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

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?

My Ten Most Memorable Concerts

I’ve been digging through a lot of my old Metroland era concert reviews to support some ethnographic research I’m doing. It has been fun to be reminded of so many shows that I’d forgotten I had actually attended, and I’m grateful to have an archive of fairly detailed thoughts about them to paw through, 15 years later. But as these forgotten shows were being restored to my memory banks, it got me pondering which of the thousand-plus concerts I’ve attended since the mid-70s sat at the opposite end of the spectrum, in the most memorable, least forgettable pile. I jotted down some notes over the past couple of weeks as memorable things flitted across my mind, and did a little web research in parallel to confirm some dates, and have come up with this list of My Ten Most Memorable Concerts, in chronological order from oldest to newest.

Jethro Tull, UK
October 1979, Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, New York
I saw Tull a couple of times before this show, which was in support of their Stormwatch album, and was the last tour to feature stalwart members John Evan, Barriemore Barlow and David (now Dee) Palmer. A couple of nights before, Ian Anderson had been hit in the eye by a rose thrown from the crowd, and he performed in sunglasses, and took the stage only after an announcement warning the audience that the show would be immediately terminated if anyone threw anything. I was surprised to learn from my concert program that David Pegg had assumed the bass position, replacing John Glascock, who was ill. A month later, I heard on WLIR that Glascock had died, tragically young. Openers UK featured prog-rock paragons John Wetton and Eddie Jobson, as well as ex-Zappa and future-Missing Persons drummer Terry Bozzio. I liked them a lot, because I knew who they were, though most of the crowd apparently didn’t, and those that did were probably disappointed that Bozzio had replaced Bill Bruford and Alan Holdsworth had gone missing since the last time UK had toured. I remember this Tull show more than any of the others, because of the bittersweet transitions that took place around it. And because they were playing harder and better than at any other time in their history, with the possible exception of the Anderson-Barre-Cornick-Bunker-Evan era, which occurred before I was old enough to be a concert-goer. Darn it.

The Tubes, The Plimsouls, The Outlaws
July 1983, Plantation Music Park, Trenton, North Carolina
I had to research this one to make sure it actually happened. Surely I must have been dreaming or hallucinating to think that I once saw shock-rockers the Tubes, skinny-tie new wavers The Plimsouls, and old school country-rockers The Outlaws on the same bill, at an outdoor dirt track type of venue, right? Wrong: it really happened! And it was one of the most insanely incongruous musical experiences of my entire life. I remember being packed in the crowd right up front with my friend Gail sitting on my shoulders, flashing her rather spectacular boobs at anybody who happened to look our way, in stupendously hot and humid conditions, barely dressed, wondering how in the hell Fee, Roger, Spooner and company were surviving up there onstage with their costumes on and light show baking them. It may have been the most ridiculously rock n’ roll moment of my life, with noise, and dirt, and sex all juxtaposed in the most insidious and memorable of fashions. They just don’t book shows like this anymore, and more’s the pity.

Butthole Surfers, Spot 1019
December 1987, 9:30 Club, Washington, DC
I saw the Surfers probably a dozen times in Washington, DC and Athens, GA during their hard-touring, mid-80s period, with the most memorable shows generally taking place at the original 9:30 Club at 930 F Street in Washington. This one was in the latter days of Jeff Pinkus’ stint as bassist, and after the double-drummers and naked dancers had been dispensed with. What was left was an amazing musical experience without as many distractions. Spot 1019, who I hadn’t heard of before this show, were a great, sympathetically enthusiastic opening band, and their song “Milk Bomb” remains one of my all-time favorite tunes to this day.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
November 1990, Gaston Hall, Georgetown University, Washington, DC
If I had to pick an all-time best and favorite concert, this would probably be the one I would choose. Gaston Hall is an incredible place to see a show, filled with dark wood, Gothic fixtures, and Catholic iconography. It was the perfect setting for Cave and his freshly-retooled Seeds to roll through their heart-felt, spiritual and moving new album, The Good Son. Marcia was with me for this show, as was Katelin, in utero. A couple of songs into the set, a black-clad girl rushed the stage and grabbed Cave’s hand, and he sang the remainder of the song with her clinging to him, moving from side to side as he paced the front of the stage. As she disengaged, the rest of the crowd left their seats and pressed forward, drawn by his palpable charisma. High point: Cave and Blixa Bargeld swaying, arm in arm, while singing the dark duet ballad, “The Weeping Song.” It was literally electric.

Mike Watt, Six Finger Satellite
October 1995, Bogie’s, Albany, New York
I adored the Minutemen but, alas, never got to see them live before D. Boon’s unfortunate demise. I didn’t much care for fIREHOSE, Watt’s first post-Minutemen band, so was excited to see him embark on his first solo tour in ’95, and doubly pleased to learn that he was coming to Albany. I had no idea what to expect, and this sense was doubled when amazing openers Six Finger Satellite delivered a blistering set of hard, synth-driven rock, anchored by some truly superior drumming. Watt’s band featured stellar guitarist Nels Cline (now with Wilco, or at least the last time I checked), backed by a pair of drummers. They blew the lid off the joint, capping the evening with a riveting take on Funkadelic’s seminal “Maggotbrain.” I’ve seen Watt half-a-dozen times since this show, and he’s always good, and always entertaining, but this gig was a pinnacle point for me.

Rush
October 1996, Knickerbocker Arena, Albany, New York
The first time I saw Rush was at Nassau Coliseum in April 1979, when they made the tragic mistake of letting Good Rats open for them, and got well and thoroughly dusted by the home team. I wasn’t as much of a Rush fan at that point, as it was their early ’80s albums that worked best for me, and then got me to go back and listen to the back catalog again, more appreciatively. Fast forward to 1996, when, after years of dutifully dragging opening bands around the country, paying back karmic debt to the bands that dragged Rush around in the ’70s, Peart, Lee and Lifeson finally decided to undertake an “evening with” type tour, where they filled the whole evening with two, long sets. The first show of the tour was here in Albany. I interviewed Neil Peart a couple of weeks before the gig for Metroland, and he noted that the longer format was going to allow the group to do things they’d never done live before, like playing the entire 2112 suite as it was recorded for vinyl, not as it had been truncated for the concert stage over the years. I called my Rush-fanboy college room mate, Jamie, to let him know what was going on, and he cashed in some frequent flyer miles to come up to Albany to see 2112 played live in its entirety for the first time ever. It was a gloriously over-the-top show, and the sound of 16,000 people screaming “salesmen!” at the appropriate moment was giggle-inducing grand. Years later, watching the protagonists in I Love You, Man building their bromance over a shared fondness for Rush, I could totally relate. But I will punch you if you tell anyone.

Misfits
June 1997, Bogie’s, Albany, New York
I didn’t have particularly great expectations about seeing the post-Glenn Danzig lineup of the Misfits, featuring Michale Graves, Dr. Chud, Doyle Von Frankenstein and founding bassist Jerry Only, despite Only’s insistence when I interviewed him that this was the biggest, baddest, best version of New Jersey’s finest horror rock roadshow ever. But then I got to Bogie’s on a hot summer night, and got properly lathered up by a series of opening bands (I’m pretty sure Albany/Troy’s Stigmata was there, but don’t remember the others), and was standing front and center when the ‘fits began to work their corpse-painted magic. I can’t tell you exactly why, but it was the greatest, most intense and insane moshpit experience of my life, and I’ve been in a lot of them. The Misfits played a long, energetic set, and I never left the pit, except for when a girl near me passed out, and I helped carry her to breathing room behind the stage. How vigorous was this show? I weigh myself every morning, and over the 24-hour span when this concert took place, I lost eight pounds. Now that’s memorable.

The Clay People, Section 8
October 1997, QE2, Albany, New York
There were a couple of national bands opening and headlining this show, but they were unmemorable compared to what went down between them. I had seen the Clay People open for Biohazard a month or so before this show, as they were transitioning from an electroclash approach to a more metal attack. At the Biohazard show, they’d been a six-piece with on-stage keys from Alex Eller, but this night at QE2, it was down to a quintet of Dan Neet, Dan Walsh, Dan Dinsmore, Mike Guzzardi and Bryan McGarvey, and they were on fire from git-go to get-gone. I was up in the rafters of the venerable Q’ in my reviewing spot, a colleague who I shan’t name paralyzed next to me from what appeared to be unexpectedly powerful pot, gently moaning as the music pummeled him into jelly. The Q seemed to be far over-packed, with bodies flying everywhere, and people hanging off rails and stairways everywhere you looked. Section 8, for their part, also delivered the greatest set that I ever saw them play, and their more hardcore-inflected fare literally turned the joint into a human blender, meat dancing everywhere. This would probably be my all-time most memorable small venue gig, a show that summarizes everything I loved, and miss, about QE2, the little White Tower hamburger stand that could.

Clutch, Scissorfight
November 2002, Saratoga Winners, Cohoes, New York
Clutch is another band that I’ve seen many times in many places, and they’ve never, ever, ever disappointed me, to the point where I’ve gone on record to propose them as the second greatest live rock band ever, after on The (original) Who. In 2002, they’d gotten to the point where they were outgrowing venues like QE2, so the burnt up husk formerly known as Saratoga Winners was a great step upward, since it was just as gritty and grotty as the Q, but bigger, and with fewer vampires hanging out. I’ve seen a lot of folks open for Clutch (including Clutch themselves, in their altar ego guise as The Bakerton Group), but the best of the bunch, hands-down, was New Hampshire’s Scissorfight, a scary bunch of backwoods ‘billies fronted by a bellowing, bearded monster called Ironlung. It was pure rock fury, times two.

Rockets and Blue Lights
October 2003, Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer, Troy, New York
I booked about 220 concerts, exhibitions, speakers and other events during my five years with the Rensselaer Newman Foundation, running the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer. Of all the things I brought in there, this show stands out as the best, as a very young group of four players, who I had never seen before, and have never seen since, dragged their gear into the middle of the small back room, faced each other as the audience surrounded them, and let rip one of the grandest noises I’ve ever heard come out of big black boxes. I loved booking shows in this room because it was so intimate, regardless of who was playing, but on this night, something magical happened, and the barriers between audience and performer were completely stripped away, as we all rode the music to wherever the Rockets deigned to take us. As their set wound down, I distinctly remember thinking: “Now, this is what it’s all about!” And it was.

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 also debuted in 1993) 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.