Monday, 28 November 2016

Interview with Jason Vuic, author of The Yucks

What was the genesis or beginnings of your research for The Yucks?

Well, I grew up in Florida.  I was born and raised there in a town called Punta Gorda about 100 miles south of Tampa.  I vaguely remember the Bucs run to the 1979 NFC Championship Game, but became a Bucs fan myself when several team members came to my local high school in 1981 or 1982 for a charity basketball game.  That's when I met Doug Williams, the Bucs' quarterback.  He looked like a super hero to me, plus he was an African-American quarterback in a league with no African-American quarterbacks, which even then, as an eight or nine year old, I found fascinating.  So, from then on I was a Bucs fan, even when Williams left the team in 1983 in a contract dispute, and even after the so-called "the Curse of Doug WIlliams," when the Bucs franchise suffered a mind-boggling 14 losing seasons in a row.  Years later I became a writer, and decided for my third book that I wanted to do something on my love affair with what historically has been the losingest franchise in the history of the league. 

Did it feel like a story too good to be true?

Yes, in some respects.  But that's what you look for as a writer...a story that's funny enough and interesting enough and engaging enough to carry the reader through 200 pages.  I also look for stories that defy common tropes.  My focus with The Yucks was on the worst team in NFL history, specifically the 1976 and 1977 Buccaneer teams that lost an all-time record 26 games in a row.  I didn't want to do a worst-to-first story, or a "Bad New Bears" story.  Those are too easy, and to me, boring. I wanted to write about how the Bucs began as a franchise and how and why they suffered through such a horrible losing streak. 

You grew up in the Florida area, do you recall the Yucks when you were younger?
Absolutely.  To us, growing up, Tampa was the big city...a somewhat distant city.  Interstate I-75, the main thorough south from Atlanta to Tampa and on south to Ft. Myers and Naples and across Alligator Alley to Miami, hadn't been finished yet.  We're talking in the early 1980s.  So, as a kid, my father and I would leave the house early in the morning, and drive light to light to light up old US 41, "Tamiami Trail," to attend Buccaneer games.  We'd get there, sit for hours in the roasting sun, watch the Bucs get their asses beat, then return home.  We get back at dark, tired and exhausted but somehow satisfied we'd gone through the effort. 

Have you always been an NFL fan?

Yes, certainly.  I've wavered in recent years, preferring college basketball and football, but NFL football has been America's most popular sport since at least 1970, and as kids we were a party to that.  I imagine its like the Premier League in Europe.  You can ignore it, or you can try to ignore it, but the most popular teams and players are cultural icons.

The stories of McKay thinking his college ideology could translate easily to the NFL still resonates with how illustrious college coaches falter at the professional level like Nick Saban and now Chip Kelly? Why did McKay fail and why does that step up still trip people up?

Well, McKay failed in the short run.  But he was, by 1979, the only coach to take an expansion team to the playoffs in 4 years.  That was the fastest any coach had ever done it.  I would say that McKay's college-like offense was incredibly simplistic, but he proved that with an elite defense and the right personnel, he could ultimately run it.  But, because there was no free agency in the NFL at the that time, it took several years of drafts, of drafting young players from the college ranks, to do it.

As for the jump from college to the pros...It's a different game.  The players are adults, not kids.  They're professionals, and it takes a different sort of finesse to get them to play for you.  The techniques you use to motivate college kids are different from the techniques you use with the pros.  Offenses are far more complex, too, and everyone at every position on every team, is a 1 percenter.  By that I mean...roughly 1% of high school kids play football in college, and just 1% of those make it to the pros. So scouting is fundamentally important.  A good player-personnel director and a good general manager are fundamentally important, too, and college coaches sometimes find it difficult to relinquish control.   

Do you feel failing like Steve Spurrier did at the Bucs drive him to succeed in coaching?

Maybe not specifically due to his one season with the Bucs, but I'd say, after spending his career on the bench in San Francisco, he was certainly unfulfilled.  This was a guy who won the Heisman Award at Florida, the award for the nation's best college player, but then was a backup quarterback for 8 or 9 years with a bad 49ers team.  He then lost every game in 1976 with the Bucs. Maybe coaching was a way to scratch the itch, as they say, or maybe to prove himself to his peers. Who knows?

What was the funniest story you came across?

 My favorite story, or stories, involved the Bucs' first owner, Hugh Culverhouse.  He was, without a doubt, the cheapest owner in the history of professional sports.  A tax attorney by training, Culverhouse was a micro-manager and a bean counter, and learned that he could pocket his portion of the NFL's TV and merchandising revenues while squeezing the team to make money.  For years, the Bucs had the fewest employees and the smallest headquarters in the league.  He'd trade away costly first-round draft picks for older, cheaper veterans, and he scrimped on team expenses in a variety of ways.  The team's airplane, for example, was leased not from American or United, but from McCullogh Chainsaws.  Once, when a player separated his shoulder in a game and trainers had to cut off his jersey to treat him, Culverhouse billed him for it. He billed roommates 38 cents each for a 75 cent phone call. There was a Coke machine in the locker room that charged players for Cokes. He was so cheap, in fact, that he gave each team employee one season ticket, because he knew that no one went to a pro football game alone.

Was there anything you could not print?

There were a few funny stories which were off the record. I wish I could tell you them but I can't.  I've promised not to.

-Have you been pleased by the response of the book?

The response has been great. I've done 20 or so radio and TV interviews, and a Florida book tour, and recently did Only a Game on NPR.  Sports Illustrated also did a snippet on the book as did the Christian Science Monitor. It's been a good run.

I notice you are not on Twitter, is that deliberate?

Yes, I'm kind of a Luddite when it comes to new media. I also didn't want to get into a tit for tat with current Buccaneer fans who didn't know where I was coming from. I love the Bucs, and this book was my way of coming to terms with their difficult history and origins.

I'm thinking about a true crime story though I plan to return to sports someday to do a book on the coming of the three-point line and the shot clock to college basketball. Those two things really did change the game.  Who knows? Maybe I'll do a second Yucks book someday, something like the "The Curse of Doug Williams," about the terrible teams of the 1980s.

The Yucks is out now from Simon & Schuster in Hardback available from all good book retailers.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Interview with Roland Lazenby, Author of 'Showboat'

       Why Kobe Bryant?
He was a player I first became interested in years ago, in 1996 while writing about Jordan. I decided to take a look at the new generation of players coming into the league to see which ones might inherit the mantle. He wasn’t a prime player as a rookie, but he stood out because of his immense work ethic. After I finished Michael Jordan, The Life, I began looking for another subject to write about. Sonny Vaccaro, the basketball kingmaker, suggested Bryant. “He’s the most complicated guy in the NBA,” Vaccaro said. He was right.

      How long did the book take to write?
      The publisher wanted me to write it in 10 months. I finished it in 14, writing seven days a week, 10-14 hours a day. It was quite a grind, but his story was fascinating to me.

      Bryant transcends his sport yet he seems an introvert personality. Was it hard to get people to talk about him?
      Yes, some people were fearful of upsetting him, just as some media personalities have admitted being fearful of having me on their shows because they don’t want to anger him. It’s an independent look, a biography, which can be difficult for huge stars. They all like to control their narrative, but Kobe really wants to control his narrative.

      Did your opinion of Bryant change as you wrote the book and got to the end?
      It varied depending on what part of the book I was writing. I wrote a book about his adjustment to the NBA in 1999, called Mad Game, The NBA Education of Kobe Bryant, when he was 19 to 21. I thought I understood him. I had no idea.

      Do you feel the criticism that Bryant did not play well with others (O'Neal in particular) ring true?
      In the book, I lay out the criticisms over that. Jordan caught the same flak. It’s a function of their skill, their talent, their personalities, their alpha competitive natures.

      Where does he sit in your list of all-time great NBA players?
      I don’t make lists of all time greats. I’m just a writer. I let those guys settle it on the court. Kobe is 3 on the all-time scoring list. As he says, that puts him in the conversation. It’s hard to claim superiority over guys like Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Magic Johnson (in no certain order).

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      What is the most impressive feat of his career? - 5 titles, the 81 game, the longevity of his career?
      Well, you’re supposed to play the game to win. I’ll take championships every time, especially five of them.
      Will he succeed if he ran a team? Will he be better than Jordan did?
      I admire Jordan as an owner. He took Charlotte, the Chernobyl of the NBA, and has revitalized that miserable franchise. Kobe’s a bright man, so he could certainly be an owner. He’s a bit aloof at times, but the people who work for his media companies seem to enjoy him. It would be a new gig, so I think we have to withhold judgment and see if that’s where he goes.
      What is the state of the NBA right now?
      The NBA is a young league, and the game has gone to a new style. Some of it, the Warriors, is beautiful. But the pace and space style of today’s game also makes for some ugly teams. You just have to wait and see if post play makes a recovery in the game. Whatever happens, it’s going to take time.

Will we ever see another Kobe Bean Bryant?
Not in today’s game. It has changed. Kobe and Michael were very effective post players as guards. But the game is a jump-shooting game these days, make or miss. And fans deride the triangle offense as something from the past. One of the earliest offenses was screen and roll but people act like it’s a new invention.

Showboat is out now from Little Brown and Company now for £19.95 RRP, although the kindle edition is better with more pages.

Thursday, 24 November 2016


Hot on the heels of a great word of mouth throughout the festival circuit this year, Jim Jarmusch's most accessible film in ages appears in the UK release by Soda Pictures on Friday 25th November.

Paterson stars Adam Driver as the eponymous main protagonist who lives in a city of the same name in New Jersey. Paterson is a bus driver who lives with his girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and their English bulldog, Marvin.

Paterson is a city rich in cultural history of America, it is where Lou Costello (of Abbott and Costello lore) was born and their are near neighbours such as Iggy Pop (long time friend of Jarmusch) and renowned poets William Carlos Williams. Paterson, himself, is a would be poet and on his bus journeys throughout the day he listens to passengers and during his lunch break he sits at the famous Passaic Falls.

Using a trope familiar from those who have seen Amy (Asif Kapadia), we see what Paterson writes as he puts it to page. The use of Driver's bass voiceover is effectively used as he recites it as if he is reading, when it is fully formed we hear a more confident rendition.  The poems featured are by real-life Ron Padgett, who swam in circles along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

Paterson is a unique soul in a small city - he is observant taking in the landscape as he walks from the bus factory to home, as many creative souls he listens to what is around him and not afraid to have conversations. Paterson does not have a mobile phone, he feels it is would be a leash and a burden on his creative freedom.

Critics may well say that Paterson yearns for a by-gone era of creativity, however, Jarmusch is making a comment on the power of individuality and freedom. Paterson was in the army so he has spent a portion of his adult life being ordered what to do, wanting that freedom to do what he wants to do is supported by his girlfriend, Laura.

Laura, herself, is a creative soul one who wants to be a country singer, can cook amazing cupcakes and has an eye for interior design.  Their relationship is one of immense support and companionship, they praise each other and are there for each other.  Critics again, might point at Laura as a manifestation of the post WW2 perfect housewife - cooks, house proud, domestic - which is not exactly an advancement of feminism in this the 21st century.

Yet perhaps in this difficult time in the country's history with a tumultuous political landscape and race relations; Jarmusch has created a film that is part time capsule and can show America how life can be without the advancement of technology, Paterson (the city) itself seems a bit out of time or frozen with the necessity of bus travel, black and white cinema and a bar without television; yet there is an idealised depiction of community with comfortable race relations, something for America to currently aspire to itself, and that something marvellous can grow out of the unlikeliest environments.

Whilst the film is a meditation piece it nevertheless does hold your attention and features from Driver, a quite charming and soulful performance of an individual with a burning desire to write and be loved whilst given equal love in return.

Paterson is in selected cinemas from Soda Pictures on Friday 25th November.

Monday, 21 November 2016

In praise of...Star Wars Minute

Star Wars Minute

In recent years, podcasting has become the go to for further analysis and insightful discussion about all manner of topics. For this reviewer it is a go to for all NFL, football, current media and arts. From Bill Simmons to The Guardian via Colin Cowherd, these podcasts give great information and keep abreast of all goings on. Whilst it may make the listener feel like they are being spoken to, the garnering of information from various source makes you a more nuanced and knowledgable consumer.

And when on social media you become aware of other podcasts and products of discussion which led me to becoming aware of the Star Wars minute podcast. A podcast by Alex Robinson and Peter the Retailer, two self confessed Star Wars nerds who took on the impossible task of analysing, scrutinizing and celebrating every Star Wars film one minute at a time.

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That means every minute, including credits of each of the now seven films.  They started with Episode IV - A New Hope and have gone in chronological order of production. When I first encountered them they were thirty minutes into The Phantom Menace, so I had some catching up to do. Nearly a year into listening to them I have listened to all of Phantom Menace and Jedi, I am an hour into Empire with Attack of the Clones just started.

My praise for the podcast is that it is consistently witty and funny; its constant poo-pooing of the idea of the force as being categorised by midichlorians, Obi-Wan Kenobi being a complete liar throughout the films, the long con of Senator Palpatine and Yoda having a Grover moment, after all he is a Muppet.  Even to the point that Jar-Jar Binks is not the worst thing about The Phantom Menace

It utilises the guests - look forward to the episodes of Chris Radtke - to great effect and the ambition of the idea has clearly come to fruition as they are now the godfathers of minute-by-minute podcasting.

There influence can now be seen by the number of films being dissected in this manner from Back to the Future to Alien cycle to Ghostbusters. They have created a market that cinephiles, geeks and nerds all together can celebrate their favourite films. 

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What comes across most in each pod is the reach of cultural knowledge that the two presenters have, using all that hidden away vaults of past television programming, obscure films and catchphrases to good use when talking about Yoda's bulging eyes when Luke Skywalker attempts to lift the X-Wing out of the swampy waters, they reference Don Knotts from Three's Company and Marty Feldman of the 1970s. It shows how influential televisual culture was on children born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and how important those programmes were as avatars of parenting and moulding of children.

The podcast is growing more and more, they have just begun Attack of the Clones as I mentioned and while I look forward to them dissecting the worst episode of the Star Wars cycle there promises more to come with Revenge of the Sith this time next year and eventually The Force Awakens in 2018.

You can support Star Wars Minute via Patreon, where you can access bonus episodes and help keep the website going. And follow them on Twitter @StarWarsMinute

There is a great community of Star Wars fans who went quiet before the second trilogy appeared in 1999 and since has got stronger. With Disney buying out George Lucas and now owning the franchise, the forthcoming origin films of Han Solo, Lando and Boba Fett promise that the community will only get bigger and this sharing of affection and love of the film will keep getting stronger.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Tasseomancy : Do Easy

The Canadian duo Tasseomancy made up of twins Sari and Romy Lightman release their new album on the Bella Union label on Friday 18th November.

The new album combines the folk foundations of the pair along with the psychedelic influences of with experimental pop art.

Influences abound throughout the album from Kate Bush to PJ Harvey to other ambient electronic sounds that are awash on many tracks. Personally I found a lot of the tracks to be hard to listen to and not capable of crossing to the mainstream apart from the lead single and title track 'Do Easy':

This track is the one that grabs your attention due to the unique combination of the dual vocals by the twins along with a quite hypnotic bassline. The only other tracks that comes close to matching the level of 'Do Easy' is third track on the album 'Jimi Infiniti' for possible cross-over appeal and 2nd single, 29 Palms

All in all, an album that on paper looked good but unfortunately did not totally convince once committed to the studio and a chance missed to perhaps do something special.

'Do Easy' is released by Bella Union on Friday 18th November.

My thanks to OneBeatPR for the preview listen

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Netflix and the Current Climate of Sitcom

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When saving for a house with your lovely girlfriend you need to make sacrifices, you need to do away with treats as you used to term them. That means making do without visits to the cinema or meals out at Pizza Express every week. It means being with the one you love, sharing those time together so all money can go into savings towards a better and brighter future in your first step on the property ladder.

A benefit of this also means committing to a different viewing practice of television. Luckily, my girlfriend had a Netflix account but this was in the early days of the provider. We used it initially for catching up and bingeing on Breaking Bad, then we noticed that the company started to release more original content. Firstly, with comedy specials by John Mullaney, then they went into original half hour format of comedy sitcoms vehicles for specific talent.

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First to appear was Master of None by Aziz Ansari (who co-starred in Parks and Recreations) wrote and starred in this semi-autobiographical sitcom of a struggling Asian actor in the big city coping with pigeon-hole casting and casual racism, whilst also incorporating Ansari's rye eye on relationships in the modern world.

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The cherry on the cake though is possibly Joe Swanberg's Easy; an anthology of eight episodes set in Chicago starring a multitude of talent from American independent cinema but where Swanberg as writer and director is given a platform to for a larger audience to access his work.

Swanberg who came from the Mumblecore movement of ten years ago, has always been able to write relationships and like the better writers of the last 30 years in American cinema, can write women well and effectively, something his sometime mentor Apatow struggles regularly with.

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Swanberg puts his lense and scripts on differing relationships. From a marriage of 15 years struggling to add fire back into the bedroom, to a lesbian love affair that could be make or break by the adoption of vegan eating practices.  Yet he also comments on how people change in a relationship or struggle to adapt to the big life changes in their life such as impending fatherhood or new employment.

Swanberg by employing a revolving door of talent makes it easy (pardon the pun) for us to not fall in love with characters, historically the appeal of sitcom is you would want to be friends with the Friends cast - yet by having just a swift peek into this couple's life, we are now in a position of either taking it or leaving it without the need for a fully committed 24 episode season as is the want on network television.

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The Ranch, meanwhile, is one of the more consistently funny sitcoms of recent years. It has the tropes and mannerisms of a typical family sitcom, yet it deals with an undercurrent of social themes - a family business struggling in the current economic climate, a married couple parting ways as well as a talented individual having to come to terms with the fact that his career and life did not pan out as he wished.

The show was released via the online network with 10 episodes and after a short hiatus, returned again with 10 more episodes making them more of an extension and conclusion of Season One rather than a stand alone Season Two.  Despite the hiatus, I could not imagine how much I missed the characters and the ease of the sitcom world inhabited by the Bennett family.

What is at times so refreshing and pleasing when you watch the show, is that even though a lot of the jokes are telegraphed and the characters are generic; it is that sense of wholesomeness and heart on the sleeve honesty that runs through the show that fills you with a sense of warmth and belonging.

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And yet because the show is so professional, perhaps too polished, it can still hit you with an unexpected surprise such as the end of Season 1, Episode 11, 'Gone as a Girl Can Get' when Rooster (Danny Matherson) finds his Dad, Beau (Sam Elliott - grizzly and terrific) crying as he plants some flowers and wonders why people leave him. The scene is played not for laughs, but seriously, like families can be on occasion and it ends with two people at loggerheads usually on equal terms; there for each other.

The Netflix vehicle should be applauded though as gone are the time to sit down and watch a 90 minute comedy, and why so many comedies struggle due to the lack of jokes and hit count of laughter.  By minimising the screen time per episode to the 25-30 minute running time, you have to hit a home run less often, and if it is hit and miss, there is no need to worry due to the next episode being available straight away. An audience is more inclined to sit down and give the next episode another chance rather than dismiss it and forget about watching another episode the week after.

The Ranch, Easy and Master of None are available on Netflix now.