The Secret to a Happy Ending

“The Secret to a Happy Ending,” which will have its premiere at the American Film Institute’s Silver Theatre on Friday night, chronicles the life and impact of the Drive-By Truckers, a rock-and-roll band that may not enjoy fame on a mass scale, but claims an unusually potent connection with its fans. It’s a connection the film’s director, Barr Weissman felt first-hand when he saw them in 2003. One song in particular, “The Living Bubba,” frontman Patterson Hood’s high and mournful ode to a friend who had died, reduced Weissman to an emotional pulp.

Weissman, who lives in Takoma Park, had been working 80- and 100-hour weeks as a freelance video editor when he decided to take a break and see the show. And as Hood crooned the song’s refrain (“I can’t die now ’cause I got another show to do”), Weissman began to cry, right there at 9:30 club. He explains: “I think it says a lot about their art in general that they can do a song that Patterson clearly wrote for a specific person at specific moment in time, but that connects on a fundamental level of the human experience.”

Weissman decided to make a movie about the band after seeing them again the following January, courted them over the course of a year, began filming their concerts in early 2005 and spent a rocky two years fitting his own documentary between editing assignments. He also found himself buffeted by the ups and downs of the Drive-By Truckers’ own career, at one point being asked to leave a recording session in North Carolina.

“The Secret to a Happy Ending” honors many of the usual rock-doc conventions. It features interviews with DBT founders Hood and Mike Cooley, band mates Brad Morgan and Shonna Tucker, as well as former DBT (and Tucker’s ex-husband) Jason Isbell. It captures the sweaty fervor and sacramental devotion of a typical DBT show. It includes the requisite music critic (Geoffrey Himes) and academic (Temple University American studies professor Bryant Simon).

But, like the Drive-By Truckers themselves, “The Secret to a Happy Ending” doesn’t strictly obey the rules of the very genre it belongs to. Made by an unabashed fan, what it might lack in hard-nosed inquiry it makes up in conveying the ardor and near messianic belief that have made Drive-By Truckers a cult sensation.

Since self-releasing their first album, “Gangstabilly,” in 1998 and especially with their audacious double-concept-album “Southern Rock Opera” in 2001, the band has gathered legions of admirers not only of its music, but of its steadfast do-it-yourself work ethic, grinding out endless tours and selling CDs after shows. “The Secret to a Happy Ending” pays homage to the DBTs’ survival as a grass-roots, DIY operation; at its ragged best, the film captures the singular blend of grit, sensitivity, stamina and acute songwriting that have led admirers to compare them to Neil Young, William Faulkner, the Replacements and Robert Penn Warren.

The documentary also happens to chronicle the most parlous moment of the band’s career, when Isbell and Tucker’s marriage was beginning to fray and when the band itself seemed like it might not last. (Isbell left the band in 2007.) But its gravitational center is the fruitful and fractious collaboration between Hood and Cooley, who met in 1985 in Muscle Shoals, Ala. – Hood is the son of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bass player David Hood – and formed an early punk band called Adam’s House Cat.

Their close-but-distant relationship remains something of a mystery even to themselves. “This is our 25th year,” Hood says from his home in Athens, Ga. “We’re having our silver jubilee this summer, I kid you not. And it’s weird, because we couldn’t be more different. We’re total opposites. I think there just came a point in time when we both realized we respect each other. That’s the bottom line.”

Cooley, who lives outside Birmingham, Ala., concurs. “We tried to be roommates once and boy, that was a disaster,” he says, adding that while they’re terrific collaborators in the studio and on stage, “on a personal space level we’re daylight and dark.”

Director Weissman notes that the pair rarely speak when they’re not on the road; whereas Cooley is “comfortable in his own skin, being alone,” Hood is more gregarious. “He wants to do the right thing for everyone around him, and it runs him ragged,” Weissman says. Musically, however, the two mesh with uncanny ease: “For better or worse, it’s a perfect combination.”

And as for the title of his film? “I think persistence is the secret to a happy ending,” Weissman says. “It is for me, and I think it is for them.”

The Secret to a Happy Ending will be shown Friday at 9:15 p.m. and midnight at AFI’s Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Weather permitting, band members Mike Cooley and Brad Morgan will attend the 9:15 screening. Call 301-495-6700 or visit:

Fighting the Man – A NY Professor Refuses to Speak Starbucks

I have blogged a couple of times already about Starbucks and its use (misuse) of language, about how it creates a sense of belonging that customer pay for, and about “resistance” to this talk.
Well, a Columbia professor really didn’t want to talk Starbucks, so she got mad and railed against a worker. Eventually, she got tossed from an Upper Westside store. I suppose this was bound to happen.

The question is now what? Will she becomes this week’s Steven Slater, the Jet Blue flight attendant, who exited his plane after taking enough flack from a passenger and becoming a momentary national celeb? Is something else at work here? What is Professor Rosenthal really saying and doing here? Is her anger — against the worker — warranted or misplaced? (And why is there nothing about the workers in the coverage of the incident?)

Is there also an element of elitism here? (Am I defending Starbucks?)
Language has always been a way to create insider and outsider groups, right? Well then what is Rosenthal saying by not speaking Starbucks, by insisting on the company and its employees speaking “correct” English and correcting people who don’t speak properly — even when they are paid — not very much — to do so?
Also there does seem to be an element of the downmarketing of Starbucks in this story. In the past the company’s language stood for a kind of inflated sense of self and one’s class position, but now it isn’t correct or proper enough. Interesting.

And by the way, the story says that Rosenthal had run into “trouble” before at Starbucks for not saying venti. Fair enough, but why did she keep going back? It isn’t like there aren’t a number of really good alternative coffee (or bagel) options in New York where you can say tall or medium or no butter.
What’s the worker in this story — who is at this point remain silent — up to? Was she trying to defend the company’s language? Defend herself (or himself)– like Slater– against an overbearing customer?
Here, by the way, is the full story about the incident from the New York Post:
Starbucks’ strange vernacular finally drove a customer nuts.

Lynne Rosenthal, a college English professor from Manhattan, said three cops forcibly ejected her from an Upper West Side Starbucks yesterday morning after she got into a dispute with a counterperson — make that barista — for refusing to place her order by the coffee chain’s rules.

Rosenthal, who is in her early 60s, asked for a toasted multigrain bagel — and became enraged when the barista at the franchise, on Columbus Avenue at 86th Street, followed up by inquiring, “Do you want butter or cheese?”

“I just wanted a multigrain bagel,” Rosenthal told The Post. “I refused to say ‘without butter or cheese.’ When you go to Burger King, you don’t have to list the six things you don’t want.

“Linguistically, it’s stupid, and I’m a stickler for correct English.”

Rosenthal admitted she had run into trouble before for refusing to employ the chain’s stilted lexicon — balking at ordering a “tall” or a “venti” from the menu or specifying “no whip.”

Instead, she insists on making a pest of herself by ordering a “small” or “large” cup of joe.

Yesterday’s breakfast-bagel tussle heated up when the barista told the prickly prof that he wouldn’t serve her unless she specified whether she wanted a schmear of butter or cheese — or neither.

“I yelled, ‘I want my multigrain bagel!’ ” Rosenthal said.

“The barista said, ‘You’re not going to get anything unless you say butter or cheese!’ ”

But Rosenthal, on principle, refused to back down.

“I didn’t even want the bagel anymore,” she said.

The bagel brouhaha escalated until the manager called cops, and responding officers ordered her to leave, threatening to arrest her if she went back inside, she said.

“It was very humiliating to be thrown out, and all I did was ask for a bagel,” recalled Rosenthal, who said she holds a Ph.D. from Columbia.

“If you don’t use their language, they refuse to serve you. They don’t understand what a plain multigrain bagel is.”

A Starbucks employee who witnessed the incident blamed Rosenthal.

“She would not answer. It was a reasonable question,” the worker said.

“She called [the barista] an a- -hole.”

An NYPD spokesman confirmed that officers were called to the coffee shop but said he was unaware of anyone being tossed out.

More on the Cups

According Lori Brown at, a group of Starbucks shareholders wanted to see increased recycling efforts by the company. Only 11 percent of the shareholders supported the move at Starbucks glitzy annual meeting last month.

Higher-ups in the company apparently didn’t support this measure either. But they have been talking a lot about cups lately.

Again as Brown reports, Starbucks currently uses a modest 10 percent post-consumer recycled fiber content in its cups, though these cups are mostly not recyclable. Starbucks has committed to making its paper cups 100 percent recyclable by 2012. In a few spots around the country, the company is already using recyclable and compostable cups and is looking, it says, to expand this program.

Starbucks, moreover, is working alongside the U.S. Conference of Mayors to understand the recycling barriers with the cups in an effort to ensure consumers have access to recycling opportunities. (A start on this front would be to have easily visible recycling bins in stores for newspapers, java jackets, and napkins.)

In addition, Brown writes, “Starbucks is currently preparing for its second annual Cup Summit. In response to its commitment to make its entire stock of coffee cups recyclable by 2012, Starbucks held the first-ever summit in Seattle last year, bringing together cup manufacturers, paper recyclers and employees among others to discuss the viability of cup recycling.”

Finally, Starbucks recently launched “the betacup” challenge, an online contest to engage creative thinkers in solving the disposable cup waste problem through open collaboration. Ideas can be submitted on how to reduce paper cup consumption, with $20,000 worth of cash prizes being awarded for the most innovative ideas.

Here are my five suggestion and they might not be innovative, but they are simple:

1 — Have every employee — barista/partner — ask every customers, every time she/he comes in the store for coffee, “for here or to go?” This would signal that there is a choice.

2 — Make reusable cups visible. That way customers will have a visual clue that they have a choice.

3 — Have some posters in the store, not about seasonal frothy products, but about the impact of paper cups on the environment. Point out the fact that Brown does in her article for instance. She writes and this could write up on a poster: “According to the Environmental Defense Fund, 20 million trees are cut down in the process of manufacturing paper cups, which could be used to power 53,000 homes with the energy used through our paper cup consumption.”

4 — Push the tumblers and offer a real discount if people use tumblers for their to-go drink. Currently Starbucks only discounts to-go drinks in reusable cups by 10 cents. This is less the cost of a paper. The company needs to really incentivize the green choice. (And just to show that this would matter, if only two customers every of hour of the day used their own cups, each Starbucks store could to save over the course of a single year 1,631 gallons of water and reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 226 pounds and its solid waste output by 252 pounds. And that is just two cups an hour.)

5 — Link up with Let people compete and see how much they are saving each time they take the reusable option.

Boycotting Starbucks Speak

Check out this scene in a faux Starbucks from Role Models – a scene about Starbucks language and protests against it. (

And here is another play on Starbucks order (

And another (

I heard this again and again during my research.  I call it boycotting the language of Starbucks. Lots of people have told me or wrote on-line that they boycott the company’s inflated, pseudo Italian language. “I sure as hell won’t say Venti or anything,” Scott Kinder wrote on his blog, “In fact, I go out of my way to say SMALL, MEDIUM, or LARGE.  I think it’s just a marketing ploy.”  When I first started observing Starbucks, a friend said to me, “Okay, I go, but I won’t say any of those stupid words.  What is it tall means small?  That’s ridiculous.” Since then, I have heard lines just like this again and again.  Brimming with nearly righteous indignation, another person told me, “I just go right up to counter and say, give me a small coffee.” Sometimes, I imagine these language boycotters ordering their coffees in simple, clear, everyday words with their fists raised like Tommie Smith on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. A $1 medium coffee, please, and by the way, stick it to the man.

But in many ways this is really a protest against corporate power and control, an attempt to gain an everyday advantage over big companies and their spreading influence over business, politics, and even words.  At the same time, it says something about the limits of our politics, doesn’t it?

To Starbucks or Not to Starbucks

I live in West Philadelphia, a mixed race, mixed income neighborhood, going through a long and uneven campaign of gentrification. This hasn’t been an over night thing, but since Penn built a public school in the neighborhood, property prices have climbed and some people have been pushed out (and priced out.) And a number of coffee shops, gastro-pubs and brew pubs, and BYOBS have opened to meet this demand.

But the neighborhood doesn’t have a Starbucks — the nearest one (three actually) is on Penn’s campus. Well at least there isn’t a Starbucks yet.

Today I received the following forwarded email. It is from a local listserve. The person who wrote this note owns a relatively new local market called Milk and Honey. This rather upscale store serves coffee and sandwiches and some prepared and take-away products. Again this is an upscale place and filled a spot occupied by a more corny storey, down market place called, and get this, “The People Market.”

A little more back-ground. This proposed Starbucks will open on the southern edge of the neighborhood, a bit out of the way, and it will be on the campus of the University of the Sciences. (And this store will probably be a franchise, not a full-blown company-owned Starbucks.)

So here is what the note said:

“Four Worlds Bakery just passed on the information below about a Starbucks coming to our neighborhood. Please join me to fight it! It is true that Starbucks is notorious for ignoring the wishes of its proposed neighbors but right now there is a clear opportunity to have your voice heard (whatever your opinion).

Personally, as a community member and business owner, I will do whatever I can to keep our area national chain free. The Baltimore Ave business corridor and the Woodland Ave corridor are just beginning to change for the better. With this growth is attention from conglomerates and the risk of growing from a unique “traditional” main street to a junk food – junk store strip. I would hate to see that happen.

Please read on and email USP or join me at the Spruce Hill Neighborhood Association meeting tonight.

Thanks Annie

The University of the Sciences is seeking a zoning action to put in a Starbucks at 42nd and Woodland There is a meeting at Spruce Hill Community Association (257 S. 45th St.) at 6:30 tonight (Tuesday); the Univ. is seeking the support of Spruce Hill for their zoning variance. Please come and be heard if you can. If you live in the neighborhood call Liz Bressi-Stoppe 215-895-1104 or email at; Liz is the public relations rep for the University and wants to hear your opinions.”

[Unfortunately, I can’t atten this meeting, though I will report back on what I hear.]


And I wanted to also share an edited note/rejoinder from a neighbor. An interesting response and take on development and patterns of investment: At this point, I think I’m basically just in favor of development in University City, Starbucks or otherwise. Compared to other Philadelphia neighborhoods where you pay half a million dollars for a house, the array of choices for my eating and shopping without getting into a car are disappointingly limited, even if they’ve improved over the past few years. I suspect a Starbucks would help telegraph to the wider world of potential businesses that this is a profitable place to open up. Which might, just maybe, mean that we’ll be able to leverage their generic storefront for, say, a new bar that could compete with 44, or a non-BYO restaurant, etc etc.

And there’s nothing more grating to me than to hear people idolize the status quo—where large chunks of Baltimore are ugly and many of its storefronts are places I never go into—as some sort of stick-it-to-the-man ideal. Gimme a break. Wanna know how to stick it to the man? Build a neighborhood where I don’t have to get in my car as often.

More practically, though, I think Annie has nothing to worry about. Woodland at 42nd is the USP campus. I can’t imagine going to a campus Starbucks there any more than I can imagine going to the one on Penn’s campus. Maybe it’ll eat into her student business a bit, but I can’t imagine a whole lot of impact on her business or that of the other coffee joints. True, we may be reaching coffee shop saturation, but that’s not Starbucks’ fault any more than anyone else’s.

The Hangover

Coffee can’t cure a hangover says my colleague Thomas Gould.  See what he has to say in the New York Post:

“Coffee may reduce the sedative effects of alcohol, which could give the false impression that people are not as intoxicated as they really are,” Thomas Gould, PhD, of Temple University told Gould added that people who have only consumed alcohol are more likely to feel “tired and intoxicated,” and more importantly, acknowledge that they’re drunk.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal “Behavioral Neuroscience,” first compared the drunk behavior of mice to that of mice given only a saline solution. The drunk and sober mice were tested on their ability to learn a maze while trying to avoid bright lights or sounds. The drunk mice did significantly less well.

After being drunk, the mice were given the equivalent of six to eight cups of coffee. While the caffeine and alcohol combination seemed to make the mice less anxious, it failed to reverse the negative effects that alcohol had on them learning the maze.

Alcohol also calmed the “caffeine jitters,” reports, which made the mice less able to avoid potential threats.

In a press release, Gould concluded that “the bottom line is that, despite the appeal of being able to stay up all night and drink, all evidence points to serious risks associated with caffeine-alcohol combinations.”

By Bryant Simon.