Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"You get to decide what to worship."

My Time Outside the Womb - Titus Andronicus (mp3)
Write Your Own Song - Matthew Sweet (mp3)

Is it possible to be haunted by someone you've never really met, someone whose work you've only marginally encountered? Can a ghost have just enough form and substance to gnaw at your conscience when you had no sense of the actual person? If so, I'm being haunted by the ghost of David Foster Wallace.

If you don't know anything about David Foster Wallace, you're not alone. Hell, prior to his suicide last September, the only thing I knew about him was that he wrote Infinite Jest, the scariest-looking book I've ever perused in a bookstore. It's the kind of book, the size of book, someone like me sees and thinks, "I'll read that thing when I lose all of my limbs in some tragic accident involving a deer stand and a gallon of rye whiskey." It's 900 pages (plus another 100+ pages' worth of footnotes and asides). If Stephen King's tomes are milk chocolate, then DFW's prose is triple-chunk German dark, so rich it's almost impossible to digest.

The March 9 issue of The New Yorker includes a fascinating piece on DFW (yes, like all New Yorker pieces, it's long as hell). The piece seems to suggest what I've been afraid to discover, which is that the man's humanity and his psychological struggles were even more fascinating than his writing.

Because I, too, wrestle with the timeless challenge of moving beyond a universe where I'm the center of everything -- Paragraph #7 of Wallace's 2007 Graduation Speech at Kenyon College, if you please -- everything about the DFW's writing and life feel like a giant, super-sized cautionary tale of wish-fulfillment for my own deepest and darkest imaginings. Intellectually, I am but a gnat stuck in the tail hairs of the ass of his Clydesdale-esque brilliance. My ability to structure sentences, to communicate via type what circulates in my synapses, feels infantile by comparison, as if I were trying to write in calligraphy with my son's diaper droppings.

Despite his brilliance and skill, most critics and book-lovers seem to agree that DFW was a highly-flawed novelist at best. "Ambitious" tends to be the highest praise he earns from most folks. His essays and "journalistic" writings, on the other hand, tend to be held in much higher esteem. One of his most-famous pieces, "Consider the Lobster," fills me with seething admiration for the man. His brain was so all-over-the-place, so schizophrenically filled with thoughts and insights and Ideas, that he really needed a concrete and finite subject -- non-fiction -- around which to focus them. The minute he shifted into the world of non-fiction, where he was required to make his own rules and create the concrete-ness, he got a little carried away. Methinks it must have been like trying to lasso a comet.

That I would dare to think I could even just barely be a sidekick to his level of capability, a Robin to his Batman, makes me feel like I'm moronically flying toward the sun with wax wings. Beyond my secret burning hope that I could even hold a slight candle compared to DFW's sky-penetrating spotlight is a fear, the fear that artistic brilliance of such magnitude almost always exacts a damning price on its owner, and more often than not the owners of such brilliance tell anyone who will listen that they are not artists by choice, that they frequently wish they didn't have the burden, the weight, the need to express themselves via paint or writing or acting or whatever medium pulsed through their veins. It's not a choice for them, but rather a compulsion, a driving aching itch that must eventually be scratched.

DFW's brilliance also came at the expense of his emotional stability. A man who by most accounts was incredibly empathetic and attuned and generally considerate, he was also constantly fighting to tread the waters of his own depressive despair. He wanted so badly to write things that offered some hope and shed some light upon our existence, all the while fighting desperately to convince himself any of this was worth doing.

I feel I share Wallace's penchant for rambling, for swimming (perhaps egotistically) in my love of language, for making stupid and wild references about which few souls could remotely care. I feel I share his struggle to rein in my fiction writing even while my goals and hopes are nowhere near as ambitious or fascinating. I've even begun to suspect I share a little of his emotional struggle, perhaps an amount precisely proportionate to my inferior level of ability.

I don't want to be David Foster Wallace. Of course I don't. But his spirit lingers, floating around between my ears and outside my window and in the music I hear. He's not the first artist or writer to drown in substances, in demons, in psychological turmoil, but he's the one haunting me at this moment in time, and in a big-time way.

Do yourself a favor and read one of those two links of his. You might find David Foster Wallace haunting you as well, but you'd be grateful.

Titus Andronicus' debut album can be found on iTunes, Amazon.com's mp3 site, or eMusic. Matthew Sweet's In Reverse, perhaps his screwiest most ambitious album of the 90s, is only at Amazon.com for some reason.

POSTSCRIPT: I shit you not, I went to Ted.com to watch whatever tickled my fancy right before I would go to bed tonight, and I stumbled across this Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) speech about creative genius. Totally serendipitous. It's 19 minutes long, but it's a beautiful balm to my panic, and I hope it made DFW's ghost smile a little:

Monday, March 30, 2009

"Apparently, with no surprise...."

Husker Du--"Could You Be The One?" (mp3)
Phish--"Good Times, Bad Times (live)" (mp3)

With little fanfare and even less revenue, this blog turns 1 year old today.

If you go back (why would you?) and read the original blogs, the original manifestos that Billy and I wrote, you will see that we didn't quite know what we wanted to do with this, though we had the bare bones of the idea--writing and music. What we probably tried to do too much was to try to figure out how or why we wanted to justify the title of the blog. That's my fault, a literalist slip on my part. I think Billy came up with the title quite naturally after a trip to New Orleans.

A year later, we find ourselves in much the same place.

Low points: all of the blog's low points are of a type. They have been those days when when our posts have mysteriously disappeared and that disappearance, often belatedly, was attributed to copyright violations of one sort or another. But we were never able to get the satisfaction of finding out exactly who had complained and about what song or picture. Sometimes, it has seemed pretty arbitary. I think one of mine that disappeared involved an obscure Boz Scaggs song that I put on there only to showcase the guitar playing of Duane Allman. I'm frankly surprised a) that anyone noticed and b) that they weren't pleased that I had dusted off that old chestnut in hopes of reviving interest in Mr. Allman (or Scaggs). Billy's "worst case" is somewhat more humorous. As you know, we do receive e-mailings on an increasingly-common basis that include songs that up and coming bands want us to hear. In this case, Billy had even exchanged several communications with the promoter/record company, who, in no uncertain terms, wanted us to post songs on our site. Why wouldn't they? Billy, who handles most of the reviewing, has a policy of only posting music he can be positive about. Anyway, within a few days, the post had disappeared. No explanation from Blogger, total suprise from the band. Ah, the whimsy of anonymous corporations.

High points: Well, I suppose these are easier to list. I'll focus on just the top ones, though. At the risk of speaking for Billy, the best days on this blog are when we put up a post that generates a lot of comments. And, to be clear, I'm talking about comments posted on the blog itself--not side emails, not passing comments in the halls of academia, not talk over the dinner table. Comments make it look like we have a regular readership, which Billy, our statistician, says we do. So, yes, we hope for, love, even cherish your comments and feedback (ok, even offline).

I suppose doing a consistent year of anything should be a learning experience, shouldn't it? So what have we learned? Well, again at the risk of speaking for Billy, we've learned that a blog is a cruel and demanding mistress. She really does not care what else you have going on in your life--sick children, 13-hour time difference, work, love and marriage, you name it--she still expects that you will serve her. Case in point, I am suffering from a bad cold and didn't feel like writing last night, so now I am cranking this out during a school in-service session.

I also think we've learned that we like a whole lot more music and kinds of music than we ever thought possible. With the exception of my occasional Springsteen rants (luv ya, Bruce!), we are rarely talking about what we don't like or don't listen to, but instead feel pushed, I think, to reach for even more music than ever. Do the songs always fit the posts? I think Billy does a better job with that than I do. Do we try not to repeat ourselves in terms of artists we feature? I think I worry about not doing that more than Billy does.

Finally, though, if I may be crude, a blog without readers is nothing but a wankfest! So if you stop in regularly, if you've dropped in occasionally, if you listen to the songs, if you don't, if you leave a comment, if you like to watch, if you love us, if you hate us, we don't care, except to say that we appreciate your being a part of the journey. So, thank you.

A couple of real world codas: 1) as a follow-up to my "man cave" post from a few weeks ago, as well as the general sensibilities of this blog, let me strongly recommend the movie I Love You, Man. 2) Since we couldn't get any takers on hosting our one year celebration, Billy and I will be at the Terminal with the blog credit card celebrating on an unnamed date at an unnamed time. We will be paying for the first 50 beers. After that, you're on your own. Hope to see you there or, better yet, here.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Critic-At-Large, Part 2

Television--"See No Evil" (mp3)

As I continued to search for treasures among the racks of the Jacaranda Public Library, I shifted towards music. As I’ve noted before on these pages, the cds are a surprisingly odd mix of things an older clientele would like and an always-astonishing selection of more modern stuff. I came home with a mix of things, a few of which I’ll dispense with quickly.

When I went during Thanksgiving, the “feature section” included a large variety of holiday music. This time, it was country. It’s only been in the last 10 years that I discovered how much I like Merle Haggard. When I came across his classic hits here and there, “Big City” or “Sing Me Back Home,” for example, I was pleased by both the quality of songwriting and the quality of the production. So I picked up his greatest hits of the 80's and 90's with great expectation. I'll say nothing more.

Though I know some music, I am often amazed by the encyclopedic knowledge of people much younger than I am, even students. It’s been over 30 years since I realized that my natural snobbery makes me late to the party more times than I’d care to admit. This has been especially true of music. So, there are things that I never heard simply because I dismissed them too quickly or because I hadn’t discovered them myself.

Wilco—A Ghost Is Born. There are three words that come to mind when thinking of this cd: repetition, indulgence, and noise. Oh, yeah, and a feeling of “we’ve picked up a hot guitar player and we’re going to show him off at the expense of pretty much everything else.” What a surprise that the guitarist is Jeff Tweedy. The first 5 songs establish an idea, usually a quiet one, and then exploit that idea for far too long, often with extensive guitar noodling. The guitar playing is idiosyncratic and experimental and accomplished, but often it doesn’t fit.

I was not surprised to discover that “Handshake Drugs” was the best song on the cd. It was the one that had appeared on blogs and on mix cds sent my way. What I didn’t realize until I heard the cd as a whole is that it is probably the successful realization of what they were trying to do on the rest of the cd. On this song, the repitition works, the odd guitar fills work, the good parts of the song go on long enough that I tolerated the noise at the end. “Wishful Thinking” works, too, because it has a memorable melody that emerges out of the beginning noise, a technique used on Being There more than once. And then “Company in My Back,” “I’m a Wheel,” and “Theologians” continue in the vein of semi-catchy pop songs, before “Less Than You Think” returns as another unnecessarily long non-opus (though the basic song is good enough).

A Ghost Is Born is like an overblown novel from an experienced writer who has become a little too comfortable with and self-assured of his own genius and who needs a good editor to call “bullshit” every once in awhile (or maybe a lot). If Wilco dumped the first 5 songs, they’d have had a fairly coherent, if minor, cd. The first 5 songs do not add to genius, legacy, or listenability. What else is there?

Television—Marquee Moon. By contrast, Marquee Moon is a revelation. Marquee Moon is one of those records you are supposed to have heard and worshipped in the middle of the punk/new wave era of the late 70’s. Somehow, it got by me, and once it did, I got past it, nodding like Donald Trump (who famously said you only need to know enough about something to talk about it at a cocktail party) when Television or Verlaine or Lloyd’s name would come up in rock conversation.

What I realize now is that when I was living post-college on a farm in Landsdale, PA with a nascent rock band called Peking West, the lead guitarist was attempting to channel the very stuff he had heard on this record—the flat, nearly garage band production with almost effects, the art rock solos and interplay, the New York vibe mixed with folk. There’s a little bit of Talking Heads here, but only in the sense that they probably sprung from the same New York tree. The instruments are natural sounding and small, the use of each instrument essential to the song, the solos effective and original.

Contrast one of Television’s longer songs, like “Marquee Moon (10:47),” with one of Wilco’s, and you experience the difference between a song that has organically developed to its natural length and one that was okay as a shorter song but is, quite frankly, bloated with a bunch of pseudo-artistic crap noise.

There’s no point in going through the tracks on Marquee Moon. Safe to say that top to bottom, it is quality rock and roll with a clear vision. If you heard that this band was coming to town, you would go to see them and everyone would be there for the unencumbered sound and the invitation to get inside of every song. If you listened to this over and over, as I have today, you would quickly latch onto favorite parts of songs, but not favorite songs, because they are all of a type, a vibe, each one remarkably different, but with the same guitar interplay. If you are like me and haven’t heard it, hear it. I want to say that it sounds like a Velvet Underground that knows how to play its instruments, that has nothing to prove because the band has already proven it to themselves.

Who knows why the gods have juxtaposed these two cds for me, but, in summary, Television was a band that already knew its way on its first album, while Wilco, critics' darlings though they are, seems to have lost its way much later in the game. Note to Mr. Tweedy of Wilco: the guitar serves the song, not vice-versa!

Television and Wilco are available at Itunes.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

America: The Tipless Iceberg

Best of You - Foo Fighters (mp3)
Welcome to the Factory - Backyard Tire Fire (mp3)

"They keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional..." These are the words of Mr. Incredible in one of the many scenes that make "The Incredibles" my favorite animated film of all time. If you want the entire marital spat, it can be found at the 5:00 mark of the clip below. If you don't wanna, and if you haven't seen the film, then just trust me that it's a great film about how our society doesn't particularly cotten very nicely to what is exceptional or special.

Oh, sure, America loves someone who is preternaturally gifted at throwing a round orange ball through a hoop. We love our athletes, with their gifts that serve to entertain us and earn them wild amounts of money, money they manage quite poorly (NPR). But when it comes to skills and talents that truly matter to our society as a whole, that could advance us or help us improve, we don't seem to give much of a shit about those folks.

When it comes to our children, America fights for mediocrity by calling it "equality."

The mother of two children, one autistic and one academically gifted, recently wrote a My Turn essay in Newsweek on the very subject. While her autistic son receives reams of additional assistance from taxpayer-funded initiatives and independent grants -- all so he is included with other children and provided "equal" exposure to the educational system -- her gifted daughter gets nothing. No arranging for advanced classes. No tutors to push her to what she is capable of if she surpasses her classmates. No funding for harder work, extra supervision, nada.

My wife and I had a similar experience with our oldest daughter in the fall. [Please note: This is not a "My daughter is the next Stephen Hawking" essay.]

All third-graders at her school took a test to determine where they fell on a series of academic skills. The test was to serve as a baseline. At the end of the school year, they would take the test again, allowing parents to see how far their child had progressed during the year. But here was the rub: on all but one of the criteria, our daughter rated at the top of the scale, and on that one she was a point away from it.

"So," I asked, "How will we be able to judge how much Carolyn has learned, since the only thing she can do with this test is go down?" The teacher kinda shrugged. She said there were a good half-dozen kids in Carolyn's class who had already exceeded expectations of this magnitude before the year began. For them, it was mostly about filling in some possible gaps, but otherwise, the end-of-year test would show us nothing.

We asked if she could be assigned harder work, or if additional work sheets could be offered, or if the teacher could suggest some books or other items. In no uncertain terms, the teachers answers were (1) No; (2) No; and (3) No. Not that the teacher didn't want to help, but rather, she was afraid for her job. Providing or encouraging additional work suggested that some students were more gifted than others, and someone in charge of her -- either from the county or the specific school -- had threatened people's jobs in matters such as these.

Part of me was suspicious of her honesty. Part of me suspected this teacher just didn't want to have to be responsible for arranging and doling out extra and different work for different kids. But either way, it's a damning moment for our public system of education. Either too many teachers are too lazy or uninterested in pushing all of their students to achieve at their highest levels, or the system itself aggressively discourages it. Either is shameful and without excuse.

Meanwhile, bigwigs in our local school system hold tremendous animosity toward schools like mine. We steal their smart kids. Public test scores suffer because so many of the smart kids go to the independent schools. While the Obamas were being excoriated for hypocrisy from pundits on the right for opposing vouchers, they were also being taken to task by pro-public school parents. How can Barack truly care about improving the public schools if he won't even entrust his daughters to it?

That's like suggesting I can't support regime change in Rwanda because I won't send my children there. Or maybe we can't truly support the military unless we make our children serve in it. That's some twisted, dangerous logic.

If you're below average, our society wants to help you get better. If you're above average, you're on your own. And if you won't feed your exceptional child to a system that has neither the time nor inclination to do right by them,then you're doubly damned.

In most ways, I consider myself a liberal. I believe we have a societal and, when necessary, governmental responsibility to those less fortunate or in need. However, when it comes to the nation's children, our obligation should be to all of them, to encourage and support all of them to go as far as they can reasonably go academically.

America doesn't want an iceberg. We want a long, flat, paved slab off ice that barely inches past the surface of the water and never goes much of anywhere.

"Best of You" is from In Your Honor, and "Welcome to the Factory" is from the exceptionally enjoyable album The Places We Lived. Both can be found online and purchased at a reasonable price. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Critic-At-Large, Part 1

South--"Better Things" (mp3)

Most years, recently, it is only during a stretch of days in Florida that I get the chance to do any serious, concentrated reading, listening, or viewing. There is an incredible public library system here, and one of the first things I do when I get here is to head over there to load up on books, cds, and dvds.

The library is eclectic in its offerings, but that is part of the fun. In the books, for example, I restrict myself to the newest releases, doing battle with the Oldies (our name for what I will be in the not-so-distant future) for the hottest reads. I usually lose. But there’s also interesting stuff that comes into a library that probably doesn’t make it into a bookstore later and that doesn’t appeal to septuagenarians now. A few cases in point:

The Suicide Collectors by David Oppergaard. This guy’s first novel that I picked up wondering if it might fit my “Perfect Society” course. Here’s the premise: the Despair has settled over the human race in the last five years, and triggered at first by a mass suicide in Tokyo, people all over the world have been killing themselves at an alarming rate until only about 10% are left. As soon as they die, these strange humans known as Collectors arrive to collect the bodies. When the main character kills one of the Collectors who tries to take his wife, it causes the first hint of resistance and leads to a diagonal cross-country journey from Florida to Seattle. Reminiscent of The Road, though obviously not written with the same skill. But very ambitious premise.

Bringing Back The Dead by Joe Domenici. Ok, so I like thrillers, but probably not ones as workmanlike as this one. There’s something intriguing about a clipped, military-style narrative for awhile, but when your book is all narrative, all detail, all military procedure, there isn’t any room for character emotion or depth, which makes for a very black and white experience. In short, after the disappearance of one of their former comrades, a group of retired Green Berets wages war against the bad family that owns a sugar cane town in Florida, a mission that they’re able to accomplish with incredible ordnance and precision and with no consequences of any kind. It’s helps that one of them has become incredibly wealthy (from investing in Ebay!) and can make all problems disappear. Bogus, even for a thriller.

King Arthur: Director’s Cut. I liked this movie when it first came out, even though critics skewered it. Maybe because I like Clive Owen, Kiera Knightley, and that actor who plays Horatio Hornblower. I know the history is all off (Arthur is a Roman citizen), but the action is good, and in many ways, the movie works like 300 before there was 300, comic bookish in its own way, but with characters who have internal conflicts instead of Spartan certainty.

7 Days in September. This should be compulsory viewing for all Americans. A documentary comprised of footage from 27 different amateur and professional filmmakers shooting on 9/11 and during the next 6 days, it captures both the events of 9/11 and the aftermath in New York City in ways that are so simple, personal, and profound (like a woman returning to her apartment for the first time, like a shell-shocked couple who escaped one of the buildings, like a disoriented bird) that if you felt distance from those events when they happened, you will experience them intimately now.

As one of the photographers notes herself, there is something vaguely comforting about watching these events behind the lense of a personal camera. It puts you right into the action but, with the gift of time, allows you a distance and a safety, even as you view some images that you have never seen. I suppose, especially on that first day, it's kind of like Cloverfield, only played for humanity, rather than horror.

One of the special advantages of this film is that because it travels among average people in all parts of the city for a weak, it captures the raw, conflicting emotions that we felt back then, even from the safe distance of a small Southern city. Those emotions are worth revisiting once again. They remind us who we were.

I’m headed back to the library today for more.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bachelorettes and the Men Who Love Them

Girls Just Want To Have Fun - Greg Laswell (mp3)

A few guaranteed experiences you will have if you spend more than 30 minutes on Bourbon Street after 8 p.m. at night:
  • You will hear "Don't Stop Believin'" at least twice. The longer you stay, the more you'll realize you don't like the song as much as you thought you did.
  • You will hear "Summer Nights" coming from Cat's Meow. It will likely be unpleasant.
  • You will see at least one pair of exposed breasts. The odds of them being attractive breasts are the same as the Cubs winning the World Series.
  • You will receive beads for doing nothing other than looking up at someone on a balcony who bought a bajillion of the things but whose standards for giving them out has become depressingly low for them, because they thought they'd be seeing a bajillion exposed breasts when there's really only three whorishly ugly women walking around showing theirs.
  • You will cross at least three bachelorette parties per hour.
In the name of science, I spent several nights investigating bachelorette parties, first in a purely observatory mode, and then one night immersing myself in their midst, interviewing key players in the management and staging of said party, and attempting to determine what outside factors can make or break the experience.

First, it's difficult to miss a bachelorette party. They're like flamingos in a hen house. All of them will be dressed in tacky shit, and the bachelorette at the center will be wearing a tiara or a veil. Her shirt will also say something original, like "Bachelorette." The other ladies wear shirts that say stuff like "Bridesmaid," or, in slightly different script, "Bridesmaid."

Second, many bridesmaids will have condoms pinned somewhere to their person. Frequently the condoms are fastened to their veil/train, although at other times they're pinned or taped to their clothes. Either way, something about seeing a woman spotted with a Coat of Many Condoms or wearing a Colored Condom Veil is neither becoming (ha!) nor comely (haha!).

Third, a direct correlation exists between the attractiveness of a bridal party and the bride wearing things like "Suck for a Buck." That is, if the bride is wearing a shirt with little LifeSavers on it and that text scribbled or ironed on, she and/or a majority of her party are quite icky.

Only hideous or socially clueless women would go to New Orleans -- a place where women frequently expose their breasts for nothing more than a $0.10 piece of plastic -- and expect a man to pay a dollar for the sole chance of biting a LifeSaver off the covered midriff of a look-alike from that Planters commercial? For only three dollars, some chick working in the bar 20 feet away will put a vial of some colored alcoholic liquid between her breasts and let you drink it. Slowly. Heck, the economy is so bad the strip clubs were giving away free admission like it was a government-sponsored bailout, so you can get a whole lot more from a stripper for a dollar than ripping a little LifeSaver off some nasty white wife-beater shirt. (Or so I've heard?)

After my fellow travelers called it a night on Friday, I immediately bolted for my chance to sing "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" -- accent and all! -- at Cat's Meow. Cat's Meow, the one true karaoke bar on Bourbon Street, is far and away my guiltiest pleasure, and on all three nights I snuck over there after my pals had retired to the hotel room.

Anyway, after my captivating performance I got adopted by a very sweet bachelorette brood (methinks my Gawd-awful brogue and the panache with which I sang "Dadalum-dadalum-dadalum-dadalum-dada" is what did it). These adorable ladies even rewarded me between verses by shooting my mouth full of coconut rum with their water guns. Because this group was fairly attractive and mostly nice, they didn't have on lots of bachelorette/bridesmaid gear, nor did they have tiaras or veils or anything. They wore little pink armbands and carried those wonderful water pistols. The bride wore a weaved cowboy hat with a pink band. And wore it damn nicely if I say so my damn self.

Instead of asking men for a dollar, they gave something. To the men they found amusing or entertaining or hot went several squirts of go-go juice. And unlike the clueless money-grubbing groups, these women were even polite and patient with the jerks. As one of the bridesmaids told me, "The ones we don't like, we pull 'em in close and shoot in the eyes." Brilliant.

Hell, these ladies filled me so full of coconut rum that I felt guilty for taking so much. Therefore I drunkenly decided to repay them with tequila shots... only to discover after the Patron was on the table that 10 semi-fancy shots in a bar on Bourbon Street runs $60. I threw up a little in my mouth at that point. But on the other hand, I wasn't alone in being generous with these girls. I bet at least seven or eight guys or groups of guys bought them drinks, all because the ladies were generous and sweet rather than guarded and covered in frappin' LifeSavers.

So, in conclusion, if you're going to go to New Orleans for a Bachelorette Party dressed up to be noticed, be nice to the guys who notice you. Even the obnoxious stupid ones. Don't act like it's some chore for you to tolerate the very men you apparently dressed up to distract. If they cross the line, shoot them in the eyes with high-test alcohol. If you don't want their attention, then don't wear stupid clothing, stupid tiaras and stupid LifeSavers.

(If that seems like an unfair sexist thing to say, then I can't wait to hear your opinions of Bourbon Street... but I welcome such commentary nonetheless if deserved.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Girls Who Play Guitars

The Pretenders--"Message Of Love" (mp3)

So, somehow, a few night ago, I got sucked into watching Dancing With The Stars, a show I had managed to avoid altogether for the first seven seasons and that I didn't even understand, in terms of its logistics or its appeal. But when the first dance I saw finished with the male partner sliding his index finger in the sweat between the breasts of his female contestant, I don't know, I decided I'd watch for awhile.

Now that I have your attention, what I really want to talk is Belinda Carlisle. She is one of the contestants on the show this year, and when they showed her, my daughter said, "Who is that?" in a what's-she-doing-here kind of voice. My response, "That's Belinda Carlisle; she used to sing for the Go-Go's," was as illuminating to her as if I'd said nothing at all.

That's fair, I guess. The Go-Go's haven't held up very well either. But thinking about them raised for me once again the questions: Why don't women rock? Enough. Why don't women rock enough? Why aren't there more women rockers? What aren't more women into rock?

I do not intend to be stereotypical nor do I intend to invite a litany of responses from people reminding me of some random woman here or there who rocks. I know they are out there. They're just in such an impressive minority that I can't draw any conclusions except that there aren't nearly enough of them, a point that was really driven home to me when I tried to create my list of......

The baker's dozen greatest female rock songs of all time:
(in no particular order--I don't rank them; I'm just glad they exist)

1. Janice Joplin--"Piece of My Heart"

2. Heart--"Barracuda"

3. Liz Phair--"Fuck and Run"

4. Jefferson Airplane--"Somebody To Love"

5. B52's--"Roam"

6. The Pretenders--"Mystery Achievement"

7. Stevie Nicks--"Edge of Seventeen"

8. Linda Rondstadt--"How Do I Make You?"

9. Miranda Lambert--"Crazy Ex-Girlfriend"

10. The Bangles--"Hazy Shade of Winter"

11. Patti Smith--"Gloria"

12. Fetchin' Bones--"Flesh Blanket"

13. Lone Justice--"Ways To Be Wicked"

I can just imagine you poking holes in my sad little list. Believe me, I had to work to get it; it didn't just come off the top of my head. Among my many problems with the list are these: a) I don't even like Patti Smith's version of "Gloria;" I just acknowledge it for its influence, b) Miranda Lambert is a country singer (but that song does rock); the same could be said of Linda Rondstadt who made a career move toward the "New Wave" during the 80's, but isn't really a rocker, c) two of these songs are covers, not original material, d) only four of these songs come from the last 30 years of music, e) I don't know enough of X's songs to have added one of them to the list.

If you yourself decide to engage in a similar exercise, I think you will discover several things. First, that many of the songs that you really like by women don't really rock. That may even be why you like them. Second, that the 80's, which would appear to have a plethora of female rockers really only have flimsy imitations--Pat Benatar, the Go-Go's, Blondie, etc. Sure, they have hits, but they don't have the thump, the punch, the crunch of great rock songs. Only Chrissie Hynde delivers the goods, at least to these ears. Finally, and, here's where you can help me, you may have several contemporary offerings to add to such a list that I know nothing about. I would appreciate that.

Maximo Park and The Pretenders are both available at Itunes.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

We'll Never Get to See Bathsheba...

Kings + Queens - Luna Halo (mp3)
Little Man Big Man - Toad the Wet Sprocket (mp3)

"If analogies didn't exist, you'd be incapable of speech or thought."

One of my former teachers and current colleagues once told me this when we were sitting in the school dining hall together. He meant it less to be cruel than to be accurate, because he's a bitter old history teacher, and that's the kind of stuff they say a lot. Usually with food crammed into their jowls.

And he's right. I walk through life in an analogous spacesuit. Everything I see, everything that filters through my eyes and then fires up in small electrical pulses into my brain, is searching for comparatives. It's looking for synonymous experiences as well as opposites. The more connections I can make between that on which I'm focused and other things from my storeroom of knowledge and experience, the more comfortable I feel, the more that focal item or event makes sense.

So, it broke my heart when I found out that a spectacular new TV show flopped with America's stupid viewers.

KINGS is NBC's noble and daring attempt to provide a modernized version of the classic Biblical story of David. It is as ambitious (and flawed) a show as I can recall on regular TV in a while that's not tongue-in-cheek absurdist (see: Pushing Daisies).

I don't particularly care how Biblically accurate it tries to be, because the minute they chose to use the story of David as a starting point, I was going to watch. Where they try to be faithful to the Biblical story and where they take gross liberties and go off on side tangents only serves to help me play the comparative sleuthing game of differentiating the two.

The fun of the analagous experience aside, it doesn't hurt that the show has one of the most captivating and powerful acting presences in the last decade of television. Ian McShane, better known to his adorers like myself as Al Swearengen from HBO's uber-vulgar western "Deadwood," has been handed yet another dream role, this time that of King Saul -- er, King Silas, ruler of a modern American-esque (but smaller) country facing war with neighboring countries and all the other crap modern countries face -- health care crises and the like.

Silas is a stone cold king with a heart the size of the Grinch's. And those who know the original story know Silas will grow increasingly unstable -- mad, if you will -- in the storyline's arc. He'll feel increasingly threatened by David's rise. Silas will resent the fact that God has deserted him in favor of a prettyboy who has nailed his daughter and quite possibly his son as well. (Oh yeah, the show's gonna have fun with the Nancyboy version of Jonathan.)

If it fails to survive a single season, its failure will only signal how great a show it could be. How could I make such a conclusion, you ask? My So-Called Life. Freaks + Geeks. Firefly. Undeclared. Profit. Wonderfalls. Briscoe County Jr. American Gothic. Invasion. All of these shows failed to survive for a second year, and while some are far better than others, all of them are vastly better than most of the tripe that makes the cut. According to Jim has managed to exist for eight seasons and counting. Violate me with a hot branding iron if anyone fondly recalls that show or even remembers it at all by 2020.

Unfortunately, the Big Four Networks have painted themselves into a corner. Shows like Mad Men or The Shield or Breaking Bad or Damages, as awesome as all of them are, would never have succeeded on a big network. These shows needed momentum and a little wiggle room for un-family friendliness. They required patience from viewers and network bosses. They needed to be on networks that weren't itching to cancel at the slightest downward turn in popularity.

Unfortunately Kings is on a major network. It was doomed before the first script was finished, because it required a willingness to suspend disbelief, a patience in figuring out the plot, and the slightest bit of interest in biblical history. To ask America to watch such a show is like asking Ann Coulter to French kiss Katy Perry on national television.

But when Kings comes out with "The Complete Series" on DVD -- sooner than later, it would seem -- I highly recommend it.

Both songs can be found on Amazon.com and iTunes.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Whip Me Beat Me Call Me Your B**ch!

Wounded - Third Eye Blind (mp3)
Beat on the Brat - Ramones (mp3)

In vino veritas.

"In wine, truth."

When we drink to excess, sometimes we're not wise enough to keep from saying stuff we probably shouldn't say. And here's basically what I sat at a bar tonight and told two very die-hard Cubs fans: "Die-hard Cubs fans are worse than abused spouses."

Now that I've had a few hours to contemplate my statement... well, I'm not remotely ashamed of it. In fact, I'm pretty proud.

Here we are, as a society, judging Rihanna for going back to that dillweed Chris Brown, who beat the crap out of her for God-knows-what and God-knows-why, and we stand around our water coolers discussing how pathetic she is, and how sad her life must be that she would stand by a guy like that. Meanwhile, half of Boston's teens think Rihanna asked for it.

And we should. We should have that conversation. Because something's wrong when a talented, beautiful woman can't break away from a man who disfigures her. If nothing else, it insults and devalues passive and kind geeks like me who go their whole lives without throwing a single punch at anyone, even dudes who really really deserve it (if only they wouldn't punch back).

As pissed off and activated as Oprah might be about this crap, you know who gets even more up in a dander about Rihanna? Geeks. Meek good and decent guys who have limits and live humble decent lives. We get pissed off. Waaaay pissed off. And we should be. It ain't right that the Chris Browns of the world get the girl and the gold while we're off to the side, spitting sand out of our mouths.

Here we are, fighting for every dollar, devoting our lives to whatever meager existence we can eke out and doing our best not to gripe too much about it. We're making ends meet. Getting by. Playing by (most of) the rules.

And then there's Chris Brown. The only reason we know his name, aside from the fact that it's a generic boring terrible name, is that he's had a few hits that some songwriters and producers crafted, to which they've superglued his face. Chris Brown is Heidi Klum with less attractive breasts and a better voice. He's a Simon Cowell-endorsed gigolo.

But then you have these Cubs fans. They might not be all that pissy about what's happened to Rihanna, but if you were to ask their opinion, 99.5% of them would say she's a stupid b*#ch for going back to the guy. And their reaction would make perfect sense, becuase she's a stupid b*#ch for going back to the guy (if indeed she has, which is apparently in question).


How about you follow up that question to a Cubs fan by asking this: Why are you a Cubs fan?

And just listen to 'em. They'll go on forever with all these great reasons. The tradition. The history. The ballpark. The faithfulness of sitting in those stands, decade after decade, never winning a title, constantly being hapless and hopeless but never giving up hope. Hell, last night, a Cubs fan and frequent reader of this blog made this statement, "Everyone is sick of the Red Sox. They're just like the Yankees now. The Cubs are the only place you'll find the true fans."

The fan who offers these sad excuses is Rihanna, except exponentially more pathetic. They might as well say "I fell down the stairs" or "He swears he loves me and won't ever hit me again."

For more than a century, the Cubs have shit on their fans. The Cubs have beaten their fans about the face, crotch, chest, ribs, arms and legs. Cubs fans have so many bruises and scars on them that it's a wonder they can leave the house without wheelchairs and Hospice nurses. And rational people like me want to feel sorry for them. We want to pity them, because they love the Cubs, and that's kinda pitiful.

But here's what Cubs fans do. They tell you how proud they are. They wear their bruises and scars with pride. They act like they're special because they've been bruised and beaten worse than other fans.

These dudes... they mock Rihanna. Rihanna got beaten ONCE. ONE FUCKING TIME. Chris Brown had a bad moment and unleashed his knuckles in her face for a few minutes. Meanwhile, the Cubs and their owners and managers and players have been punching and kicking and spitting on their fans for more than a century -- more than a century!!! -- and their fans stand firm.

Cubs fans talk about being tried and true like it's something special. Cubs fans don't wonder when to jump ship lest it seem disloyal. Meanwhile, the Florida Marlins have won two World Series and can't sell out half their stadium. Now you tell me, why do the Cubs deserve more loyalty than the Marlins? Why should anyone continue to be loyal to an entity that not only doesn't care about them, but beats them senseless and takes their money without the slightest sense of guilt?

Detroit Lions fans at least know not to be proud of it. They're fans, but they're humbled and ashamed. Their team sucks, and they know it, and they don't go bragging about it like sucking is something special. Cubs fans could learn something from those folks.

And Rihanna, baby? Call me if you want to be treated well by a geeky older guy who wouldn't harm a hair on your head.

(Oh yeah, and, um, I'll introduce you to my wife... and I can't promise that she'll be so nice...)

Both of these songs can be purchased through iTunes or Amazon.com. But Cubs fans probably won't buy them 'cuz they'd rather spend time bragging about how loyal and awesome they are with a steel-tipped cleet grinding around in their jaw.

Monday, March 16, 2009

"The Horror! The Horror!"

Eric Clapton--"After Midnight" (mp3)
Yo La Tengo--"Black Flowers" (mp3)

It had been a long time since I had seen a contemporary horror movie when I decided to put The Midnight Meat Train atop my Netflix cue. I can't really even remember why--someone had praised it for some reason, someone had said it was destined to become a cult classic, something like that.

"Sounds like a porno," my daughters said.

"Sounds like a porno," my students said.

Well, it wasn't a porno, at least not a sexual one, but I still watched only 45 minutes of it before I realized that I wasn't going to achieve any satisfaction. Basic plot: this photographer, eager to develop at grittier style at the behest of a critic, starts hanging out in the subways at night and stumbles upon a well-dressed butcher (literally) who, each night, slaughters everyone on a subway car. Photographer gets in deeper, as does hot girlfriend, with ironic/tragic results that you could never have expected. Let's just say that humanoids are involved. I should have known. The story was written by Clive Barker, after all, the mind behind the Hellraiser series that I had put out of my mind.

I probably also should have known because the last time I checked in on the horror genre was for one of the Final Destination flicks in a motel room a couple of years ago. Okay, so you can't cheat fate and whatever you try is only going to play into fate's hand. I get it. And, I also had a disappointing experience with Scott Smith's second book, The Ruins, a book Stephen King called "the best horror novel of the new century" and that I call "the worst book I've ever read."

In short, here's my problem: unlikable characters stumble into a situation from which they can't possibly escape, and for most of the time, they don't really even try, until a desperate attempt at the end when they are quickly and efficiently dispatched with, setting up a situation where others who come looking for them will end up in the exact same situation.

When examined with that wide lens, the plot of The Ruins fits a lot of horror novels and films. In The Midnight Meat Train, the characters are kind of likeable or (sometimes I get confused here) at least good-looking. Otherwise, the two stories, and the Final Destination series, and, I'm guessing, movies like the Saw series or the Hostel series (?). It may well be a weakness in me, but I do not enjoy that storyline.

Give me likeable characters, give them a fighting chance, kill some of them off, throw all kinds of ironic twists at them. That, I can handle, even enjoy. It's the Halloween movies, with Jamie Lee Curtis, that come to mind, at least the early ones. You learn after the first one that she isn't going to conquer the killer, but at least you know that she's going to make it, and maybe save some other along the way. Yeah, there's going to be some collateral damage, but most of them are going to be people who aren't clued in to what's going on, who get caught up in the path of a supernatural serial killer. But, Jamie, she'll get by with spunk and grit and wits.

So, I'm willing to admit that I am way behind the times. But what does it say that a whole genre of films is based on the idea that evil will triumph, that the next installment will offer not much more than more creative ways to do away with the interchangeable characters? I mean, I can handle the Ironic Universe that we seem to have found ourselves in, but when irony trumps any kind of hope, even in a silly, gory movie, you've lost me. Sorry to be so out of touch.

Clapton and Yo La are available at Itunes.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Something Infinitely Greater"

Slow to Speak - Superdrag (mp3)
Gimme Animosity - Superdrag (mp3)

Here's a cool dream.

You've built this band from scratch. You make kickass power pop with a lot of feedback and lots of "walls of sound" and some occasionally sharp lyrics. You had a brief shining moment in the spotlight in 1996, where MTV loved you and talk circulated that you might be the Next Big Thing. But then you weren't. By 1999 you knew you were only sticking around because you had to, because it would take the jaws of life to remove you from the stage and the recording studio. So you kept making albums, occasionally interchanging some of the band's members. And a core group of your fans stuck with you.

It was clear you were never gonna to fill arenas, never gonna make millions and roll around in it like Demi Moore in "Indecent Proposal," but you could cull together something minorly profitable that bordered on an obsessive hobby. And during this time, most of you got married and settled into some compromise between rock 'n' roll and domestication, which might include a few potholes of substance abuse or life crises along the way. But hey, what's a rock 'n' roll dream without a few potholes?

Anyway, in this dream, 14 years pass. You and your fellow original band members have just paid out of your own pockets to have a new album cut, and you've put your hearts (and plenty of cash) into it. And you plan for a kick-off concert in Knoxville, where your band was born. That night, a crowd of 300-400 people, many of whom had been fans for more than a decade, many of whom had to find babysitters so they could stay out for a late night to watch you, gathered around your small stage and cheered you on.

Pretty cool dream, right? But here's the kicker.

You're singing your heart out to a song you know the crowd loves, and you look over to the left corner of the crowd, and you see two gorgeous women standing up a little above the crowd and dancing with joy and abandon, like characters from one of those Charlie Brown TV specials. They're clearly friends, and they are clearly having the time of their lives. They love your band. They love you. Like, really love you, and not just in that fan-who-wants-to-screw-you-in-the-tour-bus kind of way.

They are your wives. You're married to these adorable women!

The music is in them. It's been in them for a long time, and even while you play and perform and soak up the moment, you feel them over there, and you know you can love music and a person at the same time and not have to lose one for the other. You might even know you can't even love one completely without the other.

This is the dream I imagined last Friday night at Superdrag's first concert in more than a year, a concert to welcome new album Industry Giants into the world. I saw lead singer John Davis' wife Wendy dancing with lead guitarist Brandon Fisher's wife Suzanne. These two women had probably heard these songs in hundreds of different states of being, some of which had to be not-so-great. And they heard them a lot. Like, a lot a lot. They probably heard these songs in their sleep... or maybe they heard their husbands playing these songs while they were trying to sleep. They've taken dumps and plucked eyebrows to these songs. They've managed temper tantrums and changed diapers to these songs. They've screamed and yelled and cried to these songs.

Yet here they were, more than 14 years after the birth of their first child -- Superdrag -- still totally in love with their husbands and the band and the music. Screw the millions of non-existent dollars, and screw the record companies in every orifice. If you've still got your wives on your side, and if they're still dancing to your music like no one's watching, then everything else is a bonus.

Impressing the remaining hundreds of fans out in that crowd is just the proverbial icing, but Superdrag impressed anyway. My neck hurts. My legs are a little weak. These are good signs. I can determine how much fun I had at most bar concerts by how much my head bobbed, how often I hopped up and down or rocked back and forth. By the time Superdrag had kicked into their pseud-encore with "Gimme Animosity," I was just lucky I didn't pull a hammy or anything from a constant pogo-sticking of energy release.

My buddy Andy, who has long run the band's web site, was kind enough to invite me for what became my fourth time at a Superdrag concert. I've always enjoyed their music, and their concerts tend to make even songs I'm not so fond of sound totally compelling. I've never left a Superdrag concert without listening to their albums repeatedly during the subsequent weeks. Their newest one has the flavor of Sugar in one part and of the Foo Fighters in a couple other places. It has more than a few reminders that John, the primary songwriter, is still very much into his own personal Jesus, but he's not going gently into that good Christian night, dammit. He and the band are gonna wrestle with some musical demons before they're done, and they sound heavenly doing it.

So consider paying a few bucks at Amazon.com (available soon!) or at their own web site and buying an album by a band that kicks out the power pop jams just 'cuz they love it. And 'cuz their wives love it, too.

If you want one more taste of their new album's vicious delicious, Spin.com has their new video for "Aspartame."

Friday, March 13, 2009

What Evil Lurks, Part 2

Fat Tulips--"My Secret Place" (mp3)
Fleet Foxes--"Drops In The River" (mp3)

And while we're on the subject of toilets.....

I know this for a fact: there is a toilet in the main building at school. It is the most coveted toilet on campus. Why? Because it is a solo toilet, most certainly a rarity at an all-boys school. Even if you are a woman at this school, you can fully expect that because there aren't many options for you on this male-oriented campus, they are going to cram as many female stalls in one location as they can. But for you, too, there is that most coveted, private, female toilet down on the first floor of the main building. Next to the male one.

So here's what happened: my boss, who pretty much runs the show, meets an appointment with a faculty member. At this time of year, he has every right to expect that this is a difficult salary talk, especially since there are no raises and because this guy should actually have his salary cut. So my boss welcomes him into his office, expecting the worst. What does the faculty member want to talk about? That most coveted, first floor toilet!

It seems that, unilaterally, the staff members who work on that floor, especially the technology people, have put signs on the doors of the toilets in question implying that they don't work. What the users of that toilet don't know is that a) because of a broken pipe, whatever smells you create are going to drift into the tech office and b) at least one person in the tech office is keeping track of how long you are in your "private" stall and what you have probably been doing in there. So much for privacy.

So, the faculty member is outraged. So outraged that he accuses those staff members of lying! He wants them to get, in effect, a faculty "honor offense" for not telling the truth and lying about the functioning ability of said toilet. You probably think he works in the building. You would be wrong. In fact, he walks from at least two building away to "make his toilet" in this building. Ah, the luxury of that private, one-man gastrointestinal facility. In some countries, people would kill for it. In civilized America, instead, you expect your boss to do something about it.

As for the rest of us, well, we have apparently become resigned to public toilet use. My bathroom is two doors down, has three stalls and eight urinals and is the main stopping point for students in the entire building.

Now, don't get me wrong, I can be a pretty private guy, but I don't have any problem with a public place. I guess I think, from years of school locker rooms and college, even coed, bathrooms, from years of amusement parks and shopping malls, that if I can just get into a stall and lock the door, that's all of the privacy I'm ever going to get or need. I think most of us, if we can just get a little space and four walls, can create the illusion that we are alone. I, for one, cannot imagine travelling across campus just to get to my "special" bathroom. Heck, even my colleague with a colostomy bag uses the public bathroom!

In the age of technology, I find that most males get into their stall and break out their cell phone or their Ipod or whatever and just make a pleasant time of it. Me, I play "Zuma" on my Ipod. But those students, they get in there and start texting like crazy. Sometimes, more troubling, I hear the rattling of papers--as in notes for quzzes that they are taking, etc.

Just like most every other aspect of modern life, the toilet outside of your own home calls into question issues of privacy and space and separation. But I think for most of us, perhaps Larry Craig excepted, the bathroom isn't a major cause celebre for privacy; it's just a place you make accomodations for when you need to use it. I mean, it isn't Camp Poop, where you pitch a tent and hang out. Cause if you play that "Zuma" too long, I mean, really get on a roll, your legs start to go numb and then when you stand up, by the time you wash your hands, your legs are so full of painful pins and needles from the returning circulation that you can barely walk back to your office without looking like you are 80+ years old taking painful, tentative step after painful, tentative step.

I haven't done that, of course, but I've heard that's what it's like.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

New Music from the BOTG Mailbox

Billy is not a music critic (Hell, he can't even hear the Springsteen influences in a Gaslight Anthem album), nor is he exceptionally gifted at typing in the third person. But he does love music, and BOTG has a dozen or so bands and artists sending free music their way every month. No sane music-lover likes turning away free music! So on occasional Sunday, he's going to offer his thoughts and recommendations on the better stuff getting sent to us. This isn't American Idol, so he's not gonna go all Simon on any of the stuff that sucks. (And let's be honest -- we've received some bona fide stinkers that you'll never hear.)

The Bottom's Top Shoe-Shuffling Aw Shucks Album of the Week:

Peasant - On the Ground
We're Good - Peasant (mp3)
Not Your Savior - Peasant (mp3)

Peasant is the one-man band nom de plume for Damien DeRose, and his debut album On the Ground is worth repeated spinning on the ol' iPod's hard disk.

When I describe his music as "pretty," that word comes with particular connotations for me. First, I think of the closing quote from one of my all-time favorite classics, The Sun Also Rises, where Hemingway's protagonist, Robert Cohn, is sitting in the back of the car with non-lethal femme fatale Brett Ashley. After putting him through emotional hell the entire book, she says, "Oh Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together." His response: "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

"Pretty" isn't quite "beautiful." For me, there's a serenity and depth in "beautiful" that never can quite make its way into the heart of "pretty." And "pretty" has this hurt soul. It's the kind of word you use when you can't risk letting her know you think she's beautiful. You look pretty in a dress. You look pretty in that lipstick. Pretty is fleeting; beautiful has more legs.

When I hear On the Ground, I feel a lot of that same bitterness and hurt that bleeds out of Cohn's concluding words. The lyrical misery comes floating along an airy indie pop acoustic cloud of guitars and simple arrangements, and DeRose proves himself a very capable sonic architect. He doesn't pack too much junk in the trunk, musically. Just simple and... pretty.

I'm most grateful that he knows to keep his songs fairly brief. His most epic song hits 3:40, but the majority keep a healthy distance under three minutes. I think if they were longer, it would start feeling too much like he was wallowing in self-pity. As it is, the 13 songs on this album clock in at just under 40 minutes, giving you plenty of melancholy fodder without invading your space for so long that you feel compelled to throw yourself off the nearest multi-story building.

Peasant's Myspace site
Link to Amazon.com's mp3 site for On the Ground

The Bottom's Top Pseudo-Punk Pop Album of the Week: The Steps

Loose Mind - The Steps (mp3)
Outlaw - The Steps (mp3)

A dash of Ash and a full cup of the Hives. A hint of Franz Ferdinand and a sprinkling of Cheap Trick. The Steps have cursed themselves with a very Google-unfriendly name, but they might be able to overcome that hurdle with a debut album that contains plenty of bombast. The most recent purchase I made that reminds me of The Steps is a band by The Blakes, a Seattle-based band that tromps through the same flowerbed and does an equally impressive job of it.

Lumping a band in with a lot of other bands always risks being an insult, I guess, 'cuz it risks indicating there's nothing particularly unique or original about the sonic powers The Steps take to the stage. Well, I simultaneously believe The Steps are entirely and proudly derivative but also made a damn fine album. If they wanted to make an original, they probably fell short; but if they wanted to make a fun, head-boppin', 40-minute rocking rollick, they passed with flying colors.

Check 'em out here...

Who Knows What Evil Lurks...

The Deepest Blues are Black - Foo Fighters (mp3)
Set It Off - Girl Talk (mp3)

I'm having a Bizarro Andy Rooney moment. Please forgive me.

Few things on earth are more awkward than taking a dump on a black toilet.

Am I the only person who gets weirded out by black toilets? When I see a black toilet, I think Area 51. I think aliens and black-ops conspiracies and that old '80s TV series V with the lizard-faced people and the dude who eventually became Freddie Kreuger. People whose houses have black toilets are either ashamed of themselves or have big smelly secrets to hide. There's no other explanation.

When we go #2, there's this standard set of procedures we all must follow. We must wipe the seat down or cover it. We must sit. We must do our business while reading an entire newspaper or drawing penises on some flat surface along with our friend's phone number and the times they're available to meet anyone interested in a good time. This is stuff we all do, so up to this point, everything's normal. White toilet, black toilet, mauve toilet, it matters not.

But eventually we must stand, and eventually we must wipe, and that's when black toilets mess with the mojo.

All of us look into the toilet bowl after wiping. (Stop tryin' to deny it!!) It's as much a part of our human nature as our need to eat donuts or bet on sporting events. We look down into that bowl for two essential reasons:
  1. to see what kind of poo we made -- Lincoln logs or cucumbers or rabbit pellets or yogurt;
  2. to make sure the plumbing is healthy -- no red, no green, no ectoplasm.
This shit is a whole lot more important than our economy or China, 'cuz it's about home decoration and proper digestion and the need for human beings to see their poo after they made it. Beholding our fecal creations is one of those things that keeps us closer to God. We are the molders of our own shit; we must see if it is Good, and if it is, we can rest. If it isn't, we gotta go drink some Pepto and pray.

Cavemen had no better way of knowing about the status of their innards. Their poop was their best medical clue. CSI:Crap Scene Investigation. And they passed this habit down through the eons. We do this because it's totally instinctual.

Was the poop good and thick? Was it streaked with a little blood, or did it look kinda moldy? And, most importantly, was it a two-flusher? You'll never know, because those bastards installed a black fucking toilet! You might walk out of that bathroom with streaks of your poo still stuck to that black porcelain, but apparently your host thinks ignorance is bliss.

In a black toilet, you look down to see your business, and all you see is this pit of darkness and despair. It's like you're staring into the Loch Ness at midnight, and the best you're going to get is maybe the top of a turd, poking up above the water like the legendary monster's head in that famous picture.

The more one thinks one's shit doesn't stink, the more likely one possesses a black toilet. They don't want you to see your poop because they don't want to see their poop. They want to act like shit doesn't happen, but it does! Shit happens! We're full of shit!

And Now a Word from a Sponsor Who Isn't Sponsoring Us...

Amazon.com right now has three different sets of classical music that any decent human being presently unschooled in classical music should consider purchasing. All are part of a The 99 Essential... series. Ninety-nine songs. One for Mozart, one for Beethoven, and one a catch-all of everyone's "greatest." Each collection can be yours for the ludicriously low price of $7.99.

These collections are the lazy person's way to seem sophisticated and knowledgeable, and I'm the first to admit such. Buying a collection of 99 "essential" classical music songs, with tracks that range from just over a minute to just under 10, is like buying a collection of 99 Cliff's Notes versions of classic novels. OTOH, Mozart's CV makes Springsteen's look like a haiku. How the hell is someone who's curious about classical music but not setting out to become a snob about it supposed to dip their toe in the water, enjoy a few orchestral moments in their raucous and electric life?

By spending $8 for several hours of "essential" stuff. That's how. So go and consider broadening your classical horizons and simultaneously annoying the hell out of music snobs by buying one of these collections. I can't imagine a better combination than that.

And it makes for great music when sitting on someone's black toilet.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Balls In The Air

Buddy Guy--"The Things That I Used To Do" (mp3)

Why'd you let go of your guitar?
Why'd you ever let it go that far?

--Lucinda Williams

There is some mysterious point in life when you realize that you can no longer pursue all of your pursuits. There simply isn't time.

That day, that moment, may not be a happy one, because it probably comes with some concurrent reminder of mortality. It may well not be something that you cannot even control. But if you can, you're going to have to make some serious choices.

Or you may just be cleaning stuff out of your house, which, as this blog has demonstrated for the past several weeks, can put you in a contemplative mood.

I think most of us have so many things that we like to do that we don't want to have to make those choices. Every time I put together a resume, I have to make a list of what I like to do, and every time, that list is false. It isn't because I'm trying to make a list to impress--I mean, do you really think it matters whether you garden or take TaeKwonDo? No, my list is false because there are always some items that I used to do or would like to do but when it comes down to it, I don't do them, at least not with any regularity. Like running.

These days, there tend to be too many balls in the air, too many givens or expecteds or desires to allow me to do everything that I used to want to do. Or that I still want to do, but............

My Cases In Point:

1. I had always thought that I would record an album's worth of original songs--not as part of my rock career or anything, but just to say that I had done and to confirm that I had that ability and those songs in me. To that end, back in the late 80's, I purchased a Tascam PortaStudio and used it to make all kinds of demos, rhythm tracks; I wrote a number of songs, mostly focused on a friend's suicide in 1980. I even, on several summer trips to the condo in Florida, took all of the necessary gear to record those tracks in a separate, creative setting. I thought I would record a rock album, lo fi--of course, while my children watched TV in the next room. It didn't quite happen then, and year after year after year afterward, I kept telling myself I would get to it, but something else would get in the way and I would get farther and farther away from the songs and the initiative. This past week, clearing out the sun porch, I came across that Tascam covered in dust, and, though I didn't throw it away, I know its days are over.

2. There are only two purposes for having a library of books: a) you have amassed titles that you plan to read, or have read and are planning to read again (or refer to) or b) you want people to see what you have read or are planning to read or want people to know that you own. That's it. It has dawned on me in this, my 51st year, that I am no longer interested in collecting books, with rare exceptions. I am particularly proud of my collection of Hemingway books and my collection of JFK assassination conspiracy books and my cookbooks. Beyond that, I don't anticipate rereading books that I once read and liked, and if I do, I can get them. What makes sense to me now is that if I read a book and like it, it is most important that I get that book into the hands of someone else who might like it as soon as possible. Visions of me sitting in my library, smoking a pipe and stretching my arms out futiley toward the edges of my walls of knowledge are long gone.

3. I cleared a variety of suits and sportcoats out of my closet. Now, it isn't that I was waiting for them to come back into style so that I could wear them again. I was waiting for me to return to that size so that I could wear them again. Old clothes can offer all kinds of reminders of ways that we used to be, and while I continue to both believe and to dream that I will be that size again, the idea of holding onto those suits is not in any way providing the incentive. They are only collecting moths and dust.

But, hey, all of this is still about choice, not about giving up. There is some good news here. I've picked up the guitar again after almost a year of not playing (but with a ukelele interlude--NOTE: the ukelele, fun as it is to play, does nothing for one's guitar calluses). I've even got my electric guitar set-up back in business and I'm enjoying the concepts of distortion, overdrive, chorus, etc. down in the basement. My fingers remember where they're supposed to be, but they need more repetition in order to get there cleanly. And when the basement is free of clutter, just down the room from that guitar will go the exercise bike and the weights and the Urban Rebounder and the exercise ball and....

But for right now, I just have too many balls in the air.

Buddy Guy is available at Itunes. Stevie Ray Vaughn also has a stellar version of this song.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Seductive Wink of Innocence

Speeding Up to Slow Down - Better Than Ezra (mp3)
Love and Some Verses - Iron + Wine (mp3)

All my attic posts have led me to these thoughts...

During my first relationship, at 17 years of age, I never saw a single bra. My hands never touched unfettered flesh. Our two bodies interacted less in seven dizzying months than most teenagers today interact physically during a single playing of Rihanna's "Umbrella" at a school dance.

But I knew her lips. I knew her mouth better than most dental X-rays. I knew her jawline and her nose and where her bangs fell on her forehead and how often she opened her eyes when we kissed. At the time, nothing could have felt more like love than kissing her over and over and over.

You can see the danger in my being a parent, of having two daughters a mere handful of years away from this tempest of adolescence.

The danger is that my stunted and slowed method of romance somehow became a kind of idealized path: I lived the Disney Channel version of teenage romance, scrubbed boringly clean of all inappropriate activity. While I was busy identifying 2,000 ways to French kiss, like Eskimos who can identify so many shades of white, my socially-advanced peers seemed so busy one-upping each other in some kind of harried Game of Life (& Sex) that I frequently wondered if they ever stopped to smell the roses, so to speak. They always seemed focused on the next conquest, the next achievement.

The same seems true of many teenagers today, maybe teenagers of any generation. They're so damned eager to cross lines, as if growing up is some kind of 110m hurdle sprint, or a scavenger hunt, that they sometimes forget to savor much of it. Scarf down a burger. Scarf down a video game. Scarf down a bottle of liquor. Scarf down a girlfriend. Next! What's next?! More more more!

The way food critics eat a meal? That's the way we should be living our whole lives, right?
I'm pretty sure we all have scenes from movies that served as a blueprint, a guidepost, for a particular part of our lives. Being a movie nut, I have so many of these cornerstone scenes that some are tattooed into my subconscience. I've frequently forgotten they're there, framing my thoughts. Such a scene came to mind following a conversation with an old friend a few days ago. The Scene in question is of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Bridges in the 1989 film "The Fabulous Baker Boys." This one scene, perhaps more than any other scene I can think of (and I've been chewing on it for a couple of days now), framed my idea of what defined steamy passion:

If memory serves -- I haven't seen it since high school -- the movie was so far over my head as to remind me that I had a lot to learn before I became a real man. But the scene where Michelle sings "Makin' Whoopee" on that piano, and THE Scene after, where Jeff Bridges showed me how a man who's intent and intense can properly seduce the hottest 1989 female on the entire planet... those two scenes told me what sex could be without showing any sex. Those scenes told me I had a lot to learn before I needed to dip my toe in that pool. I might one day be a man, but not yet, and not by a long shot.

And the thing is, I was mostly OK with that. Sure, I wanted to grow up and be the kind of guy who could pull that feat of Pfeiffer-seduction off, and the sooner the damn better, but no point in red-lining the damn accelerator, y'know?

It's tragic that most teenagers feel this unbearable pressure to rush into the next thing, to reach that next step, to get older and "better" as quickly as they can. Being a popular teenager becomes less about creating a careful and deliberate work of art than about social drag racing. Can parents in any way fight that tide? Am I completely wrong in thinking that this tide has one helluva vicious undertow, that this tide will pose a threat to my girls?

Once you're older and wiser and more experienced, you can't go back. Once you enter a door to a new experience, you shed a layer of innocence like snakeskin and no amount of cosmetic surgery can graft it back onto your being. And as much as we can tell our children this, can they ever really grasp it until after they, too, have passed through a good number of those doors, shed a good number of those layers of innocence?

Don Henley ain't my musical hero by any stretch, but the man has written some great songs that are mostly lost on the young. I was 12 when "The Boys of Summer" came out and 17 when "The End of the Innocence" hit the airways. Both songs seemed really cool and catchy to me, but only after a couple of years of college livin' and college drinkin' and college carousin' did I really start to appreciate the genius in that pop.

The general gist of "The End of the Innocence" is, Darlin', I'm sorry life is tough, and I'm sorry the adults in our lives are for shit, and I'm sorry that we can't stay kids forever. But how about let's go somewhere private and get laid, and then I'll tell you how you've now officially (but willingly and voluntarily!) cashed in the only innocence you had left? Might as well lose it on your terms, since you're losin' it no matter what.

It's the kind of heartbreaking cynicism appreciated only by those who've been there, done that. And few lines in the history of rock more succinctly communicate the disillusionment of adulthood better than "Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac."

I won't know what is fair to expect of my girls. Ultimately I can't protect them or their innocence. I only want them to place some proper value to it, to sacrifice it with purpose and conviction rather than by mere accident or, well, innocence.

But then, maybe I've just been seduced by an innocence that was never what I've cracked it up to be.