Saturday, March 24, 2007

Remnants of Hipness

Nineteen months ago Shannon Smith and I met a chrome-plated unknown with brooding presence and thunderous pipes just outside Greensboro's Natty Greene’s. Almost begrudgingly, the dude Shannon knew from the local Honda dealership confessed he was about to audition for American Idol. We thought little of it at the time; having covered plenty of Idol stops before, we’d interviewed scores of delusional losers with musical aspirations. Something about this guy was different though, his brooding looks oozed confidence and unlike the glittered army of Idol aspirants we’d encountered in the past - he didn’t seem the least bit insane. So, when that same lowly auto clerk returned to his adopted hometown a swaggering rock star with a red hot album, it was only right Shannon and I team up for one more go at the Chris Daughtry phenomenon.

Or so we thought. Our enthusiasm waned a little early on as we hung out just by the slowly-rising stage and profiled roadies. There seemed to be hundreds. Burly bouncer types, vampire look-a-likes, a few longshoremen - all working furiously to erect the spotlight Daughtry would dominate nine hours later. Nodding at a lumberjack, I casually covered my camera’s logo as Shannon and I sauntered through an area we’d been told to keep out of. Fat chance. With a cadre of competitors jockeying for spots and my own affiliate's self-professed experts demanding something exclusive, we were on a mission - lack of press pass be damned. Not that we hoped to find Chris himself. Having told us earlier he’d be spending the day with his family instead of us media jackals, Shannon and I were forced to troll for lesser bait. After a hearty debate on sideburns and class structure, we deciphered which unwashed young man was in charge. Minutes later, we huddled outside a gleaming back tour bus with a pensive Gen-X’er in a pimp hat and drumsticks in his back-pocket. Exclusive scored.

The rest of the day stretched into a blur. Parked by the train trestle overlooking the stage, we chopped out footage in an air conditioned live truck as the sun beat down on Hamburger Square. By mid afternoon the roadies were almost through fiddling with their hanging stacks of speakers, their endless banks of colored lights and umpteen formats of pricey film cameras. Earlier in the week, word had filtered out that Chris’ hometown stop would be filmed for next video (‘Home‘, of course). Perched there above the fray with a lens or two of my own, I hoped Greensboro’s free concert wouldn't become Greensboro’s free film shoot. A wall of photog-asses is no fun to look at - even if you didn't shell out jack for a front row look at the vocalist of the moment. Already, people poured into the square, happy to claim a spot by the stage hours before the first guitar would scream or crunch. Young women in adhesive t-shirts with ’Daughtry’ emblazoned on them, Soccer Mom’s slathering sun-screen on their youngest, grown men with box-top signs and disturbingly high waistlines. For not the first or last time that day, I thanked God I wasn’t the object of their adulation. Though I gotta figure the paycheck ain’t half bad.

An hour and a half before the opening act was set to kick off their set list, the throng of concertgoers had eclipsed every blade of grass and square of sidewalk. Between live shots, I panned my lens over the crowd, taking in all the parents, pre-teens and pickpockets. Knowing I’d soon have to wade right through that mob to get to my pre-ordained camera position, I took a long pull from a three dollar bottle of water and took out my cell phone. A full block away the sun-baked silhouette in my viewfinder reached down and yanked something off his hip. Joe McCloskey had been on the roof of McCoul’s all afternoon, it was blazing hot and his earpiece batteries were dying - but he still humored me with a few gestures in my lens’s direction. Days earlier, we’d first scaled the three story building in search of a vantage spot for our Julie Luck to field anchor from. Initially I was bummed that I wouldn’t be the one manning the roof cam, but as I watched Joe’s profile sweat in black and white, my shady stage-right perch didn’t seem so bad.

Two hours later, all sunlight was gone. An estimated twenty-two thousand hopped-up fans stood spangled t-shirt to Nascar coverall, well-healed suburbanites mingling with the denizens of rundown mobile home courts. Daughtry the unifier, I thought as I stretched my tripod to its full height. Thirty minutes earlier I’d abandoned the safety and Cheetos of my live truck nest to forge a path into the very heart of that pulsating pack. Now wedged into a space by the soundboard, I suffered the slings and arrows of the half-inebriated fans around me. TV cameras will do that: spark showers of affection from total strangers while causing others to curse your very shadow. But since Athenaeum was ripping through their set at full volume I couldn’t tell if the good people behind me were wishing me well or telling me to get the hell out of their way. I just nodded and smiled, but I gotta admit I winced a little when Athenaeum’s guitarist dropped an F-bomb laden message to President Bush in front of all those kids. Political rants from musicians are shrill enough when delivered by chubby country singers; they’re extra stupid when shouted out over the jangly chords of last decade’s second place pop. Wrong room, pal.

Of course all thoughts of politics evaporated the moment what’s their name left the stage. The folks crammed onto South Elm street hadn’t turned out to cheer blue or red states. They’d come to throw the goat, to bathe in the mainstream glow of what many dismiss as pre-fab middle of the road corporate rock. I wish I were that cool. Instead I’m a forty year old father of two who probably would have liked Daughtry’s populist fare even if Shannon and I hadn’t stumbled across him on the eve of his meteoric rise. As the bakld one’s roadies scrambled to finish their last minute tweaks, local deejay Jack Murphy removed any remnant of hipness with his overcooked Top Forty shtick. Finally he relinquished the microphone to my colleague Julie Luck, who - though hard to hear - didn’t sound like she was providing color commentary at a celebrity tractor pull. When she introduced the video I’d put together tracking Daughtry’s transformation, I pulled back from the viewfinder and watched about eight thousand people react en masse at all the right moments. Heady stuff for the sequestered editor. I’d hoped Chris and the fellas would storm the stage as the video’s soundtrack thundered to a close, but no such luck. Five more minute passed before the spotlights swirled center-stage.

The Chris Daughtry that took the south Elm street stage was an electrified version of the quiet dude I've met. How couldn’t he be? Once a working class schlub with funky sideburns and a struggling band, he was now a certified global sensation with a double-platinum album under his studded belt. Prowling the stage in a skull cap and laser straight stubble, he flashed a grin to friends and families while portly grandmothers in Daughtry t-shirts squirmed and swooned. From my sniper’s nest by the soundboard, I stood on my tiptoes under the camera reached up to control the focus. Around me, restrained bedlam ensued as mechanics, accountants and derelicts pumped their fists and bit their lower lips. Rock and roll ain’t pretty, man and after the requisite first two songs were captured on my optical disc, I broke down my gear and prepared to fight the mob all the way back to the live truck. I could still see Shannon up on the ridge, backlit the soft-box I’d set up earlier, bobbing her head to the beat when not checking her watch. The footage I’d just recorded was due to air in twenty minutes and thousands of euphoric fans were between me and my deadline. Great.

Still, I couldn’t help but stand there and soak up the view sans camera. Colored lights swirled over the shoulder to shoulder as a boom camera swooped and dove, eliciting shrieks of orgasm wherever it happened to glance. On stage, Chris paced and bellowed, working his band of tattooed twenty-somethings into a pop metal frenzy. He even peppered his lyrics with impromptu whoops and mid-ditty patter, easily displaying ten times the charisma he managed to eek out during the half dozen interviews we’d conducted during last year’s Idol odyssey. Watching him wring the songs (and the female-heavy crowd) of every last drop of over-emotive rock god possibility, I realized why. The dude was finally free of Idol’s soul-crushing saccharine grip. His debut album may not exactly be cutting edge, instead it offers the familiar trappings of fully-belted barnburners power ballads, and one finely textured rock-star wail. 'Never Mind the Bollocks’ it ain’t - but who cares? For now, Daughtry’s voice and music holds many in the mainstream rock audience enraptured for now. I once thought his reign of the charts would be typically short lived, but after watching him render his hometown crowd to camera-friendly cinders, I’m beginning to think he’s just getting started. Party on, Chris...

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Call Him Lightning

When a rare photojournalist position came available at El Ocho, we launched a hard target search for an up and coming photog to join our staff of alleged veterans. Somehow, we hired this guy. Don't get me wrong, Joe Avary's capable enough. While not technically a news shooter, this quirky young journeyman obviously knows his way around a lens. He proved that quickly, streamlining his cinematic skills to fit the accelerated pace of logos, live trucks and cranky-ass laptops. But I gotta be honest; this cat's exhibiting symptoms of eccentricity grossly undisclosed in his initial interview. Quiet and mannerly at first, it's becoming obvious to everyone that this guy is anything but shy. That bushy terrorist beard, the wisecracking patter, the weird lack of southern drawl that makes us rednecks scrunch up our unibrows and breathe through our mouths. He's even got a fresh blog - one with a title I really dig - even if I don't quite grasp the meaning. I guess the same could be said for young Avary himself - who I'm told prefers to be called Joey. In time, my Belushi-esque new friend. For now though, we shall continue to call you Al. Al Quaida.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

For All the Wrong Reasons

Unlike, say - Weaver - I haven’t been to the mountains this week. But with a local 12 year old missing in steep terrain ninety minutes away, it was only a matter of time until I saddled up and headed West. Or so I thought. This morning, as I whittled footage of a certain bald singer, the newsroom exploded. Suddenly co-workers scrambled this way and that as shards of broken news fell over the cubicle farm. Dropping to the floor, I low crawled past the anchors’ desks and dodged scanner fire until I made it to the feed room. There the morning editor hunkered over an open timeline as raw footage poured in through multiple satellite windows. Wedged up under an equipment rack, I watched in silence as flickering images played out on every screen. Searchers scurrying up a hill. Men in camouflage waving walkie-talkies. A lady forest ranger grinning into a bank of microphones. Lying there in the dust-bunnies, I realized that 1.) Michael Auberry was freakin’ alive and 2.) that I could stop hiding from the assignment desk. Feeling all warm inside, I decided to rise - even before a passing janitor jabbed me with a broom handle.

Back in the edit bay, I thought about the missing kid cases I’ve covered and how very few of them ended in anything less than misery. The latest example was just last September - when a week-long hunt for two young Danbury brothers came to a sad halt when a couple of lifeless forms were found upriver. I was there that day. The pall that fell over Search Headquarters when the bad news broke was the kind that sucks the wind out of your local lenslinger - even while scrambling to interview teary-eyed neighbors. Too much of that, I’ve found, erodes the soul. Thus, I faded into the background when the suits began dispatching crews up the mountain. It’s not that I can’t handle the ninety minute drive, the steepest of schleps, the familair halitosis of your most cadaver dogs. No Sir, I can cope and focus simultaneously while still finding time to dig on the view. But when you’re in it for the long haul like me, there’s never a shortage of tragedies and chasms. The sheer odds of doing what I do guarantee my presence at more calamities than I can ever pretend to forget. So understand if I don’t volunteer every time one invades the local consciousness.

Damn, I sound selfish. A young Boy Scout goes missing and I worry only about my own well-being. Untrue. I got kids myself. In fact, before I low-crawled my way through the newsroom this morning, I dialed up the wife and gave her the good news. Her joyful shrieks would have you believe we know the family in question. We don’t. But my wife - who harbors a healthy disdain for TV news - never questions her gut feelings. Its what makes her a kick-ass nurse and a champion Mother. So it was with my bride that I commiserated on the goodness of it all - before stashing my phone and my feelings. That’s nothing I’m proud of - but a gift for disconnecting comes in handy when you quiz victims for a living. That way, when the stories at hand veer off into the utterly senseless, it does not jar the psyche quite as bad. So forgive my melancholy; it is a warm, protective cloak. Should I dare to ever shed it, I might not feel so damn guilty about being happy for all the wrong reasons.

But then what would I blog about?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Perfecting the Improbable

"It’s no good - plenty of signal but I can’t lock it in."

Garrett didn’t answer, just folded his cell phone and reached into the live truck. Fat-fingering three toggle switches at once, he killed power to the transmitter, IFB and compressor. The sound of rushing air overhead told everyone around that Channel 3 was striking camp, even before the bright yellow van’s telescopic antenna began to slowly dip. That everyone included the good folks from Action News 11, who were parked just across the church’s parking lot. Garrett thought he saw his competitor’s profile glance upward before Darby ever noticed. But then again his partner was busy with his own cell phone, reading aloud lines from a skinny notebook he’d been scribbling in all day. The bored producer on the other end was still typing when Darby noticed the bearded photog killing switches and stashing gear.

"What up, Gee?" he asked from under his regionally famous bangs.

"Can’t get a signal out. Sputnik says its no-go." Garrett glanced at his watch and cursed. 4:37 - not much time to change locations and do all he had to do. "Call the suits and tell ’em we’re headed back. You can front it from the set."

"Yeah, that’s gonna happen," Darby muttered to his designer tie as he dialed the executive producer’s desk. By then Garret had exited the van, coiling up cable and doing some muttering of his own. When he stuck his head back inside, his mood only darkened at his partner’s news.

"They want us to go the Hospital. Go live outside the E.R. Maybe get some sound with the victim’s family." Darby gathered his stuff together, bracing himself for the impending expulsion.

"Are they high? It’ll take fifteen minutes just to get there! When am I supposed to edit the five o clock? What moron’s gonna gamble his whole B-block for a freakin’ live shot?" The indignant questions continued, but Darby couldn’t hear much after Garrett slammed the van’s side door shut and stomped off. Four seconds later, the driver’s side door swung open and the rhetoric resumed.

"Don’t these boneheads know we ain’t got a chopper?" Garrett asked the dashboard as he bent over the steering wheel and cranked the key hard. Dropping it into reverse, the shaggy shooter goosed the gas pedal and minded the van’s massive blind spot, all while raising perfectly logical and perfectly hopeless objections to the News Gods’ latest whim. Darby could only grin his paid-for grin and bear it. Nobody could out-drive, out-shoot or out-bitch the crusty lifer beside him and Darby knew better than to interrupt. Besides, last time G. Lee was on a tear - he learned a brand new word for testicle.

Nine minutes later the bright yellow van wheeled into the Emergency Room parking lot. A pudgy guard in a tiny booth inhaled sharply, drawing the shack’s flimsy walls inward. Before he could grab his clipboard, Garrett had commandeered the last spot marked ‘Visitor’ - wedging his boxy broadcast van into a spot better suited for a Toyota pick-up. Squeezing out of the driver’s-side door, a scruffy fellow flung open unseen compartments and began plugging in cables. The guard scribbled down the yellow van’s license plate number as the driver bellowed something to his better dressed passenger. Checking the faded clock face inside the sunburned shack, the guard marked down the time … 4:46.

"Those yaks would rather have a live shot in their show than a soundbite from ole Osama! Whoever sold them all those damn live trucks must a been workin’ on commission only..."

G. Lee’s soliloquy didn’t slow him down none. As he tore into his familiar refrain, he spooled out cable, set up his sticks and powered up the truck’s laptop. Darby meanwhile mumbled the lines he was scheduled to deliver to the Channel 3 faithful - cloaked details of a church trip gone tragic. But before that could happen, he and G. Lee had to erect their field studio, edit their video and feed it back to the station. Darby was confident it could all happen - provided Garrett’s head didn’t explode first.

"Just once, I’d like to run their ass ‘round God’s creation, all so some schmuck with store-bought cheekbones can stand in front of an empty damn building!"

By now Garrett was repeating himself. Finally he quieted down a bit as he huddled over the live truck’s laptop and opened up a timeline. 4:52 shone in one corner of the screen, but to him it may have well as been hieroglyphics. With one hand on the XD deck’s control knob and the other one tap-dancing over the keyboard, G. Lee sliced footage, layered sound and filled in sixty three seconds of cutaways and close-ups. Darby put on some powder and sprayed his hair, cupping the can’s emission with his hands - lest any particles float off and disturb the grumbling hippie currently bending time in cyberspace.

‘Blue suit’. The guard jotted down those two words as he watched the better-dressed man emerge from the yellow van and stand in front of the camera perched outside. At three minutes before the hour, the technician type hopped out and began wrestling with a wobbly light-stand. As he did, Blue Suit gestured to his ear and said something that apparently angered the other - for the bearded figure tossed down an extension cord and stomped to the back of the truck. Grabbing at something inside, the lesser-shorn of the two yelled back to his partner, who returned the thought with a series of vague hand gestures. This seemed to infuriate the cameraman, as he bolted out from behind the van and ran straight toward Blue Suit. Just when the guard thought fisticuffs were imminent, the bearded figure dropped to his knees and began grappling with the heavy cables draped across his tripod.

That’s when he reached for the remote control and turned on the small TV wedged into a corner of the booth. White noise and static gave way to the familiar face of Channel 3’s main anchor. As the silver-templed gentleman intoned the details of another tragic accident a graphic over his shoulder turned to a picture of Blue Suit, standing straight and nodding solemnly. Through his window, the guard could see the same blue suited young man rock back and forth on his heels across the parking lot - as his poor helper tried to strangle the octopus of cable at his feet. Just when the guard thought the octopus might come out the winner, the man stood up, beaten and defeated but leaning into the camera. About that time, the floating box behind the handsome anchor on the TV screen grew bigger and bigger until Blue Suit began to speak.

"It's quiet now, but just hours ago this was a chaotic scene as..."

The guard tried to pay attention at first, as the young man in the blue suit yammered on about some family members being distraught and all, but then he remembered Judge Judy was on, and he switched over without a second thought. He did however keep an eye on the weathered cameraman in the distance, who was kicking at the gravel, smoking a cigarette and pouring leftover grievances into his cell phone.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

That Seventies Cam

Some men covet classic cars, others pine for vintage neon signs. I dig old TV cameras. Take the TK-76 - possibly the most celebrated fancy-cam of all my time. Named for the bicentennial year in which it was unveiled, this pale blue number greatly hastened the pace of electronic news - all while I was drawing cartoons in the fourth grade. But while I was doodling loopy Ayatollahs, a legion of azure cameraheads were dashing across the globe - recording the back-half of The Seventies in then pristine videotape. One can only guess at the soundtrack to all that polyester newsgathering. I'm thinking lots of Foghat.

The first fully self-contained 19 pound portable camera, the TK-76 sold almost as well as those form-fitting action slacks modeled by the Ron Burgundys of the day. But RCA's bicentennial model camera didn't come without its baggage - namely an oversized record deck swaddled in dusty blue canvas. That's right, when the leisure-suited lenslinger shouldered their day-glo rigs, they saved their other clavicle for a burden of its own - a heavy-ass VCR in a bag. Tethered to the camera by a stiff, twisty command cable, the deck often ballasted out the shooter, until he decided to jog - at which point the swaying heft of all that technology would sometimes take him out at the knees.

But that didn't stop a generation of white men afros and chest medallions from schlepping these hearty units through the Carter Administration and beyond. By December of 1980, more than 2000 TK-76's had been sold worldwide - 1300 in the U.S. and 700 worlwide. If you watched network or even local news in the late 70's, you saw it through the lens of RCA's 'no back-pack' camera. Of course, with an oversized battery belt slung over your shoulder bandolier-style and a buddy man hauling an astronaut's overnight bag along for good measure, who had room for a back-pack?

Hernias aside, the TK-76 enjoyed a glorious run as the industry-standard. But it couldn't last. In 1982 a little Mom and Pop firm by the name of Sony introduced the Betacam - a one-piece camcorder that revolutionized the act of gathering video by unburdening the photog of ancillary gear. Though it saw service well into the 80's, the TK-76 was soon left behind. Today however, this thoroughbred throwback enjoys a legacy unmatched by other models. On eBay, in blogs and most definitively on Barry Mishkind's jaw-dropping glossary of once cutting-edge technology, the TK-76 thrives in cyberspace. Now if we could only do something about those bell-bottom jumpsuits...