30 May 2008

Don't Know Much About History

From Jeffery Toobin's New Yorker profile of Republican hitman Roger Stone:
“The reason I’m a Nixonite is because of his indestructibility and resilience,” Stone said. “He never quit."

Everything Else Is A Waste Of Breath

Making His American Television Debut, Please Say Hello to Robyn Hitchcock

Tell Me What You Saw Tell Me What You Saw

I Have Too Been Playing With 52 Cards

28 May 2008

The Best Free Legal Advice You Will Ever Receive

"Keep your ugly fuckin' goldbrickin' ass out of my beach community."

This first appeared on How Stuff Works, under a story explaining the mechanics of a real police interrogation:

Five Techniques of Surviving a Police Interrogation (Without Confessing)

Taken from freeBEAGLES’ recommendations for animal rights activists (and others) on how to make it through a police interrogation without incriminating themselves or their peers:

Remain silent.
Remain silent.
Imagine the words “I invoke my right to remain silent” painted on the wall, and stare at them throughout the interrogation.
Momentarily break your silence to ask for counsel.
Cultivate hatred for your interrogator so you don’t fall into his traps and start talking.

If You're White You're Right

You can tell she's suffering, because that's not a MacBook

The New York Times cracked the case: pretty, young (mostly white) twentysomethings flock to New York City, and make elective sacrifices so they can have decent apartments in marginally desirable zip codes. One can't afford an iPod and makes due with a used discman; another forgoes shopping in favor of eating, socializing, and splitting a $3,450 three-bedroom on the Lower East Side; another is "squeaking by" on $60K in order to afford a $1,650 one-bedroom in the East Village. In other news, 18% of New York families, roughly one in five, live in poverty as defined by the Federal government ($21,200 for a family of four); current food stamp allowances equate to $3 per day; a family of three living in New York City today receives $291 per month in cash assistance, the same amount as in 1990.

Sherron Rolax Is Dead

Left: Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, Right: Sherron Rolax

Sherron Rolax was gunned down in Camden early Saturday morning; he was 28 years old. Mr. Rolax achieved unwitting fame when, one night in 1996, he was used as a political prop by New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. While on a ride-along with state troopers, the governor patted down Mr. Rolax, then 16, who, as it turns out, had done nothing wrong. The incident was forgotten - Mr. Rolax did not even realize it was the governor who accosted him - until when four years later, amid a deteriorating relationship with the State Police (embroiled in their own racial profiling scandal), the above photograph was leaked to the media just ahead of the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, of which Whitman was co-chair. The photograph of the beaming white governor frisking a black youth served to exacerbate tensions between the G.O.P. and the African-American community, and in all probability ended Whitman's chances at higher office; following Bush's election, she was appointed administrator of the EPA, where her crowning achievement was to vouch for the air quality in lower Manhattan immediately following 9/11, thus exposing thousands of rescue workers and New Yorkers to hazardous debris.

Following the photo's publication, Mr. Rolax unsuccessfully attempted to sue the state; a federal court, though allowing that the facts suggested his rights had been violated, determined that too much time had elapsed for his suit to proceed. Rolax subsequently served two separate jail terms on unrelated drug charges. Following the second, he began to pursue his GED, and, according to his family, had begun a new job at a KFC in the neighboring affluent suburb of Cherry Hill. He was a father of five at the time of his death.

After being publicly exposed, Governor Whitman allowed that the frisking had been a mistake, but never apologized to Mr. Rolax for humiliating him. According to the Newark Star-Ledger, she declined, through a spokesperson, to comment yesterday following the revelation of Mr. Rolax's death. This is fitting, because if she didn't give a shit about Sherron Rolax while he was alive, why should she care about him now that he's dead?

25 May 2008

Indiana Jones and the Piece of Shit Cash Grab

He chose...poorly

Well, that sucked. There are myriad problems with the latest installment of Indiana Jones: Harrison Ford is too old, Shia LaBouef too much of a blank, the Soviets too poor a substitute for the Nazis. The largest seems to be that Jones himself, intended as a reconstruction of 1930's and 40's Saturday morning serials, has so transcended his source material that simply up and transporting him to a new era - the 1950s - fresh with its own brand of pop signifiers, simply doesn't work. Sure, the fish out of water feel helps make the central fact of the film - star Harrison Ford's apparent advanced age - sit more gracefully: at home in the 1930s, battling fascists for iconic Judeo-Christian relics, Indiana Jones is a stranger in a strange land navigating the vicissitudes of the Atomic Age. However, the changes divorce the character from his own mythology - rather than the rogue rugged individualist of the original trilogy, now Jones is a Red-baiting government stooge - and place what pseudo-history those films invested in their MacGuffins entirely on the back burner, reducing this artifact-grab to sub-Scooby Doo levels. I would be remiss if I didn't congratulate Mssrs. Spielberg and Lucas (and their billed screenwriter, David Koepp) on the ingenious poison pill that makes it impossible to divulge the most noxious element of the film without spoiling an already overripe plot: let's just say that the Times' Manohla Dargis was spot on when she pointed out the similarities to Stargate.

22 May 2008

The Architect (?)

Is Pat Buchanan the architect of over thirty years' worth of Republican electoral advances? Now you can be the judge. As part of his research on an article assessing the current state of political conservatism, New Yorker contributor George Packer interviewed Buchanan regarding his involvement in the Nixon administration; during the course of their conversation, the conservative iconoclast volunteered what may be the Dead Sea Scrolls of the politics of polarization, a memo he prepared for Nixon in 1971 entitled "Dividing the Democrats." The document outlines all of the fissures and vulnerabilities of the New Deal Coalition, particularly the rift between Northern urban elites and Southern conservatives, typified by Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, now famous for his tutelage of several prominent neoconservatives, including Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. As Buchanan himself admitted, according to Packer, the memo is "a little raw for today": it explicitly embraces race-baiting, urging the President to push for a constitutional amendment to end court-ordered integration of public schools and housing, and arguing that the Republicans should clandestinely encourage a black presidential candidacy ("There is nothing that can so advance the President's chance for re-election..."). Yet even in its supposed rawness and underhandedness, there is little in its contents which would shock the attuned political observer; indeed, the Buchanan Doctrine, if you will, is so ingrained in Republican politics that it has provided a path to victory for not only Nixon, but his G.O.P. successors - Reagan, and Bush pere and fils. Senator Obama - a liberal, African-American, urban Northern Democrat - provides the ideal theoretical target for this poisonous brand of partisanship. The questions thus are: will Senator McCain continue to punch above the belt, and has the American electorate progressed past the point were a simple bag of dirty tricks is enough to do us in?

21 May 2008

"Get three coffins ready."

Click on image to enlarge

Wow. I have to admit, I haven't watched the movie recently: Man With No Name (actually, he's got a name in this one, but print the legend, you know) rides into town, plays rival factions off of each other, pockets cash, stacks bodies. It's an Westernization of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, which in turn riffed on Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest; later iterations include the Coen Brothers' brilliant Miller's Crossing and Walter Hill's less-than-memorable Last Man Standing. Like all of Italian director Sergio Leone's star-making collaborations with Clint Eastwood, it's less revisionist, per se, and more a violent intensification of Western themes and archetypes: righteous certitude has been replaced by a morally-corrosive ambiguity. However, I'm not here to talk about the film but to draw your attention to the above poster, designed by The Heads of State for an upcoming screening of the film as part of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema's Rolling Roadshow tribute to Leone in Barcelona: a gorgeous, brilliant bit of stylish minimalism - mysterious, sleek, seductive. It's of a piece with THOS's '50s and '60s-leaning pop art oeuvre, other representatives of which may be seen here, here, and here (note: I was at this last show, and the poster was way better.)

More Met Thoughts

Even Mr. Met is ashamed to be seen with this team

From listening to Mike and the Mad Dog on the way to drop off dry cleaning:
  1. The Mets may not be the toast of New York, but they are the talk of the town - with the Yankees presently in the toilet, the call-in shows are dominated by Mets talk these days. This will probably ebb as the Yanks work their way back into the division race - they're presently in the mix for the Wild Card (Seattle, Cleveland, and Detroit are not exactly covering themselves in glory while no one's sure if Tampa Bay's for real) and the Red Sox, putative best team in baseball, have not run away with the A.L. East yet. For now, though, the Met fan is exhibiting the proper mixture of paranoia, frustration, and, yes, hope, to keep him on the airwaves for weeks at a time. The Yankee fan is either despairing, or biding his time.
  2. It occurs to me that Willie's race theory (discounted by Mike and Chris) and the Met fan's rejection of Willie because of past Yankee ties (endorsed by same) are both placeholders for the same phenomenon - i.e. Willie's unpopularity tracking with the team's performance on the field. Willie doesn't want to believe that the Met fan doesn't like him because the team is listless, and the fan prefers to couch his distaste in something more fixed than simple wins and losses because it makes him seem more discerning and less fickle. Anyway, it's worth noting that though Randolph featured on those World Series-winning Yankee teams of the late '70s and as Joe Torre's third base coach, he grew up a Met fan in Brownsville and wrapped up his playing career with the team in the early '90s.
  3. The Met fan seems less interested in Willie's race comments than in the fact that he called them out at all. An ongoing theme in 2008 is the relationship of the fans to the team - booing on Opening Day, booing Scott Schoeneweis and Aaron Heilman, booing Santana in his first Shea start (the proportion of booers is still a matter of dispute), booing Carlos Delgado and then ripping him for his refusal to take a curtain call, et cetera, et cetera. Personally, I consider booing one's own team to be counterproductive; it certainly doesn't help the team's morale, does not encourage the players to do better or try harder - instead they end up pressing, and might even hurt the team's ability to land free agents - all things being equal, why would you want to play for fans that don't appreciate you? However, the fan is king: it's his dime (or $100 bucks) that pays those exorbitant salaries, and as a result, he feels that he has a right to expect the team to put the best possible product on the field. No one likes to be booed, sure, but it's extraordinarily counterproductive to get into it with the fans; as a fan who doesn't boo, I don't like being painted with the same brush as those who do, and what's more, I don't want to hear it from somebody who's pocketing $16 million this year and batting .222 with an equally anemic .303 OBP. You know what? You don't like being booed, then earn your fucking money, you ponce.

Winning Isn't Everything, It's the Only Thing

In an interview with Ian O'Connor, a reporter for the Bergen Record, Mets manager Willie Randolph speculated that part of the reason for his unpopularity with the team's fans was that he was African-American: "Is it racial? Huh? It smells a little bit." Randolph then proceeded to cite the experiences of Jets' coach Herm Edwards and former Knicks's president and coach Isiah Thomas as examples of other black New York coaches he perceived to have not gotten a fair shake.

Though I agree with Randolph's macro assertion - African-Americans are given fewer opportunities and less rope than their white counterparts in the coaching and executive ranks in major American sports - his examples are poor. Herm Edwards jumped ship from the Jets after a 4-12 campaign riddled with speculation that he coveted the Chiefs job, held by retiring mentor Dick Vermeil; his bags were packed for Kansas City well before season's end. Herm's main defects, his conservatism (run, run, pass, punt should have been tattooed on Chad Pennington's forearm) and inability manage the clock (the Jets actually hired a clock consultant to stand on the sidelines and advise Herm when to call timeout), were what ultimately alienated Jets fans. But whereas Herm's experience is at least relevant to Randolph's complaint - would a white person in a similar situation be taking as much shit? - Isiah Thomas is out-of-the-ballpark nutso. Thomas, through a series of botched trades and inept signings, managed to tarnish the NBA's marquee franchise while crushing a rabid fanbase over and over again. He even managed to extend the ignominy off the court, serving idiot owner Jim Dolan his just deserts by sexually harassing the team's vice president of marketing; the suit settled after a jury returned an $11 million dollar verdict in the plaintiff's favor at trial. Knicks fans are entitled to hate Isiah Thomas the same way that Detroit Lions fans are entitled to hate Matt Millen or Americans are entitled to hate George W. Bush: these guys fucked something up so profoundly that you would swear they were being paid to do it. In short, this is not the guy Willie wants to be comparing himself to.

The obvious common thread between all three men - Randolph, Edwards, and Thomas - is that they are/were not winning. It's no secret that New York fans are hard on losers; perhaps they're even harder on teams that are supposed to be winners. Right now, Randolph's resume includes a division title in 2006, a bad series loss in the NLCS to an inferior Cardinals team (Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver are not Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, a fact that their subsequent careers have borne out in grotesque detail), an embarrassingly epic collapse - blowing a 7 game division lead with 17 to play - to conclude the 2007 season, and thusfar a 22-21 record in 2008. The Mets presently have a $130 million payroll, acquired ace pitcher Johann Santana this past post-season, and Randolph has guided them to mediocrity.

Speaking as a die-hard Mets fan myself, the perception is a) that Willie has the tools necessary to make the playoffs, b) he refuses to call-out under-performing veterans or shake up the lineup, c) his clubhouse is in disarray, with players either completely tuned out or in open revolt, and d) regardless of what he believes, nothing in his C.V. entitles him to an endless supply of the benefit of the doubt. The fact that he has the time to bitch and moan to beat reporters about how SNY treats him or what the fans think is insulting enough; the fact that he basically implied that Mets fans who dislike him are racist is appalling. Perhaps that's how Willie sees it; I'm not in his shoes. But I do know that the Mets suck right now, and if you're not being paid to win baseball games, what are you being paid to do? As the team goes, so goes the perception of Willie. Win 8 out of 9 or 10 out of 12 and you're on top of the world; drop 3 out of 4 at home to the Nationals and you're in the toilet. Right now, Willie looks like a loser. And with comments like these, he's beginning to sound like one too.

17 May 2008

Evil Empire

The bums lost

My Love Is Rotten to the Core:
  1. The Wedding Present - "Don't Take Me Home Until I'm Drunk"
  2. Van Halen - "Ain't Talkin' 'bout Love"
  3. Lillix - "Sweet Temptation"
  4. Patrick Wolf - "Wind in the Wires"
  5. The Soft Boys - "(I Want to Be An) Anglepoise Lamp"
  6. Soulwax - "NY Excuse"
  7. Elvis Costello & the Imposters - "American Gangster Time"
  8. Justin Timberlake - "Lovestoned/I Think She Knows (Justice Remix)"
  9. T.I. - "No Matter What"
  10. Liars - "Freak Out"
  11. Lou Reed - "Waves of Fear"
  12. Scarlett Johansson - "Falling Down"

16 May 2008

Going to the Court House, and We're Gonna Get...Civil Unionized?

When the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that gay couples had to be offered the legal equivalent of marriage, the majority decided that the Legislature could call it whatever it wished; out of timidity (or, perhaps, bias), lawmakers coined the court-mandated arrangements "civil unions," a distinctly clinical and inherently degrading appellation. Yesterday, the California Supreme Court presented its Legislature a choice as well: they could call state-sanctioned gay unions whatever they wished, as long as the designation applied to all couples, gay or straight. In short they recognized that before the law, separate is never equal. In New Jersey, there is pending legislation, "The Civil Marriage and Religious Protection Act" (Senate bill S-112/Assembly bill A-818), that would rectify our shameful situation by recognizing that marriage is not only a religious and cultural institution, but a legal one as well, conferring certain rights, privileges, and obligations. While the state should not foist its interpretations onto religion, denying same-sex couples access to the legal institution of marriage is officially discriminatory and demeaning; S-112/A-818 neatly splits the difference by rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and rendering unto God what is God's. Now where have I heard that before?

15 May 2008

Crossing the Threshold

While I support gay marriage, and commend the California Supreme Court for recognizing that marriage equality is a fundamental right, I would just caution that what the courts giveth, the courts can taketh away. Hopefully the California Legislature will move quickly to codify the court's ruling and give it the legitimacy that the people's elected representatives are far better positioned than appointed judges to confer.

"Also, I Forsee a Return to $2 Gas, and You Might Even Still Own Your Home"

Dirigibles will fill the skies, and robots will play jazz

Senator John McCain today projected that most American forces would be withdrawn from Iraq by 2013, and that the country by that point would be a functioning democracy suffering only "spasmodic" violence. Coincidentally, this prediction dovetails with the end of a first hypothetical McCain term. Implicit in these sunny remarks - which, according to the senator, do not amount to a timetable for withdrawal but an envisioning of eventual victory - is that a vote for McCain, the war's most optimistic backer, means, at a minimum, four more years of conflict. Incidentally, this would bring the grand total to a decade, or if you really want to consider it in mind-bending terms, a third of my entire life (I'd be 31 in January 2013). It is my belief that you can slot these promises right next to "Saddam Hussein has vast stockpiles of WMD,", "Iraqi oil money will pay for the war," "Mission Accomplished," "we're turning the corner," and "we're turning the corner."

Additionally, McCain presaged international pressure - including that exerted by Russia and China - forcing Iran and North Korea to abandon development of nuclear weapons, a robust American economy (fueled, of course, by corporate tax cuts), and the death or capture of Osama bin Laden. Such achievements would, indeed, warrant him a second term; invoking them now with hopes for a first seems like putting the cart before the horse, or to employ a metaphor now familiar to millions of Americans, borrowing the down-payment on a home you're purchasing with an adjustible-rate mortgage.

On the bright side, further highlighting the historically unique incompetence, corruption, and isolation of the current administration, Senator McCain has promised to hold weekly press conferences and, in a move more familiar to parliamentary democracies, submit to questions from Congress. This last move would be a bold innovation indeed; while executive-legislative overlap has been increasing throughout our history - the president assuming a great role in shaping legislative initiatives, and delivering the State of the Union address in person rather than by letter, as was once the custom - never has the Chief Executive ever deigned to be held directly accountable to the Congress. I suspect that if the Democrats retain, if not expand, their grip on both the House and Senate, this will be the first broken promise of the McCain administration; that's politics. At this point, I'd settle for a president who enforces and obeys the laws that Congress passes, and that he (I'd say she, but Hillary's done, haven't you heard?) or his predecessors have signed. You can say this for McCain: at least he's not a torturer.

13 May 2008

Death Cab Is Nothing to Fear, Robert Rauschenberg

Never let me down again

- On my way to the dentist today (generally good, but evidently I chipped a tooth at some point, thanks for asking) I stopped by my friendly neighborhood independent record store Best Buy and picked up the new Death Cab For Cutie album, Narrow Stairs, which as it turns out, is actually pretty good. D.C.F.C. have become as of late less a reedy weakpop act and more of a destitute man's Wilco or Radiohead, indulging in more adventurous arrangements and generally developing into a muscular rock band, insofar as Ben Gibbard's immutable feyness allows. If the Big Mac and the Angus Third Pounder can coexist on the same menu board (not a given, if you'll recall the Arch Deluxe), then I guess this is what we call the commoditization of innovation. Sole complaint: "I Will Possess Your Heart," the lead single, clocks in at 8+ minutes, with the vocals starting around the 4:30 mark. What I guess is supposed to be a stab at "experimental" is one of the least worthwhile tracks on the record and comes off like a giant middle finger to the label, which, last I checked moved a million units of Plans, a pretty boring fucking record. I know that we all don't want to look like sell-outs here, but let's face it, Death Cab are a pleasant, irrepressibly commercial act, and they aren't broadening anyone's horizons, least of all their own, by saying in eight minutes what could be put across in three. Pen hits, make money, buy yachts; don't squander God's gift to you. P.S. Congratulations to Atlantic for resurrecting its classic old logo (other one wasn't bad either) and reconnecting with its heritage as a premier R&B label.

- Installment no.4 of Spectral Sound's Death Is Nothing to Fear series of EPs (well, no. 5 if you count the marketplace-confusing DINTF sampler) allegedly hits today in 12-inch and digital formats; early morning scans of iTunes and Beatport revealed nothing, and Ghostly's own webstore is only selling the vinyl at this point. Another Spectral release, Osborne's Osborne, is already on my short-list; purists bitch that a good chunk of it has already been released on several EPs, but since I don't put out too much coin for techno, I take the "it's new to me" view. Ever since Matthew Dear blew up medium after last year's Asa Breed, it's no secret that Michigan football is the second-best thing coming out of Ann Arbor these days, and I expect Audion's upcoming "Billy Says Go" EP to seal that sarcophagus.

- Robert Rauschenberg, a guy who made the world's greatest dioramas, is dead at 82.

09 May 2008

Don't Know Much About the French I Took

There were other possibilities, but this is a family blog

- Scarlett Johansson's album of Tom Waits' covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head, is a tale of two artists (well, three, if you count Waits, and for my purposes, I won't drag him into it): Johansson, the voice and prime intellectual mover behind the project, and Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio fame who is essentially playing the Timbaland here to Scar-Jo's Timberlake. Sitek's musical contributions are fairly consistent throughout: Cocteau Twins with a side of Disintegration-era Cure. If he is the Y-axis, Johansson's vocals are like a sine wave, intersecting at strange intervals. On "Town With No Cheer" she seems robotic and disinterested, whereas with "Falling Down" - perhaps the most 4AD-ified track here - she is plaintive and hypnotic; yet I do not know if there is any meaningful mechanical difference in her singing. With a career as varied and hectic as Johansson's, perhaps it should not be surprising the album thus comes off as something of an ancillary patchwork; just as surprising is the rate with which such a hit-or-miss formula succeeds.

- If you require further evidence that they don't make 'em like they used to, check out Otis Redding's 1966 soul masterpiece, Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul. Cut with members of Booker T and the MGs, Memphis Horns, Isaac Hayes, et cetera, et cetera, it's chock full of the gorgeous virtuosity that leads people to use the word "widescreen" to describe music. According to the 'fork, a "definitive 2-disc hyper magical special limited edition" has been recently released, but fuck that mess. The best way to hear any record is the way they heard it when it first traversed the product-to-myth highway; special editions are for super fans. Ample evidence that sometimes the old ways are best.

- Oft-name-checked Wire/P'fork/eMusic contributer-cum-techno producer Philip Sherburne points the way with two excellent Supermayer (i.e. Superpitcher + Michael Mayer) remixes: a jaw-dropping rework of Rufus Wainwright's "Tiergarten" (at their Myspace; as a bonus check out the remix of Hot Chip's "One Pure Thought") and an idiotically disapproved remix of "Heart's a Mess," a single by some Australian band named Goyte, whom I've never heard of, and if they're in the habit of shelving awesome remixes, probably never will again.

- Excellent, playful electronic albums: Osborne's s/t Ghostly debut, and Matmos' Supreme Balloon. Both sound like the music that soundtracks the menu screens of subpar Sonic games for Gamecube, except way better. Er, above par. Takes me back to my more desiccated days. Smells like Papa John's.

The Man With the Red Right Hand

"Stalinist" is the adjective most often employed to describe Rupert Goold's outstanding staging of Macbeth, transfered to Broadway after a smash run at BAM; certainly the sets, projections, and costumes evince that particular mixture of brutalism, militarism, and modernity marking the spot where the 20th century was born in blackest night, slick with blood. But it is Patrick Stewart in the title role who lends this assessment its greatest weight: his ambitious thane-cum-regent seems directly descended from that mercurial tyrant, generating his own catastrophic atmosphere of euphoria, dread, and fatalism - charisma sliding into madness. His Macbeth is not a tragic figure set upon invisible rails of destiny by witchery, but a corrupt opportunist from the start, whose perfunctory doubts about the grisly deed required to assume his predicted perch upon the throne read as little more than self-flattery. The production's signature moment comes when Macbeth communicates to his hatchet men the plan to murder Banquo and his son, Fleance, the precipitous deed that will provoke his eventual downfall: he spends the entire scene calmly and deliberately making a sandwich. The banality of evil, indeed.

05 May 2008

No Age For Old Men

Matt Perpetua, over at Fluxblog, reacting to this:
Some people are very excited about No Age's new album Nouns, and for the most part, they are All The Right People. This complicates things, mainly because I don't think No Age is a fully-formed band at this moment in time, and I worry that they might get screwed over/screwed up by Certain People overrating their juvenilia, whether it's out of genuine enthusiasm, or because it is beneficial to Those People's brand. This rarely works out -- either the artist hedges their bets, and feels no need to progress, or they develop their skill and create better material, and the audience moves on to smothering some other inexperienced band.
I have to admit that I am utterly mystified by the hermetic indie hype-cycle wherein favorable blog mentions + festival appearances/sold-out club shows + selling 75-100K records = incredible, overwhelming pressure. Frankly, the internet "insta-band" effect is a relatively new one anyway: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Black Kids, and Vampire Weekend are the prime examples I can think of - everyone ignored CYHSY's decent-to-good second album, Black Kids haven't had a first album, and Vampire Weekend released theirs a scant three months ago. Only Black Kids' hype-cycle strikes me as particularly obscene, as Pitchfork (usually the main culprit when someone refers to "Certain People"; on No Age they got an assist from Sasha Frere-Jones) elected to award the coveted Best New Music designation to their Myspace page, basically. As for whether or not No Age is "fully-formed," I leave it to you to assign what value you will to what I perceive to be the rockist notion of "paying dues"; I'm more of a "stack paper while you can" kind of guy, especially in this economy. At any rate, it's not like No Age are Nirvana post-10,000,000 selling major-label debut blow up or anything: if all it takes to retard their development and fuck them into a cocked hat is an afternoon slot at the Pitchfork Music Festival, then might I suggest that they hire the little pig that built his house of bricks to produce their next album.

04 May 2008

Superhero, On the Rocks, With a Twist

Iron Man is a profoundly stupid film, proving once and for all that intelligence and the ability to entertain are not mutually inclusive qualities. It has been lost on no critic that the movie functions best as a metaphor for its star's progress from dissolute wunderkind to lost soul and back to redeemed, respectable member of the Hollywood firmament. Accordingly, Robert Downey, Jr. is effortlessly brilliant as prodigy/arms merchant/playboy Tony Stark, making such an improbable character wholly believable and even empathetic; I imagine this how Bruce Wayne might have turned out if no one gunned down his parents. Speaking of which, like Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, Iron Man is leaps and bounds more engrossing when focused on the alter ego and not the stunt double in the plastic unitard, and director Jon Favreau keeps the superhero content to a bare minimum: Iron Man is only on-screen and doing battle for about 15 of the film's 126 minute running time. Unlike Ang Lee's ponderous boring The Hulk, which had a similar hero-to-movie ratio, audiences here will not mind that the CGI-ified antics, which are Iron Man's low point, are squeezed to the margins: the final battle between Stark/Iron Man and his mentor/nemesis Obidiah Stane (played with bald-headed panache by a near-unrecognizable Jeff Bridges) is a complete snooze that leaves one to wonder if Iron Man's true superpower is the uncanny ability to rely on absurd dei ex machinis. Much of the film's first hour-and-change treads far too close to "ripped from the headlines" to be healthy for this air-puft confection - at least we substitute some weird neo-Genghis Khan clique for, you know, actual Islamist terrorists. Gwyneth Paltrow is effervescent as His-Girl-Friday Pepper Potts; Terrence Howard barely registers as I'm-Just-Here-For-the-Pay-Check friend/confidant Col. Jim Rhodes.

The Rest She Just Steals

The most striking moment of Elvis Costello's newest "rock" album - a distinction that must be drawn, considering his Falstaffian musical appetites - is the second track, "American Gangster Time." Normally Mr. Costello makes his mark lyrically, but if anything, Momofuku, is his tamest effort in this regard in recent memory, and "American Gangster Time," is thoroughly unremarkable. Rather, it is an element of his backing group, The Imposters (really, a reconstitution of his more famous collaborators, The Attractions, tastefully renamed to reflect the absence of estranged original bassist Bruce Thomas) that makes the most striking impression: Steve Nieve's organ. A sound lifted directly from ? and the Mysterians (whom Nieve disingenuously denied ever hearing when initially questioned about it in the '70s), its near-sci-fi whine automatically, if somewhat undeservedly, pegged Costello as part of the emerging New Wave, and informed the sound of his best LP, 1978's This Years Model. Cursory listens to When I Was Cruel and The Delivery Man, Costello's previous outings with The Imposters, do not reflect the instrument's prominence; so conditioned by years of neglect, its return on "American Gangster Time" is a conspicuous and welcome moment, for this listener at least. The organ's most salubrious effect is to place in relief the evergreen quality of Costello's voice, which, for not being technically ornate, has endured far better than nearly any of his contemporaries'. It, like the entirety of Momofuku, is a potent reminder that E.C. has never needed to return to form because he has never left it; when he puts his mind to it, he can simply pick up where he has left off.

01 May 2008

It Was a Pleasure to Burn

The way we were

Tom Robbins, in his novel Still Life With Woodpecker, submits one of the more poignant assessments of smoking to be found in literature:
Three of the four elements are shared by all creatures, but fire was a gift to humans alone. Smoking cigarettes is as intimate as we can become with fire without immediate excruciation. Every smoker is an embodiment of Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods and bringing it on back home. We smoke to capture the power of the sun, to pacify Hell, to identify with the primordial spark, to feed on the marrow of the volcano. It's not the tobacco we're after but the fire. When we smoke, we are performing a version of the fire dance, a ritual as ancient as lightning.
At the time I first read this - my senior year of college when I ought to have been working on my then-long overdue thesis - I was myself a committed smoker, already at my apex of roughly a pack a day. It was a habit that I had flirted with at first during my freshman year of college, a flirtation that intensified into a fling during my sophomore year when I began to associate with more and more people for whom smoking was an occupation rather than a hobby; a mere year later I consummated the relationship, taking up the habit full-time as a result of having to play a character who smoked (well, a character whom the director believed should smoke) in a production of David Mamet's The Cryptogram. Well, I would like to believe this last part, as it provides a sort of alibi for my decision - "I sacrificed my health for my art, you see" - but the fact of the matter is that few people play with fire as long as I did without being consumed by it.

I was a committed ideological, pathological smoker for about three solid years. My brand was Camel Lights; Parliaments or Kamel Reds would do in a pinch, American Spirits for a brief change of pace, but I abhorred the cardboard proletarian taste of Marlboro Lights. I smoked them anywhere/time I could: in between classes, during a break in a three-hour seminar, out on the "balcony" of The Arch (Penn theater!), during intermission of plays I was watching, during intermission of plays I was in (there I was, standing outside in the snow in an alley next to the Annenberg Center dressed like a redneck between acts of True West), surreptitiously leaning out the window of my shared dorm room (sorry, Steve), unsurreptitiously in the single apartment I had my senior year. I, like all smokers, structured my life around my habit: I avoided places I wouldn't be able to smoke for long durations, and always tried to ensure that I would be appropriately, and when possible, cheaply supplied. The high point of this determined routine was when I was at a 7-11 on 42nd and Walnut one evening, buying a pack: a woman wielding a butcher's knife chased a man inside, during what seemed to be a domestic dispute; I calmly prompted the cashier, temporarily paralyzed with fear, to hand over my Camel Lights and change before I walked out the door. (For the record, I did not call the police, and to my knowledge, everyone survived.)

At that time, I had nothing but contempt for non-smokers who condescendingly chastised me for what they perceived to be either my stupidity or suicidal impulse. "Lung cancer! Heart disease! Emphysema!" they'd say; "Go fuck yourselves!" I'd reply. Smoking brought out the libertarian in me: why couldn't others just mind their own goddamned business? I contorted logic to defend what few easements remained for us smokers, such as the besieged right to light up in bars and casinos, even though I knew in my heart of hearts that the infliction of second-hand smoke on others was unconscionable. My outward facade of intractable defiance towards the non-smoking world was a manifestation of my well-deserved insecurity; cigarettes made me a hypocrite, but it was a small price to pay for the passion we shared.

I knew I would eventually have to quit, of course. Like the Second Coming, I knew not the day or the hour, but I knew that it was inevitable. Even at 23 years of age, I could feel what cigarettes were doing to me: my breathing was becoming more labored, my nicotine-stained hands would begin to shake, I was coughing up phlegm routinely and getting sick more often, and some mornings I would wake up and it would feel like there was a man sitting on my chest. Occasionally, especially after a period of illness, I would try to give up smoking, but like one of those abandoned dogs you read about that traverse half the country in search of their rightful owners, cigarettes always seemed to find me in the end. Faced with such admirable persistence, I would give in, telling myself that I would cut back or some other such ameliorative; it was all bullshit, of course. Big Tobacco always won in the end.

Until, one day, it didn't. It was August 7, 2005, and I was lying in bed, sweating profusely, my heart racing, considering the larger issue of my own mortality. I don't know why, but I imagined that doctor's visit, The One, the one where he pulls out the results of the biopsy, gesticulates at the otherwise unremarkable white dot on the x-ray, and tells me, "It's malignant." Sure, there will be courses of "treatment" available: chemotherapy, surgery, a transplant, an amputation, a tracheotomy, whatever. But all of it is a mere formality; he and I both know that I'm going to die. And what's more, we both know that I deserve it. I thought about where I might be at that point: in my eighties, with the better part of my life well behind me? In my sixties, with my children mostly grown up and out of college? In my forties, with my children barely in their teens yet? What would I tell them the day I got the news? "It was worth it?" "Sorry I fucked up?" I was afraid of dying an idiot's death.

The next morning I read that Peter Jennings had died of lung cancer. I crushed a half-full pack of Camel Lights and threw them away, started chewing Nicorette, and went cold turkey. It wasn't easy: that first day smoke-free stretched out like an ocean of banality, devoid of the spark that punctuated even the most mundane task, my great reward for simply enduring. The nicotine proved easy to conquer; it was the habit, the routine, the ritual that vexed me. But I beat that, too. It's been two and a half years and counting since I picked up my last cigarette.

Just as there is no such thing as a former alcoholic, no one is ever truly an ex-smoker. The intervening years have done nothing to sever that elemental, ineluctable connection between me and the flame. In my dreams I put the next cigarette to my lips again and again, the guilt of failure drowned out by the sweet rush of endorphins that feels more real than real; in my dreams I cradle the smoke in my lungs and return from a self-imposed exile. My subconscious conspires against me still. I continue to burn.

Stand Up, Margaret

Normally, I would make a pithy observation in this space, but considering the fact that most Americans know fuck-all about what U.K. Conservative Party leader David Cameron looks like, well that's him. I don't know who the puppy is.

"Where once voting Tory would have to have been hushed up by over-zealous PRs, no one cares any more. Talking the right wing talk is part and parcel of the rock n’roll experience - the real rock n’rollers are now the landed gentry, they hunt, shoot, fish and then reform for tax purposes. They own cheese farms and write deli columns for Sunday papers, they trade on their youth and pat their well-fed stomachs, but they know the truth.

"And the truth is that all rock n’roll is Conservative."