Monday, November 30, 2009

Going to Dubai

I'd love to change the world, but I don't know what to do...

Gina went into the Peace Corps. It was more than 20 years after it stopped being fashionable to go into the Peace Corps. But she went. Right after High School.

She was a dreamer, a hippie chick in the time of Reagan. She told people she was born at Woodstock, but that was a lie. Still, she loved the protest music of the late 60s and wouldn't listen to anything else. She wore sandals and clothing made of hemp. proudly telling everyone who'd listen that she would never wear a bra.

And while it was admirable for her to join the Peace Corps, her smug, self-congratulatory fervor was hard to take. (Plus, attacking everyone else in our class for going off to "college and the bourgeoisie" didn't win her any friends either.)

For several years, she sent one letter back per year. One letter about building water systems in Africa or working at children's health clinics in India. She sent the letter to one of her friends, with instructions to pass it around to everyone else she knew. In each letter, several pages were devoted to rants about how her so-called friends were horrible because we weren't doing more to save the world.

In 19th century Russian literature, it's common for one character to say that another character had "gone to America."

This didn't mean they'd actually gone to America. It was a polite way of saying "committed suicide," perhaps because the journey from Russia to America was so perilous back then that only the insane would attempt it (and only a few who attempted it would survive).

Looking at the gilded insanity in the past 10 years, I started using a phrase inspired by Russian literature. Whenever someone I knew fell prey to irrational greed and the desire for wild, expensive things that made no sense, I'd say they were "going to Dubai."

This didn't mean they literally went to Dubai (although many of them did), but referred to their new type of thinking -- the same type of thinking that believed building gigantic hotels that look like sailing ships, indoor ski slopes in the desert, and artificial palm-shaped islands that maximized beach-front property and can be seen from space were good ideas. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

Gina dropped out of sight the same time most of her High School classmates finished college. As we went off to our first jobs (or to grad school, or even in some cases to the Peace Corps), we wondered what had happened to her.

But we all got caught up in our lives, so the mystery of Gina went from a frequent topic of conversation to an infrequent guessing game to "which one was she again?"

Until a few months ago.

This time, it wasn't one hastily-scrawled handwritten letter meant to be passed around. This time, it was a crisp, carefully thought-out email blasted out to several hundred of her old friends. With photos. And captions.

The letter alluded to making millions in investment banking and partying backstage during one of the American Idol tour stops. The lie about being born at Woodstock was nowhere to be found.

Judging from the photos, she traded the sandals and hemp clothes for designer shoes and businesswoman chic. And it's pretty clear that she now wears bras.

In one photo, she was smiling at the groundbreaking of a building on one of those artificial palm-shaped islands you can see from space. She was wearing a hardhat and holding a shovel. A shovel made of gold.

The email glossed over details, but one thing was clear: Gina, the hippie chick who believed that owning anything was a sin against nature, had come back from the Peace Corps, and gone off to Dubai.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Food Coma Thoughts

From Turkey Bowling to Bowling For Soup

Five years ago, I told everyone I talked to that Bowling For Soup was "your new favorite band." I meant it, but no one believed me.

"Think Fountains of Wayne with more punk, more booze, and more sloppy sophomoric jokes," I'd say. "But in a good way." Yeah, it didn't work for them either.

Anyway. Let's talk Thanksgiving.

I didn't overeat.

On a holiday entirely geared towards excess, I managed not to stuff myself.

Yet, everywhere everyone seems stuck in a food coma. Or shuffling zombie-like off to go shopping.

This might have been more attractive to me years ago. Which makes me feel older than I already felt after none of my friends adopted Bowling for Soup as their new favorite band.

And there was a second Thanksgiving meal last night. But I also didn't overeat there.

Almost. But not quite.

Five years on, I still love Bowling for Soup (especially the earlier stuff). But they're no longer my new favorite band. And probably not yours either (and this attempt to bring them to your attention is half-assed, even for a holiday weekend).

Still, in the food-coma long weekend doldrums, that'll have to be okay.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving Punks, Slackers & Ne'er-do-wells

Did someone say Turkey Bowling?

A lot of people talk about Turkey Bowling.

But few people actually do anything about it.

So happy Thanksgiving punks, slackers & ne'er-do-wells!

Monday, November 23, 2009

TNT -- We Know Marketing

Mix Tape for the MP3 Era (On TV)

Mix tapes are so 1980s and mix CDs just aren't as cool.

But if you could make an MP3 mix that looked like a cassette tape, that would be cool, right?

Two years ago, the Mixa came out -- $40 bucks for a USB flash drive that looked like a cassette tape. (Plus, it can hold as much music as 50 or 60 mix tapes and won't sound crappy if you leave it in your car for a few months -- yeah, Stop Making Sense, I'm talking about you.)

Flash forward to today: I get a cardboard package designed to look like an oversized cassette box, marked with the TNT logo and the reminder that they know drama. I love the packaging (and love the fact that I somehow landed on this particular swag list) and love the fact that the show is being marketed by its music. How cool is that?

Inside is a 2GB flash drive that looks like this (that shiny thing above it is a quarter to give you an idea of its size). This is a very cool (and heavy) device that contains about half of the first episode of Men of a Certain Age, a new hour-long drama with Ray Romano, Scott Bakula, and Andre Braugher. The drive also has three songs on it (one by CCR, one by Whitesnake, and one by Styx).

Now, I'm not sure I know anyone who loves CCR, Whitesnake, and Styx, but perhaps such creatures exist. And maybe there's a market for a show about three college friends in their 40s who complain about marriage, careers, and failing eyesight (in which music is part of the background but not as important as I might want it to be). And maybe Ray Romano's image is so squeaky clean that it is necessary to see him back up to run over a wounded possum twice. And maybe there's a reason why they didn't put the entire show on the drive (even though there's 1.85GB free out of 2GB). And maybe since TNT sent me this cool swag, I'll mention that the show premieres on December 7th.

So... (you might be wondering) how's the show itself? And does TNT really know drama as well as they know marketing?

Um... did I mention how cool the USB drive is?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Fooling with the Logarithms, Going Berserk

It crackles, it clicks, it pops, it starts...

We could hardly have been more different.

I was nerdy and obsessed with music, looking for escape and lost in my imagination. She was tough and sexy and careless.

I don't know how it started or why. She called me one night and told me she was getting high and blowing the smoke out her window. (To this day, I'm not sure why she told me that.)

I told her I was listening to the radio and reading Dostoyevsky. (I told her that because it was true.)

The outlines are blurred now, but some details are clearer than ever. During the first snowfall of the year, in front of the candy store whose owner would soon be arrested for selling drugs, she told me she wanted to run her own hair and nail salon and change her name to Jewelie. I wanted to keep from laughing when she mentioned that.

Before the internet, before MTV, before MP3s, people used to listen to the radio.

And briefly, in the late 70s, a band called The Sports sneaked onto the radio in the U.S. They sounded like a smoother version of Joe Jackson or Graham Parker. I didn't know at the time they were from Australia -- they sounded like dozens of other bands being packaged as "new wave."

But they'd figured out a sure-fire way to get radio play. They wrote a song about radio. It was one of the oldest gimmicks in music (but also one of the more effective ones). Then they took the gimmick up a notch and recorded dozens of customized versions of their radio-centric song, replacing the second "the radio" from the chorus with call letters of radio stations in the top media markets. The stations who were name-checked couldn't wait to play the song (and sometimes edited the call-letter shout-out to use in station-identification spots.

Ironically, I'd heard the "normal" version of this song on the cool radio station near where I lived. Months later, the more top-40 oriented station (which wasn't nearly as cool) started playing the "special" version of the song and I wondered if the band knew how uncool that other station was. (Probably not -- they were in Australia.)

My relationship with "Jewelie" didn't last long. We had little in common and she was always picking fights with me.

She drove an ancient beige Buick covered with rust spots and filled with fast-food wrappers. The tires were bald and the brakes squealed and she always drove too fast. The radio in the car was broken and she'd never bothered to get it fixed. The rust and tires and brakes I could understand, but not fixing the radio was a complete mystery to me.

A few weeks after that first snowfall, a heatwave settled into New England, turning the white ground cover slushy and gray until it disappeared altogether. It got cold again, but didn't snow for a while. And sometime in those cold days of waiting for more snow, "Jewelie" called me because she was mad that I didn't have any friends in prison. She yelled at me and dumped me over the phone, then complained that I had the radio on in the background. The station was playing the Sports at the very moment when she asked me "who listens to the radio anyway?"

Me. And everyone I knew.

But not her.

Our other problems would have been difficult to solve... but that one was impossible.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Spam-A-Little, Spam-A-Lot

Finally, this little corner of the Internets has arrived.

For a while, I've been wondering why I bother to moderate comments. Most of you are extremely polite, funny, informative, and well-behaved. And up until yesterday, I'd never had any reason to reject a comment.

But I got my first spam comment yesterday (complete vague praise for the blog and a link to a UK semi-porn site).

Finally, Clicks and Pops has arrived!

And, although I'm still in denial about how quickly this year has gone by, I'm already starting to see "best of" lists and online "year in review" posts. It's way too early for that... on the other hand, here's a Clicks and Pops-eye view of 2009:

created at

(Oddly enough, the phrase "financial shit storm" or its Icelandic twin "kreppa" appear nowhere in this cloud, despite how often it showed up this year!)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Surrender, But Don't Give Yourself Away

Got my Kiss records out.

On paper, I should have loved Cheap Trick. They had catchy songs, solid harmonies, enough power chords to keep things interesting, an offbeat sense of humor, and they had to go to Japan to become stars. Plus they worshipped the Beatles.

But in reality, I never quite cared for them. They always seemed to be one tattoo away from heavy metal (and I wasn't a huge fan of heavy metal). And thousands of screaming fans in Japan weren't going to change that.

Then there was the bizarre way they looked: Bun E. Carlos seemed more like your Dad's accountant than a drummer, Rick Nielson seemed like he was constantly pissed that his picture wasn't in the dictionary under "irony," Robin Zander seemed like couldn't wait for the 80s to invent hair metal, and Tom Petersson always seemed confused that he hadn't wound up in a band like Wings. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

On paper, Sheila and I should have been a couple. We were in several classes together and we always had fun hanging out. But we had no chemistry. (Plus, we had almost no common ground musically and therefore had little chance in my eyes.) Still, I was young and didn't really know much about these things.

In Junior High and High School, these negotiations mostly involved third-parties. So one day, a mutual friend took me aside and asked me how I felt about Sheila. And I had to think. I liked her, but I didn't like-her like her. But maybe I could grow to like-her like her. I don't remember what I told the third-party negotiator, but it was wishy-washy. I don't remember if it was because I really didn't know or because I just didn't want to hurt Sheila's feelings. Or maybe the idea of a girl having a crush on me was such an ego boost that I didn't mind trying to force my own feelings into a box they didn't fit into.

And then the next morning, Sheila asked me if I'd been listening to the radio the night before. I hadn't. I'd been trying to finish my homework and listening to late-night talk radio from Canada. She said she'd dedicated a song to me -- this song (embedding disabled, so you'll have to click here).

She wanted me to want her. And I wanted that too. But what works on paper doesn't always work in real life -- whether or not you walk in on your parents (or whether or not they're listening to your Kiss records -- ironically or otherwise).

And while I was young and didn't really know much, at least I knew that.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kinks Month and the Beatles Ukebox

This is why Al Gore invented the Internets!

All month long, a group of dedicated followers of fashion have been listening to one Kinks album a day (in chronological order). Two of my favorite blogs, Pleasant Valley Sunday and The Song in My Head Today have been doing daily posts on all those Kinks albums. Compare and contrast (or at least go there and scroll back).

And red-hot atomic thanks to Never Get out of the Boat! for alerting me to a blindingly brilliant project: Brooklyn-based musicians Roger and Dave have decided to arrange, perform (on ukulele), record, and post cover versions of all 185 songs written and released by the Beatles (with 185 guest artists). They've been posting one of these a week since January and will keep posting one per week until they're done. And they also have been posting essays about the songs, musicians, etc.

In most cases, these are covers with full instrumentation (and often feature arrangements that depart quite a ways from the originals). Peruse the whole shebang here. I'd recommend checking out "I am the Walrus" (song 038) "Because" (song 017), and "Come Together" (song 007) then work your way up to "Revolution #9" (song 034).

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Skid and the Mouse

A brief pause to appreciate the modern miracle of anti-lock brakes.

I was in Alaska for most of the past week.

When I got there, it was chilly, but they were still waiting for the first snow.

When I left, there was 3-6 inches of snow on the ground.

I drove nearly 600 miles in that week, often through near-blizzard conditions (and sometimes in virtual white-outs). I was driving a small Toyota Yaris (which looks a lot like a mouse and handles like one in the snow), so I slowed down when the road conditions were bad. Sometimes I slowed way down.

One night, I was going about 40 on a highway with a speed limit of 65 (through I stretch I'd cruised down days before when the road was clear) and two four-wheel drive trucks winged by me going around 75. Twenty miles later, I saw one of the trucks in a gully by the side of the road with four police cars and a tow truck trying to get him back on the road. I puttered by in the Mouse, going up to 50 when the road was clear and back down to about 40 on the bad stretches.

And I remembered being a passenger in a car decades ago. Going into the mountains, skiing. Driving down a highway slick with snow and ice at about 60. And the car hit something and went into a skid. Suddenly, we'd spun 90 degrees around and were facing the guardrail, but still moving down the road. And then the brakes and steering kicked in and we spun 180 degrees around until we faced the opposite guard rail (again still moving down the road at a high rate of speed). Time just slowed down and the car almost righted itself. Then almost stopped itself. Then slid into a soft wall of snow on the side of the road.

A small change in pressure or steering and the car would have gone into the guardrail and been wrecked. Or another car might have crashed into us. And forget about the car for a minute. This was before air bags, so we easily could have been injured or killed.

I thought about that driving slowly through near-blizzard conditions in Alaska. I probably could have pushed my speed up by another 5-10mph. And the car had anti-lock brakes and airbags, so I probably would have been safe even if it crashed. But I slowed down. And didn't care if it took an extra 10 or 20 minutes to get where I was going.

And the highways were better than the streets in town, which sometimes weren't plowed and often would melt from sunlight and traffic, then freeze again overnight. A couple of times, I had to press hard on the brake and feel the anti-lock mechanism clamping down, shifting between the four wheels hundreds of time per second to bring the Mouse to a safe stop.

I returned the car at night in a light snowfall as the temperatures slid down to around 20 degrees. About a quarter-mile from the airport is a stop light. As I approached, there were two cars waiting in front of me. I hit the brake and the Mouse started to slide forward. The anti-lock braking system kicked in, but the car was still sliding. It was clear that I didn't have enough room to stop and would likely slide into the car in front of me.

Time slowed again. And while the Mouse was trying to stop itself, I noticed there were two lanes in my direction on that road. In my lane, steady traffic had warn down the snow (which had probably just refrozen) to the pavement. The other lane had three inches of snow on the road, but no vehicles. So while the brakes were making that ABS crunching sound, I steered into the other lane, into the deep snow, and easily pulled to a stop at the light. Five minutes later, the car was back in the warm embrace of Avis, unharmed and undamaged. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

When I got home, I told this story to a friend of mine, who listened intently, paused, then said "are you still talking about cars?"

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Soap Star, Fake Mime, and the Herky-Jerky Guy

You tell me

There were a lot of reasons to love the song "Jessie's Girl" by Rick Springfield.

He was cute.
He was a soap opera star.
The album it came from (Working Class Dog) featured a photo of a dog in a shirt and tie with a photo of Rick Springfield in the breast pocket.
It's pretty damn catchy.

But for me and all my friends, there was one overwhelming factor that made us love this song: the line "I wanna tell her that I love her but the point is probably moot." (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

And then there's They Might Be Giants, a band made for late-night college-hallway arguments about the meanings of their songs. But in the internet era those arguments would have to include the question does this version of "Birdhouse in Your Soul" make more or less sense than the original?

You tell me.

Monday, November 9, 2009

It Was 20 Years Ago Today

A vision of peace.

When I was growing up, it seemed impossible to imagine that the Berlin Wall would ever come down.

But 20 years ago, in the dying days of the Soviet Union, communism was going through an upheaval. A gradual inching towards freedom occurred. And travel restrictions were eased.

In part, this was because a flow of refugees from the East was forcing their way into the West.

In East Germany, millions of people (nearly 10% of the population) took to the streets -- marching for freedom.

The East German government, with the blessings of the Soviets, announced new rules that would let East Germans travel to the West.

In Berlin, tens of thousands gathered at the Berlin Wall, laughing, singing, and drinking. Then they climbed the wall. East German authorities announced that the border would be opened in the morning, but the crowds kept coming. And eventually the border was opened, without fanfare, in the middle of the night.

Later, sensing the situation was getting out of hand, East German leader Egon Krenz ordered the border guards to reseal the border by any means necessary, including deadly force.

The East German soldiers, looking out at the crowd of revelers from the East and West, made some efforts to establish order, but chose not to use any force. Over the next few days, bulldozers broke apart sections of the Wall, creating four new border crossings. Less than a year later, East and West Germany were officially reunited and only a small section of the Wall remained upright.

What had once seemed impossible had happened, virtually overnight.

John Dear, writing in The Plough challenges us to imagine ways to make the world better (read his article here.)

25 (or even 21) years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed impossible -- or at best something that might happen in some far-away future when we were all dead. That was very clear. Until it happened. And suddenly everything seemed possible.

I can't think of a better way to celebrate that anniversary than to ask what a better world will look like (and then imagine ways to bring that better world closer).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Weather... Or Not

In which, perhaps, I (briefly) control the weather.

Did I actually believe that I controlled the weather when I was in college?

It's a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

I did have a spooky relationship with the weather back then. And would (occasionally) promise (and deliver) either snow or a sunny day on demand (or tell friends that their desired weather just wouldn't happen).

Maybe I was just in tune with the meteorological truths. Or maybe it was all just hundreds of coincidences.

But I never believed that I could control the weather and shape it to my own whims.

I still don't believe that.

And yet...

I'm up in Alaska right now. Today, I spent a lot of time with two people who rely on snow for their livelihood and they lamented the lack of white stuff on the ground. "Don't worry," I told both of them, "I brought snow up with me from Los Angeles. We don't need it down there." And I promised them snow this week.

Now, you might say that I checked the forecast on (I did). And you might know that the forecast called for snow showers later this week (it did). And you might suspect that I want people to think that I'm cool enough to be able to deliver weather on demand (you'd be right).

But the forecast said the snow wouldn't start until tomorrow.

And it started an hour after I promised snow. And hasn't stopped yet.

Coincidence? You tell me. (Link with badly synced sound for Gmail subscribers.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cue the Spooky Music

Cue the spooky music.

Sixteen years ago this week, Leon Theremin died.

The Russian inventor of the weird electronic instrument that you play without touching it wanted to invent something you could play without expending any mechanical energy.

I'm pretty sure he didn't think it would one day be used for this:

Or this:

This past weekend, I was at a Halloween party where someone brought a theremin. And I'm here to tell you, it's impossible to play the theremin without making weird faces. (Or at least it is for me...)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Unplug the Jukebox and Do Us All a Favor

I lost her in the fog.

"Hey," she said, "do you want to go square dancing?"

No. But not only did I not want to go. I didn't want her to want to go.

And while it was (more than) okay for me not to want to go, looking back I can see that not wanting her to want to go was a problem. And a red flag.

That's just common sense.

But when you want something as much as I wanted her, your common sense books the first flight for the tropics, leaving you stuck in the fog.

In the 1970s, Adam Ant was heading nowhere. He was in a band called Bazooka Joe that is remembered today only as the answer to the trivia question "who was the headliner at the first live Sex Pistols show?"

But Adam watched the Sex Pistols, glimpsed the future, and broke up his band. His next band, Adam and the Ants, fused ska polyrhythms, punk energy, and glam dress-up style with pirate uniforms.

He eventually got Sex Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren to manage the band. But McLaren had little interest in Adam Ant and soon convinced the other Ants to jump ship to join Bow Wow Wow. Undeterred (or at least not wanting candy), Ant recruited Marco Pirroni (ex of Siouxsie and the Banshees) and several others as the new Adam and the Ants. Pirroni would write or co-write most of their hits, even after Ant hung up his puffy pirate shirt for good. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

I talked her out of square dancing and talked her into going to see Adam and the Ants. She hated the crowd, hated the songs, and hated the fact that there were two drummers. I loved the energy, loved the crowd, and found the music pleasant (even if it wasn't that memorable). It was like we were at two completely different concerts.

We walked back to campus in the fog and I knew all was lost.

Even before she demanded I take her square dancing the next weekend.

Years later, at the edge of a different ocean, the fog rolled in again. And I went for a walk and realized that, although I've never owned an Adam and the Ants record, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for them. Because at least they don't play square dancing music.

Monday, November 2, 2009

It's Crazy, But It's True

Compare and contrast

Growing up, I never paid any attention to Dusty Springfield; she seemed about as relevant and important as old Glenn Miller albums. In college, some of my cooler friends had copies of Dusty in Memphis, but I never really listened to any of her records until years later.

Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien was shy and demure. But when she became Dusty Springfield (who drank, popped bills, cut herself, wore wild wigs, embraced her own sexuality, and suffered from manic-depression), she was really something. And it didn't hurt that she could sing like an angel being chased down a dirt road by a devil on a motorbike. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

The Bay City Rollers put a bubblegum shine on Dusty's song (which works about a third of the time). At times, this version seems to be less a song and more a battle to the death between different tempos and tones. And are there any non-chemical explanations for the bizarre part in the middle where the string section tries to take over the universe?

Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart (later of Eurythmics) and their early band the Tourists try for a new wave/power pop feel -- dig the synthesized handclaps and cheesey early-rock-video colors. Still, Annie Lennox channeling Dusty Springfield was enough for a number 4 single in the U.K. in 1979 (although the record only got to number 83 in the U.S.).

And if one chick and some synthesized sounds are good, surely four chick singers and lots of synths must be at least four times better! And if the math doesn't quite work for you, what if they sing everything but the song's title in Japanese?

Where can you go from there except to Denmark, where Volbeat answers the question you never thought to ask: What would it sound like if Metallica covered Dusty Springfield?