Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Whither The Walkman?

A 13-year-old boy gives up his iPod for a week to review the Sony Walkman for the Beeb, over here. Favorite quote: "It took me three days to figure out there was another side to the tape." Clearly his parents are fonder of techno-flash than either my wife or I am, because my 10-year-old could have helped him out with that.

It only now occurs to me that the iPod is the first portable music player I've ever owned (discounting the Pioneer boom-box that sat in my various bedrooms from 1981-1984; car stereos too, for that matter). I'm not sure why I never purchased a Walkman, or one of its competitors. I was certainly attracted to them at the time. Sound quality was an issue, I think, as well as longevity. Those little tape players had a reputation for dying within a month or two of the warranty's expiry.

It's amusing to think that back when my group of guys first met we were all in the habit of carrying a briefcase of cassettes just about everywhere we went. The last couple of years it's been a matter of who gets to plug his 'pod into the speakers next. Vive la change, I say.

So tell me: what happened to your Walkman?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson & My Roommate

Michael Jackson died today. I think the last time I listened to an entire song by Jackson was the day I said goodbye to my Bible College roommate. It was his tape, his stereo. He hadn't even begun to pack for home, and I was done. I shook his hand. Then we hugged.

“Sorry it was so difficult.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

The first day of Bible College, he handed me the cassette I was going to learn to loathe and said, “If you ever want to see blubber move, just slap this puppy in the deck.”



He was a very, very big boy. Managing his body odor was a constant challenge, which he never mastered in my year with him. He snored terribly. And even his “cool” music, what little there was of it, set my teeth on edge.

The blunders happened early, and they happened often. Just one example: my tape of Moving Pictures by Rush (which I valued as deeply as he did Thriller) had a five second segment in the middle of “Tom Sawyer” where my roommate could be heard talking to someone else, because he had accidentally hit “Record” instead of “Eject.”

He knew I was anything but "thrilled" about any of it. Not a week went by when I didn't lobby to get bunked with someone else. My efforts were futile. I finally managed to book a few minutes with the Dean of Students. When I plaintively explained my situation, he templed his fingers and regarded me for a moment, then said, “Did you ever think this might be the will of God?”

In one sense, it was indeed a fortuitous time. I was too young, too naïve, too pious and too insecure to take matters into my own hands. In another year or two, had someone posed the same theological quandary, I'd have smiled, stood up, and asked for my money back: God doesn't work in such mysterious ways when you start speaking the language of finance. But I was just a pup, desperate to stay in Toronto, and not quite desperate enough to escape our tiny, foul-smelling room.

Thriller was bad, but he also listened to The Haven Of Rest Quartet, who made Jackson sound like Led Zeppelin in comparison. He played flute. He sang tenor. He hung out with the cattiest girls in the school — who were, coincidentally, also the most attractive, but seemed to have nothing but an amused contempt for yours truly. He loved to laugh, and they brought it out in him. Even when he was with them, however, I never heard him say anything snarky in return.

I absorbed all this, yet never, ever figured him for gay until I read his obituary this April.

He insisted there be no funeral: he asked instead for some “celebration” of his life, which, so far as I could see, consisted of singing beautifully, performing in various choirs and orchestras, playing beach volleyball (believe it) and canoeing. And being nice to absolutely everyone.

When did he come out? What was the process that took him from the guy who stenciled Bible verses on enormous sheets of poster-board, to the guy who finally joined the gay men's volleyball team? The on-line eulogies don't say. “He was never mean.” “He sang like an angel.” “He never said a bad word about anybody.” His inner-life remained, like his beloved performer's, incredibly private.

I don't know what he saw in Michael Jackson, or heard in his music. But this is my old roommate's Pride Weekend, and I have resolved not to kvetch when "Billy Jean" is played, yet again. Because nothing got blubber moving like that song.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

David Edelstein

In the early 90s I lived on Brunswick Avenue, a stone's throw away from Toronto's Kensington Market and Spadina Chinatown. In the summer months it was quite common to see several city blocks taped off for the purposes of filming the David Carradine cable TV retread, "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues." There were sooooo many David Carradine stories making the rounds that I was surprised his life-span exceeded that of his (justifiably) short-lived series.

I had also lost touch with just how cool that cat could be. David Edelstein reconnected me. Edelstein doesn't focus on the tawdry — and why should he, since everyone else has that covered? — but he gets the aura right.

Also, having just watched Pixar's Up with my daughters, I couldn't quite put my finger on how this flick could move me so deeply, yet leave me feeling strangely distant when it was all over. I checked in on Edelstein, then cursed myself for doing so. He's got a whole lotta love for the film, but dig this: "Shock us with an inconsolable woe (predator eats fish’s wife and kids; a trash-heap Earth is depopulated save for a robot whose idea of culture is Hello, Dolly!); then gradually introduce sentiment, riotous chases, and a rousing cliff-hanger ... Once Fredricksen’s wife, Ellie, passes away, there are no women characters — but Pixar has always been a boys’ universe." Damn it! David got there first!

Regarding his last observation, I'll simply add a heartfelt "Amen" from the choir loft, and encourage John Lasseter to step forward and take the lead from his hero and mentor, Hayao Miyazaki (wp). The issue isn't just about providing equal time to half the world's population — it's about swimming in the deep end.

Heraclitus, The Movie Goer

How many times have you seen Blade Runner? In the late 80s I would have confidently answered in the double digits. A quarter-century later I'd rather account for the number of times I've stepped in the same river. There are so many versions, and so many different media in which to view these versions, and I'm such a wash at math that I don't think I could construct the necessary algorithm to provide an accurate answer.

Jonathan Rosenbaum tackles the Blade Runner issue, along with several others that hadn't occurred to me, in his quest to help the home-style critics and film historians among us, here.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Grillier Than Thou

It's Father's Day, so let's talk a little about barbecuing.

My wife has been hanging with a video crew from Australia. One of their more popular side projects was a whimsical series on how to barbecue. The producer said, “We just got weary of eating lousy barbecue, so . . . see a need, fill a need.” My wife watched a few of these instructional snippets and admitted they were clever.

“If you want the entire series I can load it onto your computer,” said Producer-Man.

“Is the series strictly about gas barbecues?” asked my wife.

“Yeah. Why? What do you use?”

“We use charcoal.”

Charcoal? Whatever for?”

Said my wife, “Well, it's all about the flavor, isn't it?”

Yes, that is indeed what it's all about. And perhaps I should be reticent about enlarging my carbon footprint and endangering my family's health with carcinogen-infused meats and vegetables. But if it's all about the flavor, it must be said: nothing imparts flavor like charcoal.

I bought this Weber drum 11 years ago. I clean it every spring, and use it once or twice a week in the summer. It couldn't be simpler to use — pile the briquettes on an electric starter, plug in for 10 minutes, wait another 15 or so for the pile to reach a white heat, then spread 'em and start grilling. If I'm in an exotic mood I'll soak some mesquite or hickory chips and toss them on the charcoal, but that's hardly necessary for good barbecue.

On the downside, charcoal requires a little more forethought than a gas range does. If you're a dual-income family on the scramble between soccer and softball practices, you'll probably opt for frozen patties searing over propane flames. But even so, a little planning can go a very long distance, and a charcoal drum is a simple, inexpensive indulgence during a pleasurable weekend. If you doubt me, just ask my daughters who makes the best hamburgers in town. The patties are usually ground pork, with a little salt and pepper. But now you know my secret ingredient: charcoal flame.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sidney & Lou

As Sidney and Co. took turns smooching Stanley (and congrats to the lot of them, they deserved it, especially Fleury for that final, sensational save) I jumped from hockey to Elvis Costello's talk-show, where the intense Irishman was interviewing Lou Reed. This was the first I'd seen Costello's show, and my very first impression was, he runs a much tighter ship than he needs to.

My second impression was related to Lou Reed, who was once a distant something of a role model for me (romantic, prophetic poet, and all that jazz). I'd always had the impression Reed was a bad interview because he was an incredible asshole. Certainly there is no shortage of evidence when it comes to his capacity in this regard. But as I watched Reed react to Costello -- stifling impatience and reluctantly resorting to his very best behavior -- I began to wonder: does this man even have it in him to do this? I don't believe he does. After all the years he's been Lou Reed and abused (fill in the blank) I don't think he has the capacity to answer a straightforward question. His hard living has eliminated the required "processing" buffer.

The man is a casualty, in other words. He can still lean instinctively toward an apt lyric, but when it comes to mano a mano interaction, he's at a significant loss. The mano is nearly gone.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fun! Depressing! Depressing Fun!!

Some quick comments regarding what I've had "On The Platter" this past month, before I switch it up a bit:

Booker T., Potato Hole (A) -- Booker T. is always fun and worth listening to, but with Neil Young and the Drive-By Truckers lending a musical hand, the fun becomes cubed. Small confession: I like the DBTs -- they've got attitude to spare, and an interesting approach to their subject matter -- but I rarely reach for their studio records. The disc that gets the most play in my car is Alabama Ass Whuppin', a (now) hard-to-find live set recorded in some hole-in-the-wall (A). Why? Because they sound like they're having fun, while on their studio discs things just get too damn serious and depressing. I'm fine with depressing, but I'd rather have fun. Potato Hole is incredible fun.

Slaid Cleaves, Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away (A, e) -- Speaking of fun, it would be a mistake to bypass a Slaid Cleaves album just because the title is depressing. Cleaves doesn't shy away from incredibly sad subject matter, but neither does he wallow in it. His subjects might get beaten up by life, but they let shine some genuine character. Cleaves songs can be grimly funny, angry, cussedly stubborn ... they are all, in their sour-breathed way, determinedly life-affirming. This disc, as with Broke Down, is going to be played for a long, long time.

Steve Earle, Townes
(A) -- I acknowledge that Townes Van Zandt was an incredible songwriter and an unforgettable performer. But I like Earle's stuff better. I'm not entirely sure why, except that Earle's craft and sensibility have improved since he cleaned up, while TVZ often slid toward an amber-hued sentimentality. Earle is doing this (frequently with his son, Justin Townes Earle) because he knew and loved the man, and that certainly makes the project a deep pleasure to listen to. But I'm looking forward to his next album of original material.

Sarah Borges & The Broken Singles, The Stars Are Out
(A, e) -- getting back to the fun: I'd like to compare Sarah's style to Joan Jett or Lucinda Williams (when she feels like cutting loose), but Borges and the Broken Singles have their own thing happening. If you're like me, you want to hear what this sounds like (you won't be disappointed).

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

A Year Among The Girls

In 1984, after I'd finished a disastrous year of Bible school, I opted for my first and equally disastrous year of University. Being an empathetic and frequently spineless lad, I figured the job of social worker was right up my alley. I mentioned my ambitions to my father, and he forwarded me to a parishioner who was high up in the mucky-muck of the province's social safety net. This man told me outright, "If you want to be an effective social worker, avoid the University Faculty of Social Work altogether. Take their Home Ec program, instead. Things like money management, nutrition, basic social skills that cultivate self-respect and respect for others, even aesthetics ... these are all qualities that our current system is sorely in need of."

This made sense to me, so I visited the campus and sought out the tiny Faculty of "Human Ecology" (ooo -- PC face-lift. Good sign!). I presented my transcript (fudging on the previous year, writing it off as "a year of travel") and was shoehorned into the program. The class that year was just over 80 people. Only five of us were guys.

A month later, my dad asked me how it was going. I was miserable, and not at all sure I could put in the full year. "Why not?" asked my father.

It was the professors, I said, particularly those in Hum Ec. "They talk down to us. They reduce everything to ridiculously simplistic levels. They treat us like infants. It's nothing like the courses we take in the Basic Arts."

My father was quiet for a bit. Then he said, "Well, I'd say you're lucky to know a little of how women have felt over the last 50 years."

*blink-blink*

Bookslut links to A.C. Grayling's huffy dismissal of Charlotte Greig's novel, A Girl's Guide To Modern European Philosophy. It's Greig's measured response at the conclusion that brings me back to that dismal year I spent "among the girls." I've not yet read A Girl's Guide, but I've put in my order. The very least one can say about Greig's book is that employing Kierkegaard's Fear & Trembling to explore the issues of gender and abortion is remarkably clever -- in fact, novel -- and potentially profound. I'm looking forward to this.

Update: Grayling seems to have taken a deep breath and posted a civil rejoinder. Civility? In the Thunderdome of Book Reviewing? What's this world coming to?

Sunday, June 07, 2009

How (Not) To Break A World Record, And Other (Star Trek Related) Observations

I was sorry to hear that Luminato missed the world record for most guitarists playing the same song. They were short by 180.

The organizers of the event did remarkably well, given their self-imposed forehead-smacking handicaps. They wanted a well-known song, a catchy song that could be strummed by anyone with basic guitar skills. And they wanted the song to be Canadian.

If I look at the contenders, I have trouble recalling the guitar lines. Bachman's stands out, as does Neil Young's, and I can hum the chorus to "Cuts Like A Knife" but for the life of me I can't summon up its guitar intro. As for Feist, well ... I might have transferred her song to my wife's iPod, but that doesn't mean I can hum it for you. Etc. etc.

Let's face it: that room was filled with men my age or older. They all knew Young's song. They could teach their four-year-old grandsons to play it. But Germany had it right: if this is the record you want to break, you have to go with Deep Purple. Children are born humming the riff to "Smoke On The Water".

*****

This weekend marks the third time I have escorted my daughters and a revolving cast of friends to see Star Trek. That's three viewings of the same film in less than one month, when my first choice would be to see some of the other fine offerings available. But as I said to one friend's mother, I can remember how it was when I was 12. "Tell me about it," she said. "I went to see Star Wars 40 times. Every Saturday, me and my friend giving our five bucks to the lady in the window. Oh, and Grease? Lost track."

The girls who took my money at the concession stand seemed to think this was all rather sweet. One said she had a friend who'd seen the movie nine times and counting. "She goes to the drive-in," she added, as if this explained the frequency. (The drive-in? I thought they all shut down!)

On my third go-round I was surprised to register just how many scenes retained their thrill factor. The opening scene in particular builds with impressive ominous drama. We get the usual Paramount screen, followed by "Bad Robot Productions," while the orchestra horns hit a Wagnerian triad with increasing urgency. Then the screen is completely filled with a confusing spectacle. Are we falling? No: we're skating over something incomparably huge. A starship. It's a starship!

On the ride back my 12-year-old said, "That first scene gets my heart racing every time!" It does mine, too. When the writers first talked about wanting to inject some Star Wars spectacle into the franchise, my heart sank. But here, too, they picked up on exactly the right element to pull viewers in. Star Trek's opening scene matches the thrill of the original Star Wars. It has to be seen on the big screen to be experienced; once experienced, it begs to be seen again and again. And it will not translate well to the home theatre.

The third time around there were certainly scenes where, if I had the habit, I would have filed out with the other smoking parents to light up and discuss global politics. But overall the movie works as fabulous space opera and offers the 12-year-old viewer exactly what Star Wars did over 20 years ago: a universe where a confused kid is welcomed and encouraged to discover his -- and her -- unique and exciting destiny.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Obligatory Hockey Post

It's a curious thing: during regular season I'm generally indifferent to, when I'm not annoyed with, Detroit's game. But every time they make it this far -- every time -- I cannot help but watch with admiration and think, "There is nothing alive that deserves to beat this team."

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Wrestler

I watched Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler this weekend, and found it surprisingly moving. Surprising, because I'd already seen Barry Blaustein's equally funny and heart-breaking documentary Beyond The Mat (I) and I knew exactly where this story was going. If there's one overriding theme in Blaustein's look at the everyday lives of 90s-era heels and baby-faces, it's that being in the biz is a nearly impossible habit to break. The entertainer can be a born-again straight-arrow like Terry Funk, or a fucked-up junkie like Jake "The Snake" Roberts (whose daughter seems to have provided some grist for Aronofsky's creative mill), the deeper addiction they all have in common is wrestling.

There are other surprises as well. How did Mickey Rourke's whispery tenor deteriorate into a growl that dropped two octaves? Is that sleep-apnea breathing of his something he affected for the character, or is it a permanent condition? Rourke playing a washed-up wrestler (Randy "The Ram" Robinson) doesn't require any great suspension of disbelief; the thespian feat that cinched his Oscar nomination was looking like he was having a good time behind a deli counter, charming regular shmoes into buying an extra scoop of potato salad.

The Ram's story is played against the quieter drama of Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper who might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but who recognizes that age is bringing her particular career choice to a definitive close. She clearly knows from bitter experience it's best not to give this big lunk an "in", and yet ... he's kind of sweet.

If played with subtlety and conviction, there's no reason why the obvious shouldn't be emotionally compelling. I knew I'd swallowed the hook deeply when I heard Randy and Cassidy ranting about how the 90s, and Curt Cobain, ruined rock 'n' roll, and I ... well, I didn't agree with them. But I thought they had a point. And this was all taking place as "Round & Round" by Ratt was being played — an environment that emphatically did not lend itself to their argument.

A film like this doesn't usually produce sequels, but that's what I'm proposing. I'd line up and pay good money to see Tomei's character attempt the transition from stripper to square. Can she find intimacy after 20 years of pole-dancing? Can she manage life as a coffee-slinger or office temp? How does she navigate her son's transition into puberty? Not too many suits in Hollywood are likely to take a chance on such a movie, but if you can market a film with an aging guy in tights, why not a film with an aging woman in a thong?

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Aught-Nine Summer Soundtrack, Disc 1

It's that time of year again when I subject my godson to a load of hoary old tunes from my youth, along with (I hope) just enough current material to keep my, uh, “street cred” intact. The task is getting increasingly challenging as the lad is on the verge of attaining his driver's license. I asked my friend if this was the year I should just give the boy an iTunes gift certificate and tell him to send me something for a change. “Absolutely not,” was the answer. “Your discs are the only music we can agree on.”

I think it's best I just interpret that statement in the most flattering sense, and soldier on. This year I looked for inspiration to veteran hit-maker (and fellow Canuck) Randy Bachman. His Saturday night radio show Vinyl Tap is a family favorite, discovered while I ferried my older daughter to her ringette games. As I play taxi driver and chaperon, it's not uncommon for the audience in the back seat to stay put once we've reached our destination, just to listen to Bachman conclude his thoughts on why a particular song is so darn good. When I heard that BTO's “Takin' Care of Business” was one of the proposed songs for a potential world record setter (most guitarists playing in one spot) I figured the best tactic for the first disc of this summer's soundtrack was to build up to this song. Here we go:

“Give The People What They Want” The Kinks - In fact the intro is (once again) kicked off with a few select bars from my ancient collection of CCM oddities, interrupted by a stylus rake that finally settles on this discombobulating anthem. I can only assume Ray Davies is being ironic, since he's never shied away from the lowest common denominator when it comes to a song's subject matter. Then again, if he ever worried whether his songs would make the Billboard 100, that's an urge he's long since lost. In either case, it's a pertinent reminder that adolescent kids will often listen to complete crap just because it's what they want (A, e).

“Turn On Your Receiver” Nazareth - The only Nazareth song I've heard in a soundtrack was “Love Hurts,” for a King Of The Hill episode, in which Bobby Hill's gout prevented him from dancing with Connie at the grad hop. I suppose Nazareth were like any other rock band: the first concern was success, and posterity figured, if at all, very distantly. They could lay down a riff with the very best of their contemporaries; it beats me why they aren't more widely hailed (A).

“Talk To Ya Later” The Tubes - Possibly the most cringe-inducing song on the disc: the singer is leaving a woman because she talks too much. Bleah. However, the song embodies the best use of 80s-era synthesizer technology: percussion, followed up with cheesy B-movie atmospherics (A).

“Thinking Of You” Harlequin - The other Winnipeg band to become an international sensation. Almost.

“Say Hello” April Wine - Five years ago I nearly drove into the ditch when I saw a sign outside a strip club advertising “a command performance by April Wine.” Back in the day those guys could fill an arena. Live to play, I guess. Anyhow, it's a shame this tune isn't slightly better known because it, too, has a guitar riff that could break a world record (A).

“99 and 1/2” Mavis Staples - Actually, I'm 99 ½ percent sure I've subjected the boy to this song before. But it fits perfectly here. And I still smile at the way Mavis says, “Now, if your God won't help you, you better try mine.” (A)

“Cruel To Be Kind” Nick Lowe - I truly apologize, Nick: you've written so many other fabulous songs you should really be known for. But this one still tops the charts (A, e).

“Bruises” Chairlift - eMusic's recommendation engine is about as useful as Amazon's (which is to say, “Not very”). But at some point this past year they sent me an e-mail saying, “We can finally offer you a song that Apple is using in its iPod commercials!!!” I've never seen said commercial, but I'm glad I checked out the song. It's incredibly infectious (naturally). No longer at eMusic alas (A).

“Paper Planes” M.I.A. - If I understand this song (and I'm not at all confident I do) it's either about child soldiers, or child gangsters (same diff, you say) in the two-thirds world. In any case, it is THE creepiest song I've heard all year. And yet you dance to it (A, e).

“Major Tom” Shiny Toy Guns - Another song from a commercial, and a fabulous cover from the kids these days (A).

“Baila Morena” Zucchero -
One of my religious studies buddies sent me this link with the comment, “It's like watching Benny Hinn in reverse!” Indeed, and twice as much fun. It's also a tune that cooks. If you want to get my daughters dancing, just play these last four songs (A, e).

“Electric Eye” Judas Priest - Time to switch it up a bit. My older daughter pointed out that the bridge to this song is used in a popular snowboarding video game, so here it is (A).

“Symphony of Destruction” Megadeth - I went with a concert performance in Buenos Aires, because the audience is singing along. Not the words, mind you, but the riff: “Bee-Yaap-Bee, bup-bup-bup Bee-Yaap-Bee.” Gives me the chills, actually (A, e).

“Two Minutes To Midnight” Iron Maiden - Funny (or not) how that minute hand just doesn't want to budge (A).

“Sabotage” Beastie Boys - One of the weaker songs from the Boys, but I included it for two reasons: it's in the weakest scene of the Star Trek movie, and it's the same bloody riff that we heard in 2 Minutes and Eye. Talk about staying power! (A)

“Ride On” AC/DC - Bon Scott used to call AC/DC “an honest rock 'n' roll band.” But this was probably the only song in which he was honest with himself. It's pretty sad to listen to (A).

“No One To Cry To” The Sons Of The Pioneers - TSOTP was known to my grandparents (and some of their kids) for cowboy songs like “Tumblin' Tumbleweeds” and “Cool Water.” This song is a nice fit after the last one, and has that tonal quality I mused about in this post. Surprisingly hard to find, though. I got it off this soundtrack.

“Takin' Care Of Business” Bachman Turner Overdrive - 'Cos if you're alive, that's what ya gotta do. Thanks, Randy!

The track list for Disc 2 is still to be determined. Last year's discs are here and here.

Update: looks like Neil Young's morose emo-anthem "Helpless" was chosen for the Luminato stunt. 2000 guitarists attempting to play that in unison -- now there's a spectacle to get yer blood up!