Sunday, August 27, 2006

THE MYSTERIES OF OHIO: THE PHANTOM OF ROUTE 40
This is less a post than a request for information. While checking out Wikimapia, Wikipedia's globe-mapping project (slogan: "Let's describe the whole Earth!") I naturally drifted to Englewood, Ohio, the suburb of Dayton I call home. (A side note: I'm currently returning from a trip there and enjoying the free Internet access at the Dayton International Airport.) Naturally, one of the landmarks singled out for description was the Englewood Dam, one of several massive dirt dams built in response to the Dayton floods of 1913. It's a remarkable structure that's also the base for a mile-long stretch of Route 40, the original cross-country highway that's since been more or less supplanted by Interstate 70.


So here's what Wikimapia says about the dam: "The largest dam maintained by the Miami Conservancy district, it was constructed in 1919 and consists of as much earth as the Great Pyramid of Giza." That last bit's news to me, but it makes sense. Then the entry takes a strange turn. "This was the haunt of the Phantom of Route 40 (the National Road) circa 1952." Wha huh? I grew up around there a couple of decades later and never heard anything about any phantom. Seeking out information, I went to Forgotten Ohio, a website maintained by Andrew Henderson, author of Weird Ohio and Forgotten Columbus. I came across a somewhat chilling account of a ghost girl said to haunt the dam, but this didn't sound like my phantom.


A Google search yields this item from the Englewood Independent referencing a Route 40 exhibit has this reference: "Visitors to the society's history tent can enjoy listening to a recording by Jim Colegrove of 'The Phantom of Route 40,' a song that tells the story of the harrowing experiences of truck drivers crossing the Englewood Dam in 1952." Elsewhere, you can find the lyric to the song, but it doesn't shed as much light on the phenomenon as you might expect, apart from referencing a skeletal phantom and a sheriff who dared to challenge him.


So, anyone out there know what this is all about?



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Saturday, August 26, 2006

HEADSPINNING CONVERSATION I JUST HAD WITH MY MOM
[I'm in Ohio visiting my parents]


MOM: What's that?
ME: That's my MySpace page. See, there's Stevie, and Gregg and Jay.
MOM: I don't see your parents on there.
ME: That's because you're not on MySpace.
MOM: Oh, I've been hearing about that. Keith, I'm glad we didn't have the Internet when you were growing up. We were watching Dateline the other night and they had set up a camera to trap these guys who were meeting you girls. You be careful on there.
ME: Mom, I'm not going to seduce young girls on the Internet.
MOM: Well, I know, I just... Be careful what you watch.
ME: Huh?
MOM: With the chat rooms and everything. Marriages are breaking up over the Internet and...


[At this point the conversation kind of tapers off.]




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FOUR NIGHTS AGO'S SHOW: JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE (NO, REALLY)


On Tuesday morning I received the type of call it would be a lot more glamorous to pretend I received all the time.


THEM: This is ____ from Jive Records.
ME: Hi.
THEM: Do you want to see Justin TImberliake tonight at the House Of Blues?
ME: Umm....
THEM: I need to know in the next seven minutes.
ME: I will get back to you.


I don't mind Justin TImberlake, honestly. He's got some great singles and that new song, "Sexyback," has just beaten me down. My first reaction was, I'm not sure I like this. But the song kept insisting, "No, you're going to like me." And on the 40th or so involuntary listening, I agreed.


So, I said yes tot the tickets. And, I guess I'm glad we went. It was weird. The place was packed and it took forever to get in even though we had access to the VIP Foundation Room. We passed that to stand on the floor where Stevie kept getting elbowed by some drunken secretatry types who looked like they were no stranger to deep-fried foods.


I honestly don't know how I felt about the show, which we abandoned after five songs. The guy can sing, and beatbox, pop and lock, and play guitar and piano. I appreciate the showmanship. But on some level I'm not sure he's an entertainer. It all seems to be an enormous ego trip done not for your benefit but for his. It's probably no coincidence that his best song, "Cry Me A River," is also the one moment he lets himself seem vulnerable. The evening had one truly hall-of-fame strange moment: A song that ended with the riff from "Smells Like Teen Spirit" played repeatedly. Was I the only one who felt liked they'd stepped into another, strange world at that moment?

Timberlake deserves credit for keeping it organic. This was a heavily rehearsed, entirely live show. But I'm not sure his music is improved by being organic. Or live at all, for that matter. And how's this for patter: "Hey Chicago, we're going to play some new songs for you tonight. We picked the ones we thought Chicago would especially like. And if not, fuck you." Classy. Thing is the crowd talked over them anyway. I guess it doesn't matter if you're Justin Timberlake or The Mountain Goats, the new stuff just never goes over.



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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

THE THINGS THAT SHOULD NOT BE: FIRST EXAMPLE


This photo:






This sends me to Frownland.

(Found on Gawker.)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

UNFORTUNATE HEADLINE JUXTAPOSITION ON CNN.COM



This just makes me sad, not as sad as this had-to-be-reported, had-to-be-shown-in-the-video-format story further down the page:




But still sad.



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Monday, August 14, 2006

GUEST-BLOGGING GIG (A.K.A. THE SHATNER PROJECT)


All this week I'll be guest-blogging at Comedy Central Insider, the Comedy Central blog. It's a week-long recap of William Shatner's career leading up to the Comedy Central Roast Of William Shatner which airs Sunday. (I'll be live-blogging that.) So, check it out if you get a chance.



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Saturday, August 12, 2006

THREE NIGHTS AGO'S SHOW: TOM WAITS
Tom Waits inexplicably announced a brief tour a few weeks ago and Chicago was his final stop. Waits rarely tours and nobody tours on the spur of the moment. And yet, three nights ago, there we were at the Auditorium Theater, home of the Joffrey Ballet, watching Waits pound through a set. Waits was someone I never thought I'd see live, so a lot of the show was overwhelmed simply by the "whoa" factor of it all. When he sat at the piano for a too-brief solo set, it was like we'd wandered into the cover of Closing Time, albeit with less peroxide.

That's no snub against the band, however, who brough Waits' shambling, experimental blues and ballads (or in the term he's using for his forthcoming rarities box set Orphans, "Brawlers, bawlers, and bastards") to vivd life. Waits' son Casey even played drums; he looks like his dad as reinvented by a WB drama. But it was Waits' magnetism that drove the evening, and I've got few complaints except that my ideal Waits set would pull from a more career-spanning selection, especially since I wasn't nuts about Blood Money or Real Gone. But the performances here made me reevaluate that assessment a bit and I left thinking that if Kelly Clarkson could record the anti-war ballad "The Day After Tomorrow," we could end the conflict in the Middle East in two weeks.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

THE WONDER COMPUTER OF THE 1980S

I'm doing some William Shatner research for something I'm writing somewhere else (cryptic, sorry, more later) and, wow, is there a lot of great stuff on You Tube. Here's two clips to treasure.


Shatner performs Harry Chapin's "Taxi" on the Dinah Shore show:




Shatner "beams down" to talk about the future of computing, circa 1982:







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Monday, August 07, 2006

LAST NIGHT'S SHOW: LOLLAPALOOZA, DAY 3
Still exhausted from this and I don't have much to say about day three aside from I guess I'm glad I went. The Hold Steady was a good way to start the day, but from there it was a whole lot of wanderin' around in search of acts that would turn out to be disappoint. The Shins might have been on fire, but no one in the crowd would have noticed. Their sound mix was muddy and too quiet and the audience's frequent chants of "Turn it up! Turn it up!" prompted nobody to remedy the situation. Too bad, too. That's a great band and they were playing before what had to have been their biggest crowd ever. I felt bad for everyone. We heard Andrew Bird waiting for The Shins--we'd seen him before and liked him--and Poi Dog Pondering waiting for Wilco. I still like Poi Dog's early stuff; this sounded kind of annoying. Wilco was... unsettling. Jeff Tweedy looked puffy, hairy, and bit beaten up. It's weird: Seeing favorite bands is sometimes like seeing old friends and realizing that the years between must have been awful hard on them. The set didn't really gel until the end, although the new songs sounded really promising. One of them sounded a bit like the Dead, but in that good American Beauty-era way, like Ryan Adams' Cold Roses. We bailed after that.

But it was a good time, even if the seams started to show on day three. Here are some odds and ends in picture form.


At one point the (lame) art area was to be called "Who Arted?" Cooler, or at least smarter, heads apparently prevailed and the name got switched to "Who Art Thou?", an awful name, but a considerably less awful name. But the switch must have happened after most of the brochures and festival banners got printed. Wandering around one of the less trafficked areas, we found this lonely sign behind a fence:



Teens offer free hugs. (Tips accepted.)



Tweedy on the Jumbotron.




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NEW BLOG: JOE GARDEN MAKES THE SCENE
Candy Cigarettes welcomes Needledrop to the blogosphere. Needledrop is the creation of Joe Garden, a writer for The Onion and a pal for years. He's also no stranger to the Internet. You can read about his ongoing campaign to take over NBC's Late Night show upon Conan O'Brien's departure at the Vote Joe website. Also, he's hilarious and he looks like this:

Sunday, August 06, 2006

LAST NIGHT'S SHOW: LOLLAPALOOZA, DAY 2

Here was my plan for yesterday:
12:30 Nada Surf
1:30 The Go! Team
2:30 Built To Spill
3:30 Wolfmother
4:30 Sonic Youth
6:30 Common
7:30 New Pornographers
8:30 Kanye West


But, to paraphrase the news, what happens on the ground has a way of changing resolutions. Lollapalooza is set up with two large areas with two sizable stages each on opposite ends of Grant Park. Which is great if you want to see something on one of the two stages close to each other, and not so great if you want to catch shows that immediately following one another at opposite ends of the park. So the Go! Team was out, as much as I love them, and so was Wolfmother, as awesome as I think they are. But, still, not a bad day's worth of music. Let's do it hour by hour.


12:30 Our day starts with Nada Surf and the band appears happy to play both for the cult-like following tuned into its big-sounding, emotional power pop and early arrivers who know them mostly for the novelty hit "Popular" (it's number two in the set.) As much as I like the band, they sound even better live than I'd expected. Maybe that's because it's singer Matthew Caws' birthday. Halfway through the set, Caws delivers the most literate shout-out of the day: "How many of you have read Devil In The White City?" At least a dozen people cheer.

1:30 This lull in the action would be a great time to check out some of the side areas like Mindfield (comedy troupes, short films and the like) and the art area, Who Art Thou? But we don't, mostly because we're hungry but also because no one I'm with can get past Who Art Thou's original name, "Who Arted?" Somewhere between the time the pamphlets were printed and the area constructed, cooler heads prevailed.


2:30 Built To Spill can be one of the best live acts out there, but they get off to a slow start today, only buildiing up to ramming speed at the halfway mark. That's part of the problem with festivals: By the time some acts get going their hour's almost up. But the home stretch was amazing, highlighted by a stirring cover of The Gladiators' "Re Arrange" (I think that's the song). Here's the chorus: "Ask not what your country can do for you but question what you can do for your country." Nobody missed the point. The set further confirmed my suspicion that BTS is the connective fiber between the indie rock crowd and the jam band set. Nearly everyone around me was smoking something and there were quite a few twirly dances going on.

3:30 Calexico sounds great although we take a break from the crowd and hang out toward the back. They send a cover of "Aloneagainor" out to the late, great, Arthur Lee.

4:30 Time for Sonic Youth. Somehow I've never seen them before and now I regret every chance I missed. The set begins with "Incinerate" from the new Rather Ripped and ends with a song "probably written before you were born," by Kim Gordon's assessment. They're a living testament to what it means to really be in a band. Twenty-five years and 20 albums into Sonic Youth's career, they have an almost telepathic chemistry. Anyone wanting to make music their life should have made it a point to be in the audience.

6:30 After making the long trek acorss Grant Park and eating a "dinner" of Connie's Pizza (the local pizza ubiquitous at all Chicago sporting events and festivals; I love it but it stretches the definition of "meal") we find our places for Common who, as someone else pointed out, breaks with the pattern of starting a set slow and building from there. He starts with a pounding string of tracks from last year's Be. Then it was time for keyboard, drum, and DJ solos, all of which were fine until it descended into smooth-jazz improvisation. Being Common, it was the coolest smooth-jazz improvisations you've ever heard, but it still felt half-brilliant, half-indulgent. One further diappointment: Always a dapper dresser, Common took the stage wearing a t-shirt. True, it probably cost more than my last dental bill, but there are standards to uphold.

7:30 The New Pornographers' Carl Newman seems baffled both by the fact he's playing Lollapalooza and that he's playing between Common and Kanye West. He seems to enjoy himself and the band sounds typically tight, even if Neko Case and Dan Bejar's absence seems more notable than the last time we saw them. Toward the end, Newman starts welcoming the Kanye fans flooding in.

8:30 Kanye West plays to a hometown crowd and appears to have a much better time doing it than the last time we saw him at the UIC Pavillion, apart from some loud, angry complaints about some sound problems. The show brought the day to a truly spectacular end. West trotted out guest stars like Common, Twista, and Lupe Fiasco (whose "Kick Push" almost stole the show) and played hit after hit for a bouncing crowd beneath the Chicago skyline. This was the transcendent show we'd hoped to see earlier this year, and a great way to end the day. Despite the corporate trappings, the heat, and the lines, it made Lollapalooza feel almost utopian. We expected a great day of music, but I'm not sure anyone expected that.


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Saturday, August 05, 2006

R.I.P. ARTHUR LEE


"For every happy hello there will be goodbye"


(Reposted from The A.V. Club blog:)


In expected sad news, Love frontman Arthur Lee has died of leukemia. Lee was 61 and died in Memphis. Musically Lee didn't fit easily into a single category. With Love he helped pioneer psychedelic rock in the mid-'60s, but the first Love track to attract much attention was a cover of a Bacharach and David composition called "My LIttle Red Book." The name fit with the spirit of the era, but Love had a harder edge to it that would be an influence on the metal acts of the '70s, particularly Led Zeppelin. The band's best known album, 1967's Forever Changes took the innovations of Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper and melded them to a spirit that was alternately utopian and apocalyptic. It's the sound of a world that doesn't know if it's recreating itself or blowing itself up.


From there Love sputtered out and Lee wrestled with some personal demons in virtual anonymity and later in prison. Lee's last years were ones of increased recognition, however, if not increased happiness. Forever Changes began to turn up regularly on all-time best-of lists and Wes Anderson incorporated Love's music into his debut feature Bottle Rocket, bringing in a new generation of fans. Lee also toured with a new Love line-up over the past few years.


Lee's influence stretches from Zeppelin to Robyn Hitchcock to Calexico and outward from there. He was and remains an elusive figure, a hippie-garbed black man mixing with the Sunset Strip scene while chasing a vision more complicated than flowers in the hair, an artist who shone brightly and then faded quickly. But the light has kept its heat.

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LAST NIGHT'S SHOW: LOLLAPALOOZA, DAY 1

This is going to be short one since much of yesterday was a battle between rock and roll fandom and responsible adulthood. Specifically, I had to wait around for a new refrigerator when I wanted to be at the show. Maybe it was more a battle between wants and needs. I wanted to see Eels, Ryan Adams, and Mates Of State. But I needed to eat unspoiled food.


Once it arrived, I left for Grant Park in time to catch the opening notes of The Raconteurs. Sounded great, but I wanted to see My Morning Jacket. They also sounded great, but I got pulled away so we could get a prime position for Sleater-Kinney's next-to-last show. That was okay. I'll see MMJ next time they're in town. Sleater-Kinney's not coming this way again.


You know there's anticipation for the show when the drummer's soundcheck gets a round of applause. It would be great to report they put on a transcendent show from start to finish. It started great and it got transcended, but it lulled a bit in the middle. And as much as I liked The Woods I would have loved to have heard a more career-spanning set. The emotions ran high in the crowd even if it looked like business as usual on the stage. When they finished, the crowd chanted for "one more song." But that was it.


Death Cab For Cutie started up across the field. They sounded good--and surprisingly arena-filling--but we kept our distance. Funny detail: It was easy to tell the age and sex of the average Death Cab fan these days by the high pitch of the cheers.


Today, nothing but rock and roll. Then, cold food when we get home.


Some Sleater-Kinney gig photos:







And who doesn't?



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Thursday, August 03, 2006

THE BIG BOX OF PAPERBACKS PROJECT, BOOK 4:
CASINO ROYALE, BY IAN FLEMING (1953)



(On June 10, 2006, I purchased a box of 75+ vintage paperbacks, mostly sci-fi and adventure books, from a Half-Price Books And Records in Lincolnwood, IL. I am reading all of them. This is book 4.)

Part of what first attracted me to the big box of paperbacks--the contents of which, for the record, I have removed from the box and placed on a shelf--was that it contained a complete set of Ian Fleming's original James Bond novels. (Although I can't remember if it contains The Man With The Golden Gun, which some argue wasn't mostly written by Fleming anyway.) Consequently, a sub-project of this Big Box Of Paperbacks Project will be reading each of these. So why not start with the first one, particularly since it's the source of the next big-screen Bond movie? (This won't be spoiler-free, sorry.)

I'd never read any of Fleming's books before, not even Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I knew Bond exclusively from the movies, so it was difficult reading this to move the setting back from the 1960s and all the trappings one associates with Sean Connery-era Bond to the 1950s when it was written and set. Although, in some ways, it wasn't that difficult. The Bond found here lives in a grittier world than the Bond of the movies and he's charged with a simple, however, improbable task: Defeat a French communist union leader by beating him at baccarat, thus forcing him to face the music with the Soviet intelligence agency SMERSH whose money he's squandered on a chain of brothels.

Fleming's Bond, in this book at least, is less the world-traveling bon vivant than a man of very specific tastes (which he apparently shared with Fleming) who practically cramps up when he has to turn introspective, particularly when women are involved. I remember Alan Moore writing somewhere, in a piece that attempted to peel back several heroic icons, that Bond was driven by his hatred of women. That seemed a little joy-killing to me, but it's there on the page. The sub-plot here involves Bond letting his innate disdain for women fall aside long enough to romance a fellow agent named Vesper Lynd, who seems to be acceptable to Bond because she's not particularly womanly, once you get past the way her lovingly described clothes fit on her body. There's a fascinating passage in which he reflects on his disdain for every facet of the courting process. "The lengthy approaches to a seduction bored him almost as much as the subsequent mess of disentanglement," Fleming writes, continuing:

He found something grisly in the inevitability of the pattern of each affiar. The conventional paraboa--sentiment, the touch of the hand, the kiss, the passionate kiss, the feel of the body, the climax in the bed, then more bed, then less bed, then the boredom, the tears and the finall bitterness--was to him shameful and hypocritical

With Vesper it's different and he give himself over to it instantly, even considering giving up the service after the book's initial adventure draws to a close. (And interestingly, it's not Bond who defeats the bad guy.) Of course she's a double-agent. The book ends with her suicide and Bond's recommitment to the spy game and the dismissive words, "The bitch is dead now." With his notes of cruelty and misogyny (both reportedly not confined to the screen), Connery was expert casting.

In some ways it reads more like an origin story than a proper adventure, and I was surprised by the exhausted, world-weary tone of the book. It's not sophisticated like John LeCarre, but there's a similar sense of the toll espionage takes on the soul.

More on Fleming and Bond further down the line. But for now, here's two nuggets: Fleming describes Bond as looking like a Hoagy Carmichae ("but cold and ruthless." (Apparently some described Fleming that way as well.) And the drink Bond orders quite memorably early in the book isn't the vodka martini, shaken not stirred of the movies. It's this: "Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice cold, then add a large, thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?"

Got it. But I don't think I could drink it. I like a good, stiff drink as much as anyone, but I can't imagine moving after that, much less besting anyone at baccarat.

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LAST NIGHT'S SHOW: GRANT-LEE PHILLIPS
After almost making excuses--the miserable weather, concert fatique, general fatique, a looming storm--Stevie and I made the short trek down to Schuba's for the second of two appearances from Grant-Lee Phillips. I was always more distantly approving of Phillips' old band Grant Lee Buffalo than rabidly enthusiastic about them, but I've really enjoyed his last couple of solo releases and his semi-regular appearances as Stars Hollow's trouboador on Gilmore Girls' has greatly endeared him to me. Phillips is touring behind his latest album nineteeneihties, a set of acoustic, stripped down '80s alt-rock classsics from New Order to Robyn Hitchcock to Echo And The Bunnymen. It sounds like blatant catnip for the thirtysomething coffeeshop crowd, and maybe it began that way, but it evolved into a terrific album that showcases Phillips' interpretive skills and deep, evocative voice. ("Male Vocalist of the Year, 1995 --Rolling Stone") Phillips didn't dig that deep into the album, which was a little odd, but the evening worked anyway. Playing with just a drummer since his bassist apparently hurt his back, he balanced some unapologetically dour songs with unexcpectedly upbeat, even slightly cheeseball patter. And he played my favorite GLB song, the title track from Mighty Joe Moon. When we came out, the weeks' long heat wave had given way to a violent, air-cooling storm. It was a good evening.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

TWO NIGHTS AGO'S SHOW: THE PITCHFORK FESTIVAL, DAY 2
Sorry for the delay in posting. I blame the heat. Stevie and I woke up from Day 2 of the Pitchfork Festival feeling as if we'd been on a bender. But the most powerful thing I had to drink was a Goose Island orange soda ("made with real sugar!"). Anyway, Day 2 was really good. After muscling past a group of "Buddhist monks" shilling for a contest--real Buddhists tend not to get that excited about your chances to win $10,000 if you log on to a website--we caught the tale end of Tapes N Tapes. We skipped Danielson because nobody had had "breakfast" yet but made it for most of Jens Lenkman and his white-clad all-girl band, some of whom looked like they were about 14. It had the weird effect of suggesting that Lenkman was touring with the Von Trapp family, as someone else observed. I really like Lenkman, even more after seeing him live. He's clever. Sometimes he's a bit too clever, but it's from the heart. All those Jonathan Richman comparisons make sense.



From there it was off to the most intense set of the the day, The National. There was some doubt going in whether or not the sound would translate to a live setting, especially an outdoor festival setting. Singer Matt Berringer put that to rest. I don't think I was the only one in the crowd who worried he would pass out.


From there it was off to the unlistenable Liars followed by Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif. I was a little off to the side for this, more out of intertia├é—we'd laid down a blanket├é—than a lack of interest. Sounded good, though. Mission Of Burma, however, sounded like nothing else. Did these guys really take two decades off? It sounds like they'd been rehearsing since Vs.. So very good. I first heard of them when I learned R.E.M. were fans, even performing "Academy Fight Song" when I saw them in '89. Then they were an obscure, never-to-perform again Boston act. Rock and roll never forgets, I guess.



Yo La Tengo was, typically, great, although they could have played something not from their unreleased new album. I was excited to see Devendra Banhart but it just doesn't translate live, or at least not here. Spoon, however, sounded much better than I'd ever heard them before. Then, to my eternal shame, we bailed on another surprise reunion, Tropicalia legends Os Mutantes. But it was time to go. We started sweating at one and never stopped and all the Water Plus in the world wasn't going to make me feel better. (I will turn in my film critic's license on Friday.)

One more picture before I go:



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