Saturday, December 31, 2011

25 Most-played Songs in 2011

Full disclosure: This is not a top 25 of songs released in 2011, or played on the radio in 2011.

Those of you who know me know that I love statistics and numerical patterns. iTunes seems to share my obsession, and one of my favorite things every time I synch the iPod up to load a new playlist is seeing how my top 25 most-played songs has changed. Since the year is now over, I'll reset statistics tomorrow, but first I wanted to review the past year. Consider it my Holiday present to you, dear readers...

Here, without fear and favor (and in alphabetical order to further reduce the favoritism) are my top 25 most-played songs in 2011 (links mostly to live versions, but feel free to play the originals if you've got 'em!):

All Along The Watchtower (Bob Dylan, Before the Flood)- This is a live version with the Band from a tour album Dylan released in the 70s. It's one of 6? 7? versions I have in my library. Not my favorite version (that would be the original), but there's a soft spot in my heart for this album, as listening to it on my parent's record player after school was the start of my induction into the glories of classic rock.

Batman (Jan & Dean, Surf City: The Best of Jan & Dean)- I can testify, I did end up listening to this a lot this year. Every time has been as delightfully silly as the first. I've got to hand it to Jan & Dean, though, this song evidences a better understanding of the uncanny darkness of the character than the campy 60s TV series did.

Could You Be The One? (Husker Du, Warehouse Songs & Stories)- The thing about all these 80s nostalgia kiddies around now is that they had no idea just how bad it was. Overproduced top 40 was everywhere, TV, the movies, the Mall. There was no escaping it. The only way you could find anything different unless you were in a big city was in a small record store that you had to learn about from friends that had a locked case in the back with a few alternative rock cassettes. Then, maybe, if you were lucky, you could find something like this bubbling up from the underground, keeping rock just barely alive in an era that had prefab slickened it to within an inch of its life.

Darkside (Tanya Donelly, beautysleep)- I'm a big fan of the Pixies and Throwing Muses, and all solo careers that have flowed from there, hence their strong presence in my playlist. The album that this is from, by Throwing Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly, came across my path immediately following my separation in 2002. It was like a beacon of light, giving me faith that a life of shimmering beauty and deep meaning was waiting out there somewhere past the darkness...

Down By The River (Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Decade)- Ah, Neil Young, one of my all-time top 5 musical artists (along with Dylan, the Who, the Pixies and Nirvana, in case you're wondering). There's also something hauntingly beautiful, yearning and melancholy about this. Easily my favorite shooting down your lover song. Which is a distressingly crowded genre!

Full Moon, Empty Heart (Belly, Star)- Belly was the group Tanya Donelly formed in the mid-90s after being with the Breeders for their first album, which came after her exit from the Throwing Muses. Like all the best of her work, this is evocative, full of gauzy beauty, and underlined by serrated guitar that underlines its delicacy with steel.    

Ginger Park (50 Foot Wave, Golden Ocean)- One good Muse deserves another, in this case in the form of 50 Foot Wave, the current vehicle of Tanya's half-sister and fellow founding Throwing Muse Kristin Hersh. The combination of the harsh shred of her voice and the guitar, backed up with the lyrics (I don't belong there/ I guess I never will/ I don't belong anywhere) simultaneously makes me feel chilled and crawlingly itchily warm.

Green (Throwing Muses, In A Doghouse)- And now here they are together! Albeit this is one of the rare songs written and sung by Tanya Donelly that the Muses did. Hence, I imagine, her eventual decision to split and go solo. There's a driving urgency behind this song, a sound that's like someone just on the edge of really losing it.

A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan)- This album, Dylan's big original breakthrough, was another of the ones raided from my parent's that started me on my musical journey. While it was written in an attempt to cram in everything he thought and felt as the world seemed on the edge of holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it's no less affecting today. The poet as prophet, after all, inherently taps into a timeless space.    

Her Majesty (the Beatles, Abbey Road)- One of many cute little snippets from Abbey Road that kind of makes you wish they'd been developed to full length. Although I'm not sure how long you could sustain this ditty of a love-song to the Queen.

I'll Cry Instead (the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night)- Most of my favorite early Beatles songs tend to be John's. There's just more anguish and edge to them, as here, where he's simultaneously crying over the loss of his girl and boasting about his ability to break and load every girl in the world. Oh Johnny...

I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) (Bob Dylan, Another Side of Bob Dylan)- Early Dylan has a lot of bitter telling-off a theoretical gal songs. I don't think of this as being one of my favorites, but apparently it snuck into my playlists pretty often. Also a fine example of the "Dylan nearly cracks up in the middle of a song" genre, which could generate a playlist of its own.

I Should Have Known Better (the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night)- Remember what I said above about John Lennon's early Beatles songs? Ditto here. It's a sweet straightforward love song, but just underneath the surface you can tell something's a little wrong. And isn't that what the urgency of early love is so often like?

I Walk The Line (Johnny Cash, The Legendary Sun Records Story)- I would have been mighty upset if some Johnny Cash hadn't made it in to this list. I love his early Sun stuff, there's something very simple about the songs musically and they're lyrically totally straightforward. But despite that, or maybe because of it, they're full of depth.    

Lay Lady Lay (Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline)- Sometimes this song doesn't quite do it for me, since it tends to get overplayed. But there's something about Dylan's country croon, bright ringing guitar and tender entreaty here that wins out. Besides which, my parents played it at their wedding, so this song practically conceived me. Doubly so since they were married December 26th and I was born September 28th of the following year.

Lovely Rita (the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)- Not one of my favorite Beatles albums, it suffers for me from the overplay and overhang of "this is the most important, popular music-changing album of all time". That all being said, this is one of my favorite songs. There's something very swinging 60s about seducing the meter maid, and a winning contrast between McCartney's poppy presence and the slightly sinister distorted Lennon backing.

Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds (the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)-  The very heart of Beatles overplay. For me too, apparently, since it's on this list! So, not one of my favorites, but there is something undeniably arresting about the musical layering and surrealistic imagery.

Night Flight (Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti)- I maintain that Physical Graffiti is one of the most sonically perfect albums ever recorded. I also have a theory that it represents a kind of capstone of Classic rock, a point at which nostalgia for the passage of flower power past officially replaces the living actual feeling that something great and wonderful was about to happen. This song is that to a T.

Paint It Black (the Rolling Stones, Aftermath)- Through some glitch of iTunes, this song ended up on every playlist I downloaded, even though it wasn't included in the playlists themselves in my iTunes library. The result, of course, was that I ended up listening to it a lot. Not a bad thing, really. Take away the 60s nostalgia and you can see it for what it is, one of the most creepily nihilistic expressions ever committed to record by a popular group.          

Ready Steady Go (Generation X, No Thanks! The 70s Punk Rebellion)- Speaking of 60s nostalgia, here's a song that's a conscious repudiation of it, and yet, in it's poppy bounciness recalls the best of the British Invasion. It's also a reminder that Billy Idol once had something going for him.

Sexy Results (Death From Above 1979, You're a Woman, I'm a Machine)- The 2000s have been a rough period, musically. Kind of as dismal at the mass market level as the 80s, maybe even more so. But even in the worst eras there's always something going on somewhere, as DFA's re-imagining of heavy metal as dance music is here to remind us. 

Speedy Marie (Frank Black, Frank Black 93-03)- Speaking of the dearth of something going on in the 2000s, one of the best albums I bought last decade was this collection, which chiefly features songs from the 90s. What can I say, I'm a fool for the Pixies, and the solo work of their former front man as well. This is not one of my favorite songs by him, but it does go down super-smooth, with a strange aftertaste from the phrasing of the highly literate lyrics.

Subliminal (Suicidal Tendencies, Suicidal Tendencies)- Yes, I was an 80s alternative kid, but I think everyone should love the album this is from. I mean, really, listen to it. it was released in 1983, and everything that would actually become popular in the 90s amalgamation of punk and metal into grunge is already here, with a little shout out to rap metal as well from an era when hip-hop itself was in its infancy.

To Be Alone With You (Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline)- Nashville Skyline is one of my favorite albums and this is a bright and shiny little gem from it. It just rolls along, so uncharacteristically cheerful. Plus, I perennially love that, "Is it rolling Bob?" that kicks it off.     

Won't Fall In Love Today (Suicidal Tendencies, Suicidal Tendencies)- Opportunity to repeat everyting I said above about Suicidal Tendencies. Only faster, since this song clocks in at 1:00 exactly!

So there you have it. This may tell us as much about the algorithms of the iPod as it does about me, or popular music. But I am pretty proud of the nearly half-century span of music (from I Walk The Line in 1956 to Sexy Results in 2004) on display here. Happy New Year all, and happy listening to come in 2012!




Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Gingrinch will not steal Christmas, but don't count him out

In my blog from a  few weeks ago about Gingrich's sudden rise among Republican voters, I looked at the timing of the previous booms and busts of alternates to Romney. Based on the periodicity of Bachmann, Perry and Cain, I'd made a numerological guess that he would peak on 12/2, and start a sharp drop-off on 12/23. As you can see below, things have ended up working out a little differently:

In fact his high, of 35%, was reached on 12/13/11. And while the last three claimants to the anti-Romeny throne each had roughly three weeks on top before beginning their respective plunges, poor Newtie only seems to have gotten a few days. His polling average started a fall on 12/16, and as of 12/21, has fallen 5 percent in 5 days.

While this certainly looks to prevent him from running away with it (which I think he would have if he truly held on to a lead three weeks from his 12/13 peak, which would have had him still way on top when Iowa votes January 3rd), I think there's equally good reasons to think he's far from finished. He has a lot more going for him in terms of intellect, policy acumen and public presence than Bachmann and Perry, who wilted under scrutiny, and certainly doesn't have the kind of problems that Cain did when he propositioned his way to collapse.

What's going on is more like the effects of the whole field aiming their ammunition at him over the last 10 days, and the fact that the focus on him is showing him to be a little unpalatable. But, without the major handicaps of the others, there's nothing here that would wipe him off the map. Which makes it quite possible that we end up with something like: Gingrich loses Iowa, but not by enough to be embarrassing (especially since current trends make it seem like Ron Paul might win!). Romney wins New Hampshire, but not by enough to be impressive. Gingrich then wins South Carolina and Florida, leaving three consistent vote-getting candidates to duke it out in February and March, maybe long enough that nobody has enough delegates to win the nomination until June. Or maybe not even then.

At the very least, Romney does not appear to be in for a cake walk. I read a piece recently that laid out four scenarios, none of which involved Romney quickly and decisively wrapping it up. I also read an interesting piece comparing Romney to Nixon in 1968 as an ideologically indistinct candidate that the party didn't particularly want, but eventually swallowed its distaste for after repeatedly failing to find an alternative. Finally, the other day I read this article on Gingrich's current fall which makes many of the same points I made in my original blog on November 19th.

Which, if nothing else, at least backs up my conviction that, in a parallel world where I'd opted for journalism school instead of years of misadventure in the business world, I could have made a pretty fair political journalist.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

In Praise of Scary Cows

 One of the things I dearly miss about San Francisco is Scary Cow, the independent film co-op that I was a member of for the last four years. It was founded by Jager McConnell, in part in response to a problem he kept running in to in the course of pursuing independent film-making: he would post online looking for cast and crew for a project, but then the day of shooting a flake factor would often mean key people, maybe even everybody, failed to show up. With a $50 monthly fee for members, Scary Cow takes advantage of the fact that people are much more likely to show up for something they're paying for.

It also solves another key problem for independent film makers: access to equipment and crew. The co-op format brings together people with varying specialties, levels of experience and access to equipment and enables them to pool their resources. At a pitch meeting every few months, any member who has a project in mind stands up before the group to present it, and then gathers together names of interested people. Directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, light and sound people can all be assembled in short order.

Finished ten-minute projects then screen to an audience of several hundred at the end of each round in a local theater in San Francisco (lately the grand old Castro Theatre). The audience votes on favorites, and top vote-getters are awarded funds for future projects and the chance to screen longer 20-minute pieces. I can testify that some really great films have been produced, many of them going on to film festival success outside of Scary Cow. So far two teams have expanded their work to feature length films as well, the documentary Iran is Not the Problem, and the delightful musical comedy shoe fetish extravaganza Devious Inc. The group is currently gearing up to support even more feature-length projects.

My own involvement began in 2007, when years of wanting to be involved in film finally reached a boiling point and happily intersected with seeing a posting about Scary Cow online. In four years with the group, I had a chance to work on 13 films, and went from having no formal experience to getting to try out just about every role imaginable: actor, art director, assistant director, best boy, casting, director, extra, producer, production assistant, props manager, script supervisor, shot log and writer.

On six films I got to be a principal participant (some combination of director, producer and writer), for a total of 75 minutes of screen time. That's almost a feature length in most parts of the world! Along the way, I also got to participate in many of the workshops the co-op held, led by experienced cinematographers, directors and producers. At $50/month for 44 months, plus about $1,000 I put in directly to making films along the way (craft services can really add up!), and then workshop fees, for under $4,000 over four years I got a thorough introduction to film-making and got to meet and network with hundreds of people. That's a significant bang for your buck compared to most any film school you could name.

While I'm sadly far from the herd now that I've moved, I'm working on finishing the first draft of my first feature-length screenplay (currently 103 pages and counting), informed by everything I learned with Scary Cow. And I have a half dozen films that I had a primary role in to show for my efforts too:

Carson Larson Gets the Picture- The very first film I worked on, which I got to co-write along with Alex Winter (who produced it) and Jason Hoag (who directed it), and also worked as a production assistant and had a small role in.

Geek Wars- Which I wrote and produced, and Richard Armentrout directed.

Deaf Dumb and Blind Date- Also written and produced by me, and directed by Richard. This was actually a companion piece to Geek Wars, intended to be part of a three-part 20-minute film called Triptych, which I never got the prize money to screen in its full-length. I can arrange home screenings if you like, though, and meantime I think this holds up niftily well on its own.

The Buddhist News- The brainchild of national treasure and co-star of Geek Wars Matthew Weinberg, which I co-wrote with him and Assistant Directed, and also spit up on screen for.
Ave Maria- My baby, which I wrote, directed and produced, based on a short story I'd written. Which was way too much to do all by myself, but I guess I really wanted to get it made! I learned a ton, and while it was a long haul to get it done, I'm super-proud of it.

23 Ways In Which I Could Die- Co-written with Matthew, and Co-directed by myself and Fathy Elsherif, this film just screened in November. It's not online yet, but when it is I'll let you know. Until then, vive la Scary Cow!


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: Superman/Batman: Vengeance

Superman/Batman: Vengeance (Jeph Loeb/Ed McGuiness, DC, 2006, originally Superman/Batman #20-25)

Dearest Blog, I don't know if we've ever discussed this before, but I am a comics collector from way back. Probably this is not news to you, given my other proclivities, but just for the record, there it is. 

In my earliest form, in the halcyon age of those spinny metal wracks in supermarkets, I was a fan of horror comics. I would load up every time my parents went shopping. As I got a little older, I became an acolyte of Marvel. This was in the early-mid 80s, when they were really the shit- The X-Men, Fantastic Four, Thor, Spiderman et al were in the midst of some of their best runs. Except for following writer/artist John Byrne's run on Superman when he went to DC from Marvel, and Frank Miller's work on Batman, I wasn't very interested in DC. Compared to Marvel's attempts at psychological and physical realism, DC was just a little too cartoony, too hokey, with the fake cities (Metropolis, Central City, etc.), unlimited god-like powers, silly weaknesses like kryptonite and the color yellow.

As with many things that had been a key part of my life (writing being front and center on that list), I put down comics when I went to graduate school in the mid-90s. My soul went into hibernation and life got more and more off track. After recovery and separation and other major life changes, I began to pick up things again (writing being front and center!) in 2002. And so comics have returned to my life, fueled by the collections of storylines into big softcover trade paperbacks that has become one of the major distribution modes of the 2000s.

I've caught up with some great stuff this decade. And to my surprise, I've found that in my old age I've become a big fan of DC. In part, it's certainly because younger writers and artists have shaken up the formerly staid world of DC. But I think it also reflects my own ability to connect now, after a lot more of life's twists and turns, with the basic, archetypal legends that DC has to offer. They deliver comics myth-making in its most elemental form.

None are more archetypal than Superman and Batman, two golden oldies still running strong after 70 years. Each has several monthly series devoted to them, but they also co-starred during the 2000s in Superman/Batman. I have dearly loved it for how it takes the two biggest toys in the DC Universe, presents them at the peak of their careers, and spins an ongoing storyline involving the two of them but liberally drawing on heroes and villains from all over DC. 

This is the fourth collection from that series, and it's a doozy! I'm allergically opposed to spoilers, so I won't give away much that you don't learn in the first few pages: Superman and Batman find themselves crossing paths in a parallel universe with the Maximums, a wonderful parody/homage of the "Ultimate" version of Marvel's Avengers. This could be a throwaway concept in the wrong hands, but the Maximums are very well done, the kind of loving forgery that shows as much affection as cattiness toward Marvel. Along the way, alternate Supermans and Batmans galore enter in, as do Bizarro and Batzaro. The series also draws in threads from almost everything that's happened in issues 1-19. You should probably read the other three collections first ("Public Enemies", "Supergirl" and "Absolute Power"), but once you're done, this volume delivers international, intergalactic and interdimensional fun in a way that only DC can get away with.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Blog must go on...

I'm on two weeks now of feeling sick and low energy. But this does not matter. What matters is the Blog. Well, writing more generally, but at this moment, the Blog more specifically. What happened in 2010 and through most of 2011 cannot be allowed to continue. Even when there seems to be nothing to say, the Blog must go on.

That is all.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Review: The Big Book of Conspiracies

The Big Book of Conspiracies (Doug Moench, Paradox Press, 1995, 223 pp.)

I just finished this book, which had been part of my recent Amazon birthday haul, so I thought I would strike the iron of review while the reading is still hot. Or something like that.

I have to say I quite enjoyed it, perhaps even more than its sister volume The Big Book of the Unexplained. I certainly found this tome to be more disquieting. And delightful. That's right, delightfully disquieting.

That's what you get when you have well-researched text on some of the darkest conspiracy allegations out there illustrated by 39 different comic artists. I think this is actually a pretty compelling combination, which could profitably be used a lot more than it is. There's like this, and Classic Comics. And I guess that whole Introducing/For Beginners book series, which I'm also a big fan of. Someone likes narrative art, apparently...

A word on the artists themselves: they were really good! It was a pleasure to run in to a few names I knew well from mainstream comics: Frank Quitely, Michael Avon Oeming and Bob Smith, for example. A lot of the others though, were from alternative comics, with styles ranging from cartoonish to dark and surreal. I look forward to catching up with what they've been up to since the mid-90s.

As far as the text goes, Moench is a comics writer as well, and the writing benefits from the best features of the medium: it's lucid, fast-moving, and entertaining. It's also, despite the obvious mirth behind the form, well-researched and packed with information. As in a five page double column bibliography citing the sources for what's presented in the 39 chapters.

Conspiracy theory is as conspiracy theory does, and some of what's presented here is definitely a wild leap, or based on specious connections. I enjoyed further researching a lot of it online as well, and, predictably, some things are less sinister (and solid) than they appear to be at first glance. There are others, though, that get more disquieting. To touch on a Golden Oldie, what the heck is up with Lee Harvey Oswald? I'm finding that to be the most interesting (and fruitful question) in the whole JFK thing- maybe there was only one gunmen, and he was that one. But how did he end up there, and why, everywhere in his history that you look, do you find strange connections? There's something to this whole CIA-Mafia-Cuban Exile thing.

The JFK assassination, of course, ended up in the book a lot, and much of the rest was pretty familiar territory as well: RFK, MLK, CIA mind control, Freemasons, Karen Silkwood, the always dear to my heart UFO-conspiracies. There were also some that were new to me such as:
  • Multiple intriguing threads linking Jonestown to the CIA
  • The international businessman/secret agent James Douglas Morrison that started showing up all over the place right after Jim Morrison's "death"
  • Truly bizzare Reagan assassination attempt tidbits such as the fact that John Hinckley Senior was a friend of George Bush Sr., his son Neil Bush had dinner plans with John's brother Scott Hinckley the day of the assassination attempt, and a second Jodie Foster-obsessesed young man threatening Reagan was arrested with a gun at New York Port Authority a few days after the attempt
  • John Whiteside Parsons. Look him up online, and bathe in the weird goodness that is this sadly deceased patriot/JPL scientist/follower of Aleister Crowley. 
The book also re-introduced me to the strange death of Danny Casolaro, who was found dead in a hotel of an apparent suicide as he was working on a book about the conspiracy that he claimed linked the October Surprise, Iran Contra, the S&L scandal and just about every other shady late 80s thing there was with a government attempt to steal a security-monitoring software. Were some of his sources questionable? Yep. Did he have financial troubles and other frustrations that could lead to suicide? Yep. Was he being warned off before his death in calls overheard by third parties? Yep. Were his research files missing from the hotel, and never subsequently found? Yep. Again, worth further reading on your part.

But don't tell anyone I told you so. Or send them a hyperlink to this review...


Saturday, December 03, 2011

Gingrich at his peak? Maybe yes, maybe no...

My November 19th blog on Republican Booms and Busts used the admittedly small sample size of the average timeline of other Republican candidates' rise and fall as alternatives to Romney to predict that the latest anti-Romney, Newt Gingrich, would hit a polling peak on December 2nd, and begin a plunge on December 23rd. So how's it looking?

Actually not too bad for the first part. On December 1st, Gingrich reached his all-time peak (so far) of 26.6% on the Real Clear Politics polling average, and has remained at that level since then:

Might this be the peak? One good reason to think it could is that polling slowed down so much around Thanksgiving that there is only one national poll covering the period after 11/20, a Rasmussen Reports poll that had Gingrich at 38% and Romney at 17%. Since this is only a single poll, and Rasmussen polls historically tend to skew more conservative, the chances of it being an outlier are fairly high, and new polls that show Gingrich still ahead, but by less than 21%, would tend to back him off a little from the high this poll contributed to.

On the other hand, today's piece of breaking news is that Herman Cain is suspending his campaign following the damage wrought this week by a woman who claims to be having an affair with him. While he denies it, he does admit to paying her bills and she has phone records that show months of contact between them. Prior to this, he had stabilized at around 15% despite the swarm of earlier allegations of woman trouble, and could probably have hung in around there until the voting started.

Now his votes will be looking for somewhere new to go, and all indications are that Gingrich and Perry are more likely to get them than Romney, which push Newt even higher and keep him near the top long enough to actually still be in the lead when voting starts one month from today.  

There are still plenty of good reasons to think that Romney will eventually be the nominee. Look at this Washington Post article, for example, to see the advantages his lead in money and organization give him in building a machine that will accumulate delegates throughout the process. But it's looking increasingly like Newt might just hang in there long enough to at least make it interesting.