Friday, February 05, 2016

Pentatonics 'Til The Cows Come Home

The most memorable exchange I overheard during this concert occurred just after Animals As Leaders had finished their set. Some college kid was asked what he thought. "That stuff doesn't impress me," he said. No? "Nah, man. It's all pentatonics. I could do that shit 'til the cows come home."

"I know, right?"
I was amused. If you're pressed for time, skip to 1:19 to see why.

To be fair to the kid, it smelled to me like he was smoking some primo grade skunk.

Learning a few (well . . . five, no?) pentatonic forms can be a mighty heady experience, to be sure. Even a thick-fingered mid-life noob like myself notices a certain change in receptiveness to the guitar solos of old. The razzle-dazzle factor does indeed subside, just a tad. Take this tasty riff from Blue Öyster Cult, for instance:

Just to be clear: I am not claiming I'm capable of repeating, let alone cooking up my own "Buck Dharma" riff. But I'm recognizing these as possibilities within reach. And there is something disillusioning about that.

Buck got there first, of course, and deserves all the kudos for it -- and for inspiring God only knows how many kids in suburban basements. Bansai, Oshō!

Also: cowbell.

The blessed flip side to my predicament is recognizing the impossible and gaining newfound appreciation for the likes of Eric Clapton and Robbie Robertson -- Alex Lifeson (of course) -- people with technique I can't begin to emulate. To say nothing of countless Blues artists living and deceased, and the performers who have honed their own distinctive sound. So, bansai, jōza!

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Levitz Paradigm: "The best imitation of life possible in a work of fiction"

It is possibly the predominant narrative mode in Western movies, television, comic books, what-have-you. And now I learn (via Warren Ellis (via Gene Ha (who cribs it from Dennis O'Neil who deems it "the best imitation of life possible in a work of fiction"))) -- it has a name: The Levitz Paradigm. This is how it works (O'Neill):
Basically, the procedure is this: The writer has two, three, or even four plots going at once. The main plot — call it Plot A — occupies most of the pages and the characters' energies. The secondary plot — Plot B — functions as a subplot. Plot C and Plot D, if any, are given minimum space and attention — a few panels. As Plot A concludes, Plot B is "promoted"; it becomes Plot A, and Plot C becomes Plot B, and so forth. Thus, there is a constant upward plot progression; each plot develops in interest and complexity as the year's issues appear.
This is what it looks like:

It's a grid. Rather plain, no? But from such unadorned schematics come fabulous narrative sleights-of-hand.

Most movies hew closely to this model -- the norm for Hollywood blockbusters is two, maybe three plots in flux. Consider how Mad Max (with its two conjoined plots) resonated more resoundingly with critics (and esteemed members of the Academy) than did Star Wars: TFA (which clearly boasts four, possibly five, developing plots -- or more). In contrast, television creators (like J.J. Abrams) have become increasingly sophisticated -- if not necessarily disciplined (again, J.J. Abrams) -- about the Levitz Grids they build.

The Levitz Paradigm is fairly common to genre novels, and nearly unavoidable in the geekier realms (Levitz' Wiki lists Tolkien and Zelazny as credited influences).

As for comics, fuhgeddaboudit. This is what Alan Moore's Levitz Grid looks like for a planned 12(!)-issue run called Big Numbers:

Ha points out that by issue 11 Moore had to add another letter to the alphabet. A shame, then, that only two issues were published -- wiki.

I'm under the impression that high-brow literary types mostly eschew something this rigorous, but that could be a slanderous misconception on my part (Ellis begins his observations on the matter by pointing out that James Joyce drew two charts that converge for Ulysses).

When it comes to reading novels, I'm more drawn to books with a single, dominant voice and its singular POV. This mode doesn't preclude a Levitz Grid, but multiple plotlines are by necessity channeled and filtered through a single consciousness. It's easier to read, in a way -- chalk the preference down to laziness, then.

Mind you, it could also be an unconscious recoiling from early and continuous exposure to the Bible, with its legion of voices and perspectives competing (often violently) to find a unifying theme. In which case, I say thank God for the likes of Miles and Frye, and their discerning eye on the Almighty's own Levitz Grid.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Identity, among other concerns

Late January, and the words that show up for work aren't the ones I requested -- somebody else got 'em.

How The Homeless Listen To Music -- Low-income, no-income and 12-Step subculture is its own music scene, and Chris Estey does a terrific job of fleshing it out.

Teller (the silent half of Penn & Teller) is always worth listening to. Here he is on the art of teaching.

Letters Bookshop, Toronto's go-to boutique for "nut-bar" titles, has relocated to Thunder Bay. Owner Nicky Drumbolis clearly resents the return to his home-town. Shame, that -- T-Bay is a pleasantly freaky city, to my way of thinking.

"There doesn't seem to be much weightiness in Facebook selves" -- Richard Sennett in a conversation about the public self. (Looks like Spiked is devoting some serious time to "self" -- I see Charles Taylor is also on-board.)

And speaking of public selves -- "Make me a real, live boy": an outed Pick-Up Artist and his former paramours -- are they on the road to recovery?

"Are any of us?"

Friday, January 22, 2016

Lost In The (Guitar) Supermarket

A conversation from a week ago.

Me: "This Christmas I had a chance to experiment a bit with my brother's digital effects pedal. And, I have to say, I was mighty impressed."

Guitar sales guy: "Which line we talking about?"


He nods. "We've got them."

"I guess my one kvetch is they're maybe too powerful, too huge. A little box like that, you've got -- what -- 100 preset effects? Plus all the different synthesized amp models, plus all the variations and combos you can dial in after that. I can't begin to do the math."

"Steep learning curve."

"Exactly. And knowing me I'd settle for three or four favourite tones, and leave the rest in the cupboard. Anyway, so now I'm thinking about getting one or two basic pedals to start with, something simple to build skills. Like a looper pedal, maybe. Preferably with a metronome to help with timing."

Sales guy winces. "I've tried a few looper pedals. Brought 'em all back. It's probably just me, but . . ."

"You don't recommend them?"

Shrugs. "Zoom's entry-level pedal has a looper. Also a drum machine -- your dressed-up version of a metronome, basically."

"Yeah, I saw that on the internet."

"There you go. Why don't you take one home, play around with it? You've got 30 days. Keep the receipt, the packaging. Don't be too rough. You don't like it, money back."

I left the store in a state of disbelief. I had that pedal under my arm, of course. But I couldn't get over how times have changed. I still can't.

It's humble, but it's home.

Midway through my high school years -- the winter of '80/'81, probably -- my musician buddy took me on a tour of Winnipeg's boutique guitar shops. Every neighborhood seemed to have its own, with its unique emphasis on certain brands of amplifiers, pedals and guitars. My friend was an astonishingly fast and thorough study. I watched as he took various guitars off the wall and plugged them in to different combinations of equipment, all in search of a particular tone he was after.

Tone, I came to understand, was a guitarist's second-most coveted quality, following technique. In today's vernacular, you'd say tone is an integral element to a given guitarist's "brand." If a guitarist didn't have his own tone, he risked the unforgivable sin of sounding like a wannabe. "Nice try, 'Eddie.'"

Young guitarists serious about their craft spent a lot of time in a lot of different shops, playing with combinations of equipment, before laying down large sums of money on the outfit they finally ran with.
Veneration optional. Foxy sales assistant improbable.

Last week I wasn't in the store for more than 15 minutes. I gave the nice man $100. In return he handed me a clean shiny box and encouraged me to play with it -- at home.

There are good reasons behind the sales guy's tactic. The pedal is a low-net item -- if he's on commission a $100 sale is chump change. I'd also sent him all sorts of signals I was a "Beginner Guitarist," and an aging one at that -- why subject me, and the store at large, to the embarrassing spectacle of my experimentation with a product that would further out me as a noob and likely overwhelm me with options?

So "take it home and try it" was one shocker. The other came when I did as suggested. Caveats first: I understand this is not a "gig-worthy" item. It's built for home-use -- I get that. But this fact is in no way related to the quality of sound it produces.

I've generally assumed the so-called "rock gods" of my youth have stuck with the tried-and-true gear that brought them their fame and fortune -- vintage Strats, tube amps and the like. This may be true for an eccentric aural fuss-pot like Neil Young. But after taking this pedal out of the box and giving it some time, I can't imagine that RUSH or Van Halen or the various iterations of Pink Floyd haven't gone all-digital. It gets me wondering who might be the hold-outs. The Rolling Stones? AC/DC? Park four little guys on a super-big stage at the far end of a massive stadium with crappy acoustics, and ask the sound-guy: do you really want to pamper a temperamental tube-amp to coax out that sound everybody knows so well? Or are you maybe willing to just . . . click a pedal and play?

The final surprise, after sound quality, was price point. I have a vague recollection of my high school buddy's kit, and estimate its value might have been somewhere between two- to four-thousand bucks, 1981 dollars -- even with the Japanese knock-offs he played. He's since gone pro, and probably couldn't be bothered with any Zoom product, per se. But what if he'd had access to something like this at the age of 13?

Now I'm looking at my noob's kit. I've spent about $500 on the entire package, and I'm drowning in a sea of aural possibilities. Pass a bundle like this along to a kid with genuine ability and insatiable curiosity, and you begin to understand why North America -- indeed, the World -- is already way beyond "Peak Music."

Not that I'm complaining. I'm just all lost in the guitar supermarket -- like everybody else.

Further Reading: if there's one guy who found a tone and stuck with it through thick and thin until it netted him an unfathomable fortune, it would be Keith Richards. And, sure, he gave it some tweaks and variations, but it's always been that identifiable sound, in the reliable open-tuning he prefers. So maybe you wonder: just how much equipment did he have to amass to come up with this sound? Well, there's a book devoted to that very subject -- and it's a big one.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Star Wars The Next Generation

I have come to realize, from unfortunate experience, that there is truly only one spoiler to this movie (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, should you need reminding).


It was Christmas, I was among a mixed group of parents and kids, and we were joking around, coming up with the worst thing a person could conceivably say to any group of people queuing up for a movie. I'd already had a glass (or two) of wine, and thinking everyone within earshot had already seen this movie, I crowed, (SPOILER) "Han Solo dies!" (END SPOILER).

When I registered the sea of aghast faces I quickly added, "Actually, in the grand sequence of events, I was surprised by how unsurprising this was. And by how unmoved I was."

And that, also, is the truth. Perhaps it's different for other viewers -- perhaps there are those who shed tears when it happened -- but at least one other person in my group admitted she'd felt similarly. Said she, "In Star Wars movies it's almost like it kind of doesn't matter when the big characters die. I mean, Ben Kenobi or Yoda die, and it's like, 'Oh well.'"

Which is not to say I (or my interlocutor) think the movie is a dud -- far from it. I've seen it twice, and anticipate giving it a closer look and greater consideration when it is released in Blu-Ray format. But I realized early into the film that I was considerably more invested in the fates of the newer, younger protagonists than I was in the fates of the characters I'd grown up with.

There were a number of reasons for this. For one thing, I never quite got over the genuine surprise at seeing the class of '77 collecting for the same movie again. In the 35 years since The Empire Strikes Back (the last of the entertaining Lucas movies) I'd seen plenty of the actors, whose own innate characters have come to vastly outshine that of their script-written personae. Consequently, when, one by one, they took their places on the big screen and did the jig I couldn't help but think, "Oooo, Harrison felt that in his knees!" or "I guess smoking really is the most tenacious addiction of them all, isn't it?" And if you think that's me being catty, it's not -- it's me being old.

So, yes, I registered actors getting older, and putting in a day's work for a day's pay.

Not so the new kids. I felt something for them -- not all that deeply, to begin with. But I could definitely relate. Otherwise, why the lump in my throat every time Finn hugged somebody?

Is that a hug, or is that a hug?

Sure, it's a recycled plot. But the attraction at the core of '77 -- the unexpected discovery of who you are, deep down inside -- is very much alive in this film. At the fore of this is abandoned Rey, carrying dutifully on in her unrewarding toil as she waits for someone to come along and rescue her. Finn shows up, and . . . he's a clod. Worse, he's a contemporary. He clearly couldn't rescue a marshmallow from a campfire. The two of them get to work on Plan B, and, wonder of wonders, things start to gel for them both.

No longer separate entities, they are now a team -- a part of something larger and more exciting than their earlier lives as cast-aways. The adult parental figures help out -- a bit -- but mostly look on with an admixture of amusement and regret.

Watching the film threw a huge spanner into the pool of my psyche. For several nights running I had dreams of . . . That Job. The first job that didn't just pay the bills, but also introduced me to friends -- new friends. People I watched out for, in my clumsy-needy way, because they were kinda-sorta watching out for me in theirs. As for the work -- we were young, we could do anything.

Just point us in the right direction.

Of course, the other benefit this movie shares with '77 is a cultural tabula rasa. We don't know squat about these characters -- it could well be that the more the gaps between the lines get coloured-in, the less we find to like about the big picture.

And yet that dwindling vestige of me which still cares about such things remains hopeful, for a couple of reasons. 1) J.J. Abrams is only taking the reins for this one movie -- besides his apparent compulsion to play Vishnu, the destroyer of worlds, in every single space opera he directs, we also face his incapacity to tie it all together. The man wouldn't know a successful third-act if it followed him home and bit him in the butt. 2) Continuity is still heralded as a big deal to the film-makers. And in contrast to Disney's other continuity franchise, the Marvel movies, we see characters ageing in step with the actors who play them.

And they die.

Who knows? A future writer/director just might figure out the key to successfully exploiting this franchise facet, unique to the SW universe.

Experiencing genuine grief at the death of a beloved character? Now there's a "New Hope" for ya!

Alright -- other better links:

  • Léonicka Valcius explains why Finn is the best character in SW:TFA.
  • Nerds, mass shooters, Anonymous . . . and Kylo Ren. This guy says, "The presentation of Kylo Ren as a whiny, insecure little shit is brilliant because, frankly, whiny, insecure little shits are people who become evil in real life."
  • What's the optimal age for Star Wars fandom? Joel wonders. Is it five? Twelve? I fall into the latter group, and it could be argued I was too old -- I queued up for and watched Return Of The Jedi the day of its release. And I hated it almost as much as the actors evidently did (re-watching it decades later, I was struck by the bone-deep two-weeks-out-of-rehab weariness the principles all exhibited). But by then I was 18-years-old, and there's no way you can persuade a guy that age that teddy bears saving the galaxy equals compelling drama. Expose the kids at five, I say. And brace yourself for the late-night discussions.
  • When I was 12 I fervently prayed I would live, and the Lord would tarry, long enough to permit me to see the second Star Wars movie. Today, if everything goes according to planthere is no conceivable way I will live long enough to see the final Star Wars movie. This news bothers me not in the least -- but it has generated a curiosity to check in on the various expanded universe (now non-canonical, but never mind) stories. Nor am I alone -- Locke Petersheim admits to similar obsessive-compulsive reading.
  • Speaking of the expanded universe -- Star Wars continuity cop Leland Chee is someone I'd dearly love to hear interviewed right now. But of course Disney and Abrams have sequestered him behind iron-clad non-disclosure agreements. Even his Twitter feed is a muted affair. Best Leland Chee Tweet:

Monday, January 11, 2016


I'm not sure if this is the right time to admit it, but I was never a big Bowie fan. The older I get the more I appreciate what he brought to pop music and pop culture and the culture at large (much, much more than I have the wherewithal to ascertain). But when it comes to a guy like Bowie the beholder has to be hooked young, or he (or she -- or what-have-you) never really gets the bug.

Four years ago, for example, I could say I appreciated and even admired Lady Gaga (Bowie's most assured progeny, at the time). But when my 14-year-old daughter said the same thing, it meant something on a very different scale. She got Gaga.

Bowie was never that for me. I could appreciate the freakiness -- thanks to him, and a heap of others, my generation pretty much accepted freakiness as our birthright. But I never bought anything by Bowie. I was happy enough to hear him on the radio -- I never switched the station when he came on, but I never put down the money, either. He was too poppy, too focused on casting a broad, popular spell. I needed crunch, dammit -- something with a little more dissonance.

Then in 1989 he formed the distinctly metallic Tin Machine.

They faced some stiff competition -- Lou Reed and Jane's Addiction, for starters. Nevertheless I put down the money and took home my first David Bowie project. I was 24.

It hasn't aged well (and this isn't the most durable song on the album) but I still appreciate Bowie's game face. And any opportunity to bring Reeves Gabrels' guitar to the fore is always welcome.

RIP, Jones. And thank you for the indefatigable, lifelong performance -- "a supple text that can be endlessly reinterpreted."

Saturday, January 02, 2016

In Praise Of Letting Novels Collect A Little Dust

No novel read before its time.
A friend of mine, after hearing me enthuse over Denis Johnson's Tree Of Smoke, admitted to having the opposite reaction when he tried to read the book. He had picked it up back in the day, and thought part of the problem had been Michiko Kakutani's enthusiastic review for NYTBR -- reading the book Kakutani raved about proved to be, "Not quite all that, and a bag of chips."

Kakutani's review, at this point, hardly strikes me as a rave, but I think I understand where my friend is coming from. Tree Of Smoke was rolled out with great fanfare (much to B.R. Meyer's amusement and contempt) and had I bought and read it at the time I likely would have been underwhelmed, at the very least. Instead, I picked up a remaindered copy and let it collect dust for a few years before cracking it open and giving it a go.

This is a strategy that's worked well for me. Rick Moody's The Diviners was another such purchase. In '05 it was a Big Deal In Publishing, but I read it at least five years later, when reviewers and trend-seekers had moved on to celebrate other work (Super Sad True Love Story and A Visit From The Goon Squad, if memory serves). I enjoyed The Diviners, but I'd be careful with my recommendation -- to be honest, most days Moody's fun-with-words approach to novel writing leaves me cold. But I happened to pull this from my shelf on a day when that was exactly what I had a hankering for, and I wound up loving the book.

My attention to pro book reviewers is increasingly on the wane -- but this is a list of books enjoyed I can get behind, because it has some of that "I only just discovered this popular flavour" characteristic I can (obviously) relate to.

Donna Tartt's The Secret History (1992) is a good read -- who knew?

Personal note-to-self: Joshua Cohen's Book Of Numbers, once remaindered, is likely to find a spot on my bookshelf.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Searching for Vintage Whisky?

2015 -- my eleventh year of blogging -- is nearly finished. I've had some requests (from family members, but still) to link to my "best posts." I'll give it a shot come January, but it could be tricky.

It's all a blur, for one thing.
I've no idea what makes for a satisfying post for readers -- if I were to let stats determine content, I'd devote the entire blog to crokinole. The posts that satisfy me the most are usually a little long for the current attention span. Brief is better -- I'm certainly on-board with that sentiment. But I also figure this is a platform that allows for rambling where others do not, so . . . I ramble.

These are my "read this/skip the rest" selections for this year, ordered by date posted:

  1. The Contagion Spreads: Afterlife With Archie -- here -- still the best comic book running, IMO.
  2. Harrison Ford Shines Light On Leonard Nimoy -- here. With the new Star Trek trailer out, I'm missing Nimoy more than ever.
  3. A Walk Among The Tombstones -- here. Liam Neeson action flicks vary in quality. I watched this again the other night, and remain impressed.
  4. From The Forest To The Sea: Emily Carr In British Columbia -- here.
  5. Joining The Frygian Evangelists -- here. Is Northrop Frye experiencing an academic resurgence? I certainly hope so.
  6. Sex, With E.L. Doctorow -- here. My insight into the late author and his work is debatable, but I'm justifiably proud of my alternate lyric to "If I Only Had A Brain."
  7. Two posts on my experience of university in the mid- to late-80s, dovetailing with some thoughts on what higher learning appears to have become -- here and here.
And finally, special mention for the series of posts I most enjoyed writing (drum-roll, please):

I Will Make You Reapers Of Men: Jacobean Slapstick in Helfer & Baker's The Shadow -- a three-parter that begins here.

Am I off-base with any of these? Is there subject matter you wish I'd take a stab at? Got something else on your mind? Wonder what I thought of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? (I enjoyed it well enough, but strongly recommend against sitting in the third row from the IMAX screen) Hit the "comments" button below, and let fly.

Thanks for reading -- and please have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Rock 'n' Roll Concerts = My Weepie

It says something about the age I've reached, and the age I'm in, that the rock 'n' roll concert experience as recorded on DVD has become an invitation to retrieve the hankie and clear the eyes.

"Limp Bizkit?"

Roger Waters, The Wall.

Let's get the caveats out of the way. Sure, it chafes to see -- right in the title, fer cryin' out loud -- one man claim sole ownership to a set of songs that was the product of a group. But the man did, in fact, supply the thematic impetus for those songs, and producer Bob Ezrin freely admits he made it his job to sell Waters' vision to the rest of the band and marshal the project in a direction that ultimately pleased Waters the most. And this film is, finally, a synthesis of Waters' various artistic expressions launched by the initial project.

Let the baby have his bottle, in other words, and you may find the experience deeply affecting.

I did, and do, although the "documentary" elements that intersperse the concert footage frequently grate. Waters isn't an easy guy to be around, no matter how he's framed. But as prickly and as full of himself as he is, Waters still manages his project invitationally, with surprising equanimity. The flash and bombast of Waters' rock show is among the most sensational I've seen. Furthermore, it is interspersed with and informed by portraits of people killed in war, sent in by surviving family members. Thus The Wall, which has existed through the decades as "classic rock's" preeminent solipsistic yawp, transforms into a global howl against the brute stupidity of wars launched by people of "abject" personality.

RUSH, R40 Live. It's a stretch to call this epic-length concert a "weepie" -- unless you're not a fan, and you've foolishly agreed to sit through all three hours of it with a loved one who is -- but bear with me. All these songs from all these albums, through all these years -- if you are a fan, even a middling one, this performance conveys the striking depth of generosity that went into their formation.

I mention the "middling" fan, because I think I qualify. I have a total of four CDs and nine more studio albums via digital means. The CDs get regular play throughout the year, and the other albums are usually pulled up at least once in a given tour around the sun. I have clear favourites, in other words -- Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures, plus one more.* Which distinguishes me as the least distinguished RUSH fan ever.

I do love their concert DVDs, however -- and this one in particular, for the way it highlights songs I give little-to-no airplay. By concert's end I was quite moved -- it's a joyous, celebratory affair.

Neal Peart: "How did I get myself into this?"
Devin Townsend Presents: Ziltoid, Live At The Royal Albert Hall. Another epic-length concert, the first third of which is the entirety of Townsend's demented space-opera, performed to spec with actual puppets.
It's a "Poozer," if you have to ask.
The final two-thirds is an all-request set, which he solicited via social media. To my surprise, not one of the songs sung has a spot in the "most played" column of my infernal device (though the performance of "Namaste" is sure to get there pretty quickly). The set-list swings from raucous to meditative and back again, until Townsend settles into "The Death of Music," a ten-plus-minute magnum opus he's brought to the mic for nearly 20 years of performing. It's a song that contains multitudes, and hearing it after everything that's preceded it brings into sharp focus the existential themes Townsend teases apart and knots up again through everything he does -- including, especially, the sophomoric puppet show: identity, longing, family, the ties that bind and check us from indulging our worst impulses.

He closes the night with his son's favourite song -- "Universal Flame" -- says "thanks" to mom and dad, who are in attendance, then puts down the guitar so he can give hugs to everyone who made the show possible, including his wife and kid, who were standing behind him and singing along.

Prog Metal as an act of familial gratitude? Count me in.

*Full disclosure: much as I enjoyed the R40 performance, I appreciated it most for sending me back to the Clockwork Angels concert -- the most beautiful of RUSH's stage performances, IMO.

Monday, December 14, 2015

While you were waiting for the new Star Wars movie to come out ...

...the trailer for the next Star Trek movie ("Beyond") was "leaked"/released. It looks like this:

Well. Somehow having 'Sabotage' become the de facto theme song for the Star Trek franchise seems . . . appropriate.

I'm disappointed, but hardly surprised. The previous movie lurched away from the patiently cultivated bonhomie in the first, in favour of inflating all the weaknesses and absurdities -- more running! more hanging from cliffs! etc -- so why should this outing veer off-course?

Other Trek fans are somewhat more perturbed. To wit: "The new Star Trek trailer is worse than Hitler" says Steven Lloyd Wilson.

"No! It's worse than ... Kodos, the ... Executioner!!"
All links via Scott Dagostino (live long and prosper, dude).

Friday, December 11, 2015

"What, exactly, did you sign up for, professor?"

"I wasn’t angry — not at all. Nor did I think it was their fault. Someone did this to them. And at bottom they were smarter than me about it because it was their world we were talking about and they knew its rules far better than I did. It was a complex moment in which I was trying to catch up with them, but also trying to persuade them to slow down and consider other possibilities. In other words, even then I was trying to teach them!"

That's Ron Srigley, describing his initial response to an epiphany he recently experienced regarding his university students. The whole thing Dear Parents: Everything You Need To Know About Your Son And Daughter's University, But Don't is here, and I highly recommend it as your weekend long-read.

I have a somewhat scattered reaction to it all.

It of course brought me back to my own university days, and one episode in particular. During the height of my interior drama I sat down to an early-term exam, and realized, as I wrestled with one question after the next, that I was bombing. In the space at the end of the exam I wrote a brief blurt to the effect that I found the professorially-imposed constraints of contemporary academia to be subjective and artificial and really, really frustrating, dammit. I can't recall whether I had any second thoughts as I handed it in. No matter -- there'd be plenty of time for those later.

The next week the professor handed back the exams. And, yes, I had indeed flunked it. Also, my professor wrote her own response to my rough rant -- to wit: these professorially-imposed constraints I railed against were something I'd agreed to work within when I applied as a student. Those constraints weren't going to change just because I didn't like them. If I had expectations that weren't being met, I'd have to pursue them elsewhere.

She added, "Book an appointment with me."

As loath as I was to face and possibly compound my embarrassment, I went ahead and booked that appointment. Then we met. She noted the lousy mark, and the blurt, and asked what happened. I acknowledged the bottom line -- I hadn't prepared. She pressed further and inquired about my emotional condition -- frankly, and in terms that didn't indulge it. I returned her candor. We discussed the syllabus, the timeline, and variations on the subject matter which I might potentially find the most engaging. She asked if I was up for it; I said I believed I was. She said I could book another appointment if that proved not to be the case. Otherwise, she and I were going to proceed as agreed-upon -- one assignment at a time.

I calmed down, I sat down, I did the work.

I am, of course, very grateful for this episode, and the adult charity I received as a foundering kid -- a profoundly formative experience, in fact.* But I disclose the episode for another reason.

First of all, reading Srigley has me wondering if the tables haven't turned so far that present-day impetuous-types like my younger self would be denied a similar chance to grow.

Secondly, my professor's initial response -- This is what you signed up for -- was absolutely right. And as weird and as awful as it sounds (to my ears, at any rate), I wonder if it isn't the most truthful response to Prof. Srigley as well. Coddling young "customers" who've enrolled in the Humanities -- maybe that's not what you signed up for in (I'm guessing) the early-80s. But that's where it's at now. If you have something you'd rather offer -- well, perhaps you'll need to pursue that elsewhere.

Only, where?
Someplace where students never leave their beds would be optimal.

*An act of mercy I've tried to reciprocate wherever possible -- Je vous adresse mes plus vifs remerciements, Linda Hutcheon.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Christmas Soundtrack 2015 -- Early Entrants

I've generally been in the habit of promoting new additions to our family's "Holiday Soundtrack" playlist. Last year seems to have been the exception -- sheer neglect on my part. I aim to rectify that oversight, so don your headphones, open a new tab to your streamer of choice, and let's get going.

The kids picked up on Pentatonix' That's Christmas To Me. It remains a favourite with the girls, while I'm a little lukewarm on the project. After all these years of driving from one family destination to another while listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber, High School Musical, then Glee soundtracks, anything that smacks of "It's a SHOW!" is a particularly hard sell for yours truly. But there's no denying this is an outfit with chops, energy and personality, and I do not begrudge the airtime they get in this house.

The stand-out addition to last year's playlist came via DarkoV -- Butch Thompson's Yulestride. Thompson infuses a sly New Orleans sensibility to seasonal standards, injecting pep and good humour without tipping the balance toward irreverence. I see he's got another seasonal CD, with Laura Sewell. I shall definitely take a closer look.

Standouts this year include Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings' It's A Holiday Soul Party. After all these years of artists bringing their own sleepy interpretations to the hipster playlist, it's a joy to hear Ms. Jones and the Kings blasting the cobwebs off the seasonal pantheon. Man, somebody needed to provide material for that hour in the Christmas party when the conversation and laughter reach peak decibels -- and this is definitely that material. I spoke earlier about "irreverence" -- not at all a negative, I should hasten to add. If you need persuading on that matter, go on and give "Big Bulbs" a spin.*

Charlie Hunter & Bobby Previte's We Two Kings took a second spin to work its magic. Initially the Dick Dale approach left me a touch cool -- it'd been done (by the Dutch!). But these two cats have a great deal more going on than surfer-variations. Stand-out tracks include "Deck The Halls" and "The First Noel." It's sassy stuff that plays well paired up with Bela Fleck's Jingle All The Way.

And finally, I was a big fan of Nick Lowe's Quality Street. If you weren't, the live performance of that album (The Quality Holiday Revue), accompanied by Los Straitjackets isn't going to change your mind. But do give "Linus & Lucy" a spin -- you may well want to throw that into your playlist punchbowl.

And by all means -- introduce me to some swell new stuff in the comments below, woncha please?

Misheard Lyric Of The Year: my elder daughter asks, while "Big Bulbs" plays, "Is she really singing, 'Flashing innuendo tonight'?" Ha ha -- no, honey. But she may as well be (it's "flashing in your window" fwiw).

Friday, November 27, 2015

Gods Of The Hammer: The Teenage Head Story, Geoff Pevere

Gods of the Hammer: The Teenage Head StoryGods of the Hammer: The Teenage Head Story by Geoff Pevere

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is no shortage of "shoulda been great" stories lining the history of rock 'n' roll, stories of bands who seemed to have all the elements -- musical chops, unmistakable stage presence, killer work ethic, etc. -- but somehow, through a confluence of lamentable timing, bad management, substance abuse and tragic accidents, missed the moment of international super-stardom. Teenage Head qualifies on all these fronts -- anyone who saw them in '79 says they should really be mentioned in the same breath as The Ramones or New York Dolls. Alas, they are a strictly Canadian phenom, which adds some uniquely Canadian impediments into the mix. Geoff Pevere, who was in the audience for most of the whole sordid story, does an entertaining job of fleshing it all out. Best read between spinnings of Teenage Head with Marky Ramone.

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Conversation Starters

If you're my FB friend, you may have seen these links already, so apologies for the dearth of original blog content. I'd like to blame it on the past week -- there's something uninspiring about the lead-up to American Thanksgiving, especially this one. Who wants to talk politics, but how can you not? What do you say to skirt the subject?

Well, here are some alternative conversation starters (or enders, depending):

"I remember pulling up as fast as I can screaming, 'Get in, get in!' and I know that I am a clown and I had a car full of clowns, but these ladies ran and jumped into the back." Doo Doo the Clown, on the art of heroism.

"These are the ten most mentioned songs by the Vietnam vets we interviewed." Some surprises, among the familiar.

A stunningly bold caper took place, not too far from where I live. I was at home at the time, as witnesses will attest.

Trekkies: impervious fashion-sense aside, are we really as scary as all that?

"And to think, while Alan Moore was pitting Han, Leia and Chewie against devout disciples of unthinkable anguish, Star Wars' cinematic creative team was busy developing Return Of The Jedi and its decidedly less barbarous drove of Ewoks..." Ben McCool, on Alan Moore's brilliantly bonkers 1980s Star Wars comics.

Finally, which one of you guys turned me on to Warren Ellis? Joel? Y-man? It's somebody who's tapped into comics and SF. Anyway, I've subscribed to his Orbital Operations newsletter for a couple of years now, and I'm continually amazed by the man's seemingly ceaseless capacity to write interesting stuff -- even as he wrestles with the fella in the brite nightgown. Yeesh, what's my excuse?

If it applies, happy Thanksgiving. And here's a little bonus for you: the first issue of Frankenstein Underground -- just another round of insouciant genius from the sable brush of Mike Mignola.