Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Fave Thing #3

Dessicated Rock Stars, especially if they look cheerful. A few examples:

Lou Reed meets one criterion, but not the other;

But good ol' Johnny Rotten steps in to fill the gap (surely that's not his kid he's holding ... is it?);

Roger Daltrey appears suspiciously "well preserved", but methinks the trapped look on his face and his tenuous grip on the water bottle signifies an inner dessication;

Bob Dylan hasn't cracked a smile on camera since he broke up with Joan Baez -- but see if you can't get him to grin when you book him for your next "corporate or private event" here (I've got a birthday coming up!);

Angus Young has, for the past quarter-century-plus, reportedly been a tee-totaller and devoted husband and family man, but any 52-year-old who's chain-smoked cigarettes from the age of seven to the present still qualifies as dessicated;

And finally the all-time champion of dessication and cheerfulness, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, if there's a bustle in your hedgerow, won't you please give it up for...

Mr. Robert Plant!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Fave Thing #2: From The Sublime To The Ridiculous

No, I'm not particularly partial to brown paper packages tied up in string: but I do have a soft spot for cardboard boxes, and my wife indulges me. Here is a corner in our basement, just under the stairs:

To make matters worse, there are boxes I hesitate to send there, this being a recent example (from a Christmas gift):

It should be enough that I'm enjoying the game with my daughters, but no: the box puts me in a nostalgic mood. For starters, the two hockey players on the left-hand corner harken back to the two knuckle-heads painted on the game of my youth. Besides, when we finally tire of our family tournaments, I'll want to re-box the game for safety sake. And happily married couples will be the first to tell you: it's always fun to reopen a treasured gift.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Fave Thing #1

I shall start with the obvious: a well-larded book shelf. This is a reading/composition corner. Or, more often than not, a "let's put our laundry on daddy's chair" corner for the girls.

This is in the guest room/office. We have several of these crates from the old book store, and if I remember correctly they date back to the 1930s and 40s. Bookstore clerks must have been a muscular breed back then: a crate full of books will weigh close to 100 lbs.

This shelf sits just outside our bedroom. It's the final opportunity for bookish order. Once a book is carried through that door, it will wind up on an enormous pile next to my side of the bed (if it's any good, that is).

If the book won't fit on the little shelf, it can go here, on the other side of the hallway. I believe there's still room for another 50 titles or so.

The dining room, where any mealtime argument you might have can be quickly cross-referenced with a few handy tomes.

And finally a little shelf, just before you leave. I suppose you could store your hat on a shelf like this. But what if, just before you step out the door, you are gripped with the urge to read Cormac McCarthy? No, it's much handier to place his Texas Trilogy, or a spare copy of John Crowley's Little, Big close to the door for just such an occasion.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

If it works for Maria von Trapp...

...maybe it'll work for me. On the other hand, the song I have in mind was written for a fictional Maria von Trapp. So maybe it doesn't work. But then on the other hand, it seemed to coax some excellent improvisations from John Coltrane and a heap of others...

It's settled. From now til Friday, I'll be posting pictures of a few of my favorite things.

Set It Up, Take It Down

Do you want to tell them Saturday is a clean-up day?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Flushed Away

Big day for my daughters — Flushed Away finally gets released on DVD. This marks the first movie they have waited for with breathless anticipation. I'm sure we'll benefit as a family from multiple viewings of the movie. Long-distance relatives may now consider themselves forewarned: should they visit within the next trimester they will be required to sit down and watch this film, in hopes of getting a pleasant glimpse into the souls of their two nieces/granddaughters, ages eight and ten.

In fact, that shouldn't prove to be an ordeal: I thoroughly enjoyed Flushed Away when we saw it on the big screen. Just past the halfway mark, there's a scene involving a French mime (he's a frog, of course) and a cell-phone that got me roaring with laughter — a prodigious feat for a film these days. But then Flushed Away had me primed: I'd already been giggling through most of it by the time the mime stalked on-screen with heinous intent.

The last two years have been a fallow period for those of us in need of family fare. That Narnia film was alright (but then, I'm a sucker for anything with Tilda Swinton in it. If that doesn't yet describe you, rent The Deep End and see if things don't change). Shrek 2 was excellent, but suffered because it couldn't possibly surprise and delight to the same degree as the first film. There were a half-dozen fish-out-of-water films about animals in the wild, or the suburbs, or the wild, or the zoo, or the wild ... I kinda lost track of which was which. And I don't recall laughing at any of them. As for the usually above-excellent Pixar, the less said about last summer's dreary HotWheels flick, the better. No, if I had to rate Flushed Away, I'd say it was the best animated feature since Wallace & Grommit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

I'd say Curse of the Were-Rabbit is clearly superior to Flushed Away, but my daughters won't hear of it. Curse is a “dividing line” in our family: the grown-ups love it, the girls ... well, it was alright the first time, but they had no desire to see it a second time. Flushed Away, on the other hand, has got legs to it. The plucky heroine certainly gives it appeal (especially when the voice is supplied by Kate Winslett — an actress who can get me to forgive her anything). The toilet humor obviously has enormous (ahem) cache with kids in that age bracket. And the film uses The Dandy Warhols' “Bohemian Like You” to exhiliarating effect.

If you want girls to enjoy a movie, a peppy soundtrack never hurts. And in the case of our family, the grown-ups are anticipating the Flushed Away DVD for reasons of their own: we're hoping and praying it will usurp the reigning DVD of choice, High School Musical (h/t to TLD for that last link).

Friday, February 16, 2007

Any excuse for a Basil Fawlty picture

Cue up Velvet Revolver: it's another trip for my wife -- to Germany this time. And no, she won't say anything about the war.

Then it's on to Australia. Hm, how best to offend the Aussies? Is there a handy Crocodile Dundee reference I can reach for? Or should I just say, "Fair dinkum" and be done with it?

Unrelated Post-It Note: "Why ... would someone who came of musical age in the punk era, alongside acts that aspired to take the piss out of absolutely everything, work so tirelessly to put the piss back in?"; "Unyoked from Copeland, Sting was free to become what he is today: one-third spirit in the material world, two-thirds scented candle." If Bob Geldof is "ostensibly a friend" of Sting's, this profile by Stephen Metcalf is ostensibly appreciative of the man and his formerly-super band, The Police.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Breaking The 24 Addiction

"This must be what crack cocaine is like." So said my wife, halfway through the first season of 24. We'd rented the discs from the local video store, and were having a very difficult time restraining ourselves from watching all 24 episodes in one sitting. The "ticking time bomb" narrative device is viscerally effective, especially in an environment where paranoia reigns supreme. I'm not the first to point out that the show perfectly embodies the working day atmosphere in Corporate America; in 24, everyone around you could turn out to be your worst enemy.

Lots and lots of "fun", to be sure. But I stopped watching the show at the end of Season 2, for two reasons: (1) Season 1 closed on a tragic note, but one that resolved every frayed storyline we'd been exposed to; Season 2, on the other hand, saw fit to conclude with two portentous scenes that ominously suggested everything was about to take deeper and darker turns than we could possibly have imagined. If you've been reading this blog, you will know that nothing pisses me off more thoroughly than getting strung along with no resolution in sight. I believe the technical term for this is called, "Being taken for a chump." (2) Back when I was a sullen adolescent, my mother would take note of a particular book I might be carrying around, or a television series I was hooked on, or a band I'd developed a taste for. She'd ask me about it, and if I painted a picture that raised a red flag or two, she'd trot out the Pauline injunction, "Whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely and of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." I'm sure I set her heart to rest with a snort and a sneer, but if you hear something like that frequently enough, it sticks to the brainpan. It's a quarter-century later, and I've stopped watching 24 because it makes me feel like shite: twitchy, edgy, suspicious, angry so that when some bad guy gets it you jump to your feet, pump your fist in the air and shout, "YEAH!! DIE, DIE, DIE!!!"

Hm. I jumped from first person to second person. Anyone else notice that? That shift in perspective is pretty common among those of us Doing The Program.

You can Do The Program, too: go cold turkey, and break yourself of the 24 habit. Need another good reason? The entertainment lords and dealers behind 24 are amoral creeps.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Mourning The Book Store

I dreamed of the old book store last night. The scene was murky, ill-defined but soaked in a dark nostalgia. Some aspect of the building seemed to still be operating as the outfit I remembered, and I was meeting friends and former employees there. But the book store was a ravaged scrap, a pathetic remainder of its former comfort and authority.

These dreams are an annual occurrence. Eight years ago at around this time I got a phone call from a friend who still worked at the store. The owner had announced closure.

The news came as a shock but not a surprise. The shop was the oldest independent book store in the city. Although I had moved on, I had been an employee there for seven years and knew that, so far as book stores went, this one was doing quite well. The accounts were all in the black and it was turning a profit, but a number of thorny issues were bearing unwanted fruit. And there was no doubt the struggle to stay competitive was taking a very real toll on the owner.

I visited the shop a few weeks after the announcement. When I walked through the doors, I stopped and stared. I was stunned. The shelves were already stripped. The lights seemed unnaturally bright. The FM tuner was silent. What was left of the stock had been moved in toward the centre. The shop was shutting down the way the human body shuts down: extremities first, every system struggling then collapsing, until only the central nervous system remained. Then that too shut down, and we were left with a corpse.

That corpse is now inhabited by a coffee franchise which shall remain nameless. It's good coffee, I buy it all the time — just not at that location. I get too many dreams.

One of the women at the local cafe tells me she senses I once built or managed a library in a former life. Well ... I won't speak of that which I do not know, but I can attest that libraries of any and every stripe have been of immense importance to me for as long as I can remember. My father had his library surrounding his desk in his office. I pored through many, many books there. My mother subscribed to a Time-Life "Great Artists" series that eventually filled a wardrobe she'd converted to a bookcase. When our village got its first library, I'd head there after school and study the spines of the books in every single section, until my mother phoned and asked the librarian to send me home for supper.

Book stores were different only insofar as they reflected the ideas of the moment — museums of the present, or the recent past. When I moved to Toronto, I wasn't so much a pub-crawler as I was a book store crawler. A guy could start at the University of Toronto Book Store, work his way up to Bloor Street where he could peruse through two dozen stores, all with their individual buyers who had their individual quirks when it came to choosing stock. My God, the visions I exposed myself to in a single day! I was particularly light-headed the day I covered comic books, Robert Mapplethorpe and the illuminated manuscripts of William Blake. My eyes felt like they were on fire.

Within that six-block run there are now only three survivors from those former days (at the moment, I can recall the names of 12 stores that have closed; I'm confident I'm missing some). Before I get too maudlin about “a way of life now lost to the tides of history” I will acknowledge that just about everything I encountered in those book stores can be found, with a little diligence, on the Internet. A person is right to point out that the stores may be gone, but the information is even more accessible now than it was back in the day. This isn't a “loss” on the same scale as, say, blacksmithing.

Fair enough. But the way I trawl for information on the web is directly informed by the way I trawled for it when I was a pup in a library. I used to be able to physically relocate from one repository to the next. As I walked, I could prepare myself for the next location. Here might be the holy; across the street might be the profane. Those few steps afforded me the chance to prepare my heart. What do we miss when those steps between those sanctuaries and shrines — when the physical experiences of encountering information, knowledge and wisdom — are no longer available to us?

In passing: I see my favourite book store in San Francisco — A Clean, Well-Lighted Place For Books — closed its doors last summer.

Monday, February 12, 2007

"You don't have to sing that old song tonight"

I wondered if maybe I picked the wrong five minutes to watch The Grammys, but apparently not. I would have thought The Police an unlikely former trio to regroup for an audience that's been assembled to congratulate itself, but there they were, wheezing through "Roxanne". If I needed proof you can't get back your rock & roll glory years, last night was it. Sting can pump himself up to look like an Arnold stand-in, but he can't hit the high notes? Perhaps he's just indulging in the wrong drugs.

I switched off the television after two minutes of watching Jamie Foxx behave like Jamie Foxx. Man, there's a guy who's just about due to discover Scientology. If I left the scene too early, let me know in the comments.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Back Yard Quinzee

We won't be sleeping in here tonight. But we could.

Here's how to make your own.

The End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones

I got lucky: this bullshit became my life while I was ensconced in the relatively decidedly pissant environs of Creem, so once I woke up I made it out and can say that though I have my days just like everybody else I still think I have a future — the final words in Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs, dated 1981. Bangs died a few months later.

A couple of years ago, I dropped a chunk of change for a Mojo Magazine “Special Edition” devoted to Classic Rock Albums. Having grown up as a pious child on the prairies, I now wanted to catch up on all the stories I'd missed behind all the albums I hadn't bought. This was just the ticket. Mojo did a smashing job of gathering writers who were quick to identify the absurdity and exhiliration of a particular moment in Rock History. It was all a little self-conscious, to be sure, but not enough to ruin the fun. The majority of the pieces were written in the “You Are There (With Me)” tone, and once I'd passed the 150-page mark I began to discern a familiar narrative parabola. The band could be Led Zep, Blue Oyster Cult, UFO, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Guns 'n Roses, Metallica, Lynyrd Skynyrd ... the story pretty much ran like this: Band reaches pivotal moment when their “sound” is captured; the resulting album and tour catapults them from their insane bubble of fame and success to the next level, someplace entirely beyond insane.

There are a number of glossy photos: stadiums packed to the rafters with ecstatic, adoring fans; staged spectacles that look a little threadbare and hokey in hindsight; and many, many portraits of young men surrounded by the detritus of extreme self-indulgence. The shot that sticks out in my mind captures Ozzy Osbourne and Randy Rhodes as they wait in line for Disney's Space Mountain. Ozzy and Rhodes both have distracted grins on their faces, but while Ozzy looks up and around him with addled amusement, Rhodes is staring ahead, possibly “inward”. I found the pedestrian nature of this shot both delightfully and depressingly compelling. No doubt some dark corner of my psyche still wants to be a rock star. And, you know, I once stood in line for Space Mountain, too!

Needless to say, the Mojo story-arc concludes in one of two ways: someone dies, or everyone enters rehab. The band might break up, or they might reform and take out a new lease on life. Either way, life is never as “high” as it was in that singular moment of glory.

There are other rock & roll storylines, of course. And though I was familiar with The Ramones and had a Cliff's Notes precis of their story, I wasn't at all prepared for how affected, disturbed and sad I'd be at the conclusion of The End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones. In broad strokes, the Ramones were a band composed of four guys who didn't much like each other — not at the beginning, and certainly not by the end — but they possessed a collective genius that understood their musical moment in time and fucking nailed it to the wall. They were acknowledged as the influence by every big act that followed in their wake. Yet despite this, and a relentless touring schedule that stretched out unrelieved for over thirty years, the Ramones never achieved “breakthrough” status. They certainly never went broke, but by rock & roll standards they never got close to attaining wealth, either.

Through interview footage with the band members and the people who hung out with them, a surprisingly nuanced picture develops around the four uncontestedly unique personalities that originally made up the band. A viewer could forego the Meyers-Briggs test and simply identify her own personality by acknowledging the band member she finds most sympathetic. Is it the distracted romantic who's inept at everything except singing songs? That'd make you a Joey. The blunt instrumentalist who pursues his vision with steely single-mindedness? Congratulations: you are a Johnny Ramone. A flamboyant showman who has to dominate every room he's in, and damn the consequences? You're a Dee-Dee for sure. A co-operator, a tweaker, an enabler who keeps things working and is a bit of an introvert? You're a certified Tommy Ramone, though you'll probably be self-effacing about it.

Alright, since you've pressed me, I'll admit it: I'm a “Tommy”. I was particularly charmed to note how he bailed from the band early on, citing a “personality crisis” brought on by all the touring. While reminiscing, he seems saner than his band mates. Like everyone else, he acknowledges that Johnny was a relentless control freak, and a first-class prick to boot, but this doesn't seem to poison his perspective of the band, the way it does Dee Dee's. Much is made of how Johnny stole (and married) Joey's girlfriend, and how Joey could hold and nurse a grudge like no-one else. Tommy and the other surviving drummers seem to think anyone other than Joey and Johnny would have put the matter behind them and moved on, but the two refused to talk about it, or anything else, with each other from that point forward. Is it any surprise that Tommy (and the other drummers) are the only surviving members of the band? The other personalities used up whatever capacity they had for compromise between naps in the van as they drove from gig to gig.

A picture emerges too of a very gradual and painful death of a dream. The Ramones are accorded a measure of fame, along with a steady income, but never quite launch into the stratosphere the way so many of their followers do. They keep plugging along, doing their thing. Then at some point in the 90s, they agree to a concert in Brazil. Suddenly they get their stadium full of adoring fans. They can't climb into their limousine without getting mobbed. The limo can't move for all the people. The Ramones finally get a taste of what they've been chasing for last 30 years. It's scary, it's claustrophobic, it's exhiliarating. And it basically does them in.

They return to the States and schlep their gear from club to club for a bit longer. Then they call it quits. Joey dies within a year of that; Dee Dee within months of their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; Johnny just days after The End Of The Century is released. These guys seemed to have very little outside of their band and their music. Once that was gone, what was left?

Debbie Harry, in one of the interview extras, blurts out a sentiment that strikes close to the heart: “That's what I was thinking when [the World Trade Centre] came down: I just wish I could get back to those years.” If this is wisdom, I suppose it's of the rock & roll variety: life doesn't get any better than bursting in on the scene like a bunch of superheroes in tights. If this happens, it only happens once, and you'll never get it back.

Anyone who has had to let go of some dream, no matter how big or small, has to wonder: is she right? "Tommy" that I am, I rather hope not, of course. I hope I turn away from beckoning nostalgia so that I can embrace an un-nostalgic present, and be of some use to the people around me. I hope, in other words, that there is something to live for beyond my dreams.

Is it possible, then, that there are circumstances when youth isn't just wasted on the young, but on the elderly as well? And if so, how does one avoid that fate?

Again With The Snow

Still lovin' it.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Print On Demand and Big Publishing: A Modest Proposal

Here's a revolutionary question: why don't the big publishers do Print On Demand?

H/t to M. Blowhard.

More Snow

I love it.

I stepped outside to split some kindling for tonight's fire. The snow covers everything. My neighbor across the street came out, and closed the door behind her. Just hearing the click of the latch made me smile with pleasure. Snow doesn't just muffle sounds, it isolates them, singles them out. In fact, there are sounds that can travel quite a distance over freshly fallen snow: a dog's bark, or a coyote's howl, for instance.

Noises shining like diamonds.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Snowed In

Snowed in this morning.

Conditions are perfect for some Red River Cereal. My kids won't touch the stuff, of course. Neither would I when I was their age. Some dishes just require adult taste buds.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Pulp Fiction: The Good, The Bad and Philip Kerr

There's a certain type of pulp fiction I try to avoid. It's easy to recognize because it's driven by a common impulse. I'm talking about the male adolescent impulse, the sort that prompts a scrotty kid to stand up at the family dinner table, wave his arms and squawk, "You just don't get it, do you?" It's typically relentless, bordering on tedious. The best of it is playfully cruel (Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club comes to mind, as does Charles Bukowski's work). The worst of it dreary and tawdry, and leaves me feeling like I've spent the night sleeping in newspaper.

The British seem to excel at this form of pulp, particularly when it comes to science fiction: J.G. Ballard can be counted on to deliver the bad news in a droning monotone, as can his protege Richard Morgan. Trumping them both in the "It's Worse Than You Can Possibly Imagine, But Let Me Help You Try" department is Martin Amis, a prodigiously gifted writer whose body of work studiously resembles a Pink Floyd concert, complete with audience-alienating pyrotechnics. If you've got a little optimism to spare, go ahead and give their books a read. But if you're pressed for time, just pop Get Carter — the original, starring Michael Caine — into your DVD player, and give it a spin. Feel free to light a scented candle and sip a little chamomile tea while watching; I guarantee that by movie's end you'll be in the shower, trying to shampoo the smell of beer, cigarette smoke and greasy fish & chips from your hair.

I'm guessing that this genre has a misery-loves-company appeal similar to VampireFreaks. Well, I get lonely too — just not that lonely. I greatly dislike listening to (or reading) someone who sneers while artfully making a target of the reader. I generally prefer the morality tales of George Pelecanos and James Lee Burke. And once in a while I savor the experience of entering a world where something truly valuable is at stake, and likely to be torn away from my hero's bloody fingers.

Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir is one of the best examples of this latter camp, with March Violets counting as the best of those books. Kerr's gumshoe, Bernie Gunther, begins the series as a world-weary ex-cop. He fought at the Turkish Front during the Great War, and he walks around drinking too much and making snide wisecracks, confident he's seen the worst humanity has to offer. Of course he hasn't: whatever he was exposed to as a German soldier was just a warm-up to the next wave of hateful brutality, which is just beginning to sweep over the citizens of Berlin.

Bernie takes a case that leads to the core of Germany's organized crime. Just as he thinks he's getting close to solving it, everything spins apart. He witnesses a shocking rape, then a murder. Then he's arrested, and shunted into a concentration camp. He's finally granted the McGuffin he's been chasing, through the dumbest circumstantial luck. By book's end, he's in shock. The moral code he'd cynically cobbled together is worthless in this brutal Neue Weltordnung. Worse than that, the girl he fell for has disappeared, leaving him almost certain of her fate.

Kerr lets Bernie narrate the events in clipped, recognizably German cadences. He's a smart-mouth and a bit of an indiscriminate bully. As the series progresses, Bernie becomes more shrewd about when and where he throws his weight around. He compromises and bides his time, waiting for the best circumstances in which to deliver his little hammer-blows of justice. He is under no illusions when he considers what he is accomplishing; the reader is left with a clear impression that Bernie giving voice to what he's done serves justice better than any of his kills do.

Kerr's other work varies — he's been called the British Michael Crichton (a risible comparison, but he is a fast writer). I'm ambivalent about most of it. The novels are all fastidiously structured, and Kerr has become increasingly conscious about delivering emotional payoff. But clearly Bernie Gunther is a character with deep appeal, not just to readers but to the author as well: he's resurfaced again, 15 years after the last Berlin novel. My reading docket overflows, but as the cruelest month approaches, I believe I may just nudge The One From The Other toward the top.