Monday, November 30, 2009

It's the most wonderful time of the year....

As with most music-related blogs, December is a special month at BOTG. Not only do we get to ponder and then pontificate about what we think are the best songs and CDs of the year, but, at least in my home, the days right after Thanksgiving are when we make the transition to 3-4 weeks of Christmas music being pretty much all that we listen to. So we get to share the holiday* music wealth, too.

Regarding those best songs, that will be difficult for me. Not that it hasn't been a good year (though it probably hasn't been a great year), but most of the time, just like I'm not thinking whole CDs anymore, I'm also not thinking in terms of what was released in 2009. There is so much music available now, and even more with what people are sending us here. Beyond those newly-released freebies, however, I don't have a good sense of what came out when.

2009 is the first year I heard Rusted Root's "Send Me On My Way" or Warren Zevon's "My Ride's Here" or, just today, Ray Davies' "Thanksgiving Song." My ideal list would probably better be titled "What I Heard For The First Time and Really Liked This Year."

One of the many joys of this blog is making those kinds of continual discoveries, and I'm glad that "hey did you ever hear" or "this post reminds me of another song" have become part of the conversation here. So, I'll find a way to make the Best Of list work, and if last year is any indication, Billy's and my list aren't likely to have too many intersects with the general consensus. Though Miley Cyrus does have a shot to make one of our lists.


(Will St. Vincent and the National's cover of "Sleep All Summer" make Bob's Best of 2009 list? Wait and see, but listen now: St Vincent and The National--"Sleep All Summer: (mp3) )

Regarding those holiday* songs, well, we could never hope to accomplish the brilliant lists put up by the Leather Canary (who seems to have gone defunct, alas) last year. They were so comprehensive, and I look forward to listening to them again if I can find them. Still, we enjoyed putting up one holiday* song a day up until Christmas, so you'll notice that I've just started that tradition again. As always, recommendations are welcome.

So let me implore you again. Even though people tell me that they don't read this blog for the music or the writing, but just to see what random pictures of hotties Billy will put up (even Manga hotties!) that have no relation to whatever he is posting about, there will be a lot of good music for you to hear this month, music of good cheer and music, perhaps, of lasting quality. So tune in and turn on with us and let us enjoy the various pleasures of the year as it winds down.

*I love the ACLU, but the idea that "Christmas" is to be replaced by "holiday" in order to be secular, inoffensive, inclusive or whatever strikes me as simply going too far. Shawn Colvin is available at Itunes, the St Vincent and The National cover is available at eMusic.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Never Too Much Of A Good Thing

Richard Shindell--"Hazel's House" (mp3)

Thanksgiving is one of those funny holidays. You have to accomplish it. You have no choice. Take me, for example. I'm going to Rome to see my daughter, but I had to have a Thanksgiving meal before I left, so we had one last night. We even had the nearly-as-essential Thanksgiving leftovers meal tonight.

When I first knew we would be in Italy over Thanksgiving, I started googling around to see if there was a place in Rome that would put on a respectable Thanksgiving spread. I got a couple of good leads and was feeling pretty good about it until I got whacked in the side of the head by someone who posted a response to the question. He said, "You're in Italy. They don't really cook turkey there. Do yourself a favor and celebrate Thanksgiving by finding a nice restaurant and having a delicious Italian meal." He was right, of course.

What is it all about? Why do we have to have that meal? And how many times do we have to have it?

Tomorrow, my wife's firm has their traditional Thanksgiving meal. Last Wednesday, my school had theirs. What is it?

I was talking to a student the other day and asking him about Thanksgiving break, especially what he would be doing.

"Nothing much," he said. "Mostly just staying here."

"Well, at least you'll get a good meal, right?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "You know," he said, "I don't really like Thanksgiving food all that much. I don't know what the big deal is. I mean, my mom cooks it okay. But Thanksgiving food just isn't that good. It's alright. It's more about getting together with your family."

I never eat turkey at any other time of the year, except in its deli form. I don't really like cranberries. Not a huge fan of sweet potatoes. And yet, here I am once again loading up a plate, and if someone told me that I had to load a similar plate of the same offerings at someone else's table tomorrow, I'd probably do it. Because there is something about Thanksgiving, its overwhelming sense of nostalgia and comfort, that is difficult to put into words.

Unless you are Richard Shindell. There isn't a whole lot of Thanksgiving music out there. Maybe none at all. Maybe there doesn't need to be, because this song captures the essence of it:

There’s a two-lane county road in northern Jersey
Winding up a hill beside a lake
Just before the road winds to an end
Is Hazel’s house

Long white picket fence around the front yard
A wagon wheel someone made into a gate
Flagstone steps will lead you to the front door
Of Hazel’s house

And Hazel will have seen you from the window
She’s waiting for you as you climb the steps
She says, “Thank God, we were starting to get worried.
Come on in.”

It’s New Year’s and the place is overflowing
Cousins, aunts and uncles gather round
“How long has it been? It’s great to see you.
How you’ve grown.”

And the uncles all have one eye on the Rose Bowl
One by one they slink back to the den
Everybody else heads for the kitchen
You go with them

She always has the crumbcake at the ready
Today is no exception - there it is
The order of the universe intact
At Hazel’s house

And no one seems to know that this is heaven
They say we only know it by and by
That one day all will be revealed
Well, here it is:

There’s a two-lane county road in northern Jersey
Winding up a hill beside a lake
Just before the road winds to an end
Hazel’s house

Yeah, yeah, I know the song is about New Year's Day, but I don't care. To me, it captures everything there is to say about Thanksgiving. I'd drive there tomorrow. If this one doesn't move you, I don't know what will.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

MetaWomen and the Gawkers Who Love Them

Just - Radiohead (mp3)
The Fame - Lady GaGa (mp3)
(Links removed by request)

[Super-Special Double-Length Thanksgiving Edition!

As the father of two girls who seem to be approaching their pre-teens at a speed approximating Warp 4, I spend a lot of free time obsessing over girl issues. As I scour various news sites for interesting stories, my eyes are always drawn to stories about women, or about the feminist movement, or about women in the focus of the pop culture lens.
  • A July 30 article in The New York Times Magazine shares one mother's fascination and relief that her daughter has found Wonder Woman, the iconic female superhero, as opposed to Hannah Montana or Lindsay Lohan.
  • An AP story talked about the rising concern parents with "The Princess Pedestal," our cultural fascination with convincing our daughters that they're all that and a bag o' chips.
  • I get the weekly email from The just to sneak a peek into life on the other side, the concerns and subject matter of often horny (mostly 20something) women. Yes, I've hit the age where I'm more concerned about being in touch with my daughters when they are horny and 20something than I am about being in touch with current horny 20somethings.
Three women under the magnifying glass of our culture have particularly caught my eye lately, and I've linked to fascinating features on all three of them, as I ponder where a society increasingly operated by empowered women who can turn assumptions and stereotypes on their sides begin to rake in cash for doing so.

Nadya Suleman

The only contributions Nadya Suleman can make to pushing our civilization forward is as a cautionary tale. She's mentally unstable and, if not a bad mother, a completely irresponsible one. If Jon and Kate should never have made eight, then one of them alone sure as shit shouldn't have 14. And although I've never watched a minute of any of these shows, I'm almost certain that Jon and Kate are both more intelligent and at least a hair's breadth more responsible than Nadya.

Nadya Suleman has 14 children.

Please. Sit and stew on that for just a second. She is that NASCAR wreck that kills a famous driver. She is the online execution of a hostage. She stands for everything we know to be wrong about celebrity, about maternity, and about humanity all lumped into a single doe-eyed idiot, yet she and some hungry producers know full well that enough people will watch her to make a profit out of exploiting the children.

Nadya's not being exploited. Exploitation, in my mind, requires an unwillingness to participate. Her kids, for example, have no say. The world gets to witness their own odd little version of hell and giggle at the pseudo-real life that the camera creates for them. They are being exploited. And the only question left worth asking -- and strangely, it IS worth asking: is their exploitation and its financial reward better than the alternative? Even Nadya says it quite well: "People are like, 'Oh why don't you go to work?'... OK, think about the reality of the situation: I leave, I go to work, I'm away from them all day, I make -- how much? $15,000 a year? OK, I need that at least every two months So, how on earth is that going to work? That's absurd. You live in my life one day and you'll see, you'll realize: it's ludicrous."

Yes, it is, Nadya. It's ludicrous to suggest most of us could ever, ever, be living in your life.

Megan Fox

To be sure, if Megan Fox looked like Susan Boyle, she wouldn't be the focus of my interest. And while she is certainly stunning, I have to stress that Ms. Fox isn't The Hottest Woman Ever. Not by a good stretch. She's very attractive, and she oozes a kind of dangerous sultry vibe that kicks her looks up a notch.

What fascinates me is how focused she is on playing the game of being a celebrity and doing it in a very "this is just a game" way. While it's a little much to suggest Ms. Fox is "highly intelligent," she must be given tremendous credit for understanding her game. With only minimal TV and movie credits to her name, she quickly rose to become one of the most desirable magazine pin-up girls of the 21st Century, and she did it by creating a fictional version of herself that makes out with women and loves wild wanton sexual encounters. (In reality, she's been dating one guy for five years, which is practically four lifetimes for a Hollywood relationship.)

What the NYT Magazine article suggests, however, is that Ms. Fox has been too successful in her effort to sell her body and an image rather than hone her craft. She might have shot to the top so quickly that people discover, to her detriment, that "there's no 'THERE' there." So she and her handlers are working to make her more human, less sex doll. Sadly, I fear they'll discover that once our society has embraced you for your body, we don't really care to embrace your soul.

We've already got Meryl Streep for that.

Lady GaGa
If Megan Fox is attempting to manipulate the Hollywood world in order to find success by milking and manipulating stereotypes, then Lady GaGa is doing a similar job on our preconceived notions of music bimbos. Before the Slate article linked above, I'd never even heard a song of hers all the way through. But the article intrigued me, and I watched her video of "Paparazzi" as well as her performance on MTV. The claim that she is taking the career track of Britney or Christina and turning the lens back on the artificial and superficial marketing machine is impossible to deny.

She's glam, yet so over-the-top glam that it requires she be NOT glamorous. You cannot be completely wrapped up in yourself if you are so careful to never expose what you really look like, if you so clearly cartoonize yourself to make a point. (NOTE: One of the most popular Lady GaGa searches on Google: "Lady GaGa without makeup.")

While the profit motive comes first, that she's attempting to make a statement, a serious and heavy statement, even if I'm not certain I know what it is quite yet, the effort alone is worth at least a little admiration. Will I buy her albums or go to her concerts? Hell naw. But I'll admire her nonetheless.

Nadya is a moron with screwed-up values who caught lightning in a bottle in having eight babies at a time when our popular culture makes heroes out of morons. Megan is a hot crafty dame in a business that rewards hot crafty dames. She played her cards carefully and well and has been rewarded for it. Lady GaGa has done them both one better. She has taken a formula for pop fame -- flash, glitz, shock -- and turned into some kind of threeway between Madonna, Andy Warhol and Andy Kaufman.

All three, ultimately, are women who find tremendous profit in playing the game of fame. I hope the rise of the MetaWoman is a good thing. One day my daughters are going to look at these women -- or the next generation of them -- while Wonder Woman remains imprisoned in cheesy cartoons and undervalued comic book forms. Diana might have a magic lasso, but these women have the magic box. No Amazonian princess with all her skills and cunning can easily defeat such a power as that.

Billy will be taking Thursday off for turkey and giblets, but he wishes you and yours a gleeful holiday and looks forward to begging for more of your attention next week! He also figures the odds that this post survives the entire weekend are slim, because one of these people will have some lawyer who contacts my host or Blogger and yanks this thing down faster than the Hunchback of Notre Dame tugs those damn bells.

Monday, November 23, 2009

New Music Monday

I'm sorry, Billy. I been remiss, kid, I see that now. Consider this my public apology. Leavin' you to pages and pages of Gmail submissions from artists, friends, A/R people, DJs, and anyone else who is desperate enough to get heard that they're willing to give our lil' ole blog a shot left you with quite a chore. I found that out when I started going through some of that stuff last week.

Don't get me wrong, all you fledgling bands and artists. We appreciate being considered as an outlet for releasing and supporting new music. I think Billy has made that point more than once. But it is a fair amount of work keeping up with the emails. But we like getting them. It gives us a bit of street cred for those readers who go beyond our friends and families. I'd wager we get about 10 emails a day (I don't check it very often, so that is a guess) from people who would like us to consider their music. The guys at say that they get between 150-200 submissions a day, so all things are relative. But it is work.

Much of what we get, I don't really like. Like most everybody else, I'm looking for a hook, a sound, a distinctive something that makes me think I would listen to the song again. But, most new artists don't quite have that. Paul Westerberg once said in a song, "You were my first glimmer of light." It's that glimmer that I'm looking for, too, just the tiniest crack of the light of the future for the musicians involved.

By the way, if I were trying to get heard, here's what I'd do: skip the press kit, the who said what about the band, the hard-to-hear comparisons with better known musicians, the statements of joy or coolness from the artist himself or herself. I'd just make it as easy as I possibly could. That would mean I would send my best mp3 (just one), the one I think kicks as (because if I don't think it, who will?) with the shortest note, something like, "Dear Bottom of the Glass, I hope you will post my song. I think it's best one. I'm sending it to you with no strings attached so you can help to spread the word. Thanks."

Notice a couple of things. We appreciate the personal touch that suggests you are sending it to us personally, and not mass-blanketing every blog you can find, even if you are. Notice also that you don't have to kiss our asses about how much you like the blog and all of that. Most of the blog ass-kissers will say something in their email that reveals they really didn't read the blog in the first place.

So, with no further ado, here are some songs that came our way that caught my interest:

Bullet and SnowFox--"Bad Days" (mp3)

"Bad Days" is a quality pop song that straddles the generations. I can hear Shirley Manson singing it on a Garbage cd; I can hear one of today's singing starlets getting ahold of it and using it to pump up a live concert. The song's simple, insistent, guitar-and-drum driven beat leads into a catchy chorus with (I'm guessing) intentionally-cheesy background vocals. It's a well-produced track that keeps guitars and vocals prominent, with only occasional keyboard touches. Even though the song follows the basic verse/chorus structure, it adds little twists and flourishes to that structure. By coincidence, Butch Walker's "Maybe It's Just Me," from the OC soundtrack cd (my daughter owns it, I swear) came on right after "Bad Day" on Itunes, and it seemed like a logical progression. Very professional, confident song.

Clarence Bucaro--"Let Me Let Go Of You" (mp3)

Clarence Bucaro has cut a cd called New Orleans, and this track certainly captures that vibe with its fairly-straightforward rhythm and blues approach. Everything works here. The instrumentation--guitar, bass, drums, and, especially organ--provides a tight, sympathetic background to Bucaro's strong vocals. As a singer, Bucaro travels in the land somewhere between Van Morrison and Macy Gray. When he double-tracks his voice on the second verse, he increases the emotional power quite effectively. Only slight complaint, after an engaging organ solo, the song fades out. It sounds more like an edit than a complete track.

Kuba Oms--"Beautiful Uncertainty" (mp3)

Kuba Oms has that who-does-he-sound-like quality to his voice, at least until he hits the falsetto chorus. You can tell he's listened to what's on the radio from "Meet Virginia" to Matchbox Twenty, and it makes his music immediately catchy. I like the the guitar sound--not too produced, right up front. The lyrics probably wander a little too much--in the first few lines he's "thinking" about the government and the war, but quickly shifts to a hot girl and to asking for a handout. The lyrics never really justify the title. The instrumental break in the middle, with its Genesis-style guitar and synthesizer and chant "This is not my world" seems a little out of place to these ears because they kill the beat of the song. But the song sticks in my head.

Peter Squires--"Witch" (mp3)

This little ditty simply amuses me. I'm a big fan of vindictive songs, and this one is a clumsily-endearing take on that genre. The woman who has done him wrong has literally turned into a witch, and so the narrator finds himself with no choice to to shoot her with flaming arrows or burn her at the stake. Though he claims to hope that the "human inside" will one day return, this is an empty hope, since he can only tolerate her if he never sees her again. The high-pitched backing vocals which only exclaim "Witch!" are a nice touch.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Deja Vu Double Album

Until Morning - Dashboard Confessional (mp3)
Until Morning (Acoustic) - Dashboard Confessional (mp3)
(NOTE: These files were removed from my BOX account because I apparently pissed off a lawyer. My apologies.)
The Deja Vu Double Album: (pr.n.) A single collection of songs by an artist that are recorded different ways on separate CDs but packaged together, thus providing the customer with multiple renditions of each song.

The first time I ever encountered the Deja Vu Double Album concept was when, while heavily intoxicated and searching for a stocking stuffer for my wife, I stumbled across Shania Twain's Up! at the local Wal-Mart. The packaging bragged that it was a double CD but was on sale for a scant $9.99. And, because I always found Ms. Twain adorable, and because her general sound wasn't too unpleasant to my wife's delicate musical ears, I bought the damn thing.

(Yes yes, I know. So shoot me already. The excuses are a pathetic attempt to distract from the fact that I enjoy some cheesy shit. Especially when that cheese fits this nicely into those jeans.)

Lately, the Deja Vu Double Album concept seems to be growing viral. In the past 14 months, I've bought three more of these: The Bravery's Between Sun and Moon (Complete), the Indigo Girls' Poseidon and the Bitter Bug, and Dashboard Confessional's latest, Alter the Ending.

As an economic decision, I don't quite see what's in it for the record companies or the bands. More work, more CDs to press, at practically no additional charge to the consumer.

Shania Twain wanted versions that attempted to keep her country music fans happy while hoping to expand her presence on Top 40 radio. Maybe it worked, but what I found more fascinating was that both versions sounded so tame and processed that it was like trying to figure out whether you were eating Vanilla or French Vanilla. Seriously, 90% of it sounded exactly the same. The only difference is that once in a while you heard a slide guitar or a few banjo licks on the country versions, and a little more synth and bass on the pop ones. So mostly her album(s) just felt gimmicky. Which was appropriate for a woman who began her rise on the gimmick of being able to fill out some worn-down blue jeans like few decent-voiced women before her. [Confession: Everytime I see people oohing over Sarah Palin's looks, I can't help but think she looks like a downgraded and dumber version of Shania.]

The Bravery's Deja Vu Double Album was even more odd. The "Sun" versions were more traditional rock, while the "Moon" versions were more synth and dance. Maybe they thought clubs would play those secondary versions while folks were tripping on X or something. Personally, I found that every single version on the "Moon" version was not only of lower quality, but knowing that those versions existed pulled down my appreciation for both versions. What I'm saying is, that they put out two versions just made me like both versions less.

What Are You Like - Indigo Girls (mp3)
What Are You Like (Acoustic) - Indigo Girls (mp3)

The Indigo Girls' effort was the first move in an encouraging direction. Their first versions included a full band and sometimes some orchestration. Higher production qualities. More layered. Their second version was just the two of them and a couple of guitars. Stripped down and simple. Old school Indigo, if you will. As a lifelong fan of the ladies, I appreciated both versions. It spoke of where they were and where they'd been, and I found myself preferring certain songs more in one version than the other, and often enjoying both in different ways.

Finally comes Dashboard Confessional, the screamy emo boy who could yank tears out of angsty teen girls almost as quickly as Edward Cullen.

Please trust that this is not my Persuasive Essay on Why You Should Buy a Dashboard Confessional album. The dude is a pinot grigiot, and not everyone has a nose for it. He makes some whiny adolescent music fit for 90210 and Dawson's Creek soundtracks. That said, the double-album version of Alter the Ending is the most entertaining album I've bought in a while. Having only owned one other DC album (the most-popular The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most), I have the good fortune of not overindulging a sound that probably wears out with too many listens. The idea of listening to five Dashboard Confessional albums non-stop is enough to make me contemplate driving into a brick wall, so I doubt I'll buy another.

But here's what's fun about this particular collection. The first versions are the full-on heavily produced, mightily orchestrated, reach for the pop charts variety. It's got that Daughtry and Lifehouse kind of feel to it. Radio-friendly rock with a whiny lead singer. There's no denying that they feel a little bit sold out... but it's also kinda good. I mean, for what it is.

The other album, though, is the same collection of music done in Carabba's "older," more emo-attuned style. Him, his guitar, occasionally a few more less-electric instruments, and minimal percussion. What makes this collection so much fun is to hear how much more alive and sincere the stripped-down version feels. The songs have more power when some of the noise is stripped away.

But strangely, and amusingly, I find myself injecting the missing instruments in my head, mixing them up the way I imagine them. I mentally add the electric guitars and orchestrations. I can almost hear the drums. It's very surreal. It's the kind of thing that, when I'm describing it, I want to ask myself that famous question from Judge Halloran to Vinny Gambini: "Are you on drugs?"

I can't say whether Alter the Ending is a "great" album. I can't say whether you, dear random listener, will like it. I can only say it's the most enjoyable Deja Vu Double Album I've ever heard.*

* -- Unless you, dear random listener, can name some others that I have possibly neglected or forgotten.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

She Was a Fast Machine

The Audit - Harper Simon (mp3)
Fill My Little World - The Feeling (mp3)

I was a senior in high school in 1990 and visiting a friend at Boston College. We were headed to Boston Garden for a Celtics game in one of Larry Bird's last years in the league and his dramatic return after being injured the previous year. On the way, at an intersection, we found ourselves staring at this stunning woman in her late 20s. She looked like a supermodel shoved into a hot business executive's outfit. (Or, at least, that's how she looked to an 18-year-old from an all-boys' high school.)

When we crossed the street towards her, she called out to us. What she said hardly mattered. Would we like to take a survey or something like that. We both agreed we'd do pretty much anything this woman asked short of streaking the parquet floor of The Garden, and we had a couple of hours to kill before the game, so we dumbly and droolingly nodded. When she said "Follow me," we had no problem obliging. We remained two paces behind her, looking at each other and communicating solely with gestures and eyebrows, each of us fantasizing about what possible wild sexual adventures could await us whenever we arrived wherever she was taking us.

We must've walked two miles. We walked long enough that we had begun to shed the sexual fantasies and wonder if she was going to leave our naked bodies in bathtubs packed with ice with notes about how our livers had been removed. Little did I realize how close those fears were to what would happen.

She leads us up the stairs of this gorgeous brick building with wizard-esque pointy tops, and she smiles and holds her binder close to her eye-magnetizing chest, and she asks us to take a seat at one of two long tables on a side of the room. We would never see this woman again.

A professor-looking dude walks over to us a few minutes later with these questionnaires. They're personality tests. Long, long personality tests.

Maybe it's because we were sheep. Maybe it's because I'd been groomed to take tests my entire schooling life, and this one was kinda easy and meaningless. Maybe it's because we thought completing these tests would result in the woman coming back. Maybe even without clothes. Who knows why exactly, but we took them.

Some 30-40 minutes later we turned them in and were asked to wait while they were graded. I'm sure I sat there secretly wondering if I'd done better on my test than my friend Andy.

Why did we sit there? Why did we wait for 10... 20... 30 minutes?

Finally, a guy comes out and calls out my name. He asks me to follow him. I am led into a darkly-lit office that looks like some rich guy's small reading room, with a couple of table lamps providing the only light. Another guy is there. These two gentlemen commence explaining to me just how fucked up I am. Apparently, my personality test revealed a human being in tremendous crisis. They explained all of my problems -- it felt like it took a long time, but that's because I was getting scared and my Spider-Sense was tingling that these dudes were shysters -- and then they explained how I could better myself and emerge from the tarpit of my misery.

It involved a machine that would measure my midi-chloreans or whatever they were calling it. The machine would determine whether my spirit or my chi or some such was in a good place. Kind of like a high-priced mood ring. At this point, they actually used the words "L. Ron Hubbard" and "Scientology" for the first time. Sometimes having icky and uncomfortable feelings is what helped humanity survive and advance for thousands of years. Our instincts are pretty amazing most of the time, so it's a shame we didn't heed ours at any point in our journey into L.Ron Hell.

If it takes someone two hours of your time before they reveal their motives to you... if they have to lure you in with women in sexy miniskirts and words like "survey"... if they isolate you and outnumber you with two of their own...  these are the signs of very gifted and organized salespeople, and what they're selling is snake oil.

No, they didn't steal our livers or kidneys, but they aimed to pray on vulnerable and naive high school kids, and they used every sneaky and dirty trick in the book to do it.

I might have my own internal struggles with Christianity, but the churches I love don't fool anybody, and what they're selling is plastered all over the place. Crosses and commandments and pictures of Jesus. Churches rarely sneak up on anyone because the better ones keep few secrets and use none of these fucked up tactics. There are no rogue or renegade Scientology churches because they are kept under the very disciplined and controlling thumb of their chain of command. In fact, the reason Germany is so off-the-wall berzerk in their intense opposition to Scientology is because it probably looks a terrible lot like Nazism to them.

Fortunately, Tom Cruise is only one person. Sure, he's a very, very, very wealthy one person, as are numerous others involved in this crap. But estimates of US membership in this "religion" vary between 3.5 million (from Them) and 55,000 (from normal people). Worldwide they claim 8 million, so it's probably more like 1-2 million.

Whatever the number, it's too many. Know how I know? I asked my Magic 8 Ball.

Harper Simon's song is from his debut album, and if you like this song, I kind of think you'll enjoy most of the other songs on that album. The Feeling's album Twelve Stops and Home is a fun and cheesy little Supertramp wannabe creation that makes for some fun moments.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Band of Skulls--"Friends" (mp3)
Bree Sharp--"We're Going To Be Friends" (mp3)

From Reuters: "Unfriend" has been named the word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary, chosen from a list of finalists with a tech-savvy bent.

Unfriend was defined as a verb that means to remove someone as a "friend" on a social networking site such as Facebook.

"It has both currency and potential longevity," said Christine Lindberg, senior lexicographer for Oxford's U.S. dictionary program, in a statement.

"In the online social networking context, its meaning is understood, so its adoption as a modern verb form makes this an interesting choice for Word of the Year."

Upon reflection, I don't think I have unfriended anyone this year. That isn't really how adults work, is it? I mean, when is the last time you told someone that he or she was not your friend?

That doesn't mean, however, that the word "unfriend" does not have its usefulness. On the contrary, I fully celebrate the choice, even though I have read several criticisms about its selection today, ranging from those who think that "defriend" is a more exact term to those who think that their parents will have no idea what the word means if they have no understanding of Facebook.

I beg to differ. Those critics are missing out on the broader meanings of the term, which I'm guessing is what the dictionary had in mind when they chose this word. We all know what it means to unfriend someone. We've all done it. If you're like me, you've done it in some pretty graceless ways over the years.

But, like I said, it isn't something that happens in adulthood too often. Something fairly egregious would have to happen. After all, we may spend a fair portion of every day with people who we don't necessarily like, who we tolerate, who annoy us, who interrupt us and take our time, who don't have anything to say that we particularly want to hear, who get our scorn when they aren't around, and at the end of the day, we don't really mind all that much, we don't always mind seeing those people again the next day, depending on the circumstances.

And so, I would like to suggest that instead of the "unfriending" that is happening on these Internet sites, we are more likely take one of the following adult approaches (fully acknowledging that none of these terms will ever be named the word of the year):

underfriend--to "underfriend" someone is to give them less of a role in your life than they used to have because you've gotten tired of them. But you would never unfriend them. You might want something from them, but you only invite them to one of your social occasions when you used to invite them to everything.

tempfriend--also known as a contextual friend (see also, drinkfriend), the person who can be your best bud in the right situation, but in no other. Sporting events are great for "tempfriending," when the safe, neutral topic of two people rooting for the same team (possibly with alcohol--see drinkfriend) makes for bosom buddies with plenty of like-minded high fives.

farfriend--let's face it, the close friend who moves away gets treated differently. There is so much nearfriending going on most days that it can be tough to work in farfriending. To be farfriended means to be put on hold, phone not answered, phone tag, phone call responded to with text message, return call delayed several days, then finally, the "oops I forgot." It's a sad fact of life. Luckily, part of farfriending involves telling plenty of (derisive) stories and naming things after the person, maybe turning the person into his or her own (derisive) verb or metaphor to keep his or her memory alive.

pseudofriend--this is much of adulthood in a nutshell, when you pretend that you are friends with someone whom you don't like. Good news, though: real friendships can develop from this. Proof that God is love.

drunkfriend--nothing like a few beers to make someone you don't especially care for seem a bit more palatable. Not a situation to be dissed or dismissed, I'd say. If a drink or two makes the world a friendlier place, who am I to complain? Problems can ensue, however, if you drunkfriend across gender lines.

trifriend--in a group with a good friend, the person who is being "trifriended" will often discover himself talked about by one person to the other person as a way of somewhat including him. For example, your good friend walks in while you're talking to someone else and you trifriend that person: "Man, I'm tryin' to get some work done here, but Barry keeps talking about his sex life. Har, har, har." Great for insulting someone who is slow to figure out they're being insulted.

workfriend--tough one to figure out, because when you "workfriend" someone, you hang out with this person all the time while on the job, but you never do anything together on the weekend. Maybe your wives (or husbands) don't like each other.

And, finally:

shitfriend--which you can only apply to yourself, and not as a noun. It's when you come to the realization that you're a real manipulative SOB who is putting everyone you know into levels and categories that best fit your purposes. Could get you unfriended.

Bree Sharp's cover of the White Stripes comes from the blog Cover Lay Down; the Band of Skulls song is on the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack available at Itunes.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vince Lombardi Can Kiss My Pasty White A$$

The Secret of My Success - Night Ranger (mp3)
Everybody's a VIP to Someone - The Go! Team (mp3)
(Link removed due to DRSM violation warning.)

It's all because of me and my old man. God, I fucking hate him. He's like, he's like this mindless machine I can't even relate to anymore. "Andrew, you've got to be number one. I won't tolerate any losers in this family. Your intensity is for shit." You son of a bitch. You know, sometimes I wish my knee would give and I wouldn't be able to wrestle anymore. He could forget all about me.
-- Andrew Clarke (Emilio Estevez), The Breakfast Club

My daughters' U10 soccer team won three games in a row on Saturday to take home the league championship. No one on their team had ever played select soccer. Only three of the eight girls had ever played together before, and two of the three were my girls.

Oh yeah. And I was their coach.

The Vampires -- yeah, that was our team name -- weren't superbly talented, and their coach had never played in or coached a game of actual soccer in his whole life. The only reason I was the coach was because our original coach backed out, and the only way the five girls who wanted to play together could was if I were willing to do it. My first email to parents included something to this effect: "If your goal is to win, or if you expect your girls to dramatically improve, this is a bad idea. I can only promise you that we will try to have fun and teach what we can." Trust me that I'm not being humble when I say we barely met our meager goals.

Very rarely does having a philosophy that values other things above winning actually get rewarded with winning. If victory isn't the priority, it's not fair to expect to be rewarded with victory, right? So please allow me this rare opportunity to bask in it.

Granted, a lot of serendipitous factors played into our ultimate victory and were much more important than anything I did or any philosophy I espoused:
  1. It rained all fucking season. More than half our games were postponed or cancelled, as were more than half our practices. This didn't hurt our team as much as it did teams who actually have great and beneficial practices.
  2. In the tournament, we were given a Christmas gift of a blind draw. Three of the four debatably better teams all played in the other half of the bracket.
  3. Because all teams started the season with small rosters -- 7 or 8 players for teams that play six to a side -- injuries and absences made it tough to field a team. Several coaches used "pick-ups" all year to beef up their team, and those pick-ups were frequently U10 and U8 select players. (And trust me, a select U8 is regularly better than an average U10 player.) These coaches asked that this tournament make exception to standard rules and allow pick-ups. I opposed and said that we should play 5 v 5 when necessary rather than allow for what I lovingly call "assassins."
  4. All seven of our girls showed up for the tourney. We played the last two games 5 v 5, and the other team had no subs.

In short, we had a bench, we hadn't been padding our team, and superior coaches didn't have as much time to improve their players. Add up those factors and my scrub team of very decent soccer girls, playing under a philosophy of "have fun and work together," won a title.

One of our girls hurt her knee the weekend before. She could hardly run, and when she did, she resembled Forrest Gump when he was on those leg braces. But I played her anyway. I called her "SuperSub," because her job was to go in when any of the other girls were tired. And she gave it her all even though she had no business being out there if winning was our goal.

When those three whistles blew, and those girls knew they'd won, each of them could know confidently that they had played a part in winning. From the injured sub to our stud goalie to my daughters. It wasn't just Self-Esteem-Boosting Lefty Dad talking. Each girl on our team contributed an invaluable part of the victories. To be able to say that, and mean it, and see in their eyes that they believed it... that was far better than the mere victories. (Unfortunately, it's soooo much easier to believe that shit when you also win.)

To say coaching is taken a little too seriously in the 21st Century is like saying that walking on water is kinda neat. Nerds like me believe coaches are given far too much power, influence and credit.

The way some people at our school talk, you'd think coaches invented the light bulb and helped ensure world peace. Too often, we hire teachers based more on what coaching vacancies they can fill rather than whether they teach well. We'll take a B- teacher who coaches the right thing over an A+ teacher who's willing to learn how to coach. (And it's not just our school. I dare you to find a handful of male principals in any public system who weren't coaches before they got promoted.)

Meanwhile, our school's history is chock full of smart teachers who didn't know jack shit about their sport somehow leading teams to state titles. But we ignore that and instead hire "professional" coaches; that is, people who find a sport more important than all the other stuff involved in the process of education. And we apparently live with this decision by saying that what kids learn on athletic fields carries with them the rest of their lives. (As opposed to, you know, geometry and The Scarlet Letter, which don't have nearly the staying power as lessons learned from wrestling. In math terms, that's Cross-Body Ride > x.)

Ever read the infamous email from the man I call the Green Death Soccer Coach? It's quite the work of art. Even though I think there's a chance the dude was totally kidding, I can say quite confidently that had he been in the South, he would never have faced the kinds of negativity and consequences he saw up in Massachusetts. Down here, we promote these coaches. These dudes are now principals. Or Nick Saban.

Competition and competitiveness in their proper places, in the proper perspective, are wonderful and powerful things. But our society of parents and adults looks and sounds more and more like Andrew Clarke's dad every day. And either too many of us seem to think it's OK, or we don't care enough to change it.

In the finals, the other coach took a girl out in the final six minutes because she wouldn't get back on defense when we scored our final goal. The girl was big. She'd been playing non-stop the whole game. What's the big shock here? But he basically conceded defeat when we played five of the last eight minutes in a 5v4 game. To teach her a lesson, I guess. That being 10 and utterly exhausted is no excuse.

I'm a little competitive. Otherwise I wouldn't be celebrating the fact that my girls kicked the collective asses of all those serious coaches obsessed with winning. At this very moment, I feel very much like Bud Adams in the Buffalo luxury box. That's what a few beers can do to someone who knows it's not easy to keep the value of victory in perspective. So you'll have to forgive me if, for this one brief moment, the forces of Fun and Perspective won out over The League of Winning Is Everything Jocks and I cheer a little harder than the moment deserved.

God bless Night Ranger, but it's a miracle there's any cliches left after they used so many of them on this one song. And God bless The Go! Team for making songs that sound both sooo so '70s yet soooo so kewl.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Matt Keating--"A Roundabout Way To Get Wise" (mp3)
Bob Dylan--"Return To Me" (mp3)

Twenty years ago, at this school, we had a senior faculty member who would give a chapel talk before Christmas using a Neiman Marcus catalog. He took great pleasure in pointing out the extravagant gifts that were available at the highest end, things like one-of-a-kind wooden motorboats or restored automobiles or trips around the world. He would go on and on, raising the level of outrageousness and then end with a predictable yet powerful message about the true meaning of Christmas.

What was in that catalog was overpriced and ridiculous.

Now, it is the mail itself, regardless of what it is, that sparks the outrage in me. The idea that in 2009, with a supposedly-increased awareness of the environment and an emphasis on conserving resources, retailers are blanketing neighborhoods with mass mailings in hopes of scrounging up a sale or two (million?) just doesn't seem right.

The one that really pissed me off was the David Yurman catalog. Heavy, expensively-produced on fine stock paper, with very few actual products in it, the catalog seemed to say little more than "We're rich as shit, and if you want to know what it's like to be rich as shit, just look through this catalog." Maybe, oh maybe, a guy like me will look at it and conclude that I need to keep my woman up in the Yurman to which she hasn't become accustomed? Nope. Sorry. Your catalog just strikes me as foolishly wasteful.

Now, I know it isn't shocking that corporations might be socially irresponsible, but isn't it also possible that they are wasting their money? And doesn't it get worse as the holidays approach? All of a sudden, every joker with a company has come out with a catalog; the more "branded" the product, the more likely there's something coming our way in the mail.

The way we live at this house with the weekdays kind of out of control between schools and jobs, the mail for the week tends to pile up on the dining room table. And when there's time to sort through some of it on a Friday night, I'm sorry to report to the great corporate retailers of America that their magazines usually go into a pile that, if our act is together, which it usually isn't, ends up at the recycling center by Sunday afternoon. But even if the catalogs don't go that Sunday, they do eventually get there.
Even the French waifs in the Anthropologie catalog, those full-lipped pouty souls who seem to give me guidance on what I should buy my wife, those equisitely-photographed befreckled, natural, un-made-up beauties, those French country maidens who make me want to spend a year in Provence, have begun to seem extraneous.

I know that some of you are going to tell me that I could do something to have these catalogs stopped. Yeah, some of them maybe, and I think I've done that. But every time you purchase something knew, it seems you become instantly eligible to receive yet another, different catalog that you haven't ever received before.

I was touting the pleasure of a Bose purchase on these pages a few weeks ago. Since then, I have received no fewer than seven mailings for them, as if they didn't realize that when I buy something from them I buy it on time so I can afford it, and I'm not going to spring for their latest, slightly-different products. Look for me in about 12 months.

Maybe I should feel sorry for our retailers, who, if they aren't searching for new ways to snag us, are clearly behind the times. I like to spend as much money as the next person, but they'd have a hard time reeling me in with a catalog in the mail, an advertisement in a newspaper, a commercial on tv, or even an ad on an Internet website. And they will defintely not get to me with a pop-up ad that I wasn't expecting. An email, maybe. And as for my family, if merchandisers want to get them, they've got to get them into the store. That's where my girls do their impulse shopping, when they go out to the mall to "look around."

I don't know about you, but I don't get a whole lot of "real" mail anymore, so the chance that I'm going to be excited by something sent to me randomly, or even something that has been carefully targeted to me because of demographic studies or because my purchasing history and tendencies have been sold from one company to another, isn't likely to make a whole lot of difference. At least, I don't think so.

Maybe I'm just deluding myself, and the mail coming into my box is influencing me and my family a lot more than I'm willing to admit. After all, if they hadn't bought Yurman at some point, we wouldn't be getting the Yurman catalog. But they didn't buy it because of the catalog and they don't even open the catalog when it comes. Do your best, retailers, but quit stuffing my mailbox and quit killing the trees!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Worst. Music Purchase. Ever.

Pop Lie - Okkervil River (mp3)
Awful - Hole (mp3)

Ballpark figure, I've added more than 700 songs to my music collection in just the past year. By contrast, in the early part of this decade, I was generally buying an album a month, sometimes less. Maybe 100-150 songs a year. So I've easily quintupled the amount of music I'm buying/acquiring since Bob and I started this blog.

Anytime you acquire that much music over such a small period of time, it's unreasonable to expect to be completely happy with every purchase. Sometimes, what will one day become a favorite album is originally acquired at a time when it doesn't touch the right nerve for you, and it lingers unappreciated on your digital shelf. But other times, you buy something with enthusiasm or interest, give the thing a half-dozen spins into your eardrums, and watch as it quickly fades into the ether. It probably doesn't suck; it's just not all that great, or it's not what you had hoped it would be. That is to say, it just disappoints.

Here are just four of my disappointing purchases from the past year:
  • Cheap Trick's latest album, The Latest (Amazon - $8.99) -- This isn't a bad album. Some songs are darn catchy. But I guess there's nothing in there that I haven't heard before, and it's mostly variations on a beloved theme, but one I've practically memorized. It's like someone riffing on a new version of "Chopsticks."
  • Colin Hay's Are You Lookin' At Me? -- Hay's Going Somewhere is precisely one of those records that sat gathering dust on my shelf for several years before a chance encounter inspired me to give it another spin, and that second go-round found Colin speaking to me very directly in some ways. I found out about this album a year late, but whatever connection I felt with his previous album is almost completely absent this time around. It's busier, trying harder to be clever, and less intense.
  • White Rabbits' It's Frightening -- This is a decent album. Nothing bad about it, really. Some good songs. But I listen to it and think... SPOON. I might not be right about that, and it might not be fair, but that's the beauty of owning our own opinions.
  • U2's No Line on the Horizon -- If you need an explanation, you didn't listen to the album.
Don't misunderstand. I don't name these albums and harbor ill will or deep regret. They might have missed the mark with me, or they might have failed to reach my level of expectations, but rarely if ever do I feel ripped off for buying music. In fact, I can only think of one time in the last five or six years when I bought something and found myself frothing with anger and frustration that I had wasted my money on it: Franz Ferdinand's self-titled debut album, Franz Ferdinand.

Five years after buying it, hearing their name still makes me bristle. I can't even listen to the couple of songs off the album that I thought were OK, because hearing them just reminds me that I wasted $10 to buy the whole damn miserable thing.

That my anger about this has flown way beyond rational proportions is without question. There's absolutely no reason to get all that upset. I've had dozens of meals that cost me more than $10 and sucked a lot worse than Franz Ferdinand. Hell, I've bought other albums that were worse than Franz Ferdinand.

Yet this album sticks out so far beyond the pale of badness in my mind.

Why?? Truth is, I'm not sure. Maybe it's because all these people kept telling me how awesome it was. Maybe it's because it was so critically acclaimed. Maybe it's because their first single seemed so catchy and clever. All I know is that, after five or six listens, I was fighting my dislike of their music much like I imagine a gay teenager fights admitting that he or she is gay. I knew deep down in my heart that I disliked the album, but I just couldn't bring myself to admit it. So I kept listening, kept trying to find ways to like it. In the end, all this did was make me hate Franz Ferdinand even more.

When their sophomore album tanked, I took unusual and cruel joy in their tanking.

Maybe some of y'all are, but I'm not a guy who roots against artists very often. Music is like the PGA. Musicians aren't competing against one another. Golfers compete against the course, and musicians compete against the culture and the creative curve and their own inner demons. It's difficult for me to root against anyone in that line of work.*

So why such vitriol against Franz Ferdinand?

Honestly, I don't really know. I only know their music annoys me and that everytime I recall paying actual spendable cash for the ability to own their music, I throw up in my mouth a little.

Anyone else have this experience, perhaps not with Franz, but with another artist or band? I'd love to know.

* -- Britney Spears and other "artists" whose sole job is to be an almost mindless and thoughtless thoroughfare for other people's writing and musical vision and production values are not Musicians. They are very crafty and successful prostitutes, or mannequins with voices. This isn't me being snotty. It's me acknowledging the difference between someone who creates and someone through whom others create. This is precisely why so many successful actors dream of being musicians, because they sense the freedom to express themselves as opposed to playing a role handed to them by others. (And, likewise, famous "musicians" often become actors because they find it easier to play a role than to maintain a unique voice.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

This Gun's For Hire

Joe Walsh--"Life of Illusion" (mp3)
Nils Lofgren--"Keith Don't Go (live) (mp3)
Joe Walsh--"Rivers (Of The Hidden Funk) (mp3)

The concept of the hired gun, as old as the mercenary, the ronin, the gunfighter who wanders into town and is convinced to join in the cause on one side or the other, does not work for me where rock and roll is concerned.

By all means, pursue a side project, start a new band with old friends, do session work, unplug, add new musicians, whatever it is that keeps you fresh and growing. But do not, I repeat, do not give up what you're doing to become a hired gun for an established band. Not if you're good.

I understand that bands change their outlook, want to beef up their sound. Crosby, Stills and Nash want to electrify, so they add Neil. But Neil didn't have to change--he walked in with his scattershot electric and his own songs, becoming the fourth songwriter in a band with three songwriters. When Ronnie Wood replaced Mick Taylor in the Stones, it wasn't like he was giving up a thriving solo career or that the Faces weren't played out.

But what about guys with careers and identities? No way. Two cases in point: Joe Walsh and Nils Lofgren.

Joe Walsh, one of the "lovable" loonies of rock and roll, had an established career when he joined the Eagles for their later years. (Note to readers: I hate the Eagles!) Years as a leader of the James Gang, then a solo artist with a number of successful albums and hit songs. Though he may have, after "Rocky Mountain Way," used the talk box a time or two too many, his sound was distinguished in other ways, especially that thin, nasal, idiosyncratic voice and that melodic slide guitar.

Walsh, at his best, is a terrific songwriter. Is he a philospher? No. A great lyricist? Not really. But he can turn a cliche on its head, mix a metaphor with the best, and I mean in the best way, and he has a wicked sense of humor. "You lost your color/ when you painted the town," he says on "Second Hand Store." And the man has created some of the most memorable licks and riffs in rock. How'd you like to have "Funk 49," Walk Away," "Turn To Stone," "Rocky Mountain Way," "Meadows," "Life's Been Good" on your resume? You're never going to go, 'That's Joe Walsh?' He's more predictable than that, as comfortable as a bowl of macaroni and cheese.

Walsh also has a vision, a vision that isn't realized by including one of his songs on a group album. "In The City" was perfect over the closing credits of the movie The Warriors; on The Long Run, it seems out of place; it's too romantic for the jaded California aesthetic of Henley and Frey. Walsh's songs have a kind of innocence to them, a sense of justice for the average person, a hopefulness towards romance even when singing about failed love, and never anything but self-deprecation towards his own fame and fortune.

Since joining the Eagles, both his output and the quality of his output has diminished.

Nils Lofgren's story is not that different. Excellent early band called Grin that never really got much notice, but played tight, guitar-driven rock: "Like Rain," "White Lies," and "Moon Tears" all stand among my very favorite rock songs. Being asked to play on Neil Young's After The Goldrush (on piano) got him noticed a little more. He's also in Young's Tonight's The Night band, adding sizzling leads to several tracks. His guest solo on Young's "Like An Inca," off of Trans, transcends space and time.

After Grin, Lofgren, too, pursues a solo career, though, unlike Walsh, he doesn't ever have the hits. However, songs like "Back It Up," "Keith Don't Go," "Cry Tough," and "Mud In Your Eye" are all evidence of strong songwriting skills. His live act, bolstered by updated versions of classic Grin songs, is about as solid a rock set as you'll ever hear, and he has to be making some money, because he puts out a lot of albums, many of them with major backing talent

Like Walsh, Nils Lofgren also has a romantic vision, a world where Keith Richards is the inspiration for what he does, where friends and brothers stick together, where women may do you wrong, but that doesn't mean that you quit trying. He also has a distinctive high voice and a fluid playing style that, if you know it and you hear it, you go, "Oh, that's got to be Nils."

Then Miami Steve van Zandt leaves the E Street and Nils takes his place, right after Born In The USA and twenty-five years go by. At least, Lofgren has continued to have a fairly-prolific output. Most recently, he released a CD of Neil Young covers.

You know, all I will say is this: there are Lancelots out there who are too talented to remain in the service of the king(s). There are players who have more to offer than just stepping out for a few solos in somebody else's band. Walsh should have quit the Eagles when they fired his buddy, Don Felder. Lofgren should have ended his stint on E Street when van Zandt returned. I know you've got to feed the kids, I know there is money to be made, but if you've got your own vision, as these men do, then let someone else play the guitar from "Hotel California" note for note for the umpteenth time, let someone else play the simplistic slide guitar on "Lonesome Day." Let them hire somebody. Not you.

These songs are not available at Itunes. Walsh's There Goes The Neighborhood appears to be out of print. Lofgren's Authorized Bootleg never was in print. Both have been converted from vinyl using the Ion TTUSB.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Boys: A Pseudo-Scientific Observation

Back Breaker - Hit the Lights (mp3)
Highschool Stalker - Hello Saferide (mp3)

The school at which Bob and I work has several hundred boarding students, all male. Every weekend, one faculty member must spend Saturday and Sunday afternoons leisurely walking around the campus. That person must also walk into every dorm and enter every single dorm room on the campus.

Some call this responsibility "Suicide Watch," in honor of the original reasons this policy was first enacted roughly a decade ago. Others call it "Faculty Snoop Patrol," because it can at times be a little creepy and a little awkward, entering the sole private living spaces of boys, most of whom you hardly know. I call it "Prostitute Watch," because it amuses the boys and lightens the mood. Better to imagine scouring the campus looking for Vivian Ward in a compromising position in a boy's twin bed than to be thought of as searching for someone who's hung himself from sheer misery.

I was on Prostitute Watch last weekend, and I found myself studying our little incubator of adolescent males based solely on what I saw while walking through the dorms and across campus two afternoons on a weekend in November.

First, on average, our boarding student body is wealthier, smarter, and whiter than your average bear. We are not without color, nor are we without boys whose parents are middle or lower-middle class. Just wanted to get that out there so you know what kind of boys I'm mostly talking about.

Muhammed Ali: Still the Greatest
This was the observation that began my pseudo-scientific study. The first dorm I entered has maybe 20 rooms. Of those 20 rooms, at least eight had a poster of Muhammed Ali. It wasn't all the same poster, either. Throughout all the dorms, I can think of at least five different posters, maybe six. All but two were variations of him lording over his unconscious prey in the ring (mostly from the Sonny Liston fight, I think).

An African-American who converted to Islam*, whose last significant bout occurred 31 years ago, was easily the most popular icon on dorm room walls of mostly white boys from generally more privileged economic backgrounds. And these boys are fairly conservative both politically and religiously. Am I wrong to find that strange and somehow encouraging? Despite this fear and feeling that issues of race and religious prejudice are festering and refusing to heal, a ton of white boys admire the black man formerly known as Cassius Clay?

Strangely, I can only recall two posters of Michael Jordan, and only two or three of Tiger Woods. Roger Federer and Michael Phelps were much more popular... which is precisely what I would have expected in dorms of mostly well-to-do white boys. But none of those dudes had a thing on Ali.

Video Games Are a Social Activity; Accept It and Move On
Many of my coworkers spent the first years of the 21st Century lamenting the slow death of boys going outside to have fun. More and more boys, they cried, spent hour after hour staring at a television screen in isolation from their peers and the beautiful world around them. These boys were losing social skills and disconnecting with reality.

As someone who spent his Atari 2600 youth crammed into a basement spending hour after hour playing Dungeons & fucking Dragons, I can merely attest to the fact that one need not have modern technology and a TV screen to isolate oneself from the beautiful world and stunt one's own social growth. Fighting a Class Nine Hydra with a paladin named Lucius, his elf thief friend Shadow, and their wise wizard father-figure Ebenezer, does the trick just fine, thank you very much. I daresay that before D+D and before video games there were millions of other ways for boys to be anti-social or nerdy or wrapped up in some odd world. Hell, I'm not sure why sitting in a deer stand for seven hours is all that more admirable than playing Halo.

Most of the boys were out of their rooms on Saturday afternoon, but many were there on Sunday, and most were grouped as couples, threesomes or foursomes watching a movie or playing a video game. Some of the boys played sports games like football, basketball and soccer, while other boys played first-person shooter games like Halo and Call of Duty, and others played those long-range strategy games or shit that's way past my comprehension like World of Warcraft.

My point is, these boys talked. They socialized. Their use of the TV screen and XBox controllers was no different in its purpose than a bowling alley. Boys prefer having an excuse to gather first. The conversations and socializing is vital, but secondary. Boys don't generally meet over coffee. They meet to compete, or to play a game, or to throw a frisbee, or to watch a movie.

Girls, it seems, are completely comfortable with the idea of simply hanging out and talking. One frequent reader meets monthly with her local pals to play "Bunco," which they call "Drunko" because they haven't actually played the game in more than a year. They just use the game as an excuse to sit around and gab, because it makes more sense to their husbands if they explain their activity being centered around a game.

Boys Are Best Enjoyed Without a Microscope
For the last several years, I've struggled to enjoy my dorm responsibilities. The job requires that I police the boys somewhat stringently at a time in their night where they are desperate to unwind. Further, teenage boys have and will always seek to push limits, experiment with freedom, and buck authority. These are important and essential things, and when I see the boys at our school as a forest, I find myself feeling very happy and optimistic. They are, on the whole, good kids. Smart kids. Talented kids.

Unfortunately, when forced to get to know a semi-random assortment of them on a deeper level in my dorm job, I must get to know boys I might like less than usual, and I must deal with their inevitable imperfections more than usual. It is, in some sense, having to be a foster parent to a child you don't really like. Worse, it's almost a direct correlation between how unlikable they are and how much of your time they suck away. The squeaky wheels, as they say, get your grease.

It's so easy for boys -- and men, and girls and women -- to carry on this illusion of being an "all-around good person." Our students especially are smart enough and raised in the kinds of environments where they can play the parts they feel expected to play, and they can do so dutifully and with great skill and flair. It is only when they are observed so closely, when almost every waking moment exists under the watchful eyes of adults, that their flaws surge to the forefront, when their every misstep and mistake risks risks being brought to light. It's like asking Eliot Spitzer to be on The Truman Show.

And who really wants to watch that??

Hit the Lights and Hello Saferide are the kind of bands that have no illusion of going multiplatinum. They must do it because they're possessed by evil demons. Consider supporting them.

* -- or the Nation of Islam, if you're into splitting hairs

Monday, November 9, 2009

Life as Gumbo

Johnny Nash--"Stir It Up" (mp3)
Tony Trischka (featuring Syd Straw)--"Alfa Ya-Ya" (mp3)

One of the better pleasures of life is sitting down to eat a bowl of real gumbo, made without haste using a traditional recipe. But, arguably, an even greater pleasure is constructing that gumbo. I have spent much of the weekend doing just that. Hang with me, if you're not a cook (yet) and trust that my purpose is not to brag on my gumbo. I'll try to make a broader point.

The complexity of a gumbo depends on several steps, none of which can be rushed. Sure, there are shortcuts one could take, bottled this and frozen that, but each one would diminish the final stew. Gumbos tend to split into two basic camps: seafood gumbo and chicken and sausage gumbo. I made the latter, mostly because I had picked up some incredible andouille sausage the last time I was in New Orleans.

Gumbo's nuances are built layer by layer. The first layer is the chicken. You need to fry or roast it to intensify the flavors in the bones, meat, and skin. After you pull the skin off the bone, the bones become the base of the chicken stock, which, when boiled, then simmered, with onion, celery, carrots, garlic, peppercorns, and parsley in water that, left on low heat, becomes a rich broth. So, two things done. The key, though, is the roux. The gradual browning of white flour in hot oil until it becomes as dark as chocolate is the essential component. As it becomes the color of peanut butter and then darker, it takes on a carmelized flavor like nothing else. To achieve that perfect roux requires constant vigilance and stirring for the better part of an hour.

SIDEBAR: When is the last time most of us stirred anything for 40 minutes?

The addition of the Cajun trinity of chopped onions, green peppers, and celery, with garlic, to a dark roux releases smells into the room and house that seem like some heavenly blend of fried chicken and soy sauce. After the vegetables have softened, pouring in the chicken stock, brought to a boil, with bay leaf, thyme, and a blend of other spices, and then simmered for an hour or so, creates a base of some 20 different tastes, some added twice and in different ways. There is no quick way to duplicate it.

Then the chicken is added back in, and with it, the chunks of andouille, itself a myriad of flavors, including pork and pepper heat and smoke. And, finally, the okra, both as a taste and as a thickener, sauteed to eliminate the sliminess and to include yet another seared flavor. Finally, the seasoning is corrected, and over two days with essentially 7 major steps, eight if you serve it over rice, you have gumbo.

Gumbo is a pleasure both ways. If you don't know how it's made, then you are amazed by the complexity of its flavors, and each bite is a revelation. Your tongue, your mouth, your brain all know that you could not pour it out of a can. Or, if you do know how it is made, if you make it, then you are equally rewarded, in that you have successfully executed each step.

I could have talked about bread or ice cream or even a relationship. The point would be the same. Taking the time to do things the way they need to be done, the way they are best, is neither a luxury nor just a nod to some nostalgic vision of the past. The reality is that back when the world was slower, when money wasn't as important, when quality could reign over quantity, there were slower processes of life that justified themselves easily--first because the shortcuts weren't available, and, second, because the waiting increased their worth.

In the past few years there have been a plethora of books about things/places/books/etc. to do/see/read/visit/etc. before we die. I appreciate the sentiment. It's a big world, as Joe Jackson would say, so much to see.

But the book that really spoke to me was the one by Jan and Michael Stern, 500 Things To Eat Before It's Too Late (and the Best Places To Eat Them). You will note the slight shift in emphasis. Sure, the "too late" could refer to our potential imminent demises just like the rest of the books, but when you get into the Sterns' book, you quickly realize that the places, the joints, the specials dishes they advocate are ones that are made in Mom 'n Pop places whose offerings are specific to particular parts of the country. They have been making the same foods in the same basic ways for decades. When these places don't make them, who will? Who will carry on the traditions of making these foods the way they always have been made? "Before it's too late" means before the rush of the modern world squeezes them out, before their expensive, time-honored techniques become too expensive.

I tried to hit a number of these places when I was in Chicago this summer and to indulge in the best Italian Beef sandwich, the breaded steak sanwich, the Chicago hot dog, etc., but for me the larger issue becomes even more important each year when the holidays approach. That's when treasured family recipes, things that a deceased parent or relative or neighbor used to make, come to the forefront.

And here's the news that no one wants to hear: those people are deceased and they aren't going to be making those special treats that they used to make. We have to do it. But, maybe, we don't have time, we don't know how to, maybe we just don't want to, maybe we don't even care to, maybe we don't cook, maybe we don't bake, maybe our children will never know the difference. Hey, wake up! The past is disappearing and it isn't coming back. It's about to become an extinct animal. Short of cloning it, and I don't know how you clone time, the things that were important or comforting to us are going to be gone if we don't save them.

So that's why, up above, I wanted to give you an idea about how gumbo is made. And I'm here to say, it's all just gumbo, baby. Seven steps, one step at a time. Totally worth it. Ain't nothin' like it. Nowhere. Because it's my gumbo or your gumbo and that means it becomes my family's gumbo and maybe someday, a child or a grandchild makes it just like I used to. 'Cause families, too, are like gumbo--layers upon layers upon layers.

Bob will be serving his gumbo at the Mocs' tailgate this coming Saturday if the weather holds. Johnny Nash and Tony Trishka are available at Itunes. I don't know why the classic Johnny Nash track does not play, but it does download, so you can listen to it that way.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Chain Reaction - Journey (mp3)
New Shoes - Pi (mp3)

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
                        -- Shakespeare, Sonnet 18

Ants bother me. Philosophically, ants haunt me.

I'm not phobic. I don't lie awake at night worried that ants will eat me. Ants don't appear in my sexual fantasies or in my nightmares. I don't find myself scratching up and down my whole body at the thought of ants crawling up a pants leg or a shirt sleeve. Yet, more than any other living creature on this planet, ants freak me out.

Everything about them bothers me. They are the anti-humans: efficient and productive and undistractable. They are like The Terminator in miniature form.

When the day comes that Mother Nature finally decides to hand out the appropriate punishment to humanity, a consequence far more dire than Time Out or a spanking -- or maybe we'll beat her to the punch and cause our own mutually assured destruction -- creatures like the industrious ant will move up the evolutionary ladder. Our face will fall off the earth's totem, and the ant will move closer to the top.

When our Great Gettin' Up Mornin' comes, as Morgan Freeman calls it in Glory, perhaps the most frightening part for someone like me is that even those things we casually consider immortal die with us. Our literature. Our great works of art. Our philosophies. Our politics. Our forms of government and means of organization. Our technology. All of these things will die with us.

Even someone like Shakespeare, who in many ways had convinced me he was immortal, will have had the stake driven into his undead heart. (Yeah, I believe there's a heaven, but I'm hard-pressed to think we're gonna give a shit about Shakespeare or any other earthly thing there. If so, I'll consider it a pleasant surprise and dance a little earthly jig in celebration.)

If it seems like I'm stating the pathetically obvious here, I apologize, but what I've had to accept is that, ultimately, Kansas was right. Eventually, at some point on the horizon, all we are and all we've done really is dust in the wind.

Know what else bothers me about ants? I go back to this quote from John Adams:

“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.”

Ants don't do any of that shit, and they aren't losing sleep at night wondering what it's like to get a master's degree in political science or Elizabethan poetry. I can look down on them and step on them with my nice dress shoes and laugh at their naked single-mindedness, and I can mock them for caring nothing for politics and war, or mathematics and philosophy, or natural history and naval architecture, or painting, poetry, music, architecture, tapestry and porcelain. They care about the queen. And one could argue they don't even have enough brain power to care about any of the things they do. They just do. Ants ARE the Nike slogan.

Caring and wondering and worrying and musing is left to us silly mouth-breathers.

For all of our amazing brilliance and advanced states, their species will outlive our species.

I'm just not sure how to handle that part. So I just step all over their mounds every chance I get. Give 'em more stupid busywork. That's what I say. Not like they're gonna put me on trial or unleash some ant detectives to track me down or anything. Might as well enjoy my superiority while I'm around to lord it over them.

"New Shoes" was provided by Pi's music promoters, and I encourage you to search this lady out if you find the song worthy. Pretty good, no? As for Journey, I have begun to concede to the viral revival of their pop-rock catchiness after having mostly successfully ignored it since college.