Monday, April 30, 2007

When "Aspirational" Just Isn't Enough

I’m not sure why we bothered with the bicycle shop, except we were three young guys on a Sunday afternoon, bored with football and ready for a change of scenery. The only other open shop was the ice cream joint down the street, and we’d already had our fill. So we slouched in to see the high priced tubular finery.

A customer wearing bizarre, skin-tight clothes was paying an older man who was similarly attired. He wheeled his bicycle out the door, and took off. Then it was just the four of us, in a tiny shop with shiny new bicycles hanging from the ceiling. “Can I help you boys?”

Hm. British.

“Yeah. Why are your bikes so expensive?”

“Well,” said he, “these bicycles might cost a little more than what you’re accustomed to paying, but there are some appreciable differences between these models and the ones you’re riding.”

“Such as?” I can’t remember which of my friends said those magic words, but they opened up an entire afternoon to a tutorial on the finer pleasures of purchasing and riding a refined set of wheels. Chromoly frames; double-butted tubing; alloy rims; side-pull brakes, versus the gimpier center-pull ... am I missing anything? Oh yeah: the clothes. Sweat-wicking, less wind-resistance and whatnot. Sneakers vs. cycling shoes, the difference between hitting a sponge ball vs. hitting a cricket ... erm, baseball.

For the middle-aged gent who was lecturing us, this was simply the well-trod method of introducing three lads to a potential “Life Sport” (the lingo of the day). For three guys on the cusp of 20, this was stuff — cool, shiny, new stuff. Within a week, my friends were riding a couple of flashy, deceptively fragile-looking bicycles. I opted for a used motorcycle, but eventually traded that in for the mountain bike.

Having been informed that my current bike is cruising toward an expensive breakdown, and having been assured by my daughters that lengthy rides are soon to come, I’m slouching back to the bicycle store. My, how things have changed. My old bike, which cost nearly a grand 20 years ago, is a heavy monster compared to what’s currently on offer. And forget side-pull, center-pull, and them new-fangled cantilever brakes of mine: disc brakes are all the rage, apparently.

As with stereo stuff, I’m now disinclined to indulge a salesmen or do much by way of product research. My first impulse, when informed of my bicycle’s dire state, was to visit the Costco website to see if they didn’t have something I mightn’t pick up on my next shopping trip. I discovered, to my surprise, that Costco is selling Cadillacs.

Yep: Cadillac bicycles.

I chuckled, and moved on to the next site. Then, on second thought, I took another look. After all, it’s not like General Motors is actually manufacturing the bicycle — they’re just branding someone else’s work. The 20 year old geek within me woke up and wondered: What sort of frame are we talking about? And who supplies the components?

On closer inspection, the Cadillac bicycles appear to be reasonable “mid-list” bikes: they're being compared to the Schwinn bikes of old (the original “Cadillac of bicycles“), and that’s no small compliment: Schwinn bikes were sturdy, conservatively constructed bicycles that most people could buy and ride to the end of their days. Cadillac offers a similar package, with carbon frames and decent componentry that is priced in line with brand-name bikes offering similar fare.

So, is there a Cadillac in my future? Not likely. Frankly, the brand is a sharp disincentive. I live in a small town, and I’m not keen on being the guy whose car is a Toyota and whose bicycle is a Cadillac.

On some level, a Cadillac brand bicycle is counter-intuitive, particularly in contrast with, say, the Hummer bicycle. If you're the sort to buy a yellow H2 (or whatever number they've reached these days), you’re likely the sort to think a matching bicycle on the roof rack is a good thing. But even an off-road cyclist could be forgiven for being reassured by the brand. HumVees are (ostensibly) off-road vehicles; you needn’t own the car to be persuaded of the bicycle’s off-road merits. Which gets me wondering: who, exactly, was the Cadillac bicycle meant to appeal to?

Best guess: Cadillac SUV customers. If they get a thousand-dollar bike thrown in with the new Escalade, well, bonus! Except most Escalade customers are likely to turn their noses up at any bike that sells for a measly grand. So we’re left with GM assembly-line workers who can buy the bike at cost, or Costco customers caught in the throes of (as marketers like to say) an aspirational impulse.

No thanks. Unless Cadillac undercuts its immediate competition (Trek, Fisher, etc.) and drops another $300-$400 off its price tag, I believe I’ll go brave the bicycle salesmen instead.

Post-script: this guy points out that Cadillac bicycles are built by the same people who manufacture the Tonka and My Little Pony bicycles you find at Sears. “My Little Pony“ — now there's a brand I'd love to ride around this town!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Bon Voyage, Searchie!

Ms. LaFemme departs for the cultivated wilds of Central Europe. Godspeed to you and your pranksters, Searchie. And be sure to post a few photos of your non-Polski Fiat (complete, I hope, with the psychedelic mission statement: "Furthur").

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Best of Bonds, The Worst of Bonds

I see the James Bond movies are finally being sold individually. The monster packages were never a temptation for me -- life's too short and money's too tight for a boxed set that includes Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, George Lazenby and Pierce Brosnan. If there'd been a Sean Connery set, I might have reached for the plastic. Maybe.

I haven't bought any of them, yet, but if they're cheap enough I expect there may be one or two future Amazon orders that get a little Bond padding in order to score the free shipping. My inclination is to get the very best and the very worst Bond movie from my childhood Bonds, Connery and Moore. The best Connery Bond is, without question, From Russia With Love. Worst? Hmm. Diamonds Are Forever is pretty limpid, and themesong aside I've never really been a fan of Goldfinger (my favorite Goldfinger line actually comes from MAD Magazine, referring to Oddjob's statue-decapitating hat: "That's nothing. You should see what he does with his underwear.") But I'd say the movie that qualifies as most endearingly awful is You Only Live Twice. The towering Connery, being made up to look like a Japanese peasant fisherman, or posing as an industrial chemist and ordering barrels of monosodium glutimate ... rich, rich material that. And all this is just a lead-up to Donald Pleasance.

Roger Moore -- now there's a horse of a different colour. Nearly all of them were stinkers, but there are several that really stand out: A View To A Kill, Moonraker, The Spy Who Loved Me ... all bad, but in a boring way. Live And Let Die is closer to the classically bad ideal, but I think the film that tops it is The Man With The Golden Gun, which achieves a giddy surreality with its sumo wrestlers, little person villains and phony third nipples.

Best Moore? How about For Your Eyes Only (if only for the poster)?

My Bicycle

There she is: my 1987 Fisher Hoo-koo-e-koo.*

It's a wonder she's lasted 20 years. In the summer of 1988, after a full year of riding her the way a mountain bike is meant to be ridden, I decided the proper thing to do was give her a complete overhaul. I was unemployed, I'd read Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I figured, “How hard could this be?” I purchased a few specialty tools, then spent an afternoon taking her apart. Four hours later, the pieces were neatly arranged on my apartment floor, and I was carefully cleaning every last ballbearing with an old toothbrush dipped in kerosene.

Four hours after that, she was reassembled ... sort of. Everything was where it belonged, but it wasn't quite fitting together the way it should, particularly in the bottom bracket. I wasn't able to fully reinstall the two cups that held the bearings and crank axle — I experienced a great deal more resistance putting them back in than I had removing them. So I called my local bicycle shop and asked if they had any advice. “Better wheel her in,” said the gear-head.

I did, and explained the situation all over again to the guy who met me at the door. He listened to me without interrupting. When I was done, he cleared his throat and said, “Well, for starters, you've put the cups in the wrong mounts. If you reefed on 'em hard enough, you've probably stripped the threads in your bottom bracket.”


And that's been my history with this lovely bike: I'm a gentle rider who reserves his most abusive treatment for those down-times in the shop.

Two more photos, highlighting some of my accessories. Note the Kellogg's Rooster reflector — a bitter inspiration of covetousness for my daughters:

Still, my younger daughter saw fit to award me this nifty handlebar decoration three years ago:

With the arrival of spring, I decided it was time to replace my brake shoes. I purchased two pairs, came home and dismantled the brakes. Midway through reassembly, I realized I'd lost track of what went where. I collected everything, threw it into the trunk of our car and headed back to the shop — 20 years older, and none the wiser.

*I couldn't tell you what the name means, except that it was “borrowed” from Indian history, specifically a tribe that resided in Northern California.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bicycle Helmets

I came across the receipt for my bicycle. Hard to believe, but it's 20 years old. Coincidentally, so is my helmet.

If I listened to the gear-heads at the local bicycle shop, I'd have replaced my helmet fifteen years ago, and I'd have done it twice more in the interim. I'm skeptical about helmet safety claims, though. A friend of mine was killed on his bicycle, and he was wearing a helmet. Still, I make a point of wearing one whenever I ride: the only traffic accident I suffered on my bicycle happened the day I decided I didn't feel like wearing a helmet. Besides, I want to be a good example to my kids, who are required by law to wear one.

Anyway, my old helmet's perch was getting shakier and shakier as the foam became ever more compact, so I finally dropped $30 on a new helmet. It looks like this:

First impression: holy cow, my head is cold!! It seems ventilation science has made mighty strides in the last 20 years. Take another look at my old helmet. Boy, could that piece of Tupperware ever trap in the heat.

It also made me look like an incredible dork. The only "dork factor" my new helmet provides is by contrast. Here we have a sleek, new helmet sitting atop a not-so-sleek, not-so-new rider. Ah well. When it comes to aesthetics, I didn't care when I bought the first helmet and I'm not going to start caring now.

The gear-heads wagged their finger at my helmet, but pointedly admired the longevity of my bike. Tomorrow I'll post a picture of my vehicle of choice, and maybe do a little reminiscing.

Monday, April 23, 2007

"Writin'" Books

Earlier this month I came back from the post office and tore open my Amazon package to find: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell. Ah, just in the nick of time! I’ve been working on The Novel. And I’ve stopped having fun.

I read Pressfield first. It’s a slender book, similar in build (if not substance) to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Chapters can be as long as three pages. More likely they’ll be shorter. To wit, here’s one entitled What I Know, in its entirety:

There’s a secret real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.

What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.

Such sentiments have a very limited currency with me, alas: I simply don’t find sitting down that difficult. I sat down five times to write this blog entry. I took five separate stabs at it, too. In those five attempts I wrote a pile of words that shall remain blessedly unseen by others, so I think I can say with some authority that sitting down and writing isn’t the difficulty for me. Writing something worthy of posting, however, has been a bit of a trick lately.

Pressfield has written some books I very much enjoy: Gates of Fire and Tides of War are terrifically compelling historical novels. The man is no stranger to research, but unlike other novelists who’ve tried their hand at historical fiction, Pressfield makes a keen distinction between the baby and the bathwater, and if these two novels are the norm for him, he consistently delivers the former to his readers.

The War of Art, however, does not deal with issues of discernment, nor does it mean to; it is a motivational piece. The copy I have has been blessed by Jay McInerney and (hello!) Robert McKee, and Esquire magazine calls it, “A vital gem ... a kick in the ass.” Though Pressfield dutifully addresses the writer as “she” in one chapter, then “he” in the next, I suspect men are more likely to buy it.

There must be writers who respond well to a kick in the ass. Me? Not so much. I wish I'd found a copy in a bookstore and perused it before buying. The book can be read from cover to cover in less than an hour, and to my eyes it’s not that far removed from The Artist’s Way — which I’ve read and followed, by the way, and find modestly helpful. But since I’ve raised the specter of The Artist’s Way, here’s a question that niggles at me: what is it about Hollywood that gets writers talkin' religion when they talk craft? Do they have baskets of money that verbally prompt these people to use language that's, well, just a tad flaky?

Julia Cameron and Steven Pressfield wax philosophic-lite when they reach out to uncork their would-be proteges. Reading them both, I get a little itchy and scratchy: “Hm. Sounds vaguely pagan,” I’ll think after reading Cameron (“Our creative dreams and yearnings come from a divine source. As we move toward our dreams, we move toward our divinity”). Or, “Oh, that there's Pantheism,” after reading Pressfield (“Everything that is, is God in one form or another”). Feel free to attribute my distancing to the well-honed knee-jerk reaction of an orthodox acolyte. But let me just state for the record: nothing raises my hackles faster than a Christian artist invoking God this, Jesus that and the Holy Spirit over all. Neo-Pagans can inspire my curiosity, and as for Pantheism I'll admit that most days leave me wondering if that’s not really The Way It Is. But when it comes to artistic instruction, I'd prefer it if my teachers considered me an atheist. Hard to say why that is, exactly; I guess religious talk of any sort is freighted with considerable proprietary emotion. Call this Resistance if you must, but is there any reason why we can’t avoid altogether the topic of religion when we’re figuring out how best to flex the artistic impulse?

Getting back to Resistance — I spent four years resisting Resistance: sitting down, turning on the computer and typing my way to the next stage in my novel. Most of that was not "happy" time, and once my first working draft was finished I vowed to leave it alone until I discovered some way to enjoy myself, dammit. I publicly read a selection from the first draft recently, and the generous response I received encouraged me to pick it up again. So I did. And I stopped having fun. Just what, exactly, is my problem?

Here’s Madison Smartt Bell:

Anyone who’s ever grappled with a longer narrative, something approaching the length of a novel, say, will have discovered (quite painfully, perhaps) that sheer intuition won’t carry the project all the way through ... Some writers can tolerate a very high level of detailed advance planning for a long work without losing their own interest and sense of discovery in actually writing it. Others are so differently constituted that they cannot tolerate any abstract advance planning at all and must proceed through novels as intuitively as they would through short stories (with the result that they suffer more and have to write a lot more drafts).

BINGO!! Yes, that was, and still is, me: limping along on my Achilles' heel, sheer intuition. Michael Ondaatje claims to work in this mode, and I suspect Jim Harrison is of similar temperament. But if I’m going to take another worthy stab at this project of mine, some planning and coloring within the lines is desperately in order.

At this point it might be reasonable of me to finally break down and purchase one or two books from Writer’s Digest. So far I’ve avoided them, not out of snobbery but of fiscal thrift: the few I’ve browsed through struck me as articles padded into book-length form. Thankfully, there are hosts of worthy articles available on the web. And, even more impressive, there’s a true professional who, on her blog, offers her own advice from considerable personal experience: Lynne Viehl. "36 novels in five genres"!? I'm paying attention, and I'm taking notes. Here Ms. Viehl provides 10 links of varying potential (I'll pass on the freeware, but the articles are certainly worth consideration). And here's an excellent interview with Ms. Viehl by the sadly-no-longer-blogging Mad Max Perkins. One nice exchange: Q: "I have to say: of all the people who responded to my 'Call to Authors,' questionnaire, your story struck me as the most upbeat. You seemed not to have met the same level of disappointment and frustration that a lot of the other authors spoke about. Were you sugar-coating?" A: "I've had my disappointments, but not many, and they made me work harder. I didn't know anything about the industry and I never met another writer until after I was published, so that may have something to do with it. My only expectation was simply to see my name on the cover of a book, and I've done that twenty-six times in five years."

Between Viehl’s professional picks and Bell’s articulate observations (mastering a blues scale on guitar is terrific decompression advice for anyone, by the way) my joy has returned, as has my energy for the project. And that’s how it shall remain ... (*cough*) God willing.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Paging Mr. T.

Could someone explain to me what just happened at Terry Teachout's website? Where, in all of this, is Mr. T?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Some Lit-Links

I wasn't aware, until this morning, that humorist David Sedaris was receiving a public scolding for being a bullshit artist. My original response was, "As if we didn't know!" Then the Rodney Rothman affair was raised, and I remembered my own finger-wagging re: Frey and Chabon. Are there distinctions to be made?

Yes, there are. Chabon was straight-facedly telling his audience that his neighbor was a Nazi posing as a Holocaust survivor. The man he referred to was real, but was never a Nazi, a survivor or even Chabon's neighbor: simply an American veteran who had actually fought the Nazis. When I'm generous, I call that ill-advised tom-foolery on Chabon's part; in a less generous mood, I call that malign deceit. Frey walked in with his tattoos and prosaic bravado, asking one and all, "Who's a tough guy?" I call that leading with your chin. Sedaris walks in and says, "Listen to this: isn't it crazy?" I'd call it a crock, if I weren't laughing so hard. As for Rothman, if you scroll to the comments, it looks like he's got a perspective on it all that's worth consideration.


Print On Demand vis-a-vis Lulu is an oh-so-nifty innovation that has relieved me of the burden of wondering if my fiction might ever see the light of day. The burden of cultivating a larger audience, however, is still there. Mary Scriver outlines the challenges facing POD author here.


Fifteen years ago I picked up a bizarre little novel called Strong Motion. It had a conceptual energy that I rather liked. Four years later I noticed its author was featured on the cover of Harper's Magazine, with the proposal: "In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels." Jonathan Franzen's quest was personal, and the answer he finally lit upon was personal. I thought it was terrific.

Since then Franzen's manifesto has come to haunt the pages of Harper's the way Tom Wolfe's did before him. Brainy types are weighing in, trying to put Franzen in his place (somewhere other than post-Oprah best-sellerdom, I assume), proposing we look elsewhere for answers to ailments that beleaguer "serious" fiction. I don't know what Harper's pays per word, but even at rock-bottom prices Ben Marcus made off like a bandit with what was meant to be a high-falutin' broadside of Franzen. Jess Row lamented this sort of pissing-match and wondered if a woman mightn't have a better perspective on it all.

Well, be careful what you wish for: here's Cynthia Ozick giving both lads a maternal pat on the head, telling us they're both a little right, both a little wrong. What our novels really need to survive, she says, is critics. Preferably critics like James Wood.

I think what this patient really needs, if it wants to survive, is yet another doctor. Sheesh. Neither of these Poindexters give more than passing consideration to the genuine issues Franzen raises, namely the demonstrable unrelenting decline in the sales of fiction. Franzen's question was what's the point of devoting three (plus) years of your life writing a novel if only a dozen people read it? He answered it, and so far as I'm concerned, I'd love him to tease apart the point of writing yet another novel after everyone on the continent has bought, read and publically weighed in on the merits of your last one. Franzen was pertinent then; he'd be just as pertinent now.


It's the end of the novel as we know it, and I feel fine. Michael Blowhard throws out three possible publishing scenarios facing the "literary novel" here. He uses a 300 year timeframe, and taken with a grain of salt, they all strike me as entirely possible assuming humanity is still around to play with such concepts.

I've never considered the eBook to be an attractive option, until I read this bit, via ALD. By golly, if those puppies came equipped with a "search" feature, I just might climb on board. But then I read this bit, via Boing Boing, and now I'm not so sure....

Three hundred years, if things keep developing at the current rate, is a Sagan-like "BILL-YUNNS AND BILL-YUNNS" for technology. Still, it's the printed word that fuels well over 90% of the world's education programs. I think this means that print and paper will likely remain an attractive medium for people to aspire to for many, many years to come.

Whether the North American publishing industry will survive is another matter. Beyond the textbook industry, I just don't see how it can. Back in the 90s, when I talked shop with the publishers, sellers and buyers of books, people looked at publishing's return policy, which basically allows stores to stock as many copies and titles as they wish then send them back for free, and figured it was doomed. The store I worked in, when I first came on board, had a publisher return rate that approached nearly 40%. We worked to get that below 20% (I'm proud to say that as a buyer I averaged 12%, and had a trimester that dipped to 9% thanks to strong sales on the floor. No-one got rich from it, but then no-one went broke, either).

Since then, there's been one single Big Box Behemoth that's taken over the Canadian bookselling landscape, and publishers are facing return rates that are wildly beyond anything I encountered. That's just Canada, which is a very small part of the American publishing scene. In the States we've got more box stores, more publishers, more money getting sent through the pulper. Yes, the sky is falling, but at least we've got an engaging history of it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Quoth the Sundance Kid:

“You just keep thinkin' Butch. That's what you're good at.”

It looks like Cowtown Pattie has awarded/tagged me with The Thinking Blogger Award — no small honor, considering not just the source, but her four other choices as well.

With the prize comes a heavy obligation: naming five bloggers who make me think. Rather than pick the five friskiest from my litter of cobbers I could, of course, just encourage you to check out any of the links on my sidebar. But I do think there is some merit in exploring the people who don't just provoke me with ideas and concepts, but actually get me steeping, so here goes (with apologies for ground that's already been covered):

First props go to the Multiple Blowhards at, and particularly to Michael, the considerate, irreverent and endearingly lascivious ringmaster of the whole enterprise. I admire and try to emulate his “Why not? / And yet...” rhetorical approach, because it's the surest way to get me entertaining ideas I would normally ignore, or dismiss out of hand. We're all (I hope) conflicted individuals, with more than one personality at our core. Consider politics: if I had to sum myself up, I'd say I'm a knee-jerk liberal with a conservative's fretful conscience. Due consideration of both impulses should, I would think, have tremendous potential. So why insist on Ockham-like clarity when a little tender exploration of complexities might yield the more rewarding insight?

The example of 2blowhards is what got me blogging: that, and my e-mail exchanges with Scott — a friend who is a thoughtful, giddy, deft and genuine steeper of ideas. Many times I've wondered if we shouldn't just publically post our back-and-forths. It's probably just as well we don't: A) it might degenerate into an all-out nerdicon (our last exchange covered the relative merits of Dr. Who over the current Galactica) and B) sooner or later his entourage of admirers would descend and leave my self-esteem in tatters. Here is one rather weighty exchange that did, finally, go public. When I initially saw it, I wondered if both of us hadn't somehow missed the point. Gradually, I couldn't help but wonder if the world mightn't be better off if more people made the effort to miss the point like we did! So here's a prize for you, Scott, with my thanks for making me think.

If you read that last link (or much of what I post here) you have discovered I'm a religious sod. In the words of Darth Vader, it is my destiny. There was no escaping it: my father is a Mennonite pastor, my mother is the daughter of a Mennonite pastor. I went and married a pastor's daughter, too, because I didn't want a lifetime of explaining every strange little tic in my character (the fact that she was the most desirable woman I'd ever met helped, too). With the exception of a few friends (again, on the sidebar) I tend to avoid religious blogs as if they were the not-so-proverbial plague. Most religious blogs are recognizable for the tone they immediately strike: “Here is further confirmation (as if I needed it) that what I believe is in fact the Truth.” Of course, one needn't be religious to voice that sentiment, but it seems to help. The only thought this approach inspires in me is, “Where's the exit?”

The people who nurtured me experienced and did great and wonderful things through their faith, so theirs is not a punchbowl I aim to piss in — if you want my statement of faith, buy and read my book. But if there is one defining problem I have with my heritage, it is that the theory always — always — came before the art. People, you can't make art like that!! You just can't. Trust me, you'll wind up with church buildings that look shabbier than the local arena.

In my childhood there existed one shining beacon of aesthetic hope, and that was a bunch of earnestly dotty hippies called JPUSA: Jesus People USA. (If you think I'm being cruel, I'm not: “fools for Christ” and all that.) These folks believe the Church is called to be counter-cultural, and is hardwired into the Holy Spirit, and should be producing sounds and visions that testify to this arrangement. You are free to debate the intent and quality of their output, but there is no denying it is prodigious and boisterous. And I happen to think some of it is great, 'cos that's just what you get when you open up the floor the way they do.

More to the point, the theory follows the art: here's JPUSA's Mike Hertenstein explaining why The Zombie Crawl is the Liturgical Dance of Cornerstone Festival. Rather kewl in a Burning Man Reclaimed sorta way. Now, it could be someone entered the Cornerstone planning room and said, “How best to illustrate 'To live is Christ, to die is gain?' I know: Zombie Crawl!” More likely it was, (rubbing hands and chortling) “Where do we introduce the Zombie Crawl?” I love it! So for this, and other surprises, I make a monthly habit of checking out what Hertenstein pulls into his Imaginarium because it gets me giggling ... and it gets me thinkin'. (h/t to JT for the introduction).

As with Scott, my e-mail exchanges with Mary Scriver have provoked a great deal of thought — but that would hardly come as news to anyone who reads her blogs, Prairie Mary and Merry Scribbler. I'm particularly fond of whatever she posts on the latter, so that's the one I'll “award” the prize to.

And finally, I must return to another ringmaster, albeit one who flits in and out of the shadows: DarkoV at Verging On Pertinence. Lots of thoughtful material on his blog, but what really gets me steeping are his frequent comments and musical recomendations. Take a Sunday morning to tune in here, and you might just catch him at his calling: DJ of extraordinary pertinence.

Alright: I'm washing my hands of all this gray matter. Let's see what the rest of you have.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Frivolous Posting

Gargantuan clouds of slush are rolling in this evening, according to the forecast. Here is the younger urchin, bravely fending them off:

And here's the older, ready for the ringette tournament that was:

Ringette season is over. Now if only the weather will co-operate.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Romantic Songs, Verging on Pertinence

DarkoV links to a survey of jazz musicians' "four or five most romantic songs". Then he opens the floor for the rest of us to suggest our five romantic faves, any genre. I've dropped mine. What are yours?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

New York Doll

Who's up for a rock show? Sylvain, Johansen, Kane: The New York Dolls reunite, 2004.

In a couple of weeks my village arena will be playing host to one of Canada's stadium-filling rock acts from the 1970s. In contrast to the stadiums of old, the local venue has a capacity difference of several thousand, and I doubt this quartet of men who are all 10-plus years my senior are going to get a capacity crowd. I could be wrong, though: everyone I've talked to is thrilled to host them.

I've puzzled over this spectacle with a local musician friend. On some level we just don't understand why 50 year old men who lived the highest of the high life 30 years ago would keep picking up their instruments and play to an ever diminishing audience. On the other hand, the band and the audience are doing each other a favour. It's a courtship of sorts, where both parties remind each other of their vitality.

The equation seems wildly out of hand when it comes to the Rolling Stones, but at least that's a band that looks like they're having fun (except for Charlie Watts, of course). I'm not sure I could say as much for The (remaining) Who. If this latest album is any indication, the fun's been over for a while. Townshend's fills and embellishments are still fluid, and somewhere in the music there's a theme of sorts. Don't ask me to identify it, because I haven't yet been able to sit through the entire disc. Bono says when Townshend and Daltry take the stage, it's like they've “got an iron bar in their back pocket” — and he's being adulatory. I don't understand. You've already made your mark in rock & roll history, the bills are all paid, and you're not having any fun — what's the motivation for dragging your ass on stage?

For that matter, what's the audience's motivation for showing up to watch? Near the end of the documentary New York Doll, just after the three surviving members of The New York Dolls wrap up their first on-stage reunion in 30 years, Bob Geldof sheepishly admits that when he offered his kids tickets to the show, they turned him down without a second thought, even though they were die-hard fans. “They're listening to the records, and looking at the old posters.”

I'm not surprised. That's my typical response whenever I hear of some geezer band hitting the road for yet another reunion tour. But I put down the money for this documentary because (A) I didn't know the first thing about the Dolls, except that (B) it's been 30 years and they still have an undeniable influence on every single act that's followed. As it is, the documentary gives us precious little footage of the concert in question, and it's just as well. The fans (including Geldof) give glowing reports at concert's end, but concert footage could never capture what has made this a great moment. On the other hand, the story backstage and among the fans is entirely different matter. Thanks to the gentle discretion and observant eye of director Greg Whiteley, this documentary explores and captures the magic of this reunion.

It could be that, as Bob Seger once sang, rock & roll never forgets; more likely, it just has an extremely selective memory. This is clearly the case for Dolls' bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane. The camera follows this strange-looking man and records his recollections and impressions as he adjusts his necktie on a white shirt with sleeves an inch too short for his arms. He boards the bus that takes him to his job at the Latter Day Saints' Family History Center. “I've been demoted from rock star to schlep on the bus," says Kane. "I'm spoiled from the past. It's hard to put those memories ... it's hard to put them away. They're my fondest memories." It quickly becomes clear that Kane's capacity for processing his environment is markedly different from most people's.

Is it arrested, dwarfed in adolescence by the rock and roll lifestyle? The case could be made. Certainly Kane partook prodigiously of the poisoned cornucopia of 70s excess, and he frankly admits he maintained a drunken state for several decades. Somewhere in the haze Kane developed a paranoid theory that his former bandmate David Johansen (whom I only ever knew as Buster Poindexter) was stealing money, fame and glory that should have been his. Even after Kane converts to Mormonism and has been sober for 15 years, this mental impediment is the largest roadblock to a band reunion.

Whiteley keeps the camera and boom mic at a respectful distance as the reunion takes place, staying out of the way while paying attention to telling details. When Johansen finally appears for rehearsals, there are not-so-subtle signs of Kane's anxiety. The two make a point of hugging, but the tension only begins to melt from Kane's face when Johansen starts singing into the mic.

Johansen: “We kind of picked up where we left off. And that's good, that's the way it should be.”

Whiteley: “Well, my impression is that you left off in a trailer court in Florida, screaming at each other. So I'd say you kind of picked up in a better place.”

Johansen: (laughs) “Yeah. I guess so.”

The subtle potential of these scenes suggests a third reason for geezer band reunions: redemption. The concert is clearly a success in the eyes of the fans and Kane. The blue-haired folks back home at the library congratulate him on his triumph. He tells them the real triumph was these three survivors becoming friends again. And I believe him.

This film moved me in ways I did not anticipate. The last thirty years have produced such a marked distance from the lurid, sneering menace the Dolls once embodied. When the band's biographer Nina Antonia recollects how she first heard the news of drummer Billy Murcia's death (the first of three Dolls to die young), she has to take a moment to compose herself. That moment is a revelation: either the kids watching these guys were not expecting the casualties to mount the way they did, or the adult now fully understands what a tragedy it was for this musician — this kid — to die like that. That, right there, is the rock & roll compact of naivete between performer and audience.

That Kane made it to 55 and managed this reunion, that the reunion turned out as sweetly as it did, that a New York Dolls reunion could ever be called “sweet” — none of these are small miracles. What a strange, sad, life-affirming trip this film is.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Some Movie Linkage

My sister came down for a visit this weekend. Last night we watched Babel, a movie that presents four distinct catastrophic narratives that are linked via the slenderest means (and most indulgent of conceits). It was certainly a disturbing and provocative experience, however: this morning we all admitted to difficulties falling asleep. Despite the movie's considerable flaws, all of us wished the movie had somehow delivered more, because what was there had significant promise. The stories took pains to prey upon very primal fears, including the fear that everything we do is causally linked.

Also, children are deliberately put in harm's way, and the adults find themselves bereft of their childrens' love. I don't much like having my chain yanked in that fashion, but there's no denying it's an effective tack to take with viewers. There'd just damn well better be something worth savouring at the end of the cruelty, and Babel had precious little to offer. My sister and my wife thought the Mexican sequences were circling around something of significance; I was drawn toward the Japanese narrative. There were scenes and details that lingered, but felt empty when considered within the contrivance of the whole.

That's as much as I'll say. Besides, David Denby got it right, here.


I recently viewed Flags Of Our Fathers, and thought it was a worthwhile addition to the new line of World War II epics that began with Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Eastwood's achilles heel as a director seems to be his pacing: his movies lull in the strangest places, and just when you think they're going to end, something happens that requires another 10 to 20 minutes to explain. Be that as it may, he also has a knack for giving actors a chance to surprise an audience. This time around the spotlight was stolen by Adam Beach, a man with an impossibly sweet smile that can grow distressingly dark in a heartbeat. Readers curious about this Native Canadian have five more days to check out this portrait of Beach here, before the Globe & Mail's shortsighted on-line policy takes effect.


When Roger Ebert hailed Luis Bunuel's Belle de Jour as a "Great Movie", I dutifully rented it and gave it my attention. What I saw left me scratching my head. Ebert says this is "possibly the best-known erotic film of modern times, perhaps the best"? I dunno: when it comes to erotic heat, this flick generates about as much as you might find in an episode of Spongebob Squarepants.

Now, I don't mind admitting Catherine Deneuve is a pretty woman, or even a breath-taking beauty. But sexy, sultry, seductive she ain't: certainly not in the way Rita Hayworth is in Gilda, or, as Germain Greer pointedly reminds us, Lauren Bacall is in To Have And Have Not.


One final comment about Babel: when the tourists on the fateful bus in Morrocco start whining like a bunch of babies, my wife (who knows a thing or two about travelling through desolate, potentially dangerous landscapes) blurted out, "That's ridiculous! No-one who signs up for a tour like that would act like that." To add to the incredulity of the scene, the most unapologetically selfish of the whiners is an Australian man. Think about that for a second: a beautiful blonde is dying from a gunshot wound and the Australian man just wants to go home? Uh-uh, Charlie. He's the bloke who put together the posse that just collared the two punks who fired the gun. And what really ticked him off was he wasn't the intended target.

Now if you'll excuse me, I believe I'll go practise my whistle.