Thursday, February 26, 2015

Notable Failures in Evolution Through the Ages

The Great Blue Cardinal
Larger than its modern-day counterpart, the Great Blue was also a superior flyer, able to reach high enough altitudes to coast on thermals and to nest in high cliff walls. Each autumn, as the temperatures plunged, enormous flocks of the Blue Cardinal would fly north. Their magnificent indigo plumage stood out gaily against the sleet and ice. This backwards migration proved to be roughly as successful as Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, however, and the Great Blue’s numbers declined rapidly.

The Oblivious Fish
Shaped uncannily like a spring fly, this small fish, an inhabitant of insect-infested mountain ponds, tended to swim near the water’s surface, where it flapped jerkily back and forth for long periods of time above schools of larger, carnivorous fish.

The Wandering Ant
As opposed to most ant colonies’ carefully cultivated trails, allowing multiple workers to return to locations necessary for the colony’s survival, each member of this obscure branch of the Formicidea family struck out on its own. Rarely able to find its way back to the anthill, it was quite powerless to share the good news when it happened upon a fat dead moth or a spilled snow-cone that could have fed millions.

The Speckled Siberian Vole
Much like the oxpecker bird and the African rhino, the relationship between this tiny rodent and the snow leopard was symbiotic. Curling up in the leopard’s warm mouth, the vole ate tiny particles of debris left over from the larger animal’s meals, thus acquiring sustenance. The leopard, in turn, acquired sustenance by eating the vole.

The Dueling Wolves of Romany
A species doomed to extinction by the males' unsustainable territoriality, the alpha wolves challenged each other to duels that, in the pistol and ball era, were calamitous enough but which proved catastrophic in the grenade-launcher era.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

New and Selected Texts to My Son

Over two years in the making, soon the complete texts to my son will be officially published. Until then, we are making this selection available.

Where are you?
(Thu, Nov 17, 4:32)

Going to pick you up in a minute.
(Sat, Nov 21, 10:22)

Where are you?
(Sat, Nov 21, 10:31)

I'm in the Lucky 7 parking lot. I can see you from here.
(Sat, Nov 21, 10:33)

On my way
(Tues, Dec 3, 5:12)

On my way
(Thurs, Dec 5, 6:08)

Check the fridge if we have dijon mustard.
(Sat, Jan 4, 11:08)

no, the brown one
(Sat, Jan 4, 11:09)

Where are you?
(Fri, Jan 17, 7:20)

I'm going to pick you up in minute. Where's Molly's house?
(Tues, Jan 23, 6:18)

On my way
(Sat, Feb 4, 8:54)

(Tues, Feb 8, 3:56)

Why didn't you tell me my shirt was on backwards?
(Mon, Feb 17, 2:18)

Where are you?
(Thurs, Feb 20, 5:43)

You forgot your lunch. Where do I have to bring it?
(Mon, Feb 25, 8:23)

You guys awake yet?
(Sun, Mar 12, 10:58)

Hey, you guys conscious?
(Sun, Mar 12, 11:07)

Are you guys still alive?
(Sun, Mar 12, 11:23)

On my way
(Wed, Mar 22, 5:40)

Call your mom. She thinks you have meningitis.
(Mon, Mar 30, 5:17)

Which house is Seamus's? I'm outside
(Fri, Apr 3, 11:10)

where are you
(Thurs, Apr 12, 6:11)

I'm here. Come on.
(Fri, Apr 13, 10:42)

No, don't brush his teeth.
(Mon, Apr 19, 4:33)

Dogs don't get cavities anyway.
(Mon, Apr 19, 4:34)

They don't live long enough.
(Mon, Apr 19, 3:35)

Don't know. About 12 yrs.
(Mon, Apr 19, 4:36)

Are you at his mother's house or his father's?
(Tues, Apr 20, 5:34)

I'm waiting. Let's GO!!!
(Thurs, Apr 22, 6:15)

No. Seems over the top to me to pay $8 to download a graphic novel you already own just because your bus doesn't leave for another 15 minutes and you're bored. Can't you just play Angry Birds instead?
(Mon, Apr 25, 3:21)

Where are you?
(Wed, Apr 27, 5:18)

No sushi. I'm getting hot dogs.
(Thurs, Apr 28, 6:07)

Where are you?
(Fri, Apr 29, 10:24)

On my way
(Fri, Apr 29, 10:25)

Monday, March 24, 2014

Satellite of Love 2000

Bono—the acquisitive lead singer of U2—seems to have a small obsession with Lou Reed's "Satellite of Love." U2 covered it for the 1992 B-side of "One" and then played it live on their world tour, where Bono would duet with the beamed-in transmission of Lou on a video screen. But he wasn't done with it. When this most dogged of salesmen somehow talked German auteur Wim Wenders into directing his original script The Million Dollar Hotel, the song became the centerpiece of the film's soundtrack, appearing in three different versions, including one sung by the film's female lead, Milla Jovovich. This song has the same sultry three-in-the-morning beauty of the entire soundtrack. It also features a dream band that includes trumpeter Jon Hassell, guitarist Bill Frisell, and overall sound guru Brian Eno. But the reason I'm writing about it is that this rendition is a quite different song than the Lou Reed version, the U2 version (which hues closely to Lou's), or the one recorded (but never released) by Lou's old band, the Velvet Underground.

The chorus on the Million Dollar Hotel version is similar to earlier versions, but hardly an exact match, and the intro and verses practically constitute a rewrite. The MDH rendition has a darker hue, due mostly to the substitution of a D-minor for the brighter A7. This minor chord takes the song into a distinctly different melodic terrain; Hassell drops a nice—very torch—melody into this space during the intro and the breaks between verses. There is also a nifty G-C-G shift, unique to this version, that echoes the three syllables of "satellite." These changes appear subtle on paper; they are not, however, when you hear or play the song. In short, it's been jazzed.

I want to make a little plug for the entire soundtrack, which is excellent, one of the better creations to emerge from the U2 camp since the heady days of Berlin and Zoo TV. Like the band's 1995 Passengers collaboration with Eno, it is not well known but is refreshingly free from all the usual obligations. (There is a wealth of great music on the album, including the very fine "Never Let Me Go," which I've also tabbed.) As for the film itself, it has been available for free on Netflix practically since they started streaming things, but when I finally decided I'd check it out, I found that it had been removed. Netflix often toys with me in this way. The upshot is I've never actually seen it. It has a remarkably low profile for a Wenders film, so I'm guessing it's not great, but when/if I ever do have the pleasure, I expect the experience will be a bit like seeing one of my own dreams, since the music is settled so deeply in my imagination. (Wenders, incidentally, also shot a video for "Stay" that I'm still trying to forget.) I should probably point out that, if the fan forums are any indication, a lot of people passionately dislike Jovovich's vocal. But U2 unfortunately has a lot of fans who gatewayed to/from U2 with Coldplay, if not Christian rock, and this is one of the many things they're wrong about, because Milla is fine.

The 'net is full of tabs for "Satellite of Love," but as far as I can tell this is the only tab for this notably different—and in some ways better—version of the song.

Satellite of Love
(words & music Lou Reed)
From the Million Dollar Hotel Soundtrack

Intro: G Dm F C

G      C      G
Satellite's gone
F              C
Up to the sky
G          C        G
Things like that drive me
F                C
Out of my mind
F                        Dm
I watched it for a little while
I love to watch things on TV

G               F
Satellite of love
C               G    C
Satellite of love
G               F
Satellite of love
C               G    C
Satellite of love

C             G      F              C
Satellite's gone
 way up to Mars

G          C        C                  F                  C
Soon it will be filled (baby)
 with parking cars
F                        Dm
I watched it for a little while
I love to watch things on TV

Satellite of love (repeat)

G            Dm          F              C
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday (repeat)

Satellite's gone
 up to the sky


Saturday, September 15, 2012

An Only Child

Besides that five-string open-G tuning everybody brings up, nine things that I learned from Keith Richards' memoir, Life:

1. His mother was from a family of seven daughters, and if you've ever wondered about the hardiness of Keith's constitution, you should know that most of his aunts are still alive.

2. London streets used to be full of animals. Keith: "When I was growing up, it was heavy fog almost all winter, and if you've got two or three miles to walk to get back home, it was the dogs that led you. Suddenly old Dodger would show up with a patch on his eye, and you could basically guide your way home by that. Sometimes the fog was so thick you couldn't see a thing. And old Dodger would take you up and hand you over to some Labrador. Animals were in the street, something that's disappeared. I would have got lost and died without some help from my canine friends." (The roughly 60 pages of childhood stuff is probably the book's high point. Effortlessly evocative, it reads at times like some long-lost Dickens narrative, with asylum escapees on the heath, army deserters hiding in the woods by the Thames, a dead tramp found covered in bluebottles, street bullies, even a fatal explosion at a fireworks factory.)

3. The winter that Keith, Mick, and Brian Jones shared a flat was London's coldest since 1740. They had a pay heater—had to keep feeding it coins.

4. Keith not only wrote the bulk of the music for most of their best songs; he often came up with the lyrical angle as well: "Satisfaction," "Gimme Shelter," "Wild Horses" (I could go on) are all concepts that Jagger simply—albeit brilliantly—expanded on.

5. While Mick was fooling around with Anita Pallenberg on the set of Performance, Keith had revenge sex with Marianne Faithfull (and fled through a window when Mick came home). I've thought of Mick and Keith's friendship as fairly up and down, but the best way to describe it, for thirty years now, would be simply nonexistent. Interestingly, there are more entries in the index for Mick Jagger than there are for Keith himself. (My favorite: "Jagger, Mick and giant inflatable cock, 12-13, 485").

6. In the late '60s in the UK, if your physician registered you with National Health as a junkie, you could receive heroin pills plus an equal amount of cocaine (the idea being that the coke would counteract the opiate effect of the heroin). This was the purest heroin and the purest, May & Baker pharmaceutical cocaine. Definitely no "MSS" (Mexican shoe scrapings—Gram Parsons' term for low-grade smack).

7. Injuries sustained: finger squashed by a dropped flagstone, earring ripped from his ear as he slept, passing out after nine days without sleep and falling headfirst into an amplifier, finger burned to the bone by stray lump of phosphorous from stage pyro, punctured lung (falling off ladder), cracked skull (falling from tree).

8. When I was fourteen I found an old copy of Oui magazine in, of all places, a deer blind in the hill country of Texas. ("For the man of the world"—yeah, that was me all right.) One of the models was a dark-haired German who, in one memorable shot, drank water from a see-through garden hose. And now, all these years later I find out her name is Uschi Obermaier, a long-standing crush of Keith's. When he learned of Gram Parsons' death in '73 he was in Innsbruck; on a mad impulse he drove to Munich in the middle of the night to hunt Uschi down, although he barely knew her. He miraculously found her, woke her up, broke the news, got a single sleepy kiss for his trouble, and left. 

9. Towards the end, the book starts to simply mark time—this is his manager, this is his guitar technician, these are his neighbors in Jamaica, this is the snapping turtle Keith caught in the pond at his house in Connecticut, etc.—and it begins to sound like an acceptance speech at the Grammys. The lesson is that everybody's life eventually winds down into routine, even for an outlaw like Keith Richards. And so this is the ninth thing I learned:

When you're cooking bangers and mash, you've got to use a cold pan, no preheating. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Idaho via Coventry

"American Without Tears No. 2 (Twilight Version)" is an odd little number by Elvis Costello that's been hanging around lately. The alternate version of a King of America song and B-side to "Blue Chair," this thing stars an American vet who marries an English girl and does not turn out to be a catch. Squeeze sang about a very similar setup, and far more lucidly, in "Labelled with Love," from their Costello-produced East Side Story (1981). No one is where they belong in such stories; everyone is pining for somewhere else. The main character for some obscure reason shares several biographical details with Hemingway, from the war experience and impulsive marriages to the Havana, Florida, even Idaho settings, although the events take place just after Hemingway's lifetime and the heartbreaker in this song is absurdly identified as one Arnie LaFlamme. In the end, the atmosphere is more Graham Greene than Hemingway, but the lyric is really an excuse for trying out a few tropes, with as many shifts in viewpoint and setting as "Tangled Up in Blue." The designation of a "twilight" rendition seems as arbitrary as everything else in a song so whimsical that even Elvis calls its bluff, abruptly ending the last verse with a hasty "It would never work out," like an artist wadding up his drawing and tossing it in the wastebasket. (Damn thing isn't even on youtube. You have to go to 5:11 in this clip to hear a fuzzy live version.)

And yet, for all its flakiness, I've always liked this song. The recording has great drive, and Elvis has a lot of fun with this busker's arrangement, especially on the Sammy Davis Jr. line and in the switch-up in the final verse ("Just like me she found out..."). While tabs for the more placid King of America version of the song are easy to find, I haven't been able to locate a single set of chords for this alternate version anywhere on God's green Internet. And you know what that means...

American Without Tears No. 2 (Twilight Version)
(Elvis Costello)

G               C    G
December 1965 in Caracas
G                     A                 D
When Arnie LaFlamme took his piece of the pie
G                         C               G
When he packed up the casino chips, the IOU and the abacus
G                             D           G
And switched off the jukebox in a "A Fool Such As I"

G                                 C           G
He was a leg man who was open to offers
G                           A                 D
But he couldn't get her off his mind as he passed the tourist office
G                 C              G
And as he entertained himself singing just like Sammy Davis Junior
G           D         G
He toyed with a trip to Miami

For money like that
He could have sweet talk in your ear
Now they don't speak any English
C G    C           G
Just American without tears, just American without tears


It was an idea that he dandled on his knee and nursed it like his coffee cup
When he couldn't find any other way
It always seemed to come to him while the day was dipping down
And the sun was like a light bulb being swallowed by a clown

He took her for everything, he took her for his only one
He took her out of Coventry and over to Idaho
But the war wound that he carried home wasn't really visible
When the bullets were forgotten
She looked dowdy, down, and miserable

And she seemed to be crying for year after year
And said, "You don't speak any English
Just American between tears."

A  D A
"Arnie," she said to me, "will you turn down the radio?
    A      B    E
You haven't slept a wink since we came to Havana
A      D A
When're you gonna get the strength to go over to Florida?
E         A
All you ever listen to is 'The Voice of America'"

A                          D                      A
It was a story of a young English poppet
A                                                       B                            E
Who took up with a soldier boy and thought she would profit
A             F#m            E                   D
Just like me she found out what true love is about
A E                 A
Anyway she's in New Orleans, it would never work out
Oh she seemed to be crying for year after year
Now you don't speak any English
          D                         A   D                     A
Just American between tears, just American without tears

For you seem to be crying for year after year
Now you don't speak any English
Just American without tears
Just American without tears

Thursday, September 8, 2011

L.A. Grise

So one day in, what, 1948 or 1949, one of the studios sends a film crew out to shoot some rear-projection footage in downtown LA. Somebody had to shoot all that scenery passing by the car windows in those scenes in which some character gets behind the wheel. Encumbered by a phoniness we can no longer forgive, these scenes went extinct nearly half a century ago. Now we demand that our actors really drive, in the same way we're starting to demand that they really play an instrument (like Adrian Brody in The Pianist, or even Brad Pitt laying into Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in Tree of Life—it will no longer do for someone to simply peer over a piano at us and move his shoulders around).

But this clip. A relaxed, very un-fussy shoot—to the small crew, I guess it could not have felt more ordinary—but of course what we have here, some 65 years later, is several minutes of unposed, unaware late-40s Los Angeles going about its business. We see how people walked, how they drove (fewer cars but already plenty of smog), how they inhabited the space. And we see many homes in the Bunker Hill area that have since been demolished. (Found this comment on a blog: "all those Victorian homes bulldozed in the 60s/70s. Now Disney Hall, Chandler Pavilion, and rows of condos.") While I can understand how an East Coaster would have found this LA impossibly bare and without style, in hindsight the simplicity strikes me as serenely civilized. Already then, by the way, LA was a plenty industry-literate town: at 3:44 there is a guy with the presence of mind to wave at the camera.

A somewhat fuller account of this footage can be found on the blog of the Atlantic's rather gothically-named associate editor Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Annotated edition of latest spam

An email I received over the weekend presents such challenges to the reader that I thought I should append a section of explanatory notes.

We[1] are offering a temporary job which really do not require any professional skills. You really don't have to have any professional skills for this. All we are looking for right now is USA based individual[2] to handle paper work, file documents and handle payroll administration to our clients in USA. What will be required from you is few hours a day and also to pay very close attention to all instructions given to you. Your Job will be; Handling all applications with regards to new client that will like to register a company in USA and what you will be doing is Filing all papers from these individual companies which will be sent over to you under that companies name.[3] Salary terms; $200per job> Get back to us through the email address. All replies should be sent to this[4]  

1. No real indication of who "we" might be, although feasible candidates would include the Money Launderers Association of Lagos, the Pyongyang Internet Cafe, or the Alternative-Universe Chamber of Commerce.

2. Just the sort of job to make you feel special. It requires no special skills (let us repeat that: the job requires no special skills), and your chief qualification appears to be something you share with 300 million people.

3. First assignment: translating this sentence into English or, failing that, just any language indigenous to the Orion-Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way. That is close enough.

4. The author spends part of his year as a German baron.

5. Most people should be able to spell the relatively common name Vaughn, particularly people who are named Vaughn.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Meeting of the Ukrainian Flag Development Committee upon Completion of the Project

Meeting Minutes

Present: Chairman Adamovich; committee members Slivka, Bortnick, Petrovich, Wayda, Stupak; flag designers Shevchenko and Olejnik; Madame Olchansky

Proceedings: Meeting called by Chairman Adamovich to view newly designed national flag. Once Mr. Shevchenko and Mr. Olejnik unveiled their design there was some confusion over the flag itself, some of the committee members thinking it must be a second veil and that the actual flag still lay underneath it. When Shevchenko explained that this was it, a murmur went around the room. Madame Olchansky put her hand to her throat and a glass of water was called for.

Chairman Adamovich asked the pair if this was some kind of joke. When Shevchenko expressed surprise, the chairman told him that, after six months and a million hryvnia, he and his partner had "a lot of nerve" to show up with two stripes.

Shevchenko explained to the chairman that "those two stripes" held great emblematic significance: the yellow band represents the fields of wheat that are the foundation of Ukrainian life; above this is a blue band of sky.

After a long silence, board member Slivka asked if this was all the designers had come up with? Mr. Olejnik stepped up and said there was one other version. When asked what it looked like, Olejnik looked nervously at Mr. Shevchenko and explained that it had the yellow stripe on the top and the blue on the bottom. Mr. Olejnik made a strange gesture as he explained this arrangement, not unlike someone demonstrating how to use a Slinky.

Board member Bortnik expressed admiration for the flag of Moldova, which, apart from having three stripes, also has an eagle holding a shield, on the face of which is an auroch. The current flag of the Ukraine, on the other hand, could "use a little something."

At this point Mr. Shevchenko asked what an auroch was.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Philip Roth's "On the Air"

In the current Esquire's profile of Philip Roth the author revisits his old turf in Newark. It's an interesting read because the usually thorny Roth is uncharacteristically, almost bizarrely, benevolent. It's not a stretch to say the reporter, Scott Raab, was probably relieved by Roth's good mood. He'd even come to the interview armed with a gift to soften up the old writer—a rare copy of New American Review #10 (1970), the home of Roth's notorious, and never-collected, "On the Air." Roth's happy to get the little quarterly, but he admits to Raab, "I hate that story." Raab confesses he isn't so crazy about it himself—in fact, he says, it's probably the worst thing Roth's ever written.

While "On the Air" doesn't have quite the mystique of, say, Salinger's also-uncollected "Hapworth 16, 1924," it is nearly impossible to find and, moreover, was published in what was a vintage time for Roth, so it does have a certain luster. When asked why he had never included it in any of his books, Roth said it was "too gross"—an impressive distinction coming from a writer who felt the scene in which Alex Portnoy sexually violates a piece of meat meant for the family dinner isn't. Roth went on to explain that the story was an extension of the id-informed, ferociously uncompromising comedy he had created in Portnoy—only that in the later story, rather than blossoming further, the style had grown a little rancid.

Back in the '80s, I found a copy of New American Review #10 in a used bookstore in Austin, and I can confirm that "On the Air" is not very good. To a certain extent this doesn't matter. The story is rare, its author is canonical, the thing demands attention. (The same is true of the elusive Salinger story, which might, by the way, be his worst.)

I hate reviewers who feel they have to synopsize every plot, but in the case of this unobtainable story—the reading of which almost amounts to a "sighting"—I guess I have no choice. So all right, then: Shoe salesman, and part-time manager of "mostly colored" showbiz acts, Milton Lippman fires off several letters to Albert Einstein pitching a quiz show idea in which contestants would try to stump the great genius. Certainly Einstein could do a better job than that goy on the radio, that "schmuck from Fort Wayne," the Answer Man. Lippman gets no response, so he throws his wife and son in the car and drives up to Princeton. "How can you annoy him, one letter after another," his wife asks him, "and then because he doesn't so much as give a single reply—drop in! On Einstein!"

The Lippmans never make it to Princeton. They pull over for ice cream, and inside this tavern, this saloon, the family is confronted with the goyim of their worst dreams: it's all whiskey and sawdust, the heads of dead animals hanging on the walls, Kate Smith singing "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain." The soda jerk, who has an ice-cream-scoop prosthetic hand, asks which kind of cone the Lippmans' son would like, and one of the choices is wool. A woolen ice cream cone. These are rugged people!

I find most of this funny enough; and honestly, the story's opening pages, which at turns resemble both Portnoy and the Nixon satires that Roth collected in Our Gang, aren't bad. Roth satirizes the way Jews fear Christians, the way Christians fear Jews, and, if not necessarily great art, the piece is vigorous and pretty smart. After awhile, though, this highly stylized story goes from broadness to all-out phantasmagoria, as surreal and menacing as Bloom's trip to Nighttown, and Roth loses his grip on it. The problem is not simply that the story is "gross" (at one point Jew and Gentile strip down and weigh their testicles on a kitchen scale, while the finale offers that old standby, a bleeding rectum, and the threat of coprophagy). And it's not just that the rampant postmodern streak takes over (e.g., the story is "interrupted" by a news bulletins and contest announcements—tropes that not only date the story but which aren't funny to begin with). The problem is that the story becomes incoherent and, for all its manic action, quite dull. Roth was in a fury of emancipation in those days, ready to take down every ruler and servant in his path—and more power to him, I say—but "On the Air" is just too raw, as unprocessed as a dream.

I find myself kind of reluctant to leave good old New American Review #10, which I've been carrying around with me all week. There are poems about Kennedy and Sinatra, another about soup. There's a report on a visit paid by Jorge Luis Borges (still alive in 1970) to Columbia University. There's a story by Russell Banks, who was still a nobody at the time. Everything is still very New York-centric. And earnest: this issue includes a "symposium," in which people like Allen Ginsberg, Wilfrid Sheed, Robert Creeley are asked all kinds of serious questions (why do you write? should politics should be kept apart from art? have we entered a "post-modern era"?), and an open letter from editor Ted Solotaroff pleading for subscribers (one year: five bucks). Nearly everyone in the magazine is Jewish or lives in New York, or both; and nearly everyone is dead now. 1970 was a long, long time ago.