*pulls tarp off of website, shakes out the cobwebs*
Hey. How was your year?
I meeeeeaaaan, look. I’m not going to defend the lack of activity here. I work nights, I’m not perpetually tired, but I’m pretty tired a lot of the time. I wrote some stuff for some people, but a lot of where my non-day job hours of consciousness ended up was on the retooled RadioPFG. What was once a semiregular directionless podcast has now become, on the strength of the two years I’ve spent as a junior-intermediate crate digger, a weekly hourlong show I produce myself live every Saturday at 2:00 pm. I broadcast it on Mixlr every week, then toss the newest episode on Soundcloud for the following seven days. I’ve really enjoyed doing it, and the feedback from the friends who are listening regularly has encouraged me enough to keep working on it from week to week.
If there’s one thing working on the show has done, is that it’s allowed me to re-engage with music on a deeper level than I have in a few years. After years of writing these preambles and lamenting that music was boring me or that I couldn’t find 20 songs that I loved in any given year, I had more music than I could handle in 2015, and what’s more, I was actively seeking it out, which is new. Record collecting and programming a show has made my tastes weirder and (no surprise here) more global. Let’s take a stroll through the songs that blessed my ears the most this year, not the objectively superior, not necessarily the most innovative, just the ones I liked the best, in no order.
It’s just a silly TV show. Some gags and some chucklery once a week by a smart and talented cast and crew.
So why has news that Yahoo! has saved my beloved Community from the brink of extinction yet again filled me with such elation? Is it because Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna are returning to run things? Is it because Donald Glover seems to be finding his smile again after a year of touring and expressed a willingness to bring closure to the story of Troy Barnes? Is it because one half of the prophecy contained in a throwaway line from Season 2 will be fulfilled? Yes to all, but also more.
Community has always been, in many ways, a show about failure, about characters who couldn’t function, or gambled and lost as they stumble back to solid ground. The victories, when they come at all, are tiny and fleeting, a truth mirrored by the show’s history. Renewals tempered with shorter episode orders, no scheduled premiere dates midseason hiatuses. When it did make the air it was put in a punishing time slot facing down the Chuck Lorre twin-ratings-behemoth of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, two shows it could never really compete with because it was too busy gleefully jumping up its own ass. It almost seemed poetic that the show would die brushing its fingertips trying to reach the improbably prophesied sixth season.
But for those of us who love the show, who really love it, with the sort of all-encompassing passion usually reserved for Whovians or Browncoats, the show speaks to us because we recognize the struggle. Maybe we gambled and lost, too. Maybe we took the long way around to discovering why we’re here and what we’re supposed to do. As Jeff Winger says to the Dean after his bout of insanity while producing a TV commercial for the school, “We’ve all been there. Which is why we’re all here.”
And there will be many who bemoan that the show was never the same after the “Gas Leak Year” of Season 4, and the losses of Chevy Chase and Donald Glover. That it never regained its spirit even after Harmon returned, that it felt tired and out of ideas and should be left to die. And they can feel free to lean back with their arms folded and a smirk on their mugs. Yesterday I might have agreed with them, but it would only be to soften the loss I was feeling. From now until next spring, I just don’t have it for them. This isn’t refusing to let go of a notion the show may have outgrown, I don’t think Harmon’s the sort to do something he didn’t want to do, even if it was to honour the fans. If he didn’t think he had any stories to tell, he would walk. It’s a silly little TV show, but despite everything going against it, it’s still kicking. And so are we.
Back in the summer my editors at Bloomsbury asked me to do a little interview for their website, all of the authors in my “class” were doing it, a way to introduce ourselves, talk about the albums we were writing about, what we were trying to bring to the table. By the time my turn was up, I started to get this itch like I wanted to jazz it up, do something new, not because I thought the interviews were getting repetitive, but because I didn’t think I had anything interesting to say. So I asked the editors if I could throw together a video instead. It was fun, I always like flexing those muscles, even if I did blatantly rip off the rhythms and style of a million other video bloggers.
One of the later questions in the interview concerned howI listen to my music: vinyl, CDs or MP3. At the time I said that as much as I enjoyed spending an afternoon flipping through stacks of records, living in a bachelor apartment in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood presents certain realities of storage space (not to mention the financial barriers) so most of my music had to live on my laptop.
A few weeks later I was back in my hometown staying at my parents’ house. The plan was to get out of the city, to the peace and quiet of small town living where I wouldn’t have as many distractions and could bang out the first terrible draft of the book, spending the rest of the month tweaking and polishing. I packed a gift I had received for my birthday the previous year, a copy of Donuts on vinyl. My folks had a turntable and I was curious to see if I’d hear anything different in the album in that format. Donuts is intentionally constructed as one continuous piece of music, meant for a compact disc. Listening to it on vinyl adds an entirely different dimension to it because the listener has to change the record every five tracks or so. None of this ended up in the book, but it was a worthwhile experience nonetheless.
The draft didn’t really get done while I was down there. In all honesty, it was one of the worst trips home I’ve ever had. In addition to opting for the couch instead of my father’s bed, which had been known to give me backaches (the couch gave me worse backaches) I also received some upsetting information of a personal nature that put me in a panic for most of the week. The plan was to wake up early every day, shower and coffee by 9.00 and put in a solid workday of bashing out pages. That happened maybe once. The rest of the time I was texting friends, emailing colleagues for advice or lying on the floor and generally trying to avoid things in any way possible.
This is where I fell in love with vinyl again.
As later documented on Instagram, I spent an evening rooting around my parents’ crawlspace and digging through their record collection. It was filled with what one would expect to find in crates belonging to white people of a certain age: Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Journey, some disco, a little new wave. I grabbed a stack of LPs known and unknown and took them out to the stereo. My father’s had all of the same equipment for as long as I can remember, so even the act of turning it on was nostalgic and wistful: the chirp as I flicked the power switch on the receiver, the clicks of the levers on his old Dual turntable as the tone arm lifted and positioned itself at the edge of the disc, the pop and crackle through the speakers. There wasn’t much that made me feel good on that trip, but that evening I spent sitting cross-legged in front of my father’s stereo, as I had as a child and teenager was a happy moment. I started thinking it would be cool to have a turntable in the house. Back when I lived with a woman, we talked once about how cool it would be to take the CDs, rip them to a hard drive, sell them, then buy the essential, desert island discs on vinyl.
It’s an idea that never really went away, I just figured it would be too much of an investment. When you start digging through websites about this sort of thing, people will have you convinced that a minimum of 500 bucks is the minimum investment required to really hear the nuances of the recordings and blah blah puke.
Last weekend I took a stack of birthday money and bought an Audio-Technica LP60. Cost me a hundred bucks. I’m running it through my iPhone dock. I couldn’t be happier.
Cause you see, what I was reminded of back at my folks’ house, what I had forgotten in recent years, is how vinyl forces you to really connect with a piece of music. When I’m walking the streets with my headphones on, I’m constantly skipping through tracks. Three hundred songs on my phone, I don’t want to hear any of them. You probably do the same thing. And walking the street or riding the train is the place for that. Thing with vinyl, though? I put that record on, I’m stuck with it. I have to listen to it. Sure I could skip songs or swap out the record, but that’s a pain in the ass. Putting on a record has forced me to reconnect with music in a way I think I’d maybe forgotten about.
What’s also fun about all this is how little I care for the ancillary concerns that fuel most other collectors. I’m coming at this as a fan, not an audiophile. An audiophile would see my setup and laugh me out of my own house (foremost among the reasons why, in my investigations at least, “audiophiles” are the worst). I don’t give a shit about original or Japanese pressings. I’m only buying albums I consider classics. I’ll get to my hip-hop essentials eventually, but at the moment I’m into soul, funk and jazz. I’m not really into 45s because they seem too disposable to me. I know I should splurge on the 180g reissues, but I love a record that feels like it has some history. When shopping last weekend, I had to choose between the remaster of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book or a cheaper copy in a dingy, weathered sleeve. Of course I chose the latter.
I’m giddy with the excitement of having a new obsession. I love drafting my wishlist in my head, I love the idea of heading out to the shops in this city, looking for the cheapest copies I can find. Comic books were probably the last thing that gave me a similar sense of meditative peace (sad as that is), but comics could only be found at comic shops. You can find records everywhere. I love the fact that you can spend 10 bucks on a used record and feel like you really bought something. CDs never made me feel like that. I love that the Donny Hathaway album I bought had a gatefold with liner notes by Nikki Giovanni.
Mostly, I just love feeling like a music fan again.
Last weekend, the nerdmageddon known as FanExpo Canada hit Toronto’s Metro Convention Centre, and despite my well-documented thoughts on convention season, I was seriously considering going, but ultimately tapped out due to the financial commitment required and my unwillingness to spend my rent money getting photos with Nathan Fillion and The Walking Dead’s Dixon Brothers. But it was dicey there for a minute.
I’d forgive you if you’d forgotten or were unaware of how deep my geekery runs. Most of the topics around here lately seem to centre around hip-hop or weak-kneed attempts at personal insight. But it’s always gurgling inside me, ready to spurt out at any moment, from my continued love of professional wrestling, my slavish dedication to the comic series Saga, or the fact that after September 17, I will be on permanent vacation causing mayhem throughout Los Santos.
I did not expect it to be triggered by a Japanese anime about magical girls.
I’d heard of Madoka Magica long before I thought to watch it: one night I stumbled across the ‘Headless Mami‘ meme and found it odd that a character in a cutesy-wutesy magical girl show would get decapitated, but stranger things have happened. But the image stuck with me, solely because it wasn’t something I’d seen before. I’ve been long burned out on anime, the tropes of the medium had become too trite and predictable to me [I solely blame Love Hina for this]. But something about Mami’s demise stuck with me, so when I saw that Crackle [the dollar bin of online video] had the whole series available, I gave it a shot. And was pretty much stunned into submission. Because it’s Sailor Moon-meets-Evangelion.
In the late 90’s, the North American broadcasts of Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z combined with a fluke viewing of the cult classic Akira to transform me into the most rabid of anime fans. The crap we would have to go through back then to see anything that wasn’t already bought for syndication on children’s television would floor the fans of today. There was one store [ONE] that had a small selection of VHS tapes from the now-defunct Streamline Pictures and early releases from Manga Entertainment. If you’re of my generation of fandom, you remember these shows: Wicked City, Ghost in the Shell, Macross Plus, The Wings of Honneamise, Dirty Pair. Smaller distributors like ADVision or Central Park Media had started releasing shows by the mid-90’s, but digging them up in Windsor, Ontario was next to impossible, and when you did they were usually horrific English dubs by barely conscious voice actors [the ‘sub v. dub wars’ were real, friends; even worse, dubbed anime retailed for less than its subtitled counterparts, since manufacturers considered anime in its original Japanese a more ‘niche product’ and because, as rumour had it one executive explained, ‘fans will pay it.’ DVDs, with their multiple audio options, changed the game]. One afternoon in my university computer lab I did a Lycos search [really] of ‘anime’ and discovered something called The Right Stuf International. Today, TRSI is an online behemoth, the oldest North American anime retailer in the business. Back in the day, its sales were done via mail order, and all we had to go on were recommendations and descriptions from the catalogue. There were no trailers to watch, you could maybe glean some info from the fledgling message boards that started cropping up, but a lot of times you went on instinct, what you though sounded good. Then you sent them an order form and a cheque, and six weeks later you got some tapes.
We will not talk about how much of my money this company received from 1996-1998.
Many of the shows I love to this day I learned about from the TRSI catalogue, or from people I met on their message boards and would send/trade tapes with. One of those shows was Neon Genesis Evangelion. I would never call it my ‘favourite’ anime in the same way I wouldn’t call The Sandman my ‘favourite’ comic, but images and story points of Eva have stayed with me for almost 15 years. We don’t need to get into a major plot synopsis of the show, all we need to say is that Eva took the genre of giant robots, which had been around in Japanese SF for decades and added an element of psychology and deconstruction that no one had ever tried before. When fans didn’t approve of the show’s conclusion, director Hideaki Anno rereleased the ending in the theatrical release End of Evangelion which has to be the most flagrant pair of middle fingers to a property’s fanbase in the history of filmmaking. It was glorious to witness. As the series gets tweaked and retold in a new theatrical tetralogy, its impact is still being felt [the tandem piloting of the Jaegers in Pacific Rim is one of a few ideas in that movie that seems to be inspired by Eva]. What makes that show so fascinating is that ultimately, it was never about smashy-smashy robotic fisticuffs, it was about the trauma inflicted on the 14-year-olds forced to pilot the things, all of them dealing with abandonment issues, all of them searching for a meaning in a meaningless world. Existentialism at its finest [or worst, depending].
PMMM looks to do the same thing with the magical girl genre. In shows of that type, typically some unremarkable girl has a trinket of some sort bestowed on her by a sparkly cat/puppy/squirrel/wolverine which then allows her to transform into a powerful crusader of justice who battles the monster of the week before squaring off the overarching menace.
PMMM takes the formula but turns the magical girl proposal into an overtly Faustian bargain: Kyubey, the show’s wonder-rodent of choice and indeterminate origin grants wishes, anything a young lady may desire, and in return, said lady must work as a magical girl fighting ‘witches’, physical manifestations of hopelessness and despair. For most of the show’s 12 episodes, Madoka, the titular character and protagonist, wrestles with the decision whether or not to take Kyubey up on his offer, despite his forceful encouragement and claims that she would be the most powerful magical girl ever. For those characters that do decide to accept Kyubey’s offer, the gift turns to a monkey’s paw: Mami’s elation at the possibility of no longer being the lone magical girl leads to overconfidence and death; Madoka’s friend Sayaka makes a wish to help the boy she loves, which brings her nothing but pain and hurt, and also death, turning her into a witch [the ultimate fate of all magical girls]; the antagonistic Homura reveals herself to be a time traveler who had her life saved when Madoka sacrificed her own, and has gone through hundreds of timelines to try and prevent the same outcome. And when Madoka finally makes her choice… well, I suppose I should leave you some mysteries.
The characters in the show are all wrestling with powerlessness and failure, despite the mighty abilities at their command. When Kyubey’s intentions are finally revealed, he turns out to be a member of an alien race looking to harvest emotional energy to restore balance to the universe and prevent entropy [shaky science here, but it’s still a rare hard-SF angle to the typically new agey approach these shows usually take] and what conduit can provide more emotional energy than adolescent girls? They’re nothing but unchecked emotional energy. While not nearly as nihilistic in its storytelling as Eva gets, I was taken completely off guard by the weight of the story, by the loss the characters feel, the elements of horror that emerge during the witch battles [the animation style changes to a flat, stop-motiony style whenever a witch is around, and the ending credits are…off putting].
At 12 episodes, it’s a tightly wound narrative, nothing is wasted, it has none of the filler that tends to plague most anime shows. You could do worse than checking it out on Crackle.
There’s a neat conceit Zack Snyder & Co. use in the movie Man of Steel to get around the issue of Kryptonite: instead of being weakened by the radiation from the fragments of his homeworld, the cause is more environmental: General Zod and his crew maintain Kryptonian atmospheric and gravitational settings on their ship, which Kal-El is unaccustomed to, so when he ends up a hostage on there, it diminishes the powers that make him exceptional on Earth. It’s also a two-way street: when Zod gets his “breather” knocked off during battle, the sensory onslaught he receives from his superior abilities leaves him harmless as a puppy.
I spent ten days back home last week in an attempt to try and bash out the draft for my book. While it wasn’t a totally fruitless exercise, it left me feeling like both Kal-El and Zod: at times sapped of strength, overwhelmed at others.
It’s always been strange to me, going home. So much of my ‘second period,’ was defined by my seeming unwillingness or inability to leave the nest that every time I go back, I feel like the same trapped 25-year-old whose contrarian nature only left him more isolated as the people around him accepted the rules of the environment. This isn’t to say one approach was superior to the other, I could just never see any other way for myself.
Having been gone for almost seven years, not just from the nest but from the only place I’d known up to that point, there’s a cognitive disconnect there between me and my friends who never left, or left and came back. Again, I’m not saying one way is better than the other, it’s just that I was more acutely aware this trip than ever before that theirs is a lifestyle I stopped being accustomed to some time ago. I’d been seriously considering moving back there in the next couple of years [for reasons fiduciary and personal], but left there unsure if I ever could go back. There are definitely reasons that could entice me to return, and I know I would make a good life for myself there; but somewhere in the local news reports about iguanas on the loose and stolen prosthetic limbs I got that old nagging feeling of being a man out-of-place.
This is probably wholly my issue, and is something people usually chalk up to OoooOOOooh, Mr. Toronto’s too fancy for us, now! Which I would hope is obviously not the case. Most of the time when I’m in a room full of my friends who are now married and parents, I feel totally inferior, because I have not lived my life “according to plan,” and regretful that I’m usually pretty okay with that. My parents would like grandchildren, and while I always retain hope they might get them, I wouldn’t advise playing the over/under on that. And while my stance on children has gotten somewhat more fluid in recent years, my stance on marriage likely never will, as in, if she wants to, I’ll go along with it. But I don’t need any of that. And this is still an alarmingly rare position in small town Ontario.
I’m certainly not alone among people of my demo who find they have to click ‘remove from feed’ on Facebook with growing frequency to soothe the barrage of photos to children they have no connection to, but the sad fact is that you’re left with nothing but Game of Thrones memes and Zoosk ads as a result.
What’s all this mean, then? I don’t know friends. Toronto can feel painfully lonely, so much so that I often spook like a feral cat when friends back home call to say ‘what’s up?’, that’s how fully I’ve thrown myself into anonymity. But still, as I dragged my suitcase along Bay St, up to King to catch a streetcar, weaving through tourists and folks headed to the Jays game and bankers on their way home, I immediately felt more relaxed than I did that morning. Seated at my chair in my shitty apartment that I spend too much of my money to live in, I already feel more accomplished today than I did at my parents’ kitchen table.
Still. I once heard it said that a great life in a mediocre place is superior to a mediocre life in a great place. It’s always stuck with me. I would still love to force my will onto the culture of the Rose City. I just want a reason to go back.
I’m writing this on a train southbound to Windsor, where I will then drive another half an hour south into the asphyxiating humidity of Amherstburg, Ontario, where I will hole up in my parents’ house for the next week and a half to take the scraps, scenes, scribbles and scrivenings I have floating around my hard drive, in Moleskines, on ripped papers currently stuffed in my pockets and attempt to stitch them into something resembling a cohesive narrative for 30,000 – 35,000 words, which I will then take the month of July to edit and polish, and then send off to the powers that be and hope they still want to publish it. I will likely need to write a giant decompression post when that happens. But that will be later.
Today, I want to talk about that photo up top. See, this past Friday the good folks at Hip-Hop Karaoke Toronto had their inaugural ‘Posse Cut’ Edition. After three annual solo competitions, the crew listened to feedback from folks who wanted to compete as groups, and set up this event for duos, trios and quartets, keeping everything nice and equal.
Hip-Hop Karaoke has always been a thing I do a lot with one particular person. I used to date that person. I no longer do. No further details necessary.We still see each other, we still hang out. Sometimes it’s weird, most times it’s not. People find this confusing. I don’t really care.
But for some reason, it always felt to me that we never really got over. We had a couple rough performances, we [okay me] can be socially awkward around people so friendships with the other regulars were limited to a quick dap and ‘S’up?’ walking through the club. But when the group competition was announced, we knew we had to do something.
There was some minor bickering over song selection: I’d thought‘The Next Episode’ by Dr. Dre was something unique I hadn’t really seen done before, and the Nate Dogg portions could inspire some fun crowd interactions. She thought it was a little slow, might bring the energy down. She suggested “Peter Piper” by Run-DMC. I was a little hesitant, considering the song’s age, and how much the kids in the crowd might know it, but it had some good back-and-forth work [the thing everyone remembers about that MOP performance], some classic lines, and even if the kids didn’t know the song specifically, everyone knows that Bob James break by now. So I agreed, and we spent the next week working it out.
I didn’t turn to look at the judges behind me while we performed, but I heard from friends later that they were going pretty nuts. All I knew at the time was when I decided spontaneously to throw out some classic, ‘Lemme hear you say ho-oooh!‘ to the crowd, the response was far louder than I’d anticipated.
“Oh shit,” I thought, “We could actually place.”
Well, we didn’t place. We won the whole damn thing. Full disclosure, we ended up tying with a pair of ladies who have become regular in the last six months and have always impressed. I didn’t have a problem with it, it was good company to be in.
I’ve thought about that night a lot this weekend. About how, despite no longer being together, I’ll always trust that girl implicitly when I step on stage with her, just like I used to trust my band mates back in the Ictus days. The band always used to say we’d never do it with anyone else, just because that sixth sense of understanding you develop with performers you’ve known for years, that’s too hard to find. We used to call it ‘bedroom eyes’, that look we’d give each other when a change-up was coming. That’s how I felt about her at HHK. I’ve performed with other partners, and while it’s gone well enough, there was a spark missing.
I’ve also thought a lot about how the classics never go out of style, about how the song that probably got me into hip-hop in the first place, just two guys from Queens saying nursery rhymes and big-upping their DJ could still tear the place down, 30 years after it was first released.The whole point of hip-hop was to rock a party. Despite how much time has passed, the tools for party rocking haven’t varied much, and that makes me very happy.
There’s currently no video footage of our performance, and I almost prefer it that way [if some turns up later, I’ll post it here or more likely on PFGExpress]. I like the idea of it only existing in the memories of the people who saw it, and in ours. Just one more thing she’s now staked for herself in my brain, one more item shoved into the folder of things that will always remind me of her, along with Coco by Chanel, Volkswagen Beetles and a million other things.
I once said ‘the couple that HHK’s together, stays together.’ Time might have proven me wrong, but it doesn’t mean we won’t eat a pair of microphones when called to do so. We have the medals to prove it.
I wouldn’t blame you if you had to double take at that title, friends. When have I ever given you the impression that anything other than the boom-bap has a place in my heart? But it was not always that way friends.
To this day, there are only two albums I have ever purchased essentially “sound unheard.” I just bought them because I read a good review in a magazine or heard something about them.
DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…
Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come.
And both of those albums have never fully left my rotation in the fifteen-plus years I’ve owned them. Given the band’s unwavering…uh, refusal to reunite, I’d resolved myself to the fact that Refused were just one of those acts I’d have to mis out on and enjoy their music in retrospect.
However, as I continue to learn, friends, age changes a man, and the lads in Refused reached a point in their lives when maybe, perhaps, it was time to acknowledge that there continue to be thousands of people who adore and are inspired by that last album, and to just suck it up and accept that people love them and would kill to see them play live again. As they said in the official statement announcing the reunion:
We never did “The shape of punk to come” justice back when it came out, too tangled up in petty internal bickering to really focus on the job. And suddenly there’s this possibility to do it like it was intended. We wanna do it over, do it right. For the people who’ve kept the music alive through the years, but also for our own sakes.
We feel that you deserve it and we hope the feeling is mutual. [via]
So there was never any doubt that I was going to be at one of their two dates here in Toronto. The show itself was phenomenal, the band was whipcrack tight and played all of the songs from TSOPTC that I would have wanted to hear, and some I never thought I would [Tannhauer/Derive as a show closer? Really?! Amazing] as well as earlier tracks that I admit I didn’t know but sounded awesome. For me, my love of Refused starts and ends with that last album.
But I can still feel your confusion, friends. How does a Swedish punk band work its way into the heart of a lifelong, dyed in the wool hip-hop fan? Because The Shape of Punk to Come is a deliberate attempt to disseminate revolutionary ideas while putting back into the music all the things that decades of self-seriousness and mainstream co-opting took out of it: Fun. Sex. Danceability. I knew it the first time I heard album opener ‘Worms of the Senses/Faculties of the Skull‘ and heard frontman Dennis Lyxzen yelp, ‘One mooore time, OW!‘ like the Godfather of Soul calling to the band for hits. The Shape of Punk to Come is, without question, the blackest punk record ever made. If I ever doubted it, watching Lyxzen mash-potato his way across the stage, swing his microphone and do the old ‘Mic Stand Kick‘ move as his band bludgeoned the crowd with six-stringed ferocity, of course this would be one of my favourite albums. The best moment I had during that entire show, one of those ‘this is something I will need to cross of my life list’ moments was being able to shout Woooo! during ‘New Noise.’ Rare and wonderful indeed is the punk song that demands that of you.
Check out a clip of the band ripping apart “Refused Are Fuckin’ Dead” below. Forgive the glass wall that cuts through the shot but well, Daddy doesn’t do general admission anymore.
A few short hours after I post this entry, I’ll be plopped on my ass on the couch eating Doritos for dinner and engaging in something I haven’t done in years: appointment viewing.
DVRs, On-Demand and piracy have all but driven to extinction the idea that viewers make sure they’re home for a first-run episode of a beloved television show, but that’s exactly what I’ll be doing tonight as Community wraps up its third season with three back-to-back episodes.
I’m late to the Community party. The pilot failed to grab me [as it fails to grab most, real talk] and as many other commentators have noted, when the show isn’t being meta or working in the conventions of television cliche it rarely ascends beyond typical sitcom tropes [something like Troy’s 21st Birthday being a rare exception]. But when it hits, please believe, it’s unlike any other show I’ve ever seen: dark, painfully self-aware, equal parts lacerating and affectionate in its parody, Community is arguably the most creative show on television right now, certainly the best comedy.
Which probably means it’s doomed after next season. Conflicts between showrunner Dan Harmon and star Chevy Chase [never known as an easy man to get along with, if one’s to believe the portrayal of him in the Saturday Night Live oral history Live From New York], a reduced episode order for Season 4 and a timeslot change to the wasteland of Friday Nights all forecast doom and gloom for the Greendale crew, but if that’s the case, what a ride it’s been [UPDATE: Harmon announced on his Tumblr Saturday morning that he’s been fired from the show he created].
What shocks me the most about this show is how much I adore the characters. I care about them with an alarming level of fanboyishness. Troy and Abed are one of the greatest on-screen pairings in television history. Annie has taken my passing crush on Alison Brie and inflated it to unhealthy levels. When I see Brie appear onstage at one of Donald Glover’s Childish Gambino shows, I feel giddy because I want to believe these people are as good of friends offscreen as on. The constant teasing of a Troy/Britta hookup this season has filled me the sort of rage usually reserved for online message boards. Not because I preferred the Jeff/Britta pairing of previous seasons, but because I don’t want any of them to get involved with each other. I’m a guy who thinks the purity of their friendship, the camaraderie of the Greendale Seven as a study group should be cherished more than any romantic dalliances. It’s probably more realistic to assume that the young and single members of a group that tight-knit would hook up with each other, but this is a show that’s featured two epic paintball battles, a stop-motion holiday episode, crossovers with Cougar Town and a journey in a space simulator built by Kentucky Fried Chicken: realism was never on the table.
Thankfully, I likely won’t have to worry about that in tonight’s finale, as our [expelled] study group fights to rescue Dean Pelton from imprisonment and overthrow Ben Chang’s child-policed dictatorship [and can we tip our hats to Jim Rash, the man who portrays Dean Pelton? Everyone loves Troy and Abed, me included, but really, Dean Pelton is the MVP of the show on a weekly basis]. And when it’s over, I will feel sadness in my heart, because I will miss them. And I am fully aware of how insane that is to say, but it’s the truth. As a guy who still cherishes the two years he spent studying journalism at a college in my hometown, Greendale strikes a disturbing amount of familiar yet happy chords.
Have a great summer, Greendale Seven. I’ll be spending my time making E Plurbius Anus t-shirts and writing Inspector Spacetime fan-fiction and looking for Annie’s Boobs in every air vent I pass. See you in the fall.
I’ll call this out at the top: When Beastie Boy Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch lost his battle with cancer this week, an era of hip-hop ended. We’ve suffered many losses in hip-hop, many of them are senseless. But this one….maybe because it’s natural causes, maybe because it’s not something anybody could have prevented, it just saddens me so much more.
The Beasties were never the best MCs [I always made the joke that they got paid everytime they told a listener what their names were], but they were charismatic as hell, something that has to be credited to the unique personalities and tonalities of their voices. They each occupied a different sonic register and complemented the other two perfectly: AdRock’s played the nasal high, Mike D sat in the middle, and MCA rounded out the bottom with his signature rasp. It’s incredible when, individually let alone as part of a group, an artist can develop a voice instantly recognizable to a listener. And now one of them is gone.
My entry to hip-hop came on the playground. Schoolyard boomboxes blasting Run-DMC and the Fat Boys at recess made me a fan for life. It wasn’t a popular position in a world where The Bangles and The Pet Shop Boys were dominating airwaves. Classmates subjected me to the usual accusations of being a ‘n—-r lover’ and cursed at me to turn down that “monkey music.” But things started to change the next year: people started getting their hands on License to Ill by The Beastie Boys.
There’s no arguing the point: for white kids on the playground, The Beasties made it okay to like hip-hop. Even if your friends didn’t want to follow you to the worlds of LL Cool J or Eric B. & Rakim, you’d always find common ground with License to Ill.
I can’t overstate how revolutionary that album is. The Beasties and sometimes DJ [and Def Jam Records founder] Rick Rubin took the aesthetic of black hip-hop and used their own musical heritage to make something wholly their own but respectful of the mode they were working in. Instead of James Brown, they were using Led Zeppelin. Much as I never want to hear ‘Fight for Your Right’ or ‘No Sleep til Brooklyn’ ever again, there are a surprising number of jams on that first album that were killing dance floors in the ’80s. The Def Jam coffee table book that came out last year specifically discusses how much it frustrated some black MCs that a song like ‘Hold it Now, Hit It’ was so good, because they really wanted to hate them.
Three years later they took whatever superficial fans they made with License to Ill and tossed them under a bus with the crate-digging opus Paul’s Boutique. A more traditional ‘rap album,’ but with an a progressive view of sampling rivalled only by Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad. Like their debut, this is not an album that could ever exist under current sampling laws and pay structures.
The album that resonated with my friends and I the most was 1992’s Check Your Head. The Boys returned to their punk roots to perfectly coincide with the grunge explosion, not just playing punk songs [‘Gratitude,’ ‘Time for Livin’] but taking the chopped guitar riffs of License to Ill and rubbing them full of dirt to give the songs a gritty, lo-fi, DiY feeling. It was the perfect record for a 15-year-old trying to fake a love of rock music while gangsta rap was leaving him alienated from hip-hop. It worked for a while. I mean, watch the video for ‘So What’cha Want.‘ That’s basically how we all dressed until 1996 [toques in the summer all day, son!].
I fell off after Ill Communication, really stepped off after Hello Nasty [too many wack people who reaaalllly liked ‘Intergalactic’], checked in and was pleased by To the Five Boroughs and Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. Though I never had any reason to, I always considered Yauch the most creative of the three, maybe because he so overtly stepped into other arenas like directing their videos or crashing awards shows as his lederhosen-wearing alter ego Nathaniel Hornblower. If you need a clear indication of the group’s cross-generational appeal, watch that video for ‘Make Some Noise‘ again, and count just how many celebrities were willing to take a day to be a part of a Beastie Boys video.
Had they toured this summer, I probably would have gone to see them, not because I’m any sort of super fan, but because they’re legends and I should have seen them when I could. Now I can’t. But if Yauch’s out of pain, if he was at peace with his passing [as a Buddhist, I hope he was], nobody has any right to complain.
Rest in Peace, Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch. Thank you for constantly reminding us that the foundations of this thing we call hip-hop can still rock a party after 25 years. Don’t believe me? Watch the Boys rip ‘Shadrach’ from Paul’s Boutique on Soul Train, and pay attention to how that crowd goes from skeptical to buck wild thanks to a skillfully placed ‘Funky Drummer’ drop, some ‘Don Cornelius’ chants and the sheer will of the Beasties’ enthusiasm. A lot of rappers today could do well to take some showmanship notes from these dudes.
Premise: The cracks in sibling relationships become evident during a holiday game of charades. Read it here.
Thoughts: Earlier in these proceedings I made mention that a lot of your favourite writers want to be Amy Hempel. True Story: whoever doesn’t want to be Amy Hempel wants to be Lorrie Moore.
Moore exploded on the literary stage [and into my heart] with her first short story collection Self-Help, which used the second-person voice so well amateurs have been ripping it off ever since [How to Become a Writer, with its opening suggestion of “First, try to be something, anything, else” is probably one of the most passed around short stories in recent memory]. She hasn’t been terribly prolific since then, three short story collections and a pair of novels, but every word she’s put to page is incredible.
The two things I took from this story, which uses a sort of third person free-indirect narration told through the point of view of Therese, the oldest sibling in the family, had to do with word choice, shitty first drafts and surprising your reader.
There’s a moment where Therese, a circuit court judge, is thinking about her younger sister’s decision to go to law school: “…she had assumed Ann’s decision to be a lawyer is a kind of sororalaffirmation…” Look at that word: sororal. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used before, anywhere. I doubt Moore used it in an early draft of the work [pure conjecture]. She probably had ‘sisterly,’ and in the act of rewriting, decided that ‘sororal’ sounded better, set the tone of the sentence on a different level, suggested something about Therese and her level of education, how she views the world. Because who uses sororal?! Every word is a choice, and when you’re blasting your idea down onto the paper, maybe the wording isn’t as flowery as you might like. That’s fine, you can go back to the draft with a fine toothed comb in a week or so. That’s how you change ‘sisterly’ to ‘sororal.’
I was talking yesterday about letting your characters surprise you, and how I wasn’t sure I knew how to do that. Lo and behold, I read this story later that afternoon and Moore’s Therese manages to surprise me from out of nowhere with an offhanded comment about a public defender she’s been having a perfunctory affair with, despite loving her husband dearly. It’s mentioned so nonchalantly in the narration, yet makes perfect sense for the character [I’ll include it as my favourite line from this story].
This all feeds into the idea of the value of rewriting, which is also something I’m either too good at or not good enough; when I’m not ignoring a half-finished story I can’t bear to look at again, I’m performing what Evan Connell called, ‘going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting the commas back in the same places.’ But you never get to ‘sororal,’ you never get to be surprised by your characters, if you can’t focus on what you’re doing when you go back to the draft.
Favourite Line: “He is ardent and capable and claims almost every night in his husbandly way to find Therese the sexiest woman he’s ever known. Therese likes that. She is also having an affair with a young assistant DA in the prosecutor’s office, but it is a limited thing — like taking her gloves off, clapping her hands and putting the gloves back on again. It is quiet and undiscoverable. It is nothing, except that is sex with a man who is not dyslexic, and once in a while, Jesus Christ, she needs that.”
Appears in: At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom ; The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel 
Premise: An unnamed narrator comments on the things she sees around New York.
Thoughts: The initial promise of this series was that I wouldn’t revisit stories I’d already read, which makes talking about Amy Hempel rather difficult, considering my copy of her Collected Stories is one of my more thumbed and marked up editions. Because, little secret?
I want to be Amy Hempel.
Your favourite author probably wants to be Amy Hempel, too.
Hempel, who I’ve just learned was studied under Raymond Carver’s old editor Gordon Lish [aka ‘Captain Fiction’], has a gift for constructing sentences with surgical precision that most of us amateurs can only read and exhale long, slow breaths at. She’s really that good, and seems to be criminally under-read, likely due to her relatively limited output and apparent refusal to write novels, focusing on shorter works and her career as an instructor at Harvard [Harvard!].
‘…Penn Station,’ while at first read feeling structurally similar to a lame poem I, and likely a million other people wrote in high school, leaves all of us in the dust for the delicate construction of her images and the plainspoken pessimism of her conclusion. It’s a brief story, three pages at its total, sitting with you like a daydream and then blowing away into dust.
The great things about stories like this, or the work of Lydia Davis, is that they can encourage the amateurs among us to not be completely beholden to traditional ideas of form and plot and structure. Not that I would ever argue against those things, I feel like amateurs are far too eager to toss them aside in fits of laziness.
No, what I mean is that frequently in fiction writing you find you write a passage or a line that might exceed the art of the rest of the story, but has to be cut because it doesn’t fit the overall work. What a story like this does is encourage passages like that to live on their own, to make a place for them. Just really give them a hard look beforehand.
Lesson: Effective narratives can flaunt the traditional rules of plot and story structure, but you better make damn sure you’ve got the goods before you try it. Don’t kid yourself, you know the goods when you see it.
Favourite line: Today, when a blind man walked into the bank, we handed him along to the front of the line where he ordered a BLT.
What with all the days of stories and podcast production and general Seasonal Affective Disorder, I neglected to properly commemorate the second anniversary of Nujabes’ passing a couple weeks ago.
If you’re new here, Nujabes is probably second only to J.Dilla in my all-time hip-hop producer hall of fame. When I first arrived in Kingston before I found a job, I spent most mornings watching Samurai Champloo, the follow-up series by the production team behind my favourite anime ever, Cowboy Bebop. It was on that soundtrack that I first encountered his music, and it became daily listening to me, along with his other full length releases and remixes. Something about it always suited the cold Kingston days.
As far as just…shock at having lost an artist I admired, the only thing close to what I felt when I learned he had passed was when MuchNews interrupted a block of music videos to tell us all that Kurt Cobain had killed himself. But that was different. Cobain’s death was deliberate, and I could process it with friends who appreciated him as much as I had, probably more [I preferred Soundgarden].
With Nujabes, it was just a random tragedy cutting down a man in the prime of his life, and I had to process it alone, none of my friends were into him like I was. I’m not trying to make it into more than it was, it’s not like I lost family, but you take for granted that the guy’s always going to be there, that every six months I could scour some message boards and score a new batch of his own work or some production he’d done for other people. Instead you find out he’s been killed in a car wreck on a Tokyo Expressway, and all you can hope for are some half-finished tracks he left behind, the mandatory tribute albums.
But the music lives on, and I stay thankful for the joy it’s given and will continue to provide. Rest in Peace, Seba Jun.
For anyone who’s interested, I did a [too] lengthy podcast on Nujabes’s career last year, you can check that below.
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.
I spend half my time fudging with inventory. I spend the other half in load screens. The combat is like fighting Jell-O, nothing seems to connect despite the sound of the clanging swords. The notorious glitches are frequent: I’ve fallen through walls and witnessed the mythical backwards flying dragon. It’s a glorified to-do list.
While never averse to RPG’s, I learned after a brief dalliance with Fallout3 that the specific brand of game put forth by Bethesda Softworks are the sort I no longer have the right lifestyle to accommodate. Some early reviews boasted 300-hour experiences, and I just don’t have that sort of time anymore.
Sixteen hours in, it would appear I do.
So what the hell is it about this game? There are all the aforementioned strikes against it, and forget about the story, I only know what’s happening 20% of the time [Empire? Stormcloaks? Uhhhhh…] so why can’t I stop? Why is writing this entry about Skyrim making me angry because it makes me want to stop writing to go play Skyrim.
If I have a gun to my head, I would probably settle on “immersion.” While Skyrim has the same open-world, sandboxy gameplay I love about Grand Theft Auto (IV in particular), GTA lacks any sort of character skill progression or first person perspective. In both games, you’re never beholden to perform the tasks the game demands, but you will run out of things to do in Liberty City and go back to the main story line. I went four days in Skyrim without going anywhere near the primary narrative. Even when I did decide to go to High Hrothgar or whatever the hell it is, I ended up meandering into mill towns and military camps, picking up some quick gold clearing out a dungeon or two. I just adore the world Bethesda’s created. The first time I saw the aurora borealis over the fields surrounding Winterun my jaw actually dropped. The first time a dragon unexpectedly thundered overhead I panicked and hid behind a rock [actually an effective strategy it turned out]. I also enjoy the absence of Fallout’s karma system. The few hours I spent with that game, I didn’t enjoy constantly being reminded that the game was watching and ticking off everything I did, always placing weights on the scale of judgment. If my intent was to be a good person, one point of negative karma could undo hours of play. With Skyrim, the decision to steal, pickpocket or murder innocents is purely up to your own moral code. And, interestingly enough, as with Red Dead Redemption, it’s never occurred to me to start tossing fireballs at shopkeepers.
There’s also the matter of character creation. I know this is standard practice in any RPG worth a damn, but it’s a feature I haven’t had the opportunity to tool around with in a very long time. I feel an ownership and connection over that ball of fur pictured above that I haven’t experienced in a game in a very long time. I anguish over every decision I make for him, every skill to build, the type of game I’m going to play [one-handed brawler]. I might have enjoyed tooling around Liberty City with Niko Bellic, but when Iloru Sachiel [a name I agonized over, even consulting a fantasy name generator] runs around Skyrim, it feels like me, because I control how he looks, how he fights, his abilities, what he wears. When I take Lydia my ‘housecarl’ [pictured above, think medieval personal assistant] out with me, I constantly check on her safety during battles. I even get bummed when I have to kill other Khajiit, because I don’t like killing my “own kind.” And I am fully aware of what a pitifully geeky thing that is to even say, let alone praise.
It actually wasn’t my idea to get the game. For the first time in history, The Lady bought a video game she wanted to play. And we are already playing two different games: she’s playing as a Nord woman with a preference for two-handed weapons. She’s done different quests than I have. If we swapped notes after a week, we’d probably find we had very unique experiences. When you take into account the numerous class builds you can make [I’m already thinking Highborn Warmage my next go around], you start to realize just how much is hiding under the hood of this game.
I acknowledge this is all very surfacey praise, and anyone who’s played the previous game Oblivion or even World of Warcraft figured these things out years ago, but it speaks to Skyrim’s overall success if it can win over players like The Lady and I back to its snowy bluffs hour after hour. After hour. Why am I still talking to you?
It’s interesting how news of a death hits us in the digital age. Before the 24-hour news cycle and social media, news of someone’s passing used to smack like being hit with a 2×4. Now there’s this creeping dread as the rumours hit Twitter, speculative stories hit the web and you wait with a sink in your stomach for the inevitable confirmation.
That’s what I was feeling as I rode the streetcar last night and learned about the passing of Dwight Myers, better known as Heavy D. He was 44 years old, ten years older than I am now. We will ignore that for now.
Last spring I did an episode of RadioPFG lamenting the disappearance of fat rappers from the hip-hop landscape. Writing the script to that episode I learned a couple of things about my relationship to hip-hop, how it got its hooks into me at such a young age. Part of it was my innate fascination with rhythm and drums, but I really think another part of it had to do with rappers like The Fat Boys, Chubb Rock and Heavy D. As a weird overweight kid in Southwestern Ontario, hip-hop was the only musical form that not only showcased artists that looked like me, but celebrated it. The philosophy of hip-hop is confidence, bragging and boasting, even if you had some extra pounds packed. Heavy D was the best of them. He didn’t ignore that he was a big dude, he wore it as a badge of honour. He called himself the Overweight Lover and made songs celebrating his love of beautiful women. Riding the crest of the New Jack Swing Era of the early 90s, Heav busted out dance moves better than some dudes half his size.
That was just his own career. He played a role in the careers of so many artists: cousin of Pete Rock, as an employee at Uptown Records he hired a young intern named Sean Combs who brought Mary J. Blige to the label. He gave the Notorious B.I.G. his first extended verse on the posse cut ‘A Buncha N*ggas’ in 1993. He wrote the theme to In Living Colour. You know you remember him keeping the crowds at bay on the Bed-Stuy stoop in Biggie’s ‘One More Chance’ video. He did tracks with Janet andMichael Jackson. He returned to performing at the BET Hip-Hop Awards last month. And we all thought we’d have him for much longer than we did, because who drops dead at 44?
This was his last tweet, sent hours before he died.