14 from ’14, Day 1: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s greatest win

2014 Daytona 500Running down my favorite stories/photos/assorted strangeness from 2014. Today: the best race I’d ever seen in person…up to that point.

We’re not supposed to root for individuals or teams when we’re writing; we’re supposed to root for a good story. NASCAR’s best story — hell, one of sports’ best stories — is that of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the son of a seven-time champion who can’t seem to measure up to his father in some ways, but has far superseded him in others. It’s Shakespearean drama at 200 mph, and it hit a high point in February of this year at the Daytona 500, when Junior outran everyone else on the track to win the biggest race of his career.

I was there, a bit bleary from a six-hour rain delay and too much media center steam table food, and snapped that photo above in the middle of victory lane as champagne and beer sprayed in every direction. Here’s the first part of the story I wrote:


Dale Earnhardt Jr., fresh off his victory in the Daytona 500, strode into the Daytona media center, normally a staid workplace where open displays of emotion are frowned upon, and bellowed in celebration.

“I bet nobody’s yelled like that in here in 30 years,” Earnhardt said as he sat down, grinning through his red beard. “People used to yell like that all the time when they won.”

It was a slick, if perhaps unintentional, bridge to NASCAR’s past, a past that has dogged Earnhardt like an extra passenger in his car … or, more accurately, like a cinder block tied to his rear bumper. Earnhardt, because of his surname, can’t ever escape the past, but with this triumphant victory, at long last he appears to have wrestled it at least to a draw.


Check out the rest here. I think I’ve still got some confetti from that victory lane jammed in my ears.

After the cheering’s done

Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 9.34.19 PMOXFORD, Ala. – I’m writing this from a late-night dinner after covering the October Talladega race. I just left the track, and it looked a lot like that photo above — hazy and slightly out of focus.

Of all the parts of the sportswriting gig that I enjoy, one of the best is the time after the game/race/tournament is over, after the players have flown off and the fans have driven away. There’s a stillness to the arena that lends itself to a moment of contemplation.

Every time I cover an event, I take a bit of time to walk around the empty arena. Talladega and Daytona, where the campfire smoke hangs in the air as the team haulers are pulling out. Turner Field, where the only sounds are the echoes of the cleaning crew … and the honks from the ever-present traffic outside. Bryant-Denny Stadium, where the bass thumps from the fraternities and downtown Tuscaloosa bars duel in stereo. Augusta National, where the last of the sun silhouettes the pines alongside the silent first fairway. These places lend themselves well to thinking, whether it’s about how to wrestle that intransigent damn article into something resembling coherence … or how to deal with our impending mortality.

Because make no mistake: you don’t need to be a damn poet to understand what’s going on here. Sound and fury, and then the rest is silence, to do a little Shakespeare mashup. I can hope, good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ve got thousands more summer and fall afternoons remaining. But I don’t know how many times I’ll come back to, say, Talladega or Augusta. Five? Ten? Twenty? No matter. It’s a measurable number, and it’s a painfully small one.

I consider myself tremendously lucky to have covered so many sporting events where the noise of hundreds of thousands of people hits you with physical force. It never gets old. But I feel even luckier that I get the chance to stick around after the cheering’s done and enjoy the solitude.

See you down the road.

A form letter for the angry fan who just wants a little attention

Is this me or my readers? Who knows?

Is this me or my readers? Who knows?

Finally gave up on trying to respond to the hordes of mouthbreathing loons devoted fans who stuff my inbox with fourth-grade-level screeds enthusiastic responses to my articles. From here on out, y’all’s angry ungrateful asses are getting a form letter. What do I need to add here? Suggestions welcome.

Hey there–

Thank you so much for your email. I get hundreds a week, and I wish I could answer all of them, but the fact is, I can’t. So I’ve created this form response. Sucks, I know, but better than being ignored, right? Anyway…

1. If you liked what I wrote, and you took the time to write me, I appreciate that more than you know. I hope you’ll keep reading, and you can find more of my junk at facebook.com/jaybusbee or twitter.com/jaybusbee.

2. If, as is the more likely scenario, you didn’t like what I wrote, well, that’s the way it goes. Whoever your favorite player/team/driver/conference is, I’m not biased against them, though if you want to think so, knock yourself out.

3. I like my job a lot, and despite what many people suggest, I won’t be leaving it to wash dishes, walk dogs, pick up dead animals in the street, or anything similar. And no, I won’t be going to work at TMZ, and if you can’t understand the difference between what they do and what we do, I’m not going to hold your hand and help you understand.

4. Journalism can be “biased” in the sense that I get paid to offer my opinion on certain stories. If you disagree with my opinion, that’s your right, of course. But offering my opinion doesn’t make me a bad journalist, just like offering yours doesn’t make you a bad reader.

5. Unless you cuss at me or say ugly things about my family. Then I’ll get the IRS on you. (Joking. Maybe.)

6. There’s no such thing as “THE MEDIA.” We don’t all get together and plot out an agenda to praise some athletes and ruin others. (Although, if we did, this is exactly what we’d say to throw you off the scent. Hmm.)

7. There’s (not theirs) a decent chance your (not you’re) writing is a writhing, poorly spelled, ungrammatical mess. If that’s the case, I’d love to take your points seriously, but I’m laughing too hard at you.

Anyway, thanks for writing, and I hope your favorite team/driver/golfer/horse wins this weekend/the next time they play. Cheers.


The Sopranos prequel: My pitch for “Season Zero”

A couple years after The Sopranos cut to black, a comic book publisher had the idea to bring the series back in comic form, much like what’s been done with Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly. They asked me to write a couple one-sheet pitches for a “Season Seven” and a “Season Zero.” The idea soon died a cold death in a publishing pine barren, but here’s what I came up with for What Happened Before. (The Sopranos sequel is here.) Obviously, I don’t own any of these characters, et cetera, et cetera. Enjoy, ya mooks.

The Sopranos: Season Zero
Opening Arc: “Put Or Pay”

Pitch by Jay Busbee

Synopsis: “Sopranos Season Zero” will cover stories of the young Tony Soprano in the early ‘80s, just beginning to make a name for himself in the DiMeo crime family. We see the growth of Tony from young thug to made man, and we see the cost that he pays to get there. Throughout the series, we’ll also see familiar faces pop up in younger incarnations—Carmela, Janice, Bobby, Christopher, Big Pussy, Paulie. And we see the immediate precedents of the opening events of the HBO series.

Storyline: By 1982, the DiMeo crime family is well entrenched in northern New Jersey. All illegal enterprises, and more than a few legal ones—laundries, liquor stores, restaurants—run through the DiMeos, and the area’s living in a time of enforced peace. The centerpiece of the DiMeo family’s activity is the Camden County Incinerator. Built and owned by a DiMeo front corporation, the incinerator has a “put or pay” contract with all local governments—deliver a certain amount of trash to the facility every month, or pay up. (This is, believe it or not, a common practice to this day among incinerators.)

In the course of the story, we’ll meet the current ruling regime of the DiMeo family—Domenico DiMeo, the boss of the family, and the brothers Johnny Boy and Corrado Soprano. We’ll also meet the lower-level muscle of the crew—Vincent Iafrate (a previously unseen character); Silvio Dante; Tony Blundetto; Ralph Cifaretta; Jackie Aprile; and Johnny Boy Soprano’s kid, a burly guy who goes by the name of Tony.

The theme of this story is responsibility—responsibility to one’s self, one’s family, one’s crew. So we’ll be following parallel storylines. Johnny Boy and Corrado deal with their increasing responsibilities as lieutenants under DiMeo in differing ways; Johnny is growing into the role, while Corrado chafes under the responsibility and wants more of the glory. The federal EPA is starting to take a close look at the operations of the incinerator, and starting to ask some questions that the DiMeos can’t easily answer.

At the same time, the junior crew is craving more responsibility, wanting a promotion to the big leagues. One night, Jackie comes up with the idea of robbing the card game of Feech La Manna, a story referenced in The Sopranos series. Here, we’ll see that robbery play out, and we’ll see the consequences of it—the guys take their first steps to being made men. We’ll see here why “Don’t Stop Believin’” has such significance in Tony’s life; it’s the song on the radio playing when they get away from the heist, the moment when the entire world finally opens wide before him.

But from there, things don’t go so well. Corrado Soprano makes a foolhardy move, unleashing the young crew on the EPA and trying to get them to bribe the feds into backing off. Not only does the plan fail, it fails with blowback. When the bribery attempt doesn’t take, the younger crew decides to use muscle—and an EPA inspector ends up dead. This marks the first crack in the DiMeo armor, a crack that will eventually spread and result in the Old Man’s imprisonment, which paves the way for Jackie to take over the family—which is where Season 1 of the Sopranos begins.

The family decides that an example must be made, and orders a hit on Vincent Iafrate. Tony refuses to carry out the hit on his friend, but Ralphie gladly steps up to save his own skin and executes one of his childhood mates.

His friend dead on the floor before his eyes, Tony finally realizes the cost of the dream he’s sought. He spends a long night in Springsteen-esque existential New Jersey angst, finishing out at the boardwalk in a still-dilapidated Atlantic City. As he watches, cranes are building what will become a state-of-the-art megacasino. And he decides he wants a piece of that kind of action after all.


Is Tony Soprano dead or not? My Sopranos Season Seven pitch


A couple years after The Sopranos cut to black, a comic book publisher had the idea to bring the series back in comic form, much like what’s been done with Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly. They asked me to write a couple one-sheet pitches for a “Season Seven” and a “Season Zero.” The idea soon died a cold death in a publishing pine barren, but here’s what I came up with for What Happened After. (The Sopranos prequel is here.) Obviously, I don’t own any of these characters, et cetera, et cetera. Enjoy, ya mooks.

The Sopranos: Season Seven
Opening Arc: “A Warning Voice That Comes In The Night”

Pitch By Jay Busbee

Synopsis: Tony didn’t die. Not only didn’t he die, he beat the feds’ rap against him. But his Mafia family is in ruins, picked apart by the other families while Tony spent two long years in trial. Tony thus has the arduous task of rebuilding his family from the ground up, while trying to keep his home life afloat. And where’s Paulie?

Storyline: We begin with an image of Tony floating, weightless, in a full suit. Images flash before him, the deaths of his closest friends and family, significant lines from the moments of their deaths. We see Christopher, Ralphie, Big Pussy, Bobby, Livia, Adriana, and so many more who’ve died as a result of Tony’s actions. There’s a light above Tony, and he floats toward it…

…and surfaces in his pool, surrounded by friends and family. It’s a welcome-home party for Tony, as his case has been abruptly dismissed and he’s free to go. Everybody still alive after Season 6 is there and celebrating—everybody except Paulie, that is.

But the joyful mood soon gives way to hard-edged reality. Tony is just about bankrupt from the trial, and it’s only Carmela’s real estate that’s keeping them afloat now. The Soprano Family is scattered, with all the best soldiers swallowed up by other families. The Bing is a pathetic, ramshackle shadow of its former self. Most ominously, nobody quite knows how Tony got his case dismissed. Did he flip?

So the series will focus on two questions: first, how did Tony slip the feds’ grip? And second, how does he rebuild the Soprano Family with the eyes of the law constantly upon him?

The answer to the first is that Tony and his lawyer managed to make Paulie the scapegoat for all the Soprano Family activities, painting him as a rogue operative who went far beyond the bounds of legality. And while Tony was involved in plenty of illegal activity himself, the indictment specified only a few very specific counts—counts which Tony pinned on Paulie. We’ll see Paulie, sitting in a South Beach café, a Jersey expatriate, seething and vowing revenge.

The second is that Tony will try a different tack in building the new version of the Soprano Family. He’ll pave the way through some targeted “persuasion” of media and government officials to keep their hands off him as he tries to rebuild the family. But he soon realizes that he’s got a reporter on his trail—a young woman who’s interested in writing the history of New Jersey crime families, and wants desperately to nail down Tony for an in-depth discussion. She’s young, she’s beautiful…but is she naïve? And can she be trusted?

As Tony learns, freedom is far more difficult to survive than fear.


Ode to a redneck squirrel not long for this world

So I’m sitting here on my front porch, contemplating our fragile world in the rocking chair where I often sip bourbon, because dammit, if I can’t write like Faulkner I’m at least gonna cosplay as him.

And as the sun sets, as all around me is the bounteous harmony of nature, the crickets chirping and the birds trilling, there’s only one false note: the incessant crackle of acorn husks hitting the driveway.  Again and again and again.

I’ve got squirrels everywhere around me. I’ve captured a few trying to break into my house, and I deport them across a five-lane highway or a river where they have to deal with other, possibly racist squirrels.

But the ones that I can’t catch … oh, those little bastards hang out high in the trees over my driveway, throwing off their acorn husks like so empty beer cans. These idiots are just a GO JUNIOR away from full-on redneckery.

Speaking of which: when I was younger, I was playing at a neighbor’s house when his brother blasted a squirrel out of a tree with the cold, dead eye of a damn World War II sniper. The brother grabbed the dead squirrel by the tail. When I asked what he was going to do with it, the answer was simple: “I’m’a cook him up.”

We laughed and went back to doing whatever it is eight-year-olds do in backyards. We thought it was a joke … at least until we saw the headless, pawless, tailless squirrel bobbing merrily in a pot of boiling water on the stove an hour later. (The South, everybody!)

So, yeah, screw you, redneck squirrels. You don’t even get the goodwill bump that raccoons got thanks to “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Get down here and clean this mess up. I’ve still got my old neighbors’ phone number.

Robert Plant’s solo albums say plenty, though I can’t understand what

Here’s A.M. Shuffle, where I get the writing engine going with a few words on whatever pops up next on my phone. Today: Robert Plant’s “Burning Down One Side.”

Growing up as a middle-class white kid in suburbia, I idolized rock god Robert Plant because, obviously, we had so much in common. Each Zeppelin album was a freaking revelation,  and even though they were all available by the time I was old enough to comprehend what was going on, I’d take weeks or months to get through each one, wringing every cassette tape/CD dry to dive deep into the bass line on “No Quarter” or the yelps on “Trampled Underfoot” or the existential weirdness of “Four Sticks.”

Screen Shot 2014-08-16 at 9.39.39 AMAs for his solo albums? Let’s just say I was a VERY generous listener. I couldn’t understand why people weren’t digging on the avant-garde absurdity of Plant’s solo work (which reached its apex/nadir/whatever with “Little By Little,” an album which, by Plant’s own admission, has not one chorus whatsoever). Granted, Plant was in an uncomfortable position, as you can see from that photo — a classic rock icon who wanted to make NEW music in a post-punk era — so he pursued the strategy Dave Chappelle would use three decades later: do whatever the hell you want and purge those not willing to follow along.

“Burning Down One Side” is a perfect example of Plant’s post-Zep arc. This was off Plant’s first solo album, “Pictures At Eleven,” and while it certainly SEEMS like classic rock, it fits in that niche like a car parallel-parked the wrong way. Sure, it sounds like a distant cousin of a Zeppelin tune, but that’s mainly due to Plant’s voice; the dude could sing “Jingle Bells” and make it sound like a “Houses of the Holy” B-side.

This is more a product of ’80s rock, with synth drums and barely intelligible vocals and strummed chords thrown out like raw meat to hold off the charging we-want-Zep-back hordes (a crew which, it must be noted, has only increased in number in the ensuing 30 years).

Listening to this now, without the benefit of a cheap high school car stereo and a curfew to mitigate it, what I’m struck by is the lack of meanness to this. Much like when Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Dave Grohl made their own solo joints, Plant lost a crucial sinister element when he cut loose from Jimmy Page. Sure, he’ll still romance your mom, but he’s not going to scare you while he’s wooing her.

Plant’s still cranking out albums, of course; dude won a Grammy for his duets with Alison Krauss. And he turned down enough money to buy Mordor itself by refusing to tour with a re-formed Led Zeppelin. Even after all these years, I still have so much in common with him it’s scary.

Smashing Pumpkins and smashing pyramids

pyramidWelcome to A.M. Shuffle, where I begin the day writing about whatever music pops up on shuffle, and whatever pops into my head as a result. Today: Smashing Pumpkins’ “Zero.”

During the post-grunge/proto-emo bang of the 1990s, I was living in Memphis. This is a supremely weird city, a place where the kind of absurdity that would send most other Americans screaming back to the sanity of the suburbs is accepted with a shrug and a tip o’ the dry-rubbed rib rack.

Case in point: the Pyramid. Look at it. That’s a gigantic freaking pyramid in the center (well, just north) of a major (-ish) American city. It was an arena that nobody quite knew how to manage or run properly; the first night it opened in 1991, it nearly flooded, and pretty much every major plan hatched for the Pyramid in successive years (observation deck, casino, aquarium, external elevator) has failed. Now? Now it’s supposed to be the world’s largest Bass Pro Shops outlet. Of course. (It was also the centerpiece for the climactic scene of my most recent novel, which you should totally buy.)

Where were we going with this? Oh, right, Smashing Pumpkins. Anyway, I saw quite a few concerts and games in the Pyramid, some amazing (Memphis playing then-No. 1 Arkansas), some absurd (a Memphis Pharaohs arena football league game with actual camels wandering the field). When the Smashing Pumpkins came to town, well, I was there, brother.

Here’s one strange architectural element of a pyramid: while inside, sound travels upward to the point. That’s fascinating from an acoustic perspective, and nightmarish from a performative one. Sound from the arena would hit those walls and rocket straight upward, so that even full-volume concerts wouldn’t sound all that loud to the people and performers at ground level. Huge sound baffles hung from the inner walls did little to alter that.

You can see where this is going. Billy Corgan and the Pumpkins started playing, and Corgan is not the most, shall we say, forgiving of performers. He was clearly frustrated from what he perceived as the audience’s lack of response, and kept imploring the crowd to “make some noise. This is rock n’ roll.” Thing is, we were making noise; this was the 90s, and we were all about the atmospheric spacey mood-rock.

Corgan couldn’t hear it, and after a routine set stormed off the stage. And that was how he left us Memphibians, cheering our fool heads off for someone who couldn’t hear us. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Anyway, here. Listen and enjoy. Clap and maybe Billy will hear  YOU.

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