Who’s Peeking Out From Under a Stairway?

When we went to Disneyland last year, Rain played a CD where every track was a person’s name, from A to Z. The entry for W was “Windy” by The Association. And so began my two-month-long nightmare.

I’ve always been susceptible to getting songs stuck in my head, but this one is the worst since “Tom’s Diner.” I hear it before I go to sleep, I hear it just as I wake up, I hear it when I’m tripping down the streets of the city, smiling at everybody I see. When I had my La Tortura episode in the Sony store, I could hear it in the background. “Make Your Own Kind of Music” from “Lost” wasn’t able to drive it out. “We Used to Be Friends” from “Veronica Mars” didn’t work either.

I finally just gave up and bought the album, hoping I could listen to it enough to get sick of it. It almost worked, but that album also has “Cherish”, which is of course the song that was the worst at getting stuck in my head when I was little, before I’d ever even heard of Suzanne Vega. So now they’re both running together constantly, like some infernal medley. (“Infernal Medley” would be a decent band name, now that I think of it.)

Speaking of Disneyland, they’re keeping up with this whole closing-at-8 bullshit. What’s the point of spending three days in LA if you can’t at least go to D-town? I’m starting to think buying an annual pass wasn’t such a great idea.

Fat Drum

I was in Japan Town for dinner tonight and was reminded of the International Taiko Festival this weekend at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. I’m not going this year because I’m headed to Disneyland for Jessica’s birthday, but everybody else should go. Seriously. The shows are really spectacular on every level, breaking out everything short of pyrotechnics and lasers. In San Francisco, you’re lucky enough to have the top taiko dojo in North America right here, and you don’t even have to go to Berkeley to see them this year.

I’d forgotten the show was this weekend until I saw the book The Way of Taiko by Heidi Varian. It’s got some great photos of performances, as well as a history of taiko in Japan and the US, and an explanation of the different parts of the performances. It’s the kind of thing that would’ve been a perfect gift for me had I not already bought it myself.

The best line I’ve encountered so far is a quote that’s left unattributed:

It has been said of taiko that “rhythm and joy ride together on the end of a drumstick. Its closest cousin may be gospel singing.”

The introduction in the book goes on about “The Way of Taiko” and “The Spirit of Taiko,” and it’s hard for the cynical-minded (like me) not to roll our eyes at the suggestion that there’s as much a zen component of banging on a drum as there is to more obviously spiritual activities, such as serving tea or punching someone.

But even I can recognize that there’s something else going on at a taiko performance that’s more than just a drum corps. And the gospel analogy helps explain what it is — the taiko performers get so caught up in the spirit of it, and are encouraged by the vocalizations of the other performers (which I see in the book are called kiai and are the vocalization of chi energy), that you can see and feel it spread, and you can’t help but be caught up in it. The expression on the performers’ faces at the beginning of a show is one of concentration and discipline, and by the end when they’re doing the free-form piece called Tsunami, you can see it’s turned to one of power and joy. It’s not difficult to see the comparison to a gospel soloist belting out the end of a song with a huge chorus of happy, clapping people behind her.

The other reason I like the gospel analogy is because it suggests the multiculturalism that the SF Taiko Dojo seems to emphasize. And it’s not the weakened, meaningless concept that goes by “multiculturalism” these days — the kind of simple-minded, self-serving reverse-chauvinism borne from White Liberal Guilt. It’s true multiculturalism, a product of a Japanese folk art form growing inside San Francisco, forced to cohabitate along with dozens of other cultures fighting for dominance.

In his foreward to the book, Seiichi Tanaka says that one of the reasons he fought to bring taiko to the US is because he’s disappointed to see more of traditional Japanese culture being lost as that country becomes westernized. It’d be easy to interpret that as stereotypical Japanese xenophobia, at least it would if you’d never been to an SF Taiko Dojo performance. They are big on tradition, and always emphasize the clothing, music, theater, and folk legends of Japan, but are careful to present it along with reinventions and analogs in other cultures. One show began with a Native American drummer performing a blessing of the stage. Others have taiko groups that incorporate jazz, or electric guitars.

It’s not just some reactionary assertion that Japanese heritage must be preserved to the exclusion of all else, like the French insist that English words be expelled from their language. It’s an acknowledgement that true culture is a living thing (if you’ll excuse the Berkeley-speak). You can’t preserve the traditional culture of Japan, or anywhere, by treating it as something that’s in a museum that you have to pay attention to because it’s History and it’s Important. You can only preserve culture by showing people how it’s cool, how it’s relevant to them, and how it still exists; that’s how it spreads.

And as a result, you get situations like a painfully white southern boy who goes to Japanese restaurants to get comfort food (because katsu curry rice is closer to what I think of as southern food than anything else I’ve been able to find). And people who go to festivals where Asian drummers carrying on a tradition to honor bring forth animist spirits, are reminiscent of formerly African singers in Christian churches in America.

Switch (jimmy smits)

Apparently I’m turning into a woman.

The only question is whether I’m becoming a middle-aged housewife, or a disaffected angry young soulful woman tryin’ to make it in a man’s world.

Evidence for the housewife: I’ve been listening to “Con te Partiro” by Andrea Bocelli non-stop for the past couple of days. Often — and here’s the embarrassing part — with my eyes closed, like some tweed-wearing New Yorker-reading cultural elitist sitting in an armchair enraptured, letting the music wash over him; and sometimes tearing up like Robert de Niro at the opera in The Untouchables. This is not how grown men are supposed to behave, dammit. It’s not real opera, it’s pop-era. It’s the Bellagio music! That ain’t art, it’s Vegas. And not cool swingin’ Vegas, but taking a break from the kids to fly out from Ohio and play the nickel slots and try the buffets because they’re so reasonable Vegas.

Evidence for the chick-lit reader: I’ve also been listening to Fiona Apple. And liking it. A lot. Maybe it’s just karma for making fun of her before, and hopefully buying two of her records and “Criminal” will pay it off. I guess I’d always dismissed her as just Alanis Morisette gone R&B, or Tori Amos shifted down a few octaves, but now I don’t know what to compare her music to. It’s not just that she can sing and that her songs are well-constructed, it’s that all the arrangements are really, really well done — Extraordinary Machine has a lot of the Abbey Road thing going on.

She’s still got a little of the Wednesday Addams vibe, but after Wednesday moved to France and worked in a cabaret for a few years and had a bad relationship with a bisexual German existentialist filmmaker who would tie her to a wooden chair with flaking paint under a single bare lightbulb and make her watch as he over-tightened the strings of her piano — the only thing she had tying her to her past life in the States — until they snapped and she’d flinch with each one and swear that she’d make her way back home and use this rage and pour it into her music. Or maybe just stayed in the US and dated the moron who made Boogie Nights.

And I don’t know what to think about all this Norah Jones and Neko Case music I’ve got. And the four different versions of “Possession” by Sarah McLachlan. Not to mention the fact that I own every Indigo Girls album. Jeez, am I going to have to get tickets for Lilith Fair now?

One thing I will say: the Bellagio fountain show for Con Te Partiro is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life, ever. Yeah, I said it.

Can you smell what The Rock is cutting up with a chainsaw?

What was almost as good as Serenity was seeing the trailer for the new DOOM movie which is going to be out at the end of the month. Hot damn, I can’t wait.

As much as I love the Resident Evil movies (no, really), they still cling to this idea that they’re somehow real movies. They think that deep down, they’re still horror movies using a videogame franchise as the basis for their stories. This is a mistake. And if the trailer is any indication, the braintrust behind DOOM has escaped that trap and made the first true videogame movie that is going to kick so much ass. They’ve got The Rock, who’s awesome; they’ve got the chainsaw, which is awesome; and they sure as hell better have the first-person sequences in the movie, and not make that just a gimmick for the trailer. Because that’s what’ll make this not just another cheesy sci-fi action flick, but a truly transcendently cheesy sci-fi videogame movie.

I didn’t even like Doom 3 that much and lost interest after about a half hour. Looking back on it, they had the reverse problem — it’s a mindless videogame that thought that deep down, it was a sci-fi horror movie. Some games — Half-Life 2 for one — can pull that off, but the Doom guys couldn’t. So the whole thing came across as bland and uninspired. And really, really dark.

In other Martian news, The Pixies Sell Out is coming out on DVD tomorrow. It’s a DVD of last year’s tour with, I’m assuming and hoping, brief interviews and such. There’s a clip from the DVD on ifilm.com which rates a big “meh.” But it was still a good show.

My Entertainment Dollar

At the beginning of the show, Doughty promised we’d all get big value from our entertainment dollar, and I got that this weekend.

First was Serenity on Friday night at the Northgate. It was awesome. Sure, I’d been looking forward to it, but once I actually got there, I was going into it as critical as I get. I wanted to find stuff to complain about, if only to talk about on the internets. And I had nothing to criticize.

The closest I can get to a criticism of the movie is that it’s pretty much all science fiction — the western element of the setting gets a little bit of attention at the beginning, but is quickly lost in everything but the clothes. When you lose the “Western in Space” angle, the characters lose a little bit of their depth, because you can’t see that they’re all twists on archetypes — the embittered war vet who becomes an outlaw, the hooker with the heart of gold, the preacher, the citified doctor, the optimistic prairie girl, the untrustworthy hired gun (Jayne is supposed to be “the Bad,” I think), and the genius psychic girl with superhuman fighting abilities. (All right, that’s not Western, but it’s still a Joss Whedon production.) And the Reavers, who are central to the plot of the movie, stop being “The Injuns.”

All the characters still work, and I think they work well — except for Wash and Inara, who are left a little underdeveloped — but they’re just not as strong as they were in the series. Which is perfectly understandable, because there’s stuff you can do in even 15 hours of a prematurely cancelled TV series that you just can’t do in a 2-hour movie.

And the movie is just great. Not only did it stand up as a movie, but it tied up elements of the series. And the most impressive part about that is that it ties them up without feeling either too pat, too forced, or too final, and it leaves plenty of room to grow. I read a review that said that it felt like an expanded episode of a TV show, which is just bullshit — not only does the movie have a complete arc, but really big, significant stuff happens in it. Not significant in the sense of a series, like the “Star Trek” movies, where they blow up the ship or kill off a character just because they can’t do that on the show but can in a big-budget movie. Significant in the sense of the overall story. I loved that. We got answers to some major elements of the series, but not everything was answered, and there’s no sense of its being over. Just this part of the story is over.

Also, I never would’ve expected a large-scale space battle, and it delivers on that. Until now, the most impressive space battle I’d ever seen in a movie was in Return of the Jedi, and the one in Serenity tops that, not only in the scale and quality of the effects, but in that you actually give a damn what’s going on. It fits in with the plot and it doesn’t feel like a big battle for its own sake because they’ve finally got the budget for it. And it doesn’t suffer from car chase syndrome — usually, when a movie has an action sequence like a car chase, the story just pauses for a while to let you watch a bunch of crashes or explosions or stunts, then picks up again when they’re done.

Now I just have to figure out when to see it again. And maybe a third time.

Saturday was the aforementioned Mike Doughty concert at the Independent in San Francisco. Great show, in particular the stuff he did from Skittish and Rockity Roll was better than on the albums. He did my two favorite songs from Haughty Melodic (“Unsingable Name” and “I Hear the Bells,” in case anyone’s curious), plus his cover of “The Gambler.” Other covers were “Hungry Like the Wolf” and a little bit of “It’s Raining Men” (dude knows how to play a San Francisco crowd, I guess). The only Soul Coughing song he did was “St. Louise is Listening,” which I like better than the original but is still one of my least favorite Soul Coughing songs.

We were noticing that the whole crowd was made up of the people who are usually standing at the back of other concerts. “Lots of people dancing with their hands in their pockets,” said Mac, “and the reflection off all the horn-rimmed glasses must’ve been blinding.”

Remixed, Remastered, and Bewildered

Rum, Sodomy, and the LashA while ago, my hero and name-dropping victim Steve Purcell was talking about some toys he’d seen at a store and said, “I liked them so much, I wished I hadn’t bought them already so I could buy them again.” Today I got to do exactly that, because of the media companies who’ve hatched an evil scheme to make me spend more of my money.

First I was at the Best Buy looking for We Love Katamari, but apparently Best Buy doesn’t love it as much as everyone else, because they weren’t selling it yet. But luckily for Bandai, they had the first of the new Cowboy Bebop Remix DVDs. This is the same as the earlier DVDs that I’ve already bought and watched repeatedly, it just remasters the audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 and adds some commentaries from the voice actors.

Of course I had to get it, partly because the audio is such a big deal on the series, and I’m looking forward to hearing it in surround sound. But mostly for the I-liked-it-so-much-I-want-to-buy-it-again factor. It’s not just the best anime I’ve ever seen, and it’s not just the best animated series I’ve ever seen, it’s one of the best television series of any kind that I’ve ever seen. The music is phenomenal, the setting is cool, the tone is just right and manages to swing between the genuinely scary, moving, and funny. And a couple of the episodes have actually made me cry (which isn’t that big a feat, I guess, but it’s still worth pointing out). At least the first DVD has five episodes on it, instead of the four that was on the first issue — I’m hoping that this means there are fewer discs for me to have to get this go-round.

And I can more than make up for that by buying all of the Pogues albums a third time. I wasn’t aware that there was even a division called “Warner Strategic Marketing,” but it’s an apt name because I feel like I’ve been the victim of a surgical strike. I first bought the Pogues albums on cassette when I was at school in Athens; I think CDs were a real luxury at the time. I upgraded to getting them all on CD, but could never find two of their EPs — “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah” (which has an awesome cover of the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” on it), and “Poguetry in Motion” (which has “Rainy Night in Soho”, one of my favorite Pogues songs) — on anything other than tape. The re-issues have those EPs on them, some of them the first ever released on CD, so as a completist I’ve got to get them.

I didn’t do the math correctly in my head, because the bill at Amoeba ended up being 90 bucks. Ouch. (I also got The Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds so that I’ll finally have a copy of “Red Right Hand”). And I didn’t even bother getting the two post-Shane MacGowan albums, or the new Ultimate Collection album. And I don’t even listen to the Pogues that much anymore. But at least I can stop thinking I need to keep an eye out for “Poguetry in Motion” every time I go into a used record store. So it’s paying extra for peace of mind.

James Van Der Beek and them sisters from “Sister, Sister”

The title is from Mike Doughty’s song “Busting Up a Starbucks”. If I’m interpreting it correctly, the song’s about impotent outrage at “corporate culture,” pop culture in particular. So at least for the rest of this post, that’s exactly what it’s about.

And what a coincidence, because that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Granted, the whole “high art vs. low art” debate is nothing new, but either I haven’t been paying attention, or within the last decade or so it’s taken a really nasty political turn.

Used to be it was just about intelligence and coolness. So the small nugget inside me which remains in denial and full of hope that I might one day be Cool, forces me to treat everything I like as a guilty pleasure. And I play Diablo while making fun of Dungeons and Dragons. Or I obsess over “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” while mocking both the ones who write fan-fics as “losers” and the ones who write academic books in defense of the show as trying too hard to justify their obsessions. Or I get teary-eyed at the Main Street Electrical Parade while complaining about empty spectacle and meaningless entertainment. I’m not sure exactly why those of us in the nerd and geek communities are so desperate to simultaneously knock down and defend the things we love, but it probably is due to this fantasy we all have of taking off our glasses and showing up for the Big Dance as the coolest kids in the whole school.

But now, to maintain my status as a Well-Mannered, Responsible Liberal, I have to rail against all of it because it’s all the work of the Huge Soul-Crushing Media Companies. Two of which have been my employers, making it even more difficult. Has there always been this gross, simplistic, nasty political tone to it all, or is that a recent partisan development? I mean, I’ve heard simple-minded people shout “television is the opiate of the masses!” and “corporate rock sucks!” and various complaints about media conglomerates and how “indie” automatically equals “better.” And of course I’ve heard plenty of people talk about Disney as if there’s a cabal of Eisner-led liches in Burbank strangling kittens and southeast Asian factory-worker children and using their blood to make pentagrams. (Which of course there isn’t, and I haven’t seen it.)

But now the accusation is that enjoying pop culture means you’re complicit in evil — EEEEEVIL! — for giving money to these horrible companies that you’re just too stupid to see through. We’ve been so indoctrinated with the philosophy that Big Corporations are Bad that it’s gotten mixed in with the high art/low art debate and become yet another way to polarize everyone. Every company larger than 200 employees is now Standard Oil, and there’s no such thing as a good corporation. Our only recourse is to boycott the media, buy organic, and if we must watch films, they should have Parker Posey in them or be directed by Europeans or Canadians. To do otherwise is no longer just stupid, it’s wrong.

Either people are getting more stupid and simple-minded, or the stupid people are getting more vocal, or I’m getting more moderate in my advancing years. I remember back around the time of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and how self-satisfied I was for boycotting the company; it made me feel as if I were really doing something. And it pains me to realize now that in spite of all the comic books and videogames, I grew up, and realized that it’s not about me and my petty grabs at being important for making meaningful choices against a cruel world. That instead, it’s a huge number of people all trying to make meaningful choices, and frequently making mistakes.

It’s comforting to be able to pick out the villains like Kenneth Lay and put a face to the huge, nebulous injustice, but I suspect that the reality is even more depressing. I believe the reality is that there are indeed many outright self-serving bastards trying to screw everyone else, but they’re outnumbered by the people who are really trying to make a difference (in the case of entertainment, to be creative) but impeded by the sheer size of the machine and its layers of bureaucracy. And all of them are far outnumbered by the people who just really don’t give a damn, but are only trying not to get fired.

As for the song: even if I’m completely off about my interpretation, it’s still a catchy song and a great turn of phrase. You can listen to it on his official site if you’re into that sort of thing.

And while I’m writing, my favorite line from the album is “You snooze you lose, well I snost and lost.”

By the way, Doughty’s in San Francisco September 30th and October 1st, playing at The Independent which is stumbling distance from my apartment. Who wants to go with me?

Haughty Melodic

I listened to Haughty Melodic, Mike Doughty’s new solo album, a lot on the drive from LA back to SF, and it’s great road trip music. Turns out it’s good sitting at the computer doing nothing music, as well. There’s nothing really “astounding” about it, like there is with a Soul Coughing album, because it’s more straightforward melodic (hence the title) instead of being all that experimental. Still, the guy’s a great songwriter — the lyrics are clever in places, and every one of the tracks is catchy at least. A couple of them, like “Unsingable Name” and “I Hear the Bells” are genuinely beautiful.

And the lyrics are predictable in places, and some of the tracks are more repetitive than catchy. So I’d say that it’s not brilliant, but still recommend it. Especially to Soul Coughing fans. (If you know El Oso, I’d say that his solo album is like an entire album of “Circles” and “So Far I Have Not Found the Science,” which isn’t bad unless you were expecting a whole album of “Rolling” and “I Miss the Girl.”)