Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Final Songs: God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)

Album: Sail Away by Randy Newman
Cain slew Abel, Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel suppose to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord and the Lord said
"Man means nothing he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower or the humblest yucca tree
He chases round this desert 'cause he thinks that's where I'll be
That's why I love mankind"
I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
From the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in Heaven, prayers you offer me
That's why I love mankind
The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said "Lord the plague is on the world
Lord no man is free
The temples that we built to you have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won't take care of us
Won't you please please let us be?"
And the Lord said
And the Lord said
"I burn down your cities, how blind you must be
I take from you, your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why I love mankind, you really need me
That's why I love mankind"

There's a certain thread in Jewish literature of doubt, of guardedness in the face of the Divine, often expressed in sarcasm. Some would trace this all the way back to the Book of Job. Certainly Stanley Elkin's novel The Living End with its coddled prima donna God, is a more recent example. In these works, the Man Upstairs can appear kind of a dick.

So it is with Randy Newman's "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)". His people cry out at the murder of Abel and His response is, essentially, LOL. In the second half of the song - the line between verse and chorus is blurred here - He indicates that his love for us is tied to the amount of abuse we foolishly take.

But there's a little more nuance to it than that. "God's Song" is a companion piece to "He Gives Us All His Love", also on Sail Away. That song is a more amiable view of a creator we can talk to and lean on, one who looks down benevolently on "babies crying" and "old folks dying." But of course this doesn't mean that babies aren't going to die, or that oldsters won't die. It just gives us some company. Both "He Gives Us All His Love" and "God's Song" are intimate numbers, a man at his piano. Newman sings them both with a collapsed soulfulness, sounding too tired to grieve so determined to find some humor in the situation.

So is God kindly? Sadistic? A little of both? Or maybe just more worn down than he lets on. In his final statement on the album Newman lets you know that the joke is on all of us, not just you. There is some comfort in that.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Out of sight

So, the lunar eclipse. Kind of exciting. I have to admit, I was sort of out of the lunar loop, so I didn't know it was happening until it started. The owner of the cafe I was playing cards in told everyone about it, so we went out to take a couple of looks between hands. The blur around what was left of the moon at first was a pretty good indicator that something was up. 30-40 minutes later there was just a dark orange smudge where the moon would usually be. Cool scene, and not one you see very often, which is why it drew a crowd I guess.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Saturday sniffles

Well, not just Saturday. Allergy season is back, so there's the attendant sneezing, runny nose, and so on etcetera.I have some OTC medicine to hep deal with it, but I don't want to be too dependent  Taking a bill when necessary, then

Should be another Final Songs coming up soon.

EDIT: Holy shit, that was not coherent at all. Little bit of a drowsy effect from the medication I did take, I think. I made a small spelling edit but otherwise will leave this one the way it is, just because it's so hard to believe.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

I've not felt it

Tonight I watched the pilot episode of The Muppets, the new ABC comedy series starring... Well, that part's obvious, isn't it? Can't say I recommend it.

In the main it follows Kermit the Frog in his job as producer of Up Late with Miss Piggy,, a talk show starring his now ex-girlfriend. Here we already have two problems.

First, the concept is an obvious mix of well-regarded single camera sitcoms: a mockumentary (like The Office) that goes backstage at a talk show (like The Larry Sanders Show) and focuses on a beleaguered authority figure (like 30 Rock). Not necessarily bad in itself, but indicative of an identity crisis. Whether the crisis comes from the creators or network interference I know not.

Also, the idea of Kermit getting out of a serious relationship with Miss Piggy - and getting into one with a network executive who's also a pig - is misguided. Watch the old Muppet Show and it's pretty clear that she's mostly after him because of his status and he's too smart to get involved with her in that way. They've never had to work for audiences as a serious couple.

The main problem, though, is that it's just off. Kermit doesn't feel like himself, and neither does Fozzie Bear. Gonzo is defanged, even though technically he can get away with more outrageous stuff. Only the members of  Dr, Teeth and the Electric Mayhem show their old signs of life. Zoot waking up in a writer's meeting and introducing himself like he's at an AA meeting until Floyd cuts him off actually made me laugh, God help me. Too little did.

As a parody of variety shows, The Muppet Show was self-aware. This one is self-aware about being self-aware, with the glib assumption that we're all self-aware now. A lot of the charm is lost.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Going to the dogs

But suddenly something struck Maria's side so hard that she yelped and stumbled. It was Bingo, who had come unnoticed into the kitchen and now planted himself between the astonished Maria and the cage. She recovered at once, and ignoring Bingo, she rushed the cage again. But Bingo barked with great authority, a shout of a bark, and again he slammed himself into Maria. Amazed, she stopped, and then, as dogs will do when circumstances seem too puzzling, she simply left the scene, withdrawing to the far side of the room to see what would happen next. There she stayed. Then all of us were quiet in the half-lit room, Bingo trembling with emotion and panting hard as he faced Maria watchfully, Maria overwhelmed by this unexpected turn of events, me shamed by my own dog, and the mice and parakeets exhausted and still. Bingo stayed where he was as guardian until Maria left the room. Then I reached my hand to him apologetically. Quietly, humbly, he touched my fingers very delicately with his tongue.
For context, Bingo wanted to mate with Maria, which is why his actions when she was menacing the smaller pets surprised the author.

The author is Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, an anthropologist who observed the dogs living with her and her husband and recorded the results in The Hidden Life of Dogs. I know her from an animal column she writes for The Boston Globe. She's been criticized for anthropomorphizing dogs as depicting them with thoughts and feelings, but her case that they have such is pretty airtight.

The book is not wall-to-wall heartwarming and tender moments. Some of it is disturbing as well as sad. But overall there is something touching about it, not least in Thomas's attempts to reach out and understand.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Final Songs: Good Night

Album: The Beatles (informally but universally known as the White Album) by the Beatles

Now it's time to say good night
Good night, sleep tight
Now the sun turns out his light
Good night, sleep tight
Dream sweet dreams for me (Dream sweet)
Dream sweet dreams for you

Close your eyes and I'll close mine
Good night, sleep tight
Now the moon begins to shine
Good night, sleep tight
Dream sweet dreams for me (Dream sweet)
Dream sweet dreams for you


Close your eyes and I'll close mine
Good night, sleep tight
Now the sun turns out his light
Good night, sleep tight
Dream sweet dreams for me (Dream sweet)
Dream sweet dreams for you

Good night, good night, everybody
Everybody everywhere
Good night

"Are they serious?"

By late 1968, the Beatles had only been in the public consciousness for about five years, but it's safe to say that they'd had an adventurous recording history. At the beginning were souped-up rock 'n' roll songs that sounded live-in-studio even if they weren't. Eventually in came more ornate sounds and heady lyrics on the concept album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band and the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack. So, an established track record for challenging their audience and their role as pop stars.

Yet The Beatles was different. The front cover was a jokey concept art piece, declaring the idea of "The Beatles" without showing the Fab Four themselves, or any imagery associated with them, or for that matter anything at all. The back revealed song titles that sounded facetious ("Back in the USSR", "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey") or plain at least more esoteric than normal ("While My Guitar Gently Weeps"), Fans could be forgiven for asking if this were all an elaborate joke.

Of course it wasn't just that. The music was still important, and they were still quite able to excel in producing it. But the Beatles themselves had their own questions. Nobody would have them all answered by the album's end.

"Good Night" begins with a sedate swoop of strings, soon joined by woodwinds and angelic backing singers. While the Beatles had done classical music pastiches in the past (Paul's "Eleanor Rigby" for one) this was something different. It was more the orchestral schmaltz associated with TV variety shows and easy listening albums. You might picture the singer as a man with pomaded hair, the bow tie loosened on his tuxedo.

Or, once you hear that it's Ringo Starr, maybe not. Ringo is the one familiar element in the song, at least familiar in the Beatles context. The other Beatles don't play on it, although John Lennon did help with the arrangements.

And this song comes from John. He wrote it as a lullaby for his five year old son Julian. The fact that he wrote it for his elder son, the one he had with unlucky first wife Cynthia, and with whom he'd have a fraught relationship for the rest of his life, adds an extra layer of poignancy to the song.

On the other hand, the fact that it follows the Dadaist tape experiment "Revolution 9" right at the end makes it more surreal. Following Stockhausen/Cage alienation with Nelson Riddle sentiment doesn't bring things back to normal. It makes you question whether normal exists.

So how much of this is a joke? The question may never be answered.

Friday, September 18, 2015

A thought

Possibly another Final Songs around the corner. I'm thinking over some candidates.

I've come to appreciate unfiltered people over the years. Not unsocialized people, but people who don't sugarcoat their opinions. You can trust them, and they make the world a more interesting place.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Test of the West

So this summer I've borrowed quite a few movies from the library, usually watching them on Friday night. My picks have been by instinct and curiosity. They haven't always worked out. Giallo might be an interesting subgenre, but I had to bail on Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage because the plot was just too imbecilic. (A serial killer is butchering women in Rome. What do we do? Let's send in an American novelist who doesn't really know the city or the language!)

That's just to assure you that I don't like absolutely everything. But The Furies actually is quite worth seeing. It's a Western directed by Anthony Mann, who'd mostly done noir crime dramas up to that point. That probably counts for something.

The film stars Barbara Stanwyck as Vance Jeffords. She looks up to her father, a legendary rancher named TC Jeffords, played by Walter Huston. He's got a big personality and does seem to have a way with cattle.

It's also pretty obvious that he's broke. He's made a habit of paying for everything with "TC notes", which are really just fancy IOUs. It's also unclear how much of this land is rightfully his. There's an extended family of Mexican's living on the estate, who claim that they belong here and don't seem crazy. A rival family also say that TC stole some of his land from them.

So TC's fortune is on shaky ground. And since Vance has a friend among the Mexicans and falls in love/hate with the scion of the rival family, the father/daughter relationship is also precarious.

The Furies, shot in black and white, uses its far West landscape in moody, Gothic ways. It's also concise, telling a fairly epic story in under two hours. The corn content on this one is pretty low.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Outside baseball

I just want to assure the people of Pawtucket that a bunch of Providence natives don't want the PawSox to move either. I talked to a woman in a protest group this evening about the effect a stadium would have on the neighborhood. Plus Providence is a mixture of physically small as a city and also hilly. Like, all hills. Not really ideal baseball park territory.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Li'l devil

Doktor Faust | Doctor Faustus (1938) from Msumofpuppetry on Vimeo.

Do't think I have waking time to put up the post I originally meant to. Another night, perhaps? I can give you this moment of Zen, as it were. It's backstage at a Slovenian puppet production of Faust. These people are some dedicated pros. The puppets are lovely too. Unless you have a phobia about puppets, in which case I'm sorry.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Final Songs: Taking Tiger Mountain

Hello and welcome to our new feature, Final Songs.

First, a word about Friday Random Ten. What happened to it? Well, the idea sort of lost its freshness for me. Or the format at least. I've wanted for a while to start a new project, looking at music in a slightly more in-depth way. And since I'm making some necessary changes in life now, it seemed like a good time to change this as well.

Final Songs has to do with endings, as you might guess. In particular, songs that end albums. What does/did the artist want you as a listener to come away thinking of at the end of the whole thing.

Of course, this question relies on the existence of albums, which is to say long-players that are meant to exist as a unit. A lot of LPs from the late forties till sometime in the sixties are loose aggregations of singles with some extra material, a circumstance that has returned in force in the digital era. Still, there are still musicians who keep the idea of an album sequence in their mind, so we may deal with them at some point.

Album: Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy) by Brian Eno

We climbed and we climbed,
Oh, how we climbed
My, how we climbed
Over the stars to [the] top

[Of] Tiger Mountain
Forcing the lines through the snow.
Okay, let's do this.

As you can see from the above, the lyrics are pretty brief. And the vocals don't start until 2:36, almost halfway through the song. The title track to Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets, also an album ender, had brought the vocals in even later. Even in his early solo career, when he'd done more in the semi-pop song format, Eno didn't really consider himself a singer/songwriter, it seems.

The musical bedding here is guitar and piano, no percussion to speak of,, but some wind effects. After a wild ride of an album, it's relatively sedate. You could almost call it mellow. But theres' some thing about this circular melody that can put you on edge.

And again, there are the vocals. Despite coming in late, they have time to repeat themselves a few times. Repeated fragments about climbing, and "forcing the lines" in the peak's snow covering. Which is sort of an ominous wording. The album as a whole is loosely inspired by the revolutionary dramas that Mao had allowed in China. The words here could suggest a revolutionary act (of violence?) but they sound more resigned that excited. The revolution can get to be a drag.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

... than curse the darkness

Joel Hodgson seems to have a few Facebook voters after my own heart. If I had to pick one MST3K episode that stood out above all the others, it would likely be Eegah!The low-stakes Johnson era caveman caper brought out the best in Best Brains. Also has some of Joel's best philosophical musings, seen below.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Shonen Knife cover the Carpenters and for a brief, shining moment all is right with the world

Love both the guitar playing and the way her accent makes the lyrics sound new. Wonder what these three are up to now.

Sunday, September 6, 2015


You're saying it's not a film about the technology, it's a film about values, and Jobs comes back to values several times. You very sharply highlight how his early, rebellious values about controlling a large system don't necessarily mesh with his later values about protecting his own large system. As a person who covers Apple frequently, that’s fascinating. It's almost like, I think about it so much that I stop thinking about it.
It was to me one of the most striking things about him and his growth. Even though he thinks he didn't grow out of those countercultural values, I think he took certain affectations from the counterculture and left some of the more deep-seated values, both from the counterculture, and frankly from his "search for enlightenment," quote-unquote, behind.
And I think he didn't really fully appreciate that he had left that behind. He starts out doing blue boxes with Woz, right? And yet by the end he's going after the guys at Gizmodo. Who you'd think actually had that same kind of renegade blue box spirit that he celebrated himself and liked to believe that Apple still represented. It’s the idea of this plucky startup. Apple wasn't a plucky startup anymore! And he never was able to reconcile himself with that idea.
It's an interesting interview and there's a good chance that I'll see Gibney's Steve Jobs documentary at some point. How much weight I actually give to the Citizen Kane aspect of Jobs' life is another story..

The Apple vision is a seductive one from an aesthetic point of view. In a way this has only become more true over time. In the eighties they stood out from the pack because they had a piece of fruit in their logo and because of Steve Wozniak's involvement in the US Festival, one of the first attempts at building a branded Woodstock. Their line of personalized - or seemingly so - software and gizmos would take time to develop.

It's also true that the results of this vision haven't entirely been benign. There's been a decay in the whole idea of shared physical space, as "bricks and mortar" locations for businesses are considered atavistic and people in public gaze into their devices to avoid acknowledging each other's existences. To say nothing of how much the "sharing economy" looks to be a fancy name for letting proles fight over a shrinking number of tables scraps while the table groans with food.

But how much of this is down to the foible's of Jobs' personality? I don't know. The truth is that even the CEO of a very powerful company doesn't reset the course of society by himself. Others have to invest in the idea, directly and indirectly. A lot of people who already had money chose to use it to certain ends.

In other words, you can hate the player, but what really counts is how the game has been gamed.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Friday Random Heads, Ten Tails

Another movie night. This time No Country For Old Men. Where Josh Brolin is a fairly clever mouse who might have a chance if Javier Bardem's Chigurh was anything like an ordinary cat. He isn't, of course, and you can pretty much predict the end in the beginning. It's so well told though that it remains fascinating watching throughout.

1. Simon & Garfunkel - Voices of Old People
2. Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley - The Old Country
3. David Bowie - Lady Stardust
4. The New Pornographers - Bones of an Idol
5. Nellie McKay - Won't U Please B Nice
6. The Magnetic Fields - In My Car
7. XTC - Rocket from a Bottle
8. Mose Allison - Groovin' High
9. The Ramones - Rock 'n' Roll Hight School
10. Pink Martini - Pana Cand Ne Tu Iubeam

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


Some interesting thoughts.
There’s a lot of complaining about the lengthy process in the United States of winnowing candidates, but this year has shown its great strength. It gives a wide variety of people the chance to have their voices heard, and it gives voters a chance to see the candidates over a period of time when their political masks slip. Some rise to the challenge, others deflate under the pressure of nothing to say.
Is the kind of multi-year presidential campaign we see now really a blessing? I'm not sure and at various points in the past I'd have said no. But I can see Jabbar's point.

He really is very good, too. I believe that even if it weren't for multiple championship seasons with the Lakers and his valiant co-piloting in Airplane, he'd still be writing about the current scene. He might not have the, um, honor of appearing in the Washington Post, but you could see him somewhere.