Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Repeater is No More

For anybody who was enjoying "Repeater," the CKMS old time radio program, I'm sorry to say that no new episodes are being recorded. I understand it had a bit of a following, but the show had started to hang a dark cloud over my Sundays...and I NEED my Sundays.

Also, walking the shows out to CKMS on oppressively hot Mondays was getting old.

For now they're playing re-runs of the show until something else comes along. A resurrection of "She-Devils on Heels," perhaps? I'll keep you posted...

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Magical Theremin

The Theremin finally made its way from Russia to America in 1928, and in the February 4, 1928 issue of The New Yorker they make a strange sort of mention of it...though I can't help thinking they were a little confused about what the Theremin actually did.
There is such a wistful flavor in the newest magic--the instrument that draws music from the ether at the wave of a hand. No one (unless it be makers of musical instruments) can fail to find a plaintive delight in this attempt to comb the infinite, to sift the sad vapor that wraps us. At a surprisingly early age we too realized that we were in the presence of a greater beauty than we could ever hope to express, that we were listening to loftier songs than we would ever be able to hurl back at the sky, even in our lustiest piping moments. At this same early age, we were aware that--for some reason or other--we were going to have to make the attempt. What a mad crochet when the Creator filled the airy regions with a sadness no one could ever distill with word, wand, or song--and then turned loose whole handfuls of mortals who knew they had to try!
Unless they're talking about some OTHER instrument, I don't believe that the Theremin, you know, actually distilled music out of the ether. Thought it probably looked like it did.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Shuffle On the MuffyPod: Hectic Random Work-Mix for a Friday

I spent all Friday with my headphones clamped on, madly typing essential documentation that all came through at the very last minute. So what did the MuffyPod play for me?
  1. I Don't Know What To Do With My Heart (Ruthie Foster)
  2. Gloria (Laura Branigan)
  3. Amnesia (Stan Ridgway)
  4. The Butcher (The Residents)
  5. We March (Prince)
  6. A Triple Moon Salute (The Legendary Pink Dots)
  7. One Beautiful Evening - Live (Laurie Anderson)
  8. Baby Baba Boogie (Gap Band)
  9. Bingo-Master's Break Out! - Live (The Fall)
  10. Sex on the Flag (K.M.F.D.M.)
This really runs the gamut: funk, R&B, pop, art-rock, punk, and industrial. I think my iPod was as stressed out as I was.

Little Hobos and More

The Littlest Hobos!
Dog impersonations, wasps, and Nigel's sound-sensitive shirt...click on the picture for more shots of late-night mayhem.

I NEEDED a fun night, and since "you get what you need" (if not always "what you want") I had a rollicking, joyous, friend-filled time...and my outfit didn't even fall apart.

I'd Buy Anything By...The Art of Noise

For me, Kate Bush and Thomas Dolby were the gateways out of mainstream music, but The Art of Noise kicked my butt all the way through.

They were always a mysterious entity, shunning band photographs at the beginning and doing enigmatic (and often nerdy) interviews. Born from the production team that Trevor Horn had put together to add synths and sampled tweaks to bands like ABC, Pet Shop Boys, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Yes, they were "studio rats" who obviously spent far too much time remixing things.

The only member of the original band who didn't fit this aesthetic was journalist Paul Morley, whose job was to direct the band's philosophy. Or something. He did come up with wonderful cover art and some totally confusing liner notes, but judging by his activities in the "new" Art of Noise (saying enigmatic things and jumping around in a hoodie), Morley was not essential.

At the time, producer Trevor Horn was the music world's golden boy. It's difficult to figure out what he did in the band as well, and after the band's nasty split in 1985 -- Morley and Horn wanted to "create art," while the other band members wanted to be "rock stars" -- J. J. Jeczalik said that Horn and Morley were responsible for about 0.4% of what Art of Noise did, which sounds like a pretty fair assessment.

Ah, J.J. The guy with the Fairlight sampler. There's no doubt in my mind that he was the backbone of the band, responsible for "The Noise." Engineer Gary Langan helped tone down and channel J.J.s experiments into workable rhythms, and trained musician Anne Dudley added gorgeous keyboard lines over the herky-jerky beats. They single-handedly invented breakbeats and inspired so much of the music that is still being made today. Prodigy and Fatboy Slim, anybody?

The Art of Noise taught me (and the world) that, as of 1980, you no longer needed acoustic instrumentation to make a song. They were particularly obvious about it in this insane video for "Close to the Edit." I do think it's a video with a manifesto, and I love love love it.

As with so many bands of the period, The Art of Noise eventually went astray. I assume that Anne Dudley was interested in doing more "traditional" work, and their albums got more and more acoustic, at the expense of the production and technology that had previously been their strength. Bongos and backup singers and Tom Jones pushed the Fairlight to the background, and by the time of "Below the Waste" they'd sunk into total mediocrity.

Then, in 2000, Morley, Horne, and Dudley came back. They released a somewhat blah and meandering album about Paul Debussey. For the most part it sounded like an excerpt from Dudley's soundtrack work, but it did have some outstanding moments, like "Metaforce" (another great video).

Albums to check out? "Who's Afraid of? (The Art of Noise!)" (their debut) and "In Visible Silence" (their follow-up, when they still "had it"). Albums to avoid: "Below the Waste" (the bland end of their first career) and "The Seduction of Claude Debussy" (the mediocre attempt at another). For fans only: "And What Have You Done With My Body, God," a 4-CD collection of studio mixes from their first album, showing how "The Noise" evolved. Fascinating, if you like that sort of thing.

You Bastard Wasps

This weekend I was determined to relax and have a GOOD time. No stress, no worries.

The day was BEAUTIFUL and I took my cat out on the balcony, so I could sit and read and perhaps repair my tan. Suddenly the cat yelped and ran inside and I realized there were bugs everywhere...not just regular bugs, but WASPS.

You fuckers! Nobody stings my cat and lives! Somehow, overnight, little miss Queen Wasp had built her nest on my front porch. I couldn't go in or out without facing dozens of aggressive little bastards. Something had to be done. I managed to find the only guy in the area who would kill bugs for me on the weekend.

So Vanilla and I drank beer and watched this guy inject poison into the wasp nest. It was terrible fun. Tonight, against the advice of my cab driver, I knocked the goddamn thing down and split it apart with my broom. Look inside! Dead larvae.

Let this be a lesson to anybody who thinks they can hurt my cat. Sting her ear? That's WAR, fuckers.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

UPhold Update: Review of "Our Past Present (Now Then)"

There's a very nice review of "Our Past Present (Now Then)" over at Tokafi. It spends some time talking about Jim and I having a history of friendship and collaboration, and also dates us with the "fifteen years" number.

Time to go update the dangermuff website, as the review points over there. And hey, time to pay a renewal fee for webhosting as well. Why do all bills show up at once?

As for what's actually happening with UPhold...I've been on a brief hiatus. But soon...

Friday, July 27, 2007

Women and the Cynical Bachelor (Ten)

Ugh, I've been reading these awful adverts from "Emily Shops" (Frocks and Frills for Women) for a few weeks now, and they drive me crazy. They're the type of "funny story" advertisement I've been quoting recently, but these are particularly bizarre. Here's episode ten, from January 28, 1928:
"A woman," said the Cynical Bachelor, "changes her mind as easily as she changes her dress."

"Let us be frank, old boy," said He to Whom Feminine Changes are a Natural Phenomenon, "a woman changes her dress often. But, in all things that really matter, she never changes her mind at all.

"For her mind is made up on the vital matter of being always attractive to men. And, granted she can find new dresses that reveal new facets of her attractiveness, she must change her clothes to keep from changing her mind.

"All she needs is some source of clothes that make attractiveness assured. And, if she knows those charming little Salons of Feminine Personality, the Emily Shops, she need never change her mind, and she can always change her dress, to the most fascinating effect."
WHAT? All of these ads make some weird generalization about "feminine psychology." Then, as if the generalization wasn't odd enough, they have to contort it into a promotion for Frocks and Frills...always in a single paragraph, and probably with very little time to think about it. So you get these offensive openings, followed by a "final thought" that's supposed to sell the clothes but only confuses you.

I should have started posting these earlier...if I run across more I'll put them up.

Canada Cracks The New Yorker!

I have to admit that, while reading every issue of "The New Yorker" as part of my morning wake-up routine, I don't read every single article. I skip the sports and architectural articles, while only skimming the features about automobiles, Parisian society, theatrical reviews, art openings, and anything that looks like yet another silly burlesque.

Even so I can confidently state that "Canada" only appears in The New Yorker when they're talking about hockey, smuggling alcohol, or vacationing in Quebec. Even Mexico gets more attention, especially since Lindbergh was doing odd diplomatic fly-bys of Mexico in order to improve relations (and meanwhile Hearst -- the 1920s Fox News -- was publishing jingoistic stories to stir up anti-Mexican sympathies).

Imagine my surprise at finding, in the January 28, 1928 issue, an ENTIRE PAGE devoted to Canada! Though it's only for Canada Dry ginger ale:
For years, visitors to Canada had come back with tales of a wonderful ginger ale. They described its exquisite flavor--they told of drinking it in the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa, in the residence of the Governor-General, and in the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.

Friends would listen and smack their lips and ask if there wasn't some way to purchase it in this country. And the answer was always "No."

Finally, however, the demand became so insistent that it was decided to open a branch in this country, and in 1922 "Canada Dry" was officially brought over to the United States.

In quality, in purity, in the witchery of its matchless flavor, it is, indeed, "The Champagne of Ginger Ales." There is no other ginger ale like it.
Canada Dry only took off in America during prohibition, apparently because it helped to mask the unpleasant flavour of non-standard bootleg alcohols.

Unsurprisingly, prohibition was a boom time for ALL mixers; "Aquazone" has had lavish advertisements in every New Yorker issue since the first, and "Sumoro Orange" (distributed by Canada Dry Ginger Ale Inc.) is a recent newcomer as well. Both these products were unashamedly advertised as mixers...but hey, wasn't alcohol consumption ILLEGAL then? No wonder nobody took prohibition seriously.

It just occurred to me: did prohibition really start the "boom" for mixed drinks? Was it all due to the bad taste of the bootleg booze?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Barthathon: "The End of the Road"

John Barth has said that his novels always come in linked pairs. The links between his first two novels -- "The Floating Opera" (1956) and "The End of the Road" (1958) -- are too many to mention. The obvious ones are the strangely consensual love triangles and the unlikeable, eccentric protagonists, but at their hearts there is something significant being considered: the nature of human rationalization and personality.

In "The Floating Opera," Todd Andrews has spent his life consciously trying out new personalities; we're told in detail (by himself) how he has rationalized each step of his way towards destructive nihilism, and in the end how this personality fails him as well. The book is an entertaining story about law and childhood and relationships, but the focus is Todd's calm and methodic inner struggle to decide who he should be.

"The End of the Road" takes this one step further, giving us a man (Jacob Horner) whose personalities come and go so fast that they're referred to as "the weather." Sometimes he's caring and considerate, and at other times he's a violent mysogynist...but at ALL times he can rationalize his activities. This time around the focus is on Jacob's arguments with Joe, a painfully methodical empiricist who has his own philosophy so rigidly defined that he finds a man with no personality to be absolutely fascinating...and a challenge, both to himself and to his poor wife. What better way to test his wife's developing "rationality" by exposing her to a person who can justify ANY position?

So the book is about forming a personal philosophy, and the way that -- at the center of it all -- our philosophies are based on unprovable assumptions. The really tragic characters are those who have so much invested in their philosophies so as to be completely unable to deal with the realization that their beliefs (and the beliefs of others) are, ultimately, equally silly. Such people can survive only if they can adapt the world's behaviour to mesh with their own philosophies; Jacob Horner survives by constantly adapting himself to the changing philosophies of the world around him. Horner understands that, sometimes, people do things without ever knowing WHY. He can survive no matter what, but he has no "personality." He doesn't "exist."

This is a fascinating character conflict and, coupled with the harrowing events of the book -- spousal abuse, and the attempt to get an abortion in a small conservative town during the 1950s -- it's a wonderful read. It's written in Barth's characteristic style: amusing, flippant, and well-paced, with frequent meditations on the nature of writing itself. It's statements like this that made me uncertain about my own writing, once upon a time:
Assigning names to things is like assigning roles to people: it is necessarily a distortion, but it is a necessary distortion if one would get on with the plot, and to the connoisseur it's good clean fun.
Since Jacob Horner is (like Barth) an English professor, this is a theme he occasionally explores in his classroom as well, and he teaches his students the old addage about needing to know the rules of writing before breaking them...but it's uncertain whether Horner really believes this (as much as he believes anything) or if he's just saying it to get out of a tricky jam engineered by one of his more annoying students.

I finished "The End of the Road" a few weeks ago and I'm now making my way through his fourth novel, "The Sot-Weed Factor." It is -- surprise! -- partially about how we choose and manifest our personalities. Sound familiar? I'faith, 't'is!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Alphasmart Neo

(Everything in this series of slowly percolating entries is in some way related. That's one reason why it's taking so long to write them...I can't figure out the best order to write them IN!)

I used to write a fair amount of fiction in my late teens and early twenties. Most of it was written while I lived at home and most of it was pretty awful, though bits and pieces did get published in small-press 'zines at the time.

Looking back on what I used to write, I find -- besides a lot of slapstick naivete -- that I've always had a huge problem with dramatic structure and characterization. I just can't see life in terms of "exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement," and I can't see characters as archetypal "villains" or "heroes" or "comic relief." I guess I view life (and people) as far too complicated for all that. And as a result, much of what I wrote ended up having some surprisingly good tangential moments but the plots were superficial and the characters...well, they all tend to be motivationless black boxes who drift around "acting" but leaving only a vague physical impression.

When I discovered the postmodernists in University I was initially thrilled because they seemed to share my outlook on writing, but then I became paralyzed becuase I couldn't find a way to write about life as *I* saw it, rather than retroactively (and poorly) imitating Coover and Pynchon. Any time I wrote something I compared it against three standards: the modernists, the postmodernists, and real life...so of course I didn't compare very well.

Recently, however, I've begun to feel like I MIGHT be able to write something again. This is mainly a cumulative thing that's been going on for years, but it's also thanks to my re-reading of old novels by John Barth. I realize now that his early work was partially about these exact issues: the problems with "dramatic structure" and the inconstancy of both human rationalization and human character. These books were the ones that killed writing for me in the first place, by asking all sorts of questions that I didn't feel I could tackle. Now, older and wiser, I think I can.

But this brings me to the OTHER thing that stopped me from writing: a lack of discipline. I've never been the type to squirrel myself away to write a certain number of pages a day, and if there's a more attractive thing to do -- play a game, listen to music, visit a blog -- I'll gladly do it. Inspiration usually strikes me when I'm away from the computer; by the time I reach the computer, power it up, open a document, and defeat the urge to check my email...inspiration is gone.

Which brings me to the Alphasmart Neo, a dedicated portable word processor. It powers up instantly, has a battery life of 700 hours (!), saves everything you type, easily interfaces with your computer, and -- most importantly -- DOES NOTHING ELSE. No games or web browsing. Not even a clock. No distractions whatsoever.

I've spent a week mulling over whether to buy one, and after a weekend trip to Toronto -- when I really wished I'd had one on the bus -- I bit the bullet and sent them my money. Hopefully it will be a valuable tool; EVERY review I've read has been favourable.

Then today -- wouldn't you know it? -- they lowered the price. An omen?

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Value of Money

I think that the term "The Value of Money" is extremely vague, and I've never really understood what we're meant to understand when we are taught it. What are our parents trying to instill in us when they teach us "The Value of Money," and how do they go about doing it?

From what I remember, money was never a huge issue while I was growing up. I received a regular allowance but I don't remember what it was. My parents were always pretty happy about buying me books, though they were less enthusiastic about music. I do know that I pitched in for my first computer, but since I didn't actually have a job (I was ten at the time) I suppose that money came from my parents and relatives to begin with.

I guess "The Value of Money" is the understanding that you are responsible for both earning and budgeting your money. You're supposed to learn not to be too frivolous with it, and to save for important things, and to go out and find a legal way of acquiring it. You're supposed to be creative and go out to make money on your own, and in that sense I did: I mowed the neighbour's lawn, I washed windows at the store my mother worked at, and I typed essays for schoolmates.

But I often wonder if I've learned the lesson, or if "the lesson" as it applies to society is really the best and only way of doing things. Student loans made me fearful of any sort of debt so I get squirmy when I think of buying a house or a car. I don't buy many expensive things, preferring to bleed my bank account with smaller items like clothing and music. Other than RRSPs -- which I'm putting quite a bit of money into nowadays -- I suppose "The Value of Money" lesson as it relates to "saving" has been lost on me.

So I've been thinking about what money (and its perks) means to me. When I don't have much money saved I begin to stress out, not because I can't buy things but because I'm fearful of calamity: what happens if a huge expense comes up, or if I suddenly lose my job? When I have some money stored away I don't feel more worthy than others -- I don't have a sense of "class" as it comes to money -- but I DO feel more secure. I don't like to feel that I have unbreakable ties to most things, and having money helps loosen some of those ties.

I never feel the need to tell people about my bank account or the shape of my credit, unless I'm feeling anxious about not having enough or guilty for having spent it on something stupid. Sometimes, just by verbalizing an anxiety, it eases down to a comfortable level.

I don't enjoy spending money. At all. And I don't enjoy shopping, though it can be fun to watch other people shop. The joy only comes when I actually HAVE something. I like having "things" but my "things" are largely divorced from the money I spent on them, and they are twice divorced from the "work" I did to make that money in the first place. When I'm doing my job, for instance, I don't sit there thinking "because of this I am able to pay my rent," though I DO get a sense of security from regular work, and a sense of pride in the work I do.

So I don't think I've learned the "money" lesson as well as I could have. I don't have a lot of foresight or restraint when it comes to frivolous purchases. Money to me is an abstract notion that keeps me happy, because it somehow (distantly) buys me some happy things and it also reassures me that I'm pretty much self-sufficient.

Is that the "Value of Money" lesson? I don't know. Some other people seem to have a much more exact and clinical awareness of money than I do.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Johan Bull

From the beginning, Johan Bull has been providing illustrations for The New Yorker. As far as I can gather he started out doing one-panel cartoons, graduated to the "Talk of the Town" pages (drawing tiny icons that didn't do his style justice), and is now (as of January 1928) doing the sports pages. The man can really draw a horse, but he obviously revels in drawing women with long legs who wear sporty hats.

Pardon me for saying this, but I really mean it: I don't know much about art but I know what I like. While his early work mostly consisted of simplified and stylized line drawings, in 1928 he's whole-heartedly doing this negative-highlight watercolour technique which surely has a name.

I can find very little out about Mr. Bull, other than he only seemed to work for The New Yorker and that he (probably) lived from 1893-1945.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

I'd Buy Anything By...Laurie Anderson

I remember seeing Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" video on MuchMusic. I had no idea what to think, and since I missed taping it I only had the vague memory of something weird. A few years later, in my grade seven music class, our very cool teacher (Mr. Zeigler) played us "O Superman" and "Big Science" to challenge our ideas of what "music" was. He got us to discuss what the songs were about. Us twelve-year-olds didn't have too many novel insights, but I was utterly hooked.

I've seen Anderson perform three times. Every time I catch one of her shows, she's doing a stripped-down performance instead of her traditional multi-media extravaganzas. I saw "Empty Spaces" (just her, a keyboard, a candle, and a huge bank of video screens), "Stories From the Nerve Bible" (just her, a violin, and a sampler), and her "Life on a String" show (part of a loose quartet, immediately after September 11th).

While I'm in love with her live shows, I'm less impressed with some of her albums. I think she excelled at odd, impersonal, cold, over-intellectual performance art. When she took singing lessons and brought in Bobby McFerrin and the conga players, things began to go downhill (though "Bright Red/Tightrope," her second-last album, was a return to form).

I love her coolness and her producer-imposed minimalism. I love her quirky stories and her confident-but-not-cocky personality. I love her vocoder and her primitive, buzzy keyboards. I love how she can wrap you up with technology, lull you into numbness, then stab you through the heart with a tiny piece of humanity.

To demonstrate this side of Laurie Anderson, here's the video for "O Superman." It's a long one and it may not seem to be going anywhere, but just turn out the lights and listen:

At the other end of the spectrum, here's "Beautiful Red Dress." It certainly is a glittering ode to menstruation, but I can't believe she sang a song about female empowerment while wearing those AWFUL LATE-80s TIFFANY KNOCK-OFFS. Plus she looks like Michael Jackson. This is the Laurie period I'm not so fond of, but the song is still lots of fun...in a "horribly dated" sort of way.

The record to buy? Either "Big Science" (vintage synths, odd experiments) or "Tightrope/Bright Red" (more organic but still chilly and broody, maybe thanks to Brian Eno). Albums to avoid? "Strange Angels" (the gems are buried among misguided unoffensive pop) and "Life on a String" (disjointed and thin). For fans only? "United States Live" (four and a half hours excerpted from her eight hour concert of the same name).


A fashion hostess is telling viewers about all the latest fashions. Meanwhile, off camera, her drunk and obnoxious husband is heckling her.

HOSTESS: Hemlines are inching down, and formalwear is reaching ankle-length again. Gentlemen, wouldn't you love to see your wives in something long and


HOSTESS: Stop it

HUSBAND: May I go wee now?

HOSTESS: You may.

HUSBAND: Wheeeeeeeeeeee!

From The Benny Hill Show.

Random Thoughts About Last Thursday's Open Drag Night

Trigger Happy MuffThings can be really dead at Club Renaissance during the summer. Open Drag Nights have always been sort of hit-or-miss, but the last two shows I've been to have been REALLY sparse.

That doesn't mean they haven't been fun -- in some ways a quiet night is a more relaxed night -- but with everybody scattered into tiny groups around the bar it's hard to know who to "perform to," especially with Ren's three-sided dancefloor. And sparser crowds tend to chat together as opposed to watch the show.

Most confusing is the recent tendency for people to just wander onto the floor while you're performing. They'll come up and try to dance with you, or they just stand there and watch you. During my last number, two very drunk guys moseyed up and started slow-dancing together, and they were offended when I made them leave. Are people beginning to view stage performances as participatory? Do they think they belong on any given stage just because they took a pole-dancing lesson? I don't know.

What really makes or breaks a night for me is the cast, because those are the people you spend most of your time with. All it takes is one off-on-a-tangent diva or one way-messed-up casualty to make everybody uncomfortable. Fortunately, during the last two nights I've attended, the entire cast has been fun and professional. Knock on wood.

As always I continue to search for the ideal performance song, something that works both for the audience AND for me. I just picked up an Alison Moyet CD, and maybe there's a Beth Orton song or two somewhere...

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Benny Hill Evaluated

I've never seen an episode of "The Benny Hill Show" before, but somehow I've formed an opinion of what it's all about: low-brow, barely-literate, sped-up routines about sex and bums. Now that I've watched the first four episodes of the Thames Television run of the show, I can confirm that it was those things...but a little bit more. And Benny Hill really took sex and bum jokes to a new level.

Hill's routine always involves his eyes. First he looks earnestly directly at you, when he's setting up the joke. Then he looks down thoughtfully as the joke takes form. When he looks up and to the right and begins to smirk boyishly, you know that a sexual double-meaning is being introduced. When the full-on sex joke is revealed, he'll either look down sadly (if he's been made a fool of) or otherwise leer directly at you, grinning, virtually masturbating with the audience.

The jokes are usually about sex, physical clumsiness, or awkward situations. Old people and ugly women are funny and are mistreated. Glamour girls are pursued, but when Benny finally catches one he always ends up holding somebody ugly, or a man.

If that was all there was to "The Benny Hill Show" I'd have turned it off after the second hour-long episode. But there's more. First, there's the joy of watching women being allowed to be genuinely funny, and not just in a "dumb blonde" sort of way...they actually have substantial parts, at least some of the time.

Then there are the "patter songs," which are actually quite clever and at least relieve the monotony. And don't forget "The Ladybirds," who sing one song an episode and who are always placed in the most awkward positions, in the ugliest clothes:

Dig the glasses.

The one thing I was REALLY wrong about was my assumption that Hill's humour was "barely literate." Far from it. When he's engaged in satire (particularly of television) he can actually be -- believe it or not -- SUBTLE. He can also calmly ad-lib with the other entertainers, and he has an excellent singing voice, and even when he's easing in another word to describe breasts ("dumplings," "parakeets," or simply saying "she's a big girl!"), he does it in such a broad, exaggerated way that it's hard to see him as a disgusting lech. Which apparently he wasn't.

So I'm going to give the next four episodes a try, and even though I know I'll grow sick of the over-cranked "Yackety-Sax" chase scenes, and the bum jokes, and the old guys getting slapped...well, I actually think Benny Hill is pretty funny. In small doses. Some of the time.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

An iTunes Word Search: "Child"

Long ago, Eli and I did general music shows at CKMS, and sometimes we'd brainstorm themes. Could one of us do a show entirely full of songs about bodybuilding, for instance, or alcohol, or trees? We'd wrack our brains for songs that fit particular themes, and we'd usually end up being surprised at how good our mental search engines worked.

But now I have an iPod, and I'm constantly fascinated by the way it searches. I find myself typing the first letter of the word I'm looking for, seeing how many songs titles contain that letter, then I type a second letter, I watch the search narrow down...and I notice that some words appear in a huge number of songs ("love") and others you rarely see at all ("metamorphafasize").

Anyway, while iTunes can't tell me anything about the THEME of a song on my iPod, it CAN do a quick and dirty search through the titles. So I wondered: what will I find if I pick a moderately common word like "child" (excluding derivations of the word like "childhood" and "children") and see which song titles pop up?

Try it with your music selection! Here's what I found:
  1. Pity the Child (Andersson-Ulvaeus-Rice)
  2. Child King (Edward Ka-Spel)
  3. Spoilt Victorian Child (The Fall)
  4. Man with the Child in His Eyes (Kate Bush)
  5. Child Star (Marc Almond)
  6. Satan's Child (Marc Almond)
  7. The Inner Child (Mike Oldfield)
  8. Do You Fear For Your Child (My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult)
  9. Eyes of a Child (Naked Eyes)
  10. Hot Child in the City (Nick Gilder)
  11. Star Child - Mothership Connection (Parliament)
  12. The Obvious Child (Paul Simon)
  13. A Spirit Steals a Child (The Residents)
  14. Hurting Child (Roxanne Potvin)
When it comes to children we have quite a few songs about bad childhood, and songs about naivete, songs about bad children, songs that use "child" to mean "young adult," songs with cryptic lyrics that aren't really about children at all, and...well, a song about a spirit-abducted Eskimo child. The latter is probably not a common song theme.


I'm babysitting the cats at Chez Vanilla. That's Julius and Iain on the right. Normally Julius is the antisocial, somewhat alienated one, but today he pressed himself against my chest, rested his nose under my chin, and purred and purred and wouldn't let me go.

Julius has a weird purr. It's high-pitched and articulated and makes him sound like a cheap BBC robot monster.

Anyway, I keep trying to get the cats to play with their toys, and I've discovered that the best "cat play music" is Kraftwork, especially "Musique Non Stop." It moves at exactly the right speed and provides two or three different beats, depending on the adrenaline level of the animal. Use the downbeat snare for the "cat toy jump" part of the game, and the doubled, higher-pitch snare makes for some nice "brush the toy along the ground" moments. They say that cats originated in Africa but I think a lot of them are actually German.

In case you don't have the album handy I've included the video. This is also useful if you want to give your child nightmares.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ugh, Borat

It's taken me three days to watch the Borat movie. I don't like watching aggressive confrontations and I'm not a fan of average people being made to feel uncomfortable, so I watched it in chunks, sometimes with my head partly turned away.

This is too bad because I really like the Borat CHARACTER. I think he's much more consistent than Sacha Cohen's other characters, and when he gets on a roll (at the doctor's office, for instance, or at the Pentecostal meeting), he's disturbingly captivating.

And fearless. Jeez, it's just INCREDIBLE the way people respond to him in New York City. Cohen is apparently seeking to reveal western insanity through Borat, and watching men scream at him in the subway or run away from him on the street certainly makes the point: yes, humans are sick.

But then he's insulting a nice couple at a Bed & Breakfast, or disturbing everybody at a high class dinner, or smashing up an antique shop, and I can't help wondering: why? If anything these scenes show us how ACCOMODATING people can be, far beyond when they should have kicked him out. Borat ceases to be a catylist and becomes, simply, a horrifying nuisance. And that's when I can't watch.

My favourite moments were the scripted parts. I think Cohen is much funnier when he isn't disturbing innocent bystanders. And kudos to Pamela Anderson for playing along. But jeez, this stuff always leaves me feeling icky, and not just because I saw a hairy, obese man sitting on Cohen's face.

Alright, it was worth it for the naked fight. Yes.

The Barthathon: "The Floating Opera"

Like many of my favourite authors, I first discovered John Barth in David Wade's second-year "Short Story" course. I read "Lost in the Funhouse" (the story) and, over the next ten years, leisurely read most of the rest of Barth's fiction.

What's special about Barth is the way he mixes "metafiction" with good old-fashioned storytelling. His books are about writing, sailing, authorship, biography, sailing, mythology, and sailing, but even when the narrator is getting all tricky with the fiction, a gripping story is unfolding, with characters you can care about and plots that really grab you.

Then I read his "Coming Soon!!!" and -- like many other Barth fans -- I was so disgusted with it that I vowed never to read him again. By parodying his "hip post-modernist" style, he became everything that is ANNOYING about that style...and a parody's no good if you can't stomach reading it. "Coming Soon!!!" soured me. To hell with Barth.

So I was down in the basement sorting books into chronological order, and I stumbled upon my Barth collection, and I found myself thinking about all the great times I had reading his novels...like, I wasn't simply satisfied with his books; I found them to be entertaining and enlightening and everything good books SHOULD be, with just enough challenging material to make them all worthwhile. How dare I write him off because one of his experiments blew up? Golly, I should track down and read the Barth books I missed out on: his two new novels, and his older "Chimera" and "Letters."

The problem is, his books are endlessly self-referential. He doesn't just go over the same biographical details repeatedly (to the point where you're not sure which book you're reading at any given time), but he also resurrects old characters. "Letters," I hear, is actually a sort of dialog between all the characters in his first series of novels.

The only option: start at the beginning. Read them all again.

"The Floating Opera" (1956)

His first novel, dismissed by some fans as too conventional. I say phooey, it's a brilliant work, particularly as a debut. It's Nabokov at his most relaxed. Already Barth is giving us an off-kilter plot that matters: why does the narrator protagonist (Todd Andrews) decide NOT to kill himself at the end of the day?

This is the implicit plot at the beginning, but as you read you begin to realize that the more important (and substantial) storyline is: why does Todd Andrews decide to kill himself in the FIRST place? Where did this strange, nihilistic character come from? Andrews reflects on himself (and the book he's writing) and he contrasts himself with his friends and neighbours; we move easily through the different "masks" and rationalizations he's adopted throughout life, and when we finally hit the core of his being it's almost too raw to look at.

Barth makes us care about this nihilistic, destructive, obnoxious character...not because of his traumas, but because we UNDERSTAND how he developed...and so does the character himself. "The Floating Opera" is a microscopic analysis of one man's life throughout a single day, and an analysis of the fake attitudes we all present in everyday life, and the story of a writer writing his first novel...

...but it's also funny, inventive, and flawlessly written. Every lesson -- especially those about avoiding literature cliches -- is a painless one. Describing his doctor friend:
Marvin was (I'm late saying it) a beefy little man with sparse blond hair, flushed skin, and tiny red veins in his cheeks. His arms and hands were so full of meat that it seemed as if the skin of them were ready to burst, like over-boiled frankfurters. It would be pleasant to be able to go on and say of Marvin's great hands that, awkward as they appeared, the moment they were slipped into surgeon's gloves they assumed the deftness and delicate strength of a violinist's. This is the sort of thing one usually hears. But the truth is that those clumsy-looking hands, once slipped into surgical gloves, remained rather clumsy, depending as they did from slightly clumsy arms and ultimately from a somewhat clumsy brain.
Planning on reading "The Floating Opera?" Have a look at John Clarke's annotations; they'll get you up to speed on sailing, legal procedure, 1930s politics, Maryland geography, and minstrel shows. Not strictly necessary...but helpful.

I Played the Game

I'm Ready for My Close-Up, Mr. HuttonSteve Hutton is working on a series called "Playing the Game," and on Sunday I went to Toronto for the filming of an episode called "Peter and the Wolf." I don't think I'm at liberty to say TOO much about the plot, so let's just say I play a drunk, out-of-control drag queen. In a fabulous outfit. And that there are a few pictures up on Flickr.

Pre-filming, I spent a week researching "over the top" eyeliner techniques. I knew they wanted a deliberately draggy look, and that such a look helps sell the outfit they'd chosen (the Delirium Clothing "Freedom Turkey" get up). I went online to find handy "how-to" articles, and style guides, and YouTube videos. Every night I applied, fussed, erased, repeated.

What did I learn? Colour, blending, and carefully-placed white splotches...and even that wasn't enough; their makeup artists suitably exaggerated me (and even touched my secret spot: under my eyes!)

Even though the series is a relatively small, independent production, I still got an eyeful of the Real Movie Experience. Professional actors who really know their stuff. A lighting, set, wardrobe, sound, and camera crew who actually use clappers and measuring tapes and ladders, and say stuff like "sound ready" in the most non-chalant way.

Most striking is the division of labour: everybody has a job, there are implicit lines of communication that should not be messed with, and an actor's job is to be ready, to listen carefully, and to be made comfortable and pretty while waiting for the next take. Oh yeah, and "play to the camera" does not mean to literally LOOK at the camera. I think.

It was tough work and a long, hot, exhausting day. Walking back to the bus station in the driving rain was actually a relief. I enjoyed myself and have a great deal of respect for the people and the process, and I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing how it all turns out!

Nay Gentle Reader, Dry Those Tears

I'm continuing my survey of early New Yorker advertisements with this one from Watson Stabilators.

I'm not sure exactly what a "Watson Stabilator" was, but I can take a guess. I'm assuming that cars in the mid-'20s had pathetic shock absorbers...coupled with uneven road surfaces this must have made for a bumpy ride.

So if you wanted to make your ride smoother you'd have to buy a third-party shock absorber, this being in the day when you could still mix and match the parts of your car with relative ease.

The "Watson Stabilator" advertisements are of the "funny story" variety that I keep coming back to, and they often involve people who have suffered some kind of injury. Instead of feeling sorry for these people, we're told that they're used to being injured because they don't have a Stabilated car. All in fun, though maybe folks with a mild S&M steak might enjoy these in particular.
Nay, gentle reader, dry those tears.

It's just too sweet of you to be so sympathetic, but really the emotion is misdirected.

True, the lady's pride is somewhat dented, but she is entirely undamaged otherwise--or should we say elsewhere?

You see, her system has developed a complete immunity to jolts and jars, however violent. For she is one of that strange band of Spartans who subject themselves to continuous discipline by driving un-Stabilated cars. What is an extra bump here and there to one who would rather take her dozens daily than do her daily dozen?
Apparently "daily dozen" referred to a person's morning exercise routine. It was coined by Walter Camp in the early 1900s, referring to a set of twelve specific calisthenics.

By the way, I'd bet dollars to dozen that the illustration was drawn by Johann Bull, one of my favourite New Yorker cartoonists. This isn't his usual style, but the noses of those laughing collegiates are pure Bull.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Because It's Saturday: Concrete Blonde

A killer combination: Johnette's powerhouse voice (and short-lived Super-Goth look), James' best subtle guitar (and short-lived Byron Poet look), Paul Thompson's thumpy drums (a short-lived member of the band between Roxy Music reunions), and a Leonard Cohen song.

This is the ultimate cover of an already beautiful song.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Drag Queen's Ten Commandments

"The Actor's Ten Commandments" (in The New Yorker, December 31, 1927) can easily be adapted to "The Drag Queen's Ten Commandments" with very little change:
  1. Honour thyself above all other drag queens; there is no other queen before thee.
  2. Honour thy RuPaul and Miss America.
  3. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's signature tune.
  4. Thou shalt not steal the show.
  5. Thou shalt not talk shit.
  6. Thou shalt not partake of illicit substances in the dressing room.
  7. Thou shalt not borrow thy neighbour's foundation, nor her hairpins, nor her jewellery.
  8. Thou shalt not bear false witness when holding a microphone.
  9. Thou shalt not take the name of the bar in vain.
  10. Thou shalt join the Imperial Court for thou art all for one, and that one is thyself.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Open Letter to People in Cars

Please, when you're waiting to turn right at a red light, don't do a kamikaze turn immediately when the light turns green without checking for pedestrians first. When I see the walk signal, I start walking because I have an unambiguous right-of-way. I'm funny like that.

Certain corners seem to be worse for this than others: Caroline and William in particular. I pretty much expect people to try to hit me as I start crossing, so I always make a quick (and legal) step out just to wake them up and get them off their darn cel phones.

PS: Drivers, also signal when you turn, so I know which direction you're going at an intersection. We'll all be happier.

Feature Films For Families: Savvy Telemarketing

Last week I got a phone call from somebody doing a "survey" about family entertainment. She was a real, live human being and she actually responded to my questions, but it was obvious she was fronting for "Feature Films for Families," as she asked if they could call me for my opinions about family entertainment. Sure, I said. Either they were genuinely producing good, value-driven films for kids, in which case I'm supportive, or they're a sugar-coated evangelical organization, in which case I'd be up for an argument.

Today I got a call back from a pleasant person who spoke in measured, reassuring, obviously-scripted tones. The strangeness started almost immediately. Here's a slightly shortened transcript.

Him: "Which children under 16 are you involved with?"
Me: "My nephew, who's about 16."
(Beep, then long pause...)
Me: "Hello?"
Him: "Could you please say that again?"
Me: "My 16-year-old nephew."
Him: "I'm glad to hear that. Are you aware that Disney is refusing to make family films that do NOT contain a certain amount of profanity?"
Me: "Wow, I hadn't heard that."
Him: "Well--"
Me: "Can you give me a source or a reference for that? I'd like to check it out."
(Beep, long pause...)
Me: "Hello? You keep--"
Him: "I'm sorry. Do you agree that more films need to reinforce traditional values?"
Me: "I think--"
(Beep, long pause...)
Me: "You keep cutting out."
Him: "Could you please repeat that?"
Me: "Listen, are you a computer or a real person?"
Him: "Ha-ha-ha. I'm not that bad, am I?"
Me: "It's just--"
Him: "I assure you that this is not a computerized call, though it is being monitored for quality assurance purposes."
Me: "It's just that you keep cutting out. Okay, I got distracted, what was the question again?"
Him: "Do you agree that more films need to reinforce traditional values?"
Me: "That depends on the traditional values. My idea of 'traditional values' isn't necessarily the same as yours."
(Beep, short pause)
Him: "I agree. Based on our discussion, I'd like to recommend two movies to you: 'The Penny Promise' and 'Who Stole My Voice?' Each DVD is $19.95. Can we arrange payment and send these films to you?"
Me: "I'm going to check out your website first, and then if I choose to order a movie, I'm sure I can do it through the site."
Him: "We understand that you don't know much about us. Unlike Disney, we do not have millions of dollars to spend on advertisements."
Me: "Your phone call is an effective advertisement. Thanks for calling, and I'll look at the website."
Him: "The telephone is not the best way to communicate, and we may not have called you at a good time. We can send you the DVDs and defer payment for thirty days."
Me: "No, I will check out your website first, and do any ordering from there."
Him: "Security is always a concern. We assure you that no sensitive payment information will be sent over the telephone."
Me: "The hard sell doesn't work for me, it just annoys me. You're getting really obnoxious."
(Beep, long pause...)
Me: "Hello?"
Him: "Would you like use to send you a single DVD, with deferred payment and a full money back guarantee?"
Me: "No."
Him: "May we call you back at another time?"
Me: "No."
Him: "Thank you for taking this call, goodbye."

This exchange was essentially a Turing test for me, and I'm still not 100% sure whether I was talking to Eliza or a human. I don't think he was an incredibly sophisticated computer, unless voice recognition software has progressed since I last checked. Maybe some sort of software was being used during the beeps and pauses -- that would explain why a simple "yes" or "no" caused a swift response -- but I assume he was mainly reading a branching script which he was absolutely FORBIDDEN to deviate from.

These scripts produce the strange feeling that you ARE talking to a computer, since the responses can never QUITE match your answers. It all felt very weird, and I was fascinated until he started aggressively selling to me. In my world, "no" really DOES mean "no."

The "Feature Films for Families" religious ties are also ambivalent...I've done a lot of Googling around, but their "traditional values" seem to MAINLY be -- gasp! -- honesty, effective problem solving, and respect. Some of their DVDs have religious connotations, but if the others do they've made darn sure not to set off any alarm bells. In any case, even if I DID have a child, I would NOT buy ANYTHING from a company that so forcefully (and deceptively) tried to sell me their product.

For more about this telemarketing technique, get it right from the horse's mouth. Several people have blogged about these weird calls from "Feature Films for Families," and it sounds like their script hasn't changed in years.

A Sad Hair-well

After a year with my wonderful stylist Sonja, I had to say a sad goodbye to her tonight; she's moving to a new salon which is inconvenient for me to get to. Goodbye, Sonja, and thank you for the farewell hair-clip! And heck, the swoopy bang was worth a try, wasn't it?

Shuffle On the MuffyPod: July 4th

  1. La Valse d'Eugénie (Men Without Hats)
  2. A Message (Coldplay)
  3. Speak My Language (Laurie Anderson)
  4. Ricky (Butthole Surfers)
  5. Black Milk (Massive Attack)
  6. Under Water (Gerald Kukulenz)
  7. Home (Public Image Ltd.)
  8. It Will Be Good - S.t.e.r.n Remix (Dana International)
  9. Bertie (Kate Bush)
  10. SlaaplieDJe (The Legendary Pink Dots)

Spanish Children's Songs

It's definitely worth going over to The Mind Wobbles and checking out her personal translation of Spanish children's songs. These sorts of songs tend to be ridiculous, but since we grew up with our own batch of them we view them with gentle sentimentality (or hatred). So reading the children's songs from another culture is a bit of a shake up...do OUR beloved childhood songs sound as silly as:
I have a milk cow
It isn’t just a regular cow.
She gives me condensed milk
Oh what a sassy cow!
Tolon, tolon.
Tolon, tolon.
Probably yes.

While I remember so many songs that we had to sing in "music class," I don't remember actually singing them. I was too shy, so I perfected the art of opening my mouth and PRETENDING to sing "Oh Canada," without actually making a sound.

Lip syncing even then.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Surprisingly Good Music: Hank Pine and Lily Fawn

I try not to write music reviews because I'm tempted to use words like "fabulous" or "wonderful," which don't communicate anything except my own enthusiasm. I'm trying to remove words like that from my vocabulary. This is what a year of technical writing has done to me.

But I've just run across a duo so "fabulous" and "wonderful" that I can't help yelling about them: Hank Pine and Lily Fawn.

Hank plays cello, draws cartoons, and wears a chemical mask on his face. Lily wears deer horns on her head and bends the musical saw. Besides also playing a whole range of other instruments, they record music and tour with other talented musicians from British Columbia, putting on a depraved cabaret about Hank and Lily's road-show adventures. On their 2CD debut -- "The Road to New Orleans" -- they've released 26 songs about seedy carnivals, infanticide, drug-induced constipation, sex with old people, and Laika the Space Dog (of course).

Why are the CDs "fabulous" and "wonderful?" Because the story is full-fleshed, entertaining, and unique. It isn't just a hodge-podge of mysanthrope-wanna-be-ism. It's a coherent work full of funny lines, quirky surprises, and great musicianship. The tunes are catchy and have a sweet, unpretentious country twang.

More importantly, it isn't polished to perfection. It has that Tom Waits sound of everything starting to fall apart...but not quite. Hank and Lily don't have great voices but they DO have great delivery, and the guest musicians give enough good voice to make up for the vocal shortcomings; Ryan Beattie goes all out with "Ballad of the Dancing Bear," an especially epic and strangely sad song. Never before has clown sodomy been so poignant.

Well then, it's not ALL "fabulous" and "wonderful" -- the second CD seems to have been a repository for the less-inspired numbers -- but the rest of it...wow. Personal mythology, unique sound, professional musicianship, and right on our very own west coast. And they're still travelling back and forth across the country today. Love 'em.

But heck, don't just take MY word for it...watch their video!

The Silk Test a la Japonais; or, Paternal Love Will Out!

Since we were just giving credit to Lady Pepperell for her amusing (if sometimes overreaching) advertisements, how about we give equal credit to Truhu Silks?

A relatively recent advertiser (as of late 1927), the Truhu Silk ads always begin with some time-consuming (and often destructive) method for finding out if a shirt is made of real silk. Then they tell you it's easier just to look for "Truhu" on the label. Whew!

Here's the cutest one, from December 24, 1927:
It's very important to know that silk shirts are all silk. Otherwise you are likely to get only half of what you have a right to expect. If you wish, the silk may be tested by the Japanese method.

Procure a dozen silk worms at any pet shop and carry them to your haberdasher. Distribute the shirts about and place the worms close by. The little fellows will crawl to the pure silk shirts and will ignore the others.

But if you prefer the simpler American method, just look for the Truhu label. Its presence means that the shirt is 100% pure and 100% fast color...as fine a product as can be bought.
So put down those silk worms! Though finding a Truhu label today might be difficult. As an aside, the word "haberdasher" always gives me a warm glow.