Awesome; I fuckin’ talked to the Beasties!


The Beastie Boys’ new concert film Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! opens today, March 31, in the Bay Area, so here’s more of my interview with them at the Austin, Texas, Hilton at SXSW a few weeks ago. Why? Well, because you can’t get enough of them, and I didn’t have enough space to include much of the talk in the paper this week. Perhaps some things are best left unblogged, but here you go.

Mike D., ne Diamond, gets a few pointers from the fans in a scene
from Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!

I kind of love this movie, by the way — not the least because the sample of the Dead Boys’ song “Sonic Reducer” recurs so often (in To the 5 Boroughs‘s “An Open Letter to NYC”). Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

The premise of Awesome: Beastie Boy Adam Yauch comes up with the idea of giving a slew of cameras to fans in order to shoot the group’s sold-out show at Madison Square Garden during the 2004 To the 5 Boroughs tour. The upshot: Yauch, directing and producing under the pseud Nathaniel Hornblower, ends up spending the next year editing down the footage from 50-plus shooters. Ouch, Yauch. The super-shaky cinema verite handheld camera ack-shun threatened to have yours truly illin’, in a bad way — reminded me of early NYPD Blue — but it’s hard to beat the loud 5.1 mix, and Yauch ended up cutting loose impressively with the effects as the film, and concert, progresses.

Bay Guardian: So what’s with that Clear Channel and Scientology connection you made at the SXSW press conference — is there any reality to that?

Adam Horovitz: No, not at all. I was heavily misinformed by myself.

Mike Diamond: Y’know, Adam, some people would call it delusional.

BG: What were a few of the challenges you encountered making the film?

Adam Yauch: It’s actually harder sometimes having more options. When you have 61 angles to choose from, in a lot of ways it’s harder than if you just had one take or three takes or five takes, and you can exhaust them pretty quick, and you’re like, “OK, that’s the best part of this.” But it’s kind of insane having that many choices.

BG: How much input did the rest of you have?

AH: I didn’t want to get involved.

MD: I actually begged Yauch to take out the scene, the explicit scene of me dancing with the young lady, and … he wouldn’t. He left it in. He didn’t listen to either of us.

[At one point in Awesome, a camera person captures a woman in the audience executing the exact same dance move as Diamond onstage; Yauch then literally flips it and reverses it, superimposing the lady’s image alongside Diamond’s as if the two are dancing together.]

AY: Adam wanted me to take the pee out. [Awesome includes a clip of one of the shooters going to the men’s room and taking a leak.] I went back and said, “C’mon.”

AH: He pulled a Mario C. [Caldato, longtime B Boys producer and collaborator]

MD: Literally, he was like, “You know you love that part.”

AH: “Y’know,” he said, “I’ve talked to a lot of people, and a lot of my people are saying they really like that part.”

AY: But didn’t I start off my speech by saying, “I’m going to pull a Mario C on you right now”? It’s like when you invent this big background, like maybe one or two people told you something, but you act like it’s 50.

AH: I appreciated the bathroom scene, but I didn’t need to see the guy peeing. That’s all I’m saying.

BG: Too much information?

AH: A little much.

AY: That was Tamra’s [Davis, filmmaker and Diamond’s wife] favorite part of the movie.

MD: The girl dancing?

AY: No, the peeing.

MD: The people overall, when I showed it in my personal screening room. To my test audience…

AH: He does have a screening room.

MD: …Everyone in my audience actually really liked the bathroom thing, but they thought the girl dancing part was their favorite part, too. [Davis] liked it a lot. I was not reprimanded, not once. Rightfully so…because I had nothing to do…

AH: Mike does get reprimanded. Often. That’s a whole other thing.

MD: …That was some digital tomfoolery.

AY: No! That was me exploring you and that woman’s fantasy! Just showing what was going on in your head at that moment.

AH: Hey, you’re married but you’re not dead, Mike. Y’know what I’m saying? Ya can dance.

I gotta give a shout out to my friend Tammy Rae — just had a kid, Rydell. Any shoutouts for SF?

MD: Mixmaster Mike is from the Bay Area.

Adam Yauch, a.k.a. MCA, a.k.a., Nathaniel Hornblower, gets shot.
From Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!

BG: What about that digital tomfoolery in the movie – did you have to cool it after a while? Were there any limits?

AY: I think there’s a limit to it. I think there was times when I think we went too far with some of the effects. And then we pulled back and tried to find where it was most effective and where it worked with the music and the show overall. There were some strobe effects that went too far.

BG: So will there be completely remixed version of the concert film on DVD?

AY [looking stunned]: There will probably be some outtakes.

AH: Would there be some way, Adam, on the DVD that you could have on the full screen, all the angles, and you could somehow click on that one and it opens up and you could watch the whole video.

AY: That would not be possible.

AH: Even if you had it on a DivX file, a really small file?

AY: You can only have nine alternate angles. That is the cap.

AH: You’re gonna have to change the science on that, Adam.

AY: We could make a CD-ROM or a DVD-ROM, but in DVD technology you can’t do that, that I know of.

AH: Fill that ROM shit up.

MD: Yeah, I’ll get ROM-steen right on that shit!

AY: What we could do is have the whole grid going from beginning to end and people could just zoom in on a part.

AH: That’s what I’m wondering, can you magnify that spot?

AY: Somebody could.

AH: How?

AY: Some fool could just like blow it up to that camera. They’d have to have some software to do it.

AH: We should have applications and software and stuff on the DVD.

AY: That would be cool — editing software.

MD: I like that idea.

AH: Talk to our people.

[BG babbles something about how this project dovetails with hip-hop aesthetics and the creative interchange between fans and artists. Beastie Boys wonder what the question is. An embarrassing silence ensues.]

AH: Why can’t anybody just be happy with what they got right now? You got to see the video — you gotta remix it. You go see The Godfather — you gotta remix it. You listen to Crosby, Stills, and Nash — you gotta remix it. Y’know what I’m saying?

MD: That’s what I’m gonna say next time somebody asks me, ‘Have you heard this new record by so-and-so?” I’m gonna be like, “Ahh, you should check my remix!”

AH: “Google me, muthafucka!” [Laughs] I’m on the fence about…

AY: Just a minute ago you were telling people to put software on the DVD, and now you’re against the whole thing!

AH: It is a contradiction. It’s exciting that you can do all this weird shit. But at the same time…

MD: Can’t you leave it alone?

AH: Everything is a mash-up, remix. Sprite remix, Taco Bell remix.

MD: But some of those Sprite mixes are kinda hot. I’m telling you.

AH: I saw an ad for the new Blondie greatest hits, featuring the outtakes and featuring the new Blondie/Doors mash-up, and they’re playing “Call Me” mixed with “Riders on the Storm.”

MD: Adam, this is not…

AH: No, no, Kathleen saw this, too. I’m serious. What’s wrong with people? You can’t just listen to “Hanging on the Phone” and be happy with that?

BG: So has the movie changed your artistic outlook?

AY: Like the tension between us? We’ve been having trouble getting along?

AH: Made me watch that man peeing, I’m not happy about.

MD: I’m scarred and I’m hurt.

Feeling everybody up


One of the things I love about that place known fondly as "the Interwebs" is the way it allows researchers to graph things that should never be graphed. For example, have you ever wondered exactly how excited people really were about the release of the most recent Harry Potter book? Thanks to MoodGrapher, an application created by three Dutch information theorists, you’ll discover that reported feelings of excitement were up 130 percent on the day millions of copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince flooded into stores.

MoodGrapher works by collecting information from the "mood" tags associated with millions of entries on popular diary site Every time you write something on LiveJournal, you have the option to tag your post with a mood from a pop-up menu that includes everything from "bored" to "drunk" (for those feeling eccentric or curmudgeonly, there is also a "fill in your mood" option). After aggregating these moods over time, the Dutch info geeks were able to see clear patterns. Drunkenness spikes on Fridays and Saturdays, for example. Frustration plummeted on New Year’s Day (but loneliness was on the rise). You can search for moods over time yourself if you visit the MoodGrapher at

The idea of tracking the moods of an entire global population sounds like something from a movie about a dystopian future in which humanity’s computer overlords monitor everyone’s feelings so they can dope us up or feed us rock and roll accordingly. And that’s not far from the truth. The MoodGrapher’s creators published a paper earlier this month suggesting that their tool could be used to predict the success of a given movie by measuring the warmth of people’s feelings about it before release.

Some might argue that this is a consumer-centric development, in which our feelings are taken into account before new pop culture is thrust upon us. But in point of fact, measuring people’s moods about something before it comes out merely reveals how much buzz has been generated by advertising campaigns. Thus, the MoodGrapher’s results simply reflect how much money has already been blown on getting LiveJournal weenies amped up for the latest Franz Ferdinand album or M. Night Shyamalan’s stupid new movie. There are some exceptions to this, certainly. But you’re unlikely to see mass upticks in excitement for a new thing — whether it’s Windows Vista or Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman movie — unless it’s already being hyped to death.

What’s truly interesting about the MoodGrapher isn’t its marketability but its use as a diagnostic tool to measure how much events in the news affect people’s emotions. In a paper called "Why Are They Excited?" the MoodGrapher team explain how they figure out what’s causing unusual spikes in the mass mood. First they use a simple algorithm to search for massive mood upturns or downturns in a given period of time (usually a day or an hour). Then they search the journal entries of everyone who has reported the popular mood, looking for words or phrases that are used repeatedly. Once they’ve gotten five or six recurring words (like book and prince, for example), they search a news database to find out whether the words are turning up there too.

Using this methodology, the MoodGraphers found that a peak in "excitement" on July 16, 2005, was heavily correlated with the use of words like book and read and Potter. Similarly, they found that a peak in the mood "worried" during late August 2005 was associated with uses of the words hurricane, gas, and Katrina. Quick searches of those words against their news database revealed what you’d expect: They were ripped from the headlines.

The news-driven mood swings on LiveJournal are simultaneously hopeful and disturbing. It’s comforting to know that when something literally earth-shattering happens — like Hurricane Katrina — people are genuinely worried about one another. We’re not a bunch of numbed-out blog zombies. We’re members of a human community, and we care when we read about other people being hurt.

Of course, the more we care about what the media tell us, the closer we get to having our feelings crassly manipulated — especially if cool hunters and other dipshits of the brandosphere start using the MoodGrapher to figure out what makes us excited and drunk and happy. Worse, politicians might study MoodGrapher for ways to tweak national sentiment. Sometimes, it’s just better to keep your feeling tags to yourself. *

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who never had a mood she could sum up in a tag.

Third time’s a charm


It says so right there in the bio: A rock album that all others will be judged against this year was recorded in the same spot where Lionel Ritchie created "Dancing on the Ceiling."

Bear Creek Studios no longer has so much to answer for. To others, that name may conjure visions of an ex-Commodore tripping the light Astaire-style on some drywall. To me, it’s now known as the birthplace of Standing in the Way of Control (Kill Rock Stars).

In my household, up until now, the word on the Gossip has been that their recordings don’t catch the wildfire of their live shows. When Beth Ditto and company first toured the United States with Sleater-Kinney, Ditto was already hinting she could make punk’s great siren of the ’90s sound small, but you wouldn’t find proof in the pinched, monochromatic quality of the 2001 debut album, That’s Not What I Heard, on which each track largely resembled the one before or after it.

The first big hint of a difference came with 2003’s Movement. Some people think its songs aren’t as strong, but the first things I noticed were that the drums had more kick, Ditto’s voice didn’t sound like it had been shrunk by a cramped studio and crappy mic, and the ballad "Yesterday’s News" showed her blues were getting deeper and darker. C’mon, I thought. Bring it.

Then, early last fall, I walked from Bimbo’s 365 Club’s lush lobby into the main room and saw and heard the Gossip that you’ll find on their amazing new album. Ditto had ditched the swirl ’do and basic black fashions for shoulder-length straight hair and a striped, strapless dress. Together with guitarist Nathan Howdeshell and excellent new drummer Hannah Blilie, Ditto launched into what I now know is the title track, and it was obvious from the bumptious hooks and beats that the Gossip were communicating with post-punk disco’s rawest queer spirits, both alive (ESG) and dead (Arthur Russell). This was a band reborn.

Except "born again" doesn’t quite fit the Gossip, who’ve been true believers in a lot of great things like the power of a woman who says what she wants to say and does what she wants to do from day one of their life in the Arkansas swamplands. Strong enough to initially work over both Olympia labels that begin with a K, their guitar-drums-voice approach may have owed some spare change to the Spinanes, or come across as the fun flipside of Heavens to Betsy’s extreme angst, but when it first hit town, you best believe it scorched Fifth Avenue, Washington Street, and the heartless Martin.

Standing in the Way of Control isn’t rocket science just a recording by Guy Picciotto, of Fugazi, that finally captures the sweaty, untamed energy of Ditto and company in concert, letting you start your own dance party whenever and wherever. With a band this great this alive that’s no small feat. The strut of Ditto’s voice is lighter and there’s more snare happening in the rhythms. On "Listen Up!" a cowbell kicks in behind her as she schools children: "There’s some people that you just can’t trust … on the playground, you learn so much."

Ditto’s awesome voice is a source of pure energy and uplift there’s something wonderful about the way it acquires a razor’s edge as it reaches higher on a ferocious anthem like "Yr Mangled Heart." Yet while she sounds upbeat, her words on these songs are haunted. The title track’s stance of defiance amid the everyday-and-endless brainwash bullshit of the Bush era is typically stressed-out.

One song later, on the somewhat Romeo Void<\d>ish "Jealous Girls," Ditto’s wrestling with a feeling that kills girl love and doing so in way that goes beyond sloganeering she explores the pain of the emotion, and the paths that lead to and away from it, before tacking a declaration of independence ("No matter what the price, they can’t take me") to a chugga-chugga finale.

"Coal to Diamonds" could almost be a ballad by the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas from its empty nighttime atmosphere to its sudden, bereft ending. Even if the instrumentation doesn’t move beyond thrift-punk sparseness to include a string arrangement, Ditto is still more than equipped to carry the song on her own. One thing is for sure: There isn’t a more powerful or charismatic frontwoman frontperson in rock these days. Karen O? Please. Frankly, Ditto could teach most of today’s slick R&B ladies with the exception of Mary J. and Keyshia how to go rage as they race up and down the scales.

At the moment, the Gossip have 4,305 friends on MySpace. That number is about to grow. Listening to Standing in the Way of Control, I can only back up what one of those friends has to say: "It even got the little hair on the back of my neck dancin’."


With Numbers, Tussle, and Dynasty Handbag

Jan. 27, 9:30 p.m.

Bottom of the Hill

1233 17th St., SF


(415) 474-0365

Monkey business


 STEPHEN LISBERGER IS a scientific star. His decades-long research into how the brain registers and responds to visual stimuli is considered groundbreaking. His colleagues are effusive in their praise. William Newsome, a Stanford University neuroscientist who investigates similar terrain, told the Bay Guardian that "it could take decades, or even centuries" to assemble a complete, working map of the brain’s essential functions. "And Steve is one of the few people in the world who’s making progress on this."

The federal government thinks he’s worth a fair chunk of taxpayer change: The National Institutes for Health gave Lisberger $1.6 million in grants this year, and since 1992, an NIH database shows, he’s received 31 grants worth a total of more than $12 million.

But Lisberger’s work involves fairly invasive experiments on live subjects, and since you can’t exactly stick electronic probes into the brains of human beings, Lisberger uses rhesus monkeys, those red-faced staples of biomedical research. His experiments have made him the bane of many critics of animal experimentation – and over the past decade he’s become the poster boy for opponents of animal experimentation at UCSF.

Lisberger declined to be interviewed for this story, so we gleaned the outlines of his work from federal documents and UCSF records.

It’s not a pretty picture.

According to the scientific protocol for his experiments, filed with UCSF, Lisberger’s monkeys undergo several different surgeries, under anesthesia, to prepare them for the research. First, each monkey has a restraint device attached to its head with a combination of metal plates, bolts, and screws. That will later allow the monkey’s head to be locked in place for experiments. One or two holes are drilled in the skull, and then cylindrical recording chambers are secured over those holes so that microelectrodes that will allow precise neural activity to be measured can be inserted into the brain with ease. (The electrodes themselves don’t cause discomfort because the brain lacks pain receptors.)

Sometimes, small wire coils are sutured to the monkeys’ eyeballs. Other times the monkeys have spectacles attached to their faces that either magnify or miniaturize everything they see.

The monkeys in Lisberger’s lab are put on a fluid-restriction program, so that each day they are scheduled to "work" they will obey commands for "rewards" of water or Tang. Each monkey is taught to move from its cage to a "primate chair," and once in the chair, its head is locked into the restraining device. Then the animal is prompted to move its eyes in certain ways to receive a reward. Monkeys typically work for two to four hours a day on alternating weeks, often for three years or more.

Lisberger’s protocol states that his work could eventually lead to "the cure for many diseases of learning and memory such as Alzheimer’s Disease."

Suzanne Roy, from In Defense of Animals, says she started looking into Lisberger’s experiments in the late 1990s, after IDA got anonymous complaints from people who said they worked for UCSF. "What struck me was the highly invasive nature of them and the duration of them … " she said. "He’s making the monkeys so thirsty they’ll move their eyes in a certain way for a juice reward. How could anyone do this to an intelligent monkey?"

In 2002 Roy asked Lawrence A. Hansen, a neuropathologist at UC San Diego who is unusual in his willingness to question animal research, to evaluate Lisberger’s protocol. "I have never previously encountered experiments that would deliver quite so much suffering to higher primates for so comparatively little scientific gain…." Hansen wrote afterward. "While I do not doubt that these experimental manipulations will generate valid scientific data, such information is purchased at too high a moral and ethical cost. Even the primary investigator seems to feel it necessary to disguise his actual motivations, which are those of a fundamental research scientist, by invoking a link to a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. This is one of the more ludicrous stretches from basic science to human application that I have ever encountered in my 20 years of research into Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases affecting human beings."

When we spoke to Hansen recently, he criticized Lisberger’s grant applications and said, "He’s picked a part of the brain that’s not even involved in Alzheimer’s."

Lisberger’s studies are "basic science," meaning that they aim to answer larger scientific questions about how something works – in this case, the brain – rather than to invent or test a treatment. Although it might be somewhat easier to stomach an experiment that might cure Alzheimer’s than one that seeks to understand how the brain functions, it is hard to dispute that this is valid science: How can medical researchers cure problems they fundamentally don’t understand?

But even if you agree that the goals of Lisberger’s research justify his use of animals, you might be troubled by Lisberger’s record. Documents show that some animals enrolled in his research have a difficult time coping with the physical stress involved – and that Lisberger has resisted efforts to make his experiments more animal-friendly.

Clinical notes gathered by IDA and other groups show that Lisberger’s monkeys routinely undergo six or eight surgeries just to deal with their various implants and the infections they sometimes cause, or to remove scar tissue that has built up on the monkeys’ dura, the protective layer between skull and brain, because of repeated electrode insertions. Several monkeys in Lisberger’s lab have shown a significant decrease in body weight, and others have displayed a habit of self-mutilation, biting at their limbs and tearing out their hair.

Several years ago, when the internal committee that oversees animal research at UCSF raised concerns about whether monkeys in Lisberger’s experiments would receive sufficient water, particularly if they were "worked" on consecutive weeks, Lisberger responded in writing. "I am not willing to tie my laboratory’s flexibility down by setting guidelines or limits, or by agreeing to a negotiation with the veterinary staff when we do this," he wrote in a June 1998 letter. "I believe that the experimental schedule in my laboratory is an issue of academic freedom and that the Committee on Animal research lacks that [sic] standing to regulate this schedule."

In fact, the Animal Welfare Act was amended in 1985 to give the committee the primary responsibility for watchdogging researchers and ensuring that measures are taken to minimize the suffering of lab animals.

Less than two years after that bitter exchange, UCSF was cited by federal inspectors for AWA violations linked to Lisberger’s experiments. In one report the inspector wrote, "In my professional opinion, the nutritional requirements for these animals were not met for either food or water." He also noted that a monkey identified as #17652 – who, according to other documents, was enrolled in a Lisberger experiment – had remained assigned to the protocol and was even placed on "long-term water restriction," despite the fact that he had chronic diarrhea.

UCSF temporarily suspended Lisberger’s study and paid a $2,000 fine to settle the matter. And, despite his gaffes, UCSF defends Lisberger.

Vice Chancellor Ara Tahmassian described Lisberger’s lab as a "model program" and said Lisberger is one of the only UCSF researchers who has hired veterinary technicians to work exclusively in his lab and "make sure that everything that happens is done in accordance with proper standards of care." He added, "It’s critical for him, because of the nature of his research, that his animals are properly taken care of." Tahmassian also said that, in an academic setting, "there are times that individuals do believe that an oversight committee such as IACUC is getting into areas of science which the faculty members don’t believe is in their jurisdiction…. It doesn’t mean that the IACUC is going to just back off."

IACUC members also told us that, these days, Lisberger is cooperative. "I think the committee has a very good working relationship with Dr. Lisberger," IACUC chair Linda Noble said.

Even if Lisberger has cleaned up his act, it’s hard to see why UCSF would put him in charge of training the scientists of tomorrow how to work with animals. Yet, according to online course information, Lisberger sometimes lectures UCSF students on "Philosophical/ethical issues in animal experimentation," relevant regulations, and "pain minimization."