Monthly Archives: August 2006

The best band you never heard of

I have no experience as a music critic and in fact I’ve seldom seen anything written by professional music critics to make me believe it’s possible to convey, with words, anything substantive about musical performances. I’m going to press on, though, because there’s an unknown band out there that you absolutely must hear about. I know, everyone’s got their own favorite bands no one ever heard of, but this is my blog, so today we’ll be talking about Splashdown.

The bad news about Splashdown is that it existed for only a few years, producing only about thirty songs, and disbanded in 2001. The good news is that the songs are nearly all terrific. The better news is that each song is unique. And the best news is that the entire catalogue is available for free download (here, here, and elsewhere).

Like a lot of Splashdown fans, I was first turned onto them by the inclusion of “Karma Slave” in the Titan A.E. soundtrack. For a while it was the only Splashdown song I knew of, and until I found more songs and info about the band, I listened to my copy of Karma Slave obsessively. It showcases all the best aspects of the band: unusual harmonies with a Near Eastern influence; complex but driving rhythms; intelligent and evocative lyrics; richly layered guitar and synth instrumentation; and above all the strong, agile, and vaguely pissed-off sounding vocals of Melissa Kaplan.

I’m a slave of karma
Spin the wheel and I’m a king reborn
I’m a slave of karma, I’m coming back
Yeah, I’ll be coming back
But for the last time

The angry edge in Kaplan’s voice — often submerged, but never completely — is more pronounced in “A Charming Spell,” another of Splashdown’s best. Its lyrics paint a spooky, authentic picture of witchcraft.

Tie a knife with a ribbon
With a red, red ribbon
Raise a hand-held mirror
To the light of the moon
With a secret garden
And a heart unhardened
Strike a spectre’s bargain
With a ritual brew

Halfworld” is a song so melodically interesting that there is also an instrumental-only version that’s great for karaoke.

Is nightshade a food or a poison?
Do you follow my reason?
Is reason important?

As I wrote above, each song is unique in the sense that it is unlike anything I’ve heard from other bands, and also in the sense that it’s distinct from the other songs in Splashdown’s catalogue. The snarky fun of “Procreation Chick” (“Don’t you think you’re the shit?”) is the only one like that from Splashdown; then it’s on to a bittersweet childhood reminiscence in “Elvis Sunday” (“Guess I’m still kickin’ and cryin’ when it comes to goodbye”) — again the only one of its kind among Splashdown’s songs, which is good because it leaves room for the woman-scorned roar of “Ironspy” (“Someone stop my hands from shaking”) and the playful eroticism of “Waterbead” (“See her flowering / With seeds of possibility / Inside his imaginings”).

There are two instances of repetition in the Splashdown catalogue (plus a variety of remixes of a few songs): “The Archer” quotes their earlier song, “Pandora.”

I do, I do, I do, I do, I
I feel so elated
Would you, would you, would you, would you
Please bring me joy

And “Games You Play” is an expanded version of their earlier song, “Paradox.”

If your past approaches you preaching comfort
Don’t be fooled into a war you’ll lose

I could write a little something about every Splashdown song, but there’s little point in continuing when you can get them all, for free, right now, and convince yourself that Splashdown is the best band you never heard of — and then go find someone else to convince.

Of course it goes without saying that the best band you have heard of is They Might Be Giants.

The more things change, the more he stays the same

Salon.com’s “War Room” blog today quotes Donald Rumsfeld as saying, among other things,

We are truly fortunate to have a leader of resolve at a time of war. Through all the challenges, he remains the same man who stood atop the rubble of lower Manhattan, with a bullhorn, vowing to fight back.

…which, apart from being a wackily facile thing to say, reminds me of one of my favorite Homer Simpsonisms:

I haven’t changed at all since high school, and suddenly I’m uncool?!

Bloodletter of the Law

Early 2005 wasn’t that long ago, but in terms of U.S. politics it seems like an eternity. At that time Bush was still untouchable, the GOP was still a monolith of arrogance, and the Democrats were still searching for their asses with both hands and a flashlight. Now the Democrats are taking the offensive more and more, the GOP is scattering like roaches before the light of awakening public opinion, and Bush has been revealed as a scared little bunny rabbit. But just eighteen or so months ago it was nigh impossible to imagine these things coming to pass without being called delusional (at best; more likely, a traitor).

It was at that time that I dreamed up a story that never got past the outline stage. The story began eighteen months in the future — August 2006. Considering that that’s right now, I thought this might be a nice time to publish my abandoned story outline, whose too-clever working title is, “Bloodletter of the Law.”

  • August 2006: While Bush clears brush on vacation in Crawford, numerous senior political operatives are seen coming and going. The liberal blogosphere gets jittery about the new schemes it imagines being cooked up at this summit meeting.
  • Late August: Conservative pundits on talkshows and in other media begin to float the idea of a third Bush term.
  • Democrats are predictably outraged, pointing to the constitutional limit on presidential terms and linking the third-term idea to other instances of Bush flouting inconvenient laws.
  • White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan paints the Democratic response as typically hysterical and shrill. “The President has not announced any plans to seek a third term. The White House is not responsible for the speculations that private citizens make on talk shows or elsewhere.”
  • For a few weeks, newsmagazines are full of articles about the history of the presidential term limit and minutiae of related laws. Franklin Roosevelt’s four consecutive elections are held up for inspection. A talking point emerges that, for those who believe it is necessary to “balance” or roll back the “damage” of the FDR era, three or more Bush terms would not be inappropriate.
  • Early October: Bush announces his plans to seek a third term.
  • The left goes apeshit.
  • Public sentiment is with the side not going apeshit. McClellan calmly clarifies that the Constitution only prohibits being elected to a third term, not campaigning for one. “Technically, if the President wins in 2008, the Constitution would not allow him to take office.”
  • Conservative pundits everywhere finish the thought for McClellan: if Bush wins in 2008, it would be un-American to prevent his taking office and fulfilling the expressed will of the electorate.
  • November: Bush’s announcement having emboldened Republicans and sent Democrats running for the hills, the GOP wins easy victories in the 2006 midterm elections, increasing its margin in Congress.
  • January 2007: Bush’s announcement has cleared the field of other Republican presidential hopefuls.
  • Bill Clinton announces, “I too will seek a third term.” On the left, there is much rejoicing, but not by…
  • Hillary Clinton, whose own presidential campaign is well underway. This new strife in their famously troubled marriage is dissected ad nauseam in the press.
  • A rift forms in the Democratic party between Bill supporters and Hillary supporters.
  • In an attempt to mend the fence, Bill backpedals, explaining that his so-called “run” for a third time was nothing more than a rhetorical device to counter Bush. This is seen akin to “I didn’t inhale” and “what the definition of is is.” Meanwhile, did Hillary know Bill was only kidding? Should she have? The Clintons are ruined, the Democratic party is decimated.
  • November 2008: Bush coasts to an easy electoral victory, although there are numerous reports of voting irregularities.
  • Immediately, those few states that refused to put Bush on the ballot sue to invalidate the election. The case is expedited to the Supreme Court, this time packed with even more Bush partisans…

Having written that, I find it interesting that, just a week or so ago, the news media made a big deal out of one Bush booster’s comment that Bush deserved a third term. I find it even more interesting that he turned out to be a shill

Vaster, pussycat

A favorite saying among many of the folks I know is that “the web is vast.” Whenever we find a discursive answer to an obscure question in two seconds flat, or a dimly remembered ad jingle from childhood, or a mint-in-box Steve Austin with bionic eye, we say it: “The web is vast.” Yet sometimes it’s not vast enough, in surprising ways.

Take, for instance, my post of 22 August, in which I described remembering different lyrics to a Gilbert and Sullivan tune than the ones I found in the libretto online:

A perfectly sensible alternate lyric, but apparently manufactured out of thin air by my brain, as near as I can tell (viz., via Google search). I understand how misheard lyrics can become engraved in one’s memory, but this is a different kind of error altogether. How on earth could I have made it?

Since writing that, I recollected another difference between the version I remember from twenty-odd years ago, and the version I’ve watched, read, and listened to lately with my kids. In the song, “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” General Stanley “now” sings,

In fact when I know what is meant by mamelon and ravelin
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin

…but I remember “chassepot rifle” instead of “Mauser rifle.” Twenty-odd years ago, “chassepot” sent me to the dictionary. To date it’s the one and only context in which I’ve seen that word. Having just now confirmed its existence and its meaning, I am certain I cannot be confusing my memory of that word with any other possible source. Furthermore, I’ve found other online mentions of “chassepot” in Pirates of Penzance. And yet there’s no trace of it in the written or recorded versions I’ve been enjoying lately.

Which leads me to the disturbing conclusion that there is an alternate version of the libretto of which the Internet has almost no record whatever — a version I must have seen in my high school or college library and have now all but forgotten, save for these tiny differences. If I were to track down that version now I’m sure I would find my “no hint at all reveal” lyric in it. But the point is I can’t track it down online.

A cautionary tale for armchair researchers everywhere.

Disaster

My kids love their pediatrician, Dr. Harris. They are almost as excited to go see him as they are to go to Train Town. They are excited merely to drive past his office. “That’s my Dr. Harris!” Archer exclaims, pointing through the car window. They love him so much that they put on their bravest face when getting painful vaccinations. Archer, age 2, even thanked the nurse after his last one.

Of course Andrea and I love him too. We first met him when he delivered a lecture to the parenting class we took, back when Andrea was pregnant with Jonah. The best advice we got in that whole class came from his lecture: namely, that it’s pointless to obsess over the birth, which after all is just a day out of your life, more or less. Possibly a difficult one, but one when you’re surrounded by a team of professionals. All you really have to do is show up. No, said Dr. Harris, the right thing to obsess about during pregnancy is every day for the rest of your life after the birth, when the development and well-being of a whole new person is your sole responsibility.

Now the disaster: Dr. Harris’ practice, Mill Valley Pediatrics, is about to close. He and one of his partners will be joining the HMO, Kaiser Permanente.

This follows a string of medical retirements and closures that Andrea and I have suffered through in the past 10 or 15 years. First my GP, Dr. Cumming, got out of the biz, although she was yet a young woman. I switched to another doctor at the same practice, but within a couple of years the entire practice folded, scattering to the four winds some eight or ten doctors in all and probably thousands of patients. (My medical records from that practice are still in limbo.)

Halfway through Andrea’s second pregnancy, her OB/GYN, Dr. Toton, who’d delivered Jonah, retired. More recently, my new GP‘s partner, Dr. Cummings (not to be confused with Dr. Cumming above), has had to institute new limitations on her practice. And now this.

I don’t know the reasons for all these events (well, Dr. Toton was of traditional retirement age), but the Marin Independent Journal blames tight-fisted insurance companies for the demise of Mill Valley Pediatrics. Dr. Cummings’ new rules appear designed to improve her bottom line. And shortly before Dr. Cumming retired (back in the days of Hillary Clinton’s abortive health-care reform effort), she once complained to me of the byzantine rules and payment mechanisms of the American health care industry.

We will make every effort to continue seeing Dr. Harris even though we are not Kaiser members. And from now on we will be voting against the health-insurance industry and in favor of anyone with the balls to set up single-payer healthcare.

Brushes with greatness!

I went to elementary school at P.S. 196 in Forest Hills, NY. Among my friends there was a girl named Amy Linker. A few years after we all graduated, Amy landed a co-starring role opposite Sarah Jessica Parker in a popular TV sitcom called Square Pegs.

While Amy’s show was on the air, I attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan, where among my new friends was a girl named Cynthia Nixon. Several years later, Cynthia landed a co-starring role opposite Sarah Jessica Parker in a popular TV sitcom called Sex and the City.

What does it mean? And, which of my female college classmates will be SJP’s next TV co-star?

Brush with greatness?

Just now I clicked over to see the latest on BoingBoing when I had a strange moment of small-world zen: both of the top two entries (as I write this) contain comments from former co-workers of mine. In TSA changes laws of physics, declares ice to be liquid, commenter “Lone Locust of the Apocalypse” is my friend Spencer. (I don’t think I’m outing you by saying so, Spencer.) And Original S.S. Minnow for sale has a comment from Paul Boutin, the Internet’s man-about-town and another friend of mine.

The Star Wars remake project, part 1

In high school in the early 1980’s, I once got into a debate with a teacher as to which was the better movie, Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey. I of course was a total Star Wars fanboy, deaf to the teacher’s arguments in favor of 2001. I believe the gist of my own argument was, “Star Wars is the top-grossing movie of all time and 2001 is incomprehensible; you’re obviously wrong (you hippie).”

Now that I’m a recovering Star Wars nerd — and have also long since developed the sophistication to comprehend 2001 — I can easily see how 2001 is in many ways the better film, although in some important ways the two aren’t really comparable.

Despite George Lucas’s later claims to the contrary — to wit, that he was designing a mythic archetypal saga — Star Wars was meant first and last to be popcorny escapism. Of course it succeeded wildly, not least of all because of the pop-culture doldrums of the mid-1970’s, and changed the whole movie business, to the extent that rich storytelling and character development became scarce for a long while, sacrificed to spectacle and bombast. It took years for significant amounts of grownup content to return to movie (and TV) screens.

All of which has been said before, but perhaps this is new: the idea to remake Star Wars as a good movie by today’s standards. That means crackling dialogue, emotional beats, character arcs, and even topical relevance.

Topical relevance? You bet. The story of Star Wars is the story of a once-enlightened republic gone corrupt, then brought to its knees by a small, ill-equipped band of guerrilla fighters. Any resemblance to the United States vs. Iraq, Israel vs. Hezbollah, etc. may originally have been incidental but now screams “allegory.” That the heroes of the story are the allegorical equivalent of terrorists (so-called by the superpower; in story and in life they call themselves freedom fighters) will give the remake a slightly subversive agenda. That’s a bonus. Our job will be to make this allegory clear without allowing it to overpower the story.

I say “our job” because I am inviting public participation via the comment feature of this blog. In this installment I am laying out what I consider to be the requirements of the remake. In part 2 I will describe some of the problems with the existing Star Wars that I hope to address in the remake, such as an over-reliance on coincidence and Luke’s passivity. Part 3 will present the backstory. Part 4 will propose character arcs. Part 5 will introduce a story outline, and later parts will develop key scenes. Each post will incorporate any feedback I get from the earlier ones. Maybe one day we’ll actually film the thing. More likely this effort will be squashed like a bug under the legal thumb of Lucasarts. Even more likely is that I’ll lose interest, but we’ll see. Well begun is half done.

Now for the record, let’s take a look at the core of the original movie — those elements we need to keep in order to qualify as a remake and not a ripoff:

A beautiful princess, nominally a functionary of the corrupt government but secretly a rebel spy, obtains some key intelligence. Expecting capture, she entrusts it to an unlikely emissary who is able to escape unsuspected. The emissary is instructed to seek a former military ally but is intercepted by a bored farmboy with dreams of adventure. When he learns a beautiful princess is in peril his desire to leave his dreary home intensifies, but not until (a) he hooks up with the military man and (b) the government destroys his home in a search for the emissary is he moved to act. They seek to convey the emissary (and his intelligence) to officials of the rebellion, but are waylaid into an opportunity to rescue the princess, which they do after many adventures. Finally the intelligence is delivered to the rebellion, which uses it to score an important military victory.

With some modifications, I think this is a fine framework to start from, and Luke is still a good choice for a main character, though we can make him better.

Notice that everyone’s favorite character, Han Solo, is missing. He is not integral to the plot when formulated this way. (Ben Kenobi could have had his own spaceship and not needed to hire a pilot.) I do still expect to need the character — I’ll explain why in a future post — and integrating him into the story better than before is one of the problems with the existing Star Wars that I’ll discuss in the next installment.

It’s this simple

Driving to work this morning I found myself behind a car with a striking bumper sticker. In bold black letters it said: “DEMOCRAT.” The background was a narrow, stylized slice of a waving American flag.

That’s all.

I have spent a fair amount of energy over the past few years trying to think of ways to convey pro-Democrat messages succinctly and persuasively. And I tell you, this simple message — “DEMOCRAT” and the flag — did it better than anything else I’ve seen or imagined. Not “Proud Democrat.” Not “Stop the Lies.” Not “No Blood For Oil.” Those clumsy sales pitches sound keening next to “DEMOCRAT” and the flag, which doesn’t persuade, doesn’t plead, doesn’t exhort or extoll. It asserts, simply, boldly, and surely: you can be a Democrat and a patriot. It proclaims: there is an alternative. And it does it in the gut, not the head. I think a lot of us wish that the head is where it counts, but if there’s one true thing the GOP knows that we don’t, it’s that the head follows the gut.

Forget explaining. Forget detailed arguments, footnotes, cross-references. Would you use those when trying to pick up a hottie in a nightclub? Of course not, and this is no different. Job number one is to create an impression in the gut: “I can get with that.” To do it at once, without involving the intellect.

“DEMOCRAT” and the flag. The little black cocktail dress of political speech.

(Cross-posted at http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2006/8/23/215335/881.)