Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Whisky Prajer's Christmas Appeal

It is less than two weeks away from Christmas, and priests and pastors everywhere are intensifying their focus, putting everything they've got into the sermon of the year. This is their annual window of opportunity, a time when the congregation of regulars is suddenly dwarfed by a sea of irregulars, the women coiffed and lovely, the men wearing ill-fitting suits and looking very much like they regret forfeiting their weekly sleep-in. This is the preacher’s chance for the big pitch, the appeal. Can he say anything that will stick to the ribs? Is there hope that something he utters will get one or two (or more!) of these people to come back next week?

There are also those preachers who eschew this soft-sell approach in favor of heading straight for the jugular. "The Gospel leaves no room for compromise. Turn or burn, baby, and be grateful you heard it here first," etc.

Those two extremes represent a good portion of my inner life, as a nutshell. I come from a long line of preachers, and while I may have forsaken the profession and no small degree of the tradition, the DNA matrix will not be denied. People, I got ta speak about sumpin'! My previous attempts at appeal have managed to perplex and alienate my conservative and my gay readers, which doesn't bode well for this appeal. But here goes: call me a witlessly insensitive naïf, but this is my Christmas appeal to my Jewish friends.

There are a number of scriptures that we Christians claim to have in common with you, and I'll get to some of those in a bit. But for the moment, please be so kind as to retrieve that "New Testament" our Gideons so thoughtfully gave you in Grade 5; then flip to the back, and read The Revelation of St. John The Divine. This could well inspire a few strange dreams over the next few nights, but this is an important book to read, and here's why: that one, weird little book has done more to captivate and stimulate the imagination of North American Christendom than all the gospels (Jesus narratives) and epistles (letters of instruction to the early churches) put together.

The Revelation is itself an epistle, with one significant distinction: it makes prophetic claims. Give it the once-over, and you will find similarities in tone and metaphor to, say, Daniel. It draws from (or rips off) that particular tradition, using primal, dissonant metaphors to speak directly to moral and physical crises that threaten a particular historical-religious audience. As with Daniel, the greater your understanding of its historical-religious audience, the greater clarity you have reading the text.

You don't have to be a seminary student to achieve this, either. Cursory research reveals that scholars of the text usually date it back to the reign of Domitian (81-96), whose enforcement of Emperor worship was, shall we say, enthusiastic. Jews have their own grim stories from that period, and could probably read the prophetic religious-historical narrative of The Revelation with a comprehension that might astonish most Christians. A fairly simple historical checklist can be made, with Roman acts of desecration and brutality on one side, Revelation metaphors on the other, and a great number of parallels drawn between the two categories.

Of course, problems arise when the historical record doesn't quite tally up with the prophetic metaphors - the triumphant return of Jesus being the most glaring example of this. In Christendom the all-too-common method of dealing with this discrepancy is to say, "Actually, none of the prophesied events have taken place - yet. It's up to us to recognize the moment they do and prepare for the Lord's return." This has led to many, many colorful anecdotes in Christendom - including the birth of the Mennonites. These can occasionally be quite humorous, but most of them are despicable and tragic (decide for yourself which category applies to the Mennonites).

A cheerful willingness to discount the epistle's original audience continues to inspire diverse activity, worldwide. Closer to home we have the runaway juggernaut of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins' Left Behind series. Closer still, we have various Christian organizations assisting (chiefly Russian) Jewish immigration to Israel, in aid of fulfilling prophetic requirements for Jesus' return.

Jewish alliance with these groups had me perplexed at first: these are people with a religious point of view that I want as much distance from as possible - and I'm a Christian. Whenever I've asked my Jewish friends for their response, however, I typically get some uncomfortable silence, concluding with a shrug and a statement to the effect of, "Well, they're doing some good."

Fair enough - these are acts of kindness and compassion which I have no wish to impede. I wonder, though, if you could do me a favor. I can't reach these people, but maybe you can. They have a clear reverence for the Jewish people and the Jewish state, and even claim to admire the depth of Jewish scholarship. I expect you're in a dialogue of sorts with them, so I wonder if it might be possible to arrange the following:

Take them aside, and say something like, "You know, I read The Revelation the other week. Quite the book. It got me thinking of, well, all sorts of unexpected stuff. We should talk about it sometime, but could I ask you to do something for me? Could you maybe give St. John a wee bit of a breather, and read the Book of Amos once or twice?"

Amos is a piece of scripture I think both our religious cultures and their manifold communities could get quite excited about. Again - recognition of the specific religious-historical audience is critically important. But unlike St. John, I think Amos has a plainspoken approach to articulating divine concerns for all of humanity. The most rudimentary reading of Amos reveals not just G-d's expectations of a particular religious community at a specific time, but of governments and nation states that don't even acknowledge Him. Furthermore, Amos articulates G-d's unchanging expectations of those nation states who do acknowledge Him, and go so far as to claim kinship with Him.

North American Protestants are justifiably proud of the social changes brought about by the Great Awakening and its sequel. But I believe if everyone who ate up the Left Behind series were to read the Book of Amos and take it to heart, we just might possibly see the world's first Judeo-Christian Awakening. How about it?

Can I get an "Amen"?

Monday, December 13, 2004

Paste Interviews Tom Waits

Well, well - after giving Paste Magazine my shrug of indifference, I am now forced to reconsider. Here is a delightful interview with Tom Waits, persuasive evidence that Paste is worth a closer look.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Same-Sex Marriage

Big day, today, in Canada. I hesitate to wade in on this issue because I have friends and family members I respect who have taken a principled stand on either side of it. And with every new anniversary of my own marriage, I'm forced to confess anew that, at the time, my comprehension of my marriage vows was rudimentary at best. But that's the nature of youthful declarations: you're so full of piss and vinegar, you're convinced you're capable of anything, even lifelong commitment to something larger than the ape within. And every year you experience at least one dull moment where you stop and think, "So that's what I meant ..."

Of course, true respect requires full disclosure. And so far as I have achieved it, here's my sense of clarity on this contentious issue: state recognition of same-sex marriage is an issue of civil liberties. Period. I know there are evangelicals worried this will somehow boomerang on them -- that the Liberals, or God forbid the NDP, could assign police squads to force Baptist pastors to do the unthinkable -- but Constitutional law is unequivocal, and coercion like that simply cannot be done without scrapping the Constitution itself. It's part of the same recognition of civil liberties I raised at the beginning of this paragraph.

My niece said it more succinctly, in a moment of exasperation. After being unwittingly exposed to evangelical hectoring on the issue, she walked away and said: "But it's not about them."

Still, let's make it about them for a moment. Evangelicals, like any religious community, profess to have clear definitions of marriage and family. Definitions aside, evangelical congregations experience roughly the same divorce rate as the "unsaved" society around them. Here's a chance for the gay community to be a beacon of light, a chance to demonstrate to nay-sayers that fealty to one person, to family and to society are imperatives we would all do well to commit to. Demonstrate the vows. Turn the stats on their ear, and prove 'em wrong, baby! Prove 'em wrong.

Friday, December 03, 2004

The Daily Show gets Hitch'd

I watched Jon Stewart interview ... excuse me ... give the floor to Christopher Hitchens the other night. Two thoughts in response: 1) I find it ironic that Mother Theresa's religiosity gets Hitch frothing at the mouth, while Dubya's religiosity elicits little more than a shrug, or something akin to a nod of Machiavellian approval. 2) What's with the paper cup? Get the man a proper whisky glass, already!

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Modigliani: Beyond The Myth

My wife and I drove down to the AGO to see this highly-praised collection of Modigliani works - some 85 pieces, with scant few narrative interruptions from the show's producers. Highly recommended from the Prajer point of view as well. I left with my brain a-swim in Modigliani-mode, which is what I was after. The display did a good job of showcasing the artist's development from the reckless but fiercely talented youth who scribbled portraits on lousy paper (with a 2H pencil, I'm guessing) for his drink and food, painted on cardboard and, when he could afford it, canvas for bigger coin.

One of the first plaques to greet the viewer claims this show is devoted to "moving beyond the myth." Too bad for me - Philistine that I am, I was familiar only with his nudes and knew nothing about the cad who painted them. Now I'd love to get into the myth, because I found his work compelling and the bits of personal history so vague (except when indicating who had committed suicide, when) that I thirsted for more tangible stuff: who was this guy? Bald facts: Italian Jew, fully immersed in Parisian bohemian life, versed in artistic modes of the time (african elongation of form), proud of his jewish heritage, fascinated by the occult, indulgent, defiant, consumptive, prodigious. As presented, the show's minimalism winds up buttressing the myth, not "going beyond it." But then I couldn't quite bring myself to spend another fifty bones on the (Yale) catalogue, which might have pulled off that feat, so I'll have to do a little time in the public library.

Two overheard comments that sum it up for me:

"His sketches are so ... inspirational." Yes! They have a disarming simplicity that is naturally appealing. You are keen to identify with them, and you are keen to go home and try your own hand at it.

"How does he manage to bring out unique character in each of his portraits, while limiting his details?" How, indeed? In an odd bit of kismet, I think part of the answer lies in Jonathan Franzen's recent New Yorker meditation on the art of Charles M. Schulz, here. You might be weary of Franzen, and completely tapped-out by Schulz, but it is a rewarding read. Here's Franzen talking about Schulz's style:

Scott McCloud, in his cartoon treatise “Understanding Comics,” argues that the image you have of yourself when you’re conversing is very different from your image of the person you’re conversing with. Your interlocutor may produce universal smiles and universal frowns, and they may help you to identify with him emotionally, but he also has a particular nose and particular skin and particular hair that continually remind you that he’s an Other. The image you have of your own face, by contrast, is highly cartoonish. When you feel yourself smile, you imagine a cartoon of smiling, not the complete skin-and-nose-and-hair package. It’s precisely the simplicity and universality of cartoon faces, the absence of Otherly particulars, that invite us to love them as we love ourselves. The most widely loved (and profitable) faces in the modern world tend to be exceptionally basic and abstract cartoons: Mickey Mouse, the Simpsons, Tintin, and, simplest of all—barely more than a circle, two dots, and a horizontal line — Charlie Brown.

Modigliani works in the same mode: an invitational simplicity for the viewer to enter into. And yet Modigliani managed to capture such a diversity of yourself in his work...

Not to be missed.

So Many Books, So Little Time...

James Wood has savaged some of my favorite authors - and I love him for it! Then, when he finally gets a novel he loves, he falls for it heart and soul. Such is the case with Marilynne Robinson's new novel, Gilead, which he reviews for the NYT Book Review, here (the site also includes a wonderful illustration by Ed Lam). Gilead now joins my ever-growing list of novels I dearly hope to read in the not-too-distant future, which includes Wood's own The Book Against God.

Friday, November 26, 2004

The Incredibles' Achilles' Heel

It's been amusing to see some of the "controversy" provoked by The Incredibles. Rabble has been roused, thanks to this bit of "family entertainment," and the response has by no means been a unified chorus. Depending on your perspective, The Incredibles stirs the pot by being pro-Bush, Post - 9/11, anti-Affirmative Action, etc etc. A reasonable cross-section of these differing opinions can be read here (scroll down to "More Mail"). At the conclusion of this collection, we have a nameless Pixar employee patting himself on the back for producing "a complex, compelling piece of storytelling."

Well, that sort of self-congratulation naturally grates on a mere mortal like myself, and it prompted me to step back and devote a little more thought to this slight film.

The Incredibles is fabulous entertainment, which needs to be recognized, because the ability to conjure the fictive dream is what finally provokes people to make moral claims on behalf of the film. Charming an audience is serious power, folks. And to quote Peter Parker's late Uncle Ben, "With great power, comes great responsibility."

I think what prevents The Incredibles from being a great film, however, are those moments where the viewer is distracted from the story. My friend Scott put his finger on just one such moment, here, when Helen Par/"Elastigirl" tells her children, "Remember the bad guys you used to watch on Saturday mornings? Well, these guys are not like those guys. They won't exercise restraint because you're children. They will kill you if they get the chance." I remember my own discomfort at this grim pep-talk from the mother - replace "Elastigirl" with the ethnicity of your choice and see where the image takes you. But there it is: it didn't distract my girls (the film's ultimate audience), but it distracted me. And I think it highlights a serious narrative and moral flaw in the film.

The intent of Helen Par's admonition is to up the emotional ante by insisting this is not a Saturday morning cartoon - this is real. And for a good stretch of the movie, that is the delightful conceit of the story: what if superheros with superpowers were real? How would they negotiate life with ordinary folk? Could they even succeed at the enterprise - or is this the mission that finally does them in?

I enjoyed the film's light touch on the subject matter. To my eyes, this was a refreshing change from the heavy-handed comic books devoted to this exact same theme in the 80s. Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was probably the most entertaining example of this genre, but a great deal of The Incredibles was lifted right off the pages of Alan Moore's grotty and depressing Watchmen, including Edna Mode's lecture on the perils of cape-wear. But where Moore took a Dickian turn to the left (then left again - and again) to consider the emotional turmoil and understandable psychoses of his god-like characters, Pixar chose to focus on family dynamics.

This is where The Incredibles demonstrates its greatest strength. The Par family provides compelling material, appealing to our own tendency to think our family is surely the most misunderstood in the world, that our kids are, in Garrison Keillor's words, "all above average," and that the world would be a better place if we could exert not just our influence but our complete control over it. When the Pars experience the frustrations of the real world, we laugh, groan, cheer - we're there. And The Incredibles might indeed have amounted to complex story-telling if it had fully fleshed-out this concept.

Unfortunately, The Incredibles abandons the real world shortly after the halfway mark, and performs the cheap moral slight-of-hand we've come to expect from Hollywood. Its answer to the problems it raises is, So long as there are super-villains, the world needs super-heroes. The "normal" problems in the film's first act are immaterial in light of the second act's "super-problems." In effect, Helen Par's speech is the movie's antithesis: The Incredibles is a Saturday morning cartoon - end of story. Making anything more of it is the result of Pixar's half-conceived complications, and the wasted energies of the film's more critical viewers.

What a lost opportunity! Here we are in the real world, with real super-problems that are the result of a great deal of ordinary muddling and malice. We could use a super approach to the ordinary, something we get in the Toy Story movies, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo - but not, alas, in The Incredibles. That still amounts to an "incredible" record from a film studio, however, and perhaps the next Pixar offering will amount to something more than a finely-tuned action movie. In the meantime, I believe I'll join Scott's quest for worthwhile adult cinema (Kinsey, perhaps?).

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Rules of Engagement, by Catherine Bush

It's the end of the 20th Century. Arcadia Hearne is in self-imposed exile in London. In her own modest (dare I say, Canadian?) way, she is reckless with her love. She is drawn toward men with secrets, particularly men with third-world ties and third-world secrets. And she has secrets of her own, which burden her attempts at love.

Her darkest secret is articulated at the story's outset: when she was a younger woman living with her family in Toronto, she was party to a duel. Over her. Pistols at dawn, sort of thing - literally. Over her.

If that doesn't make you stop and scratch your head - if that compels you to click over to Amazon and buy now - go to: you'll love it. As for me, I'm definitely in the head-scratching category. But I will say Catherine Bush's The Rules Of Engagement engaged me. And Bush's weird choice of artistic material (what would a duel look like? how would it affect its protagonists?) works surprisingly well in highlighting larger, seemingly more complex problems.

Bush's concern turns out to be, well, world peace. Using a duel as a plot-device seems a bit wingy on the face of it, but as her narrator points out, until very recent times duels were a common practice in Europe and North America. Respectable citizens of the state engaged in them without a moment's hesitation. Now they seem outlandish. Why? Is it at all conceivable that war itself might someday be thought of as similarly absurd?

Bush's prose is understated, shining an eerie and discomfiting light on an ambitious narrative that could (and sometimes does) lapse into outright melodrama. Melodrama is clearly appealing to both the narrator and the author. Why?

As a reader, I have two inner bookshelves. I like melodrama as much as the next person, and I stock that bookshelf with comics, spec-fic, crime novels, etc. I stock my other shelf with what I’d like to think is less histrionic material: ideas, memoirs, some litter-at-choor. And yet are the two bookshelves so separate? Don't they bleed over with indiscrimate frequency? Why does the ego find itself continually drawn to melodramatic confrontation, like duels – be they intellectual or physical? It's almost as if the ego prefers risking extinction to accepting alienation, a dis-ease which every one of the book's characters suffers: with their geography, each other and themselves. They reach out, they smother, they lash out, they retreat.

The rules of engagement between lovers, cultures, and nation states are difficult to articulate, nevermind abide by; exceptions can always be made. Just when, finally, can we ask the ego to step aside, in aide of survival, or some more sublime, deeply engaged way of being?

Monday, November 22, 2004

Birnbaum Interviews Pelecanos

Identity Theory's Robert Birnbaum interviews my current favorite crime writer, George P. Pelecanos, here. Pelecanos comes across pretty much the way a fan of his might expect. We already know the guy has some kind of work ethic - 12 books in 12 years, producer of independent films, script-writer, etc. He's almost Dickensian that way.

GP clearly won't take crap from critics, either. Responding to his own critics is beneath him; responding to critics of his friends, however ... look out!

And check this out: when you read this exchange -

RB: What does your first draft of a book look like? 900 pages?

GP: My first draft is the draft that goes out the door.

RB: No kidding?

- you can actually hear Birnbaum swallow his teeth! No, wait. That was me...

Friday, November 19, 2004

Rock (Magazines) In A Hard Place

Why does America have (most of) the good rock bands, and the UK all the good rock magazines? Rock-wise, there's precious little entertainment emerging from the British Isles (and don't get me started on U2 - I'd rather hear you drag your toenails over a blackboard while strangling a cat than listen to yet another offering from "the world's last Rock Band"). The current giants of rock mostly reside in the US, if they didn't originate there. But is there a single US rock magazine worth a nickel, or five minutes of your precious bathroom time?

Rolling Stone seems to exist for the sole purpose of holding down the magazine stand. I can't remember the last time I purchased an issue, but it's been well over ten years now. The blurb in my daughter's magazine-drive package said SPIN was "devoted to covering all aspects of youth culture." Youth culture?! I doubt I could think of a better way to alienate two demographics at one go! Blender? By kids, for kids.

Further up the rack we have the relative newcomer, Tracks magazine. "Music Built To Last" is their masthead, which is a larger claim than you can make for the magazine. Imagine Oprah's "O" magazine devoting an issue to rock. Now imagine paying money for it - every month.

Paste Magazine has its heart in the right place. But the writing needs a little more vinegar, or mustard, or ... whisky? Something to up the testosterone level, because the prose is just too kind.

The one American music rag that I still pick up from time to time is Revolver. The writing stable seems to be filled with guys who write as if they're peeved because the editor just interrupted their daily dose of Suicide Girls. People magazine, written by punks.

For the good material, the real deal, the enchilada with the suicide sauce, you have to cross the puddle. Mojo, Q, Uncut ... these publications get it. They implicitly understand that rock has become a nostalgia vehicle, but that rock's most avid consumers don't want to be lumped in with the Beatlemania crowd. Every issue devotes nearly a quarter of its pages to some past chapter in rock, covering familiar ground while throwing in a few salacious details which might have escaped notice at the time, and scanning it all with a narrative eye that's just jaundiced enough to let you off the hook for getting soft in the head. It's a little wink at the aging hipster, telling him, "Aah, you know and I know it wasn't really as good as all that - but it was, wasn't it?" In the meantime, they throw in some contemporary stuff that might stick to the wall, might not. Doesn't matter, so long as you can say "Free The Bees" over a pint glass, and sound like you know what you're talking about.

Too bad those magazines are so bloody expensive. You buy one or two and you've got no money left for that smashing new music they're on about....

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Shake Hands With The Menno

Congratulations to Miriam Toews for winning the Governor General's Award for fiction, with her novel A Complicated Kindness. Here I am, thoroughly mired in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, and yet I hear some nameless imp beckon: "Buy and read!"

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Oversights, I've Had A Few...

But then again...?

I've already been taken to task by DarkoVader for not including any Canadian content (which led my wife to wonder if he wasn't moonlighting for the CRTC). My New Testament Scholar Buddy asked if John Prine's Jesus, The Missing Years didn't rate mention (it did, and should probably have dislodged the David Lindley tune).

I'm confident I've missed others as well. There's the "comments" button: name them and claim them, folks!

P.S.: if you're late to the conversation and you'd like to catch up, it's best to start at Song #10.

WP's #1 Song That Still Gets Him Laughing: New Frontier by Donald Fagen

I confess I've heard this song so many times now that I don't chuckle so much as I smile whenever it's played (and at our house, that is at least a weekly occurrence). But as with most songs from Donald Fagen's first solo album, The Nightfly, it shimmers with numerous light moments that had me giggling when I first played it, and it has a depth of perception that holds up to repeated spins. The entire album is sustained by the larger force of laughter - joy - and continues to cultivate within me that peculiar garden of delight.

New Frontier and the album’s title song sit at the center, operating as its yin and yang. And while “Lester the Nightfly” appears as a caustic, emotionally-wounded man whose only consolation is his all-night jazz show, New Frontier introduces us to a much younger Romeo, an unnamed pup who affects a hipster persona to cover his obvious lack of experience. He cheerfully announces “Yes, we’re gonna have a wing-ding/A summer smoker underground” in his father’s bomb shelter, which provides the evening’s theme, and Fagen’s successively artful punch-lines: “We’ve got provisions and lots of beer/The key word is survival on the new frontier.

The anticipated post-apocalyptic landscape looks cheerier by the moment, particularly when an attractive blonde walks in. “She loves to limbo, that much is clear/She’s got the right dynamic for the new frontier.” The singer makes clumsy conversational forays - “I hear you’re mad about Brubeck/I like your eyes, I like him too” - returning twice to the song’s bridge where he confesses a heady desire for independence, held in check by crippling indecisiveness.

Incredibly, the blonde sticks around for further advances. He finally proposes spending the night in the bomb shelter, every sci-fi geek’s hokiest fantasy come true. And now the hipster façade begins to fade in the intensity of this encounter, to be replaced by something completely unexpected. “Confess your passion, your secret fear/Prepare to meet the challenge of the new frontier.” The “new frontier” turns out to be not nuclear holocaust, but something equally unimaginable to our protagonist: intimacy.

It’s anybody’s guess how our protagonist fares. Considering how this song leads into Lester’s blues, it’s not unreasonable to think he’s headed for heartbreak. Indeed, the entire album is a navigation toward, around, and through various forms of heartbreak, and yet it remains remarkably sunny, concluding with Walk Between Raindrops – a tune that, by Fagen’s standards, is uncommonly cheerful. The album’s lyrical heft has the added weight of life’s circumstances. Shortly after the album was released Fagen publicly stated, “I’ve got no more music in me,” and sank into a clinical depression. Fortunately for us all, his claim was somewhat off the mark. One arduous recovery and three albums later, his most recent effort, Steely Dan’s Everything Must Go, has moments that are every bit the equal to this album, giving the listening public what we need to walk between raindrops.

Chuckle-Head: Redux

Friday, November 12, 2004

Chuckle Song 2: Last Chance To Dance Trance (Perhaps), by Medeski, Martin & Wood

I'm probably breaking an unspoken pact with my readers by introducing an instrumental piece at #2 (of dubious genre - just what kind of group are MM&W, anyway?), but the plain fact is this song from Friday Afternoon In The Universe inspires joy and laughter. It doesn't just walk the highwire: it mounts it, then performs slapstick comedy on it. When I first played it for my friend, a virtuoso drummer (and no, he doesn't deliver pizza for a living; he writes code), he burst out laughing, then said, "You can't get away with that unless you're an incredible musician!"

My musical skills are amateurish at best, but here's how I think the song (like so many of MM&W's) works - or "gets away with it." It begins in circus-like fashion by announcing peril: a fudged-up A-minor chord, held open, repeated three times. The groove begins with percussionist Billy Martin and keyboardist John Medeski holding down a rambunctious 4/4 pattern (clearly the triple-minor-threat we were introduced to will have to be resolved), while Chris Wood bumbles around A-minor with his accoustic bass. It's infectious, it's danceable, then without warning Medeski turns on the cheese, laying out a brilliant B-3 organ lounge sound that rings of something you might have heard played between periods of a hockey game, or in your uncle's cluttered basement.

After that, it's all drunken, Chaplinesque excess: a piano solo that spills over, picks up, barks like a dog; percussion that searches out every clattering surface in the room; and a bass line that dances around like a kid in a jumping-castle, but miraculously staying upright until the song's triumphant conclusion: Medeski landing on a properly executed E-minor chord, three times.

But enough of my yakking. Depart for your nearest legal download venue, and pay these guys to perform for your aural pleasure. And if you find I'm wrong on any of the details, by all means, comment. In the words of Homer J. Simpson, "Self-improvement is a passion of mine!"

Chuckle-Head Song #1!

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Chuckle Song #3: Gimme Three Steps, by Lynyrd Skynyrd

The last three songs on this list are the toughest to write about – their pleasures aren’t as easy to articulate as the infectious punch-line guffaw. These three have amorphous qualities that swim in and out of each other’s borders; putting them in order is almost as cruel as naming a favorite child. Nevertheless, Song #1 is my clear fave, while songs #3 and #2 do in fact rest uneasily on a slightly lower plain.

Lynyrd Skynyrd has itself become something of a cultural punch-line, due only to its inescapable and entirely unchosen anthem, Sweet Home Alabama. The recent movie 8 Mile (a questionable, if cleverly-staged Eminem apologia) delivered a back-handed compliment to LS by staging a rap-along to SHA as the song was pouring out the hero’s screen door, into the trailer park. The white hero and his black friend substitute “I Live In A Trailer” to SHA, and take it from there.

The viewer can interpret this scene any number of ways. The most generous take on it might be this is an apt demonstration of and homage to the inherently subversive work of LS, which starts with what seems like a position of self-ridicule, only to highlight the weakness of the original critic. For the moment, all I’ll say to that interpretation is, I have my doubts, but hey: thanks for the olive branch.

Singer, guitar-player, lyricist Ronnie Van Zant mastered a form of rock & roll that we’ve seen precious little of since: the court jester, bubbling over with morbid humor and, in the words of Johnny Rotten, “a sense of distaff” that highlights humanity’s fundamental absurdities. In his short, violently truncated career in the jester’s court, Van Zant punched out one hilarious dispatch after another. Gimme Three Steps was his calling card, originally released on LS’s first album, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd. The text is straight-forward enough: set to infectious Southern juke-joint rock & roll, the singer relates an incident when a dance with a girl was interrupted by her gun-totin’ boyfriend. The singer (a “fella with (his) hair colored yella”) wets his pants, the girl and the boyfriend exchange words, and the singer flees. End of story. Except the sub-text is the standard technique of the jester, a rollicking laugh at the singer’s own expense; the pronouncement: “Man, I am such a total loser, don’t you worry about a thing I say!”

And so you listen and laugh at your own expense – because you find you can afford to.

Chuckle-Head Song #2!

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Chuckle Song #4: I Can Tell By The Way You Smell, by Ry Cooder

Blood is slowly returning to the head, but for those unfortunate folks whose blood is frozen in the brain, watching the goings-on of people with flow is an endless torment. I Can Tell By The Way You Smell, written by Walter Davis and performed by Ry Cooder on Get Rhythm, is the lament of just such a person, and it’s filled with the precise observations of the obsessed.

I have to digress, though. I don’t understand why Ry Cooder’s Get Rhythm is savagely disparaged by most Cooderites. I’m as fond of Cooder’s early stuff as anyone else (my all-time favorite is Chicken Skin Music) – for most of his productive career, Cooder’s signature was slowing down the tempo, the better to savor a song’s deliciousness. He rarely “dirties” his guitar sound, keeping the tone high and undistorted, so that his slide solos remain articulately languid, or tense.

Perhaps that’s his unforgivable sin in Get Rhythm (having one track abused by the Tom Cruise yuppies-on-parade vehicle, Cocktail, probably didn’t salve Cooderite anxiety, either). He recorded the disc in the throes of mid-life, driving his slide genius through muddy electric fuzz, while holding back a relentless beat. He capitalized on the new digital recording techniques of the time, threw caution to the wind, and cooked up an album that out-and-out rocks.

ICTBTWYS is the raunchiest song of the bunch, beginning with a goosed-up slide solo that squawks and chirps with indignation, before descending into the thunderously grumpy stomp that drives this roar of high dudgeon. The singer starts by confronting his significant other, who appears before him in very rough shape indeed. “You’ve been doing something wrong,” he declares: “I can tell by the way you smell.”

He eventually implicates the household’s youngsters (“It’s a-run here, mama!/Just look at little sis’”), but before he does, we get a picture of the root of the problem:

And there's grandma and grandpa out on the porches
Must be kidding 'bout her ninety years
Ain't too old, God almighty, just keep shifting them gears
Well, you ain't too old ... doin' the boogie, you ain't too old
I can tell by the way they smell

Usually what grandma and grandpa are up to is their own business, and bully for them, but clearly this is a man who can’t get the blood to leave his brain. We have here a pre-Viagra howl, folks, and if you can’t “do the boogie”, you will at least be able to kick up your heels to this infectious moralistic rant.

Post-note: if Amazon's customer notes are any indication, it seems the critical tide for this disc has turned.

Chuckle-Head Song #3!

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Chuckle Song #5: Girls Got Rhythm, by AC/DC

There’s no formula for genius, which Bon Scott and the Young brothers had in spades. One look at Scott’s lyrics provides ample evidence of cleverness, but as anyone who’s seen This Is Spinal Tap will attest, there is indeed "such a fine line between clever and stupid." AC/DC is about as stoo-pid as you can get, but with their persistence and amplitude, their music finally amounts to a sort of comic genius, akin to the poetic belligerence of Sir Toby Belch.

You could argue that Whole Lotta Rosie is a funnier song, with the title character “weighing in at 19 stone” and taking the mesmerized singer by storm. Girls Got Rhythm gets the laughs from me, however. I won’t bother with any of the lyrics (stupid, stupid, stupid), except the opening line. When Scott sings, “I been around the world,” he swings up on “a-round” in a weird, nursery-song way that makes this head-banging material strangely whimsical. After that, it’s just a matter of inevitable course, as Angus Young pulls out one of his better blues-based solos, bending the strings, and taking his time behind the beat, while drummer Phil Rudd (is there a better name for a rock drummer?) nails down his trademark cymbal template – just give the song a spin and see if the growing cascade of witless cymbal-smashing doesn’t get you giggling, too.

Chuckle-Head Song #4!

Chuckle Song #6: Tu-ber-cu-lucas & The Sinus Blues, by David Lindley

Yikes. Not only is the weekend upon me, it’s nearly done. Time to resort to the brainless chuckles, the yuck-yucks, the “gawrsh, ga-hyuk!” But be forewarned: the blood won't be anywhere near the brain for the next two songs.

David Lindley’s Tu-ber-cu-lucas And The Sinus Blues paints the singer as an inveterate pussy-hound who seems to think every woman in sight is eager to “ball” him. Thankfully for us, he is stricken by the titular ailment, and can only bemoan his fated state of abstinence. Lindley, who looks like Jack Nicholson’s younger, polyester-clad, no-account brother, sings in his usual squeaky, nasal manner, thus contributing to a grand tradition of white trash Shakespearean comedians, a la Hank Williams (uh...when he’s being funny, of course). Cheerful, and danceable fun.

Chuckle-Head Song #5!

Friday, November 05, 2004

Chuckle-Head Song #7: Pulled Up, by Talking Heads

Actually, I tend to giggle more when listening to the dope-de-dope "I'm just ordinary folks like you, developing the Neutron Bomb" sentiments of Don't Worry About The Government. But since I've already blogged about that song, I'll take some direction from my friend, the Governor General’s Award-winning New Testament scholar, and devote slot #7 to his personal favorite: Pulled Up.

I've only heard the live version of this song, on The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, and I don't think it could be improved. It's one of David Byrne & Co.'s earlier songs, and has the same XTC-like sing-songy quality of DWATG - set somewhat off-kilter by stacatto, machinegun-like attacks on dualing electric guitars. It all starts innocently enough, though, as a tribute to parents:

Mommy, Daddy come and look at me now
I'm a big man in a great big town
Years ago who would believe it's true
Goes to show what a little faith can do

Alright, let's hear it for good parenting! The cheery sentiment of the music and the opening words starts to come under suspicion, however, when we reach the chorus:

I was complaining, I was down in the dumps
I feel so strong now that you pulled me up
Pulled me up up up up....

...and now Byrne's voice is moving precipitously up the scale, until he's shrieking "UP! UP! UP! UP!" then settling softly back at the bottom, where he murmurs the word some more: "upupup-uuu-up-uuu-up..."

Seems the big man isn't quite as steady on his feet as we might have thought. The second verse finds him grandly considering "all the things I might like to be/I see my name go down in history." Uh-oh. Sure enough, in the final verse the singer is caught in what could either be a Charlie Brown "Being And Nothingness" moment, or the early onset of a psychotic episode (I see the song follows Psycho Killer on 77):

I cast a shadow on the living room wall
Dark and savage with a profile so sharp

In an aside, he again acknowledges the presence of his parents, "Keep all that wonderful food on the table," then squawks, "Don't be in a hurry/I'll eat in a while," before returning to his spastic-man-on-a-balancing-ladder routine. And so it goes: the job of parenting never completely finished....

Chuckle-Head Song #6!

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Chuckle-Head Song #8: Haitian Divorce, by Steely Dan

Steely Dan – these guys provoke so many chuckles from me, I just might resort to a “Top 10 Dan” at some future point (which might well alienate my fledgling audience). It’s tough to single out which Dan song tickles my funny-bone most, but a quick survey of song titles off The Royal Scam pretty much guarantees I’ll have to settle on one from that disc.

I first came to Steely Dan quite some time after they’d officially called it quits; still being young and excitable (I was 15 when they released Hey, Nineteen), I devoured their entire oeuvre in a single, hallucinatory Saturday. Their genius seemed uncontestable, so when I opened Citizen Steely Dan and read in the enclosed book all the nasty reviews they’d snickered at and collected over the years, I was gobsmacked. Ten years and countless listening hours later, I can kind of understand where the critical nastiness came from, even if I think it’s ultimately wrong-headed.

It can be disconcerting for rock critics to encounter a musical form that, while clearly produced by rock’s claimed instruments of choice, has more in common with Broadway musicals of the 1940s than it does with the young and earnest rebels of the day. It's not uncommon to see statements like, “Donald Fagan and Walter Becker are the heart and soul of Steely Dan.” Actually, it’s more accurate to say that Fagan and Becker are dueling imps, joined at the brain. If Steely Dan is anything, it’s their commercial brainchild, a musical forum where, against all odds, their carnies, goons, misfits, addicts, losers and deluded freaks come to life via the breath of Fagan & Becker’s combined cleverness (or don’t, if you remain unconverted).

Haitian Divorce was a throw-away, penned in the studio when Fagan and Becker learned that their producer had just come back from a weekend in Mexico with his wife, the sole purpose of which was to procure a cheap divorce. It’s cruel fun to think of the look on this hapless guy’s face, when he first heard lyrics like,

Babs and Clean Willie were in love they said
So in love the preacher's face turned red
Soon everybody knew the thing was dead
He shouts, she bites, they wrangle through the night

In the course of this casual, giddy song, things go from bad to worse for the stormy lovers/quarrelers. Babs flees to some remote (we assume Haitian) hotel, “drinks the zombie from the cocoa shell,” and engages in increasingly ill-advised behavior. When the song’s first bridge emerges, we’re:

At the Grotto
In the greasy chair
Sits the Charlie with the lotion and the kinky hair
When she smiled, she said it all

There follows one of rock’s most remarkable guitar solos, which tracks a dirty, “waa-waa” sound through five chord changes before landing back on its feet. The outcome?

Tearful reunion in the USA
Day by day those memories fade away
Some babies grow in a peculiar way
It changed, it grew, and everybody knew
Who's this kinky so-and-so?

This is your Haitian Divorce

Hmm. Just looking at the naked lyrics doesn't exactly put me in stitches, but I doubt anyone who's heard the song can keep from grinning. Donald Fagan's singing is a queasy admixture of lisping, ironic detachment combined with a nasal projection of genuine emoting. Fagan takes a sort of MAD Magazine pleasure in the discomfort of his characters, and it's impossible not to giggle along. To slip into Alfred E. Newman's vernacular for a moment, you feel like grabbing "Clean Willie" by the polyester lapels and hooting, "Why'd you marry her to begin with - you clod!" And when all is said and done, isn’t laughter the best, most unexpected gift upon completion of one’s divorce?

Chuckle-Head Song #7!

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Chuckle-Head Song #9: Ain’t That A Kick In The Head, by Dean Martin

There’s an old Robin Williams shtick where God creates Adam, then tells him, “I’ve got good news and bad news for you. The good news is I’ve given you a brain and a penis. The bad news is I’ve only given you enough blood to run one of them at a time.”

Terrifically funny things happen when the blood leaves a man’s brain and he starts writing lyrics – then sings them. Ain’t That A Kick In The Head, written in 1960 by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy VanHeusen, is lyrically tame by today’s standards, but when sung by Dean Martin, there is absolutely no mistaking the driving force behind it. When Capitol Records first heard it, they nearly put the kybosh on its radio play. Yessirree, the man’s blood is leaving his brain at such a velocity, it’s a miracle he can even form words – and by song’s end, he’s scarcely able!

Exclamation marks! The song begins with one! Before Dino can punctuate the very first line, the snare drum beats him to it: thwap! “How lucky can one guy be?!/I kissed her and she kissed me!” Within seconds, the singer is scrambling for a more potent form of punctuation. The tune barely makes the two-minute mark, but still fits in two bridges and eight bars of musical interlude that seesaw from the dreamy to the wow-wheee! Meanwhile Martin, whose usual singing style was smug insouciance, moves inexorably to a conclusion where all composure must be abandoned. When the song reaches its tumbling, shrieking climax, the cheese-eating grin on Dino’s face gets so wide he can scarcely articulate the words:

She’s telling me we’ll be wed!
She’s picked out a king-size bed!!
I couldn’t feel any better or I’d be sick!!!
Tell me quick!
Boy, ain’t love a kick!!
Tell me quick
Ain’t love a kick ... iiiiiin the heaaaaaaad....

Blood, oxygen, sense all gone. Nothing but the exhausted echoes of a delirious, hilarious song.

Chuckle-Head Song #8!

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Chuckle-Head Song #10: A**holes On Parade, by Timbuk3

Full disclosure: in today’s election I am not a voter (read: US citizen), and I’ve heard little from either candidate to compel me to pick a side and beat the drum. Except, except ... nothing gets me cross-eyed faster than rhetoric from the so-called Religious Right. To my mind, W.’s got more in common with Ozzy Osbourne than Jesus Christ: the words issuing from his mouth are either confused, contradictory or profane. Which maybe is as accurate an indicator of the true mettle of presidential material as we're likely to get. People who get that high in the crazed arena of political celebrity aren’t saints, or even “Men of God” - they’re incredible a**holes.

But feel free to write that sentiment off as the brain-damaged ravings of a former headbanger. Lately I’ve been playing the music from the glory of my adolescence and young adulthood – punk, heavy metal, grunge – and the one thought that keeps recurring is, “Some of this stuff sure could stand an injection of humor.” Re: heavy metal, you could argue the genre is inherently humorous, but you’re only going to find one metal song on this list. And despite a sentiment that, on the face of it, converges with metal nihilism, this is not that song, and Timbuk3 is not that band. But the first time I heard them play A**holes On Parade, I laughed, and I’m laughing still.

Timbuk3 was a band pretty much doomed from its inception. They billed themselves as, “A man, a woman, and a rhythm machine,” which, although rife with pornographic possibilities, was in fact literally the case. This husband-and-wife team’s electric violin/guitar/drum machine formula achieved one-hit-wonder status with The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades, a song dripping with venomous Southern irony, but embraced by the same cheerful yahoos who thought Springsteen’s Born In The USA was an anthem of nationalist triumph and pride. Hubby/wife acts sometimes survive if they churn out sunny love songs (Captain & Tenille), but almost inevitably end in disaster if they choose the road of caustic social commentary.

Timbuk3 were not to be dissuaded from their cause, however, even if it meant scant airplay. For most of Timbuk3’s career, A**holes On Parade was strictly live material. In fact, I first heard it at a Bob Dylan concert. Timbuk3 opened, chiefly singing stuff from the newly released Eden Alley. The stage seemed to be lit for someone else, and the duo were having trouble winning over the crowd. They finally lit into a song they guaranteed would never become the next I Gotta Wear Shades, and with that, the audience became theirs. The laughs began with the first line, and got louder as the song progressed. When they finally proclaimed, “A**holes get elected/Because a**holes get to vote,” my friend and I exchanged one of those looks of completely unexpected joy.

That particular line has become one of my cris de couer. I think it offers a surprisingly forgiving perspective. No-one is exempted from this parade, especially if you’re prone to name-calling. Heck, that’s the doctrine of fallen humanity right there! So, returning to my brothers (and sisters) among the Religious Right, I should gently offer that I might be less prone to ballistics if their spittle-laden morality rhetoric contained a modicum of (preferably humorous) self-recognition. From this perspective, the widely-reported “Mr. President, I finally feel that God is in the White House” comment from a Republican supporter could be amended from the potentially idolatrous to the more theologically astute, “Mr. President, I would like to publicly acknowledge that you are, like myself, a first-class a**hole, but here, tonight, I am tremendously grateful to you for publicly acknowledging the value of my vote.” Such a sentiment rings with a truth that might convert even me.

Complete lyrics are viewable here.

Chuckle-Head Song #9!

My First Top 10 List

Is there a better day than November 2, 2004, to inaugurate this blog’s first Top 10 List? I think not. Out here in Whisky-land, it’s gray and rainy, while due south the rhetorical sludge is flying fast and furious, as emotions, hopes and fears are invested in a vote that seems the embodiment of ambiguity and confusion. To counter the attendant fury and despair, I begin counting down my Top 10 Songs That Still Get A Laugh Out Of Me.
Hold onto your sides...
Late Readers: For those who enjoy the fabricated suspense of Top-10 Countdowns, I link to the next song at the end of every entry. If you're like me, and are disinclined to exacerbate your repetitive strain woes, just click here, and scroll right to the bottom. Cheers!

Chuckle-Head Song #10!

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Neal Stephenson Interview

When I began reading this provocative and charming interview with the provocative and charming Neal Stephenson, I wondered why ALD hadn't linked to it. Stephenson is a witty, articulate, code-writing, evo-bio, history-smitten brainiac, who presents his case for a rational pragmatism with compassion and humor – you’d think this would be natural material for ALD. But Stephenson was one step ahead of me, helpfully explaining why this oversight is only natural: he is a Beowulf writer, while ALD is entrenched among our Dantes.

Returning To The Globe, For A Moment

So here's the weird little item that pulled together most of my thoughts about The Globe & Mail's China Rising issue: a book review. The Books section (not available online, alas) was similarly devoted to the paper's theme, covering new fiction by Ha Jin and Gish Jen. One novel, Jin's War Trash, recounts the trials and torments of soldiers from the Chinese People's Liberation Army as they flee from defeat at the hands of North Koreans; the other, Jen's The Love Wife, probes the swamps of emotional confusion that surround the American acculturation of an immigrant Chinese family. To my mind, these two reviews provided the bedrock for the one review that took hold of the larger question (crisis?) of North American identity: Julie Crysler's review of Hello, I'm Special: How Individuality Became The New Conformity, by Hal Niedzviecki.

Hello, I'm Special begins with Niedzviecki receiving nothing less than a Hallmark birthday card, which reads, "Happy Birthday To A Non-Conformist." From there, Niedzviecki wonders at the free market's ability to co-opt the public urge for "Non-conformity" in order to achieve massive sales figures. In Crysler's words, the two questions behind Niedzviecki's book are: If everyone's a rebel, what are we rebelling against? And: If everyone is special, how special am I really?

Flash back to the modernist revolution currently in mid-swing in China. A great deal of artistic energy is now devoted to a legitimate howl against generations of Communist oppression. Hand-in-hand with that enterprise is the exploration of all things previously taboo to this society, some of which are a joy to discover, some of which are quite tragic, with plenty of giddy oddities occupying a vast middle ground. All of this activity is generated, or at the very least aided, by the novelty of wealth and public consumption. These traits also just happen to bear resemblance to characteristics we've come to associate, in the last five decades, with Western adolescence.

Moralists more strident than I have declared/lamented that North America is caught in a perpetual state of adolescence. I'm not entirely convinced, but when I first read the review, I wondered if Niedzviecki had kids. Granted, this is the smug sort of platitude that justifiably earns universal scorn toward Soccer Moms (and let's just admit it: we are all Soccer Moms), but the act of becoming a family unit can quickly inject a little clarity into issues such as non-conformity and specialness. No sane parent encourages their adolescent to pursue celebrity stardom. Instead, what you hope for, work towards, encourage at every turn is diligence, strength of character, perseverance, and a generous recognition of one's place in the local, to say nothing of the global, village: nurture these within your children, alongside a sense of joy and wonder, and you have a list of characteristics we hopefully spend a lifetime nurturing within ourselves.

I would say if the North American sensibility is chiefly held in thrall with adolescence, it still contains communities and voices beckoning it toward maturity. A measure of reason, self-censure, sanity, and a capacity to appeal and to listen - these are characteristics of maturity I wish were more evident in myself, as well as in my home and native land. And these are characteristics that would be a blessing to encounter in turn, when we are finally made to hear the voice of China Rising.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

The Globe & Mail Rising

This Saturday's Globe & Mail is recommended reading, particularly for my American friends who have grown weary/frantic over electioneering bafflegab. To you weary souls I say: muster up your remaining energy and head for the nearest boxy book superstore (or independent international newspaper outlet) and dole out the bucks for a truly unique collection of news and perspectives.

I haven't yet checked the website, but the newspaper proper is devoted, almost exclusively, to China Rising: The Birth of a Superpower. (Wup - just did, and the site pales in contrast to the paper.) In this issue, the attempted breadth of G&M's coverage is impressive to the point of foolhardiness - Editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon is demonstrating the sort of gumption one wishes was a seasonal force of habit among newspaper publishers.

This is the first time I've ever been excited by a newspaper issue, so forgive me if I slip into unrestrained loopiness. At this point, I've read about 60% of the articles, and glanced through the rest of it. I expect to return to another 20% by tomorrow. The portion that completely captured my attention was the Globe Review. John Barber desperately tries to summarize the explosion of architectural Goliaths, rising up in Beijing and Shanghai, where the high priests of po-mo (Rem Koolhaas, Paul Andreu, et al) have found a new congregation of believers, happy to pony up the dough. He calls it Instant Modernity. To which I can only say: whatever happened to Feng Shui?

Alright, that was too glib to qualify as a bon mot, but it does contain a kernel of legitimate concern. Modernist liberations are fine and dandy affairs, typically provoking a wild flurry of exciting, artistic activity, but when tradition is tossed out the window, it's difficult to discern between the bathwater of constrictive repression and the baby of form, concept, and productive discipline. In an article entitled Frogs, live sex and dead cats, Marcus Gee summarizes just such an artistic maelstrom, which is producing all manner of weirdness. Could it surprise anyone to learn there is a sexual revolution in China that makes the one we experienced in North America look like an afternoon tea party? New money - astonishing, entirely unexpected amounts of it - is transforming a culture very much the way it did in North America. The difference: it's happening at an unprecedented speed, in an ancient culture intimately familiar with unimaginable tyranny. What, finally will the new tradition look like? What will the new China look like?

These thoughts and more are percolating away, thanks to this issue, and I expect to return to a few (hopefully with greater acuity). I think the only thing I would have like to have seen addressed is China's increasing appetite for oil. This is surely going to introduce a whole new edge to Mid-East difficulties. How is China likely to assert itself in this volatile arena?

That's it for now, though. The rest of you: buy the paper, and blog, baby - blog!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Only Dylan Piece You Need To Read (If You Don't "Get" Him - But Live With Someone Who "Does")

In the spring of 1999 I read what remains without contest the best piece on Bob Dylan. It was a lengthy New Yorker profile, called The Wanderer, by Alex Ross. I wasn't hopeful. The inherent and by now thunderously obvious peril in approaching the cipher Dylan - especially when the writer is a fan - is getting the job done only to come out looking like a boob. Ross walked the highwire, acknowledging with an understated humour the pitfall on either side, and delivered an estimation of Dylan's talent that manages to be baroque and ecumenical, with none of the gassy pomposity those words (mine - sigh) suggest.

Alright, fine: so just how successful was he? I read the piece aloud to my wife, during a lengthy car-ride. At the end, she declared, "That makes me actually want to listen to his music!"

Mission accomplished.

You can read the piece here. I came to it courtesy of this Slate discussion re: Dylan's hot-off-the-presses memoir.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

My Christopher Reeve Story

I was in the book biz back when Christopher Reeve's autobiography was published. At the CBA Convention that year, there was a great deal of buzz about his possibly attending. During one of countless martini breaks (there's nothing like a bookseller's convention to get the gin flowing by the gallon), I spoke with a guy from Random House who quietly admitted he was just one person of many responsible for making sure Mr. Reeve's forthcoming visit was a smooth one.

"Will he be signing his book?" I asked. The guy stared at me; I cleared my throat and apologized for my distasteful sense of humour.

"Oh," said he, "I've been asked that very question in all seriousness. And when I try to point out that the man is quadriplegic, people still say, 'Well, doesn't he write with his mouth? Couldn't he at least leave a thumb-print?'"
We talked some more, and I found out just what a logistical nightmare this visit presented. Given Reeve's sensitive physical condition, a route had to be charted in advance that guaranteed his motorized chair would experience no bumps whatsoever. Apparently convention centres, for all their slate-like anonymity, are surprisingly difficult for someone in his condition to navigate.

Despite my conversationalist's gin-loosened tongue, there was no getting him to say when Reeve would arrive. They didn't want a mob on their hands, so it was to be a surprise. Sure enough, sometime later the murmur on the convention floor grew louder, and people converged. Christopher Reeve rolled in, smiling magnificently. I watched as people applauded and wept without pause.

The depth of people's emotional response surprised me, and when I'm not careful it surprises me still. It took me a while to tease out why I wasn't as profoundly moved as others obviously were, but strange as it might seem, I think it was due to my religious background. I had already met with and heard the stories of other quadriplegics. In fact, there are quads and other people with significant challenges who can and do maintain a decent living working the speaker circuit in Christian circles, evangelical or otherwise. These people present their stories to an audience that is receptive for political reasons, yes, but also for deeply personal reasons. A quadriplegic can embody our darkest fear, but also our deepest hope - that no matter what our condition, our humanity still retains and will be accorded the highest value.

The current media environment devotes some energy to "human interest" stories, but I think the emotional response I witnessed was an indication of just how rarely we encounter stories of human depth. Christopher Reeve managed to become one of those stories, and to have his story conclude, as they all must, is something to be mourned. But a larger tragedy occurs if it is forgotten and buried in the distracting chaff being sold to us as "reality." I hope that doesn't happen, because clearly the public needs his story - and others like it.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Review: The People I Know

Our small town has a limited number of DVD titles, so I often slap down a fiver for anything with a critical rave on the cover. That Travers guy from Rolling Stone Magazine was excited about The People I Know, and sometimes he discovers the odd prize, so we gave it a spin. Now here’s another critical quickie for the cover of the inevitable two-disc collector’s edition: Interesting failure! – Whisky Prajer”

I don’t want to get too down on this trifle; it did manage to hold my attention to the bitter end. And it has a swell premise: a Public Relations has-been finds himself in over his head in covert political intrigue. Hey - why not? Anyone who’s ever met a PR person – any PR person - is apprised of three basic facts within the first five minutes of conversation: this person knows 1) Larry King, 2) George W. Bush, 3) at least one member of the bin Laden family. This raises the obvious question: why hasn’t Larry King told the President to fill the CIA with PR people?

Here’s another universal PR trait: they operate at an energy level that the human body is not built to endure. Which brings me to Al Pacino, which might as well bring me to the three weaknesses of this film.

1)Al Pacino – For the first few minutes I had no trouble watching Pacino affect a reedy-thin voice and a “Don’t-touch-me-I’m-falling-apart” demeanor. It doesn’t take long, however, for Pacino’s Bronx drawl to shoulder its way through the attempted Alabama lilt. But by now everyone knows if you give Pacino full rein of a production, he’ll devour the scenery and every bit player within range. Not that that can’t be entertaining to watch. But this brings us to...

2)The premise - The McGuffin that Pacino comes to possess contains footage of Powerful People engaged in illicit sexual (and opium based) compromise. Shadowy Operatives are closing in, and for reasons that are unclear to the PR man, one of his clients seems to be at the centre of a Dark Conspiracy. This plotline works about as well as a viewer might modestly expect, but I have to wonder: given how “Intelligence” has come to acquire an ironic status, couldn’t the film have generated greater entertainment wattage with, say, a Catch-22 take on the same plotline? That would surely have allowed us all to have more fun with...

3)Kim Bassinger’s ponytail - Now I’ll be the last person to complain about her appearance in a film – any film – but just how many more “sweet-girl-from-the-country” roles does this woman have left in her? Actually, that’s a little mean: she's still got the hair and face for it, and for Bassinger it’s just another paycheck. Rather, the blame for this thankless role lies squarely at the two left feet (thumbs?) of the writer, Jon Robin Baitz (a member of TV's West Wing writer's stable). C’mon, dude – women are more interesting than that! And movies should be more interesting than this.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

You Don't Hear The Mistakes

Yesterday was one of those days when a pedestrian ailment knocked me into bed by the early afternoon. Remarkable how soothing it is to listen to your daughters practise piano in the room below...

Thursday, September 30, 2004

T.C. Boyle And The Art Of Surviving Critical Reviews

Aye, carumba -- I am spending a heap of time on this site! In fact, Identity Theory will now be added to my list of Intoxicants, thanks chiefly to Robert Birnbaum's rambling and, yes, intoxicating interviews.

I was re-introduced to IT via this interview with author T.C. Boyle. Boyle's latest novel, The Inner Circle, seems to be receiving the standard-issue T.C.-Boyle-Novel-Review-Template -- to wit: "Boyle is unquestionably a virtuoso of the short story, but this novel left me feeling a little cold..." There are some exceptions -- Drop City and The Tortilla Curtain somehow managed to dodge that critical enfilade -- but to be honest, I'm not at all confident that I could review his novels any more sympathetically. The only Boyle novel on my shelf is The Road To Wellville, which I purchased because of the nifty "cereal box" packaging of the original paperback release. I think I read the first half of the novel, before losing interest.

I wonder what sort of toll reviews like that take on an author. Boyle has his devoted followers, and is by now that rarity among contemporary fiction writers, a wealthy public figure, so he's clearly got whatever it takes to not give a damn. But still -- the critics never vary. Wouldn't this prompt a guy like him to think, Well, these novels do take a lot of my time and energy. The short stories are an obvious cash cow, with Esquire and The New Yorker sending me cheques, alongside Viking every time I publish a collection. Besides, Alice Munroe and Mavis Gallant don't bother with the novel. Why should I?

Birnbaum's interview gives us some insight into how Boyle thinks and works. And perhaps it's to everyone's advantage that he keeps writing at such a furious pace. In the meantime, I've picked up a copy of After The Plague, and can attest with the unwashed critical masses that Boyle is indeed a virtuoso of the short story.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Comments? Anyone? Bueller?

For those of you who have a direct site-feed, thank you for your patience. The "comments" are up and running now, so if anyone wants to get the ball rolling on something that doesn't yet have the option, say the word and I will republish it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Double the pleasure, double the fun...

Notice the "day-gig" to your right: my other blog, where I drop the pretentious web-persona and deal with less heady issues, like child-care, cooking, housework, etc. Not everyone's cup of tea, I know, but I do make a mean salsa.

Fixed (More Or Less) Between Three Points Of View

"American literature was taught as a collection of sincerities, which was quite wrong. Thoreau was thought to be a very great man - I regarded him as just a bum, like the kids of the 1960s." Paul Fussell, profiled by The Guardian, here. Link thanks to ALD.

"Piece in
Whole Earth Review by Anne Lamott about the death of her five-month-old boy. She allowed her three-year-old son to see the body, etc. Americans are so experimental." A notation in Brian Eno's 1995 diary, A Year With Swollen Appendices.

I've now mentioned three names who inspire in me a great many ideas: Brian Eno, Anne Lamott, and Paul Fussell. Thoreau is in there, too, but I haven't read much of him, so I'll avoid comment, except to confess that because Fussell holds him in disdain, my knee-jerk reaction is toward suspicion. Consider it a second-generation "critical" response. Clearly, the people who engage our imaginations have tremendous residual power.

The lynchpin in these three names is Anne Lamott. This summer I read Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts On Faith, a book that is as difficult to categorize as it is to put down. At times it comes across as a mad memoir; at other times, it reads like a collection of poetic sermons. When I finished, I felt as if I'd read a confessional - this woman confesses to everything, even a faith in God that seems weak, shallow and anti-intellectual. Who could possibly take pride in such an enterprise as "faith" after reading this?

Writing like hers clearly sets Fussell's teeth on edge. And I've taken some comfort from his writing over the years, because every word has been fueled by a fury and shame that came with soldiering as an American for the Allies in World War II. In the profile above, he smirks that there isn't a political party in existence that wants him, because they know he won't hesitate to flame them, along with their opponent - another trait that endears me to him. My hunch is he isn't so much put off by sincerities as he is by false pieties, which have a way of spelling out a great deal of trouble for a great many people.

His critical acumen is the sort I hold in a reverence that is, perhaps, to my own detriment. For all his imperial bile, I'd say he has something in common with Lamott: a sorrow over his own humanity. In his own angry way, he is as confessional as Lamott.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this (you might want to come back in a few days to see if I've "improved" this entry), but I find myself drawn to Lamott's notion of faith as something a person simply can't take pride in - it's impossible to do so, in fact: if you're proud of it, it ain't faith. At the core of "faith's" character is an increasing recognition of one's own weakness, with an attendant recognition of the larger power of forgiveness, grace ... love.

As for Eno, you dont have to read much of his diary to realize that his comment, "Americans are so experimental," is an understated expression of awe. Eno prizes experimentation in every arena of life. The diary is gruff, engaging, ego-ridden, stimulating, and (incredibly) inspirational.

Hmm - "Tri-une" stimulation, perhaps...

Post-note: I'm also digging this blog, courtesy of the Multiple Blowhards.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

God Loves A Misanthrope: The Nine Planets, by Edward Riche

Not only does God love misanthropes, he gleefully saves his choicest torments for them. At least, he does if he's anything like Edward Riche, author of The Nine Planets. Riche's chief protagonist, Marty Deveraux, has a contempt for his surroundings that would render him as incapable of action as the dithering Hamlet, if it weren't for the latent opportunism that launched his career as founder of an "elite" bourgeois private school in St. John's Newfoundland. Occasionally, we also get a peak at the private life of his niece, Cathy, who possesses her own nasty view of life in St. John's. Marty's brother asks him to shepherd the sullen teen, thinking Marty's "professional" experience recommends him for the task. Few characters in this novel even begin to guess at the depth of Martin's loathing toward his charges, which combined with his niece's reciprocal contempt renders him helpless in her presence.

This premise starts to play like an afterthought, as the forces of biology and commerce wreak havoc. It's surprising how much fun is to be had inside the head of a grump who continually miscalculates the trajectory of the various sexual and political conspiracies orbiting a small community. Even Cathy, whose world-weariness lacks the sophistication of experience, is a treat to encounter in these pages, serving as a reminder that the fear that visits us in our early years returns, in Marty's words, "with a vengeance in the middle years, a more mature, more capable incubus." The event that finally drives away this shared demon and draws Marty and Cathy toward each other shouldn't be a surprise, but it is. This is a terrific novel - Edward Riche is a satirist of the first order, a wicked talent, ably demonstrating mastery in a genre where Juniors Buckley and Cheever are still striving.

You can buy The Nine Planets, here.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

"I Wouldn't Worry About Me"

Well, the Prajer family is back, having had a swell camp-o-ree at Lac Phillippe. An excellent provincial campground in the Gatineaus, this locale is less than an hour's drive into Quebec from Ottawa: I highly recommend it to camping-types. I consider the closing weeks of August the optimum time to camp. The grounds aren't nearly as busy as they are in July (though this is not a difficulty in Lac Phillippe, as it is terraced in such a way as to foster a sense of privacy for each individual campsite), and the nights are cool - ideal for sleeping.

Or so one could reasonably expect. Our second night there, I was plagued with dreams of global apocalypse (a popular leitmotiv for my subconscious). At dawn's early light and one coffee later, I figured these had been triggered by a half-dozen articles in magazines I'd brought along, thinking they'd be their usual "lite" fare: GQ, Esquire, The New Yorker. I should have known better. These publications were collectively wringing their hands over the forthcoming election, and Bush was the villain of choice (though I couldn't help thinking Kerry's absence from these pages didn't exactly help his cause). I'm not a fan of Bush, but I don't harbor the degree of fear and loathing (to borrow a phrase) for the man that some people do, so it was a little surprising to find my angst being nourished by the race for the Oval Office.

The last time my animus tied itself to Washington was in the Reagan years, and then as now it was chiefly due to my perception of where I sat as a free agent in The Grand Scheme Of Things. There were other factors, too: during Reagan's reign, I heard numerous accounts from Mennonite congregations in South America (chiefly Bolivia, Colombia, El Salvador, and Nicaragua) about what a torment it was to be caught between government "enforcement" agencies, and "the revolutionaries." Regarding the former, many were directly sponsored by Washington; when US funding ceased, cadres of thugs from both sides turned to the drug cartels for their paycheck. Envision how your suburb might be run if the Hell's Angels were in charge. For Mennonites (and coffee farmers, and field laborers) in South America, the story hasn't changed a whit.

At the time of Reagan's tenure, I was a Bible school student, failing most of my courses. It was depressing - not yet free of my adolescent impertinence, I couldn't quite discern the "system" behind the "systematic theology" I was being asked to absorb and articulate. I holed up in my dorm room, turned out the lights and listened to Pink Floyd's "The Wall".

One night, I heard a contrapuntal beat emanating from my dorm advisor's room.

I pulled off my earphones and walked two doors down the hall. "That's Talking Heads," I said. "Life During Wartime - a song about mercenaries." (I didn't know; I'd heard a DJ say this on the radio a year earlier.)

My DA looked at me. "If you say so."

He gave me a tape of The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads, which took me 10 years to wear into oblivion.

Live! On tape!
Ten years after that, it's difficult to articulate just what a delight it is to see The Name Of This Band finally being released as a CD, with shiny, new production values and over a dozen(!) previously unreleased songs. Back in the day, I chortled at Don't Worry About The Government, a witty little ditty that employed irony with an unpredictably direct force, almost single-handedly inspiring a generation to reach for irony before sincerity. Ah, those were the days.

Twenty years, a wife and two kids later the song has more punch than ever. And yet, how ironic is it that, irony aside, I take the title's sentiment directly to heart?

Monday, August 23, 2004

Tolstoy in a Tent

I'm taking the family camping in Quebec this next week, so this blog will remain untouched until we return.

In the meantime, I've received several comments from readers who have taken me to task for this posting, claiming I've not fully appreciated the nature of good concerts. I gently point out that my subject matter here is the monster we call "ROCK" (or "RAWK!", etc.). I've certainly experienced some incredible concert performances in my day, most of them slightly-to-entirely out of the "ROCK" genre. My most recent of these was just the other weekend, when The Missus & I joined friends to witness the concert dynamo, Don Ross. His albums are certainly noteworthy, but seeing the man in action is downright inspiring. Sitting in his delightful cafe, in the company of friends, all sipping Merlot, being pummeled by the riptide ferocity of his talent, I started entertaining thoughts like, "I won't just blog - I'll strive to be the Tolstoy of Blogging!"

But this next week, Whisky Tolstoy will be pitching a tent in the Gatineaus, absorbing a different elemental inspiration.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Czeslaw Milosz, 1911 - 2004

Let X make a statement
Let breath pass through those cracked lips
That man was my hero
And now that word has been taken from us

If only I had a firmer handle on the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, I'd be quoting him today. Unfortunately my brain is still mired in the pre-Cambrian silt of pop culture, taking tentative gasps of the harsh and heady air of "Culture-with-a-K", so it was the Talking Heads who came to mind when I first heard that Milosz passed away on Saturday. But that man was my hero. (Links thanks to ALD).

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Just Rock On By, Part Deux

Last Friday, The Wife and I took our kids down to Ontario Place, a typical summer destination for our family. Every year I'm struck by how expensive admission is, and how shabby the park is getting. The faithful consumer in me naively hopes my hard-earned bucks are contributing to the park's improvement, while evidence to the contrary keeps mounting. To be fair, the place was at its peak during the end of the Trudeau era, when there was lots of government money for everybody. I should also report that the Prajer girls had a truly swell time in the recently added "Go Zone" at the far end of the park.

Still, the place is a little creepy. It's noisy in an impersonal, industrial way. Where other parks pipe in canned "Dancing In The Streets" type music, this one lets the atmosphere speak for itself. For the last few years, the first thing visitors saw was a motor-boat speedway attraction. Visitors could board a well-padded, single-seat boat powered by a noisy, noxious two-stroke engine, and race with fellow novices. This attraction ran beneath the bridge that allowed you entrance to the park, forcing visitors to walk through an athsma-inducing cloud of blue exhaust. Add to that go-carts, and a helicopter that circles the park every seven minutes, and you get a lot of gasoline-powered noise. At present only the helicopter is still employed, but combine its police-state rhythms with the deep-throated burble from the marina, and you still feel like the park is located on the meridian between two freeways.

Thankfully, there are other attractions to this park. The aforementioned "Go Zone" is a fabulous treat for kids under 12. There are a number of decent thrill rides, a reasonable water park, and of course the Molson Amphitheatre, which plays host to various rock acts of the day.

We went with my sister and her boyfriend, and mostly followed the kids around from attraction to attraction. Mid-way through the afternoon, we could hear the sound check being performed in the MA. To a borderline Boomer/Gen Xer, the bass riff was unmistakeable. The boyfriend and I looked at each other and said, "That sounds like Love Me Two Times!"

Sure enough, the evening's attraction turned out to be The Doors of the 21st Century (as the helicopter took another low throp-thropping swing around the park, The Wife quipped, "They ought to begin the concert with The End."). While lining up for a plate of fries, I heard the guy ahead of me, well within the Boomer demographic, try to engage the kid in the booth.

Guy: "So The Doors are playing tonight, huh?"
Kid: shrugs.
Guy: "They've got that guy from The Cult singing for them, that nut-job - what's his name?"
Kid: shrugs. looks at Guy as if to say, "You would know that better than I." End of conversation.

There was a great deal to that conversation that annoyed me, the cross-generational attempt at "Cool Cache" being one aspect. The kid's manners could use a little polishing, but the Guy's efforts needed a major overhaul. If you really want to impress a kid, any kid, don't start from a position of authority ("I know who The Doors are, and I, like you, think this concert is lame"). Instead, get the kid to do all the talking ("So: has there been anything worth seeing at the MA this year?").

It also bugged me to hear Ian Astbury called "a nut-job." I suspect it's a verifiable fact, but I also suspect Astbury is a slightly lesser nut-job than Jim Morrison was. And, in either case, it doesn't matter to the music. There's still something rather touching, I think, about the singer of an established band from the 80s/90s, agreeing to pick up the mic that once belonged to his late hero. Whether you call it homage or fromage, it still amounts to a sweet gesture.

We were pulling out of the park just as the fans were trickling in. They were pretty much what you'd expect: lots of paunchy, hovering-around-the-50-mark guys in Starburst tie-dyed shirts; women of roughly the same age, with very long hair; bikers and biker-chicks; emaciated, dark-eyed Morrisonites in their 20s. The last group surprised me - I was sure Oliver Stone had decimated the final shreds of Morrison's appeal with his self-regarding hagiography. With the exception of these young turks, everyone had a pleasant look of cheerful anticipation.

I thought it was all delightful. People showed up just to have a gas, something that would have driven the Lizard King absolutely batty. Still, I can't help looking at a survivor like Lou Reed and wonder: if Morrison had somehow found the will to clean up, might he have gone on to compose an ode to ice cream?

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Soul of a Mann

I never saw a single episode of Michael Mann's recent Los Angeles-based TV series, Robbery Homicide Division. Apparently no-one else did, either: it couldn’t even finish its first season. Which is a shame, because L.A. seems to bring out the best in Mann.

His movies are remembered for their visual flair, which he developed episode by episode in Miami Vice. But an exercise in visual style can only generate so much passion, in the viewer and in the purveyor, and Mann's focus continually penetrates the surface of his shiny vehicles. From Manhunter, to The Last of the Mohicans, to the flashily misconceived Ali, Mann has probed the issue of loyalty with depth and subtlety. People are always sacrificing some aspect of their deepest being to gain something, be it love, money, their dreams. What, Mann keeps asking, are they losing, and what are they gaining?

This is the underlying concern of all Michael Mann's movies, but his L.A. thrillers, Heat and now Collateral, could almost pass for extended Socratic dialogues. Dressed in designer clothes you can't afford. In a nightclub you'll never get access to. Playing cool music you wish you'd discovered. And shooting these really cool guns. In other words, ripping entertainment with value.

Heat was a dynamic exploration of the conflict between Catholic and Protestant, setting up Robert DeNiro as an outlaw whose devotion to Catholic values of family, fairness, and compromise are tested to the point of ruination by the Protestant ("Method-ist") Al Pacino. Pacino's cop willingly sacrifices everything - family, compassion, love - to his dogmatic creed. When Pacino finally bags DeNiro, we get the sense that without villains, this man has nothing, either inside himself or outside. Heat has a place in my top ten favorites, and would probably have garnered Mann the same respect Scorsese gets out of critical habit, had Mann only lingered more operatically on his characters’ anguish.

Mann’s seemingly unforgivable impulse is to entertain. Collateral doesn't dig quite as deeply as Heat, but it has an unmistakable intelligence, and is every bit as compelling to watch. It should be hailed as this summer's best thriller.

Let's get Tom Cruise out of the way, first: much has been made of his playing the bad guy for a change, as if this were his riskiest venture to date. Nothing could be further from the truth; despite his stature, Cruise is a commanding figure who’s done his best work bringing a sympathetic undercurrent to characters with a natural preening arrogance.

Also: wears sunglasses well.
The real discovery in this movie is Jamie Foxx, a towering, muscular actor who possesses an easy charm. Foxx is required to work against type, and portray a gentle character, a taxi-driver named Max, who is surely the antithesis of Foxx, Cruise, Mann and no doubt every male in Hollywood: a quiet and meticulous worker, compulsively adverse to the slightest risk. The movie opens with Max driving a gorgeous attorney (Jada Pinkett Smith) downtown. He converses with her, and gradually, cautiously charms her. The sexual chemistry between the two becomes unmistakable, but the ride concludes with Max incapable of taking the logical next step of proposing another meeting – she has to return to the cab and offer him her business card. When pressed, Max admits he has dreams that are larger than the cab he’s driving. At this point, anyone who’s taken a taxi in L.A. expects the obvious - he’s written a movie, he takes acting classes – but, no: Max dreams of establishing his own taxi service to a tourist locale. This man does not belong in Hollywood.

Of course, his next rider is Mr. Hollywood himself, an immaculately dressed and coifed killer named Vincent (Cruise). Spouting nonsensical, self-regarding jargon, Vincent is a nihilistic tour-de-force, commanding and even charming a loyalty from Max that Max knows will not be reciprocated at the end of the ride. Vincent asks Max if he likes Jazz. Of course Max prefers classical music, not because of its subtlety, grandeur or depth of emotion, but because of its predictability. Vincent is Jazz. His improvisation is breathtaking; his execution(s), brilliant. For much of the movie we’re transfixed and thrilled as Vincent dispatches various nasty-looking, anonymous victims. It’s when he goes to work on the people we know that things get uncomfortable.

As the movie progresses toward its inevitable confrontation, Max gradually, painfully learns how to merge risk-taking with some cautious improvisation of his own – surely a metaphor for those of us trying to navigate a post-Enron work environment, one which seems geared to reward the treacherous and treasonous. Vincent’s final rallying cry is, “I do this for a living!” – a creed that has no value outside of the ironic. It’s the diminutive Max who locates what’s worth living, and dying, for.