I remember a few years ago as a college student I enrolled in a post-graduate anthropology class just for fun. I ended up dropping it 5 weeks or so into the semester; I hadn't taken any of the prerequisites and I would have flunked miserably. But during the time I was in the class, I got to watch a documentary about the looming spectre of genetically modified foods.
I don't remember most of the video, but there was one part that stuck with me. A farmer in some rural country in South America was telling the camera about how dry and acidic the soil was in his region, and how hard it was to irrigate effectively because of the geography. His crops came out so poisonous that he couldn't even use them for animal feed. The people in the region were starving and dying of disease from eating the horrible crops.
Then, one season, he got genetically modified corn that was resistant to the impurities in the soil. That harvest, he had a huge crop that enabled him to feed his family, his animals and improve the quality of life in his region. The next season, the government in his country (I really wish I could remember which one it was) banned the use of gmo foods, and his region went back to starving.
The reason stated in the video for banning the gmo crops was that not enough testing had been done on the long term effects of gmo foods on the human body.
What's wrong with this picture?
I've done a little research over the years, and so far, the picture has yet to change. The primary reason that so many people and cultures are against gmo foods is that we simply don't know enough about them.
Which is a valid concern, of course. But in my mind, the proven benefits far outweigh the hypothetical, conjectural concerns. I'm sure there are a few kinks to be worked out in the lab, but does that really mean that we should avoid these foods altogether?
One of the "kinks" I've read about is that a diet high in gmo foods has been linked to a higher incidence of developing certain cancers. But as gmo ingredients are often present in processed foods, I think that positing a causal relationship is flimsy. Any study that purports to link gmo foods to cancer had better take a hard look at what else is in those processed foods, not to mention the other poor lifestyle choices made by people who eat predominately processed food.
Another concern is that gmo crops could lead to the development of super weeds and have other negative impacts on the environment. This I do not have a snappy rebuttal to, but I think we have to really carefully weigh the pros and cons here. Everything I've read about this possibility merely states that it could happen in theory. My feeling is that with every solution comes a host of new problems. Gmo foods could be a solution to inadequate food supply. Newer, tougher pests could be a problem that comes along with that. So what? Is it an unsolvable problem? Probably not.
Basically, I think this issue comes down to a fear of progress. The science out there saying that gmo foods should be avoided is tenuous, and the positive impacts on quality of life are current and measurable. Granted, some people eat a lot of these foods unknowingly as a part of a generally unhealthy diet. That's bad, but the onus is on the individual. I choose to understand what I'm eating, not out of fear of the unknown, but out of an affinity for control. I like making things from scratch, starting from basic ingredients that I understand. If some of those have been genetically modified to have improved taste, higher nutritional content, resilience during growing, longer shelf-life and better appearance... well that's okay with me.
Sunday, March 31, 2013
I remember a few years ago as a college student I enrolled in a post-graduate anthropology class just for fun. I ended up dropping it 5 weeks or so into the semester; I hadn't taken any of the prerequisites and I would have flunked miserably. But during the time I was in the class, I got to watch a documentary about the looming spectre of genetically modified foods.
Friday, March 29, 2013
Hot diggity damn. Been a while since I've done a food post, but I was just so excited about this recipe that I had to share it with you, my loyal fans. Both of you.
Bacon Onion Marmalade Stuffed Pork Chops with Roasted Yellow Cauliflower and Swiss Chard
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp liquid smoke
1 tbsp smoked paprika
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp chipotle chili powder
1 tsp sage
1 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp celery seed
1 tsp crushed red pepper
1 tsp cayenne
1 tsp roasted cumin
1 tsp roasted coriander
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup brown or white sugar (optional)
2 tbsp instant coffee (optional)
2 nice thick Pork chops
6 strips bacon
1 large onion
1 head of cauliflower
1 bunch swiss chard
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp crushed red pepper
Marinate the pork chops in the BBQ mixture for at least 4 hours (those who read my old blog Cook Like a Bachelor, Eat Like a King know that my preferred marination time is 24-48 hours)
Preheat oven to 400.
Take 4 strips of the bacon and half of the onion, dice both and brown in a pan. When its all nice and crispy, run it through a food processor until it forms a paste. This is your bacon onion "marmalade".
Cut a pocket into the side of your pork chops and stuff the cavity with the bacon/onion mixture. Set aside for a moment.
Cut the cauliflower into florets and place on a baking sheet. Drizzle liberally with olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste. Cover with foil. Put in the oven.
Pre-heat an oven safe pan on the stove top until its nice and hot. Sear the pork chops on one side until they're almost black, but not quite. Flip them, and throw them in the oven next to the cauli. Leave it all in there for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, roughly chop your chard, making sure to wash it thoroughly. Dice the remaining bacon and onions and throw them in the pan. Mince your garlic and add to the pan. When its all starting to look yummarific, stir in the greens, salt, pepper and crushed red pepper and drizzle with lemon juice. Give it a stir and cover. Cook on low heat about 5 minutes.
By now your cauli should be nice and roasty and hopefully the pork chops are done. Make sure to temp the pork, you want it right around 145 farenheit.
Plate it all up and top with some chopped herbs if you wanna be fancy.
Thursday, March 28, 2013
I've had a digital copy of Beatles For Sale as long as I can remember, and I've listened to it dozens of times. But this past Christmas, my wife bought me the complete Beatles Discography on LP in a re-issue box set that comes with a huge coffee table book about the albums. It's a gorgeous package, and one of my prized possessions. I spent about 3 solid days flipping through the book and the LPs, just enjoying the artwork and the feel of the albums.
I used to collect LPs, but circumstances caused me to part with my collection long ago. The feel of having them in hand after so long brought me right back to my early college days, when I had nothing better to spend money on than a stack of used records. Anyone who has ever owned one should understand. The gigantic, art-covered sleeves were half the experience of owning an LP, and it brings something unique and special to an album, especially when its one of your favorite bands.
Beatles For Sale, specifically, was the first album in the boxed set that I really marveled at. I'd seen the cover before, I knew it was a jump towards an artsier presentation for the band, and daring in that it was the first not to feature the band's name prominently on the front. But until I owned the physical LP, I had no idea that it was a gate-fold cover. To those not in-the-know, a gate-fold is often used for double LPs, with two sleeves connected by a hinge, effectively doubling the space for album art. Beatles For Sale isn't a double LP, there's just and extra flap on the front, allowing for twice the art, just for fun.
The art itself is understated, nothing like the schizophrenic Klaus Voorman piece that makes up the cover of Revolver (my vote for best album cover of all time). The Cover is just pictures of the band standing in a leaf-strewn park in autumn, looking too %&*#ing cool to be real. The inside is just a live shot on the left and the band posing in front of a mural at Twickenham Film Studios during the filming of A Hard Day's Night on the right. It's simple, and with a cursory glance you can see everything there is to see in the pictures. But for a fan of the Beatles, and a fan of album art in general, its entrancing. Something about holding that massive cardboard sleeve in hand makes it magical, even if the art itself contains no secrets.
And there's no doubt that after you've dropped the needle for the first time, pouring over the gigantic sleeve will enhance your experience. The Beatles did it better on future albums, sure, but they did it first on Beatles For Sale.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
My brother just turned me on to the fact that there are a multitude of console emulators available for Android. I, in turn, have turned two close friends on to this fact, so that we may all share the bliss of replaying our favorite Snes RPGs, decades after our old Super Nintendos have stopped working or been lost in a garage sale.
Many a formative hour of my life was spent huddled with my brothers around a 13-inch TV screen, taking turns playing Final Fantasy 3, Chrono Trigger and Earthbound. As I stumbled my inebriated way through college, I found time to play through a handful of these old classics on an aging Snes that eventually found itself in a trash can after it quit on me. But as I became an adult, the idea of spending 80 hours of my life trying to get every spell, weapon and secret in an RPG started to sound ludicrous. I no longer have the privilege of budgeting free time in those amounts.
But now that I have a decent smartphone, I am able to fill the little cracks of every day dead space (on the toilet, waiting for my lunch in the microwave, waiting in line at the bank) feeling like I'm 11 all over again.
The emulator I'm using is called Snes9x-EX+. Its free and very self explanatory. I download games (called ROMs) from coolroms.com and I use another free app called ZArchiver to unzip them. Its all easy, safe and free.
And only a fellow 90's kid and RPG addict can possibly understand that this simple process has given me an immeasurable amount of happiness. If there were nothing else I loved about the Galaxy Note 2, having Breath of Fire, Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger and Earthbound everywhere I go would be enough.
Monday, March 25, 2013
Here are the rules for the best drinking game I have ever played, devised by myself and my lovely wife. All you need is a copy of Mario Party 8 and a large amount of *weaker* alcoholic drinks. Beer works, but is not recommended, as you will be taking LOTS of drinks, and beer fills you up. We usually make double tall vodka and whatever type drinks, and over the course of a 30 turn game (which will last about 3 hours with 3-4 players) we will pound down 5-7 of them. Sometimes, 30 turns of Drunken Mario Party is enough to make me feel like I'm a college freshman all over again; spins, praying to the porcelain god, passing out on the floor, etc. So DO NOT play this game with a glass of straight whiskey unless you're playing a max of 10 turns. I also recommend only using the first few sets of rules (Square, Candy, Dice, Star & Minigame) until you get used to the flow of it, then start adding in the other rules. If you have any questions, comment on this blog or on my social media pages.
P.S.- One last unwritten rule: if you come play at our house, I'm always Mario and Steph is always Yoshi. Period. If you get a tattoo of a character, maybe we'll talk.
|Drunken Mario Party Rules|
|Blue Square||Give 1|
|Red Square||Drink 1|
|Yellow Square||Drink 3|
|Green Square +||Give 1|
|Green Square -||Drink 1|
|DK Square||Give 2|
|Bowser Square||Drink 2|
|Get Hit By Candy||Drink 2|
|Waste Candy||Drink 2|
|Roll 10 On Single Dice Block||Give 1|
|Roll 1||Drink 1|
|Roll Less Than 10 On Twice/Thrice/Duelo Candy||Drink 1|
|Roll Doubles Or Triples||Give 3|
|Get A Star||Give 5 OR 1 Shot|
|Star Stolen||Drink 5 OR 1 Shot|
|Not Enough Coins For A Star||Drink 3|
|4 Player Minigame||Winner Give 3|
|2 v 2 Minigame||Winning Team Give 4|
|1 v 3 minigame||Winning Team Give 6|
|Last Man Standing Give 6|
|Minigame Tie||All Drink 1|
|VS. Minigame (Duelo Candy)||Both Drink 1, Winner Give 3|
|1st Place Gives 3|
|2nd Place Gives 2|
|3rd Place gives 1|
|4th Place Drink 1|
|Cheap Out On Battle Minigame||Drink 3|
|Challenge Minigame||Win = Give 1, Lose = Drink 1|
|Start of Game||Highest dice roll gives 3|
|Second gives 2|
|Third gives 1|
|Fourth drinks 1|
|Back to Start||Drink 2|
|Land On Same Square As Another Player||Both Drink 1|
|Call Everyone By Character Name||Drink 1 If You Forget|
|Delay of Game (Told to hit 'A', over 10 second delay)||Drink 3|
|Predict Any Random Game Outcome Accurately||Give 1|
|New Record||Give 3|
|0 Stars, 0 Coins (at end of turn)||Finish Drink|
|Drink Without Being Told||Drink 10|
|Math Fail||Take All Drinks Given/Drink 5 (whichever is more)|
|Chump Charity||All Who Don't Get It Drink 1|
|End of Game||Winner Begins Waterfall|
|It is the responsibility of each player to give the drinks they earn.|
|For example, If Player 1 lands on a Blue Square, he may give the drink to Player 2,3 or 4.|
|If Player 1 forgets to do this before his next turn, no one has to take the drink.|
|DK's Treetop Temple|
|2 Star Turn||Give 15|
|Hit by Another Player's Monkeys||Drink 2|
|Shy Guy's Perplex Express|
|DK Star Taken By Opponent||Drink 2|
|Moved Away from a Star by Cart Movement||Drink 2|
|Goomba's Booty Boardwalk|
|Take A Dolphin Ride||Drink 2|
|Last Green Square||Drink 5|
|Koopa's Tycoon Town|
|Get A Star||Give 2|
|Star Stolen||Drink 1|
|Invest In A Hotel W/O Taking Ownership||Drink 1|
|King Boo's Haunted Hideaway|
|DK Star Taken By Opponent||Drink 2|
|Pay Thwomp||Drink 2|
|Bowser's Warped Orbit|
|Get A Star||Give 2|
|Star Stolen||Drink 1|
|Side Bets: At any time in the game, players may bet any amount of drinks on any outcome in the|
|game. For example, Player One may bet Player Three 5 drinks that Player Two will win the next|
|minigame. If Player One is correct, Player Three must drink 5.|
|Negotiations: At any time in the game, players may offer to take any amount of drinks in exchange|
|for certain actions on the part of another player. For example, Player One may offer to take 10 drinks|
|if Player Two agrees to refrain from using candy on their next turn. Another example would be if|
|Player One offered to take 6 drinks if Player Two agrees to use Thwomp candy on Player Three.|
With their first feature film A Hard Day's Night, fans got a comical glimpse of what its like to be a Beatle. The accompanying soundtrack album gave listeners the first real glimpse of the band's enormous potential.
The Beatles were never really stagnant (that's one of their great strengths) but on their thir album they grew a lot in confidence: its the first album to include exclusively Lennon/McCartney compositions and it was all but unheard of for a band to have a whole album of originals at that time.
With memorable tunes like the title track, "Can't Buy Me Love" and "I Should Have Known Better", its clear that the songwriters grew a great deal during the making of this album.
A Hard Day's Night also includes a few of my favorite deep-cuts from the Beatles catalog. "If I Fell" is a tender love song that shows Paul's softer side, and "Things We Said Today" is possibly one of the most intelligent and powerful love songs I've ever heard.
I consider this album one of their best.
Sunday, March 24, 2013
The story of me and this album is really a story of cover versions. See, as I said in the previous post, I didn't get into the early Beatles until later in life, and the fact that I eventually did is largely due to the film Across the Universe. In the early part of that film, several early Beatles tunes are given stirring renditions that allow the true power of each to shine through. Among my personal favorites were "It Won't Be Long" and "All My Loving" both of which hail from With the Beatles.
Another song I heard as a cover version first was "You've Really Got a Hold on Me", though this is not a Beatles original. It's an older soul tune, but the version I first heard was by Zooey Deschanel's band She and Him. I vaguely recognized it, found it on With the Beatles and learned to love it before I even realized it was a cover itself.
After a litle research, I found out that about half this album is comprised of covers of rock and roll standards of the time. Some real classics are there ("Roll Over Beethoven", "Money (Thats What I Want)"), as well as a version of "Til There Was You" that became my wife and I's wedding song.
The covers on this album show the range and musical muscle of the early Beatles, and the versions I first heard, decades after this album's release, are a testament to the staying power of eveything the Beatles touched, even things that weren't theirs to begin with. They may not have had the most definitive versions of all these songs, or the highest grossing, but I'd be willing to bet that when a modern day listener hears one of the aforementioned songs, they'll say "Hey, isn't that the Beatles? "
Saturday, March 23, 2013
So I've moved the site, with all it's attending content, to blogger.com.
After a week of technical difficulties that prevented me from blogging, and several months of display issues that made the site clunky and unprofessional, I've decided that blog.com is behind the times.
Blogger has an app for my Galaxy Note 2, and I can blog from my phone easily rather than using the maladjusted browser app to battle my way through a post on blog.com. It can also add location info and Google+ friends to each post.
Blogger also has superior integration with social media. I recently joined Google+ (Along with a few other networks), and all the gizmos are built right in, without the need for any configuration from me.
The subscribe function is also far superior, it creates a feedburner account automatically, rather than you having to bounce from site to site copy/pasting info from field to field.
So for these reasons, all future posts can be found here. Not that any of you ever types in my URL in the first place, I know the Facebook link is the only thing that gets you here. And that's fine.
I've already spent as much time as I feel is prudent with blogging issues today, so I will pick up where I left off tomorrow, with my ruminations on With The Beatles.
I've been what you might call a rabid Beatles fan for most of my life. The story of my love for the Beatles is a long and complicated one, and would probably bore you if I were to tell it straight through. So instead, what I've decided to do is write a series of articles surrounding each of the Beatles' albums; not so much reviews, as an autobiographical memoir of my experiences with each.
[audio:http://peterambles.blog.com/files/2013/03/14-Twist-And-Shout.mp3|titles=14 Twist And Shout]
Who among us has never danced to this song? Like most living beings, I grew up with an awareness of the Beatles. I heard their songs everywhere, whether I knew it then or not. One of the truest testaments to their power is their ability to stay relevant, decades after their demise, and with only two living members to date. I loved this song and danced to it before I even knew it was the Beatles. So in a sense, I've always loved them.
It was in college where I first really discovered their music, however. Their latter-day albums made a serious impression with me, containing as they did the blueprint for nearly everything that was to come in rock and roll. It was a long process of many years before my interest grew beyond the post-Revolver material. But once I embraced the more straightforward rock and roll of their early period, I found a wealth of spirited music that stands apart from its times, even if it does sound dated by today's standards.
When I listen to Please Please Me today, I hear punk rock before there ever was such a thing. Compared to the punk and rock and roll that was to come, the music on this album is amusingly tame, but when you compare it to what was accepted and commonplace at the time, you can hear just how hard the Beatles rocked. A quick study of their formative years in Hamburg makes this clear enough, and thought they no doubt sound more polished on Please Please Me than they did in the Reeperbahn, you can still hear the spit and fire embedded in the cleaned-up riffs. A band had to bend a lot further to make a record back then. There were simply things one couldn't do. The Beatles strength then was in their subtlety; sneaking messages of wanton teenaged lust past overbearing parents in the form of emotionally charged love songs.
And as love songs go, you'll never, ever find a bunch better than the early Lennon/McCartney songbook. Everything that can be said by rock and roll on the subject of love is covered, and to date no one has said it with more eloquence, emotion and style. Every artist since has been beholden to the standard set by the Beatles, whether they know it or not.
"Twist and Shout" in particular shows the raw ferocity and punk-ish spirit of the early Beatles. The album was recorded in a single session, ludicrous by today's standards (though common enough then), and by the end of the day, a sore-throated John Lennon was forced to belt out this iconic dance tune with the last drop of his energy. We hear that last drop sputter from his shredded vocal chords like his life depended on it, which of course, it did. The song, and so many others form this album, stuck, and quietly shattered the expectations of millions of rock and roll fans. When I listen to it, I hear the same spirit that moved the likes of Johnny Rotten, Ian Mackaye and Jello Biafra to throw themselves all over the stage, writhing with rage, blood spewing from their battered bodies. I hear the voice of the young who desire nothing but freedom, who want to shake off the chains of an oppressive society in a frenzy of dance.
If Lennon had never screeched out his desire to do the twist, Jello Biafra spewing bile against the establishment might never have been possible. Songs (and albums) like this were the first poke of the tip of the knife into the veil of society, loosening the fabric enough that the rock that came after could tear it all down.
So if you are like I once was, and dismiss the early Beatles as just another oldies band, listen harder. You have to with these old records. Try to hear it as it sounded then, not as it sounds now. If you do, you will hear a pot that was just about to boil over, and the restrained tension behind these old songs makes them some of my favorites to this day.
So last night, my gorgeous wife and I started watching the first Netflix Original Series; House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright (I didn't know who that was at first, but she played Jenny in Forrest Gump, and she was The Princess Bride). It's a more-or-less color-by-numbers political drama, with some very junior mistakes in the writing, and nothing too surprising plot-wise (at least in the first four episodes), but more on that later. It's meaty enough to keep us watching, and the acting is definitely up to par with some of the best TV series out these days.
Which brings me to my main point. This new entertainment delivery system is awesome. Netflix streaming is now available for almost every device out there, even most new TVs. I have it on my freaking phone now. It's still under $10/month for streaming only, and that's a small price to pay for the absolute control you get. Its very encouraging to see big names like Kevin Spacey and David Fincher (who directed the first two episodes) getting attached to a project that's taking advantage of a totally untried format, because that means the format will probably succeed. Which means, that though House of Cards has its flaws, it's big enough to set a precedent for well-financed, talent-rich series to continue coming out on Netflix exclusively, and ultimately, they're bound to come up with a masterpiece. When that happens, we subscribers will be able to enjoy it for dirt-cheap prices without all the baggage that comes along with regular television.
There's no commercials on Netflix. No stopping and starting of the drama. Even if you have DVR, you still have to deal with the inconvenience of TV, and if you watch shows on major networks, there are no guarantees that your favorite show won't be knocked out of it's regular time slot for a long-running sports game or breaking news. Another great advantage is the fact that the series can come out a season at a time, rather than one episode a week. If you're like me (and most Netflix users, apparently) you like to devour your shows marathon-style, so that you don't spend each week wondering what's going to happen, or worse, forgetting what happened last episode.
When we're really into a series, it becomes all we watch until there is no more of that series. The Netflix original takes advantage of that watching habit. A good drama series is really like a long movie, and it sucks to have to watch it tiny bit by tiny bit. I know with The Walking Dead, I spend the first few minutes of every episode trying to re-orient myself to what's going on, and just when I'm getting settled in, it's over. If this new format continues to produce quality output, that won't be so, at least for some shows. I know the audience will agree with me on this one, and hopefully that will mean Netflix will soon be able to compete with networks like AMC, HBO and Showtime.
House of Cards, specifically, falls prey to a few flaws, however. The most obvious of these is Spacey's first person narration to the camera. While I recognize this as a valid stylistic choice (After all the technique was used to great effect by Shakespeare in Richard III), I feel that the writers of House of Cards fall into the novice trap of using this narration as exposition in disguise; that is, explaining to the audience what's going on, who is who, and what the relationships between characters and events are. It panders to the audience a little, as if the writers were afraid we wouldn't catch on. They needn't have been, for two reasons: one, the skillful acting and generally well conceived plot make tings obvious enough; and two, the relationships and events are familiar to most viewers, drawing upon the usual archetypes of political drama. So the narrative technique is really just propping up already strong writing, which has the unintentional effect of making it look weaker than it really is. I sincerely hope the writers grow in confidence as seasons progress. The first person narrative technique is useful, but generally used best when a story focuses on a single character and their point of view. House of Cards shuffles through many points of view, giving Spacey's well-delivered monologues a much more artificial feel. Because we don't spend all our time focusing on Spacey's character, the narration's flaw becomes all the more obvious; the writers are really just using him to explain the story.
Another closely related flaw is that the dialogue often sacrifices realism for wit. The characters banter back and forth in perfect rhythm; hammering out clever turns of phrase without a moment's pause. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief in this case - after all, politicians are wordy people - but again, it gives the writing a feel of being weaker than it really is. Character are easier to empathize with when they're realistic, and realistic character often find themselves at a loss for words, or speak out of turn, or misunderstand one another. House of Cards lacks this authenticity, and it puts us at a remove from the characters, even if we want to love them. It even makes hating the evil ones harder, which means the writers are really selling themselves short. The characters are compelling, and if they talked like normal people we'd know it.
All in all, however, the fact that Netflix has produced a big-budget, talent-boasting original series is a huge leap forward in the entertainment world. I look forward to the next Netflix original series, and dearly hope that the big networks catch on to this format, so that in the future everyone will have absolute control of their entertainment lineup. I'm convinced commercials are the only reason TV makes you stupider, after all, no one ever told you that going to the movies makes you dumb. Anything that lets you do away with the trash is good in my book.
In the weeks since this post, my wife and I finished House of Cards. My original assessment stands, the story telling is sloppy, and made to look weak by being propped up with obstrusive narrative technique, but the actual content of the plot is juicy enough to keep you watching, even if it's not original.
There was one episode where we find out Spacey's character had a gay fling in college. The entire episode is spent with him rabble-rousing with his old college buddies, reliving old times. I suppose the intent here was to give the character a human face, to try and make the audience feel sympathy for him. the only problem is...
WE DON'T WANT TO!
It's an anti-hero story! to try and make us sympathize with an anti-hero is to ruin the fun of such stories. we want to feel good about rooting for the bad guy, that's what makes them so damn great. This episode not only stopped the story dead in it's tracks to tell us something about the character that has no bearing whatsoever on the plot, but it also damaged the cold, ruthless image of him we have, and from there on out, his character loses clout.
I wil say, however, that his toadie Doug Stamper is probably the best character in the show. He's the one who gets his hands dirty on Frank's behalf, and he's probably the best goon character I've come across in a while.
We will, of course, watch season two. but they better step their fucking game up, or I'm out after that.
I recently read Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, and well, it was an undisputed masterpiece. It took me many months to read (I'm a slow reader, plus I mostly read in the bathroom), but I soldiered through some of it's more long-winded portions to discover that the entire book happens in the last two chapters. Fortunately, the events therein would be meaningless without the other 90% of the book. What I thought had been a laborious and repetitive journey turned out to be a startlingly subtle technique of pummeling my brain with violence to the point that I'm desensitized, so that when the blood stops, I'm left breathless, chilled to the bone, and honestly... fucked up for life.
I once read a book called Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski. It's almost like a more modern Catcher in the Rye, with a "later-on-in-life" epilogue that actually takes up almost half of the book. I hated it, but I hated it so much that I loved it. Because this wasn't the hate of a poorly written book, it was the hate of a real, living, breathing human being; one who, surprisingly, was entirely fictional. The protagonist was one of those passive tragic types, the type of character who doesn't do, but instead is done unto. Such characters are infuriating to read about, as they utterly fail to move the plot along, and you're left feeling like nothing happened in the book. However, occasionally, this can result in a brilliantly rendered character study as it did with Catcher in the Rye, and Ham on Rye. Now that I think about it, the bread choice in the title is probably not a coincidence.
I also once read a book most of you are familiar with, a little ditty called The Lord of the Rings. It's world was so thoroughly and beautifully imagined that I felt more like I was discovering a secret history of our world, rather than reading a work of fiction.
As a teenager, I read a book called Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates, and it's characters, five rebellious teen girls, were so complete, so real, that I find myself missing them as if they were real people, even as I write this. Maddie may well have been the first girl I ever loved, which would make Legs was the girl I cheated on her with.
I've read extensively of the works of Asimov and Orson Scott Card, two brilliant plot-driven writers, who keep me on the edge of my seat with their cinematic and cerebral stories. I've read Vonnegut, who makes me laugh through tears of rage and dotes on his readers like a candy-bearing grandfather. I've been scared half to death by Dracula, infuriated with the careless meddling of Dr. Frankenstein, shocked by the animal nature of humanity in Lord of the Flies, died of thirst in the deserts of Dune, been a sailor stranded in Shogun's feudal Japan...
Voltaire but it best: "The perfect is the enemy of the good."
I read these works of art, and it fills me with mortal terror. When I picked up Blood Meridian, within a single paragraph I felt like it would be a crime if I ever wrote another word, such an affront to McCarthy's genius would it be.
But to paraphrase a spirit-lifting article I read recently, a novel can be a comforting friend as easily as it can be a brilliant teacher. If every novel was a mind-rending masterpiece, can you imagine how exhausted you'd be? We'd spend all our hours weeping in despair of the rotten condition of humanity.
So I say, simply, I don't have any pretension of being great. I'd just like to be good.
...And I'd like to get published. Please? The little button on the dashboard of this blog isn't doing it for me.
You know, now that I think about it, every job I've ever had has sucked.
My very first job was at the Coffee Bean (Though it was known as the Coffee Beanery in those days). I was a top performer there, but I quickly found the place to be shithole, which is why it was so easy for a 16-year old punk to be one of the good ones.
I tarried briefly at another coffee shop and them moved on to one of my most fondly remembered jobs as a full-service gas pump attendant at Amoco (now BP). I worked there off and on for over two years, and I loved it. It was full of zany characters and the whole place was held together with duct tape and coat hangers. I had the run of the shop most of the time. I could wander in two hours late and nobody got mad. I got to wrench on a few cars, made a few bucks in tips, and had enough to buy my then girlfriend a meal every once in a while. It was a great job... for a teenager.
Then I went to college and I didn't exactly work... let's say I dabbled occasionally in black market trade. My clientele was so scummy that it nearly changed the course of my life, an issue I mentioned with in an earlier article. Near the end of college, I worked at Ray's Wine and Spirits, probably my most fondly remembered job. The place was another in what's become a long string of falling apart crap-holes, but I had a lot of close friends working there, and we made that place like a second home. The pay was shit, but there were... fringe benefits, and the boss made a habit of looking the other way. It was a great job... for a stoner.
Alas, I did eventually graduate (though Lord knows I stretched that out as long as I could) and I moved in with my Grandma for a few months. There, I held two short-term jobs, one as a cashier at yet another character-filled gas station (Shell this time), and my first server job, at Smoke House BBQ. For you Kansas Citians, Smoke House is a pale, limp-wristed imitation of Jack Stack. Don't bother. Both of those places offered crappy pay and crappier hours.
Then I moved on to Harpo's, a bar and grill in the famed Old Westport district. It was my first bartending job, and I made good money. It sucked in the end, because Old Westport is a giant clique. If you're working behind one of the 11-odd bars in the area, you'd better spend your off hours drinking in front of them, otherwise you're branded as an outsider.
Then came Meadowbrook. Oh, Meadowbrook. It was a private golf club. I loved the members and they loved me. My first boss there was a good guy, and if were to see him again, I'd buy him a beer. But by the end of a long and harrowing story that I will spare you the details of, I was made into a scapegoat for all the shortcomings of an aging edifice whose ability to turn a profit was forgotten legend. In times of recession, luxuries are the first to go, and I got the boot with them.
After moving to L.A., I worked part time at Target, which is really just Walmart + 10%. It's an expensive Walmart. The shit there is the same. Target, like Walmart, was filled with trailer-trash mutants who couldn't seem to leave me in peace to zone my shelves. Anyone who has worked big-box retail will know what I'm talking about.
Then there was the J.W. Marriott. I met a bunch of great people there, some of whom I consider good friends. But the level of fever-pitch insanity that was the norm there was more than I could handle. As a cocktail server, you could hardly find a more challenging environment. That place is asses to elbows 362 days a year, and the only predictable thing about that place is its manic unpredictability. That job was a heart attack waiting to happen.
All of these jobs had their moments, but in the final analysis, each one took a toll on me. Some of them merely exposed me to people I found distasteful. Some put me in environments that quickly became unhealthy. Some pitted me against customers or coworkers who seemed to be out for my blood. In every job, nearly every employee was unhappy. In every job, I quickly rose through the ranks to become a top performer, but when I was at them all I could think about was how much I wanted to be anywhere else. I believe, during the final days at Meadowbrook, I even said that I'd rather go to prison than walk into that building one more time.
Before I've resigned from each job (always on good terms) I've felt that way. Like being locked in a cage with a serial rapist was better than going to work one more time. No matter how nice the place was, it always turned out to be a chaotic hell-hole when I was there. When I left, every place either got better or got shut down. Ray's, Amoco, The Coffee Bean and Meadowbrook all went under new management within months of my leaving, some changing their brand name in the process. Smoke House, Shell, The Marriott and Target all had turnovers in management that increased the happiness of the employees. After a while, I started to feel like I was a curse. Everywhere I worked got worse during my tenure, and got better (or was at least put out of its misery) the moment I left. And then I realized something.
This is how God works.
Since I've been "self-employed" I've had no trouble finding freelance work when I want it, no real trouble performing such work, and no trouble moving on amicably. I'm fitter, healthier, more productive. My house is cleaner. My dogs are happier, and more well-behaved. My wife is happier. I'm happier. I am eager to start work every day. When other errands impede my ability to work, I get upset. It used to be I looked forward to sickness and car trouble so I had an excuse to play hooky.
And I'm overcome with a profound sense of deja-vu. When I was in my mid to late teens, I published a zine that actually got a little attention. I was featured in the newspaper. I set up and maintained a small distribution network that saw my zine making it as far as L.A, Minnesota and Austin, TX. I wrote often, and people liked reading what I wrote.
When I was in college, I thought I wanted to be a musician. But every turn I made, every opportunity I explored, every connection I made turned up a dead end. In the working world, every advance I made was punished by a boat-load of stress, and never rewarded with a substantial increase in earnings.
For my whole life, there has been a pattern of God setting things up for me to knock down. I've been graced with the foresight to be aware of a few of them. But nowhere have I been more lucky than when he brought me together with my wife. Her love, patience and support had made our mutual happiness possible. It took us a while to figure out that this was what we were supposed to be doing, but now things are going swimmingly. I finally feel like I'm on the path of least resistance.
And who knows? Nothing may come of it. I may wallow in unpublished obscurity until the day I die. I may never be a famous novelist. But who cares? At least I'm finally getting the message that God has been ramming into my brain for the last 20 years. Be it cruel or kind, I'm no longer ignoring my destiny.
"I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I traveled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer."
"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."
- Benjamin Franklin (He's this old guy who was smarter than you.)
In Los Angeles, we live in a nanny state. A place whose government generally makes decisions based on what they perceive to be the "common good" of their citizens. This well-intentioned pattern has continued nearly unmarred for longer than I have been alive. And as a result, Los Angeles is among the worst places to live in any first-world country on the planet. Short of famine, war and plague, there's not a whole lot you could do to make this place worse.
The streets are falling apart. Half of the buildings are too. The water tastes like rusty pennies. The ocean is filled with trash. Some neighborhoods are so dangerous that you can literally catch a stray bullet just driving past them. The streets are so overcome with homeless that you don't even notice them anymore, their world is like like a shadow-dimension occupying the same physical space as ours, but never intersecting. According to 2009 estimates, nearly 20% of the population of Los Angeles County is made up of illegal immigrants. Violent crime is so ubiquitous that a former LAPD officer can go on a 10 day rampage leaving four people dead and hundres more scared out of their minds, and the day it's over, his story is already eclipsed by the next rash of killings. Traffic is so bad that it can take upwards of two hours to drive less than ten miles, and the air is so polluted as a result of this that some days it's against the rules to light a fire in your fireplace. This city has been rotting from the inside for so long it doesn't even make sense.
I am reminded of Plato's metaphor of the cave, where people are born into bondage and are able only to see shadows cast by unseen puppet masters, while outside the cave lies the world you and I know. The people of the cave believe those shadows to be the world entire. Los Angeles has become so immersed in its own filth, it seems to have forgotten that it's supposed to be a city, a community, a place where people can go to make their living.
I say all that, only so I can say this:
For some reason, the things this city spends it's energy on are things like banning plastic bags from grocery stores, outlawing soda in schools and making it illegal to smoke cigarettes in your car. There are commercials on local TV telling me to go vegan. Sure, sure, the fiscal state of the city is a major issue in the upcoming election. Sure, corruption is an issue. But those things are and always will be jammed up by political gridlock. The plastic bag, soda and smoking bans are the type of thing this city achieves. These are the things people agree on. Nobody can agree that we need better infrastructure, or that we need double the amount of highways that we have, or that we need some useful way to help the homeless help themselves. Nobody agrees on that stuff, so nothing changes.
If this were Sim City, I'd delete this game and start a new one.
P.S.- To all the wonderful people I have met here, I hope you aren't mad that I just shit all over your city. Problems and all, Los Angeles is, at some level, a place like any other, filled with all kinds of people, good and bad. And if you've lived here long, I think you'd be hard pressed to disagree with what I've said.
As a sci-fi nerd, flashy special effects in movies has always been a given. It really isn't sci-fi unless there's something fantastic or unreal about it, and in movies this almost always demands the use of prosthetic makeup or CG. It's something you learn to expect.
But for some reason, I've always disliked it when the CG is in your face, even when it's done well. Like in the God-forsaken Star Wars trilogy re-release; where elaborate CG scenes are cut and pasted onto otherwise perfect sequences; lasers that were once totally believable beams of fuzzy light are suddenly crisp, three-dimensional lines that only highlight the limitations of 1070's film making; Yoda, who was once a totally believable, even life-like puppet, suddenly jumps and spins and loses every ounce of his wizened credibility.
Or take Avatar, a movie whose entire reason for existing was a masturbatory exercise in computer generated reality. There, you don't even have the obvious contrast between what's real and what's green screen or motion capture suits. The CG blends seamlessly, even artfully with the live-action shots. And yet it still left a bad taste in my mouth. I, a master of suspending disbelief, walked out of that movie with a pervasive sense of implausibility and falsehood.
I've felt like this for several years, and its only recently that I've been able to put my finger on why
If you keep reading this blog, you will no doubt continue to catch references to the book Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King. The book gave names and rules to vague feelings I've always had about story-craft, be it in film or on paper. It crystallized the unknown reasons behind objections I'd never before been able to articulate. It even managed to shed light on why I don't like overblown CG in my sci-fi movies.
In the book, a great deal is made of the fact that when one is reading a good book, one is immersed to a point where the real world falls away, and only the story exists. If you've ever read a great work of fiction, you've no doubt experienced this; where you crack a book, blink your eyes a time or two and suddenly four hours have passed. John Gardener, in his equally life-changing book On Becoming a Novelist (another book you'll probably see me refer to a lot), refers to this experience as "The vivid and continuous dream." In Self Editing, Brown and King repeatedly emphasize that all decisions a writer or editor makes must be in service to the vivid and continuous dream. Every word must be crafted to enhance it, and when a particular turn of phrase or a badly jumbled sentence distracts from it, the reader is robbed of part of the intended experience.
When a word is mispeled, or a sentence is so long that verbs and subjects are forgotten in the sea of unnecessary, obscuring, unwelcome adjectives, when subclauses extend to the point of inviting ridicule from editors, readers and critics alike, when punctuation, is, used... improperly or (without merit), the reader is robbed of a part of that vivid and continuous dream. Like I just tried to do with that last sentence. I'm betting some of you had to read it twice to put it all together. Isn't it maddening when you have to do that in the middle of a book? Doesn't it draw you out of the story?
That's exactly the point that Brown and King make. And it's not only errors that damage the vivid and continuous dream. Subtle stylistic choices like unnecessarily flowery language, or the noticing of details that a particular character would likely be blind to, or the sudden switching from my point of view to his, all of these draw attention to the writers technique and thusly away from the story itself. A casual or uninformed reader may not notice this explicitly, but they are likely to recall less of the book, or they may have a vague feeling like something is wrong, without knowing what. That's because the writer's technique or style is commanding your attention instead of the story. So every creative decision that is made, must be made in service to the vivid and continuous dream.
And that, my friends, is exactly why I hate in your face CG in movies. When I see a 1970's Harrison Ford talking to a very 21st century Jabba the Hut outside of the Millennium Falcon, I'm not thinking about the fact that Han is trying to talk his way out of a confrontation with a powerful crime lord, I'm thinking about the fact that Jabba stands out against the background. When I see a tall blue guy galloping through the magical forests of Pandora with his new found alien love, I'm not thinking about the fact that his loyalties are evolving and that the humans are cruelly exploiting a beautiful and wondrous place, I'm thinking about how many interns it took to render that glowing plant, or how the motion capture suit works, or at best I'm thinking about the fact that the background looks really cool. Either way, I'm not thinking about the story.
And now that I think about it, this is why I prefer musicality to technical skill in my rock music. When Ynwie Malmsteen is shredding my face off, I'm thinking about how fast his fingers are moving, not about the music, and that's why I can't remember a note of it. When Inferno is slamming out blast beat after blast beat, there's really no hook that I can tap along to. But when Hendrix played the national anthem, all I could think about was the ironic and yet patriotic statement he was making, and how his rendition of that song distilled the entire spirit of Woodstock, hell the entire idiom of the 1960's into one piece of simple, expressive music.
So, in conclusion: anything, in any artistic medium, that draws attention away from that which is expressed, and draws attention to how it is expressed does a disservice to those who experience it. Good art is transparent, and the best artists are invisible.
Progressive rock is a tricky business, and a hard sell even in it's prime. Most rock listeners like rock music because it does a lot with very little (though I doubt they are aware they like it for this reason). It's a very expressive music, but it requires no great deal of attention or concentration to enjoy. The best rock music hits you on a visceral level; it gets in your bones long before it reaches your brain.
Not so with progressive rock. It aims straight for the brain, and it demands almost infinite patience to really appreciate all a particular composition has to offer. Prog rock, from an analytic standpoint, has a lot more in common with classical than rock. The concepts are generally larger, or explored more thoroughly, and the music is much more intricate. Though this demands much from the listener, it also offers more; the ideas that can be expressed are that much bigger. Good prog rock is like watching a movie montage in your imagination.
But there is such a thing as music that is overwrought. Occasionally, an artist will come up with a fairly simple idea or story and wrap it up in hours of impossibly dense guitar noodling and so many time-signature shifts it's hard to call the result music.
Such is the case with the album Into the Electric Castle by Ayreon. It's the case with all their work, unfortunately, but nowhere was it made clearer than on this album. Like so many terrible bands in this world, Ayreon is a revolving door cast of musicians built around the ego of a single (admittedly talented) musician. Ayreon is one of a growing constellation of projects revolving around Arjen A. Lucassen. He plays nearly every instrument on all of his projects, and the "bands" really only exist so that he can take his projects on tour. Sometimes this formula works, as it did for Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age). In Lucassen's case, however, the ambition far outshines the execution.
Into the Electric Castle is a 160 minute double-cd concept piece. All of Ayreon's albums are. Keep in mind that the hardiest of human attention spans averages about 30 minutes for single-sense stimulation. The story is about a handful of people from various eras in human history brought together in a mysterious alternate dimension to go on an adventure together, and guess where they're headed? That's right, Into the Electric Castle.
If that doesn't sound hack-ish enough already, Try some of the lyrics on for size:
Welcome! You have entered the cranial vistas of psychogenesis. This is the place of no-time and
no-space. Do not be afraid for I am merely the vocal manifestation of your eternal dreams. I am
as water, as air - like breath itself. Do not be afraid.
Look around, but linger not. Where I lead you will follow. Mark these words well. Ignite my
anger with your delay and punishments will come your way.
You are eight souls of the flesh, chosen from different eras ancient and modern. The trivia of
your mortal lives is unimportant to me... Indeed, some may die...
You have a task: to release yourselves from this Web of Wisdom, this knotted Maze of Delirium,
you must enter the nuclear portals of the Electric Castle!
This is a brief spoken word piece that begins the journey. If you don't think that sounds corny, then leave this page and never come back.
I'm a sci-fi nerd. I find it easy to suspend my disbelief. I find it even easier to accept flights of pseudo-scientific fancy and impossible gadgeteering, but only if there's a point to it. Only if there's some core of human expression, literary commentary or character development wrapped up in the cheap devices of the genre.
Ayreon forgoes these for the sake of sheer immensity. The point here seems to be only to stretch the journey of the protagonists so that it will cover all 160 minutes. One event doesn't really lead to another. No single character seems to grow or develop as a result of the events of the plot. And the "twist" at the end goes from vague to opaque.
The music, while an amazing display of technical ability, utterly fails to live up to the intended level of drama. It makes adequate room for the well delivered vocals, and it peppers the songs with searing hot instrumental solos. Unfortunately not a single second of it is memorable. I'm sure there are people who could sing along to music like this, but only after deliberately taking the time to memorize it. It's a meandering, hook-less mishmash of angular prog instumentals and soaring, Opeth-aping heavy metal chord progressions. If "Stairway to Heaven" is like reading the Brothers Grimm, Into The Electric Castle is like reading a law school textbook.
Lucassen is so good at so many instruments that coming up with riffs is like taking a dump for him. The problem is that he tries to write a rock opera around every one. It's exhausting, and the payoff is a shoddily slapped together, pointless story.
The single worst thing about this album, for me, is that the story is nearly identical to one I tried to write. In college I spent countless hours interweaving several short stories in an attempt to craft a novel about several protagonists who are taken to a mysterious alternate dimension. After I listened to all 160 minutes of Into the Electric Castle in utter disbelief, I realized what a huge bullet I had dodged. Not only had someone beaten me to it, but it was BAD. I'm ever thankful that I wised up and scrapped the thing. Who wants to read or listen for an eternity in order to receive at best, a jumbled, incoherent moral insisting that humanity is innately flawed?
Back when I was a teenager, I thought I hated cops. I had absolutely no real-world basis for this opinion, it's just that most people hated cops. You tend to hear mostly bad things about cops, so it's easy to dislike them. But I wasn't much of a troublemaker in those days, I was a straight-edge punk who spent most of his time writing. I never really had any run-ins with the law.
In college, I was even more certain that I hated cops. I was an advanced troublemaker at that time, and most of the things I did for fun were frowned on by the law. I definitely had one rather dramatic run-in with the law, one that ended up with me in cuffs for the first and only time in my life. The cops, while not particularly brutal, were less than cordial, to be sure, and definitely had difficulty seeing things form my perspective.
But in recent years I've put all those activities behind me, and in retrospect, I thank my lucky stars for that run in with the cops, because it diverted me from a path whose ending I can surmise would be much less fulfilling than the one I currently walk. And in further retrospect, when I reflect on the type of people I associated with in college, I realize that I disliked most of them. I wasn't a born criminal, like so many I knew in those days. I was born into privilege, by worldly standards, and had much to be thankful for throughout my life. My forays into trouble making were at most, a dalliance, a brief tarry on my way to a normal life. Many with whom I associated in my tarnished past had a lot less to be thankful for, and had decided to take it out on the world. I was never like that. At worst, I rationalized a long string of selfish, short-sighted choices.
But some people - people I've met - are born scum. It's possible to forgive some of their low-life activities, because, as I said, they have little to be thankful for. But I am a person who believes in being responsible for one's own choices and actions, and in the final analysis, most scummy people choose to be scum and refuse to rise above it, even when given the opportunity. Some people make only selfish, short sighted choices. Some people never become aware of the consequences of their actions. Some people take and refuse to give. Some people believe that they have the right to use violence for personal gain. Some people, at a deep level, choose to hate the world, and therefore have nothing to lose. And for these people, crime is a habit, an occupation, a lifestyle.
Not every criminal is a homicidal maniac, but the vast majority of them are some level of scum. The vast majority of them are selfish, short-sighted people. Even when I was acting like one of them, I knew they were bad news. The negativity you feel in the presence of bad people is a tangible thing. It's no wonder we call them scum; it's almost as if you can smell it on them, as if you can feel it on your skin when you're around them, as if they leave a trail of it wherever they go.
The police, while flawed in their own right, are society's only line of defense against these people. In my personal opinion 90% of what is wrong with law enforcement is merely a side effect of high dosage scum exposure. The scum leaves it's mark on many well-intentioned cops. The most level headed of them still emerge with a grim view of human nature, and who could blame them? I was surrounded by scummy people for a few years, and it nearly robbed me of my innate positive outlook on life. Being friends with scum has damaged me. Can you imagine being their enemy?
One of the biggest problems with cops is that they treat everybody like they're a criminal. If you were knee-deep in the filth of humanity day in and day out, you might make such snap judgements just as easily. But in a cop's position, safety is an issue as well. Not only is it easy to assume that a given person is scum because that's all you see, there's also the fact that if you do give someone the benefit of the doubt and you're wrong... it could mean your life. It's not safe for a cop to assume that people are just people. It's not safe for them to look at me and see the nerdy, jovial kid who just smoked pot one too many times; they're forced to look at me and see a violent, hardened drug dealer who hides behind a harmless facade.
So I raise my glass to any decent cop who has managed to wade daily into human cesspools and return with even a glimmer of positivity in their eye. I couldn't do it. For those who are ruined by the job, who end up hating humanity, or who become so immersed in the scum that they turn out scummy themselves, I have only sympathy. It's not their fault. Few, precious few, who elect law enforcement as a career do it because of some inferiority complex, or a propensity for violence. Few walk into that world with malicious intent. The rest are just victims of the worst job on the planet. They can hate me all they want, they can judge me unfairly, they can puff out their chests and act like they're better than me... so long as they keep me alive when I accidentally stumble into Inglewood in the middle of the L.A. night, or when I cross the river in St. Louis, or if I wander south of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Just keep me alive, and I'll always give the cops the benefit if the doubt.
When I've tried to do this in the past, I've ended up... with... a lot of... sentences... that are, uh... full of ellipses... and, uh... filler, like... the word "uh". And this is annoying to read. Though it is fairly accurate, a lot of people speaking a second language who aren't totally fluent will have to pause often to consider their next words, running through a sort of mental dictionary to find the right ones. But there are other, more elegant ways of illustrating this to the reader, and subtler ways to show that the person speaking isn't perfectly proficient in English.
We'll see how I do. I'm scared to death of coming across as judgy or condescending.
In the process of looking this stuff up, I've found my self positively enraptured by the power of grammar to artistically communicate ideas. As a native English speaker I use grammar automatically, whether I use it correctly or not. So automatically that I sometimes forget it's there, and I definitely forget the rules because I'm at a point in my life where I'm no longer being graded on it. I do well enough in every day conversation. I would even go so far as to say, on average, I speak with remarkable clarity in social situations. But that's not enough in writing. I need the tools to practice the trade. And I'm loving the process of boning up. Did you know what a Parallelism is? I didn't!
Not that anyone who reads this blog will ever see a single subordinate clause of my new found powers. After all, this blog is called Pete Rambles, and that's exactly what I intend to do.
But suffice it to say that after a few hours of reading up on grammar and sentence style, I feel like I'm Batman, and I'm building the Bat-Arsenal. A while ago I read a book called Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. That was like getting the Batmobile. Then I read On Becoming a Novelist my John Gardener. that was like finding and furnishing the Bat-cave. Now, with The Everyday Writer , I'm minting fresh Bat throwing-stars and reinforcing the Kevlar in the Bat suit. It's pretty awesome when something so mundane can make you feel like such a hard case.
To those of you who know Tom Waits, I doubt it comes a s a huge surprise that this is my favorite album he ever did. It's a moment in his career where his vast musical influences were distilled into something memorable, artistic and accessible. To those of you who aren't familiar with Tom Waits, a few brief preliminaries.
[audio:http://peterambles.blog.com/files/2013/02/06-Tom-Waits-Eggs-and-Sausage-In-a-Cadillac-with-Susan-Michelson.mp3|titles=06 Tom Waits - Eggs and Sausage (In a Cadillac with Susan Michelson)]
Tom Waits came of age on the fringes of the Beat Generation, a loose association of poets, writers, singers and jazz musicians with a flair for anti-establishment lifestyles and the artistic expression thereof. Tom Waits himself didn't start recording until the early 70's, however, so he isn't officially considered part of the Beat Generation, whose activities were mostly centered in the 50's and 60's. Waits does, however, reflect their style well, and manages to distill it into something less political, more comprehensible and completely unique.
The first thing anyone notices about Waits is his voice. It sounds like decades of cigarettes and whiskey filtered over a steady diet of asphalt and tree bark. His distinctive croak lends itself well to the vocal jazz/blues that make up much of his work, but it also gets a riotous showcase in his latter-day pirate/circus/freakshow music. It's hard to pin the man to a genre, he just is Tom Waits.
Nighthawks at the Diner is a live album containing all previously unreleased material. Most songs feature a rambling preamble from Waits that gives you the authentic feel of being in a diner in the wee hours of some drunken evening, listening to some unsung genius pour his twisted heart out on the linoleum floor. Through a haze of greasy steam and cigarette smoke, Waits croons about everything from lost loves to booze-soaked evenings alone, from questionable meals in divey restaurants to romantic "dates" with himself. It's an uncommon record from an uncommon artist, and nowhere is his individual style clearer or better presented. His ability to paint images into your head through deft word choice, sincerity and clarity are paralleled by none in any era, in any genre.
Waits feels to me like an urban Johnny Cash, and this is his Live at Folsom Prison.
When one thinks of British progressive rock, probably the first two names to come up will be Yes and Genesis. Both are excellent examples of the genre, with nods to classical and jazz music, extended song cycle compositions, deft instrumentals, long solo passages for nearly every instrument, psychedelic, story-telling lyrics and cerebral, challenging, concept-oriented subject matter. But there is one band that very few living people still recall, their records buried in discount bins and their dynamic sonic prowess all but forgotten. I am talking about Gentle Giant, one of the most original and talented bands to emerge from England in the 1970's (and that's saying something. Lotta great stuff from that time and place)
It seems like it was an unspoken tradition of 70's prog that your fourth album had to be a self-styled masterpiece. Yes had Fragile, Genesis had Foxtrot, ELP had Brain Salad Surgery (if you don't count Pictures at an Exhibition, which I don't because it's a live album of the band covering a classical piece), and Gentle Giant had Octopus.
Octopus was the unquestioned pinnacle of their career. It consists, appropriately, of only 8 songs, each wildly different from the next. I came across this band and this album in my days with Soulseek, a now-defunct P2P file sharing program, and this album has endured as one of the staples of my listening rotation, even as the haze of marijuana has cleared from my mind since college. Each song could have been performed by a completely different band, and each could have been that band's magnum opus. For Gentle Giant, it was but a milestone on a career that contains no less than 8 albums of this quality (and 2 that are decidedly lower), however, Octopus remains the most immediate and accessible of these.
The album begins with "The Advent of Panurge" , a sort of sequel to a previous song "Pantagruel's Nativity". It is a subtly creepy song about a demon who bewitches the title character from the previous song, becoming his friend. It features dense, stunning keyboard and bass interplay underscoring the dynamic, operatic vocal.
The album then moves on to "Raconteur, Troubadour", a song that whimsically recalls medieval musicians with violins, asymmetrical drum work, and jazzy interludes that sounds like they're backing up a montage of travelers on horseback.
The band then brings out their classically informed take on muscular hard rock with the guitar-led "A Cry For Everyone" The guitar and keyboard attack of the main riff would have made Deep Purple proud, but Deep Purple could never have pulled off the busy solo interludes with such flair and subtlety.
Things rocket into the stratosphere, however, on the next track "Knots". The song centers on a dense, knotted interplay of acapella vocals whose impenetrable lyrics serve to enhance the message of emotional confusion. In all the history of music, I have never heard a single song like this one. It simply has to be heard to be understood. [audio:http://peterambles.blog.com/files/2013/02/04-Knots.mp3|titles=04 Knots]The brief instrumental passages are masterful in their restraint, and devilish in their uncommon arrangement. The song creeps you out, confuses you, and makes you bang your head all at once. And the xylophone solo cooks. Who does a xylophone solo right before a heavy metal breakdown? Only Gentle Giant.
The only way to follow such an left field masterpiece is the side two opener "The Boys in the Band" The song begins with a burst of laughter, as if to say that the titular "boys" were just having a bit of fun on this track. However, Gentle Giant's idea of mucking around for fun on their instruments ends up being a song whose complexity is unmatched in the annals of rock and roll. Yes has done things this intricate, but never so memorably.
The album takes a much welcome step back at this point for the quiet, violin led "Dog's Life" a picturesque fairy-tale about man's best friend.
From there, the band moves into almost radio friendly ballad territory with "Think of Me with Kindness" The chord progression in this song could easily have made a hit for the likes of Billy Joel, and the sincere, heart-felt lyrics soar above driving piano and bass work. People who know me well have been very surprised that I count this among my favorite songs, being that I generally gravitate towards more aggressive or complex music. But this song takes the typical ballad and recreates it with such artistry that it becomes something totally different.
Album closer "The River" is nothing if not a jazz-rock masterpiece. (I realize that's the third time I've used that word in this article. I can't find another word that even comes close to describing these songs) It rocks and sways like a canoe on the rapids, with ballsy guitar work and ethereal jazz keyboards as it's oars. The guitar solo towards the middle could easily have been Pink Floyd in the Dark Side days. The longest song at nearly 6 minutes, this one never gets less interesting, even for a second. (6 minutes is positively short for prog rock. How this band was able to pack so much variety into so little time is dumbfounding)
I also have the pleasure of owning a DVD of a live performance by the band during this era. Every member, even the drummer, plays 3 or more instruments over the course of a 40 minute set, and each instrument seems like it's their primary one. Quite simply, Gentle Giant are virtuosos at everything, from instruments, to composition, to arrangement. And as insanely talented as they are, they never feel like they're showing off. The music never feels overwrought or flashy. It's just fun for the thinking man at a very high level of ability.