Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Cold War Kids on Letterman

CWK took the stage in NYC for the Letterman show on 12/22, following news anchor Tom Brokaw. My favorite part is at the end, when Dave asks the band where they are from and Maust responds "Long Beach," even though I was hoping for a Whittier shout-out.

The other best part wasn't on this video, but happened before Brokaw came out. Paul and Dave were talking and Paul said "Cold War Kids are my favorite band, and you're going to see why tonight."

Nice to get some late night love. Soon to come, Leno and SNL.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Myth Concerning Darwin

Darwin evolved into God after breeding with the elements,
each one alone, until he combined them in his harem—

seducing Fire with promises of virgin timber,
whispering sonnets into Air’s ear,
massaging Earth with his fingers.

But Water would not be won with words or presents—
she felt she was too good for him,

running away as a vapor when he tried to kiss her,
squirming and squishing free from his embrace,
falling at his feet in mock surrender as the rain.

At last he caught her at Lake Grasmere,
but he only slipped on her frozen back, bruising his tailbone.

She held him captive in her hand for five years on the Beagle,
until he agreed to make her queen and mother of his firstborn.

Darwin sat in Heaven, observing the world,
eyes full, mouth with smiling teeth—

particularly enjoying shed cocoons,
the way the pigeons hovered at Trafalgar Square,
and the barnacles that clung to rocks to spite the sea.

It is revenge on Water he proclaimed and laughed—
then later, cried,
he could not make love to her in Heaven.

He took out a blindfold to cover his eyes,
but he saw through it.

He tried to cut himself so that blood would fall to the air,
but his skin was impenetrable.

At last he came to the realization that he could no longer
do anything except watch.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Fairvilla Christmas

Nothing says merry like sledding and sweaters.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A Story about Stories: Holy Days/Holidays

The semester is over at USC. I have no coursework left for my MA. All that remains is grading and a final exam that I have to proctor. I am now transitioning into writing my thesis, a collection of short stories that focus on the way holidays change over time. Sometimes these shifting conceptions of holidays simply reflect cultural patterns (the merchandizing of the early 20th century or 1950s), but in other cases larger ideological shifts are reflected (the secularization of religious holy days, more cynical views on holidays like Valentine's Day or New Year's resolutions).

I have drafts of five stories, two of which have been rewritten. If anyone wants to look at one or two and give me feedback, I would love to hear your opinion.

In other news, I am also applying for grad school again. This is what? Round five? God willing, it will be the last time, following which I will be granted a PhD.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Molting (a prophecy)

1. Hermit Crab

The picture carried in my wallet is worn out—
crease turned black, edges frayed, corner ripped,
but increasingly agreeable.
A memory like cracked glass,
paint thinner poured over a favorite oil portrait—
the colors hemorrhage.
Someone has written on the back in red ink,
suffering is holy.

In the picture I was only sixteen,
drunk on inhibition.
They gave me a license anyway,
waved hands vaguely in the region of…
Do whatever you think is best.
Buy a sports car, use a condom.

(I thought nothing was best.)
Awake and not—
I lay on dirty sheets/twin bed,
birthed the sensation of never landing—
cryptic night presence,
skin pale in walled isolation,
the need for plummets to breathe.

Always searching for some new shell.

2. Garden Snake

Walking with/in her fingers,
under the boisterous sun on the beach,
my skin collapses, sloughs off,
her touch chars prints of my identity.

I seemed destined for colder climes—
Ocean corners, Midwest blizzards.
A bottom-dweller for whom light has no meaning.
A withered codger sipping coffee from a paper cup
as the outdoor children build a snow fort.

In a quiet condo,
away from the 5 freeway,
green with long rain gutters along the roof,
the water will not touch us.
We sit and talk on overstuffed couch,
the comfort of being mutually found,
sleep better during the day,
wake as the sun surrounds the curtains.

Sometimes basking in the flowerbed.

3. Albatross

The picture is scanned and digitally altered,
crease removed, edges brightened, corner straight.
I have captioned it:

On the day after Thanksgiving
I wasn't thankful enough.
Hands in pockets, I perch on the mall's escalator,
watch the pretty girls shop,
how they move,
the way their hair holds light.
All of them memories.

I worry that not enough know how beautiful they are.
A secret to be shared over Spaghetti Bolognese,
chianti, round candles.
How beautiful,
this ignorance.
I cannot tell them.

Not flying again until pinfeathers
push the dead fluff away.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Brief History of Blog (as portrayed in 1950s monster movies)

Blog was born some time ago, and right away we infer that his parents must have hated him since they gave him such an ugly name. They must also have been Trekkies or yacht-racers, since the only people that use "log" as a synonym for diary are nautical types or sci-fi lovers. I figured someone must have taken this to the next step, and yes, I have found the Captain's Blog :stardate, now. The captain is a proponent of some AMAZING conspiracy theories, including, but not limited to, the idea that terrorists (or someone like them) are controlling hurricanes and directing them toward the U.S.

But consider the alternatives: Web + Diary = Wiary or Biary. Actually, Biary isn't so bad-sounding, but the one virtue of Blog is that it's short, whereas Biary is more than one syllable. No one could be expected to say more than one syllable in such a fast-paced world as the one that Blog inhabited. He lived in the town of Cyberspace, which is not much like actual space, but it tries hard. Another option would have been Web + Journal = Wournal or Bournal. Neither is short, and both are ugly. I blame Roget (when in doubt, the French can easily fill in as scapegoats) for not coming up with enough synonyms for diary. Although, it does also list record, memoir, account and chronicle. With these more obscure options I was able to come up with Bord, Boir, Woir, Wount, Bicle, and Wicle. How can you argue against Wicle or Boir? If you have a good case, I want to hear it. Now, please. Both of the aforementioned so far surpass blog that I demand a revolution. Maybe I will place an internet poll somewhere where all five of you reading this will find it and vote for either Wicle or Boir.

I digress; this article was about Blog, not those trying to overthrow him. Anyway, Blog got his big break in 1951 with "The Thing." (see how a specific, brilliant liguistic decision can make a career?)

Blog, looking like Frankenstein's monster with horns. Note, Blog is even scarier-looking out of costume.

In 1954, Blog was given another great role, this time as "the creature." Slightly less ambiguous!

Blog, trying to pull himself out of the swamp of ugly (where he still lives, by the way), from the film "The Creature from the Black Lagoon". The swamp of ugly is also where most of Blog's writers live.

For a while, Blog went unnoticed, but after two hit films he could not stay hidden, even in the swamp of ugly. In 1956 he did not appear, but was given creative credit in, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

When asked why Blog was credited, even though he never appeared in the film, director Don Siegel stated that "Blog has a tendency to take over people's lives, just like the body-snatchers."

The 50s were busy years for Blog, who in 1958, won the leading role in "Blob."

Here is Blog as "Blob," trying to eat, or perhaps absorb, the world. Please note that this is also Blog's real-life aspiration.

Blog's movie career was never the same after the 50s, although he went on to "Son of Blob" (1972), "Harry and the Hendersons" (1987), and occasional guest spots on "Alf".

Today, Blog has moved on to more-disturbing roles in politics and professional snooping. He is currently a featured profile on MySpace and enjoys internet, but not actual, dating. In person, he is too terrible and ugly to look at.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Competing Visions of the Future (a poem)

I've walked in circles my whole life—
wondered if they shrink only smaller,
if movement becomes pale—

tracing faint rounds back and forth between
office and studio apartment,
Coin-Up Laundromat and Mike's Burgers,
1st National Bank and Rooney's premium dive bar

where I make pinprick spheres,
poke holes in peanut shells with toothpicks—
at last only sit on one stool and try to flirt with one waitress
who is half my age
and unattractive

On the 35th floor of the Bonaventure Hotel we sit in a rotating lounge
slowly encircling Los Angeles—
outside, lights streak and blur into colored lines that
fade out like firework tails

We watch headlights bounce,
bright angels of possibility
gaze with glowing eyes

Moving in circles, she says, is divine—
like concentric orbits of an asteroid

Moving in circles, she says, is real—
like layers of an onion

Perhaps love's true sensation—
is not dizziness
but the recovery from dizziness

Monday, October 09, 2006

Cold War Kids: Taking Over LA

I could write this entry about how I used to share a quad in Stewart Hall with bassist Matt Maust, but I won't. Actually, there are some good stories there that involve Seinfeld, Rian, Dave, Phil and Jairus. (There's my one life reference for the month). No, I am writing merely as a fan.

It is past time to write something about the
Cold War Kids, who are, in my mind, one of the bands that everyone should be hearing about in the next year or so (think Arcade Fire or Sufjan Stevens). If you haven't heard of the Arcade Fire or Sufjan Stevens, don't worry, there's still time for you.

Cold War Kids, from left to right, Jonnie Russell, Matt Maust, Matt Aveiro, and Nathan Willett, looking all Hollywood.

Anyway, CWK have been plastered all over the media out here in LA, including an article that was on the cover of the LA Times
calendar section, the front cover of O.C. Weekly, and a full page article in Spin Magazine. Last night, CWK was also featured on the KROQ (LA's big modern rock station) show that plays local bands. I suspect big things, and have for months, even before I went to a sold out show featuring CWK as the headliners at the Troubadour back on Sep. 8th. The venue was packed as CWK unleashed their minimalistic yet rich sound to the enthusiastic audience. I couldn't help but think that they are the perfect Hollywood band—not in the sense of today's image-driven movie society, but a landmark like the Troubadour that hearkens back to the Golden Era of motion picture and rock of the '50s and '60s.

I dislike comparing CWK to other bands, because they are already so distinct in their style. They have the simple, pure, rock beauty of someone like the White Stripes, combined with the soul of blues and the narrative ability of Johnny Cash. This is rock and roll before the electronic invasion of synthesizers and guitar pedals. This is a garage band playing on a paddle-wheel river boat sailing across the forgotten American landscape. This is genuine music.

The songs themselves are quite compelling. They tell stories of people searching for redemption, but perhaps not always finding it. The driving base lines of "We Used to Vacation" or "Hang Me Up to Dry" suggest a primal urgency—a direct need for creative expression, while the fragility of "Pregnant" and the ballad of "St. John" demonstrate that CWK is no one trick pony. Or, for that matter, no one hit wonder. Their live show is just as raw and exciting as their songs—where makeshift instruments are beat upon the stage, and band members collide with one another, as if intoxicated by the melody.

Robbers and Cowards, the first full-length release from Cold War Kids is due out tomorrow and available in stores everywhere.

Robbers and Cowards, designed by bassist Matt Maust

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Story is in the Spam

Lately, I have been getting incredible spam emails. So much more creative then the usual enlargements, stocks, real estate, FREE DEGREES NOW, or drugs (just say no). No, these are very creative and almost tell a story. Has anyone else gotten these? Perhaps someone (Matthew?) can illumine me to the true puposes of these emails, but until then I have several theories:

1) As an aspiring fiction writer I have somehow unwittingly signed up for some "share your story over email project." (I cry for you, story email project.)

2) These are actually coded messages from either a) the CIA or NSA or b) terrorist cells. I just need the decoder. Please, I want the decoder! I am willing to send in cereal box tops or UPCs.

3) There is some link that I am supposed to click on in the email. (This is not working, by the way, I haven't ever even seen a link.)

4) Some nasty virus is contained in the email (since I have a Mac, nothing happens). But let's be honest. There is another type of virus that is spread by the language in these spam stories, as I like to call them.

So, for your enjoyment, I have pasted a spam story below, and included my italicized commentary and critique, as I would in a writing workshop. I neglected to save the email address to look up the domain. Next time I promise I will.


I rose quietly, so as not to waken the cowboys, took my fish spear, and went to the channel.

Very Hemingway here, but the cowboys threw me a bit. Cowboys by the beach is a fresh idea. Can they surf?

The only difficulty would be in getting the golfers.

That is always the difficulty. I prefer my golfers to be old, drunk and Scottish.

But later, when the wind freshened a little, I had to send Johnny on the outrigger itself. And then a verbose sermon, as unnourishing a crust as was ever thrown upon the waters.

WHO IS JOHNNY? We need some introduction to the character. Also, is verbose sermon functioning here as a metaphor? And for what?

To come about the canoe must be beached or sailed to shallow water where it can be held. Try to smell the clean breath of an island untainted by habitations. My heart missed a beat and my knees went weak. Now and again she would gasp with emotion, her eyes would become soft and almost sensuously happy.

This is some fine work, really. I find that islands tend to have the cleanest breath when they use Scope. But why do the narrator's knees go weak here? Is it because the island's breath is so sexy? And is the island gasping for emotion, or is this Johnny as a girl, or a new heroine?

The fish retaliated by biting Elaines tongue! Their smug self-complacency annoyed me a little. Another things I proposed to teach my children to take care of themselves. Their smug self-complacency annoyed me a little. I try to remedy this by giving her mostly drawing, at which she surpasses her older sister.

Well, maybe Elaine felt sensual because the fish bit her tongue? I admit, it is a bit of a stretch, but there are some crazy fetishes out there. I would suggest, however, placing the fish biting incident before Elaine feels sensual, unless the bite was supposed to interrupt the mood.

Elaine, trying to reciprocate her sensual feeling.

Soon we were in deep water, too far from the reef to make it swimming should the canoe capsize.

To be honest, this is how I feel about your story.

The trade wind blows fresh and fragrant through the house. Not even the whoops of the cowboys jar my nerves, for they are on the end of the wharf fishing. We pitched our camp under a big tournefortia bush, within a few feet of the beach.
The cowboys, fishing.

YES, I was waiting for the cowboys to come back, although I still wish that they were surfing instead of fishing. I think you might also include some dialogue here between the narrator and the cowboys, those saucy fellows.

Every island has a reef peculiar to itself.

No man is an island, except the one that has sexy Scope breath, and causes Elaine to feel even more sensual than when she was bit on the tongue by a fish.

I pulled him out, dropped him in my bag, and moved on. By the time we had retrieved the spears there were five sharks circling about us.

The suspense builds!

I woke at about four and put in two hours of hard work clearing a path to the north point. Probably not, for the rafters area foot apart and the roofing sheets close together. She always makes a great to-do about her pains. Johnny stayed at home, for she has a boil on her knee. The tide was low in the forenoon and the reef dry. These plaited fronds give both a beautiful effect and a raintight shelter.

I knew it! Johnny is a girl (or maybe just a cross-dressing, surfer cowboy?)

The cowboys ride off into the sunset, but where is the narrator?

Dear Email-a-Story Project Participant,

On the whole I thought the piece lacked the focus it needed to succeed. The revelation of a female Johnny comes too late. The split-personality disorder of the narrator (as Johnny, Elaine, her own children)has been overdone, e.g. Fight Club, Identity, and etc. Continuous description and unification of voice would help achieve a greater clarity. I also wondered about the endearing cowboys, so obvious in their comraderie, and why they would exclude the troubled narrator? The loose end of the problematic golfers still bothers me as well. In short, you have some work to do.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

LA's Dopest Attorney

The following picture is of Allison Margolin, and appeared in (as far as I remember) LA Weekly, in an ad that claimed that she is "LA's dopest attorney." It also feautured bullet points of benefits that clients could expect from hiring the talents of Margolin. The one that caught our eye, combined with the photo and the claim of "ivy-league educated" was "want to smoke pot on probation?"

Margolin giving her sultry stoned look.

I had a good laugh over this one, but as it turns out, Margolin does have an ivy-league education. She also seemingly takes cues from "Legally Blonde" in that she is not afraid to use sex appeal to win a case or attract clients. She favors the legalization of marijuana (hence the pun, or perhaps half pun, on "dopest"). She has an explanatory video on youtube, and the LA Times recently wrote an article on her.

You can't imagine how disappointed I was to find out that she wasn't a model hired to look like a sexy lawyer to garner business for a failing firm. That would have been perfect for Hollywood. She is, however, more of an enigma.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Grandmother (a poem)

This is a first draft of my second poem I wrote for my poetry class.

I look into eyes of tall sagebrush on a still day,
green and silver without the polish of recognition.
Cumulus hair on skin cracked like deadwood.
The storm has lived here for months.

Hello I say, but she is buried.
Clogged lungs, dirtied eyes, how can she breathe?
The dunes are so high and so wide,
and the wind only keeps piling.

I have seen the future and it is dust.

Dust blows over everything, drifting until the farmers pack up.
Fields are worthless and the sky is dark with grime.
Get the kids in the car and head west.
Have you heard? There is gold in California!

She says Take me home,
but her home has dried up—
there are no crops that can take root in this soil.
She says If you loved me you would take me home,
but love must obey survival.

I want to tell her You are not from Kansas.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Why a Radiohead Concert Might Be More Like Heaven Than a Church Service

This is a provocative title, and I partially mean it. I'm not just using hyperbole to praise Radiohead.

I had the privilege of seeing the June 28th show in San Diego. If you ever have a chance to see a show at Embarcadero Marina, do it. The venue is outside right near the harbor and if you are clever (I wasn't), you can go to shows for free by simply putting a boat in the water and sailing around the outside of the venue. The view wouldn't be bad either, probably about the same as from the edge of the bleachers.

Thom Yorke responded in a humorous way to the surroundings when he acknowledged the concert crashers. Yelling into the mic he said "Hey you there in the lake, did you pay then?" Of course, everyone loved this. I can't remember which song they went into after that, but it was a good transition. I'd like to say it was "Everything in Its Right Place," but that's probably a falsification.

Thom sings Happy Birthday to Colin Greenwood, photo borrowed from limegreeneye@flickr.

In what way was the concert more like heaven than church? I was reminded of at least two ways (that I probably originally felt at a U2 show). I don't mean that I feel closer to God at a Radiohead concert. Rather, I think that there is a sense of eternity at a good concert. That is, no one there wants it to end. After Radiohead played for nearly two hours everyone yelled until the band came out for an encore. If this method continued to work, I'm fairly sure that most people would have stayed all night. It's that kind of special feeling that is hard to explain and create. Historically significant events have the same sort of quality. Sometimes I do feel this way after worship, but there is no way that the majority of people in the church do, because I can always tell who can't wait to get out of the service. Why does Radiohead do a better job at captivating people's attention?

Probably it's because Radiohead doesn't play every Sunday, and because the audience adores the band. Although this is most likely bordering on idolatry, there is a great sense of unity in the crowd because of this shared acknowledgement of talent. While I do feel unified with other Christians at church, I don't always share the same attitudes toward the worship and sermon. I imagine that in Heaven everyone will justifiably adore their creator, and this sense of adulation will be a very powerful unifying force.

Monday, July 31, 2006

New Mexico and the Glen Workshop

I was in Arizona and New Mexico for ten days with my dad. The scenery in New Mexico was something I've never experienced before. We got to visit Petrified Forest National Park, The Painted Desert,and Petroglyph National Monument, but Ghost Ranch, where Georgia O'Keeffe lived and worked in isolation for many years, was my favorite.

This picture doesn't really do justice to the tremendous display of colors at Ghost Ranch. In a few hundred feet green grass, red hills, blue mountains and sky, and grey, white and black rocks all appear—somehow conjured up by the desert.

O'Keeffe was famous for her unique perspective, which held realism and abstraction in a comfortable tension. Often, she would paint flowers or bones extremely close-up, to accentuate features often missed by casual viewers. I was able to visit the O'Keeffe Museum, where over one hundred of her pieces were on display. She is one of my favorite artists, probably because of her unified artistic vision and her notoriously eccentric lifestyle.

"Pelvis IV" shows the New Mexico sky as seen through the smooth and alluring bones of a cow.

The reason for our trip was not just to visit national parks and museums (I added those later), but to attend the Glen Workshops, hosted by Image, a journal of "Art Faith and Mystery." It was a chance for Christians of many denominations and artists of many fields to get together and share their experiences. The workshops were awesome. My dad led one workshop on mixed media, and I took the fiction workshop, led by Bret Lott, an accomplished author who also edits the Southern Review. Bret has some insightful advice and very funny stories about being a writer, published as a collection of essays, called "Before We Get Started".

We also were fortunate to hear a concert performed by Over the Rhine, an outstanding band of which I have been a fan for a few years. Their music is lyrically rich, often folk inspired melodic ballads. Their latest release, "Drunkard's Prayer," is my favorite.

Eugene Peterson, scholar, pastor and translator of "The Message" gave the homilies at worship. He has one of those gravelly voices, but it was very humble and inviting.

I could keep going, but let it suffice to say that this was the highlight of my summer.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Why J.R.R. Tolkien Would Have Liked Sigur Ros

When I listen to the ethereal music of Iceland's Sigur Ros I can't help feeling the same way that I do when I read great epics like Homer's Odyssey or Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. A pervasive sense that the world has been born or died or changed forever rings from the melodies. Part of this is the immense sonic landscape that the band creates—songs that sound like a place rather than merely a progression of chords. The Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" or U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name" are songs that feel epic, but Sigur Ros has a whole catalog. Make no mistake, the Iceland group seems to craft the anthems of mythology—the stories of fairies and elves.

I am not the first to note the similarity between the band and Tolkien. A review in Stylus Magazine from several years ago beat me to it. Sigur Ros, like Tolkien, creates their own language for many of their songs. Called "Hopelandic," it is often primal and eerie, yet still maintains a weighty significance. Sometimes Icelandic is interspersed with the imaginary dialect, but to my ignorant American ears, it blends together almost seamlessly.

Sigur Ros trying to think of the word for "epic" in Hopelandic.

If you are still unconvinced, try watching the video for Glosoli. Hoppipolla is also excellent. I tend to think that Tolkien would agree.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

As Seen on a Truck...

We saw a truck like this on Imperial Highway.

I think this is all for the best...

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Lyrics Are Poetry (or something)

In my neverending search for quality music I occasionally find lyrics that make me want to have metal caps soldered over my ears. Here are a few of my "favorites."

1. System of a Down

"Lonely Day" from the album Hypontize

The alleged story on this song is that System is mocking Emo bands. This could be true. However, nothing excuses the complete disregard for basic principles of GRAMMAR and some of the worst rhymes this side of Kevin Federline. This song has received airplay ad nauseum. Here is pure poetic brilliance.

"Such a lonely day
And it's mine
The most loneliest day of my life

Such a lonely day
Should be banned
It's a day that I can't stand

Such a lonely day
Shouldn't exist
It's a day that I'll never miss
Such a lonely day
And its mine
The most loneliest day of my life"

System of a Down: Every day is the most loneliest day.

2. Nine Inch Nails

"Only" from the album With Teeth

Trent Reznor at his sollipsistic best. Denial will get you everywhere Trent. Just fade away!

Verse: "I'm becoming less defined as days go by
Fading away
And well you might say
I'm losing focus
Kinda drifting into the abstract in terms of how I see myself"

Chorus: "There is no you
There is only me
There is no you
There is only me
There is no ****ing you
There is only me
There is no ****ing you
There is only me"

Trent in his own world. There are no fans, there is only me!

3. She Wants Revenge

"These Things" from the album "She Wants Revenge"

The chorus of this song makes me laugh. She Wants Revenge is the musical equivalent of Ben Stein's Visine "Dry Eyes" commercials. Complete monotone. The lyrics alternate between the comically specific "popsicle" to the incredibly vague "cause of these things." The artist's struggle comes through so clearly: can't you all see? It's 'cause of these things!

"I heard it's cold out, but her popsicle melts
She's in the bathroom, she pleasures herself
Says I'm a bad man, she's locking me out
It's cause of these things, it's cause of these things

Let's make a fast plan, watch it burn to the ground
I try to whisper, so no one figures it out
I'm not a bad man, I'm just overwhelmed
It's cause of these things, it's cause of these things

Separated at birth? She Wants Revenge (left) and Ben Stein (right).

4. Hoobastank

"Inside of You" from the album Every Man for Himself

This speaks for itself...

"What do I have to do
To get inside of you?
To get inside of you?
Cuz I love the way you move,
When I'm inside of you.
When I'm inside of you..."

Hoobastank, saying "our songs are so much more poetic than 'we just want to get inside your pants.'"

5. Gwen Stefani

"What You Waiting For?" from the album Love, Angel, Music, Baby

Gwen is awesome. But really, how can she get away with this?


What you waiting
What you waiting
What you waiting
What you waiting
What you waiting for!?"

Gwen, when is your book coming out?

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Obsessed with Entertainment

A recent article in Los Angeles Magazine posed the following question: do gossip TV shows like "Entertainment Tonight" and "Access Hollywood" satisfy some "primitive urge" within people? Presumably, the primitive urge would be idolizing the rich and famous. Who are the rich and famous covered by these shows? Primarily entertainers. This question made me laugh because it assumes that entertainment has been universally valued in the same way that it is in our current culture.

I sometimes wonder why professional athletes and actors/actresses are by far the highest paid people in our society. Even if you buy the argument that entertainment has been valued across cultural and historical lines, the disparity that exists today seems tremendous. If I'm lucky, I might make, in my lifetime, what Shaq has made this past season. Not that I have anything against Shaq, but he doesn't seem that crucial to our society.

How many men read the sports page (online or newspaper) before the actual headlines (if they even read the headlines at all)? How many people would prefer to spend an hour talking about the movie that's out in theaters this week than the situation in the Middle East? I think both describe me. I don't think "escapism" is the only reason I do it either. And it's not because I don't think the situation in the Middle East isn't important or worth talking about. I just may be more interested in the movie.

I am a product of my culture. Have you noticed that gas stations have begun installing TV screens at the pump that broadcast music videos? My only guess at their existence is to be "better than the station down the road." What TV screens have to do with the quality or value of gas is beyond me. But if that station is more entertaining, more people might go to it. Albertson's has just installed similar screens all over their store here. At the check-stands and in food areas the screens give you recipes (and probably entertainment news). Stater Brothers has had a trivia contest going over the PA to give away free bags of groceries. I wonder who will win.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Rise of Indie Rock: An Alternative to Alternative

Note: I started writing this for a journal that promptly went under before I could finish it and send it to them. Scoundrels.

In the mid 80’s with glam rock (KISS, Poison, Stryper) and new wave (Blondie, The B-52’s, any number of one hit wonders) at their respective kitschy heights, “alternative” started making the rounds as a term to describe bands that were not getting the airplay they deserved. The idea of a music underground, struggling against mainstream corporate grooming and pop gimmicks was attractive, and owed its impetus to the early punk rock of The Ramones, The Clash and The Sex Pistols. Defined by less make-up, pyrotechnics, and production and more authenticity, alternative became associated with decade-defining bands like REM, The Cure, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Nirvana.

KISS, defining "kitsch rock."

The huge critical and commercial success of alternative bands pushed the term into mainstream usage, and soon alternative bands were not only played on the air, but in the mid 90’s stations were calling themselves “alternative radio.” Many of these stations have since switched to the “modern rock” moniker, but the irony of mainstream alternative remains, attaching itself to everything from the pop-punk of Green Day to the electronic rock of Radiohead, from the intentionally unpolished sound of The Strokes to the geek rock of Weezer. Two decades later, alternative’s broad swath can be found on stations called top-40, modern rock, and even ‘classic rock.’

Somewhere in the middle of this alternative heyday, another reaction took place against the conglomerate that was corporate record labels (EMI, Sony/BMG, Warner, etc.) and major radio stations. Signing to a major label and getting heavy airplay became “selling out,” sacrificing artistic freedom and street credibility for cash and fame. Independent labels multiplied, offering seemingly untainted artists and a host of musical options. A similar movement is visible in film, where so many independent movies are as successful as their mainstream counterparts. In 2005, four of the best picture nominees were indies. Independent films, made with a smaller budget, often feature indepedent soundtracks.

In Zach Braff’s Garden State, when Natalie Portman declares ‘It’s the Shins, this one song will change your life, I promise you,’ the indie rock community gave a collective cheer. Garden State’s mood was perfected by music from The Shins and Iron and Wine, both from Seattle-based Sub-Pop Records. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation used British indie stalwarts The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine from London’s now defunct Creation Records to superb effect in capturing both the brilliant neons of Tokyo nights, and the introspective isolation of both main characters.

Natalie Portman smiling because she loves The Shins.

Big studios should be afraid. With internet downloads (legal and non) of music on the rise, album sales are down. When idie releases out-perform their big studio counterparts, insult is added to injury. The Postal Service's "Give Up," also from Sub-Pop, went platinum. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah offered a self-titled, self-released album that was purchased in large quantities by Target stores after generating a buzz. But perhaps corporate labels are only waiting for bands to succeed before buying them out from indie labels (The Strokes, Interpol, Death Cab for Cutie). Sub-Pop is famous for signing Nirvana and Sound Garden, only to later lose them, while Creation Records can boast discovering Oasis before having them bolt for a larger contract.

This may soon change. Bands don't necessarily need to be marketed in traditional ways in order to attract a national fan-base. Radiohead may be the next to self-release, following the expiration of their contract with EMI. Moreover, the best bands you’ve never heard of may not be unknown very much longer. Increasingly, indie rock music is getting major media exposure. Bright Eyes’s lead singer, Conner Oberst, called “the poster boy of indie rock” by Rolling Stone, was recently the musical guest on The Tonight Show, garnering a national audience. Instead of "selling out" to a larger label, he has staunchly released indie records. Oberst, a singer/songwriter who has drawn comparisons to a young Bob Dylan, released two albums simultaneously in 2005. I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning (Saddle Creek Records), finds Oberst churning out his customary, folk-inspired sound with whirlwind fervor. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (Saddle Creek Records,) takes an electronic bent, mixing keyboards, drum machines and a vast array of effects with Oberst’s strong lyrics. Although his subject matter has ventured into Christian faith (Arc of Time), doubt (We Are Nowhere, and It's Now), politics (When the President Prays to God), Oberst writes most potently about failed relationships, again returning to the idea of independent music capturing a deeper emotional honesty than big studio releases.

Oberst looking very indie.

Certainly lost love has been a theme of big studio releases, but they often lack the authenticity and aesthetic flair of bands like Bright Eyes. The freedom from big label expectations and formulas (also Hollywood's problem) has led other indie artists like Elliott Smith or Daniel Johnston to create music that excels, precisely because it is not forced or over-produced. Bands like the White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs appear to be intentionally creating a raw sound, perhaps in part a reaction to much of mainstream rock.

Indie bands can also self-promote now, more than ever before, through internet avenues. A popular website, E-Music, is devoted to the electronic sales of independent music. That, coupled with a seemingly generational love for artistic intergrity, a little punk rebellion, and a distrust and distaste for corporate America seems to point toward the continued rise of indie rock.

BLUE/RED #1 The Sky (selection from my current story)

BLUE/RED #1 The Sky, 7/4/1985

The sun was setting on Independence Day. Bottle rockets cackled and shrieked on the blacktop and in backyards invisible from the cul-de-sac. Edgar lounged inside his parents’ house, but the rays shone in through the large picture window. He kept lifting his hand to shade his eyes. Tomas, a friend of the family drunk on appropriated ideas, sat across from Edgar on a burgundy velveteen couch. A gilt outline of light framed Tomas’ face.

“How do you know that the sky is blue?” Tomas asked, in a fit of profundity. He stared at Edgar with an aura of cosmic importance.

“What do you mean?” said Edgar. “Of course it’s blue.”

“If someone told you, when you were growing up, that the sky was red, and all you ever heard was red, red, red—would the sky be red?”

Edgar glanced at his, (he thought), pale green chair, not sure if he understood. Tomas licked his upper lip in anticipation of an answer.

“No. Lava is red. Blood is red. Not the sky.”

“What if you call it blue, but really see red? You can never know that you see the same color of the sky as everyone else, or even anyone else.”

“I guess not.”

Dinner interrupted them, and Tomas’ conspiratorial remarks faded with the last bites of desert. Edgar would have probably forgotten them completely, if not for the events of that night. He was awakened from a sleep without dreams by a fire engine’s siren. A stray bottle rocket caught in the branches of a dehydrated, overarching chestnut. The tree burned. From his bedroom window, Edgar could see his neighbor’s yard—and the smoky sky above, pulsing like an angry red vein from the glare of the flames and the flashing light of the siren.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Diane Arbus Show (at the Walker in Minneapolis)

On vacation with my family last week I was able to see a great photography show (for free)! Diane Arbus was a prominent fashion photographer who worked for magazines like Harper's in the 50s. Later, she developed a singular portrait style by having her subjects look directly at the camera. She became interested in fringe communities—especially circus performers and insane asylum inmates. Arbus committed suicide in 1971.

At the exhibit, one photo so arrested my attention that I couldn't move on for several minutes.

Both disturbing and enthralling, I think the boy for me embodies a kind of dissastisfaction with the world. I have always been fascinated with dystopian children, not necessarily abused or neglected (Arbus photographed the children of the wealthy in New York), but ones that seem unable to enjoy childhood. Why does this happen? It is a small part of the problem of evil, but one that troubles me from time to time. This picture also seems especially relevant given current dissastisfaction with war in our country and and the fanaticism that started it. I recommend the show, which is currently at the Walker

This is Me (Until Further Notice)

Someday I will get a better digital picture.

At Long Last


I have started a blog. What you will find here is some of my writing, which could be anything. I write stories, essays, reviews and occasionally poems. Perhaps you might find one or two personal stories from my oh-too-exciting-life, but I will try and keep those to a minimum.