Because not every great song I discovered last year came out last year, and I did more than listen to music.
The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem
I imagine hardly any people will read this book, and that’s tragic. Non-fiction books by novelists are always kind of a hard sell to people other than completists, academics and nerds like me, and I’ve never really understood that. If you love what an author has to say about people who don’t exist, shouldn’t you love what they say about people who do even more? Lethem’s first collection of non-fiction, the slim essay collection The Disappointment Artist, solidified my love for him more than any novel he’s ever written, an all-nighter with the smartest stoner on campus discussing topics from the John Wayne movie The Searchers to the late-period comics work of Jack Kirby, to his father’s painting career; his essay on seeing Star Wars 21 times in 1977 is one of the best things I’ve read by anyone, anywhere. The book blends cultural scholarship with narrative non-fiction in a way that 97% of bloggers working today wish they could emulate.
The Ecstasy of Influence works the same lane, but augments it a bit. Titled after a controversial essay Lethem wrote for Harper’s in 2007 celebrating plagiarism and demonizing copyright and intellectual property [and revealed in the footnotes to have been reconstructed wholesale from the words and ideas of other people], the book is heavily modeled on one of Lethem’s favourites, Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. Like that book, TEOI reprints a large body of Lethem’s journalism and non-fiction on subjects as diverse as 9/11, James Brown and life as a used bookstore clerk, strung together with original pieces and commentaries. Lethem might reprint an essay he wrote about his well-documented admiration for Philip K. Dick, going so far as to move near his house in California, then follow that piece up with a new piece on how Dick would likely have hated him had the two ever met, rounded out with a previously-unpublished early short story to illustrate just how much Dick’s work influenced him. It’s a meandering, comprehensive book perfect for dipping in and out of, but when taken as a whole, shines as one of the best I read this year.
Last autumn a friend of mine at the store told me with excitement that she was volunteering for Manifesto, a weeklong urban music and art festival here in Toronto. Being a tiny Jewish girl and dyed-in-the-wool Glee fan, I found it an odd bit of extracurricular activity, but I’ll support anyone who wants to spread the love [it is the Brooklyn way, after all]. So as the festival drew near, she asked me if I could get a mix together of all of the artists who would be performing at the marquee concert, a free show in Toronto’s Dundas Square featuring Rakim, Kid Capri, Blu & Exile, Phonte & 9th Wonder and more. Like a fool, I said yes, and started looking into some of the acts I was unfamiliar with. One of them as Little Brother, the group 9th and Phonte were a part of with Rapper Big Pooh. I’d heard of them in my travels, but when they were putting out most of their work I was kneedeep in the band and trying to smother my hip-hop self into a little corner of my soul and wasn’t following the music that closely. So rediscovering their second studio album last summer was a revelation.
A concept album based around the fictitious Minstrel Show [the greatest colored show on Earth!] and hosted by Chris Hardwick of Nerdist fame [it’s really him, him and 9th both confirmed that for me on Twitter], the album gives over an hour of stellar soul-sampling beats, guest appearances from DJ Jazzy Jeff and Elzhi, and features the soulful stylings of Percy Miracles, in a parody of R.Kelly/Ronald Isley-style ballads so hysterically good it actually gets legitimately caught in your head. With its ‘Caught you cheatin, you was creepin, to the windows to the walls, skeet-skeetin‘ chorus, it probably predicted contemporary R&B in 2011 way better than they’re probably comfortable with. A crazy good album I will preach on to anyone and everyone.
Even as far back as my university days, I wanted to be a DJ, hosting a freeform show in the late hours of a random weeknight. Going back to childhood, listening to Jazzy Jeff’s instrumental tracks over and over again on cassette, breaking down the rhythms in my head, something about the sound of a scratch just captured my soul. Never learning how to fully do it properly is one of the great regrets of my life [and something The Lady was kind enough to help me try to correct with a 2-hour session at a local DJ school she bought me on Groupon]. I’ve futzed about with virtual DJ software before, something I could make use of without a MIDI controller, and of any I tried, Djay is the slickest.
Djay takes every mp3 in your iTunes library and analyzes it by key and BPM, allowing you to check at a glance which songs will best flow next in a set. Scratch controls are pretty impossible on a trackpad, but super responsive nonetheless, and latency issues are nonexistent on my machine, but I can’t speak to what anyone else’s experience might be like. Numerous effects and tools alongside one touch recording capabilities could make for a much more interesting podcasting experience for me in the coming year. I imagine there are professionals out there who despise software like this for making it easy for twerps like me to clumsily beatmatch by looking at a screen instead of knowing the ins and outs of a song, but I’m not trying to throw sets together yet. I just want to learn the workings of the art, and for the cost, Djay is a perfect way for beginners to dip their toes in with a crazy robust feature set without being intimidating.
And it has a foghorn button. What more do you need?
If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, this will not be a surpirse. Imagine my horror when I realized last night I’d devoted seventy-six hours to this thing, and am still nowhere near done. Not even close. Haven’t even started Dark Brotherhood, barely touched the main storyline in weeks. It’s why no writing gets done on wide open days off. Because you don’t play Skyrim for an hour. You play it for an afternoon or you don’t bother. Because Skyrim has this way of making riding your horse along a cobblestone path, discovering new locations or picking goddamn flowers the greatest gaming experience you’ve ever had. I know there are some people who’ve explored the game on my recommendation who aren’t really feeling the expansiveness, the lack of direction, not knowing what to do. And yes, it’s glitchy as hell, I’ve had the dragons flying backwards, and had the dreaded framerate-slowdown last night as a pack of Falmer tore me to pieces.
But, and I’m not the first person to say this, when I’m not playing it, I think about the damn thing. I gleefully bask in the meme vocabulary that has emerged surrounding the game. The soundtrack accompanies most writing sessions I’ve had in the past few weeks. This game has stayed with me in ways no other game has since maybe my early Final Fantasy VII days when I would write Vincent Valentine fanfics in my head as I fell asleep.
Shut. Your mouths. Sharpshooter who can turn into a wolfman? You know he was the best character.
That’s how this game gets into my head. I put off marrying my character until last night, because I couldn’t decide who would be best suited to my Lv30 Khajiit spellsword. These are fictional. characters. I don’t do this anymore! I’m not one of those people! But I played a lot of great video games this year and they’re still amazing [I’m talking to you, Arkham City], and Skyrim Dragon Shouted its way into my heart in ways no game before it has.
Watch the Throne at The Air Canada Centre
It was going to be a ridiculous show, of that there was no doubt. The question was, How ridiculous? Toronto may not have gotten the 10+ performances of N’s in Paris, but when two of the greatest rap artists ever do a show together, there’s no way it can be bad. So maybe I didn’t need to hear ’99 Problems’ again, and maybe Kanye paid a woeful lack of attention to anything pre-Graduation, but those complaints are so outweighed by what was good about the show they fly off the fricking scale.
What I found amazing, as I digested the show after the fact, is how despite being one of the biggest solo artists in the world, and definitely the richest rapper, Jay-Z still exudes this aura like a laid back guy from Brooklyn. Like even for a guy who’s been so calculated in every career move he’s made, and has seen most of those moves pay off, he still can’t believe he gets to do what he does for a living. And that’s so frigging charismatic it’s disgusting. By the end of the show, for who knows what reasons, Jay grabbed a dude’s CD from the crowd, signed it, grabbed Kanye as he was leaving and had him sign it too, then handed it back to the guy in the crowd. Unbelievable.
It was an expensive evening, I certainly won’t argue that, and many people would question if it was worth it, but for an opportunity to not just see Kanye for the first time, but Jay for the second? Yeah, I can live with the cost.
The first time I was in therapy [long story], my therapist commented at one point that she wondered why I didn’t go into comedy, since she thought I was entertaining as hell. This was at the end of our sessions when we were running out of things to talk about so I would just riff about stuff, otherwise I might have had a problem with the chuckles she was getting from our time together.
I never did explore doing stand-up [for all the same bullshit reasons I never explore doing anything] but looking back, I shouldn’t be surprised by her suggestion. While I was never a diehard comedy nerd, I grew up on more than most other kids my age, memorizing and acting out old Cosby routines on my parents’ records, watching brick-wall backdrop episodes of Evening at the Improv, etc. That love has always been there.
Marc Maron’s WTF podcast was my revelation of 2011. I’d heard some scuttlebutt about it here and there, but I don’t like to listen to too many podcasts since they eat up all my commute time and I like to use that to read when I can. But when Maron showed up on the one podcast I do listen to religiously [the Slate Culture Gabfest, which you should all listen to religiously as well] I was amazed not only by him but by some of the audio clips they played while interviewing him. I looked into some of the back catalogue and blazed through probably 30 episodes in a week. Current icons like Louis C.K., Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Judd Apatow, Amy Poelher, up and comers like Donald Glover and Hannibal Buress; a quarter century career has provided Maron with the rep and the rolodex to call these people, and his surprising skill as an interviewer gets each episode at least 400,000 downloads a week. It’s at the point where you ain’t shit as a comedian if you haven’t done the show at least once.
But for me, what I’ve taken away from listening to the shows is that my old therapist was right, I should have explored stand-up apparently, because these people are all as fucked up as I am in most of the same ways. Maron himself deftly sums up and expresses all of the petty jealousies and insecurities I’ve carried and carry with me. Conan O’Brien of all people summed up my entire childhood by commenting off-handedly that growing up Catholic, you live a large chunk of your life being told that something with you is fundamentally wrong, and you need to ask God’s forgiveness for it, all the time. That’s a hell of a sky to part while walking up Spadina Avenue on a Thursday afternoon. I almost broke down in tears on the goddamn street. Maron and his guests so frequently hit the tuning fork on the bum notes of my life, and the show’s become a sort of informal therapy in itself, reminding me that there are people out there struggling with the same bullshit I am, trying to shake the pains of the past and make their way forward in the world. And, God willing, have some laughs while they’re at it.
Network Situational Comedies
When I started watching Modern Family after hearing numerous good things about it, I made the [not exactly astute] observation that the show wasn’t exactly doing anything new, but it did it very well. The plots all riffed on the typical sitcom tropes, usually based around some miscommunication or misunderstanding, but the writing is sharper and the actors more charismatic. Maybe it’s the competition from cable, but it feels like in the last three years have brought us a golden age for 24-minute network-TV comedies: Modern Family, Cougar Town, Up All Night, Happy Endings and New Girl have all surprised me with how funny they are, sometimes in spite of themselves [I’m looking at you, Happy Endings]. There’s nothing subversive about them, they’re not Louie, there’s no grand statement they’re trying to make, they’re just funny. Of course, I could just be getting stupider in my old age, making mediocrity shine with a brightness it would have previously lacked. It’s a distinct possibility.
The next post on PFG will discuss in greater length what this device means for me, and what I hope it will mean for the site, but there’s no denying how much it has already changed how I do things. I worked and scrimped and saved and put aside every bit of spare cash I could for the better part of eight months, to the point where I could upgrade from my old PowerPC G4 iBook and didn’t even have to buy refurbished off the website, I was able to buy a new machine, fresh in the box. I was uneasy about spending the money, even after I had it. I haven’t spent that much money on myself in one shot since college tuition [though, you know, in $3.00 or more increments buying comic books, way, way more….oh God]. But now that the damage is done, I don’t know how I managed so long. It had gotten to a point where I couldn’t even type or scroll without lag and blogging a simple 500-word entry could take two hours if I wanted to include images.
And it’s MINE. I’ve made do on shared devices or hand-me-downs for over a decade, and I don’t want to make it sound like I’m ungrateful to the friends and family who have helped over the years [first-world problems], but to have this laptop, which is mine, that I have made look like I want it to look, and runs the programs I want and even has all my music on it, and I’ve already exceeded the hard drive capacity of my old model while barely putting a dent in this one. No computer lasts forever, but to have a new machine for the first time in my life that’s mine and mine alone is pretty amazing. Almost the sort of thing that can fool you into thinking you finally have to tools to make this year the year you follow through on some of those ideas. We shall see, friends.
We shall see.