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Best of the East Bay - People

Vince Neil, Ledisi, Mary Roach, Amani Toomer, Wall-e, Robert Hass...


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Next-door Rock Star - Vince Neil

Vince Neil; Photograph by Thomas BroeningWhile friends and neighbors in Danville know Vince Neil as a laid-back guy, rock fans recognize him as the lead singer of Motley Crue, one of the most notoriously hard-partying bands in rock history. The band, which has sold more than 70 million records, chronicled its tales of drugs, booze, and groupies in the jaw-dropping 2001 autobiography The Dirt.

Since the release of that best-selling tell-all, Neil married Pleasanton native Lia Gerardini, and the couple moved into a home in Blackhawk. Though Neil loves life in the East Bay, he’s back with his band of bad boys. Motley Crue just released Saints of Los Angeles, its first studio album in 10 years, and the Crue Fest tour will come to the Shoreline Amphitheatre on August 6. We caught up with Neil at home just before he hit the road.

What did the neighbors say when they found out the lead singer from Motley Crue was moving in next door?
[Laughs] Our next-door neighbors are great friends. The kids in the area like me because I cruise around in a flamin’ ’57 Chevy golf cart.

Do you get spotted around town?
People who don’t know I live out here look at me and say, “Damn, that looks just like Vince Neil.” I was buying lightbulbs at the hardware store yesterday, and a guy said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I live here, dude.”

Where did you meet Lia?
We met when I was playing the Concord Pavilion. She was up in the grass area with her friends. Somehow she got through like nine security checkpoints and worked her way into the front row. I made sure she got a backstage pass.

And MC Hammer performed your wedding ceremony?

He officiated it, but we also had a judge there. [Hammer] has been a great friend for a long time. He’s not a priest, but he’s an ordained … minister? Something like that.

I imagine you’re the only guy on your block who owns a tattoo parlor on the Strip in Vegas. How’s that going?
Amazing. We’re open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. We’re opening another one in Tulsa, one in New Orleans, and another in Las Vegas soon.

How many tattoos do you have?
I have a lot. They’re all blended together into the same one, so it’s like six altogether. My two arms, my two legs, my chest, and my back.

I know a lot of people—not just rock fans—who devoured the Motley Crue autobiography, The Dirt. Were you surprised when it became a best-seller?
I don’t know if I was surprised—it’s a good book. It’s a truthful book, and people like to read about the truth. A lot of autobiographies gloss over the bad stuff. In our book, we did not gloss over those bad things that you did in your life. If you f***ed up, well, no excuses. I think that’s one reason it
did so well.

I was particularly moved by the section about the death of your five-year-old daughter, Skylar, who passed away from cancer in 1995. Tell us about the foundation you started in her name.
After Sklyar passed, I had to find a way to get back, to do some good and not let her name die. It took about a year to get it started. We have the Skylar Neil Memorial Golf Tournament, which has raised millions. And, there’s the Motley Cruise, which benefits the foundation. We’ve been doing that for two years. I wanted to put together a cruise for rock ’n’ roll fans—rock concerts on boats going to cool destinations. The cruise goes from Key West to Cozumel, and there’s a concert on the beach when we get there.

Lia runs the foundation now. She decides where the money is going to go. Animal shelters and ranches for underprivileged kids. It’s very fulfilling to watch money being spent this way.

Motley Crue’s new album is just hitting record stores this month. What was it like to record with the band again?
It’s just a great record, the best one we’ve ever done. If you’ve read The Dirt, these songs are all about stories that happened in the book. “Saints of Los Angeles,” the song, is about the time we signed a 10-year deal for $100 each. “Face Down in the Dirt,” “Down at the Whiskey”—you’ll get the references from the book.

Making records is different now than when we first started. Technology with recording is so nice. You don’t stay up all night in the recording studio hashing out the songs, like in the old days. The way this album was done, Tommy [Lee] did all of his drums at his house. Nikki [Sixx] did all his bass at his house, Mick [Mars] did his guitars at his house, and then I went to the producer’s house and did the vocals. It ends up being a lot better. We keep adding layers, like frosting to the cake.

You’ll be back out on the road this summer. What’s the difference between a 2008 tour and those from the band’s early years?
We didn’t have any money when we first left L.A. in 1982. We borrowed somebody’s station wagon; the road crew rode in the U-Haul truck. Everybody stayed in the same hotel room. It’s a little different these days. We can afford to tour comfortably now. We go out and have fun, and whatever happens, happens. We’ll do 180 shows in this tour, and tour the world twice.

What are your favorite East Bay spots?
You know what I love? Hot Summer Nights in Danville [the annual car show held through July and August]. I was going to that before we lived here. I think it’s just the coolest thing ever. —Peter Crooks

Left-Wing Talk Machine - Rachel Maddow

Rachel Maddow; Photograph courtesy of Air AmericaEveryone is talking politics this year—but probably no one as much as Rachel Maddow. The East Bay native is a political analyst who appears daily on MSNBC’s Race for the White House, hosts a national radio show each weeknight, and appears frequently as a pundit on Countdown With Keith Olbermann and occasionally on Hardball With Chris Matthews.

Maddow, a Castro Valley High alum, received her undergrad degree from Stanford, then won a Rhodes Scholarship and earned a Ph.D. in political science from Oxford University. After years of rabble-rousing as an AIDS activist, Maddow, 35, helped launch the progressive Air America Radio network in 2004 and now hosts the Rachel Maddow Program, which airs weeknights from 7 to 9 p.m. on Green 960AM.

You have a national radio show, a cable news show, and, of course, a blog. How do you fit it all in?
I have the greatest job description in the world. I get paid to talk about what I think. But, there is a lot of work. I prep for six hours—more than I need to be doing—but I feel like I need to be able to choose stories wisely. It’s the most creatively rewarding part of my job: looking at the universe of news and deciding what’s the best stuff to talk about today.

From 6 to 9 p.m., I’ll do maybe four different kinds of media that all happen live and involve me sprinting from place to place. From 6 to 7 p.m., I’m in the Race for the White House studio, and the audio portion of that show is simulcast as a radio broadcast for my radio show. At 7 p.m., I have a six-minute window in which I have to run from the Race for the White House studios in Rockefeller Center using a fire staircase to get to a radio booth from which I broadcast my radio show from 7 to 9—unless I’m on Keith Olbermann’s show from 8 to 9. If I do that, I figure out at which point I need to hand off the radio show to my cohost, get downstairs to the first floor of Rockefeller Center on 50th Street, and run up Sixth Avenue to get to Keith Olbermann’s studio on 48th Street to do his show.

I listen to a lot of talk radio when I’m commuting. I’ve noticed, in the famously liberal Bay Area, there are a ton of right-wing radio shows on the public airwaves.
Conservative talk radio cleans up in the ratings in the Bay Area. It’s bizarre. Michael Savage has his home base in the Bay Area. There are a lot of people listening to his show in the Bay Area who can’t possibly share his politics.

This year’s Democratic nominee race has been incredibly contentious. Has it been fun to cover, or exhausting and infuriating?
Yes. It has been fun to cover and exhausting and infuriating. [Laughs.]

When I get on TV, I’m not a host, I’m just a panelist. And, while no one tells me what to say, they get to choose what it is that I get to talk about. What everybody gets to talk about in the media right now is horse race stuff, which is, more often than not, petty. The truth of the horse race is really boring: Democratic power brokers have to weigh in and let the superdelegates decide. There’s no way to cover that in an exciting, scandal-ridden way. It ends up making me feel like a teenager at an adult function, like I should set off a stink bomb in the back of the room and run out giggling.

What will the general election be like?
I think that John McCain is starting the general election with a huge head start. This head start has two components. One is that McCain has the incredible affectionate relationship with the national media that seems to be impermeable. Two: For the Democrats, by not being able to pick a nominee until so long after the Republicans picked their nominee, every passing day was an additional head start for McCain to be the unifying party, defining himself to his voters, and for the Democratic candidate to be defined by the Republicans in an unfriendly way for the electorate. The Democrats could not do anything more to hand this to John McCain than they have already done.

Do you ever get away from politics? Like, are you going to see the new Batman movie this summer?

I’ll sleep and watch movies after November. I do have a week of vacation scheduled in June—but “ha ha” is written through those days on my wall calendar. —Peter Crooks

The Tao of Leonardo - Fritjof Capra

Fritjof Capra; Photograph courtesy of Fritjof CapraIn five best-selling books over the last 30 years—The Tao of Physics most famous among them—Berkeley writer Fritjof Capra has helped shape the scientific and philosophical foundation of the modern green movement. In his latest book, he takes what seems a detour, looking back 500 years to the life of Leonardo da Vinci.

A sweet assignment, to be sure: Go to Tuscany, London, and Los Angeles. Explore ancient villages, visit museums, look at exquisite art. But, as Capra finds, Leonardo is about more than Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, more even than The Da Vinci Code. In The Science of Leonardo, Capra paints his subject as a researcher and inventor centuries ahead of his time, a visionary whose spirit of innovation and respect for nature could set an example for our own era.

“At a time when ecological sustainability has become a critical issue for the survival of humanity, with global problems like climate change and species extinction and pollution … da Vinci’s science is extremely relevant,” says Capra, 69. “It’s not that by reading da Vinci’s manuscripts we’d be better able to solve the issues of global warming. But we can be inspired by him.”

Capra grew up in Austria and received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Vienna in 1966. He came to California a few years later, and his breakthrough came in 1975 with The Tao of Physics, which explores the nexus between science and Asian philosophy. Though criticized by some physicists, it was a popular success and has been published in 23 languages. Capra also wrote about green politics and sustainability years before the terms entered popular culture.

Seen through Capra’s lens, Leonardo emerges as a Renaissance superstar. Though not religious, he had a deeply spiritual relationship with nature. He was a vegetarian. He was, more than likely, gay. And, he knew everybody—popes, kings, princes, artists, and scientists.

But, Capra says, no researcher could match Leonardo’s creativity across such a broad range of fields. He solved the riddle of tree rings and gave a fair explanation of why the daytime sky is blue. He considered human flight machines 400 years before the Wrights. In his spare time, he was an architect and urban designer.

“He had a great awe and reverence for nature’s complexity and abundance,” Capra writes. “He thought that nature’s ingenuity was vastly superior to human design.”

It is an important message for us today and important for our children, too. Ideally, Capra says, kids could learn such lessons directly from nature, as Leonardo did growing up on a farm. Capra is a founding director of the Center for Ecoliteracy, which brings lessons of nature and sustainability to elementary and high school classrooms.

He saw Leonardo’s childlike sense of discovery in a moment of epiphany, while studying the rare facsimile edition of a Leonardo notebook at a UCLA library.

“There was a tiny bird, which he’d drawn on one of the pages,” he recalls. “I turned two more pages, and then there are three birds. Then more—and then you see he’s beginning to study details of flight, how they hold their wings when they land, or when they start. It becomes a whole treatise on the flight of birds. But it starts with a couple of birds that almost flutter onto the page.”

There is a message for us in that notebook, Capra says: If our culture can marry science with creativity and a passion for discovery, we can address our most urgent challenges. —Edward W. Lempinen

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