March 22, 2012

How I learned to hate The Rock.

I still remember where I was when I heard that, finally, The Rock had come back to the WWE.

It was February 14, 2011, and I was waiting for a late-night train in 30th Street Station after visiting my lovely girlfriend in Philadelphia. Unbeknownst to me, a special guest was being announced on WWE Raw as the host of the upcoming WrestleMania XXVII. This couldn't have sounded more irrelevant, until someone -- I think it was hockey blogger (and wrestling fan) Greg Wyshynski -- tweeted something along the lines of "OMG THE ROCK IS BACK!"

I didn't even watch wrestling at the time, but I remember throwing my hands into the air and yelling "Yes!" Such was the power of The Rock.

Yet here we are -- about one week from WrestleMania XXVIII and a few weeks into The Rock's "real" return -- and I can't wait until it's finally over. WWE Raw is usually, at worst, entertainingly awful, but lately it's been genuinely awful. And a good deal of the blame for that falls at The Rock's feet.

The Rock used to be the classic "bad guy gone good," a smarmy asshole who earned the love of the fans by backing up all his bluster with action. He gave outstanding interviews and often made iffy bits into something memorable (compare the recent, disastrous "Rock Concert" with its first edition). He had genuinely catchy catchphrases and a great look.

Basically, he used to be a successful professional wrestler.

But, even though he's once again receiving paychecks from Titan Towers, The Rock doesn't seem to have much interest in recapturing what made him so memorable. As the great Brandon Stroud has noted a few times over in his weekly Raw recaps, The Rock isn't doing his homework. He's not offering up any sort of a nuanced character, not trying to build a genuine feud with upcoming opponent John Cena that's based on something, anything. He's giving interviews, sucking up cheers and getting the fuck out of there.

This might be acceptable under some circumstances -- he wouldn't be the first big-time pro wrestler to decide not to give a shit -- but when you're building towards a WrestleMania main event that's been planned for over a year and claiming, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that you're "back and you'll never leave," the letdown becomes palpable. No one knows why Cena and Rock are wrestling, which means we all know why Cena and Rock are wrestling: It'll make Vince McMahon a lot of money.

So why has The Rock become so goddamn bland? At best, he's gotten too used to the talk show circuit, gigs where his only job is to smile and talk fat Midwesterners into going to see his movies. At worst, he's back just to re-up his credibility with the company that made him and collect a nice paycheck for very little effort.

The worst part is that pro wrestling fans are conditioned not to expect very much in the way of detailed storytelling. When you step back and ignore all the bells and whistles of the modern-day WWE/WWF, it's actually pretty straightforward. Even something as ridiculous as "Steve Austin saving Stephanie McMahon from a wedding/crucifixion at the hands of The Undertaker" can be summed up with "good guy can't let bad guy get away with doing wrong." It's all just variations on the same old stuff.

So if The Rock offered up a few detailed Cena barbs a week, if he did more than bask in unearned praise and try to get things trending on Twitter, the fans would eat it up. They want to love The Rock; every recent crowd has been falling over themselves to cheer on his generic ramblings. I don't think most of them are even listening to what he's saying (which, again, is not a unique event in the world of professional wrestling).

Part of Cena's anti-Rock propaganda of late is that the superstar-turned-actor doesn't belong in the WWE anymore. He's Dwayne Johnson now, not one of the guys busting his ass every week at house shows and autograph signings and guest appearances on Psych. Basically, he's trading on his name. He hasn't earned this.

This is just generic wrestling banter, part of the usual back-and-forth, but anyone who's been watching Raw lately knows that he's right. Cena's easy to dislike, but at least he's a real pro wrestler. For better or worse, this is his life. The Rock's life is in Hollywood, and he makes it clearer and clearer every week that that's where he belongs.

At the end of the day, WrestleMania XXVIII will make Vince McMahon a buttload of money. And as the Masked Man pointed out today, it'll probably be pretty good, too. But even when I didn't care about pro wrestling, I used to care about The Rock. Because of apathy, laziness or other, those days are long gone. Maybe I expect too much from a sport that's primarily aimed at kids...or maybe one of the best in the business has lost whatever magic that made him a famous millionaire in the first place.

March 15, 2012

Ilya has awoken.

A little more than two months ago, I said that the Philadelphia Flyers had to ride Ilya Bryzgalov, come hell or high water.

Immediately following that proclamation, the endlessly inconsistent Bryz proceeded to give up 14 goals in his next four games. Then a goal each in the next two games. Then back to five in a showdown with Tim Thomas and the hated Boston Bruins.

And so the early months of 2012 came and went, and it became fair to start wondering whether this season would end up being another lost year of hockey.

Yet here we are, in the wee hours of March 15th, and I'm sitting here wondering whether newly beloved athlete and franchise goalie Ilya Bryzgalov has it in him to break the Flyers' franchise record for consecutive scoreless minutes tomorrow night on Long Island. Bryz currently sits at 196 minutes, 13 seconds. John Vanbiesbrouck's only a mere half hour away.

To even those of us who knew that Bryzgalov was a very talented netminder, this turnaround has been phenomenal. It unquestionably started on Saturday, February 25th in Calgary, when Bryz finally shut the door in a shootout victory and earned his team a hard-fought point. Up until that moment, you could probably count the points that could be directly attributed to Bryzgalov on two hands.

From that night on, Bryz has given up six goals in seven games. As Sam Carchidi notes, he's stopped 152 of his last 154 shots. And, to top it all off, he's the NHL's reigning Star of the Week.

Obviously, Flyers fans have suddenly fallen in love with their goalie. And not because he's quirky or clever on camera, but because he's stopping shots. That's what he's paid to do, that's how his hockey team is going to win games, and that's why he's hearing his name chanted night after night. Whether Bryz or assorted members of the hockey media like it or not, that's how things work in Philadelphia. Play well, play hard, play smart, earn love.

There will always be stories, like Marcus Hayes' tidy little mess in yesterday's Daily News (to which I prefer not to link, out of fear that it'll drive even a smidge of traffic), about how Bryz should be both court jester and All-Star goalie. One of "Philadelphia's wonderful weirdos," whatever the fuck that means.

But no one, repeat, no one should give a damn how Bryzgalov deals with the media. Reporters are just looking to get a choice quote and then make their late-night reservation at the downtown Applebee's. Bryz used to supply those tantalizing nuggets in droves, but lately he's become bland and boring.

And a raging success in net. Bryz's goals against average and save percentage, once very much embarrassing, are back to a reasonable 2.53 and .908, respectively. He's somehow redeemed what looked like a disaster of a season. I don't care if he ever says another interesting word.

To give credit where it's due, a lot of this started when the Flyers acquired Nicklas Grossmann. Check out this extremely prescient paragraph I wrote a month ago:
Grossman seems to be the kind of stay-at-home, shot-blocking defenseman that's been missing post-Pronger, but is he really going to turn the team around? Can he teach Braydon Coburn to play the body, the forwards to backcheck, Ilya Bryzgalov to be less insane?
Well, since Grossmann came aboard, Coburn (his new defensive partner) has been considerably more physical. The whole team has been playing smarter defense and getting in front of pucks. And Bryzgalov, the biggest key of all, has played like a superstar.

If I'm Paul Holmgren, I'm entering into serious late-season negotiations with the soon-to-be-free-agent Grossmann. The Matt Carles of the world come and go, but Nick's the kind of physical presence that this team must have in employ.

And I'm also getting down on my knees and thanking whatever magical deity I believe in that -- whether through veteran leadership, resurgent confidence or just downright timely good luck -- Ilya Bryzgalov has gotten his groove back.

Of course, this could all vanish as quickly as it began. There are still 13 games left in the regular season, and Sidney Crosby's scary Pittsburgh Penguins continue to loom in the first round. But now everyone knows what Bryzgalov is capable of. Now there's an unexpected glimmer of hope in a season where the Flyers looked doomed to be second tier. Maybe "wait til next year" can wait.

March 2, 2012

Reviewing Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball.

When listening to Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball, it's impossible not compare it to the other late-period Springsteen albums (post-2002). And interestingly enough, I think that the two more pessimistic ones -- Magic and Wrecking Ball -- end up having far more to say than the oft-praised The Rising and the oft-lamented Working on a Dream.

This thought, particularly in regards to The Rising, may be blasphemous to some. After all, Rolling Stone gave the album five stars and named it the 15th best of the 2000s.

But The Rising is a child of September 11th, and listening to it now, over 10 years later, the album really only works in that context. Songs like "Lonesome Day" and "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" have become concert anthems at best, lazy lamentations of lapsed sadness at worst. A few terrific songs -- "My City of Ruins," "You're Missing" and "Into the Fire," in particular -- come jampacked with emotion, no matter how or when you're consuming them, but there's plenty of fluff -- "Mary's Place" -- and embarrassment -- "Let's Be Friends (Skin to Skin)" -- to bring the album as a whole down. To put it simply, the misses outweigh the hits.

And Working on a Dream...well, my thoughts on that are well-documented. (Also, the first sentence of that post is maybe the most embarrassing one I've ever written.)

But Magic, on the other hand, never wavers. "Radio Nowhere" may be a factory-constructed single, but it's catchier and a lot more provocative than the Rising staples. "Last to Die" is a little on the nose but performed with the passion of a man who believes every word he's saying, which is one of the reasons Bruce's simpler lyrics often escape critical bombardment. And "Livin' in the Future" is the token "downtrodden lyrics over upbeat music" song that Bruce often turns to these days, but his meaning through is never muddled; there was no need to offer a "We Take Care of Our Own"-type clarification.

There's not really a standout on the album, something you'd remember as indicative of the work as a whole, but from start to finish it sounds like Springsteen has a message that he's spelling out clearly: Through manipulation, deceit and general human indecency, a lot of people are in rough shape.

That sort of idea carries over to Wrecking Ball, which has already been referred to as his "angriest album yet." I don't know if "angry" is the word I'd use, but again, Bruce certainly does stick to his message. Which, in my opinion, is that "the forces of life and time are beating far too many people down."

Whether those forces are the government, the economy, the internal struggle to press forward that's inside every human being, or a growing inability to connect with each other, Bruce sounds like a man who sees these troubles and more like them lurking now and over the horizon.

The album wraps up with the near-requisite "you gotta believe" two-pack in "Land of Hope and Dreams" and "We Are Alive," but they're almost afterthoughts once you finish plowing through "Easy Money," "Shackled and Drawn" and "Death To My Hometown." Neither one features the sad solo guitar of Nebraska, but you can imagine what they'd sound like if Bruce busted out his acoustic one night. Instead, he provides a folksy, Seeger Sessions sort of feel, and a sense of foreboding that begins with the album's opening and comes to a head on "Death," one of his most powerful (and catchiest) songs in recent memory.

My biggest surprise was that "Wrecking Ball," a lame Meadowlands tribute that I despised when Bruce debuted it during the end of last year's tour, turned out to be a six-minute musical masterpiece, complete with a wondrous trumpet that makes up for the shoddy lyrics. As Blogness on the Edge of Town so perfectly put it, the song's a "blast of rock energy right where the album needs it."

While it's certainly a little odd to have a hundred-millionaire lamenting the struggles of us little guys, Springsteen has always kept a watchful eye on the world, even from his ivory tower. He may not be able to connect like he used to, but he can still grasp the general tone of society and how it is changing around him.

But where does this musical concern for society, one that's been brewing since Devils & Dust, come from? Bruce's best work has always been internal, whether it's the characters with a personal flair from Born to Run or the deep self-examination of Tunnel of Love. Maybe he has nothing left to say from a personal standpoint; despite all that energy displayed onstage, his life is wrapping up. What's a powerfully influential rock legend with a boatload of money and a few kids supposed to sing about? In Bruce's case, he's decided to pay more attention to the people and places around him. And whether he means them to or not, his more dour observations about the world he's trying to process via music are the ones that ring truer.

At age 62, is Bruce Springsteen better at writing about sadness than happiness? When comparing Wrecking Ball and Working on a Dream, it's hard to argue otherwise. Not that Working is a joyful romp, but it was decidedly optimistic and sure as hell had nothing to say. For all the faults with this album -- "Rocky Ground," especially the rap part, is a big misfire, and "This Depression" sounds like sad sack filler -- it feels like it sprang from something real.

Wrecking Ball is nowhere near perfect, it's not even quite at the level of Magic, but it is indeed, as Steven Hyden put it, a culmination of sorts. Actual proof, maybe, that Springsteen can do what everyone claimed he could post-The Rising, which is provide commentary of sorts on a battered nation. How he's able to in this case is something only Bruce knows for sure.