Friday, May 17th, 2013
Song #35: “Baker Street” — Gerry Rafferty (1978)
I’m posting this at 5 o’clock on a Friday. Happy hour. Seems appropriate.
If you had asked me in middle school, I would have told you this was my favorite song of all time. Which seems weird and inappropriate now considering it’s about barflies and drunks, the dissolution of dreams and the perpetual losing of misplaced hopes. (To paraphrase Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” “Melancholy and bitterness already by the 8th grade!”)
I blame the sax. And the ripping guitar solo at the end.
There must have been something in the water back then. Billy Joel covered the same territory in his best known hit, albeit from the other side of the bar. Of course, once Gerry Rafferty met a sad and bitter end, it just makes the lyrics to “Baker Street” even more depressing. But oh, hey, that sax!
The best roommate I ever had introduced me to Bukowski, and I couldn’t read his stuff without hearing this song (or this, from Stealers Wheel) playing in my head. Like Bukowski, much of what Rafferty did was cleverness and amusement covering a dark core. And the lyrics, which I sang along to without understanding when I was 14, now have a hard-earned poignancy. Unlike Rafferty in real life, the protagonist in the song managed to escape his fate. Whether the happy ending is a delusion or not becomes increasing irrelevant the older you get; you just want it to be true too. Cue the sax!
Thursday, May 16th, 2013
Video Game #5: Space Wars (1977) aka Spacewar! (1962)
Want to determine once and for all if an Imperial Star Destroyer can beat the USS Enterprise? Want to play THE original video game? You can do both with what is considered by many to be the very first digital game: Spacewar! Created in 1962 to showcase the computing power of the PDP-1 computer, Spacewar! is credited with helping to close many a sale of the expensive mainframe. Object? Blow up your opponent. While popular with programmers, the game was never available to the public.*
One of those programmers, Nolan Bushnell, who would eventually go on to found Atari, was inspired by Spacewar! to build the first commercial video game a decade later: Computer Space. Alas, in spite of its cool futuristic cabinet (which made a cameo in 1973′s “Soylent Green“), Computer Space wasn’t much fun to play.
What was fun? Space Wars, the commercial version of the PDP-1 game. Released in 1977 in the wake of Star Wars, the programmers creating the game had the brilliant idea, and presence of mind, to update the appearance of the two ship to look like those in Star Wars and Star Trek. And a star was born.
Talk about simple: the ships were composed of a handful of vector lines, moving against a black screen with a few dots on it for stars, and a circle in the middle representing the sun. And yet this simple setup produced one of the greatest games ever. Object? Blow up your opponent. Don’t fall into the sun. Really. That was it.
Honestly though, if its your brother’s ship you’re annihilating, what more do you need?
* Until now. Last year, someone emulated the original Spacewar! game and put it online. Enjoy.
Thursday, May 16th, 2013
Video Game #6: Galaga (1981)
If you apply the rules of evolution to video games, than Galaga wins survival of the fittest. Almost 33 years after it debuted in arcades, it (along with Ms. Pac-Man) can still be found just about anywhere. I know three, maybe four, bars in the area that still have an arcade unit,* and if I wanted a game, I could walk out the door right now and play. It has been ported to every single console platform and smart phones — heck, it even made a cameo appearance as a visual gag in last year’s “Avengers” movie — and though it has received numerous sequels and upgrades, it is the original version that remains popular.* Galaga is the shark of video games, unchanged over time, perfect just the way it is.
Is Galaga still around because it’s popular, or is it popular because it’s still around? It has the same concept as Space Invaders, Centipede, its own predecessor, Galaxian, and a dozen other games, but good luck finding one of those these days. In many ways, it’s its simplicity that kept Galaga going long after more sophisticated machines came and went: one joystick and one fire button, with a ship that can only dance left and right as you dodge wave after wave of swirling alien insects. (Of course, it could just be people really like squashing bugs.) While the invading fleet can capture your ship with a tractor beam, rescuing it back with a well-placed shot gives you two ships to mow down more bugs… excuse me, I think I feel a quarter burning a hole in my pocket. Gotta go.
*To be fair, almost all of the units you see today are the special “Class of ’81″ reissue that Namco put out in 2001, that put Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga in the same cabinet. However, a company reissuing an old video game like this is exceedingly rare, and the fact they picked these two titles simply underscores their continuing popularity.
Wednesday, May 15th, 2013
Comedy #5: “High Fidelity” (2000)
Top 5 all-time reasons “High Fidelity” deserves to be on this list:
1) It is the single best — certainly the most honest — movie about relationships ever made.
2) It is witty and eminently quotable (and, curiously enough, from a screenplay by Scott Rosenberg, who also wrote “Beautiful Girls.”)
3) It completely nails the culture of the collector, and scarily so. (“High Fidelity” also came out at the same time as “Wonder Boys,” which completely failed to hit its target re: obsessive fandom and a niche culture, so an interesting compare/contrast on What Not to Do.)
4) It has a kick-ass soundtrack that is almost as good as the ones from “Beautiful Girls” and “Fast Times“
5) It was Jack Black’s first movie, when he was still an unexpected surprise — and still entertaining.
Bonus track! Read the book — it is even funnier than the movie, if that’s possible.
Wednesday, May 15th, 2013
Comedy #6: “Beautiful Girls” (1996)
It’s a damn shame “Beautiful Girls” was packaged as a chick flick when it first came out. This is a movie written by a guy, directed by a guy, and about guys. Sure, it has Uma Thurman and Lauren Holly and Mira Sorvino and Rosie O’Donnell and her famous centerpiece rant on beauty and a 14-year-old Natalie Portman in a star-making turn as a wise-beyond-her-years ingenue, but it is really about bros realizing they finally have to grow up. It also has one of the best pop soundtracks outside of Ridgemont High.
Timothy Hutton returns to his small home town in New England for his 10th high school reunion and realizes not a goddamn thing has changed. While he ties one on for a week and catches up with his old buddies, he starts a strange friendship with the young Natalie Portman. Like “Some Girls,” another character-driven ensemble set in the heart of winter, “Beautiful Girls” isn’t so much a comedy as a bemused and amused take on relationships. It is honest, funny, and bittersweet, particularly since its talented young director, Ted Demme, died a few years after making it. If this was his legacy then, it was a damn fine one.
Tuesday, May 14th, 2013
[50/50] Short Story #5: “Frost and Fire” — Ray Bradbury (1946)
Ray Bradbury wrote a great many important, poetic and influential stories. But none have bowled me (and many others) over as much as one of his early short pulp pieces, “Frost and Fire,” a horrific and wildly imaginative allegory for the human condition. Set on a hyper-accelerated world where humans live their entire lives in eight days — from birth to old age in just over a week — “Frost and Fire” is a maddening rollercoaster ride of emotions as the protagonist rails against the unfairness of their existence, and bets his life on a discovery that could rescue mankind from their cruel fate. In an ultimate race against time, the elements, and the superstitions of his own people, he and his mate set out for a shining beacon on a distant mountain peak.
While Bradbury had a number of his works turned into movies and TV shows — though strangely enough without the same success as his contemporary, Phillip K. Dick — “Frost and Fire” is something of a Holy Grail among Bradbury fans. Saul Bass made a short, odd film based on the story in the early ’80s (see below), and it has been adapted for radio, comic book and, um, dance. It’s tight plot and pressing action are tailor made for a high-concept movie — and modern CGI could finally handle the constant aging the characters go through as they run for their lives. Whether a film ever gets made or not, the story (collected in Bradbury’s “R is for Rocket“) is well worth hunting down. You know, before time runs out.
Tuesday, May 14th, 2013
Short Story #6: “Johnny Mnemonic” — William Gibson (1981)
While cyberpunk can now be seen as an evolution of style in science fiction — and a surprising prophetic one at that — it sure felt like a revolution at the time. And the first grenade thrown was William Gibson’s fusion of noir and sci-fi, “Johnny Mnemonic,” a tale of low-lifes using high-tech to blackmail the mob in a dirty neon future. Slipped into the pages of Ommi Magazine just like it was any other sci-fi story, this harbinger of hackers, human augmentation and endless urban sprawl came out a year before “Blade Runner,” and introduced William Gibson’s most famous character: Molly Millions. (Yes, the one we named our cat after. When I finally met Gibson a few years ago and told him this, he snorted and said, “Lot of cats named Molly Millions.” D’oh!)
Gibson’s short story — available here — is also the introduction to his seminal Sprawl trilogy (“Neuromancer“/”Count Zero”/”Mona Lisa Overdrive”) that would permanently weld “cyberspace” to the idea of the future. Oh, but whatever you do — Don’t. Watch. The. Movie. Just — Don’t.
(Molly’s image taken from Tom de Haven and Bruce Jensen’s brilliant but doomed 1989 graphic novel adaptation of Neuromancer. Oh yeah, she’s not even in the movie version of Johnny Mnemonic. Which is all 31 flavors of WTF. I’m serious. Don’t rent the move.)
[Late breaking update: Apparently someone is making another go at the story, this time as a TV show. Huh. Well, it couldn't be worse than the movie. Which you shouldn't ever see, not even out of curiosity.]
Monday, May 13th, 2013
Album #37: “Breakfast in America” — Supertramp (1979)
For your consideration: the greatest album cover of all time. OK, maybe not the greatest, but certainly one of the best designed: Clever, playful, and absolutely full of promise. That the record in its sleeve turns out to be about dissolution, disillusion and wandering makes it, like American cinema in ’70s, a prime example of discontent wrapped up in crunchy pop goodness.
In a curious case of good timing, this week’s Sound Opinions discussed “Breakfast in America” as one of its host’s Desert Island Discs:
“Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker wasn’t afraid to declare his love for the admittedly un-hip Supertramp during this week’s interview, and neither is Jim. Jim celebrates the British band’s signature mix of prog and pop during this week’s DIJ. He says “Take the Long Way Home” from 1979’s Breakfast in America is characteristic of the band’s simultaneously sunny and threatening take on orchestral pop.
Given that I was a teen at the time, with questionable and steadfastly-Top-40-taste in music, I was clearly oblivious to the fact that rock critics hated Supertramp — hell, I was oblivious to the fact that rock critics even existed. It’s a pity Jim DeRogatis picked that particular song off of “Breakfast in America” however; like “Stairway to Heaven” on Led Zep IV, “Take the Long Way Home” — along with its over-played companion “The Logical Song” — long ago reached its saturation point from heavy rotation. If you grew up during that time, you’ve heard them both enough to last a lifetime.
Ignore the hits: the rest of the album is just as worthy of being played into the ground, particularly the epic opening and closing numbers (“Gone Hollywood” and “Child of Vision” respectively.) “Child of Vision” encompasses the dueling duet of the album’s main characters (brothers? friends? rival bandmates?) who trade arguments with each other through the lyrics of each song as their relationship slowly unravels. (Which is what also happened in real life; powerful creative differences between the group’s two songwriters eventually caused the band to shatter a few years later.)
It may have been because “Breakfast in America” was immensely popular around the time I got my driver’s license — or maybe because so many of the songs are about leaving and arriving — but I still maintain it is one of the best albums ever to take on roadtrip. Try it next time you travel cross-country and you’ll see.
Friday, May 10th, 2013
So, finally heard back from SND, and I did not win this year’s cover design. (It went to #24, the one with the big “34″ and the stacked text. This was one of the two designs I thought were as strong as mine and would make good contenders — and they did.) Thanks to everyone for their support!