Howard Stern at 60

Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa… stop the clock. – Ronnie Mund, 2011

Howard and RobinThat’s a sentiment made famous (and now regularly sound-bitten) by The Howard Stern Show‘s beloved Ronnie the Limo Driver. It was movingly and hysterically paid homage to in Sarah Silverman and Natalie Maines’ musical tribute to The King of All Media last night. SirusXM‘s Howard Stern Birthday Bash from the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York not only celebrated the King’s 60th birthday, but also his legion of loyal fans, trusty longtime cohorts, and a brilliant career rise – now at its peak – in the face of adversity. During a season of vapid awards shows, this awards-less four-hour extravaganza was not only the most relevant in show business, but the most transparent. Stern’s loyalty to others, respect for his peers, hard work, and brutal honesty in broadcasting paid off.

Stern’s fans want to stop the clock at this moment. The man is at his creative and personal zenith. The Birthday Bash also proved the power of his self-promotional capital and humanness in marketing… aspects that keep people listening for decades while he matured as a person, entertainer, interviewer, and comedian. Rosie O’Donnell, Kathy Lee Gifford, Barbara Walters, George Clooney, Larry King, and Jerry Seinfeld – all people he verbally destroyed on the air in the eighties and nineties – appeared at the Bash to pay tribute to a man who changed the face of broadcasting as we know it. His maturity and ever growing clout in the entertainment business allowed for bygones to be bygones. Or: he won over his enemies.

Now Howard Stern has more power than most people realize. Since leaving terrestrial radio and joining SiriusXM in 2006, he helped increase the number of subscribers from 400,000 to 25 million. Most of SiriusXM’s subscribers joined specifically for the Stern Show. These are fans who pay money to listen to him and are some of the most motivated of any artist. If a musician, actor, or director appears as a guest, they’ll always get a Stern Show bump. Yet even with all of this power (and riches), Stern is just like us. He still gets angry at nonsensical social injustices (gay marriage, pot legalization – he’s for both), rants over dirty politicians, is intolerant at the mass stupidity the news media exhibits on a daily basis, and calls out bullshit… every time he hears it. He also gets giddy and nervous when encountering a hero like Paul McCartney, who has appeared on the show multiple times.

Speaking of which: music is extremely important in Howard Stern’s world. Last night’s show provided the listener and live audience with an A-list selection of Stern’s influences, biggest fans, show regulars, and new acts. John Fogerty’s blistering performance of the antiwar classic “Fortunate Son” prompted Stern to recall his memories of listening to Creedence as a teen and latching on to its rebellious attitude. Steven Tyler’s collaboration with Dave Grohl, Slash, and Train on “Dream On” and “Walk This Way” reinforced the notion that even old dudes can still rock and hit their peak.

The highlight of the show came when David Letterman sat down with Howard for a 25 minute discussion. Letterman gave Stern his first shot at a TV appearance in the early eighties and Stern became forever indebted to him. They have always been supportive of one another, but this was the rare case when Howard finally got to ask Letterman some deep digging questions. Stern’s brilliant interview style was in full force here. If you go on The Howard Stern Show to be interviewed – sometimes for up to two hours – expect it to be the most dangerous interview of your career… and the most valuable.

Last night was not devoid of heart. Despite the fact that the bulk of the content came from comedians and comic actors doing what they do best – being funny (Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Joan Rivers, Jimmy Fallon, Louis C.K., Robert Downey, Jr., Bryan Cranston, David Spade, Fred Armisen, George Takei, Tracy Morgan, Kathy Griffin, the list goes on) – it also came from genuine, heartfelt emotions. The most important being Howard’s relationship with cohost Robin Quivers, who nearly died of cancer last year; they sat alongside each other the entire night and lauded each other appropriately. Quivers has been Stern’s anchor of reason and loyal friend for over 30 years. Their partnership as a duo is probably the most successful and mutually respectful in all of show business.

At 60 years of age, Howard Stern hasn’t come full circle. He is at his peak. There is no better interviewer in broadcasting. He has the ability to bring out not just gossip, financial worth, and romantic/sexual history in a guest, but deep, genuine feelings and thoughts about one’s career, upbringing, grievances, and fears. Stern may now be filthy rich and remarried to Beth, his hot, younger wife (who, in fact, changed him in many ways; both practice pescetarianism and are animal activists), but he still remains grounded by his staff, friends, and family – and does everything for the good of the show, constantly maintaining the honesty and humanness in the material. But if you have nothing real – or funny – to say, then he’ll ask you to shut the fuck up.

Howard Stern has matured at 60. He had to piss off a lot of people, get fired, divorced, fined by the government, and lambasted by the media to finally reach a point where he is considered a trusted source of honesty and integrity. Stern doesn’t need social media. He is social media. He is a source of entertainment, news, and opinion that gets purchased on a monthly basis by loyal, devoted fans. How many artists out there create original content for 12 hours a week and have that much fan devotion and motivation?

Howard Stern was my age (38) when I started listening to him in 1992. I witnessed the O.J. trial, the books, the movie, the rise to megastardom, the divorce, Jackie Martling, Artie Lange, the death of Hank, High Pitch, the switch to satellite, Robin’s health victory, but most importantly, the development and progression in his relationships with friends, coworkers, and family. For over 30 years, Stern has supplanted bullshit with reality. And not manufactured reality, but real joys, pains, and disappointments that exist in all relationships. This is what keeps the fans coming back. One declaration that resurfaced between Howard and his friends and coworkers last night was that of love. He truly loves those loyal and close to him: Robin, Fred, Baba Booey, and even Benjy. Out of that love comes decades of hard work, passion, and quality entertainment. Or as fan favorite Ringo Starr likes to phrase it: “Peace and love. Peace. And. LOVE!”

Hearing With My Eyes (or: How I Learned To Love Closed Captioning)

Listen to your words they’ll tell you what to do,
Listen over the rhythm that’s confusing you. – U2, 1997

Before Twin Peaks, there was nothing like it on television. The Prisoner came close, but in terms of sheer avant-garde, with abstract themes and a daring style, Twin Peaks was ahead of its time. I was a Twin Peaks nerd. I shared my fondness for the show with a few friends – programming the VCR to record that night’s episode if we happened to be away from the television or out of the house. The show turned me on to the brilliance of its co-creator, David Lynch. I was open to experimentation in all aspects of art as a teenager and didn’t realize I was starving for stuff like Twin Peaks, the films of the Coen Brothers and Fellini, the writing of William S. Burroughs, U2′s rapid transformation, or even the music of Phish. The early nineties paved a way for artists to screw with the mainstream and I was their worthy consumer.

Twin Peaks debuted in early 1990 and got canceled about a year and a half later. That opened the door for Lynch to work on a prequel to the Laura Palmer story and he was given the green light for a feature film. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was released at the end of August in 1992. I went to opening night with fellow Peaks fanatics, my old friend Jon, his brother Eric, and Eric’s wife, Diane. I was on a road trip with Jon before the start of our senior year in high school and we made a pit stop in Maryland for this very specific event.

Twin PeaksThe first 40 minutes – perhaps the best in the entire film – were inaudible to me. Actors Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Isaak, Kyle MacLachlan, and Miguel Ferrer all appeared in these moments; trading lines almost silently to my ear. Louder characters played by David Lynch, David Bowie, and Harry Dean Stanton reacted to things the softer-spoken actors said, making my following of the storyline a complete train wreck. This was David Lynch’s style, you see, and it wasn’t just the fault of the movie theater’s sound system. Lynch subdues his sound in a lot of his films – especially Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, and Inland Empire – juxtaposing with the more insane, demented, and intense moments so they have more ferocious effects. In the “Pink Room” scene in Fire Walk With Me, Jacques Renault declares under a wave of muddy, ambient jamming from the bar band that he is “The Great Went!” – a reference Phish used five years later to name one of their festivals. I didn’t realize this until I saw the captions on the DVD in 2002. I concluded the reference 10 years after the fact!

I was devastated. I was 17 and didn’t really care about sports, so this kind of triviality was important to me. I really wanted to see – and hear – that movie. When DVDs started coming out in the late nineties, it was another five year wait, to 2002, for the Fire Walk With Me DVD to come out. The captioning on television (you know that “CC” button?) was mediocre at best, and often marred by delays; and you can bet your bottom that Lynch’s films were seldom aired – even on cable. I bought the DVD when it came out and basked in its captioned heaven. Closed captioned television and films are the only way I can watch anything at all. With the invention of the DVD, I was able to revisit countless old films and TV shows, with the SDH (Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing) option turned on – picking up on dialogue and story development that I might have missed. Lynch did it again in 2001, with Mulholland Drive, directing actors to speak at low volumes. I was able to easily forgive, since I could acquire the DVD release only a few months later.

Partially deaf jazz fusion drummer, Kenwood Dennard, guested with Phish in Worcester last month. I admire his work with Herbie Hancock and Brand X, so I was thrilled when I heard he shared the stage with my favorite band. He wrote a piece a number of years ago about his deafness and the disability putting large amounts of stress and limitations on his work with more rigid, composed styles of music. Throughout his struggles working in these fields, he described the way he rehearsed as “hearing with my eyes.” In other words, he finds it easier in his playing with other musicians to look for visual cues, rather than audio. He will progress more by rehearsing with video footage, rather than with sheet music or the recorded works of the music he needs to memorize. As a fellow musician and hearing impaired person I find this exciting, fascinating, inspiring, and excruciating. Luckily for Dennard, he’s an amazing drummer who has a logged history on some incredible projects. His reputation is no match for his near deafness.

The “hearing with my eyes” concept applies to most of what I do in life. For you hearing impaired readers – you know as well as I do that Kenwood Dennard’s situation is applicable in just about any social scenario – in business, school, work, play, being creative, and relationships. A hearing impaired person’s brain works to first locate a visual cue – like a gut reaction – before anything else.

My love affair with closed captioning is ongoing. We’re not talking rocket surgery here, but the very simple technology has made me appreciate not only a film or television show itself, but the art of scriptwriting, speechwriting, and, most of all, language. If I could have closed captions and subtitles for every instance in my daily life, I would. And like I noted in a previous blog post, my strength in listening has also improved. The visual cues on the screen mesh with the subtitles, physically making me look up and down, forcing me to listen more intently. Just because everything is written for me on the screen, doesn’t mean my listening is diminished – it’s actually strengthened and more purposeful. This whole process gives me an even better command of my native English language, leading into an improved understanding and grasp of text in other forms – like books. I think I can finally explain to someone what happens in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

I appreciate closed captioning. I appreciate the method of hearing with my eyes, not just while watching TV, a Blu-ray, or going to the movies (when theaters have SDH assisted devices, I use them!). Like Kenwood Dennard, I developed more of an appreciation for communication, listening, and language using alternative methods of assistance – all for the betterment of relationships with people and the art they create.

Kenwood Dennard: http://www.gakkaionline.net/Experiences/MailHear.html

Truth Marketing

I need someone to believe in, someone to trust.
I’d rather trust a country man than a town man,
You can judge by his eyes, take a look if you can.
He’ll smile through his guard,
Survival trains hard.
I’d rather trust a man who works with his hands,
He looks at you once, you know he understands.
Don’t need any shield,
When you’re out in the field. – Genesis, 1974

Uncle Buck

Uncle Buck has a branding problem. John Candy’s wonderful portrayal of the title character from the 1989 John Hughes film is pushed and pulled in so many different ways in all of the relationships in his life, that he’s completely lost his way. He has lost control of the one consistent feature of his personality: honesty.

Oh, don’t get me wrong – Buck lies. He lies to girlfriend (Amy Madigan) about gambling debts. And he lies to his moody teenaged niece, Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly), about his life so she won’t see her uncle as more of a loser than she already maintains. Tia is like Ferris’ sister, Jeanie, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off - only twice as mean, not as funny, and she’ll eventually come around.

Tia’s parents think Buck is a jackass, but they’ve probably never had one honest conversation with their daughter. Buck’s girlfriend is frustrated by his non-committal, but he seemingly has many friends who rank him as a standup guy. Buck is overly honest, straightforward, and has a ton of love to give, but to a point: he is guarded and secretive only because he’s been forced those ways. When the opportunity arises to babysit for Tia and her young siblings, Buck takes hold of it to work on rebranding himself. And he does so with unlimited transparency.

Buck knocks it out of the park. He stands up to a ratty old school principal, shows he can run a house, take care of kids and dogs, commit to his girlfriend, and, most importantly, break through the ice that is the ignorant, judgmental, teenaged nightmare. Tia warms to Buck because he gives her honest advice about relationships and follows through on his actions as head-of-household. He calls her out on her nonsense and opens up for her a clearer path to figuring out her place in the world. Tia’s parents return home flabbergasted, as they should be.

We hear a lot about branding and rebranding these days. Mostly in the world of entertainment, where actors, artists, musicians, and musicians-turned-businesspeople irritatingly push out the notion that they are more than just human flesh and blood – but a brand. The successful ones are the people who stay true to themselves, never (or rarely) stray from their core beliefs, and don’t sell out to corporations. The even more successful, and fulfilling, examples are those younger generations who have the ability to take what they’ve learned and experienced in life, adapt, adjust their “brand,” and progress naturally as do normal, everyday human citizens. Politicians have a hard time maintaining an honest, consistent brand. So do corporations.

Marketing, branding, and communications efforts from corporations are pretty darn consistent, though. Yet there are certain types of products whose entire marketing lifecycle has been based on lies. There’s not much honesty in marketing cereal to kids. Cereal has almost no nutritional value. Hundreds of millions of dollars are pumped into the claim that it will cost taxpayers loads of dough for food companies to start GMO labeling. Also not true. A known raging racist like Mel Gibson is still being employed; athlete and dog murderer Michael Vick still allowed on the football field; and Anthony Weiner – a perverted politician with no concern whatsoever over the private life or feelings of his family – still invited on talk shows. These are all products and brands that have, at one point or another (or, all the time), skewed their position, avoided the facts, and downright unleashed lies as part of their overall marketing strategy.

So, what do we have here? We have three different metrics to measure marketing success, based on how truthful a marketing strategy is: A) The consumer who believes the lies and presses “Like” when Kashi announces a new version of their “healthy” cereals (hint: Kashi isn’t good for you); B) The consumer who knows they are being lied to, but shrugs it off; and C) The conscious consumer who makes their purchasing and voting decisions and actions based on facts (see, my favorite: climate change).

Marketing is based almost entirely on performance measurement and management: using various metrics to gauge how successful a product, service, or person is at being portrayed a specific way. But within the act of portrayal, comes branding/rebranding and refocusing. And with these comes dishonesty, as most of the time the first order of business in getting a quick sale is to portray something or somebody as something or somebody that they are NOT. This is highly relevant in the world of social media – as consumers and people – and in the world of social media marketing in business. We have an increasing amount of available social media tools to help us shape and create the kind of life we want to portray to others as having; as do businesses have in shaping and creating the type of transparent engagement they appear to have with their customers and fans.

The social media part is maddening, but can be a boon in many respects. The most important one being the aforementioned “engagement.” People trust brands, companies, politicians, and celebrities more if they’re putting themselves out there, being engaging, not condescending (see: Andrea Kerzner, Ricky Gervais, or Cory Booker). The sooner marketing and branding strategies place more emphasis on honest communication and engagement, the sooner humans will stop lying to each other.

Tia smiles and waves goodbye to her uncle Buck when he departs. She even accepts his invitation for coffee the next time she finds herself in downtown Chicago. What’s happening here? Buck stayed true to himself. He uncovered the inner workings of the angry teenager. Like most of John Hughes’ comedies during this era, the angry teen is angry because there’s no real and honest communication from the parents. The parent figures are secretive, dishonest, and materialistic. They find importance in more and more things, quantity over quality, and push marketing of their beliefs, ideas, and demands. Buck gives Tia what she so desperately needed: his true self with clear and open dialogue. Buck rebranded himself honestly. She respected all levels of his truth marketing.

Hearing Loss: Listening To You

Listening to you, I get the music.
Gazing at you, I get the heat.
Following you, I climb the mountain.
I get excitement at your feet. – The Who, 1969

An old friend flew out to Colorado to visit me a few months ago. We hadn’t seen one another in a year and we both were looking forward to spending some time together. Part of the visit included a road trip – and that’s when previous tensions in our relationship began to rear their ugly heads.

Long story, short, this friend of 20 years is Keith Richards to my Mick Jagger. Rich Robinson to my Chris Robinson. Joe Perry to my Steven Tyler. We have a storied history of petty arguments and fallings-out. I didn’t hear something he said about some plans once we got to our destination – this caused an issue – and he lashed out the next day: “Sometimes you just don’t listen, Josh!” I blew up, we argued, I told him off, and we eventually went our separate ways. We’ve since patched things up.

So how can this be? A friend of 20 years, a person with whom I’ve had several conversations about my hearing impairment, doesn’t seem to get it? And as it turns out – his mother was blinded as a young girl and overcame enormous obstacles to lead a fulfilling life. He should get it. It’s okay, though. It’s something I’m used to and accept. It’s an invisible disability. All I ask is that when I try to explain the condition, people will listen. Just as I have been listening – intently – for decades.

Growing up hearing impaired turns you into a liar. Not a deceitful, opportunistic, loathsome person, but an unintentional fibber. The brain functions on overdrive when it misses auditory cues. Like a search engine – but at a much slower pace – the brain searches for what it might have missed; whether it be a teacher teaching, dialogue in a movie, or someone sitting across the table in a restaurant asking questions. A person with hearing loss will typically undergo a knee-jerk reaction and cover the impairment by pretending to fully hear what was said. Many times they will also fill in the blanks with a random number of words he/she thought they missed. These are reactions that are sometimes uncontrollable and will eventually backfire. There can be a series of misunderstandings, backtracking, and just plain miscommunication (missed communication) that would feel right at home on an episode of Three’s Company. Someone like me can eventually reverse these behaviors, by being more open and transparent about the hearing loss and trusting the acceptance and understanding of others.

How do you explain specific brain activity caused by hearing loss and missed auditory cues to someone who hasn’t experienced it? That’s the challenge with most impairments and disabilities, I suppose. Unfortunately, the concept of impaired communication with your fellow human can be downright exhausting. My intelligence doesn’t make up for the fact that even in the best possible environmental circumstances for me hearing someone else – the brain still needs to search-optimize the content I’m thinking before it spews out of my mouth. Not only does hearing loss cause this entanglement of “what-was-that?” and “excuse-me?,” but it also forces a breakdown in searching the language and formulating the sentences and statements before they’re actually used vocally and verbally. If it takes a while for me to explain something in person, the above scenario is generally the case.

Make sense? Maybe. There will be much more on this later. The positive, motivating, and joyous thing about experiencing all of these things is that it has made me an amazing listener. It’s exhausting at times, but ever since graduating college, I’ve been known as an affable, courteous, and thoughtful person. That’s what happens when you listen to others. As a kid, I made it a conscious effort out of necessity, but it reaped its rewards as time went on. I’m a nice adult who’s passionate about the well-being of our planet, animals, and cares about others. Did this all come out of just being an intent listener? Definitely not – though it helped.

The most important thing you can do is listen. We’re surrounded by people drowning in their smartphones, but they too have problems and things going on in their lives. I was sometimes perceived as an aloof and shy kid, but that was not accurate – I just didn’t hear things and chose to isolate myself because struggling to keep up – to listen – was tiring. I wanted nothing more than to be able to engage with others on a “normal” level. Then I experienced what it’s like to listen. To really listen to someone’s stories, their passions, their pain. It’s bonding. It’s exhausting. It’s amazing. It’s worth it. Especially if you hear all of it.

Living With Hearing Loss

That he not busy being born is busy dying. – Bob Dylan, 1965

It’s a risk starting a blog like this. Especially one advocating awareness for a disability that you have. Although, I never felt “disabled” – it’s an unfair term to use for certain impairments. So yes, I’m hearing impaired. I’ve known that since the age of five. Certain realizations from tumultuous life events have cornered me over the past year, but are making me stronger. I’m not cowering away because I feel closer to my impairment than ever before, but learning from, being empowered by, and rediscovering the amazing force it has. I’m busy being born, not busy dying.

So, welcome to my website! Remember that? That’s so 1996: when someone launches their own website and they’re so excited that their welcome message stays static on the home page for the next decade? You still see a lot of that out there, from musicians to ventriloquists. It’s cute. Seriously, though… dot-NET?! I couldn’t get dot-com because a certain “success coach” and “entrepreneur” already owns it. No matter – I’ll just tell everyone I bought this domain in 1993 (oh wait – you can look that stuff up). Well, if the Grateful Dead doesn’t mind a dot-net (www.dead.net), then I don’t mind.

I was diagnosed with moderate to moderate/severe hearing loss in both ears when I was five. My parents are neurotic New Yorkers who have only become more neurotic and more nervous as they get older. Still, it probably set off a worry bomb in the Valentine household. I’ll get more technical as the months go on, but the short of it is that a hearing loss, or impairment, is a different kind of disability than deafness. While being deaf comes with its own culture and language, hearing loss is a largely invisible disability that can cause mental, psychological, learning, and overall health problems. While I do have problems with volume, there are certain frequencies I hear better than others. And the environment in which I’m listening to someone, or something, plays a huge role in my hearing success. Thankfully for me, my hearing hasn’t worsened too much in the 33 years since my first audiology test, but it most likely will when I hit my fifties or sixties.

My parents became advocates for me. Aggressive ones. More often than not, their advocacy worked, but sometimes it backfired. It was selfish anyway: instead of advocating for hearing loss as a cause, they just wanted my teachers, camp counselors, friends, friends’ parents, everybody, to know not to give me a hard time. Hey – great for me, right? Well I’m not so sure I wanted all that attention.

When I was put into a New Jersey private school in the fifth grade in 1985, hearing aids were still large and highly visible devices jutting out of your ears. I wanted none of that. I never wore them. As they got smaller around sophomore or junior year, I still would not wear them. I was a self-conscious, chubby high schooler surrounded by rich kids and underpaid teachers. I didn’t need anything else to validate any of my weaknesses.

My parents told the entire school. The deans, the teachers, Coach Auginello, and the headmaster. By 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act allowed for people like me to take “un-timed” tests. Yup – I could sit there all day and take a 45 minute test. Mrs. Stout, my sophomore year English teacher, didn’t like this.

Stout taught the Old and New Testaments that year. She loved Jesus. She came from an Indiana farm and was probably a little shocked by the plethora of attention deficient, overpriveleged kids in my class. I was quiet and I did all of my homework, but I think she still considered me overpriveleged and disobedient.

It was a midterm final exam. The final exams at the end of each term were distributed in the gymnasium with the entire rest of the student body. We had about 60-90 minutes to complete the exam. I thought I was all set – UNtimed, baby! Not in Stout’s mind. She comes up to me, partially noticing that I’m about three quarters of the way through, and says “okay, sir, the time is up.” “Sir” – she used that a lot. Was she in the armed forces?

I politely reminded her that my test was untimed. It was embarrassing for me, but I still stood up for myself. She grabbed the test. I grabbed back. “But, Mrs. Stout, it’s un…” – the exam ripped in half. I wound up getting a C or something, which may or may not have contributed to my dad calling the Upper School dean and exclaiming to him that “she’s a fucking bitch!” He was my advocate, my dad.

Come back for more on this and other stuff. Living with hearing loss has made me a profoundly focused listener, but that’s not limited to face-to-face conversations. Over 50 million Americans suffer from impaired hearing and many are in denial, or simply unaware, of it. I’d be interested in knowing your experiences and thoughts. Thanks for visiting! (sooooo 1996)