Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 in Reading Material

As always, the goal was to read at least forty, and as usual it was more like thirty-five.  Oh well.  For three weeks in October I didn't have glasses, and one of the books I read was motherfucking Ulysses, so I think I get a pass on this year.

Drop me a line in the comments and recommend stuff I should check out in 2013. Happy New Year!

Douglas Adams - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adams - The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
J.G. Ballard - The Crystal World
J.G. Ballard - War Fever
J.G. Ballard - Empire of the Sun
Seamus Heany - Beowulf
John Gardner - Grendel
Mark Holden - The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-time
Douglas Adams - Life, the Universe, and Everything
Douglas Adams - So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
Douglas Adams - Mostly Harmless
Gore Vidal - Julian
Clive Barker - In the Flesh
Clive Barker - The Inhuman Condition
Clive Barker - Cabal
Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen - Sense and Sensibility
J.G. Ballard - Crash
J.G. Ballard - The Day of Creation
J.G. Ballard - Concrete Island
Homer - The Illiad
Homer - The Odyssey
Martin Amis - Money
Martin Amis - London Fields
Martin Amis - The Information
Harry Blamires - The New Bloomsday Book
James Joyce - Ulysses
Peter Straub - Ghost Story
Stephen King and Peter Straub - The Talisman
Stephen King and Peter Straub - Black House
J.R.R. Tolkien  - The Hobbit
Ray Bradbury - The Illustrated Man
Ray Bradbury - Something Wicked This Way Comes
Ray Bradbury - The October Country
Ray Bradbury - The Martian Chronicles

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Forever Came Today


It's been two days since the Connecticut shootings, and I still can't look at the news without feeling like the floodgates are about to burst wide open.  26 innocent people.  20 of them children.  That's 20 families who will remember every detail of that unbearably ordinary morning for the rest of their lives.  20 families who probably already had gifts wrapped and stowed away in the attic.  Those gifts will never be opened, and from now on Santa's red coat will be stained a grotesque shade of scarlet.  Lifetimes of hope cut short with a few pulls of a trigger, so many little candles blown out by the draft from a window that never should have been opened.

America is long overdue for serious bipartisan dialogue on guns and mental healthcare.

But the question I wish more people were asking is this: what's wrong with our culture that we create so many people like Adam Lanza, the Aurora shooter, the Virginia Tech shooter, and the Columbine kids?  Easy access to guns doesn't help, but we're not the only First World country where civilians own guns, and Canada and Switzerland don't have this problem.  And yes, we're grossly desensitized to media violence, but kids all over the world are watching the same movies and playing the same damn video games.  So what is it about America that's turned us into a breeding ground for psychos?

In America it's easy for sick people to act out their urges, but why do they have those urges in the first place?  What's wrong with our collective psyche that it nurtures those fantasies and brings them to a boil?

No, I don't pretend to have any answer.  All I suggest is that we seek out the source of the problem instead of just treating the symptoms.

My heart and thoughts are with the victims.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Killing Time in the Territories


I grew up on Stephen King, but until recently I never checked out The Talisman, his 1984 collaboration with Peter Straub.  Last month I read it back-to-back with their 2001 follow-up Black House.  This marked a rare occasion where I enjoyed the sequel more than the original.

One of the things I love about King's fantasy works is that his worlds don't seem like they were created so much as discovered.  As he uncovers places like Delain and Mid-World line by line, they operate so consistently within their own fantastic logic that they feel absolutely real.  In The Eyes of the Dragon and the first four Dark Tower books, we aren't being told a story so much as getting a report from someone who has his eye pressed to the magic keyhole.  Unfortunately, as I read The Talisman, I felt like King and Straub were just making it up as they went along.  The Territories, the parallel universe in which half the book's action takes place, seemed like an anything-goes dreamscape where the authors took license to dump whatever they wanted.

Despite their efforts at providing back-story, the characters weren't sufficiently realized.  I never really liked Wolf.  The way he constantly barked his name (in the vein of Gollum's habbit of making a swallowing gollum noise in his throat) was just obnoxious.  On that note, I couldn't suspend my disbelief long enough to buy his name.  Really, guys?  A wolf named Wolf?  Was his mother just out of ideas at that point?  Also, good guys aside, Morgan Sloat was a sorely underwhelming villain.  Whenever he made an appearance, I imagined him at a support group with Dr. Evil telling him that he's "just not evil enough."  Sorry Morgan, you're the Diet Coke version of Randall Flagg.

My other major beef with the book is its shallow understanding of human behavior.  At one point, the book's 12-year-old protagonist Jack Sawyer is sexually propositioned by an adult male.  He then recalls previous instances of being groped by adults in California, and compares them with his recent encounters with "Eastern gays", the implication being that homosexuality and pedophilia are synonymous, and that gay men routinely hit on underage boys.  I find that incredibly offensive.*  Also of note is the supporting character Richard Sloat, Jack's scientifically-minded best friend.  Throughout the story, foolish, rational Richard denies the existence of the Territories, even after he's been transported into them and personally interacted with their inhabitants.  He walks around uttering there's-no-such-thing-as-magic like a mantra, the big mean scientist who would stand with his arms folded while Tinkerbelle perished.  Guys, scientists aren't like that.  Most people who enter the scientific fields do so out of an inherent sense of curiosity, not because they don't believe in fairies.  If presented with evidence that magic exists, they'd be all over that shit like white on rice, eager to learn everything about magic there was to know.  Richard's character gives the story an anti-intellectual flavor that left a bad taste in my mouth.


However, while the first book didn't do anything for me, I did get a kick out of the sequel.  In Black House, we're treated to a localized murder mystery with a supernatural bend, complete with the sense of place that is the hallmark of the authors' work.  The characters are three-dimensional and attractive (I liked the literary gang of biker-brewers particularly), creating a well-defined community dynamic.  Moreover, the connections to the Dark Tower universe reminded me of the delicious intrigue that made that story arc so much fun.**  All in all, I enjoyed this one, but only enough to make up for dragging myself through the first one.

Bottom Line: Read these books if you must read absolutely everything by these guys.  But if you're a first-timer looking for a place to start with either one, there are plenty of better choices.

*I'd like to make it clear that I'm not accusing King of being a gay-basher.  His anti-bigotry credentials are well-documented, not the least of which being that his daughter Naomi is an outspoken lesbian.  In short, do I think King is homophobic?  No.  Do I think The Talisman is homophobic?  Yes.

**Of course this was written before King essentially told us to go fuck ourselves with the last three books in that series.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Another 12 Tracks for the Yuletide


A few days ago I put together a playlist for the holidays.  As is the case with any mixtape, there were plenty of great songs that unfortunately didn't make the cut.  I would have just made the list longer, but how can you avoid the obvious 12-track template when compiling a Christmas soundtrack?  Anyway, I realized I had enough leftovers for a second list.  Besides, you only get to listen to this shit once a year.

I didn't like The Boss when I was a kid.  This was mainly due to the fact that Springstein was my parents' music, something to be endured on long car rides home from the ski resort, not to be played of my own accord.  I also have a natural aversion to the word "boss" and songwriters who romanticize their high school years.  I'm old enough to admit I was wrong.

The natural follow-up to the Springstein song.  Joan's kick-ass version is the other bookend to the chill rendition by Bowie and Crosby.

Goth rock interpretation of one of the most beautiful melodies in songwriting history, almost as cool as the one by Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

I don't want to live in a world without Muppets.

This is my absolute favorite song from a film full of catchy songs.  It makes me want to march down the street with a pitchfork.
Faith and the Muse are a counter-cultural force to be reckoned with.  They've dabbled in too many genres to list here, but they're best known for their early European revivalist work.  They contributed this cover of an old English drinking song to the Excelsis holiday compilation on Projekt Records.

It's not Christmas without at least one song by Frank.  You've probably heard this one so many times that the lyrics just fade into background noise.  Listen to it again.  It's about wishing it was possible to revisit your past.  If Christmas was a big deal in your family when you were growing up, the holiday season is a direct link to your childhood.  However, as you grow older, you move to a new city, your hometown changes, loved ones pass away, and that White Christmas seems more and more distant.  What's the upside?  It's still there in your dreams.

Yet another thing it's not Christmas without.

Another great song from the Excelsis compilation.  Audra's singer/bassist Bret Helm is also the founder of the cool music blog Life On This Planet, where he loves to put together lists like this one.

What the hell are they saying at the beginning?  Does it even matter?

This song would be perfect, but whenever it plays I can't help but hear Beavis and Butthead singing along with guitar noises. 

Cheech and Chong - Santa Clause and His Old Lady
Ma-ma-mamasita, donde esta Santa Clause?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

12 Songs for Christmas


Now that Thanksgiving's over, it's socially acceptable to break out the Christmas tunes.  I've always had a soft spot for the holidays, but when it comes to Christmas music, you walk a fine line between the fun and the excruciating.  Therefore, when assembling a holiday mix, one must be extremely selective.

I don't care if the only thing Mariah wants for Christmas is me.  I'm spending the holidays with The Kinks.

One of the few things I don't like about the holiday season is that my girlfriend and I always end up on different continents.

No explanation needed.
The sad irony is that the overwhelming stress of the season frequently goads us into taking our frustrations out on the very people who make the whole thing worthwhile.  Hang up the battleaxe, let the chips fall where they may, and just enjoy one another.
The Damned have been kicking ass for over thirty years.  This is the second-greatest punk Christmas tune of all time.

Lycia are a criminally under-appreciated darkambient band from the '90s.  If you're familiar with their back-catalog, you know their version of this song sounds exactly like it should.  Unfortunately I couldn't find a clip of it anywhere, so you'll just have to suck it up and support the artist.
Trippy ethereal version of the favorite carol of every Who down in Whoville.

There's children throwing snowballs, instead of throwing heads
They're busy building toys, absolutely no one's dead!
Faith & Disease are a folky ethereal duet, and this is their take on the snowman's song from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Come on, you know you like it.

This is my favorite Christmas song of all time.  Hope and joy in the face of disillusionment.

I know absolutely nothing about this band, but this ambient rendition of Silent Night is brilliant.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Four More Years



All right, it's been two weeks since I stayed up 'til sunrise and watched the results of the 2012 presidential election roll in.  I'm finally in suitable headspace to sit down and write about it.  Tomorrow's Thanksgiving after all.

Rome is six hours ahead of EST, which meant we couldn't expect to hear America's final decision until about six in the morning.  Heather and I had decided a long time ago that we weren't going to sleep until it was announced.  If we were going to face four to eight years with the free world being lead by a sock puppet for the Tea Party, we wanted to hear the bad news while we were still awake and drunk.  The thought of waking up to a Facebook newsfeed full of defeat and despair was more than we could bear.

I prepared for the night by finding and streaming the uncut version of I Spit On Your Grave, aka Day of the WomanI Spit On Your Grave is a 1978 grindhouse flick that tells the story of a young female writer who's brutally raped by a gang of rednecks.  After she recovers, she proceeds to cut, chop, break, and burn each one of them beyond recognition.  It's been banned in half a dozen countries, and remains tied with Cannibal Holocaust as arguably the most horrifically upsetting movie ever made.  I've put off watching it my entire life,  but I subjected myself to it on election night, the better to understand the literal and figurative rapes dismissed so casually by Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock.  Also, given the fickle nature of the American electorate, I wanted to already be in a state of shock if the Republicans managed to take back the White House.

As our friends and I sat around my laptop watching whatever live streaming we could find, I repeatedly mixed an old cocktail favorite of mine called a Pearl Harbor.  It consists of one part Midori, one part vodka, pineapple juice, and a cherry.  Those ingredients don't come cheaply in Rome, but this was a special occasion.  Besides, it seemed a fitting drink, since if Obama lost we'd be on the verge of a national disaster.  When the victory balloons fell on his campaigners at around 6:30 am, I was on my sixth or seventh.

It isn't easy being an American liberal these days, because you know that the other side is much more organized, and much more active.  More often than not, when you root for a candidate, it's not because of the changes you believe he'll actually make, but because of the changes you don't want his opponent to make.  In that sense, this election is a victory.  Thousands of people who are now insured for the first time in their lives won't have their healthcare snatched away.  No Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.  No state-sponsored bigotry in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington.  No bullshit war with Iran.  No more tax cuts for billionaires.  No new anti-choice Supreme Court justices.  No additional trillions being thrown at an already bloated defense budget.  And let's not forget, every misogynistic old codger who shot his mouth off about lady parts failed miserably.

But I think we also deserve a little self-congratulation.  Despite the fact that the Republicans blocked every motion Obama made to facilitate our economic recovery, doing everything they possibly could to make him look like a loser, the American people still thought he was worth another four years.  Despite the confirmed incidents of voter applications being thrown away, the state laws passed to disenfranchise black voters, and Paul Ryan having his hands in the company that manufactures voting machines in key swing states, Obama still scored a majority of votes in the popular election.  The real victory here, I hope, will be a lesson learned by politicians on both sides.  If the ensuing press coverage is any indication, the Republicans are learning that narrowing their demographic to a fundamentalist, xenophobic, anti-intellectual bunch of rubes will ultimately lead to their party's collapse.  The president, meanwhile, is four years wiser, and has a better idea of how to handle the opposition.  Hopefully he's learned that the bipartisanship he's been striving for since he took office is never going to happen, and that playing the moderate isn't going to win him any new friends.

And hey, legal weed in two states!  Shit, I didn't even ask for that!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Looks like it's Ladies' Choice.


Most political analysts agree that the 2012 presidential election will be determined in large part by the female vote.  Ladies, in case you haven't been following, let's recap:

If you use birth control, you're a slut (Rush).  If you get raped, it's most likely because you're one of those girls who "rape easy" (Rivard).  If you get pregnant as a result, it's because you secretly wanted (Akin), that gift from God (Mourdock and Santorum).  If you're uninsured and need prenatal care, too bad, you should have thought of that before you got pregnant (GOP across the board).  If you have an abortion, you're a murderer (ditto).  Sure, it might not have been your fault, but that's no excuse (Koster).  Conversely, if you decide to have the baby, but need a helping hand, you're a lazy parasite sponging off the other 53% (Romney).  Oh, and should you discover that your life is compromised by the pregnancy, don't worry, that doesn't really happen (Walsh).

Vote Republican!  And remember: in this election, it's all about the economy.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Birther Pains

 

"Thirty bucks at the door apiece is not exactly slumming, Evelyn." Then I ask, suspiciously, "Why wasn't Donald Trump invited to your party?"

"Not Donald Trump again," Evelyn moans. "Oh God, is that why you were acting like such a buffoon? This obsession has got to end!" she practically shouts. "That's why you were acting like such an ass!"

                                                                                                ~Bret Easton Ellis
                                                                                                  American Psycho

Sunday, October 21, 2012

1922 - 2012


I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.
                                                                              ~ George McGovern

The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes and all his imprecise talk about "new politics" and "honesty in government," is one of the few men who've run for President of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we had kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.

McGovern made some stupid mistakes, but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for.

Jesus!  Where will it end?  How low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?
                                                                               ~ Hunter S. Thompson
                                                                                  Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72

The Ex-Pat Crash Course


Lately I've been pitching a lot of travel articles to papers and magazines back in the US.  My hometown newspaper, the Cecil Whig, wrote back and said they'd be more interested in hearing the story of how the hell I got from there to here.

Here's what I sent them.  Enjoy!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Why I'm Voting for Obama...Again


Last week I filled out my absentee ballot, covered it with stamps bearing the likeness of His Holiness John Paul II, and mailed it to the US via the Vatican post office.  This marks the second time I've voted in a presidential election from abroad.  I can honestly say I've never voted Democrat across the board with such a clear conscience.

Two years ago I was so disappointed with Obama that I was ready to give up and vote third party in this election.  It's too soon to know how history will remember his first (and possibly only) term, but if I were writing the books, I'd convey it as the biggest missed opportunity in American history.  The guy surfed into the White House on a tidal wave of support, and while he may have inherited W's mess, he also walked in while the Democrats controlled both branches of Congress.  He had all the gun powder.  People were pissed off at the Republicans, and they were ready for a revolutionary.  We know they were because he campaigned as a revolutionary, and won in the biggest landslide the Democrats had seen in over thirty years.  Unfortunately, while his campaign slogan was Yes We Can, the motto of his administration has been Well, Maybe...If That's OK With Everyone Else.  Instead of jumping at the chance to push through the legislation that his voter-base wanted, he wasted two years reaching out for an impossible bipartisanship, at the expense of alienating the people who put him in office in the first place.  By the end of 2010, I figured that if he's going to cave to conservative pressure every step of the way, I may as well take the opportunity to voice my discontent, and send the message to the Democrats that merely not being a Republican is not enough.

But that was 2010.  After that I spent a year listening to Perry, Bachmann and Santorum sound off on birth control and butt sex.  I also had the privilege of overhearing their audience cheer for executions, boo a gay marine, and shout to let the uninsured die.  And as usual, their ever-vile cheerleaders amplified their greed, bigotry, misogyny, and sheer ignorance in no uncertain terms.  Standing next to that, how can Obama not still look like a beacon of light?  A boyfriend with erectile dysfunction who forgets your birthday is still better than a husband who beats you.

But let's be objective for a second and think about what the guy HAS accomplished.  Under his direction we pulled our troops out of Iraq and put a deadline on Afghanistan.  He repealed DADT, and for the first time in American history, a sitting president voiced support for gay marriage.  The DOW doubled, and unemployment is currently at a four-year low.  GM is on top of the auto industry, and Bin Laden is at the bottom of the sea.  Most significantly, he passed health care reform.  To be sure, the Affordable Care Act is lukewarm and faulty and falls dramatically short of his campaign promise.  Nevertheless it's a big step towards universal coverage, and it's certainly more than the Republicans did in the eight years they were in power.  All this happened despite over four hundred filibusters, and two years with a House full of idiot children, stamping their feet and shouting NO every step of the way.  Just think of what he could do if we gave him a Congress who would actually work with him.

Is the guy's record immaculate?  No.  Are we better off now than we were four years ago?  Absolutely.  For all his faults, Obama really is the best chance we have of achieving progressive change in the near future.  Otherwise it's more tax cuts for billionaires, mandatory vaginal probes for women, and a big fucking anal probe for the working and middle classes.

So yeah, Four More Years.

Monday, September 3, 2012

It All Comes Back To Heathrow


I was reading London Fields by Martin Amis, and came across a passage that brought back memories:

In all I spent six nights sleeping rough at Heathrow.  Not much sleeping.  But plenty of rough.  And I despaired.  The other people were better at it than I was, stronger and quicker in the standby queue, with heftier bribes more heftily offered.  I could see myself becoming, as the weeks unfolded, a kind of joke figure in the Departure Lounge.  Then a tragic figure.  Then a ghoulish one, staggering from news hatch to cafeteria with bits falling off me.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Midnight Meat Train


Twelve days since my last post.  I try to update more frequently than that, but I've been busy prepping for two big upcoming trips.  One begins this Saturday: my girl, our dog, and I are driving to Basilicata (the lower shin of the Italian boot) and hiking from the east coast to the west.  If all goes well, after next week I'll have technically walked across a country.  After that I'm catching a transatlantic to Baltimore so I can be the best man at my best friend's wedding.  Yes, in the words of Benito Mussolini, my dear friend Mike Barron is about to bury the putrid corpse of liberty.  I'm flying in a week before the festivities to take him white-water rafting for his bachelor party.  After that I'll head to my parents' house in Maryland, spend the week catching up with my family, then head back to Baltimore the following Friday for the wedding.

Anyway, I wanted to share this NPR article about 'The Midnight Meat Train', a horrific Clive Barker story from his seminal collection Books of Blood.  It reminded me of the first time I read that one.  I was on the outskirts of Rome, making my evening commute by train.  I read the passage where the narrator realizes that he's alone on a train with the butcher who's been slaughtering people in the subways of New York at night.  At one point I looked up, and realized that not only was it was pitch black outside outside my window, but I was the ONLY PASSENGER in the car.  The word "terrified" does not begin to do it justice.  In fact I sent Clive a Facebook message today thanking him for the most horrific experience of my adult life.

Friday, August 10, 2012

James Joyce: Ulysses


This summer, having found myself with way too much time on my hands, I'm doing something I've been putting off for the last seven years.  I've finally gotten around to reading James Joyce's infamous literary behemoth, Ulysses.

When someone mentions reading Ulysses, it's typically met with a laugh or a groan, because clearly anyone who would willingly dive into that convoluted mess is either insane or a pretentious tool.  Your well-read friends know that it's not only a hallmark of Irish literature, but an amalgam of symbolism that draws on mythology, literature, religion, politics and history in a massive cultural connect-the-dots.  A few of them have tried to read it, but after the first ten pages the incomprehensible stream of consciousness sucked them into a whirlpool.  Since then, they think of it the way most teenagers think of Shakespeare.  But as any Shakespeare fan will tell you, if you approach the text with the right guide, you'll discover some of the best stuff in the English language.

My guide has been The New Bloomsday Book* by Harry Blamires.  If you're the least bit interested in tackling Ulysses, I can't recommend this one enough.  For each chapter, Blamires lays the scene and gives a brief summary of the action.  This alone will make your reading that much more enjoyable, as the events in the book are impossible to decipher due to the erratic narration.  Also, as they appear, he explains the references and allusions to Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare, and Irish politics.  (Because after all, you aren't James Joyce.  You are a dumbass.)

I think one of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to read Ulysses is getting hung up on the symbolism.  I had a college professor who would spend entire classes glossing over certain paragraphs that summarized passages from the Book of Psalms, which (holy shit!) contained a number of words that indicated the verse.  By the end of the course he'd turned me off of Joyce for years.  I was convinced that he epitomized not only everything wrong with academia, but with literary fiction in general.  

Now, I'm not saying that you should discount the symbolism.  After all, it's what makes reading the book such an enriching experience.  All I'm saying is that if you fret over every last punctuation mark, you'll only end up driving yourself crazy.  Instead, follow along with Blamires, and just let the text wash over you.  Some of the nuances will sink in, and some won't.  But when they do, my God are they ever powerful.  In the first chapter, Stephan Dedalus has a conversation with an English visitor called Haines.  At one point, Haines pulls a cigarette from a case encrusted with a shiny green emerald.  In this brief moment, Stephen is reminded that Ireland is kept as a pretty ornament, tucked away in England's pocket.  How fucking slick is that?

Ulysses might be a challenge, but is it worth it?  I'm currently a third of the way through, and so far I'd say yes.  At the very least it'll give you the back story behind the names of your favorite Irish pubs.

*I borrowed a copy from my friend Melissa four years ago, right before I fled the country.  This September I'm flying back for a week so I can go to my best friend's wedding.  She'll most likely be there as well, so it'll be a good time to hand it back over.  I'm not even sure if she still knows I have it.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Letter to the Good People of "Philadelphia"


This is an open letter to the citizens of Pennsylvania who live beyond the limits of Philadelphia.  It has come to my attention that a certain geographical misunderstanding has been floating around for quite some time.  If I may, I would like to clear things up for you in just six words:

YOU DO NOT LIVE IN PHILADELPHIA.

That’s right, contrary to the lines you used to pick up chicks in college, living in a cushy little suburb on the fringes of Philly’s shadow does not make you a resident of that city.  It makes you a resident of a small town in PA.  If you’re unclear as to where exactly you live, there’s a very simple way to find out: check the last piece of mail you received.  If the address label ends with “Philadelphia, PA” then congratulations, you live in Philly.  If, however, it reads “Wayne, PA”, “Westchester, PA”, “Lancaster, PA”, “Wilmington, DE” or “Camden, NJ,” then you do not.  No, you don’t get props for being able to find Pat's and Gino's.  The mere fact that you eat that crap is a good indication that you’re from somewhere else.

You might think I’m being an elitist bitch, but I’m not.  See, the people who actually do live in Philly bust their ass to get by.  They put up with a horrendous crime crate, a dysfunctional transit system, a Draconian parking authority, and a cut-throat job market.  They pay city taxes, high rent rates, ridiculous insurance premiums, and insane parking tickets.  They deal with fines, assholes, pollution, gunfire, vandalism, and harassment, all while forfeiting any right to personal space.  It’s a great place to live, but it comes at a high price.  You claiming to be from Philly is tantamount to me saying that I understand what it means to be a woman because I wore a dress one Halloween.

Granted, I get the appeal of Philly street cred.  There’s something to be said about being a part of the city that nurtured Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross, John Barrymore, David Lynch, and the Dead Milkmen.  But if those bragging rights are so goddamned important, then start walking the walk.  Move to the big bad city, pay city taxes, give up the twenty-foot comfort zone between you and your neighbors, risk your ass going to work every day, and put up with two million tourists on South St. who couldn’t parallel park to save a dying baby.

If city life isn’t for you, well, nothing wrong with that.  Drop in once in a while, see the sights, hit up the shops, and have a few drinks.  Despite her flaws, Philly really is a fine city, rich with history, culture, fine restaurants, bumping nightlife, and limitless good times.  But remember, there are over a million people working their fingers down to the bone to keep that city running.  It’s an insult to them when you pretend to be a grad from the School of Hard Knox when all you’ve done is audit a weekend course.

See you at the Troc!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

This Mortal Coil


These days I'm extremely picky about the goth that I'll listen to.  There'll always be a place in my heart for Bauhaus and (Rozz Williams era) Christian Death, but I certainly don't have the time for cheesy Sisters wannabes.  One of the bands that stands the test of time, who I'll probably love 'til I'm dust and bones, is This Mortal Coil.  Like any goth band worth hearing, This Mortal Coil weren't really goth.  They were a huge staple in dream pop music, the less guitar-heavy sister scene of shoegaze.  Also, they weren't so much a band as a project.

From the early 80's to the mid-90's, 4AD Records was one of the world's most respected indie labels, throwing up excellent bands like the Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Modern English, Bauhaus, and Dead Can Dance.  This Mortal Coil was the long-term project of 4AD's president Ivo Watts-Russell, in which he pulled together some of the label's best talent to record covers of 70's pop tunes.  Since he'd gathered artists as diverse as The Breeders and Dead Can Dance (and because these people are accustomed to doing whatever the fuck they want), most of the tracks sound radically dissimilar.  Also, since the covers are of lesser-known songs by well-known artists (Syd Barrett, Tim Buckley, Talking Heads, Van Morrison, etc.), the albums invoke a sensation sort of like remembering a dream that you'd forgotten about months ago.  Adding to the surrealism, all of the tracks are blended and overlapped like on a Pink Floyd record.  Beautiful.

You may have heard This Mortal Coil before without realizing it.  Trent Reznor sampled them on the 'Pretty Hate Machine' album, though I couldn't tell you what or where.  Their cover of 'Song to the Siren' showed up in David Lynch's Lost Highway, as well as in The Lovely Bones and a dozen other films.  It also played at the beginning of the trailer for the '03 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

So, is this for everyone?  No, not if you don't have time stuff on the softer side.  So who is it for?  I don't know.  People who like ethereal, folk, or experimental music.  Fans of Radiohead or Sigur Ros.  Art rock aficionados.  People who would have liked to have heard Billie Holiday fronting Interpol.  Lactose intolerant Goths who can't swallow cheese.

Here's a shopping list:*


*That's good for a sampling, but these songs are meant to be listened to in album form.

Monday, July 23, 2012

LYCIA


By the late '90s, Projekt Records had usurped 4AD as the most respected independent label in the world.  They'd taken a classy approach to the darkwave scene, releasing work by a diverse and interesting cannon of artists, such as Attrition, black tape for a blue girl, Love Spirals Downwards, Audra, Voltaire, Human Drama and Steve Roach.  The label prided itself on rejecting the corporate dynamics of the music industry, and they released atmospheric, finely-textured records with gorgeous packaging and cover art.  The band from that era that resonated the most deeply with me, who have been enjoying a resurrection on my personal soundtrack this year, is Lycia.


One of the things I love about Lycia is that they were a triumph of minimalism, that they created an epic sound with the most basic of tools.  On the Ionia album (their first release, and my introduction), the band consisted of founder Mike VanPortfleet on guitar, and a drum machine.  That's all.  The beats were simple and mid-tempo at most.  The lyrics were brief, and delivered in a whisper.  And the guitar simply SOARED.  In the way that the arches of Gothic cathedrals are designed to draw your eyes towards heaven, Mike's guitar lines on that album convey an ascension to the starscape of an Arizona desert.


If they get credit for nothing else, these guys deserve a spot in the Pantheon for conveying the sound of things which make no noise.  On Cold, my other favorite record, the theme is indicated in the one-word title.  Winter.  Snow.  Sleet.  Ice.  Frozen lakes and frost on the windows, bare forests and dry winds.  On that album, Lycia effectively captured the essence of a season in a recording lush with frost-bitten guitar-lines and snow-drifting melodies.  It retains the same dark ambient skeletal structure of their previous work, only with a much more full-bodied sound.  Also, by this point Mike's icy vocals were accompanied by the lovely voice of his wife/collaborator Tara Vanflower.  Her contribution drives home the simple truth presented by the album as a whole: winter can be bleak, but it can also be fucking gorgeous.


So who should listen to Lycia?  People who like ambient music on the darker side.  Hermits who dig drone, post-rock, or post-punk.  Goths who'd rather read Cormac McCarthy than H.P. Lovecraft.  Hippies who are into b/w nature photography.  Metalheads who meditate.  Maybe you.  Check 'em out and see for yourself.  And as always, support the artist by buying their music.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Battle Bots


I've gone back and forth on whether or not to talk politics on this blog.  On one hand, waxing political will inevitably alienate readers who might otherwise enjoy my fiction.  On the other, the only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to blog about stupid shit.

But still, this needs to be said:

With Romney, the Republicans have nominated a clueless, out-of-touch android, who only barely represents their values and doesn't stand a chance in the general election.  If (like me) you have a few conservative friends, it is your FUCKING DUTY as a good human being to be there for them during the hard times that lie ahead, because if you're old enough to have voted for Kerry, you know EXACTLY how they feel.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fear and Time Bandits in Brazil


Last Sunday I was invited to a joint birthday party of two friends of mine in Rome's Jewish Ghetto.  Because I was showing up after a day at the beach in Sperlonga, followed by a dinner party at my house, I didn't have time to throw together a costume in sync with the theme of the night.  I was the only one there who wasn't dressed like a character out of The Great Gatsby.

By 2 am, most of the guests had left.  A few of the remaining girls were doing the Charleston in the middle of the living room floor, while the rest of us broke into a fifteen-year-old bottle of Glenfiddich one of them had brought back from Scotland.

Somehow we got on the topic of Terry Gilliam movies, specifically whether or not The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnasus is any good.  I'd seen it recently, and had mixed feelings.  My friend Graham jumped into the conversation saying he loved it because it's the culmination of everything Gilliam's done since Monthy Python.  I asked what he meant by that.

"All Gilliam's movies are about the same thing," he said.

"And that is?"

"What's real and what's not."

I felt like I'd had my mind completely fucking blown for the next five minutes.  I tried to think of any example that disproved what he'd just said, but I couldn't come up with a single one.  Everything from Doctor Parnasus to The Fischer King to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about the debatable place where reality ends and imagination begins.

If any of you can come up with a counter-example, I'd love to hear it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

2012 in Reading Material (halfway point)


I try to read at least forty books a year.  Unfortunately when I alternate between Jim Thompson (who I can usually finish on a train ride) and stuff like Ulysses (which I'm going to finish this year if it kills me), it usually ends up being closer to thirty.

You'll notice I tend to read several books by the same author in a row.  In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell explains that the best way to approach an author is to read everything by him at once.  He claims that's how he handled James Joyce.  Alas, I am a child of the '80s, and my ADHD is accustomed to a commercial break every fifteen minutes.  I figure three at a time is a good compromise.

Here's what I've devoured this year, so far:

Douglas Adams - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adams - The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
J.G. Ballard - The Crystal World
J.G. Ballard - War Fever
J.G. Ballard - Empire of the Sun
Seamus Heany - Beowulf
John Gardner - Grendel
Mark Holden - The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-time
Douglas Adams - Life, the Universe, and Everything
Douglas Adams - So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
Douglas Adams - Mostly Harmless
Gore Vidal - Julian
Clive Barker - In the Flesh
Clive Barker - The Inhuman Condition
Clive Barker - Cabal
Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen - Sense and Sensibility
J.G. Ballard - Crash
J.G. Ballard - The Day of Creation
J.G. Ballard - Concrete Island
Homer - The Illiad
Martin Amis - Money

And, at the moment:

Homer - The Odyssey
Martin Amis - London Fields

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Skull vs Bean

I now find myself faced with the most difficult choice I've had to make in the last twenty-four hours. For the first time in God knows how long, I have enough cash that I can, with a clear conscience, buy something that isn't entirely necessary for my survival. Here, however, is the rub:

Do I want to blow roughly two hours' wages on a bottle of Dan Aykroyd's Crystal Head Vodka...


...or would it be better spent on a 12 oz bag of whole bean Organic House Roast from David Lynch's signature coffee line?  Damn good coffee!


While the altruist in me would love to see the proceeds from my purchase go towards the David Lynch Film Scholarship Fund (and therefore fund the untold Eraserheads of the world), I get a raging hard-on at the thought of owning a touchstone which would allow me to connect with the message of the Crystal Heads' purpose on Earth.

So I'm stumped. Thoughts?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

'Return of the Jedi' directed by David Lynch

Yesterday I told you about the parallel universe in which The Lord of the Rings was adapted by The Beatles and Stanley Kubrick.  Now I'd like to tell you about another of my favorite narrowly-averted Hollywood disasters: Return of the Jedi, directed by David Lynch.

Slowly transforming into an Ewok.
Sometimes I think we’re a little too mean to George Lucas.  Long before he pissed all over the Mona Lisa, Lucas was one of the few players in the field who deserved the title of genius.  He not only reinvented filmmaking, but created a new mythology for the 20th century that is now deeply imbedded in our cultural landscape.  He also managed to make movies that told a deeply human story, yet were filled with lazars and star-destroyers and shit, and still managed to keep them PG enough for a 6-year-old.  But while we’d like to believe that he was fine up until he lost his goddamn mind in the late ‘90s, it turns out that his Bad Ideas were always waiting just around the corner.  In 1983, he approached David Lynch and asked if he’d be interested in directing Return of the Jedi.

Now, David Lynch is an interesting phenomenon.  Love him or hate him, whenever you watch his movies, there’s no doubt that you’re being served a big ole bowl of Lynchies.  Who else can give you alien babies, lounge lizard jazz, backwards-talking midgets, damn good coffee, and ominous cowboys, served up in an inimitable concoction of surrealistic film noir?  It doesn’t even matter if half his material is totally incomprehensible to everyone but him and geniuses.

You aren't David Lynch.  You are a dumbass.
It seems that Lucas was hell-bent on ruining his masterpiece long before he revamped it with CGI or released those ridiculous prequels.  Having Lynch direct Jedi wouldn’t have just ruined the legacy, but taken the story to unexplored realms of weird.  Logic suggests that it would have come out something like his version of Dune.  I however like to imagine it starting as the existing version does, but suddenly collapsing into a nonsensical barrage of celestial images, ala Eraserhead. 


At some point that midget from Twin Peaks shows up (because come on, that midget rocks fucking hard) and declares in his tweaked voice, "I'VE GOT GOOD NEWS FOR YOU!  THE FORCE IS GOING TO COME BACK IN STYLE!"

Cue saxophone solo.

Enter Darth, who slaps the hell out of Luke, and shouts, "DON'T LOOK AT ME!!!  DON'T YOU FUCKING LOOK AT ME!!!"


Luke: “Father, I won't fight you.” 

Darth:  “IT’S DADDY, YOU SHITHEAD!!!  WHERE’S MY BOURBON??”


Monday, June 18, 2012

'The Lord of the Rings' directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring The Beatles

We’ve spent more than enough time arguing over which pieces of celluloid constitute the greatest films ever made.  We’ve also spilt plenty of ink discussing which bombs deserve to be called the worst movies of all time (I still don’t think Plan 9 From Outer Space is nearly as bad as Magnolia.)  However, we rarely acknowledge those glorious pieces of crap that MIGHT HAVE BEEN, had circumstances zigged when they should have zagged, or vice versa.

For instance, a 1960's film version of The Lord of the Rings adapted by and starring The Beatles.  I shit you not.

All you need is love.  And the One Ring.
Long before Peter Jackson made the world notice New Zealand for the first time, even before those Rankin/Bass cartoons that ruined your childhood, there was a lot of interest in adapting LOTR to the big screen.  What a lot of people don’t realize is that Tolkien himself was actually OK with this.  The man struggled to make ends meet for most of his adult life, and his career didn’t explode until long after The Return of the King was published.  In an effort to obtain a little financial security, and consequentially expose the books to a wider audience, he auctioned the adaptation rights to cash-or-kudos offers.  Basically, he’d sell the rights to anyone who either wanted to pay him a lot of money, or at least make something that would be flattering to the books.
  
Now, much to the bafflement of their sensible British author, the Rings books hit it big with the ‘60s counter-culture.  For some reason, the hippies dug the shit out of those stories about magical creatures who hung out in gardens all day smoking something called “pipe-weed.”  Kids started slapping GANDALF FOR PRESIDENT stickers on the back of their VWs, and people showed up at Woodstock in wizard robes.  Old Man Tolkien was not amused.

"I then demanded that they vacate the premises of my lawn, and denied their request to return the hackeysack."
Anyway, it wasn’t long before Hobbit Fever reached the Fab Four.  John Lennon was really keen on purchasing the adaptation rights, and producing a film in which he would play Gollum, Paul would play Frodo, Ringo would play Sam (we’re guessing he would have put on some weight for the role), and George would play Gandalf.  The rest of the guys were skeptical, but as we all know, John never had a bad idea in his life.

They played around with ideas ranging from a live-action production to a Fantasia-like animated feature.  And who did they have in mind for a director?  STANLEY FUCKING KUBRICK.  For some reason, Tolkien didn’t think it was a good idea, and he exercised his veto rights.

And you thought it was fun getting high and watching this: