Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men End on a Perfect Note of Bullshit

What to make of the Mad Men finale?  Surely I was going to be disappointed considering:

1  finales are usually disappointing (can’t please everyone), and;
2. Mad Men, while great, has been declining since season four.

Regardless of my feelings about the escapades of Draper and Co. since about three seasons back, I must say that few shows manage to juggle so many characters this well and sustain my interest for that long.  The complexity that Mad Men reached at its zenith was not unlike the polyphonic novels of Dostoevsky complete with wacky dream sequences and the occasionally labored symbol. (“It’s not your tooth that’s rotten” says the ghost of Adam Whitman to Don Draper.  Yeah, got it.)

But even groundbreaking TV shows have a tough time sticking the landing.  Mad Men is no different.  I may be alone in feeling that the Stan loves Peggy/Peggy loves Stan thing was tacked on (everyone seems to be all gushy over their romance), but what makes sense when I examine their trajectory only makes me irked that the seeds of their love were not better sown.  They probably belong together but their union was rushed at the end.  Not to mention Peggy got her satisfaction from her job, which seemed a hard won victory, one that she deserved, so why sap energy from that triumph by making it seem that job satisfaction is not enough and that a man has to save this tough talking career girl?  I call bullshit.

Everyone else, save for Betty, got moved to a nice place—a sensible marriage for Roger, a business of Joan’s own and guaranteed financial security for her son, true corporate power for Pete and a second chance at domestic bliss—but, of course, we need to talk about Don.

The last thing Draper did that made me happy was walk out of that fucking room.  Once he realized he was a small cog in a big machine, he split.  The function of this is up for debate, but I saw it as a chance for him to realize that the manufactured image he had created, and subsequently bought into, was bullshit of the highest order.  Such a realization could only result in him tearing down his life.  And that’s pretty much how things went for the last few episodes, and while his Kerouacian road trip was hardly exciting, it made sense.  Once he hugged that crying dude at the feel-good session, I thought, well he’s got his catharsis and now he’s either going to drop out of society and live among the hippies or he’ll have found enough peace to return to NYC and search for some kind of happiness or, at the very least, stability.  That is if he hasn’t pissed away his fortune. 

But the final meditation scene would have it both ways.  He’s in the lotus position voicing the big OHM.  And then he envisions the perfect Coke commercial that’s been dangling before him and us ever since he succumbed to the McCann acquisition.  My first reaction was surprise.  Then annoyance.  So Don imagined that iconic commercial that has always struck me as the best example of corporate bullshit cashing in on a social trend.  But it makes a lot of sense, actually.  Don is not healed.  He’s managed to take the lessons of his time among the hippies and create his masterpiece of Madison Avenue manipulation.  He’s tapped into the optimism that was fading at the end of the 60s and repackaged it as possibility, unity, peace, community, love.  And fucking Coca-Cola.  Genius. 

It seems that this is the best ending for the show.  Don has grown a little but he’s still thinking of ideas that will stoke his fragile ego, ideas that validate his meaningless life, ideas to sell to the public so that they can find transient joy while corporations become richer.  Which is fine—Don has always been an apologetic ad man, very pro-capitalist.  And he’s smartly responded to the beatniks and hippies of the show who have accused him of being an evil pusher of products.  But that doesn’t mean the beatnik/hippie accusations, as obnoxious as they are, lack substance.  Don, as the vision of his father tells him, makes bullshit for a living.  The show has spent a lot of time portraying Don and Peggy as proponents of the idea that advertising is art.  They have done a pretty good job convincing us, the viewers, that this is true.  But we have also seen how advertising blends art with kitsch, how the feelings Don and Peggy skillfully elicit in the clients and, by extension, the public are facsimiles of something real that work well enough to sell cigarettes and Coca-Cola but fall short of true art.  The ads are temporary at best and and, at worst, mirror the cultural zeitgeist in a way that then informs it.  That Coke ad is a classic, one that has become a part of American culture.  That’s how the best ads work: they replace good songs, good paintings, good books, and good movies as cultural markers.  They look like art and they stick in your head, but their manipulation is crass. Don and Peggy talk the talk very well, and they believe it, but really they make bullshit for a living. 

What better commercial to end on than the 1971 Coke ad with the smiling people atop a hill?  They all look so perfect.  Happy.  Multicultural.  Harmonious.  Phony.  Frankly, kind of creepy.  Perhaps I'm a cynic, but that’s how it seems to me: simple ideas about world peace brought to you by dumb young people whose earnestness would be admirable were it not brought to you by Coke.  The last image of Don is of that handsome face smiling ear-to-ear in deep meditation, but the ad— which some have said is there to make us proud of his ultimate creation—reminds us of who he is and what he does: he makes bullshit.

By the way, Sally Draper is the hero of the show. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Book Mash-Up

I’m finding it difficult to remain faithful to one book.  I’m currently reading Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van der Berg, Vano and Niko by Erlom Akhvlediani, No Logo by Naomi Klein, Watercolor Women/Opaque Men by Ana Castillo, The Animals by Richard Grossman, and Chance Ransom by Kevin Stein. 

I love them all so far, but I just can’t commit to one.  And I’ve been eyeing Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan, Robert Creeley’s selected poems, and the short stories of Tennessee Williams. 

I have plans to purchase Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov, Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, The Physics of Sorrow by Greorgi Godpodinov, Goat’s Milk by Frank Ormsby, The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, The Guts by Roddy Doyle, and Young Skins by Colin Barrett, just to name a few. 

I have a problem. 

My inability to focus on one text may be due to the manner in which I spend my days: reading student papers, rereading texts I plan to use for class discussion, reading a shit ton of internet junk, skimming Wikipedia, rereading old poems and writings that I should be polishing but often abandon 1/3 in after something akin to depression sets in. 

So blame it (largely) on my job.  But blame it also on the times.

Many others have written more polished and considered pieces on the subject of reading and culture in the age of Google.  (They have names like Nicholas Carr and Dubravka Ugrešić and Douglas Rushkoff, names you might want to check out.) I am not concerned with composing a long think piece on this, but more curious about my lack of focus means for me, a guy who has long identified as a reader (a kind of odious term, but I’ll use it).  I don’t think I am the most voracious reader in town, certainly not the most erudite.  But I am a book geek.  I like to take photos of my bookshelves and share them with my uninterested Facebook friends.  I love bookstores and feel an odd sense of duty to purchase something whenever I enter one.  I like collecting books, even ones I doubt I’ll ever read.  And I like to keep up with what’s happening in world literature, though I still haven’t read László Krasznahorkai and can’t get into the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.  But I have them on my shelves, waiting for the day when I might want to read them.  Or at least add them to the pile of books I’ve not finished. 

Last year I read Ulysses, which represented a personal accomplishment.   As I have written elsewhere (on this blog and my other), I was previously very anti-James Joyce.  This is because my boss and mentor at the Aspidistra bookshop has no use for the filthy Irish Modernist master.  This is also because I read Faulkner first and, as much as I love Joyce, Faulkner will always be my go-to for stream of consciousness prose.  He essentially ruined me for Joyce and Virginia Woolf, until last year when Ulysses just sort of clicked with me.  It was the right book for me at that time.  I read the bulk of it on the beaches of Rogers Park while happy young people threw footballs over my head.  The setting seemed fitting considering the famous chapter where Leopold Bloom jerks off on the beach.  But I read it slowly, chapter by chapter, taking breaks when the literary hijinks got to be a bit much, reading shorter books on the train and reserving Joyce’s tome for weekend reading.  This created the idea that I could do this all the time: read short, portable books on the train (slim poetry collections, pocket paperbacks) and save the heavy stuff for reading in the easy chair with a glass of whiskey at my side. 

This works well enough, though I think I’ve now gotten into the habit of splitting my attention to the point where I am unable to really commit the mental energy some of these books demand.  What’s more interesting is that all of the books I am currently reading have started to bleed into each other.  The result is a curious mash-up of literary themes and styles.  I will do my best to represent it:

A young woman dresses up as bigfoot while singing of Finn McCool in a series of tercets that dip in and out of the experiences of a first generation Mexican-American woman who seeks to challenge notions of consumerist culture and indict corporations for their branding of sheepherders who talk with dogs and foxes and mice in a Beckett-like voice of absurd detachment in the prairie land of Illinois. 

An amazing book, no?   

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why You Should Take the Train

Like a sock in the eye, the piss stink.  The source was immediately evident: homeless guy, sleeping, his body taking up the entire row of seats but no one really wanted to sit next to him anyway.  I moved to the other side of the train car.  A woman next to me started spraying her wrist with cheap perfume in an effort to mask the odor, but as anyone could have told her, the new stink of her perfume only mixed with the piss smell creating a full assault on the senses.  After three sprays, someone asked her to stop.  The woman did not take it well. 

Two stops into my commute, I heard a man talking to himself. It started as muttering but picked up between Chicago Ave. and Clark and Division.  By the time the subway turned into the El, he was screaming, laughing, raving.  His laughter sounded like how I used to imagine the Joker sounding when I read Batman comics as a kid, only more insane, like the Joker’s laugh while peaking on LSD and getting blown by Harley Quinn.  His gibberish was fairly unintelligible, though I managed to make out: “I like to eat the diarrhea!  Onions!  Garlic!  Taffy apple and farts!”  I’m 100% serious.  A few of his more bizarre vocal effects resembled the Boredoms records I loved in the ‘90s.  He gave everyone who walked past the finger, shaking his head back and forth and laughing that nightmare laugh. 

The woman next to me, still reeking of shitty perfume, started to mumble, “This sucks” and then “God as my witness…” I couldn't see any difference between her and the ranting loon.  Not true: I preferred the loon’s version of talking to himself.  It was fairly original, at least.  

The train reached Berwyn and the drunk came aboard.  He yelled at the sleeping homeless man, “Get up, buddy, you stink!” then walked to the other end (even booze couldn’t dull his senses that much).  The loon screamed, “SUCKADICK! SUCKADICK! SUCKADICK!”  The drunk replied: “Shit, a stinker and a fucking nut!”  I was more afraid of the drunk.  He looked angry.  And—far be it from me to judge—but what the hell was he doing getting that drunk at 4:00 PM? 

And you know what—it wasn’t the sleeping dude with the piss pants or the loon or the drunk that bugged me most.  It was the perfume sprayer and the few people who decided to commiserate with her: the suit wearing prick who said something like, “Why not go to a park and piss yourself.  Why did he have to board a train where people are trying to get home?” or the weird lady with the flying kitten spandex pants who kept rolling her eyes, or the college girls who giggled the entire time.  Fuck them.  At least the drunk knows he’s a drunk and the homeless guy… what choice does he have?  Guy’s gotta sleep somewhere.  Why not the train?  These oddballs are touched, to put it mildly.  They live lives we can’t possibly imagine.  They offend, sure.  They stink, they’re weird, and they challenge our fragile idea of normalcy.  But they’re interesting.  I wouldn’t want to spend any more time with them than I have to, but that goes for all the assholes on that train today.  And me?  Why the hell do I get to pass judgment?  I can be just as obnoxious as the next guy.  Just because I manage not to piss myself or scream at strangers doesn’t make me any better (well, not much) than anyone else on that train.  Who knows, any of us seemingly normal folks could someday be that weirdo on the train.

And that’s why you should always take public transportation: to remember that you are a few small tragedies away from being as crazy as the next asshole.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

24 Great Replacements Songs

In an attempt to answer a friend’s question about where to begin with The Replacements, I let loose a bit of gibberish about why Let it Be is their best record though not a perfect record and how, really, the Mats never made a perfect record, though Let it Be and Tim are damn near close, but that ignores a lot of other great songs, which gave birth to this post, which I’m calling: “24 Great Replacements Songs” though you know that already since it’s the title of this post, which is above this rambling sentence. 


In no special order, here are the songs that belong on anyone’s Replacements mix:

“Favorite Thing”
“Left of the Dial”
“Here Comes a Regular”
“Little Mascara”
“Bastards of Young” (though the live version from SNL is preferable to the studio recording)
“Black Diamond” (better than the original version by Kiss)
“Swingin’ Party”
“Kiss Me on the Bus”
“Take Me Down to the Hospital”
“Buck Hill”
“Lookin’ For Ya”
“Mr.  Whirley”
“Color Me Impressed”
“Alex Chilton”
“Can’t Hardly Wait”
“Achin’ to Be”
“Talent Show”
“One Wink at a Time”
“If Only You Were Lonely” 

“Waitress in the Sky”

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

No Surprise, Just Business As Usual.

Okay, Rahm won.  I don’t know that anyone is truly surprised (I’m not), but I sense disappointment from most of my friends.  And from 44.3% of the voters who got off their fucking asses.  I’ll assume the low turnout has to do with the cynicism that has festered here in Chicago since well before the era of Richard M., as most of the people who could get it up to actually discuss the runoff in terms beyond an apathetic shrug cited elections A.H. (after Harold) as examples of whaddya gonna do? 

Let’s not address the fallacy of slacktivism.  (Okay, just for a sec. Yes, these two jerks were far from ideal candidates; yes, Chicago is a politically corrupt town; sure, your vote wasn’t really going to change the inevitability of the Raht’s reelection; but maybe...  “But maybe” are words born of optimism, perhaps misplaced and certainly laughable, but goddamnit, the easiest way to guarantee that shit stays fucked is to do nothing.  Hiding behind some sort of “I’m not going to sell my vote this cheaply” pseudo-ideology is nothing short of horseshit.  I’m not stupidly optimistic, but I’d sooner be that than a defeatist posing as a revolutionary.  I’m looking at you, Russell Brand.  Shave already.) 

Low voter turnout aside, what were Chuy’s chances?  Well… apparently they were better than many of us imagined.  He did get 44.3% of the vote.  Imagine what that number might have looked like if more people showed up to the polls.  If we can agree that Rahm did not exactly slide back into the office on five, maybe we can see the runoff in a positive light.  Maybe Rahm learned a lesson: that reelection was not going to be as easy for him as it was for his predecessor.  Maybe he’ll think again before closing mental health facilities and schools; maybe he’ll be a little more responsible with the TIF money and stop using it for projects that will do nothing for the city and its citizens; maybe he’ll see that his tough guy persona is alienating and that talking like an asshole does not make you a strong leader.  It makes you an asshole.  Maybe he’ll see that his job is tenuous and that he has to actually work to keep it. 

Nah.  He’s rich.  He’ll win again.  And again.  As often as he wants the job, he’s got the job.  And we let him have the job when we give up hope.  So please, my fellow cynical Chicagoans, get off you fucking asses and vote next time.  Or don’t.  Whatever.  You deserve mayor 1%.  Good job, Chi.  Summer’s coming.  Duck.    

Monday, February 02, 2015

An Open Letter to Eddie Van Halen

Dear Ed,

How are you?  No, we’ve never met, but I saw you in concert a few times and spent a lot of my youth listening to you play guitar.  In fact, you were my hero.  I’m a child of the 80s and there was no escaping your music, especially when I was 13 and “Jump”, “Panama”, and “Hot For Teacher” were all over MTV.  After buying 1984 and listening to it a LOT, I dug back and obsessively listened to the earlier (and, frankly, better) records.  Of them, Fair Warning remains the best.  But I have to say, I tuned out around the “Pound Cake” era.  I mean, 5150 and OU812 were not great but I was willing to defend the band that was unaffectionately known to many as Van Hagar.  But only for so long.  And sure, it’s easy for you to bash your former frontman, but back in 1988 you seemed pretty committed to Hammy Sagar.  But that’s what you do, isn’t it, bash the former members.  Well, all but Mr. Extreme.

Anyway, I’m writing today to discus your future.  To me, you have two options: another reunion tour with Roth—and we both know you don’t want to do that—or abandon the need to be a “band” in the traditional sense.  No more three-minute rock songs with sing-along choruses.  They were fun, but really, lyrics like “I’m taking whiskey to the party tonight and I’m looking for somebody to squeeze” don’t really cut it in the 21st century.  The 80s were fun and your cocaine fueled party records were (and are) pretty great (well, the first six), but those days are done.  You know that.  Hell, you’ve paid for your indulgences.  (By the way: sorry about your marriage and the cancer). 

So what’s option two?  How about just writing cool little instrumentals?  That way: no more frontman drama, no need for a Roth or a Hagar or any other clown.  It could be just you and Al and Wolfgang.  (I’m not greedy: I’m not going to wish for you to see past the nepotism and rehire Mike.)  An instrumental band would free you up to write more songs like this long lost gem or “Intruder”, which is actually high on my list of favorite Van Halen songs. 

You don’t need to write catchy rock songs anymore.  Or power ballads.  (Really, there’s no need for any more of those.)  Play your strengths, man.  People already prefer “Eruption” to “You Really Got Me”.  I know you didn’t write that, but whenever I hear your wild soloing on the classic rock stations I tune out before that dumb two-chord shuffle that even Ray Davies is done with.  And you know what’s better?  “Spanish Fly”.  And better than that: “Sunday Afternoon in the Park”.   Seriously, the synth on that track is killer.  Like, as killer as Goblin.  I know you’re not in that dark, frustrated place anymore, but you’re not a young party rocker either.  What’s left?  Nostalgia mining?  Sure, that’s the safe route.  People will likely always shell out dough to see what passes as Van Halen slog through the classics.  But you have a shot at really writing some interesting music now that you’re older and have enough money (you have some money still, right?) to do what you like.  Ed, you’re a fine composer and an instrumentalist at heart.  Embrace that shit and compose something daring, something you might have only managed to force onto one of the old records.  Make these quirky experiments the focus.  Get wild.  Play some fuckin’ guitar again.  Get crazy.  Layer the synths, but not the expensive ones.  Go back to the cheap junk that you used to sculpt the backing track of “Cradle Will Rock” and make them sound like gold.  Shed the need to write anything that will ever get radio play again because the radio is no longer the place for your music.  Your fans will buy it.  You may even pick up some money from the ironic hipsters out there.  What do you have to lose? 

Okay, thanks for your time. 

Your friend,


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Great Bands That Never Were

I am hardly the first person to say the words: “We should start a band!”  But say them I have.  Of course, I have not actually started a band, but I have ideas and that’s what counts, right?  Well maybe not, but considering the lousy state of music today I’m confident that my imaginary bands are making infinitely better music than anything on the radio at the moment.  Here is a list of six bands that should have been:

Biting Bricks

This was a band I sort of formed with Chris Hunger.  We had the idea of an industrial/country band that played songs inspired by grade Z horror movies.  We wrote one song, “The Severed Arm”, and put together a pretty good cover of “Batdance” but that was the extent of our output.  I still think an industrial/country band is a good idea, so let me know if there any takers out there.  I’ve seen a lot of shitty horror movies, so the songs will write themselves. 

Slim Hips/Dribble Glass

Slim Hips was to consist of me on bass and my buddies Mike K. and Travis D. on saxophone and drums, respectively.  We envisioned jazz music with crude lyrics.  Once Travis left town, Mike K. and I decided to form a band called Dribble Glass.  The one rule was that we’d be very drunk for each performance.  Hardly original, but it sounded like a good idea at the time.  Sadly, neither band materialized, partially due to the amount of drinking the three of us were doing that summer.  Forming a band sounds great right around last call; less so in the sobering light of day. 

God Christ Awful

There were no serious (or drunken) talks to actually do this, but Chris Sebela and I briefly discussed the possibility of starting a metal band.  We agreed on the genre and then promptly forgot about the whole thing.  Full credit to Chris for the awesome name, which really needs to be used by someone. 

Repo Man

I floated the idea to Tony Tavano (of Vortis fame): let’s start a band that plays the entire Repo Man soundtrack.  Think about it: covers of Suicidal Tendencies, Iggy Pop, Fear, Circle Jerks, The Plugz.  That would be a great show.  For a few days, the idea had legs.  We emailed, made plans for practice, thought about where to premiere our great vision, and then did absolutely nothing to make it happen.  

Whiskey Dick

Out of boredom, I compiled a list of songs about whiskey.  Turns out there’re a lot of them.  So why not form a pub rock band that plays them all?  Hardly serious, I pitched the idea to a musician friend and again to Chris Sebela, and while both were smart enough to know I was essentially kidding, I think this is the one idea that has the most potential and would be the most fun.  Of course, the issue is the spelling of the band's name.  I vote to include the E in whiskey, but to do so would alienate Scottish concert-goers.