Live from Sound City: on site at ground zero for Dave Grohl’s new film

Deep in the most decrepit part of the valley, on a street that smells bad, in the shadow of a giant neon Budweiser sign, I find a building called Sound City Center. It looks like hell, so it must be the right place. Spend enough time in Los Angeles and you come to learn that the best music tends to be made in the worst looking buildings. The top concert venues all look like they’ve been burned in a fire, and the studios where your favorite albums were made tend to be located on the dark side streets of neighborhoods you’d have no reason to ever want to be in. That’s the premise behind the new Dave Grohl documentary entitled Sound City, which documents the low-rent music studio in which some of the most popular rock records of the 70s, 80s and 90s were recorded. As ugly as the place looked from the outside, the film reveals that it looked even worse on the inside as bands like Fleetwood Mac and Nirvana became who they were within those four unkempt walls. And while the true magic of Sound City was it one of a kind mixing board, which has since been relocated to Grohl’s house, I decide I have to go see the building for myself. It’s not far.

My drive takes me north on Sepulveda Boulevard seven miles into the valley, just after sunset, passing the strip clubs while narrowly avoiding an older gentleman who’s jaywalking while urgently clutching a coffee maker, then southwest onto a crummy backroad and finally northwest onto another even crummier backroad. I find myself wondering how many legendary musicians got lost over the years while trying to find this dump. I pull into the front gate, wide open even after dark, and into the parking lot in the center of it all. I spot the parking ramp from the film, which confirms without any doubt that this is in fact the place of legend. It takes me a moment to gather my faculties before get out of the car, not so much because this is the place where Nirvana recorded Nevermind, but because this is the kind of creepy after-dark locale from which people don’t emerge unscathed if they’re not paying attention to who might be coming up behind them. I imagine Rage Against The Machine having fun at the idea of recording at a landfill like this. It’s harder to reconcile the fact that Barry Manilow once pulled into this driveway as well.

soundcity1 300x139 Live from Sound City: on site at ground zero for Dave Grohls new film
The studio has changed hands, but the name of the facade hasn’t.

Stepping out of the car, I hear the sound of a kick drum. The old “Sound City” studio now has another name on the front door, even though they left original name out front. Wouldn’t it be fitting, I fancy to myself, if that’s Grohl in there jamming on the drums right now for the next Foo Fighters record. But it only takes seconds to recognize that it’s not his trademark stick work coming from inside. I find myself wanting to knock on the door, wanting to play journalist (or perhaps just play dumb) with whoever answers, wanting to find a way to finagle myself into the room where all that music of legend was made. Then I realize there’s only one car in the lot other than my own, which means the drummer is in there by himself. If I bang on the door, he’s going to have to stop his recording work to come deal with me. I remind myself that there are only really two rules to music journalism. The first, whose underlying stories will have to wait for another day, is that no matter how close you might get personally with the musicians you cover, your readers are still your real constituents, not the musicians. The second and most sacred, and the one which applies here, is that you never risk screwing with a musician’s recording process in the name of getting your story.

Finding disappointment in my own unwillingness to be selfish, but knowing I’m doing the right thing, I take a few external pictures and get back in my car without knocking on that door. After all, what if some idiot like me had banged on that same door in 1991 and forced Dave Grohl to get off his drums and stop the tape to come answer it? In such case, Smells Like Teen Spirit might have a different drum track than the one that went down in history. Besides, I don’t need to physically be in that room to feel closer to the music I love which was recorded there. All I really need to do is go home and fire up my favorite albums which emanated from it.

oakwood 300x196 Live from Sound City: on site at ground zero for Dave Grohls new film
Nirvana used to live down the street from me. Who knew?

But before leaving, it occurs to me that if I can find Sound City with such ease on a whim, just a few miles from where I live, then perhaps I can find the Oakwood Apartments that the film says the guys from Nirvana lived in while recording here. The map says there are several buildings named Oakwood in Los Angeles, but the only one that’s within twenty miles of the studio is located back down on… wait, that can’t be right. It’s on my street. Sure enough, I drive back home and learn that Nirvana used to reside down the street from where I live now.

Of course Sound City was less about the room and more about its legendary mixing board. If I ever feel like I need to get my hands on that board, I’ll just have to find a way to convince Dave Grohl to let me come over to his house and play with it. Stranger things have happened in this strange career – and after all, Dave and I are neighbors, twenty years removed. If his documentary drives home one pure truth, it’s that no matter how legendary they may be, your favorite musicians are just people – perhaps most clearly highlighted by the fact that Mr. Grohl and Mr. Novoselic and Mr. Cobain had to drive the same exact roads to get to the studio to record Nevermind each day that I’ve driven tonight. And who knows, perhaps they also had to swerve to avoid hitting the same man clutching his coffee maker.

Bill Gates Connects via Reddit AMA to spread vaccine awareness

Earlier today, Bill Gates reached out via reddit, a social news website popular in the tech community, by participating in an “Ask Me Anything”, or AMA. The format of such a thread allows reddit users to ask questions of notable personalities, who are verified when they post a photo of themselves holding a piece of paper bearing their username. Gates, who recently appeared on Colbert Report, seems to be aiming at raising awareness about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and away from Microsoft. On reddit, he explained, “The company remains very important to me and I’m still chairman. But today my full time work is with the foundation. Melinda and I believe that everyone deserves the chance for a healthy and productive life – and so with the help of our amazing partners, we are working to find innovative ways to help people in need all over the world.”

Throughout the AMA, Gates showed his humorous side, answering questions about his money, his favorite band, his feeling about the future of technology, and even a question about his relationship with Steve Jobs, stating “He and I respected each other. Our biggest joint project was the Mac where Microsoft had more people on the project than Apple did as we wrote a lot of applications. I saw Steve regularly over the years including spending an afternoon with him a few months before he tragically passed away…”

The heart of his message, and his truly passionate answers, regarded the importance of creating vaccines, and getting those to people in need. The use of reddit to raise awareness is a genius move on Gates’ part, and, unlike a certain movie star whose behavior during his own AMA made him the brunt of much ridicule, Gates handled his question answering with finesse.

Here is a short video Gates prepared before the AMA in which he pre-answers a few questions. Be sure to check out the rest of the thread here, and you can read more at Gate’s website, The Gates Notes.

Review: The Hobbit Movie Is An Unexpected Lemon

I can remember back when everyone seemed to be excited for the movie adaptation of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Because Peter Jackson had done such a great job with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it felt as though his latest project, The Hobbit, would be even greater. When The Hobbit came out at the end of last year, many people raved about it. I was curious to know if it was at least as good as Jackson’s last trilogy or if it was all just hype. I asked my friends, my trusted friends, the very friends I know to be tolerant of only the finest of Hollywood’s productions, for their opinion of The Hobbit. These highly dependable comrades did not hesitate in declaring their most excitable endorsements for the movie. Shortly after the release, I checked the reviews of movie critics both online and in the newspaper. At the time, I found that none of them had anything negative to say about The Hobbit. Based on all my research, I concluded that the evidence was stacked in favor Jackson’s latest epic.

Fast forward to February of this year. The 85th Annual Academy Awards will air on February 24, 2013. The Hobbit is up for three awards: Best Production Design, Best Visual Effects, and Best Makeup & Hairstyling. No doubt, awards won in some of these categories would be well deserved. However, the movie is not up for some award categories in particular which, based on the fanfare, I am surprised by. Those categories would be Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay to name a few. All three installments of The Lord of the Rings trilogy were up for such awards, so why wasn’t The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey nominated? In short, the Hobbit did not earn a nomination for Best Picture because The Hobbit turned out to be a terrible movie. It was bad simply because Jackson chose to dumb down the story with lowbrow humor, implausible action scenes at every turn and substantial changes which detract from the original story. Instead of looking to the millions who have read and loved Tolkein’s fairy tale, Jackson peddled to the lowest common denominator with bad Hollywood standard clichés.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the original book, The Hobbit, as a fairy tale for children. It was short and simple, placing character development and morality at the core of the story. Tolkien drew from his experiences in the First World War, his personal philosophies of humanity, and his perspective of governments to give a realistic feel to the story. Of course, I understand that when a movie is adapted from a book, some sacrifices are required because of the change in media. However, one of the things that made The Lord of the Rings trilogy so great was the time and effort taken by Peter Jackson in capturing the grandeur of the books in a visual form. Those adaptations felt true to the spirit of the books, which, at the time of their release was a huge concern. Yet, in The Hobbit, it seems Jackson fell victim to poor judgment. The shift from the first trilogy to this new one seems to echo the infamous shift seen in the most recent Star Wars movies.

In Jackson’s version of The Hobbit, he decided that it would be a good idea to incorporate characters that only existed in The Lord of the Rings. At the same time, he fabricated a nemesis for the troupe solely to provide an obvious and excessively violent tension. Perhaps his breaking the story into three parts made the first third of The Hobbit seem a little bland without violence. Regardless of the reasoning, it was unnecessary to make such changes. Some of these changes served only to make direct nods to Jackson’s own trilogy a decade ago. Examples of this would be Gandalf’s staff slamming while screaming something cool, the ring falling onto the hobbit’s finger, and wild fight scenes through a labyrinth of tunnels underground.

Of course, it could be argued that someone who is not familiar with Tolkien’s original works wouldn’t know that there is a difference from the books, so how could this movie be so terrible? Well, there are many instances independent of the original book that brings the quality of this movie down to gutter level. Instead of taking an expressive stance like a true artist, Jackson filled scenes involving the dwarves with crude jokes, fat-person insults, pratfalls, and inconsistent personality traits. Additionally, there was such a negative tone throughout the movie that I never felt happy while watching the film. Every character seemed to find something to dispute, object to, complain about, or disparage. I can understand some internal conflict within the party. However, Thorin’s bigotry and aggression toward Bilbo for simply being a Hobbit, another useless and confusing fabrication by Jackson, prevented me from liking the dwarven character. Even when Thorin initiated a Jackson-created battle at the end of the movie and suffered mortal wounds, I was unmoved. Of course, Jackson tries to mend this tension with a classic use of Deus Ex Machina seasoned with the flavor of a touching 80’s after-school special.

Finally, there were the juvenile, lowbrow, sad, and gratuitous helpings of grossness. The Goblin King’s CG neck waddle, looking like a swinging, half-deflated goiter, looked better animated than some of the major action sequences throughout the movie. Unfortunately, the undulating mass was so distracting that I missed most of what the character had to say. The scene with the trolls certainly did not need to have explicit displays of mucus projected into food. I did not need to hear the sound of flatulence or belching coming from the dwarves. In addition, the obese dwarf named Bombur was so overweight that he broke the marble bench he was sitting on when he caught more food tossed to him. It was clear that Jackson was actually trying to elicit a laugh from the 12 year olds in the audience with crudeness.

Peter Jackson has had a great run with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is unfortunate to see that instead of trying to capture the essence of the story as he did with the original trilogy, he tried to recreate The Lord of the Rings and add more CG. His substantial reworking of a classic like The Hobbit, done without a nod to the millions of readers who loved Tolkein’s innocent moral and witty story, shows his utter disregard for the audience and for the original literature. I enjoy the work of Peter Jackson over all. I just hope he does not continue with this carelessness, or else he may end up like a certain Mr. Lucas.