Thoughts on Thoughts on the Dead

I’ve spent a lot of time online since 1993, so I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen the acronym “LOL” (or variations thereof) appear before mine skeptical eyes — though the number of times that I’ve actually “laughed out loud” at something I’ve found on the web is fairly small. Because I’m grumpy and hard to please.

On precious rare and wonderful occasions, however, I unexpectedly stumble across a brilliantly funny site that turns me into a cackling ball of snot and floor-rolling apoplexy, with Bad News Hughes and Hyperbole and a Half (both, alas, long since inactive) standing high on the list of my atomic self-control decimating humor bombs. (The Onion is amusing, but it’s more of a smug smirk kind of place).

I am delighted this week to add another site to my short list of funnier than funny online resources: Thoughts on the Dead. The premise is simple: Mr. TotD posits that the Grateful Dead are the silliest rock band that has ever existed, and he proves his point by posting pictures and telling lies about them, creating brilliant (fake) character studies about the dozen or so musicians and various strap-hangers who have passed through the Dead’s ranks over the years.

The results are (to me) pee-the-pants funny, though I am not quite sure why. I mean, I start giggling as soon as a photo of Keith and Donna scrolls up the screen now, before I even see any words explaining it, and stories about Billy punching everybody in the privates, or Bobby “handsoming,” or Mickey desperately wanting to be a part of things (in between murderous knife play jags), or forgotten roadie Precarious Lee’s amazing stage set-ups are always good for a belly-jiggling wheeze at this point. And that’s all before we even get to Garcia, Lesh and Pigpen, who were all essentially cartoon characters already, or the tragic collection of short-lived keyboardists. Comedy gold! Seriously!

Mr. TotD is incredibly prolific, so there’s reams and reams of amusements to be had on his site, and they’ve being (brilliantly) updated in real time as the “Core Four” living Dead men play their five 50th anniversary shows this year. After spending more hours than I should admit romping and stomping through the Thoughts on the Dead back catalog, I tripped over this quote that probably explains why this creative product feels so real and impressive to me:

In the recent post about Europe ’72, I reported on Bobby’s disappointment and confusion over the fact that there were no Arthur Treacher’s in Denmark; it is the definition of a minor jape. However, it slayed me. No exaggeration: it’s, like, the favorite thing I’ve written in weeks and I keep coming back to it in my head and decrying the fact that there really isn’t much more juice to get out of that berry. Seriously: I had a conversation with myself enumerating why that joke was funny (1: A fast food place based on haddock? C’mon, now.) in the shower and I ran out hot water before I ran our of reasons.

At bottom line: I think Mr. TotD finds this stuff hilarious when he reads it himself, and that’s all that really matters. I can so much relate to that, having spent (again) way more time than I should admit pseudonymously or anonymously creating completely fictional online worlds, often involving real people and stuff, for my own amusements. If others read and enjoy it, too, well, hey, that’s just gravy.

If you know where to look (the archives here, but beyond that, no hints, sorry), there’s a lot of my funny-to-me stuff on the web still, and I routinely return to it and laugh and laugh and laugh, much as Mr. TotD now undoubtedly giggles with pleased self-satisfaction every time he passes an Arthur Treacher’s. (Do they still exist?)

So let’s hear it for someone who so clearly and happily amuses himself this much, since that’s the real secret to amusing others, I think. Or maybe this is just a case of self-indulgent birds of a feather recognizing each other as they flock alone. I’m not sure. Does it matter?

Click the photo for shrewd analysis at Thoughts on the Dead.

Click the photo for shrewd analysis at Thoughts on the Dead.

Best Albums of 2015 (First Half)

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s only a couple of weeks until the mid-point of 2015, and that a mere six months from now, I’ll compile and publish my 24th annual Albums of the Year list. Yeesh, where does the time go?!? As has been my June practice in recent years, I offer the following interim list of twelve new records that have most rocked my world since the preceding January. Several of these discs will likely be contenders for “Album of the Year” honors come December. The list is in alphabetical order by artist, and album titles link to sample songs to help you explore. Happy listening!

Bop English — Constant Bop

Death Grips — The Powers That B: Jenny Death

Eternal Summers — Gold and Stone

The Fall — Sub-Lingual Tablet

Girlpool Before the World Was Big

Lightning Bolt — Fantasy Empire

Napalm Death — Apex Predator — Easy Meat

Panda Bear — Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

Kate Pierson — Guitars and Microphones

Public Service Broadcasting — The Race for Space

Shriekback — Without Real String or Fish

Wire — Wire

Five by Five Books #8: “Smallcreep’s Day” (1965) by Peter Currell Brown

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? Pinquean Smallcreep is a machine worker who cuts slots into pulleys on an assembly line inside a vast factory. After many years at his task, he begins to grow curious about how his slotted pulleys are ultimately used, and once this curiosity reaches obsessive levels, he sets aside his assigned task and walks up the assembly line, hoping to find its end. The labyrinthine nature of the factory and its attendant offices and support spaces quickly render his quest more complicated than Smallcreep had anticipated, and he is forced to rely on the kindness (or, more often, lack thereof) of his fellow factory workers to find his way forward, or backward, or simply out. Smallcreep meets a veritable menagerie of machinists, laborers, managers, directors and other characters, who often seem evolutionarily designed to their tasks, and are almost always shocked by the audacity — and ever-increasing futility — of his odyssey. The book’s resolution is shocking on a variety of fronts, but at the risk of spoiling it, I won’t describe why.

Who wrote it? There’s not much information available in the public domain about Peter Currell Brown, and Smallcreep’s Day stands as his only published novel to date. I know that he is English, and that he was an anti-nuclear activist in the early 1960s, serving a six month prison sentence as a result of his actions. He worked in a factory as a young man, and his experiences there inspired and shaped the narrative of Smallcreep’s Day. In the late 1960s, he founded and worked at a small craft pottery factory, and seems to have abandoned professional literary pursuits. If he figured that he got novel-writing right the first time he tried it and didn’t need to do it again, I’d be inclined to agree with him.

When and where did I read it?  I first became aware of Smallcreep’s Day while living in Newport, Rhode Island during my junior year of high school, when Genesis bassist-guitarist Mike Rutherford titled his first solo album (1980) after the book, and included a side-long suite of songs loosely related to its story. Brown’s novel was long out of print at the time, and the album wasn’t a strong enough recommendation to make me go hunting it down. Fast forward to early 2015, when I read Rutherford’s excellent autobiography, The Living Years, which briefly touched on the musician’s experiences with reading the novel and composing songs around its key themes. I have always been a fan of Rutherford as a musician, but I found myself really liking him as a human being after reading his book, and that made me more interested in understanding what, exactly, had so moved him when he first read Smallcreep’s Day. Through the never-ceasing wonders of modern technology, I then discovered that a Kindle edition of Brown’s novel was available, so I clicked a couple of buttons, and, voila, let’s read this thing, finally.

Why do I like it? I had always assumed — from its seemingly playful title, from the nominally happy ending of Rutherford’s song cycle, and from the cover art I’d seen — that Smallcreep’s Day would be a family-friendly, light read that whimsically used a “journey of personal exploration and growth” narrative structure to casually explore some topical themes related to how people work, and what they get out of it. Once I got a couple of chapters into the book, however, I realized that I couldn’t have been wrong in this presumption: Smallcreep’s Day is a dark, hallucinatory, surrealist parable that injects a small, tragic figure into a sequence of large, very adult situations that grind like machinery toward an inexorable and unforgettable climax. While few characters are ever named (we only learn the protagonist’s full moniker toward the end of the book), the novel is filled with memorable Dickensian grotesques, their features and characters described in lurid, often horrible detail. The exploration of the relationships between labor and management are also surprisingly deep and insightful (a contract negotiation scene between the two parties is a satirical masterpiece), with the interesting twist that both are viewed as being victims of their situations, though one tends to live and work in much nicer surroundings. I thought about this novel and its message quite a bit after I finished it, and when all is said and done, that’s about the best recommendation I can offer for reading a particular book.

A five sentence sample text: “First thing of all I’m always conscious of a wheel — or perhaps before that I’m conscious of spinning, in the abstract as it were, but then there is always this huge wheel all shimmering with lights and divided into segments of light, and a loud singing or humming noise. The wheel is not turning fast, but not slowly either, and it doesn’t turn in one particular direction but both ways at once. After a time of spinning and shimmering and singing a kind of feeling of unease comes in. I can recollect all these things quite plainly, it’s always the same. The wheel get clearer, and there’s more uneasiness, until there’s suddenly fear, and a feeling of being stuck, or paralysed and pinned in, like waking up to find you’re inside a concrete block and you can’t breathe or move or see or shout or anything.”


#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

Click on this 1973 edition's cover to order your own digital or print edition.

Click on this 1973 edition’s cover to order your own digital or print copy.

Chicago, Now!

Well, not exactly now . . . but soon.

Marcia and I will be relocating to the Windy City this summer. She is taking a new position with her current employer, and will be joining the legal team at Mercy Chicago and Loyola University Hospitals. It’s a good professional move, with lots of interesting new opportunities.

I’ll be on the open job market again as of July 2, so here’s how to hire me and here’s what some people who did so in the past think about me. Until I land a full time position, I’ll be freelancing as Marcia’s Transportation Director and Executive Entertainment Consultant (a.k.a. chauffeur and arm candy). That’s a great gig.

We’re very excited about the move, and look forward to new adventures in a great city that we’ve visited often since moving to the Midwest. Our goal is to downsize our living footprint significantly, ideally becoming a one-car family in a nice downtown apartment. Katelin will continue to live and work in Des Moines, where she is thriving, so we will be back to Central Iowa regularly.

It’s hard to believe that it was four years ago that we set in motion the process that resulted in us moving to Iowa, and over three years since I began working at Salisbury House. The only thing constant is change, I guess! Watch this space in the months ahead as this next phase unfolds . . . but for now, take it away, Make E. Smith and The Fall:

The Gringo Game

Marcia and I have done a lot of international travel together over the years, and when we are in countries where English is not routinely spoken, we always become attentive to the times when we’re out on the town and unexpectedly hear strangers speaking our native tongue around us. More often than not, unfortunately, we find ourselves wishing that these unknown and unexpected English speakers would pass quickly out of our audible spheres, because it can be very annoying to have a resonant cultural moment or a peaceful stroll or a great meal marred by Yanks loudly complaining about or behaving badly in a world that doesn’t revolve around them. We try to be good ambassadors, after all, but not all of our fellow citizens consider such good behavior to be a priority. And that’s embarrassing and uncomfortable for everybody within earshot.

During our recent visit to Barcelona, Marcia and I were over-run on the streets one afternoon by a howling herd of Greater American Dude Brahs (species name: Pan Vomitus Vomitus) in full raging musth. After they had passed us by and quiet had been restored, in an attempt to turn this and potential future Ugly American annoyances into entertainment, Marcia and I formulated “The Gringo Game.” It is modeled after that simple staple of church fundraisers and low-octane gambling halls: Bingo. Each traveler participating in the Gringo Game is given a page containing a matrix of commonly-heard Americanisms abroad, and whenever one of these phrases is uttered by a stranger within the player’s hearing range, the player marks the box containing that phrase on his or her card. Once a player has seven marked boxes in a row — vertically, horizontally, or diagonally — on his or her card, the player shouts “GRINGO!!!” loudly, and is declared the winner.

To get you started on your next trip abroad, we’ve developed a model Gringo Game card for your amusement. Click on the image below for a full-sized printable PDF. Share it as widely as you’d like — and then when you travel, be careful not to say any of these things loudly while out on the streets, since you just might be helping some other player by doing so. You want to win, don’t you? Of course you do! You’re an American! Hell yeah!

Ready? Set? GRINGO!!!!

Gringo Game

Moments: Portugal and Spain in Six Tiny Vignettes

1. Lisbon: First day in Portugal, Marcia and I leave our hotel, heavily jet-lagged, for our first walk together in Iberia. Time to kill before we meet our new travel companions for dinner. Down the hill toward the historic central waterfront market, aimless, following gravity’s pull at each intersection. Turn a corner, and hear a sonic blast warm front of the most extraordinary pulsing rhythmic racket from somewhere unseen, ahead. Follow the noise: primal, pounding, pummeling rhythms of metal and hide, bestial, wild, attractive, audible id. Glimpse a parade line one block away, push through the crowd, turn another corner to confront a movable carnival feast of color and light and noise, winding its way to places unknown, primitive masks evoking ancient gods, rites, passions, dances, magic. We are suddenly part of something. We don’t know what. Mysteries make everything better.

17741862328_eec1b19283_k 2. Rural Andalucia (I): Long bus ride into the country from Seville ends with a 30-minute jumble along a bumpy, twisted, dusty dirt road, winding between prickly pear cacti and olive trees, signs telling us this a private hunting preserve for the region’s richest residents. Arrive at a ranch where prize toros are raised for their final moments of public pain and posthumous glory in Spain’s finest bull fighting arenas. Greeted by Matias, an impossibly handsome young matador in training, dressed in traditional chaps, hat, coat, boots, his rock star dreams of arena triumph balanced by his efforts as a law student; he will succeed, one way or another. Pile into a wagon pulled by a tractor, Matias riding alongside on a fine grey horse, carrying a long spear, into the fields where eight choice bulls await their final journey in blissful, aggressive ignorance. Matias runs the bulls. He shows us the field where the cows and calves live, food atop a hill, water miles away in the valley, the long daily trips between the points of comfort keeping the animals healthy and lean. Matias demonstrates the matador’s moves in the ranch’s central show arena, manipulating the cape, frozen in handsome snapshots of equipoise, muscles clinched, a beautiful dancer in all but name. As he poses, Marcia whispers: I can has matador?

17929333665_622e74e5c2_k 3. Ronda: Ancient Roman mountaintop city atop a vast gorge, overlooking fields, groves, green, lush, history palpable in layers. Whitewashed walls protected long-ago citizens from plague, modern police cars protect today’s residents from parking violations, creating traffic jams as they tow vehicular offenders. Heat as a layer of clothing, worn atop shirts, hung from hats, sun haze and sweat. Leave a euro in a tiny church’s till as we pay our respects to the Holy Mother, and are rewarded with a carry-out prayer in the language of our choosing. Enter the bullfight arena at city center, wind through the shadowy concrete paths that the enraged beasts themselves follow to their final conflicts, past paintings and scrims explaining the rich cultural history of this most savage form of communal entertainment. Emerge from the dark tunnel into the ring itself, the paint of the walls mirroring the sun-yellow color of the sand. At the center, a lone figure stands with the distinctive long instrument of his trade, mere meters from his eternal foe. This is the place! Centuries of heritage unfold before us, as the mighty Caterpillador faces down the terrible Bobcat in all of its fury. Shivers. Heat haze. Herculito’s Final Task.

17926144882_920181ae1e_k 4. Rural Andalucia (II): Another long bus ride into the country, Luis the driver navigating us safely through impossible straits and passes, no scrapes, no sweat: El Jefe del Autobus! Arrive at a beautiful family-owned vineyard overlooking a lush valley, ancient Ronda on the horizon’s hilltop. Greeted by Moises, one of the brothers who cares for the grapes and olives with which the family makes fine, organic wines and oils. Moises gestures down into the rows of grape vines, pointing out the fragrant lines of rosemary, thyme, tarragon nested within, designed to draw desirable bees and birds to combat the family’s greatest nemesis: the terrible tiny spiders. A palpable tremble as Moises utters that phrase. Shadows cross the sun. Dark birds take flight, croaking in horror. The Terrible Tiny Spiders! Terrible! Tiny! Spiders!!! We cannot see them, but we know they are there, waiting, patient, poised, eternal. Everywhere. Unseen. Always. This is the history of Spain: Ferdinand and Isabella unite their kingdoms to protect their people from Terrible Tiny Spiders; Franco died screaming amidst dreams of Terrible Tiny Spiders; the sultans of the Alhambra trembled within the embraces of their concubines as the Terrible Tiny Spiders swept through their gardens like poisonous smoke; there they are, there, there, crawling beneath the hooves of Guernica’s horses, battling the ants that infest Dali’s paintings, parachuting like Jesus from the spires of La Sagrada Familia, lurking in the corners of La Casa Del Bacalao. Terrible. Tiny. Spiders. We now understand Spain.

17929377571_e8e261f06f_h 5. Figueres: On the bus again, en route to the Theater Museum that the great Salvador Dali built to preserve his own legacy, in his own way. The skies are grey, mountains on the horizon evoke deja vu, Dali’s landscapes embedded in brain matter, known but not, silent but sensed. A palpable sense of personal pull, approaching the home and tomb of one of the greatest figures in my personal creative landscape, a man, a force, a presence who shaped the way I understand and process the world, how I see beauty, how I admire the muse, how my dream life invades my waking world, how I ask how, and why. Headphones are over my ears as we exit the highway, my iPod set to random play mode. “The Wheel” by Coil begins to play as we approach the museum, another very important touch point for me. Coil, like Dali, have long shaped the way I hear beauty, how I admire the creator, how my waking world invades my dream world, why I ask why, and how. The song begins with a tape recording of a ghost’s voice, a faint vocalization from the great beyond whispers to us from deep within tape hiss, then the drums, then the haunted, haunting lost voice of beautiful John Balance explains the world and all the things in it, and Sleazy is there, too, also calling from the places and spaces we who live have yet to experience, except in dreams. As the bus stops, these words linger: Oh, I was dragged here by an angel. Thank you.

17902512466_9aef6e5ff7_k 6. Barcelona: Last night in Spain, rain falling in torrents. Two people, one umbrella, in search of arroz negro, the traditional paella made with squid ink and langustinos. On Gaudi’s Avenue, Sagrada Familia at one end, Hospital of Saint Paul at the other. Slip into a small restaurant, take a table in the corner, order anchovy-stuffed olives, albondigas, arroz negro. A baby at a nearby table cries and can’t be comforted by an attentive mother. Somewhere behind, above, beyond us a strange noise arises, a series of shuffling clicks, or clicking shuffles, disconcerting, like something from a Japanese horror film, or one of the Alien movies. The mother continues to soothe the baby, but it is disconsolate. A large woman with a nearly-shaved head leaves the table near us and goes to the restroom, and she does not return. The clicks shuffle, perhaps in the heating ducts, or maybe just around the corner, where we cannot see the source? Wait! Perhaps the shuffles click from within the restroom! The large woman still does not return. Another man enters the restroom. He, too, is gone for the evening. The arroz negro arrives. We scrape it from its pan, and crack the little arachnids atop it with our teeth, sucking the sweet meat from within the hard carapaces, leaving little piles of claws and legs and tails on a plate between us. The clicks shuffle. The shuffles click. Now near. Now far. The baby weeps as the mother rocks her gently, trying to eat her own paella with one hand. We finish our meal and request la cuenta, the check. The waiter nods knowingly and walks away. We wait. The clicks shuffle. The shuffles click. No one emerges from the restroom. The check never comes. We wait. We do not dare use the restroom. What happened to the people inside it? Something scuttles across the room at periphery, just out of sight. Click. Shuffle. Click. Marcia leans across the table and says: The alien should eat the baby first.