Photo by Ted Soqui
IT'S THE SOUND OF A THOUSAND LITTLE GIRLS SCREAMING: 'N Sync live at the Arrowhead Pond Tuesday night -- a school night. Every teen within a 30-mile radius, it seems, has broken curfew to rendezvous with Justin, JC, Joey, Lance and Chris.
Mostly, I'm here for Justin. It started as an ironic thing. Saturday evenings of humoring my best friends Sal and Sharon, a happy set of married thirtysomethings. Dinner, coffee and 'N Sync videos. Soon came the 'N Sync concert footage. The making of the concert footage. The MPEGs downloaded off the Net. The DVD with interviews and special features and frame-by-frame pause capability. I'm not exactly the demographic, but the next thing I knew, I was in the middle of the living room jumping up and down to "Bye, Bye, Bye," thinking, Gee, what would it be like to go out on a date with Justin? Would he drive? Wait, can he drive?
In the bathroom before the show, the lip gloss is in full effect. Several things to be learned: Crimped hair is back. As are glitter belts, faux backstage passes, anything rainbow, blond corn rows, lavender eye shadow and Delia's tank tops. And when claiming a member of 'N Sync as your own, be prepared for another girl to move aggressively into your territory:
Girl one, flipping through an 'N Sync calendar, points at Justin: "There's my boyfriend."
Girl two, standing in line behind her: "Whatever. That's my boyfriend." Three girls glossing at the mirror pause midstroke. A toilet flushes. Tense looks all around.
Then there are the rumors, which fly freely before the show: This is 'N Sync's last tour! JC's going solo! Justin's going solo! Lance is going to be launched into space and put into Earth orbit! Justin broke up with Britney just hours before curtain!
Since I am at this concert by myself (the madness that happens when poor impulse control collides with being turned down by every person I called an hour before the show), I've secretly adopted the 5-year-old sitting next to me. As the lights go dark, the stadium goes wild. Maybe it's the altitude at Row 408, Seat P, or maybe it's the sheer volume of girlish screaming that never subsides, but my ears really hurt. It's an awesome spectacle. The pitch-black amphitheater, the whirling glow-sticks. The pyrotechnic explosions. The 5-year-old next to me gyrates to "Girlfriend." She has all the lyrics memorized: "Won't you be my girlfriend? I'll treat you good." Mom, to the left, grabs the mini binoculars from around her daughter's neck while Dad slumps lower into his aisle seat, covers his eyes, and shakes his head. Behind us a quintet of bespectacled Asian girls belt out the lyrics to the next song, "Dirty Pop."
This must be what it was like at a Beatles concert. As if on cue, the band launches into "She loves you . . . yeah, yeah, yeah" and "Hey Jude."
A pair of girls two rows down, who are spending the entire concert on their cell phones, look at each other and shrug: This wasn't on the album.
Three quarters of the way through, three outfit changes later, the group pulls up stools to do a round of slow songs. "Basically, we're getting older now, so we can't dance as hard," Justin says. The crowd cheers even louder. They don't even have to sing because the thousand girls will sing for them. From way up here, Justin Timberlake is as big as my pinky finger. His curly blond hair is freshly shaved into a military buzz, but it's the same cherub face. "THAT'S MY BOYFRIEND," I tell the 5-year-old, pointing to the video monitor above stage. She claps and giggles. Bobbing up and down, in unison, in sync, they look so . . . cute.
Outside, post-show, two teenage boys have fashioned a poster that reads, "We got jacked for our 'N Sync tickets." A scalper sold them two fake tickets for $80 a piece. They're waiting for their ride and I'm waiting for traffic to clear out. My car is lost amid a sea of Volkswagen Beetles painted with "Honk if you love 'N Sync" or "I Luv JC." Two girls join us. Is this your first 'N Sync concert?
"It's my 13th," one answers.
"I'm not there yet," her friend says admiringly. "We're driving to Las Vegas tomorrow to see their next show."
"This would have been our first time," one of the poster guys says. He and his friend spent the entire concert outside. We shake our heads. That is so wrong. That is so sad.
"Oh my god, you should come with us!" one of the girls says. The pairs trade numbers, punching them simultaneously into four separate cell phones.
But wait, is it true about Justin and Britney?
"Vicious lie," says the taller of the two girls. "Someone saw her crying earlier today, one thing led to another . . . but Britney says they are definitely not broken up. Justin just hasn't made a statement yet."
"Boys," her friend sighs dreamily. "Argh."
Conventional Wisdom: For the Love of PEZ
MAHEBA MERHI IS A HOPELESS PEZaholic. She loves PEZ so much that she and her mother, Camelia, took on the awesome task of creating the first PEZific Coast convention. According to Merhi, there is an absolute need for this convention. "All the other conventions are so far away, in the Midwest and on the East Coast," she says. "And there are so many collectors in California who were bummed that last year's PEZ-a-Thon was canceled. We decided to step up to the plate."
PEZ conventions are not like Star Trek conventions. PEZ are real! You can't hold Captain Kirk in your hand -- unless, of course, you've got a Captain Kirk PEZ dispenser. And where else but at a PEZ convention can you play PEZ bingo (for wildly rare PEZ) or experience the thrill of the PEZ trading floor?
The history of PEZ and PEZ puppets, the little characters whose heads tilt back and regurgitate a candy tablet, goes back to 1927 when Austrian candy executive Eduard Haas marketed a mint for use as a smoking deterrent. The first dispensers appeared around 1950 and looked like small tin cigarette lighters (part of the anti-smoking ploy). These original tin dispensers -- known as "regulars" to collectors but also referred to as "lighters" -- can fetch prices in the thousands. The manufacturing of cartoon heads began in 1952, and today dispensers are made in the USA, Canada, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, China and Slovenia.
It isn't surprising then, that this weekend's PEZific Coast convention at the Manhattan Beach Marriott drew collectors from all over the world. From Canada and Austria, Oregon, Germany and Lebanon. A contingent of 100 from Japan alone.
Ontario, Canada, dealer Red Conroy says he "drove the distance to be here." Conroy constantly attends conventions and sporting events that offer PEZ promotions -- such as the Chicago Cub's Charlie Brown -- and solicits people to sell him their PEZ on the spot. "In Chicago I was kicked out and then went back in again," Conroy says. "Then I went to one in Minneapolis and was kicked out twice -- and went back in again." Conroy is also a clergyman and is scheduled to officiate at a wedding between two PEZ lovers later this year.
"Lots of people tell me that they can be having the crappiest day ever, and then they'll look at their PEZ collection and [the crappiness] just melts away," says Merhi. PEZ transcends crap.
Legend has it that Pierre Omidyar started eBay so his girlfriend could have a place online to trade her PEZ dispensers. EBay is the number-one place to collect and sell PEZ, and if you haven't seen it, you should. But be careful -- you might run into that Casper the Friendly Ghost PEZ you had as a kid, and the next thing you know you'll be whipping out that credit card. Then we'll be seeing you at the PEZific Coast convention next year. You'll see. I speak from experience. And when I look at my own collection of more than 300 PEZ, my crappiness melts away too.
Nightlife: Looking for Hardcore in an Emo World
RECENTLY MY FRIEND GADI WAS passing through town. He had a question for me: "Where do I go for some real hardcore?" Emphasis on the core. Forget Hustler Hollywood, he was asking about punk rock. Not "Boom-chick-boom-chick-boom-chick" or whatever beat is shaking dance floors around the world. I'm talking "Oi oi oi!" Mosh it up.
As a freshly minted 27-year-old, it's not like I stay abreast of developments in "the scene." Hardcore punk is for kids. After I corrected his inflection, my first impulse was to answer, "I don't know."
"Not good enough," said Gadi. "I want to go see a show before I can be mistaken for an A&R guy." I suggested he take off his leather jacket.
My second impulse was to wonder if hardcore punk still exists. Arguably it started here in Los Angeles, through the work of the Germs, the Circle Jerks, the Minutemen and Black Flag. Vintage SoCal hardcore still sounds extreme. And though it's only a matter of time before "Lexicon Devil," "Damaged" and "Group Sex" are licensed to television advertisements, it's doubtful we'll ever hear them on a WB teen dramedy. Small favors. These days, all the kids seem to be talking about emo this, pop-punk that. The bands have names like Blink-182, Saves the Day, Sum 41 and Jimmy Eat World. And this stuff goes platinum.
Thus began our quest.
My third impulse was to check the schedule at the Smell, a downtown club that still books bands with old-fashioned names like Scholastic Death, Youth Riot, Reagan SS and Holier Than Thou, all of which I hope are worn with a degree of humor not immediately apparent. Perhaps the members of Holier Than Thou dress up as Muslim, Jewish and Catholic religious leaders, then squabble during sound check.
"I need less guitar in my monitor," says the vocalist, dressed as Pope John Paul II.
"Hey, fuck you, Paul," retorts Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, fiddling with his Strat.
Unimpressed with the credibility of any of the Smell's offerings, we ended up at Spaceland, where we were exposed to a band called Dressy Bessy. Its members wore cardigan sweaters and vintage dresses and looked like extras from The Partridge Family. On the one hand, they were harmless; on the other hand, they were harmless. One of the opening acts, Alien Crime Syndicate, was a lot better. Their best song, however, included a chorus with a tightly arranged, three-part harmony that went, "We want it all. We want it all. We want it all." Pop-punk, maybe, but definitely not hardcore.
Next stop was a show at the Derby, the swing-dancing club in Los Feliz. At the door they were carding. Gadi had left his ID at home, but the doorman let him slide, with this admonition: "If the cops come, they line everyone up against a wall, and if anyone's under 27 and doesn't have ID, they ask us why we didn't check them out. Then we're fucked." I guess a youth riot was out of the question, unless they happened to be on the bill. The crowd's median age was probably 32. This was a new definition for the term "all-ages show."
We thought we saw Slash in the crowd, though I doubt he's fallen on such hard times that he'd wear a calf-length black leather jacket with the word JAZ written on the back. I definitely spotted former Germs drummer Don Bolles. These days he looks like a wan Asian man you might run into in a dangerous back alley in Bangkok. Later, Bolles walked hurriedly up the street in front of the club. "I'm going to see the giant ewok," he said. Actually, it was a giant beaver. Someone dressed in a full-body costume had arrived just in time to join the third band of the night onstage.
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The band's name was Bluebird. Going through the records on the merch table, I found one release on the famed Huntington Beach hardcore label Revelation, though I've since read dismissive reviews from the punk faithful: "This one's a definite curve ball as far as what I expect from Revelation. Bluebird plays an odd brand of math rock with emo-rock influence, as well as what seems to be a little jazz influence . . . It's nice to hear something a little different. I can tell this won't please everyone, though -- approach with caution." I liked their sound. It was driving, earnest and intense. Jazz? Well, there were no saxophones.
Halfway into Bluebird's set, the lead singer grabbed at the bed sheet that hung over the stage, revealing two intense spotlights that blinded the crowd. Eventually the sound guy turned them off, but there was definite hardcore potential.
"This song is dedicated to those who owe us money," said the singer, introducing the next song. "It's called 'Fuck You, Pay Me.'"