Archive for June, 2013

[50/50] Book #15: “They Went That-A-Way”

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Book #15: “They Went That-A-Way: How the Famous, the Infamous, and the Great Died” — Malcolm Forbes & Jeff Bloch (1988)

434101“I wake up every morning at nine and grab for the morning paper. Then I look at the obituary page. If my name is not on it, I get up.” — Benjamin Franklin

Ever read the obits just to read them? Not because you knew anyone who died or anything, or like the old joke from Ben Franklin, but just because. Back when I actually read a newspaper, I always picked out a few each day, based on name or picture or age or length of the entry, and tried to piece together their story.

That’s the thing with obituaries: except for the occasional outrageous “let ‘er RIP!” winner, most are just benchmarks, outlines, the parameters of a life. Born, died, wife, kids, lived, worked, a couple of hobbies, maybe a passion or two. Most don’t even list the cause of death (though ‘send donations to’ is often a clue.) Rarely anything such as — were they happy? Did they do what they wanted to do in life? Did people like them? We’re they funny or boring, good parents or complete dicks? What were their secrets? Were they faithful to their spouse? Did they even have a spouse and if not why didn’t they ever marry? What was their story?

That’s what made “They Went That-a-Way” such a great read — it wasn’t that they were celebrity deaths, but that the encapsulated obits told great stories, whether it was epic or mundane (including dispelling the myth of Oscar Wilde’s last words.) Plus, it had one of the most beautiful cover designs I’ve ever seen — really, what more do you want from a book?

[50/50] Album #30: “Hounds of Love”

Monday, June 24th, 2013

Album #30: “Hounds of Love” — Kate Bush (1985)

hounds-of-love1Kate Bush is … unique. That’s the only way to put it. As much performance artist as pop star, she was a one-women opera company in her prime — singing, dancing, composing, directing, hell she probably even sewed her own outfits — who was unafraid to challenge the scale at both ends with her voice, and unafraid to drench her songs in literary allusions. You either loved that or hated it.

If it weren’t a back-handed compliment, I’d call Kate Bush the ‘smart Madonna’; unlike Miss Desperately Seeking Susan, her sexiness was delivered with a grand theatrical flair, and even though she did some club music, its source was the stage and not the street. Like Madanna, Bush was excessively driven, overly ambitious, and, often, over-wrought. When she missed, it was cringe-worthy — but when she hit, it was alchemic.

And Kate Bush was firing on all cylinders for what turned into her biggest and best album, “Hounds of Love,” when her academic conceits found a near-perfect balance with her musical talents. (Plus, she had something for flight suits, which I always found strangely appealing.)

As with Roxy Music, another set of art-school, avante-garde inspired musicians, I was introduced to Kate Bush by a girlfriend from high school. During a chance encounter a few years later, when I ran into the old girlfriend in a record store where she worked, she told me that I reminded her of a Kate Bush song. We went for coffee, we talked, and a few months later we were dating again. Over the next year I proceeded to pick up every one of Kate Bush albums. It wasn’t just that I had become a huge fan: it was the least I could do to thank her for helping to reintroduce us.

[50/50] Album #31: “Elastica”

Friday, June 21st, 2013

Album #31: Elastica — “Elastica” (1994)

elastica-frontalA few months ago, an article in Indy Week argued the merits of multimedia gimmicks symphonies and orchestras are using to get people in the seats. In the end, agreed the conductors, directors and musicians interviewed, it doesn’t matter:

“I don’t care how a person arrives at their love and understanding of music. If it comes from loving Renaissance choral music, fine. If it comes from loving the music of John Williams, fine. If it’s Marvin Hamlisch, fine. I can see many avenues in, and multimedia is one of them.” —Timothy Myers, artistic director and principal conductor for the N.C. Opera

And opera man is right. Where and when you discover something is irrelevant — what matters is that you find it. Fans might have been (justifiably) horrified when The Beatles’ Revolution was used to sell Nike (oh how the Boomer hate to be called out on selling out), but a whole new generation discovered Nick Drake thanks to a commercial that single-handedly revitalized interest in a long-dead ’60s artist. Same goes for TV show themes, movie soundtracks, and, more commercials. Some producer champions a favorite forgotten, obscure or undiscovered band, and *bam* you suddenly have a new favorite group.

Such was the case with Elastica, who I discovered thanks to their song “Connection” being used in a TV teaser for 1995’s “Hackers” — tease being the appropriate word here. “Hackers” turned out to be a truly, truly awful movie that was laughable in how hard it tried to be cool. You know, like CYBERCOOL, DUDE. Adding insult to injury, “Connection” wasn’t even used in the movie, meaning I had just gotten suckered into a flick under false pretenses. (Okay, Angelina Jolie did look pretty bitchin’ in that pixie cut, I’ll give it that). It was certainly the last time I ever went to a film based solely on a commercial, even if, admittedly, it did lead me to Elastica.

Elastica had a short and storied career, noted as much for their legal problems as the two kick-ass albums they put out. Accused of lifting, plagiarizing and outright stealing rifts — according to a lawsuit from the band Wire that is — they at least had the good taste to borrow from groups like Wire, the Buzzcocks and Blondie, all of which informed their short, sharp post-punk songs. (They eventually rerecorded most of material for an extended take on the Peel Sessions; I was rather happy to stumble across that unexpected CD a few years back at a yard sale.) That compilation in particular has been in heavy rotation in my car for the last few years now, and isn’t going anywhere soon.

[50/50] Song #31: “The Dreaming”

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Song #31: The Dreaming — Kate Bush (1982)

kiwiAustralia. Since I was a kid, I was obsessed with Australia. OK, mainly kangaroos, but they’re from Australia, right? Kangaroos, koala bears, kiwi, Tasmanian Devils — yeah sure, those last two aren’t technically from the sixth Continent, but you can see where this theme is going, can’t you? — if it was from Down Under or the surrounding islands, a exotic place on the exact other side of the planet, then I found them endlessly fascinating. I was reading about them or trying to draw them — hell, when we had to pick foreign pen pals to write to in 4th grade, I made sure I got the name of a kid from Australia (Sydney, to be exact. I think we exchanged letters maybe two times; I kept asking if you were allowed to have kangaroos as pets down there.) It wasn’t just me; whenever we played Risk, I constantly had to battle my Brother for Australia; he would often pile all his armies on its 4 territories, forgoing even trying to win the game just so he could  claim Australia.

And when the bands began to pour out of Australia in the ’70s and ’80s … yup, you got it. The obvious starting point is Men at Work, but that’s only because most of us didn’t know AC/DC were originally from Sydney. (At the other extreme, the less said about the Little River Band the better, but unm yeah them too. Now, where were we?)

As for Men at Work, well, they had a sax so you know they were in as far as I was concerned. They famously caught that first seemingly endless MTV wave and we would sometimes stay up half the night just to see the next showing of Who Can It Be Now  (The secret? Pick an eye and stick with it). By the time I got to college, Land Down Under was in such heavy rotation on the automated radio station in town, you could set your clock by it. This was not an exaggeration. For my money though, the winner off their first album was the song that came in between their two biggest hits:

With lines like “I wonder who’s in my old college room/And stuck in my old locker door” the lyrics seemed tailor made for me. My brother remained a fan of the band long after I did, and still tracks down Colin Hay in concert.

The next Australian band most of us noticed was INXS, thanks to their great album “Shabooh Shoobah”, but for all the fond memories I have of their early ’80s releases (yes, including the crazy art school girlfriend who was a big fan), once you know the end of the story, it’s just sad.

Speaking of slick spellings, casting further afield there was New Zealand’s Split Enz and the Finn brothers’ later vehicle, Crowded House. It’s not an invasion if you invite them in.

By the late-1980s, if it was Australian, I’d pick it up. Midnight Oil, Big Pig — and the Hoodoo Gurus. Best known for their ode to necrophilia, “Dig It Up,” this surf/goth/psychobilly band delivered a one-two punch with their first two records — “Stoneage Romeos” and “Mars Needs Guitars!” — and still has one of the best songs about love at first sight:

Of course, if I had to pick my favorite song about Australia, it would, ironically enough, be by a British artist. Kate Bush‘s “The Dreaming,” off the 1982 album of the same name is fueled by a clanking syncopation — and accompanied by the gonzo video of her flying thru lasers in a space-age jumpsuit surrounded by dancers playing aborigines — as it delivers a truly killer opening stanza:

“Banga goes another kanga/
On the bonnet of the van”

It’s tough to top that.

[50/50] Album #32: “Upstairs at Eric’s

Monday, June 17th, 2013

Album #32: “Upstairs at Eric’s” — Yaz (1982)

Before Adele was even born, there was Allison Moyet. Before she went off on a successful solo career, Moyet was half of Yaz (or for the purists, Yazoo, as they were called in England), teaming up with Vince Clarke to create two of the best synthpop records ever, “Upstairs at Eric’s” and “You and Me Both.” Although they broke up after only two albums, Yaz continued to be an influence on bands for the next few decades — partially because of Clarke’s strong clean pop hooks, partially because Moyet’s stunning voice, but mostly because they were not afraid to experiment. “Upstais at Eric’s” swings from the club-friendly “Situation” to the suicide-friendly “Winter Kills.” Yaz’s range is best captured by it’s two extremes, the love song “Only You” and the WTF of “I before E except after C”:

That last number comes closest to what the the inside of my head sounds like, which is why I’m still in love with it 30 years later.

[50/50] Video Game #1: “TRON/Discs of TRON”

Friday, June 14th, 2013

Video Game #1: “TRON” (1982) / “Discs of TRON” (1983)

“That’s two games,” I can just hear you say. Actually, it’s five — they were all supposed to be in the same cabinet.

1 tron 1 tron_tankTRON was designed to be a marketing tie-in to the 1982 Disney movie of the same name; ironically, the video game made more than the film itself — or so the story goes. TRON is one of those rare gems: a polyglot of challenges that is greater than the sum of its parts; a smash success that can still be occasionally found in working condition today, three decades later, and a game that’s better than the movie it was inspired by. As I wrote in an Indy Week review of TRON a few years ago:

tron_berserk“It may have been the video game, in fact, that helped secure the film’s long-term reputation. Driven by a booming 8-bit version of Carlos’ ear worm of a soundtrack, the arcade game was challenging and addicting and everywhere. Even today you can find functioning machines collecting quarters in bars and the rare surviving arcade. The video game wasn’t just a product tie-in, it was considered an extension of the movie and had elements that didn’t make the final film, but which were part of the official story — an early form of cross-platform pollination now known as ‘transmedia.'”

tron_breakoutTRON effectively paid homage to early video games, with its take on “Tank,” “Berzerk” and “Breakout.” Add in the unique light cycle duel, where you had to race to draw walls around your AI opponent, and that made four-games-in-one. When development problems threatened to derail the title, it was decided to drop the 5th game, Discs of TRON, and release it as a stand-alone a year later once the bugs were worked out. (Speaking of bugs, a programming error — made no doubt in the last-minute rush to get the cabinets to arcades in time — caused the ‘Breakout’ portion of the game, where the player has to blast thru a rotating wall of color blocks, to suddenly veer off the left of the screen. This bug was never corrected, and later ports of the game still have error.)

Each of the four challenges weren’t, by themselves, great games. However, you would have to win a round in all four to get to advance to the next level, and you never knew which one was going to pop up on your screen next. This sense of anticipation — or dread; the tank level was exceptionally fast, hard and mean — helped seal TRON’s reputation.

1 tron 5

Discs of TRON sadly did not share in its companion’s success. By the next year the movie had come and gone, and the video game industry was in the midst of its first great collapse. Few copies of Disc were produced (in fact, my brother and I didn’t even know it existed until several years later, when we found a booth in the back of that boardwalk mecca of games, Marty’s Playland in Ocean City, MD.) For what it lacked in distribution, Discs of TRON made up for it in experience: thanks to its enclosed design, the gamer had to step inside a booth to play. Surrounded by digital stereo and enveloped by the blue glow of the control panel, it effectively isolated the player and made it very easy to believe you had been pulled inside the game. Discs of TRON was also a great deal of fun to play:

So there you have it. My favorite video game of all time. Would I buy one to restore if I had the chance? Probably not — there’s still something deeply satisfying about the surprise and joy of walking in someplace and unexpectedly finding an old TRON unit waiting to steal my quarters.

End of line.

[50/50] Comedy #1: “Airplane!”

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013


Surely, you had no doubt.

[50/50] Short Story #1: The Winter Market

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

Short Story #1: The Winter Market — William Gibson (1986)

2371253100_6dc71015a2Eventually, technology will exist that can record dreams just like music and video, and there will be a whole new industry — with chart-topping products and recording stars and producers. This is finally beginning to happen, but William Gibson first wrote about it 25 years ago. “The Winter Market” follows one such producer in near-future Vancouver as he waits for his dead girlfriend to call so they can start working on her next album.

While not officially part of William Gibson’s Sprawl series, it has all the hallmarks of his other cyberpunk classics: set in the gritty neon-glow of perpetual urban decay, where hi-tech lo-life’s jack directly into each other’s brains, and dying characters upload their personalities into vast mainframes, this is Gibson at the height of his career, doing his very noir best.

“I disconnected my phone on my way to bed. I did it with the business end of a West German studio tripod that was going to cost a week’s wages for repair,” his protagonist says matter of factly, as he comes back from another bender. Beyond the crisp language, “Winter Market” expertly explores what happens to people in a disposable culture — one of the key characters is an artist sensei who lives in a vast warehouse like The Scrap Exchange, building living critters out of old computer parts and drum machines that destroy themselves.

In the end, the thing that makes this the best short story I’ve ever read, is Gibson knows that technology might change your life, but it won’t change who you are … and it can’t save you from yourself.

You can find “The Winter Market” in Gibson’s exceptional (and only) collection of short stories, “Burning Chrome.” Or, you can read a version of it here:

[50/50] Album #33: “Welcome to Timbuk3” / “Eden Alley”

Monday, June 10th, 2013

Album #33: “Welcome to Timbuk3” (1986) / “Eden Alley” (1988) — Timbuk3

timbuk3SCENE: A small town in the mountains of West Virginia that has never seen better days. It is almost midnight when I take the lone Interstate exit into town: fog and summer thunderstorms kept me from making it to Pittsburgh when I intended and I am exhausted. The only place to stay is “Motel 79” — with a name perilously reminiscent of that disaster of a disaster flick “Airport 79,” it is but my first warning sign. When I point out to the night manager that the window in my room was smashed, he shrugs and says, “There’s a board over the opening.” The place doesn’t look like its been cleaned since the 1970s, and I am afraid to use the towels. I step out into an empty parking lot and light up a bowl. That’s when I see I’m standing next to the police station. I realize I’m in the center of town. Looking up and down the street, I can see half the town is boarded up. I sleep in my clothes on top of the bed sheets.

The next morning, I am greeted by a cold, gray, steady downpour. Several gap-toothed smokers sitting in folding chairs under a motel awning wave to me as I load the car. I remember a sign in the lobby offering long-term stays, and it occurs to me they probably live there. I pop in a tape at random. It is Timbuk3’s first album and “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” comes on as I pull out of the lot. With the windshield wipers slapping against the rain, I leave behind this nameless mountainside town, swimming in irony. The serendipity forever redeems Timbuk3’s biggest — and most overplayed — number for me. A staple of ’80s movies and TV shows, the Top 40 smash isn’t bad, just over-exposed, but it was also far from the best song Timbuk3 would ever do.

Formed by husband-and-wife team Pat and Barbara MacDonald, Timbuk3 was a post-New Wave duo that relied heavily on bass, percussion and harmonica. They were clever, off-beat and idiosyncratic, and their first two albums still hold up beautifully 25 years later. In fact, I couldn’t decide between the two (after listening to each, I think no THIS one is may favorite) so I simply put up both for your consideration. Sadly, the band’s fortunes declined after a stellar start, and after six records Timbuk3 dissolved when the MacDonalds divorced.

So, from Welcome to Timbuk3, here’s “Facts about Cats,” (which is not about cats) and “Sample the Dog” from Eden Alley. (And if anyone knows what THAT song is about, let me know? Thanks.)

[50/50] Song #32: “Barracuda”

Friday, June 7th, 2013

Song #32: “Barracuda” — Heart (1977)

heartPoor Rich Ryan. Rich was the guitarist in our church choir, and once I found out he knew the opening riff to “Barracuda,” I asked him to play it  — every single week. To his credit, he indulged me every single time. Thanks, man.

Of course, can you blame me? it is one of the all-time killer hooks.

With all deference to Dread Zeppelin and Lez Zeppelin, Heart is the world’s best Led Zep cover band, even laying claim to “Rock and Roll” and “Black Dog” as their own. (And there is, also, this). While not a cover, with “Barracuda” you can almost feel Heart channeling “Immigrant Song” and Zeppelin at its shortest and sharpest. Simply put, these women could rock.

Photo via Six Degrees of Heart’s Little Queen

Oh yeah, and Rich? You played it better than Nancy Wilson. Just sayin’