Sunday, September 11, 2011

"Mortgage Cat"

We arrive at our house and we celebrate: it is our own piece of land and sky. We are worried about debt but we remain hopeful, my wife more than I because she has always been optimistic.

Because the house has many nooks and crannies it takes two weeks to find the previous owner's cat, which we'd hoped had died. This creature, a tabby with glossy fur and no name, is the legal embodiment of debts which we are required to assume. It is easy to love a cat, but one cannot become attached to the physical manifestation of debt, so we feed it but refuse to play with it. It is not allowed to sleep with us.

We acquire knick-knacks and furniture and we are pleased with our purchases, but every night the cat howls at something we can't see. Lack of sleep and the complaints of the neighbours force us to buy a smaller house for the cat. Our lawyer assures us that this is our best option, but he is also the lawyer for the cat, so we don't entirely trust him. We cannot afford a lawyer of our own. Our money goes toward tending the houses and buying a lot of kibble.

The cat is young and could live twenty years, long enough to outlast the university careers of our newly-born children. They are not allowed to visit the cat lest our legal situation become complicated: if the children ever feed it, they are required to share a portion of the debt which the cat represents, saddling them with responsibilities they are too young to handle.

The lawyer had given us a paper which certified the cat was sterile, but when kittens begin urinating on our front porch we realize the uncertainty of chemical sterilization. We are not allowed to touch the kittens without permission, which our lawyer refuses to grant, even after our own children die overseas in the Infant Wars. The kittens become our heirs. We must provide for them and their offspring, and rather than look at them every day we send them to subsequent and much smaller houses that we buy for them in the suburbs.

Our first home, the most beautiful one, we bequeath to the kittens. We move into the smallest home. It smells like urine and its furniture is scratched, and there are scraps of fur everywhere. It is hard to stand up because the rooms are so tiny.

Shortly afterward, and with no explanation, the houses burn down and our tragedy ends. We rent a bachelor apartment because we are too old to start over again. At night we are haunted by small burning kittens and their smoldering toys, which they jangle into and out of our one and only closet.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Three Young Men Address the Complexities of Power Over Lunch

ALAN: You should've seen that hippie guy last night at Phil's!

BRAD: What a pussy!

ALAN: He was all "Wah, wah, wah," we kicked his ASS.

JOE: I wish I'd gone to Phil's.

BRAD: Remember that dude with the beer?

JOE: Yeah, we're like, "You wanna fight?" BAM!

BRAD: That was great.

JOE: And this morning, that guy yelling at me about his shirt.

BRAD: What a pussy!

JOE: I was like "Yeah, you want your shirt?" BAM!

{Cel phone rings}

JOE: That's my landlord again.

ALAN: Put it on speakerphone.

LANDLORD: Hello, Joe?

JOE: Dude! What's up!

LANDLORD: I've been trying to get ahold of you, Joe.

JOE: Hey! I'm a dude, I don' up dudes and just say "Howya doin'?"

LANDLORD: You're in big trouble unless you come over here today and give me the money you owe me.

JOE: Don't make me hate you, buddy. We'll talk on Monday or something.

LANDLORD: Hate you? Joe, we're coming AFTER you.

JOE: Ha! You'll have to find me first!

LANDLORD: That won't be any problem. We'll find you, we'll take you to court, we'll f*ck you up for damages, we'll f*ck up your credit's easy stuff, Joe. We do it all the time.

JOE: You don't have my signature on NOTHIN', bro.

LANDLORD: We've got the lease.

JOE: You ain't got NOTHIN', bro! See ya!

{Hangs up}

ALAN: Dude, you're f*cked.

JOE: Really?

ALAN: You signed a f*ckin' LEASE.

JOE: Yeah...

ALAN: He takes you to court, you're SCREWED.

BRAD: You better go over there right now and pay him.

JOE: Yeah.


JOE: I wish I could just BEAT HIM UP.

"The Dancehall"

After Lou paid off his debts he went to the cheaper bars, the ones without pretty girls. He got into a drunken fight over a game of pool but nobody cared because he didn't hurt anybody, he just pushed and yelled a lot. In another place, however, he tried to steal a bottle of whiskey and got hit in the face by a bouncer. He spent the weekend in jail, nursing his eye and playing checkers with the two fat cops who were sometimes nice to him.

He was sober when he got out. His monthly cheque was waiting in his mailbox and he knew he couldn't handle the really cheap bars, at least not right now, so he cashed the cheque and went to the dancehall.

The girl with the orange dress was on the floor, easy to spot. This was the woman who Lou liked. She was an exaggerated pin-up, just this side of ridiculous, a starved man's fantasy after years in barracks, hospital wards, and drunk tanks. His buddy Corman had said "Nobody looks like that for real," but he and Corman weren't friends anymore.

Smiling in the toothy, inappropriate way she did when she danced with somebody, the woman was clutching the back of a thug who swayed awkwardly beside the stage. She deserved better than the veterans and dock workers, Lou had decided. Better than the customers who were barely more respectable than him with his scuffed shoes and his frayed suit jacket.

Lou felt like he was spinning and his mouth was dry. He wobbled to the bar, timing it so he could cross paths with her -- Suzette, her name was -- and she put her hand over her eye and said "elegant shiner!" while swaying into the restroom. He touched his face and looked sideways into the bar mirror, where he could see the thug lighting a cigarette and watching him.

Later, after a few drinks, Lou had stopped thinking about his eye and the thug and he was looking straight into the mirror, watching the girl in the bursting orange dress dance in a haze behind the bottles.

"Everybody loves Suzette," said the bartender. He leaned close and Lou could smell his toothpaste. "She's a kook, though."

"How so?"

"Says she's from Mars and came here by accident. Says she's going home on the next flight out of here." The bartender shrugged. "Everybody knows she's a kook."

"Nothing surprises me," said Lou, "I just got out of jail."

"You should have taken a shower first." Apparently this was the last drink Lou would get here.

He managed to grab the girl's arm on his way out. "I hear you're from outer space," he said, and the thug punched him right below the ear, professional. After that, in the drunk tank, the two fat cops held his hat just out of reach while Lou jumped up and tried to grab for it.

Monday, September 05, 2011

"The Pick-Up"

I didn't see anything interesting in the stores and I didn't have any money. When I talked to the boy at the shoe store he kept rearranging his shoes and he said, "Shouldn't you go home and have dinner?"

I sat in the coffee shop. I held my textbook open just like I was reading it and watched businessmen coming in out, their suits with little creases in them, pants sweaty around their crotches because of the heat. I sat in the black shadow of the investment bank that was visibly moving across my table, feeling my own sweat drying between my shoulder blades and between my breasts

I read for a while. My legs were stiff and tingling and my neck was getting sore, and there was a man standing at my table who said, "Good book?"

I nodded. "It's just regular biology. I forgot my highlighter."

His suit was like the others, but so fresh it looked like it had just come off the hanger. "You can have some of this if you want it," he said, gesturing with his coffee cup. "I only bought it so I could talk to you." As if for inspection he lifted his hands so I could see his clean fingernails, the little pink cuticles. He smelled like the seats in an orange Volkswagon car.

My own fingernails needed clipping, I remembered.

We crept outward in his car, the windows rolled up and the AC blasting. He played '60s rock too loud on the radio and his knuckles were tense, his hand jerking the gearshift.

"What do you do for a living?" I asked. He hadn't looked at me since I'd gotten into the car. He was an excellent driver. He was scrupulous about the right-of-way. "I'm an Biology major," I said. "Third year."

He nodded. "I do financing. Financial stuff. Banking." He didn't answer any other questions.

By the time we'd pulled into his driveway my face was hot and my jaw had a tough knot in it. It was hard to recognize anything without my glasses on, but I thought I knew where I was. I tripped over one of the shrubs beside his porch. "Careful," he said. "Jesus, don't worry."

Everything was orderly in the front hallway. He walked through every room of the ground floor, yelling "Dora? Dora?" while I waited by the door. There was no answer.

"Go upstairs," he said, and walked around the rooms again. He hadn't loosened his tie or taken off his dress shoes.

All the carpets on the second floor showed the runners of a vacuum. I found an office and a nursery and then the master bedroom, a place like a museum. A woman's silky nightgown was over the back of a chair in front of a mirror, a table with hairbrushes and some pictures.

I took off my running shoes and belt and jeans, my awful tank top with the dolphin on it, my underwear. The room was cold with central air conditioning and I lay on top of the plush quilt, mostly naked. When I began to shiver I moved down under the covers and pulled my socks off and held them in my hands.

The traffic was going quiet outside. I looked up at the white whirls of plaster that nobody ever noticed, and my body began to warm up under the covers.

Keyboard Expressiveness

I enjoyed this "Brooklyn Organ Synth Orchestra" clip of "Tubular Bells" so much that I eventually bought the song. Have a look:

As interesting as it is to see all these organs and synths at work, I'm always struck by how RELIEVED I am when the good old straightforward piano comes in at the end, bringing with it a warmth and depth that the rest of the song lacks. It gives me goosebumps! Even compared to the organs, the piano somehow sounds more EXPRESSIVE.

This has started me wondering: is the piano REALLY more expressive than a Hammond organ or an Omnichord? Is it more capable of conveying emotion than any other keyboard instrument?

That really does seem to be the case in THIS song, but that may have something to do with the relative skill of the player (Natasha Bartolf has obviously spent a lot of time with the piano so she may have more of a "connection" to it than -- perhaps -- Natalie Weiss with the Stylophone). Also, some of the instruments in the video ARE notably limited...that's part of their charm.

So I started thinking about synth virtuosos, the men and women who have spent their lives dickering with synthesizers. Manfred Mann has certainly bemoaned the lack of expressiveness in modern keyboards, but it's hard to compare his synth performances with virtuoso piano because he tends to use monophonic instruments. Bernie Worrell's more extravagant keyboard solos sound a bit farty these days. Thomas Dolby's synths are warmer than most, but still revel in a certain "coldness." Richard Tandy relies more on novelty than anything else.

I haven't looked into this enough. Is there something unique about the piano's ability to "express" the music that comes out of it, far beyond a pitch bend and a mod wheel?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cooverthon: "Ghost Town"

Robert Coover had dabbled with "trapped in a genre" stories before, but "Ghost Town" (1998) was the first time he extended the concept to a novel.

The genre in question is the Western, and "Ghost Town" has it all: shootouts, train robberies, gambling, cattle rustlers, Indians, loyal horses, and a climactic hanging. The protagonist is a nameless gunman who has been wandering through the desert for an unknown length of time. He stumbles upon the Ghost Town, which embodies all the classic Western cliches...and it's a bad place for a lone gunman to hang around in.

The townsfolk are a constantly shifting mish-mash of characteristics; they swap injuries, hairstyles, and body types as the book goes on, particularly the town's deputy, who undergoes a steady transformation from one page to the next. The buildings in the town shift in a similar way, with buildings moving from place to place as the plot requires.

There are only two females in town: the dancehall girl and the schoolmarm. The protagonist, of course, is constantly defending himself against the former and trying to win the esteem of the latter...and because this is a Coover novel, he suffers constant humiliation and can never live up to the standards that others require of him: he is never brave enough, never smart enough, never suave enough, or -- conversely -- never enough of a rogue. The lone gunman fails again and again and again.

And hence my first real fatigue in this Cooverthon: I'm sick of the repeated humiliation of his protagonists. He always brings them to the brink of success -- often extending the scene to ridiculous lengths -- only to have them fall flat on their faces, worse off than ever before. There's a moment in "Ghost Town" when the gunman seems to have finally won the heart of the schoolmarm, and even though his success seemed guaranteed I KNEW Coover would pull the rug out from under him.

The fact that the "rug pulling" is always done in a surprising and inventive way does not alter the fact that it all gets a bit tedious. Coover simply cannot allow his heroes to win...they can't even get a GLIMPSE of happiness without being slapped in the face. Granted, his more straightforward novels give us more satisfyingly mixed character arcs, but these "I'm stuck in a nightmarish world" books always follow the same trajectory. And that's annoying.

But still, "Ghost Town" is a fun read, with everything getting jumbled up as though it were a movie set, and some of the more unsettling moments in any Coover book (the gore is notably exaggerated here). There's also an enhanced surrealism to events that contrasts nicely with the grittiness of the situations themselves.

NOTE: In some ways, "Ghost Town" revisits Coover's play "The Kid," which appeared in "A Theological Position" (1972). It has the same collection of anonymous characters and the same tendency to "flash back" to notable past events, something unique to this book and to the play. I suspect that the long list of dedications at the beginning of "Ghost Town" are to actors who appeared in some performance of "The Kid," assuming it was ever performed at all.

Typical Cooverisms: Humiliated protagonist, confusion of time and geography, bawdy puns, a penis exposed for an extended period of time, a woman who "digs at" her crotch. But even this far into his career, he's still inventing new elements which continue to surprise the reader, even if some of the conceits are getting a little old.

Adventures in Collingwood (Saturday August 20, 2011)

This journey would have taken days in a wagon or on a horse, but we spend two hours in our car, heading north along the escarpment. We drive between the ranks of lazy high-spired wind turbines and the bodies of dead porcupines, down the mountainside and into a land of big farms and small villages,  thunderclouds overhead.

Collingwood is hosting jazz but the storm moves in and the musicians run for cover. We eat food on the only patio table immune to rain. Soon we are sitting in a river and the waiter periodically tips the awning to preempt a downpour. Soaked shoppers huddle from the threat of lakefront lightning.

The storm retreats momentarily. We drive out to the famous grain elevator and explore the wet loading bays, our hair standing on end in a way that is both comical and scary. A loon darts underwater and reappears an impossible distance away, and he does this over and over, a game he plays for tourists.

Up Blue Mountain in the pounding rain which threatens to wash us back down the muddy bike trails. Our scenic view is of gray slopes and distant mist. Back down the mountain, we visit the artificial Village, a mirage, a magical entertainment tower which intimidates humans and engineers. Near the bathrooms, the wobbling mercury bubble inside a broken fire alarm is a mystery revealed to me.

Beach. The rain has stopped but people find no joy on a suddenly-chilly overcast day. We roll up our clothes and walk through the waves, shuffling over mud and rocks to a picnic table surrounded by tidewater. A joyful dog stumbles over our buried feet which swarm with minnows. Far off: a flat island covered with weeds, a Canadian flag its only vertical feature. When the tide goes out we leave.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Cooverthon: "Briar Rose"

If "Briar Rose" (1996) appeared in a collection of short stories, I would probably appreciate it more. There is something about a "book" which implies depth and weight. "Briar Rose," sadly, holds neither of these things, and it's the only Coover book that I previously owned but which I never bothered to finish. Much like "Spanking the Maid" (1982) it's what everybody assumes Coover always does, but seems -- when compared against the rest of his work -- lightweight and sort of frivolous.

It shares the same structure as "Spanking the Maid," a narrative which shifts focus between two protagonists (the Prince and Sleeping Beauty) as they repeat the same actions endlessly without ever achieving their goals. The Prince wants to rescue Sleeping Beauty, but he's trapped as much by the briar hedges as he is by his doubts: is he the one? Is she the one? Is he accomplishing his tasks properly?

Sleeping Beauty, likewise, is enduring a hundred-year sleep in the company of a good/evil fairy. The fairy tells her stories about all the possible Princes and the possible resolutions to the fairy tale, invariably terrible. Usually these hypothetical princes are already married, and their wives kill Sleeping Beauty and eat her. Sometimes the princes wake her up only after having fathered several children by her while she was sleeping. Some princes only want her property, or they turn into monsters when they kiss her.

Every second (large-print, small-margin) page is basically a resumption of the tale with a new twist. This is Coover's "phantasmagoria" approach, which reads like a fever dream but -- sadly -- has little else to recommend it, especially when you've already read his similar short stories in "Pricksongs and Descants" (1969) and "A Night at the Movies" (1987).

If you have a burning love for fairy tale deconstruction, this could be a good book (in the same way that "Spanking the Maid" has been cited as the ultimate text for S&M devotees), but otherwise it's Coover at his laziest. It lacks the invention and passion that he injects into better examples of this style (eg. "The Magic Poker" and "The Babysitter"), and also lacks the satire and political consciousness of Angela Carter's fairy tale treatments.

"Pinocchio in Venice" was dedicated to Carter just a few years before, so maybe this was an homage of some kind, though Coover had tackled fairy tales before ("The Door," "The Gingerbread House") and would come back to them again in "Stepmother."

Typical Coover themes in "Briar Rose": Repetitious scenario with disconnected geography & time, characters can never succeed because the rules of the scenario are unspoken or more complicated than first considered, scatology, idealized situations become disgusting/horrific when subject to real life.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Cooverthon: "John's Wife"

Robert Coover's novels tend to come in one of two formats: either they're teeny-tiny books with huge text and wide margins (glorified short stories), or they're larger books with minuscule text, non-existent margins, and the smallest possible space between the lines (deceptively epic tomes). The fact that Coover tends to have a high "bulky paragraph" to "terse dialog" ratio makes the latter type of book particularly long.

"John's Wife" (1996) is ENTIRELY composed of bulky paragraphs. It never settles down and it never lets you rest. Its 420 pages feel like twice that many, and in a more sensibly formatted book they probably would be. But there's so much invention in it that you'll never feel the drag...unless you become hopelessly lost, which is possible, especially the first time through.

First, the structure: "John's Wife" is a book-length string of big paragraphs. Each paragraph focuses on a particular character, and the story flows between paragraphs as the characters encounter each other, think about each other, or when the plot naturally moves in that direction. These paragraphs come in unbroken sections about sixty pages long, but the separations between these sections -- a simple double space -- doesn't seem to serve any purpose. The story is one shifting character focus from page 1 to page 423.

These characters all live in a quaint midwestern American town, and -- as you'd expect in a small town -- they all have some connection with each other: parents, children, spouses, workmates, golfing buddies, drinking partners, and the professionals they deal with (a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, the newspaper editor, the town photographer, etc.)

The town's biggest booster is John, a hedonistic businessman, son of one of the founding fathers, frat boy, continually shaping the town by buying up and then over-developing property for maximum profit. John is the strongest motivating force in the town...

...with the exception of his wife. She's nameless, simply "John's Wife." The center of everything. Beloved by everyone. Half the men in town are hopelessly in love with her, and most of the women admire and respect her. Considering the book has about fifty major characters -- explored serially and organically as the book goes on -- there's a lot of "John's Wife worship" in those pages.

The curious thing is that John's Wife is the only notable character who is -- quite pointedly -- never explored. Everybody talks about her but she never earns a paragraph for herself. We learn about every other character's hopes, dreams, activities, and darkest secrets...but not her. She appears and (literally) disappears, setting things in action and then wandering into another paragraph to motivate somebody else. But she's the only person in town whose head we never get a look inside.*

What's "John's Wife" about? It's about everything that the characters care for: love, sex, power, life, hatred, art, philosophy, and survival. It's about the things that motivate these townie characters: infatuation for John's Wife, lust for revenge, craving for affection, dark regrets which cannot be forgotten. The novel is, in short, about the deep-down things that obsess us.

The first section of the book is an amazing study of how people motivate themselves to get through the day -- the sort of thing Coover wrote so truthfully about in "The Origin of the Brunists" (1966). We learn how all these characters know each other, the common touchstones they share (John's stag party in particular), and their own personal foibles which roar around in their brains: housewife Veronica, for example, is unable to forget the fetus she aborted when she was a teenager, and unable to forgive the man who fathered the child. Marge is driven by her need to finally win a contest -- any contest -- against John. Ellsworth (the newspaper man) is using his unwritten novel to try to understand the relationship between artists, models, and audiences. Poor teenage Jennifer has a hopeless crush on John's business partner and fantasizes about running away with him.

This is fascinating enough, but after 160 pages the town begins to unravel. It begins with the strange behaviour of John's Wife herself: sometimes she disappears when people aren't looking at her, leaving nothing but her car (or her clothes) behind. Latent murderers begin to make all-too-serious designs on the lives of others. Ellsworth is terrified to discover a new character lurking in his book's pages, and Stu's dead wife -- who he killed years ago -- reappears as a ghastly and blazing-eyed ghost. Meanwhile Pauline -- the novel's most tragic character -- is growing to a surprising size in the photographer's studio...

I don't want to tell you any more because part of the book's joy is the shock at every new twist: the way the yearnings and regrets of these otherwise normal characters become hideous reality as the book goes on. Eventually time and geography begin to collapse, and as an all-too-familiar monster finds herself under siege in the middle of Settler's woods, the town goes absolutely bonkers. Events move to their natural end in a way that only Coover could manage. Fire, disaster, storm, accident, death, destruction. And a huge part of the forest soaked with urine.

The book ends with all of the characters newly matured...the town has healed and so have the people who live there. They're not better than they were -- some of them are in a new kind of private hell -- but everybody seems to know a bit more about themselves. John continues to buy and renovate property, John's Wife returns and brings everything back to a state of normality, and the impossible events of the previous (day? week? month?) recede into the legends and tall tales that make a town unique.

"John's Wife" is a non-stop burst of creativity: characters, events, collisions, distortions, it never ends, and -- now that I've read it a second time and I have the characters straight in my head -- I think it's Robert Coover's masterpiece. It has the best of his realistic writing, and also the best of his impossible stuff, with both extremes perfectly meshed in an utterly flawless structure.

That said, it's a damn frustrating book, especially the first time through. It's easy to mix characters up and forget where they've been, dulling the ironic beauty of events seen through dozens of different eyes. It's also easy to lose sight of the subtle and beautiful surprises that are lost in the surrounding bombast: the really complex and unusual stories of Corny and Beans, for example; the former one of the most rich characters in the book, and the latter a strange and significant footnote that the casual reader will miss altogether.

Common Coover touches in the book: the warping of time and geography, lots of different spouses screwing around on each other, toilets referred to as "stools," dense meditations on art and philosophy (though nicely spaced out this time), a comical cowboy character, women with big butts, metaphoric darkness/blindness, lewd puns, and outrageous pantomime.

* With the exclusion of the mysterious "Sassy Buns" who wreaks male havoc during the extended climax of the book, and who may be a sort of "Anti-John's Wife." Or something.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Come Out of That Kelly Pool!

Okay, these Womrath's advertisements are lots of fun. From November 29, 1930, this one tells us that reading books is WAY more enjoyable than any of the (then-) current fads, including Kelly pool.

Stop falling through that auction bridge...quit trying to walk into that full-house on your inside straight...don't leave your footprints in that sand-trap. Roll your bones in another alley! Save your quarter...only a fourth of a dollar...for a gamble where you're sure to detectives get their the great got that way...Use your two-bits to rent a book from Womrath's...for a week...

Three Arrivals, Always in the Morning (Part Three)

"...the police officer said to him, 'I'm not gonna charge you if you take my advice: respect your parents. They brought you into this world. They feed you, they clothe you, they send you to school. When you're a fine young man then you'll do your father proud.'

"Then he went to Fort Murray. He said, 'Dad, I'm leaving home.' I said, 'You're always welcome back here, but make sure you've got the costs money to go to Fort Murray.'

"Well, he was good for a while, but then he fell in with these kids, drinkin' and causin' trouble. So I booked a flight and went over there, he didn't even know I was coming. I went into his place and he wasn't there, but another kid was there. This kid said 'I'm just staying here until James gets back,' and I said, 'No you aren't!' And I straightened that kid out.

"One day James called me and said 'Dad, I want to buy this house but I don't have the money.' So I sent him some money and told him that he'd better make sure he saved for the rest and make sure he got that house.

"Well, now he's in Alberta and he has a four-car garage. Married a nice lady, gave me a grandson."

Meanwhile, among the homeless, the conversation is about the weather and religion, and about holiday meals and the churches that have offered them charity in the bitter cold. The elderly -- who have always had homes, and now flee them out of loneliness -- talk with disgust about the celebrity who was spotted at the mall: his terrible music, his unearned celebrity, their own unconcern that they wish today's youth would share.

Apples for the Unemployed

Having -- like most of the rest of the country -- concluded that the newly-born depression was no big deal, The New Yorker, managed to virtually ignore it until November 1930. Then, suddenly, the paper was FULL of depression apple sellers.

Cartoons. Comments. Little snipes in otherwise unrelated articles. I don't know if the apple seller scheme -- the International Apple Shippers Association sold apples to the unemployed at a loss, putting an "apples for the unemployed" vendor on virtually every New York street corner -- actually worked, but it certainly seemed to put a visible face on the worsening depression, and it also annoyed a lot of pedestrians in the city. Those with jobs, anyway.

Another source of depression news in the paper were the ever-present full-page advertisements for the Evening Standard, which basically said "These troubles will be over soon, and the only firms which will survive are the ones which continue to advertise!" The Evening Standard was truly making lemonade in response to the lemons...or at least grinning while eating the lemons raw.

I leave you with a poem called "Confession" by Richard Peckham, from the November 29, 1930 issue:
It may be shameful to avoid
The apples of the unemployed
But, since they've been on every corner,
I have become an apple-scorner.
Snow, McIntosh, and Northern Spy
Are now as painful to my eye
As pencils and shoelaces were
When apples were uncommoner.
An antisocial state of things,
I know. It will not earn me wings.
But why, when wits were being deployed
To get the unemployed employed,
Did no one, to whom things were clear,
Distribute, say, light wines and beer?

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Robert Benchley Wants No More Sex

In the November 29, 1930 issue of The New Yorker, Robert Benchley concluded his weekly theatre column with this:
I am now definitely ready to announce that Sex, as a theatrical property, is as tiresome as the Old Mortgage, and that I don't want to hear it mentioned ever again. I am sick of little Southern girls who want "to live." I am sick of hearting fathers and mothers talk to little girls, Southern or otherwise, about "what lies before them." I am sick of rebellious Youth and I am sick of Victorian parents, and I don't care if all the little girls in all sections of the United States get ruined or want to get ruined or keep from getting ruined. All I ask is: don't write plays about it and ask me to sit through them.

I assume that Benchley was soon to get his wish.

Blues Festival 2011, Part Two

We travel in and out of the big tent to stand near groupies and their babies. Scriptwriters explain their deepest desires. Our brief trip across the road confirms that Tom and Tammy Waites are big enough entities to fill a Boathouse without completely sinking it. No police officers patrol the bathrooms under the Blues-ignorant eyes of Queen Elizabeth who has ears made of stone.

Run to the Rumrunner for improved beer and food. Our hosts secure tables in a way that I shamefully sell short, for the first of many times that night. Ladies arrive and depart when the adulation of the fans is not enough for them.

The Mississippi Queen fries catfish and beans in a distinctive rooster-posture. Edgar Winter (back in the big tent) channels blues via classic rock, playing every instrument in turn, followed by extended scat. Jenny bangs the belly-drum slowly and, after fording the mass migration of Kitchener diasporacs, invests in a giant turkey leg.

More tables are pounced-upon and conglomerated. A radio receptionist is receptive to radio reception. The Mississippi Queen dances ballet to the blues. I leave the young lovers and grab a taxi just before the rain begins.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Cooverthon: "Pinocchio in Venice"

"Pinocchio in Venice" (1991) was the first Robert Coover novel I read. Having just finished it now for the third time -- and in the midst of a chronological re-reading of all his books -- I can best sum it up as...weird.

It's "weird" because it's an uneasy mixture of his already well-established styles, and because it comes perilously close to actually "saying something," which few of his books ever do. I'm not entirely sure WHAT (if anything) it is trying to say, but if you pressed a gun to my head and demanded a moral, I might just say: "Selfish prigs are bound to suffer, both outside (because people resent their priggishness) and inside (because prigs cannot achieve the high standards they set for themselves)."

Part of the book is -- simply -- a playful reinterpretation of the Pinocchio story. By claiming that all of Pinocchio's adventures (somehow) happened in Venice, Coover can push the well-known character (now an ancient and venerable scholar) through all of his old haunts, where his friends and enemies are far more complex than we'd ever thought. Coover takes the black-and-white morality of the original book and applies it gruesomely to the more "human" characters in Venice, and suddenly the Blue Fairy's moral lessons and Pinocchio's upstanding actions seem as sinister as...well, moral ideologues really ARE in real life, when their beliefs collide with flesh-and-blood.

The book's first third is in Coover's "languid phantasmagorical" style, wherein Pinocchio -- returned to wintry Venice to write a manifesto which summarizes all his moral precepts -- suffers a series of terrible indignities, either thanks to long-ago villains or his own personal failings (which might best be summarized as lust, ease of distraction, and an unyielding priggishness). This style also returns in the final third, which is more "frantic phantasmagorical," wherein Pinocchio's sins REALLY come out to get him. And...err...he gets baked into a donkey-shaped pizza.

It's the section between these two thirds that I've never really liked, mainly consisting of meditations on art and theatre, subjects which Coover has been dabbling in since "The Public Burning." It reads like an essay and a "guidebook to Venice," made even more tedious by the fact that the protagonist has been rendered totally immobile through most of it. Many of Robert Coovers novels seem to be about 15% too long, but while in other cases this tends to manifest as a protracted ending which tries to cover its tracks by being as ambiguous as possible, in "Pinocchio and Venice" the extraneous pages are all in the middle, and caused -- perhaps -- by Coover trying to say too much.

Then there's the ending, the final chapter which -- after 300 pages of playful allegory and abstract theorizing -- is an ACTUAL HONEST-TO-GOODNESS STORY. It contains exposition and straight-forward revelation. It's beautiful and moody and strange, yes, but it also adds to the book's confusion as a whole: if there was never supposed to be a point, why did it end like that? If there WAS supposed to be a point...what was it?

At its best, "Pinocchio in Venice" is an adventure story, overlaying a deconstruction of the original children's book, and also combining the unrealistic morality of the children's book with the facts of the real world. At its worst it's...well, an awkward partnering of those "best" elements with dense art criticism interspersed with repetitive action sequences. I wouldn't consider it to be an essential Robert Coover book, necessarily, but it's an interesting experiment nonetheless (and darn fun when it works!)

Greg Allman in Kitchener

I escorted my parents to see Greg Allman at the Kitchener Blues Festival on Thursday. I have almost no recollection of Allman from my youth (other than wondering why there was an enormous spherical blob of jello on the back of his fruit truck) but I'm always intrigued by ace musicianship. Also I figured I could keep my folks from whooping it up too much, which in fact wouldn't happen, so I was making a joke there.

My immediate perception: blues is a little boring in a large venue, especially when performed in a manner that our town paper called "workmanlike." It seemed like every single song followed the same exact formula: a vocal introduction, followed by a piano solo, then either a sax or a guitar solo, and then a refrain of the vocal for the big finish. The musicians were amazing, as expected, but if there is such a thing as "too many piano solos" then I witnessed it several times over.

There was little variation. There was precious little soul. Even Allman's Hammond B3 sounded "workmanlike," having been played with much more verve and style by opening band "Aphrodite's Bodice."

I'm not sure if anybody else felt this way. There was certainly a lot of whooping and cheering going on, though mostly by Kitchener's life-long all-day porch-party brigade. We sat behind the cutest middle-aged German couple you've ever seen: both of them portly and homely, and when Allman sang "Melissa," the woman put her head on her husband's hamhock shoulder and gently held his hand. So that was sweet.

Maybe it's just a "blues thing." I felt that the spectacle would have been much better in a more intimate venue. It was a rush to see such talented guys put on a show, even if I still don't understand why there was a blob of jello on that album cover way-back-when.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Sow Geraniums and Reap Orchids

My impromptu "Weirdest Metaphor" award goes to Madame Nina's geranium cream (New Yorker, November 22, 1930), which confuses a debutante's face with...a map of Manhattan. Really.
When going to bed, she dips a slim finger in the fat glass jar and rubs contents across the map of Manhattan in the mirror, paying particular attention to the bright lights that so easily run to dark circles on the morning after. Incipient crosstown lines are refused police protection. General traffic conditions are improved. And the Great White Way gets a gentle bleach all over.

In the morning, she uses the same specific as a foundation for make-up that looks more natural than little sister's first blush. Rouge--if she follows the revived vogue for it--can never be mistaken for a stop-signal. Powder doesn't skid. And the first aid work begun for the entire facial countryside goes on all day.
 Now you know how to flatter a dame: "Darling, your's like the street map of a huge metropolitan area. Your nostrils: the north and south subway lines. That freckle: city hall..."

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Just Revealed! Our New Model

Okay, sure, in the brains of horny consumers you MIGHT find a link between CARS and sex. But MODEMS?

I have previously mentioned the trashy nature of early British computer magazines. This advertisement is from a publication which positioned itself as more respectable than the rest ("Your Spectrum," January 1984), but I guess you can't pick your advertisers. And maybe there IS something sexy about modems that I've never noticed's an acoustic coupler, after all.

Take the Rank Out of Drank

Advertising came into its own during the '20s, having learned that nothing sells a product like fear. I imagine executives sitting around in a plush highrise meeting room somewhere, staring at each other with bug-eyes, saying "How can we scare people into buying all this CRAP?"

Social anxiety always helps. From the November 22, 1930 New Yorker I bring you "The Savoy Cocktail Book," which you'd better buy if you don't want your parties to suck.
Of course, you have a bar in your pent-house, but even that does not insure social success!

Do you find that guests are glad to put their foot on the rail the first time, but seldom return? Do you feel like the girl who was often a bridesmaid but never a bride?

Of course, you have all your liquor analyzed, so you can't blame your bootlegger.

Perhaps the trouble is with you. Perhaps it's the way you mix the cocktails that bars you from the popularity you feel that you deserve.
"Whew!" Said a bunch of advertising executives. "That's done! Now how can we make them frightened of RADIOS..."

Incidentally, "The Savoy Cocktail Book" was "compiled and amplified" by Harry Craddock of London's Savoy bar. As his biography at the bottom of the advertisement says, he was "the man who took the rank out of drank."

Three Arrivals, Always in the Morning (Part Two)

The shopping mall is only open because winter shelters require arbitrary schedules. Now, before 9am, it entertains the elderly and the workers themselves. Bored security guards fold their arms over their windbreakers and lean on empty kiosks, talking about hockey. There are beautiful young women everywhere, dressed immaculately, with elaborate hairdos and high-heeled footwear. Their faces are closed and inwardly-turned, they carry bagged breakfasts in as-yet functional hands.

Only the lunch ladies are eternal, always halfway between exhaustion and crisis, constantly patrolling the tables in this cavern which is spotless, sad, echoing, and almost empty.

I barely exist here. The lights serve no purpose but to guide the labour and to keep the elderly from falling down. The lights are not meant for me, they're brilliant point-of-purchase spotlights and soft pink gels that stupidly reach out to the very people who work there. The music sounds strange in a maze of caverns without enough moving bodies, like it's pushing hard to enter the world. No patrons, just the employees, who don't know each other well enough. They walk around, killing time, still wearing their winter jackets, from store to coffee shop and back again.

But for the elderly, this is their adult education center. They are friendly and familiar with each other. At tables they sit side-by-side, their eyelines parallel in the manner of old married couples who know each other so well. They've brought newspapers and they feel safe leaving their belongings behind during their frequent trips to the bathroom. They support each other and they have nothing to steal except porkpie hats and keyrings and pictures of the grandchildren that are too small for blunt fingers to handle.

A painted woman on the window has vibrant betty-bangs and she's promising to reveal a secret. Even at the best of times that secret would be elusive, but now her presence is taunting and irritating, signaling "Come in!" beside a door that's been locked all night.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

What Does It Mean?

I think this picture is very funny. At the very least it makes a stoic ritual look as ridiculous as it probably is.

Caption contest! No prize! What's up with these guys?

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Bells Bring Birds and Memories

Far off to my right, churchbells ring an epiphany of dubious quality. God says, "This is it, Creation! You are on to something!" It is no louder than the children squealing in the splashpark or the overworked cicadas, but the bells grab my attention because they are musical and they are novel.

Called by the bells and looking for the origin, a chorus line of geese begin their long slow march across the grass. They are not deterred by anything except for the Korean woman who wants her husband to stand with them for a photograph. It is impossible to coordinate: he approaches, they veer away, each goose turning diagonal for a moment to yield their passage. Thwarted, the Korean man attempts to corral ducks instead, and then he gives up and walks away.

The heat and the bells blur yesterday into today: there's nobody here to tell us about slaughter. No man offers cures for laryngitis as suffered by sloe-eyed and apparently vacant waitresses. Tourists do not gasp for the last drop of lemon water from an antique glass. Yesterday continues to intrude: the arts are overpriced, the elderly move slowly, papa-goose grunts his dissatisfaction and the children are making animal noises. The Goose Girl isn't here...I'm 42 days late.

The churchbells stop and are replaced by the sound of a dump-truck in reverse.

Throb of Tom-Tom Cats!

Here's a wonderful advertisement from Womrath's bookstore, intended to convince us that READING about stuff is more exciting that actually EXPERIENCING it. They make a strong case for the joy of delightful puns and alliteration, at least...
Ankles aweigh! All abored the SS. VAN DINE...sailing to darkest of mystery and philovances. Star-drenched daze. Sunkist knights. Drone of dramaturgic dromedaries...drowse of drastic dhuhinkies. Lots of good fellahs. Oil-burning cannibals...ready to take pot-luck with missionaries. Pooh yourself! More fun to stay home...
The advertisement mentions fiction, travel, biography, and history, so I suppose the dense wordplay is meant to evoke all those things: the mystery books of Philo Vance, the "darkest Africa" travel literature, Hollywood biographies, and...whatever "dhuhinkies" are.

(The New Yorker, November 15, 1930)

Monday, August 01, 2011

Quick Acknowledgement of a Cooverthon

For the past six weeks or so I have been engaged in a Cooverthon...that is, I've been re-reading all of Robert Coover's books* in chronological order in an attempt to get a sense of his development and his themes.

Doing this same thing with John Barth a few years ago pretty much destroyed my enjoyment of his work, so I'm aware that this is a dangerous and stupid thing to repeat with another of my favourite authors. One reason I'm doing this is to prove to myself that I didn't sell John Barth short; that other authors CAN stand up to such a rigorous and exhausting re-reading without becoming repetitive.

In some ways, Coover has an edge on Barth because his fiction is so unabashedly repetitive to begin with. My impression after years of fandom has been that -- following "The Public Burning" -- Coover used the same structure over and over again in all subsequent books: a protagonist is stuck inside a nightmarish (and usually genre-specific) environment from which he cannot escape, and as the book progresses the environment becomes increasingly horrifying.

That assumption was incorrect. Coover has been dabbling with that "nightmare" structure since his 1969 collection "Pricksongs & Descants," and while the structure DOES become a regular background feature of most of his subsequent novels, those novels ALSO contain many other novel elements: distinctive characters, bizarre authorial quirks, new types of focus.

We'll see if that impression continues to hold as I make my way through "Pinocchio in Venice" (1991) for the third time. Halfway through "Gerald's Party" (1986) my enthusiasm flagged a bit -- particularly discouraging because it has always been and still remains my favourite Coover novel by far -- but that's to be expected: most of Coovers books are INTENDED to exhaust you ("Gerald's Party" more than most).

I wish I'd rigorously blogged the earlier novels while I was reading them (and I wish I could guarantee that I'll continue to blog them as they come), but here are some scattered impressions:
  • Coover has dabbled occasionally with theatre, but his plays are underwhelming. Having just read "A Theological Position" (1972) for the first time, my belief that Coover is not a great playwright is further reinforced.
  • The real joy of "The Public Burning" (1977) is Coover's characterization of Richard Nixon: insecure, self-centered, nervous, awkwardly outgoing. Much of the book is just Richard Nixon endlessly pontificating in his head, and this is some of Coover's best writing. He's masterful at distinctive and consistent characterization (see "Gerald's Party" for the extremes of this), and it's easy to lose sight of that with all the experimental flim-flammery going on.
  • On the other side of this, however, is "Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears" (1987), whose Jewish socialist sculptor is Coover's biggest failure: he never comes to life.
  • "You Must Remember This" (the concluding short story in his "A Night at the Movies" collection) is, I think, his crown jewel. Although "The Babysitter" and "The Magic Poker" tend to be his most anthologized stories (probably because they're early works and -- more importantly -- do not have extended scenes of outrageously graphic sex), "You Must Remember This" sums up everything Coover does well. A close second is "Charlie in the House of Rue," also in the same collection. If you only read one Coover short story, pick one of those.
And now, a list of common Robert Coover themes.
  • Women with big hips and butts. This obsession tends to taper off eventually, but it begins right there in 1966 with the introduction of the wonderful nurse "Happy Bottom."
  • Cartoon/vaudeville mime routines. This again is more a feature of his early work, and again begins with "Happy Bottom."
  • Bawdy songs.
  • Vicious, fickle audiences.
  • The protagonist is trapped inside an environment which he cannot escape, and the environment degrades over time. The landscape is usually disconnected -- doors never lead to predictable places -- and often chronology is confused as well.
  • As a continuation of the nightmare environment, the protagonist usually suffers most when he is feeling proud or confident.
  • In addition, the protagonist is constantly being punished for failing to follow rules, through no conscious fault of his own.
  • Sometimes the environment and protagonist are part of an obvious genre.
  • A large cast of couples who screw around with each other.
  • Scatology. People tend to poop their pants.
  • Puns.
  • Extremely dense, impenetrable, high-brow concepts introduced in tiny snippets within the most banal of events, with the result that the concepts themselves seem banal. This starts happening during Coover's middle period.
  • Sex with strangers.
* ...with the exception of independently-published pieces, which are difficult and expensive to find.

    Fat Americans and Skinny Italians

    Italians conspire and shush politics with their wife-birds, bedraggled, bluntly confused. They are Europe's ambassadors to this crass continent of progress and cannibalism; we are the ones who fall the fastest, but our huge gravity will pull them down with us, all those staring dark-eyed peasants and pilgrims and artists. They would declare us guilty if we believed in their gods but their quaint piety is antichrist to our admittedly divided forces.

    "You have broken the rules and wandered too far from us!" they scream at the back-ends of our boats, and we respond: "Denial of your beloved elder statesmen! They are too fat on food that took them too long to cook and eat! We, here, eat only the quick things, which we have invented ourselves, the burgers, the beans! Our fat is made of proteins alien to your history, and therefore we are brand new men and women!"

    Watch Your Husband!

    It's really an advertisement for a cruise (eg. if you notice your husband getting stressed, take him on a cruise), but you'd be excused for seeing something more sinister.

    (The New Yorker, November 15, 1930, when everybody was running off to warmer climes, the French and Germans were rumbling about war, and backgammon was the game of choice)

    Monday, July 04, 2011

    Deep Wide Open (Rough Mix)

    I'm working toward the first Lemurian Congress album, tentatively (but with much certainty) entitled "A Storm Targets Your Childhood Home." A few rough mixes are already up on my SoundCloud account, and here's the newest, "Deep Wide Open" (with another great picture by Patrick):

    I'm calling these "rough mixes" because they are unmastered, and because the mixes themselves still need some work...I've decided to do the final mixes when I've finalized everything that is going on the album, because I discovered with the Pico and Alvarado EP that remixing (and then mastering) everything in sequence was a great way to unify the songs (this may be less of an issue for those who have settled into a good production method).

    I'll spare you the postmortem on this particular song, except to say it's my first real use of Five12's "Numerology 3" plugin. "Numerology 3" is a real amazing creature, but every method of applying it to a song results in some type of problem: either you can't record the MIDI, or you can't use third-party plugins with it, or you suffer sync problems. Each method will allow you to do SOME of those things, but you can't do all of them at once.

    Sunday, July 03, 2011


    Our city is a sinkhole, falling under the weight of industry and families and new steel buildings. Our gravity pulls us so deep that we can only fill our skies with has to go somewhere! We want it gone but it won't go away!

    Two city's worth of blacktop and pollution broils us in our clothes. We have sore shoulders from hugging the shady spots, and when those places reach critical mass, we fight or we retreat to our fridges. The sun has made us needy, every citizen is a gatekeeper of boats, curtains, private routes to heaven. Instead of love we have our own burning weight; we will not be tricked into embraces which only make us sweat. Sweet nothings are lost in the whir of fans and patio stereos. There is no room in our brains for sex or tipsiness when everything about us is pain.

    Friday, July 01, 2011

    Canada Day!

    Flowers are entirely Canadian on Canada Day; nobody in any other nation has these yellow flowers pollinated by RGB finches who wear spotless feather-robes! We've owned these flowers since we arrived in this country. Before that they were untamed and savage...their water came from streams bounded by beavers and soil and sparse human excrement. But then we came in ships with our rats, and we imposed order on savagery, and today these flowers bloom in coordination with us, fed by nutrients and liquids that we have previously inspected (or at least touched gently with smokestacks), and when these flowers bloom for us they shout "CANADA DAY!"

    Tuesday, June 28, 2011

    "Interfering Waves" for Download!

    The EP that Kevin Cogliano and I have been working on (as "Pico and Alvarado") is available for download from Bandcamp! It's $2 for 25 minutes, and if you think you've already heard most of the songs, I've got news for you: they've been thoroughly remixed and remastered. Plus there's an extended remix in the style of the typical '80s twelve-inch dance mix...I think you'll like it!

    Oh, and about those figures on the cover...they are -- you guessed it -- Pico and Alvarado themselves. Knit-vixens Annissa and Lydia have spent the last two months destroying their fingers to make those things. I wish we could give you a free pair with every album because they're terrific!

    Saturday, April 09, 2011

    "Big King Thief"

    I'm going through a furious stage of musical experimentation: techniques, tricks, plugins, the world of digital audio is a huge one and I've only just scratched the surface.

    Hopefully all future experiments turn out as well as "Big King Thief!"

    This song was, from beginning to end, a test of iZotope's "pHATmatik PRO" plugin. I created five separate instances of it, and mutilated five bars of a George Clinton song, and the inevitable result was something that just CRIED funky.

    But before we get to that, here's a quick evaluation of pHATmatik PRO: like many of iZotope's acquisitions from other software companies, it's buggy and dated and wonderful. The GUI obviously hasn't been touched since 2002 and the simple movement of MIDI items can result in all your samples being transposed in pitch. It's also easy to find yourself with sample-clicks that cannot be easily removed; the volume envelopes and the filters are coarse and clumsy, which highlights a basic shortcoming of the plugin: it's for extreme sample mangling, not for subtle effects.

    Also, WARNING: pHATmatik is NOT fully compatible with Logic 8. You can't drag MIDI information out of the plugin and into Logic (though you can drag the MIDI to your desktop and import it from there), and -- more damning -- you cannot instantiate a multi-output pHATmatik under any circumstances, which is TERRIBLE and is not mentioned ANYWHERE on the iZotope site. You need to create a multi-instance in a version of Logic 7, then save it as a channel strip which you can use in Logic 8.

    If you don't have a copy of Logic 7 around, here's a multi pHATmatik channel strip I made allows the plugin to actually live up to its "Pro" name!

    All that said, you can hear the results in this song. Other than a simple Ultrabeat kick/snare and some recurring iDrum hats (and cowbell!), the spectacular beats are all courtesy of pHATmatik. It's an amazing just needs to be updated (or price-reduced to compensate for the migraines it might cause).

    Here's the "Big King Thief" project (click for a larger version):

    So what else is going on in the song? Some string machine from the awesome Loomer String, a Moog-style bassline from IKMultimedia's SampleMoog (a patch I find myself using over and over in these songs), a lead and a pulse from Logic's own ES1 and ES2, a funky bassline that is really a funk piano run through CamelPhat and a bass amp, a bit of Nusofting's daHornet for the deliberately sparse bridge...

    ...and a lot of samples (including an oboe) that I'll leave for trivia buffs to figure out. I can't get over my love of tremolo!

    This was also the first time I've worked really strategically with compression. I put sidechain compression across the pads to allow the samples to cut through, and also used a tip from a recent copy of Computer Music: a copy of Audio Damage's free RoughRider compressor on an effects send, with all the drums sent to dramatically increased the "sludgy" sound of the beat (though maybe too much?)

    Then I was ready to mix it and master it...and everything went to hell. All sort of melodic conflicts started showing up in the second verse, and in desperation I began shuffling bits and pieces around until I was hopelessly confused. I eventually tracked the problem down to my IKMultimedia SampleTank plugin, which had deauthorized itself FOR THE SECOND TIME and was behaving in mono mode, playing only the highest note in every chord. I've spent a week with their tech support and they still haven't resolved the issue, but I worked around the problem by recreating the patch in SampleMoog.

    Next I started noticing the sample clicks...funny how you don't hear these things until they're so integrated in the song that you can't really fix them. Many of them were due to truncated samples in pHATmatik PRO, but the others -- which you can hear in the garbled speech during the bridge -- are actually from a soft ambient noise in the sample itself which turns into a harsh click when sent through a tremolo effect. By rearranging the tremolo a bit I managed to minimize it, but it's still there...I decided it was minor enough to not worry about.

    Some light mastering, some agonizing, a photograph of a lusty dwarf by Patrick, and the song was done! "Big King Thief," not suitable for 17th Century workplaces.

    Thursday, April 07, 2011

    "Against the Day" by Thomas Pynchon

    I've spent over a month reading Thomas Pynchon's massive novel "Against the Day." I have lugged it from home, to work, to lunch counter, with little regard to the damage it was causing to my shoulder. I've gotten lost in it and become frustrated with it, I've gone back and forth to reread parts that I'd missed, I've visited Wikipedia to learn about Iceland Spar and the quaternions, I have struggled to stay awake and I have struggled to put it down, and I have thought "I am spending far too much effort on this goddamn book."

    Now that I've finished it, I can sum it up by saying...well, it's certainly "Pynchonesque," and it's as complicated and annoying as everybody says it is -- an endless parade of major characters, diversions into dozens of apparently unrelated topics, too much movement from place to place, no real thread to hold it all together -- but it also has a greater proportion of Pynchon-gentleness and enlightenment than I've come to expect. The payoffs -- oblique as they can be -- are so bittersweet and human that you don't mind the coldly scientific obsessions so much.

    Unfortunately, these "human" moments are all bundled together during the last 150 pages, and the more interesting and clear-headed moments are in the first 500. The 400 middle pages are somewhat tiresome, when you realize that MORE subplots are being introduced, one of which -- the onset of the first world war -- is a non-stop machine-gun of politics, places, and personages. It's simply too much to handle after the mathematics, strikebreaking, and empire-busting that you've already been through. The characters start to seem like bits of leaves thrown into world events and just blowing around, to Venice and back, to Venice and back, to Venice and back again.

    All these criticisms could perhaps be applied to "Gravity's Rainbow," and I'm not sure if my less enthusiastic reception of "Against the Day" is due to the fact that Pynchon "already did it once before," or that "Against the Day" feels like a "Gravity's Rainbow" in which everything -- the paranoia, the dark-mystery-which-cannot-be-comprehended, the sexual escapades, the slapstick -- has been duplicated several times over to fill out an excessive page length, with all these things happening to multiple characters in sequence instead of just to Tyrone Slothrop.

    Basically, my impression is that "Against the Day" is five or six novels that Pynchon started writing years ago, all subsequently linked together by unions, WWI, the drift from Victorianism to modernism, explosions, light, and the Tunguska event.

    But that's not necessarily a bad thing. "Against the Day" is FULL of wonderful detail and characterization, and -- as I said earlier -- there's a growing gentleness to Pynchon's writing that is absolutely welcome. Whereas "Gravity's Rainbow" culminated in uncertainty and confusion, the characters in "Against the Day" seem to find comfort in companionship, children, and purpose, and the novel doesn't judge them; they did wild things and struggled for noble causes when they were young, and now they're settled down and are raising their children and getting a bit mellower. And that's pretty much The End.

    When I was wallowing through 400 Pages of People Just Running Around Europe, I felt like I was reading a really crappy book. Now that I've finished it, however, I look forward to reading it again someday, so I can get a feel for what REALLY matters in the novel: the little moments like Cyprian's trajectory from hedonist to (I won't spoil it for you), the complex interweaving of the Webb and Rideout families, and -- floating high above it all -- the aging airship children who are struggling to find meaning when the "Boys Adventure Story" days are gone.

    Sunday, March 20, 2011

    "Sruel Quay" Released!

    Many years in the making, "Sruel Quay" is finally here...a last scraping together of UPhold music that's been languishing during the last few years. You can get it as a free download from Bandcamp, including some beautiful cover and back artwork (photographs by Patrick, design by Dave McEwen), or you can just listen to the whole thing online if you're so inclined!

    So what's the story? When I first started to use Logic Express 6 in 2003, I went through the usual learning curve of trying out a whole bunch of grand concepts that I couldn't complete at the time. As my knowledge and skill increased I started newer projects, which eventually became the "Damage" and "Roade" albums. Meanwhile, those early songs languished, getting further and further down the date-sorted list of "Multitrack" projects on my hard drive.

    Then I bought a new, spiffy iMac, and while I saved money to eventually buy Logic Studio 8 for it, I decided to go back to the old eMac and finish off those songs before the hard drive disintegrated. I spent about a year dredging up 6-year-old songs and reworking them with the new experience and distance I'd acquired: "Bomb," "Devil Woman!", "Foozebox," "Humpback Forty-Four," and "The Swive (Part One)" were the results, and I planned to finish off a few more and release them as "False Memory Syndrome."

    The problem was, by the time I'd finished these songs I'd finally started work with Logic 8, and I was no longer satisfied with how those dinosaurs sounded. They all relied on plugins I could no longer acquire (Pluggo and Mode) so I couldn't continue working on them with the new computer...they were frozen in time and technology. To make them even marginally better I'd need to spend more effort on them than I felt they deserved.

    In the meantime I'd created some soundtracks to little video experiments ("Phonebox/Lunchbox," "Lightbox," "Boxcar," and "Caboodle"), and contributed to a compilation (a remix of "Icebox" on "Powdered Heaven Dressed in Plastic") and a split release with Infant Cycle ("Folded Memory Syndrome" and "Shut The Fuck Up Delia/Dmitri" on "Our Past Present").

    In addition, I'd created a remix ("Roadbird") from the "Roade" album, and a remix of THAT remix with Chad Faragher. I also had a new song ("The Voyage of HMCS Thumpy") that I was spending so much time working on a video for that I simply got sick of it.

    These were the bits and pieces I had lying around. What they all had in common was that they either couldn't be further improved due to technological limitations (both "Roadbird (Metal Mix)" and "Voyage of HMCS Thumpy" had ham-fisted mastering attempts so burned into their original tracks that they'd be very difficult to rescue) or had appeared on CDs from other venues (eg. "Shut the Fuck Up Delia/Dmitri," which I think is probably the best thing I've ever done...I wouldn't change a note).

    In short: they were good enough to release, but generally fell short of what I'd expect people to PAY for. Like I said, I COULD improve them if I spent a lot of time and effort, but the improvement would be so marginal that it wouldn't justify the work.

    With all that in mind, I hope you enjoy these oddities! They're a farewell to "UPhold" and the old ways of doing things. They sum up six years of my life: a time of personal exploration, sudden world experience, half-assed notoriety, and -- most obvious in many of the songs -- a degree of self-destructive too-much-fun behaviour that peaked and then subsided.

    I'm surprised at how well "Sruel Quay" holds together as an album, and I look forward to what the first "Lemurian Congress" release will sound like!

    Monday, March 07, 2011

    "Kaffe Katt" by Pico & Alvarado

    Several months ago, Kevin Cogliano -- the "Alvarado" in "Pico & Alvarado" -- sent me a demo titled something like "That's What I Call 80s!"

    And he was right. It was a perfect distillation of the fun pop songs we'd grown up with, all jangly and bouncy and downright carefree.

    My task -- as I saw it -- was to maintain that feeling while simultaneously beefing up the song and over complicating it, adding enough twists and turns to make even the most ADD listener happy. One reason I wanted to do this was because I felt that "Style Kitchen" had never gotten the loving care it had deserved (an opinion -- I realize now -- more to do with overexposure to the song than to any actual defects), but also because I know I shy from experimentation...I don't like throwing in big changes, moving things around a timeline, or trying anything new.

    So consider the final result -- "Kaffe Katt" -- as a journey outside my comfort zone. And while I'm still too close to it to give it an honest evaluation, I think it's pretty darn good.

    (Photograph "Awning" by Patrick!)

    Want to know more? Here's the finished timeline:

    You'll notice a LOT of guitar tracks this time. The first track is the ongoing "cha-cha-chung" with a nice flange, and many of the rest are Kevin's experiments with doubling. The final four guitar tracks are more recent versions that he sent along during the course of the project, but I loved the rougher ones in the original batch...the cleaner tracks (including a nice delayed guitar) provide a good gentle conclusion.

    My first real bombastic addition was the "G Blast" guitar, which coincides with a hyperactive series of crashes at the end of every verse. Kevin's guitar was already going manic during those segments but I really wanted to bash them "G Blast" gets the "Modern UK Stack" treatment with Guitar Amp Pro, and the "crashes" are just a re-routed track from EZDrummer boosted all the way to heaven.

    EZDrummer provides the main beat, while Ultrabeat provides a non-stop 4/4 kick and iDrum adds a snare and -- during the high point -- all those cheap drum effects. Lots and lots of drums in here, but I think it works.

    Kevin's original tracks had included a Hammond-ish organ and a synth bassline...I kept the organ (augmented with the EVB plugin) but used his MIDI files with the same Minimoog/Taurus IK Multimedia "SampleMoog" preset I'd created for an earlier song. Also from IK Multimedia is the choir in the third section and the recurring pizzicato violin that I hope is "interesting" instead of "annoying."

    This song's big additional experiment: Loomer's brilliant "String" instrument, which emulates 70s string machines WITHOUT eating all your CPU (and all your money). I'm totally in love with Loomer String and I highly recommend it.

    The really abrasive portamento synth is Tal-Elek7ro, based off the "LD Club Saw XS" preset. There's also some Ensoniq ESQ in there with the organ stabs and the bells, and some really inconsequential DOD pitch/echo modulation on the plucky violins.

    And there you have it!

    Tuesday, February 08, 2011

    Creepy Pedro Reviews "Generation X Video"

    I arrived early to Mistress Quickly's tavern and found Dr. Johnson, as anticipated, already arguing and drowning in his cups.

    "A theatrical performance can be appreciated only from the height of a man's two eyes!" he was shouting at Quickley's dog. "Your opinions lack stature, in every sense of the word! The day I take seriously the theatrical criticisms of a BEAGLE is the day I deign to piss in the cup of a Scotsman!"

    To this the dog expelled a fart so enormous it should have filled the very halls of Pandemonium (if not it had a natural inclination toward ascension), and so gusty that the lamps flared in a dangerous fashion, and so rank of gas that Madame Quickly must have feared for the health of her customers if she were not lost in merriment, cackling wildly, dugs a-heaving, one hand slapping the unfortunate Dr. Johnson's recently-singed peruke.

    "Oh dear Samuel!" she whooped. "Put that dog's arse-trumpet i' your dictionary, under the letter BRAPPP! It hath twice the politic of all the Beedle's bollocks you've wrote so far!"

    "'That fart was wise indeed," Dr. Johnson admitted. "Mingere cum bumbis, rec saluberrima est lumbis."

    "Where be our guest tonight?" I asked the silent tapper, and the he nodded to the tavern door. A man of great distinction stood on the threshold. "Two bags of oats for my mount, and don't forget the sauce!" he yelled to the Hostler. "My mare doth love the sauce!"

    "Dearest Pedro!" cried Dr. Johnson, raising his bulk and motioning to Mistress Quickley for another bottle of sack. "You've tarried so, we half expected to find ye lost or slain!"

    "Only one of those briefly, and I charge each of you to divine which," he said, and even the Tapper laughed at so clever a jest.

    "Lost, I gather! How now, Boswell, this shifty rogue in the sheepskin doublet is weaver Pedro, a man of wit, a master artisan, and the creepiest fellow I have ever had the fortune to meet."

    "I have heard of you, slimy toady," said Pedro pleasantly as we shook our hands.

    "A weaver you say?"

    "Aye, the halls from St. Peter's to far off Araby are graced with my warp and woof."

    Mistress Quickly, having arrived with the sack and seeing entry for another fulsome jest, shouted, "A better treat then we experienced not 'alf an hour hence, which were this doggie's FART and woof!" All fell about in that curious British way so often acted in Shakespeare's bawdy "Carry On, Dead King," of holding wide the mouth and turning head from viz to viz, accompanied by a scattershot laughing as loud and regular as Antwerp's artillery fire.

    "Mistress!" Dr. Johnson wiped a tear from his eye. "I grant you, though art quick!"

    "How could one doubt it...'tis my proper name!" And once again we cackled, as was our comick nature. But throughout the merriment our weaver, Pedro, had been wiping something from his eye, and afore long Dr. Johnson made note of his sad countenance.

    "Enough of these quibbles. Pedro, what troubles you? Why the creepy frowning viz?"

    Pedro shook off Dr. Johnson's embrace and rose from the table, commanding the attention of all in the tavern. "I mourn the death of an idea, a dream, the final passing of culture, the end of the most companiable banter on our old and noble isle...the closing of our beloved entertainment vendor, Generation X!" Pedro collapsed to the table and sobbed, schoolgirl-like, into his sack.

    "Have you not grown reconciled, dear Pedro?" asked Dr. Johnson. "It has been sad for us, true, but 'tis no reason to cry in your drink. For everything there is a season and an allotted time. Even the jolliest of men shall die before he wish. May we all go in the manner of Generation X -- in our hearty primes -- before we descend into ignominity and penury, our metaphorical halls and stages used only for wenching and bear-baiting and games of 'Throw The Apple at The Captured Esquimaux.'"

    "Oh, the porn, which I so craved..."

    "Man can live without porn, and without arty foreign films too. I have explained all this to Boswell."

    "Mr. Johnson is right," I said. "There is peer-to-peer file sharing."

    "Pah!" said Pedro. "Barely 300 baud in my wattle-and-daub hut so far from the city. It's trouble enough for a man to play a full game of Hunt The Wumpus or Schmoo, let alone to download the entirety of 'Michael Palin's Dugs-a-Plenty' in high definition."

    "Patience, Pedro...drink of my sack."

    "And where will I see YOUR films?" cried Pedro. "This latest--"

    Dr. Johnson slapped his brainpan, sending his peruke into the fire. "Blast it man, I told you, I am not that blackamoor actor you prate upon!"

    "Snakes On An Omnibus, Dr. Johnson! 'Twas your finest role! Ever since I first set my viz 'pon the premiere performance of Pulp Fiction at the Globe--"

    "I have said time and time again--"

    "Three encores! And John Travolta dancing!"

    "Enough!" Dr. Johnson bellowed, and the babble of anachronistic cross-generational dialect ceased. "My peruke is in flames once again, Pedro, as is so often the way when we meet. I will trade all the porn in the world if you will stop this tiresome contrivance of mistaken identity."

    "I shall consent, Dr. Johnson, if only you would enact a bitter moment from 'Do the Right Thing.'"

    At this the enraged Doctor lurched into the thousand ticks and vapours to which he was subject in times of distress. "A turd i' your teeth!" he shouted. "Johnny Bums in Scratchland!"

    Pedro rose from his seat. "Gentlemen, it has been a pleasure, but I must be off...Generation X is disclosing its wares and I must secure 'Michael Palin's Arsey-Turvy' before it is gone. You will excuse me." I tilted my hat, and Dr. Johnson, unable to cease his strange hopping perambulations, merely scowled from beneath his armpits.

    "Let's rob a carriage and dominate a play!" shouted the fat knight in the corner, but for once nobody was listening to him.