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MONSTERS, INC.

Lady Gaga brought her Born This Way Ball to Toyota Center January 31.

Lady Gaga knows what the people want, and she gives it to them. She knows that some people just come for the spectacle, so she brings along a giant gothic castle and a variety of strange props to go with it. She knows people want to hear the hits, so they're dished out regularly.

She knows that the little monsters want to hear the gospel of Gaga and so she preaches about being brave, being yourself, and not taking any shit anymore.

It's visually stimulating and emotionally stirring, a guaranteed formula for sending most of the crowd home happy. It's so good that it isn't until later, in the car ride home or right before they fall asleep, that they realize that much of the show didn't make a lick of sense.

Lady Gaga's "Born This Way Ball" ...
Picture Group
Lady Gaga's "Born This Way Ball" ...
...includes the singer transforming into a motorcycle.
Picture Group
...includes the singer transforming into a motorcycle.
The Alley Kat has been spruced up a bit from its days as the Mink, but is still recognizable.
Matthew Keever
The Alley Kat has been spruced up a bit from its days as the Mink, but is still recognizable.
The author's daughter is still warming up to Iggy Pop.
Lynda Rouner
The author's daughter is still warming up to Iggy Pop.

Not that it needed to, of course.

Lady Gaga is not the world's best storyteller. This would not be a problem except that she loves to tell stories, from big epics about aliens and freedom to small personal vignettes about stargazing and perseverance.

She lucked out with her first large-scale tour/production, The Monster Ball. That story might have been silly, but it was basic and relatable: Gaga and her friends need to get through a city to get to the party, and along the way she fights a giant angler fish. This is something everyone can identify with; we all have to fight giant angler fish sometimes.

As for the current Born This Way Ball, it's the most bizarre self-help class you can imagine. This narrative begins with the Born Brave Bus outside the venue, and ends with Gaga kissing a random fan and telling him it was destiny; be yourself and the best things will happen.

What any of that has to do with the story line involving aliens and world domination and giant floating heads I'm still trying to work out. By the time she started playing an alien who happened to be playing Lady Gaga, I decided it was better just to zone out and enjoy the imagery.

Gaga was fed through a meat grinder. She gave birth to herself. She became some sort of half-motorcycle/half-human hybrid. They were all things that were visually interesting but perhaps intellectually vacant.

Now, here is a list of things that Lady Gaga excels at: writing excellent pop songs; wearing meat; singing and playing piano; merchandising; and interacting with her legion of devoted fans.

It's those moments of interaction that make her show shine. Sure, she does the same bits in every city, but she does them because they work and because Gaga genuinely cares about her fans.

Whether it's making a phone call to a random member of the audience or bringing someone up onstage to dance during "Scheiße," she knows how to create moments that make the crowd feel good and give some in the audience memories they won't forget.

I think there's a strong case to be made that Gaga could easily tour as the world's fanciest life coach. Maybe she could do two shows next time she comes to town: one where she comes out and talks to her monsters for an hour, building them up and getting them ready to face the world, and one where she destroys the stage with the power of her music.

It would be the best of both worlds.
_____________________

NIGHT LIFE

THE ALLEY KAT PURRS TO LIFE
In the Mink's old quarters, a new bar opens as a suaver sort of lounge.

MATTHEW KEEVER

'It doesn't smell like sewage anymore!"

Although a sign above the entrance still reads "The Mink," little inside this newly renovated drinkery feels quite the same. The layout is unchanged, but burgundy walls, low lighting and the soft sounds of jazz or blues now set the tone of The Alley Kat Bar and Lounge, the newest watering hole on "The Island" in Midtown.

The Alley Kat feels as though it has outgrown its awkward albeit charming teenage years, giving way to a fresh perspective on a well-liked nightspot that had deteriorated over time. The Mink used to have an allure all its own, but over the past few years it became seedier and dustier, and the restrooms became more of a risk than a convenience.

Nonetheless, many cried foul when news broke in September 2011 that The Mink had been sold. The new owners tried to branch out by booking different types of music, but struggled to find a new niche for the bar and announced their abdication in late August 2012.

Luckily, The Alley Kat has serious potential. It feels as if the Mink put on a suit and tie, kicked a few bad habits and is again reinventing itself while maintaining some familiar features that everyone loved in the first place.

"There's still some individuality that makes us unique," says new managing partner Kory Hinton. "The light frames when you walk in and the wooden bar are staples of the Mink...There are elements I would like to keep, but there are also [different] elements I'd like to incorporate."

Hinton hopes that keeping a few key elements of the Mink's former self will make the transition easier, but she also wants new business and is adding some panache. It's still a shotgun-style bar, one that could easily be overlooked as passersby drive down Main, but is now a suaver, fancier version of its former self.

That friend who lacked hygiene, whom you put up with because he had charisma and played good tunes? He has cleaned up, and is looking to party again. And yes, his restrooms have been heavily reconditioned: new sinks, new toilets, new floor boards, repainted walls, the works.

Hinton has a background with Ra Sushi, SkyBar and Gatlin's Barbecue, and even worked in retail sales for the Houston Press from April 2011 to April 2012. She says The Alley Kat's goal is simple: The owners want to continue to complement the neighborhood and offer an easygoing environment in which to enjoy a beverage with friends.

Open since early January, the venue doesn't have any firm plans for a grand opening yet. Hinton says they want to finish refurbishing the back building's bar and upstairs area, which she says will eventually play host to live music again.

"We don't want to identify ourselves as a club," Hinton says. "A club is a two-year business model, and we intend to be here ten years from now. We want to become a staple of the neighborhood, like the Continental Club and the Breakfast Klub.
_____________________

POP LIFE

GET WITH IT, DAD
It's no easy feat explaining how CDs work to a toddler.

JEF WITH ONE F

I was strapping my daughter into her car seat when she said, "Daddy, I want my favorite book."

She was pointing at the floorboards in the back, where a stratified layer of various toys, books and random objects she has demanded to entertain her during car rides and then abandoned after 15 minutes continues to grow.

The specific item she wanted this time was Iggy Pop's album Preliminaries, which for some reason continuously follows me into the car no matter how many times I've taken it inside. I handed the cardboard sleeve to her. Sometimes she treats DVDs as books because they open, so I figured this was an extension of that. I got in the front seat and started to drive.

"Oh," she said. "It's a movie, Daddy!"

"No, sweetie," I replied. "It's a CD."

"What?"

"It plays music," I said, realizing that she had never seen a CD before in her life. "You put it in a special machine and listen to it. It's how we used to listen to songs back in the old days."

Old days... Jesus, God in heaven, I have old days now. I took the CD from her and put it in the player. Iggy's languid pseudo-French cabaret attempt started to play.

"We could just use your phone," she said to me as if I weren't quite getting it.

"Believe it or not, love, phones used to just be able to call people. We couldn't listen to songs on them, or watch videos, or take pictures, or do Facetime. We used to not even be able to take them out of the house because they had to be attached to the wall."

"Really," she said. "Wow. So, we could watch Pinkie Pie on the DC?"
_____________________

LOST TUNEAGE

LOVE AND THEFT
Three famous albums that have been stolen.

JEF WITH ONE F

Songs are like babies. Some of them drop into the world with barely a push, while others require yanking out with a wicked set of tongs after a long labor. Generally the latter is more common than the former, which is why any musician worth his or her salt carries around some sort of notebook to keep track of ideas, lyrics, chord progressions and the like.

Sometimes these notebooks, laptops and even whole sets of masters get stolen. More often than not, that's the end of the project. If you're out there saying, "Why can't you just start over again?" then you've never really made an album before. Creativity is a capricious mistress that tends to answer every question with "No, nothing's wrong. Absolutely nothing."

If a musician loses his or her all-important records of creative sparks, those sparks are usually just gone. At least three albums have been aborted this way, all because of sticky-fingered jerks looking for a quick score and not realizing they'd hijacked someone's hard work. Sometimes it was honestly for the best, and sometimes it was absolutely devastating.

Let's take a look at what unbridled jerkery has caused.

3. U2's October (The Less Crappy Version): Ask any U2 fan what his or her least favorite U2 album is and he or she will probably say Coldplay's Viva La Vida (zing!). Assuming he doesn't, you'll probably hear him mock the Irish band's second album, October. It's just not very well put-together, nowhere near as cohesive as 1983's War or even previous album Boy. There's a good reason for that.

Bono's briefcase full of October's lyrics was stolen out of the band's limo after a show in Portland, Oregon, with the band due to record the very next month. Bono was literally trying to re-create the lyrics by writing them at the microphone during the sessions while producer Steve Lillywhite paced up and down glaring at him as the cost mounted. As a result, U2 refers to the recording as their worst studio experience, and the album is consistently regarded as one of the band's weakest.

How Bad Was It?: Pretty freakin' bad. Only a single song from October appears on The Best of 1980-1990, and even then only as a hidden track. It wasn't a strong album to begin with, and Bono having to improvise the words did it no favors.

2. Skrillex's Fourth EP: After Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, Skrillex was suddenly a household name, riding dubstep's wave of popularity. He was getting ready to make some more magic when two of his laptops were boosted out of his hotel in Milan, Italy. In April 2011 he posted:

"Just gonna set it strait. I had two laptops and both of my hard drives stolen out of my hotel in Milan, Italy last month. On those laptops and drives were all the project files of Skrillex. All gone now. Also I had a new album that is now gone too. I spent a week pulling my hair out but now I'm just focusing on the future and re-making my album."

He did eventually recover the laptops, but the hard drives had been reformatted for sale and everything was lost. A few of the works have turned up on YouTube, such as the remix of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" he was working on.

How Bad Was It?: Skrillex released his most successful commercial EP, Bangarang, less than eight months after the theft, so it obviously didn't set him back too far. He tends to take most things pretty much in stride.

1. Green Day, Cigarettes and Valentines: By 2000, Green Day had essentially become their own songs, burned-out and tired after having been on top of the pop-punk world for several years. Nonetheless, they soldiered into the studio in 2003 to record Cigarettes and Valentines. It was supposed to be a throwback to the Kerplunk days, but the point is moot as the masters were stolen and have never been recovered.

Faced with the daunting task of re-creating the entire album, the band looked at themselves and agreed that the work they had done was honestly not their best. Possibly because they were secretly recording their real masterpiece with Devo at the same time. In the end, the band decided to start again from scratch, and thank God they did.

How Bad Was It? Not at all. If no one had lifted the masters to Cigarettes and Valentines, we might never have heard American Idiot. Though the mass-media empire it spawned has become somewhat overblown, the album itself remains a brilliant punk opera that perfectly harnesses all the angst of George W. Bush's America.

It's heaps better than listening to Green Day try to reclaim their early punk roots at a time when they obviously didn't have the momentum or energy to do it right. The stolen masters have never been found, and not a soul cares.

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