An Address to My Friends at Dartmouth

I’m sure you’ve all seen the little mud path that emerges on the Baker lawn in the spring.  The one that goes straight out a ways and then curves to the west.  It gets beat down every winter and mud-season by the feet trying to get from the library to FoCo as directly as possible.  That sort of thing is called a “desire path.”  It is, simply put, the path that people tend to want to follow.  Some desire paths eventually become institutionalized.  The path that’s now Massachusetts’s Route 2 was already ground into the earth before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth.

If you look at the Green after the first big snow, you’ll see a number of desire paths emerge that bear no relation to the nonsense gravel paths laid out for you.  Why do those paths exist, then?  Well, they’re old desire paths (they’re actually the desire paths of the cows that used to graze on the Green, which is interesting to note, but kind of ruins my metaphor, so I’ll ask you to ignore it).

Dartmouth is kind of like that sometimes.  Institutions which don’t make sense are like those gravel paths — they’re someone else’s desire paths.  And once they get paved you can feel quite stuck to them.

But, its not so bad as all that.  There’s a particular corner near Fahey-McClane which you may cut through if you’re heading from Frat Row to FoCo.  It used to have one of those mud paths, but last spring, some paving stones were set there.  It’s a real path, now, maybe six feet long — a silly little thing but one crafted in part by sheer stubborness.

In my freshman year the Dartmouth Standup Comedy Group (admittedly, another silly little thing) was founded.  In my time with the group we moved from being completely unknown, to an object of derision, to actually being invited to events by other groups.  This is not the most earth shattering change to campus culture and I don’t pretend to think it improves anyone’s lives other than people who like standup, but I’m glad we wore down our path.

So here’s my advice to you:  Don’t be afraid to get your shoes wet.  Walk a little in the snow and see who follows.  Schoolboys used to tell each other in dog’s latin “don’t let the bastards grind you down,” but I think its more important for you to remember that although it may not be easy, with enough feet and enough time, you might grind them down.

Published in: on September 29, 2011 at 4:44 pm  Comments (1)  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Led Zeppelin Shadows Taller than Our Souls

I’m gonna give you guys a twofer on the book reviews this week, since I wanted to squeeze this in before Zeptember is over.  (as an aside, the wordpress spellcheck recognizes “twofer” as a legitimate word, but doesn’t recognize “wordpress” or “spellcheck”) 

What’s This Then?:  Shadows Taller than Our Souls is one of about a million books of widely varying quality about Led Zeppelin.  What sets this one apart is that its full of stuff.  There are tons of items that can be pulled out of the book.  My girlfriend started thumbing through the book and asked me “Is this a Led Zeppelin pop-up book” and after a minute of thought I had to answer “yeah, sort of.”  The stuff consists of reproduction ticket stubs, press releases, flyers and whatnot, some huge gatefold photos, and a cd (dressed up to look like a vinyl record of course) of an interview with Jimmy Page from the late seventies.  The text of the book is something of a cultural history of the band, it describes the production of each album and the reaction thereto.

Well s’it any good?:  I can’t help but think of this book as two things the text and the stuff.  You would think the stuff would be gimmicky, but I actually think its brilliant.  You can feel like some sort of archaeozeppelinologist (a profession which doubtless will exist in the far future) going through the stuff, seeing how design trends changed in flyers or who else gets mentioned in press releases and seeing how Zeppelin was moving with or against trends from 1968 to 80.  And if any band should get this kind of treatment, its probably Zeppelin since their physical presence (pardon the pun) was so important.  That being said I wish they had reproduced some of the physical artifacts the band (and/or their associates) created like the crazy wheel thing from the Led Zeppelin III vinyl cover or Jimmy Page’s scratching of “Do what thou wilt” on the edge of that same album.

As to the text, I have mixed feelings.  Charles Cross is very good at writing about music, and its obvious he loves Zeppelin.  He avoids all the tawdry “are they true or not” stories that fill most Zeppelin books instead to focus on the band’s work, and the fan reaction to it.  This approach fits nicely with the play archaeological record the book gives the reader so that the overall experience describes the history of the band as a cultural phenomenon.  That being said, if you’re anything like me (and I know I am), and you know the band’s history well, you probably won’t learn much from this book.  Even with all the pictures and all the stuff, the book is only about one hundred pages long.  Cross just didn’t have enough space to say much of anything interesting, which is too bad, because I think Cross is a better writer than he gets to display here. If we’re totally honest with ourselves, we have to admit that this is in fact a coffee table book for a hard rock themed living room.  If you’re okay with that, then this is a really fun coffee table book.

What’s the best bit?:  My favorite part was one of the pieces of stuff, a flyer for Zeppelin’s performance at Carnegie Hall.  The inside left page is an ad for Led Zeppelin II, the inside right just says that Led Zeppelin is playing Carnegie Hall, and gives the date.  The remainder of the page is blank white space.  The back cover gives the dates for several concerts conducted by Stokowski below a picture of the conductor.  It’s as though the Carnegie Hall advertisement department just did not know what to do with Zeppelin.

Anything else?: If you’re looking for a book with the mudshark story and all that good stuff, you want Hammer of the Gods.  If you want a more in depth book about the making of the music, look for a book called Dazed and Confused.  Charles Cross is well known for his biographies of rock musicians.  I’ve only read his Hendrix biography Room Full of Mirrors, but its very good, so on that I’ll give a tentative recommendation to the rest of his work.

Published in: on September 27, 2011 at 12:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: 33 1/3 Led Zeppelin IV

What’s this then:  I almost feel like I should apologize for that mess of a title.  I’m not quite sure what to call this book.  It comes from the 33 1/3 series of books, in which a single author writes a couple hundred pages on a classic album.  The cover of this particular volume refers to Zeppelin’s fourth album (that’s the one with Stairway on it, if you didn’t know) only by the four symbols that appeared on the album cover, , and in fact they go to the pain of only referring to the album by those symbols throughout.  Everyone else, including any bookseller’s website just calls it Led Zeppelin IV.  So this particular volume sees Erik Davis, journalist of the weird, waxing philosophical and mystical about the brilliant and slightly spooky hard rock album.

Well, s’it any good?:  It has a sort of mad brilliance.  Davis is well versed in both legitimate academic criticism and high weirdness and here he’s not afraid to mix the two.  Theodor Adorno’s concept of the commodity fetish can appear right along side a discussion of Austin Osman Spare’s sigil magic without sensing any contradiction.  There is a gleeful abandon about the whole book.  Davis’s analysis is so patently goofy that you have to take it as tongue in cheek (he puns throughout the book, including a play on magnum opus and Crowley’s “Great Work”), but the sheer verve he does it with convinces you he’s right.  In fact, you get the sense he’s even starting to convince himself. If you’re willing to go with Davis’s serious goofiness (not to mention his goofy seriousness), and you happen to like Zeppelin, then this book is a load of fun.

What’s the best bit: There’s a theme through the book that Led Zeppelin IV  is an album concerned with physicality and space.  The lyrics are full of places real and imagined (California, the Misty Mountains, the levees of the Mississippi delta, a stairway to heaven, someplace called Evermore, so on).  And Zeppelin was one of the rock bands that popularized placing mics far from the instruments, so, as Davis points out, you hear the instruments reacting to the room, but more importantly, you hear the room reacting to the instruments.  Like, wow, dude.  It is kind of a stonery thing to note, but I’m really won over by it.  Zeppelin’s music was considered hard, heavy, rock — all metaphors of physicality, not to mention the noted … let’s say physicality of the band members and their on the road activities.

Anything else:  If Zeppelin isn’t your thing, then maybe you could try one of the other  33 1/3 books.  I can’t speak to their quality, since each one has a different author, but if they typically do this good of a job of matching author with subject, then I imagine you’ll be happy with the results.

If you like reading about weird stuff (magic, the paranormal, drug-stuff, cyberculture, etc) from someone who’s willing to just go with the crazies and have a little fun, I recommend checking out Erik Davis.  I’m a big fan of his work.

If its been a long time since you rock-and-rolled, I’d like to remind you that there’s only about a week left in Zeptember, and you should try and get a little in.  It’s good for you.

Published in: on September 26, 2011 at 11:57 am  Leave a Comment  

Some housekeeping

Well, after a couple weeks of computer trouble, I’m back after another big hiccup.  I think I’ll be moving Books You’ve Never Heard Of to Mondays (you did notice that happened on Thursday’s, didn’t you?  Of course you did).  And I think I’ll start talking about comics on Fridays.  As ever, other thoughts will appear sporadically.

Published in: on September 26, 2011 at 11:10 am  Leave a Comment  

The Manuel Norriega playlist, just ’cause

In 1989 tensions between Panamanians and United States troops stationed near the canal (along with years of political animosity) led to war in Panama.  At the end of this conflict, Panamanian leader Manuel Norriega sought refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama.  Since attacking the Embassy would have constituted an act of war against the Vatican (which would have been in poor taste), U.S. forces flushed Noriega out by setting up loudspeakers to blast music from an armed forces radio station at the embassy.

As it turns out, SouthCom Network radio made a list of song’s requested for a military report, and said report is now available here (check pages 4-6).

It’s a pretty rad playlist, actually.  Let’s take a look.

The funny:
No Particular Place to Go (Chuck Berry)
Panama (Van Halen)
In My Time of Dying (Zeppelin)
I Fought the Law and the Law Won (The Clash)
Don’t Fear the Reaper (Blue Öyster Cult)

The Awesome:
Don’t Look Back (Boston)
Welcome to the Jungle (Guns and Roses)
Another Thing Comin’ (Judas Priest)
Run to the Hills (Iron Maiden)
Voodoo Child (Hendrix)

The oh so 80’s:
Renegade (Styx)
We’re Not Gonna Take It (Twisted Sister)
This Means War (Joan Jett)
Heaven’s on Fire (Kiss)

The Mildly Inexplicable:
Never Tear Us Apart (INXS)
Change (Tears for Fears)

The Reason Norriega Finally Gave Up (presumably):
Never Gonna Give You Up (Rick Astley)

On a more serious note, the U.S. Military still uses music as a weapon in interrogations.  There is currently a freedom of information request to get the Gitmo playlist.  As it turns out some musicians don’t want their music being used to torture people (or maybe they just don’t like to think their music is torturous).  Also the government owes royalties for whatever music they’ve used.

Published in: on September 10, 2011 at 1:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Deathless

What’s this, then?:  Deathless is Catherynne Valente’s fantasy novel about Stalinist Russia. Young Marya Morevna dreams of being taken away by a prince (even though there are no princes after the revolution), when she gets her wish, it’s Koschei the Deathless (a sort of demon/lich from Russian folklore) who comes for her.  Reviewers have been talking about this book as “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but about Russia.”  Which I don’t think is entirely fair.  This is book is much more interested in serving as a critique, where Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I think concerns itself primarily with being a novel and secondarily with its concerns about the meaning of Englishness.  Deathless is really fueled by its preoccupation with the love of fairy tales and its examination of fairy tale love.

Well, s’it any good?:  It’s the best fantasy novel about Stalinist Russia I’ve ever read.  The book is a joy to read, but by the sober light of day it seems a little more flawed.  Valente does a great job of making fairy tale elements work in a novel.  Every time Marya had to interact with her three sisters (of course), I couldn’t help but smile at the fairy tale repetition and variation that I knew was coming.  Most of the characters are fairy-tale characters to some extent, whether because they’re named tale characters, like Koschei or Marya or Baba Yaga, or because they’re the kind of stock characters you get in the fairy tales, like the three sisters or a dumb peasant boy who rescues a princess.  The problem is that fairy tales aren’t known for their great characterization.  Likewise, in Deathless, I felt like characters actions were more driven thematicaly than realistically.  The most interesting part is the romance between Marya and Koschei which points out that fairy-tale romances are creepy as fuck.  Koschei more or less kidnaps Marya (what does it mean to be swept off your feet?) which begins a cycle of Koschei dominating Marya, Marya leaving with another man, Ivan, Marya trying and failing to dominate Ivan (not because he’s indominatable, but because he’s too boring to let anything like that happen), Koschei coming groveling back, Marya dominating Koschei and so on.  The whole business is incredibly uncomfortable, and also kind of hawt in a bdsm sort of way (I really think its written that way intentionally).  I think the idea is that we let ourselves be taken by fantasy stories to escape the real world, but in doing so we’re just using culture to our own selfish ends.  Maybe.  The problem is, since I had a hard time reading what Marya’s and Koschei’s motivations were as a imaginary persons, I could never be sure I was piecing the thematics together properly since I didn’t feel like I had all the pieces of the puzzle. So, I just spent this whole paragraph complaining, but I have to reiterate that I enjoyed reading this book, and if you’re looking for a book about Russian fairy tale characters living in the Soviet Union (with added S&M) then this is it.

What’s the best bit?:  Chapter 23.  I guess the thing this book does really well is playing out the thought experiment of “what if fairy tale beings were real and lived under Stalin.”  Chapter 23 reveals that the narrator has all along been the domovoya (house elf) of Marya’s childhood home in Leningrad.  She explains how the inhabitants of the house starved during World War II and eventually the house itself crumbled (which also brings on the domovoya’s illness and death).  Most of the fantasy elements step into the background here and the chapter is a pretty chilling picture of life in Leningrad during wartime.  Near the end of the chapter the inhabitants of the house cook ration card stew (where you hold a ration card over a pot of water so you can boil its shadow to eat it).  This action, which, since some of Valente’s in laws lived in Leningrad at the time, I assume actually happened, nicely pulls together the idea that people may most need to draw on the world of magic and fantasy in the hardest times.

Anything else?:  Yeah.  If you get the chance, go read up some on Russian fairy tales.  They occupy this weird space of being mostly familiar but a little alien — mostly like the Grimms’ stories we all know, but way different in some of the small details (witches don’t fly on brooms but in a giant mortar and pestle).  That slight but manageable alien-ness gives them a certain peculiar charm.

Published in: on September 8, 2011 at 12:11 pm  Comments (2)  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Voice of the Fire

What’s this, then?:  Voice of the Fire is Alan Moore’s first (and as far as I know only) foray into prose fiction.  For those of you who don’t know, Moore is the comics wizard (literally) behind Watchmen, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and  V for Vendetta, to name just his best-known works.  Voice of the Fire claims right on its cover to be a novel, but that’s only true if you accept Moore’s chaotic-fractal vision of time.  This is a collection of short stories taking place in the are which will come to be Moore’s hometown of Northampton, England throughout time.  The first story is about a bronze-age man and the last is about Moore himself.  In between there are chapters about Knights Templar, witches burned at the stake and John Dee, among others.  How does it claim to be a novel?  The characters in each story are supposed to be iterations or echoes of each other through time.  The witches, John Dee, and Alan Moore are all the Shaman from the Bronze age tale.  Of course they become very different over time as any good characters do.  You might also say that Northampton is the protagonist of this novel.  They way certain slang phrases appear early on and shift over time gives us a sense that the language and culture of Northampton is a dynamic character.  Readily identifiable as the same but changing slightly.  A man’s erect penis is referred to as his “will” in some of the earliest stories.  This becomes a man’s “willy” in our own time.  All the stories are set around late October and early November and so Moore seems to suggest that Guy Fawkes day is not so different from the Samhain bonfires of pagan Britain. All this really fleshes out Moore’s theory of how little things reverberate bigger and bigger through history as seen in From Hell and to a lesser extent Watchmen.

Well, s’it any good?:  It has its charms.  Writing the above description, I found myself falling in love with the book again.  If you’re really into Alan Moore, this book is a great look inside his head.  None of the stories really wowed me, though, on their own.  They’re good but not really spectacular.  It’s really only in the way the stories play off of each other that the book is interesting, which, I guess makes it a neat little experimental novel.  I would reccomend it if you 1) are a diehard Alan Moore fan, 2) really want to read a collection of stories about Northampton, 3) really want to read a book about the pagan/occult history of Britain (witches and Templars and John Dee and all that).  Otherwise it remains a curiosity.

What’s the best bit? :  Probably the chapter about Alan Moore.  It seems really self indulgent to end a book with a section where you’re the protagonist, but Alan kind of slips into the background.  Instead he tells us all about what it’s like to live in Northampton.  He describes the crime and the overpopulation and the homelessness of that city with the poetry of the harboiled writers of the early Twentieth Centruy.  He describes a murder investigation on the news where the victim’s head was missing until it was found by a black dog — beheadings and black dogs being two of the motifs that play out throughout various stories — hinting that the mythic past is still acting on the present.  Or is Moore admitting that he chose the elements of that mythic past based on his present only to suggest through all the stories that Northampton is important, is worth thinking about?  That’s it, of course, but the sly old wizard would never let on.

Anything else:  I really didn’t like the production of this book — so much so I’m talking about it here.  Top Shelf publishing obviously spared no expense and used glossy paper and a very sturdy stock for the cover.  Unfortunately this makes it a feat of strength and will to hold the book open to read it.  I think the book’s available for Kindle, where you’ll lose out on some color photographs, but you’ll save some hassle.

Published in: on September 1, 2011 at 1:45 pm  Comments (1)