are detouring their vessels thousands of miles around the Cape of Good Hope, at the bottom of Africa, rather than risking a voyage through Somalia’s pirate-infested seas. Insurance costs are shooting up. Security bills are skyrocketing. The cash-starved Egyptian government could collapse if more ships avoid the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal, which provides Egypt with billions of dollars each year.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,’’ said Pottengal Mukundan, director of the International Maritime Bureau in London. When we spoke in December, he told me that more than a dozen hijacked ships, with 300-plus hostages, were anchored just off the coast of Somalia. “You can see the images of these ships on Google Earth,’’ he said. “Nowhere else in the world would this be tolerated.’’ Somalia was gripped by “a national criminal ethos,” Mukundan went on, and only now that pirates were threatening global trade did the world seem to care about it.

Since December, warships from China, India, Italy, Russia, France, the United States, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Greece, Turkey, Britain, and Germany have all joined the hunt for Somalia’s pirates. But the pirates keep eluding them, keep hijacking merchant ships, and keep making millions in ransom payments. In the past year, they netted $120 million, an astronomical amount of money in a country where a fifth of the population is on the brink of starvation.

It’s easy to think of the pirates as modern-day Robin Hoods, and in some respects they are. In Somalia, a whole mythology has grown around them. I’ve been told—though I haven’t seen them—that entire malnourished villages along Somalia’s coast are now being well-fed by the loot they bring in. Women bake bread for them; young men from the coastal villages board the ships once they’re docked and act as extra muscle to guard the hostages; others serve as scouts, accountants, mechanics, and skiff builders. There’s no doubt that in Somalia, crime pays—it’s about the only industry that does—but this goes beyond just the money. With their black scarves covering their faces and submachine guns slung over their arms, Somalia’s pirates are the real Jack Sparrows of the twenty-first century, minus the eyeliner. One young woman who lives near Boosaaso bragged about going to a pirate wedding that lasted two days. A band was flown in from neighboring Djibouti. There was nonstop dancing and an endless supply of goat meat. “They drive the best cars, they throw the best parties,” she gushed. “We all want to marry them.” She claimed that her own pirate boyfriend had just given her a small gift—$350,000 in cash. For young Somali men, pirate life is becoming too much to resist. Fishermen all along the coast have traded in their ragged fishing nets for rocket-propelled grenades.

*****

despite the rash of piracy over the past year, it’s only since fall that the pirates have become front-page news. In the last week of August, the MV Faina (MV stands for “motor vessel”) set off from the port of Nikolayev in the Ukraine, bound for Mombasa, on Ken-ya’s coast. It was a tall, lumbering freighter, painted blue and white. Its captain was Russian and its twenty-one crew members mostly Ukrainian. Its cargo was secret.

A month later, on September 25, the Faina put out an SOS. Three small speedboats were heading straight toward it, approaching fast, the typical pirate swarm. The next day, news broke that the Faina had been hijacked 200 miles off Somalia’s coast. Its secret cargo, which was only reluctantly revealed by the Kenyan government, was thirty-three Soviet-designed T-72 battle tanks, 150 grenade launchers, six antiaircraft guns, and heaps of ammunition. Alarm bells started ringing—in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital; in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan; and in Washington, D.C.

The hijacking came at a precarious time for Somalia. The transitional government, a coterie of mostly ex-warlords that had been weak and unpopular since the day it was formed in 2004, was on the verge of collapse. The Islamist movement that had briefly controlled the country in 2006, and then was ousted by a joint Ethiopian-American military offensive, was now back, and American officials were convinced that an Islamist-led Somalia could blossom into a jihad factory like Afghanistan or the Sunni Triangle of Iraq.

By the time the gun-toting pirates climbed aboard the Faina, the Islamists were fighting their way toward Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. The Americans were terrified that the pirates would offload the tanks and other weapons and funnel them to the Islam-ists. Half a dozen American warships were quickly dispatched to tail the Faina, which had docked just off the coast.“We can’t let the Islamists get those tanks,’’ one American diplomat told me. “It could change the whole balance of the war. There’s no way these guys will get away with this.’’

I agreed. It seemed, at the time, that the pirates were badly overplaying their cards, attracting too much notice to a problem that had been allowed to flourish for years largely because it had remained below the radar. I couldn’t see how they could possibly escape, now that they were surrounded by warships and under constant surveillance by Defense Department satellites.

Over the last week of September, I repeatedly tried to make contact with the pirates on board the Faina (a high-level diplomat in Nairobi had slipped me the number for the satellite line on the ship’s bridge), and when I wasn’t doing that, I was boning up on all things pirate. The resemblance between the Somali pirates and their Barbary brethren was striking. By the 1600s, pirates from the Barbary Coast, which included what is today Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya, were seizing European vessels and ransoming their crews for enormous sums. Like the Somalis, the Barbary pirates usually kept their hostages alive—not out of any enlightened sense of humanity but simply because it was good business. They only hung captives from giant hooks or carved them into little pieces if they resisted. The Barbary pirates used small wooden corsairs, often powered by slaves chained to the oars, to swarm and attack the larger European ships. They hailed from a messy, underdeveloped part of the world and managed to harass and humiliate the greatest powers of the day. They would sack coastal towns in Italy and Spain, even as far as Iceland, and drag their captives back to the casbah. But their bravado became their demise.

The pirates had flourished for two centuries because various European countries—and eventually America—paid “tribute” to the pashas who underwrote their activities, and in exchange the pirates left their ships alone. In one year, 1797, the U.S. paid a million dollars in tribute fees, about a fifth of the national budget. Eventually, though, the Americans began to feel humiliated paying off a bunch of thugs in blousy pants, and in the early 1800s the American navy sailed across the Atlantic and pounded the Barbary Coast, bringing the long reign of the pirates to an end.

I figured the Faina would be a similar turning point, that the pirates had gone too far (they asked for $35 million when they learned what the cargo was) and their hubris was going to be the beginning of the end of the glory days of Somali piracy. But the guys on board the ship seemed completely unfazed that the most fearsome navy in the world had them pinned against Somalia’s craggy shore. After three days of nothing but my phone ringing endlessly aboard the ship, my call was finally picked up by one of the pirates. He spoke English.

“Can I speak to the pirate spokesman, please?” (My contact in Nairobi had told me that they were more sophisticated than you’d expect and had appointed one of their own to handle PR.)

I heard some shouting in Somali, and then Sugule Ali, the pirates’ official spokesman, got on the line.

“Haa,” he said, the breathy Somali word for “yes.”

Sugule seemed happy to chat. He talked for a while about the typical pirate diet—“rice, meat, bread, spaghetti—you know, normal human-being food”—and then he explained to us his notion of Somali piracy. “We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits,” he said. “We consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.”

*****

the pirates often use this as a rationale for their actions. Somalia has some of the most bountiful seas in the world, and during peak seasons trawlers from around the globe converge here, using tactics like dynamiting reefs and employing waterborne vacuums to suck everything up—fish, coral, rocks, plants—from the ocean floor. Over the past few months, several fishermen turned pirates have told me how illegal fishing and toxic-waste dumping started in the early 1990s, shortly after the government collapsed, and how they often saw barrels containing who-knows-what bobbing in their seas. It was only a matter of time before the fishermen decided to strike back.

They began venturing out and boarding the trawlers and demanding that the captains pay a “tax,” and before long they graduated to attacking freighters and oil tankers farther out at sea. Sometimes, Sugule explained to me, the pirates even used “mother ships,” vessels they’d already hijacked, as bases on which to live and sustain themselves for weeks, hundreds of miles out in the ocean.

In another phone call, a different pirate on board, Jama Ali, described how they had been hiding out on a rock in the Gulf of Aden, spying on ships through a set of binoculars. At a certain spot in the gulf, he said, there is a narrow passage, which is where they’ll often prey on ships that come in close. “If a car gets off the road, it might be in trouble,” he said. “It is like that.

“We chased that Ukrainian ship for eight hours,’’ Jama recalled. “We lost our ladder, but fortunately we climbed on the ship through the ropes on the side.’’ (Security consultants later told me that leaving ropes dangling over the side of a ship when sailing past Somalia is a serious mistake.) Once on board, the pirates did a fast inventory of the cargo and discovered they’d hit the jackpot, Somali-style, with $30 million in arms now in their possession. They went through the paperwork on the bridge and learned that the T-72 tanks and grenade launchers were not destined for Kenya, as the Kenyan government claimed, but were actually headed to a former rebel army that now runs Southern Sudan, and that the port of Mombasa was simply the transit point. It was yet another shady African arms deal, which likely involved million-dollar kickbacks for the Kenyan officials who helped facilitate it, and the pirates had broken it wide open.

“These guys are pros,” Andrew Mwangura, the head of the East Africa Seafarers Assistance Program in Kenya, told me. Many of the seafarers in Mwangura’s organization have learned about Somali piracy the hard way, having been kidnapped and held for months. Still, he seemed impressed by, almost enamored of, the pirates. He explained that “investors” front the money for skiffs, guns, binoculars, GPS units, fuel, and cigarettes. The investors then take a slice of the ransom, usually about 20 percent, with another 20 percent set aside for future missions, 30 percent to bribe government officials, and the rest split between the pirates and their henchmen, who can number in the hundreds. The strings are pulled by Somali businessmen based in Kenya, Djibouti, Dubai, and even London. They have translators, accountants, money inspectors—an entire white-collar network that manages the operations from afar. Mwangura and other pirate experts told me that the investors have deep connections to Somalia’s government, especially in the semiautonomous region of Puntland, where Boosaaso is. They estimated that on any given day, as many as 1,500 gunmen go out in skiffs to hunt down the ships, and thousands more work onshore guarding the captives.

Ransoms are normally paid in hand-offs on the ship, though in January, nearly two months after pirates had hijacked the Sirius Star, a Saudi supertanker, $3 million was dropped in a watertight orange case by an unmarked plane, the cash literally floating down by parachute and landing on the deck of the ship. After the pirates divvied up the booty, they were so anxious to get back to shore that they left in the middle of a storm. One of their skiffs capsized, and several pirates drowned. The body of one washed up on the beach with a soggy brick of $670,000 wrapped in his clothes, his $70,000 share plus an additional $600,000 for the investors. When I and a reporter working for me in Mogadishu tried to find out who that money belonged to, nobody in Xarardheere, the pirate town where the body was found, seemed to know. Some young kids onshore tried to run away with the cash, but elders swooped in, knowing that at some point the investors, wherever they were, would come calling.

*****

in november, I took the train from Nairobi down to Mombasa, the steamy port town on Kenya’s coast, and bribed my way past the port’s main gate ($5 smacked with a smile into the guard’s hand) to meet a Kenyan sailor named Athman Said Mangore, who brought me onto his jalopy of a ship. We sat in his fishy-smelling cabin, and he told me how he had been a captive for three months, kidnapped when he was working as a crew member on a ship sailing from Mombasa to Boosaaso with a shipment of rice for the United Nations World Food Program.

Three pirate skiffs struck in the dark, Mangore told me. “We didn’t see them until they were on board.” They were led by an older pirate named Captain Grey, who seemed to know the Somali seas intimately. “He was all right,” Mangore remembered. “A short guy. Thin. Serious.” Captain Grey tried to maintain discipline, Mangore said, and when he was present, the younger pirates didn’t slap around their captives. But when he left, the pirates grew restless and wild. “They sprayed the windshield of the bridge with their guns,” Mangore said. “They were angry about there not being enough water.”

The pirates were often high on khat, the mildly stimulating leaf that Somalis chew like bubble gum. It was three months of hell living with them, Mangore said. His only redeeming memory, he told me, was of seeing a hundred-foot-long whale crash up through the water and then disappear. “I will never forget it,” he said.

You would think that, with piracy such a threat to world trade, there would be a more concerted and robust response. But so far, no one seems to want to fully take the problem on. Some shipping companies are now hiring their own defenders, private security contractors fresh from Iraq who are taking gigs riding along as extra muscle on merchant voyages. I met a bunch of these guys lounging on a beach in Oman, swigging Heineken and talking about how, if it were up to them, they’d make the pirates walk the plank. Most had shaved heads and thick, tattooed arms, but that was it. No guns, no armaments. The ports in this region—with the exception of those in Somalia—don’t allow weapons, and the guards are forced to confront machine-gun-toting pirates with fire hoses. (In one attack, Filipino sailors unsuccessfully pelted pirates with tomatoes.)

As for why the rest of the world doesn’t want to get more involved, part of the problem has to do with the perceived legal complications of capturing and prosecuting pirates (though international-law scholars I spoke with say any country can arrest and prosecute robbers on the high seas). Then there’s the bigger fear of getting sucked back into Somalia. Most military experts I’ve talked to say the only way to really stamp out piracy is to take out the pirates onshore. But there’s the rub, because no one wants to put boots on Somali ground. The Black Hawk Down episode, in which Somali militiamen in flip-flops shot down two Black Hawk helicopters and killed eighteen American soldiers, is still fresh in everyone’s memory. So for now it remains a game of chase, played out on about a million square miles of water.

I went out in December with the Italian navy on a pirate hunt, cruising the Arabian Sea on a 485-foot destroyer loaded with torpedoes, surface-to-air-missiles, heavy-caliber machine guns, radar, sonar, and infrared cameras. The Italians served up some great coffee and a mean buffet, but I got the sense that they wouldn’t know what to do with a real-live pirate if they caught one. The captain told me their mission was to escort food ships and scare away the pirates. They didn’t even have a brig on board, he said.

The Danish navy has arrested suspected pirates several times, apprehending young Somali men cruising around in speedboats with guns, ladders, and no fishing rods. But each time, the Danes concluded they didn’t have the jurisdiction to prosecute because there was no evidence that the pirates had attacked Danish citizens.

The strategy right now is to deter attacks and then, if a ship gets hijacked, to “negotiate”—which is what the diplomats say when what they really mean is “pay off the pirates.” And in each case, it actually makes sense to fork over the ransom. Even 2 or 3 million bucks (the highest ransoms yet) are cheaper than a new ship or a cargo of tanks or taking out life insurance for two dozen men. But taken as a whole, the ransom strategy is fueling the piracy and drawing in more wannabe buccaneers. And no shipping company wants to be the first to call the pirates’ bluff.

As of late January, the Faina was still being held by pirates, despite the six American warships and Russian frigate pinning it against the shore. Ukrainian officials were begging the Americans not to make any rash moves. Payment would be coming, the Ukrainians assured the pirates, but there seemed to be some dispute over who was going to pay—the shipowner or the owner of the tanks or the families of the crew. (At the time of publication, the Israeli owner of the ship appeared to be close to agreeing on a ransom, although this had been rumored before.) The awkward reality is that the Faina was part of a secret arms deal, and no one involved believed it would ever be made public, until that SOS went out. It’s exactly the kind of situation—a ship filled with illegal weapons, captured by well-armed and desperate and unpredictable men, surrounded by boats with massive amounts of firepower—that could spiral very quickly out of control.

*****

in somalia, especially in Boosaaso, the local government is more than happy to throw pirates in jail. The leaders in Puntland are savvy enough to know that the Western world is fed up with the pirates, and the last thing they want is U.N. troops coming on land and shutting them down with force. Publicly, the officials say they are doing all they can to crack down on piracy. Privately, though, several Boosasso officials told me the government was rolling in pirate dough. “I know for a fact people in the Puntland administration are pirates,” one member of the administration told me. When I pressed him for names, though, all he would say is, “It’s not me.”

Suspect number one is Mohamud Muse Hirsi, also known as Adde Muse, who was the president of Puntland until his colleagues ousted him in January. Many pirate experts say that Adde Muse works closely with the pirates and that there is no way Boosaaso could be the place it is today without his involvement. Several pirates told me that they, too, had to dish Adde Muse and his associates Barbary-style “tribute’’ payments to keep operating.

When I visited him in October, Adde Muse bristled at the suggestion that he might be corrupt. “That’s not true,’’ he scolded. “We’re the leaders of this country.’’ The shades were drawn in his dimly lit office, but he still had his sunglasses on. He looked a bit like a gangster slouching in his chair, surrounded by sycophants, his copious soft belly spilling out of his shirt. He was a warlord not so long ago, and he had the same warlord habits I’d encountered in Somalia many times before—short on listening skills, physically intimidating but also, at the same time, friendly and seemingly aware of the absurdity of this whole place.

Adde Muse said his militia had recently arrested several dozen men who were planning attacks and that the pirates had been sentenced to a year in jail. “You want to see them?” he asked me. “You are free.”

We jumped into our tinted-window truck and drove out of the presidential palace, past the parking lot full of technicals (the distinctly Somali invention of a jeep with the roof ripped off and a cannon riveted on back), and headed again through the fields of garbage to the outskirts of Boosaaso. The jail was down a gravel road, and since we had been given the big man’s approval, the ancient wardens scrambled to their feet when we arrived and nervously dug into their pockets for their rings of keys.

They walked us briskly toward the cellblock, which had a basketball court in the middle. Guards with AK-47’s prowled the tops of the prison walls. Inmates in the cellblocks thrust their arms through the bars and pleaded for water. They were packed into bare concrete rooms like sheep being led to slaughter. Some were old and shriveled. Some were just boys, including a tender-faced kid I met who’d slipped a knife into someone’s ribs for teasing him. When I first walked into the courtyard, I turned to a nearby inmate who’d said hello to me in perfect English and asked him where I could find some pirates.

“Pirates? Pirates?’’ he exclaimed, staring at me like I was an idiot. “This jail is full of pirates! This whole city is pirates!’’

I quickly learned the pirates had special status here. They were the only inmates not cooped up in the filthy, sauna-like cells. They lounged freely on the basketball court, men with wispy beards and little, stony eyes. At first, none of them would look straight at me. They’d say something bold, like how they’ve made “big money, big money, a million bucks!” and then flick back their filthy heads and cackle. I scribbled down the quotes, sweat dripping off my face, woozy from the heat and the ripe, musky aroma of hundreds of unwashed men. One after the other told me about how rich he was, how rich they all were, how they had so much money they could have whatever they wanted.

One of them, Jama Abdullahi, was a tall, lean pirate with a checkered, Arab-style scarf and a serious case of ADD. I chased him around the basketball court as I interviewed him. He spoke some English, telling me the name of his operation was “Somali Coast Land.’’

“You mean ‘Coast Guard,’ ’’ another pirate shot in.

“Whatever,’’ Jama grunted. And he plunged back into the stories about cruising around in fast boats packed with AKs, RPGs, and bazookas, hijacking whatever crossed his path. “We got more than 500 people working for us,” he said. “We make millions.”

Who knows, maybe this was true. Maybe for a bunch of them it was true. Maybe they had million-dollar homes in New Boosaaso with Land Rovers parked in front of them. Maybe when they went into town, the women swooned around them and gave them whatever they desired. Certainly this was the case for some of Somalia’s pirates, but the more I talked to these guys, the more their bravado struck me as an act and the sadder it began to seem.

The real pirate money was going elsewhere, to men who wore suits and had secretaries and went to offices in towering buildings, men who would never see this jail and likely never even see the shitty, lawless city of Boosaaso. The notion that the Somali pirates were Robin Hoods fighting back by going after the boats that have raped their seas—that notion is nothing but a sentimental fantasy to lay over the much uglier reality of Somalia. At best, the richest men in Boosaaso are just the current iteration of the country’s infamous warlords, making millions off the chaos around them and spreading some of that wealth to the grunts beneath them. That wasn’t these guys. These guys were fighting just to survive. They picked up a Kalashnikov and got on a boat because it was their way to eat.

We stood in a disappearing slice of shade. They were sickeningly skinny, with protruding collarbones and twiggy legs, most of them around six feet tall and 120 pounds. They had cracked yellow teeth. Their eyes were rheumy, and their hands were calloused by years of pulling in nets. What they really wanted to talk about was fishing. A pirate named Dirie told me about his old fishing boat. “Eight tons,” he said, smiling. “An inboard engine, three pistons.” He said that after the fish vanished from near the shore, he took his boat farther out into the ocean. But the big foreign fishing trawlers cut his nets and sent him home. Jama joined in the conversation. He was calmer now, talking about his family’s seafood business, now defunct, how lobster and shark were the big sellers. His dad and his grandfather had both been fishermen. “Brother,” he said, as he stared at the coils of razor wire all around him, “I miss the seas.”

jeffrey gettleman is the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times.