Saturday, December 4, 2010


At work today, Shea was all excited about the new ringtone she got for her cellphone so she wanted to play it for everyone. We crowded around her desk and waited while she called herself, only to find out she had no reception in the office since her boyfriend had her phone antennae. What kind of a phone is that? Didn’t detachable antennas disappear in the late 1990’s? Or at least by the time I got my antique-upon-purchase phone? Eventually she just went into the phone’s menu and played it from there. As it started playing, I had a hard time keeping my face from twisting into a grimace when I heard Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” spewing out of the tiny little speakers. Okay, maybe I didn’t really have any trouble containing myself because I didn’t. I actually grimaced and made a couple retching sounds in the direction of her phone. Of all the possible ringtones in the world, why would someone choose that one? There are four classic rock songs I despise that the entire rest of the world seems to love and that one is number two on my list. I do not understand why people love that song. It does nothing for me at all. At least not anything positive. Fake vomiting is not a positive response, in case you were wondering. Not even among a group of bulimics. We discussed this dilemma for a moment because Shea was irritated that I didn’t share in her satisfaction of the new ringtone. Hey, even the overplayed and no longer enjoyable “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” would have been better than the whiny, repetitious “Brown Eyed Girl”. Shea wisely changed the subject to her dad’s new ringtone, which she proceeded to play for us- The Animal’s “House Of The Rising Sun”. How appropriate. That’s the number one song on my four most despised popular songs list. Time for some more fake vomiting sounds. Will she go for the trifecta or maybe even sweep the whole list? (A quarfecta?)

Luckily she stopped at the top two most despised songs. In case you wonder what other monstrosities are lurking there, the other two songs on the list are Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” and Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” I know, I know. Regular listeners of classic rocks stations (if such a thing still exists in the DC radio marketplace) will consider me a heretic. I myself am surprised that I dislike the Santana song because it was written by Fleetwood Mac and I am totally enamored with that group. It might just be a matter of the song’s performance or arrangement by that particular artist though. My finger immediately dives toward the radio and starts stabbing at buttons to switch to anything else the instant I recognize “House Of The Rising Sun”, which is the same moment I hear Eric Burdon’s nasally whine intoning “There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun”. If you will look at my monthly car tape for February though, you will notice there is a version of that song on it. In defense of my apparent hypocrisy, the song is not the original god-awful version that everyone loves and wants to start singing every time the topic of New Orleans pops up. Instead, this is a dance version, done by Santa Esmerelda, that I stumbled across on the “Kill Bill” soundtrack. The tempo is much quicker, the vocals are completely different (no whining) and the feel of the song is totally different. It’s not a slow, torturous lament; it’s a more rhythmic pop number with a mariachi or Mexican flavor to it.

I don’t know why the whole world loves these four songs and I don’t. Maybe the rest of the world has bad taste? Entirely possible, I say. Just look at the inexplicable popularity of Anna Kournikova. Maybe those exact harmonics clash with my particular brainwaves on some sonic level? Maybe something traumatic happened to me as a kid while these songs were in the background? Can’t you envision “Rising Sun” playing in the scene in a movie where some child gets molested by a neighbor or a hillbilly assaults a female motorist broken down on a deserted road? Okay, I’m getting off track here by figuring out the soundtrack for a grotesque movie but you get the gist of what I’m saying. Some songs I just don’t react to the same as everyone else and I’m not sure why. In most cases, I like other things by the same artist. For instance, I like Santana’s “Oye Como Va”, “Evil Ways” and of course the recent, effervescent “Game Of Love.” With the Animal’s, I enjoy their other hits like “Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and "We've Gotta Get Out of This Place." Even the monotonously repetitious “Spill The Wine” is listenable for a couple of minutes. Mountain is basically a one hit wonder so I think I am simply reacting to the whole 1970’s generic sludge rock style that I think is epitomized by that song. It lacks the nuance and skill of other similar acts like Steppenwolf, Foghat or Grand Funk Railroad that I’m not overly fond of either but at least they are tolerable in small doses.

As for Van Morrison though, there is no such compromise. I detest everything he does- “Moondance”, “Gloria”, “Domino”, “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You”, et al. Objectively, I can understand why people might like these songs, and a zillion people will probably tell me how wonderful the Moondance or Astral Weeks album is, but they make me shudder for some unexplainable reason. The same way that some people know, for certain, that aliens abducted them and anally probed them, I know, for certain, that I do not want Van Morrison aurally probing me.

As I’m revisiting these songs, I think I might have to expand on my original list of four. Those four were the first songs I consciously realized that I was in the minority for not liking but as the years have gone by, I’ve come across a few other songs that really get on my nerves and should be added to the list. It might sound like heresy but I’ve never liked The Police’s “Roxanne.” Almost everything else in their canon, yes, but not that one. What’s so great about it? First of all, where are the instruments? Most of the song is Sting just wailing out some lyrics by himself. If it is meant to be a heart-breaking torch song, then do a better job of singing it and while you are at, write a couple more lyrics. Repeating the same line over and over again doesn’t make it any more profound- it makes it more irritating. I know it is a standard and everyone else gets all misty-eyed and sings along if it comes on the radio or karaoke machine or gets played at their concerts but I just roll my eyes and wonder what the big deal is. Why can’t I hear “Bring On the Night” instead?

I have gotten to the point where I not only hate Janis Joplin’s “Me & Bobby Magee” but also her whole screeching, mumbling drunken oeuvre. Naturally I dislike her personally too, since she is the embodiment of her musical style. Throw in a couple more songs like Coldplay’s “Yellow” (again with the whiny vocals) and Rhianna’s “Umbrella” (see previous comment about needing more, and better, lyrics- especially for the chorus.) and that brings my list up to eight songs. There are likely others I can’t recall right now because I’ve successful brain-dumped them (or they lobotomized me) but I’ll add them to my list as I come across them. I’ll bet this list eventually gets to 10 songs and I’ll have a “Top 10 Most Hated Popular Songs” but for now I’ll leave it as an informal observation of eight songs I hate even though everyone else inexplicably loves them.

Jumping back to the beginning of this rant, I must say I like the concept of ringtones even if Shea made poor choices for hers. I would actually love to have a phone that rings differently for each person that called me and at this moment I’m mentally selecting song snippets for the different people I know. Naturally it would have to be a song I like since I’ll be the one hearing it all the time but it also needs to be one that fits their personality and musical taste as well. Some of them are easy to pick. For instance, any call from Mike would ring as “London Calling” and John would definitely be Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now”. If you know them, you know why those fit. Adam Rifkin would be “She Blinded Me With Science”, for no particular reason other than it is eccentric, catchy and distinctive, just like Adam. Michelle can probably guess she would be an REM song, likely “I Am Superman” or “Fall On Me”- you know, one of the few REM songs I’ll admit to liking. Elizabeth would be, um… that’s a hard one. First thought that came into my head was Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” but that is just me being mean. The song doesn’t epitomize Elizabeth, just the “bad Elizabeth”. Of course, if she is calling me, she’ll never hear what I use for her calls but just to be safe I think I should go with one she’d like better. She’s more of a classic pop tune, like “Moon River” or “Mack the Knife”. Since I’m not a huge fan of “Mack The Knife” (It flirts with inclusion on my list. Oh, gotta add “Duke Of Earl” as one of my most hated songs. Talk about writing a lazy chorus!), maybe I’ll go with something like The White Stripe’s “My Doorbell” or Weezer’s “Troublemaker”. Yeah, actually “Troublemaker” seems apt- it captures her provocateur side without being too mean to her so she won’t hit me if she knew it was assigned to her.

Those are the easy ones. Some of the others are tougher. Vicky, John’s wife, is easy in that it would be a country song but since I haven’t heard anything by the artists she’s currently into, I’ll have to go with a country song I like so maybe Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar” or Alan Jackson’s “Five O’Clock Somewhere”. I have no idea what my sister is listening to these days, so I’m not sure if I should go with stuff she used to like, such as rap, or with I song I associate with her, like anything on No Doubt’s “Rock Steady” album. I’m leaning towards “Hella Good” or “Sneaking Around”, both of which I like. Mom and Dad are easy. If I do both of their phone numbers (home and Mom’s cell), then I’ll go with Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood”. If I label Mom’s cell phone separately, I’ll give her ABBA’s “Ring Ring” because of our Swedish heritage.

Steve Bondi would be Martika’s “Toy Soldiers” because he liked that song when it came out and also he eventually joined the Army so he actually is a soldier but since he is in as a doctor, he was more of a toy solider. The most important reason though is that it will probably annoy Bondi to know that is my ringtone for him. If he really whines about it, I may agree to change him to “Secret Agent Man” since he used to be an FBI agent as well. Bondi provides me with a plethora of options since at various times he was a lawyer, FBI agent, doctor, soldier, computer programmer, geek and college radio programmer, to say nothing of the possibilities based on his personality. On top of that, he’s married and has three kids, once of which is an adoptee. You know, I think I’m slightly jealous of Steve. Curses! What a bothersome realization! I’ll have to make sure he never finds out. Even though I’m blogging about it…. That isn’t as difficult as it sounds since Steve never reads this. Ah, the benefits of obscurity, even among my friends!

I have a friend that I play poker with, but it will be easy finding one for Faith because she always plays her namesake songs. The only decision will be whether to go with George Michael’s “Faith” or Journey’s “Faithfully”. I sometimes get a call from Cat Thornton and she would be another tough one, like my sister, because I don’t know what music she is into now and what overlap it has on songs I like. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of her favorites are on my least favorite list, particularly since she has ties to New Orleans. Maybe I’ll go with a horse song? I like Michael Martin Murphey’s “Wildfire” which is about a horse. There’s America’s “Horse With No Name” which is not about a horse. I’ll have to think about her selection.

I also get calls from people at work and my boss and I’m thinking that for those I should label all of them with the same ringtone- the John Williams’ score “The Imperial March”. That what plays when Darth Vader makes an entrance in the Star Wars movies. If I’m getting called at home by someone from work, something bad must be happening. Ergo, Darth Vader’s theme. John Williams also has something on the opposite end of the spectrum from evil that is appropriate for a ringtone for me. If any of you give me a ringtone, you may think you should go with the Bee Gees or Billy Joel or Juliana Hatfield or someone else I always ramble on about. All are great artists and there’s tons of good songs to choose from, but what I’d really like is something that fits my idealized version of myself, what I wish I was. For that, the only appropriate choice is John Williams’ “Raiders March”, the theme music from Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Ever since 1981, I’ve wanted to be Indiana Jones. You can make it happen for me, sort of, with the four seconds it takes your phone to ring before you pick it up. Please?

That’s it for ringtone picks right now because I can’t think of anyone else who might call me on my cellphone with any regularity. If you disagree with any of my choices, please let me know what you would have picked and I promise to consider it, as long as it isn’t on my list of hated songs and as long as it isn’t too expensive to download. (Yeah, I know I can get a program to make my own ringtones from a CD, but I’d rather just spend ninety-nine cents to download it.) Some of you may think all this pondering over ringtones is an exercise in frustration, given the antiquated nature of my cellphone. A month ago, you would be right because I’d still be rocking my beloved “Zoolander”-sized phone from 2003. When I went to Florida in October, however, things changed. My mom and I were discussing cellphones during a car ride with my aunt and uncle and Mom claimed that we had very similar phones. Well, aside from both of them having buttons and a screen, no- they are not similar. My phone doesn’t connect to the internet, it doesn’t text very well, it can’t take pictures at all and the screen is the size of a silver dollar. So, no, my Mom’s four year old is much better than mine. At that point, my uncle pulled out his spiffy new smartphone for Mom and I to admire. Mom thought it was nifty but was put off by “all the buttons on the side and all the things to figure out.” Uncle Bill told her she wouldn’t like the iPhone then if she didn’t like side buttons and lots of options. She agreed and we all sheathed our respective phones in our pockets, purses and waist-belt “holsters”.

The next day, my uncle showed me an iPhone 3G that he had lying around. It was sitting on a shelf because he wasn’t using it anymore and he wondered if I wanted it as a replacement for my own caveman-era Samsung. Um, yeah! I told him to think about it overnight because if he still felt that way the next day, I’d definitely take the phone off his hands. Don’t iPhones cost about $200? Heck yeah I want it. When my phone dies, I’m getting an iPhone, so why not have one handy for when that happens. So I left Florida with a free iPhone. Thanks, Bill! That is awesome. Two weeks later my old phone died. Talk about serendipity.

My next day off, I swing by the AT&T store to activate the iPhone and to see how horrendously expensive it will be to get a new phone/text/web package to go along with the new phone because there is no way I will have the phone for just phone calls. That defeats the purpose of a smartphone. I got really irritated when I tried to return a text message with my old phone. I had to push a button three or four times to get the appropriate letter to appear in text message and then I repeated that slow process for each of the other letters in the text. Not surprisingly, I texted very little and they were always short messages. And they cost me twenty cents a text, coming and going. I wanted all the bells and whistles this time. In fact, a bell and a whistle are some of the options for what plays as the alarm sound on my alarm clock feature although I went with the xylophone since I won’t confuse that sound with anything else. I hear alarm noises so often (cars, smoke alarms, TV cop shows) that I ignore them but when was the last time you heard a xylophone playing?

To upgrade my current phone only plan to the AT&T digital plan which included normal web browsing was an extra…. $15 per month? Oh, definitely sign me up. You Tube here I come! If I become a heavy user (i.e. Facebook addict on top of the You Tube usage), that package is only an extra $25 a month. Okay, I’m diving into the future. Granted, with a 3G iPhone, it is the future circa 2008 but that’s still a big step up for me. So for the last few days, I’ve been playing with my phone, checking out websites, transferring numbers, figuring out all the features. It’s been really neat. The next challenge is the App Store. When I tried loading the Angry Birds or Facebook or Netflix apps, I get the message that my phone needs to be updated with the 3.0 software first. Well, my dial-up modem at home doesn’t do that very well- I’m getting error messages every time I try- and the internet access at work blocks iTunes. Not the whole Apple site, just iTunes which is where the phone software updates are housed for some reason. Hey, Steve Jobs- I’ll buy stuff from iTunes. You don’t have to force me to go there. First though, I need to get my phone fully functional. Can I go to an Apple store and get them to do it for me?

Even at halfway operational, my new phone is way more cool than the old one. So ringtone selection is not just a theoretical exercise anymore. It will soon be a reality and I will know who is calling me before I even look at the phone and I will be able to make calls to other people at the same time I’m adding movies to my Netflix queue. How awesome! Of course, the conversation that follows will probably be less inspiring which is why it is so important that you make my ringtone be “Raiders March”. That way, when we discuss how much longer it is before I arrive or what to get at the store, we will both be humming that theme. Bum ba dum ba, bum ba dum! Doesn’t that make you feel happy? Technology will soon take the place of narcotics. I’m hooked already.

Monday, September 6, 2010

I Am A Rock, I Am An Island

Someone I know from college writes a blog about writing. Every Tuesday she diligently posts something about her life or an observation she had that week and then ties it back to the task of writing. Sometimes she makes very astute observations, like her post about cheap beer and Walter Matthau. Other times they are humorous and only vaguely relate to writing but then occasionally she makes me wonder why she bothered at all that week, like the post about the escaping biscuits ( Really? Like biscuits will motivate me to write? I couldn't help but to think that if you don’t have a topic that resonates, why bother writing anything at all? Today as I’m staring at several gaping holes in my apartment walls, I suddenly understand her biscuits. It’s the same as my story about the flower.

Back in third grade, we had a story contest one day. Every kid spent the afternoon class session writing and illustrating a short story. We weren’t exactly little Hemingways though, with a pipe clenched in our teeth as we pounded out a masterpiece on a typewriter in the Caribbean sun. No, these were really short stories, like about five pages long on wide rule paper and in the big block letters we had just recently mastered, accompanied by some hilariously bad drawings. At the end of the class, we read our stories out loud and then voted on which was best. My story was about a flower, not exactly a typical boy subject and I have no idea why I picked it, but what I did was change the perspective of the narrator. I wrote from the point of view of the flower and how he- yes, at least it was a boy flower- felt about what was going on in his world. Of course, a flower’s world is pretty narrow. It’s all about getting watered, avoiding bugs or cutting shears and not liking the taste of bug spray. Still, this was a different approach from everyone else in class and it struck a chord with them so they picked my story as the winner. I got the prize- a LifeSavers candy storybook (5 LifeSavers rolls packaged to look like a book.) Aside from my first taste of the delicious flavor of butter rum LifeSavers, winning the contest was an amazing feeling and probably the single biggest reason I became infatuated with story-telling.

That’s what the biscuits were really about. Trying to imagine the biscuits’ motivation for escaping their tube was the same as my flower story. It’s not so much the topic as it is about the exercise of writing and trying to uncover something that makes a connection. The connection can be with the person reading the post, it can be about tying into the themes you’ve developed previously or even about digging into your own mind and seeing things you had never consciously thought about before. These gaping holes in the walls were making me do that right now. About two months ago, my condo association informed the tenants that the windows on our building were thirty years old and needed to be replaced as part of some long-term improvements to the building walls. About a month ago, they told us how much it would cost and where to send the check. No credit cards would be accepted. So not only do I have to pay to replace windows which still work fine, but I can’t charge them. My bank account does not like that.

Now there are guys standing in my bedroom, using hammers and crowbars to smash out my window frame, spraying caulk and wood shards everywhere. The carpet is peeled back and all my furniture has been shoved aside so they can get to the windows. If my home is supposed to be a castle, then I’m being invaded right now. The barbarians have breached the gate and are determined to give me a home makeover. I’m a little bit shaken right now because I have issues with change. I enjoy a modest change of pace, like when I’m deciding where to go on a vacation or if I’m picking a place for dinner. Also, I voraciously listen to new music; you are much more likely to find me scouring the airwaves for something new to hear than tuning in to the retro station that plays “oldies” from the 1980’s. I’d rather hear the new song from Crystal Castles or Interpol than I would hearing Journey or Madonna played yet again, much as I love “Into The Groove”, “Material Girl”, “Separate Ways” or “Stone In Love.” (Although it was awesome to hear the cast of the show Glee cover those artists and songs, especially “Vogue” and “Don’t Stop Believing”- plus a WTF cover of Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance”.)

Still, this doesn’t overcome the fact that major upheavals bother me. I’ve built security into my life, deliberately and probably even unconsciously. For example, I don’t job-hop. I’ve had three jobs since graduating college. I might have been able to find more money if I looked elsewhere but I’d also be the new person and face an uncertain future. Would I fit in with everyone? Then if the economy turned downward, like it has recently, I could be the person who gets laid off. I could also be bad at my new job and get fired, which is something I worry about. That’s why I’ve tried to find things I can do well and make my living doing them. It boggles my mind that one of my previous roommates had jobs with six different companies in the two years I knew him. I couldn’t do that. When I leave a job, there has to be a really good reason, like the company is about to go out of business, which is what happened with my first job.

I’ve also been cautious about making friends with new people. Yes, part of that is because I’m a bit shy but also people can be crazy. You never know if you’ll find a lifelong friend or if you’ll run into the person who texts you every hour to see “wassup?” For every friend I make at school or from work, there are a dozen people who are like Alex Lee, who thought the CIA was spying on him with cameras in the walls or like Jim Beahm who moved out suddenly because the bill collectors had finally found out where he was. I value the friends I have and try to keep them. Nothing kills me so much as a friend who disappears. I’m still upset about Daniel, one of my best friends from high school, who I haven’t heard from since junior year of high school despite my efforts to keep in touch through college and the first few years afterward. Now I’m worried about Amelia, my sort-of “pen pal” from AAA, who recently moved back to Virginia but didn’t tell me her new address, email or phone number. I might have thought it was deliberate but since she will read and comment on my blog, I’m still hoping it was unintentional. And don’t even get me started about Julie. That’s a really, really long story.

As a trained psychologist would probably assume (when doing a case study about how nuts I am), I’m very particular about my possessions too. I hate loaning out books or DVDs because I worry about how people will treat them. I hate cracked spines on paperbacks or torn dust-jackets on hardbacks. Also, I still don’t understand how rental DVDs get scratched up. You take them out of the case, put them into the player then back in the case when you are done. The only way to scratch them would be to put them somewhere other than those two places but why on earth would you do that? Nor do I let people borrow my car and I would think someone was crazy if they wanted to borrow some of my clothes (and I would definitely question their fashion sense because I’m not exactly cutting edge.) Not that I don’t want to share or I couldn’t buy another one if something happened to them but if they come back damaged or worn out, it messes with my sense of security. That’s part of the reason I don’t have a roommate anymore. I liked having another person around, despite my “people are crazy” comment, but they weren’t as concerned about protecting my stuff and maintaining my sense of comfort. They would smoke inside and not care that they burned holes in the carpet. They didn’t take out the trash or clean the bathtub. Sometimes I’d come home on a Wednesday night looking forward to having some peace and quiet only to find a dozen people in my place having an impromptu party. Of course my roommate wouldn’t clean up afterward. It drove me crazy. If I can’t maintain control over my own things and my own space, how can I control the rest of the chaos that exists in the world?

So maybe you can imagine how I feel about the windows being replaced. The windows in the sunroom, the second bedroom and the master bedroom, including the floor-to-ceiling window, were being torn out. These guys weren’t careful either. When they were done with a drill, they would rest it on top of my books. Buckets of caulk sat on the carpet, no one covered or removed their shoes after walking across the lawn and their McD’s drinks left wet rings on my shelves. Heck, one of the guys even made fun of me for having so much stuff in my bedroom. Yeah, I got mocked by a stranger in my own home! Another guy did such a poor job of caulking a window at first that I could actually see outside through the crack he left uncovered. I had to get him back in to finish it up, otherwise all the creepy crawlies from outside would be have a big doorway in and my existing slight spider concern would be more like that William Shatner movie Kingdom Of The Spiders. (It was on TV in the 70’s, right during my impressionable years.) I should have been a sobbing mess curled up on the floor. I wasn’t though and that was a big surprise to me. I felt worse the day before when I was moving the furniture away from the windows than I did when my walls were getting indelicately gutted.

The reason I didn’t feel that bad is quite paradoxical. Now that I was standing in the opening they made in my bedroom and looking at the results, I saw that my apartment was really just a bunch of concrete and wood put together thirty years ago by some unknown workers who could care less if everything was perfect as long as it passed inspection. Slap on some paint and add carpet to make it look nicer and that was my place. When it was being built, I’m sure there were old coffee cups strewn around and there was sawdust, nails and broken sheetrock everywhere and besides, someone else had lived here before me. It wasn’t an untouched sanctuary or some stronghold of perfection. It was the place lived in by a guy who hates to dust, who leaves his jogging clothes lying on a kitchen chair, who pounded dozens of holes in the wall to hang pictures and who has mold he can’t get to in the cracks of his shower stall. I have slowly added to the imperfection of this place. Home & Garden will not be featuring me in their magazine. So as I stared at the peeled up carpet, I thought about my friend’s blog and wondered what she would do with this situation. If she could use biscuits to find some insight into writing and to her view of the world, surely I could do something with major property demolition. I started thinking about why I felt so strongly about having some constants in my life, why I hung onto possessions, why I didn’t naturally seek out big changes. In other words, why I was basically a wuss.

I finally decided that it had a lot to do with moving around as a kid. I think that made me adverse to impermanence or shaking things up. I was an Army brat and moved every couple of years. I was born in Maryland, in Aberdeen, but my family didn’t stay there too long. By the time I was four years old and living in Germany, I had already moved from Maryland to Florida to Sweden and then Michigan. In Florida, we stayed with my grandmother and in Sweden we were with Mormor and Morfar. At an early age I was around many people who loved me. Then we left them for Michigan. And then on to Germany, all by age four. I might not have been old enough to think rationally most of those four years but some impressions or feelings must have sunk into my psyche. One of my very first memories is from Germany and it’s about loss and attachment. A neighbor lady locked herself out of her apartment but her kitchen window was open. I was playing nearby with some other kids and she wanted me to get up on the trash dumpster and climb through her kitchen window and unlock the door. I thought it would be fun to do that but I was hesitant about her suggestion to leave my toy guns and holster behind since I might not fit through the window with them on. I liked climbing but I didn’t want to take off my holster and leave it on top of the dumpster. What if the trash truck came and took it away? Even though the lady promised to keep an eye on it, I didn’t want to do it. Some other kid ended up going in because I couldn’t leave my stuff behind, much as I really wanted to climb through a window. Why would I be so concerned about my stuff at such a young age? Didn’t four and five-year olds leave toys lying around everywhere? I must have already developed some attachment issues.

After Germany, we went back to Florida for a few weeks and then on to Fort Lee in time for elementary school. On base at Fort Lee, I made friends with some neighborhood kids. Pat Kelly and Mike Gunnels were my main friends but I did play with Matt and a couple others whose names escape me. We watched cartoons, played in the woods and creeks, pretended to be Star Trek characters, climbed trees and drainage pipes, tore down rain gutters, all the things kids did. My grandparents also came to visit- Morfar taught me how to ride a bike while Granny and I looked for rocks in the creek. It was nice. Then we moved to Chester. Middle school was all about Chester. That’s where I met Paige Bowles, my first “real” girlfriend, Chris Hubbard, my new best friend, Scott Gregg, my next-door neighbor and friend but also the first person I got into a fist-fight with. There were also some other kids, like Clint Arthur- the KISS fan- and Janelle Pope. Chester is what I consider as my typical childhood period. Right at the end of middle school (Carver Middle School), we moved again, to Colonial Heights. I’m not sure why this move happened. Dad wasn’t relocated because he still worked at Ft. Lee and we only moved about a dozen miles away. Still, since I wasn’t driving age yet it meant I only saw Chris and Paige at school but since Paige was older than us, she hung out with other kids at school. This is when I also became friends with Daniel Nabors, Vince Remcho, David Eaton and John Dobbin. Just as it became time for high school, the next big period of a kid’s life, I was in a new house. Naturally this move put me in a new school district so two-thirds of the people I knew from Carver went to L.C. Bird while I went to Thomas Dale.

I lived close enough to John and Daniel that Mom didn’t mind driving me over there sometimes and later I could drive myself over sometimes but still I had to make some new friends at my new school or it would be a very lonely four years. It seems like each year I added a small new group. One year was cementing friendships with the holdovers from Carver, another year was getting to know the comics and D&D group like William Guyther and Darryl & Terry Midgette. Then there was the German Club years where I met Carla Boardman, David Gardner, Jesse and Herschel Alexander, Cheryl (now Cat) Thornton, Jody Rothhaar and the rest of that gang. And of course there was the year with Julie. Eventually, I was driving and working at Ukrops so I had my own mode of transportation and a little money. I made a few work friends too, people I played volleyball with on summer evenings after work or that I went to school with and got reacquainted with, like Daniel or Kevin Blevins. Things were going well. Then John moved to northern Virginia and I had no official best friend anymore, except Julie but don’t get me started on Julie. A whole set of abandonment issues came from just that one relationship. Still, I had a nice group of friends and I was starting to feel comfortable. And then I graduated and went off to college.

Only about five people from my high school went to my college and none of them were more than casual classmates. I went to William and Mary and most of my friends and classmates went to UVA or some other school like James Madison. The rest of my friends were still a year behind me so I lost them too and had yet another fresh start in front of me. During my first year in college, I think I had literally four old friends that I was still in touch with. If I wasn’t already sensitive about losing friends, that would have done it right there. Freshman year was a struggle because I had to reconcile separating from the friendships I’d finally developed and maintained for more than two years plus my family I’d been with during every move and I was in a new place where I had very little that was mine alone. College ended up being great though because it was four years in one place, relatively speaking. Yes, I did move around campus- first Faquier, then Giles, off-campus to Monticello, then Old Dominion, Chandler and Chandler again- but it wasn’t like I wasn’t able to see people. It is a fairly small school. Heck, sometimes I was in other people’s buildings more than my own, especially if you include computer labs. Still, in the back of my mind was that concern that I would have to leave people behind. I knew either graduation would come or people would eventually disappear. At one point, I was even trying to deliberately isolate myself from feeling connected to anything because I knew that the same thing that happened before, that happened after high school, would happen again. Junior year my favorite song was Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am A Rock” because of the lyrics- “I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain…I am a rock, I am an island…I have my books, and my poetry to protect me; I am shielded in my armor, hiding in my room, safe within my womb, I touch no one and no one touches me. I am a rock, I am an island, and a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.”

In one sense, I knew it was a sham. I understood that the song was about needing people even if that need causes some pain eventually. It made me feel good though to repeat the lyrics and to think that maybe, just maybe, it was possible to avoid those feelings. It was just a matter of time though. School wouldn’t go on forever (although I tried to stretch it out with an extra semester and a summer school session.) In fact, I was already getting a taste of the inevitable. One summer I was at Ft. Bragg for six weeks for ROTC and then right after graduation I was at Ft. Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis for three months so I was again separated from people and in a new place for an extended period of time. (Just to wrap up all my moves, after school and the Army training, I was in Williamsburg for a couple months and then Centreville for two years and then Vienna until finally ending up in Oakton.) I couldn’t make anything stay the way I wanted it. People were fluid, life dictated location. That’s why I tried to think of my apartment as a fortress. Here, nothing changed unless I wanted it to. I could be near my friends- my parents couldn’t make me move somewhere else and lose them. Again, that was a sham. Elizabeth changed jobs, John got married, Steve moved to Seattle, Leona got married, Trevor fell out of touch, my parents moved to North Carolina, my grandparents died, roommates moved out, people stopped keeping in touch. Life happened even if I was pretending it didn’t. There was nothing I could do about it. That’s what I contemplated as I stared out the windowless window, at the huge holes in the walls and in my psyche.

Nothing in life is permanent. That’s a hard fact for me to accept. I’ve spent decades denying that, trying to hang onto things, to people and to the past even though I got hints to the contrary, both big ones (my grandparents dying, my hair disappearing) and small ones (girlfriends dumping me, my little sister having a baby). Heck, I’ve kept shoes and clothes I can no longer wear just because they remind of an earlier time. I doubt I’m ever again going to put on the Cub Scout uniform hanging in my closet and I’d be embarrassed to wear that electric blue sleeveless muscle shirt that Julie gave me for my birthday in 1985. I was embarrassed by it when it was still in fashion (i.e. the summer of 1985). I’ve let myself become petrified in both senses of the word. Fear has kept me frozen in place but it also made me feel comfortable about my immobilization- because a rock feels no pain- but I’m beginning to feel differently. As I move my furniture back where it belongs, I think that it might look better arranged a different way. I decide to toss out the pair of running shoes I used in ROTC since they hurt when I wear them now. I pull a box of mementos out from under the bed and decide to sort through them. I look at the curtains and window shade and think how old, faded and dusty they are. Maybe they should be replaced. Something with a nicer color, maybe light blue.

I think about the first time I played Texas Hold’em poker with someone besides John and what came out of that. You might be surprised to learn that I usually don’t get involved in social situations on my own because I’m no good at superficial conversation. Rather than make small talk, I’ll say nothing, which isn’t an effective conversational skill and doesn’t really endear you to a group of people. Unless you are really good looking, which I clearly am not, because then anything is excusable. On my good days, I pretend that I’m “Not Ugly”. One evening I overcame my inhibitions and walked into a bar by myself and talked to a bunch of strangers in order to play poker with them. I came back the following week and did it again. That took some effort for me but I ended up making some poker friends that I can now talk to during a game, which led to a group I now periodically play poker with on weekends. I’ve also done a few other things with the group that doesn’t involve poker at all. When things get set in motion, all kinds of things can happen and sometimes those turn out to be good things. If I hadn’t left Chester, I would never have gone to Thomas Dale and met my German Club friends. If I hadn’t left Waxie Maxie’s or Forbes, I would have been out of a job when the companies folded and the locations became a nail salon, a Baja Fresh ad a Target. If I hadn’t won that story contest, I might never have started writing.

Other things have started to change too. I’ve started talking to strangers when I’m on vacation, which has led to some really fun trips lately. I’ve stopped thinking that I have to become best friends with someone I meet. Instead, I can just enjoy them for who they are and for however long we are in touch. That’s a big difference since the days of writing to Elizabet Alm, the girl I met in Sweden who lived near Moster Iris and Morber Sven’s summer cottage. It turns out that transatlantic pre-teen pen-pal friendships with non-English speakers don’t work too well. I’ve learned to accept the temporary nature of some friendships and be able to enjoy the connection while it’s happening. Betsy & her husband and Kirk & Millie from the Black Sea trip were great to know, even if I won’t see them again and wasn’t anywhere near their age range. I loved having them ask me if they should save me a place at their table that night- it made me feel like I was one of the characters from Cheers. I’m glad I could hang out with the girl I met on a 6-hour tour with my parents while in Iceland even if I never saw her again after the tour. Tara was a marvelous person to talk to on the Danube trip. Not only was she intelligent and witty but most of all she reminded how it feels to make new friends and why it’s worth doing. The meals and tours I shared with her and her mom were much more enjoyable then they would have been on my own. She helped me remember there are so many interesting people in the world that it would be a shame not to try to meet them. At some point, every one of my friends was a stranger before I got to know them. Why stop now? What other fun experiences are waiting among the other 5 billion people in the world?

Where I live is just concrete and wood. It isn’t who I am. It’s a reflection of me, but it isn’t me. Just like a wall can be torn down, I can change what I do. I can be remodeled too. I shouldn’t be scared to demolish things and rebuild them if it might make them better than now they are now. When this thought came to me, I realized this explains my fascination with checking out houses under construction. When I see a new house being built, I’ll go inside and check it out. I love to walk through them and see the unfinished walls and imagine what the rooms will look like when they are done. I imagine where I would put furniture, where my den would be and what countertops will go into the kitchen. The construction represents new beginnings and possibilities. You can make the house into what you want it to be. Each house is a little different from any other and what you fill it with makes it even more different. Subconsciously, I embraced the idea of change and reinvention. If I love new houses and unpacking and organizing a room, why wouldn’t I want to do that with myself? I can’t do the impossible, like keep every friend I every made, have absolute professional and financial security, live where and in I want (a castle in Sweden; See, I said impossible)- but at least I ought to take some steps to start getting as close as I can. That means changes.

The other day I watched the recent remake of the movie The Women. Aside from the fact that none of the new women could match Rosalind Russell from the 1939 original, two other things stood out. First, I couldn’t connect with the characters and not because they were stereotypes. I couldn’t relate to their surroundings. These women lived in houses that I drool over. If I can’t live in a castle, their places would be a nice second best. The other thing that stood out was the plot’s crucial questions- who are you and what do you want? Meg Ryan’s character had defined herself as her husband’s wife until he started cheating on her and then she had no identity left. She looked at what she wanted out of life and what needed to be done to achieve that. She made the necessary changes in her life to find long-term happiness. This meant becoming a clothes designer, something she had dreamed of in her youth, and getting her eventually chastised husband back, on her terms. She got both these things, because it is a Hollywood movie starring Meg Ryan. My life is more like Memento, a series of sidetracks and false starts, self-delusion, and the inability to put the past behind me and find love. Still, the questions are legitimate and honest, even if they came from the Hollywood cliché factory.

The windows have now been replaced and I can easily see the lapses in craftsmanship. The caulking was done hurriedly, the carpet was not put back securely, there is debris in the screen and the walls are scuffed up. The area is a bit messed up but still serviceable. It’s definitely not perfect but then nothing is ever perfect so why delude myself that it can be? As if to drive this point home, I got a call from the condo board contact the week after the window went in to tell me that it wasn’t installed quite right and the workers needed to come back and adjust it a bit. So they stomped back in, tore up the carpet again, removed the caulk, refit the window and then smeared more caulk around the edges. I put all the furniture back in place again, glad that it was all over and tried to figure out which is better- to change radically or over time. Two days after that I got a call saying that things still weren’t right. So the workers needed to come back yet again to readjust the window they just finished adjusting. My fortress was invaded by incompetent assailants, again. The world will get in and mess stuff up no matter what I do. Another song came to mind at this point, not doubt stirred up from the fog of the past by my thinking of my living space as a fortress. Yes, Sting’s song "Fortress Around Your Heart".

The lyrics seem to talk about someone building a fortress around their heart (duh!) and keeping everyone out. If you take a closer look though, it has the same deceptive slant that the Simon & Garfunkel song has. The fortress isn’t supposed to keep people out- it was built by Sting to keep the occupant at bay, to cut them off from affecting him, until he realizes that his only chance for happiness is to topple the towers and reconnect even though it will be dangerous because of what he had done before. Here are some of the lyrics: “And if I built this fortress around your heart, encircled you in trenches and barbed wire, then let me build a bridge for I cannot fill the chasm, and let me set the battlements on fire… Then I went off to fight some battle that I'd invented inside my head, away so long for years and years, you probably thought or even wished that I was dead… This prison has now become your home, a sentence you seem prepared to pay. As I returned across the lands I'd known I recognized the fields where I'd once played. I had to stop in my tracks for fear of walking on the mines I'd laid”. If Sting can admit he made mistakes- at least as the lyrics imply- and should make amends and changes, then surely I can do the same.

As if to drive the point home, my hair dryer finally died around the same time. (War metaphors, hair dryers- yeah, Sting and I are simpatico.) I had owned it since college, when it was still necessary to dry my hair so it looked okay and I wouldn’t catch a cold by going out in winter with wet hair. Nowadays it is more of a pointless habit. Still, it was another sign that I couldn’t live in the past. It would eventually die off around me and I would be left out to dry. (See Sting, I can do metaphors too. Or is that a bad pun?) Next, my hallway got flooded. One day at work, I got a call from the condo association contact that the apartment below mine was getting flooded and had something burst in my apartment? Not being home, I could really answer that question but I sped home to check out the situation. When I arrived the carpet in my hallway was soaked, the sofa was wet and a picture had fallen off the wall because of all the water coming down from the ceiling. It turns out that the water heater in the apartment above mine had burst and water poured down the walls to drench my apartment and what little didn’t soak into the carpet continued on down to the tenant beneath me. I spent more than an hour using towels to soak up the water from the carpets and then eventually peeled back the edge of the carpet so air could get underneath and dry things out so mildew wouldn’t develop. As if it wasn’t enough of a sign to have my windows bashed out, I was now getting rained on indoors. How more permeable could my sanctum get? The rug was being pulled out from under me. Or at least washed out from under me. Could things get any more obvious?

Apparently, yes. There was one final sign to come. At first, I was going to wrap up this blog by using the water-heater as a metaphor for my life and the need to change. It was a good analogy too- about how I need to periodically make adjustments and replace/change things before the pressure built up too much or else things would burst and spill out, destroying everything around me. It would make sense since I had asked myself the questions from “The Women”, which are who am I and what do I want? I already know who I am. I don’t need to go Eat Pray Love to find myself. I also know what I want. No Visionquest required here. What I didn’t have was the motivation to seek out these things that would make me happier than I am now. I was afraid to make the effort. I wanted to stay in my fortress, locked deep within my room, with my poetry and sarcasm and rituals to shield me. To be a rock and an island. It wasn’t working though. It gets lonely and boring if you think friendship only causes pain, if you touch no one and no one touches you.

That’s when the third sign came about. You may not believe in signs but if you start looking for connections and odd coincidences, you’d be surprised how often you find them. For instance, I saw the movie Machete the other day. It was stupid fun and I like how some older, semi-forgotten stars were called back into action, kind of like a PG-13 version of The Expendables. Machete had Don Johnson in a major role and as I got in my car after the movie, the very first song playing on the radio was “Heartbeat”, Johnson’s lone pop hit, from the 1980’s. How often does that get played nowadays? Coincidence? Maybe but it could also be a sign of universal synchronicity. Anyway, my home sent me one last kick in the pants when my clock radio stopped working. Well, more accurately, the alarm function stopped working. The time displays correctly and the radio still plays but the alarm stopped going off. I had this particular clock radio since right after college, when my roommate Trevor gave it to me as an un-housewarming gift, when I moved out of the apartment in Centreville to relocate closer to my job in Bailey’s Crossroads. If I was looking for a sign or appropriate metaphor for making changes, it can’t get more obvious than this- I needed to find a new way to wake up because my old way wasn’t working. My wake-up call wouldn’t happen unless I made some changes.

So what started with people smashing holes in my walls ended up with an “ah ha!” moment about biscuits, which reminded me of the flower, which triggered thoughts of globe-trotting and songs about fortresses and rocks, the benefits of poker and how an indoor waterfall was a sign from the universe that it was time to get a wake-up call from a non-functioning alarm clock. It seems pretty clear, right? It’s time to get off my butt if I want things to be different. Change happens regardless of whether I want it to, so I should start embracing it and trying to steer it in the direction I want to go. I’ll have to come up with a new song to like. Maybe Twisted Sister because of the opening line “What do you want to do with your life?” But then again, no- I should stay away from rocks from now on. As I look through my CDs though, I don’t see anything that jumps out at me. Most of the songs about change seem to be about mortality or finding new love and that’s not really what I’m talking about. I guess it is appropriate that I can’t find the right thing in the past I’ve accumulated. I’ll just wait for the right song to find me, something that is new and yet to be discovered, the way life should be. Let’s hit the road, Jack, because life is a highway and time keeps on slipping into the future.

A Plug For Richard's Recommended Reading Site

I thought I would do a little shameless pimping of a new blogsite I started just recently ( ) by re-posting the first, and as of now only, post here since I actually wrote some commentary to preface it. The new site is really just a place to post articles, stories, etc.. that other people wrote but that I found interesting and wanted to bring to the attention of people I know in case they were also interested in seeing them. In some cases I might comment on a posting at that site but mostly it is for stuff other than my own.

Richard’s Recommended Reading # 1 (Aug 27, 2010)

I was debating what article to post here to kick off this particular blog. I thought about some grand political statement, I thought about some snarky but insightful humorous piece, I even considered some cartoons from cartoonists I liked. Since there is a very slight possibility I could get in trouble with this site since the stuff I'm posting here with respect and appreciation might be copyrighted, I figured I should make it about a big idea. Ultimately, I decided to go with something I read last night because it reflects something I've been feeling. It's not any dramatic thing; in fact it might even be considered frivolous. It's a simple plaint to see a movie. Yes, it's an article about watching a movie. The reason it resonates with me is because the writer isn't really writing a review. He's begging people to go see a movie because if the movie- Scott Pilgrim Versus The World- fails, it might be one the final nails in the coffin of original moviemaking. It might lead to the movie apocalypse. That's right- it might lead to Transformers 3.

I loved Scott Pilgrim when I watched it two weeks ago and that actually surprised me a bit because I was really looking forward to it. Usually when I anticipate a movie, I get disappointed because the movie I concocted in my head is nothing like the bland, unoriginal waste of time that ends up onscreen. Paying $10 to be disappointed is not my idea of a good time. For instance, I saw Piranha 3D last Friday and I hated it. Not for the reasons you would expect though. I imagined it would be a well-done homage/deconstruction of horror movies, like Lake Placid and Scream were. Instead, I got a movie that had a great set-up, dropped in some potential threads of social commentary and then threw it all away so it could get to its' unexpected reason for existing- to create one of the biggest gorefest finales ever put on screen. If I liked gratuitous gore and disgusting images, I would have been in heaven. Instead, I felt bad for dragging my friend along to see it. I also felt bad for Elizabeth Shue for being in it.

So that's why Scott Pilgrim deserves to be seen. It's an original movie that uses its' unexpected twists, unique style and odd special effects to advance the story and provide humor. I will go see it again because I care about good movies. I don't want studios to put out another Clash Of The Titans or The Bounty Hunter. I want good movies like Scott Pilgrim. I want bold risks that pay off. I want to see movies I'll remember for years, not ones I've forgotten by the following weekend. I think I may have made the article below extraneous because I've said the same thing the writer says below, but it is a sentiment that resonates with me today, as I try to decide whether I want to see The Expendables or the extended version of Avatar or if I would be better off seeing Scott Pilgrim again. Even though I still don't like Michael Cera.

Go and Pay to See Scott Pilgrim Right Now
(By John Lopez, Vanity Fair, Aug 2010)

Let me get straight to the point: Go and pay to see Scott Pilgrim right now. Why, you ask? Well, check out last weekend’s box-office totals. See Scott Pilgrim? Keep looking—it’s down there at No. 10. It made only $5 million dollars in its second weekend of release, a 53 percent drop from the first weekend, with a total domestic gross of $20 million. That’s not good. (Trust me when I say “not good”: Universal not only spent a lot making this, it spent a lot marketing it. They had to market the hell out of it because it was something you probably hadn’t heard about before—you know, the way movies used to be.) The film’s dismal performance is pretty disheartening for anyone who’s a fan of the new, as opposed to the stale, trite, and cliche, because whatever Scott Pilgrim is, it is definitely not stale, trite, or cliche. It doesn’t redo old ideas, revisit threadbare conceits, or remake twice-told stories in a tired way. In fact, it’s good. Or, if you’re searching for movie-critic adjectives, you could call it “different,” “fresh,” and “innovative,” if not “cool,” “fun,” “heart-warming,” “intelligent,” and/or “awesome.” (Have fun with those, blurb-makers!) Listen, if A.O. “Nashville’s-the-Greatest-Movie-Ever” Scott can recommend a film aimed at video-game-junkie twentysomethings, whose themes and characters are as important to him as a Surgeon General’s Warnings is to Don Draper, there’s probably something there. And if you haven’t noticed, it’s been an atrocious year for movies. That’s not just our opinion: it’s so bad even studio executives are ringing up agents with frantic “Oh my God, what have we done” conference calls to ask, “Oh my God, what have we done?”
So, if the movies have been so bad—if, as we complain, there’s nothing good playing—why is a good movie having such a hard time finding an audience? Scapegoats include Michael Cera’s ability to “open” a movie (though pretty much every actor gets that stigma these days); the inability of audiences to understand what the movie is (so we see only movies that can be easily summarized in canned tag lines? Like what, for example? Inception?); and, of course, comics and fan boys. (Right, because those people definitely don’t pay to go see movies.) Maybe Scott Pilgrim’s target audience—the Facebook generation—is downloading it instead of paying for a movie ticket. It’s hard to say if that’s true, but if it is: please, even if you’ve already illegally downloaded Scott Pilgrim, posted it on your Wall, and exported it to your iPhone 4, I assure you it’s much better on the big screen—almost as if that was the way director Edgar Wright intended it to be seen. And guess what, it wasn’t hastily converted to 3D either, so you don’t have to pay an extra $5 to wear funny glasses, watch an underlit screen, and get a migraine. So, put down the iPad (especially if you’re driving), turn left at the multiplex, and go buy a ticket. Tonight. Come on, it’s a Tuesday in mid-August, where else do you have to be? Plus, if you live in the lower 48, I can guarantee it’s a lot cooler in that theater. What’s with the pushiness, you ask? Why is this so important? Well, one could argue, if you’ve ever complained at all about the woeful state of cinematic storytelling—how you get more engaging narratives in email forwards than you do at the movies these days—a healthy aversion to hypocrisy pretty much compels you to get your butt in that seat. See, as much as we like to complain about cynical studios and throwaway films, the fact is they make money—or just enough money to justify the bad habits. And if you must know, that’s what studios are trying to do (make money). Further, they don’t make junk out of some callous desire to inflict bland pain on our eyeballs. If anything, they inflict bland pain on our eyeballs out of fear: fear that they’ll take a tentative, baby-step stab at something different, something that presents semi-realistic issues, imperfect characters, and complex resolutions in a novel way—and no one will come. And they’ll lose money. And all the nay-sayers will take the box-office numbers as the final word on a movie’s worth. Worse, the studios won’t make those movies because when you’ve bet $100 million on “something new” and come up short, it doesn’t matter if in your heart of hearts you can tell yourself you made a good movie: you’re not going to bet your next $100 million the same way. If you still have a $100 million to bet. Or a job.But I saw Toy Story 3 and Inception, you say. I’m doing my part as homo economicus, driving the market to provide the product I want. Good for you, but at this point, Chris Nolan and Pixar are going to be O.K. They are what you might call a “known quantity,” and Hollywood loves those, because they make for safer bets. But Scott Pilgrim was a risk, a gamble, a leap of faith. The sad-but-true fact is that studios and their corporate parents just don’t know how to do that, and when they do, you need to smack them upside the head with box-office success for them to understand the lesson. There was a different time, a desperate time: when the world was in crisis, the old studio system had collapsed, television was offering great storytelling, and gas was $3 a gallon. The studios had nothing to lose then, so they threw everything against the wall, took risks on new talent and crazy ideas, and we got films like Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, Alien, Rocky, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, A Clockwork Orange, Star Wars, Jaws, Taxi Driver, Grease, Annie Hall, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and, oh yeah, The Godfather. So, it can happen. But only if we, the not-so-faithful moviegoers, make it happen. Because studios, executives, actors, producers, writers, directors, agents, would love nothing more than to make the movies we actually want to see—that is, if we go see them. However, we have to demand better films with our wallets and our eyeballs. If we, as the audience, complain that studios don’t love us enough to give us something really worth our time, then we need to have the self-respect necessary to slay the sell-out stooges who tell us we can’t ask for anything better than Vampires Suck. (If you’d seen Scott Pilgrim, you’d get that reference.) But really, the best reason to go see Scott Pilgrim is because it’s a good movie. It takes a stab at saying something honest in a new way, and has a lot of fun doing it. If you like that kind of thing, and would like to see more of it, please go and pay to see Scott Pilgrim right now. And if you don’t like it, I’ll forward you a really funny YouTube video about double rainbows. You can ROTFL. I’ll be at the theater.

Friday, May 21, 2010

An Audience Of One

I’m not quite sure why I’m posting this particular item. It will only make sense to six people and just one of them is likely to read this blog. I’m not being self-deprecating when I say that either. There really are just six people who will totally understand what I’m including below. Let me lay out the situation. Last week was my birthday (Feel free to imagine me doing the cabbage patch dance and chanting “Yeah, it’s my birthday, go Richard, go Richard!” Feel free to gag at that image as well. I did, when I caught my reflection in the window.) Some friends of mine, six of them to be exact, were nice enough to throw me a birthday party. Since these people are friends of mine, they are, by definition, weird. Again, I’m not being self-deprecating. All my friends really are weird in some way. If you don’t think so, ask me and I’ll tell you how you are slightly strange, a trait I prize in a friend.

For instance, for John it’s the tomato thing. You’re not actually allergic to them, so don’t flip out so much. It’s just a tomato. Ask them to re-do your order without it. I promise you- they aren’t trying to poison you. It’s a tomato, not Ricin. For Cheryl, some of her favorite things are fencing, horses, motorcycles, running, Dobermans and playing with her dragon. Wait, strike those last two. Reverse them. (Yes, I really do wish I was Willy Wonka. Why do you ask?) That’s a weird assortment for a girl, especially one who’s not a lesbian. Plus I just found out that one of her all-time favorite movies is Clint Eastwood’s “The Unforgiven”. It’s a great movie but no one I know has ever named it an all-time favorite. Although it’s brilliantly written and directed, it’s also dark, violent, angry, sad, bitter and heart-breaking. For Adam Rifkin, well, I’m not sure where to start. If you know Adam, you’ll agree with me. If you don’t know him, suffice it to say he sometimes goes by anagrams of his name.

So what does making affectionate fun of my friend’s eccentricities have to do with anything? Well, it means that when the six people alluded to above put their heads together to come up with a birthday gift for me, I was not in the least bit surprised that they decided to perform three short selections from David Mamet's “Goldberg Street”, a collection of short plays and monologues. No, they aren’t professional actors. In fact, three of them claim to be really shy and don’t even like having their picture taken much less getting up and performing for a small audience in their backyard. But they did perform and it was awesome. Not necessarily the actual acting but just the fact that they did this goofy, entertaining, original thing. I was bowled over by the fact that they took the time to do this, including some rehearsals and even creating a playbill. Ironically, the day that they decided to do this we were also scheduled to see one of the plays in our subscription series at the Studio Theatre, a play called American Buffalo by David Mamet. Afterwards, we went inside and had a dinner that included several of my favorite foods, meaning shrimp, more shrimp, bread, meat and a blackberry dessert. To show my appreciation for their efforts, I wrote a review of their play. I approached it pseudo-seriously, pretending I was writing a real review for the paper and in the style that such things are usually written.

So if you weren’t one of the six performers, or me (and if you were me…Whoa!), then you won’t catch every reference in the review. You won’t realize that the dog I’m referring to is Humphrey, a plush novelty dog that humps your leg and makes doggie sex noises. You won’t know that Leona actually is an accountant and a lawyer or that the actors in American Buffalo did a fantastic job while my friends were… very enthusiastic. Nor will you realize that they often call me retarded, in jest. I think. Why post this fake review then? Because you may enjoy it nonetheless. Because I’m a hoarder- I can’t dispose of useless things that have sentimental value. Because I adore my friends, even if they have leg-humping toy dogs, tomato anti-fetishes and they empathize with murderous cowboys. I want them to know that I appreciate them, whether they are performing a play exclusively for me, making jokes over dinner, watching a movie with me, or reading about me poking fun at them. Your friendship nourishes me even if I don’t tell you that very often, or out loud with spoken words. You complete me. Okay, now I’m getting a bit sarcastic and the self-deprecation has started, an ugly thing if done incorrectly or if spelled incorrectly, so let’s get to the review now that I’ve put it in context.

A G#d D%mn F&*k$ng Treat! 3 Plays From “Goldberg Street”
(Special report for the Washington Post Mini-Pages, by Richard Goodman, May 2010)

Art can be found in many different places. Sometimes you find it in big red rooms in major museums. Sometimes it’s in the architect’s design for an opera house. Other times it’s a child’s drawing of a cherry tree or the way a dancer moves through a ballet. On a sultry Saturday night, it was found in the comfortable backyard that is home to the Leewood Community Playhouse. The Leewood Players were staging a one-night only revival of some of David Mamet’s lesser-known works as part of a benefit performance for mentally handicapped adults, one of whom was in the audience that night.

The evening got off to a strong start with the short play “Doctor” featuring Leona Taylor as Mrs. Rudin and David Taylor as the titular doctor. The plot was a simple one, an interaction played out a million times a day around the world. A patient, angry about a bill from her uncaring doctor, storms into his office to deliver a scathing dress-down about his attitude, his methods and his diagnosis. Fumbling for a response in the face of her searing anger, the doctor is systematically taken apart until Mrs. Rudin discards him when she righteously tells him to “Kiss my ass!” David Taylor ably played the defensive doctor but the night belonged to Leona Taylor. It has been a long time since this reviewer saw such a powerhouse performance from a relatively novice actor. She embodied the role of the unflinching and indignant patient, who might have some unpleasant surprises in her future. The actress herself though, should face nothing but smooth sailing in her career. She has the versatility to play anything from an irate patient to a steely lawyer, from a nerdish accountant to the sympathetic wife of a raging alcoholic. In fact, her resume already boasts some of those roles, with her multiple appearances in the Law & Order franchises and the Broadway chestnut “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. Here’s hoping there are more such impressive performances in the future.

For the next play, “4 A.M”, the director herself stepped onto the stage to put her distinctive stamp on the proceedings. Although she had no experience portraying the hard-boiled streets essayed by David Mamet, having cut her teeth on mainstream fare like Police Woman and Diagnosis Murder, Elizabeth Glowicz ably acquitted herself as the slightly bemused talk show host egging on a possibly deranged caller. Nancy Manning had the role of the off-kilter caller, who might be insane, might be a prophet or might simply be lonely and looking for a sympathetic ear. The caller thought that the movie “2001” secretly unveils a plan to bring the dead back to life and re-populate them on the planet Jupiter. Ms. Manning embodies the role of the caller of uncertain mental stability and draws on her vast life experience to make the caller believable and touching. The director deftly juggles healthy skepticism and logistical conundrums. How do we decide who gets brought back to life? Do the old get reconstituted? What about suicides who don’t want to be alive to begin with? Assuming there is some process to handle these questions, how do we then get them to Jupiter? Will they get along once they are there? After a few days, won’t they be bored by the lack of nightlife and entertainment on Jupiter? Will it acceptable to call these reconstituted people “zombies” or will they be referred to by the more politically correct term “life-challenged individuals”?

Although the actors sometimes stepped on each other’s lines, they found a previously undiscovered humor in Mamet’s work. As you laughed along with their inspired line readings, you also gave serious thought to the questions that were brought up and whether having an insane idea automatically makes someone insane. Ms. Glowicz switched cadences at times, both as an homage to typical Mamet-speak and to maximize the laughs in the dialogue, which is the same approach she took to staging these plays. The intensity was amped up for serious parts and the normal stuff was mined for laughs. The other Mamet work currently appearing in DC, American Buffalo, swipes this style for their show but to a much less effective degree. The Leewood Players outperform those appearing in the Studio Theatres’ play and they give a more crowd-pleasing performance, to say nothing of the marvelous dinner included as part of their dinner theatre concept. When you compare to the two plays to each other, Leona Taylor takes the Studio lead, Edward Gero, to school while Nancy Manning “out-Bobby’s” the Bobby character and the unfortunate actor playing Teach can’t manage to find the subtleties and nuance that David Taylor or Ms. Glowicz regularly brought forth.

The last actor of the night matches this level of excellence as well. Paul Manning did the night’s only monologue and it was a fitting close to the night. His acting in “The Dog” hits all the right notes. He finds the human element that sometimes gets missed in a Mamet play. Rather than focusing on the tough exterior that is all too easy to showcase, Manning makes the story one about a man’s love for his dog. Even though the dog shit on the floor, which his owner considers an act of betrayal, he still loves his dog. He loves the dog so much that he takes the time to teach him a lesson and then instructs him to never again shit on the floor or, by extension, on their relationship. The dog apparently takes this lesson to heart and by the end of the monologue, the dog has ecstatically proven his devotion to his owner. He covers his owner with love and the audience goes crazy for this atypical but unabashed love story. It was a perfect way to end the evening.

David Mamet, the playwright, was in the audience and gave a standing ovation to the performance. He tipped his hat in appreciation before heading in to dinner with the cast who brought his words to such vivid life. In his usual fashion, he chomped on his stogie during dinner, stopping only to push in some more shrimp and grits or to down a large glass of wine before shoving the cylindrical object back in his mouth. The colorful character was looking relaxed and tanned and made lengthy discourses on numerous subjects before eventually calling it a night. What a successful night it was too. The city was treated to a rousing show, a respected playwright was celebrated and lots of money was raised for those retarded people.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Year In Music (2009)

When the Internet was going mainstream and people started blogging all the time, everyone was touting how it was the new model for music. Forget record labels. Ordinary people could create buzz for a favorite artist on their personal blog or if they were a musician, they could post their songs on it and get people to listen as soon as they finished recording a song. As a concept, I liked the enthusiasm… and naiveté. The problem with that idea was that if there was no record label, how do you know which of the hundreds of thousands or millions of websites to check out? You could spend all day just looking for sites and sampling music. If you have no job, that sounds like fun but for other people that doesn’t seem practical. Now, I’m not a fan of record labels underpaying artists, keeping their copyrights, dropping them after one flop and muzzling their creativity, but I did like the fact that labels acted as a filter for the crap bands and songs and tried to promote what they felt people would like, and buy. If you didn’t like Warner Brothers’ mainstream pop acts you would buy stuff from the Sub Pop or Wax Trax labels. Nowadays, who knows where you should go, especially for undiscovered bands. Yeah, you can check out the music credits for teen-skewing shows like Gossip Girl, 90210 or Life Unexpected. You could listen to iTunes commercials or you could scour blogs and websites. Or you could just listen to me.

For the last ten years or so, I’ve been compiling a mix CD of my favorite songs of each year. Up until now I’ve just been sending the CD to some friends each year and have never put my opinions out into the wider blogosphere. Of course, the number of people reading this blog is probably much smaller than my circle of friends, which just confirms my record label lament above about the difficulty of finding a reliable source of good music. Still, I like the concept of sharing my favorites with other people so I’m posting the tracking listing for my 2009 CD and for the first time I’ll include some commentary about each track. This was inspired by Juliana Hatfield, who posted a song-by-song commentary about her newest CD. Granted it was four months in advance of the CD, which comes out this month, so I have no idea if the comments provide any insight into the songs but I like the idea of explaining why I enjoy a particular song. (Plus, I just did the blog-buzz thing and talked up an artist I like. I’m sure Juliana Hatfield will now become a major star- the next Colbie Caillat or Lily Allen.) So here are the songs I liked the most for 2009 (or at least the 22 songs that could fit onto the CD) followed by a list of my favorite albums of the year, the most disappointing albums, and all the CDs I listened to this year. So now you have an idea of what you should be listening to, at least according to my eclectic and sometimes questionable taste. Welcome to the new age of music promotion!

Little Boots- New In Town: After seeing this British singer Little Boots raved about in lots of music magazines, I downloaded a song using a free song credit that I had. I was enchanted from the first few seconds. (Since it is a British singer, I can use the word ‘enchanted’ in the description without sounding excessively fey.) The sound is a bit fuzzed out for a pop song and the chorus is a kind of chant-like. It reminded me a bit of Kylie Minogue and you can never hear too much Kylie, even if it isn’t really Kylie. I then bought the whole album and realized I had been subject to a little bait-and-switch. The first two songs, New In Town and Earthquake, were the only ones in the electro-pop style. The rest a more typical pop style songs but I liked them as well. Neither this song nor any others on the album were big hits in the U.S. although several should have been. I found myself humming the chorus to Mathematics and Symmetry for days and even weeks after hearing them. I started the CD with this one because it was unusual and fun but also because it couldn’t possibly follow the next song.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs- Zero: This song was mind-blowing. It was totally original, catchy and offbeat. You have likely heard this song on the radio so I don’t need to go into a lot of depth discussing it. I was surprised though that I liked it because I absolutely hated Maps, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs big breakthrough. It was dull and downbeat and ballad-y. So when it was on lots of critics best-of-the-year lists, I figured I’d never need to buy anything from the YYYs. Kind of the same way I figured I’d never need to buy any Coldplay after hearing the whiny, drippy boring song Yellow. But then Coldplay put out Speed Of Sound and a couple other good songs so I bought Viva La Vida and liked it and the YYYs put out Zero and I bought their album. For once, an acclaimed album deserves the praise. Zero was a great song and so were several others, like Heads Will Roll and Dragon Queen. This song is also proof that I’m not drawn to music by female performers because of their looks. I think Karen O is a bit gawky and plain. She’s no Tyler Swift. Then again, Tyler isn’t a real glamour-puss either. She looks like a cute vampire, or maybe Renee Zellwegger’s kid sister.

Lady Gaga- Summer Boy: By now everyone knows about Lady Gaga and has heard her big hits. When I do my CD, I don’t usually put on the big hits because everyone has already heard them and already gotten sick of them. I want to put on things that are good but mostly unknown so you can discover something new and exciting. This isn’t a “greatest hits” CD. It’s a “best of” CD, and that’s an important distinction. Sometimes the big hits suck and other songs are much more artistically successful. In this case though, I also loved her hits but I’m sick of hearing them right now so I declare a moratorium on them. Also I’m a bit irritated that she had four number one songs from the album- Poker Face, Just Dance, Paparazzi and Love Game. Lady Gaga has now had more number one songs than the Kinks. Does that seem fair? Think of all the great songs the Kinks have had- Lola, All Day And All Of The Night, Come Dancing, You Really Got Me, Sunny Afternoon. Guess how many of those hit # 1? Zero. Their biggest hit was the # 6 showing for Come Dancing.

That means Lady Gaga has an infinitely greater amount of #1s than the Kinks. That itself isn’t so bad since I like several of her songs and it’s okay that Madonna has 13 #1 songs, including the awful “Music”, but it also means that Milli Vanilli has more chart-toppers than the Kinks and that isn’t right. According to the public, “Blame It On the Rain” is better than “Tired Of Waiting For You” or “State Of Confusion”. Whitesnake has a number one song. Whitesnake. When they come up for eligibility in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, do you think the geniuses behind “Slow & Easy” and “Here I Go Again” will get voted in? No but they can claim they were bigger than the Kinks. Some other performers with a number one song are Jennifer Lopez (She has 4! Can you name any of them? Do you like more than two of them?), Puff Daddy (5), Bare Naked Ladies, Rick Dees (you know, “Disco Duck”), Bon Jovi (5), Sheena Easton, The Escape Club, Guns N Roses, Heart, Wham/George Michael (10 #1s. Yes, 10.), The Monkees (3), New Kids On The Block (3) and Michael Sembello (Who? Oh- the theme from Flashdance.) Speaking of The Who, their biggest hit was the #9 “I Can See For Miles”. Even though their SuperBowl show didn’t prove it, they deserve better too. (So did the Colts. That onsides kick by the Saints was an announcement that they couldn’t play the Colts straight up. They had to resort to sanctioned cheating.) “The Macarena” has spent more weeks at number one than The Kinks and The Who combined. Now you know why I sometimes weep spontaneously. It’s The Macarena and what it says about our country. I could live with it if it was just Whitesnake or the Monkees. At least The Monkees had songs written by Neil Diamond and Carole King.

That’s just from randomly flipping through my Top 40 hits book. No wonder some people argue that rock is dead. Heck, Jessica Simpson has a number three hit song so she also was more successful than the Kinks. Sigh… Luckily these days, I just pay attention to the music and not the charts otherwise I’d really get dejected. The public is good about finding some stupid hit and then repeating it until no one wants to hear it anymore. Have you listened to “Who Let The Dogs Out” lately? That’s why I put Summer Boy on this CD. You’ve heard all Gaga’s hits but not this breezy, fun little ditty from her debut album. It’s totally unlike her hits, which sound a bit robotic and edgy. I doubt you will ever hear it on the radio now because radio programmers are onto her next album, the Fame Monster EP which also has some good things. So no, I didn’t put on Just Dance or Poker Face, which are good songs but you know those by heart. Let’s give some other song a chance. I also have a feeling that next year I will be saying the same thing about Fame Monster’s song “Teeth”. Also, while I have your attention, go buy a Kinks greatest hits album. Something that covers them from the 60’s thru the 80’s.

Dean Martin- I Will: As soon as I got over the fact that Columbia House Records folded despite my two decades of my monetary support, the BMG music club decided to go belly-up as well. No more “8 CDs for a penny!” Before it folded though, I had a chance to redeem some of my accumulated points for free CDs. There weren’t too many things left to get that that I didn’t already own though so for the heck of it, I got a Dean Martin collection. I wanted to see if he deserved to be famous for something other than being Jerry Lewis’ movie foil or the drunken guy from Cannonball Run. I was impressed. The album had some good stuff. Of course the first song on the collection was That’s Amore, a song I hate (You know it. The lyrics are “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.”). From there though, it got a lot better, with Ain’t That A Kick In The Head, Mambo Italiano, Sway and the song included here- I Will. He gives an earnest, yearning performance that melts your heart. You know it has to be a great song because it’s a ballad and I like it.

Tony Orlando- To Wait For Love: I finally got the Burt Bacharach box set. It had been out for about eight years but I couldn’t convince myself to get it until now because it was $50 and most of the songs were things I had already but in versions by different people. See, Burt is mainly a songwriter. Every now and then, he’ll do the singing himself but it’s pretty excruciating when he does. It’s much better to hear Dionne Warwick sing “Walk On By” or have Tom Jones do “What’s New Pussycat”. His songs are so good though that lots of people have covered them. Think of the song I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself. What do you consider the definite version? The first person to perform it? That would be Tommy Hunt. The one who had the biggest success with it? That’s Jackie Deshannon. The one who had the most fun with it? That’s Cameron Diaz doing a karaoke version in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Others who covered it are Dionne Warwick, Elvis Costello and Smokey Robinson. How’s that for diversity? I finally found the box set on a used CD website for about $20 so I snapped it up. Some of the songs are revelations. As much as I’ve been talking up Bacharach, he had even more good songs than I realized. Who’d have thought that I’d love a Gene Pitney song or a Tony Orlando song that didn’t involve tying yellow ribbons or knocking three times? I never knew Orlando was a crooner. The lyrics are what get me though- it’s like he’s singing directly to me “To wait for love is just to waste your life away.” I’m feeling that way a lot these days. Yes, it’s a ballad but it’s about emotion, not about vocal gymnastics, and the lyrics by Hal David are touching although I’m not so fond of having Tony Orlando sing to me to “press your lips to mine”. Still, great song, great performance.

Burt Bacharach- Don't Go Breaking My Heart: I just love the tempo and mood of this song. Burt knows how to convey longing and heartbreak better than just about anyone. Burt can make heartache sound breathtakingly gorgeous, like he does on this song- one of the rare one’s he sang himself and done well on. As a kid, a Bacharach/David song actually gave me suicidal thoughts. In third grade, when I first heard “Windows Of The World” during the school play (I was “Soldier # 2”) the mood of the song and the bleakness of the lyrics made me wonder what was the point of life if there is so much heartbreak and sorrow ahead of me. Luckily, I got over that but ever since then, just thinking about the chorus “The windows of the world are covered with rain, where is the sunshine we once knew?” depresses me. That song was on this set and I listened to it and got depressed again. Luckily, the rest of the songs were less dangerous. I wept, I laughed and I hummed along through all three CDs and just wished there was more I could get. All three of these last songs are retro songs but they are good and deserve to be heard, even if they are “old.” It’s not like I was listening to these as a kid or teenager so it’s the old guy getting defensive about music from “my days”. Good music needs to be heard. Just don’t play it for third graders- they might not be able to handle it yet.

Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs- You're So Vain: I think these two feel the same way I do. Sweet and Hoffs (from the Bangles) have now done two collections of songs from the 60’s and 70’s. The first one covered lesser-known 60’s gems and this one covers 70’s songs. I don’t like this collection as much as the first. This one has more popular tunes, with fewer unknown treasures, so it was more of a karaoke album because they were fairly faithful to the original songs. I think the biggest problem was that I wanted different vocals on the songs. If a guy did the vocals on the original, I wanted Susanna Hoffs to sing on the cover. If it was a female singer, than Matthew Sweet should have done it. That would give a different take to the song and open it up a bit more. I especially didn’t want to hear Sweet sing on Hello It’s Me because he can’t do better than Todd Rundgren did- his voice isn’t good enough and he doesn’t do a radical revision of the arrangement. Hoffs would have brought something more interesting to it. If I was him though, I would want to do the lead vocals too because it is such a good song. The song I’m putting on this CD does violate this preference but Hoffs’ vocals give it an interesting sound and makes me momentarily forget about Carly Simon. I hope they do another Under The Covers album but would that be an 80’s album? What lost treasures could they pull from that era?

The Sleepy Jackson- You Needed More: I got their last album because I’d heard a great song on a compilation CD. When Tower Records was going out of business, their prices got marked down every week or two during their sell-off phase. I went to two different locations a couple of times to buy stuff and during their final month, I could pick up almost anything still in stock for about $3. For that price, I could take a chance on a lot of stuff so I picked up this album even though the previous one only had a couple good songs. Just this song alone was worth the price though. It’s quirky, moody and totally absorbs you. It doesn’t sound like anything on the radio right now. You are immersed in the sound. There are several other good songs on the Personality album as well. This is the stunner though.

John Legend- Satisfaction: I’ve used the word “mood” several times already when describing a song and here’s another one where it applies. John Legend is a smooth singer but his best songs work because of the songwriting and the atmosphere of the songs rather than his singing. The delivery of his words is more important than the technical aspects of the voice. Of course, he is talking about sex and romance, like he does in pretty much every song of his, but the way he sings it would seduce anyone.

Amy MacDonald- Mr. Rock & Roll: I heard this song on my XM/Sirius radio before the cigarette lighter power supply died and I went back commercial radio. I like the tempo of it- a jaunty mid-tempo- and the lyrics are a nice scathing examination of fame and narcissism. The rest of the album is more folk-y but on this song and two others, the style really works.

Beyonce- Single Ladies: Okay, here’s a big hit, finally. Even though I want to highlight undiscovered songs here, I had to put this on here because I love this song and so does everyone else in all of America. You couldn’t escape this song even though it came out last year. Not only was it all over the radio, it was in Glee and about a dozen other television shows and movies. It still sticks in my head each time I hear it, kind of a female version of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy. A great beat. Stupid lyrics but an infectious beat. I was going to follow this song with an old one by Was (Not Was) called “Shake Your Head” because it had equally stupid lyrics and the tempo of the song was comparable to Beyonce. Unfortunately, when I decided on the final CD track listing, it was four seconds longer than the 80 minutes of space available so something had to go. I deleted Was (Not Was) because it was a kitschy fun song rather than a hidden gem. It’s the same reason I didn’t include Men Without Hat’s Safety Dance even though I’ve been grooving to it all year. I still encourage you to listen to both of those songs though.

Franz Ferdinand- No You Girls: You don’t really need both these guys and the Killers- just do a combined album. They always put out albums around the same time as each other and their singles are often indistinguishable from each other. Quick- which of them did Ulysses and which did Spaceman? If you put together the best songs from each, you would have one excellent album instead of two okay albums. It’s not just them either. I had this same thought several times this year when I was listening to box sets and compilations from Poco, America, Steely Dan and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Aside from their hit singles they song exactly alike. I have no idea how that is possible because if you hear a Steely Dan song like Peg or The Fez, it sounds nothing like Horse With No Name or Ventura Highway by America. The singles have such a distinct sound. If you put on some of the album tracks though, like America’s Muskrat Love or Poco’s Indian Summer, they sound exactly like an album cut on a Steely Dan album. I never would have guessed that Steely Dan could have sounded like CS&N. Not only that, they aren’t very memorable either. There is a reason you don’t know many America songs that weren’t hits. The non-hits are pleasant muddles that sound like half-finished songs. I guess that explains why some bands are mostly known as singles artists- they can’t find the magic in every song. Franz Ferdinand found it on this one though- a throbbing, effervescent song.

Placebo- For What It's Worth: Placebo is one of my favorite bands but they only do an album every three or four years so I have high expectations every time they release something. The last one was pretty weak, for them, so it was nice to see that this new one was a bit of a comeback. This song is not a cover of the Buffalo Springfield song, by the way. It’s a driving change of pace for them. Whereas in the past, a lot of their songs worked because of their mood or an interesting guitar part, this one works because of the melody. They don’t go for their normal cacophonous drone and instead they write some catchy songs. You could actually (Dare I say it?) dance to some of these songs. It might be a bit of a mosh rather than a swing dance but for Placebo, that is a radical move. There are five or six comparable songs on the album. I am a bit disappointed that they stole a lyric from Juliana Hatfield though- “A heart that hurts is a heart that works”- and uses it as the basis for a whole song, but aside from that I was quite pleased with the album and this song in particular. Also, for this compilation CD, we are no longer in the past. The last few things have been fresh new songs and the rock stuff instead of the pop stuff. Which leads to…

Muse- Starlight: I actually heard this two years ago and kept waiting for either a follow-up song or for the album to be cheap enough to buy for possibly one song. I finally caved in this year after their next album came out. The rest of the album is good but this is the best song on it. There isn’t much to say about the song- it is a straightforward rock & roll song that lodges itself in your brain.

U2- Magnificent: I feel bad for U2. They are a great band and have done a lot of stuff I love but I wasn’t a fan of their latest album. It was too downbeat, too slow and not very memorable. It sounded like background music for when I did laundry rather than anthemic music for changing the world, which is what they usually deliver. I know they tried for something different here and I’ll admit that I didn’t “get” the album, partly because I don’t usually look at the lyrics too closely, but this particular song was worth excavating from the muddle. It has a good Edge guitar part, a melody worth singing along to and a good message as well.

The Lemonheads- Waiting Around To Die: This is a complete change of pace for the Lemonheads (just Evan Dando for the most part). You could perform this album in a coffeehouse with an acoustic guitar, drummer and backup singer but it works. All the songs are covers but you probably haven’t heard any of them before unless you are a fan of disparate cult favorites like GG Allin and Leonard Cohen. Sometimes you need to cleanse the palate of all the over-produced, Auto-Tuned songs on the airwaves. A lot of the songs on this collection sound like murder ballads so not only is the sound different, the lyrics are too. The Lemonheads are ready to start a new phase hopefully. Their last period was the “after Juliana Hatfield” phase, which came after their successful period- the “Juliana Hatfield” phase of three of four albums she appeared on. I don’t know if Dando can still write a good song though- this covers album is a dodge- showing his musical rather than his writing skills.

M Ward- Never Had Nobody Like You: I loved the She & Him album from last year and since Ward’s latest solo album got good reviews, I decided to buy it. It didn’t hurt that Zooey Deschanel also appears on one of the songs. This one in fact. It sounds like a lost track from She & Him. The rest of the album is just as good although slightly different in style- more like a 50’s rockabilly album. Now I might have to get the Monsters Of Folk album to see what else he can do. Full disclosure- I did buy the She & Him album originally because I adore Zooey Deschanel. She only plays three characters (1- Quirky romantic interest, 2- Spaced out, wide eyed prop, 3- Sarcastic, spunky best friend) but she nails them all, even though I hate character # 2 (for an example, see The Happening). So in this case I did get a female performers album because I liked the girl and the girl’s looks, but I’m glad I did it because it was an amazing and offbeat album, an anti-Britney album. If you like the M Ward song, get the She & Him album too.

Dandy Warhols- Now You Love Me: I think all my favorite artists have staged artistic comebacks this year. The Warhols had been in a slump lately but they finally started playing to their strengths and returning to their signature sound. I don’t need them to change styles- who needs another band that sound like Poco and Steely Dan album cuts? I need them to do what they do best- droning, groove-oriented rock. They find the essence of the song and play it until they’ve done everything they can do with it. I hope they build on this success for their next album instead of some other bizarre detour, like teaming up with Nick Taylor of Duran Duran. I love Duran Duran as well as the Dandys but the two didn’t go well together. That album had two good songs (the phenomenal “We Used To Be Friends” and the very good “Last High”) but the rest besmirched the names of both parties. This song, along with Mission Control, Wasp In The Lotus and Welcome To The Third World, has me holding my breathe for the next album. It’s going to be a long three or four years.

Weezer- The Girl Got Hot: They are still coasting from the magnificence (I suddenly hear the U2 song in my head) of their 3rd and fourth albums (the green one and Maladroit) but this is one of the highlights on their seventh album. The lyrics are stupid- typical Weezer in other words- but with a nice crunchy sound to it- typical Weezer in other words. When they are on, they really cook. This particular dish has extra spice. Now that Rivers Cuomo cracked his ribs in a bus accident, I’m not sure they will be putting out anything new anytime soon. See, that’s the reason I listen to so many different things in terms of style and quantity. If I liked only a few artists, I only get new albums every two years or so (Except Prince who does two a year it seems.) After I’ve played them to death, I would either have to stop listening to music or try something else. So maybe David Bowie hasn’t done anything in the last three years, but the “Bowie-approved” Placebo did. While I’m waiting for Interpol to get their shit together (What’s up with that last crap album?) I can listen to something similar like the Dandy Warhols. Life’s too short to limit your playlist to the 100 songs you loved in college.

Bootsy Collins- Play With Bootsy: Since I love Parliament Funkadelic, when I saw this in Tower for $3 I had to get it. Playing this song, the title track, I thought this was a reissue of an album from the 1970’s or 80’s but while listening to it I thumbed through the liner notes and saw some recent artists appearing on it. Turns out it is a 2002 album. It sounds like a throwback, definitely. Quite funky, which is what I was hoping for. This track also continues the faster pace of Muse and Weezer after the folk leaning songs of M Ward and the Lemonheads and the guitars are groovier so it helps the transition to the next song.

Ladyhawke- Dusk Till Dawn: I totally took a flyer on this one. I had only heard some general hype about this artist but the reviews on Amazon made it sound like the type of thing I might like, assuming the songs actually matched up with the descriptions from the reviews. On my first play-thru of the album, each song started out really weird. The intro starts out sounding like a cover of some 80’s artist, like Cyndi Lauper or Depeche Mode but then Ladyhawke (a solo female artist) strips the beat down to the basics and takes off from there, making the intro riff into a song of her own that might be slightly reminiscent of an earlier song but is totally distinct. For instance, when you listen to this song, see if the opening reminds you of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax”. It totally does but after about 30 seconds the song mutates into something completely different. I ended up putting five of her songs on my monthly mix CD. I picked this one for the year’s compilation because it’s the one that lodged in my brain the deepest. I love how the chorus is awkwardly phrased but still insanely catchy.

Tom Jones- If He Should Ever Leave You: I love the percussion on this and the brass too- sounds just like some of the Burt Bacharach hits even though this was done 40 years later. Not enough songs these days use brass. Done properly, it sounds terrific and adds an interesting layer of sound. The production makes this sound retro even (though this was done last year) but it still sounds amazing. The drumming is the backbone the song is built on. It charges right at you and keeps pounding away but it’s a middleweight attack, not a Dave Grohl, John Bonham sledge-hammer heavyweight sound. It’s more agile and nimble and allows Tom Jones to weave his vocals around the tune. The brass adds a punctuating flourish to the whole thing. Tom has a good time with this and adds to his collection of great performances. Once it is done I want to start it over and play it again. Then I want to go listen to more Tom Jones. He remains vital, with some songs that sound like Burt Bacharach then others that sound like modern day R&B o0r dance-pop. I remain amazed by Tom Jones. Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett may have gotten the cool cache from the media but Tom is still blowing the roof off the barn. Not only that, after 40 years in the business, he hasn’t started coasting. He puts out CDs that are interesting and modern. Last album he worked with Wyclef Jean and he actually co-wrote his songs. This time he continued that trend and collaborates with Bono and others, to make what are quintessential Tom Jones songs. Heck, how can you not love a guy who has his own theme song (“Tom Jones International”)? This throwback song is a fun way to finish this collection. It also brings things full-circle since I’ve talked a lot about older music. Here’s modern music that sounds old.

If anyone wants a copy of the CD, let me know and I’ll send you one. In fact, I have the yearly CDs from the last five years still sitting on my shelves. I hadn’t sent them out because I was going to do it in conjunction with my Year In Review booklet, which is long overdue. The last booklet was in 2004. I was going to do a 2005 thru 2009 cumulative one but I’m a bit behind on that and keep getting diverted by my blog (or work or movies or poker or social outings, etc…etc…). So if you want the CDs from prior years too, let me know and tell me where to send them. There are a couple of other songs that were good enough to go on this year’s CD but couldn’t due to time constraints so let me just mention those real quickly: Robyn- Dream On, Silversun Pickups- Panic Switch, Kanye West- Paranoid, Miley Cyrus- See You Again, Tears For Fears- Raoul And The Kings Of Spain, Phoenix- Fences, Sam Phillips- No Explanations, Most Serene Republic- Heavens To Purgatory, Dragonette- Pick up The Phone, Ace Frehley- Genghis Khan, Hockey- Work and Placebo- Ashtray Heart.

Now that I’ve talked about some of my favorite individual songs let me get into my favorite and my most disappointing full-length albums for the year. These are all things I listened to this year, not necessarily things were released this year. That’s why there are some old albums too. Also, these are in order by preference with the # 1 album being my favorite (or most disappointing) of the year. However, for the top seven or so, I kept going back and forth so if I happened to listen to number 6 again, I might rank it as the top since I heard it most recently. Just to clarify, an album on the most disappointing list doesn’t mean it’s horrible. It is likely a mediocre album but considering some of the artists involved or the hype behind the album, the end result was a massive let-down from what they are capable of. As of now, here are the lists:

Richard’s 20 Favorite Albums Of 2009

20) Tears For Fears- Raoul & Kings Of Spain
19) John Legend- Evolver
18) The Kinks- Ultimate Collection
17) Phoenix- Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
16) Jack Off Jill- Sexless Demons And Scars
15) Robyn- Robyn
14) Lemonheads- Varshons
13) Dean Martin- Dino: Essential Dean Martin
12) Per Gessle- Party Crasher
11) The Sleepy Jackson- Personality
10) Yeah Yeah Yeahs- It’s Blitz
9) Black Eyed Peas- The E.N.D
8) Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs- Under The Covers, Vol. 2
7) Dandy Warhols- Earth To The Dandys
6) Lady Gaga- The Fame
5) M Ward- Hold Time
4) Little Boots- Hands
3) Placebo- Battle For The Sun
2) Tom Jones- 24 Hours
1) Ladyhawke- Ladyhawke

Richard’s 10 Most Disappointing Albums

10) The Dials- Flex Time
9) Ice-T- Gangsta Rap
8) Imogen Heap- Speak For Yourself
7) Scarling- Sweet Heart Dealer
6) Catfish Haven- Tell Me
5) Fall Out Boy- Folie A Deux
4) Prince- Lotus Flower/MPL Sound/ Bria
3) Jarvis Cocker- Record
2) Ladytron- Velocifer
1) Nine Inch Nails- Year Zero

I have listened to quite a few other albums this year that fell somewhere in the middle of the pack so just for the sake of completion, I’m going to list everything I listened to this year. They are grouped into various categories so you know why I got them and have some idea if they are awful or not.

I Buy Anything They Do
Cult, The Born Into This (2007)
Dandy Warhols, The- Earth To The Dandy Warhols (2008)
Dave Stewart- Dave Stewart Songbook (2008)
David Bowie- Man Who Sold The World (1969)
Ice-T- Gangsta Rap (1996)
Kylie Minogue- Boombox: Remix Album 2000-2008 (2009)
Placebo- Battle For The Sun (2009)
Prince- Lotus Flower/MPL Sound/Bria Valente (2009)
Radiohead- In Rainbows (2008)
Revolting Cocks- Cocktail Mixx (2007); Sex-O Olympico (2009)
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Raising Sand (2007)
Tom Jones- 24 Hours (2008)
U2- Best Of 1990-2000 & B-Sides (2002); No Line On The Horizon (2009)
Various Artists- Bee Gees Songbook (2004)
Weezer- Raditude (2009)

I Loved The Last Album/Love The Current Single So Let’s Risk It Again
Amy McDonald- This Is The Life (2007)
Ben Folds- Way To Normal (2008)
Black Eyed Peas, The- The E.N.D. (2009)
Jill Cuniff- City Beach (2007)
De Novo Dahl- Move Every Muscle Make Every Sound (2007)
Foo Fighters- Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (2007)
Franz Ferdinand- Tonight (2009)
John Legend- Evolver (2008)
Keane- Hopes & Fears (2004); Perfect Symmetry (2008)
Kevin Rudolph- In The City (2008)
Killers, The- Day And Age (2008)
Lemonheads, The- Varshons (2009)
Matthew Sweet- Sunshine Lies (2008)
Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs- Under The Covers Vol. 2 (2009)
Morningwood- Diamonds & Studs (2009)
Muse- Black Holes And Revelations (2006)
Music, The- Strength In Numbers (2008)
Pretty Things, The- Come See Me (Best Of) (2004)
Pussycat Dolls - Doll Domination (2008)
Robyn- Robyn (2008)
Sam Phillips- Don't Do Anything (2008)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs- It's Blitz (2009)

Impulse Purchase (Got positive reviews or was very cheap)
Ace Frehley- Anomaly (2009)
Al Green- Lay It Down (2008)
Belinda Carlisle- Viola (2007)
Bootsy Collins - Playing With Bootsy (2002)
Catfish Haven- Tell Me (2006)
Cobra Verde- Easy Listening (2003)
Creatures, The- Anima Animus (1999)
Cyndi Lauper- Bring Ya To The Brink (2008)
Dan Hartman- Keep The Fire Burnin' (1995)
Dean Martin- Dino- The Essential Dean Martin (2004)
Dials, The- Flex Time (2005)
DMX- Definition Of X: Pick Of The Litter (2007)
Duffy- I Love My Friends (1998)
Fall Out Boy- Folie A Deux (2008)
Hockey- Mind Chaos (2009)
Imogen Heap- Speak For Yourself (2005)
Jack Logan- Buzz Me In (1999)
Jack Off Jill- Sexless Demons And Scars (1997); Clear Hearts Grey Flowers (2000)
Lady Gaga- Fame, The (2008)
Ladyhawke- Ladyhawke (2008)
Little Boots- Hands (2009)
Lily Allen- It's Not Me, It's You (2009)
M Ward- Hold Time (2009)
Marnie Stern- This Is It And I Am It And You Are It… (2008)
Olivia Newton John & Friends- A Celebration In Song (2008)
Paul Stanley- Live To Win (2006)
Per Gessle- Party Crasher (2008); En Handig Man (2007); World According To Gessle (1997)
Phoenix- Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009)
Scarling- Sweet Heart Dealer (2003)
September- Dancing Shoes (2007)
Silversun Pickups- Swoon (2009)
Sleepy Jackson, The- Personality (2006)
Sounds, The- Crossing The Rubicon (2009)
Stella Starr- Harmonies For The Haunted (2005)
Tinted Windows- Tinted Windows (2009)
Veronicas, The- Hook Me Up (2007)
Virgins, The- Virgins, The (2008)
Whip, The- X Marks The Destination (2009)

Rounding Out My Collection (“Collect the whole set!”)
ABBA Visitors, The (1981); Voulez-Vous (1979); Waterloo (1974)
Beatles - Anthology #1 (1995)
Bee Gees- 1st (1967)
Benny Anderssons Orkester- BAO (2007)
Berlin w/ Terri Nunn All The Way In (2009) [I wish she would put out new songs though]
Big F, The- Patience Peregrine (EP) (1993)
Billy Joel- Stranger, The (Legacy 2-CD Edition) (1977)
Bob Segar- Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (2003)
Kinks, The- Low Budget (1996); The Ultimate Collection (2002)
Luscious Jackson- Greatest Hits (2007)
Madonna- Celebration (2009)
Marty Balin & Bodacious DF- Bodacious DF (1973)
Ministry- Rantology (2005); Sphinctour (2002); Cover Up (2008); Rio Grande Blood (2006) Moody Blues- Seventh Sojourn (1972); Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (1975); Question Of Balance, A- (1970)
My Bloody Valentine- Loveless (1991)
Offspring, The - Greatest Hits (2005)
Quincy Jones- Big Band Bossanova (1998)
Replacements, The- Hootenany (1983)
Sheila E- Romance 1600 (1985)
Styx- Complete Wooden Nickel Recordings (2005); Styx & Contemporary Youth Orchestra (2006)
Tanya Donnelly- Beauty Sleep (2001)
Tears For Fears- Raoul & The Kings Of Spain (1995); Elemental (1993)
Thompson Twins- Into The Gap (1984)
UB40- Greatest Hits (2008)
Various Artists- New Wave Gold (2007); Rock The First- Vol. Three (1992); Wicked Soundtrack By Al Jourgensen (2008); New Jack Swing Gold (2008); We're A Happy Family- Ramones Tribute (1993); Absolute Music # 51 (2005)
Voodoo Child [Moby]- Baby Monkey (2003)
Was (Not Was)- The Collection (2004)
Yes- Talk (1994)

On Thin Ice (If the next thing suck, I’ll stop buying them)
Jarvis Cocker- Record (2006)
Nine Inch Nails- Year Zero (2007); Every Day Is Exactly The Same (2006)- [This EP was good but Year Zero sucked.]

Never Again (The next thing did suck so no more money from me)
Ladytron- Velocifer (2008)

So this was my year in music for 2009. Did you have any favorites I don’t know about? Let me know- let’s make this peer recommendation thing work.