Friday, December 28, 2007

2007 Table Scraps

I've got a few table scraps in the frostier corners of my consciousness, and now seems like a good time to pull them out and warm them up a bit, before they get stale.

The Things We Do Out Of Love:
There was a stretch of time when I thought nothing would set my teeth on edge harder than the opening notes of the High School Musical soundtrack. Then Hairspray came along. I initially embraced it — God help me, I actually bought it, witlessly hoping it would usurp HSM as my daughters' CD of choice. Boy, were my hopes met with a vengeance. When it first played I rather liked the opening number (“Good Morning Baltimore!”), with its combination of Pez-dispenser cheer and Alfred E. Neuman hipsterisms. Now, however, it's become the signature promise of a very long and musically dreary car-ride. I'm sure that, beyond providing the inspiration, John Waters' involvement in the musical was little more than an amused nod of permission, but that's more than enough to incriminate the man. Let the punishment fit the crime, say I: he deserves a long weekend road trip through heartland America, listening to my daughters sing the entire soundtrack non-stop for the three-day duration.

I remind myself, of course, of how much certain records meant to me when I was my children's ages. You're A Good Man Charlie Brown was particularly treasured. Funny how someone else's words set to someone else's music could express exactly what I was thinking and feeling at a very particular moment. Suddenly, against all odds, I realized I wasn't entirely the odd kid out. I might not be like everyone else, but this music affirmed that in some very special sense I was most certainly not alone.

“I watched what only my heart could see walk deeper into the woods.” This seems an appropriate time to mention Sarah Moffett's memoir, Growing Up Moffett. I'm slow to gain wisdom (and really: what's the rush?) but one of the deeper truths to impress me as I've grown older is the realization of how fundamentally unprepared we are for the inevitable heartbreak in our lives. It's astonishing enough to discover adults who have the wherewithal to deal with their tragedies, but the ones who are able to assist children with theirs are a very special breed. Moffett's family staggered through a year of heartbreak that, in broad strokes, is a fairly common fate. But Moffett astutely draws from particular details which evoked for me that aforementioned “Hey, me too — exactly!” feeling. She delivers the story in the voice of a kid whose head is on straighter than she realizes, and whose parents are more capable of assisting each other and their children than they realize. This is a touching, life-affirming memoir. I've placed it on my daughters' “You Might Be Interested” book shelf, and I look forward to reading more from Moffett (whose blog is here).

Be Careful What You Wish For:
my lovely (and very observant) wife gave me Donald Fagen's Nightfly Trilogy for Christmas. I was over the moon with joy, and promptly subjected my extended family to the musical contents of the entire package. As expected, it is indeed a scrumptious treat for a Fagenite like myself. HOWEVER ... if you aren't properly set up with a SurroundSound© system, you're getting precious little for your dollar. The CDs are unaltered (I actually compared the soundfiles using Audacity); the re-mixed tracks, the interviews and videos and lyrics and liner notes are all encoded on the MVI DVDs. Again, the lyrics and liner notes are no different from what came with the originals, but I do lament their physical absence. And while the MVI bonuses are snazzy in their particular modality, that's not a mode I'm especially keen on. To make the most of it, you link to the MVI website and use their platform to play with “your” content (getting MP3s, ring-tones and the like). As with all internet-based “product” I'm prone to thinking of MVI content as the equivalent of sky-writing: sure, it's quite the feat, and it's certainly there for you today. But who's to say a random breeze isn't going to come along tomorrow and dissipate it into so many useless ones and zeros? As for the re-mix, a good set of headphones will give the listener some sense of what's been done, but SurroundSound© is finally what's required, and if you don't have the set-up there's very little point to this purchase.

Cinema Experience Of The Year: Ratatouille ... but consider: I only went out to see two movies this year, and Shrek 3 was the other. Even with the complete lack of competition, I still thought Ratatouille was one of the year's most overrated movies. I'm too old to find the hero's quest especially moving (an artist rises above his squalid origins and triumphs), the movie's animated moments of surreal "wow!" were few and far between — particularly for a Pixar film — and the most emotionally compelling figure turned out to be a bloodless critic who rediscovers his soul. His change of heart was, in fact, a very powerful moment. But then we got the sermon telling us it's easier to criticize than it is to create, and I was jolted back to reacting critically and wishing I was watching a different movie — No Country For Old Men, perhaps.

Speaking of which: great book! Sure, it's got all the stylistic tics that make the beleaguered, common-sensical B.R. Meyers apoplectic, but the book is short enough for me to consume them without suffering literary indigestion. Furthermore, McCarthy's moral searching is, for once, surprisingly direct and poignant. It's probably too late for me to say this, but if you want my advice, skip The Road and head straight for No Country.

For Those About To Write, We Salute You!
So who's the real hero: Meyers or McCarthy? God love 'em both, but in my books the real hero is that Grumpy Old Bookman Michael Allen and Kingsfield Press for making his The Truth About Writing a free PDF download. It really is “an essential handbook for novelists, playwrights and screenwriters” — containing some of the most practical and (in its clear-eyed way) encouraging advice for writers that I've ever encountered. If, like me, you've hesitated to curl up with a good PDF, this is your chance to surmount your prejudices and enrich your life (or you could just buy the book).

If I don't log in before then, Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"Oh, the weather outside is frightful..."

The snow seems to have finished falling, but it hasn't finished blowing. And I don't mind a bit.

This Season's Mixed CD

If I could send you a CD Sampler, this is what would be on it:

"Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On)" - Robert Plant & Alison Krauss In the grand tradition of mixed tapes, I kick things off with a toe-tapper, one of the snappier numbers from Plant/Krauss. To keep the good vibe alive, I move next to:

"99 And 1/2" - Mavis Staples We'll Never Turn Back stands as the most righteous disc released this year, and this particular track really cooks.

"Lloyd, I'm Ready To Be Heartbroken" by Camera Obscura - Another indication (if such was needed) of just how out of touch I am with the current scene. This track is almost two years old, but I first heard it on CBC this summer. Mighty infectious stuff, even with the cheesy organ.

Janiva Magness (and Kid Ramos, with one of the dirtiest guitar grooves to hit wax) steps in with "Nobody Loves You Like Me" Yeah, it's six years old, but it was new to me.

Next, I've plugged one of James McMurtry's lesser-known songs, "Pocatello", from Childish Things. There are plenty of worthy song contenders on this album, but this one has a narrator whose cheerful, reckless, tormented obsession with a woman who's more unhinged than he is really tickles me. Includes one of my favorite lyrics this listening year:

"And now I hear some guy that used to
Manage some band I never heard of
Is trying to manage you
Faithless, fine, and gone..."

While I'm enjoying all things cheerful, reckless and tormented, I'll just slip in "Swampblood" by The Legendary Shack-Shakers. I'd sure love to see these guys live, but I get the impression from their website they don't often make it up past the Mason-Dixon line.

This seems like a good time to introduce those kick-ass jokers from Germany, wax.on, so I'm putting "Girl With The Tambourine" from Geek Mythology here. I'm guessing they're very much like "Alpha Male & The Canine Mystery Blood" -- perhaps not in style, but in youth and energy, and that's what kicks off Tommy Womack's signature track from There, I Said It. (One of my favorite tracks of the year, that. Probably had me dabbing at the eyes more consistently than any other.)

Time to cool things down a bit: next is Rene Marie's reworking of "Surrey With The Fringe On Top," from Vertigo. She clears the palate for Peter Case (with Richard Thompson) to play us "Every 24 Hours" from Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John.

Next I have "Think Back" (with Chali 2na) the first of two tracks from From The Corner To The Block by Galactic.

I was pleased to see Dinosaur Jr. back on their feet, putting out that recognizable, nimble-fingered guitar-fuzz, so I chose "Almost Ready" from Beyond.

And speaking of opening tracks, "What You Need" was one such cookin' track, courtesy of Lyrics Born -- my final choice from Galactic.

"Anything/Everything" is a grooving mission-statement from super-pub-group The Yayhoos. Kinda reminds me, in a very good way, of BTO in their hay-day. From Put The Hammer Down.

Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings keep soul alive with "Nobody's Baby", from 100 Days, 100 Nights, warming things up for Bettye Lavette. Ms. Lavette deserves considerable mention for yet another superlative disc in a very impressive ouevre all her own: this year's The Scene Of The Crime. It's tough for me to pick a single song from this disc, but I've gone with "The Last Time", a song originally penned and performed by John Hiatt, which Ms. Lavette (of course) takes over and owns.

2007 saw the release of a bootleg of sorts: Michelle Shocked's 2003 Telluride (or "To Hell U Ride") Bluegrass Festival concert, taped and presented to us as To Heaven U Ride. I very much like her stage performance of "Good News", so I've included it as the penultimate track on your CD.

And I conclude with "Shine", the title track of this year's album by Joni Mitchell -- as a prayer for everything we've done, and everything we are, and everything we need to be if we're going to make it through another year.

God bless, and have a merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"And I'd buy her a diamond collar/If she'd only throw me a bone": Whisky Prajer's "Album Of The Year"

"Too early to declare," you say? Bah, humbug say I! Besides, I'll be in Winnipeg next week and I can't guarantee much by way of posting, so here it is.

And here I sat, spinning one disc after another, playing entire album files on that tiny contraption, and wondering why, after four years of blogging, I picked this year to announce an “album of the year.” I reviewed my case. This has been my first full year of subscribing to eMusic, which means I’ve downloaded over 360 songs in the last 12 months. Add to this the fact that my CD collection continued to grow at its usual rate from purchases and gifts, and it’s safe to say I’ve achieved a personal record of sorts. Surely this constitutes a near ideal environment for me to make such a declaration — no?

Well ... no. The truth is I haven’t been paying attention. I got sick, then I got grumpy, and my focus wandered. Worse than that, I cued up the music, returned to my chores at the kitchen counter and said, “I’m not really listening to you, so you better come up with something pretty damn sensational for that to change.” The artist was now working against two enormous impediments: my disinterest, and their own ability to sustain an artistic moment for the length of an entire album. Good luck to us all.

In an environment like that, an “album of the year” will be a very rare thing, indeed. But there were a number I enjoyed: Joni Mitchell’s Shine was a pleasant entry, Galactic’s From The Corner To The Block swept in from left-field and caught me by surprise and I got a HUGE kick out of listening to Robert Plant rediscover his inner flower-child while coming to terms with his own mortality in the ethereal presence of Alison Krauss. And if I’m going to choose the most noteworthy album released this year, it’s going to go to Joe Henry’s Civilians. That album sits like a rediscovered corner in the attic, catching shafts of sunlight at odd hours of the day and glancing them off treasures I didn’t know I had.

I also enjoyed discovering acts and albums that have been around awhile: wax.on, The Yayhoos, Janiva Magness, James McMurtry and Gurf Morlix.

But if there’s one album, old or new, that I picked up for the first time this year, then reached for and played again and again and again I have to just come out and admit it is ....

Dirty Diamonds by Alice Cooper.

Honestly, no-one could be more surprised by this than I am. Over the years as I watched him shill for golf clubs, then school supplies, then the Republican Party I basically thought of him as the increasingly lame punchline to his own joke. How was I supposed to take this guy seriously if he didn’t take himself seriously? Moving along, then.

But wouldn't you know it (*sigh* here goes) Alice Cooper takes rock & roll seriously — or, in the case of Dirty Diamonds, as seriously as it ought to be taken. It can be jokey, creepy, hokey, even downright nasty, but all of it is entertaining and infectious, hearkening back to the stomping, whistling, rocking atmosphere of the great arena shows. And on my choice for standout track, "Sunset Babies (All Got Rabies)", Alice has every single one of the ingredients mixed just right. Not one of the last 52 weeks has passed by without me giving this song at least one spin. I love it, I love the album it’s on, and that’s my album of the year.

Tomorrow I’ll compile a list of my favorite tracks of the year (or what we used to call a “mixed tape”). Cheers.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Whither Led Zeppelin?

Last night Led Zeppelin played their first concert since “Bonzo” John Bonham died a rock star’s death. Some might take me to task for calling this band by its name when even Robert Plant has, in the past, crustily asserted that Jason Bonham ain’t Bonzo and that the band ain’t Zep without Bonzo behind the kit. But Led Zeppelin is what the fans were hoping to see last night, and if this morning’s reports are any indication, the concert was an instance of massive wish fulfillment. Yes, everyone is older, worn around the edges and possibly a little wiser, but apparently those of us who were holding our breath can now exhale with relief: Led Zeppelin still rocks.
Plus: fashionable footware!
And yes, I was holding my breath — to my own considerable surprise. When the concert was first announced, I was apathetic. Eventually I changed my mind about it all and lamented the concert as a predictable error in Aging Rock Star judgment. Meanwhile, between spins of the Plant & Krauss disc and yet another “Will They Still Rock?” link sent to me by Scott, I found my interest growing to the point where, had there been a reasonable opportunity, I would have willingly attended.

The whole thing presented anything but a reasonable opportunity, of course, and the next tier of fan wish fulfillment is a possible tour. At this stage, I think we fans should be careful what we wish for: aging bands who reluctantly reunite and go on tour inevitably invite an early special guest appearance from the Grim Reaper. If I glance at the fatality ledger for the New York Dolls and The Who (just the first two examples to come to mind), then consider Jimmy Page’s recent tendency toward personal bodily harm (back spasms three years ago, a broken finger last month) I can’t help but be a little concerned. A camera crew was on hand to capture everything that happened last night — what say we give the boys a big hand, then send them off to pursue their individual interests while we settle and wait for the inevitable DVD?

“And what did you come here to see?” Was it a spritely foursome who jump around the stage and invite participatory audience mayhem? Was it a creative group whose collective vision has grown and matured with age? No, not at all. We came to see three survivors whose music and staged lives have loomed large in our imagination for the last 40 years. We came to seek some reassurance that our youthful delirium wasn’t entirely in vain, that there was something at the core of what went on that merits our sustained attention.

Given the endless press this concert is generating, it appears as if that “something” is definitely still there — “The song remains the same,” as it were. So far as I’m concerned, though, my curiosity in seeing how well the survivors play together was almost purely the byproduct of listening to Robert Plant’s work with Alison Krauss. Somewhere between the discovery of this photo, my viewing the Amazon promo-clip and my umpteenth spin of "Your Long Journey," I realized there was a part of me that was genuinely (if distantly) invested in these people. I’m not just grateful for their music, I’m grateful for their actual physical presence. And weirdly enough, if I had attended last night’s concert I would have felt gratified to stand and whistle and cheer with the thousands gathered. Instead, this post will be that, and I will wait for the DVD.

Alright, to the links! Led Zeppelin: "A Force For Peace"? Mark LeVine "Saves The World"? Mark Morford (both via Scott) Or was last night's performance of "Stairway To Heaven" an egregious mistake?

File this under: "Is there an echo in here? Or am I repeating myself?" It's the latter, as evidenced here and here.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The "All Natural" Bodybuilding Supplement Of Choice Recommended By Retired Nurses The Whole World Over

This entry will be familiar to those of you who carried over from my other (now defunct) blog, Stay Home Daddy-O. But since I'm already talking about matters of the physique, and since 'tis the season, here, once again, is the Eggnog Story.

In the Christmas of 1983 I was an earnest 18-year-old Bible College student who weighed 145 pounds, dripping wet. I considered myself scrawny, so I bought a bodybuilding magazine from the corner store, clipped out the exercise regimen and worked out every morning in the basement weight room next to the laundry facilities. The workout was ostensibly the one that the current IFBB champ followed to get his title. The weights I was using were from various mismatched sets and didn't add up to more than 150 lbs, but even so I wondered if my daily 1-hour-plus workouts weren't an invitation to injury. Worse than that, after two months of arduous labor I had yet to gain a single ounce.

The magazine was a Weider publication, stocked with glossy ads for their latest line of bodybuilding supplements. So far as this scrawny kid on the beach was concerned, the ads were convincing enough, but the magazine went on to publish several lengthy “studies” that articulated precisely how these over-the-counter supplements worked to inflate the muscles of every “hard gainer.” A local health food store stocked the line, and I was tempted to dish out the money and give it a try. I mentioned this to the school's Phys Ed teacher. He looked at the literature and shook his head. “I'm not sure about this,” he said. “I'd say talk to the nurse in residence first. If she approves, then go ahead.”

The nurse in rez was a retired missionary who was still Registered. I told her of my ambitions, and she was polite enough not to snicker. “It looks like this stuff probably won't hurt you,” she said, “but I'm guessing it's pricey and of dubious benefit.”

I slumped. “So what do I do?”

“You're worried about protein, right? Well, it's eggnog season — lots of protein there. Get some eggnog and drink a glass before you go to bed.”

I got my coat, ran to the corner store and bought my first liter of eggnog. Delicious stuff! Like a milkshake, only better. And it said, right there on the label (just after "cream"): “Contains whole eggs and egg yolks.” Protein galore! I drank the whole container that very night.

Over the next three weeks I repeated this stunt — not quite on a nightly basis, but pretty close. And wouldn't you know it: I put on fifteen pounds! Unfortunately, although I was happy with what I saw on the scale, I was not so thrilled with what I saw in the mirror. Near as I could tell, none of the weight was going to my arms and shoulders. No, the pants never lie: the eggnog was going straight to my ass.

The happy conclusion to this story is that, miracle of miracles, I still like the stuff. I love eggnog — spiked or virgin, it doesn't really matter. In fact, most Christmas evenings I prefer the latter. It brings back the memories. Brings back the weight, too, of course — but that's what the season is for.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Exercising Restraint (at the Magazine Rack)

I couldn't help noticing how the stacks of my magazines were becoming increasingly unruly, so I went to the basement to retrieve a few handy-dandy cardboard filing cases that I'd purchased from Ikea some months back. I was shocked and appalled to see that the spares I was counting on were now full. Adding more old magazines to our already creaking shelves would be a difficult sell for my wife, so I bit the bullet and rolled up my sleeves to do a little culling.

The choice was glaringly obvious. Within 15 minutes I had bundled and brought to the curb four years' worth of Men's Health Magazine.

Four years — what possessed me? The Post Office Ladies smirked whenever they handed me the monthly ish; my wife cocked one eyebrow in benign amusement; even my three-year old daughter thought the covers were a joke (after seeing yet another example of gay beefcake frolicking in the sea, she said, "Daddy, that man looks like he dipped his head in the potty!") But my rationale, such as it was, was quite simple: I thought if I subscribed to the magazine I'd be a trimmer, fitter person.

The magazine subscription, in other words, was what marketers refer to as an aspirational purchase. Some yobs put on a Ferrari ball cap before they get in their Dodge Neon to drive to Costco; every month I parked an issue of MH by the crapper. The majority of the magazine is formatted for just such reading, and I figure I read most issues from cover to cover. One of the magazine's mottoes is, "Tons Of Useful Stuff," and the claim isn't too far off the mark: they do fill the pages with quick summaries of various scientific studies, and run longer pieces on pertinent subjects like medical insurance and heart health. And Lord knows I didn't mind the many pictures of pretty girls in lacy things. But there's no reason to keep these magazines around for longer than a month. And as I concluded shortly before turning 40, there was no reason for me to purchase the magazine at all.

To be fair to the (former) editing staff and my (formerly) aspirational self, there were two years running when I adopted and followed the headline workout programs. Most of the programs that get mentioned in the sidelines are chiefly exercises of a particular coach's imagination (the recent emphasis on "core" fitness produces some spectacularly flexible workout regimens, most of which strike me as suspiciously frivolous in their goals), but the two that caught my imagination were sold as the (excuse me) meat of the magazine, and had every indication of being carefully considered before getting published as progressive, year-long regimens.

The first was developed by Ian King, and while it had no shortage of oddball exercises (in the eye of this beholder, of course: I don't know why I think the barbell rollout is more peculiar than the bench press, but I do) it generated some very notable strength gains and altered my physique enough that my wife eventually commented on it (favorably, thank you). He's published something similar with former MH contributor Lou Schuler, here. While I don't own the book, the program looks similar enough to the one I followed that I'd recommend it to anyone keen to ramp up their workout — with one caveat: if you follow the program religiously, there will come a point about midway through it when the workout sessions break the one-hour mark. They return to saner proportions, but I'm at the age where I simply can't justify that kind of time on something as frivolous as physique, when I could be doing something funner, like reading your blog.

The year after the King workouts, MH published a "home or gym" series that became the basis for this book (another Lou Schuler byproduct, this time with the help of Michael Mejia). I've little to say about that, except that the book is just the thing for guys like me, who consider working out in a gym to be a huge disincentive.

At one point I bought and adopted the magazine-sanctioned diet. Within three weeks I actually had to let out my belt, so I promptly went back to my usual. I don't consider myself an especially conscious eater, so my only conclusion from that experiment is that North American eating habits have become wildly removed from my grandmother's plain common sense: ie, whole grains are better than processed, any food you prepare is better than something prepared for you (especially if it's in a can), etc.

Near the end of my tenure as a subscriber, the magazine published a one-off piece by a guy who had the temerity to ask significant questions about quality of life. He noted how gyms have enough people running on treadmills to generate electricity for entire states, and wondered what his father, an old-world type, would think. The old man wasn't the sort to engage in exercise for exercise's sake; if he found himself with some spare time, and he finished his nap, he'd go to the docks to stack pallets for a few extra bucks. When the son asked dad how he kept his waste-band at a consistent 34, the dad gave him a pained look and said, "When the pants got tight, I put less on my plate."

We do what we do. Note the firewood behind the magazines: a couple of weeks back I stacked two bush-cords of hardwood. The fact that this didn't result in two weeks' worth of pain and misery is due in no small part to the program, such as it is, that I currently follow. This is it, tweaked somewhat to accommodate Peter's helpful advice. Doesn't last longer than 30 minutes, for more than three times a week, tops. I could stand to drop one of those workouts in exchange for more walking, but maybe I'll make that change in the new year.

In the meantime, I've got a few more magazines to get rid of.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Gifts of Christmas Past, Part II

The pictured Christmas gifts below are the ones that seem to just keep on giving. Here's how the inventory breaks down:

I've lamented before that my daughters are now of the age where they go to sleep too late but are just a year or two too young for my wife and I to watch a movie of our own choosing. The first volume of SCTV DVDs provide our marriage with just the right dose of comfort: we cheerfully and repeatedly resort to them on late Friday or Saturday nights. The Second City crew, a mixture of Canadian and US talent, was an incredibly gifted team of comics — for my money a more prodigiously funny group than their SNL compatriots in New York. Of the bunch, no-one gets me laughing harder than Andrea Martin. It's curious to note that much of her material is solo, with a few anonymous stand-in straight-men. Sometimes she duets with Catherine O'Hara, and occasionally they'll team up with Joe Flaherty (who, out of the entire team, seemed the most game to throw his lot in on behalf of someone else's concept — Libby Wolfson's hilariously über-feminist play "I'm Taking My Own Head, Screwing It On Right, And No Guy's Gonna Tell Me It Ain't" couldn't have been done without him). Conversely, when Martin shows up as a bit player in a larger sketch, she almost always steals the scene by getting the biggest laugh (her singing hula-girl in Polynesian Town doesn't get more than 10 seconds of air, but is far and away the comic highlight). A well-used and highly recommended DVD set (along with Volume 2).

Moving clockwise, we have a black turtleneck sweater — my second since we married. I'm sure there are men who have too many black turtleneck sweaters, but I have not yet reached that optimal state of marginal utility. A woman can never go wrong with this gift.

Next we have the pile of words. It's not a manuscript (sorry guys), but one of my journals. It originally looked more like the black leather-bound beauty just to its right. A lovely cover like that should inspire lofty thoughts, but I found myself so intimidated by its quality and my inability to measure up to its standards, that I ripped it off and threw it away. Problem solved: pages full. Journals, no matter what they look like, are a welcome gift.

There are three collections of essays — writers talking about writing, basically. I'm especially fond of the Paul Auster book. It's a British publication, given to me by a friend at a time when Auster was not yet well-enough known on his native soil to merit a North American collection of poetry and essays. I think it's a demonstration of a highly perceptive and intelligent writer discovering and slowly gaining confidence in his own voice. The other two books are Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott and The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. I could just as easily have included similar books by Stephen King and Josip Novakovich (all highly recommended) along with a half-dozen others. A future posting, perhaps.

The figurines are all justly celebrating the gimped-out/wimped-out condition of the prone Maple Leafs player — on leave from his tabletop rink. The other three characters are from various Star Wars Lego sets that I have assembled with my daughters and their friends.

Next we have a fine baby-blue dress shirt and the fab martini tie that my wife gave me early in our marriage. I don't have as many occasions to wear a tie as I used to, but when I do the martini tie remains a frequently commented on and coveted stock favourite. I've worn the Bollé sunglasses for the last three years, and they're now too scratched to be of much use. I've replaced them with a pair of Serengetis, but can't quite bring myself to throw away the Bollés.

The whole display is propped on a crokinole board, my table game of choice.

And last, and most importantly, we have the boxed collection of Steely Dan — a gift from my wife in our first year of marriage. No-one gets as much play in our house as the collective brainchild of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker — except for Fagen, solo. I don't believe anyone in the last 50 years of pop music has intuited and fleshed out the potential of the pop song to nearly the same degree as these two, and given the lyricism and wit of Fagen's solo albums I have to give major props to him. A short story can never be a novel, and a novel can never be a Shakespearean play — but a four-minute song can be all of the above. I can't get enough of these guys. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Gifts Of Christmas Past


That's right: just by tripping across this entry, you've picked up the meme. Name, describe and/or photograph one of your favorite Christmas gifts.

Here's a photograph of some gifts from Christmas Past, deeply appreciated items one and all. One of these, however, rates as my all-time fave. Care to guess which it is (click on the picture if you need a closer look)?

Friday, November 30, 2007

"One of these bands is not like the others / One of these bands doesn't belong"

Roger Ebert's maxim is to review the film you're given, not the one you wish you were watching. But halfway into American Hardcore I found myself wishing the documentary wasn't about the American hardcore punk "movement" at all, but about the band Bad Brains.

Somewhere between all the little white guys with their neatly-buzzed scalps, the music that (hate to say it, but it's true) all sounds the same, the footage of Henry Rollins goading a fan to throw the first punch only to thump the bejeezus out of him when he finally complies .... is this guy ... this black guy ... wearing a suit, sitting in a park telling the camera, "We were about positive energy ... I told the band to do some reading ... the Bible, of course. But also this book by Napoleon Hill." Yep. Think And Grow Rich. The rest of these jokers didn't care if they ever got signed to a label, said outright that it wasn't even on their radar ... but this black band, that could actually play their instruments, wanted to think and grow rich.

I kinda-sorta knew about Bad Brains, back in the day. The vintage clothing store I frequented would play reggae and ska, and the Brains had at least one album that fell into that category. I'd also been to a party where a group of young guys were intent on reducing a kitchen chair to matchsticks, and, again, Bad Brains was providing the soundtrack -- albeit one that wasn't nearly so laid back. The latter is actually their earlier sound. It has an infectious energy to it, and the footage of their concerts reveals a band that really tears up the stage. The Brains are given single-handed credit for kicking off the Hardcore Punk movement, which must surely qualify as one of the most bizarre geneses of a sub-genre in the history of rock and roll. The Brains started off with no shortage of anger, but were also much too musically talented and aware to get pigeon-holed as punk. Throw in a front man whose informing passion was a restless spiritual pursuit, and eventually you wind up with a band that seethes, but grudgingly obliges their leader's insistence they become rastafarians.

The closing interviews with band members include the expected, "Ah, you know I love [singer] H.R., but he could make things just too crazy. I kind of understand it now, but it was difficult at the time."

I'll bet it was. And that's the film I want to watch.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

My Blog's Reading Level?

After yesterday's huffing and puffing, to meet my NaBloPoMo obligations I am resorting to a gimme:

Flattery will get you everywhere — everyone knows it's a major feat to get a Junior High kid to read anything that isn't punctuated with emoticons.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dick In A Book: Just How Pussy-Whipped Is Fiction, Anyway?

It's pussy-whipped, that's what's wrong with it [the modern short story]. I speak metaphorically, and I paraphrase Mr King, but that's the gist of his argumentMichael Allen, Grumpy Old Bookman.

[Michael Allen] has no use for the hierarchical notions of “high” literary writing versus “low” genre and no doubt that there’s a phallocratic element at work. Fine art is the work of gentlemen and trash is the messy product of women. Isn’t that right?
Mary Scriver, Prairie Mary (in reference to Allen's book, The Truth About Writing).

The blogosphere remains abuzz over Stephen King's introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2007. My own thoughts on his thoughts were hued with drowsy amusement, but with all this talk of pussies and phalluses, I inevitably became aroused and now feel compelled to stand up and be counted.

To Mr. King I say: so The New Yorker and Harper's are somewhat to blame, are they? I shall grant you that it's been years since I last read a short story in the pages of either mag, but blaming their editorial preferences for the declining health of the American short story is like blaming the Titanic for booking a band that only knows how to play "Nearer My God To Thee." Yes, let's by all means give a round of applause to those plucky short story types (and thank you, by the way) who write what they want as opposed to what they ought. But, to extend the metaphor beyond the breaking point, the fact is they — sorry: we — are sitting belowdecks while you stand on a lifeboat with your bullhorn, shouting “Row! Row!” As the waters rise we shall, by the grace of God, keep typing. But we're very well aware that nothing we put to paper is going to deliver us from obscurity. In that regard, we face one insurmountable obstacle, which you tiptoe around, so let me state it outright: nobody really wants to read a short story. Short story writers make a point of it, of course, but only in small doses — because NOBODY really wants to read a short story. More on this later, but for now we short story writers actually remain grateful even to the New Yorker for having the temerity to book and pay the band.

To Mr. Allen I say: God knows a little testosterone does wonders to keep me glued to the page. My favorite short story to be professionally published in the last five years is Until Gwen by Dennis Lehane. Testosterone fuels the whole thing — jail-time, murder, patricide — but is injected in measured doses to deliver a monster emotional workout. It wasn't published in The New Yorker, of course, just The Atlantic. Since then the Atlantic has gone soft and only publishes short stories once a year, most of them fitting the New Yorker's pussy-whipped template. Too bad for all of us, but I won't blame the Atlantic — at least not for the health of the American short story.

(P.S. Mr. Allen, if you've still got free copies of The Truth About Writing, might you send one my direction? I'll gladly give you one of my books in exchange. Not that you really want to read any of the stories located therein — more on this curious universal truth later.)

To Ms. Scriver I say: I will grant you that this phallocracy you suggest was the foundation of the Western World's publishing houses. I assert, however, that this order has been completely reversed in Canada (submit your off-color word for it below) and that the US is bound to follow, if it isn't there already. Our nation's publicly acknowledged "T"-writers — W.O. Mitchell, Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, Morley Callaghan (who thumped Hemingway in a Parisian boxing ring, doncha know) — have all passed away, and CanLit's coveted spotlight has been studiously turned from their would-be heirs to the likes of Margaret Atwood, Mavis Gallant and the inescapable Alice Munroe (who, like Mr. King, claims she'll be “retiring” any day now). Those three ladies are prodigious talents, but even so it's mighty tempting to just go ahead and blame them for the declining health of the American short story, since they all remain highly-favored by the New Yorker. It could hardly be argued, though, that they write to any expectations other than their own, so let's just give them a round of applause, too.

It's not by any means a complete gender coupe — not yet, at least. Taking a quick glance at the Canadian Booksellers Association's list of Top Canadian Fiction (scroll straight to the bottom and ignore those other lists, please), the gender split still favors the men — by one. Were I the sort to be persuaded by statistics, I'd declare Canada a bastion of enlightened, progressive, fair-minded readers. Instead, I will further assert that the sales for all but one of those titles (a genre book) are chiefly attributable to female consumers (who appear to be entirely enlightened, progressive, fair-minded readers).

I could lay the blame for this shift at the feet of our publishing houses, or the cabal of literary prize-givers that for the last five years in a row has awarded the Governor General's, the Giller, and the Canada Reads awards to Miriam Toews for A Complicated Kindness. But the truth of the matter is naked for all to see: it's the internet, stupid.

There are three significant changes to the bookselling world that come to us entirely at the courtesy of the internet. (1) “Official” reviews don't matter any more. Now that we all belong to the chattering classes, bestsellerdom is achieved purely via word of mouth. (2) We buy our books from Amazon. Period. Maybe we throw a little coin to ABE, or the corner store. But in the bestseller book market, it is far and away Amazon's game, and what they stock and promote determines a great deal of what gets published. (3) The internet has effected a sea-change in cultural consciousness, which I can define with a simple question: what do you think guys with a little testosterone go to the 'net for? IF they are reading, they're doing so to bolster their bluster. Otherwise it's strictly amusement, in all the predictable forms.

Someone like my wife, on the other hand, recognizes the internet for what it is: the bane of her existence. The internet equals work, or worse: a distraction from the things that matter most to her. In her off-work hours she might use the internet for some last-minute shopping, or to help with a daughter's school project. But as soon as the mission is accomplished, the computer is turned off and she has left the room.

She faithfully reads herself to sleep every night, novels only. She hates short stories. “Oh, I had a blast editing yours,” she assures me. “But the problem with short stories is if the central character is even halfway compelling you feel ripped off for not getting more of them.”

It's all about narrative value. As a writer, I get more value writing a short story. But as a reader, I'm forced to agree with my wife. Not just because what she says is the truth; she's also the last remaining market for fiction.

Endnote: this is what my wife is currently reading (recommended to her by a colleague), and she will stack it up against Denis Johnson or Jane Smiley any day.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Wii ... would rather not.

The older daughter and I recently had a conversation about video games. A boy in her grade 5 classroom asserted that Gamecube (our current console) was "lame" and all the games "sucked." (He was hoping Santy would bring him Wii.) My daughter then piped up, "That's not true. I like Gamecube." And so she set off a chorus of similarly minded children, defending the lowly Gamecube.

I was pleased, of course, to hear of her impatience with conspicuous consumption, and let her know. "It's just so crazy," she said. "Why would anyone bother even buying a Wii, dad?"

"Well," I said, "I suppose if you want to play the newer games, that's the console you'd have to buy. They've already stopped making games for Gamecube. Not that that's an issue for us. But if you were curious about that new Simpsons game, for instance, you'd need a different console."

I could see the gears turning. "Oh," she said. "Then maybe we should get a Wii after all."

D'oh!! (Or should I say, "Mission Accomplished"?)

I gave it some further thought, talked it over with my wife and suggested it could be a gift to "me" while the girls received something less frivolous. It all sounded quite sane, so on my next foray into the land of Giant Boxed Stores I walked into the electronics-themed box and asked how much a Wii console was running.

The kid in the blue shirt looked at me as if I'd just crawled out from under a rock. "Uh, prob'ly 'bout $800, I'm thinking."

I blinked. "I was under the impression they were more affordable," I said.

"Well, they are ... when they're in stock."

How was I to know I was hunting for this season's Cabbage Patch Kid? Eight hundred bucks ... there isn't a console in the world worth that kind of coin.

Except for this one. Sturdily built, includes a heap of games that still haunt my dreams. Granted, it takes up a little more space than the new, high-falutin' consoles with their spiffy graphics. But look at those games.

The killer is its (to my mind) outrageous sticker-price of $2000. Two grand ... after I've probably spent that sum in quarters on those self-same games. So no Arcade Legends cabinet console for me, thank you. I will wait until spring, then dish out ten percent of that sum for the newly-available Wii.

Post-script: MAME is an option for some old-timers like myself (no helpful links, sorry: you will have to troll those porn-infested waters under your own recognizance. But Boing Boing links to this clever mash-up of an IKEA dinner table, rigged to include a MAME console.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

In Search of Lost Sound

I've been wading through the back end of my music catalog, dusting off CDs I haven't played in years and giving them a spin. It's funny to recall how excited I was to hear my first few CDs from the 80s. At the time, it was remarkable enough to listen to a technology that didn't have tape hiss or platter noise. Twenty years later, the sound quality of most of these discs is lamentable. In fact, there are cases where the record delivered better.

Split Enz is one such band. I happen to think "Hard Act To Follow" (from Waiata or Corroboree) could well be the best-sounding pop single from the whole scad of 80s New Wave acts. I love its frenetic build-up, the galloping coconuts in the background, the paced alteration of synthesizer sound-effects that trickle or tumble to set the mood. And the mood is ... well, it's either delighted or tormented, depending on the listener's point of view. Is the singer's object of affection a "hard act to follow" because she is no longer in the picture? Did she leave because she was fed up with his slightly creepy obsessiveness? Did he crowd her out? Is she still there? Is this his clumsy way of saying, "After you, there's nothing, baby!" Whatever the case, this is not a sweet Beatles-esque ballad -- it has a distinctly uncomfortable edge to it that is all its own.

And darn it if the CD isn't lacking the spacial ambience of the LP. I'm guessing the songs have been compressed to aid speed of CD production. I'm certainly not going to complain about the price of the disc, which even at the time of purchase sold for less than $10. But the final sound is a flat echo of what had once been so encompassing and moving -- further motivation, perhaps, to let the past be the past.

Wait a second: did someone say, "Remixed and remastered?"

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Signs of Life (Elsewhere)

Alright, it's Grey Cup Sunday, and the two teams fighting for the cup are both from the prairies, so today for my faithful readers I've only got a little link-love. Since Lenny Kravitz is playing the half-time show (isn't he from Moosejaw?) here's James Parker: "We who live in the end times of rock 'n' roll, blighted as we are by melancholy and déjà vu, are nonetheless afforded certain privileges." Rockin' first sentence, followed by near-perfect execution. If this piece were a guitar solo, it would belong to David Gilmour.

And here is one of my fave authors (and poets), Jim Harrison, expounding on the poetry of Chuck Bukowski (who I expounded upon here).

Something (relatively) of substance tomorrow.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Temples of Damanhur

"Get in the plane, kids -- here's our next field trip!" (h/t Boing Boing)

Joe Henry, Civilians

Here is another contender for my favorite album of the year: Civilians, by Joe Henry. I'm guessing the pro critics are comparing him (favorably) to Tom Waits, and there are moments when they share the gimlet-eyed perspective of the organ-grinder. More to the point, they both tap into the rich vein of Kurt Weil's artistic legacy. But where Waits can lurch toward the grotesque and occasionally sensational, Henry takes care to slide just beneath the surface, where desire and disappointment sit together like nettlesome siblings.

Pray for you, pray for me
Sing it like a song
Life is short but, by the grace of God,
This night is long

Henry's music is orchestrated to sustain the tension of his lyrics, intimating the sort of boozy comfort that flickers and disappears beneath the cloud of an oncoming hangover. I've received good comments from cafe customers, and the disc fits easily into my dining-room soundtrack as well. Highly recommended.

Joe Henry's site is here. Re: pro critics, Civilians seems to have received excellent reviews from everyone but the smarty-pants who think there's a better party somewhere else.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sulking In Denis Johnson's Shadow

Frederick Buechner once began a review of Flannery O'Connor by admitting his reluctance to read her. Too many people kept saying, "Oh, you really should!" and drawing comparisons between his writing and hers. Someone finally cornered him on it, though, and his review went on to admit to the pleasures of her artistry and insight. But when I finished reading his essay, I couldn't help thinking this was meant to be his final word on the matter. "Okay, I've read her; now can we talk about something else?"

Denis Johnson is someone I want to read, while simultaneously wishing I could just avoid him altogether. I never finished Jesus' Son because I kept thinking, "Argh! Wish I'd done that!" I've managed a few pieces of his journalism, and somewhere I have a copy of Already Dead: A California Gothic, which I'm hoping will ease my Kem Nunn-induced jones for violent, California-based weirdness. Of course, the trick is cracking open the spine and bracing myself for prose I wish I'd written.

My hesitancy shouldn't be your hesitancy, though. Here's a smashing review of his latest novel, Tree Of Smoke — a book that is sure to adorn my bookshelf, because it already haunts me.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Imagining Batman

When I was a child my father's rule re: the purchase and consumption of comic books was pretty straight-forward: so long as my age was still in the single digits, I was restricted to Uncle Scrooge and Archie. He was also fine with Christian comics (*shudder* — another post, perhaps) and had an abiding fondness for MAD magazine, which I devoured from cover to Jaffee-fold-in cover. So far as censorious edicts go, my father's ploy was subversively clever. By the time I was 10, I so well-versed in "the usual gang of idiots'" shtick that I had no desire to spend my hard-earned nickel on men in capes and tights (that all changed 10 years later when Frank Miller came on the scene).

However, when I was seven the siren-song of Neal Adams' Batman was still very compelling. I was particularly drawn to this issue:

Bear in mind that I was completely ignorant of the Batman's origins and non-existent super-powers. I glanced at the cover and let my imagination run wild in an attempt to fill the gaps of my knowledge. "The Demon Lives Again"? Was Batman the demon? He certainly looked dead on the cover. Of course, even a seven-year-old could see the sword was lodged in the sand, and not between Batman's ribs. I also knew Batman had to "live again" just to make it to the cover of next month's issue, so I figured that had to be it: Batman was a type of demigod, who through some horrid process had been reduced to the fate seen on the cover by the scary-looking old dude holding Bats' costume. And how exactly did that costume work, anyway? The cowl was still present, as were the shorts and long-johns, but he was shirtless. And here, too, Batman was a peculiarity: superheroes were always a muscular hairless bunch, but this guy didn't just have chest-hair — he had nipples, too.

And he was dead. Or beaten up badly enough to have his costume removed. The answers lay beneath this cover. Dad was still talking to the pharmacist. Maybe if I just quickly leafed to the pages in question ... there's a fight in the desert ... scorpion stings Batman on the ankle ... he's down ....

"Um ... son?"

The rest of the story is in the pages of this book. And while I do love the artwork, I've gotta say: the story that swirled in my seven-year-old noggin was a lot better than the one I eventually read to its conclusion.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"America's Only Rock 'N' Roll Magazine"

Having said all that, I surely do appreciate those people who spend such a large portion of their lives nutting out why a particular sound gets their blood up. This territory is almost exclusive to men — Aristotle, Friedrich Nietzsche, Lester Bangs — but there are a few women interlopers as well, and as is typically the case, Patti Smith is well worth seeking out on this issue.

I suspect Smith and Bangs are at their best in the back-pages of Creem: America's Only Rock 'N' Roll Magazine. Their intelligent and/or semi-intelligible musings are recommendation enough for this, uh, handsomely bound retrospective, but I am also drawn toward the book out of prurient curiosity (Santa, take note). As I mentioned in the earlier post, I was more inclined to read Starlog or any of Forrest J. Ackerman's many publications than I was Creem. But as is typical with mid-life hindsight, I now wonder if Creem wasn't an inescapable chimera that blew through my (and countless others') adolescent zeitgeist. Surely there are trace elements in my consciousness that relate directly to that shoddy little magazine, the way trace elements of plastic float around in everyone's bloodstream.

I typically follow a simple mantra in these matters: "Identify and move on." Stay tuned to see how this episode concludes (probably sometime in January).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"This torch that I found / Has gotta be drowned / Or it soon might explode"

About five years ago, when I was buying some items at a grocer's counter, I noticed the tattoos on the arms of the guy packing the bag. They were all KISS characters — not exactly my cup of tea, but there was no denying the artistry. “That's some really fine shading,” I said. “Where'd you get those done?”

He grinned. “Right here in town. The man who did 'em is retired, though.” He pushed up his sleeves to reveal as much of his arms as he could. KISS tattoos, right to the armpits and onto his back. “KISS ARMY” on his neck, just below the hairline. I gave this guy a closer look. He was maybe a year or two older than I, and still very proud of these tattoos he'd had for over 20 years.

A friend of mine gave me the double CD of KISS ALIVE after I admitted envying him his youthful experience of seeing them play the Maple Leaf Gardens. The booklet inside has pictures of arena audiences awaiting the act. Smiling girls with flippy hair holding onto homemade “KISS ARMY” banners, surly dudes slouching in their folding chairs. A few minutes after those photographs were taken, the lights went out and everyone went crazy.

I wasn't even remotely tuned into the band at the time. There was a scrawny Ukrainian-Catholic kid in my grade seven class who covered every spare inch of paper in his possession with KISS photos or, failing access to such, Bic-pen KISS graffiti. I couldn't name a single one of their songs, but if he'd said, “Rock & Roll All Nite” or “I Was Made For Lovin You” I'd have lit up. The local roller-rink played those songs.

In 1977 there were two types of kids: those who were KISS ARMY, and those who thought the whole thing was just a little strange. I belonged to the latter, much larger group, eschewing the bold technicolor rock & roll pastiche in favor of repeated reads of the Star Wars novelization. A year later at a school across town, a grade ten kid walked into his shop class with a canvas gunny-sack, pulled out his father's shotgun and blew away a classmate. He later claimed he was operating under explicit instructions from KISS. Devotion to a single rock & roll band, I concluded, was probably not a healthy pastime.

I know of people who follow a certain performer from venue to venue, Deadhead style. For these people, every performance is its own revelation, its own unique access into the music. The best account I've read of just such an exercise is Alex Ross's turn as a Dylan tour-junkie. I can appreciate that sort of devotion, and was probably capable of it when I was a younger man. At this point in my life, it is rare for me to enter into a musically-induced meditative state. Some sort of portal in my brain has been closed, and the key to opening it is proving elusive.

The same friend who gave me KISS ALIVE has followed the Canadian power-trio Rush pretty much from the day of their conception. The people around him know of his devotion, and I think for the last few years he's had his concert-tickets paid for by those of us who appreciate the depth of his love. When the lights go down and Rush walks on stage, while everyone else is cheering and whistling, he weeps.

I'm not sure why I hesitate to give account of my experiences as a concert goer. It's partially from a realization of just how limited that experience has been. I haven't seen that many “big” names, and the ones I have seen didn't leave much of an impression on me. But I do understand my friend's emotional response.

Roughly around the time I encountered those tattoos, my wife and I attended a concert. She had seen the performer before, but I had not. We had his CDs, though, and I loved them. I thought the music on them was so fresh, with such surprising, life-affirming insight, I was anxious to see if this guy actually existed. When he slouched on stage with his acoustic guitar, there I was: choked up, dabbing at tears.

Over the last few years he and I have had a few exchanges, so he remains anonymous in this post. I once overheard someone else confess a similar response to his stage presence. I was a little taken aback to see the performer wince. He wasn't putting on self-effacing airs, either; he was genuinely chagrined. In fact, I wondered if his response didn't border on distaste. I later said, “You've gotta realize: your songs are incredibly beautiful to some of us.”

“Aaaaaagh.” He squirmed. “Honestly, I'm just a guy who sleeps til noon, pours himself a bowl of Shreddies, then sits down to watch Bonanza.” He rubbed his temples, took a deep breath, sighed and recovered a bit. “But thanks.” We quickly changed the topic.

Part of me wonders if this guy couldn't afford to be a little more generous to his own soul. Another part of me thinks if he took his vocation as seriously as some of his listeners do, he'd never get anything done. So long as he's serving the music, who cares?

I do believe that in the main we are all poor stewards of The Music: “broken vessels” is the biblical metaphor, and it fits. What we sing, or dance to, is infinitely larger than what we are as people. It's a wonder more of us don't get carried away by the beauty and the intensity of it all. And perhaps that's the caution I hold to whenever I play or witness a new act — or try to write about the experience.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Show I'll Never Forget: 50 Writers Relive Their Most Memorable Concertgoing Experience

"You may have to say things twice," she said, "because my ears are still ringing. I went to a show last night."

"Who'd you see?" I asked.

"Uh ... The Dropkick Murphys?"

"No kidding!" I said, feeling elated that I was so freshly "in-the-know" about this band (a sweeping tip o' the hat to DV!). Had the Pogues been more like these guys, you could have called me a fan. Where the Pogues' frontman Shane McGowan eventually made every song sound like he was gargling marbles, the Murphys' testosterone levels keep the lines of communication in a clear roar. "Those guys sound like they could put on an incredible show."

She shook her head, and her eyes got a little wider. "It was insane," she said after a pause.

"You had a good time, then?"

She mulled that over, then said, "Well ... it got pretty insane."

It later came out that one of her group (college educated to a person) spent the night in the hoosegow after getting into a row, and she wasn't entirely sure what to make of it all.

Sounds to me like she has the material for a little prosaic gold, if she gives it a decade or so to steep. Hers is the sort of experience that fills the pages of The Show I'll Never Forget. I've hesitated recommending this book, because it is a very diverse collection of essays, and of the 50 there are probably only six that really haunt me. The majority of the remaining 44 are still worth reading, but man: nothing hits me between the eyes like Thomas Beller's account of The Kinks at Madison Square Garden in 1981. Beller, if he is to be believed, impulsively committed an act of incredible stupidity -- incredible stupidity! -- yet survived. I don't want to say any more, because the bald details are almost beyond credibility; yet Bell's rendering of the whole experience is completely persuasive. Similarly Diana Ossana's heartbreaking remembrance of Led Zeppelin in 1973, and John Albert's first exposure to Black Flag at the Hong Kong Café in LA, 1979. Lives writ large in the echoes of a great concert.

Not quite worth the full price on the jacket, but certainly worth borrowing from the library or purchasing remaindered or used.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

CFL Football, For Those Who Care

Now here's an oddity that probably fits as a working metaphor for Canada. The Canadian Football League has been suffering for years, experimenting with just about any exotic substance that crossed its path, including the invitation of a few American football teams. When I was a kid, the CFL ruled because it was Canadian, goddammit: as Canadian as I or the kid next door.

In other words, it wasn't American. We invited American talent across the border, but the game was resolutely (and, some would say, comically) Canadian. Three downs, wider field and all that.

So here we were today, watching a playoff game between Toronto and Winnipeg. The latter city is as Canadian as one could hope for, and has the sharpened teeth to prove it. They made mincemeat out of the Toronto Argonauts. So far as sporting competitions are concerned, this was as it should be.

Unfortunately, insofar as the league is concerned, this win amounted to a small suicide. Had Toronto won, the league may have been granted a few more years' existence. As it stands, Toronto the Beautiful seems intent on getting an NFL franchise and waltzing away entirely from the CFL. I haven't yet posted my complete and unexpurgated thoughts on Toronto sports fans, and frankly am not likely to. These chuckleheads have more money than they know what to do with, and so invite all sorts of sporting trouble to their city and the country they live in. Witness their NBA team, the Raptors. Or take another gander (if you dare) at the Leafs. Then step on the other side of the fence and take a close look at the Blue Jays -- a much better team than this city deserves. Of course the city's sports fans, as if to prove the maxim, stay away from Jays' games in droves even when the team plays better than any fan has a right to expect.

I first lived in Toronto in the fall of 1983, when the Argonauts won the Grey Cup. Cars were overturned, store windows smashed. It's now 24 years later, and if the Argonauts won they'd receive a modest parade in front of Castle Loma. Toronto deserves the Leafs, and any other franchise it wants to pit against George W. Bush's USA, instead of Canada. This crazy city can't compete within its own nation, yet it wants to go up against the world?

Take my city. Please.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Mulligan Courtesy of Nick Hornby

I moved house this month and have bought no books at all for the first time since I became a Believer. I have spent hour after hour finding homes for unread novels, biographies, memoirs, and collections of essays, poetry, and letters, and suddenly I can see as never before that we're fine for books at the moment, thanks very much ... The ways in which a man can kid himself are many and various ... The truth is, I'm too worried to begin Hilary Spurling's apparently magnificent biography of Matisse (bought about five years ago, new, in hardback, because I couldn't wait). Housekeeping vs. The Dirt

Ah, but Nick doesn't have Post Office Ladies to contend with. Here I am, smiling at my neighbor as she hands me the latest Amazon package. She doesn't know it contains a Batman comic and a George Pelecanos crime book. For all she knows, it's something trivial. I have to chuckle (guiltily) and assure her I have a budget for Amazon purchases, and this is all on the up and up.

No, Nick knows not what he's missing.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The New Friday Night

My Friday is just about over (no, really) and I've got nothing to say. Except that no-one prepared me for my Fridays to be so completely taken up with family activities.

Actually, I'll add just one more strain of whine to the stew: movies. In my youth I would never have believed I'd get to be so clueless about movies as I am at this moment. And it's not my fault; it's the kids. They go to bed too early for us to watch a movie as a family, and they go to bed too late for my wife and I to fight the sleepies to the bitter end.

I can't accurately recall just which was the last movie the two of us rented and watched, but it might well have been Scorsese's The Departed. It was entertaining enough, but when all was said and done, I can't say he supplied much motivation for harried parents on the cusp to stay awake.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I hear the girls asking for a Simpson's episode (from one of the first three seasons, when they were still funny). I might also be hearing a glass of wine call my name.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Locate The Mystic

It's been a while since I last viewed End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones, but it really stuck to the ribs. This morning I find myself thinking of some of the extra footage included in the menu, including interview out-takes with Joe Strummer. In one of these moments, he's asked some question about what The Ramones meant to him, and his eyes take on a distant look and he reminisces in a hushed voice. He says something like, "The uniform, those black leather jackets and the jeans ... at some point Johnny must have sat the rest of 'em down and said, 'This is how we're going to be.'"

I was struck by the romance that seemed to pick up Strummer and carry him away. Similarly some of the musings that Bob Geldof has in New York Doll. Geldof typically comes off as one of those surly Irish personalities with no room for sentiment, but wow, does he wax sentimental when it comes to the Dolls. And he is genuinely pleased to see these three surviving geezers gather on stage and sing the songs of their younger selves.

So here we have Strummer and Geldof, two artists who know how quickly the bloom comes off the rose of being a rock & roll star. One could argue that in both cases these guys witnessed their bands overtake their heroes. And yet, in their imagination, there is an inner sanctum where these rock personalities met, and from the cauldron of their shared imagination came this dramatic "WOW" that seemed like something larger and ineffable that Strummer and Geldof still yearn for. This, from guys who know it's all nuts-and-bolts, and who's gonna drive the van tonight?

Bear with me, but these thoughts occur to me after reading Yahmdallah's take on the final televised Star Trek episode, belonging to the shoddily-conceived and ill-fated Enterprise. Rick Berman and Brennan Braga, the two Roddenberry heirs who cooked up Enterprise, ostensibly referred to the final episode as their "valentine" to the fans. I have no doubt they used "valentine" in the ironic sense. As in, "The divorce papers finally came through -- Happy Valentine's Day, bitch!"

I haven't seen the episode in question, but Yahmdallah's appraisal is entirely persuasive. Judging from what cast members and fans have said in response, it sounds like B&B deliberately created a vehicle for their scorn. They rang the doorbell, and watched from a discrete distance as Trekkies opened up to discover a burning paper sack on their television porch.

Now contrast B&B's snarky, "It's a valentine!" to third wheel Manny Coto, who called the final episode, "Not so much a finale as a coda." It sounds to me as if Coto, who had nothing to do with the finale, was exerting what little damage control he could on behalf of a now widely-loathed franchise. That's the job he was hired to do as a writer, and most of the fans I've talked to say he really rolled up his sleeves and did good work.

If Coto was in any way involved with the latest movie production, I'd give it a chance. I watched one Coto-written Enterprise episode, and thought the concept and execution were surprisingly fresh. More than that, it looked as if the actors were finally having fun. Coto brought in a perspective that was fixed on the Star Trek universe, as opposed to the Star Trek franchise.

Anyhow, I don't want to get too laudacious when it comes to Coto's abilities. No-one will ever thank him for The 1/2 Hour News Hour, and I still maintain that 24 is a moral cancer eating at the soul of America. But when it came to Star Trek, I think he slipped into the mystic, pretty much the way Geldof and Strummer did when they thought of their heroes.

That sort of thing is good -- good for rock & roll, good for Star Trek, and good for the rest of us.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Batman: Interesting Or Merely Distracting?

"Hey, Dad," said the nine-year-old, "Mommy has a Batman comic book! And boy is it stupid!"

I chuckled nervously. Of course they were talking about my Batman comic book, purchased on impulse to see how Grant Morrison was carrying on. "Stupid how?" I asked, almost certain I already knew the answer.

Bingo: "There's girl superheroes, and they've all got underwear that slips right up their bum-cracks. See? Stupid!"

Actually, the girls in question were supervillains, but never mind. I thought I had put the offending book somewhere relatively safe, but my wife had noticed it and picked it up out of curiosity. And yes, the girls were indeed wearing outfits that would have hampered their attempts at hand-to-hand combat.

"Uh ... so what does Mommy think?"

"She can't stop reading it," reported the younger. "I had to say her name three times before she answered."

I heard a giggle in the other room. "It's true," she confirmed. "I haven't read a Batman comic since I was little. It's all very interesting."

Well ... it's getting there. "Very interesting" is a bit of a stretch, unless the last time you read Batman was when Neal Adams was in charge. As with earlier Morrison stories, I thought this month's issue was too short and lacking in continuity to be anything but superficially engaging. But the artwork is zippy, and even if it doesn't contribute what it should to continuity and emotional development, it has an undeniable distraction factor. But I don't think I'll be putting down the money for Morrison's collected works just yet.