Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Battle of the Venues, with Steven Wilson!

Or: Colonial Edwardian Armpit vs. Internationally Revered, Pristine Victorian Hallwho will win?
Dear P___ -

You'll recall last Thursday night was brutally cold. Consequently I spent more time considering my concert-going wardrobe than is my norm.

It was Steven Wilson at the Phoenix. I'd be standing with 998 of my least favourite people — plus my buddy, the welcome exception. The queue was going to be cold, the interior stifling. I finally settled on the custom Devin Townsend shirt my daughter made me, with open denim long-sleeved shirt and the brown calfskin jacket that certifies my fogeydom.

I retrieved my phone, quickly checked email one last time, and . . . 

Water-main break. Concert postponed til Monday, venue changed to the Toronto Opera House on Queen.

My heart sank.

I called my friend and gave him the news. He confirmed my fears — he had commitments Monday, and could not attend.

I turned on the home computer and stared at the email, trying to decide what to do. Buried near the bottom of the missive was a short sentence offering refunds if tickets were delivered to point of purchase. This was just as inconvenient as attending the concert, so . . .

. . . on the other hand, if the Phoenix fell short of my ideal venue, the Opera House falls woefully short of the Phoenix. I used to give concerts there a wide pass back when I was still full of piss and vinegar — how much worse would it be now in my dotage?

On the other hand, it has been 20 years since we left Toronto — maybe improvements have been made? Building codes are continuously updated, etc . . .

My wife was international, the walls of the house were getting colder . . . I chose to keep the tickets. I recalled the last such concert as a pleasant diversion — how could this one fail to deliver similar uplift? We're talking Steven Wilson, after all.

Monday's weather was very different. Constant pelting rain melted the snow and raised an omnipresent fog. I white-knuckled it into the city. Fortune favoured me with a parking spot, but as I maneuvered in I realized the muffler-free beater I'd thought was following me for the past two blocks was actually my own car.

Matters of concern for tomorrow — on to the venue.

P___, I doubt so much as a coat of paint has been applied in the past 20 years. 

Some 1000 of us were packed in like sardines, crammed cheek to jowl on the predictably sticky floor. There was a time when five-foot-ten was the average height for the North American male. In this day of suspect nutrition, that era has been superseded — the young fellas ahead of me were all above six feet. Every time I maneuvered to get a better view, I looked behind to see I'd gained vantage at the expense of someone's shorter girlfriend. After three songs, I retreated to the back of the venue.

The sound was shit. The digital backdrop Wilson and band were interacting with trumpeted from disparate corners of the venue. This probably sounded passable to the basketball guards flanking the soundboard. But even on the floor there was a high-end clarity to the digital stuff that did not interact well with the band mix — which, in the presence of too many bodies, was reduced to a substandard muffled-concert thump.

I tried the balcony. No better.

I fumed. Meanwhile the young woman next to me was bopping happily to the beat. The sound was just as bad for her as for me, her view worse. What the hell was wrong with her?

Right question, wrong subject.

I returned to ground floor, politely interrupted the merch-gal's internet chat-session and purchased a shirt. Then I exited, started my newly-noisy vehicle and white-knuckled it back through the elements to house and hearth.

While driving home I mused over all the venues in the city of my birth that offered aesthetic and acoustic values vastly superior to this dump and its like. These prairie venues, and others like them elsewhere, that offer ease of access to local talent and their eager audiences constitute just one more reason why the bulk of this country's cultural content is being produced in the hinterlands.

Here at the Centre of the Universe all we've got is Drake.
"And I am all about the acoustics!"
Yesterday I realized my experience of the venue — amplified, obviously, by circumstantial emotional baggage — was slowly poisoning my opinion of the performer I'd come to see as well. 

This had to stop.

The Blu-ray of Steven Wilson Home Invasion In Concert At The Royal Albert Hall arrived here a week before he was slated to appear at the Phoenix — I hadn't watched it for fear it would taint my experience of the Toronto performance.

Now the weather had changed again — a gentle snow was falling. I did have a drive ahead of me, but it was to the roadhouse in the neighbouring village, to pick up my daughter after her kitchen shift. I had the house to myself. I had time.

I tore off the cellophane and slipped Wilson into the player.


Really, the only thing that needs to be said is my respect for Wilson and his craft isn't just restored, it's been elevated. The sound and the spectacle are superlative, of course. More than that, however, I could detect no signs of it having been doctored. Cats like Wilson and his crew (“I want to be the worst musician in my own band. I want these guys to do things I could never do”) clearly operate at the high end of the spectrum of musical ability. Even so, most concert videos these days sound perfect — this one keeps the occasional pinched voice, unexpected improvisation, etc. It sounds real, in other words — real good.

Nuffadat. Toronto venue-owners and their easily-satisfied patrons can rest serene — I am back in retirement.

Let us meet soon, and discuss other, better matters.


P.S.: I changed my shirt!
Hey, did you somehow enjoy my koncert kvetching? I've got more of 'em: here, here, here and here (plus some others, prob'ly).

Monday, November 26, 2018

William Goldman, master of the airport thriller

When I heard William Goldman died I checked my stacks to see which of his books I still kept around. To my surprise, besides a hardcover of The Princess Bride I'd given my wife some Christmases back, I had only one other title — Control, his 1982 . . . what? . . . paranormal thriller, I guess you'd say.

For my money William Goldman was the master of airport thrillers. He excelled at stoking a fever of expectation — Goldman knew what his characters wanted, and he knew how to make the reader want those things for the character, too. Often, after a tortuous cat-and-mouse pursuit, Goldman would grant the character's deepest wish. Then, just as reader and character were exhaling a post-coital sigh, Goldman slipped in the hook and yanked the whole thing sideways.

Slipped in the hook — no, I'm getting the sequence wrong. The whole thing went sideways, that's for sure — violently, more often than not. And what the reader realized at the end of the astonishing was that Goldman had actually slipped the hook in some chapters earlier.

Goldman's astonishment-delivery-system wasn't just attuned to the “Oh NO!!” end of the spectrum. My first Goldman novel was Marathon Man, which I read in my final year of high school (1983). I hadn't yet seen the movie, but I'd heard about, “Is it safe?” I read Marathon Man in one sitting after taking it home from the library. Goldman trotted out various characters, giving them each a chapter and narrating events from an authorial point-of-view that sat behind the character's eyes and sorted through episodes, thoughts and feelings.

“Doc” Levy is some vaguely-defined professional who works for The Agency (again, no specifics) and what preoccupies Doc's thoughts is his lover Janey. He mulls ruefully over Janey's teasing expressions of concern, and admits to himself that this sass is what made him fall for Janey to begin with, how the early conversational exchanges led to longer exchanges and finally to the glorious realization that Doc wanted Janey there beside him for every morning of every day, and — joy of joys — Janey felt the same way!

I don't recall how much further into the book it took — probably one or two more chapters — for me to realize, “Wait: Janey is a GUY?”

I can't overstate what a liberating realization that was for an adolescent who'd survived the '70s. Since I didn't know any gays personally (ikr?) I'd been puzzling over how it all worked, and what the hell was really going on with Those People. Goldman threw open the blinds, cranked out the window and let in the fresh air — and all for an “inconsequential” plot-twist.

That's how his thrillers worked — the prose was disarmingly casual, often jokey, always focused on where desire was leading or mis-leading characters.

I loved his sex scenes. Not for Goldman the pornographer's tired lexicon of placement and rote sensation. Goldman's sex was sensational to be sure (this being, for the most part, the '70s after all) but never gratuitous. Goldman preferred the dance toward and into the boudoir reveal elements of yearning and conflict unique to the characters and the story.

When I recovered Control I was all set to do another sex scene dissertation à la E.L. Doctorow. I gave Control a quick re-read and decided there were far too many integral narrative threads running through the first, lushest sex scene for me to explicate. What's more, with Goldman, once the element of surprise is exhausted re-reading becomes a very cold and calculating experience. After investing so much emotion in the first reading, applying analysis to the next feels strangely like a disservice to the author.

Which is why William Goldman's thrillers were the perfect airport novel. Reading one was the equivalent of Daffy Duck swallowing a hand grenade. The novel blew up and rearranged your innards. You weren't ever going to forget it, so you lurched to your feet and staggered onto the airplane, leaving the novel behind for the next unsuspecting reader to pick up and be blown away by.

RIP, sir.
The William Goldman I knew and read had a handle-bar mustache, and slightly stoned visage.
Were I to rate and recommend them I'd say:
  1. Marathon Man — newcomers should definitely start here.
  2. Magic — but only if you haven't seen the movie, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margret, which is not bad, but contains all the spoilers.
  3. Control — this is my favourite, actually. Goldman never shied from looking outrageous, and this time his premise is beyond bizarre. I got into an argument with a friend who'd read it and thought it ridiculous. My friend is right, but that only deepens my love for this novel.
  4. Heat — contains Goldman's last good sex scene, at the opening of the novel between two characters we never see again. They manage to find their passion together, but the degree to which the participants are world-weary and disingenuous with each other is a jolt, and mirrors my sense of where Goldman was at with the tropes he was working. Alright, you've got a washed-up Vegas “fixer” who gets on the wrong side of the mob because he still cares about something. Why should the reader — why should the writer — care? Goldman devotes the novel to this personal quest, and it has a subtlety that finally works. Heat provided material for two movies, one starring Burt Reynolds in post-Smokey freefall. Wild Card is the other, starring Jason Statham — surprisingly solid and worth streaming.
  5. Goldman followed up Heat with Brothers, a sequel to MM which reads like a sad version of a late-career Charles Schulz Road Runner cartoon. That Goldman never wrote another novel after Brothers seems to have surprised him, but probably not his most ardent readers.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Friday, November 16, 2018

Japanese candies, on ice-skates!

Brought this back from the Asian supermarket.
Inside were a number of individually-wrapped hard grape-ish candies, all moulded to resemble the largest character on the package.

These ... guys ... are wearing ice skates. The other side of the package (not photographed, sorry) has a sequence of images suggesting a competition of sorts between them. There was some artwork on the wraps of the individual candies also, as well as heaps of script. It's as if Jack Kerouac and Wesley Morse had a love-child obsessed with Elvis Stojko, and went to work for Tokyo's version of Madison Avenue.

Perhaps it's best not to puzzle too long or hard over how a person goes about parlaying a passion for figure skating to generating enthusiasm for grape candy in unsuspecting passersby -- it just works!

Friday, November 09, 2018

Hey, look over there!

Oof. Plate got a bit full this week. I will have to forward you to YouTube.
Hey, you want to know what a young, super-promising Nashville session musician makes a year  don't you?

A year ago when Devin Townsend introduced a Mooer guitar pedal (the "Ocean Machine") I thought, "Pfft! Like he'd ever use that!" Turns out . . . .  (side note: I followed about 8% of what went on here, and I'm proud I managed that much).

Friday, November 02, 2018

Bathroom R̶e̶a̶d̶i̶n̶g̶ Ridding

A Jewish friend (her, actually — again!) once asked me if I kept reading materials in the bathroom, and if so, what variety.

“Sure,” I said. “Usually a magazine or two, maybe a comic book.”

“What about serious stuff — literature, philosophy, religion?”

Now the question was high-caliber loaded. Mine was a tight bathroom, with precious little space for learned volumes. But I had two or three ungainly reference books I kept in steady rotation. I didn't think serious-minded readers were likely to regard any of them as especially serious in content, however. “No,” I said, “that's not the sort of thing I keep in the john.”

“Do your people have any sort of prohibition against that sort of thing? Religious material near a toilet?”

I squirmed. The truth is I've encountered no shortage of Evangelical encyclicals parked next to the crapper — never, I hasten to add, at my parents' place. In their house the family bathroom was a fastidiously kept place where occupants got the job done, then courteously tidied and vacated with all possible dispatch for the next in line.

“I never heard anyone inveigle one way or the other on the matter. But my parents maintained literature-free bathrooms. Still do.”

“Well, it's highly taboo with most of my bunch,” said my friend. “A big no-no. Reading while defecating you disrespect the content, and it carries down the line from there, is the thinking.”
"Um...honey, could you call the contractor?"
I will admit this exchange has permanently jarred all further personal meditation on the matter.

On the one hand, I come from a long line of Protestants. The asshole whose movement this was, wasn't just a ruminating-whilst-defecating enthusiast, he was a ruminating-about-defecating enthusiast.

Not that my particular cohort was well-versed in Martin Luther's logorrhea. When they weren't fleeing for their lives, Mennonites built economies based on agrarian practice — you kept busy, in other words, or you died, your laziness probably taking a couple of family members with you. The only moments of sustained reflection occurred in church or in the out-house. Perhaps a tract or two was just the thing to readjust one's line of concern from the duties of tending the soil to matters more heavenly?

On the other hand, the toilet is no place for sustained reflection. You don't want to spend, say, an hour there. That's just not healthy.

Social media posts strike me as the platonic ideal of bathroom reading material — in tone, in content, in provocation . . .

. . . in quality . . . .

To be clear, that is NOT where I consult my social-media feeds. I'm not a germaphobe, but I am also not a complete idiot.

But for those precious readers who have made it this far, here is my modest proposal-to-self — I wonder what would change if I devoted no more daily time to social media than I do to my morning ablutions?