Friday, June 26, 2009

Land of Confusion

William Shakespeare once wrote, “Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!” And yes, at the time he may have been authoring the line for Macbeth, but the statement currently fits Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnso….umm…Ochocinco like a glove. That’s right, Chad Ochocinco, the artist formerly known as Johnson, the Spencer Pratt of the National Football League. He’s finally back on board the “Bengal-mobile” – for the time being – which has once again sent my mind into a Tasmanian Devil-like frenzy. I tried to avoid writing about Chad, I wanted to avoid writing about Chad, but I just couldn’t do it. He has this indescribable power over me, and his actions of late have once again put him back in the national spotlight. So I had to at least take a stab at trying to figure this guy out. Unfortunately, that’s not an easy thing to do. I don’t even know where to start, so I guess we’ll have to go back to the beginning.

Chad entered the league with the Bengals in 2001, drafted out of Oregon State in the second round. Back then, he was just a skinny speedster with truck-loads of potential and a normal last name. He caught on pretty quick, becoming a regular starter in his second season and going over 1,000 receiving yards. Over the next five seasons (’03-’07), Chad caught for at least 1,200 yards and 7 touchdowns a season, and played in every game during those five years. He led the league in receiving yards during that span, and made the Pro Bowl each season. But those are just stats. Sure, you can probably infer that he is a good football player, but stats cannot even begin to tell the whole story.

Anyone that follows sports knows of Chad and his hi-jinks. We’ve all seen his ridiculous endzone celebrations and outrageous interviews. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the dude is a goofball. He once did the “riverdance” after scoring a touchdown. He once performed CPR on the football. He proposed to a cheerleader, putted the ball with a pylon, and donned a “Future H.o.F. 20??” jacket. He even claimed to have a live reindeer in his garage in preparation for a holiday-themed celebration. He made a checklist tracking whether opposing cornerbacks could cover him, sent Pepto Bismal to the Cleveland Browns secondary because he promised to make them “sick to there stomach”, stashed a “Santa Bag” on the sidelines so he could pass out toys; the list goes on and on. He obviously travels to the beat of a different whack-job, but these things are only the beginning. However, everyone in Cincinnati (and around the country, to a certain extent) put up with all of the insanity. He always seemed to back up his talk with his play on the field, so it was hard to get too upset. The man was arguably the best receiver in the league, so we cut him some slack. No big deal, right?...Right?

But the truth was that every real Bengals fan was always a little worried about Chad. We didn’t really talk about it, but it was kind of an unspoken concern. It seemed like Chad might not be fully invested in the team, like he might put himself ahead of everybody else. We couldn’t say for sure, but it felt like at any moment, if things weren’t going exactly his way, Chad could go from star wideout to team cancer. The signs were everywhere: he would get moody when he felt he wasn’t getting enough passes thrown his way…he threw mini temper tantrums when the team hit rough times…he was always intent on getting a better contract with more money. And it has never helped that his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, is basically Satan in street clothes. When you added it up, all signals pointed to Chad being somewhat of a malcontent. And if it pouts like a prima donna and whines like a prima donna, then it probably is a prima donna.

Those fears that we as Bengals fans had about Chad finally hit the fan prior to the 2008 season. Johnson (his name at the time) went on ESPN’s Mike & Mike radio show in January of ’08 and kicked the “Chad Circus” into high gear. He stated that he was hurt and offended at how he had recently been labeled a nuisance by some members of the Cincinnati media, who wondered whether his pranks and shenanigans were starting to affect the team in a negative way. He was called a cancer, and wasn’t too fond of the fact that no one on the team had come to his defense. Or at least this was the way Chad saw things. The truth was that the Bengals had been unable to return to their 2005 form as AFC North Division Champs, and Chad wasn’t happy about it. Oh, and he wanted more money. But instead of working hard, investing himself fully in the team, and trying to get back to that ’05 form (which wasn’t far off), Chad just closed his eyes, crossed his arms, puffed his cheeks and whined like a 4th grade girl who wasn’t allowed to stay up and watch Hannah Montana. And did I mention that he wanted more money?

Things were off and running. He demanded a trade, stating that he wanted a “change of scenery.” He said he felt betrayed by head coach Marvin Lewis and refused to show up to any team activities, whether they were mandatory or not. He refused to speak with any teammates (other than long-time friend T.J. Houshmanzadeh) and even threatened to sit out the season if he wasn’t moved to another organization. The relationship between him and quarterback Carson Palmer was more dysfunctional than Jon and Kate Gosselin’s. Even T.J., his best friend, was quoted as saying the team should trade him, in fear of him being a colossal distraction if he remained on the team. It was getting ugly; like “after Ice Cube left NWA” ugly. But the Bengals’ organization stood strong and refused to move the receiver, stating time and time again that Chad would remain in Cincinnati at least until the end of his current contract (up after 2011 season). And in case no one believed them, they turned down all trade offers, including a well-noted one that had Chad going to the Washington Redskins for two top-end draft picks.

It turned out the Bengals had called Chad’s bluff, because when it came time for the ‘08 mandatory mini-camp, Chad showed up. He said he wanted to honor his contract, which basically meant that he didn’t want to give up any of that precious money – which he insisted wasn’t important to him, of course. But either way, at least Chad had showed up, and we could finally put the insanity behind us…or so we thought. It turns out that Chad needed ankle surgery, something he had failed to mention or take care of during the offseason. I guess all the whining and trade demanding took up too much of his time. So the NFL’s ultimate cry-baby got the ankle surgery, keeping him out of the majority of training camp workouts and preventing him from gaining any familiarity with Palmer and the rest of the offense. Plus, when he finally returned for the preseason, he suffered a partial tear in the labrum in his left shoulder, keeping him out until Week 1 of the regular season. But maybe there was a silver lining to all of this. Maybe now we could get a few weeks of peace and quiet, right? WRONG! We soon discovered that even an injured Chad couldn’t keep himself out of the news.

This is where things really started to enter the weirdo, Donnie Darko, “are-you-freaking-kidding-me?” stage. In late August, just before the start of the season, Chad Johnson changed his name. Back in 2006, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Chad gave himself the nickname, “Ocho Cinco”, in accordance with his jersey number (85). And yes, I could delve into the fact that Ocho Cinco actually translates to “eight five” in English and not “eighty-five”, but I think I’ve already done enough to insult the man’s intelligence, so I won’t bother. Nevertheless, the nickname stuck with Chad (thanks in large part to himself), and on August 28, 2008, he legally changed his name; Chad Johnson became Chad Ochocinco. See, I don’t even have to insult his intelligence. The man provides his own gas. Due to the NFL’s jersey deal with Reebok, Chad still had to play with “C. Johnson” on his back for the ’08 season, but he was legally Chad Javon Ochocinco. Enough said.

Sadly, Chad’s name change was the highlight of his season for the Bengals. He had his worst statistical campaign since his rookie year, playing in only 13 games (starting 10) and catching just 53 passes for 540 yards. I’m sure that Palmer’s injury (he played in only 4 games) had something to do with Chad’s lack of production, but his offseason of screwing around sure didn’t help either. John Lennon sang about how “Instant Karma is gonna get you,” and it certainly seemed to find Chad Ochocinco in 2008. And yet, the legend continued.

Snap back to the present time. Following a year of bitching and complaining, Chad is once again in good spirits. So how exactly did we get here? After everything he said and did, how has he once again been accepted back by teammates and fans? Well, maybe Chad isn’t quite as stupid and air-headed as his record might suggest. Allow me to explain.

Since the end of last season, we haven’t heard much (if anything) come out of Chad Ochocinco’s mouth that was negative, towards the Bengals’ organization or any of his teammates. In fact, for the majority of this offseason, Chad remained oddly quiet. At the time, I couldn’t decide whether I liked this or not. Chad needs more media attention like he needs a hole in the head, but the fact that he wasn’t saying anything at all had me a little on edge. It was kind of like if your girlfriend went to Cancun for two weeks on Spring Break without you, and you didn’t hear from her the whole time. On one hand, by not hearing from her, it means you weren’t getting any bad news. But on the other hand, if you hadn’t talked to her for two weeks…while she was on Spring Break…without you…IN CANCUN!!!...well, you know, that wouldn’t be a good sign either. A chatty Chad might be annoying, but a silent Chad is scary. Needless to say, I was a little spooked.

But by Chad keeping quiet, he was able to let the heat die down. Bengals fans weren’t nearly as mad at him, because we didn’t have anything new to complain about. And just as all of us Chad haters moved from a low roar to a slight grumble, something incredible happened: Chad apologized. Chad Ochocinco admitted he was wrong. He said that he planned to come back to Cincinnati and work hard. He said he found perspective. He said he realized that he could only control himself and his own actions, and that last season he lost sight of that. He admitted that he was out of shape last year, that he hadn’t worked as hard or prepared himself as well as he had in the past. He confessed to losing that hunger, that drive and that desire he had thrived off of in the past. He actually seemed genuine and authentic, honest almost to a fault. I was shocked. We all were shocked. Chad was finally acting like…an adult. And that, my friends, was where I and many others thought the saga would end. Chad Johnson would come back this season, work a little harder than last year, keep his mouth shut a little more than in the past, be as productive and successful a receiver as he could possibly be for the next two seasons, and then bolt from this city like it was engulfed in flames at the end of his contract. I assumed that he realized he wasn’t going to be traded, but also that he couldn’t have another season like last year, because it would only damage his stock for the future. I was all ready to take for granted the fact that this was the way things were going to be. I thought the table was set for the next couple years. And I was also dead wrong.

On Tuesday June 9, 2009, Chad showed up to the Cincinnati Bengals’ facility to participate in voluntary team workouts. Yup, you read it correctly – VOLUNTARY. Chad is notorious for working out on his own in the summer (whether he is happy or disgruntled), only showing up to team activities when they become mandatory. So by showing up to workouts, a week before mandatory mini-camp, the entire NFL was fairly shocked. And if that wasn’t enough, it wasn’t ’08 Chad that showed up. It was the ’03-’05 Chad, the “old” Chad, the Chad everybody loved. Once again, the cameras began to swarm him like teenage girls on the Jonas Brothers, and Chad didn’t disappoint. He raved about being in the best shape of his life. He smoothed things over with Marvin Lewis and Carson Palmer. He apologized to us Bengals fans, imploring us to forgive him and support him once again. He even had fake tattoos on his face. It was like Chad Johnson had just woken up from a three year trance, and now everything was back to normal. Except for the “foreign” name.

As the week went on, Chad just slipped right back into his old role as the entertainer, the prize-child of the media. He said he was going to move in with Carson Palmer for a few weeks during July, to help catch up on all the time they had missed. He challenged ESPN analyst Mike Golic to a fight. He continued to say that he was living with Carson, and that it wasn’t really up to Palmer to decide. He even started a “Twitter fight” with Chargers linebacker Shawn Merriman. And then, to put a defining stamp on the “Chad return”, he guaranteed the Bengals would make the playoffs this season. In a matter of months, he had Cincy fans go from hating him like poison to hoping he could turn things around. In a matter of weeks, he showed everyone that he was sorry for how he acted last season, and promised that it wouldn’t happen again. And in a matter of days, he once again had the NFL, sports media, and entire city of Cincinnati wrapped around his finger. Hopes were high. Fans and players alike were smiling. Everyone was getting along swimmingly. Things were finally back to the way they used to be, they way they should be. It was all good.

WARNING!!! WARNING!!! Does no one realize what just happened? Are we all so naïve that we totally missed it? This is Chad Johnson that we are talking about. The same guy that we could never trust, even when things were going good. The same guy that wilted like a daisy in Hell the moment that things got rough. The same guy that whined and half-assed his way to an injury-riddled, turd sandwich of a season last year. It’s still the same Chad, and yet he pulled the wool right over our eyes. Shame on us. We’re like those women that fall in love with serial killers and con-artists, writing letters to them in jail and promising to wait for them until they finally get out. Can we really be this stupid? Come on, we’re better than that. So listen up; I want every Bengals fan to pay very close attention to what I am about to write: Chad Ochocinco CANNOT be trusted. Do you really think the man has changed? Do you actually believe he is happy here, wants to stay here, and isn’t just looking to cash in on his next contract after the 2011 season? I consider myself an optimist, but even I’m not dumb enough to believe that Chad has undergone a true change of heart.

The best comparison I can draw to Chad is that of the character Benjamin Linus, from the TV show Lost. If you watch the show, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t follow the show, then you need to understand that Benjamin Linus is one of the most manipulative, conniving, selfish and wicked men on the planet. He is always scheming, always thinking of the best ways to further his power. At times he is charming and entertaining, and other times he is pure evil. In either event, he is always planning something, always using you as a pawn in his game. The second you believe that Benjamin Linus is genuine and sincere, he is holding you in the palm of his hand. He is always in control, and everything he does always ends with those around him getting screwed. Sound familiar? It should, because it sounds just like Chad.

Right now everything is swell. The Bengals have had a great offseason. Carson is healthy, the team is healthy, and we easily have our most talented batch of players in years. Hopes and expectations are on the rise, and Chad being happy just seems like the perfect cherry on top of the whole situation. Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but that’s not the way it’s going to be. Ladies and gentlemen, Bengals fans everywhere – I implore you: don’t believe the hype. Everything is not as it seems. The (2nd) honeymoon could crumble at any moment, and you do not want to be the one that didn’t see it coming. I would love to be wrong about all of this, but I doubt it will end that way.

Chad blows a lot of smoke, and where there is smoke, there is probably fire. Sadly, everyone involved and invested in the Cincinnati Bengals has been burned by that fire in the past, but I’ll be damned before Chad Ochocinco burns us again.

Nobel Prize winning author Pearl S. Buck said, “When good people in any country cease their vigilance and struggle, then evil men prevail.” Be on watch Bengals fans, or else you risk letting this evil man strike once more. And that is the last thing we need. I mean seriously, haven’t we all been punished enough?

Thanks for reading

Monday, June 1, 2009

21st Century Confound

Green Day recently released their eighth studio album, 21st Century Breakdown, amidst a fanfare of anticipation and excitement. The band gained insane popularity after becoming arguably the pinnacle of the (faux?)punk rock phase of the 1990s, which then led to their highly-conceptualized, rock-opera-esque, blockbuster release of American Idiot in 2004. And now, after a 5-year absence, the band is back with its most awaited and controversial record ever. So far, 21st Century Breakdown has brought Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool a #1 selling album and gobs of respect and admiration. Unfortunately, the only thing it has brought me is utter confusion.

Before we get into this, I must reiterate yet again the fact that I am a music freak; I take it much more seriously than anyone actually should and I waste hours upon hours of my life studying and listening to it. But with that said, I cannot decide where I stand on the topic of Green Day and their new release. On one hand, I respect their newfound creativity, controversy and gumption. On the other hand, I admonish their sudden vanity, whining and disloyalty. So, I’m left with no other choice than to dive in and examine this thing from every angle. Plus, I’m going to do it the old fashion way: Pros and Cons.

Green Day’s pedigree speaks for itself. Dookie, the band’s first major release in ’94, was easily one of the most accomplished and influential albums of the decade. Their following works, Insomniac and Nimrod, didn’t disappoint, either. I even thought Warning, released in 2000, was an underrated album. They defined the 90s era of punk rock that borrowed the sound and concept of The Clash, Ramones, and Sex Pistols while adding a bit of new-age rebellion and smart-assness (it’s a word). In all honesty, they probably weren’t playing “true” punk rock, but they were playing 90s punk rock, and that was good enough for us. The band stood tall on the waves of insurgence, incompetence, and non-conformity, riding them straight into the ears of the teenagers and young-adults who couldn’t stand Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton, or *NSYNC. They took over the “post-Nirvana, alternative rock” scene, and the youngsters out there ate it up with a spoon. In a time of Brittany Spears and Titanic, blasting Green Day’s “Longview” and “Basket Case” was exactly the medicine we seemed to be looking for, which is why the band’s trio had this inevitable feeling of “right place, right time.”

When American Idiot was released in 2004, you could still sense the energy and essence that the band originally started with, but there was something new as well. The band’s seventh studio album had a sense of maturity and deliberation that was not really present before. Green Day went from being sarcastic punks to satirical poets with a cohesive concept album that spoke of (what they believed to be) an inept government, pointless war, and misled nation. They had grown up (literally and figuratively), blossoming from puberty to creativity. A band that was once defined by its three minute, riff laden, punk outbursts was now releasing an album that told a story and made a point. Whether you agreed or disagreed with their stance, you at least had to respect their courage to try something new and adapt to the times. There was a lot to be said for the audacity of the album and the evolution of the group, most notably Armstrong’s. Sure, American Idiot didn’t have too much in common with Dookie or Insomniac, but as a great man once said, “The times they are a-changin,” and Green Day seemed to realize and understand this, acclimating to the situation the best way they knew how. Different isn’t always bad, and thick or thin, different was the way things were going to be.

In many ways, 21st Century Breakdown is the main course to the American Idiot appetizer, the Fiesta Lime Chicken to Idiot’s Spinach & Artichoke Dip. Breakdown follows the same “concept album” path and delves even deeper into its story than American Idiot did, this time examining the world from the “post-George W. Bush, Iraqi War” perspective and the effect it has had on a young (fictitious) couple, Christian and Gloria. Amid the trials and uncertainty that the world is currently facing, the two are forced to “…deal with the mess our 43rd President left behind.” Green Day basically breaks the album into three acts, each of which describes the world and how Christian and Gloria have to deal with it. The band’s message is (more or less) that the country is screwed up, and it’s all Bush’s fault; now, everyone is left to try and pick up the pieces on their own.

The entire time, it looks as if the album is heading towards a bleak ending, culminating in the dreary next-to-last track, “American Eulogy.” However, Billie Joe and the gang throw in a twinge of hope when they close out the album with “See the Light”, the lone Sanguine Angelyne in a sea of Debbie Downers.

But in my opinion, the biggest “pro” of the album (besides refusing Wal-Mart's request for a censored version) centers around how accomplished it is, both musically and lyrically. The development of Billie Joe Armstrong over the years has been extremely impressive. He went from collaborating with his band-mates in order to write 2-1/2 minute, power-chord dominated, first person narratives of a 20-something-year-old loser, to writing every lyric and every note of 21st Century Breakdown, an 18-track, broadway-esque album that explores the human soul and the current times by throwing it in your face with 69+ minutes of guitar-thrashing emotion. I would have never guessed Armstrong had that potential, but he’s proved it with two straight albums, so it’s obviously no fluke. It’s comparable to a scenario where Richard Gere stops making “chick flicks” and suddenly begins starring in movies that require him to have some amount of depth as an actor. Billie Joe is no longer just a one-trick pony.

And yet, with all those good things, my mind is still a-flutter with confusion.

This is not your older brother’s Green Day…and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Yes, a lot can be said about the fruition of the band (and Armstrong) from pop-punks to musical martyrs, but is this really what we want? The “new” Green Day goes against almost everything that the “old” Green Day stood for. No one that listened to Dookie back in’94 would have ever guessed that the same three guys would put out anything remotely close to Breakdown over a decade later. I loved “90s-Green Day” for a reason, and today’s Green Day isn’t giving me the same thing.

From Warning (2000) to American Idiot (2004), the band’s style and perspective on music changed, and this is no more evident than in the recent release of 21st Century Breakdown. They seemed to have given up on their punk roots and moved on to some form of deep, grandiose, emotional musical expression, with a political agenda to boot. I like my Green Day derisive and raw, not poignant and…whiny (for lack of a better word). The Ramones would have never been caught dead making an album like Breakdown, and not because it wouldn’t make for a successful, accomplished album or because they didn’t have the ability, but because it wouldn’t be their style, their persona – frankly, it wouldn’t be the Ramones. That’s why this Green Day album makes me feel slightly betrayed; why, all of the sudden, have they gone from punks to political analysts? Why the shift from careless rebels to American-hating activists? Jerry Seinfeld once said, “It’s like going to Idaho and having a carrot. Sure, I like carrots – but I’m in Idaho. I want a potato.” This is exactly how I feel. Sure, I can respect a band with a deep and ambitious political message – but I’m listening to Green Day, so I want Green Day dammit!

However, it would be short-sighted and naïve of me to pretend that there are no musicians out there that have changed their style or put forth a political agenda – I just feel that Green Day is the wrong band to follow this path. For example, Bob Dylan changed his style of music (and even his message and motives) numerous times throughout his music career. But there are major differences in what Dylan did and what Green Day has done. Dylan changed to things that were either unpopular or unappreciated at the time, such as when he alienated his folk fan-base by going electric. Dylan was also a protest-song writing, politically driven artist from the second he put a guitar in his hands. His style and topics may have changed, but his overall concept and existential approach to songwriting did not. He was a poet when he started and he’s a poet still today. Green Day’s story does not match up to that. Green Day called out the government when it was popular and easy to call out the government and completely re-directed the foundation of their music in midstream. They started out as punks, but suddenly we’re supposed to believe that they’re revolutionaries? The transformation is just too much too handle, like when the Doobie Brothers added Michael McDonald. And trust me, that was not a good thing.

You could also compare Green Day to a band like U2. It’s widely known that U2 and Bono have a clear public and political agenda, and yet they keep that removed or muted when it comes to their music. Green Day hasn’t done that. Plus, you have to remember that these are the same guys who used to write songs about doing drugs and masturbating in their mother’s basement. Now all of the sudden we’re supposed to see them as the voice of reason and experts on today’s society? That might be just a slight stretch. Green Day has every right to their political opinion, but it doesn’t have to come through in their music. It ovokes a feeling of when Cat Stevens suddenly became Yusuf Islam. And once again, that was not a good thing.

You do still get a sense of the “old” Green Day “sound” on songs like “Last of the American Girls” and “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” from Breakdown, but for the most part, the “old” Green Day is dead. Billie Joe may still have those wide green eyes and spiky black hair, but underneath it is a brain that’s working on a completely different wavelength.

Because of all this, I have a hard time appreciating Green Day for what they’ve become, because it seems so different from the Green Day I learned to love. I listened to Green Day because I liked them just the way they were. When that changed, it became hard to accept and understand, because it was so out of the ordinary. It would be like Matthew McConaughey running on the beach with his shirt on. If something worked so well before, why change it now?

The Decision
In the end, I’ve decided that it really doesn’t matter whether I like the new Green Day or not, because either way, that’s how it’s going to be. No one wanted Woody to replace Coach on Cheers, but Coach died, so a replacement had to be made. No one wanted Foreman and Kelso to leave That 70’s Show, but they did, and there was nothing we could do about it. Women everywhere wept when Clooney left ER, but it became evident that there would still be injured patients without him. The same thing sort of happened to Green Day. We all loved the pissed-off punks from the 90s, but it’s 2009, and they had to grow up sometime. The most shocking thing about the band is that Armstrong, Dirnt, and Cool are 37, 37, and 36 years old, respectively. That’s right, LATE 30s?!?! They have kids! They coach Little League! At some point, they had to stop writing songs about the stupid, perverse things they did in their mother’s basements, because at some point, it no longer applied. That time is now.

In many ways, Green Day was forced to step up and be the voice of our generation, the new generation, because all the other voices were getting old and dying off. Doing drugs and chasing girls didn’t affect them anymore; the government, the world, society – those are the things that impact their lives now. They went deeper and more conceptualized because it was the only way they could express themselves at the moment, the only way to transition from old to new. The times they have a-changed.

The Beach Boys once sang about growing up and leaving their childhood behind, and how it “Won’t last forever / It’s kind of sad.” The same could be said about “old” Green Day. Sure, I loved the days of Dookie, and I still love Dookie now. But just because that album can still live on today, doesn’t mean the band can do the same. Eventually things have to change, just like the Beach Boys said they would. And yeah, maybe it is kind of sad, but no one can be Peter Pan. Ultimately, you do have to get older; you always have to grow up.

American Idiot introduced it, and now 21st Century Breakdown has solidified it: A “new” Green Day is here, and that’s just the way it will have to be. Because for better or worse, whether I like it not, the “old” Green Day is gone forever. Good Riddance.

Thanks for reading