Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Present Perfect

"...the pop star, as we knew her"--and here he bowed slightly, in her direction--"was actually an artifact of preubiquitous media."


"Of a state in which 'mass' media existed, if you will, within the world."

"As opposed to?"

"Comprising it."

(From Spook Country by William Gibson)

I grew up with Mr. Gibson, I guess, seduced like everybody else by his Prettily Wasted nineteen-eighties version of the twenty-first century--conspicuously lacking flying cars and robots, but full of expensive drugs and more expensive computers. And I still like his recent stuff, too--although he's long since rejected the Future for the bleeding edge of the present. As that passage indicates, he now wants badly to be Don Delillo II, and in some ways he's better with the poetry of Waves and Radiation than Delillo could ever be. He's still trying to work with thriller plots, though; it seems to be what he's most comfortable with. And Spook Country is entertaining enough, as were the few books before it--but for thrillers they're pretty sedate. Not a whole lot seems at stake. But this book, at least, seems to be trying to jumpstart a series of some kind--at least I hope so. It seems perverse to invent a Supercool Cuban-Chinese Gangster Kid with mysterious Santeria-derived ninja skills, and then use him only to plug holes in a shipping container with magnets. (Don't ask.) There must be more non-futuristic adventures in store for that guy, and possibly for the novel's protagonist, Hollis Henry, an eighties underground rock star turned amateur spy. But all the paranoia and gadgetry and portentous pop-culture philosophizing made it worth the time, certainly. Plus, there's a character from Gibson's last, Pattern Recognition, back for a second engagement, and he has the wonderful name of Hubertus Bigend. What more do you want?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Winged Victory

I'm not sure what I may or may not have told some of you in order to win your affection, but the truth is that I'm not really any kind of ornithologist. Birds are perfectly fine with me in the abstract--it's nice that they can fly around, and everything--but up close they tend to be a little bit scary and more than a little bit unhygienic. They don't seem to have any good reason to like us, and I'm usually pretty sure they don't.

But I still have to be sort of impressed when I walk a block or two from my house and come across a damned bald eagle. Well, "come across" makes the encounter sound more dramatic than it was--it was at the top of a very tall tree and paid no attention to us whatsoever.
But I'm a city boy at heart, and, you know...EAGLE! It was like an airbrushed painting from the back window of an F-150 pickup had sprung to life, right in my neighborhood! (There wasn't much mistaking it, in case you're quite rightly doubting my identification skills--my lousy cellphone photography doesn't do it justice. The bright white head, and the sheer intimidating size. Those are crows sitting there in that photo, eyeing the visitor with some alarm, not sparrows.

And on President's Day! Anybody else here proud to be an American? Huh? Am I right? For a moment I felt certain that it was the reincarnated spirit of Jimmy Carter, come to bestow blessing on us. Then, you know, I checked Wikipedia. Now I'm thinking William McKinley.

Bird songs:
(These are also walking-in-February songs, conveniently enough.)


"The Funny Bird"
(Mercury Rev)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Back at the Alma Mater—Bancroft High, Rust Belt University, whatever you prefer. I have not yet been seized, so presumably I'm still allowed on campus. Or else I haven't been spotted yet. I'm supposed to sit in on a fiction-writing class as an Elder Statesman, which will be fun unless someone lets on to the kids just how little fiction I've written. But it's pleasant and gratifying to linger here and wander through my old time-wasting haunts and drink tea and savor the fact that the place no longer has any power over me. Nobody within miles of me is allowed to impose any deadlines on me or require me to get up in the morning! Even when I was having fun here, I was always at least a third of the way to terrified at all times. There was a good chance, at any given moment, that there was something that I should be doing but wasn't.

Also wonderful is something I'd always loved but forgotten all about—our Student Union has the only ATM in the known world that actually asks you to "Input Desired Amount in Multiples of $1." Yes, one dollar. It looks like a programming error, but it's totally for real and legit. And it shows such concern for and understanding of the customer base, on the part of the financial institution responsible. Let me be the first to say that as an undergraduate, it often matters a great deal that you are able to withdraw, say, seventeen dollars instead of twenty. Sometimes twenty is too much. Sometimes ten is. I never actually tried to withdraw a dollar, but I hope that this machine would allow it.

What isn't pleasant is the fact that I no longer can get on the Rust Belt Wireless Network! I don't have an account; as far as this institution's Information Technology is concerned, I don't exist! For somebody like me, this is awful, like losing a limb. Like coming home at night and finding the locks changed. Let me be the first to make the public call for an official Alumnae Login. But anyway, this means that I won't post this till later.

Also, I was dismayed to find that the burger place in the student union that I remembered with guilty fondness was gone--replaced by some salad joint. Called "Croutons." Seriously, Croutons! Now, a lesser satirist would make some hackneyed decade-old point about health-obsessed Americans, as if I couldn't get plenty of other bad food within forty feet of Croutons. But I'll merely point out that you don't win friends with salad.

I hope I'm allowed to address the student body this evening. I have a speech ready.

Kids! Stay in school! I know you think that studying isn't "rad," or "dope." But getting mixed up with drugs and gangs isn't "cool" at all. By the time I was your age, I'd killed six guys. [Pause. Lift shirt, exposing surgical scar from 1978. Wait for gasps to die down.] ...And I'd come within inches of dying myself. But then I learned about a guy, a really Powerful guy, who doesn't care if you're "cool" or not. He's always there for you, and if you need somebody to turn to, well, he's your man.

His name...is Prince. And he is funky. Now do your homework!

Or I could just "scare them straight" about their study habits. I'm a cautionary tale!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Make It New

Well, I had to do a New Year's post, didn't I? I can never just stay silent forever--I have a sense of Occasion to indulge! So, a good year to you, reader--those of you I have or haven't seen lately and those of you whom I never see. Hope everything is tolerable and calm. Hope you had more New Year excitement than I did, but not too much.

As for me, I literally drank herbal tea and went to bed. And this fact doesn't even bother me, which clearly must mean that I am Old. I can handle that. I plan to carefully hold all my Excitement in reserve until I really need it. Although you should still let me know if you're doing anything Exciting. Always.

A New Year's song, sort of:
This Year - The Mountain Goats
Darnielle, clever and wounded. My brother. But a lovely streak of stubborn defiance in this one; there's a hell of lot more fight in this kid than in most of his other characters. Part of why it seems more autobiographical, like a lot of the album it comes from.

And in keeping with Internet Tradition, here is a cute video of a four-year-old playing drums.

I swear that's me on guitar. You have no reason to believe me. That is, unless you were there. In which case you know that it's all too true.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Stay down, champion.

"Tall Saint"
The National

It's a truism that Bonus Tracks aren't necessarily worth your time or money. The songs left over from the recording of an album that turn up on EPs and Special Editions a year after the original album makes a critical or commercial splash. Obviously, if you're a fan you have to buy them, and everybody involved knows that--but those songs got left out for a reason, and everybody knows that too.

The National's Virginia EP is a nice cut above average, in this respect. Took me a while to give it the attention it deserved, but now I'm really happy it's out there. Some live leftovers and unfinished fragments, but a few songs that stand proudly next to the real, known stuff--to "Mistaken For Strangers," and "Secret Meeting," and the rest. When you make a moment-capturing masterpiece like Boxer, you'll have some good stuff to spare. ("Blank Slate" is another dark/funny x-ray of the universal Matt Berninger character--"gonna jump out of a cake with my heart on a string." Full of questionable notions, but luckily too scared to carry them out. I sympathize.)

And "Tall Saint" is terrific--officially a "demo," but it sounds perfectly fine. Got its string part in place and everything. And it's an example of one of the Unacknowledged Secret Genres: the Lost Title Track. It's clear, if you're looking, that "Tall Saint" was meant to make it onto Boxer. It's certainly about the same sort of person, again, and those of us who actually have the physical CD have the textual evidence. No lyric sheet for Boxer, naturally--we have a distant B&W shot of the band apparently frolicking in a meadow. (Perhaps they've returned to Ohio for a Lost Afternoon. We can hope.) Printed, we've just got two cryptic lyric fragments: "Let them all have your neck," from "Ada," and, across from it, the sardonic anononymous advice that the speaker of "Pale Saint" hears as he lies stunned on the pavement. Stay down, champion, stay down. So, really, this guy is the "boxer" of the title, the stand-in for the rest of these haunted losers and for Berninger himself. Taking punishment for a living and getting back up when he probably shouldn't.

(No less a record than OK Computer is my Secret Genre-defining example. That awkward, cryptic title comes from outtake "Palo Alto," which eventually showed up on the Airbag/How's My Driving EP. Not a bad tune, but sounds too much like The Bends--and Radiohead having a song about Silicon Valley is just too literal-minded somehow. Like if Springsteen had a song about Chrysler.)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Say Yes to Michigan.

I haven't written much, but here's a song. Maybe this is the way to go for a while--I have unlimited numbers of things to say about unlimited numbers of songs. And I found a place to host the files with minimum hassle. (You can't just right-click, I don't think. You have to go through a download page, so they can show you ads. But it's free. Pop-up Blockers On!) No pretentions to Randomness, here--that was supposed to be a fun exercise, but even the shuffle setting on iTunes was just putting Too Much Pressure on your poor, beleaguered Lieutenant. I'll write about the songs I pick.

"For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti."
Sufjan Stevens

You must love Sufjan, even if you are rolling your eyes as you do it. He's ours, after all. Midwestern, sad and sincere. Unapologetic mystic and unapologetic banjo-ist. Sort of arbitrarily elevated to Hip Pantheon four years ago by people who would probably be uncomfortable if a man wearing wings (!) came up to him on the street talking about the various things Sufjan likes to sing about. Saul Bellow and serial killers and the God of Abraham, etc.

This is an early song, from the first of his records to get wide attention. So it's comparatively sparse. Banjo, piano, trumpet, delicate vocal harmonies...wait, did I say sparse? But it's nice. And, naturally, it seems to be sung from God's point of view. Sufjan knows just how He feels.

And place names are their own poetry, of course, and Mr. Stevens knows that as deeply as I do. Even if he were wearing the wings, I know that I could just say Ypsilanti and we both would smile. Wouldn't be awkward at all. Ypsilanti is a frail, mysterious sort of name for a sad and weary sort of place. And I walked there, once. It took a day. I was young and excitable. I pretend to be different now. A long and silly story that is nonetheless so useful that I'm saving it.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Blood-Dimmed Tide Is Loosed!

Satisfyingly poetic: only days removed from my tirade about Yeats Abuse, I watched No Country For Old Men again. (Third time, I believe.) Whaddya think? Does Cormac Freaking McCarthy get a free pass to loot well-worn poems for his novel-titling purposes? I guess I'd decided that he did, without really thinking too hard about it. I was never even a huge fan of Corky McC's, but that's really a pretty good title. I wouldn't have been able to resist it either, if I wrote novels. And there's well-worn and there's well-worn, after all. It's not as if he called it Beauty Is Truth. Or, uh, The Sound and the Fury.

Is the title exactly spot-on appropriate? Eh, not so much. The title of the novel/film seems likely to refer to Ed Tom Bell, virtuous sheriff, the Tommy Lee Jones character from the movie, and to the "old-timers" whom he wants to emulate. He's freaked out and unmanned by his world's seemingly arbitrary descent into savagery--it's no longer any country for him, as you can tell from his increasingly haunted expression in the movie. The speaker of "Sailing to Byzantium" seems a bit more conventionally crotchety and snobbish. He just hates the young because they're constantly singing and having sex, and have no respect for Culture in the way that he does. Hence he's getting the hell out the West to go someplace Old and Religious. If you happen to be under sixty and a fan of "sensual music," it'd be easy to snicker at the guy. But that's what poetry is for--it's allowed to just be right, whatever might be absurd about what it's actually saying. Who's gonna argue with freakin' Yeats? Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal / It knows not what it is... Not me. Nice words. Pretty words. Keep saying words, Mr. William Butler sir.

Haven't even said anything about that movie. Pretty fine movie. No Lebowski, certainly. I'll get back to it.