Monday, February 11, 2019


  • "If it takes a million monkeys a million years to write the complete works of Shakespeare, then this book would only require seventeen monkeys and a week and a half, which is a hell of a lot more humane if you ask me."

  • "Makes Valley of the Dolls look like a slightly-abridged version of the same."

  • "A book like this comes along every once in a while."

  • "Adventure has a new name, though we still refer to it as 'Adventure' to minimize confusion."

  • "Brings new meaning to the term 'adequate binding'!"

  • "A devastating work of fiction, particularly if dropped in great numbers from a sufficient height."

  • "The finest book with that particular title published so far this year, at least that I'm aware of."

  • "Indispensable, judging by the size of most of the dispensers I've seen."

  • "From first sentence to last, this book keeps them in the correct order."

  • "I've been waiting a long time for a book to finally rip the lid off the confectionery industry, snap damp towels of invective at its soft white underbelly, and expose the dark, infernal machinations of its convoluted infrastructure for all and sundry to see. Has it come in yet?" 
  • "I can sum this book up in two words."

Sunday, February 03, 2019


It occurs to me that it may be instructional for those new to these parts not to let content like that which lies beneath this post obscure the very breadth and range of my talent. For I am not merely a rank underachiever in the realm of prose, oh no; I also channel my intermittent bursts of manic, clotted creativity into failing to clear the bar of expectations, no matter how low you choose to set it, on both the dramatic stage and terrestrial radio! So enjoy this original material as excerpted from my weekly radio program (dig my two most recent episodes right here), and, if you enjoy it, feel free to goad and shame me into maybe putting this kind of effort in on a far more regular basis. 

Or I could just try to follow the example of my dear friend Daric Moore, who's the reason that the first segment of this three-part runner is anywhere near as good as it is, and seek out the music of his band/passion project, Midas Digs, right heah.

Knock me your lobes, then. Abuse only as directed.


"...and freedom from want. Speaking of which, you can't see past these microphones, but you wouldn't believe what my cousin's doing down here..."

(What's this? Newly-written, topically relevant content? Don't worry, I've no intention of making a habit of it.)

1. January 29, 2002: George W. Bush's first SOTU address was slightly undermined by his misunderstanding of the name of the speech as "State of the Onion." That evening, he delivered a stirring, impassioned speech in the company of a large Walla Walla Sweet ("In a single instant, we realized that this will be a decisive decade in the history of liberty, that we've been called to a unique role in human events.  Rarely has the world faced a choice more clear or consequential. But through at all, I believe that it's an awful lot of fun to say 'Walla Walla Sweet.' Try it, come on. 'Walla Walla Sweet,' 'Walla Walla Sweet.' You think al-Qaeda can say that? That's why they hate us so much. Thank you all. May God bless."), in front of a backdrop of a handmade chart depicting projected post-9/11 defense spending and a watercolor of a Welsh onion wearing a kilt and giving America a thumbs-up. It remains renowned as "the single greatest speech of his presidency" (Impressionable Vegetable Enthusiast, June-April 2015-6), in spite of his fourteen-minute giggle fit while trying to say the word "Anglosperm."

2. Since 1917, almost all of the SOTUs have been delivered in-person before a joint session of Congress. The major exception was 1978, when Jimmy Carter became the first Democratic President to deliver his address via the medium of tap.

3. The name "State of the Union" itself was coined by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, though it was only his third choice after "Gov Gab with Numero Uno" and "What's My Beef, America?"

4. The practice of a representative of the opposing party delivering a post-address response was implemented in 1966, though the practice of merely repeating what the President said in a mocking, dumb-guy voice has been discouraged since 2009.

5. James Monroe introduced the "Monroe Doctrine" in his SOTU speech in 1823. By coincidence, 140 years later, John F. Kennedy reportedly used the space beneath his podium to implement a little "Monroe Doctrine" of his own, if you follow my wake.

6. Ronald Reagan's 1985 address ended with a rousing, repeated chant of "America Rules, Canada Drools." Immediately, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney demanded a public retraction and apology, firmly stating that, given the temperatures up there and all, that excessive salivation would be decidedly unwise. (He then ducked out of the room and imposed a $50 fine on himself for violations of the Firm Statement Avoidance Act of 1985.) The U.S. refused, leading to an international incident (or, in Canadian parlance, an "oh geez") and an embargo on maple syrup exports to the States - "not all of it," the PM said, "just the stuff in the nice bottles." Two days later, Canada reversed the embargo and subsequently avoided direct eye contact with the U.S. for the next six years, for fear that they'd bring it up.

7. The shortest SOTU on record occurred in 1975, when Gerald Ford pronounced the state of the union "cloudy."

8. The SOTU is typically written by the President himself with the assistance of various aides and cabinet members, except for 1973, when Richard Nixon farmed out the bulk of the work to comedian Rip Taylor. This may explain why the address ended with Nixon dumping a bag of confetti over the head of Secretary of State Carl Albert.

9. One of the most noteworthy SOTUs of modern times was FDR's 1941 speech, with his invocation of what he called the Four Freedoms. Advance word has it that the current President intends to evoke the Four Freedoms in Tuesday's address, in the spirit of bipartisanship, shared values, and because he heard that Jersey Boys musical about them was pretty good.

Thursday, January 17, 2019


The (eventual) semi-subject of this piece, practicing what he'll do if he ever finds me.

Can't sleep. Trying to work off my performance adrenaline - yes, apparently I'm so sedentary that even the exertions of doing a radio show, all that pressing of buttons and occasional wheezing into microphones, raises my pulse to above that of a sea slug, and there's no easy way down from that thrill ride. (And yeah, I still have a radio show - the sole, reliable constant of my life over the last 12 and a half years, where I can still be counted on to deliver a serviceable facsimile of entertainment for two hours in the dead center of every week. Thank you, Marconi.) Anyway, that's why I'm back with another post so soon after the last one, even if it's only to display a glittering shard from another broken project, which is laid out in the last two paragraphs if you can hack through the verbal kudzu enough to find it. But the only reason those two paragraphs are still here is to give it the impression of, if not an ending, at least a stopping point, so I'll save you the bother: basically I was going to analyze every piece of Albert Brooks' career from when it started in the late sixties to now, every movie role, record album, print piece and bit part and talk show appearance, everything. Which went the way of all the other ludicrously ambitious projects I've mooted here, i.e. Nowheresville city limits. And it really only started out to be what it more or less turned out to be: an over-the-top overexamination of the only ten minutes of the forgotten Saturday morning cartoon Hot Wheels that existed on the web at the time. So much time has passed since I started this that full episodes have started drifting onto YouTube, but I refuse to watch them and sully the purity of the existing work. Which I hacked away at obsessively, mostly on sleepless late late nights like this one, until I drifted away into other distractions. There's something slightly insane about all this, but it gave me more joy than anything I'd written in a long while, at a time I could have used all the joy I could fabricate, so I should pay it the honor of bringing it out into the light. So dig! (And I do mean dig - it'll take a bit of spadework to get to the good parts, but they're there, really.)

And now it's time for another installment of Things That Inexplicably Fascinate And Delight Me. Had an idea for my newest perpetually-unfinished, overambitious analysis/retrospective project, which, in a roundabout way, led me to this segment from Hot Wheels, a Saturday-morning cartoon which debuted the same month I did and ran a scant seventeen episodes (parceled out over a two-year period, undoubtedly due to the stringent demands of their pioneering Perspectavision animation technique, recognized by scholars of the form for redefining the state of the art of immobile, expressionless people blinking a couple of times) before getting unceremoniously yanked off the air and suppressed forever after for being too controversial, too daring, too much like a half-hour commercial for Mattel.  This ten-minute fragment is all that remains.

Points For Further Discussion:

1) The numerous examples of anti-formalist daring on display - the use of identical shots to represent the same character in two completely different locations, lines of uninflected dialogue spoken as if facing away from the mic, and the whip pan serving as a bridge between one setting and the same setting five seconds later - not only reflects the innovations of the Nouvelle Vague, but likely surpasses them.  Which leads one to the obvious conclusion - Godard compared this exploration of vehicle culture to the one he had just done, realized he had finally been shown up by the Americans at his own game, and decided to ditch narrative altogether in favor of political pedantry.  And if he had thought about the continuity "error" where five interchangeable youngsters mysteriously become four in the course of a single cutaway - obviously a comment on Vietnam, or capitalism, or the fallacy of representative government - he probably wouldn't even have done that.


Am I a writer? Well, I've written, that's for sure. But by the accepted metric - the drive, the focus, the determination to I'll fill in the rest of this phrase later - nahh, probably not. And, y'know, that's fine. There are plenty of people out there with plenty to say and the burning desire to share it with the world, and I don't feel the need to count myself among their number at this time. Right now, it's just too stressful a task, especially when deadlines are involved - at this point, I'm unlikely to make much money doing it, and the ego boost of getting one's words in print is short-lived, so unless and until I can regain the sense of fun and personal satisfaction that writing used to provide (and getting this blog going again is in large part an experiment to see if that's possible), I'm fine with ceding the task to those more temperamentally suited to it.

Like my brother, for example. Now he's a writer. How couldn't he be? It's in his Twitter handle and everything. No doubt he's written more (and better) words today than I have in the last six months, and bless him for going all-in in the never-more-precarious full-time freelance game as he has. Check his stuff out; it's damn good. And bless him doubly for his occasional attempts to bring me back into the fold. For example, a couple years ago, he decided to start Daily Projections, a newsletter featuring daily capsule reviews of whatever pictures are unspooling at the revival houses and second-run cinemas of Portland at a given time, and enlisted me to assist with branding (meaning I came up with the name - I'm good with titles, it's the stuff underneath them I suck at) and providing regular content. Which I did, as long as you add the prefix "dis" to the last word in that last sentence, for the seemingly simple task of knocking off 500 words about an old movie every couple of weeks proved too much for this thin-wristed pantywaist. So much too much so, I dropped the ball on at least one occasion, resulting in a missed day for this otherwise-daily publication. Which may or may not have factored into my brother's decision, soon thereafter, to shutter the whole project and delete the site and everything on it. Were it not for my inability to delete anything from my Outlook outbox, these would have been lost forever. Whether that's a good thing or not, I can't really say. I can't vouch for the quality of the writing - all I can glean from them is the sweat, the pacing, the agony of their composition, which is frankly rather pathetic. But here they are, regardless; all five of the reviews I managed to eke out, in order of appearance. That sound you hear? Ahh, just Pauline Kael grumbling from the great beyond. Ignore it.

(Incidentally, mi hermano has taken up the task again, in a less-stressworthy weekly format. Do check it out.)
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Stir Crazy (Sidney Poitier, 1980)

Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor made four films together. (It would have been five, had Warner Brothers not wussed out in casting Blazing Saddles, but the world’s an unjust place.) Not surprising, seeing as Pryor’s arrival in the last third of the Wilder-led Hitchcock knockoff Silver Streak (1976) brought a vital jolt of comic energy that rescued the picture from obscurity and practically invented the mismatched-partner action-comedy template. Wilder and Pryor’s unique chemistry – unlike the straight man/wacky sidekick dynamic of most comedy duos, they were often funniest when reduced to barely-contained mutual hysteria – paid off most handsomely with their second pairing.

Stir Crazy was an enormous hit on its initial release, pulling in $110 million to become the third-most-popular movie of 1980 (behind The Empire Strikes Back and 9 to 5). This success can be credited almost wholly to the talents of the two co-leads, who manage to transcend the schematic farcicality of humorist Bruce Jay Friedman’s screenplay and Sidney Poitier’s serviceable but somewhat ramshackle direction until they get trapped in the gears of the plot machinery of the picture’s second half.

The series of events that take struggling playwright Skip Donahue (Wilder) and failed actor Harry Monroe (Pryor) from hand-to-mouth lifestyles in New York City to being framed for bank robbery in Arizona and sentenced to 125 years in the state pen (“I’ll be 161 when I get out!”) are dealt with quickly and economically (perhaps too much so – several early scenes feel like setups for payoffs that never arrive), all the better to pit them against the grim (but not too grim) realities of the penal system and the archetypes that populate it. Gay convict with a crush on one of them? Good-natured Hispanic prisoner? Hulking bald-headed killer resembling a sentient thumb who turns out to be a softie in the end? Check, check, check. The middle half hour is Stir Crazy’s strongest, showcasing Pryor’s talents for improvisation and physical comedy and Wilder’s inspired naivete to such entertaining ends that the film’s final act seems almost – you will excuse the expression – criminal.

For you see, the prison’s corrupt, corpulent warden (Barry Corbin) holds a prison rodeo every year, its profits ostensibly going to the prison population but really – spoiler alert – winding up lining his oversized pockets. And city-boy Skip turns out to be an unexpected natural at bronco-busting (it’s a 1980 film, so of course there’s a mechanical bull in the warden’s office). So, he gets coerced and bullied into becoming the rodeo’s star attraction, which inspires he and Harry to devise a clever escape plan.

And this is where the whole thing deflates. It’s hardly uncommon for a comedy to lose steam in the last act—otherwise classic films like M*A*S*H and Stripes famously failed to stick their respective landings—but the endless, repetitive denouement here strands its stars and squanders their comedic gifts. Still, there’s enough peak-level comic fizz in Stir Crazy’s best moments, and enough goodwill generated by the sadly departed duo at its center, to make up for the fact that it ultimately goes flat.
(September 14, 2016)

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
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To use a theologically inappropriate metaphor, it’s a miracle that we are able to see The Wicker Man.

The 1973 film’s maltreatment at the hands of original distributor British Lion Films is legendary-unto-infamous: chopped up, rearranged, sent out into the world to die a quick death at the bottom of a double-bill. Longstanding rumor has it that the original negative wound up as landfill underneath the M3 motorway; factually apocryphal, perhaps, but metaphorically spot-on.

Even after its resurrection, the result of the tireless detective work and cheerleading of several key members of the production, hurdles continued to be thrown in its path: lifelong enmity between screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and director Robin Hardy, claims of plagiarism, the absence of a "definitive" cut of the film, and the notoriously misbegotten 2006 remake. Yet The Wicker Man perseveres, with a devoted cult following and a growing reputation as one of the greatest British horror films of all time.

It would be unsporting to give too much of the story away (if you somehow come to TWM unspoiled, so much the better). So, briefly then: the film follows West Highlands policeman Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) as he investigates the disappearance of a young girl on the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle. Once there, what he finds disturbs him. The locals all claim, unconvincingly, not to know the child, or even that she exists.

Even more troubling to devout churchgoer Howie: this isolated community seems to have rejected Christianity altogether in favor of the “old gods” – paganism, in other words. Schoolgirls dance naked around bonfires. Couples, um, couple in the open air. And it seems that Summerisle’s famed apple harvest failed the previous year, and with May Day festivities on the horizon, the old gods are going to need appeasement... 

The Wicker Man really shouldn’t hold up as well as it does. First-time director Hardy’s work is occasionally awkward, which the excisions and reshufflings of the various cuts don’t help. The version  currently playing at the Laurelhurst Theater was approved by the director in 2013 and reinstates scenes removed from the original theatrical release but excises material from the longest-known version of the film. If you find that confusing, that’s not the half of it. Unfortunately, there’s no room here for a spreadsheet.

But its flaws are handily compensated for by its virtues. Shaffer’s screenplay is magnificent, combining a love of game-playing reminiscent of his 1970 stage play Sleuth; a wry, almost surrealist sense of wit; and an unusually intelligent take on comparative religion and blind faith embodied in the performances of his two male leads. Christopher Lee considered his role as island patriarch Lord Summerisle the best of his career, and it’s hard to disagree.

It’s Edward Woodward who pulls off the trickiest achievement. His ability to weave in touches of comic haplessness and subtle shades of vulnerability keep the audience on his side right up to his bravura turn in the film’s unforgettable final act. (And it would be remiss of me not to lavish all available praise on the music of the late Paul Giovanni that runs throughout. This film is as much a musical as anything else.)

By the time The Wicker Man fades out on one of the most chillingly beautiful final shots in all of cinema, its signal accomplishment is clear. This is strange cinematic fruit, every bit as unlikely as the apples brought forth from the volcanic soil of its setting, and all the more delicious for it.
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(October 6, 2016) 

In The Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009)

It’s the curious paradox of cinematic satire – take the darkest, most horrific and repugnant subjects, and ramp them up as far as they can go, and in the right hands, it’s exhilarating. The gold standard remains Dr. Strangelove, where the threat of nuclear annihilation was rendered giddily hilarious, even to audiences for whom mutually assured destruction was a very real possibility. Which is just my way of suggesting that while you may be exhausted, nauseated, and crazed from watching our democratic process reduced to a clown car with its brakes cut rolling toward the abyss, you shouldn’t be dissuaded from seeing In The Loop, one of the very few filmic satires of recent vintage worthy of mention alongside the Kubrick classic. In fact, it may be just the catharsis we need.

This won’t be news to anyone familiar with director/co-writer Armando Iannucci’s brilliant series The Thick of It and Veep, both of which In The Loop resembles closely with its jittery, handheld pseudo-documentary camerawork and the participation of certain key cast members (Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison from the former, Anna Chlumsky from the latter). His milieu is not the idealistic, Sorkinesque realm of high-minded wonks dedicated to doing the right thing for the common good. This is a collection of mid-level dysfunctionaries blundering down the corridors of power and trying all the doorknobs.  

Many have attempted to satirize the geopolitical clusterfuck that throttled the world in the years following 9/11; few succeeded. Maybe the objects of ridicule at the top of the pile were so close to caricature to begin with that punching upward came off like punching down. Maybe the anger and outrage thus engendered made it impossible to wield the comic cudgel with the necessary accuracy. Whatever the reason, Iannucci and co-writers Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche (who received an Academy Award nomination for their troubles) sidestep these pitfalls handily by keeping their targets small.

There are hints of military intervention in the Middle East by the US and the UK; the nature and even the location of said invasion remain unspecified. The only bloodshed comes from the gingivitic gums of one character, the only victim of violence an innocent fax machine. The military is represented by a single, anti-war general (the late James Gandolfini), the government by individuals with unwieldy titles like Minister for International Development and Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy and their various aides and assistants. And the path to war is paved with tiny slips of the tongue, petty interpersonal score-settling, and frantically improvised scheming.

So where does the catharsis come in? From some of the most beautifully profane, gloriously mean-spirited dialogue you’re ever likely to come across. With the national discourse now firmly wedged in the gutter and fear and loathing running well into toxic levels, the relentless powerwash of beautifully-constructed obscenity that runs through In The Loop has a surprisingly cleansing effect, making it the perfect film for our terrible times.
(October 13, 2016)

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Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)

Paul Schrader, whether in his celebrated career as a screenwriter or his decidedly less-celebrated career as a director, has never specialized in what one might call “light entertainment.” This shouldn’t be all that surprising, coming from a man whose chief influences are the spare, elliptical films of Robert Bresson and the dour, fatalistic tenets of Dutch Calvinism.

Consequently, his films tend to be unfailingly intelligent but grim character studies of tormented souls futilely struggling against seemingly predetermined fates, claustrophobic familial bonds and carnal desires so bent, clogged and frustrated that the only release possible is the catharsis of violence. Why producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Universal Pictures considered him the right man to remake Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 creature feature Cat People remains a mystery, but they may have been onto something. Schrader may not be the first guy you turn to for genre exercises, but then again, from a certain angle, all of his films are horror pictures.

Any resemblance to Tourneur’s original is, at best, superficial. In Schrader’s version, virginal, sheltered Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) arrives in New Orleans, having been summoned by her long-lost brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell). Her arrival coincides with a series of gruesome maulings of prostitutes, perpetrated by what appears to be a black leopard running loose in the city. What’s the explanation? Well, here’s another clue for you all – the leopard is Paul. Seems that bro and sis are the last of a mixed breed, half-man, half-cat, and Paul has tracked Irena down to have someone to mate with that he won't be compelled to kill afterwards. This renders her budding romance with a hunky zoologist (John Heard) a trifle...complicated.

If this all sounds a little ridiculous - well, it is. It doesn't help that, having laid out this premise, Cat People violates its own internal logic repeatedly. Nor that the main supporting cast are mostly functional: Ruby Dee’s there to provide a touch of ill-defined gris-gris, Annette O’Toole to bring non-feline sex appeal, and Ed Begley, Jr. to get his arm ripped out of its damn socket.

The leads fare better, especially Kinski, mesmerizingly projecting a kind of feral innocence that overrides the sillier contortions the screenplay forces her into. This hypnotic aspect extends to the visual schema designed by the great Ferdinando Scarfiotti and Giorgio Moroder's pulsing, minimalist electronics, all in service of Schrader, whose ascetic approach and storied lack of levity wind up serving the material well.

The sanguinary sexuality of eroticized horror turns out to be an unusually powerful delivery system for his pet themes. In fact, by the time you reach the film's climax - one of the tensest, most bizarre sex scenes you’re likely to encounter in American cinema - it's hard to escape the notion that Cat People is one of Schrader's most personal films. And that may be the scariest thing about it.
(October 30, 2016)

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Ishtar (Elaine May, 1987)

There are few films whose name alone is synonymous with “disaster” quite like Ishtar. Well before its release, rumors and gossip filled the entertainment press casting aspersions on the profligate excesses of the production, infighting among the stars and director, and lack of creative focus from the top down. A lengthy, allegedly contentious editing process and several release-date delays only added fuel to the fire.

And sure enough, once Ishtar finally reached theaters in the spring of 1987, it was gleefully savaged by the critics and died an ignominious death at the box office, effectively destroying the career of its (female) writer-director, though its (male) co-leads - one of whom, as producer, was responsible for getting it off the ground in the first place - somehow escaped the wreckage basically unscathed. Forever after, to speak the name of Ishtar was to invoke a combination punchline/curse, all that is wasteful, blinkered and out-of-touch inside the Hollywood bubble boiled down to two contemptuous syllables.

If, as is fairly likely, your knowledge of Ishtar consists mainly of some combination of the above, uncomplicated by actually having viewed the work in question, allow me to submit a dissenting opinion. No, it’s not a perfect picture. Yes, its reach exceeds its grasp. And yes, for all her comic brilliance, Elaine May never matched the directorial ease of her ex-partner Mike Nichols.

But, at a three-decade remove, it’s hard to make the case that Ishtar is one of “the worst movies ever made.” (In fact, it’s not the even the worst attempt at combining a modernized take on the Hope/Crosby Road pictures with geopolitical satire from the mid-eighties. Track down a copy of Spies Like Us and get back to me.) For all its flaws, Ishtar deserves consideration as one of the smarter and, yes, funnier artifacts of its era.

Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman play Lyle Rogers and Chuck Clarke, two middle-aged would-be songwriters as determined as they are untalented. (Most of their brilliantly mediocre repertoire was composed by Paul Williams.) They bumble into a (barely) paying gig in Morocco, but get embroiled almost immediately in a standoff between the CIA-backed government of the (fictitious) titular country (represented by Charles Grodin as an unctuous operative) and a group of leftist insurgents (led by Isabelle Adjani).

The plot is, admittedly, a touch convoluted - a mysterious map, a band of gunrunners and a blind camel all figure into the proceedings somehow - but May’s gift for the cerebrally ridiculous and the central performances carry the day. (Beatty, playing against his public persona as a sexually inexperienced naif, may never have been funnier.) Far from the cinematic catastrophe of legend, Ishtar deserves a clear-eyed viewing to belatedly honor one of the more unique sensibilities to slip, however briefly, through the studio gates.
(November 19, 2016)

Saturday, January 05, 2019

A LA MO'D #2:

(aka The Most Belated, Unasked-For Sequel since Rambo VI: From In Country to Incontinent)

Hey there, chilblains - what's it been, three years since my last confession (that I can't write on any kind of schedule anymore)? Well, for whatever reason, I suddenly find myself compelled to apply the ol' shock-pads to this moribund repository of thwarted ambition, with the half-hearted promise of keeping this up on the regular again, pull some of the dozens of posts stuck in draft-mode limbo out of mothballs and maybe even finish reviewing a single episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus like I tried to do the better part of a decade ago. We'll see; not bloody likely, but we'll see. I think I can at least manage the occasional cut-and-paste job from the archives - I do want to get that old Metal Machine Music epic I penned for the long-lost Dancing About Architecture site up here soon, but it'll definitely need some annotation, for reasons that are both deeply cringeworthy and depressingly timely. Suffice it to say that one of the pieces I'm proudest of in my writing... (um, can't call it a career and it barely qualifies as a hobby anymore so find the right word and paste it in the appropriate place) happens to contain the moment I'm most embarrassed by, and it will need to be dealt with. Just not quite yet.

Anyway, the main body of today's post isn't mine - I realized upon opening up the ol' Blogger dashboard that today would have been the seventy-ninth (!) birthday of one of my major influences and a gentleman who I'm still unhealthily obsessive about some forty (!?) years after I first knowingly encountered his work, Mr. Michael O'Donoghue. (Though his influence actually extends far enough back that one of my earliest memories - of standing, terrified, in the bathtub while the screams that climaxed "Magical Misery Tour," the brilliantly brutal evisceration of the most sacred of rock 'n' roll cows that ended side one of National Lampoon's Radio Dinner album, shrieked at top volume from my parents' stereo - bears the O'Donoghue brand.* No doubt he'd be proud to be responsible for such a primal moment of childhood trauma.)

One day, I hope to realize my dream project - a proper compendium of O'Donoghue's writing; a nice, thick hardcover anthology'd be good, though, as some of his best work exploited the tools of various audio/visual media, some kind of tricked-out web portal might better do him justice. As one of the key architects of American humor of the last half-century, it's deserved and long overdue, not to mention that few writers of his renown have so little work available for public consumption. The first three years of Saturday Night Live, where he served as head writer and made occasional on-air appearances, are readily available to anyone with a Hulu subscription or some modest DVD-box-set scratch; some of his work for the Evergreen Review and the National Lampoon has turned up in various anthologies; his two major screenwriting collaborations, the highly atypical Merchant-Ivory production Savages and the ragged Dickens modernization Scrooged - two films sixteen years and a solar system or two apart from one another - are pretty easy to find on DVD and streaming services; and even his attempted TV special Mr. Mike's Mondo Video - produced for but never aired on NBC, given a brief and somewhat disastrous theatrical release, and revived for premium cable, VHS, and a 30th-anniversary DVD - has had a remarkably rich life for a late-term abortion. But beyond that lies the work available only in long-out-of-print volumes, the musty back numbers of periodicals both renowned and forgotten, bootlegged torrents of the first nine episodes of Dick Ebersol-era SNL (a fascinatingly ramshackle period worthy of deep forensic analysis) and oddball scraps strewn haphazardly throughout the 'net. And then, of course, there's a vast ocean of O'Donoghiana** that never got produced or published in any form, whether unfinished, hacked to death by censors, or left to die through industry neglect. That's the stuff that makes me ache - knowing that I may never feast my orbs on the likes of "The Good Excuse," "The Last Ten Days in Silverman's Bunker," Biker Heaven, Planet of the Cheap Special EffectsArrive Alive, or the index cards that make up whatever part of The Glass Vertebrae got finished. And hey, as soon as I can talk Cheryl Hardwick into letting me into his archives - I'm the man for the job, I'm telling you - maybe I'll have the chance.

But until that day comes, I can disinter some of the gems I've turned up through sundry search-engine and auction-site deep digs in his honor, with the intent of sharing more to come. (Since I've been holding onto the following with that very intent since the autumn of 2014, overmuch breath should not be held.)  Here's one to start with:

I've wanted to get ahold of this essay ever since the late Charles M. Young quoted from it in his excellent profile "Michael O'Donoghue Pokes Fun Until It Bleeds," in the December 1983 issue of Mother Jones. (I have somehow managed, through thirty-five years and numerous moves, to hold on to my copy of that issue, passed down to me by my supremely indulgent eighth-grade English teacher, one of that rare breed who saw no harm in encouraging fourteen-year-olds with prodigiously advanced tastes in humor in their rarefied strains of nerdery. Cheers, Mr. Parsons, wherever you are; none of this is your fault, probably.) Home Video was indeed, as Young said, a "wretched little magazine" designed to grab a few quick bucks by exploiting the then-new VCR-owners' market, one of surely many at the time. The main distinguishing factor of this one is that its editor-in-chief was one Robert Vare, who served editorships at The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone, among others. Not sure where HV falls in his CV, but Vare clearly had connections, pretty good taste in writers, and apparently enough venture capital to enlist some pretty impressive name writers. (I'm told that Norman Mailer's 40,000-word opus on the existential torments of watching porn while trying to fix the tracking with his free hand is as good as The Executioner's Song.)*** And on at least one occasion, MO'D, fresh off his second departure from SNL, was among them.****

I can't tell you how, exactly, I was able to figure out which issue this essay appeared in and how I lucked into finding a copy on eBay for much less than you would imagine a three-and-a-half-decade-old consumer monthly for Betamax enthusiasts would go for, but figure I did and lucked I... also did. And now I bring it to you. TV has changed in myriad ways since this was written, of course - the landscape would theoretically be more friendly to a Michael O'Donoghue these days, though I'm sure he would have managed to find a way to fuck that up - and the nature and delivery systems of the American fantasy have done much the same, of course. (Then again, every word of the second-to-last paragraph holds even more true in annus horribilis 2019***** than it did in '82.******) But what stands out here, as I discovered when I painstakingly typed it out, is that O'D's rhythms, even in a lesser venue, remained precise, with not a wasted syllable or a punctuation mark out of place. Even his run-ons never get winded. And as my intro turned out at least twice as long as the article it's setting up, maybe I could learn something from that. Happy birthday, Mr. Mike.

by Michael O'Donoghue

Americans are reaching out.  We know this by watching TV.  It shows Americans reaching out to blind ice skaters and one-armed gymnasts and crippled downhill racers and handicapped hang gliders and mentally-challenged dog groomers and rodeo clowns with metal plates in their heads and deformed Navajos and boys in plastic bubbles and amputees who play the musical saw with their feet.  Remember all those types we used to see just in sideshows?  Well now they're called "very special," as if "special" weren't enough, and, on TV, Americans are reaching out to them.  Really getting involved.  Caring.

Americans on TV are mavericks.  They go up against the system and lose their tempers and throw away the rule book.  Their unconventional style and freewheeling methods often exasperate their hard-nosed, tough-talking superiors but that's okay, because, underneath their crusty facades, the superiors also care.  Everybody on TV cares.  Paramedics care about battered wives.  Teachers care about disturbed foster children.  Investigative reporters care about unstable air controllers.  Street-wise basketball coaches care about teenage alcoholics.  Store-front lawyers care about the Hispanic community.  Doctors who care about one-time beauty queens who need radical mastectomies.  Lady truckers care about owners of roller discos framed for murders they didn't do.  Randolph Mantooth cares about chopper pilots trapped in high-power lines.  Ex-stunt men turned private eyes care about high-priced Vegas call girls who have been sexually molested and stabbed repeatedly.  On TV, maverick Americans are fighting for all-solar day care centers and ramps for migrant workers and seat-belts for the hearing impaired.  Helping each other.  Sharing a dream of faith and hope and courage.

The cops care most of all.  The last thing a S.W.A.T. team wants to do to a cornered former mental patient who's been strangling L.A. Rams cheerleaders with a dog leash is hose him down with an M-16 and turn his chest cavity into a soup tureen.  No way.  Only when they have exhausted every alternative will the California Highway Patrol feed some smoke to a deranged Green Beret who imagines he's still butchering tunaheads in the steamy jungles of the Nam.  Only when they have no other choice will Starsky or Kojak or Riker drop a load into a knife-wielding male stripper wigged-out on angel dust.  Cops on TV are sensitive and compassionate men with a deep regard for human life, oddly enough.  And if they care this much for obvious psychotic scum, their concern for the plight of the elderly is clearly boundless.

Sometimes they cry.  Even burly lugs like George Kennedy who bark, "I've got seventy-five thousand people in the Dome and I've got a sniper on the loose!"  Even twin-fisted guys who risk their necks daily to stop the pushers and the child pornographers and anyone wearing a ski mask and the neo-Nazis and the Mob and the berserk maniacs who want to take a ball peen hammer and drive approximately one hundred roofing nails into Dick Van Patten's skull.  Even they break down and cry. Because they care so goddamned much.  On TV.

Now, what does it mean when the fantasy of a nation is caring?  Not achievement or discovery or honor or glory but caring, which, in a civilized society, would be the ante in the game.  Nothing to sit home and watch.  Nothing to base a series on.

It means that in real America, a second-rate power sliding into third, the cops are trigger-happy goons, the doctors are on strike, the teachers are getting out, organized crime and big business and government are three names for the same thing, everything we eat causes projectile vomiting in mice, currencies based on shells and buttons are more stable than our own, the ecosystem is a big bowl of dog snot, there's a dead man at the helm, and nobody gives a flying fuck.  Nobody has to.  TV does it for them.

Americans are reaching out.  For burgers and colas and hot combs and jogging shoes and ten thousand products from the folks at Procter and Gamble.  But not for you.


* O'D is barely present on the track in substance - almost every word is paraphrased from John Lennon's infamous 1971 Rolling Stone interview, Tony Hendra does the (dis)honors as the voice of the ex-Beatle (aided by Bob Tischler's production trickery, Christopher Cerf wrote the music, and the not-yet-famous Christopher Guest and Melissa Manchester make audible contributions - but the simple genius of the concept and the Zen-assassin precision of the attack are all his. There's plenty of badly dated material on Radio Dinner - given that most of it satirizes the pop culture and politics of 1972, that's inevitable (though I'm sure "Profiles in Chrome" didn't make much sense even then) - but "Magical Misery Tour" still draws blood.

** Needs work; come back later and see if I haven't come up with something that doesn't sound like a Japo-Irish sushi pub.

*** I may just have dreamed this.

**** The other "big" name in this particular issue, who got the center spread and a mini-interview in that issue's editorial while O'D got the back page, was O'D's former friend and colleague turned lifelong nemesis Tony Hendra. Undoubtedly, this must have pleased O'D a great deal.

***** Sure, the year's not even a week old, but, seriously, can there be any doubt?

****** The sole difference being, the ecosystem is now a really fucking vast bowl of dogsnot.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016


It doth appear that the Dancing About Architecture website, home to two obscurely self-indulgent essays about two legendarily self-indulgent double albums written by me a decade and a half or so ago, has finally ceased to exist. (Mind you, the site shut down back in 2002; I'm lucky its archives remained accessible for as long as it had.) Damn shame, that, especially since these two pieces loom comparatively large in what one might snickeringly refer to as my "legacy" - both are cited on both albums' respective Wikipedia pages, one got quoted at The A.V. Club and the other in the friggin' Washington Post! As it happens, I was intending to port this one over here sooner or later, now that the album it references has finally been re-issued, with further commentary/clarification/corrections in the form of annotations, a task that, to put it as mildly as possible, I am decidedly far from up to at present. But I have reformatted the original somewhat (i.e., put the missing italics back) and corrected the glaring flaw (in the form of a word that doesn't exist) that has embarrassed me for over fifteen years now. I may wind up adding the annotations later - you might guess how likely that's going to be. But until then, there's this. (The second piece, on Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, will be posted here sometime between tomorrow and the apocalypse. So, end of January '17 at the latest.)
(photo: Robert Toren)

A Lot Of Life's Best Things Are Farther Than A Zen Proverb Away:
Game Theory's Lolita Nation 
by William Ham

It's a ridiculous notion, of course, this whole desert-island hypothetical -- apart from the obvious concerns about lack of electricity, the effects of malnutrition and dehydration on one's ability to dance on sand, and the fact that sound carries further over water than land, making it highly likely that the sound waves created by the full-volume blasting of your favorite record or CD will either be picked up by a passing ocean liner or at the very least piss off the inhabitants of the neighboring desert islands, compromising their ability to enjoy the copies of Kind of Blue or The Best of the Hampton Grease Band that they, in their limited foresight, brought with them to while away the hours between fits of heat-crazed delirium and the occasional attack by savage island beasts both real and imagined, modern technology has rendered the whole one-disc-per-island thing utterly obsolete. I mean, I have only the most rudimentary electronics skills (my half-semester at ITT Technical Institute ended badly, that's all I can say), and even I should be able to fashion a crude laptop from the detritus around the isle, take advantage of the low long-distance rates in the South Pacific (where they have no phones) to sign up with a cheap ISP, and happily download hundreds of MP3s to my heart's content. Sure, the fidelity on my mango-skin speakers leaves something to be desired and it takes six to eight months to download a single Spice Girls outtake, but, heck, it's not like I don't have the time. And just let those disgruntled copyright holders try and track me down.

But no, until the small-patch-of-sandy-ground rules are changed to reflect the times, it behooves me to keep things old-school. And what could be more educationally antiquated than that artifact of a simpler, worse-complected time, the double album? Sure, I realize that a few enterprising hucksters have done their level best to keep the multi-disc tradition alive in the digital age, but the less-restrictive time limits on CDs have made that option appealing only to guys who either a) arrived on the scene with a dirigible-sized ego to begin with or b) somehow deluded themselves into believing that hiring Bob Ezrin to shape your tortured personal vision into comely bloat was ever a good idea. It's just not the same. (Besides, everyone knows it's impossible to hide drugs in a CD gatefold.)

Double albums have always smacked of statement, of something that a single foot-wide black circle cannot contain -- think Frank Zappa neatly dividing his nascent mid-sixties social satire into greasy pop parodies and hairy dada explosions on Freak Out!, or Captain Beefheart morphing from oddball R&B growler into singular free jazz/Delta blues poet-animal with Trout Mask Replica, or Lou Reed throwing up two calcium-deficient middle fingers at label, critics and audience alike with a sustained burst of formless feedback called Metal Machine Music, or Hüsker Dü emerging from a well-worn hardcore chrysalis as the world's loudest, most anguished and best psych-pop power trio on Zen Arcade, or Peter Frampton coming ali -- Okay, scratch that last one. Any of the above may have laid just claim to the title of Desert Island Disc at one time or another amidst the gullible travails of my youth, simply because each, in their own far-flung and self-indulgent way, contains all the elements of a full-bodied, self-sustaining worldview, where even their weak and tangled links serve to help reinvent the Great Chain of Being. But it's another, far more obscure disque de deux that has shone its twin beacons the brightest on me in the 13 years since its release, an album whose very insularity may be the key to its greatness, a record so rich in pop-culture cleverness, computer-geek savvy and English-major arcana that it practically has its own ecosystem fit to sustain a school district's worth of honors-society romantics all the way to grad school.

Lolita Nation, though egalitarian on the surface (every member of Game Theory gets at least one writing or co-writing credit on the album), owes its focused sprawl to the vision of one man, a walking chunk of northern californium named Scott Miller. Miller is one of those rarefied creatures, more prevalent in the 80s than any time before or since, who managed to survive with only the college-radio ecosystem to sustain him. It's a little hard to believe, now that all that atmosphere can support is the occasional malnourished, chain-clove-smoking miscreant who fancies himself a celebrity because you can almost hear his radio show (3 to 5 a.m., Monday mornings) in most of the dorms, but at one time, you could almost count on that underground network of 50-watt stations and 50¢ 'zines to give you some semblance of a career. And Game Theory was, in essence, the ultimate college band -- equal parts Paisley Underground helium, jangle-pop byrdsong, and hand-me-down Alex Chiltonia, with just enough synthesizer to make indie-rock Luddites nervous.

It was a fine sound, with sufficient appeal to convert a certain percentage of every proto-alt-rock clique to Miller's way of thinking; it follows that, while Game Theory may not have been destined for stardom, they never quite languished in obscurity. Not big enough to sherpa themselves up the charts, maybe, but big enough to get mentioned by name in the preface to the SPIN Alternative Record Guide – in an apology for not being quite important enough to review. Big enough to have a verse in a Veruca Salt song dedicated to them. Big enough to be praised by the likes of Aimee Mann – and could there be a more flattering way to have the lid on your commercial aspirations nailed shut forever than to be anointed by the doyenne of major-label mistreatment? Big enough to make the covers of all the major indieground publications -- never a cover photo, mind you, but never further than three lines down from the phrase "Also in this issue." Big enough to garner the coveted 20-minutes-of-two slot on 120 Minutes a couple of weeks in a row. In other words, not big at all, but not exactly a secret either -- the perfect setup for obsessive fandom; convinced that you're the only one in the world who knows about this wonderful treasure trove, but infinitely thrilled upon discovering that someone else has seen it too, as if a stranger had walked up to you and began speaking the private language you'd invented.

And Lolita Nation remains the favorite of many of those obsessives (including yours regretfully) by epitomizing that insular mindset in ways both intentional and incidental. The band name doesn't appear clearly on either the front or back cover; the songs are full of samples of and references to earlier Game Theory records; tracks blip by in seconds or dig in for six-plus minutes; and the track listing on the back looks like it was written by a schizophrenic, James Joyce-crazed computer programmer prone to speaking in binary tongues. Hell, it's not even a gatefold and the flimsy plastic sleeves each of the discs are swathed in tend to get all mangled up in each other when you try to return them to the cardboard -- what kind of sick, exclusionary game are they playing here?

The self-immolating chutzpah is crazily admirable, especially considering how seemingly easy it would have been for Miller at that moment to make a dash for the mainstream, sell his soul to the A&R man with the least pointy tail, and say hi to the big time. The two albums preceding LN, Real Nighttime (1985) and The Big Shot Chronicles (1986) were full of two- to four-minute pop gems, polished up real nice and given settings that made even their more obtuse facets catch all available light by producer and kindred spirit Mitch Easter. (Easter was himself at the peak of his game at the time, well-known in vinyl-dork circles for his co-production of R.E.M.'s earliest [and best] records, in addition to crafting some of the most sonically-adventurous and moody pop of the era with his band Let's Active. Not that anybody noticed, mind you; he'd made the tactical error of letting himself be seen crooning to a dachshund on a stool in the video for his sole semi-hit, "Every Word Means No," thus being typecast forever as a cutesy Southern popster even after his records got darker and louder and he began developing jowls. In other words, it took medium-low MTV rotation to do to Mitch what Steve Allen couldn't do to Elvis.)

The indie assimilation process had already begun, what with several of the scene's brightest lights being plucked from obscurity and hidden under bigger, brighter bushels than any of them could have imagined; indeed, Game Theory's label, Enigma, had just scored a hit record with the Smithereens' "Blood and Roses," an almost unheard-of feat for an independent label. Surely it must have crossed the Enigma execs' minds that Game Theory could be the next thoroughbred in their new stable of hitmakers -- if a mumble-mouthed muhfuh like Michael Stipe can snag a hit by yoking his trademark ambiguities to a big beat and a slicker presentation, then why couldn't Scott Miller beef up his translucent trills in post-production and take the Finnegans Wake references down a notch or two? Faced with the possibility of breakthrough, Miller reacted like any great (or greatly self-conscious) artist would -- with willful, full-blown perversity. He made the difficult, insular album he always knew he had in him.

As it turns out, however, the insularity is just a ruse -- beneath all the oddball sonic intrusions, cryptic spoken-word interpolations, and song structures completely puréed by the whirring blades of his peculiar Cuisinartistry, Miller covertly grapples with some of the universal concerns of our age -- "Can I keep sight of my ideals in the face of yet another disillusionment?," "How much longer can I protect the blush of youth from the gust of mortality?,"and "Can I get away with letting my girlfriend sing lead on a couple of songs?" Miller's lyrics, like those of vintage Elvis Costello, careen all over the place verbally yet somehow manage to plug directly into the emotions. (That they're in the service of an imperfect but wonderfully expressive voice doesn't hurt.) Here, the emotional palette has grown – Lolita Nation isn't lacking in what Miller (with typical self-deprecation) calls "young-adult-hurt-feeling-athons," but they're offset by darker shades, by turns rueful, despairing, and even angry (you can tell because he uses the word "goddamn" a couple of times). You can hear it in "The World's Easiest Job" (which finds our hero "riding a frenzied ten-speed" over a sarcastic sung hook and a skittering jazz piano), "One More For Saint Michael" (surveying a sampling of human wreckage and managing more bitterness than a song with so many Star Trek references should handle), and especially in the agitated centerpiece of the album, "The Waist and the Knees" (about which more later). Even when he fashions a sympathetic setting for his higher register, like the ethereal-but-loud "Dripping With Looks," his trills hang over the carefully-articulated psychedelic guitar figures as if on frayed gossamer wings, upbraided and contradicted by the female backing vocals. Sweet, yes, but sweet like fruit just beginning to turn.

Which is not to say that Miller forsook the brighter pop moments with which he made his skinny bones. On the contrary; there are several songs that, in a better world, would have rung joyously from transistor radios worldwide. "The Real Sheila," in particular, is about as perfect a late-80s pop anthem as could be imagined, a seamless union of melody and muscle that rings with the ebullience of new romance. And "Chardonnay" goes even further, climbing from a tentative tremelo'd strum to an uptempo peak of drum-stomping vigor as intoxicating as the wine that gives it its title. (Yet even here Miller can't help but undercut his good vibes a touch; whatever he means by "the word must be head down and don't know a thing you're doing/and hear what the storefronts say" or "gonna recharge, cranio-mechanical/turning me right back into an animal," one can assume he's dealing with things that aren't dreamt of in Tommy James and the Shondells' philosophy.) All of which is not quite adequate to explain why this of all albums has maintained a precarious perch above all others of its kind for as long as it has. It's probably not even Scott Miller's "best" album -- two of his post-GT combo The Loud Family's recordings, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things (1993) and Interbabe Concern (1996), walk the ground Lolita broke with a more practiced stride. So why, then? Is it the imposition of moods and matters usually not found in pop music? The fact that he wrote the world's best lyric ever to namedrop Ernst, Dali, De Chirico and David Carradine? That he contrived a third side fit to throw even partisans into frothing despair, comprised of several instrumentals, a solo number from lead guitarist/galpal Donnette Thayer that's perfectly fine in a hard-Bangles way but guaranteed regardless of quality to earn the eternal wrath of a fan base that's just as insanely possessive as any other by the mere dint of its existence (this is either the Yoko Ono Postulate or the Brix Smith Conundrum, I can't recall which), only two full-fledged Miller songs (only one of them top-drawer), and a two-minute spasm of the purest self-indulgence that consists of other Game Theory songs played three at once or chopped up into one-second fragments christened with a series of titles ("All Clockwork and No Bodily Fluids Makes Hal a Dull Metal Humbert -- In Heaven Every Elephant Baby Wants To Be So Full Of Sting -- Paul Simon in the Park With Canticle -- But You Can't Pick Your Friends -- Vacuum Genesis -- DEFMACROS -- HOWSOMETH -- INGDOTIME -- SALENGTHS -- OMETHINGL -- ETBFOLLOW -- AAFTERNOO -- NGETPRESE -- NTMOMENTI -- FTHINGSWO -- NTALWAYSB -- ETHISWAYT -- BCACAUSEA -- BWASTEAFT -- ERNOONWHE -- NEQBMERET -- URNFROMSH -- OWLITTLEG -- REENPLACE -- 27") that refers, in order, to the films of Kubrick and Lynch, a play on words that can only be appreciated by those who own the Three O'Clock's Arrive Without Travelling LP, the recurring female spoken-word bits laced through the album that attempt to turn the old "but you can't pick your friend's nose" pseudo-maxim into something profound, the briefly-heard recording of Miller hoovering his rug and singing Genesis' "Illegal Alien" (!?), and what reads like a LISP macro code that I'll leave to any crazed programmers out there to find out if it amounts to anything? Or is it because the album is long out-of-print, which forces anyone out there curious to hear it to either cozy up to a Game Theory fan (and we can all use more friends) or wind up paying upwards of $100 on eBay for a copy of the briefly-available Enigma CD (we Theorists love these cruel little games, which is probably why we can all use more friends)?

In a word, no.

Not just those things, anyway. Somehow, it seems right that, on an album full of tiny songs and fleeting digressions, it's the two longest (and most diametrically opposed) songs that clinch its classic status in these eyes. "Last Day That We're Young," in the middle of the three-song fourth side, comes in with a stately pace quite unlike the manic-depressive mood swings of all that preceded it, opening with a simple keyboard figure and gradually adding instruments every four bars (showing off the band -- who to this point has barely warranted a mention in all this blather but deserves all the credit they can get -- to prime effect), taking its sweet time building to Scott's eventual entrance, crooning an elegy to a youth not yet dead ("Time's going to be a luxury now/ In the responsibility empire"), struggling to forestall the inevitable, even if by illusory means ("Give me some false hope I can take seriously/ Set me some roadblocks I can't break through"), and cursing the knowledge that kills the joy in what remains before then ("I think too much, I always do"). You can babble all you want about the creepy, anti-social music favored by teens -- punk, metal, goth or whatever rag-woven hybrid is the preferred soundtrack for revenge fantasies and huffing nowadays -- but this was the song that chilled my 17-year-old marrow. What could be scarier than an intimation of mortality, or worse yet, of maturity? The foreknowledge that, in spite of our best intentions, the world as we know it will soon end, not with a bang but an evanescent falsetto simper? (By the final song, "Together Now, Very Minor," Miller even goes so far as to write his own obituary -- "He never ran out when the spirits were low/ A nice guy as minor celebrities go.") What does it mean when, no matter how far you've gotten in this life, you always end up looking back with perfect, painful hindsight ("What was it we were always wanting?/ Didn't we know we had it all")? What's a boy to do?

Well, when all else fails, he can always go back two-and-a-half sides and behold the jaw-dropping glory that is "The Waist and the Knees." Even now, after Miller's voice has deepened somewhat and he's dotted the Loud Family's records with moments of real, full-bore rock 'n' roll, these six minutes still retain the power to shock and invigorate. All the confusion, ill feelings and panic that always roiled under the surface of Miller's songs are brought to a head here: a tense, urgent guitar paces in near-silence, then bursts into driving, chattering full volume, Gil Ray's skittering drums pushing the clenched guitars into pained, elastic contortions, not unlike those of Miller's voice as he leaps into the fray, more agitated and enigmatic than ever before: "Cozify with the lip-tied mind/ Beckmanns by the enlistment line/ Got to be small when target times come/ Got to be smart while acting dumb," he sings as if dodging the synthesized shards of sound-shrapnel that rush by at the end of every line. And it only gets tenser and more claustrophobic from there, where even the 60s song references have an unhealthy tinge ("Feeling sicko hang on sloop john/ Ugliest trip I've ever been on") and modest aspirations seem too much to ask for ("We'll follow these dreams we're going to have each/ Small and literal, well within reach/ And not a sicker fantasy dreamed of/ No excuse for love"). The noisy intrusions turn into frenetic musique concrete and threaten to take over the song, which abruptly downshifts into a nervous vamp over which the multi-tracked Miller doubletalks his way through a vicious, absurd parody of a recording contract ("Company shall be referred to as 'special friend' and shall not be held liable for loss due to theft, misplacement, impulse buying, poor sportsmanship, birth of multi-headed infant, hubby red-faced after bizarre weight loss ritual"). When the song proper resumes, all is lost: "Over the ceiling rain/ And no place left that I know to drain/ Cutting the signal flow/ You can dress as you like there's still no place you can go"Going to get hold and no one leaves/ Going to get cold and most will freeze/ Going to get folded into threes/ Until you break at the waist and the knees." And then it bursts, the horror contained in the singer's own head, the only place from which there's no escape: "Fire across the temple and out the rear, motor skill/ And low muscle stopped/ No one knows how to make it stop, I hope I can wake up." The whole thing collapses into chaos, our hero throwing himself against the walls like William Hurt in Altered States (or the guy from a-ha in the "Take On Me" video, take your pick), the guitar hydroplanes into a sparks-flying, end of the world skid, and it's all over.

Need I mention that it's one of the most exhilarating moments in rock I've ever heard? Well, it is; it's the sound of an artist harnessing one of the triumphantly contradictory aspects that makes this juvenile art form worthwhile -- the sound of desperation made over into affirmation. And that, my bleary-eyed friends, is why Lolita Nation will join me in my isolated outpost in the middle of the sea of largely-squandered possibilities; even if all known support systems fail me tomorrow, even if my karmic balance statement remains overstuffed in the debit column, even if Scott Miller makes good on the threat made after the release of his most recent album and never records a note of music for public consumption ever again, I can still spin these two pieces of plastic and know I'm not quite alone, that there's an overeducated, overthinking, despairingly romantic muse lingering somewhere overhead. And even if I am alone, I can still thrash about amid the palm fronds playing a truly manic air guitar.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

A LA MO'D #1: MEMENTO MONDO (a teaser of sorts):

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of one of my all-time comic heroes and chiefest influences, Michael O'Donoghue.  Which I was very much hoping to be able to commemorate on this very blog before the day ended.  But alas, all manner of obstacles and technical difficulties have blocked my way, and the rather ambitious post in his honor is, as yet, incomplete, and, as I'm headed off to work now (where internet access is extremely problematic), will have to remain so until tomorrow.   The only thing I can think to do at this moment in tribute is to find a cane and smash this fucking laptop to fucking fucking atoms.  But I did not want the day to pass completely without some sort of tribute.  So here - a taste of O'D heaven, one of the very few from that show he used to work for that somehow has escaped the YouTube copyright-enforcement wood chipper (maybe because it was shot camcorder-kinescope-style, I dunno), with the promise that some far more intriguing (and way less obvious) material is soon to come.  So stay tuned.

And, because I just can't leave sick enough alone, please head over the jump for a portrait of the great man that is surely and undoubtedly the way he'd have wanted us to remember him.  Bless you, MO'D.  More tomorrow...

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


While you're waiting for me to finish one of the dozens of posts on this blog that lie in various states of composition, why not hop on over to Biocarbon Amalgamate, the film blog recently founded by widely-respected pop culture journalist and tireless freelancer Robert Ham (hmm?  Well, yes, now that you mention it, he does have the same last name as me.  What are the odds...?) and take a shufti at a few posts I've managed to complete under his tough-love tutelage and editorship.  So far, I've written about:
  • The 78 Project Movie, a film following a pair of filmmakers as they criss-cross the country, recording musicians from John Doe to John C. Reilly on authentic vintage equipment;
  • Razing the Bar, a documentary about the short but happy life of Seattle's most beloved punk club; and
  • a short piece about the unpleasant intimations regarding the future of one of L.A.'s most beloved rep houses.

That all three of them have something to do with the struggle to keep a small part of the charmingly ramshackle side of America's not-so-distant cultural heritage alive in the face of technical obsolescence and/or gentrification and/or unmitigated avarice, we'll just chalk up to sheer coincidence.  Feel free to look over the entire blog - there's some fine writing throughout - and check back frequently, as I'm at work on several more pieces; now, if you'll excuse me, I need to consult with someone who knows a little bit about these magic computer boxes - apparently, one's not supposed to write on them using a quill.