Friday, March 14, 2008

"He is, They Are"

I once had a friend who was a huge Harrison Ford fan. Not only was he a big fan of Han Solo and “The Man with the Hat”, but he just dug on Harrison Ford. He said that it had something to do with seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark as a child, and the resulting imaginative bouts of leaping from the couch to his bed, and catching the bed just so – just so that it would best approximate the sensation Indy must have felt when he tried to chase the idol over an open chasm – just catching the edge and grabbing that unfortunate vine.

My friend also told me that his kinship with Mr. Ford had something to do with absent father figures – my friend’s own father not being there in ways that were needed and instead choosing to be there in many ways that were not. The result was not unlike the story of “My Favourite Year”, in which a young man fantasizes that he is actually the bastard son of a great matinee idol - a much better alternative than facing the reality of a father going out for cigarettes, and then deciding one day “that he was going out for good.”

I too had my favourites. When you’re a junior high school kid, you sometimes choose favourites just because everyone else is doing it. I decided to go with Steve Largent, wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks – number 80, the guy who held most receiving records until Jerry Rice took them all. In hockey, it was Stevie Y.

Yzerman was the king as far as I was concerned. The Red Wings were nowhere near the powerhouse that they have been the last decade or so, but I liked Yzerman anyway.

It was a good choice. Yzerman was just that perfect mix of gentleman and skilled player that you couldn’t help but respect. I wore his jersey from the seventh grade and still put it on from time to time. I can’t ice skate to save my life, but I would get some use out of the jersey in floor hockey at school where I would be Yzerman, taking a pass from my friends in their Lemieux and Makela jerseys and roofing a backhander into the net. “Vintage Yzerman” it was.

When the Red Wings won the cup in ’97 (Yzerman’s first), I caught hell from my girlfriend for not making it to a house party on time. But I really could not have cared less. I was the only guy in Calgary driving around in his parents' pseudo wood-paneled minivan with a Red Wings plate, wearing his Yzerman Jersey, waving a flag and honking his horn. But I was beside myself. The song playing in the Joe Louis arena that night was “December 1963” by Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons and I think of Steve Yzerman skating with the cup in front of his hometown fans whenever it plays.

Before that glorious day, a few years before actually, I met Steve Yzerman after a game against the Flames in the Saddledome. It was back in the day, before the new building configuration, when young fans could disappear through the Zamboni entrance after a game and wait by the visiting team’s locker room for autographs. I had never met Yzerman, but this was my first Red Wings game in Calgary (the tickets were a birthday present form my dad), so I knew what I had to do. I have to say though, I was more than a little bit perturbed to see the numerous others, also wearing Yzerman jerseys, also waiting for an autograph. What the hell? Yzerman was MY favourite!

Yzerman came out after a few of the other Detroit players and ran into someone he knew from the city. They started chatting and every other Yzerman fan kind of backed-off, not wanting to interrupt. I couldn’t wait as long. As soon as there was a break in conversation, I approached and said “Mr. Yzerman, do you mind if I take a picture with you?” He smiled and politely excused himself from his friend, and I got Steve Yzerman to sign his rookie card, a Red Wings puck and then I waited for a photo. My Dad started to fidget with my simple camera I had brought with us to the game – it was one of those “hold the button down and wait for the flash” kind of cameras.

Well, when you are standing with your hockey hero and you’re waiting for the flash to load, the wait is an eternity – especially when you stare out at the sea of faces of other Yzerman fans who are wondering what the hell is taking so long. But my Dad finally got that flash charged and took the shot. I thanked Yzerman for the photo and his autograph and let him get back to his other fans and I waited for two weeks for the film to be finished-off and developed.

On the day I went to pick-up my photos, I remembered thinking back for the first time to how it felt to finally meet one of my heroes. Try as I might, though I remember that Steve Yzerman had said something to me as I waited for the flash to go off, I couldn’t remember what it was, but I remember it seemed genuine and kind. I was a nervous twit. That’s what you do with heroes sometimes – put them at over a hundred arms lengths away so that they can be free of flaws. Yzerman’s got plenty of hockey scars – especially at the end of a career like he’s had, but as public sports figures go, he’s certainly one of the most presentable.

I remember very clearly a couple of years ago, driving on an overpass that links to Deerfoot Trail, a huge inner-city freeways that runs through Calgary from North to South. I was merging lanes, listening to Sports Radio The Fan 960 when I heard the announcer say, “Well, it’s been a heck of a career…”. I knew what that meant. After 22 seasons as Captain of the same team (A North American professional sports record), Yzerman was retiring from the game. I knew it was coming, but it was hard to hear.

You see, I was the Junior High kid who walked around with a huge sign each May 9th that said (“Honk, it’s Steve Yzerman’s (insert year here) birthday!” I actually did this on a street corner near my house for three or four years and took the sign to school with me during the day. I was the one who watched on the little black and white TV I had inherited from my grandmother as Nikolai Borschevsky scored in overtime for the Leafs in game seven – eliminating the Wings in their ’93 playoff run. I remember sitting there, depressed and staring at the screen for what must have been an hour – well passed the post-game interviews and into a Cheers re-run. I just couldn’t move – I was in shock. The next day, I fitted a black armband around my Red Wings jersey and wore it in remembrance of their once hopeful playoff chances. I was that kind of fan.

And I was that kind of fan when I finally got those pictures developed – hoping that the lighting was okay. Choosing Yzerman as a favourite seemed like such an arbitrary thing at the time for a grade 6 kid. All the other kids had already gone with Lemieux, Kurri and Lafontaine. But in that choice I became a huge fan with good reason. Even in his last years, he was my pool pick.

When I looked at the picture – finally, after thumbing-through others of birthday dinners and stupid pictures I took at school, I started to come across the photos from the game. My dad had led me down to the glass where the players were warming-up and I had taken some shots of Yzerman and Gallant circling the puck in practice. They hadn’t turned out too well, my little camera’s flash didn’t work in the cavernous expanse of the dome. I was getting nervous. I was also starting to realize that my Dad was the one who took the photo – unable to be in the picture himself. How thoughtless I had been. My dad had taken me to the game as a gift and I hadn’t thought of getting him to join me in the picture. When I saw the photo of me and Steve Yzerman though, I realized that my Dad had found a way. I looked and saw a photo of me and my favourite hockey player. If there had been a cartoon thought bubble above my head, it would have read: “Dad… take the picture already!”. Yzerman himself looked a little bit confused. In a rush to get that flash charged and ready, my Dad’s thumb had inadvertently slipped over the lens so that it covered nearly a fifth of the frame. My perfect picture of me and Steve Yzerman wasn’t to be. Still, I had met my hero.

It’s always a good question: How will I behave when I have a chance to meet a hero in real life? It’s different as an adult – as a kid, any pretense of cool is just false. As an adult, you don’t want to be reduced to a quivering, blubbering idiot. I had a dream once that answered the question by proxy.

I had been house and dog-sitting for my friend while he was on vacation with his wife. In my dream, I’m watching Raiders of the Lost Ark on DVD when there’s a knock at my the door. I open it. Harrison Ford is standing there and says “Is Brad home?”

“No, he’s not”, I say. He’s actually away on vacation.

“Oh, that’s too bad. His wife wrote my manager and said that he was a big fan. I’m in town scouting locations and thought I’d drop-by to say hello…”

So, the rest of the dream involves Harrison Ford and I hanging-out on the couch with Brad’s pit-Bull watching Raiders of the Lost Ark as we get drunk on Big Rock Traditional brew and eat chicken wings with Frank’s Red Hot Sauce – Harrison from time to time giving me a laugh-filled and alcohol-induced commentary since “Steven’s too F%#*ing important to do one himself.” In my dream, I was completely cool, and Harrison was about as cool as it gets.

In reality, I’m sure it’s a little different.

Harry Connick Jr. to me (and I’m sure, to many…) is a hero. Well, maybe that’s a little bit much. He’s just a man I admire a hell of a lot. Musically, I’m not a scholar by any stretch, but I know what I like, and I like Harry’s music – his catalog in some form always hovers near the top of my rotation and I’m even a fan of his early and mid-‘90s funk period.

I’m sure that a lot of people unfortunately view Harry Connick Jr. as a poor man’s Sinatra. Yes, Harry can be a crooner, but there’s much more to it than that. I’ll leave it up to the experts to tell you why Harry is one of the most important living influences on modern New Orleans jazz music, let me just say that had you been at the Sejong Arts Centre on March 13th, you would have become an instant fan.

I’ve been wanting to see Harry live since I was 13 years old. I started out as most fans did, digging the throwback sound of the classics on the “When Harry Met Sally” soundtrack, and then following him further through the funk experiments of “She” and Star Turtle” and on to his latest piano solo collections “Other Hours” and “Occasion”. Harry does some cool stuff. And he surrounds himself with some of the best musicians and collaborators in the business.

I always said that Harry is the concert to see – once I do, I can die happy. I had seen some great concerts in the past – Arcade Fire, Dave Matthews Band in a small venue from the second row, Public Enemy, and Radio Head just after OK Computer was released. I even had the chance to see film composer Ennio Morricone here in Seoul. But those were different things.

A couple of months ago while strolling through Myeong-Dong – a huge shopping district in downtown Seoul. I saw a poster for Harry Connick Jr.’s “My New Orleans Tour”. After a story of strife that I shant relate here, I was able to secure two front row tickets to the show.

This past Thursday, I had the rare treat of receiving a day off – I have to say that it was a day-off well earned. I used the day to head into Seoul by myself, have a nice lunch, stroll around Gyungbukgung Palace and sit and read from Barack Obama’s “Dreams from my Father”. It was a rainy day, but a good one. It was my first chance to head into the city on a weekday and it was glorious.

I met Ian for dinner and then we headed to the concert. Harry’s piano stood alone on stage in front of a closed red curtain. The piano was less than 35 feet away from where we were sitting. And then the show started.

Harry played with his big band – approximately 12 renowned New Orleans musicians – as they rolled through some of his most recent repertoire from his two latest New Orleans themed albums: “Oh, My Nola” and “Chanson du Vieux Carre”. It was freaking surreal and sublime.

Ian agreed Рwe had both never seen musical talent like that before. Each artist was the real deal, and they played an instrument like it was an extension of themselves. I know it sounds like clich̩, but I have never before seen artists connect with the music as these people did. Lucien Barbarin sang solo and played his trombone with such fervor I half expected him to collapse on stage. The Tenor Saxaphonist, Jerry Weldon came out of his seat for his solo and stalked towards the stage like a Tex Avery wolf Рkeeping up the strut through the whole show.

It was just incredible. Every moment.

Harry brought his two young daughters who had spent the afternoon with him in Namdaemun market. They greeted the crowd and then skated backstage in their Heely shoes. They did an encore later in the evening, skating across the stage behind the piano and in front of the big band. Harry was very chatty with the crowd and he was genuine. So many hi-lites. In fact, every moment was one. If I could have filmed the whole thing, I would have – but taking any pictures or videos, even flashless ones seemed to be a bit of a challenge as the front row was being watched quite closely by security. I just needed to get some of it to send home. Harry Connick Jr. and his big band were singing and playing less than ten feet away. It was freaking transportive – we may as well have been on stage.

In fact, one guy did get on stage. During one of the encores, a Korean audience member got so enthused with the music that he leaped from his seat and started dancing. The man, in a business suit, danced down the aisle and jumped up on stage where he danced with Harry and got blasted by Lucien Barnarin’s trombone at close range – it was like watching Joe Pesci make the kid waiter dance in Goodfellas. Just awesome.

I’m still on a high fromm the concert. It closed with a second encore of “It Had to be You” – just Harry and Neal Cain on stand-up base. I tried to get a short video for my mom, but it wasn’t to be – there was no space left on my memory card. At a certain point, even though you want to capture the whole thing, you just need to put the camera away so that you can enjoy being there without worrying about having aides to help you remember what it was like to be there in the first place.

My expectation couldn’t have been higher and every one was surpassed. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan or one of those guys who thinks of Harry Connick Jr. as a white dude absconding with black music. You would have recognized the truth – that he’s one of the best musicians and musical collaborators living today. He’s the package – an entertainer and a true talent. More importantly, he seems like a humble guy and a genuine person. He’s the Steve Yzerman of Jazz music, though certainly more of a showman. To think that proceeds from the tour and the sale of his album go towards Hurricane Katrina relief and the creation of the Musician’s Village low cost housing in the upper 9th ward of New Orleans only makes the reality better. He’s also raising money for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The more I hear, the more I like – but let’s not get political.

Harry’s just one of those heroes. I don’t mean to throw the word around carelessly, but hell – he’s just a good guy who loves and plays good music and is doing something worthwhile with his talent. There’s a lot to be said about the word humble when it is applied to celebrity. How sad is the rarity that people like Harry Connick Jr. and Steve Yzerman can exist in such humbleness. I’m sure that he too would have enjoyed some beer, some wings and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I think back to the concert and I think about the concept of hero-worship – what that means, where it begins and ends and all that stuff in-between. My Dad and I were lucky enough to spend a portion of Boxing Day in 2004 with Martin Gelinas and his family. My Dad’s a huge fan of the guy and we were fortunate enough to have his two kids involved in a theatre production with us that Christmas. Taking my Dad over to Gelinas’ place to share a couple of glasses of wine was maybe more of a treat for me than my Dad.

My Dad was not a nervous twit on the outside when we sat on the couch and chatted about life in Switzerland during the lockout, but I know, because I know my dad’s eyes, that he was a giddy schoolboy hanging with his hockey hero – just like Scrooge on a reborn Christmas morning. I knew then what Dad must have felt like when he took me to that Red Wings – Flames game almost 15 years before. I was proud to be the one to introduce my dad to his favourite hockey player. But I wasn’t the one to take the photo of him standing beside the guy - Marty’s wife was. My Dad actually let me get in the picture with him. And there we were – Martin Gelinas, my father and I. Me wearing my George Bailey coat and scarf from the week before and my dad wearing his brand new autographed jersey from the Swiss League that Marty played for that season. It’s maybe my favourite picture of us – my dad and I, standing next to guy who was a game seven overtime hero, but more of a cool guy simply because he’s a good dad.

So there I was at Harry Connick Jr. on Thursday night – watching the coolest man I still haven’t met do his thing, wishing that my girlfriend could be there because she would have loved it, that my mom could be there because she always said that she would have paid anything to see Harry live, but most of all wanting my dad to be there because I think of anyone in my family, my dad would have been the one to appreciate the music most. And, if I know my dad, he would have been the one to beat that Korean guy to the stage so that he could do his famous jogging dance to the big band’s New Orleans groove. He would have loved it. It was one of the best nights of my life and I would have loved to have shared it with my dad – the best man I know, and miss a lot.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A rare day...

Today is Thursday, March 13th - a rare day off for me, the specifics for how I was able to get a day off in a society where such a thing is as rare as the hope diamond shall remain a secret. Let's just say it involved a lot of extra work in preparation for the day, and a bag full of cookies.
Working in Korea kind of gets under your skin - at least it does mine. I don't mean that in an entirely bad way - I simply mean that it can have a way of changing your outlook on what the working week can entail. For me lately, the "working week" has entailed a lot of work. The thing is though - most of it is by choice.
There is a certain sense of obligation that comes with most jobs here - even office people seem to opt to stay in the office with their co-workers late into the night in order to simply feel better about their productivity. Truth be told, that choice does not always increase productivity as much as it should or could, but it gives the impression of productivity, which at times seems to be of equal importance.
For me, I seem to have taken to the idea of "working to get-ahead". I'm not entirely sure what that means... but for now it seems to involve me choosing to work extra long hours, ensuring that I'm busing it into Bundang at least two days a week to shoot some online lessons for some extra cash and then booking it back to Suwon for some teaching action until 10 PM - somewhere in there is where I also find time to prep for both things, mark essays and do those boring little details like eat, sleep and clean the shower drain. Makes for a bit of a miserable existence if I stop and think about it. But when I stop and think about it, I also allow room for thoughts of coming home at the end of this first contract with less debt and a car that's paid for. It's kind of a nice idea.
But I've got better things to do today... beginning with having a shower, heading into Seoul, running into Harry Connick Jr. at Gyungbukgung Palace and getting a nice facebook profile pic of him and I playing Nintendo DS (sorry, Andrew). Then it's off to dinner with my good friend from home and off to sit in the front row for Harry's "O My Nola" tour. A review is coming this weekend - I promise.