Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Petri Dish 101: No, really...

The compact T-shirt-clad figure stood toe-to-toe with me, spitting sentences out with a sincerity that took me utterly by surprise. His intensity burned so bright that he'd have been boring holes in my eyes were he actually eye level with me: as was, his gaze was boring holes somewhere around my sternum.

"You think you know about my career, you schlubby jackass?! You don't. I know my career. And you know why, Tony? Because I've read about it. I've researched it." He wiped a small slash of bright white foam collecting on his lower lip with his right wrist before he continued. "You make fun of me in your pathetic little Blog, while I'm up there being a hero to millions. MILLIONS!"

Finally, he breathed. I tried to insert my two modest pennies-worth while he gulped air.

"But you have to admit," I began, "that there are cases in which Blogging has served a vital therapeutic function for millions of frustrated, aspiring, or professional writers. It's one of the most democratic forms of expression around--"

He cut my sentence off with a single-syllable burst of laughter, a "HA!" delivered on his tip-toes. Now his eyes were level with my chin.

"You know what your problem is, Tony? You're GLIB. Blogging is a farce. A joke. Psychiatrists are forcefeeding Blogging down the throats of untold scores of people when all they really need are vitamins and exercise! Just look at your pathetic list of endorsements for proof!" He pulled a small Blackberry out of one of the pockets of his too-tight jeans with an effortful tug. "I've got this little dunghole of a Blog bookmarked, y'know..." His eyes sparkled as he pressed keys on the palm-sized device. Why the hell wasn't he off someplace gladhanding some deluded A-list director, or--God forbid--working? "Do you really think that a seventies Japanese boob-and-blood-soaked trash movie is a more worthy view than my important thinking-man's epic The Last Samurai?!" He howled.

"Um, yeah."

"HA!" He was jumping up and down now, which sporadically put his eyes even with my lower lip. "Next, you're gonna say that some ugly skinny ex-junkie embodies the spirit of rock and roll better than me sliding around hardwood floors in my underwear lip-synching Bob Seger songs!"

"Um, yeah," I concurred.

He stopped jumping, but started spitting again. "And you'd rather celebrate the careers of a bunch of old actors who haven't had a gig in eons instead of my A-list grandeur and glory?!"

"Well, actually, yeah."

"And you'd rather write an impassioned obituary for the director of Teenage Frankenstein than for my former co-star in the underrated teen drama All the Right Moves, Ms. Lea Thompson?!" He shouted, the veins in his neck portruding like raw rhubarb stalks.

"Well, Lea Thompson's actually not dead. Only her career is..."

"Don't get technical with ME! I want the TRUTH!!"

I wasn't gonna go there.

At this point impatience began enveloping me. A few sentences (OK, two pretty big Blogs, but who was counting?) about his limitations as an actor and his ickiness as a living entity, and he was preparing to completely lose control. "Can we just sort of forget about this and just go on about our separate lives here?" I asked. "I was gonna head home and watch Blood Freak. Hey, why don't you bankroll a remake? You'd be great as Herschell the pompadoured dope-smoking Turkey Man."

My last statement, offered in complete earnest sincerity, nonetheless caused his hackles to raise like porcupine quills as he bellowed, "Show me the HEMOGLOBIN!"

A sudden stab of pain ridged my left knee, and I looked down in horror as Tom Cruise locked his teeth on my kneecap. A scream emerged from my lips, and my mind swam with visions of my viscera hanging from Cruise's freshly-manicured choppers like the entrails of some hapless victim in a crappy Italian zombie movie.

"I spent three whole months learning kneecap-biting for my work in Days of Thunder!" He snarled, his phrasing muffled by a blood-soaked denim fragment as he began to name-drop out of nowhere. "Martin Scorsese likes me better than he'll EVER like you!! HAHAHAHAHA!!!"

"I don't care, Grinning Boy!" I shouted. Kneecap on fire, I jackhammered my left fist into his upper lip. "Raging Bull was massively overrated anywaaayy!!!" I shot back. He staggered briefly, then popped back up, spitting a tooth out and grinning mad as a hatter. If only he'd been this scary in his movies.
The pain in my knee built so much that I felt myself getting dizzy. As my battle to stay conscious become more and more futile, Cruise's face stared back at me and kept multiplying on itself, laughing that insincere-yet-malevolent chortle until everything went black.

It could've been hours, or days. Hell if I knew. All I did know is that when I opened my eyes, the antiseptic comfort of four white hospital walls greeted me. I felt like I'd awakened from a twenty-year slumber. Almost on cue, a shiny, finely-carved cane pushed the door open. The old friend that entered--slender and nattily-dressed as usual--put me at ease, concern bubbling just beneath his angular but laid-back features. "You're looking like a Corvette that's been left overnight in an East LA parking lot, my brother," Huggy Bear intoned sagely. He pulled a small mirror out of the breast pocket of his loud plaid jacket and pointed the looking glass at my face. "Good thing Hutch got to you before that religious freak midget dude actually took off your kneecap, Starsky."
My reflection stared heavy-lidded back at me. The bushy manly brows that held up my forehead shadowed my eyes more than usual, and my white-man's afro was bereft of its customary zing and bounce. There I was, Dave Starsky, one-half of the best crime-fighting duo in the LAPD, looking like a beaten-down junkie.

I could count on my partner Hutch being on the prowl, hunting down the nut who nearly took a giant piece out of my leg until he was able to hurl the psycho against a car hood and beat the crap out of him at the end of the episode. How I ached--literally--to be able to level the micro-freak with a good right hook of my own.

But I had an important duty of my own to fulfill while I convalesced. It was Sweeps Month, and this season I was the bed-ridden one. I had to have all of the stock-footage flashbacks. I was the mental Greatest-Hits collection of our adventures for the season.

The crazy thing was, all of my memories weren't of car chases, shoot-outs, or guest stars. They were of a journal written on a computer by me. Only I wasn't Dave Starsky, diminutive yet studly cop. I was some guy named Tony who wrote about movies, television shows, music, the odd stage play, and scary dwarves who worshipped aliens. Huggy laughed so hard he nearly lost his cool when I confessed this. "A COMPUTER?!" He spat out. "This is 1978, Starsky! You're losin' your mind. This is supposed to be a Very Special Episode of Starsky and Hutch!"

"I know, Hug," I replied sadly. Our style was being seriously cramped by my hallucinations.

"C'mon, my man! Try flashin' back on some adventure. Think about, I don't know, chasing down some seedy dope pusher..."

I nodded and closed my eyes. Everything began to dissolve: Hot damn! A flashback at last. But the fade-in wasn't on a chase scene. It was on three Japanese guys in leather jackets beating the hell out of some musical instruments and screaming like they were being electrocuted.

"No, Starsky! Give me some cop show action!" Huggy coached.

Again, I closed my eyes. I tried to focus on that time I affected a Spanish accent and wore a wacky moustache to infiltrate a dance studio. But all I could see was Bela Lugosi. What the...? Again I tried to induce a lap dissolve, this time into a make-out session with a blond California beach bunny. Instead, I got a herd of giant killer rabbits being chased by some guy from Star Trek. Again I closed my eyes. Lap dissolve...a white man with dark feathered hair, running like hell after a crook on the lam! Now we're getting somewhere, I thought...Wait. It was that bastard Al Pacino. I couldn't win.

Huggy shook his head. "I give up, Starsky," he muttered. "Guess we're gonna have to settle for a Very Special Episode of this Crazy-Ass Computer Diary Jive--"

"It's called Pop Culture Petri Dish," I chimed in reflexively, mystified at where the hell that came from.

My buddy chuckled. "Then I guess this is The Very Special Episode of Pop Culture Petri Dish with clips, highlights, flashbacks, the whole ball of wax. What you gonna name it?"

"Petri Dish 101," I replied without missing a beat. "Because it's the 101st Entry in the Pop Culture Petri Dish."

Huggy Bear, that wise and witty voice of the streets, chuckled softly. "Whatever turns you on, my brother."

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Download These: Great Songs from so-so (or Worse) Sources

Record labels worldwide would likely kill for more schlubs like me.

Now that I'm (barely) financially stable enough to indulge in fairly frequent trips to the local record store, I really make it a point to support artists with my dollars. Hell, I'm so much of a nerd I seldom borrow other folks' CDs to burn them for myself--partly because I like giving bands I like my money, and partly because the collector/packrat/nerd in me just loves the tactile sensation of holding a pre-recorded compact disc and poring over the artwork and liner notes as I listen. The latter rationale is also why I've seldom downloaded music from online sources--it just feels sorta antiseptic to me.

I'm slowly tiptoeing into the heady waters of the 21st century, however. The old-fashioned route to purchasing music--buying a full-length album on the strength of one or two killer tracks--is getting to become more and more of a pricy crapshoot. And with my geezerly advancing years comes the revelation that life's too short to spend forty minutes to an hour listening to a CD with two gems buried amidst a sizeable pile of Just OK-ness, or worse.

The wonders of music downloading have opened up to me in recent months, and the missus and I have also begun liquidating sizeable piles of miscellaneous media for some extra cash. So I've purchased a small handful of individual songs online, and also ripped one or two killer tracks each from several discs that I just don't listen to very much before selling said full lengths.

The net result: a mix CD full of great songs from so-so full lengths: all killer, no filler. Enclosed is a list (I love lists--don't you?) of ten of the tracks that made it onto said mix disc. And since most are available from online music stores, you can sample and/or purchase all of these at will at iTunes, Napster, etc.

Elefant, "Misfit" and "Static at Channel 4": This New York quartet surfaced a few years ago during the wave of Post-Punk revivalism that carried bands like The Killers and Franz Ferdinand to prominence. The schtick on their debut full-length, Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid (compact new-wave guitar riffs backing singer Diego Garcia's Morrissey/Bowie-lite croon) reads just fine on paper, but the most of the tunes don't stick to the ribs. These two tracks form the glorious exception. "Misfit" gooses Garcia's sense of pithy romance ("Talk about the dreams we had while we were growing old/Wrote a poem on the back of your shoulder")with punchy drums and an utterly irresistible spike of a guitar hook, and "Static" is a short but haunting slice of Man-Who-Fell-to-Earth space-age atmosphere. A few more songs like this and these guys could conquer the world.

Kings of Leon, "Molly's Chambers": Lynyrd Skynyrd and Chuck Berry take turns opening up a can of swaggering and nervy post-punk rock and roll whoop-ass. From the Nashville band's sporadic-but-promising 2003 debut, Youth and Young Manhood. Damn, this song rocks.

Lindsey Buckingham, "Trouble": Fleetwood Mac were always a song-on-the-dial band for me, my attention contingent on how much of Stevie Nicks' goat-whinny of a voice I could tolerate at one sitting. Then there was the Felix-Unger-worthy fussiness of singer/guitarist Buckingham's songwriting and production, which contained all of Brian Wilson's craftsmanship but none of the heart. Even the most insufferable anal-retentive rock twits can bowl a strike once in awhile, though, as this 1981 song demonstrates. "Trouble" is a seductive and masterful blend of Roy Orbison and Bryan Ferry, and the production glistens on the ears instead of antibacterially-sanitizing 'em.

M83, "Don't Save Us from the Flames": It figures that my favorite song by a French techno band is its least-techno moment: a swirly epic of stormy drums (or are they drum samples?), siren-song backing vocals, and magnetic guitar (or is it a sample?) chords. So atmospheric and cool, even lead singer Anthony Gonzalez's thickly-Gallic accent works.

The Posies, "I Am the Cosmos": the Northwest's finest purveyors of power-pop classicism cover an old Chris Bell song to crystalline perfection. If you're a Posies fan (which I am) and you don't want to purchase a good-but-redundant Greatest-Hits collection for one obscure track, this is the perfect Itunes purchase.

Blur, "There's No Other Way": This Britpop band was just one of a crowd of outfits combining druggy slurring with danceable tempos at the beginning of the 1990's. They evolved into a pretty terrific pop band, combining the acerbic wit of Village Green-era Kinks with a broad post-punk pallate, but their first full-length, Leisure, was strictly by-the-numbers dance pop. Its one moment of brilliance: this pulsing, lazily sensual, and catchy-as-hell single. Makes me wanna grab a glow-stick and bob like an apple in a waterbarrel.

My Morning Jacket, "Wordless Melody": MMJ's overall sound seems made for critics to love--eclectic and well-played, gently psychedelic rock with Neil Young-muppet-warbling vocals--but I had a helluva time cozying up to it. Then I heard this gorgeous pop gem, with its subtly-insistent keyboard hook and its soaring (and yes, wordless) chorus of vocal harmonies. Truly transcendant.

Chicago, "Wishing You Were Here": God, admitting to this one almost hurts. My virulent hatred for Chicago's brand of dumbed-down mellow pop knows no bounds. It's Steely Dan slathered with cheesy horns, a bowl of mud with a spoonful of Cool Whip on top. Good thing downloading gives you the ultimate opportunity to indulge in those anomalous freak tracks by bands that you normally loathe. "Wishing You Were Here" is brilliant, a haunting song of longing with some of the most ethereal harmonies I've heard in a seventies ballad. Sole credit goes to the Beach Boys, who guest on the song and anchor Peter Cetera's treacly songwriting (that cheesy-ass bridge has gotta go) with their luminous intertwining voices.

Elton John, "Bennie and the Jets": My parents, brother, dogs, and myself were packed into an orange Chevy Nova en route to the mountains: I couldn't have been more than five. As the car sped through lush green forest, the loping piano melody stomped onto the car radio speakers. It spiked into a vibe of nostalgic melancholy that defied understanding back then, and the song still packs that impact. This hissy-fit-throwin', weave-topped diva has exactly six great songs to show for his thirty-plus years in the industry. "Bennie," the greatest of them all, remains the only thing keeping me from drop-kicking Elton John off of a cliff.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Passings: Gerald Ford, Former President

Expect no grand political analysis from this corner regarding the death of our 38th president, Gerald Ford. I was only a grade-schooler when he led the United States. But that didn't stop me from forming an opinion of him that still holds true today.

Ford's presidency was always overshadowed by Richard Nixon's fall from grace and Jimmy Carter's work as a diplomat. And he surely torpedoed his hopes of re-election by pardoning Nixon. But divorced from the loftiness of his office and the (admittedly not-unjustified) flak he took for giving Tricky Dick a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card, Gerald Ford always seemed like a pretty nice guy for a politician.

He consistently took the jabs of pundits, and Chevy Chase's slapschticky SNL pseudo-impersonation, in stride (the thumbsucking hick bully currently in office should be such a good sport). So when Ford ran for re-election it wasn't a surprise that humor played a role. Even with that caveat in mind, it's hard to believe that Gerald Ford's camp was prepared to let this out for public display (his defeat in the 1976 election 86'ed the poster's wide distribution). That he actually authorized this makes me respect the guy even more.

I should plug the source for this image, an enterprising Ebay-er who's selling this surreal piece of pop-political arcana for a measly $1200 plus shipping. Hell, if I had the extra bones I'd seriously think about it.

Very best of luck holding office in the great White House in the Sky, Mr. President. As The Fonz once intoned, thumbs extended: Ayyyy.

(Thanks to Bob Coddington for informing me of this fine poster's existance in the first place.)