Monday, October 31, 2011

Rains Dogs and Bad as Me

A nice piece on my favorite record, Rain Dogs by Tom Waits. Speaking of Waits, he has a new record out, Bad as Me, which I bought this weekend. My thoughts on this new CD… a mixed bag. Some songs are immediately striking, such as “Talking at the Same Time,” “Pay Me,” and “Kiss Me” (the ballads and slower songs definitely best the rockers on this record). While others grow on you—I’m thinking of “Chicago” but mostly the title track, an odd ditty that I’m learning to love. Others can be skipped. “Satisfied” is a nice rejoinder to the Rolling Stones and even name checks Jagger and Richards, all while Keith plays along on guitar, but the song is the very definition of filler. “Last Leaf” struck me as sad and poignant the first time I heard it, but annoyed me upon second listen. And every review I’ve read seems to love the song “All Hell Broke Luce” but I find it embarrassingly bad. That said, three dispensable tracks out of thirteen is not bad. The CD is a sold B, which still makes it better than most of what’s out there. But when I think back to the perfection of Rain Dogs and much of the Island era records, I have to admit that Tom’s best days are behind him.

Tom, I still love you, though. Never stop being you.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Blog Adultery (or: Increasing my Culpability)

Today marks the first post of what may be many or few published over at You can read my blog post there as well as an assortment of poems whose publication I helped make happen (in a very small sense). Feel free to check out the cool bio and pic taken years ago by Xtop while hanging in the Bottoms of KC, MO.

I have always thought of this here blog as being a receptacle for my various obsessions, which, I admit, are of interest to me and maybe few others. I never sought a large audience or was dumb enough to think one existed. I have actually kept the blog a bit secret. If I do indeed post regularly to TriQuarterly then I will have to rethink the purpose of this site, as the blog I will write there is to be dedicated solely to poetry and thoughts of that nature. Also, I doubt I’ll curse as much over there. So if I am to reserve the poetic observations for TriQuarterly than this blog will be freed up to focus on half-informed political rants, furious opinions on the decline of contemporary music, and other business of equal importance. In other words: a typical blog.

Then again, now that I have an editor, I may come screaming back to blogspot full time.

All this dovetails nicely with my thoughts on Dubravka Ugresic’s new book, Karaoke Culture, which I am 80 some pages into and LOVING! While the book delights, I must admit to feeling guilty with each passing page. If we are living in the era of Karaoke Culture, I am as culpable as the next blogger (read: amateur critic/writer). More on this once I finish this book.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Melville: the Key to Understanding Occupy Wall Street (or: How Literature Can explain Everything)(or: Stick This in Your Dismissive Pipe and Smoke it)

Two great quotes from the best piece on the Occupy movement I’ve seen:

“The point of Occupy Wall Street — and the Occupy movements around the country — is to put a face to America’s dwindling middle class. There is no need to be any more specific than that. In fact, it seems that the less specific, less reasonable, and less demanding the protesters are, the more likely they are to unnerve those who actually have the power to make a change.”

“If Occupy Wall Street has any goal, it should be to have the same effect that great literature has — to unsettle. Let the pundits complain about vagueness, and let the reporters ask their condescending questions. (As an example, here’s one I heard put to a young man standing near me: “Is it true that you want to put all the bankers in jail?”) Let them tease, let them pacify, let them cajole, let them argue. But don’t move, Occupy Wall Street.”

Even if you have not read the Melville story (and you ought to), this should resonate and maybe pacify those all too willing to dismiss it outright.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

David Foster Wallace and Truth v. Illusion

All the hoopla over Jonathan Franzen outing David Foster Wallace for manufacturing some bits in his supposed nonfiction got me thinking about how little I care for the division between truth and illusion. A good story is a good story, period.

Okay, let me slow up—there’s an element of scumbaggery when a liar like James Frey makes a pile of cash off his bullshit drug addiction, though not because he wrote a book about it; it is because he preached to people about how they too can kick drugs that makes Frey a dick. Still David Foster Wallace’s essays do not lose steam simply because dialogue may have been, um, exaggerated.

But this led me back to his well known speech to the2005 graduates of Kenyon College. It remains my favorite piece of Wallace’s work, though that’s not saying much as I have not gotten through Infinite Jest.

I share with you, the (I’m guessing) indifferent.

Monday, October 10, 2011


One of the few pleasures of working is the occasional conversation with a coworker that forever alters your thinking. It is rare, but I have had many such chin-wags at work that have been worthy of note. Not long ago, I actually spent a good half hour with one of my bosses explaining and expanding on the popular acronym, WTF. I explained that it was short for “What the fuck?” This seemed amusing to the guy, though he proposed WTF could stand for “Why the fuck?” I liked this. We then went on with other WTF possibilities, the best of which I will recount here.

Why to fuck? As in, why do I want to fuck? Possibly boredom, we decided, though more often a compelling reason is clear.

Where to fuck? A quandary for those far from home, and definitely of concern to young people still living with their parents.

Where the fuck? Oh, I ask myself this every day. Where the fuck did I leave my brain?

When to fuck? Indeed, this speaks to the question many of us ask ourselves. Is this the right time? Did I misread that signal?

Who the fuck? Better than Who to fuck, perhaps, though if that is your question maybe you are living a more interesting life than some of us, but still, who hasn’t wondered who the fuck is responsible for something?

Work to fuck. My favorite in many ways, as this sums up the reason why some of us clock in day after day at jobs we’d rather abandon. We work to make money to be able to spend on someone we wish to fuck. We work to maintain our fashions, cars, homes, and lifestyles, all so someone might find us attractive. (I sense a lot of homeless don’t get laid much.) So yes, work to fuck: that pretty much sums up 3/4s of the workforce as far as I can tell.

Wear to fuck. Less a statement on fashion and more an instruction that ought to accompany all condom purchases.

Worse than fuck. A bit abstract, and certainly relative, but still an interesting variation.

Will to fuck. I suppose many a long suffering spouse, lover, or otherwise charitable person has had to muster this.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Unimproved End of Steve Jobs

I am very sorry that Steve Jobs has died. I am usually sorry to hear of anyone dying, but before we all jump to canonize the man (too late) I would like to pause and consider his contribution to the world a little bit. Or maybe it’s what he symbolizes, or the inherent baggage that comes with his gizmos, that makes me somewhat uneasy.

When I heard of his death, and the immediate outpouring of devotion, I hesitated, as I often do in my quest to try to reason out why I don’t feel compelled to let the jerking knee do the talking. I was also reminded of two of my heroes: Henry David Thoreau and Neil Postman. Postman because he discussed the manner in which technology both gives to us and takes something away. It is, as he called it, a Faustian bargain. And Postman was right to quote Thoreau, who said: "All our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end." The iStuff is great and fun and all that, but has any of it made our lives better? Faster, sure. More interesting, okay on a superficial level. Easier? Certainly. But are we not beset by the same problems that we have always faced?

Let me back up.

In the '80s I was a metal kid and guitar geek. As such, I opposed the beat box and the electric drum machine. Someone asked if it ever occurred to me that once there was a man who opposed the electric guitar. After all, it must have seemed impure to their ears. A salient point, but I didn’t care. I was a kid, after all. Similarly, I understand that, as a 40 year old somewhat curmudgeonly bastard, I might be too rooted in my time, place, and traditions to truly give a damn about the iPod or the iPhone, just as that kid hearing me bitch about them won’t care about my complaints. To me the iPod and iPhone are plastic in the truest sense: fake, flimsy looking repositories of better things. I am perhaps obnoxious in my tendency to celebrate the artist, not the device (or the message, not the medium), but it makes sense to me. When people say Steve Job’s inventions changed their lives, I’m a bit baffled. Tom Waits, Shubert, Otis Redding, Trey Spruance, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Eddie Van Halen, Charles Mingus, Paul Westerberg… these people changed my life with their music. The iPod and iTunes are just new ways of getting that music.

I don’t have an iPod and may never have one, not because I wish to be different (contrary to some opinion) but because I simply don’t need one. I like my CD collection. Were I more of a music geek I would have LPs and a turntable. I like art that takes up space. iPods, as revolutionary as they are (were?), are insidious devices that promote an unconscious acceptance of the immateriality of art. Sure, music has always been transitory in the sense that you can’t touch it. It is sound, pure and simple. Nevertheless, I grew up associating music with vinyl, then cassette tape, then the CD. I was not such a luddite that I stayed true to one device over another, but I did get a little annoyed when iPods and iTunes came along, mostly as these mediums seem so heartless. Okay, they are convenient, and sure they have helped a lot of artists get their music heard (I no longer have to risk buying what could be a mediocre album for one song!), but the physicality of LP/CD packaging has gone bye-bye. A lot of that packaging was what caused records and CDs to be so damned expensive, sure, but I was conditioned to think of music as being about, well, more than just music. Maybe this was wrong of me, but I always saw buying a record as an investment in an artist, not just their music but the art they wanted to promote as well. I cannot think of Led Zeppelin’s classic four symbols record without thinking of the gate fold illustration and the old hooded man atop that rocky mountain. Alice Cooper’s School’s Out is inextricable from the panties that held the LP. Ditto Sticky Fingers and the zipper album cover. Big Black understood this and littered their records with some fantastic liner notes, not to mention many dangerous artifacts.

Maybe all of this is inconsequential, or at least of less importance than the music itself, right? After all, my bitching about the loss of packaging is the snob’s equivalent to boy band worship and record sales based on a haircut. Perhaps, but I also recall John Zorn’s classic band, Naked City. Zorn was so frustrated with domestic record companies who refused to print his CDs with specifically selected cover art that he had to sign with overseas labels. Eventually, he started his own label. Why? It would have been so much easier to live with different cover art. Well, to Zorn, and a lot of artists, the cover art is important to the overall experience. I respect and appreciate that. When I pull out those Naked City CDs, I look over the strange, violent images that come with the music. It creates, for me, a complete experience. Another hero, Trey Spruance, consistently puts out CDs that are beautifully packaged with stunning illustrations, photos, and, often, cryptic philosophical texts that essentially lend to the mystery of his increasingly mysterious band, Secret Chiefs 3. The pictorial and textual accompaniment is, in my mind, essential. I would not have the same feeling about his creation were I to simply download it from iTunes.

But none of this is Jobs's fault. I blame the music industry more for shitting on artists and ruining things. Painfully myopic to the point of arrogance, they failed to take into consideration what 21st century realties meant for their business. Unwilling to adapt quickly, they were on the verge of going the way of the dinosaur. (One would have thought the publishing industry would have seen this as a cautionary tale, but I digress.) No, Job’s inventions did not ruin the music industry, but the ubiquity of the iPod has made me take pause. To me, Jobs was the ringleader in a circus that often makes me feel comfortable. He represented speed rather than substance; ease over experience. The iPod and iTunes seem content to treat music as something easily digestible and disposable, not worthy of serious consideration. Music, and all good art, requires a certain level of dedication. I am all for slowing down when approaching a good record or a good book or a good movie or a good painting. I don’t want to see a world where the instant availability of art fosters a lack of critical skills and evaluation. Jobs, for all the good he did, also helped create a culture that treats music as an easily found, easily abandoned, just-add-water commodity. I like committing to records when I bring them with me on car trips. I carefully choose a CD and stick with it. I don’t know that I would do that if I had an iPod. I’d likely flip in search of something else. What else? Doesn’t matter. We crave variety above all else. We just want to know what else is out there and don’t focus on what is in front of us. This is a quality I do not admire about myself. The iPod celebrates this.

The iPhone seems like a good idea. Why not have one device that allows you to make calls, surf the net, and… what else does it do? Oh, right… play games. Okay, sure. Sounds nice, but life changing? And the problem with this device, and so many others from the Apple factories, is their short shelf life. Sure I’ve had my laptop for years, but the newer, faster, slimmer ones make mine seem quaint. I can’t completely champion a man who promotes his gadgets as rest stops toward a better model. Pardon my cynicism and damn near paranoia, but it seems like a plot to separate me from my money. There’s a sucker born every minute, said P.T. Barnum. Well, in the 21st century the suckers are born every nanosecond. And they line up for days to get the new model.

Again, Jobs is perhaps less to blame than the industries that failed to see the writing on the digital walls. Nevertheless, he did say some things that annoyed me. He seemed all too prickish when he stated that no one reads anymore and then decided to save publishing with iBooks. I believe my exact words were: fuck you, zombie-nerd; I hope you get strangled by your mock turtleneck. But now I see past such ire. Jobs was indeed a visionary and his technological tinkering have introduced some interesting gadgets to our lives, even mine. Still, in the end he succumbed to cancer, proving that no matter how far we advance and how many portable gizmos we create, we still decline into frail shadows of ourselves until we die. No app for that.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Take Down the Man