Superior Scribing 2009

Silver medal: excellent pieces of writing.

Sam Anderson: "Ballad of a Nonagenarian"

(New York, April 26, 2009)

A heartfelt and personal toast to Pete Seeger, an anti-celebrity who still managed to become a legend because of his unpopular outlook, choosing "irony versus earnestness, cleverness versus vulnerable honesty, isolation versus community, keeping quiet versus singing out."

Angus Batey: "Comment on 'What Does Blender's Demise Mean for the Music Biz?'"

(PopMatters, March 29, 2009)

Full disclosure: this is in reference to a blog entry that I wrote. But Batey (who's a columnist for the Guardian) says in much shorter, tighter comment what I would have liked to have said about the sorry state of music publications nowadays, especially from a UK perspective. "I definitely believe there's a way of writing about music and musicians that is somewhere between dull and sensationalist, and I also believe there's a market for it if it's done well. What I am no longer sure about is who might be willing to pay to produce it, never mind who might pay to read it."

Lane Brown "Kanye Was Right"

(New York, September 14, 2009)

He wasn't at the VMAs, and Brown admits that several times, but he also latches onto a good point, which is that Kanye had a point when he made an interruption so rude that it made Obama-heckler Joe Wilson look sane. The VMAs are kind of bullshit, and Taylor Swift really didn't deserve the award over Beyonce (who had a much better video), and the fact of the matter is that the VMAs mostly exist for incidents like this (remember Eminem's stunt on the last show?). Then again, how many entertainment award shows really pick the best ones all the time?

Dale Dougherty: "The Sizzling Sound of Music"

(O'Reilly Radar, March 1, 2009)

Now that CD's are quickly becoming a 20th century anachronism, we're all happy with our MP3's, right? Well, we're so used to them by now, hearing their compressed sound through crappy little computer speakers, that we quickly forget about the depth of sound that there once was -- not through those plastic little discs, but from vinyl. Maybe that's one of the reasons vinyl is making such a comeback now. And maybe that's why we're not really able to enjoy digital music as it is, unless you happen to have your 'puter hooked up to a good stereo and happen to have your digi-files sampled at rates over 256 kbps (which most of us usually don't). All of which means that as much as we might love our music, we're not really hearing it.

Jeremy Eichler: "What a Collector Loses (and Gains) in the Age of Music Downloading"

(Boston Globe, December 13, 2009)

Like any music nut getting overrun by CDs, Eichler rips his collection into MP3s to make room in the rest of his home. But he realizes that by digitizing his collection, something's gone. The physical product that music nuts have cherished since the age of the cylinder is now disappearing. Other than the audio quality that we usually give up, we're also losing the album photos, liner notes, and photos that can be replicated online but somehow aren't the same experience for us. Most of all, we miss the tactile sense and the immediacy of albums in physical form, even when they're shrunk down to CD size. I wondered about this too last year, thinking that we might all be suffering from digital amnesia as our virtual collections grow on our computers and hand-held devices.

Zach Galifianakis: "Playlist"

(iTunes, November 30, 2009)

This funny man, co-star of surprise hit movie The Hangover, shares some of his favorites, including Run-DMC, Prince, Morrissey, Broken Social Scene, Modest Mouse, Rolling Stones, Regina Spektor, and Bob Dylan, and some funny little bits about each. But when he gets to Sigur Ros's "Inni mer syngur vitleysingur", he's not funny at all. He's sweet and poetic. "I stood right next to the stage at a music festival while this dream-like group spoke to me in a language that is usually reserved for mystical goats and the unspoken elements in life that you believe that all matter is to be considered a thing of splendid delight and thrownback-heart clockwork. They make you wonder at the often-broken human machine, which can, from time to time, be a locomotion of all desired emotion."

Dan Harris: "David Bazan"

(ABC Amplified, September 16, 2009)

Surprisingly, the ABC News correspondent's indie rock video series has been pretty entertaining, not only because he picks good subjects, but also because he figures out good angles for each story (except for quoting positive reviews to justify coverage). Here, the former Pedro the Lion singer explains why he gave up his faith and how it affected his family, even though it became excellent grist for his songs. In the interview, you can tell that he's still kind of pained and conflicted about the choice, but to his credit, Harris doesn't come off as exploitive when grilling him on religion. Bazan's an agnostic now, and like Patti Smith, he says that Jesus didn't die for his sins.

Bill Holdship: "Come on, Ronnie, tell 'em how I feel!"

(Metro Time, January 14, 2009)

Honoring late Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton, Holdship rounds up commentary from Mike Watt, Alice Cooper, Brother Wayne Kramer (MC5), Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), Tommy Ramone (now a bluegrass musician), James Williamson of the Stooges (who had been previously mum about the band since leaving years ago), Gilby Clarke (Guns N' Roses), and many others. A pretty damn impressive and extensive tribute. As for Iggy himself, he had just this statement: "I am in shock. He was my best friend."

Dave Hoekstra: "Chicago Music and the Soul of a President"

(Chicago Sun-Times, January 11, 2009)

Obama's a soul man, as it turns out, and his connections to the local music scene go much further than his iPod selections. It turns out that Sam Cooke, the Staple Singers, Curtis Mayfield, and Jerry Butler all have connections with the President, as Hoekstra points out with thoughtful anecdotes, stories, and interviews. And so, it turns out that Obama makes history in yet another way: hippest music collection of any commander in chief so far (even Clinton).

Julia Keller: "The Most Unfortunate Time of the Year: Why 'Best of' Lists Fail"

(Chicago Tribune, December 20, 2009)

Ah, those 'top' lists that we writers always complain about and always participate in nevertheless. We go through with it even though we know it's only a temporary snapshot of our taste and plays up some of our worst qualities. "I turn into a show-off. I want to make sure that you know how smart I am, based on the books I pick. And I become a hedger too. And a waffler. I grow overly cautious. I find myself a lot more worried about balance and diversity than about naming the books that really moved me, instructed me, surprised me, infuriated me, shook me up and turned me round."

Josh Max: "Dance with the Devil"

(New York Times, October 6, 2009)

Once upon a time, Max dressed so fine, but after unemployment hit, he didn't talk so loud and had to start scrounging. For many of us who've experienced the dread of unemployment (especially in these dire times), it's easy to sympathize. Max finds salvation in, of all places, death metal. It gets him pumped, motivated, and focused to pick himself up and take on the world. As someone who has found Black Flag's Damaged a great resource for getting out of a serious funk, I know he feels about that kind of thing, too. And sure enough, Max did get back on his feet -- he just wrote for the Times, didn't he?

Mark Anthony Neal: "Should Black Radio Die?"

(New Black Man, May 14, 2009)

So who's right in the fight between record companies who want stations to pay for using their songs and stations who say they can't afford it and that they provide free advertising for labels? Turns out neither of them are heroes. The labels aren't going to funnel dough to the artists they should be helping, and radio isn't doing enough to help nurture new and upcoming artists. No wonder both industries are dying out.

Lara Pellegrinelli: "Scholarly Dischord"

(Chronicle for Higher Learning, May 8, 2009)

Music as torture might be OK in Guantanamo Bay, but some music scholars don't think so. Then again, other music scholars don't think that they should raise a fuss over this. Then again, the original group who raised the fuss insists that it's their business since music is their business.

Kevin Rose: "Digg Dialogg: Trent Reznor"

(Digg, April 4, 2009)

Rose didn't think up the questions, but the Digg founder had the idea of letting Diggers suggest queries for the Nine Inch Nails maven, vote on (digg) their favorites, and then ask Reznor the most popular ones. Interesting idea for an interview, but what made this so notable (and a Digg favorite itself) is what Reznor had to say about his iPhone and Ghosts experiments. Labels? Who needs 'em? Of course, that's easy to say once you have a noted name-brand like Reznor does -- one built up by a label -- but credit him for blazing his own innovative trail once he reached that rarified level.

Jody Rosen: "Vanishing Act: In Search of Eva Tanguay, the First Rock Star"

(Slate, December 1, 2009)

Rock star might sound kind of far-fetched but it's a better hook that saying she was the original diva, right? Rosen draws a convincing line from this singer/actress/provocateur to Johnny Rotten, but mostly connects with pop divas like Cyndi Lauper, Gwen Stefani, Madonna, etc. However you slice it, her antics ushered in the jazz age and a rock 'tude too. But even with her long-reaching influence, she's a ghost now. As Rosen points out, she's everywhere and she's nowhere.

Gene Simmons: "Gene Simmons Responds"

(Lefsetz newsletter, March 12, 2009)

Not as meaningful as Jon Stewart's exchange with Jim Cramer, but pretty damn entertaining nevertheless, especially as ol' Gene is perfectly comfortable with his ego and Bobby L desperately needs someone to deflate his hot air.

Alessandra Stanley: "Community Standard or Double Standard?"

(New York Times, November 25, 2009)

Adam Lambert acted suggestively on the American Music Awards, but as Stanley points out, not that much more than many other pop stars and rappers. The big difference: Lambert's routine wasn't hetero. As such, the slippery definition of obscene tripped up the network (ABC) that cancelled his appearance on a morning talk show. Of course, another network was glad to then feature him (CBS) but they've had their own mixed messages about obscenity: after the Superbowl 'wardrobe malfunction', Janet bad but Justin good.

James Woods: "The Kids Are Alright"

(Guardian, May 30, 2009)

At age 43, Woods was only eight-years-old when Quadrophenia came out, and it wasn't until 5 years later that he'd hear it. But he absorbed it so much and provides such rich detail about it now, over 30 years later, that you don't even care if he wasn't born when the events depicted on the album took place in its fictional world. In the first paragraph alone, he describes a greasy English breakfast that both compels and revolts him, and it's 'only' an image from the original album's booklet.

Bill Wyman: "26 questions that should be asked at the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger hearings tomorrow"

(Hitsville, February 24, 2009)

This is dated by now, but Wyman (not the Stone bassist, obviously) lays out how this obvious monopoly should have been grilled by Congress. 'If the group gets a kickback --excuse me, part of the service fees returned -- from Ticketmaster, do you get a percentage of that? Does Front Line?' Also, since they testified that ticket prices will actually go down after the proposed merger, don't forget that TM/LN are eligible for perjury charges for telling fibs to Congress. Another great candidate is his three strikes proposal for the RIAA: "If the RIAA files three frivolous lawsuits, it loses access to the courts" (sounds fair to me).

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

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This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

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​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

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There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

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