Sunday, March 13, 2011

the best thing anyone ever said about nuclear power

...came out of the mouth of Jay Leno.

Yes, kids, I know this is difficult to believe, but Jay Leno was once a reliably funny, hard-working standup comedian. Really. My fingers aren't crossed while I'm typing this, honest.

This all changed the moment that Johnny Carson retired; upon becoming the permanent Tonight Show host, Leno and his writers became relentlessly lazy, lowbrow, and conservative. And of course by now l'affaire de Conan has stripped any remaining feathers of Leno's dignity, not that there were many left after 1992's l'affaire de Letterman and nearly two decades of being terminally unfunny on a nightly basis.

Nevertheless, before 1992 (and by some accounts, even till this day when he makes unannounced appearances in comedy clubs), Leno was, at least to me, pretty funny. And this joke is from those days.

In the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which before what's happening in Japan right now was the worst nuclear accident in history, Leno made an appearance on... well, I'm not sure if it was Late Night with David Letterman or Carson's Tonight Show, though I'm leaning Letterman. In my memory, he didn't tell this joke as part of a standup routine but on the couch, talking to the host. The screenshot above may even capture him in the midst of telling this joke.

Anyway, this is strictly from memory, and thus paraphrased and subject to the inaccuracies that twenty-five years have inflicted on my brain. But, to the best of my recollection, here it is. It is a joke that Leno wouldn't dare attempt now, at least in front of cameras:

Every time there's a nuclear accident, the nuclear industry always gets some expert to go on TV and say "nuclear power is safer than crossing the street." Well, all I know is that if I get hit by a bus in Philadelphia, they don't make people in Sweden stop selling vegetables.

And that, kids, is all you really need to know about nuclear power.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

reveal: ten years gone

[My older reviews and interviews which are no longer available online need a home, so why not here? This review appeared in the online magazine Toast not long after Reveal came out in 2001; Rob Sheffield's contextual line in his Rolling Stone review of Collapse Into Now about "their underrated 2001 gem, Reveal" inspired me to repost this today as a rejoinder to that spit-take-worthy opinion.]

You know, I had developed this whole theory about Up, the first R.E.M. album that required me to employ rationalization. I told myself, “They were still figuring out how to go forward without Bill Berry. Warner Brothers wanted to see some return on that record-breaking megabucks deal they signed just before New Adventures in Hi-Fi, so they pressured the band to give them some product. R.E.M. gave them the best fourteen tunes they had at the time, even though thirteen of them were midtempo lopes or dying death dirges that, taken as a whole, would challenge the most keen attention span. They didn’t have time to put together an album with more variety and a sense of pacing. They’ll get it right next time.”

Well, Reveal blows that theory all to hell. Two and a half years after Up, they’ve basically done a more streamlined version of Up. This time, they kept my interest through the first six songs (with Up, it only took four songs before I was snoozing or anticipating how soon the CD changer would get to Beck’s Mutations), they made better use of auxiliary players Ken Stringfellow and Scott McCaughey (who also shone on R.E.M.’s 1999 tour), Stipe’s lyrics seem moderately happier, and it’s thankfully several minutes shorter.

Other than that, it’s another exercise in stacking one meticulously-arranged midtempo song on top of another meticulously-arranged midtempo song. The overall effect is numbing; no matter how meticulously arranged these songs may be, after hearing three or five or eleven sauntering tunes in a row, they start to run together. If surrounded by songs that offered even a hint of lively contrast, Reveal’s best numbers might shine through like “Perfect Circle” and “Country Feedback” did on better-balanced albums. But instead, marvelous moments like the dark jewel of “Saturn Return” and Pete Buck’s guitar solo at the end of “She Just Wants To Be” fade into the elegiac torpor that has apparently become R.E.M.’s signature feel.

I wish I could blame Reveal on the unfortunate late-‘90s revival, at least in “alt” circles, of arranging and craft substituting for edge and energy. To me, a song or two of Bacharach/David lounge fare or Pet Sounds orchestration is plenty, but whole albums of them get on my last nerve. 

Nevertheless, in the end, I can’t pin Reveal on Elliott Smith, the High Llamas, Stephin Merritt, Stereolab, or Richard Davies. If Buck/Mills/Stipe want to settle into a turn-of-the-20th-century adult contemporary act, it’s their business, I suppose, but it’s also their fault. Somebody wake me up when the Nirvana and Wire revival hits, O.K.?

Friday, January 28, 2011


On January 28th, 1986, I was in the second semester of my freshman year at Concord College. I lived in Men's Towers, where the room setup was a two-room suite. The rooms housed two students each - so four students lived in each suite - and shared a common foyer, large closet, and bathroom. My cousin Rusty and I lived in one room, and Kenny and Jeff, two grads of Baileysville High School, shared the other.

I got back to Towers that afternoon after my last class of the day, so, I'm thinking, a little after 2 PM. Kenny and Jeff had the door to their room propped open, and their TV was on. (Oddly, I can't remember if Rusty was present. Since I don't remember anything about him being part of this scene, I'm thinking he was still in a class.)

I walked past their open door without noticing what was on their TV, said something like, "Hey guys, how's it goin'?" and started to put the key into the lock on my room's door.

Jeff said, in a detached, indistinct monotone, "Space shuttle blew up."

This phrase just didn't make sense to me. At all. It was like a string of nonsense syllables.

I said "What?"

Jeff said, again, in just the same way, "Space shuttle blew up."

That time I understood him. I wish I hadn't.