Monday, June 25, 2007

Go see this movie

My wife will testify to this: I don't cry at movies. (Maybe "Brian's Song," but hey, I was 10.)

Sunday night we went to see "Once." I misted up about a third of the way in. By the end, we both had to just sit there for a few minutes before we could breathe. And I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

I've seen movies that were more polished, better-acted, probably even movies with better music. But I can't remember another movie that hit me this hard.

The plot is simple. An Irish street musician acquires a fan -- a Czech immigrant girl. It turns out she's a musician too. They play together and discover a connection that goes beyond words -- and beyond their complicated personal lives.

It's a musical, but not in any traditional way. The characters don't suddenly, artificially break into song; they're musicians, so the songs rise naturally out of whatever they're doing at the moment. The lead actors (Glen Hansard of Irish band the Frames, and Czech singer Marketa Irglova) wrote and sing the songs.

And the past two paragraphs don't even come close to describing how powerful this movie is.

To me there's no stronger artistic force in the universe than a great three-minute song. "Once" is full of them, and as they unfold in the movie -- as you get to know the characters and root for them -- every chord change matters.

It's rated R, which blows my mind. The characters know and love the F-word, but I promise you, there is nothing else in the movie that's offensive in any way. The lessons from the movie are so rich that, if I were a parent, I'd take my teenager in a heartbeat.

At work today, those of us who've seen it have formed a little cult. "And then the scene at the music store..." "And then the scene with his dad..."

Now that I've read all this I realize it sounds like a mushy love letter. Sorry about that. But after "Once" was over I went home, read about it online and downloaded the soundtrack. It's on my iPod right now. I can't recommend the movie highly enough.

Go see for yourself. Then come back here and tell me what you thought.

In the meantime, here's a YouTube of the two leads playing a song from the movie at the Sundance Film Festival.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Disappearing Charlotte icons

This month marks 18 years since I started at the Observer. (I was 7 when they hired me. Labor laws were different then.)

I was thinking the other day about how many Charlotte icons from back then have already disappeared. Charlotte has always been Churn City -- we do more reinventing than a plastic surgeon -- but when I started writing things down, I was amazed how much has vanished in less than two decades.

I'm not even talking about the big stuff, like the Coliseum or the PTL Club. I'm just thinking about little touchstones that meant something to me for one reason or another.

Here's a quick list:

10. The Bootery and Bloomery

When I got to Charlotte, if you headed out of uptown on Independence Boulevard, you came to a hard left just past the John Belk Freeway. Right in front of you as you made the turn were two stores -- a Krispy Kreme and the Bootery and Bloomery.

Krispy Kreme you know about. The Bootery and Bloomery had display windows that featured lots of lingerie and fishnet stockings. Let me tell you, there were no stores like that where I grew up. At one time they apparently had live models in the display windows. I always wondered how many teenage boys wrecked their cars in that spot.

9. The Scoreboard

This was a giant sports bar further out Independence, almost to Matthews. It's been about eight different things since the Scoreboard closed. When it opened, it was the first sports bar I'd ever been to with little speakers at every table that you could tune to whatever game was on. Plus the seats at the bar swiveled so you could check on five or six games at once. It was like I had ordered the place direct from heaven.

I was with a group of buddies at the Scoreboard in 1992 for Duke-Kentucky, the greatest college basketball game ever played. I didn't have a dog in the hunt -- I went to Georgia -- so I decided to root for Kentucky, my fellow Southeastern Conference school. A Duke guy across the bar picked up on this and started talking trash my way. Actually, he was talking trash everybody's way. It's possible, based on Duke's demographic statistics, that he might have been from New Jersey.

With 7.8 seconds left, Christian Laettner made two free throws to put Duke up 102-101. The Duke guy jumped up in his seat, screamed for joy and flipped me a bird. But then a Kentucky player made an absurd running bank shot with 2.1 seconds left to put Kentucky up 103-102.

Duke called a timeout. Duke Guy was distraught beyond words. He silently got up and left the bar.


You probably know what happened next: Laettner caught a full-court pass from Grant Hill, took a quick dribble, and drained a fallaway at the buzzer to win the game for Duke.

I think I would have given the contents of my checking account at the time ($27.63) to see the look on that guy's face when he heard the screams from inside the bar.

8. Hello Henry

Henry Boggan was the evening talk-show host on WBT radio from 1979 to 1996. He was moderate, folksy and kind. He listened more than he talked. He would have absolutely no shot at a job in radio today.

7. Random wrestler encounters

As Tom Sorensen wrote Tuesday, Charlotte used to be a pro wrestling town. Some wrestlers still live here -- led by Ric Flair, of course -- but you used to see them everywhere.

One day in Rock Hill I was getting gas, a blue Cadillac pulled up to the next pump, and Ivan Koloff got out. I stalled a little when it came time to pay so I could walk in behind him. I craned my neck the best I could, but I never could see if IVAN KOLOFF was stamped on his MasterCard.

Once he was the most evil of all the evil Russian wrestlers.

These days, Ivan does weddings.

6. Newsstand International

OK, this is getting long so I'll pick up the pace. Newsstand International used to be the only place in town you could get out-of-town papers and obscure magazines (I mean in the non-pornographic way, but if I remember right they could help you out there too.) The first place I found it was in a shopping center tucked into an apartment complex off Providence Road. Then it was on Independence for awhile, then it moved to East Morehead, then it closed. Too many Barnes & Nobles.

5. Andersons

We wrote 372 stories on Andersons when it closed last year, so I won't linger on it, except for two things:

-- I met Peter Gorman for breakfast there after he had been in town a month, and the waitress already knew what to bring him.

-- A Starbucks is going in there. Then again, a Starbucks is going in everywhere.

4. The Shrine Bowl

This is a high-school all-star game, North Carolina vs. South Carolina. For years they played it at Memorial Stadium next to Central Piedmont Community College. The Carolinas always have a few major-college prospects, so going to the Shrine Bowl was always a fun way to blow a Saturday.

In the early '90s I saw a Spartanburg High running back named Steve Davis fly past N.C. tacklers. Years later, as Stephen Davis, he starred for the Carolina Panthers.

They still play the Shrine Bowl but now it's in... Spartanburg. Steve Davis must have REALLY impressed the Shriners.

3. Repo Records

Not only was this the coolest record store in town, not only did it have the weirdest cashiers, not only was it the place where I first heard Southern Culture on the Skids, but it was also the place where I sold some used cassettes for gas money before I got my first Observer paycheck. So I'll always be grateful.

2. Kenny Gattison

I know it's hard to believe, with all the yawning empty seats at Bobcats games, but Charlotte was absolutely insane about the Charlotte Hornets. Lots of people loved Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Muggsy Bogues. I loved Kenny Gattison.

In his NBA career (including six years with the Hornets) he averaged 8 points, 5 rebounds, 3 personal fouls and approximately 19 scattered bodies a game. It seemed like every time he went up for a rebound, the opposing forward went down to the floor. Which explains all those personal fouls.

He was not blessed with a lot of natural gifts, but he worked and hustled and bulldozed his way to success. Which is pretty much the way I think of Charlotte.

1. The Pterodactyl Club

I went there all the time when I first got to town. Some of those nights I don't remember. Some I didn't recall even as they were happening. The Pterodactyl was over at Morehead and Freedom Drive, and there were always sketchy characters in the parking lot, and since this is meant to be a tribute, we won't talk about the bathrooms.

But it had lots of room and cold beer and great bands. I saw They Might Be Giants in there one night and it changed my life.

Geeks like me, dancing.

OK. This was a long list. I'm whipped. What Charlotte icons do YOU miss?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Back at the paragraph factory

So how y'all been?

I'm back at work today after taking a few weeks off to relax, visit family and friends, do some quality porch-sitting with Fred the hound dog, that sort of thing. I also spent a few days in Memphis, checking out the great Stax Museum and playing cards with the brilliant sportswriter Joe Posnanski, who... well, let him tell it. And buy his book.

Toward the end of the vacation I got a little antsy and spent a couple hours redesigning the blog. You should have seen it -- cool green palette, funky fonts, the whole deal.

It turns out this was a very bad idea.

Along the way I erased some of the code that our Web staff uses to count visitors, display the logo, send you spam from Nigeria, etc. It is also possible, this being the Internets, that I might have unintentionally launched a nuclear missile. Sorry, tech folks, and sorry, North Korea.

I did keep a new photo and blogroll and such. Of course, now that I've done all this work on how the site looks, I guess I should actually POST now and then.

So to get things started, a few links that I browsed while on vacation:

-- This guy does astonishing things with an Etch-a-Sketch.

-- This guy is my favorite author in the world right now, and his latest book kept me up until 2 in the morning last week.

-- This guy knows the (unfortunately) true secrets of a lot of journalism these days.

-- And these guys just put out a really good record. Go buy it. (And they're playing Ovens on Wednesday!)

One more thing: I'm still looking for folks who were students or teachers in Charlotte when Dorothy Counts and other black students integrated the schools here in 1957. Give me a holler at 704-358-5227 or

So what's on your mind these days? Comment below. It's good to be back.