Tuesday, December 23, 2008

seasonal hair fare

A Christmas Story (1983) seems to have a secure place as a "holiday classic" these days, and is the most recently-made addition to the Holiday Classic Movie Pantheon. Maybe Elf (which I still haven't watched because of my contempt for Will Ferrell, even though it has the godlike Bob Nehwart in it) or one of those Tim Allen holiday movies or even the creepy "they have no souls!" animation of The Polar Express will get there someday, who knows?

(By the way, that's assuming that The Nightmare Before Christmas - one of only two Tim Burton films that are great all the way through - and Bad Santa will remain more "cult Christmas" than "TNT 24/7 Christmas Day repeat marathon" in their level of mainstream acceptability. We're talking society's picks when I'm talking "pantheon," not my personal choices.)

I used to dislike A Christmas Story. It didn't strike me as funny the first few times I encountered it in the '80s. My aunt and uncle adored it, I think in large part because its near-perfect recreation of the 1940s reminded them a lot of their own childhoods in the 1950s. But other than the Leg Lamp (and yes, I know there are A Christmas Story-branded Leg Lamps now - we just don't have a place for one!) and how the "you're gonna shoot your eye out!" thing ends up, it was pretty laugh-free for me at the time.

Nowadays, while I don't think I'll ever list A Christmas Story as a favorite, the repeat viewings have had their effect, and the movie's grown on me. I certainly laugh more at it now than I used to, but the thing I appreciate most about the movie is its attention to 1940s period detail.

However, there is absolutely one thing about A Christmas Story that, every time it comes into the frame, takes me right out of the story:

The mom's hair.

I mean, look at this!

Ladies and gentlemen, that's not 1940s hair. That's a vintage 1983 poodle 'do from Hair Affair at the Mercer Mall. Could no one on this film convince Melinda Dillon (the actress playing the mom) to succumb to a period hairstyle? If she was so attached to that crazy frizzy thing (which I hate hate hated on women 'n' girls at the time, much less now), couldn't she have put on a wig? And unless I missed the Melinda Dillon Ascendancy of the early '80s, she wasn't a big enough star, then or ever, to have demanded "no one touches my hair!" and gotten away with it. Maybe she was boffing the director, I dunno.

Hairstyles are usually the downfall of period pieces. Of course, there are plenty of other clues to when a period piece was filmed, most often in the cinematography / lighting / color processing, but usually it's someone running around 33 CE Rome or King Arthur's court or Studio 54 c. 1977 with Anachronism Hair, like they just pulled them off the street, threw chainmail or a leisure suit on them, and called it a day.

So yeah, every time Ralphie's Mom is in the frame, it totally undoes the decor, the sweaters, Darren McGavin's irascible Dad (surely an ancestor of That '70s Show's Red Foreman), and hours and hours of painstaking research, set decoration, and costuming, all because that woman had to keep her damn poodle hair.

I usually am a purist when it comes to being against ex post facto alterations of movies and TV shows. No colorization, no Apocalypse Now Redux bloating , no George Lucas-style reedits. But if I could, I would digitally alter this film to put an actual 1940s hairstyle on this woman.

By the way, in Googling up the photo for this piece, I discovered that many, many men developed pre-adolescent crushes on Ralphie's Mom, and still think she's totally MILFy. Who knew? For me, the hair by itself trumps any other virtues of Melinda Dillon's, at least in this film. But then again, I was 16 when this movie came out, so I was spending my time pining over very real girls at school rather than getting dewy-eyed over Ralphie's Mom. Plus my own pre-adolescent crush on a TV or movie mom was Elizabeth Montgomery, and what poodle-haired latecomer could compete with that?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

total eclipse of the heroes

So I'm slowly catching up on this season of Heroes, via the good ol' TiVo. While it's certainly a blogworthy idea to explain how I feel about the show (in general: first season good, second season bad, third season in between but more iffy than not), I just watched "Eclipse: Part 2," and this is what I have to say right this minute, while the thought is still pipin' hot:

In case you don't know anything about Heroes (not that there's anything wrong with that): On this show, there are a bunch of folks with superpowers. Not all the characters, but most.

In the two-part episode I finished watching tonight, these folks lose their respective superpowers during a solar eclipse.

Somehow, it doesn't occur to any of the show's characters - and their ranks include powerful leaders, off-the-charts scientific geniuses, mind readers, time travellers, super duper quasi-government agents, etc. - that once the eclipse is over, these superpowers might come back.

I mean, yeah, having everyone lose their powers for a few hours opened up lots of possible character development and interesting plot twists (interesting by the standards of last season and this one, anyway).

But it did this totally at the expense of suspense of disbelief. None of these people thought "hey, when the eclipse is over, all those powers might come back"? C'mon. I think even this episode's Comic Book Guys (Breckin Meyer and Seth Green in cameo appearances) would know that was the Worst. Idea. Ever.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

police on my back

I was supposed to have today off but got asked to work this evening. I need the money, so I said "yes."

My start time was 6 PM, so I left the house at 5:30 PM, which in this here northern hemisphere at this time of year means that it's dark already.

I was almost to my workplace - about a mile from it - and traveling in the left-hand lane on my side when a cop pulled behind me.

The scene:
  • I'm on Gallatin Road, a city street.
  • There are two lanes of traffic on either side of the street.
  • There is a turn lane in the middle of the street.
The police cruiser then moved closer to me and turned on the ol' flashing lights. It didn't look like the cop was trying to pull me over, and rush hour traffic meant I was in no danger of speeding, so I concluded that he had just gotten a call and wanted to pass me. Since I had traffic in the lane on my right, I simply slowed down. The turn lane to our left was completely clear, so he could have easily gone into that lane to get around me.

Instead, he pulled closer and stayed behind me. Even though he didn't have his siren on, I then figured "well, he's pulling me over." I slowed down more and he still didn't pass me. I tried to look at the cop to see if he was signaling me, but since it was dark outside, I couldn't tell.

So, still thinking I'm being pulled over, I put on my right turn signal, and cut through the lane of traffic to my right, and then on to the shoulder. In the dark. In rush hour. Because a cop has on his flashing lights and is all up in my tailpipe and seems to want me to pull over.

And the cop didn't follow me. He stayed in the lane we were in, turned off his flashing lights, and went on up Gallatin Road with no sense of alacrity whatsoever.

To which I can only say: huh?

Friday, December 12, 2008

the ubiquity of iced tea

On Thanksgiving Day, we had the traditional midday dinner at my wife's aunt's place. It's one of those meals where there's enough attendees and little enough space around the table that once you sit down, you're pretty much locked in place until the plates are cleared in advance of dessert.

After we had loaded up our plates and sat down to begin mass consumption, two beverage choices were passed around the table:
  • unsweet iced tea
  • sweet iced tea
I don't like iced tea, but I didn't want to make a fuss, and I'm not a person who needs to drink while eating. And somewhat later in the meal, someone noticed that I hadn't chosen a beverage and at that point, I did receive liquid sustenance (in the form of good ol' H2O).

My point in bringing up this example is that in my adult life, I have found myself at dozens of meals - at workplaces, with significant-other families, at daytime/working-hours parties - where not only was iced tea the only beverage option offered, it didn't even seem to occur to the organizers that some poor miscreant might not want iced tea.

I've tried iced tea plenty. I'm not much for any kind of tea, but I imagine my aversion to hot tea has to do with my lifelong bafflement at how to consume hot beverages (grist for another blog post, that).

But iced tea... oh yeah, I've tried it. As a kid, as a teenager, as an adult, as a quadrigenarian, you name it. And I've never liked it.

Not sweet or unsweet, lemon or no lemon, never, no way. To me, it's like someone put a stick in some water and called it a beverage. It's work for me to drink, and I can't get down even half a glass. The only variant that I've been able to drink a glassful of in one sitting is "fruit tea," and that's grudgingly, and with enough fruit content that it may not quite be tea anymore.

We didn't drink any kind of tea in the house I grew up in, so this beverage was foreign to my own upbringing in West Virginia. But my first wife grew up 15 miles from where I did, and she and her family quaffed iced tea like it was going out of style. In fact, during the nineteen years we were together, her mother never remembered that I didn't like iced tea, resulting in many unpleasant moments for me at meals when I hadn't noticed that I'd been served tea. I'd pick up the glass, and take a big swallow of what I expected to be Coke or Pepsi or at least Big K... and bleagh! mouthful of TEA!

One more example: in the late '90s, I organized and implemented conversion training in three cities for the employees of a bank that my then-employer had bought. In Jackson, MS, I left the catering arrangements to my local counterpart. As I'm sure everyone reading this has already guessed, at every meal during these training sessions - which I'm thinking was ten meals during the course of that week - the only beverages offered were sweet tea and unsweet tea. By the second day, I tried to make sure that I either brought in a couple of drinks for myself or had enough change for the vending machines at the training center. However, I was the only person out of dozens at these sessions that I saw use the machines. Everyone else blissfully quaffed their iced tea.

But I want to know... is it just some weird southern / Appalachian thing to offer only iced tea, and to assume that everyone loves iced tea? Or is it all iced tea all the time everywhere?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

ready for the crush

Recently, I began playing U2's Achtung, Baby (one of my favorite album titles) for the first time in a lonnnng time. Maybe for the first time in more than ten years, even though I like the album very much.

And during the first of these recent listens, I realized that I'd been slightly misquoting "Zoo Station" for a lonnnng time.

In discussing the song, I'd quote the lyrics as

ready to let go of the steering wheel
i'm ready
ready for what's next

All of those lyrics actually appear in the song, so I'm not just making it up out of whole cloth, or having a mondegren moment.

But "ready for what's next" comes early on, and far away from "ready to let go of the steering wheel." The line that actually comes after "ready to let go of the steering wheel" isn't "ready for what's next," but "ready for the crush."

Nevertheless, the way I (mis)remembered it is important, because it says what's important to me about the song and how the song relates to my life. Over the years, my memory had simply pared it down to the thesis.

I've made a lot of changes over the last three or four years. While I had a modicum of happiness where I was before, it was only a modicum. I wasn't really happy. There was always something wrong.

Nowadays, things are different. Instead of resigning myself, I've made an effort. I've taken a lot of chances, at least by my standards. Even when events didn't turn out how I might have liked, I've gained from every experience. I've found out that I can actually get the things I really want. I've finally lived.

I'm not sure if I let go of the steering wheel or if I finally took hold of it. Somehow, I think I did both.

And I am far, far happier for it.

Don't get me wrong, my life isn't without challenges. But now, when I face those challenges, there's a tranquility at the eye of the storm because I feel better about myself and my life.

Both sets of lyrics turn out to be true.

I was finally ready for what's next.

I am ready for the crush.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

hatful of grumble

McGavock Pike, December 2nd, 2008

Since 'tis the season to be charitable, we're assuming that the e's completely sold out on the day after Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

"it is time to purge this place of the cult"

An NPC just said the titular line to me while I was doing this quest in World of Warcraft. I might safeguard a copy of "She Sells Sanctuary," but other than that, yeah, let's purge those hookless morons all to hell!

I remember them being pretty popular on WRVU back in '88 when I moved to Nashville, in some sort of "so uncool they're cool" reverse hipster move. Now, if it was AC/DC, well, they deserve some nods from the cognoscenti - if they'd emerged four years later than their actual debut, a lot of people who scoff at them would revere them as much as they do the Ramones - but... the Cult? My mind's still thoroughly boggled by that. I know a few weeks ago I blogged about sons of Jim Morrison that I like better than the Doors, but Ian Astbury is proof that the bombastic excesses of the progenitor sometimes still predominate in the DNA. Plus Asbury is far more dumb than his hero, and Jimbo himself wasn't always the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Also, I kept wishing the Cult would keep dropping parts of their name with every release. Remember how they went from "Southern Death Cult" to "Death Cult" to "Cult"? I kept waiting for them to be the "ult" or even just "C" (though "C" will always really be for "Cookie"). Now that, I could have respected.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

i know when to fold 'em, i just don't know how to fold 'em

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! And I want to send out a special "happy birfday" to my friend Sue!

I've got a lot of blog ideas bubbling around and should have more time off over the next couple of weeks than I've been having, so expect more posts, probably in concentrated bursts (i.e., several in a day instead of only one per day). It's just a matter of writing up my notes.

Today's "thing I've been meaning to mention" is inspired by my straighten-the-house efforts to clear the dining room table for tonight's nice just-me-and-the-wife dinner (the family event is a midday gathering at her aunt's): For the life o' me, I cannot fold clothes.

It's one of those things that the people who already know how to do it seem incapable of explaining, or at least I feel incapable of understanding what they are telling me.

When I'd ask my mother what to do, she'd give a simple two-step direction, then her hands turned into a motion blur. And out of the blur would emerge a perfectly-folded shirt: sleeves tucked neatly in back, center of the shirt (design, if a t-shirt) facing up and looking crisp, like something from a store shelf. And then I'd try to follow her directions, but the moment I started to make folds on the sides, the sleeves would escape my grasp and enter some kind of gravity field where they absolutely defied all efforts to be submitted. Instead of my mom's perfect rectangle, I'd end up with something decidedly wrinkly, lumpy, and irregular, whose surface area could only be measured with an arcane calculation that would trip up even the most-prepared math field day contestants.

Then my mom would shake her head and just do it herself.

It was like when I'd make an attempt to learn to swim. I remember conversations with my ex-wife about this topic, usually while she was supine in epic relaxation aboard her yellow float at the pool, while I clung for dear life to the side of the shallow end:

"How do you float?"

"I dunno, you just float."

"But what are you doing?"

"I'm not doing anything. You just relax and float."

"You must be doing something. Because when I do nothing, I sink."

"Here, I'll show you."

She'd slide off her float into the pool, and demonstrate floating.

"Looks to me like you're doing something. You're moving your legs a little, wiggling your arms every now and then. You're making adjustments."

"Well, to me, it's not doing anything. I'm just floating."

"Yeah, but you're doing something."

"Well, try it and let me see what happens."

So I'd relax, let the water lift my legs up, and try to do nothing...

...and my butt would start sinking to the bottom immediately.

Then she'd look at me like my mom looked at me when I was trying to fold shirts, shake her head, and exit pool left (usually not pursued by bear or by Rush).

Surely, some of you, dear readers, must be able not only to fold but able to explain how to fold. If so, I'm all ears. Or, since this here blog stuff is readin', all eyes, I guess.

Oh, and for those of you who read this via RSS, sorry for the early appearance of a blank post. Somehow "enter" got pressed when I was still working on the title, so you got nothin'! Hopefully you clicked on the post and eventually got something. Well, you wouldn't be reading this unless you did, would you? :)

Monday, November 24, 2008

suddenly, it's last summer

Today I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR, and while host Terry Gross was talking with actor James Franco (being a baseball nut and a Reds fan, I almost typed it "John Franco"), she mentioned Pineapple Express as a movie from "last summer." My immediate reaction was "no, that wasn't 2007! That was this past summer!"

Then I realized that she also meant 2008. But I have always found this specific "last" formulation misleading. To me, the summer of 2008 won't be "last summer" until at least January 1st, 2009, and maybe not even until June 21st, 2009. Until then, it's "this past summer."

I hear this most often in sports, where a number of talking heads and writers start talking about "last season" a minute after the regular season ends. For the sports calendar to turn over to "last" for me, we need to be in the next season. So for me, the 2008 baseball season won't be "last season" until pitchers and catchers show up for Spring Training in February 2009.

However, this will be my "last" blog entry until my next one goes up.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

rock rock to the 30 rock, don't stop

So the wife and I just finished watching Season One of 30 Rock on DVD. We certainly liked what we had seen of the first two seasons, but somehow we never watched the show regularly. I think we'd seen maybe three complete episodes (including the amazing 2007 one with "who's crazier, me or Ann Curry?," Alec Baldwin role-playing all the parts in the Tracy Morgan intervention, and the "NBC page-off") and parts of four or five more, so we had a lot of new-to-us stuff on these DVDs.

And color us impressed. Season One was consistently funny, delivering rapid-fire, smart, quality laughs every episode. I'm really looking forward to guzzling the second season in what will likely be a couple of big, delicious gulps.

The funniness of 30 Rock raises this question, though: Why in the h-e-double-hockey-sticks was Saturday Night Live so desperately unfunny over the last few years? Tina Fey was SNL's head writer from 1999 through 2006, and many of her SNL co-conspirators play prominent roles on 30 Rock. Based on that alone, I'd expect 30 Rock to bite the big one, but instead, 30 Rock achieves an almost Arrested Development-like level of intelligent, densely-layered hilarity.

While I do think that SNL improved during Fey's final years on the show, that's like saying that Revenge of the Sith was an improvement on Attack of the Clones. SNL's been an unmitigated disaster since 1992-1993, the season after the last of the excellent Hartman / Carvey / Myers / Lovitz / Hooks / Miller cast flew the coop. Heck, I laugh more at Tracy Morgan in any two minutes he's on 30 Rock than I did during his whole SNL tenure.

So what's holding SNL back? Is it Lorne Michaels? Lingering Mary Gross syndrome? What?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

they can't stand the rain

Nashville suffered through a gloomy, rainy day today. The worst thing about the weather isn't so much the weather itself, but the poor driving of Nashvillians when faced with any inclement weather whatsoever. Instead of taking more precautions, people here decide "hey, there are no rules!" and begin taking more chances. Put poor decision-making together with bald tires, poor drainage, and easily-saturated limestone soil, and it's a recipe for disaster.

The worst such incident I ever saw happened during the surprise blizzard of early 2004, when I witnessed a guy back across four lanes' worth of snow and ice on Nolensville Road. But today's behavior was uniformly bad: pulling out in front of traffic, sudden stops, running lights even later than people here normally run lights. I even sat for five minutes at 7th Avenue North and Broadway because someone up at the corner had parked in the street. In the middle of the day. Not conked out, not wrecked or disabled and seeking help, not waiting to make a quick passenger pickup. Parked.

But the most strange thing I saw today wasn't a bizarre driving incident. It was a man sitting on the road on Scott Avenue. He wasn't on the shoulder, he was sitting on the street itself, with no raingear save for the plastic grocery bag upon which he was seated.

I had thought that the randomly-materializing rooster who lives up the street and the dogs who ride the tractor were pretty weird. But right now, they feel like part of the comforts of home. I'm glad to be back inside, and I'm not going out again tonight. No sirree.


WoW Ret Paladin followup (non-WoW audience can stop reading here): I discovered the magic ret paladin formula last night. Seal of Command -> judge -> Crusader Strike -> repeat last two steps ad infinitum. I should have known that if it was something a ret paladin could manage, it couldn't be brain surgery.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

if you don't build it, they won't come

Well, my readership has tapered off by half so far this week. I guess that's what happens when you end up skipping a couple of days! I was struggling with having enough time to write something in which I was really invested...

...but then it occurred to me today, ex post facto, that I should probably have just blogged about what was actually going on in my life the last few days, however geeky or mundane it may be.

So I'm taking my own advice! Here's what I've spent the bulk of the last three days doing:

  • Catering! My wife and I have been working on launching a catering company since July. She's a talented chef with over 20 years in the culinary industry, so the business is built on her mad food skillz and her astonishing creativity. Business has picked up a lot lately, and over the last few days, we were doing everything associated with two orders, one of them pretty large. Pricing, shopping, errand-running, assembling, delivering, you name it. Keep your fingers crossed that this continues to be the state of affairs: we want to stay this busy!
  • World of Warcraft! WoW launched its major pre-Wrath of the Lich King patch yesterday. Patch days for any MMO are insane, but this one makes a lot of stuff obsolete that players had been used to since at least 2006, and in some cases since the game's launch in December 2004. So there wasn't just the usual server unavailability and instability associated with Patch Day, there was also a major decision on respec'ing talents awaiting every one of us, on every character. I had things mapped out pretty well for my main character, a holy priest, and a quick heroic run late last night went painlessly. However, my other level 70 toon, a paladin, took the opportunity (at the urging of a guild leader) to respec from holy to retribution. So now I have no idea how to play this character that I've carefully built, leveled, and equipped in an entirely different way. I'm really struggling with it, and none of the player guides seem up to date for 3.0.2 ret pally spell rotation. Thow in dozens of add-ons that won't function yet in the 3.0.2 environment, whose absence is messing with my play style, and my little hobby hasn't been very fun for the last 36 hours.
Aren't you glad you asked? Wait, did you?

Monday, October 13, 2008

this post is made from the skins of dead jim morrisons

Several days ago, when I composed this post about Echo & the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon," it occurred to me that while I like several singers who were clearly heavily influenced by Jim Morrison - most notably Julian Cope and the Bunnymen's Ian McCulloch - I don't really care for Morrison himself that much. There is something cool about the deep voice action, sure, but so often Morrison's delivery is sooooo over the top, and the lyrical misses sooooo bad, that I don't think I could ever describe myself as a Doors fan (sorry, Dan).

This got me to thinkin' 'bout other cases where I like the sons better than the fathers. Here are some that came to me right away:

The Byrds
REM, Robyn Hitchcock, Tom Petty

The Beach Boys
Lindsey Buckingham, Lloyd Cole, the Blue Nile, The Negro Problem / Stew

Big Star
Game Theory/the Loud Family, the Replacements, the Posies


I'm getting diminishing returns from thinking about it more, so I'll throw it over to the readership at this point.

Oh, and while I'm not a Doors fan, I am a fan of this skit. "Greatest hits albums are for housewives and little girls."

Saturday, October 11, 2008

we never liked uncle clucky that much anyway

Actual sign, Madison, TN, 10/11/2008

While I'm hardly the first blogger to post an image of a restaurant sign that depicts animals, often wearing chef hats, merrily serving themselves or their relatives as fare, this one adds a layer of voyeurism to the proceedings. Are these barnyard fowls trapped in a pollo concentration camp where they are forced to watch friends and family members succumb to the roaster one by one, the witnesses contemplating their own similar, inevitable fates?

Or do they freely choose to watch their late defeathered friends cook? The scene certainly suggests a family gathered around the TV set for an evening of entertainment. Perhaps it could be the poultry version of Tyburn, a public meting out of justice for the main dish's crimes against chickendom.

I'm also disturbed by the choice of pollito instead of pollo. I'm no Spanish speaker, but I know there are a number of unsavory connotations for the word. And after all, you want nothing but savory connotations if you're advertising your roast chicken.

Friday, October 10, 2008

bring us your hirsute toys

Actual sign, McGavock Pike, 10/10/2008

I'm relieved that Nashville Barbies can now get their peach fuzz removed. And that they don't have to make an appointment for it!

Incidentally, this place is at least consistent with their apostrophes; it's "PERFECTION'S" not only on this changeable copy sign, but on the permanent sign affixed above the door.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

kick-ass songs of the '90s: wilco, "misunderstood" (the '90s, pt. 3)

For a while, Wilco was my favorite band.

REM had held that position from 1983 on, but 1998's Up, the first in a series of snoozefests, left them vulnerable. In '99, Wilco released Summerteeth, their third long-player. Wilco's first two albums were terrific, especially 1996's double-disc Being There. But Summerteeth not only represented continued growth and exploration from an already-stellar band, there was something about the way Jeff Tweedy was expressing his own struggles with identity and adulthood that resonated deeply with me. "A Shot in the Arm"'s refrains of "something in my veins / bloodier than blood" and "what you once were isn't what you wanna be / anymore" hit me right where I was living.

It was a symbolic moment of the first order when later in '99, I saw Wilco open for REM at northern Ohio's Blossom Amphitheater, a coincidental passing of the "Miles' favorite band" laurels. As if that wasn't enough, during Wilco's set, the band brought out a birthday cupcake for Jeff Tweedy, and someone onstage - Jay Bennett, John Stirratt? - said it was his 32nd, which meant that he was a fellow 1967 baby. Yup, me, Tweedy, and Kurt Cobain - bumper crop, eh?

Not that sharing the same year of birth ensures fellowship; if it did, school would have been a lot easier. But knowing this small fact about Mr. Tweedy made me feel like it wasn't coincidence that Jeff was feeling the same things at the same time I was feeling them, or, from what I could tell from interviews and the music itself, that he seemed to have a lot of the same experiences and perspectives as me.

Even though Summerteeth was and is my pick of the Wilco litter, I'm reaching back to Being There for the song that belongs in the "kick-ass songs of the '90s" series: "Misunderstood."

The leadoff track of Being There, "Misunderstood" begins with 45 seconds of instrumental mayhem: Nashville's Own Ken Coomer driving the drumkit forward as an ominous undertow of guitar feedback emanates from Tweedy and multi-instrumentalists Jay Bennett and Max Johnston.

Then, almost abruptly, it's piano, acoustic guitar, and Jeff Tweedy's voice, solemn, wistful:

When you're back in your old neighborhood
The cigarettes taste so good
But you're so misunderstood

You're so misunderstood

A lot of Being There is about being a music fan, and/or maybe a musician (later on the album, "The Lonely 1" captures the fan/musician relationship in exacting, heartwrenching beauty). It's hard to tell what's going on lyrically sometimes, as Tweedy cagily shifts perspectives, not just from song to song, but within an individual song. "Misunderstood" is no exception:

It's only a quarter to three
Reflecting off of your CD

You're looking at a picture of me
You're staring at a picture of me

Is the "you" a fan of Tweedy's? An old friend or lover? Is Tweedy narrating this song, or a character? Like a lot of my favorite music and art, the ambiguity forces the listener to do some interpretation of their own, which also results in the listener investing in the song in a way that wholly straightforward narration can't match.

After Tweedy quotes some telling Peter Laughner lines ("take the guitar player for a ride / 'cos he ain't never been satisfied"), the feedback, which has been bubbling under the acoustic interlude all along, surges front and center, threatening to tear the song apart. But after a few seconds, it recedes, leaving Tweedy' plaintive voice once again exposed:

There's a fortune inside your head
When all you touch turns to lead

You think you might just crawl back in bed

With the fortune inside your head

I know you're just a mama's boy
You're positively unemployed

So misunderstood

So misunderstood

As that last "misunderstood" slips out, now the song cashes in the tension that's been building for over four minutes: Coomer's drums roll and cymbals crash, the electric guitar trio reconvenes, and as the crescendo mounts, Tweedy has to shout to be heard:

I know you've got a god-shaped hole
You're bleeding out your heart full of soul

And then the third-person narration turns into something crueler and uglier, a messy explosion that's equal parts anger at the world and self-loathing. And guess what? It's not third-person any more, no sirree.

I'd like to thank you all for nothing
I'd like to thank you all for nothing at all

I'd like to thank you all for nothing

And then the whole band hits each of the next words in unison, drums and vocals and guitar and god knows what else all punching together, each "nothing" a sledgehammer blow, pulverizing everyone and everything in their path:

Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all
Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all

And then there's nothing at all, or nearly so: nothing but ruins anyway, shards of feedback falling to the floor, as the wounded basic riff of the song somehow still is ticking along somewhere in the wreckage.

Wilco's live performances of this song were often exercises in confrontation between artist and audience. The raucous feedback and Tweedy looking dead at the audience, screaming "I'd like to thank you all for nothing!" - and often extending the number of "nothing!"s far beyond the studio version - created a palpable tension in the room, providing a direct challenge to an audience that seemingly was expecting something more convivial. And when the band performed in front of half-indifferent audiences, as was more common before their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot / I Am Trying To Break Your Heart canonization, those bracing "nothing! nothing! nothing! nothing at all!"s carried extra venom.

I wanted to link a YouTube performance of the Bennett / Johnston / Coomer lineup doing "Misunderstood," but all the ones I could find are from the more recent Nels Cline / Pat Sansome / Glenn Kotche era. While all three of the latter-day gentlemen are probably better musicians than the guys they replaced, I think Wilco was more ferocious and raw in its prior lineup.

Nevertheless, I'm linking a "Misunderstood" from a 2007 show, and it's a good performance which will get across some of what I'm talking about. (And the guy singing along at the beginning either shuts up or gets drowned out pretty quickly, never fear.) But to me, this is a shade too smooth and ornate, and, as my friend doug might opine, "needs more demons."

[edit as of 7/11/2009]
Just found this version of "Misunderstood" on YouTube, posted after Jay Bennett's death. While this version doesn't have the three-guitar gonzo finale that I remember from the '99-'02 shows, it's splendid, it's got the right lineup and it's far more what I was after. Hopefully it also illustrates some of the aforementioned differences between that Wilco and present-day Wilco.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

get on the dancefloor, it's a timeslot hit

So a few days ago, we were watching our usual dose of Seinfeld reruns, and one of them was the one where Jerry goes onstage before hopelessly unfunny rival comic Kenny Bania, and Bania's act unexpectedly generates a bunch of laughs. When Jerry figures out that Bania's doing well because Jerry has already got the audience laughing, he calls Bania a "timeslot hit."

That got me to wonderin' if future generations will get this joke. I mean, in and of itself the plotline is funny. But the real deliciousness of Jerry's line comes from knowing the meta joke: it's a reference to NBC's practice on its "Must-See Thursdays" of airing sitcoms more lame than Bania's act in the 8:30 PM and 9:30 PM eastern/pacific slots, i.e., in the gaps between huge ratings hits Friends (8 PM), Seinfeld (9 PM) and E.R. (10 PM). No matter how insipid or atrocious or savaged by critics these shows were, they'd always be in the Nielsen top 10 because enough people wouldn't bother to change the channel between shows. Veronica's Closet, The Single Guy, Madman of the People, Union Square... need I go on for anyone who lived through this era?

In the world's best-ever Rolling Stone interview, NewsRadio creator Paul Simms dubbed NBC's approach to Thursday nights "the shit sandwich." I can't find the full text of the interview on the Internet anymore, but I can quote my own quoting of it from this Fegmaniax post of mine from days of yore:
Simms on NBC's "Must See Thursday":
"People are starting to realize Thursday night is
like a big double-decker shit sandwich with three
good pieces of bread, and in between..."

Q: If "NewsRadio" doesn't last, would you turn
your back on sitcoms?

"Yeah, this is the best I can do. Pretend
you're God and you say, 'If you do a show
about a single father who's dating a lot
and has two teenage sons, and it doesn't
have to be funny, and it'll be a huge hit.'
I'd say, 'Fuck you, God.'"
It's all of this that went into Jerry's joke, which made me guffaw when the episode first aired, when I watched it last week, and probably will for years to come. But as NBC's "Must-See Thursday" recedes into the dustbin that's already home to CBS' '70s Monday night comedy juggernaut, the true resonance of the "timeslot hit" line is likely to be as lost on the young'uns as the archness of Alexander Pope is to me. Annotation is no substitute for living memory.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

the battle of the boulevard, presidential-style

If you think tonight's U.S. presidential debate is getting round-the-clock coverage in your neck of the woods, imagine what it's like if the debate is happening nine miles from your home. This debate logo is plastered on billboards all over Nashville, and the minute last Thursday's Palin-Biden debate ended, local news went from daily coverage of the Belmont Debate* to saturation coverage. Heck, I'm surprised Snowbird isn't the moderator.

It also means that Nashville is going to be seen on every news outlet for the entire day, and that's never any fun if you live here. Why? Because most of the time, it's an excuse for columnists, TV hosts and copy writers looking for an easy angle to whip out the most hackneyed tropes about our town being the capital of hillbilly doofusdom. For what it's worth, it doesn't matter to me if it's Fox News or The Daily Show doing it; it still rankles me. Today, when I read that right-wing shill and poor excuse for a country artist John Rich (you may know him from Big and Rich, lucky you if you don't) serenaded John McCain on CBS's Early Show this morning, I audibly sighed. This is exactly the kind of Hee Haw nonsense that Nashville doesn't need.

So rather than opine about the politicians or the debate itself, I'd rather use this space to let you know that Nashville is a great place to live, and is far more sophisticated than any way it's likely to be portrayed today or in the post-debate punditry. It may be the capital of a "red state" (god, I hate that "red state/blue state" taxonomy - did the news outlets hold a Council of Nicea in 1993 or something to regularize which party was red and which was blue? I swear, I remember the party/color correlation varying from network to network until then), sure, but Davidson County itself went for both quasi-native son Al Gore and purported Yankee elitist liberal John Kerry in the most recent presidential elections.

We have an opera and an Opry. We have a bazillion international dining options, a large and still-growing Hispanic population, an internationally acclaimed symphony, the greatest live rock band ever, and snowball-throwing polar bear statues:

(image taken from The Bridge & Tunnel Club because I'm
not risking motorcade traffic to go take a fresh pic myself)

It's not London or Paris or New York, but it's got enough of everything for me. Today it also has Barack Obama, John McCain, and millions of viewers, but keep in mind as you watch the festivities that you not only need to be sorting out truth from fiction when it comes to the candidates, you need to be doing the same thing with what you see and hear about Nashville.

*held at Nashville's own Belmont University, which was Belmont College when I moved here in '88, and was previously best known as That Formerly Baptist College That Vince Gill Is Always Donating To That Turns Out All Those Music Biz People. The "Battle of the Boulevard" referenced in my title is what the local press calls the basketball smackdowns between Belmont U. and their just-down-Belmont-Boulevard denominational-college neighbors, the Church of Christ's own David Lipscomb University.

Monday, October 6, 2008

kick-ass songs of the '90s: curve, "faît accompli" (the '90s, pt. 2)

I inaugurated my '90s series last week with this way too long introduction to the subject. Between its premise (which is mostly "the '90s sucked musically compared to the '80s") and my Jay Tarses(es) series this weekend, I've gone on too long about things I don't like. It's time for some positivity about things that I love.

So today, we're gonna talk about one of the greatest songs of the '90s, Curve's "Faît Accompli." This 1992 single from their debut album, Doppleganger, is one of the most badass things I've ever heard - or in the case of the video, seen. The opening electro-percussive twitchery immediately intrigues the listener, and then - vroooooom! - there's the whole band, led by Dean Garcia's giant wall of guitar. But instead just raining a hail of feedback through the whole song, as fun as that would have been, the band immediately displays a sense of dynamics by having the guitar drop out.

What comes to the fore then is ominous low-end that was there all along, a bassline that sounds less like a bassline and more like something cold and evil rumbling up through the earth. And then Toni Halliday starts singing:

Every day, there is some kind of darkness
That just won't go away no matter how hard I try

As Toni intones that last line, the guitar reengages, and though the tone's already set, the pivotal line's next:

It crawls into your system while your guard is down

The first few times I heard "Faît Accompli," I heard this as "while your God is down," which I also like. But either way you hear the line, the same thing's happened: God, or one's guard, like a firewall, has crashed, and something cruel and evil exploited the gap immediately.

By the time Toni sings the last line of the chorus, she's either shifted perspectives or become fully possessed. Because when she sings

My name is Fate

it's not her anymore. It's something ancient, powerful, dark, and deep that's speaking, something older than the Christian God and Lucifer - something like, well, Fate.

And when Fate speaks its come-on in the song's bridge - and by now the low-end menace has congealed into a pulsing, primal rhythm - you can't turn your head away, you can't refuse:

I've come to crush your bones
I've come to make you feel old
I've come to mess with your head
Cos it'll make you feel good
I've come to make you feel good

Few songs conjure up this kind of primal power for me - P.J. Harvey's Rid of Me and "Down By the River" (contenders for this series within a series) and Shriekback in the days of Jam Science and Oil & Gold. Even the darkly punning title of the song is perfect: Fate is a done deal.

I enjoy the rest of the Curve catalog, but nothing they did before or since has matched "Faît Accompli"'s impact on me. This thing is a sonic tour de force, and if it's not the best song I heard in the '90s, it's damn close.

It's a rare thing for a video, but the one for "Faît Accompli" actually adds to the experience. It's sort of a performance clip, as the band is playing instruments in it, with smoke and wind machines aplenty. The choice to have the camera thrust up into the band creates motion and energy, and the perspective helps unsettle the viewer - guitarists everywhere but with the instrument centered in the frame and heads and feet often cut off, and often the only visible face is Halliday's sultry visage, at the height of its full "my name is FATE!" power.

Despite the band playing their instruments for the length of the video, it's less like we're seeing Curve play a song, and more like we've intruded on a ritual. There's a group of ominous hangers-on in the wings who appear to be waiting for something besides the load-out. The most prominent one among them is a Jean Kasem-like blonde woman, whose purposeful arm gestures and dancing lend a cult feel to the proceedings. But even more disturbing to me is the presence of the sheep - I immediately wonder if he or she is going to survive the evening, and several times later in the video, the hangers-on appear to be wrestling it to the ground. The sense of power and menace is just as keen in the video as in the song, and I highly recommend both.

If you want this song and video to crawl into your system, let your guard down here:

By the way, the best mix of the song, in my opinion, is the one used in the video. It's neither the album version on Doppelganger nor the long mix on the Pubic Fruit compilation; instead, it's the punchier Flood mix that, as far as I know, was only on the Faît Accompli EP. So if you really like this song as presented here, that's the version you should seek out.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

jay tarseses throughout the decades, pt. 3: the 2000s

Prior Installments
pt. 1: the 1980s
pt. 2: the 1990s

The Jay Tarses of the 2000s

Judd Apatow. First came Freaks and Geeks, which I really, really wanted to like. It looked smart and funny. It was set in 1980, right in my cultural and musical wheelhouse. And the titular Geeks were 7th graders, as was the real-life me in 1980! And it had SCTV's Joe Flaherty in it! I thought, "at last, a show for me! a show that speaks to me!"

Instead, I couldn't stand it. The music they got right, I'll give them that. But the clothes and hair, aside from Linda Cardellini's character wearing her dad's army jacket, seemed way off for 1980. Worse, the show was clearly written not only from the sole perspective of the geeks, but with no understanding of the other half of the titular equation.

Initially the "freaks" - a gang of pot-smoking high school teens whom Cardellini's character befriended - were depicted as menacing, and engaged in behaviors such as mailbox destruction that I much more closely associate with jocks, not potheads. To me, this demonstrated that the show's creators and writers had no actual experience with "freaks," who would have been the least likely kids in school to beat up the geeks or engage in bullying and violence. In fact, the "freaks" I knew usually had a genial live-and-let-live attitude, and bullying would have gotten in the way of more rewarding pursuits like getting stoned in the boys' room while listening to 8-tracks of AC/DC. (Also, Flaherty's over-the-top performance made it seem like he was acting in an entirely different show, but I digress.)

As Freaks and Geeks' lone season progressed, the writers transitioned the "freaks" from menacing goons to lovable lummoxes. But this showed just as little insight into the "freaks" as depicting them as thugs did, plus it reeked reeked of rote series-writing methodology (hey, let's make the bad guys turn out to be the good guys!). Many of the pot-obsessed folks I knew growing up were actually bright, funny people who weren't sufficiently challenged in school - they were often Mitch Hedbergs, not idiots. Apatow needed to spend less time in junior high cowering in the lunchroom and more time actually getting to know these folks. And if you want to see high school life in the '70s and '80s rendered in loving accuracy, rent Dazed and Confused; Freaks and Geeks misses on all counts.

But Freaks and Geeks found a loyal audience among critics, whom, one assumes, empathized with the show's "geeks" to such a degree that they failed to notice the program's many faults and chronic unfunnyness. Apatow followed it with another canceled-in-its-first-season TV show, Undeclared, which failed to connect either with me or with audiences, though it too had reams of favorable press.

But we shouldn't cry for Apatow too much: he's become the reigning mogul of movie comedy. The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up did major box office as well as garnering Apatow's usual critical raves. Throw in protégé Seth Rogen (Superbad, Pineapple Express), whose movies Apatow usually produces, plus a host of recent Will Ferrell comedies that Apatow has written and/or produced, and Apatow Inc. has become an unstoppable comedy factory.

But I'm still not laughing at his stuff. I haven't seen every movie that I just named above, but what I have seen doesn't strike me as either that smart or that funny.

Honorable Mentions
  • David E. Kelley, who isn't a Jay Tarses, but more of a category unto himself. He ruined the latter seasons of L.A. Law, and his subsequent series crimes are legion.
  • Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick. thirtysomething alone should earn them a special place in hell. However, since I actually liked My So-Called Life and the first season of Once and Again, they're disqualified from Tarsesdom. Lately, they were up to their old freighted-with-unearned-meaning tricks with web series Quarterlife.
  • Amy Sherman (I think she's dropped the "-Palladino"): I tried really hard to love Gilmore Girls. After investing nearly two seasons' worth of watching - I thought it was a lost cause after the first three episodes, but since several of my friends were avid fans and their recommendation meant a lot to me, I kept on trying - I would have even settled for just liking it. But I hated it, from its pretentious dialogue to the cardboard-cutout Stars Hollow greek chorus (if only Sherman had been a little smarter, she could have had major allegory action going on). Right now, Sherman's a leading contender for Jay Tarses of the 2010s. Keep an eye on this one, she's going places! Not places I want to visit, but places!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

jay tarseses throughout the decades, pt. 2: the 1990s

read "pt. 1: the 1980s"

The Jay Tarses of the 1990s
Aaron Sorkin. From the godawful script of A Few Good Men (I guess between Nicholson's rendition of the "you can't handle the truth!" speech, which is constantly replayed on TV as a "classic scene," and Pacino finally winning the Oscar for Scent of a Woman, the moral of the story is that scenery chewing pays!), to his self-righteous White House posturing (The American President and TV's The West Wing), Sorkin continually sounds clever, while not actually being so. A specialist in the category of "dialogue no actual human would ever say," Sorkin's barrage of verbiage and many wise casting choices have beguiled critics, who really ought to be able to discern how second-rate and hollow his material actually is.

The only Sorkin creation I could stomach longer than five minutes was the first season of Sports Night. But in retrospect, I think that had more to do with an extraordinarily gifted cast - Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Josh Malina, and especially Felicity Huffman - transcending the torrent of words, and less to do with Sorkin's words themselves. Quality control on the second season fell off dramatically (Dan's sudden Jewishness being the most egregious "wtf?" example), so I went right back to hating Sorkin again.

Like Sports Night, The West Wing also featured a pretty darn talented cast, and I'll always be grateful that the show gave veteran character actor John Spencer his long-overdue day in the sun. But here we not only got the Dialogue No Actual Human Would Ever Say, but it came in deadly combination with Heavy-Handed Moral Posturing (see also Sorkin's script for A Few Good Men). I'm not against tackling tough moral issues on TV; heck, favorites like Homicide and the new Battlestar Galactica sometimes cover six such dilemmas before the opening titles. But Sorkin doesn't seem to know how to do such things subtly and naturally like the aforementioned shows did; instead, every "important" plot might as well have a flashing red light attached, screaming at the audience "IMPORTANT! HEY, OVER HERE! WE'RE DEALING WITH REAL ISSUES HERE! HEY!" Sheesh, it makes me tired just thinking about watching that show. No wonder that I watched the sublimely silly Drew Carey Show instead.

While The West Wing straddles the 1990s and 2000s, I'm not going to let a technicality like that deprive Mr. Sorkin of this much-deserved honor. So Aaron Sorkin, congratulations! You are the Jay Tarses of the 1990s! Don't spend that Arby's gift certificate on something I wouldn't!

Tomorrow: we reveal the Jay Tarses of the 2000s! Plus honorable mentions!

Friday, October 3, 2008

jay tarseses throughout the decades, pt. 1: the 1980s

Most of the time, I enjoy "critically acclaimed" television shows. Hill Street Blues is still my all-time favorite show, and it pretty much defined "critically acclaimed," particularly during its early years when it struggled mightily in the ratings but took home a boatload of Emmys. And I have loved oodles of other programs that swept critics off their feet: The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Office (British and US versions), Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica (the current-day one, not the original) are just a few examples where I think the hosannas are well deserved.

But there are shows that never click with me, no matter how much good press they get. One of the first "critically acclaimed" shows I remember not liking at all was Buffalo Bill, which starred Dabney Coleman as a crass, mean-spirited local talk show host. Its low ratings were often blamed on the deliberate unlikability of the main character.

For me personally, liking or relating to the characters isn't a prerequisite for enjoying a movie or TV show, so that wasn't a problem. I think Dabney Coleman is a fine comic actor, and his presence made me want to keep giving the show a chance. Heck, it even had Geena Davis in a supporting role, and I was harboring a major crush on her at the time (a crush that came to an end when she went into Streep/Close "I'm a serious wonderful actress so worship me, peons" mode sometime after Thelma and Louise). I should have liked this show!

But I didn't. The sticking point for me was that it just wasn't funny or smart enough. Yeah, it was smarter than your average sitcom, but not as smart as it thought it was being. As far as comedies about unlikable characters go, the equally short-lived Cheers spinoff, The Tortellis, made me laugh hysterically (Dan Hedaya has to be one of the greatest unsung character actors ever), and had all the smarts and moxie that Buffalo Bill never mustered.

Jay Tarses was the creator and executive producer of Buffalo Bill. Despite his pedigree as a writer for The Bob Newhart Show, a show that I love, I just didn't like the shows he came up with on his own. Tarses went on to create The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, which was part of the great "dramedy" boom of the mid-'8os (Doogie Howser, Hooperman, my beloved Frank's Place, etc.). Molly Dodd was another show that critics ate up with a spoon, but, like Tarses' previous venture, it left me both unamused and bored.

Since then, it seems to me that to every generation of television, a Jay Tarses is born. Every decade has its signature creator of multiple shows that find favor with critics, yet whose creations aren't as funny or smart as their perpetrators think they are being, nor are they as funny or smart as they are made out to be in the press.

For your reading pleasure, I have selected a Jay Tarses for each of the last three decades. This weekend, I will discuss each of them in their own individual blog post. Today, it's the Jay Tarses of the 1980s, and the winner, please (cue drum roll)...

The Jay Tarses of the 1980s
Jay Tarses. (See above.)

Stay tuned tomorrow, when I reveal the identity of the Jay Tarses of the 1990s!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

well, somebody has to be paul weller if he's not gonna do it

I reactivated my eMusic subscription the other day. They were dangling the 75 free download carrot, and Bugs Bunny-like, I bit.

I got a bunch of suggestions from the many eMusic-friendly friends o' mine, plus I stumbled upon some stuff I hadn't known was out, such as two newish Shriekback albums. As a result, by the wee small hours of today, I'd used up 104 of my 105 total October downloads (the 75 freebies plus the normal monthly allotment of 30).

Looking for candidates to be that 105th track, I did a number of fruitless searches. For example, I'd think "hm, I like Goldfrapp... do they have any Goldfrapp rarities/mixes?," but as it turns out, there's only one Goldfrapp track on eMusic, a forgettable mix of "Strict Machine."

Striking out with everything I could think of, I switched to alphabetically browsing the new arrivals in the "Alternative/Punk" section.

And there sat a live EP by From the Jam.

I knew that bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler, the rhythm section of the Jam, had formed this group last year to play material by their classic band... minus singer/songwriter/guitarist / raison d'etre Paul Weller, who refused to participate in this reunion. It almost seemed like the punchline of a joke, to reform the Jam without the guy who wrote and sang almost everything.

But here was a chance to find out how it all turned out, so I chose "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" as my final download of the month.

And holy cow. It's not only a spot-on, red-hot rendition without a trace of lameness or rote nostalgia, but new vocalist/guitarist Russell Hastings has Weller's voice down cold. Every intonation, inflection, and phrasing is exact. You'd never know it wasn't Paul Weller singing if you weren't tipped off.

What's funnier, at least for me, is that ever since the Style Council ended, my main complaint about Paul Weller is that he stopped singing like Paul Weller! Beginning with solo albums like Wild Wood and Stanley Road, Weller affected an unrecognizable ersatz soul voice. I mean, the guy is the world's best Paul Weller, but he ain't never gonna be Sam Cooke or Smokey Robinson, and why he wants to be something that he's just not, I can never figure out.

Heck, he not only stopped sounding like Paul Weller in '92, he stopped being interesting at all. Well, that last part happened sometime during the first full-length Style Council record, but even when Weller's post-Jam joint was awash in jazzbo didacticism, the man still sang like himself. Apparently there's not only no hope of a full Jam reunion, but no hope that Weller will integrate his rich past with whatever he chooses to do in the present, right down to not using the same singing voice.

So more power to From the Jam and Russell Hastings! If Paul Weller's not interested in being Paul Weller anymore, somebody else might as well be! And I can't argue with these kind of results.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

does anybody know what day it is? does anybody really care?

Weird Blogspot stuff:

Mandy just told me that she didn't see a post from me yesterday. But I so published this gargantuan entry yesterday - Tuesday, September 30th.

However, she's totally spot-on, as Blogspot shoes me as having published both it and the prior entry on Monday, September 29th.

I saved a draft of the post in question on Monday, September 29th, but I did not click "publish" until the the morning of the 30th. That shouldn't have messed up the post's date. Right?

Anyway, no matter what date Blogspot assigned to my initial foray into analyzing the '90s, I have kept my goal and not missed a day of blogging. Where are all the one-week anniversary gifts?

fate up against your will sergeant

On the way home today, I put on for the first time a live Echo and the Bunnymen CD. I hadn't even heard of it before I rescued it from the Great Escape this past summer.

This CD had even been in the car since early September, when I repacked my travel CD case (my car, a '98 Sunfire, doesn't have an iPod hookup), so I don't know why I hadn't played it sooner. I guess I hadn't been in the mood for it until today.

And maybe I was too in the mood for it today, because I cried at least twice while listening to it.

Me, I'm All Smiles, the album in question, documents a very nice 2005 London performance of the reunited Bunnymen. Even with boffo original drummer Pete de Freitas long dead and bassist Les Pattinson once again an ex-Bunnyman, the group still sounds great live. Ian McCulloch's voice seems a little rougher, whether from accumulated wear and tear or maybe just the particular circumstances of that evening, but it's still grand. And guitarist Will Sergeant just gets better with age. He's not often cited as one of the great guitarists, but hearing his always-creative rhythm work and the ring and burn of his precise, Verlaine-toned leads is one of the greatest guitar treats the world has to offer.

Both new ('96 and after) and old material come off well on this album. And I really like the number of Heaven Up Here songs (their difficult, sometimes underrated second album) that made the setlist.

But what made me cry were two other old standbys: the title track from "Ocean Rain," which closes the set ("sailing for sadder shores / your port in my heavy storms / harbors the blackest thoughts" always does me in), and especially "The Killing Moon." I realize "The Killing Moon" is up there with "Lips Like Sugar," "The Cutter," and "The Back of Love" as one of the most played and widely recognized Bunnymen songs. But I don't care if it's a crowd favorite or not. It absolutely wrecks me every time I hear it.

"The Killing Moon"'s lyrics seemed cribbed from the climax of a Thomas Hardy novel, so much so that I expect Eustacia Vye or Bathsheba Everdene to walk across the moonlit heath any second: doomed lovers meeting at night, "fate up against your will," the "you" of the song apparently pledged to another "him." I'm not sure if McCulloch has ever talked about a Hardy connection; maybe it was like how McCulloch hadn't actually read any John Webster, but absorbed enough from his girlfriend reading Webster to come up with Porcupine's "My White Devil." Such lyrical ventures risk pretension, but fortunately, McCulloch's phrases are just abstract enough to come off as pleasingly evocative rather than awkwardly literary.

But what really makes the song is Sergeant's playing. Whether it's the signature opening riff or the short, furious, urgent lead break before the last verse, the song is a showcase for everything Will does well. And has there ever been a more devastating use of the whammy bar than when Will transitions out of that lead and back into that gorgeous, grand riff?

Somewhere in that lead break is always where the tear always starts making its way down my cheek, no matter how many times I hear the song. Some of what produces that tear is the emotion of the song itself, and some of it is the quarter-century of affection I've invested in the song.

But most of it is the pure awe of experiencing a work of art so beautifully composed and executed. We get so few moments of transcendent joy in our lives. For me, this song is one of those joys, and hearing it always makes me feel connected to art and literature and music and life in a powerful, direct way.

I'm thankful that "The Killing Moon" exists, and I'm very glad I got to experience it again today - and that I can share that joy with you here.

Monday, September 29, 2008

i didn't die, i got old (the '90s, part one)

In a recent entry in his "Music: What Happened?" series, Scott Miller of Game Theory/Loud Family renown* leads with the following sentence: "The nineties were better than the eighties."

Scott's argument is typically erudite, and I get what he's trying to say, especially when one considers his heavy engagement with the biz itself during the '80s, when Game Theory was trying to eke out a career.

But oh how I wince when I read and reread that statement. "The nineties were better than the eighties." Oh. my. God.

This is not my experience at all. Not even close. For me, the '80s were vibrant, teeming with ideas and energy and an abundance of spectacularly great albums (including at least one all-time classic from Scott himself). In my ultra-geeky yearly best-of lists, 1985 alone has twenty-five (twenty-five!) albums to which I'd give four and a half or five stars, and some other '80s years (1980, 1984, and 1988 in particular) were in my estimation almost as grand.

But something happened in the '90s. Whether it was to me or to the musical world, I'm not sure. I suspect that the "has the world changed or have I changed?" blame game probably should be scored 50/50. It's my hope that my upcoming blog entries** get me closer to answering that question.

Nevertheless, I know this for sure: what happened in the '90s wasn't good. For me, musically, the '90s don't come close to the '80s in either quality or depth. And this change, which has in many ways persisted for me into the 2000s (as per this earlier entry, we haven't Named That Decade yet), continues to distress me on a number of levels.

Like with most sea changes, there wasn't a convenient marker or milestone that I perceived at the time (though Kurt Cobain's April 1994 suicide was part of the fabric of the decade and saddened me deeply). To put it in baseball terms, it's not a slump when a guy goes 0 for 4 in a single game... but a week later, when it's up to 1 for 32, it's a slump.

And speaking in non-parenthetical terms about Cobain and 1994, it was 1994 when I realized that yeah, it was a slump. At that point, there hadn't been a year since 1988 that overflowed with great music. In fact, in the '90s, I often struggled to come up with 20 albums I actually liked for my year-end lists. (You can't tell by looking at the lists now; retroactive discoveries have upped the quantities.)

Through '94, my tastes were more or less in sync with the music press, college radio, and like-minded friends. My favorite band in the '80s was R.E.M., and just like most fans of "underground" or whatever you want to call it before the early-'90s rise of the "alternative" label, my collection had many beloved entries from folks like Robyn Hitchcock, Julian Cope, Husker Du, the Minutemen, XTC, Elvis Costello, the Clash, Prince, X, Sonic Youth, the Smiths, and most of the usual CMJ / OPtion / Trouser Press suspects.

Perhaps not liking some of the early '90s darlings - My Bloody Valentine and Pavement, to name my most prominent misses of the day - should have tipped me off that something had changed. But at the time I perceived them not as harbingers of a drought but as the occasional whiffs that one encounters in any matter involving subjective taste.

Also, in '88 I at last gained true college radio when I moved to Nashville. WRVU, Vanderbilt's venerable station, entertained me to no end in those days, and my tastes and collection continued expanding thanks to things I heard there for the first time. They even caused me to reevaluate some previously-held dislikes. For instance, hearing "A Forest," "Charlotte Sometimes," and "The Hanging Garden" for the first time courtesy of WRVU completely reversed my opinion of the Cure.

And when friends who liked the same kind of stuff recommended other artists I didn't know, those recommendations usually paid off, be they from Danny Cantrell when I was at Concord College, or, from 1982 on, then-Welch Daily News sports editor Dan Stillwell. That world of like-minded friends expanded greatly when I got a modem in 1993 and discovered BBS message boards. Shortly thereafter, I "found" the proper Internet itself, and suddenly it was a whole new ballgame. It wasn't just me and fewer people than I can count on one hand who knew who Robyn Hitchcock was; I was on mailing lists with dozens and even hundreds of people who were just as knowledgeable, if not more so, then me.

Many of my dearest friends of today are folks I met during my early days on these lists. And these new friends and acquaintances had heard lots of music that I hadn't yet encountered, so my world was awash in recommendations. And since we all had so much in common musically (particularly from the 1977-1990 punk/post-punk/underground/indie world from which we'd just emerged), I fully expected to like the new names I was hearing about.

So I bought albums by newish artists that lots of my friends were way into. Albums by Guided By Voices. By Stereolab. By Elliott Smith. By the High Llamas. By Richard Davies and Eric Matthews, together and separately. By Belle and Sebastian. And I fully expected to love them.

I didn't.

Some of it was the growing popularity of Pet Sounds overorchestration and the baleful influence of soft pop, which began dominating the indiepop world from the mid-'90s on. Soft not only became the new loud, but midtempo became the new rocking. And for a song or two, surrounded by contrasting material, I'd be fine with midtempo con strings e vibraphone. But we're not talking a song or two, we're talking whole albums permeated by a sound that I never came around to enjoying, all played at torporiffic speeds. Sean O'Hagan's Banjo of Doom might as well have been the battle-cry of the Valkyries, because once I heard those string-plucking strains, I knew my enjoyment didn't have long to live.

But even the more rocking things left me cold, too. For instance, Guided by Voices was never shy about inheriting the loud, drunk, brash rock tradition. The music press always compared them to Wire, which gave me high hopes for GbV since Wire is one of my all-time favorite artists. However, that turned out to be a facile comparison based on GbV's proclivity to pack a lot of short songs onto an album. This is something that Wire did only once (their 1977 debut, Pink Flag), and GbV didn't really sound like Wire in any meaningful way.

None of that is GbV's fault - rather, it's the fault of lazy journalists - and I promptly adjusted my expectations once I heard the actual music. Unfortunately, I didn't like the actual music. It's tough for me to explain it, but the combination of low-fi with bombast and Bob Pollard's voice never clicked for me. And while something like "Portable Men's Society" was an achievement for evoking Rush, the epitome of "hi-fi" sound, in a low-fi context, well, I never cared for Rush.

Stereolab at least invoked the cool sounds of the Velvet Underground, and when they most veered into Velvetsy rhythms, I did actually enjoy them. But they also were about incorporating lounge and easy listening (albeit the hipper stuff like Escovel) into their sound, and that half of the equation was a turnoff for me, evoking memories of my mom listening to Sergio Mendes and the Brasil '66 on her reel-to-reel.

Even old favorites became unreliable. My most beloved artists of the '80s, R.E.M., Prince, and Robyn Hitchcock, models of consistency in the '80s, turned into hit-or-miss acts as far as their new releases went. I was a huge fan of Husker Du and of Bob Mould's initial post-Huskers solo forays, but his new band Sugar completely bored me. Morrissey's '90s offerings were so dull, aside from the glam-rock trappings of Your Arsenal (1992), that it was easy to forget that he'd ever been any good at all. My interest in hip-hop, which peaked with Digital Underground's wacky P-Funk vibe and musically rich 1990 album Sex Packets, waned as the genre gravitated toward the opposing poles of New Jack Swing and gangsta.

I don't want to make it sound like I didn't like anything in the '90s. Each year of the decade brought a slew of new releases that pleased me greatly, and some of those albums (off the top of my head: Nirvana's Nevermind, Wilco's Summerteeth, R.E.M.'s New Adventures in Hi-Fi, the Loud Family's Interbabe Concern) spoke as directly to my soul as anything I'd heard with a 197* or 198* date.

And yes, since the turn of the millennium, things have picked up for me, but only somewhat. Loud and fast made a comeback around 2000, which was a welcome turn of events after being stuck in Midtempoland for at least a half-decade. However, a lot of the new artists purveying that music were so derivative that the only thing I could think about while listening to them was, "well, I already have Stooges albums."

And I also realize that many of my favorite new artists of the last few years - Interpol, Editors, Goldfrapp, Spoon, the New Pornographers - strongly evoke the '80s music I love, so I can't help but think that I'm still failing to go - or grow - with the times.

Back in the '80s themselves, I used to make fun of the guys I knew whose musical worlds ended in 1977 even though they were only a little older than me. They hadn't liked anything since Skynyrd's plane crash, and they bitched over beers and joints while a 8-track of Paranoid crossbled in the background about how the new music of that day sucked. You couldn't even talk them into giving Van Halen and Cheap Trick a shot, much less something more adventurous like the Clash or Talking Heads.

I never thought I'd become one of those guys. I thought my mind would remain flexible, vital, open to new sounds and new artists.

Instead, substitute "1989" for "1977" and there I am, a coot before my time. Like the title says, I didn't die, I got old.

*There's another musical Scott Miller that I love, and I'm sure you'll be hearing about him in this space too.

**I do envision this as a series about the '90s - more specifically, of my struggle to come to grips with the '90s on a personal as well as musical level - of which this will be by far the longest post. Think of this as the two-hour pilot with lots of explication. I'll be serving up punchier, more concise one-hour episodes afterwards. Everyone exhale, ok? It'll be fine.