Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Books of the Year, 2011

Here is a list of the ten best books published in the year 2011. Admittedly, there are a few thousand others I didn’t get round to, so you’ll just have to trust me that these ten are the best. Though I’m happy to entertain alternative views.

Water matters
10. Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press)
What it says on the bottle – an accessible account of how various past civilisations engineered water sources to irrigate their crops, flush away their shit, supply themselves with drink and, when supplies were abundant enough, prettify their gardens and public spaces. Being mankind, though, we’re on the way to exhausting our natural supplies through illogical idiocy like too many golf courses, gardens and swimming pools in places like California, Phoenix, Texas and Arizona, resulting in a chronically cost-ineffective use of energy and precious H2O. Sample quote: “The Owens River turned Los Angeles into a megalopolis, located in an arid landscape where, by the rules of common sense, no city should ever stand. Los Angeles hefts enough political clout to capture any river within 600 miles. Today, the city receives water not only from the Owens River but also via aqueducts from the Colorado River and the California Aqueduct, which runs from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Lake Perris, in Riverside County, 444 miles to the south.”

9. Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich (Random House)
This is an objective but entertaining chronological rundown of everyone who’s ever claimed to be Pope, how they got there, and what they did when adorned with the office of the Papacy. It wasn’t always good and godly things, you know. Sample quote: “Hadrian’s successor, John VIII (872-882), was at least energetic, but he also had the dubious distinction of being the first pope to be assassinated – and, worse, still, by priests from his own entourage. According to the Annals of the Abbey of Fulda, they first gave him poison; then, when this failed to act quickly enough, they hammered in his skull. The enthronement of his successor, Marinus I, in 882 is said to have been marked by the murder of a high Roman dignitary, that of Hadrian III two years later by the victim’s widow being whipped naked through the streets. On Hadrian’s death on his way to Germany in 885 foul play was also suspected. The next two popes, Stephen V and Formosus, died in their beds,

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

2011 Albums of the Year

This year I return to the tried and trusted formula of the meaninglessly numbered list. The reason? I looked at last year’s entry to see which album I’d chosen as my number one, and was disappointed to find I hadn’t bothered. Too lazy, I reckon, and it wasn’t a particularly good year. This year, though, I was spoilt for choice, and so (already thrilled readers, musicians and music biz executives), I gift you the shivering anticipation of the countdown. As ever, my criterion was simple: I chose albums I wanted to keep playing, again and again. It’s not really a list of records classified for technical or creative or cultural reasons, but a list of albums I most fell in love with (though from around number 30 downwards it’s less love, and more ‘fancied a lot/bit’).

20. Beirut – The Rip Tide (Pompeii Records)
With this band, you feel that anything’s possible, although more than likely it will involve brass bands and some kind of folk influence from an unlikely source. iTunes laughably classifies this as “indie-rock”. Think of any other combination of genres besides indie-rock, throw them into a catalytic converter and let Beirut toy with the result using seductive syncopation, blasted riffs, and a pale but fetching vocal. Track you’d want your town band to play at the annual parade: The Rip Tide

Classically Deathcabbish
19. Death Cab For Cutie – Coats and Keys (Atlantic)
I sometimes buy albums by bands like Death Cab For Cutie out of a sense of duty that they’re the kind of band I ought to be into, rather than actually being into. So it’s always a pleasant surprise when their records turn out to be far better than I’d expected. This is a solid, archetypally articulate DeathCabbish collection, though it sometimes takes years for their best songs to sink in – I only realized when I saw them live how much I love their earlier work. Indie-pop track to the core: Doors Unlocked And Open. Advice I won’t take track: Stay Young, Go Dancing.

18. The Feelies – Here Before (Bar/None)
Seeing as no one makes blissfully good old-style indie-pop any more, call back the old hands that did it right the first time around, as the album title hints. Okay, second time around, given that so many 1980s bands like The Feelies and Galaxie 500/Luna unblushingly but very successfully rode on the riffs of the Velvet Underground. They’ve still got what they always had – cheerfully shambolic but somehow addictive scratchy guitars on top of understated vocals in a world beyond Autotune. Track to dance badly to while wearing your retired leather jacket, smoking a cigarette and drinking get-pissed-quick, extra-strength lager: the whole album

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What Do Women Have Against Loud Music?

"Mind if I turn it down a tad, honey?"
What’s wrong with this picture? Last night I was ironing and listening to music when my 15-year-old daughter came into the room and said, “Dad, can you please turn it down? I’m trying to study.” For Christ's sake, girl, dump those books and get down to the golf course with a bottle of vodka in a brown paper bag, some cigarettes, and a boy to snog. Kids today, eh?

Or it could just have been her gender-dictated disposition to turn down music. Stick with me here. I’m not prone to making generalisations about the opposite sex, because the feminist peers my dad claims metaphorically castrated me during my formative years taught me otherwise. And believe me, I’m 100 per cent behind any female’s right to empowerment, a career, and even a driver’s licence. But experience has taught me that any time a woman walks into a room where music is playing, the first thing she’ll do is walk over to the amplifier and turn it down.

A chauvinist would say that it’s because a female can not bear any competition to the sound of her own voice. If I’m listening to music, then I might not be giving the female my full attention. I am appreciating the beauty of something besides the female.

Fortunately, I’m not a chauvinist, so I realise this is complete nonsense. Unfortunately, I

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Mascot Madness: When Life Mimics Art

Topsy? You in there?
This story in the Manchester Evening News, about Oldham Athletic's mascot Chaddy the Owl getting thumped by one of his own fans, reminded me of my own short story The Man In The Mascot. Except that Chaddy's inner soul is a little more forgiving than the vodka-swilling narrator inside Topsy the Toucan.

"I don't even want him banned as we need as many fans as we can get," says Chaddy. Bless his owlish little heart. (I've no idea why Oldham should have an Owl as a mascot, by the way. Couldn't anyone imagine what a Latic would look like?)

Contrast this with Topsy, who was faced with unrelenting hostility from the crowd at lowly East Park Academy. These fans were happy to scapegoat him for the team's lack of success, on the grounds that Topsy was supposed to bring them luck. And as the failed drama student within knew, "these fans weren't all stupid, they knew when the club was trying it on, and they refused to be coaxed into a forced jollity, to be told by some prancing puppet when they were supposed to get excited. Was the mascot's tomfoolery not a tacit admission by the club that the players themselves were incapable of pushing the crowd into the realm of emotion?"

I can only think that the as yet untraced Oldham fan felt much the same way about Chaddy. Makes a nice change from calling for the manager's head.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Go on, go on, ask me. Ask me how I got on.

The ball was placed therein, 5 times
There are days when you have some news, but no one to tell it to. It may not be very important news, but you want to get it off your chest. I have this particular urge to share after I’ve played football, and my team has won, and I’ve scored.

The other night I played in an eight-a-side game in an outdoor league. It was one of those dark, sodden, autumnal nights when you really question your own sanity for making a 40-mile round trip just to play football for an hour. You feel like it’s going to be one of those games when you get shellacked, and then think it’s time to give up football for good. And then, the goals come. Your team wins 6-2, and you score five. You leave the field aglow, and climb into your car in an unstoppable mood. Now all you need is someone who wants to know how you got on. If you get stopped for speeding, you won't mind - you'll just tell the cop all about the game until he lets you off.

“We won 6-2 and I scored five goals.” That’s the sentence in your head that you want to

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Blondie and Bandy

Straight-legged Deborah
We went to watch the still magnificent Blondie last night at the spanking new Fillmore concert venue just up the road in Silver Spring. Now that I’ve heard Deborah Harry sing Heart Of Glass live, I can die happy. But that’s not the only reason I can head for dead with a smile on my wrinkling face. For the first time in my life, someone truly appreciated the strange shape of my body.

As the Fillmore only opened last Thursday, the staff are all being extra courteous. They even have ushers outside the bogs holding the doors open for you (though no one said, “Have a nice pee.”). When I came out of the loo, I was browsing the concert posters on the walls, when one of the ushers pointed at my knees with a seriously amazed look on her face. I looked down, expecting at the very least to see a three-headed serpent emerging from my knee cap.

“You’ve… you’ve got such… bowed legs!” she exclaimed.

I laughed and said I’d had them quite a while, and that I was the last of the great British cowboys.

“But... but, they’re great,” she said. “I love them!”

“You love them?”

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bad Books On The Beach: No.3 - 'Everything Is Illuminated' by Jonathan Safran Foer

J. Safran Foer (right) in happier times.
Back in the 1970s, I was a keen reader of the weekly football comic Roy of the Rovers. Roy Race, the free-scoring striker with Melchester Rovers, was also the editor. Well, why not, it was named after him. It’s nothing Oprah hasn’t capitalised on. Except he wasn’t really the editor, because he didn’t exist. But he signed his editorial column every week, and expressed his opinions about his favourite players. The best striker in England, he maintained, was Portsmouth’s David Kemp. It’s possible that a few readers vehemently disagreed with Roy on this, but Roy was so determined to endorse the forward that he went to see him personally. And that’s how the picture to our left appeared as a magazine centre-spread, much to the delight of myself and my friends. And after that, we stopped buying it, both literally and figuratively.

We were prepared to believe that Roy could fire in a 40-yarder to win the game in the last minute, week after week. We accepted that goalkeeper Gordon Stewart, despite the panther-like antics that made him The Safest Hands In Soccer, only played for second division Tynefield City. We didn’t mind that Subbuteo-playing genius Mike Dailey of Mike's Mini-Men had absolutely nothing in his life besides table football (in fact I probably related to him more than I’d like to admit). We cared not that Johnny ‘The Hard Man’ Dexter’s Danefield United team were playing in the English top flight, just like Melchester Rovers, but the two teams existed in parallel worlds (one in colour, the other in black and white), and that the fixture list never brought them together. But we couldn’t take it seriously when Roy posed as a cardboard cut-out next to David Kemp. Like Danefield and Melchester, the two were never supposed to meet. Not credible. Not at all.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s widely acclaimed novel Everything Is Illuminated raised a similar credibility problem for me. The main character is a Ukrainian translator, Alex, who narrates

Friday, August 05, 2011

Bad Books on the Beach: No. 2 – ‘Juliet, Naked’ by Nick Hornby

Naked, and empty too
I’ve always liked Nick Hornby as a bloke ever since reading an interview where he said that after he became famous he started getting calls from other famous people inviting him round to dinner just because he was now famous. His response to this was pretty much, What the fuck? I don’t even know you. Though presumably he wanted to avoid going to dinner parties too, which is understandable. Anyway, ‘Fever Pitch’ is obviously a classic (even though I have a major quibble with it, but that’s another blog entry altogether), and ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘How To Be Good’ were both solid novels. ‘About A Boy’ was ridiculous, and ‘A Long Way Down’ (about four suicidal characters meeting at the top of a very tall building) I quickly renamed in my head as ‘Jump, You Whiny Fuckers, Jump!’ The problem with these books is the same one that runs through ‘Juliet, Naked’ like a sopping, sand-soaked paperback after you accidentally dropped it in the surf. It’s the characters, stupid.

In ‘About A Boy’ we were asked to believe that lead character Will, living off the royalties from a song his old man composed, has spent his entire adult life doing absolutely nothing. This is not just existentially improbable, but also makes Will a dull fucker, at best. But Hornby excels at portraying such sullen, repressed individuals – reserved, emotionally inert, and obsessed with some sub-culturally related, non-mainstream object of desire (or in Will’s case, finding a woman desperate enough to have him). In ‘Juliet, Naked’ we have Duncan spending his three-week holiday in the US following the trail of reclusive singer Tucker Crowe, who inexplicably stopped recording in 1986. His girlfriend Annie tags along, even though she has misgivings about her boyfriend’s hobby. Oh, and they’ve been together for 15 years, she knows that he has no sense of humour, and she’s never actually been in love with him. If that’s really plausible, then that makes her even more feckless than dorky Duncan. Why are we interested in these people again?

When they get back home to Gooleness, a grim Yorkshire seaside resort where they’ve also been bored for the past 15 years, Duncan gets a ‘new’ CD in the mail from Tucker’s

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Bad Books On The Beach: No. 1 – ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan

Come Saturday, poetry will save civilization
I recently had the luxury of a week doing nothing on Bethany Beach but catching up on some rapidly yellowing paperbacks. Holidays mean taking books by authors I’ve read easily in the past, rather than anything remotely challenging like Volume 2 of ‘Das Kapital’. This year I packed Ian McEwan, Nick Hornby and Jonathan Safran Foer, and I got through them all quickly enough. The only problem was that they were all, in some crucial respect, spoilt by flaws in plot, style or character. My theory is that once an author’s established, editors get lazy about telling them what needs improving. Or maybe the writer’s too big to take advice. Maybe no one cares because once a reputation is forged, any old shit will sell. And so you get a train wreck like ‘Saturday’ (2005).

Narrator Henry Perowne is described in the blurb of this “triumphant new novel” as “a neurosurgeon, urbane, privileged, deeply in love with his wife and grown-up children”. Despite his (read, the author’s) engaging introspective reflections over the course of a Saturday where he’s skirting an anti-war demo in London to play squash, visit his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother in an old people’s home, go shopping for fish, and watch his wonderfully talented teenage son play blues guitar, he’s unbelievably dim. He gets in a side-street skirmish with an archetypal hoodlum, Baxter (to be played by a young version of Bob Hoskins), and his two sidekicks after a minor car accident, who threaten to maim him if he doesn’t cough up 700 quid for the damage. Then he escapes by identifying on the spot Baxter’s incurable condition, Huntington’s Disease, causing the sidekicks to desert the thug at this sign of weakness. Having wheedled his way out of this, and despite thinking the thug’s still possibly following him, and despite having being assaulted, Henry toddles off to play squash. Obviously no literary hero does anything as mundane as going to the cops and saying, “Some fucking psycho

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Perfect White Teeth For Jesus

Jesus Christ, what a smile
You can sense when someone’s got Jesus by the way they smile at you. When I walked into the dentist’s waiting room yesterday I could tell that the girl sitting on my left had got Jesus, because she opened her lips and flashed her teeth at me in a way that could only mean one thing. I want to save you. And at the very least I want to talk about Jesus.

I checked in and sat down. I couldn’t help but glance at her again, and she sensed my interest. She smiled at me a second time, bigger and even more Jesus-y than before. She wore a name badge that announced she belonged to an organisation called JesusCristo. She had a bible open on her lap, in which she was highlighting passages in yellow, and a pad for taking notes, but her epic smile and the way she caught my eye made it clear she would eschew her studies in an instant to talk about only one thing with a waning soul like mine. Jesus. Baby Jesus. Miracle-touting Jesus. Big grown up Jesus nailed to a cross. Jesus: the comeback.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Golf, A Tidy Game For Crushing Bores

In an ideal world...
When I die and go to hell, I will find myself sitting at a table in a club house surrounded by golfers. For eternity I will have to overhear their detailed conversations about the 18 holes they have just played. “Did you see that shot I made up the slope with my six iron approaching the green at the 14th?” Every time I plead with Satan to be stretched out on a rack and have molten lead poured down my throat for a few million years, he’ll just cackle and turn away. The devil knows that the golf punishment is sicker than any twisted nightmare that Dante could have envisioned.

The US Open starts today just up the road from us, and that means more traffic and many more bona fide wankers in the bars of Bethesda. This has prompted me to analyse what it is about golf that I so detest, and the answer I came up with is simple: golf is the tidy sport for tidy people. That final putt on the pristine, flat green is like the player combing that final preppy hair into place before the Country Club Annual Golf Awards Dinner. On the green itself, each perfectly manicured blade of grass boasts as much individuality as the golfers themselves. And there’s not a scantling of noise allowed, because a golfer is deeply concentrating. Not defusing a bomb, or re-connecting the arteries of a transplanted heart. No, you have to be really, really quiet because they are trying to nudge a small ball into a

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Being Very Important (For A Night)

Ever had one of these? No? Not very important then, are you, eh? EH!
After my previous adventures in failed freeloading, I was on the guest list at the 9:30 Club again last week when Death Cab For Cutie came to DC. Again it was sold out, so again I knew this was my only way into the concert. Again, the girl behind the glass screen couldn’t find my name on the guest list, and started flapping through several sheets of paper. This time I leaned over far enough to read the list, and just as she flipped over one page, I yelped, “There it was, the one you just turned over, right at the bottom!” Yep, right at the bottom of the guest list, but at least I was on it. She smiled apologetically (when she was probably thinking, Okay okay, calm down, you grey-capped tosser) then handed me my ticket and my day-glo orange VIP wrist-band.

Very bastarding Important Person. I moved straight from the VIP ticket window to the door of the club, but a 9:30 employee standing out on the pavement stepped forward and diplomatically asked me, “Can I help you, sir? The line’s this way.” He pointed to a long queue of people that stretched all the way down the road and around the corner, consisting exclusively of a common rabble of paying punters. Did he really expect me to stand and mix with these mundane souls on a breezy summer’s evening? What if they saw my VIP wrist-band, got all jealous and resentful, then beat me up and stole it?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Great Suburban Traditions No. 12: Learning To Love Your Lawn Mower

Travels through space, but can it cut grass?
This week’s episode of Dr Who showed the Doctor in a sentient rapport with his Tardis – an upright, oblong, time- and space-travelling police box that turns out to have feelings. I can relate to this, as I have a similar relationship with my lawn mower.

When we moved here a dozen years ago, we were advised that American suburbanites get Central American sub-suburbanites to cut their lawns for them, at a cost of around $20 to $30 a week. Being filled to the brim with Scottish blood, I went and bought a mower of my own for $140, and recouped my costs within about a month. Ever since I started calculating the ever incremental sum that I’m saving, I’ve sensed a very special bond between us.

In the instruction booklet, it said that in order to eke a longer life out of your mower, you should ‘winterise’ it every autumn so that it’ll be in top shape for the spring. I can’t recall exactly what this involved (some sort of getting on your knees and lubing and waxing and taking it to bits) because I lost the booklet, but me and my machine reached a different

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

How To Name Your Indie-Band

Devil's Butt Affliction? Something like that.
A long, long time ago, indie-band names were cutting edge. There was danger, death and implied intoxication in a group's name, with the odd unusual plant or creature thrown in, and sometimes an obscure, pseudo-intellectual literary or film reference. Colours added colour, even though that colour was usually black or white. Puns generally worked. Nowadays, all the good names have been used already. It took me 15 minutes to come up with ten generic indie-band names, all of which are interchangeable. So if you’re forming a band, feel free to take the list below, juggle the words (sorry, concepts) around, and become Dirty Blue Fiction, Cult Blood Alligators or Pale Candy Daffodils.

There are a couple of simple rules for a standard three-word indie-band name. The first two words are mainly just one or two syllables, and are usually descriptive. The final word is generally two or three syllables long, and is usually a noun. That’s it. Now go and print up those eye-catching posters that would make a passing student think, “Wow, they sound cool. And if they have a cool name, I bet they make some really cool music.” Adopt moody pose, grow your hair over your eyes, wear self-consciously crappy old clothes, drone away using voice and amplified guitar (a youthful, slim and decorative female on keyboards will also help), and hey presto, you’re indie! You’re welcome.

Crystal   Meth     Alligators
Dirty      Jerk     Limousine
Pale       Blood   Orchestra
Dead      Blue    Cigarette
Creepy   Sweet  Daffodils
Electric  Beach   Therapy
Luna      Disco    Skylarks
Black     Widow  Dreaming
Acrylic   Candy   High-Lights
Cult       Zoo      Fiction

Friday, April 29, 2011

Glorious Royal Wedding Memories

Lincolnshire potato does impression of Royal Knob
Today’s parade in London of chinless parasites witlessly waving at streets lined with gormless, flag-toting celebrants thriving on subservience to a dynastic vacuum brings to mind many fond memories of past occasions when the populace of Britain cheerfully stopped work for a day in favour of raising a toast to the future marital fuck-ups of serially dysfunctional aristocrats.

July 29, 1981: Chip and Di
Aged 16, Kev, Tim, his cousin Rob and I had just got our first ever 'proper' jobs, on the back end of a potato harvester sorting out stones and clods of mud from a passing conveyor belt of Lincolnshire’s signature vegetable. It was tedious, back-straining work, and the machine was towed up and down the fields by a tractor driven by a skinny, grinning YTS delinquent who cheerfully admitted that he was getting hitched the following Saturday because “ah got me bird up the spout”. His marriage probably still had more chance of surviving than the Wales’s.

Anyway, the day before the wedding (Chip and Di’s, not the tractor driver’s), our farmer

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"In Chicago We Like To Dance"

Blue Orchids: back when noisy bands were good
Last night I was at the downstairs room in the Black Cat watching the Crystal Stilts, a droning five-piece from Brooklyn (almost every male between the age of 18 and 35 who lives in Brooklyn is a member of a droning five-piece garage pop band), when there was almost a fight right behind me. Unusual, because indie-kids (and indie-grownups) in their drab, dark clothes and thick-rimmed glasses are usually too busy not smiling to get into fights. But then they’re not often getting whacked from behind by a bloke dancing like a rubber windmill in a hurricane.

Between songs, a lad in front of him turned around to complain. The dancer responded, “I’m from Chicago. In Chicago we like to dance.” He had a reedy voice a bit like the teacher in South Park. The sort of voice where, if this was a cartoon and not a real-life indie-gig, you’d expect him to get immediately flattened by a well-aimed punch that everyone would immediately cheer and laugh at. But the complainant just said something inaudible (perhaps, “Cut it out, you windmill-imitating dickhead”), and turned back to the band.

Then it was the turn of the woman next to me to get shoved in the back. At the end of the song, she too turned around and asked the windmill geek what he thought he was trying to prove. “I’m not trying to do anything,” he whined. “I’m just trying to have a good time.” For that, he could always have gone down to the front with the other enthusiasts, who all seemed to think this was the best band ever - they were surely all too ecstatic to mind being thumped by him.

I perked up when the band accidentally played a good song,

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Records You Play Every Two Decades Or So

Not a bad record, every 20 years or so...
I like ironing clothes, preferably when the house is empty so that I can cogitate while playing records without people stomping past the turntable and making the needle jump. The other day I took out a Dave Kusworth & The Bounty Hunters LP, ‘Wives, Weddings and Roses,’ recorded in late 1987. I vaguely remembered most of it, but thought that I probably hadn’t played it for about 20 years. It’s not an outstanding release, but there are a handful tracks on it good enough to warrant another listen… some time. When? In another 20 years?

It’s a strange thought that I last played the LP when I was 25, and so logically I might next seek it out when I’m about 65. It really doesn’t seem that long ago since I was 25. Does that mean it won’t be that long until I’m 65? Being 65 is old, officially. Right now I am still listening to LPs that I bought when I was still considered to be ‘young’. But surely when I’m at retirement age, I shouldn’t be listening to songs with lyrics like, “She’s a constant companion to my thoughts/Though she tore things in two/Even slept with my best friend too/I don’t know why I still love you…”

I have a soft spot for Dave Kusworth for several reasons.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Trash Point

Litter, dropped by scum
Last weekend, the family donned a thin cloak of social responsibility and set out for the nearby creek to help with the annual trash clean-up of the Potomac River tributaries. According to our local weekly rag, we were part of an effort that picked out 556 tires, 83,900 “beverage containers”, and almost 15,000 plastic bags. My picture shows a blockage behind a fallen tree of mainly plastic bottles and styrofoam cups in Rock Creek, just down the road from our house. Our section of the creek also yielded a large-sized metal barbeque.

You can look at this positively and celebrate the fact that 3,500 volunteers were prepared to give up their Saturday mornings to get covered in mud and help make the Potomac River a cleaner place. Or you can stand at the side of the creek, as I did, staring down at the rubbish glut and muttering misanthropic clichés about the state of mankind and how we no longer deserve a place on a planet that we continue to rape and pollute.

I have a short song, as yet unrecorded (you’ll be relieved to hear), that goes through my head every time I see litter in natural areas. It’s called ‘Litter-Dropping Scum’, and it’s not very subtle: “You litter-dropping scum/The day will come/I’m gonna get you/With my litter-dropper-killing gun…” Its stated goal is the vigilante-style eradication of anyone who does not dispose of their trash in the correct manner. I’m nothing if not an idealist.

But does clearing out our local creek make us morally superior beings?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hands Up For Röyksopp

Hands in the air! But for the love of God, why?
When house music emerged and bloomed, I was living in London and in my early 20s, so I should have been something of a wild raver. But I already felt too old for such a scene, and I refused to spend the little spare money I had on the drugs that seemed necessary to make the music sound something more than a producer pissing about with a few buttons, for hours on end. But what did I know? Much of the electronic music that evolved from the early 90s was sublime, and I’m still trying to catch up 20 years later. I still don’t get the dancing, though.

It’s one thing to watch rave’s legacy - my dance-floor daughters and their mates jumping up and down on the spot, punching their arms in the air to the meta-commercial, factory-spewed , submusical studio detritus that outsells decency today. But to see men around my age dance in this manner at the 9:30 Club last night was disquieting. Even when captivated by the Norwegian band Röyksopp – who in a live setting combine the cool, electronic genius of Kraftwerk with the sprawling, untamed noise-pop of Mogwai – I can’t help but be perturbed by several new breeds of annoying concert-goer around me. And yes, I know, I should just stay-at-home, but it’s a tradition that at the start of spring Mrs. Pop lets me out of the house for a few hours.

So, here they are:
Fan Who Knows Which Song It Is Before Everyone Else. You know, the one who starts to whoop or shriek before everyone else does, just to show that they already recognise the song a mere two bars in. That would be the super-fan twat directly to my left. Of course he could be just doing it on every song, and we’d have no idea whether he really knew which song this was or not, unless the band announced at the end they’d only written it that afternoon. Which doesn’t happen often.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Canny Punter In Punta Cana

White people burdened with turning brown
My family thinks that I’m a snob about mass tourism, but they’re wrong. It’s just one of those things  – like fat-necked bigots, hysterical touchline soccer moms, gun-waving pyschotic killers or, worst of all, fans of the Irish popular music combo known as Ucunting2 – that I’d rather avoid if at all possible. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible.

Family life is all about compromise, so after subjecting my kids to several holidays spent in the middle of fields full of mostly wet, British sheep, I consented (or should that be condescended?) to join them for a week in an “all-inclusive” beach resort in Punta Cana, a mainly foreign-owned enclave populated by tens of thousands of revolving, wealthy colonists in the south-east corner of the Dominican Republic.

First, a quick word about the meaning of all-inclusive. It’s all-inclusive in much the same way that the Democratic Republic of Korea is democratic. That is, it’s all-inclusive unless you want to drink wine that doesn’t taste like it was made from grapes fomented in vats of ferret’s piss. Or if you want a steak that it won’t take you a day to chew. Or if you want some spa treatment, or if you want to play tennis after sundown. Etcetera. That is, it’s all-inclusive, except for the bits that aren’t included. Brought to you by Holidays With An Asterisk.

Now, it was by no means a bad resort, if you can stop yourself from laughing at the overall concept – plane after plane of fat, pasty Caucasians flying in as part of a vain attempt to make themselves look more physically attractive by sitting still for hours under a cancer-causing sun, all the while being waited on by handsome, lithe young locals whose very presence taunts the visitors’ expensive but futile efforts to nudge up their Sexy Factor. But there’s always something better, if you’re willing to pay.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Barely Legal Sounds Good

Bordering on bankrupt, financially and culturally
Since writing last year about my revived vinyl fetish, I’ve undergone something of a conversion to modern mores. As with most human endeavours, my incentives were driven by raw economics. A year ago, if people were bemused that I still bought music in a shop, it had no effect on me. But someone telling me about legalsounds.com - where any song out of the three million plus available costs nine cents - has now interminably altered the way I buy and listen to music. That is, cheaply, and without having to leave the house.

Usually I ignore tips like this on the grounds that they’re either a scam, or they make my computer crash, or you need to purchase new software, or they bring angry lawyers and musicians flocking to my front door swinging their guitars and demanding royalties. But Legal Sounds not only works, it’s very simple too, at least on an Apple laptop. The only drawback is that you have to put at least $25 on your account, but I did that weeks ago and am still in credit.

Yesterday I was passing the local branch of Borders, which is about to close down due to bankruptcy and encroaching obsolescence, so I went inside searching for some bargains. This was nothing like the basket-stuffing bonanza many of us enjoyed when Tower Records collapsed – Borders was offering a mere 25% off what was already a thin selection of CDs. I picked up three, but by the time I reached the checkout I’d put them down again. Even in a closing down sale, their total cost would have bought me around 300 songs at Legal Sounds (love the name – you just know they must be illegal or, at very best, barely legal).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Seduced, Beaten, Spent

More things you must have.
“Here, your favourite magazine,” Mrs. Pop said as she thrust the latest glistering incarnation of the Financial Times supplement How To Spend It towards my shaking hands. Some months I toss it disdainfully into the recycling pile. Other months, I can’t resist. The desire to feel morally superior to the overwhelmingly wealthy is just too great. That’s right, this magazine exists to help me feel good about myself.

As I started to read the February 11 edition, I became more convinced than ever that it’s entirely written for my amusement. It’s a subtle but vicious parody, inventing people that could not possibly exist in the real world, nor survive without having their heads kicked in by the indignant normal folk they happen to bump into. For it’s just not conceivable that an actual human being, “executive chef” Alain Ducasse, say, would go public with news that “the best gift I’ve given recently was a gold and diamond ring from Lorenz Bäumer for my wife, Gwenaelle, to celebrate the birth of our son Arzhel”.

Alain explains with a hint of apology that the son’s name “is from Brittany”, though that’s not going to stop Arzhel’s future school yard contemporaries from wilfully mis-pronouncing his moniker, especially if he’s anything like his old man and his penchant for bragging about having picked up stuff like “a folding tea-ceremony table from a gallery called Mitate in Tokyo”.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

After The Fire

Charred times.
Another example of what our energy supplier Pepco calls a “winter storm event” knocked out our power for four days last week. A letter in today’s Washington Post thanks Pepco for adding to its customers’ sense of certainty by ensuring that lengthy power outages have become as much of a sure thing as death and taxes. Another indirect consequence was that our house almost burnt down. Had the fine fire-fighting men of Montgomery County not been quick to jump out of bed at 3am on Saturday, it’s hard to see how the side of our house (see picture) would have avoided  more serious damage.

It seems the neighbours’ tool shed caught fire thanks to an undetected crack in their chimney, through which heat and/or flames must have escaped as they burnt wood to keep warm. The neighbours woke up when the flames reached up to their bedroom window. The Indie-Pop family had abandoned the neighbourhood in search of a warmer, electricity-driven house, so we were summoned by cell phone at 4am to come and enjoy the last stages of the drama. We suffered no internal damage, but became a local tourist attraction for 48 hours as people we’d never met before were flushed out of their houses to come and ask, “What happened?” Maybe we’ll see them again next Halloween.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Saucy Stories Etc.

Is this what you were after?
The technical masterminds behind Blogger at some point over the past few years added all kinds of tricks and buttons that allow you to see how many people actually read this nonsense, and where they’re from. For some reason, outside of the US and the UK, I have a lot of readers in Denmark, even though I don’t know a soul who lives there. Maybe they’ve heard that when I’m drunk, I’m prone to break into song and warble “Wonderful wonderful Copenhagen/Salty old dog of the sea.” Though of course that song’s about a boat, not about Copenhagen itself, which I visited once on a press trip. I’d love to tell you more, but the memory’s lost in a fog of hard Nordic liquor hastily downed to try and shut out the sound of British businessmen telling jokes as dull as their pre-tailored polyester suits.

There are also a few visitors from Germany, but that’s just the in-laws checking up to see if I’ve written something derogatory about Dresden again. Every time I visit them, any woman in the state of Saxony who does not have aubergine-coloured hair is pointedly pointed out to me. I would just like to say for the record that Dresden, in particular the suburb of Hainsberg, I love you.

The other thing Blogger lets you see are the search terms that lead people to your blog. It turns out that the lead search term is “saucy stories”, thanks to this rather meandering entry almost a year ago about a trip to Safeway to buy Worcestershire sauce.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Great Suburban Traditions No. 11 - Failing To Take Down The Xmas Lights

Jesus gets ready for Easter
Unlike leaf blowers, dog turd and piano recitals, this is one suburban tradition that I love – January comes and goes, and still there are people who have not bothered to take down their festive decorations. In every neighbourhood, there will be at least one garden with a sad, deflated Santa, a defiantly glowing reindeer, or a crib scene missing Jesus, who has long since grown up and absconded with his mates to smoke pot and drink stolen Miller Lite in the nearby woods.

As winter wears on, bulbs blow and storms tear down the strings of lights, rendering the displays increasingly sad and shabby. And I’m left with the warm inner feeling that beyond the front door sits a family too lazy to do anything about it. Mum, Dad and the kids – all of them too reassuringly sane to stand around in freezing weather wrestling with wires and step-ladders. Hell, just leave it ‘til Easter. Maybe by then someone will have found Jesus and nailed him to the tree.