Friday, December 23, 2011

France's Armenian Genocide Bill

Here's an op-ed piece I wrote for Ianyan Magazine.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Eve Party in Zagreb

I am DJ'ing Plan B Bar's Christmas Eve party. Here is the flyer I cooked up for that.

Downloadable version of flyer here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Common Birds at Sljeme, Croatia/Hrvatska | 12 December 2011

No endangered species here, just some common birds. I stuck the camera in a bird feeder along the trail to Sljeme, the highest peak in the Zagreb region. These are edited highlights; the activity took place over 6 minutes. Camera falls over at end because a Marsh Tit gave it a good karate kick. :-D

Visitors are:

Eurasian Nuthatch | Brgljez | Sitta europaea

Marsh Tit | Crnoglava sjenica | Poecile palustris (the camera is close enough to show details of the bill, considered the most reliable way to differentiate it from the ultra-similar Willow Tit, so this is the first time I could add it to my life list)

Great Tit | Velika sjenica | Parus major (Why must all these birds be saddled with embarrassing English names? Just needed a woodpecker to make this list complete.)

Last bird is a King Pigeon ;-)

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Year and a Half in the Motel Hell

Considering living in a motel for a year and a half? Here is everything you need to know.

It was not my intention to spend a year and a half living in an extended stay (i.e., a motel) across the street from the Swinging Richards strip club, but life has a funny way of working out, or not.

The Atlanta, Georgia Northside Drive InTown Suites currently enjoys a composite 2.5 out of 5 stars after five Google reviews. Three Yelp reviewers bestowed a less generous 1.5 out of 5 stars. A few choice quotes from the Yelp reviews:

"This is, undoubtedly, the shadiest place I've ever stayed."

"the $40 cleaning deposit was not returned in full even though the promised house keeping never made an appearance during out [sic] entire stay."

"A guy got murdered while we were there, and the staff lied to us about it, even though there was caution tape, police officers, and blood stained furniture removed from the room and thrown into the dumpster."

(To be fair, as any long-term InTown Suites resident knows, caution tape, police, and bloodstained furniture does not always indicate a murder.)

The Google reviews were a little less interesting, but they had a ring of truth to them. "Bed sheets were dirty and stained and smelled bad," wrote one customer, and I can corroborate the observation as apparent blood stains and cigarette burns appeared on my "fresh" white sheets more than a few times during my stay.

The official web page for the Suites' "Atlanta Central (ZAG)" location features a flattering photograph of the three-story building taken on a cheerful, sunny day. Indeed, in the daytime, InTown Suites looks sturdy and inviting. It resembles a decent budget hotel.

For the most part, it looks like one on the inside, too. Neatly-framed abstract art prints hang on the walls. The floor is carpeted with a dark green material, similar in texture to a pool table top. If you're in a single, a square table and two metal chairs are your only furniture; no sofa could fit in there. Although housekeeping sometimes failed to appear on some weeks, as the Yelp reviewer noted, on most weeks they did, and the powerful smell of their cleaning detergent was reassuring. There were regular insect fumigations (I only saw one roach during my stay, and after bug-bombing my room I never saw another one). The full-sized fridge and two-burner range (one burner of which worked) were handy. There was basic cable on the flat-screen TV mounted on the wall.

I also presume there were semen stains throughout, but you can’t avoid semen stains. Consider that amazing footnote in the official Recommendation for Dismissal for the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case regarding the ritzy Sofitel hotel. In addition to the semen stains found in Strauss-Kahn’s room that were proven to be his, "Three other stains on the carpet contained the semen and DNA of three different unknown males, and one other stain contained amylase and a mixture of DNA from three additional unknown individuals. The stain on the wallpaper contained the semen and DNA of a fourth unknown male." If the high-class Sofitel is filled with semen stains, I would have to assume that InTown Suites has a remarkable DNA collection of its own—and probably exceeds the Sofitel for quantities of other bodily fluids.

(Of course, I contributed my own semen stains. If you find that nauseating, then I am deeply offended.)

Its being next door to the Northside Drive Liquor Store is either sketchy or convenient depending upon your fondness for alcohol (the staff at the liquor store was very friendly, and a cool employee there named Natalie enjoyed my nickname for the establishment—"Sin"—since every vice [except sex] was catered to there [and the rumored prostitutes nearby even took care of the sex]).

Across the street from the Northside InTown Suites is Swinging Richard's, a gay male strip club. People who are suspicious of my middle-aged bachelorhood may be surprised by what I’m about to say, but I have never been in there. I did see one particularly buff neighbor of mine crossing the street one evening on his way over there, presumably reporting to work. It makes sense that Northside's InTown Suites would be the top place for a male stripper to stay during a weeklong engagement at Swinging Richard's.

I wound up at InTown Suites after I had returned from a three month European adventure. In order to travel for three months in 2010 in the first place, I broke the lease at my previous apartment, and so I had no place to return to. I wasn't eager to rent again, because the experience of breaking that lease was like being force-fed a log of dog shit. Which reminds me: I also learned from my apartment days that your dog is too damn loud, and you’re never going to do anything about it, even after I complain. No dogs are allowed at InTown Suites.

My original goal was to spend a few months at the Suites, and then return to Europe in order to continue pursuing my writing career (which had been working out a little bit during my 2010 odyssey) and my DJ'ing career (which hadn't worked out so well, so encourage me by listening to my Euro sets here). Unfortunately, due to money issues, six months turned into a year and a half.

The weekly rate is currently $209.99 (a bit more with tax, but the tax is dropped after a few months, at which point you are seen in the eyes of the law as a resident). This rate might seem high for a place where—it is rumored—prostitutes work their magic in the rooms around you, and where—it appears from my admittedly limited powers of observation—drugs are obviously being sold in the parking lot, but consider that the price includes all utilities, cable and wireless internet, and the aforementioned somewhat reliable cleaning service. OK, the Internet speed was the slowest I've experienced since 1995, but it usually worked. When I did the math, I concluded that I was saving a few hundred bucks each month by living there.

But problems with InTown Suites became apparent after a few months. The floors are flimsy, and so if you wind up living underneath an upstairs neighbor, which of course happens often, you are fated to hear every footstep, every drunken stumble, every body slam. I imagined that one of my upstairs neighbors had only one leg, and that she literally rolled out of bed every morning onto the floor with a crash before beginning an interminable series of hops to move about the place (she never left her room, presumably because the stairs were too dangerous for her to navigate). The walls are thin and hollow, so when an overturned dresser hits the floor of the room above during some domestic dispute, the crash literally shakes everything in the room below: ceiling, walls, floor. Because the bed’s backboard is attached to the wall, reading there forces you to concentrate while attempting to ignore a sensation like that of a child striking the back of your head repeatedly with a mallet. Thus, it’s not just the noise that keeps you awake at night (earplugs and noise reduction headphones can shield some of that); it’s the earthquake shocks that rattle your body. Some people are active by day, and others by night, and if your schedules don't overlap then you are fated to experience at least one week of poor sleep. Even if you and your neighbors are synchronized, there is no relief from the constant noise during literally every waking moment spent in the room. It’s awful.

One couple I lived under smashed things until 3 AM on most nights. I know they were fighting, because one time I stood outside their room and listened to their angry voices. I would have said something to them then if they hadn’t already been engaged in a violent, drunken rampage.

So I waited a few nights, then knocked on their door, fearful that I might be shot in the face, because—hey, it’s the InTown Suites, the place where a Yelp reviewer thinks a guy got murdered.

The door opened a crack, and an eye regarded me suspiciously.

"Hello?" a young, sinewy black guy said to me.

"Hey," this middle-aged, beer-gutted white guy replied. "I'm your downstairs neighbor, and I'm really sorry to complain, but there's a lot of noise coming from your room, and I know you probably don't even realize you're making it, because you wouldn't know that unless somebody actually told you. So here I am, and I’m telling you, and I just wondered if you could keep it down a little bit?”

He looked warily around him. His girlfriend, a young woman whose large girth implied guilt in the noise-making, lay on the bed behind him. She regarded me with vague amusement.

"Are you sure it's us?" the fellow said.

"Yeah, pretty sure. I mean, the ceiling is vibrating right over me. I actually put my hands on the ceiling, like this [I raised my arms into the air with palms facing the heavens], and, like, I can feel the ceiling shaking.”

"I don't think it's us. I think it must be the guy living behind us."

This was going nowhere, so I apologized for wasting his time and returned to my room.

A few minutes later there was knocking on my door. I looked through the peephole. It was the guy and his girlfriend. Do I open the door?

"Hey," I said, opening the door.

"That thing about the noise,” the fellow said, shaking his head. “I’m just…confused. Are you sure it's us? Because I don’t think it is."

"Well, I'm not sure-sure. I'm pretty sure, but—"

"I don't think it's us."

"It probably isn't you. The floors here are thin, acoustics do weird things. Sorry to bother you."

“Did you hear the sounds two days ago?”

I couldn’t remember if I had or hadn’t, but I said, “I think I did.”

“Well, then, it can’t be us, because I wasn’t here two nights ago. I was working.”

“Oh, OK,” I said.

Unfortunately, as the weeks rolled by, it became obvious that the smashing and crashing was indeed coming from the couple upstairs. The truth came out one night when a dramatic fight between them spilled out of their room, down the stairs adjacent to my room, and concluded right outside my door, where I carefully observed their yelling match through the peephole.

They moved out eventually. But I didn't. I stayed on.

When times were good, I referred to the Suites as the “Motel Paradise.” When they were bad, I referred to them as the “Motel Hell.” As the months crawled on, the words “Motel Hell” fell more and more frequently from my lips.

Sure, many residents were benign. I think of the foreign families that stayed for a few weeks at a time (I was told some were probably the families of fresh professors transitioning to Atlanta's universities). Sometimes, a group of Mexican laborers would crash in a few rooms; I'd see them hopping into their trucks en masse, presumably toward some construction job. And there were the Lenox cab drivers who have adopted the Suites as their sleeping headquarters. (Never did I see a Checker Cab parked there overnight. I wonder if Checker Cab has its own turf? Also, if a Checker Cab cabbie dared to sleep at InTown Suites Northside, would angry Lenox cabbies destroy his car with hammers?)

But more and more I grew afraid of my neighbors. One time I heard a guy on his cell phone outside my room roaring, "Ain't no way I'm gonna plead guilty to those charges!" And there was the time a woman screamed to a hastily departing man, “Don’t you ever fucking touch my kids again!”

Several residents had a habit of leaning over the railing outside their room, where they surveyed the parking lot for what seemed like hours at a time, no matter how hot the summer day and despite the fact that air conditioning was included in the price of their room. What were they doing? Were they keeping track of who was leaving his room unattended? Hopes of my own blending in were trounced by my vehicle of choice: a black SmartCar with a Romanian license plate affixed to the front. My watchful neighbors always knew when I was in or out. It made me paranoid.

And then there was the night I heard a floor-shaking crash, and when I went outside to look and see what had happened I saw three men stroll into a room—one of them slinging a battering ram. Uh, do you have a license to do that? Is that…normal? Is someone going to use a battering ram on my door tonight?

Every night, in the parking lot, men sat in cars with their engines idling. A Yelp writer says he has been told these are the men who deliver prostitutes to the rooms. I have no way of safely verifying this, but…yeah…why are you idling in the InTown Suites parking lot, sirs?

And good God, after sharing all this, what must readers think about me? What is Andrew up to in those InTown Suites? Is he fucking hookers? Is he doing heroin?

(It should be said that InTown Suites has an impressive security camera network, but all that did was guarantee that my murder would become a potential future viral video.)

Some of the residents were simply crazy. One day I stood in the laundry room near a scruffy, salt and pepper-haired man. I had to unload somebody else's too-long abandoned clothes from a washing machine in order to put mine in. As I plucked out such items as oversized black and green zebra-patterned thongs, I muttered, "Man, I wish people would be a little more considerate about moving their laundry along.”



Random horror film observation: The awful ring of the room’s telephone sounded even worse when it went off in the middle of the night. Upon my answering it, the person on the other end always hung up, leaving me with only the sound of the dial tone to keep me company. I unplugged the phone after my first week.

And then there was the ice cream truck, with its creepy carnival music regularly cut off by the canned, tinny recorded sounds of laughing children, which drifted eerily through the parking lot seeking under-aged customers. Make the driver of that truck a circus clown and you’d have a movie rated Too Scary for Anyone.

More and more I slept at my office, or at a friend's place. I began to drink more, reckoning that by being drunk I might be able to tune out my horrible reality and get a decent night of sleep despite the banging, the shrieking, the crying of babies, the shouts of warring couples. But getting drunk only meant I felt worse when I was awakened at 3 AM by some sickening thud, and so I found myself in sorrier and sorrier shape sitting in my office cubicle the next day. I was irritable with co-workers. I frequently trembled with rage and terror. I was falling apart.

Here is how I celebrated my 39th birthday at InTown Suites. While preparing to go to bed, I was startled by a thunderous BANG-BANG-BANG! on my door, followed by another BANG-BANG-BANG! on my window, followed by the sounds of somebody running away. This was followed by another BANG-BANG-BANG! on my window, and another BANG-BANG-BANG! on my door, and more running away. It went on a while.

When the mysterious knocker finally held still long enough outside my door, I opened it.

The woman standing before me looked like a perfectly ordinary young, African-American college student, with nice clothes, hair, and a pleasant smile.

"Hello," I said.

"Oh, sorry, I got the wrong room," she said. Then she ran away.

I shrugged, crawled into bed, and went to sleep.

4 AM. BANG-BANG-BANG! on the window! BANG-BANG-BANG! on the door! And then, a strange whining sound outside, a pleading, "Help me! Please let me in!"

I stumbled in the darkness over to the door and peered through the peephole. The young woman stood there, an eerie silhouette against the harsh backlighting of InTown Suite's bright exterior lights, her face hovering a few inches from the peephole. She had what appeared to be a dark trash bag slung over her shoulder.

"What do you want?" I shouted through the door.

"Please let me in!"

"What do you want?"

"I need to use your telephone!"

"No!" I said.

She made another whining sound to signal her disappointment, and then ran off.

The next morning I dropped by the front desk of the InTown Suites. Two employees in their regulation uniforms of Navy blue InTown Suite polo shirts greeted me. (I would like to take a moment to compliment the InTown Suites staff. They were courteous, responsible, responsive, and surprisingly good-natured considering the weirdness and dysfunctionality they must endure at their jobs every day.)

"Last night this chick was banging on my doors and windows," I said to them. Which sounds vaguely sexual.

"She was arrested."

"Ah," I said.

"Anything else?"

"No. That's it. Thanks."

In truth, the InTown Suites are a good concept. There is a growing need for more affordable, no-strings-attached housing, not just because of our troubled economic climate, but also because of our increasingly mobile lifestyles. If InTown Suites could guarantee a good night of sleep (which would require a substantial architectural re-think), and keep rates around their current $200 a week, business travelers who work multiple days in a location far from home might be more tempted to become regulars, holding onto their rooms for half the price of, say, four nights in a hotel—and enjoying the ability to stock their refrigerators in order to create a place that feels a little more like home.

Since you pay each week in advance, you can leave the Suites whenever you'd like. You don’t even have to tell anyone. No one will call you after your departure to complain that you didn't clean the oven to their specifications. Considering that it's the sort of place where a body with a heroin needle dangling from an arm must occasionally be disposed of, a ketchup stain in the refrigerator is always forgiven. Breaking off relations with InTown Suites is as simple as parting with a prostitute after a night at…InTown Suites. It's an ideal arrangement.

And so I spent last week gathering all my possessions from my home for the last 1.5 years.

I have headed off to Zagreb, Croatia, which is why I invited all my black readers to join me there earlier in this narrative. It’s a crazy venture. I’ll be pursuing that writing and DJ'ing thing. It's a big move. Yeah, it might sound like a scary gamble, but for some reason I'm not so terrified by the thought of living there.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


The end is nearer than you think. Unless we achieve the singularity soon, it's likely that anyone and everyone around you will be dead in a hundred years. (The average human lifespan may be increasing, but the maximum life-span isn't). Why don't we feel this reality more? Why aren't we more motivated by it?

Death is not what it used to be. More than half of Europe's population may have been wiped out by the Black Death around 1350; plague memorials remind the living today. Lynching, a form of real-life torture porn that was watched by men, women, and children with blithe amusement, claimed between 100 and 200 lives a year during the 1890s in the United States, and continued into recent decades. The first half of the 20th century saw wars that killed millions of people; today, by contrast, America blanches when fewer than 5,000 soldiers die in combat in Iraq (the slaughter of over 60 million people during World War II, including over 400,000 Americans, was during a time when both the U.S. and the world populations were 1/3 what they are today)

On a more pastoral note, in small towns like Spring Valley, Minnesota (a real life "Lake Wobegon" where my mom grew up) everybody knew everyone, and so every passing was discussed and deconstructed. Today, in a world where we don't know the people living two doors down, death usually drifts unnoticed through our communities.

The old used to die in their own homes. Today's seniors move to retirement condos like Goodwin House, an upscale apartment complex I recently visited in Northern Virginia. It's a self-contained community with a fitness center, a library, and conversation parlors. But Goodwin House also represents the recession of the awareness of death for the rest of us; the sons and daughters of its residents are now most likely to learn about the end of a parent's life via a telephone call or an email. I imagine that soon it will be a "Last Tweet" that notifies us of the passing of a parent, auto-sent when a bracelet worn by the departed fails to detect a pulse. One could customize the Last Tweet months in advance, when of sounder mind and body, allowing one to publicly bid farewell with a cheery, "I'm outta here!" designed to elicit a smile and inspire us, the living, with positivism about how said parent faced the end ("She was so inspiring!").

There was a time when people who died during a bitter winter were laid in sheds for burial after the spring thaw. Today, we have the technology to put bodies into the ground in any weather, rushing them that much more rapidly out of sight and mind.

The casket is open if the mortician can do something; it's closed if he or she cannot, and so whenever we see a closed casket we momentarily shiver and wonder in what horrible physical state the deceased must have been. A man who dies peacefully in his sleep gets an open casket; a woman whose body was ravaged by cancer gets a closed one. The decision to open or close the casket is essentially based on whether or not the deceased makes effective propaganda for the peacefulness of death.

In the 1800s, the dead were sometimes photographed dressed and sitting up in arranged settings—sometimes with other family members.

The pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail knew that their quest for a better life might instead result in an early death. A makeshift gravesite alongside the trail served as a chilly warning to the next family who passed by.

We have never been more sheltered from death than we are today. We don't think we're immortal, but neither do we seem to absorb the ultimate and inescapable reality, that motivational memento mori that used to fascinate writers and philosophers who noted, as Samuel Johnson did, that "Life is not long, and too much of it must not pass in idle deliberation how it shall be spent"; or, as Laurence Sterne wrote in The Life and Adventures of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen, "Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return..." Where has the urgency gone?

Cancer, which seems to be prominently featured in a New York Times article every day, has become death's leading bogeyman in the American imagination. It is popularly treated as a bully and a thing to be defeated, which fits our fighting spirit. Facebook friends post cut-and-pasted status updates imploring us to "write a letter to cancer," and thousands participate in breast cancer awareness marches. Diseases that seem more preventable get less sympathy in America. While breast cancer marches are commonplace, lung cancer marches are non-existent, though lung cancer kills four times as many people in the United States. In all of this we see an avoidance of the understanding of our imminent mortality; we try and "beat" cancer, but we talk as if in doing so we will certainly live forever. The fact is, as a disembodied voice explains to us on Pink Floyd's "Great Gig in the Sky," "We all have to go sometime."

"Our country calls not for the life of ease, but for the life of strenuous endeavor," said Theodore Roosevelt. "The twentieth century looms before us big with the fate of many nations. If we stand idly by, if we seek merely swollen, slothful ease, and ignoble peace, if we shrink from the hard contests which men must win at hazard of their lives and at the risk of all that they hold dear, then the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by and will win for themselves the domination of the world."

America seems to have become a land of "swollen, slothful ease," averse to any hazarding of life. The world faced by the pioneers on the Oregon Trail has been replaced by our race to be the first on Facebook to post a status update announcing acquisition of the latest iPhone. The idea of literally risking life in order to advance (whether via the silliness of a duel or a cause more noble) has become quaint. Death, which, amidst the world's growing population operates within increasingly closer proximity, recedes further from our minds. With that recession, we have lost much of our motivation. We no longer imagine, as our ancestors once did, that terrible skeleton charging towards us on an emasculated steed, scythe raised in the air, the Great Equalizer. Memento mori.

Monday, October 31, 2011

If You Search for and Replace These Words, Your Writing Will Improve by 200%

The following is a list of words and phrases you probably don't need to use. If you search for these words and phrases, and then delete them outright (or, in a few of the examples below, replace them with other words), your writing will improve. I have only recently compiled this list, so don't be surprised if, in my earlier blog entries, I didn't practice what I'm preaching. ;-D

Of course, all of these words and phrases have their time and place. The best writers know not only to avoid most of these words most of the time, but also when to use them. But if your goal is more modest—to go from being a bad writer to a fair one—you probably won't go wrong just banishing these phrases outright. Hey, it's a start. :-)

immediately - "I immediately noticed…" would be better as "I noticed," unless, of course, the timing of your noticing something is important to the narrative.

extremely - "I am extremely happy." "I am happy" is snappier. This word falls under a category I call "Quantifying the unquantifiable." What is the difference between "extremely happy" and "happy"? If you cannot distinguish between those gradations of happiness, best to drop the word that expresses the amount of happiness.

very - Another quantifier that's usually lazily applied. "I was very impressed." How much more impressed is that than "impressed"?

somewhat - "I was somewhat amused." Before you write that, ask yourself, "Really? Or was I amused?" The word does work in some instances (a "somewhat reliable" employee is not the same as a "reliable" one), but often it seems to be appended as if by bad habit. In addition to quantifying the unquantifiable, it also falls under the category of hedging terms—those that suggest a strange reluctance on the part of the speaker to emotionally commit. It's as if the writer is afraid to admit that he or she is amused and finds it cooler to profess being only "somewhat amused."

"a bit" is another sort of hedger. "I disagree a bit with this guy." Do you disagree or don't you?

rather - Ever since I heard a comedian say, "I think I'm rather smart—because I use words like 'rather,'" I search for this word in my writing and almost always delete it.

quite - Similar to the previous. "I was quite pleased." Usually unnecessary.

really - "I was really amazed," as opposed to being "figuratively amazed." Just say, "I was amazed." This is one of several "stating that the real is real" words.

"actually" is another one of those. You actually don't actually have to use the word "actually" as often as you actually seem to actually think you do.

truly - Same deal. You wouldn't tell me something "untruly." "Untruly, I loved the potato salad."

incredibly - "I was incredibly amused." Just, "I was amused," please. This one is even worse than the others because "incredibly" has a meaning that, in this context, makes no sense (the incredible is that which is not readily credible; by that definition "incredibly amused" is nonsense).

Related to "incredibly," we find people turning nearly any "strong" word into an emphasis word. For example:

shockingly entertaining - Unless one is being entertained by electric shocks, or by, more metaphorically, a horror movie that uses "shock" effects to entertain, one should not use the word "shockingly" here. There is really no end to this list of corrupted words used as emphasizers ("Amazingly profound," "Ridiculously good," etc.). Find your own bad habits and then search and replace them.

the opportunity to... - "This learning camp gives students the opportunity to explore biofuels." - Rewrite as: "In this camp, students explore biofuels." "the opportunity to" is usually wasteful language because "the opportunity" is self-evident if (as in this example) the students are doing that thing.

I found myself - "I found myself reading a book" "I found myself at the movies." "I found myself talking to a learned man." The phrase "I found myself" usually indicates a startling moment of self-awareness, an awakening to a reality that one had overlooked previously (see the lyrics to Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," which correctly captures this bewilderment). But to use it all the time recalls a senile person staggering semi-lucidly through life. "I found myself at the movies," for example, suggests that the individual might have "come to" while in a movie theater. You expect a serial abuser of this phrase to excitedly wonder, "I keep finding myself in interesting places! I wonder where I will find myself next?" It's silly.

Usually, you can replace "did become" or "had become" with "became." There are many other such phrases one could search for in this same vein; find the ones you abuse the most and then add them to the list.

It is apparent that… - when this phrase is used to indicate something that is obvious, delete it.

specific - "I asked a specific question." "We had specific goals." Sometimes a necessary word, but often inserted out of laziness and reflex.

What are some other words or phrases that, if deleted, would result in crisper writing?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

"Eurotrash or Eurotreasure?": How It Began

Here are the 14 Euro tunes that began my love affair with European pop and dance music (as I originally reviewed here). Cheesy? Very. But I love them. It's been over 10 years since those days. On 1 November I head back to Croatia to begin a multi-month odyssey immersed once again in Europe's wonderful/crazy music scene. This is how my interest in all that began. Thanks to all YouTubers who post these trash-treasures, thereby allowing this crazy music to survive. :-)


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Posterity Letter: 19 October 2011

When Theodore Roosevelt wrote a letter to an individual which, in tone, clearly and amusingly betrayed his own awareness that said letter would likely enter the public record one day, his friends and family jokingly referred to it as a "posterity letter." Here is my posterity letter to my mother and sister.

Greetings, Kathy and Mom. I would have discussed this with you in person a week ago, but I was still working on the many details, and I hate to waste people's time with hypothetical chit-chat. Also, there are far too many specifics to address than I possibly can in an already too-long email, so I send this to you knowing full well that I haven't addressed all your likely questions and concerns.

I will be heading off to Croatia on November 1, and once again have successfully made arrangements to continue to work for my organization for a three-month period while I am over there, with the condition being that the organization and I will re-evaluate the situation at the end of that time in order to determine 1) whether to continue with that arrangement (unlikely), 2) whether I need to return to Atlanta in order to stay continuously employed, or 3) whether I apply for a leave of absence. It is worth noting that the cost of living in Croatia will be lower than that in Atlanta; I have also saved up a good amount of money to cushion me.

The point is to make a concerted drive to transition into another career as a journalist. There is no guarantee of success; perhaps there is a greater likelihood of failure. But I don't think that the words carved in stone at the Theodore Roosevelt memorial reading, "It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed," express a mere platitude. Nor was Steve Jobs trying to craft a hollow bumper-sticker slogan when he said, "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life." The fact is, with 40 looming large I ever more acutely realize that this is the only life I'll ever have, and it would be tragic to waste it frozen into my cowardly inaction over my current employment situation by a struggling economy that shows no sign of improvement in the near future.

The other, more positive fact is that in Europe I feel invigorated, energized, and driven. The positive energy I feel over there is why I am taking this sort of a gamble, and why I think there is at least some chance of success. It's a risk--if success were guaranteed, then obviously it wouldn't be a risk--but one I must attempt.

I know you will worry, and let me assure you that you have company there. I've been waking up every night between 3 and 5 AM contemplating these enormous questions for several weeks. (Incidentally, magnesium supplements are good for treating the symptoms of stress, my doctor friends told me after I described my ordeal with worry-induced insomnia. Just a tip.) On the positive side, the fears and paranoia I entertain are also motivators to keep me moving forward. Obviously, I don't want to fail, so I will be working harder than I have my whole life to find success. This email is a contract to you pledging the application of such vigorous energy. This will not be a vacation.

I have already arranged what appears to be a nice apartment in Zagreb for three months which has an internet connection, so we can Skype and stay in touch, including over the holidays. I have been warned that in Zagreb winter is "cruel and sharp," which, as a veteran of Kiev in January, sounds intriguing.

We can discuss all this soon (I will be busy tonight cleaning out my extended stay room, so tomorrow night might be a good time to chat).

I am always glad to be of service in giving you things to talk about. Be good, don't worry, and take care!


Mom's reaction? Positive!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Congregation of Creatures Great and Small

Another non-Euro blog entry. I'll be back on theme soon enough, but for now, enjoy another report from Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

"During my sermon I ask that there be no talking or barking," joked Pastor Jeff Meyers to an audience of about 50 humans seated on folding chairs, who in turn were surrounded by about 30 dogs (plus at least one cat and a stunningly colorful parrot named "Hector"). All had gathered that Saturday morning on the North Avenue Presbyterian Church parking deck for the Blessing of the Pets, an activity that will also take place Sunday in many other churches here in Atlanta and across the country.

The sight of a pastor crouched on the ground as he pets and prays for dog after dog might strike some as unusual, but the pastors exuded a self-aware cheeriness that prevented the scene from inviting any "Daily Show"-type irreverence. And it's a scene that may become increasingly normal to witness; the Blessing of the Pets has been growing rapidly in popularity, says Pastor Meyers.

The origins of the event extend back to the activities of a 13th century friar and animal lover, St. Francis of Assisi, explained Tim Rogers-Martin, Executive Associate Pastor for Equipping Ministries, who chatted while he cradled his own dog, "Sunday," a stray who had been found at a church on that day of the week over 15 years ago. St. Francis's feast day falls on October 4, and so the first weekend of that month is a natural time to celebrate the value of animals.

Explained Pastor Meyers, "These services developed out of Roman Catholic tradition, especially the Anglican and the Episcopalian tradition…Four or five years ago we started doing our own at North Avenue."

In the five years that Pastor Meyers has been employed at North Avenue, he has seen attendance at the blessings swell. "I think it was All Saints [Episcopal] that first did the blessing of the animals [in Midtown Atlanta]," he says, gesturing in the direction of that church. "Then, we started doing it, and then the Lutheran church down the street started doing it. A lot of different churches are doing it--not only for the congregation members, but for the community. And in five years…that's a lot of blessing of the animals!"

Some animals in attendance could use a little hope. Scott and Solange Han-Barthelemy arrived with their "torby" (part tabby, part tortoiseshell) cat, Penny, in a carrier. Penny is 12 years old and faces surgery for cancer in the coming days.

The sermon began with Psalm 148, which makes much mention of animals as part of the creation, including "Creeping things and flying birds." Pastor Meyers then said, "We have caused the animal kingdom needless suffering."

In an interview afterward, he expatiated on that theme. "I wouldn't say this as an employee at North Avenue," he explained, "but for me, personally, I'm a vegetarian. I believe people need to take into consideration the sentience of animals--the fact that animals can feel suffering." He explains that as animals are a part of God's creation, and that our treatment of the natural world comes back around to impact us, essentially a "Blessing of the Animals" is a blessing for all of creation.

The issue of whether or not animals have souls, and therefore whether or not pets and their human owners will be reunited in Heaven, is one that has been debated for centuries. Does the bestowing of blessings on pets suggest belief in an afterlife for Fido?

"God has not given us access to these answers," Pastor Meyers says. "We do know that in the eschatological vision of the end of all things, there seem to be animals there symbolizing peace. Now is that just metaphorical, or is that literal? I don't know. But I know that it's there, and that God does care about animals a lot. They are part of his creation. I am more concerned about the ethical treatment of animals here, and I leave the questions of the afterlife to faith."

Faith has already guided Charlotte Carmichael to an answer. While her border collie, Sada, played energetically around her feet, she said, "I believe all dogs go to heaven. And cats. All of them." She paused. "Except maybe snakes," she concluded with a laugh.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Troy Davis / View from the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison

It seems appropriate that the county in Georgia that hosts the state's death row is saddled with an undignified name like "Butts." There I was, two hours before the scheduled execution of Troy Davis, a man whose murder conviction was certainly not a case of "reasonable doubt." The holes were tidily summarized in a September 21 editorial in the New York Times:

"The Savannah police contaminated the memories of four witnesses by re-enacting the crime with them present so that their individual perceptions were turned into a group one. The police showed some of the witnesses Mr. Davis’s photograph even before the lineup. His lineup picture was set apart by a different background. The lineup was also administered by a police officer involved in the investigation, increasing the potential for influencing the witnesses…

"Seven of nine witnesses against Mr. Davis recanted after trial. Six said the police threatened them if they did not identify Mr. Davis. The man who first told the police that Mr. Davis was the shooter later confessed to the crime."

I estimate that the assembled crowd at Jackson's Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison (one of the most convoluted names one could imagine for a death row prison) was about two-thirds African American--a group with bitter, first-hand familiarity with a justice system that incarcerates a disproportionate percentage of blacks. The strains of "We Shall Overcome" were heard more than a couple times, connecting the day's protests to the Civil Rights era the older African Americans in the crowd vividly recall (a possible sign of a generational divide became apparent when it seemed many of the younger people in attendance did not know the words to that anthem, although maybe they were just shy about singing).

There were also numerous white faces--maybe about a third of the crowd. Among the whites were many men sporting pony tails (I was in that number), and men and women with wiry gray hairs. Many exuded that unmistakeable hippie/baby-boomer vibe that one would expect to find at such an event. Several--for want of a better phrase--masculine-looking women with tattoos and close cropped hair were also in attendance, the marginalized fringes of society who could swiftly identify with a black man perceived to have been railroaded at least in part by prejudice. A group of Emory students arrived, including a sari-wearing young woman who had a white, three-legged poodle with the fighting spirit of a wolf. Some other students who looked young enough to be high school-aged were also on hand. A woman wearing a hijab held one corner of a banner. I heard some Spanish spoken around me. An impromptu drum circle beat time, a woman played a fiddle, and as night fell the crowd's chants assumed a tribal quality.

Lots of white text on blue "I Am Troy Davis" Amnesty International T-shirts were visible, and the NAACP's posters of Troy Davis were probably the most common images held aloft by the protestors.

From 5 PM until about 6:30 the protest had an organized quality to it, with the crowd cheerleaders sometimes bossily instructing people on how to chant. One woman, clearly unhappy with many of us, shouted in obvious frustration to the crowd, "We don't want Troy Davis to die! If you're standing here and not saying anything, then you might as well not be here!" This struck me as unnecessarily divisive and insensitive; I'm not a chanter by nature. I'm usually repelled, in fact, by any sort of "groupthink" activities, no matter how noble the cause. I don't think that makes my presence at the prison as unimportant as the complete and total non-involvement of some couch potato sitting in his living room half an hour away. This realization was multiplied when, in the middle of last night, ABC News contacted me in order to request the use of footage I shot of the protest. Is it true that "I might as well not be here" considering I was able to contribute that? C'mon, people, we all protest in our own ways, and we are best when we stick to our individual strengths.

An attempt by one group to lead a cheer ending with the word "Bullshit!" was met with a few disapproving stares; there were children here after all. That effort died out quickly.

I made the drive down from Atlanta because I knew that whatever Troy Davis's ultimate fate, that day would mark an important chapter in the history of capital punishment. There's a history of injustice here; Georgia was the state that in 1915 saw a group of Marietta men break into a prison (with suspiciously little difficulty), seize one Leo Frank (a Jewish man who was almost certainly innocent of the murder of which he was accused), drive him out into a forest, and hang him. Back then the lynch mob happily posed for pictures in front of their handiwork, as was the style at the time; today many of the descendents of those same eager-to-take-credit individuals hide their shame and family's culpability.

One hundred years ago, in 1901, 130 people were lynched in the United States, most of them black and most in the south. Lynchings continued at least into the 1960s. Thus, it's no surprise that signs comparing Mr. Davis's situation to a lynching were numerous--lynch mob rule in the south is still modern history.

As I said, I have a stubborn psychological aversion to crowd behavior. I found myself enjoying some aspects of protest at one moment, but finding something to criticize the next.

I was not able to go so far as to identify with the "Free Troy Davis!" chants, as they presume Mr. Davis's innocence, when it seems the primary issue here is one of the death penality and reasonable doubt. It's one thing to note the many holes in the Davis case and to segue from that frustration to objections over the death penality, but it's quite another to say the man should walk free. One step at a time, please. However, considering the fresh wounds much of America experienced over the Casey Anthony trial, where a woman who seemed to have far more evidence stacked against her regarding the death of her child nonetheless walked free, perhaps the zealousness of the crowd can be forgiven. For sure, people are genuinely bewildered by how justice works in America.

Some signs read "Innocent until proven guilty," but Mr. Davis has had the misfortune of already being "proven" guilty via various miscarriages of justice, and so now the justice system has reversed that idealism; he is now guilty until proven innocent.

Law enforcement was friendly during the early part of the evening, instructing the protestors on where they could stand (i.e., what was public property and what was private property). There was cheery banter and even laughter exchanged between protestors and officers. However, as the sky began to darken, a menacing line of officers in riot gear (deemed "Storm Troopers" by some in the crowd) marched in lockstep formation into position, blocking the entrance to the prison. One officer leaned against a rail fence, his binoculars trained on the protestors.

At 5 PM I estimated only a hundred people at the event, but by 7 PM, the slated time of execution, the number of protestors was certainly in the several hundreds. The air between the protestors and the riot police on the ground, and a hovering police helicopter high in the air, was traversed by dozens of enormous, darting dragonflies, hunting against what was turning out to be actually a very pretty evening sky of pastel pink clouds against cerulean blue.

A bewildered shirtless jogger, perhaps about 60 years old, shuffled past between the two standing factions, a comical moment amidst the seriousness of the event.

A man broke through the police tape accompanied by a roar from the crowd; he was promptly apprehended and marched off by officers. Later, a few other men walked across the street and were apprehended and arrested without any drama. Each arrest was met with applause from the protestors.

Jackson is a big trucking center; getting off the exit ramp my car was in the minority amongst the big rigs. Throughout the protest, truckers rolled by blowing their horns in solidarity. Numerous drivers passing by honked their car horns in support as well. Sometimes the crowd responded to these drive-by acknowledgments with a cheer, but other times, as the hours dragged on, the protestors seemed too tired to respond. After hours of standing and sitting and standing and sitting, getting little clear news on how events were unfolding inside the prison, it looked too easy for those drivers to pass by merely honking a horn. Like the woman complaining about our poor chanting skills earlier, I found myself criticizing the drivers' mode of protest.

Here are some things that occurred to me about organized protest in general. Once one agrees to abide by all the rules of protest laid down by "the system" one is protesting against (e.g., obeying rules on where to stand, how loud one can be, the time of day one will be present), one has already lost the battle. The protest has been castrated by the protestors' agreement to the terms made by those who hold the reins of power. During the George W. Bush presidency, crowds protested the Iraq War in generally peaceful, law-abiding ways, and look where that got us. I feel increasingly that whatever form it takes, protest must always be novel and, to some degree, startling. What worked during the biggest years of the Civil Rights era probably no longer works today.

I also don't relate to the concept of using children in protest. One African-American toddler had a sign taped to his back: "Am I Next?" That was too much. After a handful of peaceful arrests of protestors who crossed over to the officers' side of the road, two white kids, probably around 11 years old, went over with signs. They were simply turned back by the officers--obviously they wouldn't arrest kids. As an atheist, I find the religious indoctrination of children to be offensive; I felt similarly watching children at the protests. But then again, all parents are indoctrinators; I suppose that's their job, their nature, the inevitable way parenting works. If I ever have kids, I'll no doubt indoctrinate them into a philosophy of anti-indoctrination. Which is confusing, so let me return to protest.

If protest does not in some way disturb, it fails to draw attention to its cause. Consider that the misguided looters of the London Riots nonetheless triggered passionate debate about the divide between rich and poor, whereas in London thousands marched against the Iraq war, seemingly without effect.

Since rioting is not usually a sensible mode of protest (consider how promptly villainized the London rioters were), it seems the most interesting protests these day occur online, in the actions of Wikileaks and hacktivist groups like Anonymous. While we are rightly cynical about the efficacy of creating a Facebook page for a cause, since it's too easy to click "Like" and be done forever with that, stupidly satisfied that one has made one's voice heard, the online information war hijinks promote more interesting, attention-grabbing debate.

The execution was delayed, and darkness fell. Evidently anticipating the potential for trouble, around 8:20 PM a fifteen police car-long procession roared down the street, sirens blaring and lights flashing, an obvious show of force impressed upon a crowd of men, women, and children in varying degrees of passion and boredom. Another line of police cars arrived in similarly dramatic fashion around 20 minutes later. The amassed forces facing off against the protestors numbered around a hundred individuals. There was much fussing from the crowd about the unnecessary show of force, and worried murmurings about the possibility of violence. One Emory student instructed us to lock arms and sit on the ground if the officers should charge us.

Then…nothing. The two lines faced one another, but there were no fireworks. By 9:15 the crowd had become visibly bored. Who knew, I said, turning to a protestor beside me, that standing before a line-up of a hundred guys with batons and shields could be so dull? She laughed heartily (perhaps out of bottled-up nervousness) in agreement.

Standing outside the prison, one is affected by the incredible realization that not far away a man is contemplating what may be the final moments of his life. By coincidence, I had listened to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison the day before, and I recalled the literal gallows humor of the Shel Silverstein-penned "25 Minutes," wherein a man on death row counts down the minutes to his execution:

"I can see the mountains I can see the skies with 3 more minutes to go
"And it's too dern pretty for a man that don't wanna die 2 more minutes to go"

It's a strange feeling, knowing that not far away a man is alive, and very soon he might not be. My father died of cancer in 2002, but I was not present when his final moments came and went. My first death watch was for Troy Davis.

Despite the numerous smart phones and tablets, information seemed hard to come by, and sometimes one wondered if one was hearing rumor or truth. Around the time of the scheduled execution at 7 PM, a rumor that Mr. Davis had been granted a stay of execution rolled through the crowd with a mighty roar of joy. Strangers hugged one another and people openly wept. However, moments later, the crowd was informed that this was only a delay, not a stay of execution, and that Mr. Davis might still be executed later in the night. This reminded me of the Sago Mine disaster of 2006, where joyfully received misinformation about the number of survivors was turned into a horrible, inside-out reality. After that, a rumor that "Obama called Clarence Thomas" rolled through, but without any supporting context or explanation of what that even meant. By 10:00 PM we were told the Supreme Court was actively debating the case, and that Mr. Davis was lying on a gurney awaiting its decision.

At 10 PM, with tiredness setting in and no certainty when the Supreme Court would end its deliberations, I rose and left the thinning crowd of protestors and the hundred men in riot gear who were likely more bored than we were. I read later that the crowd dwindled to about 50 at that time. Sometime after my depature the Supreme Court announced that the execution would continue. At 11:08 PM Troy Davis was dead.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How It Looked from Over Here: Cool Britannia as Seen from American Shores (Part 3)

In October 1995 I stepped into Atlanta's Masquerade club to see a UK dance music act called The Chemical Brothers perform. As I enjoyed a beer at the bar before the show, I turned and saw Ed Simons, half of that mighty duo, standing beside me. I was surprised a mob hadn't surrounded him, but probably few folks recognized him. The duo had not appeared on the album covers of any of their releases, nor on the covers of American music magazines, and if music videos for their singles had been released back then, we hadn't seen them.

I was a bit intimidated by Ed. He was tall, for one thing, and looked quite serious, and he was half of what I considered at the time to be the most exciting thing going on in dance music. But I mustered the courage to turn to him, extend my hand, and, as we shook, say, "Thank you for making dance music fun again."

A couple of hours later I was one in a mass of hundreds bouncing sweatily along to the pounding sounds of "Chemical Beats."

This was Atlanta, Georgia, the Deep South, a region where Confederate flag T-shirt sales remain brisk. And yet, a dance music group from the UK had found a critical mass of enthusiastic fans to cheer them on that night in the middle of the 1990s.

In 1991 I had many friends who enjoyed various styles of so-called alternative music, but not a single one listened to hardcore techno. The failure of dance music to take off in America disenfranchised an important aspect of U.K. culture, and that in turn contributed to the long-lasting U.S./U.K. pop music divide.

America has never been completely dance-averse; but we were a little dance-shy. Every charting dance track that made it into the top 40 seemed more of a novelty than an accepted member of real U.S. music culture--"Oh, here's that dumb Dee-lite dance song we can jump around to before we slow dance to Vanessa Williams's 'Save the Best for Last'!"

Sure, in 1990 "Groove is the Heart" was a big dance hit, and so was DNA feat. Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner"; in 1991 the KLF's "3 a.m. Eternal" reached number 5 on the U.S. pop chart, EMF's "Unbelievable" topped the charts, and Jesus Jones's "Right Here Right Now" reached number two.

But these songs sound hammy when put up against the surrealistic fury of, say, T99's hardcore anthem "Anasthasia." Jesus Jones was classified as "dance rock," which the music journalist Simon Reynolds noted in a review of one of the band's later albums meant that "you can't dance to it, and it doesn't rock." And while the more aggressive sounds of Eurodance would be heard in the U.S., Culture Beat's "Mr. Vain," while enjoying number 1 hit status in several European countries, had to settle for a peak position of #17 in the U.S.

It seemed America always cut off its flirtation with dance music just before things got hot and heavy, seemingly out of some latent sense of Puritanical guilt. And there may be something to that theory: one factor that held dance music back in the United States was likely its "gayness" factor. Dance music had evolved out of the counter-cultural revolution of disco and, later, house--genres with heavy ties to the gay club underground. Those gay associations were still strong in the minds of many (think Village People). (I babble on about all that here.) By the early 1990s, acid house and hardcore techno had turned the UK dance music scene into a surreal, aggressive, and indeed sometimes testosterone-driven culture that transcended gender, class, and race; but ask an American frat boy in 1992 why he didn't like dance music and he'd likely launch into a crude impression of the fey-voiced singer of "Unbelievable."

If the "dance" element of dance music was such a turn-off to Americans, perhaps there was another way for the electronic sounds dominating the UK to infiltrate these shores.

Electronic music between 1988 and 1992 reminds me of the Cambrian explosion, a period in our earth's history back in the day when all life lived in the seas--you remember--and when all sorts of fantastical creatures popped up. We're still not sure what some of the distinctive anatomical characteristics of these organisms were for--fucking, swimming, eating, all of the above? Electronic music had gone through a similar burst of punctuated equilibrium, to use the fancy evolutionary term, and the great advantage that such diversity conferred was an opportunity for dance rhythms to invade several different American cultures and markets simultaneously.

Consider stoner culture. The Orb had been serving up something referred to as "ambient dub" since 1989. Trippy, spacey, and certainly, as one would expect from the label, very, very dubby, The Orb's sonic collages were further livened up with a sense of humor pleasingly familiar to any American geek who had grown up reading the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or watching reruns of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" on PBS. No floppy-armed dancing here; these tracks demanded only a simple stoned nodding of the head to the chugging beats, and the occasional wry smile at the understanding of an obscure joke floating through the haze (e.g., that "Would you tell him that Marcus Garvey phoned?" bit on "Towers of Dub").

Meanwhile, as Brian Eno had written Music for Airports, the Aphex Twin offered, at least conceptually, Music for an Ambitious IT Start-Up. British artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre effectively wrote the soundtrack for the development of the Internet.

Warp! records termed their brand of music "electronic listening music," emphasizing its more introspective nature, but later, the music would assume the stunningly pretentious label of "Intelligent Dance Music" (IDM), despite the fact that you couldn't really dance to it. In fact, from the IDM perspective, it was time for dance music to shove off. Leave us alone, dance music! We just want to sit in front of our computers, log onto websites via our fancy dial-up modems, tear open a bag of Doritos, and download hentai to the sounds of Aphex Twin, Plone, and Plaid! Yeah, baby!!! This is how I intelligently dance to Danish porn!!!!!

Boom-boom beats, once the music of choice for a music underground in the know, became increasingly marginalized. To survive, the purveyors of 1990 and 1991 techno had to intellectualize their sound, as The Prodigy did in Music for a Jilted Generation, which saw the replacing of their cartoon samples with socio-political statements; and as Orbital did in crafting musically-adventurous journeys that straddled the line between art and dance in breathtaking ways. Other artists reacted to the shifting culture change by creating increasingly obtuse records (e.g., Plastikman's "Spastik"), while on the other extreme Eurodance amplified the sugary melodic elements of the dance sound to a level best appreciated by a furiously masturbating chimp.*

My friends The Chemical Brothers, and I can call them that because I shook Ed Simons's hand, attacked American culture from another front, tapping into the aesthetics of the rock crowd by melding the sound of crunching electric guitars to acid house 303s in a style that eventually was christened Big Beat. In post-grunge America, this hybrid could not have hit at a better time. And it helped that these guys didn't look like dance music producers; they looked like students you'd find hanging out at the local pub--or Atlanta's Masquerade--hovering over a pint.

A year after I saw them, they released "Setting Sun," an annoying cacophony unworthy of mention except that it featured the vocal contributions of Oasis's Noel Gallagher. This was the same year Oasis had toured the United States, riding on the wave of support for "Wonderwall." The dance/rock divide had been bridged, the UK music magazines crowed, thanks to this really shitty song.

But, as more American rock fans found themselves drawn to the likes of DJ dance acts like, say, The Crystal Method, one was tempted to believe them. An all-out assault from multiple fronts--dub, electronic listening/IDM, big beat, Eurodance--had ensured that, even if a group like Underworld wasn't likely to have a number one album in America, the sound of boom-boom-boom had at last become entrenched in American culture.

* Intelligently dancing.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How It Looked from Over Here: Cool Britannia as Seen from American Shores (Part 2)

Def Leppard's Hysteria, one of the rare British albums Americans were tapping their feet to in 1988, featured a song called "Gods of War," also known as "The Song on Hysteria I Usually Skip." This heavy-handed anti-war tune ended with samples of the then-leaders of the English-speaking free world, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, wrapped in the song's unflattering context. I remembered thinking, "That's so cute, how they put dear-old Maggie in there, as if she were an equal in fuck-headedness to our president."*

Thatcher presided over the UK during the entirety of the 1980s. She was a titanic conservative force, but during the last years of her reign a drug-fueled counter-cultural revolution swept the country. Ecstasy and LSD propelled a new dance music scene and a psychedelic rock scene. In 1990, a trippy indie dance group called The Times sang on their rave scene celebration song "Aurore Boréale" "It's the morning after the 1970s," as if purging the memory of the "Iron Lady's" decade in a burst of ecstasy bliss. The song ended with a voice intoning atop a psychedelic roar of sound, "This…is…LONDON."

John Major succeeded Thatcher in late 1990. Britain entered a recession that year from which it would not recover until 1993. As I traveled around Britain in 1992 I met some of the unemployed youth who complained about the Major government's role in their unhappy predicaments. I was also around for Black Wednesday on 16 September, when the British government suffered the embarrassment of having to pull its currency from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (since I'm no economist, it's better that I link to piece about that here).

Dance, shoegazer, and other British music scenes continued to evolve in relative isolation. Meanwhile, America experienced another internal music revolution that, along with rap and R&B, would guarantee that our attention would remain focused on ourselves for a while longer. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" roared up the charts in late 1991, and in 1992 a year of grunge commenced.

Without the widespread availability of the Internet to join our two nations, America's exposure to UK culture came largely from the nightly news, music, and film. In American cinema, the early 90s saw a parade of crafty villains speaking in sinister British accents (real and fake); titles included Silence of the Lambs, Sneakers, Cliffhanger, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Oh sure, it makes sense that the Sheriff of Nottingham would speak in an English accent, but one must remember that the titular hero of Robin Hood: POT was played by the American Kevin Costner--with an American accent.

This would suggest a certain level of Anglophobia in the U.S. But we also had our Anglophiles. A few U.S. bands even had a sort of English manner about them. In 1991, Chicago's Material Issue sported moddish hair cuts, and the fonts on the album cover to their debut International Pop Overthrow seemed to mimic the druggy imagery associated with Britain's drug scene. That same year, The Ocean Blue, a group long fond of covering British tunes, released Cerulean, which sported the sorts of abstract, dreamy song titles indie UK fans associated with Britain's shoegazer scene (e.g., "Marigold," "Mercury").

But to American audiences, these bands' efforts seemed to emphasize the divide rather than bridge the gap. "Oh, they're trying to sound English," many of us said dismissively. The fact that these groups also drew inspiration from such American cult bands as Big Star was lost on us. We were ignorant and mean. Maybe that goes some way toward explaining why Material Issue's frontman committed suicide in 1996.

In 1992, the election of Bill Clinton was met with rapture in the U.K. The American flag was hoisted over Oxford because our president had not inhaled there. Compared to saxophone-playing Clinton, Major must have looked especially stuffy to his own younger subjects--essentially, he embodied the worst stereotypes of staid, conservative Britishness, the sort that had been mocked for decades in films like Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. Along with news that Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson were splitting in the spring, followed by more bad news of Charles and Diana parting ways in December, recession-era Britain must have felt that, generally speaking, and by all measures, things were going horribly wrong with the old order.

Somehow, from all this mess, came the warning shot of impending Cool Britannia: Blur's 1994 Brit-centric masterpiece Parklife. The album was not a success in the United States, nor was it expected to be (it even featured an uncomfortably bitter anti-American song called "Magic America"), but its explosive impact in the UK was a critical moment in the aligning of elements that would bring Britainization to the United States a few years later.

Parklife was a varied affair musically, a mish-mash of styles and sounds held together by its intensely self-aware Britishness, right down to a tune entitled "Clover Over Dover" and a lyric about the Queen leaping off Land's End (the powerful "This is a Low"). If Suede had been crushed by the disappointment they encountered while touring the U.S., Blur's reaction seemed to be to abandon ideas of American conquest altogether and to seek satisfaction in exploring and celebrating the world that they knew best. It was nationalism, but a peculiar brand of it, at times affectionate, but at others weary and ironic. If there could be such a thing as sad nationalism, Parklife had it.

This examination of Britishness had been anticipated in Blur's previous album, Modern Life is Rubbish, and it also informed the personality of two excellent St. Etienne releases. Parklife felt like the final, triumphant words of a great thesis. But while Britain raved, and students in T-shirts emblazened with RAF bullseyes roared the lyrics to "Girls and Boys," there must have been an awareness that this display of British spirit was not going to break Blur in the U.S.

Parklife was released in April 1994 as Oasis finished up recording their debut album, Definitely Maybe. The Oasis record shot straight to number 1 on the British charts a few months later. Where Parklife had been an eccentric pastiche of musical styles and poetic musings, Definitely Maybe was a rock album, musically unified, confident, and a tad prickish. There was nothing John Major about Oasis. Perhaps, British critics said, Oasis might be the British band to break America.

In fact, right around that time, a British band did break America, but the British media was reluctant to say much about that because most UK music journalists felt that the group's music was crap. The London group Bush had formed during the grunge year of 1992, and they sounded like a perfect clone of the bands in the Seattle scene. Their debut album, Sixteen Stone, sold briskly in the U.S. during 1995. They were, effectively, the Ocean Blue of Britain, and their act of cultural treason earned them a mulitplatinum album and the fetching Gwen Stefani, who married the band's frontman.

With two wildly popular bands (neither of which were Bush) now ruling the UK, one group representing British middle-class values and a certain intellectual cockiness (Blur), the other working-class rock and roll swagger with some appealing meatheadedness (Oasis), a slugfest was inevitable. In 1995, dueling singles from the two groups were released on the same day, with Blur's incredibly irritating "Country House" somehow coming out on top. But it was Oasis's album that triumphed in the album sales competition that followed. And then, in October 1995, came "Wonderwall."

"Wonderwall" did it. The third single from the Oasis album climbed into the top 10 of the United States singles chart. Select, a UK music magazine, breathlessly celebrated. At last, after a multi-year absence, a British rock band had successfully scaled the dizzying heights of the unforgiving, xenophobic U.S. music charts. Oh yes, there had also been Bush. And Jesus Jones--did I forget them? Hey, don't ask me why they don't count; ask a 1990s UK music journalist!

In November, Pierce Brosnan made his first outing as James Bond in GoldenEye. The film opened at number one that weekend, and remained in the top ten for four more weekends, going on to earn over a hundred million dollars at the U.S. box office. Perhaps the villains-with-English-accents trend in American cinema would finally abate.

* In fact, some have argued she was worse.

(To be continued)

How It Looked from Over Here: Cool Britannia as Seen from American Shores (Part 1)

In 1993, my sister, a friend, and I had the pleasure of seeing the UK rock group Suede play at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. It was the band's first U.S. performance. While Suede were not as big in the United States as they were in their native Britain, the crowd's enthusiasm was certainly palpable. I remembered thinking how lucky we were to be Suede fans in the United States, since we could see this much-hyped group in a smaller, more intimate setting than their British fans likely were able to. Everyone in the crowd was stretching their arms out toward pretty-boy singer Brett Anderson, my 21 year-old self's arm included, and Anderson reached back, clutching hands with each and every one of us. We were worshipful. We were blessed. How lucky we were to be seeing the beginning of a new era in British pop here on American shores!

The tour would go on to become a disaster for the group. By its end, guitarist Bernard Butler and Anderson were barely on speaking terms. The second part of their travels through America saw The Cranberries as their opening act; that Irish group had achieved massive U.S. success with "Linger," "Dreams," and "Zombie," whereas Suede remained virtual unknowns. Thus, Suede suffered the humiliation of being upstaged by their opening act; they watched as venues emptied just as they took the stage. Nothing was ever quite so good for Suede again.

This was the era when British music magazines moaned about how the UK had "lost" America. In the early 1980s, we Americans sang along to Dexy's Midnight Runners, Thompson Twins, the Human League, and at least a dozen Duran Duran songs. In the mid-1980s, Britain's 70s rock dinosaurs successfully reinvented themselves: a Roger Water-less Pink Floyd enjoyed enormous U.S. success with A Momentary Lapse of Reason, Genesis's Invisible Touch lobbed five songs into the U.S. top five, and Robert Plant's solo album Now and Zen sold well.

The late 80s became less kind to "outsiders." America's music scene became more insular; we started to focus on rap, R&B, and metal. Although Def Leppard rode the U.S. metal wave with their massive album Hysteria, Britain's chart dominance had begun to fade.

The two countries' paths diverged further when Britain's 1988 acid house dance revolution made little to no impact in the United States (ironic considering that so much of the sound of that scene had been developed by underground dance music producers in the states). While teenagers on ecstasy danced all night in warehouse raves in the UK, the top albums during the summer of 1988 in the United States came by way of Van Halen (OU812), Def Leppard (Hysteria), Guns N' Roses (Appetite for Destruction), and Steve Winwood (Roll With It). Clearly, we had become a rock-obsessed nation. In the UK, by contrast, Now That's What I Call Music 12 spent five weeks roosting at number one, featuring a variety of tunes, including The Timelords' "Doctorin' the Tardis" (which also topped the UK singles charts in June), S-Express's acid house anthem "Theme from S-Express" (a number one UK single in April) and Morrissey's "Everyday is Like Sunday."

As the 1980s became the 1990s, Britain's best rock bands frequently were marketed as "alternative bands" in the United States. With America spending so much time listening to its own music scenes, to listen to any outside voices at all was a rebellious act. (Long gone were the days when Nena's German-language "99 Luftballoons" was a U.S. hit.) Happy Mondays, Charlatans, Blur, Ride; these groups wore the "alternative" label around their necks, which immediately offset them as something "weird" to the American record-buying public. (As for the still burgeoning UK dance scene, nobody in America seemed to know what to do with breakbeat techno groups like The Prodigy; I don't remember seeing the massive UK rave anthem "Charly" charting anywhere at all, though perhaps it sneaked onto a little-publicized U.S. dance chart somewhere.)

I spent a few months in the U.K. in the fall of 1992, and was dazzled by the energy of their pop music scene. Felix's "Don't You Want Me (Hooj Mix)" was blasted in the clubs (my right ear was a little dinged by that experience), the somewhat ridiculous Shamen tune "Ebeneezer Goode" was huge, and the Eurodance anthem "Rhythm is a Dancer" by Snap! ruled the dancefloor. On the other extreme, the indie UK sound was still alive and well, featuring introspective groups like Earwig and Moonshake. Of course, Nirvana was also popular. And the fall of 1992 saw the rebirth of ABBA's "Dancing Queen," which had been re-released as a single in anticipation of the ABBA Gold compilation. A good variety of ideas were battling it out in the U.K., and the U.S. scene seemed depressingly dull by comparison.

Suede were the new darlings of British music while I was over there. They had released two strong EPs ("The Drowners" and "Metal Mickey"). And that was the first time I heard firsthand British people whispering, "Can they break America?"

By 1994, America had broken Suede. An American lounge singer using the same name sued them, and so they reluctantly became "The London Suede" in the U.S. markets. Guitarist Bernard Butler left the group. The band would spend the next several years struggling to re-establish their identity while simultaneously competing with a rising flood of other British rock bands.

(To be continued)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Thoughts on the Evolution of Popular Music

One thing that troubles any music addict is the possibility that, despite diligently casting his net into the vast sea of European pop and dance music day after day, he might still have missed some choice fish. This worry prompted me to perform a more thorough analysis of the European pop and dance charts from years gone by.

I began my research by compiling a few dozen European countries’ pop charts from the year 2000 (in some cases pulling data from every pop chart from every single week of that year—pretty arduous). I selected 2000 because that was the year I first fell in love with Europop music. Back when I actually mucked around in 2000, I got most of my relevant music education from one Romanian radio station on the internet. Certainly, I reckoned, there were many songs that had not only had escaped my net; they had swum in entirely different oceans. So I collated my chart data and then jumped onto YouTube, which houses an impressively large percentage of those songs.

My 2000 Excel spreadsheet wound up with 1084 unique songs on it. That might seem like a lot, but in fact it’s a low number. In a typical year of combing today’s charts I usually hear about 5000 songs. The 4000 song gap is explained by the fact that many countries today produce and publish weekly top 40 charts, but they don't archive these, so digging a decade into the past is a bit of a challenge. I should add that I continue to uncover interesting chart archives, and so the 2000 experiment remains one in progress—with plenty more adds to come. But even if 1084 is a relatively low number, it's still quite a lot of tunes to get through; I spent months digging through them, in fact.

Anyway, I got through that, and then I moved on to the music of 2001. After that, somewhat confusingly, I went backwards, tackling 1999, which I figured would be more interesting to me than moving forward to 2002 since 1999 was the year before I had fallen in love with the Euro sound, and thus I figured it would yield more surprises.

So here I was—and still am—listening to thousands and thousands of pop songs from these years, and with more years to follow. Considering this insane level of diligence, naturally, some friends asked me, perhaps hopefully, if I had learned anything interesting at all. I answered lamely that I hadn’t really gone into this with the intent to learn anything; I was just looking for good songs. I admit I also enjoyed wallowing in the nostalgia (watching old music videos is a pretty trippy time-travel experience).

Now, thick in the throes of 1999 music, I feel I am beginning to see an emerging picture of pop. This essay is an attempt to crystalize my current impressions, which will undoubtedly change next week. But let’s start a conversation.

We’ll start that conversation with a hypothetical question from you. You might ask me, “How much has music changed, on a scale of 1 to 10, over the last 15 years, with 1 being ‘no change at all’ and 10 being ‘completely fucking different music’?”

“Five!” I might once have barked back, because "five" is always the answer when one is asked to rank something on a scale of 1 to 10, unless that something is the attractiveness of your significant other. But now I would say that the question itself is flawed in this instance. That’s because it implies an assumption, which is that music evolves in a steady, progressive way, linearly transforming at a slower or faster rate (our 1 to 10 scale indicating the speed of that transformation). But in fact, while gradual evolution in music is certainly real (consider how changes in recording technology have changed the sound of pop), and ideas are sometimes exchanged between genres which reinforces the impression of a chronology of change, this is only part of the story, and might even be the less important part.

I wrote “music evolves in a steady, progressive way” because I wanted to highlight a popular misconception about the theory of evolution, and this is important to our understanding change in popular music. Evolution is, generally, not progressive. It’s simply a mechanism for change in organisms. The thing that makes change possible on the genetic level is mutation. We often imagine dramatic X-Men levels of transformation via mutations—mutations which bestow either super-beneficial advantages to the recipient or, on the other hand, fatal hindrances. In other words, mutations that greatly help or greatly hinder one’s competitiveness in the battle to be “naturally selected" to fuck and make babies which carry our genes onward—currently our only bid for biological immortality.

But most mutations are neither helpful nor harmful. They’re just random. Maybe I carry a gene that can metabolize the pint of Guinness I am enjoying right now at Meehan’s in Vinings, Georgia 0.5% more efficiently than the average person. So what?

The dinosaurs were as well-evolved as any group of animals living today, and they might still be here had it not been for a random cataclysm (a 6-mile wide asteroid) that, to be honest, most of modern life would not survive, either. If one could clone a dinosaur, Jurassic Park-style, the animal might very well outcompete today’s species. The dinosaurs did not become extinct because “something better” came along to shove them out of the way, or “progress” occurred in mammals and the dinosaurs “failed to innovate.” It was, in fact, quite a cosmic joke: the mammals survived the asteroid impact precisely because they had been out-competed by the dinosaurs, and thus were tiny, scurrying things that, thanks to their tiny size, were capable of subsisting on vastly smaller amounts of food than a 177-foot long Diplodocus.

My point is that music evolution is similarly non-progressive. Rather than picturing popular music as something evolving steadily in a continuum, becoming more advanced year by year—whatever that means, music being “advanced”—music is really more accurately thought of as a series of overlapping, random fads. Most of these fads have about a three or four year lifespan. There is the year of build-up, perhaps punctuated by one good idea that catches fire. This is followed by a year where the imitators step in and the sound becomes inescapable. Then, there is the dying-off, a two-year period of steadily waning interest. An interesting thing is that these fads generally seem to be independent of one another, and they are not especially dependent on particular technological innovations either, which means that each of these fads could effectively be exchanged with any other fads from different years. Thus, chronological dependency is destroyed. Any sort of progressive evolution in pop music is illusory.

I will start with smaller examples and build up to bigger ones.

In 1999 and 2000, pop songs were filled with Spanish guitars. Whether this was a result of Carlos Santana’s remarkable career second-act with his single “Smooth,” or whether he was buoyed by a pre-existing Spanish guitar trend I do not know, but Spanish guitars were de rigueur in Y2K-era pop music (Kaci’s “Paradise,” is one example, so is Christina Aguilera’s and Ricky Martin’s “Nobody Wants to Be Lonely,” and the list goes on, probably by the hundreds). Today you hardly ever hear Spanish guitars in pop music. In fact, peddlers of the Spanish pop sound from 2000 (consider Enrique Iglesias) were themselves fully enveloped in the arms of electro-pop by 2011 (“Tonight [I'm F**kin' You]”).

1999 is known by dance aficionados as the Year of Trance, the energy of which was perhaps best captured by the mix compilations Gatecrasher: Red and Gatecrasher: Wet (so called because they were tie-ins to Sheffield’s Gatecrasher club). 1998’s Energy 52 “Café Del Mar” remixes were a significant warning shot of the Year of Trance that was to follow. In 1999 we had it, and by 2000 trance was also infecting popular European pop music (e.g., Alice DeeJay’s 2000 single “The Lonely One” which is effectively a poppier version of Agnelli & Nelson’s 1999 trance monster “Everyday”).

But the dying-off period for trance came quickly. People grow tired of any genre, and at some point will move on to just about anything else new and novel. Benny Benassi’s delightfully screwy electro hit “Satisfaction” in 2003 was one of the biggest of those trance killers; after its success a flood of pop dance tunes were released with those distinctive buzzing sounds (usually roughly appended to sampled 60s, 70s, 80, and 90s pop standards—Royal Gigolos’ “California Dreamin’” is a perfect example). It’s worth noting that the Benassi-esque fad, like trance before it, also lasted about three years.

And finally, we get to boy bands (a silly aside, but I can't contain myself: I never understood why they were called “bands,” since the fellows in them only provided the vocals; alliteration evidently trumped common sense). In conducting my currently ongoing research into the year 1999 I have had to listen to five treacly love ballads from the band Boyzone, which was a miserable experience because I am not a 13-year old girl from 1999. N-sync, Backstreet Boys, Westlife, and Five are but four examples of boy bands putting out singles in that one year—and those are just the English-language groups. They were wildly popular. Clearly, they made a lot of money for somebody. But in 2010 you couldn’t find a single boy band. No money in it anymore. The extinction event seems to have occurred sometime around 2002.

The Spanish guitars, the boy bands, the sound of melodic trance—all of these pop cultural indicators seem so far away, now. We hear these elements and think to ourselves, "How old the music seems!"

But why couldn’t the year of trance have been 2009, with the music sounding exactly the same? For that matter, today’s electro-house/hip-hop could have been created in 1999—the technology existed then. And why aren’t we just coming into the boy band phase now?

I realized then that we were not seeing progressive evolution, but a series of fads. The fads and the associated memories we hang on the years during which those fads were in progress are generally the source of our impressions of old music sounding, well, old. The fads seldom cross-pollinate in any significant sort of way; they seem to be started by random ideas generated by people working in relative isolation.

I can tell you why fads die out—boredom. There are only so many boy-bands, trance songs, and Spanish guitars one can take before one pines for the next new thing. And I can even tell you that you can expect each fad to last around three years. What I can’t tell you is what the next trend will be.

Anyway, that’s what I think about the evolution of pop music right now.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Armenia, Azerbaijan, Eurovision, and Strategy

Azerbaijan's Eurovision 2011 win means that country will be hosting Eurovision 2012 on its own turf. The problem is that Azerbaijan is at war with another country that regularly sends Eurovision delegations: Armenia. The war is often described as a "frozen conflict"; the two countries are sort of like struggling arm-wrestlers, neither of whom can overcome the other one. The fuss is over a territory in Azerbaijan called the Nagorno Karabakh Republic (NKR), which is occupied by ethnic Armenians and that operates as a de facto country, although it technically exists on Azerbaijani soil (naturally, in playing the public-relations game the NKR presents itself as a country). Flare-ups regularly occur around the NKR border, with casualties from time to time.

The consequence is that neither Armenian nationals, nor people in other countries who are of Armenian descent, and nobody at all whose passport shows signs of its owner having made a visit to the NKR (excepting diplomatic work), are allowed entry into Azerbaijan. This presents a fascinating political dilemma when it comes to Azerbaijan hosting Eurovision 2012. How can Azerbaijan bar an Armenian delegation from competing at Eurovision, a contest whose peace-and-love-trumps-politics idealism is captured by its heart-shaped logo?

Rumors have started to circulate that Armenia might boycott Eurovision 2012. It's interesting that one of the people advancing these rumors is Ismayil Omarov, general director of Azerbaijan's Public TV & Radio Broadcasting Company, who stated in a press conference on Tuesday, "As regards the involvement of Armenian representatives in this contest, I have been informed that the Armenians said they would not participate in the contest when asked about it. If this is really so, then I regret it..."

That's a pretty fishy thing to put out there; a rumor that even Mr. Omarov confesses is hearsay. It's like a right-wing radio host saying, "I hear that Barack Obama boils and eats babies. If this is really so, then I regret it."

No doubt, Mr. Omarov's rumor is the product of wishful thinking on his end. The best thing that could happen for Azerbaijan is for Armenia to boycott Eurovision 2012. Then, Azerbaijan can conduct business-as-usual, no longer forced to confront the complicated issue of permitting travel for Armenians into Azerbaijan. Armenia will imagine that it is making a big statement, when in fact few will really notice their absence.

(To the rest of the world, an Armenian boycott would only affirm what we already know, which is that Armenia and Azerbaijan do not get along. So what is the value of making that obvious statement? Also, you can be the elephant in the room so long as you remain in it, but once you walk out, how quickly you are forgotten.)

So may I make a suggestion? From the Armenian perspective, the best thing to do right now is wait and think. While doing so, Armenia holds all the cards, whereas to boycott is to fold one's hand. There is plenty of time to make a decision (for example, I see that Hungary did not announce their intention to participate in 2011 until December 2010).

But when the time for action comes, it seems the most sensible thing for Armenia to do is to announce their intention to participate in Eurovision 2012.

From the Azerbaijani perspective, the negatives would include, obviously, a headache regarding the method for allowing Armenians into their country (if at all; though a refusal would be a public-relations nightmare for Azerbaijan). And one scenario likely to keep Azerbaijanis awake at night is the potential for Armenian would-be terrorists to make a violent statement on the international stage that is Eurovision. The security challenges would include not only the need to assure the safety of Baku's people, but to also guarantee the safety of the Armenian delegation (Azerbaijan would not want its Eurovision to go down in the history books like Munich's Olympic games of 1972).

But nothing worth doing is ever easy, and if all goes well at Eurovision 2012 it might be a positive sign that progress can be made in peacefully settling these countries' differences. A successful Eurovision 2012, with Armenia's participation, could be the start of a thaw, ever so tepid though it might be.

Something has to give in that region eventually; why not use a cheery song contest as the vehicle for releasing some of the pressure? Of course, doing so might also trigger an all-out earthquake. It's certainly a gamble, but seeing that the only alternative is a conflict seemingly frozen for perpetuity, it seems one worth making.