Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Aught-Eight Summer Soundtrack: Disc One

Some years ago my friend suggested I might send his son (my godson) a yearly mixed tape of music I thought the kid might like. There were a number of years where that conceit worked just fine. He was a squirt, I was a dude who listened to music and could be relied upon to be somewhat abreast with the hip. He’s fifteen now, and the conceit has by necessity shifted: I now send him a disc of music his father and I enjoyed when we were his age (uh ... more or less).

Perhaps the mixed CDs give the kid a window into his father’s soul, but I doubt it. If I had a godfather, and he sent me a soundtrack to the youth he and my father shared, I would put the music on whenever my parents visited, and rely on it for a pleasant background.

And so it is with these discs. I’m told my godson requests my music whenever he gets into the family car and senses a descending mood in his father. Works for me!

Most of these tracks can be purchased through iTunes, and I link whenever they are available on Amazon or eMusic. Alright then: Disc One.

“Nightmare #71” — Larry Norman. Norman, the Father Of Christian Rock, passed away earlier this year. He penned a number of songs he’ll be remembered for, most of them somewhat notorious. I think "Nightmare #71" is his best and can be enjoyed by anybody. It’s a weird pastiche and every time I heard him sing it in concert I was convinced he’d actually written it that very morning. It has a slight tint of Jesus Freak hubris: Hey, we’re the Last Generation! (Yeah, right. Just try telling that to your grandkids). But once you get past that ... actually, there is no getting past it: this is all the song is about. And it goes about it very, very well. Norman swings from being the understated straight man in his own dream to making stentorian proclamations on just how fucked-up things have got. He pulls off a terrific juggling act that is at turns unsettling, occasionally alarming in its acuity, but also genuinely funny. That combo makes for a very haunting song, and a terrific kick-off. (A, e)

“Rock & Roll Records (Ain’t Selling This Year)” — Supersuckers. ‘Cos they’re just so damn good. (A, e)

“Sunset Babies (All Got Rabies)” — Alice Cooper
. Ditto. (A, e)

“I Got It What You Need” — Galactic. Ah, yer old godfather ain’t such a square after all. Is he? Is he? (A)

“Electric Avenue” — Eddy Grant. Okay, I might as well raise the white flag and just give up. Actually, I’ve always wondered why Grant, who wrote plenty of top-notch songs, never received notice for his wider ouevre. But then I suppose I’m not helping matters any. Moving on ... (A, e)

“Tube Snake Boogie” — ZZ Top. I’ve loved these guys from the get-go. In fact I’m partial to the Tres Hombres era, but this tune goes some distance in explaining why three old coots who never do anything flashy onstage manage to keep us entertained. (A)

“Where Have All The Good Times Gone?” — Van Halen. A bit of a theme song for me, last summer, and a catchy one at that. (A)

“Cum On Feel The Noize” — Quiet Riot
(A, e). Another rock personality kicked this year: Kevin DuBrow from Quiet Riot. I have to admit this song makes me cringe a little, but not nearly as much as ...

“Turn Up The Radio” — Autograph. I have no justification whatsoever for the presence of this song, except that I’ve always agreed with the sentiment, “Things go better with rock.” (A, e)

“Just Us Kids” — James McMurtry. I blogged about this song here. (e, A)

“No Heaven” — DJ Champion. I clued into this song when Champion closed the Junos last year. He synched up four guitarists for the task, and the final effect was incredibly impressive. (iTunes only, sorry)

“Bang On The Drum” — Todd Rundgren. Classic summertime tune. (A, e)

“Shake It Off” — Supersuckers. Ditto. (A, e)

“Welcome To The Jungle” — Guns ‘n’ Roses. I actually think Appetite For Destruction rates as one of the most overrated albums of the last quarter century. That said, there is no denying its opening killer riff. An obligatory Guitar Hero inclusion. (A)

“Brutal Planet” — Alice Cooper. Alice’s Industrial Metal phase. If Appetite For Destruction had been written by a Sunday School teacher, it would have sounded like this. Go ahead and laugh, but it actually works. (iTunes only)

“Spider-Man” (1970s TV series theme). Having played-out the hard rock genre, I now need a snapping good segue into the next phase of music. This is it.

“Ain’t That A Kick In The Head” — Dean Martin. I blogged about this one here. (A)

“Girls On My Mind” — David Byrne. Another fine summertime song, for obvious reasons. (A)

“Watch Us Work It” — Devo. I stumbled across this remix on eMusic, and it reminded me of what I liked so much about early Devo. For listeners who know Devo chiefly from their post-New Traditionalist material, it can be a revelation to realize they began as a guitar based group. The chorus on this song has a nifty guitar groove that sounds equally tasty on acoustic guitar (go give it a try). (A, e)

“We’re Here For A Good Time” — Trooper. Speaking of acoustic guitars, this track from Canada's own is a dandy for any 15 year old to master.

“Then I’m Gone” — Supersuckers. “Yeah, I still smoke. And I drink too much. Yeah, I’m still broke—baby, let’s go dutch.” Pure poetry! (A, e)

“It's Up To You” — Barnabas. Barnabas was one of the precious few (which is to say two, maybe three) Christian Metal bands of the early 80s. Founding member Monte Cooley played guitar for Hear The Light, Barnabas' inaugural album, and I’m grateful for it. Blues-based, note-bending, not too speedy, yet certainly dramatic in the extreme it remains delightful to listen to, and actually works very well with the band's “Sinner Repent!” motif. It’s also worth noting that Barnabas’ misadventures with the hard-right on-air christo-blowhards provided some grist for my creative mill when I wrote Christian Punk.

Hey, how about that? This music is a window into my soul!

More revelations to come in Disc Two.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

This Year's Summer Vacation Soundtrack

I'm chafing to wax rhapsodic on Ry Cooder's California Trilogy, particularly his latest fully-leaded whimsy I, Flathead. DarkoV assures me he is intent on doing likewise. Since I was never one to steal a friend's thunder (or miss an opportunity to cajole) I shall wait until he throws down.

Our family is prepping for this summer's trip out west. My younger daughter has chosen her road tuneage: Alvin & The Chipmunks. I shall insist on the next chapter of Harry Potter, or failing that, one of my own mixed CDs, which I knit together on behalf of my godson.

Track listing with links and meditational explications to follow.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Uncullables: Buechner & Dostoevsky

My mother opened the door and let my friends in. “It's nice of you boys to help my son move out,” she said. “I'm afraid most of what you'll be lifting is books. He's probably got too many for his apartment.”

“You can't have too many books,” my university friend assured her.

“Well,” said my mother, not exactly persuaded, “just be careful when you're lifting those steamers.”

My friend looked at me. “You filled a steamer with books?”

“'Steamers,'” I corrected. “Plural.”

I don't know why he didn't turn around and flee the scene. Some years later I helped another friend who was finishing his PhD. in English Literature. Now there was a guy with an abundance of books. Even so, he assured me his collection had been culled with ruthless integrity. “I don't keep a book if I'm not confident I'll be reading it again,” he said.

I was surprised to hear this, and began to reevaluate my own standard for keeping a book around. Up until then my rule of thumb had been to find a place in the shelf for anything I liked the look of. These days I teeter between the Doctor's prescription and my early “books as silent companions” motif. I suppose I inform the latter with the former: if there's no chance of me ever even wanting to read the book in question, it disappears (goodbye, Doris Lessing).

This is my paperback fiction shelf — one of three in this house. I looked at it the other night and thought, “If a magical tornado were to suck up this shelf and take it away from me forever, there are only a half-dozen items I would truly miss.” (aside from the photo albums, of course)

Some of these are books I've started and enjoyed but haven't got round to finishing yet. Frederick Buechner's The Book Of Bebb is just one example. It's four short novels collected in one large edition. I read the first novel, Lion Country, during our first year of marriage. I loved the way Buechner equated the Christian faith with Bebb's unabashed gluttony for all things sensual — quite the paradigm shift for me, at that time. Not that such a paradigm was in any way unprecedented: Buechner's portrait just happened to be the one that sank in through many years of calcified thinking on the matter.

Leo Bebb had granted me my interview that afternoon in a lunchroom between Third and Lexington in the Forties someplace, all tiled walls and floor like a men's room with fluorescent lights that turned our lips blue. I had ordered tea, Bebb chocolate milk which he sweetened with sugar... Bebb followed his chocolate milk with a wheel of Danish, and it was when he finished that that he got down to what I rapidly concluded must have been his chief purpose in being there with me at all.

He said, “Antonio, I'm commencing to get the feel of you a little. You've had me doing most of the talking, but I've been watching your face and your eyes and they've told me many things ... more things than maybe you'd ever dream of telling me yourself.” Whereupon I had the eerie sensation for a moment that I who was there to expose him was on the point of being exposed myself as being there under pretenses so false as to border on the supernatural.


There's the pretext of Lion Country in a nutshell: Antonio is a cranky and unfulfilled man in his mid-thirties who is on the verge of becoming deeply embittered. Hoping to expose Bebb as a Gantry-type fraud, Antonio discovers instead that Bebb might in fact have the inside track on him. This is by no means a sure deal, of course, and Bebb quickly outs himself as a bit of a buffoon (or “boob”). Still, he has a way of surprising even the reader. Throw in Bebb's adopted daughter who (va-va-voom!!) takes in the rusty Antonio and shakes him up but good, and the book becomes a novel exploration of religious possibilities.

The Book of Bebb didn't get much of a print run, however, and is consequently somewhat difficult to find. If I were to lose this book, I'd have to get it through ABE, which isn't the end of the world. But I'm sentimentally attached to this physical copy, and I'd hate to lose it.

Speaking of sentimental attachments, here's a book I keep around even though I will in all likelihood never read it again: The Karamazov Brothers.



If you zoom in on the bookshelf picture you'll see this Oxford Edition, translated by Ignat Avsey, sits beside the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of Crime & Punishment. The latter team has become the toast of the literati: Pope James Wood is especially excited by their work. If a reader is going to spend a lot of time with Dostoevsky and his hysterics, I suppose the difference in notation takes on significant weight. I've read both books, though, and I greatly prefer the fluidity of Avsey's prose to P&V's (I assume) faithfully choppy utterances.

These two novels have more than sated my curiosity of Dostoevsky. I'm grateful I read them, though — especially Brothers, most of which I devoured during two long international flights, and some during my first visit to my parents' California home. In fact, there's an SFMOMA admission ticket (another keepsake!) bookmarking the translator's endnotes.

I'll see if I can't dig up some more “keepers” over the next few days.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Casualty of the Polysyllabic Spree

Nick Hornby announces he's concluding his column for The Believer. I expect this is very sad news for the magazine. There have been issues that held absolutely nothing that appealed to me -- except Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading" column. Quite a feat, that.

Non-consensual Acting

I once had a co-worker tell me he thought Anthony Hopkins must be a "very spiritual man" because he had so convincingly played C.S. Lewis in a film. I retorted that we could just as easily assume Hopkins was also a cannibal, since he'd done such a swell job of that, too.

Acting is a consensual activity. There are varying degrees of persuasiveness (good and bad acting) but they all require a willingness on the part of the audience. A trip to Santa's chair, or Disneyland will quickly bear this out. Four years ago when our family visited Disneyland, my then-six-year-old daughter sought out Princess Jasmine and quietly informed her that she was my daughter's favorite princess.

"Why thank you!" said "Jasmine." She turned to "Aladdin" and said, "What a lovely thing to say. Did you hear that?"

"She's my favorite princess, too," said Aladdin, and the two characters made a show of being primly in love with each other.

I thanked the couple, and did my bit by staying in character as well. No broad winks, in other words. What a bizarre world for these actors to inhabit, I thought.

If this piece in L.A. Magazine is any indication, I had no idea just how bizarre it gets. A former Jack Sparrow tells all. Among the "minuses" to the job: low pay, unrelenting Disney surveillance and disciplinary actions, the occasional stalker and drunken hordes of groping cougars. Getting back to the bit about consensus: what is it about a guy in a pirate suit that suggests he's up for an ass-grab? Having said that, I still giggle to think of the short-lived "Tarzans" who were thrown out to the crowd like so much red meat.

On the "plus" side: "I already had a thing for the Ariels when I arrived. They have red hair, and I love red hair."

Horrific thought: sometimes we really do get the jobs we deserve.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Who Protests The Protest Song?

You sold us quite a show
Prosperous land with pregnant glow
Now it's like the Alamo
Nobody loves you anymore


Further to yesterday's posting: the two discs that are currently receiving the most (public) play in my house are Vegas by Martyn Joseph and Just Us Kids by James McMurtry. Both discs have acquired some notoriety for the “protest songs” that sit near the middle of their track lists. That these songs generate controversy at all is cause for some amusement. It brings to mind Mark Knopfler's line from a quarter-century ago, expressed with nicotine-stained faux shock: “That protest singer / he's singing a protest song!”

Fans of these singers, of course, don't bat an eyelash — it's all good. I guess it's the casual listener, possibly associating Joseph with “Let's Talk About It In The Morning” and McMurtry with ... I don't know ... “Restless”(?), who gets a little crusty at the inclusion of politics, particularly if the singer's politics don't quite line up with the listener's. And sometimes the clarity of protest can so dominate the spotlight as to make the song in question the ersatz centerpiece of the album.

If that is the effect on the listener, it's no fault of the singer's. Had Joseph or McMurtry meant their protest to take center stage, they'd have called their albums Nobody Loves You and Cheney's Toy (respectively). Instead, the two albums' title songs are evocative and, after a few spins, unsettlingly majestic in their scope.

Joseph starts “Vegas” with an 80-year-old cab driver, who's moved to Vegas after the death of his wife. The move is described as an act of whimsy and nostalgia, a chance for the old-timer to remember the sunniest days of his marriage. As the song picks up steam, the motivations of everybody in Vegas start to seem more urgent. Joseph concludes with the song's narrator holding on to the improbable vision of Elvis still being very much alive. The bizarre landscape of Vegas — “Blade Runner without the rain” — somehow appeals directly to the most absurd yearnings of the heart. Joseph might follow this up with “Nobody Loves You Anymore,” but “Vegas” has already countered that, effectively saying, “I don't just love you, I'm crazy for you.”

Similarly, McMurtry constructs “Just Us Kids” in lyrical short-hand that hearkens back to the High School nostalgia of John Mellencamp's “Jack & Diane.” Rather than settling there, however, McMurtry catapults into these kids' future: dot-com businesses, Mexican vacations that coincide with divorces, settling for early retirement and watching the kids go to college. “It's a damn short movie, that's for sure.” The song's lyrics and hook (like Mellencamp's) are deceptively simple. And though on other songs McMurtry sorts through emotional geography with a fine-tooth comb, every time I listen to “Just Us Kids” I'm left wondering, “How does this song manage to reach so deeply?”

Or, to quote the “kids”: “How'd we ever get here?” That's a question that runs through every song on the album — no less the “protest” songs. I can't get enough of either album right now. I suppose if we read to know we're not alone, we listen to music for much the same reason.

James McMurtry: website, MySpace, eMusic. Martyn Joseph: website, Amazon, eMusic, mp3 samples here, including "Vegas" in its entirety.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Vietnam Is Not Old News

This weekend's Globe & Mail has two in-depth articles on the continued toll of Agent Orange in Vietnam. I've said before, and still maintain, that the US (and Canada) can regenerate some of the global goodwill they've squandered in this latest war if they acknowledge the sins of the previous war and make reparation.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

WALL·E

Pity the professional movie reviewer. Gene Siskel used to introduce his and Ebert's year-end list of ten worst movies by saying each of these stinkers took two hours away from their lives — two hours they would never get back. They would follow this up with a rueful chuckle then get to the business of roasting green weenies, which was usually more fun to watch than their ten best.

Ah, but critics live for those ten best and worst movies. It's the mediocre ones that take the toll — the movies that show charm, or potential, before succumbing to the banal. Hence, after Indiana Jones, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and now Hellboy, we get this summer's critical cri de couer: CGI death-matches lack the gravity and drama of physically co-ordinated stunt-work.

Oh really? Then why does the first candidate for this summer's best movie feature a little robot who gets the gears beat out of him — in state-of-the-art CGI? I'm hoping the folks at Marvel and DC and every major studio are taking notes on how this works, because it's not as if the narrative thread to WALL·E reinvents the wheel. Andrew Stanton's tight screenplay and exquisite direction are the very embodiment of what kicks Robert McKee into arm-waving, let's-give-a-cheer mode.

Just about everyone is moving WALL·E to the top of their list this year. For my critical money I think David Edelstein (once again) best sums up why this is. In Pixar we have one of the few technology-based industries sifting through things in an effort to recover our disappearing soul.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Save On Gas! (While Courting Death ... Or Worse)

Yesterday I spent about 20 minutes on the 401, Canada's largest and most lethal highway. During that 20 minute stretch I encountered a total of six motorcyclists, four of whom were courting nominations for this year's Darwin Award. One was carrying on as if a motorcycle surrounded by speeding hunks of metal was just a benign extension of playing Mario Karts. Two were wearing the legally required helmets -- and a pair of shorts. But the most peeving of these was a guy intent on riding not just his KLR 650, but my bumper as well. I gradually slowed down to 10 clicks below the speed limit, until he lost patience, peeled around me and rode the bumper of the next hapless motorist.

Having miraculously survived three spills, including one that left me standing over my totaled bike, I can say with some authority that most motorists don't have the slightest clue just how dangerous riding a motorcycle can be. To make matters worse, neither do most motorcyclists. This is why emergency crews are outfitted with flat-blade shovels and pressurized hoses (and a benefits package that includes trauma therapy).

I have a couple of friends who work in emergency centers, and they're pretty much agreed: drugs may be the biggest scourge in their workplace, but once the snow thaws motorcycle casualties place a close second. Many of these unfortunates are young yahoos, but there's also no shortage of men in mid-life. In the latter case, what's usually happened is a very large guy dropped a bundle on a very large bike (an oh-so-rebellious Harley, say), then went and dropped the bike on the first run. Welcome aboard, Hoss. Now meet your new wheels.

These are the thoughts that occurred to me after I read this consumer advice piece written by Sam Whitehead. It is, in his words, "an extremely broad and completely unscientific, yet infinitely wise, guide to what you [the first-time rider] might consider when buying a motorcycle or scooter." To be fair, he opens the piece with a recommendation for "some sort of training." Forewarning like that might not be as bold a statement as, "Dear reader, if this piece excites you into the motorcycle showroom, be forewarned the odds are you will live to regret the day you read my words -- or, if not you, your surviving family members." I would have also settled for a subtitle that read, "If gas prices are killing you, wait'll you get the bill from your HMO." But I suppose Whitehead's spongey caveat is enough to cover his butt.

Now that that's taken care of, my only other kvetch is the absence of the Honda 919 -- the bike most likely to entice me back to the dark side. It's not too large to lift up by yourself, nor too small to speed you out of a potential scrape. It's got a pleasant wind-against-yer-chest build, a sturdy wheel-base and tucked-in seating. It's built by Honda, and if my experience of 20 years ago is applicable today this makes it an easier, common-sensical bike to dis- and re-assemble than the other makes. Plus, it's good on gas.



*Sigh* Curious how candy-apple red just makes courting death and personal disaster that much more appealing.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Evil Urges by My Morning Jacket

As I increasingly embrace my inner crusty old man, I tend to dismiss outright any young group that runs with an esoteric name like My Morning Jacket. Still, it's a little hard to ignore the praise and promotion these spritely chaps are receiving. Is it all just ... hype? eMusic is offering Evil Urges to its subscribers, so I held my nose and hit "download album."

First off, it's well worth reporting that My Morning Jacket is committed to delivering songs that are not just genuinely musical (not something to be taken for granted in the current music market) but catchily so (whaaa?!). The lyrics are pleasant Byronian confections: neither too heavy on the chest-beating, nor too light to float free of their emotional tether, this is a disc worth its (deservedly) hyped summertime release. Amazon, Metacritic.

Persepolis


I see that Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis is now available on DVD. This is the only "grown-up" movie my wife and I made it out to see last year. I can't imagine another movie taking hold of my imagination more completely, or provoking feelings nearly as deep and conflicted. In my attempt to come up with something unique to say about this unusual movie, I paged back in my journal to see what my first impressions were coming out of the theater. I wrote one sentence: "Satrapi's voice is wholly authentic."

This observation still strikes me as being right on the money. Currently our cultural play with memoir and narrative is focused on experimental modes and outright fabrication: "made-up" stuff, in other words. No doubt a viewer could take the same approach with Satrapi's narrative, and attempt to glean the "police court" facts from the fanciful, but Satrapi's presentation is too beguiling and emotionally insistent. Caught between two soul-crushing cultures -- the fatuous self-indulgent West, and the spiteful religious fascism of her native country -- she patiently takes account of everything she has loved and lost. This is a very beautiful film, and not a bad primer for North Americans unsure of a people and geography we have committed ourselves to for decades to come.

Amazon, Metacritic.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Canada Day Oddities

I'm about to get snarky, but the the truth is I think this is brilliant:

Nothing says, "Canada Day" like a provincial carbon tax.

And what might be the mark of a Canadian patriot? A lack of patriotism. (Via Bookforum)