Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Little Differences

Vincent: You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?

Jules: What?

Vincent: It's the little differences. A lotta the same shit we got here, they got there, but they're a little different.

Jules: Examples?

Vincent: Well, in Italy, you call up a hooker, she comes with a free beer. And not in a paper cup either. She gives you a glass of beer, like in a bar. Only, you gotta make sure it really is beer - they got some fuckin' weird ideas about sex over there. Also, you know what they call a packet of Twisties in Italy?

Jules: What'd they call it?

Vincent: A packet of Fonzies.

Jules: Fonzies! No shit, they name them after that old white dude with paedophilic tendancies and a compulsive-ass desire to jump over junk on his bike? The guy thought the mens' room was his office! Plain to see they didn't know a goddam thing about hygiene in the fifties.

Vincent: Yeah, well see, the Italians have no word for 'twist'. It's just not in their cultural psyche. Your Italian cannot understand the concept of 'twist'. But they know there is nothing cooler than Fonzie. Don't scruple about personal fuckin' sanitation or how young a girl is, neither. It's all about cool in Italy. Can't fuck with that reasoning.

Jules: Well that did it, man - I'm fuckin' goin', that's all there is to it.

Monday, May 29, 2006


Sarsaparilla is a new group blog, "conceived as a kind of small-scaled and laid-back literary-arts-media forum, liberally infused with the most appealing attributes of the weblog form." In other words, it's about books, films and stuff like that. (You can see why I wasn't asked to write the general introduction.) The blog's line-up is very impressive, even if it does include the occasional shady character such as yours truly. (Yes, I am now involved in three blogs that I don't have time to write for.) So go, now! Read!

Friday, May 26, 2006

Like My Body?

As if witnessing my first ever sheep funeral (courtesy of Neighbours - rest in peas, Cassie, with a side-serving of gravy) was not enough, today I saw possibly the worst, yet most amusing, commercial ever. Featuring everybody's favourite "enhanced" whatever-she-is, Anna Nicole Smith, the ad was for a slimming treatment called Trimspa. I could describe it, but you'd never believe me, so click here to watch. It's not the exact same ad Ten is screening, but it uses the same hilarious elements. (Warning: not suitable for workplaces that forbid uncontrollable laughter and/or excessive furrowing of brow.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

My Brilliant Career (or Lack There-of)

Mother always said I’d never amount to anything, and it looks like she might have been right about that (but not about the bed wetting – dry nights for three weeks straight now, Mater. In your face!). For the second time in as many months, I have been made redundant. And lest accusations start being thrown about willy-nilly, it wasn’t the result of gross incompetence; not this time, anyway. No, in both instances, the business failed quite dramatically with little or no help from me, other than that presumably provided by whatever voodoo curse I’m currently labouring under (note for posterity: chicken blood, though tasty, is a woefully inadequate cure for bad ju-ju).

But I am not one to sit idly by and bemoan my fate, no sir! Nor in the final accounting shall it be said that I spent my days jobless upon the couch, debating the pros and cons of dwarf marriage with Jerry Springer. I may be as employable as Shane Paxton and possess considerably less charm, but dammit! I have experience (paper route), education (purchased over internet), and passion (lie)! Do not heap me in with the bludgers, pensioners and other human dross (not to stigmatise the unemployed, or anything). I am, let us be clear, an Ideas Man, a Man who is prepared to take his destiny in both hands, shake it like a British nanny, and make it his terrified, snivelling bitch.

Or at least, this is what I told the duty-harpy at Centrelink, whose doubting beak dropped open in what I can only assume was unalloyed admiration as I delivered this very speech verbatim from atop her desk. I was sick and tired, I told her; I had had enough - of slaving under the yoke of Whitey, of acting as mindless wage-beast for The Man. No, from this day forth I would serve only one master, and that would be myself: I intended to start my own business. Of some sort. Best not to get too definite about the particulars at this early stage. But I would of course require some sort of allowance until, you know, I’d gotten on my feet, made a cool million, etc. Um, please?

Stifling a respectful snort behind a dainty talon, the harridan informed me that I would need to submit a detailed business plan along with a diary of steps taken towards gaining relevant experience in my chosen field before she would even consider the intricate process of filing, reviewing, losing, finding, re-reviewing and eventually declining my application. I am of course only too willing to bend over backwards and think of England for those fine, dedicated douche-bags at Centrelink if it means there’s a buck in it, but to pre-empt the inevitable rejection of my nascent business (whatever it might be) I have shown uncharacteristic enthusiasm, and embarked upon not one, but three ventures. I submit them here for your approval before letting Centrelink eyeball my early steps towards commercial success.

Business Venture 1: Rogue Vigilante Crime-Fighter.
After successfully hiring a butler (kidnapped old Mr Parker from down the road) to act as confidant and installing him in my crime-fighting lair (crawlspace under house), I worked out for an entire hour (am now totally buff), before utilising my mad sewing skillz to transform an otherwise innocent bedsheet into a rather natty cape. Hollywood may be an infallible guide, but unfortunately last night’s heroic vigilantism didn’t quite go as planned – i.e. was spent standing around in the rain waiting for crime to be perpetrated. It wasn’t. However, I did find a homeless drunk on the way home early this morning. Technically guilty of vagrancy, he received a gallant drubbing at my hands. Zero profit, but hell of satisfying: these are early days, so small steps people, small steps.

Business Venture 2: Legitimate (ahem) Businessman.
An afternoon spent at Dimmey’s and Forge’s has seen me kitted out with the requisite jogging suit, large orange sunglasses and jovially sociopathic attitude towards my fellow man that marks your successful mobster. Dressed for success, I have already carried out three rather lucrative shakedowns; yes, they were all on primary school kids, but $2.75 and a marble is nothing to be sneezed at. If I’ve learned anything from my considerable research (Sopranos, Godfather’s 1 & 2, Donnie Brasco, Mickey Blue Eyes), it’s that the mob is run by vain, petty, stupid thugs: since none of these terms does not describe me, I am obviously the man to bring Melbourne’s ailing mafia community into the 21st century.

Business Venture 3: Prostitute.
Unsurprisingly, no clients so far, but whoring has its definite advantages. Besides being able to re-use the rather attractive tights from my Rogue Vigilante Crime-Fighter outfit, the oldest profession in the world offers the chance to meet new and interesting people up close (extremely so), and the happily ergonomic opportunity to work while lying down. Or sometimes on my knees. Or, you know, maybe occasionally hanging upside-down from some sort of leather harness ($10 extra). Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, it means I’d get to have sex. And I’ve always wondered what that would be like.

How can Centrelink refuse even one such proposal? Tremble before the mercantile might of this budding captain of industry, Trump and Murdoch.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Review: The Power of the Dog, Don Winslow

Defenders of Dan Brown often attempt to deflect criticism by turning their hero’s alleged deficiencies into virtues. “Of course The Da Vinci Code isn’t literature,” they say. “It’s not meant to be literature!” Fair enough: The Da Vinci Code is patently not literature in any but the broadest sense, so attacking it on this ground seems about as sensible as attacking Flying High because it isn’t Jules et Jim. Be assured, however, that I am not arguing for soft-headed, let’s-be-friends literary relativism. The Da Vinci Code’s much-vaunted status as non-literature doesn’t mean that the novel is beyond criticism. Rather than a collective shrug of the shoulders – “Hey, it’s not meant to be literature, so whaddya gonna do?” – firmer grounds for criticism can and should be found.

I was thinking about this while I was reading Don Winslow’s marvellous The Power of the Dog. It’s “not meant to be literature”, either, and to criticise it for this is to commit just as serious a category mistake as to similarly criticise The Da Vinci Code. Although these categories (“literary”, “genre”, etc) are notoriously fluid and ill-defined, and with infinitely varying degrees of cross-over, it’s equally obvious that when we talk about the thrillers of Winslow or Brown we are talking about a very different kind of writing than we are when we talk about, say, Proust or Beckett. These kinds of writing are not merely different versions of the same thing, they are distinct, with distinct purposes and methods. You might as well compare the Yellow Pages with the Book of Kells.

Doubtless this is all pretty obvious stuff, but as I say it was playing on my mind as I read The Power of the Dog during the lead up to the release of The Da Vinci Code movie. Several times I heard Brown’s novel defended in various media using the “not meant to be literature” argument, generally followed by an assertion of its appeal as “mindless escapism”. And I thought, yeah, I like escapism too, but what’s wrong with intelligent escapism? Must entertainment equal vapidity? I don’t care if people read Dan Brown instead of Shakespeare, but I do wonder why people would rather read Dan Brown than an author who is working a similar vein, but with vastly superior results. Is it a triumph of marketing, or stupidity? Or both?

This is a rather convoluted way of saying that The Power of the Dog is a cracker of a book, an addictive, intelligent thriller that plays out like the coolest ever dope-running ganster film on the cinema screen in your mind. B.S. Johnson reckoned that it was pointless using the novel form to tell stories; if that was your goal you’d be better off writing film or tv scripts. I disagree. I love the mind-movie effect you get from a quality crime or espionage thriller, and The Power of the Dog induces it from go to whoa. Winslow’s prose is energetic and stripped back in that hep, James Ellroy fashion; it’s like a negative on which Winslow picks out just enough detail with just the right rhythm that the reader – or at least this reader, finding a kindred spirit in the film- and tv-immersed author – effortlessly develops it into a moving picture.

So what’s the book about? (Four paragraphs of waffle then the story synopsis? Hey, I’m like the Fonze – I don’t play by anybody’s rules. And I’m a forty-year-old man with a predilection for high school girls.) Well, it’s a Big Bad America novel – other titles in this sub-genre include Ellroy’s American Tabloid and DeLillo’s Libra. Winslow charts thirty-odd years of America’s War on Drugs, centred on the pursuit of a Mexican drug cartel by a bog-standard lone-wolf DEA agent. Around this core, Winslow packs everything an international thriller needs: the Mafia, CIA covert ops, Communist guerillas, even (take note, DVC fans) those perpetually dodgy crusaders, Opus Dei. There are no heroes in this book, but Winslow is particularly critical of the United States Government, whose War on Drugs (in his reading, at any rate) is self-perpetuating and hypocritical. I don’t know how much of The Power of the Dog is true and how much speculation, but if you’re the kind of person who bombards Amazon with negative reviews of books that don’t share your sunny view of the States, you’ll find ample inspiration here.

There are a few flaws. Winslow’s prose is effective, but occasionally sloppy. For all the narrative’s breadth of chronology and geography, it sometimes feels like a small world, populated by a dozen or so characters who will sometimes disappear for a while only to turn up in surprising (and narratively convenient) roles later on. Overall, though, I loved The Power of the Dog. It is long, pessimistic and at times shockingly violent – I doubt they could film it, although they will try – but it is also intelligent, considered, and never less than entertaining. It’s escapism with brains, and it eats The Da Vinci Code alive.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


For years I have looked at the front cover of Sonic Youth's EVOL...

...and wondered: who is that strange, striking, nasty-looking woman? Oddly enough, it wasn't until today that I actually got around to Googling it.

The picture is actually a still of performer Lung Leg taken from a film by Richard Kern, a prominent member of the so-called Cinema of Transgression movement (Lydia Lunch, et al). I'm not sure which film it's taken from. I saw Death Valley 69 on a dodgy bootleg video late one bongy night about a decade ago, but I couldn't say if it even featured Leg, let alone the scene in question. Whatever the case, you can be sure there was some nasty shit going on around her, worthy of that snarl.

According to Wikipedia (honestly, that site just sucks the fun out of research), Leg disappeared after starring in a number of Kern's films and video clips during the mid-to-late-eighties. There are also unconfirmed reports that she took a lot of LSD, had affairs with Nick Cave and Blixa Bargeld, then became convinced that a crazed German named Ninny was trying to (and I quote) "spread Communism and destroy Christmas". More recently, she has been living in Minneapolis, where she "dabbles in taxidermy" and wanders the streets dressed as a witch.

I also learn from the all-knowing Wiki that on the original vinyl of EVOL, "Expressway to Yr. Skull" (aka "Madonna, Sean and Me", aka "The Crucifixion of Sean Penn", aka "one of my favourite songs, like ever!") featured a locked groove in the actual record, meaning it could pretty much go on forever. Not sure I like it that much, but still, pretty cool, and not something you can easily replicate on CD.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

I Know Where You Live #9

Just when you thought it was safe to establish a suburb or town, I Know Where You Live returns to take a look at that paragon of Melbournity, South Yarra.

South Yarra was founded in 1927 by Dr. Evelyn Crotch as an exclusive free-range bulimia clinic, a function the suburb retains to this day. In the late fifties, Chapel St., South Yarra’s main thoroughfare, was opened to general traffic, allowing the emaciated residents to mingle and inter-breed with the burgeoning inner-suburban professional class, or “wankers”, in the parlance of the day. Over the following decades the clinical aspect of the street gave way to the now-familiar commercial, cosmopolitan style, and if not for the constant impression one has of stumbling upon a suburb populated almost exclusively by haute couture-wearing famine victims, today one would scarcely even notice South Yarra’s important sanative function.

Aside from the cheap thrills of starvation, South Yarra’s main sources of entertainment are its many restaurants and bars, where one may see and be seen, and perhaps even be seen seeing oneself being seen by someone one is seeing seeing oneself. Traffic on Chapel St. generally hovers well below the speed limit (200kmh, instituted in 1998 after a spate of drive-by spankings) providing ample opportunity for residents and out-of-towners alike to parade their sexual insecurities, and often their ridiculous sports cars as well. But it is after dark that South Yarra truly comes alive, with exclusive clubs every few metres – just follow the puddles of vomit – offering everything from slippery nipples to exotic cocktails.

Despite its deserved reputation as a night-spot par repellence, retail is surely South Yarra’s raison d’etre (literally: reason to eat). Chapel St. is one of the great shopping strips of the world, up there with L.A.’s Rodeo Drive and Manila’s Smokey Mountain Rubbish Dump. Whichever designer’s wares you wish to wrap your scrawny bones in, whichever shade of CFM boot best sets off the desperation in your eyes, you will find it on Chapel St., at prices practically anybody who has recently committed multiple bank robberies can afford. But shopping in South Yarra is not all about fashion: it’s also about art (my, those Michael Leunig paintings would look tres chic in the media room!), antiques (my, those walnut Edwardian sideboards would look tres chic in the walnut Edwardian room!), and fine food (my, that foie gras would look tres chic barfed up in the bathroom!). Oh, and while you’re in town, why not stop in at the world-famous Jam Factory? And then quickly go somewhere else.

Finally, special mention must be made of South Yarra’s crowning glory: its men. If South Yarra’s women are mostly arseless, this is more than compensated for by the suburb’s men, who are typically all arsehole. Variously kitted out in turtle-neck sweaters, string vests or “straight outta Athlete's Foot" gangsta gear, depending upon individual pretension, the men nonetheless share a common preening hubris and mutual suspicion. If you happen to spot one of these oafs – it’s easily done, as their gait typically indicates the presence of a carrot shoved somewhere unpleasant (although in fact it’s a bok choy, you philistine!) – why not push him in front of a tram? Be sure to skedaddle immediately, though - not to avoid arrest, but to get clear of the freshly sliced carrion before the perpetually hungry South Yarra ladies begin to swarm.

South Yarra: four post-prandial regurgitations out of five.

Previous destinations: Frankston, Olinda, South Morang, Bacchus Marsh, Camberwell, Nunawading, Caroline Springs, Ouyen.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Review: Everyman, Philip Roth

If you happen to read, as I have, a review of Everyman that employs the adjective “autumnal” to describe the book’s predominant tone, then I suggest that you ought to, as I have, track down the reviewer responsible and beat him or her with a big stick. Beginning with the death and burial of its unnamed protagonist, then journeying back in time to investigate a life spent in frequent contact with death, Everyman is not so much autumnal as it is unremittingly funereal. Even the physical book itself comes dressed for mourning, and the author photograph is eerily posthumous-looking, although I suppose it could just be bad lighting. Whatever, Everyman is Roth’s book of the dead, and as he makes abundantly clear, that category includes everyone – everyman, if you’ll excuse the gendered noun, or even if you won’t.

I read Everyman in a single three-hour sitting. It is not very long (182 pages with enough white space in the margins to contain another novella – I’ve started transcribing Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into my copy), and it is oddly compulsive, despite the subject matter. Having witnessed the protagonist’s funeral and been informed of the manner of his death, the traditional character interest then lies in finding out all the ways he’d managed not to die beforehand. These are several, but no more, perhaps less, than most of us face before our big day finally arrives. But death lurks not just for the the everyman himself, but everybody around him. Its spectre haunts every moment of existence, whether one is conscious of it or not.

This seems to be Roth’s point: that by the time one is old enough to realise one will die, it is too long to change the habit of a lifetime and actually believe that at some point one will simply cease to exist. As Montaigne said (although he said it in French, and probably ripped it off somebody else), “We must start providing for it earlier.” But few of us do, particularly in the industrialised West where one has more chance of temporarily cheating death than in any other place or time in human history. A heart condition that may have felled a man in 1870 – or 1970! - is overcome with day surgery in 2006. You can keep death, and more important the thought of death, at bay – until you can’t, and then your world turns to shit, as it does for Roth’s everyman.

None of this is startling news, but it’s the kind of thing that, once you start thinking about, tends to pull the universe out from beneath you. You begin to understand the persistent popularity of religion. It’s not just the fancy hats and fun sectarian conflict, it’s also about consolation. Roth’s protagonist is a staunch atheist to the end. It’s an admirable intellectual position, and one I share (hence its admirableness), but man it feels cold sometimes without eternity over the horizon.

As literature, Everyman is an interesting work by an increasingly interesting writer. (The fact that he started off pretty damn interesting indicates just how interesting he’s become.) The prose is terse and plain, and there is little humour, although the protagonist does finger his girlfriend in the back of a taxi, just to remind you who it is you’re reading. I suppose Roth could be charged with undermining his project by imbuing his protagonist with too much individuality; he has less in common with “everyman” than with various of Roth’s other leading men. I’m not sure this criticism is valid. If the everyman were merely a walking symbol, then although its meaning would not change, Everyman would be limp and (hoho) lifeless. Instead, the everyman is delineated just enough to provoke both sympathy and empathy. Reading the scene where he buries his father, my guts ached, for him, for myself, and for everybody (although mostly for myself). Burying and being buried: this, on some level, is what life is. As Montaigne said, “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” (Seriously. It’s towards the end of his little-known essay, “On the vanity of certain surf guitarists”.)

UPDATE (11/5): Roth discusses Everyman here. Link via Pinky's Paperhaus.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Vale Grant McLennan

How eerie that the voice emerging from my computer’s speakers – that of Go-Betweens’ co-founder Grant McLennan – was silenced forever on Saturday. He died in his sleep, aged forty-eight. So that’s it for one of Australia’s best songwriters. What we have is all we’ll get.

Words are pretty bloody inadequate when a talented and by all accounts intelligent and genial man like McLennan passes away. Even for a late-coming fan like myself, the news is very sad. I don’t know what to say, so let’s just have some music.

Going Blind”, a lovely McLennan-led moment from the band’s 2000 “come back” album, The Friends of Rachel Worth.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Two Books I Will Not Read

It is of course the worst thing a reviewer can do (you know, without stooping to eating babies or licking the saddle of the exercise bike down at the gym; things of that ilk): to begin panning your subject without actually examining it first - a practice which I earnestly hope in times to come will be remembered as 'Pulling a Schembri'. That said, before I sink to this new low, at least allow me the courtesy of explaining myself.

I'm quite willing to extend charity towards book I nevertheless know instinctively to be complete trash, and flip through a few pages before laughing brutally and tossing the offending drivel bin-wards. But sometimes, just very occassionally, I will come across some vile grimoir that I feel at first glance that I must never, ever read, lest it actively make me less human. Despite these misgivings, such dire tomes tend to exercise an unhealthy attraction (much like my fantasy of recreating the butter scene from Last Tango in Paris with the pope), and therefore I feel I must mention them here, in the hopes that someone out there in blogland might manage to do what I dare not: suspend their undoubtedly excellent tastes, investigate the offending items, and report back to confirm or rebut my suspicions.

I spotted the first volume of sustained idiocy just the other day, radiating an aura of pointlessness down at me from the bookstore shelf: Jamie Oliver - Turning Up the Heat by Gilly Smith. M. Oliver stares whistfully out from the front cover wondering, presumably, whether his cut of the royalties will prove enough of a compensation for having had to hang out with someone called Gilly; the back cover, however, intrigues, mystifies and revolts. Jamie Oliver, who I'm sure most of us know only as the effetely lisping pretty-boy whose thankfully misleadingly titled Naked Chef series has become ubiquitous to channel 10's programming schedule, is revealed by the blurb writer as 'the people's champion', who dealt the British government a kick in the pants from which it may never recover. Wha? When did this happen, precisely? Moreover, it goes on to advise that Oliver has 'made capitalism cool' again for todays younger generation. Again I say: wha? Jamie Oliver may be a lot of things, and one of them may or may not be a good cook (I wouldn't know, being of the 30 second pasta school of cuisine: 1. boil kettle. 2. pour hot water over colander full of noodles. 3. eat the result. 4. pray for stomach ache to stop). Nevertheless, I have yet to see him, as he whizzes around the kitchen, skinny wrists a-flurry and such inspiring culinary advice as "Worrrrr!", "Yeee!" and "Pukka!" drizzling from his pouty lips like so much vinegarette, present a cohesive critique of the writings of Marx and Engles, nor explain why a proletarian state unmarred by corruption and tyranny is an implausibility. And besides this, he's a boring little narcissist, a biography of whom I cannot but fail to find interesting. He took tea with Tony Blair? Fascinating! But I'll give it a miss, thanks.

Offender number two is Junior, 5 time oscar winning actor Macaulay Culkin's foray into the literary arts. Junior is supposed to be a 'partly fictional memoir' of the experiences of a child actor strongly resembling Culkin, and his treatment by an overbearring father. From what I've seen and heard, though, the book reads like a) the work of a has-been desperately clutching at the last seconds of his fifteen minutes of fame, b) a maudlin attempt at winning sympathy, and c) entirely pretentious. Besides conveying information I really didn't need to know (were you aware that Macaulay has named his penis 'Floyd'?), the book is written as a' stream of conciousness' in the 'post-modern' vein, where such terms are synonymous with 'poorly-edited' and 'wanky'. Yes, I understand that Junior is meant to be an exploration of the relationship between audience and artwork, and the manufacture of the author as a subjective creation of the former, but approaching such concepts via the ineffable talent of Culkin is an insult to Barthes et al., pure and simple. It's sad, to be sure, that Culkin had a miserable childhood, and suffered severe emotional abuse at the hands of his father, but complaining about his experiences to anyone but a mental health professional and expecting at the same time that said complaints be regarded as art is pushing the boat a leeeetle too far. Whenever I see a copy of this book, it becomes necessary to re-play in my head that magnificent cinematic moment when Elijah Wood finally kills Culkin in The Good Son, or else feel out of sorts all day.

So there you are: two books I will not read, and which will hopefully wend their way to the remainder table and thence to the bonfire in short order. Unless, of course, they are both nominated for the next years Booker short-list, which wouldn't really surprise me one jot.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Spatula Party

Lady Sterne and our new addition have been rellie bashing in Sydney since last Saturday, while I've been home wallowing in bachelordom. As usual, this mainly involved seeing how long I could go without washing the dishes (six days), but has also included (in handy A-Z format):


Specifically Cooper’s Pale Ale. It has things floating in it.


Rawk! Look confused!


Picked up a second-hand book called Salt: A World History. Only five bucks - not bad for what would surely turn out to be the most boring book ever published! I'm disappointed to report that it's actually pretty good.


Finished watching the first series. Swearingen's oral sex scene in the penultimate episode is the creepiest, sickest thing I've ever seen on tv. Can't wait for series two!


I got my fucking Menzies essay finished and emailed about two hours before the deadline. I realise you don't care, but trust me: it was a big deal.


Are you kidding? If it's true that you are what you eat, I am a 250g block of Cadbury chocolate and a packet of potato chips, washed down with a Bundaberg Ginger Beer. I am also a tin of sardines. (Don't ask.)


Watched Copolla's epic for the three thousandth time on Monday. Spent the rest of the week grabbing people by the collars and shouting, "You can act like a man!"


Lunched (somebody call the verb police!) with my semi-desperate housewife friend and her three-year-old. At one point he accidentally called me "Dad", so I gave him a lecture then sent him to his room. Then we went back to her place for some hot beverage action. That is not a euphemism.


I taped Persona off SBS a few months ago, but only got around to watching it the other night. Halfway through, just when things were getting really bizarre/interesting, the tape screwed up. At first I thought it was another of Bergman's alienation techniques, but then the tape stopped altogether and I suddenly found myself looking at Detective Gristle or whatever his stupid name is from CSI. Not even Brecht himself would go that far.


Managed to convince my daughter that I not only wrote but performed all the instruments on Metallica's "Jump in the Fire". Seriously, get yourself some kids. They will believe practically anything.


I have not read any Kafka this week. Also, I haven't watched any Kieslowski, nor listened to any krauts.


On Temptation it's been Logies Week, and to celebrate Livinia got out the big guns, which are actually quite small, although still rather nice, guns. By which I mean she wore a low-cut dress and some kind of cleavage-enhancing bra. It didn't do much, but the effort was appreciated. (Yeah, yeah - it's an indecent obsession, but we all have our weaknesses.)



Nineteen Ninety-Nine

I was expecting to listen exclusively to the new Tool album this week, but it's not really doing it for me, apart from the first song and the Bon Jovi-esque vocoder bit on track two. So I've been working my way through my Prince CDs, starting with The Hits/The B-Sides. Great collection, with only the ommission of "Batdance" souring matters somewhat.


How cool is Ocean's Eleven? Sure it's cool in that fake Hollywood way, but it's still cool.


For some reason the cat has started sleeping on my bed. Until five o'clock, of course, when he scratches urgently on the bedroom door, or as happened yesterday morning, on my feet. Oh for summer, when he runs, or at least sits, wild and free!


Ruth has posted her latest musical challenge. I got a measly thirteen out of twenty (although I'm a bit dubious about one of my answers.)


Neck spasms = no fun.


The new Tool album may not be much chop musically, but its ridiculous packaging is great fun. You haven't really watched Dr. Phil until you've watched him through cheap stereoscopic lenses. (It's much like watching him normally, but a lot more blurry and sick-making.)


Seven-year-old daughter: "Are the stuck miners in Tasmania?"

Me: "Yeah - literally in Tasmania! Get it?"

She didn't.


If a pair of boxers have holes in them, but there is nobody around to make you throw them away, do they really have holes in them?


Emperor of Rome, 69-79. Isn't that a cool name? Vespasian. Bit of a tosser, though, but weren't they all?


How shit is MS Word? If you've ever tried to use the footnote function, you'll know what I mean. Likewise the spell-check, grammar-check, paragraph formatting, print view, and pretty much every other function that doesn't.


Luckily I've also been listening to XTC this week, because I've had no x-rays and played no xylophones, and I haven't been xenophobic - not even once! - or watched any porn, so without them I'd have nothing for this letter.


Would you buy a used blog post from this hair?


Nothing Z-related has occurred this week. But isn't Zelig a fun movie? I wish I were a human chameleon. Sigh!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

31 Songs

So I’ve always wanted to begin a blog post with the word “so”. So here it is.

So I’ve never really gotten on with Nick Hornby’s fiction. I’ve tried a couple of his novels, but there’s something about them I don’t like, or there’s nothing about them I do like, or something like that. Anyway, I have read, or been told, or imagined I have read or been told, that Hornby’s real strength is his non-fiction writing about popular culture. Released from the obligation to scatter his musings amongst extravagances like plots and characters, Hornby is meant to have quite the eye for what makes pop culture tick.

Having read 31 Songs, I’m inclined to give this view my qualified assent. Hornby in non-fiction mode can be a witty and perceptive commentator. 31 Songs is a collection of essays, ostensibly concerning the eponymous tunes, but in fact covering a range of subjects, some only tangentially related to the appreciation of pop music. Overall I liked the book, which only increased my disappointment with certain aspects of it. I suggest we do “liked” first, then move on to “disappointment”. How does that work for you?1

31 Songs works best when Hornby is playing the pop fanboy, a la High Fidelity. He is writing about songs that he likes, or liked at some point, and there are some lovely explanations as to how he came to feel as he does about them. My favourite essay is on “Smoke”, by the Ben Folds Five. It is a brilliant defence of pop lyricists in general, and an appreciation of Ben Folds, who (although it is hard to believe now) used to be able to write wonderfully witty or heart-breaking lyrics. (“Whatever and Ever, Amen” must be the most devastating critique of incapacitating slackerdom yet commited to record, all dressed up as a merry little pop song.) I like the way Hornby uses the tunes to springboard into discussions about peripheral matters: guitar solos, American-envy, disabled offspring, the misinterpretation of Bruce Springsteen. In fact, there’s a lot to like about 31 Songs. For the most part, it is solid, unpretentious, and intelligent writing about a subject that doesn’t often get treated with a great deal of respect. Hornby clearly loves music, and knows how to express that love, as it were.

Subjective and idiosyncratic as it is, 31 Songs is the kind of book that is often labelled “critic proof”. But if that’s the case, critics aren’t trying hard enough. Good as it often is, 31 Songs rubbed me up the wrong way on a number of occasions (given the copy was a library book, I probably shouldn't have been rubbing it at all), and while that’s to be expected with a book like this, I feel I ought to respond, however ineffectually. It is futile to argue over matters of taste – I either don’t like or have never heard at least twenty of Hornby’s selections – but there are wider assumptions at work in several of the essays that are worth commenting on.

Now, I wouldn’t normally invoke postmodernism save for in defence of my loved ones, but it’s probably fair to say that Hornby is representative of a strand of mainstream cultural appreciation that is distinctly postmodern in its professed disregard for traditional cultural boundaries. Hornby quite rightly defends pop music (good pop music – once again a matter of taste) as something valuable and worth writing about. And why the hell not? Most people I know are far more likely to listen to the New Pornographers than J.S. Bach. That doesn’t mean Baroque fugues and Canadian power pop are interchangable, just that the existence of one does not preclude the importance of the other to a given listener. Indeed, many of my friends would happily listen to either. (I sometimes listen to both. At the same time.)

As a lover of music both high and low (or “high” and “low”, if you prefer your cultural hierarchy safely shackled between scare-quotes), I’m all over this view like unguent on a weeping sore. Elitism be damned: there is good music, and there is bad music, and although we might disagree on the merits of specific examples, surely there is room enough for good music of all kinds. Therefore, it is as natural and as worthwhile for Hornby to write about pop music as it is for me (or you, or yo’ goddamn mama) to listen to it.

Yet in every rejection of elitism there is the danger of an equally repugnant inversion. Hornby demonstrates this in his essay on Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” and Teenage Fanclub’s “Ain’t That Enough”. In his introduction to the book, Hornby informs us that he rarely listens to jazz or classical, that the song (by which he means the modern pop-rock song) is his main, even sole, musical interest. In the essay under discussion, he writes that he used to listen to the Suicide track (“ten and a half minutes of genuinely terrifying industrial noise”) in his twenties, but these days he has no use for it; the Fanclub’s “three minute blast of Byrdsian pop” is now more his style. Fair enough. As Hornby says, the Fanclub song is simply more likeable, and at this time better suits his world-view. I can relate: I still listen to negative or aggressive music, but not nearly so much as I once did. I still find it interesting, and I still in some way need to hear it on a regular basis, but it is no longer my abiding interest.

At this point Hornby comes over all old-fartish and I start having problems with the essay. He wonders why so much attention is given to music that is characterised as “edgy” or “dangerous”, conluding that it’s because critics tend to be young and inexperienced, and listen to so much music that anything vaguely different stands out. Praise is meted out based on novelty, or shock value, rather than actual talent or skill. I’m not sure how much truth there is in this. I suspect good critics most savour a combination of talent and novelty (or rather innovation), regardless of the emotional content of the work. That actually seems to me a description of good criticism, at least of popular music.

Hornby reports that when the Suicide’s first album was re-released, a critic wrote: “All these years later and Suicide still feels like a shot in the head”. Hornby sees this as hyperbolic (which it is), and indicative of a modern obsession with danger, borne of peace and prosperity (which it isn’t). The search for “edginess”, Hornby reckons, emerges from complacency. “”Would the same critic have told someone coming back from the Somme that a piece of music ‘feels like a shot in the head’, one wonders?”. Well, probably not, but what’s your point? It’s a fucking simile, for Christ’s sake, drawing on the same extravagant romanticism that is inherent in all rock culture. In any event, Hornby’s point is idiotic. It’s not like Europe emerged from the Great War singing Teenage Fanclub songs; perhaps “Frankie Teardrop” would have suited the mood of the era. I’m not sure what Hornby’s on about here. Is bleakness verboten to those who have never been machine gunned in Flanders Field? It’s an absurd position, and one that Hornby arrives at solely by extrapolating from his own taste, then applying an anachronistic historical hypothetical.

This where the inverted elitism comes in. Hornby concedes that art should be disturbing sometimes, just not all the time. Indeed, he pleads for this to be so - but who exactly is he pleading with? Who comprises this mysterious elite that demands all music conform to some rigid code of socio-political agitation and/or nihilism? Hornby depicts himself as the weary old-timer, for whom life is sorrowful enough without subjecting himself to the negative vibes of so-called “dangerous” artistes. “Shock-art”, as Hornby curmudgeonly labels it, can only appeal to those “who have managed to avoid more or less everything that life has to throw at you”. Not our Nick, though. He’s all growns-up, and been through things you kids have only heard Tom Waits croak about, consarnit.

This condescending little segue culminates in a deft piece of defensive elitism. You might like bleak, depressing music, but “don’t you try to make me feel morally or intellectually inferior.” In other words, musical taste is an individual, illimitable thing, except if you happen to listen to music other than that which Nick Hornby likes, in which case your preference is based not on sincere appreciation or emotional connection, but on an elitist stance designed to make Nick Hornby feel morally or intellectually inferior. (But why not morally and intellectually inferior?) Reading this essay, I was reminded of certain people of my acquaintance who defend commercial pop music while at the same time sinking the boot into practically everything else. If you don’t give a fuck about the opinions of a particular clique or sub-culture, why bother deliberately setting yourself up in opposition to it? In other words, if you profess not to care, why do you appear to care so much?

In his essay on Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” (great choice, by the way), Hornby writes of “acquiring a musical confidence”. In many – in fact most – of the essays in 31 Songs, Hornby’s musical confidence is high. This is one man’s taste, and it is well and interestingly expressed. Occasionally, though, as in the essay discussed above, his confidence falters, and bitterness creeps in. I found it annoying, but I’m sure I would be guilty of the same uncertainty if I were to write a similar book.2 Perhaps it is part of the fun of 31 Songs that Hornby’s writerly confidence is high enough to reveal the lapses in his musical confidence. It's a lot better than his bloody novels, too.3


1. Note my chatty, Hornby-esque tone. Reader, will you be my friend?
2. The blogger in me notes that the 31 Songs concept would translate well into a series of blog posts. I may have to give it some thought.
3. This post started off as a quickie review and somehow turned into an essay. I have 2500 words on Robert Menzies’ Prime Ministership due by midnight Thursday. Do you think they would accept 1700 words on Nick Hornby instead?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Review: 10,000 Days

I came to worship at the altar of Metal in my teenage years, like many a sulky lad, and have been sacrificing goats there ever since. However, while I’ve long since grown out of appreciating heavy metal solely for its admittedly often juvenile take on rebellion and its anthems of grinding hatred, and have abandoned such adolescent antagonisms as throwing the horns of rock at elderly relatives and answering the phone in a satanic growl (“Dark Lord of rAAWk speaking”), I’ve found that good metal offers a musical complexity found otherwise only in classical music or jazz. There's an intricate textural layering process in the best metal comparable to, say, the techniques Monteverdi used in many of his vocal compositions, and it takes place at such blistering speed and with such raw energy that it’s impossible not to appreciate it on a technical level at the very least.

Surprisingly enough, I discovered Tool only relatively recently, just after the release of Lateralus in 2000, but became an instant fan. Tool's brand of artistically nerdy hypno-wailing encapsulates the best metal and hard rock have to offer, managing to kick out the requisite jams without resorting to gimmickry (hello Slipknot), to talk about politics and religion without indulging in right-wing Christian apologetics (hi Nickleback) and to be emotional without coming across as whiney white trash complaining that their mothers never breast fed them (word up, Limp Bizkit). I've therefore been looking forward to their lastest album for a while now, and not least 'cos the fuckers only seem able to put one out every six or seven years. Moreover, each album has been getting steadily better - and they started out pretty damn good. It's fair to say that I was expecting big things.

There's a well-known homily about expectations and, to a certain extent, it applies here. I should have realised that once I held the CD packaging in my hand. The case is not little ridiculous, and incorporates built-in stereoscopic lenses so that you can look at the rather sillly neo-baroque album art in 3D (a brief aside here: is there some sort of war going on between recording labels and the manufacturers of CD racks that I don't know about? Why are 90% of contemporary bands selling their CDs in enlarged, bulky 'arty' cases that won't fit in with the rest of my frikkin' collection?). Sure, it's kinda fun in a goofy sort of way, but it does rather play into the band's reputation for pretension. I've always chosen to dismiss carping of this nature; surely there's a point at which a certain level of talent can automtically get away with any posturing it cares to afford itself. Genius often has a tendency to come with a healthy dose of arrogance.

With that in mind, the window dressing wouldn't even rate a mention here if it weren't indicative of the quality of the actual music. I'm about to be undeservedly harsh, since the CSIRO have proven that making a successful follow-up to Lateralus would be a scientific impossibility; nevertheless, 10,000 Days is somewhat lacking. The style is very much in the same vein as the former album, the tracks highly-polished juggernauts that build up hypnotically to thrashing climaxes and post-coital diminuendos, but there is a lot more experimenting going on, and rather less confidence in the finished product. It's good, solid rock, but there is little of the technical wizardry that sets Tool apart from the crowd, those monumental riffs and catchy melodies coupled with insanely complex time signatures and chord progressions - sure, it was showing off, plain and simple, but it made the music nerd in me giddy with appreciation. 10,000 Days is perhaps a more emotionally honest effort than its predecessors, especially in the first half, during which frontman Maynard Keenan sings about his mother's death (albeit with tongue-in-cheek blasphemy, comparing her to the Holy Ghost; it's not as confrontational as the fictional priest of the EP Opiate screaming about eating/fucking souls, but far more likely to piss off the religious right), but still cries out for the intelligent, righteous anger at human stupidity that marked ├ćnima, or the stream of pure genius that churned through Lateralus.

10,000 Days is a good album - probably a very good album, in fact - with a lot to like about it, but it's not a great one. Admirers of Keenan's side project A Perfect Circle will probably find more to enjoy than hardcore Tool fans, as, I suspect, will newcomers. That said, I'm going to listen to it again now: I'm getting more out of 10,000 Days each time I play it, and I dare say I'll continue to for some time.