Monday, April 28, 2008

Babies, Trash, Words, and the Mollusk

I'm sitting in an air-conditioned office on the third hottest day of the year. I'm in an unmedicated daze. I've felt a strange fever coming on, a minor congestion. I refused caffeine this morning in favor of a Guava Lava smoothie. This is never a good sign - not wanting to have coffee usually portends persistent cold-like symptoms and a general malaise.

I've had an interesting few days. Yes. For the first time in the 2.5 years I've lived in my current apartment, I had more than 4 people in my apartment at once. Everyone liked the view and Seymour. No one remembered to let me, as the host, win at poker.

I also got lost (and found) in Culver City. I said goodbye to Jason, Monica, and Amelia before they move to the "San Francisco of the Midwest" (someone else's words, not mine). At one point, I was surrounded by so many couples with children and pregnant women that I felt like I didn't belong. Then I thought "whatever" and moved on. I watched basketball. I envisioned a Scrabble game in my future. I revised a script. I wrote 2 poems. I I stared straight ahead. I looked down. I listened to David Bowie and Vampire Weekend.... to Ween and She and Him. I struggled to find parking in Venice. Doorbells. Window shades. I complained. I complimented. I went to the same bookstore twice. I read the same first two pages twice.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Stay that way for the rest of the day

The best blog entry I've read in a while: amagnificentbastard's new Out of Treatment episode.
(full disclosure: I'm related to darknessatnoon and I provided some minor proofreading of the piece.)

So why is it that the more frequently I blog, the less frequently people visit and/or leave comments? Are you all using those cool Google blog-feeder-app-things which make it impossible for you to be counted by my counter? Or am I writing boring stuff?

I'm three years late on this but It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is brilliant. I recommend parts 1 and 2 of the Gang Gets Whacked episodes (requires painless registration because of adult content).

Mrs. Robinson by Simon and Garfunkel: Good song.

Why won't the currently-not-being-used large piece of motorized construction equipment outside my window just shut its engine off? It's going to be a long summer - new buildings built, old ones razed, parking lots transformed into food courts.

I'm starting to worry a little about Barack Obama's nomination being impeded. I just want him to win it and be rid of Clinton so he can be free to go after McCain and his bizarre foreign policy. I have no idea why Obama's comments a few weeks ago (about frustrated people "clinging" to religion, guns, etc.) were perceived so negatively. What he said was true - not of everyone, but enough people. The truth shouldn't be feared.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The 10 Strangest Things People Have Ever Said To Me, Numbers 10 through 8

10. "I have to go mail a letter" Hailey W., 1989.

With seven words uttered lazily into the phone, Hailey makes it clear that she's not in the mood to have a conversation with me, that I blew it with her on my visit to Pomona the day before. Couldn't she just have said "I have to go" or "There's someone on the other line"? Mail a letter? It was 1:00 and she lived down the street from the post office! Still, it was my own damn fault.

9. "Are you still going to marry that woman?" Kimberly J., 2001.

Okay. Enough time has passed that feelings shouldn't be hurt. A few months before the big day, I ran into one of my former classmates at the May Day Cafe on Bloomington Ave. in Minneapolis. Kimberly was feisty and kind of cool. She never drove. She always rode the bus or her bicycle and, like Hailey, was a single mother. She liked Modest Mouse and once wore her hair in (white) dreads (when it was cool, years before Jamiroquai). She was on a neighborhood council. Anyway, I finally figured out she sort of liked me when she would email me with statistics-related questions a full year after the class in which I was her T.A. ended, asking for tutoring. So I tutored her. Kimberly had seen me with Laurel around town a couple of times. This time, she ran into me when I was alone at the cafe and asked me the above question. I said yes and continued eating my maple scone.

8. "Jamiroquai is awesome." Ken, 2007.

Ken is cool. Ken reads difficult fiction and appreciates war films. Ken drinks hard liquor and, like Kimberly, doesn't drive. Even more impressive is that he doesn't drive in L.A. Anyway, Ken is the last person on earth I would figure for a fan of the jazzy hippy-ish jam band collective.. So, when we were playing poker up in the Altadena hills and a song came on and someone asked who it was and I said (resignedly) "Jamiroquai" Ken responded with the above quote.

(Had to Google "Jamiroquai" for the correct spelling.)

(to be continued)

Monday, April 21, 2008

For the rabbits on the run

Too tired (general malaise, sleep interrupted by lower back pain) to write something of substance. Instead, a few links:

Everyone should read amagnificentbastard's Out of Treatment series: it begins here, continues here and here with a few interludes above and below.

I took a tour of this house on Saturday. If you're in L.A. you should do the same.

Good new music: She & Him. Beach House.

Good old music: Springsteen, live in 1978. Watch all 9+ minutes. Better audio than video but still fascinating.

And a good old song, done new.

This whole 30 Rock episode is great. But whoever chose that song to play in the scene that begins at the 10:00 mark deserves giant amounts of praise.

And a new poem here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The 10 Times I've Been to Alhambra

(In this piece, Alhambra is a suburb of Los Angeles, not the city in Spain with its Moors and mosques)

The first time I was in Alhambra was in 1992. One cloudy evening my then girlfriend needed a ride to her new therapist's office. I dropped her off and then drove to downtown Alhambra where I killed time in a disappointing bookstore loaded with signs that discouraged browsing. When the hour was up, I went back and picked her up. In retrospect I have no idea why she didn't drive herself from Highland Park to Alhambra... why I came from many miles away to pick her up. She had her own car. It was named Misty. Maybe she wanted me there because that was her first time going to therapy and she didn't want to be alone. Anyway, I never set foot in Alhambra again until...

The second time I was in Alhambra was in 2003. One dark night my then wife and I drove to South Pasadena to meet Monica and Jason... the four of us then drove to Alhambra to see Elf. We parked near the top of a large city-owned parking structure. We walked down some steps and around the block to the theater. We bought tickets but needed to kill some time because we were early. We watched the movie. I enjoyed its touching downbeat irony, sprinkled with a few funny moments. I didn't really identify with Will Ferrell's character. Then we drove home. I can't remember which car we took - my black Camry? Laurel's champagne Camry? Jason's truck? No - it couldn't seat 4. Monica's Tercel? No - it was too small. But I remember being in that little white deathtrap once... maybe it was that night.

The third, fourth, fifth, and six times I was in Alhambra were in 2004, 2005, and 2006. More movies. More double dates.

The seventh time I was in Alhambra was also in 2006. Jason, Mike, and I went to eat at old-fashioned diner. The ambience was kitschy and decidedly un-L.A. The food was horrible, as in this-is-the-worst-food I've ever tasted horrible. Mike liked it for some reason. Later that night, at a party in Altadena, I asked out a woman who had recently been dating Mike. She said yes. We kept the date and the three that followed a secret from Mike. Eventually, we told him and he laughed. We all laughed. Today, the woman doesn't speak to Mike or me.

The eighth time I was in Alhambra was on President's Day 2008. Alex took photographs for a class at Monster Park while I squinted in the sun. Some of the photos included me. The park isn't in Alhambra but we passed through Alhambra on the drive to and from Pasadena.

The ninth time I was in Alhambra was a few weeks ago. Nothing of note happened.

The tenth time I was in Alhambra was this afternoon. I was there to do some banking. While listening to Vampire Weekend in the CRV, I checked my email from my phone and was glad to read that, while I may have a crabby/angry visage at times, I'm still remembered.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Meetings and A Stone

In the past 48 hours, four important meetings at work have been canceled. In a way, I'm very lucky. Less time wasted in windowless rooms, more time to do other things (enjoy the impossibly beautiful weather, plan a strategy for making Seymour (a cat) shed less, enjoy the amazing second third of the book I'm reading - Charles Bock's Beautiful Children, etc.) But then I realized that I kind of like the meetings at my job. (Long time readers will remember my long-winded complaints about meetings at my previous employer.) In the land of cardinal and gold, meetings have agendas, (most) people who speak have something to say, and good ideas are shared. Yeah, I'm getting old. We all are.

I've written a lot about music lately. I think I'm starting to annoy people. Some of you say "Stop ranting about the brilliance of your 90s singer-songwriters, Ali!" But really, I've showed restraint. Do you know that on a recent flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles I wrote 20 small-notebook pages about Liz Phair and Mark Eitzel and why, dissimilar as they are, they mean so much to me? Do you know that I'm sitting on the piece, not posting it on my blog until my reader(s) have at least a month-long break from the music of the past?

So I'll talk instead of the music of the much more recent past. In my iTunes rotation today, Okkervil River's 2005 album Black Sheep Boy showed up, right on time. I may be one of the few people who likes their latest album - The Stage Names - better. (This opinion is based on my time-tested method of rating albums - more good songs.) But on Black Sheep Boy, there's a song called A Stone. It's been written about before. And, as usual, I want to write about the lyrics. These lyrics:
You know I never claimed that I was a stone
And you love a stone
You love white veins, you love hard grey
The heaviest weight, the clumsiest shape
The earthiest smell, the hollowest tone
You love a stone
You love a stone
Because it's dark, and it's old,
And if it could start being alive
You'd stop living alone
And those lines pretty much sum up every painful relationship that anyone I know (me, friends, family, strangers) has ever been in... been stuck in.

Go back to the above link for an excellent article on a great now-dead music website, in which the brilliance of everything followed the above verse.

That's all. I have phone calls to return, emails to await.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Broken Rules

(Blogger rule #1: Don't talk about the weather. No one cares)

On Sunday it was 95 degrees. Right now, just past noon, it's 58. I like this better.

(Blogger rule #2. Don't write about bad basketball teams only you care about.)

The Timberwolves have two games left this season. As it stands, they'll be worse - but not that much worse - than they were with Kevin Garnett. They have six good young players (Jefferson, Gomes, Snyder, Foye, Brewer, McCants) and a high draft pick this June (Mayo? That would be cool.) Yeah, I'm feeling optimistic. Now, if they could just replace the coach, the GM, and the owner.

(Blogger rule #3. Under no circumstances, write about Mark Eitzel. No one else likes him.)

Okay I won't. Except to say that he (and band) are playing at the Echo in L.A. in one month and one day. Can't wait. And I should add - listen to songs 1, 4, 12, and 22 on the linked page. Ideally, you should listen at night. Alone.

(Blogger rule #4. Don't complain about your workplace.)

So, they're going to crack down on the (tuition-paying) bicycle riders? Yet, the crazed (salary-earning) facilities people (and other employees) on their golf carts and Segways are free to continue to torment pedestrians.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Where Have I Been? / Got Any What?

You've noticed it, I'm sure. I write about the past. I write lists. I write sprawling pieces about places I've been, songs I've heard, and memories that are likely true. I write in the past tense. I write about the music and the books and the films.

But do I write about who I am right now? Not very often. This blog started out with many entries about a once-promising screenplay (the script eventually devolved when my Havarti-and-ferris-wheel vision was replaced by someone else's Robin Williams ideal.) I wanted to write about a work in progress. I also wrote about my job a lot back then - veiled pieces with obscure references to the habits of my cubicled co-workers. I wrote about walks on the beach and movies on the Promenade. I wrote about the present day.

Now? It's all past tense. Is it because my life is dull? No, it's more exciting than you know. Than you want to know. Is it because my life is in a "holding pattern," clouded by the uncertainty of where to live, whom to live with, what to draw inspiration from? Maybe but that pattern has been holding since 1987. Is it because the only slightly ajar office door has replaced the open cubicle, thus closing me off from the world? Hmm. No. Am I afraid of something? Don't know. Do I think you'll be bored with talk of the present day? Well, if you've gotten this far in the entry, then you're the type who will read my 500 words about a single word in a Liz Phair song. So, you'll read anything.

Six question marks in the previous paragraph and not one definitive conclusion!

Explaining one's behavior is nice and all. But changing the behavior is more important. So, I give you (yes, in list form) The Present Tense List of What's Been on my Mind NOW:

1. I like orange juice now. I dismissed it as overrated for years, instead favoring the esoteric non-orange non-apple juices. But wow it's good. try it cold!
2. I'm saddened by the death of Stanley Kamel. He was great in the role of Monk's psychiatrist Dr. Kroeger. He was a much more reassuring (and realistic) mental health professional than Lorraine Bracco in The Sopranos and Griffin Dunne in In Treatment (latter opinion based entirely on Gabriel Byrne's historic tendency to overact; have not actually seen the show.)
3. I'm content for now to remain in Los Angeles, although it still feels frustratingly temporary. I'm content to live alone, although I want this to change some day.
4. I now understand that the two sentences in #3 truly have nothing to do with each other.
5. I'm still trying to define my aesthetic, my "look." I can't completely let go of the short-sleeved polos, nor will I resist the elastic shoes.
6. I, along with my writing partner, am near completion of the best draft yet of our really damn good script. 114 pages and not a single wasted moment. Now, if we could just agree on the title.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Three Greatest Moments in the History of Music

(1,761 words, not counting this parenthetical. Yes, it's a lot. Yes, there is minutiae mixed in there with the surprising insight. But I haven't written much lately and the words just FLOWED. So read every word. Please.)

By "moment" I mean... moment... just a quick flash... lasting about a second, no more than two.

3. The Hold Steady decide that three is better than two (2006)

At the 2:32 mark of Chips Ahoy (or, in this video, the 2:46 mark because of the silent intro), The Hold Steady end an extended instrumental bridge-like interlude by doing something that, to my knowledge, has never been done before. The interlude starts with a surprisingly long sweeping organ jam and then descends into a traditional classic rock guitar upswing that clearly signals that the instrumental section will soon end and the chorus will be repeated. Every other rock band would end the section with a single drumbeat (a cymbal, usually) and a single powerful thrusted guitar note. That would be sufficient. That would ensure a smooth transition. What do The Hold Steady do at the 2:32 mark (2:46 in the video)? They give us the cymbal. They give us the guitar thrust. And right when you think the chorus is coming back, there's a faint (but positively galaxic) EXTRA DRUMBEAT. It's so perfect I get all emotional thinking about it. It lasts less than two seconds. It's the third best moment ever.

2. Liz Phair misses the high note by a million miles but explains the history of music (1994)

Everyone knows that Liz Phair's Whip-Smart is the greatest album ever made, by anyone, in any genre, in any era. I'm not given to hyperbole so you know it has to be good. The final song on the album, May Queen, is very much like most of the other 11 songs: straddling the border of slow and mid-tempo, inscrutable lines turning into scrutable verses, and absolutely stunning choruses which, in many songs (but not May Queen) build a new musical language out of the joy of repetition. But you see, Liz decides to try something on May Queen that she didn't dare (or bother) to try in her other songs: she attempts to push her voice to an upper register so upper that it might as well belong to an entirely different species. It's at the end of the first verse when she sings:

Don't be fooled by him, he's fine
Rock-and-roll Ken doll, he's a national end-all

He's an off and on friend of mine

It's on the word "mine" that she tries to hit this high note. She fails. She spits it out, she screams it, she fucks it up. By any measure of vocal talent, she loses. But as I was listening to this song on my way to work this morning (a listen that inspired me to make this list), I thought about the whole history of music. Humankind has been around for approximately 200,000 years. Humans have had voices, brains, and muscles all this time. Yet, they have only been making good music since 1964. So, for approximately 199,956 years, music was pretty forgettable. That's because too much attention had been paid to the right notes, the perfect tone, the suitable structure, the apt transition, and the seemingly objective melodies and harmonies. Failure (or, to put it correctly, the perception of failure) was dismissed as amateurish. Innovators were misunderstood. Composers of the mid-to-late second-millennium (much like today's film auteurs) were over-praised in relation to their actual contributions. (Note: I have nothing to back up this claim; just accept it please.)

So, in February 1994 in the Bahamas (where part of Whip-Smart was recorded), Liz Phair tried tried tried to reach a musical note she was not capable of reaching and in the joyous hubcap-rolling-away residue of her version of the word "mine," a height much higher than that arbitrary note was scaled by a barely 5-foot-tall genius who, after her first album, rarely wore good clothes. It's a stunning accomplishment of a moment, the second greatest ever in music.. It lasts 1 1/2 seconds. It cannot be found online (just in live versions where the "mine" wasn't quite as transcendent. I'd tell you to buy the album but everyone has it already. Don't you?

1. Ice Cube sums up a song and a genre in one utterly perfectly delivered word (1997)


By the late 90s, Ice Cube's musical peak had, according to popular and cultural belief, faded. He was far busier with his film career. Between 1990 and 1993, he released four albums and an EP. Between 1994 and 1997? Nothing. Just Higher Learning and Friday and Anaconda. He was a movie star, leaving the rap game behind. Even his last pre-hiatus album Lethal Injection was seen by many as his weakest. (Note: it wasn't.)

Then, in '97, Cube released a song called Ghetto Vet as part of some garishly packaged Master P compilation. As I did with every other CD released by anyone between 1995 and 1997, I bought the album. I don't know where it is today. It's out of print. It had a lime green cover. But... Ghetto Vet.

Some of you remember my West Coast Rap phase circa '93-'95. I knew all the best songs - Summertime in the LBC, Getto Jam, Regulate, etc. By '97, the glory days were pretty much over. I wasn't expecting much from this new Ice Cube song. Then I heard it.


That's the word: LIFE. All caps because that's how he sang it. Not bold, just caps. The song begins with an ominous slow-yet-strong piano dirge. It's punctuated by Ice Cube's utterance of the word LIFE. Then the piano stops and the story begins. It's a story of a ghetto vet - not killed but fallen, off the battlefield but still on the streets.

(note: when Ghetto Vet appeared, one year later, on an actual Ice Cube album, War and Peace Volume 1: The War Disc, the song was re-edited and now began with a spoken word piece about the aftermath of a tragic street shooting, the event that felled the vet of the song. Then came LIFE and the piano. As with all hip hop spoken word interludes, this interlude can be completely ignored. The song really begins with the piano.)

The event that made the narrator a ghetto vet comes in the second verse of this beautifully wordy song (why "beautifully wordy"? I have reasons but this entry is already 300% too long).
Speaking of length, yes, this is a long pasted verse. Stop complaining. This blog is free. So, the second verse:

My house shoes get wet from the dew on the grass
Up early in the morning, takin' out the trash
Feelin' like a loser, alcohol abuser

Two youngsters roll up on a beach cruiser
One on the peddles the other on the handle bars (what)

Tryin' be ghetto stars they said:

'Are you from the westside is it so?'
I said hell yea and who wanta to know (me)
In slow mo fo' fo' slugs face down in the mud

Puddle full of blood left for dead

The pain starts to spread now
I can't feel my legs

I meet Doctor Who at King Drew medical center

As I enter I.C.U.

He said the bullet hit a nerve that was vital

I said I can't move my legs he said 'don't try to'
Now this ain't the end my friend but you'll probably never walk again
I sit there motionless holdin' this pain inside contemplating suicide

At night I jerk and jerk
But my dick don't work it don't even hurt (damn)

Now who'd ever thought a n-word rude as Ice Cube
Be pissin' through a tube

Fool I'm a vet

Let's be clear: this is the greatest 24-line verse in the history of music-with-lyrics. It completely justifies the LIFE that preceded it and the LIFE that pops up again at the end. Some observations about this verse (seems like I'm straying from the Top 3 Moments theme but I'm not):

1. The parentheticals (sung by other rappers, including Mack 10) are what the British call "spot-on."
2. Ice Cube tosses aside the bravado of most rappers, boasting about accomplishments they probably haven't achieved. Instead, Cube admits that his junk is now ineffective and he needs to use a tube! The "character" he's playing in the song is himself - he even says it in line 22. In other words, he took risks that could have - but didn't - lead to a life in the wheelchair.
3. House shoes!

For the rest of the song, the ghetto vet surveys the scene of his old crimes and others' new ones from his wheelchair.

Same corner same hood, I'm still there
With bandanas tied to my wheelchair

(I've seen banadanas tied to wheelchairs of young men in L.A. It's kind of chilling).

The narrator reports from the street like a wise old newsman. But he's probably not even 25. And for all the intended laughs the song provides, there's this:

There's a lot in my life I regret
Becomin' a ghetto vet

Then the piano comes back, now seeming stilted and funereal but actually it's the same exact track as the more aggressive solemnity in the song's beginning. And you know what else comes back:


And three more times - LIFE.

LIFE bookends the song. What happens in between is, arguably, life. Cynics may think this is oversimplified or unnecessary. Why explain? Why not just show? LIFE may seem hokey and overly self-important, as if the great Reverend Cube wanted to teach the kids a life lesson. But, for me, it's mostly in the delivery of the word LIFE by Cube. It's just so damn perfect. Angry, solemn, resigned, loud, prayerful.

(this next non-parenthesesed paragraph is meant to be humorous, an example of what we statisticians call "temporal association" - i.e., just because things happen at one after the other or at convenient times does not mean there is causation)

(also, I cannot find any data to actually back up what I write in the next paragraph; I think I'm right though)

Gang killings in the U.S. rose every year in the 1990s, until 1997. In 1997, Ghetto Vet was released. For the next four years, gang killings decreased. Coincidence?

Listen to (most of) it here. The piano starts at 0:20. The LIFE moment is at :24. (Note: this number one ranking belongs to the first instance of LIFE, not the other four instances which are pretty damn great as well.)

Finally, another-blogger-to-whom-this-blog-links might remember an incident right before Christmas 1998 involving this song and, more specifically, involving LIFE itself. Does that ring a bell Sharif? A blue cake? A ridiculously dramatic party? Comment?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

13 things to get excited about

(random order)

13. Wahoo's at my workplace!
12. This (the new album more than the reissue).
11. The Final Four.
10. The lovely weather.
9. Obama is pretty much the candidate now.
8. The Timberwolves. No longer terrible.... now mediocre.
7. Hulu.
6. R.E.M., good new song.
5. Panda Bear, perfect song.
4. The new baseball season, which mostly means fresh new FIRE JOE MORGAN.

3. Monk fan fiction. I could write a (non-fiction) book about the psychology/pathology of this.
2. The John from Cincinnati DVD is finally out.
1. Krolik on Kobe (and to think... we walk the same campus).