Monday, July 7, 2014

Pink Floyd To Release New Album! Or Not!

Pink Floyd to release new album! wait, it's actually Pink Floyd to release album of unreleased material! wait, it's actually Pink Floyd to release album of unreleased material from 1994 recording sessions that didn't include Roger Waters...hmmmm....

So, really, Pink Floyd isn't releasing a new album. What is actually happening here is that a collection of subpar leftovers from a band who can more accurately be called David Gilmour's Exploiting Band Names For Money is going to be released.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Real Estate- Atlas

Real Estate's new-ish album, Atlas...:

  1. a continuation of, but not a progression from, their previous album, Days
  2. kind of a let down because it is kind of more of the same we got on Days
  3. ...begins to seem like less of a let down when you get over the above two facts
  4. a sign that I am bad at predicting what direction a band will take, because I thought they might pick up on the lengthy outro jam of the closing track of Days, 'All The Same', and their admitted love for Phish and maybe produce their version of Marquee Moon
  5. ...feels like the kind of album that makes the album that came before it seem even more perfect and fresh by comparison. See also Radiohead's In Limbo making us all realize In Rainbows is one of the best things they've ever done, Battles's Gloss Drop makes us all realize Mirrored is the sort of album that comes only once per generation and once per band, etc.
      5a) Atlas also makes the album The Flower Lane by Ducktails (Real Estate guitarist Matt Mondanille's solo band/side project) seem more perfect and fresh by comparison, but I'm one of those people who think it's as good as Days or Mac DeMarco's 2. So.
      5b) Speaking of Mac Demarco, you should go watch the documentary about him on Pitchfork called Pepperoni Playboy. It is all sorts of incredible and makes me angry that I haven't had the chance to really groove on his new album yet.
  6. ...kind of bums me out, because I feel like this band is rushing into maturity, writing songs about serious relationship issues and commitment to a spouse and real heavy stuff like that. Wasn't this the band that just 5 years ago was giving us an anthem with the lyrics “Budweiser/Sprite/til you feel alright”?
    6a) Maybe it is just what happens to everyone who is in their mid to late 20s. You start to realize that life isn't going to last forever. Being well over two decades into your journey, you start to question if everything you're doing I right. And I can tell you, it only gets worse when you enter your 30s.
  7. ...feels like a parallel to Beach House's Bloom and The Walkmen's Heaven, in that it doesn't best the album that came before it, but you still end up loving it and listening to it a lot once you get over the initial disappointment that it's not going to end up one of your top two favorite albums by them.
    7a) This is, of course, assuming you're a music nerd weirdo like me who thinks so much about music that he assigns top favorite status to specific albums by specific bands as if it matters, really, to anyone. Ever.
  8. ...has a few of the band's all-time best songs. Now that they're three albums and a handful of singles and EPs into their career, I think we can begin to start making “best of” mixes and imaginary “greatest hits” albums.
    8a) This is, of course, assuming you're a music nerd weirdo like me who makes “best of” mixes and imaginary “greatest hits” albums.
  9. My Grandpa died today. He was 98. And even though we were very far from close, and he didn't have enough personality or conversation to fill a Dixie cup, he was still my Grandpa, and the world still lost something today. This review, however pathetic of an offering it is, is my attempt to put something back into the world on a day when I otherwise would just have come home, drank some beer, and listened to 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle and Alien Soundtracks by Chrome over and over.
    9a) Now, I feel like listening to Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong. I doubt my Grandpa liked them or any music, but it's the best I can do.

Friday, April 18, 2014


Sorry for the lack of updates lately. Life has taken a strange turn and I'm too busy listening to records by Louis Armstrong and Django Reinhardt, as well as mainlining Raw Power by Iggy and the Stooges, to want to write anything for Whiskey Pie. But I promise I will return, like Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific, and finish the 30 For 30 project. I mean, I kinda have to before I turn 31, right?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

30 For 30: Hi, How Are You by Daniel Johnston

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 18, despair came knocking at my door.

In October of 2013, I felt like the bottom had fallen out of my life.

I hadn't gotten a raise in almost two years at my job and conditions continued to get worse. So why not quit and find something else? Well, I've been unable to find any better full-time employment where I live, and I can't just quit You see, in October I finally couldn't ignore my credit card debt which had resulted from years of only being able to pay the minimum required amount, thanks to my low paying job and some irresponsible living/spending from time to time (and irresponsible spending on girlfriends from time to time). I had to swallow my pride and ask my parents for help, a move that I probably should've done earlier but put off for various reasons too personal and complicated to go into (and if you notice how incredibly honest I'm otherwise being in this piece, you can probably guess it's for good reasons).

A couple weeks before I told my parents about my debt, I had met an awesome girl via a dating website. Despite spending one of the best days of my life in Ann Arbor puttering around the city with her—I don't think I've ever made someone laugh that much before—she inexplicably stopped talking to me a few days later and disappeared. Though I had the sense to let it go and not be that creepy guy who continually texts and emails to get an explanation, it still left me feeling confused and frustrated. Just when my life seems like it's going to break one way, all logic and karma goes out the window and I'm back to where I started or a few steps back. It's not that I think my life is some kind of movie or novel in which I'm owed a happy ending and so I'm trying to force it to happen. Maybe I'm just resentful of having to deal with the same problems for so many years when I see everyone around me solving their's and ticking off the checklist that allows one to arrive into the kind of full-on adulthood that is recognized by popular culture instead of the bohemian lonerism I've half 'stumbled into' and half 'willingly entered.' Anyway, I won't bore you with the numerous other less important problems in my life.

A week or so before telling my parents about my money problems, and about a week after things went nowhere with the girl, I began to listen to Daniel Johnston's Hi, How Are You over and over. And over again.

'Poor You'

I had this steady routine where I'd get home from work, crack open a beer, and immediately start listening to the album. Usually I'd replay the first side of the record as many times as seemed necessary before flipping it over. I'd listen to that once and start the process over, until I'd had enough beer and cigarettes and Daniel Johnston that I felt like doing something else. Some nights this would last for hours.

All told, it was probably one of the worst times of my life, certainly of my 20s. Due to anxiety and depression that came in the door with my various problems, I was sleeping only a few hours a night, usually when I passed out from exhaustion that had accrued for enough days in a row or when I got especially drunk. I don't remember being suicidal, because I've walked through so many fires in my life, so to speak, that it'd take something much bigger than my combined problems to do me in. Rather I think it was the one time in my life where I knew true despair. I'm sure I used the word in badly written poetry during high school and meant it, but once you've felt the dictionary definition of despair, you know what it truly is to feel hopeless. It's important to note that feeling hopeless and actually being hopeless are very different things. I may have felt like I wanted to just stay in bed all day or disappear into the wilderness, but I still got up and went to work and seemed mostly normal from outward appearances. I felt hopeless yet there were still some slivers of hope kicking around inside me that kept my sanity and allowed me to function without losing my job or my friends.

'I Am A Baby (In My Universe)'

Since this piece is ostensibly about Hi, How Are You, an album by Daniel Johnston, and not my personal problems, you might be expecting me to now segue into the topic at hand with some line like “Hi, How Are You saved my life.” It wouldn't be true. What would be more accurate to say is that one of the most important things for someone in the midst of despair to feel is understanding, and Hi, How Are You understands despair. By extension, you feel as though it understands you, too. Not your specific problems but the feelings that result from them. It opens with Daniel Johnston saying the album title to the listener, or rather asking the question posed in the album title, which may have been a cutesy whim on his part. To me it sounds like the most humane and caring way to open an album, the sort of thing you'd expect from a saccharine children's music program. Perhaps I'm just projecting here and it was a whim for him; in my repeat listenings over the course of that week-or-so, however, it started to sound like a friend checking in on me.

I said earlier that I used to listen to the first side the most, so let me elaborate. The second side of the album is less focused, more playful and almost theatrical with its boxing motif. So I would still cherish this album just as much if all it had was the songs on side one. I might even like it more, and it's most of what I remember from the record. 'Poor You', 'Despair Came Knocking', 'I'll Never Marry', and 'Get Yourself Together' are all written from different attitudes ('Poor You' seems to even be mocking the listener and/or the writer) and add up to something like therapy. All of the songs on the record don't give you any answers and advice is kept to basic mantras—“get yourself together or fall apart/make your mind up or let yourself down”—that could apply to any number of situations. Expressing something specific in a general way others can relate to is a difficult balancing act for albums like this to pull off. I think it's crucial, too, that Hi, How Are You never seems maudlin or immature. Even the most overtly sad/depressing lyrics are stated so plainly and sparsely that they could just as easily come from an elderly, cynical woman or a surly teenager—“I really don't know what I have to fear/I really don't know why I have to care.”

Truth be told, my personal life isn't dramatically better than it was in October. I'm more happy more often, and my money situation has gone from “critical meltdown” to “bad, but not, like, really bad.” I still sleep poorly most of the time, and anxiety and depression like to turn up a few times a day to make things more interesting for me. I'm still single, working the same job, living in the same apartment I have been since 2009, and I still struggle with drinking and smoking. Most of the time I just want to be in my apartment, alone, away from it all. Most of the time I don't feel like writing or doing anything productive. At least now, whenever I'm feeling particularly bad, with the October 2013 flashbacks creeping up my spine, I have a new companion to help me sort it out. It may seem pathetic to label a record from almost 30 years ago a companion, but it's there for me all the time and it understands what I'm going through. I'm now 30 years old and that's more than I can say for any person in my life.

'Desperate Man Blues'

Monday, March 17, 2014

30 For 30: Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 17, learn the true title of what I refer to as "the most beautiful and sad thing I've ever heard."

Back in 2012, I was dating and living with someone who was majoring in trombone performance at a local college. When studying an instrument at the college level, you not only have to be in several performances yourself, but you have to attend those given by other students, too. So in a few months I got a crash course in classical music and associated styles, and I saw way more live music in a few months than I had in my entire life up to that point combined. I even bought my then-girlfriend a huge assortment of vintage classical records. But as much as I learned and as much as I heard, classical music is just not my thing and I know now it never will be. I ended up liking the 'New Music' and experimental stuff way more than the classics, so that was kind of strike one. Strike two was that the music is too intellectual and requires too much reading; even the emotive pieces sound to me like a mathematician plugging in the right formula of notes to simulate emotion instead of it being music as a channel for emotion. And strike three was that my favorite piece of classical music remained the same as it was before I had my education in 2012. To a classical music fan it's such a popular and obvious choice as to be asinine, but I can't help it: Moonlight Sonata is the most beautiful and sad thing I've ever heard.

Except that it's not really called Moonlight Sonata, and it's not all beautiful and sad.

Well, never say that Whiskey Pie isn't educational. For you see, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata isn't actually called that. The official title is most often written as Piano Sonata No. 14 In C-Sharp Minor “Quasi Una Fantasia.” Furthermore, what everyone is familiar with and thinks is the entirety of the song is only the first movement of three. Admittedly there's something to be said for colloquial shorthand so that whenever we hear it we don't have to say the full title and can instead go with a simple question of “that's Moonlight Sonata, right?” For the purposes of the rest of this piece, I'm going to keep saying “Moonlight Sonata” and trust you understand that I really mean Piano Sonata No. 14 In C-Sharp Minor “Quasi Una Fantasia.” Say that three times fast.

I'm fairly sure the first time I heard this song was in a cartoon or movie. It's one of those classical songs that has been used so many times in so many different places that you don't always notice it. Using Moonlight Sonata to indicate that something is sad, or juxtaposing it against something decidedly un-sad for the ironic humor effect, has been done to death in movies, TV shows, and cartoons. I remember even a more modern cartoon like Ren & Stimpy used a lot of classical music, so it's possible that was where I first heard Moonlight Sonata. No matter how or where it's used, though, this song still hits me right in the chest. This is one of the most famous and ubiquitous songs of all time yet it somehow retains every bit of its power even if it's a Muzak version in an elevator or it's in a TV commercial for a car or some god damn thing.

As someone who has always been drawn to the bittersweet and melancholic in life, it only makes sense that I'd love Moonlight Sonata. To my mind it is the origin point of all sad music that came afterward, even though this is only strictly true of that famous first movement of the song. But it's hard to beat that part for establishing a mood, for getting a visceral reaction out of people. On any given day I can listen to all three movements and by the end I am in a totally different state of mind and mood, transported away by a single piano playing a piece from over 200 years ago. While it's very likely that no trace of my time on this Earth will survive 200 years into the future, I know that Moonlight Sonata will.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

30 For 30: Bitches Brew by Miles Davis

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 16, we rap about double albums and use the word 'awesome' a lot.

The double album is a rare beast in today's music. The last modern double album I can remember was The Flaming Lips's Embryonic. However, that one is cheating a bit, since it's only 70 minutes of music spread across two “albums.” In the 90s, because of the way the CD format changed how albums were paced and flowed, it was not uncommon for a band's album to be as long as Embryonic despite being counted as a single album. For example, Spiritualized's Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is 69 minutes long and Adore by the Smashing Pumpkins is actually longer at 73 minutes long (Billy Corgan was never known for being succinct). Of course, two of the first double albums, Frank Zappa's Freak Out! and Bob Dylan's Blonde On Blonde, were only 60 and 72 minutes, respectively, so as the years have gone by the idea of what really constitutes a double album has become a bit muddled. Is it defined by the length of the music or by the whims of the artist?

There is no such gray area with Bitches Brew by Miles Davis. Even without the bonus track often appended to new copies of the album on CD, it runs a sturdy 94 minutes. Bitches Brew is a double album through and through, and anyone who owns it on vinyl knows what I mean by that. Truly only a gatefold sleeve does justice to the cover art, which wraps from the front to the back; truly only a rambling, poetic essay by Ralph J. Gleason and an oddly framed picture of a shirtless Miles Davis could work inside a gatefold sleeve. There is something satisfying about the heft of a double record, especially one that would even take two CDs to contain it. I have a few double albums on vinyl and they put you in a different mindset when listening to them. It feels like something you do on a long weekend afternoon: burn some incense and relax next to the record player while staring at the covers and liner notes and such.

The full cover, albeit a scan of a CD booklet version of it

You need to have patience and focus to sit through double albums, something our increasingly short attention spans have made difficult. It's a different listening experience and a valuable one; compared to how we normally listen to music—in the car, on an iPod at work or while exercising, on a computer with the songs on random shuffle—it feels like meditation. To simply sit by a record player and listen to an album while not doing anything else feels quaint and outdated by today's standards, like something you'd expect Henry David Thoreau to write about in Walden. Even I don't do it as often as I used to but I suppose it makes it more of a special experience when I do. For instance, I had today off of work thanks to a snowstorm, and spent my morning half-awake drinking coffee and listening to Bitches Brew. Somehow it fit the visibility limiting wall of wind and snow outside my window. The experience of giving it a listen first thing in the morning with my full attention has also set the tone for the rest of my day. If you've ever woken up early on the weekend and watched a movie first thing, you might know what I mean by that. But I digress.

'Miles Runs The Voodoo Down'

Awesome” was my response to hearing Bitches Brew for the first time. I was in high school and had finally made friends with someone who also loved music. As usually happens, you end up borrowing a bunch of music from each other and sitting around trading off on albums saying things like “wait'll you hear this one...” Every time I listen to Bitches Brew it takes me back to that mindset, when I was first discovering all that music had to offer beyond the forgettable modern rock and pop music that had been my only musical world since middle school. After Bitches Brew I finally went and listened to some of the records my parents had from their youth. After Bitches Brew I started to listen to jazz in all its forms, and to give other genres of music a chance. And so on.

If I'm ever making a list of my favorite albums of all time, Bitches Brew has to be on it. There are some Miles Davis albums from this same era that I think are more interesting (On The Corner) and some I think do a better job of being a jazz/rock fusion (A Tribute To Jack Johnson), but none of them can match Bitches Brew overall. It has everything in it. Despite being an instrumental album, every human emotion is in there at some point. What's more, it feels like it has every instrument in it, too. While I think most people listen to this record loud on a stereo, it works just as well on headphones since you pick up how much detail is in the production. How Davis and producer Teo Marcero managed to wrangle this many musicians at a time, and to edit the various parts of the numerous performances into the final versions on the album, is beyond me. Again, I implore you to give this a spin with some good headphones if you never have before. It's almost dizzying how many sounds are going on at some points, while at other calmer points the space and separation between instruments reveals how masterful all the musicians were for these recording sessions. If you follow a single instrument through each song, you see points where they step up to let loose and other times where they recede into the background while still contributing to the rhythms, textures, or melodies. There's collective improvisation, and then there's a group that has become a singular unit without an ego steering it. Bitches Brew is ego-less: Miles Davis, whose album this ostensibly is, doesn't even appear on the song 'John McLaughlin.'

'John McLaughlin'

But let us return to that initial “awesome” reaction. You see, I had never really listened to a double album before, and certainly not one with long songs on it. Keep in mind, there is only one song on Bitches Brew that is less than 10 minutes long. You can imagine how much of a 'brave new world' this felt like as I heard it for the first time in my friend's bedroom on a warm Saturday afternoon in Spring. 'Pharaoh's Dance' slowly worked itself up as I was looking through the CD booklet, trying to get some kind of context for the music I was hearing. I had something of an idea of what Bitches Brew might be like, since Radiohead had mentioned Miles Davis's electric fusion era as an influence on OK Computer, but imagining what music will sound like based on written descriptions is not the same as hearing the actual product. Anyway, I recall feeling lost inside 'Pharaoh's Dance', and I had to ask several times if it was still the same song.

Then the title track started and it sounded completely alien to me. I know now it's a trumpet fed through a delay/echo pedal, but at the time, I didn't know much of anything about recording techniques. Despite being a trumpet player for several years in school, I had no idea what I was hearing. And it was awesome. It was weird. It was...indescribable. It was the kind of experience that I repeat whenever I hear music that takes me completely by surprise and warps my expectations of what I thought sound and music could be like. Time and again I find myself muttering “awesome” and loving the challenge of figuring out something novel, making sense of something alien.

Bitches Brew is the album I would take with me to a desert island. It is the album I could listen to all day, talk about for half the day and write about for the other half of the day. Hearing it for the first time around age 17 made me say “awesome” and hearing it for the umpteenth time at age 30 made me feel awesome. So why is Bitches Brew on my list of 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years? Nothing complicated this time: it's because it's awesome.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

30 For 30: The Adventures Of Pete & Pete

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 15, we consider what weird means and why treating children like adults can make for a show that appeals to adults.

When we use the word 'weird' to describe something, it's usually because we can't think of a better descriptor. The first time I heard about Aqua Teen Hunger Force it was described to me as “a weird show”, which doesn't even begin to explain it. What's more, depending on the context, 'weird' can denote something that is good or bad, making it akin to 'interesting' in that regard. For example, I would call Animal Collective's Centipede Hz weird and interesting in bad ways, and I would call Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans weird and interesting in good ways.

Since 'weird' has no inherent positive or negative value, and it can be used in vague ways when you can't think of other better words to use instead, it becomes a little frustrating when I say that I tend to like weird things. What does it really mean to like weird things? After all, each person's idea of what constitutes weird is different, and things can be weird in different ways, too. So before this spirals further into philosophical musings on weirdness, I'd like to take a trip back to the early 90s, when I encountered the first weird thing I can remember loving, a live action TV show that led me to develop a lifelong passion for weird things. I figure if I can't precisely define my idea of weird and why I love weird things, I might as well start at the beginning.

I don't think I would be the person I am today if I hadn't been at just the right age to see The Adventures Of Pete & Pete. It influenced everything from my sense of humor to my skewed way of seeing the world to even my taste in music. I'm not sure that Pete & Pete was influential in terms of impact on other shows around that time or that came after, but it was inarguably influential to a generation who grew up during its brief run on TV. If you're unfamiliar with the show it may seem odd to apply the label “influential” to something aimed at kids, but that's the beauty of it. This was a show that was for children but treated the audience like adults. It didn't need to spell out its moral lessons or spend too much time explaining everything. Most importantly, it was weird, but never in a way that felt cheap or stupid. The characters play it straight, as if everything is normal and expected, which makes everything feel even more weird. A better description than 'weird' might be 'suburban surrealism.' Indeed, there's a very specific tone and feel to Pete & Pete that inevitably led to its short three season run and cult-beloved status. 

Is this a still from a Wes Anderson movie or a kids show? You decide!

Much like other cult TV shows, you either 'get' Pete & Pete or you don't. Cult shows tend to be that way simply because they're unique and can't easily be compared to other shows, and so most TV viewers are less willing to give them a chance. This problem is multiplied when it's a kids show because kids, even more than adults, just want the same familiar things over and over. Maybe this is a gross overgeneralization but hey, real talk: if you think there are too many movie sequels, go take a look at how many sequels there are to kids movies. But I digress. During its time on TV, Pete & Pete was never a show that I remember other kids talking about at school. Even on a kid's channel with some other weird shit like Ren & Stimpy, Pete & Pete was like no other show before or since, and trying to explain to my friends why it was awesome only got me looks of confusion or boredom. As weird as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was when you first heard about it, even little boys can understand its premise which boils down to a simple “cartoon about mutant turtles who fight stuff.” With Pete & Pete there's no simple summation to give. One episode is about surviving a family road trip to the Hoover Dam, another is about trying to break a world record by staying awake for 11 nights, and another is about faking sick to stay home from school and how it gives you a new perspective on everything.

Of all the kids shows from my youth, Pete & Pete has held up the best. Most of the stuff I was watching in the late 80s/early 90s is unwatchable dreck when you have the mind of an adult but if anything I think I enjoy Pete & Pete more now than I did when it was on TV. There were even some jokes I didn't get until I was an adult, like the inspired font jokes in the marching band episode and Iggy Pop calling someone a 'stooge' in another. It says a lot that I could see that kind of thing working on Arrested Development or other cult show for adults, and the episode about the telephone that won't stop ringing vaguely reminds me of the general feel and plot formulas of modern kids shows that appeal to adults like Regular Show and Adventure Time. And maybe even My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

However, none of those is cool enough to have this in their opening title sequence 

Earlier I said the show was influential on me, and that's been true throughout my life. During its initial run on TV, Pete & Pete presented such a different take on the world that its point of view and sense of humor began to rub off on me. It features surreal and absurdist ideas but they're never done in a cloying way or overemphasized to the point of insult. In fact the show has no self-awareness about any of its eccentricities, to the point that children's baseball teams called The Bacon Barn or Prosthetics can slip by you if you aren't paying attention. I think somehow this casual-ness about being weird helped me stop being so self conscious about how odd I was as a kid (and continue to be today). Pete & Pete tells the viewer “just be yourself” without needing a character to literally state this out loud. By not explaining any of its strange elements—Why did parents name both their sons Pete? What is the story with Artie? How did Little Pete get a tattoo when he's only a kid?—the show is implicitly telling you that you don't need to explain yourself, either.

The other way the show has influenced me is more of a subtle, longterm effect. See, one of the best things about Pete & Pete was that the creators were huge music fans. Various musicians appeared as guest stars—whether it was Michael Stipe as an ice cream seller or Iggy Pop as a recurring character—but more crucially the show always used music from various indie rock bands. The main soundtrack was provided by the band Miracle Legion (performing under the name Polaris) and was released as a CD, but there were many other bands who contributed a track or two in various episodes. Being exposed to this kind of music as a kid must've planted a seed that sprouted when I got older. Maybe I would've eventually gone beyond the obvious mainstream pop music even without Pete & Pete, but I think it would've taken longer without hearing 'Tidal Wave' by The Apples In Stereo and 'Satellite' by Luscious Jackson when I was young.

Speaking of music...If I can say with certainty that Radiohead's OK Computer was the key formative discovery of my life that led me to become who I am today, then I can also say that Pete & Pete helped to prepare me for liking weird things. Which, in a way, led me to OK Computer. For that, I'll be forever thankful.

Until next time, my little vikings...

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

30 For 30: Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 14, things maybe get a little too real. And I talk about what the ending is really asking.

It's a good thing that nobody I know in real life reads this blog, because today is about to get pretty real. You see, after a solid five months of clean living, I have fallen off the wagon in spectacular fashion, and the last week has been an almost nightly routine of beer and cigarettes. I don't expect any sympathy for, or tolerance of, my problems; you shouldn't expect any explanation or further details as to why this happened. It's complicated yet I suppose it's very simple, too. And no, it's not something as simple as “I just turned 30, I'm getting old, boo hoo!”

Anyway, I think I'd have to be in the midst of a bender to be able to write about Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind because of how much it brings up for me. This is the one entry in my 30 For 30 series that I dreaded sitting down to write. It's not necessarily that it stirs up memories of ex-girlfriends, though that is part of it. Moreso it's the way the movie makes me examine my own life, the poor choices I've made I wish I could forget and the mistakes I've made I wish I could take back. Though the movie is ostensibly about a troubled couple who erase memories of their relationship, I mostly experience it now as a mirror, by which I mean every time I've watched it for the past three years I barely notice what's happening on screen while instead staring at the stubble on my face and the bags under my eyes. Metaphorically speaking.

Perhaps the strangest thing about my continuing experience with Eternal Sunshine is that, when I saw it for the first time (with my first girlfriend) in the theater, I related to Joel but now I relate to Clementine. Whenever people ask me if I'd ever get a tattoo, and what it would be if I did, I just bluntly say “nah, I'm not a tattoo kind of guy”, although deep down I know I'd get a tattoo of Clem's line: “I'm just a fucked up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind. Don't assign me your's.” Would I change it from “girl” to “guy” for my tattoo? No, because I like the idea of confusing the people at the autopsy and/or funeral home someday.

I really can't think of too much more to say about the film without veering into sloppy, rambling stories about ex-girlfriends or explaining in detail why Eternal Sunshine is such a unique, well acted, and astonishing looking movie. And despite mentioning alcohol earlier in this piece, I am actually sober while writing this, so don't expect much sloppy rambling. Rambling maybe, sloppy no. All the same, watching Eternal Sunshine almost does qualify as drinking for me because, like booze, it makes me feel great for awhile before it turns on me and I start to feel guilty about relationships that went bad, or at the very least, to second-guess many things in my life.

One could say that the film's ending argues that certain events are inevitable and that certain people are naturally—perhaps fatefully—drawn to each other. However, this has never been my experience, and I blame Eternal Sunshine for convincing me (for a few years) to believe that way, much to my detriment. Nowadays I'm a realist. Or a cynic. So I'm a big second-guesser and “what if?” question asker, often neurotically convincing myself if I had just done X, Y, and Z, or done them differently, things would have gone the way they were supposed to. Maybe a better way to say it is that I subscribe to the Terminator 2 idea of “no fate but what we make for ourselves” versus the Terminator 3 idea of “you only postponed it, Judgment Day is inevitable.”

Did I really just bring up the Terminator films? I swear I'm not drinking!

All digressions aside, the ending to me has become less about “do you believe in fate?” and morphed into a litmus test for whether you're a romantic or a realist. If you think Joel and Clem will actually stay together and work through their problems, then you're a romantic. If you think they're bound to keep having the same issues over and over and never grow past them, then you're a realist. Or maybe the better term is cynic. Whatever.

All I know is, I don't have an answer anymore. And maybe that's the root of my problem.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

30 For 30: Fallout

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 13, imagine Ron Perlman reading this entry out loud for the authentic Fallout experience.
While RPGs on videogame consoles had gotten better and better throughout the 90s, during the same period the genre had all but stagnated on PCs. Credit is largely given to BioWare for breathing life back into PC RPGs, but it's easy to forget that Fallout and its sequel were both out by the time Baldur's Gate arrived in late 1998. I don't want to diminish the impact that BioWare's classic had though I do think that Fallout deserves more credit than it gets, to say nothing of the Elder Scrolls series. Not so much for its influence on games released in its wake but rather for its originality and replayability, Fallout should be held up as one of those 'exceptions to the rule' games that proves companies don't need to rely on Fantasy or straight up Sci Fi settings to find an audience.

Even though Fallout's world and style borrows liberally from the Wasteland series, as well as other post-apocalyptic media like Mad Max, the addition of a retro-futuristic style gave the game its own personality. The inclusion of the song 'Maybe' by the Ink Spots and the famous Pip-Boy character make Fallout stand out from any other game of its era. Fallout is also a heavily atmospheric game, with a cinematic/ambient soundtrack that perfectly complements the environments of vast desert landscapes and run down post-apocalyptic settlements. This aesthetic and atmosphere is the crucial part of what makes the Fallout series what it is, far more than the overhead camera angle and turn based combat that most diehard fans want developers to bring back. This is why, despite being excited for the original version of what was supposed to be the third Fallout game (dubbed Van Buren), I wasn't worried when we first started to see what Bethesda was doing with their version of Fallout 3. In the midst of complaints that it was going to be a sloppily thrown together “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion but with guns”, I thought the addition of Fallout's aesthetic to a first person open world RPG in Bethesda's trademark style, if done properly, would be genius. Whatever flaws the game might have in the eyes of Fallout purists, I don't think there's any denying that Fallout 3 looks and feels like a Fallout game, which is a hell of a lot more than can be said for the execrable Fallout: Brotherhood Of Steel, a game everyone seems to have agreed to erase from history.

 Pip-Boy reenacts reaction to Brotherhood Of Steel

By today's standards, Fallout holds up pretty well. You might even be able to convince someone it was a modern day labor of love Kickstarter project to explain some of its awkward gameplay quirks as intentional throwbacks. Since character creation allows for a wide range of choices, you can usually find a way around the parts that prove difficult for your specific character because Fallout does a decent job of accounting for different builds and play styles. By contrast, I'd argue that the first Baldur's Gate suffers from close adherence to its license (Dungeons & Dragons, specifically the 2nd edition), so that the first few hours of the game can be ridiculously hard thanks to the random dice roll based combat. And god help you if you've never played the game before and you go for a Mage style character (Mages being notoriously underpowered and weak in the first few levels of any 2nd edition D&D experience). With Fallout, however, once you get over the slightly clunky interface you soon learn how the game is going to work and can adapt accordingly. It does suffer from the common mid-90s PC RPG issue where, unless you look up a FAQ, you won't know how important certain stats and abilities are going to be. For instance, you won't know that Throwing and Unarmed are useless skills unless you're going for a very specific character build. But once you learn how crucial Stimpacks are, the importance of aimed shots, the way the game's economy and barter system works, and how to maximize your AP usage during combat (by doing things like shooting enemies who use melee attacks from as far away as possible, forcing them to spend several turns moving before they can get close enough to hit you), Fallout plays as well as any modern game.

This AP abuse is a necessity against the god damn Deathclaws

I think the main reason it holds up so well, far better than Fallout 2, is that it isn't a terribly long game and encourages experimentation during subsequent replays. You can try to play through Fallout without killing anything, and conversely, you can wait until you have the best weapons and armor and go back through each town and kill everyone in it—including children, shockingly enough. Tired of shooting everything? Try a stealthy character who steals from people and plants explosives in the pockets of unwitting foes. Wonder what will happen if you min/max? Play through it with a low Intelligence stat, and the game accounts for this by giving you different dialogue options. On the flip side, if I recall correctly, you can play a character with high Speech and Science skills and talk the 'end boss' into realizing his plan is doomed to fail, avoiding a fight entirely. Fallout even lets you get a 'bad' ending by agreeing to join forces with the mutant army. Further adding to the replay and experimentation are the random events that happen when traveling on the world map—if you get really lucky, you can find a crashed UFO with the best gun in the game.

All of this aside, what makes Fallout mean something to me is the world that it builds. Which is perhaps ironic because it's not like other fictional worlds I want to escape into when reality has me down. This is why I find the appeal of it, and why it continues to mean something to me, hard to explain. The best I can do is to say that it gives me something that no other games or media can. It has a feel and atmosphere all its own, affecting me in a way that is somewhat dreamlike and yet somewhat nightmarish, too. It's perfect for playing late at night with headphones on, an eeriness seeming to pervade the room while you're wandering through post-apocalyptic ruins and scrounging for supplies in every nook and cranny. Sure, it has some goofy characters and moments that lighten the mood; I don't want to make Fallout seem as unendingly bleak as Silent Hill 2. But you know, it can be just as bleak at times, especially with its bummer of an ending, dooming your character to continue wandering the wasteland instead of returning home to live in the Vault you just saved. I wouldn't call it depressing, it's more melancholic, like the ending of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. And anytime I can compare a game to a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, it has to be worth something.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

30 For 30: Fight Club

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 12, we take a look at one of the greatest love stories of the last 30 years, and I resist the urge to mention Meatloaf or use that still-frame from the end of the movie with the guy's dick.
 Amidst all the controversy that greeted Fight Club upon its release—all that talk of it being a misogynistic or fascist or pro-violence film—there was one significant lack of controversy. And it was that Chuck Palahniuk, the man who wrote the novel upon which the movie was based, thought the movie was better than the book. You see, most authors famously hate the films that are made out of their novels. This includes Stephen King, who is maybe the only person alive who hated Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Yet there's an interview I can't track down that I read years ago wherein Palahniuk basically admits that he now finds the book embarrassing compared to the film because it does a better job with the ideas and themes he was trying to lay down.

Having read the book during my college years, I can say with certainty that he's absolutely right. Understand that I think Palahniuk is one of the best authors of the modern era, even if I haven't felt compelled to keep up with his newer works. Yet Fight Club, and to an extent his 'true' first novel, Invisible Monsters, were undercooked and unfocused compared to his novels that followed. So while I've only ever read Fight Club once, it still means a great deal to me, because I have watched it dozens of times.

However, in the same way that Radiohead's OK Computer continues to mean something to me even though I rarely listen to it, I only watch Fight Club once every couple years. It's still an amazing film, even judged simply from a visual perspective, and you should really go watch it if you only know of it as “that violent movie with the soap or whatever.” I have a well worn copy of the early 2-DVD release of it from my high school days, and to be sure, I watched the fuck out of it when I was younger. I can't say that it made me want to go out and fight someone or blow up a bank, but watching it, especially with the DVD commentaries on, did help me to appreciate it on another level.

 The packaging is just perfect, too.

In fact, I'll go ahead and say that, without seeing Fight Club at that time of my life, I might never have gotten into movies on any kind of serious basis. I never really thought about the things they teach you in film school, such as what makes acting good, or cinematography interesting, or how special effects can help tell a story without distracting from the rest of the movie. But watching the movie over and over, and listening to the various commentary tracks, I began to see and think about Fight Club, and other movies I was watching around that time, in a totally different way. No longer was it just a movie with great quotes and use of music; now I was actually noticing the fact that I didn't see the people in the movie as actors, I saw them as their characters. No longer was I impressed by how cool the explosions looked; now I was actually noticing the subtle use of CGI throughout the film to, say, put prices and items in the narrator's apartment or to add steamy breath to the scene in the cold cave with the penguin.

The nerd in me wants to know what font they used here.

It's fascinating to think how Fight Club may ultimately be regarded as a cult classic yet it features actors and a director who are anything but cult. David Fincher didn't really solidify his reputation until after Panic Room, true, but it's hard to imagine that the lead actors Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter could have given better performances at that point in time, and could have gone on to do the roles they did afterward. I don't doubt they would have had careers without Fight Club but I don't know if they'd have had as good a demo reel, you know what I mean? This isn't to say that everything they're done in the 21st century is pure gold but so much of the work they pursued post-Fight Club feels encoded in the acting they did in this film. Personally, I used to think of Brad Pitt as a pretty boy with no real acting chops or range, and Fight Club changed that. Go watch it again and as you do, think about the roles he'd go on to play in Inglourious Basterds, Snatch, and even something lesser known like The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. And for what it's worth, I have a pet theory that the reason Tim Burton cast Helena Bonham Carter in Planet Of The Apes is that he saw her in Fight Club and fell in love with her portrayal of Marla Singer. 

Ah, romance.

Speaking of love, I'd like to conclude this entry by saying that I think of Fight Club as being one of the best love stories in recent times. This may sound crazy, since upon first viewing it feels like anything but a love story (in fact, you can't really pin a basic genre like drama or comedy to the movie at all, can you?). However, think about the scene where the narrator's apartment is blown up and he briefly calls Marla before not saying anything and trying Tyler instead. Knowing what you know about how the movie ends, don't you think the whole point of the movie is that he should have gone for Marla right away and stopped heading further in the Tyler direction? After all, she only stops seeming so crazy once we realize everything she has gone through with the narrator and Tyler. It's worth noting, too, how much less suicidal she is once she finally gets some action, and how strong she suddenly seems when she walks away from a destructive, confusing relationship—or tries to, anyway, before she's brought right back to the narrator at the end of the movie. On a side note, I love how she reacts throughout the ending scene. There's something sweet and tender about the way she tries to fix the narrator's wound that works in a way 90% of other overtly romantic movies can never hope to achieve.

Anyway, the lesson here is, if you ever meet a girl (or guy!) who loves Fight Club, you should probably marry them. That way you won't develop a split personality, beat the shit out of yourself, and blow up a bunch of banks while 'Where Is My Mind?' by the Pixies plays and a still frame of some guy's dick flashes by.

Monday, February 24, 2014

30 For 30: Trout Fishing In America by Richard Brautigan

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 11, I shy away from high brows, accept the middle ground...and end with the word mayonnaise.
I have a confession to make, one that may knock down my pseudo-intellectual street cred: I've owned One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez for years and haven't read it. To be honest it's for a petty reason and also a very good reason. The petty reason is that I think there's no way it can live up to how stunning its title is; the very good reason is that, holy shit, that book is dense. And I mean dense in the physics sense of the word, because it's almost overwhelming how many characters there are. I feel bad, because I'm sure it's as amazing a novel as everyone says, but I feel like I'd have to read it over a week long vacation and take notes. Something so grand in scope just overwhelms me these days.

What's more, the last time I read Ulysses by James Joyce was in college. Somehow that makes sense, right? I even wrote a long essay for a Mythology class wherein I compared the novel to Homer's The Odyssey, a work which it famously parallels. Yes, that's the sort of trouble you get up to when you're a young pseudo-intellectual who spends most of his free time in the campus library. Not starting bar fights or having sex with several women in a night, oh no no no!

It almost boggles my mind to think I read Ulysses because it's the sort of reading that doesn't interest me at all nowadays. In different ways but for similar reasons, I think of it as being as 'difficult' and 'dense' as One Hundred Years Of Solitude, and I think I simply have too many things I want to do with my free time. Also, my poor short term memory is taxed enough as it is without having to keep track of seven generations of a family like One Hundred Years demands of a reader.

Yet I feel guilty about this, and I think I know why. It's this whole elitist notion that only serious/difficult literature is worth reading and discussing. Don't get me wrong, I (used to) love that kind of stuff, but it's not for everyone. It's like insisting the people who like Adam Sandler movies should be watching The Tree Of Life or The Seventh Seal instead: do you really think they'd enjoy it or get anything out of it? You have to have an entire background and the right type of mind to enjoy, let alone understand, what is being done in those films. There's a happy middle ground to be found, so that as much as I think Christopher Nolan films are a bit overrated by people who haven't seen enough movies, they are still veritable art films compared to anything Michael Bay scrapes off his boot and releases in theaters.

This, finally, brings us to Trout Fishing In America by Richard Brautigan. Well, it brings us to how I discovered it and what it means to me.


During the Summer of 2012, I was going through a real low point in terms of caring about literature. I was exclusively reading non-fiction and ignoring the unread copy of One Hundred Years Of Solitude on my shelf. I kept feeling as though I wanted something new and experimental in fiction reading but not in a difficult or dense way. Probably the last time fiction had really excited me was while devouring the works of Mark Z. Danielewski after the recommendation of a friend. His books are still brilliant and exciting...but in a difficult and dense way. I mean, Only Revolutions isn't a book I want to re-read any time soon.

Something you should know if I've never brought it up before is that at my job, I get to see a lot of random vintage items. This has led to some fun gems, like a semi-rare Bob Dylan 45 single and a book of Monet prints suitable for framing. But this chaotic way of scavenging for diamonds in the rough isn't a good way to find the next fiction to excite my mind, or so I always thought. For, one day during the Summer of 2012, amongst a mound of other used books, I came across a collection of works by Richard Brautigan (which not only has Trout Fishing in it, but also one of his poetry collections, The Pill Versus The Springhill Mine Disaster, and another of his novels, In Watermelon Sugar). I'd never heard of this guy before, but I was intrigued by the cover and the titles.

So I opened it up and the interior of the cover says “Welcome, you are just a few pages away from Trout Fishing In America.” Then I flipped to the first actual page of the novel and see that it begins by describing the cover of the book. “Huh,” I thought to myself, “this is either one of the best books I've never heard of, or it's the most precious and annoying things ever.” I don't have to tell you which it was, but I do have to tell you that I think of Trout Fishing as being like that middle ground I spoke of earlier. It's not exactly a low-brow book—there's a running post-modernist stunt wherein 'trout fishing in America' can be used as a character's name, an activity done in the book, the name of a hotel, etc—yet it's also not completely high-brow, because there isn't really a plot and no greater meaning or themes to take away. To put it another way, if you think about the book afterward, it won't be to ponder the symbolism or figure out who the real villain was.

Trout Fishing In America is just this fun, whimsical, and clever little novel that came along at the right time of my life. I don't tend to re-read books all the time in the way that I tend to re-play the same music all the time, so I hope it says something that I have to make myself read other things because otherwise I'd just keep reading the Brautigan collection I got from work. I find it to be exciting and inspiring literature; it feels like something that wants to be read and enjoyed and isn't some insular work of a depressed or deranged outcast. If Charles Bukowski's Post Office made me want to write a novel, Trout Fishing In America makes me want to write another. Perhaps one that other people might read and enjoy and tell their friends about, the way Trout Fishing is passed around by word of mouth. Perhaps, too, I'll write a novel that doesn't take itself seriously, and is willing to end with the word 'mayonnaise' because the author expresses a desire to do so in the previous chapter.

Expressing a human need, I always wanted to end one of these 30 For 30 pieces with a quote from Trout Fishing In America. Until now, it just never would have made sense or worked effectively.

“Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word Mayonnaise.”

Friday, February 21, 2014

30 For 30: OK Computer by Radiohead

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 10, I talk about the thing that made all of this possible.
On my 30th birthday, after spending part of the night drinking a couple beers with my Dad and watching the last 2/3 of The Two Towers, I decided to listen to OK Computer. This may not seem like a particularly rowdy way to inaugurate my third decade of existence, but then again, you don't really know me, and so you wouldn't know how important this album has been to my life. You also wouldn't know that I never listen to it anymore. Mainly because I don't need to listen to it anymore.

I guess I should explain.

For at least four nights a week for the entirety of my high school career, I used to fall asleep listening to OK Computer. Sure, this may be a gross exaggeration due to time and sentimentality warping my memory, but it's as “true” as anything else I remember from my youth. I can say with absolute certainty that during that time I really did fall asleep listening to some sort of music every night. On nights when I was feeling especially depressed or anxious, I always went with OK Computer. It was like a world I could go inside to escape everything in my life. Every song is like its own little story, its own atmosphere or idea of music, and somehow they all work together. OK Computer is a record I got lost inside of, over and over, in the same way other people remember getting lost inside the world of a book or movie they loved, over and over, when they were a kid. Those late night OK Computer experiences were like how I imagined drugs or love must feel, that total loss of pain, of doubt, and of the ego.

In a very real, non-hyperbolic way, OK Computer is the central point upon which my life pivots. There was the time before I heard it, when I thought music was just kind of OK, but not as good as action movies, the military, and guns. Then there was the time after I heard it—the only way to encapsulate it is to imagine a torrential, endless downpour of art, music, movies, books, love, poetry, drugs, and interesting people.

This, then, is my world now, and OK Computer was the portal I stepped through to get to it. I can't get back out now, and I don't want to. Perhaps this is why I don't listen to the album that much; it feels like going back to the beginning when I'm not even to the halfway point yet. However, something about turning 30 made me want to give the album a fresh listen, and surprise surprise, it's still amazing. But you knew that, right?

At this point, OK Computer has had its 10th anniversary, and has long since entered the canon alongside past classics like Dark Side Of The Moon. As with Pink Floyd, I don't usually bother asking people if they've listened to Radiohead when I talk to them about music. It just seems like a basic assumption you can make about people who like music. Even if they can't stand, say, The Beatles or Radiohead, they've at least listened to them enough to form a coherent opinion. So it often feels a little silly to write about OK Computer because it's the music equivalent of telling someone “you know, I really like The Dark Knight.”

Not that I'm equating the two in any way, mind you. Though comparing the themes of OK Computer and The Dark Knight is the sort of headache inducing wank the 20 year old version of me would've been up for. But I digress.

I wish I could say that I have some fresh perspective or insight on OK Computer at age 30. As it happens, I still have the album all-but-memorized, to the point that I almost don't hear it when I listen to it. It's so much a part of my mind, drilled down deep into my subconscious by years of playing it incessantly, that listening to it is almost irrelevant. The only profound thought I had was, “wow, this is the first time I'm hearing OK Computer in my 30s and it still sounds as amazing as it did the first time heard it in my teens!”

So, yes, I don't need to listen to the record that changed my life anymore. I still do, sometimes, but it sort of feels like re-watching The Dark Knight for the umpteenth time and neglecting all the other great movies that are out there. OK Computer's lasting contribution to my life is as much the music itself as it is the very intimation implied by its existence, that of “hey, there's probably a bunch of other stuff like this in the world, stuff that will also make you feel incredible things. You can stay here, but wouldn't you rather go and discover?”

I suppose, then, the only thing left to say is that OK Computer led me to become who I am at age 30, and to be writing these words. Oh, sure, I was already kind of a weird kid who had an interest in writing before I heard the album. And sure, if it hadn't been OK Computer that did a number on me, turned my world from black-and-white to technicolor like the scene from The Wizard Of Oz, it would've been something else instead. Still, though: all these years later and OK Computer still means something to me. It might not mean everything like it once did, but it does make me want to keep going on. It inspires me to keep writing, to keep exploring what's out there, to experience new things, to think about the world in a different way...Just as it once started me on this path I'm on now, it's still around to serve as a reminder of how far I've come and how there's so much farther I want to go.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

30 For 30: Grouper

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 9, I talk about insomnia and a musician who sounds like a dream.
There are generally a few nights each week where I suffer from insomnia. It's not that I don't sleep at all, it's that I can't turn my mind off and I get restless. That yawny/sleepy feeling never kicks in so I toss and turn for an hour or two before getting up and doing something to kill time until I'm actually able to sleep. Some weeks I have two or three of these kind of nights in a row, depending on what's going on in my life at the time, and it's always at these points that I now reach for Grouper, the music project of Liz Harris.

There's something almost subconscious about her music, as if you're listening to songs pulled into our world from a dream. It's for this reason I think her music means the most to me when I'm in the grip of insomnia. This music has the texture of dreams, which isn't to say that it's all calm and pretty sounding. Particularly on her earlier records, there is a dark and claustrophobic quality to some of it that speaks to people who have fitful wake-up-every-hour-or-so sleep patterns or frequent stress nightmares.

'Hold A Desert, Feel Its Hand' (2005)

Still, it's definitely the more serene and otherworldly aspects of Grouper's music that I love most. Every night during one particularly lengthy bout with insomnia, I used to play A I A: Alien Observer very quietly, over and over, until I fell asleep. You might assume that an album putting me to sleep would be an insult but there's a huge difference between a metaphorical “putting me to sleep because it's so boring” and a literal “putting me to sleep because it calms me down.” In fact, Grouper released a two track album called Violet Replacement with a 51 minute song called 'Sleep' that seems expressly designed for this purpose.

'Alien Observer' (2011)

Beyond the way the music of Grouper makes me feel, though, Liz Harris means something to my life because I'm inspired by the searching quality of her output. From the beginning, she has continually experimented with the way her music sounds and pushed herself to try new things. Just when she seemed to get more streamlined and songwriting focused with the masterful Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, she followed it up with a double album that sounds like a more focus take on the eerie and atmospheric style of the previous album, Cover The Windows And The Walls. I have a split record she did with Inca Ore which features her playing a lot of piano, something she still doesn't do too much, giving it a unique quality. Then there's the interesting collaborations she's done more recently, of which I think the Mirroring project with Tiny Vipers is a near-perfect combination of their two styles. So I guess what I'm getting at is, I'm inspired by the way Liz Harris does whatever she wants to. She is never content to keep making the same album over and over, yet there's a consistency to her style which would be ruined if she made too dramatic of a change. Try to imagine what Grouper would sound like as a full band, with drums and all, and it wouldn't be the same.

As much as I don't like judging people by what kind of music they like, I do think in certain cases you can learn something about their personality using this method. Grouper has always been a good litmus test for me, since I think you have to have a specific mindset and taste to 'get' it. I guess this is true with many cult bands or movies, but in Grouper's case I think there is just such a small percentage of people who will become as obsessed with Liz Harris's music as I am that I feel closer, somehow, to my fellow devotees. To put it another way, in an ideal world I would be married to Liz Harris. But in an acceptable world, I would be married to someone who also can't stop listening to Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill.

'We've All Gone To Sleep' (2008)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

30 For 30: Jurassic Park

I turn 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 8, we consider what makes a truly great popcorn film, and how entertainment can be artful.
Dinosaurs have enjoyed periods of popularity since paleontology began, but at no point were they so ubiquitous as in the late 80s and early 90s. Maybe this is a product of my own myopic view of the world, since I grew up during this time and was obsessed with dinosaurs from a very young age. But I don't think you could argue against the impact Jurassic Park had on a generation of moviegoers. It is as important a cultural touchstone as Star Wars and Jaws were for their time, and likely inspired many of those who grew up to pursue paleontology and other scientific fields. In another lifetime, I wouldn't be writing this; I'd be in Montana or Alberta on my hands and knees, cleaning away dust and dirt from fossils with a toothbrush.

In fact, I took a class in college called Jurassic Physics, and one of the weeks we focused on the scientific inaccuracies in Jurassic Park. It's funny that as a kid I was a little bothered by the movie's depiction of Velociraptors, since the film clearly patterned their creatures more after Deinonychus, but that was only the tip of the problems, as it turned out. Still, considering some of the liberties taken, Jurassic Park's point isn't to be completely accurate. Keep in mind, we can never really know how much it got right. Paleontology is, after all, a science of inductive reasoning because we can't concretely test any of the hypotheses without a time machine. The point, then, of Jurassic Park's science is the same as in any science fiction: that it serves the story in a way that is not only plausible, but also believable. I can't speak to how realistic the technology is in Star Trek but because of the way it's portrayed I never question it. The same goes for the T. Rex in Jurassic Park. The movie works so well as entertainment, science fiction or otherwise, that you don't even question the illogic of the T. Rex somehow sneaking into the building, without notice, during the ending fight with the two Velociraptors.

Ironically, this was a banner for a museum retrospective on the TV show Dinosaurs

Steven Spielberg gets away with this kind of thing a lot in his films but other than Internet nitpickers, who gives a shit? When movies are trying to be entertainment more than art, you need to have Chief Brody blow up the shark at the end of Jaws even if the ending in the original novel is far more plausible. After all, we are talking about an absurdly large shark that is smart/vengeful enough to not only attack their boat when they're drunk and singing, but to, against all instinct, throw itself up onto the deck of a boat that is already sinking. As a movie Jaws isn't going for gritty realism; it's a popcorn flick, not an expensive-five-course-meal-and-bottle-of-wine flick.

So I have to wonder why it is that I think a popcorn flick like Jurassic Park still holds up, even gets better with time, while other popcorn flicks from my youth have atrophied into guilty pleasures. Let's even keep this somewhat relevant by contrasting Jurassic Park with the film Independence Day, both of which Jeff Goldblum appears in. I used to love both movies when I was younger but I think Independence Day is just a dumb, dumb movie when I watch it with an adult's perspective. I'm not even talking about the scientific accuracy or anything like that. I simply mean that I still get lost in Jurassic Park's world and characters but I never believe anything about Independence Day.

To put it simply, I see Ian Malcolm when I watch Jurassic Park and I only see Jeff Goldblum playing himself when I watch Independence Day. It goes beyond writing or acting. It's something intangible, a quality that Spielberg manages to bring to even his most maudlin and poorly executed films, like The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones and The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Even if he seems to be doing a project for the money or to appeal to a wide audience, I feel like Spielberg cares about his movies and wants people to like them. He has a vision he wants to execute and succeeds at doing so. If some of his films are filled with one dimensional characters and don't have any interesting ideas that linger with you once they're over, you feel as though it was his intention to have those things but something got muddled along the way. Meanwhile, Independence Day tries to have characters with some kind of emotional arc and development, but it feels like the usual Hollywood hack crap. It tries to have something to say, but does so in the most clumsy, ham fisted ways—consider the over-the-top speech given by Bill Pullman at the end, or the groaningly obvious scene where Israeli and Iraqi pilots join forces.
This one's for the ladies...

I think the reason Jurassic Park continues to grow on me is that it features so many interesting ideas and messages without having to force feed information or opinions to the audience. You could argue that some of its messages—technology is bad! Man shouldn't try to play God!—are overly obvious, but that's not really the film trying to say that to the audience. It's the characters arguing about these ideas with each other. What the movie does present to the audience is all the good and bad things that can happen and lets the viewer think about them afterward. Sure, genetic engineering dinosaurs is portrayed as a foolhardy use of science, but the movie isn't saying that all genetic engineering is bad. Ian Malcolm makes this point during the dinner argument scene in response to John Hammond suggesting he wouldn't have a problem with using genetic engineering to create a flock of endangered condors. Malcolm responds by arguing that Man playing God to correct the mistakes of Man is one thing; Man playing God to correct the mistakes of God is quite another.

Ultimately, though, you're left to decide for yourself. Even something as simple as the villain of the movie isn't as cut and dried as it seems. I mean, yes, the dinosaurs do kill people, but isn't this due to the hubris of Man to re-create them and try to control them in the first place? Isn't this also due to the greed of Man, or anyone one man, who doomed his employers for money from an even-less-ethical rival company? Meanwhile, Spielberg wisely avoids making the dinosaurs into vengeful killers. What I mean is, the dinosaurs may seem to be the villains of the film when you're a kid, but really, it's the humans who play the good and evil roles. Yes, the T. Rex and Velociraptors come after our heroes, but this isn't portrayed as being their sole intent. At one point our hidden heroes are witness to the T. Rex chasing down and eating other dinosaurs, giving it the believability of a carnivorous animal instead of just a movie monster out to get the main characters. Were Jurassic Park handled by the people behind Independence Day, the T. Rex would have somehow noticed our heroes and came after them instead.

Mostly, though, I think Jurassic Park continues to mean something to me because it demonstrates that, just as you can do artful things in an entertaining way, you can do entertaining things in an artful way. Spielberg manages to give us a sense of awe at the majesty of nature throughout the film, whether it's the first reveal of the dinosaurs—to which even the cynical Ian Malcolm reacts like a stunned child on Christmas morning—or the way the sheer enormity and dominating force of the T. Rex turns cars into something akin to a chew toy for a dog. Perhaps more important is Spielberg's artful way with characters. Consider the way Dr. Grant gradually warms up to the two kids throughout the movie—we are shown that he becomes attached to them, and by implication more comfortable with the idea of having children of his own, without there needing to be a scene where Ellie looks at him and says “so I guess you're ready to have kids now!” Consider, too, the way the movie bucks the Hollywood trend and has kids in it that aren't annoying and worthless; just as the film is empowering to women via Ellie's character, it's empowering to children, too. As much as I love Aliens, it bothers me a little bit that Newt is portrayed as this little girl who survived on her own without weapons but then turns into a kind of damsel-in-distress as soon as adults are on the scene. In Jurassic Park, not only are Lex and Tim able to escape the Velociraptors on their own, but Lex is established as a “hacker” whose computer skills prove just as useful as any of the adult men from the earlier parts of the film.

Too bad he doesn't have a lightbulb in his mouth, that'd make for a great Uncle Fester impression

With movies like Jurassic Park and Back To The Future, you don't need me to tell you how good they are. Everyone has seen them and already knows. The interesting thing to note is that they aren't just dumb popcorn flicks. There's things to consider and talk about afterward, ideas and ethics to debate. This is why modern popcorn films like Transformers and older ones like Independence Day leave such a little impression on you once they're done. They're all surface and flash with no heart or brains; any thinking to be done is done for you or ignored entirely. Jurassic Park may at first glance seem to be in line with these films; it was, after all, renowned for its then-cutting edge special effects. But so was Terminator 2, and neither film neglected their story or characters, whereas with most popcorn films, they would probably have less story and characters, and more action and special effects, if they could get away with it. As George Lucas once said, “a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” As George Lucas often demonstrated with the Star Wars prequels, a boring story with pretty special effects is a shitty thing. Here's hoping the people behind Jurassic World have learned this lesson.