As South As South Can Be

I’m typing this afternoon from the kitchen counter in our lovely rental home in sunny downtown Key West, Florida, mere blocks from the southernmost point in the (continental) United States. Key West seems doggedly determined to ignore the fact that Hawaii is actually a good deal further south, and continues to label all sorts of things “Southernmost” without applying that “continental” caveat.

But, really, that’s okay, because Key West is Southern in ways that Hawaii is not. For instance: this morning I had breakfast at what I must assume is the Southernmost Waffle House in the United States, if not the world, because Google Maps tells me that there are no Waffle Houses in Hawaii. I’ve written about Waffle House here before, and I feel compelled to visit the Awful Waffle anytime I’m near one in the South, so to actually have a pecan waffle with a side of grits in the most Southern of all Waffle Houses was a moving treat, for sure. I had to wipe aside a tear as I read my sports page while pouring heated syrup atop my dense, flat waffle. I truly do believe that the world would be a better (if fatter) place if we all ate breakfast at Waffle House every day.

We also have done some cultural stuff, visiting the Hemingway House and its thumbed cats (just like ours), as well as tootling up and down Duval Street numerous times. We’ll be here for New Year’s Eve, which is a hoot hereabouts, and I’ll provide the usual post-travel photo essay when I return home next week. It’s been a lovely, relaxing vacation thus far, and I’ve enjoyed seeing Key West again, some 24 years since the last time I was down here. It’s a great town, highly recommended.

The Best Films of the 2000s

UPDATE NOTE: Click here for a 2020 update of my 50 All-Time Favorite Films.

From my perspective anyway, in chronological order, with links to the appropriate IMDB pages if you care to explore.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Talk to Her (2000)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Donnie Darko (2001)
Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)
Lantana (2001)

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
City of God (2002)
The Piano Teacher (2002)

The Fellowship of the Ring /The Two Towers /The Return of the King (2001-2003)
Lost in Translation (2003)

The Proposition (2005)
A History of Violence (2005)

The Fountain (2006)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Children of Men
(2006)
The Lives of Others (2006)
Volver (2006)
SherryBaby (2006)

No Country for Old Men (2007)
Nightwatching /Rembrandt’s J’Accuse (2007)
Bug (2007)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
The Visitor (2008)
Man on Wire (2008)
WALL-E (2008)
Let the Right One In (2008)

The Limits of Control (2009)
Up (2009)
In the Loop (2009)

Top 20 Albums of 2009

I always do my Top 20 Album List on or around December 1 each year, since I think I have to listen to something for at least 30 days before declaring it best of anything. This year, I didn’t have to think very hard about the top of the pile, as my album of the year dominated the family iTunes account for months, and is still winning regular, repeat spins. So hats off to Mos Def. The Ecstatic makes me what it’s called. After putting it on the top of the heap, I then list the four runners up that could have been contenders in a year without Mos Def playing at the top of his game, and then the 15 other albums that most rocked my world this year, in alphabetic order. As always, some links are provided to help you explore. Happy listening!

Album of the Year, 2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic

First Runner Up: Pere Ubu, Long Live Pere Ubu!

Second Runner Up: Napalm Death, Time Waits for No Slave

Third Runner Up: Niwel Tsumbu, Song of the Nations

Fourth Runner Up: The Clean, Mister Pop

The Other Fifteen:

The Beatles Never Broke Up, Everyday Chemistry

The Big Pink, A Brief History of Love

Black Moth Super Rainbow, Eating Us

Clutch, Strange Cousins from the West

Cymbals Eat Guitars, Why Are There Mountains?

DM Stith, Heavy Ghosts

Gay Tastee, Songs for the Sodomites

Girls, Album

Gong, 2032

Japanther, Tut Tut Now Shake Ya Butt

Matt and Kim, Grand

Skyscape, Zetacarnosa

Super Furry Animals, Dark Days/Light Years

Various Artists, Analog Africa No.5, Legends of Benin

The Veils, Sun Gangs

Chalk

I have a whiteboard in my office. I use a variety of colorful, plastic, whiteboard pens on it, which are labeled “nontoxic,” but produce volatile, organic aromas that can lead to headaches if you work with them long enough. On average, I find that only one of three whiteboard markers I pick up will actually write on the whiteboard in a way that allows readers in my office to read the marks. There appears to be no rhyme or reason as to which ones will work and which ones won’t.

When I need to clean my whiteboard, I use a plastic spray bottle of “Extra Strength Marker Board Cleaner,” which contains trisodium phosphate, may be harmful if swallowed, is an eye irritant, and must be kept out of the reach of children. Once I spray this chemical on, I have to wipe it off with either a rag (which must then be washed, consuming water and electricity), or with paper towels (which go into the trash, and then into a landfill somewhere). The longer the material on the whiteboard stays there, the harder it is to scrub off, and the more rags and paper towels are required, and the greater the likelihood that my work clothes, desk or papers will be stained by the residue I am removing.

Once I clean the board, it takes some time for it to dry, and if I try to write something on it before it does, 100% of the whiteboard markers I pick up will leave no readable marks (as opposed to the normal 66%), but will instead sort of skid over the glossy, wet surface of the board, requiring more paper towels or rags to remedy the situation. This makes real-time use of the board in meeting or teaching situations messy and difficult.

So can someone please tell me why this is a better, cleaner, safer, cheaper, or healthier system than a good old natural green slate chalkboard with a stick of chalk and a felt eraser?

Longtime Online

Discovering the demise of a once much-loved (by me) website this morning got me pondering my public online presence, which is now in its 17th year. In the rapidly-evolving world of wires in which so many of us now live, this makes me something of a greybeard in a virtual space that I never imagined (way back when) I’d ever spend any time in, seeing as how computers were for geeks and whatnot, and I certainly didn’t want to be one of those. Ahem.

I originally tapped into the internet pipes for personal pleasure during the summer of 1993. My first public online community was the RockNet forum on CompuServe, where I romped and stomped for a couple of years, before deciding that the canned content being offered there was no longer adequate as the World Wide Web (which debuted in 1995) had opened a whole new range of individualized creative possibilities. (The personal connections made there in that first community were strong, though, and I’m still a member of the Xnet2 Collective, a small, self-sustaining posse of like-minded folks, most of whom first met in RockNet).

In early 1995, two other RockNet alums html’ed and posted an essay I’d written about the band Hawkwind, using the term “BLANGA,” which former Inner City Unit guitarist Steve Pond and I had coined in a RockNet discussion to describe their sound. The Hawkwind BLANGA Guide has been online and extremely popular among a certain cohort ever since, and the word “BLANGA” has come to be an accepted part of the fan experience of going to Hawkwind shows. I’ve read it being used in interviews by current and past band members, and other artists have taken the concept and run with it to entirely new places.

This online presence, coupled with a growing body of music criticism and other print-published writings, led me to be viewed as a “content provider” in the rush days of internet expansion. By late 1995, I had a personal website created by a former room-mate, and around 1997, it migrated to another, larger site hosted by yet another former RockNet cohort in Canada. In the summer of 1999, I decided that it was time for me to control my own web presence, and I acquired the rights to jericsmith.com, taught myself some simple html, and set up my own website on my own domain.

On September 7, 2000, I read an extraordinary essay on Rebecca’s Pocket, explaining the emergence of something called “weblogs.” I totally wanted a piece of that, and used my still-primitive html skills to set up my own blog that very night, which looked like this, at the time. It took a couple of fits and starts before it became a regular habit, but I’ve got most of my blog posts (with one notable exception, noted below) finally archived here, and it’s satisfying to randomly poke into them occasionally to see what I was thinking way back when.

By 2003, I had made the leap to canned blogging technology, and not having to code html in order to post increased the volume of my online presence dramatically. I felt like I needed a tag to drive traffic, which (at the time) seemed to be what being online was all about. My first brilliant idea was to embark upon a “Poem a Day” project in 2004, where everyday I would write and publish a new poem, all 366 days of the year. Amazingly enough, I actually did it. There was certainly some garbage produced through that project, but also some serious, valuable work, and several poems that have since been published or won prizes in other print capacities. (In early 2005, I took all of the poems down, so they’re not in my archives, though some are included in chapbook collections I’ve created; holla if you want one).

The other thing I did that year was to create a series of music review articles structured in the format of the NCAA basketball tournament, with 64 bands, albums, songs, or whatevers going head-to-head until a winner was selected. The first one I did was called “The Worst Rock Band Ever,” and it exploded as an internet phenomenon in a way that I’d never expected it to. To this day, if you google “worst rock band” or “worst rock band ever” or any similar search term, I will be the top returning link 95 times out of 100, and the second or third the other five times.

I spent much of 2005 spinning my wheels trying to figure out how to follow those projects up, and finding no logical solution, I took most of the following year off, before signing on as a community blogger with a local newspaper in February 2007, where I remained until things ended badly in 2010.

But for much of the past decade, I didn’t do my best creative, non-work, non-academic writing at any of those places, nor did I even do it under my own name. And therein lies another story about a different type of internet presence.

Sometime in the summer of 2000, when vanity-searching was first becoming possible, I stumbled across a post on a message board operated by a great local band I’d recently interviewed. This post was written by someone claiming to be me, and asking readers there if anyone had seen my lips, since I thought I had left them affixed to the band’s collective ass when I was at their studio the last time. A series of posts followed that grew increasingly nasty, including ones still purporting to be from me.

I was outraged! How dare someone claim to be me! How dare someone write something like that on the internet! What if people from my work saw it? What if my family stumbled across it? Grrr!

I threw a tantrum with the band’s webmaster, who removed the offending posts, and pointed me to their perpetrator, who was a member of another local band I had actually been quite supportive of as well (no names will be used in this post, to protect the guilty). I harrumphed over to his website to chastise him about how to properly show gratitude for the support of hardworking, pro-scene music critics like me, and he apologized, but noted that it was all in fun, and not intended to be mean spirited at all. Or at least not much so.

I noticed that his band’s page also had a message board, and that it was also filled up with all sorts of folks posting all sorts of snarkiness about all sorts of other folks, sometimes while pretending to be those other folks. It was a train wreck, but a fascinating one, and I was hooked, despite my better instincts and judgment.

Sometime in early 2003, another website emerged called Upstate Wasted, and it had its own message board that picked up a lot of folks from those earlier boards, and upped the intensity of the idiocy several orders of magnitude. There’s actually a formal theory (note: language warning on that link, don’t click if easily offended) that explains what happens when you combine normal people, anonymity and an audience online, and the Upstate Wasted Board was the absolute living embodiment of it, and then some.

But the thing is, many of the people who posted there were very creative, and very smart, and very, very, very funny, and for a brief, shining period of time in 2004 and 2005, I feel fairly certain that Upstate Wasted may have easily been the most widely read web-thingy in New York’s Capital Region. Many if the folks involved were musicians, and the Board actually created a real world buzz that gave significant public bumps to several of the bands that were most closely associated with it. It was not at all unusual to see Upstate Wasted inside jokes regularly appearing in the print media hereabouts. I even put some of them there.

Because I was in the thick of it then, as a reader and contributor, rarely posting under my own name, but instead creating several characters that took on virtual lives of their own for various periods of time, before being consumed by the rabble and replaced with others. On the flip side, I would suspect that a solid 75% of the posts during that era that had my name affixed to them were written and posted by other people pretending to be the real me. It was an ongoing, collaborative work of identity destruction unlike anything else I’ve ever been involved with.

Looking back, the process was like a ruder version of monks creating sand mandalas: I would put a lot of time into making what I considered to be an actual work of art (if not a beautiful one), knowing that it was going to be ephemeral, blown away into the ether the next time the board experienced one of its periodic meltdowns, which occurred occasionally when board denizens actually crossed the (admittedly high) bar of unacceptable behavior.

Like all good things, Upstate Wasted ultimately became self-indulgent and self-destructive, and by the spring of 2006, it had run its course and was shut down. Later that spring, several of the core players from Upstate Wasted tried to recreate its spark by launching Upstate Ether, which had its clever and entertaining moments, but in general played out over the ensuing years as a pale reflection of its earlier counterpart. Upstate Ether limped along until late 2008, at which point Facebook sucked a lot of the members away, traffic dwindled, and spambot attacks became overwhelming to the point that none of the surviving overlords could keep up with them.

I had periodically checked in to the Upstate Ether site to see if anything had changed over the past year, but it had become the sole domain of those aggressive robots, pimping potency drugs and pr*n sites. But hope sprung eternal, and I kept it in my “favorites” list, until this morning, when I clicked the link and for the first time received an “Oops, this site is currently unavailable” screen. This means that the domain has finally expired, and the site is officially freed from its long, lingering zombie-like half-life.

I find myself surprisingly nostalgic for those scurrilous, scabrous communities, now that they’re gone. Upstate Wasted was one of the best online place I’ve ever seen for “wasting time on the man’s dime,” and I’m glad to have been a part of it, even if no one really knows what I did and what I didn’t do, and what I wrote and what others wrote pretending to be me.

I’ll obviously continue to have the sort of public internet presence that produces the things found on this blog, but I have to admit that that secret internet presence was almost always a lot more fun.

So I lift a virtual toast to you, my fellow anonymous former Wastoids and Etherites. Well played, sirs and madams. Well played, indeed.

The Top 40 Albums of the Decade

A note of intro: to preclude the usual carping that comes whenever I make a list like this: yes, of course, this is all subjective. All music criticism is subjective. If there was an objective standard for judging music, then we wouldn’t need music critics, and we wouldn’t need record labels, and we wouldn’t need press flacks: corporations would just put out a very small number of records that met the objective standard for “good music” and everyone would buy and listen to the same small number of things. It is subjectivity, both in terms of artists’ aspirations and talents and critical and commercial response to them, that makes music exciting. You can’t have a happy train wreck or an inspired mistake in a world ruled by objectivity.

And, yes, of course this is also just my opinion, and it’s based on what I listen to, which (unfortunately) does not include every bit of music made in the world, commercial or otherwise. But, then, this is my blog, isn’t it? Why would I fill my blog with somebody else’s opinion, or include things that I actually didn’t like or listen to, just to look “cool” in the eyes of the sorts of folks who take comfort in their own obscurantism? If you want to know what Kurt Loder or Dave Marsh or Greil Marcus or the editorial staff of Pitchfork think about the best albums of the decade, then go read their blogs.

So with that as preamble, here’s what I come up with after an extensive review of the 10 annual lists I posted over the decade, buffed up by some commercial and critical scans of other items from the era:

…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Source Tags & Codes (2002)
Art Brut, Bang Bang Rock & Roll (2005)
Bjork, Vespertine (2001)
British Sea Power, Do You Like Rock Music? (2008)
Caribou, Andorra (2007)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (2008)
The Chap, Mega Breakfast (2008)
Clutch, Robot Hive/Exodus (2005)
Department of Eagles, The Cold Nose (2007)
Edan, Beauty and the Beat (2005)

Max Eider, Hotel Figueroa (2002)
Electric Six, Fire (2003)
The Fall, The Real New Fall LP…Formerly Country On the Click (2004)
Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight (2008)
Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere (2006)

Gorillaz, Gorillaz (2001)
Cee-Lo Green, Cee-Lo Green . . . Is the Soul Machine (2004)
Japanther, Tut Tut, Now Shake Ya Butt (2009)
King Crimson, The Power to Believe (2003)
Konono No. 1, Congotronics (2005)

Paul McCartney, Memory Almost Full (2007)
M.I.A., Kala (2007)
Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything (2005)
Mos Def, The Ecstatic (2009)
Napalm Death, Time Waits for No Slave (2009)

The National, Boxer (2007)
Outkast, Stankonia (2000)
Pere Ubu, Long Live Pere Ubu! (2009)
The Residents, Demons Dance Alone (2002)
The Residents, Animal Lover (2005)

Santogold, Santogold (2008)
Steely Dan, Everything Must Go (2003)
System of a Down, Toxicity (2001)
Ween, Quebec (2003)
Ween, Shinola, Vol. I (2005)

Why?, Alopecia (2008)
Wire, Send (2003)
The White Stripes, Icky Thump (2007)
Xiu Xiu, Fabulous Muscles (2004)
Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya (2000)