Saturday, September 30, 2006

Vive la Différence!

ALLURING EYES. Slender and smart, irreverent, romantic, and really attractive. Passionate Ph.D. who breaks Ph.D. mold. Keen intellect, balanced by gentle, soft, sensual side. Graceful, with delicate features and gamin look -- reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn. Tender, affectionate, socially conscious, with knack for playful adventure and good grasp of life's complexities. Delights in Italy, hiking Yorkshire moors, South African safari, Red Sox, Patriots, frozen yogurt, Picasso, Miró, cooking bouillabaisse. Athletic, yet noncompetitive, addicted to golf, often finds it too disheartening to keep score. Interested in primitive art, psychoanalysis, Latin music, Eugene O'Neill, Op-Ed pages. Seeks kind, educated, attractive, fit man, 55-70, with capacity for love.

-- Personal ad chosen (nearly) at random from the October 16, 2006, New York Review of Books

MODERATELY HAIRY. Mustard-keen and button-cute, rapier wit always at the ready to puncture pretentious poppycock, Eusty-Prize-winning otolaryngologist -- but not arrogant about it -- seeks sensual playmate to explore life's possibilities. And talk about your broken molds! A veritable gazelle on the jai-alai court or the croquet lawn, with beautifully formed, graceful calves, preternaturally lovely, swanlike neck and a tail as prehensile as his mind -- reminiscent of a young Claude Rains, he's been told more than once, but without the disquieting Frenchiness and with a (very small, barely noticeable, really) port-wine stain. Patience of a saint, a very companionable drunk and a great listener when his female companions feel like droning on and on and on and on about "life's complexities." Relishes the queer little back streets of Anacostia, rafting the Pacific, exploring the wine-bars of the Manila godowns, shamanic ayahuasca rituals with the Urarina people of Peru, eating boiled dog with the Orang Asli on the banks of the Rajang River, rooting for dear old Denison. Easy conversationalist in Farsi, !Xhosa, Medieval Danish and Hochdeutsch. Interests include taxidermy, Linear B, Transcendentalism, Sudoku, COBOL, LeRoy Nieman, Richard Speck, collecting car batteries, antisemitism, Def Leppard. Seeks slender, smart, irreverent and attractive woman, 50-65. It would really, really, really help if you look like Audrey Hepburn. Must like anal. Reply to:

-- Personal ad submitted for the October 30, 2006, New York Review of Books

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


All right. So I bit off quite the mouthful a couple days ago, promising to explore and possibly elucidate what made the Beatles' music so exciting, and what set them universes ahead of their contemporaries. Others have spent eons wallowing around in the Beatles' canon microscopically examining each individual twang and paradiddle, and at least three very good books have been written on the topic by classically trained musicians -- my favorite being Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head, an impressively (some would say excessively) ambitious work that both examines the Beatles' output song-by-song and tries to explain their significance in contemporary events.

A single blog post probably isn't going to have quite that kind of range.

I began this little exercise by falling rather hard for a quite charming mid-Sixties song by the Swedish group The Mascots on the Nuggets II collection, "Words Enough to Tell You," (original version this time, not my po-faced GarageBand attempt at it -- pops). My impression was that it was fairly plainly attempting to conjure the BeatleMagic, but falling just short of its goal. The idea struck me that if I could identify how the song failed, I might be able to illustrate what, to my mind, made the Beatles so great.

Commenters on the earlier post had some interesting contributions. Steve and Kevin, in particular, reined me in a bit on the whole idea of Beatle-ishness, reminding me that the Beatle-aciousness of 1967 was a thing on an entirely different plane than that of, say, 1964. (The secret ingredient being, of course, the different kind of dope they were taking. The '64 Fabs were fueled on a speed-and-Scotch diet, not yet having discovered the gentling and horizon-expanding effects of the Kind Bud.)

In contrast to the opinions of most people I've talked to on the subject, I've always argued that the earlier Beatles' innovations, on a purely musical plane, were even more outrageous than their later ones. While no one will dispute that "Sergeant Pepper" had a gigantic effect on the musical forms of the time, ushering in the idea that rock music could be Art, I do argue that the stunningly revolutionary sophistication that the early Beatles brought to the previously simplistic vernacular of rock-and-roll managed to push a stagnant, gray music, stuck in the stultifying Tin Pan Alley conventions of the early Sixties, into a world of blazing, blinding color.

It's this quality of the Beatles that has always kept me coming back to 1964. If you weren't alive then, you can't begin to conceive how utterly, shockingly new their music was. I can imagine thousands of young men sitting around scratchy little record players spinning "I Want to Hold Your Hand," fingering their newly acquired guitars, their bravely lengthening hair beginning to touch their eyebrows, furiously taking notes and thinking to themselves "Hell, this is easy! Just play some R-n-B and wiggle your moptop during the hook!"

But it really wasn't that easy. And what made it hard -- what made the Beatles unique, in other words -- was the richness and sophistication that they infused into a form that everybody else thought was easy.

I've said before that the ultimate challenge to someone trying to arrange for two-guitars-bass-and-drums is to make it interesting. That's a pretty limited palette in anybody's book. Rock-and-roll in its purest, pre-British Invasion American form offers a relatively small number of things that you can do to make it interesting and still stay within the genre. Think of something like "Heartbreak Hotel"; the excitement that song generates is purely from Elvis' shockingly feral performance of it, and not from any musical surprises it affords. A first-year guitar student should be able to figure out the chords in under a minute -- they're exactly the same chords that appear in thousands upon thousands of other songs in hundreds of vernaculars. Even Buddy Holly, another genius, rarely left the strictures of the form.

What the Beatles realized early on -- before they won their recording deal, certainly -- was that you could raid other genres for ideas to make the two-guitars-bass-and-drums thing interesting. I put this discovery squarely into McCartney's lap; he was the Beatle whose appetite for schmaltz led them to explore the notion of copping ideas from other contemporary styles of music -- from Hollywood, from Broadway, from the Roseland -- to drop into their own arrangements. "Besame Mucho." "Till There Was You." "A Taste of Honey." All songs championed by Paul.

I'm not going to contend that this is unique in musical history -- or even among the early Beatles' contemporaries. But what I will credit the Beatles with is the notion that things borrowed from other genres -- unusual chord choices, unusual voicings, unintuitive harmony singing -- could be translated into a simple arrangement for two-guitars-bass-and-drums and made to rock. Really fuckin' hard. The early Beatles took simple music, imbued it with borrowed sophistication, and gave it glorious, revolutionary, world-shaking drive.

Let's get down to cases. Let's look quickly at the chords of the opening lines of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and the same part of "Words Enough to Tell You." (I know, the comparison is deeply unfair, but you'll see where I'm going. The songs are in different keys, but I'll transpose them to the same key for ease of comprehension.)

Note that last chord....

Now here's the corresponding opening lines of "Words Enough to Tell You":

Ah-HA!!!! Do you see it? Do you see it?

Both songs, at extremely important moments in their development, choose a B7 chord -- a chord that isn't in the home key. Its use momentarily throws the identity of each song's key into a state of uncertainty: Whoa! Where'd that chord come from? Where they hell are they going with this?

(You may think that you, the layperson, don't think this. I don't know any music theory! Where the hell does this overheated goober get off telling me what's in my head? But you do. Oh, yes you do. Remember "Going-forth-and-returning"? The introduction of that unexpected chord in both of these songs is exactly analogous to that moment when Our Hero meets a dragon, or falls into a well. This is emotionally affecting in exactly the same way -- it tickles the same nerve-ending -- as the introduction of conflict in narrative, when the path to a satisfactory ending, the Way Home, is suddenly blocked by an unexpected plot-twist. Just because we lack the vocabulary to describe it doesn't mean it's not happening.)

You don't think the Beatles knew what they were doing? Think that B7 was just a lucky guess? In a footnote, Ian MacDonald tells us:
Lennon remembered this as the chord that 'made' the song. When McCartney found it -- to judge from the the movement of the melody line, he was sitting on the left, voicing the chord-sequence in descending inversions -- Lennon shouted 'That's it! Do that again!' (Sheff and Golson, p. 117.)
(And oh, hey -- not to beat a dead horse or anything, but once again we have an example of the skilled songcrafter's trick of making the moment of uncertainty happen exactly on the key word in the lyric.)

That B7 chord is so powerful -- and the Beatles knew it was so powerful, such a godalmighty great hook -- that they wrung absolutely everything they could out of it. Paul's part jumps up a whole octave -- the quintessential wiggle-your-moptop moment. Listen to Ringo's drum fills on each of the five times that chord occurs -- he's just smacking the shit out of them. Other elements of the song -- the killer intro, recapitulated at the end of the two bridges ("I can't hide! I can't hide!"), the vocal octave upward leap on the chord-of-surprise, the alternating unison and harmony singing, George's double-stop country lead fills, the altered texture of the bridges, the syncopated, braking 3/8 ending, and above all, what MacDonald calls the "beatific energy with which the group belted it out" -- combine to create what I will insist to the end of my days is the most exciting two-and-a-half minutes in the history of rock and roll.

So wouldn't you steal it?

The Mascots' song, as we've said, uses this same trick of introducing a major chord based on the mediant of the home key, with a reasonably successful result. It introduces a similar sudden sense of tonal uncertainty, which was its desired effect. But what's lacking, I think, is the sense of brashness, of confidence that the breaking of a "rule" is done for the sheer joyful hell of it. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" uses the emotional uncertainty implied by the chord as a trigger for joy and excitement; "Words Enough to Tell You" uses it as a mere device to get from the verse to the bridge. The Mascots employ the "wrong" chord; the Beatles absolutely rub your face in it.

I'll freely admit that the comparison of the two songs is unfair. "Words Enough to Tell You" isn't meant to be "I Want to Hold Your Hand"; it's a rather twee little midtempo harmony-soaked love song, and not the product of young geniuses commanded to produce their first hit for the American market, as the Beatles were tasked with. And there are, no doubt, thousands of other early- and mid-Sixties songs that employ those same chords -- so much so that it has become a characteristic progression, a cliche you might trot out if you wanted to write a parody, or a commercial work-song, that evoked that time.

This was the Beatles' greatness: Their accidental discoveries, their "mistakes," their "That's it! Do that again!"s -- became clichés.

Stuff I Left Out But Didn't Want To
  • Allan Ginsberg, hearing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" for the first time, leaped out of his chair and danced. He had never danced in public before.
  • Bob Dylan was absolutely floored by the song. He was later quoted. "They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous [major chord based on the mediant of the home key, you mean, Bob?], just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid."
  • The Fabs' German-language version of the song, "Komm, Gib Mir Diene Hand," recorded in Paris in January of 1964, rocked way fuckin' harder than the original.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Getting Inside the Skin

Dave Gregory, the preternaturally nimble guitarist formerly with XTC, has a pastime of which I'm quite jealous. In his home studio he crafts these stunningly perfect reproductions of his favorite hits from the Sixties.

Now, I don't mean that he does covers of these songs for fun -- I mean, he does absolutely perfect fakes, every note reproduced with painstaking detail, of everything from "Strawberry Fields Forever" to "Classical Gas" to "Third Stone from the Sun." He did a limited-edition collection of these lifelike forgeries called "Remoulds," a collector's item that brings rich rewards in the bootleg-trading world. You can hear his "Strawberry Fields" on Andy Partridge's Fuzzy Warbles Volume 3 -- I've just listened to it now, and it's an astonishing piece of work.

I haven't spoken to him about it, but I can't help but imagine that part of his motivation is to get inside the skin of the original song -- to recreate the experience of creation, if you like. If you get to know a recording down to the submolecular level, down to amp settings, guitars used, even microphone preamps and the specific kind of reverb available in the original recording studio, you might gain some kind of insight into how and why the artists and producers arrived at the musical decisions they did.

Since I was a wee lad, I've been occupied with the question, Why do I love Beatle records so much? What exactly is it about them that makes me feel that I'm listening to the best music ever made? Is it that they have an emotional hold on me, an unshakable connection to the gut-wrenching nostalgia I feel for my childhood? I'm sure that some of that must be at work, but it's also objectively true that the Beatles in their prime wrote and performed music that is simply touched with that quality we call genius. A man capable of falling out of bed having dreamed "Yesterday," and who, sure he's simply remembering a tune from somewhere, has to ask everybody he knows if they'd ever heard the melody before lest he be accused of plagiarism, surely has something going on in his creative soul that very few of us are privileged to understand.

One way to approach the question, I reasoned, might be to try to get inside the skin of contemporary Beatle imitators, the countless thousands of little four-piece combos that grew moptops and little uniforms in 1964 to try to conquer the world -- or at least that tiny part of it that the Beatles didn't yet own. They would have listened carefully for the Secret Formula they thought must exist, that skeleton key to the hearts of teenaged girls that guaranteed a theaterful of dampened seats and checkwriting impresarios.

On one of my favorite records nowadays, Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond, I found a track by The Mascots, a Swedish band that formed in October 1963 when they saw the Beatles in concert. (You can hear what inspired them -- go get your copy of Anthology, Vol. 1, and catch the blazing October 24 '63 live recording from Stockholm. Now try to tell me that the Savage Young Beatles weren't a fierce, fierce, fierce little rock band!) Inspired by this experience, like so many of their contemporaries around the world the Mascots bought some Rickenbacker 12-strings and grew some hair and cut some records -- one of which, "Words Enough to Tell You," wound up in this mindbogglingly great collection of psychedelia.

When I heard the song the very first thought was that, though a valiant attempt, it fell just short of actually being a Beatles song -- an astute application of that Secret Formula, but just not quite astute enough -- and thus I thought it might be a perfect candidate for a Gregorian "Remoulds" kind of treatment. I'd get inside the skin, try to make a forgery of the song like Dave, try to see what makes it Beatlesque-but-not-perfectly-Beatlesque, and perhaps learn something.

Here's the result of my experiment. (Pops.)

I'll leave you with this just now. Tomorrow, when I'm not quite so tired, I'll try to tap out a
little essay about this sweet, romantic little pop tune, and get at the nub of the question, "What does 'Beatlesque' actually mean?"

Thursday, September 21, 2006

All Hail the Service Economy!

In one of a very few idle moments in today's workday, I was wandering down the hall, whistling "Salty Dog" and wishing I could play the banjo like a man named Scruggs. Absently jingling the change in my pocket, I paused for a second to peruse a new sign I hadn't noticed before:

Huh! I thought. Some sort of corporate campaign to lighten the fare for us worker bees. Admirable, this: We could all do with a spot of eating lower on the food chain, particularly that fella who just walked by, whom I've always privately thought of as "Mr. Creosote." (A dead ringer.)

As my eye wandered down the poster, I caught sight of a detail -- a selling point, I think you'd call it -- that instantly made me grateful I live in the Twenty-first Century, when Service is a byword and no turn too good for Those Who Serve:

Well, all right then! Now that is what I call some solicitude for my comfort! Just now I was stifling under the ennui of modern life, wondering what new thing might arise, and along comes an enterprising johnny with an offer like this! And while I wait, for all love! That's convenience! I've been pondering how this work could be performed while I wasn't waiting -- the concept of a Drop-Off Service being difficult to encompass -- but I'm sure the Invisible Hand has guided this entrepreneurial paladin to solve even this imponderable.

I imagine they're lined up around the block in the CC2 Atrium, breathlessly holding up fistfuls of money and clamoring to part with it, so I think I'll let the excitement simmer down before availing myself of this tempting offer. But you can bet your bippie I'll slope along presently.

Maybe I'll just watch the first few times. A fella can be shy.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Memory Hole

This afternoon, citing aftershocks from gastric disasters that laid me low Thursday and Friday last week (we reviewed our menu from last week for spinach and didn't find any; just plain Crud, not Elvis Coli, put me out of commission), I skived off work early.

My true motive for playing hooky was the garden. I tried to work on it this weekend, on my own time like a patriotic American, but was too weak and washed out to get much done. I'm putting some of the beds to sleep for the winter, employing the Newspaper Method recommended by some of my helpful commenters during the Great Hip Surgery Disaster of June, when I couldn't get outside, let alone administer the veggie beds. The poor garden's been a mess this year owing to its daddy's medical tsuris, and I just want to knock it on the head for the winter and live to fight another day.

This Newspaper Method of controlling weeds is great -- the hydrangea and clematis beds by the porch, which I was able to protect in this way, are marvelously weed-free. I'm still learning how to apply it; some nasties are poking up in the blueberry patch because I didn't lay in the newspaper with enough overlap between sheets. But I'm a convert. Thanks, all you nice, knowledgeable people!

The Newspaper Method has another, accidental consequence. The Washington Post is our fishwrap of choice, and I'd saved a goodish stack of it for the garden. If you take both the weekly and Sunday editions, as we do, it doesn't take long to accumulate a garden's worth. I had about a two-week pile stacked up, and as I went through it, from newest to oldest, I couldn't help noticing that as I laid the A Sections out in the vegetable beds, I was getting a variety of Instant History Lesson -- a review of everything that's happened in the last couple of weeks, in reverse chronological order.

The News Cycle forces up to live from day-to-day. We open our papers, tut-tut (or ululate with horror) over the Latest Outrage, and then get on with the demands of existence, putting the Latest O. behind us just to cope with the other stuff life presses on us. At least in my case, this is a sovereign defense mechanism. Sure, I get depressed and angry over these parlous times, but at least I get depressed and angry over just one thing at a time, and I manage to forget -- or repress, might be a more accurate word -- things that I got d. and a. over last week, or last month, or last year.

Perhaps this explains the benighted Bush-babies, who still defend the indefensible: They don't use the Newspaper Method in their gardens.

Here are the headlines I buried under thick bark-mulch, starting from today's Post and working backward. Depressed and angry? Yeah, but I'm also muscle-sore and tired.

You could call that another defense mechanism.

Anti-Muslim Harassment Complaints Jump 30 Percent

Bush Pushes Spread of Democracy Worldwide

Pope 'Sorry' About Reaction to Islam Remark

Ties to GOP Trumped Know-How Among Staff Sent to Rebuild Iraq: Early U.S. Missteps in the Green Zone

Bush says hunt for bin Laden has not slackened

Senators Defy Bush On Terror Measure

CIA Learned in '02 That Bin Laden Had No Iraq Ties, Report Says

Bush in bid to twist Republican arms on security

America Marks a Grim Anniversary: President Visits Three Sites Where Nearly 3,000 Died

War's Critics Abetting Terrorists, Cheney Says

Iraq's Alleged Al-Qaeda Ties Were Disputed Before War: Links Were Cited to Justify U.S. Invasion, Report Says

Bush Says Detainees Will Be Tried: He Confirms Existence of CIA Prisons

Bin Laden Trail 'Stone Cold'

Two weeks' worth of Life Under Bush. Two weeks down the Memory Hole. Two weeks now mulching my asparagus.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Here's an Idea...

If you don't want people to think you're batshit insane...

JesusCamp Poster

...Stop acting batshit insane.

Just a thought.

Friday, September 15, 2006

We Have Found Two Problems

I'll be the first to admit these Apple ads are a trifle on the smug side, if pretty funny.

However, this one, which touts the Macintosh's immediate usability right out of the box, is as true as true gets. I've had the pleasure of taking three brand-new computers out of their packing cases in the last four months: This PowerBook that I'm typing on now (bought for me by my employers; I can't afford that kind of luxury), a Mac Mini for Freddie's birthday present, and an Acer Aspire laptop that I acquired for the local Historical Society, on whose board of directors I sit.

Both Macs were an absolute pleasure to unpack and start for the first time. Apple is so concerned with providing a sleek and seamless user experience that even the packaging the computers came in was very carefully designed. After plugging it in and turning it on, you're presented with a very brief (I think it was five steps) wizard that asks you what you'd like your computer to call you ("Percy Whips," in my case), how you're going to connect to the Internet, whether you'd like to register with Apple, and a few others. Once you're done with this, you're on the Desktop, ready to go. That. Is. It. Firewall on by default, Net connection working, a representative set of iLife apps ready to be launched from the Dock. Go. Have fun.

I really and truly didn't know how good I had it until I unpacked the Acer laptop last night. OK, I won't hold the packaging against them; pedestrian, like opening a box of cereal, but not objectionable. It wasn't until Windows XP reared its ass-ugly face that I started to get that oh-shit-here-we-go feeling. First, you did get something similar to that five-step interview wizard -- but it was conducted in a nasty little underdesigned window, not the welcoming immersive experience that Mac OS X gives you, and while the interview was going on, thousands of other little windows were popping up and disappearing in the background with baffling messages in DOS-ese. Why the hell can't these windows be suppressed if they're giving me information I can neither understand nor act on?

Then I had to reboot. Twice.

When the hullaballoo had died down, I was presented with an incredibly hostile-looking screen that told me I was in grave danger because I had no anti-virus software running. Wow. The first time I boot this thing, and the first thing I'm presented with is a shrieking, blinking-red reminder of the shoddiness and vulnerability of the OS I'm running. (The first thing I saw on my Mac was GarageBand.) I've heard horror stories of Windows machines being booted without virus protection and becoming so polluted with crap that they're unusable within four minutes. So now the first thought I have is that this thing is searching for my house's wireless network (one of the thousand superfluous messages I saw on boot) and it's completely unprotected! Yikes! Better get that digital condom on, toot-sweet!

Whew! There's an icon for Norton Antivirus there on the desktop! Hit it, quick!

"Please insert Norton Antivirus Install Disk."

I mean, WHAT??!?!!?!?! You give me a free copy of Norton Antivirus, and you can't be bothered to install it on my hard drive before you ship it? And while I fumble with the disks that came with the laptop, grubby little hackers in Russia are installing god-knows-what on this computer, which only seconds ago you told me was desperately vulnerable?

Now there's a well-thought-out experience!

Well. So. I got the disk inserted, Norton's installing itself, and then a weird little window pops up in the lower right of the screen. It's not branded, so I can't tell who's trying to talk to me. It says, "We have found two problems. Would you like us to fix them? [Yes] [No]."

I'm beginning to get a throbbing in my temples and a strong desire to go get the vodka bottle. The large Norton-branded window in the center of the screen continues to tell me how many thousands of virus definitions it's loaded and how many thousands are left to go before I'm safe, but as to the nature of these "problems" and exactly what "fixing" them entails it is silent as the grave. I click "Yes" with some reluctance -- I wish they'd provide a "Uh, yyyyees..." button -- and the little window goes away. I'll never know just what the fuck those "problems" were: Massive kernel panic? A corrupted .dll file? Mayonnaise spilled on the disk drive? Got me, Chuck-o. I'm just a dumb Mac user.

So the machine had finally settled down, I was now safe from viruses, my firewall was running. So I decided to check out some of the fab features the Historical Society had paid for. A sort of crab-shaped icon on the desktop advertised itself as "AvRack." I clicked it. And absolutely fell off my couch, roaring with laughter.


No, I mean seriously. What the fuck is this thing? I've had to reduce it in size about 20% to make it fit in this column, but the labels and icons are still readable. To judge from the presence of the "Recorder" and "Equalizer" labels on the wings (ears? antennae?) of the thing, it's a media-recording and -playback interface with playlisting capability, but sweet Jesus on a Segway did you ever see anything so unrelievedly, mortifyingly, hilariously ugly? I'm a goddamned grownup, for Christ's sake -- and, presumably, so are the majority of people who can afford laptops -- is the expectation that I am to be somehow impressed by the planet Saturn on a dongle hanging off the default skin of my media player?

OK, OK. That's a cheap third-party dingus placed on the desktop by Acer to fulfill some kind of contractual obligation, and not part of Windows XP. But Boy Howdy is it symptomatic of the Windows world, where cheap, gimcrack -- and above all, butt-ugly -- software abounds. Yeah, cheaper, blah blah. Yeah, more compatible, yadda yadda. Yeah, more games, woof woof (some of us don't give a rat's ass about games). Most of these objections are, if not outright myths, then easily refuted. The truth is that Corporate America forces its slaves to stare, day in and day out, at deeply repellent, hideously badly designed, user-hostile garbage. And because the slaves can't fight back and demand better, because the goddamned IT Department, peopled with Morlocks with Microsoft Certifications in all kinds of drudgery, has a vested interest in keeping the status quo ante.

I'm a Mac. I'm not a PC.

(There, that ought to generate some Comments. Heh, heh.)
(PS: I use an XP machine extensively, although not exclusively, at work. I'm not iggerant.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

In Which I Fall Out of Love with the Washington Redskins

I arrived home later than usual last night. Even before saying hello to the family, I ducked into the den to set the TiVo to record the Washington-Minnesota game, which was just starting. I like watching the football with the TiVo; zapping past the commercials is particularly enjoyable, and the halftime inanities whiz by in a lovely blur.

After the house had settled into its evening calm, I snuggled into the couch and waved the remote at the TV. Some five minutes into the proceedings, Minnesota's Brad Johnson completed a long pass to the Washington five-yard-line, and (I think it was) Joe Theismann exclaimed, "Well, it's a good thing the strong safety was there, because otherwise that's a touchdown!

Oh really, I thought. So according to your brilliant, highly paid expert insight, Mr. Fucking Genius Color Guy, absent the only nearby defending player, the man who caught the ball would have actually been able to run unimpeded into the opposing goal? Gosh, I'm sure glad you're here to open my eyes, because I would otherwise have mistakenly believed that the man intended to throw the football into the stands, pull down his pants and fart into a bottle.

The camera panned around FedEx Field, picking out particularly moronic fans with painted faces, wearing ultra-stupid studded rubber chainmail and waving maces as if they believed themselves in a Rob Zombie video, shrieking and leering for the cameras. The Redskinettes pranced lunatically, with idiot grins pasted to their makeup-caked faces, their Barbie bellies, flatter than steel roadplates, flashing in the lights -- you know: eye candy. ABC unveiled its new method of introducing the starting players, which consisted of one of the Neanderthals mumbling the names of the other knuckle-draggers, with thuddingly unfunny humorous asides. This lasted slightly longer than the last Ice Age. Sober-faced and howlingly insincere references were made to the anniversary of September 11. Jamie Fox came into the announcers' booth and just went on and on and on and on and on with self-regarding, Hollywood-Asshole blather, while seeming irritated that play did not actually stop on the field so all in the stadium could bask in the glow of his gigantic, luminescent ego.

And I asked myself the question:

What, exactly, are you enjoying about this?

The cameras then found the owner's booth, and there, sitting with that revolting little gnome Daniel Snyder, was Tom Cruise and his Zombie Stepford Honey, and at that point I suddenly found myself falling, falling, falling out of love with the Washington Redskins.

I've been a follower of the team since 1966, the Lombardi Years, and stuck with them through good times and bad, through George Allen and Jack Pardee and Joe Gibbs I and Ritchie Petitbon, through Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer, through Edward Bennett Williams and The Squire, through Norv Miserable Turner and Jay Schroeder, Doug Williams, Mark Rypien, Stan Humphries, Rich Gannon, Cary Conklin, Heath Shuler, John Friesz, Gus Frerotte, Jeff Hostetler, Trent Green, Brad Johnson, Rodney Peete, Jeff George, Tony Banks, Kent Graham, Shane Matthews, Patrick Ramsey, Danny Wuerffel, Tim Hasselbeck and Rob Johnson.

And losing to a 2-14 dog-assed Dallas team about 40 times in a row.

And that horrible, awful, atavistic fucking racist fossil of a team name.

And Dan Snyder -- that Tom-Cruise-fellating, imperious Potomac-tree-clearing, filthy-money-grubbing, parking-gouging, traffic-snarling little sack of Napoleonic shit -- finally killed my love for the team.

So long, Skins. It was a good ride. I'll always remember Doug Williams. I'll always hate the dog-assed Cowboys, even if nobody else remembers a time when no one -- that's no one -- wore Dallas apparel in Washington and lived to tell about it.

So long.

Monday, September 11, 2006

We Have Not Gone Forth. We Will Never Return.

"Mason and Dixon's West Line," Aunt Euphrenia setting her Oboe carefully upon the arm of her Chair, "in fact, shares this Quality of Departure and Return, wherein year upon Year, the Ritornelli are not merely the same notes again and again, but variant each time, as Clocks have tick'd onward, Chance has dealt fair and foul, Life, willy-nilly, has been liv'd through.... A drama guaranteed ev'ry time a Reedwoman picks up her instrument, Wick-Wax,-- a Novel in Musick, whose Hero instead of proceeding down the road having one adventure after another, with no end in view, comes rather through some Catastrophe and back to where she came from."

--Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon
The first principle underlying almost all of the world's music is that of going forth and returning. A typical melody begins at a home point, called the Tonic, and it ventures out into a world of musical uncertainty, into conflict and irresolution, a vaguely threatening world of Dominants, Subdominants, Mediants and Supertonics from which, eventually, by one path or another, it eventually resolves back to the Tonic.

Here's the simplest possible illustration:
Twinkle, twinkle, little star [going forth]
How I wonder what you are [and returning].
Now, of course, if every song were "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," music would be a damned dull business indeed. And so composers play with this principle, feinting, head-faking, introducing new keys, hinting at foreign tonalities -- anything to disguise the Going-Forth-and-Returning nature of what they're writing. Modernist music that consciously eschews this principle -- out of the composers' intention to break rules, to shock -- repels the ear. If you've ever giggled a bit at a country band stretching a typical "shave-and-a-haircut" song ending to comical extremes, that's the tension that's making you laugh -- not-there-yet... not-there-yet... not-there-yet... shave-and-a-haircut, two bits! (Whew! Home!) Recall the scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? where the evil Judge Doom flushes Roger from his hiding-place by knocking the first phrase -- shave and a haircut! -- on the wall; Roger's undoing is his desperate need, deep inside his poor little Toon soul, to finish the phrase -- to accomplish Resolution -- two bits!

I've been having an interesting offline conversation with Simon from Homefront Radio about the origins of "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport," and the chat got around to the idea of musical archetypes. "I'm fast coming to the conclusion that every song out there is basically the same song if you break it down to the dominant couple of chords," says Si -- a proposition that has been knocking around in my own head for many years. This is most easily discerned in folk idioms, where that compulsion to disguise or gussy up the Going-Forth-and-Returning movement isn't beaten into the young composer at the Academy or by critics. If you stick to the simple musical rules of folk, eventually (very quickly, in fact) all the possible harmonic progressions -- all the possible "legal" variations on the idea -- are going to be used up.

So you wind up with these archetypes. One I can think of off the top of my head is the "Sixteen Tons" chord progression (i-VII-VI-V), which is so ubiquitous that I can reel it off in my sleep with wide-ranging variations. For some bizarre reason -- perhaps due to its inherent slinkiness -- this progression is amazingly frequently associated with cats: "The Cat Came Back," "Stray Cat Strut," "Cat's Walk." But the fact that we all agree that these chords remind us of a cat is a very important insight into human psychology.

This idea of musical archetypes is immediately suggestive of Joseph Campbell's work, and I'm prepared to assert that just as he applied the idea of Jungian archetypes to mythology, it can just as defensibly be applied to music. When every work-song, every sea-chantey, schottische, reel, breakdown, field-holler, ballad, jody-call and norteño employs the very same emotional shorthand to engage and entertain its audience, clearly something very powerful in the human psyche is being appealed to. Campbell's Hero Myth has a direct and ineluctible analogue in this musical Going-Forth-and-Returning motion I've just been describing: Beginning at home, adventuring out, the encounter of conflict in the form of dissonance and irresolution, and finally the return home. This need for finishing, for ending the story in a satisfactory way, is a deep and abiding one, not just in Myth but in Music too. Something profoundly human is satisfied by that simple two-note sequence: two bits!

Today we're engaged in a form of exorcism. A terrible event struck us five years ago today, and all around me I see the process of mythologizing. We explain September 11 to ourselves as the beginning of something, something that will eventually, as all things must, have an end. We were called to Go Forth on that day, we hear it said, to conquer an implacable evil that attacked us, that will stop at nothing to eradicate us from the earth, and we will Return one day, serene and victorious, to receive our rewards from a grateful world.

Plagal Cadence: Aaaaaaaa-men!

But Myth is not Life. Music is not Life. In fact, we have these things precisely because they aren't Life; they are the means we have of coping with the Bad Shit that Life throws at us. They're our life-preservers, our comfort, our solace.

But they're lies.

In fact, the Going-Forth-and-Returning myth of literature and music that comfort us so never actually happens in Life. There are no beginnings. There are no ends. There are no heroes, and there are no dragons. Nothing began in any true sense on September 11, and nothing will ever truly bring us to some Tonic of resolution. There is only a long, never-ending series of events in sequence -- some foreseeably arising out of causes that happened in the past, some spontaneous and completely random. September 11 was one of the former kind of events, an action by some people who had a grievance and a bitterness so abiding that they justified dying -- and killing -- for it. Their action caused immeasurable grief to countless millions, myself certainly included, but -- and the importance of this is truly profound -- it was not the action of automatons. In fact the September 11 murderers had Myths and Music of their own, and in their own minds they had thoughts of rightness and justice that burned just as brightly in their minds as they do in ours.

Now please. I'm not apologizing for them, or justifying their actions in any way. Their incomprehensibly distorted idea of the worth of a human life is utterly contemptible, and if I could turn back time I'd murder them in their beds without a second thought. But I do profoundly wish, as fervently as I wish for anything, that we could as a species understand just how badly the lies we tell ourselves to escape the reality of injustice and suffering impede the understanding of the truth that this, this thing we have here, this little ball of rock floating in space, is all we've got.

No gods. No saviors. No magic. No prophets. No afterlife. No angels. No saints. No heroes. No going forth and returning. No myths.

What would music sound like then?

Two bits!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

A Career in Porn

[Jeeze, could that Steve Irwin post down there get a little staler? Sorry about that, folks. Got a weird mental thing going, something somewhere between writer's block and performance anxiety, a self-feeding cycle where I'd sit down to try and pooch something out and... Nothing. And, o'course, the next time I'd try to write something, it just got worse. Don't worry, honey, it happens to all men...]

Early a couple of mornings ago, Wonder Woman greeted me with the not particularly earth-shattering news that Yusuf Islam, somewhat better known as Cat Stevens, had returned to the World of Illusion and was set to release a new album of pop music in November on Atlantic Records. She skipped away and put "Tea for the Tillerman" on the Victrola and went about her morning routine humming along in a transport of cheerful nostalgia.

I've found that as I've aged I've become more tolerant of music I once frankly detested. As I feel myself becoming further and further detached from the dreadful mechanical goo that oozes out from radio and television and movies these days, I welcome Old-Fart-Hood with open arms. I haven't quite reached the point of waving my cane angrily from my gout-stool at the stereo and pontificating about the Good Old Days, but the moment is not far off.

(Still can't be in the same room as Wondie's idol James Taylor, though. Blecch!)

My reaction to her spinning of a Cat Stevens chestnut was fairly typical of my musical mindset these days. Where once Punk-Boy Neddie heard calculation and formula and that stupid and lazy pop mysticism that made the Seventies such an unbearable moment, now I find my cynicism gone, and I simply enjoy his ability to write and execute an evocative melody. Cat had, I'm now free to admit, a way with minor keys -- "Sad Lisa," for example, is nothing short of gorgeous, all that beautiful shifting between between E minor and its relative major G. The song employs archetypal harmonic progressions that wouldn't be out of place in an eighteenth-century Anglican hymn, but that are given new life by the lovely and constantly surprising melody, which is summed up with truly deft simplicity in the harmonic-minor chorus, "Lisa-Lisa, sad Lisa-Lisa." If you want an illustration of the ancient musical principle that minor keys sound "sad" while major keys are "happy," and how a good songwriter uses that fundamental psychoacoustic truism to manipulate his audience's emotions, I'd point you right to "Sad Lisa."

Yes, my toleration surprises me. I'm so forgiving these days. I find myself asking the question, Am I forgiving Cat Stevens, or should he be forgiving me? Of course, he's got plenty of other things to answer for ("Morning Has Broken" and the Salman Rushdie fatwa come to mind), but when it comes to chords and tunes and how they fit together, beef no longer stands between us. Did you know that the Cheryl Crow -- and Rod Stewart and P. P. Arnold -- megahit "The First Cut Is the Deepest" was written by Cat/Yusuf? Well, you do now.

At any rate, I'm going to be fascinated to listen to the new album. Foremost in my mind will be the question, What does 28 years of Islam do to a guy's melodic sense?

By fascinating coincidence, on the same day that Wondie made her discovery about Yusuf Islam's new album, I came across "Harold and Maude" on the Sundance Channel, and I watched the whole quirky thing, humming along to Stevens' prominently featured songs, even grabbing my guitar to dope out the chords to "Where Do the Children Play?" It was, in short, a Cat Stevens kind of day.

Which, I suppose, leads to the question, "What kind of day is it when you watch 'Jesus Christ Superstar' from end to end?" which I did the following night. This sudden two-day immersion in Seventies pop crap led to the following observations:
  1. Jesus Christ was, apparently, a bit of a butthole.
  2. I'd hit the 1973-vintage Yvonne Elliman like Barry Bonds on a hanging curveball.
  3. Like Jesus, Andrew Lloyd Weber is a bit of a butthole.
  4. The sound-production of the movie is a knee-slapper, with this itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny little Full Rock Orchestra barely audible on the soundtrack under stentorian singers. I know they wanted Tim Rice's immortal lyrics to stand out, but this was truly ridiculous.
  5. If they're planning to bring back the Seventies in any form, I want you please to take me out behind the barn and put a merciful bullet through my head.
  6. The actor who played Peter went on to a career in porn.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Crikey! Is This Advert Still Funny?

Well, I think it is, but I'm sicker than most. It's certainly more nuanced, I'll give you that.

At the beach this recent vacation, I had a devil of a time convincing the kiddies that the flat fish they saw wallowing around in the shallows weren't Deadly Poisonous Stingrays. They'd come squealing out of the water like a Great White was on their tails, and I'd try to calm them down by pointing out (with all the confident, casual authority of a Dad Lying His Head Off) that there was a huge variety of rays and skates in these waters, and that the Deadly P.S. was only to be found much farther south -- the Caribbean, perhaps, or Tierra del Fuego -- and that they'd probably been scared by a completely harmless Cow-Nosed Ray or something.

Later, back at the house, I poked around in a book on Atlantic Seaboard marine life we'd brought, and was quite nonplussed to find that in fact Deadly P.S.'s were actually quite common there, and that the object we'd seen in the water may very well have been one. I retreated to the next redoubt, that the Stingray is a meek creature, and that getting pricked is near to impossible as long as you don't bring your clodhopper down on one. The old parental reliable "they're much more scared of you than you are of them" came into play, and we practiced shuffling our feet in the surf, as the book recommended, so as not to go hopping around on stingrays' backs.

Somehow, at any rate, we all survived the Surf Experience, despite one nasty jellyfsh sting suffered by Freddie, and that, I thought, was that.

Now arrives the dreadful news that poor Steve Irwin has departed this vale of crocodile tears, victim of a freak accident -- pierced in the chest by one of those very stingrays I' d been scoffing at for the benefit of the kids in my charge. According to the account linked above, Irwin unwittingly boxed the creature in: ""It stopped and twisted and threw up its tail with the spike, and it caught him in the chest," said [wildlife documentary maker Ben] Cropp. "It's a defensive thing. It's like being stabbed with a dirty dagger."

It's tempting to shake your head sadly and intone, "Live by the dirty dagger, die by the dirty dagger," but Irwin wasn't actually performing his customary schtick when he met his demise -- he taking a break from shooting "The Ocean's Deadliest" and was filming for a children's show.

I do remember a particularly thrilling example of his act from some years ago. On a savannah in southern Africa, we saw footage of saner people evacuating their village, pointing out to the cameras that a black mamba -- truly "the myst dyngerous snyke in the weeeeerld!" -- had been spotted in one of their houses. Irwin, sensing a great bit, went charging into the village, jabbering excitedly. He found the snake, a full-grown beast of truly awful proportion, and began his usual routine: gulling it, calming it, trying to grab its tail in order to lift it up for the camera.

I'd watched quite a bit of "The Crocodile Hunter" show -- the kids were young then, and we watched a lot of that kind of stuff together -- and I'll tell you: I'd never seen Irwin quite this obviously scared. His breathing was shallow, his concentration was absolutely intense, and his voice shook as he swallowed spit. If this was acting -- and quite a lot of Irwin's schtick was acting -- it was damned convincing. The dude was quite plainly, in the parlance, shitting bricks.

It was a good thing, then, that FedEx's services weren't needed during this segment. He and the snake ended up parting ways, if not exactly friends, then at least not in a biter-bit relationship.

We'll miss him and his corny but ultimately beneficial act. Sorry to see you go, Steve, but at least you kicked it doing something you loved.

Now: How am I going to talk those kids back into the water?