Friday, September 28, 2012

Yak Yak Yak

Last night, Palio Communications in Saratoga Springs hosted the Toastmasters Area 71 Humorous Speech Contest, drawing about 30 Toastmasters from the four clubs in Saratoga, Washington County, and Glens Falls. Although, with my speech “Driven to Distraction” (about the horrors of talking and texting while driving), I came in second place (which exactly what I wanted to do; it’s like winning, but without having to do anything further), the actual winner—Jeff Bishop—is unable to make the next contest in the chain. So, it turns out, I will be representing Thorobred Toastmasters and Area 71 at the Division G contest on October 15.

And, man, cameraphones take awful pictures:

Whatever happened to real cameras? Every picture I have ever seen taken with a cameraphone looks like someone’s last known photo.

Certain Songs Part VII: Most Anything That You Want

The story so far:

Part I (150–152) here.
Part II (147–149) here.
Part III (144–146) here.
Part IV (141–143) here.
Part V (138–140) here.
Part VI (135–137) here.

Bob Mould

I wasn’t very familiar with Hüsker Dü when singer/guitarist Bob Mould’s debut solo album came out in 1989. Driven by two alternative radio favorites, “See a Little Light” and “Wishing Well,” I was motivated to pick up Workbook after having taped it (yes, taped it...this was a long time ago) from Steven H. Stylistically, it’s all over the map, and while usually that’s a bad thing, it kind of works in this context.

“Sunspots” is a mellow instrumental, opening, kicking into the vaguely Hüsker-ish “Wishing Well,” although the acoustic rhythm guitar is decidedly un-Hüskery. “Poison Years” is a not-too-fond recollection of those old times, but is general enough that it can easily be associated with the listener’s own “poison years.” “Heartbreak a Stranger” is just beautiful, “See a Little Light” survives its use in advertisements (“As the years go by they take their toll on you”), while “Sinners and Their Repentances” brings in strings—heresy for Hüsker Dü, but it works beautifully here. The sprawling—and a bit abstruse—“Brasilia Crossed with Trenton” may be the centerpiece, being the most unadorned song here. The closer, “Whichever Way the Wind Blows,” which is almost bluesy, and points to Mould’s future direction—he was rarely as mellow and acoustic as he was on this album. I have to confess, Mould never topped this record, at least under his own name (look for a Sugar record later in this list). Last Dog and Pony Show (1998) comes close...but then he got into techno and bought a Vocoder.

Viva Hate

I came to The Smiths in 1987 just as they had broken up (Steven H. taped Meat Is Murder for me—see much later in this list), and I was obliged to pick up Morrissey’s debut solo album upon its release. Arguably, he’s done better albums (Your Arsenal, Vauxhall and I, even his three “comeback” albums in the 2000s) but—as I have said earlier—context matters, and Viva Hate made a strong impression on me way back when, and is still the Morrissey record I put on when in such a mood (which I admit is not especially often). (Okay, I do often skip through “Late Night, Maudlin Street.”) “Alsatian Cousin” is a powerful opener, while “Little Man, What Now?” suffers from an annoying drum track. Still, the album has classics like “Suedehead,” “Everyday is Like Sunday,” and “I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me.” I still recall the video for “Suedehead” (which was James Dean-oriented) in heavy rotation on MTV’s 120 Minutes (a Sunday night alternative video show which I watched often up until 1992 or so; Steven H. used to tape them which let me get caught up; we didn’t have cable in college). “Bengali in Platforms” was accused of racism, but “Life is hard enough when you belong here” seems like sage advice. But, yeah, “Late Night, Maudlin Street” drags things to a screeching halt. Again, Morrissey did better records, but Viva Hate occupies an important place in his discography.

Iron Butterfly

And now for something completely different. Okay, tripping back 20 years, this is a hippie classic, as well as a progressive and heavy metal watershed album. The 17+-minute title track gets all the attention, but side one is in many ways better. It owes no small debt to The Doors (or maybe The Doors owe no small debt to them...whatever), with the organ/guitar interplay. In fact, you’d be forgiven thinking, upon hearing the opening track “Most Anything That You Want,” that it was in fact The Doors, albeit without the overwrought lyrics, Jim Morrison’s “it’s-your-dad-singing-in-the-shower” vocals, and a bit heavier. (Oh, but I kid The Doors. See later in this list.) “Flowers and Beads” sums up the fashion aesthetic “Flowers and beads are one thing/But having you, girl, that’s something.” Actually, flowers and beads would be at least two things, but I get the point. Three guesses what “My Mirage” is about: “In my mind I see a mirage on the wall/But unfortunately it’s not there at all/So I guess I’ll draw my mirage on the wall/Then it can be here to see and enjoyed by all.”

Side one is some pretty decent heavy psychedelia that holds up as well as just about anything else from that era does. I gave this one an awful lot of play circa 1981; it was on the same tape as The Kinks’ Give the People What They Want, for reasons passing understanding. Whatever, it made an early impression on me—even if the title track goes on way too long. The story goes that the title is the result of a very drunk or stoned (take your pick) singer Doug Ingle attempting to say “In the garden of Eden.” The track marks the first recorded drum solo. So blame them.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Certain Songs Part VI: Know Your Onion

And the beat goes on

The Shins
Oh, Inverted World

One of a few albums on this list from the 2000s. I came to Oh, Inverted Worlda couple years after it had come out, after having heard “Know Your Onion!” and “Caring is Creepy” on Radio Paradise in 2003. I liked both those songs almost immediately, but it was only a year later, when Zach Braff used a couple Shins songs in what is probably my favorite movie of the 2000s—Garden State—that I had to pick up the album. And it stayed on the iPod for a while. In fact, there is a scene in the movie, when Braff’s character Andrew meets Natalie Portman’s character Queen Amidala—I mean Sam—and she is wearing headphones. She tells him to listen to a song, saying, “It will change your life.” That song is The Shins’ “New Slang (When You Notice the Stripes),” which is perhaps a bit overstated, but I do like the song a lot.

The album is rather hard to describe, as it is a strange amalgam of all sorts of parts and pieces cobbled together from all over the history of rock and pop, which is probably why I like it. It’s somewhat reminiscent of 60s pop via Syd Barrett, but with a more modern indie vibe to it. The lyrics alternate between sweet and charming and strange and surreal, sometimes within the same song (as in the aforesaid “New Slang”—“And if you’d ’a took to me like/A gull takes to the wind/Well, I’d ’a jumped from my tree/And I’d ’a danced like the king of the eyesores/And the rest of our lives would ’a fared well”... and later, “God speed all the bakers at dawn may they all cut their thumbs/And bleed into their buns till they melt away.”) It’s one of those albums where you find yourself singing along to the strangest things.

The Shins’ follow-up, 2003’s Chutes Too Narrow, was in some ways better, but as I have said before, context is often what matters. As they have added layers of complexity to their music (and I still can’t make it through their third album, Wincing the Night Away, which kind of lives up to its name) one doesn’t want to disparage their continued development, but one misses the simplicity of Oh, Inverted World. 2012’s Port of Morrow sees The Shins as less of a band and more of a James Mercer solo project. It’s a bit of a return to the earlier sound, but just doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi.

The New Pornographers
Twin Cinema


The New Pornographers are a Vancouver-based collective (or “supergroup,” if you prefer) spearheaded by AC Newman and comprising alt-country diva Neko Case, John Collins (The Evaporators), Dan Bejar (Destroyer), and Kurt Dahle, among others. (I know, household names, all.) It should be born in mind that the band name is just a name and is in no way descriptive of its content, as all their songs are pretty Safe For Work.

Every two years or so, they come together, record an immaculate collection of pop-rock gems, and then return to their proper projects. 2003’s Electric Versionwas great, but 2005’s Twin Cinema was even better, with just about every track a gem (yes, on the iPod I do turn “Sing Me Spanish Techno” up to 11). This one stayed in the iPod throughout most of the latter half of 2005 and still gets a fair amount of play. (Actually, this, Electric Version, and 2000 debut Mass Romantic are great albums to work out to.)

AC Newman writes most of the stuff (“Two sips from the cup of human kindness and I’m shitfaced” is a good line from “Use It.”), while Dan Bejar usually gets a surreal song or two per album, in this case “Jackie, Dressed in Cobras,” whose title and refrain “On a train devouring the land/A girl’s going insane over her man” wouldn’t make this out of place on a Robyn Hitchcock record. Neko Case’s solo showcases, “The Bones of an Idol” and “These Are the Fables” have made me want to explore her solo records (good, but a bit too alt-country for my taste).

Twin Cinema has more hooks than a coatrack factory, smart writing, great harmonies, and loose yet flawless performances. I confess, the much mellower follow-up, 2007’s Challengers, was more than a bit of a disappointment, but 2010’s Together rekindled some of the old excitement.

Kitchens of Distinction
The Death of Cool

I first heard KoD on Long Island’s WDRE (previously, and later, WLIR) in 1990 when the fantastic “Quick as Rainbows” from their second album came out, so I had immediately picked up it and their first album, Love Is Hell. A kind of alternative power trio, they were poppy, rocky, and at times experimental, but were alas out of step with grunge and hip-hop that both emerged just as they were recording their best stuff. So they got completely overlooked, except by people like me who never really liked grunge or hip-hop.

One of their albums (they recorded four in the short time they were together) had to go on this list and Love Is Hell had been here for a while, but had to relent in favor of their third album, The Death of Cool, their best album, and one which stayed on my CD player and Walkman throughout much of 1992. Julian Swales’ guitar soundscapes perfectly complemented Patrick Fitzgerald’s romantic lyrics. The first portion of the album comprises concise songs—all of them strong, with “4 Men” and album opener “What Happens Now” two standouts. In “On Tooting Broadway Station” (which caused another flash of recognition many years later in the London Underground) Fitzgerald laments his “John of Arc” (yeah, that’s a bit of a reach). The real standout, though, is the protest against violent homophobia “Breathing Fear.”

The latter part of the album stretches into extended pieces that start slow and build in intensity, interrupted only by the should-have-been-a-hit “Smiling.” They did one more album in 1994 before calling it quits.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Certain Songs Part V: Never Loved Elvis

It is now conspicuous to me that nowhere on this list is anything by Elvis Presley (Costello, well, that’s another matter). It is true, I have never been much of an Elvis fan. Although I liked his music, I was never really a fan, if you know what I mean, and don’t actually have any Elvis in my collection, vinyl, CD, or otherwise.

That may change. Last week, a business trip to Memphis gave me the opportunity to visit Graceland, monument to American kitsch. People had warned me about how atrociously gawdy and tacky the place would be, but it turned out that it was not that bad. (And I’m one to talk about taste and décor?) It really just struck me as very 1970s—only taken to the nth degree. Folks had specifically mentioned the carpeting on the ceiling in one particualr room—but as the audio tour pointed out, that was for acoustic purposes, as Elvis and other musicians used to jam and record in that room.

Anyway, the audio tour and every other location was replete with Elvis music in the background (or foreground), and I started to get into it. I think I shall hunt down a good compilation.

Anyway, here is your blogger in front of the main entrance to Graceland.

Anyway, while I investigate Elvis recordings for a future update to this list, perhaps, we forge ahead with a brief start in the last decade before time-tripping back to—appropriately—that shameful decade known as the 1970s.

Andrew Bird
Armchair Apocrypha

I could be wrong, but this may be the most recent album on this list. Though it’s not my favorite Bird record (see later in this list), I finally decided it had to be on here.

Andrew Bird is a multi-instrumentalist (primarily violin, but also guitar and whistling) who began in the 1990s with The Squirrel Nut Zippers (who had a hit with “Hell” in 1998 during that brief big band revival period), and later founded his own band called Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, which specialized in exploring American roots music (hmm...and I never loved Elvis?), set to Bird’s pensive, often surreal lyrics. (Rereading the books of Don DeLillo, it strikes me that Bird’s lyrics are almost DeLillo-esque in that they are less about telling a particular narative and mroe about the language itself, the sounds of words and the juxtaposition of words. And Bird is often just plain funny.)

After three Bowl of Fire albums, he went in an entirely different direction in 2003 with Weather Systems, an album that began his string of utterly unclassifiable records. (The 2005 follow up The Mysterious Production of Eggs is the one that comes later in this list.) 2007's Armchair Apocrypha falls slightly short of the previous masterpiece, but still frequently gets CD and iPod play. Of course, it opens with the track I always play before taking a flight: “Fiery Crash.” “To save our lives you got to envision the fiery crash/It’s just a formality/Must I explain?/Just a nod to mortality/Before you get on a plane.”

One of my favorite Bird tracks is “Imitosis,” which repurposes bits of “Eugene” from the first Bowl of Fire album.
Turning to a playground in a Petri dish
Where single cells would swing their fists
At anything at looks like easy prey
Why do some show no mercy while others are painfully shy?
“Plasticities” points how “they’ll fight for your neural walls and plasticities” while “we’ll fight for your music halls and dying cities.” Also, “You’re gonna grow old/You’re gonna grow cold/Bearing signs on the avenue/For your own personal Waterloo.” I love that phrase, “your own personal Waterloo,” a symbol of defeat, which I use to describe a CrossFit workout that does me in. In “Dark Matter,” Bird points out that, when he was a boy, “I threw away all of my action toys/While I became obsessed with Operation.” You know, the goofy game for dopey doctors. “Scythian Empires” is a true classic, and the penultimate “Spare-Ohs” brings things to a climax—“When you tell me that I’m too obstruce [sic]/I just thought it was a kind of bird.”

Musically, Armchair Apocrypha has a bit of a harder edge and drum sound than his previous records, and it introduces the looping technique (he, and/or his drummer Martin Dosh, plays a few bars on one instrument, it gets sampled, then repeats, while they then play over it on other instruments) he has been using on record and especially live ever since.

Peter Gabriel
Peter Gabriel (Car)

As you will see much further down this list, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis produced some of my favorite albums. 1977’s Peter Gabriel (aka “Car,” from the cover photograph, to distinguish it from the other three albums also called Peter Gabriel—he apparently had the idea that each album would be like different issues of the same magazine, until Geffen Records put the kibosh on that in 1982) was his first album after leaving Genesis in 1975, and anyone expecting it to sound like Foxtrot or even The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was in for a big surprise. (It will also come as a surprise to many to learn that Gabriel was not Genesis’ primary lyricist, save for some conspicuous classics like “Supper’s Ready” and just about all of The Lamb.) Perhaps the best way to describe Peter Gabriel—musically and lyrically—is “eclectic.”

It opens with the gothic and just downright strange “Moribund the Burgermeister,” a very odd choice to open his first solo record. Elsewhere, “Excuse Me” begins in the style of a barbershop quartet, before the tuba accompaniment comes in. “Down the Dolce Vita” comes perilously close to disco, “Waiting for the Big One” to cocktail jazz. “Modern Love” is a fairly straightforward hard rocker. Lyrically, Gabriel veers off into new territories, but a few clunky lines crop up (“Bundershaft, are you going daft?” “Hey, Valentina, you want me to beg/You got me cookin’ I’m a hard-boiled egg,” and, of course, “I trusted my Venus was untouched in her shell/But the pearls in her oyster were tacky as hell”— has he been to Graceland?). The real standout track, however, is “Solsbury Hill,” his Genesis resignation letter.

He is joined by a number of progressive rock luminaries, such as Robert Fripp (King Crimson), a pre-Stick Tony Levin, and producer Bob Ezrin (having recovered from Lou Reed’s Berlin and later to co-produce Pink Floyd’s The Wall).

It’s an album that careens from place to place, from idea to idea, without any real cohesion, something he’d improve upon on later albums. Side 2 (aka the latter half of the album) is less compelling than the first, but album closer “Here Comes the Flood” was a live staple for years. Annoyingly, when I saw Gabriel live in 1986, he did not play “Solsbury Hill.” However, when I saw him in 2011, he did, and it was the showstopper.

Led Zeppelin
Houses of the Holy

I was never much of a Led Zeppelin fan (although, to my embarrassment, liked them more than Elvis, apparently). I had a couple of their records on vinyl back in the day (II, Untitled [aka IV], and In Through the Out Door, the latter largely because I was curious as to what was beneath the plain brown wrapper—nothing thrilling or salacious, it turned out, they just didn't want to put any text on the cover, to which the record company objected), but never gave them much of a listen until the late 90s and began to appreciate them a bit more. I thought at least one Zeppelin record should be on here, and my favorite of theirs is Houses of the Holy. It’s an evolution from the bluesy rock of their first two albums, not as overtly folky as III, and doesn’t have “Stairway to Heaven” on it like the fourth one. Physical Graffiti is too sprawling with much filler, Presence ironically has no presence, and In Through the Out Door is good, but more for what it hints at than what it actually is (what Zeppelin would have evolved into had they continued). Ergo, Houses of the Holy.

They toy with reggae in “D’yer Mak’r” (inevitably mispronounced “Dyer Maker”—as The Hold Steady pointed out, the title is a reference to a joke about Jamaica. “Two guys are in a pub. One guy says, ‘My wife went away on holiday.’ ‘Oh, Jamaica?’ ‘No, she went of her own accord.’” (The “joke” is the pun Jamaica/d’yer mak’r, as in “did you make her?” You know what happens when you have to explain a joke...) Anyway, it was one of the few instances where Zeppelin displayed a sense of humor, which appealed to me. “Over the Hills and Far Away” is favorite, even if I can’t help but envision Jerry Lewis singing “Hey, Laaaaaady, you got the love I need.” And where’s that confounded bridge?

Run Run Run

(I post this here more for my own future reference than anything!)

Today, I ran the Saratoga Palio 5K (3.1-mile) run and hit a new personal record of 25:28. 

Again, for my own reference, past runs were:

09/01/2012—5K: 27:08
07/21/2012—5K: 26.18
07/04/2012—4 mi: 36:10
06/09/2012—5K: 26:15
05/20/2012—5K: 28:55
07/04/2011—4 mi: 43:33

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ten Years After: Touring the Southwest

Ten years ago, in September 2002, I took a three-week road trip around California and the American Southwest. The reason for it was simple: I had some time to kill. I needed to be in San Francisco on September 10 to give a presentation at Seybold SF (remember the biannual Seybold shows?), and then I had to be at an event in Las Vegas three weeks later. At that time, I did not fly (what I refer to as “the good old days”) thanks to a series of horrible flights in early 2000 that involved bad turbulence and even worse airlines. So it made no sense to take the train out to SF, come back to Saratoga, then go all the way back Las Vegas. So I made it a lengthy “working vacation.”

Prologue—A Horace of a Different Color
On September 6, I took the train from Albany (two weeks before they opened the new Albany-Rensselaer station—gosh, I remember what a pit the old one had been!) to Los Angeles, via Chicago, rented a car at Union Station in LA, and, upon hitting the 110 Freeway, immediately remembered why I hated Southern California for the three-and-a-half years I lived there—the traffic. I will never complain about I-87 (Saratoga to Albany) again (oh, yes I will). I made it up to San Francisco and, after spiraling around for 45 minutes, I finally hit upon the one combination of streets that would lead to the hotel I was staying at (the one-way streets of San Francisco are very difficult to navigate). Driving in San Francisco is like a bad video game—kind of a combination of a maze and that old arcade game Paperboy, where random objects—like bicycles, vans, trucks, pedestrians—shoot out at you at random.
I did my shtik in San Francisco, then drove down the coast, basing my itinerary on an idea I got from a coworker of mine: visit the California missions between S.F. and L.A., for a little bit of a California history lesson, with stops at Hearst Castle and Solvang. In L.A., I stayed with David G. in Torrance, took a day trip to Catalina, and then set off to explore Arizona (Lowell Observatory, Monument Valley, etc.). There was even an ostrich farm.
This was a working trip and not an actual vacation; TrendWatch—and there were two versions—was very much active at this time and I had a lot of assorted projects to work on. I had, at the time, a tangerine Apple iBook (ugh, the thought...) with a built-in screaming superfast 56K modem. This was before WiFi (and even before any kind of high-speed Internet access was readily available, although I had Roadrunner at home), and I had to get e-mail and file stories and reports using dial-up in hotel rooms—I remember how slow that used to be, and if anyone ever sent me a picture, it could take hours to download. How far we’ve come in 10 years!
What also struck me during this trip was how superfluous all the possessions in my life really were; basically, everything I needed to do my job and live my life fit in one large-ish suitcase, a garment bag, and a laptop case. I really didn’t miss all the other crap that cluttered up my apartment (aside from a few CDs, although I had a first-generation iPod with me at the time, but it didn’t hold much).
While I was on this trip, I wrote a frequent (if not daily, then every-few-days-ly) travelogue, which I would e-mail to selected friends and family (I did not start this blog until a year later), along with custom postcards.
I came across this stuff while organizing some backup CDs and hard drives and thought it would be interesting to post these after all these years. So over the next week or so, as my schedule permits, I will post these travelogues. Here is the first installment of what I called “Missions Impossible,” starting just south of San Francisco, chosen because it was the site where Alfred Hitchcock filmed portions of Vertigo.
Phase 1: Missions Impossible
Mission San Juan Bautista (named after John the Baptist) is the 15th in a chain of 21 Spanish missions constructed up and down the California coast during the 18th and 19th centuries. Stretching from San Diego to Sonoma (north of San Francisco) along El Camino Real (“The Royal Road,” which comprises much of U.S. 101 today), the missions were a rather unique attempt by Spain to colonize the New World, specifically California, which they rather optimistically called New Spain. To that end, the Spanish monarchy ordered the Franciscan order of the Catholic Church to get on with it. Their primary goal, naturally, was to convert the indigenous peoples (the Native Americans) to Christianity.
The missions were set up to function as religious, cultural, and agricultural centers and smallish towns rose up around them. The Native Americans were nonplused at first, but eventually warmed to the idea (as if they had a choice), and they were trained in masonry, candlemaking, farming, ranching and, of course, winemaking (from Day One winemaking was big juju in California—after all, wine is a crucial element in the Catholic faith). For protection against other European powers, presidios (or “forts”) were located nearby. The first mission was actually built on the grounds of a presidio, but everyone quickly learned that the soldiers were, shall we say, far less charitable toward the Native American population than the padres (enforced conversion is bad enough, but raping and slaughtering is something else entirely) so the decision was quickly made to put some distance between the two structures in the future.
Priesthood has its privileges.
The first mission was constructed in what is now San Diego (whence the San Diego Padres), and the Franciscans gradually migrated north. When the 21 missions were completed, they were spaced exactly one day’s journey apart. In fact, most of today’s California coast cities and towns started as missions—San Diego, San Fernando, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo (named after Saint Louis, the bishop—“obispo”—of Toulouse), Santa Cruz, San Jose, Santa Clara, Carmel, and others.
San Francisco, it should be noted, began life as Mission San Francisco de Asis (after Francis of Assisi), although it became popularly known as Mission Dolores, after the Arroyo de los Dolores where the mission was built. The town that grew up nearby was originally called Yerba Buena, which means “good herb.” Yes, it’s San Francisco but that doesn’t mean what you think—it was a reference to a species of mint that grew abundantly in the area. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.
The mission period did not last long. Europeans brought disease to the Native American population, and a series of devastating earthquakes in the 19th century damaged or leveled many of the early missions. In 1834, California was taken over by Mexico, which enforced “secularization,” forcing the Church to give up the missions, and the missions fell into abandonment and ruin. In the 20th century, private organizations have helped restore many of the missions, and most are still active churches. Which is fortunate; whatever one’s gripes with the theology, the fact is that these structures are quite magnificent.
Anyway, back to San Juan Bautista. Mission San Juan Bautista was constructed in 1797 and almost immediately the padres knew it was a bad idea. They didn’t know it at the time, but the mission was built right on top of the San Andreas Fault. Doh! It was reported that for a time in 1798 the priests had to sleep outside as the ground shook nearly constantly. Talk about your holy rollers… Anyway, all this whole lotta shaking going on did not do good things to the structure, and today only about half the original mission remains.
Filmgoers may remember Mission San Juan Bautista as a location in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and much of the location is recognizable. The livery stable in which Jimmy Stewart has his famous kiss with Kim Novak remains intact (complete with plastic horse), and the bottom of the belltower stairs which Stewart couldn’t climb are still there. As for the belltower from which Kim Novak falls to her doom, that had never been there to begin with. The original belltower had been destroyed in the 1906 earthquake; Hitchcock used special effects to optically insert a belltower where the original had been. 
In the 1970s, a campanile (“bell wall”) was added. Although it is in the style of similar structures that were in vogue during the mission period, San Juan Bautista never had one before.
From seeing Vertigo, one gets the sense that the place is out in the middle of nowhere, but it is actually right in the middle of downtown San Juan Bautista. Not that San Juan Bautista is a bustling metropolis, but two blocks from the mission is a downtown “strip” that includes a few pubs, restaurants, and antique stores.
Although I had not (apparently) included separate write-ups of the other missions—the next travelogue is from Hearst Castle—they included:

  • San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo in Carmel, founded 1770—still well-preserved, but amazingly ornate and, well, gaudy.
  • Nuestra Senora de la Soledad in the remote town of Soledad, 45 miles south of Monterrey, founded 1791—had fallen into disrepair (it is quite far from any kind of civilization) but was (at the time) in the process of a modest restoration.
  • San Antonio de Padua, north of Paso Robles, founded 1771—I must have skipped this one in favor of visiting Hearst Castle which was nearby.
  • San Miguel Arcangel, north of San Luis Obispo, founded 1797—in pretty good shape, although I recall little about it.
  • San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, founded 1772—located right in downtown San Luis Obispo, was still a working church, as I discovered when I blundered inside right in the middle of mass. Fortunately, the San Luis Obispo Brewing Company was right down the street.
  • La Purisima Conception, founded 1787—one of two missions located near Solvang (which gets a whole travelogue unto itself). This was to the west and was in some degree of disrepair, and at one point I nearly blundered into a wasp’s nest.
  • Santa Ines, founded 1804, located just on the outskirts east of Solvang—I have no pictures but I visited it, though did not linger. I think it also doubled as the tourist bureau for the area.
  • Santa Barbara, founded 1786—I did spend an afternoon in Santa Barbara visiting the mission, as well as the Natural History Museum, which had a giant squid on the ceiling (the museum, not the mission).
That was the last of the missions I visited, deciding to skip the ones in L.A.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Certain Songs Part IV: Scratched Into Our Soul

I guess you're old enough to know
Kids out on the east coast
Roughly twenty years old
They got coaxed out by a certain perfect ratio
Of warm beer to the summer smoke
And the Meat Loaf to the Billy Joel
Certain songs they get so scratched into our souls  
 —The Hold Steady
I said in my initial post in this series way back when that I’ve probably already heard all my favorite albums, but one entry in today’s trilogy proves that perhaps I’m wrong.

Billy Joel
Glass Houses

Yeah, okay, Billy Joel. The Stranger is probably the emblematic Billy Joel record, but Glass Houses always struck more of a chord with me. From the opening track, “You May Be Right,” I was hooked. “You may be right/I may be crazy/But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.” Side one (in the days of vinyl) is one of those “every song’s a gem” sides, with side two being very a much a “B side.”

This is Joel’s hard rock album, even if it does mellow out here and there, and was a response to punk and new wave that were in full swing by 1980. “It’s Still Rock’n’Roll to Me” sums up the popular trends at the time, and was a number one single, too, and resonates all these years later when I think of how much I like songs from all sorts of eras—the 60s, classic hard rock, punk, so-called new wave, alternative 80s, a few 90s grunge songs here and there, and whatever the 2000s are considered, if anything. It’s all still variations on a theme.

Side two may have been devoid of hits, but “Close to the Borderline” and “I Don’t Want to Be Alone” are highlights.

Around this time (1980), we went on a family vacation to Québec, and I became obsessed with learning French, so “C’Etait Toi” occupied me for rather a long period of time.

The Hold Steady
Almost Killed Me

And now for something completely different.

I got into The Hold Steady in 2006 when their third album came out (see later in this list) and since then they have become one of my favorite contemporary bands. Almost Killed Me was the band’s debut and what a debut it is. Lyricist Craig Finn is a great storyteller, and here he leads us through the seamy underworld of Minneapolis and the shady characters who dwell there. Many of these characters recur on later albums, and there are many callbacks and callforwards. This album would be higher on this list...but its relative newness (in my consciousness) keeps it down here. For now.

“Positive Jam” is the best album opener I’ve heard in a while, briefly sketching American history starting in the 1920s. Over a slowly strummed electric guitar, Finn leads us through the 20th century ending in the 90s, where “We were wired and well-connected/Went down on technology and lost everything we invested.” And then the band kicks in for the titular positive jam, and it’s a transcendent moment (in 2012, I saw them live and they opened with this song and this moment was even more transcendent). “The Swish” introduces a wide array of characters that are habitués of where the band played. “I did a couple of jobs for these guys who looked like Tuscan raiders.” At first I thought this was a Star Wars reference—which it kind of is—but (geek time) check the spelling of “Tuscan” in the lyric sheet. The Star Wars creatures are spelled “Tusken.” Here, the spelling indicates some kind of mob activity. Utterly brilliant. “Barfruit Blues” continues and “Holly” (née Hallelujah, the central character in the band’s second album, Separation Sunday) makes her debut: “Mary’s got a bloody nose from sniffing margarita mix/She licked her lower lip and then she kissed that Hallelujah chick.” But then: “She came off kind of spicy but she tasted like those pickle chips.” And then there are “certain songs that get scratched into our souls.”

The album—like most Hold Steady albums—is a collection of old pop culture references (Craig Finn is only four years younger than me). This one namechecks (and I had to Google one or two of these) Beverly Sills, Steve Perry, Rocco Sefredi, Phil Lynott, Ellen Foley, Robbie Robertson, and many others. “She went out deep for guys who looked like Johnny Fever.” Ah, WKRP....

Musically, this and other Hold Steady albums sound as if punk never happened—big guitars, big drums, and a classic rock sound which is incredibly refreshing. Man, I love this album, and this band, suggesting to me that my favorites are not already written.... It needs to move further up this list.

Roger Waters
The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking

A challenging album, to be sure, but one of my favorites at the time, even if I don’t still give it a regular spin. Even so, it makes more sense as I get older.

Roger Waters’ first proper solo album (if you don’t count the Music from the Body soundtrack he did with Ron Geesin in 1970—and I don’t) was released a year after what was thought to be the very last Pink Floyd album, The Final Cut, which itself is not a million miles removed from being a Waters solo album.

Pros and Cons features some of the same session musicians and the same gimmicky “Holophonic” sound that, when listened through headphones, made the stereo image seem like surround sound. Um, not so much. The album is basically a series of dreams, which, like dreams, reflect and refract reality. (Each song title indicates at what time of the night the dream takes place—the album starts at 4:30 a.m. and ends at it’s about the length of the album.) The dreams start off as middle age neuroses and fantasies (funny how this wasn’t a more popular rock album among kids—well, except me, which could explain so much...)—the main character (called “Reg” when the record was performed in concert) picks up a sexy blonde hitchhiker (see cover illustration) and proceeds to try to seduce her, which—it being his dream—he succeeds. However, guilt (he is married) overcomes him and he;’s attacked in his bedroom by “Arabs with knives at the foot of his bed.” (“Careful with that axe, Adbul!”) At the start of side two, he dreams that he, his wife, and kids move to Wyoming and live like hippies—until it’s his wife’s turn to cheat. “Reg” himself hitchhikes and finally has a moment of clarity, waking and realizing that his life is actually pretty good.

Ultimately, the album is really a love letter to Waters’ wife, for Waters, is quite the achievement. (But then the two acoustic “Pigs on the Wing” songs thast bookend Pink Floyd’s Animals were as well.) Admittedly, “songs” per se are in short supply, but that hardly seems to matter. Curiously, the single version of the album’s title track had a better, more Claptonesque guitar solo than appears on the album—weird, since Eric Clapton actually does play on the album, a good ploy to try to make you forget David what’s-his-name.

One has to love lyrics like “Fixed on the front of her Fassbinder face/Was the kind of a smile/That only a rather dull child could have drawn/While attempting a graveyard in the moonlight.” Man, he went a long way for that metaphor, but I like it! I saw Roger Waters on this tour and he was awesome.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Certain Songs Part III: Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?

Legends...what can you say about ’em? I have no idea; this has been a crazy week and I’m lucky I have any energy left to copy and paste this from Word into Blogger—and fix all the Bloggerific formatting errors. Sigh.

Anyway, today’s trilogy features three, I guess, legends: one who is one of my favorite guitar players ever from one of my favorite bands ever, another is a former pilot of both an Airplane and a Starship, both which eventually crashed, and a third who influenced damn nearly everyone else on this list.

By the way, for the record (as it were): the external hard drive containing all my MP3s is on the verge of dying and taking my entire iTunes library with it, and I am hoping I can effect a rescue of everything this weekend. All my CDs and vinyl LPs, though: still happily sitting on the shelves, ready to be played. Ah, progress.

David Gilmour
About Face

As befitted any crazy nuts Pink Floyd fan, I had all the solo records (even the really bizarre Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports. Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s first self-titled solo album (1978) was a bit forgettable, obviously the efforts of someone waiting for Roger Waters to finish the demos for The Wall than any great statement of artistic purpose. But his second record, About Face, recorded after it seemed Floyd was done, was a really good record. I had this on vinyl the day it was released, and played it endlessly. I could live without “Blue Light” (the presence of Steve Winwood notwithstanding) and “Love on the Air” (the latter one of two songs with lyrics by Pete Townshend), but the other Townshend track, “All Lovers are Deranged” was the standout (“You know that you don’t really fall in love unless you’re 17”).

“Murder” was also an outstanding track, while “You Know I’m Right” seems to be about Waters, à la some of the tracks on the last Pink Floyd album The Division Bell. This was the Reagan era, so several of the songs are about nuclear holocaust (“Out of the Blue,” “Cruise”). The lyrics are surprisingly strong for Gilmour, who tended to farm out the words (“Thinking that we’re getting older and wiser/when we’re just getting old”).

On every level this is a great hard rock record, a bit less Floydian than one would have expected, but still compelling throughout. Having Gilmour’s guitar playing—and distinctive vocals—galore helps immensely. This album came out in the same year as Waters’ solo The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking (see later in this list), hinting at the full-scale “battle of the Floyds: that would break out in 1987. I saw Gilmour in concert on the About Face tour and it was a terrific show, surprisingly more affecting than Waters’ show.

Gilmour would not release another solo album until 2006.

Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship
Blows Against the Empire

After Woodstock and the counter-cultural manifesto Volunteers, Jefferson Airplane was losing altitude like a Southwest flight (oh, but I kid Southwest); founder and singer Marty Balin had left, following drummer Spencer Dryden’s departure. While waiting to assemble the next, not very good version of the Airplane (Bark, anyone?), Paul Kantner recorded a science-fiction rock opera loosely based on Robert Heinlein, about a band of hippies who steal a starship and escape the hell of Earth (aka Nixon-era America and the Vietnam War) to colonize another galaxy. (The album was actually nominated for a Hugo Award, although it kind of reminds me of the awful “Way to Eden” “space hippie” episode of Star Trek.)

As a concept album, it doesn’t entirely work (like just about any concept album), but it has some of Kantner’s best songs, including the absolutely beautiful “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite” (written by Kantner and David Crosby). “A Child is Coming” celebrates Grace Slick’s pregnancy with future MTV VJ China Kantner, who graced (as it were) the cover of Kantner and Slick’s 1971 album Sunfighter.

The opening track “Mau Mau (Amerikon)” is a charging rocker with the great a capella opening: “Hide, witch, hide, the good folks come to burn thee/Their keen enjoyment hid behind a gothic mask of duty.” True dat. Somewhere around the middle of side two is when the hippies hijack the starship and decide to try to fly to Andromeda. Yeah. Still, the album boasts a great list of guest musicians, including Airplane members, most of The Grateful Dead, David Crosby, and most other Bay Area musicians at the time. And whilst Kantner never had the best voice in the world, he did manage to harmonize with Slick very well—predating the vocal harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka in X.

The album was released under the moniker “Jefferson Starship,” which wouldn’t be an official band name until four years later.

Kantner released a less successful sequel, called The Planet Earth Rock’n’Roll Orchestra (aka “The Empire Blows Back”), in 1983. It, um, blew.

Bob Dylan

In the grand scheme of things, this is not the greatest Dylan album, but it was the first one I ever bought, so it gets points for that—I really liked “Neighborhood Bully,” a thinly veiled song about Israel. It was Dylan’s first secular album after thankfully getting over his born again period and it had the added advantage of being produced by (and featuring the guitar-playing of) Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler.

As a Dylan record, it has the cryptic stuff (“Jokerman”), the political stuff (“Union Sundown,” “License to Kill”), and the relationship stuff (“I and I”). It was also the album that launched me into much of Dylan’s back discography. Damn if “Union Sundown” wasn’t prescient: not that offshoring was unheard of in 1983, but “they don’t make nothing here no more” is even truer today. “I can see the day coming when even your own garden is going to be against the law.” “You know, capitalism is above the law.” Indeed. The last two tracks kind of run out of steam, but still.

What’s remarkable is how well Knopfler’s guitar playing suits this material—which is not surprising when you consider that much of Knopfler’s own songwriting was influenced by Dylan. I wish Dylan and Knopfler had done more records together...1985’s Empire Burlesque, an attempt at getting Dylan to sound all 1980s contemporary, was awful.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Certain Songs Part II: That’s Entertainment

At some point, it would be interesting to track the titles on this list by decade, and I suspect the majority of them would be from the 1980s. Of course, there would be nothing surprising about this; I came to musical consciousness (generally) in the 1980s, graduating high school in 1985 and college in 1989—the prime music-listening period of one’s life. So most of the albums on this list would be those that came out contemporaneously, right? Right!?
I was not into all the 80s albums on this list. True, I did pick up the latter two in today’s trilogy of tonality the year they were released, but I came to the first a couple of years after the fact. Let’s venture in, shall we? Shall we!?
The Jam
Sound Affects

The choice of Sound Affects here could stand in for most of The Jam’s discography, as they were predominantly a singles band, and All Mod Cons could just as easily have fit here, with great songs like “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” etc. Sound Affects found Paul Weller backing off the Ray Davies-esque narratives in favor of more abstract songs, although “Pretty Green” is pretty overt meaningwise. These are just great pop songs—“Monday” (unlike The Mamas and the Papas, Weller is “dreaming of Monday”), “Boy About Town,” “Start!” (and if you’re gonna nick a riff, why not nick from the best, “Taxman”), and, my favorite Jam song, “That’s Entertainment,” which was the song that reminded me most of living in New York—and why I had to stop living in New York:
A police car and a screaming siren
A pneumatic drill and ripped-up concrete
A baby wailing and a stray dog howling
The screech of brakes and a lamp light blinking
That’s entertainment
Weller also has little patience for the politics of hate—“Set the House Ablaze” and “Scrape Away” take National Front-ish characters to task, pointing out that “Hatred has never won for long” and “Your twisted cynicism makes me feel sick.” I’ve never been as big a Jam fan as some folks I knew back in the day, but every once in a while I give them a spin. On my first trip to London, I was walking around Soho and came across Wardour Street. There was not an “A” bomb in it, I’m happy to say. Actually, my favorite Jam song was a B side called “The Butterfly Collector” that only surfaced on the vinyl version of the Snap! compilation and later on the Extras rarities collection.

Pete Townshend
White City—A Novel

Context is everything when it comes to many of the titles on this list. In the case of White City, the year was 1985, and I had just gone off to college so the album brings back memories of my freshman year—I still remember listening to it on my Walkman (ha! remember those?) walking from class to class in the cold Syracuse winter of 1985–1986. I still think it’s the best of his solo records, although Empty Glass is close. It helped that Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour played guitar on a few tracks—even getting co-writing credit on “White City Fighting,” a rarity on a Townshend album (Townshend had written lyrics for two tracks on Gilmour’s About Face a year earlier—see later in this list). His backup band also included members of Big Country.

“Give Blood” is a phenomenal album opener, leading into the poppy “Brilliant Blues,” where Townshend mistakes “clique” with “cliche,” which confused me for years. In the NFL postseason in January 1986, the Patriots played the Dolphins and someone in the Boston area had done a parody of “Face the Face” called “Squish the Fish.” OK, dolphins are not fish, but it was still amusing...maybe “Mush the Mammals” would not have been as catchy. “Crashing By Design” is my favorite track.

There is apparently some kind of concept behind the album but I have no idea what it is. More than 20 years later, in the London Underground, I saw on the Tube map a stop called White City, although I have no idea if it's “a black violent place.” Townshend only recorded two more solo studio records since then—neither of them anywhere as good as White City.

In 1993, Colleen Q., Jon M., and I saw Townshend in New York on his Psychoderelict tour. The only thing I recall from the show was that at the beginning there was a commercial for tour sponsor Tommy Hillfiger that used bits of “Tommy Can You Hear Me”—and the audience booed. Townshend can sell out as much as he wants, but we don’t have to like it!

The Church

It’s always the way. Well, sometimes. You buy an album because you really like a song that gets played on the radio (in this case, “Under the Milky Way”) and then it turns out that the “hit” is actually the “least good” song on the record. Such was the case of Starfish by Australia’s The Church. It was the first I had heard of them, even though this was their sixth album. (Their previous record Heyday was their masterpiece.) Starfish saw them signed to a major US label (Arista) and working with LA producers (Greg Ladanyi and Waddy Wachtel) which made the band sound a bit slicker (the band reportedly hated LA—I can sympathize—and the sessions were fraught), but still kept their basic raison d’etre of mixing chiming guitars and a psychedelic atmosphere, with Steve Kilbey’s often surreal, occasionally amusing lyrics.

The Church have great album openers, and “Destination” does not disappoint (“In the space between our bodies, the air has grown small fingers”). It’s one of those songs that always gives me chills. Kilbey loves wordplay; the album Remote Luxury had the track “Constant In Opal” and here we have “Hotel Womb” (and “I’m priceless, you’re worthless, that’s not a bad match” in “Blood Money”). The other alternative radio track was “Reptile,” which was far superior to “Under the Milky Way,” with one of the greatest guitar themes ever. Guitarist Marty Willson-Piper gets a track (“Spark”) as does second guitarist Peter Koppes (“A New Season”), their usual album allotment. And damn if I didn’t always sing the chorus to “Lost” whenever I watched the show Lost. This would be the last full album by the classic lineup of The Church (to the extent there can be a “classic lineup”); drummer Richard Ploog would be forced out during the making of the next album, Gold Afternoon Fix, and the band would dwindle to a duo by the mid-90s before resurfacing by the end of the decade. They’re still around, although I confess I lost track of them circa 2002. Still, they’re the closest I have ever come to a church in decades.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Revisiting the Read

I have never been one to reread books. I know I’m not alone on this, but as much as there have been books I have absolutely loved, I have only very rarely been tempted to revisit them. This is a bit odd, in  a way; after all, I have no trouble seeing movies over and over again, and I can watch episodes of TV shows I like until I can repeat lines from them verbatim. (Anything from early Aaron Sorkin falls into this category—Sports Night and the first four seasons of The West Wing. Studio 60...not so much. And I have not seen The Newsroom.) Anyway, I suppose it has to do with the fact that there is not much of a time or energy commitment to rewatch a movie or TV show. But a book...
That all said, last year I revisited some favorite books for the first time ever. Just prior to the release of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, I reread some of his early books—Hear the Wind SingPinball 1973A Wild Sheep Chase, Dance Dance Dance, and, my favorite, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. And I really enjoyed them again, as I had forgotten over the years a lot of the plot and other details (1997–1999 was my prime Murakami phase). 
Last May, before and after Towel Day, I revisited Douglas Adams five Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and two Dirk Gently books and, again, there was much that I had missed and thus rediscovered.
In my own perverse, OCD-esque way, I like going through an author’s works chronologically, much like I enjoy listening to a band’s albums chronologically, as it is interesting to see how they develop, how certain recurring themes and tropes are introduced, and so forth. So, in whatever meager spare time I have (and travel is good for this, actually—although you can tell by the telltale curl and downright mangling of the pages at what point in a book the plane I was on hit turbulence...) I have been revisiting two old favorite authors—and who could not be more dissimilar.
First off, when I was in Florida a couple of weeks ago, I was watching The Daily Show, and the guest was some guy from those vampire movies (no idea what his name is and I have not seen any of those movies) who happens to be starring in an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis. At the instigation of Steven H. back in 1989, I became a very big admirer of DeLillo, starting with his classic White Noise, which I fell in love with (and subsequently loaned to someone I worked with at St. Martin’s Press in 1990 who then vanished with it...grrr...). Being the completist I am, I delved into his back bibliography and although few of his earlier books were anywhere as good as White Noise (there is a scene on an airplane where the captain comes over the intercom and screams “We’re a silver gleaming death machine!” I can’t imagine why that scene has always stayed with me...) I recall reading DeLillo’s bestseller Libra (a fictionalized account of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald) while I was living with my grandmother in Brooklyn in 1990, when I had first moved to New York City and had not yet found a job. I was less than impressed with it, compared to his past work. I kept up with him, and especially loved his 1997 magnum opus Underworld, which was utterly brilliant. 
I sort of lost track of DeLillo after that, and didn’t read a new book of his until Falling Man in 2008, which was his 9/11 book which I really did not like all that much.
So, before I read and then see Cosmopolis, I am working my way through his bibliography. I have already made it through Americana, End Zone, and Great Jones Street—the first two I recall having read way back when, but the latter I have no recollection of at all, probably for good reason, as upon reread I did not care for it all that much. (I also actively hated Americana, both the first time through  and again on rereading, but still liked End Zone a lot. More specific comments in a later post.) 
As for the second author...OK. This should be interesting. Also whilst I was in Florida, I began (and very quickly finished) Stephen King’s latest 11/22/63, which I thought at first was the tritest idea in the world (a guy goes back in time to try to stop the Kennedy assassination...gee, Steve, could you be less imaginative?) but it turned out the book was not really about that at all, and it ended up being perhaps one of King’s best and certainly most touching books. It had one of the best endings he’s ever written. That’s probably not saying much, but it was very good. 
So I happened to come across a blog at the Guardian, begun in May 2012, in which the blogger is reading all of King’s books in chronological order. I kind of started this a couple of years ago, buying Carrie as an ebook (which my iPad subsequently ate and Barnes & Noble won’t let me redownload, and, it turns out, ebooks are now the exact same price as paperbacks, which makes zero sense, so what’s the point? So as far as I am concerned, f— er, forget about ebooks. I’ll stick to print, thank you very much.
I remember first reading Stephen King back when he had only four books out. In 1979, there was a TV movie version of ’Salem’s Lot starring David Soul and James Mason (now they would have made a great Starsky & Hutch), which enthralled me, and I subsequently sought out the book in Bradlee’s book department (when I was a kid, the town I grew up in did not have a bookstore, which says so much about that town). In fact, I still have the $2.50 paperback! Man, people must have had better eyesight back then. I read King faithfully from that point and I think stopped around 1985 when bookstores started selling his titles by the pound. I’ve read a few over the years, and I thought it would be interesting to try to read along with the Guardian guy. I have finished Carrie, ’Salem’s Lot, and Night Shift (spoiler alert: a short story about a demonically possessed laundry machine is just as goofy now as I thought it was when I was 13) about to plunge into The Stand (again, my original $2.50 paperback set in agate type). Again, I’ll post specific comments at a later date. Assuming I have any eyesight left.