Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Mega America Trek 2006: South Dakota, Part I

So I never really wrote about our Mega America Trek last fall like I'd intended to, just a brief synopsis of our 5,550-mile, 10-state journey. I figure now I've got the time to do occasional closer looks at our whirlwind adventure (which we're still processing – so much happened in the final few months in America that it's a bit of a blur really). And share a few more photos! (Many more of our trek are up on our Flickr page.)

South Dakota is one of those states I'd always wanted to visit, but it's a hell of a long way from anywhere else. There's something mysterious and epic about it in my mind – the Great Plains, the Wild West, the vast unfolding land thousands of miles from any ocean. When we were planning the Mega Trek, we were going to stop in Colorado and head back, until I realized that South Dakota was probably only 6-7 hours north of where we were visiting a friend in Greeley. And there's a lot crammed into a hundred-mile radius of South Dakota that I'd long wanted to see – Mount Rushmore, of course; the town of Deadwood; Badlands National Park, even Rapid City.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWe rolled into the Black Hills at the end of a long dusty journey through southeastern Wyoming, which is just wide-open emptiness. Even Cheyenne, the biggest town in the state, felt like a time capsule from the late 1970s. It was a good seven hours of scenery like this view to the right – and we also passed through Lost Springs, Wyoming, a blip on the map which boasts a population of one. I kid you not.

We snuck into South Dakota in the early evening to find our campground and collapsed. The following day we packed about a week's worth of sightseeing in. Our first stop was Jewel Cave National Monument just down the road from our campground. Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThis was a place I'd never heard of before our trek but it turns out it's the second longest cave in the world, buried just under the Black Hills. It's filled with rare gorgeous crystal formations and sprawls on in winds and turns for miles and miles. (It's still being mapped to this day.) Unfortunately, with a squirmy 2 1/2 year old we couldn't do any serious spelunking and had to take the "Discovery Tour" which basically just showed us one big room of the cave. But it was still pretty cool, as we and the tour guide were the only people there early in the morning. The guide told us about the cave and showed us some of the namesake "jewel" formations. I really would have loved to go on a longer tour, but kids do cramp the style sometimes and you just move on.

And we had more to see in our Black Hills tour! Photobucket - Video and Image HostingNext stop was Mount Rushmore, which is, yes, overexposed and touristy and yet still one of the more impressive U.S. monuments I've seen. The drive was nice because you come around the back of the mountain and wham! There's the famous faces, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Washington. Like most big things, it was a little smaller than I expected, but still an elegant piece of work, in a nice harmony with the hills around it. (You never really see the rest of the mountain in photos of Rushmore, but it's got this rugged character to it.) We spent a couple hours at Rushmore soaking it all in. It's got a carnival feel because even in early October there were lots of tourists from all over the world there, at this remote spot in South Dakota. Everyone seemed kind of happy to be there and there was a cheerful mood. I'd hate to have visited in July, though! The approach and surrounding site has been nicely constructed to show off the monument, with an avenue lined by huge pillars flying every state flag. I felt like they succeeded in making it feel like an occasion but not too overblown.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe faces themselves are the main attraction, and I was really impressed by how they changed depending on the light. While the faces appear smaller than you'd expect at first, as you walk along a nice woodland path that runs in front of them their scale becomes more apparent. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum's designs were calculated to work with the light and surroundings very well, I felt. I simply watched the day play over the faces for a while, the movement of the shadows. I know there's controversy about the monument's appropriateness in relation to the Lakota tribes, but I have to admit that on this fine fall day with the aspen glowing and the sky blue, Rushmore felt like a pretty sacred place.

We stopped for lunch in the flyspeck town of Keystone just down the road from Rushmore. While Avril and Peter ran around at a park for a while, I just had to check out the National Presidential Wax Museum. I'm a presidential history buff, and kitschy as this thing sounded, I figured I had to check it out - when would I get a chance again to see a wax Calvin Coolidge? Besides, it was only nine bucks. While it was indeed very kitschy, it had a homespun charm and was kind of oddly fun in the way that strange tourist trap attractions can be – most of the 40 statues were made by the same woman, who had a lifelong dream of being a wax figurine maker (who doesn't?). Gerald Ford was the best, lifelike enough to be kind of creepy, while some of the lesser presidents like James Buchanan looked the least like their real-life counterparts (Buchanan looked vaguely like Elvis in a white wig). By far the best wax museum devoted to American presidents that I've been to, though.

Next up, we drove an hour or so north through the winding Black Hills to Deadwood, the old historic mining town. Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWe'd become big fans of the profane and profound HBO series and decided to see what Deadwood looked like in 2006. It's obviously not much like it was in the 1870s (a huge fire burned down most of the town back then, so nothing much remains of the muddy streets and wood buildings era), and since they legalized gambling a few years back, it's more another casino rip-off attraction than anything else. On a warm October morning, clumps of overweight gambling tourists shuffle down the sidewalks, digital cameras around their necks and gaudy T-shirts on their chests. Some of them probably don’t know Deadwood as anything but a gaming paradise livening up the Black Hills. There's lots of tacky monuments to the town's bloody past (see the chair Wild Bill Hickok was shot in! Although it might not actually be the real chair...) and a general bloated malaise, despite some nice old brick buildings and a decent walking tour that shows you where the historical sites were.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingMy favorite part of the real Deadwood was "Boot Hill," Mount Mariah, where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are both buried. Up a very steep road from the main town, it's got a fine view of the whole town. The aspen are gold and blooming, filling the valley with golden splashes. From way up here, you squint and you almost can see Wild Bill, Sheriff Seth Bullock and the rest splashing through the mud and grime of more than a century ago. Here, surrounded by the pines and aspens and silent gravestones, all the modern-day distractions melt away for a few minutes. A beautiful bust of Wild Bill marks his grave, and hundreds of other pioneers also rest up here. While the town of Deadwood isn't particularly amazing today, Boot Hill is worth seeing.

Yikes, this is already reaching epic proportions and I haven't even reached Rapid City yet! I'll continue sometime soon with the climax of our South Dakota adventures into the Badlands and bison and beyond.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Peter's first e-mail

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingTo Grandma Lynnie in America

I want say to her, I want pick apples. Um. peanuts. Tomatoes. And peanuts! And peanut butter! I want you make ... Let's make a card for Grandma Lynne! I want Grandma Lynne drive in an airplane to here and I will show her my hut. I see you in a little while. No no let me push the buttons. Let me push one button. I want push one button Daddy. Mmmmmm... Byebye

(Transcribed by Daddy.)

Oscar, Obama, Oscar, Obama

Wow, this is the most disengaged I've been from the Oscar nominations in years... The last few years, after all, I dashed out lengthy columns on the nominations for the newspaper. This year, the only one of the best picture nominees I've even seen is "Little Miss Sunshine," which I did quite like. Still kicking myself I missed out on "The Departed" during its apparent five-minute run in NZ. So little to say on the Oscars other than wouldn't be awesome if Peter O'Toole finally wins Best Actor, even if it's a "pity vote"? And while I'm sure Helen Mirren is great in "The Queen," it's just about freakin' time Kate Winslet won something (five nominations now and she's under 32 - a record accomplishment).

Speaking of disengagement, it's been odd watching from overseas as the presidential 2008 contest starts to build up (just under two years before the eventual winner gets inaugurated). So, Hillary Clinton is in, eh? As someone who's voted Democrat in every election since 1992, I would have thought I'd be psyched, but I just can't get that passionate about the idea of another President Clinton. Just starting to feel too much like the Bush and Clinton families are our dynasty, considering a Bush or Clinton has been in the White House (or Vice Presidents Mansion) since, oh, 1981... I won't be enraged if Clinton is the Demo nominee and actually wins by some miracle (a woman president would be nifty); she'd probably be pretty good at the job, and by gum would be far better than the moron we have now, but I just don't want to go through all that old Whitewater/Lewinsky baggage again, y'know? The attack squads are already sharpening their knives...

Frankly, even if I'm jumping on the bandwagon here, it-politician Barack Obama is a lot more appealing to me - his candidacy has that whiff of the mythic that is always appealing, and while there's been caveats about his lack of experience, he's hardly the only presidential candidate with that problem. There's this guy named Bush whose only political experience was 6 years as the governor of Texas, which might sound impressive until you learn that Texas's governorship is about the weakest one there is. I have no idea if Obama would actually be a good president, but after the Dems trying two campaigns with candidates that had enormously long resumes, maybe it's time to go for an inspirational novice?

Anyway, it's far too soon to say Obama's media love-fest will lead anywhere, but he's certainly got an interesting story. My dream candidate would be Al Gore, but only if the public's memory of him could be surgically reset to 1992 or so. Just as I'm not eager for all the Clinton right-wing attacks to begin again, I'm so sick of the Al Gore jokes. While he was a pretty lackluster candidate (as was Kerry), I maintain both of them would've made far better presidents than what we ended up with. Ah well... c'est la vie. I'll be watching it all from overseas, anyway. Say, did I mention New Zealand already has a woman leader?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Honestly, I have no better ideas

Busy busy busy and still recovering from the plague virus here, so I'll steal from the inimitable Roger Green and post a list of

Random Personal Questions.

1) Do you have a crush on somebody?: Oh yes
2) Do you hate more than 3 people?: Truly hate, probably not
3) How many houses have you lived in?: Approximately 16, if you count just places I've lived in more than 2 weeks
4) Favorite candy bar?: New Zealand has a vast variety of Kit-Kat variations (cookie dough! honeycomb!) that I am just beginning to explore.
6) Have you ever tripped someone?: Oh yes
7) Least favorite school subject?: Trigonometry, which I managed to fail twice (!) in college.
8) How many pairs of shoes do you own?: 5
9) Do you own a Britney Spears CD? No, but I've considered her greatest hits CD if I can get it for next to nothing... I like "Toxic," what can I say.
10) Have you ever thrown up in public?: Does in a stranger's bedroom count?
11) Name one thing that is always on your mind: The boy, the future, books
12) Favorite genre of music?: Really couldn't narrow it down, although 1970s proto-punk punk-pop post-punk punkesque rock (Bowie, Ramones, Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Iggy, XTC, etc.) is probably my favorite general school of music right now.
13) What's your sign?: Scorpio
14) What time were you born?: Around 5 a.m. in a very cold place in Alaska
15) Do you like beer?: Moderately
16) Have you ever made a prank phone call?: Failed prank phone call, yes
18) Are you sarcastic?: Yeah, right
19) What are your favorite colors?: Blue
20) How many watches do you own?: One, which I bought just last week for $14 after the really fancy watch I got as a wedding present 7+ years ago finally kicked it
21) Summer or winter? Fall is my favorite
22) Is anyone in love with you?: Peter says he loves me very very very very much so I'll assume he's truthful
23) Favorite color to wear?: Tan
24) Pepsi or Sprite?: Pepsi
25) What color is your cell phone?: I don't believe in cell phones
26) Where is your second home?: Technically, don't really have a FIRST one these days
27) Have you ever slapped someone?: Sadly yes
28) Have you ever had a cavity? More than one
29) How many lamps are in your bedroom?: Two
30) How many video games do you own?: Zero
31) What was your first pet?: Ruffles the poodle which was technically my parents
32) Ever had braces?: For far far too long
33) Do looks matter?: They are a factor
34) Do you use chapstick?: Not really
35) Name 3 teachers from high school: Mr. Lehman, Mmme. Onesto (who loathed me with a fiery French passion), Mrs. McD
36) American Eagle or Abercrombie?: Huh?
37) Are you too forgiving?: More the other extreme
38) How many children do you want?: The one we've got will do
39) Do you own something from Hot Topic?: I'm so far out of this loop that I think it's a line
40) Favorite breakfast meal: These days, toast with hummus or pseudo-butter healthy stuff
41) Do you own a gun?: No way
42) Ever thought you were in love?: The answer to this question is infinite
43) When was the last time you cried?: Honestly, 1991 or so, I think. I prefer to bottle things up into occasional explosions of rage.
44) What did you do 3 nights ago?: Celebrated my wife's birthday
45) Olive Garden?: Don't have 'em here
46) Have you ever called your teacher mommy?: No, but I called my mommy teacher
47) Have you ever been in a castle?: Yes
48) Nicknames?: None that I particularly care for
49) Do you know anyone named Bertha?: Yep
50) Ever been to Kentucky?: Hurtling through in the dead of night on the way to Ohio.
51) Do you own something from Banana Republic?: No
52) Are you thinking about somebody right now? I'm thinking this is really a lot of questions
53) Ever called somebody Boo?: Not unless they scared me
54) Do you smoke?: Brief attempt in college didn't take
55) Do you own a diamond ring?: No
56) Are you happy with your life right now?: It comes and goes
57) Do you dye your hair?: Nope
58) Does anyone have a crush on you?: I'm sure this woman at the beach today was giving me the eye, but then I think it was because my swim trunks were coming off
59) Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts? Donuts trumps Moneybucks
60) What were you doing in May of 1994?: Preparing to head to an internship at Billboard magazine in New York; convincing my girlfriend at the time we would survive a summer apart; shaving my head
62) McDonald's or Wendy's?: I have a weakness for McD's on rare occasions
63) Do you like yourself?: Yeah
64) Are you closer to your mother or father?: Depends on what the topic is
65) Favorite physical feature of the preferred sex?: Eyes
66) Are you afraid of the dark?: Nope
67) Have you ever eaten paste?: Yes, and rubber cement is even worse
68) Do you own a webcam?: No
69) Have you ever stripped?: I drew a comic strip for 18 months in college... Is that the right answer?
70) Ever broke a bone?: No
71) Are you religious?: "Agnostic" is the closest word I can use to describe where my head is at
72) Do you chat on AIM often?: No
73) Pringles or Lays?: Pretzels instead
74) Have you ever broken someone's heart?: Yeah, sorry about that
75) Rugrats or Doug?: Huh?
76) Full House or The Brady Bunch?: I regret to admit that "The Brady Bunch" was one of the defining icons of my youth and I think I've seen every episode at least three times and own Barry "Greg" Williams' autobiography
77) Do you like your high school guidance counselor?: She gave me next to no guidance that I can recall
78) Has anyone ever called you fat?: Nope
79) Do you have a birth mark? Nope
80) Do you own a car?: Yes
81) Can you cook?: My repertoire is limited but expanding since the wife returned to work
82) 5 things that annoy you: 1.) Peter's mood swings 2.) My own mood swings 3.) Bad drivers 4.) The amount of graffiti in Auckland 5.) That I don't have a job
83) Do you text message often?: Honestly, I had thought this would be easier than a real post but I think it's the other way around. I don't believe in text messages. Dey R illeter8.
84) Money or love?: If you're a hooker you have both, right?
85) Do you have any scars?: A nifty appendectomy one that they said would go away in a few months; they lied, they lied!!
86) What do you want more than anything right now?: Security
87) Do you enjoy scary movies?: Sure, long as they're not sadistic crap ala "Saw" and the ilk
88) Relationships or one night stands?: Relationships
90) Do you enjoy greasy food?: Yes, and leaving Mississippi was a good move on that count
91) Have you seen all the Rocky movies?: All but the latest one
92) Do you own a box of crayons?: Yes, but Peter still likes to eat them
93) Who was the last person that said they loved you?: My boy
94) Who was the last person that made you cry?: See question 43
95) Who was the last person that made you laugh?: Peter
96) Who was the last person that instant messaged you?: I am a virgin in this regard
97) Who was the last person that called you? A man about a conversation we shall have later this week

Monday, January 22, 2007

Land of the sick

...So most of last week, Peter was the sickest he's ever been, with various things coming out of all orifices, lots of lying around with a dazed expression on his face, an unheard-of amount of napping. On the one hand, it certainly made him easier to handle than normal, but it's actually more stressful caring for a sick kid than a well one. He's typically an extraordinarily healthy kid so this was a novelty for us, usually he gets nothing more than occasional sniffles.

One bright side - I had to take him to the doctor Wednesday to make sure he didn't have something truly nasty, and the visit cost a grand total of $18. (And that's apparently on the high side for here, but we wanted to go to the closest doctor.) Ah, cheap medical care! Back in the US I'd still be fretting about whether he was sick enough for us to afford the likely $100 or so co-payment (or deductible or whatever you want to call that nonsense that our so-called "insurance" paid for) that a five-minute doctor's visit would cost us.

Now Peter is much better and nearly ate his own body weight in food yesterday.

Of course, now Avril's got the dread pox and out sick from work today, and I'm downing vitamins left and right to ensure I don't get it next. And continuing to work on my nursing skills. Argh!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Music: Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingSomeone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin might boast one of the most absurdly unwieldy names in music these days, but their tunes are fine simple, unpretentious pleasures. The band name sticks in your head, and it's kind of goofy, kind of cool. But Broom, the band's debut CD on Polyvinyl Records, is a sincere joy, warm and hook-filled low-fi indie pop. It's an incredibly confident debut. None of the four members of Yeltsin – SSLYBY for short – are out of their early 20s, but it's a world-weary, gorgeously forlorn set of songs. It came out of nowhere in that Internet-fed fashion – SSLYBY threw their homespun tunes up on a web site, they caught the attention of the blogosphere, and the next thing you know SPIN magazine is giving them a shout-out as a band that could "succeed the Shins." Big words, but Broom itself is an eager answer to it. Originally recorded in a band member's home and sold in CD stores around their Springfield, Mo., stomping grounds, it's got a scruffy amiability that still manages to feel a bit fresh and new.

The campfire anthem "Oregon Girl" is an utterly charming piece of summery jangle-pop — it feels like an undiscovered early 1980s college-radio track, although it was featured on "The OC" in one episode. "I Am Warm And Powerful" channels the guitar-ridden angst of Weezer into a harmony-laden, stop-and-start ode, while "What'll We Do" is pure Elliott Smith homage, complete with bouncy piano lines. "House Fire" definitely has a whiff of The Shins about its riff-tastic guitar line and high-reaching choruses. Yet while this young band still wears their influences on their sleeves, there's hints of a deeper originality to come. "Anne Elephant" has an anxious, jittery Pavement-esque feeling, lurching about with amusement-park howls and whistles; it's the oddball track on Broom, but it's also perhaps their most unique.

Fans of The Shins or Wilco would do well to check these Yeltsin-ites out. They're the rare case of a buzz band that's got the wings for a potentially major-league career ahead of them. I'll be eager to see how their in-the-works follow-up to Broom shakes out.

Confidential to A in NZ: Happy birthday, m'dear!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Of human Bondage: 'Casino Royale'

Hmm, I meant to do a "movies year in review" post like the other ones I did on comics, music and books, but somehow I never got around to it and now it's halfway through January, so... Anyway, I didn't see a blue ton of movies this year, still missed "The Departed," "The Queen," "Dreamgirls," "Pan's Labyrinth" and several others I'd like to check out eventually. But one movie I keep coming back to is one I finally saw a couple weeks ago and man, I just can't get it out of my head. To quote the 14-year-old lurking in my brain, "It rocked!"

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingI speak of course of "Casino Royale," which was the first James Bond movie I think I've seen in the theater since 1984 or so. I'm a moderate Bond fan, seen most of the flicks, but in my humble eyes many of the movies have been half-baked, cool moments interspersed with boring cliches. I always figured Pierce Brosnan looked swell, but the movies I've seen were pretty rotten ("Die Another Day" is just godawful, isn't it?).

But when Daniel Craig was cast as the new Bond, I was actually kind of excited - he'd been the best thing in movies like "Layer Cake," "The Road To Perdition" and "Enduring Love." And he measures up superbly in "Casino Royale," giving a performance that takes the surly Scotsman Sean Connery's template and gives it a postmodern spin, with a cruel glamour all his own. I didn't even notice for most of the movie that Bond is now blond.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWhat's key about James Bond and somehow got overlooked in the Bond-as-superhero era is that he isn't really a very nice guy. He's a government-funded killer, a hard-hearted bastard who's on our side but whom you wouldn't really want to meet. Ian Fleming's original novels nicely showed this Bond, but over the years, Bond got softened up for the movies. Pierce Brosnan was so suave and cuddly he looked like a cologne advertisement.

But, taking a key from "The Bourne Identity" model, director Martin Campbell and co. reinvent Bond in "Casino Royale," scrubbing away the gadgets and sci-fi plots to create a lean, mean and extremely stylish film. "Casino Royale" has a plot that's fairly easy to follow and thankfully doesn't fall back upon "world domination" for its kick. The bad guy here funds terrorism, and it's made implicit that his downfall won't really do much to make the world a better place - a hundred more will spring up like him. There's a kind of existential bleakness to "Royale" - we do this because it's what we do, not because it makes a true difference, it seems.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThere's something about getting a 'real' actor in the role of Bond. Craig's smouldering Bond is a bit of a thug, but also has a mean instinctual intelligence that saves his bacon again and again in "Royale." He's not a glamour boy, but has the potential to be one (one of my favorite scenes in "Royale" is the first time Bond dons a tuxedo, looking a bit like a gorilla sent to a tailor). And this younger Bond hasn't quite learned to be unemotional, a recurring theme in "Casino Royale." He falls in love, and it hurts him. The romance here has more kick than the romance in the last half-dozen Bond movies put together, frankly, because it feels sincere.

What surprised me is how action-packed "Royale" is, starting with the smashingly dark opening sequence, and an outstanding foot race chase that just ups the ante. Yet the central dramatic sequence here is a card game, filmed with tension and simmering violence. The fights here hurt and are filmed with real low-fi grit; but all the action feels in service of the story instead of the other way around. The directors here pay nice homage to the previous Bond movies (I particularly like the opening and closing sequences), but "Royale" stakes out a new ground that makes it feel truly novel; a nice feat after 20+ Bond movies. It takes the spy clichés and gives them emotional weight. It ain't perfect – Chris Cornell's theme song stinks, the carnage at the ending is a little too over-the-top, and some of the developments in the plot are predictable – but it's the best Bond movie I've ever seen, I'd have to say.

Honestly, if I had made a top 10 movies of the year list, "Casino Royale" would easily be in the top rungs, which I wouldn't have imagined before I saw it. It's made me care about James Bond for the first time in forever, and really eager to see what they come up with in round two.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


From the land Down Under we wish all you people freezing away in America a very Happy New Year! This is how we spent our weekend:
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To quote Bugs Bunny, "ain't I a stinker?"

...Yeah, yeah, I know. But you can get me back in July when I'm covered under damp and rain...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Siren songs, silent films

I'm deep in the zone working on a writing project, so little of major content to be expected for a spell. But here's what's been amusing me lately in a few words or less:

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWATCHING: The other day at the Warehouse (local chain) I found, in a $9 DVD bin, this classic I've long wanted to own: Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," the special restored 2-DVD edition. Despite being nearly 80 years old, this German silent film still casts a strange spell over me – the astounding set design, the brooding music, and particularly, Brigitte Helm's sensual wide-eyed performance as Maria, which is both very stylized and yet oddly modern. If you've never seen a silent film before, this is where to start. Particularly interesting is learning how these still-awesome special effects were done in 1927, without a computer in sight. And there's a nifty documentary on the entire German expressionism movement and the painstaking restoration of this film, which almost looks like it was made last week.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingLISTENING: "Dusty In Memphis," by Dusty Springfield. There's just something wonderful about this woman's honey-and-tease voice, and I've long meant to pick up this classic 1969 album after hearing some of the tracks over the years. "Son of A Preacher Man," "Breakfast In Bed," "Just A Little Lovin'," "I Just Can't Make It Alone" – these tunes have this kind of brittle soulful beauty to them, with Dusty's Britain-meets-Memphis sound still fresh and fascinating. I picked up the Rhino Deluxe Edition of this which boasts an entire album's worth of rare tracks. Groove it!

WATCHING: New Zealand TV tends to be a little behind American TV, so we're just getting "Heroes" over here, which started in America last fall. I only saw part of one episode then, but it seemed like something I'd dig if I was in on it from the start. What does anyone think of it?

Monday, January 8, 2007

Happy 60th Birthday, Mr. Bowie
(and my top 25 Bowie songs of all time)

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Good lord, yes, today, Monday, is the day David Jones, aka The Thin White Duke, aka Ziggy Stardust, turns 60 years old. David Bowie at 60, who would've imagined it? For years now, Bowie has perched high at the top of my favorite musical artists list.

I first got into Bowie in the hydrogen-peroxide hairdo era of "Let's Dance" and "China Girl," then sometime around 1988 got his "Changesbowie" greatest hits cassette, which blew my mind like few albums since (spanning from the dreamy nihilism of "Space Oddity" to the top-40 bop of "Blue Jean" on one slim tape). To varying degrees of obsession, Bowie's been tops of my pops ever since. Today I've got every Bowie album of note and a healthy stack of bootlegs to add up to more than 50 CDs, far more than any other artist in my CD closet.

I think what I demand most from a musician is change, is the ability to come up with new angles and new ways of showing us the world. "Space Oddity" and "Warszawa" and "Little Wonder" barely sound like they're from the same planet, let alone by the same man. Bowie is the king of that chameleon mutation.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingI decided to mark Mr. Bowie's 60th by listing my Top 25 David Bowie Songs of All Time, "High Fidelity" style. In flicking through the Bowie CDs in my collection, it was like finding familiar old friends again. My final tally is a scattered list, some popular faves, some lesser-known tracks. I've long settled on Bowie's "Berlin" era, roughly 1976-1980, as my favorite part of his career, though I've also got a soft spot for the "electronica" Bowie comeback of the late 1990s' "Outside" and "Earthling" albums. His earliest hippie-dippy stuff never did much for me ("The Laughing Gnome"? Egad), and even "Hunky Dory" I have to be in the right frame of mind to dig. But the sprawling diversity and creativity of Bowie's nearly 40 years of music still amazes me, and every new Bowie album remains worth buying to me.

Happy birthday, Ziggy!

1. Space Oddity (Space Oddity, 1969) - Spaced-out and lost, the song that inspired everyone from Yo La Tengo to Wilco.
2. Quicksand (Hunky Dory, 1971) - The best of Bowie's early "ambiguously gay crooner" phase, where his reach often exceeded his grasp. This song is pretentious, but there's a real pathos lurking beneath the wordplay.
3. Ziggy Stardust (The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust, 1972) - Thirty-plus years on, there hasn't been a better song about being in a rock 'n' roll band.
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting4. Lady Stardust (The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust, 1972) - Gorgeously lonely cabaret.
5. Waiting For The Man (Bowie at the Beeb, 2000) - Recorded in 1972 for the BBC, this sleazy, grooved-out cover of the Velvet Underground tune actually bests the original in my humble view.
6. Diamond Dogs (Diamond Dogs, 1974) – Raunchy and spastic, the last sputter of Bowie's "Ziggy" era of decadent glam rock; but what a farewell!
7. Young Americans (Young Americans, 1975) - Bowie's plastic soul phase, and an ironic anthem that still feels kind of fresh and electric.
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting8. Station To Station (Station To Station, 1976) - Ten minutes of soaring rise and fall, apocalypse and redemption, Bowie's single most epic track.
9. Sound And Vision (Low, 1977) - A sweetly sinister ode to the power of music.
10. Warszawa (Low, 1977) – The best encapsulation of the still-futuristic instrumentals Bowie and Brian Eno created; an instrumental glimpse into a fragmented, eerie parallel world.
11. "Heroes" ("Heroes," 1977) – The finest of Bowie's "dreamer" songs, about love that just won't last, and a well-deserved classic.
12. Look Back In Anger (Lodger, 1979) — Gloom-ridden, hook-filled doomsday rock, about the approach of death or something stranger still?
13. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (Scary Monsters, 1980) - If I had to pick a single Bowie album as my favorite, 1980's album of this title would likely be it, covered in jittery angst and with a melancholy danceable heart.
14. Teenage Wildlife (Scary Monsters, 1980) – A yearning, murky yet urgent anthem.
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting15. Ashes To Ashes (Scary Monsters, 1980) – Goodbye to the past, but what lies ahead?
16. Let's Dance (Let's Dance, 1983) – "Sell out" or utterly perfect pop escapism? I favor the latter.
17. China Girl (Let's Dance, 1983) —Evocative of the foreign shores where I'd one day end up living. Its slightly patronizing colonialism still hints at the mysteries of the wider world.
18. As The World Falls Down ("Labyrinth" soundtrack, 1987) - Ultra-cheeseball choice, but I've a soft spot for the Bowie/Jim Henson fantasy collaboration, and this one fairy-tale romance song by Bowie as the Goblin King always stuck with me, even when I saw "Labyrinth" in the theater three times at age 15.
19. Run (Tin Machine, 1990) – Everyone maligns Bowie's Tin Machine phase, but I still thought there were some fine hard-rock tracks in amongst the filler. This tune always puts me in mind of the summer of 1990.
20. Miracle Goodnight (Black Tie White Noise, 1993) – "Black Tie" is a little too fluffy an album for me, but the boppy bliss of this Bowie-as-lothario tune always gets me to smile.
21. The Buddha of Suburbia (Buddha of Suburbia soundtrack, 1993) – Lost through much of the late 1980s and 1990s, it took a BBC soundtrack for Bowie to start finding his muse again; this ode to a life long gone is one of his most heartfelt ballads.
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting22. Hallo Spaceboy (Outside, 1995) - Bowie goes industrial in this chaotic dance tune, backed by a killer drumbeat. From the muddled yet fierce concept album "Outside," which boasted some of Bowie's strongest music in years.
23. The Heart's Filthy Lesson (Outside, 1995) - Another killer "Outside" tune, slinky and sinuous; the disturbing video makes Bowie seem truly dangerous for the first time in years.
24. The Last Thing You Should Do (Earthling, 1997) - Bowie's drum & bass experiments continue, with this seething, staticky explosion of a song, like a distant cousin to the angst of "Scary Monsters."
25. Bring Me The Disco King (Reality, 2003) - Bittersweet and nostalgic, a nervous cousin to "Station To Station," looking back at the years and as naked emotionally as anything Bowie's ever done.

Friday, January 5, 2007

The Perfect Songs, Part VIII

Peter and I wrote a song last night! Here's the lyrics:
"Rock 'n' roll band / rock 'n' roll band!
We're in a rock 'n 'roll band!"
(Repeat as many times as toddler deems necessary. Accompany with random percussion on drums.)
"Headbang!" (Throw head back and forth until one of you gets dizzy. Repeat.)
(C) 2007 Three-Year-Old Songs Inc.

Anyway, here are three more of the ongoing, occasionally updated list of songs that I think are pretty darned close to musical perfection in this life. (Parts one, two, three, four; five; six; seven!)

Today's focus: Songs that may not be particularly lyrically deep, but have a heck of a punch in the gut where it counts. We're in a rock 'n' roll band!

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting22. James Brown, "Get On Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine, Pt. 1." Whenever someone who's had an earthshaking effect on the landscape dies, I always regret not knowing enough about their work. My sole James Brown album is his "20 All Time Greatest Hits," which is a small sampling of a lengthy career, but it's 20 slabs of solid booty-shaking funk, and this tune has always been my favorite. It's the one I first had go through my head when I heard about his passing last week. The stop-and-start punch of the JB horns, Brown's preacher-at-the-revival exhortations, his slightly wacky helium-clown voice – it all just moves, doesn't it? If you can sit utterly still while this song play, you got no booty. "Should I take 'em to the bridge? / Take 'em to the bridge!"
And if you live on Venus and haven't heard this song, dig this live performance with the swanky French subtitles! Rest in peace, Mr. B.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting23. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Black Tongue." This song is pure punk rock sex, nothing but thrusting motion and carnal lust, but damn if it doesn't make me want to hop up and down like a fool every time I hear it. From this NYC punk-pop band's awesome debut album, it's lead singer Karen O grunting and moaning her way through 2 minutes, 59 seconds of orgasmic joy (the chorus basically consists of O squealing and gasping in a ridiculously lusty fashion.) Utterly rock 'n' roll, buy which I mean no redeeming value besides the kick and pulse it creates. But dang it's fun. "Boy you're just a stupid bitch / and girl you're just a no-good dick."

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting24. Led Zeppelin, "When The Levee Breaks." I have a curious relationship to Led Zeppelin. I missed out on them when most dudes got into them, between the ages of 15-18, and didn't really know of them other than a vague presence on AM radio until I was in my mid-20s. Even then, I've never been a raving super-fan, but I do own and dig Led Zeppelin IV, the soundtrack to beer bashes since time immemorial. This song, a loose remake of an old blues chestnut, throbs with a primal power, anchored by John Bonham's slamming triple drumbeat and Jimmy Page's airplane-taking-off pchhowwwwww guitar licks. I listened to it as we drove over the Rocky Mountains last summer, passing through the Eisenhower Tunnel as we scaled the highest peaks, and it roared like a hurricane. Epic rock at its finest, creating something indefinable at its crashing peak. "If it keeps on raining / levee's going to break."

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Year In Review: The best and worst of comics in 2006

My first post of 2007, but I'm still rattling on in my "Year In Review" from last year. What with the move to New Zealand and the incredibly high price of comics here ($4-$5 US on average), I've had to cut wayyy back on the regular titles I buy. Meaning you've got to wow me, dammit, to get me to blow my (well, my wife's) money on your comics. That said, it was a pretty good year for the comics I do buy. Here's a brief (well, not really) tour of highlights and lowlights:

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingBEST GRAPHIC NOVEL: "Lost Girls" by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie. I reviewed this massive opus last summer, and it's still the most thought-provoking ode to sex I've seen in comics. It's almost absurdly over-the-top and graphic, but there's still a genuine beating heart to Moore's lusty tale, which takes the old characters of Dorothy of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Wendy of "Peter Pan" and imagines their sexual awakenings. Absolutely not for everybody, and you almost suffer from triple-XXX overload if you try to read it all at one go, but it tried to say something in a way few comics do today. And Gebbie's storybook-charming art was fantastic.

BEST ONGOING SERIES: All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIt might not be the most frequent comic (only 4 issues this year I think) but it's well worth the wait. It combines the way-out weirdness of Grant's worldview with Quitely's spare, epic art with a genuine love for the kooky ol' Superman comics of the Silver Age. I've been particularly impressed with how we've gotten fresh perspectives on long-running characters like Lex Luthor and Jimmy Olsen. More inventive and insane than most superhero comics - Grant really gets that imagination has no boundaries.
Runners-up: Daredevil by Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark. I loved Brian Bendis' long run on the title, even if sometimes he meandered a bit much for his own good. Brubaker took on the writing reins with a bang, adding to Bendis' grit a propulsive plot and far more content per issue. The Daredevil-in-prison multi-parter was hardball, kung fu comic noir. Meanwhile, Ultimate Spider-Man rebounded from a slump with its wacky, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink "Clone Saga" storyline, where you've got multiple warped Spider-Man clones running around everywhere and a real sense that anything could happen. Top-notch superhero fun.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingBEST MINISERIES: Beyond! - An obscure homage to the 1980s "Secret Wars" comic, this time re-enacted with third- and fourth-tier heroes (Hank Pym, Firebird, Deathlok) stranded on an alien planet and forced to fight each other to the death. Plus there's a very clever Spider-Man appearance. I love Scott Kolins' detailed, retro art and Dwayne McDuffie's kinda light touch. Like a 1950s monster movie mashed up with a superhero comic – junk pleasure at its best.
Runner-up: Jeff Parker's Agents of ATLAS from Marvel was retro without being stodgy, and terrific fun.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingBEST NEW SERIES: Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen's spit-take satire on superheroics is a delightfully askew parody with far too many quotable lines to ignore ("fleshy ones" is now my favorite epithet). The grade-D cast (Machine Man, the black Captain Marvel, an obscure X-Man and more) rampage through a comics universe that's utterly insane and joyous, with Ellis's trademark darkness tampered down here to a biting wit, the voice of the smartest kid in class cutting up from the back row. And they brought back Forbush Man!

BEST COMIC MOVIE: "Superman Returns" - While I had fun with the splashy if slightly hollow "X-Men: The Last Stand," Bryan Singer's emotional, visually stunning take on the man of steel left more of an impact on me. Despite its considerable flaws (which the original "Superman" movies of the 1980s also had in spades, I might add), it was even better on a second viewing once I knew what to expect.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingBIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Justice League of America (DC Comics) - I have a soft spot for the idea of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, etc. all together in one comic, but five issues in, this latest relaunch of the venerable concept is a ridiculously slow-paced, pretentious bore. You get the impression prose author Brad Meltzer is trying to write a comic like a novel, but he has little understanding of the language of comics. Muddled narration, terrible transitions and awful pacing. There's some cool ideas here and I do rather like the art, but far too little payoff for my reduced comic spending dollars. Grant Morrison's JLA in the 1990s did epic, fast-paced and world-shattering adventure much better.
Runner-up: Infinite Crisis (DC Comics) – Impossibly complicated plot, blood-soaked gore and little of the sense of fun and epic derring-do the original "Crisis On Infinite Earths" had.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingLONGEST-AWAITED: Dork #11 or Peepshow #14 (tie). There's been a several-year delay between issues of both of these long-running indy comics, but both returned this year briefly. (Ah, it brought out fond memories of the 1990s, when new issues of Hate!, Eightball, Naughty Bits and more were coming out all the time.) Dork was a huge whomping stew of silly gags and pop-culture riffs of the sort Evan Dorkin is a master of, while Joe Matt's Peepshow was more of an explanation for the long delays and a kind of shame spiral of his life so far. Both were great comics, and made me wish they were coming out a lot more often.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingBEST ONLINE COMIC: "365 Jay" by Jason Marcy. My old small-press buddy Jason Marcy puts out some grittily naked confessional autobio comics, and his online daily (more or less) comic is a great fix in between his longer graphic novels. While daily strips have become cliché, Jay's always make for a good read. It's one man showing himself often utterly naked at his lowest ebb, voicing his fears and id in a way that evokes R. Crumb or Joe Matt, but has a refreshingly everyguy tone. Go read his strip and then order some of his books too.