Monday, October 30, 2006

Macabre Media Monday

As the days get shorter I tend to ride a little less and read and watch and listen a little more. This is a good thing, especially the reading. With that in mind I thought I’d share some new books, music, and podcasts I’ve been taking in lately. Coincidentally, much of it has a Halloweenish vibe, thus today’s title.

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
by Mary Roach

I just started reading Mary Roach’s Spook, the follow up to her 2003 debut Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, a smartly entertaining look at what happens to human bodies after they expire. In a similar vein (pun kind-of intended) Spook attempts to follow something a bit more ethereal—the human soul—and see what happens to it goes after we’ve passed. Though I’ve just begun to put a dent in Spook, I’m already enjoying Roach’s original approach to this seemingly dark subject matter.

In Stiff, she managed to walk the delicate line of being humorous and entertaining while maintaining a respect and reverence for the dearly departed. So far she’s taken a similar tack in Spook as she pits scientific method against mysticism and religion with an open mind to the results.

While peppered with humor throughout, Roach employs liberal use of footnotes which deliver some of the book’s best zingers without interrupting the flow of the narrative. In one passage, she describes the effects of pus build-up in an injured brain on the subject’s consciousness. She annotates it with the following footnote:

“I was intrigued to learn that the French for ‘pus’—even among members of eighteenth-century aristocracy—is ‘le pus.’”

And so I laugh.

Roach is an amazing writer with just the right dash of wit and sarcasm for my taste…someone I would love to have had as a teacher.

Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain
by Michael Paterniti

I have to admit the cover art really helped me toward this one…along with an anniversary sale at the Arches Book Store in Moab, Utah. Discount aside, this book is off to a good start and I think I’m gonna end up loving it. I’ve always found travelogues engaging and the twist that Driving Mr. Albert adds is pretty irresistible.

Like buying too many CD’s at the same time, for me, trying to read more than one book at a time has the potential to water them down and stretch them out too much. In the case of Spook and this book, it’s not so bad and I’m really enjoying them both as the stories come forth drip by drip, and fit by start.

Which is to say I’m not very far into this book either, but author Michael Paterniti has me on the edge of my seat wondering how he’s going to chase down the urban legend of the whereabouts of Albert Einstein’s brain…and then what he’s going to do when he finds it.

The book starts off with Paterniti casually mentioning his back-burner obsession with the cranium-in-question to an eclectic neighbor, who, in turn, matter-of-factly says he knows where the brain is. At the next door neighbor of his friend William S. Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas, of course...Yes, THAT William S. Burroughs, the now deceased Beat Generation author who famously killed his wife with a gunshot wound to the head in a Russian Roulette-like game called William Tell. Which seems ironically fitting given that said neighbor has the dissected grey matter of Mr. E=mc2 in a jar in his basement.

I'm not sure where it's going from here, but I'm excited to be along for the ride.

Sound Opinions – WBEZ Chicago
I’d been a fan of music critics Jim DeRogatis (Chicago Sun-Times) and Greg Kot (Chicago Tribune) for several years before I left Chicago. I found them both intelligent, witty and unpretentious. Having similar taste in music and being in their ballpark age-range probably didn’t hurt either. I also liked that it was pretty common to see one, the other or both at shows in Chicago back then. It was obvious that in addition to being critics, they were also fans…and they loved what they did.

Additionally, DeRogatis achieved sainthood in my book when he was fired from Rolling Stone for writing a less-than-glowing of Hootie & the Blowfishes’ horrendous Fairweather Johnson in 1996. RS Publisher Jann Wenner refused to let the review run and axed DeRogatis after he spoke of the incident publicly.

Fast forward a few years during the time since I moved to California and the two critics had collaborated on a radio show called Sound Opinions that aired on WXRT, Chicago’s longtime independent progressive rock station. While it was possible to listen to their show by streaming it, as I did a few times, it wasn’t downloadable(1) and required huddling around the computer like I some character in Woody Allen’s Radio Days.

Then late last year the pair struck a deal to move Sound Opinions to WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station. Along with the move came the podcast edition of the show, which has become a mainstay of my drive-to-work entertainment. While the show is billed as “The World’s only Rock and Roll Talk Show,” it’s thankfully much more—live in-studio performances, interviews and coverage of music news, events and history are all part of the mix.

And while all critics have their crutches and quirks, Kot and DeRo are aware of theirs and humorously self-deprecating. Something I really came to appreciate when listening to NPR’s All Songs Considered, a similar show that gets a little too academic at times. And when host Bob Boilen started an interview with Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous by saying, “I was listening to your album and I pulled out my 12-string and played along…” my gag reflex kicked in. This would never happen on Sound Opinions...and if it did the other host would call him on it.

As with all things Public Broadcasting, Sound Opinions is free—but if you like it a donation is a nice thought come subscription drive time. You can check it out on the iTunes Store podcast directory, through or on WBEZ’s web page.

(1) While ‘XRT never did podcast Sound Opinions, it does now have a podcast edition of the often hilarious Goin' To The Show With A Regular Guy movie review show and some other content that’s available here.

A Life Less Lived - Gothic Box Set
- Various Artists (Rhino Records)

Nostalgia is a funny thing. There’s part of me that really detests it…that thinks it’s the sappy enemy of new experience and a crutch of mind-numbing sameness. I tell myself it’s the balding middle-aged guy in the Tommy Bahama shirt pulling out of his tract house driveway in the SUV-of-the-moment, going to see Don Henley at Shoreline because the Eagles are the shit, man. They killed it in ’76 and still do!

And then I look in the mirror and see the same Chuck Taylor’s I had in high school and the collection of t-shirts that predate the shoes and, oh, that turntable over there and the requisite vinyl I rarely listen to but refuse to part with (we wont even get into the many sunny recollections of being "back in the day" that fill this blog space). And I realize that, love it or hate it, nostalgia is an inescapable part of us all and it’s comforting. I realize that I’m as big a sap as THAT guy, just with more obscure taste in music and, perhaps, a little less to prove…or maybe more.

Which brings me to A Life Less Lived: The Gothic Box. I was at the record shop the other day, when out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the faux leather corset that makes up the outer packaging of this box set. At first I thought it was the onset of some fetishistic arousal, but soon enough realized I was having a nostalgic flashback…complete with visions of pale white skin (which goes hand-in-hand with the corsetting), throngs of sweaty, throbbing bodies and…carrot juice cocktails. Cue the flashback music…

Medusa’s was a legendary teen dance club on the Chicago’s North Side. It was big, played scary music and had a juice bar. The kids all dressed up (or down) and were drawn to the flame like moths. They nicknamed the donut shop around the corner “Punkin’ Dounuts” because its parking lot was overrun with mohawks and combat boots and all the Sid Viciouses and Siouxsie Siouxs when Medusa’s shut down for the night (2).

I remember vividly dancing to the Cure’s “In Between Days” at Medusa’s while Robert Smith’s preternaturally pale face and jet black thicket of hair appeared on video screens. He was “so very Goth looking,” my classmate Terry would later tell me in explaining the inspiration for his new matching haircut. He went on to give me a dark and spooky definition of Goth that I thought matched the fashion but not always the music of the Cure. “In Between Days” sounded more cheery than scary to me. But that’s the thing about Goth…sometimes it’s in the fashion, sometimes in the music and sometimes in the attitude. And the three CD’s and one DVD of A Life Less Lived proves this out.

Take Bahaus’ “Bela Lugois’s Dead.” One hundred percent, soup-to-nuts Goth. For sure. Scary looking band with the skeletal Peter Murphy as lead singer. Dark and gloomy and morbid. Nails-on-chalkboard instrumentation. A horror villain actor’s death as subject matter. Throw in Murphy’s deep bass tone vocals and its place on the DVD is fully justified.

But take the same Mr. Peter Murphy a few years down the road and his solo creation “Cut’s You Up,” which was selected for one of the CDs. The instrumentation is bright and lively! The vocals are downright soaring! The production values are stellar! Could this really be Goth?! Well he does wear a black smocky thing in the video and he still has that gaunt Skeletor air about him, so I think he can get away with it. And ultimately it’s irrelevant—A Life Less Lived is a great compilation that does what it ostensibly intends—capturing the essence of the early Goth scene.

Which should not be much of a surprise coming from Rhino Records, the world’s foremost purveyors of reissues, compilations and, yes, nostalgia.

For the full listing of songs, click here to get to the A Life Less Lived page on the Rhino website.

ADDENDUM – As fate would have it, Sound Opinions selected Goth and a Life Less Lived as the topic of their pre-Halloween show. This was after I wrote most of this post. Ahh the irony.

(2) I’m not sure I fit with any of these descriptions. I just wore whatever clothes I had…and my Chuck T’s. And I took the bus.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Rally the Wonder Dog

I shot thie video while on vacation in Moab, Utah:

Rally belongs to Kyle the propietor of Acme Mountain Bike Shuttles, whom I would highly reccomend if you're ever in Moab...(435) 260-2534.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Now java enabled!

At the age of 38 and ¾ I am, for the first time, a coffee drinker. I think it was taking scalding hot sips of my mom’s black-as-coal Hills Brother’s in my formative years that had delayed this for so long. It’s hard to shake the sensecerebral scarring of those first forays…the burnt tongue, the scalded roof-of-mouth…the urge to spit it out…the bitter taste, so sharp and biting, and so less sweet than what kids normally drink.

Despite that memory, I’ve been thinking about drinking coffee for a couple years now. I know the Coke I’ve been drinking as a morning pick-me-up—and I find more and more that I need such picking—with its massive sugar and carbonation is just not good for the body…or the teeth. And it tends to give me belly aches as well. It also doesn’t pair well with bananas which I really like in the morning.

I’ve also felt a certain amount of social ineptitude because of my lack of coffee comprehension. I still don’t know a mocha from a monkey, nor could I brew my way out of a paper bag…or filter as the case may be. I started drinking chai tea a few years ago, just so I’d be able to not feel like a complete dweeb when I accompanied co-workers on coffee runs. And while there is comfort in the chai, it lacks the caffeine punch and is really no more than a differently-flavored grown-up hot chocolate.

So how did the big switch happen? Serendipity, of course. On the final day of a week-long business trip to Vegas, a co-worker got my chai order wrong (no blame there; we were all pretty spun out at that point) and bought me a latte' instead. Even before it hit my tounge, I sensed something was substantial nose drank in the coffee scent microseconds prior. Too tired to protest or bring it back for a switch, I just rolled with it. And it was good. It didn't taste a thing like that tar that mom drinks...nor was it nearly as hot. The soy milk took just enough of the bite out of it, making it mellow but not too sweet or milk shakey.

So it's been one-a-day ever since and I'm diggin it. Since the switch, I've been encouraged to try all kinds of variations with interesting names...Americanos, au laits, espressos, Mexicanos, Cubanos, etc., etc. And while I'd like to think I'm multiculturally enlightened, I'm not yet ready for the United Nations in my cup. And I will never submit to speaking Starbuck's—it's a MEDIUM dammit! But next time you offer to buy me a coffee...I just might take you up on it and actually get a coffee.

PS - Thanks Andy!


Is it too early for this: