It has been called “the single most important day in the career” of Johnny Cash. The date was January 13, 1968, a year that will forever go down in infamy in American history on account of the shocking assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, not to mention the infamous Tet Offensive, which plunged the United States neck-deep into one of the most unpopular wars the world had ever seen. The Tet Offensive went down mere days after this benchmark date in the life of the Man in Black. January 13, 1968 was the day Cash stepped through the gates of the notorious Northern California maximum security prison at Folsom—flanked by his ever-present entourage of June Carter, Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and his longtime backing band the Tennessee Three—to perform before a mess hall of inmates. There were two performances that day, one at 9:40 am and the other around lunchtime. Both shows were recorded by producer Bob Johnston, although the first show was exclusively used for the official record, after Johnston felt that Cash didn’t quite deliver with the same fire the second time around. But now, for the first time, both sets have been made available as part of this beautiful Legacy Edition, along with an informative DVD with a documentary on Cash’s trip to Folsom, featuring interviews with Roseanne Cash, Merle Haggard, Marty Stuart, and several former inmates who attended the iconic concert. [$39.98]
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Marcel Proust wrote a rather well-known work called In Search of Lost Time, published in France in seven parts between 1913 and 1927. Before he embarked on this masterwork, he wrote a magazine article called “On Reading” that was published in 1905 in Renaissance latine as part of his exploration of the personal importance of the experience of reading:
There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book.
Proust ruminates about the importance of time spent reading as a child, and the associations that come to exist between the stories that were read and the age when we read them. Whether the time was spent outside with family members at a picnic, or in one’s own bedroom or perhaps some secret spot, the setting where we first encountered some of our favorite childhood characters and tales continues to be important.
Coming across those same stories in our adult life, story details might be forgotten but there is still a good chance that some association remains between the content and the time when we first encountered it. Proust comments:
If we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist.
As an elementary school kid my nose was often stuck in a book. I remember creating a cushy nest in my oddly shaped closet, using all the extra pillows and blankets I could find to create a hiding place for myself and my pile of Trixie Belden books. Did you have a secret reading nook as a child? Does encountering one of the books or authors that helped shape your sense of the reading experience as a child bring you back to the time and place when you began to love stories?
In a week that appears to signal the end of the tremendous 2008 holiday gaming glut, it’s nice to see that there are still a few essential buys that are impossible to ignore, even if they are of a decidedly smaller nature than most of the big ticket items we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks.
The first thing I’m going to be doing this week is rediscovering my Shoryuken thumb for the sake of Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix. Actually, “rediscovering” might not be the right word, as I never was able to pull off the damn dragon punch with anything approximating consistency. Why can my thumb not master the mechanic of forward-down-down/forward? I dunno, but I’ll be getting more practice at it this week with my boy Ken. Seriously, this is another stop on the nostalgia train that’s shamelessly torn through the downloadable console services this year, but it looks like another fantastic one. No fighter has ever come close to the pick-up-and-play appeal of Street Fighter II, and to see it all prettied up for an HD audience ought to be just enough to convince a whole bunch of people to lose their lives to it again for another month or so.
Of course, while I’m talking about the nostalgia train (which I’m sure looks a lot like a steam engine), I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the DS update of Chrono Trigger, which finally hits this week. You know, since it almost broke the internet when it was announced back in the summer, I’ve heard almost nothing about this re-release…I guess with so many new properties making their way to portables and consoles this time of year, we don’t really have time to be spending on the graphical tweaks of a classic RPG. Still, classic it is, and you’re going to be glad you have it next summer when you’ve got 30 hours to kill and no more Xbox games to play.
Other than those two? Not much to see! The DS’s Neopets Puzzle Adventure is actually a surprisingly challenging puzzler in a crowded DS market, so that’s certainly worth a look. Band Manager, on the PC, could be fun or it could be a snooze (but if it has to do with music I may give it a run-through), and the Wii gets a couple of cooking games where you cook food that you can’t actually eat (I may never understand the appeal of this). Am I overlooking something? Banjo-Kazooie, maybe?
It’s a slow week, so maybe this is the time to catch up on some of the stuff you missed over the last month and a half or so (surely there’s something, yes?). Happy Thanksgiving, all.
Tyler Cowen linked to Peter Suderman’s post at Culture 11, “In Praise of Negative Reviews,” a response to Joe Queenan’s funny essay about useless, gushy book reviews and awkward amounts of unearned praise. Suderman observes that when it comes to incoherent praise,
the critical medium that suffers most is pop music criticism, which skews toward generally positive reviews of most everything, no matter how bland or terrible. Scan the sidebar of Metacritic’s music page. Nearly all of the review averages are positive or very positive, and almost none of them are straightforward pans. In fact, right now I don’t see a single album with a review average that gets a score categorized “generally negative reviews.” Contrast this with the movies page, which contains more than a dozen films with low averages. Even the limited release indies — the “artsy” films — are often given low marks.
Is contemporary pop music really that much better than contemporary mainstream filmmaking? I think not. Instead, it’s just that the music reviewing culture has developed in such a way that most everything scores a “pretty good” or a “not bad.” (Witness Idolator’s ongoing mocking of Rolling Stone for the rock mag’s tendency to give pretty much anything a three-star review on its five-star scale.) There are a handful outlets like Pitchfork and The Village Voice which regularly publish tough music criticism, but these are the exceptions.
Suderman has no real explanations for the surfeit of positive reviews. I had some theories back when I was writing more music reviews and was trying figure out why anyone bothered. Unlike films, many many records get released, and just noticing one and running a review of it already marks it as significant. The substance of the review itself is almost beside the point. Acknowledging its existence is already an admission that it’s “pretty good,” so it would be strange for the review to suggest otherwise.
In general, it’s hard coming up with compelling descriptions of music, and with readily accessible sound files, reviewers are competing with the songs themselves, which are easier to sample for oneself than ever. Many review editors try to compensate for this by urging writers to craft tightly wound prose explosions with lots of active verbs and implausible metaphors. The poetic quality of the review has to make up for its inability to beat the music, which basically speaks for itself. Generally, explaining whether the record is good or not is secondary to the writer’s making the reader laugh or think, Wow, that was cleverly phrased. And if all else fails, reviewers can work a variation on the formula of “sounds like artist A plus artist B doing some crazy thing”: e.g., “sounds like Bob Dylan making a pass at Joan Armatrading while landing a helicopter in a minefield.” (Here’s a good example from Klosterman’s review of Chinese Democracy: “It’s like if Jeff Lynne tried to make Out Of The Blue sound more like Fun House, except with jazz drumming and a girl singer from Motown.”) These descriptive conglomerates typically come across as positive but don’t really help readers, unless they have a clairvoyant capacity to get on the reviewer’s wavelength.
When I first started reviewing music, I used to receive boxes of discs from a fledgling website and had to write 150 words reviews of everything in the box. On top of that, I had to single out at least one out of every 10, if I remember correctly, for 300-word recommendations that would receive more prominent play on the site. I used to think this was a terrible way to go about things, because often there weren’t any CDs that warranted recommendation, and I didn’t think reviewers should be rewarded with prominent placement for shilling for bands. But it wasn’t hard to figure out the logic for this way of doing things. When people read CD reviews, they want to find out about something they should go listen to. They don’t want this: “Hey, here’s something you never heard of. Take a few minutes to read about why you were far better off that way.”
It might amuse some readers to see well-established artists attacked, but who wants to read negative reviews of stuff they haven’t heard of? There’s no point, and the reviewer just comes across as mean. I certainly felt this way about myself when I was writing the negative reviews. It seemed dumb for me to be discouraging these performers, who had no chance of making it, really, no matter what I wrote about them. It’s no fun pissing on people’s dreams. In fact, it made more sense to try to champion all bands, so I could potentially claim some of the glory for helping one of them make it. (I was too cynical to think that actual musical talent had anything to do with future success; success in popular culture has mostly to do with promotion and relentless networking.)
Readers often want hype, not evaluation, because it gives pop culture a sure-fire context, whereas a review that traces musical influences and parses lyrics only helps a select few readers. Besides, there are no established criteria for what’s good beyond popularity or fidelity to genre expectations. Maybe Suderman thinks it’s possible that music reviews could be objective evaluations of quality, as defined by some unimpeachable universal standards, but I don’t believe these exist for pop music (or for much of anything in culture—aesthetic criteria are political creations). The pop music people consume is typically a tribal thing or a means to participate in the zeitgeist, and it’s hard as a reviewer to shape the zeitgeist from the margins. But that doesn’t stop many of them from trying.
The idea that I would simply write up a fair evaluation of a record was of course out of the question. My taste is pretty eclectic and idiosyncratic. That was by design. I took pride in the idiosyncrasy because I used to think it made me special, unclassifiable. So my opinion was of no use as a guide for people with more “average” tastes, and I sometimes went out of my way to be contrarian. Most reviewers are similarly in it for the self-definition, seeking to prove to themselves that their tastes are unique or trying to secure tangible proof of their influence on the world. The parasitic positive review is as much a will to power as the nihilistic negative one. And I think pop-music reviewers generally have a disproportionate amount of respect for musicians and want to mystify what musicians do, turn it into magic. This justifies the amount of time they spend under the musicians’ thrall, thinking about the musician’s efforts instead of making efforts of their own.
The bad movies. That’s all anyone ever wants to talk about. Manos. Mitchell. The audacity of taking on a pseudo classic like This Island Earth. The creative constitution it must have required to endure the aesthetic horrors of Time of the Apes, The Castle of Fu Mancho, or Attack of the The Eye Creatures. But there remains so much more to Mystery Science Theater 3000 than Arch Hall Jr., Coleman Francis, and Merritt Stone. As a matter of fact, one of the first things critics latched onto where the sensational skits, in between bits that often commented directly on the film being shown. Yet there were also times when the material was merely “inspired” by the work being presented, said muse mutated into wit that transpired the sloppy celluloid circumstances. It’s these boffo blackouts that deserve reconsideration and concentration. SE&L, confirmed MiSTies, will highlight 10 of the best forays into funny stuff the Satellite of Love and its occupants ever attempted.
There are a couple of caveats when diving into this list. First, we purposely avoided anything where music was involved. Mystery Science Theater 3000 was famous for its satiric songs, and trying to pick 20, let alone 10 would have been impossible. Therefore, only atonal humor will be discussed. Also, we’ve also stopped the reflection at Season 7, the non Sci-Fi Channel version of the series. There’s no real reason for such a barrier, except that more people are familiar with the updated concept of the show, and some of the older material needs its day in the sun. Finally, supporting characters like Dr. Clayton Forrester, Dr. Lawrence Erhardt, TV’s Frank and the Mole Men have also been excluded. They’ll get their moment sometime in the near future. With all the stipulations in place, let’s begin in chronological order:
from K03: Starforce: Fugitive Alien II
Crow vs. Kenny from 302: Gamera
Winter Sports Cavalcade from 311: It Conquered the World
Catching Ross from 315: Teenage Caveman
Art Therapy from 507: I Accuse My Parents
Chick Flick Fight (Really Femmie Movies) from 517: Alien From LA
Ingmar Bergman Tells a Joke from 617: The Sword and the Dragon