Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sarah Silverman Review

Hartford Advocate Sept. 27, 2007

It can be hard to say why something is funny, but sometimes it's just as difficult describing why something isn't funny. In both instances you run the risk of looking humorless, uptight or obtuse.

Take the curious case of Sarah Silverman, whose Comedy Central show The Sarah Silverman Program is entering its second season. She's a dirty alt comedienne, endorsed by some of the greatest comedy forces of the day (David Cross, Vice Magazine). Respecting publications, from Vanity Fair to The New Yorker, have lavished her with praise. By saying she's not funny, you risk looking like a prude, or someone out of touch with the comedy zeitgeist of the moment.

But Silverman has never been and never will be funny. She's like Jenny McCarthy, except less blonde and more wry. Like McCarthy, Silverman's an avid student of four of the most wretched forms of comedy: fart jokes, fake dumbness, zany faces and bad puns. Of course, The New Yorker would never run a glowing review of McCarthy under the headline "Quiet Depravity."

Of course, she's not exactly Jenny McCarthy. Silverman is good looking, but approachable, so dudes think they have a chance with her and women don't hate her for looking like a cartoon version of sexual attractiveness. But more importantly, Silverman's vapidness is presented ironically. Even when a joke flat-lines — which happens constantly in her stand-up act and television show — it doesn't really flat-line. It was meant to flat-line, and that's the gag.

The fake filth performs the same function. Silverman and her writers seem to believe that a joke doesn't have to be well crafted or even make sense if it has the appearance of being potentially insulting. Let's pick an issue and display horrible taste about it.

It makes for frustrating television. The first episode of the second season of her show contains a key scene where she fondly remembers past abortions. I wasn't insulted. I was impatient, waiting for the jokes to start. A couple of great comic talents are wasted on the show, including Brian Posehn and Jay Johnston, who, like Silverman, got their start on HBO's Mr. Show. They're miscast and typecast, respectively — Posehn's big galoot persona is muted playing a domesticated gay man and Johnston plays an awkward, stiff cop like he did on several Mr. Show sketches and episodes of Arrested Development.

In her stand-up, Silverman acts like an eight-year-old who just learned her first swear word. On the show, she also adopts a faux-naive persona, but adds an unhealthy dollop of faux cluelessness.

It seems like a female variation on Chris Elliot's destructive idiot man-child shtick from Get a Life. That show worked because it was a dark deconstruction of the then-dominant family sitcom genre. The Sarah Silverman Program isn't a parody of anything — it's a platform for absurdist edgeless "edgy" jokes.
Even when the show wades into a deeply fraught issue, like abortion, it's just an excuse for subpar jokes about how clueless Silverman's character is. It's both as subvervise and pleasant as a migraine.
Read more!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Right Wing Counter Protest

Where Eagles Dare
The Counter-protest Group The Gathering Of Eagles Cause A Ruckus As Bush Comes To New London's Coast Guard Ceremonies.
By Adam Bulger
Hartford Advocate May 31 2007 (No longer online)

The first encounter I had with right wing protest group the Gathering of Eagles was watching an Eagle upbraid young, female demonstrators outside the New London Coast Guard Academy.

The demonstrators had come to protest President Bush’s visit as commencement speaker last Monday. The heavy-set man with a personal PA system challenged the “hippy girls’” loyalty to their “homo,” “girly-man” boyfriends. Later, he accused the anti-war protesters of getting paid to attend the May 22 protest. An anti-war protester yelled that he paid $20 for gas to get there. The Gathering of Eagles member suggested he “should have driven a hybrid vehicle.”

He ran out of steam, one-liner-wise, after that, but he and other less-light-on-their-feet Eagles with megaphones and speakers droned on for the next hour or so, including a long droning “swim to Cuba” chant during a Latino anti-war speaker’s speech.

Before the protest, the group’s Web site,, said the group planned to “welcome the families of the graduating Coast Guard academy” and “support … these families and graduating cadets.” The group, at least nominally, was worried the Coast Guard graduation would be unfairly disrupted by the anti-war rally planned by the ANSWER coalition and other anti-war groups, including Veterans for Peace and Connecticut Opposes the War.

“We believe that ANSWER’s protest was very ill-timed, and a very bad location. … For ANSWER to protest the President on what’s supposed to be the happiest day of these people’s lives so far, that was shameful and very disgraceful,” Connecticut Gathering of Eagles organizer Jim Bancroft said. (Turns out he shouldn’t have been so worried — the Presidential motorcade avoided the protest. Neither the demonstration nor the counter-demonstration impacted the ceremony.)

Bancroft claimed an early remark by an anti-war speaker changed the Eagle’s gathering’s purpose from a celebration of the cadets to a hectoring of the anti-war demonstration.

“We were there to welcome the President. When we got there, the first thing that happened was someone called us baby killers,” Bancroft said, adding that the slur was stated sometime between 7:30 and 7:45 a.m.

His claim seems extremely unlikely, in light of an ANSWER’s spokesperson’s version of the timeline.

“Our sound permit didn’t start until eight. We might have done a sound check, but they would have just heard ‘Check, check,’” ANSWER organizer Tahnee Stair said.

Elliot Adams, a Vietnam veteran and the president of Veterans for Peace, attended the rally, and said he viewed the Eagles with resigned sadness.

“I feel sorry for them. A number of them are vets, and I understand the misplaced anger associated with [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder],” Adams said. “With PTSD, you have what’s called misplaced anger that goes off in all directions. It’s a real common thing.”

He added, “Also, they believe in the American dream, and they don’t just see that we’re losing it.”
Read more!

The Insulting Bartender

Smart answers to stupid drinks
Originally appeared on, a long-defunct website I was an assistant editor for, sometime in 1999. Was reprinted in Think Magazine later that year.

Want to figure out who your date really is? What they order may tell you more than you think. New Jersey native Adam Bulger explains.

Rum and Coke: The drink's okay, but it's ordered by so many eighteen-to-twenty-two's that they should change the name to "My First Highball" and have a Mattel logo on the glass.

Scotch and Soda: It's not 1960s, your friends are not named Sammy, Dino, or Frank; and that whole Swingers retro look is getting tired.

Cosmopolitan: Remember that time when you were working the door at the Limelight and you wouldn't let me in because I was wearing sneakers? Go to hell.

Sex on the Beach: What? You got an exotic dancer waiting for her drink back at your table, or something?

Bourbon: You're a good 'ole boy, never meaning no harm, but, apparently, that's just a little bit more than the law will allow. If I were born with a name like Cletus or Rosco, I'd be sucking down a hundred-fifty proof liquor, too.

Tequila Shots: Congratulations on turning twenty-one. Don't let any of your frat brothers throw up on my shoes.

Budweiser: Whassuuuuuuuuuup? You're a sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep. Here's a new concept for you. It's called other brands of beer. Look into it.

Mint Julep: The War's over. The South lost. Get over it. Better hurry back to your table, looks like your date, Blanche DuBois, is getting overcome by the vapors.

[Any drinks whose titles include Freeze or Electric:
Dude, you've been spending way too much time at TGI Fridays.]

Gin and Tonic: The G&T was invented by British colonialists when they were treating malaria with quinine-spiked tonic. The Limeys added gin to make the combination palatable. So what does that say about you? It says that you're a pale-skinned imperialist and the sun never sets over your hangover.

Margarita: Okay, fine. Whatever. Just understand that the first guy who puts a Jimmy Buffett song on the jukebox is gonna end up in the basement with duct tape over his mouth.

Jello, Body, and Test Tube Shots: You enjoy drinking, incoherently hitting on girls, and sleeping in closets. You hope you won't be the first of your dorm-mates to pass out. The last time you passed out first they pulled the old ''hand in warm water'' trick on you.

Jagermeister: No, I don't want to hear the story about how you lost your teeth, and no, my refusal does not constitute "fighting words."

White Wine Spritzer: Without looking at you, hearing you, or knowing anything about you, I am supremely confident that I can kick your ass.

Sam Adams: Obviously, you're a dude in your mid to late twenties and you're either wearing a suit or some kind of corporate casual equivilent. You're an investment banker in your mid-twenties and you're nervous about what beer to order in public. You have a subscription to Playboy, but you think about men when you masturbate.

Long Island Iced Tea: You cats from Long Island sure do get wasted. Does that come from having to put up with Billy Joel and Rosie O'Donnell?

Whiskey Sour: You're an old man who has been drinking steadily since the mid-eighties. You smoke Camel straights and like to get into fights with strangers. And could you please come home? Mom's getting worried.
Read more!

CT Murderball

Connecticut Murderball
Hartford Advocate December 28 2006 (No longer online)
By Adam Bulger

Depending on how you read the situation, the Connecticut Jammers are either having a bad year or a great one.

The state’s wheelchair rugby team’s one-and-nine record isn’t impressive, but other factors have to be considered. Like how the team’s roster has swelled to 10 players thanks to recent mainstream exposure to the sport, and some of the team’s troubles are explained by the addition of players new to the game.

“My team is fairly new and fairly young. I have a bunch of new players, which is good, but it’s going to take us a while to get back up to speed,” Jammers coach Bud Harvey said. “Some of my older players are starting to retire. We’ve lost a couple of experienced players and gained a couple of new players. We’re in a building year.”

Earlier this month, the annual Connecticut Classic Wheelchair Rugby Tournament was held in Wallingford. Four teams — the Jammers, the New York Jets, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Casco Bay Navigators — competed in a six-game round robin tournament.

The Jammers took the court for their second game of the day at around 1:30 (I missed their first game which was played at the ungodly Saturday hour of 9 a.m.) to play the Philly team. Techno music played over the PA system as the 10-man team rolled up and down the indoor basketball court in a series of drills.

Soon the game got underway. Several of the players moved the angled wheels on their specially designed wheelchairs with surprising dexterity and speed. The metal and plastic plates covering the chairs’ spokes clanged loudly when one player battered another with their chair, and the audience responded with concerned gasps.

The concern is understandable. Quad rugby is played exclusively by people with disabilities affecting both their arms and legs. The players themselves think the concern is unfounded. Sure, quad rugby is a high-impact sport, and collisions not only happen, they’re encouraged. But the injuries are mostly minor and the game’s benefits outweigh the minor risks.

“You’ll see a scraped elbow here and there, but the sport’s pretty safe,” Jammer Rick Farmiglietti said. “I’m usually good to get knocked out of the chair about once a tournament.”

In quad rugby, a player scores by carrying the ball through the goal. Moving the ball across the court, players must dribble or pass the ball every 10 seconds.

The Jammers seemed overmatched by the Philadelphia team. It looked like the Jammers were a little lost on the court. Four of the team’s 10 players were rookies, including Clinton Cowen; the team hasn’t quite had a chance to gel yet. For two of the latest additions to the team, Joseph Stramando and Jon Sigworth, it was the second and first times they had played in competitive games, respectively.

Sigworth, a freshman at Wesleyan University and a former extreme unicyclist, broke his neck while mountain biking in northern India earlier this year. After finding out about the team through Villardi, he was anxious to play.

“I had my accident early this February. I went to a practice wearing my neck collar. They said I could roll around in a chair for a while, but that I couldn’t play until I got my neck collar off. I was like ‘Darn it.’ But I’ve been playing with them since July,” Sigworth said.

Unlike the other players on the team, Stramondo is not a quadriplegic. The Trinity College administrator and voting member of the state’s Independent Living Council has a rare form of dwarfism called micromelic dysplasia, and uses a motorized wheelchair. His fellow Independent Living Council member Jim Quick encouraged him to join the team.

“My Disability is something I’ve lived with all my life, and organized sport is something I haven’t had the opportunity to do, and especially not organized sport that’s this exciting,” Stramondo said.

Quad rugby was invented in Canada in 1977. While other sports like wheelchair basketball were already established, quad rugby — or murderball, as it was called originally — was the first sport that allowed quadriplegic athletes of all functioning abilities to have important roles on both offense and defense. Despite the name, it has little in common with traditional rugby.

“Rugby and wheelchair rugby are totally different as far as the rules go,” International Quad Rugby Association official John Bishop said. “The name ‘rugby’ was chosen because of the similar camaraderie and the aggressiveness of the sport.”

The game spread like a virus to countries all across the globe, and now is considered the fastest-growing wheelchair sport in the world, played in 26 countries and a featured part of the Paralympic Games.

The game made its way to Connecticut in the early ’90s when a group of dedicated wheelchair athletes started playing ramshackle games outside Gaylord rehab hospital in Wallingford.

“We were practicing on a tennis court in the parking lot. We were basically using everyday chairs that we would duct tape pieces of wood over the chairs so they wouldn’t fold up when we hit each other,” Jammers co-founder Jimmy Quick said.

Quick added: “It was pretty gruesome in the early days.”

Quick, the former president of the Connecticut chapter of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, was a member of the national wheelchair rugby team in the mid ’90s. This season marks his return to the sport after a five-year hiatus.

Gaylord rehab hospital has been active with the team since its inception.

“We’ve sponsored the team for about 10 or 11 years. We sponsor the team financially through fund-raising we do through the sports association,” Gaylord Hospital Sports Association Coordinator Todd Munn said.

Despite Gaylord hospital’s support, the team is currently looking for a place to play.

“We need a gym and we need storage. Ideally, it would be a basketball court on a Saturday or a Sunday for three or four hours,” Jammers coach Bud Harvey said.

The sport is currently enjoying a surge of popular interest thanks to the acclaimed 2005 documentary Murderball . The movie documents the rivalry between the U.S. wheelchair rugby team and Canada’s team. Despite the sport’s Canadian roots, America has traditionally dominated quad rugby. However, when one of America’s star players, the cantankerous Joe Soares, became Canada’s coach after getting cut from America’s team, the Canadian team took the gold medal in 2002. The movie documents Soares and players for the American team preparing for the 2004 paralympic game.

The film is gripping, entertaining, human and at your local Blockbuster right now — rent it immediately. Thanks to its success, the Connecticut Jammers and teams across the country have enjoyed renewed interest among both disabled and able-bodied people.

“Just before the movie came out we were struggling to field a team and have enough athletes that have the spinal cord injury level come out and be on the team. Murderball drummed up a lot of interest among people both injured and not injured,” Munn said.

A review of the film on the Web site said Murderball “doesn’t dispel myths and stereotypes. It takes big fat bites out of those sugary sweet, pathetic images and stereotypes, chews ’em up and spits ’em out.”

One reason why the movie is so engaging is its frankness. Joe Soares, for instance, comes across as one of the world’s biggest assholes. The honesty makes the film entertaining, but it also makes it more important. There’s a temptation on the part of a lot of able-bodied folks to think of disabled people as saints, or objects of pity. As coach Harvey said, often upon meeting wheelchair-bound people you only see the chair; seeing past the disability and seeing the person is a challenge for a lot of people.

“You’ve got to be able to get over the chair. The instant response is to say ‘look at these poor guys.’ There’s nothing poor about these guys,” Harvey said. “They are tough and they don’t cut each other any slack. They’re human beings and deserve and demand to be treated like human beings.”

In the recent tournament, the Jammers and the other teams’ players didn’t look like saints. In fact, many of the goateed, tattooed crew wouldn’t look out of place closing down a disreputable dive bar on any given Tuesday night. The guys I talked to are really good dudes, and aspects of their lives are heroic, I suppose. But they’re not saints. They’re, for lack of a better classification, normal dudes who happen to be in chairs. “People are always like ‘you’re a saint, or you’re an inspiration’ — I hate it when people say I’m an inspiration,” Jammer team member Joseph Stramondo said. “I’m an inspiration because I can wipe my ass? Thanks. I don’t want to be your inspiration; I want to be your equal.”

Several members of the Jammers told me they believed quad rugby helps to shift people’s perceptions because it’s an aggressive game with a sexy allure.

“I think the game breaks a lot of barriers down because they see people trying to have fun with sports like everybody else and being crazy like everybody else,” Quick said. “We aren’t china dolls. We’re not going to break.”

Read more!

Immigration Rally

The Immigrant Throng
An Anti-immigration Rally Meets An Immigration Rights Rally.
By Adam Bulger
Hartford Advocate August 17, 2006

The anti-illegal immigration rally held at the Capitol building in Hartford on August 8 was political spectacle of the purest sort, as was the counter demonstration organized by local activists. Held in the shadow of the state’s Democratic primary, the event was coordinated by part of a national anti-illegal immigration group called the 21st Century Paul Revere Riders. Like the Minutemen, the riders are opposed to illegal immigration, only they express that opposition by traveling the country on motorcycles.

Hartford was their 40th, or maybe 41st stop — event organizer Frosty Wooldridge wasn’t sure. It was the first time the counter-protestors had encountered them, though, and they took advantage of it, outnumbering the Riders two to one.

The counter-demonstrators had gathered at Minuteman Park outside the Armory when I arrived around 11:15. I recognized a lot of faces from other demonstrations. They were seasoned veterans, and had come prepared. Seven “peace keepers,” who were there to marshal the protesters, wore bright yellow vests and talked with members of the crowd. They had professional-looking signs and banners, along with immigrants’ rights literature and shirts.

Organizations ranging from Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) to the Connecticut Chapter of NOW endorsed the rally. Maggie Russell of Latinos Contra La Guerra (Latinos against the War) was partially inspired to protest the event by her parents, who are immigrants.

“A lot of groups in Hartford are enraged. We live in such a diverse city,” Russell said. “It’s filled with immigrants, from the North End to the South End.”

Hartford activist Jerimarie Liesegang, who came along with Queers without Borders, said there were parallels between immigrant struggles and those of gay people.

“The issue affects a lot of people in the communities. There are gay people in the immigrant community and immigrants in the gay community,” Leisegang said, noting that the protest represented “general bigotry.”

There was evident energy in the crowd, and they looked ready to face the Riders and pronounce their counter message.

“By no means am I saying that they don’t have a right to talk. I’m just going to talk louder,” Russell said.

The counter-rally was primarily organized by Peter Goselin of the National Lawyers Guild’s Connecticut Chapter. Thanks to a tip off from local activists who monitor anti-immigration web sites, he heard about the event. The loose-knit coalition protesting the event formed quickly.

I asked him if anyone in his coalition brought a chopper. He apparently didn’t think the question was as funny as I thought it was.

“This whole business of motorcycles is they’re trying to make a fake working-class statement. But they’re not working people,” Goselin said. “These are people who are able to take the summer off.”

At a quarter after 12, no motorcyclists had shown up, and it looked like maybe none would. The six police officers stationed by the north entrance to the Capitol looked bored and drank Gatorade. Just as I was working out an angle about a motorcycle immigration rally that didn’t happen, Earl Jackson and Bruce Coolbeth pulled into the Capitol building’s parking lot on their bikes. Jackson, who wore a yellow T-shirt reading “no amnesty for illegals,” had heard about the rally through an XM Satellite radio show hosted by Libertarian Rollye James. Coolbeth, whose arms and neck were covered in tattoos, had “South Vietnam University” written on his bike windshield.

“I’m more socially liberal than you’d probably expect,” Jackson said. “It’s not so much about immigration as it is about border security. If your basement is flooded, you should plug up the hole first.”

Waiting for the motorcycles to show, I walked back to the counter-protest. On Capitol Ave, I saw Diane and Bob Black and Larainne Bellito walking towards the Capitol building holding anti-immigration signs. The trio, who looked as suburban as a minivan, told me they came from Danbury, where they were a part of an anti-immigration group with hundreds of members.

“Obviously, not everyone shows up at every rally, because they have to work,” Diane Black said.

As we spoke, the counter-protest marched by, and the Danbury group’s comments were lost in the din of megaphones, chanting and drumming.

“These are the people who call us racists because we’re trying to protect our country,” Bellito said.

Maybe it was the sun, but when I met Frosty Wooldridge all I could think was that he looked like Will Ferell in some Grizzly Adams-themed comedy sketch. He wore an American flag bandana on his head and a leather support belt around his waist. His face was red from sun and wind, and he seemed a little rattled. Before handing me a list of six illegal immigration bullet points he wanted to impart, he tried to recite them from memory. This led into a great exchange where I would tell him he was on four, not three, and so forth.

“We don’t know the intentions of millions of illegals. We don’t know their terrorist intentions; we don’t know what kind of diseases they’re carrying,” Wooldridge said when he got the order right long enough to stay on point.

I asked him what diseases illegal immigrants were carrying over the border. After a short, but dramatic pause, Wooldridge blurted out “leprosy,” like it had only just then occurred to him.

Which, of course, did absolutely nothing to kill the Ferrell comparison. Incidentally, John Shanley, professor of medicine and director of infectious disease at the UConn Health Center, said that while leprosy does still exist and is found in immigrants from South and Latin America, it is far less contagious and easily treated than its scary Biblical reputation implies. Shanley said tuberculosis, the other disease Wooldridge accused illegal immigrants of infecting Americans with, presented far more of a health risk.

Wooldridge and his crew started the rally. Until they plugged in a megaphone they were in danger of getting drowned out by the counter-protesters, who had finished their march and gathered nearby. The anti-immigration people mostly wore jeans and T-shirts, with the notable exception of one gentleman who wore an Uncle Sam suit over an T-shirt.

The speakers were more boring than scary or funny, with the exception of Rick Chiesa, who ripped out a Larry the Cable Guy “git-r-done” during his speech.

Speaking after the event, Goselin cautioned me against writing Wooldridge and his group off as a collection of buffoons. Goselin said that in his writings and public statements, Wooldridge has dehumanized illegal immigrants, portraying them as scum and carriers of disease.

“This is not the language of immigration reform. This is the language of eugenics. This is the language of the master race. That’s what Frosty Wooldridge is,” Goselin said.
Read more!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sin City Law review

Viva Las Violence
New Sundance documentary series explores the consequences of crime in America's playground
By Adam Bulger
Hartford Advocate September 6, 2007

What happens in Vegas does not always stay in Vegas. Debt, STDs and criminal charges travel. As the new Sundance Channel reality series Sin City Law implies, a more honest marketing campaign for the city of sin might be billing it "the unhappiest place on earth."

The show takes place in the innards of the Clark County criminal court system. The gleaming surface of Las Vegas is present mainly in short shots that cut between scenes, with glitz providing ironic contrast. The eight-part documentary series focuses on four notorious court cases, and while the courthouse is strikingly well designed, the show's primary aesthetic is unadorned honesty.

The series doesn't gradually wade to progressively more intense tragedy, it tosses the viewer into the deep end with the first case, which follows Beau and Monique Maestas, siblings accused of stabbing a three-year-old girl to death and paralyzing the girl's 10-year-old sister in a crystal meth-induced mania.

I don't throw around the word "evil" a lot, but stabbing children over crank? That's pretty much evil distilled to its most petty and human form.

The Maestases seem like Jerry Springer guests, poor and poorly educated, with misplaced priorities and a hair trigger sense of indignity. They're products of a jaw-droppingly awful childhoods, illustrated by the comments their sister makes about family visits to their incarcerated father. Looking at a photograph, she casually says "this is when we visited him and he put his hand up my shirt."

Beau pleads guilty, and, in an attempt to save his sister, claims that he full responsibility for the attack. However, evidence indicates that Monique shared responsibility.

The moral center in this first trial is public defender Alzora Jackson, who represents Monique. A soulful black woman in her 50s, Jackson not only provides Monique the best defense possible, but also helps to pick out an outfit for the accused child murderer to wear during her hearing. She also gives Monique extremely good advice, advice that seems to have unfortunately come several years too late, when she tells Monique that during the trial "you have to control your impulses."

Interspersing news footage and images from newspaper articles, Sin City Law touches on the darkness at the center of the modern soul more than any reality show. The series is an onslaught of pure sober truth. In the second case, Pascual Lozano's mother puzzles over why her surrogate son would rather be executed than rat out his fellow gang members during his trial for the 2002 murder of a 9-year-old girl.

The crimes of Sin City Law aren't reenacted or illustrated with fancy graphics or edits. Sin City Law is mostly set in courts. The bare bones presentation of emotional subject matter makes the show all the more effective. Attorneys argue the fate of a murder in a back room of the court where cameras weren't allowed. Instead, they film a woman wiping computer screens with the attorney's conversation playing as an audio track. It's a surreal and chilling moment.
Read more!

Horse the Band review

Horse the Band
A Natural Death
Hartford Advocate August 9, 2007

I haven't heard such a fluid mix of cheesy synthesizers and death metal guitars since, I don't know, either Andrew WK or maybe never. Songs start out like the music from Contra or a John Carpenter soundtrack, then break into silly death metal mosh jams. The dudes in the band are clearly skilled musicians. The keyboards, guitars and drums tightly synch in a manner that's almost disconcerting. The sounds themselves don't really mesh, which is actually kind of fun. While the music's not always listenable, these guys deserve gold stars for originality and balls. — Adam Bulger Read more!

Chthonic Article

Made in Taiwan
Taiwanese black metal band Chthonic comes to Hartford, again
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Black metal bands aren't knocking down my door, asking how to stand out from the crowd. That's too bad. If they did, I would give some very useful advice. Like make sure you're from someplace weird, like Taiwan, and then get involved with a political cause that only subscribers to the Economist would understand.

Musically, I'd suggest including spooky atmospheric songs in between the over-the-top operatic metal ones. Or employing a native folk instrument that no metal head in the world has ever heard of into the music. And, lastly, having their band's name begin with a silent "ch." All of that advice and more was taken by Taiwanese melodic black metal quartet Chthonic (pronounced "thonic"). On their seven studio recordings and in their hundreds of live shows, the 10-year-old band employs many seemingly standard black metal moves, and combines them with a distinct Taiwanese flavor that makes everything seem novel.

Their onstage makeup and outfits, which at first glance appears similar to King Diamond or Kiss style, are derived from Taiwanese Taoist priests and pay tribute to the Eight Generals, face-painted figures that figure in southern Chinese ritual dance. And their lyrics fulfill requirements for black metal, but also have a Taiwanese twist. While their Scandinavian black metal compatriots sing about the devil and Vikings, Chthonic's lyrics are about the conflicts between ghosts and gods in traditional Taiwanese folk stories.

"It would be ridiculous for an Asian to write about Vikings or the anti-Christ. We write about Taiwanese mythology and folklore, and we think that's the right way," lead singer Freddy Lim said.

Chthonic shares musical DNA with other leading metal groups. At their heaviest, the guitars are fierce, the drums are battering and Lim's vocals swing from guttural growls to stratosphere-soaring screams. It's loudness polished to a high shine in the mold of Emperor and Enslaved. It's the definition of "Ozz-festian."

But their quieter, spookier sounds are what sets them apart. Their sounds are unique to the genre, notably their use of the folk stringed instrument called a hena, or erhu, which adds a haunting element to their music.

"I was looking for the right instrument for a melody that couldn't be played on a keyboard or a guitar. The core meaning of those melodies are sad, and the hena fit perfectly," Lim said.

They're playing Hartford twice this month; their first was an intimate show last week at the Webster Underground, and the next will be on Sept. 21, opening for Cradle of Filth on the Webster's main stage. The shows are part of Chthonic's Unlimited tour, across America and Canada.

"We're going to play unlimited to the end," Lim said.

The tour name refers to their Taiwanese roots and the message they hope to convey. "The second meaning is to let the fans know that Taiwan is still limited by the United Nations," Lim said.

Taiwan has a thorny political identity. The island, located off the coast of China, has one of the world's 20 largest economies. Self-ruled since 1949, the country had a seat on the UN by the name "Republic of China" until 1971, when the Chinese government claimed sovereignty over Taiwan and threatened military force if it tried to secede. Applications to have Taiwan recognized as an independent nation by the UN have been repeatedly denied, most recently this year.

"Taiwan is as independent as America or Canada. We vote for our own government, we have our own army, everything," Lim said. "The only difference is that we have a country that always wants to block our way, which is China."

Metal is often a bastion of nihilism, but Lim is at the forefront of a political movement. He's active in the movement within Taiwan that seeks recognition as a country independent from China. Lim organized a huge a concert in Taiwan for the cause. On Sept. 16, Chthonic plays a New York show to coincide with the beginning of the Sept. 18 UN session.

The Taiwanese government is evidently grateful, as they've footed some of the bill for the tour. Also, Taiwanese show support in other ways, attending concerts and making sure the band doesn't go hungry. Lim said the gifts of Taiwanese food were overwhelming.Their tour bus was overloaded with Taiwanese delicacies.

"Taiwanese Americans always attend our shows. Maybe one percent of them are metal heads. There are some older people. At some of our early shows they tried to get close to the stage and were smashed by the mosh pit," Lim said.

The rocking call for Taiwanese independence has garnered attention from surprising sources. Articles about the band's politics have appeared in high-end daily newspapers like the Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune, and the band has been interviewed about its political beliefs on National Public Radio and at the National Press Club.

The focus on geopolitics sometimes frustrates the band — they'd prefer the music to speak for itself — but they understand that it's necessary.

"This tour is a musical tour and the biggest priority for us is our musical career. But if we can't join the international society, we have no other choice," Lim said. "If a French musician or a German musician suffered the same thing, their citizens would treat them like us."
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Ex-Offender Reform Article

Activists seek more help with substance abuse and job placement for those behind bars
By Adam Bulger
Hartford Advocate September 20, 2007

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, the Connecticut legislature held a special session to discuss the state's criminal justice program in light of the brutal July triple murder in Cheshire. Lawmakers explored the state's ability to share information between law enforcement agencies, and considered proposals about three-strikes laws and increased prison construction. An important voice, advocates say, was missing from the discussion.

"The people who are not part of this dialogue are the people who know something about what it would really take to prevent people coming out of jail from re-offending," Peter Goselin, coordinator of the Connecticut chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said. "Those are people who have been through that process."

An ad hoc collection of social justice groups, spearheaded by three-month-old ex-offender rights organization the Clean Slate Committee, spoke on behalf of the currently and formerly incarcerated at a press conference on Sept. 11 outside the Legislative Office Building. A part of Connecticut drug policy reform organization A Better Way Foundation, Clean Slate aims to change the way the state treats former offenders.

"They're talking about building more prisons, they're talking about GPS tracking, they're talking about electronic bracelets," Clean Slate's David Samuels said. "Nowhere in that conversation is there any talk about rehabilitating inmates while they're incarcerated."

Connecticut offers tax incentives to companies that hire former convicts and employment services for the formerly incarcerated. Samuels believes they're ineffective. "The policies on the books that supposedly address the issues of discrimination against ex-offenders have no teeth," Samuels said. "There's nothing on the books that provides ex-offenders with the legal avenue of taking an employer to court."

While a handful of Connecticut businesses hire former offenders, nothing legally compels private sector employers to consider former offenders for work. One state legislator noted that when former felons compete in the job market against non-felons, the former felons lose out, perpetuating a cycle of incarceration.

"We have 400 ex-offenders coming into Hartford a month. There are scant services for them and very little housing," State Representative Art Feltman said. "People bounce around and look for work, and get turned down for work because of their criminal records, and everyone is surprised when they end up back in jail. No one should be surprised given how few options they have."

Several former convicts I spoke with had employment problems stemming from their criminal records. Hartford resident Stanley Johnson, 41, who was released from prison in 1992 after serving 18 months of a three-year sentence on drug charges, was recently fired from a job because of his criminal record.

"On the job application, it asked if you've had a felony within the last five years," Johnson said. "I hadn't had one within five years, I applied for the position. Once they realized I had a felony, they let me go."

Johnson said the recent incident was part of a long pattern of employment issues. "I've been back and forth, see-sawing between jobs just because of my background and felonies," Johnson said.

Jeff Sherman, 49, of Bristol, was released in 2002 after serving 11 months for drug charges. At that time, he re-started his house-painting business. While many of his former clients signed on with him again, many were wary of hiring him again because of his criminal background.

"Some people looked at me and figured once a drug addict, always a drug addict. I'm self-employed, but if I went in somewhere and filled out an application, I'm sure it would hold me back," Sherman said.

Under the tenure of current commissioner Theresa Lantz, the Connecticut Department of Correction adopted what's called a re-entry model of corrections, which emphasizes job readiness for convicts.

"Basically, their discharge planning starts the second they get in. They know day one what they're going to need once they leave here so that they won't come back here," DOC representative Stacy Smith said.

Samuels contends that inmates with release dates are often denied access to those programs, in favor of inmates serving life sentences. As a result, Samuels said, many released prisoners encounter difficulties with jobs, putting their parole in jeopardy. "When a person goes to see a [parole officer], the one thing they're going to hear is, 'Find a job or else,'" Samuels said.

James Hanton, 44, of Bridgeport, said that while he was on parole, employment concerns were placed ahead of treating his substance-abuse issues.

"I got into some issues with the director of the halfway house. His issue was work, work, work. My thing was that I had to get into some outpatient treatment, because being clean in prison and being clean out in the world are two different things," Hanton said.

Smith said prisoners are allowed into drug treatment and job-readiness programs based on their records. "Individual histories determine what programs people qualify for," Smith said.

Samuels said the criteria are flawed, claiming that people with release dates, the people who could benefit the most from those programs, are often excluded from them. Hanton, who was imprisoned for a robbery he committed to feed his addiction, was able to get into the tier-two program after a protracted legal battle.

"The Attorney General's office was sitting there, trying to defend their position on this. Basically, the court was going to make a decision in their favor until I said to the judge, 'Listen, I'm right around the corner from parole. Do you want to be my next victim?'" Hanton said. "That's how I got through to him, and he ordered the treatment."

Samuels and his allies characterize Connecticut's justice system as a criminal factory, a system that — intentionally or not — encourages recidivism. Barbara Fair of New Haven-based criminal justice reform group People Against Injustice and others worry that in the wake of the Cheshire murders, things will get worse for former offenders.

"Because of their knee-jerk reaction to what happened in Cheshire, the people on parole are going to have to pay," Fair said. "All the persistent offenders are going to have to pay dearly."

Fair's son was released from prison the morning of the press conference. She's already seen firsthand how the state has begun cracking down on former offenders.

"Already, my son's parole officer told him he had to be on a bracelet for 90 days, with a 9 o'clock curfew. Which is ridiculous," Fair said. "Like my son said, 'If I'm going to commit a crime, and I know I have to be in the house by nine, I'm going to do it before nine.'"
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