March 25 marks New Zealand and Australia's Anzac Day, one of their biggest holidays and a solemn memorial to World War I veterans (and those of other wars as well). It was interesting to attend the huge ceremony in front of Auckland's War Memorial Museum and see the enormous turnout of more than 10,000 people coming to pay tribute to their forefathers. Most Americans barely even note Memorial Day or Veterans Day anymore unless they have a veteran in the family, yet, Anzac Day is growing in popularity here every year, many say.
Anzac Day has its origins in the attack on Gallipoli, Turkey, in World War I, where nearly 36,000 kiwis and Aussies were wounded or killed. A total of 130,000 on all sides died in that battle. These two nations suffered tremendous losses in World War I – memorials dot every corner of New Zealand still today. One article I read said New Zealand lost something like a fourth of its young male population in a war half a world away. Meanwhile, World War I is almost forgotten in the US – but 92 years after Gallipoli, after all the veterans of it are dead, Anzac Day remains New Zealand's most important national holiday. Shops are mandated by law to close for the morning when ceremonies go on; there are hundreds of Anzac memorials nationwide. It's very much a vivid and alive commemoration – grizzled veterans, soccer moms and madly text-messaging young teenagers all attended the Anzac ceremony at the museum yesterday.
It's not a huge orgy of patriotism like the US Fourth of July – no fireworks, a lot of kind of quiet pride in what being a kiwi means. War is not celebrated so much as lamented. World War I is a defining moment in the antipodes – these quiet British colonies suffered gigantic losses but it also was a crucible which many say forged the modern identity for these former colonies. New Zealand and Australians no longer defined themselves purely as British colonists far away from the motherland; today, it's not a question of when New Zealand will become an independent republic but when. I imagine it'll easily be within my lifetime. And Anzac Day has played a big part in New Zealand figuring out who it is, apart from its British ancestor.
Time for another installment – the tenth! – in my never-ending series* of occasional looks at songs I would gift with the label "perfect" – whatever that means in my wacky little cerebrum. They're "perfect" because they manage to combine beat and words and emotional ballast into whatever it is that makes songs matter to us. Here's three more to groove to:
28. The White Stripes, "The Hardest Button To Button." I love Meg White. She may be the object of disdain among lots of drumming afficionados, but what she might lack in polish she provides in pure thudding stomp, and this track is a marvelous showcase for the rhythm and racket a band can make with just two people. The Stripes excel at serving up a post-millennial stew of the blues – an unbeatable wild mercury groove, Jack White's greasy lyrics and delivery are redolent of the juke joint, his guitar chords combine Muddy Waters with a hint of Ramones, and Meg – well, I just love Meg's sturdy drumbeat. And she drums barefoot. I find that oddly appealing. As marvelous an ode to the unforgettable stomp of the Delta blues as we've had since the Stones' heyday. And there's Meg, banging along with all her heart. "Now it's easy when you don't know better / You think it's sleazy? Then put it in a short letter."
29. Elvis Presley, "Mystery Train." For way too many folks, Elvis is a joke these days. I'll admit, he was to me too; even though I lived within spitting distance from Graceland for years the King was mainly a source of played-out humor for me. It wasn't till I actually visited Graceland a year or so before I moved away from the South that I started to develop a sense of what the man meant, who he was and his tragic little story. "Mystery Train" is one of the early Sun singles – Elvis at his most unpolished, honest and open-hearted, I think – and its bluesy little shuffle may not be terribly profound, but it's the rail line that opened up a whole genre of music. In the hollow echo of its swing, you can see that train, the baby comin' round the bend. Here's where it all begins. "Train I ride, sixteen coaches long..."
30. Journey, "Don't Stop Believin'" It's an accepted truism among the cultured that Journey suck. But in fact they do not always suck. They do what they do extremely well – it's just that their ultra-sappy, heart-on-my-sleeve power rock kinda went out of fashion post-1985 or so. But I will gladly confess that sometimes, a Journey song is all you need in life, and this one sums up their approach perfectly, from Steve Perry's broad-but-universal lyrics ("Just a small town girl / living in a lonely world") to the sprinklings of power ballad guitar riffs. It builds into a life-affirming anthem that is so cheesy it somehow goes beyond cheesy and into something true again – then again, maybe you just had to be there in 1983 to have it stick. (And would you believe someone out there on the Internets has done an awesome academic analysis of the lyrics? Of course you would.) Journey: Deeper than you thought? "Some will win, some will lose, some were born to sing the blues."
Random thoughts, interspersed with a few more favorite Spatula Forum Rerun links from times past as we continue our month-long celebration of three years of the ol' blogging…
ITEM! The beauty of living in Auckland is that there's so much to explore, particularly for a man and his 3-year-old with lots of time to fill during the week while mom works. With Playcentre on an Easter break, we've been zipping around all over the place lately trying to occupy time – the museum (Peter loved the stuffed animals, not so fond of the volcano exhibit), the beach house for a few last gasps of summer, the Easter Fair, various parks, the downtown library (Peter rides a city bus!) and more.
And I'm sorry to see winter approaching (it starts circa June 1 here), because I've been walking my tuchus off around Auckland these past six months pushing a very heavy boy in a stroller (he can't walk really long distances yet) – lost a good 10 lbs. or more, and all my jeans are a bit loose in the saddle. I weigh less than I've weighed in 10 years, I think. Then again, chasing after a hyperactive 3-year-old is pretty intensive cardiovascular, anyway. Spatula Forum Rerun #3: Another place that was cool to explore was our trip to Vancouver, Canada, and the Olympic Peninsula. New Zealand is awesome, of course, but the Pacific Northwest is right up there too.
ITEM! I finally saw the fantastic film "Pan's Labyrinth" recently, and wow, what a visual marvel it is. Director Guillermo Del Toro piles on the imagery (which some of his previous great movies like "Hellboy" and "The Devil's Backbone" also did) as he spins a tale of madness and myth. Set just after the Spanish Civil War, it manages to combine a gruesomely adult fairy tale with the horrors of warfare. It ended up being a lot more gory and intense than I'd thought (definitely NOT for kids!), but often astonishingly beautiful. "Pan" and the "Pale Man" are some of the more vivid and disturbing movie creations I've seen in a long time. Check it out if you haven't. Spatula Forum Rerun #4: Speaking of horror, my "Zombie-Rama" four-part series in which I checked out all of George Romero's "Dead" movies for the first time is one of my favorite blogging moments. Here's part four, and links to the other three are also there.
ITEM! A plug for my Portland compadre Jeff Parker's new Marvel Comics miniseries, Spider-Man/Fantastic Four, the first issue of which just came out – Jeff writes delightfully old-school fun without all the angst and grit of most current Marvel comics (it's set pre-"Civil War," thankfully). Any story that features the wise-cracking Spider-Man teaming up with the goofy Impossible Man is all right with me. It also boasts some beautifully clear art by Mike Wieringo and a good old-fashioned tale of aliens trying to invade Earth. It's not a comic that will "change everything as we know it," but frankly I've had enough of those money-grubbing crossovers lately. Go pick it up if you're looking for something light and fresh. Spatula Forum Rerun #5: Watch Jeff Parker turn me into a villainous henchman in one of his comics! My moment in the four-color sun.
So watching this whole horrible Virginia Tech school shooting massacre unfold from overseas has been strange. It's the first tragedy of its kind to occur since we moved abroad. What's notable is that here in New Zealand (and a heck of a lot of other places besides) a major theme in the coverage of it all is U.S. gun laws, which are pretty much seen as ridiculously permissive and loose by most other first-world nations' standards.
Here at the New Zealand Herald, you had headlines like "Fear behind America's love of guns." An editorial cartoon featured the Constitution's Second Amendment with a caption saying "Weapon of Mass Destruction" – I can already imagine the phone calls we'd have gotten in rural Oregon if we'd run that puppy in our paper! Kiwi and British papers (which we get a lot of our coverage from) seem less worried about being opinionated on American politics in general, and are downright slanted on things like George W. Bush. U.S. papers tend to try to please both sides on thorny issues like abortion, the war, etc. when they can. Sometimes it seems like smart nonpartisanship, but sometimes it can seem like willful pandering. (Stories about global warming that feel duty-bound to give equal weight to big oil-funded "think tank" talking heads who debunk the entire issue come to mind.)
There is a tendency to paint Americans with one broad brush in overseas media coverage – you'd think we all voted for George Bush, reading some articles criticizing him. But I have to agree, I've long thought that U.S. gun laws make no sense. I've never seen why every man and woman need access to guns like a Glock. The existing gun laws didn't help the victims at Virginia Tech or Columbine one bit. And any serious attempt to talk about whether reform is needed will be quashed now, just as it was after Columbine – one truism seems to be, you just don't mess with our guns, no matter the death toll.
It's a viewpoint I've never quite understood, and I have to admit part of me is quite glad that we live in a country now that treats guns like the weapons they are, not like an accessory to throw on your cowboy outfit.
Crazy fool killers like Cho Seung-Hui might have killed anywhere in the world, of course (and he is a 30-times damned murderer – not a "victim," as some commentators might have it. You sacrifice any claim to victimhood when you slaughter 30 innocents. I do feel for his family, though). But would Cho have been quite so murderously successful in another country? I just don't know.
...So because we haven't done any major globetrotting traveling in like, a whole six months, we've decided to take a little vacation next month. Yep, we're off to sunny Sydney, Australia for five days and nights May 23-28! We racked up a ton of mileage award points with our two flights here to New Zealand last year, so we decided to make the hop over.
(It's actually more than a "hop" - NZ and Australia are over 1,000 miles apart, which tends to surprise a lot of folks not familiar with the South Seas. After one of my early visits to NZ, I had someone ask me if I took the "ferry" over to Australia, as if it were the English Channel or something. Anyway.) I've long wanted to visit the land of Crocodile Dundee, Nicole Kidman and kangaroos. We're not heading deep into the outback, just sticking to the Sydney urban area more or less on this trip (because Australia is big, y'know), but still eager to check out the sights.
"The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn't want to be used by anybody." - "The Sirens of Titan," Kurt Vonnegut.
Some news you never want to hear. Kurt Vonnegut was one of the finest writers of the past century, one of my 10 favorite authors, easily, and his passing hurts.
He lived to be 84. We shared the same birthday – November 11 – so in my silly little way I felt that gave us a secret kinship, like we were members of the same club or something. The first book of his I read was 1990's "Hocus Pocus," which had the effect discovering only a truly great author can have on you – it kind of blew my mind. Even though I don't guess it's considered one of Vonnegut's top books, the tale of a veteran who becomes a teacher at a prison opened my eyes. It was kind of like watching a really great stand-up comedian riff – Vonnegut launched off onto tangents, spat out one-liners, and made you stop in shock at what he was saying – but he tied it all together in the end. It was virtuoso to read, and a style unlike any I'd ever seen.
I've consumed pretty much every other book and essay Vonnegut's written in the years since, and enjoyed most of them. He was a man who was constantly amazed by how awful life could be but yet never quite gave up on the possibility of hope. He battled depression, suicide (his mother) and war (the firebombing of Dresden). He was endlessly imaginative – the concepts that appear in some of his novels make most science fiction seem mundane and bland – and endlessly quotable. He was the iconoclast made humorous, the pundit with real wit, the depressed man who never stopped dreaming.
If you haven't read one of his books, you're missing out on one of the utterly unique voices America had in literature. His influences are everywhere from David Foster Wallace to Haruki Murakami, but Vonnegut's style remains his own, impossible to imitate. Go start with "Slaughterhouse-Five," probably, although any of his essay collections are excellent too (and offer the most unfiltered voice of his work).
I could go on and on about why Vonnegut mattered so much, but why do that when the man's considerable body of work speaks so loud? He was Mark Twain for the nuclear age. There'll be hundreds of tributes to the man in coming days, people spinning out quotes and theories and praise, but none of them will have quite as much to say as any one of Vonnegut's tall tales of life and death and lunacy. Who will take his place now?
What is "disco-punk," exactly? Exhibit A whenever the term comes up is LCD Soundsystem, New York producer (and co-founder of label DFA Records) James Murphy's pet project.
His first disc, 2005's LCD Soundsystem, married dance rhythms to a punk perspective, anchored by Murphy's jaded, deadpan yelp (I reviewed that disc over here). A wry, seen-it-all snarkiness pervaded his early efforts like "Daft Punk Is Playing At My House" or "Losing My Edge" (a song where a man's worst nightmare is that his record collection isn't cool enough). It all added up to superbly catchy postmodern dance-rock that never sacrificed intelligence for the beat. But could Murphy follow up his initial hit, and wouldn't his ironically cool pose get old after a while?
Indeed, with Sound Of Silver LCD Soundsystem has grown up a little bit – but still can make you dance as hard as ever. The new album is leavened with a dose of weary maturity, the sound to accompany a hip young club hopper looking in the mirror to realize there's gray hair and wrinkles sprouting. What do you do when you've outgrown the scene? When does so-called "real life" begin?
The emotional heart of Sound of Silver comes in the one-two introspective punch of "Someone Great" and "All My Friends," a seamless reverie and elegy that ripples into a beautiful bliss. "Someone Great" is a New Order-esque ode to someone gone – dead, perhaps, or merely out of the picture, filled with telling little details ("I miss the way we used to argue / locked in the basement"), while "All My Friends" is a bleary-eyed last call to missed chances and old hangouts ("You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan / and the next five years trying to get with your friends again"). Murphy is crafting a soundtrack for aging hipsters and discovering irony isn't enough to carry you into your 40s. Even if you've never been to a club in your life, you'll find an emotional resonance here.
That's not to say Sound of Silver is one big maudlin confessional. The jumpy first single, "North American Scum," is a sing-along satire of the post-9/11 zeitgeist filled with punchy one-liners. Opening track "Get Innocuous!" is a slow-burning drift that feels like a lost Bowie/Eno collaboration from Low. "Us V Them" is a stomping club anthem that says rhythm can eradicate any problem. And the winking hi-hats, claps and bleeps of "Sound of Silver" power the album's manifesto – the same goofily true lyric chanted over and over again like a mantra: "Sound of silver talk to me / makes you want to feel like a teenager / until you remember the feelings of a real-life emotional teenager / then you think again." The mellow "New York I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down" wraps up the disc with a wistful Sinatra by way of Pet Shop Boys crooner.
Sound Of Silver is overall more focused than its predecessor, which had a grab-bag sampler feel as Murphy skittered amongst his influences. Here, Brian Eno serves as a spiritual godfather, as all the songs build and bloom into a cohesive message. There's more of a distinct voice to this album, and despite the heavy electronica, it's got an organic, human feel.
A central foundation of dance music is repetition, and the grooves and beats Murphy picks trot along in songs that frequently break the five-minute mark. That repetition is the element that may turn away some listeners – but it sets a tone, a trance-like kind of space that is invigorating.
Maybe that's what "disco-punk" is – the wild and the mild, the thrash and the drive, crashing and banging together. It's a nice tag, but really, Murphy is setting off on his own path with LCD Soundsystem. It's music that glitters of the future but remembers the past, and with Sound Of Silver, Murphy's crafted a gem sure to turn up on many a year-end favorites list – including my own.
Er, sorry about that. In honor of my Three-Year Blogiversary, throughout April I will bring you Spatula Forum Reruns, a.k.a. some of my favorite posts of the past three years, a.k.a. reheated leftovers.
...To quote Keanu Reeves, "whoa." This weekend – Sunday, actually – marks three years since I first fired up the ol' Spatula Forum online. Three years of bloggin' – who would've thought? Dead blogs litter the Internet, but I'm still plugging along, providing whatever the heck it is I provide going into a fourth year.
I didn't quite know what I was doing when I started, but it turns out this was the next chapter of my "creative outlets" that've included small press comic books, newspaper columns and more in the past. The only rule is there are no rules to bloggery, and over the past 737 posts I've done everything under the sun – movie, music, comics and TV reviews, comments on the news, lots of stuff on Peter. When I started this in April 2004 I was a brand-new dad working as an editor in rural Oregon, and now I'm the one staying at home with our 3-year-old little muppet while Mom has returned to work – and, oh yeah, we're living in Auckland, New Zealand now, after several years of talking about it. Lots of craziness has happened, particularly in the past 12 months.
I never really set out to have a goal with Spatula Forum, other than I didn't want it to be me whining every day. I try to provide actual "content" like my favorite other blogs do, as well as a helping of the ol' day-to-day thoughts and observations. I'm a mad pop culture consumer, and this blog reflects my love of everything from The Ramones to Bob Dylan to John Updike to Stan Lee. I've changed focus a bit – I used to write a lot more about comics than I do now, although I still consider myself a tangential comic blogger. On the flip side, I write about music more than ever – music, to be frank, has kinda helped save my life this last six months or so. I thought I'd reprint more of my newspaper columns on here but only did that a couple times (I did self-publish a nice book of them instead). I try to avoid ranting and raving, and generally just let it flow. I've made some great friends through blogging, caught up with old ones, and generally had a pretty fun time doing this.
However, I came quite close to quitting this blog several times in the past few months - since we landed here in New Zealand and I've settled into the wholly unfamiliar routines of stay-at-home dad in a strange land, the going has been weird, to quote the late Hunter Thompson. (Better than Keanu, I think.) I lost my focus a bit, and felt obligated to fill this space, and unsure what I was doing wasting so much time and energy on something that I've probably only got a dozen or so "regular" readers for. So I stepped back a bit and think I'm now a little more relaxed about the whole thing; I'll post when I post, and if a week goes by in silence, so be it, I'm off doing the life thing. (And trying to do some writing I'll actually get paid for, y'know.) But I do like sharing with you folks my various thoughts on pop culture, life in New Zealand, fatherhood and the like. I hope you dig reading it, too. The comments you guys leave are definitely part of the gasoline that keeps this thing running.
So heck, congratulate me on surviving 3 years in the comments if you like, and thanks for reading - I'll try to keep it going for a little while longer!
Tag, I'm it! Lefty Brown asked me recently to provide “7 Songs You Are Enjoying This Week“. The rules are: List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what they are. They must be songs you are presently enjoying. Then tag seven other people to see what they’re listening to.
So here we go –
1. All My Friends, LCD Soundsystem (Sound of Silver) From James Murphy's utterly captivating 2nd album (which I really must do a full review of soon), this drifting reverie and ode to times past is one of the highlights. Bittersweet and beautiful; "You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan / and the next five years trying to get with your friends again." Life in your late 30s when you start wondering what it's all about, Alfie.
2. History Lesson Part II, The Minutemen (Double Nickels on the Dime) - Great classic 1980s punk rock road trip song, a break from the racheting guitars to deliver a mellow manifesto. "Our band could change your life," the song says, and it's a nice affirmation of how music really does matter.
3. After The Garden, Neil Young (Living With War) - Protest songs are hard to do in 2007, hard to pull off without seeming like a bedraggled, unironic hippie. But "Living With War" does a good job of channeling anger at Bush's world into some taut, hook-filled and righteous tunes. This anthem looks to a hopeful future. Inspirational but not cheesy, and it just feels good to have someone saying these things. 4. St. Elmo's Fire, Brian Eno (Another Green World) - From one of Eno's classic '70s albums, where he began combining electronic textures with his fractured found-art vocals. This one builds up a gorgeous head of steam with its soaring chorus, backed by ragged guitar riffs by Robert Fripp and shimmering keyboards that circle around in a beautiful daze.
5. Imitosis, Andrew Bird (Armchair Apocrypha) - Another blearily lonely tune, anchored by Bird's Jeff Buckley-meets-Nick Drake deadpan tone and some clever instrumentation and percussion that has a vaguely Spanish feel. A song that makes loneliness almost seem desirable. 6. We're All In Love, New York Dolls (One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This) - The concert from a few weeks back still echoing in my head, and this kickoff to the Dolls' first disc in 35 years or so rocks like it was 1973. Blaring harmonica, wall of guitars and David Johansen does a combination scat-rap snarling delivery. Chewy good fun. 7. Fidelity, Regina Spektor (Begin To Hope) - I spotted the kooky video to this song on NZ TV and had to download the single from iTunes. She seems a bit like a Russian Tori Amos/Fiona Apple hybrid, and this song boasts a ridiculously catchy wordless chorus hook. A fragile and lovely little number; I might just have to check out her album next.
I won't tag 7 others because I'm too busy brain-dead after a week with Peter and no naps, but if you read and are inspired, meme away!
...So last weekend we got together with some fellow US expatriate friends of ours, who also coincidentally hail from the same corner of rural Oregon that we came from. And we were talking about our general adjusting to life in New Zealand experiences, the ups, the downs, the strangenesses of it all, and we were talking about things in America that were different, and there came a horrible, terrible moment when we realized...
...We kinda missed Walmart.
I know, I know, I'm a "git r done," trucker-hat wearing, Cheeto-eatin' yokel. Indeed, the Walmart in Roseburg, Oregon, where I shopped a couple times a month, was a redneck American paradise, full of gigantic people pushing gigantic shopping carts with soon-to-be-gigantic kids stuffed in them. There was never a time when it wasn't crowded, and I usually ended up leaving with some kind of existential crisis burgeoning in my head.
But in New Zealand, so far, I have yet to find the kind of one-stop, everything-under-the-sun shopping that Walmart, country-gobbling monolith that it is, has to offer. There is Kmart here, but it's quite sparsely stocked compared to the US stores, and the "Walmart equivalent" here is probably something called the Warehouse, which varies between amazing bargains (bought a TV there last week for $168) and astoundingly poor, disorganized stocking at some stores. In general, things are smaller. For instance, at one the other week I was looking for dishwashing soap - and they were simply, apparently, out of stock. Of the two brands they carried. Finding white school glue took me a couple of weeks. Shopping tends to be more of a quest here.
There's a lot of things I love about New Zealand, of course, and I actually dig that it's not yet covered with strip malls and the crap that makes Memphis look like Sacramento look like Cheyenne these days. There's lots of mom 'n' pop shops still, apparently thriving. There's character and a sense of place. I'm adapting, really, and I do kind of like the thrill of the chase of trying to hunt down something as basic as glue (which I bought at the post shop up the street of all places). I really do hope Walmart never comes to New Zealand, and that the fish and chip shops outnumber McDonald's still. But I do kinda miss being able to grab diapers, soap, new jeans, soup, glue and clothespins all at one place. And cheap. Have I mentioned things are expensive here? I never imagined Walmart would be something one could miss.
So I guess in this life it's convenience or character, rarely both.