In this issue of Banter M:
Welcome to Flavortown - Chez Pazienza makes a trip to Guy Fieri's Las Vegas restaurant - a man he has subversively mocked for years
Are We Becoming the Rachel Dolezal's of the Gays? - Jamie Frevele asks a difficult question to those taking on the LGBT struggle with no experience of what it is really like
A Tribute to Chris Squire: The Singular Giant of Progressive Rock - Bob Cesca says farewell to a legend
Welcome To Flavortown
by Chez Pazienza
"Table for two?" the smiling young woman asks. She's maybe 22, with what appears to be a hint of Asian ancestry and dressed far too stylishly for the place my fiancée and I are about to enter.
"Actually, we can just sit at the bar," I reply, returning her plastic smile. "Also -- I hate myself."
In order to get this far we've already had to thread our way through a crowd which extends from just beyond the doors, into the foyer and all the way up to the hostess stand. Outside, people are standing in 104-degree heat, even as the sun is beginning to set. But once inside to the relative cool -- cool in the literal sense, certainly not like cool in the "Steve McQueen" sense -- most have begun trying to plaster their bodies against the walls for support and jockeying for the plentiful bench seating in the waiting area. From that standpoint, this place is no different than your average Red Lobster, save for the sound of Tom Petty's American Girl which is blaring over the in-house sound system.
The nice hostess shoots me a confused look, not quite sure how to respond to what's either sarcasm or my telegraphed intension to do harm to myself in front of the maybe 250 very white, moderately overweight people currently packing this restaurant. Before she can respond, I move toward the bar -- my fiancée following behind me with an expression attached to her face that says less "getting a bite to eat" than it does "Bataan death march."
Once we've cleared the hostess stand and the place has really opened up, the truly glory of where we're dining tonight is revealed. I let it all wash over me: the sounds, the sights, the scents. It is everything I expected. It is everything I imagined. It is "America" represented in a restaurant. It is so wonderfully Guy. Welcome to Flavortown.
Okay, let me back up a little bit.
I hadn't taken a vacation in almost four years. Maybe Taryn and I were lucky enough to get away somewhere close for a weekend here and there -- and even that hadn't happened in quite a while -- and we'd spent a couple of Christmases at my family's place in Miami with my daughter. But a full-fledged vacation where it was just the two of us -- that had never happened. So earlier in the month, we'd made the decision that we were going to just get in the car and go away for a week. One of the benefits of living in Los Angeles is that there's so much within driving distance, and with that in mind we figured why not start in Vegas and go from there -- maybe see the Grand Canyon and then hit Lake Havasu and wind the whole thing up in Palm Springs for a few days. Where we are now is stop-one on our Summer Vacation Tour.
We pulled into Vegas a couple of days ago, got a room at the Vdara at CityCenter -- given that it's so hot right now, hotel rooms are a steal -- and have spent the past 48 hours laying by the pool, downing a few drinks and just generally not having to do a damn thing. I never really put much stock in the necessity of decompressing from the stresses of everyday life, but when you and your partner work five jobs between the two of you -- when you feel like neither of you ever stops working -- it really does become essential to preventing yourself from losing your mind and tearing off the head of the next asshole who so much as rubs you the wrong way. We needed some time off. We really needed some time off.
Given that Taryn's a journeyman chef -- among her other vocations -- we've of course taken the opportunity to eat pretty well while in Vegas. So far we've done Sage and Julian Serrano and grabbed oysters and beer at Todd English PUB. We tried to get lunch at Mesa Grill at one point -- because Taryn and I have spent so much time poking fun at Bobby Flay and it would be enjoyable to ask a server if there's a "divorce special" on the menu -- that it just feels necessary, but it had already closed for dinner prep. Yeah, we're well aware of Lotus of Siam, which is supposed to be phenomenal, but I guess we figure that since we live in L.A. and there's masterful Northern Thai food always within a few miles, we can skip it this time around. Vegas these days really does provide a plethora of great eats -- but from the moment we arrived, I began making jokes about the one place we just had to buckle down and brave. It's the one place that seemed to sum up the entire Vegas experience, from the one man who personifies Vegas in all its grotesque excess and reputation as a Mecca for Middle-America. The man, of course, was Guy Fieri. The restaurant was Guy Fieri's Vegas Kitchen and Bar.
And that's what led us here. To the Linq, directly across from Caesars.
Every time I've mentioned the prospect of making the pilgrimage to "Flavortown" since our arrival in Vegas, often with the most ridiculous of exaggerated grins on my face, Taryn has made her, ahem, distaste pretty well known. There currently exists an Instagram photo I took of her last night responding to my suggestion with a pair of middle fingers in the air. Even as a joke -- even after a few afternoon beers -- she wants nothing to do with this place. As I lead us toward the bar now, I can practically feel the disgust wafting off of her. I'm half expecting to suddenly feel her arm reach around my throat as she pulls me down to the floor and Ronda Rouseys me into unconsciousness. In here, that would probably earn her a steady chorus of "whoops" and "hollers" over the sound of, say, Night Ranger's Sister Christian, which from that point forward would be her "entry song" for when she walked out to the octagon.
I can't exactly pretend that it makes sense for me to be here either. While Taryn loathes Guy Fieri -- a wholly owned subsidiary of the "Guy Fieri" brand -- to the point where she refuses to call him by anything other than his real last name, Ferry, I've made a contact sport out of eviscerating of the man online over the past few years. I've called him a "culinary terrorist" who "literally couldn't desecrate food more if he took a shit on it," and I've even called this particular restaurant "a food abortion clinic.""There’s nothing sacred that he can’t take his small frosted-and-spiky-pubed cock out and piss all over in the name of bringing brand-name douchery to the masses," were, I believe, my exact words at one point. There's even less reason for me to be here than there is for Taryn, given that by merely setting foot in this place I'm proving myself the mayor of Hypocrisytown. Or, I would be, if it weren't for the fact that I believe that nothing -- and I mean nothing -- should ever get in the way of the mainline of pure entertainment to be had from being in an environment where you can MST3K the hell out of everything in sight. Going to a Guy Fieri restaurant is like the Olympics of sarcastic mockery. And Taryn and I are a 10-time gold medalist pair at that shit.
The first thing you notice when you enter the main room of Guy Fieri's Vegas Kitchen and Bar is that it's loud. It's not busy-Chili's-on-a-Friday-night-in-Orlando loud, it's SAE-party-at-Arizona-State loud. There's no surprise that Guy's Vegas outpost would be popular, given that Fieri is actually from Vegas and is, again, the living embodiment of what Vegas means to the middle-aged white people who flood its casinos to, as Hunter Thompson so eloquently put it, "hump the American dream" into submission. But the design of the place is so cavernous and seems to be acoustically designed to amplify every single individual sound within that it resembles one of those "Sportatorium"-like venues where, maybe not without coincidence, Sammy Hagar and Dokken are still booked regularly. Given that Fieri's entire M.O. is to turn everything up to 11 -- auditorily, visually and gustatorily -- all of this is to be expected. It's like Fieri is an all-American Willy Wonka and you're entering his land of Pure Amplification. The sign on the outside of the building reads, Guy-style, "Go Big or Go Home" and that tells you everything you need to know. It's a promise. It's a threat. It's a mission statement. It's a way of life.
The second thing you notice about about Guy Fieri's Vegas Kitchen and Bar is that, predictably, the entire place is a concrete homage to Guy. Millennia from now, after Vegas has been buried and all humanity has been wiped from the face of the earth, aliens will dig Vegas out of the sand, crack open this place and think it's a temple to the great white-haired god worshipped by whatever beings lived here long ago. An image of Guy Fieri towers over the entire place by way of a giant Duratrans. Fieri memorabilia line every wall. Guy merch is available for purchase in seemingly each nook and cranny of the room. Even if he's not here in body, Guy is with us. And this is what his people want.
We make our way to the lengthy box-style bar in the middle of the place and, as if by divine providence, find two seats right in the center of the action. The backs and seats of the barstools are made to look like they're covered in cowskin -- or maybe they really are the remnants of some of the dishes on the menu, with Fieri paying tribute to what's sure to be some American Indian in his blood by respectfully using every part of the animal he's killed for the sustenance of his tribe. I'm all exaggerated childlike giddiness; Taryn already looks utterly defeated, like she's trapped in a car with someone who's continuously farting and has locked the windows. I pull her barstool out for her, because class is what's expected and demanded in a Guy Fieri restaurant, and we take our place among the Fieri Nation. Next stop -- Flavortown.
Are We Becoming the Rachel Dolezal's of the Gays?
by Jamie Frevele
The recent Supreme Court victory for marriage equality had many people in a celebratory mood, posting joyful messages on social media and even changing their avatars to include a Rainbow Flag or some form of symbol of LGBT rights. And while that kind of expression was expected from the LGBT community, plenty of straight people were posting similar messages and changing their avatars. Even I consider myself a straight ally, but as straight people, can we really ever understand the struggle, gratitude, and relief from this decision that the LGBT community knows all too well?
This question got me thinking about how pop culture has been a double-edged sword for minority and oppressed groups, whether they be a racial or ethnic minority or communities like the LGBT community. While more exposure in pop culture and media makes everything different seem less strange and more accepted, even pedestrian, some might be taking acceptance and tolerance a little too far. Some think they can actually "identify" with these groups.
Maybe you know where I'm headed -- by proclaiming our solidarity with the LGBT community, are some of us becoming the Rachel Dolezal of the gays?
Dolezal, before the Charleston shooting forced her out of the headlines, was raising a lot of questions about black culture and if a woman who was born white could truly "identify as black," as she stated on national television. The comparison was made with Caitlyn Jenner, who was born a male but identified as a female and now lives her life as a woman. Some said that the comparison could not be made because race is in our DNA and there is simply no denying it while gender was a state of mind that could be defined in a number of ways. At the same time, some felt that Dolezal wasn't kidding herself but could absolutely be compared to Jenner in the way that the former chose her identification, as did the latter, without ever having to experience the kind of life that their chosen identity would have lived since birth.
By identifying as "straight allies," are we identifying as something that we aren't? We straight allies never had to struggle with being discriminated against for who we loved. We have never been alienated by our families, friends, or communities or beaten because of who we were. We have never had laws made against us that gives people more rights to express their opinions than those expressing their actual identities.
In short, we have no idea what our LGBT friends have had to go through because we will never go through it firsthand, the same way Rachel Dolezal will never have to be discriminated against for being black. For being truly black. Jenner, on the other hand, will likely face prejudice not only as a woman, but as a trans woman.
I have always felt this "straight guilt" as a straight ally. Back in 2008, when New York voted against marriage equality in the state legislature, I put my "right to marry" up on eBay. It was a symbolic gesture to point out how ridiculous it was that I could do whatever I wanted with this right that we straights took for granted; I included a picture of a Las Vegas wedding chapel to drive home my point. We can do whatever we want -- we can get married and annul the marriage. We can divorce after 48 hours. We can spend millions of dollars to throw a wedding, put it on television, and kill the whole thing in less time than the engagement. We can get married multiple times. We can get married by people who can print a certificate off the internet. It's super easy. Unless you wanted to marry someone of the same gender.
I hated how ridiculous this was and it upset me to see gay and lesbian friends of mine talk about how they considered themselves married, but it wasn't legal. Or they were in a civil union, so it's not really a legal marriage. Or they were married outside the country because they just wanted to have the ceremony somewhere where it was allowed. The LGBT community was getting "married" before they could legally marry because they were proving that marriage is about love. If anyone deserved to be married, it was the people who weren't allowed to be. So I wanted to sell my right to the highest bidder and give the money to an LGBT group who could use the money to send a message of tolerance. (I settled on the Point Foundation because kids need the extra support, I think.) But eBay pulled the auction off and I felt like a failure. Like I'd failed my community. My community.
But the LGBT is not my community. I support them with every beat of my heart, but I am not LGBT, not even queer. I just really "identify" with LGBT culture because I've always felt like an outsider. I would never call myself LGBT, but I would see movies geared towards them, read material they wrote and popularized, study the history of the gay rights movement… I can't explain it. Maybe I like to see how much progress we've made in treating each other a little bit better. And maybe it's not that I "identify" with the LGBT community as much as I can kind of relate to feeling different from others. And as someone who has never quite fit in, maybe the best that I can do -- the best that any of us can do -- is throw our support behind the people we care about. It's the best we can do without actually being them.
A Tribute to Chris Squire: The Singular Giant of Progressive Rock
by Bob Cesca
For the second Sunday in a row, I lost another friend. At the risk of turning my contributions to Banter M into an ongoing series of eulogies, let me tell you about Chris Squire, the legendary bass player from Yes who was taken by leukemia at the too-young age of 67.
Until I was 17, the only Yes song I was entirely familiar with was, of course, the band's 1983 hit single "Owner of a Lonely Heart." While it's one of the quintessential pop songs of the 1980s, it's a rather complicated and completely unique standalone song that only could've emerged from that group, which had already enjoyed 15 years of success in spite of Owner being its first number-one single. But after a follow-up album, 1987's Big Generator, the band dissipated then re-emerged in mid-1989 as a different group called Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (ABWH), composed of four members from the "classic" 1970s lineup.
ABWH was my first real introduction to Yes as a non-pop progressive band, and it was revelatory. But I quickly learned that it was missing a key ingredient: Chris Squire. While ABWH toured, another version of Yes still existed, composed of Squire, Trevor Rabin, Alan White and Tony Kaye. But it was ABWH, oddly enough, that led me to discover Squire's bass playing and as a fledgling bass player myself I was knocked out when I began to explore Yes' 1970s material as well as its more esoteric songs from the '80s.
I had already been a tremendously enthusiastic fan of Rush, and Yes possessed many of the same complicated elements, including epic-length songs and intricate arrangements with an up-front bass sound, but Yes further expanded my understanding of what could be achieved when musicians push the limits of what their hands and hearts can endure. Yes has somehow attained a reputation for being light, mystical prog, and while some tracks certainly possess those floaty Middle Earth attributes, most of Yes music is, quite simply, huge. At the center of the band's hugeness was, of course, Squire who, along with drummers Alan White and, before him, Bill Bruford, gave the band serious heft. Balls, if you will. If the elements of a thunderstorm were organized and intricately orchestrated it'd begin to feel like Yes music. Out of that storm so often emerges what can only be described as some of the most majestic, chills-inducing moments in all of rock music, and holding down the bottom end of those passages was always Squire, both on bass and his chest-melting synth foot pedals -- known as the "Wall of Doom" -- deep and resonating enough to feel like at any second it would practically crush your rib cage.
I first saw Squire perform live in 1991 during the tour that united ABWH and the '80s version of Yes. The show was incredible in so many ways. Eight band members on an in-the-round stage performing selections from the band's entire 25 year repertoire, but that goddamn Wall of Doom... During the climax of the song "And You And I," one of those aforementioned majestic passages, Squire engaged his Taurus pedals and blew the roof off the place. Up to that point, it was the most powerful piece of music I'd ever experienced in person. That is until the climax of the song "Awaken," which remains my favorite Yes song. In that show, Yes somehow managed to top the majesty of "And You And I" with the conclusion of "Awaken," which to this day still gives me goosebumps.
From that point forward, the "Union" era Yes shows set the standard for what it meant to feel music.
And, again, at the heart of it all was Squire.
Throughout the rest of my college career and beyond, my friend Tim and I did our very best to write and record music that reflected our love of Yes music. We wrote epic-length songs like the band's '70s iteration; we wrote pop-oriented songs similar to the band's '80s incarnations. And throughout it all, I tried to play bass like a chimera of Squire and Rush's Geddy Lee. I was one of perhaps millions of young musicians who combined those towering influences.
Fast forward to 2001. After having some success with online cartoons, I was producing an array of animated music videos in conjunction with a music manager named Jordan Berliant. In addition to managing Meat Loaf and Motley Crue, I discovered that Jordan also managed Yes. So, I approached Jordan about asking Yes to record the theme song to my TV pilot and, amazingly, they agreed. To describe it as a dream come true would be an understatement. Not only did Yes agree to do it, but I was invited to Santa Barbara to meet the band while they recorded it.
A month later, there I was, a Yes superfan, hanging out with Squire in the lobby of the studio. I was just this 30 year old kid who made some stupid cartoons, and he was under no obligation to talk to me. But we spoke for what seemed like hours about the band's history, comedy, current events and, of course, the show I was putting together. At one point, he handed me one of his basses. It was one of those moments in my life when I wish I could've time-traveled back to my 17 year old self and dropped the spoiler alert: you're going to be playing bass in front of The Master -- don't fuck it up. Being somewhat full of myself at the time (ah, youth) I just dived in with some of the riffs I wrote back in college, hubristically thinking Squire might be impressed. He didn't really say anything, which is fine -- I wasn't auditioning to take his spot in the band. But the fact that I got to play the bass he used to record the band's 2001 album, "Magnification," was mind-blowing enough.
By the way, the theme song they wrote for the show wasn't approved by the network, but we used sampled elements of the song in the final approved theme song, which my friend Tim wrote, so it wasn't wasted time.
Speaking of the band's latest album at the time, Jordan told me the band wanted cover art that was a departure from the surreal Roger Dean covers that were so much a part of the band's image. Out of the blue, Jordan called and asked if I was interested in doing the cover for "Magnification," the band's forthcoming 2001 album. And, of course, I was ballsy enough to agree to temporarily replace one of the greatest album cover artists in the history of rock music. The process was excruciating, frankly, but in hindsight I'm not completely dissatisfied with the result, even though it's a bare-bones cover. The band's singer, Jon Anderson, who's part-rocker-part-hobbit, oversaw the design process and began to strip out some of elements of the composition, eventually leaving a star-field, the Yes logo and the album title. But in spite of Anderson's desire for a star-field, I sneaked other barely visible design elements into the cover, and if you look at the vinyl version, you can clearly see all kinds of crap in there.
One of the elements that got stripped out was the image of a half-naked female spirit who was worshiping the sky, etc (it was a progressive rock cover -- bite me). Anderson asked me to take her out of the scene, but I'll never forget getting a note from Squire after he reviewed the new version: "Where's the chick with the tits?" Yep, my own personal run-in with Anderson and Squire butting creative heads. (The "chick with the tits" made an appearance on the back cover -- barely visible with her "tits" cropped out.)
Even though I didn't like the cover at first, I was able to redeem myself when I was asked to design the cover for the band's 2002 concert DVD, "YesSymphonic Live."
Meanwhile, if all this wasn't enough, I was recruited to film the band during their tour for a mini-documentary that'd be included on the concert DVD. This was when I really got to know Squire. I not only conducted an extended interview with him at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia, but I also got to hang out with him back stage at the Mann Music Center. While we evaluated the crowd, as well as some of the hippy weirdos in attendance, I kept flashing back to that first Yes concert and how obsessed I was with the band and its bass player. The truly shocking thing was how genuinely nice Chris was to me when he didn't have to be. I felt like we were friends. Maybe not close friends, but we had a connection. In fact, my brother Jim attended another show and met Chris backstage. When Jim introduced himself, Squire exclaimed, "Where's Bob?! I saw Bob in the crowd!" Jim explained I wasn't there, but Squire insisted I was there and that I should get back stage to hang out.
I always thought Squire would be the last Yes member to go, not the first one. I always thought he'd be 110 years old, playing with animatronic replicants of the various line-ups of the band. Chris Squire was a giant, a mensch and, for a short time in my life, a friend. I will never shake that guy, nor will I ever take for granted the fact that his music changed my life in ways too numerous to describe here. If there's a silver lining to the story, perhaps this will smack some sense into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to finally induct Yes, at long last. It's just a shame that the man who was the only consistent member of Yes, appearing in every lineup and every album and who was the backbone of Yes, won't be around to see it.