Sunday, January 12, 2014

Everything I Needed To Know I Learned From Pro Wrestling (Pt. 5--GoingTo A Live Show-What A Rush!)

On January 10, 2014, the Sassy Librarian and I were treated to a night out by our awesome friends, Harry and Meredith.  And not just any night out, but tickets to the WWE live event at our local arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. If you've been following this blog you know that I've been a wrestling fan for a long time, but this was my first time ever seeing professional wrestling in person. You might know that the WWE has weekly televised programs, such as Monday Night Raw, Main Event, and Friday Night Smackdown!, but they put on shows nearly every day somewhere in the world (in fact after our show the whole crew drove through the night to do it again in Buffalo the next day).  Untelevised exhibitions are known in the business as "house shows"; while the "storylines" from the televised shows are not furthered at these events, they still feature multiple high quality matches and entertaining diversions.  Some people think that house shows are more fun to attend than TV tapings; I can't vouch for that, but I can say that I had more fun at this event than I have in a month of Sundays.  It was so awesome to cheer and boo energetically--I woke up the next day hoarse from screaming. And unlike real sports, there is no danger of hurting anyone's feelings because they want us to boo them!

There are a few differences between house shows and TV tapings, mainly that during the house show the house lights are dim (which made taking pictures with my old camera phone a chore); there are no pyrotechnic displays, and the TitanTron is not there, instead there are simply comparatively smaller LCD screens at the top of the entrance ramp.  It would be pretty cool to see (and hear) what it is like with the full production values, and by the intermission halfway through the show we had agreed that we will find out the next time a TV taping takes place in Wilkes-Barre.  I'll let you know!


The video displays and music began about 15 minutes before the scheduled start time. The large video display showed pictures of Superstars and Divas who were at the show, and also tweets from members of the "WWE Universe" in attendance. They also ran a promotion where spectators could text their choice of whether the Divas tag match should be a "Divas Dance-Off" or a traditional tag match.  I voted for the regular match, but the Sassy Librarian chose the dance off. During this prelude we made a trip to the concession stand to purchase t-shirts (and a replica championship belt, in Harry's case). Though we are both members of the "Cenation", I overpaid opted for the "Property Of" shirt, while the Sassy Librarian picked the latest John Cena garment.

The show kicked off promptly at 7:30; we were welcomed by ring announcer Byron Saxton. I'd never heard of Saxton (who is a member of NXT, the developmental show for WWE), but he should be a star.  He is a handsome, well-built, charismatic guy who was good on the mike.  If he can't wrestle he could be an announcer, a manager or anything. I look forward to watching his career take off.

Having never been to a house show I didn't know what to expect, but we got seven matches in total. Four of the matches were tag team tilts; I've previously written about the dynamics of this type of contest, so it was cool to see so many in person. The matches were all technically good and some of them were real humdingers, including the two title defenses!  Here is the complete list, followed by summaries:

  1. Diego and Fernando (with El Torito) vs. Ryback and Curtis Axel
  2. Alberto Del Rio vs. Sin Cara
  3. Diva Dance Off between the Brie Bella and Nikki Bella and Alicia Fox and Aksana
  4. Goldust* and Cody Rhodes* vs. Jack Swagger and Antonio Cesaro (with Zeb Colter) for the WWE Tag Team Championship
  5. Titus O'Neill and Darren Young vs. Jinder Mahal and Drew McIntyre (with Heath Slater)
  6. Alexander Rusev vs. Justin Gabriel
  7. John Cena vs. Randy Orton* for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
*-indicates that they entered the match as the Champion


Match #1: Los Matadores with El Torito def. Rybaxel: The cousins Primo and Epico, who had a nice career portraying Puerto Rican high flyers, have recently reappeared as masked Spanish torreadors, accompanied by an anthropomorphic bull, played by little person wrestler Mascarita Dorada. They were taking on heel wrestlers Ryback and Curtis Axel.  Ryback gave a somewhat in character interview with a local paper to hype the event; at least I hope it was in character, or he's even more of a jerk. Axel is a "third generation superstar" whose father "Mr. Perfect" Curt Hennig was a star of my youth. This match had a lot of humor right from the beginning, when one of Los Matadores stole Axel's shirt and blew his nose in it, enraging Axel, who then charged at it like an angry bull.  It was funnier in person. The tilt featured a number of athletic moves, from Ryback military pressing one of Los Matadores and holding him overhead for almost a minute to one of Los Matadores walking on his hands across the ring.  The problem with this match may be evident in the summary--because Los Matadores dress alike and wear masks, it is impossible to tell which is which.  In the end, interference from El Torito led to Axel getting pinned 1-2-3 in the center of the ring.  It was a fun match and got the crowd energized, but it was a little confusing.  Personally I liked Primo and Epico, and think this new gimmick sucks.  But I wish them luck.  Also, I don't see the appeal of Axel, and Ryback is a creep. Earlier this week on Raw he subtly insulted ring announcer Lilian Garcia.  As a result, I shouted "You suck Ryback, and I don't like what you said about Lilian!"  He pretended to ignore me--he was probably scared.  Match grade: B

Match # 2: Alberto Del Rio def. Sin Cara by submission: Personally I really like Del Rio, even though he has become a heel again (or a rudo as they would say in Mexico, as opposed to a technico). And I don't like Sin Cara, even though the Sin Cara we saw was not the Sin Cara who has been on tv for the last year or so. That's good, because the old Sin Cara sucked.  I also don't like the way that the producers change the arena lighting when Sin Cara comes out, like he's magical or something. This match was a little confusing, because even though ADR is a heel, the audience was much more into him. At one point he tried to get Sin Cara to shake hands--Sin Cara wavered on this for what seemed like an eternity, and eventually just kicked ADR instead, so we will never know if "The Mexican Aristocrat" had good intentions or not. He looked good and pretty ripped muscle-wise despite what the "dirt sheets" are reporting.  This match featured a lot of back and forth, and some athletic moves, but there wasn't much ring psychology. For instance, at one point Del Rio nearly got Sin Cara's mask off. In Mexican wrestling, this is a serious thing, but in this match it was like an afterthought.  Del Rio won with his cross arm-breaker submission hold, which looked pretty painful. Match grade: B

Match #3.1: Diva Dance Off: The Bella Twins have been fixtures on WWE for a number of years, usually playing valets or using their identical appearance to perpetrate "Twin Magic" on their opponents (one Bella would be wrestling, then when she would get tired, the other would sneak in the ring and finish the match).  They are generally "Mean Girls" but I really like them, because like me they are avid fans of the Philadelphia Eagles.  They left the business for a year or so, but have recently returned, partly to star on the reality show "Total Divas".  Since the show has been a success, (and because in real life they are romantically linked with good guys John Cena and Daniel Bryan) the WWE has been presenting the Bellas as babyfaces. The twins used to present the same problem as Los Matadores, but during their hiatus, Nikki Bella's chest was surgically enhanced, making it easy to tell them apart (and giving new meaning to the phrase "twin magic") The Bellas started the dance off with some synchronized moves, though only Nikki "twerked" as the young kids call it before they were viciously attacked by Alicia and Aksana, who then ran away up the ramp.  Brie grabbed a mic and challenged the heels to a real match and the twins physically brought them back down to the ring.

Match #3.2: Bella Twins def. Alicia Fox and Aksana: Usually Divas matches are either omitted from television, or are only given a few minutes of air time.  This match lasted almost 10 minutes, and all four women showed great athleticism and enthusiasm.  There were some downsides, however: on the one hand, Alicia and Brie are toothpicks who do not look very physically intimidating.  Aksana, on the other hand, was a power lifting champion, and looks like she could break the other women in half; unfortunately she is not a very good professional wrestler.  This was entertaining, but I think that the young boy behind us spoke for many when he asked his mom "when will this be over?".  Match grade: B  After the match the Bellas spent a lot of time signing autographs and thanking the crowd, which was nice. 

Match #4: The Brotherhood def. The Real Americans (with Zeb Colter) to retain the Tag Team Titles:  Last spring I wrote about a new angle in the WWE, where bigoted xenophobe "Zeb Colter" took hick former champ Jack Swagger under his belt and spouted lots of politically incorrect garbage. That has continued, with the inclusion of Swiss superstar Antonio Cesaro (?!) into the confusingly named tag team "The Real Americans".  Prior to the match, Colter got a lot of heel heat by calling us "Altoona", saying that the crowd was full of "ugly women and fat men", and pointing out the dozens of "illegal immigrants" in the audience.  Basically he sounded like the people who write online comments for our local newspapers.  Fortunately most of the crowd booed him, but not enough. Recently Cody Rhodes has been joined by his real-life half-brother Dustin (who is reprising his 1990's character "Goldust" without as much of the homoeroticism). 

While it is vanishingly rare for titles to change hands at a house show, it is not impossible, so it was great to see a championship match up close.  This was a really super tag match.  Goldust, at age 44, played "the face in peril"for most of the match, constantly striving for the tag with his brother to no avail.  At one point, just as he was about to make the tag, Cesaro cheap-shotted Cody off the apron, so that when Goldy reached for help there was no one there. The psychology in this match was excellent. Every man got his signature moves in (Cody Rhodes, in particular, is amazing as a high flyer, and at one point he held Cesaro in a very long vertical suplex) but the drama came from numerous missed tags and false finishes. Cody eventually got the hot tag and the place went nuts--the release of tension was palpable. The champs won by pinfall as expected after a long, exciting match. Match grade: A+  Following the match the brothers spent a lot of time signing autographs and taking pictures.  At the top of the ramp, Cody grabbed a mic and put over how great it's been to be reunited with his brother.  It was very emotional, which made me practically salivate over the possibility that one will turn on the other at the upcoming Royal Rumble. Don't forget, Cain slaying Abel was the world's first heel turn! 

Match #5: Prime Time Players def. 3MB (with Heath Slater ringside): After a 15 minute-long intermission (to sell merchandise and let everyone go to the bathroom) we were given another tag team match.  I have been very high on the Prime Time Players (PTP) for months--I think they have great chemistry, look great, and are extremely marketable. Unfortunately no one but the Sassy Librarian seems to agree with me, because they are not given much time on television, except for recently when Darren Young came out as an openly gay pro athlete, and the rest of the WWE congratulated him.  The reaction to this shouldn't be a big surprise, considering that longtime WWE figure and McMahon family consigliere Pat Patterson is one of several openly gay people in the organization; but considering the homophobia in football and basketball, to name just two other sports, it was definitely welcome.

This was a very fun match featuring lots of strength moves by Titus O'Neil.  I really "mark out" for him. Titus will be 37 this year, so he may be too old to ever become champion, but he has what it takes. We saw a lot of big men last night, but O'Neil made the strongest impression on us--he is massive! Titus pinned Jinder Mahal with a sit-down powerbomb that shook the whole ring. Match grade: B+ After the match PTP signed autographs and posed for pictures, even doing the "Millions of Dollars" dance with some fans. 

Match #6: Alexander Rusev def. Justin Gabriel by submission: This was an unexpected treat.  I have never seen Rusev on the NXT show (which is only available online or on Hulu Plus), but rumor has it that he will soon be promoted to the main roster. Who knows, he may make his television debut wrestling Justin Gabriel!  If so, it will be pretty good. The Bulgarian giant, who wrestles barefoot, met the lithe South African kick for kick, but Gabriel's speed was no match for Rusev's strength (and Rusev is very quick for a 300 pounder).  This match was interesting, and the men did a good job of selling the idea that they were not familiar with each other, which made their initial caution understandable. Match grade: B

Main Event: John Cena def. Randy Orton by DQ (Orton Retains The Championship): To paraphrase WWE announcer Michael Cole "the place was electric" when this match started.  Meredith's cellphone video of Cena's entrance might give a clue.

John Cena and Randy Orton have been WWE mainstays for 12 years and the current storyline is that Randy Orton wants to be called "the face of the company" because he's jealous of Cena's holding that status. Wrestling fans are either huge fans of Cena, or dislike him intensely which is why his arrival results in duelling chants of "Let's Go Cena!" and "Cena Sucks!" The "smarks" would have you believe that children are Cena fans and adults despise him; I've always dismissed this, but now I may have to reconsider. The Sassy One and I were chanting "Let's Go Cena", but it was interesting to note that the "Cena Sucks" chants were in a deeper vocal register.  One fun feature was the two children in front of us--the girl on the left holding a Randy Orton sign, and the boy dressed like Cena in every detail except the jorts. When the chanting started, the boy seemed so betrayed when she screamed "Cena Sucks!"

Considering that these two are among the biggest, highest paid stars in the company and that this match will be a huge highlight of the Royal Rumble in two weeks, they didn't hold anything back.  Some big bumps on the floor, crashing into the unforgiving steel steps, and lots of near falls were highlights of this action packed match that lasted for over 20 minutes.  Each man also hit his signature moves on multiple occasions, kicking out each time.

It was really amazing how much louder the arena was during this match.  It was like these two brought the night to a whole other level.  Since they broke in with the WWE in 2002 (and even before that in Ohio Valley Wrestling) Cena and Orton have probably wrestled each other hundreds of times, and it really showed.  They obviously knew each others' moves, and knew that they could trust the other man to make the match look good.  Sometimes I get bored watching Cena and Orton on television, because they often resort to the same moves over and over.  That happened in person, but the energy from the crowd was infectious and I didn't mind at all.  This was a clinic by two great stars, and I was so glad to see it in person.

At one point the two grapplers traded big blows and
it was pretty easy to see how widely Cena's punches missed. This made me really appreciate the camera operators and producers of WWE's televised product.  No matter how closely I watch on TV, the action almost always looks genuine. Another thing that was cool to see in person was how much effort the referees put in to make the matches so exciting. While it is hard to tell this on television, in person it was really cool to see how much they moved around to put themselves in a position that required them to have to run all the way around the wrestlers before counting the pin, giving the man on the bottom just enough time to kick out.

In this video from Meredith the referee was actually in a pretty good position for the count, but you can get a sense of the engagement level of the crowd. You will see Orton catch Cena in a thunderous powerslam and go for the cover, only for John to kick out at two and a half.  It was really exciting, and you can hear the enthusiasm of the spectators:

The end of the match was thrilling.  Orton had Cena on the far ropes, and as the referee came over to separate them he was knocked over.  I could see this coming (though it took the Sassy Librarian by total surprise, which made me feel like even more of a smart mark), and I couldn't stop smiling when the official was knocked over and became insensate. Cena got Orton to tap out to the STF, but the ref was down!  I shouted "Get up Chad! Get up!" and after checking on him, Cena made the "X" sign to the back to signal (to the smarks) that the ref was seriously injured and that they needed another official. At that point Orton caught Cena in the RKO and roused the ref only for Cena to kick out again!  I was breathless from screaming when Orton crotched Cena with a low blow and was disqualified. Match Grade: A+ Following the match Orton posed with his belts and then Cena sent the crowd home happy by picking up Orton and hitting the AA.  Cena posed for a long time and then the lights came up and we headed for home.

I was so impressed with the quality of the presentation and had too much fun to quantify.  Our seats were somewhat pricey (thanks again, Harry and Meredith!) but the cheap seats are still pretty close to the action and are a reasonable $15 each.  All in all, this is quality entertainment that delivers real bang for the buck.  As a longtime wrestling fan I expected to like it, but was surprised how much I loved it.  I think everyone reading this owes it to themselves to check out the WWE when they hit your neighborhood.  You won't be sorry.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

60 Years and Still Rockin'--The Fender Stratocaster

As a history teacher, I am often asked to rank and evaluate things (like "who is the best/worst President of all time?") and as a musician, the temptation to rank artists is omnipresent as well. Sometimes I combine these two identities, such as when I declare that the electric guitar was the most important invention of the 20th century.  Now obviously I am not completely serious with this; after all, the 20th century saw the invention of (to name just a few) the airplane, the internet, antibiotics and sliced bread. But as a cultural innovation, the electric guitar has had wide-ranging artistic, social and even political implications

You can read elsewhere about the rise of the guitar in 20th century popular music, the invention of the electric guitar, and the invention of the solid-body electric guitar, all of which happened prior to 1950. But today I want to focus on what is probably the most popular and famous electric guitar, the Fender Stratocaster, which saw its debut 60 years ago, in 1954. 

Musical instrument design genius Leo Fender designed the Stratocaster (or "Strat", as aficionados call it)  to supersede his first solid-body instrument the Telecaster. While the Strat has carved out its place in history, fortunately for everyone, the Tele is still going strong, and has been in continuous production since 1948.  The Tele is a wonderful instrument, but it had some significant issues, especially relating to poor intonation, which led Leo Fender to invent a brand new vibrato (inaccurately called a "tremolo") bridge which provided much finer adjustability.  The Strat also features three pickups, and a lusciously curved, offset body that is a pleasure to hold.  As legendary guitarist Eric Johnson has said, "once you start playing one, it's hard to play anything else".

The Strat has undergone several changes through the years (fingerboard wood, wiring, number of neck bolts, headstock size) but essentially it is the same guitar now as it was 60 years ago.  What other 1950s tech products can say the same?  Cars, appliances, furniture, and fashion have all changed dramatically in that time, but the Strat just keeps on singing.  It has also remained remarkably affordable.  In 1954 a Stratocaster cost $249.50, which is the equivalent of about $2100 today, according to the Inflation Calculator. Nowadays, an American-made Strat is around $1200, while a Fender Strat made in their Mexican factory costs about $500. Other companies make homages to the Strat that are even less expensive.  In short, it costs less to rock a Strat now than it did 60 years ago.

Interestingly, the day after I wrote this, Fender put up this interactive webpage about the Stratocaster, and about some 60th anniversary models they will be selling this year.  It's worth a look!


The Strat has been a popular choice of musicians in just about every genre of music.  As Guitar Player magazine editor Tom Wheeler noted in 1987, "What more needs to be said about an instrument's versatility than that it was adopted by the guitar player with Lawrence Welk as well as the guitarist in Pink Floyd?"  Good point, Tom!  The following are just a few noteworthy Strat masters:

Buddy Holly: Buddy Holly was a singer and songwriter from Lubbock, Texas who gained popularity in the late 1950's with songs like "Peggy Sue" and "That'll Be The Day". Buddy's unique look (the geeky horn-rimmed spectacles combined with the space-age electric guitar) was captivating, and the 100 songs he recorded with his combo the Crickets combined country, pop and in some cases, the Bo Diddley beat. Sadly, Buddy Holly perished in a plane crash following a gig in 1959, along with young guitar slinger Ritchie Valens and DJ J.P. Richardson, a/k/a "The Big Bopper".  Holly, who was only 22 at the time of his death, has had a lasting influence, especially on four young Liverpudlian rockers, who also chose an entomological name for their band, The Beatles.

Buddy Guy: Legendary Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy has played a bunch of different axes in his long career, but he is probably best-known for playing a Strat (often a polka-dot one).  Songs like "The First Time I Met The Blues" and "Damn Right I've Got The Blues" are rightfully classics of the genre.  He is also a prolific coverer of songs by other bluesmen, such as "Five Long Years".  I first got into the blues in the mid-1980's after seeing a PBS special about Buddy, and I have seen him live several times.  Buddy was a huge influence on other guitarists, and his wild live performances are renowned. He is a remarkably modest and kind man as well as a brilliant musician.  Check him out if he comes to your town!

Jimi Hendrix
: Psychedelic blues shaman James
Marshall "Jimi" Hendrix was heavily influenced by Buddy Guy. Though he was left-handed, Hendrix often played right-handed guitars upside down, notably Fender Strats. After years of playing as a sideman with groups like the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, he was "discovered" by Animals bassist Chas Chandler (whose fear of flying motivated him to switch from performing to managing).  Hendrix went to England and took London by storm in 1966.  His wild Buddy Guy-isms (playing the guitar behind his back or with his teeth) and inventive use of distortion, feedback and the tremolo bar quickly brought him the reputation as rock's greatest guitarist.  Sadly, Jimi died in 1970 at the age of 27 as a casualty of drugs; on the night of his death, British guitarist Eric Clapton was planning to give him the gift of a left-handed Stratocaster.  Jimi died too soon, but his live performances of blues like "Red House", rock numbers like "Wild Thing" and his mindblowing rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" as the sun rose on the multitudes at Woodstock will never cease to amaze.

Eric Clapton: One of my all-time favorite musicians, Eric Clapton was one of the original guitar heroes.  During his time as lead guitarist with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, London walls were covered with the graffito "Clapton is God". Eric was only 20 years old at the time!  He went on from there to get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three different times, and to record what I think is the greatest album of all time. Clapton has recorded a wide variety of music, but the blues is his homebase, and the Stratocaster is the guitar with which he is most often associated.  He once described playing "Blackie" (his main axe through the 1970's) as "like diving into a pool of warm water".  Clapton was heavily influenced by Buddy Guy (in fact, seeing Guy live led Clapton to form legendary power trio Cream), was friends with Hendrix, and in his turn has influenced just about everyone.  Songs like "After Midnight", "Wonderful Tonight" and "Layla" are classics that show "Slowhand's" chops.

Mark Knopfler: When I was a teenager, I had pictures on my wall of several guitarists, including Clapton, Hendrix, Chuck Berry and Mark Knopfler. Knopfler, the leader of Dire Straits, is a brilliant songwriter and guitarist whose crystal clear fingerstyle Strat playing is unmistakeable. Besides being a great player, he also loves the instrument, as is made clear in this wonderful movie made by Dire Straits bassist John Illsley. Must-hear songs from Mark Knopfler include "Tunnel of Love", "Lady Writer" and "Sultans of Swing".  Mark is still recording and touring--don't miss the chance to see this legendary musician if he comes through your area. 

Stevie Ray Vaughn: Back in the 1980's, after punk, and with the rise of synthesizer based New Wave it seemed like the guitar was falling into disrepute. But a guitar-slinging young bluesman from Texas changed that.  Whether on his own records, or playing lead for David Bowie, Stevie Ray Vaughn restored guitar (and the blues) to their place of prominence in American music. Stevie was famous for playing the battered Stratocaster he called "Number One" on songs like "Pride and Joy" and "Texas Flood" while he featured a maple necked Strat (signed by Mickey Mantle!) on "Lenny", which was the name of his wife, and of the guitar she bought for him.  SRV was a longtime drug addict who got his life under control and was making his best music when he died in a helicopter crash following a concert with Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and Robert Cray in August of 1990.  He was 35 years old. He is the only guitarist whose picture is currently on my wall


In the summer of 1990, under the influence of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton I bought my Fender Strat.  It was an "American Standard" model, made at the new factory in Corona, California after the company's employees purchased the brand from CBS. I got it in the "Pewter" finish that Clapton was using at the time, and named it "Penelope", trusting that it would always be faithful. I have other guitars, but my Strat is first among equals.

It is also the guitar I have relied on the most in live performances.  Every time I have played with my wife in the audience (including before we were married), the Strat was there. When it is important to sound and look good, no other instrument will do a better job than my Stratocaster.

I love the way it looks, the way it feels and the way it sounds.  To me it looks like a grayscale picture with a tinted neck.  I just got the frets leveled and crowned after 23 years of use, and it plays like butter--I can't put it down.

Stratocasters have inspired people since 1954, and I look forward to playing mine for the next 60 years.