No Cheers for Democracy in the Middle East

A funny thing happened this week in the midst of America’s 10 Year War to Bring Democracy to the Middle East. Inhabitants of an actual Middle Eastern dictatorship took to the streets, yearning to breathe free and all that stuff.

In Egypt, which has been ruled under “Emergency Law” since 1967, no one runs against President Hosni Mubarak, the rule of law is what Mubarak says it is, the Egyptian “parliament” exists to do Mubarak’s bidding, all media is state controlled, and the government has the right to arrest anyone it wishes to, for any period of time, for virtually no reason.
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Kevin Smith Vs. The World

Sundance Film Festival 2011 is winding down and the big news isn’t about any breakout critics’ darling or big acquisition. The buzz is all about Red State, a movie that received mixed reviews at best and didn’t earn a distribution deal at all.

To be specific, the buzz isn’t so much about Red State, an uneasy mix of horror film and political/religious diatribe, as it is about the film’s director, Kevin Smith. Has Kevin Smith gone too far this time with his fake auction stunt? Is his decision to self-distribute his new film via a whistlestop nationwide tour of personal appearances a viable model for film distribution in the social-media era? Has Kevin Smith burned his bridges? Why is he biting the indie distribution hand that has fed him for years?

The truth, of course, is that Kevin Smith is just doing what he always does. Turning chicken feathers into chicken salad. This is the genius of Kevin Smith.
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Songs For Old People To Dance To: Top 15 Tracks of 2010

Why 15? Because I couldn’t cut five from this list. I’m told that my blog entries are too long, and this is another long one. (I just can’t shut up.) In the old days, when I’d compose year-end mix tapes for whomever I was dating at the time, it was easy to selectively forget tracks that I’d tired of by year’s end and sub them out for edgier, less immediately accessible things that portrayed my musical taste in a more flattering light. Today, however, the iPod is a strictly literal indicator of what its user is REALLY listening to. In compiling this list, (presented here in no particular order), I’ve relied heavily on that last column in the iTunes playlist program under the subhead “Plays.” In other words, it’s all ice cream and french fries this time around. No broccoli.

The Suburbs / Arcade Fire

The Suburbs (YouTube)

I was a long time coming around to Arcade Fire (in fact, I may be walking in the front door just as everyone else is slipping out the back door), but the first single and title track off their 3rd album grabbed me by the ears and wouldn’t let go. A roadhouse piano stomper about some kind of disaster witnessed from afar by emotionally numb lovers on the run, “The Suburbs” kicks off a cycle of insightful, nuanced takes on contemporary suburban living. No small feat.

Little Wig / Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti

Little Wig (YouTube)

Critical darling Ariel Pink spends most of his time on Before Today coming on like a roughed-up, lo-fi Roxy Music or (dare I say it) 10cc. So it comes as quite a surprise when the chunky guitar blare of “Little Wig,” an extended pop-rock nugget that sounds like the Kinks, circa 1966, suddenly booms out of the speakers. I get the rest of the record, with its violins, synths, saxes, and faux-lux sheen, but I’m pretty partial to chunky guitar blare, too. Especially British Explosion chunky guitar blare that gives GBV’s Robert Pollard a run for his money.
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The End Is Near, Update and Excerpt

I knew it was time to let the book go to the printer when I started changing the title. I kept it long enough to move the release date from 9/28/10 to a Tuesday (undetermined) in October.

Here’s the front cover at left, plus another excerpt below. You’ll find the full printer’s proof of the cover design at the bottom.

Now, I can start tinkering with the website. Hey, we’re getting there.

§

June 22nd, early am

I wasn’t going to do this. Leave a suicide note.

People in my position, in extremis, as it were, often delude themselves with the notion that they have something special—or necessary—to impart, at the end. As if the last moments of life were some grand stage and the mere proximity of death might confer some great wisdom.

But what is there to say, really? Not much, in most cases. Why am I killing myself? For the same reason anyone does, I guess. The less said, the better.

Tonight, though, that changed. My simple suicide has become a murder-suicide. Before I kill myself, I’m going to confront Randy Trent with his crimes of long ago. Then I’m going to kill him. I may torment him a bit in the days leading up to that confrontation.

That’s why I’m writing this tonight, instead of being dead. That’s why you’re reading this.
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Ferrell vs. Pitt

The movie poster at left is an excellent indicator of the degree to which Hollywood has its head stuck up its own ass.

As a father of a ten-year-old and a seven-year-old, I see a lot of big-budget Hollywood cartoons. Sometimes, as is the case with the recent “Despicable Me,” I have to see them twice. It was during the second trip to “Despicable Me” that I saw this poster for “MegaMind.”

Take a look at the poster and tell me what’s wrong with it. No, go ahead. Take a minute. If you’re a parent of young children, it didn’t take you more than a second.

My kids don’t give a rat’s ass who “Ferrell” and “Pitt” are. They care about mad scientists and plucky heroines in trouble and superheroes with weird powers. They care about earnest sponges with a can-do spirit and whiz-bang gadget inventors. They like explosions and narrow escapes.
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Ray Bradbury at 90

When Ray Bradbury misses, he misses by a mile. This propensity springs, in large part, from the man’s amazing productivity. Ray Bradbury has been writing every day, at the pace of roughly a completed story per week, since 1932. He has never been the kind of guy who agonizes over revisions or censors his worst impulses. He writes stories, sets them free to sink or sail, and moves on. Some of the tales that proved seaworthy are among the greatest stories ever written in English.

In the beginning, he wrote this way because he wrote to eat. His earliest stories filled the pages of a self-published fanzine called Futuria Fantasia (which he produced in print runs of 100 or less and sold on street corners). Later, he started placing his stories in pulp story digests like Super Science Stories, Dime Mystery, and Weird Tales. In the 1940s, his stories were being anthologized, and in 1950 his first collection, The Martian Chronicles, was published. Ray had arrived.

But he never changed the way he wrote. The decades passed, the demands on his time multiplied exponentially, and Bradbury still wrote every day, still wrapped up a story more or less every week. This approach to writing is anathema to mainstream fiction writers today, who are taught to obsess over every participle and pronoun. Top-tier MFA programs teach writers to re-write and re-write and re-write, to workshop those results, and then re-write some more. The inevitable result of all this relentless fine-tuning and focus-grouping is a marketplace full of novels that all read the same.

Bradbury never sands the rough edges off his fiction. He is never dour or difficult or obscene for art’s sake. He never shies away from topics or themes that his more jaded contemporaries might deem too sentimental or maudlin. Even his worst stories convey the sense of an author who is absolutely unafraid of taking chances or of looking foolish. His stories always sound like Ray Bradbury and no one else.
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Too Old for the Club

First, the bad news. I’m going to be 48 years old tomorrow.

It took me forever to realize I wasn’t young anymore. Until I was forty, the thought never really crossed my mind. When I was in my early 30s, I was hanging out with people much like myself. None of us were married. We lived in apartments and threw big noisy parties on weekends. We went to hipster rock clubs in lower Manhattan that catered to snobby music fans in their late 20s and early 30s, just like us. We gathered on Sunday mornings in bars and watched pro football all day. We dated the wrong people and changed jobs a lot.

Some of that came to an end when I got married at 35. But not all of it. Continue reading

Confessions of a Sex And The City Fan

Surreal sexual shenanigans ahead.

First, some points of order.

Yes, I am a fan of Sex And The City. Yes, I am a guy.

No, I am not a fashion designer, an event planner, or an interior decorator. No, I cannot tell an expensive women’s shoe from an inexpensive one. (As for dresses, if Sarah Jessica Parker suddenly appears dressed as a hibiscus or a Venetian gondola, I assume she is wearing an expensive dress. Otherwise, I can’t tell.)

I should also say that I have not seen the recent Sex And The City 2. I am the father of a seven-year-old and a ten-year-old, so it’s been quite some time since I’ve been in a movie theater watching a movie that didn’t feature a mythic creature, a superhero and/or a talking animal. I’ll see Sex And The City 2 the way I see every movie—on DVD, at night, after the kids have gone to sleep.
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It’s Your Top 10 Hit Parade from the Summer of 1980

I remember the summer of 1980 as a season of eerie silence. I lived in an empty house that season; I was in full retreat from the world. I was waiting for September, waiting for my freshman year of college to begin. It was the season of the Long Wait.

The Up Escalator: Graham Parker
Released: May, 1980

Like many kids in 1980, I first encountered Parker by way of Arista Records’ promotional push for him in 1980. A video for “Stupefaction” appeared on Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert and the musician himself performed on Fridays, a short-lived ABC sketch-comedy SNL knockoff. I didn’t know it at the time, but Parker had just jettisoned his long-time band, the Rumour, and his horn section in an attempt to transition from blue-eyed soul and R&B to a more mainstream “rock” sound. I bought Parker’s records for years and saw him in concert at least twice, but my infatuation with him is a mystery to me now. I suppose his sneering contempt for everything must have appealed to me. All of his 80s records come off today as wordy, keyboard-heavy, and marred by self pity. Later, he would write bad fiction.

Self-pity and a sense of being under-appreciated in a nowhere house in a nowhere town were my primary states of mind in the summer of 1980. My father had taken an apartment in North Bergen, forty miles to the east of us. His infrequent return visits only served to remind us that there were bad things going on in his new life, things we didn’t want to know about. My mother worked in an insurance office during the day and went out to church bingo every night, a different parish each night, seven nights a week. She would come home at eleven at night, watch the local news, and fall asleep in her chair.

Jackrabbit Slim: Steve Forbert
Released: October 1979

Steve Forbert was probably the last breakout singer/songwriter to be foiled by an overt “New Dylan” record-label campaign. Forbert’s willingness to include a song titled “Sadly Sorta Like a Soap Opera” on his debut suggests he wasn’t exactly an unwitting dupe in the plot. I liked this record when it came out—“Romeo’s Tune” was a Top 10 Billboard hit in the spring of 1980—though I don’t remember ever buying another Steve Forbert record. I guess nobody else did, either. After re-visiting a number of 1980 albums for this entry, I found the production here to be a relief. No dorky synths, no saxophones, no “big drum” sound, no portentous vocal overdubs. Just Forbert’s insightful and understated lyrics, set to humble, uncluttered arrangements of guitar, drums, and the occasional harmonica. Surprising.

I should clarify, by the way, that I wasn’t purchasing “records” in 1980. I was buying pre-recorded cassettes to play on my Soundesign stereo. The Soundesign was what they called a “shelf system”—tuner, built-in cassette deck, and two speakers. I kept it on a shelf that had previously held Revell models of aircraft and military vehicles, the kind you assembled with Testors plastic cement and painted with Testors paints that came in tiny bottles. My brother and I officially shared a bedroom for all of the 17 years we lived under the same roof, but by 1980 we were heartily sick of each other and I was sleeping on the couch in the living room. My brother, sister, and I avoided each other completely in the months before I left for college. We had nothing left to say to each other. I had a little one-speaker cassette player that I kept beside the couch. At night, after my midnight run and an hour or two of the CBS Late Movie, I would put a cassette in the player on low volume and let it lull me off into sleep.
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Idols Melting in the Summer Sun

Pale and hungover and hiding behind enormous black sunglasses, they looked small in the full light of day. Indeed, stranded in the wilds of New Jersey, they were looking around themselves as if they had never before seen the full light of day.

The few mentions their Lollapalooza sets received in the music press that year would inevitably make some reference to “vampires caught out after dawn.” But the truth was, they didn’t look like anything so glamorous. They looked lost and forlorn.

The Reid brothers had always snubbed the conventions of rock star bombast. Early Jesus and Mary Chain shows in 1985 and 1986 had lasted twenty minutes or less, the Reids playing the entire time with their backs to the audience. Their first singles had been delayed by the Reids’ insistence that they be pressed with a ramshackle “Jesus Fuck” tune on their B-sides. Their drummer’s kit for those early shows consisted of two tiny snares, the bass player’s instrument had only two strings. Their music had been approvingly described as the sound of someone in another apartment down the hall, playing the Velvet’s “Sister Ray” at maximum volume while also shearing sheets of aluminum with a table saw. And the people—which in the Chain’s case meant the London music press, then the London club scene, then Anglophile college-radio geeks in America—ate it up.
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