Strangers Into Starmen: Aimee Mann At Highline Ballroom

July 31st, 2008

Aimee MannRock ‘n roll is all about release.

Leonard Cohen calls it “the minor fall and major lift.” Bono says it’s “when God enters the building.”

Call it what you will; it’s all about transcendence. And it’s difficult to come by, even when you try.

I’m not entirely sure Aimee Mann was shooting for any sort of transcendence at last night’s Highline Ballroom show. Her defiant avoidance of it, in fact, may have been a fairly radical choice. Or it may have just been a bad call. I’m not sure.

Of course, Mann’s solo career has been stridently independent and largely random from the start. There was no shortage of sing-a-long hits after ‘Til Tuesday (“That’s Just What You Are,” “Long Shot”), still, she wrestled with floundering major labels for years. It wasn’t until PT Anderson’s “Magnolia” soundtrack and her Grammy showdown with Phil Collins that her solo — and completely DIY (Mann helms her own label) — career took off.

I’ve seen her perform half a dozen times since then, and — though her songs are prosaic, poetic, and precise– her performances are always upbeat sing-a-longs.

Not so last night. Her set was full of oddly esoteric song choices and beautifully melancholy arrangements. But it never really left the ground.

If there was anything remotely close to release or transcendence at last night’s show, it was her mid-song banter. As always, Mann was hilarious. Having pre-taped a segment on “The View” early yesterday morning, she was full of material.

“I’m probably gonna sound like a douche bag,” she warned. “Just so we know that going in.”

She didn’t so much sound like a douche bag, though, at least when she was singing. She just sounded ambivalent.

In “Looking for Nothing,” she sets her sights low, admitting, “No I ain’t lookin’ for nothing today.” In “Freeway,” she concedes “Everything I do is wrong, but at least I’m hanging on.” And it didn’t really look up from there: “Save Me” (“Now that I’ve met you/Would you object to/Never seeing each other again”), “Wise Up” (It’s not going to stop until you wise up”), and “Calling it Quits.”

Her voice, though, sounded pristine, like some fragile, bone china heirloom. There was very little variation from her recordings. She is a exacting machine. So when she does deviate from a melody or arrangement, you feel it, liked her hushed version of “You’re With Stupid” or “Red Vines.”

Despite the apparent lethargy, I was smiling as the crowd thinned and the show wound down; she’s still an amazing performer whether embracing anthemic rock, or playing to her coffeehouse doldrums. Moreover, though, I found her song choices fascinating. When she closed with “How Am I Different,” it dawned on me that perhaps the arc of her set (which, make no mistake, every performer considers carefully) was somehow written to answer that very question.

By her encore, it was impossible not to imagine that she was asserting some sort of editorial agenda. I mean, add it up: “Little Bombs,” “I’ve Had It” and “Deathly.”

I walked out scratching my head, trying to decide if she’s just played a bummer of a show, or made some sort of hugely punk rock statement.

I’m still not sure.

Magic In The Night: Bruce Springsteen At Giants Stadium

July 29th, 2008

Bruce SpringsteenGiants Stadium. Dusk. The house lights flicker, then fade. Carnival music wafts from the PA. The E Street Band emerges: Little Steven, Patti, Clearance. A spotlight burns a white-hot line through the summer haze. A figure ascends: rounded shoulders, unruly mane. The cheer rises up.

“Bruuuuuuce!!!”

Springsteen returns the greeting.

“New Jersey!” he yells into the microphone. “New Jersey!! Newww Jerseyyy!!!”

And then it happens, the countdown that’s launched a million songs.

“1, 2, 3, 4!!!”

The band catapults into “Out In The Street,” accelerating from zero to sixty in less than two measures.

Springsteen is smiling from the word go. He’s sweating by the second chorus, jabbing at his Fender, strutting and posturing and posing.

“Is there anyone alive out there?” He asks. “Is there anyone alive?”

Nils Lofgrin tears into “Radio Nowhere.”

It’s on.

Later, in the third verse of “No Surrender,” the bands falls back into the shadows. The light go black and blue. Springsteen stands alone in the spotlight, his solitude punctuating his lyrics.

There’s a war outside still ragin’
And it ain’t ours anymore to win

This is Bruce Springsteen at 58-years-old: outspoken, unstoppable, and dextrous. A whirling dirvish with a throat full of gospel truths.

As the band moves effortlessly from “Hungry Heart” to “Summertime Blues” it dawns on me: this is a revival. This is Bruce’s church. We are his congregation.

“Alright!” he wails like a preacher. “Alright!!!”

He steps into the crowd, reaches out and touches his audience. He lays his hands on them. He heals them.

Later, I get chills singing along to “Tunnel Of Love.”

“Oughta be easy, oughta be simple enough,” we sing together.

Man meets woman and they fall in love
But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough
We have to learn to live with what we can’t rise above

Goose bumps race up my arms. I am dancing in the aisle, holding onto my wife, and crying.

At a rock show.

Patti leans in for the last verse of “Because The Night.” The couple sing just inches apart from one another. I stand there grinning, loving her because she’s not perfect, because she’s not Hollywood. I root for them.

Nils rips into the solo, staggering and spinning across the stage, then crescendoing into a hands-free front-flip. My mouth is agape.

Bruce introduces “Living In The Future” with a not-so-subtle diatribe on the Bush Administration. The crowd grows chillier, but The Boss persists.

“Torture, wiretapping — these are things that are supposed to happen some place else,” he says. “This is a song about sleeping through the changes in your own home town that you never thought you’d see.”

Afterwards, the fire and brimstone continues.

“When I get down to that river of joy,” he says from New Jersey’s largest pulpit. “I’m gonna make a beautiful noise. But I can’t make that noice alone! Are you with me?”

This is it: Faith and Sex and God in the belly of Babylon by the Hudson. This is the Church of Bruce, and I am born again.

“Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?” he asks, then resolves, “It’s gonna’ be a long walk home.” Keyboardist Roy Bittan’s part sounds like a dusty, old church organ. It is a hopeful eulogy.

Maybe we’re not so young anymore. But we are all singing, all 60,000 of us.

Together.

“Show a little faith,” we sing. “There’s magic in the night.”

The 2008 Brickyard 400 (Or, My Days Of Thunder)

July 28th, 2008

2008 Brickyard 400This is it: The Fall of Rome.

And this is how it goes: blue sky, 85 degrees, 300,000 people, 42 modified stock cars hurtling around a two and a half mile track at 170 mile per hour, and lots and lots of beer.

This is the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, aka The Brickyard 400.

It’s Death Race, Gladiator, and The Running Man. The MPHs and RPMs are impressive, but we’re here for the five-car pile up: crushed steel, shattered plastic, frayed rubber.

We hatched the plan at my bachelor party. Ten months later, here we care: high school pals, James and Jon, my father, and Uncle Stan, all in for a weekend of beers, cars, and meat in all its forms.

It all begins with me freaking out a just little bit.

We’ve parked nearly a mile from our objective in a neighborhood we’d otherwise avoid the remaining 364 days of the year.

There are thousands of people swarming around, everyone sprinting towards the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as if we were three minutes shy of post time. Start time, though, is three hours away.

I’m convinced that one of a few scenarios is going to play out: I will end the day drunk, sunburned, and left for dead in the infield, or suffer from interminable boredom.

We find our seats just nine rows off the track and settle into our first Fosters beneath the blazing Midwest sun. We watch the spectacle wind up. First, the cars are pushed into position. Then the pace cars. The stands continue to fill. The music grows on the PA louder. The place is winding up like a top.

James, Jon and I take a walk towards the infield. We catch the final seconds of Charlie Daniels’ encore, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” (what else did you think he’d encore with?), then stand in the center of the field as Charlie’s fans file past. Men are shirtless and sunburn. Women are squinty-eyed and grinning. One asks Jon, “Got any beads?”

James is lit. He hollers every straight-faced, broad-shouldered Indiana State Trooper, “Lieutenant Dan! Lieutenant Dan!!!” It seems funny at the time.

Our weekend’s been chocked full of political cynicism, still, we pause for the National Anthem. Four F-15s roar overhead. “Let’s kill some people!!!” James yells in jest.

The gentlemen start their engines as we exit the track’s underpassen route to our seats. 300,000 race fans are on their feet. The pace cars roll out, leading the drivers around the track three times at low speed.

The green flag flies, and 42, 385 cubic inch, 800 horse power, 3600 pound slabs of steel roar by like whining jets, so fast you can’t track much more than a blur of color. The Doppler affect is staggering. The roar is deafening. It’s a completely tactile experience, like standing in the mosh pit at a ’77 Sex Pistols show. When the cars blow by at 190, you feel it in your nuts.

Whether or not I cared about cars or racing an hour ago, I do now. Suddenly, I get it.

Twenty-nine laps in I realize that I’m barely breathing.

By the 100th lap, flecks of black rubber dot our white t-shirts. We’re five Fosters 24 ouncers and one giant turkey drumstick in. James and Jon are slap fighting just like high school. My father rolls his eyes. My uncle Stan appears with a fist full of giant turkey drum sticks.

By the 150th, the sun is falling behind us. Jon kicks his turkey drum sticks behind the next row in front of us. The woman at whose feet said drum stick suddenly appears is not amused, reached down, and hands it back to him with a grimace.

We’re a joyous, sweaty, greasy mess.

The race itself is something of a bust, punctuated by an inordinate amount of caution flags. I could care less, though. For me, the visceral experience — the sound, the smell, the bone-rattling rumble — is enough.

Jimmy Johnson takes the checkered flag, relishes a victory lap, then white smokes the track in front of us while pumping his fist out the window. We spill out into the golden hour light, laughing and cursing and punching each other, more alive, perhaps, than just a few hours before.

2008 Brickyard 400

2008 Brickyard 400

2008 Brickyard 400

2008 Brickyard 400

2008 Brickyard 400

Cool It Off Before You Burn It Out

July 26th, 2008

Benjamin WagnerIn the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Syracuse University, I drove from Philadelphia to San Diego and back, camping and crashing at friend’s and family’s homes in Chicago, Iowa City, Minneapolis, Denver, and points in-between (including an ill-fated layover in Darwin, Minnesota where The World’s Largest Ball of Twine was in the shop).

It was a crucial trip. I dodged lightening in the Black Hills, hail in Telluride, and cattle in Jackson Hole. I cooked Spam over a fire in Flagstaff, and sang “It’s Alright Mama” at the gates of Graceland.

In the end, I traversed 8, 553 miles in my faded-red, Bondo-patched, Nissan Sentra.

And in the end, I had a far better sense of the country, and myself.

Friday night, then, with just seconds to spare between my Comic-Con coverage duties and red eye back east, I snuck away to the western terminus of that trip: Coronado Island.

Back in June of 1990, my father and his wife were attending a conference at the famous Hotel Del Coronado. They offered to put me up one night to celebrate my Atlantic-to-Pacific achievement.

When I drove my rusty beater to the front door, and was confronted by valet for the first time in my life, I panicked, and kept driving. Having spent the night before on the desert pavement in Virgin, Arizona; no way I was stepping out of the car in my fleece. Not with a pony tail and three earrings, anyway.

Built in 1887, it has played host to Charlie Chaplin, babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, and John F. Kennedy. L. Frank Baum wrote much of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” there, and is said to have based his designs for the Emerald City on the hotel. And Billy Wilder directed Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in “Some Like It Hot” there.

By the time I finally checked in, though, I was smitten. The historic Hotel Del blew the curve.

“You mind if I stay two nights?” I asked.

Friday night, I parked a few blocks south of the great old hotel and walked the beach in my dress shirt and blue blazer with my jeans rolled to below my knees and shoes in my left hand. I stood in front of the hotel, snapped smiled, and snapped a pic.

A lot has changed since 1990.

I walked slowly back to the rental car, pausing to take it all in. The waves purred their calming, white noise. The skies turned slowly golden. And I noticed singing under my breath.

Slow down, you crazy child
You’re so ambitious for a juvenile
But then if you’re so smart, tell me
Why are you still so afraid?

A few days before his triumphant pair of shows at Shea Stadium, The New York Times featured a nice piece on Billy Joel.

When asked which of his songs make him think, Ah, at least I got that one right, he immediately cites two: “Vienna” (1978), a celebration of a life’s worth at every age, and “Summer, Highland Falls” (1976), a meditation on emotional extremes. His back and forth between sadness and euphoria may have led to effective songwriting over the years, he says, but he now strives toward the more comfortable middle ground of contentment.

I’ve always loved, “Vienna,” but never quite understood the lyric, “Vienna waits for you.”

Standing there on the edge of the great, deep, cool Pacific, I felt just a little closer to figuring it out.

Benjamin Wagner

Benjamin Wagner

Benjamin Wagner

Comic-Con Reconsidered (Or, The Triumph Of The Nerds)

July 26th, 2008

Batman @ Comic-ConPrevailing wisdom about San Diego’s Comic-Con is that it’s an assembly of misfits, nerds, freaks and geeks salivating over B-listers, back issues, and collectibles.

In fact, I traded in that very same simplistic, diminishing description as recently as just last night.

Tonight, though, I counter with a new thesis.

Comic-Con is an inspirational gathering of apparently disparate peoples: young and old, physically capable and challenged, thin and not-so. It is a safe space for difference, where the one’s unique offering is rewarded and relished. Better still, it is a place where difference embraces difference.

I saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles talking with Ghost Busters, Sleestacks laughing with Crazy 88s, and Care Bears kvetching with Jokers.

I spied Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Destro, Shrek and Skeletor, Cylons, Watchmen, Boogie Men, and Storm Troopers all cohabitating in peace.

I rode the escalator next to a full-on, latex-and-horse hair Davy Jones (the one from “Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” not The Monkees) — barnacles and all. And while I felt a little embarrassed to be standing near him (especially in my blue blazer) everyone else ate it up.

Comic-Con International began in 1970 as gathering of just 300 comic book illustrators, publishers, and fans in the basement of the U. S. Grant Hotel.

Thirty-eight years later, more than 100,000 crowd the San Diego Convention Center’s 1.7 million square feet of exhibition space. From ABC to Warner Bros., wvery major motion picture studio and television network is accounted for.

It’s the Triumph of the Nerds.

It’s a place rabid with enthusiasm. Still, everyone is polite, everyone is engaged, and everyone is a fan of something. And if you can love something, you can love anything.

Frankly, the world would be a better place if we all tore a page from Comic-Con’s playbook.

Wasting Away Again At Comic-Con

July 25th, 2008

San DiegoThis isn’t the first time I’ve put in an 18-hour day in a generic conference room in a beautiful city. Last week I put in a few days in San Francisco, and I’ve suffered through Las Vegas and Los Angeles numerous times.

But this one takes the cake.

Inside, it’s Comic-Con, the annual confab of superheros, superstars, and supernerds.

Outside, it’s San Diego: blue skies, sparkling waters, and billowing spinnakers.

Today is day one of my five-day journey into uber-fandom: San Diego Comic-Con (comic book geeks) Thursday and Friday, Indianapolis Brickyard 400 (NASCAR nerds) Saturday and Sunday, and New York Springsteen show (music aficionados) Monday.

The Comic-Con crowd is something else. It’s as if the trench coat-wearing, anime-loving outcasts who sat at the table on the edge of the lunchroom got their own festival. A good 50% of the 100,000+ attendees are in costume: Storm Troopers, Jokers, Holly Hobby — you name it.

For the most part, though, I don’t notice. Where my colleagues are racing between interviews with Keanu Reeves, Kevin Spacey, Hugh Jackman, and Mark Wahlberg, I’m playing air traffic controller in my off-white press room.

I did sneak out long enough to see The Rock talk about his new flick, “Race To Witch Mountain,” but only because the scuttlebutt was that Disney was sneaking the trailer for the forthcoming “Tron” sequel, “TR2N,” afterwards. They did. And it was awesome.

Still, it’s all a little maddening. I know it was a beautiful day; I saw it through the windows that one time I went to the bathroom. I mean, I slept with the windows open last night, for Heaven’s sake. But then I woke up, went inside, and stayed there for the whole day.

Ugh.

Oh well, bed time.

One more day, and I’m all about NASCAR.

At least they do that outside.

Don’t You (Forget About Me)

July 23rd, 2008

The Breakfast ClubIn an era of increasingly brazen, callous, and heartless sell-outs, perhaps no capitalist re-appropriation has incensed me like this one.

I’m speaking, of course, of the JCPenney back-to-school ad that has dozens of sporty-looking, hoodie-wearing, completely-adjusted teenagers aping moves from John Hughes’ coming-of-age classic, “The Breakfast Club.”

Ask my wife; I screamed for twenty seconds when I first saw it.

While some desparage Hughes’ genre-defining film for its implicit message of conformity (Ally Sheedy, you’ll recall, receives a makeover from Molly Ringwald) the film is an undisputable classic.

It’s simple conceit — five apparently different kids (The Brain, The Athlete, The Basket Case, The Princess, and The Criminal) spend Saturday detention together to discover that they’re not so different after all.

Hughes’ script tactfully, authentically and hilariously nails the existential woes and mini-crisis of youth: make-up, break-ups, cliques and castaways, anorexia, pot, grades and the overwhelming, soul-crushing desire to be loved.

His cast — Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estivez, Sheedy, Ringwald and Judd Nelson — embody the tension between their characters’ youthful vulnerability and adult detachment. Nelson in particular manages to be cruel, callous, creepy and completely loveable. None were better prior, or since.

Better still, the film is loaded with one-liners that (sadly, perhaps) still pass my lips today:

I am the eyes and ears of this institution.

Demented and sad, but social.

Don’t mess with the bull, buster; you’ll get the horns.

The cheeks cannot hold their smoke, dat’s what it is!

That Saatchi & Saatchi went so far as to shoot the commercial at the same location of the film (Shermer High School, Shermer, Illionois) only adds insult to injury.

Despite its attempted authenticity, this painful thirty seconds of television is riddled with enraging instances (beyond the initial recognition that they’re defacing the Mona Lisa).

There are three times too many kids in the spot, presumably to model the full line of back-to-school fashions.

Worse, lacking context or narrative, the kids are simply posturing. It feels like bad karaoke.

The last shot shows the kids leaving the school together with the apparently rebellious character (identified soley by his poses, as Columbine has long-since rendered trench coats taboo) in the back of the pack. Like Nelson, he raises a fist in defiances.

Like the original “Breakfast Club,” the scene freezes. Unlike the original, though, this shallow, pantomime of a commercial skips Anthony Michael Hall’s poignant voice over.

Dear Mr. Vernon,

We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question?

Sincerely,
The Breakfast Club

That Simple Minds apparently refused to licence their version of “(Don’t You) Forget About Me,” is small consolation, as we’re made to suffer through a pale imitation.

It’s good to know something’s not for sale. But it reinforces a painful, modern reality.

Advertisers see us as they want to see us; not as brains, athletes, basket cases, princesses, and criminals, but — in the simplest term and most convenient definition — as dollar signs.

In Search of Paradise

July 22nd, 2008

Meat LoafSave for a few nights traversing the Midwest on his former 1985 Eagle Classic tour bus, I have little affinity for Marvin Lee Aday, aka Meat Loaf.

Still, I was thrilled when I spotted his brand-new documentary, “Meat Loaf: In Search of Paradise,” was on the MSG Network last night. (My wife, in contrast, was less enthused, so I set the DVR, continued reading New York Magazine until “The Closer” ended.) I turned it up, locked it in, and leaned back…

Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out Of Hell” is one of the best-selling albums of all time, moving nearly 40 million copies since it’s 1977 release. The LP continues to sell 200,000 copies annually. The albums successor, “Bat Out Of Hell” (with it’s 12:00 Wagnerian opus, “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)”) has sold 15 million copies since 1993. Meat Loaf, then, while less than a critical darling, still commands mass appeal.

The doc joins the 61-year-old rocker on the first day of rehearsals for his 2007 Bases Loaded Tour, then follows him for the few weeks of Canadian dates. From the first scene, the film is a warts-and-all portrait of life on the road, from the band’s humble, nondescript Burbank rehearsal studios, to Meat’s gray, cinder block dressing rooms.

“How glamorous is this?” Meat Loaf says to camera in one, generic, ramshackle hotel room. “Me and my baggie of Wheat Thins.”

More than the unglamorous underbelly of rock, though, the 90-minute doc reveals Meat Loaf as an excellence-obsessed, all-or-nothing performer. He is consistently displeased, and constantly berating himself. He appears hyper-sensitive, socially-phobic, and very possibly depressed. Moreover, performances leave him racked with an array of real or imagined ailments: vertigo, nausea, fainting spells.

As if Meat’s OCD and hypochondriasis — an apparent train wreck waiting to happen — is insufficient narrative tension, addition conflict is provided courtesy of critical response to portions of the band’s stage show. A live show staple for thirty years,

Still, Meat proceeds, limping off stage, leaning into his vaporizer, gobbling vitamins, and trying again the next night.

“I’m still waitin’ for the perfect show,” he says

Six months later, though, well after cameras ceased rolling, Meat stopped the band just a few notes into the opening number, and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I love you, thank you for coming, but I can no longer continue.” Remaining tour dates, including London’s Wembley Arena, were cancelled.

In a statement, the singer said, “I will be back.”

Sitting there in the dark, much of it resonated with me: his hyper-sensitivity, socially-phobia, and overwhelmingly apparent desire to be loved and appreciated by an anonymous audience. Something’s broken in Meat Loaf. Something’s broken in all of us — performers, perhaps, most of all.

Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock & Out

July 21st, 2008

Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock & OutEven within the context of my well-chronicled rock bio addiction, this is an anomaly: 608 pages about neither a singer, guitarist nor even a bassist or drummer.

Nope.

Six hundred and eight pages about a rock ‘n roll promoter.

That said, Bill Graham was no run of the mill rock ‘n roll promoter.

Until his death in 1991, he played a role in almost every major moment in rock ‘n roll, from The Grateful Dead’s first club show (part of what would come to be known as The Acid Tests) to Woodstock to Live Aid.

Along the way, he worked with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendricks, The Band (organizing their seminal and era-ending, “The Last Waltz”), Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones.

What’s better still is he didn’t take shit from any of ’em.

All this from a guy who was born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin, Germany, never met his father, grew up in an orphanage, lost his mother and two of his four sisters to World War II, emigrated to the United States, was raised by a foster family in The Bronx, received a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in the Korean War, then worked as a waiter and maître d’ in the Catskills — which is where his really began to buff up his moxy.

Graham was in his thirties by the time he moved to San Francisco to be closer to his sister, Ester. The scene was exploding with music, poetry, and counterculture activism. Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium (and later Fillmore East and Winterland) was the nexus.

In those early days, while a generation of kids was tripping its face off, Graham was known to pace madly around the Fillmore taking notes on his clipboard on how to improve the club experience. He was a son-of-a-bitch of a businessman who was known for his personal attention to artists.

“Bill never thought he was the music,” rock lighting innovator Joshua White said. “Bill was always the scene.”

Keith Richards remarked, “It’s very rare person who can deal with the paper clips and the boardroom at the same time. Bill is one of those people.”

The story doesn’t end well, though.

Graham died in a helicopter crash on the way home from a Huey Lewis & The News show. he was 61-years-old.

His company, Bill Graham Presents, was eventually sold to SFX Promotions, which in turn sold the company to Clear Channel Entertainment. Clear Channel , the largest owner of full-power AM, FM and satellite stations in the world, spawned Live Nation, a mega-live events company recently responsible for multi-million dollar “360 deals” with Shakira, Nickelback, Jay-Z and Madonna. Both companies are pretty much known as the antithesis of Bill Graham: impersonal, corporate, and interested in neither the artist nor the audience but instead, the bottom line.

Which is how most American success stories end, so why not this one?

Stars & Stripes & Brothers In Arms

July 18th, 2008

cwbw_sm.jpgI’m not sure which was sweeter music to my ears: the sound of the random competitor’s last gasp as I passed him mere yards from the finish line, or my brother saying after the race, “Damn dude, you crushed me.”

Manhattan Island Foundation races are sweet little affairs, which is part of what I love about them. The field of competitors tend towards the hundreds, not thousands (like my beloved New York Road Runner’s club, with which I have run 1124.9 miles in some 109 races). Races are often well off the beaten path, places like Battery Park City (where I competed in the 2006 Liberty Aquathon), South Street Seaport (or nearby, anyway, at the Brooklyn Bridge Swim) and Riverside Park (where I swam three weeks ago). Best of all, they tend to be scrappy, low-fi affairs. Last weekend, for example, racer’s respective transition areas were chalk lines and numbers on the sidewalk.

Last weekend’s was the Stars & Stripe’s Aquathon, a 1.5k (.93M) swim and 5k (3.1M) run along the West Side. The transition and finish was just two blocks from my apartment on a brand-new patch of grass called Clinton Cove at 56th Street and Twelfth Avenue (aka the West Side Highway).

Abbi and I met Chris and transition, set out our gear (careful to avoid the city’s sprinklers which, by race’s end, had doused nearly everyone’s bags), and walked solemnly uptown to the 72d Street kayak launch. The river was choppy, buffeted by a brisk northward breeze, and seemed to be flowing upriver.

Race organizers held on the start roughly twenty minutes to allow the tide to slack. We milled about talking, self-conscious in nothing but tights and a swim cap (well, I was anyway). Jen showed up with Ethan and Edward. And then it was time.

There were just two waves. Chris and I (and our new friend, Frizzo) were in the first. I jumped into the Hudson and immediately hit the soft, muddy bottom. The starter began counting down from thirty. I looked downriver towards Pier 96 and smiled; given how late we’d been out and how many margaritas we’d consumed the night before, I had no business jumping into the Hudson.

Cue the air horn.

The swim was sloppy with with flying arms and legs — as always. I spent more energy course correcting and avoiding other swimmers than I did moving myself forward. The chop was significant, at times lifting me out of the water before tossing me back down. I focussed on my stroke (which was erratic on account of the waves), and pulled myself towards the huge white Department of Sanitation pier growing slowly closer (yes, we had to swim around the Department of Sanitation). The chop slacked as we rounded the pier, and I began “picking victims,” my time-tested process of identifying racers just ahead and trying to pass them. I picked up speed into the finish, then pulled myself out of the water and jogged hamfistedly towards my transition. Chris’ running shoes was still there.

I started the run hot, sprinting out of transition while strapping on my GPS watch. When I looked down and it read 6:42, I knew I had to stabilize; I can’t sustain sub-seven miles for three miles. Still, it was my home turf. I run that route a few times a week, so I knew what I was in for. I pushed myself pretty hard, fully aware that Chris (or Frizzo, whose casual conversation about the race’s distance and well-chiseled, olive-skinned body inspired some competition in me) could pop up behind me at any minute. My brother has a tendency to do so, usually in a relaxed, fully-composed manner as I’m gasping and grunting towards the finish.

The run was an out and back, so I saw him shortly after the turn. He high-fived me and said, “Go get ’em, brutha’,” which was really sweet, and really helpful.

So I did. Go get ’em, that is.

Specifically, I fell into place behind a short, Latino dude who was movin’ along a pretty decent clip. For the last mile or so, I lay in wait behind him. Half a mile out, I heard footsteps coming on fast over my shoulder. An tall, skinny, older dude blew by both of us. So, of course, we both sped up.

I knew I couldn’t catch the tall, skinny, older dude, and I didn’t think I could catch the Latino dude. But as I rounded the elipse towards the finish, I saw Ethan and Edward romping in the grass. Ethan ran to the edge of the course and high-fived me. Energized, I pushed towards the tape. And as I passed the Latino dude, I heard him gasp; he didn’t have it in ’em. (Hey, we’ve all been there).

I finished 24th of 110 competitors with a combined time of 51:05 (27:40 swim, 23:26 run). Chris followed shortly thereafter with a combined time of 54:57.

I’m not sure what makes me so competitive, especially with my brother. In the family myth, I was never the athlete. I fumbled my way through baseball and soccer, throwing in the towel as they turned competitive in high school. Chris lettered in baseball and football clear through to college where he dumped football and — with no experience save for a few weekends tossing the ball — picked up (and excelled at) lacrosse. We began riding, then running, then competing in triathlons together as he and Jen (the true athlete of the bunch) began their courtship.

I think it has more to do with proving something to myself (and, for whatever reason, you) than anything else.

Afterwards, families milled about the park, lazing in the morning sun. Ethan scrambled over some low rocks and splashed in some puddles. Edward replicated his every move. They ran through the grass (“Race me, Uncle Benjamin!” Ethan laughed), climbed railings, and peered into a huge glass bottle with a living room inside (a public work called, Private Passage).

I felt good about my finish, but better about the watching Ethan and Edward playing in the park. That’s all any of it’s ever really about anyway, right?

Christofer & Benjamin Wagner

Ethan & Edward Wagner