Monthly Archives: November 2013

That’s My Jam #10: Helmet and House of Pain, ‘Just Another Victim’

Check out the That’s My Jam manifesto here.

Gather ’round, kiddos, for a story about the world that was, way back in 1993. See, back then, other than a few high-profile collaborations – Run DMC and Aerosmith on Walk This Way, Public Enemy and Anthrax on Bring The Noise, etc. – rap and rock went together like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Fucktardia, and … well, a normal, sane, compassionate human being. Then along came this movie, Judgment Night, starring what were then some of the hottest names in young Hollywood (Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr., etc.) in a bros night out gone horribly wrong when the party bus breaks down on the bad side of town and some crazy thugs take offense. The movie is awful. But the soundtrack was all new tracks, and every track featured a rock band paired with hip-hop artists. Some don’t work so well – Dinosaur Jr. and Del tha Funky Homosapien, I’m looking your way – and some are dy-no-mite, such as Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill, Ice-T and Slayer and the above pairing. Just Another Victim provides the rawness and pulse-pounding energy that the movie is completely lacking in, and still holds up 20 years later.

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‘Moby Dick’: The Great American Lie

We have been sold a bill of goods. When Moby Dick is discussed, it is often related as the tale of Captain Ahab’s obsession, his quest to destroy the famed white whale that claimed his leg and his sanity.

Which sounds like an awesome story. And for about, oh, say, 60 pages near the end of the book, that’s exactly what Moby Dick is, a pretty awesome story. It’s the other 460 pages I take issue with, 460 pages of sailors’ endless soliloquies on everything from what’s for lunch to the existence of God dotted among a complete accounting of all of the mindless minutiae of the commercial whaling world of the early 1800’s.

Gathered below are the scattered thoughts of this obsessed madman’s quest to slay the wicked, white whale of American literature.

* My main issue is mentioned above: This isn’t really about Ahab and his quest to kill the white whale. The numbers back me up.

– Ishmael and Queequeg don’t even leave for Nantucket until page 53, or 10% of the way through the book. I’m not talking about leaving to go whaling; I’m talking about actually getting on a boat to go to the town where they will get on the boat. Why? I’m unsure, except Melville gets to play the noble savage card when Queequeg dives overboard to save a dimwitted honky during the coastal cruise. The first 50 pages could have easily been cut down (or excised completely) and set in Nantucket. It’s self-indulgent.

– The Pequod doesn’t set sail until page 93 (17%). It’s almost 1/5 of the book before our crew leaves dry land.

– We don’t meet Ahab until page 107 (20.3%). The White Whale makes no appearance until the final showdown, but that can be made to work.  Take Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the movie adaptation, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz and Coppola’s Col. Kurtz both cast an enormous shadow over their respective stories. Nothing happens in either tale without the reader thinking of Kurtz, hiding in the jungle, biding his time, waiting to wreak havoc on everyone and everything around him. But you can’t do that with your protagonist. Or, at least, Melville couldn’t do that with his. And, as I’ve already said, you can do this with the antagonist, but Melville does a poor job of that. Really, up until the time Moby Dick is about to make his appearance, Moby is almost an afterthought. Periodically, Ahab wanders out on deck, hails a passing ship and asks about the white whale. This is what passes for building tension. It never feels like you need to worry about the bleached leviathan until you have no choice but to worry about him.

– The great, white whale isn’t mentioned directly until page 145 (27.5%). It isn’t so much that we don’t know about our pal Moby until that point – we just know that Ahab lost his leg in a whaling incident – but by not knowing about him, we don’t know what the whole thrust of the whaling voyage is. We don’t know this is a revenge mission for Ahab, which is allegedly the entire point of the novel. Let me repeat that: Almost a third of the novel, and we don’t yet know the point. We have foreshadowing that the whaling voyage is going to kill a bunch of people, we have the noble savage narrative established, we know Ishmael is an experienced sailor and endless hype man, we’ve even been tutored on the proper way to make seafood stew. But Ahab’s motivation and the white whale who the damn book is named after are treated by Melville as mere afterthoughts.

– The Pequod crew finally sees whales on page 196 (37.2%). The whalers finally kill their prey on page 264 (50%). A lot more writing about whales than actual whales …

* Whaling, much like war, appears to be a hurry-up-and-wait proposition. This is part of what hurts Moby Dick. We get some fascinating scenes – such as an appearance by a giant squid or when the whaling boats float among an enormous pod of whales – and some scenes of great hilarity – when the savvy sailors of the Pequod take advantage of a ship of clueless whalers – during the journey. However, what Melville mostly serves up is armchair philosophy from a cast of characters that is less interesting than he would have us believe (and not very believable, as I would imagine most sailors of the early and mid-1800s were a little more free with the curse words than Melville’s cast is), as well as endless, minute details about the types of things only marine biologists or people who actually sail whaling vessels want or need to know. Then Melville attempts to justify this epic by forcing relationships – including everything from the whale’s tail and the steering of a ship – to classical literature and the Bible. When this is done in a nuanced manner, it can be very effective. When it’s hundred of pages of literary pummeling by this method, it eventually dissolves down to nothing more than a pudding-like mass of dreary bloviating. I guess what I’m saying is, if I had to write a “What I learned from Moby Dick” essay, it would start like this: Moby Dick made me extremely happy that there’s no chance I’ll ever be stuck sitting next to Herman Melville on a plane.

* To be fair to Mr. Melville’s tome, I set myself up to be disappointed by this book. The last novel I finished before Moby Dick was Winter’s Bone. Winter’s Bone is an Adam Laredo kind of novel. Don’t f*&% around, get to the point, drive the narrative, set a pace so intense that you are daring the reader to put the book down, even for a second. What author Daniel Woodrell created in Winter’s Bone is a true tale of obsession, the desperate search for truth by a young girl as she endures the trials of Job (See? Anyone can make biblical references) in meth-happy, cloistered, rural Missouri, all wrapped up in less than 200 pages. Plus, I’ve been waiting to start MaddAddam, the latest from one of my favorite authors, Margaret Atwood, until after I finished Moby Dick. So maybe Moby never had a chance with me to being with.

* Does any of this mean Moby Dick shouldn’t be regarded as a classic? Well, yes and no. Is this a literary classic? I’d say no. It’s really not that well written. It’s too long, it’s uneven, it’s practically three damn books – the unnecessary intro, the encyclopedia and pulse-pounding ending. If you handed something like this to an editor today, you’d get laughed out of the building. Melville can write – read Bartleby the Scrivener – but Moby isn’t evidence of that so much as it is a display of his wide-ranging knowledge of the ocean.

That said, the historical value of Moby Dick is what makes it valuable. The knowledge and detail that makes this such a slow, mind-numbing read are exactly the sort of facts and data that historians treasure.

The verdict: Moby Dick, while it isn’t a great novel, is an important novel. That’s not going to change. So future English majors, keep that in mind. You’re not going to be able to avoid this tome. On the plus side, in your free time, you can always read some Margaret Atwood or Daniel Woodrell to inspire you and keep you sane.

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That’s My Jam #9: The Commodores, ‘Look What You’ve Done To Me’

(For the That’s My Jam manifesto, click here.)

Lionel Richie now cracks the That’s My Jam lineup for the second time … yet neither as a modern country star. Go figure. Here, he and the Commodores beg, plead with the one who got away, putting it together with a halting, sexy rhythm section and a searing guitar solo. Can’t fake the funk, and here, the Commodores don’t.

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No, radio, I will not enable you

Recently, I had the opportunity to be part of the Arbitron ratings system. I was sent an initial questionnaire, in which I left no doubt that I would be interested participating in the TV survey. I also made it very, very clear that I had no interest in the radio survey.

So of course I was selected for the radio survey.

At that point, my interest ended, for a few reasons:

1) My radio listening habits consist primarily of changing the channels 3-4 times in the 10 minutes it takes me to get from home to work. I don’t listen to the radio at work, at home, anywhere else. Sure, I’ll occasionally hang with National Public Radio for the full dime on the car ride, but it’s not unusual for me to turn to one station, listen to the end of a song there, hate the next song, turn to another station, listen to the end of a song there, etc. Recording that would drive me nuts. Plus, I’ve gotten to the point now where I play music on my iPhone half the time, music that would in no way be part of said survey.

2) Since I listen to the radio like in such a minimal and haphazard way, it would mark me as an outlier and my data would be ignored. Statistically, I wouldn’t matter. Just like I haven’t mattered to radio since about 1991, when I graduated high school and quit listening.

3) Why the hell would I do anything to help radio? It’s the ultimate in lowest-common-denominator media. It eschews anything interesting, intelligent or artistic to pump aural junk food and the garbage that is talk radio out to the sheeple. No thanks. I don’t want to be part of that. Unless, of course, it’s time to put radio down like Old Yeller. I’m all in on that one.

4) As mentioned in the previous paragraph, I have no dog in this hunt. With things like iTunes, Spotify, etc., I can find any music any time, not something that’s programmed by a bunch of music-hating numbers crunchers who only play music that record labels pay them under the table to play. I don’t need radio because I have what I call my “Radio Adam” playlist, consisting of more than 400 songs, always listened to on shuffle. I can hear Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come followed by The Cars’ My Best Friend’s Girl followed by Liz Phair’s Fuck and Run followed by Helmet’s In the Meantime followed by Nice ‘n’ Smooth’s Sometimes I Rhyme Slow. Where am I going to hear five genres spread out over 3-4 decades like that on the public airwaves? Maybe on stations in places like Austin or San Fran, and even then it’s doubtful.

So, thanks, Arbitron, but no thanks. Contact me again if you ever want me to do the TV survey. Or if you need someone to help dig radio’s grave. I’m all in.

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