A LIFE IN FILM #17 – THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1990: Dudes Rock Under the Sea

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (dir. John McTiernan)

To lean again on the autobio part of this project: The Hunt for Red October is another one that I’m not about to claim is great cinema (although as a really well-executed-more-or-less-based-in-something-resembling-the-real-world thriller, it’s maybe a great example of a type of cinema that I’d love to see more of in the modern era). But it’s a movie that appealed to a bunch of my interests when it came out, and maybe helped cement them as things that would stay on my mind for the long haul. And it’s also a ton of fun, which is nothing to sneeze at.

But those interests. This was, of course, the first film adaptation of a Tom Clancy book (FWIW, I feel like it’s by far the best Clancy movie, adapting his best book). I was at the time going through the kind of Tom Clancy megafan phase that only makes sense when you remember that it was before the internet and I was living in deeply conservative rural Nebraska and the pipeline for new-author discovery was, uh, limited. I’ve written at length about my difficult mental relationship with the works of Thomas Clancy, but at the time I thought he was better than Hormel chili and any movie adaptation was something I had to see.

Clancy’s books, including Red October, often center on the CIA, which was another major interest at the time. Of course, nerdy adolescent boys often get interested in spying; that’s nothing unusual. What made me different was that I damn well did something about it, going through a process that came pretty close to getting me a job at the CIA *and* getting me a very unfortunate hat from Structure (and yeah, this is a thing I mention at the end of the linked comic, but it’s worth mentioning here: given where my mind and politics went as the 90s progressed, I think it was best for both me and the CIA that the thing didn’t work out).

I have to assume that Connery enjoyed the costuming sessions for Red October a lot more than he did for Zardoz.
Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #17 – THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER

A LIFE IN FILM #16 – BATMAN

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1989: Look. I’m sorry.

BATMAN (dir. Tim Burton)

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty tired of superheroes on film.

But the thing is (*looks around*), this is all my fault. Well, mine and the fault of thousands of other people who had opinions about who the best writer for Superman was or what we’re supposed to take from the ending of Watchmen. We all thought “god, superhero comics can be cheesy, but they can also be so much fun, so resonant, and such fertile ground for metaphors that can really take you to interesting places looking at the real world! Wouldn’t it be great if everyone would wake up to this and get on board?” And then a monkey’s paw twitched, and a long fuse started burning, eventually leading to a world where everything at the multiplex was competing examples of CGI punchfest dogshit where all the life and humanity had been purged by a corporate assembly line filmmaking process.

This isn’t true, of course; or at least it’s not true in the sense that there weren’t actually any cursed monkey’s paws involved. But I do think that there’s probably some truth to the idea that the critical mass of comicsheads in the early 00s who all went and bought tickets to the first Nolan Batman movie, and to the Raimi Spider-Man movies, and the Singer X-Men movies, we were the accelerant that gave Hollywood in general and Disney in particular the idea that there was endless money to be made by quadrupling down on this superhero thing. It’s not just a thing that we let happen; it’s a thing that we cheered on at the time. And I don’t feel great about that.

Tracing definitive cause and effect in stuff like this is rarely possible, of course. But I feel like it’s reasonable to say that a lot of my cohort of 2000s-era young nerds with disposable income were all put onto this track just by living through the hype cycle for Burton’s Batman.*

*Purists will no doubt argue that the Donner-Reeves Superman movie was there laying groundwork a decade earlier, and that Superman and Batman had been showing up in movies since the 40s. And this is all true, of course! But subjectively, at the time, the Batman ’89 hype cycle felt different and more lasting, even if I’m just saying that from the center of the marketing-push blast zone.

I can’t find the citation now, but I read somewhere that at one point Nicholson said to Keaton something like, “a movie like this, you just sit back and let the makeup do the work.”
Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #16 – BATMAN

A LIFE IN FILM #15 – A FISH CALLED WANDA

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1988: You’re a true vulgarian!

A FISH CALLED WANDA (dir. Charles Crichton and John Cleese)

Maybe this isn’t universal, but I think it’s pretty close, at least among musicheads: when we’re young, we think and expect that the bands we love are all best friends and communal life partners. Maybe they all live in a big house together, or at least wish they did. That’s the way it worked on The Monkees, right? So it must be real. And then, of course, to get a little older and start more serious learning about music is to come to understand that this pretty much is never how it works.

Monty Python weren’t a band, of course, but everyone I knew back in the 80s mapped the same sort of belief onto them. I have to assume that the culture has shifted significantly in the years since then, but when I was a kid it was just a given that a sizable minority of us were going to get exposed to Monty Python and the Holy Grail at a birthday party or sleepover and then have our minds totally colonized by the Pythons, leading to a feverish walk through their filmography (difficult but possible in the 80s, given VCRs and cable tv) and a general belief that they were the Most Important Thing Ever. And then we’d all realize that the Most Important Thing Ever didn’t seem to be putting out any movies after Meaning of Life, and we’d all wonder: what was wrong? Did they not love each other anymore? Had the band broken up? Oh shit, the band must have broken up!*

*For this to make any sense at all, of course, you have to remember that in 1986 there wasn’t an internet that you could pop open to look at a Wiki page. I don’t think anyone I knew would have had any idea back then how to figure out what the actual status of Monty Python was, beyond maybe asking our parents, who—remember, this is rural Nebraska here—wouldn’t have had a fucking clue.

All of which is to say: when I was in junior high and A Fish Called Wanda started creeping into my friends’ collective consciousness through the twin media of cable tv and video rentals, it was a big deal. New Python-ish stuff! Sure, it didn’t have all of them (and was it true that maybe one of them was dead?), but it had Cleese and Palin, and those were two of the bigs, and right fuckin’ on!

And now for something completely different…
Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #15 – A FISH CALLED WANDA

A LIFE IN FILM #14 – RAISING ARIZONA

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1987: I’ll be taking these Huggies and whatever cash you got.

RAISING ARIZONA (dir. Joel Coen, officially, but come on)

I never want to lean too hard on the autobio side of this project, but in this case it’s really hard not to, at least a little. More than any other movie I’ve talked about, and on a couple of different axes, Raising Arizona was a movie that served as a gateway to other places and ideas. If you weren’t around in the 1980s, I don’t know that you can really appreciate what it was like to encounter Raising Arizona for the first time. I’ve probably said this sort of thing before, but it’s like 50 times as true for Arizona than it is for anything else.

There’s this body of discourse that floats around Bluesky pretty frequently about how the 80s weren’t the cool neon vaporwave retrofuturescape that gets held up with some frequency as a stand-in for the era, that it was actually a whole lot more beige than people try to pretend it was; and, as usually with a discussion like that, I sort of simultaneously agree and think it’s more complicated than that. But I think there’s a parallel argument to be had about 80s culture; we remember the good and the notably bad, but that memory of extremes really obscures the fact that most of what we watched, listened to, and read in the 80s was pretty boring, mid, and, well, culturally beige.

Actually, now that I think about it, the set decoration in Raising Arizona pretty accurately captured what the 80s looked like.

And I can promise you that in the cultural landscape of the Reagan era, damn few people were making unhinged live-action Looney Tunes cartoons that piled off-kilter dialogue, surreal action, and a lot of banjo-and-yodelling songs around a resonant emotional core. “What on Earth is this?” was the vibe the first time I saw Arizona. “I don’t entirely know what the hell’s going on, and I didn’t know you could do stuff like this in a movie, but I am into it.”

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Maybe worth noting that I kind of have a 3-way creative split going on right now between Ripsaw, Pickup Switch, and A Life in Film (4-way if you include the band, I guess), so progress on all of them might be a little slow, especially for the next couple of weeks as I settle into a new job. I know you’re supposed to just pick one thing and be good at it, but that’s not how my brain works.

Just know that nothing’s being abandoned, it’s all just moving along at its own pace. And thanks!

A LIFE IN FILM #13- THE TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1986: A Ton of Bricks

THE TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE (dir. Nelson Shin)

And here’s another one that I’m not really about to call a great movie, or even a good movie.* ** But, to me at least, there are some ways that The Transformers: The Movie is an interesting movie. And if I’m reading my own concept for this project to indicate that I should be talking about movies that were important to me in their year (and I don’t always read it this way, but I definitely do sometimes), well this one couldn’t be more relevant; I think Return of the Jedi is the only other movie that came out within the timeframe covered so far that Young Me was as hyped about in advance as this one.

*And even if Transformers ’86 isn’t really a good movie, it’s far, far better than the Bay Transformers movies, or even its peer in late-80s animated toy commercialdom, the GI Joe movie.

**OK, but also: how hard must Jack Kirby have sighed whenever he heard that the big bad in this new movie was a godlike planet-eating space monster? Like, I know the Transformers movie and the comics were completely different things (and Kirby of course had no direct connection with either of them), but still, it’s all adjacent enough that he had to have heard about it at some point.

And I don’t think I’m alone in that; in fact, I think part of what does give Transformers ’86 a little bit of interesting heft in 2024 is that this fucker hit a lot of Gen X like a ton of bricks, and this was the cohort that would go on a few years later to start early-adopting the internet. One of my very first online experiences—aside from endlessly looking up people’s guesses at R.E.M. lyrics—was reading an extended, heartfelt post on some message board about how Optimus Prime and Megatron were archetypal figures while Rodimus Prime and Galvatron were flawed and “realistic” and this shift indicated a move from DC-style storytelling to Marvel-style and, well, I’m not saying this particular line of analysis is one that I’ve spent a lot of time on, but this type of analysis is going on more or less constantly in my head all the time and I think this goddamned post on Usenet or wherever is what kicked it all off. A bunch of us spent the 90s using this cool new interconnected web toy thing-o teaching ourselves to collaboratively dig through the semiotics of pop culture.

D-d-d-dad? Robot Dad? Are you ok?
Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #13- THE TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE

A LIFE IN FILM #12 – BACK TO THE FUTURE

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1985: Things Have Turned Out Just Fine

BACK TO THE FUTURE (dir. Robert Zemeckis)

Let’s start by acknowledging something: I don’t know that there’s a ton I can say about Back to the Future as a standalone movie that hasn’t already been said. The discourse is pretty well-developed: it’s a beloved classic for a reason; it’s a great use of the talents of Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, Christopher Lloyd, and Tom Wilson; the bit about Marty teaching Chuck Berry about rock and roll is pretty problematic; one joke does lean a little too hard on the idea of Huey Lewis being a super loud rock and roller; and the timing of the climactic power-the-car-with-a-lightning-bolt scene makes no damn sense, no matter how exciting the scene is.

Oh, and the collected Freudians of the world must have collectively shit their pants when this movie came out and was a hit.

Anyway, rather than focus on the specifics of Back to the Future, I wanted to use the movie to pull back and talk more widely about a commonality I’ve noticed in a whole bunch of time travel movies. This, after all, is one of the most famous of the genre, and it’s probably the one that I’ve spent the most time thinking about.

TFW you’re about to see some serious shit
Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #12 – BACK TO THE FUTURE

Pickup Switch #1

a comic describing the early history of the electric guitar in four panels

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OK! Here’s the next thing I’m trying!

If you follow me on Bluesky (or used to follow me on Twitter), you know I have a bazillion opinions on electric guitars. So I thought it might be fun and interesting to try a nonfiction comic about ’em. I’ll be looking at the history, design, and function of electric guitars.

Does this mean that Ripsaw’s done? Nope! That was always gonna be a strip that would run for a while and then sleep for a while; so this is a thing that will happen during Ripsaw naps. And vice versa.

A LIFE IN FILM #11 – THIS IS SPINAL TAP

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1984: Just a Bunch of Working Stiffs

THIS IS SPINAL TAP (dir. Rob Reiner)

Moving into double digits with this project, I can see a few patterns emerging. One of these is that there are a couple of situations where I’m nervous to do the writeup. If it’s a widely-loved movie that I’m not so crazy about, I get nervous, because I feel like I really have to make my case if I’m going to be critical, or I’m going to piss people off or look like an idiot. Conversely, if it’s a movie that I absolutely love, I get nervous because I don’t want to just gush, because I can’t be objective. I might piss people off or look like an idiot.

Because yeah. I love This Is Spinal Tap. I love it more than most other movies that I’d say I love. It’s an absolute pantheon movie, one of those handful where I feel like it makes some sense to view my life through a before-I-saw-this/after-I-saw-this lens. I love music so much that sometimes it makes me wonder about my own sanity; I think I first saw This Is Spinal Tap at about the time this truth about my brain was making itself known to me. This Is Spinal Tap is magical because it manages to simultaneously be insanely funny while also encompassing a world of truth about music, especially rock music, double especially the world of rock music in the late 20th century as that artistic era started to move into its baroque phase.

How great is Nigel’s shirt, though?

Let’s not kid ourselves: music is a little absurd on several levels, if you step back and look; and so is our love for it. What is music, really? It’s air vibrating in specific patterns. That’s it. To love music is to have really strong opinions about how you want the air around you to vibrate. That, I submit, is a pretty absurd foundation on which to build.

Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #11 – THIS IS SPINAL TAP

A LIFE IN FILM #10 – THE RIGHT STUFF

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1983: The Perils of Adaptation

THE RIGHT STUFF (dir. Philip Kaufman)

With some of these, I get very nervous about doing the actual writeup. And this is very much one of those. Because no matter how much I want to—and I want to pretty badly—I just don’t like this movie very much. And I know it’s a (partial) consensus classic, and it feels weird to go against the consensus. But I can’t help it! No matter how much other people like it, no matter how much it involves people I like, concepts I like, and adapts a book I like, I just can’t really get with The Right Stuff. I don’t hate it, but, except for some individual sequences (and maybe one of the ongoing storylines), I can’t get better than lukewarm about it.

For me, what hobbles The Right Stuff is that the movie doesn’t know what it wants to be. Kaufman and William Goldman famously fought over the screenplay, with Goldman eventually leaving and washing his hands of the matter. And that unresolved fight is still present on the screen, giving us a long movie that meanders, bounces wildly in tone, and lacks focus. Goldman wanted to focus on the Mercury 7 and the patriotic hoopla around them; Kaufman wanted to focus on Chuck Yeager and the cult of tough-guy pilot machismo around him. In practice, even though Goldman bailed, we get an undercooked Mercury 7 movie stuffed inside a pretty good, tight dramatic short about Chuck Yeager. I talked a minute ago about feeling like I’m swimming against the current on this one, but I’m not completely alone; my understanding is that all of the surviving Mercury astronauts who saw the movie hated it (except for Scott Carpenter, who honestly seems like such a chill guy that he just liked everything). Conversely, Chuck Yeager supposedly loved it, but of course he would; the thing the movie most clearly succeeds at is making him look like the coolest guy who ever lived.

Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager; since he’s walking away from that landing, it is by the accepted definitions a good one.
Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #10 – THE RIGHT STUFF

A LIFE IN FILM #9 – STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1982: I Feel Young

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (dir. Nicholas Meyer)

As this project itself will tell you, I was born at the end of 1974. It’s 2024 now; you can do some math (actually, doing the math will trick you, because I was born on one of the very last days of 1974, so usually it works better if you just assume ’75. Anyway. Close enough). I suffer from Crohn’s Disease in a way that, although it responds pretty well to medication, does mean that periodically my knuckles swell up and my hands in general just kind of say “I don’t feel like doing that.” RC and I took a vacation in January of 2020 and wound up taking a lot of pictures; in those pictures, I look like I could pass for late-30s. Of course, covid kicked off right after that, and if I look in a mirror and compare it to those pre-covid pics, I see a lot more gray hair, some permabags under my eyes, and generally a guy that absolutely no one would look at and think was a day younger than 49.

In other words: a lot of time these days, I feel kinda old. Not super old, mind you. But getting there (don’t worry, I’m fine). And this, of course, just makes me love Wrath of Khan even more.

I ask you: is that the chest of an old man?

Somehow, almost all of the original-cast Trek movies are in some way about grappling with middle age or beyond (I suppose this is probably just because the cast itself was aging; just looked it up and I’m currently just a touch younger than Shatner was when he made Khan, although I’m older than he was when he was worried about being old and out of touch in Star Trek: The Motion Picture).* Of all of them, Khan always did the best at grappling with the question of middle age, probably because it nests the question into a crackling story of adventure at sea that happens to be in space. Set aside the sci-fi trappings, and Khan  is Hornblower in Space, executed extremely well.

Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #9 – STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN

A LIFE IN FILM #8 – THE ROAD WARRIOR

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1981: He’s a Reasonable Man!

THE ROAD WARRIOR (dir. George Miller)

1.
Around 1940, a kid from central Iowa named Art Pille became a baseball phenomenon. He—according to family legend, at least—was invited to try out for the Cubs, but got a Luke Skywalker-style kibosh from his father, who needed him to stick around on the hog farm and help out for another season or two. Later events would make it clear that his fire for baseball didn’t go away, but any future he might have had with the Cubs got scotched by Pearl Harbor and the United States’ subsequent entry into World War II.

Pille was drafted into the Army and trained as an aircraft mechanic for the Army Air Corps. He was posted to Australia as a small part of the massive organization Douglas MacArthur was assembling to retake the Western Pacific. Stationed in Brisbane in a logistical support role, Pille had time to meet a local girl. They got married; he stuck around for a while after demobilization and played some baseball in Australia (I still have a Sydney Truck and Tractor replica hat somewhere in my basement) before they moved back to the US and started a very large family, creating a small but fervent pocket of Australian national pride in eastern Nebraska.

2.

It’s 1983. I’m sitting in Mrs. Gardner’s 3rd grade class in Blair, Nebraska, about 25 miles north of Offutt Air Force Base, which sits on the south side of Omaha. Mrs. Gardner is, for some goddamned reason, telling a room full of third graders that Offutt is the headquarters of something called the Strategic Air Command and that, if there was a war, it would be a big target for the Soviets and everything around us would get blown up. That’s a scary thing, she acknowledges, but we should also be proud to live next to such an important place. Speaking subjectively, sitting there at my desk I feel more of the scary side of that than the proud side of that.

3.

So, with all of that established, maybe you can see why I was primed for The Road Warrior to smash into my brain as the Most Important Thing Ever when I first saw it during its run of endless screenings on HBO.* An Australian movie!!! About life after nuclear war!!! Holy shit!!! Plus, and this is important, it’s the result of one of the greatest filmmakers in history fully hitting his stride. It hit me like a ton of bricks when I saw it—stop me if you’ve heard this one—way too young, and I’ve never stopped loving it. Between The Road Warrior and INXS, the mid 80s were a great time to have a lot of Australian pride, and I don’t care how many Crocodiles Dundee you wave in my face.

Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #8 – THE ROAD WARRIOR

A LIFE IN FILM #7 – THE BLUES BROTHERS

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1980: On a Mission from God

THE BLUES BROTHERS (dir. John Landis)

In general, I’m a little nervous about doing these writeups about movies I love, because if someone’s going to take the time to read one of these, I don’t want to waste their time with endless “OMG IT RULES!!!!” 1980 poses a tough challenge, though, because the obvious movie to talk about is The Blues Brothers, and it happens to be not just a movie that I love, but one that I love so much that I think some of its themes are implanted into the wiring of my head.

Luckily, I do think there’s some interesting bigger-picture stuff to talk about here. Theology, cultural identity, that kind of fun stuff.

Twitchy, weird Aykroyd is the best Aykroyd

There’s probably no need to do a close rehash of The Blues Brothers; if you’re reading this, I assume you’ve seen it (and if you haven’t: you should!). But there are a lot of top-level things to note about it! For instance, it’s the first (and by far best) case of a Saturday Night Live bit becoming a movie. It features John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd doing maybe the best work either of them ever did. It’s about a couple of white weirdos* who love Black music, and believe they’re on a divine mission to use the power of music to save the orphanage where they were raised. It is itself a musical!

*It’s never made clear, as far as I can tell, if we’re supposed to consider them biological brothers or if they just have a sort of spiritual/musical brotherhood; maybe that doesn’t matter, and maybe that’s another point the movie’s making, intentionally or otherwise. And, of course, a couple of white guys who are trafficking so heavily in Black-coded culture referring to themselves as “brothers” is certainly a loose thread to be tugged at endlessly.

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To be super-duper ultra-mega clear: I think it’s great when Americans of Euro descent are conscious of the history of the land they’re on, and what had to happen for things to be the way they are. I’ve seen land acknowledgements done as part of larger holistic programs , and I think that’s great when I see it. My beef is entirely with words divorced from action. I’m not calling for fewer land acknowledgments here, I’m calling for more action to go with them.

A LIFE IN FILM #6 APOCALYPSE NOW

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1979: A Place Where Americans Go and Stuff Happens to Them

APOCALYPSE NOW (dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

First off, and this is all I’m going to say on the matter: this movie represents the one situation where the music of the Doors is unambiguously good and awesome.

I’ve always assumed that this is what Dennis Hopper was like pretty much all the time

OK. With that out of the way: 1979 offered up a bumper crop of interesting, great movies! But there was always only one I was going to talk about. Apocalypse Now isn’t just a great movie, it might be the greatest American movie. It is not, however, the great Vietnam movie*; just sit with that for now, we’ll get there.

*That, obviously, is Return of the Jedi

I’m always conscious that I fully came online as a movie-watching adult with critical faculties some time in the 90s (I can peg it between the time I saw Fargo on initial release and didn’t get it at all** and when I saw it the second time, got it, and loved it). Before then, I still watched a lot of movies, of course, but for the most part they just kind of got piped into my brain un- or semi-digested. Apocalypse Now was definitely one of those. My parents had a copy as part of their enormous library of movies taped onto VHS***, and I watched it damn near constantly starting in 6th or 7th grade. I didn’t understand it at all—this is one of those movies where I was a voting adult before it really occurred to me to think about this as a movie with a plot and not just a series of cool scenes—but Young Me just *bathed* in the spectacle of this thing.

Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #6 APOCALYPSE NOW

A LIFE IN FILM #5 – NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1978: You Can’t Tell Me What To Do!!!!

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE (dir. John Landis)

This shirt might be the best joke in the entire movie

A thing people love to say when they talk about movies (usually in the wider context of complaining how society is going to hell because the PC thugs/woke police/whatever is stifling us, maaaaaan) is that “this movie just couldn’t get made today.” And the thing is, that’s usually a completely useless observation. Social mores shift and culture changes. That’s natural; it’s always happened and it’s always going to happen until nature or human nature manages to kill us all off. Sure, maybe a studio wouldn’t greenlight Animal House to be shot with this script now; but at the same time, no studio would have come within 30 miles of Bottoms in 1978.

I guess my point is that the boundaries of what’s acceptable just naturally move with time, and movies move within that space. And more than that, comedies in particular exist within the specific cultural context in which they were made.* Comedy comes from breaking social norms, either shared or otherized, and those norms move with time.** Something that’s outrageous and boundary-pushing in 1955 might be completely unremarkable by 1980.

Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #5 – NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE

A LIFE IN FILM #4 – SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1977: YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE GREAT TO BE AWESOME

SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (dir. Hal Needham)

Look, I’m not about to claim the Smokey and the Bandit is a great movie. It’s not. But it’s an awesome movie, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

it’s called “fashion.” look it up.

Admittedly, “awesome” is a pretty subjective characterization, and in this case the case for awesomeness is helped a lot if you happened to be a little kid with access to cable television in the late 1970s and early 80s. And, well, guilty as charged. Bandit’s a very visceral, kinetic movie, all cool cars doing cool things and the triumvirate of Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, and Jerry Reed* radiating charisma; you can see why kids (and the general public) loved it. It’s a sort of golden retriever, all charismatic good cheer with no gravitas and no need for any.

*My only casting beef with this movie is that I don’t think much of what Jackie Gleason does is funny, although that’s OK because he’s the antagonist and he works fine in that role. I know most people don’t agree with me on this, but on the other hand I’m not entirely alone; a friend of mine mentions that he always found Gleason actively terrifying in the role.

Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #4 – SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT

A LIFE IN FILM #3 – LOGAN’S RUN

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1976: WHAT CAME AFTER

Logan’s Run (dir. Michael Anderson)

Oh, Logan’s Run; a perfectly sort-of-adequate movie that accidentally serves as a very useful point of comparison to talk about another movie that came out 11 months later.

Logan’s Run is one of those—maybe the archetypal—70s science fiction movies that is basically one metaphorical idea running along on a wing and a prayer. It’s about a future utopia where the population is kept to a manageable size by killing people at their 30th birthday. That’s the kind of thing that works pretty well as a reference (“this fuckin’ bar feels like Logan’s Run!!) but doesn’t really make for all that meaty a movie. It interestingly shares with Zardoz a general theme of “ok, so you say we could have a wonderful society through technology, but what kind of sacrifices would we have to make for that, Mr. Technophile???” and then, even more than Zardoz, stumbles on the question of how to make a gripping story out of that. It’s sort of a Kilgore Trout story that managed to escape out into the real world and get made into a movie.

Keith Phipps notes that Loganplays at times like the film is consciously trying to serve as the source for many future parodies of 1970s science fiction,” and that feels about right; chunks of the movie’s weird take on future hedonism even turn up in Demolition Man (and boy is that a movie I didn’t expect to keep turning up in these writeups). Big chunks of it were shot in a mall and look like it; other parts of it are so stagebound that they look like episodes of original-series Star Trek (which, to be clear: no beef for a 1960s TV show to look cheap; major beef for a 1970s feature film to look that cheap).

Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #3 – LOGAN’S RUN

A LIFE IN FILM #2: BARRY LYNDON

A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1975: A SHITHEEL’S PROGRESS

Barry Lyndon (dir. Stanley Kubrick)

For about 25 years, Lyndon’s been the Kubrick movie that I was gonna check out some day. The double-barreled impetus of my needing a 1975 movie that wasn’t Jaws* and the death of Ryan O’Neal meant that now was finally the time. So last night I sat down and fired it up. And: holy shit was that fun!

The *real* star of Barry Lyndon, and a couple of people. I’m biased because that dog looks like my dog with a slight color correction, but I think the noble canine stoicism here is one of the funniest things in the movie.

*the original plan was to use Jaws as a vehicle to talk about the business of movies, the modern blockbuster era, and the weird way that these material concerns can get left out of talking about movies, but you know what? There’s plenty of that talk out there.

I knew Lyndon was a long period piece starring Ryan O’Neal as a cad making his way through 18th century Europe; that always sounded dreadfully dull and un-Kubrickian. What I didn’t count on was that the movie would be three hours of sharp, ridiculous humor, or that O’Neal—whose screen presence I normally don’t like at all, always expecting something like this—is perfectly cast here as an empty, unlikable shitheel. I absolutely did not expect a movie whose closest thematic relatives were The Talented Mr. Ripley and Parasite.

Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #2: BARRY LYNDON

THE UNEXPECTED FINAL BUMMER OF THE IOWA CITY POLICE LOG

So, from January of 2020 to September of 2023 (with a couple of breaks), I had a project where I’d look at the twitter feed of the Iowa City Police Log, pick an entry for the day, and draw a single-panel cartoon based on it. It was a lot of fun! Of all the art projects I’ve done in my life, it was one that resonated the most with other people; Twin Cities Public Television did a piece on it, and I wound up meeting a bunch of fun and cool people online through the strip. All of the strips are still available on Instagram (twitter, too, but IG’s the better interface), and I remain proud and full of love for them.

I wound it down in September of ’23 for a bunch of intertwining reasons: the strip was tightly tied to Twitter, and at that point (and I guess still) it wasn’t clear how much longer Twitter would be around, or how cool it was to be involved with it given Musk’s determination to remake the site into a right-wing oasis; I was getting worried that, after about 620 strips, I was running out of jokes and in danger of repeating myself; and, as those snowballs rolled down the mountain of my brain and started to get bigger, internal political stuff in Iowa City forced the issue when the city changed the way it reported police incidents, kneecapping the feed I depended on. So my choice was made for me. The police log strip was done after a long and full life, and it was time to move on to other projects.

Continue reading THE UNEXPECTED FINAL BUMMER OF THE IOWA CITY POLICE LOG

A LIFE IN FILM #1: ZARDOZ

ABOUT THE PROJECT:

I’ve had the itch lately to get back into the writing/blogging game, but couldn’t find an angle. I’ve also been thinking a lot about movies lately as (maybe until pretty recently) the great unifying American artform (not in the sense that all movies are American, but in the sense that for about the last hundred years at least, movies are one of the dominant ways that Americans as a body interact with art). But there’s enough writing and talking about movies already, I thought, listening to a podcast that’s essentially a game show of movie rankings; who needs any more?

But then it hit me that the magical thing about all art is that it sort of has multiple existences—the single, standalone objective work on its own in a vacuum, and then the subjective experience when an individual person actually encounters it. And maybe my subjective encounters with movies are worth writing about.

So: I’m gonna do the full subjective journey, picking a movie that came out in each year of my life and writing about it. I imagine these’ll go all over the place in terms of approach, polish, and length. With this many entries to write (I’ve been alive a lot of years), variety’s the only way to keep it going.

SO LET’S GET ROLLING

1974: THE BIG SWINGS OF ZARDOZ

Zardoz (dir. John Boorman)

I was originally going to write about Blazing Saddles for 1974, because it was a profoundly formative movie for me, thanks to my parents’ insanely lax standards for what I could watch when I was a kid; but I remembered that I already wrote about it at some length in terms of it being a surprising example of postmodernism.

So instead, let’s talk about Zardoz.

Zardoz has served as a punchline as long as I’ve been aware of it. And I get it, I do. People tend to experience the movie first through pictures of Sean Connery in costume and yeah, it’s a ridiculous costume. The movie’s full of preposterous over-the-top moments, like when the room full of anhedonic future lotus-eaters are shocked by a boner. There’s a giant stone head that floats around the countryside vomiting guns and shouting about the penis.

Continue reading A LIFE IN FILM #1: ZARDOZ

Ripsaw 014

OK, to be clear: this is coming from a place of skeptical love. I like the Current a lot, they’re a community asset, and they’re the only rock station in town worth paying attention to enough to joke about. But I really can’t shake the feeling that the main thing they provide is a sense to old musicheads that they won’t get made to look out-of-touch when they talk to people in their 20s.

<< FIRST STRIP | < PREVIOUS | NEXT STRIP >

STRIP ARCHIVE

Announcing Forgotten Scenes

logo for the podcast Forgotten Scenes

So I’ve started another fake history podcast! After two seasons of fake military history in The Kraken Busters, I thought it might make sense to switch back into my proper lane and do some fake cultural history. So: I’d like to introduce you to Forgotten Scenes, a show where I look at little cultural supernovas that might or might not have existed.

The first season is called “The Freaks in the Barn,” and it chronicles a little psychedelic glam rock scene that exploded (or didn’t) after David Bowie was (or wasn’t) briefly stranded in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1972 and infected a bunch of local weirdos with the idea of glam rock. Aside from Bowie, you get to meet a Texas-wannabe car dealership heir, a woman who might’ve accidentally summoned the devil to a rock show, and a hardline prairie-Maoist proto-punk band.

The show’s a ton of fun, and should be findable at all of the usual podcast outlets. I’ll also try to aggregate episodes here as they go live (which should happen once a week while the season’s running).

THE FREAKS IN THE BARN 1: ZIGGY DOES SIOUX CITY

The Kraken Busters

THE KRAKEN BUSTERS is a new podcast project I have going, telling the story of the somehow-mostly-forgotten conflict between the United States and an ocean full of angry sea monsters just after World War 2.

If you like Mike Duncan and Dan Carlin but wish their work had more giant squids and octopi, well, this is the show for you.

New episodes come out weekly. You can find the show at all of the usual podcast outlets, or stream it directly from the site.

I’ll Be Comin’ Around

Disc 2 Track 3

I’ve said before in this series that one of the enduring questions with the Bottle Rockets is “is Henneman singing from his own point of view, or voicing a character?” And that, if it’s his own POV, the stretch when the songs for the Rockets’ first two albums were written must have been a really weird time in his life.

Because once again, “I’ll Be Comin’ Around” is essentially a song about being horny; the speaker’s propositioning someone who’s partnered up, and saying that he is 1000% OK with any relationship configuration that gets him in the (back) door. I was going to reproduce a couple of verses, but it turns out that these are in fact *all* of the words to the song:

If he ever changes him mind
Thinks of leaving you behind
Or if you just want something more
When he steps out the front door

I’ll be coming around
Knocking your backdoor down
I’ll be coming around
Knocking your back door down

If he ever breaks your heart
Decides he wants to make a new start
Or if you just want to be vile
When he steps out for awhile

The speaker’s ready to get together if the target’s partner strays, or is up for whatever “if you just want to be vile.”

The weird thing is that this song that exists in the shadow of at least two different flavors of infidelity (one of them self-described as “vile”) somehow comes across as really wholesome, partly on the basis of Henneman’s gleeful deliver and partly on the basis of the relentlessly cheerful major-key musical arrangement. Wordless sections dominate vocal sections, including a repeated bridge that ticks along like a cheerful machine.

The tension makes the song; if the Rockets are usually very good at pairing form and content, setting them at odds here kicks the song into an interesting psychological space and makes you somehow low-key root for the vile homewrecker. There’s a lot of infidelity in country music, but it isn’t usually this cheerful.

The extent to which “knocking your back door down” is a euphemism is, I guess, up to the filthy-mindedness of a particular  listener.

Gravity Fails

Disc 2 Track 2

If The Brooklyn Side is essentially The Bottle Rockets with somewhat better production values, the pattern holds here. Contemplative acoustic opener gives way to big electric bar-band rocker (just a touch more polished this time).

“Gravity Fails” (note that Spotify misnames the song as “Gravity Falls,” which I’ll take as emblematic of the general way the Bottle Rockets don’t get the respect they deserve) is not a great song, in the sense that it doesn’t have anything profound to say about the human condition, but it’s a lot of fun and it rocks the house. As is often the case, the Bottle Rockets are here to examine the mind of a man trapped by his own desire to wander. It doesn’t quite have the chainsaw guitar of “Gas Girl,” its counterpart on the first album, but it’s got a driving beat and Henneman sells a lot of very convincing urgency with his voice. You know you’re an expert as using your voice to its full effect when you can deliver

Baby I’m saying please, please, please
Down on my baby blue blue jeans
Maybe it’s something in my genes
Maybe it’s something in my jeans

and have it land. A quatrain like that could be dire in the hands of a novice, but that last line still brings a surprised smile to my face every time I hear it, after nearly 30 years of listening to this album.

Uncharacteristically, it opens with an instrumental riff that the song returns to periodically, establishing the mood of minor-key urgency that dominates; there’s a tension between this and the bright major-key shimmer of Henneman’s guitar solo in the middle. I’m not sure exactly what the thought process behind this must have been, but it gives the song texture.

Again, not one of the great songs of all time, but a really enjoyable little gem showing how fun the Bottle Rockets could be in their standard Best Possible Bar Band mode.

For the Record: Ruby & Other Bluegrass Specials, Buck Owens (1971)

For the Record is an ongoing (I hope) series where I write a bit about albums that I have strong feelings about, good or bad.

Bluegrass is a weirdly bifurcated world. There’s a joy to the music; even when the lyrics are about heartbreak, misfortune, or murder, it’s impossible to feel too bad when you’re hearing fast picking and high harmonies. But there’s also a joylessness to the milieu out of which the music comes; no area of country music (or, indeed, of music in general, in my personal experience) is as hidebound and hung up on following the rules and doing it the way it’s always been done as bluegrass is. I know from direct experience that musicians-looking-for-musicians listings involving bluegrass will be the most prescriptive out there, and that to even think about getting into a bluegrass band is to run a serious risk of spending half your time bogged down in arguments about the right way to play bluegrass.

 Which is part of why Buck Owens’ Ruby & Other Bluegrass Specials is such a goddamned miracle. It’s an experimental, bordering on trippy, take on bluegrass that actually does take the music to strange new places.

Continue reading For the Record: Ruby & Other Bluegrass Specials, Buck Owens (1971)

Digging into Achewood

Quick note: this originally ran as two separate-but-related articles at the late, lamented Comics MNT. Alas, nothing is permanent on the internet; but I like these pieces too much to let them succumb to link rot. So here they are, together at last!

1. The Complicated, Slightly Better Manhood of Achewood

Remember Chris Onstad’s Achewood? If you care enough about comics to be reading the MNT and were online between 2000 and 2010, you must. For most of the first decade of this century, Achewood was one of the flagship webcomics when webcomics were an exciting new cultural space; it might not have had the reader numbers of some of the topical gamer strips, but its cultural presence was huge and it was very much the critical darling of the scene.

If you need a refresher: Achewood was a weirdly erudite, often filthy, funny-animal strip with minimalist Charles-Schulz-with-Adobe-Illustrator black and white art and aggressively unconventional lettering (almost certainly the only landmark comic to be lettered in the Chicago font). The cast was distinctive; the strip centered on Ray Smuckles, an oblivious but goodhearted thong-wearing rap mogul cat, and his depressed computer-programmer friend Roast Beef Kazenzakis. Other major characters included an avuncular novelist bear, another bear who loves food and The Cure, an eternally childish, bottomlessly naive otter, a couple of eastern European robots, and several others. And yes, all of these listed characters are male, and yes, that will become important later.

Continue reading Digging into Achewood

A Letter to Jeff Tweedy

So I’ve been threatening for over a year to write a 33 1/3-style book about the Uncle Tupelo album Anodyne, which has been a fixture of my musical world for–jesus–almost 30 years. The idea was stuck in permanent “I’ll get to it” status for a long time, until I read Hanif Abdurraqib’s great book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A tribe Called Quest. Sometimes reading a great book inspires you to get writing; so I did. And Abdurraqib’s repeated device of directly addressing letters to the members of Tribe seemed like a good idea worth borrowing. So: here’s the first little bit of stuff about Anodyne and Anodyne-related topics, and maybe being out here in the world will help make the rest of it come together.

Hi, Jeff,

So the weirdest thing is that, at least kind of, you seem to have written your own version of this letter (I don’t know to who; maybe you’re imagining someone like me writing it to you) in the form of the Golden Smog song “Can’t Keep From Talking.” It’s a great song about a fan reckoning with the weird imbalance in their relationship with a singer. “I know you don’t know me / but I know a lot about you / you’re the one who knows me / better than I do.” I think a lot about the neat turnaround happening with the language of those lines; but more than that, I think about the truth contained in them: fans know a lot about the artist, but are just part of an anonymous mass to the artist; but they became fans in the first place because the work of the artist so perfectly described what was going on in the fan’s head.

Continue reading A Letter to Jeff Tweedy

WASPS!

weiner-dogI lived with my grandparents during my senior year of high school. Surprisingly, given what was coming, this didn’t have anything to do with a big rupture with my parents or anything like that; my father had gotten a job in a tiny town in northwest Missouri, and I was convinced that graduating towards the top of a class of 8 people wouldn’t look as appealing to colleges as doing pretty well in a class of 230. So I suggested to my parents that maybe it made sense for me to stay in Blair, and they agreed. Legal guardianship was set up and, the day after I finished my junior year, I moved into what had been my grandmother’s bedroom.

It took me well into my adulthood to recognize that my parents were kind of crazy, but my grandparents were the kind of crazy that was easily visible at the time. My grandmother was both beset by legitimate health problems and an extreme hypochondriac; she also had absolutely no sense of personal or emotional boundaries (during my undergrad years, she would often call me and ask me when I was going to get someone pregnant so that she could have some great-grandchildren) and was very fond of building a metaphorical wooden cross and climbing up onto it. She was a heavy menthol smoker, but thought she was hiding it from everyone by doing all of her smoking in the bathroom with the door shut; this clever ruse was betrayed by the heavy menthol stank in the bathroom, and by the empty cartons of cigarettes jammed into the cupboard under the sink.

Continue reading WASPS!

The Iowa City Police Log

Quick update from December of 2023: the Police Log comics are now a finished project, with an unfortunate coda. I’m still proud of the comics, though, and they’re still available as linked. If you see anything involving the Iowa City Police Log and AI art, please know that I had nothing to do with it.

Every morning, I get up, consult the twitter feed of the Iowa City Police Log, and draw a one-panel cartoon based on it. This started out as a get-through-the-winter whim and has turned into a get-through-a-pandemic-hellscape coping mechanism. The resulting comics get posted to a Twitter thread and to my Instagram feed, in both cases paired with their inciting Police Log entry.

People seem to be pretty into these, which is great! TPT, Minnesota’s Public Television station, even did a short piece on them, where I talk about my process, my motivations, and the sort-of-intentional larger political point of the strips in an era where we as a society are rethinking the way police departments should be constituted. They also put KEITH PILLE – CARTOONIST on the screen, so I guess despite endless questions about my artistic identity, now I know: I’m a cartoonist.

PSA With Guitar

cover art by Rebecca Collins

MP3s

Spotify

So I recorded an EP of acoustic country covers of Clash songs (technically Clash and Clash-associated songs, since two of them are songs the Clash themselves were covering). I’m really proud of it. I’d like you to take a listen at one of the links above, and if you feel like downloading the MP3s, please feel free.

I started out the year planning on recording an Awesome Boys* album, but the plan was for it to be all noise rock, continuing the sound of the EP I recorded in 2019. But as the work started on that in February, I realized that my musical mood was shifting back towards country-rock (no doubt affected by all the time talking about Uncle Tupelo for We’ve Been Had). And then the pandemic hit, and the world full-on caught on fire, and I just couldn’t escape the feeling that we were living in Strummer Times. And that was just when the pandemic kicked off; in May, when Minneapolis burst into flames after a police killing and took the rest of the country with it, it seemed even more applicable. The first verse of “Know Your Rights” could be about George Floyd, for fuck’s sake. So the idea of an EP of country-style Clash covers gained a foothold in my brain and just kept taking up more and more space.

Uncharacteristically for me, I spent about a month rehearsing and working out arrangements for the songs I picked (my neighbor must have gotten so tired of hearing me work on “Straight to Hell” on my front porch). And I decided early on that I’d need to edit some of the lyrics. Which felt sacrilegious, given that Joe Strummer was a towering figure and I’m just a guy, but some of the words are so specific to his life and outlook that they didn’t work for me. Or, in the case of the second verse of “Know Your Rights,” the dystopian situation described by the Clash in 1982 is actually too supportive and generous to sound bad in the dystopian situation of 2020.

I spent about a week in early July recording basic tracks in my home studio setup, and then another few weeks mixing. My starting point for the target sound was the way Peter Buck produced Uncle Tupelo on March 16-20, 1992, but I wound up wandering a bit from that, especially because covid quarantine meant that I had to do all of this myself instead of being able to organically have a band vibe develop.

For cover art, my wife, Rebecca Collins, is a great collage artist who had recently started exploring punk-aesthetic collages. So it seemed like a natural thing to ask her to make a cover. We talked a bunch about what I wanted it to evoke: the Midwest, menace, humor, death. her results speak for themselves; and now we own several cut-up vintage copies of Guns and Ammo.

So, yeah. Check it out, and I hope you like it! Some day when live music is a thing again, I’d love to perform these live.

*You might point out that it’s confusing and stupid for me to record music in the real world and attribute it to The Awesome Boys when that’s the name of the fake band in my old webcomic that I always insisted wasn’t autobiographical. And you’d probably be right. But it seemed funny in 2011 and at this point I’m just kind of used to it.

The Nowhere Band Restoration Project

So for ten years, from 2007-2017, I made a webcomic called Nowhere Band that was about life as it’s really lived in a music scene: a series of misadventures that are great and fun and affirming and frustrating and maddening and which, ultimately, don’t end with fame and fortune. I wanted it to be as emotionally real as possible. I always felt like I did a pretty good job with that, and got some outside validation on that front, both from individual readers (who I always loved hearing from) and from Minneapolis media outlets like MPR News and City Pages.

As the years went on (and the art and general cartooning craft got better), the strip moved from being about people in a band to being about people who used to be in a band and maybe kind of still were but weren’t sure. Which I think is also a headspace worth exploring, since that’s where we all wind up! But in 2017, after several hundred installments, I ended the strip because 1) I was far enough removed from band activity at that point that I felt like I was running out of material, 2) I was getting ready to finish grad school and knew that my thesis project was going to eat up all possible cartooning time, and 3) since November of 2016, the strip had increasingly just been swallowed by the dread of living in Trump’s America. So I gave myself the gift of writing the strip towards a conscious, planned ending instead of just letting it peter out the way a lot of webcomics do (and the way it nearly had a couple of times previously).

Continue reading The Nowhere Band Restoration Project

Art Is My Middle Name

pictured: the artist

…is a free newsletter I’m starting as a birthday gift to myself. Each installment will be a short-to-medium thought about art, working with a very broad definition of art: visual arts, comics, movies, music, literature, god knows what else; and covering both appreciating art, art history, art theory, making art, all that. Sometimes focusing on individual works of art or artists; sometimes wandering all over the place. I can’t promise structure or high-quality copy-editing, but I can promise fun (and a bare minimum of one post a month). And although I hope this’ll still be fun and interesting for my pals from the world of academic art history, I want to aim this more at people who like to appreciate art and culture but haven’t spent a bunch of time in seminars talking theory.

SO SIGN UP OVER AT SUBSTACK! I’m in the process of working through my mountain of ideas for posts, and I’ll start sending them out once there’s a moderately-sized pool of subscribers.

QUICK NOTE IN APRIL 2020: I’ve added a separate page for this project, which includes a full index of all of the newsletters so far. Check it out!

SOME TOPIC IDEAS THAT MIGHT MAKE IT INTO THE NEWSLETTER:

  • Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard vs. Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women on telling the story of the Abstract Expressionists
  • Pablo Picasso, Asshole
  • What do people mean when they jabber about Postmodernism?
  • So let’s talk about ugly condo buildings
  • You’re probably qualified to say that you have refined taste
  • Kehinde Wiley makes Jacques-Louis David retroactively worthwhile
  • Disney is choking the life out of our culture
  • So let’s talk about auteurist comics
  • Lynda Barry’s Making Comics is a godsend
  • David Bowie’s big final accidental performance art piece

AGAINST DAD ROCK

I hate Dad Rock. Not the music, at least not categorically; I love it and hate it at more or less the same rate that I love and hate all of the other imaginary categories of music. No, it’s the term I hate.

You’ve heard the term, right? Basically means safe, nonthreatening rock (mostly) that appeals mostly to people over 35-ish. When I first heard the term, it meant the “classic rock” that my generation’s boomer parents were always listening to: Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, the Beatles, the Stones, Van Morrison, you know the drill. As Gen X has gotten gray and paunchy, I’ve started hearing Wilco, the New Pornographers, and the Mountain Goats get put into the file.

Some of that is music I like, a lot of it is music I hate, but the label bugs me either way. Part of it is the specific choice of modifier: “dad.” I don’t have kids, I’m not going to have kids, and I’m irked at the intrusion of child-having status as a qualifier in a situation where it doesn’t apply. But really, that’s not the problem; again, it’s not really the music that I love that’s getting the label (I was a Wilco superfan when I was younger, but I drifted away from them around 2007; coincidentally, around the time they started getting labeled as dad rock).

Continue reading AGAINST DAD ROCK

Welfare Music

Disc 2 Track 1

In 1994, Brian Henneman (probably) could have joined Wilco as it phoenixed it way out of the ashes of Uncle Tupelo. He chose not to (assuming it was actually a viable choice), and why not? His own band was really taking off.

The Brooklyn Side sounds exactly like what it is: a natural continuation of The Bottle Rockets, but with more budget to spend on studio time and better gear. Recorded at Coyote Recording Studio in Brooklyn (the album’s title appears to come from the climactic line of “Sunday Sports,” but there’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question lurking here) in 1994, Brooklyn catches the band in the same form as their first album, just a bit more polished and better produced. The collection of demos on the combined reissue makes it sound like many of the songs come from the same creative burst that populated the first album.

Continue reading Welfare Music

FRANKLIN, CHARLES SCHULZ’S ACCIDENTAL TOKEN

It always hurts to talk about when one of your heroes fails, but that’s what I’m out to do here. Charles Schulz is one of the great figures in comics; Charles Schulz sometimes fell on his ass. He did here. Acting with well-documented good intentions, he tried to do a good thing, and slid into what could most charitably be called mixed success. By introducing Franklin, a black character, into his immensely popular comic strip Peanuts, Charles Schulz wanted to harness his cultural power and use it to send a positive social message about racial harmony. He explicitly wanted to integrate his strip in a way that wasn’t demeaning or insulting. Thirty years later, though, Franklin was considered one of the prime exemplars of tokenism, a perception that has only grown as time has continued to pass.

Peanuts in 1968 was a cultural juggernaut, appearing in well over 2500 newspapers. In an era when newspaper comics carried a cultural weight nearly unimaginable today, Schulz was at the very top of the profession, giving him one of the most visible platforms in the country to trumpet any message he chose.

For the most part, Schulz avoided politics in the strip, instead examining emotional and existential humor.

Jan. 7, 1972
Continue reading FRANKLIN, CHARLES SCHULZ’S ACCIDENTAL TOKEN

The 2020 Birds of the World Printable Calendar

Last October, I inadvertently participated in Inktober by drawing a bunch of funny birds, like the ruby-throated hoverbro or the barre chord owl. Then the drawings sat in my sketchbook, unused and forgotten. Until! Until a friend asked me to make her a calendar, and I remembered that I had a buttload of drawings just sitting around doing nothing. A little bit of photoshop fussing, et voila:

I combined the calendar into a single PDF, printable on regular office 8.5×11″ paper. Feel free to download, print, and let your boss contribute 13 sheets of paper towards making your cube more fun in 2020!

Click (or maybe right-click and save as; find what works in your browser!) to download the Keith Pille 2020 Birds of the World Calendar. Or cut out the middleman and go to https://keithpille.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/bird-calendar.pdf

Interlude: A.M. (Wilco)

Disc x Tracks 1-13

To make one logistical element clear: I haven’t been able to nail down the order of events in 1994 involving the recording of Wilco’s A.M. and the Bottle Rockets’ The Brooklyn Side. I know they both happened in 1994, and I know that the A.M. sessions ran roughly from June through August, and that the Brooklyn Side sessions happened some time that year; could have been before, could have been after. I’m choosing to wedge A.M. in between the first two Bottle Rockets albums, but that might not be accurate, and certainly doesn’t reflect the release order.

Anyway: for Bottle Rockets fans, A.M. represents a portal to an alternate universe that briefly opened in 1994. Uncle Tupelo had broken up, with most of the 1994 lineup of the band staying clustered around Jeff Tweedy. To get the new enterprise off the ground, Tweedy reached out to his friend and former almost-bandmate Henneman to play lead guitar on Wilco’s first effort as the band found its feet. Henneman stepped in and left his mark all over the record.

Continue reading Interlude: A.M. (Wilco)

TOM CLANCY AND THE DUBIOUS COMFORT OF BOOMER DADS

I’ve had a rough year. I had two dogs die, my house has needed some expensive repairs, and my habit of closely following the news has turned into daily exposure to toxic waste. We all crave simple comforts in difficult times, and I’ve fallen back into an old habit: when I’m in the mood to read comforting trash, I reach for Tom Clancy. And after the current bender, I think we should talk about him a little.

Uh, Dad, you’re not mad, are you?

Right now, through time and space, I can hear the question you’re asking yourself: why do I care about the work of some hack writer of right-wing airport trash who’s been dead for a decade? And that’s a good question, one I’ve been wrestling with inside my head for a while now. I have a few solid answers: first, because the work of said dead right-wing hack writer really does provide a perfect encapsulation of one of the dominant forces in our dyspeptic, sliding-through-disasters-towards-even-greater-disasters political system, and to understand that is to understand another corner of the current ongoing shitshow. Tom Clancy’s books are by, of, and for Boomer Dads, and if understanding the mind of the Boomer Dad isn’t sufficient to understanding what the hell is happening in this country, I think it’s at least necessary.

Continue reading TOM CLANCY AND THE DUBIOUS COMFORT OF BOOMER DADS

Lonely Cowboy

Disc 1 Track 13

If The Bottle Rockets sags on its back half, it at least ends on a strong, if depressing, note. “The Lonely Cowboy” is the Rockets in full short-stories-about-small-towns mode, a character study about a man who feels like he’s living in the wrong time. There’s an almost rider-on-horseback swagger to the song, but that can’t really hide the crushing desperation of phrases like

Sometimes he goes down to the local theatre
And watches pale riders on the movie screen
At times it seems so unbearable and unfair
He just falls apart at the seams

This is strong stuff. It’s a rare Bottle Rockets song written by other members of the band (Ortmann and Parr), but it fits in seamlessly with the rest of the band’s work, and Henneman fully inhabits the character he’s singing about. If the Rockets’ small-town mopers can drag sometimes, this one works really well because it’s so specific; we’re hearing details about the suffering and interior life of a particular, well-drawn person, and that makes all the difference (contrast this with the universal dreariness of songs that just focus at the town or even regional level and say “this sucks”). No instrumental pyrotechnics on this one, no flashy drums or guitars, just raw competence that conveys weariness without being wearisome. A damn good end to a damn good album.


The combined version of The Bottle Rockets and The Brooklyn Side currently available on Spotify contains some bonus tracks, but I’ll be setting those aside for this project, since they’re mostly demos of songs that have already been covered or will eventually be covered. So that’s it for The Bottle Rockets. But it’s not time for The Brooklyn Side quite yet; first, watch for a longer entry about another high-profile Henneman project that was going down at about the same time.

Hey Moon

Disc 1 Track 12

A light country song, so close to being disposable that I nearly forgot to do an entry for it. Henneman’s lovelorn narrator addresses the moon on the subject of the end of a relationship; they guy from “Got What I Wanted” had a few drinks and went outside to talk to the moon.

The instrumentation is crisp and the harmonies are nice, but this is fundamentally just the Bottle Rockets in “unusually good bar band” mode. A very nice John Keane pedal steel part is pretty much the only special thing here.

The Very Last Time

Disc 1 Track 11

Going back to listen to the song for this piece, I was surprised how fast and produced it is. Not that, in an absolute sense, it’s very much of either; but the version of it that exists in my memory is just Henneman’s voice and guitar creeping along at a carefully-controlled tension-inducing glacial pace. Those are the parts that stick with the memory, at least for me. The surrounding material that enables the effect just got edited away.

Continue reading The Very Last Time

Rural Route

Disc 1 Track 9

It’s not that the back half of The Bottle Rockets is bad by any stretch; it’s just inessential. And so, “Rural Route,” a bar-band rave-up so similar in form and content to “Manhattan Countryside” that it once again could be a continuation of the same song. Maybe there’s an argument to be made that proximity strengthens the two songs; “Manhattan Countryside” is a guy getting fed up with what’s happening in his town, and “Rural Route” is him convincing himself to leave.

Of course, the two aren’t one extended song. For one thing, Route is, for the first time we’ve encountered, a Bottle Rockets song not written by Brian Henneman. Instead, Route is the handiwork of Robert Parr, brother of the Brockets’ rhythm guitarist. If the lyrics aren’t as witty as a typical Henneman joint, their description of rural disillusionment is very much in the Henneman wheelhouse (it strikes me now that the two dominant themes of this album are lust and rural disillusionment, sometimes at the same time), and he sings it as fervently as one of his own.

But really, there’s not much here. A great lead guitar part, more fun drum work by Ortmann, and some sentiments we’ve heard before. This runs into the same problem Chad and I discovered on We’ve Been Had as we got mired in the repetitive Uncle Tupelo songs on the back half of Still Feel Gone; there does come a point where even the most intensely-sung complaints about small-town ennui become just the same old thing.

Manhattan Countryside

Disc 1 Track 8

“Manhattan Countryside” is a straightforward bar-band rocker, an extended cry from Henneman’s heart against small-town sprawl. It’s a good song but not a great one, missing some of the weight that elevates the standouts on the first half of the album. The song seems to acknowledge its own minor-work status, hustling on and off the stage in the space of two minutes.

Continue reading Manhattan Countryside

OFFICE POLITICS

As late fall settles onto Minnesota like an unpleasantly weighted blanket, the natural inclination is to watch some TV.  Rebecca and I realized that, while we’d watched the first season of The Office (US) when it aired, we’d drifted pretty quickly. With binge weather upon us, and the clock ticking for the show to leave Netflix, we decided to go in hard on it, and powered through several episodes a night.

And: The Office is fun! The characters are relatable and human. The writing is sharp, and knows where to poke at the oddities of spending your days in badly-lit spaces with other people who don’t want to be there. The observations can be apt: one of the show’s central (maybe accidental) theses is that often the worst people to work with are the ones who can’t just let a job be a job but instead have to turn it into either their family or a crusade that gives their lives meaning (this is Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute, respectively). The show can also be a fascinating timeline of cultural change, as with the way the show handles Oscar being gay moves from turn-of-the-century kid gloves to a more current “so what?” attitude. And the show gave us Creed Bratton, maybe the most consistently surreal sitcom character since Andy Kaufman was on Taxi.

But as fun as it was to binge on The Office, I couldn’t help but notice that however sharp the writing was, it pulled punches. And if you stepped back and looked at the show, its point of view was weirdly constrained. There’s some value, I think, to taking a closer look at that.

A PLANT WHOSE ROOTS ARE BOUND UP IN CAPITALISM

Continue reading OFFICE POLITICS

Got What I Wanted

Disc 1 track 7

To this point, a full 50% of the songs on The Bottle Rockets have been about being horny, either in a silly or a desperate fashion. “Got What I Wanted” flips the script, checking in on a man glumly realizing what all these hormones have gotten him; this song could easily be the narrator of “Trailer Mama” waking up the next morning hung over and full of regret.

Continue reading Got What I Wanted

Every Kinda Everything

Disc 1 Track 6

And then, after the escalating heaviness of “Wave That Flag” and “Kerosene,” the Bottle Rockets get silly. Really silly. Silly enough to make “Gas Girl” sound like a sober meditation on human frailty.

“Every Kinda Everything” opens with a ridiculous extended metaphor about cars:

Well I know we’re different and this might sound heavy
But I’m thinking that I’m a Ford and baby you’re a Chevy
That’s ok, I can appreciate any good car

Can’t you tell by the way I’ve been bumping your bumper
That I’m following close, trying to be your lover
Ain’t gonna hurt ya, honey that’s what a bumper’s for

Continue reading Every Kinda Everything

Kerosene

Disc 1 Track 5

In the house in Blair, NE, where I grew up in the late 70s and early 80s, our next door neighbors had a son named Sammy. He was maybe 8 years older than me, so we weren’t exactly pals, but we were friendly and he’d occasionally come over and slum it with the younger kid; the two things I particularly remember were him helping me build an elaborate Ewok village on the side of a tree for max DIY Star Wars guy fun, and him proudly showing off the new set of nunchucks he’d just gotten.

Continue reading Kerosene

Wave That Flag

Disc 1 Track 4

(Look, I recognize that it’s confusing that this is the one where the song title is the same as the series title; sorry)

We kick off with twisting, insidious guitar parts that weave into each other for several bars before the rest of the band comes in. The narrator—and it feels very much like this one is Henneman is speaking as himself—is somewhere in town and sees something he doesn’t like:

Continue reading Wave That Flag

Trailer Mama

Disc 1 Track 3

“Trailer Mama” takes a baton handoff from “Gas Girl,” almost sounding like it’s picking up a beat the latter had dropped. An interesting thing happens with the chords between the two songs, too; “Gas Girl” moves between E, D, and A, while the main riff in “Trailer Mama” is an extremely hepped-up guitar moving through D, F, and A. So, similar enough to almost sound like it’s the same song being continued, but different enough to sound kind of wrong if that’s the case. Which is a neat trick, because if “Gas Girl” is a fun and lighthearted song about a crush, “Trailer Mama” is an urgent, throbbing song about we-gotta-act-on-this-RIGHT-NOW lust.

Continue reading Trailer Mama

Early in the Morning

Disc 1 Track 1

The Bottle Rockets’ eponymous first album kicks off modestly, almost seeming like a direct continuation of Brian Henneman’s work on Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20, 1992. Henneman had served as an all-purpose utility string player on that album (which was engineered and mixed by John Keane); he opens up this album (engineered and produced by John Keane) with a quiet song consisting of nothing more than a Tupeloid banjo* part and a solo vocal. It’s a one-man piece fronting a full-band album.

*update: a few weeks after the initial post, I’ve spent a lot of time messing with a resonator guitar, and now I’m not sure if the string part for this song is a banjo or a resonator; they can sound an awful lot alike. Discogs does credit Henneman with banjo on the record though, and I’m not sure where else it’d be. Anyway. It’s definitely Brian Henneman playing something with at least 5 strings.

The tenor of the album will change shortly, but this quiet moment is enjoyable on its own merits and a nice marriage of form and content in a song, musing about how much it sucks to get up early. An ongoing question with Henneman’s first-person songs will be which ones are being voiced by a character and which are direct statements of his own feelings; to me, this one feels straight from the heart (this might be because I *also* hate getting up early, and am looking for kindred spirits). The sensory details are immediate, for one thing. For another, the lines about knowing dark and night and neon lights certainly sound like the lived experience of a touring musician. Anyway, why bother inventing a character just to gripe about.

Several ongoing Bottle Rockets themes present themselves already here at the beginning: coffee, rural signifiers (there’s a rooster crowing before the first line is even over). Henneman’s Missouri accent, which will eventually step directly onstage for discussion in “Idiot’s Revenge,” adds to the country atmosphere; he leans into this with his idiosyncratic rendering of “early” as “err-lie.”

Over the course of We’ve Been Had, Chad and I have marveled consistently at how well Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar sequenced songs on Uncle Tupelo’s albums. Their high-water mark for this came with 1993’s Anodyne, which starts out sounding like a quiet country follow-up to March 16-20, 1992 before morphing into a squalling guitar attack. The similar trick pulled with the first few songs of The Bottle Rockets (also recorded in 1993, and featuring cameos by both Tweedy and Farrar) leads one to think that Henneman was paying a lot of attention to what worked while he was serving as Tupelo’s guitar tech. 

Wave That Flag Series Intro

Project Announcement, Scope, General Throat-Clearing

Disc 0 Track 0

WHO ARE THE BOTTLE ROCKETS, AND WHY DO WE CARE?

Stop me if you’ve heard this, but my friend Chad and I do a podcast. Specifically, a podcast that examines the band Uncle Tupelo by taking a close-ish somewhat-researched look at each of their songs. It’s a hoot (you should listen), and it’s led me to reconnect with a band that was once very important to me but I had drifted away from.

Continue reading Wave That Flag Series Intro

Berlin: Living History

The glass beehive on top of the Reichstag building.

As my wife and I were flying into Berlin, I experienced a small wave of panic. What had I gotten us into? Was this going to be boring? What was there to do here, really? My initial pitch for Berlin as a vacation destination was that I wanted to go because of “all the history.” That sounded great and persuasive, in a vague way, sitting in Minneapolis. But now that we were about to arrive and spend a week in a foreign city where we didn’t speak the language, what did it actually mean? A week of looking at historic-site plaques? Was this going to be boring and dumb?

Happily, my little moment of freakout was entirely misplaced, and my initial instincts were right on point. Berlin isn’t a city with a lot of obvious, high-profile capital-letter Tourist Attractions; but it’s something much better: a fascinating, beautiful place where the weight of history is indeed so present and prevalent that if you’re interested in it at all, you can’t help but feel like you’re swimming in it.

I’ve been obsessed with World War II since I was 7, when I stumbled across a series of Time-Life books about the war, full of arresting, graphic photos, that my parents had left sitting around (my parents did a spectacularly bad job of shielding me from age-inappropriate material when I was a kid). My obsession with the cold war started about a year later, when my 3rd grade teacher rhapsodized proudly to my class about how our city of Blair, Nebraska, being just up the road from Strategic Air Command HQ in Omaha, would be one of the first Soviet targets when the missiles flew.

These obsessions were the initial impetus for wanting to see Berlin. My last-minute panic was based on a fear that neither the cold war or World War II lent themselves to spaces that made for fun vacation visits. My salvation was that this didn’t matter when the fabric of the entire city is visibly and irreparably altered by events. I can’t say that it’s fun to stand in the Tiergarten and read a plaque about how the trees surrounding you were all completely deforested by air bombardment and by Soviet troops advancing over the ground you’re standing on, or to stand in front of your hotel and look at the memorial cobbles commemorating Holocaust victims who once lived there; but it’s affecting and awe-inspiring in a way that transcends fun. It hits you on a different, deeper frequency. It drives home the way in which you are part of a larger continuum of human experience.

The Tiergarten in May 1945; lovely place for a stroll. Note the ruined Reichstag building in the background.

It’s one thing to walk into a museum and look at art and artifacts. It’s another thing entirely to see bullet holes in the interior wall of that museum and realize that what you’re looking at is evidence that there was a firefight in this building between people trying to take the building’s contents and people trying futilely to defend them. Again, that’s not fun, but it’s profound and affecting on an entirely different emotional spectrum.

(And about that fight: the scene I’m describing here is in the Neues Museum, which is largely full of Egyptian artifacts looted from Egypt by Prussian archaeologists in the 19th century; the top few floors, though, are European objects. Several gallery labels and signs on those floors pointedly mention that objects formerly on display here were looted by Soviet soldiers, taken to Moscow, and never returned. The irony of this kind of complaint in this kind of building is exactly what makes the historical experience of Berlin so mesmerizing.)

Consider this: in central Berlin, on land that was once part of the Berlin Wall and its “death strip,” is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an immersive, block-wide labyrinth of pillars that is one of the most viscerally affecting memorials I’ve ever experienced. On a block adjacent to this memorial is the nondescript parking lot that is the former site of the bunker where Hitler killed himself and was cremated. Running between these two blocks is a street named after Hannah Arendt. The historical resonances of Berlin come in a very strong, undiluted form.

History is a river. Things happen, and subsequent things downstream are driven by what happened previously. Hitler hijacked the German political system, started a war and conducted genocide, and Berlin was occupied and nearly leveled as a result; and then, downstream from that, the occupying forces eventually split the city in half, traumatizing the city with an unnatural internal boundary for half a century. That trauma, and the subsequent jubilation and rebirth, are as plain to see in Berlin as the immediate effects of the war. In place names (Rosa Luxemberg Platz, Marx-Engels Platz), architectural styles, and even traffic signage, the old separation between west and east is still plain to see if you bother to look for it. And that’s ignoring the hunks of the wall itself that have been left up as commemorations or memorials or just plain tourist attractions.

I can’t think of any American cities that have left me this strongly with the sense of standing amid the structure of history. The closest I’ve come is the southern end of Manhattan. New Orleans probably can provide the same effect if you walk around with your eyes open in the right way. I haven’t been to Boston, but I’m sure it has some amount of resonance. But overall, American cities operate under a couple of different conditions: no American city has undergone repeated traumas as massive as Berlin, and the American mode of operation is to march stridently away from the past, not to acknowledge it. You’ll find precious few memorial cobbles scattered around American cities to commemorate the victims of slavery or the Native American genocide. And as far as that goes, I’m painfully aware of my own white middle-class nature here; when I say that “no American city has undergone repeated traumas as massive as Berlin,” I recognize that, say, Dakota people currently living in Minneapolis no doubt have an extremely different viewpoint on that matter.

To my perception, at least, the everyday culture of 2019 Berlin had a laid-back, free-spirited vibe that I found immensely refreshing. In all kinds of little ways, from casualness with dogs to willingness to abruptly repurpose old buildings to surprisingly low levels of fussiness (and disclaimer paperwork). In the aggregate, this seems to me to add up to a much greater tolerance for uncertainty and risk in Berlin than one finds in litigious, fear-dominated America. Maybe that’s just the German national character now, or at least the Berlin civic character. But maybe it has something to do with living in a city that’s been through several different flavors of hell within living memory, much of it self-inflicted, and then undergone a rebirth. After all you’ve been through, all of which you still viscerally feel just walking down the street, why worry about whether people on a bike tour are wearing helmets? What’s the worst that could happen?

In 1933, a fire gutted the Reichstag building, giving Hitler the political opportunity to consolidate power and bring the Weimar Republic era to a formal close. In 1945, the shell of the Reichstag building served as one of the final redoubts for German soldiers defending the city, and the central objective for Soviet soldiers fighting through the Tiergarten and across the river Spree. After Germany reunified, the building was rehabilitated to serve as the seat of the new German parliament. To symbolize the new era of governmental transparency, the Reichstag’s original 19th-century dome was replaced with a large glass beehive lined with spiraling walkways, from which one can climb up and look out at the city, or down at the legislative chamber directly below. The vagaries of trip scheduling dictated that we could only get in to climb the beehive at 9:45 on the last night of our time in Berlin, so we visited it on a clear, slightly chilly spring night. It is by far the most beautiful and aesthetically powerful governmental building I’ve ever been in, so emotionally affective that even the presence of an enormous group of rowdy Italian teens wasn’t enough to stop it from being wonderful, standing there at a focal point where history happened and where the future is created, staring out at the rest of the city. It turns out that Berlin does indeed have some world-class tourist attractions.

A Song A Day: Drinkin’ Champagne

DRINKIN’ CHAMPAGNE | DEAN MARTIN | THE ESSENTIAL DEAN MARTIN

In A Song A Day, I’ll hit shuffle on my full Spotify collection of songs and write an immediate reaction to the first thing that comes up.

A few years ago, I read DINO, Nick Tosches’ book about Dean Martin, and honestly, it affected me more than just about any other music book I’ve read (and I read a lot of music books). In Tosches’ portrayal, Dean Martin came across as the most terrifyingly empty nihilist I’ve ever come across. No ambition to speak of, no thoughts, really, just appetites to be filled and a happenstance career that allowed it all to happen. Any narrative where you come out thinking that Frank Sinatra looks like a principled stand-up guy by comparison is a dire one.

But in that stretch, I did listen to a bunch of Dean Martin, and I can’t say that I don’t like some of it. I don’t think he was a guy who put any effort into his art, but sometimes Martin’s natural abilities couldn’t help but make great things.

“Drinkin’ Champagne” is not one of those cases. This song is a dog. The production manages to be both antiseptic and saccharine, with perfectly-balanced awful, bloodless instruments making a bead for terrible strings and the lamest possible background singers to lay in. Maybe I’m not being fair, maybe I’m allowing my own musical baggage to carry too much weight, but the sound of the instrumentation here is just a series of signifiers pointing to a file in my head labelled “THE TYPE OF MUSIC I HATE.” And central to it all is Dino’s voice, which just isn’t good here. He slurs and stumbles and sounds like he doesn’t give a shit. Nihilism aside, he made some great songs before he decided to just coast and crank some shit out here and there. This song is pretty clearly afterwards.

A Song A Day: Invitation

INVITATION | NELS CLINE | LOVERS
In A Song A Day, I’ll hit shuffle on my full Spotify collection of songs and write an immediate reaction to the first thing that comes up.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9nUbBeNE_Y
I popped this album into my Spotify collection at the urging of my most guitarphiliac friend; I’ve said at great lengths that Wilco stopped being a band that had any interest for me when their dominant sound started being Nels Cline‘s flawless but bloodless guitar noodling. “I get that,” my friend said, “but try Cline’s solo albums! They’re great guitar jazz!”
So I tried, and, I dunno, man. I like jazz, but in terms of actual appreciation, with Jazz I’m about where I was with rock when I was in the 10th grade. I like some things, I don’t like some other things, and I don’t really have the systematic understanding or vocabulary to really lay out exactly why. On one level, that’s a good place to be with a type of music–it means you’re reactng with your heart more than your head, and sometimes I feel like my head-reactions have taken some of the fun out of rock for me–but on the other hand, it makes it tough to articulate why you don’t like something.
All I can say is this: Cline’s “Invitation” here, all meandering and slow and light, sounds like incidental music from a period-piece movie. It’s not awful, but as Mari Kondo would say, it sparks no joy. Nels Cline is a much better guitarist than I’ll ever be, but I think I prefer people with less skill and more propensity to get into a life-or-death fight with their instrument.

A Song a Day: Powderfinger

POWDERFINGER (Live) | NEIL YOUNG | LIVE RUST

In A Song A Day, I’ll hit shuffle on my full Spotify collection of songs and write an immediate reaction to the first thing that comes up.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2-Wp7D7BVk

Oh boy. Lots here.

1. MUSICAL

I love Neil Young, and this is one of my favorite of his songs. The way his voice floats over the dustcloud of distorted guitar. The way that dustcloud periodically resolves from big rusty sheets of noise into clear, discrete lines and then dissolves again. The way the live version swings (in a leaden, Neil Young-y sort of way) much better than the studio version. The way the lyrics tell a story that’s kind of ridiculous (when I played this song a lot on my undergrad radio show, my friend and cohost Megan once just said flatly, “you know, this isn’t really a song that speaks to my experience or lifestyle.”) but still makes it sound urgent and compelling. Those lines “red means run, son / numbers add up to nothing.” If you’re buying what Neil Young’s selling, this is the primo shit.

2. AUTOBIO (a)

I spent my 20s playing bass in a country-punk band, and I insisted that we learn Powderfinger and play it as often as possible. I’m not sure, but there’s a good chance this was our most-played cover. This is one of the handfuls of songs from those days that, if needed, I could grab a bass and go onstage and play now with zero fear about not remembering the chords (the song also was front and center for me as I switched from bass to guitar, and was one of the songs I learned guitar on; so I could probably step up and cover the guitar part, although I might want to run through some of the lead sections backstage). I insisted on singing it, too, which was kind of a bold choice given that my vocal range has no overlap with Young’s and my attempt to get there made me sound like Wayne Coyne huffing helium while being fed through a meat grinder.

3. AUTOBIO (b)

But this was also one of my father’s favorite songs; that’s how I learned about it. We’d gotten a tape deck for one of our cars, and my mother got my father a copy of Live Rust on tape, and we were driving around listening to it, and when “Powderfinger” came up, my mother turned around and said, “this is your dad’s favorite song.” She later told me that he particularly related to the line, “just think of me as one you’d never figure.” My father’s life was a slow-build exercise in deferred choices leading to frustration, leading to rage, leading to the white-hot destruction of most of his personal relationships, including the one with me; our last communication was an email from him offering to pay for me to change my last name to anything but “Pille.” For the sake of my own mental health, I try not to think about him much. But if I do, I generally think of him as one you’d never figure.

When that thinking does happen, it’s usually when I’m playing that song on guitar. And if I’m playing it, it’s usually on the telecaster that my parents got me when I finished undergrad, the guitar I used to write my chunk of the songs for that country-punk band. I recently thought about getting rid of that Telecaster and trading it in for a better guitar that better suited the way I play now. But I couldn’t pull the trigger on doing that, since this guitar’s my last physical link to my parents.. I kept running a cost-benefit analysis on it, but the numbers added up to nothing.

A Song a Day: Guess Who

GUESS WHO | THE ALABAMA SHAKES | SOUND & COLOR

The thing that jumps out at me about this song is the weirdness of its production. Not in a bad way! But it’s unusual! This doesn’t start out sounding like a song that’s going to chirp along over a drum machine all the way through, but that’s absolutely what it does, clicking and chirping its merry way along.

It’s full of other weird production decisions- some strings pop in! The vocals pop in and out of distortion! The entire thing seems kind of jammed into a pretty narrow sonic range. I don’t mean this in any way as an attack on the song, but the strong feeling I get is a bunch of people just idly farting around with a groove in a studio and seeing what happens as they fuss with it; and then, liking what they’d come up with, laying down a vocal over it that evokes Marvin Gaye. No clue if that’s actually how this song came to be; maybe it was actually written and carefully fussed over. But it sounds effortless and light, and that’s pleasant.

Probably because of the drum machine and the farting-around feel, this song also weirdly reminds me of the Replacements’ “Within Your Reach,” which was just Paul Westerberg and a drum machine. In that case, that song is the way it is because he was worried the other Replacements would make fun of the “sensitive” song. I don’t know too much about the internal dynamics of the Alabama Shakes, but I really doubt that’s what’s going on here.